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Med School Classes Cancelled in Havana February 20, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Cuba, Health, Latin America.
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Roger’s note: I am not an uncritical admirer of Castros’ Cuba.  However, I have made a fairly extensive study of the Cuban revolution, and in the 1980s and 1990s I traveled several times to Cuba, and by car and plane got to know a great deal of the Island.  In general, I found that for the most part the Cubans I met were educated, cultured, “civilized” and with a pride and dignity I have not seen in other Latin American countries.  I have met with veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion and was given a private tour of the museum at that “sacred” place, where a huge billboard advertises it as the “first defeat of imperialism in the Americas.”  How much of Cuba’s Stalinist Communist rule is a necessity with respect to the US blockade and belligerence and how much a result of failed socialist imagination, is hard to say.  My most memorable experience was when a Canadian with whom we were traveling on our return trip to Toronto had a paranoid attack when we stopped in Camaguay to pick up passengers.  He exited the plane and ran out onto the tarmac.  My belief is that if this had happened the US he would have been shot dead (and questions asked later).  In Cuba, the authorities patiently followed him as he ran about the airfield, amongst both civilian and military aircraft.  When he finally tired out, he was detained with minimal force and taken to a psychiatric facility.  This is what I mean when I use the word “civilized.”

by Don Fitz, www.blackagendareport.com, Feb. 14, 2012

Fidel Castro long ago vowed to make Cuba a “medical superpower.” The country’s healthcare system emphasizes preventive medicine and mobilization of the entire population against threats to health and safety. Medicine is more than a career. Imagine that, at the height of the Katrina disaster, the US closed medical schools in Gulf coast states and coordinated their work of attending to medical and public health needs of the poorest in New Orleans.”

 

Imagine that medical schools across the US sent their students to survey living conditions of poor black, brown, red, yellow and white Americans to determine what causes elevated mortality rates.”

“I’m on pesquizaje,” my daughter Rebecca told me. “All of the third, fourth and fifth year medical students at Allende have our classes suspended. We are going door-to-door looking for symptoms of dengue fever and checking for standing water.” [1]

As a fourth year medical student at Cuba’s ELAM (Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, Latin American School of Medicine in Havana), she is assigned to Salvadore Allende Hospital in Havana. It handles most of the city’s dengue cases. Though she has done health canvassing before, this is the first time she has had classes cancelled to do it. It is very unusual for an outbreak of dengue, a mosquito-borne illness, to occur this late in the season. She remembers most outbreaks happening in the Fall, being over before December, and certainly not going into January–February.

Groups of medical students are assigned to a block with about 135 homes, most having 2–7 residents. They try to check on every home daily, but don’t see many working families until the weekend. The first dengue sign they look for is fever. The medical students also check for joint pain, muscle pain, abdominal pain, headache behind the eye sockets, purple splotches and bleeding from the gums. What is unique about Cuban medical school is the way ELAM students are trained to make in-home evaluations that include potentially damaging life styles — such as having uncovered standing water where mosquitoes can breed.

Dengue is more common in Cuban cities of Havana, Santiago and Guantánamo than in rural areas. Irregular supply of water to the cities means that residents store it in cisterns. Cisterns with broken or absent lids and puddles from leaky ones are prime breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the primary vector (carrier) of dengue. [2]

DF and DHF

There is a significant difference between dengue fever (DF) and dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF). DF is a virus which usually lasts a week or more and is uncomfortable but not deadly. [3] DF has four varieties (serotypes). If someone who has had one type of dengue contracts a different serotype of the disease, the person is at risk for DHF. Early DHF symptoms are similar to DF but the person can become irritable, restless and sweaty, and go into a shock-like state and die. [4]

DF can be so mild that many people never know that they had it and that they are at risk for the far more serious DHF. This is why the Cuban public health model of reaching out to people is important in preventing a deadly epidemic. There are no known vaccines or cures for DF or DHF — the only treatment is treating the symptoms. With DHF, this includes dealing with dehydration and often blood transfusions in intensive care. [3, 4]

DF is a virus which usually lasts a week or more and is uncomfortable but not deadly.”

Each year, there are over 100 million cases of DF, largely in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Southwest Asia, and parts of Indonesia and Australia. [4] Between 250,000 and 500,000 cases of DHF occur annually and 24,000 result in death. [5]

Dengue was not identified in Cuba until 1943. Epidemics hit the island in 1977–1978 (553,132 cases), 1981 (334,203 cases of DF with 10,312 cases of DHF), 1997 (17,114 DF cases with 205 DHF cases), and 2001–2002 in Havana (almost 12,000 DF cases). [2]

Climate, mosquitoes and health

Climate change could make conditions more comfortable for mosquitoes that are vectors for dengue. During the last half a century, Cuban health officials have calculated a 30-fold increase of Aedes aegypti mosquito. [5] Since the 1950s, the average temperature in Cuba has increased between 0.4 and 0.6°C. Health officials are well aware that “…increasing variability may have a greater impact on health than gradual changes in mean temperature…” [2]

The 1990s were a very hard time for Cuba. Known as the “special period,” this was when collapse of the Soviet Union caused oil to dry up, the nation’s production (including food) to plummet, and illnesses to increase. [6] It was also a time when there was a climb “in extreme weather events, such as droughts, and…stronger hurricane seasons.” [2] Increases in climate variability meant winters have become warmer and rainier.

Conner Gorry, Senior Editor of MEDICC Review in Havana, reports that “My friends and neighbors tell me they can’t remember ever having to fumigate or think about dengue in the winter.” [1] Another consequence of more ups and downs in the climate is “…insults to the upper respiratory tract, increasing viral transmission, particularly among infants and children.” [2]

Mobilization

Medical students in Havana come from 100 countries about the globe. [7] No matter what accent they have when speaking Spanish, they don’t have trouble getting into homes. In Havana, there is nothing unusual about a foreigner in a bata (white medical jacket) walking through homes, poking into yards and peering on roofs to see if there is standing water.

Always in need of extra cash, an enormous number of Cubans have some sort of less than totally legal activity going on in their homes (such as a nail parlor in the living room). But it does not occur to either the resident or the medical student that the inspection would be for anything other than public health reasons.

Cuba has experienced more than half a century of mobilization campaigns like current efforts to control dengue. Soon after the 1959 revolution Cuba mobilized the literacy campaign which sent teachers and students to every corner of the island to teach citizens to read and write. Every hurricane season, the neighborhood Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) are prepared to move the elderly, sick and mentally ill to higher ground if an evacuation is necessary. Campaigns against diseases like polio and dengue have made Cubans used to the government bringing public health efforts into their homes. [6]

Every hurricane season, the neighborhood Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) are prepared to move the elderly, sick and mentally ill to higher ground if an evacuation is necessary.”

Beginning in the 1960’s, the CDRs worked with thousands of trainers, who, in turn trained 50,000 more Cubans to teach the importance of polio vaccinations. As a result, Cuba has not had a polio death since 1974. CDRs actively encourage pregnant women to regularly visit their neighborhood doctor’s office and patrol the community to enforce the ban on growing succulents that attract mosquitoes. [6]

Cuba investigates

Cuba places a very high value on researching preventive medicine. MEDICC Review (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba) is a peer reviewed open access journal which works to enhance cooperation among “global health communities aimed at better health outcomes.” [8]

Cuban researchers have played a key role in developing the widely accepted model that DHF is determined by “the interaction between the host, the virus and the vector in an epidemiological and ecosystem setting” [9] In Cuba, this translates to (a) the most important risk factor for getting DHF is having a second infection of DF which is a different strain; (b) being infected a second time in a specific order of DF strains places children at a higher risk for DHF than adults; (c) white Cubans are at a higher risk for DHF than Afro-Cubans; but, (d) those who already have sickle cell anemia, bronchial asthma or diabetes are at higher risk.

Cuban researchers openly discuss weaknesses in their health care system. One study indicated that there could be a “marked undercounting” of dengue due to missing a large number of cases. This finding occurred even though the study examined data during a time of “maximum alert,” suggesting that undercounting could be very widespread. [10]

A typical finding is that the community must feel that the dengue control program belongs to them if it is to be successful and sustainable. [11] Some of the best work I’ve seen on the role of public health takes an honest look at effects of “the absence of active involvement of the community” in dengue control. The authors felt that Cuba’s outdoor spraying of adult mosquitoes “is of questionable efficacy.” Instead, they focused on “the bad conditions or absence of covers on water storage containers” in the city of Guantánamo. [5]

Those who already have sickle cell anemia, bronchial asthma or diabetes are at higher risk.”

The study had a control group of 16 neighborhoods which carried out the usual practices of home inspections, measuring the degree of mosquito infestation, and larviciding (applying chemicals to kill mosquitoes during the larval stage of growth). In contrast, their intervention group did everything that the control group did, but added intense involvement by local activists. “Formal and informal leaders” of the community worked with health professionals “to mobilize the population and change behavior,” such as covering water containers correctly, repairing broken water pipelines, and not removing larvicide.

Measuring the number of mosquitoes in the two groups revealed dramatic results. The authors concluded that “Community based environmental management integrated in a routine dengue prevention and control program can reduce level of Aedes infestation by 50–75%.” [5]

Imagine

Rebecca told me that when medical students inspect the homes of Havana residents, they find that the overwhelming majority comply with pubic health policy. But some do not. A few cannot afford the proper lid for cisterns. Some have mental problems that limit their ability to cooperate. And a very few just don’t give a damn, even if they could be raising mosquitoes that infect their neighbors. Cuban-style public health research is critical in identifying barriers that communities need to overcome if they are to protect themselves from disease.

Do you remember Katrina and the number of New Orleans residents who languished while the state and national governments did nothing meaningful? Do you remember the photos of 1000 Cuban doctors in batas ready and waiting to come to New Orleans just like they went to Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and dozens of other countries hit by disasters? Do you remember the government that would increase the suffering of its own people rather than accept help from Cuba?

It may be difficult, but imagine that, at the height of the Katrina disaster, the US closed medical schools in Gulf coast states and coordinated the work of attending to medical and public health needs of the poorest in New Orleans. It may contradict your lifetime of experiences, but imagine that medical schools across the US sent their students to survey living conditions of poor black, brown, red, yellow and white Americans to determine what causes elevated mortality rates and then announced that no one would return to medical school until they were part of a national plan to resolve health care needs.

It may bend your mind to the border of hallucination, but imagine that health care professionals throughout the world demanded that people of the Global South be spared the mosquito infestations, rising waters, droughts, floods, species extinctions and all other manifestations of climate change brought on by the gluttonous overproduction of the 1% in the Global North. Imagine new medical care based on help going to those who need help the most rather than obscene wealth going to those who invest in the sickness industry.

Imagine citizens welcoming health professionals to walk through their homes because they do not fear being reported to the police and because they have seen mobilization after mobilization improve their lives rather than ensnare them in empty promises. Imagine a new society.

Don Fitz (fitzdon@aol.com) is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought. He is Co-Coordinator of the Green Party of St. Louis and produces Green Time in conjunction with KNLC-TV. He can be contacted at fitzdon@aol.com.

Notes

1. My Spanish-English dictionary does not include “pesquizaje;” but Conner Gorry, Senior Editor of MEDICC Review says that Cuban health professionals use “pesquizaje active” to mean “active screening” when they go door-to-door. Email message from Conner Gorry January 24, 2012.

2. Lázaro, P., Pérez, Antonio, Rivero, A., León, N., Díaz, M. & Pérez, Alina (Spring, 2008). Assessment of human health vulnerability to climate variability and change in Cuba. MEDICC Review, 10 (2), 1–9.

3. Dengue fever, A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. PubMed Health. Retrieved on February 6, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002350/

4. Dengue hemorrhagic fever, A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. PubMed Health. Retrieved on February 6, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002349/

5. Vanlerberghe, V., Toledo, M.E., Rodriguez, M., Gómez, D., Baly, A., Benitez, J.R., & Van der Stuyft, P. (Winter 2010). Community involvement in dengue vector control: Cluster randomized trial. MEDICC Review, 12 (1), 41–47.

6. Whiteford, L.M., & Branch, L.G. (2008). Primary Health Care in Cuba: The Other Revolution. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

7. Fitz, D. (March 2011). The Latin American School of Medicine today: ELAM,” Monthly Review, 62 (10) 50–62.

8. Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba. Retrieved February 6, 2012 from http://www.medicc.org/ns/index.php?s=3&p=3.

9. Guzmán, M.G. & Kouri, G. (2008). Dengue haemorrhagic fever integral hypothesis: Confirming observations, 1987–2007. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 102, 522–523.

10. Peláez, O., Sánchez, L, Más, P., Pérez, S., Kouri, G. & Guzmán, M. (April 2011). Prevalence of febrile syndromes in dengue surveillance, Havana City, 2007. MEDICC Review, 13 (2),47–51.

11. Díaz, C., Torres, Y., de la Cruz, A., Álvarez, A., Piquero, M., Valero, A. & Fuentes, O. (2009). Estrategía intersectoral y participativa con enfoque de ecosalud para la prevención de la transmisión de dengue en el nivel local. Cadernos Saúde Pública, 25 (Supl. 1), S59­S70. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0102-311×2009001300006

Voices From The Other Side: An Oral History Of Terrorism Against Cuba April 10, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Cuba, Imperialism, Latin America, War on Terror.
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Posted on Apr 8, 2011

By Karen Lee Wald

I first learned of Keith Bolender’s book “Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba” when the author reached out to me after reading an article I’d written on Luis Posada Carriles in The Rag blog. The article, “The Puppies That Got Away,” was based on an interview with a woman who almost became a victim, along with three children she was caring for, in one of the hotels Posada’s thugs bombed in 1997. The title came from the coded message used by one of Posada’s hired killers in an earlier bombing that destroyed a passenger plane in flight, killing all aboard. The telephone message was “A bus with 73 dogs went over a cliff and all perished.”

Bolender thought I might be interested in his book, an oral history, like mine, taken from many of the survivors of the 50-plus years of terrorism against Cuba waged by the United States and Cuba’s former ruling class.

I was.

I thought it would be helpful if people who are always hearing and reading about the “repression of dissidents” in Cuba and jump to their defense could also hear the other side: what happened to the thousands of people whose lives were affected by the actions of terrorists from inside and outside the country. I thought it would put a human face on the statistics regarding the material and human damage caused by counterrevolutionaries and mercenaries who are euphemistically called “dissidents” or “anti-Castro militants.”

“Voices From the Other Side” does this. But it also does a great deal more.

As expected, the first chapter gives an overview of the multiple forms of terrorism carried out against Cuba in what Bolender calls “the unknown war.”

 He talks about “the bombs have that destroyed department stores, hotel lobbies, theatres, famous restaurants and bars—people’s lives.” He talks about the first airline bombing in the history of the Western Hemisphere, and also reminds readers of “the explosion aboard a ship in Havana Harbor, killing and injuring hundreds.” He tells readers about the 1960s attacks on defenseless rural villages and homes, of “teenagers tortured and murdered for teaching farmers to read and write.” He reminds us of the biological terrorism (the dengue fever epidemic) “that caused the deaths of more than 100 children.” And he adds new elements for those of us used to thinking of terrorism solely as shooting and bombing by referring to the “psychological horror that drove thousands of parents to willingly send their children to an unknown fate in a foreign country” (Operation Peter Pan).

This kind of overview has been done before by authors such as Jane Franklin. What Bolender adds here is the lifelong effect terrorist activities have had on the survivors—those left with hearing loss, stitched-up wounds and such, but, even worse, lifelong emotional scars. Survivors who tell of being nervous and jumpy 20, 30 or more years after being in a room where a bomb went off. And the other kinds of “survivors”: mothers and fathers who for decades mourn the needless deaths of their children; siblings and children of those who were cut up, castrated and lynched by “anti-Castro militants,” or went screaming to their fiery deaths in an airplane that was already in pieces before it crashed into the sea.

I want these stories to be in the hands of those well-meaning people who ask, “Why does the Castro government repress dissidents?” I want these people to understand what terrorists have done that makes Cubans today so unable to give them the free rein they demand to carry out their actions.

Bolender explains in the very beginning:

Since the earliest days of the revolution, Cuba has been fighting its own war on terrorism. The victims have been overwhelmingly innocent civilians. The accused have been primarily Cuban-American counter-revolutionaries—many allegedly trained, financed and supported by various American government agencies.

And he explains that throughout the island of Cuba “it is hard not to find someone who doesn’t have a story to tell of a relative or friend who has been a victim of terrorism. The personal toll has been calculated at 3,478 dead and 2,099 injured.” This, of course, is something few on the outside realize, and he talks about why we don’t hear or read about it, about the political/ideological justification for so much cruelty. But he also talks about the real reasons—acknowledged by numerous U.S. administrations—for U.S.-backed and -financed terrorist acts against the island, information that is every bit as important as the humanization of the victims.

Preceded by a well-researched and evocative introduction by Noam Chomsky dealing with the history of and reasons for U.S. policy toward this upstart island nation that would dare to remain outside the grasp of U.S. hegemony, Bolender goes on to give readers a better understanding of Washington’s Machiavellian policies toward Cuba.
He starts off simply, with the well-known fact that “[s]ince the earliest days of Fidel’s victory, America has obsessed over this relatively insignificant third-world country, determined to eliminate the radically different social-economic order” that Castro’s revolution brought about. He describes the various excuses Washington has used since the earliest days of the Republic to justify its attempts to maintain dominance over the island nation.

“America at various times has portrayed Cuba as a helpless woman, a defenceless baby, a child in need of direction, an incompetent freedom fighter, an ignorant farmer, an ignoble ingrate, an ill-bred revolutionary, a viral communist” during the two centuries of the Monroe Doctrine. This history in and of itself is useful for those not already familiar with it.

Where the history gets more interesting is when this researcher uses quotes from U.S. leaders to show both why and how Washington attempted to get rid of Fidel’s revolution:

Richard Nixon, who, Bolender notes, “was one of the first to promote the theme of preventing the revolution from infecting others,” commented in 1962 on the need to “eradicate this cancer in our own hemisphere.” Nixon’s comment reminded me of an explanation offered years ago by a Cuban-American friend of mine, Tony Llanso: “The Cuban Revolution is like crab grass growing in your back yard. You have to pick crab grass because it spreads.”

But it was one particular “how” that I found intriguing. Bolender shows the vicious cycle of increasing repressive measures by the U.S. as Cuba increased its reforms on behalf of the poor majority of its citizens. This quickly—and intentionally—escalated to terrorism on the part of the United States against its tiny but audacious neighbor. And here Bolender is worth quoting at length:

As the rhetoric increased, terrorist acts were formulated and carried out. In partial response to the terror and other hostilities, the revolution became increasingly radicalized.

From the start, policy makers knew terrorism would put a strain politically and economically on the nascent Cuban government, forcing it to use precious resources to protect itself and its citizens. It was to be part of the overarching strategy of making things so bad that the Cubans might rise up and overthrow their government. Terrorism was the dirty piece of the scheme, along with the economic embargo, international isolation and unrelenting approbation.

American officials estimated millions would be spent to develop internal security systems, and State Department officials expected the Cuban government to increase internal surveillance in an attempt to prevent further acts of terrorism. These systems, which restricted civil rights, became easy targets for critics.

And as most of us have seen, this has been a very successful tactic. Bolender goes on:

CIA officials admitted early on in the war of terrorism that the goal was not the military defeat of Fidel Castro, but to force the regime into applying increased amount of civil restrictions, with the resultant pressures on the Cuban public. This was outlined in a May 1961 agency report stating the objective was to “plan, implement and sustain a program of covert actions designed to exploit the economic, political and psychological vulnerabilities of the Castro regime. It is neither expected nor argued that the successful execution of this covert program will in itself result in the overthrow of the Castro regime,” only to accelerate the “moral and physical disintegration of the Castro government.” The CIA acknowledged that in response to the terrorist acts the government would be “stepping up internal security controls and defense capabilities.” It was not projected the acts of terror would directly result in Castro’s downfall, (although that was a policy aim) but only to promote the sense of vulnerability among the [populace] and compel the government into increasingly radical steps in order to ensure national security.

 

book cover

Voices From The Other Side: An Oral History Of Terrorism Against Cuba

 

By Keith Bolender

Pluto Press, 224 pages

Bolender’s book constantly uses direct U.S. sources for his analysis that the terrorism and other aggressive measures against Cuba were designed, at least in part, to force the Cuban government into a “state of siege mentality” that would simultaneously alienate part of the Cuban population, weaken liberal support abroad and serve as an easy target for most U.S. attempts to demonize the Cuban government.

“Former [CIA] Director Richard Helms,” Bolender tells us, “confirmed American strategy when he testified before the United States Senate in 1978; ‘We had task forces that were striking at Cuba constantly. We were attempting to blow up power plants. We were attempting to ruin sugar mills. We were attempting to do all kinds of things in this period. This was a matter of American government policy.’ ”

Most of us who’ve followed Cuba closely have long known the U.S. government did those things. What is more interesting is the “why.”

American experts were hoping the terrorist war would drive the Cuban government to increasingly restrictive security measures; implicit in this was to prove how incapable the regime leaders were. These terrorist acts would not be publicized, recognized nor acknowledged outside of Cuba, so national security policies were portrayed as paranoia, totalitarian and evidence of the repressiveness of Fidel’s regime. To this day the unknown war remains that way. …

Here Bolender delves into the psychological warfare aspect of U.S. policy—and its effects:

c“In the early years Cuban officials faced the problem where they couldn’t tell which citizens supported the revolution, and which were inclined to assist the terrorist organizations or to commit terrorist acts. Everyone was treated as a potential threat. The consequence, besides the enormous amount of economic resources diverted to combat this war […] is a society that in the majority has accepted certain civil restrictions in order to ensure domestic security. It is the way the Cuban government has tried to identify the terrorists and to keep its citizens protected. It is the way the government has fought its war on terror.”

Bolender reiterates that while the focus of his book is on the victims and their stories, he also wants to show “how these acts of terror changed the psyche of the young revolutionary government, struggling to maintain itself in the face of the destructive actions of its former citizens, directed and financed by the most powerful nation in the world. Traumatized by these acts, this small island nation took drastic steps in the face of constant acts of violence. Those reactions to the terrorists, and the measures taken to protect the Cuban people, continue to influence national government policies to this day, and have greatly shaped how Cuba is perceived to the outside world. It is the price that has been paid by a society under siege for almost 50 years. A siege in part the result of the hundreds of acts of terrorism.”

His analysis goes on to explain that “[t]he key element of Cuban policy against terrorism has been the need of unity for the sake of security, manifesting in a demand for social and political conformity. The consequence has been extensive surveillance systems, arrests for political crimes, a low tolerance for organized criticism or public displays of opposition, suppression of dissidents seen to have accepted material or financial aid from the United States, cases of institutionalized pettiness, travel restrictions, a state controlled press and the rejection of a more pluralistic society.”

And we’ve all seen the effectiveness of the tactic that forced Cuba into this position—it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The tight control the Cuban government has adopted as a means of survival, Bolender tells us, does in fact destroy much of its liberal support abroad.

The Canadian author still has hope, however. “The termination of American hostility, including the absolute guarantee of the end to any further terrorist attacks from counter-revolutionary exile organizations,” he believes, could “offer the Cuban government the chance to breathe, to manoeuvre without a knife at its throat, as Fidel Castro once remarked, and to attempt to develop Cuban society that was hoped for.” 

Put in this context, Bolender’s book achieves far more than the important goal of putting a human face on the victims of terrorist acts and an understanding of why so many of the Cuban people hate the traitors within their midst who work hand in glove with those from Washington, Miami and New Jersey who fund and carry out these actions. It gives us a new understanding of the psychological warfare the U.S. has been carrying out parallel to its economic and military war.

This is a book that should be in every library and on every progressive bookshelf. I urge people to buy it, read it, pass it on to others.

Fidel to Ahmadinejad: ‘Stop Slandering the Jews’ September 10, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Cuba, Iran, Latin America.
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Sep 7 2010, 12:06 PM ET

(This is Part I of a report on my recent visit to Havana. I hope to post Part II tomorrow. And I also hope to be publishing a more comprehensive article about this subject in a forthcoming print edition of The Atlantic.)

A couple of weeks ago, while I was on vacation, my cell phone rang; it was Jorge Bolanos, the head of the Cuban Interest Section (we of course don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba) in Washington. “I have a message for you from Fidel,” he said. This made me sit up straight. “He has read your Atlantic article about Iran and Israel. He invites you to Havana on Sunday to discuss the article.” I am always eager, of course, to interact with readers of The Atlantic, so I called a friend at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig, who is a preeminent expert on Cuba and Latin America: “Road trip,” I said.


MORE ON Fidel Castro: 
Jeffrey Goldberg: Castro: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”


I quickly departed the People’s Republic of Martha’s Vineyard for Fidel’s more tropical socialist island paradise. Despite the self-defeating American ban on travel to Cuba, both Julia and I, as journalists and researchers, qualified for a State Department exemption. The charter flight from Miami was bursting with Cuban-Americans carrying flat-screen televisions and computers for their technologically-bereft families. Fifty minutes after take-off, we arrived at the mostly-empty Jose Marti International Airport. Fidel’s people met us on the tarmac (despite giving up his formal role as commandante en jefe after falling ill several years ago, Fidel still has many people). We were soon deposited at a “protocol house” in a government compound whose architecture reminded me of the gated communities of Boca Raton. The only other guest in this vast enclosure was the president of Guinea-Bissau.
 
I was aware that Castro had become preoccupied with the threat of a military confrontation in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S. (and Israel, the country he calls its Middle East “gendarme”). Since emerging from his medically induced, four-year purdah early this summer (various gastrointestinal maladies had combined to nearly kill him), the 84-year-old Castro has spoken mainly about the catastrophic threat of what he sees as an inevitable war.
 
I was curious to know why he saw conflict as unavoidable, and I wondered, of course, if personal experience – the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that nearly caused the annihilation of most of humanity – informed his belief that a conflict between America and Iran would escalate into nuclear war.  I was even more curious, however, to get a glimpse of the great man. Few people had seen him since he fell ill in 2006, and the state of his health has been a subject of much speculation. There were questions, too, about the role he plays now in governing Cuba; he formally handed off power to his younger brother, Raul, two years ago, but it was not clear how many strings Fidel still pulled.

The morning after our arrival in Havana, Julia and I were driven to a nearby convention center, and escorted upstairs, to a large and spare office. A frail and aged Fidel stood to greet us. He was wearing a red shirt, sweatpants, and black New Balance sneakers. The room was crowded with officials and family: His wife, Dalia, and son Antonio, as well as an Interior Ministry general, a translator, a doctor and several bodyguards, all of whom appeared to have been recruited from the Cuban national wrestling team. Two of these bodyguards held Castro at the elbow.
 
We shook hands, and he greeted Julia warmly; they have known each other for more than twenty years. Fidel lowered himself gently into his seat, and we began a conversation that would continue, in fits and starts, for three days. His body may be frail, but his mind is acute, his energy level is high, and not only that: the late-stage Fidel Castro turns out to possess something of a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I asked him, over lunch, to answer what I’ve come to think of as the Christopher Hitchens question – has your illness caused you to change your mind about the existence of God? – he answered, “Sorry, I’m still a dialectical materialist.” (This is funnier if you are, like me, an ex-self-defined socialist.) At another point, he showed us a series of recent photographs taken of him, one of which portrayed him with a fierce expression. “This was how my face looked when I was angry with Khruschev,” he said. 

Castro opened our initial meeting by telling me that he read the recent Atlantic article carefully, and that it confirmed his view that Israel and America were moving precipitously and gratuitously toward confrontation with Iran. This interpretation was not surprising, of course: Castro is the grandfather of global anti-Americanism, and he has been a severe critic of Israel. His message to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, he said, was simple: Israel will only have security if it gives up its nuclear arsenal, and the rest of the world’s nuclear powers will only have security if they, too, give up their weapons. Global and simultaneous nuclear disarmament is, of course, a worthy goal, but it is not, in the short term, realistic. 

Castro’s message to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, was not so abstract, however. Over the course of this first, five-hour discussion, Castro repeatedly returned to his excoriation of anti-Semitism. He criticized Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the “unique” history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.

 
He began this discussion by describing his own, first encounters with anti-Semitism, as a small boy. “I remember when I was a boy – a long time ago – when I was five or six years old and I lived in the countryside,” he said, “and I remember Good Friday. What was the atmosphere a child breathed? `Be quiet, God is dead.’ God died every year between Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week, and it made a profound impression on everyone. What happened? They would say, `The Jews killed God.’ They blamed the Jews for killing God! Do you realize this?”

He went on, “Well, I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew of a bird that was a called a ‘Jew,’ and so for me the Jews were those birds.  These birds had big noses. I don’t even know why they were called that. That’s what I remember. This is how ignorant the entire population was.”

He said the Iranian government should understand the consequences of theological anti-Semitism. “This went on for maybe two thousand years,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything.” The Iranian government should understand that the Jews “were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world, as the ones who killed God. In my judgment here’s what happened to them: Reverse selection. What’s reverse selection? Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation.” He continued: “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.” I asked him if he would tell Ahmadinejad what he was telling me. “I am saying this so you can communicate it,” he answered.

Castro went on to analyze the conflict between Israel and Iran. He said he understood Iranian fears of Israeli-American aggression and he added that, in his view, American sanctions and Israeli threats will not dissuade the Iranian leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons. “This problem is not going to get resolved, because the Iranians are not going to back down in the face of threats. That’s my opinion,” he said. He then noted that, unlike Cuba, Iran is a “profoundly religious country,” and he said that religious leaders are less apt to compromise. He noted that even secular Cuba has resisted various American demands over the past 50 years.
 
We returned repeatedly in this first conversation to Castro’s fear that a confrontation between the West and Iran could escalate into a nuclear conflict. “The Iranian capacity to inflict damage is not appreciated,” he said. “Men think they can control themselves but Obama could overreact and a gradual escalation could become a nuclear war.” I asked him if this fear was informed by his own experiences during the 1962 missile crisis, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. nearly went to war other over the presence of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba (missiles installed at the invitation, of course, of Fidel Castro). I mentioned to Castro the letter he wrote to Khruschev, the Soviet premier, at the height of the crisis, in which he recommended that the Soviets consider launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the Americans attack Cuba. “That would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever through a legal right of self-defense,” Castro wrote at the time.

I asked him, “At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?” He answered: “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”

I was surprised to hear Castro express such doubts about his own behavior in the missile crisis – and I was, I admit, also surprised to hear him express such sympathy for Jews, and for Israel’s right to exist (which he endorsed unequivocally). 

After this first meeting, I asked Julia to explain the meaning of Castro’s invitation to me, and of his message to Ahmadinejad. “Fidel is at an early stage of reinventing himself as a senior statesman, not as head of state, on the domestic stage, but primarily on the international stage, which has always been a priority for him,” she said. “Matters of war, peace and international security are a central focus: Nuclear proliferation climate change, these are the major issues for him, and he’s really just getting started, using any potential media platform to communicate his views. He has time on his hands now that he didn’t expect to have. And he’s revisiting history, and revisiting his own history.”

There is a great deal more to report from this conversation, and from subsequent conversations, which I will do in posts to follow. But I will begin the next post on this subject by describing one of the stranger days I have experienced, a day which began with a simple question from Fidel: “Would you like to go to the aquarium with me to see the dolphin show?”

Barack Obama: More ” Plus ça change… You Can Believe In” January 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, Barack Obama.
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Several weeks ago I coined the phrase “plus ça change… you can believe in.”  (http://rogerhollander.wordpress.com/2008/12/14/plus-ca-change-we-can-believe-in/?)  It is an obvious take-off on the Obama slogan that twists the meaning 180 degrees via the classic French dictum, which translates to English more or less as “the more things change the more they stay the same.” (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Today’s Toronto Star (http://www.thestar.com/news/uselection/article/572960) has published an article it had run nineteen years ago in 1990 on the occasion of Barack Obama’s election as the first ever elected president of the Harvard Law Review.  The article is eerily prescient; and it provides grounds both for those who believe he will bring meaningful change as well as for those, like me, who based upon both his words and actions, have lost most of what hope we may have had.

(Full disclosure: I voted for Obama but my heart was with Ralph Nader)

The article confirms that as early as nineteen years ago, Barack Obama had already clearly demonstrated his brilliant mind, a social conscience, formidable personal drive, and magnificent diplomatic skills.  In an uncanny way we see in this article almost a carbon copy of the Barack Obama that we have watched as a presidential candidate and now President-elect.Those of you pragmatists out there will thrill by the account of how he was able to relate positively to conservatives along with those of his more natural constituency to achieve his historic election as the Law Review president.  From your adulatory postings on the article’s Comment section, however, you must have either missed or ignored that paragraph that jumped out at me.

“‘He’s willing to talk to them (the conservatives) and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have,’ said Christine Lee, a second-year law student who is black. ‘His election was significant at the time, but now it’s meaningless because he’s becoming just like all the others (in the Establishment).'”  (my emphasis)

If this isn’t prescient, I don’t know what is.

In a recent article in politico.com (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0109/17532.html) entitled “Obama Tries to Seduce Republicans” we read about not only Obama’s selection of the notorious Rick Warren for the inauguration invocation prayer, but also of  his dinner with right-of-center writers at George F. Will’s home and the transition team’s reaching out “to other prominent figures atop the Southern Baptist Church, Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry and the Jewish Orthodox Union.”  We read of his cozying up to McCain and others in the Republican leadership, and he has been eulogized by everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Pat Robertson (from Robertson’s CNN interview with Larry King: “I must say, this is the most amazing campaign that I think we’ve seen in our life time or maybe in this century. Obama is absolutely brilliant. I would like to make a prediction. He can one of the great presidents of the United States if he doesn’t get pulled too far off of center and gets over into some of the things the American people don’t want. If he governs the way he said he is going to do, as I say, he has the smarts and the charisma to pull this nation together and be an outstanding president.” (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0811/05/lkl.01.html)

I have no problem “reaching out” to the neo-Fascists who control the Republican Party, but what had set him apart from the others in the campaign was his initial indication that he would “reach out” to the likes of Cuba’s Castro, Chávez in Venezuela and Iran’s Ahmadinejad.  That would take courage and show leadership, but unfortunately he has backpedalled on this commitment since he won the election. 

It is interesting yet most disturbing to note that right wing Republican presidents like Reagan and W. tend to be aggressive in promoting their agenda and thereby achieve results (which unfortunately are disastrous for most Americans), while Democrat compromisers like Clinton and Obama tend to be diplomatic and achieve little of their own agenda while advancing that of their opposition (in Clinton’s case, for example, welfare “reform,” free trade, reduced social spending, etc.).

I am still more than pleased that Obama won over McCain, that the United States elected its first Afro-American President, and I have confidence that the Obama presidency and the Democratic controlled Congress will undo some of the most horrendous crimes of the Bush Administration.  I believe that Obama will outlaw torture, eventually close Guantanamo, and make some necessary changes with respect to women’s health care, domestic spying, stem cell research and other important areas.  And it cannot be too soon for some of our existing Supreme Court Justices to move on to that even higher court up in the sky so that Obama will have the opportunity to make appointments to that will serve to detoxify the Court, which has become contaminated with the likes of Thomas, Alioto and Roberts.

But by his policy statements (slower troop reduction in Iraq; troop build-up in Afghanistan; at least tacit support of the Israeli massacre in Gaza; no immediate doing away with the tax cuts to the rich, etc.) and his appointments (Gates of Iran-Contra fame, Rahm the unabashed Israel apologist, Clinton the cheerleader for the Iraq Invasion; Lawrence Summers the wolf to guard the economic chicken coop), Obama has shown us what we can expect in the most critical areas: change that is pretty much the same thing.

 

Health-Care Reform Could Kill the GOP December 6, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Health, Political Commentary.
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“…for most of my lifetime, prominent Democratic leaders have been chucking liberalism itself for the sake of immediate tactical gain.”

This is a quote from the article posted below that appeared in the Huffington Post.  Although the article focuses on the issue of universal health care, it raises much wider issues.  After one reads the article, one cannot help but asking the question: Why is this the case?  (Why does the right tend to implement its agenda when elected to government, while the left has a marked tendency to waffle and back track?)

My comments continue after the article.

 

Huffington Post, December 3, 2008

 Thomas Frank

 Can policy be both wise and aggressively partisan? Ask any Republican worth his salt and the answer will be an unequivocal yes. Ask a Democrat of the respectable Beltway variety and he will twist himself into a pretzel denying it.

For decades Republicans have made policy with a higher purpose in mind: to solidify the GOP base or to damage the institutions and movements aligned with the other side. One of their fondest slogans is “Defund the Left,” and under that banner they have attacked labor unions and trial lawyers and tried to sever the links between the lobbying industry and the Democratic Party. Consider as well their long-cherished dreams of privatizing Social Security, which would make Wall Street, instead of Washington, the protector of our beloved seniors. Or their larger effort to demonstrate, by means of egregious misrule, that government is incapable of delivering the most basic services.

That these were all disastrous policies made no difference: The goal was to use state power to achieve lasting victory for the ideas of the right.

On the other side of the political fence, strategic moves of this kind are fairly rare. Instead, for most of my lifetime, prominent Democratic leaders have been chucking liberalism itself for the sake of immediate tactical gain.

Former President Bill Clinton, who is widely regarded as a political mastermind, may have sounded like a traditional liberal at the beginning of his term in office. But what ultimately defined his presidency was his amazing pliability on matters of principle. His most memorable innovation was “triangulating” between his own party and the right, his most famous speech declared and end to “the era of big government,” his most consequential policy move was to cement the consensus on deregulation and free trade, and many of his boldest stands were taken against his own party.

The results were not pretty, either for the Democrats or for the nation.

Still, conservatives have always dreaded the day that Democrats discover (or rediscover) that there is a happy political synergy between delivering liberal economic reforms and building the liberal movement. The classic statement of this fear is a famous memo that Bill Kristol wrote in 1993, when he had just started out as a political strategist and the Clinton administration was preparing to propose some version of national health care.

“The plan should not be amended; it should be erased,” Mr. Kristol advised the GOP. And not merely because Mr. Clinton’s scheme was (in Mr. Kristol’s view) bad policy, but because “it will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests.”

Historian Rick Perlstein suggests that this memo is “the skeleton key to understanding modern American politics” because it opens up a fundamental conservative anxiety: “If the Democrats succeed in redistributing economic power, we’re screwed.”

In the Clinton years, of course, it was the Republicans who succeeded. And the Democrats’ failure — the failure to deliver national health care that is, not the act of proposing national health care — was a crucial element, in Mr. Perlstein’s view, in the Republican Revolution of 1994. Assessing the accomplishments of the “party of the people” after those first months of Clintonism, middle-class Americans were left with what? A big helping of Nafta. Mmm-mmm.

Fourteen years later, we find ourselves at the same point in the political debate, with a Democratic president-elect promising to deliver some variety of health-care reform. And, like a cuckoo emerging from a clock, Mr. Kristol’s old refrain is promptly taken up by a new chorus. “Blocking Obama’s Health Plan Is Key to the GOP’s Survival,” proclaims the headline of a November blog post by Michael F. Cannon, the libertarian Cato Institute’s director of Health Policy Studies. His argument, stitched together from other blog posts, is pretty much the same as Mr. Kristol’s in 1993. Any kind of national medical program would be so powerfully attractive to working-class voters that it would shift the tectonic plates of the nation’s politics. Therefore, such a program must be stopped.

Liberal that I am, I support health-care reform on its merits alone. My liberal blood boils, for example, when I read that half of the personal bankruptcies in this country are brought on, in part, by medical expenses. And my liberal soul is soothed to find that an enormous majority of my fellow citizens agree, in general terms, with my views on this subject.

But it pleases me even more to think that the conservatives’ nightmare of permanent defeat might come true simply if Democrats do the right thing. No, health-care reform isn’t as strategically diabolical as, say, the K Street Project. It involves only the most straightforward politics: good government stepping in to heal an ancient, festering wound. But if by doing this Barack Obama also happens to nullify decades of conservative propaganda, so much the better for all of us.

Thomas Frank’s column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at OpinionJournal.com

Continuation of remarks by Roger Hollander:

 The answer to this question (Can policy be both wise and aggressively partisan?) I believe, is both simple and complex.  Complex in its detail with respect to the myriads of forms in which decisions are made in a capitalist democracy; but not that hard to understand in its broadest terms.

Follow the money.

The Republican agenda, again broadly speaking, is very much in tune with the objectives of corporate America, the military-industrial complex, the financial industry, etc; in other words, with capital.  If it goes to extremes, as with the current Cheney/Bush administration, some Republicans may take a longer perspective and believe that it needs to be reined in.  Nevertheless, no one could seriously argue that the Republican Party is much more than a front for organized capital.

Is the Democratic Party then, the opposite, its foil?  Dream on.  Because even in a capitalist democracy the power structure must at times respond to popular demands, the Democrats have taken the advantage of this by being the repository for such phenomena.  But within strictly defined limits.

Bob Dylan wrote, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”  Now I have nothing against money per se, I use it all the time.  It’s one of my best friends.  But what we are talking about here is enormous concentrations of money that exert an influence through campaign contributions and lobbying that cannot possibly be matched by any one or ones who represent the general interest. 

To go back to the original question, “can policy be both wise and aggressively partisan,” if we assume by “wise” that we mean the general interest, than from that perspective the answer in no.  Lobbyists have been referred to as the fourth branch of government.  The metaphor is useful to the extent that it demonstrates the colossal power of corporate and military lobbyists; but in effect the influence of lobbyist permeates all branches of government.  My favourite example of the effective lobbying is the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened the restrictions regarding doing business with Cuba, and was apparently actually written by staff at Bacardi and passed on the legislators who introduced it.

Of course the most obvious example of the Democratic Party’s winning representation in support of popular sentiment only to renege on its promise is the Iraq War (or, rather, the invasion and occupation of Iraq).  In the 2006 mid-term elections, the Democrats were able to gain control of both Houses of Congress based upon their support of enormous public sentiment for an immediate or prompt withdrawal.  With that power and authority under its Beltway belt, the Democratic Congress proceeded to approve every budget request for the war and went so far as to allow for its escalation, which was thinly disguised by the Orwellian use of the word “surge.”

Thomas Frank, the author of the posted article on which I am commenting, identifies himself as a Liberal.  We all know that the past two decades have been dominated for the most part by Conservative ideas and policies: anti-labor, anti-welfare, anti-environmental protection; pro-war, pro-corporate, pro-rich, etc.  But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the results of polling American voters, which consistently support universal health care, environmental protection, more equitable taxation, etc.; that is, the Liberal agenda!  But the Democratic Party (Clinton 1992-2000; Congress 2006-2008; Obama 2008?????) for a variety of reasons is neither willing nor able to give Americans what we want.

Two factors, not entirely unrelated to “money,” should be mentioned as means by which the general will and interest are thwarted in our capitalist democracy: manipulation through massive spending on public relations and influence bordering on control of the mass media; and manufactured crises or the appropriation of actual crises (this well documented in Naomi Klein’s blockbuster, “The Shock Doctrine”) to scare us into accepting unpleasant medicine.  The current economic crisis is being used, for example, to give Wall Street and its supporters in BOTH parties the opportunity to maintain its advantages while millions of Americans lose their homes and/or their jobs).

In effect the United States is a one party democracy with two branches: the Democrats and the Republicans.  Wikipedia lists 210,000 entries for the word “Republicrat.”  The notion is not original with me.  Look at the political spectrum.  The Republican Party pretty much represents every interest almost to the extreme end on the right side.  On the left side, the distance between the left wing of the Democratic Party (with the exception of a tiny handful such as Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Boxer) and say Ralph Nader (whose policies on the environment, the war, corporate taxation, regulation of the financial industry are virtually congruent with public opinion) and Noam Chomsky – both of whom are no where near to being criminally mendacious or as irresponsibly and ludicrously extremist as the Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs – is gaping.

Going back to the money, Barack Obama has tried to create the illusion that his massive campaign contributions came largely from ordinary Americans making relatively small donations.  While it is true that much of the Obama movement has been fuelled by the enthusiasm of American youth and liberals, and small contributions have been considerable; nevertheless, the bulk of the nearly trillion dollars in his war chest came from similar sources as were traditional for both parties.  Once the band wagon gets rolling, the big boys know when to jump on.

And going back to health care, Canada provides an excellent example of the thesis stated by Thomas Frank.  In 1942, Tommy Douglas was elected Premier of the Province of Saskatchewan, and introduced the first democratic socialist government in North America.  In 1962 Saskatchewan, after a “fight to the death” with the North American medical establishment and the provinces’ physicians, introduced universal health care, another first for the western hemisphere.

In that same year, a Conservative (!) Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker, established a Royal Commission to study health care in the country, and that Commission, headed by a former Supreme Court Judge, Emmett Hall, recommended nationwide adoption of Saskatchewan’s model of public health insurance, which led to the introduction and passage of the Canada Health Act in 1966 under a minority Liberal government, headed by Lester B. Pearson.  Thus Canada became the only country in the Americas, apart from Cuba, to offer its citizens universal health care.  And it did so under the political pressures that were a consequence of Saskatchewan’s successful and enormously popular and socially beneficial initiative.

It is also interesting to compare the results of leftist governments coming to power via democratic election versus those coming to power via revolution.  I have not made a comprehensive study of this, but will just name some examples.  In Europe, in the second half of the last century, two avowedly socialist governments came to power in France (under François Mitterrand) and Greece (under Andreas Papandreou).  Neither of the two governments were able (or willing) to deliver on their promises from the standpoint of either domestic or foreign policy.

On the other side of the ledger, during roughly the same time period two socialist governments came to power in the Americas though armed revolution: the July 26 Movement (under Fidel Castro) in Cuba, and the Sandinistas (under Daniel Ortega) in Nicaragua.  In the early years of both revolutions, their governments made huge inroads in eliminating illiteracy and in introducing free education (in Cuba up to and including university level studies) and universal health care, along with other progressive social programs.  Although the Cuban government has ossified into a Stalinist style dictatorship (though not nearly as brutal) and had to withstand the hardships imposed by the US blockade, it has been able to maintain these social programs.  In Nicaragua, the Sandinista government was seriously disabled by the US supported Contras.  The major targets of their terrorist attacks incidentally, were schools and clinics.  It lost power in a democratic election and recently has regained it.

I’m not saying that these examples necessarily prove anything, they are anecdotal , but I think it is worth pondering.

The example with which I am personally most familiar has to do with the Province of Ontario in Canada, where I resided for many years and where I served on the Municipal Council of Metropolitan Toronto as a elected Councillor for seven years.  In 1990 the New Democratic Party (NDP), which originally considered it socialist, but over the years evolved into a non-socialist leftist social democratic opposition, won a large majority in the provincial parliament and its leader, Bob Rae, became Premier of Ontario.  

The very first thing that Rae did upon being inaugurated was to travel to New York and speak on Wall Street to assure that they had no fears from his government.  Although his government was mildly progressive in some areas (a large percentage of women in the cabinet, some environmental protection), on the whole it could not be distinguished from traditional Liberal or Conservative governments when it came to protecting corporate interests and other instruments of capitalist control (policing, for example, where the Rae government failed to implement effective civilian oversight). It’s most notorious legislation was blatantly anti-labor.  It introduced what it called the “social contract” for government workers, a measure whereby they could accept voluntary roll backs or the government would do it for them.

Ironically, the Rae government was attacked viciously by the right and the corporate media as if it had in fact introduced a democratic socialist progressive policy agenda.  It was soundly defeated after a single term in office despite its efforts to appease capital.  It may as well have implemented its “radical” platform and left the province with a progressive legacy.  Instead,the Rae government was replaced by the government of Conservative Mike Harris, who did not hesitate to keep his promises to deregulate, privatize, and drastically reduce social and environmental programs.  He left office in disgrace, but his legacy remains.  Not only that, his major advisors and cabinet members are now effectively in charge of the Conservative government of Canada under Stephen Harper, another rightist who more or less “keeps his word” when it comes to his regressive policies on labor, social programs, taxes, environmental protection, etc.

A final and unpleasant irony.  One of the major arguments coming from the right when progressive measures are on the table is that such things as taxing business or increasing government spending on social programs (which involves more taxation) have the effect of driving business out of the jurisdiction.  If we increase corporate taxes or increase costly benefits and wages in X state or Y province, business will abandon them and move elsewhere.

When the Woodrow Lloyd (successor to Tommy Douglas) government introduced universal health care before the Saskatchewan parliament in 1962, the right and the medical establishment went ballistic.  Saskatchewan doctors went on strike and threatened to leave the province.  The opposition used this to play on latent racism by raising the specter of having to be attended to by “foreign” doctors, who would be brought to the province to replace the good White Saskatchewan docs.

Of course, as we have seen, exactly the opposite occurred.  When the general public in one jurisdiction can see that progressive social programs can actually work in another, it puts enormous pressure on their governments to act in a similar way.  No political party, no matter how far to the right, would dare suggest that the Canada Health Act be repealed (although they do their best to hack away at it whenever they get the chance).

Those of us from the Vietnam era remember the phrase “domino effect.”  It was used to frighten Americans into believing that if Vietnam remained a Communist state, all of Asia (if not the entire world) would follow.  In this case it was a bogus argument, but as the Republicans seem to be well aware, the Democrats actually being able to achieve a workable universal health care plan for the country could cause other dominos to fall (Kyoto, disarmament, affordable higher education, etc.) and undermine what the Republicans have so laboriously built up in the way of firewalls against progressive domestic and foreign policy. This “Chicken Little” strategy along with the enormous lobbying influence on both parties of the AMA and the private health insurance industry (of whom Hillary Clinton had become the major beneficiary in the Senate) is what Barack Obama and his Democratic Congress has to face if they are serious about universal single payer health care.  Place you bets.

A final word about universal health care.  Plans that involve the Byzantine network of private health insurance are probably doomed to failure once in operation for a variety of reasons not the least of which is cost and unworkable bureaucracy.  The weakness of existing single payer health plans such as that of Canada is that, while the coverage is “socialized,” the costs remain private.  In Canada the government negotiates with the Medical Association on a schedule of fees, but cost containment remains a serious problem.  In Canada drugs and dental care are not covered.  In the US, when the drug benefit was introduced to Medicare, it specifically prohibited the government from negotiation with the pharmaceutical industry for lower prices.  In Great Britain, where the National Health Service represents genuine “socialized” medicine in that it is government “owned and operated,” pressures to limit services in order to contain costs persist, of course, because costs are directly related to taxation. 

This takes us to the question of the role of the state in a capitalist society and what might things be like if and when capitalism were replaced with genuine democratic socialism, a minor issue but one which I will leave for future discussion.

 

 

 

The Threat of Realism December 4, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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gates-in-iraq

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates (center) shakes hands with a reporter outside Saddam Hussein’s Al Faw palace during an Iraqi visit in September of 2008. (Photo: Jerry Morrison / AP)
Thursday 04 December 2008, www.truthout.org

by: Marc Ash, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

    Still some 50 days out from inauguration, it’s far too early to jump to conclusions about how the new administration will handle war on two fronts, but if you think war on two fronts is a bad idea, there’s some writing on the wall that doesn’t bode well.

    Change has indeed come. America has elected its first president of partly African heritage. That alone stands as a quantum leap forward that no force on earth will ever change. It is nothing short of a collective national triumph. And the man is a bona fide intellectual no less. Intellectuals, of course, being as rare as good decisions at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    While there is ample grist for optimism, only a fatal optimist or a militarist could fail to be concerned about the rough sketch emerging for Iraq and Afghanistan.

    At central issue in both campaigns is what President-elect Obama referred to in his remarks in Chicago on December 1 introducing the new national security team as “our global leadership.” The concept of American global leadership is not new. It really dates back to a pre-American Civil War notion that US technology, specifically military technology, had become so advanced that we could spread our influence far and wide, and come home with the booty. The world had its notice on July 8, 1853, when Commodore Perry navigated an American war armada into Edo Bay harbor in Tokyo, Japan, on a “diplomatic” mission. There were no diplomats on board. At the point of 66 naval guns, Perry opened Japanese ports to US trade.

    For US public relations purposes, American global domination is most often wrapped in positive tones. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin reminded us continually on the campaign trail that “America should be a force for good in the world.” John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. But Kennedy, among other things, also quietly fomented counterrevolution in Cuba.

    If average Americans were blissfully unaware that US global leadership included domination of global resources, that bliss was shattered in 1962 when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara pointed Russian-supplied atomic missiles at the US mainland from Cuba. Castro and Guevara bluntly accused the US of imperialism and ruthless exploitation of Cuba, and many other nations as well. Castro said, “End the philosophy of plunder and the philosophy of war will be ended as well.” What Guevara did in his address to the United Nation’s General Assembly on December 11, 1964, was issue a worldwide appeal for resistance to US imperialism. Clearly, Castro and Guevara saw their struggle in defensive terms.

    In his remarks in Chicago, President-elect Obama seemed torn between a new realization that “our destiny is shared with the world’s,” and the old view he articulated speaking on behalf of the new security team he was introducing: “I think all of us here share the belief that we have to maintain the strongest military on the planet.” He literally seems to be working through the equation in front of the cameras. Early in his prepared remarks, Obama presented a seemingly newly matured view of America’s role in the world saying:

“The common thread linking these challenges is the fundamental reality that in the 21st century our destiny is shared with the world’s. From our markets to our security, from our public health to our climate, we must act with that understanding that, now more than ever, we have a stake in what happens across the globe. And as we learned so painfully on 9/11, terror cannot be contained by borders, nor safely provided by oceans alone.”

 

    But he went on to say:

“And so, in this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges. We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends. We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships. We will show the world once more that America is relentless in the defense of our people, steady in advancing our interests and committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world – democracy and – (audio break) – because American values are America’s greatest export to the world.”

 

    So, there may be some things he’s working through.

    Iraq

    Of all the gifts left to Americans by departing commander in chief Bush, the two wars he started in Iraq and Afghanistan are most troubling. The American presidency is an extraordinarily difficult job under any circumstances, but to inherit the job with two botched wars-turned-quagmires underway sets a whole new standard. Regrettably, the working model for an Iraq plan that Obama and team appear to be navigating off of at this early stage seems to have serious flaws. Again from Chicago:

“The SOFA that has been now passed by the Iraqi legislature points us in the right direction. It indicates we are now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq. I will be meeting with not only Secretary Gates but the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders on the ground to make a determination as to how we move that pace – how we proceed in that withdrawal process. 

I believe that 16 months is the right time frame, but, as I’ve said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders. And my number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase, and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.

It is a sovereign nation.

What this signals is a transition period in which our mission will be changing. We will have to remain vigilant in making sure that any terrorist elements that remain in Iraq do not become strengthened as a consequence of our drawdown.”

 

 

    The first problem here is that, yes, the occupation of Iraq is about dominating on behalf of large American-based corporations the resources of Iraq, and, yes, the American taxpayer is footing the entire bill. That is not going to last. It is highly unlikely that the US economy can sustain the occupation of Iraq for another 12 months. It might not be sustainable for another six months. A day is rapidly approaching when a critical-mass financial decision in relation to the occupation of Iraq will have to be made.

    Next, “reducing our forces” is both vague and potentially fraught with major risk. Ending the war and a full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty is not accomplished by a smaller, kinder, gentler US occupying force it accomplished by ending the US military presence in Iraq. If you read between the lines here, a real withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq doesn’t appear to be under consideration.

    In addition, any significant “drawdown” of US forces in Iraq would expose the remaining force to an ever-increasing security risk. That leads to dead US soldiers. Obama seems to address this when he refers to “making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase.” Unfortunately, the core equation remains the same: smaller force, greater security risk. So, in terms of Iraqi sovereignty and US force security, the current plan appears fundamentally flawed.

    This leaves aside all of the war crimes committed against the Iraqi people in order to maintain control by force of their country. Including extra-judicial assassination, indefinite imprisonment without due process, displacement of vast segments of the population, and the list goes on.

    Afghanistan

    In Afghanistan, for whatever reason, everyone on a US national security level seems to have forgotten the lessons that the vastly superior Soviet military learned in Afghanistan two decades ago, i.e., do not leave your military there. It is what military experts have always referred to it as the graveyard of foreign armies.

    There seems to be a desire on the part of US military planners to do in Afghanistan now what they “should have” or were “not allowed” to do in 2002. But now is now and then was then. Now, a new strategy must be developed. One that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev or George W. Bush. The plan currently offered won’t pass muster.

    Realism

    The debate in Washington right now is defined by what media pundits have taken to labeling as “Realism.” As is the case with any “ism” it has man-made borders. The cornerstones of this brand of realism appear to include:

- A notion that it is an American birthright to lead the world, and profit by doing so.

- A notion that the US can maintain over 700 military bases worldwide and not unify the world in opposition.

- A notion that an Iraqi government, or any government orchestrated, protected and funded by US occupiers can someday be sovereign.

- A notion that the occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan can end well.

    Those are clearly false, unsustainable and quite dangerous realisms.

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You can send comments to Truthout Executive Director Marc Ash at: director@truthout.org.

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