What Abba Eban Said of the Palestinians Could Also Be Said of the Cuban Regime

They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity:

The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who splits her time between the United States and Havana, traveled to Cuba in recent days seeking to pull off a bold experiment. She called on Cubans from all walks of life to meet at Havana’s iconic Revolution Square on Tuesday at 3 p.m., where they would take turns at a microphone to outline their vision for the new era in the country. Word of the event, which was billed as both a performance and a street protest, was shared on social media using the hashtag #YoTambiénExijo, which means “I also demand.”

Ms. Bruguera’s plan was the first test of whether the Obama administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba earlier this month would prod the Castro regime to be more tolerant of critical voices. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the government barred prominent critics, including Ms. Bruguera, from reaching the square. Some were detained and others were reportedly prevented from leaving their homes. In the end, the performance wasn’t held.

Authorities in Cuba appear to have wrestled with how to prevent Ms. Bruguera’s project from turning into a mass gathering of critics. They allowed her to travel to the island, though she had publicized her project well in advance. In recent days, officials from the state-run arts council summoned her for a meeting. In a statement, the council said it had made clear to her that her plan was “unacceptable,” because of the location and the “ample media coverage” in outlets that are critical of the government. Officials proposed that the event be held instead at a cultural site, according to the statement, and said that the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative.”

Obviously, this is appalling, and it shows that the Cuban regime is as vile as it ever was. It also shows that the regime is completely incapable of reciprocating the goodwill shown to it by the Obama administration in the administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

I imagine that there are readers who wonder whether I am rethinking my decision to endorse the administration’s move to change the nature of Cuban-American relations. Not in the least. I never expected that the decision to normalize relations would bring about an overnight change in the regime’s behavior, and my favorable link to Dan Drezner’s piece on the normalization of relations–which warned us that change would not occur overnight in Cuba–indicates as much. At best, normalization–and the lifting of the embargo against Cuba–will help Cuba move in fits and starts towards a more liberalized political environment. But again, we have tried diplomatic isolation and the embargo for over fifty years, and that strategy has failed to bring about any results. It is time for a new approach, and as Drezner notes, the Obama administration’s new approach can ultimately bring about a very good outcome:

First, the odds of orderly liberalization and democratization in Cuba have increased. Not by a lot — maybe from 2 percent to 10 percent. But that’s still an improvement. Even if full-blown regime transition doesn’t happen, economic liberalization does make a society somewhat more free. Today’s Post editorial points to Vietnam as the worst-case outcome for the Cuba policy. But Vietnam now has a considerably more liberal climate than before the US opening, so I don’t think that’s the best example.

Second, as my Washington Post colleagues Erik Voeten and Ishaan Tharoor have already observed, U.S. policy on Cuba has been, literally, isolationist — as in, it isolates the United States. Unlike other cases (see below), there is zero multilateral support for sanctioning Cuba — quite the opposite, in fact. Improving ties with Havana ameliorates a long-standing source of friction between the United States and Latin America. That’s called “good diplomacy.”

Third, when you consider the mammoth size of the United States and Cuba’s proximity, the only parallel economic relationship that comes to mind is China-Taiwan — if Taiwan were a lot poorer. If trade, tourism and investment takes off between the two countries, Cuba will quickly become the more asymmetrically dependent actor, no matter how hard the Cuban government tries to resist. This won’t make it much easier for the United States to affect regime change — but it will nudge Cuba towards a less confrontational foreign policy.

We gave the old policy half a century to work, and it didn’t. We should give the new one some time. And of course, it is worth noting that in the past, the Cuban regime tried to claim that American efforts to diplomatically and economically isolate Cuba were the catalyst for any repressive measures undertaken by the regime. They can’t do that anymore. And the world knows it.

A Modest Improvement in Internet Freedom in Iran

Instead of banning websites completely, the Iranian regime is now just censoring their content. Sure, Iranians will only see redacted versions of websites, but at least they’ll see them. I guess this is supposed to mean that everything is both hunky and dory in Iran now.

How very wonderful all of this is. Utopia has finally been achieved in Iran. Must be the effects of all of that political liberalization.

Nota bene: Some people might think that this blog post is featuring sarcasm rather heavily. I can’t possibly imagine where they would get such an idea.

A Modest Endorsement of the Venezuelan Regime

Behold. Of course, in a better world, we could spend less time parodying failed regimes and instead, spend our time implementing political and economic policies that actually do serve to alleviate immiseration and provide others with political freedoms. But the Venezuelan regime–and all those who enable its existence–is utterly uninterested in helping the people it supposedly represents. Its interests lie in enriching and empowering those at the top of the political heap, at the expense of the Venezuelan people themselves.

As such, it is necessary to oppose the regime–and others like it–however one can. Parody helps.

Meanwhile, Tyranny Continues in Venezuela

I don’t believe for a single moment that there was a plot afoot to kill Nicolás Maduro, but of course, the Venezuelan regime pretends conveniently that there was. This makes it easier for the government to suppress protest and dissent, and allows the government to try to distract Venezuelans from the existence of truly awful economic conditions and living standards. Of course, I am not writing anything that anyone doesn’t know, but it is worth emphasizing that the Venezuelan government’s response to the problems afflicting the country–problems the Venezuelan government itself was responsible for having created–is to constantly exclaim “Squirrel!” No one should be fooled.

Once again, all of the people who once pretended that everything that Hugo Chávez and his cronies did was A-OK–especially when George W. Bush was president and Chávez was busy picking fights with the Bush administration and the United States in general (there’s some patriotism for you)–cannot be reached for comment.

Why Don’t Evil Regimes Get Called Out as Evil Regimes?

I agree with Benjamin Wittes when he writes that “there’s a lot to be said for a foreign policy organization’s willingness to hear out, ventilate, and challenge the views of our foreign policy adversaries.” I also agree with Benjamin Wittes when he writes that during the hearing, there should be no effort to whitewash awful and despicable violations of human rights, and general bad behavior on the international stage on the part of a particular regime. Unfortunately, as Wittes points out, the Council on Foreign Relations completely failed to call out the bad behavior of the North Korean regime, thus leading to a disastrous and intellectually reprehensible event with the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations. Shame on Donald Gregg, a former American ambassador to South Korea, for not being tougher and more forceful with the North Koreans, and for unnecessarily and “creepily” (Wittes’s entirely apt word) trying to establish himself as a pal of the North Korean ambassador.

This kind of failure of nerve has consequences, of course. The main consequence is that nasty regimes like the one in North Korea are able to get away with human rights violations and disrupting international stability, and are able to score propaganda victories to boot. I don’t know why the Council on Foreign Relations would not want to prevent this outcome–and would not want to get a reputation as an institution that asks tough questions of questionable characters and regimes–by forsaking a chance to hold the North Korean ambassador’s feet to the fire during any question-and-answer period, but there you have it; during the course of the North Korean ambassador’s talk, the CFR completely and utterly failed to establish itself as a rigorous interlocutor.

I’d like to think that the CFR will learn something from this disaster and will try to avoid similar disasters in the future. Maybe a little negative blog attention will help in that regard.

I Keep Telling You People that the Human Rights Situation in Iran Is Awful

And here is more proof–assuming that more proof is actually needed:

Executions have surged in Iran and oppressive conditions for women have worsened, a United Nations investigator said on Monday, drawing attention to rights abuses just as Iran’s president is pushing for a diplomatic breakthrough with the West.

The investigator, Ahmed Shaheed, a former diplomat from the Maldives and now special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, made the comments on the eve of presenting his latest findings to members of the United Nations General Assembly.

Mr. Shaheed said he had been shocked by the execution on Saturday of Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26, who was convicted of killing a man she had accused of raping her. The death sentence had prompted international outcry and efforts by the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, to rescind it. Under the Iranian Constitution, the president has no power over the judiciary.

In a briefing with reporters Monday morning, Mr. Shaheed suggested that Mr. Rouhani had only “limited authority” to make the broad changes that he promised when elected in June 2013.

From July 2013 to June 2014, Mr. Shaheed’s report says, at least 852 people were executed, in what he called an alarming increase from rates that were already high.

Among those put to death were at least eight juvenile offenders and four minority Arabs whom Mr. Shaheed described as “cultural rights activists.”

The death penalty can be applied in Iran for adultery, recidivist alcohol use, drug possession and trafficking, as well as crimes in which a person “points a weapon at members of the public to kill, frighten and coerce them,” the report said. Mr. Shaheed said minorities are sometimes charged for “exercising their rights to peaceful expression and association.”

Any further comment in this post is superfluous. The excerpt speaks for itself.

Some Things Never Change–Like the Awful Human Rights Situation in Iran

To wit:

Iran hanged a woman on Saturday who was convicted of murdering a man she alleged was trying to rape her, drawing swift international condemnation for a prosecution several countries described as flawed.

Reyhaneh Jabbari was hanged at dawn for premeditated murder, the official IRNA news agency reported. It quoted a statement issued by the Tehran Prosecutor Office Saturday that rejected the claim of attempted rape and said that all evidence proved that Jabbari had plotted to kill Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a former intelligence agent.

The United Nations as well as Amnesty International and other human rights groups had called on Iran’s judiciary to halt the execution, which was carried out after the country’s Supreme Court upheld the verdict. The victim’s family could have saved Jabbari’s life by accepting blood money but they refused to do so.

According to her 2009 sentencing, Jabbari, 27, stabbed Sarbandi in the back in 2007 after purchasing a knife two days earlier.

“The knife had been used on the back of the deceased, indicating the murder was not self-defense,” the agency quoted the court ruling as saying.

Britain, Germany, and a group of European parliamentarians, among others, condemned the execution, as did the United States.

“There were serious concerns with the fairness of the trial and the circumstances surrounding this case, including reports of confessions made under severe duress,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

“We join our voice with those who call on Iran to respect the fair trial guarantees afforded to its people under Iran’s own laws and its international obligations,” she added.

I have nothing to add. This whole story is appalling beyond words.

The Human Rights Situation in Iran

It remains awful:

The heavy steel door swung closed behind me in the cell. I took off my blindfold and found myself trapped within four cold walls. The cell was small. High ceiling, old concrete. All green. An intense yellow light from a single bulb high above. Somehow I could hear the horror in the walls, the voices of previous prisoners whispering a painful welcome. I had no way of knowing whether they had survived. I had no way of knowing whether I would. So many questions were crowding my mind. I heard a man moaning. It was coming through a vent. I realized that he must have been tortured. Would I be tortured, too?

I was, and am, a philosopher, an academic. Life had not been easy for Iranian intellectuals, artists, journalists, and human-rights activists since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005. As a thinker on the margin of Iranian society, I was not safe, and so, rather than stay in Iran, I had accepted a job offer in Delhi, India. I had come back to Tehran for a visit. On the morning of April 27, 2006, I was at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport to catch a flight to Brussels, where I was to attend a conference. I had checked in my luggage and gone through security when I was approached by four men. One of them called me by my first name. “Ramin,” he said, “could you follow us?”

“I’ll miss my plane,” I said.

“We just want to ask you a few questions.”

People around us were watching, but nobody moved. I realized that I had no choice but to go with them.

What follows is a horrifying account, one that lends credence to my longstanding belief that the regime in Iran is not worthy of the people it purports to lead.

In Which I Worry about what Might Happen in Hong Kong

Recall this post. Recall in particular this little bleak statement of mine:

I’d like to think that this conflict will end peacefully, and with a diminution of the power of the Chinese government. I fear that it will end horribly, with the government asserting its authority in Tienanmenesque fashion.

Ahem:

Beijing has a harshly worded message for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Not only is Beijing unwilling to reconsider the August decision to allow only Communist Party-approved candidates to run for Hong Kong’s highest office, but Hong Kongers who continue to participate in the protests should expect dire consequences, an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper warned today.

Some activists and analysts, including a former Tiananmen student leader, say the piece bears a marked similarity to a notorious editorial that ran the People’s Daily more than 25 years ago. That piece was later blamed for leading to the brutal crackdown on demonstrations, which killed hundreds or thousands, depending on estimates.

Today’s People’s Daily editorial (link in Chinese, our English translation here) says the Beijing stance on Hong Kong’s elections are “unshakable” and legally valid. It goes on to argue that the pro-democracy “Occupy Central” protests are illegal and are hurting Hong Kong. “If it continues, the consequences will be unimaginable,” the editorial warns.

Well . . . All of this is quite worrisome indeed. I don’t suppose that we might have some leverage with which to persuade the Chinese that cracking down on the protests in Hong Kong would be a radically bad idea, do we? And if so, will the Obama administration use that leverage at all?

Something Interesting Is Happening in Hong Kong

Link:

A wave of protest in Hong Kong that engulfed the city could continue into the week as thousands of residents defied a government call on Monday to abandon street blockades, students boycotted classes and the city’s influential bar association added its condemnation of a police crackdown on protesters.

The public resistance underscored the difficulties that the Hong Kong government faces in defusing widespread anger that erupted on Sunday after the police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to break up a sit-in by students and other residents demanding democratic elections in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

On Monday the Hong Kong government canceled the city’s annual fireworks show to mark China’s National Day, which falls on Wednesday, and government censors in Beijing ordered websites in mainland China to delete any mention of the unrest.

By evening, the crowds had swollen to greater numbers than the night before, when a police crackdown failed to dislodge protesters from a major thoroughfare in the heart of Hong Kong and appeared to have motivated more people to join the student-led protests. A government announcement that the riot police had been withdrawn from the protest centers also seemed to open the door to growing demonstrations.

“This morning I was happy to see that they stayed and insisted on continuing the protest,” said Cindy Sun, a 30-year-old bank worker who joined protesters during her lunch hour.

Ms. Sun said she thought the police response, especially the use of tear gas, was excessive. “The students were completely peaceful,” she said.

Many of the protesters were wearing surgical masks and goggles in anticipation of police trying again to disperse them with tear gas or pepper spray.

“Yesterday, it was like a war. There were tear gas grenades everywhere,” said Eric Yeung, a geologist who marked his 28th birthday on Monday by joining the protests. “There’s another feeling tonight. It’s like a party. Emotions are high.”

Of course, it ought to go without saying that I support the protests–not only because supporting the protests is the decent thing to do, but also because from a realpolitik perspective, the delegitimization of the Chinese regime is a remarkably effective way to put China on the defensive geopolitically, thus curbing China’s ambitions to assert itself as a regional hegemon in Asia and to threaten the projection of American power (particularly naval power) in the region.

I’d like to think that this conflict will end peacefully, and with a diminution of the power of the Chinese government. I fear that it will end horribly, with the government asserting its authority in Tienanmenesque fashion.

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