[update below] [2nd update below]
I’ve been reading more articles—or, to be precise, clicking on more links—about Cuba over the past four days than I have in I don’t know how long. Like just about everyone with half an intellect and a quarter ounce of sense, I was pleased by Obama’s announcement on the reestablishing of diplomatic relations. This issue—of putting an end to a pointless Cold War anachronism—is such a no-brainer that it’s beyond the pale of debate. I was surprised it took Obama even this long to do what should have been done years, if not decades, ago (it looks like Alan Gross was the stumbling block here). For the anecdote, in 2008 I gave a number of talks (under the aegis of the US State Department) on the American presidential campaign before audiences in Africa—sur place in the two Congos (Brazzaville and Kinshasa) and Cameroon, via video conference in a dozen other countries, plus on TV in Paris—and was frequently asked what I thought would change with US foreign policy if Obama were elected. I replied probably not a whole lot—that there would likely be more continuity than change—except on Cuba, where I predicted that a newly elected President Obama would act within his first term to normalize relations and push Congress to end the embargo—which is, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put it, “the longest-running joke in US foreign policy”—as this was a logical thing to do in terms of US interests and there was quite simply no good reason whatever not to. Looks like I was off by a few years.
As for the embargo, I guarantee that the GOP-led Congress will indeed put an end to that joke before the 2016 elections, as there is no way it will allow US corporations to lose out to European, Canadian, Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese etc competitors as the Cuban economy is further liberalized and opened up to foreign investment. [UPDATE Nov. 2016: It looks like I was wrong about that one…].
Obama’s announcement on Wednesday has been a big topic on social media—on my various news feeds, at least—and with all the liberal-lefties naturally giving it the thumbs way up. I have been particularly amused to read some of the reactions of American gauchistes, who backhandedly continue to indulge the Castro regime and see in its model of development something admirable and precious and that must be preserved. E.g. here is a social media status update following Obama’s Wednesday announcement by a university professor—who is very smart in his field of specialization (which is not Latin America)—I will call “Academic gauchiste 1”
I’ve been telling myself for years to visit #Cuba before they ruin it. Now it’s probably too late.
Which led to this comment by one of his friends
Although I suspect the Cuban regime did a pretty good job of ruining it before now, too.
Response by Academic gauchiste 1
Yeah, but now the shit storm apocalypse will destroy the place in 3 years flat. Massive cruise lines, privatized beaches, huge hotel developments, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, McDonald’s. It’ll be a spring break destination by 2017, mark my words.
Then this comment by Academic gauchiste 2
the number of extremely obese Americans and the fast food joints to feed them is about to go through the roof. perhaps Cuba can put a weight limit, or at least a body-fat ratio limit, on entering tourists… and outlaw fast food joints.
In a status update following this exchange, Academic gauchiste 2 asked this question
What is the chance Cuba can maintain anything resembling a welfare state with its renowned health, education and other services and a decent level of equality now that the US is about to barrel back into the country? Wasn’t the country already changed by its incorporation into the global economy via tourism and other sectors which have long been open to Europe and the rest of the world?
These boneheaded comments are typical of US leftists, who have manifestly not internalized the fact—to which they make not the slightest allusion—that the Cuban regime over the past 55 years has been a repressive dictatorship far worse—I repeat: far worse—than was the Pinochet regime in Chile (its first year excepted) or any other 1970s and ’80s Latin American military junta that wasn’t combating an insurgency. On this particular point, there is no debate whatsoever (emphasis added). As for the egalitarianism of the Castro regime—a nivellement par le bas, in effect—and its vaunted health care system, sure, except that there is a huge chasm in Cuban society today between those who have dollars and access to foreign goods, and those who don’t, which has engendered inequalities possibly greater than those predating 1959. Also, pour mémoire, Cuba was not a poor country when les frères Castro & Co took it over in ’59. In that year per capita income in Cuba was one of the highest in Latin America. Cuba was on a par with Argentina. Cuba today is not on that par. In terms of per capita GDP, it is somewhere between Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. And Cuba’s economic problems have nothing to do with the idiotic, pointless US embargo—an embargo which, in fact, strengthened the Communist regime and its administered economy, with the Soviet Union paying above world market prices for Cuban sugar and offering all sorts of subsidies (the stupidity and futility of the US embargo has long been evident to even mainstream commentators, e.g. Thomas Friedman, who had a lucid column on the subject fifteen years ago). With the end of the Soviet Union and its subsidies, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin, the country was pauperized, and with it producing, as in 1959, little for export apart from agricultural commodities and raw materials.
And then there’s the tourist sector. Academic gauchiste 1 above laments the inevitable advent of “privatized beaches [and] huge hotel developments,” except that Cuba already has these! And the “privatization” of beach fronts in Cuba today is no doubt even more extensive than in other Caribbean coastal countries, as Cuban nationals are banned from them—from interacting with the foreign tourists (prostitutes possibly excepted)—which is, of course, not the case anywhere else. On the matter of prostitution, the eradication of which was one of the early accomplishments of the Castro regime, or so it was claimed, Havana and other tourist areas have been inundated with women (and men) offering their services to foreigners, possibly to an even greater extent than in other less-developed countries with large numbers of rich country visitors. And in Cuba one may find hookers with university degrees—but unemployed, or employed and making $20 a month—which is rather less common elsewhere.
On the supposed egalitarianism of the Cuban model, see this piece from last February on the proliferation of gated communities for the Cuban elite (CP members, military officers, and other well-connected nouveaux riches).
As for McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other megabrands of the global consumer culture moving into Cuba, so f—ing what! So I suppose we should also regret the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one now finds McDo throughout the ex-GDR… Allez, only boneheaded gauchistes get exercised over such irrelevant symbols.
Concluding all this, here is the pertinent response to Academic gauchiste 2’s above quoted status update by a smart liberal
Cuba’s economic system is in shambles including its welfare state. For a welfare state to work, there needs to be wealth to redistribute. And equality of outcomes is an ideal (that can really never be reached in a well functioning economy) rather than a policy that can be pursued. Tourism and globalization did not ruin Cuba, even though they have some of the negative effects mentioned above. Cuba’s government ruined Cuba. You can have a redistributive welfare state in a well functioning economy (such as is certain Scandinavian and other contexts, and with things that could best be modified in those countries as well). The problem here is not imperialism or lack of it, it is that the only thing that really works is a mixed economy with redistributive policies and a strong welfare state. Cuba is in bad shape, and it can get worse or better, but the status quo, even the pre-tourism status quo, does not make it better, it makes it worse…
Continued in the next post…
ADDENDUM: Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, or unfair, in skewering the above cited academic gauchistes for regretting the inevitable changes in store for Havana, as I have admittedly been guilty of this myself. During a visit in 2010 to Damascus—a city refreshingly untouched by the franchises and symbols of the global economy—I told a Syrian friend “Please, don’t let this place change. Don’t become like Beirut.” I was mainly joking, though did feel that it would be a damned shame if a McDo were to open next to the Souk Al-Hamidiyah, or anywhere in the city center. If that stuff was going to come to Syria—where there are clearly other preoccupations these days—let it be confined to malls in Mezzeh Filla Gharbiya and elsewhere out of sight from authenticity-seeking tourists…
UPDATE: Le Monde dated December 19th has an analysis of how the economic and political crisis in Venezuela pushed the Cuban regime to seek normalization of relations with Washington.
2nd UPDATE: Le Monde journalist Paulo Paranagua has an article (May 7th 2015) on the numerous obstacles to Cuba attracting significant foreign investment, “À Cuba, l’absence d’un Etat de droit freine les investisseurs.”