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The Cuban Socialist Paradox

Is Cuba rich from socialism, or poor from the embargo?

By guest author Benjamin Williams
February 20, 2024

Many see Cuba as a textbook example of the failures of socialism.

However, some on the Left claim that Cuba is not only a socialist success story but that it boasts a higher quality of life than even the United States. This claim often surfaces on social media platforms like Twitter or Reddit, but occasionally finds its way into more mainstream outlets, such as The Guardian.

Another leftist strategy for the defense of Cuba is to acknowledge its struggles but blame them on the United States’ embargo on Cuba instead.

These two positions are obviously mutually exclusive, because Cuba cannot be both prosperous and impoverished at the same time. And yet, I have encountered innumerable apologists who take both positions, sometimes even in the same debate.

The Left has caught itself in a paradox. Is Cuba flourishing from the embrace of socialism, or is it failing under the weight of the US embargo? It can’t be both. To know which position is right, if any, we’ll have to examine the current and historical evidence.

One approach we can use to evaluate the claim that Cuba is prospering is to examine the Human Development Index (HDI), a metric published by the United Nations. The HDI takes into account various metrics, including health, education, income, and living conditions, to assess the well-being of a country’s citizens. In the data we see the United States ranks 21st on the HDI, while Cuba occupies the 83rd spot. So, based on this globally accepted measure, it’s clear Cuba doesn’t have a higher quality of life than the United States.

However, proponents of socialism might then argue that even though Cuba doesn’t surpass the United States, it still fares better on the HDI than several non-socialist countries in Latin America, such as Peru, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. This raises the crucial question: Can Cuba’s comparatively higher quality of life be attributed to socialism?

To answer this question, we have to look at Cuba’s historical economic performance. What this reveals is that Cuba was once a remarkably developed and prosperous nation. A study in the Journal of Economic History found that pre-revolutionary Cuba was “a prosperous middle-income economy” with income levels that were “among the highest in Latin America” and almost on par with some European countries. However, after the adoption of socialism in 1959, “Cuba slipped down the world income distribution.” So Cuba’s relative success predates socialism and has actually seen a decline post-revolution.

Another focus in the defense of Cuban socialism is the supposed success of its healthcare system. Proponents argue this by pointing to metrics like infant mortality rates and doctors per capita.

This argument also falls apart when we consider the historical context. In 1957, Cuba had the 13th lowest infant mortality rate globally—an achievement that, over the years, has slipped to 49th place today.

The infant mortality rate may be even worse once we account for the flaws in the Cuban government’s data. Some have already tried to do this, such as economist Roberto M. Gonzalez. He found that the “ratio of late fetal deaths to early neonatal deaths in countries with available data stood between 1.04 and 3.03” but Cuba “with a ratio of 6, was a clear outlier.” These data indicate that doctors have likely been re-categorizing late fetal deaths as early neonatal deaths, thus skewing the data. Taking this into account, the infant mortality rate probably stands between 7.45 and 11.16 per 1,000 births. That would put Cuba in 60th place in the world, at best. Many more corrections could be made to these data, but that one correction is enough to demonstrate that Cuba’s ranking is rather bleak.

The claim about doctors in Cuba is also missing context. Cuba has many doctors per capita, but this is because the government has incentives for it to be this way. Doctors are Cuba’s most valuable export. The government only sees them as a commodity to be exploited. Brazil and other nations pay the Cuban government millions for their doctors and medical services. But the doctors themselves see very little of that money. Sometimes just 10% of it. Doctors who defect from Cuba often describe their roles as being akin to slavery. The status of Cuba’s doctors is hardly something to brag about. It is a failure of socialism, not a success.

Another piece of evidence that can shed light on the claim of Cuban prosperity is the migration rate. It stands to reason that people want to leave countries with poor living conditions. It is noteworthy, therefore, that for 60 years Cuba has consistently had a net negative migration rate, while the United States and many other capitalist countries have had net positive migration rates. Why are people so eager to leave if life is so good in Cuba?

We’ve established that Cuba’s prosperity is a myth. But here the Left falls back on their second claim: that Cuba is only poor because of the US embargo.

Yet, even Fidel Castro and Che Guevara didn’t believe this narrative. Their accounts suggest that the embargo, far from crippling the Cuban government, actually strengthened the revolution and solidified anti-US sentiment. When asked if the US blockade was effective, Castro said it was effective “in favor of the revolution.” Political scientists like Steve Chan and A. Cooper Drury argue that “sanctions may create a ‘boomerang effect.’ Instead of increasing public discontent against the ruling elite, they may produce a ‘rally ’round the flag’ syndrome and stiffen the target population’s resolve to resist foreign coercion. Economic hardship can be attributed to the externally imposed embargo rather than the incumbent regime’s poor performance.”

Guevara said the embargo would do “nothing” to the Cuban economy. But why? In a 1985 interview, Castro explained in more detail. He said that other socialist countries “not only pay us much higher prices and sell their products to us at lower prices, but also charge us much lower interest for credit.” We can confirm this with the historical evidence provided by Cuban economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago. In his book Market, Socialist, and Mixed Economies, he points out that Cuba began trading with socialist countries like the Soviet Union as early as 1960, and confirms that “all socialist imports combined significantly surpassed US imports in the early part of that year.” This challenges the argument that the embargo was the primary cause of Cuba’s economic difficulties, as these economic struggles became apparent immediately following the revolution.

Most effects of the embargo were not felt until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s. So Cuba went through 30 years of economic struggle while being propped up by the USSR. There was a substantial downturn in the ’90s because of this, and the Cuban government resorted to moderate liberalization reforms to offset the resulting problems. The success of these reforms is further proof that Cuba would be better off as a capitalist nation.

We’ve resolved the Cuban Socialist Paradox. Cuba is not successful because of socialism—its successes predate the socialist government and have dwindled rapidly since the revolution. Cuba is also not a failure because of the sanctions; the embargo historically had little effect on their economy. The bleak truth is that the common conception is correct: Cuba is, in fact, a textbook example of the failures of socialism.

Still, it is possible that the best way to help Cuba along is by abandoning the ineffective embargo. It seems to have only served to strengthen the communist government and give it a scapegoat for its socialist failures. If America expands trade relations with Cuba, we may see the phenomenon that some economists call “Contagious Capitalism.” That is, trade will open up Cuba to more influence from capitalist ideals.

And that’s exactly what the Cuban people need: economic freedom, not more excuses for failed socialist policies.

This piece was first published on, you can find the original here.