Politics & Policy

An Awful Predicament, &C.

Friends, I think you’ll want to know about a particular situation. I’ve written about it for the magazine (the forthcoming issue); I wanted to say a little more about it here.

Seven members of a Cuban opposition party–the November 30th party–have been detained in the Bahamas since last September. You can read their biographies here, at the Information Bridge–an excellent source of information about dissidence and other matters in Cuba.

The detainees have undergone a terrible ordeal in the Bahamas, which you can read some about here: in a letter called “Our Truth,” smuggled out of prison last January.

The role of the Bahamas in the Cuban drama is very little known. These islands are located in a tricky position, just northeast of Cuba, just southeast of Florida. Often, Cubans, when they flee, drift into Bahamian waters, and they’re picked up by that nation’s coast guard. From there, life gets rough–or rather continues to be rough, because life on Cuba is no picnic, and neither is a desperate flight in the sea. The Carmichael Road Detention Centre, in the Bahamas, is notorious. At least it is notorious among Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans, and others who might land on those islands. To the rest of the world, it is unknown.

The Carmichael guards practice a savagery that boggles the mind. A British businessman who found himself in the detention center was shocked by what he saw. He told the local press, “Detainees cannot fight back and have to just take it. These people are not convicted criminals. They are detainees looking for a better life . . .”

Along with abuse, the Cuban detainees have to live with the threat of repatriation–that is, the threat of being shipped back to Castro. Three guesses what happens to them there. The mere attempt to flee the country is regarded as a criminal offense–so it is with all totalitarian countries.

For reasons that I touch on in my piece, the Bahamian government is very, very cozy with Castro. True, the Bahamas is a democracy, and an ally of the United States (ostensibly): but the government is far closer to Castro than to the U.S., certainly when it comes to refugees. Last year, Nicaraguan visas were secured for a group of Cuban refugees–but the Bahamian government turned them over to Castro anyway. This is a despicable, repugnant act.

And what about the November 30th members? In recent days, Ecuadorian visas have been secured for them–it remains to be seen whether the Bahamas will allow them to go that haven. If they are sent back to Cuba, we just may never hear from them again.

As always when I do these stories, I’m impressed–even amazed–by the constellation of Cuban-American helpers, whose eyes are on the case. Daisy Gil Ortíz, of the Information Bridge, is indispensable. She has campaigned unstintingly for the Bahamas detainees. Another helper is Armando Álvarez, of the Committee to Aid Human-Rights Activists. (That’s in New Jersey; the Information Bridge is out of Miami.) Álvarez recently visited the November 30th prisoners, and says they are now in tolerable shape. Willy Chirino, a popular singer, has visited them too, and appealed to the Bahamian government.

Also in this process is Pedro Fuentes-Cid, a lawyer in Miami. He wasn’t always in Miami: He fought in the revolution, against the Batista dictatorship. But he was a democrat–so Castro imprisoned him for close to 16 years. Fuentes-Cid was a guest of Václav Havel at the Czech embassy in Washington last month.

Instrumental in the securing of the Ecuadorian visas was Gisela Hidalgo, sister of the Cuban writer and former political prisoner Ariel Hidalgo.

These are people whom our “liberals” like to deride as “the Miami mafia” and “right-wing crazies.” In fact, they are angels: people with a conscience, who cannot forget the persecuted. Daisy Ortíz likes to cite Mother Teresa: “We can do no great thing–only small things with great love.”

Another woman to know about is Maria Werlau, president of the Free Society Project. Their Cuba Archive–found here–is invaluable for those interested in the subject.

Anyway, give a thought to those brave ones in the Bahamas.

Oh, a final word, before I leave this story: Longtime readers may remember René Montes de Oca, a Cuban oppositionist–member of the Pro-Human Rights party, an affiliate of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation–whom I’ve written about several times. I interviewed him twice, once while he was on the lam, having escaped prison. He recently completed his latest prison sentence, and is back at work: working peacefully for a democratic Cuba, or, failing that, a minimally decent one.

René’s brother Jesús is a detainee in the Bahamas, and so is Jesús’s wife, Yanelis Acosta González. Ecuadorian visas have been obtained for them, too–they’re looking to leave with the November 30th seven. Wouldn’t it be nice to meet them all one day?

‐In a column some weeks ago, I mentioned the question of presidential portraits–and monarchical portraits. Everywhere you go in Jordan, you see a picture of King Abdullah. In North Korea, of course–the current Kim is inescapable.

I said that I was even somewhat bothered, when I was a college intern in Washington, a few years back, by the ever-present portraits of President Reagan in government buildings (also of Vice President Bush). “Wasn’t this a little North Korean,” I wrote, “a little Big Brotherish? To be truthful, I’m still a little bothered by all that portrait-displaying.”

Well, on this subject: I’ve had in my files for a month now a column from the International Herald Tribune by Amelia Gentleman. (I swear, that’s her name–at least her byline.) Google led me to a copy here. Of India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Miss (Mrs.?) Gentleman wrote,

His modesty is legendary, and he is the first to remind the country of the debt he owes [Sonia] Gandhi and to thank her openly for her “guidance.” With typical humility this week he awarded his own government just 6 out of 10 for its performance, which he described as “average plus.”

“For some this may seem a reasonable mark to get,” he said. “But I have never been satisfied with a 60 percent. I do sincerely believe that we can do better.” Although commentators agree that this has been a disappointing year in terms of economic and social reform, it is hard to think of many prime ministers who would risk being so self-critical in public.

But here’s what I really wanted to get to:

When he took power, Singh asked his ministers to abandon protocol and refrain from putting up his picture in their offices. Since then he has developed a peculiar cult of nonpersonality, which has bolstered his popularity. Along with the quiet humility this centers on his clean image, and Congress Party officials overflow with anecdotes to illustrate his integrity: his offer to pay his own fare at the inauguration of Delhi’s subway; his desire to buy his family’s tickets to the historic India-Pakistan cricket match; his resolution to pay for his own vegetables and milk at the prime minister’s residence.

Not bad, huh?

‐I’m on record as saying that “Ramesh Ponnuru” and “Michelangelo Signorile” are the most beautiful names in journalism. “Amelia Gentleman” may be . . . what? The sweetest? The coolest? (In case you’re wondering: Yes, I do know about Jennifer 8. Lee.)

‐The Left/Democratic war on Wal-Mart continues: Senator Kennedy is sponsoring legislation “designed to ascertain the true costs of the ‘Wal-Mart economy,’” in the words of one report. “The Health Care Accountability Act would shine public scrutiny on the failure of large businesses to furnish health-care coverage to their employees, and the associated costs for taxpayers.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah: This old canard. If I may quote from my Wal-Mart piece of last year (“The New Colossus”):

More than 90 percent of Wal-Mart employees have [health insurance]. Fifty percent of those employees get their insurance through the company; and the rest get it through . . . Well, teenagers get it through their parents; others are covered by their spouse’s plan; senior citizens have Medicare, or benefits from a previous employer. There are options. Wal-Mart is a huge employer of the young–those wanting their first jobs–and the old (those in retirement, or semi-retirement, wanting to keep a hand in, to mingle with the folks). A company spokesman says, hard-headedly, “If we weren’t a desirable employer, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our growth potential. We have competitive wages and benefits in every community we serve. We don’t start at minimum wage anywhere in the country–unlike our unionized competitors.”

Kennedy & Co. just can’t stand the Wal-Mart model, which is capitalist and flexible (flexible because capitalist). Honestly, they would prefer a European model–where no one can get hired, particularly the young and the old, but where stability is the watchword. I don’t say this is a despicable model. We can debate that. But let’s just be forthright about what we believe and desire. A socialist economy has its attractions–but, in our society, politicians somehow can’t say that, candidly, so we get such garbage as the Health Care Accountability Act.

‐I wonder if you saw this piece by Kofi Annan in the Wall Street Journal. Mainly, it argues against Rep. Henry Hyde’s proposals for the U.N. You know, when it suits him, Kofi Annan says he’s just a humble secretary-general, servant of all the member-states of the United Nations. He is their mere employee, their instrument. Yet, when it suits him, he’s “President of the World,” and certainly president of the U.N., arguing with the United States about what its U.N. policy should be.

Isn’t U.S. policy toward the U.N. a matter for the United States, and not for the U.N. secretary-general? If Bill Clinton gets that job–he will aggrandize it all the more, and that will be a great shame.

‐From the Associated Press: “Afghan intelligence agents scuttled a plot to assassinate the outspoken American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, swooping down on a station wagon carrying three Pakistanis armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades . . .”

Thank heaven for Afghan intelligence agents.

‐P.S. What is the word “outspoken” doing in that sentence?

‐From a New York Times report, on Alberto Vilar, the arts philanthropist accused of defrauding a client: “The client is Lily Cates, the estranged mother of the actress Phoebe Cates.”

Why should that word “estranged” be included? Why is the state of the relationship between that woman and her daughter relevant to the Vilar story? Besides which–doesn’t the New York Times know that a great many parent-child relationships include a degree of estrangement? Good grief.

‐I noticed a weird headline in the Times: “An Unborn Fetus With a Message for Mom.” Unborn fetus. My gosh, has it gotten that bad? I know the Times can’t say “unborn child” (which is what a fetus is). But now they can’t even say “fetus”–it has to be “unborn fetus.”

To repeat myself: Good grief.

‐Could it be that the Times considers a victim of partial-birth abortion a born fetus? Just scratching around.

‐A piece of music criticism from the New York Sun? For a review of Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic in the Mahler Sixth, please go here.

‐I enjoyed this bit from an obit of Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, the Air Force figure: “His calm demeanor impressed reporters, who sometimes attributed his stamina to catnaps. ‘He is a model of informality and gives the suggestion he has seen a lot of Jimmy Stewart’s films,’ one wrote.”

‐In recent days, Stanley Kauffmann–the film critic of The New Republic–taught me a word that seems common, but that I never knew: “robustious.” (“1. Boisterous; vigorous: a robustious group of teenagers.”) And Paul Johnson–writing in The Spectator — taught me a word that seems common, but that I never knew: “beamish.” (“Smiling, as with happiness or optimism.”)

‐To those who attended our event in Chicago last Thursday: Thank you for coming. It was so great to see you. Was a lot of fun.

And to all other readers: Thank you, too, for your interest, your readership–your very being!

I may get in one or two more of these columns before being gone for a stretch of weeks–but I’m not sure. There will be very few columns from me this summer–till about Labor Day. The schedule does not allow otherwise.

But, geez, you have enough to read. And I have enough to write!


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