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Friday, 24 March 2017

Pride and Pragmatism - A New Look at Cuba

The dictionary defines pride as “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements.” Pride can also be associated with “the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated.” In this way, we can feel pride for being associated with a business or a professional organization or a volunteer group or religion or race. Pride can also be associated with being of a certain nationality. For example, my wife and I were up at 4:00 a.m. to watch the hockey final in the last Olympics. We found bar on Stony Plain Road that was just packed. I wandered through the bar looking for a seat and found nothing. We were just about to leave when a group of people at a table by the door made room for us on the bench where they were sitting. Would I be racist to say that none were of European decent? I’ve rarely had so much fun watching a hockey game. Canada took control from the start and the crowd struck up their own renditions of “Oh Canada” throughout the game.

In this age of globalization, people have begun to associate themselves with an ideology to almost as
great an extent as their nationality.  In the U.S., you have the Red and Blue States. The Red State people believe that people should be self-reliant. They should be able to keep the gains of their hard work. They believe in as little interference as possible by the government in people’s lives. The Blue State people believe that certain essential services must be provided for or guaranteed by government; services like healthcare and education and a minimum standard of living. In Canada, the difference between conservative and liberal beliefs have also become more pronounced and more entrenched in the minds of their followers. In Alberta, the ideological difference between Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals and NDPs would have more a matter of degree than kind. Today, the Wildrose advocate an almost libertarian point of view where the government has little or no involvement in the economy and I would suspect a united party would reflect that view.

People like to take pride in their association with either group ideological group. Ironically, many of the people in states that voted for Donald Trump are most likely to suffer under his leadership. Nevertheless, they take pride in the qualities of the self-made man (or woman) he espouses. They also share in his hatred of immigrants who come into their country and do not obviously share their values because they practice different religions of wear “weird” clothing. Likewise, the liberals take pride in having elected the first black president and the kind of values he espouses like universal healthcare.

Why have we become so entrenched in our beliefs? Why can’t we look at the goals we want to achieve as a society and decide the best method of achieving those. There is no ideal. At one time, government intervention may be necessary. At others, capitalism and free enterprise will be the answer for promoting growth and stability. Sometimes, government regulation is necessary. At others, it’s not. Why do we have to affiliate our identity with an ideological belief? We need to be more pragmatic.

Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man” has amended his position that the liberal democracy the final form of government, or the words of Winston Churchill, the “worst form of government, except for all the others.” In his book, “Political Order and Political Decay,” Mr. Fukuyama talks about the necessity of a professional bureaucracy to make a democracy work. Positions in government must be filled based on ability, not a relationship to who a person knows. When democracy began in the United States, favours would be handed out to those who could deliver a vote. For example, say Tim Robinson had influence over a bunch of people and he could assure their vote for John Henry for state governor in return for jobs, then you have the opposite of a professional bureaucracy. When I taught up north, relatives of the chief worked for the town. They delivered the water, cleared the snow in the winter, plowed the streets, shot stray dogs on specified day and time and every other municipal job you could think of. Democracies in developing countries have a tendency to work this way. Certain religious groups of tribes gain control of government and bestow favours to others based on group affiliation. Positions in government are based on a who you know rather than what you know.

In essence, this is what Francis Fukuyama is saying went wrong with the Arab Spring. A bunch of democracies sprang up without the necessary infrastructure to support them. As a result, the crumbles almost as fast as they arose. For this reason, he says the strongest democracies are those that were established most recently in Western Europe. These countries had years under aristocratic and military rule. Because they were in constant conflict or the threat thereof, a strong and competent professional bureaucracy necessarily evolved to effectively manage these nations in an age of ever-growing complexity.
According to Samuel Huntington in his book, “Political Order in Changing Societies” societies are better off when they made a transition from an authoritarian state to a fully modernized political and economic one. China and Vietnam would be examples. Communism isolated these countries and forced the development of a competent bureaucracy. With a professional bureaucracy, they are now better positioned to take advantage of the benefits of capitalism without becoming victims to its faults.

As Canadians, we have played second fiddle to our southern neighbours but we have a common heritage. We share a common language and share a similar religious, social and cultural heritage. Most importantly, we share a common political and economic background. Both political systems are both dependent on a separation of powers with executive, legislative and judicial branches and elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches. (The proviso for the United States would be that only the president is elected and he selects his cabinet from members of the public.)  Our economic systems are largely capitalist with some government intervention in what the citizens of each country consider essential services.

Not so for our Latin American cousins south of the U.S. border. Many, like Mexico, inherited political systems based on rule by a privileged elite. This elite owned the mines and haciendas upon which most of the economy was based. With huge disparities of income, power was necessarily controlled by a strong central government. When that disappeared, so does the control. According to Mr. Fukuyama, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party maintained a strong political order from the 1940s to the year 2000 but at the expense of democracy and economic vitality. Since that time, it’s spiraled into a country of relative chaos.

Pre-Castro Cuba was haven for gambling, prostitution and drugs. “Havana was what Las Vegas has become” says one Cuban historian. In fact, it became so central to the Mafia that Lucky Luciano held a meeting in Havana in 1946 between the U.S. Mafia and the Cosa Nostra; since known as the Havana Conference. The rich and famous flocked to Havana including the likes of Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. The El Florida bar in Havana claims to have been a favourite hangout for Ernest and has named a daiquiri in his honour. Another writer, Arthur Miller, who later dined with Castro, described pre-revolutionary Cuba and society under President Batista’s regime as “hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”

Even though a middle class had sprung up during this time, much of the population did not share in its prosperity. More than 40% of the Cuban workforce was unemployed or underemployed in 1958. Many of these people were seriously malnourished and without hospitals in the rural areas where they lived. Grave yards dotted the main highways in the Sierra Maestra where the sick had died waiting for a ride to the nearest city. Education was unavailable in the rural areas so only half of the rural population could read and write.  Just 10% of rural homes had electricity and 15% running water. Racism proliferated with Afro-Cubans holding the worst jobs and living in the worst conditions. Beaches were segregated and even President Batista was excluded from membership to one of the most exclusive clubs.


During its early years as a country, Canada combined capital initiative with government intervention to provide essential services to a population sparsely spread over a gigantic land mass. Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) was created in 1906 to provide telephone services to customers outside the Edmonton area until it was privatized in 1991. For other utilities, the government was forced to respond to complaints regarding access and prices by creating quasi-judicial bodies to regulate in 1915.  In 1936, the CBC provided radio and later television services to communities outside the major centres.
Unfortunately for Cuba, provision of utilities was not entirely within its control since 80% of them were owned by U.S. corporations. As well, U.S. companies owned “90% of the Cuban mines, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production and 25 percent of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total.” 1.  So, what to do? How to take control of a country when so much of it is owned by outsiders? The Cuban solution was the same as the actions taken by Vietnam and China. Become communist.


After the revolution in 1959, Fidel nationalized everything. As a consequence, his country paid dearly. IN 1962, President Kennedy placed an embargo on trade with Cuba which President Obama partially lifted last year. The Soviet Union initiated trade with Castro’s Cuba and provided a yearly stipend of $6 billion dollars. That disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since that time, life has become considerably harsher for the Cuban people. The average wage is $25 a month and the country has inadequate access to medical supplies.

Like Vietnam and China, Cuba has turned to the private sector to stimulate economic growth. Cuba
Plea for Trump to lift embargo
has sent envoys to the two countries to better understand how these economies have transitioned from government to capitalist enterprise. In 2011, the government fired 500,000 police and issued one million private licenses to businesses to sell products and services. It also allowed reversed property laws to allow it citizens to buy and sell houses. As one lady stated in an Al Jazeera documentary, it “forces owners to sell products of a better quality and of a wider range . . . It gives back our culture of commerce.”

Ironically, Cuba is in a better position to embrace a capitalist system than many of its neighbours. Consider the opinion of a writer for Bloomberg financial magazine. He states that you’re better off being born in Cuba than Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S. since 1898.  To support his argument, he uses information provided by CIA  World Factbook. He states, “Lower infant mortality? Check! Same with lower unemployment, higher literacy, and a lower overall death rate.”


According to Index Mundi, Cuba is one of only two countries in Latin America with a literacy rate of 100%. The intentional homicide rate is ranked just one above Canada’s at 563 per hundred thousand. That compares with the U.S. at 12,996, ranked 13th or Mexico at 25,757 or third worst in the world.2.  When visiting Cuba, the Government of Canada advises travelers to exercise a normal security precautions.  That would be the same as Britain or Germany or Belgium. For Mexico, where considerably more Canadians visit, the government advises visitors to exercise a high degree of caution and, in the Northern and Western States, that non-essential travel be avoided. A New York travel agent sold out his tour of Cuba in a matter of hours. A Cuban American investor has $300 million ready to invest in Cuba as soon the possibility opens up.


Allegiance to one ideology is a mistake. Pragmatism allows a greater variety of actions to be considered as a solution. Like communism, capitalism is not necessarily right in every situation. The goal of a corporation is to control the market and, by so doing, limit competition. In the case of essential services such a health, or electricity or gas, the danger of collusion is particularly great and so, government regulation may be necessary. Foreign influence may become so strong that a country may no longer control its own destiny. Cuba provided an example for independence in other countries.


 During the 1970s, Angola achieved independence from Portugal with a pro-communist party. In reaction, forces within the Angola, with help from South Africa and the United States, attempted to overthrow that government. In response and completely independent of the Soviet Union, Cuba sent its own troops to support the government. The defeat of South African forces in Cuito Cuanavele in 1987 by the Cuban backed forces in Angola, provided inspiration for Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid movement. After his release from prison, Mr. Mandela stated that the Cuban victory “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor . . . [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa . . . Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point for the liberation of our continent – and of my people – from the scourge of apartheid.”

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