Friday, August 18, 2006

Castro-ating Cuba

It's not every day that one of the world's longest-standing leaders temporarily capitulates in favour of his brother. When the leader in question is also communist, America's neighbour, and a childhood friend of a figure as mythical as Che Guevara, the event takes on a surreal aura.

Which is why I was so disappointed with the quality of reporting and analysis from the various news agencies following the hospitalisation of Fidel Castro. The reportage was all depressingly similar. Cubans in Miami danced in the streets, nobody quite knew just how ill Fidel really was, and the White House issued a statement promising support to Cubans who pushed for democracy.

Yawn. Of course exiled Cubans in Miami would dance in the streets. Of course the White House would jump at the chance to issue a statement attempting to undermine Castro's authority. What did Reuters, the BBC, New York Times et al expect? Some op eds suggested that in the event of Fidel's death, a power struggle could ensue; others believed that Raul Castro – the younger sibling who has been entrusted, for the time being, with the keys to the Caribbean paradise that is Cuba – would introduce economic liberalisation while keeping a tight hold on political freedom. In other words, that Raul Castro would create a China in the Caribbean. As Bart Simpson would have said were he politically inclined: Dr Sant, eat my shorts.

Why have none of these highly-paid, well-read, opinionated political commentators wondered what Cubans in Havana and Santiago de Cuba really want and think about the issue? Why is the voice of Cuba being warped into the voice of Cubans living in Florida? Why is it universally assumed that Cuba is a backward country in dire need of reform – or indeed revolution?

Let's look at the facts. Cuba has little political freedom. It does not enjoy an independent press. Human rights are not universally upheld (although a number of so-called democracies do far worse). There is no division of powers.

These are the major no-nos. But what about the glass-half-full argument? What's on the flip side of this particular coin? In 2005 Cuba's Human Development Index (which is developed by the UNDP and attempts to measure human development, as opposed to mere economic growth) stood at 0.817 - higher than Mexico, Bulgaria, Turkey or India, for example. When the index ratio is contrasted with economic growth, it becomes evident that Cuba has done extremely well at developing itself, despite having a meagre GNP per capita. Money might make the world go round, but Cuba's doing pretty well, thank you very much. Besides, the economy has been growing by at least 4% per year.

Ask Cubans – proper Cubans, living in Havana, not second-generation Cubans with US passports – what they would like out of their political system and the answers differ. Some adore Castro, others dislike him; while a number of Cubans would like a more liberal political system, a significant number are quite happy with the way things are. The one thing that all Cubans agree upon is that nothing could be worse than US interference.

So why does the Bush administration insist on the ticker-tape propaganda at its Guantanamo complex? What point is there in having Condoleeza Rice chair a puppet 'Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba'?

The reason, I like to believe, is the philosophy of the pimple and the cold sore. Cuba is at once the pimple on America's chin and the cold sore on capitalism's lip. The pimple: Fidel Castro has survived seven US administrations, all while less than 90 miles away from US soil. Every US President since JFK has been openly hostile towards him – why should Bush and his warmongering entourage be any different? The cold sore: the USA has historically been vehemently opposed to anything relatively anti-capitalist. Cuba is a mecca for wannabe revolutionaries, old-school Reds and anything remotely 'un-American'. No wonder the country that gave us McDonalds, Nike and MTV wants it done away with.

Cuba's defiance is bound to end in tears. Whether it is a matter of weeks, months or years before it is made to toe the majority line is impossible to predict. But the USA is unlikely to give up its quest for a docile Cuba, and there are only so many times that a Bay of Pigs incident will end up with Caribbean egg all over White House faces.

You may not be able to buy the latest Playstation there, or access websites with overtly democratic overtones. But at least every child receives schooling, literacy rates are high, and everyone has a roof above his head. It may be the justice of Dostoyevsky's 'The Possessed', but it certainly beats the brutality of Suharto or Pinochet. Modern-day Cuba is a reminder that there is more to overcoming poverty than mere economics: growth for growth's sake, after all, is the mentality of the cancer cell.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The mirage of global justice

In Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, the title character never turns up. Didi and Gogo wait, argue, contemplate suicide and complain of various ailments, but all the while the ever-elusive Godot never materialises.

The play continues to confound critics to this day: is it an existentialist commentary? Who is Godot? Could Beckett have been writing about God? Is it a work of pathos and tragedy, or one of slapstick humour? Now, I – hardly a drama critic even by the most amateur standards – can volunteer yet another interpretation of the play. Waiting for Godot is actually about the global trading system.

Swap Vladimir for the western world, Estragon for its developing underbelly, and in Godot's place insert that perennial white elephant - trade equality - and Beckett's drama takes on a new dimension. Globalisation is best exemplified by the convergence of economic activity which it has brought along – but the stratospheric rise in world trade following its WWII abyss has been far from equitable.

Consider the facts: for every $1 earned by sub-Saharan Africa through trade, it incurs $1.06 in tariffs, levies and losses due to damaging terms of trade (the rate at which a country's exports are exchanged for its imports). Although world exports have grown by an astonishing 2000 per cent since 1950, least developed countries' share in global exports has actually fallen over the past 50 years. The EU and USA grant their farmers approximately $280 billion in trade subsidies every year in order to undercut developing nations' goods – a hidden form of trade barrier which the WTO has repeatedly condemned, but always shied away from tackling with conviction – presumably due to the political clout wielded by these two economic behemoths.

Compare these numbers to the much-touted figure of $100 billion in aid given annually by OECD member states. Consider that much of this $100 billion is 'tied' aid, which must be used on the donors' terms – using their own over-priced consultants, overhyped neo-liberal economic plans and over-zealous reliance upon free markets – or not used at all. Then think back to the various grandiose statements which have littered the new millennium: Live8, the Gleneagles G8 Summit, the promise of the WTO Doha round being the 'development round'.

The conviction that all men (and, naturally, women) are born equal, and that individuals cannot be discriminated against has long since become a universal norm. But if we abhor discrimination towards individuals, why are we so lackadaisical when it comes to starving entire nations to death? Defending civil and political liberties is important – but a culture which raises the roof about animal testing medicinals yet barely whimpers when informed that each EU cow earns twice as much in subsidies as each African gets in aid, is seriously ill.

At the end of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon both agree to leave – “Yes, let's go” the latter says. Neither of them move an inch. Global justice, despite the various promises accompanying it, remains as much a Potemkin village as ever.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Visions of Johanna

Going to a Bob Dylan concert/festival tomorrow in Kilkenny.....and will get to watch Mundy, Ray LaMontagne, the Violent Femmes and THE FLAMING LIPS too.

Perhaps understandably, I can't wait!

So, as a tribute to the great man himself,I'm posting the greatest set of lyrics ever written. And, seeing as I'm nice and generous, I'm even posting a link to the song:

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman's bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the "D" train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it's him or them that's really insane
Louise, she's all right, she's just near
She's delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna's not here
The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He's sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I'm in the hall
How can I explain?
Oh, it's so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

The peddler now speaks to the countess who's pretending to care for him
Sayin', "Name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him"
But like Louise always says
"Ya can't look at much, can ya man?"
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

P.S. Mr Zimmerman is releasing a new album in August. If it's half the album 'Time Out of Mind' was, it'll be the album of the year.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Blair Force One

So on the one hand we've got Make Poverty History, DATA and the wearisome rhetoric of Tony Blair (and lackey Brown) as well as Bono (and lackey Geldof).

And then on the other.....ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Blair Force One.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Climate change (Bloody hell not again!)

Interesting article in the New Statesman asking whether America's resistance to the Kyoto agreement is endemic to the nation or driven by the Bush administration.

The author of the article, a certain Elizabeth Kolbert, argues that Americans' reticient attitude towards climate change isn't due to ignorance or scepticism - it's down to selfishness:

Rather than assume that Americans haven't done anything about global warming because they are sceptical about the threat, one could just as plausibly argue that they are sceptical about the threat because they don't want to do anything.

I suppose this is the downside of being the most liberal society in the world - having people like Senator James Inhofe call global warming a "liberal hoax" and watching organisations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (which is funded by super partes organisations like Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute) discredit global warming, the UN Law of the Sea and mock vegetarians.

The result is a confused public which believes that 15% of the US federal budget goes towards development aid (the actual figure is 0.17%) and drives to huge pro-Kyoto demonstrations in gas guzzling SUVs.

People who argue that there exists a debate as to whether global warming exists or not are simply misleading people - so many scientific journals and papers have confirmed the trend that arguing to the contrary is somewhat Sisyphian.

A word of warning: I think the eco-warriors proclaiming apocalyptic damage within a week are a wee bit off the mark - actually, I think they're loonies. But that doesn't make the cause they're defending any less real. The train may not be about to ram into us, but we should get off the tracks all the same.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Hadji Girl

Can't believe the furore being whipped up over an innocuous song.

Although I find the entire song somewhat in bad taste, surely it doesn't merit the false piety and chest-beating condemnations being meted out to it.

This entire climate of mass hysteria is truly sickening. My sympathy lies cleary with the marine who wrote and performed the song - although I don't agree with some of his lyrics - especially the part about using a little girl as a human shield - let's not forget that this is a man who finds himself under siege in Iraq. If I woke up every day not sure whether I'd get to see the sun set, I'd like to think that I'd be forgiven a few minutes of idiocy.

And no, I'm not an apologist for the war. The invasion of Iraq ranks amongst the most cynical -or misguided,depending on who you believe - policy decisions since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Initial forays into blogger-dom

Have been meaning to get down to this for quite some time - but it was only last week, as I really got into digging up interesting blogs, that I decided that it was about time I gave it a shot.

My only concern is time - do I have enough of it to post on a regular basis?

To which, I would rhetorically reply, time is what you make of it. Cliche, touche, frappe.