Catching up with tyranny-loving Karl Vick

Karl Vick

Where to start with longtime Time magazine fixture Karl Vick?

With his breathtaking enthusiasm for Cuba’s Castro regime? As we noted in August 2015, this is a guy who, in describing the political system on that island, prefers to say “security state” rather than “police state” or “dictatorship” or “totalitarian prison.” Of all the idiots who find Cuba’s crumbling buildings and deteriorated infrastructure appealingly exotic, he’s one of the most high-profile and outspoken, celebrating the old cars and lousy plumbing in one of the stupidest cover stories ever to be run by a major newsmagazine. When he gushed in a radio interview over Havana’s “decaying glory,” his interviewer asked how decay could be glorious, and Vick, bubblehead that he is, fumfered around, finally answering the question with a synonym: “faded grandeur.”

Moderate?

Or should we focus on Vick’s consistently starry-eyed take on all things Islamic – his thumbs-up for the “Arab Spring,” his insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are moderate – and his equally consistent hostility toward Israel? For a 2010 cover story arguing that Israel is anti-peace, he won a “Dishonest Reporting Award” from Honest Reporting (HR) and was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for echoing the stereotype that Jews are preoccupied with money. In later articles, Vick stuck to his guns, absurdly depicting Palestinians (in HR’s words) as “Gandhian acolytes” and describing Hamas’s commitment to the destruction of Israel as only “[n]ominal.”

Donald Trump: the truth hurts

In short, he’s a fool. And nothing has changed. For now, just one example. Last December, after Donald Trump’s election but before the inauguration, he warned that the president-elect was “making terrorist attacks more likely.” How? By taking a “them-against-us” approach. You’ve likely heard this argument before: when we’re honest about the nature of the jihadist enemy, we alienate “moderate Muslims,” perhaps even turning some of them into mass murderers. Vick quoted a Darmouth professor and former State Department grind who warned that ISIS was “now in a much better position to make the case that the West really is determined to destroy Islam.” Vick praised George W. Bush for having said, less than a week after 9/11, that “Islam is peace.”

ISIS, Trump: two sides of the same coin?

Does Vick think this is true? He doesn’t say. His argument is that, true or not, if you’re a president you’d better say such things. One is reminded of the familiar joke: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say otherwise, we’ll kill you. In a classic example of moral equivalency, Vick essentially cast Trump and ISIS as two sides of the same coin, both determined to drive Muslims and non-Muslims apart. Vick served up what should by now be a long-discredited canard that jihadist “extremism” is driven by “feelings of aggrievement.” No, it’s driven by a determination to conquer that is rooted in Islamic texts.

After the terrorist attack on Breitscheidplatz square in Berlin, December 19, 2016

Vick slammed Trump for reacting to last December’s terrorist attack in Berlin – the one that involved a truck and took 12 lives – by making the purely factual statement that “ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.” In Vick’s view, apparently, if we want peace with Islam, we’ve got to keep mum about what is being done to Christians in the Middle East in the name of Allah. The one “glimmer of hope” (to use Vick’s own words) in the article was that “Trump may be educable.” In other words, he may yet learn from the MSM and Foggy Bottom hacks to tell supposedly strategic untruths.

Eulogizing Fidel

fidel-castro-obituary-slide-p9cb-superjumbo-v6When Fidel Castro first came on the scene more than half a century ago, the New York Times famously disgraced itself by serving as his chief PR tool. When he died a few hours ago, the Times again brought shame upon itself with a jaw-droppingly fawning obituary headlined “Fidel Castro, Cuban Leader who Defied U.S., Dies at 90.”

Let’s make this clear: Castro wasn’t a “leader”; he was a totalitarian dictator. But the Times, alas, has plainly never gotten over its schoolgirl crush on him. The first paragraphs of its obit, which carried the byline of Anthony DePalma, were studded with the kind of words customarily used to eulogize heroes and saints. Castro was a “fiery apostle of revolution.” He was “a towering international figure.” He was a man who “dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.”

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The Times’s caption: “Mr. Castro with Mr. Guevara in Havana in January 1959.”

DePalma’s account of the events of that day fifty-seven years ago was nothing less than nauseating – useful stoogery at its purest:

A spotlight shone on him as he swaggered and spoke with passion until dawn. Finally, white doves were released to signal Cuba’s new peace. When one landed on Mr. Castro, perching on a shoulder, the crowd erupted, chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” To the war-weary Cubans gathered there and those watching on television, it was an electrifying sign that their young, bearded guerrilla leader was destined to be their savior.

Accompanying all this laudatory prose were photographs (we’ve reproduced them here) that seemed to have been selected with the objective of showing Fidel at his most glamorous, rugged,  and heroic.

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The Times’s caption: “Mr. Castro with other rebel leaders at a secret base in June 1957 including Che Guevara, the guerrillas’ physician, second from left, and Mr. Castro’s brother Raúl, kneeling in the foreground.”

To be sure, DePalma went on, after his first dozen or so (long) paragraphs, to acknowledge the negative aspects of Castro’s rule. But these obligatory doses of truth about what was, in fact, a thoroughly monstrous regime were brief, grudging, and muted. Every mention of something less than admirable, moreover, was paired with yet more sickening – and baseless – words of praise. For example: “His legacy in Cuba and elsewhere has been a mixed record of social progress and abject poverty, of racial equality and political persecution.” Social progress? Racial equality? Utter hogwash. For the zillionth time, furthermore, the Times served up the ubiquitous, ridiculous lie that Cuba, under Castro, has undergone astounding strides in education and health care. 

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Anthony DePalma

It’s not really surprising to see the Times serving up nonsense like this. It is rather unexpected to see Anthony DePalma signing his name to it. DePalma who left the Times in 2008, and presumably filed a draft of this obit some time before that  is the author of  The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times, in which he doesn’t pull any punches about Castro being a bloodthirsty tyrant – and about the key role the Times played in making him an international icon. One wonders how much editorial tweaking DePalma’s piece has undergone since he first filed it.    

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The Times’s caption: “Mr. Castro, speaking on July 26, 2003, lived to rule a country where the overwhelming majority of people had never known any other leader.”

Once upon a time, people referred to the New York Times – with a straight face – as “the newspaper of record.” Now, that phrase is increasingly likely to be uttered with a smirk. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Times‘s publisher and executive editor felt compelled to express public regret – sort of – for its appallingly slanted coverage of the recent U.S. presidential election and to promise “to report America and the world honestly.” But this obit oozes dishonesty – an eagerness to whitewash Communism and lionize dictators that, unfortunately, seems to be written into the Times‘s DNA. DePalma’s article should go down in the record books as a classic in useful stoogery.

UPDATE, November 30: The Times has actually posted a whole feature about the history of its Castro op-ed. It turns out, indeed, that many hands other than DePalma’s were involved.

Marcelo’s way

The Odebrecht Group is one of those conglomerates whose international reach and level of diversification make one’s head spin. It’s the largest construction outfit in Latin America; Braskem, one of its innumerable subsidiaries, is Latin America’s biggest petrochemical producer.

“They are more than a company,” a Brasilia-based consultant, Thiago de Aragão, told the Wall Street Journal recently; “they are a symbol of modern Brazil.”

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American Airlines Arena

Indeed. It’s Odebrecht that is responsible for Miami’s $213-million American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat play. It’s Odebrecht that is Angola’s top private employer, with over 24,000 employees in that country alone. At this moment, among many other projects, Odebrecht is building a highway in Ghana that will connect the capital, Accra, to remote eastern regions of the country; it’s expanding and adding bridges to a highway that links Guatemala’s main ports with the Mexican border; it’s upgrading a major airport in Mozambique; it’s constructing an elaborate hydroelectric facility in Portugal; it’s installing “the world’s deepest and most complex sewage pump station” in Abu Dhabi. In 2014 the group celebrated its seventh decade in business.

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Marcelo Odebrecht

On March 8, the firm marked another milestone. That was the day on which its CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, the grandson of the company’s founder, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after being convicted of paying $30 million in exchange for contracts and influence at Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil firm that is at the center of the massive corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash. According to prosecutors, Marcelo’s firms “used Swiss bank accounts to launder nearly $270 million in bribes” between 2006 and 2014.

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Judge Sergio Moro

The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, said Marcelo Odebrecht was “directly involved” with this systematic bribery and money-laundering and “guided the work of others.” This intimate involvement was demonstrated by (among other things) incriminating messages stored on eight cellphones found at Marcelo’s home. While other construction executives nabbed in the probe have bought themselves shorter sentences by turning state’s evidence, Odebrecht refused to spill the beans, saying that he would punish his own kids more harshly for tattling than for cheating.

Marcelo Odebrecht in happier times, with Dilma Rousseff and Raúl Castro

Given the conglomerate’s dimensions and its importance to the Brazilian economy, the arrest and conviction of Marcelo – who took over the reins of the family firm in 2008, at age 40, and whose nickname is “Prince of the Contractors” – is of obvious significance. According to the Journal, Marcelo’s arrest in June of last year caused an economic earthquake, contributing to the onset of Brazil’s current recession. But what makes these developments even more momentousness is Marcelo’s intimate relationship with the Rousseff administration. When the president met with business leaders, Marcelo was invariably present. “Some of the other executives,” one São Paulo businessmen told the Journal, “were jealous that he always got invited and they had to fight for a seat at the table.”

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Lula

Marcelo is close not only to Dilma Rousseff but to her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is himself being investigated for allegedly accepting illegal funds from Odebrecht.

One thing about having global reach is that when you get in trouble, the investigations, too, will have a global reach. Swiss and Portuguese authorities are now looking into charges of wrongdoing by Marcelo, and several other countries are considering similar probes.

Cuba libre?

A Cuban national flag is seen painted on a shack in Alamar, a large public housing complex in the Eastern Havana, Cuba, 5 February 2009.Michael J. Totten is an indispensable journalist who in recent years has provided immensely perceptive reportage from some of the most oppressed and/or war-torn corners of the world, notably the Middle East and the Balkans. On March 22, he posted on his blog a memorable item entitled “In Cuba, Prosperity is a Crime.” We’ve spent some time on this site detailing the horrors of the Castros’ island prison, but did you know this?

The United States has a minimum wage while Cuba has a maximum wage. And that maximum wage is a paltry 20 dollars a month. No one can get ahead. It’s impossible. It’s illegal. When prosperity is a crime, there can be no prosperity, and that’s entirely the fault of Cuba’s communist party.

Totten also reported that just hours before President Obama landed in Cuba, the Castros “arrested more than 20 people at a Ladies in White demonstration.” Who are the Ladies in White? They’re an internationally respected human-rights group consisting of the female relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents. The women attend Catholic Mass every Sunday in white dresses, then walk through the streets in silent protest against the Castros’ tyranny.

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The Ladies in White

But they weren’t allowed to carry on their silent protest while Obama was around. On the day of his arrival, wrote Totten, secret policemen “dragged women to a police bus and threw men onto the ground and handcuffed them.” Yet when an American reporter, CNN’s Jim Acosta, stood up at Obama’s joint news conference with Raul Castro and asked about political prisoners, the Cuban leader replied with a royal combination of utter contempt and absolute mendacity: “If there are political prisoners, give me a list, right now. What political prisoners? Give me their names, and if there are political prisoners, they will be free by tonight.”

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Michael J. Totten

The Ladies in White weren’t alone. Mike Gonzales of the Heritage Foundation wrote that during Obama’s visit, a number of other dissidents were “beaten, arrested, dragged through streets, stripped naked, and threatened with the rape of their daughters.” Gonzales quoted anti-Castro leader Antonio Rodiles, who was brutalized and detained (as was his wife), as saying that the American president’s trip had engendered “a festival of repression.”

Gonzales made a crucial point that has been almost completely lost in recent commentary about Cuba and its future. “While the vast majority of commentators speak of Fidel, 89, and Raul, 84,” he suggested, “the Castros to keep in mind are Raul’s son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espin, 50, his daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, 53, and his son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, 54.” The point being, of course, that the death of the two octogenarian brothers will not necessarily mean the end of brutal totalitarianism in Cuba. After all, Alejandro, an officer in Cuban intelligence, is “an unrepentant ideologue who sports a Lenin mustache and goatee.” Alejandro wrote a 2009 book, The Empire of Terror, that Gonzales describes as “an anti-American screed.” And “he speaks in the hackneyed jargon of a Marxist-Leninist.” This is Raul Castro’s heir apparent – the man who’s in line to inherit the throne when the old men bite the dust. Does anyone really expect such a person to relinquish absolute power the moment he inherits it?

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Mike Gonzales

Gonzales also offers an important observation about Mariela, who, as he notes, is a “member of Cuba’s rubber-stamp National Assembly.” This is a woman who has received a boatload of positive press in the Western media in recent years because she is – or at least professes to be – a gay-rights activist. This self-identification is food for thought. These days, many far-left enemies of Israel and apologists for oppressive Islamic regimes have been trained by their cynical capos to accuse Israel of “pinkwashing” – that is, of using its excellent gay-rights record to promote itself as a beacon of human rights, when in fact those enemies’ prime objective is to ensure that Israel is viewed in the West as a first-class violator of human rights. 

Mariela Castro is Cuba's most prominent gay rights activist
Mariela Castro

Now the pinkwashing charge, when leveled against Israel, is of course nothing more than an obscene slur. It’s highly interesting, however – though hardly surprising – to note that those who promote the concept of pinkwashing don’t ever use it against Cuba and Mariela, even though, in her case, the otherwise preposterous concept actually makes a kind of sense. How, after all, can there be such a thing as gay rights in a country with no basic freedoms whatsoever? How can a loyal, lockstep member of a Communist ruling family and of a Communist rubber-stamp parliament be seriously considered an activist for any kind of rights whatsoever? Never mind: as Gonzales puts it, Mariela’s “position as an LGBT activist will ensure that Western useful idiots continue to lionize the Revolution” even after the old revolutionaries kick the bucket.  

Leopoldo

Tuesday evening brought what may be promising news from Venezuela. The National Assembly, which since January 6 has been dominated by the anti-chavista opposition, passed a law ordering the release of political prisoners. President Maduro vowed to veto. We’ll see what happens. We’ll have to keep an eye on the Venezuelan media, because outlets like the New York Times and CNN can’t always be relied on to pay attention to such developments.

It’s not as if the international news media have entirely ignored what’s been going on in the Bolivarian Republic, but it does seem to us that, with few exceptions, they’ve failed to recognize just how remarkable the current situation is in that tortured country.

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Hugo Chávez

This failure, if that’s the right word, is not entirely a puzzlement, of course, given that many of the aforementioned media were, not so very long ago, eager stooges and vociferous cheerleaders for Hugo Chávez, the father of Venezuelan socialism, otherwise known as chavismo. Chávez, with his brazen and unapologetic anti-Americanism, embodied the hopes of certain Americans and Europeans for a smashingly successful socialist Latin America, led by the example of the fearless Hugo and wonderfully free of the baleful influence of the nefarious norteamericanos.

Instead, Venezuela has turned out to be an extraordinary dramatic – indeed tragic – textbook example of the sheer folly of socialism. The rapidity with which the country’s economy has collapsed, and the terrifying particulars of that collapse, provide – for those too young to remember the Soviet Union and too foolish to recognize that the Castros’ Cuba is not a charming vintage-auto museum or 24/7 salsa party but a well-nigh unlivable everyday reality for 11 million people – a vivid picture of the disaster that is Communism.

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Leopoldo López in prison

That in itself is dramatic enough. But add to that the singular case of Leopoldo López. The chavista regime’s most eloquent critic, the opposition’s most charismatic leader, he has been in prison for over two years now, for no other reason than that he is – quite obviously – by far the most potent threat to the power of Chávez’s hapless, fatuous successor, Nicolás Maduro. López is so manifestly everything that Maduro is not, so completely the Gallant to his Goofus, that it seems almost too tidy a scenario; if this were a film script, the producer would almost certainly order the writer to make the villain at least somewhat less buffoonish and corrupt and the hero somewhat less noble and courageous.

Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during a campaign rally in San Carlos, Cojedes State, on April 4, 2013. The presidential campaign to replace Venezuela's Hugo Chavez formally kicked off Tuesday, with Maduro -- Chavez's hand-picked successor -- battling opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the forthcoming April 14 vote. AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Nicolás Maduro

But on rare occasions, reality is simply better than fiction – and this is, quite simply, one of those times. López – a collateral descendant of Simón Bolívar, the George Washington of South America – studied economics and government at Kenyon College in Ohio and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Elected mayor of Chacao, one of the five administrative districts of Caravas, by a slim margin in 2000, he was re-elected four years later with 81% of the vote.

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With his wife, Lilian Tintori

The glowing success of his mayoral tenure and the thoroughgoing spotlessness of his record were attested to by Transparency International, which gave him its first-prize award in 2007 and again in 2008 for running his country’s most honest and efficient city government. In 2008, he came in third in the World Mayors contest for the planet’s best mayors. He’s a remarkable, almost incredible combination: a learned student of economics and statecraft, a staunch, eloquent defender of human liberty, a highly competent and incorruptible administrator, and an inspired, practical-minded reformer of local government on every level.

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Just a reminder of those empty Venezuelan grocery shelves…

Since his unjust arrest, he has also proven to be a man of extraordinary bravery. Pretty much every major international human-rights group has declared him a political prisoner and called for his immediate and unconditional release. So have the New York Times and Washington Post. Polls show that if he were to run for president today, he would win easily. It’s clear that the main reason he remains behind bars is that Venezuela’s current leader, a grotesquely inept, ill-educated, and economically illiterate former bus driver, knows that Leopoldo is everything he isn’t and that more and more of the Venezuelan people – who are suffering increasingly from the tragic everyday consequences of chavismo – realize that Leopoldo is exactly what they need to pull their country out of its hole.

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…and ridiculously long lines to get into those grocery stores

The present state of affairs, in short, could scarcely be more striking: Venezuela has what may well be the worst government on earth right now, and López, if chosen to replace Maduro, would, upon his installation, immediately become one of the world’s most thoughtful, ethical, and skillful heads of government. Every day that he continues to languish in prison is a lost day for the Venezuelan people, who have waited long enough for rescue. Let’s hope they’re able to finally spring him from the joint – and turn the grim winter of Venezuela’s discontent into a Venezuelan spring.  

Castro: A hug from Hollande

The headline of a Washington Post editorial on January 31 didn’t mince words: “Failure in Cuba.”

HAVANA, CUBA - AUGUST 14: Secretary of State John Kerry (R) watches as Marines raise the American flag at the U.S. Embassy August 14, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Kerry will visited the reopened embassy, the first time an American secretary of state has visited Cuba since 1945, a symbolic act after the the two former Cold War enemies reestablished diplomatic relations in July. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry at the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, August 14, 2015

President Obama’s opening to Cuba,” argued the Post‘s editors, had failed in its declared objective, namely to “unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans,” to “engage and empower the Cuban people,” and to “empower the nascent Cuban private sector.” Obama, the editorial charged, had made concession after concession to the Castro regime without demanding human-rights advances, the release of dissidents from prison, the introduction of independent media, Internet access, or an end to state control of the economy.

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Hollande and Raúl Castro at the Elysee Palace, Paris

In sum: while Fidel and Raúl Castro were profiting handsomely from Obama’s opening to Cuba, they were refusing to make any meaningful reforms. Obama kept making concession after concession to the Cuban tyrants, but in return the Cuban people were getting nada. “Autocrats everywhere,” wrote the Post‘s editors, “must be watching with envy the Castros’ good fortune.”

Cut to Paris, where Raúl Castro made a historic state visit on February 1. It was a perfect opportunity for French President François Hollande to call for precisely those changes in Cuba that the Post editorial had enumerated.

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Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez, the internationally known Cuban blogger and pro-freedom activist, wrote an article urging Hollande to “take advantage of Raúl Castro’s official visit to demand a democratic opening.” France, she wrote, would lose nothing by taking “a stronger stance on the lack of freedom under which 11 million Cubans live.” Reporters without Borders agreed.

Did Hollande heed their call? Au contraire. He gave Castro (in the words of Voice of America) “the red-carpet treatment.” He hugged him. He threw a state dinner. And, according to one source, he actually “declared his love” for Castro.

Indeed, instead of criticizing the Cuban dictator, Hollande lectured Obama, exhorting him to make even more unilateral concessions to the Havana regime. The U.S. embargo, Hollande insisted, was a “vestige of the Cold War” and must be lifted in its entirety so that Cuba could “fully takes its place” in the community of nations. This, Hollande added, was not only “the will of this country” – i.e., France – but was also “the will of the international community.”

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Castro and Hollande raising a toast at the state dinner

Hollande made it clear, in short, he’s big on “normalizing” the world’s relations with Cuba. But he didn’t drop so much a hint that if the Cuban government wants its country to fully join the community of nations, it has its own job of “normalization” to do – it needs, quite simply, to grant its people the same individual liberties enjoyed by everyone else in the Western hemisphere.

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Last May, Hollande visited Havana and met with Fidel

What’s the background to this Franco-Cuban lovefest? Briefly put, Hollande sees Cuba as a golden opportunity for French business development, and thinks U.S. policies are keeping many French entrepreneurs from diving in. Yet as one contractor told Le Monde, the main obstacle to Cuba’s re-entry into the community of nations isn’t the U.S. embargo; it’s the Castros’ refusal to turn their dictatorship into a nation of laws, with property rights, financial transparency, and so on. Without such reforms, many potential foreign investors will prefer to put their money elsewhere.

Meanwhile, we’re left with Hollande’s shameful silence on Cuban Communism. “This encounter,” lamented one Cuban emigre, “is all about profiting from Cuban slave labor. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Nick Miroff and the charms of totalitarianism

A Cuban national flag is seen painted on a shack in Alamar, a large public housing complex in the Eastern Havana, Cuba, 5 February 2009.
Alamar, Havana

There are run-of-the-mill fools in American journalism, and then there are major-league idiots like Nick Miroff. Yesterday we quoted him fretting in the Washington Post about the new phenomenon of “yawning income gaps” in Cuba – meaning that some people there are actually starting to rise out of poverty.

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Alamar: another view

But there was a lot more fatuity on offer in Miroff’s 2,000-word tribute to the shabby Havana neighborhood of Alamar. Here he is giving us a glimpse of local color:

“Men Die, But the Party Is Immortal,” says a billboard in Alamar, trying to reassure residents who may wonder what will happen after Fidel, 89, and current President Raúl Castro, 84, are no longer around.

Reassure residents? How does a man get to be a Washington Post reporter without being able to recognize propaganda and call it by its real name? We’re talking about a country where people still can’t watch TV from abroad, can’t read the Washington Post or any other Western newspapers, can’t go online without going to a special Internet cafe and paying a hefty fee. But everywhere they turn, there’s a giant hoarding telling them how wonderful the Communist Party is.

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Nick Miroff

Miroff went on to hail Cuba’s “social and economic parity” as “unusual” for Latin America, “a region beset by deep class divisions.” He offered the usual starry-eyed left-wing praise for the island prison’s welfare system. Not until three-quarters of the way through his nauseating paean to poverty and despotism did he finally acknowledge – kind of – that what he was writing about here was a community, and a country, living in sadness and squalor: “a collective exhaustion has set in, the toll of steady emigration, corruption large and small, and the knowledge, from the impossible-to-filter influences of globalization, that Cubans live better in almost any other country than their own.”

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More of Alamar…

But, hey, don’t get Miroff wrong here: for him, the problem isn’t that Cuba’s political and economic system has failed the Cuban people; the problem is that a younger generation of Cubans have failed their country’s system. Meaning what? Meaning that they lack the revolutionary fervor, the selfless love for and confidence in their leaders, the bottomless devotion to the cause that (Miroff would have us believe) gave meaning to their grandparents’ lives. After telling us about Aldo, an octogenarian resident of Alamar who, back in the early Castro days, was a photographer for the Communist Party newspaper Granma, and who still “keeps thick manila envelopes of old photos that tell the story of a life in the service of Cuba’s socialist dream,” Miroff lamented that the

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…and more…

egalitarian ideals of that era are lost today on Aldo’s grandson, Alejandro, 28. He has an American flag in his bedroom but little else. Trained as a veterinary technician, he was laid off during Raúl Castro’s campaign to downsize the state bureaucracy. Sometimes he drives a taxi. His mother says he is desperate to leave.

“He says to me, “I don’t want to turn 50 in this country with no car and no house of my own,’” Olga Mederos said.

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…and more…

Miroff closed with a vignette of Aldo and his photo collection:

“When I show these to my grandson, he says, ‘What good did it do? Look at you now. You’ve got nothing,’ ” Aldo said.

He shuffled the image to the bottom of the pile, looking away. “Maybe it’s true,” he said. “Maybe he’s right.”

And so ended the article. Miroff was clearly going for pathos, for poignancy. He wanted us to feel sad about the fading of the beautiful “socialist dream,” the loss of those magnificent “egalitarian ideals.” For him, one gathers, that American flag in Alejandro’s bedroom is, above all, a symbol of a generation whose members have selfishly turned their backs on the golden revolution for which their grandparents sacrificed so much and given itself over, heart and soul, to the Evil Empire across the Straits of Florida. 

…and more…

Miroff made no mention, naturally, of the many members of Aldo’s generation who, without a trial or lawyer or any hint of due process, were thrown in prison cells, or lined up against walls and shot, for no other crime than being anti-Communists, writers, homosexuals, whatever.

Any American reporter with half a brain, with even a crumb of a moral sense, would have started his article with that flag in Alejandro’s bedroom, and would have found its presence there deeply stirring. He would’ve recognized that flag as a symbol of young Cubans’ hopes for a free and prosperous future, and would’ve been touched and humbled to realize that his own country’s flag, and his own country’s liberties, could serve as an inspiration to a young man living in one of the world’s last totalitarian nations.

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…and more.

But no. Miroff, in Alejandro’s bedroom, was incapable of seeing what was right in front of him for what it was: the spectacle of a young man born into slavery and yearning for freedom. Miroff, alas, would seem to be all but blind to freedom. It’s barely, if at all, on his radar. All he can see is economic equality or inequality.

It’s disturbing to witness this virtual blindness to freedom in anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience it. But it’s especially scary to see it in a man who’s employed as a journalist by the leading newspaper in the capital of what some of us still think of as the free world.    

Time‘s love letter to Cuba

time-cuba-coverThe problem with Time Magazine‘s just-released special issue begins with the title. It’s called “Inside the New Cuba: Discovering the Charm of a Once-Forbidden Island: The People, The Culture, The Paradise.”

“Charm”? “Paradise”?

Yes, there’s certainly a great deal of natural beauty in Cuba. But the title of this special issue seems designed to suggest that Cuba, under its present management, is some kind of Eden to which Americans, until now, have been denied entry.

Much of the issue is the usual travel-reportage fluff with little political content. In one pieceKarl Vick poses that burning question: “When long-forbidden Cuban cigars become more available to Americans, will they maintain their aroma of glamour?” Vick, a cigar aficionado who spends several paragraphs recounting his own experiences with “Cedros” and “Lanceros” and “Bolivar Gigantes” (these are different types of Cuban cigars), fears that those stogies will lose a “certain cachet,” “the mystique of the forbidden.” The key paradox of this special issue is that even as Time‘s authors fret about the impact that American tourists and businesses and capitalist-style materialism will have on Fidel’s island paradise, the whole product is explicitly designed to be purchased by potential American tourists, whom it encourages in every sentence to book a flight to Havana and consume away.

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Fidel Castro

But the issue does touch on politics from time to time – and when it does, it’s not pretty. In one article, Vick actually dismisses the notion that the Castro regime is totalitarian and that the Cuban people are victims – a view he attributes to Cuban exiles who live in Miami and whose opinions can’t be taken seriously because they’re giving voice to their own personal frustrations and resentments. While admitting, in a classic “to be sure” sentence, that there are facts that support the exiles’ arguments about the Castro regime, Vick insists that the Miami Cubans toward the Castros is “at heart a neighborhood grudge match.” The statement is breathtaking in its glibness and moral blindness – an insult to every free-thinking Cuban writer, artist, democracy activist, and gay person ever imprisoned, tortured, or executed in the name of the Revolution.

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Let’s hope the American tourists don’t ruin this

But then, as Joel Pollak observed after perusing Time‘s special issue, the people who put it together seem less interested in entertaining the pleasant possibility that the coming years may bring greater freedom for the people of Cuba than in fretting over the supposed likelihood of “a different kind of change – namely, the prospect of thousands of rich American tourists arriving and demanding creature comforts that will ruin the island’s charm.”

More next time.

Hamas’s, Castro’s, and Mugabe’s pal in the New York Assembly

9.12.02   Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks at the podium in the City Council Chamber of City Hall.
Robert Mugabe addresses New York’s City Council in 2002

Yesterday we flashed back to 2002, when most members of the New York City Council chose to boycott a City Hall speech and reception by the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe; but Bill de Blasio, now Mayor of New York, didn’t. He stayed. He attended. One assumes he applauded at the end of Mugabe’s speech. Years later, presumably for reasons of political expediency, he – or one of his flunkies – decided that it was a good idea for him to apologize for having shown up to honor the Zimbabwean despot; but it’s not as if de Blasio didn’t know at the time who the man was and what he stood for. (Then again, the mayor deserves full marks for ideological consistency: back in the day, he also supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and honeymooned in Havana.)

Councilman Charles Barron fights with CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Weisenfeld at Groundbreaking ceremonies for CUNY's new $259 Million Fiterman Hall. The original Fiterman Hall at 30 West Broadway was destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.
New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron

How, you might wonder, did Mugabe ever come to be honored at New York’s City Hall in the first place? The answer: Charles Barron, a former Black Panther member who spent twelve years in the City Council, and then, after making unsuccessful runs for mayor, governor, and the U.S. Congress, won the election last year to succeed his wife, Inez, in the New York State Assembly. Barron, described by the New York Observer as “among the most flamboyant and inflammatory figures on the New York political scene,” is notorious for his virulently anti-white and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and has been arrested and jailed several times for acts of harassment, disorderly conduct, and criminal trespass, all carried out in the guise of civil-rights activism. It was Barron who, back in 2002, arranged for Mugabe to be fêted at City Hall.

Does he now have regrets? Far from it. In September, Barron told the Observer that now that he’s living in Albany and serving in the state legislature, he “would love” to host a visit by Mugabe to the state capital. “I would love for him to come anywhere in the United States, really,” Barron added, calling Mugabe a “freedom fighter” and a “shining example of an African leader on the African continent.” Far from being disturbed by Mugabe’s distribution to black Zimbabweans of farmland seized from whites for purely racist reasons, Barron explained that he considered this policy especially admirable. “He was one of the few African leaders who had the courage to take the land back from the settlers,” said Barron, who went on to fault Nelson Mandela for not taking away more property from white South Africans.

Like de Blasio, Barron is consistent. He’s a fan of the Castros, a defender of Hamas; when Qaddafi was alive, Barron admired him, too. “All my heroes were America’s enemies,” he has helpfully explained. Moreover, as Michael Moynihan observed in a 2012 profile, Barron

barronis obsessively hostile to Israel—a country whose founding he rejects as historical crime. After a 2009 trip to Gaza with British MP George Galloway’s anti-Israel group Viva Palestina, Barron told reporters that the Gaza Strip was a giant “concentration camp.” Considering this description a touch understated, he traded Dachau for Auschwitz, comparing the Palestinian territories to a modern “death camp.” Israel, he added, “deliberately cause[s] the death of innocent children” and is guilty of “genocide.”

Moynihan summed up Barron’s politics as consisting of “a deep illiberalism and contempt for democracy, an almost pathological hatred of Israel and fondness for dictatorship.” Yep, that pretty much says it.

Russell Brand, revolutionary hypocrite

Is anyone surprised?

brandcheDuring the last couple of years, the wealthy and successful British comedian Russell Brand has been amusing himself by posturing as a crusading champion of the downtrodden and a heroic enemy of The System. Last July, Sean McElwee wrote in Salon that “Russell Brand may be the most famous anti-capitalist in the world.” Last year, Brand toured with a stand-up show entitled Messiah Complex, in which, as he told Jimmy Fallon in an interview, he talked “about people like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Gandhi and Jesus and what made them such splendid fellows.” Che, Brand elaborated, “worked very hard and did some great things for ordinary people.” Fallon, disgracefully, agreed: “Absolutely, yes! You need more people like these people.”

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Che Guevara

Yes, more people like Che, who set up Cuba’s first forced-labor camp, ordered over 500 summary executions of ideological opponents, arranged with Khrushchev to bring nuclear missiles to Cuba, and was the person most responsible for the destruction of the formerly thriving Cuban economy.

Last year Brand also came out with a book, Revolution, in which he described himself as “a big fan of Castro and Che Guevara” and called Che “dear, beautiful, morally unimpeachable.” Michael Moynihan’s review of the book for The Daily Beast was aptly headlined “Russell Brand’s Revolution For Morons.” Revolution, Moynihan wrote, is “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism.”

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Raul Castro blindfolds a prisoner who is about to be executed

Not long after Moynihan’s review, exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova weighed in on Brand’s Che-worship. Refuting the romantic notion of Che as a dedicated revolutionary who cared nothing for creature comforts or the products of capitalism, Fontova quoted a vivid description of Che’s beachfront mansion:

The mansion had a boat dock, a huge swimming pool, seven bathrooms, a sauna, a massage salon and several television sets….One TV had been specially designed in the U.S., and had a screen ten feet wide and was operated by remote control. This was thought to be the only TV of its kind in Latin America. The mansion’s garden had a veritable jungle of imported plants, a pool with a waterfall, ponds filled with exotic tropical fish and several bird houses filled with parrots and other exotic birds. The habitation was something out of A Thousand and One Nights.

Fontova said that he wouldn’t bother debunking “Brand’s idiocies on Cuba” except for one fact: those idiocies, as it happens, “perfectly mirror the ‘enlightened,’ even the mainstream, version of Cuban history, however amazing and asinine it sounds to actual Cubans who lived it or to any person who bothers to investigate the issue beyond what issues from Castro’s agents of influence, on the payroll and off.”

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Following a one-minute trial, a corporal in Batista’s army is given last rites before being executed by Castro’s men

Among other things, Brand echoes the familiar line that Castro actually improved conditions in Cuba; on the contrary, writes Fontova, Cuba under Batista had “a higher per capita income than half of Europe, the lowest inflation rate in the Western Hemisphere, the 13th lowest infant-mortality on earth and a huge influx of immigrants.” Nor was the country anything like the wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government and/or U.S. corporations that Brand thinks it was (an image promoted for decades by the media, and by movies like Godfather II): “in 1959 U.S. investments in Cuba accounted for only 14 per cent the island’s GNP, and U.S. owned companies employed only 7 per cent of Cuba’s workforce.”

Russell Brand speaks at the opening of The Trew Era Cafe, a social enterprise community project on the New Era estate in east London, Thursday, 26 March, 2015. The opening of the cafe coincides with the trade paperback publication date of 'Revolution', and Brand will be donating 100% of his money for the book to the Cafe.(Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Brand outside his cafe at its opening in March

Part of Brand’s self-branding as a revolutionary on multiple fronts has been his clothing business. He sells his own line of sweatshirts, which, he has claimed, are made in the UK, with all profits going to charity. This now turns out to be untrue. On June 5, the Mail reported that the shirts are, in fact, made in Bangladesh by workers earning 25p an hour and working up to eleven hours a day, and that only £1.37 of the purchase price of a £65 sweatshirt goes to charity. And apparently what counts as “charity” in this case is the Trew Era, a “trendy East London cafe” owned by Brand himself that opened in March of this year. His lawyers, responding to the Mail‘s disclosures, describe the cafe as a “community social enterprise project.” Last year, noted the Mail, the website of Brand’s schmatta business “said the money from his merchandise would go to the Russell Brand Foundation”; this statement no longer appears on the site, and British authorities that oversee charitable enterprises have no record of the existence of any such foundation.

Women work at a garment factory in Savar July 27, 2012. Women work for ten hours a day and earn about 3,000 taka ($37.5) per month. Bangladesh's $19 billion garments industry attracts some of the world's biggest clothing brands because of low costs, but many retailers say unrest over pay and delayed shipping schedules are eroding that advantage. Picture taken on July 27, 2012. To go with story BANGLADESH-GARMENTS/   REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - RTR37L3S
A garment factory in Bangladesh

To be sure, it could be argued that Brand is actually doing his Bangladeshi sweatshirt-makers a service – he’s providing them with jobs, however menial and poorly paid, that are better than nothing and that may prove to be a stepping-stone to something better. And, on a larger level, the sweatshops they work in, which also produce apparel for major UK labels, may represent a step toward a stronger economy for Bangladesh. But that’s precisely the kind of argument that Brand has been shooting down for a couple of years now in his fatuous rants against capitalism and globalization.

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Russell Brand and Paraic O’Brien at London housing rally

Unsurprisingly, critics of Brand responded to the news of his Bangladesh sweatshop by calling him a hypocrite. And they’re right. If this isn’t hypocrisy, what is? Nor is this the first time he’s faced accusations of hypocrisy. Last December, for example, while taking part in a rally for more affordable housing in London, he “flew into a rage” when Channel 4 reporter Paraic O’Brien suggested that Brand himself “was part of the housing problem because the super-rich buying up property in London were driving up prices for everyone else.” His own £2 million home “in trendy Hoxton, east London,” it emerged, was “owned by a firm based in a tax haven.”

brandPerhaps it was British columnist Nick Cohen, writing in October 2013, who served up the definitive verdict on Russell Brand:

He writes as if he is a precocious prepubescent rather than an adolescent: a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of “consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system” – and does not want to know either.