History Lessons for the Architects of the New US-Cuba Policy

The vast majority of self-employed individuals were not even born prior to 1959, and have no memories of political freedoms. (Rene Bastiaanssen)
The vast majority of self-employed individuals in Cuba were not even born prior to 1959, and have no memories of political freedoms. (Rene Bastiaanssen)

EspañolFollowing President Barack Obama’s announcement of a rapprochement with the Cuban regime, US government officials have offered that fostering the small-enterprise sector in Cuba is a centerpiece of the new policy.

Architects of the new US-Cuba policy rationalize that unconditionally ending economic sanctions will strengthen Cuba’s self-employed sector and, thus, foster a civil society more independent of the government. Eventually, they explain, this more autonomous civil society will function as agents of change, pressuring the regime for democratic governance.

This is an ethnocentric proposition anchored on economic determinism that overweighs economic variables and fails to understand the Cuban regime. For example, in a totalitarian system, those in self-employed activities remain bound to the government for the very existence of their businesses. Self-employment in a totalitarian setting does not confer independence from the government. On the contrary, it makes the newly minted entrepreneurs more beholden to the government in myriad bureaucratic ways, as few are willing to risk their livelihood antagonizing their all powerful patrons.

History instructs us as to the outcome we can expect. During the student protest in Tiananmen Square, China’s business community did not come out in support of the students. More recently we also witnessed a similar situation in Hong Kong. Sadly, these business communities were not willing to jeopardize their positions and support the students promoting democratic change. What makes administration officials think that a Cuban business community bound to an all powerful state for their very existence would act differently?

Supporters of the new policy believe that a critical mass of self-employment will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the regime to resist the social pressures for change. That is, thousands of micro-firms operating in Cuba would be an unstoppable force for change. From this perspective of economic determinism, governments under such pressures must change or collapse. Again, this fails to account for the nature of the Cuban regime. We can look for instruction in Cuban history.

Beginning in the early days of the Cuban Revolution and climaxing with Fidel Castro’s “Revolutionary Offensive,” the regime embarked on an effort to eliminate all private property. First came the expropriations of foreign enterprises, followed by the expropriation of large Cuban-owned businesses, and finally all economic activity was taken over in 1968.

According to Cuban-government statistics, 55,636 micro enterprises, mostly of one or two persons, were confiscated. Among them, 11,878 food retailers, 3,130 meat retailers, 3,198 bars, 8,101 food establishments, 6,653 dry cleaners, 3,345 carpentry workshops, 4,544 automobile mechanic shops, 1,598 artisan shops, and 1,188 shoeshine stands.

Even with this sizable private sector in operation, the regime was able to exert total control. Moreover, this private sector had fresh memories of an imperfect, but significantly free pre-Castro Cuba. It was a civil society still imbued with the political principles of the 1940s Cuban Constitution enshrining liberty. And yet, this civil society was unable to prevent the communization of the island, or bring about change in the regime.

Not coincidentally, and perhaps correlational, this period was the most brutally repressive of the Castro era, with thousands of executions and tens of thousands of long-term political prisoners. A strong argument could be made that self-employment without political freedom requires intensified repression in order to maintain control. Thus, increased repression in Cuba could be one of the unintended consequences of the new policy.

The self-employment Cuba permits consists of permits to provide services in 201 subsistence activities, such as repairing umbrellas and peeling fruits. Its participants are mostly individuals born after 1959 with no living memories of political freedoms. So, on what grounds do supporters of the new policy formulate change championed by the newly self-employed?

Controlled laboratory experimentation is mostly unavailable to social scientists. Therefore, our analysis is necessarily based on the use of analogies, often borrowed from historical experience, as I have done above. The new US-Cuba policy is one that accommodates the Cuban regime for the continued denial of political freedoms. It is a condescending formulation that sets aside expectations of freedom without offering even an analogical defense for the thesis that freedom may come some day as a byproduct of economic engagement.

In the United States we believe in the presumption of freedom. And yet, the new policy abandons the historical US exigency for political freedom. Therefore, just as the burden of proof is on the accuser and not on the accused, the burden of demonstration on the efficacy of the policy is on those yielding on our core principle of freedom. The advocacy for liberty needs no validation.

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