The Cuban Paradox
Why is Havana so cautious about reform? Perhaps because its reformer-in-chief is also a stalwart of the revolution.
On Jan. 1, Cuba marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Cuban revolution, when the country’s citizens rose up to topple the weak and short-lived dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The revolution led to a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the powerful and long-lived dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Fidel ruled Cuba until 2006, when, citing health reasons, he transferred power to his brother, current President Raúl Castro. (In the photo above, Raúl participates in a ceremony to mark the anniversary in Santiago de Cuba.)
Aside from the fact that Cuba’s socialist state has managed to endure for 55 years, there is little for Raúl to celebrate. Cuba’s overall income and caloric consumption per capita today are not that much higher than they were in 1958. In 1958, Cuba was at the top among Latin American nations in terms of the number of newspapers, TV stations, TV sets, telephones, and automobiles per capita; today, it is at the bottom. The government claims that independence from Washington was a significant achievement, but today the Revolution is embarrassingly dependent on Miami, which in 2013 sent remittances amounting to $5.1 billion, enough to provide $1000 for every Cuban worker in a country where the average annual salary is less than $260.
Cuba is a developmental anomaly. It has some of the highest numbers in average years of schooling in the world (as is typical in totalitarian states), but also has one of the lowest economic growth rates in the world. It is hard to find a comparable case: typically, these higher averages go hand-in-hand with higher incomes.
Many blame the U.S. embargo for Cuba’s economic underperformance. But the embargo has always been offset by the massive subsidies that the Soviet Union provided during the Cold War and that the petro-state of Venezuela has provided since 2001. And yet, despite these direct subsidies (and Cuba’s newly burgeoning trade relations with countries around the world), the state is still unable to produce anything efficiently.
Cuba’s only value-added export is the talent of its people, who have been emigrating in droves for the past 55 years despite the lack of civil strife since the mid-1960s. This year, the government liberalized exit visas (though it did not lower the cost of passports), leading to a 35 percent increase in departures relative to 2012. So far, only 45 percent of those who managed to “travel abroad” have decided to return.
Medical doctors also leave in large numbers, usually as part of the state’s foreign missions. But Cuban doctors often take the order to go abroad happily: they seem to prefer working in the slums of Venezuela, Brazil, and Haiti to the “socialist paradise” they call home, even though they are paid only a fraction of what the Cuban government charges for these services.
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