Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Harry Targ

Cuban society has been an experimental laboratory... If one set of policies became problematic, the Cubans moved in different directions. Usually change came after heated debate at all levels of society. (Harry Targ, Cuba and the USA: A New World Order? International Publishers, 1992, 6)

The predominant image projected about Cuba from U.S. official government sources and the media has not changed much over the last two hundred and fifty years. Ever since the founding of the United States, Cuba has been seen as a victimized land populated by masses eager to break away from Spanish colonial control preferably to affiliate with the United States. Early American political figures such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams proclaimed that the United States was willing and able to appropriate the island nation when the Spanish were ready to leave the Caribbean. In the antebellum period, Southern politicians urged that Cuba be incorporated into the slave South.

In the period before the Spanish/Cuban/American War of 1898, the images of the U.S. obligation to the Cuban people presented in newspapers and theaters likened the former to a masculine hero compelled to rescue Cuba, characterized as a damsel in distress. The brutal Spanish were figuratively raping the Cuban women. At the same time Afro-Cuban men, the narrative suggested, were unable to liberate their people. Consequently, the United States, it was broadly proclaimed, must act on behalf of the Cuban people.

After the Spanish/American/Cuban War the U.S. generals and diplomats wrote the Cuban constitution in negotiations with the departing Spanish and hand-picked Cuban leaders. Over the next sixty years the floodgates were opened for ever larger investments in U.S. owned sugar plantations. After World War II, the U.S. domination of the Cuban economy expanded to include tourism, casinos, and gangsters. In every epoch, a popular story about the U.S./Cuban relationship depicted a stern but wise parent necessarily overseeing an energetic and passionate, but immature, child.

But then the long revolutionary struggle of the 1950s achieved victory and the narrative changed. The ungrateful Cubans followed the treacherous new leaders: Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and a grassroots movement of peasants, workers, students, women, Afro-Cubans, and solidarity workers from across the globe. As the U.S. government and the dominant media saw it the revolution meant nothing but trouble: communism; crazy ideas about free health care and education; great debates about moral versus material incentives that even found their way into work sites; the export of medical expertise; and sometimes the provision of soldiers to help anti-colonial struggles. It was all bad news for almost sixty years.

Despite the best efforts of the United States to derail the trajectory of Cuban society, the Cuban revolution survived. Now, wiser heads in Washington have decided that economic blockades, internal subversion, assassination plots, and efforts to isolate Cuba from the international community were ineffective. It was time for a new policy: normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.   Official spokespersons suggested and media outlets declared that the best way to help the Cuban people recover from their sixty years of pain and suffering is to establish normal diplomatic and commercial ties with the island.

In a recent essay in USA Today, “Cubans Are Still Waiting for the Thaw,” Alan Gomez argues that Cubans are getting impatient with the pace of change that has occurred since December, 2014, when Presidents Castro and Obama announced the opening of relations. He quotes a Cuban economist who says that because relations with the United States are critical to a small country like Cuba, the latter wants to be careful not to make any mistakes in developing new policies.

But Gomez suggests the Cubans are restless. He reminds the reader that Americans were very frustrated with the stagnation of the U.S. economy during the recent recession. But just imagine he poses: 

          going through that kind of economic malaise for more than half a   century. So when they’re told that the end is near, that the Americans and    their money are coming to save them, you can’t blame them for getting antsy           as they look over the horizon (USA Today, April 23, 2015).

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that means audacity or nerve. Usually it refers to statements made that are so outlandish that they defy the imagination. This statement, suggesting that Cubans have been waiting for sixty years for the Americans to come with their ideology of possessive individualism, markets, support for big corporations,  and the promotion of consumerism, ranks among the great expressions of chutzpah in our time. It ignores the beacon of hope, the inspiration, the material progress in health care, education, culture, and work place experimentation in the relations of production, which makes Cuba an actor many times bigger in the eyes of the world than its size.

In the end, a real transformation of United States/Cuban relations will require a fundamental change in the American consciousness such that it respects the qualities of both countries, not the superiority of one over the other.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Harry Targ

Candidate Barack Obama’s most appealing campaign promise in 2008 involved his pledge to transform United States foreign policy from one relying on the perpetual use of force to one based upon the skillful application of bargaining and negotiation, the traditional tools of diplomacy. However, most peace activists were clear-headed enough to know that an Obama foreign policy would not be anti-imperial but they hoped that the US would not blunder into additional wars that would cost the lives and treasure of people all across the globe.

Six years of Obama foreign policy have been mixed at best. US troops are still in Afghanistan. The United States, under cover of NATO, helped destroy the authoritarian but stable government of Libya, leaving a fractured dysfunctional civil war in its place. Military advisors remain in several countries. Drones have targeted alleged enemies in multiple countries. And the United States has continued efforts to destabilize governments, for example in Venezuela.

On the other hand President Obama has committed the United States to a dramatic and significant negotiation process with Iran in conjunction with nations in the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1. Iran has committed itself to a process of reducing nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for the end of economic sanctions. Nuclear scientists believe the tentative agreement as reported is feasible and desirable. Prominent voices from the foreign policy community regard the agreement as significant; some say as significant as President Nixon’s agreements with the former Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, both in 1972.

But Obama’s opening to Iran, potentially his most important foreign policy legacy, has generated outrage in the United States. For the more open-minded, a careful assessment of the impending Western/Iran agreement on the latter’s nuclear program needs to be examined referring to history, the contemporary Middle East/Persian Gulf context and the possibilities of tension reduction in the region that could come about because of the agreement. Finally, all of these factors need to be evaluated in the context of the domestic politics and the legacy of racism in the United States.

Historically the United States presence in the Persian Gulf/Middle East region expanded with its establishment of a permanent relationship with the region’s premier dictatorship and sponsor of violence, Saudi Arabia, at the end of World War II. President Roosevelt agreed to provide that country with arms and military support permanently in exchange for perpetual access to oil. Since then the Saudi Arabian government, in conjunction with other Gulf States, has funded terrorist actors in the region and destabilized regimes regarded as threats to its regional hegemony.

In addition to US ties with the Saudi dynasty, the United States supported the secular and brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran. His power was solidified in a CIA backed military coup in 1953 that ousted radical nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, from power. The ousted leader had promoted the Iranian nationalization of its own oil industry. Subsequent to the U.S. coup, the Shah ruled his country with a heavy hand. By 1979, 70,000 political opponents were in Iranian jails and Iran had become the fifth largest military power in the world.

Then the catastrophe happened: Iranian workers and religious activists overthrew the Shah in 1979, thus threatening other regimes friendly to the US such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the flow of oil from the region to Europe, Japan, and the United States. US hostility to Iran escalated. The US hosted the ailing Shah for medical treatment and after Iranian students took US embassy personnel hostage, President Carter made it clear the United States would not return the Shah to Iran to stand trial for his crimes nor would the United States apologize for its role in putting the Shah in full control of his nation. Also, after the Iranian revolution, the United States gave large military support to Saddam Hussein’s military attack on Iran, leading to the eight-year Iran/Iraq war that cost over a million lives.

Also the United States backed Israeli military adventures against Lebanon and the Gaza strip where allies of Iran reside. Once this history is included, the troubled US/Iranian relationship, stripped of the conventional and overly-simplified narrative of Iran as a global supporter of terrorism and driven by religious extremism, becomes more understandable.

Today’s context makes the story even clearer. The Syrian civil war includes conflicts between anti-government factions supported by the Saudis, the United States, the Israelis, and a government supported by Iran and Russia. The Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), while a threat to Saudi hegemony in the region, is also a movement in opposition to the Iranian-backed Iraqi government, the Syrian government, and the horrific role the United States has played in the region at least since the Iraq war. Violence in the region is fueled by religious differences and the struggle for power between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the United States, and Israel versus Iran, the Syrian regime, Shiite backed governments, supporters of the Palestinian people such as Hamas, and Russia.

Given the enormous complexity of the history and context of US/Iranian relations in a region plagued by colonialism, neo-colonialism, the sixty year war between Israel and the Palestinian people and the spread of violence between states and within states, any efforts to negotiate tension-reduction and arms control and/or disarmament agreements among key players is vitally important. Further, Israel already possesses nuclear weapons. The seething caldron of violence and advanced weapons justifies fears of escalating regional and worldwide nuclear war,

While Obama’s campaign and periodic rhetoric about a more “pragmatic” foreign policy--negotiate rather than make war--has not been fully realized, the negotiations begun between the P5+1 and Iran in 2006 and expanded during the Obama administration, constitute an effort to defuse escalation to war in the most volatile region of the world and most sensible policy analysts endorse the effort. However, there is a domestic campaign in the United States to derail the US/Iranian negotiations for at least four reasons.

First, a possible long-term agreement tying Iranian dismantling of technologies that could be used to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the end of harsh US economic sanctions against Iran puts diplomacy ahead of force or the threat of force as the primary instrument of United States foreign policy. This diplomacy first approach, called here pragmatism, is fundamentally at odds with the neoconservative program articulated by foreign policy influentials who have acquired undue influence in Washington DC since the Reagan years. These are the Project for a New American Century elites, the neoconservatives, the key decision-makers who launched the Iraq War. They still believe the United States should use its military power to remake the world in its image. The most extreme spokespersons from this point of view in recent weeks have called for war on Iran.

Second, the pro-Israeli lobby is driven by the idea that Israel must remain the regional hegemon and the United States has an obligation to support Israel in every way, irrespective of the violence and instability it creates. For them, United States foreign policy should be guided in all its conduct by what such policy means for the state of Israel.

Third, a possible US/Iranian agreement can establish a very “bad example” for the future of United States foreign policy. A shift from guns, bombs, and drones first, to a foreign policy based primarily on diplomatic activity might lead peace advocates to renew their call for cuts in military spending. Neoconservative pundits and military-industrial complex spokespersons often frame their analyses in terms of “planning for the next war.” Preparation for war, they believe, should be the number one priority of United States foreign policy.

Finally, negotiations between the United States and Iran from the vantage point of domestic politics, that is Congress and the electoral process, is only marginally about international relations. The first priority of the United States Congress, presidential candidates, most of the Republican Party, and a sizable number of Democrats is about opposing everything President Obama does.

What gives fuel to this opposition in contradistinction to the old foreign policy norm of “bipartisanship” has to do with race. In addition to all the other factors noted above, racism has motivated much of the politics of opposition since 2008. Candidate Obama campaigned around the world in 2008 to enormous plaudits. In the United States his global appeal challenged the whole history of racism that has conditioned and distorted American political life. That is an extra burden this president has had to face in his foreign policy practice beyond mere partisan disputes about policy.

In the end, President Obama’s ability (with P5+1) to pursue and achieve an agreement with Iran might determine whether the world will see a global war in the coming years or declining violence in the Persian Gulf/Middle East region.

The mobilization of the peace movement in defense of a US/Iranian agreement, therefore, is a mobilization against the neoconservative agenda of perpetual war, Israeli hegemony, the military-industrial complex, and racism in the United States.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Harry Targ

“As Hoosiers continue to struggle to make ends meet, sadly Governor Pence and the Republican leaders of the Indiana General Assembly have worked to make things worse. Instead of focusing on improving the lives of all our citizens, they’ve spent their time attacking public education, blocking attempts to raise Indiana’s minimum wage and ramming through a law (House Bill 1019) designed to lower the wages of thousands of Indiana construction workers and undermine Indiana businesses.  And, now they stubbornly stand by a law that condones discrimination against our own citizens. (from Brett Voorhies, “President Voorhies: End the Legislative Attacks on All Hoosiers,” Indiana State AFL-CIO, News Release, March 30, 2015). 

All of a sudden Indiana has been thrust onto the national stage. Governor Mike Pence in a closed meeting signed the newly minted Restoration of Freedom of Religion Act (RFRA) passed by the state legislature. Despite efforts of Pence and supporters to deny that the new law allows state government support for discrimination, especially based on sexual orientation, the supporters of the law, its language, and the track record of the legislators and the governor all point to the real motivation of the law: to authorize the right to limit public accommodations to groups of Hoosiers.

The outrage from well-meaning people in the state and across the country is justified and should be encouraged. The exuberance of the protests--rallies, petitions, economic boycotts--is a cause for hope for those who are concerned about deepening economic, political, racist, sexist, and environmental threats to the country and its states. It also should be a time for reflection on how to frame organizing and protest and most importantly how to ground resistance to the latest example of discrimination in a broader program of progressive change.

For example, while many members of the legislature and the governor support a religious-fundamentalist ideology, powerful economic and political interests have supported policies derived from it because of the underlying economic changes that constitute their major agenda.

Indiana State AFL-CIO President Brett Voorhies captured this more subtle meaning of the controversy over the RFRA. No doubt it must be actively opposed by all progressive Hoosiers, he says. But Hoosiers must also understand that this latest transgression of workers’ rights constitute just the latest round in a sustained Indiana effort to undermine the entire working class, shift further wealth and power from the vast majority to the minority, and frankly to deepen the human misery that more and more Hoosiers experience; whether they are straight, gay, white, Black, Asian, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist.

For example, with little fanfare, last November Governor Pence announced that Indiana would no longer request a waiver of the federal work requirement that allows poor Hoosiers to receive food stamps even though they were unable to secure 20 hours of work. In other words, Hoosiers who could not find work would not be eligible for food stamp assistance. Explaining his decision to a Fox News audience, the governor said: “You know, it’s the old story. Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime. I think this is an idea whose time has come here in the state of Indiana.” (David Edwards, ‘Indiana Gov. Mike Pence: We’re ‘Ennobling’ Poor People by Cutting Off Food Stamps,” Raw Story, November 18, 2014, rawstory.com).

The callousness of the Governor’s decision is reinforced by the data in “The Status of Working Families in Indiana, 2015 Report” which indicates that Hoosier families “have steadily lost ground” (Indiana Institute for Working Families). In other words a high percentage of job gains in the state since the official end to the recession have been low wage jobs, what the Institute names the “job swap,” or the shift from high-wage, family-sustaining employment to low-wage marginalizing work. According to the 2015 report: “Hoosier families and communities need quality jobs that pay well enough to meet a family’s most basic needs, such as childcare, housing, food and transportation.”

In a recently released study of households in the state of Indiana (United Way, ALICE, Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed: Study of Financial Hardship, 2014) researchers determined that 37 percent of Indiana households earned less than what the researchers defined as a “household survival budget.” Some households earned less than the official poverty line (about 16 percent) and others (21 percent) earn income above the poverty line but less than a sustainable family income. The United Way report indicates that households living below the ALICE threshold are found in all municipalities around the state, affect all age groups, and disproportionately affect people of color and female-headed households.

When we return to the justifiable anger generated by RFRA, this latest law occurs in a legislative session that has rejected calls for an increased minimum wage, is approving sizable shifts in the state budget from public to charter schools, and now is deliberating on a bill to abolish the “common wage,” a law that has its historic roots in the 1930s that guaranteed a basic living wage to building trades workers; carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, and others who have gone through extensive apprenticeship training to provide skilled labor to construct our buildings, roads, and virtually the entire economic infrastructure of our state and nation.

Therefore, Indiana progressive politics is at a crossroad. Do we see the connectedness between our fellow citizens who oppose discrimination of all kinds and those who want jobs and wages to live healthy and sustainable lives? Do we want to “connect the dots” politically so that we can work together on our common projects? Are we going to channel our justified outrage only in singular causes or are we ready to join together to fight for economic and social justice for all?

Reverend William Barber, who has inspired the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina has spoken to this broader vision of bringing our issue groups together. He calls his vision: fusion politics. Activists in the state of Indiana have been organizing around the fusion politics model as well: bringing issues together and thinking about the ways the issues are connected. Fusion politics is built upon showing respect for and advancing the cause of workers, people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and environmental activists. It calls for one movement that says as the old African American spiritual proclaimed:

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin, keep on a-talkin
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.