Cuba's Literacy Rate, Life Expectancy Nothing to Lionize

Dictatorships may value literacy as much as democracies, but they value life a lot less.


Recently, I had a conversation with an American acquaintance, who bemoaned the lack of "free" education and healthcare in the United States. "Even Cuba," he continued with a non-sequitur, "has higher literacy and life expectancy [than America]." In case you wonder what circles I happen to move in, recall that even President Obama recently waxed lyrical about Cuba's education and healthcare. To quote the sage of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, "I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, look, you've made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education—that's a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care—the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That's a huge achievement. They should be congratulated."

The left has a long history of lionizing Cuba's education and health, while ignoring or downplaying the island's poverty and dictatorship. Underlying all conversations that I have had with American leftists about Cuba has been an implicit acceptance of a tradeoff between freedom and "free stuff." "Yes, Cuba is not a democracy," the argument usually goes, "but at least they have free education and healthcare. And, we don't!" The casual way in which the left glosses over Cuba's dictatorship is all the more remarkable considering that here at home the left is hypersensitive to voting rights and the supposed attempts by the political right to disenfranchise America's minorities.

And that got me thinking, what is the relationship between literacy and life expectancy on the one hand, and democracy and dictatorship on the other hand? In 2012, the last year for which Human Progress has data on Cuban literacy, 40 out of 73 countries and territories surveyed by UNESCO had literacy rates among adults higher than 90 percent. With 99.75 percent, Cuba came in second place—after Azerbaijan. According to Freedom House, out of the 40 countries and territories in the top decile, 35 percent were politically free, 35 percent were partly free and 27.5 percent were unfree (the rest had no Freedom House score).

The contrast between free and unfree countries is much starker when it comes to life expectancy. In 2014, out of 198 countries and territories surveyed by the World Bank, 35 had a life expectancy over 80 years. With 79.39 years, Cuba was not one of them. It ranked in the 38th place globally. With 78.94 years, the United States came in 43rd place. Thus, while Cuba has edged out the United States, it is not in any way remarkable by global standards. In fact, out of the 35 countries and territories with life expectancy over 80 years, 83 percent were free and 6 percent were partly free (the rest had no Freedom House score). Not one unfree country had a life expectancy over 80 years!

What are we to make of this? It may well be that a literate population is relatively highly valued by both dictatorial and democratic government. When newspapers are tightly controlled by the government, having the populace read the government propaganda seem like a good thing. But when it comes to life expectancy—an excellent proxy for the standard of living in general and health of the populace in particular—dictatorships can't hold a candle to democracies.

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  1. Question – against whose life expectancy rate do the people who die trying to get from Cuba to America get tallied?

    1. America’s, of course, based on the “attractive nuisance” theory of liability.

  2. “Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy.”

    ? John Derbyshire

    1. I’m a regular visitor to takimag, though some of the pieces lately have been annoying (i.e. not libertarian). Thanks for the quote.

    2. Back in the 80’s, the Soviet Bloc countries always reported 99+ percent literacy rates. I remember reading those stats in grade school and students asking the teachers if they killed the retarded people like the Nazi’s.

      1. Yes, I was about to inquire as to the source of these statistics showing an alleged 99.75% literacy rate in Cuba. I suspect it is as accurate as Argentina’s inflation statistics were under its prior administration.

        1. “The government [is] extremely fond of amassing great quantities of statistics. These are raised to the nth degree, the cube roots are extracted, and the results are arranged into elaborate and impressive displays. What must be kept ever in mind, however, is that in every case, the figures are first put down by a village watchman, and he puts down anything he damn well pleases.” — Sir Josiah Stamp

          Always loved that quote.

  3. The left has a long history of lionizing Cuba’s education and health, while ignoring or downplaying the island’s poverty and dictatorship.

    For a while now the left has been trying to bring about the second part for the supposed purpose of getting us to their ideal of that first part.

    1. I suspect progressives envy the power of dictatorships. The power to do what’s best for everybody whether they like it or not.

      1. They labor under the illusion that every inequality and unfortunate fact of life can be righted with enough effort and force, while ignoring the wrongs that they commit in the attempts to do so.

      2. You don’t need to “suspect” it — they are constantly admitting it.

        “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”…..ina-is-bet

        1. Yeah, it has advantages over more brutal and oppressive autocracies.

  4. You don’t live longer in Cuba,it just seems like you do.

  5. Pretty weak.
    What does the data show? That Cuba exceeds the US in both literacy and life expectancy.
    So the problem with the leftist argument is what, precisely?

    Is Cuba a repressive dictatorship? Of course.
    Are repressive dictatorships evil and unacceptable as models for society? Of course.
    But on the narrow point raised, the leftists have it right — Cuba has higher literacy and longer life expectancy than the US.

    Ultimately, that’s the beauty of freedom. People who prefer the Cuban style should get to enjoy it. They just should be prevented from imposing it on others.
    If the argument is that the only way to get these benefits is for the social system to be imposed, the argument reduces to ‘slavery is good because slaves live better lives’. That’s the argument to focus on.

    1. There’s also some really interesting additional nuggests when life expectancy in the united states gets broken down by demographic. The data in question is usually bandied about in attempt to prove racism, but there are subcultures where behavioural norms lead to dramatically reduced life expectancies. (And not all of them involve the phrase “Hold my beer and watch this”)

      1. Then there’s genetics to factor in. Hawai’i has the highest life expectancy in the US at 81.3 years, driven largely by the large asian population on the islands. At the same time, DC has a Life expectancy of 76.5 years, though the life expectancy for the white population of DC is 84.

        There’s a lot more to the story than the agregate numbers. Agregate numbers are what give us fallacies like the pay gap.

      2. America’s higher infant mortality rate also factors into the stats, which is mostly due to America counting very premature births as infant mortality while other countries tend to consider them miscarriages that don’t get added to the stats.

        1. Isn’t that also the case for newborns who die within days of birth?

          I seem to recall reading that despite the higher infant mortality numbers that result from our method of record keeping, certain categories of at risk births have a better chance of surviving in a US hospital because they’re treated as alive at birth and more effort is expended keeping them that way.

          1. Yes, that is correct. America also has lots of highways and lots of cars, so we have lots of accidents and auto deaths, which also skews life expectancy.

            1. The solution is obvious: fewer roads; fewer cars. It’s affluence that’s causing this mortality.

    2. Cuba exceeds the US in both literacy and life expectancy

      There are no reliable figures for literacy in the United States, so how can one even compare the two?

      And the difference in life expectancy is less than half a year.

      Never mind that Cuba would rate as a medium-sized state in the US; comparing the two is not apples-to-apples.

      1. There are also known measurement problems with Cuban life expectancy, which relate to infant mortality.
        The US has a lot of in vitro fertilization which causes more twins/triplets/etc and other high-risk pregnancies. And the US counts every premature birth with a pulse as a live birth, whereas many OECD countries and Cuba wait longer to declare a live birth (and therefore count a possible infant death).
        But who cares, such details would ruin a good tale.

      2. There are also no reliable figures for literacy (or life expectancy) in Cuba.

    3. And if you believe these life expectancy and literacy figures self-reported by a totalitarian state, boy do I have a lot of Pravda articles on the wonders of the Soviet economic productivity for you.

      1. I believe them, the same way I believe their incarceration rates, and the same way I believe our unemployment numbers.

        If you game the definition, then you can achieve just about any result.

    4. Ultimately, that’s the beauty of freedom. People who prefer the Cuban style should get to enjoy it. They just should be prevented from imposing it on others.

      The “Cuban style” requires that it be imposed on others. That’s how it “works”.

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  7. Progressive liberals are either woefully ignorant, indifferent to the misery of people outside their realm or plain evil.

    Or all of the above.

    How something literacy rates and nationalized health came to trump basic human rights is beyond me. If you don’t have the latter, what good are the former?

    1. If you don’t have the latter, what good are the former?

      They invert the formulation; it is better to them that they be well-treated slaves than impoverished freemen.

      1. aka the Tony Theory of Rights

        1. To them, it seems, the idea that you could be a well-off freeman (as most of them are, more or less, their own favored form of government notwithstanding) is unthinkable. To hear them tell it, the affluence we have achieved is entirely due to the benevolence of government and the visionaries who called for and enacted the legislation and executive action that delivered us from evil.

          Never mind that most of these enlightened souls never produced a damn thing of any value with their lives, and the few who had–the wealthy “philanthropists”–were at that point so far divorced from the workings of the businesses they once ran that they were barely distinguishable from the other sort.

  8. Woo5 indeed. well said Phil

    1. Quite so – the bold print did it for me!

  9. Underlying all conversations that I have had with American leftists about Cuba has been an implicit acceptance of a tradeoff between freedom and “free stuff.” “Yes, Cuba is not a democracy,” the argument usually goes, “but at least they have free education and healthcare. And, we don’t!”

    If they are suggesting that it is an acceptable trade-off, I suggest that they go fuck themselves.

    1. up the ass, with a live cattle prod…

  10. So we take their claims of literacy and life expectancy at face value, eh?

  11. Underlying all conversations that I have had with American leftists about Cuba has been an implicit acceptance of a tradeoff between freedom and “free stuff.” “Yes, Cuba is not a democracy,” the argument usually goes, “but at least they have free education and healthcare. And, we don’t!”

    If they are suggesting that it is an acceptable trade-off, I suggest that they go fuck themselves.

    1. Well, millions of Americans get education and healthcare every year without paying a cent out of their own pockets for it. Its free in exactly the same way as Cuban education and healthcare is.

      They seem to be complaining that “rich” people have to pay for their own healthcare, which seems kind of a strange complaint for leftists to have.

  12. Life expectancy does not measure the quality or availability of medical care whatsoever.

    If you exclude fatal injuries from all countries’ statistics, the US actually comes out on top.…..ancy12.png

    Plus who would actually trust Cuba’s statistics on the matter anyway?

    1. Not me

    2. That chart is immediately suspicious since Japan’s life expectancy with fatal injuries is higher than than without.

      Is somone murdering their centinarians?

      I call bullshit on that chart.

      1. It’s explained in the article.…..xpectancy/

        UPDATE: A number of mathematically astute readers have asked why some countries have increased average life expectancies once you take out fatal injuries. I asked Robert Ohsfeldt about this, who responded that the adjustment factor was based on fatal injury rates relative to the average. Hence, the adjusted numbers shouldn’t be seen as hard numerical estimates of life expectancy, but rather as a way of understanding the true relative ranking of the various countries on life expectancy excluding fatal injuries.

        1. So, he pulled numbers out of his Ass.

          I stick by my call of bullshit.

          1. And there’s no way Cuba’s doing that?

            Anyway, I was going to try to explain to you what a standardized mean is, but I figure it’s not worth bothering. As I’ll “just be pulling stuff out of my Ass”.

            Statistics, how do they work?

            1. I know how statistics work. Which is why his response didn’t change my assessment of his methodology. He decided on the point he wanted to make and massaged the numbers until something fitting that conclusion was created.

              Statistics is lying with numbers. Especially when applied to this type of data set.

              1. It could also mean that in Japan fatal injuries are more spread out as far as age range goes. Whereas in the US they are more heavily concentrated among the young.

                Car crashes I’d assume are far less common in Japan.

                1. Or rather… it could be in Japan the fatal injuries excluded were largely elderly.

                  If fatal injuries are merely excluded (as is implied), and they are removed from either end of the extreme the mean could potentially change like this.

                  It is still strange though, more info on his methodology would be nice. I’m having trouble finding much on it.

                  1. There’s this though:


                    Japanese aged 60 and over were the fastest growing age group among suicide cases, jumping by 987 last year to 12,107 deaths, an increase of 8.9 per cent from 2006. The age group made up 36.6 per cent of all suicides in Japan in 2007.

            2. Do you have any stats on the rate of conviction for American sex tourists who return to the States after having solicited child prostitutes in Cuba?

              1. God forbid I question that enforcing laws against “child” (however you wish to define the term) prostitution helps protect them from poverty any more than enforcing laws against prostitutes over the age of 18 does, or that somehow possessing or distributing a recording or photograph of a crime against a child means you must have somehow contributed to it any more than owning surveillance footage of a 7-Eleven getting robbed would mean you contributed to the robbery.

                Yes, by all means I must be touring poverty stricken countries for defenseless children to pay to have sex with me.

                Great humor man. You really know how to be the cool kid on the block. I commend you.

                But I suppose you’re one of the people who can’t see past your hatred of Gawker to admit that Hulk Hogan’s reputation can’t be injured or falsely smeared by someone releasing something truthful about him either.

                Principals over principles. The feels is as much with you as any progtard.

  13. Why do they keep touting “free” education? Doesn’t the US also have “free” education?

    1. The Cubans probably have “free” post-secondary education, for the handful of lucky serfs whom the party will anoint to attend it.

      Of course, the goalposts have completely shifted past K-12 education largely because they’ve spent the past 50 years completely fucking that up. Generally speaking, you only do well if you live in a wealthy area and/or your parents care about seeing you educated; basically, the very same system that they claimed to be opposed to they have ended up recreating. But this time, they get to control the propaganda, so it’s all good.

      1. But isn’t it common for leftist policies to produce that which they claimed to eradicate?

      2. And then they will turn college into high school.

        Solution: free grad school

    2. Perhaps we should model our educational system after Cuba’s, per pupil spending and all.

      1. I doubt their teachers are highly compensated with comfortable tenure, either…

        After the Kulaks and wreckers are taken care of, the communists next go after labor unions.

  14. The more correct comparison is life expectancy and literacy rate of Cubans in Cuba vs. life expectancy and literacy rate of Cubans in the US.

    1. I don’t think that’s “more correct” at all. The analogue of Cubans in the United States (who emigrated post-Castro) would be Cuban dissidents. They were mostly killed and sent to labor camps, which I imagine skews the numbers a bit.

      1. The analogue of Cubans in the United States (who emigrated post-Castro) would be Cuban dissidents.

        Not at all, no.

        1. Would you care to elaborate?

          1. Because the independent variable would be geo-political, no?

            1. Is that not just restating my argument? I could compare Nigerians in the US to Nigerians in Nigeria, but for many purposes that would not be a fair comparison; the Nigerians who immigrate here are not representative of the population of Nigeria.

              Similarly, the Cubans who emigrated Cuba are not (necessarily) representative of the modern Cuban population.

              1. I agree. Self-selection bias.

                1. To be fair, “not representative” and “equivalent to dissidents” are two distinct points. I’m not trying to shift the goalposts.

  15. The left is hypersensitive to voting rights because they think that the voters who would be affected by more stringent enforcement of voting requirements are theirs. It is not a principled position (they try to get votes such as military absentee ballots disallowed at every available opportunity, as those people are less likely to vote for them).

  16. Prison offers free education and health care too.

    1. Excellent rejoinder. Pithy, accurate, and mean. I like it.

    2. So just commit a crime, go to jail and live happily ever after. (Love the peanut gallery comments).

      1. So just go live in Cuba and live happily ever after. Apparently the parallels between prison and communist dictatorships are lost on you.

  17. To a “progressive” there is no trade-off; they don’t value freedom so they don’t think they’re giving up anything.

    They don’t want to live in a free society. To live in a free society, you have to be able to get along with people rather than meddling and lecturing and hectoring.

  18. The biggest surprise I got from this article is that the difference in life expectancy between Cuba and the U.S. is a whopping six months. Six months!? Leaving aside that such a spread easily falls into statistical fudge factors (as other commenters have pointed out), how can leftists keep a straight face as they argue that giving up even more freedom would be justified for a whopping six-month gain?

    And has anyone considered the fact that obesity rates is likely much lower over there due to lifestyle factors such as more walking/manual work/walking outdoors and that there is likely more fresh foods in the diet and less processed junk? How about we compare the life expectancy of normal weight people in the U.S. and normal weight Cubans? I have a feeling the results would be quite different.

    Then there’s the literacy issue. So Cuba\s literacy rate is higher because their education is free? As other commenters pointed out, K-12 education in the U.S. is also free. What impact does post-secondary education have on basic literacy anyway? If someone has managed to finish high school and is still illiterate, I have a feeling that free college is not going to make a difference.

    1. College education in Cuba is also free. All the way to the Doctoral level. Doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed. You don’t graduate with F’s. You don’t get in with D’s. If you have the academic acumen then you can go to college free in Cuba. I have family there that are doctors, lawyers & engineers. All went to school for free. (Don’t ask how much they make, that’s a separate discussion).

  19. I seem to recall that the slaves in the pre-? Civil War south also had free healthcare provided to them.

  20. For years Cuba’s health system [and pretty much everything else in Cuba] was propped by the USSR as a client state and for propaganda purposes; once the soviets imploded, that gravy train came to an end. Of course they are still playing with the numbers to maintain the superiority of la revolution over evil markets.

    No doubt is is much more egalitarian than our system, as everyone gets the same sub standard level of care [as with pretty much everything else in Cuba]. This is far more important to progressives than actual quality or real outcomes of course. I am sure the overall sense of fairness just makes people so much happier and, consequently, healthier. And what but a retrograde capitalist would need research to prove that?

    1. Egalitarian? Ha! Cuba has two very different health care systems. One provides a very good level of care for party insiders and cash-paying tourists. The other provides bare-bones care to the glorious workers, with clinics that are “free”, but often lack even fairly basic supplies and pharmaceuticals. So if you’re poor, you’re guaranteed care, but there’s no guarantee that it will do you much good.

  21. I guy goes to the doctor and the doctor tells him he only has 6 months to live. The guy is completely devastated and says, ‘Is there anything I can do?’. The doctor says, ‘Yes. Marry a Jewish-American princess and move to Kansas.’ The guy says, ‘Will this make me live any longer?’. The doctor says, ‘No. But that 6 months will seem like a life-time!’.

    Maybe living in abject poverty under Castro just s—e—e—m—s like more than 80 years.

  22. Your reference to Poverty in Cuba fails to attribute its root cause. Not from – what you describe as – Cuba’s “Dictatorship”, but rather from the U.S. Embargo against Cuba, which is estimated to have damaged that islands economy by more than $40 Billion Dollars. (Money that would have been reinvested not only repairing its crumbling infrastructure, but to modernize the country as well). This is clearly demonstrated by Cuba’s priority in Education, Health and Housing.

    How does such a “Poor Country” like Cuba have a HIGHER Literacy Rate than America? (Cuba’s 99.8% vs. the U.S. 97%). How does a Poor Country like Cuba provide Universal Health Care for all its 12 Million inhabitants while in America, there are 43 Million people without Health Care??!!! To put 43 Million in perspective, that is like the ENTIRE Country of Argentina as having no health care. (There would be riots in the street, but in Pacified America, nothing).

    In the United States, one of the most wealthy countries in the world, there are approximately half a million homeless, but in Cuba – as many consider one of the poorest countries in the world, there is virtually no homeless and close to 90% of the people own their own homes. Cuba’s unemployment at 2%!!! Meanwhile, Puerto Rico, a similar island captured after the “Cuban Spanish War of 1895”, presently has unemployment as high as 20%. (I wanted to add much more, but capped at 1500 characters).

    1. And the per capita gdp is $6000 roughly 1/10th what it is here. I wonder how many Americans would prefer a system that consists of an oppressive communist dictatorship combined with a standard of living that is 90% lower than it is here?

      I somehow don’t think most people believe grinding poverty and a total murderous police state is a good trade off in exchange for free reading lessons explaining the majesty of dear leader.

      I could be wrong of course. Bernie’s acolytes probably think its a swell tradeoff.

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  25. why does the supposed libertarian right pretend like cuba exists in a vacuum? Its surrounded by countries with market economies and equally poor track records for human rights. fact is, the average cuban enjoys a higher standard of living than the average jamaican, and the social contract between the cuban people and government is far better than most latin american countries which are 3rd world.

    some of the arguments i’m seeing in this article and the comments section are pathetic. If cuba can achieve this, there is no goddamn reason the most powerful country in the history of the earth cant achieve this. why does america have the highest prison population in the world? above china and russia combined? how come america is the only developed nation without universal healthcare coverage? how come USA ranks so poorly in so many measures compared to OECD nations?

    The simple answer is that your nation is controlled by lobbies like energy and pharmaceuticals. The free market is shit and crushes the small guy

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