For half a century the U.S. federal government blocked economic engagement with Cuba, forbidding trade and travel. Ending these restrictions would open the door for curious Americans to visit Cuba more easily, bringing goods and ideas to and from the long-suffering people of Cuba.
Balseros (DVD available on Netflix) offers a captivating look at life in Cuba as the economy’s downward spiral continued after the fall of the Soviet Union. The USSR had long subsidized communism in Cuba. This from an online review of Balseros:
…works like Joe Morris Doss’s recently published Let the Bastards Go: From Cuba to Freedom on God’s Mercy and Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech’s new documentary Balseros (Cuban Rafters) are much grander humanist statements because they give a particularly human face to the horror of two separate Cuban refugee debacles.
Balseros begins with a shot of a woman boarding a ferry in Cuba. An officer passes a hand-held metal detector over her body. “I only have sadness in my heart,” she says, a statement that lingers in the mind way past this devastating film’s final credits. But there are those who still cling to Castro despite the fact that he has left his people with nothing but the cold metal of resentment in their hearts. Bosch and Doménech focus on the struggles of seven rafters: Guillermo Armas, Rafael Cano, Méricys González, Oscar Del Valle, Míriam Hernández, Juan Carlos, and Misclaida. All of them struggle with leaving their families behind or reuniting with family members who left before them. One woman must whore herself to afford the inner tubes and canvas that will build the raft that may or may not succumb under the unpredictable force of the waters between Cuba and Florida.
The U.S. trade and travel blockade has long prevented both gains from trade but also knowledge and ideas crossing borders.
A friend who grew up in communist Hungary tells of all the propoganda she heard as a child of poverty and disorder in capitalist countries. But when she met tourists from the west, she notice they were wearing expensive clothing.
There is no reason Cubans in Cuba should be poorer than Cubans in Miami. Just as Chinese escaping communism by boat to Hong Kong quickly prospered, Cubans rafting to Florida prospered as well.
The Cuban government has long blamed Cuba’s economic problems on the US trade embargo. By removing that excuse, the US would open trade relations that would engage more Cubans and Americans in commercial relationships.
The Cuban government apparently believed it had an agreement with the Reagan Administration to accept Cubans wishing to depart Cuba. Later U.S. Administrations continued to block Cuban immigration due to anti-immigration pressure from conservatives and unions.
The problem for Castro was that Cubans were fed up with shortages and were willing hijack ships to escape. One group hijacked a ferry and headed to Florida, but ran out of fuel.
Castro announced in 1994 that anyone wanting to, could depart Cuba. Quickly thousands began building rafts from whatever materials they could find to try to cross the “Sea of Death.” U.S. policy though was to prevent relatives in the U.S. from assisting, and to intern Cubans wishing social and economic freedom in the U.S..
U.S. policy still restricts Cubans wanting to come to the U.S., even when relatives are willing to support them as they look for work.
Students and teachers have visited Cuba for many years, as educational travel has been allowed by the U.S. government. Categories of legal travel to Cuba have been expanded.
“U.S. High Schoolers Discover Cuba on Educational Trips,” (US News, March 21, 2016) notes travel restrictions were further relaxed last year:
President Barack Obama is visiting Cuba this week, making him the first sitting president to visit the country in nearly 90 years. And last week his administration announced changes to travel restrictions that will make it easier for Americans to visit the country for educational purposes. …
And Marienfeld thinks her students were impressed with the Cuban students’ outlook on the future. Many dreamed of one day visiting the U.S., she says.
“One of the kids said, ‘You know, I was very impressed with how little they had, and how happy they were,'” she says. She thought that was a pretty good observation because they do have – and exist – on so very little, but culturally they are so rich, she says.
In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld’s guest praises the amazing classic cars of Cuba. Seinfeld responds asking: “do you think that’s what they want?”
People in Cuba make the best of what they have. But their economy is too small to support automobile manufacturing. The U.S. embargo has blocked exports from the U.S. for over fifty years. So Cubans restore and maintain the Fords and Chevys already in Cuba before the 1959 revolution. For classic car enthusiasts, Cuba is wonderful. But for Cubans these cars are expensive to maintain, and their incomes are low. But why are Cubans in Cuba still so poor over a half century after the Batista regime? (Cubans who escaped to Miami have prospered.)
For decades the Cuban government has claimed the U.S. trade embargo is the cause of Cuba’s poverty. Economists agree the embargo blocked trade that would have allowed both Cubans and Americans to prosper.
But economists also argue that Cuba’s socialist economy system is a major source for the poverty of everyday Cubans. Still, the debate over Cuba’s lack of economic progress continues online, and students asking Google “Why are people so poor in Cuba?” will find a variety of links with opposing views.
For American tourists Cuba may seem a low-cost Disney-like “Fifties World” vacation. But for most who live and work in Cuba and can’t leave, living “on so very little” is not what they wish for if they could choose their government or do depart for the U.S.
This Miami Herald 20-year retrospective video on the 2004 Cuban Rafters story gives a glimpse of life in Cuba then and why so many were willing to take flimsy rafts for the U.S.
“Should the United States Maintain Its Embargo against Cuba?” on ProCon.org lists about a dozen arguments both for and against ending the embargo.
HBO offers a 2016 documentary, “Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death”
A raw, unvarnished look at contemporary Cuba through the lens of its people, who are at once fiercely loyal to their country while being extremely dissatisfied after decades of neglect.
In the news: ” U.S. Ends Ban on China Trade; Items Are Listed“:
The President’s action lifts a 21-year-old embargo against trade with China permitting selected exports to China and the import of goods from China on the same basis goods from other Communist countries are admitted.
Why did the U.S. government relax trade restrictions with China, the USSR, and communist countries in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, but not with communist Cuba?
In an April 19, 1971 press conference, President Nixon said:
“If the want to trade … we are ready,” he said. “If they want to have Chinese come to the United States, we are ready. We are also ready for Americans to go there, Americans in all walks of life.
Chinese could visit America and Americans could visit China. Why weren’t similar doors opened for travel between Cuba and the U.S.?
By the time of the Cuban revolution United States had a long history of “engagement” with Cuba. The U.S. military occupied Cuba from 1989 to 1902 and again from 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1922. U.S. firms controlled much of Cuban sugar and other industries.
Cuba’s political and economic history is complicated, and U.S. interventions in Cuba, as in many other countries, led to unexpected and unwanted consequences.
But Cuba’s independence was stunted by the heavy-handed United States, which doubted that the republic (over half of whose population was black or mulatto) could govern itself. The United States aided Cuba’s fight but then re-occupied the island in 1906 at the request of the feckless Cuban president, Tomás Estrada Palma. A bitterly disappointed Emilio [Bacardi] left government and returned to Santiago, where he penned a 10-volume history of the city and tended his business affairs for the remainder of his life.
Some years ago a war veteran mentioned returning to Ft. Lewis, a Washington state military base, from Korea and being recruited by federal agents for a new assignment in Cuba. I asked: “So we were trying to get rid of Castro even then?” No, he said, he would be helping put Casto into power to reform the corrupt Batista government.
That didn’t turn out well.
This New York Times review (April 23, 2006) of The Man Who Invented Fidel explains how Fidel Castro’s reputation as a democratic reformer was shaped by NYT reporter Herbert Matthews who interviewed Castro in the mountains:
The front-page scoop that followed and two additional articles predicted “a new deal for Cuba” if Castro’s insurgency won and reported that the romantic revolutionary was no Communist; in fact, the local Communists opposed him. The exclusive was a sensation at the time and transformed Castro’s image from a hotheaded Don Quixote into the youthful face of the future of Cuba. Unfortunately for Matthews and The Times, it didn’t age well….
DePalma shows that Matthews was a determined liberal but not a faker like Walter Duranty, the Times correspondent who won a 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his fawning coverage of Stalin and was probably in league with the Soviet secret police. Matthews’s articles were for the most part factually accurate. But he comes across as a self-righteous and credulous analyst who sided with those who gave him access and then refused to reassess, whatever the changing facts. While other reporters who also misread Castro toughened their coverage after he began ordering summary executions, Matthews stuck stubbornly to his original myth.
Okay, maybe that’s seems too much background to the long-standing trade and travel embargo with Cuba. But Castro’s communist revolution including seizing land, buildings, and factories owned by U.S. citizens and companies.
Exports from Cuba after the 1959 revolution would have been seized and tied up in litigation since they camp from farm lands or factories that U.S. Courts would support as seized illegally.
“In Talks Over Seized U.S. Property, Havana Counters With Own Claim” (New York Times, Dec 13, 2015) reports:
Some of the thorniest conversations in the long road toward full relations between Cuba and the United States have only just begun in recent days: The two sides are sitting down for the first time to discuss the American properties Cuba confiscated decades ago.
The very idea of compensation for property and businesses seized in the wake of the Cuban revolution sent a quiver of excitement down the backs of the thousands of people who lost everything from sugar mills to family homes to oil refineries.
People started dusting off yellowing deeds. Lawyers were called.
Similar property confiscation problems followed the fall of communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and other Eastern and Central European countries.
The Cuban government has claimed it is due compensation for income lost due to the long-standing trade embargo, plus from damage caused by the Bay of Pigs invasion. Hungary could on similar grounds request compensation from Russia for the USSR’s invasion and 1956 suppression of the Hungarian Uprising (Freedom’s Fury is documentary on uprising and bloody Olympics match between Hungary and USSR).
Opening trade relations with Cuba has another connection with similar challenges opening trade with China:
In 1979, China agreed to pay $80 million to a China Claims Fund, which allowed American claimants 39 percent of the value of their lost properties, according to the Brookings study. Vietnam, to normalize relations with the United States, agreed in 1995 to apply its assets frozen by the United States government to pay claimants 100 percent of the principal and 80 percent of the interest they were owed.
So, in summary, property claims from the Cuban revolution can be dealt with as they have in other similar upheavals. Time magazine’s Oct. 19, 2015 article “The U.S. Trade Embargo on Cuba Just Hit 55 Years,” begins:
It’s been exactly 55 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s State Department imposed the first trade embargo on Cuba on Oct. 19, 1960. The original embargo covered all U.S. exports to Cuba except for medicine and some foods. President John F. Kennedy expanded the embargo to cover U.S. imports from Cuba and made it permanent on Feb. 7, 1962.
Although relations between the two countries warmed this year, the embargo is still in place and an act of Congress is required to remove it.
The origins of the embargo go back even further, to when Fidel Castro came to power Jan. 1, 1959. He quickly lost American support as he publicized private land and companies, and imposed heavy taxes on imports from the U.S. In the first year of Castro’s regime, U.S. trade with Cuba decreased 20%.
(When Time reporter writes “publicized private land and companies” he doesn’t mean advertise or promote.)
So ending the embargo with Cuba requires a procedure to address past seizure of U.S.-owned assets.
Also, according to “Tillerson would recommend veto of bill ending Cuba embargo,” Washington Examiner, Jan 11, 2017)
Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that he wouldn’t support legislation to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba, a major goal of the Obama administration that now seems likely to go unfulfilled for the next several years.
The Obama administration did all it could to ease trade and travel restrictions against Cuba, but the embargo against the island nation is federal law, and can only be undone through an act of Congress. But Tillerson indicated he wouldn’t support any such move on his watch.
“Foot Soldiers of China’s Shopping Boom” (New York Times, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, p B1, online as For Couriers, China’s E-Commerce Boom Can Be a Tough Road, Jan. 31), looks at the low wages and long hours for Chinese delivering packages:
But for the couriers — who are largely unskilled workers from China’s interior — the work can be low-paying and difficult. It is coming under scrutiny from labor activists and legal experts who say many couriers face punishing hours and harsh working conditions.
Nearly one-quarter of them work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week… A majority work more than eight hours a day each day of the week.
Migrants from rural China also work long hours at low wages at factories making goods for export to the United States. Should U.S. trade agreements include minimum wages and maximum hours for workers in China, Mexico, or Cuba?
A challenge for international trade agreements is scope. What issues should be on the table when negotiators from two governments hammer out what trade rules are relevant and reasonable?
The long delayed and now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was criticized by some for including labor and environmental regulations, not just trade rules. The TPP was criticized by labor unions and environmental organizations for not having strict enough labor and environmental regulations.
In Mexico, China, and Cuba, labor rates are far lower than in the United States. And not just labor rates, but rules about how many hours a day or a week employees can work, and what benefits employers are required to pay.
NSDA debaters have a US/China engagement topic, and the February Public Forum topic is:
Resolved: The United States should lift its embargo against Cuba.
The last days of the Obama Administration ended the long-standing wet-foot/dry-foot policy for Cubans (see below), and the Trump Administration wants to build a bigger wall along the Mexican border, renegotiate trade agreements between the US and Mexico (NAFTA), and also with China. The stated goal is to restore jobs lost as companies automated and shifted manufacturing operations to Mexico and China.
Lifting the trade embargo with Cuba would open doors to similar job displacements as US firms open new factories and upgrade agriculture in Cuba. Cubans are very poor after a half-century of communist rule, so Cuban demand for goods produced in the US will be minimal.
China and Mexico posed similar trade and investment costs and benefits. US consumers buy lower-cost imported goods but US workers fear manufacturing work shifting south of the border or overseas to China. Factories closing in the US are easy to spot and report on the evening news. Families are hurt when jobs disappear. Harder to see and report are the widespread gains from less expensive clothes, furniture, appliances, and cars lower and middle income Americans can purchase. The gains are disbursed and rarely appear on the evening news or morning New York Times.
Cheap goods were imported from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, made by very poor people working long hours for low wages. But these jobs allowed tens of millions to escape poverty to relative prosperity. The same prosperity gains are in process now in Mexico and China, though not yet in Cuba.
Johan Norberg‘s 2003 documentary looks at the dynamics of international trade in Taiwan, Vietnam, and Kenya. This first segment shows some of the history of Taiwan where:
…just thirty years ago people…were poorer than many Africans today. Malnutrition was widespread and there were no natural resources. Today its people are as rich as the Spanish.
The New York Times article cited above quotes a courier from rural China about his job and long hours:
“I’m here to make money,” said Mr. Zhang, a 28-year-old former coal miner from Shanxi Province who is saving money to build a home, widely seen in the countryside as indispensable in attracting a wife. “If I’m not diligent now, I’m going to regret it. I’m almost 30 and still single.”
How do we compare Mr. Zhang’s long hours delivering packages in a city to the life he had mining coal in rural China? “The World’s Deadliest Profession: Coal Miners Pay for China’s Economic Miracle” (TheWorldPost, March 4, 2012) offers a glimpse of rural China:
“… Everywhere in rural China poor people, who can no longer sustain themselves as farmers, rush to coal mines, where wages are about equal (7 to 12 dollars a day) to what they would be paid in factories in the big cities. But in the cities, workers have a rough life and get cut off from their families and homes, so they prefer to stay in their village and work in the mines. Sometimes three generations in one family have worked the same mine.”
The Economist reports some progress in “Shaft of Light: The coal that fuels China’s boom is becoming less deadly to extract” (July 18, 2015), but work as a city courier, even with long hours, is likely preferred to rural coal mining by many young people.
The New York Times article further takes the opportunity to compare China’s low-paid couriers to growing “gig-economy” jobs in the U.S.:
Labor standards in the industry vary widely, but many couriers work under arrangements that might, for example, provide no overtime pay or no employer contributions to their government health care and pension benefits. Just as in the United States, where Uber drivers and many others work as contractors, those arrangements raise questions about what defines work and employment.
If future legislation or trade agreements allow government in China or the US mandate higher wages, benefits, or shorter work days, they will raise costs and lower demand for these jobs and services.
We can wish for higher wages and more benefits for Uber and package-delivery drivers in the U.S. as well as in China. But mandating higher wages and benefits doesn’t automatically raise worker productivity.
Across China some 50% of the working population still live in rural areas with average annual incomes of just $2,000. Migrant laborers in Chinese factories earn similar incomes on average to couriers, about $6,000 a year. Migration is how poor people can most quickly and dramatically raise their incomes, whether from rural China to cities, or from China, Cuba, or Mexico to the United States.
According to a study cited in the New York Times article, Chinese couriers earn about 15 cents per package delivered:
Most couriers make about $300 to $600 a month, according to the Jiaotong study — an amount roughly equal to the wages of China’s migrant factory workers. They can deliver 150 packages on a weekday, drivers said, sometimes helped by making mass deliveries to office buildings.
New legislation or trade agreements that try to force earnings up for delivery or factory workers in China will result in many returning to even lower-pay work in rural China.
In the Izzit.org documentary A Taste of Chocolate, Jimmy Lai describes his first days of factory work in 1960 after being smuggled as a 13-year-old into capitalist Hong Kong from communist China. The YouTube video below is queued to 2 minutes 36 seconds, when Jimmy Lai is introduced. At 8 minutes in, Jimmy Lai describes arriving after all night in a fishing boat crowded with others escaping mainland China:
And by the afternoon we arrived in Kowloon. And at that time, when you arrive in Hong Kong you touch base, you’re legalized… You’re considered legal. I was taken to my mother’s sister and she paid $370 dollars for the smugglers. Later I found out how poor my mother’s sister was…
The narrator continues: “Their poverty meant that Jimmy was sent to work the same night he arrived in the Kowloon District of Hong Kong.” And Lai remembers that first day:
I was taken to a factory to work as a odd-job worker. And I was very happy in the morning. I smelled a lot of food that I had never smelled, the great aroma of food. And the manager gave me ten dollars. That… that was a lot of money at that time. I was very happy, as if I had arrived in Heaven. Although as a young kid we had to wake up before seven. We got to sweep the floor, finish everything, open the door before eight o’clock. People come, and then we work until like ten o’clock, but it was a very happy time. It was a time that I know I had a future…
A couple things connect the China policy topic and the Cuba Public Forum topic. First, the refugee policy that allowed those smuggled from China to be legal citizens of (then British) Hong Kong as soon as they touched land.
U.S. policy was similar and allowed those escaping communist Cuba, once they made it to U.S. territorial waters, to stay legally. The Clinton Administration revised this in 1995 to a “wet foot/dry foot” policy. After 1995 those escaping Cuba had to get their feet on dry land before they could stay in the U.S. legally. Then in early January the Obama Administration shifted Cuban immigrant policy again, as part of normalizing relations with Cuba: “Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas,” (New York Times, Jan. 12, 2017)
President Obama said Thursday that he was terminating the 22-year-old policy that has allowed Cubans who arrived on United States soil without visas to remain in the country and gain legal residency, an unexpected move long sought by the Cuban government.
Countries like the United State, China, Mexico, and Cuba engage through voluntary exchange (trade), travel and migration, as well as through international capital flows (investment). Cubans were coming in larger numbers to Mexico and once they set foot in the U.S. Embassy they could stay in U.S. legally.
Many from China also come to Mexico on their way to the U.S. “California sees surge in Chinese illegally crossing border from Mexico” (Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2016) reports:
Between October and May, the first eight months of the fiscal year, Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector apprehended an estimated 663 Chinese nationals, compared with 48 in the entire previous fiscal year and eight in the year before that, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
People from poor countries, especially young men, are often willing to migrate long distances for a chance to make a better live for themselves. Wage and work rule restrictions slow the process of poor people working long hours to escape poverty.
If you’re talented enough to be attending this year’s 2016 NSDA Nationals in Public Forum debate, the resolution you’ll face in Salt Lake City will be:
Our free breakdown of the Nationals resolution contains lots of strategic advice, expert tips, and ready-to-use evidence covering all of the key issues for both the affirmative and negative sides of the One-Day National Presidential Primary Reform debate.