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Barack Obama’s South of the Border Adventure April 25, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Latin America.
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CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

 

By Roger Hollander, www.rogerhollander.com, April 22, 2009

 

It’s amazing what you can learn about a Gringo when you put him together with a bunch of Latinos.

 

Barack Obama, as the adored new president of the giant republic to the North, likely arrived at last weeks Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago expecting to strut his stuff.

 

The President would have been briefed on the question of the Cuban Blockade; the latest shenanigans of his putative hemispheric nemesis, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez; free trade issues, and the like.  But it is not likely that any of his advisors would have thought to advise him about the romantic and spontaneous nature of the Latino soul.

 

You have to have lived amongst Latin Americans (as I have for the past fifteen years) to understand how natural it was for Chávez to greet Obama with open arms (“Chávez Hates America” Republicans and the lapdog North American mainstream media equate disagreement with a government’s policy with dislike of its people; Latin Americans are generally astute enough to be aware there is a difference).  But what was really not only a stroke of genius but also totally in character was Chávez’s presenting Obama with a signed copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic masterpiece on U.S/Latin American relations, “The Open Veins of Latin America.” 

 

And how did Obama react?  According to his spokesperson, the president would probably not read the book because it was in Spanish.  Talk about a dud of a response.  And can you imagine Obama presenting Chávez with the North American counterpart to Galeano’s work, I’m referring to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States?”   I apologize if I’m wrong, but I would bet that President Obama is not even aware of the Zinn’s best seller alternative version of U.S. history, much less read it.  On the other hand, it would be hard to convince me that there is a president of a Latin American republic that is not familiar with Galeano.

 

Next up steps Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega whose speech includes a criticism of US imperialism throughout the 20th century.   In it he mentions the failed U.S. sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.  Obama’s response?  “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”  Ha, ha.  Very funny but quite beside the point.

 

But if there was ever a contrast between Latin American and North American leadership, it is exemplified in the person of Bolivia’s young, charismatic and dynamic President Evo Morales (But Obama is also young, charismatic and dynamic, you say?  True, but wait and see).  Morales, the first native president of a nation that is 60% Indigenous, would have arrived at the Summit a bit under the weather, having just come off a five day hunger strike, which he conducted on a mattress on the floor of the Presidential Palace.  Morales is a former coca farmer and labor leader, who in the tradition of Gandhi and California’s great farm worker leader, Cesar Chavez, is a strong believer in the efficacy of the hunger strike as a political strategy.  His longest previous hunger strike lasted 18 days (can you picture Bill Clinton going more than 48 hours without a Big Mac?).  The current fast was to protest tactics used by obstructionist Congressman that were preventing a vote on a measure that would increase Indigenous representation in Congress, and enable elections to go ahead in December in which Morales would be eligible to run for re-election (and where because of his immense popularity he is virtually a shoo-in).

 

Many if not most North Americans can understand direct action or civil disobedience on the part of a Martin Luther King, but from the President of the United States?  How undignified.  And to what end?  Well, here’s what Morales achieved: the obstructionists backed down, and the Congress approved the election law.  Why would they have done that?  Because Morales enjoys enormous popularity among the Bolivian electorate.  He went over the heads of the right wing congressmen and appealed directly to his people, and his adversaries saw that they had no choice but to back down.  Now can you imagine Barack Obama taking advantage of his enormous popularity to engage in such a heart-felt demonstration of his convictions in order to stand up say to the private health insurance industry and its bought-lock-stock-and-barrel representatives in Congress in order to achieve a single-payer universal healthcare plan (which he once supported but now is “off the table”)?  Can you imagine him conducting a sit-in in the Oval Office in order to face down the Pentagon and the merchants of death military contractors in order to rally the kind of popular pressure that would force approval for a substantial reduction in the gargantuan defense budget?  (Try channeling your inner John Lennon, and Imagine!)

 

So what was the interaction between Morales and Obama at the Summit?  First you must realize that for the past year or so, Morales has been the target of right wing terrorists, who have attempted to destabilize his government by brutally attacking his supporters and who have recently failed in an attempt on his life.  So Morales approached President Obama directly at the Summit – man-to-man, no bureaucratic intermediaries, no diplomatic niceties – and (according to Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana, who attended the session) presented him with specific information about U.S. mercenaries who he said were operating in his country.  The President again came up with a non-response response that was as rote and as lame as his others. He stated that his administration ‘does not promote the overthrow of any democratically elected head of state nor support assassination of leaders of any country’ (which, if true, would be quite a radical departure from past U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America!).  Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, confirmed the account.  End of discussion.

 

 

So what is my point?  What I am trying to show is that there is a refreshing authenticity about some Latin American heads of state, who can be candid and direct on a person to person basis in a way that we seldom if ever see in North America.  U.S. presidents go in for photo-ops and prepared statements that more often than not occult hidden agendas.

 

The tragic irony here is that Obama’s speedy and dramatic rise to the presidency was largely due to his ability to convince the American people of his own authenticity.  He convinced us that we could believe in him.  It is said that a person who can dissemble while at the same time projecting unimpeachable sincerity has the recipe for wielding immense power.  And Barack has shown himself to be a first class dissembler.  He convinced the American people that his administration would be a “genuine change” from that of previous administrations while in a few short weeks in office he has forged ahead both with President Bush’s major domestic and foreign policies (continued giveaways to Wall Street and the corrupt banking and finance industries on the home front; military escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a disingenuous promise to leave Iraq which he knows the generals will not stand for, and blind uncritical support for Israeli militarism and apartheid in the area of foreign policy).

 

Barack Obama did not get to where he is today by taking principled stands on issues.  He cut his teeth in the corruption riddled cradle of Chicago ward politics, where winning and holding power is the only principle that matters.  His cynical choice of anti-gay bigot Rick Warren to give the Inauguration prayer and his support of the so-called Jewish Lobby and Israel’s war crimes in Gaza are only two of many examples of his going for the votes and principles be damned.

 

It is interesting to note that early on in his career Obama evidenced his ability to project an image as an agent of change while at the same time remaining snuggly in bed with the status quo.  This is what a colleague said of him when interviewed by the Toronto Star in 1990 in a story about Obama as the Harvard Law Review’s first Black editor:

 

“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).”

 

 

But I would add a caveat.  Few if any of the Latin American presidents at the Summit, (with the possible exception of Daniel Ortega, when he was the Sandinista guerrilla leader) have sent men and women into battle to kill and be killed.  They are not the heads of state of the world’s largest military power and self-appointed imperial policeman.  While on the other hand, from the moment that Obama’s hand slipped off the Bible on Inauguration Day, it was awash in blood (he is already responsible, for example, for more civilian deaths in Pakistan that result from U.S. unmanned drone missiles than was President Bush).

 

We should therefore not expect Barack Obama to be anything more than a slightly kinder, gentler enforcer of United States imperial mandates.  That is what he has spent his entire life preparing to do.  We need to realize that it is not “change we can believe in” that we should expect from him, but rather “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

 

Genuine winds of “change you can believe in” are in fact blowing throughout most of Latin America, especially in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to a lesser degree in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Paraguay, Chile and Nicaragua.  It is a refreshing breeze, one that North Americans also hunger for but will soon realize that they have been duped once again.

 

The Costs of the Embargo March 7, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Cuba, Economic Crisis, Foreign Policy.
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The 47-year-old blockade now costs the United States far more than it costs Cuba.

By Margot Pepper

March 7, 2009 www.dollarsandsense.org

On January 1, Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution against the U.S.-backed Batista regime. For 47 of those years, Cuba has suffered under what U.S. officials call an “embargo” against the Caribbean nation. Cubans’ name for the embargo—el bloqueo (the blockade)—is arguably more apt, given that the U.S. policy also aims to restrict other countries from engaging in business with Cuba.

What’s surprising is that while the blockade continues to take a considerable toll on the Cuban people, it costs the United States far more, and the gap is widening. Given the economic meltdown, it is only fitting that a growing chorus of diverse voices is calling for an end to the costly vendetta.

The original justification for the embargo was Cuba’s expropriation of “some $1.8 billion worth of U.S.-owned property,” according to the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. In turn, Cubans argue that early in the century, the United States had seized control of 70% of Cuban land and three-quarters of Cuba’s primary industry. By the 1950s, as a result of U.S. colonialism and preceding Spanish rule, five out of six Cubans lived in shacks or were homeless, 80% of Havana suffered from hunger and unemployment, and two out of three Cuban children didn’t attend school. Cubans say such conditions left them no recourse but to expel the Yanquis, just as the Yankees had expelled the British in 1776.

Today, U.S. public opinion is turning against the embargo. A majority—52%—wants the embargo to be lifted, with 67% favoring an immediate end to the travel restrictions, according to the Cuba Policy Foundation (CPF), a nonprofit run by a former U.S. ambassador. Recent polls have even shown that a majority of Miami Cubans now support lifting the embargo.

These percentages might be even higher if the U.S. public were aware that the blockade is actually costing them more than the Cubans, something that is finally beginning to dawn on the U.S. business community. Representatives of a dozen leading U.S. business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, signed a letter in December urging Barack Obama to scrap the embargo. The letter pegs the cost to the U.S. economy at $1.2 billion per year. The CPF’s estimates are much higher: up to $4.84 billion annually in lost sales and exports. The Cuban government estimates the loss to Cuba at about $685 million annually. Thus the blockade costs the United States up to $4.155 billion more a year than it costs Cuba.

The U. S. government also spends $27 million each year to broadcast Radio and TV Martí, even though the television signal is effectively blocked by the Cuban government. The largely futile propaganda effort has cost U.S. taxpayers half a billion dollars over the last twenty years, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Beyond the economic costs, the blockade has deprived U.S. citizens of Cuba’s medical breakthroughs. Cuba has developed the first meningitis B vaccine; treatments for the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa; a preservative for un-refrigerated milk; and PPG, a cholesterol-reducing drug gobbled up by foreigners for its side effect: increased sexual potency. And last summer Cuba released CimaVax EGF, the first therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer. The drug triggers an immune response that extends life in lung cancer patients and can ease breathing and restore appetite.

The blockade has always cost the United States more, but the gap has widened considerably. By 1992, U.S. businesses had lost over $30 billion in trade over the previous thirty years, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins. At that time, Cuba’s loss for the same period was smaller, but not by much: $28.6 billion, according to Cuba’s Institute of Economic Research. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s diversification and increased trade with other countries has widened the gap between the costs to Cuba and the costs to the United States.

While the dollar cost to the United States may be higher, Cuba has suffered a greater economic hit relative to its size and resources. Although lifting the blockade will inevitably boost Cubans’ living standard, the Cuban economy will still be saddled with its colonial legacy as a mono-crop producer. Unequal trade terms enforced by treaties and organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund maintain formerly colonized countries as underdeveloped purveyors of raw materials, subsidizing the high standard of living in industrialized countries. It is useful to remember this uneven playing field whenever making U.S.-Cuba comparisons.

Regardless of all these obstacles, the socialist island has managed to provide its inhabitants with what the United States, one of the most affluent countries in the world, so far has not: free top-notch health care, free university and graduate school education, and subsidized food and utilities. Meanwhile, 36.2 million people go hungry in the United States and 47 million lack health coverage. Indeed, Cuba compares favorably to the United States on a number of basic social factors:

  • Housing: There is virtually no homelessness in Cuba. Thanks to the 1960 Urban Reform law, 85% of Cubans own their own homes and pay no property taxes or interest on their mortgages. Mortgage payments can’t exceed 10% of the combined household income.
  • Employment: Cuba’s unemployment rate is only 1.8% according to CIA data, compared with 7.6% (and rising) in the United States. One factor contributing to Cuba’s low unemployment is undoubtedly the 350,000 jobs that have been recently created by the burgeoning sustainable urban agriculture program, one of the most successful in the world, according to U.S.-based economist Sinan Koont.
  • Literacy: The adult literacy rate in Cuba (99.8%) is higher than the United States’ rate (97%), according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
  • Infant mortality: Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate (4.7 per 1000 live births) than the United States’ (6.0).
  • Prisons: Cuba even does better on prisons. Its rate of incarceration—estimated at around 487 per 100,000 by the UNDP—is among the highest in the world, yet it is considerably lower than the U.S. rate of 738 per 100,000. Now that the number of political prisoners Cuba locks up is in decline, according to a February Associated Press news release, there is even less justification for the blockade.

 

The fact that a poor, formerly colonized country can meet its citizens’ basic needs, while outperforming the United States on key measures, underscores how inexpensively the United States could follow suit. Cuba’s example could prove instructive to President Obama and his constituents as the United States faces economic collapse. And herein may lie the real motivation of the blockade, and its most significant cost: it keeps people from making such comparisons first-hand. If the only concrete threat the Cuban Revolution poses to the United States these days is the threat of a good example, isn’t it high time we bury the blockade?

Margot Pepper is the Mexican-born author of Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, a memoir about working in Cuba during the “Special Period.” Her work has appeared in the Utne Reader and Monthly Review and on Z-net, Counterpunch, and elsewhere, and can be found at margotpepper.com and at freedomvoices.org.

Sources: Anita Snow, “Reported Number of Cuban Political Prisoners Dips,” Associated Press, February 2, 2009; Brendan Sainsbury, “Cuba—Health Without Wealth.” Dan Griswold, Cuba and the United States in the 21st Century, speech at Rice University, Houston, October 12, 2005; Teddy Kapur and Alastair Smith, Housing Policy in Castro’s Cuba, May 16, 2002, housingfinance.org; Cuba Vs. Bloqueo website; Jill Hamberg, “Cuban Housing Policy”, Transformation and Struggle: Cuba Faces the 1990s, ed. Sandor Halebsky and John M. Kirk, New York, 1990; Larry Luxner, “Sally Cowal: from ambassador to anti-embargo activist”, BNET Business Network, September. 2002; Patricia, Grogg, “Health-Cuba: Lung Cancer Vaccine Available”, IPS, June 26, 2008 (ipsnews.net); Rory Carroll, “Cuba approves first therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer”, The Guardian, June 26, 2008; Sinan Koont, “The Urban Agriculture of Havana,” Monthly Review, January 2009; reports from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the U.S. International Trade Commission, and the U.N. Development Programme.
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