The matter of Cuba’s benighted revolution continues to grip the interest of Americans-or so one might conclude from the fact that a recent panel discussion on the U.S. embargo against Cuba drew a lunchtime crowd of some 400 persons to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.
The large audience had mostly come to show support for relaxing the current laws against commerce with Cuba. The embargo, its opponents aver, has not brought positive changes to Cuban society. An American economic presence in Cuba, they say, can only be more beneficial than its absence has been.
An abundant irony is that many people who make this argument are those who still sentimentalize Castro. At the San Francisco meeting, the loudest applause went to a speaker who restated the very litanies the regime has employed for nearly fifty years to justify itself. And in the face of conventional wisdom, one must clarify that the embargo law was never meant to cause reform in Cuba. Its purpose was to turn away from a regime that-under the guise of “socialization” -had just stolen about one billion dollars in U.S. properties.
The heart of the current anti-embargo stand is a plea for “constructive engagement.” Its advocates posit that when American citizens come face to face with Cuban citizens, mutual understanding will flower and democratic tendencies will spread. Actually, some of that did happen when Castro’s regime opened the door to family visits by Cuban exiles; but business-to-business relations are much more doubtful, because independent enterprise does not exist in Cuba. American companies would be dealing not with Cuban counterparts but directly-and whether they know it or not-with Castro’s security forces; a prospect that offers no hope of amelioration to ordinary Cubans.
Unlike U.S. companies, Cuba’s enterprises are completely dominated by government officials and informants. Any sign of disloyalty can bring the gravest consequence. Workers have no right to collective bargaining; any attempt to organize among workers is met with ostracism, demotion, dismissal, or with arrest and lengthy imprisonment. Foreign businesses that employ Cuban workers do not pay those workers directly. Payments are made to the state, which keeps nearly all the money and doles out a pittance to workers who receive, on average, about fifteen dollars a month. The fact that even so small an amount is paid in dollars makes the deal attractive to Cubans, who gladly accept jobs in foreign companies.
This setup is a potential boon to offshore investors who can acquire the services of skilled workers without labor troubles, and without concerns about how workers are treated. A further irony-given the extensive support Castro’s regime has enjoyed in the West-is that such arrangements, far from fostering a general welfare, have led to the kind of hyper-exploitation that once occurred in pre-capitalist, feudal societies.
Even if our Western countries have no current experience in this regard, we do have words for a condition in which people must do as they are told, say and think as they are told, work as they are told, consume as they are told, live where they are told-with one’s only chance for a self-determined life residing in escape. One of those words is serfdom; another is slavery.
The freeborn Cuban people are now in chains, while their leaders cry for commerce with the United States. Can we sensibly believe that dealing with Cuba’s bosses will improve the lot of those who toil under them? At times, Western companies have made handsome profits in dealings with the Cuban government. At other times, especially with foreign banks, Cuban entities have defaulted so regularly that Castro’s regime now has a credit rating among the world’s worst. In neither case-foreign businesses gaining or losing-do Cuba’s people benefit. The only winners, who get money and staying power, are the members of Castro’s regime.
Not so long ago, when Castro imprisoned his political enemies and forced a famous poet to recant his ideas, Western intellectuals argued that if the regime was on the side of the average farmer and laborer, then repression of a few artists and activists would not be a cause for concern. That argument was Maoism on stilts. Decades of history have now shown the bitter fruits of Castro’s rule. In all that time, the U.S. embargo has achieved exactly what it set out to do. It has simply stated, for everyone to hear, that Americans do not wish to have trade with Cuba’s overlords and slave-masters.