Friday, April 24, 2009

Cuba Photo Archive on-line at Duke University

Dear Readers:

My 1850 black and white photos of leaders, ordinary Cubans, places and events taken in Cuba between 1964 and 1965 have just been put on line by the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke University.

The link is:

Signed, numbered copies of a few selected photos from this collection will soon be available here!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Latin American Summit: Riding the Tiger Together

It’s not only the sign of a post colonial era when Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro welcome Obama, it’s recognition of a totally new era: one of global uncertainty shared by all, a play with a whole host of new characters who go by a multi-faceted set of new rules.

You can mark the date: April 17, 2009 is to the Cuban/American standoff what November 9, 1989 was to the Cold War.  On November 9, 1989, I had just taken delivery of the first copies of my book that had foreseen the reunification of Europe from its provincial French publisher, when I heard the news that the Berlin Wall had fallen. I toasted the event with my Italo-German philosopher neighbors and told them that within a year Germany would be reunited.  They didn’t believe me.  Germany was officially reunited on October 3, 1990, with a month to spare on my prediction

Now I’ll make a similar prediction: that the United States will reestablish full diplomatic relations with Cuba by the end of this year.  I realize I am sticking my neck out further than I did in 1989, and I would not put such a short time frame on this event were it not for the tiger.

The tiger is the growing number of crises mentioned above.  It is many striped and will require many riders to rein it in.  As in the old expression “who’s doing what to whom?” it’s no longer possible to visualize the world as a neatly labeled set of problems:  Communist, Fascist, Liberal, Fundamentalist, Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, White - even doctor, lawyer, terrorist.

The rescue by Navy Seals of an American merchant marine captain off the coast of Somalia shows how intertwined every aspect of the global challenge is.  More importantly, the players include an ever wider range of characters, that form a new human web, as the historian William McNeill so aptly puts it.

It’s been fashionable to comment on the fact that American supremacy no longer goes unchallenged. Depending on one’s ideology this is either welcomed or deplored.  What became clear with the Mersk Alabama is that not only the world’s most powerful navy cannot blow away a bunch of fishermen in a fragile vessel.  It’s that even united, the world’s navies cannot keep order on the high seas.  (My suggestion on that front is for merchant vessels to travel in formations.)

Even together, the world’s governments cannot wave a magic wand over global warming, their armies cannot intervene in every dogmatic squabble between fundamentalist warlords - or warlords who are after gold, uranium, or whatever.  And today’s peons may be tomorrow’s lords: Bolivia’s Indian president is determined that his country’s lithium deposits (the second largest in the world and a key element in the automobile batteries that can replace gasoline) continue to belong to Bolivia.

With all these tigers running around, U.S. Cuba relations would be trifling, were it not for the fact that the Latin American riders know it’s Cuba that put them up there.  So if the United States wants dependable partners to resolve the Mexican - not Cuban - drug crisis it must now count Cuba as a rider, not a tiger.  When considering wider problems, the growing web of relations between China and Latin America also marks a change from 50 years ago, when Castro came to power, or even some 20 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell.

Lamentations about President Obama failing to carry out his campaign promises fail to take into account two things: the ever-increasing rapidity of change in a multi-polar world in which ordinary individuals play powerful roles; and the fact that Obama is the only political figure who has the strength and the cunning, as well as the ethical worldview, to be lead tiger rider.

Reestablishing relations with Cuba will be about giving up Guantanamo (a Cuban expectation when everything is on the table), as well as de-demonizing socialism and moving toward a global social-democracy.  Obama was referring to his world view when he said we need to get away from ideology and implement policies that enable all people to have a decent life.

Watch for regular references to that political philosophy. They will indicate whether he is implementing his campaign promises.  Less than 100 days into his mandate, the plans Obama has announced to prevent total collapse and create a more stable future have the the right-wing in a frenzy. They don’t even want to build high-speed rail! Obama pointed out that they exist elsewhere, but unfortunately not here. This will allow him to point out the same with respect to health care, the first step toward overcoming fifty years of fear of the state.  And that is what must happen if pirates of all stripes are to be won over.  The do not need to be defeated, but simply given the opportunity to organize their lives and those of their peoples with dignity.  And equality is the prime ingredient in that aspiration.

No one country, nor alliance can defeat the tiger of inequality.  Until now, it would be unthinkable for the governments of Latin America to join with America in any cause, because America has been their main problem. The reestablishment of relations with Cuba will allow Latin America, North America, Europe, and other forwarding looking countries to join in making this happen.

In doing so, both Cuba and the United States will become more social democratic, as a first example of what needs to happen worldwide if the tiger of hunger-driven chaos is to be tamed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Presidents Have to Do to Stay in Power

Hamid Karzai had to sign into law a provision that entitled Shia men to demand sex from their wives every four days - worse than under the Taliban, apparently.

President Obama had to sign over trillions to banks and insurance companies, instead of nationalizing them, after running on what many have called a populist platform.

In a related matter, young Afghani Shia women demonstrate in favor of the law, claiming they are only interested in the laws given by the Koran, not civil laws, even if the former are unfavorable to them.
Similarly, many Americans have allowed themselves to be convinced (because in both these cases we’re talking about brain-washing) that it’s better for them to have insurance companies profit while they receive mediocre health coverage, rather than have the government raise taxes, or lose their “freedom of choice”

This morning President Obama gave the first indication that he may slowly be finding his footing in this minefield: presenting his new plan for high speed rail, he emphasized that such projects have long existed IN OTHER COUNTRIES, ticking off Japan, France and Germany.  The President is well aware of American hypersensitivity to all things foreign - and were he not, the right never loses an opportunity to remind him of it.

But if he can bring up foreign successes in the areas of transportation without bringing the house down, he can do the same for health care.  Unlike the public at large, the President has at his fingertips a plethora of information as to how other countries ensure the health of their citizens.

Idea: Produce a TV series about Americans abroad who seem to go from one health mishap to another, showing how they are cared for.

And while we’re on the subject of us versus them, consider this:  Europeans require a special permit to own a gun - usually a hunting rifle, hence their homicide rate is lower than ours.  On the other hand, they don’t need to have enshrined in their constitutions the notion that when government abuse of citizens reaches an intolerable level, it should be replaced. Without guns, they put their feet where their mouth is. They get out on the street and stay there until government gets the message.  Ironically, Americans are allowed to have guns but demonstrations are stigmatized as “mob rule”.

As President Obama heads to his first Latin American summit, he’ll probably get an earful from his counterparts about the availability of guns in the United States that plays such a big part in Mexico’s drug crisis.  He’ll be reminded that Chileans, Argentineans, Bolivians, Venezuelans, to name only some, have not needed American help to become democratic.  And hopefully he’ll ignore the right-wing CNN commentator’s description of Latin America’s agena for climate change and social justice as “lefty”, holding his crooked fingers above his ears.

One of the left’s major projects has to be surgically separating the equation of “foreign” with “bad”, a first step in removing our blanket fear of Otherness.

Monday, April 6, 2009

From "Ich bin ein Berliner" to "Change Your Ways"!

How good it made us feel to see our president cheered in Europe by both the street and his pairs!  Not since John F. Kennedy had we seen anything similar. But one thing marred the picture: Obama recognized America’s mistakes and shortcomings, but then proceeded to lecture the Europeans on what he perceives to be theirs. If the Europeans were right to criticize past administrations - and not only the two Bushes - for a multitude of sins, when a new administration pretends to break with past conduct it should not ask them to join us in future conduct that is similar to the policies they rightly condemned.

Obama’s Afghanistan project will not be accepted by the Europeans unless and until he spells out the real reasons behind it: access to Southwest Asian oil and natural gas without passing through the Russian Federation.  Pretending that terrorist attacks, whether in Europe or the U.S. are a reason to go to war against two entire countries, (Afghanistan and Pakistan, for all practical purposes), is not going to cut it.  A single cost/benefit analysis would show that: so many dead in terrorist attacks, so much infrastructure damaged, vs. what it costs to keep tens of thousands of boots in a foreign land, give me a break.

But there’s another reason why Europe doesn’t - and won’t - buy into Obama’s plan: they know war up close. They’ve always lived with war. They know the difference between war and terrorist attacks. They don’t believe it makes sense to go to war to prevent terrorist attacks. Then there’s a third factor that will prevent the Europeans from buying into the wars in Afpak as the front is now called: to European applause, Obama is calling for a nuclear free planet. That squares with efforts to prevent North Korea and Iran from going nuclear, it makes sense in terms of encouraging the other nuclear powers like India and Pakistan to divest (but Israel would have to be included). But waging all-out war against terrorist networks in order to prevent them from one day obtaining nuclear arms is putting the cart before the horse. If there were no more nuclear weapons, we wouldn’t have to fear them falling into the (“wrong”) hands. It is also important to view this disagreement in the context of long-standing European anti-Americanism: European economies started to go bad to the extent that, notwithstanding popular resentment, they allowed themselves to be seduced by American financial practices. The European street is protesting the recession much more aggressively than are Americans, and European governments agree that they were wrong to follow our lead. At the same time, having stopped short of following us all the way by dismantling their welfare systems, European governments can pass on large stimulus packages, since they have built-in safety nets. Finally, the nails in the coffin: President Hamid Karzai - our nominal ally - signs legislation that puts Afghan women’s rights back where they were under the Taliban, and Iraqis are going after gays. This is a headline writ large on the world stage: you will not conquer us culturally. And Al Qaeda’s war is a cultural one.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The World in Our Living Rooms, at Last!

The American president’s debut on the international stage has been remarkable not only by the change he manifestly represents in the eyes of the world, but by the world at last being brought into America’s living room.

The riots in London and Strasbourg were given extensive coverage, and viewers were actually told what some of the demonstrators grievances were.  This was followed today by a primer on NATO, for those too young to remember why it was formed (to defend against a possible aggression on the part of the Soviet Union) or why it still exists (to ensure access by the developed world to Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian oil and gas supplies, as spelled out explicitly by Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now, but not yet on CNN).

I suspect Barack Obama knows that a media revolution is necessary if Americans are to understand the world he is grappling with, but access to information will be gradual: it will still be necessary to watch the BBC, the English language news broadcasts of German television (Deutsche Welle), and read The Nation, Harpers and In These Times, as well as one’s favorite blog.

That the president should elicit enthusiasm on the part of French President Sarkozy who a day ago was threatening to walk out of the G-20 if he didn’t get his way, or warmth on the part of Germany’s Iron Premier, Angela Merkl is not surprising if one considers that all three are situated in the political center.  What the American public needs to know - but has only been told in passing - is that the reason why the president’s European centrist allies have refused to entertain big stimulus packages to put people back to work, is that ample safety nets and social benefits are part and parcel of their financial systems - even when led by the center right.

Some commentators will continue to remark without too much emphasis on the European refusal to pony up.  I suspect the editorial rooms of the networks are aware that the cat is coming out of the bag and that, even as the ridiculous ads against health care reform are paraded across their screens, they are encouraged to let Americans know the kinds of things the rest of the world considers normal.