Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Blinded by Ideology

A letter writer in the Washington Post complains about this Post editorial, which criticized the repression in Cuba, particularly the lack of freedom of expression and the right to emigrate. The writer declares,

Cuba is managing its economy and is making incremental changes and reforms within its socialist and human-needs-oriented system. The U.S. government and The Post shouldn’t lecture Cuba when we have our own problems with the economy, the budget, health care, infrastructure and our moral standing in the world.

I’ve just published a book, most of whose 300 pages are devoted to criticisms of the U.S. government on a far wider range of issues than that, so I’m no knee-jerk defender of any government, much less of the Bush administration. But let’s take a closer look at the writer’s claims:

Cuba is managing its economy…

Well, every country manages its economy in some sense. The Cuban government has managed to turn a beautiful country of tropical beaches 90 miles from North America into one of the poorest countries in the world.

…and is making incremental changes and reforms…

Yes, as the Post editorial noted:

In the past few weeks, Cuban President Raúl Castro has introduced a handful of micro-reforms to the oppressive and bankrupt regime left behind by his brother. Cubans are now officially allowed to buy cellphones, computers and microwave ovens; state workers may get deeds to apartments they have been renting for decades; and farmers may be able to sell part of what they grow at market prices. The measures won’t have much impact (though they have evidently annoyed the officially retired Fidel Castro): The vast majority of Cubans can’t afford to buy electronic goods, and the agricultural reforms fall short of steps taken years ago by North Korea.

So reforms are good. Wake me when they reform more than North Korea.

…within its socialist and human-needs-oriented system.

You’d think socialists would have stopped claiming Cuba. If Cuba is socialist, then socialism is a disaster. While the rest of the Americas grow, Cuba declines. Cubans keep their 1950s American cars shiny and clean because that’s what they have. Socialism’s great accomplishment is to try to freeze the economy at the level to which capitalism (in this case, a corrupt and crony capitalism) had brought it.

As for “human-needs-oriented,” millions of Cubans express their human needs by getting on rickety boats to try to sail to America. One might say that Cuba is like a vast open-air prison, except that American prisoners get better food and more choices in books, newspapers, and television than Cuban citizens do. It’s a rule of thumb around the world: the more a government proclaims its orientation to “human needs,” the less well it actually serves human needs.

The U.S. government and The Post shouldn’t lecture Cuba when we have our own problems with the economy…

Yes, our economy is growing only slightly these days, and we have looming fiscal disasters because our own government has introduced socialism into health care and retirement savings. But Americans don’t flee to Cuba, and our GDP per capita is estimated at something like 10 times that of Cuba. 

…the budget…

Yes, our federal budget is a disaster. But it hasn’t — yet — destroyed our standard of living, and I doubt that the adoption of Fidel Castro’s budgeting methods would help.

…health care…

Yes, we have the best and the most expensive health care in the world. If we had less socialism in health care, we could bring down our costs. But more drugs are created here, more medical advances are made here, and people come to American hospitals from all over the world, especially from the often-touted Canadian system.

…infrastructure and our moral standing in the world.

My colleagues and I have written very critically about the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, its treatment of the accused, its accumulation of executive power, and other actions that have harmed America’s standing in the world. (Not to mention President Clinton’s unauthorized uses of military force in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.) But if America’s moral standing in the world is less than that of the totalitarian Castro-Castro regime, then that is an embarrassment to the world, not to the United States.

As Human Rights Watch reports, “Cuba remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. There have been no significant policy changes since Fidel Castro relinquished direct control of the government to his brother Raul Castro in August 2006. The government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long-term and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.” And Human Rights Watch doesn’t even take note of the economic liberties that are systematically suppressed.

The Post’s “lecture” concluded this way:

Let Mr. Castro respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights his government recently signed, which guarantees not only freedom of assembly but the right to freely leave the country. Cuban officials recently hinted that the current ban on foreign travel by average citizens might be changed; let it be removed. Then Mr. Castro can discover just how many of Cuba’s 11 million people are willing to go on enduring a regime whose idea of reform is permitting the sale of microwave ovens.

The letter-writer might encourage the Castro regime to follow this advice, and then perhaps Cuba would have some small measure of moral standing in the world.

Not as Good as It Seems

Today, Cuba officially lifted its ban on the sale of computers to the general public. Some other prohibitions have also been scrapped in recent weeks: Cubans can now buy cell phones, stay in hotels previously reserved for tourists, and buy appliances like microwaves and TV sets.

Is this a sign of openness from Cuba’s geriatric regime? Not so.

A Cuban dissident I met in Havana last year sent me today an article he wrote about the real motive behind relaxing these bans. It has been reported in the state-controlled media that people purchasing these goods are later being investigated by the authorities who want to know the real sources of their income. As it’s widely known, the average Cuban salary is less than $20 a month, while the cost of most of these goods ranges in the hundreds of dollars. Many Cubans get their extra money from relatives in the United States, but many others run independent (and illicit) small businesses.

My friend tells the story of the first person to purchase an electric bicycle, which cost the equivalent of $1,070. This man had a small butter factory that apparently was very profitable, since he was selling the butter at a lower price than the government. After buying his electric bicycle, the authorities investigated him and discovered his factory. They proceeded to confiscate everything they found in his home, including the bike.

Let’s not forget that, after all, there is still a Castro brother running the show on the island. As my Cuban friend says about the so-called “reforms,” the fact that something is no longer prohibited doesn’t mean that you can do it.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Hounded to Death

Faced with the prospect of years in prison, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” committed suicide on Thursday. Her pursuers and prosecutors should be ashamed of themselves.

Running a house of prostitution is not a distinction most of us would wish for our daughters. But it’s a vice, not a crime. That’s a crucial distinction in a free society. So far as we know, she never murdered, raped, assaulted, robbed, or defrauded anyone. Like any broker, she brought together willing buyers and willing sellers. And for doing so, she was convicted–not actually of prostitution but of “racketeering” and money laundering — and faced up to 55 years in prison, though prosecutors estimated that her sentence would likely be “only” four to six years.

Palfrey was indicted after a three-year joint investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently they couldn’t catch her cheating on her taxes, but her employees mailed her cut of the proceeds in money orders, which led to racketeering and money laundering charges. As with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, apparently a fishing expedition into money matters turned up something far more headline-worthy.

But really — a three-year investigation of a prostitution service? Are there no real criminals? Are there no terrorists? Before, during, and after 9/11, the Justice Department ran a 13-month investigation of a brothel in New Orleans. At least 10 FBI agents were involved. As Jonathan Turley noted, “Only the FBI could go to the French Quarter and find only a dozen prostitutes after a year of investigation. Given the roughly one-to-one ratio between agents and prostitutes, the FBI could have produced a hundred times this number by simply having agents walk down Bourbon Street.” What a ridiculous waste of money and manpower.

But the waste is not the worst aspect of this outrage. Even if there were no criminals and no terrorists to hunt down, it would be wrong to harass, arrest, prosecute, imprison — and hound to death — people who are violating no one’s rights.

There’s a nightmarish intersection of old prostitution laws and modern financial regulations. Palfrey was investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and then convicted of “racketeering” and “money laundering.” But she was no racketeer; she was one woman with some employees or contract workers. Spitzer’s bank accounts were being monitored, as apparently all our bank accounts are, under post-9/11 laws allegedly designed to turn up evidence of terrorist financing or other nefarious activity. And boy, did they find something sinister — a married man having sex with prostitutes.

In many ways we are more free today than we were in previous decades. But new regulations and new technology are making it much easier to monitor our activities and to actually enforce both old and new laws. It’s like a silent police state that we only realize when we’re suddenly served with papers. 

Palfrey told journalist Dan Moldea, “I’m not going back to jail. I’ll kill myself first.” A woman who had worked for her had also committed suicide after being charged with prostitution in 2007.

It’s time to repeal these antiquated laws against prostitution and to take a close look at the use and abuse of racketeering, money laundering, bank monitoring, and other intrusive laws. Someone needs to step forward and start that debate. Perhaps Governor Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter would be good candidates.

In the meantime, may Deborah Jeane Palfrey rest in peace. And may her persecutors have many sleepless nights.

Upcoming Event: See South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford Make Sense of the REAL ID Act

Last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) vetoed a transportation bill that included a provision objecting to the federal REAL ID Act. The bill would have required the federal government to pay 95 percent of the cost of issuing national IDs before Minnesota would participate. Claiming political machinations were afoot, Pawlenty said that he preferred “something more reasonable like 50 or 60 percent.” One wonders what principle of federalism, liberty, or privacy could possibly support his willingness to accept a 50% unfunded surveillance mandate.

A much clearer vision will be on display next week when Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) joins Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) here at the Cato Institute to discuss the REAL ID Act. South Carolina has barred itself from participating in the national ID system created by the Act, and Governor Sanford defiantly refused to ask the Department of Homeland Security for an extension of the compliance deadline earlier this year.

Senator Tester represents a state that has been similarly defiant. He is an original cosponsor of legislation that would repeal the REAL ID Act and restore the identification security provisions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act, which REAL ID repealed.

The event is called The REAL ID Rebellion: Whither the National ID Law?, next Wednesday, May 7th, at noon, and it will be Webcast.

AZ-Verify

Arizona’s law requiring employers to use the federal government’s “E-Verify” system to check workers’ immigration status has employers there “confused by the law’s requirements and ‘terrified’ at the prospect of losing their business licenses if they run afoul of its provisions,” according to a local chamber of commerce official.

My recent paper on electronic employment verification calls it “Franz Kafka’s solution to illegal immigration.”

The 998th Cut - and the 999th?

Here’s a new bill in Congress that strikes me as a peculiar encroachment on freedom. H.R. 5912 would amend the U.S. code to make cigarettes and certain other tobacco products nonmailable. Undoubtedly, this would make it a teensy bit harder for some people to smoke and chew tobacco.

More importantly, I think, it would deepen the role of the Postal Service in surveillance and enshrine the USPS a part of our niggling nanny state.

Does this bill affect you directly? Chances are it doesn’t, as few people send or receive cigarettes in the mail. But what happens tomorrow when you’re part of a disfavored group?

The bill’s sponsor is Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) who today features on his homepage House passage of a bill to establish a thing called the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Commemoration Commission.

The EU Sides with the Thugs in Bolivia

This Sunday, the department of Santa Cruz, the richest region of Bolivia, will hold a referendum on regional autonomy. Other departments in the eastern half of the country will likely follow suit in the upcoming months. The central government in La Paz opposes the project and calls it “separatist.” Despite that, polls show that an overwhelming majority of “cruceños” will vote in favor of autonomy.

As a consequence, the ruling party has threatened to use violence against the citizens of Santa Cruz who show up to vote on Sunday. It wouldn’t be the first time. Last December, the government forced the approval of a new constitution in a Constituent Assembly while a pro-government mob outside the building prevented opposition assemblymen from attending the session. This year, something similar happened when the national Congress declared these referenda on regional autonomy illegal in a rigged session while mobs outside Parliament prevented opposition Congressmen from entering the building.

This time around, the party of president, Evo Morales, has warned about the possibility of taking thousands of its supporters to Santa Cruz to prevent the vote from taking place. The only way to accomplish this is by force.

So it’s kind of surprising that the European Union is taking sides with those who, over and over again, have used violence to suppress democratic institutions. The French ambassador in Bolivia and representative of the EU in that country has stated that the leaders of Santa Cruz who are pushing for autonomy will have to “assume the consequences” if violence erupts on Sunday. That is, the EU will blame the victims if they get beaten up by government thugs for exercising their democratic rights.

Shame on the EU.