SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONDITIONS IN PRE-CASTRO CUBA*
• In the 1950's Cuba was, socially and economically, a relatively
advanced country, certainly by Latin American standards and, in some
areas, by world standards.
• Cuba's infant mortality rate was the best in Latin America -and the
13th lowest in the world.
• Cuba also had an excellent educational system and impressive literacy
rates in the 1950's.
• Pre-Castro Cuba ranked third in Latin America in per capita food
• Cuba ranked first in Latin America and fifth in the world in
television sets per capita.
• Pre-Castro Cuba had 58 daily newspapers of differing political hues
and ranked eighth in the world in number of radio stations.
• Cuba's infant mortality rate of 32 per 1,000 live births in 1957 was
the lowest in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, according
to UN data. Cuba ranked ahead of France, Belgium, West Germany, Japan,
Austria, Italy, and Spain.
• In 1955, life expectancy in Cuba was among the highest at 63 years of
age; compared to 52 in other Latin American countries, 43 in Asia, and
37 in Africa.
• In terms of physicians and dentists per capita, Cuba in 1957 ranked
third in Latin America, behind only Uruguay and Argentina — both of
which were more advanced than the United States in this measure. Cuba's
128 physicians and dentists per 100,000 people in 1957 was the same as
the Netherlands, and ahead of the United Kingdom (122 per 100,000
people) and Finland.
Cuba has been among the most literate countries in Latin America since
well before the Castro revolution, when it ranked fourth.
Table 1. Latin American Literacy Rates Country Latest Data Available
(Percent) % Increase
Argentina 87 97 11.5%
Cuba 76 96 26.3%
Chile 81 96 18.5%
Costa Rica 79 96 21.5%
Paraguay 68 93 36.8%
Colombia 62 92 48.4%
Panama 72 92 27.8%
Ecuador 56 92 64.3%
Brazil 49 85 73.5%
Dominican Republic 43 84 95.3%
El Salvador 42 79 88.1%
Guatemala 30 69 130%
Haiti 11 49 345.5%
Source: UN Statistical Yearbook 1957, pp. 600-602; UN Statistical
Yearbook 2000, pp. 76-82.
a. Data for 1950-53 are age 10 and over. Data for 1995 are age 15 and
over, reflecting a change in common usage over this period.
b. Data for Argentina 1950-53 is current as 1947 data, the latest
available, and reflects ages 14 and over.
c. Data for 2000 are age 15 and over.
• The 1960 UN Statistical yearbook ranked pre-Revolutionary Cuba third
out of 11 Latin American countries in per capita daily caloric
consumption. This was in spite of the fact that the latest available
food consumption data for Cuba at the time was from 1948-49, almost a
decade before the other Latin American countries' data being used in the
A closer look at the latest available data on some basic food groups
reveals that Cubans now have less access to cereals, tubers, and meats
than they had in the late 1940's. According to 1995 UN FAO data, Cuba's
per capita supply of cereals has fallen from 106 kg per year in the late
1940's to 100 kg half a century later. Per capita supply of tubers and
roots shows an even steeper decline, from 91 kg per year to 56 kg. Meat
supplies have fallen from 33 kg per year to 23 kg per year, measured on
a per capita basis.
Table 2. Latin America: Per Capita Food Consumption Country Latest Data
Available for 1954-57
(Calories per day) 1995-97
(Calories per day) % Increase
Mexico 2,420 3,108 28.4%
Argentina 3,100 3,113 0.4%
Brazil 2,540 2,933 15.5%
Uruguay 2,960 2,796 -5.5%
Chile 2,330 2,774 19.1%
Colombia 2,050 2,591 26.4%
Ecuador 2,130 2,660 24.9%
Paraguay 2,690 2,570 -4.5%
Venezuela 1,960 2,388 21.8%
Honduras 2,260 2,366 4.7%
Cuba 2,730 2,417 -11.5%
Source: UN FAO Yearbook 1960, pp. 312-316; UN FAO Yearbook 2000, pp.
a. Latest 1954-57 available data for Cuba is actually for 1948-49.
Although some would blame Cuba's food problems on the U.S. embargo, the
facts suggest that the food shortages are a function of an inefficient
collectivized agricultural system -and a scarcity of foreign exchange
resulting from Castro's unwillingness to liberalize Cuba's economy,
diversify its export base, and its need to pay off debts owed to its
Japanese, European, and Latin American trading partners acquired during
the years of abundant Soviet aid.
This foreign exchange shortage has severely limited Cuba's ability to
purchase readily available food supplies from the U.S., Canada, Latin
America, and Europe. The U.S. embargo does not prohibit Cuba from buying
food in the U.S.
• The statistics on the consumption of nonfood items tell a similar
story. The number of automobiles in Cuba per capita has actually fallen
since the 1950's, the only country in the hemisphere for which this is
the case. (Unfortunately, due to Castro's unwillingness to publish
unfavorable data, the latest available data for Cuba are from 1988.)
UN data show that the number of automobiles per capita in Cuba declined
slightly between 1958 and 1988, whereas virtually every other country in
the region — with the possible exception of Nicaragua — experienced
very significant increases in this indicator. Within Latin America, Cuba
ranked second only to Venezuela in 1958, but by 1988, had dropped to ninth.
Table 3. Latin America: Passenger Cars per Capita (a) Country 1958 (Cars
per 1,000 inhabitants) 1988 (Cars per 1,000 inhabitants) Annual Average
Argentina 19 129 6.6
Uruguay 22 114 5.3
Venezuela 27 94 4.3
Brazil 7 73 8.1
Mexico 11 70 6.4
Panama 16 56 4.3
Chile 7 52 6.9
Costa Rica 13 47 4.4
Cuba 24 23 -0.1
Dominican Republic 3 23 7.3
Colombia 6 21 4.3
Paraguay 3 20 6.5
Peru 7 18 3.1
Ecuador 2 15 7
Bolivia 3 12 4.7
Guatemala 6 11 2
El Salvador 7 10 1.2
Nicaragua 7 8 0.5
Honduras 3 6 2.3
(a)-For most countries, excludes police and military cars. (b)-Excludes
all government cars. (c)- Includes police cars. (d)-Includes cars no
longer in use. (e)-1957 (f)-1956 (g)-1987.
• Telephones are another case in point. While every other country in the
region has seen its teledensity increase at least two fold — and most
have seen even greater improvements. Cuba has remained frozen at 1958
levels. In 1995, Cuba had only 3 telephone lines per 100 people, placing
it 16th out of 20 Latin American countries surveyed and far behind
countries that were less advanced than Cuba in this measure in 1958,
such as Argentina (today 16 lines per 100 inhabitants), Costa Rica (16),
Panama (11), Chile (13), and Venezuela (11). More recently, as a result
of a joint venture with an Italian firm, there has been considerable
investment, but current data is still unavailable from standard sources.
• Cuba also has not kept pace with the rest of Latin America in terms of
radios per capita. During the late 1950's, Cuba ranked second only to
Uruguay in Latin America, with 169 radios per 1,000 people. (Worldwide,
this put Cuba just ahead of Japan.) At that time, Argentina and Cuba
were very similar in terms of this measure. Since then, the number of
radios per capita for Argentina has grown three times as fast as for
Cuba. Cuba also has been surpassed by Bolivia, Venezuela, El Salvador,
Honduras, and Brazil in this indicator.
• In terms of television sets per capita, 1950's Cuba was far ahead of
the rest of Latin America and was among the world's leaders. Cuba had 45
television sets per 1,000 inhabitants in 1957, by far the most in Latin
America and fifth in the world, behind only Monaco, the United States,
Canada, and the United Kingdom. In fact, its closest competitor in Latin
America was Venezuela, which had only 16 television sets per 1,000
people. By 1997, Cuba had increased from 170 televisions to 239 per
thousand, behind Mexico (272 per capita) and tying Uruguay for second
place. Of these two countries, Uruguay in 1957 had fewer than one
television per 1,000 people.
Post 1959 Cuba falls short in areas of industrial production once
prioritized by Soviet client states, such as electricity production.
Although Cuba has never been a regional leader in public electricity
production per capita, its relative ranking among 20 Latin American
countries has fallen from eighth to 11th during the Castro era. In fact,
in terms of the rate of growth of electricity production, in 1995 Cuba
ranked 9th of 20 countries in the region.
• Cuba ranked fourth in the region in production of rice in 1958. Two of
the countries ranking ahead of Cuba in rice production in 1958,
Venezuela and Bolivia, have since seen their rice production grow by
more than 28 fold through 2000. Cuba's Caribbean neighbor, the Dominican
Republic, has increased its rice production by five fold since 1958.
Perhaps even more telling are Cuba's yields per hectare in rice
production. Whereas the Dominican Republic has increased rice yields
from 2100 kg per hectare in 1958 to 5400 kg per hectare in 1996, Cuba's
yields stagnated at 2500 kg per hectare, a negligible increase from the
2400 kg per hectare registered in 1958, according to UN FAO data.
Table 4. Latin America: Rice Production Country 1958
(1,000 Metric Tons) 2000
(1,000 Metric Tons) % Increase
Brazil 3,829 11,168 191.7%
Colombia 378 113 -70.1%
Ecuador 176 1,520 763.6%
Peru 285 1,665 484.1%
Argentina 217 858 295.4%
Uruguay 58 1,175 1925.9%
Venezuela 22 737 3250%
Dominican Republic 99 527 432.3%
Mexico 240 450 87.5%
Bolivia 11 310 2718.2%
Panama 86 319 271%
Cuba 261 369 41.3%
Nicaragua 33 285 764.5%
Costa Rica 34 264 677.1%
Chile 102 113 10.8%
Paraguay 20 93 365%
El Salvador 27 48 76.3%
Honduras 41 7 -82.2%
Guatemala 33 39 17.3%
Source: UN FAO Yearbook 1961, p. 50; UN FAO Yearbook 1999 Latin America,
Central America, and the Carribean 2000.
a. 2000 Figures for Venezuela, Cuba, Paraguay and Guatemala are
• In the 1950s, Cuba milled an average of 43.9 million metric tons of
sugarcane at a rate of 507,000 metric tons per day to produce 5.63
million metric tons of sugar per year. Today, Cuba's sugar production
ranges from 1 to 1.5 million metric tons per year.
Foreign Trade and Balance of Payments
• Cuba's exports have not kept pace with other countries of the region.
Of the 20 countries in the region for which comparable IMF data are
available, Cuba ranks last in terms of export growth — below even
Haiti. Mexico and Cuba had virtually identical export levels in 1958 —
while Mexico's population was five times Cuba's.
Since then, Cuba's exports have merely doubled while Mexico's have
increased by almost 226 fold, according to IMF statistics for 2000.
Cuba's exports in 1958 far exceeded those of Chile and Colombia,
countries that have since left Cuba behind. The lack of diversification
of Cuba's exports over the past 35 years also is remarkable, when
compared with other countries in the region.
• Cuba's enviable productive base during the 1950's was strengthened by
sizable inflows of foreign direct investment. As of 1958, the value of
U.S. foreign direct investment in Cuba was $861 million, according to
United States government figures published in 1959. Adjusting for
inflation, that foreign investment number amounts to more than US 3.6
billion in today's dollars.
• Cuba also had a very favorable overall balance of payments situation
during the 1950's, contrasted with the tenuous situation today. In 1958,
Cuba had gold and foreign exchange reserves — a key measure of a
healthy balance of payments–totaling $387 million in 1958 dollars,
according to IMF statistics.
(That level of reserves would be worth more than 3.6 billion USD in
today's dollars.) Cuba's reserves were third in Latin America, behind
only Venezuela and Brazil, which was impressive for a small economy with
a population of fewer than 7 million people. Unfortunately, Cuba no
longer publishes information on its foreign exchange and gold reserves.
Table 5. Latin America: Total Exports Country 1958
(Million USD) 2000
Haiti 48 324
Panama 23 772
Nicaragua 71 941
Bolivia 65 1,098
Paraguay 34 1,099
Chile 389 1216
Dominican Republic 136 1,544
Cuba 732 1,544
Uruguay 139 2,295
El Salvador 116 2,973
Honduras 70 4,123
Guatemala 103 4,206
Ecuador 95 5,546
Peru 291 6,920
Costa Rica 92 7,729
Colombia 461 13,115
Argentina 994 26,663
Venezuela 2,319 34,038
Brazil 1,243 56,138
Mexico 736 166,455
Source: IMF Direction of Trade Statistics.
During the 1950's, the Cuban people were probably among the most
informed in the world, living in an uncharacteristically large media
market for such a small country. Cubans had a choice of 58 daily
newspapers during the late 1950's, according to the UN statistical
yearbook. Despite its small size, this placed Cuba behind only Brazil,
Argentina, and Mexico in the region. By 1992, government controls had
reduced the number of dailies to only 17.
There has also been a reduction in the number of radio and television
broadcasting stations, although the UN no longer reports these
statistics. However, it should be noted that in 1957, Cuba had more
television stations (23) than any other country in Latin America, easily
outdistancing larger countries such as Mexico (12 television stations)
and Venezuela (10). It also led Latin America and ranked eighth in the
world in number of radio stations (160), ahead of such countries as
Austria (83 radio stations), United Kingdom (62), and France (50),
according to the UN statistical yearbook.
*Unless otherwise indicated, all information is from the UN Statistical
Yearbook; the Statistical Abstract for Latin America; and the Bureau of
Inter-American Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
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