Steve Chapman

Communism has been proclaimed dead more than once in the past couple of decades. But today, it's safe to say, it is really dead. Irreversibly dead. Cemetery dead.

Consider this comment from a knowledgeable Cuban critic who was asked if the country's brand of socialism, created by Fidel Castro after his 1959 revolution, could be of use in other countries: "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." That remark would have gotten him in trouble with authorities, if his name were not Fidel Castro.

There may yet be admirers of Cuban communism in certain precincts of Berkeley or Cambridge, but it's hard to find them in Havana. The 84-year-old Fidel (who later said he didn't mean to say that) has turned control over to brother Raul, whose faith in the shining power of Marxism-Leninism has also dried up.

This week, the regime said it will dismiss 500,000 people from government jobs, which account for 84 percent of the work force. Reflecting ruefully on the perils of sheltered bureaucracy, Raul Castro declared recently, "We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working."

As a blanket indictment, that statement is grossly unfair. Many Cuban government employees put in long hours -- working in the black market.

That option is not necessarily optional, since the average Cuban makes only about $20 a month -- which is a bit spartan even if you add in free housing, food and medical care. For that matter, the free stuff is not so easy to come by: Food shortages are frequent, the stock of adequate housing has shrunk, and hospital patients often have to bring their own sheets, food and even medical supplies.

For a long time, Cuba enjoyed the generous support of the Soviet Union. But when communism collapsed in Moscow, Cubans had to confront the deficiencies of their system.

Admirers of Castro point to his alleged success in eradicating illiteracy and improving health care. But even these fall short of impressive progress.

Roger Noriega, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, notes that before communism arrived, Cuba "was one of the most prosperous and egalitarian societies of the Americas." His colleague Nicholas Eberstadt has documented that pre-Castro Cuba had a high rate of literacy and a life expectancy surpassing that in Spain, Greece and Portugal.

Instead of accelerating development, Castro has hindered it. In 1980, living standards in Chile were double those in Cuba. Thanks to bold free-market reforms implemented in Chile but not Cuba, the average Chilean's income now appears to be four times higher than the average Cuban's.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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