Protests in Cuba: Political Freedom Requires Economic Freedom

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A Cuban flag and an image of former Cuban President Fidel Castro hang on a wall in Havana as people walk to Revolution Square for a massive tribute to Castro in 2016. (Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters)

Like all forms of oppression, communism and democratic socialism belong to the dustbin of history.

We may be witnessing the end of communism in Cuba. On July 11, thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest the appalling political and economic conditions on the island. Some media try to present them as “COVID protests” rather than a general rejection of government domination. The cries of “Freedom! and enough ! And the prevalence of American flags ended that narrative. Cubans aspire to be free, and now they can have the chance.

The island nation of 11 million people is a political and economic hopeless case. His government is a brutal dictatorship with an appalling record of human rights violations. Freedom of expression and assembly are severely restricted, and in response to protests, the regime has restricted internet access. The Cuban economy is largely devoid of private property. Public enterprises are the rule, not the exception. Most of the workers are employed by the state. On the heritage index of economic freedom, only two countries rank lower: Venezuela and North Korea.

These are not separate issues. Political and economic tyranny are symptoms of the same disease. We must not fall into the trap of accusing only one type of repression. In Capitalism and freedom, Milton friedman cautioned against the idea that “any type of economic arrangement can be associated with any type of political arrangement”. We are not free to choose political and economic systems à la carte. True democracy requires free enterprise, and vice versa.

The current turmoil in Cuba reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize human freedom. Unfortunately, many Western politicians and intellectuals remain stubborn. So-called democratic socialism is currently in fashion. It is also totally impractical. FA Hayek, who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and was also an accomplished political philosopher, demonstrated this almost 80 years ago. His Road to serfdom shows that economic control and political freedom are incompatible. The reason is obvious: top-down economic planners can never gain knowledge from free citizens acting in their economic interest. Political freedom threatens the very control elites wish to exercise. As Hayek acknowledged, democratic socialism “is not only unachievable, but the struggle to achieve it produces something entirely different – the very destruction of freedom itself”.

“What about China? Comes the inevitable answer. Yes, China has experienced significant economic liberalization without political liberalization over the decades. But even now, the Chinese Communist Party dominates economic affairs. Formally and informally, many companies receive their marching orders from the government. In the words of Xi Jinping, the goal of the CPC is to integrate “party leadership into all aspects of corporate governance.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that the CCP’s compromise with a certain amount of private residual income is a capitalist triumph.

Is it possible to have extensive economic freedom without political freedom? Of course, it is possible. But more importantly, what is the likelihood of it working? Too often we focus on authoritarian-capitalist success stories – Singapore is a favorite – as if they provide a generalizable model. Robert Lawson, a researcher at Southern Methodist University and a leading scholar of economic and political freedom, rightly denounces this ahistoric thinking. For each Lee Kuan Yew, Lawson reminds us, “There are dozens of tin dictators who have ruined their nations. The abundant scholarly literature on political and economic freedom is clear: they are complements and not substitutes.

Of course, the most complete blossoming of human political freedom is liberal democracy. Although fair and transparent elections are important, they may be less important for economic freedom than “constitutional protections of speech, religion, assembly, etc.” Writes Lawson. Reaching this destination is incredibly difficult. It took a long time in the Anglosphere. As ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown once joked: “When establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are the most difficult. Can this happen in Cuba, China and other authoritarian states in a more favorable timeframe? The jury is still out on how effectively political repression can work in these societies. What might be fragile in Cuba can withstand a storm in China. Transitions are always delicate. Hopefully all the nations suffering from despotism can find their way.

Like all forms of oppression, communism and democratic socialism belong to the dustbin of history. They deprive millions of lives, liberty and property. It is time to make a last ditch effort to eradicate these barbaric philosophies once and for all. We can only hope that the courageous Cuban protesters will lead the way. If they show the world the harmony of political and economic freedom, they can wear it forever as a badge of honor.


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