Even though I knew that it is a serious criminal offense to criticize Cuban socialism, I was determined to deliver a presentation of libertarian principles in the middle of Havana. I got my chance when one of the research centers I visited asked me to explain libertarianism to its staff.
I said, “In the United States, the state runs our educational system and it is a disaster. We libertarians challenge the state by asking: ‘Why not end state involvement in education and have a free market in education?’”
“Our government also runs an old-age assistance program for Americans called Social Security, and it is a bankrupt mess. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why shouldn’t people be free to keep what they earn and to manage their own money and retirement?’”
“Our government runs a national health care system called Medicare and Medicaid, and it is another government abomination. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why not abolish these programs and have a free market in health care?’”
“Our government runs a vicious war against drugs, which, after many decades, is a total failure and which has actually made things worse for our country. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why shouldn’t individuals be free to do whatever they want, so long as their conduct is peaceful?’”
“Our government wages a brutal war on immigrants, especially along the southern border of our country. We libertarians challenge the state by asking, ‘Why shouldn’t people be free to cross borders freely, improve their lives through labor, enter into mutually beneficial relationships with others, and accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth?’”
By the time I finished, there were some wide eyes among the staff of that research center! Everyone knew what I had just done: I had challenged the core elements of Cuban socialism, and I had used American socialism to do it. Goethe once pointed out that no one is more hopelessly enslaved than the person who falsely believes he is free. This sums up the plight of the American people of our time. Experiencing the benefits of tremendous economic prosperity, and having graduated from government-approved schools, they honestly believe that they are a free people, especially because they have such things as public schooling, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, income taxation, the drug war, occupational licensure, trade restrictions, immigration controls, economic regulations, public libraries, and a national highway system.
Every Cuban whom I spoke to on the streets understands what Americans do not understand — that these government programs, all of which are prominent features of Cuban life, are essential features of socialism, not freedom. In fact, it would shock Americans that the two accomplishments that Fidel Castro is most proud of are public schooling and national health care.
If an American schoolteacher, for example, visited Cuba, puffed out his chest, and proudly declared, “Public schooling and national health care are the backbone of democracy and free enterprise,” Cubans would laugh and would take the American to visit the Cuban ministries of health and education. Conversations with Cubans about Cuban socialism would cause the schoolteacher to confront the life of the lie that has been lived in the United States for the past several decades and that has been taught to American schoolchildren.
The highlight of my trip to Cuba was my visits with ordinary Cubans on the streets. Although there was a constant climate of fear among the citizenry, people were quite open about their feelings about socialism as long as they knew that our conversations were not being monitored.
One afternoon, I began conversing with a man who was riding his bicycle. He asked me what I thought about Che Guevara (Fidel Castro’s fellow revolutionary, now deceased, whose photograph appears throughout Cuba). Carefully choosing my words, I said that I prefered José Martí (the father of Cuban independence in the Spanish-American War). He smiled, and I asked him how life was for him. He explained that he did not have enough money to purchase shoes for his children. I asked him, “What do you think of a system in which the state owns everything and everyone works for the state?” He looked around and whispered, “¡Mierda!” ["Shit!"]
I told him that I had been into nice grocery stores that accepted dollars but that I wanted to know how the ordinary Cubans live. He said that Cubans (who receive about $7-$10 a month in Cuban pesos) receive rationed food from the state. Escorting me through the streets of Havana, he took me to a ration station, where people were lined up to receive their monthly allotments of food. Each had a little red ration book that the attendant would mark as the person received his five pounds of sugar, beans, or whatever. I began taking photographs and someone objected: “No one is permitted to take photos without the permission of the administrator.” My escort responded, “Why not? We the people own this place, don’t we?”
At a fancy mall that the government has built, I struck up a conversation with an elderly woman. She told me that her parents had been prosperous landlords before the Revolution. The Castro regime had confiscated her parents’ properties and had then hired them to manage the properties. Today, the woman and her mother live on a meager pension and are barely surviving. I asked her whether she had hope for the future and she responded, “I am too old for hope.”
To avoid massive starvation after the Soviet subsidies had terminated, the Cuban authorities began permitting a small number of people to engage in self-employment activities, all licensed of course. I talked to many of these self-employed people, and every one of them recognized what Americans do not — that occupational licensure is a form of government control, not government protection.
One old woman — about 80 years old — was selling ice cream. She told me that she had to pay the state (in pesos) the equivalent of $200 per month for her license. She also told me that she had to pay taxes on her income at the end of the year. I asked her, “How do they know how much you have earned?” Her smile revealed some missing teeth as she responded, “Yes, how do they know?”
Two men in their 30s were selling antique books. I asked them, “How do you know how much to purchase the books for and how much to sell them for?” One of them responded in the finest entrepreneurial fashion, “It is our business to know.”
One day, I was visiting the University of Havana and approached a small group of students. We began conversing about life both in Cuba and in the United States. They told me that while they deeply resent terrorist acts by the U.S. government against Cuba, they love many features of American life, including American music, which they listen to often. I asked one of the students — a young woman — “What is your biggest dream in life?” She quickly responded, “To own my own business!” I said, “But that is not legal in Cuba,” and she said despondently, “Yes, I know. But there is always hope.”
It is that spirit of hope that pervades the young people of Cuba — those who have not yet been worn down by the terror and oppressiveness of the Cuban government. One young woman I met (about 21 years old) was both insightful and cynical. Her lack of enthusiasm for Cuba’s socialist state was reflected by her making fun of her national identification card (another feature of socialism, not freedom). She told me that when young people drive out of Havana, they listen to Miami radio stations (but not the U.S. government-run Radio Martí, which they consider extremely boring).
I asked her whether she has hope for the future and she responded, “When the state is the sole employer, resistance means being transferred to another city. This is not an attractive option, especially for someone like me who is engaged to be married. What we need is someone with the spirit and the courage that Fidel had 40 years ago to help us out. Unfortunately, all of those emigrate to Miami.”
I also visited the beautiful (albeit extremely impoverished) town of Trinidad, which was several hours from Havana. A woman there told me that after the Revolution, the new regime, desiring to eliminate all vestiges of the old regime, decided that it was necessary to change the names of the streets, which, not surprisingly, caused significant confusion and chaos in the community. When the new officials began tearing up Trinidad’s nice cobblestone streets, however, the people objected and their resistance prevailed.
During my visit to Trinidad, one young man realized that I was from the United States. After making certain that no one was listening, he said to me, “I am a proud admirer of the United States of America. In your country, you have freedom of speech, while here in Cuba, we do not. Most Cubans who wish to see America want to go to Miami. Not I. What I wish to do most of all is to travel to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty. I have seen pictures, but my dream in life is to see her in person.”
I explained to him that there were many of us trying our best to recapture the principles that the Statue of Liberty once stood for. I told him that the U.S. embargo against Cuba was a disgrace to the principles that made our nation great. I also said that recent U.S. government policy to repatriate Cuban refugees into communist tyranny was an affront to everything our ancestors believed in. I pointed out that unfortunately our government and the American people had adopted, in the name of freedom, many of the controls, programs, and interventions that characterized the Cuban government. I said, “One of these days, you will see the Statue of Liberty, and I hope that it will be because there is free movement of goods and people between our respective nations.”
Ordinary Cubans are among the nicest, most sincere people I have ever encountered. Whenever I asked people on the street, “Why are you so courteous to me after what my government has done to your country?” their response was always the same and was revealing: “What responsibility do you have for what your government has done?” My visit to Cuba reinforced my hatred of socialism, but it also engendered tremendous affection for the Cuban people.