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Stranger Than Fiction: Atlas Shrugged in Cuba

Stranger Than Fiction: Atlas Shrugged in Cuba

6 Min.
August 1, 2011

Summer 2010 issue -- A GOOD SIGN FOR THE FUTURE of liberty is that interest in the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, has never been higher. For half a century Atlas Shrugged has been both hailed by its devotees as a prophetic warning of what could happen and savaged by its critics as a preposterous story which could never happen. What many seem unaware of is that it already has happened—in failed socialist states like Cuba.

The uncanny parallels show how insightful Rand was and point to the explanatory power of her novels. Because she understood the philosophical underpinnings of socialism so well, she could accurately project what the end results would be.

In 1959 Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and pledged to transform the country through socialism into an island paradise. Instead the Cuban economy disintegrated in one of the most pronounced economic debacles of the twentieth century.

Upon gaining power Castro immediately began to change the fabric of Cuban society. Governmental decrees and regulations poured forth. Expropriation of private property began. Economic controls mushroomed and in April 1961 Castro declared Cuba a socialist state. In March 1962 food rationing commenced. In March 1968 almost all remaining private businesses were nationalized. Shortages began to appear, first of a few items and then of many. Stores started going out of business. Factories closed. People disappeared.

While the economy steadily declined, the official pronouncements in Cuba, as in Atlas Shrugged, were upbeat and optimistic. Central planning was the key to a glorious future. Cuba’s first central planning head triumphantly declared in August 1961: “If we raise our eyes and contemplate the picture of Cuba in ten years time, we conclude . . . that we shall achieve the highest level of living in Latin America by an ample margin, a standard of living as high as almost any country in Europe.”

Economic statistics in Cuba are fraught with difficulties and often go entirely unreported at times of economic stress. For the first few years after the Revolution economic growth statistics went unreported, and then in 1967 and 1970 new growth series were adopted which were unconnected to previous series. After 1989 many statistical series again went unreported. When Carmelo Mesa-Lago wrote his book on the Cuban economy published in 2000 (Market, Socialist, and Mixed Economies) the latest Cuban statistical yearbook available was from 1989.

The World Bank has estimated annual Cuban economic growth at -1.2 percent from 1960 to 1971. A sharp rise in sugar prices in the mid-1970s boosted the economy, and from 1970 to 1988 annual growth of 4.1percent was officially reported. However, because of population growth the per capita growth rate of the Cuban economy from the advent of Fidel until 1990 has been estimated to be negative.

More telling is the change in Cuba’s fortunes over the long haul. In the 1950s Cuba ranked second in Latin America in per capita income, by 1981 it ranked fifteenth. “During the half-century before Castro, Cuba had a trade deficit only twice,” note the authors of The Cuban Revolution, 25 Years Later. “In the quarter century since Castro, only twice has Cuba not had a deficit.” Humberto Fontova has noted that in 1957 Cuban wages for an eight-hour day were “higher than for workers in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany.” Today the average monthly wage in the socialist economy is less than $25. As Cubans joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

To keep the Cuban economy afloat the Soviet bloc became a benefactor. The demise of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 sounded a death knell both for communism and for Soviet support of Cuba. In 1990 fuel supplied to Cuba by the Soviet Union at bargain prices dropped by more than 25 percent. The trade in other commodities followed suit. From 1989 to 1993 imports dropped 75 percent and GDP 35 percent.

As the economy cratered, Castro insisted on strict adherence to socialist orthodoxy. “We prefer any sacrifice, any fate to that of capitalism”, he resolutely declared in April 1992. Reformers were branded “imperialist puppets” and “traitors” and were treated as enemies of the state.

By 1993 the problems had gone beyond mere statistics. Cuba had become a land where children no longer got milk at school, where paper and pencils were virtually unavailable, where restaurants might require a receipt for your silverware before you departed, where you carried a pail of water with you to toilets, where at a bar you waited for a previous patron to finish his drink so you could use his glass.

Shortages became so commonplace that hotel rooms had signs indicating percentage discounts for a long list of potential deficiencies. To have even a remote chance of acquiring items in short supply required standing for hours in endless lines. This became such a large part of the average Cuban’s life that paying others to stand in the queues became commonplace, so commonplace that the government denounced the practice as antisocial.

Socialism came to Cuba and, just as in Atlas Shrugged, the economy faltered and eventually collapsed.

The following aspects of daily life in socialist Cuba were also key characteristics of life as described in the novel:

near-worthless pesos and pocketed the difference. Tips made it worthwhile.

Foreign tourists could enjoy the good life at resorts and dollar stores which were not merely out of reach of the average Cuban but from which the average Cuban was completely prohibited until 2008. This segregation was so rampant that it had a name: tourism apartheid.

Cuba still has its apologists, its true believers, those who grew up with a poster of Che Guevara on their walls. They point to three achievements as demonstrating the “success” of the Revolution: the abolition of illiteracy, the abolition of abject poverty, and the improvement in health.

The socialist Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, who long idealized Cuba, said of the boast that illiteracy has been abolished: “The statistics regarding the victory over illiteracy are infuriating and harrowing. If it is true that every Cuban knows how to read and write, it is likewise true that every Cuban has nothing to read and must be very cautious about what he writes.”

Cuba had eliminated the juxtaposition of pockets of abject poverty with pockets of opulent wealth prior to 1993. It had done so by impoverishing everyone.

As regards the alleged improvement in health, are a people in excellent health when for forty-five years food has been rationed and people have gone hungry? Is health a priority where surgeons reuse disposable plastic gloves?

“An epidemic of optic neuritis blinded 45,584 people in 1993, caused—according to PAHO [Pan American Health Organization]—by an intake lower than 50 percent of recommended doses of protein, thiamine, vitamins A and E, oils, and other nutrients, which resulted in severe nutritional deficiencies and loss of weight ...” (Market, Socialist, and Mixed Economies)

As to Cuba’s economic debacle, its supporters have an answer for that. They blame Cuba’s problems on Russian perfidy, the U.S. embargo, and the lack of oil resources. Russia didn’t cause Cuba’s problems, Russia deferred them through the provision of more than $65 billion in aid. The end of the handouts merely illuminated the parasitical bankruptcy of Cuba’s economy.

Similarly, when a country’s economy craters despite receiving more than $65 billion in aid and being able to trade with virtually every country in the world except the United States, the problem lies in Cuba not in a lack of trade with the U.S.

As for the lack of oil, the economic success of Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Switzerland and countless other oil-poor countries destroys that rationale.

Cuba’s economic debacle was self-imposed. Castro demanded “Socialism or Death.” Cubans joked that the slogan was redundant.

Death is something Cubans know all too well. It has been estimated that 14,000 Cubans have been executed by firing squads since 1959 and that the total deaths including deaths at sea and of anti-Castro insurgents in the early 1960s exceed 100,000. (Humberto Fontova,"Historians Have Absolved Fidel Castro"). The number of political prisoners is unknown. It has been estimated to have been as high as 60,000 in the early 1960s and Castro himself indicated there were 20,000 in a 1967 interview (Maurice Halperin, "Cuba's Prisoners").

But the “success” of the Revolution is not to be measured by dueling statistics, anecdotal stories, or the sound bites of celebrities, politicians, or media pundits. It is the Cuban people themselves who know what life is like in Cuba.

Like the residents of communist countries for nearly a century, the Cuban people have voted with their feet. The initial exodus in 1959 saw from 40,000 to 75,000 Cubans leave. From 1960 to 1962 between 150,000 and 190,000 Cubans fled. From 1961 to 1962 14,000 children were flown out of Cuba in what became known as Operation Pedro Pan. In 1965 the Camarioca boatlift occurred followed by a six-year airlift which saw more than 250,000 Cubans flee. In 1980 the Mariel boatlift took 125,000. In 1994 the Malecon riot exodus saw 30,000 more flee. And these are just the peaks in a steady stream of Cubans fleeing the island paradise.

Cuba’s economic demise may have surprised Fidel Castro and the true believers. It did not surprise Ayn Rand. The lights went out in Cuba because Atlas shrugged. Today the faint glimmer of light in Cuba from capitalistic economic reforms reflects the bright future of Cuba which lies at the end of the tunnel when socialism is dead and Atlas returns.

Michael C. Monson
About the author:
Michael C. Monson
Auswärtige Angelegenheiten
Ayn Rands Ideen und Einfluss