It is quickly becoming an article of faith among those who favor ending the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba that their opponents are economic illiterates. The more we can penetrate our long-time Caribbean adversary with iPhones and other technological marvels, the sophisticates patiently explain, the more Fidel Castro’s communism will cease to appeal.
Ending the embargo is really “a Trojan horse for democratic capitalism,” they say.
But suppose what the opponents of economic reconciliation intuitively understand is that the problem with Cuba is not communism, an ideology whose popular appeal collapsed almost two decades ago with the Berlin wall, but gangland rule. Suppose that what they recognize in the Cuban leadership is a ruthless regime which has no trouble with the erosion of its professed ideology as long as the final result is greater power, more wealth, and the appearance of legitimacy.
Consider for a moment what happened to another communist country, China, when President Nixon thought he saw a similar opportunity to gradually undermine an enemy’s dogma through economic cooperation. The authoritarian rule of the Central Committee might persist for years to come, he and his policymakers reasoned, but it would be counterbalanced by the rise of an entrepreneurial class of market-oriented businesspeople. Even today, many supposedly enlightened Western intellectuals will argue that this was an actual benefit of ending China’s isolation.
In reality, as Richard McGregor, former Asian correspondent for the Financial Times, and many other reporters on the ground have documented, America’s willingness to expand relations with China, followed soon after by Deng Xiaoping’s tolerance for private business, created an unprecedented opportunity for Party elites to further enrich themselves.
Details vary from one industry to the next, but the basic pattern was for high level bureaucrats to start their own corporations, then use their continuing influence over state firms to purchase machinery and other operating assets at sharp discounts. A newly formed steel company, for example, might buy a recently built foundry from its state-owned competitor for a fraction of its worth or even take it in trade for defective inventory or obsolete equipment it had purchased as scrap.
Rather than create a vibrant private sector which could compete for influence with the government, the loosening of Western trade restrictions on China gave Party members across a wide range of industries — from mining and manufacturing to food and consumer products — the ability to leverage political position for their own economic advantage. Many generated substantial wealth for themselves and their families.
In other words, what looked from the United States like a weakening of China’s collectivist ideology was something much more akin to an organization of gangsters recognizing a golden opportunity to permanently launder their ill-gotten gains and go “legit.” The industrial capital that the Communist Party had expropriated from private owners in the late 1940s, had professed to steward on behalf of the peasants for several decades, was now firmly in the hands of those (or the descendants of those) who had originally seized it.
It is not an exaggeration to say that for many of China’s elite their country’s seeming ideological humiliation was a convenient distraction from a ruthless abuse of power.
Coming back to Cuba, Americans can undoubtedly take satisfaction in knowing that the Castro brothers’ desire for increased trade with the U.S. is a de facto admission of communism’s economic failure. But with both Russia and Venezuela already basket cases, how much tyranny are we willing to tolerate 90 miles from Florida just to make an obvious point a little more obvious?
Should not a lifting of the U.S. embargo be conditioned on an end to Cuba’s policy current of making its military a partner with every foreign investor? Should not regulators of the island’s state-owned industries be prohibited from starting competitive businesses?
On December 19, a columnist I normally admire, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, praised the embargo’s end, adding as an afterthought her hope that the U.S. would someday press the Cuban government for a framework whereby wrongly expropriated property could be reclaimed. With all due respect to Miss Noonan, should not that be a precondition for any thaw in economic relations?
Americans are an idealistic people with a lot to be proud of. But for the thugs of this world, ideology is often little more than window dressing. And to prove them wrong is not the same thing as beating them back.