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Ukraine's Chief Rabbi Refutes Putin's Anti-Semitic Charges

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in Russia and the West have accused the Ukrainian opposition that led the fight against the criminal Yanukovych regime and the democratic Ukrainian government that succeeded that regime of being fascist, neo-Nazi, and anti-Semitic.

The following quotations—by Putin and his most unremitting academic supporter in New York City on the one hand, and by three of Ukraine’s leading Jewish officials on the other—should settle the issue. Putin is beyond redemption, of course, but Professor Cohen may want to take account of the evidence and, like a good revisionist historian, revise his views.

Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, March 4, 2014:

Russia's Occupation Reeks of the Soviet Days

How would you like to be ruled by a gangster named “Goblin” who was “elected” by a parliament under the eyes of masked militiamen? That’s what Crimeans are getting.

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE—Strip away the propaganda from the chaos in Crimea, and this much is certain: last Thursday morning a political farce played out here in the regional capital.

It started with anonymous gunmen storming parliament house in a bloodless pre-dawn raid. By sunrise, the Russian flag was flying high above an occupied government house.

Lawmakers were summoned, stripped of their cellphones as they entered the chamber. The Crimean media was banished. Then, behind closed doors, Crimea’s government was dismissed and a new one formed, with Sergey Akysonov, head of the Russian Unity party, installed as Crimea’s new premier.

It if was a crime, it was just the beginning. Akysonov’s ascent to power at the point of a gun presaged all that has happened since — the announcement of a referendum on Crimean independence and the slow, methodical fanning out of Russian forces throughout the peninsula, ostensibly to protect Russians here from a threat no one can seem to find.

But here’s the most interesting bit: Aksyonov’s sudden rise as Moscow’s crucial point man in Crimea has revived simmering allegations of an underworld past going back to the lawless 1990s, when Akysonov is said to have gone by the street name “Goblin,” a lieutenant in the Crimean crime syndicate Salem.

Years ago I assumed if Russian troops were to one day show up in Crimea that they’d be welcome by many locals as liberators. But I wasn’t counting on masked militias or “Goblin.”

Maybe a lot of these people are sufficiently spooked by what’s going on in Kiev and by hysterical claims that Russians are about to be persecuted by mobs of Ukrainian fascists. But they’re going to wake up to “Goblin” sooner or later and there’s reason to believe they aren’t going to like it—and not just because I wouldn’t like it. (Imagine—just try—if something like this happened in the United States.) Goblin’s party won a paltry four percent of the vote when it stood for election.

If Crimea wants to join Russia, this is the political science they should expect. At least they’ll know what they’re in for. 

Beijing–Hong Kong Tensions Rise After Stabbing

A senior Chinese official took to the airwaves in Hong Kong on Thursday to condemn the brutal stabbing attack on Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, a local newspaper, who had been abruptly dismissed from his job in January. “We’re closely watching the attack … and strongly condemn the unlawful act of the criminals,” said Yang Jian, deputy director of China’s Liaison Office in the city. “We firmly support the Hong Kong government to spare no effort, arrest the culprits, and punish them in line with the law.”

The statement will do little to lessen the damage to Beijing’s reputation in Hong Kong, which has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic since 1997. Many in the city suspect that Mainland Chinese individuals or pro-Beijing thugs staged the near-fatal attack on Lau, who sponsored, among other things, exposés on the “hidden” wealth of Chinese leaders.

Pity the Vassals of Moscow

“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union

Russia is justifying its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by saying the ethnic Russians who live there are threatened by a nascent fascist regime in Kiev. The habits of Soviet propagandists die hard. What’s really going on here is simple. Vladimir Putin, like most Russian leaders before him, feels he must shove his weight around the “near abroad” to maximize his power and influence in the thin buffer between him and the West. Now that he’s without his vassal—mini-Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, is on the run—Moscow has to do the grunt work itself.

Russia has long been a paranoid land power. It’s huge, mostly flat, and wide open to invasion. Just to name a few examples, it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, Napoleon in the 19th, Nazi Germany in the 20th, and has been recently squeezed by NATO expansion in the former Soviet bloc. These events seared themselves into the Russian psyche. They breathe better with buffer states.

Whether we and the Ukrainians like it or not, Ukraine is still a buffer state within Moscow’s sphere of influence. The US has little more leverage there than Russia has in Canada. And since ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Ukrainians in the Crimea by more than two-to-one, a Russian invasion of that part of the country is a bit like a French invasion of Quebec—troublesome indeed, and infuriating to the capital, but different from, say, a North Korean invasion of Quebec. That’s why Russia could take it without firing a shot and why nobody shot at the Russians.

Plenty of Crimeans are unhappy about it, of course. A fourth are ethnic Ukrainians, an eighth are Tatars, and one would have to be a truly obnoxious determinist to suggest every Russian on the peninsula is thrilled being occupied by a foreign army just because they speak the same language.

Ukrainians elsewhere in the country (especially outside the ethnically Russian east) are mobilizing for war.

The fact that Crimea has a large Russian population and is pro-Russian politically is no excuse for Putin to lop it off Ukraine. If the reason why is not obvious, ask yourself how you’d feel if the Mexican government seized San Antonio, Texas, and said, hey, it has a Hispanic majority, so it’s ours now. Or if the United States conquered and annexed Toronto and said, hey, we’re all English-speaking North Americans here with a common ancestry, so what’s the big deal?

That's basically what Russia is doing.

And that was Adolf Hitler’s justification for taking the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the run-up to World War II. Putin is not Hitler, but he’s pulling the same kind of stunt and expecting to get away with it for exactly the same reason. Nobody wants to blow up the world over this sort of thing.

It’s possible that Russia might take even Kiev if Putin thinks the response to seizing Crimea is sufficiently supine. I doubt it, personally, but I don’t know that he won’t. No one can know that.

He wouldn’t get much out of it, aside from a violent migraine, that he isn’t already getting by invading Crimea. Ukraine can’t fend off a full-blown Russian invasion, but it can make an invasion bloody and expensive. And what would Russians back home think? Ukrainians aren’t their enemies. There is little hatred between these two closely-related peoples.

Bullies drunk on power do reckless and unpredictable things sometimes, though, so the possibility of an all-out invasion—even if the odds are against it—can’t be ruled out.

So now what? The US and NATO are not going to declare war on Russia over Crimea or even Kiev, but that doesn’t mean Putin can just barge in wherever he wants. It goes without saying that the invasion of a European Union or NATO country is over the line and would be resisted with force. Putin surely knows that already. Everybody in Russia knows that.

What Putin does not necessarily know is whether or not the red line is closer to Moscow.

Kiev is almost certainly on Putin’s side of the red line, but no one has actually said that, so it’s ambiguous, as it should be. Ambiguity lends itself to restraint. Russian leaders tend more toward paranoia than American leaders at the best of times. And the expansion of NATO frightened the Russians as much as the expansion of the Warsaw Pact would have alarmed Americans had the Soviets won the Cold War.

So the last thing the West should do is tell Putin where the red line is located exactly. Want to prevent an explosion in far-eastern Europe? Let him think he’s in danger of crossing it now. Otherwise he may sense a green light from the West to swallow whatever he wants on his side of the EU. Let him see a yellow light, at least, if a red light is asking for too much.

There are various ways to signal a yellow if not a red. Retired Admiral James Stavridis shared a few ideas in Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Barone has more. Parking destroyers in the Black Sea off Yalta might be a good place to start. The US sent ships to that region when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Russians didn’t withdraw from occupied Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but at least they stopped where they were, withdrew from Gori, and left the capital Tbilisi alone.

It ought to go without saying that it’s not okay for nations to forcibly move other peoples’ borders around because they feel like it, but taking the long view, there may be an upside to all this. Ukraine shorn of its Russian-majority regions would become more pro-European as a matter of simple math. Most of Ukraine’s die-hard pro-Russians won’t participate in Ukrainian elections if they’re no longer part of the Ukrainian polity. And the fools who voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych solely because the previous government was perceived as corrupt likely won't make that mistake again any time soon, not after getting invaded and dismembered by Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine could end up permanently divvied up in the future, with the Russian regions annexed by Moscow, either formally or de-facto, while the rest of the country, which naturally tilts more to the West, admitted to the European Union and NATO.

That’s a best-case scenario rather than a likely scenario. Ukraine in its current borders, though, surely won’t be admitted to the European Union or NATO, at least not before the Russian Federation liberalizes dramatically, because too many people in its political class are volunteer tools of Moscow.

Russian civilization was born more than a thousand years ago in Kiev in the medieval state of Kievan Rus. If that city ever gives the finger to Moscow once and for all and joins the EU and NATO, that would be something to see. It’s why Russia cares more about Ukraine than the West does and will probably get what it wants.

No one in charge of the fate of that country is asking what the Ukrainians want. They should, but they aren’t and they won’t. Such is the fate of the vassals of Moscow.

Will Putin's Invasion Backfire?

Back in the early 1990s, when the Russian chauvinist Vladimir Zhirinovsky first reared his loony head, analysts began discussing the “Weimar Russia” scenario. Accordingly, the chaos of the late-Gorbachev period (Weimar) would be followed by the emergence of a strong man à la Adolf Hitler (Zhirinovsky), who would impose order, consolidate the nation, and lead it to some imagined form of glory.

The scenario didn’t work for crazy Vlad, but it turned out to be useful in understanding subsequent developments in Russia. The chaotic period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s proved to be similar to Weimar Germany in the 1920s: in both cases, imperial collapse, economic hardship, and political humiliation were blamed on democracy and the democrats. And Vladimir Putin turned out to be Russia’s version of the Führer. Both came to power legally, developed cults of the personality, dismantled democracy and made the trains run on time, employed chauvinism and neo-imperialism to legitimize their rule, remilitarized their states and promised to make them great powers, and made it their mission to in-gather ethnic brethren in neighboring states.

Washington’s Awkward Diplomatic Void

Two highly effective US ambassadors have quit their respective “frontline” diplomatic posts within a few days of each other, and in both cases the timing couldn’t be worse. Ambassador Gary Locke, an American of Chinese origin, fluent in Mandarin, left Beijing—where he was a popular envoy—after two and a half successful years. At the same time, Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, Washington’s man in Moscow, is leaving after a two-year stint even as Vladimir Putin orders troops to the Crimea to counter the popular uprising against Ukraine’s pro-Russian government.

Seasoned American diplomats can’t recall another time when the United States found itself bereft of an ambassador in both Beijing and Moscow at the same time. Former Democratic Senator Max Baucus has already been sworn in as Locke’s successor; initially, there was something of a scramble to get a new ambassador in place in Russia before the June G8 summit in Sochi, which Putin will host.

Obama is now threatening to boycott the summit to protest Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, and the administration may decide not to appoint a new US envoy to Moscow as a further sign of its opposition.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Was Easy to Predict

So Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. I’m hardly an expert on Ukrainian history or politics, but I’ve been there, and I’ve been to the Crimea, and this was just obvious. It was obvious to me even before Viktor Yanukovych became president.

I drove down there from Kiev in late 2009 with my friend Sean LaFreniere and wrote about it in my book, Where the West Ends.

The photograph on the book's cover, by the way, was taken in the Crimea.

Here’s a brief excerpt of what I wrote then.

Night fell before we reached the Crimea. Sean and I were both too tired to drive, so we pulled into a gas station to buy cans of Red Bull. CDs were on sale next to the soda and chips. Sean grabbed a couple at random, plus Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The dramatic intro, O Fortuna, seemed like the appropriate thing to listen to when arriving in the one part of Ukraine everyone knew might one day, through either war or secession, be reunited with Russia.

Crimea is in Ukraine, but it isn’t Ukrainian. This part of the country really is Russian. By this point I had learned the alphabet well enough that I could read, so I knew the gigantic words “Автономной Республики Крым” announced to all visitors at the border that Crimea is an autonomous republic.

Crimea has its own flag. It hosts the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. It defiantly refuses to place itself within the Ukrainian time zone. Though it’s dead south of Kiev, it uses the more easterly Moscow time zone instead. It doesn’t have its own national anthem, but I heard the Russian national anthem playing loudly on the boardwalk of Yalta.

This is a town that is long past its prime. It’s undoubtedly a nicer place now than it was during the communist era, but, unlike Odessa, it’s provincial and tacky. Only a Russian could travel thousands of miles to vacation there without feeling a little let down and that’s only because Yalta is Russian and warm. Ukrainians go there because it’s nearby and warm.

Only a fourth of its citizens are ethnic Ukrainians. Less than a sixth are Crimean Tatars. Most of the rest are Russians. The government in Kiev has been trying for years to teach everyone in the country the Ukrainian language, but in Crimea it’s meeting the stiffest resistance.

One thing the peninsula has going for it, however, aside from an agreeable climate, is its spectacular scenery. While most of Ukraine is flatter than Iowa, the steep craggy Crimean Mountains shoot straight up out of the Black Sea, which shimmers in sun-drenched glory year-round. Even though Yalta is significantly north of the Mediterranean, the climate, at least for a narrow little band near the beach, is startlingly subtropical. It’s one of the only places in the world where a native Russian-speaking population can grow palm trees. It’s not only the language, but the political autonomy, and the general Russian-ness that set Crimea apart from Ukraine. It’s also those mountains and the trees and the moderate sea breeze.

Sean and I hadn’t booked a hotel, so we checked out a few places at random. The first was prohibitively expensive. The second, a chopped up former apartment building that must have been beautiful in its heyday, reeked of piss.

A third place was cheap, adequately clean, and had a large room with two beds, so we took it.

A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.

In the morning we strolled the boardwalk. The weather was unseasonably cold, almost freezing even though it was only early November, but the sunshine and the palm trees gave the illusion of warmth. Yalta isn’t exactly Miami, but Crimeans really do enjoy a charmed climate, especially compared with the climate Russians suffer in everywhere else.

At the north end of the boardwalk stood an angry-looking statue of Vladimir Lenin. I had the feeling he was still up there not because he was a communist, but because he was Russian. Communism is as dead in Yalta these days as it is in Warsaw. Just a few hundred feet away, and comically in the direct line of sight of Lenin’s sculpted furious face, was a McDonald’s.

For dinner we found a place with translated menus. Yalta just barely gets enough Western tourists once in a while that it occurred to a few restaurant managers to have a handful of menus laying around in the back in other languages.

Two young college-age women a few tables away heard us speak English. They laughed. They giggled. They tittered. This went on for at least a half-hour. And they couldn’t stop staring. Sean and I were like zoo animals. An Arab, a black African, or an East Asian would have a hellish time visiting this place.

Yalta was nice in a basic sort of way, but it lacked the polish and vibrancy of Kiev and the relative cosmopolitanism of Odessa. No one should ever fly from the other side of the world just to go there. It reminded me of what Samuel Johnson once said about a bizarre volcanic basalt formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.”

*

Crimea is a de-facto independent Russian-speaking republic, but if it weren’t for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev it would still be part of Russia. In 1954 he moved an internal Russian border around and placed Crimea in Ukraine. It didn’t seem like a fateful decision at the time, one no more significant than giving Idaho a slice of Montana. He had no idea any part of Ukraine, let alone all of it, would ever break loose from Moscow. He should have known it was possible since it had happened before, but he did not see it coming, or at any rate didn’t care, so this Russian-majority region is marooned outside of Russia.

Perhaps the only reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn’t moved to “correct” Khrushchev’s mistake is because there isn’t much point. Ukraine’s current government headed up by Viktor Yanukovych was friendlier than the previous government of Viktor Yushchenko, which Putin did everything in his power (short of invasion) to smash.

Ukraine’s 2004 election was rigged. Yanukovych was declared the winner when the majority wanted the pro-Western Yushchenko instead, whom somebody almost fatally poisoned with dioxin. His face was hideously disfigured by the toxin for a while, but he slowly recovered. The results of that rigged election were reversed by the Orange Revolution, when general strikes broke out and thousands took to the streets and said no.

In 2009, Russia turned off its supply of natural gas and let Ukrainians freeze in the winter, purportedly because of a financial dispute over prices and debt. The punishment was preferable, of course, to Stalin confiscating Ukrainian food in 1921 and 1922, but the message was a familiar one: if you don’t follow dictates from Moscow, you will be punished.

The crisis likely wouldn’t have been triggered at all if Ukrainians had elected a pro-Russian government. Moscow was already cheesed off by Yushchenko’s noises about Ukrainian ascension to the European Union and NATO. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine as a traitor state over it. There wasn’t much Moscow could do to stop the likes of Lithuania and Poland from joining NATO, but it won’t likely ever let its Kievan Rus cousins leave without resistance.

These kinds of problems don’t exist between Russia and Crimea. It might mean war if they did, or if a stridently pro-Western government in Kiev expanded its writ a little too enthusiastically, but that hasn’t happened.

Moscow doesn’t actually care very much about Yalta. The city made history when Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met there at the end of World War II to agree about which parts of post-fascist Europe would be in the Western camp and which would be in the communist bloc, but it has been a backwater ever since even if it’s a slightly pleasant one nowadays.

What Moscow cares about in Crimea very much is Sevastopol. That’s where Russia’s Black Sea fleet makes its home. Neither Sean nor I dared take any photographs of it, not even discreetly from the car as we drove past. It’s not a good idea to take pictures of military installations anywhere in the world, especially not Russian military installations.

In Sevastopol, once again, I found myself forgetting I wasn’t in Russia. The overwhelming majority of people who live there are Russians. The language they speak is Russian. Actual Russian soldiers and sailors were all over the place.

When the Soviet Union cracked up and Ukraine declared independence, Russia initially refused to cede Sevastopol and Crimea at all and only later relented when it signed the Peace and Friendship treaty with Kiev. Moscow need not worry overly much. Its fleet’s lease won’t run out until 2042. And if Ukraine tries to revoke it, Russia will almost certainly seize it by force, most likely to cheers and applause by locals who would feel liberated. Ukraine barely holds onto the Crimea oblast as it is, and on even numbered days I can’t help but wonder how long even that is going to last.

Read the whole thing.


Putin Draws Wrong Lessons From Yanukovych

If the old maxim has it that the only lesson of history is that no one learns from it, dictators must be particularly slow learners. Despite the definitive record of recent history—from Nicolae Ceausescu to Slobodan Milosevic—that attempts to suppress public discontent with brute force only hasten a regime’s collapse, authoritarian leaders still try to repress the opposition away, inevitably with the same results. Ukraine’s hapless president, Viktor Yanukovych, is just the latest example.

It seems that Vladimir Putin wants to be next. At least this seems to be the course he is taking, having drawn exactly the wrong lessons from Ukraine’s latest revolution. With Russia’s educated urban middle-classes, the backbone of the 2011-2012 street protests—a warning sign to Putin’s Kremlin if ever there was one—increasingly alienated from a backward, corrupt, and repressive regime, a wise course of action would have been to meet some of the opposition’s demands (such as holding free elections and releasing political prisoners) and allow for a gradual political transition.

Eurostar Comes of Age

Regular train users in the US will be envious to learn that the Eurostar, the high-speed Anglo-French under-the-channel train now covers the 308-mile distance between the center of London and the center of Paris in just over two hours. The rail service, which this year is celebrating its 20th birthday (it was inaugurated in November 1994) has had its ups and downs, including financial setbacks. In December 2009 it trapped about 2,000 passengers on two trains, some for up to 14 hours, due to an electrical failure in the Eurotunnel brought on by freezing conditions. But in 2013 the Eurostar finally reached its original goal of carrying 10 million passengers a year to and from the continent of Europe, and is making a profit—$84 million in 2012, thanks in part to the spike in visitors to London for the summer Olympics.

Are Chinese–North Korean Ties Starting to Fray?

The special relationship of China and North Korea has stood for more than a half century, and they are now each others’ only formal military ally, but contacts between Beijing and Pyongyang appear now to be conducted at a lower level than during the time of Kim Jong Il, the ruler who died December 2011, and the contacts during his rule were lower than those at the time of his father, Kim Il Sung. During Kim Il Sung’s reign, diplomacy with China was conducted on a personal basis with Mao Zedong. These days it would appear that the Chinese might be having trouble keeping track of their only formal ally.

Ukraine's Opportunity for Genuine Democracy

After 23 years of formal independence, Ukraine stands poised to take the final steps toward genuine independence by liberating itself from what has become the legacy of Soviet communism throughout its former empire—rule by criminal and thuggish regimes and oligarchs. Ukraine finally has the opportunity to join the civilized world where constitutions and rule of law, not party hacks and bullies, reign supreme.

Italy's New PM and Old Unemployment Problem

With a 2 trillion euro public debt and thousands of companies going out of business, Italy isn’t exactly the most attractive venue for a leftist political leader of overweening ambition. And yet within almost no time, Matteo Renzi, a virtual unknown, grabbed Italy’s helm, having deftly ousted his do-nothing predecessor, Enrico Letta.

Here you have to ask yourself: why? Why would Renzi, or in fact anyone, want the job of running Italy, much less push out a member of his own party, as Renzi did, in order to get it?  Unemployment among young people—traditionally pretty high because employees in Italy are almost impossible to fire—is now at its highest: 42 percent.

Venezuela Violence and Latin America's Divide

The outbreak of serious political violence in Venezuela has illuminated the ideological fracture that divides Latin America and thwarts regional efforts to increase economic development through cooperation in trade and investments. Another reminder came last week when the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between United States, Mexico, and Canada celebrated its 20th anniversary as an engine of growth that has produced, as of last year, a total annual trade of $17 trillion, making it one of the world’s largest trade unions, comparable to the European Union. In contrast, over the same two decades, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the main South American regional integration pact, involving Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela, has bogged down in economic disorder and internal political disputes that prevent opening up those economies through free trade with European and Asian partners.

The Only Way Out Is Exile

If Cuba needed a Berlin Wall, Fidel Castro would have built one. Fortunately for him—though not for his much-abused subjects—one of the world’s last communist regimes is surrounded on all sides by water, cruelly trapping its people. Thus Castro’s totalitarian state, Cuban exile Humberto Fontova wrote, “gave rise to psychic cripples beyond the imagining of even Orwell or Huxley: people who hate the sight of the sea.”

But the sea can’t restrain all of them. Thousands have shoved off into the water on devices as small as inner tubes, desperately seeking refuge in the United States. One in three die attempting to cross the Florida Straits, either from drowning, thirst, shark attacks, or exposure.

Until recently, possessing anything that might float could get a person thrown into prison. Things are slightly more relaxed now, so the likes of bicycle tires aren’t contraband, but Cubans still aren’t allowed to use boats. Only tourists can enjoy such subversive luxuries.

Try—just try—to imagine how repressive a government has to be before thousands of its citizens will risk death in order to flee and where millions more would rather reside within the borders of their home country’s worst enemy.

It’s no mystery why so many want out. Cuba’s human rights record is by far the most dismal in the Western Hemisphere, and as a predictable consequence has triggered one of the largest refugee crises in the hemisphere. I can think of nothing positive to say about Fulgencio Batista, the tyrant who preceded Castro, but at least he didn’t drive people en masse into the sea. Faint praise, to be sure, but I can’t say even that much about Castro. 

It’s a unique story in the Western Hemisphere, but a familiar one elsewhere in the world.

Totalitarianism is a radical departure from the standard-issue authoritarianism of men like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Chinese communists-turned-capitalists currently ensconced in Beijing, and the former Shah of Iran. Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained the difference in a landmark essay in Commentary in 1979.

“Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

“Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will ‘fit’ better in a foreign country than in their native land.”

Communism isn’t the only ideology that produces such explosive results. Hitler’s Nazi regime did the same, as do radical Islamists when they seize power. Iran’s Islamic Republic regime triggered such an enormous refugee crisis that the Westwood area of Los Angeles (where almost a million exiles reside) is nicknamed Tehrangeles.

And you’re almost as likely to hear Spanish spoken in South Florida as English.

“There is a damning contrast between the number of refugees created by Marxist regimes and those created by other autocracies,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “More than a million Cubans have left their homeland since Castro’s rise (one refugee for every nine inhabitants) as compared to about 35,000 each from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In Africa more than five times as many refugees have fled Guinea and Guinea Bissau as have left Zimbabwe Rhodesia, suggesting that civil war and racial discrimination are easier for most people to bear than Marxist-style liberation.”

Paul Berman, in his masterful book Terror and Liberalism, wrote one of the best descriptions of totalitarian movements I’ve ever read. In a single paragraph he managed to describe fascists, Nazis, communists, and Islamists simultaneously and captures why so many ordinary citizens can’t coexist with them.

“Each of the movements,” he wrote, “in their lush variety, entertained a set of ideas that pointed in the same direction. The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”

Ideas such as these are not indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. They are imports from the old world.

I recently spoke to political science professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida, himself an exile from Cuba. “Latin America had a liberal golden age from the last quarter in the 19th century and into the early 20th century,” he said. “But after World War I they were infected with the European ideologies of fascism and communism that seemed to be the wave of the future at that time. And they haven’t quite shaken it. They also have the traditions of populism and demagogic caudillos like Juan Peron in Argentina. These kinds of regimes always have a caudillo-like figure that can exploit the yawning social and economic inequalities that persist in Latin America.”

His family fled to the United States when he was a kid, but he remembers the journey and everything that led up to it vividly.

“For the first few months of 1959,” he told me, “we had high expectations. Castro said he was going to restore democracy. The middle class went back to work and their private lives, lulled into complacency by Castro’s reassuring words and the respectable people appointed to a provisional government—a facade, really, that he had put in place. Those who were paying attention to what the Castros were doing, however, picked up the signals.”

Castro said he didn’t want a top government job. He only wanted to be commander-in-chief of the army. But the prime minister resigned within two months and Castro took over, and a few months later he drove the president out. He sentenced one of his commanders to 20 years in prison for criticizing communist infiltration—which only goes to show it was worse than he had any idea.

“In the spring of 1959,” Cuzán said, “a friend of my father who had been a member of the Granma expedition told him that the army was being indoctrinated with communist literature. Also, one of my cousins, who was around 20 years old, complained to his parents about a similar development at university. Most people did not know it at the time, but as it had turned out, the Castros had imported Spanish-speaking Soviet agents into Cuba very early in 1959.

“The middle class was initially blind to all this. Life for the middle class before communism was fairly idyllic. We were not rich. We didn’t even own a house. Instead, we rented a unit in a triplex. I attended a small Catholic school in the neighborhood. Our life centered in the extended family and a few family friends. Even as agitation against Batista increased, the middle class could manage to avoid being dragged into it. Cuba had a long tradition of turbulent politics, with eruptions in the 1900s, the 1930s and, of course, the 1950s. But politics didn’t intrude all that much into our family. With the Castros, all that was about to change, for our extended family, as so many in Cuba, was split under their totalitarian regime.”

I asked him what, specifically, triggered his family’s decision to leave the country. The broad strokes are obvious, of course, but it took some Cubans longer than others to figure out what was happening. Cuzán’s family noticed it early. 

“There was a decided change in the political climate from 1959 to 1960,” he said. “Early in the second year Anastas Mikoyan, a Soviet Politburo member, arrived in Havana, supposedly on a trade mission. Before the year was out all Cuban media was under Castro’s control and fiery denunciations of the United States were the order of the day. So by that time anybody who had eyes to see and ears to hear could divine where the country was headed. We could tell that Castro was hell bent on imposing a dictatorship with the help of the Soviet Union, so we felt we had to get out before the exits were shut. Many people realized what was coming and did everything they could to leave to any country that would have them, the United States being the preferred destination for most. We tried to get a visa to come directly to the United States, but the lines to file an application were incredibly long. My mother spent hours in a slow-moving line, but it never moved far enough that she could get into the embassy. So she wrote to her uncle in Mexico and he helped us get visas. Once in Mexico we applied to come to the United States as residents. We arrived here in 1961.”

At least Cuzán got to leave with his family.

In the early 1960s, under a project called Operation Peter Pan, 14,000 Cuban children were sent alone by their parents to the United States, not because they weren’t wanted or loved, but because their parents would rather permanently break up their families than have their children suffer a lifetime of repression. Castro gladly cooperated because, as one of his henchmen later admitted, “anything that broke up the bourgeois family was music to our ears.”

The regime later let Cuban adults leave the country in order to relieve itself of the internal pressure.

In 1980, Hector Sanyustiz and three of his friends crashed a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy. Cuban guards opened fire, but they made it past and requested political asylum.

The Cuban government demanded Peru hand over the asylum seekers, but Lima told Havana to shove it.

When Cuban citizens heard what happened, 10,000 people swarmed the embassy grounds and likewise demanded asylum.

Castro had a serious crisis on his hands. His very legitimacy was at stake. He knew as well as you and I do that this sort of thing is unthinkable in a properly functioning and prosperous liberal democracy. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Belgium, Chile, and New Zealand are not clamoring by the thousands to flee persecution by their own government.

So Castro said, fine, anyone who wants to leave can leave—a wise move on his part. He needed these people out of his hair. And he needed to be able to say later that everyone who wanted to leave Cuba had left. (An obvious lie, but that never stopped him.)

More than 100,000 people sailed to Florida on American boats from the Mariel port with the Cuban government’s blessing. Castro also packed ships with criminals and the mentally insane—again, to get them out of his hair, but also because it was an easy way to poke the United States. 

Hardly anyone wants to move to Cuba. People vote with their feet. Before Castro took over, Cuba was richer than half of Europe and accepted more immigrants from the old world per capita than the United States. Today not even Haitians bother to seek refuge there anymore. Americans sure as hell aren’t clamoring to move down there, though Havana used to have a sizeable American population before it went off the rails.

There have been a handful of exceptions, however.

In 1971, Garland Grant, a member of the Black Panthers, hijacked a flight from Milwaukee to Washington DC and demanded to be taken to Algeria, a Soviet-style military dictatorship and a client of Moscow’s. But the plane didn’t have enough fuel, so he said “Take me to Havana” instead.

He was arrested on arrival for air piracy and thrown into prison. Guards beat him mercilessly and he lost an eye. 

Grant would never have gone there had he known he’d be sent directly to jail, nor would he have gone if he had the first clue what the place is really like. He swallowed all the bullshit about the island being a worker’s paradise and was shocked to discover, when the authorities let him out, that he’d been released from one prison only to discover the entire country is a prison.

“I just want to get back to the United States,” he told a reporter in downtown Havana. “I’m living like a dog in Cuba. There are more racism problems here than in the worst parts of Mississippi. I’ve been in the place six years and I’m out of my mind. Believe me, I’m all for the United States now. I’d even wear a Nixon button.” He did finally return home and spent more time in prison. He lives now as a chastened free man in Wisconsin and will not speak to the media.

*

Armando Valladares is convinced that Fidel Castro’s hatred of the United States partly explains his longevity.

“The old dictator’s proximity to the U.S.,” he wrote in his book, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, “and his confrontational attitude have given him undeserved support from the press, governments, politicians, and intellectuals of this hemisphere. I believe that if Castro had established his dictatorship in Africa or Asia, far from the U.S., he would have disappeared years ago.”

Cuba wouldn’t even need to be located in Asia or Africa for Castro to have disappeared years ago. It’s entirely possible that if the country’s geography were different—if it had a land border with another nation, or if it weren’t so near the United States, that the regime could have been dispensed with already. Surely it would be history if it were located in Europe alongside so many now-formerly communist countries, none of which long outlasted the fall of the Wall, not even Enver Hoxha’s in Albania, which was considerably nastier than Castro’s.

Yet the regime shambles on, zombie-like, and things aren’t likely to get much better any time soon if the government has its way.

I visited Cuba on a tourist visa and couldn’t book interviews with officials, but I managed to speak to one anyway. His name is Carlos Alzugaray Treto. He is a former ambassador and now a professor, and he gave a lecture at my hotel.

I put him under surveillance. Why not? His government puts everyone else under surveillance, including foreigners, so he has no right to complain. It was easy. All I had to do was clandestinely press “record” on my iPhone.

He was speaking in public, so he wasn’t strictly under surveillance I guess, but he had no idea I’m a journalist or that I intended to quote him. And not content to just passively sit there in the audience, I repeatedly pressed him as though I were formally interviewing him. It was my only chance to ask hard questions while I was in Cuba. He was a good sport about it, too, so I felt a little bit dirty for recording him without his knowledge and without telling him I’m a journalist. So I contacted him when I got home, told him what I had done, and asked for permission to quote him. He said fine. So here we are.

His lecture was about relations between the Cuban and American governments. He also spoke about relations between the Cuban government and its people, and what he said at first even sounded encouraging.

“We are in the middle of a reform process in Cuba,” he said. “We need to change the minds of people and the way they have been accustomed over the last fifty years to deal with their problems. The government is saying we have to change, to open up to a more market-oriented economy, and we have to decentralize. We have to open public spaces for debate. We’ve been working on this for the last ten years.

“I wouldn’t say everyone here supports the government,” he continued, “but many people do support the government and are happy with the government and think the government should stay. Yesterday I met with a bunch of university kids who saw a documentary called Offline, about the fact that there is no Internet in Cuba. They were complaining about it. These things are happening. The Cuban leaders are not stupid. They know what they’re dealing with.”

A Cuban restaurant for locals (not tourists)

That sounds nice and all, and it’s true that the government is implementing micro-capitalist reforms, but don’t kid yourself into believing political reform is coming. It isn’t. The regime will not share power. He admitted it openly.

Before I asked him anything, though, he spent a good deal of time complaining about the Republican Party in the United States. Anti-Castro policies have always been bipartisan in Congress, but at the same time the Cuban government has always had friends on the far-left fringe in the United States, and the Republicans are more vocally anti-Castro than the Democrats, so naturally he spared the Democrats and slagged the Republicans. And he spoke about inter-party and intra-party squabbling in such a way that suggests he’s better informed about American politics and where each party stands than even most Americans. So he set himself up for my first question.

I raised my hand. “You’re talking about the tension within and between the two American political parties, and I can’t help but wonder when Cuba is going to have the same problems. When are you going to have multi-party elections? If you take just that one step, so many issues here will work themselves out, not only internally but also with your relations with the United States. The United States would lift the embargo immediately.”

His answer wasn’t encouraging.

“The problem here is this,” he said. “Most people believe it was Fidel Castro who eliminated the political parties. But that’s not what happened. Batista destroyed Cuba’s political parties.”

“That was a long time ago,” I said. “The current government also doesn’t allow other parties.” He can’t blame that on Batista, who has been out of power longer than I’ve been alive.

“It’s not a question of allowing political parties or not,” he said. “It’s a question of allowing free opinion or not. The government allows a lot of free opinion. There is more free opinion here than you would believe.”

Oh, I half believe him. Every Cuban I met—present company excepted, of course—who breathed even a word about the government had nothing nice whatsoever to say. I heard nothing—nothing at all—but complaints. The Castros remained unmentioned, as was Che Guevara, but support for the government in general seems in my anecdotal experience to have evaporated entirely.

“I am a member of the Communist Party,” he said. “Some people tell me I’ve moved beyond that, but I am a member of the party. And I discuss things inside the party. I debate. I have opinions. Sometimes I have opinions that go directly against the majority, but here I am. Nobody has told me I have to leave the party because I’m saying things against the party line. Nobody tells me that. And whenever there is a discussion, I say what I think. Do I think there should be political parties? This is a question that’s on the table, but I don’t know how that would work, how we would do it.”

“Every other country in the entire Western Hemisphere has more than one political party,” I said. “Cuba is the only exception.”

“Something is starting to happen here,” he said. “We’re seeing countries that are friendly to Cuba that have multi-party systems, and that’s new for us. It will probably have some influence in Cuba. Some people here are saying yes. But it’s not on the agenda.”

He tried, and failed, to make me feel like I’m excessively America-centric.

“You come from a political culture that associates political systems with multi-party elections,” he said.

“Latin America has the same political culture,” I said. “Except here in Cuba.”

“But it failed,” he said. “The political systems in Latin America have all failed and they’ve been reconstructing themselves. It’s when the left has achieved power—in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia—that things have changed in Latin America.”

Things have certainly changed in Latin America when the far-left achieved power. But things have not gotten better. They’ve only gotten better when the far-left and the far-right have been removed from power and replaced with mainstream center-left and center-right parties, as in Panama, Costa Rica, and Chile.

“Think about this,” he said. “One of the problems in Cuba is the United States still supports only certain kinds of Cubans. I have been denied visas to visit the United States several times, but Yoani Sanchez always gets the visa.”

He’s referring to dissident blogger and author of the outstanding book, Havana Real, whom I’ve quoted before. Sanchez was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the entire world. Her book was blurbed by Barack Obama.

“She is never denied a visa,” he said. “She goes to the United States and is welcomed. She’s the icon of the opposition. She gets to meet people in the White House and the Secretary of State for Latin America. The best I could get is meetings with lower officials in the State Department. Come on. I am a 70-year old scholar in Cuba. I’ll bet more people know about me and what I say here in Cuba than have heard of Yoani Sanchez. She’s traveling all over the place, but do people read her?”

This from a man who has 112 followers on Twitter. Sanchez has 556,000. She’s much more widely read outside Cuba than he is.

But of course Cubans don’t read her. How could they? She’s a blogger and the government denies them Internet access. Communist Party newspapers sure as hell aren’t going to give her a column. Bookstores can’t stock Havana Real until the Castro regime is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition.

“We have invited her to our debates,” he said. “She once went with a blonde wig so she could fool everyone, but we all knew it was her. The person moderating the panel said Yoani Sanchez has the right to talk, but you know what she did? She said what she said and then she left. She didn’t stay to hear what people had to say about what she said. So I don’t think she’s very democratic, really.”

My face flushed red. “Cuba is a one-party state,” I said. “An official from a one-party state shouldn’t tell a dissident that she’s not democratic.”

He tolerated my questions and criticism. I’ll give him that much.

And I had one more question to ask him. What does he think about the fact that a million and a half Cubans live in the United States thanks to his government’s policies and that millions more want to join them?

“How many Puerto Ricans live in New York?” he said.

A clever response! He’s suggesting that the United States also can’t govern a Caribbean island well enough that people wish to stay, therefore it’s unfair to single out Cuba for doing no better.

I have no doubt he has used that line plenty of times to good effect, but it’s a dodge. A clever dodge, but a dodge. He might as well ask how many people from Kansas live in New York.

“Puerto Ricans are Americans,” I said. “And Americans move around. New York is full of people from other parts of America. When Puerto Ricans move to New York, it’s internal migration, no different, really, than Minnesotans moving to California or New Yorkers retiring in Florida.”

He nodded and smiled. It was a nice try, but I had him.

 *

 Visiting Cuba as a journalist without permission and under the radar is about hanging out and casually interacting with as many people as possible and patiently waiting for moments of truth. Those moments build up over time.

I met a Cuban woman in her early twenties. She told me she had 35 people in her high school class. Only seven still live in the country. Everyone else has left, including her boyfriend, who lives in New York.

He didn’t abandon her. They’re still “together,” though a long distance relationship can’t be easy to manage, especially since one of them is isolated behind the regime’s wall of water and iron. She plans to leave, too, when she can scrape up enough money to get herself to Mexico and from there to the United States.

I asked if she risked getting in trouble by talking about such things in public, though we spoke in English rather than Spanish, which offered her at least some protection from listening ears.

She shrugged. “Everyone wants to leave,” she said, “and the government knows it, so it doesn’t matter anymore if anyone hears.”

“How many people here actually want to move to the U.S.?” I said.

Her eyes widened and she looked at me like I was stupid even for asking. “A hundred percent,” she said. “Well, maybe not a hundred, but close.”

Yeah, maybe not a hundred. Fidel and Raul Castro are no doubt happy to stay. Che Guevara’s grandson Canek Sanchez left, though. He’s in Mexico now, calls himself an anarchist, and fumes against the regime. He is not allowed to return.

“People get to a certain point in life here and that’s it,” she said. “We’re done. We have to leave.”

The entire country has a glass ceiling and it’s only an inch off the floor. It doesn’t take long to reach that level, I’d imagine. She’s a lot younger than I am and reached it years ago.

I met another Cuban woman who is considerably older than I am. She told me she was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell.

“What did you think about that at the time?” I said.

I expected her to say she was thrilled, but instead she said she was terrified.

“I thought it was brought down by enemy action,” she said. “You have to understand, I was ideologically conditioned. But that didn’t last. I was stunned to see that on the other side of the wall were not enemy soldiers, but friends and relatives of the East Germans.”

“Why didn’t the same thing happen here?” I said.

She paused before answering and lowered her voice. “The government had total control,” she said. “It still has total control. It has more control over Cuba than the Stasi had in East Germany. Of course, the government didn’t want us to know the Wall fell. I only knew because I was there. The government treats us like babies.”

She looked at me with quiet desperation. I could read it in her eyes and on her face. Body language is the same across cultures and time. She is no longer ideologically conditioned. Her facial expression said help. She’s trapped, possibly for the rest of her life, and she knows now what’s on the other side. But I can do nothing, and my hands shook when we parted.

Humans disagree with each other constantly. There’s no avoiding it. Mature societies design mechanisms for handling it—political parties, scheduled elections, the separation of powers, civil society organizations, trade unions, space for public debate, impartial courts that uphold the Rule of Law rather than the rule of a man or a junta. Cuba has none of these. It has an omnipotent overlord with his minions and his army.

In a way, I am excessively American. My country mounted a revolution against a tyranny far less oppressive than Castro’s. Anti-authoritarianism is culturally hard-wired into my being. I felt suffocated and claustrophobic in Cuba after a while, like I was never alone, like I was a mere ant in a gigantic machine.

The longer I stayed, the more I yearned to get out of this perpetually hot and humid prison and back to my mild and gentle Pacific Northwest where tyranny has been forever unknown and where the government is a government and not a regime.

I won’t go back any time soon. Why would I want to go back to a place where people are literally dying to leave? The government won’t let me in anyway, not if any officials discovered my work and put me on a list. They won’t give me a journalist visa. That’s for damn sure.

But I don’t care if the government blacklists me because I will not return to Cuba until it is free.

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Israel and the 'Boycott, Divest, Sanction' Bandwagon

“Why should Israel, a nuclear power with a strong economy, feel so vulnerable to a nonviolent human rights movement?” the disingenuous Omar Barghouti wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month. Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights advocate and a big backer of an angry movement that has come to be called BDS, which stands for a three-part strategy: boycott, divest, sanction.

The aims of the BDS movement, which got going in 2005 but only recently reached its apogee of international fame—when poor Scarlett Johansson was basically told she was no longer welcome as the beautiful face of Oxfam because she isn’t boycotting Israel at all—are several. Some are absolutely straightforward and possible, and some—as BDS and Barghouti and a whole lot of others well know—are anything but.

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