Last summer, during a trip to Montana, I met a Cuban exile, who lives and works in the United States. My trip took place a few weeks after U.S. President Barrack Obama announced re-establishment of diplomatic relations the United States and Cuba, as well as his commitment to ending the U.S. trade embargo against the communist island. “How,” my Cuban interlocutor asked, “could I support Obama’s move? Did I not remember the Cold War and communist rule in my native Czechoslovakia?” I fully empathize with the anger and frustration of the Cuban diaspora. The Castro brothers are liars and criminals, while their American apologists are immoral and delusional. But, our policy of isolating the island has failed and it was right time to change the course.
The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which was imposed in 1960, did not bring down the communist dictatorship on the island, because it was conceptually flawed from the start. It made no sense to ban trade between the United States and Cuba, when the latter – unlike, say, apartheid South Africa – retained its ability to trade with the rest of the world. There are, according to the U.S. State Department, 195 independent nations in the world. Cuba can trade with 194 of them. Cuba is not poor, because of the U.S. trade embargo, but because it produces nothing that the rest of the world needs.
Instead, the embargo provided the Cuban dictatorship with a plausible excuse for the poverty on the island. And many reporters, who did not bother to distinguish between an embargo and a blockade, were all too ready to blame the American “bully.”
Why were the Castros given the benefit of the doubt? The answer lies in the power of propaganda and self-delusion. For many people, Cuba is not primarily about dictatorship and censorship; political imprisonment and, sometimes, murder; and poverty and desperation. Instead, it is about “free” healthcare and universal education. To wit, President Obama:
“I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, look, you’ve made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education — that’s a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care — the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That’s a huge achievement. They should be congratulated.”
It is certainly true that Cuba saw massive improvements in literacy after the communist takeover in 1960. In 2012, UNESCO tells us, the island had 99.84 percent literacy rate. So what? The Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda had a literacy rate of 98.95 percent. In fact, 43 countries, ranging from Equatorial Guinea and Samoa, through Peru and Mexico, to Italy and Spain had literacy rates in the top decile. Unlike Cuba, many of those countries are politically free and allow their citizens to read and write whatever they want.
As for healthcare, Christopher Sabatini from Columbia University reports in the Washington Post, “the health system used by average Cubans is in crisis… [Its] hospitals ‘are generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines… [And] the floors are stained and surgeries and wards are not disinfected. Doors do not have locks and their frames are coming off. Some bathrooms have no toilets or sinks, and the water supply is erratic. Bat droppings, cockroaches, mosquitos [sic] and mice are all in evidence.’”
President Obama is just the last in a long line of people fixated on Cuba’s supposed achievements in education and healthcare. Michael Moore, Sean Penn and Oliver Stone have done the yeoman’s work in that area. Others, including Usher, Carmelo Anthony, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Conan O’Brien, Paris Hilton, Kevin Spacey and Jack Nicholson, have rushed to the island as soon as it was legally possible, thus enforcing the mistaken view that Cuba is just another country – but way cooler.
The reason for Cuba’s stranglehold over leftists’ imagination is harder to explain, but the thesis advanced by the great historian of communism Paul Hollander fits the bill. As Hollander explained in a Cato paper in 2009,
Left-wing political ideals and affiliations have been important sources of identity for large numbers of educated people in Western societies—especially since the 1960s. They have been closely associated with youthful idealism, a sense of community, and notions of self-realization. The misperceptions and misjudgments of communist societies had recurring patterns and components. They were seen as striving to realize the ideals of Marx and Engels, and by doing so attaining high levels of socioeconomic equality and social justice. They were also judged to be enjoying broad popular support and legitimacy. They were supposed to be societies in which the perennial conflict between personal and public interest was largely transcended (or in the process of being transcended), and in which most social pathologies or defects that afflicted capitalist societies had vanished (or were in the process of vanishing). These defects included unemployment, lack of work satisfaction, crime, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, unequal access to education and healthcare, sexism, and the degradation of the natural environment… Most of those assessments were based on predisposition, wishful thinking, the assertions of the communist propaganda, conducted tours in the communist countries and, most importantly, a profound disaffection with the societies in which those intellectuals lived. That dissatisfaction led to susceptibility to the attractions of communist societies that were seen as promising alternatives to Western corruptions, injustices and irrationalities.
Put differently, America is flawed. Cuba claims to be the opposite of America. Therefore, Cuba must be better than America. That way of reasoning is, of course, a complete non sequitur and requires both leaps of logic and a complete denial of reality as evidenced by millions of Cubans fleeing the island.
To conclude, America’s opening to Cuba has filled many observers with considerable ambivalence. On the one hand, Cuba remains a communist dictatorship. Unlike most of the leaders of apartheid South Africa, for example, the Cuban leaders have never apologized for their crimes. In fact, they do not believe that they have done anything wrong. On the other hand, our policy of isolating the island has failed. It was time to try something different.