Free education and public health as the "genuine feat of the revolution" constitute, in my opinion, the best and most sophisticated (dual) myth that Fidel Castro has “sold” to Cubans and the world, among the many that he peddled in his time as a dictator, the longest in modern history.
These social services, at no cost to students and patients, constituted the crown jewel of Castro's propaganda, due to the human sensitivity they transmitted and their great proselytizing power.
I say that they are the best-sold because the myth endures today, even though it lacks a foundation. And it is the most sophisticated because it is not totally false: from the 60s until 1991 education and public health services were expanded throughout the country.
The myth rests on a deception and a fact that is overlooked:
1) Fidel Castro led everyone to believe that this achievement was due to the communist system implemented by he and Che Guevara, which he claimed was superior to the "bourgeois" socio-economic models in Latin America and the West.
2) For the past 25 years education and public health in Cuba have been a disaster.
The two key services did achieve remarkable levels ... but this was thanks to subsidies from the Soviet Union, and despite the Cuban government’s irresponsible and erratic management of these financial resources. Therein lies the myth.
Due to his narcissism, and for the purpose of political and ideological propaganda, Fidel plowed much of the Soviet money into massive social investments out of proportion with the country's economy and its degree of development, instead of dedicating it to the actual development of the nation, improving Cubans' quality of life, and ensuring education and health services that would be indigenous and sustainable rather than based on Band-Aids.
Stating that social progress in Cuba was the product of the centrally- planned state economy was a massive sham. Cuba never would have achieved anything if it had depended on its own economy, the most unproductive and undercapitalized in the Americas. That is, Fidel took the credit while "Uncle Sasha" paid the bills, with aid of 4 to 6 billion dollars annually.
Obviously, upon the USSR's collapse, this all came crashing down. And the country's social showcase, about which the commander so relentlessly boasted, cracked. Today the regime no longer talks about education or public health. It can't.
Madness and waste
The atrocities committed by Cuba's deceased pharaoh are countless. In one of his fits of lunacy he came up with a plan that would be "unique in the world," which he called Country Schools, under which he ordered the construction of 535 gigantic educational facilities, of three to four floors, in the Cuban countryside, (40 of them for subsidized Third World students), with a very serious impact on the national economy and the lives of Cubans.
The commander spent billions of dollars over the course of the 20 years his outlandish experiment lasted, until 1991. Ten billion tons of cement were used, and 2,000 Russian buses (Giron) were assembled to transport the students. 16 million tons of food and 15 million tons of fuel were consumed, not to mention the technical equipment and teaching staff, uniforms, and all the sundry supplies necessary.
With such massive financial resources he could have helped develop the national economy and meet the population's most pressing needs.
The vast majority of the secondary and pre-university students were transferred to live in those schools and work as agricultural laborers part time. Students from the cities were taken to work in agriculture for periods of between 45 days and 3 months.
When the subsidies from Moscow ceased, the huge buildings in the countryside were abandoned. Some were converted into prisons, and others into houses – which remain empty due to the lack of workers who want to toil on terrain overrun with marabou.
The social damage done was also great, negatively impacting hundreds of thousands of teenagers: psychologically, in their family relationships, morally, sexually, academically, educationally, and by hampering their social development.
Incidentally, it behooves us to remember that in Cuba the brainwashing of children, adolescents and young people was institutionalized. They were instilled with a distorted view of Cuban history and of the world as anti-imperialism was drilled into them, "proletarian internationalism" was praised, and they ere taught a contempt for democratic values and individual freedoms. Fidel Castro was venerated along with his idiotic contention that "the future belongs entirely to socialism" andthe most absurd slogans, like "Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che."
A shortage of schools before 1959?
Another of the major myths propagated is the claim that in Cuba before 1959 there were barely any public schools or teachers, and that university education was so expensive that it was inaccessible for workers' children.
False. In 1958, according to the Statistical Yearbook of Cuba, Cuba had 7,567 public (free) elementary schools and 869 private ones; that is, 8,436 in all. Of those public schools, 1,206 were in the countryside. In the mid-50s public education staffed 25,000 thousand teachers, while private schools employed another 3,500.
The public education system also had secondary schools (high schools), schools for teachers, home schools, kindergartens, trade schools, fine arts schools, surveying schools, arts and crafts schools, journalism schools, advertising schools, and technical schools, among others. With more than 150 such institutions, in the 1955-1956 academic year 70,029 students were enrolled.
Today almost no one in Cuba realizes that at the University of Havana the annual tuition cost was only 60 pesos (equivalent then to some 60 dollars), payable in three installments. A young person could study Medicine, Engineering, Law, Architecture, Accounting, or become a doctor in the Social Sciences, Philosophy and Letters, or Pedagogy, for five pesos a month.
In practice the classes, lab sessions and sports, including those at the impressive Balneario Universitario in Miramar, with its Olympic pool and beach, were free. I have it on good account that for 50 cents at these facilities one could have a lunch of steak, rice, French fries, salad and a dessert. There was also free medical care at the Student Clinic, housed on the seventh floor of the current Hospital Fajardo.
Of course, students also had to buy books and things for their classes, but at the university bookstore ("Alma Mater") prices were low. Those families from inland would have to pay for their students' lodgings in some kind of guesthouse near the university, which cost an average of 50 pesos a month and included breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In 1958 Cuba actually had a health care system of a high professional and technological level. There were 35,000 hospital beds. With a population of 6.6 million, there was 1 bed for every 190 inhabitants – better than the figure of 1 bed per 200 inhabitants in many developed countries. The United States had 109. In 2013, three years ago, there were 38,642 beds, one for every 289 inhabitants.
And in the late 50s Cuba boasted the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America, followed by Argentina and Uruguay, according to World Health Organization. With reference to doctors per capita, in 1958 the island was surpassed only by Argentina and Uruguay.
Collapse when the subsidies ceased
When the USSR disappeared, Venezuelan aid was able to partially defray Cuba's social spending. But, given the inexorable deterioration of the economy under Castro, the demand for cash grew, and the subsidies from Caracas proved insufficient. To make matters worse, oil prices plummeted.
Today the educational system in Cuba is a catastrophe: there is a lack of textbooks, notebooks, pencils, uniforms, materials and technological equipment for classes and laboratory work. Neither are there enough qualified teachers and professors, there is no Internet access, or modern curricula worthy of the 21st century.
The school buildings and furniture are dilapidated and falling apart. Fraud and corruption run rampant among teachers and students. In exchange for "gifts" for the teacher, students are fraudulently passed. The budget for education has been drastically reduced.
Meanwhile, in the health sector, rather than an increasing number of beds and hospitals, those that exist are being shut down. 60 hospitals have been closed since 2010. 25% of the country's hospitalization capacity has already been lost. And the shortage of medicines is alarming.
In 2010, 47,000 employees were fired from the health sector. Family physician offices fell from 14,007 in 2006 to 11,506 in 2013, and continue to dwindle due to the lack of doctors, as they are exported like white-coat slaves, with 75% of their salaries abroad confiscated from them. This, in the 21st century.
Nearly half of the 82,000 Cuban doctors who graduated in Cuba (also foreign graduates) are not on the Island. Rather, they are serving in 67 countries, mainly in Venezuela and Brazil. Hence, primary medical care has been hit hard, and specialized care, even harder.
Hospitals are in a sad state: a lack of basic hygiene, swarming with cockroaches and mosquitoes, patients have to bring their own sheets, pillows, syringes and, sometimes, even iodine and mercurochrome. Many surgical procedures are not performed due to the lack of surgeons, thread for sutures, or something as simple as gauze to absorb blood. The little food available for these hospitalized is almost inedible.
Conclusion: Fidel fooled everyone with such cunning that many, both on the Island and off it, still believe that education and public health are great "feats of the Revolution." I encourage those true believers to visit Cuba, and its hospitals and schools off the circuit reserved for tourists.
Without money flowing in from overseas, an economic and social crisis has ravaged education and public health on the Island. It is a national disgrace.