Fifty years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, the big question about the Cuban revolution is not whether it was justified, but whether it was worth it. From all available evidence, it wasn't.
A dispassionate look into Cuba today shows that, while the country has reduced the pockets of extreme misery that existed during the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, a majority of Cubans are poorer and have fewer opportunities to improve their lives than they did five decades ago.
Cubans today have a pretty low per capita income compared with other Latin American nations. They have fewer television sets, telephones, computers and cars relative to their population than most Latin American countries, and the lowest percentage of people with access to the Internet in the region, even below Haiti.
And while Cuba does well in literacy and infant mortality indicators, it does lousy in others. Cuba has one of the highest suicide rates in the Americas.
BY THE NUMBERS
Before we get into my own impressions from when I was a frequent visitor to the island in the early 1990s, let's look at the facts.
On the plus side, Cuba has a 99.8 percent adult literacy rate, one percent higher than Trinidad and Tobago's, and an infant mortality rate of six per 1,000 people, slightly lower than Chile's, according to the United Nations' 2008 Human Development Report. That makes it the country with the best adult literacy and infant mortality rates in the region.
But according to the U.N. 1957 Statistical Yearbook, Cuba already ranked among the four most advanced Latin American countries in literacy and caloric consumption rates that year, and had the lowest infant mortality in the region. In other words, Cuba has gone up three places in the literacy ranking, while retaining its status as the nation with the region's lowest infant mortality rates.
When it comes to personal income or standard of living statistics, the U.N. Human Development Report -- the Cuban government's favorite statistical source -- lists the island's per capita income at $6,000 a year, although the figure is accompanied by an asterisk indicating that it's a Cuban government estimate, and that ``efforts to produce a more accurate estimate are ongoing.''
In fact, Cuba refuses to calculate its per capita income according to international standards. The same thing happens with its poverty rates. Cuba agrees to use world-accepted statistical methods in those areas where it does well, such as heath and education, but refuses to do so in those areas where it may not do that well. The U.N. report's world poverty rates table leaves Cuba's line blank.
''Neither the United Nations nor any other international institution have the foggiest idea what Cuba's per capita income or poverty rates really are because Fidel ordered that the country use its own methodology,'' said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a retired University of Pittsburgh economics professor who has long been one of the most serious analysts of the Cuban economy.
''The Cuban government's figures are not credible, which forces everybody else to use them with an asterisk or not to use them at all,'' he added.
What is known is that Cubans' average wage is nearly $20 a month, as recognized by the official media, which would translate to an average income of $240 a year.
Even if one accepted the Cuban regime's dubious $6,000-a-year-per-capita income figure -- it takes into account the government's food, health and education subsidies -- Cuba ranks No. 21 in Latin America, way behind countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Suriname and Belize, according to the U.N. report.