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. 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 great time with all the money they had confiscated, promising the people free everything – education, housing, health care, and the like. “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.
What they Castro and his fellow socialists ignored, however, was that by consuming the base of private capital for their grandiose “free” government schemes, they were condemning the Cuban people to long-term economic impoverishment. 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.
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.” Nevertheless, Castro has outlasted eight U.S. presidents.
My trip to Cuba entailed talking primarily to two groups of people – those in research centers at the University of Havana, which had been arranged by the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, and people whom I encountered in daily life in Cuba. The research center people can be divided into two groups: the “hard-liners” and the “reformers.” The hard-liners are those who still defend socialism, and specifically Cuban socialism, with fervor and determination. When I asked them to explain why there is so much poverty and suffering in Cuba, their answer was always the same – the U.S. embargo and the Helms-Burton Act. If it weren’t for these, they told me, Cuban socialism would be a big success. Although I always made it clear that I opposed the embargo and Helms-Burton, I couldn’t help but poke a hole in this rationalization for the failures of Cuban socialism. I said to one hard-liner, “Doesn’t that imply that socialism in Cuba depends on economic freedom in the United States? That is, if the entire world were as socialistic as Cuba, wouldn’t everyone be suffering?” He had a difficult time responding to the challenge.
After the termination of the Soviet subsidies, it was clear that Cuba was faced with the prospect of massive starvation. So the U.S. dollar was legalized, and today there is a dual monetary system. Hotels, grocery stores, and other establishments (which, of course, are state-owned) accept only U.S. dollars. It is this hard currency that enables the Cuban authorities to keep their rickety old socialist system afloat (much as the Cuban people have been able to keep those thousands of old cars from the 1950s chugging along). It would be difficult to find a more obvious example of the abandonment of socialist principles than open dependence on the U.S. dollar. Thus, it was amusing for me, as a libertarian ideologue, to listen to socialist ideologues defend this obvious abandonment of socialist principles as a minor socialist reform.
The reformers in the research centers appear to appreciate the benefits of free markets and seem to want more market openness, competition, and cooperation in Cuba. (Of course, all calls for reform are expressed in terms of supporting the revolution and not criticizing it.) Many of them make it a point to keep abreast of intellectual developments in the United States. For example, I saw economics journals on the bookshelves, books by Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises, and standard American Keynesian economics textbooks.
One reform that is not openly promoted is privatization. At every research center I visited, I asked the same question: “Is privatization something that is being considered or discussed?” The answer was always the same: “No.” And there was never any further discussion of the issue.
I met with an official at the Havana Development Group, the agency responsible for the planning and development of the city. He was a kind, middle-aged architect who enthusiastically explained the master plan for the city, using a model of Havana that fills an enormous hall. But after 40 years of socialistic central planning and public ownership, and despite the best intentions and deep dedication of the architect and his fellow central planners, Havana, once one of the world’s most beautiful cities, today looks like a war-ravaged city. As one taxi driver said to me, “When people own things, they take care of them. When society owns things, no one takes care of them.”
I asked one hard-liner whether she ever traveled to the United States. She responded, “Yes. Next spring, I am attending a conference at Harvard.” I smiled and said exuberantly, “Oh, you will feel right at home. They are very socialistic at Harvard!”
I also paid an unofficial visit to a branch office of the Cuban Internal Revenue Service in the hope of securing a copy of a Cuban income-tax return. An official told me that this should be no problem but that he had to first secure permission from his superiors. I momentarily forgot where I was and said, “Death and the state – they are impossible to avoid everywhere.” Apparently tax officials are the same everywhere, because the man glared at me, went into an office, and returned to tell me that they had just run out of tax returns.
While everyone in the research centers I visited was friendly and courteous to me, it was obvious that they chose their words very carefully during our visits. It was different out on the streets. Relating and interacting with the Cuban people on the streets turned out to be easy for me, and the result was a candor about their country from many of them that disarmed me. In fact, 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.
Mr. Hornberger is co-editor of the book The Case for Free Trade and Open Immigration.