Viva la revolucion?
Predictably, following the death of Fidel Castro, Nigerian papers are full of glowing tributes to a man described as a ‘friend of Africa’ who ‘stood up to America’ or something like that. As a good citizen of the Federal Republic, it is my duty to correct these Castro myths. So come with me to The Other Room.
You often hear that Castro built a ‘world class’ health system in Cuba. The question to ask is which of the healthcare systems? Because there are three health systems in Cuba. The one used by foreigners who pay dollars for medical tourism – this one is world class. Ordinary Cubans do not even see this system let alone have access to it. Then there’s the one used by the Nomenklatura; the very top government officials and elite – this one is also world class. Finally, there’s the one used by ordinary Cubans which is a 3rd world medical system (but with very good doctors). In this one, expired drugs are reported to be routinely used (if available) and doctors are scarce because they have either been exported by the government for forex or they work in the other two systems for higher pay. It is true that Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. It is also true that Cuba’s infant mortality was 13th lowest in the world before Castro took over – better than even France and West Germany at the time. However, one way the figures have been kept low till today is by having a staggering abortion rate – up to 30% of all pregnancies are aborted because once a foetus looks unhealthy, doctors pressure the mother to abort it.
What about Cuba’s high literacy rates? This is not a surprise in a communist country. Education is vital because people need to be made to think in the ‘correct’ way. Just because you’re educated in Cuba does not mean you can read anything you like or think thoughts that are not approved by the government. There really is no outlet for such an education which is why a lot of doctors there now drive taxis and some prostitutes have masters’ degrees. Cubans were not even allowed to know anything about Fidel’s children until 1999 by which time his 5 sons were all over 30 years of age.
One reason why Castro was called a ‘friend of Africa’ was because he sent 19,000 soldiers to help the Angolans fight the apartheid South African regime in 1977/78. In the telling, this makes Castro an opponent of apartheid and, by extension, a friend of black people. The problem with this is that he also sent about 17,000 troops to support the Derg government in Ethiopia in the same period – and they were not fighting any apartheid. They were at war with their own people. The Dergs ended up killing up to 100,000 Ethiopians with Castro’s support and displaced millions after causing a famine. What was common to Angola and Ethiopia were Marxist government and this was Castro’s number one motivation above anything else. The fight against apartheid was not out of love – at best it was a convenient coincidence.
But Castro’s biggest disaster was his handling of the Cuban economy. Here he was a complete and abject failure. In 1959, GDP per capita was $2,067. 40 years later in 1999 it was $2,307. It is difficult to imagine how a people can be in almost the same spot economically for 40 years but Castro somehow achieved this. Much is made of the US embargo on Cuba but the country was free to trade with almost anyone else including Canada. Again, Marxism was Castro’s number one motivation and this led him to make the Cuban economy dangerously dependent on the USSR in the name of avoiding the USA. As at 1985 when the global price of a pound of sugar was around $4, the USSR was paying almost $50 per pound of Cuban sugar as some kind of ‘help’ to Castro. Of course, Castro then diverted more and more resources to Cuban sugar production which netted Cuba an extra $3.5bn in revenues/subsidies. Thus, when the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Cuban economy shrank by 40% in 4 years. Try to imagine 20 times the economic pain Nigeria is currently going through. Of course Castro didn’t learn from this – later on he made Cuba dependent on another Marxist regime in Venezuela. When Venezuela collapsed, Cuba was again a mess.
When Castro took over in 1959, he promised a liberal democracy and economy. Indeed, in a speech in April 1959, he said ‘we are not Communists…the doors are open to private investments’. By July, he had changed completely and spent the next 2 years killing and jailing tens of thousands of people who disagreed with him. After nearly 50 years in power, he formally handed over power in 2008 to his brother, Raul. The promised multi-party democracy remains nowhere in sight. Babangida dribbled Nigerians with the promise of democracy for just 8 years and you guys still call him names till today. More than 60% of the Cuban economy is controlled by GAESA – the business unit of the Cuban Army which is headed by the son-in-law of Raul Castro.
Fidel himself is thought to be worth around $1bn. If you feel the urge to praise a brutal dictator, there are plenty of them who managed to leave their countries much better than they met it. Take your pick from Lee Kuan Yew, Paul Kagame, Park Chung-he and General Franco. Make sure the frog you want to eat has been properly seasoned in brine and slow cooked with alder firewood. Also make sure that it has an egg inside it.
But Fidel Castro? Don’t waste your time.