Tuesday, May 31, 2011

U.S. Cuba policy is stuck in the past

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — Hillary Clinton should have dinner with Jony Jones. I did.

Shortly before I arrived in Cuba’s capital, the U.S. secretary of State dined with six former Latin American presidents in Washington to discuss what it will take to fix what’s broken in America’s relations with its hemispheric neighbors. For half a century, a major stumbling block to this repair job has been the United States’ obsessive efforts to topple Cuba’s communist government.

Soon after I got here, I had dinner with Jones at La Moneda Cubana, a new, privately owned restaurant in the old colonial section of this city. She’s a 38-year-old biomedical researcher whose father fled Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The restaurant is an inviting symbol of Cuba’s movement away from a rigid Communist economy. Both are part of a Cuba that the Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand.

Our meal came at the end of a day in which I’d spent several hours trolling the impoverished Central Havana neighborhood of La California. The place is made up of 32 apartments that have been carved out of an old rectangular-shaped building with an ignominious past. Once slave quarters, it was later a military barracks for the regime that Fidel Castro ousted from power in 1959.

It is from places like La California that the foot soldiers of rebellions that overthrow governments usually come. But like Jones, the people who live there say they only want the kind of change Barack Obama promised American voters in 2008, not the regime change his administration has in mind for Cuba.

“It’s complicated,” Jones said of what Cubans crave for themselves — and their country. “There is a dichotomy between the sense of belonging to Cuba and with being personally satisfied. Maybe all Cubans aren’t revolutionaries, but most Cubans love Cuba,” she told me.

Back in April, Cuba’s Communist Party Congress announced a series of economic reforms that permit self-employment in 178 areas of work, including restaurants, carpentry, barbers, hair dressers, electricians and taxi drivers. In 83 of these jobs people will be allowed to create small businesses and hire workers. Under the announced reforms, Cubans also will be able to buy and sell cars and homes for the first time in half a century.

For most Cubans, this is a long-awaited movement in the right direction. But instead of applauding it, the U.S. State Department criticized Cuba for not making improvements in other areas. “We remain focused on getting Cuban people more access to freedom of information and other aspects,” spokesman Mark Toner deadpanned. That’s another way of saying, when it comes to Cuba, the State Department remains stuck in the past.

In conversations with Cuban government officials, members of this country’s emerging middle class and people on the lowest rungs of its economic ladder, I got repeated acknowledgements of the failures of the economic system and a determination to overcome the country’s most daunting problems.

“In Cuba we have to hope that things are going to change, but nobody knows how,” Jones admitted.

Still, like so many others here, she welcomes the changes that have occurred, even if they don’t go far enough. The Obama administration can help increase the pace of change in Cuba by moving aggressively to end the embargo.

What’s clear is that there is no widespread support here for a “Cuba spring” — no looming upheaval like those that toppled a government in Egypt and threatens to do the same in Libya.

If Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe me, she should come here and have dinner with Jony Jones.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Obama should give tough love response to Netanyahu's arrogant lecture

By DeWayne Wickham

Putting aside Mark Twain’s sage observation that “no nation…occupies a foot of land that was not stolen,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to let a return to his country’s 1967 borders become the basis for a peace settlement is foolhardy for another reason.

It sees the future as the past.

Netanyahu’s objection is stubbornly rooted in a belief that the Jewish state and its neighbors will be forever in a perpetual state of war. That myopia is a prescription for continued stalemate, and more conflict, not a meaningful peace agreement.

This intransigence is exactly what Netanyahu signaled when he arrogantly lectured Barack Obama before television cameras during his recent White House visit. The president’s call for a return to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, as a starting point for a renewed effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors, is unacceptable for two reasons, the Israeli leader said.

One is because Israel’s old borders are “indefensible,” and the other is that it “doesn’t take into account…demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” Netanyahu said.

But, as Obama surely understands, peace is the best protector of any country’s borders, not some sort of geographic Maginot Line – which the katyusha rocket and Arab sappers have shown to be no less impregnable than the physical one France built to stave off World War II.

The other reason for Netanyahu’s unyielding position on Obama’s peace proposal is Israel’s longstanding policy of building Jewish settlements – in violation of United Nations resolutions – in territory it seized during the 1967 war. Those old borders, Netanyahu told Obama, “were the boundaries of repeated war.” These settlements are a human buffer that Netanyahu thinks will ensure Israel’s survival – and the real flashpoint of any effort to end the quasi war that now exists.

“The Obama administration has been encouraging Netanyahu to give them something to work with” in its effort to broker a peace deal. Netanyahu gave them nothing,” Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow and co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told me.

The president’s call for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians based “on the 1967 (borders) with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both sides is a laudable attempt to break new ground that takes Netanyahu “out of his comfort zone,” said Levy, who was a special adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

That’s because Netanyahu is a war leader for whom peace is an armistice, not a quest for harmony.

To allow Netanyahu’s uncompromising position to prevail is to permit the egrat to command the rhinoceros. It is a longstanding American policy, as old as the Jewish state itself, that Israel has a right to exist. Obama has reaffirmed this commitment to Israel’s survival. “Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable,” Obama said in a major Middle East foreign policy speech at the State Department shortly before Netanyahu arrived in the United State.

But Israel undermines this commitment with its settlement program and its refusal to even contemplate a peace agreement that recognizes the pre-1967 territorial borders of Palestine as the beginning point of the search for a lasting peace.

On this issue Netanyahu has dug in his heels. Obama must respond with a tough love insistence that the Israeli prime minister ensures Israel’s future by giving peace a chance now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sophia Nelson's book a NeNe Leakes antidote

By DeWayne Wickham

I really hope what Sophia Nelson is saying will muffle the voice of NeNe Leakes, whose growing presence on TV surreality shows sullies the image of black women.

A former stripper, Leakes is a hulking, loud-mouth whose profanity-laced outburst on a recent episode of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice was the most APPALLING of her bad-girl acts on a genre of TV shows that falsely claims to reflect real life. She’s also a mainstay of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, where she regularly behaves like an overgrown schoolyard bully on estrogen.

Nelson is the author of a new book that seeks to debunk the image of accomplished black women as angry and unfulfilled —a stereotype that Leakes feeds. While Nelson doesn’t say her book is the antidote to Leakes and the proliferation of other dysfunctional, angry black women who populate TV surreality shows built around black female characters like her, I hope it is.

In a recent Celebrity Apprentice episode, Leakes, who rose to TV fame as a well-to-do Atlanta housewife in the Bravo show, confronted fellow black contestant Star Jones with an expletive-laced tirade that had to make a lot of television viewers cringe.

“You talked a good game. Now bring your street game, because that what I’m bringing,” Leakes said to Jones in a ghetto bravado that she flashes just about every time a camera focuses in on her. And usually for no good reason, Leakes threatens to pounce upon someone.

In her book, Black Woman Redefines: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama, Nelson holds out the nation’s first lady as someone who is dispelling the stereotypes about black women. “You humanize us. You soften us … You make us approachable, feminine, sexy, warm, compassionate, smart, affirmed, accomplished, and full-filled all at once,” she writes about Obama in the book’s prologue.

Her point, of course, is not that the wife of this nation’s first black president possesses positive qualities that few other black women have. It is, instead, that her husband’s elevation in the White House has put a spotlight on Michelle Obama — who is a high-profile, counterbalancing image to people like NeNe Leakes.

More than anything else, Nelson’s work is a how-to book, a feel-good tome that offers black women prescriptions for personal and professional success that empower them without tearing down someone else. For her, the president’s wife is the most obvious and inspirational example of a successful black woman who refuses to be negatively defined by others. But, as Nelson points out, she is by no means the only one.

Black women have long struggled to define themselves in ways that others would understand and respect. From Sojourner Truth’s 1851 plaintive “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, to Zora Neale Hurston’s reporting on the 1953 murder trial of Ruby McCollum (a married black woman who killed a white doctor that fathered one of her children), to the Agriculture Department’s controversial dismissal of Shirley Sherrod, this fight has taken many forms.

Nelson’s book is another skirmish in this battle — one she hopes will bring about a transformative victory. She wants it to help black women be defined by something more representative of them than NeNe Leakes. Because as Hurston — the most prolific black female writer of the first half of the 20th century — once said, “All of my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Donald Trump is a chicken hawk

By DeWayne Wickham

Remember that profanity-laced speech Donald Trump gave in Las Vegas not so long ago?

I'm talking about the one in which he referred to Obama as a weak, pathetic leader. In that speech "The Donald" talked tough about how, if he were president, he wouldn't let oil producing nations jack up the price of gas. "You’re not going to raise that fucking price," is what Trump told his audience he'd tell them.

Remember that?

Trump got a standing ovation from his audience – and an awful lot of media coverage of that speech in which he portrayed himself as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners badass dude who would bring a new toughness to the White House.

Well it turns out that when he had an opportunity to REALLY fight for this country; Trump didn't have the guts to do it.

During the Vietnam War Trump did what a lot of rich boys did back then: he got one deferment after another to duck military service. Between 1964 and 1972, when more than a million men were drafted into the U.S. military, Trump got six deferments to keep him out of the nation's Armed Services, according to TheSmokingGun.com.

But don't expect Trump to own up to ducking military service. When asked why he wasn't drafted during the Vietnam War, "The Donald," according to CBS, never admitted getting all those deferments. Instead, he said lamely: "Well, I actually got lucky. I had a very, very high number, and they never got up to that number."

That makes Donald Trump a chicken hawk; someone who talks tough, but lacks the courage to serve his country in time of war.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Trump is a shameless huckster and racist

By DeWayne Wickham

Sadly, neither the release of Barack Obama’s original birth certificate, nor the verbal beat down the president dealt Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday will likely end the real estate mogul’s personal attacks on the president’s qualifications.

That’s because Trump is more of a ghostly cross between P.T. Barnum and James K. Vardaman, than a serious contender for this nation’s highest office. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is the credo Barnum is widely believed to have given the world. Vardaman, the firebrand former Mississippi governor and senator — and unabashed racist — offered that blacks were unfit even to eat in the White House.

When Booker T. Washington dined with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 as the first black ever so entertained in the presidential residence, Vardaman was not so guarded as Trump in showing his contempt for blacks. The White House, he said, was “so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable.”

Strapping an elephant to a plow, Barnum had the pachyderm till the soil of his Bridgeport , Conn. , farm every time a train passed by. The 1851 trick was employed to stoke interest in his American Museum , the flagship of Barnum’s entertainment empire. The stunt indeed got the American showman worldwide attention.

In his shameless shill, “The Donald” has hitched himself to the GOP elephant by holding out the possibility that he might seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. It’s far more likely that, instead of the White House, Trump is aiming at an even larger audience for his highly rated NBC show, The Apprentice.

When his “birther’s” challenge withered after the president proved his citizenship by release of his long-form birth certificate, Trump pivoted to question Obama’s academic acumen. The alleged billionaire seems determined to prove H.L. Mencken right when he said “enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed.”

When a reporter asked Trump if he is now willing to accept that the president “is who he says he is,” the reigning political huckster demanded that Obama produce his college transcript.

“I don’t know why he doesn’t release his (college) records,” Trump deadpanned. “The word is that he wasn’t a good student and he ended up getting into Columbia and Harvard. And I’d like to know how does he get into Harvard; how does he get into Columbia , if he wasn’t a good student,” Trump said, putting himself at the head of another scurrilous assault on this nation’s first black president.

As Vardaman was unconvinced that blacks were “fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship,” Trump now seems just as unconvinced that the first African-American president is qualified to occupy the White House.

If his factless assault on Obama’s citizenship isn’t proof enough of Trump’s racism then his attempt to brand the president as the undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action in higher education –— an old saw of modern-day bigots –— should remove all doubt.

Trump hopes to extend his time on the nation’s political stage by pandering to opponents of affirmative action — and by convincing the bigots he courts that his rolling personal attacks on Obama just might uncover something that would render him unworthy of re-election.

Trump, too, apparently believes there’s a sucker born every minute.