Santa Claus in Cuba

A street artist in downtown Havana
One of the comments you’ve read more than once about President Obama’s overtures to Cuba is that the embargo hasn’t worked so it’s time to try something different. In a way, though, the embargo has worked: It has demonstrated once again that a Communist government serves only itself, not the people.

And as some commentators have pointed out, Cubans realized a long time ago that Castro had failed and that it was his fault, not the United States’.

The way the embargo failed, of course, is that it did not result in regime change. The same brothers who were running Cuba a half a century ago are still in power. And the other day, brother Raul declared that Cuba was not abandoning communism. Whether or not that was for internal politics or not, change is in the air, but I would suggest it will come slowly, a victim of bad decisions made decades ago.

I like to compare Communist China and Cuba. China under Mao was once a closed society with no middle class and a lot of  people thinking socialism was the life of Riley. But that changed when China opened the door; the country I first visited in 1994 has changed dramatically. In 1994, the streets of Beijing were dimly lit. Today the city beams like Las Vegas. There’s a middle class. Some of my 1994 students own their own apartments and cars. In 2005, one of them admitted to me that he never saw that coming in 1994.

But will the same thing happen in Cuba?

The Castro boys nationalized businesses and chased investors. The Bacardi family still makes rum, only in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States. Hershey still makes chocolate but gets its sugar elsewhere. In general, Cuba not only chased the very businesses that could be used today to employ Cubans, the government dismantled the infrastructure.

Unlike China, which could offer cheap labor, Cuba has nothing to offer the world other than the climate. It can become a tourist mecca—or you can enjoy the same climate and stay in the United States by visiting Puerto Rico—but a country built on one industry has a shaky infrastructure. If somebody sneezes after visiting Cuba, will tourists stay away?

Loosening restrictions was a good move by Obama. Benefits will accrue to the United States down the road. The losers will be the Castro boys and communism.

And if you look to Beijing today, consider that one of my former students tweeted: “Spooky to see so many Santas on the streets of BJ. Even spookier when a taxi app announces Santa's coming to get you.”

Mao who? Fidel who? In the end, it's Santa Claus.