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Letters to
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March 3, 2008

End the Cuban Embargo

[T]he United States' policy is based on the carrot and stick approach. The embargo is stick, and removing it is the carrot. We want something from Cuba that only the Castro brothers can give, and that's the release of political prisoners and respect for basic human rights and civil liberties. Many an argument has been made that our policy in effect causes the reverse.

Opponents of the embargo like you premise your argument on the liberalizing nature of trade and exchange. As someone with a background in economics I would generally agree with that position, but the problem is that Cuba's economy is set up in such a way that only the government receives the benefits of trade and commerce. That's because only the state can conduct business with foreign corporations who must play by Cuba's crooked rules. How has Spanish trade and tourism helped relieve the suffering of Cuba's people? Canadian? British? Mexican? Argentine? Every country does business with Cuba and none of this has brought the freedom we want for Cuba. If we are opposed to private sweatshops in the Far East, why would we be in favor of public ones that are government-run in Cuba?

The fact that Castro shot down the planes is not proof that he wants the embargo to remain. It is perhaps proof that he wasn't really aware of how the shoot-down would be reacted to. Or perhaps it's proof that it was simply more important to him to shoot down those planes because they posed a more clear and present danger for the regime (can't have people dropping flyers and filling Cubans' heads with ideas of liberty). Or perhaps Castro does want the embargo removed but wants the world to know that under no circumstances did he give anything up in exchange that he can shoot American planes down and still get what he wants. Your reading of the shoot-down is only one interpretation and one that is belied by the extreme amount of resources that the regime uses to lobby and cajole for an end to the embargo. This includes the recruiting of farmers and state officials that Cuba does business with to lobby Congress. Mike Huckabee signed a letter to President Bush when he was governor asking for the embargo to be lifted. He did so at the insistence of rice farmers in his state, who in turn were being insisted upon by the regime.

Nice try, though.

~ Henry Louis Gomez

David R. Henderson replies:

Dear Mr. Gomez,

Thank you for thoughtful letter.

You stated, "The United States policy is based on the carrot and stick approach. The embargo is stick and removing it is the carrot." I realize that that is your argument and nothing in my article contradicts the fact that that is your argument. My point is and I made this point in my article that after a few decades of this approach not working, it's time to conclude that the approach doesn't work.

You state further, "Opponents of the embargo like you premise your argument on the liberalizing nature of trade and exchange. As someone with a background in economics I would generally agree with that position but the problem is that Cuba's economy is set up in such a way that only the government receives the benefits of trade and commerce. That's because only the state can conduct business with foreign corporations who must play by Cuba's crooked rules." You overstated a little, but it is true that the government receives almost all the benefits of trade. I pointed that out in the section of my article where I noted that Castro's policy with foreign investors is like, but not quite as extreme as, the Nazis' policy with Polish Jews who worked in Oskar Schindler's factory. But I also pointed out and you did not respond to this that there are leakages in such a policy and that, therefore, some non-governmental Cubans benefit.

You went on to say, "How has Spanish trade and tourism helped relieve the suffering of Cuba's people? Canadian? British? Mexican? Argentine? Every country does business with Cuba and none of this has brought the freedom we want for Cuba."

I don't know the details of how Spanish, Canadian, British, Mexican, or Argentinean trade and tourism have brought benefits to Cubans. Part of the reason I don't know is that Cuba is such a repressed society that one can't know. Another part of the reason is that economies are complex things. I can't tell you to the nearest decimal place how much I benefit from trade with China. But I can tell you that I benefit. Basic theorems in economics going back to David Ricardo and James Mill, with their principle of comparative advantage, convince me of that.

I can give you one instance where a Canadian tourist made some Cubans better off with trade. A Canadian friend of mine some years ago went down to Cuba and snuck away from where he was "supposed" to be, hitchhiking into Havana and talking to and trading with normal Cubans on the way. Certainly everyone who traded with him was better off. One of the most fundamental principles of economics, as you well know from your study of economics, is that both sides gain from trade. Now few people will have the courage of my friend in breaking the Castro government's rules. But it seems reasonable that one thousand or more would. Multiply my friend's example by 1,000 and, if Americans were allowed to travel to Cuba, multiply my friend's example by 10,000 and you have some feel for the minimum gain that normal Cubans would get from the presence of American tourists.

Notice also that you subtly switched from the question of how trade and tourism help relieve the suffering of Cubans to the issue of whether this trade has brought freedom. Of course you're right that it hasn't brought freedom. But if people can gain from trade and have their poverty alleviated somewhat by trade (and trade is an important part of economic freedom), isn't it kind of cruel to try to forcibly prevent Americans from trading with them? Aren't you, in effect, saying that your response to Cuban people's suffering under Castro is to have them suffer more?

You ask, "If we are opposed to private sweatshops in the Far East, why would we be in favor of public ones that are government-run in Cuba?"

Speak for yourself. I'm not opposed to private sweatshops in the Far East, as long as the people who work in them do so voluntarily. I have written on this elsewhere. See my article in Fortune, "The Case for Sweatshops." Or see the section of my book Making Great Decisions in Business and Life where my co-author and I discuss this. The people who work in those places are better off, as reporters from the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and National Public Radio have found when they have gone and visited "sweatshops" in Latin America. The mistake most Americans make that leads them to oppose "sweatshops" is that they can't imagine themselves working there because they have better alternatives. But the people working in "sweatshops" (I use the quotation marks because reporters have found that workers sweat less in those factories than they did in agricultural jobs under the hot sun) are better off, or else they would not have chosen those jobs. Those people don't have the great alternatives that we have. Oxfam, the British charity, pointed out in the 1990s that when one carpet-maker in Bangladesh was pressured to fire children who worked for him, many of the children ended up working as prostitutes or starved. The people who want to get you fired are not your friends.

You do raise a good point about government-run sweatshops, though. I don't like socialism, whether here or in Cuba. I would rather that private firms be allowed to grow and thrive in Cuba. But decades of the embargo have not made that happen. At one point would you say, Mr. Gomez, that the policy you advocate has failed?

You write, "The fact that Castro shot down the planes is not proof that he wants the embargo to remain. It is perhaps proof that he wasn't really aware of how the shoot-down would be reacted to. Or perhaps it's proof that it was simply more important to him to shoot down those planes because they posed a more clear and present danger for the regime (can't have people dropping flyers and filling Cubans' heads with ideas of liberty). Or perhaps Castro does want the embargo removed but wants the world to know that under no circumstances did he give anything up in exchange that he can shoot American planes down and still get what he wants."

I should not have suggested that it was proof. I was saying, and I might have been sloppy in doing so, that it's strong evidence that he wants to keep the embargo. I agree with you that it doesn't constitute proof. You do give reasonable alternative explanations. Based on what I know and, I suspect, what you know, it's hard to know which one is right.

You write, "Your reading of the shoot-down is only one interpretation and one that is belied by the extreme amount of resources that the regime uses to lobby and cajole for an end to the embargo. This includes recruiting of farmers and state officials that Cuba does business with to lobby Congress. Mike Huckabee signed a letter to President Bush when he was governor asking for the embargo to be lifted. He did so at the insistence of rice farmers in his state, who in turn were being insisted upon by the regime."

It's absolutely clear that many U.S. farmers lobby for an end to the embargo, and for obvious reasons they gain from trade. I was not aware, though, that the Castro regime was pushing for them to do so. Can you provide some evidence for that?

Postscript: Mr. Gomez replied to my response mainly by reiterating the case against the embargo. He did not cover any new ground that I had not dealt with other than this: he presented evidence that I had not known about on the Cuban government pushing American farmers to lobby to end the embargo. For that reason, we show below the relevant part of Mr. Gomez's reply:

Here's a quote for you (from "U.S.-Cuba Trade Advocate Tells of Disappointment"):

"It also first reported in 2003 that Havana was requiring U.S. firms and some U.S. politicians to sign 'advocacy agreements' promising they would lobby Congress to ease the sanctions before Cuba would buy their goods.

"'These agreements are a corruption of the commercial process,' Kavulich complained at the time. 'Once you include an advocacy clause, they're no longer commercial agreements; they're political documents.'"


US and Iraqi Casualties

Some years ago I took courses on statistics and learned some of the ways that numbers could be manipulated to convey a false impression of reality. Your stats on U.S. troop deaths appear to be carefully contrived to ignore the fall in U.S. casualties over the past 6 months. That's too bad because it shows that you don't have the courage to present the facts as they are instead of as contrivances in support of a preconceived viewpoint.

It is possible to be against the war even if U.S. casualties have fallen dramatically. If you can't present the facts honestly, then you are doing yourselves and your viewpoint a disservice.

By listing a running total of U.S. war deaths you try to conceal the recent dramatic fall in U.S. troop losses. It seems like you are trying to ignore, or even conceal, the fact that all casualties in Iraq have fallen rapidly over the past 6 months. For example, U.S. deaths in Iraq over the past 5 months are running at around 40 percent of the previous 5 months. February 2008 deaths are expected to be the lowest since February 2004. Even more startling, Iraqi security force casualties have fallen precipitously, from about 200 per month last year to about 50 per month in 2008. These are important facts and they indicate that the war on the ground, which you oppose, has already been largely won. Sorry if that bothers you.

More importantly, you present Iraqi war deaths as over 1.1 million a very high estimate and you ignore or play down other estimates which I summarize below:

1. Iraq Body Count: 87,000-plus actually reported as of Jan. 10, 2008
2. Iraqi Health Ministry: 104,000 to 203,000 as of June 2006
3. Lancet study: 650,000 as of June 2006
4. LA Times: estimated about 50,000 plus as of June 2006

All of which only proves that the real totals are not known. You choose the highest for polemical reasons just as the Bush administration chooses the lowest.

All of the highest estimates (ORB and Lancet) are based on polls, not actual numbers, and polls, as we know from Obama's recent trouncing of Clinton in various primaries, can be woefully misleading.

If you have philosophical reasons for opposing the war, then make your case. But if you have to use skewed stats to prove your point, then your viewpoint is worthless. Simply dismissing all alternative viewpoints as "lies" or "fraud" perpetrated by the evil Mr. Bush leaves you out on the ineffective fringe of American politics.

~ Jon YT

Margaret Griffis replies:

Hi Jon,

I do the compiling of the casualties in Iraq for Antiwar.com. I try to present them with little editorializing to avoid allegations that we skew the numbers to make things look worse or better, as some others have claimed than they actually are. Just as I "ignored" the drop in U.S. casualty rates, I also "ignored" the huge spike in deaths prior to this drop. Focusing on these hills and valleys in the statistics only obscures the fact that even one single death American or Iraqi is still unacceptably high.

I understand your concerns though: we have links, on our casualty page, to the very studies you give as "alternative viewpoints." We don't label the sites as fraudulent. We understand that there will never be an accurate count of war dead and say so. Perhaps your complaints have to do with a Web page we link to as opposed to something specific on our site?

Anyway, we appreciate the input and interest.

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