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Worth a thousand words

It’s more than a picture, actually. It’s a subtle and beautiful graph. On one axis is per-capita income. On the other is life expectancy. Each point on the graph is the life expectancy and per-capita GDP for a particular year in two different countries, Cuba and Portugal. The data are from 1959 to 2009.

Starting in 1959, Portugal and Cuba have about the same life expectancy but Cuba about 25% more prosperous than Portugal. After 50 years of communism, life expectancy has gone up dramatically (about 25%) in both countries. But now Portugal is more than twice as prosperous as Cuba. (Note on the graph that the scale is not linear and that the axes don’t start at zero.) There is a fascinating period in the early 1990’s when Cuba’s per-capita GDP falls as the Soviet subsidies are removed.

You can watch this brilliance from Hans Rosling unfold here. It actually a dynamic picture–you can watch time pass if you scroll over the data points in the bottom left-hand corner. And you can look at other countries and data. Here’s the static snapshot:

Defenders of Cuba like to point out that they have a great education system and a great health system. Even if this is true, this graph reminds us that in a poor country being really good at one thing means being really bad at other things.