Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.
Due to a plethora of misinformation and political propaganda, Cuba is one of the most misunderstood nations on Earth. The Cold War led to socialism being demonized around the world by the United States and its allies. As a result, it can be difficult to find a neutral perspective on Cuba.
Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, this anti-socialist bias still permeates the United States, contributing to the dismissal of proven socialist schemes such as public health care. Cuba bears the brunt of American antipathy, having suffered from a US-enforced trade embargo for more than half a century.
How Has Socialism Benefited Cuba?
It is more constructive to ignore the bias and condemnation and to investigate how Cuba spends what little money it has. After all, actions speak louder than words.
- Cuba provides free health care to its people. As a result, life expectancy for Cubans (78.66 years) is higher than for Americans (78.54 years).
- There are 23 medical schools on the island, meaning that Cuba has the highest doctor-to-resident ratio in the world (1:155).
- Skilled Cuban doctors are sent to countries where they are needed, such as Italy, El Salvador, Haiti, Venezuela, and even the US.
- Cuba spends 10% of its entire national budget on education. As a result, education is free for the whole population at all levels of advancement (including university tuition). School uniforms and meals are also free.
- As a result, the Cuban literacy rate for over-15s is 99.8%. This is higher than in the US (99.0%).
- Class sizes in primary schools are kept below 25. Secondary schools have around 15 per class. A majority of school teachers have more than 5 years of university education.
- Cuba has a constitution and judicial system that is accepted by the people and followed by its leaders.
- The constitution guarantees Cubans the right to recall their politicians. If they want their leaders out, they can vote them out.
The Cuban Embargo (1961–Present)
Despite these achievements, Cuba is still one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with wages averaging about 46 dollars per month (although the cost of living is comparatively low). This is largely due to a trade embargo that was placed on Cuba by the United States (US) that has been in place since 1961.
When the Cuban people overthrew President Batista in 1959, they became an enemy of the US. Batista was a dictator who had terrorized Cubans with violent oppression, military rule, torture, and public executions.
However, Batista had also created widespread poverty in Cuba by supporting the exploitation of workers by wealthy American sugar-exporters. In return, the US had supported his tyranny with weapons to crush dissent. When the Cuban people rose up and removed Batista from power, the US responded with the trade embargo.
The 1961 Cuban trade embargo confiscated Cuban assets in America and severely restricted trade between the two countries. A travel ban was also introduced, destroying any income available to Cuba from tourism. Importantly, President Kennedy managed to secure himself 1200 Cuban cigars before the embargo came into effect.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost its main trading partner. The country entered a deep depression and was forced to allow some foreign investment to survive. Even though the communist threat was over, US politicians saw an opportunity to crush Cuban socialism once and for all. This began with the 1992 Torricelli Law that banned subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba.
The 1996 Helms-Burton Act followed. This threatened anyone who invested in Cuba with a ban on doing business in the United States. As such, the Helms-Burton Act was an attempt to control how other countries trade with Cuba. The United Nations declared it a violation of international law.
US Aggression Against Cuba
After the Cuban revolution, there were as many as 638 attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro (the Cuban leader from 1961–2011). Many of these involved collaboration between the CIA and mafia bosses.
Despite their own abhorrent methods, the US audaciously brands Cuba a "state sponsor of terrorism," which allows for substantial financial warfare against the country.
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For example, in 2002, a Swiss bank was fined 200 million dollars for handling Cuban accounts. Indeed, since 9/11 there have been more US officials watching Cuban banking transactions than are watching the dealings of genuine terrorists.
Furthermore, Cubans trading in dollars routinely have their wealth confiscated by the US government. This theft is apparently justified under the terms of the Cuban embargo.
As technology advanced, America ensured that underwater communications cables did not pass near Cuba’s shores. Instead, Cubans had to connect their phones and computers via satellites that were expensive and slow. Thankfully, Venezuela set up an underwater cable to improve capacity.
Criticism of Cuban Socialism
Despite the Cuban government's dedication to the welfare and education of its people, the US has stated that the Cuban embargo will continue until there is:
"democratization and greater respect for human rights".
The demand is unusual because the Cuban people support their government and have the right to remove their leaders if they choose. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring Cuba's human rights record and why America pretends to care after supporting the murderous Batista regime.
When the Cubans deposed Batista, many from his government were sentenced to death for war crimes. Batista himself fled with over 300 million dollars that he had amassed via corrupt dealings with the mafia.
The heavy sentences were characteristic of how the international community treated the remnants of murderous regimes. For example, many Nazis were executed following WW2. Since the 1980s, relatively few people have been executed in Cuba and, much like in the US, only the most serious crimes receive the death penalty.
Censorship also exists in Cuba, which is used to silence people who propagate anti-socialist material. For example, in the 1980s, the US financed a propaganda outlet called Radio Marti to incite a rebellion. This was followed by TV Marti in 1990. These stations were justifiably censored by the Cuban regime.
Many media outlets and political dissidents receive the same treatment if they are shown to be receiving funds from the US. Given that the US wants to topple the Cuban government, these precautions may be necessary. Most countries, including the US, prosecute individuals who work with foreign powers to facilitate an insurrection.
The US routinely submits evidence of human rights violations by Cuba to the UN. Votes on subsequent resolutions are typically divided. Some see the apparent evidence as an attempt to justify US policy toward Cuba, and an offensive manipulation of the serious issue of human rights.
Although US ties with Cuba were temporarily strengthened by Barack Obama in 2012, those gains were reversed by Donald Trump in 2016. Joe Biden finally began to reevaluate the Trump-era policies in 2022.
Has Cuban Socialism Been a Success?
Cuban socialism was not a success, but there was no way it could have been. Cuba's socialist experiment was always going to be a fight to see how much could be achieved in the face of overwhelming hostility from their imperialist neighbors.
Despite the trade embargo, the benefits of socialism in Cuba are significant and telling. The government has dedicated a significant fraction of its limited budget to providing people with free healthcare and education. The welfare of the Cuban people is clearly a high priority for the government.
Unless the United States lifts its embargo, we may never know how successful Cuban socialism could become. With the Soviet Union long gone, one has to wonder why the embargo is still in place. Is Cuba a threat to America, or are they a threat to the economic system that America represents?
- Chomsky, N. (2003). Hegemony or Survival. Metropolitan Books.
- English, T. J. (2008). Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution. William Morrow (HarperCollins, NY).
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2013 Thomas Swan