My trip to Cuba last spring entailed talking primarily to two groups of people — those in research centers at the University of Havana and people whom I encountered in daily life in Cuba.
The meetings with the research centers were arranged by the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., which had issued me a special “fact-finding” visa that authorized me to visit Cuba for the purpose of conducting an informal study of socialism and the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
It bears emphasizing that just about everyone I encountered on this trip, including Cuban officials in Washington and Havana and ordinary people on the streets, was kind, friendly, and courteous to me. For example, the people in the Cuban Interest Section took time to meet with me twice before my visit and arranged my formal meetings in Havana. And people in the research centers at the University of Havana took time from their schedules to meet with me to discuss economic issues affecting Cuba.
Through it all, I got the distinct impression that Cubans would like nothing more than to establish better relations with the American people. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are ready to abandon their socialist system (any more than Americans want to abandon their socialist programs). It simply means that after 40 years of tension and conflict, the postrevolutionary generations in Cuba seem to be seeking more openness, friendship, and communication with Americans.
I also discovered that it’s not difficult for a libertarian to interact with some people who work for a totalitarian government. (After all, don’t forget that in Cuba, almost everyone works for the government!) For example, after I returned from Cuba, I played in a softball game here in Washington against a team from the Cuban Interest Section. Both sides had a great time not only playing against each other but also visiting with each other. We won the game, and the Cubans good-naturedly congratulated us for redeeming the honor of the Baltimore Orioles, who had just lost the second game of their series with Cuba.
My first official meeting in Havana was with two officials from the Cuban Department of Exterior Affairs, who provided me with my official itinerary for my visits with the university research centers. We had a nice, friendly discussion about Cuba and the United States. When they asked me exactly what I do in the United States, I responded, “I am part of what is called the libertarian movement. We are very critical of both the domestic and the foreign policy of the U.S. government. We stand against our government’s intervening in the affairs of other countries as well as its intervening in the peaceful affairs of the American people. You might say that we libertarians are revolutionaries against the U.S. government!”
One of the officials smiled and said, “Well, then you might feel at home here in Cuba.” I smiled back and said, “In some ways, yes; in some ways, no.” We all laughed. At the conclusion of our conversation, we agreed that more open relations between Cuba and the United States would be a good thing for the people of both countries.
It is a serious criminal offense in Cuba for anyone to question the Cuban revolution — which entails both Fidel Castro’s assumption of power and Cuba’s socialist economic system. Therefore, it was not surprising to me that the people in the research centers I visited were extremely cautious not to express any criticism of the Cuban system or challenge to it. Yet it soon became clear that as long as their discussion of economic issues fell within the proper parameters, there was still a wide range of perspectives they might express concerning Cuba’s economic situation.
There were research-center “hard-liners” — those who still defend socialism, and specifically Cuban socialism, with much fervor and determination. When I asked them to explain why there is so much poverty and suffering in Cuba, their answer was always the same — the U.S. embargo and the Helms-Burton Act. If it weren’t for these, they told me, Cuban socialism would be a big success.
Although I always made it clear that I opposed the embargo and Helms-Burton, I couldn’t help but poke a hole in this rationalization for the failures of Cuban socialism. I said to one hard-liner, “Doesn’t that imply that socialism in Cuba depends on economic freedom in the United States? That is, if the entire world were as socialistic as Cuba, wouldn’t everyone be suffering?” He had a difficult time responding to the challenge.
There are also the “reformers” in the research centers — people who seem to understand the benefits of free markets and who seem to want more market openness, competition, and cooperation in Cuba. Many of these people make it a point to keep abreast of intellectual developments in the United States. For example, I saw economics journals on the bookshelves, books by Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises, and standard American Keynesian economics textbooks.
The advocates of reform have to be extremely careful to phrase their proposals so that they seem to advance the Cuban revolution, not question or challenge it. As long as the reform is phrased in the proper way, there is some latitude, albeit small, to make recommendations for reform.
For example, one research-center person explained that black-market cooperation is the way that many Cubans are surviving. (The average salary is about $7-$10 a month in Cuban pesos.) He said that people in neighborhoods are illegally entering into joint ventures in such things as home-repair businesses, room rentals, home restaurants, and the like.
The research-center person told me that a proposal was made to legalize that activity. But the advocates of the proposal had to be extremely cautious not to phrase the recommendation as a critique of Cuban socialism. Therefore, they simply compared it to the Cuban cooperatives that have been established in the agricultural sector.
Cuban hard-liners condemned the proposal as a challenge to the system because it threatened to create an economic middle class in Cuba. It was an attack on the revolution, the hard-liners claimed, because a middle class would be more independent and thus more likely to align itself with the United States. The advocates of the proposal challenged the assumption and, maintaining themselves within the proper parameters, added that a starving population was a bigger threat to the revolution than a rising middle class.
Some research-center personnel referred to the economic reforms that have already been established as “contradictions in socialism.” For example, after the termination of the Soviet subsidies, it was clear that Cuba was faced with the prospect of massive starvation. So the U.S. dollar was legalized, and today there is a dual monetary system. Hotels, grocery stores, and other establishments (all of which, of course, are state-owned) accept only U.S. dollars. It is this hard currency that enables the Cuban authorities to keep their rickety old socialist system afloat (much as the Cuban people have been able to keep those thousands of old cars from the 1950s chugging along).
It would be difficult to find a more obvious example of the abandonment of socialist principles than open dependence on the U.S. dollar. Thus, it was amusing for me, as a libertarian ideologue, to listen to socialist ideologues defend this obvious abandonment of socialist principles as a minor socialist reform.
One reform that is not openly promoted is privatization. At every research center I visited, I asked the same question: “Is privatization something that is being considered or discussed?” The answer was always the same: “No.” And there was never any further discussion of the issue.
As an aside, I sensed that people on the streets also were aware that privatization is not to be discussed openly in Cuba. For example, I asked a taxi driver who was in his late 60s why the buildings in Havana looked so run down. He paused and chose his words very carefully: “When people own things, they take care of them. When society owns things, no one takes care of them.” I asked, “Well, is there much talk about privatizing things here in Cuba?” His answer was immediate and abrupt: “No.” It was clear that I was not to explore the subject any further.
There were some amusing moments at the research centers. For example, I asked one hard-liner whether she ever traveled to the United States. She responded, “Yes — next spring, I am attending a conference at Harvard.” I smiled and said exuberantly, “Oh, you will feel right at home. They are very socialistic at Harvard!” She smiled.
As part of my official meetings, I also met with an official at the Havana Development Group, the agency responsible for the planning and development of the city. He was a kind, middle-aged architect who clearly took much pride in his work. Watching him enthusiastically explain the plans for the economic improvement of Cuba, using a giant model of the entire city that fills an enormous hall, brought home all that I had learned about the failures of socialistic central planning. It doesn’t matter how dedicated people are if they work in a flawed system. Despite the best intentions and deep dedication of the architect and his fellow central planners, after 40 years of public ownership of just about everything, Havana looks like a war-ravaged city.
After my visits to the Cuban research centers, I paid an unofficial visit to a branch office of the Cuban Internal Revenue Service in the hope of securing a copy of a Cuban income-tax return. I introduced myself to an official, explained that I was in Cuba by permission of the Cuban government to conduct a study of Cuban life, and showed him a copy of my official itinerary. He said that there should be no problem giving me the tax return but that regulations required him to first secure permission from his superiors. I momentarily forgot where I was and said, “Yes, death and the state. They are impossible to avoid everywhere.” Apparently tax officials are the same everywhere, because the man glared at me, went into an office, and returned to tell me that they had just run out of tax returns.
While everyone in the research centers I visited was friendly and courteous to me, it was always apparent that they chose their words very carefully during our visits. It was different out on the streets. Relating and interacting with the Cuban people on the streets turned out to be easy for me, and the result was a candor about their country from many of them that disarmed me.