Cuba Libre?
 | Opinion

In the U.S., "Cuba Libre" means a rum and Coke. In Cuba itself, it means something far more intoxicating: freedom. We are seeing that cry for freedom now in the streets of Havana.

Regimes do not give up power willingly, and popular protests may not make any difference. Just ask the Maduro regime in Venezuela, which has smashed uprisings repeatedly. Still, the demonstrations in Cuba are big enough that the Biden administration finally offered some quiet praise after remaining silent for days (just as the Obama administration did when Iranians protested against the Mullahs' regime in 2009).

The Cuban protesters have yet to hear an unambiguous message of support from the Squad or Bernie Sanders, who periodically offered qualified praise for the Castro dictatorship. Sanders liked the literacy program. Good point, Bernie. Maybe Mrs. Lincoln liked the play, too.

Although the main factor driving the protests is a desire for freedom (and frustration over Cuba's lack of COVID-19 vaccines), there is an economic dimension, too.

That economic dimension can be illustrated with an amazing factoid: Cuban-Americans, with a population of 2.38 million, earn more than the entire island of Cuba, with 11.3 million people.

That is not because Cuban Americans are a particularly high-earning immigrant group. Quite the contrary. They rank 73rd, well behind immigrant groups like Americans from India or Chinese Americans. Despite ranking 73rd among U.S. ethnic groups, Cuban-American families earn more, in total, than all Cuban families combined because those in the United States earn over eight times as much. That's a stunning difference, and it happened within a single lifetime.

Cuban Americans protest in Miami
A woman chants slogans during a protest against the Cuban government at Versailles Restaurant in Miami, on July 12, 2021. - Havana on Monday blamed a US "policy of economic suffocation" for unprecedented protests against Cuba's communist government as Washington pointed the finger at "decades of repression" in the one-party state. Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP/Getty Images

That factoid illuminates a deep and powerful truth. It shows how economic outcomes depend on property rights, the rule of law and other basic features of the American political-economic system. Competitive, capitalist systems don't just produce better outcomes; they produce far better outcomes, far more prosperous lives for ordinary citizens.

How much more prosperous? Here's another little illustration. In the Soviet Union, Stalin showed his people the 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath, because it powerfully illustrated Americans' poverty during the Depression. He stopped showing it when the audiences noticed that even the impoverished Joad family had a truck. A truck! No one in the glorious Soviet Union could afford a truck. Many collective farms couldn't afford one. Yet a poor family in America could. Bad message for the New Soviet Man.

But it's a good message to send America's newest generation of romantic socialists, including the nearly half of the youngest generation of voters who prefer socialism to capitalism.

Of course, the far Left and Castro's successors blame Cuba's economic troubles all on the U.S. embargo. They are wrong. Yes, the embargo has contributed, but the country's fundamental problem is an economic system that strangles its people's initiative and opportunity, along with their freedom.

To take advantage of the economic opportunities all around them, entrepreneurs need to know they will reap most of the rewards, not have them ripped off by kleptocrats in government. They need secure property rights and a stable political environment to make long-term investments. They need limits on taxation and public corruption so all the profits aren't stripped by predators. They need a government that provides some essential "hard" infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and ports. They need to be able to compete in the marketplace, win or lose, and not have the government reserve all the glittering prizes for its political supporters. They need a regime that doesn't encumber every private initiative with page after page of regulations, which not only stifle innovation but also encourage corruption by making it easy for politicians to cozy up to businessmen and say, "I can help you get around these rules for a small consideration. Better yet, I can write new rules just for you."

Banal as these points are, they actually work. They have proven themselves time and again. When predatory regimes violate them, as Cuba has for decades, the same points become insurmountable obstacles to prosperity. The Cuban people know it, too. They deserve freedom. They deserve an economic system that lets them thrive. And they deserve full-throated support from all Americans.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.