In Defense of Fidel Castro
Jude Wanniski
April 26, 2000


To: Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y.
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Cuban Reconciliation

In October 1993, you invited me to a dinner at your home in Harlem to meet the Cuban Foreign Minister, Roberto Robaina. You did so because you were aware of my interest in helping communist countries -- the USSR and People's Republic of China -- convert to market economies. You told me the situation in Cuba appeared to be getting worse and that Cuba might find it useful in drawing on my experiences with Moscow and Beijing. Because of a prior commitment, I could not attend, and you will remember I sent in my place Irene Philippi, my senior economist for Latin America. She told me she was impressed with his youthful flexibility in discussion of both politics and economics and found "a determination to work at replacing the crumbling edifice of Cuba's political economy." In a letter she wrote for our clients at the time, she said: "Robaina clearly understands that Cuba's model is exhausted and the pragmatic openness is required for the nation's survival."

I remind you of the experience, Charlie, because the attention on Elian provides the opportunity to do something about the estrangement of the Cuban people -- the exiled Cubans and those on the island. Because you did manage to get me interested in the problem back in 1993, I spent the next several months working with the Cuban government, through its Special Interest section in Washington, at the Swiss embassy, and the following year I traveled to Havana and spent several days meeting with a dozen senior officials of the government, including a two-hour meeting with Dr. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly. On my return, I stopped in Florida for a series of meetings with leaders of the émigré community to explain what I had learned in Cuba and what I was trying to do. I encountered no hostility and in some meetings discovered there were "moderates" willing to contemplate eventual discussions that would involve Castro.

I was heartened by the trip. You remember the long paper I wrote after my return from Havana, "A Visit to Castro's Cuba," June 23, 1994, which I wish you would re-read. It ended on a hopeful note with a recommendation for a project -- perhaps sponsored by the Manhattan Institute -- that would begin the process of reconciliation. Alas, any hope of such a small beginning ended when the principal leaders of the Florida Cubans insisted there could be no such discussions. Castro had to go into exile somewhere else in Latin America or Spain ... or die.

What I sensed was that there could be a knitting together of the two communities -- as there has been between the divided Koreas, the Chinas, the Germanys, and even the Vietnams. Castro has been a petty dictator over the 40 years since his band overthrew the Batista regime, but he has not been a monster on the scale of a Hitler or Stalin. There has been no Havana Holocaust and no Berlin Wall. The reason there are 1.5 million Cuban-Americans is not because that many have gotten here by swimming or in little boats, but because they are allowed to leave Cuba if they have a plane ticket and a visa to some other country. More would come to the United States, but we limit the number to 20,000 a year. There is a National Assembly in Cuba which provides for a nascent level of democracy. The population is better educated, and far-better fed and healthier than the people of Haiti, where democratic capitalism reigns under the tender mercies of the International Monetary Fund. Here is how I concluded my 1994 client report, which will be on my website by the time this article goes to press.

"Reconciliation is not only possible in the Cuban nation, it is inevitable, just as the two Vietnams and two Germanys have united, as the Chinas are coming together, and as the Koreas will sooner or later. It is now becoming clear, through Jimmy Carter's intervention, that even North Korea's Kim Il Sung knows the war is over and that his team lost. As with Castro, Kim is maneuvering for peace terms that are as generous as he can manage. Would the U.S. relationship with Japan have developed as it did after World War II if General MacArthur insisted on the abdication of the Emperor? Outside parties are useful in getting the disputants to communicate and negotiate, but the hard work has to be done by the disputants themselves.

It is in that sense that I advised the Havana Cubans that they will get nowhere with the United States if they attempt to normalize relations without satisfying the Cuban émigrés. They can increase their leverage primarily by seeming more attractive. This means doing the things that make the Cuban political economy more inviting to risk-taking and enterprise. It also means being generous in their settlement of claims -- which they can easily do if they get their economy growing rapidly. For the Miami Cubans, who were thrown out of the house 35 years ago, reconciliation will not be possible if they convey the impression that they really do want to restore the status quo ante, with Batista returning in 1994 garb. They also have to be prepared to accept Cuban peso bonds in settlement of their claims, which should be no problem at all so long as the bonds are gilt-edged. Both parties should have a stake in the success of Cuba's future. As it is, the venomous hatreds built up during 35 years at the leadership level will not get the 11 million people of Cuba and the million émigrés in the U.S. very far.

In both Havana and Miami, we recommended a private, scholarly study be undertaken to concentrate on the economic requirements of Cuba's return to a market economy. The sketchy advice we offered was meant only to show that alternatives are not only necessary, but conceptually available. We suggested the possibility of sponsorship by the Manhattan Institute in New York City, which expressed serious interest in the idea when we posed it prior to the Havana trip.

The Institute, founded in the 1970s to promote the philosophy of entrepreneurial capitalism, would be an appropriate academic forum to develop options for Cuba's re-entry to the hemisphere's political and economic markets. The project would be financed by companies interested in Cuba's future. We would draw together some of the finest minds in business and finance to contribute their expertise toward this process of reconciliation and renewal. It would require the cooperation of the Cuban government, of course, and at least the passive assent of the leaders of the émigré community -- in the same way the community supports a flow of humanitarian relief to the island.

I told the Cubans in both Havana and Miami that once relations are normalized, there is no doubt in my mind that the Cuban economy could soon skyrocket. It is the diamond of the Caribbean, a diamond now in the rough, a tropical paradise the size of Ohio, 90 miles from Florida. It could easily become not only a tourist magnet for North America, but also a bridge between north and south, with Havana revitalized as a commercial and banking center as well. I'd had this dream for Puerto Rico, I explained, and last year thought our efforts with the Puerto Rican business community and the new Commonwealth government were ripening in that direction. Puerto Rico's ambivalent political status, unhappily, continues to hold it back, its leaders frozen somewhere between statehood and independence. A reborn Cuba would have no such inhibitions. Its combined 12 million people, among the best educated and industrious in the hemisphere, could create a dazzling island political economy. Nothing would hold it back.