Monthly Archives: March 2010

On Hiatus: Mr. D in Cuba until April 4.

It’s about time.

After all the applications, meetings, informational materials, and requests for credit card authorizations, it’s finally time for me to head to Cuba.

I’ll be in Havana and the nearby environs starting tomorrow evening until Easter, when I return.  Since the internet may be spotty, at best, I’ll probably be unable to provide reports from the field.  Not to worry, though–The Neighborhood will be treated to raucous essays about my time in the socialist paradise in the weeks to come.

Since you can’t come to the Neighborhood, Fidel, the Neighborhood’s coming to you.  Make sure the bar’s fully stocked!

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This Day in History 3/24: The Argentine Military Coup of 1976

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  The only real difference between fascists and Communists is that the former have a better wardrobe.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time berating the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, rampaging about human rights abuses, economic shenanigans and ridiculous rhetoric.  It’s now time for the far-right to bend over and receive its licks.

In 1976, the military forces of Argentina staged a coup against President Isabel Martinez de Peron, widow of controversial Argentine leader Juan Peron, citing ineffectual leadership in a grinding guerrilla war between left and right-wing paramilitary groups.  The subsequent military junta, ruling from 1976 to 1983, was among the most repressive in the history of the continent.

Innocuously dubbed the National Reorganization Process, the junta promptly made Argentina a police state, suppressing all civil rights and suspending any semblance of due process.  The military government continued the “Dirty War” against leftist Montonero guerrillas, a process that began under the previous administration.  Yet despite the often-brutal tactics of the leftist rebels, it paled in comparison to the state-sponsored terror that would follow.

Torture, rape, kidnapping, murder, summary executions–you name it, it was all done in the seven years of the dictatorship.  The most common estimate we now have is close to 30,000 people who “disappeared.”  Not only guerrillas, but journalists, professors, trade unionists, even clergymen succumbed to the brutal tactics of government interrogators.  One of the favorite forms of execution involved throwing victims out of planes into the ocean or the Rio de la Plata to drown; hence the term “death flights.”

One of the most heinous abuses of the regime was the abduction and relocation of the newborn children of imprisoned mothers.  Under the flimsy excuse that “subversive parents will raise subversive children”, as many as 500 newborns were literally ripped from their mothers’ arms and forcily “adopted” by the families of high-ranking military officials.  To this day, groups such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are fighting to identify the whereabouts of these children.

It took a ridiculous war to finally stop the madness.  Unrest and dissatisfaction was growing in 1981, as corruption and economic crisis weakened the regime.   A new junta took over and used national fervor to attack the Falklands islands in the south Atlantic, a British possession with more sheep than people.  The resulting Falklands War, the 1982 debacle that ended in a decisive British victory, accelerated the demise of the military government, and a new democratic constitution was ratified in 1985.

The Argentine juntas, along with the Brazilian military government, the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner, form a ring of right-wing dictatorships that terrorized their populations in the 1970s and 1980s.  They worked together in a covert anti-Communist operation called Operation Condor, which received tacit approval from the US government.  The Argentine atrocities spread across the Southern Cone of South America.

These governments still generate controversy.  Many conservatives, including myself at a certain point, argued that these governments, and their actions, were necessary to prevent the spread of Communist governments on the continent.  Many contend that the economic status of these countries, especially Chile’s apparent success, are due in part to policies enacted during military rule.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it anymore.

A dictator is a dictator, no matter how good he/she makes you feel.  No economic success, no ideological victory, no battlefield sacrifice can justify the wanton abuse of constitutional powers, the abridgement of human rights, and the outright slaughter of a country’s people.  It doesn’ t matter that they’re Communist, socialist, conservative, liberal, fascist, Nazi, whatever. 

These guys were murderers, plain and simple. 

Below is a BBC documentary about the Argentine “Dirty War” of 1976-1983.  It’s a rough subject, but a necessary one for students so they can appreciate the enormity–and fragility–of our freedom.

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Videos for the Classroom: Fidel Castro: A Life of Revolution

My upcoming trip to Cuba is only a week away. In my mind, I’m already there…and probably on line for some sort of shortage.

Many of my friends are still in a huff about this embargo, and wished they could come along. Well, here’s a video detailing one of the people impeding our stampede into Cuba.To get myself in the mood for a socialist paradise, I revisited a Hulu film entitiled Fidel Castro: A Life of Revolution. It slants ever so slightly in favor of the regime–yet does at least give lip service to the human rights abuses so many leftists choose to ignore.

Please enjoy the life of a tough old bastard. Not me, you idiots.

 

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Videos for the Classroom: The British Empire in Colour

In watching our recent troubles, both economically and on the world stage, I was reminded of another great power that often had to come to grips with its legacy.

I found this incredible documentary, The British Empire in Colour, which gives a sweeping account of the climax, then slow decline, of one of the most influential colonial empires on Earth.  Most importantly, it explores the legacy, both glorious and tragic, of the British colonial experience as it stands in former dominions such as Canada, Australia, former Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Jamaica.

Starting with the Roanoke and Jamestown experiments in North America in the late 16th-early 17th century, Great Britain amassed an empire over the course of two centuries that spread over three-fourths of the globe.  The empire was solidified on the unshakeable belief that the British nation–the white European British nation–had a divine destiny in spreading its culture, its language, its institutions to a world “mired in darkness”, to use a phrase of the time.

Yet even though many of these colonial possessions–Canada, Australia, India–are enjoying success as independent nations, the negative aspects of colonialism have left their deepest and most cruel mark on these former colonies.  

Starting with the “dominions of settlement,” the settler colonies such as Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Rhodesia, a systematic marginalization and destruction of native populations has wreaked havoc on once-proud local cultures.  The carving of African colonies in the 1880s and 1890s has exacerbated religious, ethnic and tribal tensions still to be resolved today.  Furthermore, these same colonial subjects, especially from India and Jamaica, had found that the reality of living in the British homeland–a reality rife with racism and economic turmoil–was a far cry from the idyllic descriptions in their imperial educations.

Share this video with your students, especially those studying Global Studies for their Regents exams.  It will give you an excellent glimpse at the twilight of a great power–and the consequences of those left behind.

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Website for the Classroom: Turning Points in American Sports

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, 1973 (AP)

I’m gearing up for my trip to Cuba in a couple of weeks, so the next few posts will be more informational in nature.  More resources, less commentary from yours truly…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History produces an e-journal called History Now.  This quarter’s topic is sports, and no better month to release it than March, as pro hockey and basketball get more important, spring training has baseball on so many minds, and the grandest dance of all, the NCAA National Basketball Championships, both the men and the women.

The journal has some amazing articles.  Start with the introductory article on the importance of sports in American history by Fordham professor Mark Naison.  I’ve met Mark, and have also been on walking tours with him detailing the history of the South Bronx.   He is a fascinating scholar of urban history, as well as the chief archivist of the Bronx African American History Project, an incredible endeavor documenting thousands of oral histories–in essence providing a primary record for the history of the Bronx in the 20th and 21st centuries.

For those steeped in Women’s History Month, look at Gail Collins’ article on the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, as well as articles on women’s baseball and the importance of Title IX, which guaranteed equality in education and especially sports based on sex.

Along with the articles are great sidebars for teachers to use.  Interactive lesson plans, video clips, and archives of previous editions can allow you into a cornucopia of resources. 

Take a look and have some fun with this.  Let me know how you did, and I might even have more resources for you.

Now if you don’t mind, I have to finish my brackets.

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The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.

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This Day in History 3/9: The Supreme Court frees the Amistad Africans

I’m preparing a response to a statement by Sean Penn in yesterday’s Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, in which he stated that certain reported should be jailed for criticizing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

In the meantime, today we celebrate a moment in American history where people sacrificed for the very freedom that Penn exploits with his anti-democratic venom.

In 1839, a group of enslaved Africans rebelled against the crew of the schooner Amistad, which had left the port of Havana.  They were later captured near Long Island by a naval officer that immediately sent the prisoners to Connecticut.  His intentions were as bold as they were barbaric: Connecticut had not yet officially abolished slavery, and the captain hoped to make a profit from the rebellious Africans.

The ensuing case of the Amistad Africans caused a sensation.  It energized the abolitionist movement in America, and reinforced opposition to the slave trade in other countries.  The main argument was that the initial passage of the Africans across the Atlantic (which did not involve the Amistad) had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, first in the British Empire in 1807, then in the US in 1808, and internationally in 1840.  Therefore, they were obtained illegally, thus never legally enslaved to begin with. Furthermore, given they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take what legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force.

The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, and it rendered its ruling on March 9, 1841.  The Court, in a 7-1 decision, upheld the lower court’s findings that the Africans were captured illegally and were entitled to fight for their freedom, since they could not be enslaved.  The Amistad Africans returned to their place of origin, the Mende region in present-day Sierra Leone, in 1842.

The Amistad rebellion was one of only two successful slave ship uprisings in American history, and one of only three successful slave rebellions in North America–the others being the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1804 and the rebellion abord the slaver Creole in 1841. 

Attached are clips from the 1997 film Amistad, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  It has its problems with historical accuracy, but it shows the time period and the spirit of the events very well.  The first clip is tough to watch, as it depicts the “Middle Passage” of the Africans from their kidnapping in Africa to their voyage onboard the slave ship Tecora towards Cuba.  The second is John Quincy Adams’ speech before the Supreme Court.  It isn’t the exact speech given by Adams, but Anthony Hopkins does a great job conveying the spirit and ethos of the case.

Anything to say about that, Sean?

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