Saturday, May 24, 2008

Picture of the Week

Sometimes a picture captures something ineffable. This week the award goes to Charles Dharapak for this AP picture. Take a look at the President's expression as he kisses Yamile Llanes Labrada, the wife of Cuban political prisoner Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Paneque. It must have been some ceremony.

Feeling Bookish

Missed two just released offerings in the last book post. First is Kathy Reichs' Devil Bones. For those who've forgotten or just never knew, Reichs is behind the TV Series Bones, which is based on the Temperance Brennan character. While I enjoy the show, kinda like a 21st century "Moonlighting" without Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd- same chemistry- the novels have a lot more substance. Having acknowledged that, I will venture that the franchise has been getting a tiny bit worn. Still, I'm making a bee line for the reserve list. There's an interesting video of the author at Barnes & Noble's website here.

Although Temperance Brennan is a metaphorical kinswoman to Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta character (without all the chi chi touches), Cornwell's latest- The Front- is not a Scarpetta novel. It's billed as an "at risk" team novel. So many sleuths; so little time.

Another new release generating buzz appeals to me because a portion of it is devoted to playing cricket at Walker Park in Staten Island. This bucolic spot is up the block from the chemical stew that is the Kill van Kull and is one I associate with many an adolescent evening revolving around the chugging of Tango on the ball field. Not surprisingly, there are no longer any Staten Islanders in the Staten Island Cricket Club. Ah, talk about your paradise lost. Read an article about Joseph O'Neill's Netherland in the times here.

If you should find yourself in London, stop by the Imperial War Museum, a venue I hear is really worthy of a visit in its own right, for the “For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond” exhibition that will run until March of 2009. This New York Times article about it has some interesting info about the late author. Truth be told, those of you who have actually read the novels can attest that there is little correlation between the novels and the movies after the first few Bond features. By the bye, tried rereading them a few years ago; they are sexist, bigoted, and good as I remembered.

From Newsweek, an article about something I've noted before. There is a silver lining to the reading cloud: more teens are reading. A caveat- in examining the whys and wherefores, the article extols the freedom and breadth of subjects, all of that is code for some of the most popular books deal with substance abuse, rape, violence, and not your traditional family. The appropriateness depends on the personal circumstances and the emotional maturity of the teen reader. Just a heads up.

And to end on a double up note, although it pertains to TV and not the printed word.... Caught the last episode of Ugly Betty for the season and spotted the guy from Invasion. I'm still in mourning over the cancellation of the series. Sure enough, that young cutie and philandering coach is Cuban American.

Ahora sí le patina!

I like to think that Fidel actually dictates the reflections. One of the most recent, May 22, leads me to think: “Ño, ahora de verdad que le patina,” or “He’s really lost it now!” Of course, it could be the ghostly writer’s ghost writer.

Let’s pay a passing notice to the requisite egregious falsehood-

They refer to atrocious tortures, something that has never occurred in our country and which even the least informed of Cubans knows. And who speaks of tortures? McCain, the candidate and George W. Bush, the President.

What absolutely stun me are the virtually unrefuted quotes from Bush and McCain he includes:

“The freedom fighters who gained the independence of Cuba more that one hundred years ago could not have imagined that their descendants would be in a battle for liberty and democracy a century later.”

“One day Cuba will be an important ally in bringing democracy to our hemisphere.”

“The tyranny will not last until the end of time and as President I will not passively await the day the Cuban people enjoy the blessing of freedom and democracy. I will not wait.”

You can read the whole rambling thing in Granma.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tata and All That

Cuba has expressed an interest in the small Indian car, the Tata Nano. Of course, the last time New Delhi did business with the regime, it wound up with some particularly worthless IOU's. Read all about it at the Hindu Business Line. You can read the specifications here.
Cubans can now envision a future in which they can drive their Tatas to their little plastic houses, a true socialist Utopia.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not in My Name

"If Ra¿l is serious about his so-called reforms," Bush said, "he will allow these phones to reach the Cuban people."

Francisco J. "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, called Bush's announcement "absurd." He urged the president instead to lift restrictions that limit Cuban Americans to one visit to the island every three years and to no more than $1,200 they can send to relatives annually.

Although cellular phones are on the lengthy U.S. list of items not allowed to be sent to Cuba, Hernandez said his organization and many others regularly ship them there. "With all due respect" to Bush, he said, "you can't eat cellphones."

If I needed an example of how pervasive the tenor of our present political discourse has become, take this quote from the president of CANF. Quite the wit, old Pepe there. He sounds more like some of our political hacks than the head of a national organization. The whole thing was terribly déclassé.

And is it George Bush's fault that Cubans don't have enough to eat? What about those who don't have relatives outside the country? What do they do, eat cake? I have to ask, despite the continuation of policies unpopular with many, has any other president in recent history done as much to publicize the plight of the Cuban people?

I suspect I know the root. One need only look at the invitation to Obama to surmise that the Joe Garcia wing is firmly in charge. One need only remind CANF that the last time they smiled on a Democrat, they got a tent city in Guantanamo, Wet Foot/Dry Foot, and Elian.

Washington Post article here.

America's Decline: A Matter of Perspective-Part 1

As I read about the decline of America, very fashionable at the moment, I am reminded of the wave of anti-war movies a while back. When they tanked (pardon the pun) the media rushed to interpret their failure as the war's lack of popularity rather than the public's distaste for criticizing the war in medias res, so to speak.

So when I came across an excerpt from Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Post American-World, my hackles were immediately raised. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly if you were to judge from Zakaria's body of work, he avoids the usual liberal shibboleths. His thesis is more or less that it is not so much that the US is declining, but rather the rest of the world catching up. Bully for them! The piece was thought-provoking and I look forward to reading the book.

Too often in these reflections, however, the doom and gloom crowd is really disguising yet another "blame it on Bush" exercise, as in this piece, also from Newsweek. In my finest Brooklynese, I say "Get a clue, buddy." Yes, I'm sure Mr. Hirsh is very learned and very versed in foreign relations, and he is correct in saying that much of the damage is self-inflicted. I learned all about it in high school. People tend to take you as you present yourself. If we extrapolate, one has to ask how much of our "fall from grace" has been the result of the contemptuous self-criticism emerging from our side of the pond.

How can we expect anyone else to respect us when we have lost all respect for the office of president and the interests of our nation? I am not referring to differences with policy. I am referring to personal vituperation that goes far beyond the pale, being paraded across TV screens, magazines, blogs, etc... and to the unwise and immediate disclosure of sensitive and damaging information. Not only is it unseemly, but it has conceivably had much greater impact. I was struck by a Sunni Muslim in Fallujah who speaking of the much vaunted "awakening" said something to the effect that they had "discovered" Americans weren't that bad after all. Seems they believed the press. They thought we were going to take their oil, could not conceive that we would just want out. Can we say Abu Ghraib? Blood for oil? I'm sure it's not about being liked. I'm sure they hate us. It's about being respected.

There have been mistakes aplenty made, and there is much room for criticism, but it is the form that criticism takes, as well as the time frame, that has international repercussions. Yeah, they've always grudgingly admired us, but that's because we were sure of ourselves and our place in the world. Now we are a nation in middle-aged angst unsure of ourselves and desperately trying to be liked. Is it any wonder we are losing cache?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Little Plastic Houses

Actually, I don't know what color they'll be, but the regime is touting little plastic houses as a partial answer to the housing crisis in Cuba. The government will construct 14,000 of these beauties, made of PVC left over from the petrochemical processes from the Cienfuegos refinery, originally built by Americans, refurbished at Soviet expense, and now newly redone by Chavez & C0. I'm not making it up. Read here.

Cuba Solidarity Day: May 21, 2008: Updated

A day like today helps publicize the plight of Cubans in a way that no single individual can. You can read about the global effort here. There was a speech at the White House (see post below). But even more significantly, there were numerous small observations throughout Cuba, particularly surprising in light of the rumblings afoot about an incipient crackdown on dissidents. In particular peril are said to the Ladies in White and Antuñez. God watch over them all.
Henry over at Babalu posted a link earlier today to The Task at Hand that I found very moving. Sometimes a simple story can say much more than a thousand polemics. So I'll leave you with this.
Update: It warmed my heart to find this press release from the Moroccan American Center for Policy.

White House, Cuban National Anthem, Tears

I've just posted the last part because I found it the most moving. Check Babalu for link to the whole video.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The All-Seeing Eye

It was only a matter of time before the regime began taking note of Yoani Sanchez and her Generacion Y. First she came in for some public criticism. Now, according to this post from a few days ago, come the implied threats. Seeing the art she chose to illustrate the post, reminded me of this quote from the The Great Gatsby-

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

By the bye, if you look at the latest post on the blog in which the wouldbe hikers were virtually turned into the authorities, you might be reminded of the emotional backdrop of Child 44.

Read: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Set in the 1950's Soviet Union, but inspired by the much later story of real life serial murderer Andrei Chikatilo, Child 44 is in various ways a crime story, an exploration of truth, an examination of the tension between integrity and self-preservation, and the effects of fear on human relationships.

Most reviews I've read have trumpeted the novel as a thriller, but its greatest strength lies in its portrayal of the world of Stalinist Russia, one permeated by fear and falsehood. Smith is at his best in delving into the corrosive effects on human beings of the time and place, whether the horrible expedients to avoid starvation in the Ukraine, the denunciation of innocents in the basement torture chambers of the Lubyanka, or the mistrust bred into even the most intimate of human relationships.

It is the clash between these realities and the fantasy of official propaganda which fuels much of the plot. In this worker's paradise, nothing is as it seems. One of the many fictions perpetuated by the political apparatus is that there is no crime, no murder, as Leo Demidov, decorated member of the State Security Force at the beginning of the novel, prods a colleague whose son has been killed. By the end, Leo, demoted and disillusioned, comes full circle, risking his life and that of his wife in a frantic, all out hunt for a child predator. Ironically, it is in losing all that Leo gains his humanity.

Because of its setting and story, the comparison to Gorky Park is a natural. For my money, Martin Cruz Smith's novel is the better read. The plot here is too gimmicky, the characters not as developed, not to mention that Smith's protagonist is originally one of the bad guys. At the same time, Child 44 is in a different class altogether and is probably the better book. It rises above genre as it questions how far a human being will go to assure his survival.

If you like thrillers, have an interest in Russian history, or have a couple of hours to kill, you could do much worse that Child 44.

Monday, May 19, 2008

To Embargo or Not to Embargo?

I've been doing a bit of soul searching the past few days, ever since Marta Beatriz Roque asked President Bush to ease restrictions. The chorus coming from the island is nearly unanimous in asking that some aspect of the embargo and/or restrictions be lifted. I almost could have gone along, as- contrary to some opinion we are sentient beings- when I read this post by Henry, and I remembered.

I might be persuaded to back the softening of measures, even at the risk of enriching the coffers of the Havana Dons, but a few major issues stick in my craw. One is that quite a bit of American- not Cuban American- property was seized without compensation by the Cuban Capos. What are the odds that the Mendicant of the Antilles can or will pony up funds? If we lift the embargo, we are signalling other tin pot despots that American investments abroad can be seized with impunity. This I can see a way around, as long as the Havana High Commission can see its way to paying a surcharge on every commercial transaction (cash only, please) to be deposited in a fund to pay claimants. The real sticking point for me here is the release of political prisoners. Any dialogue, any softening has to be tied to the liberation of individuals languishing in Cuban jails for "thought crimes."

I can anticipate the rejoinders, what about China and Russia? It is a false parallel. In many of these countries the case could be made that bad as the government was the mass of the people were at least slightly better off. Cuba has the distinction of having been dragged back into the third world. But the real objection has to do with the level of support the criminals will get. Face it, how many people wanted to sunbathe in Siberia or really get down with Bulgarian salsa? By dint of propinquity, climate, and culture, Cuba is bound to be a hot destination. The take from the regime's "skim" will be enormous; the pressure on Cubans to play "happy natives and assorted prostitutes" despite their education and culture, inordinate; and the financially beneficial myopia; irresistible.


Had a great deal of fun at this weekend's "Cuba Nostalgia" where I finally got to meet a number of my fellow bloggers, picked up some reading material, and was introduced to some interesting authors. There were all sorts of experiences: watching the lines at the terminals to sign the petition to free Cuban political prisoners grow at least five deep, glancing at the same screen and seeing a gentleman's signature with his prisoner number appended, seeing the younger generations- even those who have raised well outside the Cuban milieu- helping the old codgers to sign, the same elderly who demanded to be allowed to register their voices.

Much has been said about younger generations of Cubans. I say, what caring, and well-mannered young people! My daughter has that sweetness, which I used to erroneously attribute solely to her character. Yesterday I realized that in part it is her upbringing. Ours is a culture that cares for our elderly, that values their wisdom, tolerates their ill-humor, and respects their experience. Our children absorb those values and act accordingly.

I suspect that the same can be said of the sense of loss and righteous anger over Cuba. True, there is a difference, even with the older generations. The anger now is more muted, buried under the strata of years, even lifetimes, of living in the United States, but still there waiting to be unearthed. Now it is expressed with a quiet dignity, with a purposeful tread, a defiant angle to the head, but it is still there and still being passed on to younger generations.

I was privileged to witness this mechanism first hand. A father in his late thirties, early forties, brought his son to the Babalu booth. The young boy, intent on showing off his computer savvy, sat down to enter his father's name as this gentleman looked on indulgently. They had turned to leave when the boy murmured something. His father led him back to the terminal and asked "What does it say there?" Bingo! I thought as he began to instruct the boy in terms a seven year old could understand. That's how it's done.