I arrived in Miami, Florida in September, 1992 to work for an American law firm, building its Latin American trade practice, after the apertura, the opening of Latin American markets from import substitution economics that had so ravaged their countries and pushed their people into poverty. The glaring exception to this opening was, of course, Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In Miami, I was deluged by conferences and events all premised on the assumption that Fidel Castro was just about to die.
At that time, Miami was about fifty per cent Hispanic, of which almost all of the Hispanic population was Cuban. Things have changed, and the percentage of Cubans as part of the Hispanic population is down to about half. Miami is the place where Latin Americans go when their countries are in turmoil, so, of late, the number of Brazilians, Venezuelans and Colombians has increased dramatically.
One Christmas, a Cuban American plumber who had come to Miami about ten years previously came to our house. He had taken advantage of one of those rare moments when Fidel Castro had actually allowed people to leave – the so-called Mariel boatlift. He proudly told us that America was the best country in the world, and that he had worked every day since he arrived. He had never taken a holiday, but he owned his own home, there were two cars in the driveway, and his young children were in good schools. The entrepreneurial spirit which this man had in the very fibre of his being had been unleashed by America, just as it had been suppressed in Castro’s Cuba.
The death of Fidel Castro, some twenty-five years after I first arrived in Miami is something that has been long anticipated in Cuba and in the United States. Already commentators are lining up denouncing his era or romanticizing the man, praising the fact that he played a plucky David to the US’ goliath. For many opposed to the US, Cuba represented the perfect irritant in the hated giant’s side.
But there is another story here, the story of our plumber and millions like him who fled the tyrant in Havana, often taking extraordinary risks to seek a better, if a more uncertain life. The reality is that Castro’s economic policies, and his dictatorial disregard for human rights had real consequences, pushing millions of his people into poverty, prison and death.
It is these policies, just as the economic policies that were present in the former Soviet Union, or in Latin American during the period of import substitution that strangled the human spirit, eroding the entrepreneurial impulse, and preventing people coming together to meet human needs in voluntary exchange. It is important that Castro’s legacy not be sugar-coated or romanticized.
For many in the West, his mythic status has obliterated the very real harm he has done to his people over many decades. We may think it is cute to see cars from the 1950s on Cuban streets, or the miles of sandy beaches (the best of which are reserved for primarily white tourists, while predominantly black native Cubans are unable to access them), but it is the Cuban people who have paid the heaviest of prices for these.
All this is not to paint a rosy picture of life before Castro. The Batista regime was a corrupt and crony one, where special interests and elites fed at the government trough. There was certainly a need for change. But as in so many revolutions, and this is a warning to the current state of politics around the world, the medicine proved far worse than the disease.
Since Raul Castro became President, there has been some hope for needed economic reforms, but the shadow of Fidel has, simply by its presence, blocked meaningful progress. It is to be hoped that now, Raul can embrace the type of reform that will enable the US embargo to be fully lifted, and for Cuba to once more join the community of free nations. Most importantly, this is an opportunity for the Cuban people to finally be free.
There are many steps between here and there. Raul will have to demonstrate a real commitment to protecting property rights, opening the Cuban economy, and moving to openness in trade as well as genuinely competitive markets. The claims held by US citizens and firms for property that was illegally expropriated by the Cuban government need to be resolved, something the US Congress will have to be satisfied with since the embargo was enshrined into US law by the Helms-Burton Act.
Ultimately, it is the Cuban people who will taste and see freedom, only when their country is once more open to trade and commerce with the world.
Shanker A. Singham is Director of Economic Policy and Prosperity Studies, Legatum Institute.