When Nobody Knew What a Dollar Would Be

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The Caxton Press has just published my book, The Panic of 1893, and I can now write for Liberty about it. Its topic is the final economic downturn of the 19th century. For more than three years, my head was in the 1890s — in books, articles, personal and official papers, lawsuits, and, especially, old newspapers, chiefly from my home state. The book’s subtitle is, The Untold Story of Washington State’s First Depression.

It is a popular history, not a libertarian book as such. But I have a few thoughts for a libertarian audience.

Many libertarians espouse the Austrian theory of the trade cycle, in which the central bank sets interest rates lower than the market rate, leading to a speculative boom, bad investments, and a collapse. In the 1890s the United States had no central bank. Interest rates before the Panic of 1893 were not low, at least not in Washington. The common rate on a business loan was 10%, in gold, during a period in which the general price level had been gently falling. Washington was a frontier state then, and it needed to pay high interest rates to attract capital from the East and from Europe. Credit standards, however, were low, sometimes appallingly low. Many of Washington’s banks had been founded by pioneers — optimistic patriarchs who lent freely to their neighbors, associates, relatives, and themselves. By a different road from the Austrians’ theory, the economy was led to the place it describes: a Hallowe’en house of bad investments.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was a sop to the inflationists, who wanted an increase in the money supply, and to the silver mining interests, who wanted the government to continue buying their silver.

The dollar was backed by gold, with the US Treasury intending to keep at least $100 million of gold on hand. But in 1890, at the peak of the boom period, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, obligating the Treasury to buy up the nation’s silver output with newly printed paper money. It was a sop to the inflationists, who wanted an increase in the money supply, and to the silver mining interests, who wanted the government to continue buying their silver, which it had been doing to create silver dollars. Politically the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was also part of a deal to pass the McKinley Tariff, which raised America’s already high tariff rates even higher.

The problem with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was that the new paper money being paid to the silver miners could be redeemed in gold. The prospect of an increase every year in paper claims against the Treasury’s gold alarmed foreign investors, and they began to pull gold out. Two crises abroad also shifted the psychology of lenders and borrowers worldwide: Argentina defaulted on a gold loan from the Baring Brothers in 1890 and a real estate boom in Australia collapsed in 1893. These crises shifted the thoughts of financial men from putting money out to getting it back, from a preference for holding promises to a preference for cash.

By the time Grover Cleveland took office in March 1893, the Treasury’s gold cover had shrunk to $101 million. A run began on the Treasury’s gold — and that triggered the Panic of 1893.

In the Pacific Northwest, the four-year-old state of Washington (pop. 350,000 then) had 80 bank failures in the following four years.

Two crises abroad also shifted the psychology of lenders and borrowers worldwide: Argentina defaulted on a gold loan from the Baring Brothers in 1890 and a real estate boom in Australia collapsed in 1893.

Economists have listed the ensuing depression as the second-deepest in U.S. history. (One estimate: 18% unemployment.) But they don’t know. The government didn’t measure unemployment in the 1890s. And the rate of unemployment may not be the best comparison. America was less wealthy in the 1890s than in the 1930s, and living conditions were harsher. In absolute terms, the bottom of the depression of the 1890s was clearly lower than that of the 1930s.

The Left of the 1890s, the Populists and silverites, wanted cheap money. They blamed the depression on the gold standard. And gold is not an easy taskmaster; libertarians have to admit that.

The silverites wanted a silver standard. Most of them were “bimetallists,” claiming to favor a gold standard and a silver standard at the same time, with 16 ounces of silver equal to one ounce of gold. Their idea was that by using gold and silver the people would have more money to spend.

Free silver was a policy well beyond the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which compelled the Treasury to buy silver at the market price. In the mid-1890s, silver fell as low as 68 cents an ounce. At that price, a silver dollar had 53 cents’ worth of silver in it and the silver-gold ratio was 30-to-1.

In absolute terms, the bottom of the depression of the 1890s was clearly lower than that of the 1930s.

The bimetallists wanted 16-to-1. That was the ratio for U.S. currency set in the late 1700s when the market was at 16-to-1. Later the market shifted and Congress changed the ratio to 15 1/2-to-1. Then came the Civil War, and the U.S. government suspended the gold standard, and printed up its first “greenbacks,” the United States Notes.

The United States Notes were effectively a new currency, and traded at a discount from metallic dollars. In September 1896, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reminded readers of those times:

There never was a time from the beginning of the first issue of greenbacks down to the resumption of specie payments when the greenback dollar was ever accepted on the Pacific Coast for anything more than its market price in terms of gold.

The greenback was discounted, sometimes by 50 to 60%.

In 1873, Congress decided to define the dollar as a certain weight of gold, but not silver. The silver people in the 1890s called this “The Crime of ’73.”

Redemption of paper money under the gold standard began in 1879. To placate the silver interests, Congress had passed a law requiring the government to buy silver at the market price and coin it into dollars — the Morgan dollars prized by collectors today. At the beginning, the silver in a Morgan dollar was worth about a dollar, but by the 1890s, the value of silver had fallen.

In 1890, the silver-dollar law was replaced by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which created paper money. The government still coined silver dollars, and by 1896 had more than 400 million of them in circulation.

To placate the silver interests, Congress had passed a law requiring the government to buy silver at the market price and coin it into dollars.

The law did not require the Treasury to pay out gold for silver dollars, and it hadn’t. But the law declared all the different kinds of dollars (and there were five different kinds of paper money, at that point) to be equally good for everyday use except for taxes on imports. At the amounts an individual was ever likely to have, a silver dollar was as good as a gold dollar.

If you ask why a sane person would have designed a monetary system with gold dollars, silver dollars, Gold Certificates, Silver Certificates, National Currency, Treasury Notes, and United States Notes — Congress had designed it, one variety at a time.

Under the proposal for “free silver,” gold would be kept at the official price of $20.67 and silver set at one-sixteenth that price, or $1.29. Just as the world was free to bring an ounce of gold to the Treasury and take away $20.67 — “free gold” — the world would be free to bring an ounce of silver to the Treasury and take away $1.29. Free silver! The advocates called this the “unlimited coinage” of silver, but the aim was to create dollars, not coins. Most of the silver could pile up in the Treasury and be represented by crisp new pieces of paper.

The gold people argued that for the United States to set up a 16-to-1 currency standard in a 30-to-1 world was nuts. Essentially, the Treasury would be offering to pay out one ounce of gold for 16 ounces of silver. It would be a grand blowout sale on gold, and the world would come and get it until the gold was gone. The Treasury would be left with a Fort Knox full of silver, and the U.S. dollar would become a silver currency like the Mexican peso.

Surely the gold people were right about that. (And today’s ratio is 78 to 1.)

Milton Friedman argues in his book Money Mischief that two standards, with the cheapest metal defining the dollar in current use, would have worked all right. If the cheap metal got too expensive, the system would flip and the dollar would be defined by the other metal. In theory it makes sense, and apparently before the Civil War it had worked that way. But the financial people didn’t want a system like that.

The Treasury would be left with a Fort Knox full of silver, and the U.S. dollar would become a silver currency like the Mexican peso.

In 1896, America had a watershed election, with the silver people for Bryan, the Democrat, and the gold people for McKinley, the Republican. A third party, the People’s Party, endorsed Bryan. Its followers, the Populists, didn’t want a silver standard. They were fiat-money people. But Bryan was against the gold standard, and that was enough.

In that contest, the silver people were derided as inflationists. They were, to a point. They wanted to inflate the dollar until the value of the silver in dollars, halves, quarters, and dimes covered the full value of the coin. The silver people were not for fiat money.

Here is the Spokane Spokesman-Review of October 1, 1894, distinguishing its silver-Republicanism from Populism:

Fiat money is the cornerstone of the Populist faith . . . Silver money is hard money, and the fiatist is essentially opposed to hard money . . . He wants irredeemable paper money, and his heart goes out to the printing press rather than the mint.

The Populists and silverites argued in 1896 that the gold standard had caused the depression, and that as long as gold ruled, the nation would never recover. History proved them wrong. They lost, and the nation recovered. It began a recovery after the election settled the monetary question. Investors and lenders knew what kind of money they’d be paid with.

Milton Friedman makes a monetarist point in Money Mischief that starting in about 1890, gold miners had begun to use the cyanide process, which allowed gold to be profitably extracted from lower-grade ore. The result was an increase in gold production all through the decade. I came across a different story in my research. The increase in the supply of gold (about which Friedman was correct) was outstripped by the increase in the demand for gold. Prices in gold dollars declined sharply during the depression of the 1890s, including the prices of labor and materials used in gold mining. It became more profitable to dig for gold. Deflation helped spur a gold-mining boom — in the Yukon, famously, but also in British Columbia, in Colorado, and in South Africa.

The US began a recovery after the election settled the monetary question. Investors and lenders knew what kind of money they’d be paid with.

Under a gold standard, a deflation sets in motion the forces that can reverse it. This is a useful feature, but it can take a long time.

The recovery from the depression of the 1890s began not with a burst of new money but with a quickening of the existing money. What changed after the election was the psychology of the people. They knew what sort of money they held and could expect. The important point wasn’t that it was gold, but that it was certain. If Bryan had been elected and the dollar became a silver currency, people would have adjusted. With gold, they didn’t have to adjust, because it was what they already had.

The writers of the 1890s had a less mechanistic view of the economy than people have today. People then didn’t even use the term, “the economy.” They might say “business” or even “times,” as if they were talking of weather conditions. They talked less of mechanisms (except the silver thing) and more of the thoughts and feelings of the people. People today are cynical about politicians who try to manipulate their thoughts and feelings, and think that it’s the mechanisms that matter. And sometimes mechanisms matter, but the thoughts and feelings always matter.

Prices in gold dollars declined sharply during the depression of the 1890s, including the prices of labor and materials used in gold mining. It became more profitable to dig for gold.

Now some observations about the ideas of the 1890s.

The Populists, called by the conservative papers “Pops,” were much like the Occupy Wall Street rabblerousers of a decade ago: anti-corporate, anti-banker, anti-bondholder, anti-Wall Street, and anti-bourgeois, but more in a peasant, almost medieval way than a New Left, university student way. Many of the Pops were farmers, with full beards at a time when urban men were shaving theirs off or sporting a mustache only. More than anti-Wall Street, the Pops were anti-debt, always looking for reasons for borrowers not to pay what they owed. On Wikipedia, Populism is labeled left-wing, which it was mainly. It was also rural, Southern, Western, anti-immigrant, and often racist. In Washington state it was anti-Chinese.

In the 1890s traditional American libertarianism was in the mainstream. In the newspapers this is very striking, with the Republican papers championing self-reliance and the Democratic papers championing limited government. Democrats, for example, argued against the McKinley Tariff — which imposed an average rate of more than 50% — as an impingement on individual freedom. Here is Seattle’s gold-Democrat daily, the Telegraph, of September 10, 1893:

If it be abstractly right that the government shall say that a man shall buy his shoes in the United States, why is it not equally right for it to say that he shall buy them in Seattle? . . . Where shall we draw the line when we start out from the position that it is the legitimate and natural function of government to regulate the affairs of individuals . . .

Our idea is that the least government we can get along with and yet enjoy the advantages of organized society, the better.

Here is the silver-Republican Tacoma Ledger of Dec. 3, 1895:

Thoughtful men must perceive that our whole system of civilization is undergoing a revolution in its ideas; and we are in danger of gradually supplanting the old, distinctive idea of the Anglo-Saxon civilization — the ideas of the individualism of the man, his house as his castle, and the family as his little state, which he represents in the confederation of families in the state — by the Jacobinical ideas of . . . continental republicanism . . . The continental republican theory contemplates the individual man as an atom of the great machine called the nation. The Anglo-Saxon considers every man a complete machine, with a young steam engine inside to run it. The continental republican must have a government that will find him work and give him bread. The Anglo-Saxon wants a government only to keep loafers off while every man finds his own work and earns his own bread.

Contrast that with today’s editorial pages.

The Populists were anti-debt, always looking for reasons for borrowers not to pay what they owed.

Here’s a final one I particularly liked. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary — the same gent whose assassination 21 years later would touch off World War I — came through Spokane on the train in 1893. Americans, fascinated with him just as they would be a century later with Princess Diana, stood in the rain for hours to get a glimpse of the famous archduke — and they were sore because he never showed himself. On October 9, 1893, here is what the Seattle Telegraph had to say about that:

Why in the name of common sense should the people of this country go out of their way to honor a man simply because he happens to be in the line of succession to a throne . . . The correct thing is to let their highnesses and their lordships and all the rest of them come and go like other people. To the titled aristocracy of Europe there is no social distinction in America.

The America of the 1890s had some unlovely aspects. But in my view, the Telegraph’s attitude toward princes is exactly right. I recalled the Telegraph’s patriotic comment during all the blather over the wedding of Princess Diana’s son.

The 1890s had its blather, but after 125 years, sorting out facts from nonsense is easier. Silly statements, especially wrong predictions, don’t weather well. It makes me wonder what of today’s rhetoric will seem utterly preposterous in the 2100s.




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The Perils of Mexico-Bashing

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As I have noted before, in a number of ways President Trump resembles President Obama. Both hate free trade, oppose immigration (Obama covertly, Trump ostentatiously), favor unions over consumers, and so on. Trump’s mania against free trade is on display in its most virulent form in his war on NAFTA.

NAFTA was a truly bipartisan accomplishment. Conceived and promulgated by President Reagan, the free trade agreement (FTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States was negotiated under Bush the Elder, approved by a large, bipartisan vote in the Senate, and ratified by Bill Clinton. And it has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

But even in the primaries, Trump singled out this one FTA for a torrent of abuse, accusing both Canada and Mexico of cheating, because we have a balance of trade deficit with each. Along the way, Trump’s heavy-handed and accusatory style has helped drive Canadian and Mexican opinion of him — and the rest of us, since we elected the bird — to new lows.

NAFTA has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

The renegotiations have dragged on, mainly because America keeps trying to impose onerous restrictions on its neighbors. This is another trait shared by Obama and Trump: disdain for our own allies. Love Russia, hate Canada and Mexico — how daffy can you get?

A recent Wall Street Journal article reports the latest on the NAFTA fight. The chief American negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is introducing new absurd demands. He now wants to require that at least 40% of the content of all cars crossing the American border must come from workers earning at least $16 per hour. This is at least double the existing wages of auto-assembly workers, and four times that of Mexican auto-parts workers! Cars that don’t meet that criterion will be heavily tariffed at the border.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage (lower cost labor). This is his populist-autarkist idea of “fair trade”: make the other party do things as stupidly as you do, rather than doing things smarter yourself. Add to this his demands for a periodic renewal vote on staying in the agreement, and you have a one in-your-face-F-off-and-die populist ultimatum.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage.

This ultra-protectionist ploy is arousing opposition, both here and (more ominously) in Mexico. Free-trade Republicans — what pathetically few of them are left — are not amused. In a piece he wrote for the WSJ, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) expressed annoyance with the Trumpian tactics. Trump has told the Senate — in true bossman style — which had lawfully ratified the NAFTA agreement during Clinton’s term in office — either to ratify a new, eviscerated NAFTA or see him unilaterally withdraw the US from it. Toomey says that if this ultimatum is put to him, he will vote against it and oppose in federal court the cancelation of the treaty.

Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Iran deal negotiated by the feckless Obama. That’s constitutional, because that deal was explicitly not put forward as a treaty. But NAFTA was, and as Toomey rightly observes, the Constitution delegates the framing of trade policy expressly to Congress. The rare prior cases of a president unilaterally withdrawing from a ratified treaty never concerned a commercial treaty. I would observe that the Declaration of Independence should be consulted. I refer to the parts in which the king is accused of “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world,” not to mention “obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances.

Holding out an olive branch, the estimable Toomey suggests that Trump focus on correcting obvious problems, such as ending Canada’s tariffs on cheese, and solidifying Mexico’s recent moves to open up its energy sector to US fracking investment. Add to that correcting a (relatively minor) sin, the current Mexican practice of putting low caps on duty-free sales of American stuff, and you pretty much have perfected the agreement; and have done so quickly, without arousing countervailing populist rage.

But Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances. The countervailing rage is rising in Mexico, where the frontrunner for the next presidential election is a populist leftist — one Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), close friend of Britain’s leftist Jeremy Corbyn.

Mexico is clearly being driven to its own populist extreme — AMLO now leads by 18%, much better than he has registered before. A radicalized Mexico could easily allow Russia to set up naval bases in its waters, and allow Chinese troops to move in to help “train” Mexican troops. The Russians have shown every desire to extend their world influence, and Mexico would be an even better vehicle for that than Cuba. As to the Chinese, their recent building of bases in the South China sea, their behavior on the Indian border, their rush to build a blue-water navy, and their clearly strategically planned moves to increase their influence in Latin America all indicate a long-term game plan that is anything but tame.

A lot of good a wall would do then.




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OPEC Death Watch

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A number of recent articles suggest that OPEC — that kleptocratic cartel that has artificially jacked up oil prices for so many decades — is in its death throes.

The cause is something upon which I have long commented in these pages: the roaring renaissance of the American oil and natural gas industry, a renaissance produced by entrepreneurial capitalism — as opposed to interventionist statism. While the Department of Energy funded wind and solar power, along with biomass and ethanol production, all of which together have accounted for only a tiny sliver of American energy production, and that only with massive subsidies and draconian mandates — private enterprise backed the winners: oil and natural gas.

But the recent dramatic increase in production and exportation was occasioned by Speaker Paul Ryan’s success in enacting into law the right of American energy companies to export those resources. This allows frackers (and ordinary drillers) to increase production, because they now have an unlimited world market within which to sell their products.

There's a roaring renaissance in the American oil and natural gas industry, a renaissance produced by entrepreneurial capitalism — as opposed to interventionist statism.

And this is already happening, as several noteworthy articles report. One is a Bloomberg report that of all countries, no less than the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — the fourth largest oil exporter in OPEC — is buying oil from shale wells in Texas. It turns out that the Texas crude is much “sweeter” (lighter and of superior quality) and more useful to the UAE’s refining than the local brand. The 700,000 barrels of oil that it is buying are their first purchase from us.

Bloomberg notes that while American exports to the UAE are not projected to continue, the explosion of American oil exports will. Shipments from America rose from a mere 100,000 barrels per day (BPD) five years ago to 1.53 million BPD in November of last year.

Besides increasing American exports of oil, the fracking revolution has reduced non-American imports to below 3 million BPD, the lowest level since data were first gathered 45 years ago. Our current net imports are only one-fourth of what they were in 2006, and we are likely to become a net exporter in about a decade — sooner, if ANWR is finally tapped, and new offshore areas are opened up for drilling.

The 700,000 barrels of oil that the UAE is buying are their first purchase from the US.

A second story reports the rapid growth in exports of domestically produced natural gas. It reveals that China has signed a long-term contract with Cheniere Energy — a major exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) — under which Cheniere will ship LNG from the Gulf Coast to China. Under this contract, Cheniere will provide 1.2 million tons of LNG annually to China, starting in five years, and lasting for 20 years after that.

And there is a third story, which notes that besides a rapid rise in American LNG shipments to China, we are seeing an explosion of exports of American crude oil shipments to that country. These exports have mushroomed from zero, before two years ago, to 400,000 barrels per day during the past two months. And again, if we bust open ANWR and the coastal waters of Alaska, such exports will increase even more quickly.

One nice side effect of this is that the more oil China buys from us, the lower our balance-of-trade deficit is with China. Two months ago our trade deficit with China was $25.55 billion. Last month it dropped to $21.895 billion.

Our current net imports are only one-fourth of what they were in 2006, and we are likely to become a net exporter in about a decade.

For the foreseeable future, of course, China will continue to buy most of its oil from Russia and the OPEC countries. But our share of the Chinese market will grow, for two reasons. First, at $60 per barrel, American crude is more than $4 cheaper than the benchmark (Brent) price. Second, while there are certain infrastructure bottlenecks that have to be overcome, they are being addressed. For example, while we don’t yet have ports capable of handling the biggest oil tankers (“Very Large Crude Carriers”), we have already started expanding one of the largest ports on the Louisiana coast.

All of this has added to the stress on OPEC that may result in its collapse as a cartel: the members of the cartel may go their own ways. The recent uptick in oil prices above the $60 per barrel range has helped OPEC find some relief. The recovery of the old price from its lows in the $40–50 range has two causes.

One is the meltdown of socialism in Venezuela, which has cut its oil production dramatically. Venezuela, a founding member of OPEC, is allocated by the Cartel to produce 1.97 million BPD. But the near civil war in Venezuela has dropped actual production to only 1.64 Million BPD. In fact, Venezuela’s production dropped by a whopping 30% last year alone. This is a steeper decline than that experienced by Russia when the Soviet Union broke up, and that experienced by Iraq following the 2003 invasion!

As noted by the Wall Street Journal article that I am referencing, the drop in Venezuelan petroleum output will likely continue, if not accelerate, because the nation is trapped in a vicious socialized spiral. As it exports less, it receives less foreign currency, which cuts its ability to buy food and other necessities that its own dysfunctional economy cannot produce, which in turn increases its hyperinflation and thus the political and economic failure. Moreover, Venezuela’s declining shipments of crude are deducted to paying creditors (such as Russia) and are in constant danger of being seized by creditors.

All of this has added to the stress on OPEC that may result in its collapse as a cartel: the members of the cartel may go their own ways.

In short, the ill winds that have so badly buffeted the hapless Venezuelan people have blown great good to the rest of OPEC. I suspect this is the real reason why Russia — no longer itself socialist — so strongly supports the Venezuelan socialist regime: it keeps a formidable competitor on the ground. The Russians want nothing so much as fair competition — the history of their Olympic teams shows that!

Speaking of Russia, the second major reason that OPEC has been able to keep the price of oil as high as it has recently (i.e., in the $60–70 per barrel range) is that so far Russia has stuck to its agreement with OPEC to hold down production. In early 2017, OPEC and Russia — which, while not a member of OPEC, is certainly an ally of it — agreed to cut back Russia’s production. This agreement has held up for thirteen months, now, and the Russians have signaled that they are inclined to keep to the bargain through the rest of this year and even into the first half of next year. However, the Russian oil oligarchs are expressing doubts about the deal — since Russia needs to maximize its income in order to arm itself maximally.

Vadim Yakovlev, deputy CEO of Gazprom Neft, the giant Russian oil company, has said that the company views the OPEC agreement as only temporary, and it irks the company to be forced to hold back production. Gazprom’s CEO Alexander Dyukov has said, “Following the OPEC agreement, instead of growing at eight to nine percent, we [Gazprom] have increased by just 4.5 to five percent. Which is, without a doubt, a negative factor for us.”

At this point, American production is a regulator of world prices: whenever the price rises much above $60, the industry jacks up production, and the result brings the price right back down.

It is clear that OPEC’s day of rule is coming to an end. America — already the greatest producer of oil and natural gas combined — is on track to become the world’s biggest oil producer this year. Energy research firm Rystad Energy estimates the US production will rise by 10%, hitting 11 million BPD. America hasn’t been the global leader since — 1975!

The report from which I have drawn that last piece of information notes that in 2015 the Saudis drove oil prices down to $26 a barrel. This lowered American production by 11%. But the American oil industry, not destroyed, became stronger — and more efficient, able to turn a profit with prices as low as $30 a barrel. While some experts are not so sanguine about the US becoming number one, it is clear that our production will continue to grow. At this point, American production is a regulator of world prices: whenever the price rises much above $60, the industry jacks up production, and the result brings the price right back down. A recent article spells this out — oil prices have been driven down by American production’s rise to a new high of 10.25 million BPD.

In sum, the days of OPEC — an evil cartel of evil states, from socialist Venezuela to religious-fascist Iran to duplicitous Saudi Arabia to revanchist neofascist Russia — are numbered. The free market will at last prevail.




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Castro Agonistes

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“You know you’re speaking to a dead man.”
                                                                      —Fidel Castro talking to Cuban artist Kcho

Fidel (Hipólito Casiano) Alejandro Castro Ruz died on November 25. He was born on August 13, 1926 on his father’s sugar plantation in Biran, near Mayari, in what was then Oriente Province, Cuba.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years (if you count the time he shadowed Raul after formally retiring); longer than Porfirio Diaz, Alfredo Stroessner, Anastasio Somoza, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo, and Francisco Franco. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class. He eliminated nowhere near as many as the 20th century’s truly heavy hitters, Mao Tse-tung (70 million), Joseph Stalin (40 million), Adolf Hitler (depends on how they’re tallied), Pol Pot (2 million) — or a slew of other, lesser killers. He did, however, kill more people than Augusto Pinochet.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, the late Dr. Armando Lago, a Cuban economist, attempted to document all deaths attributed to Castro in what he called the Cuban Archive Project. In it, Dr. Lago distinguished two major categories: #1, those directly killed by the regime, and #2; those whose deaths were an indirect consequence of Castro’s power. The majority of category #2 cases are mostly collateral damage from Fidel’s foreign adventures in places such as El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, etc.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class.

To be counted in the first category, as one directly killed by the Castro regime, each candidate victim must have a name and address and have his death corroborated by two independent sources. This category includes people executed with or without a trial, those killed in prison directly or by premeditated neglect, uncooperative campesinos summarily executed during the revolution, counter-revolutionaries killed in battle after the revolution, balseros murdered adrift while attempting to leave Cuba, and a few other unfortunate souls in various other categories.

Notably, the first category also includes Cuban soldiers — both conscripts and volunteers — killed in combat abroad, mostly in Angola and Ethiopia. Dr. Lago’s tally of deaths directly attributed to Castro tops 115,000, with the balseros alone constituting over 60% of the killed, and about 5,000 casualties of the Angolan intervention. With such stringent criteria, there are doubtless more. Bear in mind that as a percentage of Cuba’s modest population, 115,000 is a notable plus or minus 2%. Dr. Lago’s second category tally tops 500,000.

* * *

Like most absolute dictators, Castro lived his life as if the world revolved around him. He kept his own idiosyncratic hours, rising late and pursuing the business of state long after midnight and well into the dawn. He’d summon underlings peremptorily at all hours of the night for orders, consultations, or dressing-downs, and keep journalists and visitors waiting indefinitely for promised interviews.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial.

Though loath to admit it, he had much in common with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. At the time Fidel was born, Cuba had been independent of Spain for only 25 years. In fact, Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been a young Spanish soldier stationed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After Spain’s defeat, he decided to stay and try his hand at growing sugarcane in the newly US-controlled island. Although he was illiterate, it didn’t take long for the ambitious and enterprising Castro père to acquire vast tracts of land through a combination of extreme luck — he won Cuba’s biggest lottery jackpot twice — and thrift.

In Cuba, all families retained strong atavistic links to the Old World regions from which they hailed: European descendants to their home provinces and African descendants to their tribes. These took the form of clubs or associations that met often to promote old regional ties and values. Fidel’s father hailed from Galicia, the old Celtic province on the northwest coast of Spain fronting the Bay of Biscay. Galicians still play their bagpipes. (Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s inscrutable conservative prime minister, is also Galician.)

Franco too was Galician. Both were very gallego: bull-headed and inflexible, with a dedication to idealism, whatever the stripe. Vain, reserved and austere, with strong characters and personality, neither Francisco Franco nor Angel Castro had a well-developed sense of humor.

Jose Ignacio Rasco, a classmate of many years, says, “(He’s) completely lacking in a sense of humor. [He] doesn’t know how to laugh at himself. A solemn gravity is his ordinary conversational tone. [He’s] uncomfortable with small talk during which he’s given to hyperbole and suspense . . . and lying.” What little sense of humor Castro possessed was forced out at the conclusion of the Elian Gonzales saga when Fidel hosted a public conference to reflect on the event and its meaning. On the way to the podium he stumbled and fell. The audience froze. Fortunately, little Elian saved the day. When the boy started giggling, Castro loosened up and the participants thawed. Some almost laughed.

Fidel’s vanity was a strong, albeit eccentric undercurrent of his demeanor. His own best PR man, he was obsessed with his image and, by extension, the Revolution’s. In public he was always meticulously outfitted in handmade black leather boots, impeccable olive green rebel fatigues, or, in recent years, a tailored business suit. After the Revolution, he never shaved his beard — it had become a symbol of everything he stood for. However, he had no interest in finery, jewelry, or elegance — though he ate well — or the acquisition of things; and he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

On the other hand, in his private person, he was not just unshaven but usually unwashed and unkempt. Before coming to power he often insisted that close family members cut his nails and attend to his laundry. Fidel’s vanity, when coupled with his humorlessness, would become a contributing factor in his own death (as I will discuss below), and more than his own death: it cost General Arnaldo Ochoa his life.

He had no interest in finery, jewelry, elegance, or the acquisition of things; he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

Ochoa was a hero of the Revolution, the African wars, and many of the Latin American interventions. An easygoing and irreverent Afro-Cuban — affectionately known as “el negro” — he rose to prominence from humble origins. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, heir apparent, head of the armed forces, and the brains behind Cuba’s economic survival after the loss of Soviet subsidies, depended on Ochoa as an uninhibited sounding board. He was Raul’s best friend and drinking buddy. At the time of his death, Ochoa was arguably the third most popular man in Cuba.

On a fishing trip with el maximo lider, Ochoa crassly joked about Fidel’s unflattering swimming trunks. It was the beginning of Ochoa’s downfall. In a severe test of his brother’s loyalty, Fidel insisted that the popular general be court-martialed on trumped-up drug charges. Convicted, he was subsequently executed before a firing squad. When Raul faced Cuba’s military elite to justify and make sense of the brutal murder, he was visibly distraught. He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet. Halfway through, he broke into tears. Many suspect he was drunk — a not uncommon condition for him.

The opposite of his brother Raul, Fidel seldom drank or socialized in groups. He had a deep-seated drive to control all situations and always be the center of attention. In some ways Fidel was much more gallego than Cuban. The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune. Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Castro’s personal bodyguard of 17 years, says in his book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, that Fidel couldn’t dance and had no interest in music.

Castro’s anger was cold and withdrawn. In those 17 years, Sanchez saw him lose his temper only twice. When his daughter Alina defected, “Fidel went mad with rage . . . [H]is gestures resembled those of a capricious child in the middle of a tantrum: standing up, he stamped his feet on the ground while pointing his two index fingers down to his toes and waving them around.” The second time was when his mother-in-law — a dedicated tippler, bon vivant, and accomplice to one of Fidel’s wife’s infidelities — finished off a bottle of his favorite scotch.

Like Franco, Castro was not particularly out for personal gain, nor could he be characterized as a cynic. So when Forbes magazine alleged that his Swiss bank accounts made him one of the world’s richest men, it hit a nerve like nothing else, except being called a caudillo, the Spanish term for Führer — usually reserved only for Franco. On a fairly recent visit that Castro paid to Spain, the Galician premier suggested that Fidel, when he “retired,” should consider living out his last years in Galicia. Fidel studiously ignored the suggestion. But like Franco, he admired autarky. One of his very first edicts, on Christmas of 1959, was to outlaw imported Christmas trees, suggesting that palm trees ought to grace the holiday.

The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune.

Franco, like Fidel, died after a prolonged illness of the gut. Their illnesses and deaths were clouded by much rumor and speculation, because many thought their regimes’ survival depended on their own survival. Contrary to irresponsible rumors, both men are still dead. As to Castro’s regime, it’s on life support.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s ideological journey began at La Salle, the Catholic Christian Brothers’ primary school he attended, with the inculcation of boilerplate catechism, the virtues of sacrifice, and a strong empathy for the poor. Afterward, in high school, the Jesuits added an intellectual dialectic that probably undermined his religious faith — though he still retains a soft spot for liberation theology. As a child growing up in the sugarcane plantations of Oriente, he was struck by the disparities between the US-owned sugar refineries and the kowtowing of the local producers to their sometimes arrogant whims, including arbitrary price fixing and social segregation. When he learned how the American refiners entrenched themselves — during the turmoil of the US occupation after the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War — about the shabby treatment meted out to Cuba’s independence rebels by the American expeditionary forces during and after that conflict, and about the imposition of the Platt Amendment (whereby the US Congress retained the right to veto Cuba’s foreign policy), he developed a strong anti-US and anti-imperialist streak.

At the university, attaining power for its own sake became his main focus, according to his sister Juanita and many other sources. Initially, ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes. At the time this meant gun-toting, gangsterish fringe groups — not uncommon in Cuba’s then-claustrophobic political milieu — such as the Revolutionary Insurrectional Union, which he duly joined.

He admired men of action, particularly Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Lenin. During his first years in law school, he was drawn to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Spanish Falangism, the ideology behind Francisco Franco’s movement. Padre Llorente, one of Fidel’s teachers at Belen, later recalled breaking into spontaneous, rousing choruses of Cara al Sol, the Falangist anthem, with the young Castro. A bit later, he came to admire Benito Mussolini’s Fascism.

In 1948 General Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba in one form or another from 1933 to 1944, returned from his self-imposed US exile. Castro finagled an introduction to the strongman from his new brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who had become a prominent member of Batista’s inner circle. Overstepping every boundary of propriety, Fidel insinuated himself into a tête-à-tête with the ex-president and tried to convince the man to launch a coup d’état. His presumption was rebuffed in the iciest of terms.

Ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes.

So Castro moved to the center, joining the progressive, reformist Orthodox Party later that same year. Unfortunately, he was constitutionally incapable of working as a member of a team and was distrusted by the party’s ruling elite, who thought him an unprincipled gangster. Still, he decided to run for the lower house of Congress in the 1952 elections.

Unwilling to subject himself to the messy business of Cuban political sausage-making, Batista did in fact launch a coup in 1952, seizing power and canceling the elections. Fidel would probably have won his seat in Congress, but by then he’d lost all confidence in the democratic process, particularly as it was practiced in Cuba.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution. The fact that he actually never joined the party before seizing power and always kept his ideological cards close to his chest so as not to imperil his chances complicates the issue. During his congressional campaign Fidel used Raul as his intermediary with Communist Party members, who backed him but whose public support would have been detrimental. In a 1975 interview, Raul Castro confirms that it was Fidel who first introduced him to Marxism, back in 1951 when Fidel had given him Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Raul read it twice and experienced something of a Pauline conversion.

In early 1953 Fidel sent Raul to a Kremlin-sponsored international youth conference in Vienna. Raul made quite an impression, particularly on Nikolai Leonov, a young KGB operative, who befriended the Cuban. Leonov later went on to become the KGB’s top Latin America specialist. After the conference, Raul was invited to spend a month in Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Later on, while in prison after their first botched attempt to seize power, both brothers took advantage of their enforced respite to deepen their understanding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, reading, among other works, Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. In a December 2, 1961 speech Fidel Castro declared that he was already a Marxist when he launched his coup on July 26, 1953 by attacking the Moncada army barracks: "Various people have asked me whether back during the Moncada thing I thought then the way I think now. I've told them: 'I thought then very similarly to the way I think now. On that date, my revolutionary thinking was completely formed.’ What's more, I believed absolutely in Marxism back on January first [of that year]" (emphasis Castro's). Ideologically, if not through actual party membership, Fidel Castro had been a communist for a decade before the triumph of the Revolution.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution.

President Dwight Eisenhower was well aware of Castro’s ideology and ordered the CIA to overthrow him — a project bumblingly attempted with hired Mafia hitmen, exploding cigars, and other Rube Goldberg expedients. John F. Kennedy, when he became president, continued the operation, by then codenamed Mongoose. Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro — if you don’t count the one by the unlikely troika of the exiled Batista, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (whom Castro had once tried to overthrow), and Jimmy Hoffa, who may have been helping out mob friends fearful that Castro would close their Cuban operations. Instead of eliminating the problem, the attempts became high-caliber ammunition in the increasingly serious propaganda war developing between Cuba and the US.

* * *

Fidel Castro loved adulation and power and wallowed in their perks. As a leader of men, he was second to none, being able to inspire and cajole nearly anyone into anything. Though he was perceived as having the gift of gab, this was a talent he studiously developed in his years at Belen, one of Cuba’s best Jesuit high schools. There he joined the forensic society and practiced his diction, delivery, and organization of thoughts interminably — in private and before a mirror. He had to. Growing up on a sugarcane plantation in the province of Oriente, he spoke a colorful guajiro vernacular, the Cuban equivalent of the backwoods Arkansas hillbilly dialect. Later, his ability to switch back and forth between the colloquial and the educated became a potent rhetorical device that forged a deep connection with his fellow Cubans.

It is no exaggeration to say that he has spoken more words on the public record than any political leader in history. He could hold audiences rapt for hours, Führer-style. Even those who hated him would tune in for his hours-long harangues. During his first 25 years in power he delivered over 2,500 formal speeches — that’s two per week, every week. The longest on record, in January 1968, was 12 hours long — fortunately, with an intermission. He still holds the record for the longest speech — at four-and-a-half hours — ever delivered at the United Nations. “As you may well know,” he said in November 1993, “my job is to talk.”

Fidel was a “big picture” man. He could size up a man or a situation in seconds, and strategize many moves ahead in nearly any circumstance. As a political strategist and propagandist he was unequalled. But as a tactician and organizer, he was a disaster.

Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro's life.

When he stepped onto the pages of history on July 26, 1953 with his attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago, he tripped. Never mind that Batista had been in power for only one year and that, in Marxist terms, a “revolutionary situation” just did not exist. This first attempt to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista proved suicidal for most of the participants. Not only did they meet stiff resistance (which Castro should have expected), but all his planning had been little more than careless wishful thinking coupled with impromptu expediency (some rebels even had to ride public buses to the assault). One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him. Those who weren’t killed in the strike were soon rounded up and shot in cold blood by the soldiers. A few, such as Fidel and his brother, lay low for a few days and then turned themselves in after pleas for clemency from well-connected family members made surrender a possibility.

The survivors were tried in a civil tribunal. At the trial, Castro acted as his own lawyer and summed up his defense with what would later become his most famous speech, “History will absolve me.” A sympathetic judge, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, voted for leniency. (Castro was grateful and later appointed Urrutia Provisional President after the triumph of the Revolution; he lasted only six months.) The Castro brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Pines.

Fidel described his incarceration as a “necessary and welcome vacation.” In a letter home he wondered “how much longer we’re going to be in this paradise” and compared the accommodations to those of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s premier luxury hotel and, later, the residence of El Maximo Lider. Compared to the prison conditions his regime would impose, the Isle of Pines was a Caribbean vacation. Castro was allowed twice-monthly visits, including the conjugal sort. His cell bordered a large patio and remained open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. He was never subject to roll calls or regimentation and could rise or retire at will. The prison had a well-stocked market where Fidel, the gourmand, could buy delicacies and prepare them in his kitchen; alternatively, he could enjoy a fine meal at the small prison restaurant. He wrote home, “I take two baths a day due to the heat . . . [L]ater in the small restaurant available, I dine on calamari and pasta, Italian bonbons, fresh drip coffee and an H. Upmann #4 cigar.”

But prison wasn’t all vacation. Castro read voraciously, contributing many tomes to the Raul Gomez Garcia prison library, and ran classes for fellow inmates at the “Abel Santamaria Ideological Academy,” both of which he founded and maintained.

Two years later, again following pleas for clemency from his sympathizers — but over the strenuous objections of his ex-brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who knew him well and was a member of Congress — President Batista pardoned Fidel Castro. He and a handful of men left for Mexico to regroup and train to return to conquer Cuba.

Eric Shipton, the great British mountaineer, once said that if a man couldn’t organize an expedition on the back of an envelope, he wasn’t up to the task. Fidel seemed to belong to the back-of-the-envelope-expedition-planning school, but he was no Shipton. Though somewhat of a mountaineer, he was decidedly no sailor, and, as the disastrous Moncada attack had shown, he was thoroughly out of his element when faced with detailed and complex planning. When he finally set out to invade Cuba, he nearly trumped his Moncada failure.

On November 24, 1956, Fidel Castro launched from the Mexican port of Tuxpan with 82 men (many again arriving via public bus) aboard the critically overloaded 60-foot yacht Granma. They sailed with barely enough food, water, and fuel to reach Cuba; without medicine, charts, maps, or navigational aids (except for the built-in compass); and in the face of gale-force winds at the tail end of the Caribbean hurricane season. Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him.

The men waded through chest-deep water and came ashore in a swamp whose tangled vegetation lacerated them. Solid ground was no reprieve. Batista’s air force and troops had been tipped off. They surrounded the men in a canefield and slaughtered all but a dozen, reporting back that Castro had been killed and his entire band wiped out.

What little equipment Fidel had brought on board was lost in the confusion of the disastrous landing. Miraculously, the surviving dozen were able to make their way deep into Oriente province’s Sierra Maestra Mountains to regroup and heal their wounds — including Guevara’s shot in the neck. In less than a month the Rebel Army was reduced to nine men. Luckily, no one was looking for them.

The disastrous voyage must have precipitated a massive depression in Castro, for it led to the realization that he was an organizational and management failure — no easy thing for Fidel to admit. So he promoted his brother Raul to captain just before landfall. This proved to be the best decision he ever made. Ironically, Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths. Raul would later rise to become the tactical mastermind not only of the conquest of the island but also of the remarkably successful Angolan and Ethiopian military interventions and, finally, of Cuba’s economic salvation when the Soviet Union imploded.

During the two-year-long insurrection, Fidel Castro remained in the Sierra Maestra strategizing and propagandizing, while Raul coordinated, organized, and managed the details of the revolution. Field Commanders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos advanced, fought the battles, and won the victories. But they also had outside help.

At the time, Castro’s 26th of July Movement was not the only armed resistance to Batista, but it was the key one. Alongside it, the Students’ Revolutionary Directory organized urban hits, while the Escambray Front and Second Escambray Front both waged guerrilla war from the Escambray Mountains in Camaguey province near the center of the island.

Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

On New Year’s Day 1959, Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas province, fell to a rebel pincer movement coordinated with the combined forces of the Escambray Fronts. One thousand demoralized government troops surrendered. The following day, Guevara and Cienfuegos, at the head of their victorious armies, entered Havana. The capital went wild. But Batista had already fled on New Year’s Eve; and Fidel, ever the showman, delayed his triumphant entry until January 8. Then the world went wild.

The two-year war had been relatively bloodless, with only 867 casualties on both sides. But Castro soon made up for it with firing squads. As Grayston Lynch, one of two CIA operatives present in the Bay of Pigs invasion, states, “In the first three months of his regime, Castro topped the 867 figure with room to spare. More than 5,000 Cubans would meet their death at the paredon, the firing wall.”

* * *

Fidel’s family tree is messily complex. He himself was not the son of his father’s wife, Maria Luisa Argota, but rather of his father’s 19-year-old live-in lover, Lina Ruz — Angel Castro and Maria having separated years before and taken up new mates. At the time, both in Cuba and in Spain, illegitimacy was a harsh burden, branded on the offspring with the mother’s surname instead of the father’s. Castro’s father did not marry Lina Ruz until the boy turned 17, at which time he became Fidel Castro instead of Fidel Ruz. He would forevermore hold social conventions in contempt. Fidel had six full brothers and sisters — in order, Angelita, Ramon, Fidel, Raul, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina — and two siblings from his father’s first wife: Lidia and Pedro Emilio.

Initially, Angel Castro spent little time with Fidel, foisting him off on Haitian tutors in far-off Santiago at the age of four to begin his proper education. At the time, he was much too busy managing the family ranch, and he believed, as was common then, in the benefits of a boarding school experience. Fidel hated it, complaining that “these people don’t care for us, they don’t feed us, we’re always hungry, the house is very ugly, the woman is lazy and we’re just wasting time here.” Much later — perhaps out of guilt or regret — Fidel became his father’s favorite son and was spoiled rotten by him. Like many overindulged children, Fidel bullied younger playmates and threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way. He was a bad loser.

On the one hand, Angel Castro wanted, more than anything else, for at least one son — Fidel — to achieve a university education. On the other hand, Fidel lacked his family’s entrepreneurial bent and showed no inclination toward or talent for earning an honest living. The boy was a brilliant dilettante. So, Angel provided money and powerful contacts to his son well into adulthood. Nonetheless, father-son dynamics played out their strange minuet with, at best, Fidel becoming ambivalent about his father and, at worst, deploring him. Juanita Castro, in her memoirs, quotes Fidel as saying, at news of their father’s death, “There’s no time for mourning; we need to prepare for worse things,” while both Ramon and Raul wept unselfconsciously.

Promoting his brother Raul to captain proved to be the best decision Castro ever made. Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths.

There were many reasons for the ambivalence. Fidel and his father both shared similar, very gallego personalities, which clashed. Both had an inflexible drive to dominate, untempered by any vestige of wit. And both had a strong sense of social justice, which nonetheless led them to clash ideologically. Angel’s was more noblesse oblige, while Fidel rejected what he perceived as rightful entitlements dependent on the charitable whims of any one man. The Castro compound in Biran just wasn’t big enough for both egos. Finally, Fidel, the ultra-nationalist Cuban chauvinist who would rise to avenge all the injustices — real and imagined — that were ever imposed on the Pearl of the Antilles, couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until 1941, at the ripe old age of 66.

Playing no favorites and exercising his inflexible streak of dogmatism, Fidel confiscated all the Castro family lands after the Revolution (though he warned his family to sell their herd before the Agrarian Reform edict went into effect).

Castro’s middle names are both revealing and a source of controversy. The first, Hipolito, was given by the Haitian foster family under whose care he lived while attending grammar school in Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. As more-or-less godparents, they had the privilege of conferring a middle name. No one knows the origin of Casiano. The only source for the name is a Cuban government secondary school diploma issued in September 1945. Alejandro, on the other hand, is self-endowed, a tribute to Alexander the Great, one of Fidel’s long-time heroes. It replaced Hipolito and Casiano; and became the given name for three of his sons: Alexis, Alejandro, and Alex.

Castro’s family name speaks volumes. The word comes from the Latin castrum, meaning castle. In Asturias and Galicia whence it originates as a family name, it refers to a pre-Roman fortified hill site — one that has stood its ground interminably. Fidel, of course, is from the Latin for loyal.

Fidel’s love life was even more Byzantine. In 1948 he married his teenage sweetheart, Mirta Diaz-Balart, a woman whose family were intimates of Fulgencio Batista and whose brother would soon become a minister in his government. Flush with a $10,000 gift from his dad, Fidel bought a blue Lincoln, shipped it to Miami and drove to New York for their honeymoon. They had one son, Fidelito. But differences — in aspirations, in politics, in families, and in fidelity (in spite of his name, Fidel was el maximo philanderer, being nicknamed El Caballo — The Stallion — by Benny Moré, the popular entertainer [by contrast, Batista was a dedicated family man]) — soon undermined the marriage. He didn’t marry again until 1980; but the number of his affairs and assignations rivaled the length of his speeches.

In his Sierra Maestra redoubt he took up with Celia Sanchez, the woman who would later become what Juanita Castro described as “the right hand, left hand, both feet and beard of Fidel.” Meanwhile, at the triumph of the Revolution, Castro wallowed in female adoration. Yanez Pelletier, a confidante who’d once saved him in prison from poisoning, became his procurer. He was known as “minister of the bedroom,” a nickname coined by Raul. When Pelletier fell from grace, Celia Sanchez became his intimate executive secretary, moving into Fidel’s quarters with him. Though now severely circumscribed, the assignations still continued. When Celia Sanchez died in 1980, Fidel was bereft.

Fidel couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until the ripe old age of 66.

Still, less than a week after her death, he married Dalia Soto del Valle, the mystery woman with whom Fidel had shared his life since 1961. As if reinforcing the myth that the Revolution was his only mistress, Castro imposed such a low profile on her that Brian Lattell, a CIA analyst, says that “[she] and her sons might as well have been consigned to a witness protection program, so elaborate are the security precautions that surround them”. She never attended any of his public appearances (unless in disguise) and did not accompany him on official functions, diplomatic receptions, or foreign trips. During the latter, his mistresses included Juana Vera, “Pili” Pilar — both interpreters — and Gladys, a Cubana airline flight attendant. All told, at least five different liaisons, relationships, and marriages produced nine to twelve children. He was coy about it. Asked in 1993 how many children he had, Castro replied, “Less than a dozen . . . I think.” (Wikipedia and Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, his bodyguard, tally nine and ten, respectively.) Like their mothers and his siblings, some are with him, some are against him, and some have come to terms with the status quo.

* * *

Fidel Castro couldn’t really be characterized as a psycho- or sociopath, though he had a well-developed sense of vengefulness. And he wasn’t all-consumed by the suspicious mistrust and cruelty that absorbed Stalin and Mao. Unlike most of the other 20th-century tyrants, he was tall, athletic, and handsome. His Jesuit education and law degree inspired a thoughtful, intellectual sophistry that made him an absorbing confabulator, gifted with a glib tongue. But the world didn’t see this side during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Instead it saw an aggrieved adolescent. Fidel Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may. Jose Rasco recounts an episode of the young Fidel making a bet with a classmate, Luis Juncadella, that “he [Castro] was capable of crashing, head first, on a bicycle at full speed, against a concrete wall in full view of the entire school. And he did it, at the cost of cracking his head and ending up unconscious in the infirmary.”

Arnaldo Aguila, a recent biographer, gives this analysis:

Right here, from his youngest years, Fidel’s personality all comes together: an illegitimate social origin; an authoritarian father, brusque and of strong character, hard, without affection, indifferent; an excellent physical constitution that permits him to best others easily; a memory so outside the norm that no other student comes even close and an egoistical self-denial that impels him against every type of wall (including social impediments and Yankee Imperialism) coupled with a deep-seated passion to excel, to make bets to demonstrate that he can realize what others won’t even attempt, that he’s better than everyone else, perhaps to impress/defeat his father.

When Nikita Khrushchev provided China with nuclear weapons technology and missiles in the late 1950s, he was unaware of Mao’s absolute disdain for human life. He assumed that Mao’s long relationship with the USSR made him trustworthy. He soon learned otherwise and, by 1960, withdrew all technical nuclear assistance to China.

Two years later, when Castro requested nuclear missiles, Khrushchev jumped at the opportunity. But burned once, he didn’t fully trust Fidel (despite his name). So he complied only on condition that the Soviet Union retain absolute control over them. Though Castro agreed, it infuriated him. That fury was further aggravated when he was left out of the Kennedy-Khrushchev negotiations and subsequent missile removal that defused the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may.

The Missile Crisis was precipitated by the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in mid-October of that year and by President Kennedy’s ultimatum that they be removed. The crisis consisted of the threat that failure to do so would precipitate armed attack. In anticipation, the US mobilized the navy to blockade the island. On October 26 Castro informed Khrushchev that “the Soviet Union ought never to permit circumstances in which the imperialists could launch a first nuclear strike…and that if they invade Cuba that would be the moment to eliminate forever such a danger — no matter how hard and terrible that solution may seem . . .”

On October 30, Khrushchev responded to Castro: “In your cable . . . you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the enemy. You do understand the consequences of this. This wouldn’t be a single strike, instead . . . the start of a thermonuclear world war . . . Evidently, in such a case the US would suffer great losses, but the USSR and the entire socialist camp would also suffer much. As to Cuba and the Cuban people . . . at the start of the war Cuba would burn . . .”

The next day Castro confirmed to Khrushchev that he well understood the consequences: “I knew . . . Do not presume that I ignored . . . that [the Cubans] would be exterminated . . . in case of a thermonuclear war…”

It’s good that no one was paying attention to him: he had made it quite clear that he would not have backed down whatever the consequences. Perceiving the entire event as an unpardonable breach of Cuba’s sovereignty, he soured on Khrushchev, and relations with the USSR worsened. China and Mao Tse-tung’s more uncompromising brand of communism became his new best friends.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s drive to prove that he’s better than everyone else drove him to eliminate his immediate competition — anyone whose charisma and popularity threatened to overshadow his, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. After his accession to power, Castro set his sights on Huber Matos, leader of one of the independent Escambray Fronts. By luck or design, he managed to kill two birds with one stone.

Matos had sent a letter to Fidel resigning his position because of ideological differences. Since Fidel brooked no ideological differences, he declared Matos in rebellion and sent Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, to arrest him. After meeting with Matos, Cienfuegos advised Castro that there was really no rebellion; that in fact, Matos was simply resigning. That night, the plane carrying Camilo Cienfuegos back to Havana mysteriously crashed. The second officer dispatched to arrest Matos did not question Castro’s orders. Matos, however, got off easy. Due to his own very public and principled defense, Cienfuegos’ mysterious death, the ensuing publicity over the whole affair, and pleas from foreign governments and NGO’s, Matos kept his life but spent the next 20 years in prison, after which he emigrated to the US. Huber Matos died in 2014.

Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo.

Che Guevara was next. The Argentine had captured the world’s admiration and affection with his idealism and boyish good looks. He appeared as an Argentine selflessly risking his life in a foreign country for a Robin Hood morality; a slight, asthmatic waif, barely able to grow a beard, brandishing a Thompson sub-machine gun and puffing a big cigar, with a refreshing but unpredictable tendency “to call shit, shit.”

Soon after taking power Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session, he asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up and Castro appointed him minister of industries, then finance minister, and finally president of the national bank. In September 1960, Che nationalized the banks. Then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, he announced a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly disappeared. Che’s idealism, when coupled with Castro’s unwillingness to share the spotlight, would cost him his life.

When Guevara published an article in 1965 criticizing the disparity between the lives of the Revolution’s elites and those of the common people, Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo, where the remnants of Patrice Lumumba’s forces were mired in the hopeless task of trying to regain power. It wasn’t the beginning of Fidel’s foreign adventurism, a policy of exporting socialist revolution around the world. That had begun back in June 1959, with his disastrous attempt to invade, first, the Dominican Republic to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, and then the following month his attack against Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Nearly all the men on both attempts perished.

Before leaving, Guevara, in private, wrote his will, renounced his Cuban offices and citizenship and compared Castro to Stalin. In a fit of pique, Castro made the documents public. When Mobutu Sese Seko consolidated power, the Cubans admitted defeat and returned to Cuba — all that is except Guevara. But Congo did not become El Che’s grave. Uncomfortable about returning to Cuba, he bided his time in Dar-es-Salaam and Prague until duty again beckoned.

Castro hit the mark when he then sent Guevara to Bolivia. There he was to organize the peasants and overthrow the government. Daniel Alarcon, Che’s second-in-command, recalled, “Fidel accorded with the USSR and the Bolivian Communist Party sending Che to die in the jungle,” where he was ignominiously executed on October 9, 1967.

Soon thereafter Castro decided to get serious about exporting revolution. At the end of the ’60s he established Punto Cero de Guanabo, a 64-square-kilometer training camp 15 miles east of Havana for Marxist guerillas. The list of recruits trained at Punto Cero is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals: from Colombia — the FARC, the ELN, and M19; from Peru — the Shining Path and MRTA; from Chile — the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriguez, from Nicaragua — the FSLN (Sandinistas); from El Salvador — the FMLN; from Spain — ETA (the Basque separatist movement); from Northern Ireland — the IRA; from Palestine — the PLO; from Western Sahara — the Polisario Front; from the US — the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Macheteros; from Venezuela — Carlos the Jackal; from Mexico — Sub-Comandante Marcos; and an unnamed group from Guatemala.

Thanks to Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have buried their dead in the most unlikely corners of the earth. Perhaps the most absurd intervention El Maximo Lider ever undertook was in the Ethiopia-Somalia war. Somalia, a Soviet client state ruled by the iron fist of Mohamed Siad Barre, coveted Ethiopia’s Ogaden region under the guise of creating a greater Somalia. Mengistu Haile Mariam, absolute ruler of Ethiopia — also a Soviet client state — would have none of it. Castro, fancying himself an honest broker, decided to mediate. He counseled peace. When Siad Barre ignored his counsel and Somalia attacked Ethiopia, Fidel intervened by sending Cuban troops and materiel to Ethiopia, effectively giving Mengistu the upper hand.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s star shone brightly in the fall of 1979. His lifelong quest for glory and power had achieved its zenith: against all odds, he won his first and only election — and on a global stage, at that — for president of the non-aligned movement, consisting of those countries that professed neutrality in the Cold War. The victory was all the more remarkable because of Cuba’s $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy. There was no denying that he was firmly embedded in the Soviet camp.

The list of recruits trained at Castro's Punto Cero Marxist guerrilla camp is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals.

The Cuban army had been active in Africa as early as 1961, with aid to Ahmed Ben Bella’s liberation movement in Algeria. It later intervened in conflicts in Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea-Bissau. By 1979 Cuban troops were four years into the 16-year Angolan intervention, which later secured the victory of the Marxist regime. Forty thousand were to remain to guarantee it. They had met the South African army on the battlefield and were besting them. The Cuban intervention involved the air and sea transport of 60,000 troops over 6,000 miles despite the obstacle of limited or nonexistent forward international bases. This resulted in long journeys aboard old aircraft with overworked pilots. While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel. Castro himself ran strategic and tactical operations from Havana after Soviet advisors in the field proved inept.

Another ten to fifteen thousand troops were stationed in Ethiopia propping up Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist government. Now they were contemplating intervention in neighboring Sudan. In his own backyard, Castro had been crucial in boosting to power Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Maurice Bishop in Granada. Everywhere, the Cubans had fought with great ferocity, upholding their commander-in-chief’s uncompromising demands. It was a staggering accomplishment for a country of 10.5 million.

In contrast, the US was mired in the throes of “Vietnam syndrome” and had just survived Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. For Fidel, things couldn’t be better. In October 1979, he traveled to New York to address the United Nations demanding: “We want a new world order based on justice, equality and peace to replace the unfair and unequal system that prevails today…” Never again would the stars align so propitiously for Fidel.

And then, on Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, precipitating Castro’s long descent into failure and irrelevance. The invasion proved beyond the pale even for the corrupt, authoritarian, and sycophantic left-wing governments that comprised most of the non-aligned movement. Unable to justify the invasion on non-aligned principles, Castro capitulated to the USSR: “We [are] not going to place ourselves on the side of the United States and so we [are] on the side of the Soviet Union.” For the rest of his three-year term as president of the non-aligned movement, he was a lame duck.

While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel.

The invasion and reversal of fortune was a devastating blow whose consequences rippled throughout Cuban society and into the very bowels of the Kremlin. Economic problems had worsened considerably while Fidel had been preoccupied with his international feats. On April 1, 1980, a group of Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian embassy seeking political asylum. Thinking that there were only a disaffected few, Castro urged any and all who wished, to leave. To his surprise and embarrassment, 10,000 desperate Cubans from all over the island stormed the embassy, occupying every inch of space, perching on tree limbs and roofs. Even policemen deployed to maintain order joined the throngs. Humiliated, Castro decided to shift the problem to the US. He opened Mariel harbor to unlimited emigration for four months. The Dunkirk-style evacuation freed 125,000 refugees; including murderers, rapists, psychopaths, and the criminally insane, whom he’d surreptitiously thrown in for good measure.

For the Soviet Union, the Afghan war proved a burden too heavy for a bankrupt system already on the verge of collapse. In the crisis beginning in 1989, Soviet Communism capitulated to the popular will, the Union dissolved, the ruble became worthless, and Cuba’s subsidies disappeared.

* * *

Motivated by socialist values, Fidel Castro outlawed and stamped out all private economic enterprise — except whenever Cuba’s economy bottomed out. At those points, emulating Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he’d legalize small, tightly regulated — and exorbitantly taxed (sometimes at more than 100% of gross receipts) — entrepreneurial initiatives. Once Cuba’s economy was back on its bound feet, he’d outlaw them again.

When the Soviet Union fell and Cuba’s subsidies were cut, it took more than family restaurants and B&B’s to float the island. So Fidel reached for a new paradigm: he launched what may be called CASTROS (Capitalism, Apartheid, and Socialism To Restore Our Solvency). Here’s how it worked. The Cuban government, employer and investor of first and last resort (Socialism) created joint partnerships with foreign firms to create profits (Capitalism). The profits provided — and still do — the lion’s share of Cuba’s income. The joint partnerships, mostly developed as resorts for foreign tourists, employed a handful of Cubans. No other Cubans were allowed on or near the resorts or their clientele (Apartheid). The resort economy has its own currency, tightly controlled and unavailable to regular Cubans. Following an earlier Chinese model, the authority for the joint partnerships resides in the army, headed by Raul Castro. The joint partnerships are now a bigger source of foreign reserve than sugar, which, ever since nationalization, has underperformed.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert. His first big program was island-wide agrarian reform. At first, this mostly meant the confiscation and nationalization of all the big sugar plantations and refineries. But later, every cow, pig, and chicken became state property. Not a few campesinos paid the ultimate price for slaughtering their backyard animals for a meaty meal without permission. After Soviet tractors and parts became unavailable, draft oxen replaced 90% of mechanized farm labor.

Inevitably shortages ensued and the government instituted rationing. Even sugar was rationed. Cuban cuisine suffered without olive oil, cooking sherry, capers, ham, chorizo, pimentos, and other essential ingredients. With cattle being retained from the abattoirs and trained as draft animals, beef all but disappeared. But el maximo dietician came to the rescue. Production of comestibles turned organic and “sustainable” — out of necessity, not health concerns. Salads, previously considered nothing more than “grass and water,” became a de rigueur staple, topped with eggless mayonnaise, something considered by Cubans America’s worst invention. And roadside kiosks, once a staple of innumerable meat goodies, now sell previously exotic “pizzas” of dough, tomato sauce, and cheese.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert.

Fidel raised the intellectual level of the sugar harvest by drafting primary, high school, and university students and faculty members to “voluntarily” wield machetes to bring in each season’s cane crop. No doubt these were welcome physical sabbaticals for overworked brains. Another of his innovations was the expansion of the coffee crop from steep, well-drained mountainsides down to low, water-logged flatlands. Coffee production bottomed. But his real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A previously dedicated cigar smoker, he left that alone.

Fidel was also, however, a medical innovator. Although back in 1953 Cuba had more doctors per capita than France, Holland, or the UK, Castro perceived a problem. Today, Cuba’s healthcare system of free universal coverage is the envy of every well-intentioned, ill-informed humanitarian. True, it’s absolutely free to the patient; the Cuban government picks up all the costs — in money, anyway. Trouble is, the government’s intentions are bigger than its pocketbook, so extreme shortages and rationing result. For expedited attention, an under-the-table gratuity is expected. In hopes of fat tips, underpaid doctors moonlight as taxi drivers for rich tourists. True also that everyone is covered — about as well as a dishcloth covers a king-size bed; only those in the center get complete coverage.

Fidel’s countless economic failures are due not just to his doctrinaire Marxism but also to a remarkable talent he was born with: a photographic memory. He discovered the trait as a student when faced with exams for which he hadn’t cracked a book and for which he was forced to cram at the last minute. The photographic memory — allowing him to memorize entire books, including the page numbers of particulars — saved him. But he always confused memory with a critical understanding of actual knowledge. This, coupled with his absolute lack of humility, prevented him from realizing that he was incapable of wisdom.

Time after time, after reading a single book on the subject du jour, Fidel would talk expertly about the marvelous economic benefits of some half-baked new scheme: how Cuba would overflow with milk once Pangola grass was planted to feed the dairy herds; how every Cuban would eat steak every day once Holsteins and Zebus were crossed (a project he pursued on the fourth floor of his downtown Havana residence with the help of a construction crane to lift and lower livestock); how the Zapata swamps would feed not only all of Cuba but much of the entire world, once they were drained and planted with a new strain of rice — how whatever new invention of his would cause manna to fall from the sky.

* * *

Fidel’s skills as an advocate were at their postmodern, post-ironic best when confronting the long-running US trade embargo. When the US first declared an embargo on the regime, it was a boilerplate, pro forma response to a worsening diplomatic situation. At the time, not only were embargoes considered rational alternatives to war (as they still are), they were actually considered effective. Today, with globalization and free trade much more in the ascendant, embargoes have become increasingly symbolic.

Castro's real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A dedicated cigar smoker, he left that crop alone.

No one has exploited the propaganda value of the embargo better than Fidel, to the absolute embarrassment and chagrin of every US administration that prolongs it. But the truly post-ironic aspect of the embargo is the blind brinksmanship of both sides. If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists. After all, such an invasion would have been much more effective than any military operation. And Castro is well aware of this. Serious overtures to lift the embargo, first by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and later by Jimmy Carter, were peremptorily rebuffed.

Relations with the United States at the end of the Fidel Castro era aren’t bad at all. The embargo, as regards trade in food and medicine has been eased. Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base and by cooperating with the enemy combatant incarceration program there. Escapees were quickly returned. And he finally cooperated with the war on drugs. Though many years ago he presided over narcotics, ivory, and tobacco smuggling operations and turned a blind eye to drug transshipments and money laundering — mostly to irritate the US and gain a tidy profit to finance his Revolution — he later purged his regime of all drug related graft. The anti-drug policy is still strictly enforced.

As an informal quid pro quo, the US refrains from any Bay of Pigs sort of enterprise and keeps close tabs on US based anti-Castro armed activity. Additionally, we’ve modified our unrestricted Cuban refugee policy; we now return any and all refugees who don’t actually make a US landing. These informal understandings, along with a desire to avoid bloodshed and maintain stability, are perceived as the basis for a post-Fidel transition.

* * *

In January of 2004, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, after meeting with Fidel Castro while vacationing in Cuba, reported that, “he seemed very sick to me.” His condition, later diagnosed as diverticulitis and aggravated by vanity, deteriorated over the course of the following two years. Unwilling to undergo the indignity of a colostomy bag, he insisted on a proper fixing up. The operation led to septicemia, which nearly killed him then, and set the stage for his ultimate demise.

If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists.

On July 31, 2006 — two weeks before his 80th birthday — Fidel temporarily delegated his duties to his brother Raul while he recuperated. But his close brush with death and his slow recovery finally led him — one and a half years later, in February 2008 — to retire from all his government offices, at which time Raul assumed all official duties.

It wasn’t his first brush with death. In April of 1983 he suffered his first recorded intestinal attack, which hospitalized him for 11 days, after which he convalesced for three months with no public appearances or speeches. The second attack occurred in September 1992 and was graver than the first, precipitating the initiation of transition protocols. During both events, Castro resorted to using a double who would ride the streets of Havana in his limousine, waving to passers-by to dispel any rumors that might have been leaked.

At his retirement, Castro’s fortune was estimated at $900 million, among the world’s top ten, by Forbes magazine — a revelation that irritated him no end and which he vehemently denied, claiming that he owned nothing but his nine-hundred peso monthly salary, equivalent to about $38.

But Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exercising influence through his column in Granma (Cuba’s version of Pravda), hovering and pontificating over all things large and small, exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events, and merely by being alive — a condition guaranteed to put the brakes on any radical reforms. To emphasize his resurgent vigor, he was elected Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, serving from 2006 to 2008.

Until 2011, Fidel Castro remained Chairman of the Communist Party of Cuba, in effect the guiding light of the Revolution, and a strong tempering influence on any possibility of change by his brother in the island.

He did, however, admit to some mistakes. He’d mishandled the Cuban Missile Crisis; he’d advocated nuking the US; he’d been wrong to persecute gays. Further, the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” He had already given up cigars back in 1985, for health reasons. And, as befits a retired pensioner, he took to wearing colorful tracksuits even during photo opportunities. Fidel’s Granma editorials ruminated on international events, sometimes striking a loud chord, especially when he berated the US policy of subsidizing ethanol, which he correctly perceived as a cause of rising food prices in the Americas; and when he warned the US not to engage in wars with Iran or North Korea after one Afghan and two Iraqi wars.

In 2012, the master of endless words — who had already corralled his thoughts from interminable logorrhea into much shorter newspaper editorials — further truncated his opinions into the severely constrained structure of the haiku, versifying on current affairs and recent history such as bemoaning Deng Xiaoping’s invention of “socialist capitalism” in three short lines. Cubans scratched their heads.

Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events merely by being alive.

From March to November Fidel disappeared from public involvement. Since he didn’t congratulate Hugo Chavez on his October 7 reelection victory, rumors proliferated about his demise. The Miami Herald even reported that he’d suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a vegetative state. To counter the speculation, a very frail Castro was wheeled into the Hotel Nacional to chat with the staff and provide a photo-op for the foreign press. Two days later, in a state media article ironically titled “Fidel Castro is dying,” he wrote that he was fine but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future (shades of Franco).

When, in December 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to reestablish diplomatic relations, Fidel remained silent. On the day the US Embassy was reopened, August 14, 2015 — one day after Fidel’s 89th birthday — he finally weighed in, declaring that the US owed Cuba billions of dollars in lost revenue because of the embargo. He still didn’t realize that trade is a two-way street. US Republican responses categorized the deal as a birthday present to Fidel; but judging from Fidel’s silence and petulant response, he perceived it as a slap in the face.

Castro shared one trait with former US President Richard Nixon. According to bodyguard Sanchez, Castro had a mania for recording everything. Perhaps someday the entire oeuvre of the Castro tapes will be released and the world will be able to listen to him in perpetuity.

Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base.

As of this writing, few realize that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba does not eliminate the embargo originally established by Dwight Eisenhower, strengthened by John F. Kennedy, and further fortified by Bill Clinton though the Helms-Burton Act. Only a congressional amendment or rescission of the Act can reverse the US embargo. Still, there was one dramatic change in Cuban policy: political detentions dropped to 178 in January 2015 from a monthly average of 741 in 2014.

* * *

As to Cuba, the scuttlebutt is that Raul wants to follow the China model by opening up the economy and making the peso convertible. This would allow him to retain power and, as head of the army’s joint venture programs, keep the money flowing into his coffers. Though everyone wants a peaceful transition, these “understandings” completely ignore Cubans’ — domestic and expatriate — democratic aspirations.




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The Prospect Before Us

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It’s hard to write this. Like most of the country, I’m still in shock. But we need to face the fact that on January 20 either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will become president. According to recent public opinion polls, it will be Trump. He and Clinton are neck and neck, but he underpolls to a very significant degree.

Nevertheless, libertarians have a choice. I don’t mean the choice of whether to vote Libertarian. Go ahead and do that if you want. It makes no difference, except for whether you want to hurt Clinton more than Trump, or Trump more than Clinton; and right now it isn’t clear which one would be hurt more by an LP vote. The real choice has to do with how libertarians are going to work for liberty in the new environment of 2017.

I say “new” because I think that either a Clinton or a Trump administration would pose problems that libertarians haven’t thought much about, at least lately.

Clinton:

If Clinton is elected, it will be because she squeezed the last ounce of support from the only groups that actually support her: some ethnic minorities, some feminists, most academics, and all of the newer labor unions, mainly those representing government employees. She will try to pack the courts with judges who favor the extreme demands of pressure groups claiming to speak for these voters.

“So what’s new?” you say. “Obama has been doing that forever.”

But that’s the problem. Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to. Until Trump came along, many young people had never heard a national figure defying the political correctness that many of them assume has existed forever. The Obama ideology has been swallowed whole by a large segment of the “educated” population, preparing the way for Sanders and his crew, now including Clinton, to demand that the promises of this ideology be fulfilled — make college “free” and totally “correct,” bankrupt the prosperous, cripple the banks, sue firearms manufacturers for “gun violence” (thereby destroying the manufacture of guns), escalate the government take-over of healthcare, and so on. If Clinton is elected, libertarians will have the hard job of showing that this ideology is simply nonsense and that it has never before been part of American ideals.

Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to.

That task may be as formidable, and as interesting, as the task performed by the libertarians of the 1950s and 1960s, who had to argue hard for what should have been virtually self-evident propositions: America was historically anti-imperialist, and should return to being that way; conscription was rare in American history and should never have been continued after World War II; lower taxes have always strengthened, not weakened, the economy; and so on. Libertarians must now argue harder, for even more no-longer-self-evident ideas. To do so, they will need to review their own concepts and make them more accessible to other Americans.

Trump:

If Trump is elected, libertarians will have to spend a lot of effort disentangling good and popular ideas about the incompetence of the current government and the evils of political correctness from bad, yet popular, ideas about free trade, taxation, and (above all) the use of utilitarian, as opposed to moral, standards for the assessment of political action. This will be a mess, because the American exceptionalism, and even the American nationalism, with which Trump is associated have strong associations with the libertarian core of American history and with the utilitarian, yet true, idea that liberty has enormous practical benefits.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up, and the work of understanding American history better than the Trumpetorians do. You may think, “That won’t be hard,” but if so, you may be overestimating the amount of historical knowledge that most libertarians have been getting along with.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up

Now, in dealing with Trump or Clinton, libertarians will have strong support from members of the defeated political party and the defeated segments of the winning party. (And after all, there are plenty of libertarians in both the major parties; I am writing to them as much as to the LP libertarians.) But libertarians must be alert to the danger of being swept up in the emotions, the bad ideas, and the phony rhetoric of these new allies.

Can we do it? If we can’t, 2017 will be a very bad year. And, to be candid, even if we can, it will still be bad — though getting better.




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We Are All Victims Now

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On April 30 a 19-year-old Arizona man was arrested on 70 criminal charges after it was discovered that, in a picture taken last August of his high-school football team, the tip of his penis was protruding from the top of his pants. Although the photo, joke included, appeared in his high school yearbook and in programs distributed at sports events, it took all this time for someone to notice the little flash of penis. Nevertheless, “Mesa [Arizona] police booked Osborn [that’s the kid] on one count of furnishing obscene material to minors, a felony, and 69 counts of indecent exposure. Ten faculty members and 59 students were present when Osborn exposed himself and are considered victims, according to police and court documents.”

This happened in a country in which Prince, a musician who appeared on stage and in videos with his naked butt protruding from his costume, while dancers mimicked sex acts, was mourned as a national hero after his death from an apparent drug overdose; a country in which the most profitable music lyrics are so obscene and violent that journals not labeled “adult” never quote them; a country in which, over two decades ago, the Surgeon General suggested that young people be taught to masturbate; a country in which hundreds of thousands of young women are exploited as “baby mamas” by irresponsible men; a country in which major corporations boycott a state because it does not stipulate that people can enter any restroom that matches their own idea of their gender; a country in which . . . Add your own examples. This is the country in which 70 people became sexual victims without even knowing that anything happened to them.

By the way, the charges against the young man have now been dropped. There was a public outcry, thank God. Now I hope we can all focus our attention on our national schizophrenia about sex.




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Ayn Rand — Scariest Woman in the Universe

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What in the world is causing the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes level of hysteria being directed at Ayn Rand? How has onewoman, gone from this earth for decades, managed to inspire such loathing and dread? Far from being insulted, I think she’d be proud of herself if she could witness the panic being spread in her name. Not only proud, but if she could keep her temper,perhaps even encouraged.

The author’s name has become a sort of shorthand, in “progressive” parlance, for “great big meanie.” She believed that we own ourselves, that we deserve the fruits of our labor, and that we have a right to pursue happiness. She — gasp! — even extolled the virtue of selfishness, in one of the many books most of her detractors have never read, though what I believe is salient in her philosophy is the idea that we have a greater right to run our lives than others do to run them for us. Precisely why that’s meaner or more selfish than the notion that we have no right to do this, I can’t say.

It’s precisely because they’re still reachable by rational argument that so many people are barricading themselves behind walls. It’s why they create “safe zones” in schools. It’s why they listen only to certain media, and not others. What seems like a hopeless situation is, when viewed with clear eyes, actually quite hopeful.

Most of those who abuse Ayn Rand are too ignorant to know whether what’s being said about her is true or false, too lazy to find out, and too irresponsible to care.

People don’t need to protect themselves from other points of view if they’re sure of their own. Those who come unglued when presented with competing ideas are afraid that they might possibly be proved wrong. The good news about human beings is that once we’ve become aware of an alternative that makes more sense, no matter how determined we might have been to guard against it, our minds are stretched. And a mind that has been stretched can never return to its former, constricted position, no matter how hard its owner tries to squeeze it shut again.

Ayn Rand is the ultimate political punching-bag. She’s dead, so she can’t defend herself. Most of those who abuse her, or who regard the slanders against her as credible, are too ignorant to know whether what’s being said about her is true or false, too lazy to find out, and too irresponsible to care. I disagree with some of what she wrote, but then again, I have troubled myself to become familiar with it. I would find it impossible to intelligently criticize what I hadn’t bothered to understand.

I won’t expand here on what I like about Rand’s ideas and what I don’t. My purpose is not so much to delve into her thought as to comment on thinking itself. Most particularly, on thinking about the politics of liberty — or what passes for thought on the subject. Americans don’t appear, to me, to think too deeply anymore. I’m not sure that the rest of the world does, either, but as I happen to be an American, that is my primary concern.

I still have hope that the citizens of these United States will begin to do some serious thinking again. And my reason is that those who refuse to think must still clap their hands over their ears and shout, “la la la” every time they hear an idea that causes them discomfort. It’s when most people have stopped finding that necessary, and have become such braindead droids that they no longer need to put up a defense against sound thinking, that lovers of liberty will need to be very, very afraid.




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Asian Immigration and Trumpeterian Fabulism

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I have always viewed with disgust the pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment that has plagued this country for decades, and is now reaching a fever pitch. It is most on display in the Republican Party — as I, a long-time supporter of the party, am ashamed to say. You can see the nativist hatred in its full intensity by watching the followers of our latest populist demagogue Donald Trump — people I call “Trumpeters” — exhibit orgiastic glee when he tells them he will deport 11 million illegal aliens, together with any American-born children they may have.

Trump — a man in the populist mold of Huey Long and Father Coughlin — already promises he will set up a “deportation force” to enter the immigrants’ homes and arrest them en masse. Since the immigrants are all entitled to court hearings, a President Trump will have to set up internment camps to house the millions of arrested immigrants until they can be tried.

Trump’s immigrant-bashing is all the more outrageous when we remember that when Romney was running for president, Trump bashed him for suggesting that illegals “self-deport.” Trump has no compunction about the illegal immigrants’ children born here being included, advancing the unusual legal theory that the Constitution does not (as the 14th Amendment seems clearly to do) make the children of illegals born here legal citizens.

You can see nativist hatred in its full intensity by watching the followers of Donald Trump exhibit orgiastic glee when he tells them he will deport 11 million illegal aliens.

Trump has repeatedly promised us a “fabulous wall,” to be paid for — by the Mexicans themselves! All we will need in addition are fabulous concentration camps. This is fascism of a new kind — fabulous fascism. And we need a new word for it. Perhaps the Orwellian neologism “fabulism” best captures Trump’s political program.

Of course, as readers of this estimable journal know, I don’t think that this resurgent nativist tide is — as the mainstream media portrays it — solely a Republican phenomenon. We must remember that Obama himself, when he was a US Senator, play the key role in scuttling the Bush comprehensive reform plan; moreover, after winning the presidency and having near-dictatorial control of Congress, he refused to introduce any immigration plan, or even discuss the topic for two years. He started to feign interest in the issue only after the Republicans took back the House, and intensified his charade when they took back the Senate.

The reason is, as I have suggested, that two key components of the Democratic Party base are deeply anti-immigration: organized labor, and the African-American community. The former dislikes immigration because it fears that immigrants will lower native-born workers’ wages and compete for their jobs, and the latter fears not only competition for jobs but losing its status as the main victim group entitled to governmental support.

But the joke is on the nativists, because the most recent wave of immigration is in fact rescuing this country.

Demographers love the cliché, “demography is destiny,” no doubt in great part because it accentuates the importance of their profession. But there is a fair amount of truth to it. For this reason, the most recent Pew report on recent trends in American demographics is well worthy of comment.

This resurgent nativist tide is not solely a Republican phenomenon. We must remember that Obama himself scuttled the Bush comprehensive reform plan.

As most of the European and Asian countries face contracting populations, our population is slated to grow robustly. The Pew report projects (on the basis of the most recent US Census data) that the American population will grow by an estimated 36% over the next half-century, reaching 441 million in 2065. The main driver of this projected increase in population is immigration. The report notes that nearly nine out of ten of the additional 103 million people will be immigrants or the children of immigrants (both legal and illegal). In fact, the percentage of immigrants in America’s population will rise from the current 14% to an estimated 18%.

Being spared the baleful effects of demographic decline puts us in much better economic shape than virtually all of our trading partners — indeed, most of the world. Social scientist Joel Kotkin has recently explored the idea that most countries will be facing demographic implosion. He points out that half the world’s population is now living in countries that are at negative population growth and suggests that by 2050, 139 countries (representing three-fourths of the world’s population) will be at negative population growth. China is just the most recent country to face this problem — which is why it has now frantically reversed its “one-child” policy. (What a surprise: government planning that results in failure! Who could have imagined it?) China is facing the same problem as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and most of Europe: increasingly fewer workers to support the elderly population.

Japan in particular is the paradigm case of a country struggling with deep demographic distress. The current population of 127 million is predicted to shrink to 108 million by 2050 — at which time there would be three Japanese over 65 for every one under 15. By 2100, the U.N. projects that Japan’s population will shrivel to 84.5 million, while Japan’s National Institute of Population projects it will plummet to 60 million — less than half its present size.

Exceptional in the Asian context is India. India continues to experience population growth, and is predicted to overtake China to become the world’s most populous country in just seven years. India faces no labor shortage in the foreseeable future — its population is not expected to peak until about 2060.

Being spared the baleful effects of demographic decline puts us in much better economic shape than virtually all of our trading partners — indeed, most of the world.

Even more interesting information from the aforementioned Pew Report is that there has been an historic demographic shift in the pattern of American immigration. Up to the 1970s, most immigrants to the US came from Europe. Starting in the 1980s, and peaking in the 1990s, most immigrants hailed from Mexico (and elsewhere in Latin America). But since 2011, most immigrants have come from Asia.

Nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans today are foreign-born, compared to only 37% of Hispanic Americans. Asians are predicted to surpass Latinos as the biggest foreign-born group in four decades — at which point, if the predictions are accurate, a higher percentage of Americans will be Asian than Black.

As Asians increase their numbers in America’s population, they will increase the wealth and productivity of this nation. Why? Because more than any other ethnic group — whites included — they embrace traditional marriage and education. Consider first the rates of American children born out of wedlock. As of 2013, the statistics are stunning: 72% of Black children are born outside of marriage, 66% of American Indian children, 53% of Hispanic children, and 29% of white children. The figure for Asian children is only 17%.

Now consider educational attainment. Looking at American ethnic groups, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2014 was: American Indian 5.6%, Hispanic 15.1%, black 22.4%, and whites 40.8%. Asians were at a whopping 60.8%.

Obviously, we should hope that the immigration of Asians only accelerates — the proliferation of scholars and entrepreneurs that would result would be of enormous economic and social benefit to all of us non-Asians.

Part of the reason for this historic shift is that the number of Asians seeking citizenship keeps rising steadily, in large part because Chinese and Indian students in American universities apply for citizenship upon graduation. Given the fact that most Asian countries — including China, but excluding India — are in demographic decline, we can expect that India will more and more be the supplier of our immigrants.

But another reason for the historic shift to Asian American immigration is the recent reversal of Mexican immigration. As a recent WSJ article reports, over the last five years, more Mexicans headed back to Mexico than moved here — 1,000,000 Mexicans decamped, compared to 870,000 coming in.

Trump’s fabulist fascism targets immigrants as a way to appeal to neurotic and psychotic voters who made bad personal life choices.

There are two major reasons why the flow of Mexican immigrants has reversed. First, over the past two decades, the Mexican birth rate has plummeted, and is now at about replacement level. But second, while the economic boom times from the 1980s until 2008 created lots of jobs for Mexican workers, the slow growth of jobs during the Obama “recovery,” along with the higher rate of growth in the Mexican economy, has drawn many Mexicans back home.

So Earth to Trump:

The Mexicans are already self-deporting, and the new wave of immigration is from Asia, not the Middle East.

And me to Trump:

I am a classical liberal, i.e., one who favors modern free market capitalism. This system, which involves the free movement of financial capital, products, and labor (human capital) across the world to find their most productive uses, isn’t just the right thing to do from the perspective of economic theory. During the modern era, and during the past half-century in particular, it has proven empirically to be the only force able to lift massive numbers of the absolute poor out of their misery — something that no other force (including religion) has ever been able to do. And this system is also morally superior because it allows the maximum amount of personal liberty: unless it threatens the security of the nation, every person should be free to invest his money where he believes it will give him the best return; unless it threatens the nation, every person should be free to buy products he finds it in his interest to buy, from anyone else on the planet; and unless it threatens the nation, every person should be free to employ anyone it is in his interest to employ.

Hence I hate interventionism (i.e., welfare statism), despise socialism, and loathe communism. But I both loathe and fear fascism. Forinterventionism, socialism, and communism are based on relatively weak psychological forces, to wit, envy of the rich and pity for the industrial working class. I say that these psychological forces are weak, first because the world is moving with increasing acceleration toward a global post-industrial (or more specifically, an epistemic) economy, with low-level factory work disappearing not just in America, but in every other industrialized economy (including China’s). So the appeal to pity for the proletariat is losing power, as the proletariat itself disappears. (Witness the precipitous decline in union membership in the private sector over the past half-century). And second, envy can always be countered by self-love: show an envious man that he, too, can become wealthy and the envy dissipates as “greed” (self-interest) grows.

But fascism — while it certainly does exploit envy of the rich and pity for the proles — appeals mainly to the love of one’s own tribe and the hatred of other tribes. Its power to pervert patriotism and intensify it by demonizing other groups is potent. Trump’s fabulism targets immigrants as a way to appeal to neurotic and psychotic voters who made bad personal life choices — failed to graduate from high school, had kids without first having jobs and husbands, got into drugs or booze too deeply, refused to work hard, whatever — and are profoundly unhappy. Trump, like all demagogues, is a master manipulator of pathological politics — the politics of projection of one’s own failures upon innocent people.

That is why Trump is to be feared, as well as despised.




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Collateral Damage

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In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.

 

Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.




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The Rise of the Underclass

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If you are a working-age adult who is stuck in a low-wage job, or have no job at all, then you belong to the largest segment of the American labor force: a vast, sprawling underclass, with little, if any, economic value to the society that it burdens. Despite the ongoing monthly celebration of job growth, the number of working-age adults without a job is increasing rapidly and the jobs being created are, for the most part, of the subsistence variety, driving tens of millions of Americans into the lower reaches of the labor force.

During the recession that began in December 2007, 8.2 million American jobs were lost, 60% of which were middle-class jobs. The rest of the decline was split evenly among high-wage and low-wage jobs. Today, more than seven years later, the number of high-wage jobs has finally returned to its pre-recession level. But most of the middle-class jobs have not returned. They are being crowded out by low-wage jobs, largely the result of a stagnant economy, automation, and an enormous labor surplus.

The overwhelming majority of jobs are found in the two lowest wage earner quintiles. The bottom quintile, Q1, is 91.2 million strong, with an average income of $14,600; Q2 is 29.8 million strong, with an average income of $45,100. The other three quintiles, which I will call middle class (Q3), upper middle class (Q4), and upper class (Q5), include 19.1 million, 11.7 million, and 4.0 million, respectively, with average incomes of $70,100, $115,000, and $335,000. These three quintiles, which total only 34.8 million, have all the good jobs. The 121 million workers in the bottom two quintiles have the lousy ones.

As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Writing in the New York Times, Annie Lowrey reports that "the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones." Most of the job growth has been in retail trade, administrative and waste services, and leisure and hospitality — the lowest paying sectors of the economy. Lowrey cited a National Employment Law Project analysis, which found that "fast food is driving the bulk of the job growth at the low end." To David Stockman, former Reagan budget director, the recovery has created a "Bread and Circuses" economy; he is not alone. To experts such as author and investment banker Daniel Alpert, it is a burger-flipper economy; "we have become a nation of hamburger flippers, Wal-Mart sales associates, barmaids, checkout people and other people working at very low wages.” Or, as Pulitzer Prize winning economics journalist Mark Whitehouse ("A Nation of Temps and Burger Flippers?") found, temporary burger flippers.

At least the burger flippers have jobs. With today's labor force participation (LFP) the lowest it's been in 37 years, there are 93 million working-age (16 years of age or older) adults who don't. This isn't to say that there are 93 million American who need jobs. Most retirees don't need them, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites "the aging of the baby boomer cohort" as the number one cause for the LFP decline. But in the 16–65 labor force age range, which excludes retirees, there are about 55 million chronically unemployed who might want a job. It's hard to whittle this number down much further. For example, the number two cause cited for the plummeting LFP is "the decline in the participation rate of those 16–24 years old." In other words, 16–24 year old Americans can't find jobs. They, along with many millions of others in this 55 million subset, are in the same boat as the 121 million with dead-end jobs — the underclass.

And it is growing fast. A recent Federal Reserve Bank study of eight major industrialized economies found that only the US has experienced a decline in LFP. Between 1997 and 2013, US LFP has decreased 4.6%, while Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom experienced increases. Then there is the so-called "Great Decoupling." Beginning around the turn of the century, employment gains, which have historically followed productivity gains, ceased. Job growth and wage increases have become decoupled from the economic progress produced by technological advance. While productivity increased linearly, employment remained flat through the Bush presidency, declining thereafter. Of today's 93 million work force nonparticipants, more than 13 million (3% of the 4.6% decline since 1997) have dropped out since President Obama took office.

Automation played a significant role in this exodus to the underclass, and will only augment its future contribution. Many companies have not rehired the people they laid off during the recession. Instead, they have adopted new technologies — hastening the return to pre-recession profits, at a lower cost — that automate tasks previously performed by humans, including high-skill, middle-class humans.

Automation is no longer confined to tedious, repetitive tasks. Jobs in services, sales, and construction, even jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts will be vulnerable to takeover by machines. So says an Oxford University study, which concluded that 47% of US jobs are likely to be replaced by computerized machines. And a technology research firm, Gartner, forecasts that smart robots will replace one of every three jobs by 2025. As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty.

Yet, as if existing wages were not low enough, we add one million new legal immigrants annually. Politicians, Democrat, Republican, and libertarian alike, tell us that we need them: they start new businesses, they invent things, they help support our aging population. In 1970, with a population of about 200 million and 53% of all households in the middle class, Americans competently started new businesses, invented things (almost everything that mattered), and took care of the elderly. Economic prosperity was achieved through productivity increase, not population growth. Today, with a population of about 320 million, the middle class has shrunk to only 43% (along with its wages and net worth), and we struggle in an economic mire. It seems likely that, with more people (438 million by 2050, under our current immigration policy), the underclass will continue its relentless growth.

Meanwhile, there is no serious attempt by our political elite to help create good jobs — middle class, "breadwinner" jobs that can support a family and reanimate the American Dream. The Obama administration, apparently fooled (monthly) by the declining unemployment rate, is encouraged by an economy that systemically produces low-wage jobs, as long as the number is large enough to flaunt. Mr. Obama regularly brags about record-setting job growth, 12 million at his latest count, asserting that "the economy is headed in the right direction."

It is not. By instilling fear and confusion in American business, recent tax and regulatory policies (including immigration policies) are the chief contributors to underclass expansion. For example, there is a growing preference for companies to employ temporary workers instead of permanent ones. The use of employment services, observed Mr. Whitehouse, is "a practice that makes firing easier and reflects their caution about the economic outlook." Ironically, computer and management consultants, one of the few labor categories to have experienced job growth during the so-called recovery, consist of "people who help businesses figure out how to make do with fewer workers."

Capitalists believe that the way to reverse the trend is simply to reduce the taxes and regulations that have made businesses afraid to spend. Companies, then in possession of more capital and the freedom to invest it, would purchase new plant and equipment, create new products and services, develop new markets, etc., requiring better jobs and more workers to support the expanding operations. And with the increased demand for labor, wage rates would rise.

President Obama has different ideas. He is content with his Burger Flipper economy. Unlike his Green Economy, which briefly created a paltry number of green jobs, the Burger Flipper economy produces enough low-wage jobs each month (now 61 consecutive months) for him to gloat (now, it seems, 60 consecutive months). He apparently believes that this stream of lousy jobs will continue in sufficient quantity to accommodate the five million illegal immigrants that he wants to add to our existing labor surplus.

It is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since Obama took office.

Hillary Clinton, likely our next president, is dismayed by his restraint. She "advocates expanding Obama's executive actions to allow millions or more undocumented immigrants to obtain legal protection and work permits." And if that does not expand the labor surplus enough, Clinton has said that she will "welcome back people who have already been deported."

With the labor surplus driving wage decline and "fast food" driving job growth, Obama has accordingly shifted his policies to help the burgeoning underclass. As Lowrey noted,

The swelling of the low-wage work force has led to a push for policies to raise the living standards of the poor, including through job training, expansion of health care coverage and a higher minimum wage.

Obama's new plan is to improve the quality of the lousy jobs that his old plan created.

Will it work? Those without a job will get no raise. That number, now at 93 million, will increase as businesses encounter the artificially increased labor costs. Those who have a qualifying job will be happy, at first — until they discover that (A) everything they buy will cost more, (B) they will pay more in taxes and receive less in benefits, and (C) at $10.10 an hour, they will still belong to the underclass.

To date, Obama's policies have been largely aspirational, and, for existing American citizens, lamentable. According to the BLS, only 6 million net jobs (not 12 million) have been created under his stewardship. And, according to a Center For Immigration Studies report, all of them have gone to immigrants (legal and illegal). "The number of immigrants working returned to pre-recession levels by the middle of 2012, and has continued to climb. But the number of natives working remains almost 1.5 million below the November 2007 level."

Given the immensity of the underclass, the thinking at the White House might be that Obama's plan will yield more bang for the buck than a plan, say, to help create high-paying jobs. Besides, they already think that the economy is headed in the right direction and expect that, in the burger flipper economy that their old plan created, nothing could possibly go wrong with a new plan designed to lift the wages of burger flippers.

Enter the Burger Robot, the fast food industry's answer to rising labor costs. The Burger Robot can make 360 sandwiches per hour (including gourmet sandwiches); it reduces liability, management duties, and food preparation footprint; it pays for itself in about one year (even at the existing minimum wage); and it doesn't need a hairnet. The machine is not designed to improve the efficiency of fast food workers; rather, says company cofounder, Alexandros Vardakostas, “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

The rise of the underclass is a glowing symptom of our decline. Today's politicians are singularly incapable of fulfilling their economic promises. Their glib, clumsy, overbearing laws and regulations have forged a pathetic burger-flipper economy offering little more than peonage and destitution to the majority of its labor force. After more than six years of feckless meddling, Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty. After more than six years of Obama's promises to help the poor and the middle class, it is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since he took office. For everyone else, there is stagnation and decline — unless you are an immigrant or a robot.




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