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Culture and Society
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):
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.
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.
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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.
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:
- What did Cubans want in 1898? (Hint, the United States is currently bombing [fill in current nation] in its name.)
- What did they get instead?
- What nation has killed 3,000 Cubans in terrorist attacks?
- Why has Cuba not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in response?
- Has Cuba ever organized any attack on the United States?
- 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.
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?
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 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?
"It's behind us," Fernando Gonzales of the Cuban Five said with a smile when I told him just a few moments ago that I was sorry for the U.S. government having locked him in a cage for 15 years. It was nice of the New York Times to editorialize in favor of negotiations to release the remaining three, he said, especially since that paper had never reported on the story at all.
Gonzales said there is no ground for the United States keeping Cuba on its terrorist list. That there are Basques in Cuba is through an agreement with Spain, he said. The idea that Cuba is fighting wars in Central America is false, he added, noting that Colombian peace talks are underway here in Havana. "The President of the United States knows this," Gonzales said, "which is why he asked for the list to be reviewed."
Medea Benjamin recalled coming to Cuba back in an age when the United States was apparently trying to kill not only Cubans but also tourists who dared to come to Cuba. This, she said, is what the Cuban Five were trying to stop. So we're glad, she told Gonzales, that we can come here now without worrying about Obama putting a bomb in the lobby. A crazy worry? It wasn't always.
Earlier today we visited the Latin American School of Medicine, which is now misnamed as it educates doctors from all over the world, not just Latin America. It began in 1998 by converting a former navy school into a medical school at which to give free education to students from Central America. From 2005 to 2014, the school has seen 24,486 students graduate.
Their education is totally free and begins with a 20-week course in the Spanish language. This is a world-standard medical school surrounded by palm trees and sports fields on the very edge of the Caribbean, and students who are qualified for pre-med school -- which means two years of U.S. college -- can come here and become doctors without paying a dime, and without going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. The students do not then have to practice medicine in Cuba or do anything for Cuba, but rather are expected to return to their own countries and practice medicine where it is most needed.
Thus far 112 U.S. students have graduated, and 99 are currently enrolled. Some of them went with an aid "brigade" to Haiti. All of them, after graduating, have passed their U.S. exams back home. I spoke with Olive Albanese, a medical student from Madison, Wisconsin. I asked what she would do upon graduation. "We have a moral obligation," she replied, "to work where it's most needed." She said she would go to a rural or Native American area that has no doctors and work there. She said that the U.S. government should be offering this same service to anyone who wants it, and that people who graduate with student debt will not serve those most in need.
This morning we visited a still healthier place than the medical school: Alamar.
This organic farming cooperative on 25 acres east of Havana didn't choose to go organic. Back in the 1990s, during the "special period" (meaning catastrophically bad period) nobody had fertilizer or other poisons. They couldn't use them if they wanted to. Cuba lost 85% of its international trade when the Soviet Union broke up. So, Cubans learned to grow their own food, and learned to do so without chemicals, and learned to eat the things they grew. A meat-heavy diet began to incorporate a lot more vegetables.
Miguel Salcines, a founder of Alamar, gave us a tour, with camera crews from German television and the Associated Press following. The farm has been featured in a U.S. documentary called The Power of Community, and Salcines has given a TED talk. To Cuba's tradition of monocropping sugar, the USSR added chemicals and machinery, he said. The chemicals did damage. And the population was moving to cities. Big agriculture collapsed, and farming was transformed: smaller, more urban, and organic before anyone knew that name. People who resent the history of slavery and dislike the work of monocropping, he said, are now finding a better way of life working at organic farming coops. That includes 150 workers at Alamar, many of whom we observed and spoke with. Farm workers now include more women and more elderly Cubans.
There are more elderly Cubans working on organic farms because Cubans are living longer (life expectancy of 79.9 years) and they are living longer, according to Salcines, at least in part because of organic food. Eliminating beef has improved Cubans' health, he said. Biodiversity and beneficial insects and proper care for the soil replace fertilizers and pesticides, to everyone's benefit. Thousands of minerals must be replaced in farmed soil, he said, and replacing just a few of them results in illnesses, diabetes, heart problems, and much else, including a lack of libido -- not to mention more pests on the farm, which could be reduced by giving the plants proper nutrition. Even Cuba's bees are reportedly alive and well.
Salcines says Cuba produces 1,020,000 tons of organic vegetables per year, 400 tons of them at Alamar in great variety and at a rate of five crops per year. Alamar also produces 40 tons of worm compost per year, using 80 tons of organic matter to do so.
Salcines pointed to Cuba's healthy diet as something good that's come of the U.S. embargo. On top of that scandalous remark he declared his disagreement with Karl Marx. Population growth is exponential and food production linear, he said. Marx believed science would solve this problem, and he was wrong, declared Salcines. When women are in power, said Salcines, the population doesn't grow. So, put women in power, he concluded. The only way to feed the world, Salcines said, with an apology to Monsanto, is to reject the agriculture of killing in favor of an agriculture of life.
We arrived in Havana tonight, February 8, 2015, or year 56 of the revolution, 150 of us filling an entire airplane, a group of U.S. peace and justice activists organized by CODEPINK. The place is hot and beautiful despite the rain.
The buildings, the cars, the sidewalks look as if time stopped in 1959. The tour guide on the bus from the airport to the hotel brags that the municipality around the airport has a psychiatric hospital and a spaghetti factory. Both the billboards and the tour guide fit Fidel into most every topic.
Back home en el Norte we often note that they don't build things like they used to. My own house predates the Cuban revolution. Prioritizing human needs over "growth" and gentrification is certainly something I would retroactively choose if I could.
But did Cuba choose to stop time on purpose? Or to stop it in certain ways? Or is it something one is not supposed to say or think? We'll be meeting with many Cubans in the coming week, those the government perhaps wants us to meet and those it perhaps doesn't.
Who's to blame and credit for the bad and good in Cuba? I don't yet know and am not sure how much I care. By one argument the U.S. sanctions have been disastrous. By another they've had no effect. By no argument does there seem to be any reason to continue them. Or course those claiming they've done no harm often suggest that Cuba should not be rewarded by lifting them. But incoherent nonsense is hard to respond to.
The United States waged a long terrorist war against Cuba but keeps Cuba on its terrorist list. That has to end regardless of whether Cuba has found the way to a sustainable democratic future.
An American in a hotel elevator said to me: "Shouldn't the people whose property was seized in the revolution have it restored to them?" I happen to know that at least some of them don't want it restored, but I replied, "Sure, that's worth considering, as is the United States giving Guantanamo back to Cuba." Without missing a beat, this Good American came back at me with a line he'd clearly used before: "Will you give me your car, then?" Once I'd figure out what he was saying, I pointed out that I hadn't stolen his car at gunpoint as the United States stole Guantanamo. He walked away.
I realize that carried to an extreme I'd have to ask the United States to give back the entire United States, but I'm not carrying it to that extreme. Why can't the U.S. give back Cuba's land and Cuba reform its worst political practices? Every government in the world needs to be reformed, and urging changes on one hardly endorses every action of the other 199.
The streets of Havana are dark at night, lit just enough to see and no more, but with no sense of danger, no sense of racial segregation, no threat of violence, no homeless people as one inevitably encounters in the land of capitalistic success. The bands play Guantanamera for what must be the gazillionth time, and play it like they mean it.
Taken all in all, and having just arrived, it's not a bad place to be cut off from the world. I have yet to find a SIM card or a phone. My hotel has no internet, at least not until mañana. The Hotel Nacional -- that of the Godfather movie -- tells me they have internet only in the day time. But the Havana Libre, formerly Havana Hilton, has live music, electric outlets with three holes, and slow but functioning internet (superior to Amtrak's) for 10 pesos an hour, not to mention mojitos.
Here's to Cuba!
Whether someone becomes addicted to drugs has much more to do with their childhood and their quality of life than with the drug they use or with anything in their genes. This is one of the more startling of the many revelations in the best book I've read yet this year: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari.
We've all been handed a myth. The myth goes like this: Certain drugs are so powerful that if you use them enough they will take over. They will drive you to continue using them. It turns out this is mostly false. Only 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers can stop smoking using a nicotine patch that provides the same drug. Of people who have tried crack in their lives, only 3 percent have used it in the past month and only 20 percent were ever addicted. U.S. hospitals prescribe extremely powerful opiates for pain every day, and often for long periods of time, without producing addiction. When Vancouver blocked all heroin from entering the city so successfully that the "heroin" being sold had zero actual heroin in it, the addicts' behavior didn't change. Some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, leading to terror among those anticipating their return home; but when they got home 95 percent of them within a year simply stopped. (So did the Vietnamese water buffalo population, which had started eating opium during the war.) The others soldiers had been addicts before they went and/or shared the trait most common to all addicts, including gambling addicts: an unstable or traumatic childhood.
Most people (90 percent according to the U.N.) who use drugs never get addicted, no matter what the drug, and most who do get addicted can lead normal lives if the drug is available to them; and if the drug is available to them, they will gradually stop using it.
But, wait just a minute. Scientists have proven that drugs are addictive, haven't they?
Well, a rat in a cage with absolutely nothing else in its life will choose to consume huge quantities of drugs. So if you can make your life resemble that of a rat in a cage, the scientists will be vindicated. But if you give a rat a natural place to live with other rats to do happy things with, the rat will ignore a tempting pile of "addictive" drugs.
And so will you. And so will most people. Or you'll use it in moderation. Before the War on Drugs began in 1914 (a U.S. substitute for World War I?), people bought bottles of morphine syrup, and wine and soft drinks laced with cocaine. Most never got addicted, and three-quarters of addicts held steady respectable jobs.
Is there a lesson here about not trusting scientists? Should we throw out all evidence of climate chaos? Should we dump all our vaccines into Boston Harbor? Actually, no. There's a lesson here as old as history: follow the money. Drug research is funded by a federal government that censors its own reports when they come to the same conclusions as Chasing the Scream, a government that funds only research that leaves its myths in place. Climate deniers and vaccine deniers should be listened to. We should always have open minds. But thus far they don't seem to be pushing better science that can't find funding. Rather, they're trying to replace current beliefs with beliefs that have less basis behind them. Reforming our thinking on addiction actually requires looking at the evidence being produced by dissident scientists and reformist governments, and it's pretty overwhelming.
So where does this leave our attitudes toward addicts? First we were supposed to condemn them. Then we were supposed to excuse them for having a bad gene. Now we're supposed to feel sorry for them because they have horrors they cannot face, and in most cases have had them since childhood? There's a tendency to view the "gene" explanation as the solider excuse. If 100 people drink alcohol and one of them has a gene that makes him unable to ever stop, it's hard to blame him for that. How could he have known? But what about this situation: Of 100 people, one of them has been suffering in agony for years, in part as a result of never having experienced love as a baby. That one person later becomes addicted to a drug, but that addiction is only a symptom of the real problem. Now, of course, it is utterly perverse to be inquiring into someone's brain chemistry or background before we determine whether or not to show them compassion. But I have a bit of compassion even for people who cannot resist such nonsense, and so I appeal to them now: Shouldn't we be kind to people who suffer from childhood trauma? Especially when prison makes their problem worse?
But what if we were to carry this beyond addiction to other undesirable behaviors? There are other books presenting similarly strong cases that violence, including sexual violence, and including suicide, have in very large part similar origins to those Hari finds for addiction. Of course violence must be prevented, not indulged. But it can best be reduced by improving people's lives, especially their young lives but importantly also their current lives. Bit by bit, as we have stopped discarding people of various races, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities as worthless, as we begin to accept that addiction is a temporary and non-threatening behavior rather than the permanent state of a lesser creature known as "the addict," we may move on to discarding other theories of permanence and genetic determination, including those related to violent criminals. Someday we may even outgrow the idea that war or greed or the automobile is the inevitable outcome of our genes.
Somehow blaming everything on drugs, just like taking drugs, seems much easier.
Watch Johann Hari on Democracy Now.
He'll soon be on Talk Nation Radio, so send me questions I should ask him, but read the book first.
In proposing that Congress Members boycott or walk out on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned speech to Congress, expected to push for sanctions if not war on Iran, activists are drawing on actions engaged in by college students in recent years, as they have boycotted or walked out on or disrupted speeches by Israeli soldiers and officials on U.S. campuses. Netanyahu's noodle-headed move -- oblivious, apparently, to the U.S. government's effective evolution into a term-limited monarchy -- may provide a boost to both the movement to free Palestine and the movement to prevent a war on Iran.
Peace activists sometimes marvel at how young people have taken up environmentalist activism (with very little emphasis on the environmental destruction caused by militarism). Why, antiwar activists ask, don't young people get active opposing wars?
Ah, but they do. They are increasingly active, organized, strategic, bold, courageous, and determined about opposing a particular war: the ongoing war that the government of Israel wages -- with U.S. funding and support -- on the people of Palestine.
Nora Barrows-Friedman's new book, In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine, tells their stories, often in their own words: What motivates them? How did they get involved? How do they view themselves in their activism? How do they relate to the non-activist world? We should all pay attention.
Don't misunderstand the case. Most students, like most adults, do little or no activism. The movement to free Palestine is far from success and up against huge opposition. Movements against other wars exist, a movement against all war exists, and all of these movements overlap. But, relatively speaking, students are far more engaged, I think, in opposing the Israeli occupation than in halting drone strikes or the U.S. wars in Iraq or Afghanistan (if they're even aware that those wars haven't ended). Opposition to U.S. wars tends to come disproportionately from an older and whiter crowd -- a result of the Vietnam era, of a less informed view of Israel, and/or of dozens of other likely factors. In Our Power doesn't address this question, but it provides much food for thought.
It's not clear that most advocates of Palestinian freedom think of themselves as opposing war or demanding peace. Hoda Mitwally, a student at the City University of New York, is quoted by Barrows-Friedman as describing the movement for Palestine as "one that amazingly has sustained itself in ways that other movements have fizzled out. The antiwar movement fizzled out very quickly, for example." It seems that many demanding justice for Palestine think in terms of demanding human rights, even if prominent among those is the right not to have your home bombed. But human rights is how pro-war advocacy is framed in the U.S. media and politics. We must attack Syria because we care. We must destroy Libya to save the Libyans. Wrecking Yemen is a model of humanitarian warfare. Of course this is all a pack of lies, but it is a prominent pack of lies. Perhaps the movements for peace and for Palestinian justice, already intertwined, could still benefit from deeper exchanges of thinking, for war opposition must be a human rights demand, and unless a system of peace is created in Palestine/Israel, the human rights violations including those formerly known as war, will continue.
The peace movement has put an emphasis on the financial cost to the aggressor nation, the damage to U.S. troops, the trade offs in poor schools and parks, etc., assuming that people need a direct connection to a moral atrocity before they'll act. I don't believe that for a minute, not as an absolute law. But the stories of Palestine activists do bear it out. Many of them have a direct connection and even personal experience on the ground, witnessing the horrors of what they oppose. They are Palestinian Americans or Jewish Americans or other Americans who have visited Israel or Palestine or who have close friends who have done so. Many of them have been moved by the recent Israeli attacks on Lebanon or Gaza ("Cast Lead" and "Protective Edge") or by the relentless construction of "settlements" and accompanying ethnic cleansing. Many have experienced bigotry in the United States following 9-11 and have sought out a comforting community. As Anwar al Awlaki came to favor anti-U.S. violence after experiencing such bigotry, many young people engage in constructive nonviolent activism instead. They gather as Palestinians or Arabs, and then they take up the Palestinian cause.
Beyond direct experience lies the factor of severity, or rather I think the combination is potent. Young people who become aware of mass murder and abuse and discrimination, especially after having been taught that it didn't exist, are likely to protest. Yet I suspect -- and this is pure speculation -- that another factor weighs heavily. That is the absence of the sort of U.S. government propaganda that promotes U.S. wars. The U.S. government does not market Israel's attacks on surrounding lands in the way that it markets a U.S. attack on Iraq or Libya. U.S. wars are marketed as patriotic duties, and as mad urgent crises that cannot wait for cool consideration. Once begun, they must be continued forever or one fails to "support the troops." Colleges notoriously turnover their student population every four years or so, and a movement that opposed a particular war as not a good civilized and acceptable war like the wars we really need has a half-life of about two years. Israel's war in contrast goes on and on and on, and while opposing it gets you accused of anti-Semitism, it does not get you accused of treason -- nor does it get you accused by remotely as many people. In fact opposing U.S. support for Israeli wars allows you to attack illegal and unacceptable foreign influence. So, while opposition to Israel's war may benefit from the war not being American, awareness of the U.S. government's role may actually help build the movement -- not just because people are reflexively patriotic but because they are rightly indignant about being forced to support a crime.
In addition, Israel's war and occupation involve elements quite familiar to African Americans and other abused groups in this country -- including Latinos along the border wall -- to the extent that Freedom Rides on buses are created in Israel, and mock border walls are created in Arizona. Mock eviction notices are all too frightening in college dorms. The echoes of South African Apartheid inform the movement with technical details and inspire it with the idea of success. And the U.S. movement for Palestine is supported by a global network better organized than those against U.S. wars -- so far -- not to mention the strength of global public opinion.
The movement for Palestine has somehow avoided the plague of frustration that has peace activists announcing that they will not attend a protest because they've attended them before and we don't have peace yet. Instead, the history of Palestinian activism going back nearly a century provides inspiration, lessons, and structures to bolster a movement driven by temporarily engaged young people, further inspired by their established understanding that the "peace process" has been a fraud. Meanwhile the antiwar movement seems cursed to believe every new wild justification for every new war until it is debunked some weeks or months later.
None of this is to say that the movement for Palestine has it easy. When we passed a resolution in my town against a war on Iran, and then asked people to do the same in other towns, they came back empty-handed informing me that they'd been rejected as anti-Semites. If opposing bombing Iran is anti-Semitic, you can imagine what interrupting Israeli VIPs to denounce their crimes counts as. But BDS (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions) against the Israeli government are easier to advance than those against the U.S. government -- although some are beginning to talk about the latter idea and many weapons companies that sell to Israel sell to everywhere else as well.
In the end, I can't claim to know why activism for justice in Palestine is showing relative promise, but I can advocate giving it all the help we possibly can, respectful of the young people who are leading the way. Read their stories in In Our Power. If they succeed, it will help millions of people. It will also help the movement to end all war. Because the myth of ancient hatred between two parties will have been replaced by the reality of war as the political choice of a misguided government. Ancient hatreds can be sold as inevitable. Choices made by misguided governments cannot.
Taher Herzallah, a young activist, explains where the confidence comes from: "[Y]ou have all these organizations pouring millions of dollars into doing work to combat the work we do for free. . . . [T]he work that we're doing doesn't need people that are paid millions of dollars. . . . When a freshman comes out and yells, 'Free Palestine!' and that threatens the existence of the state of Israel, that shows you how shallow that narrative is."
Adds student activist Rahim Kurwa, "The [divestment] process enforces a debate on campus. It forces people to have to look at what's going on and what they're directly investing in. Every time you have that debate, you come out ahead."