Monday, November 28, 2016

Adios, Fidel

There is one less dictator in the world. The man who betrayed his own revolution and his people is finally dead. Yet another Castro still rules Cuba. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Russia is at it again, paying a lot of unemployed trolls from India to post “fake news” tributes to the late Fidel Castro, 90, who died on November 25. Make no mistake, Castro was a vile, brutal dictator whose place in Hell has been reserved for him for 50 years. There is a reason why so many Cuban refugees fled their homeland to escape Castro’s oppression and barbarism. He overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the previous Cuban dictator, in 1959 only to become one himself and a pawn of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He stayed alive long enough to cede power to his brother and become an irrelevant old man. Thus his death, while symbolic and full of sound and fury, signifies nothing.

Many millennial American neoliberals and progressives have taken to social media to praise Castro, a dictator and ruthless murderer, unaware of the oppressiveness and brutality of his 49-year rule in Cuba. The fault lies with the American education system, which has shifted its focus to math and science and away from history and current events, leaving Millennials to form opinions based only on biased social media posts.

The truth is Castro ruthlessly persecuted dissidents, jailed homosexuals, and deported or murdered his opponents. The Castro government used surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and “acts of repudiation” (in which Cubans considered to be counter-revolutionary are verbally abused, intimidated, or physically assaulted) to create a “pervasive climate of fear,” according to Amnesty International. Castro suppressed free speech and used Draconian rule to repress dissent and dissidents.

How bad was life under Castro? More than 1.1 million Cubans fled the island nation, whose population has now grown to 11 million, risking and sometimes losing their lives clinging to makeshift rafts, hoping to reach the United States and freedom once they learned Castro’s overthrow of Batista was merely trading one brutal dictator for another. It wasn’t until 1980 that the Cuban people again had the opportunity to flee en masse during the Mariel Boatlift in which 125,000 desperate Cubans boarded anything that would float to reach the coast of Florida 90 miles away. Unfortunately, up to 15,000 of these refugees had been released by Castro from Cuba’s prisons and insane asylums, unleashing a wave of criminals and madmen on South Florida. The United States finally had to stop admitting Cuban immigrants, ending the boatlift.

In an effort to export his brand of Marxism, Castro intervened politically and militarily in the affairs of many African nations, most notably sending thousands of Cuban troops armed with Soviet weapons to fight in the oil-rich southern African nation of Angola in the 1970s.

Castro claimed his totalitarian government was a success, touting Cuba’s free medical care and high literacy rate. But Cuba’s doctors received meager wages and were forced to go wherever Castro sent them, including to overseas hotspots, while increased literacy rates do little good when the government controls what one may or may not read. Despite Castro’s claims, his Marxist state was an economic failure; had it not been propped up by the Soviet Union’s continual financing of up to $5 billion a year it would have collapsed decades ago. Cuba survived after the fall of the Soviet Union by opening its country to foreign investment and tourism, along with the flood of international dollars it brings; and by its decision in 1993 to accept the U.S. dollar which meant Cuban exiles in America were now free to send money to their relatives in Cuba. Cuba now receives $3 billion annually from such transfers.

Castro’s greatest threat to the United States came during the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16–28, 1962). In response to the presence of American Jupiter ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey, the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Castro's request to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. After Air Force U-2 spy planes revealed missile sites had been constructed, U.S. President John F. Kennedy responded with a blockade of Cuba, and warning: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba or against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” The world was never closer to nuclear war. After a tense 13 days, the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the missile facilities in Cuba in exchange for an American promise never to invade Cuba and to dismantle its missiles in Italy and Turkey.

From freedom fighter to dictator, Castro was a master of public relations. He was zealous, idealistic, educated, and courageous – traits he could exploit to burnish his public image. Yet even as the young revolutionary took power in Cuba, he began his regime by executing 500 men, confiscating privately-owned land, and nationalizing foreign industrial holdings within Cuba. Despite Castro’s much touted “improvements” many forget Cuba had been one of the most economically advanced nations in the Caribbean prior to Castro coming to power.

Any opposition to Castro's rule, like the Escambray Revolt (1959-1965) was crushed by Castro’s army. Castro’s supporters who later criticized him, like Huber Matos, who had fought alongside him in the Sierra Maestra, were jailed, deported, or killed. Matos was arrested and charged with treason; he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. “I differed from Fidel Castro because the original objective of our revolution was ‘Freedom or Death;’ once Castro had power, he began to kill freedom,” Matos said. The non-profit think tank Cuba Archive counts more than 3,100 political executions by firing squad.

While it is true Castro improved education and healthcare for Cubans, he also deprived them of free speech and economic opportunity, and set up local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution that urged citizens to inform on neighbors. Castro rounded up thousands of dissidents and homosexuals, sentencing them to prison or forced labor. Yet many left-leaning politicians who should know better, like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, have praised Castro in death.  “Sure, you did not lose a loved one to an execution squad; you did not lose a loved one to the gulags in Cuba,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in response to Trudeau’s comments. The first Cuban-American elected to Congress, Ros-Lehtinen fled Cuba with her family when she was eight years old. "The only thing that Fidel has been successful in, has not been health nor education, or human rights or democracy, it's been holding onto power -- which is easy to do when you don't have elections," she added. “With the death of Fidel Castro, the world has lost a man who was a hero for many,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. Opportunist and Green Party U.S. presidential candidate Jill Stein shamefully said “Fidel Castro was a symbol of the struggle for justice in the shadow of empire. Presente!” Unfortunately her young, impressionable Millennial followers may buy into the revisionism of a ruthless dictator who should be reviled. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Pipeline of Tears

Last year, I witnessed something amazing. A group of Syrian refugee children was being bussed to an American town. Their bus was surrounded by angry, hateful protesters who did not want refugees in their community. Television cameras captured the terror in the children’s faces as they peered out the bus windows at the angry mob screaming at them in a language they couldn’t understand and for reasons neither they nor I could comprehend. And then, an even angrier man approached the crowd.

The lone man was armed only with righteous indignation. He was an American Indian and he yelled back at the crowd countering their anti-immigrant rants with one of his own. He shouted to the angry men and women how enraged he was that people from another country had come into his people’s land, killed the buffalo they depended on for food, murdered his people and forced the survivors from their homes onto reservations. The Indian was angry that gas stations and shopping malls now covered the sacred land where his ancestors were buried. He walked up and down the line of protesters, reflecting their own words and anger back at them. And that’s when the amazing thing happened.

Surprisingly, the angry mob when confronted by an infuriated opponent, did not turn violent. Instead, they grew silent, unable to find the words to reply. They lowered their heads as the Indian passed them, unable to look him in the eye. What had once been an angry mob dissipated. One by one, the humbled protesters broke off from the pack and slinked away. Without firing a shot or making a threat, this one man dispersed an angry mob by shaming them.

The U.S. government made more than 500 treaties with the Indian tribes that lived on American soil long before the first white man set foot on it. The federal government then proceeded to break every single treaty it had signed. The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which was signed into law by populist President Andrew Jackson, who had gained fame as an Indian killer during the Creek War (1814). Jackson called Indians “savages” and those of mixed heritage “half-breeds.” Much of his prejudice against Indians stemmed from boyhood tales of Indian violence toward settlers in the 1770s. Under Jackson and his successor President Martin Van Buren, between 45,000 and 100,000 American Indians were forcibly relocated along the “Trail of Tears” from the Southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River. Fifteen thousand died from cold and hunger along the way. The U.S. government received 100 million acres of Indian land for about $68 million.

American Indians are used to mistreatment by the government. It never seems to end. The great irony is today, as Americans gather with their families to celebrate Thanksgiving -- the holiday commemorating the Indians welcoming the white settlers to their land -- the government is once again attacking American Indians. This time, a militarized police force is firing projectiles and rubber bullets at Indians and their supporters at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota protesting the planned Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline would cut through sacred burial grounds and also threaten to contaminate the Indians’ drinking water. Reminiscent of police unleashing water hoses on blacks and civil rights protesters in 1960s Alabama, police in North Dakota are firing water cannons on Indian and non-Indian protesters, dousing them in subfreezing winter temperatures. More than a dozen have been hospitalized, many with hypothermia. Twenty-one-year-old protester Sophia Wilansky was struck and wounded by a concussion grenade and may lose her arm as a result.

More protesters are needed – both on the scene and online through social media -- not to respond to violence with violence but to use the most effective weapon there is; the weapon shown to us by that lone American Indian last year: Shame. It is a powerful force and its effect cannot be overstated.

Dee Brown, in 1970, wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an historical account of the forced displacement of, and war waged against, American Indians by the government. The bestseller was named for the 1890 massacre of the Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Perhaps someone will write a sequel, Bury My Conscience at Standing Rock. In the meantime, we can turn on our televisions and watch Indians fired upon with rubber bullets and sprayed with water in freezing temperatures as they protest their burial grounds being dug up and their drinking water threatened with contamination, while the rest of us eat our turkey to celebrate the day we first took the land from the Indians. Pass the gravy, please.

The Real Turkeys

“I see turkeys… they’re everywhere!” Sorry, I must be channeling the holiday spirit of Haley Joel Osment. But I really do see turkeys everywhere, and I’m not talking about the kind stuffed on your dining room table. No, I’m referring to the taller ones flocking to stores and malls on this Black Friday, which in typical Wal-Mart fashion has been rolled back to 6 AM Thursday.

Otherwise (presumably) rational people line up six or eight hours before the stores open to take advantage of discounted merchandise, or expecting to be one of the six customers in the line to obtain a store’s Door-Buster Special (amazingly, even though the store has only six in stock, the 100th person in line still believes he or she has a chance to snag the item advertised at a ridiculously low price). These same people, who on Election Day refuse to wait 90 minutes on a voting line to decide the fate of our democracy, will gladly arrive hours before dawn and stand in the freezing cold of winter, rain, or snow for a 25% discount (remember, the Door-Busters are gone in the first three minutes) off the regularly inflated price of an item they don’t need.

If they had needed it, they would’ve bought it long before Thanksgiving. No, Black Friday sales, which focus heavily on electronic toys (from TVs to iPads), are hyping impulse items mass-market retailers want consumers to think they need. It’s all about getting consumers to think they need a product they really don’t, and then each year convincing them to upgrade to a newer or larger version. Bought the 52-inch TV last year? That was so 2013; you need a 60-inch this year. Already have an iPhone 5? The new iPhone 6 comes in gold.

The truth is, you really don’t need any of the things the marketers and retailers are hawking this weekend. What you need, is to understand the difference between a “need” and a “want”. A need is something critical that you cannot live without (food, water, a roof over your head). A want is something you desire (a PlayStation, a cruise, a yacht) but can live without.

If you need something, there are two ways to buy it: with money you have, or with credit (borrowing the money with the intent to pay it back later). If you want something, but do not need it, then you should only buy it with the money you have, and not go into debt to purchase something you don’t really need. If you don’t have enough money to buy it (which is another way of saying you can’t afford it), then you should not buy it. What you should do is put away a small amount each month towards savings and use those earmarked funds to purchase your “wants” without having to go into debt to a credit card company at 29% interest.

It’s a trap, because once those credit card statements arrive in your mail in January, you’ll be paying interest at usurious rates on your Black Friday impulse purchases through the next Turkey Day. There’s even a holiday for consumers who fall for this trap. It’s celebrated every April 1. Can you guess its name?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

If Turkeys Could Speak

As you sit down for dinner this Thanksgiving, pause for a moment to ponder the meaning of the holiday. If you are a Millennial, a recent Pew poll suggests 40 percent of you are clueless as to why we should be thankful this day.

One of the first Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in the American colonies, in Plymouth Colony (now Southeast Massachusetts) in 1621 when the Pilgrims shared an autumn harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians. The Indians brought deer, not turkey, so venison was the main course. But the first true Thanksgiving came two years later, when the Pilgrims’ prayers were answered: rain brought an end to the drought that was destroying their crops, and Captain Miles Standish landed bearing new and much needed supplies.

But who were these Pilgrims who had settled the Plymouth Colony? They were men and women fleeing religious persecution by the English Crown, emigrating first to the Netherlands and then to the American colonies. They sought freedom of religion, which encompasses two other freedoms: the right to express ones’ self and the right to gather with others who share this expression. A century and a half later, the American colonists upon declaring their independence from England would consider all three rights to be necessary, fundamental freedoms and combine them in the First Amendment to the new nation’s Constitution.

The First Amendment is arguably more important and essential to democracy than the other nine amendments comprising the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution itself. It’s all about freedom of expression. It guarantees it through what you say (freedom of speech), what you write (freedom of the press), what you believe and the practice of those beliefs (freedom of religion), and the right to share such expressions with others (freedom of assembly).

Of course, not everyone will agree with what you say, or write, or even how you express yourself. Some may even be offended. That is the cost of, and a necessary corollary of, free expression. While there is an explicit guarantee of the right to free speech in our nation’s Constitution, there is no corresponding right not to be offended by others. Democracy will survive, and even flourish, amidst offensive words – the most bountiful plants flourish when manure is heaped upon them. But democracy cannot survive when speech and other forms of expression are forbidden by the government.

That is why it is so shocking and downright frightening to read the results of the Pew poll in which 40 percent of Millennials – those aged 18-to-34 – say they want the government to censor statements that are offensive to minority groups. America was founded on the concept of fundamental freedoms, and that the government could not be allowed to censor its citizens, in part because the government was “of, by, and for the people.” We are not governed by a dictator or king’s edicts but rather by those we choose from among us. We are our government and therefore shall not censor ourselves. That’s what made America different from all the other nations from which its future citizens would emigrate. Once we allow the government to decide what we may or may not say, we have surrendered our democracy. Once we permit offensive speech to be proscribed, the next question becomes ‘Who decides which words or statements are deemed offensive?’ Our freedom decreases in direct proportion to the expansiveness of the definition of the word “offensive”.

Freedom of speech must not be curtailed in the name of political correctness. Americans should cherish the First Amendment and not carve it up along with their turkey.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reality Quake

Day Three of the alternate reality. I think back to third grade when we learned the earth’s crust was made up of a dozen enormous tectonic plates that are always moving, usually slowly and imperceptibly, but sometimes with such force they create earthquakes that cannot be ignored. I was much older when I learned about parallel universes but the concept was the same. Infinite universes existing in the same physical space but vibrating at a different dimensional frequency-- a frequency constantly changing, usually slowly and imperceptibly, but sometimes with such force that a reality quake occurs and if you’re standing in the wrong place at the wrong moment you might slip through into one of these parallel universes.

As with earthquakes when the tectonic plates shift, there’s no advance warning of a reality quake. Maybe you hear the rumbling when it occurs. It only lasts a few seconds and then life goes on the same as before… Yet different. There was still one moon in the sky last night. The sun rose in the east this morning and will set in the west as it usually does, in most of the parallel universes. I glance at the kitchen counter and see the unbroken coffee cup, which I had dropped last week and watched shatter on the floor. I always liked that cup; I suppose there are some benefits to shifting realities.

I flip on the TV and watch President-elect Donald Trump touring the White House. In the alternate universe I was living in before the last reality quake, it would’ve been Hillary Clinton in his place. I run my hand through the air searching for some invisible seam between the universes. I try jumping up and down, which is completely illogical because that wouldn’t even cause an earthquake let alone a reality quake, but since no one knows how to cause a reality quake anyway, I figure it can’t hurt. But it doesn’t help, either. I open my eyes and I’m still in the same new reality and the TV screen now shows Trump walking through the Oval Office.

I close my eyes, envisioning the previous reality in which Clinton was elected. I realize I have about as much chance of returning to that reality as I do shifting into the alternate universe in which President-elect Bernie Sanders is unveiling his new universal healthcare program. No, I have to accept that the universes have shifted and I’ve fallen through a crack into what is now my new reality. Of course, new realities are created all the time. Whenever a single momentous decision is made, the path we are on forks into two potential universes. In a few months, when that crazy short dictator in North Korea insults President Trump, this universe I’m presently in will split into one in which Trump ignores the insult and another in which he nukes North Korea and they retaliate launching nuclear missiles onto the California coast. I wonder which of those parallel universes I’ll be in.

Months pass and Donald J. Trump is inaugurated as the forty-fifth president of the United States. People cheer as they round up the Muslims. Surprisingly, it takes less time than I had imagined it would. Totalitarianism is incredibly efficient compared to democracy. Rounding up the gays and lesbians is even quicker. I expect it will take longer to round up all the Latinos. Maybe that’s why some of them are cheering as the blacks are rounded up; if you cheer with the crowd, maybe you can blend in and become part of the crowd. Blending in is good these days; no one wants to stand out and be noticed. It’s hard not to be noticed when your skin is darker or your accent is thick. But eventually, they’ll come for everyone who differs from them, whether they blend in or not. The Jews know this; they’ve been here before.

It’s been three years now since the last reality quake. I’m shaken from my reverie by a knock on the door. The knock. I know what that means. Looking through the peephole, I see the men in their starched Brownshirts. The irony occurs to me the shirts were probably manufactured in China. Before opening the door, I take a final look at my home. My hands fumble through the air one more time, vainly searching for the invisible seam between parallel universes, that I might rip through it and return to my reality.