Tuesday, September 21, 2010


September 23, 2010

Forget Costa Rica. Forget the Bahamas. Forget Mexico for sure. It's Cuba we're all longing to see. The land of Cugat and Arnaz, of Hemingway and the Buena Vista Social Club, of vintage cars and rollicking bars. Not to mention baseball.
Fidel's little admission recently made to a reporter from Atlantic magazine — and then quickly retracted — that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore" was soon followed by his brother Raúl's announcement that a whopping half a million people on the government payroll would be dismissed by next March, leaving them to find or create their own jobs in a loosened-up private sector. Equally whopping was his estimate that there are yet another half-million state employees who do virtually nothing and will also be released in time.
"We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working," President Raúl Castro wryly noted.
Talk about transparency. Such admissions, and such concrete proposals with hard numbers and even a fixed date, you seldom get from any leader, much less any "dictator." Something's happening on that island, and this is just the beginning.
Details of the plan are thus far sketchy — what the hell do you do with 500,000 newly unemployed? — but the outline released by the government last week gives a good hint of it: Some small state-run businesses like light manufacturing will be turned into private "cooperatives" owned and operated by their employees; this will absorb 200,000 workers. The remainder will be expected to find work on their own, mostly as small-scale entrepreneurs like taxi drivers, plumbers, farmers, and, as the document cited, wine-makers and massage therapists. The government apparently will not assist them in starting up these enterprises — no mention has been made of grants, small-business loans, tax breaks, job and management training, and the like.
Nobody outside the inner circle knows for sure what's coming next, but it does seem that the inner circle has a distinct vision for the future. Teams of Cuban economists have visited China and Vietnam; they are learning from the successes and disasters of other Communist countries' transitions to a freer market, and are determined to get things right from the start. Or so it seems.
What the Castro brothers fear the most is losing control of the process, something entirely understandable. I don't think they fear a revolution as much as a takeover by U.S. interests. They would welcome, of course, a relaxation of the trade embargo which has been strangling the country for decades — it's not just Communism that's made the Cuban economy the worst in the Western Hemisphere. But the last thing they want is to be colonized by their neighbor to the north — that's what prompted Fidel's own revolution in the first place.
If any country can make a peaceful transition to a mixed socialism, Cuba can. As the refugees and their descendants in the United States have amply demonstrated, Cubans are hardly lazy — they don't want to "live without working," they want to live in a society where work pays off. Those on the island have been chomping at the bit for an opportunity to make their country over, and in their own way.
They've been under U.S. interdict for so long that they already have a vision of self-sufficiency; their urban agricultural programs, for example, have been studied by American agronomists as models of "sustainability." What the Castro brothers seem to be saying is, with us or against us, we're going to prosper by ourselves.
By all indications, change in Cuba will not be violent but velvet. There will be no overthrow here. Most people in Cuba, I think, have a genuine affection for Fidel — he's not a despised dictator but a beloved father and liberator. If only the Castros can open up the country to private initiative while preserving the best elements of socialism — medical care, education, equitable distribution of wealth — they could turn Cuba into the Sweden of the Caribbean.
It's interesting that after that momentous announcement there was hardly a peep out of the State Department, and as far as I know, President Obama hasn't mentioned it at all. Perhaps they were taken by surprise and are pondering their next move. The best thing the U.S. can do at this point — and not only for Cuba, by the way — is to tear down that wall of trade.
These are exciting times. Maybe I'll be able to visit the Hemingway house and take in a ball game after all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


September 2, 2010

Using religion to advance political goals is probably as old as religion itself. Its claims to absolute truth and certainty, and its highly emotional character, excite political extremism far better than politics itself. We all know that by now.
That is why it was no surprise that Glenn Beck, the incendiary talk-show host, took his Tea Party followers to the other dimension with his "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend.
"It has nothing to do with politics," he shouted to the crowd. "It has everything to do with God."
Sure. With himself and Sarah Palin on the stand, it was pretty easy to see through that one. And staging it in the very place and on the very date of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years earlier made the event positively creepy. On his radio show he said he hadn't known about the coincidence of dates beforehand; it was "divine providence" that guided his hand on the calendar.
It was providence too, presumably, that anointed him, of all people, as the restorer of Dr. King's dream, which, he said, "has been so corrupted." It is he and his followers that are "the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it."
Beck's attempt to co-opt the civil rights movement with charges of "reverse racism" — remember, he once called President Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred of white people" — is only topped by his attempt to co-opt Christianity.
After the rally, in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," he called President Obama "a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim." On his own show the previous week, he had stated that liberation theology is "all about victims and victimized, oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it."
"People," he concluded on the Fox News program, "aren't recognizing his version of Christianity."
But Jesus might.
Take the Gospel of Luke, for example. Often called "the Gospel of the Poor," it is all about oppressors and the oppressed.
Right from the beginning of this Gospel, you know what social class Jesus comes from. Unlike in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is born in a house and is visited by magi bearing precious gifts, in Luke he is born in a smelly stable, and first to do him honor is a group of humble shepherds — the underclass.
When he begins his public life, he announces his mission: "to bring glad tidings to the poor," "to let the oppressed go free." Time and again in his sermons and parables, he expands on that theme. In Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says bluntly: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours"; and in contrast: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." In one parable, Lazarus the poor man is received at the bosom of Abraham while the rich man, who would not give him so much as a scrap from his table, burns in hell. In another, the despised tax-collector's prayers justify him, while the lofty pharisee's do not.
Even before Jesus' birth, his mother had already summed up his life and work: God "has thrown down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly."
For Jesus in Luke, the new social order he proclaimed was not pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die; it was arriving right now: "The Kingdom of God is among you." Jesus was the first liberation theologian.
Obama is hardly a liberation theologian, even by Beck's simplistic definition. He may favor rescinding tax-cuts for the rich, but his emphasis is on the middle class, and his policies and pronouncements rarely address the plight of the poor. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were more "liberationist" than Obama is.
Beck preaches a theology of personal salvation without a social dimension — which is odd in itself, since he is a convert to Mormonism, as "collectivist" a religion as you'll find. And in implying that "individual salvation" is what most Christians believe, he ignores a denomination as large as the Catholic Church, with its highly-developed body of official teaching advocating his despised "social justice."
The Tea Party philosophy — Don't tread on me, tread on them — presumes a Horatio Alger libertarianism that, had Jesus embraced it, would have catapulted him from the barn to the boardroom in 33 short years. But no. Jesus was born poor and died poor, in solidarity with the poor.
Too bad Jesus wasn't a featured speaker at the "Restoring Honor" rally. You wonder what he'd have to say.