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Finest things dollars can buy

"Finest things dollars can buy" Continued...

Issue: "Scorched-earth politics," Sept. 7, 2002

The U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba aimed to bring down the regime by just this sort of economic squeeze. And while the embargo hamstrings Cuba's economy, it also denies American businessmen a market they increasingly covet. That is the reason it is coming under fresh attack, even from conservatives like House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas). Last month Mr. Armey told reporters in Kansas that the United States needs access to Cuban markets. If economic sanctions continue for another year, he said, "it will be the last year they last." Even though the Republican leader plans to retire from Congress this year, his comments have dealt a blow to the pro-embargo camp.

"We're working hard and we know the odds are against us," said Cuban-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican congresswoman from Miami. "He [Rep. Armey] should know better than to pump money into a failed, totalitarian regime," Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said.

Roberto Alarcon, who after Fidel and Raul Castro is the country's No. 3 government official, is casual about his country's blatant inequality. Lounging in a finely tailored suit and holding an unlit cigar, Mr. Alarcon defends the situation by saying it is fairer than a decade ago, when it was illegal for anyone to hold dollars (even though some did anyway). "Technically speaking, you now don't have a legal border. You have an economic border," he said. But the "economic border" makes the inequality even starker for Cubans with no dollars.

Alfredo Gonzalez Gutierrez, adviser to the Minister of Economy and Planning, wants to raise the salaries of other Cubans, such as government workers, who earn perhaps a third of what those in tourism, even hotel employees, make.

The education and health systems, observes Mr. Sanchez, "form part of the official propaganda system." Cuba's elite claim the country's social services are open to all. Social-service professionals, while publicly defending socialist ideals, privately acknowledge practical shortcomings: inadequate resources, malfunctioning equipment, and nonexistent supplies. The only way to get many pharmaceuticals is to buy them with dollars. Average citizens say their monthly rations stretch only through three weeks. Mr. Gonzalez acknowledged the shortcomings, particularly inadequate milk production: "If we could give more, we would. If we could raise the age to 12, we would." Mike, the dance instructor, says simply: "My family is hungry."

Freeing the economy is the only way for Havana to lift its people out of their misery. Ending the embargo alone won't end the hardships. After all, currently Europeans are free to visit and invest in the island. But trade with America would increase the access of individual Cubans to dollars, argue those who favor lifting the embargo, improving Cuban lives while profiting U.S. enterprises.

Already the dependence on American dollars draws attention to the economic inequalities created by communism. The regime works hard to vacuum up dollars for its own purposes, but it can do so only by creating visible class distinctions. Moreover, American trade, investment, and travel might pose an even greater challenge to the Castro government, perhaps the most significant yet, say those, like human-rights commissioner Sanchez, who advocate lifting sanctions.

For more than 40 years the Castro regime has maintained the fiction that equality can be purchased only at the price of tyranny and poverty. In the last 10 years, the poverty has been ameliorated only by increased reliance on dollars. Ironically, the result is the sort of social inequality against which Mr. Castro originally premised his revolution. Like pre-Castro Cuba in 1959, U.S. dollars in Havana now will buy anything you want.

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