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Discovering Cuba: Economics, Entrepreneurship, and the Future

Discovering Cuba: Economics, Entrepreneurship, and the Future

HAVANA, SEPTEMBER 6, 2016 — “I’m not a big fan of Fidel,” our guide Jorge* says. We have known him for less than ten minutes. The driver, who speaks little English, nods approvingly. “His name is Fidel, too” says Jorge, patting the driver on the back. “This is the good Fidel.”

The first assumption I had about Cuba was shattered. I had assumed the people would be reticent to discuss their feelings about the regime, the party, or their leader. They were not. Almost all the Cubans we met were all too eager to relate their stories of living under the regime, in the past and in the present. Those that weren’t explicit spoke about Castro the way that a coworker might diplomatically criticize an underperforming boss. Our questions were often answered as if no other explanation were necessary: “Es Cuba.”

Es Cuba indeed. From the moment we landed in Havana the day before, direct from Panama City, it was immediately apparent we were not in Kansas anymore. The airport is an exemplar of Soviet-era architecture with brutalist concrete pylons, stretches of burnt orange tiles and adornments and long hallways with low ceilings and dim lighting. Where other airports might offer shop after shop of bookstores, coffee shops and restaurants, the Havana airport shops only have an abundance of certain items we will see many times: foreign candy imports, tobacco, tourist paraphernalia, and alcohol. Everything else is scarce, including food, water, soft drinks, snacks, magazines, books, toiletries, and medicine, none of which can be found. In the restroom, only half of the toilets have toilet seats, and there is a conspicuous lack of soap in the dispensers, no paper towels, and non-functioning hand dryers. To suddenly find ourselves in a place with plenty of cigarettes but no soap was a jarring experience, and it would not be our last.

“Fast Food” at the airport–so fast you can’t see it.


Upon arriving, our first task was to change our money. The local currency is two currencies. The convertible peso (CUC) functions as their hard currency—roughly 1:1 with the dollar—and is the only Cuban peso that trades for foreign currencies. Cuban pesos (CUP) are what the government spends, and are accepted at state-owned businesses, which until recently were all businesses. Not surprisingly, Cubans prefer to transact in CUC, and as we understand, they associate the two currencies with two different conceptions of quality. A “CUC place” will invariably deliver higher value, whereas a “peso place” is a euphemism for a shoddy, cheap, state-run service. It didn’t take us long to figure out that CUC was not only the currency of the tourist economy, but of the fledgling private economy as well, as some businesses who only cater to locals will still accept CUCs. As we will find out, more and more Cubans are breaking into this CUC economy and entering an emerging middle class with disposable income.

Upon leaving the airport the first thing to strike us was the cars. We felt immediately thrown back to a movie from classic Hollywood, complete with a lineup of 1950’s luxury automobile brands: Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, DeSoto, and Ford. And of course, there was an array of Soviet-era utility cars from Lada and the like. The few modern cars scattered about stuck out painfully. We also could see quite a few 1990’s-era European cars: Volkswagens, Peugeots, and so on. It was quite the hodgepodge.

Cuba’s car economy is unique in the world, a natural outcome of a state-run economy that only provides rationed cars to the political elite and some of those in select professions (like doctors), and has no legitimate market in automobiles. We find out later that the black market value of a new car is north of $260,000 and can be as high as $700,000 (that’s US dollars). The worst used car can be got for $7,000. It’s not surprising that Cubans value their cars above all else, which has translated to the plethora of 1950’s American cars on the roads, missing seatbelts, poor gas mileage and all. These are cars that have been preserved far beyond their natural lives and the age shows on most of them: from gutted interiors, non-functioning door handles, nubs where the window cranks used to be, rusted frames, cracked fenders, sputtering engines, creaking gears, torn and faded original leather seats, cracked paint, and every other car malady imaginable. Frequently we see a local car owner performing repairs, with the car jacked up, hood splayed open and parts strewn over the sidewalk. I would not be surprised if most Cubans are better mechanics than most mechanics anywhere else in the world.

A pretty typical scene in Old Havana. Lots of old cars everywhere you look. A pretty typical scene in Old Havana. Lots of old cars everywhere you look.


Cars have also transformed into a new business opportunity in the last couple years, as Raúl Castro’s government has relaxed controls on transportation enterprises, in addition to restaurants and hotels. Many of the cars we see have been restored to their former glory, down to new paint jobs, new stereo systems, air conditioning and modern engines swapped in. We find out that a driver of these retrofitted old cars can make up to $50 per hour from tourists, not bad for a country whose average monthly salary is $23.

Retrofitted convertibles waiting for fares. Retrofitted convertibles waiting for fares.


We spent our first day exploring our neighborhood, Vedado, which we will later find out is the most modern and one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Havana. It’s hard to believe it. Many houses on our street would be considered condemned by the standards of any major American city. Those that aren’t abandoned outright are in late stages of decay, held together by decades of do-it-yourself fixes we see Cubans performing constantly. It’s common to see lead paint peeling, door and window frames warping, and exposed concrete, rust and wiring. Many of these houses are former mansions stripped of their pre-revolution glory, overgrown with weeds, foundations literally crumbling before our eyes. It’s hard to believe there are people living in the crevices of these stone ruins, but we see them through windowless window frames. Some of these houses are completely gutted, down to the studs, or collapsed altogether.

Vedado was lively with activity: children coming home from school, parents and babies, cats and dogs wandering about, men pushing hand carts with construction supplies, women carrying bags from the fruit market down the street. We rented an Airbnb (recently allowed to operate in Cuba) whose owner has renovated half of her house for guests, which in turn is the top floor of a pre-revolution duplex. The bottom floor looks abandoned with its doorless entryways and unlit interior, but is occupied.

Grand old house in Vedado. Grand old house in Vedado.


We walked to the Meliá Cohiba, a luxury hotel on the seaside Malecón esplanade, taking in its tacky oversized marble lobby (it actually reminded me a lot of the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City). Meliá Cohiba is state-owned, along with the glorious old hotels and nightclubs of the past: Hotel Nacional, Hotel Parque Central, the Tropicana, the Floridita. These were hotels and clubs once owned and frequented by American millionaires and mobsters, the center of a thriving and prosperous economy which brought celebrities, artists, writers, wanderers, sunbathers and entrepreneurs to these sunny shores. When Castro took over in 1958, the state nationalized all of these tourist destinations. Today, they are shadows of their former glory, sharing many of the same misfortunes as the houses and mansions we saw.

One gets the sense that Havana has been lost in time, frozen in 1958 at the dawn of the most successful half-century in world history. The rest of the world has seen largely peace, prosperity, global trade, new technologies, the internet, cheap travel, a renaissance of architecture and music and literature, an explosion of democracy and expression, the shattering of international borders, economic stability and a new world order based in theory if not always in practice on human rights and dignity. Cuba just introduced heavily censored 56k dial-up internet, only available to the political elite and tourists, with some slow hotspots to the public available as of 2015. SMS still does not work for locals.**

img_6728 Old Havana street; late afternoon.


In Europe and America, we speak of “prewar” and “postwar.” These wars are often the defining moments in our history across which so much changed they create two distinct periods with different moods, politics, economies, social orders, and realities. In Cuba, the moment that matters most is the moment when Castro, Che and their ragtag band of Marxist revolutionaries upended the Batista dictatorship and marched, guns blazing, into the presidential palace. From that moment on, every Cuban speaks of “pre-revolution” as if it were an era lost forever.

* * *

It is Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución we find ourselves with our new friend Jorge.

As any student of Communism will tell you, the Revolution never ends. It is critical to the policies of the regime that there is always a capitalist enemy to defeat. Legitimacy is achieved by representing the upending of a social and economic order where the elite control the means of production, to one where the people do through nationalization. Of course, once nationalized, the economy becomes taken over by a new elite whose methods of control are even more violent and regressive. That is why the Revolution must never end—because if a status quo of unilateral power becomes established, it invites a new revolution based on the same principles. This is why the Cuban constitution states, for example, that “artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution.”

A common sight on Havana streets. Old car repairs–a common sight on Havana streets.


That is also why, for 54 years until he handed the reigns of power to his brother, Fidel Castro lectured on the ongoing revolution and its benefits to crowds of millions in this very revolutionary square. It is a brutal place, the size of two football fields paved entirely in white concrete baking under the Caribbean sun. Portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos are displayed on government buildings surrounding the square, with an imposing memorial to Cuban national hero José Martí keeping watch from the center. Images of Fidel and Raúl Castro are not displayed, apparently because of a Cuban law that prevents public iconography of living revolutionaries (interestingly different from the norm in Mao’s China and Kim’s Korea).

Jorge is telling us about Fidel Castro’s 4- to 6-hour political rallies at this square, which would be broadcast on every television channel. “Everyone in Cuba watched it,” Jorge says, “Because we didn’t know how long the speeches would last, and the soap operas would come on afterwards.” We laughed. He continues. “We would keep the volume down so that Castro would become background noise. When he said ‘¡Patria o Muerte, Venceremos!’ [homeland or death, we will overcome], that’s when we turned up the volume. That’s when we knew the speech was almost over.”

A Lada taxi rumbles past a apartment building; central Havana. A Lada taxi rumbles past an apartment building; central Havana.


Jorge is, like many Cubans we will meet, a multi-entrepreneur who has active businesses giving tours, selling cigars, teaching English and French, and helping Cubans with their immigration paperwork, all under the table of course. That’s the way the economy operates here. On our walk through Havana, we see street vendors selling tortillas, bananas, ice cream, makeshift barber shops and beauty salons in the empty shells of former houses, makeshift restaurants (paladars) and bars serving food and beer off of porches. In the last couple years, many of these businesses have been allowed to start operating legally; previously, they were all underground. Jorge explains to us that the official salaries offered by the government for services—such as driving garbage trucks—are laughably small, so almost everyone with an official job will have several jobs on the side. Those garbage truckers, for example, will siphon the valuable fuel left over from their routes and sell it on the black market, where customers will pay half of what they would pay for gas from the state-owned gas stations. And of course, Jorge is telling us this as we drive around in a car operated by Fidel, another entrepreneur whose beat-up 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air makes him far more money than he would make operating a state-owned, air conditioned, brand spanking new yellow taxi.

To give us a sense of just how low official salaries are, Jorge tells us that last year, the government raised the salary of doctors to $50 per month, after sending 4,500 doctors to Brazil to help with a medical crisis in 2014 and having many of them never return. It’s not surprising that even doctors in this economy look for any opportunity to make ends meet. Jorge’s doctor, we find out, sells Jorge his extra phone line for $60 per month so Jorge has access to 56k dialup internet (internet in private homes is currently illegal). Another doctor we hear about sells bootlegged movies from his bicycle to scrape together more cash. And they must, because they cannot afford to do otherwise. Monthly rations of rice and beans provided by the government amount to only one week’s worth of food. That means the other three weeks the people are forced to fend for themselves. It’s no surprise that enterprise has flourished underground, in the most unlikely places. Cuba might have more entrepreneurs per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Tourist market, by the wharf. Tourist market, by the wharf.


Jorge and Fidel took us around the city to point out more Havana peculiarities, including “Coney Island,” which despite its name is more of a small-ball kiddie park like you would find in an underwhelming tourist town. We saw the classic nightclubs of prohibition-era Havana, now all but abandoned, and the ex-Soviet, now Russian, embassy, which squats imposingly and palatially across several square blocks, epitomizing the concrete brutalist architecture of that era. And we drove past the estate of Fidel Castro, completely hidden behind overgrown brush, but bigger than anything we had seen so far.

We went for lunch at a CUC restaurant in Old Havana. The recently opened restaurant, Jorge explained, was funded by American capital, most likely through a family member as only Cubans can own property here. As a private business, this restaurant must provide better service and quality in order to stay afloat, something Jorge reminded us of after coming back from the bathroom. “This is the first year restaurants have had clean toilets in Cuba” he said matter of factly, and proudly. “They even have toilet paper.”

A brand new private ice cream shop in the old town. Delicious. A brand new private ice cream shop in the old town. Delicious.


When a country is deprived of so much, so little becomes luxury. We are reminded of this constantly. Jorge needs to take one aspirin per day for a medical condition. He hasn’t had any in three months. It can’t be found (we gave him ours). We spent the meal getting a history lesson.

As Jorge explains it—and like everything else in this country, his view must be taken with a grain of salt—Batista was a petty dictator with a corruption streak who got caught in a Marxist fervor sweeping Latin America in the postwar period. He gave up with barely a fight, fled to Spain with $42 million in a suitcase and left the country to be taken over by Castro and his thugs. It became apparent very quickly that overthrowing one dictatorship does not mean another dictatorship won’t displace it, and Castro immediately went about practicing the normal Marxist playbook: seizing billions of dollars of private property, nationalizing all industries, and implementing the trifecta of communist control: stifling of dissent, rationing of all goods and services, and monopolizing of all labor. It didn’t take long for the best and brightest of Cuba to be driven underground and, if they were lucky, to flee to America, Mexico, and elsewhere, leaving behind an empty legacy of wealth: buildings and goods with no human capital behind them.

Typical street in Old Havana. Prime real estate, too. Typical street in Old Havana. Prime real estate, too.


As Jorge takes us for a walk through Old Havana, a mountain of salt wouldn’t hide what we can plainly see. Early 20th century condominium and apartment buildings in disrepair. Entire blocks of pre-revolution townhouses in ruins. Street after street of potholes, rusted fences, graffiti, peeled paint, uneven sidewalks ripped up by tree roots, crumbling concrete facades, abandoned shops, restaurants, movie theaters, boarded up doors, broken windows. What were once beautiful facades and lively pedestrian streets are caked in layers of filth and grime and dirt. The smells of exposed food, cigar smoke, sewage, rotting trash, and burning diesel all mix in a powerful cloud of odor wafting around every corner.

It could be a war zone. But it’s not—it’s merely the result of decades of neglect, imposed upon a country by a man whose face is plastered on every official poster and whose accomplices adorn t-shirts in every tourist shop. It’s the expected consequence of a state-owned economy that prevents Cubans from providing basic needs for each other.

Typical paladar in Old Havana. Typical paladar in Old Havana.


I have many times been in a developing country. Never have I been in a de-developed country.

There is something uniquely sad about Cuba. Unlike other poor countries in the Caribbean, Cuba had everything, and it was turned into a trash heap of human and material misery. The people who did it have not been held responsible; in fact, they’re still in power. And the people who have suffered for decades have been robbed of their wealth, their human capital, and worst of all, their time. “You can’t get time back” Jorge sighs. “We lost 58 years. We went backwards in time. And the saddest thing for me,” he says, “is the potential we could have had.”

* * *

We met Daniel the next day, through a mutual friend. Daniel speaks no English but was happy to be our driver and guide for the day. We left at 7:30 in the morning and before long we were bumping down the pothole-ridden highway to Pinar Del Río, the western tobacco-growing region where many of Cuba’s legendary cigars are cultivated and rolled.

On the two hour trip, we had plenty of experience with the countryside. Hitchhikers were everywhere. It turns out that, unsurprisingly, any semblance of public transportation in the country is broken. In the cities, people can wait up to 3 hours for a bus, whereas in the country city-to-city transport is nonexistent. Since a car is a luxury most Cubans can’t afford, they’ve adapted their own ‘sharing economy’ where all cars offer ride shares for a price, as well as private busses which are essentially pickup trucks and vans whose drivers will sell rides.

Man selling tortillas. Like much of the commerce in Cuba, underground and makeshift. Woman buying tortillas from a street vendor. Like much of the commerce in Cuba, makeshift and likely black market.


There’s only one main highway in Cuba (it’s a long and narrow country), and on this particular stretch of road, we encountered only one gas station/rest stop about halfway. Some prepared food was offered here—nothing we could eat—but they were out of many items. Long cabinets with a smattering of baked goods were mostly empty. Some foreign imports were available though—candy, chocolate and the like—so we were able to stock up on ‘food.’ We had started noticing a pattern where stores would have an abundance of some types of goods and a shortage of others. This shouldn’t be surprising for any student of economics.

In Cuba, in cases where the official price of a good is lower than market value—for example cars, public transportation and most food—scarcity and rationing are the norm and long lines form when no other options are available. We have seen lines for all kinds of goods including bread, medicine, and ice cream. One woman we met, Rosa, has to wait more than a year to see a doctor for her condition, and she still has no idea how serious it is.

Where's the meter for the horse cart? A common sighting in Pinar del Río. Where’s the meter for the horse cart? A common sighting in Pinar del Río.


Where private enterprise is not allowed, a black market has emerged to offer higher prices but guaranteed availability across a suite of goods and services. The gas station we were at was state owned, so there was a shortage of most of the food on offer. Of course we didn’t know how to access the black market in this area, but one undoubtedly exists.

In those cases where the government price sits above market value—for example with taxi fares, hotel rates, tobacco and alcohol—other private enterprises and black markets have developed to deliver equal quality goods at a fraction of the cost. There will also be, as expected, an abundance of these goods in state run stores, as there was at the airport, and in this gas station. There was no problem here getting candy, chocolate, alcohol and tobacco, although right now we only wanted the first two.

We drove through Pinar del Río which seemed to be doing pretty well. Perhaps there were fewer pre-revolutionary buildings and materiel to notice relative decay. In any event, a communist government may end up supporting the people in the countryside better than those in the city. We saw a lot more revolutionary advertisements in the country, more statues of party leaders, more proclamations. We also saw more lines for food. So it’s hard to tell whether rural support for the regime is actually higher, or whether, perhaps, the country is favored by the regime because of the necessity for food only the country provides, and tobacco which is such a critical state-owned industry. In any event, it was important to see another side of Cuban life, where Castro and his allies may not be universally despised.

All gas stations are state owned. It's rare to see people filling up; the car at the pump has government plates. All gas stations are state owned. It’s rare to see people filling up; the car at the pump has government plates.


One thing we did see in the country that I haven’t seen since my time in post-Soviet Romania: horse-drawn carriages have replaced cars for much of rural Cubans’ industry and transit. That was astounding to me—whereas Havana has regressed to the 1950’s, the countryside has regressed to the dawn of the automobile.

At the first tobacco plantation we visited, we met Nardo. Like Jorge, Nardo taught himself English from American TV shows and music, supplemented by paying a private tutor. When I asked him if he learned any English in school, he shook his head and answered: “School is free here. You pay for nothing, you get nothing in return.” It was interesting to get Nardo’s perspective, as someone who interacts frequently with foreign tourists but also grew up in the countryside where access to foreign capital is limited. I asked him if he thought American tourists would be good for the country, and he said “It will be good, but it won’t change anything about the country.”

One of my assumptions about Cuba before coming here was that the people would blame America for their misfortune. As it turned out, quite the opposite was the case. Not only do the people love America and Americans, but signs of American fandom are everywhere. Flags adorning windshields and coffee shops. American flag t-shirts and tank tops. This is not just for our benefit. Many Cubans have relatives in the US and unsurprisingly there has always been a close unofficial relationship between the two countries. Americans send over $2 billion every year to Cuba, person to person, making America perhaps the largest subsidizer of the Cuban people, who depend on that money to survive. One worker at the plantation, when I admired his brand new leather shoes, smiled and said “de mi familia en Miami.”

One of the boys didn't want to take a picture. One of the boys didn’t want to take a picture. In central Havana.


We learned that Cubans long ago realized that Castro’s long-standing scapegoating of the American embargo*** for the poverty in the country was a tactic to justify his own incompetence, much in the same vein as Hugo Chávez. It turns out that when a government says something is true over and over again, and the evidence in front of their eyes says otherwise, people tend to believe the evidence over the rhetoric. When Obama came to visit post-revolution Cuba—a first for American presidents—Cubans celebrated for weeks and lined the roads on his arrival route, waving American flags. It probably isn’t a thrill to the Cuban government that Fidel and Raúl Castro are half as popular as Obama amongst Cubans according to a 2015 poll, enough so that Fidel published a lengthy editorial slamming Obama after his visit.

Of course Cuba’s misery is the fault of Cuban government policies. Cuba has been cut off from American tourists and capital and products for the last 56 years, but it has had the ability to trade with almost every other country in the world. Of course there is no way that a well functioning economy with trade routes to the outside world would suffer because of one trade embargo with one country, when all goods Cubans could possibly want are available from many other countries as well. The evidence is all around—there are non-American brands for every major product here, from cars to candy to retail to alcohol to hotels. Cuba is not suffering because it doesn’t have access to US products and capital. Cuba is suffering because every import is controlled by the state and those controls lead to misappropriation, inefficiency, shortage and graft, when such imports are allowed in the first place.

America bling everywhere. America bling everywhere.


However, it is unsurprising to me, at least, that the relaxation of the American embargo is coinciding with the letting up of price controls and restrictions on free enterprise here. I suspect that Raúl Castro and company know that it’s only a matter of time before free markets emerge in Cuba, and the only way to retain legitimacy through the transition is to take charge of the change. If the embargo, the justification for misery, is lifted around the time when free enterprise and free flow of capital is allowed back into the country, Castro can continue to tell the biggest lie his government tells while guiding the country away from state-owned industry.

That’s all speculation of course. But when I asked Nardo about whether the lifting of restrictions on free enterprise in the last couple years has been good for the country, he said “Yes, for some people. And that’s good enough for the government.” From the countryside, it must be hard to see the all-too-slow dismantling of this failed and broken system from a distance. The government can’t let up too quickly, or it delegitimizes itself.

In the state-owned tobacco industry, planters like Nardo are allowed to sell 10% of their crop privately while the government buys 90% at a fixed price. The 10% goes for much more on the private market, where it is turned into cigars for consumption at even lower prices than the government charges for finished cigars. Where the massive spread goes between what the government pays for tobacco and what it sells cigars for, I wasn’t able to suss out, but I suspect it has something to do with the size of Fidel Castro’s mansion and the $260k new cars driving around the city with government plates.

Old Havana street. Old Havana street.


Until a couple years ago, planters like Nando had to ‘sell’ 100% of their crop to the government, but the new rules have allowed for some limited maneuvering. That ultimately will be a good thing for the farm economy, and seems to have already made a difference. Jorge told us that until a couple years ago even common fruits like mangoes, papaya, and pineapple were not to be found on any market, for any price. He also told us there are some fruits he still hasn’t seen in more than 20 years.

We learned a lot about the condition of agriculture in Cuba. Before the revolution, Cuba was a world famous exporter of mangoes, sugar cane, coffee and tobacco, among other tropical fruits. When Castro took over—again, not surprising to students of communism—he mismanaged the farmland into the ground, literally. At one point, according to Jorge, he razed thousands of hectares of lush orchards to make room for cattle grazing. And yet, according to the Economist, “in a place that before 1959 boasted as many cattle as people, meat is such a scarce luxury that it is a crime to kill and eat a cow.” Years later, as we drive down the highway, we see miles and miles of barren land. Right now, Cuba imports over 70% of its agricultural consumption.

As a result of the revolution, the best planters and rollers moved abroad to other tropical countries like Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. This has resulted in other cigars catching up to Cubans on quality. Fortunately, unlike with coffee and mangoes, Cuba has retained its reputation for the best cigars in the world. But it isn’t hard to see how stifled the industry has become since coming under state control. For instance, despite there being a near infinite combination of cigar varietals that can be created by combining different species and fermentations of tobacco in different ways, only a handful of official state brands of cigars are permitted to be sold. So the creativity of the planters and rollers in coming up with new cigars is lost, for now, to the global market. But they certainly enjoy inventing new kinds of cigars for themselves.

Highway watermelon "store." $1 per melon. Highway watermelon “store.” $1 per melon.


Daniel drove us back to Havana, on the way stopping for watermelons on the side of the road: $1 per melon. These makeshift enterprises are how most Cubans get by. He hid the watermelons below the floor of his trunk, with the spare tire. He wasn’t taking his chances with the checkpoints; on the way west, we had passed a random inspection, as officials are always looking for people smuggling food. Daniel wasn’t taking any chances that his watermelons would be confiscated or he would be fined or worse, imprisoned. He has two kids to feed.

If there was ever an example of the brutality of a Marxist regime, this was it. That one can’t even carry fruit without committing a crime—that the crime is betraying the revolution, not preventing people from feeding themselves—is too much to bear. Cuba has made its population criminal because they want things that improve and sustain life. It should not be a crime to want these things, but here it is a crime. “Crime is different here,” Jorge had told us. “We are all criminals in Cuba.”

* * *

When I told people I was going to Cuba, the reaction was predictable. I was told I was lucky to witness Cuba because it was “untouched.” I was told something along the lines of: “Oh, you get to see Cuba before Starbucks and McDonald’s go down and ruin it all.” I heard the same thing from some Americans I met at El Floridita. I confess part of me shared in this naive romanticism about Cuba, that somehow there is a ‘purity’ to Cuba that will soon be ‘corrupted.’ I was wrong about this. Not only because of my naiveté about the condition on the ground in Cuba, but because of the insidiousness such a belief implies about what the Cuban people want and deserve.

“Untouched” is a romantic way to look at the poverty that Cuba has become. There is nothing romantic about poverty. Poverty is sad. Poverty is sick children and malnourishment. Poverty is no books or school supplies. Poverty is no toilet paper, no soap, no toothpaste, no clean water, and unmet basic needs. Poverty is constant exposure to punishing heat and humidity. Poverty is torn up shoes and broken cars. Poverty is dangerous tools and equipment. Worst of all, poverty is wasted human capital: time spent waiting on lines for food instead of producing goods and services to better society. Poverty is unwritten literature, unsung music, unconducted experiments, undiscovered breakthroughs, and unfulfilled ambition.

Apartment building in decay; central Havana. Apartment building in decay; central Havana.


There is nothing pure about revolutionary Cuba. The Cuba of Fidel and Raúl Castro is a wasteland of broken people and broken dreams. For 58 years, Fidel Castro has bled the wealth of this country dry intentionally, prepared to let his people die rather than acknowledge the inadequacy of his broken political ideology. We know this firsthand now, since we have actually met people who lived through it. We met one Cuban who worked in a graveyard in the 1990s, the decade Cubans refer to as the “Special Period.” It was in the haze of post-Soviet collapse that Castro refused to allow foreign imports and, of course, with local production at miserable lows, it didn’t take long for people to start starving. Rather than betray the principles of the Revolution, Castro was preparing teams of body collectors to tour Havana and haul the dead back to the graveyard to be buried in mass graves. That is the legacy of making a country poor, and the wounds won’t be healed for decades after the regime is out of power.

Of course, the Revolution needs to keep people poor, because poor people can’t fight back. Poor people can’t afford to agitate. Poor people need to keep showing up to their jobs to collect their pitiful paychecks. Poor people need to keep waiting on line for their less-than-subsistence rations to keep from starving. If poor people aren’t allowed to fend for themselves, they must wallow forever. The only thing poor people can do, if they’re lucky, is escape. One woman, Donna, who sells local art, told me, “We love America. I wish we could go there.”

img_6951 Car comparison: party member vs. regular citizen. The blue striped license indicates the car belongs to a party official or VIP. EDIT: apparently it’s state owned tourism vehicle, not a VIP. Blue just means state owned, but they can come in different varieties. In any event the blue plates are almost always on nicer cars than the white plates. Thanks, commenter.


Wealth is an anecdote. Wealth gives people power to fight back, to challenge the status quo, to create jobs and opportunities, to invest in food and clothing and productive capacities. Cuba needs wealth, and not wealth that goes to the apparatchiks and officials in their $260k cars and mansions. Wealth that actually goes to the people, in the form of jobs, industry, and investment.

The sadness is not that Starbucks is coming to Cuba. The sadness is that Starbucks has never come to Cuba.

The sadness is that no foreign brands have come to Cuba. No Austrian coffee shops, no Japanese dollar stores. We’re finding some limited foreign retail brands, apparently only recently allowed in. But even Coca Cola is hard to come by. These foreign franchises represent jobs, investment, and opportunity for the Cuban people. The Cuban people have been cut off from the world, from not only the cheap high quality goods and services that improve quality of life, but the freedom and the disposable income to improve their own lives and pursue their own happiness.

All-but-abandoned complex in old town Havana. All-but-abandoned complex in old town Havana.


Starbucks and McDonald’s will not ruin Cuba. Cuba is already ruined. As American tourists, what we wanted—-desperately wanted—is some way we could help the people rebuild. The answer is not lifting the US embargo, although extra American tourist dollars would be good. But if those dollars go immediately to waste, it won’t change the country fundamentally. We heard many times from many people that the system is the problem. They need more liberalization, more private enterprise, more allowance of foreign imports. And that can only happen if Cuban communism goes the way of Chinese and Vietnamese communism: embracing free markets, allowing foreign investment and free capital flows, and letting the people get to work for themselves.

Waiting on line for bread. Central Havana. Waiting on line for bread. Central Havana.


And according to Jorge, whose reading on the subject is far better than mine, this won’t happen until the ‘old guard’ of the revolution—Fidel, Raúl and other party leaders, all over 80 years old—are no longer in power. He tells us with a guilty whisper: “We must wait for the biological solution.”

That night, we walked the ramparts of Havana, on the ocean, where just 80 miles over the horizon is Key West, Florida. We mingled with hundreds of local young people who spend their nights looking out into the blackness that in any other country would be thriving with lights from incoming and outgoing ships representing the entirety of the world’s commerce and nations.

* * *

As we toured the old town of Havana, we took in all we could. We shopped at an official tourist market right off the wharf where the cruise ships come in. We discovered gems of old Havana: the church of San Francisco, the old Partagás cigar factory, the capitol building. We had daiquiris with the bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway at the Floridita. We saw one of the oldest cathedrals in the hemisphere.

As we explored the city of Havana, we discovered that the bleakness of Cuba’s past is fast giving way to a prosperous future.

Recently, the regime started allowing private enterprises to operate here on a limited bases. They started with cars, hotels, and restaurants, but opened up over 200 occupations. Now Cubans can become barbers and salon professionals, bus drivers, floor polishers, electricians, and computer programmers as well, all without having to hand over 100% of their work product in exchange for a measly ‘salary.’ Many Cubans can now work for themselves, to the tune of over 20% of the workforce now in the private sector.

Art market on the bay. Art market on the bay.


Signs of a Cuban renaissance are everywhere. As recently as two years ago, according to friends of mine that visited, there were no restaurants or bars outside of the tightly controlled state-owned hotels. Now, restaurants, hotels, bars, and shops are popping up all over the place, offering better service and sometimes, better prices. We ate at some fantastic new restaurants and were able to patronize private ice cream shops, our private Airbnb, and of course private cars. We visited a new boutique hotel opening soon, completely renovated (although they imported everything, from the tiles to the tables to the business cards, from Italy). People fixing and renovating storefronts and houses, limited advertising on the sides of buildings, a plethora of new businesses servicing tourists in the old town. Music pouring out of every restaurant beckoning people in. We see a fortune teller who charges $200 per reading, 10 times the average Cuban monthly salary, to tourists. She’s probably one of the richest people in the country. This is all new to post-1958 Cuba.

As Nardo told us, these changes are only helping some people for the time being, which makes sense. Only those with money to spend can afford to invest in, and buy products from, non-state owned business. But these businesses create more people with money, and this money forces its way not only into the industries opening up, but the myriad of industries which depend on them. For instance, allowing a private restaurant to operate freely must mean allowing the vendors who provide the restaurant with food, tables and chairs, ovens, deep fryers, kitchen utensils, and uniforms to operate freely as well. Allowing a private barbershop must mean allowing private scissor sellers and shaving cream manufacturers. Not allowing these dependent industries and imports to develop would mean asking businesses, like the people, to circumvent tight controls to acquire the goods and services they need on the black market, which they will do, but at great cost to society.

We were fortunate to be at the home of a local for some drinks when our host took delivery of that week’s paquete, something I had read about and was excited to try firsthand. The paquete is a hard drive smuggled in from the outside world with weekly updates from all major Mexican and US TV shows and soap operas, music, news, sports, software updates and patches, and even iPhone & Android apps. Locals pay $1 to get paquete delivered for a couple hours where they have a chance to download whatever they want. It’s basically a black market for culture and entertainment, and allows Cubans to know everything about the US election, watch Game of Thrones and Netflix shows, stay updated on baseball, and pirate music. We also frequently see Cubans connecting to the internet near state owned hotels where there are slow, but working hotspots, though they have to buy from the state’s internet monopoly and it is heavily censored. Some Cubans we met are even on Facebook. They are able to keep in touch with relatives abroad, which means they are in touch with the outside world.

The only internet available to most Cubans is around hotspots like these next to state-owned hotels. Only 30% of Cubans have some access to the internet. The only internet available to most Cubans is around hotspots like these next to state-owned hotels. Only 30% of Cubans have some access to the internet, although having internet in a private home is illegal.


So, with economy and society, it’s clear that the floodgates are being forced open. As new businesses flourish, they are creating jobs and a new influx of capital, which will be spent in turn on more goods and services. As Cubans get connected to the outside world more and more, they are able to access cultural capital abroad, as well as foreign markets and international trade partners. This will create new business opportunities. Cuba is starting to emerge again.

That night, we dined at La Catedral, a new restaurant in Vedado, where we were the only foreigners. Two young musicians, whom I had a chance to talk to about their budding musical careers, played jazz standards on piano and violin they had taught themselves. The mood was upbeat and one could easily think we were in a Argentinian bistro. The place was packed with local Cubans, enjoying a night out, probably aware that they are at the forefront of a new revolution in Cuba. For a moment it seemed that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the country can rejoin the world.

* * *

The only museum we visited was the Museo de la Revolutión. There, we were spoon-fed details of the brutality of the Batista regime and the noble heroes who overthrew it. We met the young, handsome revolutionary leaders who, full of optimism and certainty about their ideology, sought to bring the world forward by creating a Marxist utopia. We learned about the evil of the US embargo and how it has brought untold suffering on the Cuban people. We learned that the Revolution will last forever.

One can’t help but think about Orwell when confronted with such stone faced hypocrisy and deceit. His vision of the dystopian world of 1984 is eerily prescient here; a place where war is constant, where truth is fiction and history is erased. Where Fidel, the man himself, is incapacitated, and yet is still invoked as the moral authority of the nation and its prime political and ideological figurehead.

History crushes you here. We are walking amongst the carcass of Marxism-Leninism, 26 years after most of the world has abandoned this folly. Only in Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and a few other holdouts do people have to suffer this way any more.

img_4662 Busy old town sidewalk.


You get the sense that politics, society, economy and history are all intertwined and the forces that have shaped this country and others like it are human and inhuman at the same time—human because they come from a profound sense of responsibility and desire to do good, inhuman because they result in so much evil and destruction of human lives and potential.

As we wandered the streets of Havana, our helplessness was overwhelming, not only out of our desire to want to better the condition of the people around us, but out of our shared experience, if even briefly, with what Cubans go through every day in even worse circumstances. There is a conspicuous lack of basic services found in abundance elsewhere. Grocery stores are a rarity; we only found two and they lacked fresh produce, household items, and any non-prepared foods. There are no bodegas or quick marts or soda fountains. Pharmacies are few and far between with little supply, only available rationed to those with permission. Even if I wanted, I don’t know where I would find toothpaste or toilet paper. The ability to pay a fair a cheap price for something I want, like a bottle of water or an apple, isn’t widely available, even to people with money. It is surreal to be in a place where dollars didn’t demand immediate service. Even in the poorest countries I’ve been to, markets are allowed to exist that provide these services.

Abandoned bar, maybe soon to be revitalized? Prime real estate in old town Havana. Abandoned bar, maybe soon to be revitalized? Prime real estate in old town Havana.


All the while we were keenly aware of the luxuries that only we as tourists could afford. Air conditioned rooms to escape the punishing heat and humidity. Limited and slow access to wifi on occasion. Access to the international cell phone network–a real connection with the outside world even at $2.99/minute. If we are the most privileged in the country with foreign capital and currency, what hardships must normal Cubans endure?

If there were ever a doubt about the morality of markets over their criminalization, Cuba would be it. Markets are moral because they provide services and solve problems. They derive their morality from the fair exchange in value created, from the voluntary nature of every transaction. Certainly if markets were evil, as the revolutionary laws would have you believe, people would not risk life and limb to engage in them. There wouldn’t be a broad spirit of cooperation and subversion from the people to circumvent the laws to get what they need. People wouldn’t risk their lives sailing makeshift rafts to Florida or lining up at border crossings across South America.

Makeshift parking lot for jitneys in the old town. Makeshift parking lot for jitneys in the old town.


Where is the morality of taking food away from people at highway checkpoints, of banning foreign investment and imports, in forcing people to work for meager wages and insufficient rations? Where is the morality of making medicine impossible to find, food impossible to procure, cars impossible to afford? What insanity allows such a system to stay alive for so long, and what must the Cuban people suffer before it is undone?

We spent our final night with Jorge in his flat. He and his wife are the face of the new Cuba. Born in the 50’s, their whole lives have been spent in the shadow of the revolution, but now they are bursting at the seams. As Cuba opens up and relaxes its policies, entrepreneurs like Jorge will lead the charge, providing tourists and locals services that will create wealth for him and his family, as well as well paying jobs and wealth for others.

Dinner was a panoply of local Cuban specialties, which have been scraped together from various sources: carrots and rice from rations, mangoes and pineapples from the local market (remember: these fruits are newly available in the last couple years), and homemade pancakes made from shaved root vegetables and spices. And we had fish, a real luxury, which we were appreciative they provided for us.

Over rum and cigars, we discussed politics, history, and of course, Cuba, with Jorge. He is well read by any standard. His bookshelf has hundreds of books, a full examination of political economy across Europe, Asia, and of course the Americas, with a focus on the history of war and totalitarianism of all stripes, including religious fundamentalism. He has the Black Book of Communism, books on North Korea, and many other banned works—all smuggled in by friends and entrepreneurs catering to a population hungry to read everything they can.

Jorge is, of course, everything that is contrary to the principles of Cuban revolutionaries, which is what made him such a fast friend: educated, self-employed, entrepreneurial, well read in liberal ideas, aware of what’s happening in the world despite the censorship, one of the few Cubans with internet in his own home thanks to a back alley deal with his doctor. I couldn’t help but thinking that our entire conversation, if recorded or reported on, would land him in prison immediately. He had no problem openly discussing Fidel, explaining to us that the real risk is taking a public stance. Protesting, which happens occasionally, is treated harshly, and results in no change.

The one grocery store we found. It was impressive to see so much food in one place. The one grocery store we found. It was impressive to see so much food in one place.


We spoke freely and openly about the injustices that have been brought upon his people, soaking in the lessons to be learned from history about the futility of the very ideology considered sacrosanct by the leaders of his country. “To think that we have all suffered for 50 years,” Jorge said, “All because of a man in a funny hat and a funny beard, thinking he knows the answer to everything.” And he’s right.

This family is, or will soon become, part of the nouveau riche of Havana, thanks to the enterprising Jorge and his ambition. But even with money to spend, they struggle to get the things they need, which means wealth that wants to find new owners is struggling to break through. The toilet seat, we found out, was just purchased, after weeks of searching for one. Our “napkins” came from a Russian-branded packet of tissues. Our wine was a cheap bottled sangria from the state market. We couldn’t help compare this last meal with our first dinner, at a restaurant owned by a “friend of the party” whose family still lives in the 8-bedroom, 5-bathroom house on the property. After that dinner, we took a tour of the 1930’s mansion, and were proudly shown their Baccarat crystal chandelier. Comparing the party member who has built nothing with a $5,000 chandelier to the productive, hard working family with no real napkins is enough to make your blood boil. These are the fires that real revolutions are made of. The Cubans have it, and they practice their subversion quietly, but one day the full force of Cuban potential will be unleashed on the country, and the world.

Prime real estate, right next to the capitol building. Prime real estate, right next to the capitol building.


Take a mint condition 1950’s Cadillac. Drive it off the lot. Drive it to and from work for 50 years. Getting a new car isn’t an option. When it breaks, the owner must repair it out of pocket with improvised parts. New parts aren’t allowed. As the car gets louder, rustier, dirtier, and less reliable, depend on the charity of your friends to help repair it to keep it going. Eventually every part of the engine has been replaced. Limping along on hacked together fixes and the help of others, the car breaks down slowly over time, but thanks to the quality of manufacture, long shelf life of its fundamentals, and care of the driver, the car still putters along, though it can’t last forever.

So it is with a country. A country that represented the best if its time, the envy of the Caribbean, a jewel of prosperity and productivity and culture and music and history. This is the country that continues to limp along, engine sputtering, but with a strong engine and a good driver—it just needs to be let free. Let the Cuban people onto the open road, and it will be a marvel to witness.

* * *

Now that I am safely on American soil, after spending the week swimming in Orwell, I’m only now starting to think about what Americans can learn from Cuba.

Aside from the obvious, as in: don’t run a country based on the misguided theories of a 19th century Hegelian with no real world experience in economics. I can’t imagine that even the die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters want a state run economy; they just want to see a democratic socialism like in Europe, where economic perversions are democratically imposed and thus carry more legitimacy. Fine. Our mountain of unnecessary regulations and price fixing and tariffs aside, America isn’t going the way of Cuba any time soon.

One lesson that Cubans can teach us is something they understand intuitively; that the line between a job and a business is blurred to nonexistent; the skills are offered for cash each way and the important distinction is whether one is free to trade labor for a price acceptable to both sides, or forced to work for less than subsistence wages because the government is the only employer. When we were told, proudly, that “a private business means that a person works for themselves, and the government can’t make them go down to the revolutionary square to cheer on the party,” that’s what we’re being told—that working for oneself is sacrosanct. It not only is a bulwark against poverty, it’s a bulwark against totalitarianism as well. The best weapon against tyranny is wealth. Not Bill Gates wealth, but “being able to feed one’s own family” wealth—a country where owning one’s own destiny is the norm gives sovereignty to the people, not the government.

The next generation. A boy helps his father repair their Oldsmobile. The next generation. A boy helps his father repair their Oldsmobile.


The other important lesson from Cuba is the importance of allowing entrepreneurs to operate, because entrepreneurs provide goods and services that people want, and even those that people need. We shouldn’t cherry pick how we define an entrepreneur—an entrepreneur can be anybody, working alone or working together with others, who solves problems for people. We glorify entrepreneurship in the US as an avenue for creating jobs, but jobs are secondary. The real benefit of entrepreneurship is the availability of more and better goods and services for a better price. An entrepreneur can have a business employing only one person—the entrepreneur—and still make a difference.

The best and captive market in the world for entrepreneurs is that market where the most basic needs are not being met, which means Cuba has become, and will continue to be, a haven for entrepreneurship in the years to come. How can we as Americans support this? I have been researching a lot into questions about owning property, importing basic things like aspirin and t-shirts, allowing for easier communication to and from Cuba, helping with language education—these are all things that people need. As America opens up to Cuba, we’re in a privileged geographical position, not to mention a cultural one, to help invest in this country.

* * *

* I changed most names and some details to protect people
** I’m still trying to verify this as it relates to Cuba-to-Cuba SMS. Was told by two people separately that it isn’t possible, but there’s nothing about it online.
*** Incidentally, if there were ever an example of the futility of embargoes and trade sanctions in order to change a regime, the Cuba embargo would be it. It clearly did nothing to change Fidel’s grip on power, and may have even extended it, by giving Fidel an excuse to continue impoverishing his people

September 12, 20166 commentsRead More
First they came for the terrorists…

First they came for the terrorists…

The president starts spying on American citizens. Then he starts indefinitely detaining them. Then he starts exiling them. Then he starts executing them. All without due process. All without a speedy trial or a trial by jury, some without any evidence whatsoever. And all while people in the same party as the president defend his actions on the grounds of national security. Then the parties flip and the previous defenders of the administration start to show “concern” and its attackers become defenders.

It would read like a bad farce, but it’s true. And it is true not because we weren’t aware of what was happening, but because we didn’t care enough to do anything to stop it. “They’re all terrorists,” we tell ourselves. “The government wouldn’t go after them unless they had reason to believe they did something wrong.”

Something is definitely wrong when Pakistanis are rightfully protesting our government's actions whilst we remain disturbingly silent. Something is definitely wrong when Pakistanis are rightfully protesting our government’s actions whilst we remain disturbingly silent.Never mind that the Justice Department memo “justifying” the execution of American citizens abroad came out barely three weeks after the suicide of Aaron Swartz brought national attention to prosecutorial overreach on computer crimes, going after kids with hard jail time for exploration of computer systems no more harmfully than playing ding dong ditch.

Never mind that this is the same week that the two out of three branches of government are aggressively pushing to take guns away from law abiding citizens (even though the same government has no problem sending billions of dollars in unrestricted weapons to Israel and Egypt).

Never mind that the administration, with cover from the Supreme Court, has forced people to buy health insurance from megacorporations, while those same corporations now mysteriously have more power than they had when Obamacare was passed. And, not coincidentally, health insurance premiums are rising, not that we couldn’t see it coming.

Never mind that the executive branch continues to raid marijuana dispensaries that are operating legally under state law, and the most openly drug using president in history is secretly jailing thousands of nonviolent drug users like himself.

I fear that the greatest threat to liberty is not our government, but ourselves. That we would be so complacent in this farce as one by one our rights are trampled upon. That we would continue to defend our ideas as constitutional and the others’ as unconstitutional, when in reality we seem content to pick and choose the parts of the constitution we agree with and discard the rest. “Let’s give up on the constitution,” said one prominent constitutional law professor in December. How soon before more people believe that? How soon before government’s legitimacy crisis comes to a head?

It ends now. I’ll be calling my congresspeople today on the drone strikes issue. Please join me in doing the same.

February 6, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
Thoughts on Israel Discourse

Thoughts on Israel Discourse

I choose the title of this post carefully.  The point is not to elucidate a position on Israel: actually, I rather believe here I criticize that very concept.  But I seek to address what my main issues are with the Israel Discourse and (perhaps) arrive at a satisfactory end point.

It is my position that the Israel Discourse poses more of a threat to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the conflict itself.  With a longer essay, someday, I would like to further extrapolate this position, but for now, a very long blog post will do.

The Questions

When I say Israel Discourse, I mean the body of arguments, debates, positions, political views, religious justifications and/or oppositions and policy on or about Israel, Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any or all matters relating therein.  I say “any or all matters” because this “issue” is not a singular one–it is composed of many overlapping–and in some cases contradictory–questions in many disciplines including history, political science, theology, moral philosophy, jurisprudence and human rights.

Within these disciplines, several questions arise that often form the fodder for the Israel Discourse.  I would categorize these questions roughly inside the disciplines to which they belong.  These are in no particular order of importance, and I seek to phrase the questions as neutrally as possible (i.e. as questions on which argumentative propositions can be based, not argumentative propositions in and of themselves).  This is, of course, an incomplete list, and I will use the term “Palestine” inclusively to refer to the historical and modern region, except where geographical alternatives are appropriate.

Historical Questions

  • What peoples have lived in Palestine during what eras, ancient to modern?
  • What were the events leading to the formation of the modern State of Israel with respect to population displacement, war, immigration and colonial involvement?
  • What were the military, social, political and economic gains or losses of Israel during the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006 wars?

Political Questions

  • What is the political status of the State of Israel? (questions of legitimacy would fall here)
  • Do the West Bank and/or Gaza exist in a state of occupation?
  • What is civil status of Jews within Israel?  Non-Jewish Israeli citizens?  Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza?  Jews in the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the political status of the West Bank?  Gaza?  What is the political status of the Palestinian people?
  • What are the geopolitical factors regarding neighboring countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc) which affect the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region on a whole?
  • What role do Palestinian political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What role do Israeli political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What responsibility do Arab states have toward the Palestinian people, especially with regards to financial or humanitarian assistance and migration opportunities?
  • What is the obligation of Israel regarding the worldwide political status of Jews?
  • What is the role of the media regarding perceptions of Israel, or Palestinians?
  • What is the role of antisemitism in discourse of and relating to Israel and Palestine?

Theological Questions

  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Jews?
  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Palestinians?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Israelis?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Palestinians?
  • What role does religion play in the determination of the historical and the political, especially with regard to land and statehood?
  • What is the status of Judaism with relation to Israel?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to Judaism?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to religions other than Judaism?

Philosophical Questions

  • What is justice for victims of a great tragedy?
  • What is a Right of Return and on what philosophical, political and moral foundations is it based?

Jurisprudence Questions

  • What are the civil rights of the various constituencies in Palestine and under what jurisdiction do they exist?
  • Who is the proper adjudicator of criminality in Palestine, and how are questions of law settled non-nation-state regions like Gaza and the West Bank?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Palestinian socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Israeli socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the jurisdiction of the State of Israel?
  • What is the Right of Return and on what juridical foundations is it based?

Human Rights Questions

  • What rights do Palestinians have regarding property (land, capital) either they or their ancestors have previously owned or occupied within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What rights do Jewish or Arab Israelis have regarding property they have settled, capitalized upon, or purchased within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the status of human rights within Israel regarding non-Jewish citizens or non-citizens?
  • What is the status of human rights within the West Bank or Gaza regarding non-Jews or non-Jews?
  • What is the obligation of international NGOs to monitor and/or criticize human rights abuses in Palestine?
  • What are the human rights practices of the IDF?
  • What are the human rights practices of the Israeli government with regard to settlements, settlers, or soldiers?

As you can see, there are a multitude of questions.  Imagine that for each one of the questions listed above, one can establish a series of propositions to make an argument.  Such propositions would, or should, lend themselves handily to an argument regarding the proposition on the table, but for many reasons–and in my personal experience almost invariably–lead to a far reaching discussion that often seeks to incorporate as many of these questions as possible!  I’ll get into that in a bit, but first, let’s establish some propositions (fairly common ones) that arise from the above questions.


Again, I am not establishing a position on these propositions, but merely relating them as I have heard them from arguments on all sides of the spectrum.  No doubt, each of these propositions will have vociferous supporters and detractors, and of course, I don’t seek to suggest that any one person has all (or any) of these positions.

“Pro-Israel” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is a Jewish homeland, and displaced Jews have a Right to Return. (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Palestinians have a robust body of protected civil and human rights within Israel. (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on largely unsettled or unoccupied land. (historical)
  • Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust. (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Jews have a right to a country of their own. (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is, and ought to be, a Jewish state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to defend itself. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Other Arab states have repeatedly expelled Jews and Palestinians in contravention of international law. (historical)
  • Resolved: Anti-semitism is responsible for a worldwide media bias that poisons the world against Israel; or, Israel is the only country that the world cares about with regard to its treatment of Palestinians. (political)
  • There were no such thing as Palestinians until 1948. (political)

“Pro-Palestinian” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is an Arab homeland, and displaced Palestinians have a Right to Return (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Israel has routinely and systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians both within Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians (historical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians continue to live in a state of violence, occupation and statelessness in violation of the very human rights treaties the Holocaust inspired the world to create (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to a country of their own (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is not, but ought to be, a democratic state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has no right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to defend themselves from, or attacking, their Israeli occupiers. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Palestinians belong in Palestine, whereas Jews do not. (historical).
  • Resolved: The world does not recognize the self determination of the Palestinian people and is content to view them as terrorists rather than activists fighting for a cause. (political)
  • Palestinian is an established and recognized ethnic and national group with legitimate aspirations of self determination. (political)

I have attempted to outline this (admittedly incomplete) list of propositions in order to make several points.

Israel-Palestine and the Mismatched Proposition

Many propositions about Israel do, indeed, have a similarly inclined counter-point.  By counter-point I mean a proposition that can be made simply by negating the original proposition.  An argument can thus be made from that proposition using a line of reasoning.

However, this is not often the case.  Before I attempt to speculate as to why this is not the case, I want to point out two examples of the sort of discourse I mean.  These are both taken from my personal experience, and illustrate the problem with the Israel Discourse rather well.

First, the following resolution.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Palestinian” side.

Resolved:  That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians.

I have properly labeled this a historical question, because it is, indeed, historical (if the tense of the question doesn’t betray the discipline).  To argue this proposition on either side, one not need look any farther than the historical event in question (the formation of Israel in 1948).  The question is of and relating to this event, and no other.  Certainly, many historical factors tied into this creation event, and these factors are helpful.  For instance, to ponder the historical creation of Israel one must necessarily ponder the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, and of course the well documented violence that preceded the formation of Israel in 1948.

However, to settle this question, which specifically concerns the existence (or not) of a population in a land during a time, one doesn’t even need to discuss these formation events.  This is a purely demographic questions which asks: Who lived in Palestine before and after the creation event?

Is this such a difficult question to solve?  Does this question require the use of anything other than a reasonably trusted primary source such as a census, land records, or eyewitness evidence?

Yet right now I would wager that my “Pro-Israel” readers are creating a multitude of “counter-arguments” in their head.  These arguments probably include (and I have heard these all before in response to this very proposition):

  • Palestinians didn’t use the land, whereas the Jews settled and tilled it and capitalized on it. (irrelevant, because the question wasn’t how the land was being used, but that it was being occupied)
  • Jews had nowhere to go after the Holocaust (irrelevant, because the question was not how the Jews ended up in Palestine, but what space they occupied when they got there)
  • Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria all dispossessed and/or displaced their Jews (irrelevant, because the question was about what happened to the Palestinians in Palestine, not what happened to the Jews in Iraq)
  • Jews, not Palestinians, have an original and inherent right to this land because it is their homeland (irrelevant, because it doesn’t oppose the proposition; in fact, it supports it by adding a justification for the Palestinian displacement)

I don’t seek to take a position on this proposition one way or the other (I wouldn’t dare), but I seek to illustrate a very important point:  Why is this simple question so difficult to settle?  Are we so blind as to ignore historical truths when (and if) they occur?  If a historical answer for this question could be found (let’s say, an accurate census in which it is clear just by the population decline compared with land ownership records that a large majority of Palestinians were unwillingly displaced shortly before or during the creation event), would that settle the question?

Such a proposition should be (and ought to be) easily settled and understood.  Would that not benefit all sides to come to a conclusion that can be supported all around?

I ask because such a simple proposition–one regarding recent history which can be easily verified or disproved–is a far cry away from some of the harder propositions that exist about questions of theology and moral philosophy.  So if we have to start somewhere, shouldn’t it be at a place where at least–hopefully–some consensus can be found?

Here is the second resolution.  This one is more philosophical in nature, and definitely one that I’ve encountered personally.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Israel” side.

Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust.

This is a very, very common proposition and continues to be a powerful argument for the existence of (a) Jewish state.  Like most propositions on self determination, it includes a very good justification: historically documented persecution of Jews by many peoples over the millennia have left Jews with no national homeland, until Israel.

To discuss this proposition the key is the word necessary.  For all its historical and sociopolitical implications, the question of legitimacy for the State of Israel rests on the idea that not only is the State of Israel a sufficient protection for the Jews against antisemitism, it is a necessary one.  The proposition therefore exists to challenge any counter point on the legitimacy of Israel based on its necessity.

But that’s not what we have.  Instead, the following propositions are often stated in opposition.  My “Pro-Palestinian” friends almost certainly are formulating these arguments right now.

  • Palestinians are a persecuted minority with no national homeland, and a homeland is necessary for them as well for the same reasons. (irrelevant, because the question is whether Israel is necessary for Jews, not whether a Palestine is necessary for Palestinians; if anything, this enforces the proposition, not detracts from it)
  • The Holocaust doesn’t give Jews the right to persecute others. (irrelevant, because the persecution of Palestinians is not at point, merely the necessary conditions for the formation of Israel)
  • Jews have inflicted more (or a comparable amount of) suffering on the Palestinians than they faced under Hitler/in history. (irrelevant, because again, the question is the necessity of the formation of Israel for the Jews, plus this is a classic case of reversing the question: clearly the suffering of Palestinians doesn’t negate the suffering the Jews, regardless of who the relevant actors are, and suffering is certainly not a zero-sum game)
  • The Holocaust did not happen, thus the de facto justification for the formation of Israel does not exist. (irrelevant, because it is a historical fact that the Holocaust did, indeed, happen)

Again, I pose the same question as in the former proposition:  Why is this question so difficult to answer?  Is not a similar feeling of common moral outrage over persecution felt by all?  Can’t in principle most people agree to the basic premise that self-determination is a valuable and legitimate aspiration for any nation?
There exist, of course, very valid and legitimate counter-points to both propositions.  For instance, to the latter proposition, an arguer could easily make the point that Jews live in safety in many parts of the world not in Israel, thus proving that the continuing existence of Israel is not necessary under the stated criteria.

Likewise, an arguer against the former proposition could make the point that many Palestinians were, in fact, legally dispossessed of their land or compensated for it, or left voluntarily.  Historical evidence would of course be required in either case.

My point here is that despite a list of personally rational propositions and counter-propositions that could be made to establish an argument, so many discussions that make up the Israel Discourse quickly decompensate.

Thus what you have, oftentimes, is a complete mismatch of propositions that quickly escalate out of control.  Some of my favorite exchanges from recent memory:

A:  The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is a human rights travesty.
B:  The Palestinians have places to go (i.e. other Arab countries) whereas Jews have nowhere to go.

This is a human rights proposition met with a political one.

A:  Israel has no right to exist.
B:  Israel has been attacked in 7 wars and has defended itself against Arab attackers.  All the Arabs want to do is wipe Israel off the map.

This is a political proposition met with a historical one.

A:  Israel has committed war crimes against Palestinians.
B:  Jews aren’t allowed to speak their mind in Egypt.

This is a juridical proposition met with a politico-historical one.

A:  Israel shouldn’t have attacked the Gaza flotilla.
B:  [Country Xyz] abuses human rights every day, but the UN and the world only criticizes Israel.

This is a political position met with another political one, but one that is completely irrelevant to the question at hand.

As a friend of mine likes to point out, the Israel Discourse very much resembles the sound byte world of the mainstream media, in which talking heads seek not to engage in intellectual discourse, but to make their talking points regardless of their opposition (even if the opposition might agree with them!).  I would like at some point to put proof, from the media and literature on the subject, that this is the case, but I am pressed for time.  I hope my readers at this point can recognize in their own lives when they have experienced this sort of argument and have been as frustrated as I have in many of these situations.

(One final caveat on the Israel Discourse and its tendency to decompensate:  I have this feeling that so many discussions about Israel end up being a battle to claim the lowest common denominator of victimhood, and thus claim the mantle of highest possible virtue–perhaps this could be called a corollary of Godwin’s Law.  But I merely ponder.)

Israel-Palestine and the False Duality

I mentioned earlier that I created the list of propositions for several reasons.  The first of course was to demonstrate some examples of illogical counter-arguments that mismatch propositions in odd ways.  I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated, for a blog post, that this is frequently the case within the Israel Discourse.  The second was to illustrate that to have any position on Israel is decidedly complicated.  Exceedingly complicated.  Complicated beyond all compare.  And, despite what most people may think, they do not have one mind on this issue.  This is why I have put “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestinian” in quotes.  For most people–I would estimate an overwhelming majority of people–their views are going to straddle both sides of the divide.

Thus, I wish to dedicate the second half of this essay to the extraordinary bravery of people who question the accepted wisdom of their so-called intellectual leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  This “leadership” across the spectrum is revealing of perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Israel Discourse–that it continues to be perpetrated, reinforced and magnified by the most vocal and stringently polarizing figures on the right and the left, until reason is left far behind.  Ironically, from both the grimy, corrupt, destruction-bent and vitriolic anti-Zionist left and the slimy, power hungry, stodgy and non-pragmatic pro-Israel right come very similar viewpoints on humanity, political discourse and pragmatism.

  • The humanity of the “other” matters little to naught compared to our own short-term political interest
  • The important battle to be fought is that on the airwaves, in order to justify the unconscionable on the ground.  A corollary of this is the belief that what the media thinks is more important than what we do.

Fortunately, not everyone is so pigheaded.  Most reasonable people–I would assume–can make certain acknowledgements about freedom, liberty, human rights, and–gasp–history that might not “prove” a solution for the conflict, but might indeed come close to understanding its more troubling aspects.

For instance, a secular humanist who believes in self-determination might well agree with the proposition that Israel is necessary for the protection of Jews against worldwide antisemitism, but might also agree with the proposition that a Palestinian state is necessary for the same reasons.

A historian of South Africa–which I happen to be–might draw historical similarities between the nationalistic ethno-centric nature of the Zionist movement and its analogous National Party in South Africa, especially with regard to how the state is defined as a political entity with respect to its occupants, without jumping on board with the proposition that Israel is–or shares more qualities than not with–an apartheid state.

A scholar of human rights might take great umbrage over the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank & Gaza by Israeli soldiers or Israeli settlers, but simultaneously believe that the capture of Israeli soldiers for material or strategic gain, or the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians is likewise a humanist scandal.

And a pragmatic jurist might find Palestinian self-determination to be a completely invalid concept based on the historical formation of the Palestinian people and their respective origins, but not feel compelled to invalidate the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people who remain, to this day, largely stateless.

My point here is to clarify that a range of positions may be had on the issue, which don’t necessarily corollate with the well-worn ideological positions of “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestine”.  But the ideological lines, of course, are how the debate defines itself.  So how is this problem to be reconciled?  How can an Israel Discourse be addressed on its arguments alone, if its very existence is predicated on a false duality?

And it is, my friends, a false duality.  To take a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” position is to completely ignore the tapestry of complex questions which I have outlined above, which make no promises, cure no problems and certainly, when taken as a whole, make no sense.

And yet that is what occurs.  At almost every turn, conversations quickly decompensate into their polemic elements.  An innocuous, even sarcastic point might be countered by a reasonable challenge, such as–in a recent example from Facebook–linking to a Haaretz article on the IDF starting to use cameras to stave off criticism:

LK:  “Too bad the Israeli government has a bad track record of photo editing.”

CF:  “It’s better than nothing dude.”

This is where, somehow, the conversation takes a political turn.

JK:  “i don’t know, i think it’s worse than nothing. it means they’ll continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing (murder, torture, humiliation), and then doctor and selectively release photographs to try to convince the world otherwise. besides, the entire occupation is criminal…”

CF:  “Who’s “they”? The soldiers and the politicians trying to control a message are completely different people, and the soldiers are less likely to gamble with their careers if there’s a recording device present. A good example is taping of police interviews. Since police interviews have been taped in some jurisdictions, prisoner abuse and coercion have decreased.”

Now more people join the conversation.

NI:  If they want to use cameras to avoid intl criticism then all of the cameras should be streaming live to an objective UN body with no editing.

CF:  Lol find one army in the world that would have its practices real time streamed to the UN for scrutiny

At this point, the conversation is still genial.  As far as I can tell, it’s more about cameras and psychology than Israel.  But see how JK takes up this opportunity to turn the conversation toward his topic of choice:

JK:  I don’t see anything in the article that suggests the IDF rank and file would be the ones curating what photographs get released and where they get released to, but in any case the question is somewhat of a distraction: even if the IDF were the world’s “most moral army,” the entire occupation of Palestine is illegal and immoral. Any attempt to portray the IDF as a “moral army” that does not recognize the illegality and monstrosity of the occupation just serves the propaganda interests of the occupiers.

What?  Where did we get here?  In three steps, we went from the Israelis not having a good record on photo editing, a point on which LK and CF seemed to be in agreement on, to an amicus incursion by JK, who is fixated on perpetrating a point of view that–while it has some legitimacy–has no place in this conversation.  But it continues–now another friend joins the conversation.

BA:  the difference is that police interviews are controlled by a separate entity.beauracracy.. in the case of the IOF, these videos are likely to be edited to fit the narrative they want to portray to the world

LK:  remember the photos revealed post-mavi marmara? didn’t one of them turn out to be a recycled photograph of a weapons cache the Israeli army found years prior? the date was cleverly edited. who says this can’t happen again. and even if they didn’t edit anything, when you have 1000 hrs of footage, for example, why release all of it? why not just release the segments that show the soldiers picking dandelions? there’s so much potential for deception and this doesn’t make me confident or relieved in the slightest.

As far as I can tell, LK is merely defending his original assertion that the Israeli army has doctored photographic evidence in the past.  CF tries to bring the conversation back, only to have JK hijack it again.  Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said “a fanatic is one who won’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject?”

CF:  Even if they edit EVERYTHING, my comment was only about the psychology of being filmed, which could only help reduce atrocities, not increase them. I don’t get your logic.

JK:  propaganda that whitewashes an intrinsically violent occupation legitimizes and prolongs the occupation. as others have above i’d argue that no such reduction is likely to occur, but even if so, the reduction in violence is dwarfed by the violence intrinsic to the occupation. this isn’t an insignificant question; supporters of palestinian self-determination need to call out all of this bullshit on the part of the IDF and israeli government for what it is, each time they come out with a new round of it.

The conversation continued, but for the interest of space, I want to quote a later participant, who added this gem:

DD:  Was there a point to any of that? Yes the Nakba and Ma’ale Adumim are fucking horrible. Gold star. We’re talking about camcorders.

DD’s bluntness sums up the very issue.  His distaste for the Nakba, the Palestinian occupation, the atrocities committed by Israel–all irrelevant to a fanatic who is content to hold his position hostile over a disagreement over video equipment.  But DD also shows that there is the possibility of knowing truth in both the Israeli and Palestinian polemical narratives; as he says later to JK:

DD:  you don’t have an argument- just a full tour of every irrelevant permutation in this conflict and an abdication of any moral condemnation of the Palestinian “tactic” of shelling civilians, which is a direct violation of all international law governing war. I’m elated that you are opposed to the occupation and the various forms of misery that attend it. I am too, though you assume otherwise, presumably because whatever Middle East-related sources you’re lifting your talking points from leave you unequipped to debate someone who opposes occupation and at the same time does not condemn Israel at every juncture.

I challenge any of my readers to create an Israel Discourse which is not predicated on this false duality–with this obsession with a side and a cause–but in which propositions may be made and debated on their own merits, and arguments may be had that attempt to find truth, instead of insisting on a fanatical point-counterpoint that goes nowhere.

This duality is made worse by the equally egregious defenders of Israel in the United States, who share with their brethren on the other side a dislike of logic and a love of polemical ideology.  Take the rhetoric of Abe Foxman, who doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile a Jew who is critical of Israel.

Resolving the Discourse as a Necessary Condition for Resolving the Conflict

I want soon to be able to make the argument that the Israel Discourse is the problem of the conflict. The way discourse is propagated, misused, misunderstood and reinforced is a threat to the State of Israel, a threat to the Palestinian people, and ultimately a threat to peace in the region.

This argument will necessarily require a lot more research than I have yet to conduct.  My opinions are formed but not formulated.  I don’t think that they are particularly controversial, except for the inevitable backlash I will have to face from countless people who believe they know what is right, which will probably prove my point.  At this point, a lengthy blog post will serve to get my ideas on paper.

April 12, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More
Moving Forward

Moving Forward

Today, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California decided that Proposition 8 to the California constitution violated the United States constitution.  This decision marks one more step in the historic–and seemingly endless–march for gay rights in the United States and the world.

California has long been a center of gay activism and progress in the area of gay rights.  San Francisco was the first city to elect an openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, in 1978.  In that year, California’s Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have prevented gays and lesbians from working in the school system, was defeated.  However, gay marriage was still not valid or recognized in California.  In 2000, California passed Proposition 22 which constitutionally defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman.  In 2008, the Supreme Court of California overturned this amendment, legalizing gay marriage in California for several months until the November election, when Proposition 8 was passed which overturned the court’s decision.

Time and time again, the courts have upheld the rights of homosexual couples to marry, and time and time again, populist movements have put an end to this basic human freedom.  Today, a Federal judge issued an invalidating ruling, meaning that in California, for the time being, the only hope for defeating gay rights is in the Supreme Court.  (For you constitutional purists out there, the reason we have courts in the first place is to provide guidance on law and prevent unjust laws when we don’t know any better.)

Today California once again joins the ranks of the few states in America that extend this privilege to homosexual couples:  Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, DC, New Hampshire and Vermont.  We will see soon if the Supreme Court upholds today’s ruling.  In my opinion, there is no valid argument–constitutional, moral, religious, or otherwise–against allowing homosexuals to marry to the fullest extent of equal protection under United States federal law. The only valid constitutional argument from a Federalist perspective is the separation of powers and the States rights doctrine.  This is certainly a valid argument to make, but keep in mind that if the Supreme Court had consistently strictly upheld the States rights doctrine when it came to matters of equality, segregation would still be legal.  Interracial marriage would still be illegal.  Plus, we have the Fourteenth Amendment for a reason!

It is important for Americans of all races, religions and orientations to remember that our ancestors also faced opposition to their basic human rights and freedoms.  Indeed, the past four hundred years of history in America has been a story of groups gradually winning the right to be viewed as equals.  In the struggle for gay rights, we see a similar endurance and persistence that has occupied every civil rights movement in our history.  The same endurance that led blacks to freedom, that led women to the ballot box and that even led Jews to Israel.  There is no doubt that, like these movements of the past, the movement for gay and lesbian rights in America will succeed.  The decision today in California is a vital step on the road to justice.  The more the opponents of this movement try to hold the country back, the louder its drive for justice, and the sweeter the victory.

It is easy for Americans to forget, being as secure we are in our citizenship and our persons, how hard it was for our parents and grandparents to fight so it could be this way.  Think about the progress we have made as a nation in just the last century–but also think about how much further we have to go, not just in terms of gay rights but in terms of many basic human rights, worldwide, that we take for granted.

If you are interested in the legal thought going into today’s decision, check out the text of the ruling here (  There is also a great article by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Ted Olson, in Newsweek called “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” (  Olson explains quite eloquently that the fight for gay rights is not just a gay issue or a liberal issue, but an American issue.

August 4, 2010Comments are DisabledRead More