19 February 2008


Fidel Castro has resigned as President of Cuba; he will surely not disappear completely, nor lose influence since his brother Raul has taken his place. My attitude toward Castro is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, he came to power by toppling a dictator and U.S. client. He worked with reasonable success, and despite the persistent and focused hostility of the U.S., to improve the education and health care systems in Cuba. And while Cuba remains poor, it is arguably no more so than most of the neighboring countries in the Carribean and Latin America, many of which have enjoyed the 'good graces' of successive U.S. administrations. On the other hand, Castro has been a dictator with scant respect for civil and political rights. He has not managed to bring economic prosperity to Cuba. We can offer all sorts of counterfactuals about what might've happened absent the U.S. led embargo, or about how things might've gone if Batista had retained power, etc., but the actual case on the ground remains unimpressive.

I came across this unattributed photograph* in The Guardian today and it captures the enigmatic character of Castro. Most Americans have, I think, at best a silhouetted image of Castro. But The Guardian also ran this slide show of images** of Castro and the political company he has kept over the years. And those images too leave one ambivalent. On the one hand, Nelson Mandela, Gabrial Garcia-Marquez, Salvador Allende, and Daniel Ortega. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II, Jimmy Carter, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales. On the third hand, a motley crew of Soviet dictators on whom he relied for economic and political support.

There seems to me little to be gained by either vilifying or canonizing Castro. There are many in the U.S. who find him loathsome. Would those people have preferred the dictator Batista or his political progeny? There are those who consider Castro a hero. Can they do more than rationalize his dictatorial ways? I am not sure what criteria we should use to assess the Cuban experience. Consider this passage from The New York Times today:

His record has been a mix of great social achievements, but a dismal economic performance that has mired most Cubans in poverty. He succeeded in establishing universal health care, providing free education through college and largely rooting out racism.

But he never broke the island’s dependence on commodities like sugar, tobacco and nickel, nor did he succeed in industrializing the nation so that Cuba could compete in the world market with durable goods. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to the island, Cuba has limped along economically, relying mostly on tourism and money sent home from exiles to get hard currency.

The first paragraph seems fair enough. Not effusive, but accurate. The second paragraph raiases some obvious questions - perhaps questions that might illuminate the first paragraph too. Which Carribean economy does the author have in mind that has industrialized, freed itself from economic dependence on agricultural exports and tourism, and so forth? Is Cuba more or less dependent on remittances from abroad than other developing countries? Can we be more specific?

I guess my question is whether it is possible to have anything like a reasonable conversation about Cuba and Castro.
* The photo credit is: "February 2003: Castro addresses a crowd in Havana." Photograph: STR/Reuters.

** (22 February) The Guardian has changed the slideshow to which I referred; they now have two others up here and here. These contain some but not all of the images they originally posted as well as many others.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think if you examine the facts, Cuba is largely a failure. Their GDP is roughly 45 billion dollars per annum (we have individuals worth more than that), and that's mainly because of sex tourism. Their so-called free education is completely useless. Those not involved with the underground economy are laboring for peanuts at the dismal state-owned factories -- so much for a college education. And let's not forget that the U.S. Coast Guard picks up about 3000 illegal immigrants per year. People who risk their lives by sailing on homemade rafts to escape Cuba. As far as I know, that country's only popular import is baseball players.

I think they will be wise to follow in the footsteps of China, and to give up their anachronistic, impractical anti-Americanism. American investments, managed by highly educated and patriotic Cuban exiles, is that country's only chance to have its potential blossom.

19 February, 2008 14:47  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D. I am not claiming that Cuba is a socialist paradise. Far from it. But literacy rates are sky high relative to most of Central America and the Carribean. The same with basic health measures like infant mortality.

Sex tourism? Think Jamaica or many of the other Islands. No industrialization there either. So, yes Cuba is a mess, but we have few examples of a better development trajectory emerging from American tutelage.

And how many folks does the INS/Border Patrol pick up trying to get into the US from, say, El Salvador or Hondoras? (Crossing the desert is in the same ball park in terms of danager.)My point is that we need to compare like cases - not the US vs. Cuba, but Cuba and El Salvador or the Domincan Republic.

I agree totally that opening the economy in something ike the Chinese manner is an obvious good move. But that would imply some industrialization too. I doubt, though, that Raul will do that. Jim

19 February, 2008 15:06  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: And let's remember that economic liberalization does not imply democratization and respect for political rights. China is hardly a model on that dimension.

19 February, 2008 15:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My point is that we need to compare like cases - not the US vs. Cuba, but Cuba and El Salvador or the Domincan Republic."

That's an excellent point and one that is surprisingly overlooked in discussions of Cuba.

"And let's remember that economic liberalization does not imply democratization and respect for political rights. China is hardly a model on that dimension."

I totally agree. Chinese democracy is not coming, and it seems most analysts and scholars are waking up to that fact.

19 February, 2008 15:33  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Ya nailed it, Jim- six of one, half dozen of the other...

19 February, 2008 19:28  
Blogger rod said...

For start, Cuba is has neither a huge consumer market nor does it have a passive population like China did. A 'chinese transition' would mean full dilapidation of the countries' resources and its population's instant pauperisation.

Cuban democracy (one can argue that there is such thing) exists and is advancing.

And please, please. Do compare Cuba with the US.

Cuba is the only country in the world with a high HDI which is 'environmentally sustainable' - so much for a high GDP... - (WWF), it has lower infant mortality than the US do, more doctors per capita than any nation in the world (WHO, CIA). An educational system that creates professionals, not money-making mercenaries. It's not in Cuba where politicians almost invariably come from oligarchic privileged backgrounds (I could give you some info on how the electoral system, at least in theory, works), and a large etc.

As for human rights, Guantanamo may be in Cuba, but it is US territory. Cuba seemingly preserves habeas corpus (think of the Patriot Act), it has eradicated hunger (US apparently has 11million struggling with that), not to mention that the last war Cuba was in was helping Angola against South African apartheid, which the US supported. They may not have pro-business media-moguls, but then again neither did the Czechs or the Hungarians, and everyone got to know when State crimes where committed there. No such news from Havana. You could also think of murdered journalists (under US orders, I mean) from Al-Jazeera and the fact that, unless following the demorepublican line, it's hardly an easy thing to find a job in the land of the free.

P.S - you haven't mentioned the US blockade, which, economically, is a very heavy burden.

P.P.S - may sound like an anti-usonian rant, but so does may Mark Twain nowadays.

P.P.P.S - ¡Viva Fidel!

20 February, 2008 12:16  
Blogger rod said...

forgot to mention the well-known record of 'humanitarian interventions' of the US and the fact that the current president was 'elected' in a fraudulent vote...

but then again I could go on and on for a while.

(can't get enough of Tomasz Stanko. Thanks for pointing out he existed!)

20 February, 2008 12:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

70 dissidents in prison-bad, bad
100 plus citizens renditioned to torture elsewhere-patriotism..
"My goodness," as my good friend Roberto used to say as we drove about Havana.

11 March, 2008 21:14  

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