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Seven lessons Cubans can learn from the Taiwanese
Carlos Alberto Montaner
Presented at the seminar "Taiwan as a Model for Cuba's Future,"
at Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.
Everything I will say about Taiwan and Cuba is useful for Latin America.
Let me begin by making a couple of provisos:
First, we must be careful when we speak of models of development. We have a tendency to believe that there is something like a mathematical formula that, when applied, always gives us the same results. Wish that were true. Were it so, it would be relatively simple to turn Haiti into Holland.
Second, it is convenient to make clear that in market economies characterized by the free decision-making of millions of people, the main feature is constant change, which makes it almost impossible to apply a rigid model.
In reality, more than “models,” what we have are government measures that, in specific cultures and under specific circumstances, either succeed or fail. Those measures, utilized by other nations, may or may not achieve similar results.
On the other hand, the obvious differences between Taiwan and Cuba should not dishearten us. After all, they are two relatively small islands situated in intricate and dangerous geographic crossroads, with violent histories, that in the past several decades have moved in opposite directions.
Cubans, in fact, can learn certain lessons from Taiwan’s experience.
The Taiwanese have peacefully conquered increasingly greater domains of prosperity and civil liberties, until they’ve become one of the world’s biggest successes, even though they have been permanently threatened and blockaded by a major nuclear power, mainland China, that forces them to spend large amounts of money for defense.
At the other end, the Cubans, almost in that same period – inasmuch as Taiwan’s contemporary history begins in 1949 – have gradually become poorer under the direction of a totalitarian government incapable of changing its course. A government that tries to hide the failure of the regime behind the alibi of the U.S. embargo and the purported danger of military aggression, which hasn't existed for half a century, since in 1962 Kennedy and Khrushchev put an end to the Missile Crisis.
What, therefore, should the Cubans learn from those other islanders in the antipodes of earth?
I think there are seven general lessons that could be very useful for us Cubans as we try to envision our future.
First lesson. There are no immutable fates. In four decades, Taiwan managed to overcome the traditional poverty and despotism the country had suffered for centuries until it became a First World nation with a purchasing power parity, or PPP per capita of $37,900 per year. This economic miracle was accomplished in only two generations. Millions of Taiwanese who were very poor young people in 1949, died half a century later enjoying the lifestyle of the middle classes. Poverty or prosperity are elective in our times.
Second. The theory of dependence is totally false. The world’s wealthy nations – the so-called center – have not assigned to the nations on the economic periphery the role of suppliers or providers of raw materials to perpetuate the relationship of vassalage. No country (except mainland China) has attempted to harm Taiwan. That paranoid vision of international relations does not match reality. We don’t live in a world of executioner countries and victim countries.
Third. Development can and should be for the benefit of all, not just a few. But the equitable distribution of wealth is not decreed by redistributing what has been created; it is achieved by gradually adding value to production. The Taiwanese not only went from possessing an agricultural economy to an industrial economy but they also did it through the incorporation of technological advances applied to industry. The worker at a chips factory earns more than a farmer who harvests sugar cane because what he produces has a much greater value in the market. This explains why Taiwan’s Gini Index is 32.6, much better than all of Latin America. Only 1.16 percent of the inhabitants of that country are below the threshhold of extreme poverty.
Fourth. Wealth in Taiwan is basically created by private enterprise. The State, which was very strong and interventionistic in the past, has been withdrawing from productive activity. The State cannot produce efficiently because it is not trained to satisfy demand and thereby generate profits. Instead, it usually returns favors to the managers, who are its own cadres, and foments political patronage.
Fifth. In the oft-quoted beginning of Ana Karenina, Tolstoy states that all happy families are alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That observation can be applied to the four Asian dragons or tigers: Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. Although the four have taken partially different roads toward the group of happy families on the planet, they resemble each other in the following five features:
Sixth. The case of Taiwan demonstrates that a country governed by a single, strong-hand party – like the Kuomintang was – can peacefully evolve toward democracy and the multi-party system without persecuting or harming those who held power until the changeover. The essence of democracy is just that: the alternation and existence of vigorous opposition parties that audit, review and criticize the work of the government.
Seventh. In essence, the Taiwanese case proves to the Cubans the superior value of freedom as the environment where coexistence flourishes. Freedom consists in being able to make individual decisions in all aspects of life: one’s personal destiny, the economy, the civic existence, the family. There is no contradiction whatsoever between freedom and development. The freer a society is, the more prosperity it can achieve, so long as the vast majority of the people submit voluntarily and responsibly to the rule of law.
The Taiwanese have increasingly acquired control over their lives through the exercise of freedom, something that has echoed very favorably in the quality of national coexistence.
In sum, that is the great Taiwanese lesson for the Cubans. Freedom is possible. Freedom is convenient. Freedom is not a luxury. That is something that the mambises may have sensed in the 19th Century, when they adopted a beautiful wish as their battle cry:
Viva Cuba Libre!