Obama Just Ruined Cuba! Ctd

Will Wilkinson —  Dec 18 2014 @ 3:38pm
by Will Wilkinson

Shep Smith seems to think so:

Responding to that clip, Allahpundit finds that notion entirely fatuous:

This is exactly what it sounds like, a guy seemingly willing to trade away greater prosperity for Cubans if it means Americanizing the island in return for preserving the quaint, simple culture that decades of authoritarianism and economic retardation have produced. It’s basically the “noble savage” view of economics. What doth it profit a Cuban to gain a middle-American depot for cheap building materials if he lose his cheap-rum-making soul? Where are we going to go to watch people riding around in 60-year-old Studebakers now?

Ryan Kearney accuses those afraid of “spoiling” Cuba of fetishizing poverty:

When Americans daydream about visiting Cuba before it’s “spoiled,” they’re implying that the island today is some kind of paradise. I have been there. It is not a paradise.

The buildings in Havana are literally crumbling, many of them held upright by two-by-fours. Even the cleanest bathrooms are fetid, as if the country’s infrastructural bowels might collectively evacuate at any minute. And the streets are riddled with potholes, some large enough to swallow a Russian Lada. The country isn’t so much frozen in time as in a state of perpetual rot, which is exactly what the 1961 embargo was designed to do.

But the cars! Yes, let’s talk about those cars. Cubans don’t drive American antiques because they love American antiques as much as we do, but because they have no choice.

There is, however, a real argument to be made that opening up the Cuban economy could have negative consequences. As Neil Irwin elaborates, “one of the biggest risks might be moving too fast”:

That is a conclusion of some scholars who very much favor economic liberalization of Cuba — but want it done right. Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Barbara Kotschwar, scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, published a book this spring looking at the hard task of reintegrating the two economies as Fidel and Raúl Castro fade from the political scene. Their conclusions suggest it would be foolhardy to imagine a rapid return to the days when American tourists frequented the Tropicana, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta had an office in Havana.

There is, they argue, a model for how not to make the transition, a prime example being Russia’s “shock therapy” approach to privatizing industries and introducing democratic government after the demise of the Soviet Union. … Cubans — and Americans wanting to do business there — will be better off if they instead emulate Vietnam and China, two countries that have migrated from Communism to a hybrid system that is nominally Communist but practices free-market capitalism to a large degree. That has allowed them to become more fully integrated into the global economy and helped millions of their citizens escape poverty over the last generation without bloodshed or revolution.

Likewise, Dougherty warns that embracing free markets – which Cuba hasn’t exactly signed on to anyway – won’t magically heal the damage done by half a century of communism:

Law and order can make markets appear. But it is civil society and a culture of social trust that make free markets tolerable. And it is precisely this social trust that communism so effectively destroys. “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” became a de facto motto for the late Soviet Union. Cuba, like East Germany or the Czech Republic, has a memory of a modern civil society before communism. Some even remember when it was a relatively wealthy nation. But the memory is an ever-more distant one. The news of normal diplomatic relations is to be welcomed, as is the end of a useless American policy. But Cuba’s restoration will require something that an army of policy experts cannot provide.

Clive Irving, meanwhile, focuses on the environmental drawbacks of opening up Cuba to more tourism:

[B]efore a new tide of tourists can flow from Miami to Havana, Cuba will need to build more runways. The two airports taking the most tourist traffic, Havana and Varadero, are already at near capacity in peak season with flights from Canada, Europe and Latin America. More runways, more hotels, more roads, more infrastructure? The island faces an environmental challenge of huge proportions. With more than 3,000 miles of coastline, Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest island and the most ecologically diverse. There are six UNESCO biosphere reserves and nine UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Although tough environmental controls were put in place in 2000, enforcement has been haphazard. Surging coastal development has destroyed natural protection—mangroves and wetlands, just at the time when Cuban scientists calculated that climate change would wreak havoc.

It’s also worth noting that the possible transformation of Cuba into an tourist mecca for Americans may not come about due to the baleful depredations of free-market capitalism, but might just as well come about through centralized state planning. Responding at length to Jeremy Scahill’s tweet that “I’m glad I got to visit several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancun,” Josh Barro observes:

Cancun isn’t a symbol of free market capitalism, and American tourists didn’t make the place what it is today. An arm of the Mexican central bank did, in perhaps the largest and most successful example of central economic planning in North American history. Cuba should be so lucky as to have made its planned economy work as well as Cancun’s.

Barro’s account of the way Cancun got to be Cancun is fascinating, but it seems he missed Scahill’s gist.

This is point worth taking very seriously. Socialists have a terrible habit of romanticizing the Cuban dictatorship, and whitewashing its crimes. Still, as repressive totalitarian regimes go, the quality of life in Cuba is remarkably high.

According the United Nation’s Human Development Index – which takes into account a life-expectancy, education, and per-capita GDP – Cuba ranks 44th in the world, while Mexico ranks a 61st. 61st isn’t bad (there are 187 countries in the index), but 44th is pretty good! One might reasonably wonder about the credibility of Cuba’s national statistics, but if they’re in the neighborhood of the truth, this level of human development is a remarkable achievement for such a low-income country, a real outlier, and it would be a pity if opening up Cuba led to a reversal health and education. But I’m not too worried. I think I also agree with Scahill about this:

Neoliberal or not, opening up Cuba ought to make it a good deal wealthier. If the Cubans are able to use that extra money to shore up the policies and institutions that already work surprisingly well, then loss of a little undeveloped shoreline, and a little Cancunification, will be a small price to pay.