Andres Oppenheimer

It’s cruise-ship time in Cuba again — but now the country is much poorer

The powerful images of a Carnival cruise ship arriving in Cuba this week — the first arrival of a U.S. cruise liner on the island in more than 50 years — may go down in history as the symbol of the failure of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Many young people may be unaware of this, but Fidel Castro and his idealistic guerrilla comrades took up arms against the Fulgencio Batista regime in Cuba in the late 1950s among other things because they resented the hordes of American tourists coming in cruise ships to their island, and the U.S. mob-run casinos and nightclubs that catered to them. They saw all of that as part of the Batista government’s massive corruption.

For decades, Cuba's government-run media had depicted U.S. tourists descending from cruise liners as a symbol of the decadence of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Miami mob bosses had indeed built much of Havana's night life industry since the 1920s, when Prohibition had turned Cuba into a favorite tourism destination for fun-seeking Americans.

“Floating hotels come, floating restaurants, floating theaters, floating diversions visit countries to leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents,” Castro said as late as 2005, deriding the cruise lines' tourism industry.

Today, Cuba has come full circle. The island is broke, with one of the lowest living standards in Latin America, and for the first time in decades without a foreign benefactor such as the former Soviet Union, or more recently Venezuela, able to maintain it as a satellite country.

The start of regular U.S. cruise line trips from Miami to Cuba will mean $88 million a year for Cuba, according to the website. It's the most visible economic development since President Obama changed U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014 and re-established diplomatic relations in 2015.

As I saw the Miami Herald's front-page picture of Carnival Corp.’s majestic Fathom Adonia making its triumphal entry in a seemingly frozen-in-time Havana on May 2, I couldn't help thinking about the irony of it all. Nearly six decades after Castro banned casinos and proclaimed the “inexorable” triumph of Cuba's socialist revolution and its hombre nuevo, it’s new man, the island is returning to the U.S. tourism mecca it once was.

Cuba is in shambles, and has been an economic and social disaster ever since the former Soviet Union stopped bank-rolling it.

The average salary on the island is $21 a month, one of the lowest in Latin America. Massive emigration and declining birth rates are reducing the island’s population, which is projected to fall from today’s 11 million to about 10 million by 2025.

And while U.S. Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders and some foreign leaders still believe that Cuba has made great progress in health and education, that may have been a thing of the past. In the Soviet era, shortly after the revolution, Cuba made gains in educating the poorest of the poor, but Cuba's education has deteriorated significantly in recent decades. This may explain why Cuba doesn't participate in the international PISA student tests, which are considered the key standard to measure countries' educational standards.

Besides, Cuba was a pretty advanced country before the revolution. Pre-revolutionary Cuba ranked fourth in Latin America in literacy rates, behind Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica, according to the 1957 U.N. Statistical Yearbook. Also, Cuba had a 32-per-1,000 infant mortality rate that year, which was the lowest in Latin America, according to that U.N. report.

And, nearly six decades after the revolution, Cuba remains a family dictatorship that doesn't allow free elections, political parties, or independent newspapers. According to Cuba Archive, there are at least 3,117 cases of documented executions and 1,162 extrajudicial killings by the Castro regime since 1959. Many Latin American countries have raised literacy rates and improved health conditions without such bloodshed.

And a Freedom House 2016 report on freedom of the press released this week ranked Cuba as one of the world’s ten most repressive societies, even worse than Iran and Syria.

My conclusion: As U.S. cruise ships make their comeback to poverty-ridden Cuba, it’s time to remember the thousands of people who died because of Castro’s totalitarian project, and to ask remaining believers in his revolution — Sanders included — whether it was all worth it. It's Carnival time in Cuba — just as it was in 1959, only that the country is much poorer.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español