Castro’s Cuba in Numbers


In the 1950s, in terms of GDP per capita, Cuba was at the level of Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, Greece, and Spain (!), and considerably above Brazil and the Dominican Republican.

Today, it is far behind all of them, having dropped from 20% of US GDP per capita then to just slightly more than 10% today.

So it’s pretty clear that its economic record under Communism was pretty disastrous, though not a complete outlier in the region. The two other big underperformers are Argentina and Haiti. Argentina is somewhat infamous as the only major country to go from First World to developing country living standards over the course of the 20th century, plummeting from 70% of US GDP per capita to less than 30% by the turn of the millennium. The other example is Haiti – that slice of Sub-Saharan Africa in the Americas – which has declined not only in relative but absolute terms over the past half-century.

That said, when Castro made the decision to adopt the Marxist-Leninist model, it had not yet dawned on the popular consciousness that central planning was fundamentally inefficient, so one can’t be too judgmental about that.

The Cuban economy was massively subsidized by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which bought its sugar at artificially inflated prices – though much of that money was in turn frittered away by the Cubans in their African adventures, which did not benefit ordinary Cubans in any way apart from in the form of some vestigial goodwill from foreign progressives. Once those Soviet subsidies dried away from the late 1980s, the Cuban economy started collapsing. (In 2014, Russia wrote off a whopping $32 billion worth of Cuba’s debt).

Ironically, as a result of that, they became the world’s only “sustainable” country, combining high human development with a low ecological footprint.


That said, high human development was not a specifically “Communist” achievement, since it would have happened anyway if perhaps marginally slower. Pre-Castro Cuba was hardly the feudal, illiterate dystopia of Communist propaganda. Its infant mortality rate in the early 1960s, though not quite First World, was nonetheless at almost the exact level of Spain or Italy, and lower than in the rest of Latin America – almost three times lower than in Mexico, Brazil, and Chile. The literacy rate was close to 80% and would have converged to 100% naturally. In this respect, Cuba’s achievements in healthcare and schooling become a great deal less impressive.

The Cuban regime was pretty mild in its level of repression, by Communist standards. The Cuba Archive, which documents deaths and disappearances “resulting from the Cuban revolution,” claims 10,723 victims. However, it also includes the victims of the Batista regime, which might have concentrated as much political violence into a single decade as the Castro regime did over half a century; and its also worth remembering that some proportion of executions even in the most tyrannical states will be genuine criminals. The Black Book of Communism claims a figure of 16,000 executions in Castro’s Cuba, but should not be taken at face value given its propensity for exaggeration. So in per capita terms, Castro’s Cuba seems to have about as politically violent as Pinochet’s Chile or the Argentinian junta (though diluted over a longer time frame), and far less violent than the mainstay Communist regimes of Eurasia or for that matter the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua.

In the longterm, perhaps the most damaging effect is that many of the brightest and most enterprising Cubans have emigrated. Communism is a veritable IQ shredder. Could a post-Castro Cuba still produce a Capablanca?

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. I disagree with you about state-run economies. Market economies produce more economic activity, but a lot of that extra activity is scamming, marketing, litigiousness and other fluff. I define scamming broadly. For example, offering students a marketing degree is scamming to me.

    If Cuba’s healthcare system was private, it would contribute more to Cuba’s GDP, most likely without improving health outcomes.

  2. Yes, the failure is obvious.

    But the US embargo (something from which the other LatAm countries have not suffered from) and the Soviet collapse should be taken into account.

  3. Capitalism is atrocious in providing education, healthcare, legal cover and increasingly, housing. On that count, communist regimes were much better than capitalist regimes at a similar level of economic development.

    But capitalism, has proven far superior to communism in providing consumer goods (cars, TVs, clothes, domestic appliances etc)

    Just look at the roads in Cuba, they are almost entirely empty, the Cubans have no cars!

  4. The Spanish boom under Franco must have been at least partly due to the recovery from the Civil War.

  5. The thing about consumer goods is Western Cold War propaganda. Yes, the Soviet Union didn’t make its own equivalents to Swiss watches, German cars or Italian women’s shoes, but neither did the US. The inability of the US manufacturing sector to produce truly high-quality goods was surely one reason for its death. US trade policies was another.

    I remember Soviet consumer goods. They were fine.

  6. Marketing is a legitimate and necessary activity in a market economy. In order to meet market demand, producers and suppliers have to identify, serve, and communicate to market demand, which is what marketing entails. In the broadest sense, central planning bureaucrats in a communist country trying to figure out how many rolls of bread the population needs are engaging in “marketing.”

  7. The chart is correct but does not reflect true ‘market ” conditions when countries are under an embargo order whereby even private business is prohibited from engaging in acquisition of goods and services. This is not helped by total control by the Cuban government though health care and education participation has equalled or surpassed many of other islands in the hemisphere.

    I say that the embargo is a calculated trap to the extent that Nixon sought out, negotiated with the Chinese communists who tried to exterminate US military in Korea and He (Nixon) is a hero. Even US businesses continue to do business with this Communist giant (China) whle a small Caribbean island is considered a threat and it has at least .00000000001% of people, resources, etc when compared to China and present day Russia under the demigod Putin. WTF!

  8. Haiti was not exactly a paragon of communist revolution, and look where it is on the graph. This article misses the racial makeup of all the nations mentioned, I would bet that Cuba became increasingly non white as a lot of the people fleeing were white.

    Ignoring the big racial elephant in the room, things like having massive trade embargo does obviously damage the economy.

  9. It did, although the Latin American definitions of race are somewhat different, the emigrants were overwhelmingly Spanish or mestizo until 1980.

  10. Anatoly Karlin says

    The Civil War was in the 1930s. That would have been a factor up until 1950 (even though Spain sat out WW2 it still had a negative impact) or so but surely not afterwards.

  11. Anatoly Karlin says

    A note about the embargo – as far as I’m aware it was only effected by the US. Cuba could still trade with Europe and almost everyone else. It even joined the WTO in 1995. So I think it’s unlikely that the embargo had a cardinal impact on the Cuban economy.

  12. Could a post-Castro Cuba still produce a Capablanca?

    heh …

    Cuba still punches above it’s weight in Chess, like many ex communist/Eastern Bloc countries or ex Soviet Republics —

  13. And Cubans in the US send millions in remittances back home, embargo or no.

  14. Odd that Karlin completely ignores the U.S. economic blockade. He completely ignores universal medical care and education through graduate school for all children in Cuba, and not only children of the rich, as in the U.S. Is GDP as a percent of US GDP a better measure of economic success than number of homeless, number in prison versus number in college, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, access to medical care, and percent of population malnourished? If GDP is all that counts, U.S. wins; but if quality of life matters, then Cuba wins by a huge margin.

  15. The US embargo is far from total. Also party elites have privileged place in terms of access to healthcare in Cuba

  16. I remember Soviet consumer goods. They were fine.

    Dunno. All the older Russian and Ukrainian immigrants that I know (people born in the ’50s and ’60s) complain about the poor quality of Soviet consumer goods.

  17. Actually, Swiss watches, German cars, and Italian fashion derive much of their value from what you dismiss and deride as “fluff” and “marketing,” rather than simple material quality. They derive much of their value from their brand value, prestige, and by being luxury goods which induce demand simply by being more expensive.

    The US developed and invented mass automobile production and many of the features and components of modern cars. German cars aren’t better than US cars. German cars are notorious for being overpriced, overengineered, and unreliable money pits. Soviet consumer goods never came close to US goods. The US economy’s weaknesses are precisely in those areas where it resembles the Soviet economy in its centralization – highly concentrated capital markets, highly concentrated consumer products corps, monopsonies like Walmart, etc.

  18. look at the roads in Cuba, they are almost entirely empty, the Cubans have no cars!

    This is not, ipso facto, a bad thing.

  19. it’s unlikely that the embargo had a cardinal impact on the Cuban economy.

    All else equal, the USA would constitute the lion’s share of Cuba’s foreign trade.

    Comparing nearby countries (all rough figures I take from CIA Factbook 2014-’15)

    85% of its $1 billion export trade go to the USA. (!)
    25% of its $3.5 billion import trade comes from the USA (only DomRep sells them more)

    Dominican Republic
    43% of its $10 billion export trade goes to the USA (and a big chunk of the rest goes to Haiti with whom it shares a land border)
    42% of its $17 billion import trade comes from the USA

    24% of its $1.5 billion export trade goes to the USA
    33% of its $5 billion import trade comes from from the USA

    Your analysis is good, as usual, but on this point I think you have underestimated how much of a hit Cuba took by losing the USA as a trading partner. Cuba had to find friends elsewhere, and they didn’t quite make up for what was lost. The CIA data tells us that Venezuela and China alone make up an inordinate share of Cuba’s trade (such as it is):

    27%: Share of Cuba’s $4 Billion Export Trade Destined for Venezuela & China

    49%: Share of Cuba’s $13 Billion Import Trade Originating in Venezuela & China

    I note that Cuba’s trade deficit is similar to Haiti’s and Jamaica’s (imports 35:10 exports). The economy of Jamaica relies on “remittances and tourism,” the latter of which was, of course, once a defining feature of Cuba in American eyes, and from which Cuba could have benefited an awful lot more from over the past sixty years (an enormous, rich, next-door pool of would-be vacationers), but for the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. Yes, the U.S. embargo definitely hurt Cuba.

  20. Anonymous, in what way do you think Walmart is inefficient? And what do you mean by a “highly concentrated capital market”?

  21. When I was in Cuba during the 1990s the Cubans I knew were more impressed with their old US appliances than their Russian ones. And have you ever heard of the East German car(dboards)?

  22. AnonymousCoward says

    we didn’t have access to Soviet archives until after fall of ussr
    we didn’t have access to nazi archives until after fall of NSDAP

    Soviet records are true
    Nazi records are false


  23. Besides East German cars (where engineers were demoted for proposing improvements in the design, because they couldn’t produce enough for all the Eastern Bloc demand with the old design…), the pre-eminent Soviet car, Lada, is a FIAT design licensed from the Italian carmaker.

    So they didn’t even trust their engineers to properly design a car.

  24. Anatoly Karlin says

    Ironically, the one major sphere of the Soviet economy where there was internal competition – the military-industrial sector – was also its most successful and innovative one.

  25. It always amuses me when leftists unironically point to the embargo as the cause of Cuba’s poverty. “So you’re saying that restrictions on trade harm an economy? Who’d have thought?”

  26. Haiti has also had bad or unstable governments with few protections for private property rights. Of course, you could argue that the demographics also determine the politics of a nation, but I’d wager that a benevolent colonialism, with property rights and market policies imposed from above, would see Haiti become wealthier, even if not to white standards.

  27. At least in the US, the government is heavily involved in education, healthcare, legal cover and housing, more so than in those other consumer goods, so you can’t really point to their high costs as evidence of market failure.

  28. “…whle a small Caribbean island is considered a threat…”

    The small Carribean island is 90 miles off our shores and was an outpost of the Soviet Empire for 30 years. After that it played footsie with the PRC and Islamic sponsors of terrorism, plus the oil rich Chavez regime before it just about destroyed itself. One reason for the embargo was so as not to collaborate with, first, Fidel, and then, Raoul, in oppressing their people. Google “Ladies in White.”

  29. I didn’t say it was inefficient. It’s monopsonistic, which means it has monopolistic buying power and can significantly dictate prices to suppliers. This can hinder certain products that need to be more expensive initially to recoup investment in their production before eventually becoming cheaper through the industrial learning curve and mass production.

    This is the same principle behind government “single-payer” healthcare. The government acts as a monopsony, the single buyer of healthcare in the economy, and thus have the monopoly power to dictate lower prices to healthcare providers. This can translate to lower immediate healthcare costs but hinder new or different healthcare products that need to be more expensive, at least initially.

    Highly concentrated capital is basically what communist economies have. Government bureaucrats basically control most of the capital of the country and try to allocate it. In ostensibly capitalist countries, wealth inequality and concentration of capital can lead to similar central planning problems as those in communist economies.

  30. Hector_St_Clare says

    Comparing Cuba to Spain because they started out in a similar place in 1950 is kind of a bad idea. The Spanish economy in 1950 was artificially depressed by the aftereffects of the Civil War, and its ‘natural’ level was quite a bit higher than Cuba’s.

    I also don’t think the flaws of the Cuban economy are entirely attributable to ‘central planning’. They reverted to more of a standard Soviet type economy after Che Guevara was killed in 1967 (IIRC), but in the early 1960s they had experimented with ultra-Left wing variants of communism, in which “moral incentives” like exhortation, social shaming and the like was supposed to take the role of financial incentives. Moral incentives are great in their place, and I’d like to see them take a bigger role in the world, but as a means of planning an entire economy they failed miserably. You can see that in the chart- Cuba’s economy declined sharply (in relative terms) in the 1960s, but then stabilized in the 1970s once they ditched the Guevarist extreme-leftism and adopted a standard Eastern Bloc economy with small pay differentials, rewards based on achievement and so forth.