04 November 2005

Castro and Chavez

Fidel Casto, who has run Cuba more or less single handedly since 1959 and Hugo Chavez, the fairly recently elected far left wing President of Venezula, are arch-enemies of American neo-conservatives. Neither even offers a fig leaf of respect for traditional free market economic theory.

But, neither man has been a complete failure to his people, and there are far better candidates for our country's shit list than these two men.

Consider Cuba. Despite decades of a U.S. embargo, the life expectencies of men and women respectively are 74 and 79 years, literacy is a respectable 97%, and per capita GDP as of 2002 was $2,300 a person, not high by U.S. standards, but about the same as Boliva, Honduras, Nicaragua, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and more than Haiti, most of which got the way they were due to right wing dictatorships. Considering that the United States has crushed Cuba's tourism revenues and has also squelched trade with what would otherwise have been its largest trading partner (a particularly devistating blow to Cuban cigar exports), it isn't stunning that it lags a little in the region. Cuba is certainly not anywhere near the state of desperation of fellow communist regime North Korea which is far poorer and literally has seen large numbers of its people starve to death.

Chavez is no slouch either. Consider, right now Bush has a 35% approval rating (according to a CBS poll) and Dick Cheney's approval ratings are at 19%. Hugo Chavez, in contrast, whom Bush as systematically sought to undermine and Pat Robertson publicly wondered if the United States should assassinate, has a 77% approval rating in Venezula where he is President, on a program considerably to the left of FDRs.

He's riding particularly high among the country's urban poor, thanks to the proliferation of health, education and welfare programs known as misiones and the deployment of 23,000 Cuban doctors, teachers, physiotherapists, sports coaches and literacy experts in the squalid barrios of Caracas and other major cities.

Emboldened by his political comeback, Chavez proclaimed himself a born-again socialist during a visit to Havana last May and has tacked a far more radical course in domestic policy since the beginning of the year. The expropriation of large and supposedly idle ranchlands and industrial installations has been accompanied by the formation of tens of thousands of rural and urban cooperatives, many of which were launched with government seed money. Chavez has declared war on capitalism and its underlying profit motive, and has mooted the idea of paying Venezuelan workers in something other than old-fashioned wages. "Being rich is bad," he has argued. "Corruption is a product of capitalism."

Now, I certainly don't want policies in the United States that look anything like those of Cuba or Venezula. But, the world community is also starting to realize that free market policies that make sense in mature post-industrial democracies aren't necessary the best solution for developing countries fraught with intense inequalities of wealth, stagnant out dated economies, wide spread poverty and weak political institutions and democratic traditions.

Somebody who has a 77% approval rating has to be doing something right. So does a country with long life expectencies despite low per capita incomes. The U.S. should drop its embargo with Cuba in favor of a policy of trade and engagement, and drop its efforts to undermine Chavez as an exercise in doctrine anti-communism, and instead focus its efforts on regimes which commit far more eggregious harms to their citizens, like the one currently in place in Sudan.

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