Cuba Under Embargo – The Macro Impact (Joe Atikian) [2012]

Cuba under embargo

This is an extraordinary piece. This little book goes out to powerfully demonstrate that Cuban GDP has not fallen due to the US-imposed economic blockade. If you, too, wonder what the point of such nonsense is, that makes two of us.

Atikian’s starting position is that the often repeated claim that Cuba has been hurt economically by the blockade has not been proven in numbers. From this position, he leaps to a statistical orgy, which in the end only shows that GDP has not decreased in the years right after the imposing of the blockade. He in fact manages to present it as something positive for Cuban economy, since it forced the Cubans to find new trading partners, who, in the end, happened to pay them above market-prices for their sugar. And likewise, when this fantastic trading partner disintegrated in 1991, Cuba opened up for tourism – another boon for the economy! No problems there.

Of course, Atikian is a bureaucrat, a math-fetishist who tries to depict complex economical issues using GDP as the sword of Alexander (which makes it all the more ironic when he accuses others of maintaining ‘a myopic focus on Cuba’s poor output level instead of its growth record’). Well, GDP doesn’t encompass literacy levels, social equality, the crippling brain-drain after the revolution, agrarian reform, national vs. private ownership of resources and manufacturing, (attempted) industrialization, and so forth – major economic issues that were turned upside-down in a few decades and affected millions of peoples’  lives. But Atikian persists. Since Cuba’s GDP increase is similar Jamaica’s in period X, it thus follows that the embargo had no ‘macroeconomic impact’.

Another point worth mentioning is Atikian’s handling of agricultural vs. industrialized countries. Of course, if one were to only read statistics, one could easily get the impression that countries who ‘concentrate less’ on agriculture have higher economic output, just as one could prove a correlation between shoe size and IQ (adults have larger feet and usually higher IQ). But then one would completely misrepresent the reality of a sliding development from agriculture to industry that most advanced economies go through. The key here is that industry replaces agriculture in a country that is allowed to develop (what is popularly called ‘3rd world’, ‘South’, ‘developing countries’, etc.) – countries do not choose either agriculture or industry (in fact, there is something called industrialized agriculture). Atikian’s cluelessness reaches its climax when he bundles Botswana and Iceland together in terms of economic growth (and ballyhoos Botswana’s ‘concentration’ on diamond mining).

I do find this text, with its naïve economic dogmatism, illustrative of our times. Books usually help our understanding an issue by adding another point of view, or a ground-breaking analysis. Cuba Under Embargo does the opposite: it tries to cram a lively and multi-faceted discussion into a single number. When reality doesn’t fit, he adapts it to his theory – textbook definition of dogmatism. Atikian writes: According to its own data, Cuba shows no mass poverty, illiteracy, or high infant mortality. Simply put, what the rest of the world – even Cuba’s worst critics and sworn enemies – praise Cuba for, namely their highly conscious and egalitarian social policies, Atikian uses to smear them. Cuba has no mass poverty (depends on your definition) – ergo, the blockade has not harmed them. What a pitiful sight an economist becomes, when he is detached from the planet.

4 reaktioner på ”Cuba Under Embargo – The Macro Impact (Joe Atikian) [2012]

  1. hello, i appreciate your assessment of my book. please let me know why you think it was based on dogma or fetish. perhaps it was the tone of the writing? the book started out with no position, rather as an investigation into a question that had no public record of being answered, namely the extent of economic damage imposed by the embargo. it was an attempt to quantify the damage in the face of missing data. after reading decades of documents that described the suffering of the Cuban people, i thought it would be an easy question on which to find published data. that did not turn out to be the case, so i started my own research. if anything, i expected to find devastation that would be visible on a macroeconomic scale. i tried to make it clear that this is a narrow macro approach, and not a comprehensive assessment of all the previously documented impacts of the embargo.
    thank you for your consideration.

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment, and let me say I am glad (and really surprised!) that you found my site.

    Your book does not claim to be a narrow macroeconomic analysis, but rather, it is a response to the official Cuban claims that ‘America’s embargo’ [sic; US] has hurt Cuba’s economy. Correct, Cuban officials have blamed the embargo for ‘the difficulties in advancing [Cuba’s] economy and the wellbeing of its people’, but to my knowledge, they have not focused on the effects on GDP but rather on social indicators and empirical data on lack of food, water, medicines, industrial machinery, etc. As it happens, GDP has precious little to say about the ‘wellbeing of a people’. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between the large questions to be answered and the narrow choice of method for doing so, which is what I mean by math-fetishism; cramming reality into a number – an ancient conflict between quality and quantity (which goes back at least to Aristotle). When you use the – for this purpose clearly inadequate – results you have found and draw conclusions on complex social indicators (mass poverty, illiteracy, etc.), that is what I mean by dogmatism (Merriam-Webster: ‘a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises’, the premise here being that social indicators are directly dependent on GDP). Incredibly, you choose to compare Cuba’s social indicators with those of Liberia, DRC and Zimbabwe – three of the most war-torn countries in modern history – for the sole reason that the countries show comparable macroeconomic indicators.

    I happen to live in Sweden, a country whose right-wing government has been hailed by the biggest economic institutes and journals for its sound economic policies (especially during the global financial crisis/recession). True, the numbers presented in these contexts look very good, and they unabashedly hide the fact that income inequality has soared, unemployment risen, housing market inflated, social security has been slashed, large sectors of the health care and the education systems have been privatized, publicly owned companied have been sold out, stress-related disorders are mounting, and tons of other important and relevant indicators of the people’s wellbeing. (Of course, there are much worse examples, for instance Indonesia during the Suharto dictatorship, which also was lauded for its beautiful numbers, while massacring its own population and selling off its resources to foreign investors.)

    With this in mind, I object to your narrow approach to this interesting topic. And if your point was to prove that Cuban officials lie – just like officials from any country lie – there are much more flagrant examples (for instance, the US being Cuba’s fourth biggest trading partner).

    kind regards
    OP

  3. Hello, thanks again for your comments. Could you clarify some points? You said that my book does not claim to be a macroeconomic analysis, and yet starting on page 2 it raises the issue of macro analysis and effects on each of the following 14 pages. I also says it is about macro impacts on the back cover summary and in the title.
    You are right that Cuba’s government focuses on the wellbeing of its people, but it also focuses on the GDP effect every year for the past 3 decades in its ongoing report to the UN which are always adopted by a strong majority of the vote.
    GDP has precious little to say about wellbeing? This is a surprise to everyone becasue it is the single most strongly correlated factor to the Human Development factors tracked by the UN, namely lifespan and education. It is not perfect, but rather a strong indicator. I also focus on the UN HDI index inthe book, so I am mysitified why you might say that I have a math fetish or that the book ignores well being.
    Dogma? I would suggest a better dictionary than the Webster. That work is widely ridiculed as a low grade American version of a dictionary. I suggest Collins or Oxford. Dogma is a set of religious doctrines dictated by the ecclesiastical authority.

  4. Hi,
    I wrote that it does not claim to be a ‘narrow macroeconomic’ analysis (using the wording in your first comment); I do not doubt that it is a macroeconomic analysis.

    It may well be that GDP is the single most strongly correlated factor, but the premise that a single indicator can explain ‘the wellbeing of a people’ is what constitutes fetishism. Besides, I gave you two examples of discordance between macro-economic indicators and major economic changes in society – there are plenty more. The fact that you compare Cuba to Liberia or DRC with regards to social indicators, solely because they have comparable GDP, illustrates the absurdity in relying on single indicators. It may be convenient for statistical purposes, but for anyone vaguely familiar with the history of those countries, it is simply nonsense.

    If we turn to international diplomatic language in UN documents regarding the embargo, including both the Cuban and US statements, it is much more nuanced and barely mentions GDP or other single indicators. Quote:
    Letter dated 16 August 1991 from the Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General,

    ”Although the far-reaching changes carried out in Cuba during this period have enabled the people to achieve incomparably higher living standards in
    terms of social progress – as seen in the notable achievements in such fields as health, education, food, employment, housing and social protection for the entire population – these results have obviously been achieved through the people’s efforts and sacrifices, which have been unjustly and excessively compounded by the embargo.”
    [ http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/46/193&Lang=E ]
    So, the official stance, shared by Cuba, the UN and most of the world, is: Cuban social indicators are good, despite the embargo. Your conclusion is: The embargo has not harmed Cuba, since its social indicators are good. That does not disprove the Cuban claim.

    Ps. I agree with you regarding Webster.
    Collins: dogmatic = based on assumption rather than empirical observation
    Oxford: dogmatic = inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true
    ‘Dogma’ is well applicable to other fields than religion (usually politics and ideology), neither of the dictionaries defines it as a religious term.

    regards
    OP

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