Friday, August 15, 2014

Orange Garden Lanterns, South Sudan in Turmoil, Pyongyang, Nicaraguans, Iraq, Castro Turns 88, Israel/Gaza, Che on the Big Screen, Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution

Every summer, colorful orange lanterns spring up in my front yard, as per photo. When picked, they retain their shape and color for a very long time.  We’ve had a mild summer so far, which is very nice. Last night, I believe it went down to the 50’s and this is August in DC?
Having been there in 2006, before independence, I am totally broken-hearted and devastated by the continuing civil war in South Sudan, a nation that only came into being 3 years ago. It started out with nothing and now has even less because of the rivalries of its two ambitious leaders. I see no solution if they are unwilling to compromise and come up with a genuine power sharing agreement. Their warrior followers have been dragged into fighting, which will stop instantly when the leaders command them to do so.
Here is a video of Pyongyang, at least the best showcase parts, showing it to be a more modern city than some of us would have imagined.
Of course, this video was shot with North Korean government approval and only in selected areas of the capital, but, still, the subway system looks quite modern. While the architecture is grim, the buildings do appear to be well-maintained. Those buildings reminded me of some I saw that had been constructed in post-communist Cuba. And, although some of its people may be going hungry, North Korea has been able to maintain its nuclear arsenal.
Apparently Nicaraguans are not flocking like other Central Americans to the US because it’s much easier for them to cross over their southern border into Costa Rica. While Costa Rica is not exactly welcoming or as prosperous as the US, it’s a Spanish-speaking country with a somewhat higher standard of living and does not require a terrible and risky journey north, including through very dangerous Honduras.
The news media and many elected officials have been inflating the border crisis, in my opinion. And the debate continues in the usual polarized way: are those arriving genuine refugees fleeing danger at home or are they simply blatant law-breakers?  Their actual numbers compared to an overall US population of over 300 million means that they could probably be absorbed with little effort or effect. However, many non-Hispanic Americans are fearful of being outnumbered and of the unfamiliar, which has always been the case with immigrants. As I’ve said before, without immigrants, both legal and illegal, US population could shrink. Cities such as Detroit welcome them. However, Congress keeps fees for citizenship high to deter newcomers from actually becoming citizens and voters.
In rare good international news, Maliki finally resigned in Iraq.
Fidel Castro has celebrated his 88th birthday, and while he is now a shadow of his former self, people around the world are remembering both his triumphs and his misdeeds. A website called Plataforma Cuba Democracia Ya (Platform Cuba Democracy Now) describes him as “a psychopath and murderous dictator,” incapable of any sympathy for human suffering, who will die safely in his bed without ever acknowledging his crimes. Will Fidel survive me? I’d like to visit Cuba again before I die.
Most of my readers are not particularly bellicose, but a few, perhaps rhetorically, have suggested that the US might simply invade Cuba and thereby finally get rid of the Castro regime. Someone of Cuban heritage has even urged targeted drone strikes to finally wipe out both Fidel and Raul. Quite obviously, in this day and age and under present circumstances, a military attack on Cuba is not going to happen, quite apart from President Kennedy’s long-ago missile crisis pledge.
Freedom of communication and association are fairly universally recognized human rights that the Cuban government has formally signed onto, but does not actually allow in practice—for example, a gathering of more than 3 unrelated persons requires a permit. Furthermore, Cubans never voted for such restrictive laws, nor for their own government for over 55 years, a government whose support is so fragile that it does not dare permit Cubans to talk with each other or meet freely. When I was in Cuba, people were using sign language to keep from being overheard. From the dictatorship's perspective (and Cuba is not alone in this), open communication is considered subversive, hence USAID’s necessarily secret efforts to facilitate communication in Cuba, which have been labeled subversive and USAID contractor Alan Gross is now serving time for bringing in satellite phones. Although he may have been seized on the excuse of the phones, it was more probably to exchange him for the Cuban Five incarcerated in the US--now only Three, as two have been released and have returned to Cuba. After Bergdahl’s prisoner exchange and release, Gross’s family asks why not the Cuban Three for him?
USAID has been roundly accused of bungling—and it arguably has bungled since its secret practices in Cuba have been revealed. Yet, European groups and embassies have not been particularly criticized for providing communications equipment, often in secret,  and allowing Cuban dissidents to use their internet.
In the Peace Corps, which has wrongly been conflated with USAID and even accused of being a CIA front, we were not allowed to take sides in any election, local or national, or to make statements that might be construed as political--those were our "rules of engagement," rules for our participation and also for our own protection as we lived out in the boondocks away from other Americans, and  is also why the PC is allowed in China, a one-party state.
Is Cuba now justified in accusing USAID of trying to undermine its government? Yes and no. No, in the sense that the actual content of communications was not being dictated or even suggested by USAID. Yes, in the sense that the Cuban government does not allow free speech or assembly, so facilitating those would be a violation of its laws, laws dictated by the regime and contrary to international treaties that Cuba has signed, and not formulated with citizen consent. Cubans flocked to USAID’s discredited Twitter program and often pass thumb drives hand-to-hand, so they appear eager for modern communication. It’s probable that the indirect intent of USAID’s communications measures has been to open a space allowing citizens to decide whether they really want the Castro regime to continue in power; the likelihood is that many or even most do not.
On the other hand, revelation of USAID’S secrecy undermines diplomatic trust, and trust between US and Cuban leaders needs to be improved if there is to be peace and cooperation between our two nations. Trust is always a two-edged sword. Trusting opens each party up to a double-cross. Also, in the case of the Cuban regime, it means supporting and doing business with an oppressive government and thereby strengthening its hand.  As with opinions regarding any dictatorial regime, there are Cuban exiles on both sides of this argument, some pushing for more cooperation, others for more isolation.
Nationalism and national sovereignty are the Cuban regime’s main claims to legitimacy and to non-interference in its internal affairs. At the CELAC (Spanish initials for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States,) meeting held last Jan. in Havana, rights were declared to inhere in states, not in individuals (the US was not invited). (In the US, the Supreme Ct. has ruled that corporations also are individuals with individual rights to free speech.)
Nationalism and today’s existing nation states are not sacrosanct, being relatively new entities on the world stage with somewhat arbitrary and artificial boundaries that are not always fixed, as we have just seen in Ukraine. Diplomacy is sometimes useful, sometimes not—it depends on whether it’s being conducted according to agreed-upon rules. Rules of diplomacy may make for smoother interactions—Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro, yet the Archbishop of Santiago, Dionisio García Ibañez, pointedly dared to avoid shaking Raúl’s outstretched hand during Pope Benedict’s visit.
Nationalism has begun eroding as a result of the internet, global travel, and international commerce. International reputation in an internationalized world is also becoming increasingly important, as Israel is finding out. People are questioning whether Israel needed, in the name of national security, to massacre Gaza civilians to "pay back" or prevent those puny rockets, given that the US had already furnished Israel with the Iron Dome, not to mention sophisticated weapons. Destroying the tunnels into Israel was understandable, but, regrettably, that apparently required hitting civilians crowded into in Gaza’s small territory.  Hamas’s motives for inviting attack are unclear and it’s doubtful that Palestinian civilians would have wanted Hamas to continue with the suicidal rockets, although now positions on both sides have hardened making it difficult to see a solution, except that both sides should want the fighting to stop. Probably Hamas wanted Israel to talk with it, to acknowledge its existence, which is now finally happening, though indirectly. All that bombing by Israel only increased anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments in the Muslim and wider world --and against the US as well, with consequent risk to us.  Israel absolutely needs US support to survive in a hostile neighborhood, yet Netanyahu dares to bite the hand that feeds him, publicly criticizing and going over the heads of President Obama and Secretary Kerry knowing that most Congress members and a majority of the American people either support or dare not oppose him.
The notion of universal human rights, including the right of Palestinian civilians to life, however, is also gaining ground and has influenced my own perspective as a long-time Amnesty International member. Even where there is considerable internal citizen support in a country, national laws and practices may still yield to international pressure, such as has happened concerning child labor and child marriage, polygamy, FMG, religious freedom, and, most recently, the overturning of Uganda’s draconian anti-sodomy laws.
A woman from Argentina staying with me recently urged me to view Part I of Stephen Soderbergh's "Che, El Argentino," quite lengthy by itself, over 2 hours. It came out in 2008, but I missed it then. It's very carefully done, interspersing scenes in color of the guerrillas' campaign with black-and-white newsreel-type footage at the UN and of Che’s interviews in the US. Sometimes what appears to be actual newsreel footage from that time is shown together with grainy movie footage making it hard to tell the difference; it almost seems like a documentary. No subtitles for either Spanish or English, but occasionally in the NY scenes, an interpreter is present. Even there, it was a realistic touch that the interpreter when speaking English has the slightest hint of a Spanish accent--nearly all of the Spanish interpreters I’ve encountered in my work are native Spanish speakers and have that slight accent in English. Many of the Cuban characters have Cuban accents. However, the Che figure, while very skillfully played by Benicio del Toro, a native of Puerto Rico, did not sound to me like he had an Argentine accent. His 1964 UN speech appears in the film, cited also in my Cuba book on pp. 154-155, Fusilamientos, sí, hemos fusilado, fusilamos y seguiremos fusilando mientras sea necesario. Nuestra lucha es una lucha a muerte.” [“Executions, yes, we have executed, we execute, and will continue to execute as long as necessary. Our struggle is a struggle to the death.”]  
According to the credits, the movie was filmed in NY, Spain, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, but since I've traveled the whole island of Cuba, I can vouch that it looks like the real thing. The second part apparently deals with Che’s mission in Bolivia and his death, overall a very realistic portrayal. The Che figure calls some of his recruits "maricones" (faggots) and stragglers are shot out in the mountains with their hands tied behind their backs. The Fidel character nods his head and wags his index figure while talking, something I saw frequently during Fidel's endless speeches on Cuban TV back when I was traveling to Cuba. My housemate downloaded it, she says, from for the movie and for the player, in case you're interested.
While Che and Fidel promised free speech and press, in the film and in real life, they never actually allowed it. Nor was Che strictly truthful when he declared, "We don't belong to either the USA or the USSR.” It's no surprise that many who fought against Batista then moved over to fight Fidel when his direction became apparent, consequently spending more 20 years as Fidel’s political prisoners, as recounted in my book.
I asked a fellow Spanish interpreter now living in another city about the Che film, as he had also seen it and was actually present in Cuba during the revolution. He once worked high up in the Cuban bureaucracy and his late parents had been declared "Heroes de Revolución." Here’s what he said about the film:
I thought it was an adequate representation of what happened, but did not delve into why it happened and gave a very one-sided and overly sympathetic view of Che's personality. I never met him and only saw and heard him three or four times during his public appearances and have a very ambivalent, contradictory view about him.
 This portrayal seems difficult to reconcile with tales of Che as the Butcher of La Cabaña fortress who never responded favorably to appeals from death sentences and who liked to be present during executions. There are also conflicting versions as to how he behaved when he was captured and executed. My temporary conclusion is that although as a human being, he might have had some positive qualities, he became a fanatic whose beliefs in the justice of his ideals and the necessity to struggle for them overrode all humanitarian concerns. For him the end justified the means and this was his fatal flaw because it led to violent human rights abuses which totally dehumanized him.
For an actual documentary about Cuba, I recommend one mentioned on pp. 348-351 in my Cuba book, Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution (Nietos de la Revolución Cubana), available for free via Google on and Lockerz.  

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