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Workers’ Paradise

In Harper’s, I wrote about how Cuba—perhaps more than any other country on the planet—stands at the enviable intersection of high human development and low ecological footprint:

In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, currently slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.

Check out the link above to read about rare snails on top of mountains and lush reefs at the island’s remote edge. It was one of the most stimulating stories I’ve ever written, but it was motivated by some pretty grim lines of inquiry. One of my guiding questions was along the lines of: what does Cuba suggest about the likelihood that human societies will choose to live within our planet’s ecological budget when overshooting it is so easy? I found few Cubans who were satisfied with their current level of consumption, and understandably so. Cubans make many sacrifices that us Americans would hardly accept, from forgoing air travel to creatively sourcing toilet paper.

Even some right-wing thinkers have been able to grasp some of the essence of the dilemma. “No free society would do to itself what the [climate justice] agenda requires … The first step to doing that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way,” says one climate denier quoted in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I think a more optimistic counterargument can be constructed, but Cuba sure is fodder for pessimism.

Anxiety in Cuba as US Embassy Opens

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I thought we would be celebrating in Havana.

Five years ago, I spent a semester in Cuba as an undergraduate student and forged friendships with Cubans my age in spite of—or perhaps because of—the official antagonism between our countries.

“Politics is shit,” a Cuban friend said one night as we reflected, somewhat tipsy, on the intransigence of our governments. It felt impossible, I added, that our nations could be so distant and yet only be separated by 90 miles.

“Yeah, geography is shit too,” he responded.

When I arrived for a visit last month, I expected a change in tone. The governments of Cuba and the United States had agreed months earlier to establish diplomatic relations months earlier. Since then, the Obama administration had begun working to unravel the complex legal machinery that, for the past half-century, has cut Cuba off from its northern neighbor and brought a lot of economic hardship to the island.

I encountered more trepidation than I expected.

“It will be very good for the economy,” a young man told me in the central city of Santa Clara as we rested on a park bench. “But from the ethical, moral, cultural, social, and even aesthetic perspective, that’s another question.”

Another friend of mine—I’ll call him “Daniel”—suspects that the United States will bring down the Cuban government by lifting the embargo for a period of a few years and then suddenly reinstalling it, choking off Cuba’s newly Americanized economy.

Indeed, the United States hasn’t abandoned the goal of regime change in Cuba. Statements from the Obama administration imply that, through engagement, it is simply looking for more effective means.

“They have done us a lot of damage, but they haven’t achieved what they wanted,” my college Spanish professor told me when I paid her a visit at her house. “They are going to try to do from within what they couldn’t do from outside.”

On the morning of August 14, I went to Daniel’s house to watch on TV as John Kerry presided over the unfurling of the American flag and official opening of the United States embassy in Havana. My friend Yassel Alejandro Padron Kunakbaeva had arrived earlier, and sat shirtless in a rocking chair, smoking a cigarette as he waited for the event to start.

“I think it’s necessary to have diplomatic relations with the United States,” he said, but he had his mind on a much older American flag.

Cuban independence from Spain in 1898 was immediately followed by four years of American military occupation. The United States insisted that Cuba’s constitution grant the United States control over Cuba’s finances and foreign affairs. When US troops left in 1902, two flags flew from Havana’s Morro fortress, one Cuban, one American.

“It was a powerful symbol,” Yassel said.

For half a century, Cuba would be a de facto American colony. American marines made landings in 1906, 1912, and 1917. By the 1950s, American mobsters dominated the island, with the acquiescence of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Historian Richard Gott wrote that for Cubans, Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 was “the first genuine attempt in their history to establish an independent republic.” Castro and his revolution, despite their flaws, occupy a space in Cuban historical memory similar to that of George Washington in the United States.

Fifty years of US hostility toward that revolution has made the United States an easy enemy in Cuban eyes. Cubans seem unsure how to reinterpret American intentions as the era of diplomatic engagement dawns.

As Kerry’s speech neared, Yassel propped open a hardcover book on the dining room table, so that photos of Marx and Engels faced the TV. “They need to see this,” he said. The heat of Cuban August was apparent even through the TV screen; visiting American men were apparently still obliged to wear black suits. Behind the embassy, three antique American Chevrolets were parked conspicuously within view of the TV cameras.

A few minutes behind schedule, an overhead shot showed Kerry and his delegation striding toward the embassy. “The imperialists are walking through the front door!” Yassel shouted. “I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it.”

Kerry’s speech was respectful and conciliatory, although he portrayed the preceding half-century of conflict as one between two equals, rather than a global superpower bullying a small island. He outlined the steps the United States has already taken toward rapprochement with Cuba, and the steps that he says Americans are willing to take if Cuba makes political and economic reforms.

As we watched, Daniel avoided the television, sweeping, making coffee, smoking cigarettes. “This is a cultural invasion,” he muttered at one point.

If so, there is a lot at stake. When I first arrived as an exchange student, I quickly realized that Cuba is special. For all of the country’s flaws, there exists a collective spirit deeper than mere cliché or socialist platitude. The Cubans I know share profusely, abhor inequality, rarely get lost in their cellphones. “There’s less alienation of the individual here,” one Cuban put it to me recently in aptly Marxist terms. Cubans also have a strong sense of national identity and pride in culture that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the least Americanized country in the hemisphere.

After Kerry’s speech, we made the short bus trip to see the newly hoisted American flag. “I’m not going to get close to that thing, though,” Daniel said, and left us after the bus ride to go sit in the shade under a nearby statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí.  

The crowds that had gathered outside during the ceremony had dispersed. A few tourists milled along Havana’s seafront drive, taking photos. The American flag across the street was small, and almost underwhelming. Yassel found it jarring though—one of the few that he had seen in his life. Behind us, the Havana skyline was visible along the Straits of Florida, a pastel medley of Spanish fortresses, dusty apartment buildings, and pre-revolutionary hotels built by American mobsters.

“This is my city,” Yassel said. “I don’t want to see it full of McDonalds and other American companies and think Cuba is no longer an independent country. I don’t want Cuba to become just a country like all the others.”

Published at Generation Progress. Photo: the American flag flies at the US Embassy in Havana, August 14th 2015.

America’s Cuba: US Hostility Toward the Island Was Never Really About the Cold War

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Havana streets, 2010.

President Barack Obama announced on December 17th that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Both governments agreed to a prisoner swap: Cuba released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross and a US intelligence operative, while the United States released three Cuban intelligence agents arrested in the 1990s while spying on militant Cuban exile groups. The countries will begin talks with the goal of opening embassies, Obama will ease travel and financial restrictions for American citizens, and Cuba will release a group of detainees that the US has designated political prisoners. The US trade embargo remains in place, and requires Congressional action to repeal.

“U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” the New York Times proclaimed. The notion that the US embargo is a Cold War relic that has outlived its usefulness has long been a common assertion among American critics of Cuba policy. Democratic Senators, the editor of The Nation, progressive NGOs, and even Forbes columnists and the Cato Institute have framed the conflict in these terms.

US-Cuban relations have undoubtedly been shaped by the Cold War, but the narrative of Cold War conflict between the two countries is a historically dubious rendering, obfuscating a long record of US intervention in Cuba and the rest of Latin America.

The United States immediately recognized Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government when it took power in January 1959. We all know that the amity didn’t last long, but US telling often misconstrues how the United States and Cuba became enemies.

In May 1959, Castro unveiled the revolution’s land reform program, which called for breaking up holdings larger than 1,000 acres and distributing them to small farmers. It also specified that only Cubans would be allowed to own land, and promised compensation for confiscated territory.

In an era of worldwide land reform this was hardly radical, but US officials perceived the move as a threat to the vast property owned by American companies in Cuba. According to historian Richard Gott, a June 1959 meeting of the National Security Council concluded that Castro couldn’t be allowed to stay in power. By October, the CIA had drafted a program that “authorized us to support elements in Cuba opposed to the Castro government, while making Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes.” The Eisenhower administration began plotting with Cuban exiles in Florida.

Cuba had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union at this point, and wouldn’t until May 1960. In July 1960, hoping to deal an economic blow to the Cuban Revolution, Eisenhower declined to purchase 700,000 tons of Cuban sugar. The Soviet Union offered to buy it. In August, Cuba nationalized all American property on the island; the US embargo began in November.

US-Cuban relations declined further, to put it mildly, when US-trained Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In 1962, Castro asked the USSR for support that would guarantee that any US attack “would mean a war not only with Cuba.” According to Gott’s telling, he envisioned a military defense pact; the Soviets suggested nuclear missiles. The decision was made that summer, and the world narrowly avoided nuclear war in October.

In the United States, events like the Bay of Pigs invasion are typically portrayed as reactions to Cuban instigation, but the chronology belies this framing. In fact, the causality runs in almost exactly the opposite direction: US hostility wasn’t a response to Cuba’s Communist ties; Cuba’s Communist ties were a response to US hostility.

That hostility didn’t start in 1959, either. In his book “Cuba in the American Imagination,” historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. argues that from the early years of US history, American leaders saw themselves as the rightful stewards of Cuban territory, and their understandings of Cuba formed an ethos that has shaped policy toward the island ever since. Pérez quotes US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who in 1823 called Cuba a “natural appendage” of the United States. Adams went on to claim:

There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connexion with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.

The US saw its chance to bring that apple to its bosom during the war for Cuban independence in 1898, when Cuban rebels were beginning to gain the upper hand against Spanish troops. The United States declared war on Spain and quickly crushed the fading colonial power. The emerging superpower then claimed Cuba for itself, forcing the infamous Platt Amendment into Cuba’s new constitution. The law gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuban affairs, control the nation’s finances, and approve or veto its treaties with other countries.

In 1906, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. […] We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”

And for a while, it did. By 1923, American troops had been dispatched on three separate occasions to quell rebellions. Havana became a haven for American mob bosses and a Vegas-like den of sin for American tourists. A former ambassador to Cuba told Congress in 1960 that “The United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that … the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”

Castro and his revolutionaries considered themselves responsible for ending the humiliation of such a hollow independence. The land reform that so riled the United States seemed a fitting way to start making Cuban sovereignty real. According to Pérez, as Castro began to introduce other redistributive policies, American officials were mystified, incapable of understanding the Cuban leader’s public grievances about US neocolonialism. How could they have understood? Pérez writes:

Americans rarely engaged the Cuban reality on its own terms or as a condition possessed of an internal logic, or Cubans as a people possessed of an interior history or as a nation possessed of an inner-directed destiny. It has always been thus between the United States and Cuba.

The “Cold War” rhetoric obscures this long history of domination and frustrated independence. (It also underhandedly implies that the pain inflicted upon the Cuban people—by US invasion, support for counterrevolutionary insurgents, and the continuing trade embargo—was permissible in a Cold War context.)

More importantly, the Cold War framing ignores the fact that we’ve never needed the Cold War to justify overthrowing governments, in Cuba or elsewhere. We’re doing fine without it: Our government has at least tacitly supported coups in Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, and Honduras in 2009.

It remains to be seen exactly how Obama’s announcement this week will impact the long fight between US and Cuba. Is Obama conceding defeat in the long effort to dismantle the Cuban Revolution though, or merely searching for more effective means? One Cuba expert on Democracy Now! on Thursday speculated whether the President is “buying into the idea if we flood more money into Cuba, maybe we’ll be able to subvert the fundamental values of the revolution.” US officials have also said that USAID “democracy promotion” efforts to undermine the Cuban government will continue. But even as the two nations remain rivals, Obama’s normalization of relations might finally be an acknowledgement of that “inner-directed destiny” that we have denied Cubans for so long.

Published at Counterpunch.

Latin America Is An LGBT Haven. Does The “Pink Tide” Deserve Credit?

At Alternet, I wrote about the extent to which Latin America’s left-wing governments have made LGBT rights part of their agenda for “21st Century Socialism.” The short version of the scorecard:

Strong on LGBT: Uruguay (Frente Amplio), Argentina (the Kirchners), Brazil (Worker’s Party)

Weak on LGBT: Venezuela (Chavez/Maduro), Bolivia (Morales), Nicaragua (Ortega)

Mixed: Ecuador (Correa), Cuba (Castros)

More:

Perhaps the best lesson from Latin America’s rainbow tide is this: in the countries most advanced on gay rights, activists have been able to successfully integrate LGBT issues with other social movements.

When the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, gay rights activists took the chance to “nail themselves into this broader social justice movement that is born out of that crisis,” according to Encarnación. A resulting set of reforms in 2002 included a domestic partnership law for same-sex couples.

Uruguay has benefited from strong links between civil society and party politics. Federico Graña is himself an example, as a member of both the Black Sheep activist group and a member of the central committee of the Uruguayan Communist Party.

“It took me a lot of effort to make [LGBT rights] part of my party’s agenda,” Graña said. “We had an intense debate about how these subjects generated inequalities and how they would be related to a vision of socialism in the 21st century.”

Graña says a turning point in LGBT advocacy came around 2004, when activist groups decided they were taking too narrow an approach to their campaigns .

“In reality there exists a lot of discriminations that generate inequities and inequalities, so we believed that analyzing only sexual orientation was an error,” Graña said. “We realized that it would be impossible to analyze Uruguayan society without taking into account social class, without taking into account gender, without taking into account sexual orientation, and also racial issues.”

He credits the strong links between different civil society groups for Uruguay’s string of progressive new laws legalizing abortion in 2012, gay marriage in May 2013 and marijuana in December.

Read the whole thing here.

How College Students Can Own Their Own Home

Well, so to speak. A housing cooperative actually makes students part-owners of their house, even if only for a couple years. It can bring benefits material and non-material:

“Cooperatives aren’t trying to make money off of everyone,” Crawford said. With no surplus needed for a landlord’s profits, students in housing co-ops can keep costs down.

Other, perhaps more potent advantages can’t be measured in dollars and cents. If we accept the premise that the typical buyer-seller relationship is inherently undemocratic—for instance, a renter has no control over their housing situation except what is specifically granted to them in their lease—then a co-op offers students greater self-control.

“Instead of students paying large sums of money to live in a dorm where they have no control over what happens, who they live with, how they’re governed, et cetera,” said Crawford, co-ops put students in the driver’s seat.

While the specific methods vary, the idea is that students use a democratic process to set rents, decide what repairs are needed, and figure out who is responsible for which chores. They can even sell their house if they so choose, Crawford said. (But not to cash out—the money would be held by the co-op as part of the zero equity structure.)

The rest at Campus Progress.

FREE GOVERNMENT MONEY FOR EVERYONE!!!

 

The government should pay you to do this, even if it’s not entirely clear what “this” is.

No really. We could do it:

It’s not as radical as it may sound. The concept goes by several names, but here we’ll call it Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). The basic idea is that every citizen receives a monthly stipend of enough value to cover all of their basic living expenses, regardless of financial need, employment status, criminal history, or any other factor. The grant would be funded through taxes on non-GBI earnings. (And of course, calling it “free money” is a bit of a misnomer—many people would contribute more to the program in taxes than they gain in benefits.)

Although GBI has seen some high profile advocacy lately from the likes of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Wonkblog’s Mike Konczal, it would likely take a long time for the program to become politically feasible. But from the standpoint of justice, the merits should be obvious. GBI lifts everyone above the poverty line by default.

“It gives people exit options because their basic core standard of living doesn’t depend upon staying with an abusive spouse or staying with an unpleasant employer,” said Erik Olin Wright, Vilas Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, who has written on GBI.

Read along to see how we could fund GBI, and whether or not it would wreck the economy.

Science Majors: Enough, But Not Enough

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that despite conventional wisdom, there is no job market shortage for science and technology graduates.

At Campus Progress, I wrote that despite the lack of excess demand, we would still benefit from more science. It’s a classic market failure:

There’s an important distinction to be made between the market’s demand for science and our society’s interest in investing in it. Just because private companies aren’t hiring STEM grads doesn’t mean we couldn’t use more of them.

“Market failure,” is the term economists use to identify areas “where the free market won’t necessarily produce the optimal outcome,” Daniel Keuhn, one of the authors of the EPI report, said.

Often market failures result in too much of something. Pollution, for instance: If the government didn’t regulate it, the free market would produce way more than we want. For scientific research, though, it’s the reverse.

“If we left the market alone, we’d probably be producing less science than would be optimal,” Keuhn told Campus Progress.

For the reasons why, read the rest.

The Coming End of Asphyxia?

I think my jaw literally actually dropped when I read that the Cuban government is letting go of its restrictions on travel abroad. It’s still early, but I’ll state cautiously that this is pretty monumental news. People really wanted this. I don’t know if there’s any bigger announcement they could have made, other than “Alright, screw it, let’s have an election for president.” CounterPunch.org graciously allowed me to try to explain the significance of the coming change:

When I read last week that the Cuban government is scrapping its notorious permiso de salida—the official sanction required to exit the island—I immediately thought back to a warm May evening about two years ago. As a college student in Havana, I caught a Cuban friend of mine in a particularly candid mood and took the chance to ask him: “If you could change one thing about your country, what would it be?”

He singled out the Cuban government’s tight constraints on travel outside the island. “It’s like asphyxia, the way I feel not being able to leave here,” he said. “Imagine how you would feel if you were never able to leave your home state. I want to see the Vatican, the Karl Marx museum in Russia, the place in Bolivia where Che Guevara was killed. Cuba will always be my home, but I want to travel. I wake up some days and it’s like ‘Fuck, it’s the same shit.’”

Starting next January 14th, he will need only a visa and valid passport to leave the country, Cuban officials say. The announcement has been welcomed by virtually all Cubans, but the change will be mean most to young people like my friend. It’s a sign that the cantankerous relationship between young Cubans and their government might, just might, be entering a paradigm shift.

“Today, October 16th 2012, is the best day of my life and in the life of many Cubans,” another Cuban friend wrote on his Facebook page. “Now we can finally begin to talk about freedom in the country I love so much. […] Today is the start of a new, true Cuban Revolution.”

You can find the rest here.

There Are New Cars in Cuba

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When I first got to Cuba back in 2010, there was one stereotype I began to see through almost immediately after my plane touched down. Not all the cars are from the 1950s! There are just as many junkers imported from the Soviet Union, and a bunch of European and Asian models from the new millennium.

So it’s really frustrating to read stuff like this from National Geographic:

The National Highway in Cuba has many stretches where you will not see another car for miles. Then when you do see one, it is an old classic like this 1950s Buick, which looks at home on the open road with the Cuban landscape of fields and mountains in the distance.

I really wish they would say “it is often an old classic…” Why does it matter? Because if you claim that all cars in Cuba are 50 years old, it lends support to the idea that the island is “stuck in time,” frozen in the past. That those Latino socialists aren’t able to keep up with the technological advances of us American capitalists. When in fact, the cars say more about the way we treat the country: it’s the U.S. embargo that keeps all the post-1960 Fords, Buicks, and other American cars off the island.

I’m gonna comment on the post and see if they’ll make the fix.