Sure Fidel Castro was a dictator but what about that free health care, eh?

We've all seen the point being made over the past couple of days. Sure, Fidel wasn't perfect and he stuck to the damn Yankees and what about that free health care, eh? 

At which point something that not a lot of people seem to be aware of:

To his critics, the late Fidel Castro was a totalitarian despot, an opponent of free speech and a man determined to preserve his hard-won revolution whatever the cost.

But to his defenders and admirers, he was a leader whose enlightened and practical approach to social care provided Cuba with enviable health and education systems.

Figures from the UN children’s agency, Unicef, show that Cuba’s youth literacy rate stands at 100%, as does its adult literacy rate.


Life expectancy in Cuba is 81 years for women and 77 for men. In the UK, it is 83 years and 79 respectively. And while the former spends $2,475 per capita on healthcare, the latter spends $3,337. Cuba dedicates 11.1% of its GDP to health; the UK 9.1%.

Those numbers don't add up - If it's 11% of GDP and spending is $2,475 per capita then GDP per capita is near $23,000 a year in Cuba. No, Cuba really is not about as rich as Malta (nominal GDP per capita) nor Chile nor Panama (PPP per capita).

Which is the thing to draw attention to. The various statistics about the island are all drawn from the Cuban government. Those Unicef, the WHO ones, are all added up from the data passed over by the Cuban government. There is no independent verification of the basic figures. Which brings us to this:

Some, however, argue that the success of Cuba’s social care owes as much to politics and pragmatism as to equality and governmental magnanimity.

As a senior western diplomat told the Guardian in 2007: “Health and education are the revolution’s pillars of legitimacy so the government has to make them work. If they don’t, it loses all its moral authority.”

We would slightly change that - so the government has to make them appear to work.

One of us spent most of the 1990s working in Russia. And one thing we learned there was that no number coming out of a communist dictatorship was to be trusted - and it was not just us, the statisticians had to start with the assumption that absolutely every economic number was entirely wrong.

Which is what drives our assumption about those social statistics. They're made up.

If only there were something like Benford's Law which could be applied to health and demographic statistics to check....