[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: Oppenheimer on Cuba

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oppenheimer on Cuba

I don't always agree with Andres Oppenheimer. In fact, I often have issues with his opinions on matters such as immigration and Latin American policy.

Oppenheimer does has it right on Cuba, however. In the latest in a series of columns on Cuba, he puts to rest the tired argument that fidel castro has done some good for the people, despite the effects.

Here it is, in its entirety.
Cuba's Revolution Not Worth Price

MEXICO CITY -- Now that Mexico is officially describing Cuba's newly retired President Fidel Castro as an ''outstanding figure,'' the Brazilian president calls him a ''mythical'' leader and the world media are doing verbal pirouettes to avoid calling him a dictator, it's a good time to take a dispassionate look at Castro's record.

Will he be remembered as a well-meaning strongman who raised health and education standards? Or will he go down in history as a selfish tyrant who clung to power for half a century and left his country poorer than ever?

A joke I heard on the streets of Havana in the late 1980s said that the Cuban revolution's three biggest achievements were health, education and national sovereignty, and its three biggest failures were breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Maybe so. But the Castro government's list of shortcomings has grown substantially since.

For fairness' sake, let's not dwell on reports that the Cuban government considers unfair, such as Forbes magazine's estimate that Fidel Castro has a $900 million fortune, or the New Jersey-based Cuban Archive ''Truth and Memory'' report, which says it has documented 4,073 Castro regime executions and 3,001 ''extra-judicial'' killings since 1959.

And let's set aside for a moment the undisputable fact that Castro has been -- by any dictionary's definition -- a dictator, and that nearly 20 percent of the island's population has left the country since he took power.

If we just look at the Cuban government's favorite ranking, the 2008 United Nations Human Development Index, which ranks countries around the world with special emphasis on their health and education standards, Cuba ranks sixth in Latin America, behind Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and the Bahamas.


When it comes to some specific health and education figures, Cuba does very well: it has a 99.8 percent adult literacy rate and a 77.7-year life expectancy. That amounts to the best adult literacy rate in the region, and the third best life expectancy rate, after Costa Rica and Chile.

But then, Cuba was already one of the most advanced Latin American countries before Castro's 1959 revolution.

According to the U.N. 1957 Statistical Yearbook, Cuba's 32 per 1,000 infant mortality rate that year was the lowest in Latin America, and Cuba ranked fourth in the region -- behind Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica -- in literacy rates. Cuba also ranked third among Latin American countries with the highest daily caloric consumption rates, U.N. figures show.

Granted, Cuba was a de facto dictatorship when Castro took power, highly dependent on the United States.

But nearly five decades later, Cuba expressly prohibits opposition political parties and independent media, and there is a huge economic dependence on Venezuela's foreign aid and nearly $1 billion a year in remittances from Cubans exiles.

On top of it, Cubans earn an average of only $12 a month (the generous $6,000-a-year U.N. figure includes government subsidies for food and healthcare), there is an economic apartheid system on the island that doesn't allow Cubans to enter hotels or restaurants frequented by tourists and people can go to prison for reading foreign newspapers that are deemed ``enemy propaganda.''

Even the Cuba-friendly 2008 U.N. Human Development Index places Cuba among the world's most backward countries in cellular telephone and Internet use.

Cuba has an average of 12 cellphone users per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with Haiti's 48, Mexico's 460, and Argentina's 570.

As for Internet access, Cuba has 17 Internet users per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with Honduras' 36, Haiti's 70, Argentina's 177 and Mexico's 181.


My opinion: Castro admirers say that Cuba's shortcomings are due to the U.S. economic embargo. While I'm no fan of the U.S. embargo, I don't buy that. All dictatorships justify their actions citing domestic or foreign threats, and Cuba is no exception.

To his credit, Castro took pride in improving the good health and education standards he inherited, but at the cost of imposing a dictatorship that cost thousands of lives, separated millions of families, made the country poorer and ended up leaving it more economically dependent than before.

In the end, the key question may not be whether the Castro revolution was justified, but whether it was worth the price paid by the Cuban people. It clearly wasn't.



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