Column: Guest Column: By Jordan Rasmusson

“Yes, Cuba doesn’t have the same economic or political rights as the United States, but we Cubans have a universal right to free health care and education – as an American, you do not” replied my Cuban professor as we debated human rights. My professor was not factually wrong: Through a combination of scholarships, loans, summer jobs and generous parents, I was financing my college education at Harvard and my semester abroad at the University of Havana in Cuba. I was paying for my health insurance, too.

My Cuban professor’s argument wasn’t new to me – I had heard versions of this rhetoric from my time as a national leader in the High School Democrats of America. As a Fergus Falls High School student, I was an energetic Democrat. I campaigned for Democrats and worked in Washington, D.C., as Democrats pursued their ambitious agenda after the 2008 elections. As a young leader, I was given talking points stating “health care is a right,” trying to counter criticisms of Obamacare’s impact on economic and religious liberties.

By the time I came back from my semester in Cuba, I was a conservative. Today, I work in business as an unapologetic capitalist and give my time and resources to conservative causes.

What explains this conversion? Through my time in Cuba, I learned to appreciate what makes America great and fear the consequences of moving toward socialism.

Self-proclaimed “progressives” push an agenda that can seem attractive. Who doesn’t want free health care or college? It sounded attractive in Cuba, too. The error my high school self and progressives make is that we dramatically underestimate the costs of placing our faith in an ever more powerful government. By doing so, we stunt human flourishing and undermine our God-given rights and obligations.

Cuba showed me the easiest path to income equality was to make everyone poor. I met a Cuban man who left a prestigious professorship to become a taxi driver, hoping to provide a better life for his family through tips from foreign tourists. The government controls what most workers earn in Cuba, so tips from tourists offered a unique opportunity to be rewarded for hard, honest work.

Cuba showed me that no other rights are safe when the government controls economic opportunities. At the University of Havana, the Cuban students who I studied with were mostly resigned about their future – the state would determine much of their future for them. Success required loyalty to the Communist Party, and for many, a reluctance to express belief in God as the Cuban regime wanted no confusion regarding who was in charge.

Cuba showed me that when government has savior-like responsibilities, society’s capacity to solve problems on its own is weakened. A Cuban professor once told me that “the government has many problems, but it is the only solution to the problems we face.” Whether it was caring for the sick, educating the youth or pursuing economic development, government was the only solution. I hear echoes of this thinking from America’s left who claim that we are but a few government programs away from fixing our problems. To some, the obligation to love our neighbor is best met through getting government to redistribute wealth instead of personal, sacrificial giving to a church’s deacon fund or a community charity.

Cuba showed me that socialism does not work and that the ideas the American left expounding are not new. These ideas have been tried and failed and are contrary to America’s formula for success. Even if you look past socialism’s victims in blatantly communist countries like Cuba, the more mild versions of socialism are failures too. In European countries with “democratic socialism,” we see weaker economies, the degradation of the family, and lost self-reliance. We see a misguided faith in government action become a substitute for faith in families, communities and even God.

Witnessing the failures of socialism, however, was not the most important influence on my political conversion. In Cuba, I developed a love for our American experiment and a deeper understanding of American exceptionalism. In short, I gained an indelible sense of gratitude for America. Gratitude is why I am a conservative. To me, being a conservative starts with appreciating both the principles of human dignity that set America apart and the sacrifices made over generations to defend these principles. Yes, we have problems that are in need of urgent fixing. The answers to these problems, however, will not be found in Denmark or Cuba – the answers will come from a national revival of faith and liberty. Our God-given rights don’t include Medicare for all or free college; Cuba taught me to be grateful for that.

Jordan Rasmusson lives in Fergus Falls where he works as a management consultant for businesses and investors.

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