Opinion

Capitalism isn't a cure-all for Cuba

Communism kills prosperity. But it also atrophies the civil societies that make markets work.

President Obama, President Raúl Castro, and Pope Francis have helped open a new chapter in Cuba-U.S. relations. It is about time: 54 years of a policy of not dislodging communist rule in Cuba is more than enough.

Many Cuban-American legislators and unreconstructed Cold Warriors are complaining that restoring diplomatic relations will be a setback to the cause of Cuban freedom and a victory for the Castro brothers. But the truth is that any change to the status quo, particularly one that puts the trade embargo in doubt, will increase the short-term leverage of Americans demanding concessions.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, spent much of yesterday railing against any normalization of relations. But Rubio now gets to actively play bad cop with Raúl Castro, rather than let the embargo (ineffectively) play the role for him.

The Cuban embargo had at least some rationale during the Cold War, when a Caribbean vassal state of the Soviet Union represented a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. But that rationale is gone, and the embargo still hasn't resulted in regime change. In the immediate post-Soviet years, when living standards in Cuba lowered even more dramatically, and life expectancy fell with it, the Cuban regime did not wobble or offer concessions. Then Cuba later found other mentors, like Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, to make life a little less dire.

No one knows what human rights and economic reforms the Cuban regime will implement after an embargo lift. But we do know that a very shallow, silly debate is coming to America. On the right, the free market squad will conjure an image of Cuban casinos for wealthy tourists, Cuban tech startups, and Cuban kids with iPhones making life better for everyone in the Western hemisphere. And a nostalgic left will warn that malicious neoliberals will turn Havana into another phony Caribbean tourist trap, and that a rich Cuban culture and an enduring ethic of social solidarity will be destroyed by Merck, Uber, and Chick-fil-A.

The truth is there's no instruction manual for fixing societies that have been made decrepit through communism. There is no obvious set of policies for devolving nationalized enterprises into private hands in a just way. Those with ambition and ability have been recruited and corrupted by the party already. The tendency for power and industry to coalesce in free market nations, becomes in communism the vehicle for a much more explicit kind of conspiracy. The shock doctrine in Russia meant that apparatchiks who had state-facilitated power under the USSR could amass power and obscene wealth through the same old allies. For those at the top, the system may look the same.

It could also look that way from the bottom. For decades, Cuba has had a maximum wage. It endures a police presence that harasses citizens for possessing suspicious-looking food items. Single-party rule makes cronyism more intense and official. In many ex-communist countries, entrepreneurial verve is associated at the popular level with a grasping and corrupt willingness to deal with monsters and oppressors. Balzac's adage that behind every great fortune there is a great crime is transferred down to even the most minor fortunes and strokes of luck. Who did you have to rat out to get that license? So-and-so has a bodega now — he's probably informing on the customers.

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.

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