I am thirty-two years old, and I have never understood the true relationship between the United States and Cuba. I was told that no one from the US could travel to the island nation of Cuba, but then I would hear stories of American missionaries going to Cuba to provide aide and witness to Cubans who had lived under the atheistic curtain of Soviet Marxism for so long. I was told that the US was not allowed to sell goods to Cubans, but then I would hear that the America sold chickens, corn, medicine, and other pieces of social and civil infrastructure to Cuba. I was told that Cuba was a relatively peaceful country, but then I would hear news reports of people building rafts out of garbage just to hopefully cross the 300+ miles of sea between Cuba and Miami.
I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand Cuba, Cubans, or the relationship between Cuba and the USA, but I damn well understand a cry for freedom when I see one. I am ecstatic that the people of Cuba are currently protesting their government in an effort to improve the circumstances of all Cubans.
Sixty Years of Political Anxiety
Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, at which point he turned Cuba into a one-party communist state. From 1959 until the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, Cuba was largely subsidized by Soviet money. The USSR paid for medicine, food, infrastructure, housing materials, and even baseball fields for Cubans in an effort to promote communism and to maintain a political and military ally so close to the United States.
In that time, odd side effects began to reveal themselves. Almost no capitalistic countries would trade with Cuba and the Soviets did not send Eastern Bloc cars to the Caribbean. This is partially due to the fact that most Soviet cars were crappy death traps, but whatever the reason, the point is most cars in Cuba are American cars from the 1950s that are kept running by jerry-rigging otherwise noncompatible parts into the old Detroit engines.
Additionally, while the life expectancy of Cubans has generally stayed on par with that of the United States, the under-5 mortality rate was significantly higher. For example, in the United States in 1971, the under-5 mortality rate was about 22.5 in every thousand. That rate in Cuba in 1971 was about 44 in every thousand. Currently, the under-5 mortality rates for the US and Cuba are 7 and 8, respectively, but the two rates did not get that similar until after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
And, of course, like all communist nations, Cuba has faced massive food and medicine shortages since 1959. In fact, that is one of the reasons protests are currently happening in Cuba: fewer Covid vaccines and other common medicines have been sent to Cuba since the Covid pandemic began last year.
Now, Cubans have decided to really do something about that.
The Current Situation
The current situation is bad. We’ll get one quick thing out of the way and then we’ll look at the protests more closely: The United States has had a strict trade embargo with Cuba since the Kennedy administration. Presidents since Kennedy have each altered the arrangement in some little ways, but by and large the conditions of the embargo have stayed unchanged for 60 years. To be fair, Cuba has also instituted its own import restrictions that have prevented it from accepting certain types of imports from several nations, including the United States, so I’m not trying to put undeserved blame on the United States. In fact, I don’t think the United States is mostly to blame for Cuba’s situation, but it hasn’t helped and because the US is so polarized in the eyes of many non-Americans, other nations and media outlets will place a disproportionate amount of blame on US trade restrictions.
Whatever the reasons Cuba has ended up where it is today, people are upset. Protests have clogged the streets of Havana and other cities. The Cuban government is suppressing speech and media, and government loyalist police officers have been recorded beating otherwise peaceful protestors. Cubans are fleeing at higher rates than normal, with the United States Coast Guard reporting that over 500 Cubans have been intercepted at sea just this year.
Travel restrictions from the United States and other nations in close proximity to Cuba have worsened the problem. Since the United States began allowing freer travel to Cuba, more US citizens of Cuban descent have been returning to their homeland to provide money and American products to their family members who remained in Cuba. However, Covid-related travel restrictions in the USA, Puerto Rico, and many other Central and South American countries have curbed the number of people entering Cuba with the means to help.
Lines at pharmacies, clinics, and grocery stores are as long as they’ve been since Fidel Castro took over. Desperate men, women, and children stand in lines for hours upon hours just to be told that the food or medicine they so badly need is unavailable. In April of this year Cuba faced an outbreak of scabies, a disease that is normally next to impossible to contract in people with normal immune systems. Drugs to treat common ailments such as hypertension are rarer and rarer each day, and doctors have even resorted to telling Cubans to try home remedies involving boiled herbs.
Sanctions enacted during the Trump administration resulted in over 400 Western Union locations in Cuba being shut down, making it almost impossible to get cash into Cuba under normal means. President Biden has defended some of the sanctions and has called Cuba a “failed state” and an example of communism as a “failed system.” Cuba’s biggest South American ally was Venezuela, but since Venezuela was quickly and horribly run into the ground by a socialist regime, the aid has dried up completely.
Perhaps most concerning in the current protest has been the open and unrelenting suppression of Cubans’ civil liberties. Reporters, political dissidents, and even innocent people who just happened to be in attendance of the protests have been arrested, beaten, or otherwise suppressed by pro-government police forces.
In a word, Cuba’s current situation is chaotic.
Is There a Solution?
As someone with libertarian (small “L,” so more related to the philosophy of classic liberalism than to the Libertarian party) leanings, my gut tells me the solution should be simple: lift almost every single embargo currently in place against Cuba. I agree with President Biden than Cuba is a failed state and that communism is a failed system. Communism did not work in the Soviet Union, it did not work in Cuba, and it wouldn’t work in China except for the fact that China has embraced a very capitalistic codicil to it’s otherwise communistic practices by being involved in every possible strata of international trade.
But the solution isn’t to suffocate a nation like that. The United States condemns communism, which results in embargos with communist countries, which results in that communist country being unable to participate in the world economy, which results in the community country falling apart, which results in the Untied States condemning communism. In other words, the Untied States condemns communism then doesn’t even give communism a fair chance to fail on its own. And the thing is, it absolutely would fail on its own. Look at the Soviet Union. Sure, it didn’t trade as much with the United States, but the USSR traded with most other nations on earth and still failed miserably because communism is a system in which a few corrupt people on the inside can bring the whole system down.
Say what you will about capitalism, but at least capitalism factors in the corruption by assuming that everyone is out for their own best interests. If you operate on the assumption that people are selfish, then you can only be pleasantly surprised when folks become altruistic. However, if, like communism, you operate under the assumption that everyone wants to do their part to make their country better, then it doesn’t take many selfish people to bring the societal and political structure down.
But instead, the United States has chosen to slowly suffocate Cuba then tell people that Cuba did that to themselves. And again, I have no doubt that Cuba and communism would fail no matter what, but if the US says Cuba will fail then actively tries to make Cuba fail, doesn’t that hurt the credibility of the USA’s position on the whole thing?
Isn’t one of the cornerstones of American liberty that people are allowed to believe whatever they want? I’m a firm believer in this. I disagree with communism as a philosophy, but what right does that give me to be offended that someone else believes in it? I’m Catholic, but I don’t think that people shouldn’t be allowed to be Protestant, or Jewish, or agnostic, or atheist, or Muslim, or Hindu, or anything else. People’s beliefs and morals cannot be legislated, so why even try? Why not say “live and let live”? I believe very much in the virtues of the American system, especially when compared to communism. And that confidence allows me to comfortably say that we should let Cuba do whatever it wants to do, and when that ultimately fails, be there with a helpful hand instead of a condescending “I told you so.”
So to me the solution is simple: Let America help Cuba the way America helps other nations, which is to say allow America to trade freely with Cuba. We should be encouraging the protestors who just want their voices heard in the Cuban government. We should be thrilled that the Cuban populace is standing up for their own basic rights and openly declaring that liberty is valuable to them.
I hope one day we can all look back at Cuba as one of the silver linings of Covid. I hope we can say that Covid was able to give Cuban people the strength they needed to finally throw off the yokes and chains of an oppressive governmental system that caused suffering for millions of people over the course of 60 years. I hope this is a real revolution, or a revolutión real. And most importantly, I hope that American politicians will see that the true virtue of the American system of government is helping nations with political systems different than our own instead of sending them to bed without supper then telling the rest of the world they are starving themselves.
I love America, and I am a big believer in capitalism, but I’m an even bigger believer in personal liberty and freedom from government-sponsored oppression. Let’s set an example for other nations by supporting Cuban protestors and allowing the advantages of republican (small “R,” so no affiliation with the party) government to speak for themselves.