Last March, I spent a week in Cuba, which turned out to be one of my most fascinating experiences.
I had applied for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to travel to Cuba to conduct an informal study of the country’s socialist economic system. (The Supreme Court has held that American citizens have a fundamental right to travel, but under the U.S. embargo, it is illegal for Americans to spend money in Cuba, which effectively trumps the so-called fundamental right to travel.)
Once the license was issued, I contacted the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., and requested a special “fact-finding” visa, explaining that I wanted to study the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuban life. The Cuban authorities granted me the visa, authorized me to speak to people on the street and, on my request, arranged interviews with various “research centers” at the University of Havana.
I flew to Havana on a charter flight from Miami. (Only people who have been licensed by the OFAC are permitted on those flights.) Most of the people on the plane were Cuban Americans who were going to visit relatives. Explaining to me how economically desperate Cubans are, most of the people on my flight were “layered” in clothing, which enabled them to take extra clothes to their relatives without having to pay excess baggage fees.
During the short flight to Havana (45 minutes), I reflected on Cuban history.
In the late 1800s, the Cuban people revolted against Spanish rule and for many years were engaged in a brutal war for independence. In 1898, the U.S. government intervened in the conflict, purportedly to help the Cubans win their independence. The father of Cuban independence, José Martí, who was killed in the war, had warned the Cubans to beware of U.S. government “assistance” because such “assistance” was likely to be used as a vehicle for U.S. governmental control and domination of Cuba.
Martí’s admonitions turned out to be right. At the end of the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops remained in Cuba (until 1902), and the American authorities required the Cubans to include a provision in their constitution that gave the U.S. government carte blanche to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it deemed necessary. It was during that period that the United States acquired its base at Guantanamo Bay.
(The Cubans were perhaps fortunate not to have resisted the new American imperialism more forcefully. The Philippine Islands had also rebelled against Spain, and after Spain’s surrender, Filipinos had to fight a new, brutal war for independence against their U.S. government “saviors” — a war that resulted in tens of thousands of Filipino deaths and more American casualties than the original war against Spain. (See “American Foreign Policy — The Turning Point” by Ralph Raico in Ebeling and Hornberger, eds., The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars.)
Throughout much of the 20th century, Cuban presidents were often simply puppets whose strings were pulled by Washington. The culmination of this practice came in 1952 when army general Fulgencio Batista reassumed the presidency of Cuba.
Batista’s henchmen had originally taken power in the 1930s. In 1940, Batista had won the presidential election and when his term expired in 1944, he retired to Florida, a multi-millionaire. In 1952, Batista returned to Cuba and again sought the presidency. Realizing that he was going to lose the election, however, he took power in a coup d’état, dissolved the Congress, and canceled the election. One of the people who had intended to run for Congress as a reformer was a 25-year-old man named Fidel Castro. Castro had risen in popularity as an incorruptible critic of government corruption.
Before the Cuban revolution, Cuba’s mercantilist economic system was similar to those found in other Latin American countries, with the state controlling, regulating, and taxing economic activity for the benefit of those who were politically privileged. Today, the term would be “crony capitalism.” Nevertheless, in large part because of the infusion of foreign capital, especially from American companies, Cuba had a relatively high standard of living — fourth among the 20 Latin American nations on a per capita basis, with a strong middle class. Moreover, Havana was considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Among Batista’s favorite cronies were Mafia bosses, who moved their operations to Havana when their casinos in Florida were shut down. With Batista’s full blessing and assistance, the Mafia made Cuba its base of operations, not only for gambling, but for heroin and cocaine distribution into the United States as well. Of course, the Mafia bosses, in turn, kicked back nice sums of money to Batista.
Batista was the U.S. government’s “man in Havana,” even though U.S. officials knew that he was a brutal, antidemocratic, corrupt tyrant in full partnership with Mafia murderers and drug dealers. None of this mattered to Washington policymakers. What mattered was that as “our man in Havana,” when Batista received orders from Washington, he obeyed.
In July 1953, Castro began the Cuban revolution with an attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, but he was captured and put on trial. Castro used the trial, which was broadcast over national radio, to expose the corruption and brutality of the Batista regime. At the end of the trial, Castro issued what has become his most famous declaration: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but in 1955, after Batista had won the presidency in a rigged election, he was released. He moved to Mexico, where he began the next stage of his revolution. In 1956, he and 81 fellow revolutionaries departed Mexico in a 38-foot-long boat called the Granma to take on Batista’s 40,000-man army. After they landed in Cuba, they were attacked by Batista’s forces and lost more than 50 men. Castro and 28 others, including fellow revolutionary Che Guevara, barely survived.
With the U.S. government’s full support, including arms, bombers, and fighter planes, Batista’s forces fought to suppress the revolution and, during the course of the war, killed almost 20,000 Cubans.
But the Cuban people had had enough of Batista, the Mafia, political corruption, tortures, and murders — as well as the U.S. government’s support of it all. The Cuban poor joined up with Castro’s forces. Later, Batista’s army began to desert to the revolutionaries.
On January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country, retiring in splendor in Spain with the money he had earned from his Mafia cohorts. On January 3, 1959, Castro rode triumphantly into Havana to the cheers of thousands of Cubans.
U.S. government officials, of course, realized that Fidel Castro was not “their man in Havana” and quite unlikely to take orders from them, especially since they had actively supported political corruption, drug dealing, kickbacks, torture, and murder, not to mention their having helped to kill thousands of Cuban people who had fought against all of that. President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to oust Castro from office and install a new puppet president whose strings could be pulled by Washington.
(Eisenhower and the CIA were still “feeling their oats” from what they had accomplished a few years before. In 1954, the CIA had succeeded in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz, the duly elected president of Guatemala, an action that plunged Guatemala into a violent civil war that lasted decades and which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. If the CIA could overthrow a democratically elected government in Guatemala, why not a self-appointed one in Cuba as well?)
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the presidency. The next year, expecting the Cuban people to rally to their cause, Kennedy authorized the CIA and Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, with the aim of ousting Fidel Castro from office. The attack failed for three primary reasons: the CIA double-crossed the Cuban invaders by advising Kennedy to deny them air support; Castro’s forces were ready for the invasion; and the Cuban people were in little mood for another U.S. government-installed corrupt and brutal tyrant who depended on Mafia activities for his income.
The CIA didn’t let up after the Bay of Pigs. CIA officials joined forces with the Mafia dons who had lost their Cuban casinos and, working together, they embarked on an unsuccessful campaign to assassinate Fidel Castro. (The CIA and its Mafia partners [as well as Castro] would ultimately become objects of suspicion in the JFK assassination in November 1963. See “JFK, the CIA, and Conspiracies,” in Freedom Daily, September 1992.)
Castro, in turn, had begun betraying the principles for which he had fought. Ultimately making himself dictator for life, he refused to permit open and honest presidential elections in Cuba. He executed opponents of his regime. Nationalizing the media, he brutally suppressed dissent and even made criticism of both the Cuban revolution and socialism a grave criminal offense. Through it all, Castro used the threat of U.S. intervention as a justification for expanding his control over the Cuban people.
Although Castro had not been a member of the Communist Party during the revolution, he quickly began converting Cuba into a Marxist-Leninist economic “paradise,” and secured assistance from the Soviet Union. Betrayed by Castro’s move toward communism, many of his fellow revolutionaries, who believed they had been fighting for loftier principles, fled the country for Miami.
As part of the socialization of Cuba, Castro ended up nationalizing just about everything, domestic and foreign, including American businesses and properties. (The Mafia was thrown out as well.) Cuban businessmen and property owners were required to surrender their businesses and property to the state and become loyal government employees. The state ultimately became the sole owner and employer.
In the beginning, Castro and his socialist cohorts had a jolly good time with all the money they had confiscated, promising the people free everything — education, housing, health care, and the like. What they failed to realize, however, was that by consuming the base of private capital for their grandiose “free” government schemes, they were condemning the Cuban people to economic impoverishment.
“Equality” was the clarion call, as beautiful homes and successful businesses were seized in the name of “the people.” Castro made two socialist programs the centerpiece of his socialist revolution: free public schooling and free national heath care. But there would also be public housing, public libraries, a national highway system, rent controls, gun control, drug laws, public ownership of farms, and other measures that would ultimately make up Cuba’s system of total government control over people’s lives and fortunes.
In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Since then, with its economic embargo and, more recently, the Helms-Burton Act, the U.S. government has never deviated in its goal of ousting Fidel Castro from power and replacing him with “their man in Havana.” (U.S. government officials, of course, do not challenge Castro’s adoption of such socialist concepts as public schooling, public health care, and public housing. On the contrary, they favor them. They just want their man to be running the socialistic show.) Nevertheless, Castro has outlasted eight U.S. presidents.
Ultimately, two of the 20th century’s most oppressive engines of economic oppression — the U.S. embargo and Cuban socialism — would grind the Cuban people, and especially the poorest among them, into economic misery and desperation.
For four decades, Castro and his communist comrades have argued that the Cuban revolution necessitated both Castro’s assumption of political power and the imposition of a socialist economic system.
Obviously, one had nothing to do with the other. Castro could have assumed power, thumbed his nose at U.S. government officials, and dismantled Batista’s mercantilist economic system for the politically privileged, while still ensuring a market economy and the protection of private-property rights of foreign and domestic investors.
If Castro had followed that course, rather than the socialist course he pursued, today the Cuban people would not be on the verge of starvation, but would have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Equally important, an economically strong Cuban society, while mutually dependent on trade with private American businesses, would have strengthened Cuban support for Castro’s (and Martí’s) desire for Cuban independence from U.S. government control and domination.
Today, it is illegal for any Cuban to question “la revolución,” which entails both Castro’s assumption of political power and Cuba’s socialist economic system. When I arrived in Cuba, tension was in the air because four Cuban dissidents were being tried for criticizing the system, and parts of the trial were being shown on television. (They were later sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison.)
My visit to Cuba, however, revealed that if the Cuban authorities persist in jailing people on the street for criticizing Cuban socialism, they just might have to come up with a five-year plan for prison expansion.