Zenith and Eclipse:
A Comparative Look at Socio-Economic
in Pre-Castro and Present Day Cuba
(Released by the U.S. Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, based
on United Nations data).
SUMMARY AND INTRODUCTION
An enduring myth is that 1950's Cuba was a socially and economically
backward country whose development was jump-started by the Castro
government. In fact, according to readily-available historical data,
Cuba was a relatively advanced country in 1958, certainly by Latin
American standards and, in some areas, by world standards. The data
appear to show that Cuba has at best maintained what were already
high levels of development in health and education, but at an extraordinary
cost to the overall welfare of the Cuban people. These include access
to "basics" such as adequate levels of food and electricity,
but also access to consumer goods, the availability of which have
increased significantly in other Latin American countries in recent
It is true that Cuba's infant mortality rate is the best in Latin
America today, but it also was the best in Latin America -- and the
13th lowest in the world -- in pre-Castro Cuba. Cuba also has improved
the literacy of its people, but Cuba had an excellent educational
system and impressive literacy rates in the 1950's.
On the other hand, many economic and social indicators have declined
since the 1959 revolution. Pre-Castro Cuba ranked third in Latin America
in per capita food consumption; today, it ranks last. Per capita consumption
of cereals, tubers, and meat are today all below 1950's levels. The
number of automobiles in Cuba has fallen since the 1950's -- the only
country in Latin America for which this is the case. The number of
telephone lines in Cuba also has been virtually frozen at 1950's levels.
Cuba once ranked first in Latin America and fifth in the world in
television sets per capita. Today, it barely ranks fourth in Latin
America and is well back in the ranks globally.
Cuba's rate of development of electrical power since the 1950's ranks
behind every other country in Latin America except Haiti. Cuba is
the only country in the hemisphere for which rice production today
is lower than it was four decades ago. By virtually any measure of
macroeconomic stability, Cuba was in far better shape in 1958 than
it is today.
Finally, the Castro government shut down what was a remarkably vibrant
media sector in the 1950's, when the relatively small country had
58 daily newspapers of differing political hues and ranked eighth
in the world in number of radio stations.
This paper assesses Cuba's level of development in a variety of economic
and social indicators during the revolutionary period (1959-present),
especially relative to that of other countries during the same period.
It relies most extensively on UN data, particularly from the statistical
yearbook and demographic yearbook, which are considered among the
most prestigious data compendiums in the development field. Trade
data is derived from the IMF's Direction of Trade Statistics, which
provides a consistent data series dating back to the 1950's. For the
various international comparisons and rankings listed below, only
those countries acquiring independence prior to 1958 and having relatively
consistent data available for the period 1955-present have been included.
(The former stipulation excludes many highly-developed Caribbean countries
The health care system is often touted by many analysts as one of
the Castro government's greatest achievements. What this analysis
ignores is that the revolutionary government inherited an already-advanced
health sector when it took power in 1959.
Cuba's infant mortality rate of 32 per 1,000 live births in 1957 was
the lowest in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, according
to UN data. Cuba ranked ahead of France, Belgium, west Germany, Israel,
Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, all of which would eventually
pass Cuba in this indicator during the following decades.
Today, Cuba remains the most advanced country in the region in this
measure, but its world ranking has fallen from 13th to 24th during
the Castro era, according to UN Data. Also missing from the conventional
analysis of Cuba's infant mortality rates is its staggering abortion
rate -- 0.71 abortions per live birth in 1991, according to the latest
UN data -- which, because of selective termination of "high-risk"
pregnancies, yields lower numbers for infant mortality. Cuba's abortion
rate is at least twice the rate for the other countries in the table
below for which data are available.
In terms of physicians and dentists per capita, Cuba in 1957 ranked
third in Latin America, behind only Uruguay and Argentina -- both
of which were more advanced than the United States in this measure.
Cuba's 128 physicians and dentists per 100,000 people in 1957 was
the same as the Netherlands, and ahead of the United Kingdom (122
per 100,000 people) and Finland (96).
Unfortunately, the UN statistical yearbook no longer publishes these
statistics, so more recent comparisons are not possible, but it is
completely erroneous to characterize pre-Revolutionary Cuba as backward
in terms of healthcare.
Cuba has been among the most literate countries in Latin America since
well before the Castro revolution, when it ranked fourth. Since then,
Cuba has increased its literacy rate from 76 to 96 percent, which
today places it second only to Argentina in Latin America. This improvement
is impressive, but not unique, among Latin American countries. Panama
-- which ranked just behind Cuba in this indicator during the 1950's
-- has matched Cuba's improvement when measured in percentage terms.
Rationing has been a staple of Cuban life since the early 1960's.
During the early 1990's, Cuba's food consumption deteriorated sharply,
when massive amounts of Soviet aid were withdrawn. On its own without
Soviet largesse and abundant food imports, Cuban agriculture was paralyzed
by a scarcity of inputs and poor production incentives resulting from
collectivism and the lack of appropriate price signals. In pre-Castro
Cuba, by contrast, food supplies were abundant. The 1960 UN Statistical
yearbook ranked pre-Revolutionary Cuba third out of 11 Latin American
countries in per capita daily caloric consumption. This was in spite
of the fact that the latest available food consumption data for Cuba
at the time was from 1948-49, almost a decade before the other Latin
American countries' data being used in the comparison. Looking at
the same group of 11 countries today, Cuba ranks last in per capita
daily caloric consumption, according to the most recent data available
from the UN FAO. Indeed, the data show Cuba with a poorer food supply
situation than even Honduras.
A closer look at some basic food groups reveals that Cubans now have
less access to cereals, tubers, and meats than they had in the late
1940's. According to 1995 UN FAO data, Cuba's per capita supply of
cereals has fallen from 106 kg per year in the late 1940's to 100
kg today, half a century later. Per capita supply of tubers and roots
shows an even steeper decline, from 91 kg per year to 56 kg. Meat
supplies have fallen from 33 kg per year to 23 kg per year, measured
on a per capita basis.
Although some would blame Cuba's food problems on the U.S. embargo,
the facts suggest that the food shortages are a function of an inefficient
collectivized agricultural system -- and a scarcity of foreign exchange
resulting from Castro's unwillingness to liberalize Cuba's economy,
diversify its export base, and pay off debts owed to its Japanese,
European, and Latin American trading partners during the years of
abundant soviet aid. This foreign exchange shortage has severely limited
Cuba's ability to purchase readily-available food supplies from Canada,
Latin America, and Europe. The U.S. Embargo has added, at most, relatively
small increases in transportation costs by forcing Cuba to import
food from non - U.S. sources elsewhere in the hemisphere.
The statistics on the consumption of nonfood items tell a similar
The number of automobiles in Cuba per capita has actually fallen since
the 1950's, the only country in the hemisphere for which this is the
case. (Unfortunately, the latest available data for Cuba are from
1988.) UN data show that the number of automobiles per capita in Cuba
declined slightly between 1958 and 1988, whereas virtually every other
country in the region -- with the possible exception of Nicaragua
-- experienced very significant increases in this indicator. Within
Latin America, Cuba ranked second only to Venezuela in 1958, but by
1988, had dropped to ninth.
The 1988 data on automobiles also reveal that countries in Asia and
Europe that once ranked far behind Cuba in this measure have since
surpassed Cuba by a wide margin. Japan, with four cars per 1,000 inhabitants
in 1958, was far behind Cuba (24) that year, but by 1988, Japan's
number had grown to 251, whereas the figure for Cuba remained frozen
at its 1958 level. Similar comments could be made for Portugal (increased
from 15 in 1958 to 216 in 1988), Spain (increased from six to 278),
and Greece (increased from four to 150). Indeed, Italy's 29 cars per
capita was not far ahead of Cuba's 24 in 1958, but by 1988, Italy
boasted 440 cars per capita, whereas the figure for Cuba was unchanged
from the 1950's.
Telephones are another case in point. While every other country in
the region has seen its teledensity increase at least two fold --
and most have seen even greater improvements -- Cuba's has remained
frozen at 1958 levels. Today, Cuba has only 3 telephone lines per
100 people, placing it 14th out of 20 Latin American countries surveyed
in 1994 and far behind countries that were less advanced than Cuba
in this measure in 1958, such as Argentina (today 14 lines per 100
inhabitants), Costa Rica (13), Panama (11), Chile (11), Venezuela
(11), and several others.
Cuba also has not kept pace with the rest of Latin America in terms
of radios per capita. During the late 1950's, Cuba ranked second only
to Uruguay in Latin America, with 169 radios per 1,000 people. (Worldwide,
this put Cuba just ahead of Japan.) At that time, Argentina and Cuba
were very similar in terms of this measure. Since then, the number
of radios per capita in Argentina has grown three times as fast as
Cuba also has been surpassed by Bolivia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras,
and Brazil in this indicator. Today, Cuba ranks just above average
for Latin American countries.
In terms of television sets per capita, 1950's Cuba was far ahead
of the rest of Latin America and was among the world's leaders. Cuba
had 45 television sets per 1,000 inhabitants in 1957, by far the most
in Latin America and fifth in the world, behind only Monaco, the United
States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In fact, its closest competitor
in Latin America was Venezuela, which had only 16 television sets
per 1,000 people. Today, Cuba has 170 televisions per thousand, behind
Uruguay (232 per capita), Argentina (220), and brazil (209). Of these
three countries, Uruguay in 1957 had fewer than one television per
1,000 people, and Argentina and Brazil each had five per 1,000 people
-- far behind Cuba's 45 per capita.
Post 1959 Cuba falls short in areas of industrial production once
prioritized by Soviet client states, such as electricity production.
Although Cuba has never been a regional leader in public electricity
production per capita, its relative ranking among 20 Latin American
countries has fallen from eighth to 11th during the Castro era. In
fact, in terms of the rate of growth for this measure, Cuba ranks
19th of 20 countries in the region, with only Haiti showing less accelerated
Cuba is the only country in Latin America whose production of rice
has fallen since 1958, when it ranked fourth in the region in production
of this staple. Two of the countries ranking ahead of Cuba in rice
production in 1958 -- Colombia and Peru -- have since seen their rice
production grow by more than three fold. Cuba's Caribbean neighbor,
the Dominican republic, has increased its rice production by four
1958. Perhaps even more telling are Cuba's yields per hectare in rice
production. Whereas the Dominican Republic has increased rice yields
from 2100 kg per hectare in 1958 to 5400 kg per hectare in 1996, Cuba's
yields today are only 2500 kg per hectare, a negligible increase from
the 2400 kg per hectare registered in 1958, according to UN FAO data.
FOREIGN TRADE AND BALANCE OF PAYMENTS
Cuba's exports have not kept pace with other countries of the region.
Of the 20 countries in the region for which comparable IMF data are
available, Cuba ranks last in terms of export growth -- below even
Haiti. Mexico and Cuba had virtually identical export levels in 1958
-- while Mexico's population was five times Cuba's. Since then, Cuba's
exports have merely doubled while Mexico's have increased by almost
130-fold, according to IMF statistics. Cuba's exports in 1958 far
exceeded those of Chile and Colombia, countries which have since left
Cuba behind. The lack of diversification of Cuba's exports over the
past 35 years also is remarkable, when compared with other countries
in the region.
Cuba's enviable productive base during the 1950's was strengthened
by sizable inflows of foreign direct investment. As of 1958, the value
of U.S. foreign direct investment in Cuba was $861 million, according
to United States government figures published in 1959. Adjusting for
inflation that foreign investment number amounts to more than USD
4.3 billion in today's dollars.
Contrary to popular perception, U.S. investors were not focusing on
the sugar industry in the 1950's. U.S. firms began to gradually sell
their Cuban sugar holdings to Cuban firms beginning in 1935. By 1958,
U.S. firms owned fewer than 40 of Cuba's 161 mills. While U.S. firms
were moving away from sugar, they were rapidly investing in a range
of other ventures, especially in infrastructure development. According
to U.S. government statistics, 41 percent of U.S. direct investments
in Cuba were in utilities as of 1958.
As the numbers above imply, Cuba had a very favorable overall balance
of payments situation during the 1950's, contrasted with the tenuous
situation today. In 1958, Cuba had gold and foreign exchange reserves
-- a key measure of a healthy balance of payments--totaling $387 million
in 1958 dollars, according to IMF statistics. (That level of reserves
would be worth more than 1.9 billion USD in today's dollars.) Cuba's
reserves were third in Latin America, behind only Venezuela and Brazil,
which was impressive for a small economy with a population of fewer
than 7 million people. Unfortunately, Cuba no longer publishes information
on its foreign exchange and gold reserves.
It is no exaggeration to state that during the 1950's, the Cuban people
were among the most informed in the world, living in an uncharacteristically
large media market for such a small country. Cubans had a choice of
58 daily newspapers during the late 1950's, according to the UN statistical
yearbook. Despite its small size, this placed Cuba behind only Brazil,
Argentina, and Mexico in the region. By 1992, government controls
had reduced the number of dailies to only 17.
There has also been a reduction in the number of radio and television
broadcasting stations, although the UN no longer reports these statistics.
However, it should be noted that in 1957, Cuba had more television
stations (23) than any other country in Latin America, easily outdistancing
larger countries such as Mexico (12 television stations) and Venezuela
(10). It also led Latin America and ranked eighth in the world in
number of radio stations (160), ahead of such countries as Austria
(83 radio stations), United Kingdom (62), and France (50), according
to the UN statistical yearbook.
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