Whenever a bloodthirsty dictator resigns or,
even better, dies, I pause to celebrate. I would have celebrated at Hitler's
death had I been alive then. Ditto Stalin. And I did celebrate when Mao died.
I look forward to Fidel Castro's death. After all the murders he has committed,
he deserves it.
End the Embargo
At the same time, despite the
knee-jerk reaction of the Bush administration in favor of keeping the embargo,
this is a good time to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Actually, it has always
been a good time. The case for ending the embargo has little to do with making
Americans better off and lots to do with spreading American values – the good
ones, not the bad ones – to make Cubans better off, both in their degree of
freedom and in their economic well-being. And now that Fidel Castro is officially
out of commission, ending the embargo would be easier because the U.S. government
would not have to worry so much about saving face.
The Moral Case for the Embargo
Let's step back and consider the proponents' case
for the embargo. They make two arguments. The first is a straight moral argument:
Castro (we need not quibble with whether it's Raúl or Fidel) is an evil man
who heads an evil regime. The Castros have murdered
many innocent people, stolen
a lot of property, and put many innocent people, including
homosexuals, in prison. So far, I agree with the argument. But here's the
non sequitur: because of all this, the U.S. government should forcibly prevent
Americans from trading with Cuba. Why is it a non sequitur? Because for the
trade embargo to be a logical response to the vicious facts about the Cuban
government, one would have to show that the embargo would speed the end of the
Cuban government. No one has done that. Jeff Jacoby, in a 1998
article in the Boston Globe, made the moral argument above. He ended
his article with the following flourish:
"The key to Cuba's salvation does not lie in constantly attacking
U.S. policy. It lies in washing away the corrupt and fetid stain of Fidelismo.
The embargo is regrettable and has its costs, but it is not what keeps Cubans
on their knees. The dictator is. Instead of harping on the embargo, American
leaders should be saying, loudly and insistently, what every Cuban yearns
"'Castro must go.'''
But notice something interesting. American leaders did say, loudly and insistently,
that Castro must go. And, at the same time, President Bush II strengthened
the embargo. What happened to Castro? He lasted more years in power. His
leaving power had nothing to do with the embargo; it was caused by his
bad health. It is possible that Castro's bad health is due to lousy
socialized medicine, but, if so, that's more his fault than it is the effect
of the embargo. If your moral argument is that a policy must be kept in place
to achieve a certain end, and the policy clearly does not achieve that end,
aren't you morally obligated to reconsider the policy?
Make the Victims Hurt More
Which brings us to the second argument for the
embargo, which seems to go as follows.
By squeezing the Cuban economy enough, the U.S. government can make Cubans
even poorer than Fidel Castro has managed to over the past 48 years, through
his imposition of Stalin-style socialism. Ultimately, the theory goes, some
desperate Cubans will rise up and overthrow Castro.
There are at least three problems with this "make the victims hurt more"
strategy. First, it's profoundly immoral. It could succeed only by making average
Cubans – already living in grinding poverty – even poorer. Most of them are completely
innocent and, indeed, many of them already want to get rid of Castro. And consider
the irony: A defining feature of socialism is the prohibition of voluntary exchange
between people. Pro-embargo Americans typically want to get rid of socialism
in Cuba. Yet their solution – prohibiting trade with Americans – is the very essence
The second problem is more practical: It hasn't worked. To be effective, an
embargo must prevent people in the target country from getting goods, or at
least substantially increase the cost of getting goods. But competition is a
hardy weed that shrugs off governmental attempts to suppress it. Companies in
many countries, especially Canada, produce and sell goods that are close substitutes
for the U.S. goods that can't be sold to Cuba. Wander around Cuba, and you're
likely to see beach umbrellas advertising Labatt's beer, McCain's (no relation)
French fries, and President's Choice cola. Moreover, even U.S. goods for which
there are no close substitutes are often sold to buyers in other countries,
who then resell to Cuba. A layer of otherwise unnecessary middlemen is added,
pushing up prices somewhat, but the price increase is probably small for most
Some observers have argued that the very fact that the embargo does little
harm means that it should be kept because it's a cheap way for U.S. politicians
to express moral outrage against Castro. But arguing for a policy on the grounds
that it's ineffective should make people question the policy's wisdom.
Third, the policy is politically effective, but not in the way the embargo's
proponents would wish. The embargo surely makes Cubans somewhat more anti-American
than they would be otherwise, and it makes them somewhat more in favor of – or
at least less against – Castro. Castro has never talked honestly about the embargo:
he has always called it a blockade, which it manifestly is not. But he has gotten
political mileage by blaming the embargo, rather than socialism, for Cuba's
awful economic plight and reminds his subjects ceaselessly that the U.S. government
is the instigator. Some Cubans probably believe him.
Moreover, there is another negative political effect. The embargo prohibits
Americans, other than journalists, academics, and a few others, from traveling
to Cuba. Imagine what would happen if the U.S. government completely ended
this restriction. The U.S. dollar, though weak in Europe, is strong in Cuba.
Many Americans would travel to Cuba, spending money and showing Cubans what
normal Americans can afford. It's true that Raúl Castro, like his brother, would
try to control exchange. Currently, foreign investors don't hire Cubans. Instead,
Castro has implemented the system that the Nazis used in Poland when Oskar Schindler
hired Jews. Rather
than paying the Jews, Schindler had to pay the Nazis, who paid the Jews
nothing. Rather than hiring Cubans, foreign investors pay
the Ministry of Labor, which keeps a large percent of it, and gives the
workers a wage comparable to the best they could earn in the Cuban economy.
In 2006, incidentally, Forbes estimated Fidel Castro's net worth to be
a cool $900
million, based on the state-owned companies he controlled for his own purposes.
Although the Cuban government would try to control exchange, it would not be
completely successful. There would be all kinds of leakages to normal Cuban
citizens. This travel by Americans would not make Cuba as free as, say, Venezuela,
but average Cubans would be freer nevertheless. Competing decentralized nodes
break down centralized control.
of the United States by Cuba
In 1996, far from ending the embargo, the U.S.
government moved in the other direction with the Helms-Burton
Act, named for then Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) and then Representative
Dan Burton (R-Indiana). Its most controversial provision permits U.S. lawsuits
against foreign companies if they use any property in Cuba that was confiscated
from U.S. citizens.
To enforce this provision of the Helms-Burton law, the U.S. government makes
America off-limits to corporate officers, principals, or shareholders with a
controlling interest in firms that profit from confiscated U.S. property in
Cuba. The government used the law against a handful of Canadian and Mexican
executives. Not just the violators, but also their spouses, minor children,
and agents are to be kept out of the U.S. Again, note the irony. One of the
most important achievements of free societies – one that distinguishes them most
from totalitarian regimes – is that when one family member breaks the law, that
person, not the other family members, pays the penalty. Totalitarian governments
violate this principle of individual responsibility all the time, and Castro
was one of the main such violators left. The U.S. government joined him. Helms
and Burton said they wanted to beat Castro. Castro beat them – and us.
The more open trade is between Cuba and the rest of the world, the more experience
Cubans will have with foreigners and foreign goods. They will learn that they
don't have to be poor, that meat once a day doesn't have to be a luxury, and
that they don't have to die from socialized medicine. The "dollarization" of
the Cuban economy, under which Castro allowed people to exchange dollars for
goods, has already started this process. The more dollars that flow into Cuba,
even with the nasty government taking a big cut, the less dependent Cubans are
on the Cuban government for their daily bread. When President
Bush reduced the amount Cuban-Americans and other Americans can spend in
Cuba from $164 a day to $50 a day, whatever his intention, he made Cubans more
dependent on their vicious government.
One piece of evidence that advocates of the embargo must confront is Castro's
own actions just before Congress voted on the Helms-Burton Act. Here was a law
that President Clinton had opposed and that, therefore, faced an uphill battle.
Yet on Feb. 24, 1996, just days before the vote, Castro had his air force shoot
down two unarmed civilian airplanes piloted by members of the Miami-based exile
to the Rescue. I've heard many people claim, correctly, that Castro is evil;
I haven't heard many people say that he's stupid. Surely he knew that shooting
down the plane would cause the Helms-Burton Act to be passed, which is exactly
what it did. It seems much more reasonable to assume that Castro wanted the
Helms-Burton Act to pass so that he could use it as new ammo for his propaganda.
A Double Standard?
The Bush administration, in wanting to keep the
embargo on Cuba, is applying a double standard. Many other governments in the
world repress their citizens as much as Cuba's does, or at least have done so
in the recent past. Exhibit
A is China. But the U.S. government has imposed no embargo on China.
One of the strangest recent arguments for keeping the embargo is that of Henry
Louis Gomez. Gomez
"For once I'd like for someone to explain how U.S. policy toward
Cuba prevents the Castro regime from restoring basic freedoms? How exactly
does the U.S. create a situation in which political opposition in Cuba must
be silenced or jailed? The answer is obvious: it doesn't."
Mr. Gomez is absolutely right in one regard. U.S. policy doesn't prevent
the Castro regime from restoring basic freedoms. It's not as if Fidel and
Raúl are looking for ways to restore freedom. But Mr. Gomez is attacking a straw
man. The argument that we free-market opponents of the embargo make has never
been that the embargo prevents the Cuban government from restoring freedom:
the Castros want to keep restrictions on freedom. Our argument, rather, is that
the embargo makes it easier for the Castros to keep their country repressed.
For Mr. Gomez and those who agree with him to make their case, they must confront
the point I made above – namely, that Castro is not dumb and, therefore, his shooting
down of the airplanes just before Congress voted was his purposeful way of getting
Congress to keep and tighten the embargo.
Some advocates of the embargo have pointed out
that if full trade relations are resumed between the U.S. and Cuba, then Cuba's
government will qualify for U.S. government aid. Such aid would definitely prop
up Castro's regime, as similar aid has done for tyrants in Africa and elsewhere.
So let's end the embargo and not give foreign aid to Cuba. Will this guarantee
that the Castros fade into much deserved oblivion? No it won't. But it will
increase the odds.
Cuba Si, Castros No, Embargo No.
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.