Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sunday Reading

Why Trump Won’t Release His Taxes — The New York Times reports on how Donald Trump was able to parlay business losses into not paying federal income taxes.

Donald J. Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years, records obtained by The New York Times show.

The 1995 tax records, never before disclosed, reveal the extraordinary tax benefits that Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, derived from the financial wreckage he left behind in the early 1990s through mismanagement of three Atlantic City casinos, his ill-fated foray into the airline business and his ill-timed purchase of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.

Tax experts hired by The Times to analyze Mr. Trump’s 1995 records said that tax rules especially advantageous to wealthy filers would have allowed Mr. Trump to use his $916 million loss to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income over an 18-year period.

Although Mr. Trump’s taxable income in subsequent years is as yet unknown, a $916 million loss in 1995 would have been large enough to wipe out more than $50 million a year in taxable income over 18 years.

The $916 million loss certainly could have eliminated any federal income taxes Mr. Trump otherwise would have owed on the $50,000 to $100,000 he was paid for each episode of “The Apprentice,” or the roughly $45 million he was paid between 1995 and 2009 when he was chairman or chief executive of the publicly traded company he created to assume ownership of his troubled Atlantic City casinos. Ordinary investors in the new company, meanwhile, saw the value of their shares plunge to 17 cents from $35.50, while scores of contractors went unpaid for work on Mr. Trump’s casinos and casino bondholders received pennies on the dollar.

“He has a vast benefit from his destruction” in the early 1990s, said one of the experts, Joel Rosenfeld, an assistant professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. Mr. Rosenfeld offered this description of what he would advise a client who came to him with a tax return like Mr. Trump’s: “Do you realize you can create $916 million in income without paying a nickel in taxes?”

Mr. Trump declined to comment on the documents. Instead, the campaign released a statement that neither challenged nor confirmed the $916 million loss.

“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required,” the statement said. “That being said, Mr. Trump has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, sales and excise taxes, real estate taxes, city taxes, state taxes, employee taxes and federal taxes.”

The statement continued, “Mr. Trump knows the tax code far better than anyone who has ever run for President and he is the only one that knows how to fix it.”

Separately, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, Marc E. Kasowitz, emailed a letter to The Times arguing that publication of the records is illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns. Mr. Kasowitz threatened “prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.”

Mr. Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public — breaking with decades of tradition in presidential contests — has emerged as a central issue in the campaign, with a majority of voters saying he should release them. Mr. Trump has declined to do so, and has said he is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

At last Monday’s presidential debate, when Hillary Clinton suggested Mr. Trump was refusing to release his tax returns so voters would not know “he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” and when she also pointed out that Mr. Trump had once revealed to casino regulators that he paid no federal income taxes in the late 1970s, Mr. Trump retorted, “That makes me smart.”

The tax experts consulted by The Times said nothing in the 1995 documents suggested any wrongdoing by Mr. Trump, even if the extraordinary size of the loss he declared would have probably attracted extra scrutiny from I.R.S. examiners. “The I.R.S., when they see a negative $916 million, that has to pop out,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.

The documents examined by The Times represent a small fraction of the voluminous tax returns Mr. Trump would have filed in 1995.

The documents consisted of three pages from what appeared to be Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax returns. The pages were mailed last month to Susanne Craig, a reporter at The Times who has written about Mr. Trump’s finances. The documents were the first page of a New York State resident income tax return, the first page of a New Jersey nonresident tax return and the first page of a Connecticut nonresident tax return. Each page bore the names and Social Security numbers of Mr. Trump and Marla Maples, his wife at the time. Only the New Jersey form had what appeared to be their signatures.

The three documents arrived by mail at The Times with a postmark indicating they had been sent from New York City. The return address claimed the envelope had been sent from Trump Tower.

On Wednesday, The Times presented the tax documents to Jack Mitnick, a lawyer and certified public accountant who handled Mr. Trump’s tax matters for more than 30 years, until 1996. Mr. Mitnick was listed as the preparer on the New Jersey tax form.

A flaw in the tax software program he used at the time prevented him from being able to print a nine-figure loss on Mr. Trump’s New York return, he said. So, for example, the loss of “-915,729,293” on Line 18 of the return printed out as “5,729,293.” As a result, Mr. Mitnick recalled, he had to use his typewriter to manually add the “-91,” thus explaining why the first two digits appeared to be in a different font and were slightly misaligned from the following seven digits.

“This is legit,” he said, stabbing a finger into the document.

Because the documents sent to The Times did not include any pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 federal tax return, it is impossible to determine how much he may have donated to charity that year. The state documents do show, though, that Mr. Trump declined the opportunity to contribute to the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fund, the New Jersey Wildlife Conservation Fund or the Children’s Trust Fund. He also declined to contribute $1 toward public financing of New Jersey’s elections for governor.

The tax documents also do not shed any light on Mr. Trump’s claimed net worth of about $2 billion at that time. This is because the complex calculations of business deductions that produced a tax loss of $916 million are a separate matter from how Mr. Trump valued his assets, the tax experts said.

Nor does the $916 million loss suggest that Mr. Trump was insolvent or effectively bankrupt in 1995. The cash flow generated by his various businesses that year was more than enough to service his various debts.

But fragmentary as they are, the documents nonetheless provide new insight into Mr. Trump’s finances, a subject of intense scrutiny given Mr. Trump’s emphasis on his business record during the presidential campaign.

The documents show, for example, that while Mr. Trump reported $7.4 million in interest income in 1995, he made only $6,108 in wages, salaries and tips. They also suggest Mr. Trump took full advantage of generous tax loopholes specifically available to commercial real estate developers to claim a $15.8 million loss in 1995 on his real estate holdings and partnerships.

But the most important revelation from the 1995 tax documents is just how much Mr. Trump may have benefited from a tax provision that is particularly prized by America’s dynastic families, which, like the Trumps, hold their wealth inside byzantine networks of partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations.

The provision, known as net operating loss, or N.O.L., allows a dizzying array of deductions, business expenses, real estate depreciation, losses from the sale of business assets and even operating losses to flow from the balance sheets of those partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations onto the personal tax returns of men like Mr. Trump. In turn, those losses can be used to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income from, say, book royalties or branding deals.

Better still, if the losses are big enough, they can cancel out taxable income earned in other years. Under I.R.S. rules in 1995, net operating losses could be used to wipe out taxable income earned in the three years before and the 15 years after the loss. (The effect of net operating losses on state income taxes varies, depending on each state’s tax regime.)

The tax experts consulted by The Times said the $916 million net operating loss declared by Mr. Trump in 1995 almost certainly included large net operating losses carried forward from the early 1990s, when most of Mr. Trump’s key holdings were hemorrhaging money. Indeed, by 1990, his entire business empire was on the verge of collapse. In a few short years, he had amassed $3.4 billion in debt — personally guaranteeing $832 million of it — to assemble a portfolio that included three casinos and a hotel in Atlantic City, the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, an airline and a huge yacht.

Reports that year by New Jersey casino regulators gave glimpses of the balance sheet carnage. The Trump Taj Mahal casino reported a $25.5 million net loss during its first six months of 1990; the Trump’s Castle casino lost $43.5 million for the year. His airline, Trump Shuttle, lost $34.5 million during just the first six months of that year.

“Simply put, the organization is in dire financial straits,” the casino regulators concluded.

Reports by New Jersey’s casino regulators strongly suggested that Mr. Trump had claimed large net operating losses on his taxes in the early 1990s. Their reports, for example, revealed that Mr. Trump had carried forward net operating losses in both 1991 and 1993. What’s more, the reports said the losses he claimed were large enough to virtually cancel out any taxes he might owe on the millions of dollars of debt that was being forgiven by his creditors. (The I.R.S. considers forgiven debt to be taxable income.)

But crucially, the casino regulators redacted the precise size of the net operating losses in the public versions of their reports. Two former New Jersey officials, who were privy to the unredacted documents, could not recall the precise size of the numbers, but said they were substantial.

Politico, which previously reported that Mr. Trump most likely paid no income taxes in 1991 and 1993 based on the casino commission’s description of his net operating losses, asked Mr. Trump to comment. “Welcome to the real estate business,” he replied in an email.

Now, thanks to Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, the degree to which he spun all those years of red ink into tax write-off gold may finally be apparent.

Mr. Mitnick, the lawyer and accountant, was the person Mr. Trump leaned on most to do the spinning. Mr. Mitnick worked for a small Long Island accounting firm that specialized in handling tax issues for wealthy New York real estate families. He had long handled tax matters for Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and he said he began doing Donald Trump’s taxes after Mr. Trump turned 18.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Mitnick said he could not divulge details of Mr. Trump’s finances without Mr. Trump’s consent. But he did talk about Mr. Trump’s approaches to taxes, and he contrasted Fred Trump’s attention to detail with what he described as Mr. Trump’s brash and undisciplined style. He recalled, for example, that when Donald and Ivana Trump came in each year to sign their tax forms, it was almost always Ivana who asked more questions.

But if Mr. Trump lacked a sophisticated understanding of the tax code, and if he rarely showed any interest in the details behind various tax strategies, Mr. Mitnick said he clearly grasped the critical role taxes would play in helping him build wealth. “He knew we could use the tax code to protect him,” Mr. Mitnick said.

According to Mr. Mitnick, Mr. Trump’s use of net operating losses was no different from that of his other wealthy clients. “This may have had a couple extra digits compared to someone else’s operation, but they all benefited in the same way,” he said, pointing to the $916 million loss on Mr. Trump’s tax returns.

In “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 best-selling book, Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Mitnick as “my accountant” — although he misspelled his name. Mr. Trump described consulting with Mr. Mitnick on the tax implications of deals he was contemplating and seeking his advice on how new federal tax regulations might affect real estate write-offs.

Mr. Mitnick, though, said there were times when even he, for all his years helping wealthy New Yorkers navigate the tax code, found it difficult to face the incongruity of his work for Mr. Trump. He felt keenly aware that Mr. Trump was living a life of unimaginable luxury thanks in part to Mr. Mitnick’s ability to relieve him of the burden of paying taxes like everyone else.

“Here the guy was building incredible net worth and not paying tax on it,” he said.

Now Is The Time — John Nichols in The Nation on expressing solidarity with Arab-Americans.

The ugly political climate of 2016 has made this a rough year for the Arab-American community.

Donald Trump’s cruel and unusual campaign has had many targets. But he has been particularly vile in his targeting of Muslims and immigrants from Middle Eastern countries.

By openly disregarding constitutional provisions that were designed to guard against religious tests and to guarantee equal protection under the law for all Americans, Trump has mainstreamed deliberate ignorance and crude bigotry. He has called for banning Muslim immigration. He had stoked resentment against Syrian refugees of all backgrounds. He has entertained the idea of compiling a national database of Muslims living in the United States. And he has opened a discussion about surveillance of houses of worship with suggestions that “we have to be very strong in terms of looking at the mosques.”

The Arab-American community is diverse. Arab Americans are Muslims and Christians; they are religious and secular; they trace their roots to many countries; some are recent immigrants but many have family histories in the US that extend back as far as those of the Republican presidential nominee. What they have in common is a shared sense of having been stereotyped and targeted unfairly in this election campaign.

Arab-Americans of all backgrounds say they feel frustrated and “exhausted” after a year of having to defend themselves from Trump’s attacks. “I was born, raised in America,” Ron Amen, a member of the large and well-established Arab-American community in Dearborn, Michigan, told NPR in a poignant discussion of the campaign. “I served this country in the military. I served this country as a police officer for 32 years. I don’t know what else I would have to prove to people like Mr. Trump that I’m not a threat to this country.

It is by now well understood that Trump’s rhetoric has fostered a climate of fear and intimidation that is not just divisive. It is, as Congressman Keith Ellison and others have suggested, a source of understandable anxiety and fear for those who Trump targets.

“He’s whipping up hatred to scapegoat a minority religious group, which has some very dangerous historic precedents,” Ellison explained last year. “I mean, it’s the kind of behavior, it’s classic demagoguery, and you know, he’s going to get somebody hurt.”

In divided and dangerous times, it is vital for rational and responsible Americans to speak up. It is important to criticize Trump when he makes bigoted statements. It is also important to express solidarity with individuals and groups that are targeted by Trump — and with organizations that push back against the politicians who stoke fear and resentment.

This is about much more than politics. This is about being on the right side of history.

That is why it mattered, a lot, when Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile on Friday joined Dr. James Zogby (the co-founder and president of the Arab American Institute who was appointed by President Obama to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2013 and who chairs the Democratic National Committee’s ethnic council) in issuing a extended statement of solidarity with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee:

The Democratic Party shares the mission of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). We stand for diversity, inclusivity, freedom of religion, and we celebrate the contributions of hardworking immigrants and Americans of all ethnicities. This year, we’ve seen a troubling rise in hateful and divisive political rhetoric aimed at Muslim Americans and immigrants, so it’s crucial for those of us who believe that our diversity is our strength to aggressively defend victims of discrimination, and to warmly welcome people of every background into our communities.

Issued to celebrate the annual convention of the ADC, a major gathering of Arab Americans and their allies, the statement declared that “the Democratic Party is proud to stand with our Arab American brothers and sisters. We look forward to working hand-in-hand to defend the rights of Arab Americans, to end stereotyping and discrimination, and to fight for the causes of peace, prosperity and security for all.”

Democrats, and responsible Republicans, have hailed the work of the ADC before.

But these words represent a welcome and necessary show of solidarity that merits notation and celebration. Because in times like these, “solidarity” must become the watchword of a more humane and progressive politics.

Havana Hustle — Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker on Donald Trump’s skirting the embargo.

In 1998, a decade after his ghostwritten memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” made him a household name in the United States, the New York real-estate developer Donald Trump sent a team of consultants to Cuba to sniff out new business opportunities. According to a story in the current issue of Newsweek, Trump paid the expenses for the consultants, who worked for the Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corporation. Their bill came to $68,551.88.

The payment was illegal, and was also covered up. Documents obtained by Newsweek suggest that Trump’s executives knew as much, and sought to conceal the payments by making it appear that they had gone to a charitable effort. Clearly, Trump’s company, then called Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, knowingly violated the long-standing U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, part of the Trading with the Enemy Act—which, as it happens, is still on the books today, despite President Obama’s restoration of relations with Cuba, in December, 2014. The embargo is a complex bundle of laws and prohibitions that have accrued over a half century and that can only be done away with by a majority vote in Congress, which seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

If Trump’s violation of the act had been discovered earlier, the developer could have been sentenced to up to ten years in prison and fined as much as a million dollars. In 2004, the U.S. imposed an undisclosed fine on the Spanish airline Iberia for transporting Cuban goods through the United States. In 2005, an American businessman pleaded guilty to violating the embargo by selling water-purification supplies to Cuba. He and two of his associates, who pleaded guilty a year earlier, were given probation sentences, after years in court. The statute of limitations on Trump’s venture into Cuba has now run out, and he has escaped the likelihood of criminal prosecution. But by compounding the growing perception that he is an inveterate cheat and liar, it could further damage his chances of winning the Presidency on November 8th.

Trump not only violated the embargo but also took ostentatiously hypocritical positions on it. In November, 1999, less than a year after he sent the consultants to Cuba, Trump flirted with launching his first Presidential bid, as the candidate of the Reform Party, at an event hosted by the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, in Miami. Trump swore to his audience that he would never do business in Cuba until Fidel Castro, whom he called “a murderer” and “a bad guy in every respect,” was dead and gone. He added that he thought the embargo was a good thing because money spent on the island went to Castro, not to the people of Cuba. Trump received big applause for his expressions of solidarity with Cuban-Americans, and even cracked a joke that he’d oversee their victory over Communism as either “the greatest developer in the country or the greatest President you’ve had in a long time.”

During the Presidential race, Trump has altered course on Cuba. Last year, during the primary campaign, Trump said that he supported government efforts to restore relations with the island. Then, at a Miami rally two weeks ago, Trump claimed that Obama should have secured better terms in negotiations with Cuba, and that “unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” he would reverse Obama’s executive orders. Among his demands, Trump said, were “religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.” The change in position received little notice at the time because of another statement Trump made at that rally: that Hillary Clinton’s bodyguards should disarm themselves, “to see what happens.”

The End of Automotive Styling — Ian Bogost on the death of the sexy car.

The automobile has become the enemy of progress. It’s an unlikely outcome, from the vantage point of the 20th century. Not that long ago, cars were still unequivocal symbols of personal power—especially in America, where basic mobility is often impossible without one.

But now cars are increasingly uncool. For one part, they’re a major source of carbon emissions, and thereby a principal cause of global warming. For another part, they’re expensive to own and operate, especially in big cities. The high-status technology, media, and finance professionals who live in cities like New York and San Francisco and the like can get around by public transit, on foot, and by bike. Elsewhere, the recession stifled car purchases and use among all demographics. Millennials just entering the workforce, who might have started buying cars had the economy been better, are more likely to have found and then acclimated to other options—including ride-hailing services like Uber.

Then there’s the robocars. Once a wild-west, self-driving are cars gaining momentum. Google has been driving robotic Lexus SUVs in Mountain View for years. Uber has begun a working trial of an autonomous fleet in Pittsburgh. Tesla has installed partially-autonomous “autopilot” in its cars for years. And finally (thanks partially to Tesla autopilot’s questionable safety record) the U.S. government has issued guidelines for autonomous vehicles, along with an endorsement of their promise for the future.

Autonomous cars are destined to become fleet cars. Services like Uber and Lyft depend on the idea that riders don’t want to own cars, but only to rent them when needed. Making the cars drive themselves removes the need for people to operate them, too—thereby snuffing out all the human pleasure associated with driving. While still hypothetical, Google’s autonomous cars will likely work the same way. Like many technology businesses, Google and Uber are based on the premise that people don’t want to own anything—whether a word processor or an automobile—but only to borrow them on-demand. Leasing a car feels much the same as owning one. The lessee is still responsible for it, still garages it, still winces at dings on its surface. But nowadays, a different kind of lease has become common: the transient usage of software-driven services that appear and disappear at whim. Google Docs leaves much to be desired, but who cares when it’s free and easy to use? A particular Uber ride might be more or less unpleasant than another, but soon enough it will drive away never to be seen again. Goods become tools, and temporary ones at that.
But yet, people do care about cars that way. Or at least, they did. As automobiles become more like online software services, travelers will become less attached to their aesthetic properties. As I’ve written about before, Tesla has already begun preparing car culture for the end of the automobile as an object of desire. The Model S is a supercar that’s as stylish as a pair of Dockers. Google’s prototype for a cute pod of a self-driving car does something similar. Uber’s early autonomous cars are about as unsexy as they come: a fleet of Ford Fusions topped with big, LIDAR hats—hardly the kind of vehicle that could adorn posters on adolescent bedroom walls. As my colleague Megan Garber put it, cars like these take the automotive logic of the 20th century— “cars as luxury, cars as freedom, cars as sex”—and flip it on its head. Now vehicles are becoming a commodity and a service. What’s less sexy than a car a bunch of other people have also recently occupied?

* * *

The increasing un-sexiness of cars helps explain a startling, recent rumor: that Apple is in talks to acquire or invest in the British supercar company McLaren.

McLaren is best known for its Formula 1 pedigree, although the company also makes million-dollar road cars for the very wealthy. In recent years, the company has also expanded into design consulting and parts, strengths it developed thanks to the unforgiving conditions of Formula 1 racing. Estimated to be worth about $2 billion, Apple could easily snap up the company with some of its $200 billion or so in cash reserves.

Apple, meanwhile, has reportedly been developing its own electric and/or autonomous vehicle program. As with everything Apple, the company has been secretive about its plans. One thing we do seem to know about “Project Titan,” as the Apple project was code-named, is that it recently underwent a dramatic restructuring, including a number of layoffs. All is not well in Apple’s garage.That makes the possibility of an Apple partnership with automakers seem more likely. McLaren quickly denied the rumors of investment or takeover, but whether or not a partnership or acquisition will ever really happen is less interesting than what it means that the public would find one so interesting in the first place.

Some of those affinities are obvious. McLaren has been working on lighter and more efficient electric drivetrains, a feature of obvious interest to any future automaker. And Apple’s reported shift from developing a complete autonomous car to a provider of technologies for other manufacturers seems to correspond with McLaren’s strategy to use Formula 1 as a testbed for more mainstream applications. Other Apple technologies, like the iPhone in-car entertainment system known as CarPlay, offer paradigmatic examples for potential operational infrastructures for future automobiles. The “Intel Inside” of future automobiles.

But others are less obvious. In truth, the appeal of Apple’s hypothetical absorption of McLaren is most easily explained from the gut or the crotch rather than from the head or the hands. No matter the number of analysts poring over the strategic benefits of a future set of Apple-branded components and subsystems derived from McLaren inventions and installed in ordinary Fords and Hyundais, the idea of an Apple acquisition of McLaren evokes one singular and undeniable image: a sleek, dark, and perfect Apple supercar.

I can imagine it in my mind’s eye. Black or silver (or rose gold, of course), the Mac (forgive me) is a vessel where the seam between glass and metal cannot be distinguished. When a nearby owner is recognized, the gentle sigh of tamed hydraulics acknowledges him or her, engaging some heretofore unthought car door entry paradigm. Its engine hums low and bright, powerful yet winsome. If the automobile has always been a symbol of power and freedom and sex, and if everyone wants nothing more than to stroke an iPhone until it sublimates pleasure and access—just imagine how good it would feel to grip the tightly stitched wheel of an Apple-McLaren love child.

But yet, we already know that no human will soon grip any wheel, let alone that of a supercar. And so the truth eventually creeps into the dream. There will be no Apple supercar, because cars themselves are being dismantled and reinstalled as technology services.

McLaren, for example, has already spun off a consulting group called McLaren Applied Technologies, which domesticates the wild Formula 1 machine into more practical affairs: data analysis, advanced control systems, data-driven intelligent products. The Formula 1 racer inevitably must settle down into the workaday necessity of, say, “facilitating analysis of human and machine performance through advanced data analytics, algorithms and prediction.”

It’s the supercar equivalent of your favorite punk band selling its signature lick for an adult diapers jingle. The very idea of a supercar—and to some extent, of an ordinary one—is excess. A singular human being whose feet and hands pilot two tons of metal and rubber and leather and explosives from the garage to the supermarket.And yet, that is just the function that automobiles are now abandoning. Instead, cars are becoming leased appliances, made and sold with efficiency to suppliers intent on renting them out for minutes at a time to customers who would rather forget ever having been inside them. Nothing could be less sensual than the boring universe of business-to-business fleet sales—except, maybe, the boring universe of business-to-business fleet-sales component supply.Cars once lived among us, their clear-coated steel body moldings and tinted glass  windows offering counterpart to human flesh and tailored textile. But soon, they will live on the inside of technology services—as components and subsystems, just as do the microprocessors and batteries and GPS units and accelerometers that drive our smartphones. Automobiles are doomed and destined to become mere parts infrastructures for worldly conveyance. There they won’t even be seen, let alone desired. What kind of freak lusts for microprocessors?The dream of Apple’s subsumption of McLaren is a collective final breath of the automotive dream. And like that death rattle, it is both terrifying and beautiful. Even near its end, the automobile still has its wits about it. The memory of speed and power and control persists, for a moment anyway, just before it turns into yet another borrowed appliance, to be used and also forgotten.

Doonesbury — Quick, get me evidence.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Our Man In Havana

The United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba last year, but the embargo on business dealings by private citizens is still in place and won’t be lifted until Congress repeals it.  Donald Trump may have already been dabbling in Cuba in violation of the U.S. embargo.

A company controlled by Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, secretly conducted business in communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency despite strict American trade bans that made such undertakings illegal, according to interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings.

I wonder how that will go over with his supporters in Little Havana.

Speaking of Cuba, President Obama has nominated an ambassador to Cuba, but if Marco Rubio has his way, he’ll never get the job.

Obama has picked Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who serves as the country’s top diplomat in Havana, the White House announced Tuesday.

“There is no public servant better suited to improve our ability to engage the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests in Cuba than Jeff,” Obama said in a statement.

The president said that having an ambassador would make it easier for the U.S. to advance its interests in Cuba and convey objections over its “differences with the Cuban government.”

“He is exactly the type of person we want to represent the United States in Cuba, and we only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador,” Obama said.

It’s unlikely the GOP-controlled Senate will confirm DeLaurentis before Obama leaves office in January.

Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), have vowed to block anyone Obama nominates as ambassador.

It’s an effort to rebuke Obama’s decision to reopen ties with Cuba, a move they believe rewards the communist island nation, which still commits human-rights abuses against its citizens.

“A U.S. ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial, closed regime,” Rubio, a Cuban-American, said in a July interview.

If we were to not send ambassadors to dictatorial and closed regimes, we wouldn’t have them in about half the countries in Africa, Saudi Arabia, and China.

Democracy in Cuba didn’t exist before Castro came to power in 1959; the Batista regime was just as dictatorial as Fidel and his gang.  They were just in the pay of the Mafia and U.S. corporate interests.  That’s about the only difference.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sunday Reading

Charles P. Pierce — Sarcasm?  What sarcasm?

All votes are in, people. Donald Trump is the third Piranha Brother. There are now Doug, Dinsdale, and Donald.

In case, like all sensible Americans, you’ve been watching the Olympics and haven’t noticed what’s been up with El Caudillo de Mar-A-Lago, he spent a couple of days telling his audiences of screaming geeks that the president was “the founder of ISIS.” Then he spent yesterday saying that, when he said “founder,” he meant “founder,” dammit. Then this morning, he took to the electric Twitter machine and declared that he was only engaging in “SARCASM” and that all the dim bulbs in the dishonest press don’t get the vast sweep of his subtle wit.

For his next trick, he’s going to swallow his own head.

Just for information’s sake, as any middle-school teacher knows from long experience, this is an example of sarcasm:

“Yeah, sure, like we’re going to hand the nuclear codes to a vulgar talking yam who stiffs his subcontractors and doesn’t know enough about any major issue to throw to a cat. Yeah, we’re gonna do that. Surrrrre.”


Accusing the president of “founding” a barbaric terrorist group and then insisting you were serious?

Not sarcasm.

You know what else isn’t sarcasm? Suggesting that you intend to turn the American system of criminal justice unilaterally into a Peronist nightmare. That’s not sarcasm. The Miami Herald was there.

“Would you try to get the military commissions—the trial court there—to try U.S. citizens?” a reporter asked. “Well, I know that they want to try them in our regular court systems, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t like that at all,” he said. “I would say they could be tried there, that would be fine.”

Actually, that would not be fine. The Constitution says it would not be fine. I suspect more than a few lawyers in the Pentagon would say that it would not be fine. Actually, I suspect Alexander Hamilton, an actual Founder of something, would say that it would not be fine, because he wrote this in Federalist 28:

Independent of all other reasonings upon the subject, it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in times of peace to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, the only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people which is attainable in civil society.

Actually, I suspect that Thomas Jefferson, another actual Founder of something, would say that it would not be fine, because this is one of the particulars on which he arraigned George III in a little document you may have heard of called “The Declaration of Independence.”

(That last part, by the way, was sarcasm.)

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

So, no, I don’t think he’s being sarcastic about any of this. I think there’s only one joke out there, and it’s the one over which obvious anagram Reince Priebus presides.

Ninety Years of Fidel — Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker.

Fidel Castro is turning ninety on Saturday. It has been a long life, and a most eventful one. He was born on August 13, 1926, three years before the Great Crash and the start of the global depression. Feature films were still silent; commercial air travel was in its infancy; most people who moved around the globe did so by ship; many navies still used sailing ships. The telephone existed, but for instant global communication and news, the telegram was still the thing. Most cars still had to be started with a hand crank.

Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States, which at the time had a population of a hundred and seventeen million—a third of its present size—and there were forty-eight states. The United States was not a superpower. The country had few paved roads, and less than ten per cent of the rural population had access to electricity. A Sharia-style ban on the consumption of alcohol, known as Prohibition, had been in force since 1920 (and would last until 1933). Cuba had been an independent republic for a mere twenty-four years. It was the last of Spain’s colonies in the New World to be relinquished, but only after intervention by American forces, in 1898, had ended decades of bloody warfare with Cuban nationalists. Cuba had then fallen under U.S. military administration; it gained its independence in 1902, but only after it had agreed to have the so-called Platt Amendment embedded in its new constitution. This provision granted the U.S. control in perpetuity over Guantánamo Bay, as well as the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it saw fit. For decades thereafter, Cuba remained a virtual American colony, a period that Fidel has always referred to as the “pseudo-republica.” The U.S. Marines intervened repeatedly, and the Presidents were of the pliant variety.

Fidel, and his younger brother Raúl, grew up in Birán, then, as now, a provincial backwater of eastern Cuba, an area dominated in those days by carpetbagging U.S. agribusinesses like United Fruit, which had swooped in and bought up most of the productive land in the halcyon days that followed the Spanish-American War. Fidel’s father, Ángel Castro, had emigrated from a godforsaken corner of Galicia, in Spain, as a teen-ager, and stayed, eventually becoming a kind of peasant overlord with a large and prosperous finca on which he harvested sugarcane with Haitian laborers that was sold to the United Fruit Company.

By the time Fidel was sent to Havana for a private Jesuit education, and from there to Havana University, to study law, he had become an ardent nationalist, a fervent admirer of the country’s nineteenth-century national-independence hero, José Martí—a poet and journalist who had joined the war against the Spaniards and died heroically when he charged the enemy on horseback in his first day on the battlefield. He was an admirer of other historic men of action as well, including Robespierre, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

By the age of twenty-one, Fidel had begun to entertain political ambitions of his own, and was becoming known to Cuban authorities as a hothead with political aspirations and a penchant for the dramatic gesture. In 1947, he joined a boat expedition with other would-be revolutionaries planning to violently unseat the neighboring Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The expedition was intercepted by Cuban troops before it ever made it off a remote Cuban cay, but the next year, while Fidel was in Bogotá, Colombia, for an anti-imperalist youth congress, the popular Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, sparking massive rioting; Fidel participated. Back in Cuba, in 1949, Fidel helped organize a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy after an incident in which American sailors clambered onto a statue of José Martí in a prominent plaza in Old Havana and urinated on it; Fidel got a police beating for his troubles.

By 1953, aged twenty-seven, Fidel’s ambition was no less than the seizure of power in Cuba, which by then was in the hands of an especially corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista. In July, he led a full-frontal assault with several fellow-armed youngsters against the Moncada army barracks in Cuba’s second city of Santiago. It was an unmitigated disaster. A number of rebels died in the fighting, and dozens more were executed, some after being brutally tortured. Fidel survived, and when he was put on trial he defended himself with an impassioned piece of oratory that took him four hours to read out, in which he declared, “History will absolve me.” He was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but the proceedings solidified his position as a national figure.

Nearly two years into Fidel’s imprisonment, in an ill-advised act of magnanimity, Batista signed an amnesty that freed Fidel from prison. He immediately went into exile in Mexico, where, with his brother Raúl, who had recruited a young Argentine named Ernesto (Che) Guevara to their cause, he began planning for a guerrilla war against Batista. Within a year and a half, he and his followers had begun that war, and by New Year’s Day, 1959, Batista had fled, and Fidel and his rebels had won.

Then followed the big stuff of history: the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the creation of a one-party state presided over by the Cuban Communist Party; myriad attempts by the C.I.A. to kill or oust Fidel, and his remarkable ability to survive, and to stay in power; his support for guerrilla struggles in dozens of other countries; the great exodus of Cubans who fled the island, mostly to Florida, some for economic reasons and others in search of political freedom. The Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel remained in power until 2006, when he fell ill and handed the job over to Raúl.

When Fidel came to power, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. Today it is Barack Obama, an African-American, who visited the island last March at the invitation of Raúl, after the two leaders restored diplomatic relations, in 2014. Fidel was not part of the official visit, nor did he appear in public, but his presence was felt. Over the past decade, as Fidel has adapted to his role as Cuba’s elder statesman, he has expressed his opinions in occasional columns published in the official Communist daily, Granma. In the past year and a half, since the restoration of relations with the Americans, he has made it abundantly clear that he remains deeply skeptical of American intentions, while emphasizing that he supports his younger brother’s decisions. But, coming as it does in the twilight of his life, the fact that the Americans are back—initially in the form of a growing flood of eager tourists, but also as prospective investors—must be deeply poignant for Fidel, whose opposition to el imperialismo yanqui was the mainstay of his political career. What did Fidel think of the fact that American personalities of the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and Jerry Springer were touring Havana last spring, taking selfies and tweeting about what they did and saw and ate and drank?

In his last public appearance, at the seventh Cuban Communist Party Congress, in April, a frail-looking Fidel gave a speech in which he did not once mention the Americans. He spoke instead of his preoccupation with the challenges confronting humankind, including the risks posed by arms proliferation, global warming, and food scarcities. And Fidel reaffirmed his faith in Communism, in the future of Cuba, and the legacy that he believed Cuba’s Communists had forged. He also mentioned his looming birthday. It was a milestone, he said, that he had “never expected to reach.”

Stopping Zika Cold — Erica Langston in Mother Jones.

Mosquitoes may be small, but they pack a mean punch. Weighing in at a measly 2.5 milligrams, these buzzing arthropods are responsible for more deaths than snake bites, shark attacks, and murders combined. A whopping 725,000 people die each year from diseases transmitted by this common pest. Researchers have spent decades and millions of dollars fighting dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya—dangerous viruses that female mosquitoes can spread in a single bite. Now—as scientists rev up efforts to tackle the worsening mosquito-borne Zika epidemic that’s rocked the Americas—some scientists are tapping into Earth’s oldest organic armies as they seek to wipe out these diseases.

In this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, journalist and author Ed Yong explores the emerging science of the microbiome—the trillions of tiny organisms that inhabit the bodies of humans and other animals. Along the way, he tells host Kishore Hari about Wolbachia—one of nature’s most successful land-based bacteria—and its potential to aid the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Wolbachia, says Yong, has “tremendous promise in bringing tropical diseases to heal.”

Wolbachia is extremely versatile; it can infect more than 40 percent of all arthropod species, including spiders, insects, and mites. Research has shown that female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with the bacteria are unable to transmit common viruses, including Zika and dengue. And because Wolbachiapasses from a female mosquito to her offspring, it could spread easily through a wild population. That means releasing a small batch of mosquitoes infected with the bacteria could help eradicate mosquito-borne diseases in a potentially short amount of time, says Yong. For a mosquito whose global range spans six continents—and includes a large chunk of the United States, the impact on global public health could be substantial.

Despite years of research, treatments for many mosquito-borne illnesses is limited. Clinical trials for a Zika vaccine are underway, but researchers don’t expect one to be available to the public for at least 18 months. “There are no vaccines,” Yong says. “There are no good treatments for dengue. We need better ways of controlling these diseases.” Field trials of Wolbachia-carrying mosquitos have been underway in Australia since 2011, and in Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam since 2014. The results have shown great promise, with no ill effect on people or the environment.

Yong argues that Wolbachia is safer and more cost-effective than traditional vector control methods, such as spraying with insecticides. And unlike insecticides, bacteria are self-perpetuating. And Wolbachia doesn’t appear to affect mosquito populations, so other insects and animals that feed on these pests won’t miss a meal. “It’s not about killing mosquitos,” Yong says, “it’s about turning them into dead ends for viruses.”

Doonesbury — Meeting of minds.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Short Takes

Britain poised to have second woman prime minister.

Super typhoon aims at Taiwan.

Commercial flights to Cuba could start as early as this fall.

Testy meeting with Trump on Capitol Hill.

To Boldy Go: First “Star Trek” gay character comes out in the next film.

The Tigers lost to Toronto 5-4.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Short Takes

The U.S. will seek the death penalty in the case of the Charleston shooter.

President Obama chided Vietnam on human rights.

Federal judge rules against Ohio’s limits on early voting.

Cuba will legalize small and medium-sized private business.

U.S.-allied forces launched an offensive against ISIS in Syria.

The Tigers beat the Phillies 3-1.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Short Takes

Negotiations are going on to try to keep the Syrian ceasefire going.

Two suicide bombs in Iraq killed over thirty people.

Feds foil plot to bomb synagogue in Aventura, a suburb of Miami.

U.S. cruise ship arrives in Havana for the first time in more than fifty years.

Telescope spots three Earth-sized planets orbiting ultracool dwarf star.

The Tigers had the night off.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday Reading

Sound Familiar? — Matthew Delmont at The Atlantic takes us back to 1964 when Jackie Robinson confronted a Trump-like candidate.

“The danger of the Republican party being taken over by the lily-white-ist conservatives is more serious than many people realize,” Jackie Robinson cautioned in his syndicated column in August 1963. He was worried about the rise of Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential bid laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement. Today, Goldwater’s shadow looms over Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination.

“During my life, I have had a few nightmares which happened to me while I was wide awake,” Robinson wrote in 1967. “One of them was the National Republican Convention in San Francisco, which produced the greatest disaster the Republican Party has ever known—Nominee Barry Goldwater.” Robinson, a loyal Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960, was shocked and saddened by the racism and lack of civility he witnessed at the 1964 convention. As the historian Leah Wright Rigueur describes in The Loneliness of the Black Republican, black delegates were verbally assaulted and threatened with violence by Goldwater supporters. William Young, a Pennsylvania delegate, had his suit set on fire and was told to “keep in your own place” by his assailant. “They call you ‘nigger,’ push you and step on your feet,” New Jersey delegate George Fleming told the Associated Press. “I had to leave to keep my self-respect.”

The 1964 campaign was pivotal for Republicans because, despite Goldwater’s loss, the GOP came away with a dedicated network of people willing to work between election cycles to build the party. The GOP has won more presidential elections than it has lost since Goldwater. Donald Trump’s campaign plays on fears and resentments similar to those that fueled Goldwater’s presidential bid five decades ago. It is not yet clear, however, how this strategy will play out with an electorate that will be the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history (over 30 percent of eligible voters will be racial or ethnic minorities).

As the Draft Goldwater campaign expanded in early 1963, the editors at the Chicago Defender warned that Goldwater’s “brand of demagoguery has a special appeal to ultra conservative Republicans” and that he “cannot be laughed off as a serious possibility as is being done in some quarters unfriendly to him.” After the 1964 Republican National Convention, the Defender suggested, “Goldwater in the White House would be a nightmare from which the nation and the world would not soon recover.” Another editorial two days later struck a stronger tone: “The conviction is universal that Goldwater represents the most diabolical force that has ever captured the leadership of the Republican Party. After 108 years of exhortation to freedom, liberty, and justice, the GOP now becomes the label under which Fascism is oozed into the mainstream of American politics.”

In 1964, unlike 2016, it was not a foregone conclusion that the vast majority of black voters would support the Democratic Party. Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon received 39 percent and 32 percent of the black vote in the 1956 and 1960 presidential elections, compared to 6 percent for Goldwater in 1964. No Republican candidate since Goldwater has earned support from more than 15 percent of black voters.

“A new breed of Republicans has taken over the GOP,” Robinson wrote just after Goldwater claimed his party’s nomination. “It is a new breed which is seeking to sell to Americans a doctrine which is as old as mankind—the doctrine of racial division, the doctrine of racial prejudice, the doctrine of white supremacy.” He continued, “If I could couch in one single sentence the way I felt, watching this controlled steam-roller operation roll into high gear, I would put it this way, I would say that I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

The Derp Runs Deep — Charlie Pierce on the hearings in Congress about Flint’s water.

So Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy had their day before the House Government and Oversight Committee on Thursday, where they were grilled on the poisoning of the people of Flint, Michigan. Sides got chosen fairly early on: The Democratic members of the committee were anxious to put Snyder on a spit, while the Republicans clearly wanted to hang most of this on the EPA. The hearings were somewhat startling in their ferocity, and most of the interrogations ended with congresscritters demanding resignations and yes or no answers. Yes or no, dammit!

Jesus, what a mess. But the howling hypocrisy of conservative Republicans feigning concern about environmental safety, and the howling hypocrisy of conservative Republicans pretending that they expected the EPA to take care of this crisis, was extraordinarily hard to take. Nine days out of ten, they’d be baying at the moon about regulations strangling business and about devolving federal functions to the states, which are run by people like Rick Snyder. Today, though, rather than confront the complete failure of that entire theory of government in this awful episode, it was time for them to argue that the EPA wasn’t tough enough in regulating Snyder’s bungling. Where were the jackboots, they seemed to be saying, when the citizens of Flint could have used them.

(Snyder, of course, was terrible, constantly saying what a “humbling experience” this episode was and how fervently he has apologized. Hey, dude, it’s a helluva lot worse for the people who are washing their hair once every couple of weeks with bootleg Poland Spring. And this guy had to be blackjacked into appearing before Congress at all.)

It was profoundly nauseating to listen to Congressman Jason Chaffetz waxing wroth about what was done to the poor people of Flint, smirking his way through his questioning, over and over again, and blaming “career bureaucrats” in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for letting down poor Rick Snyder. Chaffetz has had the knives out for the EPA ever since he slithered into Congress. He has a lifetime rating of three percent from the League of Conservation Voters. On at least three occasions in 2015 alone, Chaffetz voted in ways harmful to clean water regulations. He’s a climate denier. He’s one of the leaders of the movement to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. He wants to privatize federal lands for the purpose of exploitation. And his basic point yesterday was that Barack Hussein Obama’s EPA didn’t do enough to force the Republican governor of Michigan to do his freaking job.

(Congressman Bill Clay of Missouri caught him at it and made a tasty cocktail out of the chairman’s crocodile tears. He also ran down the list of people, including He, Trump and Tailgunner Ted Cruz, and my new friend, Joni Ernst, who want to do away with the agency and hand its responsibilities over to Rick Snyder, as well as Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their Midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin, who wants to turn the EPA into some sort of glorified mediation service to resolve the disputes that arise when one state’s pollution poisons another state’s water.)

It was profoundly depressing to hear Congressman Glenn Grothman, one of the dimmer bulbs in the chandelier, use his time to sympathize with Snyder at how the poor man was hamstrung by civil service employees. “Some of us like less government because it’s hard to get it to work,” Grothman observed. This is especially true when people like Glenn Grothman get elected to work in government, and Glenn Grothman believes that a farm family can keep its well water safe from a 1000-foot deep open-pit mine being blasted open a mile from their home if they just “caulk it.” And his basic point yesterday is that there is not sufficient inexperience among our government employees.

It was profoundly ridiculous to hear Congressman Buddy Carter of Georgia, who seems to be something of a clown, suggest that McCarthy had a responsibility to go beyond the law in warning the citizens of Flint. “The law, the law,” Carter fumed. “I don’t think anybody here cares about the law.” Congressman Buddy also was proud of his ability to find and use a dictionary. “I looked up the word, ‘protection,'” he inveighed. Why don’t we just change the acronym?”

Congressman Buddy is the proud owner of a Zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters. He has voted against, among other things, a bill that would have informed the public of the dangers of coal ash, and another bill that would have protected wetlands that provide drinking water for the communities around them. He has also voted for a bill that would have reduced public input on water issues in the western states. And his basic point yesterday was to yell about the word “Protection” in the name of the EPA.

Regardless of who sent what memo to whom and when they sent it, the crisis in Flint is the result of a full implementation and exercise of a philosophy of government that noisy pissants like Chaffetz, Grothman, Carter, and Rick Snyder have proposed as a solution to almost all the nation’s problems—government is bad, government bureaucrats are always incompetent, devolve federal powers to the states, and that government is best that is limited and, preferably, run like a business. The two primary contenders for the Republican presidential nomination want to eliminate the EPA. Absent as a cudgel against environmental protections that he wants to gut, the 100,000 people in Flint wouldn’t matter a damn to Jason Chaffetz. “A government is not a business and it shouldn’t be run like one,” said Rick Snyder to Congress, and his tongue did not burst into flames.

Bienvenidos a Cuba — Julie Hirschfeld Davis in the New York Times on President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba.

Obama cuba poster 03-20-16President Obama and his family will arrive in Cuba on Sunday afternoon aboard Air Force One and receive a red-carpet welcome from a country that has been a bitter adversary of the United States since before he was born.

He will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro; watch Cubans and Americans face off in a baseball game; and deliver a televised address in the historic theater where Calvin Coolidge, the last American president to visit, spoke 88 years ago. He will meet with entrepreneurs and dissidents, Cubans who have found ways to challenge the status quo in a country undergoing vast change.

But Mr. Obama does not plan to use his visit to issue an ultimatum to Mr. Castro on human rights, nor does he go bearing pledges to end United States democracy programs in Cuba that aim to undercut the communist government there.

The president is also not expected to announce that he is giving up the United States’ naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and is not in a position to lift the trade embargo that still looms as an impediment to the normalization he sees as a pivotal piece of his foreign policy legacy — only Congress can do that.

Mr. Obama’s trip, rich with symbolic significance, represents the start of a new era of engagement between the United States and Cuba that could open the floodgates of travel and commerce, and that has already unlocked diplomatic channels long slammed shut. But it also underscores the deep disagreements that persist between two countries separated by only 90 miles but a wide ideological divide.

The president is determined to sweep aside those disputes and do as much as he can to render irreversible the policy change he set in motion 15 months ago, buoyed by evidence that the American public was eager for a new approach. Mr. Obama and his aides point to public opinion polls that show Americans — including majorities in both political parties — lopsidedly in favor of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, a step the administration took in July, as well as lifting the embargo.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has endorsed repealing the embargo. Donald J. Trump, who is leading the Republican field, has been muted in his criticism of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, and has merely said Mr. Obama “should have made a better deal” before moving toward normal relations.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican presidential contender, whose father was born in Cuba, has been sharply critical of Mr. Obama’s approach, and said last month that the president was traveling there “to essentially act as an apologist.”

Other critics, including some in Mr. Obama’s own party, have dismissed the president’s approach as naïve and dangerous, arguing that Mr. Obama has embraced a brutal regime and citing the recent increase in Cuba of detentions of antigovernment activists.

“I understand the desire to make this his legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat and son of Cuban immigrants, said in a 30-minute speech last week from the Senate floor. He mentioned a young dissident, Carlos Amel Oliva, who met in Miami this month with Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Mr. Oliva was detained upon his return to Cuba for what the government called “antisocial behavior.”

“Unless the Castros are compelled to change their dictatorship — the way they govern the island and the way they exploit its people — the answer to this won’t be different than the last 50-some-odd years,” Mr. Menendez said.

Mr. Rhodes said the president would address human rights head-on in his private talks with Mr. Castro, 84, as well as in his speech, which is expected to be broadcast in both Cuba and the United States.

“The difference here is that in the past, because of certain U.S. policies, the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change, that the U.S. was seeking to essentially overturn the government in Cuba or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba,” Mr. Rhodes said.

This time, he added, Mr. Obama “will make very clear that that’s up to the Cuban people.”

There are limits to the new spirit of openness. The president will not meet with Fidel Castro, 89, who embodies the rancorous history between the United States and Cuba. And as of Friday, there were no plans for Mr. Obama and the younger Mr. Castro to take questions from the news media after their meeting, a standard element of the president’s schedule when he meets with foreign leaders overseas.

At the heart of Mr. Obama’s policy is a gamble that the thaw will eventually force changes on Cuba’s communist government by nurturing the hopes of its citizens, particularly a younger generation more interested in Internet access and business opportunities than in Cuba’s grievances against the United States.

“Obama would like to be remembered as the president who ended the Cold War in Latin America and normalized relations with Cuba, so he needs to do as much as he can to make it difficult for the next president to reverse this,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But suspicion of the United States remains potent in Cuba. This month, Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, published a lengthy editorial admonishing Mr. Obama not to expect Cuba to “abandon its revolutionary ideals” as part of the opening.

[Photo by Enrique de la Osa/Reuters]

Doonesbury — Tough question.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Death of Antonin Scalia — Evan Osnos in The New Yorker looks at what lies ahead now that he’s gone.

Scalia gesture 02-14-16The abrupt death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—the fiery, funny, polarizing face of the Court’s modern conservative turn—ended a chapter in legal history and opened a political battle of a kind that America has not seen in decades. The bitter divide of this Presidential election season—over visions for the economy, national security, and immigration—has widened to include the ideological composition of the nation’s highest court.

At seventy-nine, Scalia was the Court’s longest-serving Justice, a father of nine, and an outsized personality who thrilled conservatives and infuriated liberals like nobody else in Washington. Though he maintained close friendships with some of his combatants, including fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and always hired a “token liberal” among his clerks, he openly relished the political implications of the Court’s affairs. Ever since he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, in 1986, he dedicated himself to combating the notion of a “living” Constitution that evolves in step with the nation. The very announcement of Scalia’s death was accompanied by a political declaration. In the first official notice, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the rule of law.”

The 2016 election has become a contest not only to determine control of the White House and the Congress but also to shape the future of the Supreme Court. The next President was expected to make multiple appointments to the court. (On Inauguration Day, Ginsburg will be nearly eighty-four, Anthony Kennedy will be over eighty, and Stephen Breyer will be seventy-eight.) With Scalia’s death, the partisan composition of the Court is now already up in the air. In a hastily arranged address on Saturday night, President Obama said he planned to name a nominee, over the protests of Republicans who could seek to prevent the Senate from voting on it. “I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor, in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to carry out its responsibility for a timely vote,” he said. The issues at stake, he added, “are bigger than any one party. They are about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his life.”

The outcome of the process has the potential to reshape American law on abortion, affirmative action, voting rights, energy, campaign finance, and many other issues. The political effects on the Presidential race cut in multiple directions: Will the suddenly inescapable vision of, say, a Cruz Presidency and a Cruz-chosen nominee bring more Democrats to the polls? And to which Democrat does that benefit accrue? Will the risk of a Sanders Court inspire evangelical voters to consolidate behind a Republican choice?

As news of Scalia’s death spread, hours before a Republican debate, the call for a moratorium on political strategizing around the news, in order to honor his achievements, was brief. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement that, in effect, called on President Obama to refrain from naming a replacement and allow the Court to operate with eight Justices. “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President,” McConnell said.

Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who was a clerk for former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, agreed, marking Scalia’s passing in a tweet: “We owe it to him, and the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called on Obama to nominate a replacement immediately, saying, “The Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible.” Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, called for the Senate to “delay, delay, delay” if President Obama attempts to name a successor.

Hillary Clinton said that Republicans who want the seat to remain vacant until the next President is in office “dishonor our Constitution” for partisan reasons. Bernie Sanders, who defeated Clinton last week in the New Hampshire primary in part by presenting himself as a different kind of politician, avoided any mention of the political implications: “While I differed with Justice Scalia’s views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful and outspoken member of the Supreme Court. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his colleagues on the court who mourn his passing.”

When Obama does nominate a successor to Scalia, that could set the stage for a Republican filibuster in the Senate. If there is a filibuster of a nominee, it will be the first time that has occurred since 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson, blocked by Senate Republicans and Southern Democrats, reluctantly withdrew the nomination of his confidant Abe Fortas, whom he had appointed to the Supreme Court three years earlier, to succeed Earl Warren as Chief Justice.

That drama began in June of that year when Warren, a Republican known for his liberal decisions, informed Johnson that he intended to retire. Just months before Election Day, Johnson moved swiftly to nominate Fortas as a successor to the Chief Justice. But it emerged that Fortas had attended White House staff meetings, briefed Johnson on Court deliberations, and pressured senators to limit their opposition to the Vietnam War. Moreover, Fortas had been paid outside his salary to speak to students at American University. The Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen and others withdrew their support—sparking the first and, so far, the only Senate filibuster over a Supreme Court nomination. (Scholars and partisan opponents have debated, ever since, whether it was technically a filibuster or another form of parliamentary procedure, though Laura Kalman, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has said that “Abe Fortas and L.B.J. are spinning in their graves at the notion there was no filibuster.”)

While the White House weighs potential nominees, the courts and Presidential contenders face a range of puzzling implications. What will happen if the Supreme Court reaches a tie in any of the cases that are currently before the Justices? (The lower court ruling would stand but would not set a legal precedent.) Is there any liberal nominee who stands a chance of winning confirmation in a Republican-controlled Senate? (Early bets landed on Federal Appeals Court Judge Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-American jurist who has worked in both Democratic and Republican Administrations.) In his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Srinivasan won, in 2013, that rare achievement for a Democrat in today’s Washington—unanimous confirmation, with praise from Republicans.

It’s Not Just Flint — David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz report that a lot of cities and towns have bad water.

“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan.  “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.  To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks.  Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive.  In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.   As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint.  But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis.  There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland,Herculaneum, Missouri, Sebring, Ohio, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and that’s just to begin a list.  State reports suggest, for instance, that “18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint.” Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood.  The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined.  From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them.  Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

Hollywood Comes to Cuba — Victoria Burnett reports for the New York Times on lights, camera, and action in newly-reopened Havana.

Cuba PosterDuring a shoot for the Showtime comedy series “House of Lies” last month, Don Cheadle sat outside a cafe in Old Havana, puffing on a fat cigar and clinking glasses with three compadres.

It was a novel scene — an American actor filming an American TV show on a Cuban street — and one that, until last month, would have been illegal under the United States’s economic embargo.

But regulations published by the Treasury Department on Jan. 26 now allow Americans to shoot scripted movies and shows in Cuba for the first time in half a century. The rules opened the door to American projects — which could include scenes for the next “Fast & Furious” movie and an Ethan Hawke film — and to collaboration between Hollywood and the island’s underfunded film sector.

“The world just got bigger because Cuba has become accessible,” said Matthew Carnahan, creator of “House of Lies.”

As a location, Cuba was inspiring, if challenging, he said, but added, “I’m dreaming up reasons to go back.”

A stream of American filmmakers needing to hire Cuban equipment and crews would be a boon to the country’s independent production industry, which sprouted in the late 1990s as digital technology made filmmaking more accessible and state money for movies ran dry.

Some Cuban filmmakers worry, though, that their government will open its arms to Hollywood while continuing to give its own filmmakers the cold shoulder. Independent production companies in Cuba operate in a legal limbo, getting little or no funding from the state and often struggling to get their movies past the censors.

“It’s great that people from Hollywood want to come to Cuba, but it’s caught us at a bad moment,” said Carlos Lechuga, a Cuban director. “We have stories to tell, and right now we don’t feel that we can do that.”

The thaw between the United States and Cuba in 2014 prompted a swell of inquiries from Americans eager to shoot there. The next “Fast & Furious” installment may be partly shot in Cuba, a spokeswoman for its studio, Universal Pictures, said, adding that the company “is currently seeking approval from the United States and Cuban governments.”

And Cuban filmmakers have been fielding inquiries. “There isn’t a day that I am not meeting with a potential client from the United States,” said Oscar Ernesto Ortega, 29, whose El Central Producciones produces music videos, commercials and documentaries for clients like the Puerto Rican band Calle 13 and Red Bull Media House from offices in Miami and Havana.

Boris Crespo, founder of BIC Producciones, in Havana, said he had been working flat out for the past year, providing production services for Conan O’Brien’s four-day visit to Cuba last year and the History channel’s “Top Gear,” which filmed an episode in Cuba in January.

Mr. Carnahan, who worked with Island Film, another Havana production company, said he was struck by the “passionate” crew and the quality of Cuban actors. (The “House of Lies” shoot was planned before the new regulations went into effect, so producers had to get a license from the Treasury Department.)

What Cuba is missing, he said, are decent cellphone connections, fast Internet access and even “basic things — hammers — things that we don’t give much thought to.”

And the process of procuring shooting permits was extremely slow, he said.

Mr. Crespo said that the state-funded Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry “drowns in its own bureaucracy.”

The Strip from The New York Times (Doonesbury’s site was off-line at the time of publication.)

The Strip 02-14-16

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back/Looking Forward

It’s time for my annual re-cap and prognostication for the past year and the year coming up.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

– Now that we have a Republican House and Senate and a president who isn’t running for re-election, get out the popcorn, and I mean the good stuff.  The GOP will try to do everything they can to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama, but they will end up looking even more foolish, petulant, infantile, and borderline nuts than they have for the last two years, and that’s saying something.  Repeals of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and recharged attempts to investigate Benghazi!, the IRS, and the VA will be like the three rings of Barnum & Bailey, all of which President Obama will gleefully veto.  As Zandar noted at Balloon Juice, “Over/under on when a Republican declares on FOX that Obama’s veto is  “illegal”, Feb 8.”

They did all that except actually pass the bills for President Obama to veto.  Instead they putsched John Boehner and replaced him with Paul Ryan who will more than likely face the same nutsery in 2016.

– Hillary Clinton will announce that she is running for president by March 2015 at the latest.  Elizabeth Warren will not run, but Bernie Sanders, the Gene McCarthy of this generation, will announce as an independent and become a frequent guest on MSNBC.  Jeb Bush, after “actively exploring” a run in 2016, will announce that he is running and quickly fade to the single digits when the GOP base gets a taste of his views on immigration and Common Core.  He may be popular in Republican polls, but those people don’t vote in primaries.  The frontrunners for the Iowa caucuses a year from now will be Rand Paul and Chris Christie.

Nailed that one except for the last sentence.  But to be fair I don’t think anyone had Donald Trump on their betting sheets a year ago, and if they did, it was more for the entertainment value than serious consideration as a Republican candidate.

– The war in Afghanistan is officially over as of December 2014, but there will be U.S. troops actively engaged in combat in what is left of Syria and Iraq in 2015.

More’s the pity.

– The U.S. economy will continue to improve at a galloping pace.  The Dow will hit 19,000 at some point in 2015 and oil will continue to flood the market, keeping the price below $60 a barrel and gasoline will sell for under $2 a gallon, and finally wages will start to catch up with the improving economy.  I blame Obama.

Except for my overly-optimistic prediction on the Dow, this pretty much came true, even down to the price for gasoline: I paid $1.99 last night in Miami, which is not the lowest-priced city in the country.  President Obama is not getting any credit whatsoever for helping the economy improve, which he should, but then the Republicans never blamed Bush for crashing it in the first place.

– The Supreme Court will rule that bans on same-sex marriage violate the Constitution.  They will also narrowly uphold Obamacare again.

Happy dance, happy dance.

– The embargo against Cuba will end on a narrow vote in the Senate thanks to the overwhelming influence of Republican donors who see 11 million Cubans starving for Dunkin Donuts and car parts and don’t care what a bunch of domino-playing dreamers on Calle Ocho think.

The embargo is still in place as a matter of law, but for all intents and purposes, it is crumbling.  U.S. airlines and cruise ships are setting schedules, direct mail service is resuming, and travel there has become routine.

– The Tigers will win their division again.

Oh, shut up.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

I hold them in the Light.

– I technically retired on September 1, 2014, but my last day at work will be August 30, 2019.  (It’s complicated.)  I’m planning a return trip to Stratford this summer — more on that later — and I’ll get more plays produced.  I will finish at least one novel in 2015.

This was a productive year for me on the writing front: several plays of mine were done either in full stage productions or readings, and more are on the way.  No, I did not finish a novel yet.

Now for the predictions for 2016:

  • Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea who she will beat; I don’t think the Republicans know, either, but she will win, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it will be a decisive win.  The GOP will blame everybody else and become even more cranky, self-injuring, and irresponsible.
  • The Democrats down-ticket will do better than expected by taking back the Senate and narrowing their gap in the House.  This will be achieved by the number of voters who will turn out to vote for them in order to hold off the GOP’s attempt to turn the country back over to the control of white Christian males.
  • The economy will continue to improve; maybe this is the year the Dow will hit 19,000.  The limiting factor will be how the rest of the world, mainly China, deals with their economic bubble.  I think a lot of the economic news will be based on the outcome of the U.S. election and the reaction to it.  If by some horrifying chance Donald Trump wins, all bets are off.  Economists and world markets like stability and sanity, and turning the U.S. over to a guy who acts like a used car hustler crossed with a casino pit boss will not instill confidence.
  • ISIS, which barely registered on the radar as an existential threat to the U.S. and the west a year ago, will be contained.  There will not be a large American troop presence in Syria and Iraq thanks in part to the response by the countries that themselves are being invaded by ISIS.  Finally.
  • Refugees will still be pouring out of the Middle East, putting the strain on countries that have taken them in.  It will be a test of both infrastructure and moral obligation, and some, such as Canada, will set the example of how to be humane.
  • Maybe this will be the year that Fidel Castro finally takes a dirt nap.
  • The Supreme Court will narrowly uphold affirmative action but leave room for gutting it later on.  They will also narrowly rule against further restrictions on reproductive rights.  And I am going out on a limb by predicting that President Obama will get to choose at least one more new justice for the Court, an appointment that will languish in the Senate until after the election.
  • Violence against our fellow citizens such as mass shootings will continue.  The difference now is that we have become numb to them and in an election year expecting any meaningful change to the gun laws or the mindset is right up there with flying pigs over downtown Miami.
  • Marriage equality will gain acceptance as it fades from the headlines, but the LGBTQ community’s next front will be anti-discrimination battles for jobs and housing.  It’s not over yet, honey.
  • We’re going to see more wild weather patterns but none of it will convince the hard-core deniers that it’s either really happening or that there’s anything we can do about it.
  • The Tigers will not win the division in 2016.  (Caution: reverse psychology at play.)
  • On a personal level, this could be a break-out year for my writing and play production.  I don’t say that every year.
  • A year from today I will write this same post and review what I got right and what I didn’t.  But stick around and see how I do on a daily basis.

Okay, it’s your turn.  What do you see for 2016?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

Short Takes

Fed holds off raising interest rates.

At least 11 people were killed in the 8.3 earthquake off the coast of Chile.

President Obama greeted the three men who thwarted the train attack in Europe.

Verizon now works in Cuba.

Doritos unveiled rainbow-colored chips.

Tropical Update: TD Nine heads west.

The Tigers had the night off.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Reading

Ten Years After — Charlie Pierce on the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

All archaeology is about layers, one city laid atop the others, as though civilization were coming from deep in the earth and piling itself up toward the sky. In the late nineteenth century, when the German adventurer and archaeologist—and part-time fantast—Heinrich Schliemann went looking for the city of Troy, he found eleven of them, one atop another. At one level, Schliemann found a cache of gold and jewelry that he pronounced to be the treasure of Priam, the king of Troy at the time of the events of the Iliad. He was wrong. The gold had been found at what later was determined to be only Troy II. It is popularly believed now that Troy VII was the site of the war about which Homer wrote. There are bronze arrowheads there, and skeletons bearing the marks of hor-rendous injuries, and there is evidence of a great fire. What Schliemann wrote when he first made his discoveries there has held remarkably true for all the layers of Troy that have been unearthed since then:

“I have proved that in a remote antiquity there was in the Plain of Troy a large city, destroyed of old by a fearful catastrophe, which had on the hill of Hissarlik only its Acropolis, with its temples and a few other large edifices, whilst its lower city extended in an easterly, southerly, and westerly direction, on the site of the later Ilium; and that, consequently, this city answers perfectly to the Homeric description of the sacred site of Ilios.”

There is an archaeology to human lives, too, and it is very much the same. Human lives have layers, one atop the other, as though the individual were rising from the dust of creation toward the stars. Some of the layers show nothing much at all. Some of them, like the dark layers at Troy that indicate a vast fire, show that something very important happened to the lives in question. Hurricane Katrina, and all of the myriad events surrounding it, both good and bad, is that vast, sweeping layer within the lives of the people of New Orleans. Almost fifteen hundred people died. There was $100 billion in damage. The levees failed. The city flooded. The city, state, and federal governments failed even worse than the levees did. It was estimated in 2006 that four hundred thousand people were displaced from the city; an estimated one hundred thousand of them never returned. Parts of the city recovered. Parts of the city were rebuilt. Parts of the city gleam now brighter than they ever did. There will be parades on the anniversary of the storm because there are things in the city to celebrate, but it is the tradition in this city that the music doesn’t lively up and the parade really doesn’t start until the departed has been laid to rest, until what is lost is counted, and until the memories are stored away. Only then does the music swing the way the music is supposed to sound. Only then do they begin to parade.

There will be some joy in the tenth-anniversary celebration because of this, but the storm is there in everyone, a dark layer in the archaeology of their lives. For some people, it is buried deeply enough to be forgotten. For others, the people who live in the places that do not gleam and that are not new, it is closer to the surface. A lot of the recovery is due to what author Naomi Klein refers to as “disaster capitalism.” The city has been reconfigured according to radically different political imperatives—in its schools and its housing and the general relationship of the people to their city and state governments. Many of them felt their lives taken over by anonymous forces as implacable as the storm was. There will be some sadness in the tenth anniversary because of this, fresh memories of old wounds, a sense of looming and ongoing loss. The storm is the dark layer in all the lives. And because it is, the storm is what unites them still, like that burned layer of Troy.

The Reopening of the Embassy — In The Atlantic, Yoani Sánchez, a blogger in Cuba, tells what the flag-raising at the U.S. embassy means to the average person in Havana.  (Translated by Mary Jo Porter.)

My grandchildren will ask, “Were you there, grandma?” The answer will be barely a monosyllable accompanied by a smile. “Yes,” I will tell them, although at the moment the flag of the United States was raised over its embassy in Havana I was gathering opinions for a story, or connected to some Internet access point. “I was there,” I will repeat.

The fact of living in Cuba on August 14 makes the more than 11 million of us participants in a historic event that transcends the raising of an insignia to the top of a flagpole. We are all here, in the epicenter of what is happening.

For my generation, as for so many other Cubans, it is the end of one stage. It does not mean that starting tomorrow everything we have dreamed of will be realized, nor that freedom will break out by the grace of a piece of cloth waving on the Malecón. Now comes the most difficult part. However, it will be that kind of uphill climb in which we cannot blame our failures on our neighbor to the north. It is the beginning of the stage of absorbing who we are, and recognizing why we have only made it this far.

The official propaganda will run out of epithets. This has already been happening since the December 17 announcement of the reestablishment of relations between Washington and Havana took all of us by surprise. That equation, repeated so many times, of not permitting an internal dissidence or the existence of other parties because Uncle Sam was waiting for a sign of weakness to pounce on the island, is increasingly unsustainable.

Now, the ideologues of continuity warn that “the war against imperialism” will become more subtle, the methods more sophisticated … but slogans do not understand nuances. “Are they the enemy, or aren’t they?” ask all those who, with the simple logic of reality, experienced a childhood and youth marked by constant paranoia toward that country on the other side of the Straits of Florida.


A conflict of eras is unfolding in Cuba—a collision between two countries: one that has been stranded in the middle of the 20th century, and one that is pushing the other to move forward. They are two islands that clash, but it needs to happen. We know, by the laws of biology and of Kronos, which will prevail. But right now they are in full collision and dragging all of us between the opposing forces.

This Friday’s front-page of the newspaper Granma shows this conflict with a past that doesn’t want to stop playing a starring role in our present—a past tense of military uniforms, guerrillas, bravado, and political tantrums that refuses to give way to a modern and plural country. When one scrutinizes Friday’s edition of the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party, it is easy to detect how a country that is unraveling clings to its past, trying not to make room for the country to come.

In this future Cuba, which is just around the corner, some restless grandchildren will ask me about one day lost in the intense summer of 2015. With a smile, I will be able to tell them, “I was there, I lived it … because I understood the point of inflection that it signified.”

To Be or Not To Be, Dude — Shakespeare’s lost weed sonnets from Anthony Lydgate at The New Yorker.

South African scientists have discovered that 400-year-old tobacco pipes excavated from the garden of William Shakespeare contained cannabis, suggesting the playwright might have written some of his famous works while high.

The Telegraph.


Shall I compare thee to a Purple Haze?
Thou art far kinder, we’re talking righteous bush.
Rough kids do snatch the darling buds from May’s,
And Summer’s lease is up (landlord = douche):
Where, then, will I find thee, honeyed kaya,
When my cursèd suppliers do run out?
Perhaps succor shall I beg of Maya,
Although she hath a tendency to shout.
Dime bag or nug, I’ll lie on the carpet
And smoke my spliff, or in sooth just a roach,
For Anne is full vexed: “Lay off, please, stop it!”
One whiff of ganj and anon she’ll encroach.
So long as dudes can breathe and birds have feather,
That rug really ties the room together.

Doonesbury — Don’t know much about history.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Raising The Flag in Havana

Today the U.S. embassy will officially re-open in Havana, Cuba, with Secretary of State John Kerry presiding over the flag-raising, fifty-four years after President Eisenhower slammed the door shut on diplomatic relations with Cuba.

How we got to this moment is detailed in this story in Mother Jones.

What brought about this radical change was a unique alignment of political stars: a shift in public opinion, particularly among Cuban Americans; a transition in Cuban leadership from Fidel to Raúl, followed by Cuba’s slow but steady evolution toward a market socialist economy; and Latin American leaders no longer willing to accept Cuba’s exclusion from regional affairs. Seizing the opportunity were a handful of dedicated US legislators, well-financed lobbyists, Alan Gross’ aggressive legal team, an activist pope from Latin America, and a woman hell-bent on getting pregnant.

It sounds like something cooked up by Ian Fleming and Monty Python.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hillary Clinton In South Florida

Via the Washington Post:

Hillary Rodham Clinton will go to Miami, heart of the Cuban American opposition to any warming of the decades-old deep freeze in U.S.-Cuba relations, to call for lifting the stiff U.S. embargo on commercial dealings with the communist nation.

The Democratic front-runner will make her first campaign appearances in vote-rich Florida on Friday, including the Cuba policy speech at Miami’s Florida International University. Her campaign announced the speech Wednesday and said she will expressly call on Congress to lift the embargo on trade, travel and other dealings with Cuba imposed by President John F. Kennedy more than 50 years ago.

Actually, if there’s opposition to lifting the embargo, it’s pretty faint.  A poll done over a year ago — before President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations — showed that most Cuban-Americans, including those here in South Florida, are against the embargo.  So it’s not a very controversial stand to take even in Miami.

As Paul Waldman notes, “It just so happens that there are a couple of Floridians running for president who want to keep the embargo, on the theory that even if it hasn’t worked for 50 years, it’ll do the Castros in any day now.”