Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Faster than the Speed of Light!"

Remember that Superman ad? It referred to a superhuman capability to intervene against evil. Who would have thought that just half a century later, events themselves would burst forth faster than any human capability to understand, much less intervene?

Yesterday I opened my BBC online to news of violent protests in.....Iraq. Tuning in to MSNBC, that event was mentioned in passing as though it were a daily occurrence, rather than, most likely, a sign of more violence, inspired by the determination of other Arab citizens to claim the economic rights that eight years of occupation have not delivered to Iraq.

Two days after I referred to Fidel Castro’s op-ed piece foreseeing an American invasion of Libya, his warning appears less exaggerated.  From my brief stay in Havana, I don’t foresee anything remotely similar hap-pening in Cuba, however much some may wish it.  However, when Ameri-can-backed dictators are swept away by their people after decades of intimidation, it is difficult not to imagine the American interests section on Havana’s Malekon stepping up its activities in favor of a regime change so long sought by the United States. But unlike the millions of Arab battling dictators for both better economic conditions and greater political freedom, Cubans have free education up to and including university, free health care, and they don’t pay rent.

In Cuba as in the rest of the world, there is not enough work to occupy all those with diplomas, and sadly, those who live relatively comfortably in the capital do so as a result of finding ways to acquire convertible pesos. The government is stuck between a rock and a hard place, squeezed by American economic strictures that make significant political change, which, as everywhere else, ultimately rests on the allocation of funds, difficult.

There are many fewer billboards than in the sixties, and blessedly, there are no advertisements on television.  But one cannot help but wish for more than an alternation of educational and news programs and salsa music. The blaring national rhythms are, alas, ubiquitous, perhaps adding to the organizational difficulties I noticed among young people.

While a fifty-year old ‘revolution’ is clearly an oxymoron, Fidel Castro is right to warn, repeatedly, of two overarching threats: nuclear war and climate change. After Obama was elected, I blogged that Cuba would probably become social democratic before the United States. My taxi driver to the Havana airport, a graduate electronics engineer, believes it will take several generations for Cubans to be ready for Scandinavian-style socialism.  Yet Sweden and Norway made the leap relatively quickly - and they were ruled by royals!  A lone sign along the road seems to suggest a way forward. It reads: Party, People, Government, Nation. In the sixties, while admiring the Revolution’s dynamism and direction, I described ‘the party’ as a faceless, voiceless entity, in which individual cadres shifted responsibility to whoever was above them.  Both Fidel and then president Osvaldo Dorticos assured me that my fears were groundless. As Cuba sheds government jobs and encourages private initiative, moving toward a mixed economic system, I’d like to see that sign read: People, Party, Government, Nation, where the socialist party plays the role of a Scandinavian head of state, guaranteeing the maintenance of a multi-party, democratic, socialist state.

One can only be blown away by the sight of a countryside that is now tended, and the city’s architectural heritage show-cased in this pearl of cities on the sea. Spanking new buses speed along palm-lined boulevards.  But while automobiles from all over the world are added to the fleet of American fifties models, the latters’ lack of proper exhausts combined with poorly refined gasoline is probably taking a toll on Cubans‘ health.

However one assesses the Cuban revolution after fifty-two years,  no other country has stood firm 90 miles from the most powerful enemy on earth, inspiring an entire continent to move leftward. The first party congress since 1997, called for mid-April, will determine its future.

Meanwhile, how to blame the Cuban government for persistent inequality, when duly elected legislators in our own Wisconsin have just voted to ban collective bargaining by state workers? Democratic Senators fled to neighboring Illinois in order to avoid being compelled to enable a quorum, while their colleagues in the Wisconsin House actually wore red - well, orange - tea shirts to protest the vote. More strikingly still, thousands occupied the State House day and night, citing the example of Egypt, while the news reports citizens taking charge of the streets in....Bahrein.

We are witnessing a coming together of seemingly very diverse struggles into a world confrontation between the haves and the have-nots, While money tries to force the United States to march backwards, the majority of the world’s populations strive to move forward, in a repeat, on a vast scale, of what happened when the ‘barbudos’ came to power.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Out of Havana: The Real Clash of Civilizations

The two weeks I just spent in the Cuban capital on the occasion of the country’s Twentieth Annual International Book Fair did not constitute perfect conditions for keeping up with the rest of the world, but the Egyptian saga had started before I left, and the gist of what has followed, including Khadafi’s bid for martyrdom, makes one thing crystal clear:  Samuel Huntington’s 1993 “A clash of Civilizations”? felt wrong at the time, and is now proven wrong.

During one of the many book presentations and round tables that took place during the two week gathering that especially honored the fledgling Latin American organization known as ALBA (The Bolivarian Revolution), one participant recounted a conversation with an Iranian writer.  He said: “You know, we think we have little in common with these people, yet we find that we have the same aspirations.”  The public understood perfectly: Muslims and “Westerners” are motivated by a common desire for the voices of the people to be heard, and for everyone to have access to a fair share of the pie.

That is one of the reasons why the Cuban Revolution, at fifty-two, is the acknowledged inspiration of Latin and Central American popular leaders, and why the United States needs to stop funding and otherwise assisting military coups, such as last year’s one in Honduras.

The other reason is what’s hitting the front pages every day: the revolutionary ‘epidemic‘ that is sweeping the Middle East.  Today “l’Ernesto Online” translates Fidel Castro’s latest op-ed in which he foresees an American plan to occupy Libya. I sincerely hope President Obama will not allow himself to be dragged by our military into such an insane adventure.

Americans need to realize that even as the tiny island off the Florida coast (about which more in future blogs), faces the challenge of evolving into a social democracy, the Middle East that has been the preserve first of the British, then of the United States for over a century, will never be the same again.

Neither pious Western wishes for democracy nor efforts to establish it by force could change the dynamics of this vast, oil-rich region.  But the combination of progressive change in Latin America and American funding for corrupt regimes in the Middle East, supplemented with bombs and drones, raised the level of awareness of the population to the point of spontaneous revolt.

I hate to make sweeping statements, but I believe we are living an ‘axial’ moment in history, and we need to hold on tight to the roller-coaster cars, even as they rise to reveal new horizons, from Wisconsin to Tripoli and beyond.