Considering Cuba’s claim that the USA’s 54-year-old boycott is the reason for Cuban poverty
by John F. Di Leo
Since The Resident’s unexpected and unethical decision to unilaterally discard a half-century of history and reopen diplomatic relations with the Castro brothers’ prison colony known as Cuba, a particularly destructive claim has resurfaced, one that merits careful analysis and rejection.
For decades now, the Left has spouted a peculiar claim – that Cuba is poorbecause of our 54-year-long embargo against the communist country. If the reader has compassion for the suffering denizens of that miserable island, this has to be a strong argument, but it’s wrong – utterly without merit, in fact – for several critical reasons.
The claim can be dismissed easily with the first and most obvious comparison: Haiti and the Dominican Republic are also on a nearby island with the same weather, the same shoreline, the same convenience or inconvenience to other nations, the same potential for agricultural, tourist, industrial and commercial growth; the U.S. has no embargo against them.
They’re not thriving; they’re full of poverty and despair as well. If we had never had an embargo against Cuba after the Castros took over, it would most likely have turned out much like Haiti, different in language perhaps, but just as impoverished and weak – once you move out of camera range of the coastal resorts, anyway.
But that’s not enough to satisy the Left; they’ll still make the accusation. As long as the Left claims Cuba’s suffering is our fault, we need to explore the claim in more detail, so let’s consider it from several perspectives:
The United States boycott against Communist Cuba officially began in 1960, after Cuba nationalized most American-owned land and businesses and evicted (or worse) their owners and management.
It has rarely been an absolute boycott; the USA does do some limited trade with Cuba, but it has been a reasonably strict import/export embargo for most of these 54 years. The Left would have us believe that that’s the reason for Cuba’s poverty.
But no other country really embargoes Cuba. Nobody but us. The European Union, an economy about the size of the United States, trades happily with Cuba, to the tune of some 2.7 billion Euros per year. Canada, with some 85 Canadian businesses operating in Cuba, does about a billion USD per year of business with Cuba. Cuba does about 2.2 billion USD per year of trade with China, and about 7 billion USD annually with nearby neighbor Venezuela. The number with Brazil is rapidly climbing, at around two/thirds of a billion USD today; it goes on and on.
In fact, there are about 200 countries on earth, and the United States is only one. If the USA boycotts a country, why can’t the country in question just focus on more trade with others to make up for it?
That’s exactly what happened. Cuba tries – to some extent – to build foreign trade. But to export more, you have produce things that other people want at the price you charge. And to import more, you have to be able to afford it, through having built a continually growing economy.
There’s Cuba’s problem. They love having the US embargo to blame, but the fact is, the US embargo is not responsible for Cuba’s inability to have more trade with other countries. The Cuban economy is a stagnant kleptocracy, so there’s a severely limited pool of commercial opportunities.
If trade would help them, then surely trading with everyone else in the world would have done it. The lack of American trade isn’t Cuba’s problem.
Fear of Nationalization
It has now been over fifty years since the government of Cuba nationalized almost all businesses on the island… but the same people who were in charge of the criminal government then are in charge today. It was the Castro brothers themselves who took over foreign-owned hotels, foreign-owned factories, foreign-owned farms, even foreign-owned schools!
Cuba and its supporters claim that if only more foreign investment would return, Cuba would thrive, and its poverty-stricken populace would climb back up to a real middle class position again.
But why should they? Why should anyone dare to buy a factory, lease some land, build a mall or tourist hotel, when this fear still exists? Why throw the dice like that?
Every potential investor must ask himself the question: “What if Cuba just takes my business away, like they did before?” It’s not like it only happened 50 years ago, a crime committed by criminals long since dead. No, the villains who nationalized the country last time are still in charge – Raul and Fidel Castro, still at the top, after all these years. If they did it once, why should we believe they wouldn’t do it again?
For a foreigner to invest in commercial activity in Cuba, he must be brave indeed – or just incredibly ignorant of history.
The Fair Trade Dream
As Americans, we like to believe that trade is reasonably fair – that commercial activity is rightly transacted between two willing partners. Both sides have to consider it a good deal, or there is no reason to go through with the trade.
All economies have some restrictions, of course – a need for building permits, tax collections, export licensing. But the people are usually still free to decide for themselves whether to do it or not in the end.
But not in Cuba. Cuba is a total command economy. The government chooses your school, your home, your career, and your healthcare. The government sets your wages and keeps its share – which it believes should generally be over 90%, so that’s how much it takes. So the worker, after his long day in the tropical heat, only keeps some ten percent of his meager wage in the end. Will his heart be in it? Will the worker be a dream employee, talented and eager for the chance to shine?
Even in leftist economies like Brazil and China, the worker has the chance to move up in the business, to rise up and earn ever-better salaries and join the middle class or even, eventually, the rich. But not in Cuba, where the marxist-leninist utopian philosophy still rules supreme, where all but the most corrupt and connected apparatchiks must starve in absolute equality, the lowest common denominator of shared economic misery.
What kind of foreign businessman truly wants to seek out a trading partner in a country like that? The Cubans and their supporters would have us believe that more trade partnerships from the United States would make all the difference in Cuba… but it wouldn’t; it couldn’t.
The Castro brothers would never allow such trade to make a difference to the workers we employed; the Castro brothers would greedily enjoy their 90% share themselves, to keep all those profits from “warping” the spirits of their comrade clerks, cooks, assemblers or farmers with unhealthy feelings of the bourgeoisie.
If Cuba were to overthrow their marxist-leninist economics tomorrow, and replace them with a Reason/FEE style economy along the lines of Austrian economics, they’d be a booming economy with a thriving middle class within a decade’s time… with or without the United States’ participation. But sadly, such a wise transformation is not in the cards.
Memories of pain
In the end, despite all these good current reasons to avoid doing business with Cuba as long as the Castros rule, there remains one more above all others: the memory of what Cuba did, not just to themselves, but to the world, back during the Cold War.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as the Castros won and consolidated their power over the island, Raul Castro was ruthless as Fidel’s enforcer, killing – or giving the orders to kill – many thousands of innocent people… civilians, bureaucrats, farmers, peasants… anyone who got in the way of the Communist Revolution.
And then, throughout the entire period of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule over the Soviet Union, the Castros used Cuba as a breeding ground for revolutionaries, sending thousands of communist soldiers all over the world in Brezhnev’s service, to foment new revolutions wherever the seed might find fertile ground.
Is it to be wondered why many in South America – and many in Central America, and many in Europe, and many in Asia – might not actually want to do business with Cuba today?
Many of these potential business partners, officials and customers still remember when their own nations suffered under civil wars instigated by Castro’s men and Brezhnev’s guns. Many remember who sent those “advisors” to their countries, and would sooner die than enter into a form of trade that would further enrich these bloodthirsty demons.
No, it’s not the US embargo that keeps these principled businesses around the world from rising to the bait of modernity’s amoral plea. They remember, and they have no interest in such blood money.
Many who oppose the United States ban on Cuban trade call it a failure, because the embargo hasn’t caused a revolution in Cuba – because the embargo hasn’t yet driven the Castros from power, as if that was its only purpose.
But such a claim is a rewriting of history. Yes, we’ve always hoped that the embargo might help to push the Castros from power, but that was never the main reason for it.
The embargo was instituted as the last option short of war, in response to the genuine need to somehow punish Cuba for confiscating billions of dollars worth of US property – land, factories, hotels, homes, and other holdings – during the revolution and its aftermath. Some estimates put it as high as $75 billion, hard as that is to believe.
Cuba was a thriving island – yes, it had poverty… yes, it had troubles… and yes, Batista was corrupt and authoritarian – but Cuba was on an upward trajectory until the days of the Castros.
The military success of The Movement – the Castro brothers, along with the monstrous Che Guevara and their other Marxist allies – stopped Cuban advancement in its tracks by turning the country communist. No matter how much trade they accomplished, no matter how many foreign holdings they nationalized; the Castro brothers, in a perfect “reverse Midas effect,” turn everything they touch into stagnation and suffering.
The United States instituted the embargo on principle – on the position that an honorable nation, even in a world as flawed as our own, must not stoop so low as to trade with the murderers of The Movement. No trade is worth that; we must wait until either the Castros are overthrown or they die of natural causes.
One must assume the latter date is not too far off; after all these years, the United States should certainly be able to wait.
The Lie of Liberalism
Modern liberalism always builds its arguments on faulty premises – they set up a straw man for every argument, preferably a convenient position championed by the Right, on which they can pin the blame.
Long ago, as Cuba stayed locked in time, a prisoner of the 1950s while the rest of the earth was developing by leaps and bounds, the Left crafted the meme that the American embargo was the cause of Cuba’s stagnation.
Principled conservatism, the ethics of free market capitalism, just had to be the cause of all poor Cuba’s woes. If only we Americans would leave our principled conservatism behind, and instead embrace the idea of command economies and socialist trade. If only we Americans would do more business with Cuba, oh, that would make all the difference.
But as every year goes by, as every decade passes us, the lie becomes an ever harder sell.
We have seen plenty of other countries trade with Cuba, but the lives of the Cuban people don’t change. We have seen plenty of businesses buy and sell, plenty of cruise ships full of tourists visit, even the occasional American film maker blatantly tours Cuba to give the Cubans a share of Hollywood largesse. And still the Cuban people suffer.
Would our trade, once unleashed, dwarf that of Europe, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, and a hundred other countries? Would our trade produce a different outcome for that poor suffering island than the trade of all these other neighbors has? Would our trade turn Cuba from being just another Haiti into being another Key West? Would our trade transform Cuba from being another Dominican Republic into being another Cayman Islands?
No. The jury is in – and the truth of the matter has been evident for decades. No amount of trade, however great, from whatever partner nation(s), will ever make a substantial difference in the lives of the people of Cuba, as long as the Castro brothers rule, because a lack of commercial transactions just isn’t their real problem.
Cuba’s problem is a lack of freedom, a lack of independence from secret police. Their problem is the near-total taxation, the rampant political imprisonment, the intentionally endemic poverty, and an absolute Marxist government.
Trade – on Cuba’s terms – won’t change that. Only revolution or natural causes can.
If America is still the nation it once was – the City on a Hill that our Founding Fathers envisioned – we will honor the memory of the many millions, all over the world, who have been injured or killed by the Castros, and we will continueour honorable embargo, rather than be shamefully lured into the darkness, by a temptation of shimmering gold that drips with blood.
If America is bright – and if America is principled – we will wait.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago based international trade compliance trainer. A former minor activist in the Republican party (a local precinct captain in Cook and Lake Counties, a county chairman of the Milwaukee County GOP in the mid-1990s), he was also a member of the Captive Nations movement that stood up against the Cuban export of terror in the 1980s, and served a term as president of the Ethnic American Council, which sponsored and advocated for anti-communist freedom fighters during the Cold War. We must never forget the lessons of that period.
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