While self-proclaimed “democratic socialists” win Democratic primaries in America, actual socialists in Cuba are finally backing away from some of the ideas that kept Cubans poor. Sunday, Cuba’s National Assembly approved a draft of a new constitution that recognizes a right to own private property. That’s progress.
Would Senator Bernie Sanders and celebrity-of-the-moment Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez approve? I’m not sure. Instead of saying that “communism” is the purpose of the state, Cuba will now say that “socialism” is the basis of the economy. That’s an ambiguous difference, but “socialism” tends to mean a larger private sector.
Cuba’s new leaders also say they welcome foreign investment. Maybe this will bring some prosperity to the long-suffering Cuban population. It may bring more freedom, too. The new draft says a criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That’s progress.
It also sets term limits on presidents — no more than two consecutive five-year terms. Fidel Castro ruled for 50 years. The new Cuba may also permit gay marriage. The draft defines marriage as being between two individuals, not necessarily a man and a woman. That’s a big step for a country that recently locked gay people up in “work” camps.
On the other hand, the state-run newspaper says Cuba “will never return to capitalism.” And while some open speech is permitted, crackdowns against dissidents, even ones who just sing angry rock songs, continue. Still, the U.S. should be happy about the changes, and the last thing we should do when we want to encourage free market changes in a country is slap an embargo on it.
Yet some conservatives want to do that, and President Trump reversed some of President Obama’s “Cuba opening.” This is a bad idea. Nothing gets a population accustomed to decentralized, nongovernmental commercial activity like commercial activity.
The more we restrict trade, the more we drive a country’s population into the hands of the state. If you can’t sell your products to American customers, you might just work for your country’s corrupt state-run enterprises. Instead of having casual contact with customers who live outside your country’s political system, that system becomes all you know. Your idea of what’s possible shrinks.
Embargoes favored by the right are just one wrong approach. The left does everyone an injustice by praising Cuban communism. I live in New York, where my socialist-leaning mayor, Bill de Blasio, was so enamored of Cuba that he honeymoned there.
Bernie Sanders acknowledges that the Cuban economy is “a disaster” but says at least they have health care and education — as if we don’t. American socialists are economically clueless. But conservative embargo advocates are just as bad. Democratic congressional candidate David Richardson of Florida, who plans to visit Havana as part of his campaign, has the right idea.
“A half-century of isolation did not achieve progress for the everyday Cuban,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “I fully support a position of engagement with Cuban civil society … Rolling back travel and trade restrictions has changed the lives of the Cuban people, helped private Cuban entrepreneurs, and strengthened the connection between the residents of Little Havana and Havana.”
That’s a good thing. Embargoes are not only bad for Cuba, they are bad for Americans who are less free to pick which people and companies to work with. Partial embargoes in the form of tariffs are also bad. Adding tariffs is like imposing an embargo on ourselves.
Trump defenders argue that his tariffs are a short-term tactic meant to shock other countries into lowering their own trade barriers. The ideal is “no (trade) barriers … no subsidies,” said Trump. “Ultimately, that’s what you want.” I hope he succeeds, but I’m skeptical. So far, his tariffs have just brought nasty retaliation.
Not everyone agrees that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Great Depression, but tariffs have awful economic consequences. Smoot-Hawley certainly prolonged the Depression and made it worse. Less trade means less prosperity. It doesn’t matter whether trade restrictions are imposed by conservatives or by communists.
Let goods flow.
John Stossel is author of “No They Can’t! Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed.”