In the wake of Jimmy Carter’s embrace of Fidel Castro, the movement on
Capitol Hill to engage the communist dictator is gaining force, which is
very bad news indeed for the Cuban people.
Arguing that free trade will eventually defeat despotism—-typically a
winning claim-—the Cuba Study Group (CSG) is pushing to lift both the
embargo and the travel ban to Castro’s island prison.
Free trade with Cuba, however, is impossible, at least the way CSG
envisions it, which is by going thru the communist dictator. Castro’s iron
fist crushes the invisible hand, and in so doing, he suspends the laws of
economics by preventing any wealth or freedom from filtering down to his
Unlike in other communist regimes, such as China, companies doing business
in Cuba never directly interact with the Cuban people. Castro’s henchmen
choose which people get which jobs, and then the dictator pockets 95% of the
cash intended as pay for the workers. When companies rent Cuban workers
from Castro, less than 5% of the money actually makes its way to the people
on the factory floor.
Travel to Cuba would be just as rigged as the joint ventures. Castro’s
regime has worked assiduously over the years to keep sunlight from reaching
the Cuban people. The beautiful beaches and luxurious hotels shown on
television are strictly for tourists. Jimmy Carter, in fact, stayed at a
hotel that prohibits Cuban citizens, even if they are with a registered
Rather than exposing Cubans to freedom through foreign visitors, “European
tourists have solidified a structure where Cubans are second-class citizens
in their own country,” notes a senior administration official. The CSG has
no problem with allowing Americans to travel within the tourist apartheid
system, but the benefits to Cubans seem speculative at best.
The most likely beneficiary of engagement, in fact, is Castro himself.
After the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, the communist
dictator scrambled to find new sources of revenue. Replacing $5 billion
per year—-the amount the Soviets annually kicked in—-is no small
task, which is why Castro turned to capitalism to save communism.
Establishing joint ventures with foreign companies to create hotels and
nightclubs, among other tourist-related businesses, was Castro’s last-ditch
effort to preserve the communist system. These business activities have
provided enough dough to prop up the despot, but they haven’t produced
enough cash to ensure success for Castro’s successor.
America’s continued embargo of Cuba is not, as the CSG and its allies
contend, a “failed policy.” Quite the contrary; the sanctions have caged in
Castro, limiting his financial resources. His communist government was
forced to do something our Congress hasn’t done in a very long time: cut the
The Cuban regime had massive layoffs in the early 1990’s, precisely
because Castro didn’t have access to American cash. The laid-off workers,
estimated at 250,000, created a new self-employed class of cab drivers and
home-based restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, though the government tightly
restricted growth factors such as capacity and total volume.
When the self-employed sector started to become too successful, Castro put
the squeeze on through more red tape and punitive taxes. Cuban officials
now brag that they managed to pare back the self-employment rolls by some
Looking at the experience of the self-employed, it is easy to foresee that
if the Cuban people did manage to benefit from booming trade and travel,
Castro would respond immediately and put a stop to it, just as he has done
time and again.
In the 1980’s, crop shortages were wreaking havoc on the Cuban economy.
Acting as any economist would, Castro allowed farmers to sell off excess
crops, a move clearly designed to spark increased production. It worked—-a
little too well. Some of these farmers were turning excess production to
“exotic” crops, such as garlic. Many of these co-op farmers became filthy
rich, at least by Cuban standards. Castro brutally shut down what he termed
“Garlic Millionaires,” and the policy abruptly ended in 1986.
With Castro getting up there in years, the last thing America should do is
to institutionalize communism. Whoever succeeds Castro will have a very
difficult time without Castro’s cult of personality or access to American
capital. Our policy should be predicated on the desire for tyranny in Cuba
to die with Castro, something recognized by President George W. Bush.
Bush’s new Cuba initiative is laying the foundation for democracy to take
root once Castro kicks. With direct engagement of the Cuban people through
humanitarian and church groups, as well as a scholarship program for Cuban
citizens to study in America, Bush is sowing the seeds of
without engaging Castro. Bush’s new policy does not bode
well for Castro or communism, but it provides at least a glimmer of hope for
the Cuban people-—something they desperately need.