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A Tale of Two Economies: Singapore and Cuba

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It would be nearly impossible to find two world leaders in living memory whose influence is more inextricably linked to the countries they presided over than Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who just passed away at the age of 91.

You might find this hard to believe now, but in 1959—the year both leaders assumed power—Cuba was a much wealthier nation than Singapore. Whereas Singapore was little more than a sleepy former colonial trading and naval outpost with very few natural resources, Cuba enjoyed a thriving tourism industry and was rich in tobacco, sugar and coffee.

Fast forward about 55 years, and things couldn’t have reversed more dramatically, as you can see in the images below.

The ever-widening divergence between the two nations serves as a textbook case study of a) the economic atrophy that’s indicative of Soviet-style communism, and b) the sky-is-the-limit prosperity that comes with the sort of American-style free market capitalism Lee introduced to Singapore.

Sound fiscal policy, a strong emphasis on free trade and competitive tax rates have transformed the Southeast Asian city-state from an impoverished third world country into a bustling metropolis and global financial hub that today rivals New York City, London and Switzerland. Between 1965 and 1990—the year he stepped down as prime minister—Lee grew Singapore’s per capita GDP a massive 2,800 percent, from $500 to $14,500.

Since then, its per capita GDP based on purchasing power parity (PPP) has caught up with and zoomed past America’s.

Because of the free-market policies that Lee implemented, Singapore is ranked first in the world on the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business list and, for the fourth consecutive year, ranked second on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. The Heritage Foundation ranks the nation second on its 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, writing:

Sustained efforts to build a world-class financial center and further open its market to global commerce have led to advances in… economic freedoms, including financial freedom and investment freedom.

Cuba, meanwhile, comes in at number 177 on the Heritage Foundation’s list and is the “least free of 29 countries in the South and Central America/Caribbean region.” The Caribbean island-state doesn’t rank at all on the World Bank Group’s list, which includes 189 world economies.

Many successful international businesses have emerged and thrived in the Singapore that Lee created, the most notable being Singapore Airlines. Founded in 1947, the carrier has ascended to become one of the most profitable companies in the world. It’s been recognized as the world’s best airline countless times by dozens of groups and publications. Recently it appeared on Fortune’s Most Admired Companies list.

Xian Liang, portfolio manager of our China Region Fund (USCOX), notes that Lee’s key legacy is an emphasis on pragmatism and adaptability.

Lee was a great visionary indeed,” Xian says. “He achieved wonders, fast-tracking Singapore’s GDP growth to U.S. levels.

We at U.S. Global Investors honor the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern-day Singapore. He showed the world that when a country chooses to open its markets and foster a friendly business environment, strength and prosperity follow. Even on the other side of the globe, the American Dream lives on.

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