Cuba and the right to property – capitalism or equality?

The Cuban Government announced last week that it was going to allow its people to own property for the first time. This is a huge change in what is arguably the only country in the world that still runs a centrally planned socialist economy.

Marxism demands the abolition of private property as one of the most important points in the move away from the free market so allowing it is surely a sign that Cuba is now moving closer to capitalism.

In all fairness Cuba does allow people to ‘sell’ for example their house but it more closely resembles a complicated system of bartering and government monitoring through officials that usually need to be bribed. It’s more like a state sponsored trade where the government acts like the mafia and demands a cut of the profit.

What does this mean for the Cuban people? For the first time since the revolution Cubans can now they say they own their house or a piece of land. This could trigger the most rudimentary market, cause Cubans to recognise this as their right and cut out the state from the process of allowing individuals to buy, sell and exchange their property for goods or services.

I’ve just inadvertently made an assertion that is pivotal in the next section: that Cubans have the right to own property and the state should be cut out of the process of buying or selling it.

There are several human rights that would support the presence of a free market in property, the right of individuals to own things and the right to be left alone by the state when you’re conducting private business.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states our right to privacy and to a home, denying the state the right to interfere with the process of buying or selling things or owning our home at all.

Article 17 of the Declaration explicitly states we have the right to own property; therefore there is no reason why we cannot buy and sell things, the basis of the free market.

I am unimpressed by the Cuban Government’s statement that it will ‘allow its people to own property’. It simply isn’t empowered to say which human rights Cubans do or don’t have. Cuban people have always had the right to own property and the right to be left alone by the state; the Cuban Government just didn’t respect it. I don’t think we should dismiss this important move towards greater freedom for Cubans simply because ‘they’ve always had it’ but I don’t think we should stand up and applaud Raul Castro for not denying his people their human rights. We wouldn’t say ‘well done’ if he announced that the Cuban Government had decided not to deny the people the right to life would we? It’s an extreme parallel to draw but human rights are indivisible, you can’t have one without the others. The right to life is part of the right to property and vice versa. They are also interdependent, they rely upon each other.

The right to property is one that comes up against attack from left of centre governments and ideologues more often than the others. They claim ‘property is theft’, ownership is taking away from the environment or property instead of being an individual right is a collective right belonging to society. All of these arguments have their merits but simply put, guaranteeing the right to property, with all its inherent connotations such as buying or selling goods or services, is guaranteeing equality in a market economy. Let me give some examples, the right to property prohibits a person of one ethnicity refusing to sell their home to a person of another. The buyer is human being therefore has the right to own property. It prohibits a gay person being refused service in a restaurant, that person is a human being therefore has the right to buy a service. It prohibits women being denied inheritance, she is a human being therefore has the right to own land and to receive and pass it on without interference. A wheelchair user can expect an access ramp into a cinema because they have an equal right to use the service as someone who can take the stairs. To paraphrase: the right to own property is not just the right to acquire a house, it’s the right of all human beings to participate in a market as equals, irrespective of any personal defining characteristic. The right to own property might be arguably the most capitalist of our human rights, it’s inextricably tied to the market and ownership, but it is also a great equaliser and without knowing it I am sure many of us invoke it every day.


The Ivory Coast – mini post

This is a mini-post about what’s going on in the Ivory Coast.

Wealthy countries which support countries in the Global South by pushing for multiparty elections often think that support ends at the ballot box. That people will vote and someone will win and everything will be fine. It brings to mind the ‘dropping democracy from 40,000 feet’ comments from Blair’s time as Prime Minister.

What countries like the UK, and in the case of the Ivory Coast the former colonial master France, don’t bargain for is that they will have (reasonably) well run elections, someone will win but that the other person will simply refuse to leave. We’re not used to this in the developed world, we’re accustomed to politicians magnanimously standing down then taking up lucrative publishing deals. Not in the Ivory Coast. President Gbago (who lost the election and was President before) has raised an army of poor young men to keep him in power and to fight the army of poor young men raised by President Ouattara (who won the election). The latter is lucky in that he won the UN sponsored election so is the internationally recognised winner and de jure President of the small West African country.

This started in late 2010 but was rapidly eclipsed by the Arab uprisings, it’s sad that the media seem to care less about West African civil wars, they aren’t sexy or exciting any more, there always seems to be one on and we’ve become desensitised to them by Christian Aid adverts of tiny children holding up begging hands to the cameras like helpless victims (unethical advertising is a separate issue but important nonetheless).

Currently the forces loyal to President Ouattara who previously controlled the north of the country are poised to take full control of the capital Abidjan in the south. It’s hard to tell what this will mean for the conflict. Unless President Gbago tells his forces to stand down and gives up his claim to the Presidential palace this conflict could go on much longer.

French and United Nations forces, in the 2011 spirit of humanitarian intervention have fired upon Gbago’s forces to protect the French occupied airport and foreign occupied compound in line with the Security Council mandate saying they can protect themselves.

So they question is, what are the next steps?

If Ouattara’s forces take the capital and leave the UN and French forces alone they will anoint him the new President and probably fan out into the countryside to ensure no dissident pro-Gbago factions are still out there causing trouble beyond the capital’s sway.

If Ouattara’s forces fail the French troops will probably conduct a Britain in Sierra Leone style full scale intervention on Ouattara’s behalf and take control of the country briefly then hand it over.

Either way the UN and France are here for the long haul. Britain is still there in Sierra Leone 10 years later funneling millions of pounds into security sector reform, infrastructure, water projects, poverty reduction and more.