Using Castro’s Cuba as a Case Study, to What Extent Can We Consider Communism a Sustainable Form of Government?

Published: 2021/11/23
Number of words: 5541


After Batista was overthrown in 1959, Castro assumed military and political power and became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. Adopting a Marxist-Leninist model of development, Castro converted Cuba into a one-party communist state, the first in the Western Hemisphere. Communism is a philosophical, social, political and economic ideology whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society. Kurian (2011) argues that in a communist society the proletariat have been liberated, public ownership is advocated and there is communal control of the major means of production, distribution, transportation, and communication. In this dissertation, I will argue that the case of Cuba can be generalised to other communist societies and will reveal that they will always be unsustainable by discussing the benefits and drawbacks under Castro.

Cuban economic policies

Firstly, many changes were made to the economic policies of Cuba during Castro’s regime. Fulgencio Batista was the US-backed military dictator of Cuba from 1952 to 1959 and thus was in charge of the country before Castro came to power after the Cuban Revolution. The Cuba that Batista inherited was in good economic shape for Latin American standards and in 1958 it was one of the five most developed nations in Latin America (The Economist 2008). Furthermore, Cuba under Batista ranked 2nd in the hemisphere in per capita ownership of automobiles and telephones as well as first in the number of televisions per habitant (Pbs 2005) showcasing that the country’s economy was thriving and a strong middle class had developed.

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However, a large reason for Cuba’s strong economy was American influence and in fact, Americans owned around 60% of the farmland as well as a large portion of the sugar industry in the country. Workers in the country relied greatly on sugar production and since this was heavily seasonal, sugarcane cutters only worked four months a year and this lack of annual income meant that they struggled with malnourishment, hunger, and poverty (Pbs 2005). This contributed to the great economic inequality in Cuba and a third of the workforce was considered to be living in severe poverty (The Economist 2008). Furthermore, according to Kennedy (1960) at the beginning of 1959 ‘U.S companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands – almost all the cattle ranches – 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions – 80 percent of the utilities – and practically all the oil industry – and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.’ Although this private investment did help Cuba it also gave Cubans the impression that the USA was more interested in taking their money rather than helping them build a strong and diversified economy of their own. Therefore, the leadership of Castro was beneficial for the Cuban economy as it allowed them to become more independent.

Pre-Castro, gambling was also a big part of Cuba’s economy. Batista was a key proponent of the gambling industry in Cuba. Casinos began to emerge in Cuba in the 1920s in connection with the growth of tourism; however, the industry took off in the late 1950s as Batista and his cronies, ‘working together with American Mafiosi, used the resources of Cuban state development banks, and even union retirement funds, to build hotels, all of which hosted casinos, like the Riviera, the Capri and the Havana Hilton’ (Farber, 2015). The article goes on to comment on how this mainly benefited Cuban rulers and Mafiosi as they ‘lined their own pockets, skimming the casinos’ proceeds, cheating investors, and trafficking drugs.’ Although the casino and tourism industries generated profits many argued that they weren’t worth the social injustices they brought about nor were the profits great in comparison to the sugar industry. For example, Farber highlights how in 1956, which was a good year for tourism, they generated $30 million, barely 10 percent what the sugar industry made. However, after Castro came into power in 1959 the ‘Mafiosi were unceremoniously kicked out of the country, casino gambling was abolished’ (Farber, 2015). While this meant a loss in the profits generated by the casinos, it meant that Cuban resources were no longer being skimmed and it brought a system that only benefitted the elite in the country to a halt, showing some of the positive impacts of Castro’s policies.

One of the reasons why the Cuban economy suffered following Castro’s assumption of power was due to the US’s actions against Cuba due to their hatred for communism. This detestation led to a ‘ban on nearly all exports to Cuba, which President John F. Kennedy expanded into a full economic embargo that included stringent travel restrictions’ (Renwick, Editor and Lee 2015). The article goes on to say that the embargo was strengthened with the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which state that ‘the embargo may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and transitions to a democratic government that excludes the Castro’s.’ It’s estimated that Cuba has lost over $28.6 billion in trade according to Cuba’s Institute of Economic Research ( 2006). This embargo continues to this day despite the UN’s attempts to get the USA to lift it.

The good most impacted by the trade embargo was sugar cane as Cuba had a one-crop economy, whose domestic market was limited (Farber 2015). According to Caraway (2003), ‘Cuba’s economic dependence upon the United States for the purchase of its primary product of sugar made the island especially vulnerable to confrontational force.’ She goes on to mention President Eisenhower’s issuance of Proclamation 3383, which ‘effectively reduced the Cuban sugar quota to zero in 1961.’ This cancellation of Cuba’s sugar quota devastated the island’s economy, resulting in its exports to the U.S. falling to less than 1 percent of its total exports in 1962 (Caraway 2003). Furthermore, ‘Cuba’s alternative markets were limited because other major sugar consuming countries practised protectionism’ (Wong 2016). Cuba’s circumstances were interesting due to its heavy reliance on the USA. More than 80 percent of Cuba’s exports consisted of sugar and more than half of that was exported to the U.S. (Wong 2016). If Cuba had been more independent prior to the revolution then their economy wouldn’t have faced such devastation thus making communism in Cuba more sustainable. However, since Cuba was so reliant on the United States pre-Castro, the communist regime in Cuba had an extremely destructive impact on the country’s economy.

This dependence on foreign powers continued under Castro; Cuba had a heavy reliance on the USSR. For example, Soviet economic assistance to Cuba has averaged $4.5 billion annually since 1980, and ‘is by far the most extensive Soviet aid program to any developing country’ (CIA 2019). Cornwell (2016) argues that this ‘fatal misstep, came early on, when Cuba adopted the Soviet model of development, and yoked itself thereafter to Moscow for aid and economic support. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a grievous blow.’ This period of time was known as the ‘Special Period’ and resulted in Cuba losing approximately ‘80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent (Hunt 2019). Therefore, showing how communism wasn’t a sustainable model in Cuba because the economy was heavily reliant on foreign powers such as the USSR and so could not function as it once did after the USSR collapsed in 1991.

Cuba’s economic growth also slowed down as in 1959, when Castro gained power, GDP per capita was $2067 a year. This was ‘about two-thirds of Latin America in general and about the same as Ecuador ($1975), Jamaica ($2541), Panama ($2322) and two-thirds of Puerto Rico ($3239)’ (Worstall 2016). Worstall then goes on to compare the GDP per capita in 1999, 40 years later, Cuba had barely advanced, to $2307, ‘while Ecuador had, relatively, jumped to $3809, Jamaica to $3670, Panama to $5618 and Puerto Rico to $13,738.’ Castro was unable to boost Cuba’s economy throughout his time in charge as the nation went through long periods of economic stagnation while neighbouring countries grew greatly, highlighting the unsustainability of the communist model.

Cuban healthcare system

Additionally, it’s important to look at the state of healthcare in Cuba before and during Castro’s reign. Before Castro took power in 1959 there was a spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, and tetanus (Liebowitz, 1969). Liebowitz goes onto describe the contributors to the spread of these diseases: ‘widespread poor housing, deficient sanitation, poverty, poor nutrition, unclear water, poor food storage, and an abundance of disease vectors.’ Although these economic and social conditions underlay the poor health conditions, Liebowitz says ‘the situation was exacerbated by deficiencies in the health care system; specifically, the poor organisation of the country’s health care services.’

The first limitation of the old Cuban healthcare system, as detailed by Liebowitz, was that it was predominantly private with limited and low-quality state services. This meant the hospitals were generally restricted to the wealthier in society. Furthermore, although the government provided some services for the poorer, including hospitals, dental and maternity clinics, these weren’t of great quality because of ‘low budgets, low prestige and morale of the staffing physicians, and inefficient and corrupt administrative practices.’

Another limitation, described by Liebowitz as ‘the most glaring inequity of the old system,’ was the uneven distribution of doctors and facilities. ‘In 1958 Cuba had 6,300 doctors for a population of 6.5 million people, giving a doctor-to-inhabitant ratio of roughly 1:1,000.’ Unsurprisingly, Havana, the capital city, had over 65% of these doctors for 1.3 million people, or a doctor-to-inhabitant ratio of approximately 1:310. This meant there was a severe shortage of medical professionals in the rest of the country (‘2,100 doctors for 5.2 million people, or one doctor for every 2,475 people’). Furthermore, these doctors were unlikely to leave Havana and if they were unsuccessful in the competition for wealthy patients they would emigrate; ‘in the late 1950s, over half of the recent graduates were leaving the country’ (Liebowitz, 1969).

It was due to this widespread morbidity from infectious disease, poorly-distributed, and profit-orientated medical care that the new revolutionary government set to reorganise Cuba’s healthcare system when it came to power in 1959. In 1960, the revolutionary and physician Che Guevara wrote an essay entitled ‘On Revolutionary Medicine’, where he outlined the future of Cuban healthcare. Soon after this, universal healthcare was adopted and becomes a priority of state planning (Guevara 2005). Castro can be seen as a leader whose progressive and practical approach to social care provided Cuba with an enviable healthcare system. According to Hamblin (2016) Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, called for other countries to follow Cuba’s example in health care after she visited Havana in 2014. Cuba’s child mortality rate is on par with some of the world’s richest countries. With six deaths every 1,000 births, according to World Bank data from 2015, Cuba is level with New Zealand while the global average was 42.5 deaths for every 1,000 births. Interestingly, Fuente (2017) comments how ‘despite more than half a century of a US economic embargo, Cuba’s average life expectancy matches that in the US: 79.1 years, just a few months shorter than Americans who, on average, live to 79.3 years, according to 2015 data from the World Health Organisation (WHO). This highlights the merits of Cuba’s healthcare system as the island is performing on par with highly developed nations in terms of prevention of child mortality and increasing life expectancy.

Cuba has also produced innovations in medical research. For example, in 1985 the country pioneered the first and only vaccine against meningitis B. Fuente (2017) goes onto discuss how Cuba was also the first country on earth to eliminate the transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to child, this feat was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015. Not only has Cuban been a pioneer in research, Castro’s government did a commendable job in tackling diseases such as polio and malaria as ‘In 1956 Cuba had between 7,000 and 10,000 cases of malaria, more than 7, 000 deaths from acute diarrhea, and between 500 and 400 cases of polio with a 25% fatality rate; however, there have been no reported cases of polio in Cuba since 1965, and no malaria since June 1967’ (Liebowitz 1969).

However, it can be argued that Cuba’s healthcare system wasn’t as successful as it seemed and shouldn’t be such a source of pride for the Communist government. There are three tiers to Cuba’s healthcare system, according to Nordlinger (2007). The first is for foreigners who come to Cuba specifically for medical care, this is known as ‘medical tourism’. Nordlinger (2007) mentions that ‘tourists pay in hard currency, which provides oxygen to the regime.’ Furthermore, ‘the facilities in which they are treated are First World: clean, well-supplied, and state-of-the-art.’ The second healthcare system is for the Cuban elite which includes the Party and the military; their system, like the one for medical tourists, is top-notch. Finally, Nordlinger (2007) describes the real Cuban system, the one that ordinary people use and how unsanitary it is. ‘Conditions are so unsanitary, patients may be better off at home. If they do go to the hospital, they must bring their own bedsheets, soap, towels, food, light bulbs – even toilet paper.’ Furthermore, Nordlinger (2007) discusses how a nurse spoke to Canada’s National Post and said ‘We have nothing. I haven’t seen aspirin in a Cuban store here for more than a year. If you have any pills in your purse, I’ll take them. Even if they have passed their expiry date.’ This conversation highlights the fragile nature of the Cuban healthcare system that developed under Castro and the desperate need for medicine regardless of its expiration date. In addition to this, not only are medicines scarce but also medical equipment as doctors have been known to reuse latex gloves and Nordlinger (2007) comments on how many say that Cuban doctors are well trained, but they have nothing to work with which renders their abilities useless to some extent. This lack of sanitation as well as the shortages of medical supplies demonstrates that while Cuba’s healthcare system may be exceptional for the elite, ordinary people still suffered under it.

Additionally, Bader (2016) argues that in reality, Cuba has made less progress in healthcare and life expectancy than most of Latin America in recent years. He says that ‘Cuba lost the big edge in life expectancy it once enjoyed, due to communism.’ Cuba led virtually all countries in Latin America in life expectancy in 1959, prior to the Communist regime, as Chileans had a life span seven years shorter than Cubans, and Costa Ricans lived two years less than Cubans on average. However, by 2012 Chileans and Costa Ricans lived slightly longer than Cubans. Bader puts this down to the decrepit Cuban healthcare system as described by Nordlinger.

Furthermore, Liebowitz (1969) critiques the fact that Cuba still had a problem with the distribution of doctors. In 1958, 65% of the doctors were in the major cities; in 1968 the figured dropped to 47%, however, this was still a considerable amount. Although all doctors were to spend two years in the rural service, Liebowitz highlights how ‘almost all go back to the cities’ due to the opportunities for advancer training and a more comfortable life. However, while personal gain still motivated doctors this phenomenon died out as after 1965 no doctor graduating medical school could go into private practice.

Therefore, it can be argued that this three-tiered healthcare system where the privileged and foreigners benefit the most wasn’t worth Castro’s brutal and liberty strangling dictatorship. Overall, Cuba’s healthcare system was able to exterminate many infectious diseases in the country such as polio as well as allow the country to make great strides in medical research. But the nature of the three-tiered system allowed the privileged and foreigners to benefit the most and there were inequalities in different regions of the country. For this reason, it can be argued that this wasn’t worth Castro’s brutal and liberty strangling dictatorship.

Cuban education system

Moreover, it’s important to look at how education in Cuba changed and developed between Batista and Castro’s regime. On the eve of the revolution in 1959, Leiner (1987) highlights that only fifty percent of Cuban children were enrolled in school, and among peasant families, less than half of the adults had ever had any form of education. Furthermore, under Batista, the privatisation of schools and universities were encouraged and he destroyed the two-hundred-year-old Havana University building in order to turn it into a helicopter terminal (Quesada 2011). This highlights that Batista was unbothered when it came to providing an education for the poor, working population of the nation and instead much more focused on creating a private, hierarchical system.

On the other hand, Castro’s mindset to education was completely different and he made many radical changes to the country’s system. Many of the educational gains under Castro were made during the early years of the revolution during the Cuban Literacy Campaign in 1961, under this, the country set the ambitious goal of eliminating illiteracy throughout the island. The Cuban Literacy campaign depended upon volunteer teachers across Cuba to teach reading and writing to its illiterate population. Cubans answered the call with 250,000 volunteers. This campaign was overwhelmingly successful as ‘before the revolution, 40% of the population had been fully-illiterate, unable even to write their name.’ (Ramone 2016). However, Ramone goes on to say that ‘by 1961, Castro’s literacy campaign had almost entirely eradicated illiteracy.’

One of the major points of Cuba’s educational reform was equal access to education for all citizens regardless of their race, class or gender. This new system marked Cuba as completely different from pre-revolutionary times, when schools were privatized and hierarchical, privileging the upper classes and restricting proletarian education (Aremu & Soetan 2017). Castro’s idea of equal access to education is a central pillar to the communist ideology and Castro’s success in increasing literacy rates in the country shows the benefits of his communist regime in the nation.

Another provision of the education reform was making the teaching profession more profitable as it was considered fundamental to the entire revolutionary transformation of Cuba. Therefore, ‘Castro invigorated the teaching profession in order to draw more people into the teaching force and the Government prioritised teacher education, embarking on training thousands of additional teachers’ (Aremu & Soetan 2017).

In a mere half-century, Cuba has developed one of the world’s most successful free education systems; however, it did have some drawbacks. It can be argued that Castro was never a believer in education for its own sake but rather geared it towards the needs of his communist state. Gomez and Hare (2015) highlight that ‘children followed the Marxist maxim of combining work and study.’ For example, they were assigned tasks like working in agriculture or tending the gardens of the school and teenagers were sent to boarding school for a period to ensure their loyalty to the revolution was secure. In addition to this, technical education took priority over the arts and all courses had to be approved by the government to ensure that any criticisms of communism weren’t expressed (Gomez & Hare 2015). Therefore, Castro was able to transform Cuba’s younger generation into faithful Fidelistas, ‘the status assigned to those who have reached adulthood since to the revolution and had gone through the educational machinery’ (Roucek 1964). In other words, as put by Gomez and Hare (2015), ‘education was seen as key to the revolution taking hold and creating a literate population loyal to the government.’ Although this would have been beneficial in the short term education can no longer be used as a tool for indoctrination as ‘many Cubans, especially those born after the fall of the Soviet Union (who now account for nearly 20 percent of the island’s 11 million population) no longer believe in the Marxist ideology (Gomez & Hare 2015).

In addition to this, Bader (2016) argues that Cuba’s educational system isn’t something extraordinary and that ‘Cuba has made less educational progress than most Latin American countries over the last 60 years’. He draws this conclusion due to UNESCO figures which show that Cuba had roughly the same literacy rate as Costa Rica and Chile in 1950 (close to 80%). And it has almost the same literacy rate as they do today (close to 100%). Bader acknowledges that ‘Cuba made substantial progress in reducing illiteracy in Castro’s first years in power; however, its educational system has stagnated since even as much of Latin American improved.’


To conclude, communism isn’t a sustainable form of government and this is evident through the case of Cuba. Although through communism Cuba progressed in the health and education sectors, many of these improvements were weakened by long periods of economic hardship and oppressive policies. Communism fails to sufficiently consider what seems to motivate us as human beings. Too many people are primarily motivated by narrow self-interest, whether it be money or power and this prevents a communist system from working efficiently as it is more susceptible to corruption. This is highlighted through the ever-increasing amount of teachers fleeing Cuba due to their low wages which hinders the sustainability of communism as education plays a leading role in maintaining a pro-Communist state. In addition to this, following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 the percentage of Cuba’s total budget devoted to education, which was at 34 percent and one of the world’s highest, was no longer sustainable. The unsustainable nature of the Cuban education system is also highlighted through the increasing number of teachers leaving their profession or the island entirely. This began in 1961 as the first wave of Cuban exiles were provoked by the changing education system, this included ‘school-age children whose parents preferred exile in the U.S. to indoctrination and many educators from the old regime, prompting a teacher shortage on the island’ (Gomez & Hare 2015). Currently, ‘The country is currently undergoing a teacher shortage. Fewer students are opting to go into teaching, paralleling the reduction of individuals opting to pursue college careers in favour of higher-paying jobs in other sectors of the economy’ (Domenech 2017). Furthermore, Ravsberg (2012) comments on how teachers are currently missing in nearly 13,000 classrooms and 80% of slots to study teaching careers are vacant.

Furthermore, it can be argued that communism isn’t a sustainable form of government as it is traditionally faced with a lot of backlash both nationally and internationally. Communist regimes are likely to be boycotted by capitalist superpowers, such as the United States. This is especially evident through Cuba due to the economic embargo imposed on them. Therefore, it has been necessary for Cuba to now be ‘shrewd in their dealings with the United States to avoid a repetition of the sort of containment policies that isolated them during the Cold War, and which are being used again today to isolate Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela’ (Anderson 2019). Additionally, the communist Cuban government has faced opposition from the general public as Anderson (2019) highlights that Cuban society is no longer ‘a homogenous bloc of revolutionary workers willing to simply applaud or fall silent at the decisions of their leaders.’ He goes onto say this is shown through the country’s new economy, which is known as cuentapropismo or self-employed work and was authorised and expanded during Raul Castro’s presidency. Anderson (2019) draws attention to how the cuentapropismo makes up for the work of 600,000 Cubans currently or 13 percent of the workforce and ‘arguably constitutes the most vibrant, innovative and lucrative part of the nation’s economy’.

These criticisms have led to the Cuban government having to compromise and accommodate for progressive ideas held by the Cuban people. For example, Anderson (2019) details how there was public pushback against a draft law that would prohibit the accumulation of private property. To compensate for this, the government agreed that state regulators can decide what property can be owned on a case by case basis. In addition to this, another decree that generated resistance aimed to require approval for cultural performances and art which had ‘immoral or vulgar content or which misuse patriotic symbols’; however, following the backlash the government agreed to revoke aspects of the law (Anderson 2019).

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Another reason why communism isn’t sustainable as traditionally the majority of the world’s superpowers have been capitalist and are therefore likely to boycott any communist countries – refusing aid or support. This hindered Cuba’s economic and social development as despite the positive aspects of the Cuban healthcare system it was also heavily impacted by the US embargo. For example, Roberg and Kuttruff (2017) comment on the outbreak of optic and peripheral neuropathy in 1992 and 1993 and how they were directly linked to the US embargo as it prevented Cubans from access to medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tools, because ‘approximately 50% of all newly patented drugs are developed or sold by US-owned companies or their subsidiaries’. Furthermore, Roberg and Kuttruff (2017) mention that there were 1297 medicines available in Cuba before 1991; however, only 889 of these medicines are now accessible. This has led to Cuba having to manufacture its medicines itself and the lack of financial resources in Cuba has caused a shortage of raw materials, extremely limiting the number of medicines available to the public. In addition to this, the US embargo also impacted public health on a local level as patients were required to bring their own necessary equipment to the hospital as the medical staff couldn’t even afford basic medical supplies. Therefore, through the case of Cuba, the unsustainability of communism is highlighted because they were unable to gain and sustain foreign support. Another reason why the Cuban healthcare system shows why communism is unsustainable is due to medical tourism and its frequency. ‘In 2014, Cuban authorities estimates overseas healthcare services would bring in $8.2 billion, putting it ahead of tourism’ (Fuente 2017). This seems to stray away from the morals of communism as the Cuban people are being left with a decrepit healthcare system.

Overall, Cuba went through many changes under Castro. The economy stagnated under US sanctions and embargos and soon became heavily reliant on the USSR. However, the education system almost entirely eradicated illiteracy in the nation and changed from a system that benefited the elite to one with a focus on educating the wider population. Also, the country made great strides in medical research and greatly decreased its child mortality rate. On the other hand, the three-tiered system was inherently unjust and benefited the elite and the communist system also caused Cuba to lose the leading life expectancy it once had for the region. For this reason, Castro’s communist regime in Cuba was unsustainable as although there were immediate results in the shutting down of casinos and nationwide literacy campaigns, in the long term, the country suffered due to the stagnating economy; three-tiered healthcare system and lack of long-term improvements in both the education and healthcare system.


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