Several years ago I traveled to Cuba.
As most everyone knows, it’s a federal crime to travel to Cuba and spend money there without the official permission of the U.S. government. The idea is that if you travel to Cuba and spend money there without the permission of the federal government, national security will be threatened. If, on the other hand, you do secure an official license to do so, the threat to national security disappears.
So I applied for and secured a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. The basis for my application was to travel to Cuba to study its socialist system. (A more extensive account of my trip to Cuba is in my article, “A Libertarian Visits Cuba.”)
I could have entered Cuba on a tourist visa. But since I wanted to interview people, I figured that it would be safer to secure a journalist’s visa from the Cuban government. When I went to the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., to be interviewed for my application, I was informed that the Cuban government would go ahead and issue me a journalist’s visa.
In the abundance of precaution, as I was leaving the meeting I turned to a Cuban official and said, “I just want to be certain of the conditions of my visa. I am free to interview ordinary Cubans on the streets. Correct?” He looked me straight in eye and responded,
Of course! You are going to find that the people of Cuba are much freer than people here in the United States.
During my visit, I interviewed many people on the streets of Havana. One thing stood out above all: Everyone I spoke to was convinced that he was being watched and monitored by the Cuban government.
Not surprisingly, the Cuban government’s surveillance system was not a technological marvel. Of course, there were the Cuban military, police, and intelligence agents. But in large part, the Cuban government relied on a system of citizen monitors and spies. Each neighborhood, for example, had a designated government snitch whose job it was to immediately notify the authorities if anything unusual was taking place. The rationale of the system, not surprisingly, was to keep people safe.
My questions to people on the streets mostly revolved around Cuba’s socialist economic system and the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Most everyone with whom I visited was willing to talk to me. At the same time, everyone was extremely cautious and circumspect. Whenever I would strike up a conversation about Cuba’s system with ordinary people on the streets, the first thing they would do is look around. If there was anyone within earshot, they would ask me to walk some distance with them so that no one else could hear the conversation. After all, since no one knew who was a snitch and who wasn’t, everyone had to assume that everyone else was a snitch.
One day, I was invited to address a group of about 10 people in a think tank at the University of Havana. They were young people, mostly in their 20s. I was stunned to learn that they were libertarians and that they had read books by Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and other libertarian scholars. I asked them how they were able to get away with reading such subversive literature especially given the Cuban government’s extensive surveillance system. They told me that while it was a severe crime in Cuba to challenge or question Cuba’s economic system, it was not a crime to couch one’s arguments in terms of “reforming” or “improving” the system.
Since I had no interest in spending years in a Cuban prison for committing what is considered one of the most serious crimes under Cuban law, I said the following to the group:
Thank you for inviting me to share some libertarian perspectives with you. I would not pretend to be an expert on the situation inside your country and so I will not address that subject. However, I am an expert on the situation in my country and so I’ll share some insights about that with you.
In the United States, the government has a program that provides old-age retirement benefits for senior citizens. It is called Social Security. The program is based on forcibly taking money from young people to whom it belongs and giving it to other people to whom it does not belong. It is an absolute mess. It is bankrupt in every sense of the term, morally, economically, and financially.
The same with health care. The government has a program that provides free health care for seniors and poor people. It is called Medicare/Medicaid. It has made an absolute mess of healthcare in America.
In my country, state and local governments control the educational system, though the federal government plays a major role here as well. Education is an absolute mess too. By the time they graduate high school, students hate to learn.
We have a national income tax by which the federal government has effectively nationalized everyone’s income. Sometimes the government is nice to us and permits us to keep more of the money we have earned. Other times, it is not so nice and takes more from us. But everyone understands that the government decides what everyone’s allowance will be. And most everyone is scared to death, and justifiably so, of the government’s tax-collecting agency, the Internal Revenue Service.
The U.S. government controls the international movements of the American people. I had to secure official permission to come and spend money here in your country. Otherwise, I would have been prosecuted, convicted of a felony offense, sentenced to serve time in a federal penitentiary, and severely fined.
Despite all the problems with America’s economic system, Americans love it. They call it “free enterprise.” They pride themselves on being a free people.
By this time, everyone in the room was smiling.
Why were they smiling?
Well, every libertarian who is reading this article immediately knows the answer to that question. But most every other American who is reading this article is undoubtedly scratching his head, wondering why the audience would be smiling.
The reason they were smiling is that they knew what I had just done. I had just described Cuba’s economic and educational system to them. By focusing on America’s socialist system, I had avoided any direct critique of Cuba’s socialist system. But the audience got the point, which is why they were smiling.
Of course, if I were there making that talk today, I would add the following:
In my country, the government has a massive surveillance scheme over the American people by which government officials are able to monitor and keep watch on everyone. Many Americans love the program because they say it keeps them safe. And one of their favorite songs, which they reverently sing at big sporting events, is, “Thank God I am an American because at least I know I’m free.”
By this time, I have no doubts that that Cuban audience would not only be smiling, they would be guffawing, i.e., dying of laughter.
One of the most striking observations I had in visiting Cuba was that most Cubans knew full well that they were not free. While they respected and even revered Fidel Castro for standing up to the United States and refusing to permit Cuba to come under U.S. government control, they knew that Cuba’s economic system had been an absolute disaster and that the world had passed them by in an economic sense.
Over the years, I have reflected on what that official at the Cuban Interest Section said to me: “You are going to find that the people of Cuba are much freer than people here in the United States.”
I have concluded he was right, and the reason is found in the words of Johann Goethe, words that perfectly encapsulate the plight of the American people of our time (except libertarians): “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”