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.
Other international institutions publish figures that provide an even more somber picture of today's Cuba.
While the island in 1959 had Latin America's highest number of television sets per household, today only 70 percent of Cuban households have television sets, compared with 97 percent in Argentina, 93 percent in Mexico, 83 percent in El Salvador and 76 percent in the Dominican Republic, according to the World Bank's 2008 World Development Indicators.
When it comes to telephones, only 9 percent of Cubans have access to a fixed telephone line, and only 1 percent of the population subscribes to a mobile phone service, the World Bank figures show. That's one of Latin America's lowest telephone access rates, way behind Honduras.
What's worse, only 2 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet. By comparison, 27 percent of Costa Ricans, 10 percent of Guatemalans and 7 percent of Haitians have access to the Internet, according to the World Bank figures.
The Cuban government blames its economic shortcomings on the U.S. trade embargo. But while some of us consider the U.S. embargo a pretty senseless policy, it has so many loopholes that it can hardly be faulted for Cuba's low standard of living. The United States is already the leading exporter of food products to the island, and many other U.S. goods enter Cuba through third countries.
A DEARTH OF HOPE
Life in Cuba is grim, judging from what I saw on the island and what recent arrivals tell me.
The island is like a huge kindergarten, where you are guaranteed a subsistence-level income, but the government decides what you will study, where you will work, what you can buy, what you are allowed to read, what you can watch on television, and whether you can travel abroad. It's a safe place to live if you are lazy, or inept, but a pretty exasperating place if you are ambitious or have a mind of your own.
I remember an interview I did in Havana with Che Guevara's grandson, Canek Sánchez Guevara, in 1991, when the latter was a heavy metal rock musician in his late teens. Canek, who later emigrated to Mexico, was -- like many Cubans of his age -- very critical of the Cuban revolution.
''This revolution is in ruins,'' he told me. ``There is no food, there's no freedom. People say it's all because of the Yanqui aggression, but that's a myth, as real as dragons and witches, a children's tale.''
There was nothing for young people to do in Cuba, Canek told me. He was studying graphic design at an arts high school but considered it a waste of time.
''There's no paper, no pens and no interest on the part of the teachers to do anything,'' he said. ``And if you graduate, there is no work in your field. They'll ask you to go to the countryside and work in agriculture. This place is hopeless.''
When I asked him what Che Guevara would think of him if he were alive, the Cuban hero's grandson said that ``he would be proud of me. Che Guevara was a rebel. He never would have approved of what has become of this revolution.''
And things haven't changed much in recent years. Not surprisingly, every reporter who travels to Cuba comes back with the same impression: It's a country suspended in time, waiting -- so far in vain -- for something to change.
The part of Che Guevara's family that I met in Cuba is typical of today's generational divide on the island. Older Cubans tend to support the revolution -- they have invested their lives in it -- while middle-aged Cubans tend to be moderately critical of it, and most of the younger ones are against it. As one youngster told me in Havana, ``this revolution has become an institution.''
Cuba's state of hopelessness may be one of the factors leading to the island's high suicide rate of 24.8 per 100,000 people. Cuba had Latin America's highest suicide rate earlier this decade, and this year ranked fourth in the region, behind Guyana, Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago, according to World Health Organization figures.
Cuban officials admit that many Cubans complain about shortages and a lack of opportunities, but they claim that most Cubans support the revolution. I doubt that. What leads me to conclude that most Cubans would like a political opening and to enjoy basic freedoms?
First, because I heard many of them say so -- many of them with fear of being overheard -- when I was a frequent traveler to the island in the late '80s and early '90s. Second, because a surreptitious poll conducted in Cuba earlier this year by the International Republican Institute shows that nearly 70 percent of people aged 19 to 49 said they would like a democratic system with multiparty elections, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Third, and most importantly, because the Cuban government has a well-oiled polling machinery. If the Castro regime thought it could win a free election, and that Cubans were so proud of the revolution's achievements, it would have allowed a free election long ago. If it hasn't done so, it's because it knows it would lose it.
So was it worth it to marginally improve some social indicators at the cost of lowering the island's overall standard of living?
Other countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica, have reduced poverty to a minimum with much less social trauma.
In Cuba, nearly 1.5 million people were forced into exile, hundreds of thousands of children have been separated from their parents, thousands -- tens of thousands, by some accounts -- have died at sea while trying to leave the island, and millions in Cuba have been forced to do ''voluntary work'' cutting sugar cane in the fields or doing other chores as part of their revolutionary duties.
And that's without taking into account victims of political violence. A total of 2,077 Cubans died in Cuba's ''internationalist'' wars in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and other African countries, according to official figures cited by author Norberto Fuentes in his Autobiography of Fidel Castro.
In addition, the New Jersey-based Cuban Archive says it has documented 8,273 executions, extra-judicial killings and disappearances on the island since 1959. ''We have the names and sources for all these killings, and they are available on the Web,'' said Maria Werlau, the Archive's director.
The cost Cubans are paying in lost freedoms is enormous. There are more than 200 political prisoners, including 29 journalists arrested in 2003, according to human rights groups. Adolfo Fernández Sainz, one of the 29 journalists, is serving 15 years in prison for ''subverting the nation's internal order.'' At his trial, the government presented ''evidence'' of his crime confiscated at his apartment: an electric typewriter and prohibited books, including George Orwell's 1984.
My conclusion: The Cuban dictatorship has improved some social indicators, but other Latin American countries have done better in others without sacrificing basic freedoms, and with much less suffering. For Cubans, the revolution may have been justified, but it wasn't worth it.