By Dr. Jose Andreu

A worldwide myth is that Cuba was a a backward country prior to Castro's takeover. Over 27 years of travelling to more than 100 countries for the World Bank, as well as for private ventures I have heard the same story everywhere. According to these views, Cuba was a third world country victim of political, economic, social and racial oppression. Its backwardness was endemic, and on top of that we were the victims of NorthAmerican neocolonialism. Havana was the plaything of American gangsters and prostitution was widespread. I barely heard favorable comments about republican Cuba, and then mostly from foreigners who had visited the island or who knew someone who had. It still amazes me that the negative opinions were shared by communists and capitalists; leftists, centrists and rightists; whites, blacks and orientals; rich and poor; literate and illiterate alike. How could these opinions fly in the face of the truth, which was exactly the opposite?

In this, the first of three articles, we will only deal with the two critical areas of health and education. By 1958, and in spite of seven years of a corrupt dictatorship, Cuba exhibited a remarkable degree of development explained below. The data are based on World Bank and other United Nations statistical sources, such as the Statistical Yearbook and the Demographic Yearbook, all of which are among the most complete and prestigious data compendiums in the field of development.

According to the above data Cuba was a relatively advanced country in 1958, certainly by Latin American standards and, in some areas, by world standards. Health. Universal health care is touted by Castro apologists as one of the most significant advances of the regime. In realty, the Castro government inherited an already advanced health sector. In 1957, Cuba's infant mortality rate (one of the most accurate proxies for overall health conditions in a country) was only 32 per 1000 livebirths, the lowest in Latin America and the 13th lowest worldwide, ranking ahead of France, Belgium, West Germany, Israel, Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Today Cuba stands 24th worldwide, and this omits mention of the staggering abortion rate of 0.71 abortions per livebirth in 1991, which reduces infant mortality by terminating high-risk pregnancies. Cuba had the sad distinction of having more than double the abortion rate of any industrialized country in that year. In 1957, Cuba's 128 physicians and dentist per 1000 population was at the level of the Netherlands and ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom.

After 39 years under Castro, Cuba's infant mortality ranking has gone down from 13th to 24th place worldwide. The number of physicians and dentists per 1000 population has increased, but based on the massive (and unsustainable) Soviet subsidies to Cuba's overall economy and fiscal resources.

Education. Before Castro, Cuba ranked fourth among Latin American countries in educational development. Its literacy rate was 76% then, and 96% now. This improvement looks less impressive when compared to other countries in Latin America similar to Cuba in the 1950's, such as Panama and Costa Rica, which have shown similar gains without the above-mentioned massive subsidization. Additionally, most other Latin countries (including the poorest among them) also have registered impressive literacy gains over the last 40 years: Haiti from 11% to 45%; Guatemala, 30% to 56%; El Salvador, 42% to 72%; Dominican Republic, 43% to 82%; Brazil, 49% to 83%; Ecuador, 56% to 90%; and Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina all now in the 90-96% bracket. And they carried out these large improvements with minimal foreign assistance, and without the "benefits" of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.


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