Adios Fidel

After a 49-year rule, Fidel Castro has decided to give up the presidency of Cuba, although he will continue to lurk in the background exercising influence as and when his failing health permits, through his position as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party. The most likely successor as president is his younger brother Raúl Castro, essentially Fidel without the charisma and without the beard. He represents perhaps a minor improvement in administrative competence, but no change in anything of substance.

Even during the late sixties-early seventies, when almost every western male is his late teens or early twenties sported a poster of Che and/or Fidel on his wall, that particular cultural bacillus passed me by. I was fortunate that my father took the time to explain to me that this duo stood for a repressive, totalitarian regime. My father spent his entire life fighting totalitarian regimes at home and abroad. This started in earnest when he was 18 and the Nazis rolled into the Netherlands, but like much of his vintage of European and American democratic socialists, his political education began with the Spanish civil war. After World War II he was, as a Dutch trade union official for the Metal Workers, then as Secretary General first of the European Trade Union Confederation and later of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, involved in resistance to communist dictators in central and eastern Europe and in China, fascist dictators in Spain and Portugal, fascist Colonels in Greece, military dictatorships throughout South America and in Indonesia, white racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, black dictatorships throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, repressive regimes in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.

Why does this vile, repressive regime survive?

My father showed me that Castro and his crew systematically persecuted, tortured, locked up and at times executed all those opposed to their rule: independent trade unionists, independent journalists, independent priests, independent academics, independent artists, businessmen and women – the lot. There was and is, no freedom of speech, of religion or of assembly in Cuba. It is illegal to organise political parties opposed to the ruling clique. There is no independent judiciary. There is no right to a fair trial. It is a totalitarian state – a prison for all those who value freedom.

So what accounts for the durability of this vile regime? Clearly, a ruthless state apparatus for oppressing and suppressing dissent is part of the story. But I don’t believe it’s all of it. Let’s first consider the Mussolini defence/explanation (‘he made the trains run on time’). Castro Cuba has succeeded in providing remarkably good quality universal health care and pretty good quality primary, secondary and even tertiary education, with the expenditure of very limited resources. It’s true and it’s a remarkable achievement. The US and many other countries, rich and poor, should learn from it. Whatever happens next in Cuba, it is to be hoped that it will not lead to the collapse of the universal availability of health care and of primary and secondary education. We have seen in a number of former communist countries how the provision of health care for the bulk of the population can deteriorate when the political regime collapses and how access to primary and secondary education is made subject to ability to pay or to corrupt. In almost every way, Communist economic and social systems are disasters. They do, however, deliver reasonable health care and education for all, at a fraction of the cost (as a share of GDP) incurred in market economies.

There is an interesting footnote to the Cuban health care issue. In 1986 Cuba introduced the world’s only mandatory quarantine policy for HIV-positive persons. In 1994, the quarantine was officially lifted, but by 2003, half of all HIV-positive Cubans still lived in sanatoriums set up as part of the quarantine policy. When infectious or contagious diseases are involved, the balance between protection of the privacy rights and other human rights and civil liberties of the patients and the rights of the community not to be exposed to avoidable risks, is always a difficult one to strike. The fact that Cuba was the only country to introduce a mandatory quarantine policy for HIV-positive persons is, however, consistent with the general picture of a political regime contemptuous of individual rights.

Castro became an icon of the left at home and across the world, because he overthrew a corrupt US-backed dictator, ended the semi-colonial status of Cuba and proceeded to thumb his nose at the US for the next 49 years. The US never accepted/conceived of the notion that a country which at its nearest point is less than 90 miles from the Florida coast could ever aspire to anything more than a compliant and subservient status. The dictator Batista met US official requirements. He also gave free rein to the gambling and sex industries and to US organised crime, exemplified by his decades-long friendship with the American gangster Meyer Lansky – one of the last to be airlifted out of Cuba on January 1, 1959, following the success of the Cuban revolution.

Part of Castro’s political longevity and surprising popularity at home are no doubt due to the fact that he gave the country back a measure of pride: under Batista, the US facilitated the re-organisation of Cuba as its brothel and gambling den. It is sad indeed that sex tourism has again become a thriving industry in Cuba in recent years, because of the economic hardship caused by its terminally inefficient economic system, by the US embargo and by the ending of Soviet aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Financial support from Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, helps maintain the government in power, but does little to improve the lot of the people of Cuba.

The attitude of successive US administrations (and Congresses) to Cuba has been extraordinarily counter-productive over a long period. Following the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Cuba, along with Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the US under the Treaty of Paris of 1898. Although the Republic of Cuba gained formal independence in 1902, this independence was severely circumscribed, with the US retaining the right, under the Cuban constitution, to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations- effectively the Brezhnev doctrine on steroids, applied to countries deemed to be in the US sphere of influence.

Under a 1903 agreement, modified in a 1934 Treaty, Cuba also agreed to lease to the U.S. the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The agreement and Treaty were classic examples of ‘unequal agreements/treaties’ rammed down the throat of the weaker party, and have been a source of resentment ever since.

Cuban-American relations have been a mess ever since the Cuban revolutionaries took over in 1959. In 1961, Kennedy listened to the fruitcake wing of the Cuban exile community and launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Castro and Khrushchev badly miscalculated and brought us to the brink of a nuclear armageddon in 1962, during what became known as the Cuban missile crisis. It is the only occasion I can recall my mother hoarding both canned food and bottled water in case the world was about to go ballistic.

In 2002, the George W. Bush administration established a military prison, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, for persons alleged to be militant combatants captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US administration has used the extraterritoriality of this detention camp as a smokescreen for denying the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay their fundamental and universal human rights as well as their rights under the US constitution and US law. Mistreatment and torture have been common. Having the US government commit such gross violations of human rights and civil liberties on Cuban territory is also a wonderful propaganda gift for a dictator like Castro, who has a 50-year record of abuse, torture and mistreatment of political opponents. It was neither the first nor the last rank stupidity in US policy towards Cuba.

Equally counterproductive been the US economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962, after Cuba expropriated the properties of US citizens and corporations, notably the ITT corporation (which owned the Cuban telephone system) and the United Fruit Company (which owned sugar cane plantations and processing plants). The embargo has impoverished ordinary Cubans and has made the country more dependent on nefarious external influences, first the Soviet Union and more recently Venezuela. It has in all likelihood (we will never be able to rerun history without the embargo, unfortunately) contributed to the longevity of the Castro regime.

It is quite extraordinary how US politics vis-à-vis Cuba has been shaped and controlled by a relative small number of Cuban-American exiles for whom this issue has been the litmus test for their political support. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have put their brains into non-active mode when the lunatic fringe of the Cuban-American community makes its ridiculous and ill-thought-out demands. Fortunately, the passing of time and of generations means that the influence of the mindless diehards is waning.

What is to be done?

This is the time to end the embargo unconditionally and to hold out membership in NAFTA for Cuba provided it implements a programme of democratic reforms and pro-market reforms. Fidel Castro’s fade-out and imminent demise present a unique opportunity for a new US engagement with Cuba. If the US authorities continue to talk and act as if they will not be satisfied until the heirs of Meyer Lansky get their hands on their ancestor’s ill-gotten gains, this opportunity could be missed and Cuba could become a festering, crime-ridden sore for a generation or more.

As a further gesture, and in part-compensation for the damage caused by the embargo, the US could return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, unconditionally. Such vestiges of neo-colonialism don’t look good at the best of times. Further encumberd with the taint of human rights abuses and violations of the US constitution, Guantanamo Bay has become a poison chalice for the US. The only way to drain it of its poison is to return it to the Cuban people.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website