July 19, 2021 Reading Time: 3 minutes

If the Socialist Party of Great Britain is an authority on such things, it is official: in light of recent anti-communist protests and civil unrest, Cuba has been demoted to “Not Real Socialism” and reclassified, along with the USSR and other failed socialist experiments, as “actually state capitalism.”

La Revolucion, it appears, is moving into the last stage of what we might call the Niemietz Cycle in honor of Kristian Niemietz’s excellent-and-downloadable-for-$0 book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies (I review it here and here). The first stage is the “honeymoon” stage where things look like they’re going well. Contrary to what neoliberal naysayers might think, short-run successes seem to prove that socialism is viable. 

In the second stage, which Niemietz calls the “Excuses-and-Whatabouttery” stage, mounting socialist failures are explained away as the products of a series of unfortunate (and entirely coincidental) events, like weather in the Soviet Union and Zimbabwe. In the case of Cuba, we’re told–as we have been hearing for six decades–that the country’s problems aren’t because of socialism. They’re actually because of the US embargo. If it weren’t for the embargo, we’re told, the regime would be stable and socialist Cuba would thrive.

I think the embargo is a terrible idea that should be lifted immediately, as it has given Cuban communists a convenient scapegoat for their country’s problems. The embargo, however, is not what causes Cuba’s woes, and people blaming the embargo overlook the fact that Cuba trades pretty extensively with the rest of the world–how else do you think Canadian and Mexican merchants get the Cuban cigars they hawk to American tourists? It’s not because a Cuban Rhett Butler is smuggling them past a blockade. It’s because Cuba trades freely with the entire world. I suspect the US embargo hasn’t really hurt Cuba that much more than the “transgender bathroom” boycott hurt Target.

The “embargo” story also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in light of Marxish claims about imperialism and free trade. On one hand, we learn that “periphery” countries are poor because they trade freely with rich countries like the United States and welcome foreign direct investment. On the other hand, we learn that Cuba is poor because it cannot trade freely with the United States. I’m not sure how this works without a lot of auxiliary assumptions. It also ignores the conspicuous and inconvenient truth that the Cuban government restricts imports and has only lifted these restrictions for food, medicine, and toiletries “temporarily” in response to the protests.

In the last stage of the Niemietz Cycle, the failures become too obvious to ignore or explain away, and the country is demoted to “not real socialism.” Western intellectuals fawned over Stalin’s experiment with socialism, and only after it became a conspicuous failure did we learn that “It wasn’t actually socialism; it was Stalinism, and if only Trotsky had been in charge instead of Stalin….”

Cuba’s defenders have made much of its literacy programs and health care; however, 2018 research by Gilbert Berdine, Vincent Geloso, and Benjamin Powell shows that while Cuban health data aren’t exactly fake news, they aren’t exactly accurate, either. Even if the data are above reproach, there’s another important and uncomfortable question: if Cuba is a workers’ paradise, why are so many people trying so hard to leave? Migration patterns tell the clearest story. Cuba might provide asylum for high-profile American intellectuals and dissidents, but people “vote” overwhelmingly against socialism and for capitalism when they risk life and limb to get from Cuba to the United States. They may not be able to build a case from first principles explaining exactly why they prefer capitalism to socialism in a way that would satisfy a lot of intellectuals, but they demonstrate by their actions which system makes it possible for them to live as they see fit. Moreover, a few seconds with Google suggest to me that actually moving to and getting a job in Cuba would be really, really difficult, and if this website is correct that “A university professor can expect to earn in the region of CUP 1,500 (around US$68 per month),” I understand why so many intellectuals are perfectly happy to extol the virtues of Cuban socialism from comfortable offices and armchairs in the United States instead of lining up to live the collectivist dream.

We can sit around all day and debate the merits and demerits of socialism, whether or not Cuba is “real socialism,” whether or not its apparent reclassification is a demotion or a promotion (as the Babylon Bee calls it), and what intellectuals think people should do and want. Alternatively, we can look at socialism’s miserable track record and try to learn from what people actually do and actually want. Retroactively saying “Actually, that isn’t real socialism” about the Cuban revolution won’t change the fact that people vote for freedom and against socialism in overwhelming numbers.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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