Cuba under Fidel Castro, charted

Now let’s see how it all adds up…
Now let’s see how it all adds up…
Image: Reuters/Enrique de la Osa
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Fidel Castro, the architect of the Cuban revolution and the country’s Communist leader for almost five decades, has died at the age of 90. He leaves behind a country shaped by his reign, which some saw as that of a popular champion, and others experienced as the iron rule of a tyrant.

Isolated by the US and its allies during much of Castro’s rule and heavily dependent on the largesse of Russia, Cuba’s economy has struggled and the rights of its citizens have been supressed. But at the same time, it invested heavily in areas like education and healthcare. Below, we offer a snapshot of Castro’s Cuba, in charts.

A failure of central planning

Cuba’s planned economy historically left little room for private business. Under that system, Cubans got free education and healthcare, but little economic freedom. Per capita GDP rose roughly in line with total GDP over the years of Castro’s government. Cubans remain very poor compared to the US, for example, where per capita GDP was $55,800 in 2015 according to the World Bank:

After the fall of Russia’s communist system in 1989, Cuba lost Soviet subsidies and trading partners with disastrous effects, that brought the island’s people to the brink of widespread famine.

Then there are the upsides

But planning had its upsides. Cuba is famed for its focus on healthcare, with spending on health coming close to 12% of GDP by the end of Castro’s tenure. (He handed over political duties to his brother, Raúl Castro, in 2006 due to his own poor health, and Raúl assumed the presidency officially in 2008):

Despite it’s small size, Cuba is recognized as a global medical-training capital. That’s resulted in a doctor-to-patient ratio that’s dizzying compared to more developed countries:

Mortality rates in Cuba were lower in 2013 than those in the US for men, women, and children under five years old. Cuban literacy rates are among the highest in the world. Over 99.8% of adults are literate, according to the CIA World Factbook.

A legacy of persecution

But freedom remains a huge issue. Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization concerned with human rights, said in a 2015 report that the Cuban government “continues to rely on arbitrary detentions to harass and intimidate people who exercise their fundamental rights.”

It said that there were more than 6,200 reports of arbitrary detentions between January and October 2015. That was a decrease from the same period in 2014, it said, but still higher than the annual number of detentions before 2012. It estimated that there were “dozens” of political prisoners in the country. Information on the numbers is difficult to obtain because, noted Human Rights Watch, the Cuban government controls the media, prohibiting freedom of expression.

And modest progress

Communism should nominally promote gender equality. That hasn’t always been obvious in Cuba. But in the 21st century the country has made leaps forward achieving close to gender parity in its parliament according to World Bank data:

Demographically, Cuba saw a sharp move from the countryside to the city under Castro. By the time he stepped down as president, more than 75% of Cubans lived in the country’s urban centers:

Cubans haven’t been free to enter the modern technological age. Cellphone and internet penetration only began to take off relatively recently:

Those numbers are low compared to other developed countries, where mobile ownership numbers now often outstrip total population numbers. (In the US, 75% of people are online and there’s more than one cell phone contract for every person.)

That could change swiftly. In the last two years, relations between the US and Cuba have thawed, making way for travel and trade. It’s a change that came after Fidel Castro handed over the reins of power. Now, of course, he won’t see the consequences.