Succeeding on the margin

Last week, Anita Snow, an AP reporter who spent ten years working in Havana, wrote a fantastic piece about returning to Cuba and how things are changing for average Cubans. The entire piece is great and worth reading. What really caught my attention, however, was how the Cubans she quoted spoke about the reforms of the last few years and the possibilities created by the recent rapprochement with the United States. All of them talk about the new economic opportunities open to them and how they think their lives can continue to improve. This stands in contrast to many opponents of the new policy position toward Cuba here in the United States as well as many prominent dissidents, who focus much more heavily on issues of political rights and democratic transition.

This is certainly not to say that those issues aren’t important. Cuba’s status as an open dictatorship with a completely closed political system remains a stain on the Americas, not least because so many prominent democratic politicians openly fawn over Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, I think it’s very likely that right now, most Cubans are far more concerned with the potential economic benefits of reform than they are about political ones. Moreover, helping generate a sustained improvement in the material living standards of Cubans is a much more achievable goal from the perspective of US policymakers than a democratic transition. The negative effects of the embargo on Cuba’s economy are probably overblown, but allowing US citizens and companies to travel, work and invest in Cuba will almost certainly be a net benefit for the Cuban economy, improving the livelihoods of Cubans. In contrast, the current arrangement is a net negative for the Cuban economy and Cuban livelihoods, yet also has done nothing to generate a political transition, or even superficial moves.

There a definite value to human rights activists and dissidents in Cuba fighting for a political opening above all else. And in a perfect world, Cuba would be well on its way there. However, treating that as the price of entry for Cuba to have economic and political relations with the United States makes perfect the enemy of good. Cubans end up poorer than they otherwise might be, and still stuck living in an oppressive dictatorship. US policy toward Cuba needs to be geared to improving the lives of Cubans within the current constraints, while working to bring about the eventual political opening.

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One man’s imperialist…

Yesterday I examined Nicaragua’s approval of a massive concession to build an interoceanic canal through the lens of its viability and the government’s motivation for rushing the project through. Equally interesting though, is the fact that the concession has been granted to a Chinese company and what that says about Latin America’s perceptions of China and the limits of the left’s anti-imperialism and self-professed socialism.

While many in Latin America, including even some on the right, view significant involvement of US and European companies in “critical” industries with suspicion, few seem to have developed the same attitude toward Chinese companies. To a large degree this is due to China being the new alternative; there hasn’t yet been a Chinese United Fruit Company in Latin America. Moreover, particularly on the Latin American left, there is a strong sense of solidarity with China. Some of this is admiration for Chinese resistance to the US during the Maoist era, and in less radical circles, it is a form of South-South solidarity—China is considered more in tune with Latin America’s development needs because it is also part of the Global South.

While understandable, this perception of China is exceptionally naïve. China, at least as of now, is not a rapacious, burgeoning imperial power in Latin America, but it is a giant country with a fragile (if deeply rooted) political system that must put domestic considerations at the forefront. This typically manifests itself in a sort of neo-mercantilist strategy in Latin America. The Chinese government and Chinese firms are happy to build infrastructure for, provide loans to and pursue joint resource extraction projects with Latin American governments, but these are projects that ensure a stable supply of resources keep the Chinese economy growing, not ones that necessarily add any productive capacity in Latin America. Beyond that, Chinese firms have been known to bring Chinese workers with them for the most lucrative jobs, blunting the job-creating effect of Chinese investment.

Why, then, would an anti-imperialist and socialist government in Nicaragua give a fifty year concession to build the most important piece of infrastructure in the country’s history to a private firm from a foreign country? Most importantly, for the Latin American left, being anti-imperialist means being anti-American and occasionally anti-European. This is how Fidel Castro can be described as an anti-imperialist despite the decades-long presence of Soviet troops in Cuba and his government’s marching lock-step with the Soviet Union while it invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. So while no politician would ever dare giving a fifty year concession to an American company, one can with a Chinese company. Moreover, since there are geopolitical implications to a second interoceanic canal, having the Chinese build it is a way to agitate the United States and challenge the Monroe Doctrine.

Similarly, socialist in the context of the new left in Latin America is better understood as referring to a highly statist political economy, but not one where there is a significant attempt to have the state own even a majority of the means of production. In the case of Nicaragua, it is even more simply crony capitalism. Daniel Ortega is pro-business when it benefits him either personally or politically. In this instance, it allows him to wrap himself in the glory that comes from finally fulfilling Nicaragua’s 200 year national dream, with, as I wrote yesterday, limited immediate downside risk on his part.