Cuba and the Death of Communism

Steve Chapman

9/19/2010 12:01:00 AM - 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.

The regime prefers to blame any problems on the Yankee imperialists, who have enforced an economic embargo for decades. In fact, its effect on the Cuban economy is modest, since Cuba trades freely with the rest of the world. How potent can the boycott be when we're the only participant?

Cubans have had to pay for their meager economic gains by surrendering their political liberties. In its latest annual report, Human Rights Watch says, "Cuba remains the one country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent."

The latest instrument for strangling dissent is a law allowing the arrest of people exhibiting "dangerous" un-socialist tendencies even before they commit crimes. "The most Orwellian of Cuba's laws, it captures the essence of the Cuban government's repressive mindset, which views anyone who acts out of step with the government as a potential threat and thus worthy of punishment," says Human Rights Watch.

But even economic failures and political tyranny have been not enough to deprive Castro of Western admirers. On a 2000 visit to Havana, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asserted, "Castro's regime has set an example we can all learn from." His lieutenant Che Guevara has been endlessly romanticized. Movie director Oliver Stone once marveled of Fidel, "I'm totally awed by his ability to survive and maintain a strong moral presence."

Cubans may differ. About 1.5 million of them have fled since Castro arrived, many in rickety boats that put their lives in peril. And the government, for some reason, doesn't let ordinary citizens decide if it remains in power.

That's the grisly fate of modern Cubans. Communism is dead, and they're shackled to the corpse.