ADVANCES IN PLACE
Experts stress that when Castro, with the help of his younger brother, Raúl, and other rebels, took over on Jan. 1, 1959, they took the helm of what was already one of the most developed nations in the hemisphere. Cubans led Latin America in the number of households that owned TV sets, and Cuba was outpaced by only Argentina and Uruguay in other economic and social indicators.
According to a report last week by the University of Miami, Cuba already had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and was among the region's most literate countries.
But the wealth and progress were concentrated in Havana. Illiteracy rates reached 42 percent in the rural areas, while only 23 percent of urban dwellers could not read, according to early national statistics.
Castro's government promised to change that. It set out to upend the social order, claiming that Cuba would become a nation where women matter as much as men, black people could become doctors, and peasants could read and write.
As the middle and upper classes fled to Miami and as Cuba lost half of its doctors to exile, the government went after private businesses, killed or locked up political opponents, and sent thousands of youngsters to the countryside as teachers in a vast literacy campaign. Then it built clinics and thousands of schools.
World Bank statistics show that half of Cuban children were enrolled in school in 1950. Now, all of them are. Cuba more than quadrupled the number of teachers.
Even as Cuba has high graduation rates and people with engineering degrees, many find it more lucrative to wait on tables. Uneven access to dollars has brought inequality back, and college graduates complain that there are few worthwhile opportunities after their studies.
The average Cuban salary is barely $20 a month. Black Cubans, long considered the main beneficiaries of Castro's social policies, find themselves again shut out. Few Afro-Cubans obtain jobs in the tourist industry or have relatives in Miami sending dollars.
''I remember when I went to Cuba, I visited the National Ballet at the García Lorca theater, and I told the lady who accompanied us how nice her scarf was, and she told me it was from Paris,'' said Uva de Aragón, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
'People inside the theater were well dressed, and children were outside taking tips for watching cars. I thought, `Forty years later, and this is the same. My parents' life was stolen from them to create a country where everyone was equal.'
``Now I go to the University of Havana, and while there are a few black people in the classes, the people cleaning the bathroom are still in uniform, and they are still black.''
She also said that Cuba's social welfare programs are not free -- Cubans pay for them with underpaid labor.
`NOTHING IS FREE'
''A Cuban gets a salary of 500 pesos a month ($20) and is told that education and healthcare are free,'' she said. ``Nothing is free. The Cuban people pay for it with their work.''
Some experts question what will happen now that so many of Cuba's doctors are providing healthcare in Venezuela, Bolivia and other nations in exchange for money or much needed supplies, such as oil.
''Can they continue to maintain good health indicators when they are missing their primary resource -- doctors?'' asked Cuba expert Daniel P. Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington. ``Doctors in Cuba specialized in having a neighborhood healthcare system. But now all these doctors are in the neighborhood -- in Caracas.''