08 February, 2010

Evaluating Cuba

I am taking a bit of an interest in Cuba, partly driven by my impending holiday there. As you know, Cuba has an authoritarian socialists government and has also been subject to a long trade boycott organised by the United States of America. I understand that Cuba is also pretty poor, when compared to first world countries like the one I live in. But comparing Cuba with first world countries is problematic – more appropriate are comparisons with its neighbours in the Caribbean and in Central America, as they are the countries from which it diverged when it embraced socialism.

Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer makes such a comparison: Caribbean communism v capitalism. It is a short article, but Kinzer is able to throw out a couple of statistics suggesting that the mass of people in Cuba lead more materially comfortable lives than those of neighbouring countries. He also says that while Cubans have their political rights curtailed by their government, these rights are often a bit notional in neighbouring countries – if a Cuban were to try and set up an oppositional newspaper, they would be thrown in jail, but if a Guatemalan were to set up a stridently oppositional newspaper they might well be killed by a death squad.

Now, Kinzer does pick and choose his indicators, but I reckon it would be interesting to do a more thorough analysis of different levels of human development statistics across the Caribbean basin to see how the country ranks. If Cuba were to rank ahead of the others, then this would raise troubling questions. Generally speaking, we tend to assume that freedom associates with prosperity, with people in authoritarian countries living materially poorer lives than their freer fellows. Now, if Cuba were to buck this trend then we would have to wonder whether its relatively better condition was a product of its authoritarianism or something merely coincidental. Put another way, would Cuba acquire the less savoury characteristics of its neighbours if it were to open up politically?

I may at some stage trawl through the statistics myself. If so then I will be back to you.


Randy said...

Um. The big problem with that is that, before 1959, Cuba wasn't comparable to its neighbours. It had a large middle class, fairly good medical and literary indicators, and a developed mass media, besides being a notable destination for migrants, rather than a source. Cuba's peers weren't so much the Dominican Republic or Guatemala as Uruguay or even Spain.

Ken said...

Here's some data....


Taking a few random indicators it can be seen that Cuba scores highly in comparison to nearly all of its neighbours even if one includes Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Queenie said...

I noticed a huge variance in living conditions in my short stay there. I think it depends on whether you have family out of Cuba sending money home, or whether you have one of the 'really good' resort jobs (which apparently you have to be a good communist to get). I did notice that, like the rest of the world, money does not equate taste. Some of the jazzed up homes were incredibly tacky. The big status symbol in houses appeared to be arondiracks. It appeared to me that one has 'arrived' when one has two of them on the porch!!! A bit like rural Canada! However, that might be just in Holguin. :-)

ian said...

Ken - your figures I must digest.

Randy - I'd have to see figures to back up what you are saying, but even so there could be human development indicators that would make Batista-era Cuba less than impressive. But maybe those indicators show us whether Cuba has suffered for taking the socialist path, when the question now is whether it would gain or lose by abandoning that path.

Lorraine - I've picked up the idea that access to foreigners is a major source of wealth in Cuba. I love the fact that you apparently get surgeons who make most of their money doing nixers as waiters in Paladares.