Cuba Under Fidel Castro

by Benjamin Studebaker

When an important leader dies or leaves office, I sometimes like to write retrospective posts on their performance. There are any number of places where you can get a Fidel Castro obituary–what I’m offering is a hard look at the consequences Castro’s policies had for the Cuban people. My intent is neither to polish nor tarnish Castro’s image, but to present his government’s policies and institutions as they were.

Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and held onto it until his health forced him to stand aside in 2008. The most common complaint levied against Castro is that Cuba experienced economic stagnation under him. When we look at the data, we can see that Cuba managed to keep pace with other developing Latin American countries until the collapse of the Soviet Union, but then fell behind considerably:


As late as 1988, Cuba led this 4-nation pack, but went on to experience a long lost decade in the 90s. Growth returned in the 00s, but not at a quick enough pace to enable Cuba to make up the loss. Other economic indicators have been okay–Cuba’s inflation rate has not run away, its unemployment is very low, and it’s stayed out of recession since 1995.

Because of the US embargo, it is difficult to know with confidence how much of the slow GDP growth is the fault of Castro’s policies. This is part of why the embargo is so ineffective–it creates an excuse for economic stagnation and makes it difficult to criticize the regime on economic grounds. Castro’s defenders can and do respond to economic criticism by pointing the finger at the embargo. Since 1992, the UN has voted every year to condemn the embargo as a violation of international law. Most recently 191 states voted to condemn the embargo, with no votes against and only two abstentions (the US and Israel).

Nevertheless, it remains on the books. Consequently evaluations of Cuba have no choice but to go well outside the headline economic figures. One area where Castro was undeniably successful is healthcare. Cuba was not only able to maintain its lead over regional rivals in life expectancy–it surpassed the United States:


Under Castro, Cuba’s healthcare system was not merely effective, it was also efficient–Cuba was able to beat US life expectancy while spending not just far less in total but far less as a percentage of GDP:


Castro also did much for the literacy rate. When he took power more than a fifth of Cubans could not read. Today Cuba’s literacy rate is as good as any developed country’s:

That said, Cuba has an appallingly poor press freedom score. It has consistently ranked near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ league table, coming in 169th out of 173 when Castro left office in 2008. It retains a similarly low rank to this day:

This is perhaps the biggest weakness of Castro’s legacy–he created extremely undynamic institutions which suppress dissent and make it difficult for state institutions to adapt over time. When Fidel retired, he was replaced with a gerontocratic oligarchy headed by his younger brother Raul. Raul is 85, which means he has a life expectancy of about 8 more years, and there’s no guarantee he remains capable of running the country for that long. So far, Cuba has largely continued to concentrate power in the hands of the remaining members of Cuba’s revolutionary generation. I can find only two significant Cuban political figures born after 1959–the First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, and Marino Murillo, the recently sacked former Minister of the Economy and Planning. Diaz-Canel has a reputation for broadly conforming to Marxism, while Murillo is tipped as more of a reformer. But in both cases these individuals got into their respective positions of power by impressing and winning the approval of the Castros.

These closed institutions will eventually produce trouble for Cuba. Over time, the ruling group will struggle to maintain a firm grip on what things are like for ordinary people and it will get insufficient feedback from a population that has become accustomed to censorship. The Castros seem to genuinely care about Cuba’s welfare–they have achieved much in healthcare and education and they have worked tirelessly to find ways to develop Cuba’s economy in spite of the embargo. But eventually Raul will be gone as well, and sooner or later Cuba’s static institutions will be captured by some corrupt Brezhnev wannabe who gained his office through sycophancy and will happily siphon off the country’s wealth for himself and his friends.

Often times when Cuba is criticized the attacks come from capitalists who want economic liberalization. Because of the embargo, it’s unclear to what extent Cuba might benefit from that sort of policy change–though there’s no doubt the lifting of the embargo would create the appearance of benefit. What is clear is that Cuban institutions need to be politically liberalized to make the government more dynamic and resistant to the threat of future capture by corrupt gangsters, regardless of whether economic reforms come alongside that. The Cuban people need sufficiently fierce political debate if they are to preserve and extend the social benefits of the revolution. Otherwise, the departure of the old men will leave Cuba politically rudderless.

I’m sure Raul Castro has a great deal of personal confidence in Miguel Diaz-Canel, but Marcus Aurelius had a lot of confidence in Commodus, and that got the Romans nowhere. (Commodus turned the government over to his praetorian prefect, Cleander, who sold off public offices to enrich himself. Meanwhile Commodus fought as a gladiator and killed defenseless people equipped with blunt blades.) We need strong political institutions that can ensure Cuba can withstand the potential fallout of a blown succession choice. Without them, the country plays Russian Roulette every time it changes hands…