Steven Pinker’s Analysis of Wealth and Inequality

“The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” as noted in a prior post, is the cheery synopsis of the new book, “Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress “ (p. 52)  by Harvard University’s Johnston Family Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker.

Two of the measures that he examines are wealth (Ch. 8) and inequality (Ch. 9), both of which illustrate his overall analysis over long periods of time and for the whole world with unusual sets of data and graphs.

Wealth

For wealth, he starts with the proposition that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it” (p. 80).

His graph of Gross World Product, 1-2015 (p. 81) shows virtually no change from year 1 through the middle of the 19th century and then virtually a straight-upward line through 2015. This “Great Escape” from poverty was due to “the application of science to the improvement of material life,” “the development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services, and ideas” and “a change in values” or “endorsement of bourgeois virtue” (pp. 80-85).

The next graph–GDP per capita, 1600-2015 (p. 85)—shows, Pinker argues, that “starting in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence. This is also shown, according to Pinker, by data and graphs of World income distribution, 1800, 1975, and 2015; Extreme poverty (proportion of world population), 1820-2015; and Extreme poverty (number), 1820-2015 (pp. 86-88).

For Pinker, the following are the three major causes of this Great Convergence:

  1. The “decline of communism (together with intrusive socialism).” Market “economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine. Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide.” Moreover, many market economies also “invested in education, public health, infrastructure, and agricultural and job training, together with social insurance and poverty-reduction programs.” (Pp. 90-91.)[1]
  2. Better leadership in developing countries (p. 91).
  3. The end of the Cold War (p. 91).
  4. Globalization through an explosion of international trade (p. 92).
  5. Advances in science and technology (pp. 94-96).

Inequality

The initial premise of this chapter is that unlike “health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace “ and certain other factors, “economic inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being.” The contrary view confuses inequality with poverty. (Pp. 98-102.)

Here Pinker asserts that inequality comes with modernity and refers to the Gini Coefficient as the usual measure of economic inequality with 0, when everyone has the same as everyone else and 1, when one person has everything and everyone else has nothing.  (Pp. 98, 102.)

He then displays three graphs of the Gini Coefficient: International inequality, 1820-2013 (population weighted and unweighted), Global inequality, 1820-2011 and Inequality, UK and US, 1688-2013. These graphs demonstrate, he says, that “inequality in the world is declining.” (Pp. 98, 103-06.) An historian, Walter Scheidel, is said to have identified the Four Horsemen of Leveling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics by obliterating wealth and killing large numbers of workers. (Pp. 106-07.)

Moreover, “modern societies now devote a substantial chunk of their wealth to health, education, pensions, and income support (the Egalitarian Revolution).” This has “redefined the mission of government to include such social spending to inoculate citizens against the appeal of communism and fascism, to benefit the entire society, to indemnify citizens against misfortunes against which they can’t or won’t insure themselves and to assuage the modern conscience.” (Pp. 107-08.)

The conclusion from Pinker on this issue is the following:

  • “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative , or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved . . . The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things that people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.” (P. 120.)

Conclusion

The overall thesis of this book– The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being—is very attractive. What are the counter arguments?

The above summary of Professor Pinker’s analysis of wealth and inequality raises at least the following questions:

  • Many of the data sets used by Pinker are not well known. Therefore, do they accurately and fairly depict what they purport to depict?
  • It seems valid that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it.” Any legitimate objections to same?
  • Is it valid to state that “in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence?
  • Are Pinker’s reasons for the Great Convergence valid?
  • Is economic inequality not a fundamental component of wellbeing?
  • Is the Gini Coefficient a valid measure of inequality?
  • Are the major causes of Leveling or reduced inequality these factors: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics?

Comments from others who know more about these data sets and analyses are earnestly solicited.

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[1] Right now we are seeing Cuba struggle with whether and how it will modify its communist economic system to allow greater private enterprise. See Economic Challenges Facing Cuba’s New President, dwkcommentaries.com (April 5, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S.-Cuba Relations Discussed in U.N. Proceedings

During the week of September 18-22, U.S.-Cuba relations was one of many topics of discussion at the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council. Here are those details.

U.S. Statements

 As discussed in a prior post, on September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a lengthy speech to the General Assembly that, in part, criticized Cuba. He said,

  • The U.S. “ has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.”
  • “From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”

The next day (September 20) U.S. Vice President Mike Pence appeared at the Security Council to support reform of the U.N. peacekeeping function and to vote in favor of a resolution to that effect that was adopted that day.[1] Here is a photograph of the Vice President and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley at the Council.

He also said the following about Cuba:[2]

  • To “keep the peace most effectively, this body must have the credibility to pursue peace by advancing the cause of human rights. It’s no coincidence that some of the most dangerous regimes in the world are also some of the worst abusers of human rights.”
  • “That was the purpose under which the U.N. Human Rights Council was formed. But the truth is, the Human Rights Council doesn’t deserve its name. As we look at the membership of the council today, we see nations that betray these timeless principles upon which this institution was founded. Today, the United Nations Human Rights Council actually attracts and welcomes many of the worst human rights violators in the world. A clear majority of the Human Rights Council’s members fail to meet even the most basic human rights standards. [One of them is Cuba,] an oppressive regime that has repressed its people and jailed political opponents for more than half a century.” (Emphasis added.)

The Vice President added that the Security Council “must reform the Human Rights Council’s membership and its operation. . . .   [The U.S. calls] on the Security Council and this entire body to immediately embrace reforms of the membership and practices of the Human Rights Council and end the [latter’s] blatant bias against our cherished ally Israel.”[3]

Cuba’s Response

The Cuban response to both of these U.S. statements was provided in a speech at the General Assembly on September 22 by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, as shown in the following photograph. [4]

The following are his lengthy comments about these speeches and other aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship:

  • The U.N.’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lacks the means for its implementation, due to the egoism and lack of political will of the [U.S.] and other industrialized countries.”
  • “What is the miraculous recipe that President Donald Trump recommends to us in the absence of the financial flows of the Marshall Plan? Who will contribute the resources for that? How can this be reconciled with the ‘America First’ idea advanced by Presidents Reagan and Trump?”
  • “President Trump ignores and distorts history and portrays a chimera as a goal to be pursued. The production and consumption patterns . . . of neoliberal capitalism are unsustainable and irrational and will inexorably lead to the destruction of the environment and the end of the human species.”
  • “Can anyone forget about the consequences of colonialism, slavery, neocolonialism and imperialism?”
  • “Could the several decades of bloody military dictatorships in Latin America be referred to as an example of a successful capitalism? Does anyone know of any recipe of neoliberal capitalism that has been better applied than those which destroyed the Latin American economies in the 1980s?”
  • “It is both indispensable and urgent for the [U.N.] to work in order to establish a new participatory, democratic, equitable and inclusive international economic order, as well as a new financial architecture that take into account the needs and peculiarities of developing countries and the asymmetries that exist in world trade and finances as a result of centuries of exploitation and plundering”
  • “Industrialized countries have the moral duty, the historical responsibility as well as sufficient financial and technological means for that.”
  • “Not even the rich will enjoy the announced prosperity if climate change is not stopped. Cuba regrets the decision taken by the government of the [U.S.], which has been historically the principal greenhouse-gas emitting government in the planet, to withdraw its country from the Paris Agreement.”
  • “The U.S. government has come here to tell us that, in addition to prosperity, the other two ‘beautiful pillars’ of international order are sovereignty and security.”
  • “We all share the common responsibility to preserve the existence of human beings in the face of a nuclear threat. An important contribution to the achievement of that goal was the historical adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons . . . , which proscribe the use and the threat of use of those weapons that have the capacity to annihilate the human species. Obviously, the [U.S.] strongly opposed this treaty. It announced that it will invest 700 billion dollars in military expenditures and is developing an extremely aggressive nuclear and military doctrine based on the threat to use and the use of force.”
  • “NATO member States [act] against international peace and security and International Law by promoting military interventions and non-conventional wars against sovereign States.”
  • “The illegal imposition of unilateral coercive measures and the use of financial, legal, cultural and communicational instruments to destabilize governments as well as the denial of peoples’ right to self-determination have become customary.”
  • “The covert use of . . . [Information and Communications Technology] to attack other States increases, while several developed countries strongly oppose the adoption of international treaties that would regulate cooperation in order to achieve a safe cyberspace.”
  • “The U.S. President manipulates the concepts of sovereignty and security to his exclusive benefit and to the detriment of all others, including his allies. The attempt to resort to military threats and force to stop the irreversible world trend to multi-polarization and polycentrism will seriously jeopardize international peace and security, which should be defended and preserved through international mobilization.”
  • “The principles of sovereign equality, respect for the territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of States should be observed. The UN Charter and International Law admit no re-interpretation.”
  • “The [U.N.] reform should pursue the principal goal of responding to the pressing needs of peoples and the great disadvantaged majorities. Multilateralism should be protected and reinforced in the face of the imperialist interests of domination and hegemony.The democratization of the Security Council, both in terms of its composition and its working methods, is a most urgent task. The strengthening of the General Assembly and the recovery of the functions that have been usurped from it are indispensable.”
  • “The ‘patriotism’ invoked in the U.S. statement is a perversion of humanism, the love and loyalty to the homeland and of the enrichment and defense of national and universal culture. It embodies an exceptionalist and supremacist vision of ignorant intolerance in the face of diverse political, economic, social and cultural models.”
  • “In developed countries, the loss of legitimacy of political systems and parties worsens and electoral abstentionism is on the rise. Corruption, whether legal or illegal, has turned into metastasis. So is the extreme case of the so-called ‘special interests’ or corporate payments in exchange for benefits in the country that spends the highest amount of money in electoral campaigns and where, paradoxically, a candidate with the lowest number of popular votes can be elected or entitled to govern with a negligible support by voters.”
  • There has been an increasing and unheard-of use of science and technology to exercise hegemony, mutilate national cultures and manipulate human behavior, as is the case of the so-called ‘big data’ or psychometry, used for political and advertising purposes. Seven consortia keep a strict control of whatever is read, watched or heard in the planet. Technologies are being monopolized. The governance of digital networks is dictatorial and discriminatory and, despite appearances, the digital divide between rich and poor countries is increasing.”
  • “The opportunities and rights of youths, migrants and workers are curtailed and their human rights are openly and systematically violated”
  • On September 20, “U.S. Vice-President, Michael Pence, ridiculously ignoring the functions of the Security Council and attempting to establish new prerogatives, said that [the Security Council] should modify the composition and methods of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which ‘doesn’t deserve its name’ because ‘a clear majority of the Human Rights Council members fail to meet even the most basic human rights standards.’ I suppose he is not including, in this case, his own country, which will in fact deserve to be included because of its pattern of systematic violations of human rights, namely the use of torture, arbitrary detentions and imprisonment–as occurs at the Guantanamo Naval Base–, the assassination of African-Americans by law enforcement agents, the killing of innocent civilians perpetrated by its troops and the xenophobia and repression against immigrants –including minors– as well as its scarce adherence to international instruments.”
  • “On June 16, . . . President Trump announced the new Cuba policy of his administration, which is a setback in U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations and undermines the bases established two years ago to advance towards a new type of relation between our countries, characterized by respect and equality. The U.S. Government has decided to tighten the economic, commercial and financial blockade by imposing new obstacles to the already limited possibilities its business community had to trade with and invest in Cuba as well as additional restrictions on U.S. citizens willing to travel to our country.”
  • “Those decisions ignore the support from broad sectors in the U.S., including the majority of Cuban émigrés, to the lifting of the blockade and the normalization of relations. They only serve the interests of a group of Cuban origin, based in South Florida, which is an ever more isolated and minoritarian group that insists in harming Cuba and its people for having decided to defend, at all costs, the right to be free, independent and sovereign. Today we reiterate our condemnation of the measures aimed at tightening the blockade and reaffirm that any strategy intended to destroy the Revolution will fail.”
  • “Likewise, we reject the manipulation of the human rights issue against Cuba, which has a lot to be proud of and has no need to receive lessons from the [U.S.] or anyone.”
  • We “express our strongest condemnation of the disrespectful, offensive and interventionist statement against Cuba and the Cuban government, made [by President Trump]. We remind him that the [U.S.], where flagrant human rights violations are committed, which raise deep concern among the international community, has no moral authority to judge my country. We reaffirm that Cuba will never accept any preconditions or impositions, nor will it ever renounce any of its principles.”
  • “Regarding the alleged incidents that. . . have affected U.S. diplomatic officials in Havana we categorically affirm that the Cuban government rigorously and seriously abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in relation to the protection and the integrity of all diplomats without any exception, including those from the [U.S.] Cuba has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate actions of this sort. Cuba has never allowed nor will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties with that purpose. The Cuban authorities, based on the preliminary results of the priority investigation that is being carried out with a high technical component, following instructions from the top level of our government, has taken into account the data contributed by the U.S. authorities and so far has found no evidence whatsoever that could confirm the causes or the origin of the health disorders referred to by U.S. diplomats and their relatives. The investigation to clarify this issue continues, and in order to be able to arrive to a conclusion, it will be crucial to count on the cooperation of the U.S. authorities. It would be unfortunate if a matter of this nature is politicized.”
  • “As was expressed by the Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz, Cuba is willing to continue negotiating all pending bilateral issues with the United States, on the basis of equality and absolute respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country; and maintaining a respectful dialogue and cooperation in areas of common interest with the U.S. government.”
  • “Cuba and the [U.S.] can cooperate and coexist, respecting their differences and promoting everything that benefits both countries and peoples, but no one should expect Cuba to make concessions that affect its sovereignty and independence.”
  • “The Cuban people will not cease in their legitimate claim for the lifting and total elimination of the economic, commercial and financial blockade and will continue to denounce the strengthening of that policy. In November Cuba will once again present to the [U.N.] General Assembly [a resolution for ending the U.S. blockade of Cuba]. “

Conclusion

The above comments by President Trump and Vice President Pence, while not surprising from their administration, are a most unfortunate retreat from the efforts by President Obama and President Castro to normalize the two countries’ relations and abandon U.S. hostility towards the island.

The U.N. Human Rights Council was created by the U.N. General Assembly on March 15, 2006, by resolution 60/251. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the U.N. Security Council has any authority to make changes in the structure of the Human Rights Council, and Vice President Pence’s suggestion that this be done seems inappropriate unless it was intended as a call for the Security Council to recommend that this be done.

The lengthy comments by Cuba’s Foreign Minister Rodriguez are also not surprising with perhaps one exception. With respect to the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba, he said, “The investigation to clarify this issue continues, and in order to be able to arrive to a conclusion, it will be crucial to count on the cooperation of the U.S. authorities. It would be unfortunate if a matter of this nature is politicized.” All reports to date have indicated that the two countries are cooperating on investigating these issues, and the Foreign Minister’s comment seems to suggest that future U.S. cooperation was questionable. Is this so? If so, that would be most unfortunate and inadvisable for many reasons. The statement about  the possible U.S. politicization of this issue is also surprising unless it was an indirect reference to the letter to the Trump Administration by five Republican U.S. Senators led by Senator Marco Rubio (FL) that called for several U.S. actions against Cuba over this problem, including closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as was discussed in an earlier post.

This coming November there will be a General Assembly debate and vote on Resolution A/72/50 42: Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.[5] It is widely assumed that this will be adopted by an overwhelming margin; the similar resolution last year passed, 191-0 (with two abstentions by the U.S. and Israel), as discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.N. Security Council, Resolution 2378 (2017).

[2] White House, Remarks by the Vice President to the UN Security Council (Sept. 20, 2017); Assoc. Press, Pence Applauds UN Resolution on Peacemaking Reform, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017); Reuters, Pence Tells U.N. That America First Does Not Mean America Alone, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] The same day (September 20) the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland issued a reprimand of Cuba while U.S. and Cuba representatives traded comments on Cuban human rights. This will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[4] Rodriguez, Cuba will never accept any preconditions or impositions (+ Video), Granma (Sept. 22, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Urges U.S. Not to Politicise Allegations of Harmed Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 22, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuban Official: Still No Clue on US Diplomat Health Issue, N.Y. [InformationTimes (Sept. 22, 2017).

[5] U.N., Report of the Secretary-General, Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba, No. A/72/94  (July 26, 2017)

President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .

New York Times Reiterates Call for Ending U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On December 15th a New York Times editorial, “Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads,” called for the U.S. to end its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” This recommendation first was made on October 11th in the Times’ initial editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”

Summary of the Editorial

Now, however, ending the designation is seen as a way the U.S. could assist a struggling Cuban economy. Surprisingly this editorial does not mention ending the U.S. embargo of the island as another, and more important, way the Cuban economy could be aided by the U.S. Instead the Times makes a vague suggestion of the U.S.’ “relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.”

Most of the editorial is devoted to discussing the many problems of the Cuban economy.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution’s “[c]ommunism brought an ever more anemic and backward economy, one propped up largely by Moscow. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did Cuba’s economy.” After that collapse, Cuba found Venezuela as a “new benefactor” that provided “heavily subsidized oil” to the island, but now that country’s “worsening economic and political crisis” threatens that subsidy.

Low wages and poor prospects have forced many Cubans to leave the island “in recent years in search of a better life.” This could be accelerated by the elimination of the country’s two-currency system, which the government plans to do.

“The country’s birthrate is declining, while its elderly are living longer.” Couple these facts with the exodus of working-age citizens presents Cuba with an enormous demographic challenge.

“The agricultural sector remains stymied by outdated technology and byzantine policies. A foreign investment law Cuba’s National Assembly approved in March has yet to deliver a single deal.”

Cuba’s leaders have adopted various measures to reform the economy, but the “pace [of economic reform] has been halting, with plenty of backtracking from the government’s old guard.”

Yet these reforms have created a “small but growing entrepreneurial class.” All of them “struggle with the [Cuban] bureaucracy, since they are unable to import legally items as basic as mattresses and pillows. Bringing items from the United States is onerous and complicated by American sanctions.” Changes in U.S. policies could make “it easier for Americans to provide start up-capital for independent small businesses. Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation. More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.”

Continuing U.S. antagonism, on the other hand, “is only helping the old guard.”

Reactions

I concur in the Times’ call for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” It is an unfounded, stupid, absurd action that is only counter-productive as has been argued in posts in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

But I do not see ending this policy as the linchpin for the U.S.’ helping the Cuban economy. Instead it is ending the embargo, which the Times on October 11th recommended, but which is not mentioned in the latest editorial.

Moreover, I think the latest editorial understates the troubled state of the Cuban economy even though a prior post expressed optimism about Cuba’s attracting $8.0 billion of foreign investment for the Mariel port’s industrial park now under construction. Further reflection raises the following points that question that optimism:

  • First, the Cuban economy by itself is obviously unable to afford to purchase the many commodities that presumably will be unloaded from the new super-container ships that will be able to cross the expanded Panama Canal.
  • Second, for the commodities to go elsewhere will require the unloading of the super-container ships at Mariel and then reloading those commodities in smaller container vessels to go to the major countries on the northern and eastern sides of the South American continent: Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. How big are those markets?
  • Third, presumably the major Latin American countries with coasts on the Pacific Ocean like Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile will not be markets for commodities transshipped from Mariel.
  • Fourth, unless there is U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, the largest potential market for such transshipment, the U.S., presumably would not be importing commodities from the Mariel port.

Similar skepticism about Cuba’s ability to attract foreign investment for other reasons have been voiced by foreign investment experts. The Inter-American Dialogue, which is the leading U.S. center for policy analysis, exchange, and communication on Western Hemisphere affairs, has provided the following four such skeptics.

Matthew Aho, consultant in the corporate practice group of Akerman Senterfitt in New York, said, “While the [Cuban] rhetorical message was positive: ‘Cuba is open for business,’ little has changed to improve Cuba’s general investment climate, and foreign companies there report few changes to their dealings with Cuban counterparts. In fact, many businesses say the same bottlenecks, delays and idiosyncrasies that have long frustrated investors have been exacerbated recently by growing wariness among major banks to handle legitimate Cuba-related transactions.” He added, “While Cuba clearly has potential, most mainstream investors will steer clear until the Cubans define clearer rules of the road and improve their track record with new and existing partners.”

According to José R. Cárdenas, director of Visión Américas in Washington, “Eight billion dollars is a wildly exaggerated figure that Cuba has no chance of ever realizing. [Foreign investors] demand such things as transparency, legal guarantees and predictability, which the Cuban government is incapable of providing. Witness the widely publicized ordeals of Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian and Englishman Stephen Purvis, among others, who wound up in incarcerated in Cuba’s Kafkaesque legal system for unclear reasons. There may as well be a ring of flashing red lights surrounding the island warning foreign investors of the exorbitant risks to doing business in Cuba. . . . Any progressing economy needs the freedom to innovate, take risks and guarantee that one will reap the benefits of their efforts. Cuba, like China, cannot ultimately offer such conditions. As long as the primacy of the Communist Party remains the Cuban lodestar, the country will continue to head into an uncertain future.”

Scott J. Morgenstern, associate professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh also was skeptical. He said, “Cuba must create new opportunities for private employment. Thus, while the reforms are making some investment possible, investors will not find wide-open markets and streamlined bureaucratic procedures. In many areas, there are severe limits concerning where people can invest and the types of businesses they can open. Currency convertibility will also be a critical issue for any business; currently there are two currencies, only one of which is convertible. Foreigners, formally, are only allowed to use the convertible currency, and the official exchange rates distort the currency values. Reforms are promised, but the uncertainty will likely discourage some investors. One other important concern for investors is the size of the Cuban domestic market. The country is attracting several million tourists per year, and many Cubans do receive financial support from abroad, but purchasing power is still limited.”

Carlos A. Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group and Regis HR Group offered these comments. “Cuba’s economic reforms so far have been too little, too late and too timid to result in significant economic performance . . . . [Cuba’s] continuing economic mismanagement, the numerous distortions in Cuba’s economic and political systems, a stubborn ideology, an obtuse and weighty bureaucracy and the fears of change harbored by Cuba’s leaders all play even more heavily in keeping Cuba’s economy from reaching its full potential. Cuban leaders continue to expect ‘silver bullet solutions’ to their economic woes. The port of Mariel is a perfect example. Pinning hopes of an economic recovery on mega-projects or a few foreign investments take attention away from the core distortions and inefficiencies plaguing the entire domestic economy. Fear of change and ideological rigidity can be clearly seen in Cuba’s eight-month-old foreign investment law. Since the law was passed, Cuban authorities still don’t have any significant major investment projects to report. The foreign investment law was a great missed opportunity to really send a message to the world, and specifically to the United States, that Cuba is ready for business. Such a message would have added great momentum to the anti-embargo movement, which is building momentum in the United States and in Miami. Yet, they chose more of the same, leaving arbitrariness, lack of clarity and burdensome regulations.”

Similar skeptical opinions about the Cuban efforts to develop the Mariel port were expressed by Richard Feinberg, the Brookings Institution’s Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin American Initiative. He said, “the industrial sites are not yet fully leveled nor are they hooked up to basic infrastructure! But the problems run much deeper: previous Cuban efforts to launch free trade zones floundered on the requirement of hiring expensive labor through government employment agencies, and the continuing closure of the most logical export market, the nearby [U.S.]. Cuba’s newly revised foreign investment laws appear to allow investors greater flexibility in setting wage scales, but this potentially promising reform, and its impact on labor costs, remains to be fully tested in practice.”

Finally, Miguel Coyula, a retired Cuban government official on a trip to Washington before returning home to the island, stated ““Mariel is the most promoted place in Cuba, with special development zones for investors. But soon it’ll be a year after the opening of Mariel, and there is absolutely nothing. Even the container terminal in Havana was moved to Mariel to give it a sense of activity, but no one will invest there. For one thing, potential foreign investors in Mariel don’t like the fact that they can’t hire employees on their own, but instead must pay a government employment agency in dollars for that labor. The agency, in turn, pays workers in Cuban pesos. That’s because the Castro government wants to avoid creating a class of highly paid Cubans who work for foreign companies, ‘but inequalities are there whether you like it or not.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blogging in Havana

 

The blog from Havana– “Generation Y”[1]— is Yoani Sanchez’s courageous effort to let the world know about the daily life      and frustrations of ordinary Cubans.

She provides sketches of daily life in Cuba–“a dreary, enervating routine of food shortages, transportation troubles and          narrowed opportunity.”[2] Other major themes are the need for political and economic changes in Cuba and the Cuban          regime’s efforts to stifle her criticisms of the government.

 

A collection of her blog posts from 2007 through 2010 has been published as Havana Real.[3] Two of them prompt comments based upon my three church mission trips to Cuba since 2001.

Most Cubans struggle to survive. Those who have jobs generally make around $20 to $30 per month. They still have rationed basic food essentials at subsidized low prices, but as the blog emphasizes, many of these rationed essentials are very small quantities and are not really always available, and the government recently has talked about ending or reducing these pitifully limited rations. One day, Yoani’s mother called her to report that there was toilet paper available at a distant market, but that Yoani needed to hurry to get there because the “tp” would soon be gone.[4] On my last trip to visit our partner Presbyterian church in the city of Matanzas, its pastor told us that he was not able to buy any “tp” for our visit and stay in the church’s dormitory. He, therefore, asked the members of the congregation to give the church any extra “tp.”

Not surprisingly Yoani has negative reactions to Cuban political speeches that talk about the Cuban Revolution’s being “eternal.” She says she avoids using words like “eternal,” “always” and “never.” The word “eternal”, she says, means something that “lasts into the future ad infinitum,” but also something that “has no beginning.” There is little, if anything, that meets those requirements. She concludes with these words of wisdom, “It’s a relief that all the things in this world’s days are numbered.”[5]

In addition to her own blogging, she helps organize and present workshops in Cuba on creating blogs on “wordpress.com.”

Yoani has won many international awards for her blogging: one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World and Best Blog (Time Magazine), Ortega y Gasset Prize for digital journalism (Spain), one of the 100 Most Notable Hispanic Americans (El Pais Spanish newspaper), World Press Freedom Hero award (International Press Institute) and Young Global Leader (World Economic Forum).[6]

“Generation Y” honors those people like Yoani whose have names containing the Greek Y letter, so unusual in Spanish, but relatively common in Cuba in the 1970’s and 1980’s when Cuba was under Russian or Soviet influence.


[1] http://www.desdecuba.com/generationy/. The blog also has links to other Cuban blogs in English and in Spanish as well as her articles and interviews.

[2] Rohter, In Cuba, the Voice of a Blog Generation, N.Y. Times (July 5, 2011).

[3] Sanchez, Havana Real (Brooklyn: Melville House 2011).

[4]  Id. at 361-63.

[5]  Id. at 31-33.

[6]  Id. at 2.