You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world. You tell me that it’s evolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world. But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out. Don’t you know it’s gonna be, all right, all right, all right. The Beatles 1968 classic, written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon–McCartney, was released on the White Album. The song was inspired by the political protests of the time and reflected Lennon’s dislike of the violent tactics of some.
Just last week, I returned from a trip to Cuba, a country undergoing what many consider to be an on-going revolution. Now I have to be honest up front. It is kind of disingenuous to comment on a country that I only spent 5 days in, with those days taken up by educational tours led by government minders; however, one can walk around without minders and its easy enough to view the living conditions, infrastructure and other oddities.
Cuba is by no means a police state in the way that say North Korea appears to be. People are friendly, helpful and kind. In spite of the hardships that they face there is a surprising degree of joy, and I observed a number of people simply dancing, throwing parties, and enjoying their children in their tiny homes. It is obvious that it was at one time a colorful, vibrant country with many examples of grand architecture, grand homes, and what was in 1959, modern infrastructure.
Following Cuba’s socialist revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro’s government did implement many reforms that were popular and necessary, following the mafia influenced dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. Batista had gained the Presidency via a coup, and was actually under US sanctions at the time he was overthrown. The new socialist government did improve schools and health care, but also nationalized (read stole) farmland, factories, businesses and homes across the island. In effect, following the revolution there was no private enterprise in Cuba and the country’s economy began to follow the model of the Soviet Union. By the early 1960’s the country’s economy went into free-fall, and in spite of significant aid from both the Soviet Union and Venezuela, has continued to crumble for nearly six decades.
By my observations, Cuba’s economy essentially stopped producing much of anything after 1960. Most buildings have not been painted since the Revolution, there is little food or consumer goods, and the infrastructure has deteriorated to the point that horse carts are the most reliable form of public transportation outside of Havana. The vast majority of people live in dilapidated cement – not really apartments, but boxes.
The thing that most amazed me, is that there is virtually nothing in Cuba. While there are private (and government) restaurants and hotels for tourists, and many Cubans make a good living driving 1950s style American cars as taxi’s for tourists, the rest of the economy is in stasis. Outside of some tourism, and remittances, there is almost no economy on the island. There are some shops selling coffee, rum and cigars (again only for hard currency), but there are virtually no grocers, clothing stores, or shoe stores. You would be hard pressed to find markets selling fresh food in the major cities.
Instead, the bulk of the population survives on government food rations, government housing, government health care and a basic wage equal to about $20 or $20 US dollars per month. Since anything that there is to buy requires hard currency and prices are pretty much the same as they are in the US, $30 does not go far. So while the most basic needs of most Cubans are met by their struggling economy, there is not much else to go around.
Even this cannot last long. Rather than investing over the past 60 years, Cuba has simply lived off of what it stole. For example, while the Bacardi distillery is still producing rum. It just has not had any new investment. It has not even been painted and the faded Bacardi name and logo still sit atop the entrance. The bus depot in the city of Cienfuegos is filled with old soviet busses from the 1970s, but none of them function. There are no parts for the old cars that generate income as taxi cabs, though Cubans seem to be able to MacGyver just about anything.
Cuba is an amazing example of what happens when markets and incentives are removed from an economy. Rather than the growth and productivity generated by capitalism, Cuba has experienced the stagnation of serfdom. People have their basic needs met and in return provide some corvee labor to the government; however, without any incentive to be productive, they simply are not. Innovation, hard work, education, risk all of the things that lead to growth are not rewarded so they just do not occur.
This type of stagnation is not unique to Cuba. We see similar stagnation right here in America, where an entire underclass of people relies on public housing, health care, education and rations. Incentives to improve are limited, and the cost of getting out of this socialist trap can be high. Today, many politicians are actually recommending setting up a system similar to Cuba’s demanding things like a so-called basic wage to be paid to people simply for existing. Again, once incentives to work are removed, why work?
Cuba, Venezuela, the Soviet Union, these countries point out the consequences of government socialism on an economy. While there may be many social reasons for Revolution – there surely were in Cuba – it is not possible to make an economy develop to the point where it can actually provide people with a better life without functioning markets and incentives.
You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world. Sometimes revolution is positive, and even when negative consequences occur following a revolution, positive things can happen in the end (think the French Revolution). But more often than not, the promises of revolution are hard to meet, and the revolutionaries are barely better than the government that they replace. After seeing what happened to Cuba, don’t you know that you can count me out.