Cuba’s Achievements under the Presidency of Fidel Castro: The Top Ten

NOTE: For additional articles on various aspects of Fidel Castro’s presidency, see:

Fidel Castro: The Cowardice of Autocracy

Fidel’s Phenomenal Economic Fiascoes: the Top Ten

Fidel’s No-Good Very Bad Day

The “FIDEL” Models Never Worked; Soviet and Venezuelan Subsidization Did

On September 17, I published and entry on this blog entitled “Fidel’s Phenomenal Economic Fiascoes: the Top Ten” but stated that I would also write a statement on Cuba’s greatest achievements under the leadership of President Fidel Castro. Here it is.

There certainly were economic policy blunders from 1959 to mid-2006 when Fidel Castro stepped aside in favor of his brother Raul. However, as is well known, Cuba made major achievements over these years in socio-economic terms. I will begin with a quick summary of Cuba’s socio-economic performance from 1959 to 1990 and 1990-2010, and then proceed to a listing of the Tip Ten Achievements

I. Socio-Economic Performance, 1959-1990

While the performance of the Cuban economy from 1959 to 1990 period was mixed, major improvements were made in terms of socio-economic well-being. The summary of changes in a few key socio-economic indicators in Table 1 illustrates the absolute and relative improvements achieved in human well-being. Life expectancy and infant and child mortality are summary indications of nutrition, income distribution and poverty and the quality of a nation’s health care system. Literacy and educational attainment are key factors in the investment in human capital and in citizen empowerment in a modern economy.

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Cuba’s rankings for these indicators in 1960 were relatively high in the Latin American context so that it was building on reasonably strong foundations.

However, despite improvements in the rest of Latin America, Cuba raised its relative ranking for all five of the socio-economic indicators vis-à-vis the rest of Latin America (excluding the English-speaking Caribbean.)  However Cuba’s economic ranking – in terms of the purchasing power of GDP per person – fell well down the list in 1990 placing Cuba at the 14th rank. As a result, Cuba placed at #10 in the UNDP Human Development Index.

II.        Socio-Economic Performance 1990-2010

Despite the economic difficulties of the 1990s, Cuba continued to improve its socio-economic performance in relative and absolute terms, at least as these are measured by the indicators in Table 2. Cuba continued to lead the Latin American countries in infant mortality and the education indicators. The improvements in education and health indicators and rankings occurred despite weakening of resource allocations and problems of maintaining quality. Cuba’s success in these areas was due largely to the quality and quantity of the educational systems built up in the previous1960-1990 period and institutional momentum.

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III.             Top Ten Achievements

Here is a listing of the Cuba’s socio-economic and economic achievements under the Presidency of Fidel Castro. They are not presented in order of importance. Some are the result of specific policy decisions or design or negotiations of Fidel Castro, though others are not.

#1        The 1961 Literacy Campaign

#2        Reorganization of the Health Sector

#3        Redesign of the Educational System

#4        Rapid Expansion of the Tourism Sector

#5       Provision of Medical Services to Latin America and Other Countries

#6        Survival in the Face of the 1989-1993 Economic Melt-Down

#7        Winning Economic Support from the Soviet Union, 1961-1990 and Venezuela, 2004-2010

#8        Establishment of the “Polo Cientifico” and the Development of the Bio-Technological Sector

#9        Dedication to their Jobs by Cuban Citizens during the Catastrophic Decline in Real Wages and Incomes after 1990

#10      Fruitful Collaboration with Foreign Enterprises

IV.             Achievements in Detail

#1        The 1961 Literacy Campaign

The 1961 literacy campaign was an inspired approach to improving educational levels among the relatively large proportion of the population that was illiterate in 1959. This was done at relatively low cost with strongly motivated volunteers. It quickly improved literacy rates immensely, though there is some disagreement as to the quality of the literacy that was achieved.

#2       Reorganization of the Health Sector

Cuba succeeded in reorganizing its medical system so as to provide universal access to health services, and managed to obtain excellent results relative to the amounts of resources that it was able to devote to the health sector.  As a result, Cuba’s health indicators improved quickly and remain among the very best in Latin America (See Tables 1 and 2)

#3        Redesign of the Educational System

Cuba’s reorganization and expansion of the educational system in the early 1960s also made education universally accessible and increased investment in people (human capital.) As a result, Cuba moved from 5th place in Latin America in terms of literacy and school enrolment in 1970 to 1st in 2007 – a fine achievement.

#4        Rapid Expansion of the Tourism Sector

As a result of the 1989-1994 economic melt-down, it was decided to earn foreign exchange by expanding the tourist sector. This required massive involved massive investment by both Cuba and foreign enterprises and the rapid shifting of resources to the sector. This was done and by 2008, Cuba was earning almost MN 2.4 billion from tourism.

#5        Provision of Medical Services to Latin America and Other Countries

By the latter 1990s, Cuba had a major surplus of medical personnel, with doctors and nurses posted in small tourist hotels and day care centers. However, this was converted into a major humanitarian asset, with Cuba’s provision of medical assistance to many countries in need, and expanding the Latin American Medical School outside Havana. The services of medical personnel are also exported to other countries – paid mainly by the Government of Venezuela. The foreign exchange earnings from medical (and educational) service exports amounted to MN 6.1 billion, almost half of Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings in 2008, as indicated in the accompanying chart.

#6        Survival in the Face of the 1989-1993 Economic Melt-Down

With the loss of Soviet subsidization and the near 40% decline in income per capita from 1989 to 1994, Cuba reorganized its economy, “depenalizing” the use of the US dollar, legalizing farmers’ markets, liberalizing self-employment and promoting new economic activities and exports etc. With no support from the international financial institutions of which it was not a member, thanks to the embargo with the United States, Cuba survived, at a cost borne almost directly, immediately and totally by its citizens.

#7       Winning Economic Support from the Soviet Union, 1961-1990 and Venezuela, 2004-2010

As noted in an earlier blog, The “FIDEL” Models Never Worked; Soviet and Venezuelan Subsidization Did posted on September 9, 2010 ,  Cuba received generous subsidization from the Soviet Union for a substantial period of time. An estimate of the amount of the subsidization is presented in the accompanying chart.  Presumably President Fidel Castro is responsible for negotiating this support. Similarly, Cuba has received substantial support from President Chavez of Venezuela through export and investment credits, low-cost oil imports and generous payments for Cuba’s exports of medical services.  How beneficial any of this assistance has been is debatable partly because it has been and is unsustainable and it has made possible the continuation of economic policies and institutions that have been counterproductive in the longer term. Fidel Castro can undoubtedly take the credit for these special relationships.

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#8        Establishment of the “Polo Cientifico” and the Development of the Bio-Technological Sector

To my knowledge, there has been no careful analysis of Cuba’s huge investment in the “Polo Cientifico” and the Bio-Technological sector. Indeed, I have not seen any analysis of the investment in the sector so I cannot judge accurately if it has been commercially viable so far or not.

However, Cuba is beginning to achieve major exports of pharmaceutical products amounting to MN 296.8 million pesos vis-à-vis MN 233.4 million for sugar in 2008.  These exports should continue to increase in future and the investment in the sector may be valuable. Moreover, Cuba’s investment in the “Polo Cientifico” has built a professional and institutional foundation for future success in pharmaceutical and other scientific areas.

#9        Dedication to their Jobs by Cuban Citizens despite the Decline in Real Incomes after 1990

I have always been impressed at the professionalism of many Cuban citizens that I have known over the years since 1990. In the face of huge declines in the purchasing power of their incomes, they continued to work seriously and with dedication in medicine, the Universities, the schools, the public service, or other employment. Many professionals and others in effect subsidized their state sector employers by earning other incomes that permitted them to survive in the unofficial economy. We have all heard of the doctors and engineers forced to provide taxi services on the side in order to make ends meet and continue to function in their professional capacities. The dedicated work of countless citizens over the difficult years of the Special Period, 1990-2010, is essentially what has brought about some recovery since the depths of the depression in 1993.

#10      Fruitful Collaboration in Nickel, Oil, Gas and Electric Power Generation with Sherritt International

Cuba opened up to foreign direct investment in joint venture arrangements with state firms. This has paid off handsomely, most notably with Sherritt International (nickel, cobalt, oil, gas, and electric power) and other enterprises as will be argued later in this Blog.


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8 Responses to Cuba’s Achievements under the Presidency of Fidel Castro: The Top Ten

  1. Ana J. Faya says:

    Arch, it´s very good!!

    At first, when I read the title, couldn´t imagine how you were going to make a list of 10 socio-economic achievements. Things have been so bad in Cuba. And then, when I read achievement # 9, it even moved me. Cubans living on the island have been the ones that with our work, talent, and dedication have helped to keep open that insane asylum for decades, whether we’ve liked it or not. Those years at the beginning of the Special Period were so bad, so degrading, even humiliating for all of us, when forced to get involved in some degree of corruption in order to survive, that reading your paragraph brought me to tears.

    Some minor comments about other points:

    The Literacy Campaign was a huge socio-economic achievement under the rule of Fidel Castro. No doubt about it. But, was it done at a relatively low cost? I don’t know. Since the beginning of the Revolution, statistics have been a problem when dealing with costs in Cuba. In 1961 all resources were focused on achieving the goal of “no illiterates”, by December of that year. The whole country was paralyzed. Transportation –and even some industries, like those making uniforms, boots, lamps, blankets, or hammocks—were put at the service of the Literacy Campaign. Buses and trains moved students from Havana to Oriente, from one extreme of the island to another –have always asked myself why students from Havana had to go so far. At first, the school year was cancelled, and all students, from 7th grade to the University, were mobilized under the Conrado Benitez Brigades. Then, especially after August-September, when the Government noticed that it was difficult to achieve the goal of getting rid of illiteracy in a year, thousands of workers were mobilized as “volunteers” under the Patria o Muerte Brigades. It is estimated that over 260,000 Cubans were mobilized as “brigadistas”, and over 100,000 housewives, workers, and students who didn’t join the Conrado Benitez or the Patria o Muerte brigades taught to read and write as “alfabetizadores populares”. How much did that cost? Who knows.

    In the 70s, part of the reorganization of education included Fidel Castro’s idea of building dozens of schools for high school students (enseñanza media) in the countryside. There were only a few schools left in the cities. Transportation was provided to move thousands of students every weekend from the schools to their homes, back and forth. Crops were supposed to be collected by those students, who didn’t have any motivation, experience or skills, so the job was usually a disaster. How much did that cost? Nobody knows. Not to mention the psychological aspect of it. Teenagers were living out of their homes in far-away places under the care of “teachers” who most of the time were only one or two years older than them.
    At same time, education was focused mainly in university graduates. Technical studies were disregarded, and so there were thousands of engineers or doctors, but graduated plumbers, electricians, mechanics, or carpenters were missing.

    In terms of medical services abroad, it’s difficult to know how much does Cuba receive from governments like Angola or Seychelles, for instance, that enjoy relatively good economies, both of them under provisions of medical services by Cuba.

  2. Rosa Jordan says:

    Excellent analysis. Accurately reflects what I have observed in Cuba during frequent visits over the past 14 years. One achievement not mentioned above, perhaps because it is not considered specifically economic (although it is), was Cuba’s approach to the energy (oil) shortage during the 14 years after it lost USSR support and before Castro negotiated support from Venezuela. This included (1) the importation of millions of bicycles; (2) a return to small farms using animal traction and reliance on commercial fertilizer to reliance on organic fertilizer, resulting in dramatic soil improvements and per-hectare increase in production; (3) the development and subsequent application of bio-pest controls to replace pesticides; and (4) government support for family farms, urban gardens, agromercados, and other food-producing activities undertaken by the populace which increased the amount of fresh produce available while decreasing the amount of fossil fuels previously needed for distribution of fresh produce. Not only did these and related activities save Cuban’s bacon when it hit “peak oil,” but also resulted in a better diet for its citizens and a better environment for all–no small achievement for any country, let alone one that was on its knees economically.

  3. Ana J. Faya says:

    Ms Jordan, no doubt that the period you describe was the most difficult experienced by Cuban citizens since Weyler’s concentration camps by the end of the 19th Century, or the 1930s famine. Do you have any data on how the use of animal traction boosted ag production during that period? I’m sure you know that since then Cuban officials have been struggling with ag production. Moreover, it is the most important goal of Raul Castro’s Gov now because Cubans still cannot have three full and healthy meals a day. Also, do you have any data on how the diet of Cubans was enriched, in terms of nutrients, during that same period? I’m sure you remember that during those years most Cubans were suffering from a pandemic of peripheral neuropathy, a neurological disease which causes a combination of weakness, sensory changes, loss of muscle bulk, and pain, and that according to Cuban experts at the time, was provoked by lack of Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin B1 (thiamin). Cuban hospitals were crowded with patients. I still remember the lines I had to join at the Fajardo Hospital to take daily shots of Vit B. One thing is the good use of organic products under a relatively healthy economy, and another thing is survival tactics, which in this case were imposed by the Cuban government during that period, with no other legal option for its citizens.

  4. Nelson Taylor Sol says:

    I commend the thoroughness of the work by professor Ritter. However, I want to question some of the points and play a bit of devil’s advocate role.

    Under the top 10 fiascos you mention: “As is well known, the official exchange rate for Cuban citizens has been in the area of 22 pesos (Moneda Nacional) to US $1.00, so that the purchasing power of the average monthly salary – 415 pesos in 2008 (Oficina Nacional de Estadisticas, 2009, Table 7.4) is about US$20.00.”

    Nevertheless, the 415 pesos average mark is almost certainly flawed and I dare say that the real amount is about half of it. Indeed, 415 pesos is one of the highest salaries any Cuban would earn.

    About the top 10 achievements

    #4 Rapid Expansion of the Tourism Sector
    We should see this point in perspective. Had Fidel Castro not taken power in the first place, Cuba would probably still be the major Caribbean receptor of tourism that it used to be prior to his entrance in the picture. In fact, if we consider the growth of the tourism industry in the Caribbean, we see that it was only from 1959 that countries like Jamaica (taking Cuba’s share of the pie) made their first steps in this field, where Cuba had previously reigned by attracting a 3rd of the total tourism to the Caribbean till 1959.

    #5 Provision of Medical Services to Latin America and Other Countries
    I quote: “By the latter 1990s, Cuba had a major surplus of medical personnel, with doctors and nurses posted in small tourist hotels and day care centers.
    The foreign exchange earnings from medical (and educational) service exports amounted to MN 6.1 billion, almost half of Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings in 2008, as indicated in the accompanying chart.”

    If indeed Cuba would have had a major surplus of medical personnel, it would have not been necessary for the Castro regime to implement a prohibition for anyone working in the health care to leave the country starting 1995. Please note that I am talking here about temporary visits abroad and not about permanent migration, as those who intend to leave permanently are still forced to work for 5 years anywhere the regime decides, which is mostly in isolated areas, far away from their families and place of origin. I know this first hand because my father, a medical doctor, was one of the lucky ones who left the island as a visitor (in his case to Jamaica) just before the government implemented this regulation, which was originated due to the mass exodus of doctors as soon as the 90’s kicked in. In fact, I very well recall how hard was to find any specialists (and still is) in the years before I left Cuba at the end of 1997. In spite of my good connections in the health care, I remember how frustrating it was to find an ear and throat specialist for my mother, an urologist for myself and even a maxillofacial specialist to remove my infected wisdom molar. By the way, the wisdom molar is still there, as there were no tools or trained specialists available at my dental clinic; and my mother eventually saw a Cuban throat specialist in Jamaica, where she went to visit me for a few months.

    I would also like to refer to the high income generator that doctors and teachers working abroad represent. These personnel’s income is almost totally confiscated by the regime, which leaves them about 10% of the original salaries. They are forced to leave their families behind (a well-known blackmailing tool) and sacrifice for a couple of years in order to be allowed to enter a few electro domestic equipment, obtained via that meagre salary (which is about the minimum allowed wherever they are based but much higher than their earnings back in Cuba) and gifts made by the local population. Where all that money goes nobody really knows, as there are no check and balances in Cuba and the Castro clan is known for their extravagantly luxurious way of life. According to Forbs magazine, Fidel Castro is one of the richest men in the world, and some defectors from within the inner circle tell stories of the corruption at all levels and especially among those closest to Fidel and Raúl.

    #2 Reorganization of the Health Sector
    If we consider the point you made in the previous article, where you mentioned that freedom of expression is non-existing in Cuba, how could we rely on any data provided by Castro to the UNDP HDR, which is quoted as the “source” of those figures. No independent body would be able to legally determine any factual data in Cuba, because information is exclusively provided by the Castro propaganda departments. And propaganda is the most important element of legitimacy that allows such Stalinist regimes to deceive and stay in power.

    I am pretty sure that Cuban doctors in exile will be able to provide first-hand account of the lies fed by Castro to the international community. In fact, they do denounce the lies, but somehow the mainstream media rather won’t heed. Again I can provide some personal experiences given the fact that my late father was a doctor for 30 years in Cuba. For instance, the abortion rate in Cuba is probably the highest in the world (by the way, suicide rate was 2nd only to Sweden, as per the news summaries that circulated only among high ranking officials and top members of the communist party) and it is used as a means to terminate risky pregnancies, therefore artificially reducing the death rate. Moreover, figures were altered in order to make babies born alive appear as stillborn, so that this particular statistic would not affect Cuba’s standing in the world.

    One day my father, who was a vascular surgeon and head of the vascular surgery department at Clínico Quirúrgico Joaquín Albarrán in Havana, took a patient to the operation theatre for, as he put it, a very simple procedure that would save his leg from being amputated. During the surgery, electricity went out 14 times, being the longest period for over 20 minutes. As a result, the patient died and my father was so traumatized that he took a leave for spiritual retreat somewhere in outskirts Havana and returned to operate in this hospital only after a few months. This would have surely been reported as a scandalous event anywhere in the world (not to mention the lawsuit involved) but would never be released by any “media” in Cuba. In fact, it was something I knew only because my father needed to tell the story lest he exploded out of impotence and frustration.

    For that matter the aforementioned paragraph, which I now quote, is a self-explanatory response:

    An important requirement for the sustained effectiveness of an economic system is the ability to freely, openly and continuously analyze and criticize its functioning. Open analysis and criticism in a context of free generation and diffusion of information provide a necessary spur for self-correction, exposing illegalities, flawed policies and errors. Free analysis and criticism is vital in order to bring illicit actions to light, to correct errors on the part of all institutions and enterprises as well as policy makers and to help generate improved policy design and implementation. This in turn requires freedom of expression and freedom of association, embedded in an independent press, publications systems and media, independent universities and research institutes, and freely-functioning opposition political parties.

    #9 Dedication to their Jobs by Cuban Citizens despite the Decline in Real Incomes after 1990

    Why would this be a Castro achievement? People who continued to serve did so out of love for their profession and respect for their fellow countrymen and not because of some sort of miraculous inspiration coming from a “charismatic leader”. In fact, many of those good professionals abandon the country in the first opportunity they have, and there are thousands upon thousands of them all over the world.

    Best regards,

    P.S.: My apology for playing this devil’s advocate role a few months after the article was written, as I read it only today.

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  7. Eduardo Borroto says:

    Ritter: De verdad ud cree que la tirania alcanzo esos logros? Es lamentable su ignorancia. Cuba ocupaba el lugar 25 en el mundo en indices economicos en 1959. La salud era publica, al igual que la educacion hasta el bachillerato, tecnologicos, comercio y maestros. Sabe que lugar ocupa ahora? el 168. Cree ud en las cifras que vende la tirania al mundo y que nadie puede comprobar, por la cortina de hierro? Sabe como se reduce el indice de mortalidad infantil? Con los abortos…si visita un hospital materno vera cada dia las filas de ninas haciendose abortos…utilizado como medio anticonceptivo….los logros de la tiraniaa: Mas de 7 mil fusilados, mas de 10 mil muertos en Africa, jovenes arreabatados a sus padres por el Servicio Militar Obligatorio…y enviados a esos paises a morir como carne de canon…mas de 3 millones de exiliados que huyen de Cuba permanrntemente y miles y miles arriesgan sus vidas en el mar….la miseria, el hambre, la mala educacion…la mala atencion medica…conoce los 26 infelices dementes que murieron de hambre en el Hospital siquiatrico?….le repito: Lamento su ignorancia…

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