Despite Many Flaws, the Cuban Revolution Has Helped the Cuban People

By Glenn Sacks

Despite its flaws, the Cuban Revolution has done much to lift up Cuba’s peasantry and urban poor.

According to the World Health Organization, Cuba—a small island with scant natural resources—has a life expectancy rate equal to that of the US, and higher than that of almost any other Latin American nation. Cuba’s infant mortality rate of 8/1,000 is the lowest in Latin America, and near that of the US. Patricia Danzon, a professor of Health Care Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, asserts “[Cuba] does remarkably well in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, and on those metrics it is comparable to the U.S.”

Cuba recently became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan calls this “one of the greatest public health achievements possible.” According to Danzon, Cuba’s biotechnology industry has made impressive advances, developing advanced versions of critical medicines and vaccines.

A 1957 survey by the Agrupación Católica Universitaria found that two-thirds of rural Cubans lived in “bohíos” - thatched hovels with earthen floors. Today that figure is less than 5%. According to the World Bank, Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product per capita is better than that of most comparable countries—higher than Jamaica’s and the Dominican Republic’s, over seven times Haiti’s, double that of several Central American nations, and even higher than oil-rich Ecuador’s. Cuba is portrayed as an economic failure in the US because of Americans’ ludicrous, apples-to-oranges comparison between Cuban and American living standards.

It is true that many Cubans have left Cuba to come to the US, but have they really been fleeing communism? The same desire to emigrate here exists throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Nearly 50% of all Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico have emigrated to the United States—have they all been fleeing communism too?

There is no question that, as in most underdeveloped countries, life is hard for the average Cuban. Moreover, planned, socialist economies have often been plagued by low-quality consumer goods and shortages, and Cuba is no exception. But millions living in shantytowns throughout Latin America need and want what Cubans take for granted—free medical care and education, steady employment, and subsidized housing and utilities.

The Castro regime is certainly repressive, and regularly violates its citizens’ human rights. Dissidents and protesters are spied upon, harassed, temporarily detained, and sometimes roughed up by security personnel. But some perspective is needed. According to the Associated Press, human rights groups say “about 70 political prisoners remain in the country.” That’s unjust, but it hardly makes Cuba a Latin gulag. Many US-backed regimes in Latin America and elsewhere have been far worse than the Castros, killing or “disappearing” hundreds of thousands.

Cuba is ruled by a bureaucratic elite that wishes to stay elite, and can only do so by monopolizing political power. At a forum in Havana a few years ago I publicly asked Ricardo Alarcon, then President of Cuba’s National Assembly, the question he least wanted to hear—“Shouldn’t Cubans who defend Cuba’s independence and the Revolution have the right to organize politically without repression?” A flustered Alarcon responded as Cuban officials have for five decades, painting all dissidents with the broad brush of “counterrevolution,” and justifying repression by citing the threat from the North.

Cubans understand they’re not permitted to challenge the regime in a meaningful way, but they aren’t shy about voicing complaints about the system to visitors or each other. In discussing the Cuban government’s press monopoly, one artist told me, “Our Cuban media is very balanced, telling us both good news and bad news. The good news we read is about Cuba. The bad news is about other countries.”

America’s longstanding vilification and punishment of Cuba is widely condemned in Latin America as a hypocritical double standard. Obama’s commendable outreach to Cuba is America’s first significant recognition of this double standard.