There was plenty of reason to laugh at the breakdown of Fidel Castro’s funeral car as it made its way from Havana to Santiago. It’s always funny when someone known as “el maximo lider” gets cut down a peg — with a mundane car breakdown at his supposedly exalting memorial moment. What’s more, Castro had left his country in shambles, creating a metaphor of sorts with the broken-down — or out of gas — Cuban economy matching the state of his funeral car.
And given the number of coincidences that have gone with the communist dictator’s death — that he died on capitalist shopping-fest Black Friday, that he died on ideological archenemy Augusto Pinochet’s birthday — it was impossible to not think the gods were at least smiling.
Some also pointed to the similarities between Castro’s funeral car breakdown and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s undignified ending, where his body and coffin were tossed around by an overenthusiastic mob in 1989, or Zairean kleptocrat Sese Seko Mobutu’s, whose corpse somehow lacked a proper embalming and stank to high heaven for all the funeral’s attending dignitaries in 1997.
But there was a more serious message in what we saw on Sunday in the sight of Castro’s funeral ashes sitting on top of a military green giant cigar box and being pushed by sweaty soldiers: that the Cuban political elites can no longer shelter themselves from the economic failures they so casually inflict on the rest of the Cuban people.
Consider how big and humiliating this breakdown is. All the world was watching as Cuba’s supposed communist “success story” was put on a final grand parade. The funeral was supposedly to recount the esteem and regard held by Cubans of Castro’s 54 year rule. Instead, the procession — symbolic in that it retraced Castro’s final road to seizing power in 1959. If things couldn’t go right for something like this, what could they go right for?
Something happened that made the Russian-made jeep malfunction at the critical moment — whether bad maintenance due to a lack of spare parts, an angry or unmotivated workforce paid just $20 a month, a shortage of gas, or a lack of investment and upgrades. If it was the first possibility, it points to an important lesson from Adam Smith: that of the invisible hand.
Smith postulated that large numbers of forces go into the creation of an economy based on individual self-interest and those forces eventually span the entire economic ecosystem, including the players at the top. Austrian School economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek expounded further on it, explaining that central planners, acting without price signals, cannot know what the value or worth of anything is and their acts naturally create shortages and inefficiencies.
The Castro elite, modeled on the old Soviet nomenklatura, have shielded themselves well from the depredations of central planners. Castro had his own island of plutocratic delights and according to Forbes magazine, went out nearly a billionaire with a $900 million fortune. For a long time, he was able to avoid the consequences of socialist central planning. That he wasn’t now, suggests a regime that has pretty well spent itself.
Bob Gates, in his CIA memoir, “From The Shadows,” observed a similar phenomenon as the old Soviet Union reached its last legs — a story about how Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, when he was running the hated and feared KGB, had a group of guests visit him at the Lubyanka prison which was the Moscow headquarters of his great spy empire — only to find that their bearskin hats had been stolen by petty thieves inside the building. It was stories like that suggested to Gates and others that the end was near.
It may well be that Castro’s regime may be on its way out with that sort of signal too.