"If you believe in freedom, justice and equality you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro!" - Harry Belafonte.
Cuba has obviously been in the news recently, and it poses an interesting challenge to those of us who conduct research in the field of comparative political economy. Does the case of Cuba contradict the claim that socialism is an incoherent means to organise society?
I confess that I know little about Cuba, and have no direct experience. However over the last few weeks a number of interesting empirical issues have been raised, that seem to confirm my theoretical expectations. I find them plausible, but wonder about any potential counter claims.
Michael Statsny offers some personal views on the situation in Havana: "the misery and decay I encountered in Havana (Habana Vieja) exceeded my expectations by a wide margin". His account is disturbing, but he does add that "the people I talked with were actually quite happy with their situation
("We don't earn much, but as opposed to other countries education and
health care is for free!")"
This raises the issue of travelers visiting Havana and encountering people who say they're happy. It's important to be skeptical about these claims, since I think Michael's being naive. This doesn't rest on any "false consciousness", merely the genuine threats associated with free speech. Consider the following:
ONE evening, a Soviet joke relates, Stalin decided to see if he was as beloved as his cronies insisted, so went to a Moscow cinema in disguise. Sitting in the dark as the newsreels began, the tyrant was moved to tears as the audience stood—apparently unbidden—and wildly applauded his image on screen. His reverie was cut short when his neighbour leaned down and hissed: “Comrade, we all hate him too. But it's safest to stand and clap.” Charlemagne
So allow me to put together some of the crude information that's out there which directly confronts some of the more common popular sentiments about Cuba. (But don't let that stop you reading this article by Humberto Fontova)
Knobhead statement 1: But Cuba is relatively prosperous!
- What's the appropriate benchmark here? As Brad DeLong shows, in 1950 Cuba was (i) rich compared to Latin America; (ii) quickly approaching Western living standards. To look at Cuba under communism (post 1959) we need to imagine what it would have been like had it continued on it's original path.
- What is the evidence to say that Cuba has high living standards? Scholars learnt a tough lesson in 1989, which was that official statistics in countries without free information are dubious at best. As Ilya Somin says, "the UN and the others depend on information provided by the Cuban government. You can't do independent data collection in a totalitarian dictatorship. Thus, the UN numbers are derivative of Cuban official statistics."
- In other words, the data is somewhat meaningless but even if we believe it, Cuba has gone backwards
Knobhead statement 2: But Havana is cool!
- We should expect Havana to be an inacurate indicator of national living standards - even more so than in free societies: "Like other communist regimes, the Cuban government pours a disproportionate share of its resources and public investment into the capital and areas likely to be frequented by foreigners." (Ilya Somin)
- Most of the impressive buildings in Havana are colonial and pre-date communism.
- As Megan McArdle says, "Deep poverty is much more picturesque than moderate poverty." Progress is ripping down old and decaying buildings and replacing them with more functional, safer ones.
- Havana is a potemkin village, built for your amusement
Knobhead statement 3: But Cuba has good healthcare!
- Here the data issues really come to the fore. Consider some photographic evidence of the actual hospitals that Cubans face. Are these fake? An unbiased sample? How would we know??
Knobhead statement 4: But Cuba stands for something beyond material prosperity
- "Cuba sent homosexuals to forced labour camps"
- "In 2003, Castro oversaw the execution of three men who had hijacked a ferry in a bid to escape from the island"
- "According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, in 2006 there were 316 political prisoners in Cuba.
- The purchase of computers and access to the internet is severely restricted with many citizens using black market sources.
- In 2003, state security forces raided 22 independent libraries and sent 14 librarians to jail with terms of up to 26 years.
Conclusion: when can we learn the lessons of history? A country where people risk their lives to leave is no model for society. I'm a subjectivist - my values count for nothing. If someone risks their life to flee a country, that's the only indicator I need. If you value freedom, Cuba is a political and economic disaster.