Last week I ventured to the tropical island of Cuba with a group of students from my school. Our purpose was to explore the question “What should U.S. foreign policy be towards Cuba?” The search for an answer to this seemingly simple question unearthed a myriad of issues that I find important to share.
First, socialism is dying. The pragmatic Cuban people that we spoke with including prominent health officials, university professors, and entrepreneurs all seem to have in common a notion that the current system isn’t working. On two separate occasions, speakers expressed skepticism that the system could continue to support free healthcare for all. Moreover, high taxes and a lack of financial institutions debilitate entrepreneurs from being able to keep up in the world market.
Second, the government knows socialism is dying. One Cuban economist we spoke with was explicit in his characterization of Cubans as pragmatic. They dealt with the revolution, they dealt with the Soviet collapse, and they can deal again. Recently, the government has allowed for the rise of private hotels, taxis and restaurants. It has plans to continue to reduce the scale of public employment, replacing lost jobs with those in the private sector. We must question how sincere the government’s efforts are, and how dynamic the regime is.
Third, the people in Cuba are poor. The average monthly salary in for a highly educated professional in Cuba is about $25 US. While citizens do not have to pay for healthcare, education, housing, or basic food, this salary still leaves the people in a situation of poverty. It is thought Cuba’s economy would have collapsed long ago if it weren’t for relatives sending aid from overseas. Many of the houses are poorly preserved and cars are recycled, but the people are wearing Lacoste polos and Ray-Ban glasses thanks to family members in other countries. Moreover, in many cases it is more lucrative for a doctor to drive a taxi than to practice medicine. We met an artist on the street who was selling his art to tourists. In our five minute interaction, he made twice as much money as he would have made in two months had he stayed in medical school. He dropped out after four years.
Fourth, propaganda is everywhere, but I wonder how much of an influence it has on the Cuban people. We visited Che’s memorial, the museum to the Bay of Pigs, and the site where Che derailed a train in a battle against Batista. All of which hold sincere cultural significance to the Cuban people, who actively refer to the U.S. as the derogatory “Yankees” or the “Imperial Power.” But they were clear to tell us that they differentiate the U.S. government from its people. In fact, over a million Cubans live in the United States, having chosen to leave the country due to the lack of economic and social opportunity.
Last, Hugo Chavez died while we were visiting the country. Cuba responded with a national day of mourning and three days of flying flags at half mast. Chavez was idolized in much of the school room propaganda and roadside billboards. The landmark “Doctors for Oil” program between Cuba and Venezuela was an exchange that traded highly educated Cuban doctors for highly subsidized oil. Cuba was the disproportionate benefactor in the exchange, and revered Chavez for his generosity. But, the upcoming election could jeopardize the program, which terrifies the Cuban people, as it has the potential to completely disrupt the lives of every Cuban. Most of the electricity in Cuba is generated from oil, and most of the oil comes from Venezuela. If the program were to end, Cubans could essentially be without electricity.
So, in thinking “What should U.S. foreign policy be toward Cuba” we must recognize the dire situation that faces the island nation today. As libertarians, we should be ashamed that the U.S. government has purported such a stifling economic policy towards one of our closest neighbors. The embargo is directly responsible for many of the high prices of goods that the Cuban people are faced with, and the lack of access to certain advancements in technology. It is a policy that segregates one population from the rest of the world and condemns them to suffer world inequality.
Understanding American politics and the difficulty of producing decisive leadership, we must accept that the U.S. is unlikely to remove the debilitating embargo on the country. However, if we are hopeful that our second-term president is willing to take political risk, we can ask that he stand up in favor of removing the embargo. Removal is not his call. The embargo is cemented into law, and requires congressional action. Congress’s past record is dismal in getting anything through, much less such a controversial topic as removing the embargo.
But, if we can show the humanitarian necessity of lifting the embargo as a gesture of kindness to the Cuban people, we can have a glimmer of hope to see it removed. Now is the perfect time to sell the lift to the American public.