I’ve never understood the people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts. Well, actually I do. The vast majority of them are silly lightweights who don’t understand they might as well be sporting a shirt with Hitler’s face on it. Che, often portrayed as the ultimate Latin American freedom fighter, was, in reality, a mass murderer who was largely responsible for creating the horribly repressive Cuban police state.
Similarly, following Fidel Castro’s death, we’ve seen some in the liberal media sing the dictator’s praises for supposedly improving the lot of the Cuban people by ousting a repressive regime and providing free education and medical care. These naïve journalists sing his praises for defying the US and keeping socialism alive as the free market economy swept across the world.
But the unvarnished fact is, Castro destroyed the Cuban economy and kept his people impoverished even as standards of living were rising across the region.
In 1959, Cuba’s GDP per person was $2,067. That was in the top-half for Latin America and roughly equal to that of Ecuador, Panama and Jamaica. Forty years into Castro’s rule, that figure had inched to just $2,307, adjusted for inflation and other factors. Over the same period Ecuador’s GDP per person rose to $3,809, Panama’s to $5,618 and Jamaica’s to $5,618.
Puerto Rico, a territory controlled by the running dog American imperialists, saw its GDP per person soar from $3,239 to $13,738 in that same time frame.
Why the disparity in economic performance? As the rest of Latin American implemented more aspects of free market capitalism, Fidel’s Cuba clung to socialism and engaged in a level of central economic planning and control that eventually made even the Soviets blush. In 1959 it might still have been possible to argue that socialism offered a solution to the inefficiencies and unfairness of unbridled capitalism. In those days even some Western European nations, including the UK, had various socialist aspects to their economic systems.
But by the end of the 20th century, it was clear socialism didn’t work and its biggest proponents – Russia and China – were heading for the exits. And yet, the Castro regime continues to subject the Cuban people to this failed system. In 1991, the people of socialist Albania were more impoverished than Cubans. But Albania’s move to a free market economy has tripled their income in just 20 years.
Defenders of Castro (Who are these people??) will point to the US embargo as the real reason the Cubans are impoverished. But that simply isn’t true. Those restrictions left Cuba free to trade with the rest of the world, which it has done very effectively. Working in partnership with several European international corporations, the Cuban government sells cigars, rum and sugar all over the world. And yet the average Cuban, including doctors and other professionals, are left scrambling to feed their families.
I truly hope Castro’s exit heralds a new economic era for the Cuban people, but I don’t expect to see that anytime soon. Fidel Castro’s brother Raul continues to run the country. And even if there is a sea change in economic philosophy, it will take some time – years, probably – to remake the Cuban economy. Those 1950’s automobiles will likely be part of Cuban life for a while, along with the rolling power black outs and sparsely stocked grocery shelves.
Fidel Castro’s 50-plus rule of Cuba did have two upsides for the United States. First, it prompted an influx of highly motivated, hard-working immigrants who have transformed South Florida. Second, it provided living proof that our economic system is vastly superior to any version of socialism. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s great line about democracy: Capitalism is the worst economic system – except for all the others.