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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

Obama, Messaging, and Dean Wormer

Take a moment to watch this clip.  It’s from an Obama town hall appearance yesterday in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

At first glance, it seems pretty good.  He says that “there should be no contradiction between keeping America safe and secure and respecting our Constitution.”  He gets in a good shot in about the need to catch the terrorists before you worry about what to do with them.  And he has a great line at the end:  “Don’t mock the constitution.  Don’t make fun of it!  Don’t suggest that it’s un-American to abide by what the founding fathers set up.”

Those are all good points.  The problem is that along the way, he violates two fundamental rules of messaging:

1.  Don’t use your opponent’s talking points to frame your arguments.  Obama did that on three occasions:

“Senator Obama is less interested in protecting people from terrorism than he is in reading them their rights.”

“You may think it’s Barack the bomb thrower, when in fact it might be Barack, the guy running for president.”

“The reason you have this principle is not to be soft on terrorism.”

When you do this, you reinforce people’s preconceptions about you.  If folks are already inclined to worry about whether you’re the right guy, then what they’re going to hear is that Obama is soft on terrorism, has a Muslim name, and is interested in protecting the bad guys.

2.  Don’t try to convince people with facts.  Obama spends over a minute explaining the concept of habeas corpus.  He sounded like a professor.  Most people don’t have any idea what the words “habeus corpus” mean.  But they do understand the underlying principle:  that sometimes, our government makes mistakes, and we need rules to protect innocent people from being thrown in jail indefinitely.  They’ll understand that much more readily than talking about how this right goes back to before we were a country.

So what should have Obama said?  How about something like this:

You know, all of us want to be treated fairly.  You could say that’s the basic idea behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights:  do unto others as you would have them do onto you.  In this country, we give people the chance to be heard. We promise them that they won’t be tortured.  We say to them that they have the right to prove that they are innocent of the charges against them, and that they don’t have to incriminate themselves.

These are our core values.  These are incredible gifts that the founding fathers gave to us.  And these are the very things that our opponents are now mocking.  How dare John McCain and Sarah Palin suggest that what was good enough for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin isn’t good enough for us.

Other than our familes, our freedoms are the most precious thing we have .  They are what made this country great.  They are the promise that all men and women are created equal, that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and, as you said so beautifully, ma’am, that we are the sweet land of liberty.

John McCain and Sarah Palin, just like George Bush and Dick Cheney, want you to believe that our security is more important than our freedoms.  What you know and what I know — and what McCain and Palin and Bush and Cheney certainly should know is that we cannot have security without freedom.  We cannot have justice without freedom.  We cannot be America without our freedoms.

Those who suggest otherwise should be ashamed of themselves.

They should be ashamed for resorting to torture, for doing the very same things that John McCain himself suffered in Vietnam.  They should be ashamed for letting places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, instead of places like Farmington Hills and Peoria define who we are.  They should be ashamed for allowing waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation, and other techniques that we used to think only happened in places like Zimbabwe and Burma and Cuba.  They should be ashamed of themselves for believing that it’s all okay because the President can do anything he wants anytime he wants.

That’s not my America.  That’s not your America.  That’s not George Washington’s or Abraham Lincoln’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s or FDR’s or JFK’s or Ronald Reagan’s America.  Nowhere in our Constitution does it say the President can do anything he or she wants.  Nowhere.  That’s not Martin Luther King’s or Susan B. Anthony’s or Bobby Kennedy’s America.  That’s George Bush’s America.

It’s time we reclaim our heritage of freedom, our role as that shining city on the hill.  It’s time we say “not on our watch,” not here, not in Guantanamo, not anywhere.

It’s time that we say to Bush and Cheney and McCain and Palin and anyone else who supports them, we’re taking America back.  We’re taking America back to what it stands for.  We’re going to make America great again.  We’re going to be the America that respects people’s rights, that honors our core values, that draws so many people around the world to our shores.

Let’s start showing the world why we’re better than our enemies.  Let’s honor our founding fathers by returning to the values that make America America.

That would knock McCain and Palin on their butts.  It would force them to explain why they support the very torture techniques that  John McCain himself endured.  It would make them explain why they aren’t un-American.  It would require them to argue that they don’t want to destroy the Constitution or shred the Bill of Rights.  Tar them with every sin of the Bush Administration, and do it in a way that will leave them no space to reply except by repeating your arguments.

That, after all, is exactly what they’re doing to the Democrats.

So for crying out loud, Senator Obama, stop defending yourself and start attacking them.  It’s the only way you win.

P.S.  To my colleagues in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, this goes double for you.  Stop caring about how many times Sarah Palin lied about the bridge to nowhere and start talking about why Obama and Biden are the right choice. Stop parsing every lie that McCain and Palin tell and start talking about what their Administration would do to the country.  And if you can’t, then shut the hell up.

It’s the Dean Wormer Theory of Politics.  In Animal House, Dean Vernon Wormer tells Flounder, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

In politics, defensive, bitter, and angry is no way to win an election. 

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:45 am

Cuba and the United States: Politics over Principle

As I’ve noted before, I despise the Castro regime (both its Fidel and Raul editions).  I spent a year in the early 1990s documenting its use of psychiatric institutions to detain and torture human rights advocates and regime critics.  But I also oppose the U.S. embargo — I agree with the position held by many of the brave human rights and democracy activists on the island, who believe that it is one of the few things propping up the current regime.

So I have to say I was not surprised at the following report:

After days of pressure by certain Cuban exile leaders on the Bush Administration to temporarily lift travel and money remittance restrictions to Cuba to aid storm victims, the State Department has finally delivered a response.  The answer is no, the federal government will not lift restrictions that limit Cuban exiles to visiting close relatives in Cuba once every three years and sending up to $300 every three months.

In a statement issued Friday, the office of the State Department spokesman had this to say in direct response to the pleas for lifting restrictions: “We do not believe that at this time it is necessary to loosen the restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba to accomplish the objective of aiding the hurricane victims.Non-governmental organizations on the ground in Cuba are already mobilizing to provide such assistance.”

The issue arose last week when three prominent members of the Cuban exile community, Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement and congressional Democratic Party candidates Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia called on President Bush to lift the restrictions. Then Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed the exile appeals. A bipartisan group of congressional leaders, four Republicans and three Democrats, issued a separate statement urging the U.S. government to send aid directly to storm victims. The Republicans included the two incumbents Martinez and Garcia are challenging: Lincoln and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart.

So let me get this straight.  The Cuban exile community supports the temporary lifting of the embargo to facilitate the delivery of relief to the victims of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, but the Bush Administration refused — in all likelihood because they’re trying to placate the Cuban exile community.

The ongoing stupidities of this Administration will never cease to amaze me.

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27 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

Controlympics: Winners (#1 of 4)

Most of you already have forgotten all about the Olympics, but here at Undip, we already have London 2012 fever!  After all, who doesn’t want to see Jimmy Page balance his guitar on top of his walker while some eighteen-year-old in go-go boots mangles Whole Lotta Love?

Oh wait — that already happened.

All kidding aside, I’d like to share a few final thoughts on what arguably were the most discussed — and controversial — Olympics since Berlin 1936. First, let’s take a look at the winners.

1.  The Chinese government. Like it or not, the ChiComs pulled it off.  It was, in many ways, a spectacular show.  Despite some problems, embarrassments, and even a few unscripted moments, the Olympics that Hu Jintao and company wanted were the Olympics they got.  And most of the world bought their message hook, line, and sinker.

2.  Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter not only captured three golds, but he managed to make Jacques Rogge cranky.  That alone made it a good Olympics.  Bolt looked particularly good when, a day after Rogge whined about his “antics,” a Cuban taekwondo athlete kicked an athlete in the face — and Bolt donated $50,000 of his prize money to earthquake relief as a “thank you to the Chinese people.”

3.  Michael Phelps (and his mom). Put it this way:  the Intertubes are still buzzing about the 100m fly.  Debbie Phelps will be the unexpected breakout star of the Olympics.

4.  Clean air. Does it matter whether the Chinese got lucky (rain at just the right moments) or actually knew what they were doing?  In the end, the pollution became a non-story.  And athletes who acted like it mattered — the American cyclists showing up in masks, the Ethiopian marathoner who passed on competing — looked foolish.

5.  Lopez Lomong. The Sudanese lost boy turned American flag bearer may not have won his race, but he had a gold medal moment.  Kudos as well to the American athletes who chose him for the job.

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25 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:55 pm

Controlympics: Oh No You Dint Fidel!

Yesterday, I blogged on the decline of the Cuban Olympic team’s performance, and speculated that Castro wouldn’t talk about it.

Silly me.

Here is some of what he said in Granma today.  His doctors might want to think about increasing his oxygen ration.  Translation via (and hat tip to) Cuban Colada:

Regarding Angel Matos, the Cuban tae kwon do guy who kicked a referee in the face, Fidel says that Matos did the right thing:

The referee suspended the fight when [Matos] was winning, 3 to 2. . . . Amazed by a decision that seemed to him totally unfair, he protested and aimed a kick at the referee.  His own coach had been the object of a bribe attempt. He was predisposed and indignant. He could not contain himself. . . .To our taekwondo athlete and his coach go our total solidarity.

So maybe I was wrong — maybe Matos can run for vice president.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a man who can rationalize human rights abuses will find a kick to the face wholly unpersuasive.

Regarding Cuba’s dismal performance in boxing, which is usually a strength, Fidel had this to say:

I saw when the judges shamelessly robbed two Cuban boxers in the semifinals. Our boys [...] hoped to win despite the judges, but it was futile: they were condemned in advance. I did not see [Emilio] Correa’s fight; he was also robbed. I am not obliged to keep silent about the Mafia. It managed to evade the rules of the Olympic Committee. What they did to the young men in our boxing team, to complement the job of those who engage in stealing Third-World athletes, was criminal. In their viciousness, they left Cuba without a single Olympic gold medal in that discipline.

I decided to give Fidel the benefit of the doubt on this one, so I checked who were the winners of boxing gold medals.  Here are the countries whence the gold medal-winners came:

Capitalist Running Dogs and Their Lackeys:

  • Italy
  • Ireland
  • United Kingdom
  • Ukraine

Friends, Comrades and “Third World Athletes

  • Kazakhstan
  • Russia (2 medals)
  • Mongolia
  • China
  • Thailand

So your final score, ladies and gentlemen: Comrades 6, Running Dogs 4.

Gee Fidel, the “Mafia” sorta screwed themselves, didn’t they?  Especially when you consider the fact that three of the four Cuban losses were to “Third World Athletes.”  And for the record, the Cubans did win eight medals in boxing, just not any golds.

Regarding baseball, Fidel said that Cuba’s performance was “exemplary” and that the South Korean team, which beat Cuba in the final, was “an excellent team.”  But he blamed the decision to drop baseball from the Olympics on “the interests of the big commercial corporations” [sic].

As opposed to, say, the big corporations (and the IOC) dropping baseball because that commercial corporation, Major League Baseball, is refusing to release its players in the middle of the season.  If MLB actually ever did that, it would hurt the chances of the Cuban team, which no longer would find it significantly better than the rest of the amateur world.  That’s exactly what happened during the World Baseball Cup last year.

Fidel closes with a preemptive strike on London 2012:

There will be European chauvinism, referee corruption, the purchase of muscles and brains, an unaffordable cost, and a strong dose of racism.

That’s not exactly a ringing vote of confidence in your national sports programs:  we’re going to suck and it will be the capitalists’ fault.  Except for the tourists who pay all those Euros to visit our lovely prostitutes beaches.

Fidel also should go back and watch the U.K. section of the closing ceremonies.  The British are doing way too much ecstasy to try any of these things.

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24 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:13 pm

Controlympics: The Tae Kwon Do Guy’s Mistake

Pity poor Angel Matos, the Cuban tae kwon do athlete who was expelled for life for kicking a referee in the face:

If he had just shot the guy instead, he could have run for Vice President of the United States.

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24 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

Controlympics: What Happened to Cuba?

Has anyone noticed the decline of Cuba as an Olympic power?

Communist countries have long used a factory system to create large numbers of successful Olympic athletes: identify young people who are athletically gifted, force them to learn a particular sport, and ruthlessly cull until you identify as many Olympic champions as possible.  Cuba was perhaps the best example of a small country using the system to its advantage.

This is what Fidel Castro once said about the Cuban Olympic program:

What has Cuba’s role been in the Olympic Games? What has it achieved? What has been the fruit of our efforts to promote healthy clean sports? At the 1972 Olympics, we finished 14th among 122 countries. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976. . . we finished 8th among 88 participating countries. In 1980, in Moscow we finished 4th among 81 countries; in 1992, in Spain we finished 5th among 169 countries; and in Atlanta, in 1996 we finished 8th among 197 countries. Could anyone refuse these figures?

The Cubans boycotted the 1984 and 1988 games, which is why Castro does not mention those years.  So given their history, I wondered what they’ve been doing this time around:

Cuba’s Angel Matos deliberately kicked a referee square in the face after he was disqualified in a bronze-medal match, prompting the World Taekwondo Federation to recommend Matos be banned for life. Matos was winning 3-2, with 1:02 left in the second round, when he fell to the mat after being hit by his opponent, Kazakhstan’s Arman Chilmanov. Matos was sitting there, awaiting medical attention, when he was disqualified for taking too much injury time. . . . Matos angrily questioned the call, pushed a judge, then pushed and kicked referee Chakir Chelbat of Sweden, who required stitches in his lip. Matos spat on the floor and was escorted out.

You can find the photo of Matos kicking the referee’s face here.

In fairness to Cuba, this could have been an athlete from any country.  But it’s clear that we’ve not seen Cuban athletes play a prominent role this time around.  Certainly no superstars like Alberto Juantorena or Teofilo Stevenson.  So I wanted to see where they were in the medal count compared to past years:

The 2008 figures are through last night (Saturday).  If you use the Chinese (gold medals count) system, the Cubans are tied for 27th out of 79 countries that have won medals.  If you use the American (total medals) system, they are ranked 12th.

What strikes me here is that while the total number of medals is not that far off their previous average, the number of golds is down significantly.  Their only two champions are Mijain Lopez in the 120 kg men’s Greco-Roman wrestling and Dayron Robles in the men’s 110m hurdles.

Cuba has suffered from a large number of defections over the past sixteen years, so that may be part of the what’s happened.  But I think it’s something deeper than that.  With Fidel’s decline, has sports become less important?  What are the official government organs making of this?

Something tells me that Fidel isn’t going to be bragging about these numbers.

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16 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

A Terrorism Double-Standard

What if I were to tell you that a man allegedly responsible for masterminding the bombing of a passenger plane that killed 73 people was not going to be prosecuted for the crime?

Would you be outraged?

Would you want the United States to demand that this terrorist be brought to justice?

What if I were to tell you that this individual was in the United States?  And that the United States government was not extraditing him to the country where the attack was planned or even to the country whose airliner was downed?

Welcome to Bushworld.

A U.S. appeals court has ruled that an anti-Castro Cuban exile and former CIA operative accused in Cuba of a 1976 plane bombing that killed 73 people should stand trial for an immigration violation, court records showed on Friday.  The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Thursday said a lower court erred in dismissing an indictment against Luis Posada Carriles days before he was to stand trial in El Paso, Texas, for allegedly lying during 2006 efforts to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

The court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone, who threw the charges out last year on grounds of government misconduct.  Posada Carriles, 80, who lives in Miami, has been sought for trial in Cuba and Venezuela for masterminding the bombing of a Cubana Airlines jet. . . .

In the U.S. Cuban exile community, he has been feted as a freedom fighter for his long fight against Fidel Castro, who took power in Cuba in a 1959 revolution and ruled until February, when his brother Raul Castro became president.

I have been a vocal critic of Cuba’s dictatorship for nearly twenty years.  In the early 1990s, I wrote a book on Cuba’s misuse of psychiatry to persecute dissidents.  In response, Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, called me a “creative fiction made up by diseased gusano minds.”  I have nothing but contempt for the Castro regime, and for what it has done to the Cuban people.

Yet now I find myself in the odd (and frankly, incredibly distasteful) position of taking the same side of an issue as the Castro brothers.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the bombing of Cubana Flight 455:

Flight 455 was a Cubana de Aviación flight departing from Barbados, via Trinidad, to Cuba. On 6 October 1976 two timebombs variously described as dynamite or C-4 planted on the Douglas DC-8 aircraft exploded, killing all 73 people on board. . . .

Investigators from Cuba, Venezuela and the United States traced the planting of the bombs to two Venezuelan passengers, Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo Lozano. Both men were employed by Posada at his private detective agency based in Venezuela, and they both subsequently admitted to the crime.

A week after the men’s confessions, Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch were arrested on charges of masterminding the attack, and were jailed in Venezuela. . . .Posada was found not guilty by a military court; however, this ruling was overturned and he was held for trial in a civilian court. Posada escaped from prison with Freddie Lugo in 1977, turning themselves in to the less-than-sympathetic Chilean authorities. He was immediately extradited, and was held without conviction for eight years before escaping while awaiting a prosecutor’s appeal of his second acquittal in the bombing. His escape is said to involve a hefty bribe and his dressing as a priest.

So not only is this guy allegedly responsible for the bombing, he’s also an fugitive.  So why aren’t we turning him over to Venezuela?

The reality is that the Bush Administration will do almost anything to prevent Posada Carriles from being turned over to the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.  The Bushies realize any such move would set off a firestorm in Little Havana that will make the Elian Gonzalez case look like a garden party.

So instead, the U.S. government has charged Posada Carriles with immigration violations.  If he’s found guilty (or even if he’s not), he may be extradited to Panama for allegedly plotting to kill Castro during a 2000 summit.  Not to make light of those charges, but they pale in comparison to what he allegedly did to Flight 455.

If that wasn’t bad enough, here’s a kicker, via the National Security Archive:

The National Security Archive today posted additional documents that show that the CIA had concrete advance intelligence, as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner. The Archive also posted another document that shows that the FBI’s attache in Caracas had multiple contacts with one of the Venezuelans who placed the bomb on the plane, and provided him with a visa to the U.S. five days before the bombing, despite suspicions that he was engaged in terrorist activities at the direction of Luis Posada Carriles.


There is no indication in the declassified files that indicates that the CIA alerted Cuban government authorities to the terrorist threat against Cubana planes. Still classified CIA records indicate that the informant might actually have been Posada himself who at that time was in periodic contact with both CIA and FBI agents in Venezuela.

So not only have we failed to turn him over now, we did nothingto warn the Cuban government or try to prevent the bombing back then.  Because our informant was in all likelihood Posada himself.

Ramsey Clark once argued that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom figher.”  What a load of horse dookie.  Terrorism is terrorism, no matter whether it’s commited by our enemies or our friends.  And those responsible should be brought to justice.

If the exiles in Miami had any sense, they’d see how important it is to apply the same standard of justice to this case as they want to use on a regime responsible for numerous deaths, innumerable human rights violations, and widespread misery.  You don’t have to accept the legitimacy of a government to recognize its right to prosecute those responsible for the murder of its citizens.

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12 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:55 pm

Wonk’d: Why the UN Human Rights Council Blows

As I’ve noted in my two previous posts, I’m both a fan and a critic of the United Nations.  But if there’s one thing the United Nations does really really really badly, it’s human rights.

It wasn’t always this way.  Thanks in part to the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the early years of the United Nations adopted both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention.  Over the next several decades, a number of other important treaties followed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, among others.

Lately, however, not so much.  The UN Commission on Human Rights became so disreputable — by doing things like electing Libya as chair and failing to take action on Rwanda — that the UN decided to abolish it and replace it with a new body that would address many of its shortcomings.

During the 2005 UN Millennium Summit, the General Assembly agreed to the creation of a new Human Rights Council, supposedly putting into place safeguards that would prevent similar problems in the future.  Sadly, the United States chose not to play a central role in the negotiations over how the Council would be constituted or how it organizes itself.  Thank you, John Bolton, you self-righteous paleocon jerk.

(Full disclosure:  Steve Clemons, Scott Paul (both of the Washington Note), Don Kraus (my successor as CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions) and I organized the successful opposition to the Bolton nomination.)

(And for the UN wonks out there, yes I know I’m oversimplifying this timeline.  But please keep in mind that I’m not writing for you.)

So there we were, a new start, a new opportunity to do serious human rights work.



Today we have a body that in many ways is worse than its predecessor.  There are a lot of issues that the Council should be looking at these days — Darfur, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Burma, Pakistan, and Iraq, to name just a few.  Instead, the it has spent almost all of its time on one issue:  Israel.

The reasons for this have to do not with human rights in that country –- which, to be clear, should be looked at, as should human rights issues in every country.  Rather it’s the product of those who currently sit on the Council.  Dictatorships make up over half the Council’s membership. They have spotlighted Israel to deflect attention from the human rights abusers within their own ranks, as well as to stick it to the West (and, to be clear, Israel).

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration continues to refuse to engage the Council, deciding not to stand for election and even failing to send an Ambassador to Council meetings.  Of course that’s assuming it could even get elected to the Council, given its own human rights record.  Either way, its actions have only encouraged the misbehavior and discouraged those who would stand up to such nonsense.

And then, late last week, we have the latest outrage:

A former spokesman for Cuba’s foreign ministry was appointed this week to head the United Nations Human Rights Council’s advisory committee.  Radio Rebelde says Miguel Alfonso Martinez, is president of the Cuban Society of International Law, was appointed this Monday to head the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council.

Oy vey.  Oh wait — saying that might get me investigated by the Council.

This isn’t the first bad appointment either.  Richard Falk, a Princeton professor who has compared Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip to Nazi Germany, is the Council’s Special Rapporteur on. . . wait for it. . .Israel.  And Jean Ziegler, who once helped Muammar Qaddafi establish a peace prize named after the dictator and who has praised, among others, Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro, was elected to the Council’s Advisory Committee.

The Council has more than a bad joke.  It’s a black eye for the UN and and embarrassment to the entire world.  Furthermore, it has become a convenient whipping boy for the paleocons here in the United States.

It’s time to start over. . .again.

Maybe the third time will be the charm.

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31 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:55 am

Damn Yanquis

Who needs singing cats when you can have dancing caudillos?  Via Cuban Colada:

New York producers Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza are lining up… a [new] Broadway show… Havana… “a new musical about the days leading up to Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba” and that it will cost “between $12 million to $15 million” to produce. No details as to who will write the script or compose the music.

Wasn’t that a bad Robert Redford/Sydney Pollack movie?  Why would you want to base it on something so ponderously dull?  Of course someone once did a musical based on James Joyce’s The Dead,  so I guess there’s worse source material out there.

But if they do go forward, I know what they should call it:

Damn Yanquis.

The devil agrees to let Fidelito rule Cuba, imprison and torture opponents, destroy the economy, and drive America bananas — all in return for Castro’s soul.

Hilarity ensues, especially when Antonio Banderas, reprising his role as Che from Evita, sings “What Guevara Wants.”  With Harvey Fierstein as Fidel, Neil Patrick Harris as the devil, and featuring Nathan Lane as that wacky, wacky Dwight D. Eisenhower!

If Sprecher and Forlenza are interested, I have some other ideas for them:

  • Stop the Gulag I Want to Get Out
  • Springtime for Hitler
  • Schindler’s List of Guys and Dolls
  • Oh Kampuchea!
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cultural Revolution
  • Hello Idi
  • The Sound of Screaming
  • Sunday in the Detention Camp with Pol Pot
  • The Commissars (”Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are arresting!” — New York Post)
  • Surveillance Camera on the Roof (the plot’s from 1984 and the music is from Fiddler!!)
  • La Cage á Guantanamo
  • Maim
  • Rent Limb-from-Limb

Hat tip: Cuban Colada

Images and photo courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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4 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:38 pm

Jesse Helms

Jesse Helms died today.  I want to offer his family my condolences.

I know a lot of other bloggers are gloating over this.  I don’t plan on doing that.

But not gloating doesn’t mean that we should pretend to honor his legacy.  Certainly, Senator Helms will be remembered as one of the most destructive and toxic Senators in the history of the Republic.  His retrograde stance on civil rights, his notorious “you lost your job because of a quota” ad, his obstructionist micromanagement of foreign policy in the Clinton years, his abuse of Senatorial privilege, and his attacks on public funding of the arts are only the short list — basically what I remember off the top of my head.

I never met Senator Helms, but I dealt extensively with his staff.  I would like to offer three observations regarding his time in office — one good, one bad, and one mixed.

Observation one:  Senator Helms was actually quite good on certain human rights questions, particularly those regarding China and Cuba.  As Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and other groups can tell you, when it came to those countries, no Senator was a stronger advocate.  No Senator spoke out more frequently or more passionately for dissidents and others jailed unfairly.  To be clear, he was completely inconsistent, never applying a similar standard to say, Mexico, Zaire, or other U.S. friends.  But on China and Cuba, no one was better.  To paraphrase Roosevelt, he may have been a bastard, but he was our bastard.

Observation two:  it’s hard picking the worst thing Senator Helms ever did, but one that should rank in the top five — one that most people overlook — is his willful destruction of the United States Information Agency.  Today, almost everyone recognizes that the United States is woefully unprepared to win over hearts and minds in the Arab world. (For more on the challenges facing U.S. public diplomacy, check out two blogs that do a terrific job of covering it regularly: Abu Aardvark and Mountain Runner).  What most people don’t know is that Jesse Helms is one of the main reasons we’re in this mess.  In the late 90s, Helms forced the Clinton Administration to dismantle USIA.  Actually, he gave Clinton a choice:  USIA or USAID, and the Administration chose USIA.

Before USIA was folded into State, USIA personnel had operated separately from State both here in D.C. and abroad.  That meant that USIA country directors (known as Public Affairs Officers or PAOs) headed their own offices in foreign capitals (usually called American Centers and housed, unlike embassies, in office buildings in or around the center of the city).  They were not completely independent of the Embassy/Ambassador, but they did have a lot of leeway to chart their own course.

In my travels overseas, I always make an effort to meet with PAOs, as I find them, even today, to be fonts of information that second and third secretaries — cloistered behind the walls of the fortress embassy — could almost never match.  PAOs often walked freely around the city, taking advantage of incredibly talented local staff who knew all the right people — including dissidents.

All that has changed as a result of the “merger” (and to be fair, the 1998 Nairobi and Dar embassy bombings).  I was in the State Department at the time.  In fact, I represented my bureau (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor), in a department-wide working group that was responsible for deciding how best to “integrate” USIA personnel into State.  What in fact happened was a scramble to acquire the staff and financial resources USIA represented; in the process, the public diplomacy process was largely eviscerated.  Public diplomacy personnel in DC were used for whatever was necessary in each the bureau; public diplomacy became an adjunct to other bureau concerns.  PAOs came under the thumb of Ambassadors.  As a result of the bombings (and 9/11), many former USIA staff were moved into the Embassy compounds, and the U.S. closed many American Centers and Libraries.  The director of USIA became Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, which in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations has been a revolving door, usually given as a reward to those too burned out to keep working in the White House (see Evelyn Lieberman and Karen Hughes).

Not all of this can be laid at the feet of Senator Helms.  Certainly the cowardice of the Clinton Administration played a role, as did the perception that the United States didn’t “need” public diplomacy after the end of history.  The triumph at embassies of security over outreach didn’t help; neither did the fact that the merger was viewed by a resource-starved State Department as little more than an opportunity for plunder.

Today, we’re picking up the pieces.  Almost everyone thinks we need to reestablish USIA as a separate agency.  That will take millions of dollars and innumerable years.  What can’t be recovered is much of the institutional memory.  And most of this disaster is the direct result of Senator Helms’ myopic view of foreign policy.

Observation three: Senator Helms may have passed away, but his legacy will live on through the many people who worked for him over the years.  Many are in the current Administration.  They represent the next generaton of neocons (and paleocons).  President Bush’s current chief speechwriter, Marc Thiessen, was for many years Senator Helms’ spokesman (and one of the most powerful staffers on Capitol Hill).  Before working for the President, Marc held the same job for Donald Rumsfeld.  Roger Noriega, Helms’ Latin Americanist (and the chief architect of the Helms-Burton act), served as U.S. Ambassador to the OAS and as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.  Mark Lagon is currently a U.S. Ambassador, heading the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.  Before that, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations.

Over the years, I’ve dealt with all three, and have found them smart, likable and formidable opponents.  Marc and Roger were part of the U.S. delegation to the ICC talks in Rome in 1998, and we battled regularly.  I’ve found Mark to be one of the more effective officials at State, even when I’ve disagreed with him.

They represent only three examples — I’m sure there are more.  But you can bet that they and others will continue to implement the Senator’s vision long after his death.  And that doesn’t even take into account those like John Bolton who, while never working directly for the Senator, have assumed his ideological mantle.

So Senator Helms is dead.  Long will live his legacy, unfortunately mostly for ill.

Edit:  I had no idea how big the photo was — I took it out.  It was ridiculous.

| posted in foreign policy, politics, world at home | 0 Comments

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