In May, I returned from several days in Cuba where I had three hours alone with Fidel Castro. I opened by saying to him that I envied his having run a revolution, that is, of being able to shape a whole country. I then asked him what that revolution means to him. He quickly responded by saying that it has enabled him to provide every Cuban with an education, resulting in a sky high literacy rate, and with full medical care in other words, substantive benefits.
Yet when interested and involved Americans are asked what they seek for Cuba the response is invariably in terms of "reform," which, when translated, means a market system and capitalism. Democracy is always thrown in, but almost as the afterthought. If one stops to think about it, Castro's response was indeed in terms of social substance, that is, of how the Cuban people would benefit - a reflection of values - while our response is more in terms of mechanisms.
Granted that these mechanisms are supposed to result in the same good things that Castro touts, the results have nonetheless hardly reflected well for the market economies of the West, especially in terms of those two sets of social goods that Castro has clearly provided and to which pro-Castro types always allude.
In Los Angeles at this very moment, for example, the County Hospital (one of the largest and best such teaching hospitals in the country) is closing its doors. Bail outs apparently are only for financial institutions, not ones providing social goods.
By coincidence, I returned to Los Angeles from Cuba to attend a three day Council on Foreign Relations conference.
One major question had to do with to what extent even a superpower should intrude in the affairs of other nations. One good point made was that in terms of trying to effectuate change elsewhere toward "our" direction, that is according to our myths and rhetoric, we, as the world's richest nation, had best become paragons ourselves. We are hardly positioned to offer education and medical care as examples of our successes. Granted, those two successes barely respond to the other sins so often bandied about, especially in Miami.
Politics and ideology aside, I found Castro far more impressive than I had anticipated. He is very knowledgeable and surprisingly sophisticated about the world. For example, having heard that I was an economist, he wanted to discuss the meaning and importance of the falling dollar. He then asked about the now defunct Bretton Woods Agreement and the fixed exchange regime before 1973. That then got him into the question of whether the world should return to that system. After all, he pointed out, there were almost three decades of vigorous and stable economic activity with fixed exchange rates as the mode. Once flexible exchange rates took over so too did chaos.
One now senses a shifting attitude in Washington toward Castro. The Cuban government is aware of this, but most cautious about becoming optimistic.
At the same time, there is a liberalizing of economic and political attitudes within Cuba. Human rights activists have been released, dissidents have felt unthreatened enough to talk openly in Havana with the press and with the likes of former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Now foreign investment is welcome and wanted. Evidence of free market activity is even coming into view. Small privately owned firms can hire non-family members. More counter to the ideology, even unemployment is allowed. Farmer's markets based on prices are all over the place now.
Regardless, the question remains as to whether Castro himself fully appreciates what has to be done if the market can be put to good use. Certainly his economic ministers are thinking that way. One hopes that he too is honing his understanding of the enormity of such a shift, if indeed he sets out to accomplish it.
Perhaps most surprising to me, given the repression so often alluded to, was the experience of freely walking the streets with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly (and sometimes referred to as next in line to Castro himself), without any bodyguards in sight.
All of this points to the obvious question: Since the
historical reasons for the US embargo have disappeared, why is there still
a Berlin Wall of the Americas between that country and this one?