The 51st State
Written by Peter F. Schaefer on 04 Jan 2021
Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Julia Sweig, the Director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the conventional wisdom that "Without Fidel's iron fist ...the long-oppressed population would overthrow Fidel's revolutionary cronies and ...transform Cuba into a market democracy." But she argues: "...that moment has come and gone ...the post-Fidel transition is already well under way. Power has been successfully transferred to a new set of leaders, whose priority is to preserve the system while permitting only very gradual reform."If Ms. Sweig is correct - and I try to stay away from predictions - then this will be seen as an enormous US failure of foreign policy and will be added to the pile of other global and regional failures including the election of Hugo Chavez. Americans should not be willing to let Ms. Sweig's prediction come to pass since it would repudiate decades of US policy. We need bold, new actions. Let me propose one. How About Offering Statehood? There may be one way to foster a modern Cuban state and get rid of the Fidelismo in one fell swoop; give Cubans the option of becoming the 51st US state. President Bush could speak from the Oval Office and say to the Cuban people: "We are close to you Cubans geographically, economically, socially and historically. Americans died to liberate you from Spanish oppression and gave you sovereignty four years later."But the sad truth is that for decades we then supported authoritarian regimes and business investments that were not in the best interests of the Cuban people. And so perhaps someone like Mr. Castro was inevitable. If American actions led to Mr. Castro, we regret this since he has taken the Cuban people down an unproductive path. As a result, you all now live in greater poverty and with less freedom than you ever would have suffered had you gradually evolved to true democracy as so many of your neighbors have done."But that is the past. Today Cubans are an important part of America's population and Spanish is virtually our second language. Cubans have found success because the American system supports their talents. They have used the American system to work their way up in business, sports and politics."America has let you down before and I would like to propose one possible way for us to begin again. I am prepared to use the power of my presidency to propose to Congress and the American people that they pass legislation which would open the way for Cubans to choose to become the 51st state in our union."If you choose to join our union, you would get a modern system of laws and in one moment, become fully integrated in the largest economy in the world, as well as the larger global economy."If you agree with me through open elections, I would propose to the American people and our Congress that Cuba be granted Commonwealth status, like Puerto Rico, for six years while resident Cubans themselves work to create a constitution, establish the rule of law, elect all your officials and invest American federal funds in needed social and physical infrastructure in Cuba."As you no doubt know, the USA is a federation of fifty states each of which has enormous power under our constitution in the areas of taxation, laws, policing and elections. States even have the right to form and maintain a militia of their citizens under the command of the governor, and Cuba would be no different."This offer should not be viewed by the Cuban people as an indication that America will ever take the initiative to have Cuba join our nation. While we believe that there are strong economic, social, political and even geographic reasons for federation, no territory has become a part of the USA except by means of a majority of people in that territory requesting entry. Cuba would be no different. As a Commonwealth, Cuba could - like Puerto Rico - choose to become a state, remain a commonwealth or become an independent nation. The six years of Commonwealth status could be used by Cubans to modernize and prepare to become a modern, independent state, or a member of the United States. It's up to you. The door is open."Costs and BenefitsWhat are the risks and gains? Well Cuba is poor and federal standards for everything that rules our lives would have to be established there from clean air to handicapped access. There are also big things like Social Security, economic infrastructure, modern schools and efficient bureaucracies, which could be phased in, and would managed and funded in partnership with Washington. And in one moment Cuba would leave behind the horrid Spanish colonial tradition of rule by the strong-man.Is this too expensive? Well, more Mexicans have illegally immigrated into the US than there are Cubans. And, in any case, how expensive is our continued confrontation with Cuba? What do we both lose by it?The Ultimate Outcome Cuba would be offered - not compelled, offered - an equal place in the most powerful nation on earth. They might say no, but they could hardly be offended.However, I care less about the ultimate outcome of this proposal than about the profound debate that would arise. Put aside the cold calculus of plusses and minuses and imagine for a moment what would happen within the Cuban society. There will be a social explosion in there as the people debate this offer. Who will win? Who knows, but it is the process of coming to a conclusion - an open national conversation in Cuba - that will be the real benefit for the Cubans and, by extension, for Americans. They will argue about the merits of the rule of law, of free speech, of democracy and of capitalism in a global economy.In response, the remaining Fidelistas will, necessarily, defend their power by offering some communist or socialist hybrid of authoritarian capitalism perhaps with managed "elections." But they will have to come out of their political closet and explain what they intend for Cuba, and how their plan is better than US statehood, an option that will pale in comparisonIn the end, the debate itself will be corrosive. It will hold Castro and his successors up to a level of scrutiny which they cannot survive. Cubans are no different from Americans, or Iraqis for that matter. Most want stability, prosperity and freedom, not oppression, poverty and control. And this will let them bring their desires out of the shadows.Peter Schaefer is a political economist engaged in research on nation building as well as business activities that promote modernization.