Is the US Cuba Embargo Blocking the Future? An Interview with Alex Lightman

It’s widely known in futurist circles that Alex Lightman — the former Executive Director of Humanity+, author of Brave New Unwired World: the Digital Big Bang and the Infinite Internet , and H+ magazine contributor — has been obsessing over ending the US embargo against Cuba.

He has now released a book, Reconciliation: 78 Reasons to End the U.S. Embargo of Cuba that employs economic and legal facts to make a cogent argument against the embargo.

I interviewed him via email about his new book.

H+: There are a thousand issues in the world.  Why should Humanity+ types be particularly interested in the issue of U.S./Cuban reconciliation?

Alex Lightman: I can give you five good reasons to start with.

First, Cuba has over forty medical treatments that the rest of the world can get, but Americans cannot.  By allowing the US embargo to continue, transhumanists and anyone who wants the best possible medical care — not the best politically mediated medical care, — are being deprived of potential treatments.

Second, Cuba is able to match most US health statistics, including lifespan, at a cost of $200 per person per year, vs. over $7,000 for each American… jumping to $15,000 a year at 65.  A core transhumanist aspiration is to live longer, but a challenge to this is being able to afford the cost of life extension.  Cuba’s cost structure could have valuable lessons for us, or even could be a place that Americans can visit for treatments (which are now all illegal).

Third, Cuba’s system for biotechnology is profoundly interesting and successful, and it behooves Americans to be able to visit and learn more about it.

Fourth, the US embargo of Cuba is now 50 years and one week old.  Rebecca D. Costa, in her book The Watchman’s Rattle, warns that societies that are unable to overcome gridlock, and postpone their problems to the next generation, are societies eminently worthy of collapse.  The US embargo of Cuba has all the attributes that we would find shockingly obvious after reading the book.

Fifth, US reconciliation with Cuba is a relatively easy problem to solve.  Transhumanists will want to be able to use this resolution as a dry run for solving much tougher issues.

H+: Hold on.  Forty medical treatments that are exclusive to Cuba… in a globalized world?  Treatments for hepatitis B and C that we don’t have (as per your book)?  This doesn’t make any sense on the face of it.  Any treatments that work will get noticed and distributed elsewhere.  What treatments are you talking about?

AL: RU, the whole point of the embargo is to prevent Cuba from benefiting from globalization, which is another way of saying Americanization.  What aspects of globalization are not aspects of US finance, commerce, markets, technology, culture?  Treatments will not be distributed if, like the brother who brought a hepatitis treatment back to his dying brother, saved him, and then faced prosecution under the Trading with the Enemy Act that was created to prevent trading with our former enemy Germany (up to 10 years in jail and $250,000 fine), which was to keep people in the US from distributing these treatments in the US.  The US accounts for almost half of drugs sales, and at much higher average cost.  Even with an amazingly incompetent marketing capability, Cuba exports over $400 million a year worth of drugs to over 60 countries.  A few of the highlights are products related to monoclonal antibodies, treatment for esophageal and tongue cancer (because of widespread smoking of cigars), and Escozul (blue scorpion venom from Guantanamo Bay area).

H+: But can you document this at all?

AL: Here.  “QUIMEFA’s enterprise production programme 2007-2012 includes 73 products of which 31 substitute imports.” 73 minus 31 equals 42 products that are not substituting imports, but are exported because they are unique.

Domestic production concentrates on generic pharmaceuticals and vaccines. Production is GMP compliant, and selected pharmaceuticals meet bioequivalence standards. Economically, medical and pharmaceutical services remain priority export sectors.

For more background, check these:

H+: A vast majority of Americans are against the embargo and even a small majority of Cuban Americans are now against it.  Why do you think certain political changes remain taboo long after the majority has moved on?

AL: The vast majority of Americans are against the embargo.  However, even a majority of Cuban Americans in the US, in Florida, even in Miami-Dade County are against the US embargo and for normalization of relations.  And the number of eligible voters of Cuban descent in Florida is 550,000, almost a rounding error.  This particular situation is explained in my book.  Certain political changes remain taboo because an iron rice bowl and an iron triangle have been institutionalized.  The iron rice bowl feeds tens of thousands of people who make money from the continuation of the embargo.  I don’t know anyone who makes a full-time living being against the embargo in the US.  There’s no money in it.  The iron triangle is money from Washington, DC that goes to Miami, which sends a portion of it back to the campaigns of elected officials, who vote to keep the money flowing to Miami so they get their cut.  The 50 years of the embargo are evidence that the US is not actually a democracy, but, rather, a plutocracy, or government by money.

To be more specific, there is a flow of billions of dollars of federal funds to Cuban-American organizations, both for-profit and nonprofits, part of which goes to the Cuban-American politicians and their fellow travelers to keep them elected and part of which goes to anyone who is against a supporter of ending the embargo.  These politicians then make sure to pass the spending.  So it’s federal money laundering on a grand scale.  Want examples?  $1.4 billion for sugar subsidies to destroy the Everglades, one of the largest and most pointless terraforming projects in the world.  There was a cover story in The Atlantic ten years ago that should have ended it, but this waste of money and a great ecosystem still continues.  And there is the $500 million spent on Radio and TV Martí.  Besides stealing the name of Cuba’s greatest hero (imagine if Iran called its broadcasting George Washington TV), it’s money that’s spent paying people in Miami to create propaganda that goes only to other people in Miami, by paying for the equivalent of infomercials in prime time.  No Cuban I’ve met (and I tried hard) has seen TV Martí… the signals are blocked. Many had heard Radio Martí.  However, because the US does not allow Cuba to pay for content, Cuba just takes it.  Something like 85% of Cuban TV is from the US.  Cuba uses US standards like NTSC, instead of PAL, to better pirate US content.  People were happy to see James Cameron’s Avatar on television.  Most of the people I know are more up to date on US movies than Americans, since movies are shown on Cuban national television while they are still in US theaters.

Returning to Radio and TV Martí, I will give you a specific example.  I have an associate whose friend is a painter.  He gave a bid of $5,000 to TV Martí to paint some rooms.  They accepted the bid, and said, “We will pay you $10,000, but you need to give a $1,000 donation to each of these five Cuban-American politicians.”  He had no problem with this in principle — it’s well known in Little Havana that this is how it works.  He checked with his accountant, found that it would cost an extra $170 in taxes, and asked for $10,170. TV Martí refused, saying he should be a more patriotic.  This made him angry, so he’s complaining… but not about the campaigns (that’s not even worth mentioning), but, rather, that they wouldn’t pay his taxes on the contributions.  Multiply this by tens of millions of dollars a year, and you have elected officials that can’t accomplish anything because, like naked short selling in the US stock market, these officials have effectively unlimited funds for their own campaigns — even though their policies cost Miami jobs, and make it one of the worst markets for foreclosures in America.  Without the political campaigns funds from Washington, why would people vote against creating over 100,000 new jobs in Miami, which would be enough to fix their broken real estate market?

The cover illustration of my book Reconciliation shows a clock with the eleven US presidents who have maintained the US embargo, all revolving around Fidel Castro.  Obama shows no signs of lifting the embargo before he leaves office, so I put a question mark for the 12 o’clock position.  I do think the next US president will lift the embargo, because by that time the world will have united against the US.

H+: What are a few of the most surprising things that you think people might learn from your book, about Cuba or about the embargo?

AL: The key to achieving a transhumanist future is not by just dwelling in the never-never nebulosity of endless possibility, but, rather, finding a place where there is mindless gridlock because of supermemes that have gotten control, and caused all parties to enter into an uncreative, unresourceful state.  And to blow it up conceptually, and re-imagine and recreate the situation.

My thought is that ending the US embargo of Cuba is so trivially simple that getting this accomplished should be like an initiation, a future supercentenarian’s equivalent of child’s play — to learn and earn the right to lead the people of earth into a peaceful, sustainable, superhuman prosperity.  If you can’t get over this Cuba nonsense, or something of equal real-world complexity that’s frozen and stuck in stupidity, you are just playing a real-world role-playing game, and you aren’t mature enough to ethically advocate radical transformation.  Let me give an example.  I love Ray Kurzweil, and take him seriously as a transhumanist because, while I was at MIT, I did some volunteering with blind engineers at one of his companies.  The blind have an unemployment rate of over 70%, when they, of all people, really need work to feel a part of their community and society.  Ray paid his dues.  He solves tough social problems, and that gave him the ethical right to talk about bigger changes.

Peter Diamandis, who was in my class of ’83 at MIT, provided a major boost to space education, and then with the X Prize he gave an amazing boost, both to private space, and brilliantly, to the resurgence of prizes to accomplish social tasks.  Peter also has big, bold statements, visions and changes he wants.  But he helped solve real-world social problems, and he earned the right to say cool, wacky things like “I will live to 700 years old”, as he did in our interview last year.  I give him full props for that.

However, what I think could be done, and hasn’t been, is to set a task to the community of transhumanists that we could ALL put our effort behind, and know whether we succeeded or not, and then ALL benefit from.  My understanding is that if transhumanists united in getting the embargo lifted, we’d have billions of dollars in brilliant biotech scientists and a government-run medical complex with expertise in diffusing innovations to over 100 countries ready, willing and able to take us all as seriously as we take Ray or Peter, or Elon or Richard Branson, in their futurist activities.

So, what will H+ readers in particular get?  The understanding that they have the power to use their intellects and positive constructive ability to envision and describe the future, and to get a stuck situation, uniting 187 countries in angry opposition to the US, unstuck.  The whole world minus transhumanists = failure.  The whole world plus transhumanists = success.  I don’t know any other problem or challenge so perfectly, deliciously solvable that is poised for us to complete it.

H+: How do you foresee this book impacting on the general discourse around the Cuba embargo?

AL: Patriotism is the last refuge for scoundrels.  If smart people without a dog in this fight (i.e. non-Cubans or non-Cuban-Americans) read this, and start talking about it, and start asking, “How can eleven US presidents in a row violate their oath to protect the US Constitution, and have no one notice or care?” then the book will have achieved its purpose.  I also think that it increases my chances of winning a Nobel Peace Prize from zero to one percent over the next forty years, since when (there is no if, only when) the US embargo is lifted, I have no doubt that I will get some credit — if not during the period immediately around the ending of the embargo, then afterwards, as America does actually add over 200,000 Cuba-related jobs.  The highest estimates now are only about 65,000 jobs, which is absurdly low.  My estimates for GDP growth, exports, medicines, medical tourism, oil and gas revenues are all going to suddenly look pretty future-savvy.  Though, for a futurist and a transhumanist, they weren’t relatively difficult to forecast.

So, what I want to do is up the ante to be a cool futurist or an awesome transhumanist.  I want to play the game where you don’t just say talk about how the far future will improve the lives of yourself and your H+ friends.  I want to challenge other H+ people to make forecasts, predictions, and policy advocacy that will improve the lives of poor people, unfree and oppressed people, and I see both Americans and Cubans as fitting those categories.

In short, I see Reconciliation: 78 Reasons to End the US Embargo of Cuba as the start of a new kind of futurist literature, from the school of Blueprint Prophecy, in which you make good predictions that make so much sense, ethically, financially, socially, that smart ethical people rally to the high frequency bird call, say, “Hell, yes, let’s fix this!”  Then build on our momentum to solve ever tougher challenges in our Eversmarter world.

See Also

Open Source Medicine as the Next Insanely Great Thing

Is the Future Cancelled or Just Postponed?

Hacking the Economy

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