Friday, March 20, 2015

Cuba's Communist Twilight

Since December, the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba have been making headlines because of President Obama's bold statements on re-opening and normalizing relations with the island country. Talks are underway between Washington and Havana to ease tensions between the two countries.

The announcement caught many Americans (and Cubans too, I presume) by surprise and the thaw in relations has intrigued the imagination of many Americans who would like to vacation to the tropical location. Cuba is a country blessed with beautiful beaches, warm weather year round, and a vivid, rich culture that is present and thriving in the various Cuban-American communities that exist across the United States.

Americans and Cubans also share a love for the sport of baseball, and many Cuban stars escape their country to play in the top echelons of Major League Baseball. Yoenis Cespedes, an outfielder who plays for the Detroit Tigers with otherworldly power at the plate and a cannon of an arm, is affectionately called "the Cuban Missile" by many American baseball fans.

Make no mistake, Cuba is still ruled by a government that punishes dissent, heavily censors information, and hinders the country's development. While some argue that those Cuban-Americans who wish the embargo to continue are living in the past, the repression they escaped is still alive and well.

When I heard the news that President Obama wanted to end the embargo and open relations with Cuba, one of my first thoughts was "Maybe since the Castros are getting so old, he believes that the flow of money into the island and their death may facilitate regime change on the island."

Is that what he's thinking? Only he knows. He'd never say so in person as the state run media in Cuba would likely be gravely insulted by such an idea, but does that have merit? Is the communist regime in Cuba headed towards serious change?

Let's look at the current situation ninety miles south of Florida.

As of now, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, holds the reins of power in Havana. He, like his brother, is an ardent communist, though he has allowed some small reforms to take place. Castro is 83 years old, and his brother, though no longer in power, is 88. Despite the famously excellent medical treatment in Cuba, it is likely that both brothers will die in the near future. Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018.

This will be a landmark transition for Cuba's government. Fidel Castro held the reins of power from 1959-1976 as Cuba's Prime Minister and from 1976 to 2008 as President when the 1976 constitution came into effect. When Raul steps down, it will be the first time in 59 years that a Castro does not rule Cuba.Whoever takes their place may not have the same political clout as the Castro brothers do, as Fidel and his brother quite literally led the revolution against the military dictatorship headed by  Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Much is still up in the air. Despite talks that have seemingly gone well between the United States and Cuba, we don't know when or even whether the embargo will be lifted.

But if it is, and the Castros relinquish power when they say they will, Cuba will be going through some substantial change. We do not know who the next leader of Cuba will be, or where he (or she) will take the country.

Considering the makeup of the Cuban government, it will obviously be another communist-but what kind of communist? Will it be a hardliner or someone who realizes the need for reform? Will it be a younger or older person who succeeds the Castros?

Some of us have may already seen this movie. In 1982, the USSR mourned the passing of Leonid Brezhnev, a hardline communist premier who ruled between 1964 and 1982. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov who became ill after only 9 months in power and died in 1984. Andropov was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, who lasted even less time in power, as he ascended to power as a sickly 72 year old. Replacing him was Mikhail Gorbachev, a spring chicken by comparison who came to power in 1985 at the age of 53.

Make no mistake, Gorbachev was a loyal communist, but he realized that while the Soviet Union was not falling apart in 1985, it needed serious change to continue. A nosediving economy, bloated bureaucracy, an unsuccessful war in Afghanistan, corruption, and shortages were plaguing the country. Gorbachev tried to change the country for the better, but his reforms spun out of control and the Soviet Union was no more a mere six years later.

Many Cubans are frustrated and disillusioned with the communist regime in Havana. A Washington Post article on March 13th detailed the feelings as such:

“C’mon, man, don’t ask me about that,” said one 23-year-old computer engineering graduate, selling phone cards in the street. He said he was too fearful to give his name to a foreign reporter. “I’m just trying to survive.”Read the article here

The anti-American sentiment in Cuba seems to be largely diminished as well according to this article, a phenomenon that can be seen in Iran and Vietnam as well. Despite the long and brutal war Vietnamese fought against America in the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnamese do not hold animosity towards Americans and Iranians, who are generally young and do not remember the Islamic Revolution of 1979, are more frustrated with the government in Tehran than the one in Washington.

Cuba's government, though perserverant, is exhausted, and the Cuban people are watching this new detente with anticipation. If Raul Castro is replaced with someone with the same type of sentiment of "We just can't go on like this" as Gorbachev had, the chance to reform and free Cubans from repression and information denial that plague their island may be at hand. Let's hope it results in something a bit more smooth, stable, and peaceful than what happened to Russia or Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nemtsov's Ghost

In the first minutes of the 28th of February in Moscow, Russia's capital and largest city, opposition figure and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was brutally slaughtered. According to Russia's Interfax news agency, Nemtsov was shot in the back at least four times in a drive-by in view of the majestic Kremlin and the ancient cathedral of St. Basil. Nemtsov was 55.

Very little is known as to why Nemtsov was assassinated. Conspiracy theories immediately whipped around like gusts of wind: Who would do this? Was it the Kremlin? Was it a covert operation meant to destabilize Russia from the outside? Could it have been merely a group of thugs? Organized crime? 

States in North America and Europe will take into account the recent history of Putin's Russia and the Ukraine crisis and will likely be quick to speculate that the state was behind this assassination. It's understandable why: this is not the first anti-Putin figure that's found themselves on the other side of death before they'd planned.

Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch, was an outspoken critic of Putin since he was first elected in 2000, was found dead at his home in Britain in 2013 of an apparent hanging-and there were apparently no signs of a violent struggle according to British police. Berezovsky was allegedly deep into debt and had been exiled from Russia.

Anna Politkovskaya was a reporter for the investigative paper Novaya Gazeta, and unfortunately not the only member of Novaya Gazeta's staff to die from suspicious reasons. She was killed in 2006 in the elevator of her apartment and the editorial staff remember her with this line:

"As long as there is Novaya Gazeta, her murderers will not sleep well."

Five men were sentenced to prison for her death last year but the motive is still unclear. 

Aleksandr Litvinenko is famous for dying of radiation poisoning and cursing Putin before his death in the UK.

"This may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition. You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women. You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people."

We don't know for sure whether Putin, the Kremlin, or some element of the Russian Government killed these people. But patterns exist-each of these people were vocal opponents of Putin and each died a suspicious death. It's certainly possible, but innocent until proven guilty still applies. 

Nemtsov certainly seems like the next link in the chain. But was he? And does it even make sense that the Kremlin did this? 

Maybe not, suspicious as they may look. And there are a few reasons why it's possible. 

Berezovsky was found hanged in his own residence in Britain. Politkovskaya was killed in an elevator of her apartment building. Litvinenko was poisoned. 

Hanging seems like a wildly cumbersome way to go about an assassination. Politkovskaya's death  was likely not witnessed by anyone other than the person who did the killing. Litvinenko's killer, whoever it was, was subtle and used a method of assassination that would be hard to identify until it was too late. 

Nemtsov's death was far, far less subtle. Not only was he gunned down in a large city in a country where gun control is very stringent, he was gunned down a stone's throw of the city's most famous landmarks. If it was the Kremlin's work, it was an extraordinarily clumsy attack. Remember this is the country that once had one of the most feared intelligence agencies only 25 years ago-it doesn't seem like something the KGB or FSB would do, repression be damned. 

The other questionable factor of this killing is that Nemtsov, despite his status as a household name in Russia, is no Navalny. It's true that Nemtsov is involved with the opposition to Putin, but he is hardly the charismatic, handsome, relatively young figure with frequent media exposure that Navalny is. So why Nemtsov of all people? The man was considered a member of the last generation by those both in and out of the opposition to Putin-a relic of the Yeltsin years. If the opposition did come to power in the future in Russia, Nemtsov would be fairly far back in the line of possible presidential candidates. 

The other question we need to ask ourselves about this event is-how does Russia react? Various opposition leaders including Nemtsov planned to be at a large (leaders called for 100,000) protest, but whether they'd actually pull 100,000 onto the streets was called into doubt when President Putin enjoys an 86% approval rating.  Will this cowardly assassination galvanize and strengthen the opposition? It's difficult to say, but certainly possible. His bloody end not far from the Kremlin will certainly raise eyebrows and anger people, but the influential state-controlled media was able to convince many Russians that forces loyal to Kiev, rather than pro-Russian rebels, shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 despite a large amount of evidence to claim otherwise. Can they do the same in the event of an drive-by in central Moscow? We'll just have to see, but it seems to have already started as pro-Kremlin outlets have also "innocently" speculated narratives around Nemtsov's womanizing and shady business deals as a cause. 

There will be a funeral for Nemtsov, and it will likely feature many opposition members. Flowers and memorials have already been left near the place Nemtsov was shot. Justice will be demanded, but in a state still marred by considerable corruption, it will likely take a long time-if it is served at all.

What's clear, though, is that the Kremlin will do all in its power to distance itself from this act if evidence emerges that they were somehow involved. Nemtsov's relative irrelevance in the opposition make him a surprising target for assassination, and this could amplify the brutality of the event. If evidence emerges from the investigation that the Kremlin was somehow involved, it could very well jolt the struggling opposition to life and possibly even start to turn Russian public opinion against Putin. And boy would it be ironic if a man who served years in the KGB was brought down by a popular response to a botched assassination.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Nothing to Sing: The strange case of the wordless National Anthem

In theory, and usually in practice, nothing unites the people of a state more than their national anthem. The words of a national hymn are fairly uniform from country to country-topics such as liberty, natural beauty, history, and perseverance of the country's people. Some invoke the name of a god or gods. The national hymn is a fundamental symbol of any country, as important as the flag or the constitution.

Some are somber, and some are so bombastic that they leave you with tears in your eyes ready to go to fight for a battle that isn't being fought. Some have long fanfares (and some have introductions that are so long that during sporting events, only that part is played, leaving the droves of fans in attendance to take it away wordlessly)

And yet, there still exists the peculiarity of the nation with the wordless hymn. There are four nations in the world that do not have official lyrics to their national anthems. They are the Kingdom of Spain, the ancient Republic of San Marino, the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the only-partially-recognized Republic of Kosovo.

Depending on who you ask, the answers to the question "How many national anthems does Bosnia have?" could be one, and it could be as large as four. The reason for this is the cumbersome and confusing Dayton arrangement of Bosnia as a state for the last twenty years. After years of spending time in a hellish war, Bosnia was stitched back together by the international community as, essentially, a three-nation federal republic. The country has two separate entities-the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a joint operation shared by Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croatians. The other entity is called Republika Srpska, which roughly translates as "Serb Republic".

Bosnia's present-day national anthem was adopted in 1998 but has only recently received lyrics-and these lyrics are not yet official. Because of the history of ethnic nationalism and the prolonged history without words, most of the people living in Bosnia don't identify with that hymn.

This anthem might just be a day late and a dollar short, despite a hauntingly beautiful melody and poetic lyrics about going into the future together as one. Bosniaks often sing the previously used anthem "Jedna si Jedina" ("You are our one and only") over the instrumental recording at sporting events. The Serb population tends to identify with the anthem their brothers across the border in the Republic of Serbia sing, "Боже правде” ("God of Justice"). Likewise, the Croat population sings the same song their counterparts in Croatia sing: "Ljepa Nasa Domovino" (Our Beautiful Homeland). 

The partially recognized Republic of Kosovo is another country without lyrics to their national anthem. Kosovo still sits in recognition limbo after declaring their independence from Serbia, something Serbia still refuses to recognize and is vocally opposed to. In November 2014, a historic meeting between Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia ended in heated words when Rama called on Vucic to move on from Kosovo. In October, a football match between Albania and Serbia was interrupted by a drone operated by an unknown party that displayed "Greater Albania", including Kosovo. A Serbian player tried to take the drone down and all hell broke loose. 

Kosovo's anthem, titled "Europe" is the official hymn, but many Kosovars, who are ethnically Albanian, sing Albania's "Himni i Flamurit", or "Hymn to the Flag". With Serbia in negotiations to join the EU, the future of Kosovo and its hymn is up in the air.  

The third country with no official words to its national anthem is an ancient and tiny nation completely surrounded by Italy called San Marino. Barely more than 30,000 live in San Marino, so the anthem, words or no words, is rarely heard outside the country's diminutive boundaries. It does have unofficial words, but they were never formally adopted. 

Only one other nation has an anthem with no official words, the Kingdom of Spain. The anthem, called simply "La Marcha Real" (The Royal March) has been around for centuries, but has gone through various adaptations through the turbulent history of the Spanish monarchy and the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Like many of these other countries, Spain has proposed lyrics to the hymn but in 2008 the supposedly nationalist lyrics were rejected by many of the Spanish people for their nationalist tone (though whether the lyrics were truly nationalist are up for debate.)To make things even more interesting, a tide of republicanism is rising in Spain, and the country may adopt the republican anthem they sang at various times in the 19th and 20th centuries, not to mention the various provinces who are seriously considering independence from Madrid.