Bernie Sanders is partly right about Cuba — Noah Smith

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has come under fire for praising a 1960s-era Cuban literacy drive and other social-welfare programmes. Critics, including fellow candidate Mike Bloomberg (majority owner of Bloomberg LP, publisher of Bloomberg Opinion), have assailed Sanders for saying good things about an authoritarian regime.

The disagreement has sparked a wider argument about how Americans should think about Cuba’s record since the communist takeover of the late 1950s. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between the extremes.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders

Praising the successes of an authoritarian regime is always fraught with peril. Such regimes tend to inflate their performance by issuing fake or distorted statistics. And it’s easy for onlookers to conflate praise for a specific programme with praise for a regime in general. Although Sanders has repeatedly condemned Cuba’s authoritarianism, opportunistic propagandists will inevitably try to use his limited praise of education and health programmes to support their argument for one-party systems over pluralistic democratic ones. No one should forget how Cuban dictator Fidel Castro threw gays into concentration camps and imprisoned political dissidents.

But on the other hand, real economic accomplishments by authoritarian regimes shouldn’t be denied or ignored. Instead, they should be used as motivation for the US and other democracies to improve their own systems. In the US, Cold War competition with the Soviet Union gave rise to the moon landing, better science and math education, and efforts to reduce racism. If praise for Cuba’s health and education systems could produce a comparable Sputnik moment that would push the US to spend more on schools in poor neighbourhoods and fix the country’s broken health-insurance system, that would be a good thing.

People hold posters and Cuban flags while watching a military convoy carrying the remains of the late Fidel Castro, former Cuban president, drives toward Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.

As for Cuba’s literacy programme, critics are right to point out that it wasn’t just about teaching people to read; it was also about indoctrinating young people to support the new communist regime. They’re also right to note that Cuba had a fairly high literacy rate (76 per cent) before the programme began; a number of other Latin American countries have achieved universal literacy starting from a much lower base and thus deserve even more effusive praise.

But Sanders is right to give the communist regime credit for its focus on education and health care. A 2002 report by the World Bank stated:

“This model has enabled Cuba to achieve near universal literacy, the eradication of certain diseases, widespread access to potable water and basic sanitation, and among the lowest infant mortality rates and longest life expectancies in the region.”

– 2002 World Bank Report

The report cited a 1998 assessment by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that found that Cuba “far outperformed the region in third and fourth grade math and language achievement.”

Cuba’s health care system is even more famous for its high quality. The country spends only about 12 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care, while achieving a life expectancy similar to that of the US, which spends almost 18 per cent of its enormous GDP on health care:

A tour bus passes in front of the MSC Cruises SA Armonia cruise ship docked at the Sierra Maestra terminal port in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, June 1, 2019.

It’s important to put these numbers in perspective. Cuban statistics probably undercount infant mortality, and pressure to keep the official rate down probably results in some forced abortions. The country also has a high maternal mortality rate. This sort of distortion is typical of an authoritarian regime. But it shouldn’t obscure the country’s real accomplishments, especially because these have come in the face of a US embargo that prevents the Cuban health system from accessing much-needed supplies and technologies.

The rest of Cuba’s economy has a more mixed record. Cuban unemployment is famously low — only 2.25 per cent. But because unemployment is conventionally defined as the per cent of people who are actively looking for a job and can’t find one, this is an easy statistic to manipulate; the true rate is probably considerably higher. And many of the country’s jobs consist of government make-work; in 2010, Cuban President Raul Castro declared that 20 per cent of Cuba’s workers might be redundant.

Cubans and foreigners log into the internet using scratch-off cards from the company NAUTA.

Cuban living standards are also hard to estimate. A true accounting requires adjusting for local living costs, which is almost impossible to do in a closed society. In 2016, the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that in purchasing-power-parity terms, the country’s average annual income was $12,300 — about 38 per cent lower than Mexico and 21 per cent lower than Brazil, but about 51 per cent higher than Guatemala.

This is a middling performance. No one would mistake Cuba for a rich country — least of all the large numbers of poor Cubans who fled north to the US whenever the regime allowed them to. But it has managed to remain a middle-income country in the face of an economic embargo by its largest and richest neighbour. That’s much better than the communist regimes in Vietnam and North Korea, run by a brutal dictator whom President Donald Trump has praised, were able to do.

Here, then, lies the true lesson of Cuba’s economy. The long-running US embargo has failed to dislodge the regime and only succeeded in making Cubans poorer. President Barack Obama wisely began to soften the US stance toward Cuba, only to have his policies reversed by Trump. This Cold War grudge does nothing to spur improvement in Cuba’s human rights record; instead, it merely encourages it to continue in its slumber of stagnation and isolation.  

 —Bloomberg Opinion