The Costa Rican example

Every time Cuba becomes a topic here– as it did recently with the retirement of Comandante Castro as president– we hear from apologists who offer some variation of George Orwell‘s pro-Stalinist professor from 1946:

He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

Many (though by no means all) of Castro’s western apologists have “freely conceded” Cuba’s shortcomings in terms of democratic government and human rights. But they are quick to suggest that these shortcomings, while regrettable, have allowed Cuba to make remarkable “concrete achievements” in terms of health care and education for its citizens. In other words, these achievements were only possible because of a willingness to forego “bourgeois” freedoms.

But then we come to the inconvenient example of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is a uniquely fortunate Central American country. Since a brief but bloody civil war in 1948, it has enjoyed nearly 60 years of peaceful democratic government. Perhaps just as fortunate for the country, it has managed to get along without an army for those 60 years. Costa Rica abolished its military after the civil war.

For most of the post-civil war era, Costa Ricans have elected presidents from the Partido Liberación Nacional, a social democratic party and a member of the Socialist International. The current president, Óscar Arias Sánchez, is a member of that party. Freedom House gives Costa Rica its highest rankings in terms of civil liberties and political rights, while Cuba gets the lowest possible rankings in both categories.

So how does Costa Rica measure against Cuba in terms of education and health care? I haven’t done a detailed comparison, but I have found some revealing statistics.

According to the latest United Nations Development Report, Cuba has achieved near-universal adult literacy: an impressive 99.8 percent. Costa Rica’s adult literacy rate is a slightly lower 94.9 percent. However in Costa Rica, unlike in Cuba, people are free to use their literacy to read and write pretty much whatever they want.

According to the latest available statistics from the World Health Organization, Costa Rica— which provides universal health care to its citizens– has a life expectancy at birth of 75 years for males and 80 years for females. For Cuba, life expectancy is 75 years for males and 79 years for females.

In Costa Rica, healthy life expectancy (which includes an adjustment for time spent in poor health) is 65 years for men and 69 years for women. In Cuba it’s 67 years for men and 70 years for women.

In Costa Rica, the mortality rate between the ages of 15 and 60 is 125 per 1,000 population for men and 73 per 1,000 for women. In Cuba, it’s 128 per 1,000 for men and 83 per 1,000 for women.

The only significant difference in health statistics between the two countries that I could find was in under-five mortality. In Costa Rica, the probability of dying before the age of five is 12 per 1,000 live births. In Cuba it’s 7 per 1,000 live births.

However when you compare the rate of decline in under-five mortality in the years since the Cuban revolution, Costa Rica’s achievement is much more impressive. In 1960 Costa Rica’s under-five mortality rate was 112 per 1,000, compared to Cuba’s 54 per 1,000– suggesting that even under the rotten Batista regime, Cuba had made remarkable strides in health care for mothers and young children compared to the rest of Latin America.

I’m not suggesting Costa Rica is a model state in every way. Like Cuba it suffers from poverty, corruption and sex tourism involving under-age girls. But its relative success in the fields of education and health goes a long way toward demolishing the myth that “concrete achievements” in Latin America are only possible through dictatorship and repression of dissent.