Malema’s Cuban dream for SA: A basket case nobody would want to live in

Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema, has consistently voiced his support for a socialist form of government, often citing Cuba as an example of the direction he envisions for South Africa if his party were to gain a majority. Malema’s tweets have described Cuba as a successful socialist state, and he seems drawn to the idea of enduring leadership akin to the Cuban communist leaders who have held power since the 1959 revolution. To gain insight into Malema’s vision of a South Africa modelled after Cuba, we sought the expertise of Dr Christopher Sabatini, a senior Research Fellow for Latin America and the Americas program at Chatham House. In an interview with BizNews, Dr Sabatini refutes the notion of Cuba’s success as a socialist state, describing it as an economic basket case that primarily relies on tourism and the export of doctors for survival. He reveals that a significant number of Cubans, 100,000, have fled the country this year alone due to poverty and malnutrition and the perception of good Cuban health care is false. Carlos Miguel Pérez, a Cuban legislator who is the only businessman in the country to sit in the communist National Assembly, highlighted the Cuban economy’s inability to provide enough food for all. Pérez said that even a basic item like Gouda cheese costs more than what a state worker is paid in a month, roughly 4,000 Cuban pesos or $20. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:09 – Introductions
  • 01:04 – Dr Christopher Sabatini on why some African leaders want to emulate the Cuban example of socialism
  • 02:54 – On Cuba’s low unemployment rate
  • 05:18 – Cuba’s inability to provide enough food for all
  • 07:33 – Julius Malema’s support for Russia
  • 09:35 – On Putin’s promise of free grain to some African countries
  • 10:47 – The likely steps that would happen if Julius Malema achieves his goal of turning SA into a socialist state
  • 12:46 – The international reaction if this happened
  • 14:00 – How China and Russia would view it
  • 15:03 – On the EFF constantly challenging everything in the courts
  • 15:55 – If the BRICS currency has a chance of challenging the dollar
  • 17:10 – On the effect a socialist state would have on South Africans
  • 19:54 – Conclusions

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Excerpts from the interview

100,000 left Cuba this year, chronic food shortages, own sheets to hospital

Let’s first pick apart what model he’s holding up as something to be followed. Cuba right now is experiencing more than 100,000 people who have left Cuba this year alone fleeing poverty and you now actually have malnutrition. It is an economic basket case. It survives only through tourism and also the sale or export of doctors to countries. The socialist model is mind-boggling when you’re there to think that they thought they could build an entire command economy, in which they would dispatch technocrats to rural provinces to determine how much corn should be grown or how much whatever, and then allocate the seeds and allocate all the equipment. There are chronic food shortages. If you go to the public markets, the state-owned markets, they’re completely barren. Even the so-called myths of the Cuban revolution of improved health care are simply false. If you go to hospitals and a friend who had to go to hospital because he thought he had cholera, you have to bring your own bed sheets. There’s no medicine. They like to blame the U.S. embargo for this but that isn’t true because they can actually buy medicines and equipment. It is really just about the failure of supply.

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Cuba’s official unemployment rate is made up, and even the cigar industry has deteriorated

It’s guaranteed employment. It’s like they used to say about the Soviet Union, where people pretend to work and the state pretends to pay them. When the state controls all of the economy, there have been some efforts to loosen some things. In fact, because the economy is in such dire straits, the government has allowed a very top-down 350 categories for self-employment, barbers, restaurateurs, ice cream, and salespeople; they can now be self-employed because they had a problem of very unproductive growth. But again, it boggles the mind to think, when you go to the island, the stores don’t have anything. Workers aren’t working. Roads are in complete disrepair. So, yes, there officially there’s no unemployment but again, it’s a totalitarian country. They can make up any numbers they want and pretend they’re real. They’re not, if you go. 

This is one of the curious things is the way in which the Cuban revolution has been very effective at promoting propaganda about itself. Part of that is because Fidel Castro stood up to the Yankees. He became sort of the definition of our anti-imperialism but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy contracted by two-thirds because it basically existed simply because of Soviet handouts, buying, providing fuels, and buying sugar at inflated rates. It still remains very much a monocultural economy in terms of sugar tourism. That’s pretty much about it. Even their cigars and the Cubans don’t like when I say this, but it’s true, if you look at the rankings of the best cigars in the world of the top 50, only two types of Cuban cigars make it anymore. Even their cigar industry has deteriorated. 

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What would happen in South Africa if you follow a Cuban model?

Let’s take the economy first. What would have to be done first is to nationalise key sectors of the economy and particularly the productive ones. Why? Because it means you could employ as many people as you can to sop up unemployment even if they’re unproductive or unqualified. In the case of Venezuela, for example, former President Hugo Chavez fired all the oil workers, technocrats, engineers and the like, and then hired partisans. The oil production has shrunk from 3 million barrels a day to only 700,000 barrels a day now because of the fact they didn’t have any money to invest because they basically broke the back of the oil company and staffed it with partisan loyalists. So, the first thing they will do is to expropriate. The second thing you’ll do is break the independence of the central bank because, again, you want money and you want to be able to give away things and patronage, clientelism. In all of that, you’re not actually creating an economy, you’re creating a giant patronage machine that you’re using to buy votes and buy support. That works in the short term, but it destroys the economy. And then what you’ll do next, we saw this in Venezuela, Bolivia is you rewrite the constitution to remove term limits. Then you can run as often as you want, and consolidate power. As you are still robbing the state economy, you have enough political popularity to be able to sustain that. Eventually, you run out of, as Margaret Thatcher said, you run out of spending other people’s money and you hit the wall. That’s what has happened in Venezuela and Bolivia. Also, there’s been a run on the banks in Bolivia and it has been happening in Cuba for decades now. That’s what will happen.

A socialist state in SA would mean a short sugar high, it can’t be sustained

Why should voters be concerned? First of all, it creates a high degree of insecurity and crime. Crime in Venezuela’s Caracas at one point had the highest murder rate in the world, even more than Iraq. The second is it just simply can’t be sustained. It’s like a sugar high. Yes, there will be subsidised markets. There will be a sort of access to cheaper goods in poor neighbourhoods, maybe even medicine but it can’t last. You can’t raid the till and keep it going forever. So eventually, there will be that hangover. What it also means is, you risk becoming an international pariah. South African citizens- would they rather live in Russia or China or live in Great Britain or live in South Africa as they currently enjoy it?  

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