Wednesday, January 06, 1999No reason to toast Cuba's health
Supporters and opponents of Fidel Castro are agreed about one aspect of his sempiternal regime: It has wrought miracles in the fields of health and education. These miracles are the basis upon which the Fidelista faith is founded; and even non-believers acknowledge their reality, before going on to enumerate the regime's less savoury aspects.
Indeed, the truth of these miracles has become so universally acknowledged that it is almost impossible publicly to challenge it. Yet there are several grounds for doing so.
The first is that any statistics emerging from a regime such as Mr. Castro's must be treated with scepticism. Why should a regime that lies about almost everything else be truthful about its health statistics? They may be veridical, they may not; totalitarian regimes have certainly fooled the outside world and its experts before. Judgment in this case should be reserved.
Second, even accepting the regime's figures, the miraculous nature of the changes wrought by the revolution depends upon a certain historiographical outlook that is at least partly false.
According to this historiography, pre-revolutionary Cuba was a sink of impoverished iniquity, from which it was comprehensively rescued by Mr. Castro and his bearded followers.
This is not very accurate. It is true there was considerable poverty in Cuba at the time of the revolution, but the overall per capita level of consumption was not very different from Italy's at the time. More to the point, its health indices were already the second best in Latin America and more than three quarters of the population was already literate. Life expectancy was 61 (11 years more than England's when my father was born, and only six years fewer than England's when I was born). In other words, the picture of pre-revolutionary Cuba as a human cesspit is grossly overdrawn for propagandistic purposes.
Third, the improvements in health and literacy that have undoubtedly taken place in Cuba are far from miraculous. Indeed, they are quite ordinary. Many regimes of different stripes have achieved as much or more than Cuba's, without evoking dithyrambs from western intellectuals.
Who rhapsodizes about the health achievements of Japan, which put those of Cuba in the shade? Does anyone eulogize the succession of prime ministers belonging to the Liberal Democratic Party because they presided over the most startling increase in life expectancy the world has ever known -- from 30 at the end of the war to more than 80 now, the highest in the world?
Who extols Generalissimo Franco because, in his 36 years of rule (four fewer than Mr. Castro's so far) the life expectancy of Spaniards increased by far more than that of Cubans under Mr. Castro? Spain now has the second highest life expectancy in the world, in large part due to the dramatic improvements achieved under the Falange. Should we all raise our hands, then, in the Fascist salute?
Or take the case even of humble and despised Guatemala. Proportionately speaking, its population has done better from the health point of view under successive military dictators than the Cuban population under Mr. Castro. (Admittedly, because it started from a much lower level, improvement was easier to achieve.) As far as I am aware, no one has ever used the improvement in the Guatemalan life expectancy as a reason for praising, let alone for advocating rule by, the likes of Generals Ydigoras Fuentes and Lucas Garcia. The very idea would be absurd.
In fact, there are few countries in Latin America or Asia in which startling improvements in the health of the population have not taken place in the last few decades. There is no reason to select Cuba as particularly miraculous in this respect, and there is no reason to suppose the improvements that have taken place there could not have taken place under any other kind of regime.
Moreover, even if the improvement in the Cuban population's health had been impossible under any other kind of regime, it would not automatically exonerate Mr. Castro, for health is not the only desideratum of life.
In other words, the improvement in the Cuban population's health is virtually irrelevant in assessing the moral legitimacy of Mr. Castro's long dictatorship. In the modern world, it would have taken something like malign genius for the Cuban population's health not to have improved greatly over the past 40 years: The kind of malign genius demonstrated, alas, by the Russian leadership.
Anthony Daniels, MD, is author of, among other books, Utopias Elsewhere.