November 29, 2016 10:38AM

Nat Hentoff’s Interview with Che Guevara

Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff once had the opportunity to interview Fidel Castro's henchman, Che Guevara.  As Nat relates in this video clip, Che's gatekeeper messed up--just assuming that since Nat wrote for the Village Voice, he would be another fawning lefty journalist.  Wrong!

In 2003, Nat wrote: "Having interviewed Cubans who survived Castro's gulags, I have never understood or respected the parade of American entertainers, politicians and intellectuals who travel to Cuba to be entranced by this ruthless dictator who, for me, has all the charisma of a preening thug."

And here's Richard Cohen in today's Washington Post: "Fidel Castro was a killer. He came to power in a revolution and so violence was probably inescapable. But he followed it with mass executions — the guilty, the innocent, it hardly mattered. He imposed a totalitarian system on Cuba even harsher and more homicidal than the one that preceded it. He persecuted homosexuals, dissidents, critical writers and journalists. He would not tolerate a free press, and his own political party was the only one permitted. In the end, he ruined his country’s economy while at the same time exporting terrorism."  Read the whole thing.

June 13, 2016 2:56PM

Cuba, Venezuela, and the Eternal Shortage of Toilet Paper

Marketplace Radio takes a look at the challenge of filming movies and television shows in Cuba, focusing specifically on Showtime's “House of Lies” starring Don Cheadle. The episode is titled "No es facil" -- "It's not easy." The title appears to be a description of doing business in Cuba, and also of filming a show about doing business in Cuba. As Marketplace's Adrienne Hill and show creator Matthew Carnahan explain:

Camera equipment was shipped from Germany because it couldn't be sent directly from the U.S. Even basic supplies -- "there's not hammers and toilet paper, and things that people need." 

Journalists have stopped reporting on the privations of socialism in Cuba. But Hugo Chavez was a great admirer of Fidel Castro and the society he built, and he wanted to give Venezuelans the same thing. And of course he did:

Venezuela’s product shortages have become so severe that some hotels in that country are asking guests to bring their own toilet paper and soap, a local tourism industry spokesman said on Wednesday….

Rest well, Comandantes Castro and Chavez, while your people dream of toilet paper. And hammers. And soap.

March 28, 2016 1:39PM

Mr. President, the Only Thing We Can Learn from Communism Is that It Doesn’t Work

Over the years, President Obama has made some statements that indicate a rather statist mindset.

Now he may have added to that list during a recent speech in Argentina. Check out this excerpt from a report in the Daily Caller.

President Barack Obama downplayed the differences between capitalism and communism, claiming that they are just “intellectual arguments.” ...Obama said..."I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works.”

It's hard to object to the notion that people should choose "what works," so perhaps there's not a specific quote that I can add to my collection.

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However, the president's implication that there's some kind of equivalence between capitalism and communism, which both systems having desirable features, is morally offensive. Sort of like saying that we should "choose from what works" in Hitler's national socialism. Here's what we know about the real-world impact of communism.

Communism is a disgusting system that butchered more than 100,000,000 people.

It is a system that leads to starvation and suffering.

Communism produces unspeakable horrors of brutality.

So what exactly "works" in that system? If you watch Obama's speech, you'll notice there's not a lot of substance. There is a bit of praise for Cuba's decrepit government-run healthcare system (you can click here, here, and here if you want to learn why the system is horrifying and terrible for ordinary citizens). And he also seems to think it's some sort of achievement that Cuba has schools.

So let's take a closer look at what Cuba actually has to offer. Natalie Morales is a Cuban-American actor, writer, and filmmaker. Here's some of what she wrote about her country and her relatives still trapped on the island.

...we send money, medicine or syringes for the diabetic aunt (since the hospital doesn’t have any unused disposable ones), baby clothes, adult clothes, shoes, or food... a doctor, a lawyer, or another similar profession that is considered to be high-earning everywhere else in the world will make about twenty to thirty dollars per month in Cuba. Yet shampoo at the store still costs three dollars. This is because everything is supposed to be rationed out to you, but the reality is that they’re always out of most things, and your designated ration is always meager. ...if you’re a farmer and you’ve raised a cow, and you’re starving, and your family is also starving, and you decide to kill that cow and eat it? You’ll be put in jail for life. Because it’s not “your” cow, it’s everyone’s cow. That’s good ol’ Communism in practice.

Ms. Morales is especially irritated by Americans who fret that capitalism will "ruin" Cuba.

...picture me at any dinner party or Hollywood event or drugstore or press interview or pretty much any situation where someone who considers themselves “cultured” finds out I’m Cuban. I prepare myself for the seemingly unavoidable...“I have to go there before it’s ruined!”...I will say some version of this: “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown?"

Here's more about Cuba's communist paradise, including her observations of the healthcare system that Obama admires.

The very, very young girls prostituting themselves are not doing it because they can’t get enough of old Canadian men, but because it pays more than being a doctor does. Hospitals for regular Cuban citizens are not what Michael Moore showed you in Sicko. ...That was a Communist hospital for members of the Party and for tourists... There are no janitors in the hospitals because it pays more money to steal janitorial supplies and sell them on the street than it does to actually have a job there. Therefore, the halls and rooms are covered in blood, urine, and feces, and you need to bring your own sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and mattresses when you are admitted. Doctors have to reuse needles on patients. My mom’s aunt had a stroke and the doctor’s course of treatment was to “put her feet up and let the blood rush back to her head.”

By the way, none of this means we shouldn't normalize relations with Cuba. There's no longer a Soviet Union, so Cuba doesn't represent a strategic threat. So, yes, relax restrictions on trade and travel, just like we have for China, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Russia, Venezuela, and other nations that have unsavory political systems.

But the opening of relations doesn't mean we should pretend that other systems are somehow good or equivalent to capitalism and classical liberalism.

Let's close by sharing some news from another garden spot of communism.

If North Korea’s reputation as a place of hunger, hardship and repression was not bad enough, scientists have now discovered that it is too grim even for vultures. ...Eurasian black vultures are no longer bothering to stop over in North Korea as they fly from their breeding grounds in Mongolia to their winter homes in South Korea. They concluded that food is so short under the communist regime that even the world’s best-known carrion birds cannot feed themselves. ...Lee Han Su, of the institute, said: “This seems to happen because in North Korea the vultures can barely find animal corpses, which are major food resources for them.” Under the draconian regime of Kim Jong Un the country is unable to feed itself. International aid agencies report chronic malnutrition in some regions. ...wild animals face the risk of being eaten by people. Defectors describe how victims of the famine were driven to eat dogs, cats, rats, grasshoppers, dragonflies, sparrows and crows. Vultures, for the time being at least, are off the menu.

I'm not sure what American leftists will say we can learn from North Korea. Even PETA presumably won't be happy that starving North Koreans are eating sparrows and grasshoppers.

The bottom line is that there is zero moral equivalence between communism and capitalism.

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The former is based on servility to the state and the latter is based on liberty.

But if you're amoral and simply want to know what works, compare the performance of North Korea and South Korea. Or look at the difference between Cuba and Hong Kong.

Very compelling evidence.

But this isn't an issue that should be decided on the basis of utilitarian comparisons. What should matter most is that communism is evil.

March 21, 2016 7:27AM

President Obama and “President” Castro

News reports about President Obama's visit to Cuba are regularly referring to his meeting with "Cuban President Raul Castro." But Castro is not a president in the same sense that President Obama is. He's not even a president in the dictionary sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "president" as "the elected head of a republican state." Raul Castro was not elected, and Cuba is not a republic. Castro is a military dictator. That may not be a polite thing to say, but journalists are supposed to tell the truth, not worry about the feelings of the powerful. Indeed, according to the distinguished journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book The Elements of Journalism, written under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation, journalism's first obligation is to tell the truth. The truth is that Raul Castro is, as Fidel Castro was, a dictator who rules with the support of the military.

Even the Wall Street Journal refers to "Cuban President Raul Castro." I particularly regret this, because back in 2006 I called them out for their double standard on dictators, in a letter they published. They had written in an obituary note:

Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

Why, I asked, 

do you describe Gen. Alfredo Stroessner as a "military strongman" and Fidel Castro as "Cuban president" ("A Flair for Flavor," Aug. 19)? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Mr. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Mr. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba's case, the armed forces were headed by Mr. Castro's brother. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of "president," and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a "military strongman?"

One could make the same point about Chile's Augusto Pinochet. He was formally the president, but newspapers generally referred to him as a military dictator. Pinochet ruled with an iron hand for 17 years. After 15 years he held a referendum on his rule. When he lost, he held elections and stepped down from power. That's more than the Castro brothers have done after 57 years. 

January 28, 2016 4:57PM

Cuba Attacks Religious Believers Even As It Liberalizes Economic Rules

The Obama administration has been easing restrictions on travel, exports, and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the Castro regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but 2300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.”

Even in the best of times the Castros have never been friends of faith in anything other than themselves. The State Department’s 2014 report on religious liberty noted that “the government harassed outspoken religious leaders and their followers, including reports of beating, threats, detentions, and restrictions on travel. Religious leaders reported the government tightened controls on financial resources.”

Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was similarly critical. The Commission explained: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.” Never mind the papal visit, “the government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.”

Now CSW has issued its own report. Last year’s increase in persecution “was largely due to the government declaring 2000 Assemblies of God (AoG) churches illegal, ordering the closure or demolition of 100 AoG churches in three provinces, and expropriating the properties of a number of other denominations, including the Methodist and Baptist Conventions.”

This wide-ranging campaign was led by the Office of Religious Affairs. Noted CSW: “In 2015, the ORA continued to deny authorization for a number of religious activities and in cooperation with other government agencies, issued fines and threats of confiscation to dozens of churches and religious organizations.”

Through the ORA the Communist Party exercises control over religious activities. Indeed, reported CSW, the Office “exists solely to monitor, hinder and restrict the activities of religious groups.”

The regime also has increasingly targeted church leaders and congregants, for the first time in years jailing one of the former. In early January two churches were destroyed, church members arrested, and three church leaders held incommunicado. One of the government’s more odious practices, according to CSW, has been to threaten churches with closure if they “do not comply with government demands to expel and shun specific individuals.”

The regime’s destructive activities have been justified as enforcing zoning laws. But in practice the measure is a subterfuge to shut down churches.

Other legislation threatens house churches. While not consistently implemented in the past, “church leaders have repeatedly expressed concern at its potential to close down a large percentage of house churches.”

CSW concluded that the ongoing crackdown was an attempt to limit calls for social reform which would complement ongoing, though limited, economic changes. Detentions initially were concentrated on “Cubans considered by the government to be political dissidents,” including a group of Catholic women called the Ladies in White. The regime crackdown later “expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists.”

The Obama administration was right to engage Cuba. After more than 50 years, the embargo serves no useful purpose.

However, even lifting all economic restrictions won’t turn Cuba into a democracy. Only sustained pressure from within and without Cuba is likely to force the Castro regime to yield control to the Cuban people.

As I wrote in Forbes: “Americans should forthrightly encourage freedom in Cuba. Religious believers should be particularly vocal in supporting people seeking to live out their faith under Communist oppression. Some day autocracy will give way to liberty even in Cuba.”

December 18, 2014 2:53PM

Republicans in Congress Really Like the Cuba Embargo

President Obama made a number of spot-on arguments yesterday for why the United States should end the ineffective trade embargo that has helped impoverish the people of Cuba for over fifty years.  However, the core components of the embargo are statutory law that will require an act of Congress to overturn.  While it’s very encouraging to see the president take a leadership role in pursuit of a good policy, getting Republicans on board is going to be difficult to say the least.

Over the last 20 years, there have been 11 votes in the two houses of Congress seeking to eliminate or amend the Cuba embargo.  In all of those votes, loosening the embargo got majority opposition from Republicans.  According to Cato's trade votes database, it wasn't even close.  Republican support for the embargo has ranged from 61% (in support of travel ban) to 91% (in support of import ban) with the average level of support at 77.5%.  Indeed, in 2005 more Republicans voted to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization than voted to end the Cuba embargo.

That’s not to say that positive movement on the embargo in a Republican congress is impossible.  There are encouraging signs as well: shifting opinion among Cuban Americans alters the electoral politics of the embargo in favor of opposition; resurgent emphasis on free markets may temper the Republican party’s reflexive love for belligerent foreign policy; and long-time Republican opponents of the embargo will now have renewed energy. 

In practical terms, embargo opponents will need to persuade House leadership to schedule a vote and find enough support in the Senate to overcome an inevitable filibuster from Marco Rubio and others.  It may not be impossible, but there’s a lot of heavy lifting left to do.  Hopefully, the President’s actions will be enough to get the ball rolling toward more reform of this antiquated and harmful policy.

December 18, 2014 11:03AM

Time to Trade with Cuba: Régime Change through Sanctions Is a Mirage

President Barack Obama used negotiations over a couple of imprisoned Americans to refashion the entire U.S.-Cuba relationship. He aims to reopen the embassy, relax trade and travel restrictions, and improve communication systems.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida charged the administration with appeasement because the president proposed to treat Cuba like the U.S. treats other repressive states. But President Obama only suggested that government officials talk to one another. And that peoples visit and trade with one another.

More than a half century ago Fidel Castro took power in Havana. In the midst of the Cold War the Kennedy administration feared that Cuba would serve as an advanced base for the Soviet Union. Having tried and failed to overthrow the regime militarily, Washington saw an economic embargo as the next best option.

But that didn’t work either. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow ended subsidies for Cuba, sanctions achieved nothing.

Today Cuba’s Communist system continues to stagger along. The only certainty is that economic sanctions have failed.

Failed to bring down the regime. Failed to liberalize the system. Failed to free political prisoners. Failed to achieve much of anything useful.

After more than 50 years.

But that should surprise no one. Sanctions are most likely to work if they are universal and narrowly focused. For instance, the Institute for International Economics found that economic sanctions did best with limited objectives, such as “modest” policy change.

Similarly, a Government Accountability Office review noted that “sanctions are more effective in achieving such modest goals as upholding international norms and deterring future objectionable actions” than in forcing major changes, such as committing political suicide. As long as Washington demands that Cuba release political prisoners, return property, and hold free elections sanctions will be the lesser evil.

Yet for a half century Washington has insisted that the Castros dismantle their Communist dictatorship. A great goal. But until Havana’s Gorbachev appears, it ain’t going to happen, whatever sanctions the U.S. imposes.

The embargo also is advanced as moral recompense, punishing the Communist revolutionaries who oppressed the Cuban people and stole their property. Of course, the same could be said of most every other government, including democratic ones and America’s own.

Moreover, those in charge don’t seem to notice the alleged punishment. General embargoes hurt average folks far more than elites, who are most able to manipulate the system.

In fact, the embargo has provided the regime with a wonderful excuse for its failings. The Castros always could point to Yanqui Imperialism as the cause of the Cuban people’s travails. Many regime opponents, such as Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who I met on my (legal) trip a decade ago, criticized U.S. policy.

As I point out in Forbes online, “perhaps the worst consequence of the embargo, however, was helping to turn a murderous windbag into a towering international figure. Fidel Castro never much mattered, but he became a symbol of resistance to America because Washington focused attention on him. Ignoring him and flooding his island with tourists and businessmen would have denied him his global podium and claim of victimhood.”

Encouraging travel and trade would promote regime change better than all the money spent on Radio Marti. One shouldn’t oversell the political impact of commerce. But it’s hard to name a dictatorship anywhere ended by isolation. And if the latter policy hasn’t worked for 50 years in Cuba, it’s time to try something else.

There are plenty of good reasons to criticize President Obama on foreign policy. However, he’s got Cuba policy right.

Long ago it was evident that the embargo had failed and deserved to be repealed. (And that America’s embassy should be reopened, as the president also proposed.) If conservative Republicans believe in recognizing reality and getting results, as they claim, they should back trade and engagement with Cuba.