2008 - %3, February

Castro Says Goodbye; Will the U.S. Say Hello?

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 2:00 PM EST

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With the ailing Fidel Castro having finally announced a formal end to his 49 years at the helm of communist Cuba, a would-be workers' utopia of his own imagining, "the ball is in the U.S. court right now," said Congressman Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, speaking earlier today on a conference call of Cuba experts, organized by the New America Foundation. "If we want things to change in Cuba, then we have to change." To that end, McGovern and 103 other members of the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, sent an open letter to Condoleezza Rice, requesting "a tough-minded review of U.S. policy." (The letter notably lacks signatures from any Florida representatives.) It reads:

President Castro has departed form office voluntarily. An orderly succession has occurred in Cuba, without violence or upheaval. The Cuban government, under a new leadership, is reportedly already considering changes in the economic arrangements on the island to give the Cuban people a long-sought improvement in their living standards.
For five decades, U.S. policy has tried economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to force changes in Cuba's government. These developments demonstrate that the policy has not worked. Allies and adversaries alike have rejected our approach and instead engage the Cuban government directly on diplomatic issues and make billions of dollars in economic investments on the island, making it even less likely that our sanctions will ever achieve their stated purpose.

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Dissecting HRC's New Attacks on BHO

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 12:34 PM EST

clinton_obama_profile.jpg The Clinton camp has unveiled two new attacks on Barack Obama: (1) He plagiarized a handful of lines in one of his speeches from Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts and a prominent Obama supporter, and (2) he once promised to accept federal funds in the general election if the GOP candidate agreed to do the same, in a move that would honor and preserve the campaign finance system in this country, but has abandoned that pledge as greenbacks have flowed in by the tens of millions.

The first observation is that both of these attacks are substantively correct. The second observation is that they are both pretty weak tea.

Let's tackle the plagiarism first. As you can see at this site, there is indisputable video evidence that Obama used about 30 seconds of Patrick's speech without crediting him. The problem, and you can see this at the link above, is that Patrick himself told Obama to use the content because the attacks Obama is facing in this campaign about substituting style/words/speechifying for substance are attacks Patrick faced when he ran for Governor of Massachusetts. Does this make the plagiarism okay? No. But does it basically make the story a non-issue? That's for the voter to decide. I suspect so.

No Fond Farewells for Fidel, Who Leaves Behind a Repressive and Impoverished State

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 12:17 PM EST

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Please, no tears for Comrade Castro, as he finally gives up power in Cuba. It's a good thing he's going. But his departure has taken far too long (in fact, decades too long) and, alas, in all that time he did little to ease the transition to the free society that Cuba will eventually be. His exit leaves Cuba a repressive state and a nation not prepared for the future. The gains of his revolution—such as the decent universal health care system—are imperiled by the changes that will sooner or later hit Cuba. Rather than manage a transformation from one-party (one-man!) communism to a more open system, Castro has set up Cuba for a possible cataclysmic counterrevolution that may not benefit the people of Cuba.

I've often wondered why some American leftists have been soft on Castro. How could anyone who gives a damn about human rights and freedom root for Castro in his face-off with the Yanquis of the North? As the Committee to Protect Journalists noted last August,

With 24 independent journalists in prison, Cuba continues to be one of the world's leading jailers of journalists, second only to China. Twenty-two of these journalists were jailed in a March 2003 crackdown.

Late last week, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced that Cuba would release two of those journalists. That would leave Cuba with 22 reporters behind bars and still in second-place globally as a jailer of journalists. (Iran, as of December, had 12 imprisoned journalists.) As CPJ has described the obvious, there is no freedom of expression in Cuba: "The government owns and controls all media outlets and restricts Internet access. The three main newspapers represent the views of the Communist Party and other organizations controlled by the government."

What's so revolutionary about denying citizens access to the Internet?

A Nation is Born: The Long, Bitter Path to Kosovo's Independence

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 11:38 AM EST

When, waving Kosovar and American flags, Kosovo Albanians spontaneously took to the streets of their capital Pristina Saturday night to celebrate in anticipation of the province's unilateral declaration of independence on Sunday, I was flooded with memories of some two years spent chronicling the Kosovars' brutal last years under Serbian rule, the staggering exodus of tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians fleeing from Serbian paramilitaries during Nato's 1999 air war against Serbia, and the messy beginnings of their limbo status under NATO-led protection. It was only then, after the Serbian occupation had been driven out, that I learned an ugly lesson: that sometimes when the oppressed are liberated, they act with the brutality of their former tormenters. In the aftermath of the 1999 Nato intervention in Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing continued, only this time the majority of the atrocities being meted out were by the majority Albanians against the province's minority Serbs, Roma, and Turks. It was a phenomenon witnessed later in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Like almost everything else, Kosovo's independence divided its historic peoples. While the messages coming from Kosovar Albanian friends over the weekend, replete with photos of fireworks and youtube tributes to America (President Bush immediately recognized Kosovo's independence Sunday, followed by Britain and France), were filled with joy ("...At the moment the Kosovar prime minister declared Kosovo as a democratic and an independent state, I started crying," one friend wrote), the messages from friends and associates in the Serbian capital Belgrade simply stopped. As one who spent much of four years chronicling the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia from post-conflict to conflict, I felt a sense of ambivalence, as well as resignation that Kosovo's break with Serbia, while problematic, was also probably inevitable.

That's in part because of the level of brutality -- sometimes casual, sometimes extreme -- that I had witnessed the Kosovars enduring under Serbian occupation. Among those searing experiences, after touring the site of a massacre of a Kosovar Albanian extended family, 53 members in all, in Drenica in 1998, being asked by a young Kosovo Albanian mother in hiding from Serb forces in the hills to please take her baby, who was ill, and she didn't think the baby would survive in the unheated make-shift lean-to she was hiding in in the woody hills. (We took her, terrified, and hardly able to communicate with our group of Russian and American journalists, and her baby in our rental car to a relative in a town to seek medical help). And witnessing the tens of thousands of refugees crossing the border into Macedonia a year later after Nato air strikes had begun.

From one of my dispatches at the time:

Clinton Seeks to Flip Pledged Delegates?

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 10:35 AM EST

Politico's Roger Simon is reporting that the Clinton campaign will try to get pledged delegates that Obama has won in primaries and caucuses to abandon their commitment to Obama and vote for Clinton at the convention. This is primarily done, one suspects, by promising delegates tons of goodies in the upcoming administration.

On its face, this seems like an insane idea. People are already freaked about the possibility of superdelegates reversing a narrow pledged delegate lead, and thus taking the Democratic nomination out of the hands of the people and putting it in the hands of party insiders. The anger and resentment at Clinton would be far greater if she promised a few unscrupulous delegates some sweet Clinton Administration jobs and subverted the decisions of the people. This win-at-all-costs strategy is self-defeating, because it would undermine the Democratic Party's excitement about their nominee in the general election.

But how much credibility can we assign to the report? Simon cites a single, unnamed source. The only quote from that source is this:

"I swear it is not happening now, but as we get closer to the convention, if it is a stalemate, everybody will be going after everybody's delegates... All the rules will be going out the window."

That doesn't necessarily mean there will be a coordinated strategy to pursue pledged delegates. Maybe Simon was told more but didn't think he needed to include additional quotes. I wish he had. We'll see how the Clinton campaign's responds.

But will going after pledged delegates even matter? Let's say the pledged delegate count is within a couple hundred (or less!) going into the convention, and Clinton gets a couple to flip. Let's go so far as to say she gets a couple dozen to flip. Isn't the difference between herself and Obama still within that "superdelegate buffer" that ensures the margin of victory of the 795 superdelegates by one of the two candidates will determine the nomination?

Update: Clinton campaign issues a strong denial.

Time To Ban Beef From School Lunch

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 9:28 AM EST

Yesterday, news broke that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was recalling a record-breaking 143 million pounds of beef from a California meat packer. The Humane Society had caught employees at the Hallmark/Westland Meat company last month on video using a forklift to prop up sick "downer" cows long enough to pass inspection, in violation of a host of federal regs. The USDA hasn't exactly snapped into action on this one. Eating meat from sick cows can spread mad cow disease, yet most of the beef suspected of being contaminated had already been consumed by the time USDA announced the recall. And you know who ate it? Little kids.

A big chunk of the nation's poorest quality beef is routinely dumped on federally subsidized school lunch programs. Not surprisingly, beef in school lunch has caused a fair amount of food poisoning. No one knows how the mad cow problem will play out, since it takes years for the disease to show up in humans. But one thing is certain: As the Humane Society's video reaffirmed, USDA seems largely incapable of guaranteeing the safety of beef in this country. (The USDA tests fewer than 1 percent of all slaughtered cows for mad cow disease, and Bush administration, in fact, went to court to prevent one beef producer from voluntarily testing all his cattle for mad cow disease because it would make all the other companies look bad.)

Given that little kids are far more vulnerable to the effects of food poisoning than adults are, it seems to me that it's time to simply ban beef from the school lunch program. It's not like kids will suffer much. Most of them spend plenty of time at McDonalds. In fact, in light of the current obesity epidemic, there's a strong argument for banning beef solely based on its fat content. But putting school children at risk of illness and death from dangerous beef to subsidize ranchers and shoddy meat companies is criminal. Let the kids eat garbanzo beans and force the meat companies to find somewhere else to peddle their sick cows.

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Whippets No Laughing Matter

| Mon Feb. 18, 2008 8:00 PM EST

480711693_309fab42a3_m.jpg It's called the forgotten greenhouse gas. You know, nitrous oxide (N2O), the magic behind whipped cream. You might not know it's 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and represents 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Its longevity in the atmosphere provides a potentially more damaging legacy than CO2, reports the University of East Anglia. Currently, agriculture and wastewater treatment industries account for 80% of global emissions (from bacteria that make N2O from nitrogen-rich fertilizers, and from bacteria in wastewater treatment). Now the Nitrous Oxide Focus Group is convening to examine sources and sinks of N2O in the environment, its role in climate change, and to develop techniques to mitigate its effect.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Why Shutting Down Wikileaks Will Backfire

| Mon Feb. 18, 2008 4:50 PM EST

A federal judge in California has ordered the whistleblower website Wikileaks to go dark. But the site wasn't taken out by the Feds— who have good reason to be upset with it for posting sensitive information about Gitmo and rendition flights—but rather a Swiss Bank that filed suit after the site posted documents suggesting that it was up to some financial hanky-panky in the Caymans. The bank may have won round one, but Wikileaks and its friends are already winning round two. The site is being mirrored in several places (see list here) and the bank's docs are readily available as a download. I suspect that this instance of judicial overreach will be overturned and the main Wikileaks site will be back. And in the meantime, some Swiss bankers are about to get a lesson on how hard it is to stuff digital genies back into their bottles.

Secretary of State 2008?

| Mon Feb. 18, 2008 10:54 AM EST

From Salon:

Getting through these dark times
Foreign policy whiz Samantha Power sheds light on a legendary diplomat killed in Iraq, advising Barack Obama and how America can emerge from the Bush era.

Having won the Pulitzer in 2003 for A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" she's pub'ing her new book "Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World." It's about the UN envoy and great hope for peace in the Middle East who was killed in a terrorist bombing early in our occupation of Iraq.

She's a good friend, maybe because she's one of the only people I know who is both destined for greatness and just plain cool as hell. Latest proof: she works for Obama. My hat, as always, is off to her.

Our Election Through Australia's Eyes

| Mon Feb. 18, 2008 8:47 AM EST

My interview with Australian radio airs today and is available online for a month.