Cuba Before Castro

A long time ago, on a previous blog, I presented this translation. That blog is no more but fortunately I backed it up before nuking it. I’m pretty sure I originally came across it via the ever-so reliable Kim at Uriasposten. The original article was written by Niels Westy Munch-Holbek for 180Grader, with the title Cuba Før Castro.

This article is important in that it punctures all sorts of holes in the myth of what Cuba was like before Castro. It is a generally useful article that deserved (and deserves) a wider audience. That said, however, some portions are very specific to Denmark. These have been elided (but noted).

At this time, I can’t get that link above to the original article to return anything.


In an article written on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the flight from Cuba by the authoritarian dictator Fulgencio Batista, the event that opened the way for the totalitarian dictator Fidel Castro, Spain’s largest daily, El País, described the living conditions in Cuba today as worse than those before 1959. Remembering how it is that much of the western media normally speaks of Cuba, this was quite notable.

In spite of the fact that bloom has long since left the rose for revolutionary Cuba, one of the constants in the media [...] has always been that living conditions in Cuba were worse before Castro took power. Cuba before 1959 is often described as a poor, backwards country, plagued by analphabetism and extreme inequality; a presentation that has little to do with reality. According to statistics from the UN, Cuba was Latin America’s third richest country during the 50s. It possessed a dynamic economy undergoing rapid development. Cuba was, in this regard, better off than countries such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Finland; not to mention Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. This is not true anymore.

Today, Cuba is one of Latin America’s poorest countries. It is the only country in the region in which the number of cars per capita has fallen since the 50s when its total number of cars was only exceeded by Venezuela. In terms of nutrition, Cuba has, according to the FAO seen a fall in the daily calorie intake since the 50s. During the same period, the country has gone from producing 80% of its agricultural needs to now producing 20%.

[Danish educational materials] describe the Cuba of the 50s as place where many Cubans were dissatisfied with the conditions in their country: more and more became poor while a few became very rich. Cubans were supposedly tired of a president that who would rather be friends with the Americans than the Cuban people. If this was so, why were there so many people in the rest of the world who wanted to immigrate to Cuba?

From the start of 20th century to the end of the 50s, Cuba accepted over a million immigrants and more than 25% of the population growth was from immigrants. When Batista fled from Havana in the early morning of January 1, 1959, there lay 12,000 unprocessed immigration applications in the Cuban embassy in Rome.

Another of the resilient myths about Cuba and Havana before 1959 is that of Cuba’s dependence on tourism, the influence of the Mafia, and the widespread prostitution. The facts are that Cuba is today far more dependent on tourism and it is estimated that there are now more than 10 times as many prostitutes as there were in the 50s. As to being a Mafia controlled gambling mecca, it should be mentioned that of the 10 casinos found in Cuba, only two of them were owned by the Mafia.

In the same educational materials mentioned above, one is informed that the reason there are so few cars today is that the Cuban government would rather use the money on education and hospitals. And because of this many new schools were built and education became free; one could get the impression that there was no public educational system before 1959. But there most certainly was. There were 10 times as many public school teachers than private school teachers, three state universities and with just under 25% of public expenditures going to education, Cuba ranked as the highest in Latin America.

Cuba had also one of the lowest percentages of illiteracy in Latin America. The successful campaign against illiteracy carried out by the Castro regime in the 1960s, the “wonderful” results of which were
uncritically promulgated around the world were, in essence, built on the work of others before. By far the majority could already read and write and they could actually use it. In contrast with conditions after 1959 there was almost no censorship in pre-revolutionary Cuba. People could buy and read what they wanted. There were more than 50 daily newspapers – today, Cubans can chose between 17 – the contents of which are known beforehand. In addition, Cuba had 23 TV stations – today there are five.

That there existed a market for 23 TV stations and more than 50 dailies in a country of less than 7 million doesn’t seem to quite fit with the notion of a poverty stricken population living in awful conditions. Unless one thinks that the rich did nothing all day but watch TV and read their newspapers – all while driving their cars.

Cuba, however, had at that time 45 TVs per 1000 people, the fifth highest in the world, and 169 radios per 1000, the next highest in Latin America. There was clearly a significant portion of the population that
could avail themselves. Today, even Bolivia has more radios per capita than Cuba.

And when indices for living conditions such as average life span or infant mortality are emphasized as defense for post-revolutionary Cuba, it is worth noting that Cuba has, already in the 50s, the region’s highest average life span and lowest infant mortality (the world’s 13th lowest) according to WHO. Here too, a result built on the work of others before.

Before 1959, only Argentina and Uruguay has more doctors and dentists per capita. It is worth a mention that both countries at that time also had higher numbers than the USA. With 128 doctors and dentists per 100,000 Cuba was roughly the same Holland, but higher than England or Finland.

Similarly, in the number of hospital beds, one per 190, Cuba was higher than the UN’s own minimum recommendations for developed countries at that time. In fairness, it is acknowledged that since then, Cuba has increased the number of doctors significantly and is today the country with the greatest number of doctors per capita in the world. On the other hand, the effect is probably limited given the chronic lack of medicines and the awful physical conditions of the hospitals. And if one includes the
progress that has occurred both regionally as well as globally, it is certainly not incorrect to state that the developments in the health system are less than one might expect considering the initial conditions.

The reader may be curious and ask, if things were really as described here, why is this not more well known? Fair question. Perhaps it is reasonable to excuse musicians, actors, film directors and other entertainers, like [...] Oliver Stone, in that their insight and knowledge doesn’t quite match their artistic abilities.

But when [a prominent journalist who worked for leading Danish newspapers] a couple of years ago lauded the Cuban revolution as one of the most sympathetic the world has seen, this is more difficult to excuse. Even ignoring Castro and company’s brutal and bloody post-revolutionary oppression, this statement reveals complete ignorance, ideological blindness, or perhaps just laziness. Regardless, the majority of the information we have from the MSM [...] about Cuba is twisted to such a degree that it is basically fiction.

It is, of course, worthwhile to consider that if the media’s [...] depiction of Cuba and it’s history is so wrong, how truthful is their depiction of other places and their histories?

This entry was posted in From Danish, Translations. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.