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To End Government Spying, Stop Buying Stuff

The thrust of Robert Scheer's new book, They Know Everything About You, is that the U.S. government's mass surveillance and permanent storage of everything you do on the internet is piggybacking on Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, AOL, Yahoo, and other companies that suck up and permanently store every scrap of information about you that they can lay their virtual hands on -- and that this data mining is driven primarily by the profit to be gained from carefully targeted advertising.

In other words, corporations' desire to place the ideal piece of consumer crap under your nose has facilitated the government's ability to intimidate and preempt activism, and to prosecute and convict on the basis of impressively technical circumstantial evidence. This is unfair in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, it is a gross violation of our rights, an assault on self-governance, a move toward totalitarianism. Facebook is openly running experiments manipulating users' emotions. The Pentagon is buying similar studies from the same academics of how to prevent activist movements -- studies that equate peace activism with violent terrorism. Google is deciding which news you should see and hiring the head of DARPA to head its own private DARPA. The owner of the Washington Post has a much larger investment in providing Amazon's services to U.S. spy agencies. Privatized spy agency contractors (a gift of the Bill Clinton presidency) are hacking into computers around the world with hostile intent and with zero public authorization. The Chamber of Commerce apparently has a free pass to target its critics with hacking and smears and traps set with false leaks. Reporter Michael Hastings dies mysteriously when investigating government tech contractors, and Barrett Brown lands in prison just for linking to embarrassing information. All of this is beginning to be understood and resented. Scheer's book is a great primer on much of it.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, it strikes me as unfair that people like me who have never ever, not even once, clicked on an advertisement or bought anything displayed to me in an advertisement on any of my electronic devices, have to have every move we make surveilled, just because the rest of you are tolerating advertising, clicking on advertising, heeding the commands of advertising, and buying shit. I've had to show up at a nonviolent peaceful protest of war and have the New York Police Department officials make clear to me that they had been reading my email earlier that day, because you thought that some shiny new product you had absolutely no need of was adorable. Does this seem fair? Does it seem like a wise setting of priorities? When politicians urge shopping as civic duty, shouldn't we hear in that not only the maintenance of a perverse economic system but also the development of a surveillance state the Soviets never dreamed of, driven by profit, and co-opted by a government that has merged with Silicon Valley until nobody can tell where one stops and the other begins?

According to Scheer the internet has persuaded people that privacy is the same thing as anonymity, and that visibility is far more valuable, as well as that corporate surveillance is of no concern and completely unlike government surveillance. Edward Snowden's revelations, Scheer writes, exposed corporate complicity with government surveillance, threatening corporations' reputations with their customers. But reform proposals that Scheer cites, such as requiring a new click on an "AGREE" button each time a company sells data on you to a third party, have not been created. The European "right to be forgotten" -- that is to have undesired information about oneself removed from the internet -- is not heard of in the United States, and to my mind is in sharp opposition to U.S. belief in the impossibility of redemption, the inherent good or evil of each person from birth to death, and the guilt of anyone accused of wrong doing.

Scheer quotes Lee Tien, attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, "There are no personal solutions to this; there is nothing we can do individually." I assume this is based on the reasonable expectation that you won't all stop buying stuff. But imagine the time and savings and security you would have if you did stop buying stuff. What harm would it do? You don't even have to stop buying stuff. Just stop buying anything that's advertised. Buy non-advertised goods. Consider that your civic duty.

Lower Drinking Age, Raise Killing Age

The United States sends people to kill and die in war that it doesn't trust with a beer.

It trains police in war skills to assault young people it suspects of going near beer.

Here's an idea: Drink At 18, Don't Kill Till 21.

Alcohol prohibition is not working, and creates unsafe drinking by people old enough to vote, drive, and work. A case can be made, and is being made, for returning the drinking age to 18.

But allowing 18-year-olds to join the military has created illegal and immoral recruitment of minors, not to mention deep moral regret, post-traumatic stress, and suicide in young veterans.

Raising the age for war participation (for joining either the military or one of its contractors) to 21 would do more for education and informed career choices -- not to mention reducing drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide -- than banning alcohol does.

Make-Daiquiris-Not-War is a policy based on actual dangers. The problem with alcohol is not responsible drinking of it. Alcohol is not a satanic liquid to be counterproductively made into a forbidden fruit. The problems with alcohol are: drinking and driving, which should be addressed by avoiding the driving, not through an unenforceable ban on drinking; drinking to dangerous excess, which should be addressed through open discussion, not the secretive plotting of contemporary speakeasies; and addiction, which is driven not so much by the chemicals involved as by the life of the person who becomes addicted.

And what could we most easily do to assist young people in leading more fulfilling, less horrific, lives? We could put off the decision to join in a program of mass murder until age 21, thereby giving a young person a chance to consider all the options.

In many nations there is no drinking age. In others the drinking age is after you're dead (alcohol is prohibited). Among those with a drinking age between zero and forever, far and away the most common is 18.  Exceptions are Egypt, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, Cameroon, Indonesia, the United States, and various Pacific island colonies of the United States, all of which make the legal age to drink 21.

But how's that working out for them? In Egypt if you happen to witness the police murder someone, you'll face prison or worse, while the U.S. President chats with the Egyptian President promising him more weapons and money, but if you want to drink underage, apparently nobody really minds. The inevitable result of making it legal to sell alcohol to some but not all adults (taking adults to be 18 and up) seems to be either stiffer and stiffer penalties or routine violation. This of course creates both a disrespect for laws and drinking in secret without appropriate discussion of dangers and measures to prevent recklessness.

In Argentina enlistment in the military is allowed at 21, or at 18 with parental consent. In Bahrain and Kazakhstan military enlistment starts at 15. Who's right? Who's respecting the enlistees? Well, according to some brain scientists at MIT -- not that they should know anything:

"As a number of researchers have put it, 'the rental car companies have it right.' The brain isn't fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car."

Scientists at Dartmouth agree. (But they would, wouldn't they?) Not to mention neuroscientists who write books and go on NPR.

So upping the killing age to 21 would be moving in the direction of the wisdom of the scientists and the rental car companies. Why lower the drinking age at the same time? Because alcohol needs to be treated principally not as a means of drunken escape, but as an enjoyable beverage with dinner. Nations with no drinking age at all tend to have less alcoholism than do puritanical nations. The point is not that 18 year olds are qualified to head off to parties at which they'll drink gallons of hard liquor (as some currently do, law or no law) but that alcohol, like other enjoyable and risky parts of life -- from dangerous sports to sex to other drugs to those televisions in airports blasting Fox News -- should be dealt with openly and calmly by parents and teachers and friends, with the actual dangers made crystal clear and imaginary dangers debunked.

The fact is that prohibiting alcohol leads to more reckless drinking, while prohibiting war participation leads to less reckless killing. We've got our priorities wrong. Let's rework them.

Department of Education Mandates Teaching of Satire

Buried in a regulation produced under the No Child Left Behind Act by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education is an odd and apparently little-enforced requirement that every public school student in the United States be taught literacy in the art of satire.

When questioned about the matter on Tuesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the regulation with some fervor. "Satire," he said, "is at least as critical to success in a competitive world as poetry and probably more critical than civics."

Pressed to explain the remark, Duncan offered what he called evidence of a dangerous shortfall in satire literacy.

"Let's say someone writes an account, for example, of how Bill O'Reilly lies every day about having had to fight off Iranian intruders who were trying to steal his cornflakes at breakfast. A few people will understand that he doesn't really tell that lie every day, that saying he does is an exaggeration for humorous effect. But those few people all work for Bill O'Reilly and the rest of us know better."

"Now what if you're at a meeting with clients you're trying to impress and one of them uses satire but you miss it? Or you're in a big conference where either your boss is coming up with a genius way to generate income or those Yes Men protesters are making fun of you for your acceptance of slavery and child labor. How are American students going to compete if they can't recognize the difference?"

"Did you know that 18% of U.S. divorces and 2% of U.S. wars can be traced to the failure to recognize satire?

"Well, you would if the free market were given free rein to educate in the manner desired and with the content demanded by the uneducated. Who knows better what education is needed and what it's worth than the people who don't have it yet?

"Now, I recognize the argument that Washington, D.C., has passed the point of being satirizable. My answer to that is, just wait till I show you the letters I receive about these comments." 

Blood on the Corner: Dear UVA From an Alumnus

I'm just back from a rally in front of the Charlottesville Police Department at which I heard a black UVA student say that black friends were going to think twice about trying to attend UVA after what happened tonight.

Unless more video materializes we won't know exactly what happened, but we know this: a black UVA student needed 10 stitches to the head. The policemen who injured him have made known no injuries to themselves whatsoever. In fact they've charged him with "obstruction of justice without force." However it may be that a young man standing on a sidewalk obstructs justice without using force, one thing seems clear: he didn't use force. He's also not accused of threatening to use force. Rather, he's charged with "profane swearing and/or intoxication," neither of which justifies ANY action by police, much less the sort of brutality that requires 10 stitches and leaves blood on the street.

As an alumnus and a local resident may I humbly request that UVA prosecute the police officers responsible and seek, not a Department of Justice report telling us what we know, but meaningful restorative justice that involves actual understanding and reform by those involved.

I have to confess, I'm getting a little tired of the scandals, UVA. And I don't mean playing a shooter with a broken finger in the ACC tournament. I mean:

Paying your employees so little they need second jobs.

Jumping at a false tale of rape, damaging true accounts among other things damaged.

Hosting forums advocating U.S. war in Syria.

Bringing Blackwater mercenaries, neocon reactionaries, torture defenders, and warmongers of all stripes to speak at the Miller Center.

Sending law students to observe the Guantanamo human experimentation camp, who find nothing to oppose.

Weakening the honor code.

Empowering a corporate board that attempts coups -- a board that meets this coming Tuesday and should be confronted with a plan for serious reform.

I know it wasn't your cops tonight, UVA. Nor was it your cops who assaulted the young woman for buying a case of water. But it's your response that can set things right. We don't need a scapegoat or more cameras or a "study." We need the University to instruct the police that violence will not be tolerated.

The University has an honor code but exists in the midst of a society in which police are being turned into warriors -- and guess who plays the role of the enemy? The rumor is that tonight's victim had a fake ID for entering a bar -- certainly less than honorable, but something millions of people have done for many years without being attacked or brutalized.

There's video of a young woman being attacked by a policeman at the rally tonight protesting the initial crime. Apparently her offense was standing in a street and being unable to move because of the surrounding crowd. This assault is on video and should be prosecuted without delay.

I'm not going to urge you to restore the honorable tradition of your imperialist enslaving rapist founder, UVA. I want your to aspire to something better than you've been. I think you can do it.

Not a Bug Splat, Not Chattel

U.S. drone "pilots" refer to people they burn to death in places like Pakistan as "bug splat" because they look like bugs being squished to death on the pilots' video monitors and because it's easier to murder bugs than humans.

Hence the need for the brilliant artwork made visible to a drone (http://notabugsplat.com):

JR_KPK_full

The human brain is a funny thing. Numerous human brains know that every human is a human, yet insist that various types of humans must be "humanized" before they can be recognized as humans. That is, even though you know someone must have a name and loved ones and favorite games and certain weaknesses and a couple of quirks that friends find endearing -- because each and every Homo sapiens does have such things -- you insist on being told what the details are, and only then readily admit that in fact this particular human is a human (and millions of others remain in doubt).

A drone killer must know that children have eyes and noses and mouths, hair and fingers. But this artwork presents it to the troubled brain of the humanization dependent observer.

And what if you want to know more about the humans inhabiting Pakistan? More than just a face in a photograph?

I recommend reading The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria. Rafia grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States. She can tell you intimate details about life in Pakistan from a perspective you recognize.

Central to her story of migration and cultural change and political transformation is the life of her aunt whose husband chose to marry a second wife and move his first wife to the upstairs of the house. The status of women and of religion is put into sharp relief by this sorrowful account of deep personal injury and humiliation.

Yes, this is another case of religion serving to worsen people's lives in ways that possibly used to make sense but have been dragged forward into the present only by the resistance of religion to rational change.

No, this is not a revelation that Pakistanis hate Americans because their religion tells them to. People who hate the U.S. government tend to object to the destruction and killing of the U.S. military.

And no, your religion, whatever it is, is not better than someone else's. The problem is not the flavor of the religion, but the utilization of magical rules in guiding people's lives -- that is to say, adherence to rules that on their merits would be abandoned but that are maintained because the great Whatchamacallit decreed so in the Holy Days of Whichamawhoochee.

At least that's one of many impressions I take away from the book. You may have others. It's not a sad or contemptuous story but an enjoyable and educational one. And it's complex enough to render useless any generalization about what "the Pakistanis" do or think at all. The people of Pakistan have many backgrounds and all sorts of unique outlooks and circumstances. They are, in fact, a lot like you, me, your neighbor, your uncle, and the woman who works in the grocery store -- just with a smaller military than ours killing people in their names.

Talk Nation Radio: Barry Spector on the Myth of American Innocence

https://soundcloud.com/davidcnswanson/talk-nation-radio-barry-spector-on-the-myth-of-american-innocence

This week we speak with Barry Spector. He is the author of Madness At The Gates Of The City: The Myth Of American Innocence (winner of the 2011 PEN/Oakland Literary Award). Barry has lectured at several Bay Area graduate schools and Osher Lifelong Learning courses. This winter he will be teaching at Sonoma State University and Osher / U.C. Berkeley. His book’s website is www.madnessatthegates.com and he blogs regularly at www.madnessatthegates.wordpress.com.  His writing looks at contemporary cultural and political events from the perspectives of mythology, archetypal psychology and indigenous wisdom traditions. He serves on the planning committee of the Redwood Men’s Center.

Total run time: 29:00

Host: David Swanson.
Producer: David Swanson.
Music by Duke Ellington.

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Washington Post Erases History With Cuba

The Washington Post says:

"'We walked freely around the streets and talked with anyone we wanted,' Klobuchar said. 'I did not know what to expect. . . . The people were really positive about Americans — I didn’t expect them to be that positive and that excited.' (Well, most Cubans weren’t alive the last time we invaded.)"

Really? Havana is full of very visible celebrations of the return of the Cuban Five, who every Cuban knows were imprisoned in the United States for attempting to halt U.S. attacks on Cuba, which have never ceased. In the lifetime of many Cubans now alive, the U.S. or terrorists it harbors have blown up buildings and airplanes, introduced human and animal diseases into Cuba, and murdered people while hijacking boats.

Do not assume that Cubans do not know this history. It is in their museums, their news, and their studies.

Cubans of course also know Hollywood. They watch the people of the United States as idealized individuals in movies and TV shows all the time.

Cubans do something that the people of the United States have never truly mastered, and the Washington Post seems not to consider. They distinguish between a government and its people. They even distinguish between individual members of the U.S. government and its worse inclinations. They accept as a positive step an opening up by a government that wants to control and harm them. They believe they can control the process enough to make the result a good one.

But they remember things that happened long before the latest revolution, much less before they were born. And they are not ignorant of the U.S. attacks they have lived through.

Cuba: Land of Opportunity

What can I be sure of after only one week in Havana? Very little. There are exceptions to every pattern, and sometimes more exceptions than patterns. But a few claims, I think, are possible:

1. The sea and this island in it are stupendously beautiful even to someone longing for people and places up north.

2. The people of Cuba are sincerely warm and friendly. And, although they know the history of U.S. aggression, they sharply distinguish the U.S. government from the U.S. people. They are surprised and delighted to encounter the latter. (Americans might do well, likewise, not to identify the Cuban people with their government.)

3. The poverty here does not approach that in much of Latin America and the Caribbean -- despite the blockade (what Cubans call the embargo since the U.S. effectively prevents other countries trading with Cuba too).

4. The safety, security, life expectancy and in many ways the quality of life are high by any standard. Key West has worse food, more alcoholism, more militarism, and more money.

5. U.S. tourists will love Cuba. For the left, Cuba has socialized education, healthcare, and a basic income guarantee. For the right, Cuba has meat, machismo, meat, the war on drugs, cigarette smoke at the next table, and more meat. Welcome here are atheism, Catholicism, Santeria, and whatever else you've got. For everyone, Cuba has the beauty, culture, and adventures to match any destination in this part of the globe.

Could I live in Cuba and write in Cuba? Possibly not. The rebels in Cuba rebel against the failures of their government, and that runs up against two problems. (1) People read. (2) The government fears dissent as U.S.-funded propaganda for regime change (which a lot of it is, to the tune of $20 million U.S. tax dollars per year). In the United States I can write because no one reads and the government trusts everyone to go shopping and watch TV -- which is full of commercials, unlike Cuban TV, thus producing more shopping.

The opening between the U.S. and Cuban governments is very, very strange, because the United States does indeed want to radically change or overthrow the Cuban government, and the United States allows terrorists who have repeatedly and openly attacked Cuba to live free in the U.S. For over a half-century the U.S. has used Cuba as a lab for testing military techniques, propaganda, infiltration, sabotage, and bio-warfare -- with the result being complete failure. But without recognizing the absoluteness of that failure, much less regretting the immorality of the crimes, the U.S. wants to "normalize" relations with a government it hates and wants to put an end to.

Will this normalization become a series of embarrassing new attempts to change Cuba in ways not tried before? Or will it lead to actual normalization in the sense of mutual respect and cooperation? One way in which I think a more positive result can be advanced is with an emphasis on education. This is more important than raising the flag at the embassy or allowing the importation of fancy Cuban soap. We need student exchanges, academic exchanges, and educational tourism.

Cubans shouldn't believe that U.S. roads have no potholes. They should come to the United States to see homelessness. And extravagance. They should see people walk by without saying hello on streets with no music under skies with no sun. They should add the flaws to the positives that they've learned from Hollywood's version of perfection. And if, when they start respecting copyrights, they ingest a little less Hollywood, so much the better.

Americans shouldn't believe the vast emptiness that fills the part of their brains where history is supposed to go. They should come to the Museum of the Revolution to learn Cuba's modern history. They should come to the Museum of the Ministry of the Interior to see the collection of weapons and gadgets captured from the hapless CIA. They should learn that their own government has for decades blown up buildings and airplanes, poisoned crops and livestock, spread diseases, and generally engaged in low-scale one-sided warfare (aka terrorism) against Cuba. Tours of Hemingway sites should include information on how he died.

American tourists should get free rum and cigars if they pass a quiz upon leaving a museum:

  1. What did Cubans want in 1898? (Hint, the United States is currently bombing [fill in current nation] in its name.)
  2. What did they get instead?
  3. What nation has killed 3,000 Cubans in terrorist attacks?
  4. Why has Cuba not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in response?
  5. Has Cuba ever organized any attack on the United States?
  6. Why does the United States want to overthrow the Cuban government?

Five correct answers should be sufficient to pass the test. As answers to #6 "To fend off the Communist takeover of the world" should get the tourist a sympathetic kiss and a gentle kick in the ass. "To spread inequality" or "to increase poverty and insecurity" or "to maximize environmental destruction" should get the tourist a free pass to visit a Cuban psychiatric clinic. Anything along the lines of "The plutocrats who control Washington want to get their claws on Cuba too" or "Those wronged in the revolution are still in a rage" or "The mob wants its casinos and brothels back" should be considered close enough to win a free song by a live band on the steps of the museum.

And what if those who lost property in the revolution are compensated to their satisfaction, while the Cubans who have suffered under the blockade and the terrorist attacks are compensated to their satisfaction? This is, after all, part of the negotiations underway.

And what if the mob is shut out and the plutocrats partially restrained?

And what if U.S. public opinion evolves along with the acquisition of relevant information? What if the U.S. public were to insist on normal relations with Cuba that are actually normal?

If Cuba comes off the ridiculous terrorist list, the educational exchange opportunities could really open up. I hope Cuba knows how incredibly little Americans know, and how much difference it makes when they know something. Cuba has produced good movies. It should produce a new one, in English, with the Cuban Five played by five previous Oscar winners. That would be worth more than another pig farm.

And while I'm giving unsolicited advice: Here is the second priority: Build that wall higher along the sea, because it's rising and we want this beautiful city to stay right where it is.

Cuba Through the Looking Glass

Today in Havana, Mariela Castro Espin, director of the national center for sexual education and daughter of the president of Cuba, gave us a truly enlightened talk and question-and-answer session on LGBT rights, sex education, pornography (and why young people should avoid it if they want to have good sex) -- plus her view of what the Cuban government is doing and should be doing on these issues. She advocates equal rights for same-sex couples and a ban on discrimination, for example.

In other unusual Cuban phenomena, the U.S. government is allowing tourists to bring home $100 worth of rum and cigars. And the U.S. State Department is working on a forthcoming list of products that Cubans can export to the United States. The list will not include numerous life-saving medicines currently unavailable in the United States, and not apparently because the U.S. government believes rum and cigars are better for its people than life-saving medicines. No, the reason is bizarre yet predictable. Stop and guess for a minute before reading on.

Are you guessing?

Good.

The list of products that can be exported from Cuba for sale in the United States (from the point of view of the U.S. government) will include only products from private enterprise, nothing created by state-owned enterprises in Cuba.

In other words, this "opening" is a new tool intended to advance Cuban privatization whether Cubans want it or not -- a tool that may have some beneficial side effects, but not a tool designed to advance any relationship of friendship or respect. If U.S. Cuban relations are improved by this move (assuming the Cuban government agrees to it) it will be by accident.

Falling further down the Cuban rabbit hole, I've been thinking, talking, and reading about the status of Guantanamo. The United States took the Guantanamo site, and the Isle of Pines (now called Isle of Youth) by force. The 1903 Treaty of Relations was imposed at gun-point and in some ways superseded by the 1934 Treaty of Relations. That 1934 treaty, in important regard, simply reaffirmed the 1903 treaty:

"Until the two contracting parties agree to the modification or abrogation of the stipulations of the agreement in regard to the lease to the United States of America of lands in Cuba for coaling and naval stations signed by the President of the Republic of Cuba on February 16, 1903, and by the President of the United States of America on the 23d day of the same month and year, the stipulations of that agreement with regard to the naval station of Guantanamo shall continue in effect. The supplementary agreement in regard to naval or coaling stations signed between the two Governments on July 2, 1903, also shall continue in effect in the same form and on the same conditions with respect to the naval station at Guantanamo. So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantanamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territorial area that it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty."

The 1934 treaty fails to legitimate the 1903 documents or the Platt Amendment of the same period, which was imposed on Cuba by force and remained in the Cuban Constitution until 1940. That amendment gave the United States the right "to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty." This, by 1929, had been rendered illegal by the Kellogg-Briand Pact in which the United States, Cuba, and many other nations committed to settling their disputes without the use of force -- force, of course, being what "intervene" referred to and meant in practice. In the decades between 1903 and 1934 the United States did in fact intervene by force repeatedly in Cuba. The Cuban government of 1934 was no more legitimate than the government of 1903.

Interestingly, the Platt Amendment denied Cuba the Isle of Pines without claiming it decisively for the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that there was no legal claim to the island for the United States, that the matter was purely "political." The U.S. Congress gave the island back to Cuba in 1925.

The argument of the U.S. government for its claim to Guantanamo really does not amount to anything. It amounts to the existence of an illegitimate treaty with an illegitimate government that no longer exists. The current government has refused to cash the rent checks the U.S. sends it. Sometimes the U.S. case is prettied up by claims that the "lease" is due to expire some day. It isn't. Not in anything written. The crime of stealing Guantanamo, like the Isle of Pines or Vieques or the Panama Canal or the closed bases in Ecuador or the Philippines is what is due to expire some day.

Seeking to change Cuba is openly the policy of the U.S. government, and from the Cuban point of view it amounts to an effort to overthrow the Cuban government. The United States spends $20 million a year through USAID and other agencies to fund activism and "education" or "communications" in Cuba aimed at reshaping Cuba in the image the United States desires. Much of this is done subversively, such as the recently exposed effort to create a Twitter-like tool that would propagandize Cubans without revealing its source.

The U.S. justification for this behavior is that Cuba falls short in the area of human rights. Of course, Cuba says the same of the U.S. based on a broader understanding of human rights. But were Cuba to fund activist groups in the United States those groups would be violating U.S. law due to Cuba's ridiculous presence on the U.S. government's terrorist list. And if the U.S. government were to try to honestly justify punishment of Cuba as a human rights violator alongside the absence of punishment of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so many other human rights violators, the argument would have to be spoken by Alice's Queen of Hearts.

Cuba Is Our Family

Cuba and the Estados Unidos have been family for so long that relationships have been reversed, forgotten, turned inside out, and repeated.

In the 19th century, the Cuban community in the United States and their supporters there were the base for revolutionary democracy and the ousting of Spanish colonial rule. Americanism and Protestantism and capitalism were seen as progressive democratic challenges to colonial control -- and I mean by more than just the equivalent of Fox viewers.

Of course that's wildly different now. The United States is now willing to smack itself in the face repeatedly in hopes of occasionally landing a blow on Cuba. Here in the land of our Caribbean cousins it is commonly discussed that the United States is hurting its health, not just by eating crap food and denying people healthcare, but also by denying the U.S. people Cuban medical advances. There are 13 vaccines, the saying goes, for such things as meningitis, that Cuba has and the U.S. does not. Other medical advances are also part of this argument, including prominently a treatment of diabetes that saves people from amputations. There are also U.S. medical advances -- in particular expensive equipment -- that Cuba cannot have as long as the embargo rages on.

I remember Robin Williams telling Canada it was a nice friendly apartment over a meth lab. Unfortunately for Cuba it lives in the basement. The madness of its upstairs relatives is epitomized by the manner in which the militarism that lies at the root of the embargo directly impacts U.S. health. I mean beyond all the killing and injuries and pollution and environmental destruction, there's something more grotesque. I picture mad naked Nazis in boots -- and in the path of the hurricanes -- on Plum Island who almost certainly gave us Lyme disease and spread the West Nile virus and the Dutch duck plague and others -- all of them still spreading -- as part of the same program that weaponized Anthrax and just possibly spread Ebola.

The ongoing U.S. bio-warfare program may have caused more damage through testing and accidents than by intention, but it has intentionally brought hunger and death to Cuba as it was designed to do, introducing swine fever to the island as well as tobacco mold, and creating "an epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue fever in 1981, during which some 340,000 people were infected and 116,000 hospitalized, this in a country which had never before experienced a single case of the disease. In the end, 158 people, including 101 children, died."

Families will fight. The United States has behaved better at other times. In 1904, the U.S. signed, and in 1925 it ratified the returning of the Isle of Pine (now the Isle of Youth) to Cuba. The deep scar that deed left on the United States of America and the danger it placed all Americans in are of course ludicrous fantasies, and the same would be the case if the United States were to return Guantanamo to Cuba. Very few in the U.S. would even know about Guantanamo if it weren't being used as a human experimentation, torture, and death camp for illegal prisoners. Both Guantanamo and the Isle of Youth were stolen during what Cuba calls the Cuban-American War and the U.S. calls the Spanish-American War. If one can be given back, why not the other?

Cuba and the United States have been exchanging cultures and ideas and identities for so long that one cannot keep them straight. I'm delighted to have found Facebook and Twitter working in Cuba and to be able to get on the internet and see how handily the University of Virginia just beat N.C. State at basketball, but doing so with a live Cuban band jamming five feet away is a vast improvement. The live music and dancing at 10 in the morning, with rum drinks, that I have begun getting used to is arguably an improvement on quality of life that no quantity of home appliances or gated communities can match. I'd like to get my cell phone working but can't spare the hours to wait in the line at the Cuban phone office. But let that come later, for better or worse, along with the U.S. investors and the rising waters crashing over the wall along the Malecon.

I've seen poverty in Cuba, but not conspicuously extravagant wealth. I've seen begging for money but not hostility. I've seen genuine friendliness and what comes across as immediate intimacy. I've heard complaints of homophobia and police harassment and lack of same-sex marriage rights. I've heard complaints of racism. But these are points in common throughout our family.

I've met a woman who says she had an idyllic childhood growing up on the U.S. base at Guantanamo, which she believes should not exist. I've petted the loose dogs in the streets of Havana, which bear no resemblance to the U.S. breed known as Havanese.

Filmmaker Gloria Rolando told us at her house tonight that the 1898 war and the U.S. control of Cuba increased existing racism. In 1908, as one of her films recounts, the Independent Party of Color was founded. In 1912 a massacre killed 3,000 blacks. Similar incidents were happening in the North at the same time, incidents that the U.S. is struggling to remember.

Rolando's films tell a story of a Caribbean family, of people moving from island to island. In the 1920s and 1930s poor people in the pre-banking haven Cayman Islands came to work on the Isle of Pine. The complex history of immigrants moving to the United States and back, and to other islands and back, is a history of racial complexity as well. Cuba today has racial problems, Rolando says, but now it is possible to debate the topic, unlike 15 years ago. Some black people still favor light skin, she says, and very few blacks have family in Miami sending them money. "You have seen the ugly black dolls with cigars for sale to tourists," she says, and I have. I have also seen more mixed-race couples and groups here than ever up north.

Assata Shakur is the topic of one of Rolando's films, The Eyes of the Rainbow. In it, she remarks on Cubans' unnerving friendliness, something she grew used to after moving here.

Earlier today we traveled out of Havana to Las Terrazas, a sustainable model community in a reforested area of the mountains that used to be a French coffee plantation. This ideal model for tourists and visitors only turned to tourism recently. The 1,000 people who live there, and the gourmet vegetarian restaurant where we dined there (El Romero with chef Tito Nuñez Gudas), and the incredible beauty of the place are not representative of all of Cuba; but they are indications of what is possible.

I picked up a bottle of honey made at Las Terrazas and packaged in a re-used rum bottle. I wanted to bring it home until I realized something. Honey is a liquid. On an airplane it would be a terrorist threat or a reason to spend $50 on checking a suitcase.

We looked at the stone cells people slept in under guard when forced to work on the coffee plantation under the system of slavery. They were about the size of the slave cabins at Thomas Jefferson's house, a bit larger than the cages at Guantanamo.

Cuba and the United States have a great deal in common, but of course it all means nothing because their president is always a Castro and ours is changed every 4 or 8 years from one advocate of crazy militarism, consumption, and wealth concentration, to a nearly identical advocate of crazy militarism, consumption, and wealth concentration. When will Cuba catch up?