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Sex, Politics, and Putin

If you’d like to know one of the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s phenomenal popularity in Russia, pick up Clark University Professor Valerie Sperling’s excellent new book, Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia.

Putin’s actual accomplishments are few. He dismantled democracy and muzzled the media. He constructed a fascistoid regime and perverted the very notion of truth. He marginalized the democratic opposition and, at least until recently, crushed the North Caucasus independence movements. He annexed the Crimea and doesn’t know what to do with it. He started a war in eastern Ukraine and, once again, doesn’t know what to do next. The bottom line is that Russia remains a Belgium with a bomb and a profoundly corrupt petro-state incapable of technological innovation and sustained economic growth, while having become, under Putin, a rogue state.

India Blocks China’s Attempt to Take Over South Asian Group

In late November, New Delhi blocked Beijing’s attempt to gain membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan are the seven other full members of what some call a club of poor nations.

At the group’s 18th summit, held in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, Beijing allies Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka pushed for China’s upgrading from observer status to full membership. India sought to defeat the initiative because SAARC, as the organization is known, operates on consensus and New Delhi feared that China would block its initiatives in the future.

Scotland, After the Referendum

New Year has always been a bigger celebration than Christmas in Scotland, and the New Year Hogmanay festivities were a good time for the Scots to start the process of reconciliation following their unsuccessful and divisive independence referendum. No less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II has warned them they face a challenging year. “After the referendum many felt great disappointment while others felt great relief, and bridging those difficulties will take time,” the 88-year-old monarch said in her annual Christmas broadcast.

But the Scots were already fully aware that what the Scotsman newspaper this week called “the most momentous year in Scottish political history” could hardly be shrugged off and forgotten. While a majority of the population voted not to end three centuries of union and stayed in the United Kingdom, 45 percent voted “yes” in favor of secession. As a result families were divided, as were communities and regions. For example: Edinburgh, the capital, voted overwhelmingly “no,” but in Glasgow, “yes” voter triumphed.

Erasing Israel From the Map

The Iranian clerical regime has repeatedly vowed to erase Israel from the map, but American publisher HarperCollins actually did it.

The company released an atlas of the Middle East for English-speaking students in the Persian Gulf region, and Israel isn’t on it. The West Bank and Gaza are on it, which is entirely appropriate since they exist and are not part of Israel, but Israel itself is just…absent.

The Tablet newspaper in Britain originally reported the story, and HarperCollins has since recalled the atlases and promises they will be pulped. Executives at the company headquarters are embarrassed and say they sincerely apologize.

Lower level employees, however, thought they did the right thing.

Collins Bartholomew told The Tablet that putting Israel on the map would have been “unacceptable” in the Middle East and that “local preferences” had to be respected.

He isn’t imaging those local preferences. I’ve seen plenty of Arab maps that don’t include Israel. Sometimes it’s labeled as Palestine. Sometimes it’s a blank space. Sometimes it’s there and labeled correctly. It depends on the map and, to an extent, which country produced it. Some Arab nations are less hung up on this than others.

Companies that want to sell products to customers really do need to think about what would and would not be acceptable or they won’t turn a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just basic business. 

But the map HarperCollins produced is a lie. Right there on its atlas cover are the words, “Learn with maps” in English. But kids can’t learn real geography from fake maps. Setting aside the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the product fails to live up to its own description.

Let’s get back to politics, though. People who hate a country so intensely that they can’t bear to see its existence on maps have a serious problem. I detest North Korea and wish it didn’t exist. So much better if it were joined to democratic South Korea like East Germany merged with the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But for God’s sake, I don’t require the maps in my house to show North Korea as blank. If I did, I’d have a problem and I’d need some help.

There isn’t much Westerners can do to change reactionary attitudes on the other side of the planet, and publishers aren’t generally in the political-emotional therapy business, but pandering to a denial of reality only perpetuates it.

If Middle Eastern customers will only buy a map if it lies, they can make their own damn maps. And if HarperCollins, or any other publishing company, actually wants kids over there to “Learn with maps” as it says, then the local delusional bubble needs to be punctured. 

US Investigation Topples Kremlin Propaganda Chief

MOSCOW — On December 19th, Gazprom Media, the Kremlin-controlled information empire, unexpectedly announced the resignation of its chairman, Mikhail Lesin, “for family reasons.” Lesin himself declined to comment.

Vladimir Putin’s former press minister, who oversaw the destruction of three independent nationwide television networks in the early 2000s, was brought back to run a key component in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in late 2013, just before the Ukrainian revolution and Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Over the past year, media outlets under Lesin’s control—including NTV television—intensified the information war against Ukraine, the West, and against leaders and supporters of the Russian opposition, whom the pro-regime media routinely label as “traitors” and “foreign agents.” Lesin has also launched an attack on Ekho Moskvy radio, which, though majority-owned by Gazprom Media, continues to maintain an independent editorial policy and allows alternative viewpoints on the air.

Is a ‘Proportional Response’ to North Korea a Good Idea?

Last Monday, North Korea lost all Internet connectivity for about nine and a half hours. Tuesday, service was interrupted again, for a half hour. The outages were apparently the results of low-tech denial-of-service attacks. The North's network then went out over the weekend.

So far, a few hackers have claimed responsibility, but some believe the incidents to be the handiwork of US Cyber Command. Yet whether or not the American military was behind the extraordinary events—Obama administration officials are issuing both denials and non-denials—the unusual takedown of the North’s Internet has raised the issue as to what constitutes a “proportional” response.

The Putin-Santa Letters, 2014

The Communist Party of St. Petersburg recently issued a statement to Russian children in which it warned them against the imperialist intentions of the CIA stooge, Santa Claus. (Seriously.)

Fortunately, Russia’s ever vigilant president, Vladimir Putin, is already on the case, as the below correspondence (intercepted by Santa Claus’s imperialist intelligence service) reveals.

 

Dear Vlad,

Would you happen to know the whereabouts of Viktor Yanukovych? I haven’t heard from him in over a year.

Respectfully,
Santa

 

Mr. “Santa Claus”:

Remembering Political Prisoners

Five years ago, on December 25, 2009, Liu Xiaobo, China’s most prominent dissident, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on subversion charges. Perhaps Chinese authorities hoped it would go unnoticed while the West enjoyed the Christmas holidays. In any case, they were apoplectic when Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. Receiving the news from his wife, Liu wept and dedicated it to the victims of the Communist Party’s June 4, 1989, massacre of the Tiananmen democracy movement protesters.

Obama’s Cuban Two-Step

President Obama has launched a new approach to Cuba based not only on the failure of the United States economic embargo to bring down the Castro regime but on a larger vision of more constructive US relations with Latin America. Obama’s re-engagement with Cuba won immediate support from governments all across the Latin American political spectrum. “Fantastic,” said President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil when she heard the news, remarking that the change provided new opportunities for greater cooperation in inter-American relations. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will lead to solid support in the region for a transition in Cuba from a one-party dictatorship to a genuine democracy with political freedoms and guarantees for human rights. Dissidents in Cuba, who live under constant police repression, may have a long wait before the relaxation of US-Cuban relations produces any political liberalization.

Party Crashers: Kremlin SWAT Teams Attack Opposition Meetings

CHELYABINSK, Russia — When, about an hour into the roundtable discussion on elections hosted by the Open Russia movement in this city in the Southern Urals on December 17th, SWAT teams and officers of the Emergencies Ministry stormed the room and ordered a forced evacuation, the speakers could not hide their smiles. Ten days earlier, exactly the same scenario—forced evacuation after an anonymous “bomb threat”—was used by the authorities in St. Petersburg in an attempt to sabotage the Open Russia conference there. That forum was also centered on the topic of Russia’s parliamentary elections, now less than two years away. “The regime is genuinely afraid of a serious and honest conversation about elections, because elections are becoming a problem for this regime,” said Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, who participated in the Chelyabinsk roundtable and was also shepherded outside by the police.

Ukraine's Pro-Reform Cabinet

Ukraine may finally have a cabinet able to introduce radical reforms. For the first time in independent Ukraine’s history, its ministers are young and Western. Youth matters, as it’s a measure of the degree to which individuals are still captives of the Soviet past. Western attitudes and experience also matter, as they presumably reflect the willingness and ability of the ministers to embark on pro-Western reforms.  

The composition of the new cabinet was announced on December 2nd. Most commentators focused on the fact that three of the ministers were foreigners—an American, a Lithuanian, and a Georgian. That was certainly indicative of Kyiv’s willingness to think “out of the box,” especially as two of the three received the crucial economic development and finance portfolios.

Pope Francis as Castro-Obama Intermediary

The day after the US-Cuban announcement of renewed relations, Pope Francis, by coincidence, received 13 new ambassadors to the Holy See and used the occasion to welcome the new agreement as a triumph of diplomacy. “Today we are all happy because we have seen how two peoples, distanced for so many years, make a step nearer to one another,” he said. “That was brought about by ambassadors, by diplomacy. Your job is noble work, very noble.”

“The work of ambassador lies in small steps, small things,” the pope told the ambassadors from Mongolia, the Bahamas, Dominica, Tanzania, Denmark, Malaysia, Rwanda, Finland, New Zealand, Mali, Togo, Bangladesh, and Qatar, “but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among peoples. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.”

Cuba: To Embargo or Not

It was bound to happen eventually: The United States and Cuba have decided to restore diplomatic relations after treating each other as enemy states since the 1960s.

Some are elated and some are despondent. Both sides can make a strong case.  

I visited Cuba near the end of last year and returned home with mixed feelings about the US embargo. Cuba is in no way a strategic or military threat to the United States. If diplomatic relations hadn’t already been severed a long time ago, Washington would have no reason to suddenly sever them now. In that sense, the embargo is an anachronism, a leftover from a now-distant past and a different era of history.  

On the other hand, Cuba has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Allowing the regime in from the cold gives it a patina of legitimacy it has done nothing whatsoever to earn, and it exhausts whatever scraps of leverage the United States had to convince the island’s overlords to free their people and share power like most other governments in the region.

So is restoring diplomatic ties the right call? I have no idea. I thought I’d return home from Cuba and take a firm stand one way or another, but some things in politics and in life are ambiguous.

What follows are my thoughts as originally published in World Affairs in March, 2014, before this decision was made.

*

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.

“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

I too brought soap with me to the island—full-size bars from the store, not small ones from hotels—but I didn’t want to make people cry wherever I went, so I left them discreetly for hotel staff, waiters, taxi drivers, and so on. And I tipped everyone as generously as I could since the government refuses to pay them.

None of this economic impoverishment is the result of American policy. The United States is hardly the world’s only soap manufacturer, for instance. Cuba can buy it from Mexico. Or Canada. Or the Dominican Republic. Cuba can make its own soap. It fact, it does make its own soap. The reason the country does not have enough is because the government historically hasn’t cared if the little people can’t wash. Soap is just one item among thousands that is strictly for the elite, for the “haves,” and for those lucky enough to find some in the shops before it runs out.

In a non-communist country where such a basic product is in short supply, somebody would mass-produce it and sell it. Soap-making doesn’t require nuclear physics. You can make it at home. Google “soap recipe” and you’ll see how easy it is. But Cuba is a communist country where private commerce is banned. If you make stuff and sell stuff, you might become “rich” and “bourgeois,” and the authorities will send you to prison.

That’s why Cuba is poor. Lifting the embargo would have little or no effect on such tyrannical imbecility.

Click here to read the rest of the essay.


India’s ‘Annihilator of Enemies’ Takes to the Sea

On Monday, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar approved sea trials of the INS Arihant, his country’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine. The boat, which first slipped into harbor water in July 2009, is designed to launch ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads. “Arihant” means “annihilator of enemies.”

The Indian Navy already operates a nuclear-powered sub. INS Chakra, however, is a Russian Akula-2, leased for 10 years from Moscow and commissioned in April 2012. This “attack” boat, designed primarily to kill other submarines, carries only conventional weapons, most notably torpedoes and cruise missiles.

A Landmark Meeting for Monarch in Waiting

In December, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, second in line to the British throne, made a one-day side trip to Washington from a longer visit to New York with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and met separately with both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Britain’s future monarch had a speaking engagement at the World Bank in Washington, so a courtesy visit to the president was good manners. But the Obama White House has done very little hobnobbing with foreign royalty and has been known to refuse occasional requests by other European royals for just such a visit, citing pressure of work or presidential travels (in which case, the royals in question don’t include the US capital city in their itinerary).

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