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We’re at 70 Percent. Let’s Get to 100.

I’ve raised around 70 percent of the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring, but I won’t get any of it unless the project is 100 percent funded.

I’d like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible so I can plan my trip properly and get the prep work taken care of. I’ve already started that process, but I don’t want to move ahead at full speed until I know for sure I can go.

So if you haven’t pitched in yet, let’s get this done.

The toughest part about completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is getting the word out. I can reach lots of people with my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but it will help if I can reach even more. There are thousands of people out there who would pledge a little money if they knew this project existed.

A new Web site called Kickdriver will allow me to reward those of you who have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts of your own if you tell your friends and followers what I’m up to. You can collect rewards from my past Kickstarter projects and even get complimentary electronic copies of my books that are for sale commercially.

It's easy. If you’re interested, sign up at Kickdriver and let’s get this done for our mutual benefit.

Most important, though, please pitch in if you haven’t already.

Thanks, everybody!

I Need a Kickstarter Boost

My Kickstarter project is 54 percent funded and I will only get money if it’s 100 percent funded.

Help me out, folks. You need me out of the office just as much as I need to get out of the office, but I can’t do it without resources. The journalism industry used to cover travel expenses, but that’s a thing of the past.

Vladimir Putin and the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m on the Ricochet podcast again this week. James Lileks, Peter Robinson, and Rob Long interviewed me about Vladimir Putin’s general malfeasance and my new book, Resurrection: A Zombie Novel, which is still selling well and getting great reviews.

I come in at 18:15.

Botching North Africa

The United States government is putting another alliance at risk—this time with Morocco, which is a little like screwing up Canada. The White House is partly to blame, but the main culprit here is the State Department, the one institution that should be the least likely to drop the ball diplomatically since managing diplomatic relations is its job. 

Morocco’s main foreign policy problem is its Cold War with next-door Algeria which backs the Polisario—a communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Moammar Qaddafi. The Polisario claims the Western Sahara region in the south of Morocco, vacated by Spanish imperialists the same week its long-time dictator General Franco finally died in 1975. Most Americans have never heard of the Western Sahara, but wrapping up this holdover conflict from the Cold War is at the top of Morocco’s agenda, and there’s no excuse for the State Department—and especially its diplomats in Morocco—to blow it off like everyone stateside.

Yet State is blowing it off. And State is straining the US relationship with Morocco not only with its flippant attitude that the Sahara doesn’t matter but also with its nonsense-on-stilts belief that North Africa is some kind of Arab-Muslim Las Vegas, that was happens there stays there. On the contrary, the region is a conduit for guns, drugs, and human trafficking into Europe. It’s also an incubator for terrorists with a global outlook and global ambitions.

Libya is on the verge of disintegrating into a failed militia state like Somalia. In 2012 Al Qaeda-linked terrorist seized power in Northern Mali and posed a big enough threat that France saw little choice but to invade. Egypt is a darker and more sinister place today than it was when Hosni Mubarak ran it. Algeria’s Syrian-style civil war never did fully wind down and could mushroom again at any moment. All this is happening in a region so close to Europe that from one point—in and around Tangier in Morocco—you can see Europe.

Tunisia is doing sort of okay, but it’s tiny. Morocco is effectively the only stable place in North Africa. It’s also our only true ally.

Morocco has been allied with the United States for more than 200 years—longer than Canada. Morocco has never done anything bad to America. The United States has never done anything bad to Morocco. It was the first country to recognize our independence from Britain. It sat out the North African Barbary wars, the US Marine Corps' first major foreign engagement. It was a close ally of the United States throughout the Cold War, and it works more closely with Washington against the scourge of Islamist terrorism than any other nation in the Arab world with the possible exception of Jordan. The Bush administration upgraded Morocco to a Major Non-NATO Ally alongside Israel and Japan, and the Obama administration upgraded the alliance yet again with the Strategic Dialogue.

Western Sahara is not America’s most important problem in that region, but it is the most important problem for Morocco, partly because Rabat sees it as a threat to the nation’s territorial integrity, but also because—like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it prevents other states in the region from working together on the kinds of problems that concern the United States and Europe directly.

Most Americans don’t know a disputed territory called Western Sahara even exists. Fewer still understand it. Partly that’s because the Western Sahara conflict isn’t exploding like Syria, and partly it’s because the Sahrawis aren’t suffering in ways that make headlines. Those who actually live in Western Sahara are doing just fine. The Moroccans have invested huge amounts of money to make it livable. They’ve done a good enough job that the coastal city of Dakhla is a hot spot for tourists from Europe. But the tens of thousands of Sahrawis who live in the Polisario’s refugee camps in Algeria—which are really more like concentration camps—have been held hostage for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

It would be a relatively easy problem to wrap up if the United States prioritized it. There is no chance the Moroccans will ever cede territory to a gang of thugs sponsored by Castro, nor is there any chance the Polisario will force out Morocco. Rabat will no sooner “withdraw” from the Sahara than Washington will “withdraw” from Alaska and hand it over to Russia. So there’s no point, really, in pretending that the outcome is open to question. It isn’t.

But Morocco is not asking the United States to resolve it right now. Nor is Morocco asking for money. It’s only asking the United States for technical assistance and training for local government and civil society groups so the Western Sahara can govern itself and to help out with private foreign investment so the Sahrawis can wean themselves off the welfare state that exists now. The United States is good at these things. And it’s the kind of help that doesn’t make American taxpayers groan after pouring so much money into the sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the State Department refuses to do it even though it has been the policy of the White House during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Congress recently asked State to do it, and it still refused to do anything. So last year Congress passed a law, embedded in the appropriations bill, requiring the State Department do to it, and State is still dragging its feet, despite a joint statement from President Obama and King Mohamed VI last November where they embraced a “shared commitment to improve the lives of the people of Western Sahara.”

This is partly the fault of the White House. President Obama sent an ambassador there—Minneapolis lawyer and businessman Samuel Kaplan—who had no diplomatic experience and knew nothing of Morocco or Africa. American presidents have been rewarding their friends and backers with ambassador posts for decades. This is no way for a superpower to behave, especially in unstable, dangerous, and bottomlessly complex parts of the world where the US has precious few friends. It screams unseriousness. But at least the White House and the Congress are aware that this is getting ridiculous. The question at this point is, what are they going to do about it?

Let's Go to Vietnam

I’m finished writing about Cuba, but you are not yet finished reading about Cuba. Two of my essays haven’t been published online yet except in the e-book which has been privately distributed to those who backed my fundraising project on Kickstarter. (Those essays will appear here eventually, but I sold them to magazine editors and can’t publish them anywhere else in advance. One of them has, however, appeared in the print version of World Affairs, so you can always pick up a hardcopy if you didn’t back my Kickstarter project and want to read it right now.)

In the meantime, it’s time to raise travel expenses again, so I’ve just launched a new Kickstarter project. (Why Vietnam? Keep reading.)

I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking for funding and will give something back in return, just as I did for those who supported my last project.  

Check out the new project page for all the details. With Kickstarter, you can see how much money I need and how much I’ve raised. I won’t get any money at all unless the entire project is funded, so please make sure I don’t come up short. You and I both need me out of my office, but alas traveling costs money. There’s a promo video on the Kickstarter page you can watch, but here’s the text.

---

The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Just two short years later, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yet communist parties still rule five nations—North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end. Cuba was first. Next is Vietnam.

The United States lost the war there, but won the argument. Vietnam is still ruled by the Communist Party, but it junked Marxist economics and leapt with both feet into the global economy. The country is eradicating extreme poverty faster than almost any other in history. And its people are enthusiastically friendly to Americans—surprising considering our history in the 60s and 70s.

The Vietnam War is a wound in the American psyche. Even though I’m too young to remember it, I feel it a little bit too. But the Vietnamese seem to have moved past it.

Why?

Is it because they realize we were right about Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and the Soviet Union from the beginning? Or is it not that at all? Perhaps there something in the Vietnamese national psyche—tragically lacking in some parts of the world—that lends itself to reconciliation with former enemies. Maybe it’s simply because most Vietnamese are too young to remember the war, or because they were more wounded by the war with each other. The Vietnamese themselves might not even know. But I’m going to try to find out.

Vietnam’s citizens no longer live in a vast prison state like the Cubans, but is that enough? Is the country taking the same path Taiwan and South Korea did earlier, or will it stagnate like Belarus, Europe’s last total dictatorship? Will Vietnam one day join the United States as a major non-NATO ally like Japan, or will it plod along as a smaller and non-imperial version of China? Is Vietnam’s government blazing a path out of totalitarianism and toward democracy, or will the country explode all over again?

I don’t know, but either way, Vietnam should provide a dramatic contrast to Castro’s hard-line police state. My first-person narrative dispatches from Middle Eastern countries at war and in the throes of revolution garnered me three blogging awards and a book prize from the Washington Institute. But I still work as a freelancer. I don’t have a salary, let alone a travel expense account.

That’s where you come in. Fund my next trip—to Vietnam this spring—so I can produce a brand-new batch of first-person narrative dispatches. You can follow along as I publish them on my blog. And at the end of the project, I’ll publish all my material as a dispatch pack—including full-color photographs—that you can read on your iPad, your Kindle, or any other tablet or reading device. And if you don’t have a tablet or reading device, you can read them on your computer. Generous backers will receive public thank-yous from me, on my blog, and in the dispatch pack when it’s published.

I’m not asking you for donations. I’m asking you to participate and will give you something back in return. Let’s go to Vietnam.

What Vladimir Putin is Up To

So Ukraine’s Crimea “voted” to join Russia at gunpoint.

I have no doubt a large percentage of Crimeans sincerely wish to join Russia despite the obvious-to-the-rest-of-us drawbacks. Crimea has a Russian majority—58 percent according to the 2001 census. And Crimea used to be part of Russia before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved the border in 1954.

But just a few years ago, a majority of Crimeans in a national survey identified Ukraine, rather than Russia, as their motherland. The referendum ballot itself was highly dubious, and it’s spectacularly unlikely that a majority of Crimea’s Tatars and Ukrainians are interested in being subjects of Moscow, but let’s leave that aside for right now. Vladimir Putin is no more interested in what Crimea wants than what Kiev wants.

What he’s doing is simple.

U.S. Ambassador George F. Kennan described Russia’s mid-century foreign policy this way: “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”

Russia had been behaving that way long before Kennan figured it out, and it’s still behaving that way today.

Vladimir Putin isn’t a communist, but he is a product of the Soviet Union—he worked counter-intelligence in the KGB and spied on foreigners and diplomats in Saint Petersburg—and his view of Russia’s neighbors is no different now than it was then.

So when Ukraine could no longer tolerate being Putin’s vassal and overthrew his proxy Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine instantly moved into the “enemy” column and is being treated accordingly.

But it isn’t just that simple. Putin has a strategy. And it’s working.

What he most fears is that Ukraine might join NATO, removing yet another buffer state between himself and the West and kiboshing his plans for the Eurasian Union, a euphemism for a 21st century Russian empire. (Does anyone seriously believe Kazakhstan will be an equal partner with Moscow?)

Keeping his former Ukrainian vassal out of NATO will be easy now even if a militant anti-Russian firebrand comes to power in Kiev. The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.

Putin did the same thing to Georgia in 2008 when he lopped off the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he did it for the same reason.

A similar dynamic fell into his lap in Moldova, the poor and battered country east of Romania. The far eastern Slavic region of (Latin) Moldova declared independence after the Soviet period and calls itself Transnistria.

The world does not recognize the existence of a state called Transnistria, which is perhaps just as well. It’s still basically Soviet. The hammer and sickle are right there on the flag. Its first president, Igor Smirnov, groomed himself into a dead-ringer for Vladimir Lenin.

Putin couldn’t care less about what happens in Transnistria, but he keeps Russian troops there because they ensure Moldova stays out of NATO.

That’s not one, not two, but three times Russia has pulled this stunt since the end of the Cold War. Putin is doing it to Ukraine because it worked in Moldova and Georgia.

There is no exit plan. Russia is not going to pull out of these countries, nor will anyone force Russia out. It’s not worth a world war—not even close.

That’s where we are. Where to next? Well, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova could cede the scraps to Russia and join NATO as rump states, if NATO will have them. There’s not much else they can do. Because protesting and sanctions and diplomatic hand-wringing will have no effect whatsoever.

Thanks for Reading, and for Buying

Right out of the gate sales of my new novel are strong enough that Amazon is listing it in the top-100 in Post-Apocalyptic Science-Fiction and the top-ten Hot New Releases. All kinds of people who have never heard of me before are seeing my book now. A percentage of them will find my other books as well as this blog.

Thanks to everyone who bought their copy right away. This wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Those of you who haven’t bought your copy yet—I’ll take it as a personal favor to me if you buy it right now and push me up the ranks even higher. Greater visibility in online bookstores creates a positive feedback loop that drives sales ever higher. That’s how best-sellers are made.

Thanks again and enjoy the book!

(It's different from my others, I know, but hey, we all contain multitudes.)

New Book Release

Next month will mark my ten-year anniversary as a full-time journalist, but I’ve been writing fiction twice as long, for twenty years. During all that time I intended to one day write a book set in a post-apocalyptic landscape and I’ve finally done it.

This one is a zombie novel called Resurrection.

But as Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic said of The Walking Dead, “Zombie movies aren't about zombies; they're about how humans react to zombies.”

That’s right. 

The zombie apocalypse is just a way to blow up the world in a story. The real story of Resurrection is about how humans struggle to behave as civilized people after civilization has been annihilated. Would you be able to it? It might be harder than you think.

This subject isn’t as far afield from what I usually write about as it may appear at first glace. First of all, let’s not forget that Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, wrote a highly regarded book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton University Press published it.

Second, I’ve spent more time than I ever expected in parts of the world where civilization has been strained to the breaking point. Such strain does extraordinary things—sometimes extraordinarily bad things—to people who are otherwise perfectly capable of decent behavior. Just look at how violent Syria became after that switch got flipped. Four years ago it was one of the safest countries on earth you could visit, and now it’s the last place you should go.

No country is immune if it gets slammed hard enough, including the United States. How would Americans act after a civilization-ending event? That’s where this book is set and what it’s about.

It’s currently available for 18.99 in trade paperback and just 5.99 for the Kindle.

Early reviews (so far in the form of blurbs from other authors) are fantastic.

If you plan on buying this book, I’d like to humbly ask that you do it right away. When sales of new books are strong enough, Amazon.com lists them under “Hot New Releases,” driving sales up dramatically for the first month. This happened with my third book, Where the West Ends, thanks to you all and I’d love to repeat the experience. But Amazon will do nothing to boost this book or any other if it doesn’t first generate momentum on its own.

Here’s the description:

From prize-winning author Michael J. Totten

Welcome to a world turned to ashes.

Annie Starling is missing her memory of the last eight weeks--the most devastating in history. It started in Russia and went global in a matter of days, the most virulent virus the world has ever known. It's stripping its victims of every last thing that makes them human. And that's just the beginning. The other survivors are no less dangerous than the infected.

She meets Lane, who stops at nothing to assert power and control over everybody who's left; Kyle, who dreams of building a new world upon the ruins of the old; Hughes, who lost the ability to feel after burying his family; and Parker, who threatens to tear himself and his companions apart.

And when her memories finally return, Annie discovers a terrifying secret that could change everything--but she can't tell a soul what it is.

Praise for Resurrection

”For fans of World War Z and The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten's Resurrection is the novel you've been waiting for.” -- Scott William Carter, author of Ghost Detective

”In the tradition of The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten delivers a must-read with Resurrection. Action packed with a wicked twist, this is one book I couldn't put down.” --Annie Reed, author of The Patient Z Files

Resurrection dragged me in from the first page, with fast-paced, suspense-filled action and multi-layered and totally believable characters. Painting a vivid and gritty picture of a post-apocalyptic Northwest, Totten puts us into the minds and emotional struggles of a group of mismatched survivors forced to band together for protection even when they're on the verge or ripping each other apart. He also wrote one of the scariest passages I've read in any horror or suspense story...so be warned if you're afraid of the dark, or water, or both.” - JC Andrijeski, author of Rook

It’s currently available for 18.99 in trade paperback and just 5.99 for the Kindle.

Post-script: As of this moment, it's ranked in Amazon's top-100 for post-apocalyptic science-fiction. Keep buying copies and let's see if we can get it into the top-10.

Post-post-script: We did it! Thanks in part to everyone here, Amazon is listing the book at #11 in Hot New Releases.

Interviewed on the Ricochet Podcast

James Lileks and Peter Robinson interviewed me earlier today on the Ricochet podcast about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You can listen here. I come in during the last 20 minutes or so.

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. 

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.

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.


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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An Excellent Resource on Ukraine

I spent a week in Ukraine a few years back when I traveled by car from the Polish border through Lviv to Kiev and down to Odessa and Yalta. I wrote about it at length in my book, Where the West Ends. So I feel obligated to write about it now that the capital is on fire.

Kiev is a magnificent city, and it pains me to see it like this, but I should not be surprised. Almost every country I’ve ever written about is either in hell, has only recently recovered from hell, or is on its way to hell. I hoped when I visited Ukraine that it was on its way out, but I did not have a good feeling about it, as you’ll recall if you read my book.

I’m reluctant to wade in as an analyst, though, because I don’t know the country on an intimate nuts-and-bolts level. Let me instead outsource my analysis to my World Affairs colleague Alexander Motyl who writes about nothing else. I do know the country well enough to say that what he writes seems exactly right to me.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his recent essays where he takes issue with Orlando Figes who says Ukraine should break into pieces because it’s diverse.

Figes, who should know better coming from the UK, writes about Ukraine’s divisions as if they were unique and as if diversity alone justified or led to breakup. He’s wrong on both counts. Ukraine’s diversity is pretty much the norm for all stable states everywhere.

Is there one United States or are the divisions between North and South and Red and Blue states indicative of many Americas? Try telling the Quebeckers that there is only one Canada. Is there one Germany—or two (East Germany and West Germany) or several (Bavaria, the Rhineland, Berlin, and the rest)? Needless to say, there are many Russias—one centered on the Moscow-Petersburg axis, another in Siberia, yet a third in the Far East. And that’s not even counting the non-Russian regions of the Russian Federation. How many Turkeys are there? I can name at least three: secular Istanbul, conservative Anatolia, and the Kurdish east. China? Go tell the Tibetans and Uighurs they’re Han Chinese. India? Let’s not even go there. Austria? Vienna, as anyone who’s been to the country knows, is a world apart from the Tyrol. Perhaps Italy is one country? Take a train from Milano to Palermo and then answer the question. Surely France is one? Mais, non—as the Bretons, Basques, Provençals, Parisians, and many others can tell you. Isn’t Israel a homogeneously Jewish state? Only if you disregard the Arabs and the enormous distinctions between secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazy Jews. And so on and so forth. The only country that may be “one” country is, possibly, Japan, and that may be because it’s an island state.

[…]

What is unusual about contemporary Ukraine is that it’s exploited by a criminal gangster regime—Yanukovych’s— in cahoots with another criminal gangster regime—Putin’s. Many countries have the misfortune of being misruled by homegrown camarillas. Many countries have the misfortune of being dominated by predator states. Ukraine has the double misfortune of being misruled at home and “mis-dominated” abroad.

That’s why Figes’s suggestion—“Ukraine ought to consider applying a precedent from elsewhere in eastern Europe: deciding the country’s fate by referendum”—wouldn’t work. Personally, I have no doubt that Ukraine without its southeast would be much stronger, more stable, and more prosperous than Ukraine with its southeast. The southeast’s rust-belt economy needs either to be shut down entirely or to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars of non-existent investments. Moreover, the statistics plainly show that Kyiv subsidizes the Donbas, and not vice versa. The southeast also has a low birth rate, a high death rate, low life expectancy, high energy consumption, and high AIDS and crime rates. Last but not least, the southeast is home to the ruling Party of Regions and the Communist Party. Remove the southeast and Ukraine’s treasury experiences an immediate boon; its demographics, energy consumption, and health improve; and its politics automatically become more democratic and less corrupt.

Although lopping off the Donbas would benefit the rest of Ukraine, Yanukovych’s mafia regime desperately needs Ukraine to be whole. If Luhansk and Donetsk were to split away, their rust-belt economy would collapse without Kyiv’s financial support and the Regionnaires, trapped in their polluted bailiwick, would have nothing to steal. And what would Yanukovych’s multibillionaire pal, Rinat Akhmetov, do without easy access to Ukraine’s resources? A similar logic holds for Putin. What would he do with a rotten slice of Ukraine—a kind of mega Transnistria? Subsidize its dead-end economy? Spend valuable time and resources on jailing the corrupt Regionnaires and the troglodyte Communists? No, a weak Yanukovych regime in a weak Ukraine serves Putin’s interests perfectly.

There’s a lot more where that came from, so go over there, read, and scroll.

Let's Be Honest About Syria

Predicting events in the Middle East is for the most part a fool’s game, but once in a while it’s easy. When the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad began, I warned that it the country would likely become Al Qaeda’s next project if Assad wasn’t quickly deposed.

It has happened before. Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Algeria have all been grotesquely disfigured by radical Islamists during protracted civil wars. Al Qaeda and like-minded extremists even volunteered to fight in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian nationalist paramilitaries. More than 1,000 so-called “Afghan Arab” veterans of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union were initially welcomed in Bosnia since no one else offered to help, but the bin Ladenists were rebuffed in Kosovo when NATO stepped in instead.

It was also clear, in the Syrian case, that if the United States and Europe would not at least try to oust Assad indirectly through proxies, that the Saudis and other illiberal Gulf Arab states would back their own proxies.

And that’s exactly what happened. The US did nothing, the conflict festered and worsened, and now an Iranian-backed state-sponsor of terrorism (Assad) is in a fight to the death with Al Qaeda and other like-minded jihadists. Syrian moderates are too outgunned and outnumbered to affect the outcome at this point.

I thought we should get involved in a limited capacity by backing moderate regime opponents when they still had a chance, but the White House didn’t want to, nor did the American public—not after Iraq and Afghanistan—so here we are. Perhaps it was inevitable considering everyone’s interests and mood.

And now that we’re here, staying out of it is the right call. We can’t back Assad, and we can’t back Al Qaeda. Whatever moderate forces still exist have been marginalized. The odds that a stable and non-hostile Syria can emerge after an Assad or a jihadist victory are zero.

So let’s be honest about it. We’re not doing anything real about Syria, we were never going to do anything real about Syria, nor will we do anything real in the future. Pretending otherwise just makes us look like bumbling incompetents at best.

Here is Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest:

The President can only count his one remaining blessing: the press is still busy trying to shield itself from understanding the full damage this administration’s painfully inept Syria policy has done. Our Syria response has harmed America’s position, our alliances in the Middle East, and our relationships around the world — to say nothing of the humanitarian disaster we’ve implicated ourselves in.

To bluster heroically about how ‘Assad must go’, then do nothing as he stays; to epically proclaim grandiose red lines and make military threats that fall humiliatingly flat; to grasp with pathetic eagerness an obviously bogus Russian negotiating ploy; to sputter ineffectually as the talks collapse…it is rare that American diplomacy is conducted this poorly for so long a period of time.

To some degree we sympathize with those in the mainstream media who turn their eyes from the sight. It’s not just the decomposing corpse of Obama’s Syria/Russia policy that’s stinking up the joint. The comforting assumptions and diplomatic ideas of a whole generation of ambitious Washington foreign policy wonks are being discredited. They thought to build a new Democratic consensus foreign policy on the tomb of George W. Bush’s failures, but “smart diplomacy” turns out to be deeply flawed. The left is moving toward the kind of meltdown moment that many neocons had as the Bush foreign policy went off the rails.

All that may be left for the US at this point is to do what the Israelis have done—adopt a defense policy instead of a foreign policy, which means we’ll shoot anyone who threatens us directly, but otherwise we’re staying out. And if that’s where we are, let’s just admit it.  

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