Nearly a decade ago, I published a paper predicting that Fidel Castro’s death would invite a flood of ill-informed commentary regarding his legacy. My purpose then was to debunk even the modest claim that, “Castro did some good things for his people.” Although countless leaders who were not tyrants can make that claim, Castro cannot.
Instead, the economic and political model Castro imposed has laid waste to one of the most prosperous and egalitarian Latin American societies of the 1950’s; pre-Castro Cuba’s socio-demographic indicators lagged behind only Argentina and Uruguay. Here are a few excerpts proving this point:
- “Cuba had the largest middle class of its peers in the Western Hemisphere.”
- “[Compared with other countries in the region, pre-Castro Cuba] had the third highest daily caloric intake, the fourth highest literacy rate, the second highest number of passenger cars per capita, and ranked fourth in the production of rice.”
- “While it is well-known that Cuba’s infant mortality rate is the second lowest in Latin America today, many historians fail to mention that pre-Castro Cuba ranked thirteenth in the world [in this category], with the best rate in Latin America.”
- “Rarely mentioned is the fact that in the 1940s and 1950s the island had progressive labor, land tenure, education, and health laws that rivaled those of many of its neighbors in the region. For example, the 1940 Cuban constitution established such labor laws as the right to work, a maximum forty-hour work week, one month of annual vacation, social security, and the rights to form and join unions. Indeed, by 1958, almost half of the Cuban labor force was unionized.”
- “A 1951 World Bank report actually criticized laws protecting Cuban workers because they were considered so generous that they discouraged foreign investment.”
As my paper asserted, “a fair assessment of pre-Castro Cuba gives plenty of reason to be optimistic about her future once the dictatorship is cast aside.” Cuba’s future depends on shredding the lies invented by Fidel Castro and his apologists.
The old dictator’s death comes at a crossroads for US policy. President-elect Donald Trump has committed to undo many of the unilateral concessions that President Obama has made in his yearlong engagement of the Castro regime. Since scrapping the longstanding policy of reserving normal economic and political relations for a post-Castro transition, Obama has licensed commercial transactions with military-controlled entities, encouraged tourists to fill regime-owned hotels, and ended US support for Cuba’s courageous dissidents, human rights activists, and independent journalists.
Even before Trump vowed to reverse US Cuba policy, Obama’s opening lost momentum. Any promise of new economic freedom was snuffed out when Obama rushed to visit the island before the ruling party produced even modest reforms. Virtually no meaningful US investments have materialized on the island, as company executives have discovered that doing business in a country with no rule of law is all risk and little reward. Even a hyped investment by an Alabama company to build tractors on the island was shot down by the regime only weeks ago.
Worse yet, the regime has responded to Obama’s concessions by cracking down on civil society and imposing new burdens on Cuba’s self-employed workers. Support for dissidents from US and other embassies has all but dried up. There is little sign of new solidarity from Latin American and Caribbean governments with Cuba’s long-suffering people. Sweetheart deals approved by Raúl Castro’s son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez, have bolstered a dynastic transition rather than improve the prospects of popular rule. In summary, as many critics of Obama’s gambit predicted, the new US strategy has made matters worse for the Cuban people.
Obama has tried to scrap the principled preconditions for normal relations—which were approved three-fourth majorities in both house of Congress in 1996—with the stroke of a pen. That legacy is as thin as the paper it’s written on. By keeping his promise to respect and enforce US law, a Trump administration can reverse most of the concessions made in the last year.
Every US president since Lyndon Johnson tinkered with US Cuba policy. Only Obama has chosen to engage the regime at the expense of its people. Trump can restore a lawful, principled policy while adopting creative new tactics to help 11 million Cubans rather than the Castro clan.