Friday, December 5, 2008

what Cuba can teach

Here's the sort of post that will get me in trouble with economic conservatives.

So Slate tells me that there's a piece coming out in the New York Times Magazine about the next step for Cuba, and quotes this line:

Once "the winter playground of Americans, a place to gamble, rumba, smoke puros and sip mojitos, the land of every vice and any trade


Because of the history of America's mutual antagonism with the Soviet Union, it's very difficult to discuss Marxism or communism whatsoever. There's still a healthy strain of red-baiting within conservatism, and a propensity within liberalism to want to purge any vestiges of Marxist or socialist thought, because that is supposedly what's necessary to be taken seriously, to advance the movement, etc. So Naomi Klein, with whom I agree on very little, is not just another person with bad ideas, but a pox on the American intelligentsia. There's little doubt that "race realists" face much less

I'm no Marxist. I don't think prescriptive Marxism (solutions) work, although I think that there is some descriptive Marxism (observations) that is simply undeniable. Indeed, some of these observations have been absorbed into economic conservatism itself. I have sympathy for some of the more idealistic Marxist intellectuals of the last century, and it is simply dead-out flat historically wrong to insist, as some do, that there was never a Marxist revolutionary who didn't advocate or commit violence against civilians. But I do think these people were almost all wrong about what can and should be done by the state to alleviate poverty.

I have nothing but opprobrium for the many Marxist or quasi-Marxist dictators in history with horrific records on human rights and individual freedoms. It's truly a detestable history. Let's not pretend, though, that there isn't differences within them. Fidel Castro has undertaken many harsh, repressive actions against his people, and deserves our criticism for such. At the same time, people who speak or act as if there is no difference between a Stalin or Pol Pot on one hand, and a Castro or El Che on the other-- that's just not a mature way of analyzing history or considering morality. It's like the people who speak as if there's no difference between an asshole like Chavez and a monster like Saddam Hussein. It obscures where we desperately need clarity, and diminishes the crimes of the worse villain.

So I'm not a cheerleader for the Cuban revolution, either in its ends or means, and I don't think the revolution had a net positive effect for Cuba by any means. At the same time, I think we should have sympathy for people within these revolutions, and make an attempt to understand why so many people would be convinced that they needed to overthrow the government.

Consider the above quote. You've got an oppressive, nominally capitalist regime in Batista. And then you've got the capitalist superpower to your immediate north that sends its people down to your country to conspicuously consume and treat your home like a filthy playground. The economic conservative might object that the tourists are improving the lives of the people of Cuba by spending their money there. And, indeed, economic participation helps the people living in an area. But that doesn't always outweigh the negative realities of the behavior of the people who are spending the money; the world is littered with places with a great tension between the native people and the tourists who they rely on, because of the bad behavior (including crime and violence) of the visiting tourists. Surely, in Cuba, where the island's American presence was literally controlled by gangsters, this didn't help. Plus, degree matters. Cuba's poor were absolutely benefited by American tourism financially, but they remained in desperate poverty, and as often is the case, their proximity to those with much more money and power than they had exacerbated their anger. That's not good, it's just true.

So you've got this situation where so many have so little, work for those from an incredibly affluent, white hegemon, and have to deal with the poor behavior of those people constantly, all while living in squalor and poverty. Then throw in the actual dictator who repressed the people, quite savagely, who meanwhile used his power to enlarge his personal wealth immensely, and you've got a tinderbox. And Marxism, whatever else is true, for all of its failings, for all of the ways in which it leads towards dictatorship and genocide, for all its miserable history and every other caveat you want to throw out there-- Marxism at least represented an attempt at bringing the people living under the boot of poverty and powerlessness out from under it. You don't need to educate me about why this didn't work or doesn't. You don't need to convince me about the folly of communism; I'm on your side.

What economic conservatism needs to do, or I guess, what I would like it to do, is to demonstrate that it can acknowledge and respect the difficulties of Batista-era Cubans or other non-American peoples who are trapped in poverty and despair. And if I can ask for a little more, it would be for economic conservatives to demonstrate some way that these poor countries can improve their lots beyond "just take part in total free market capitalism and wait for globalism to gradually pull you out." Look, maybe there is no other way. That might be true, although I don't agree. But surely, the suggestion that there are other ways isn't necessarily some sinister plot or the mark of total naivete. Surely it isn't always the case that people who want to try something truly different are secretly just out to burn down the abundance that already exists. I know that I've handicapped my own position here, somewhat, by leading people to think that I'm merely talking about caring.

When I engaged with Conor on these issues a month or so back, due to my own failings, it came to be framed that I was saying "you guys don't care". Which was easily undone by Conor or others saying "Sure we do." But the point isn't caring, or not just. The point is that it's a cruel business to insist that every instance where people are downtrodden, the only solution is the slow wheel of globalism; and maybe, in some situations, there are some times when a more robust government social state is the vehicle most likely to produce human utility.

The fact is that economic conservatism has found itself in a place of rhetorical maximalism. Liberals say that the government is not the best or only solution all the time. Pick your favorite liberal blogger, your Yglesias or your Klein or your Beutler or whoever, and they'll all take pains, at regular intervals, to agree that in such circumstance or another, government intervention is a bad idea, or that current government ventures aren't working. Similar claims are in contrast exceedingly rare among economic conservatives, and libertarians in general. Sonny Bunch said in disagreeing with me that no one says that capitalism has no victims. True, that strong-form statement is made only by a straw-man. But so many of the economic conservatives I read, even the most bright, act and talk as if that were true, even though they would never make the explicit claim. It seems as if there's no room at all on most conservative or libertarian blogs to say "this is a situation where standard free markets have broken down, or have failed to provide the people with workable possibilities." Instead the habit, particularly by commenters, is to insist that any individual situation where one might say that is in fact another shining example of the glory of the free market.

I'd like for that argumentative excess and zeal to be turned down somewhat. I'd like to find on libertarian blogs examples of where markets aren't working, with the same ease and frequency that I find examples of governmental failures on my favorite blog, Matt Yglesias's. And I would also like for some conservatives to be more amenable to the fact that there are indeed sinister forces that sometimes work within capitalism, they way that history demonstrates that there were myriad sinister people working within communism. Yes, it's true, liberals often attribute malice to businesses or corporations where none exists. Yes, there are times when leftist critiques of business go overboard or are unfair. But there are also times when corporations really do cause major harm to many people. And there are situations, like in Batista's Cuba, where capitalism is allowed to be twisted in ways that are nothing less than destructive. Capitalism in and of itself is amoral. Too many leftists ascribe to it purely sinister motives or effects. But too many conservatives ignore the actual sinister motives or effects. There really is such a thing as rapacious capitalism.

More, and this is crucial, understand that capitalism, while capable of delivering a huge number of people to unheard of abundance, is also capable of preventing people from rising above their station. Some say things like this: the people of Cuba were foolish to revolt. The example provided by Americans should have pushed them to try and emulate America's capitalism, not to embrace Marxism. Well, look-- Cuba is not America. Cuba does not have America's power, leverage, natural abundance, size.... I am frequently exasperated by the notion that many poor countries have little Americas within them, if only they were allowed to flower. More importantly, it really is true that great powers often use that power to keep other countries from improving their station. Sometimes life, and capitalism, really are exercises in power struggle, and sometimes it really does come down to this: people with power and wealth trying to keep people without it from getting it. That doesn't disqualify the system. But it should give us pause, and make us tread carefully in how we appreciate the ability of any country to just bootstrap itself up.

I don't think any of this makes me some preening socialist, but who knows. I may be. I do know, though, that there exists within economic conservatism a strain of such ideological zeal and argumentative excess that nothing I say could be taken seriously, if it doesn't amount to a complete sop to unfettered free markets. That, I think, should change. Some have written me out of the conversation long ago, simply for thinking that there are very valid and real concerns that could bring a '50s era Cuban to incorrectly believe that Marxist revolution was a good idea. In my ideal public discourse, talking soberly about capitalism wouldn't require unflinching fidelity to laissez faire policy, and people could make stronger and more fundamental critiques of the capitalist system as practiced without disqualifying themselves from adult conversation.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sacrificing paragraphs to the "to be sure" God of Capitalism. Your offering to the altar is accepted! -K.

Anonymous said...

But really, folks:

"And if I can ask for a little more, it would be for economic conservatives to demonstrate some way that these poor countries can improve their lots beyond "just take part in total free market capitalism and wait for globalism to gradually pull you out."

Freddie, I love you, but here, you're totally, totally wrong. Opening serious trade with Cuba would overwhelm Cuba with dollars. What American doesn't want to buy Cuban sugar, smoke Cuban cigars or visit Cuba? The negative consquence, IMHO, would be the losses that Cancun would incur. Okay, one more -- and the mass environmental devastation that could occur if Cuba decided that they just had to turn the country into one big sugar plantation to sell to the US. [I wouldn't mind screwing sugar beet farmers in the American South, while we're at it.]

Seems to be that Cuba has plenty of places where it could specialize and bring in foreign currency and improve people's lives. The social structure, of course, would be determined by the following government. I really, really doubt that all the folks who receive benefits under the current regime would go free market and not vote themselves some level of continuing socialism. -K.

All of this, of course, is a response before reading the article, a.k.a. talking out of my butt. Let's talk again on Saturday night, when the article is open.

bcg said...
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Freddie said...

No. My anger is with people who are so blinded by ideology they can't see the plain fact that government intervention, sometimes, is preferable than the free market, as we have seen again and again in our own lifetime. And I am growing exceedingly tired of pretending otherwise in the name of "being serious". When being serious means constantly lying about the consequences of government social programs, we've reached a pretty fucking bankrupt place.

bcg said...

"government intervention, sometimes, is preferable than the free market"

That's the lesson Cuba can teach us?

Freddie said...

A tiny country that has had it's economy destroyed by 50 years of brutal sanctions is no experiment in one social system or another.

bcg said...

What rich lives we lead, here on a computer at 11:30pm on a Friday.

Freddie said...

Uh... I'm on a smartphone at a really cool party. Yeah.

Anonymous said...

Fair warning - I don't know a ton about economics, so it's possible I've got the wrong end of the stick here. But I am confused by the conservative God of the free market. Government intervention, assistance, taxation and regulation has been part of the game for a very long time. Hell, even back in the early 20th century, the US had all that trust-busting going on. And that's even more true in European democracies -I don't see that what I would call socialized capitalism says anything about the virtues of the free market. This is what confuses me about "free market" idealogues - how free do they want it to be? Roll back the environmental rules but keep the corporate regulation (disclosure, competition law)? Cut the taxes? Remove all the government-owned players (eg post office)from the field? Stop all government loans to businesses or start-ups (which pick winners and losers)? I feel like the reality of the US market has shifted a lot over time (and the last few months) to incorporate a legitimate government presence, but that gets rhetorically acknowledged only when fighting liberals who use the classic view of laissez-faire economics. Oh, we don't advocate the kind of brutal free market that lets children starve - look around the world, and see how well capitalism does for its citizens. Oh, why do liberals use this weird out-dated stereotype of an absolutely free market when arguing against us? It's because the rhetoric of this mythical perfectly efficient free market is their default, and I haven't seen any principled discussion of what they would keep from the more regulated modern market. If you brought forward a free-market devotee from the 1920s, they would think the US is socialist, but people who apparently support (most of?) the modern arrangements use identical rhetoric. It's confusing... but maybe I'm just missing some foundational explanation. Help!

Freddie said...

If you've come for real economics, rather than broader bore philosophy-of stuff, you've come to the wrong place! Let me marinate on your questions, though, and see if I have anything worth saying. I often don't.

Anonymous said...

people who speak or act as if there is no difference between a Stalin or Pol Pot on one hand, and a Castro or El Che on the other-- that's just not a mature way of analyzing history or considering morality. It's like the people who speak as if there's no difference between an asshole like Chavez and a monster like Saddam Hussein. It obscures where we desperately need clarity, and diminishes the crimes of the worse villain.

One word: Bushitler

Freddie said...

Never had any use for that "Bush is the same as Hitler" stuff, although it always depends on how the person making the comparison draws the lines of comparison. But you're right.

Roque Nuevo said...

Give examples of "Marxist revolutionaries" who didn't advocate of commit violence against the people. If they didn't advocate or commit it, they for sure condoned it.

The difference between Castro and Che Guevara and Stalin is that the USSR had more people to kill. In terms of percentage, Castro and Che are right up there.

Why is it "immature" to make these people equivalent morally? They all imposed a police state.

I don't think you know very much about the Cuban revolution. Yes, "the people" were oppressed under Batista. But "the people" never supported a communist revolution. That happened after Batista was overthrown. Read Carlos Franqui or Guillermo Cabrera Infante sometime.

The poverty in Cuba is many times worse today than it was under Batista. The class system is much more rigid as well—Cubans are segregated by police power. The only thing that works in Cuba is the police. Cubans get hassled by the police for talking to foreigners. They can be jailed for selling the shirt off their backs—it's a crime against the state to sell anything. Prostitution is much more pervasive today than under the heyday of the Mafia. Back then, it was confined to a "red-light" zone. Today it's everywhere, anytime. You can sit on a bench in a park and have any girl who walks by for money. Castro has made Cuba a prime destination for European (especially Spanish) sex tourists—male and female. They sleep all morning, go to the beach, ride around in rickshaws, then to the sex club, then do it again the next day. Castro is effectively selling Cuban girls for dollars.

I could go on. But you should learn something about Cuba before you write so pompously about it. It offends the dignity of the Cubans.

Freddie said...

But "the people" never supported a communist revolution.

I'm afraid that's simply untrue. That's just historically wrong, which any history of the Cuban revolution, even those harshly critical of the revolution-- which, if you'd bother to engage in basic reading comprehension, you'd see I am as well-- demonstrate the frankly incredible domestic popularity of Castro and his revolution.

Roque Nuevo said...

Any history of the Cuban revolution, even those harshly critical of the revolution-- which, if you'd bother to engage in basic reading comprehension, you'd see I am as well-- demonstrate the frankly incredible domestic popularity of Castro and his revolution.

One question is Castro's revolution. It's quite another to speak of Castro's communist revolution. This was "incredibly" unpopular. Just as examples, Carlos Franqui didn't leave Cuba because he was a Batista supporter. He had been a leader of the 23 July movement, which was taken over by Castro. Who killed Frank País? Who killed Camilo Cienfuegos? And why? What is the purpose of the Comités de la Defensa de la Revolución? These are rhetorical questions, of course. An "incredibly popular" regime does not need to kill dissidents or to unleash armies of informers on the public. These events occurred in the early '60s. Maybe you should take a reading comprehension course.

You're just shilling for Castro here. It's disgusting, really, because of the disrespect you show the Cuban people. It's "incredible" that you can bloviate about "immature readings of history."

Cuba's economy was destroyed by Che Guevara, not by "fifty years of brutal sanctions." Cuba trades with any country it wants to, except for the US. That should be enough for the economy if it weren't for Guevara's successful efforts to destroy it. He was in charge of the economy and is lauded in the so-called history books you refer to for his tireless efforts which ruined everything.

You bloviate about "a great tension between the native people and the tourists who they rely on, because of the bad behavior (including crime and violence) of the visiting tourists." The so-called tension of the Batista years is very small potatoes compared to today. It's a world sex-tourism destination. No holds barred. And the "visiting" sex-tourists aren't the only source of "tension." The main source comes from party members. You'd have to see them riding around in their Mercedes past the rickshaw drivers hauling Spanish sex-tourists around through streets that look like Berlin circa 1945 to understand.

You'd have to see people living in these bombed-out buildings. You'd have to see the bodegas where "free" food is dispensed and the shelves are empty after the first of the month. You'd have to see that antibiotics and even aspirins are sold on the black market under the advanced medical system because Cubans can't get the medicines they need unless they have dollars. They can't get dollars unless they sell something, which usually is their bodies because that's all they have.

If you think Castro is popular in Cuba, you need more than a reading comprehension course. People are afraid to even pronounce his name. Instead they make a motion of stroking their beards, which everyone knows refers to the barbudo. Everyone wants to go the the US, besides party members. Everyone needs a relative in the US to send them money or they starve.

As for your opinions about capitalism in general…you're not qualified for "adult conversation." I'm sure that you were an aristocrat back before capitalism was invented but I wasn't. I was one of the 99% of the population who were serfs. All of us ex-serfs enjoy lifestyles today that you couldn't even imagine when you were an aristocrat. Capitalism doesn't oppress anyone. It's a system.

Freddie said...

It's quite another to speak of Castro's communist revolution. This was "incredibly" unpopular

Look, I know you desperately want this to be true, but it simply isn't, and again, please, don't take my word for it, consult the work of any leading historian of 20th century Cuba. I'm sorry, it's just a non-starter. That has nothing to do with the righteousness of Cuba's revolution. Hitler was a very popular leader. But it doesn't change that fact.

As far as shilling for Castro goes, that's pretty interesting, considering I am explicitly and consistently condemning his actions here. Again-- you want it to be true that I support the Castro government, so you are simply averring that it is true, against all evidence. That's not a particularly useful way to approach the world, I'm afraid.

Roque Nuevo said...

Look, I've read books on the history of Cuba. I know Cubans. I've been to Cuba. That's how I can tell you don't know what you're talking about.

Here's an excerpt by Jorge Domínguez (Antonio Madero Professor of Mexican and Latin American Politics and Economics in the Department of Government, Vice Provost for International Affairs in The Office of the Provost, Senior Advisor for International Studies to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Chairman of The Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University. Member of the executive committee of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Faculty Associate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and of Leverett House. Research focuses on the domestic and international politics of Latin American countries).

"On 19 October 1959, Huber Matos, military commander of Camagüey province and one of the the leading figures of the revolutionary war, resigned along with fourteen officers over the rising influence of communism in the regime. When Matos was arrested the entire 26 July Movement executive committee in Camagüey province resigned and its leader was detained. Matos spent two decades in prison; his courageous resistance in jail and his unwillingness to collaborate or to bend to the will of his captors became a symbol of strength to the opposition.

"In November the Confederación de Trabajadores Cubanos (CTC) held its tenth congress to select a new leadership. The 26 of July Movement's slate had a clear majority. The government pressed for "unity" with the Communists, but the congress delegates refused and when Fidel Castro addressed the congress his words were interrupted by the chanting of "twenty-six, twenty-six." He attacked those who would use that label "to stab the revolution in the heart." He argued that the revolution's defense required avoiding partisan quarrels; he asked for and received authority from the congress to form a labor leadership. He picked the "unity" slate, including the communists.

"Opponents of the regime took up in arms in every province in the first half of the 1960s, being especially strong in the Escambray mountain region of Las Villas province. Thousands of Cubans died in this renewed civil war (1960-1966), the rebels including the peasantry of souther Matanzas province as well as those whose social and economic interests were more obviously at stake."—Cuba: a short history, pp. 105-107, CUP, 1993.

These are not events that happen in an "incredibly popular" revolution. They happen in police states.

By repeating the canard that the US sanctions have destroyed the Cuban economy and that Castro's communist revolution was popular, you are definitely shilling for Castro, no matter what other criticisms you make.

Let's hear you respond to this: Give examples of "Marxist revolutionaries" who didn't advocate of commit violence against the people.

And this: The difference between Castro and Che Guevara and Stalin is that the USSR had more people to kill. In terms of percentage, Castro and Che are right up there.

And this: Carlos Franqui didn't leave Cuba because he was a Batista supporter. He had been a leader of the 23 July movement, which was taken over by Castro. Who killed Frank País? Who killed Camilo Cienfuegos? And why? What is the purpose of the Comités de la Defensa de la Revolución? Why would any of this have happened if Castro's communist revolution was so "incredibly popular?"

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this blog and find it pretty interesting.

Although I'm a little more sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution, all I'd like to do is contribute this interview and some commentary around it:

http://www.truveo.com/Fidel-Castro-1959-See-It-Now-Interview-In-English/id/1862030765

There is some disagreement in the post about whether the Cuban people wildly supported a communist revolution. I'm no expert, but I believe it may have been less that the Cuban people supported a communist revolution, and more that they supported national self-determination, and better public welfare.

This video may be misleading. It shows Fidel Castro insisting that the United States doesn't need to worry about communists, and it was done before Fidel Castro joined the communist party. The misleading part is that communist influences were always strong during the Cuban revolution. Che and Raul Castro were communists before Fidel Castro was, before the revolution. Fidel Castro was a populist before he was a communist. But the point I want to make is that the strict alignment with the Soviet Union and the alienation of the United States was not part of the originating vision of the revolution. Aligning as strictly as it did with the Soviet Union, and the government shaping up like it did (at least in part), was something that arose out of the urgency of national survival. It needed to sell sugar, and the United States wasn't buying if it didn't own the sugar cane fields. They took the inch, and I think they just had to go the mile.

I don't think I'm saying anything that anyone isn't aware of, but I wanted to try to frame the situation more within the context of global pressures and circumstances, and away from the solitary force of popular will. If the United States were even able to shrug off losing all that Cuban property and continued buying Cuban sugar anyway, I think the situation would have been different, BUT not only for the usual reason of propping up a healthy "middle class."

I disagree here with almost everything Roque Nuevo said, and a lot of his facts are wrong, but I liked the way he differentiated "Fidel's revolution" and "Fidel's communist revolution." However, I'm thinking about those terms in probably a slightly shifted sense. Both "revolutions" were popular, but I think they represent historically significant nuances.

Roque Nuevo said...
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Roque Nuevo said...

Mr. Anonymous: Which facts do I have wrong? Tell me and I'll be happy to learn from you.

Meanwhile, here are some facts that you have wrong:

Aligning as strictly as it did with the Soviet Union, and the government shaping up like it did (at least in part), was something that arose out of the urgency of national survival. It needed to sell sugar, and the United States wasn't buying if it didn't own the sugar cane fields.

First, the United States never owned anything in Cuba or anywhere else for that matter. Americans did own things in Cuba and they were supported by the government.

That's just common sense, not facts. But Cuba's alignment with the USSR happened after began to expropriate private property. I don't know how much land was owned by Americans. Do you? They did own banks, industries, and especially the public utilities. The US had a deal with Batista to buy a certain amount of sugar, which the Congress rescinded after the revolution and before Castro's alignment with the USSR.

When Castro expropriated American-owned property, he did it without compensation. In other words, he stole it, just as he stole the property of Cubans. Property-rights are fundamental to US policy. Either they are respected or not. Even going back to the early years of the republic, Congress authorized payment for British-owned property because to do otherwise would undermine public trust in the government. The US government cannot accept any gray areas because this would undermine its legitimacy. That's why the government couldn't "shrug off" property theft. It wasn't a matter of supporting Castro. The US and international organizations, like the IMF, offered aid to Castro. The US had supported Batista with military aid, which they cut off during the revolution. Castro refused to accept foreign aid because he was a communist and accepting it would mean tying Cuba to capitalism. Or do you have a better explanation? The urgency of national survival, like you say, did not require alignment with the USSR. Cuba could have survived as a capitalist democracy, with US and international support.

The Communist revolution was popular among the Communists but I don't know how popular it was amongst the public. Do you? I do know that Communism has never been popular enough to win a free election, even in Russia. In 1917, the elections were won by the anarchists (the Socialists Revolutionaries), not the Bolsheviks. Thereafter, it was imposed by police power, including in Cuba.