Many years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Cuba, a country that holds valuable lessons in freedom for the American people, albeit not in ways that one might imagine.
As a prerequisite to traveling to Cuba, the U.S. government requires Americans to secure a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually not a crime for Americans to travel to Cuba. Instead, it’s a federal crime to spend money there. The license issued by the Treasury Department permits the recipient of the license to spend a specified amount of money while traveling in Cuba.
I applied for the license under a research category, explaining that as the president of a free-market educational foundation, I wished to examine first-hand Cuba’s socialist economic system.
The license was issued, and I applied for a visa from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. It would have been easy to secure a tourist’s visa, but I wanted a journalist’s visa instead, which is much more difficult to secure. In a personal interview with an official in the Cuban Interests Section, I explained that I wanted to be able to interview people in Cuba and keep copious notes about the interviews.
Once my journalist’s visa was approved, I had one last meeting with a Cuban official. I asked him directly, “Is it okay for me to freely interview people on the streets?” He looked me straight in the face and responded, “Of course. You are going to find that people in Cuba are much freer than people here in the United States.” There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he truly believed what he was saying.
The people on the streets of Cuba knew differently. Nearly everyone I interviewed was very circumspect about speaking to me. They would always look around to make sure that no one was eavesdropping before talking to me. After all, it’s a death-penalty offense to question the principles of the Cuban Revolution. Also, since nearly everyone works for the state, being fired obviously has life-and-death consequences.
After a week or so of talking to people in Havana and in the town of Trinidad, I concluded that most Cubans were very disillusioned with Fidel Castro’s socialist economic system. They knew that with respect to economic prosperity, the world had passed them by.
At the same time, however, I found that there was widespread respect and even reverence for Castro himself. Why? Because Castro had long stood up against the U.S. government, the most powerful government in the world, which had long attempted to put Cuba under its control and domination. Over a period of many decades, Castro had survived an invasion, an embargo, terrorism, and numerous assassination attempts at the hands of the U.S. military and the CIA. The Cuban people were proud of him for that, and there was no doubt in my mind that, while they resented the socialist system that Castro had foisted upon them, they would stand with him in any military conflict with the United States.
A deferential military
One day I was visiting the CIA museum in Havana, which detailed the things that the CIA had done to attempt regime change in Cuba. The invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. The countless assassination plots against Castro. The decades-long Cuban embargo, which had brought so much suffering on the Cuban people. The terrorist attacks on Cuban industries.
During my visit to the museum, I noticed a group of elementary-school students being guided through it by their teacher, who was carefully explaining what the CIA had done to Cuba. Needless to say, every one of those kids was being taught that what the CIA had done was horribly wrong.
Over in the United States, however, the opposite message is taught to elementary-school students. Here, the message is that the CIA, as the super-secret paramilitary and intelligence force for the U.S. government, is the protector of America’s national security and freedom. Today American students are taught that the CIA protects America from the terrorists. Prior to 1989 and throughout the Cold War, the message was that the CIA kept America safe from the communists.
The message ingrained in every American from the first grade on up is no different with respect to the U.S. military and to what Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex. Most Americans living today have been born and raised in a society in which the military and the military-industrial complex play a dominate role in the affairs of the nation. With the exception of libertarians, most people are convinced that the United States would never have survived the Cold War without its enormous standing military and military-industrial complex, along with the CIA. With the passing of the Cold War, they continued to think the CIA was indispensable in dealing with such ever-present threats as terrorists and drug dealers.
In fact, in the minds of most Americans, an enormous standing military and a super-secret paramilitary force are consistent with a free society, at least insofar as the United States is concerned. That is, throughout the Cold War Americans instinctively understood that the dominant role that the Soviet military and the KGB played in the Soviet Union was antithetical to the principles of a free society. Indeed, they instinctively understand that the dominant role that such institutions play in Cuba, North Korea, or China is inconsistent with the principles of a free society. But when it comes to the dominant role that the military and the CIA play in American life, it’s all perceived as part and parcel of a free society and America’s “free-enterprise system.”
Moreover, the mindset of many Americans, a mindset that is inculcated by the government’s educational system from the time a child is six years old, is to defer to authority when it comes to military and CIA operations overseas. When it comes to foreign conflicts, Americans are expected to rally to the side of their government, at the very least by “supporting the troops.”
It is easy to see this phenomenon of conformity within the military itself. Consider, for example, the invasion of Iraq. It had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. There was never a congressional declaration of war, as required by the U.S. Constitution, which every soldier swears to support and defend. The United Nations refused to authorize military action on the basis of what U.S. officials claimed to be breaches of UN resolutions regarding Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
If there was ever a case where a soldier would have been expected to say, “No, Mr. President, I will not obey your orders to invade that country and kill people in the process,” it was Iraq. It was a clear-cut case of a war of aggression, a type of war that had been declared a war crime at Nuremberg.
Nevertheless, every U.S. soldier — officers and enlisted men alike — deferred to authority and loyally followed the president’s order to invade and occupy Iraq. Even when the much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, every person in the military immediately fell into line and continued occupying the country under the alternative rationale of “spreading democracy,” as if that were some sort of moral justification for killing human beings. (In 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada refused to deploy to Iraq on grounds of conscience and was prosecuted for refusing to obey orders.) U.S. soldiers were expected to defer to authority and trust their commander in chief, and they did.
A deferential citizenry
What about the American people? Prior to the invasion, there was considerable dissent and opposition to President Bush’s plan to invade Iraq. But I recall many people arguing, “We’ve got to trust our president. He has access to information that we don’t have. We have to support the invasion to prevent the possibility of the smoking gun’s being a mushroom cloud.”
Then, after the U.S. military and the CIA failed to find any WMDs, many of those same Americans quickly got in sync with the alternative, secondary rationale for invading Iraq — to help the Iraqi people secure freedom and democracy.
Yet, throughout the 1990s the general attitude of many Americans was one of indifference to the plight of the Iraqi people, specifically to the horrible suffering that was being inflicted on them by the U.S. government through one of the most brutal economic embargoes in history.
Even though the 11-year-long Iraq embargo lasted for less than the five-decades-long embargo against Cuba has lasted, the former was actually much more deadly and destructive than the Cuban embargo. While the U.S. government does its best to punish foreign companies that do business with Cuba, the Cuban embargo applies mainly to the American people. The Iraq embargo, on the other hand, operated as a complete blockade against any trade by any nation with the people of Iraq.
The result was a human catastrophe the likes of which the world has rarely seen. The horror actually began during the Persian Gulf War, when the Pentagon bombed Iraq’s water and sewage facilities after coming up with a study showing that that would help spread infectious illnesses among the Iraqi people. At the end of the war and continuing for the next 11 years, the U.S. government enforced an embargo that ensured, among other things, that those water- and sewage-treatment facilities could not be repaired.
Before long, Iraqi children were dying by the tens of thousands every year. The death toll ultimately ranged in the hundreds of thousands. As Joy Gordon revealed in excruciating detail in her insightful and moving book Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, in an unimaginable banality of evil U.S. bureaucrats reveled in playing bureaucratic games with the sanctions. The official mindset of U.S. officials was captured by the U.S. government’s ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, who was asked by 60 Minutes whether the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from the sanctions had been worth it. Not disputing the number, Albright responded that while the issue had been a difficult one, nonetheless the deaths of the children had indeed been “worth it.”
What role did the American people play in the Iraq sanctions? Indifference. Virtually no one cared. It was the ultimate triumph of the mindset of conformity and deference to authority. Americans simply trusted that their government was doing the right thing with respect to Iraq. After all, the U.S. government is exceptional. It is caring. It is a positive force for good in the world. Saddam Hussein was evil. He had to be ousted. Our government officials said so. We need to stand with our government in time of conflict, chaos, and war. Who are we to say that our government is engaged in wrongful conduct? That’s just not possible. After all, it’s the U.S. government we’re talking about.
Even today, when critics of the Iraq sanctions or the invasion of Iraq point to the massive death and destruction produced by such acts, all too many Americans simply defer to authority by reciting the official line: “The world is better off without Saddam Hussein,” as if that settles the grave moral issues raised by the costs of his ouster from power.
There were a few Americans, however, who refused to defer to authority. They chose to violate the sanctions by delivering food, medical, and other supplies to the Iraqi people. One notable example was a man named Bert Sacks from Seattle. He intentionally violated the sanctions by taking medicines to Iraqi hospitals.
The violators, including Sacks, were prosecuted viciously by the U.S. Justice Department. Who were these Americans to question matters relating to national security? Once the U.S. government had decided that Saddam Hussein had to go, then every American was expected to fall in line and not interfere with the means that U.S. officials had chosen to achieve that end. If the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were the price to be paid for regime change, then so be it. That was a determination to be made by officials in Washington, D.C. The role of the citizen, as inculcated in him since the first grade, is to defer to authority and trust that his government knows best.
When there’s no deference …
A couple of years ago, a prominent American couple, Kendall Myers, an employee at the State Department, and his wife, Gwendolyn, were indicted for delivering classified information to the Cuban government over a period of many years. Before trial, the couple accepted a plea deal that sent the husband to jail for life without parole in exchange for his wife’s being let off with a light sentence of 5½ years.
One of the most fascinating events in the case occurred at sentencing, when the presiding judge, Reggie B. Walton, exemplified the mindset of obedience, conformity, and deference to authority that the public schools inculcate in their students.
At sentencing, Kendall Myers explained to the judge that he and his wife were helping to defend the Cuban people from the wrongful actions of the U.S. government. That explanation went over like a lead balloon with Judge Walton, who could have taken the explanation into consideration in setting sentence. “If you believed in the revolution, you should have defected” the judge angrily responded. The prosecutor, Michael Harvey, called Mr. Myers a “traitor” who “betrayed his State Department colleagues and our nation.”
Now let’s reflect a moment on the mindset of that federal judge and federal prosecutor.
In the more than 50 years since Fidel Castro took power, Cuba has never attacked the United States. It has never engaged in a single terrorist attack on American soil. It has never attempted to assassinate the president of the United States or any other federal official. It has never placed a cruel and inhumane embargo on the United States.
If Cuba’s communist regime had done any of those things, you can rest assured that Reggie Walton, Michael Harvey, and the rest of their ilk would have gone bananas. “Murderers!” “Terrorists!” “Communists!” “Assassins!” “Invaders!” “Aggressors!” Every invective imaginable would have been leveled at Cuba.
Oh, but turn the tables and suddenly the mindset of people such as Walton and Harvey gets inverted. The CIA’s invasion of Cuba? The CIA’s assassination plots against Fidel Castro? The CIA’s terrorist attacks on Cuba’s industries? The U.S. government’s cruel and brutal embargo that has helped to squeeze the lifeblood out of the Cuban people, much as the Iraq embargo did to the Iraqi people?
Well, you see, now it’s all about “freedom.” And the citizen is supposed to remain quiet or, even better, blindly support whatever his government is doing.
In my opinion, the big mistake the Kendalls made was in delivering classified information about the U.S. government’s wrongful acts against Cuba to the Cuban government rather than to the New York Times. As Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg have learned, the government would still have prosecuted them, but at least the American people would have been able to see what their own government has been doing to the Cuban people for more than 50 years.
The U.S. government refuses to declassify the documents that the Kendalls delivered to Cuba, even though the Cuban regime has already seen them. The justification is the standard one: national security. But how would national security be jeopardized if the American people were to see what the Cuban regime has already seen?
When the U.S. government engages in horrible acts, such acts are not supposed to be considered horrible by the American people. They are supposed to be considered horrible only when regimes such as Cuba, China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union commit them. The American citizenry are not supposed to question the moral legitimacy of what their government does in foreign affairs. The good citizen, the one who defers to authority and trusts his government to do the right thing, is expected to fall in line and sing in unison with everyone else, “And I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free” when his government is kidnapping people; torturing people; sending people into foreign dungeons to be tortured; executing prisoners; incarcerating people without trial for life in dark, secret, overseas prisons; killing people, including children, with embargoes and sanctions; assassinating foreign officials; assassinating foreign citizens; assassinating Americans; invading and occupying countries; instigating coups; supporting military dictatorships; or anything else.
It’s all part of deference to authority, a mindset that culminates in a warped understanding of the meaning of a free society, not only with respect to foreign policy but also with respect to the principles of economic liberty. And that brings us back to the federal regulation that requires Americans, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to secure permission to spend their own money in Cuba.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.