The New Cuba Policy: Fallacies and Implications
by José Azel
Following President Obama’s announcement of a rapprochement with the Cuban regime, US government officials have offered three basic avenues to the economic reforms they say will ultimately result in greater personal freedom for the island’s citizens: fostering the small-enterprise sector in Cuba, encouraging US investments, and boosting US tourism to the island. These efforts to produce prosperity, together with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, they believe, will advance US security and democratic governance in Cuba. Critics of the initiative, however, believe that this new policy is, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, a triumph of hope over experience, and that in the long run it will harm US national interests almost as much as it disappoints the Cuban people.
The architects of the new policy rationalize that unconditionally ending economic sanctions will strengthen Cuba’s self-employed sector and, thus, foster a civil society more independent of the government. Eventually, they explain, this more autonomous civil society will undergo a revolution of rising expectations that will pressure the regime for democratic governance.
In theory, a good idea. In reality, however, more easily theorized than implemented. In a totalitarian system such as that which has afflicted Cuba for more than half a century, those in self-employed activities remain bound to the government for the very existence of their businesses, which will be subject to the licenses, sanctions, etc. by which the system asserts its power. Rather than conferring independence from the government, self-employment in a totalitarian context makes the newly minted entrepreneurs more beholden to government and governmental controls in myriad bureaucratic ways and not likely to challenge those who have power over them.
Under totalitarian rule, there is nothing intrinsically liberating about having a business. During the student protest in Tiananmen Square, China’s business community did not come out in support of the students. Nor, more recently, were the business communities in Hong Kong willing to jeopardize their status—something dependent on the sufferance of the government—by supporting students promoting democratic change. What makes administration officials think that a Cuban business community bound to an all-powerful state for its very existence would act differently?
Supporters of the new policy believe that a critical mass of self-employment will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the regime to resist the social pressures for change. The vision is of thousands of new micro-firms operating as an unstoppable force for change. But in addition to being tainted by economic determinism, it is also a vision that fails to account for the nature of the Cuban regime or the lessons of Cuban history.
Beginning in the early days of the revolution and climaxing with Fidel Castro’s “Revolutionary Offensive” of 1968, the Cuban regime embarked on an effort to eliminate all private property. First came the expropriations of foreign enterprises, followed by the expropriation of large Cuban-owned businesses, and finally all economic activity was taken over in 1968.
According to Cuban government statistics, 55,636 micro-enterprises, mostly of one or two persons, were confiscated during this period. Among them, 11,878 food retailers, 3,130 meat retailers, 3,198 bars, 8,101 food establishments, 6,653 dry cleaners, 3,345 carpentry workshops, 4,544 automobile mechanic shops, 1,598 artisan shops, and 1,188 shoeshine stands.
Even this sizable private sector (which had experienced the imperfect but comparatively lively economic freedom of the pre-Castro era) was brought to heel by the regime in less than a decade. It was part of a civil society still imbued with the political principles of the 1940s Cuban Constitution enshrining liberty, yet it was unable to resist the communization of the island, or mitigate the aims of the regime.
Not coincidentally, this period of the eradication of self-employed entrepreneurs was the most brutally repressive of the Castro era, with thousands of executions and tens of thousands of long-term political prisoners. A strong argument could be made that self-employment without the guarantees of political freedom is an invitation to intensified repression, which could in fact be one of the unintended consequences of the new policy.
The self-employment Cuba now permits involves 201 subsistence activities, such as repairing umbrellas and peeling fruits, where work is done only by government permit. Its participants are mostly individuals born after 1959 with no living memories of political freedom. It is hard to imagine them as a sophisticated vanguard for democratic reform.