I’m not sure how to take Josh Barro’s article over at The Upshot this last week, Cuba the Next Cancún? It Should Be So Lucky. It is a response to a tweet by Jeremy Scahill, “I’m glad I got to visit several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancún.” Barro’s response it, “Gotcha! Cancún was a government created Caribbean resort!” If that were it, it would be just vaguely sad and pathetic. I mean: it was a tweet and Barro never actually proves that Scahill was wrong.
The one thing that we have seen time and again as communist countries “liberalized” is that they they don’t move to open governments with free markets. They move to corrupt governments with crony capitalism. In the United States, the first thing that set the media against Putin was what he did to the oil oligarchs in Russia. This was presented as some terrible authoritarian move. But the Russian people saw it the opposite way. Putin was just reversing a great injustice that occurred under the early Russian “democracy.” The people’s wealth was basically stolen from them. The billionaires who were losing most of their money were not great capitalists. They were just people who had the ability to work the levers of government.
I doubt that Scahill has thought through the situation in Cuba. It was, after all, a tweet. But the generous reading of his words is that he fears that the “capitalists” are going to descend on Cuba, find a whole lot of government officials keen to trade their power in the government for piles of cash. And just like in Russia before it, Cuba will see its people screwed of their share of the wealth generated. It will be the Batista government all over again. Five decades of the Cuban people suffering under their own government and the United States’ government. And it all comes right back to where it started.
The problem with Scahill’s tweet is that he he misspoke. It wouldn’t be the tourists who try to turn Cuba into Cancún. The idea of more and more tourists going to Cuba and spreading some money around in the local economies sounds like an absolutely great idea to me. The fact that individual Cubans would build hotels sounds great. In this regard, I suspect that Barro and I are much in agreement. But he probably thinks foreign capital flooding in is the best way to do this. On that issue, I’m sure I’m with Scahill. It would be sad if Cuba ended up looking the same as every other corporate resort in the world.
But I can’t get too upset about that. The issue is how this would all play out for the Cubans themselves. Most likely, they will be screwed the way most people are today: with a public-private partnership that allows powerful people in the government to cash out of the country, foreign money to cash in, and leaves the people with new minimum wage jobs cleaning toilets. Maybe that will be an improvement for them. But it certainly isn’t anything like justice.