When I arrived in Cuba, an El Salvadoran was being tried for terroristic bombing and four Cuban dissidents were being tried for criticizing the Cuban system, and the trials were being shown on national television. Tension was in the air. Nevertheless, even though it is a grave criminal offense to challenge Cuba’s socialist system, I was determined to deliver a presentation of libertarian principles in the middle of Havana. I got my chance when one of the research centers I visited asked me to explain libertarianism to its staff.
I said, “In the United States, the state runs our educational system and it is a disaster. We libertarians challenge the state by asking: ‘Why not end state involvement in education and have a free market in education?'”
“Our government also runs an old-age assistance program for Americans called Social Security, and it is a bankrupt mess. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why shouldn’t people be free to keep what they earn and to manage their own money and retirement?'”
“Our government runs a national health care system called Medicare and Medicaid, and it is another government abomination. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why not abolish these programs and have a free market in health care?'”
“Our government runs a vicious war against drugs, which, after many decades, is a total failure and which has actually made things worse for our country. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why shouldn’t individuals be free to do whatever they want, so long as their conduct is peaceful?'”
“Our government wages a brutal war on immigrants, especially along the southern border of our country. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why shouldn’t people be free to cross borders freely, improve their lives through labor, enter into mutually beneficial relationships with others, and accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth?'”
In just a few moments, I had challenged the core elements of Cuban socialism in the middle of Havana, Cuba, and I had used American socialism to do it.
The highlight of my trip to Cuba was my visits with ordinary Cubans on the streets. Although there was a climate of fear among the citizenry, people were quite open about their feelings about socialism as long as they knew that our conversations were not being monitored.
One afternoon, I began conversing with a man who was riding his bicycle. He asked me what I thought about Che Guevara (Fidel Castro’s fellow revolutionary, now deceased, whose photograph appears throughout Cuba). Carefully choosing my words, I said that I preferred Jos Mart (the father of Cuban independence in the Spanish-American War). The man smiled. When I asked him how life was for him, he responded that he did not have enough money to purchase shoes for his children. I asked him, “What do you think of a system in which the state owns everything and everyone works for the state?” He looked around and whispered, “Mierda!” [“Shit!”]
I asked him to show me how ordinary Cubans get their food. Escorting me through the streets of Havana, he took me to a ration station, where people were lined up to receive their monthly allotments of food. Each had a little red ration book that the attendant would mark as the person received his five pounds of sugar, beans, or whatever. I began taking photographs and someone objected: “No one is permitted to take photos without the permission of the administrator.” My escort responded, “Why not, comrade? We the people own this place, don’t we?”
An elderly woman (about 70 years old) me that her parents had been prosperous landlords before the revolution. The Castro regime had confiscated her parents’ properties and had then hired them to manage the properties. Today, the woman and her mother live on a meager pension and are barely surviving. I asked her whether she had hope for the future and she responded, “I am too old for hope.”
One old woman – about 80 years old – was selling ice cream. She told me that she had to pay the state (in pesos) the equivalent of $200 per month for her (government-issued) license and that she had to pay taxes on her income at the end of the year. I asked her, “How do they know how much you have earned?” Her smile revealed some missing teeth as she responded, “Yes, how do they know?”
Two men in their 30s were selling antique books. I asked them, “How do you know how much to purchase the books for and how much to sell them for?” They responded in the finest entrepreneurial fashion, “It is our business to know.”
One day, at the University of Havana, I began conversing with a group of students about life in Cuba. I asked one of the students – a young woman – “What is your biggest dream in life?” She quickly responded, “To own my own business!” I said, “But that is not legal in Cuba,” and she said despondently, “Yes, I know. But there is always hope.” Another young woman showed her lack of enthusiasm for Cuba’s socialist state by making fun of her national identification card. She told me that when young people drive out of Havana, they immediately tune to Miami radio stations (but not the U.S. government’s Radio Mart, which they consider boring) to keep abreast of American music.
I also visited the beautiful (albeit extremely impoverished) town of Trinidad, which was several hours from Havana. A young Cuban man (about 20 years old) realized that I was from the United States and after making certain that no one was listening, said to me, “I am a faithful admirer of the United States of America. In your country, you have freedom of speech, while here in Cuba, we do not. Most Cubans wish to go to Miami. Not I. What I wish to do most of all is to travel to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty.”
I explained to him that many of us Americans were trying to recapture the principles for which the Statue of Liberty once stood. I told him that the U.S. embargo against Cuba was a disgrace to the principles of freedom that had made our nation great. I said that recent U.S. government policy to repatriate Cuban refugees into communist tyranny was an affront to everything our ancestors believed in. I pointed out that unfortunately our government had adopted many of the controls, programs, and interventions that characterized the Cuban government, including the embargo. I said, “One of these days, you will see the Statue of Liberty, and I hope that it will be because there is economic liberty in both the United States and Cuba as well as free movement of goods and people between our respective nations.”
Cubans are among the most sincere and genuine people I have ever encountered. Whenever I asked people on the street, “Why are you so courteous to me after what my government has done to your country with the embargo?” their response was always the same and was revealing: “What responsibility do you have for what your government has done?” My visit to Cuba reinforced my hatred of socialism, but it also caused me to fall in love with Cuba and with the Cuban people.
Mr. Hornberger is co-editor of the book The Case for Free Trade and Open Immigration.