Missing Links

When Countries Go Crazy

U.S. taxpayers will pay for the failure of policymakers to apply the lessons of recent post-communist transitions to the case of Cuba.

Some countries can drive other countries crazy. When people have this effect on one another, it is because of imbalances in the brain’s neurotransmitters. With countries, it often happens because of the disproportionate influence of special interests. Cuba, for example, has long driven the United States crazy. Just think of the Bay of Pigs invasion or the outsourcing of Castro’s assassination to the Mafia. For more recent examples of irrational behavior, think of the Helms-Burton Law or Elián.

The problem is that Cuba not only drives the United States crazy but also seems to induce some acute form of learning disability among U.S. politicians. Cuba makes them forget — or unlearn — everything the world has painfully discovered about the transition from communism.

This knowledge can be distilled into five simple maxims: Lesson one: Failure is more common than success in the transition to a democratic market economy. Lesson two: The less internationally integrated, more centralized, and more personalized a former communist regime was, the more traumatic and unsuccessful its transition will be. Lesson three: Dismantling a communist state is far easier and faster than building a functional replacement for it. Lesson four: The brutal, criminal ways of a powerful Communist party with a tight grip on public institutions are usually supplanted by the brutal, criminal ways of powerful private business conglomerates with a tight grip on public institutions. Lesson five: Introducing a market economy without a strong and effective state capable of regulating it gives resourceful entrepreneurs more incentive to emulate Al Capone than Bill Gates.

It is therefore safe to assume that if the Castro regime suddenly implodes, Cuba will end up looking more like Albania than the Bahamas. But that is not the assumption on which U.S politicians base their efforts to hasten Castro’s demise. Although a lot of money, political capital, and thought have been expended trying to overthrow the Cuban government, ideas about what to do the morning after are scarce and often unrealistic. They usually hinge on the expectation that in the post-Castro era democracy will emerge and Cuban-American exiles will lead other investors in transforming Cuba into a capitalist hub.

More likely is that instead of a massive flow of foreign investment into Cuba, the United States will get a massive inflow of refugees escaping the chaos of a post-Castro regime. Frictions between Cuban-Cubans and Miami-Cubans will make politics nasty and unstable. New investments and privatizations will be mired in the legal mess produced by the 5,911 claims to property in Cuba (valued at more than $17 billion) that have been filed with the United States Claims Commission by former property owners. (That amounts to nearly seven years’ worth of Cuban exports.) The Cuban public sector is inextricably intertwined with the Communist Party, so the demise of the party will paralyze the government, at least for a while. And the cost of any resulting humanitarian crisis will mainly be borne by U.S. taxpayers, who will likely pay much more than the $2 billion spent containing the influx of Haitian refugees in 1994.

But can’t the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund support Cuba’s transition with money, experts, and projects? Sure, except that the United States forbids them from spending even a dollar to prepare themselves and Cuba for the coming transition. The result is that these institutions are not ready to help Cuba. Again, the United States forgets a useful lesson from another continent: The day after Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands at the White House in 1993, the World Bank — ­­­which had been instructed to prepare for the event — was immediately ready to lend and invest in projects under the control of the Palestinian Authority, even though the authority was not and still is not a member of the bank.

Allowing such an initiative in Cuba’s case would cost U.S. taxpayers nothing and would help plan for the challenges ahead. Also, training Cuban professionals to run a modern market economy is bound to be a better investment for the United States than blocking academic exchanges with the island. The rational, self-interested approach for the United States that also avoids much future human pain in Cuba is to concentrate all efforts on ensuring as smooth a transition as possible.

This view, of course, is not shared by all. U.S. Senator Jesse Helms recently said that "the opponents of the Cuban embargo are about to run into a brick wall on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bush is a committed supporter of the embargo."

The failure of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba to achieve its stated objectives over the last 40 years is dismissed by Senator Helms and some Cuban-Americans who argue that the embargo has never been vigorously implemented. Perhaps, as Senator Helms predicts, things are about to change and the aging Cuban dictator will finally fall. If Cuba collapses and becomes a failed state 90 miles away from U.S. shores, the epicenter of the Caribbean drug trade, the source of a massive flood of refugees to the United States, a corruption haven, and a black hole for substantial sums of U.S. aid, President Bush will have no one to blame but himself. Or, more precisely, the powerful interest groups that blinded him to the lessons of experience.

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