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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.

Why It’s So Hard For Central Americans To Get Asylum In The US

The children arriving to the US border come from the countries most disadvantaged within the American asylum system. Originally published at Alternet.

In the United States, not all refugees are created equal.

The 63,000 unaccompanied children and 63,000 adults with children who have been detained on the southern US border since October are learning this the hard way. Fleeing widespread violence in their home countries, thousands of the children are housed in crowded detention centers,  often without adequate food, sleeping conditions or medical care. President Obama has said publicly that most will be sent back to their home countries.

The thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans who apply for asylum in the US are granted it at rates lower than those for almost any other country in the world. How they must envy arriving Cubans, for whom the Cuban American Adjustment Act ensures they will be able to stay in the United States, without even having to apply for asylum.

The disparity is a stark example of a wider trend: In the United States, the ostensibly impartial refugee and asylum process has long been shaped to reflect foreign and domestic political interests. And in multiple ways, Central Americans get the short end of the stick.

Cold War Politics

“Historically and currently, the United States does not recognize Central American asylum claims,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar working with returned child migrants in El Salvador.

Not long ago, the asylum process was political by design, and without much controversy. Reviewing the modern history of asylum in a 2007 article in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, David Swanwick explained that during the Cold War era, US asylum policy almost completely denied entry to applicants who were not fleeing a Communist or Middle Eastern country.

Swanwick writes that during the Cold War, “U.S. immigration officials pursued [foreign policy objectives] by granting asylum to individuals fleeing U.S. enemies, thus showing those enemies to be persecutors, and similarly by refusing to grant asylum to individuals fleeing U.S. allies, in order to avoid making those allies look bad.” As one US State Department official said in 1958, “each refugee from the Soviet orbit represents a failure of the Communist system.”

Policy was nominally changed in 1968 with the ratification of the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, but in practice foreign policy continued to dominate the US asylum system into well into the 1980s.

In that decade, the United States backed the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala in their brutal campaigns against left-wing guerrilla insurgencies. An estimated one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled to the United States to escape the violence, according to an article by Susan Gzesh at the Migration Policy Institute.

The detained arrivals were placed in crowded detention centers and discouraged from applying for asylum. The Reagan administration sought to portray these immigrants as “economic migrants,” and delivered letters to immigration judges pressuring them to deny asylum to the Salvadorans and Guatemalans who did apply.

“Approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. In the same year, the approval rate for Iranians was 60 percent, 40 percent for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, and 32 percent for Poles,” Gzesh wrote.

A 1987 class-action lawsuit on behalf of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers marked a turning point for asylum evaluation criteria. The settlement of the case banned foreign policy considerations from asylum decisions, and allowed all of the members of the class to reapply for asylum. The suit, coupled with the end of the Cold War and heightened public debate about the asylum process, led to an increased emphasis on humanitarianism into the 1990s.

Capable of Persecution

But despite the shift in emphasis and language, there are still wide disparities in asylum grant rates based on country of origin.

According to figures available on the Department of Justice website, from fiscal years 2009 to 2013, roughly one percent of Mexicans’ asylum requests were granted, about five percent of requests from residents of El Salvador and Honduras, six percent from Guatemalans, 37 percent from Venezuelans, 38 percent from Russians, 47 percent from Chinese, 57 percent from Somalis, and 80 percent from Ethiopians.

“Each case in immigration court, to include asylum cases, has its own set of facts and variables that affect its outcome,” Kathryn Mattingly, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, said in an email comment.

“Immigration judges adjudicate cases on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. immigration law, regulations and precedent decisions,” she said. “Immigration judges consider all evidence and arguments presented by both parties and decide each case based on that information.”

Between-country disparities aren’t inherently wrong. If human rights are being more egregiously violated in China than Honduras, for instance, it is natural that Chinese asylum seekers would be more likely to be granted refuge in the United States.

However, at 90 murders per 100,000 residents each year, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, and El Salvador, Guatemala and parts of Mexico are nearly as violent.

“The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States,” a mother of two from the violence-ravaged Honduran city of San Pedro Sula told the New York Times. “That’s the idea, to leave.”

The stories of arriving children—like that of Adrián, who grew up on the streets of Guatemala City and fled after gang members demanding money peppered his small clothing stand with bullets—indicate widespread persecution in the nations they are fleeing.

But such violence may not be a legal foundation for asylum in the United States. “Who is capable of persecution [under US asylum law]? Historically, that had to be a state actor or very powerful non-state actor with direct political purpose,” Kennedy said from El Salvador.

“The problem here is that the main persecutors are gangs, cartels, and other organized criminal actors,” she said.

In US asylum hearings, judges will typically try to make the case that Central American applicants are victims of random violence or targets of local criminal groups, and therefore don’t qualify for asylum based on US law, according to Kennedy.

Most Central American asylum seekers stake their claim on being persecuted on their status as a member of a “particular social group,” one of the categories of persecution that makes someone eligible for asylum protection under US law. Some articulations of particular social groups include children who are forcibly recruited into gangs, women who are forced to be the “girlfriends” of gang members, or people fleeing police violence, according to Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the asylum and immigrant children protection projects at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.

“These types of claims have grown increasingly difficult as case law has come down primarily from the Department of Justice that has restricted the ability of these individuals to seek asylum,” Huebner said.

Huebner and others argue that underlying the stinginess toward Central Americans is a fear of “opening the floodgates”—that is, creating the incentive for an unmanageable or undesirable number of Central Americans to use asylum as a backdoor route to legal status in the United States. She says that between the lines of recent judicial decisions is an effort to put up barriers specifically for people seeking asylum from Central America.

“The four precedential decisions that have been issued by the [Board of Immigration Appeals] that specifically address [particular social Group claims] were four cases involving individuals from Central America who were fleeing gang violence. The decisions are very clearly written in a results-driven way,” she said.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, in its “ Children on the Run” report, found that 58 percent of the 404 children they interviewed at the US border were forced migrants who needed international protection.

The Obama administration has argued that most of the recent Central American arrivals don’t qualify for asylum. “It’s unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in July. “It means they will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned.”

Cognitive Shortcuts

The foreign policy considerations that birthed American asylum, while no longer enshrined in law, still shine through. A 2009 study, for instance, found that “For each one percentage point increase in US trade to a country, asylum seekers from that country have between approximately 0.74 and 1.18 percentage points less chance of receiving affirmative asylum status from officers and judges, respectively.” Asylum seekers from countries under US economic sanction regimes also have a moderately greater chance of being accepted, though paradoxically, so do asylum seekers from countries receiving US military aid.

Swanwick, writing in 2007, found that asylum seekers from an ally country in the US war on terror had a lower admittance rate than those from countries deemed enemies.

But if the foreign policy criteria for asylum have been formally abolished, why do the disparities persist?

“Basically, judges are people just like we are,” said Christopher Fariss, assistant professor of political science at Penn State University, and one of the authors of the 2009 study on disparities in asylum rates.

“It might not even be a conscious consideration that the judge is making, but if they are coming from a place that we don’t have a good relationship with, then maybe they give that person the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

Biased judgments may also be exacerbated by a shortage of resources devoted to immigrant processing.

“The number of cases that each immigration judge has to see per year is very, very high,” Fariss said. “We all take shortcuts when we’re overloaded with work, and so I could see—though I haven’t seen the data—I could see judges being more influenced by cognitive shortcuts like their impression of the country the person came from, given an overloaded docket.”

A Way Forward

An unsuccessful asylum petition can have deadly consequences. Kennedy, the Fulbright scholar based in El Salvador, said she encounters about one newspaper story each month in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras about a US deportee who has been murdered.

”It might be higher,” she said, since many families are reluctant to publicly acknowledge that a member of their family has been deported.

Perhaps a better model for US asylum policy, Kennedy says, is the 1984 Cartagena declaration, published in the midst of the Central American civil wars at a summit of migration experts from across the Americas. The declaration defines refugees more broadly and mandates a broader set of responsibilities toward them from receiving governments.

According to the declaration, governments should commit “To ensure that any repatriation of refugees is voluntary, and is declared to be so on an individual basis, and is carried out with the co-operation of UNHCR.”

The Declaration is one way to reverse an asylum policy that falls beneath the level of generosity wealthy countries like the United States are capable of.

“The reality of refugee and asylum policy in our world today is that the poorest nations are receiving the majority of asylum seekers and refugees,” Kennedy said. “Wealthy nations have been very restrictive in who they admit and who they allow to get asylum, and that is a great injustice, because often times their policies are contributing to the things that create refugees.”

That’s the deeper solution to asylum problems, attacking forced migration at the source. In the Central American case, a principal culprit is the US drug war, according to Kennedy, which fuels violence in countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico in order to meet US demand for recreational drugs.

“What would prevent people from producing drugs and working to supply them is going to be the same as what would prevent people from joining gangs and organized crime, and that’s genuine economic and social development,” Kennedy said.

“The United States does not have a good track record of investing in that.”

The Unfinished March

Like much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, it turns out that the “March on Washington” has been kinda whitewashed. The 50th anniversary of the event is this year—maybe an ideal time to reclaim the history?

Has Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream truly been realized today? There was a lot more to the 1963 “March on Washington” than just King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it’s reflected in the event’s oft-overlooked full name: March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom.

Marchers rallied not just for civil and political rights for American blacks, but also economic demands including full employment and a livable minimum wage.

We’re doing pretty poorly on those demands:

Despite the Civil Rights Movement’s successes, African-Americans still face residential segregation, segregated schools, unemployment rates twice that of whites and 36 percent work for poverty-level wages.

Read the rest at Campus Progress

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love LeBron

Or at least to cut him some slack.

I’m one of those people who see the Miami Heat as basketball’s Evil Empire, or like the bad guys in an underdog-story kid’s sports movie. I still haven’t forgiven LeBron for “The Decision” (or for beating the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs). Having him, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh—three of the league’s elite players—on the same team just feels like stacking the deck. It’s as though a team that talented is supposed to win. What fun is that?

But Mychal Denzel Smith has me reconsidering. I spoke to him yesterday for a story I’m writing on money in college sports, and as an aside he said:

In 2010, when LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh all decided that they were going to play in Miami together, what you saw was a shift with black men taking control of their destiny in professional sports and no longer being necessarily what William Rhoden called the “40 million dollar slave,” right? They were understanding their value, and understanding the market, and understanding what it is that they bring to the table. And capitalizing off of their talent and their business savvy in order to do what it is that they wanted to do in order to make themselves more profitable and their brands more profitable.

Maybe as sports fans, we’re not accustomed to athletes being strong self-advocates and asserting control over their careers. And it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that race influences our expectations. I’ll almost always still root for the underdog (in this case, against the Heat) but I’ll definitely try to spare the scorn. 

These Are Our Heroes

College bowl games this year include: the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas, the Little Caesars Bowl, Military Bowl Presented by Northrup Grumman, New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Russell Athletic Bowl, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Hyundai Sun Bowl, Chick-fil-A Bowl, Capital One Bowl, GoDaddy.com Bowl, Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, and, of course, the Discover BCS National Championship.

On this list, there isn’t a single bowl without a company in its title.

I struggle to wrap my brain around what exactly it means to put providers of insurance, fast food, and apparel in these honored name slots. At the very least it seems like vandalizing of tradition. Will we even be able to tell where culture ends and money begins?

One thing I can say for sure is we don’t need to do this. As a society, we are not desperate for money; there’s no obligation to sell our culture to the highest bidder.

On Ogling Detroit

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On my good friend Pete’s website, I share my thoughts on two photo exhibits showing at the National Building Museum.

If you check them out, you’ll see a lot of collapsing factories, rust, waist-high wild grasses, piles of debris, and houses that have withered away to almost nothing. These images fall firmly into the category of photojournalism known as “ruin porn,” a genre masterfully skewered by Thomas Morton in a piece entitled “Something, Something, Something Detroit.”

At its worst, ruin porn is downright misleading. (About a Detroit vista that appears in one of the NBM exhibits, Morton quips: “If you move the camera just a few inches to the left you’ll get a bustling, well-maintained food-packaging plant in frame, so be careful to crop that shit out.”) At its best the genre is incomplete, showing just one side of a very multifaceted city.

But I do think it’s vital that we see that side. The neglect of postindustrial Detroit, its buildings and its people, is an outrage. By showcasing the rubble left in the wake of the shuttered factories, now moved overseas, the NBM exhibits draw attention to the injustice. I just wish the story were told in its proper context. As I write:

Both photographers profess an interest in Detroit’s ruins as windows into a bygone era. While you view their photos, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what exactly made that era so noteworthy. Fifty years ago, Detroit was the center of a different America, one in which a union job in an auto factory provided enough money for a home, a car, and a picket fence. In his book The Conscience of A Liberal, Paul Krugman calls it a “Middle-Class Nation.”

That’s why the decay captured in these photographs has such brutal symbolism. As factories moved overseas and union power waned, these jobs weren’t replaced. Today, two-thirds of Americans work in a service economy with sparse benefits, little job security, and an average wage barely above $30,000.

Read the whole review here, and be sure to go see the exhibits as well.

Photo: “Rolling hall, Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Complex, Dearborn” by Andrew Moore, 2008. Courtesy of the National Building Museum.

A Long Ninety Miles

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Looks like my former professor caught the bureaucratic end of Uncle Sam’s big stick. From Cuba Central:

Invited to speak at the conference months ago, Dr. Alzugaray applied for his visa and went through the ritualistic process of being interviewed once again by U.S. consular officials in Havana, to justify his reason to visit the United States. He had been a visiting scholar at several U.S. universities over many years, most recently last fall at City University of New York. After his multiple inquiries and a long delay, the U.S. Interests Section informed him yesterday morning to expect his visa at noon, giving him just enough time to catch his 4:00 p.m. flight to Miami. By 1:00 there was still no visa, and at 4:30 p.m. he learned there had been an unexplained delay, and the visa would not be available. He went for a walk with his granddaughter and at 5:30 p.m. returned home to learn the visa would be waiting for him at the Interests Section until it closed at 6:00 p.m. A kind consular official waited there until 6:30, and Dr. Alzugaray managed to get on an 8:00 p.m. plane to Miami and an early morning flight to California. Adding insult to this shameful – and at the least incompetent – exercise in disrespect, TSA officers detained the 69-year old professor for three hours when he arrived in Miami.

His colleague Rafael Hernández didn’t get a visa at all. He didn’t even get an official denial—the consulate just ignored his application.

Our government has used a variety of methods to punish Cuba since its revolution in 1959: sabotage, invasion, embargo, diplomatic isolation. But there’s also a lot that flies beneath the radar, and this bureaucratic cold shoulder is a good example. Alzugaray was visiting the United States to participate in a conference on Cuba-California relations at UC-Berkeley. He’s not exactly a national security threat.

The Cuba Central folks make a strong case against stifling academic exchange to score geopolitical points. I recommend you read it; I don’t have a lot to add.

Photo: The view north from Havana. 2010.

Wellfleet, MA. 2012.

The sky over Eastern America. June 2012.

Weapons Such As These

I recently revisited Children of the Revolution by Jonathan Kozol. It’s hard not to feel uncomfortable with the truths told to Kozol about his return to the United States:

There are all sorts of ways to break a person down. Little by little you will feel less confidence, less courage, less determination to write letters to us, to keep posters we have given you up on your walls, to stand beside in your heart and in your spoken words. Social pressures will bear down on you. Your publishers will lead you to feel worried if you say just such and so about our schools… or such and so about the adult classes you have seen…

Then, at last, your mother and father will begin to be alarmed. I have seen the same thing happen six or seven times by now. A social order that has weapons such as these has little need to put young men in prison. What better way to dominate their views and to suppress the ‘wrong’ ideas of independent minds than to enmesh a person in a web of terrors and anxieties like these?

Call It in The Air

Is Barack a heads or a tails type of guy? We would find out if Socrates (via Gary Gutting) had his way:

GUTTING: I see what you mean. It’s going to be nasty, brutish, and long — not to say immensely expensive — but of course if we want a democracy, there’s no alternative.

SOCRATES: I disagree. You shouldn’t hold the election at all. You should flip a coin instead.

G: You don’t see any difference between Obama and Romney?

S: Oh, I do. I’m very impressed with Obama, no question. He’s intelligent, courageous, self-controlled and has a good sense of justice. Just the sort of person I had in mind for my philosopher-rulers. But none of that’s going to make a difference to the American voters. The election’s likely to be close, and in any case the outcome will turn on the October unemployment report, the price of gas, an Israeli attack on Iran, who has the most money for attack ads in the last two weeks or some other rationally irrelevant factor that you don’t yet have any hint about.

After that, the dialog drifts in a different direction, pondering the pitfalls of democracy in a poorly informed and politically apathetic society. I’ve heard The Case Against Democracy before; I think that first point is far more interesting. Even if we conclude that democracy is desirable, our elections are in effect contests that produce winners at random. If you don’t believe Socrates, google “weather voter turnout.” They say rain on election day is good for Republicans.

I disagree with Gutting’s Socrates that democracy is bad. The issue here is that our current system is democratically impotent. If the outcome of our presidential election can be altered by the October jobs numbers and price of gas, how democratic are we really?

And lastly: Gutting and Socrates made one glaring omission. All of this matters only because our nation is so deeply polarized. Most years the presidential election is, statistically speaking, a tie. What we need is a system that can produce a more decisive winner.