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Cuba Is Cautiously Hopeful and You Should Be Too

| Wed May 27, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

Friend of the blog Jay Jaroch recently spent some time in Cuba. Here's the first of three posts about what he observed while he was there.


If you’re looking for a country that has solved the problem of income inequality, look no further than Cuba, where everyone has next to nothing. And that’s not snark. It’s an economic reality that quickly presents itself to any Westerner who spends some time there, as I did this month.

Soon after President Obama loosened the travel restrictions, domestic debate about Cuba’s economic future in a post-embargo world split into two predictable camps: those who worried that America would “ruin” Cuba with a heavy dose of fanny-packed tourists and Panera Breads, and those who dismissed this as the “fetishization of poverty” and welcomed the introduction of American-style capitalism as a long overdue tonic. The reality is that these are mostly debates Americans are having about their views of America. Cubans, one quickly learns, are too economically desperate to care.

Havana is unique and dilapidated and strangely beautiful. You almost admire it in the same way you would distressed furniture, or Keith Richard’s face. Havana looks a bit like a hurricane hit the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1965 and no one bothered to clean it up. Zoom in and you’ll find men standing in front of a partially collapsed building holding menus imploring you to come to their paladares next to stray dogs fucking in the street next to a group of Canadian tourists in faux revolutionary berets next to a woman selling fruit from a cart that most Americans wouldn’t eat on a dare. It’s all here.

Without exception, the Cubans I talked to welcomed the thawing of relations with the US, and even more so the coming influx of American tourists. One quickly learns why: because too much of their day-to-day economy is reliant on tourist dollars and euros. America is simply the biggest account they could land, and that’s why they’re hopeful. Also cautious, and not so much because they’re worried about Starbucks; it's because they’re worried their government will mismanage their chance at a better life. The sense was: Raul is finally allowing for some small, common-sense reforms that would have been impossible under Fidel. President Obama is allowing for some small, common sense reforms that will allow Cubans greater access to American dollars. Let’s not screw this up. (More on that tomorrow.)

Outside Havana, the economic stagnation is even more acute. In Cienfuegos, a middle school English teacher named Alex, who had never spoken to an American before, wanted to know what a teacher of his experience would make in Los Angeles. I told him around $75,000 a year. “$75,000 American dollars,” he replied, shaking his head. “I earn 18 dollars a month.” Alex was hardly unique—monthly salaries in Cuba run from about $14 to $20.

In Trinidad, a city about five hours southeast of Havana, an older man sitting in his doorway stopped me on my way down the street. He wanted me to give the Americans a message: “Hay mucha musica, pero nada de trabajo.” We have lots of music, but no work.

This jibed with what I’d seen of Trinidad. Other than the jobs related to tourism, I couldn’t discern any other source of employment. Pablo, my host in Trinidad, was a civil engineer by trade, but a taxi driver by necessity. On one trip through town I asked him what jobs were available to locals beyond the tourist trade. He replied that there weren’t any. I found that hard to believe so I asked the same question of an art gallery employee. I got the same answer—there aren’t any other jobs. The only money coming in to that part of the country came from abroad, either in the form of remittances from family members or from tourism. We were, quite literally, the only game in town.

In some respects, both sides of the American debate can stand down. Cuba is neither ready for Pizza Hut nor gearing up for broad-based market reforms. Yes, Cuba is changing. People who had been there five or even two years before would tell me how much had already changed. But the reality is that they’re starting, slowly, to dig out from a half century deep hole. The infrastructure is in such disarray that they couldn’t take a large scale influx of American tourists if they wanted to. And they want to.

No one really knows what happens next. But this much seems clear: if you want to see what Cuba was like under socialism, you can come next year. You can come in three years. Five. Ten. It will still be there.

Next: What Cubans think of Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio.

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Stop Romanticizing Your Grandparents' Food

| Wed May 27, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Ever been advised to "eat like your grandmother"—that is, to seek food that's prepared in ways that would be recognized a generation or two ago, untainted by the evils of industrialization? That's nonsense, writes Rachel Laudan in a rollicking essay recently published in Jacobin.

Food-system reformers tend to evoke a "sunlit past" of wholesome, home-cooked meals, to which Laudan offers a stark riposte: "It never existed."

Her polemic is actually a reprint. It originally appeared in Gastronomica way back in 2001—five years before the publication of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, at the dawn of a boom in farmers markets and other ways to "know your farmer" and "eat local." And yet it's just as bracing to read today as it was then.

The backlash against stuff like chicken nuggets and boxed mac 'n' cheese is "based not on history but on a fairy tale," Laudan writes. Food-system reformers tend to evoke a "sunlit past" of wholesome, home-cooked meals, to which she offers a stark riposte: "It never existed."

Thing is, implicated though I may be in Laudan's blistering critique, I largely agree with it—with a caveat.

You wouldn't know it from grazing the virtuous bounty on display at Whole Foods, but securing good food has always been a struggle. Laudan, a historian who has authored a book on food and empire, spices her essay liberally with pungent facts about preindustrial food. "All too often," she writes, "those who worked the land got by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads," because all the good stuff went to their feudal lords and a rising urban merchant class. French peasants "prayed that chestnuts would be sufficient to sustain them from the time when their grain ran out to the harvest still three months away," while their Italian counterparts  "suffered skin eruptions, went mad, and in the worst cases died of pellagra brought on by a diet of maize polenta and water."

And she notes, as I have with great relish, that fast food is hardly the invention of midcentury US burger kings. "Hunters tracking their prey, fishermen at sea, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home," she writes. But the real fast-food action was found in cities, forever packed with people living in tight quarters with few cooking resources:

Before the birth of Christ, Romans were picking up honey cakes and sausages in the Forum. In twelfth-century Hangchow, the Chinese downed noodles, stuffed buns, bowls of soup, and deep-fried confections. In Baghdad of the same period, the townspeople bought ready-cooked meats, salt fish, bread, and a broth of dried chick peas. In the sixteenth cen­tury, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Mexicans had been enjoying tacos from the market for generations. In the eighteenth century, the French purchased cocoa, apple turnovers, and wine in the boulevards of Paris, while the Japanese savored tea, noodles, and stewed fish.

Yum!

In short, Laudan has delivered an evocative corrective to the culinary romanticism that pervades our farmers markets and farm-to-table culinary temples.

Yet her "plea for culinary modernism" contains its own gaping blind spot. If Laudan's "culinary Luddites" feast on tales of an imaginary prelapsarian food past, she herself presents a gauzy and romanticized view of industrialized food.

Starting around 1880, she notes, US and European farmers began spreading more fertilizer and using better farm machinery, sparking the agricultural revolution that's with us today: reliance on hybrid (now genetically modified) seeds, agrichemicals, monocrops. To hear her tell it, it's been nonstop progress ever since.

For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate (Mexican corn grinder) five hours a day.

What she misses, of course, are the downsides. She celebrates the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables, but doesn't mention the army of ruthlessly exploited workers (Mexicans in the US West, and in the South, until recently, the descendants of enslaved African Americans) required to plant, tend, and harvest it. Yes, meat, once enjoyed "only on rare occasions" by working people, is now within easy reach of most Americans, but Laudan doesn't pause to ponder what it means for the people who work for poverty wages in factory-scale slaughterhouses. To speak nothing of fast-food, restaurant, and supermarket workers.

Laudan has little to say about how our modern diet is generating new forms of misery: high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Nor does she ponder the people cut off from industrialized food's bounty: The nearly 1 billion people, most of them in the Global South, who lack enough to eat—many of whom work on plantation-style farms that provide wealthy consumers with coffee, sugar, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.

She also evades the ecological question. Large Midwestern farms provide the grain that feeds our teeming factory meat operations. In doing so, they systemically foul water with agrichemicals and hemorrhage topsoil, essentially a fossil resource. Meat farms, meanwhile, have become overreliant on antibiotics—contributing to an antibiotic-resistance crisis that now claims 700,000 lives worldwide. California's agricultural behemoth, which churns out the bulk of US-grown fruits and vegetables and nearly all US-grown nuts, relies on oversubscribed and rapidly depleting water resources. And so on.

Finally, there's health. Laudan is right that starvation is mostly a thing of the past in the industrialized world, but she has little to say about how our modern diet is contributing to new forms of misery: high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

I share her annoyance at the historical fantasia that often passes for analysis among foodies. The key insight to be drawn from Laudan is that our species has rarely if ever experienced an equitable or sustainable way of feeding itself. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying—or that monocrops and agrichemicals bring us any closer.

Watch John Oliver's Epic Takedown of FIFA

| Wed May 27, 2015 1:14 AM EDT

Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of a soccer governing body!

FIFA, the terrible no good band of Europeans who keep forcing us to call soccer "football," saw some of its senior most officials arrested in Switzerland today on American corruption charges.

Feel free to take a moment, look at an American flag, and get all teary eyed. (This is why the pilgrims crossed an ocean.)

Anyway, here is John Oliver's epic takedown of FIFA from his show John Oliver's Epic Takedowns

US Authorities Just Indicted a Bunch of FIFA Officials on Corruption Charges

| Wed May 27, 2015 12:28 AM EDT

Swiss authorities just arrested officials from FIFA on American corruption charges.

As leaders of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich. The arrests were made at the request of the United States Justice Department, which brought charges in the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn, according to law enforcement officials.

Prosecutors planned to unseal an indictment soon against more than 10 officials, not all of whom are in Zurich, three law enforcement officials said. The charges include wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering.

USA! USA! Switzerland, also! USA!

Anyway, Twitter is going nuts right now with news that America finally beat the world at soccer (which is what they have to call it now by the way).

This tweet perfectly sums up the response to this news:

The Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Seems Like A Real Peach

| Wed May 27, 2015 12:05 AM EDT

OMG Look At These Adorable Baby Bears Boxing Each Other. I Want To Hug Them Forever.

| Tue May 26, 2015 6:53 PM EDT

The Department of the Interior just tweeted this Vine and it is so cute that I want to die. I am dead. I am blogging from the afterlife.

Goodnight and good luck.

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Qatar Is Treating Its World Cup Workers Like Slaves: Nepal Earthquake Edition

| Tue May 26, 2015 5:39 PM EDT
FIFA President Sepp Blatter

We're still seven years away from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but it seems like the event has been buried under bad news for a decade: everything from allegations of bribery and corruption to terrible human rights violations. And it doesn't look like it's getting better anytime soon.

The latest in a string of embarrassments? Qatar's reported refusal to grant bereavement leave to the roughly 400,000 migrant workers from Nepal building stadiums for the World Cup following the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 countrymen. As a result, many Nepali workers instead must mourn from construction sites in Qatar.

"Those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time," Nepal's labor minister told the Guardian.

On Saturday, the Guardian reported that the Nepali government called on FIFA and its sponsors to compel Qatar to grant a short-term leave for Nepali migrant workers and improve conditions for the 1.5 million workers from throughout South Asia. But the Persian Gulf state rebuffed that request, Nepali labor minister Tek Bahadur Gurung told the Guardian: "Those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time."

Qatari officials challenged that claim, noting that the nation had granted temporary leave to more than 500 Nepali workers. That's roughly 0.1 percent of the Nepali migrant workers on the stadium construction project.

The latest Guardian report adds to the mounting criticism from human rights organizations, corporate sponsors, and foreign officials on Qatar's World Cup preparations. A 2013 Guardian investigation estimated that at least 4,000 migrant workers, who face dire working and living conditions and meager pay, will die before kickoff in 2022. Squalid conditions already have led to more than 1,200 worker deaths since Qatar won its 2010 bid to host the World Cup, including at least 157 Nepali workers in 2014. (Nepali workers have died at a rate of one every two days.)

Despite calls to move the event to another host country, FIFA President Sepp Blatter has guaranteed that the 2022 World Cup will take place as scheduled. In fact, Qatari labor minister Abudullah bin Saleh al-Khulaifi said in May the nation would need more workers to complete the $220 billion stadium and infrastructure construction projects by 2022.

Meanwhile, the 2018 World Cup in Russia isn't exactly shaping up to be a model event, either: On Monday, Russian officials announced plans to transport prisoners from camps to work at factories in an effort to drive down the World Cup's cost.

Judges Are Just Extensions of Political Parties These Days

| Tue May 26, 2015 5:33 PM EDT

From a post by Dara Lind about a court ruling on President Obama's immigration plan:

The two Republican-appointed judges hearing the case sided against the administration, while the Democratic-appointed judge on the panel sided with the White House.

How many times have we read sentences exactly like this? It's a wonder that anyone in the country still believes that federal judges are honest brokers these days.

Bernie Sanders Has the Most Glorious 404 Error Page Ever

| Tue May 26, 2015 4:38 PM EDT

Think you've landed on the wrong page of Bernie Sanders' campaign site? Fear not. In order to help guide you back to the page you were trying to reach, Sanders, who just announced his presidential bid, created the most terrific error page of any 2016 candidate. Just take a look:

Follow his directions: "Just scoot down to the bottom of the page and you'll find your way back home to where you should be!" The site is further enhanced by the perfect URL: berniesanders.com/wtf.

Bravo, Bernie. The broken links may have turned into your first big win.

Remembering Powerhouse Photographer Mary Ellen Mark

| Tue May 26, 2015 4:33 PM EDT
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark in 2013.

I found out about the death of photographer Mary Ellen Mark the way we learn about the passing of anyone these days—Facebook. My feed is currently flooded with condolences, remembrances, and laminations for Mark, who died yesterday at age 75.

Mark was a powerhouse photographer, a true legend. Her early '80s project on homeless youth, Streetwise, remains a canon of documentary photography. In the late '80s and '90s, Mark's work graced the pages of Mother Jones numerous times. Art Director Kerry Tremain made great use of her, both picking up archival images and making assignments such as portraits of journalist I.F. Stone and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

Mark's work was also featured early in the Mother Jones Fine Prints and Portfolios program, which led to the creation of the Mother Jones Documentary Photo Fund. Her print was part of the New York Portfolio I, alongside other heavy hitters like Nan Goldin, Duane Michaels, Ralph Gibson, and Inge Morath. (Sorry, we no longer have any of the print portfolios.)

No doubt there will be many eulogies and recollections of Mark and the impact she made on photography, particularly on social documentary photography, the kind of photography that's been our bread and butter here.

Though it's a just a shallow slice of her deep legacy, here's a collection of some of Mark's work for Mother Jones.

I.F. Stone, September 1989

 

Russell Simmons, November 2003

 

Mother Jones 15th anniversary issue, 1991
 

 

Story on Ms. magazine, November 1990

 

Story on Ms. magazine, November 1990

 

Jessica Mitford and Maya Angelou, November 1992

 

"Hollywood's Washington" cover, January 1991

 

And here's a short piece that Leica produced on Mark: