North Korea exerts such a horrifying grip on our attention that we forget about Cuba – another hereditary Communist state that somehow survived the end of the Cold War.
Compared to the Kims, the Castros get a pretty good press in the West, with various useful idiots willing to present their dictatorship as some kind of success story – or, at least, a heroic failure.
Writing for City Journal, Michael Totten peaks behind the touristic facade – having managed to get access to the parts of Cuba that the regime doesn’t want us to see:
“Havana, the capital, is clean and safe, but there’s nothing to buy. It feels less natural and organic than any city I’ve ever visited. Initially, I found Havana pleasant, partly because I wasn’t supposed to be there and partly because I felt as though I had journeyed backward in time. But the city wasn’t pleasant for long, and it certainly isn’t pleasant for the people living there.”
The reality is one of advanced decay:
“Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished… Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.”
But what about Cuba’s celebrated public services?
“Sure, Cubans get ‘free’ health care and education, but as Cuban exile and Yale historian Carlos Eire says, ‘All slave owners need to keep their slaves healthy and ensure that they have the skills to perform their tasks’”
Slavery isn’t much of an exaggeration:
“In the United States, we have a minimum wage; Cuba has a maximum wage—$20 a month for almost every job in the country.”
Within the island’s tourist enclaves, there are cases of foreign owned hotels that insist of paying Cuban employees a decent wage – only for the state to confiscate almost all of it.
As well as restricting what ordinary Cubans can earn, the state restricts what they can buy:
“The free and subsidized goods and services, though, are as dismal as everything else on the island. Citizens who take public transportation to work—which includes almost everyone, since Cuba hardly has any cars—must wait in lines for up to two hours each way to get on a bus…
“As for the free health care, patients have to bring their own medicine, their own bedsheets, and even their own iodine to the hospital. Most of these items are available only on the illegal black market, moreover, and must be paid for in hard currency—and sometimes they’re not available at all.”
The more subtle apologists for the Castro regime will admit that Cuba is far from being a paradise, but is in pretty good shape for a third world country. But this is to set a deeply misleading benchmark:
“Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed it—and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. ‘Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,’ wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, ‘Cuba’s wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few. . . . Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.’ In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe.”
Even if you think this is underplaying the inequalities that existed in Cuba before revolution, one has to ask how the island might have progressed had it been free to follow the path of other comparable nations. For instance, in the 1950s, Spain and Portugal were at a roughly equal state of development and they too languished under rightwing dictators. Yes, Iberia is part of Western Europe, but Cuba is just ninety miles away from Florida – and in the earlier portion of the 20th century was richer than much of America’s Deep South.
Looking at Cuba from this perspective it’s not a question of what the Castros have ‘achieved’, but the potential they’ve wasted.