Friday, February 28, 2014

National Review and Cuba

Did you know that the Cuban government has a “brutal food-denial program” that is holding the Cuban people “on the edge of starvation?”  That this “crime against humanity” amounts to the “use of hunger as a weapon of political control?” 


Well, maybe you should read the National Review, the magazine that scooped the entire world with this report. 


The article, written by a U.S. businessman, is based not on reporting in Cuba or interviews with any Cubans in Cuba – rather, it is based on the writer’s talks in Mexico with some Mexicans who had visited the island. 


For the editors of National Review, that was good enough.


If you’re of a certain age you may remember this magazine as a place to get an education in conservatism, with humor and civility, from founder William F. Buckley with writers such as William Rusher, James Kilpatrick, and George Will.  Even people who disagreed could enjoy the discussion. 


It’s a little different now.


Regarding the deliberate near-starvation of the Cuban people, an assertion too ridiculous to rebut, one has to note that no dissident in Cuba has ever said such a thing, not to mention any human rights monitor anywhere, or any journalist or other observer.  The author implies that the rest of us have missed this near-famine because we’re all dupes and admirers of communism. 


A cartoon vision of Cuba, in other words, that is just fine for today’s National Review. 


For contrast, read the late Buckley himself disdaining Cuba’s government and political system while also having little use for the “politically based” perpetual embargo policy that continues even today (see here, here, and here).


Then there’s NR editor Jay Nordlinger, a classical music critic who, when he writes about Cuba, writes about the dissidents. 


Recently he wrote that people who oppose U.S. sanctions against Cuba – from the great liberal Representative Charles Rangel to the great conservative Senator Jeff Flake – are “apologists” for the Cuban government and constitute the “Castro caucus.”  In other words, they are disloyal to our own country.


So, by Nordlinger’s lights, would be William F. Buckley himself.  Buckley himself traveled to Cuba, for which he should be condemned, and he went to see Pope John Paul II who should also be condemned because he opposed the U.S. embargo.  So many commie sympathizers, so little time for poor Nordlinger to write.


As a commenter on Nordlinger’s article wrote: 


“Jay, do you think the embargo has weakened Castro, helped the Cuban people or achieved its stated objective of regime change?  Do you think a person who answers the previous question in the negative is necessarily pro-Castro?”


Nordlinger then goes on to condemn some religious leaders from Cuba who are soon to visit the United States.  Sight unseen, they are “stooges of the dictatorship” because they probably don’t share Nordlinger’s own views.  (One of these pastors co-authored an article here.)



Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cuba's new real estate market

Brookings just published (pdf) a paper of mine on Cuba’s new real estate sector, which represents one of the most interesting new features of the Cuban economy.  After decades of limited, in-the-shadows transactions, a November 2011 law ended the prohibition on simple sales of residential property.  The result is a market where demand is bifurcated between those with normal incomes and those with high incomes or relatives abroad interested in making a purchase, and there is no mortgage finance to smooth over the difference.  Information is imperfect in this market, but in its way it’s a vibrant market with brokers operating on foot and on line, and money coming in from abroad.  A by-product of this change is that Cubans are registering their property titles in large numbers regardless of whether they intend to sell, and transactions carried out illegally in the past are being legalized and properly documented.  If you count property rights as an element of human rights, this is a step forward.  A property title only has full meaning if you can liquidate the asset it describes, and Cubans can now do that.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Alfy's message to Obama

Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, “Never mind,” it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.

The Fanjuls are known for doing very well in sugar, a government-dependent, even socialist sector of the U.S. economy.  They are also known for prodigious campaign contributions that support their sugar interests, and for being long-time, stalwart supporters of U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. 

In all this, they do not seek or need publicity.

When it comes to Cuba, they are of the generation that plans to return only “cuando se vayan aquellos,” i.e. when the Castros have gone.  That generation has put legislation on the books that quite literally prevents the United States from normalizing relations until those two have indeed gone.

The Fanjuls’ 2012 and 2013 trips to Cuba were not a secret.  By all accounts there, their message was simple and consistent: they expressed no interest in recovering property, and a clear interest in helping to revive the sugar sector.

Now Alfy Fanjul has chosen to make this known, in all places, in the pages of the Washington Post.  He does so two months after President Obama said in Miami that “we have to update our policies” toward Cuba, and a month before Cuba is to announce long-awaited norms to attract more foreign investment.

Alfy says that his “interest is finding a way to unite the Cuban family.”  U.S. investments in Cuba are not legal now, and Cuba’s laws are not necessarily attractive enough to draw them.  But, he says, “One day we hope that the United States and Cuba would find a way so the whole Cuban community could be able to live and work together.”

It’s as if he is inviting everyone to declare victory – el exilio for the comprehensive U.S. sanctions, Cuba for surviving them and everything else Washington threw its way for 50 years – and then to look at the next task, which is to build a more prosperous Cuba with help from outside.  Practical and magnanimous.

The seismic importance of the Fanjuls’ shift can be measured in the hysterical reactions of Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.  (Sen. Marco Rubio, thinking presidentially these days, merely expressed “disappointment” through a spokesman.)

I don’t blame them.  For 50 years, these guys have been inside their tent shooting out, and now they’re outside shooting in.  The importance of Cuban American hard-liners in Presidential politics is already diminished by the fact that other Latinos are increasingly numerous and important in the Florida electorate, and by the fact that Obama and Romney split the Cuban-American vote evenly in 2012.  Demography and the actuarial tables are not the hard-liners’ friends.

Now, the last remaining advantage – campaign cash – begins to look like a paper tiger too if even the Fanjuls are hoping that the United States and Cuba can “find a way.”

And closer to the heart, the very idea of el exilio is being drained of meaning first by the massive flow of Cuban Americans and their money, and now by the interest of prominent Cuban American business leaders in participating in the Cuban economy.

In Iran, President Obama is pursuing a high-stakes, high-gain vision that looks beyond the urgent issue of nuclear development and focuses on the strategic aim of rebuilding relations between two great nations.  Bravely, he has set domestic politics aside.

On Cuba, the President eloquently explains how anachronistic our policies are, does little, and seems to be thinking only of small-bore changes. 

Meantime, history and our entire American neighborhood call on the United States to think and act big.

Animo, Alfy.