That Time Obama Promoted Myth of Excellent Health Care and Education in Cuba

By Hans Bader | November 28, 2016 | 8:42 AM EST

President Barack Obama speaks in Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boyland)

In his recent remarks in Cuba, President Obama offered glowing praise to institutions in that communist country that did not deserve it. The president called Cuba’s “system of education” an “extraordinary resource” that “values every boy and every girl.”

But there’s nothing “extraordinary” about Cuba’s educational system. Children are taught by poorly paid teachers in dilapidated schools. Cuba has made less educational progress than most Latin American countries over the last 60 years. According to UNESCO, Cuba had about the same literacy rate as Costa Rica and Chile in 1950 (close to 80 percent). And it has almost the same literacy rate as they do today (close to 100 percent). 

Meanwhile, Latin American countries that were largely illiterate in 1950—such as Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic—are largely literate today, closing much of the gap with Cuba. El Salvador had a less than 40 percent literacy rate in 1950, but has an 88 percent literacy rate today. Brazil and Peru had a less than 50 percent literacy rate in 1950, but today, Peru has a 94.5 percent literacy rate, and Brazil a 92.6 percent literacy rate. The Dominican Republic’s rate rose from a little over 40 percent to 91.8 percent. While Cuba made substantial progress in reducing illiteracy in Castro’s first years in power, its educational system has stagnated since, even as much of Latin America improved. Educational attainment is particularly lackluster among Afro-Cubans, judging from a recent New York Times story.

President Obama also promoted the myth of excellent Cuban health care, saying, ”The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care.”

In reality, Cuba has made less progress in health care and life expectancy than most of Latin America in recent years, due to its decrepit health care system. “Hospitals in the island’s capital are literally falling apart.” Sometimes, patients ”have to bring everything with them, because the hospital provides nothing. Pillows, sheets, medicine: everything.”

Cuba lost the big edge in life expectancy it once enjoyed due to communism. It led virtually all countries in Latin America in life expectancy in 1959, before a communist regime took power in Cuba. But by 2012, Chileans and Costa Ricans lived slightly longer than Cubans. Back in 1960, Chileans had a life span seven years shorter than Cubans, and Costa Ricans lived more than two years less than Cubans on average. In 1960, Mexicans lived seven years shorter than Cubans; by 2012, the gap had shrunk to just two years.

As the progressive economist Brad DeLong admits (he calls it “hideously depressing”):

“Cuba in 1957—was a developed country. Cuba in 1957 had lower infant mortality than France, Belgium, West Germany, Israel, Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Cuba in 1957 had doctors and nurses: as many doctors and nurses per capita as the Netherlands, and more than Britain or Finland. Cuba in 1957 had as many vehicles per capita as Uruguay, Italy, or Portugal. Cuba in 1957 had 45 TVs per 1000 people—fifth highest in the world …Today? Today the UN puts Cuba’s HDI [Human Development indicators] in the range of … Mexico. (And Carmelo Mesa-Lago thinks the UN’s calculations are seriously flawed: that Cuba’s right HDI peers today are places like China, Tunisia, Iran, and South Africa.) Thus I don’t understand lefties who talk about the achievements of the Cuban Revolution: ‘...to have better health care, housing, education.’”

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law.

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