Now that President Obama has opened relations with Cuba, and plans to visit this month, Canadians are saying, “Let’s get down there before Americans ruin the place.” Too late: the ruin began with the 1959 revolution.

Many Canadians’ understanding of modern Cuba come from scenes in Godfather II where the mafia, and a military dictatorship ran the country into the ground. To paraphrase George Santayana’s aphorism, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to have Hollywood teach it to them.

Life under dictator Fulgencio Batista certainly wasn’t a proud time for Cuba. But here’s what we forget: Cuba had an economy that grew throughout the 1950s with rising industrial and agricultural wages comparable to those in Europe. Workers were entitled to one-month paid holiday, an eight-hour workday (going back to 1933), and mothers were given six-weeks leave before and after childbirth.

Although GDP per capita was one-sixth that of the U.S., pre-revolutionary Cuba enjoyed Latin America’s highest per capita consumption of meats, fruits and vegetables along with high levels of ownership of cars, telephones and radios. There were 58 different daily newspapers.
By the late 1950s, Cuba had more doctors per capita than the U.K. and the lowest infant-mortality rate in Latin America and the 13th-lowest in the world. Today, hard currency is earned by sending talented doctors abroad while their families are held back to discourage defections.

The Castro government boasts about its education system, but according to the UN, pre-revolution Cuba already had a literacy rate higher than Spain’s at the time. Cuba’s spending on education in the 1950s was the highest in Latin America as a share of GDP.

Today Cuba has over 30 universities and institutes — just no access to modern textbooks, Internet, email or international media and academic journals. One has to ask what education means in a country that has little to read and what remains is filtered through Marxist ideology. Cuba’s standard of living now ranks alongside Albania’s and Sri Lanka’s. Trained engineers and professors aspire to drive cabs and wait tables so that they can sustain their families on tourists’ tips.

While Cuba chose to hitch its wagon to the doomed Soviets, Chile escaped a similar fate in the early ’70s, and now has a GDP per capita two-and-a-half times greater than Cuba’s.

None of this justifies the pre-revolutionary brutality of Batista (although he did one thing Fidel never did: he won an election). He tortured and killed enemies, while presiding over a country overrun by corruption, gambling, brothels and smugglers. But after the revolution, it was the Communists’ turn to suspend civil liberties, jail dissidents, writers, homosexuals and continue the mass killings, especially under Che Guevara. Meanwhile, prostitution is still rife: only now, the state is the pimp.

But tough times under Castro meant good times for Canadians, who enjoy cheap vacations, subsidized by Cuban labour. Tourists to Havana see a once magnificent city — it had more movie theatres than New York City — now a populated ghost town, with crumbling infrastructure and atrocious public transit.

No wonder over 30,000 Cubans fled to the U.S. in 2015. More are trying to get out before Congress rescinds the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives automatic residence to any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil. In the Godfather II, Batista and the wealthy scramble into the New Year’s Eve night, fleeing Castro’s approaching forces. Now, it’s Cuba’s poor fleeing Castro’s failed system.

Apologists blame the U.S. embargo for Cuba’s wretchedness. But it is not a blockade. Other countries trade with Cuba. Washington’s Cuba policy is just a convenient excuse for a wrecked economy where most public resources are funnelled to an outsized military and bureaucracy.

In the end, Castro’s revolution ruined the lives of two generations of people who had become known for genius in the arts, industry and athletics. Think of all the talented Desi Arnazes, Marco Rubios and countless Cuban scholars and writers denied to the world. All wasted on a failed political ideology.

This article was published in the Financial Post.