Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cuba Seen by The New York Times

I first visited Cuba in 1963 for the express purpose of verifying whether the American press was reporting accurately on the Revolution, four years old at the time and a major issue in our foreign policy. It soon became clear to me that the answer to my question was ‘no’. And almost fifty years later, America’s journalistic gold standard, The New York Times has remained true to its Cold War practices.  A friend was kind enough to forward me a July 16 article entitled: “Cuba Hits Wall in 2-Year Push to Expand the Private Sector”.

For starters, this eye-catching title is not reflected in what follows.  “Hitting a wall” implies that something can go no further.  Yet none of the information in the article implies this. Here is my point by point deconstruction:

To say that there is an “aging leadership” is not saying anything new! Raul recognized this in

The Cuban President is in fact taking lessons on how to move from a centrally directed economy to what is known as a ‘mixed’, or part private, part public economy, as his recent trips abroad show:

After Vietnam, Raul Castro went to Peking and Moscow. You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to guess he’s in search of ways to modify course that have worked in other formerly centralized economies.

The Times article informs us that: “Nearly a quarter of a million (Cubans) have opted to work for themselves over the past 20 months, opening restaurants, snack bars and makeshift shops, driving taxis and fixing cellphones. Together with those who took advantage of an earlier experiment with privatization in the 1990s, about 387,000 Cubans, out of a population of about 11 million, are now self-employed. Cubans are also buying and selling homes and cars among themselves for the first time in 50 years.”

This is the only piece of positive information that isn’t followed by a negative comment. The information that “The government aims to trim state payrolls by 170,000 this year and add 240,000 private-sector jobs” is describes as “a tough goal given that just 24,000 Cubans took out licenses for self-employment in the first five months of the year.” But then, as if recognizing that this comment contradicts the previous paragraph, the writer provides a quote - from unidentified ‘experts’: “Given the lack of progress, the government’s pledge in April to move about 40 percent of the country’s output to the non state sector in five years is less and less plausible.”

The journalist does quote one economist by name, probably because he was born in Cuba: “At the rate they are going, there is no way they will reach that figure,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuban-born professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.’ But a quick look at Mesa-Lago’s Wiki bio suggests that this is an isolated comment by someone who is in fact supportive of what the Cuban government is .

Referring only obliquely to the American trade embargo the Times explains how goods sold in private shops get to Cuba: ‘With no access to a wholesale market, Cubans turn to friends, relatives and so-called mules for everything from food to trinkets to iPhones. This parallel trade has ballooned to more than $1 billion per year.

The reader thinks: ‘Well, that sounds pretty good.’ But immediately comes the downer: The new entrepreneurs are slapped with a 100% import tariff. And instead of noting that all countries slap tariffs on imports, and quoting a government source on the decision, the Times notes that: ‘State-owned shops were losing business to street vendors’, followed by a throwaway quote from a man in the street: ‘It shows the state isn’t ready to compete with the private sector.’ No Cuban in his right mind would imagine that state-owned shops could compete with private ones bringing in individually chosen goodies. A budding entrepreneur, ‘alarmed’ by the new tariff, says: “Things seem to be tightening up.”

Tightening up?  As in ‘embargo’, perhaps?

“Economists, businesspeople and diplomats” (again those anonymous sources) “believe President Raúl Castro is treading carefully because of resistance from midlevel functionaries reluctant to lose their perks, and from conservative officials nervous about the social and political impact of economic enfranchisement.”

Why would functionaries lose their perks? And what negative social and political impact would opening up the economy have? These empty phrases with nothing to back them up are followed by:

“The Cuban leader, who has sworn off the ‘shock therapies’ that ruptured (sic) the Soviet Union, said in a speech in December that the government would proceed ‘without hurry or improvisation, working to overcome the old dogmatic mind-set and correcting any mistakes in a timely fashion.’”

To the unbiased mind, these words sound eminently reasonable.  But the Times is only interested in discontent, no matter how absurd: “The pace of change has been too slow for people like Yelena López de la Paz, who went bust because of competition, lack of experience and low margins.” Come again? And isn’t competition what capitalism is all about?

Now comes an entirely new angle, which would deserve an article of its own, but here is dismissed in one tantalizing sentence. “With the National Assembly set to meet next Monday,” (July 23) “Cubans are anticipating an expansion of the number of co-ops beyond the existing agricultural ones.”

Coops?  The reader probably wants to know more, but there is no link to the very well-documented article that comes up in a Googe search:

“Separately, (meaning ‘for its part’ or ‘in addition’?) ) the government is turning small, state businesses, including cafes and watch repair shops, over to employees in some provinces. It has lifted a $4 ceiling on the value of contracts between state entities and individuals and is subcontracting work, such as construction, to independent operators.” These steps reflect a worldwide movement toward coops and worker ownership, but are unlikely to influence U.S. policy any time soon.

Jumping back and forth, the article offers this admonition: “Caution is at odds with Cubans’ urgent needs, some say. Orlando Márquez Hidalgo, editor of the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva in Cuba, said recently that if workers laid off by the public sector failed to find other jobs, their ‘discontent and frustration’ would grow, as would ‘the number of those who dissent or wish to leave. Time is vital,” he said.

Than back to the unhappy entrepreneur: “‘They opened these businesses so that people could survive and so that they, too, would survive, but I don’t think anybody is getting rich. That would be — I don’t know — capitalism’” (sic).

“For a 23-year-old accounting student who runs a busy snack bar in her home in a Havana suburb, restrictions stem from a continued distrust of individual wealth. ‘They just haven’t gotten things organized,’ said Ms. Albite, who gave up on getting a bank loan to buy a $700 refrigerator because she was asked to provide two guarantors, each of whom would have to leave the full amount in escrow until she had repaid.”

Which is it?  Distrust of individual wealth or lack of organization?  I would guess that the precautions over loans are due to the fact that all this is very new for the leadership.

The article ends on a final negative note concerning a development of greater significance than the first hesitant steps of Cuba’s new entrepreneurs: Referring to the expected pullout of a Spanish company that was drilling for oil off the Cuban coast: “The dry well (it encountered) dented Cuba’s prospects of reducing its dependence on Venezuela, which provides billions of dollars’ worth of oil each year in exchange for a range of Cuban services.” (‘Services?’ How about ‘the work of Cuban doctors sent by their government in exchange for oil’?)

Given the Times’ fifty year record on objectivity when writing about Cuba, don’t be surprised if it turns out to have erred in writing off Cuban oil - a tactic increasingly used by the American mainstream media to deny developments that Washington does not like.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fascism From Above and Below

Democracy is caught in a vise between increasingly authoritarian governments beholden to the corporatocracy, and baton-wielding populist parties beholden to no one.

The foreign television channels broadcasting in the U.S. report on a daily basis from Greece, where the dire economic situation has driven the suicide rate up sharply, and where a nationalist party, mockingly called the Golden Dawn, takes African and Asian immigrants as scapegoats, as if turning them out of their hospital beds could make up for the economic austerity imposed by the European Union.

After being targeted by Voice of America during the Cold War, Russia’s RT delights in drawing attention to everything that isn’t right in the United States, zeroing in on stories the mainstream media ‘misses’. RT may have reported on President Obama’s latest executive order before the American press did, following a calculated Friday afternoon signing. The order gives the President full control over all communications in emergencies, and spells out the steps to be taken under tight deadlines in order for the plan to become operational.  You can see the story here: and a follow-up here:

And then there is TomDispatch’s latest guest writer, David Vine detailing the new strategy behind our more than one thousand foreign bases: fewer gigantic ones, many small ones known euphemistically as ‘lily pads’. Often located in out-of-the-way places, they enable special ops forces and such to turn up anywhere on short notice.

Not to mention the New York Times’ July 15th story revealing that our cell phones let the government know where we are at any given moment - and even, supposedly, where we will shortly be.  Or the covert airport scanners disguised as pillars that can tell what you ate for breakfast as you walk by.

To take democracy for a reality in a world where the ‘choice’ is between being tracked and spied upon by those in power or beaten up by those imitating power is a mistake that I fear we will come to regret - when it is too late.







Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ever New News

There is no doubt in my mind that the news is the best show in town.  And on condition that you are watching the right channels, it is ever new.

While American TV continues to belabor a Presidential election that is four months away, you can learn from France 24 that there are more than a hundred thousand Chinese living in Spain and moreover, that with the backing of the Peking government, they are making money hand over fist in a country more than twenty percent of whose workers are out of a job.  One star entrepreneur says  Spaniards have not been properly educated.  In the face of the Spanish economic downturn he tells an assembled group of countrymen that they must stick together.

Not compete, but stick together! Could it be that a Communist education is the best preparation for making it in the capitalist world?

A related story is Cuban President Raul Castro’s trip to Peking, first, and then to Moscow.  The purpose of this pilgrimage to the high seats of Cuba’s formerly Communist allies is undoubtedly to get some advice for Cuba’s turn from strict communism to an as yet unacknowledged form of social democracy.  Meanwhile we learn from RT that the President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, allowed himself to be removed from power on June 22 after a flimsy two-hour impeachment debate in order to avoid bloodshed promised by his opponents.  Lugo is a leftist and the U.S. has been trying to establish a base in Paraguay for several years.

France 24 devotes considerable air time to events in the Maghreb, that is Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.  Today it covers the first legal congress of the moderate Islamic Party Ennhada, which holds the largest number of seats in Parliament and governs in coalition with a center-left and leftist party. Echoing last week’s interview with Tunisia’s foreign minister mentioned in my previous blog, the report emphasized Tunisia’s persistent drive toward a moderate /socialist/Islamic form of governance.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi chose Saudi Arabia as the destination of his first official visit abroad.  This looks like a typical Middle Eastern power play, since the Saudi monarchy is Israel and America’s staunchest ally in the region, while practicing Wahabism, the most conservative form of Sunni Islam, which inspired Al-Qaeda, while Morsi has to reassure the Egyptian revolutionaries of his moderate bone fides.

Finally, in a detailed analysis of the falling ratings of MSN, progressive Americans’ last best hope among the major channels, RT’s Liz Whal interviews Cenk Uyghur, who epitomizes its failure, while announcing that RT has risen to first place among foreign news channels in Canada.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Libya's Election - And Egypt's

As if to confirm what I wrote in my previous blog about a multi-faceted MuslimSpring, early results of yesterday’s parliamentary election in Libya indicate the liberal slate may win, in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s win in the recent Egyptian elections. RT pointed out that the Islamist party’s promises of Sharia law caused voters to back the liberals.  What RT doesn’t say is that under Muammar Ghaddafi's Libya was - at least officially - the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Republic.

Western, i.e., NATO backing of the revolutionaries who overthrew Ghaddafi was certainly meant to ensure his regime would be followed by a liberal one, reliably friendly to the West and its oil companies, with no more talk of socialism.  The same is true with respect to the crisis in Syria: the West is doing all it can to change the regime in Damascus from an - at least nominally - socialist one to one which will be an obedient player in the globalization of capitalism.

I've always maintained that one of the primary reasons for Western support of Syrian rebels has to do with Israel, without presenting a clear picture of why.  But yesterday an American whose name I did not catch affirmed on RT that America’s insistence on regime change in Damascus - rather than signing on to Russia’s suggestion of a transitional government to include Assad - is all about Iran.  In order to be able to go after Shi’ite Iran on the Persian Gulf without a Mediterranean blowback,  the United States and Israel have to neutralize Shi’te Hezbollah that sits in its backyard.

At first I thought this sounded far-fetched, but a moment’s reflection told me otherwise: what good would it do Israel to eliminate Iran’s missiles if it were to be attacked from behind?  Syria occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, in conjunction with Lebanon’s Civil War and the presence of the Palestine Liberation Front in that country. And Hezbollah is a militant organization that defeated Israel when it invaded Lebanon in 2006 and subsequently gained significant representation in the Lebanese Parliament.

The media never fails to mention the Iran-Hezbollah alliance - or the Iran-Syria alliance. But it rarely connects the dots that link the two Arab Mediterranean countries to the Persian nation on the Black Sea, because that would shine a spotlight on Israel’s weakness. The solution ]would be to remove Assad, who rules Syria and is allied with Lebanon’s strongest Muslim faction. But it’s a throw of the dice as to whether his successors will be on the Egyptian model or the Libyan one, which is why there is so much dithering whenever the Friends of  Syria meet.

As for Russia and China 'paying a price' for not falling in line, one has to wonder what planet Hillary Clinton lives on. The news today is that Egypt's new President, the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi has annuled the military council's dissolution of parliament and called the members back into session, further scrambling the Middle East chess board.