ABC International, Miriam Leiva, 26 November 2016 — Fidel Castro left Cuba in disastrous economic conditions after exerting absolute power for more than 47 years. His brother received a country “on the precipice” on 31 July 2006.
Raul Castro has had to eliminate the “genial” initiatives of the comandante en jefe, without repudiating them, presenting it as an update of the economic model, always inspired by Fidel’s ideas. In fact, his speeches and aphorisms were so many that he could use them according to his needs. However, most Cubans are convinced he squandered them in his great failed works and caused the most comprehensive crisis in the nation’s history.
While arguing he was defending Cuba’s sovereignty, Fidel Castro was strengthened in power by economic dependence on the Soviet Union and Venezuela; he depreciated the value of labor; he impoverished the population; he destroyed moral and civic values; he extinguished hope for a solution and increased the exodus abroad, mainly of young people, with very serious implications for the future of the country.
At the time of the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, Cuba shared with Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica the most advanced economic and social indicators in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although it did face challenges, such as a slow rate of growth; excessive dependence on the sugar industry; outsized economic ties with the United States, particularly in investment and trade; high rates of unemployment and underemployment; significant inequalities in living standards, especially between urban and rural areas; unjust distribution of land, with extensive estates, poorly cultivated; and a lack of industrial development and infrastructure, among others.
Fifty-five years later, reality indicates that the problems inherited from the pre-revolutionary period were not solved. The breaking off of economic and trade ties with the United States did not lead to the achievement of independence in these areas.
The Soviet Union and its allies replaced the United States until 1989, when the USSR disappeared and there began a period of great shortages that Fidel Castro called “a special period in times of peace.” GDP fell by a third between 1990 and 1994. Castro authorized, though with strong restrictions, farmers markets, tourism, a certain independence of state enterprises and foreign investments. But he reestablished restraints when Venezuela’s strong petro-dollar contributions began.
One of Castro’s most notable disasters was the destruction of the sugar industry, which began with the failed plan for a “10 million harvest” in 1970. Several years of preparation leading up to the grand plan annihilated the country’s non-sugar agriculture production and damaged livestock farming in favor of sowing sugar cane and huge investments in mills, which were not ready in time.
In 2002 he decided to restructure the 156 remaining sugar centers, dismantling 85 mills, 21 of them supposedly dedicated to producing honey or tourism. This involved the demolition of cane fields, the destruction of roads, the dispersion of experienced personnel and the decline of villages.
Cuba had been the largest producer and exporter of sugar in the world, with more than 6 million tons in 1959 and 8.2 million tons in the 1980s, which fell to 1.1 million annually, without being able to recover despite the reorganization. In 2013, 49 plants operated, producing about 1.6 million tons (similar to 1909). Cuban culture and nationality developed with this industry, starting in the seventeenth century. In those days it was said, “without sugar there is no country.”
Land confiscated after 1959 was not used efficiently. The state-owned estates created have been more unproductive than the previous ones. Agriculture remained for many years with enormous tracts of land poorly cultivated, empty or overrun by the invasive marabou weed.
Production levels in relative terms do not exceed what was achieved per inhabitant before 1959, with about 80% of the food that makes up the much-reduced basic food basket now imported, despite the leasing of land to private farmers and cooperatives since 2008.
Cuba had more than 7 million head of cattle, but today the number does not exceed 4 million, with a substantial decrease in the production of meat and milk.
Manufacturing has a production volume equivalent to 43% of that obtained in 1989. The average monthly salary and pension at the end of 2014 were 467 and 269 pesos respectively (the equivalent of 15 and 10 euros at the official exchange rate).
In order to survive, Cubans depend on remittances from family abroad, work in areas related to foreigners – where they can earn generous tips – or the informal market, all of which has led to a growing loss of ethical and moral values due to deception, theft and illicit activities. The elimination of accounting, contracts and other practices in the 1960s prompted a great lack of control and administrative corruption, which Raul Castro is attempting to eliminate through the new Comptroller General of the Republic.
Without goods to export
In July 2007, Raul Castro acknowledged the need for structural and conceptual changes, which are contained in the “updating of the economic model, without haste but without pause.” However, the changes have been few, limited and late, and the economic levels of 1989 have not been regained.
In the last 24 years, the investment rate has been very low, causing a process of decapitalization. There are no savings or access to credits due to the unreliability of repayment. The new Mariel Special Development Zone is intended to bring in 2.5 billion dollars annual in foreign investment, which has not been achieved. The Minister of Economy and Planning acknowledged in July 2014 that “the economy grows in relation to 2013, although it does not reach the expected levels, which leads to a greater deceleration than expected.”
With virtually no goods to export, Cuba has become a supplier of skilled labor abroad, in particular health workers which are “leased” to other countries, and which has become the country’s main source of foreign exchange earnings. Characterized as having an advanced population, today the country exhibits a generalized technological backwardness, which places it behind the nations of the region on crucial issues such as internet access.
Progress at the beginning of the Revolution in public health and education has deteriorated. These vital sectors are set back by the lack of resources due to the crisis; at the same time graduates and specialists, generally poorly utilized and underpaid, prefer work that requires lesser qualifications but is better paid (for example, in the tourist sector), or choose to leave the country.
The dreams awakened by Fidel Castro as the Maximum Leader of the process begun on January 1, 1959 have ended in a great nightmare, a catastrophe of colossal magnitude. He squandered the opportunity to leave a legacy of progress and well-being for the Cuban people, prioritizing his desires to satisfy immense longings for absolute power and an uncontrollable delirium of grandeur.