For an island nation of only 11 million people, Cuba has a continued knack for landing in the media spotlight. First there was last week’s Associated Press revelation about covert U.S. efforts to co-opt the Cuban hip-hop scene as a means of promoting regime change. And now Washington has surprisingly announced it’s restoring ties with the country, after more than 50 years.As part of the sudden reversal of policy, the U.S. released three alleged Cuban spies, who were arrested in the United States while investigating Cuban exile groups accused of terrorism. U.S. intelligence has its own history in Cuba, to say the least. By 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency had mulled 638 assassination schemes against former Cuban President Fidel Castro, ranging from a simple exploding cigar to strapping a mollusk with explosives to catch him while scuba diving.
On Russia’s “Black Tuesday” yesterday (16 December), the Central Bank tried to stop the ruble’s value falling by hiking interest rates. It didn’t work. The bankers and corporations panicked; the ruble kept falling. It has now lost half its value in six months. The main cause is the falling price of oil, on which the Russian economy is heavily dependent.Now Russian people are likely to pay the price, with inflation, unemployment and falling living standards. More than at any time since president Vladimir Putin became the Moscow elite’s dominant figure 15 years ago, he is likely to face a population troubled by serious economic hardship.
On Tuesday, six members of the Movement of Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan or TTP) invaded a school for children run by the Pakistani army in PeshawarThe Pakistani military counter-attacked, with early reports of dozens killed and wounded in the cross fire. Some of the Taliban were wearing suicide bomb vests, and a loud explosion was heard from one of the school buildings.Unlike the hostage-taking in Australia, which was just a tragedy produced by a lone nut-job, the attack in Peshawar has geopolitical implications and really is the work of persons organized to pressure civilians on policy by routinely blowing them up–the very definition of terrorism.
Is the global war on terror (GWOT) that the United States launched in 2011 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks succeeding or failing? This would seem to be a compelling question for the United States and the world – but it receives surprisingly little attention. After 13 years of GWOT, events this year emphasize the significant development of militant and terror groups who now carry out dramatic and gruesome attacks that kill or kidnap hundreds of victims at a time. This is combined with the fact that some of these groups, such as ISIS, the Nusra Front, Boko Haram and others, have taken control of territories in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen and elsewhere.
In 1904, Russia and Japan went to war over control of the Liaodong Peninsula in modern day China. Russia needed a year-round ice-free port for its naval fleet and Imperial Japan saw this encroachment as a threat. After early setbacks in the war, Russia needed to quickly reinforce its naval fleet in the Pacific Ocean with its Baltic Fleet.With its Baltic Fleet literally on the other side of the world, Russia’s options were limited. Ice blocked the route along Russia’s northern coastline – known today as the Northern Sea Route. The British blocked access to the Suez Canal. It finally took the Baltic Fleet seven months to get to the Sea of Japan via the Cape of Good Hope. The fleet arrived knackered and ill-prepared for battle.
On the rare occasions when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen in public, his entourage is somewhere between that of a president and a mobster. “The minute he entered, the mobile coverage disappeared,” says a 29-year-old resident of Raqqa in Syria—who asked to be identified only as Abu Ali—recalling the flawless security on one occasion when al-Baghdadi entered a mosque. “Armed guards closed the area. The women were sent upstairs to the women’s section to pray. Everyone was warned not to take photos or videos. It was the most nerve-racking atmosphere.“What made it [more nerve-racking] is that when Baghdadi finally showed up, wearing black, head to toe, the guards started shouting, ‘Allah akbar! Allah akbar!’ [God is great.] This made us even more scared,” says Ali. “The guards then forced us to swear allegiance to him. Even after Baghdadi left, none of us were allowed to leave the mosque for another 30 minutes.“He has the working mentality of a Mafioso,” says Ali. “He expects his soldiers to be highly disciplined. He’s a great war planner, he’s very organized.”
On the evening of 3 October, the New York attorney Stanley Cohen got a phone call about Peter Kassig, the young American aid worker held hostage by Islamic State (Isis). The callers were Palestinians from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon who knew Kassig, and they were “very upset”, Cohen recalled. They had just seen the footage of Alan Henning, a British hostage, being beheaded. At the end of the video, when the masked terrorist who has been dubbed “Jihadi John” paraded another hostage before the camera, they recognised their friend Peter.Kassig had done relief and medical work in Sabra and Shatila, and even helped raise money for the refugees, before he was kidnapped in October 2013. “He’s a good guy,” the callers told Cohen. Given the pace of previous Isis executions – roughly once a fortnight since August – they feared Kassig might have only two weeks left to live. They were desperate to save him, and thought that Cohen would have contacts among militants in the region who could lobby for Kassig’s release.
Wednesday’s surprise announcements by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro that they had agreed to restore relations between Cuba and the United States were the dramatic stuff of history. Almost immediately came the revelation that eighteen months of secret talks, brokered by Pope Francis, had preceded the declarations. There had been hints that something was in the works. Last December, at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa, Obama and Castro shook hands in the V.I.P. stands, in full view of cameras. During the international response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa this fall, Cuba and the United States became de-facto partners in the field, and Cuba’s generous efforts in sending hundreds of doctors earned praise from American officials, including John Kerry and Samantha Power. At a three-day “Cuba in Transition” conference, held at Columbia University in October, the Atlantic Council’s Peter Schechter described a poll commissioned by his organization which found, for the first time in half a century, that a majority of Cuban-Americans—long the main source of domestic political opposition to ending the embargo—had shifted their opinions. No longer would the “Florida factor” hold hostage a contender for President. In a meeting I had in Washington, D.C., a few days later, a senior White House official mentioned Cuba, and all but gave me a wink.
The US embargo against Cuba is nothing less than an act of vindictiveness and spite; the fact it is finally crumbling will alleviate the suffering of millions of Cubans. It’s “just another concession to a tyranny”, wails Republican senator Marco Rubio. Such politicians risk drowning in their own hypocrisy: their selective interest in human rights does not extend to imposing an embargo against Saudi Arabia, a vicious, woman-oppressing tyranny that decapitates people for being gay or “sorcerers”. Despite sending tens of thousands of American soldiers to die (and killing countless civilians) in Vietnam, the US normalised ties with the ostensibly Communist-ruled south-east Asian nation in the 1990s. So why not Cuba?
No one in the mainstream media will acknowledge it, but the normalization of American relations with Havana, symbolized by release of prisoners today, is a huge success for the Cuban Revolution.The hostile US policy, euphemistically known as “regime change,” has been thwarted. The Cuban Communist Party is confidently in power. The Castros have navigated through all the challenges of the years. In Latin America and the United Nations, Cuba is accepted, and the United States is isolated. It is quite legitimate for American progressives to criticize various flaws and failures of the Cuban Revolution. But the media and the right are overflowing with such commentary. Only the left can recall, narrate and applaud the long resistance of tiny Cuba to the northern Goliath.