Even Obama doesn’t recommend American-style capitalism

The Next Billion
The Next Billion

What does the US, the richest and most powerful country in the world, have to envy of Cuba, its very poor, nominally Communist neighbour that is roughly 0.00001% its size? According to Barack Obama, healthcare and education.

That was just one of the insights from an article in the New Yorker (paywall) published last week on the American president’s policies towards Cuba. In it, Obama also talks candidly about how his administration normalized diplomatic relations between the two states for the first time in half a century.

Perhaps it’s not a shock that the man who created Obamacare and wants to make community college free thinks the US can find better ways of tackling healthcare and education. More surprising, then, is what Obama thinks should happen next with Cuba.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro hold their first meeting on the second day of Obama's visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21, 2016.      REUTERS/Carlos Barria TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSBHNG
Obama meets Castro in March 2016. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

In the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president in 85 years, Obama last March met Raúl Castro, who has led Cuba ever since his older brother Fidel stepped down in 2006, and you might think that the US head of state would be quick to sell the wonders of the American way of life to his new Cuban friend. Not quite. Obama, as worried as everyone else that the new détente will lead to a Cuba colonized by McDonald’s and Starbucks, said he told Castro:

‘It is not my objective to see Cuba turned into some tourist playground for the United States…’

By opening up your economy, you can transform Havana in a way that really works for the economy and works for you. But it can’t just be haphazard. It can’t be opening it up to the highest bidder, and then suddenly you’ve got the cruises coming in and you’ve got fast-food joints popping up in the middle of the old city.’ I said, ‘You should find advisers—and they probably shouldn’t be US advisers—to think about a controlled, thoughtful development plan.’ ”

Perhaps Obama has learned a few lessons from imposing a free-market economy on Iraq. But he also seems to fear that Cuba will go down the road of Vietnam or China, with unelected parties running a capitalist economy. If Cuba is to open up, what should Castro do?

[Obama] said that he proposed calling Singapore, or one of the Scandinavian countries— ‘‘ ‘whoever it is that you think has properly balanced a market economy with some sort of planning.’

Singapore—which was transformed from a speck on the map into one of the most prosperous states in the world by the brilliant and autocratic rule of Lee Kuan Yew—is often cruelly praised as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” And Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland regularly top rankings for gender and income equality as well as quality of life—though they certainly have their fair share of problems.

So there you go. If you’re starting a country from scratch, the US president recommends avoiding making it anything like the US.

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