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Revolution vs. reality

Rosa Munoz Lima / sadJuly 26, 2013

Exactly 60 years ago, Fidel Castro attempted to take power in Cuba for the first time. He expressed an ambitious revolutionary platform - but how does the Cuba of today measure up to his grand plan?

Man stands at the door of a house beside graffiti reading 'As the city sleeps I think of you' in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: EPA/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Cuba's revolution officially began on July 26, 1953, the day after the festival of Saint James. A year earlier, the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bastista rose to power following a coup. Fidel Castro - at that time a little-known, young lawyer - had first unsuccessfully tried to displace the dictator by running against him in the 1952 elections. Voting was called off before Cubans had a chance to cast their ballot.

Castro garnered the support of some 130 people, and together they attempted to overtake the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba and seize weapons being stored there. He had hoped the 400 soldiers stationed there would be exhausted or absent after the previous night's festivities. But the plan failed, and many of the revolutionaries were executed, while the remainder were forced to stand trial.

Castro’s long and ambitious political agenda was well primed, even when he stormed the barracks in 1953. After taking over he wanted to distribute land more evenly, push for industrialization, reduce unemployment, improve the education sector and create a system that would allow all Cuban’s the opportunity to access healthcare - the framework of a democracy.

It was not until 1959 that the rebels finally achieved their revolution. Now, more than 50 years later, what's the situation with the reforms Castro dreamed of all those decades ago?

Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba
The Moncada barracks, with reconstructed bullet pockmarks, is now a museumImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Between socialism, capitalism and market reform

"The Moncada program was more socialist than that of the old Communist Party," wrote Cuban historian Pedro Campos, an activist with a collective called Participatory and Democratic Socialism (Socialismo Participativo y Democrático).

Castro's original program "didn't promote state capitalism under party control, with some agricultural cooperation, like Stalinism," Campos said. Rather, Castro wanted to see workers directly participating in companies, self-governed agricultural cooperatives, and recovery of democratic citizen participation. All of which have still not been achieved, he added.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a former professor of economics and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, thinks this could be due in part to Cuba's political isolation. "Cuba gained and maintained only conditional sovereignty, because the country is not economically self-sufficient and has always depended upon an external actor - be it Spain, the United States, the Soviet Union, or now Venezuela," Mesa-Lago said.

By the end of the 1980s - just before the fall of the Iron Curtain - Cuba had attained its highest level of social and economic indicators in its history. But this all changed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when Cuba lost support from its communist allies. The country was plunged into a time of hardship, which became known on the island as the "special period."

A young girl walks past a house with portraits of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother, current President Raul Castro in Santiago, Cuba. Photo: EPA/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO (c) dpa - Report
Fidel Castro (left) was succeeded by his brother Raul (right) after falling illImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Today, Fidel Castro's brother Raul Castro's economic reforms continue to challenge the country’s 11 million inhabitants. According to estimates, a million Cubans lack proper housing. The country's trade deficit and state debt have risen to record levels. Income disparity is increasing, and the numbers of poor and vulnerable has grown. Meanwhile, social welfare has been cut, with 70 percent less people receiving state benefits.

Agricultural production continues to stagnate due to centralized planning, with the state owning almost all land. Only 10 percent of the country’s farmers remain independent. Manufacturing continues to be subject to outflows of capital and a lack of industrialization. Raul Castro announced public sector layouts - which could lead to a third of Cuba's employable population losing their jobs, Mesa-Lago said.

Political stagnation and international image

Cuba’s social situation is ambivalent. On the one hand, Cuba has the lowest child mortality and highest life expectancy rate in all of Latin America. On the other hand, there's been a clear worsening of social security, education and health, said Cuban historian and political scientist Armando Chaguaceda, who lectures at the University of Veracruz in Mexico. Not only has the quality of these services been reduced, "but also access, because of cuts to funding in these areas," Chaguaceda added.

"Abandoning infrastructure for water and waste management" has also occurred, Mesa-Lago said, increasing a risk of an epidemic on the island. Trained doctors are leaving the island, leading to a shortage of professional medical services across the country, she added.

A physician examines a little girl at the Cardiological Pediatric hospital William Soler in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The Cuban medical system has a good reputationImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Cuban government has had to make do with less foreign assistance - Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador continue to reduce their financial support for the country. Internally, there's also a lack of citizen support. Above all, it's a problem of "political stagnation - which is continued in an authoritarian regime, a single party with very serious controls on freedom of expression, including no right to public protests or strike. Media, and labor unions,” Mesa-Lago added, “are an extension of the government.”

But things have changed somewhat. Recently, the opportunity for Cubans to travel or migrate from the island has increased, along with private investment. But even these reforms have authoritarian tones, Chaguaceda insisted. He believes that 60 years after Moncada, fundamental changes originally championed by Fidel Castro have not taken place.

"The citizenry is tired and civically disempowered, opinion is split, and there's a lack of reference points for peaceful civic protest," Chaguaceda said. Cuban citizens see themselves in opposition to "an elite rich who control information and the tools of power."