By Frances Robles | Miami Herald
Fifty years ago, an attorney turned bearded guerrilla marched triumphantly into Havana and declared victory over a departing dictator. Then he became a despot himself.
Fidel Castro forever changed the landscape of both Cuba and Miami. He jailed or executed his enemies, seized private property, divided families, and drove nearly two million Cubans into exile. His nation became a Cold War pawn.
At the same time, Castro launched a massive literacy campaign. The island churned out armies of new doctors. Cuba became an international player, inspiring guerrilla movements and supplying soldiers for ‘‘anti-imperialist’’ wars around the globe. Castro’s refusal to kowtow to the United States won him praise.
As the Jan. 1 anniversary of the revolution’s triumph approaches, many of the social welfare achievements that were the trophies of the communist regime have rusted. Years of failed economic policy, waves of mass exodus, and Cuba’s inability to recover from the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union, have dulled Castro’s touted crown jewels—the advances in health and education.
Still, the revolution that ousted Fulgencio Batista and transformed a tropical getaway into a communist state remains one of the Western Hemisphere’s most significant events of the last century.
‘‘The Cuban government is going to celebrate its 50-year anniversary—50 years of what?’’ said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, who left the island in 1960 when he was 6.
“Fifty years of sacrifice and misery?’‘
In the only communist country in the Western hemisphere, many would argue that Castro had a single resounding success: staying in power. He built a strong rebel army, never bothered with civic freedoms or presidential elections, and created a vast and powerful state security apparatus that kept watch on literally every block.
His regime reigned over a population that is among the world’s best educated, but many still flee. Every year, about 20,000 are issued permits to resettle in the United States, and each year a nearly equal number risk their lives on dangerous sea voyages.
But if numbers alone could tell this story, Castro met his revolutionary goals—without any meddling from Washington.
Within two years after Castro emerged from the jungle in 1959 to seize control of the island, more than 700,000 Cubans learned how to read, and 25,000 new homes were built. Cuba’s communist revolution would eventually produce so many doctors that last year there was one physician per 155 residents, more than double Florida’s ratio. Before Castro, there was one doctor for every 1,058 people.
But today, almost a quarter of the nation’s doctors are serving ‘‘missions’’ overseas so the government can collect much-needed hard currency from their work. So many underpaid educators have left classrooms that the school system is relying on teenage interns to teach.
There is no question that Cuba enjoys a low infant mortality rate, high life expectancy, and crime statistics that any Latin American nation would envy. But experts say Castro’s early accomplishments have declined so sharply that only drastic measures can save them.
‘‘They always say the great achievements were healthcare and education, but in Cuba you don’t spend your whole life sick or studying,’’ said Lizette Fernández, a former banker and dissident who arrived in 2006 and now sells cosmetics in Hialeah. “If the medical system was an accomplishment, doctors would not be writing prescriptions without any hope that you will find the medicine.’‘
Experts stress that when Castro, with the help of his younger brother, RaUl, and other rebels, took over on Jan. 1, 1959, they took the helm of what was already one of the most developed nations in the hemisphere. Cubans led Latin America in the number of households that owned TV sets, and Cuba was outpaced by only Argentina and Uruguay in other economic and social indicators.
According to a report last week by the University of Miami, Cuba already had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and was among the region’s most literate countries.
But the wealth and progress were concentrated in Havana. Illiteracy rates reached 42 percent in the rural areas, while only 23 percent of urban dwellers could not read, according to early national statistics.
Castro’s government promised to change that. It set out to upend the social order, claiming that Cuba would become a nation where women matter as much as men, black people could become doctors, and peasants could read and write.
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