Friday, August 05, 2011

Cuba: a development success story

Cuba has 100% literacy and is one of the healthiest countries in the world. This surprises many who say it could never be possible in a centralized communist government. Despite the entire world telling them they are doing it wrong, Cuba is still one of the world's greatest success stories.

Jonathan Glennie has posted another essay on the Guardian's Poverty Matters Blog that pokes more holes in development theory. Hot of the heals of his post where he said "development is essentially amoral" Glennie describes how the success in Cuba poses more development challenges.

It is easy to get seduced by Cuba's impressive development indicators and its assertions of idealist possibilities. The statistics are certainly dramatic, as Overseas Development Institute research emphasised last year. And Fidel Castro has certainly contributed as many wise and progressive thoughts to the world as he has unfortunate ramblings. But there are serious problems at the heart of the Cuban development model that have been left unaddressed for far too long.

Castro's leadership was the key factor in rapidly rising living standards for the poorest. In 1958, under the Batista dictatorship, half of Cuba's children did not attend school. The literacy campaign begun by Castro in 1961 led, in 1970, to Unesco declaring Cuba the country with the highest primary and secondary school enrolment in Latin America. These development gains, among others, have continued to this day.

But there have been two broad consequences. First, a generation of educated young people aspire to more in terms of living standards and life chances than their parents ever did. It is no coincidence that the older generation is more uncritically supportive of the revolution than the young – it knows what Cuba was like before.

Second, state-led development and investment is costly, especially when the international context becomes less favourable. Relying on goodwill, volunteering and accumulated capital has worked perhaps longer than anyone anticipated, but eventually wealth must be created and that, as the critics have always maintained, means a platform for the private sector to grow.

So it is better late than never that Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother, has finally bowed to pressure and taken two major reforms through the national assembly. First, travel restrictions will be loosened, making it much easier for Cubans to travel abroad. And second, authorisation and encouragement will be given to small businesses. These follow on from other reforms and are part of a gradual but significant shift in Cuban development theory intended to strengthen a weak economy.

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