The Sorry Legacy of Cuba's Revolution 50 Years On

The Cuban revolution turned 50 years old last week, and its founder and undertaker was still around to celebrate the anniversary, though not in the best of health or spirits. This makes it a good opportunity to summarize what the revolution has brought to Cuba and what is has meant for Latin America.

There is only one indisputable success the Castro regime can claim for the country. Cuba was the last large territory in Latin America to achieve independence from Spain (in 1898), and that freedom was diluted almost immediately, when in 1905 Cuba became a virtual American protectorate under the Platt amendment. This neocolonial status lasted until 1959, creating an enduring challenge to national identity. Castro and the revolution addressed that problem by giving the Cuban people a sense of statehood and pride. One can rightly wonder whether, after 30 years of dependence on the Soviet Union and nearly another decade of reliance on Venezuelan aid, this great national dignity is justified. But there's no doubting the strength of the sentiment.

As for the other, oft-touted successes of the regime, these tend to deteriorate under inspection. Take education. Yes, the country made huge gains during the first two or three decades of communist rule. But it started from a relatively high Latin American standard, and has barely treaded water ever since, producing tens of thousands of graduates in "historical materialism" and "culturology." Lacking most modern tools such as computers, Web access and current textbooks and a connection with the real economy, Cuba's supposedly excellent education system would probably compare much less well to those of other Latin American countries in a survey that didn't depend on the government's own statistics. Cuba would probably turn out to suffer the same ills as the rest of the region: formal universal education up to junior high or high school, but terribly mediocre quality and a total disconnect from the country's needs.

Much the same is true of the country's famed health system. Its is undeniable that during the initial years of the revolution, Castro managed a colossal feat: he sent most of the country's best physicians (Cuba had perhaps the best doctors in the hemisphere in 1959, as well as the lowest infant-mortality rate) into exile, yet almost simultaneously delivered decent first-level health care to millions of peasants and urban poor. But standards plummeted with the end of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s. With no money, no access to technology (other than a few highly praised but untested biotech institutes), very little foreign training and the mass export of doctors to Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Paraguay, it is very unlikely that the Cuban health system today is much better than the rest of the region's. Cuba's system may still be more egalitarian (no mean feat in Latin America), but it is hardly more competent, cost-effective or sustainable.

But what about the revolution's legacy for Latin America, and particularly for the left? There is no question that Castro's triumph five decades ago reinvigorated an obsolete and submissive left in Latin America, and introduced innovative changes in tactics (armed struggle instead of elections), in strategy (country versus town, workers and peasants versus the national bourgeoisie) and in theory (fighting for socialism now, not later). And it brought youthful sex appeal to politics that had become old-fashioned, bureaucratic and often corrupt.

Unfortunately, the cost of Castro's innovations were immense. Thousands of students and activists across the hemisphere lost their lives in foolhardy guerrilla wars, repression was unleashed even in Latin America's most democratic countries (such as Uruguay and, for additional reasons, Chile) and nothing ever came of all these undoubtedly heroic efforts. The only victory was in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1979, and everyone knows that was ephemeral and pyrrhic. The best result was the stalemate the FMLN achieved in El Salvador in 1992.

It's true that today, many of the region's countries are governed by the left. But with a few exceptions (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and perhaps Ecuador), none of their leaders subscribe to the Cuban tenets of the past or the present. If anything, leaders like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay and Alan García in Peru resemble a modernized version of the pre-Castro reformist left. They are not the descendants of Che Guevara or the Sierra Maestra.

Taken together, then, the revolution's accomplishments look meager indeed: a fierce national pride that is both arguable and anachronistic in today's globalized world; an education and health system that will end up disappointing many of Cuba's fans; and a regionwide legacy of blood spilled in vain. Perhaps Castro's greatest success has been his own long career—but that's the sort of accomplishment he and his comrades would have vehemently repudiated in their own revolutionary days.