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.
Foes of Chuck Hagel have found another reason to oppose his nomination for secretary of defense: he supported ending the 50-year old embargo on Cuba. Hagel also called the idea that the government in Havana constitutes a terrorist threat to the United States “goofy”, referring to Fidel Castro as a “toothless old dinosaur.” Supposedly, this proves he’s weak and won’t stand up to world dictators when vital U.S. interests are at stake.
In reality, Hagel belongs to a growing group of conservatives who have come to realize the failure of U.S. policy towards Cuba. This group includes former senator Richard Lugar, who until recently was the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona. Even Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP’s former VP candidate, voted against the embargo the last time it came to a vote in the House in 2005.
You don’t need to think hard to understand why the embargo and travel ban on Cuba have failed: the Castro brothers are still in power in Havana. Five decades of economic sanctions—the most stringent Washington has imposed on any country—have failed to bring about a democratic transformation of Cuba. Moreover, the embargo has served as a scapegoat to the regime.
Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, a leading dissident in Cuba, has aptly summed up that strategy: “[Castro] wants to continue exaggerating the image of the external enemy which has been vital for the Cuban Government during decades, an external enemy which can be blamed for the failure of the totalitarian model implanted here.” Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez has called the embargo “the regime’s excuse for all its failures” and pointed out that its existence has undermined the work of dissidents on the island.
Proponents of the embargo (who are now opposing Hagel’s nomination) inadvertently accept this reality. Our friend Frank Calzón, at the Center for a Free Cuba, mentions in the Washington Post several instances when Havana rebutted Washington’s outreach efforts: “Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action.” Why? Perhaps because the Castro regime fears that an end to the embargo and travel ban could weaken its grip on power?
Ironically, those who argue that national security concerns are reasons to oppose changing U.S. policy towards Cuba ignore that the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office points out that enforcing the embargo and travel ban diverts limited resources from homeland security that could be used to keep terrorists and criminals out of the United States. The GAO report warned that arrival inspections from Cuba intended to enforce the embargo are “straining Customs and Border Patrol’s capacity to inspect other travelers according to its mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens out of the country.”
It would be naïve to think that ending the embargo will somehow transform Cuba into a democratic society. As long as the Castros are in change, that won’t happen. But it’s equally naïve to believe that there are great benefits and no significant downsides to the current policy. Chuck Hagel doesn’t have a Cuba problem. Just the opposite. He has shown common sense in ending one of Washington’s most anachronistic foreign policies.
I, for one, was not surprised to read that Medicare payments for non-existent medical services are ending up in Cuban (read: government-controlled) banks. Nor that "accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records."
In fact, I have been wondering for some time when we would see evidence that foreign governments have been stealing from Medicare. The official (read: conservative) estimates are that Medicare and Medicaid lose $70 billion each year to fraud and improper payments, a result of having almost zero meaningful controls in place. That's practically an open invitation to steal from American taxpayers. Kleptocratic governments—and other organized-crime rings—would be insane not to wet their beaks.
In this National Review article, I explain how easily it could happen:
Last year, the feds indicted 44 members of an Armenian crime syndicate for operating a sprawling Medicare-fraud scheme. The syndicate had set up 118 phony clinics and billed Medicare for $35 million. They transferred at least some of their booty overseas. Who knows what LBJ’s Great Society is funding?
I also explain how these vast amounts of fraud aren't going to stop without fundamental Medicare and Medicaid reform. Give the National Review article a read, and tell me if you share my suspicion that Medicare is bankrolling other governments.
Following the announcement of massive layoffs in the public sector, the Cuban government published today new guidelines that will allow private employment in 178 economic activities. Among the newly authorized private occupations are masseurs, clowns, shoemakers, locksmiths, and gardeners.
However, these new entrepreneurs will face a few hurdles before enjoying the benefits of their own work. Not only must they get a government license in order to operate (according to official sources the number of permits will be capped at 250,000), but they will also have to pay high taxes. A leaked document from the Communist Party says that small businesses will pay between 10 to 40 percent of their gross income in taxes. On top of that, they will have to contribute 25 percent of their incomes to social security.
Don’t expect a thriving private sector in Cuba any time soon.
Confirming Fidel Castro’s recent confession that “the Cuban model doesn't even works for us anymore” (did it ever work?), Havana has announced the massive layoff of 500,000 state workers in the upcoming months. This is approximately 12 percent of the government workforce (and 10 percent of the total labor force).
The big question is whether the meager non-state sector can absorb such an influx of workers in such a short period of time. My take is that the only way Cuba can accomplish this is by aggressively liberalizing its economy: privatizing most industries and farmland, cutting red tape, freeing prices, lowering taxes (which fall heavily on the tiny private sector), and getting rid of thousands of restrictions on private businesses that currently thwart entrepreneurship. This, of course, means abandoning altogether the current communist model and moving towards a capitalist system. So far, the reforms introduced by Raúl Castro since becoming president three years ago have been far too timid and in some instances even counterproductive.
As Oleh Havrylyshyn, former Ukrainian deputy minister of finance, wrote in a paper published by Cato three years ago on the transformation of post-communist economies, rapid reforms (as opposed to gradual ones) bring about better results in terms of higher growth rates, lower unemployment, higher investment, etc. Interestingly, Havrylyshyn also found that “all of the rapid reformers developed into liberal democracies, whereas in many of the gradual reformers… small groups of super-wealthy oligarchs captured the state and dominated its economic decisionmaking.”
The Cuban ruling elite cannot afford to waste time. Very soon, hundreds of thousands of Cubans will be looking for a job in the dilapidated private sector. Social unrest could easily erupt if their search for a job or occupation goes unfulfilled. In the end, only a swift transition towards capitalism can rescue the Cuban people.
I touched a raw nerve with my post about Fidel Castro admitting that the Cuban model is a failure. Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong both attacked me. DeLong's post was nothing more than a link to the Yglesias post with a snarky comment about "why can't we have better think tanks?" Yglesias, to his credit, tried to explain his objections.
This leads Daniel Mitchell to post the following chart which he deems “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.”...this mostly illustrates the difficulty of having a rational conversation with Cato Institute employees about economic policy in the developed world. Cuba is poor, but it’s much richer than Somalia. Is Somalia’s poor performance an illustration of the human costs of inadequate taxation? Or maybe we can act like reasonable people and note that these illustrations of the cost of Communist dictatorship and anarchy have little bearing on the optimal location on the Korea-Sweden axis of mixed economies?
I'm actually not sure what argument Yglesias is making, but I think he assumed I was focusing only on fiscal policy when I commented about Cuba's failure being "a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government." At least I think this is what he means, because he then tries to use Somalia as an example of limited government, solely because the government there is so dysfunctional that it is unable to maintain a working tax system.
Regardless of what he's really trying to say, my post was about the consequences of excessive government, not just the consequences of excessive government spending. I'm not a fan of high taxes and wasteful spending, to be sure, but fiscal policy is only one of many policies that influence economic performance. Indeed, according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, taxes and spending are only 20 percent of a nation's grade. So nations such as Sweden and Denmark are ranked very high because the adverse impact of their fiscal policies is more than offset by their very laissez-faire policies in just about all other areas. Likewise, many nations in the developing world have modest fiscal burdens, but their overall scores are low because they get poor grades on variables such as monetary policy, regulation, trade, rule of law, and property rights. This video has more details.
So, yes, Cuba is an example of "the human cost of excessive government." And so is Somalia.
Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, are both good and bad examples. Optimists can cite them as great examples of the benefits of laissez-faire markets. Pessimists can cite them as unfortunate examples of bloated public sectors.
P.S. Castro has since tried to recant, claiming he was misquoted. He's finding out, though, that it's not easy putting toothpaste back in the tube.
Here's a story for the better-late-than-never file. Former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro confessed that communism doesn't work and that his nation's economic system should not be emulated.
Fidel Castro told a visiting American journalist that Cuba's communist economic model doesn't work, a rare comment on domestic affairs from a man who has conspicuously steered clear of local issues since stepping down four years ago. The fact that things are not working efficiently on this cash-strapped Caribbean island is hardly news. Fidel's brother Raul, the country's president, has said the same thing repeatedly. But the blunt assessment by the father of Cuba's 1959 revolution is sure to raise eyebrows. Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, asked if Cuba's economic system was still worth exporting to other countries, and Castro replied: "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore" Goldberg wrote Wednesday in a post on his Atlantic blog.
Too bad Castro didn't have this epiphany 50 years ago. The Cuban people languish in abject poverty as a result of Castro's oppressive policies. Food is harshly rationed and other basic amenities are largely unavailable (except, of course, to the party elite). This chart, comparing inflation-adjusted per-capita GDP in Chile and Cuba, is a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government. Living standards in Cuba have languished. In Chile, by contrast, the embrace of market-friendly policies has resulted in a huge increase in prosperity. Chileans were twice as rich as Cubans when Castro seized control of the island. After 50 years of communism in Cuba and 30 years of liberalization in Chile, the gap is now much larger.