There’s no doubt that the Revolution improved life for many Cubans. It extended food and housing essentials to everyone, and eliminated the worst problems of poverty from the island. Education got better and health care improved, and employment was extended to nearly all citizens. In return, however, Cubans were required to surrender freedoms and were forced to rely on the government to meet their basic needs. Things worked out well enough until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the so-called Special Period that followed, during which time there was widespread famine and the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. These days, Cubans lack many necessities, including both material items and individual freedoms.
Prior to the Revolution, government funds were largely funneled towards urban centers. This left the Cuban countryside without basic infrastructure and facilities. A 1953 census indicated that 85 percent of rural houses lacked piped water, 43 percent lacked electricity, and 54 percent lacked a toilet. Fidel’s movement depended on the support of farmer campesinos, and after he rose to power, he worked to develop the Cuban countryside. Concrete apartments reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc were built in rural and urban areas — today, many of these apartments stand vacant in the wake of a weakened sugar industry. Other concrete apartments are in disrepair but still inhabited.
Cuba has a solid education system, and it’s often said that this is because of the Revolution. The statistics on this, however, are a bit confusing. The U.N. Statistical Yearbook argues that prior to the Revolution, up to 80 percent of the Cuban population was literate. Cuba’s government figures, however, claim that just 57 percent of the population was literate and that 500,000 children did not attend school. Regardless, these days nearly one in 15 people have graduated from college and the literacy rate is at 99.8 percent. This rate is better than any other country in Latin America and several points better than the United States, which has a literacy rate of 96 percent.
The war on illiteracy began in 1961, when 120,000 literacy workers fanned out across Cuba with the mission of teaching reading and writing to illiterate Cubans. Within two years of the Revolution, the government had added 10,000 classrooms to Cuba and nearly doubled the number of elementary schools. Schools were also created for the blind, mute, and deaf. In 2004, the Cuban government claimed to have achieved a student–teacher ratio of 12:1.There are no religious or private schools in Cuba.
At the age of 15, students in secondary schools are evaluated and guided towards certain educational tracks. About 60 percent end up studying at a technical school, while the remaining 40 percent will start two years at a pre-university. Artistically, musically, or athletically gifted students have the possibility of attending specialist schools. There are four universities in Cuba. In order to attend university, however, high school students must not only have good grades, but must also be deemed socially and politically acceptable in the eyes of the government.
In Cuban schools, only politically acceptable content is allowed. Students are monitored for political persuasion, and only those who openly support the Revolution are allowed to enter higher education. Books – especially those that run counter to the ideals of the Revolution – are tough to come by, and the Internet is too expensive for most people. What’s more, many schools lack libraries and laboratories.
Cuba’s hyper-educated population often lacks employment options for their line of work; either there aren’t jobs available or the pay is too low. It’s not uncommon to find engineers or lawyers working in tourism—they can make much more money from tips than they ever could on a government payroll. Due to this lack of opportunity, Cuba experiences a brain drain, particularly with doctors, many of who leave the island and accept positions in the U.S.
From the outset, health care has been a priority for the Castro government. In 1978, Castro aimed to put a doctor on every street in Cuba and become a world leader in medicine. He has succeeded in these goals in certain regards. Today, about 12 percent of the government budget is allocated to health care and there are 20 medical schools in Cuba.
The government statistics concerning health care in pre-Revolutionary Cuba are at odds with the numbers reported by the United Nations. The Castro government claims that during Batista’s tenure, there were less than 6,300 physicians in Cuba. The United Nations Statistical Yearbook, however, reports that in 1958 Cuba had the third best medical system in Latin America—there were 128 physicians and dentists per 100,000 people, a ratio that’s on par with the Netherlands and better than England. According to the World Health Organization, there is currently a doctor for every 170 residents in Cuba.
Cuba’s life expectancy of 79.07 years is slightly better than that of the United States of 78.74 years. Its infant mortality rate of 4.75 per 1,000 births is also better than the United States (5.2). This kind of success is largely thanks to preventative care, which Cuba pushes hard. Nearly everyone in Cuba is immunized, and this has helped control the spread of contagious diseases. What’s more, nearly every community has a clinic, hospital, maternity home, and day-care center for elderly citizens. And all health care is free.
Not all is peachy in regards to health care in Cuba, though. The conditions in hospitals and clinic can be poor—the patient rooms are sometimes dirty and may have broken medical equipment. Cuba’s pharmacies are also lacking. This is because the majority of Cuba’s pharmaceuticals are exported, and Cuba doesn’t import pharmaceuticals for its own people. Pharmacies for foreigners are well stocked, while pharmacies for Cubans can be meager.
Cuba has a hard time keeping doctors and other medical staff on the island. In 2013, approximately 37,000 Cuban doctors and health care workers were employed abroad, most of them in Venezuela. Lower-level medical staff receive low pay, and many have decided to quit the medical field altogether and work in tourism, where they can make substantially more money from tips.
Employment and the Economy
On the eve of the Revolution, Cuba had a large middle class and a fairly sound economy. There were cars, TVs, and reliable health care. At the same time, however, thousands of rural Cubans lacked electricity, running water and sewage, and poverty was fairly widespread. Following the Revolution, resources were poured into educating the people and improving their overall lot. Fees for public transportation and electricity were lowered. Things improved.
The government, however, did a poor job managing the economy. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara made a litany of economic mistakes that were compounded by hardheaded management decisions. Revolutionary ideals outweighed economic intelligence, and professional economists were replaced with Communist generals. Due to the U.S. embargo, it became impossible to replace broken machinery and acquire raw materials. The Cuban black market emerged from this environment.
These days, Cuba has a very low unemployment rate – it’s around 2.7 percent. The majority of people in Cuba are employed, many of them by the state. The salary, however, is pitiable. The average worker receives about $20 a month. This is barely enough to survive, and most Cubans are forced to sell things on the black market to get by. Others go into tourism – working in restaurants or bars frequented by foreigners – to obtain tips. In many places, a waitress can earn as much in one day as she should could in an entire month on the state payroll.
Raúl Castro has initiated a series of economic reforms aimed at giving new life to the Cuban economy. The reforms have tended towards privatization by transferring state employees to private businesses. There are now over 400,000 private businesses (known as cuentapropistas, which means “on their own account”) that fit into 181 self-employment categories. These range from produce sellers to plumbers. Business owners are allowed to hire employees and own several businesses.
Cuba’s cuentapropistas, however, still complain of being hampered by regulations. They are, for example, hit with heavy taxes. The highest marginal rate is 50 percent — this is intended to bring more money to the state and to government employees, which will in turn reduce the need for government subsidies. However, for all of the progress that Raúl’s reforms have made in recent years, the Cuban economy still remains sluggish.
Human Rights and Personal Liberties
Cuba ranks poorly when it comes to human rights. The United Nations’ Human Rights Commission has listed Cuba as one of the world’s worst offenders; Human Rights Watch says that Cuba is the sole country in Latin America that represses nearly all types of political dissent. This is a country where people lack freedom of speech. There is no independent media. Access to information – most significantly, the Internet – is highly regulated. Cuban law states that citizens can be jailed for one to seven years for disrespecting authority figures.
Not surprisingly, Cubans are scared to openly share their views concerning the government. Secret police make Cubans fearful of overstepping the line and ending up in prison. Since taking power from Fidel, Raúl has released most dissidents from jail and has also allowed more room for debate and criticism. That said, the Cuban Council of Human Rights still claims that the government uses short-term sentences to intimidate government dissidents. Cuban authorities can essentially lock up anyone they want using a law called “pre-criminal dangerousness.” Individual liberties were essentially destroyed when the Castro regime rose to power in Cuba.
Cuba’s legal system also makes it hard for those accused of crimes, as the people have few legal guarantees. Defendants must prove their innocence rather than having a prosecutor prove their guilt. For these reasons, Cubans are jailed for crimes and are unable to properly defend their actions. There are no private lawyers; all lawyers are state employees. Even if someone is acquitted of a crime, the Council of State can overturn an unfavorable judicial decision.
Cubans also have poor access to information, including independent newspapers, books, and most importantly, the Internet. All news media – including daily newspapers, magazines, and radio – is run by the state and thus lacks real dialogue about the government.
State-run Internet offices charge around $5 an hour, which is about a quarter of most people’s monthly income. For this reason, using the Internet is simply not financially possible for most people in Cuba. Even wealthier Cubans who can pay this fee must accept the possibility that their emails are monitored. What’s more, the sites that people can access are restricted.
Cubans can use an Intranet to access local websites that are sanctioned by the government for about 60 cents an hour—this, however, is hardly a source of free, unfiltered information.
Cuban citizens have only been permitted to own personal computers since 2008. Government authorization is required to have Internet at home; only doctors, professionals, famous artists, government officials, and the like are granted this privilege.