As protests continue to spread throughout Cuba, much of the world waits with bated breath.
Last week, more than 60 years after Fidel Castro seized power, the communist regime appeared to be in jeopardy, as thousands of Cubans flooded the streets in the largest demonstrations the nation had witnessed in decades. Then the Cuban government struck back, killing at least one protester, arresting journalists, and blocking Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media sites that protesters had been using to communicate.
Despite initial claims from the U.S. State Department that the protests stem from a “concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages,” an abundance of video evidence suggests that poverty and a desire for political freedom are the real root of the unrest.
“The people are dying of hunger!” one woman can be heard shouting in a protest recorded in Artemisa, in the island’s west.
While most of the world has witnessed stunning economic advances over the last half century, Cuba has been left behind. Data show that income per person in Cuba — one of the wealthier countries in the Western Hemisphere prior to Castro’s takeover — is now barely half the world’s average (54 percent), and that the country now lags far behind its neighbors. This may explain why many sympathizers with the Cuban regime have pivoted from denying Cuba’s poverty to rationalizing it.
The media and various left-leaning groups have suggested that the U.S. embargo on Cuba — not the nation’s socialist policies — is to blame for the country’s misery. Black Lives Matter called the embargo “cruel and inhumane.” “The people of Cuba are being punished by the U.S. government because the country has maintained its commitment to sovereignty and self-determination,” the group added in a statement to Politico.
Not to be outdone, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the embargo as “absurdly cruel.” Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel labeled it “genocidal.”
Yes, the embargo has indeed harmed Cuba’s economy — that’s the point. But it is important to understand that it’s not the primary cause of the poverty in Cuba, which maintains robust trade relationships with nations around the globe. Data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity show that Cuba exported $1.2 billion worth of goods in 2019. The country’s primary exports were tobacco (23 percent), sugar (17.5 percent), and liquor (8 percent), as well as commodities such as nickel and zinc. Its top imports were food — poultry, wheat, corn, soybeans, and milk — and its primary trade partners were China, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany.
While the U.S. embargo might sting, Cuba can still freely avail itself of the global marketplace — and it does.
The true cause of Cuba’s economic plight is its communist system. This should come as little surprise. An abundance of research shows a strong connection between prosperity and economic freedom. In a 2018 metastudy that examined 92 scholarly studies on the relationship between economic growth and economic freedom, 93.5 percent of them found a positive correlation.
Cuba, of course, is one of the least free countries in the world.
According to the Heritage Foundation, the communist state ranks 175th in the world for economic freedom — one spot above Venezuela. There are poorer countries in the Western Hemisphere than Cuba — nearby Haiti, which also has a long history of socialism, is one of the poorest countries in the world — but not many. This was not always the case.
As noted above, prior to Castro’s takeover, Cuba was one of the wealthiest countries in the Western Hemisphere. That all changed under Castro. The failures of communism in Cuba were tragic, but also familiar. The 20th century was littered with failed communist states, a fact that was widely understood and uncontroversial until recently.
As someone once put it, “communism was a great system for making people equally poor — in fact, there was no better system in the world for that than communism. Capitalism made people unequally rich.”
Were these the words of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr., or George Will? No. They were the words of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote them in his bestselling 2005 book The World Is Flat.
As it happens, lifting the embargo on Cuba might be wise for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. But the notion that the U.S. embargo is what crippled Cuba’s economy makes a convenient narrative for apologists of Cuba’s economic system. It is patently untrue.
If we truly want what’s best for Cubans, we must identify the true cause of Cuba’s suffering.