In the early days of his five-decade social experiment, Fidel Castro set himself a novel key performance indicator. He told CBS anchorman Edward Murrow: "When we have fulfilled our promise of good government, I will cut my beard."
To that extent at least, he has been a man of his word.
Yesterday, Fidel shuffled off into belated retirement sporting a track suit modelled on the Cuban flag with his straggly, white beard intact. His singular failure to deliver good government should come as no surprise to anyone. Communism has been an abject failure wherever it has been tried, and Cuba is no exception.
Yet that Cuba is an exception is precisely what its Western apologists claim, even though none of them has ever been so enamoured of the Cuban miracle that they have chosen to live there. A queue of leftist intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were happy to have photos taken with revolutionary pin-up boy Che Guevara and help out with literacy campaigns, but the same people were rather more close-lipped as newspapers and printing presses were shut down. Half a century on, Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, is still eulogising the Cuban revolution but he's not enthusiastic enough to actually take a job and live in the workers' paradise.
The cappuccino communists and the latte Left have always been conveniently myopic about Cuba under Fidel's shortcomings. If only their political short-sightedness could be corrected with the discount eye surgery Cuba offers to medical tourists. But there is no known remedy for wilful blindness, and the middle-class Canadian and European tourists whose hard currency keeps Cuba going these days love to marvel at the universal healthcare, ignoring the incovenient truth that the standard is appallingly low. The facilities are run down and the doctors are paid a pittance, as are all skilled professionals - teachers, engineers, scientists, managers. Taxi drivers earn more than any of them.
Deprived of the ballot box, Cubans have voted with their feet, or rather their flippers. About two million Cubans have fled across the water to Florida since 1959 in search of political freedom and economic opportunity. More than seventy thousand have drowned in shark-infested waters in the attempt. To the best of our knowledge, only one person has so far swum in the opposite direction, Australia's Susie Maroney - and she only stayed long enough to collect a medal and catch a plane home.
Cuba's apologists claim that the economic hardship in the country is all the fault of the US-led trade embargo. The illogicality of this claim is as striking as it is persistent. Communists claim that capitalism in general and the US in particular exploits workers. If this were true, then why would Cuban communists even want to trade with the US? Despite the rhetoric, the US sells and Cuba happily buys three hundred and fifty million dollars in agricultural products. Exiled Cubans also send home to their not so fortunate families one billion dollars in remittances each year. Most importantly, twenty thousand Cubans are accepted into the US every year, providing a valve to the pressure cooker without which Cuba would have exploded long ago.
We should not delude ourselves that with the departure of Fidel from the presidency, the transformation of Cuba will be immediate or painless. But given that every other country in the area has a democratically elected government, a market economy, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a functioning independent judiciary and rule of law, one would hope that it is only a matter of time before Cuba finally makes some real changes, but I've been hoping for over thirty years now.
I don't expect any real developments towards democracy until Castro's regime is gone.