Saturday, May 3, 2008

Today's Turn of Phrase: "Castro Shrugged"

I ran across an issue of Reason with a brief article which included the infamous picture with the Greenspan book. Brian Doherty's take on that moment goes beyond the "proof of life" interpretation many of us gave it. He maintains that it was a rare moment of honesty when Castro admitted he didn't get it (Greenspan's book). I don't necessarily agree, and it is a given that I don't agree with his conclusion. Still it's thought-provoking, because once in a while, the veil does seem to lift in one of his ramblings, and for a moment, the veriest hint of self-examination possibly comes through.

But it's the title which seized my fancy. Take a look at the allusion to the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, the same Ayn Rand who extolled the very philosophy incomprehensible to Fidel. Elegant. Then there is the allusion to Atlas, the Titan who held up the world in Greek mythology. Again apropos to Castro, who has always seen himself as a titan, a giant among men. If you'll pardon another literary allusion, in my mind the word hearkens to that description of Julius Ceasar- he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus. Finally, there is the notion of shrugging, which here seems to be equivalent to Castro "blinks," thereby resonating with the rare admission of fallibility. How very neat.

Death in Havana?

Don't get excited, because it's fugitive financier Robert Vesco who "may" have died in Havana of lung cancer. There is some evidence to indicate that it was Vesco, a colorful character who apparently could not contain himself even on the lam and wound up in a Cuban jail for purportedly defrauding Castro relatives. Here's an old Fortune story with quite a few of the details of his life and his exile. And here is an article about the death(?) from Moldova. Yup. To be fair, they got their info from a Times story.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Of Heroines and Pioneers

Yoani Sanchez, whose blog Generacíon Y is linked on the brand new and unfinished blogroll next door, is among Time's 100. In an elegant little profile, written by none other than Oscar Hijuelos, a favored author of mine, she is described as practicing freedom of speech in a speech-stifled country.

Yoani's version of free speech is to write about her life and thoughts. She does not stand on a soap box, or not much of one anyway, but her honest and often witty posts make absolutely clear the realities of life in Cuba. She does what she does at her own peril. God watch over her and throw some real lemons her way.

Profile here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Nice Place to Live?

The average state salary is just 19.50 US dollars per month, though health care and education are free, basic food is subsided and most people do not have to pay for housing.
-from this CBS report about May Day celebration in Cuba.

Gee, sounds like they're living off the fat of the land! Talk about your oversimplification.

An Eco Fable

Just finished a post for Babalublog which reminded me of a story one of those high-priced consultants brought in just for the occasion once told at an in service day. It's also enviropolitically correct.

Once upon a time, some very happy frogs lived in a very happy little pond. But then a big, bad paper company opened a plant next door. They discharged heated toxic water into the pond. At first, it was just uncomfortable, so the frogs put up with it. But as the temperature and toxicity kept rising, some frogs started questioning whether they should leave the only home they had ever known. They eventually took off and were never heard from again. The others adapted, and adapted still more as conditions worsened. Finally, they were all killed off by the conditions. Did the other frogs make it? Who knows? But at least they had a fighting chance unlike their compatriots.

I tell the story for no other reason than to remind myself. It seized something in my imagination. I share it because I think it says something important; I'm just still haven't worked it out.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the News: Corrected

so to speak. This month's Townhall magazine, only the second issue, has a most excellent article by Humberto Fontova, who has managed to break through to American media outlets. In it, he quotes, among others, our very own Henry Gomez. He also cites the work of Antonio de la Cova. Professor de la Cova's website has an incredible array of materials. And lest we forget who exactly we are dealing with, here is a link to the early work of those grand humanitarians, purveyors of literacy and free health care on the same website.

H/T Babalublog

Correction: It is the fifth issue. Sorry.

Sarasota Reading Festival: RIP

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports that the Reading Festival's board of directors met, canceled the festival, and are to dissolve the corporation. Apparently, mounting the festival was getting so costly that the charity goal of the fete, the raison d'etre of the whole proceeding, could not be met.

While quite understandable, it is- like so much of what goes on in Sarasota- penny wise and pound foolish. Granted, the funds when they were available were nice. But other the years, the festival became so much more. It was a true celebration of literacy. It was positively thrilling to my old bibliophile's heart to see the excitement on young people's faces, put there by books. You can read my transports over the last one on this blog.

The festival was a private undertaking, but its demise is symptomatic of a greater malaise in town. Sarasota which prides itself on its cultural heritage and sophistication seems to be hell bent on turning into any one of hundreds of Florida municipalities, bastions of materialism. If it is not quantifiable, it is cut back, eliminated. Budget shortfall? No problem- cut libraries, parks. Libraries are a "privilege" which not everyone uses, as if raising future citizens were producing widgets. And culture, well, apparently that is the province of the well-heeled. Coming from the New York City school of cultural egalitarianism, I still have difficulty with the concept.

I'll miss the reading festival where over the years I met quite a few of my favorite authors, including fellow Cuban Carolina Garcia Aguilera, who is an extremely nice lady. More importantly there are literally thousands of children who will never know what they missed.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

La Primera Agua de Mayo

I was rooting around, trying to remember that ditty about “30 days have…” because I needed to know when the month was changing, when I remembered my old Cuban granny.

I was an obnoxious preteen when my grandparents came to live with us in the United States. We lived in Staten Island, one of the outer boroughs of NYC. At the time, there were maybe two Cuban families who lived there. So when they arrived, strangers with even stranger customs, it took some getting used to.

First of all, they didn’t speak a word of English, ni una papa. Grandma insisted on answering the phone, so we had to tape a cardboard with “Ruthy, no jiar. Col leira” to it. The floors got cleaned by a wooden toothless rake with a rag on it. And Grandpa, who had never seen snow, suddenly saw himself in charge of disposing of mounds of it. Although he only had a third grade education, he was pretty sharp. In no time at all, he had created a snow plow out of one of those old summer baby carriages and a piece of tin. Unfortunately, it was too light, so my toddler brother was forced to sit in it as Grandpa plowed up and down on the sidewalk.

You could set your clock by their habits. Every day at three o’clock, they would take a bath and change into their afternoon clothes, not to be confused with their going out attire. At five, they would eat. Suddenly all sorts of tubers and the like started appearing on our kitchen counters. She would boil them or fry them up and chase me around with a little dish she had put aside for me.

So one day, I was doing something or other in the backyard, when Abuela came running out with a glass of water, thrusting it at me. “Ruthy, Ruthy, tienes que tomarte esto!” she insisted. I eyed the clear liquid with suspicion. “Que es, Abuela?’ or “What is it?” I asked. Es la primer agua de mayo, she informed me, the first rainfall in May. Now we lived across the aptly named Kill van Kull from all the petro refineries in Jersey, and it was not unusual to wake up and find the lawn furniture corroded in the night, which made me a bit hesitant. “Toma la primera agua de mayo para belleza,” or “Drink the first rainfall in May for beauty,” she iterated. I looked at the glass; I looked at her beaming face, sharing herself, her past with me; and PBC’s or no PBC’s I gulped it down. Heck, a little beauty wouldn’t hurt either.

So watch out for that first rainfall. I’m a little unclear as to whether it works for guys, but unless you live in Staten Island, it can’t hurt.

A Pithy Observation about Life and Death

On today's revolutionary menu is the the commuting of death sentences to life imprisonment. In Cuban prisons, however, the words are somewhat interchangeable. Conditions are so horrendous and medical treatment so inadequate that spending any appreciable amount of time in a Cuban prison is potentially life threatening. The handful of political prisoners from the Black Spring roundup who have been released have been let go on medical paroles. So while Raul does away with the de jure death sentence, given conditions in the prisons, he conceivably condemns them to another type of death, just a more lingering one. Story here.

More or Less Grist for the Mill

From the Washington Post, spike in wheat prices caused by switch to corn. Read it here. And don't miss their series "Global Food Crisis" here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Long, Hot Summer

In a post today, Rafael Martel sounds a warning bell about the summer to come, a scenario of continually increasing gas and food prices, shortages, etc.... It is a subject meriting some worry and much anger.

Let's stipulate that there is increasing demand for commodities from countries with developing economies. The question, though, is why has it come to a head now? Much as Sebastian Junger's "Perfect Storm" was the conjunction of three separate systems, the present difficulties with food and fuel are the result of the confluence of a number of current trends.

Start with the Global Warming idiocy. I do not maintain that there is no such thing. I do, however, maintain that this headlong and mindless rush to eco-cool without thought to consequence is partially to blame for the present dire straits of economies the world over. Take for instance, corn ethanol. From the beginning, it has been apparent that the US could not grow enough corn, that using corn is not energy efficient. Yet, and here I have to blame our leaders, it has been pushed to the point where the price of corn has risen dramatically, causing a rippling effect on other crops, as well as substantial price increases at the supermarket on everything from milk to chicken to cakes.

Then factor in the housing debacle. No longer able to leverage themselves in the credit markets, speculators, who have long been bidding up the prices on oil, have turned their attentions to commodities-everything from soybeans to rice. Under normal circumstances, having bid prices up to unrealistic levels, at some point they would have their heads handed to them. Unfortunately in this case, they not only have a pretty much captive market, but they will cause a great deal of suffering before this run-up is all over. The hedge funds in particular are a blot on the economic landscape.

In the meantime, it is the poor who will pay the freight. So where are our leaders? You know, the ones who worry about universal healthcare and factory closings. Well, while they are whistling "Dixie," Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson is the only politician I've seen address the situation in a piece entitled "Undoing America's Ethanol Mistake." Her solution of freezing the required ethanol production levels would seem to be a good, if insufficient, answer. Many more are needed.

If Truth be Told...

The Washington Post has nailed it in an editorial. Their parting shot:

Here's a fair test: Let Mr. Castro respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights his government recently signed, which guarantees not only freedom of assembly but the right to freely leave the country. Cuban officials recently hinted that the current ban on foreign travel by average citizens might be changed; let it be removed. Then Mr. Castro can discover just how many of Cuba's 11 million people are willing to go on enduring a regime whose idea of reform is permitting the sale of microwave ovens.

It's beautifully written, too.

H/T Henry at Babalublog

Sunday, April 27, 2008

More Fishwrap

The announcement made by the organ of the Communist Party... that the newspaper Granma will be contain twice the pages on Fridays benefits humble residents, given the high price of toilet paper*, the scarcity of packaging materials to wrap and transport products acquired at the market and to collect everyday domestic garbage.
-Oscar Mario González, independent journalist

*A roll of toilet paper costs the equivalent of three days pay. Read the story in Spanish here.

Sunday Syllabus

Biography. Vanity Fair seeks to answer the question, "Is Obama tough enough?" Since it is Vanity Fair, what do you think the answer is? Still I offer it because we know way too little about the man who would be President. 7 page article here.

Economics. This article from the Times online is instructive in placing our current economic difficulties in context. Enjoy.

Biology. A few diners in Florida got more than a few burritos when they went to their local Mexican restaurant. In a scene reminiscent of the Killer Bees, they were besieged by clouds of irate bees which seemed to blot out the skies. No one was seriously hurt. That was not the case in another Florida locale where a man was killed in the first documented case of a mortal encounter with Africanized bees in the state. Articles here and here.

Anatomy. Try this depressing graphic from MSNBC on "How the Body Ages." Ah, rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle's compass come. But wait, that's English class.

Psychology. But before you go off in a fit of the vapors, read this one from the same source, an upbeat AP story. Yup. Unbelievably in our youth-centered culture, old people are the happiest. From my own experience I have to attest that there are consolations to growing older. Still, it was nice when my skin was actually attached to my body.

Ring around the Blackboard

This week, George Will marked the 25th Anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk, the landmark report on the state of American education, with a melancholy column that turns into a panegyric on the late Patrick Daniel Moynihan. It's fine with me. As far as I am concerned Moynihan was an amazing man for whom I voted religiously, despite party affiliation. Anyway, Will's conclusion, more elegantly phrased, of course, it ain't gettin' any better.

There are solutions to be had, as Dr. Matthew Ladner maintains that Jeb Bush's reforms in Florida have borne fruit in this piece. It's hard to argue with the variety of statistics he unearths. Here in the Sunshine State, we remember the debate, which rages to this day, about "teaching to the test." My view: the test measures reading, writing and 'rithmethic. Something wrong with that? Of course, that's a gross oversimplification. But the point is valid.

According to the previous column, one the strengths of the Bush policies was "school choice." Speaking of same, Florida voters are being given the chance to bring back the voucher program, which was deemed unconstitutional by our progressively inclined Supreme Court. It's one issue on which inner city moms find themselves aligned with Republican preachers. Read about the November ballot here.

Let's finish the discussion with this Mary Grabar column on some of the realities in the classroom, particularly sad is the state of higher education. It's another one of those boomer indictments. And speaking of indictments, get a load of this news report. Remember the events here transpired in very law abiding Sarasota, where our criminals are mere babies in the art. One has to think there is little an educational system can do, if these are the parents.

Mas Me Ayuda

Need more. This film student's stay in Cuba is exactly why these exchanges are dangerous. Yes, it is the big, bad embargo that is hurting Cubans, not their totalitarian government with its disastrous economic policies.

And what the hey, if they have no freedom, the very freedom this erstwhile film student enjoys, they have health care. Here's a quote for you:

"The people there will never overthrow the government," thinks Wiseman. He adds, "In Cuba [they have] 98% literacy rate, there's free health care everyone has a house."

But wait, he did figure out he was in a Communist country-

Still he says what the people get for free has its price. "Their health care is not the best, their transportation is in a terrible situation," adds Wiseman. "This is still a communist society. They don't have the basic rights of freedom of speech and they can't leave the country."

If you're in the mood for simplistic, read it here.