Thursday, July 24, 2008

Al Sharpton for Human Rights in Cuba?

I bet I know what you’re thinking when you read “Al Sharpton” and “Fidel Castro” in the same sentence. Me too.

But no.

On Tuesday, Sharpton stood in front of the Cuban Mission to the United Nations in New York and asked the Cuban government to allow him into the country to learn more about the situation of political prisoners.

Sharpton spoke about Oscar Elias Biscet and Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez,” both considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Biscet was one of the 75 dissidents arrested in the infamous crackdown of 2003 and is serving 25 years for criticizing the Castro regime. Antúnez was released a month ago, after serving 17 years. He spoke with Sharpton on the telephone Monday, apparently, and told him that government goons continue to harass him daily.

The two Cubans are black men, as were a half-dozen other former Cuban political prisoners who stood with Sharpton at the press conference. This explains Sharpton’s interest. But is he also concerned about imprisoned Cuban dissidents who are not black?

Sharpton is an activist in black causes. The proper question is, “What took you so long?”

Sharpton visited Cuba in 2000, and two years later wrote in his book, “Al On America”: “If the reason for continuing the embargo is because Cuba is still a Communist regime, then how does America explain its relationship with North Korea, and China? We talk about human rights violations — of which I personally saw none. Yet we can dialogue with China and all of her blatant human rights violations. We have continued to demonize Castro at the expense of good, sound foreign policy.”

He also called Castro “one of the three most impressive people I have ever met” and, according to the New York Daily News, once tried to organize “a hip-hop concert in Havana, beam it around the world and bring down the embargo.”

That kind of talk put him in the company of a certain kind of figure unique to the left — people who say they are politically progressive and passionate about defending human rights, even as they defend a regime that is among the world’s worst violators of human rights.

You criticize the Castro regime to people like that, and they come back at you with complaints about American support for right-wing dictators or, alas, nowadays, the U.S. abuses at Guantanamo, conveniently for their rhetorical purposes located right on the island of Cuba. They change the subject, and never mind Cubans under the Castros’ boots.

Havana has had no better friends than these Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans who fancy themselves liberal yet created the romantic aura that, for nearly 50 years, has surrounded the Cuban tyranny — a false mystique that serves as a cover for economic failure and political despotism.

Opening the eyes of people like Sharpton, Oliver Stone, Gabriel García Márquez and so many others who made the Havana pilgrimage to worship at the feet of Fidel would help expose the charade of Little Brother. During the past few months, Raúl Castro has loosened the stupidest of Fidel’s economic absurdities, letting Cubans have cell phones and allowing them to visit resorts previously reserved for tourists; the government hopes that a more bearable day-to-day existence will distract Cubans from the continued prohibitions on free expression.

Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez, an African-Cuban who spent 28 years in a Cuban prison and joined the Miami-based, paramilitary and anti-Castro Alpha 66 after he got out, appeared with Sharpton and caught the moment exactly: “The importance of this petition is that it is not being made by a Jesse Helms on the extreme right, but by a personality of the radical left,” he said.

Sharpton seems more noncommittal than is his normal in-your-face style. Said a National Action Network press release, “He has not taken a side and he is still for the ending of the embargo and will look into the allegations.”

Not taken sides? Is this the same Al Sharpton who always shows up on the side of the victim, or at least those he perceives with nary a doubt to be victims?

Every human rights group in the world has charged that Havana institutionalizes the violation of basic human rights, and now individuals who happen to be of African ancestry have personally told Sharpton they suffered it themselves.

Isn’t that enough to take sides? For Sharpton, asking out loud if, just possibly, there might actually be something to all that talk of human rights violations is at least a start.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Barack Obama and John McCain have been running hard after Hispanic voters the past three weeks.

Speeches by each candidate before three different Hispanic national groups, trips by McCain to Colombia and Mexico, an awkward new television ad by McCain and some remarks on language by Obama that the nutty right twisted out of context.

The speeches were before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza. Each candidate tried to kiss up to the audiences in the ways you’d expect.

“[A]s the first African-American nominee of my party,” Obama told NALEO, I’m hoping that somewhere out in this audience sits the person who will become the first Latino nominee of a major party.”

Applause and cheers from the crowd. He was making the We-Are-Minorities-Together link.
It’s a connection that McCain can’t make, obviously. But the Arizona senator has his own way of connecting, one that is beyond Obama.

He talked of his days in a North Vietnamese prison and “My friend, Everett Alvarez, a brave American of Mexican descent.” He went on, “When you take the solemn stroll along that wall of black granite on the national Mall, it is hard not to notice the many names such as Rodríguez, Hernández and López that so sadly adorn it. When you visit Iraq and Afghanistan you will meet some of the thousands of Hispanic-Americans who serve there, and many of those who risk their lives to protect the rest of us.”

Ah, the We-Are-Patriotic-Americans-Together link.

On issues of substance, McCain was on the defensive. Obama unambiguously declared himself in favor of giving illegal immigrants a path to residency. McCain also declared himself in favor, but not for now. He has had to backtrack from his own bill that would have provided that path and told the NCLR, “When we have achieved our border security goal, we must enact and implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy.”

That made it easy for Obama to attack McCain at all three appearances for walking away from “comprehensive [immigration] reform when it becomes politically unpopular.”

McCain won points with his visits to Mexico and Colombia, though. The latter has an unsuspected importance. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is hugely popular in Colombia and also among Colombian Americans, and it is McCain, not Obama, who is more closely aligned to him and supportive of the U.S.-Colombia trade pact. No small matter, with the Colombian-American vote growing rapidly in the battleground state of Florida.

But McCain took a hit because of an ad that just doesn’t work. The spot uses his remarks at a June 2007 debate in New Hampshire, when he honored Hispanic Americans in the armed forces, even “the few thousand that are still green card holders who are not even citizens of this country, who love this country so much that they’re willing to risk their lives in its service.” Nice sentiments. Until McCain added that “They must come into the country legally.”

When he said this last at the debate year, he was criticized. No good reason to bring up immigration status in a tribute to American fighting men — but hey, anybody can slip in an extemporaneous remark.

However, re-using the same non-sequitur in a recorded, planned-out television spot makes it seem as if McCain is pandering to the anti-immigrant right in a television commercial that the anti-immigrant right could well say panders to Hispanics.

Then there is the dust-up involving Obama and the Spanish language. At a campaign stop in Georgia he said, “I don’t understand when people are going around saying, ‘We need to have English only.’ They want to pass a law, ‘We want English only.’ Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English. They’ll learn English. You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual.”

Not hard to figure out what came next. A group called the Americans for Legal Immigration accused Obama of saying “Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish.” The ever dependable Lou Dobbs said it was a “pander to the illegal alien lobby.”

Never mind that immigration had not been part of the discussion when Obama spoke about language.

It will be an interesting run to November.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Colombian Rescue Reveals Latin American Struggle

The spectacular rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and 11 Colombian soldiers has given Latin American leaders the opportunity to speak up — and show the world that the political battle in the region is no longer right versus left, nor rich versus poor, nor pro-American against anti-American.

Those categories still count (there is still an enormous gap between rich and poor, there still are liberals and conservatives, there still are admirers and critics of the United States) but they are no longer at the center of the struggle. Today the struggle is between those who think violence is a permissible route to political power, and those who think political violence is useless and stupid.

Of course, every leader professed delight at the freedom of the hostages. Some actually meant it. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet wants to nominate Betancourt for the Nobel Peace Prize. Brazilian Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “I hope this is an important step toward the release of all the other hostages, the reconciliation of all Colombians and peace in Colombia.” Argentine President Cristina Fernández said it was a day of “joy and happiness.” Colombia’s own Álvaro Uribe saw his popularity hit 91 percent.

Politically, those four are a mixed bunch. Uribe, a conservative, is Bush’s firmest ally in the region. Bachelet and Lula are pragmatic leftists. Fernández is an old fashioned Argentine nationalist, a Peronista with a tinge of anti-Americanism.

Different from each other though they may be, they are alike in at least one sense: none of them have anything to gain if the Colombian guerrillas who held the hostages were to get stronger.

Other leaders, though, have a lot to lose if the guerillas get weaker. So the hostage’s liberation came as a political setback.

Not that they admit it.

“Because of a basic sense of humanity, we are gladdened by the news,” Fidel Castro wrote in his “Reflections” column in the official government media. “We have honestly and strongly criticized the objectively cruel methods of kidnapping and retaining prisoners under the conditions of the jungle.”

But he added, “I am not suggesting that anyone lay down their arms, when everyone who did so in the last 50 years did not survive to see peace.”

A lie. Castro surely remembers that the 19th of April Movement, a FARC-like guerrilla group that in 1985 took hostage Colombia’s Supreme Court, eventually gave up its arms and today takes part in elections. FARC and a smaller group that calls itself the National Liberation Army could do the same.

But they won’t.

It’s not just Castro who backs their refusal to forsake violence. Hugo Chávez has been urging that Europe and Latin America take FARC off the list of terrorist organizations and recognize it as a “belligerent force” with an internationally recognized right to wage war. Earlier this year he told the rubber-stamp Venezuelan Congress that Colombia’s guerrillas are “insurgent forces that have a political project, a Bolivarian project that is respected here.”

But they don’t.

Whatever ideology FARC once had has degenerated into a orgy of kidnapping, extortion, cocaine trafficking, and sadistic cruelty described by Betancourt and the other recently freed hostages.

Even if they were still defending some sort of Marxist-Leninist anachronism, even if they attacked military targets only, their violence would still not be justified — not in a Colombia that, like most of Latin America, is a flawed, raucous and often dangerous yet vibrant democracy with a lively media and political parties that range far right to far left.

“The waging of armed struggle as a means of achieving power should end in Latin America,” Lula said the day after the hostages were freed. “'The belief that armed struggle can solve anything is out of date.”

Despite what the Havana-Caracas axis says, FARC’s armed struggle leads to nothing other than the perpetuation of its existence as a criminal enterprise in the jungles of Colombia.