Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Jamaican restaurant in Germany

By DeWayne Wickham
BERLIN - I'm in Germany's capital covering a meeting of former African presidents, American and African educators and students who are discussing the thorny issue of land ownership in Africa. During a break in the proceedings, I had dinner at Ya-Man, Berlin's only Caribbean Soul Food restaurant. What a thrill. The food was fantastic - and as you can see from the below picture, there were sa couple of fun-loving people there, too.

The sister, who looks like she's about to take flight, is Norma Dias, who recently moved to Germany from England, where she ran unsuccessfully for a seat parliament in 2005. The brother is singer, dancer, producer and all-around-great-guy Kevin Booker, who came to Berlin 16 years ago to do a gig and stayed.
Booker is the nephew of actor/producer Tim Reid and a charmingly gregacious host to the African Americans he encounters in Berlin. Booker is fluent in German, drives a 50-mile-per-gallon Smart car and lives in a tony apartment building, in the historic center of Berlin, that overlooks the Spree River.

If you're even in Berlin, you've got to eat at Ya-Man and hope you cross paths with Kevin Booker.
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

What should Obama do about CIA use of torture?

By DeWayne Wickham

You've got to wonder where this is headed.

The clamor over whether someone should be punished for the brutal interrogation techniques the CIA used against key al-Qaida detainees during George W. Bush's presidency increased sharply when President Barack Obama left open the prospect of federal prosecutions.

Obama said the CIA operatives who carried out those techniques should not be tried - because they believed they were acting within the law - but he was less forgiving of those who supplied the legal justification for the interrogation methods.

"With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that," Obama said.
Some of the interrogation techniques - including waterboarding, slamming a detainee's head against a wall, forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation and dousing a captive in near-freezing water - have been branded as torture by the Obama administration.

The president's willingness to absolve CIA interrogators but not necessarily those who gave them legal cover is a hair-splitting assessment of blame - and it raises questions about where such a course of action might ultimately lead.

So far, the biggest target seems to be Jay Bybee, an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration who told the CIA in a 2002 memorandum that its harsh interrogation techniques did not violate federal law. Bybee is now a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont has called on him to resign.

In an April 19 editorial, The New York Times called Bybee's justification of the interrogation techniques "nauseating" and said he is "unfit" to be an appeals court judge.

But even if Bybee does resign or is impeached, there are those who won't be satisfied unless someone lands in jail for the CIA's torture of a few detainees.
Obama should make sure that doesn't happen.

If he allows the Justice Department to pursue those who provided legal justification for the torture, how can the department ignore those who authorized it? Without such approval, the legal opinions were just empty talk.
If prosecutors go after those who authorized the torture, that trail will take them into the inner sanctums of the Bush administration.

In the spring of 2003, Dick Cheney, then the vice president, and Condoleezza Rice, then the National Security Adviser, approved those practices, according to a recently declassified document released by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Even more chilling, Bush told ABC News in April 2008 he was aware Cheney and Rice had discussed and approved the specific details of the interrogation methods.
"And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved," he said.

As outraged as I am by the Bush administration's excesses in the name of national security, it would be a serious mistake to pursue those who justified or approved the CIA's use of torture.

This nation should not be subjected to that kind of legal trauma at a time when the war in Afghanistan is heating up - and the Obama administration soon may be forced to make some distasteful national security decisions of its own.

To spare the nation such bloodletting, Obama should pardon everyone involved in legitimizing, authorizing and carrying out the CIA's brutal interrogations - and put in place rules that guarantee it never happens again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Cuba, Obama must match words with action

By DeWayne Wickham

President Barack Obama went to the Summit of the Americas last week hoping to revive America’s prestige in this hemisphere by promising to forge a new relationship between the United States and Latin America.

"There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values," he said at the summit’s opening ceremony in Trinidad and Tobago. But leaders of the 33 nations in attendance pressed the U.S. president to match his words with action. Their countries have heard such talk before.

In his 1823 State of the Union address, President James Monroe promised to protect the hemisphere from the European powers. But while the Monroe Doctrine largely succeeded in doing that, it became the context for nearly 200 years of U.S. hegemony in the region.

So, one after another, Latin American leaders pressed Obama to back up his pledge by resolving the region’s most contentious issue: the United States’ 47-year-old political and economic embargo of Cuba.

If Obama didn’t know it when he went to the summit, he has to understand now that the diplomatic road to Latin America runs through Havana. In ordering an end to restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba just days before he departed for the summit, Obama apparently sought to push the embargo to the back burner of the conference’s agenda. But that half-measure highlighted the incredulity of a policy that gives Cuban Americans a right that is denied to almost every other American.

Obama may be rescued from this misstep by the opening it produced. Cuban President Raul Castro said on the eve of the summit, from which Cuba was excluded, that he is willing to have an open dialogue with the Obama administration. "We have sent messages to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, whenever they want," he said. "Human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."

That’s exactly what Obama should do to prove he meant it when he told Latin leaders "we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements."

Obama’s willingness to break with the past will be tested by the distance his government puts between the diplomatic doublespeak that has the U.S. trying to strangle the economic life out of communist Cuba, while asking communist China to subsidize its debt. Latin American leaders see the hypocrisy in this, and so should Obama.

Over the past decade, I’ve made 14 reporting trips to Cuba. I’ve spoken with dissidents, intellectuals, shopkeepers, and with hundreds of others in all sectors of Cuban society. I’ve spent time in their homes and gone shopping with them to see how difficult it is for many Cubans to make ends meet. I’ve also interviewed government leaders such as Fidel Castro, Ricardo Alarcon, president of the national assembly, and Ruben Remigio Ferro, chief justice of Cuba’s Supreme Court.

These encounters have made it clear to me that Cuba is ready for a new relationship with us.
Castro’s willingness to talk about the hot-button issues that have kept our two nations at loggerheads for nearly half a century should not be left to fester.

If Obama is to separate himself from other U.S. presidents who have offered Latin America lofty words and contemptuous actions, he must broker an end to America’s longstanding conflict with Cuba.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Obama's embargo policy hurts black Cubans

By DeWayne Wickham

The Obama administration’s decision to ease the U.S. embargo restrictions on travel and the transfer of money to Cuba must have seemed like a smart political move to the presidential advisers who fashioned this policy change.

It gave Cuban Americans what a majority of them want: greater freedom to return to their ancestral home and to send unlimited amounts of money to relatives in Cuba. And coming as it did just days before Barack Obama was to meet with the leaders of 33 Latin American nations, it eased some of the pressure on the president, who during his White House campaign promised to dramatically change the way this country engages its enemies.

Cuba has been on America’s enemies list for nearly half a century. The aging U.S. embargo was meant to strangle the economic life out of that nation and topple its communist regime. On both counts, the embargo has been a dismal failure. It has succeeded only in sharply diminishing American influence in Cuba and in straining this country’s relations with virtually every other nation in this hemisphere.

As a geopolitical move, what the Obama administration did to relax the embargo was a good first step. It does not, however, address a peculiarity of the current island divide that the U.S. played no small role in creating.

During the four-year U.S. occupation of Cuba (1898 – 1902) following the end of the Spanish-American War, the American government demanded racial segregation of Cuba’s army and imposed Jim Crow practices throughout Cuban society. Those racist practices led to the massacre of nearly 6,000 blacks in May 1912, members of a political party that agitated for an end to racial discrimination.

Little changed for black Cubans until Fidel Castro came to power and gave them a bigger role in the life of the country. In turn, they became the core of his support – and the least likely to join the Cuban exile community in South Florida.

But as a humanitarian move, it is a weak gesture. Why? The vast majority of Cubans who have moved to the United States are white. While that country’s government reports people of African descent make up just 35 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people, many Cuban scholars say that nearly 70 percent of the population is black or mullato.

Allowing only Cuban Americans to send money to their relatives in Cuba reinforces a racial stratification that is deeply rooted in policies forced upon Cuba over a century ago.

“Supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their future and that of their country is in the national interest of the United States,” the Obama administration said in a statement released by the White House when the relaxation of restrictions on travel and money transfers was announced. But the Obama policy inadvertently discriminates against the majority of Cubans – who like him – are of African descent.

To ease this problem, the president should permit all Americans – not just Cuban Americans – to travel to Cuban, and allow anyone in this country to give financial help to anyone in Cuba. This will open the way for black churches and others in America’s black communities to aid black Cubans, who are now isolated from such help by the embargo rules.

The Obama administration is right to try to strengthen contacts and “good will” between the Cuban and American people. Such bridge building holds out a greater potential for change on that island than the Cold War era embargo that remains in place.

But this outreach must not be blind to the painful realities of Cuba’s racial division – a divide that the United States had a hand in creating.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Combat Somali pirates with small, lethal force - not Navy warships

By DeWayne Wickham

The standoff between U.S. Naval forces and a band of Somali pirates that ended Sunday when Navy Seals freed an American who had been held hostage by the brigands ought to teach this country an important lesson.

The best way to combat these thugs, who have attacked more than 130 ships off the Horn of Africa in the past year, is not with a massive show of warships, but with the lethal force of small combat teams. That’s what the Navy employed to free Richard Phillips, the 55-year-old captain of a 17,000-ton merchant vessel the pirates tried to seize last week.

Thwarted by the vessel’s unarmed crew, the Somalis took Phillips hostage as they escaped onto a 24-foot lifeboat. But they didn’t get very far. Their getaway was blocked by at least three U.S. warships — a destroyer; a guided-missile frigate, and an amphibious assault ship stocked with missile launchers, attack planes and a crew of 1,000.

The U.S. vessels had enough firepower to topple Somalia’s government, if it had one. The East African country is run by a collection of warlords and clan leaders, who are thought to benefit from the piracy. More than $50 million was paid to Somali pirates last year to get back the ships and crews they seized.

An international flotilla of naval vessels has patrolled the vast waters of the Indian Ocean for months trying to stop the hijackings, but they have continued. Forty ships were seized by pirates in the past year, the BBC reported.

“We consider it a serious matter,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week as the pirates demanded money for Phillips release. “These people are nothing more than criminals. And we are bringing to bear a number of our assets in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice.”

But ultimately the goal should be prevent hijackings, not rescue hostages. It would take the entire U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet — with help from a lot of U.S. allies — to keep the Somali pirates at bay. That would be a huge, and costly, undertaking that’s unlikely to make the pirates stand down.

So here’s a better idea. Instead of sending scores of naval ships and tens of thousands of sailors in the hope of preventing a replay of the attack on Phillips’ ship, why not create a small military force which, like Sky Marshals, would be randomly placed aboard some of the commercial ships traveling through the area.

This would make attacking any of them a very costly crap shoot for the Somali pirates who chase down the large commercial vessels in boats better suited for sport fishing than combat. It wouldn’t take much for a small number of heavily-armed sailors or Marines hidden onboard one of the ships targeted by the Somalis to send the pirates to Davy Jones’ locker.

If you think this is a pretty wild idea, consider the alternative: endless years of pirate attacks on civilian ships off of Africa’s east coast, millions of dollars paid in ransom and hostage-taking that might not result in the happy ending that brought Phillips home alive, while his captors were killed in a firefight.

The presence of a large number of foreign warships off Somalia’s coast hasn’t frightened off the privates, who usually avoid contact with the military vessels while hunting the more numerous and defenseless merchant ships.

Give some of these vessels a protective force to fight off Somali pirates and the waters off the Horn of Africa will be a lot safer.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Republicans call Obama anti-religious

By DeWayne Wickham

Bereft of new ideas and at risk of backing themselves into a corner that may prove to be a political black hole, Republicans have been spoiling for a fight with Democrats they think they can win – one that will breathe new life into the Grand Old Party.

That battle seems to be shaping up over religion.

On Monday, during a speech to Turkey’s parliament, President Obama said Americans do not consider this country a Christian nation. Shortly after that former Newt Gingrich called the Obama administration “intensely secular” and “anti-religious.” While the former GOP House Speaker’s attack came in response to Obama’s of Harry Knox, an unabashed gay rights activist, to the White House faith-based council, the president’s words must have set off a chorus of hallelujahs in Republican ranks.

Christian conservatives, once the bulwark of the Republican Party, have backed away from the GOP. Some evangelicals like Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, pin this break on the GOP’s failure to work hard to block gay marriages after the 2004 election.

There was “great emphasis by the Republicans and (George W. Bush) on the need to protest marriage,” Perkins said of that campaign, during a February interview with U.S. News & World Report. “It was used to secure a second term for President Bush and to expand Republican control of Congress. And after the election, the issue was basically dropped,” he complained.

Since then the breech has widened as Christian conservatives soured on the 2008 presidential campaign of Republican John McCain and expressed discomfort with the Party’s recent choice of former Maryland Lieutenant Gov. Michael Steele as its national chairman. Both McCain and Steele are viewed as social moderates.

So, not surprisingly Gingrich, who was House Speaker during a time when Republicans and Christian conservatives were kindred souls, is trying to use religion – or more accurately, his charge that the Obama administration is “anti-religious” – to renew that old bond.

“I think their goal is to have a very secular America in which government dominates everything,” Gingrich with a foreboding that seemed to warn of an apocalyptic end to religion in this country, if the Democrats hold on Congress and the White House isn’t broken.

Obama may have inadvertently played into Gingrich’s hand when he told Turkish lawmakers that one of the great strengths of Americans is that we do not consider our country to be the political manifestation of Christianity, or any other religious faith. While it certainly seems that creation of a secular nation was the intent of the drafters of the Constitution, by saying as much, Obama probably angered many Christian conservatives who think otherwise.

But the president is not without powerful allies in the faith community. During an address four years ago at a conference of black journalists, Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of America’s “super pastors,” said didn’t think the United States is a Christian nation.

“As we continue to try to politicize God, or market God, or say that America is Christian, or that God is with one party, or that God is here and not there, it only further point to the fact that we don’t understand how big God is – and how great God is,” said, who Time magazine once called “one of religion’s most prodigious polymaths.”

Having failed to reduce Obama’s job approval rating by branding the steps he’s taken to fix the nation’s broken economy the work of a closet socialist, the Gingrich now suggests that the president is an enemy of religion.

That’s an act of political desperation that will plunge the GOP deeper into the abyss.