The Spanish Pearl Part One: Trump’s Gambit

Donald Trump, with modest pomp and circumstance from American media, honored a campaign promise this week in reversing the Obama administration’s 2014 decision to begin normalization of relations with Cuba, surrounded by a militant cadre of Republicans hankering to hurtle us back to the good old days of the Cuban missile crisis.  From a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last year, we have that a majority of Americans support lifting the decades-long embargo imposed on Cuba, yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the tough guy stance on continued human rights abuses within the island nation.  Aside from the official response from Cuba reported by CNN  detailing the myriad human rights abuses within the U.S. going on right now,  one need not look far for the craven double standard present not just in Trump’s bungled, clumsily heavy-handed foreign policy, but in American foreign policy generally traversing the (narrow) political spectrum of post-war administrations.   For example, despite myriad internal abuses documented over the years by Human Rights Watch, perpetration of massacres in Yemen, generation of radicalized ISIS militants as documented by Patrick Coburn of the Independent, the murderous tyranny Saudi Arabia’s monarchy enjoys broad American dispensation; Trump gleefully boasts, disingenuously according to the Brookings Institute, of multi-hundred billion dollar Saudi arms deals after a visit featuring a sword dance and a strange glowing orb.  Cuba, by stark contrast, somehow continues to draw the ire of extremists both inside and out of the American political aristocracy.  Though we may face temptation to hypothesize that

none of Trump’s foreign policy, though perhaps unusually egocentric and idiotic, is particularly shocking when placed in proper historical context.  When George W. Bush delivered his first state of the union address in 2002, he thumbed his nose at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, declaring them to be an “axis of evil,” reversing the meager efforts by his predecessor Bill Clinton in thawing relations with Pyongyang in the so-called Agreed Framework.  Bush, like Trump to follow and Reagan to precede, seemed to have only a very slight understanding of geopolitics or the incredibly dangerous, malevolent game of poking-the-bear that is harsh sanctions and embargoes.  Indeed, this unique combination of ignorance and possible malevolence is worth examining, notable resource being Neil Buchanan’s recent discussion in Newsweek.  But returning to Cuba, fully appreciating the gravity of Trump’s intention to frustrate normalization requires investigating the deeply intertwined history with the rest of Latin America, the United States, the Soviet Union, and indeed the European imperialists who conquered it 500 years past.  Over the next handful of articles, I’ll detail the post-colonial history of what was once called the “Pearl” of the Spanish Empire in the hopes that of sharing the moral and ethical legacy demanded of us as citizens responsible for our government’s deeds.

In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, landed in Hispaniola and Cuba searching for a shorter trade route with the East Indies; upon arrival, he immediately set to the task of conquering and later exterminating the Taíno, the native peoples, installing a colonial government to oversee crop cultivation, resource extraction and, a very, very distant priority, Christianization of the fast-dying peoples.  An aside, one can find an instructive first-hand account of Columbus and his initial expedition in Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United Stateswith thematically familiar vignettes of generous, open-minded natives offering succor and sustenance to their strange European visitors, only to be repaid with savagery, rape, pestilence, and butchery.

For over two centuries, Spanish dominance remained in play despite frequent attempts at usurpation by other European powers, but for a brief interlude in the eighteenth century during the Seven Years’ War in which the British claimed Havana, introducing tens of thousands of African slaves to the island.  Demographically, non-white Cubans constituted roughly forty percent of the population in 1775, cresting at fifty-eight percent in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Liberation movements stirred, partly due to the French revolution and independence of the thirteen British colonies to the north; contributing perhaps more resonantly was a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, together with independence efforts by both whites, blacks, and so-called mulattos, or mixtures.  Under pressure to close the slave trade (Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1807), Spain weakly complied, spurring uprisings throughout the middle decades of the 1800s.  Of particular note, documented by Jose Canton Navarro in his History of Cuba, was the Conspiración de La Escaleraa vicious campaign to quell slave revolts with torture, murder, and exile owing its name to torture involving a ladder and a whip.

Instructive is the influence beginning in the nineteenth century of the independent thirteen colonies to the north on Cuba, to which we’ll return in subsequent articles.

A Perfect Storm : The Rise of Donald Trump Part One

Donald Trump’s apparent electoral victory two weeks ago stunned both supporters and opponents, as the preponderance of pundits and analysts assumed that even the much maligned, absurdly incremental, uncharismatic, scandal-dogged Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose the election to an anti-science, narcissistic, vengeful, vulgar, greedy billionaire with a penchant for fomenting hate for immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, even if he offered a phony message of hopeful populism.  I, by contrast, was somewhat more skeptical of the polling numbers, as errors in likely voter modeling or the influence of the social desirability phenomenon could easily push results over the margin of error. Nonetheless, I shared the shock and frankly the fear as swing state after state fell to a candidate I’d considered to be more of a carnival attraction than a serious statesperson. How could this happen, what does it mean, and what can we do? These are critical questions both his supporters and opponents need be asking; reasonable answers may not be the knee jerk ones. We begin with investigating the context in which a person such as Trump could be elected, deferring the second and third questions for subsequent articles.  This post also defers deeper, more detailed discussions on a host of important issues so that we may cover more of the highlights.

Despite Clinton carrying the lead in the popular vote by perhaps two million, a little less than half of those who voted, a substantial fraction, seem to believe Trump can actually improve their lives. Peppered amongst scattershot claims he’s made on the campaign trail, he correctly depicted so-called free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP as destructive; he correctly observed the plight of American workers through deindustrialization; he correctly derided the governing elite as nepotistic, disingenuous, petty, and heretofore incapable of meeting the needs of the working class in a populist appeal. The Democratic leadership faltered easily, ignoring highly suggestive evidence that Clinton simply didn’t cut it against the Republican contenders and more seriously marginalizing a populist candidate in Bernie Sanders who represented one of the largest grassroots movements in history; his favorability and electability, along with his fervent young supporters, were ridiculed early on by party insiders, yet many analysts and strategists concede an easy victory for him against Trump. Sanders offered genuine populism and helped energize a new generation of young voters with promises of universal healthcare and tuition-free college, proposals the American media condemn as fantasy and pie-in-the-sky, despite many proofs-of-concept in other western democracies.

Many of the grievances of the white working class, perhaps Trump’s biggest constituency, are legitimate yet have been long ignored by both political parties. Predating this election is a decades-long decline in income mobility and the standard of living; the postwar boom generated historically unprecedented wealth and security for working class people, precipitating a true middle class and birthing the so-called American dream. Anecdotally, my grandfather, descendant of poor farmers in Indiana, managed a decent job in a purchasing supply company in the late 1940s with no more than a high school diploma; he could buy a house, cars, and send his children to college. This simply isn’t the case now, and American workers know it. Fueled by scornful elitism from the ruling class and an utter lack of articulate response to their genuine cries for help, they’ve abandoned trust in fundamental public institutions such as schools, governments, and the media, not all of which is unjustified.  Analysts in 1994 predicted that NAFTA would perpetuate the offshoring of manufacturing jobs largely begun in the 1970s with the financialization of the economy. The media’s concentration into just a few multinational companies corresponds with little airing of the problems plaguing middle America.  Even Clinton herself snubbed Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”  A vacuum generally won’t remain as such for long: Trump and many who preceded him have offered easy explanations for their woes; these answers are crazy, but coherent, fanning flames of hatred and further mobilizing a lightly-sleeping, subsurface deeply nativist ultra-nationalist sector of the population extant since the founding and forever awaiting a deliverer who can save white America. Part of my family fits the bill, I’m sorry to say; I’m all too familiar with the rhetoric and the mindset.

In short, he’s stated explicitly, or sometimes intimated, that illegal immigrants imperil our families and steal our jobs, that Obama is a non-citizen illegitimate president sympathetic to Islamic terrorists, that people of color are destroying their own communities and stealing elections, and that he can bring back the good old days when our economy was driven more by honest industry and production than corrupt financial institutions. Indeed, Trump’s ascent has emboldened this nativist sector, paralleling a cascade of hate-crime related incidents across the country according to the Southern Law Poverty Center. Hate and white supremacy groups brag that Trump is their guy, and though most people who support Trump for his promised populism probably aren’t among them, they’ve nonetheless tolerated his hate speech in the hopes that this populism is genuine. As a result, the baseless allegations of voter fraud against people of color which are deeply rooted in historical efforts at disenfranchisement incited violence at the polls and voter intimidation of poor minorities. The historical record should be clear on many of Trump’s wild claims; voting fraud is almost impossible to execute successfully, and Trump’s repeated utterances of having evidence simply must be intentional falsehoods, a handy trick any politician or sleazy salesman can brandish quickly. Obama’s citizenship is simply public record; his record on atrocities and crackdown on whistleblowers should easily demonstrate no support for Islamic terrorists or alleged sympathizers.  Illegal immigration, largely a feature of deleterious effects of our disastrous free trade policy, interventionism, and climate change on Central and South America, is nothing more than a wedge issue cravenly designed to fan flames of hatred among workers whose share of mutual interests dwarf those with the masters.

Media coverage also appears to have played a role in Trump’s ascent, as the months leading into the primary season and campaign featured heavy, disproportionate coverage by major American news outlets of the spectacle that is Trump; one measure indicates that the empty podium awaiting Trump’s arrival received more airtime than did all of Sanders’ rallies during the summer and fall of 2015.  Similar patterns emerge among other media giants.  Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, bragged at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in San Francisco early this year that though disproportionate coverage of Trump “may not be good for America, […] it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.” Trump’s showmanship, bellicosity, and willingness to say on air the unthinkable seem to have generated heavy ratings, moving us perilously closer to virtually substance-free political debates and campaigning.

In short, a perfect storm of economic uncertainty, remarkably unfavorable opposition, a fundamental, immoral failure of the political class to meet the needs of the citizenry, and a sharp decline in the public trust has led to the rise of a fascist-lite kleptocrat celebrated by hate groups, anti-science zealots, and Christian supremacists for his selection of a myopic fundamentalist running mate, cabinet choices whose competencies for their respective jobs-to-be are inversely proportionate to their bottom lines, and profound disdain for immigrants and climate science.  Our next article will focus on what these critical choices mean.