None of our leaders spent their exile in Cuba so it is always odd to hear it praised by some mainstream politicians or, more usually, by our trade union leaders, and those chaps in red overalls.
Before cheering, our Fidel Castro fan club might like to know what happened once Cuba took the revolutionary path to utopian equality. It may help the praise singers understand why sensible people do not want the same thing to happen here.
Cuba’s story from 1953 to the present is a classic Rake’s Progress. It starts with the blessings of everyone and proceeds with loads of good intentions and goodwill to the bottom of the hill.
The best description of what the revolutionaries wanted – at least at the beginning – lies in Castro’s address to a Cuban court in Santiago when he stood accused of treason after his first failed attempt at overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.
Once upon a time, there was a republic, Castro said. It had its constitution, its laws, its freedoms, a president, a congress, and courts of law. Everyone could assemble, associate, speak, and write with freedom.
The people were not satisfied with the government at that time, but they had the power to elect new officials. Public opinion was respected and heeded and all problems of common interest were freely discussed. There were political parties, radio and television debates, forums, and public meetings. The nation pulsated with enthusiasm.
Castro went on: This people had suffered greatly and was unhappy, but it longed to be happy and had a right to be happy… it looked on the past with real horror.
This country innocently believed that such a past could not return; the people were proud of their love of freedom and they carried their heads high in the conviction that liberty would be respected as a sacred right. They felt confident that no one would dare commit the crime of violating their democratic institutions.
He told his accusers that a constitution was the supreme law of the nation, its purpose to define the political structure, regulate government, and determine its limits. It must be stable, enduring, and inflexible. Castro was fighting for what we in South Africa now have.
He wanted a restoration not a revolution. He wanted the democratic privileges enshrined in the 1940 Cuban constitution. It was not a revolutionary plea. It was a desire to put the clock back.
If a man can be judged by his words, Castro started out as a democrat.
But fast forward to 1960 and among the first things he did was abolish private property, especially private farms and foreign-owned companies – so at one fell swoop a cornerstone of freedom was removed.
Once this assault on private property was accomplished, all other freedoms soon followed. The immediate result was that thousands of Cubans fled the island while they could.
First to go were professional and skilled people – the bourgeoisie. Without their skills, the Cuban economy nose-dived.
In the following decades, propped up by donations from Russia that were greater than the generous Marshall aid that helped Europe recover after World War II, the Cuban economy went socialist in a big way.
Education was free, so were health services. Civil service numbers rose dramatically, providing jobs, but they were paid by Russian donations, not a growing economy. Indeed, Cuba was made an equal society. By 2011, the average worker earned R200 a month (including the skilled, the unskilled, neurosurgeons, university graduates, teachers). A Cuban street sweeper’s pay was about R160 a month, brain surgeons earned R230.
No one knows what Castro was paid when he was still fit enough to work but Forbes Magazine has calculated that he is one of the world’s richest men.
His personal revolution certainly succeeded. Meanwhile, the stream of people fleeing this workers’ paradise never stopped.
How bad was it in Cuba before El Presidente took over? Not very, some say. And there are facts that support them.
Before Castro, Cuba had more telephones and televisions per head than most countries in Europe at the time. More than Italy, certainly. Today Cuba has fewer cellphones than Papua New Guinea, fewer users of the internet than Uganda.
In 1953, Cuba’s economy was the third largest in Latin America. Now Russia no longer pumps in money, it survives on hand-outs from Venezuela.
Three years before Castro’s men took over, Cubans ate more meat than North Americans did.
Life expectancy was higher, and railways and highways were better than most other countries in the region; infant mortality was lower. The country had more than 60 newspapers.
Batista’s Cuba was not all roses. Trade unions were politically dominant. They insisted upon, and got, job protection for their members. They got an eight-hour day; a 44-hour week, four weeks paid holiday a year, and women got six weeks off before and after giving birth. It was a huge bureaucratic nightmare to dismiss anyone. Job security was the rule.
Of course, the economy was stagnant. Such was the regime Castro overthrew.
Once among the richest, Cubans are now among the poorest people in Latin America. Almost everything is rationed, including food and soap, unless you are a foreign tourist and pay in hard currency.
Lest the middle-class Greens imagine that a dead-slow economy does no ecological damage, they should know that under Castro the environment came last. The courses of rivers have been altered. Many are dumps. Coastal currents have been changed. Cuba is also building a nuclear power station.
Should our leaders praise a country like this, a regime like this? Surely, there is some mistake.
* Keith Bryer is a retired communication consultant.