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Friday, 24 March 2017

Pride and Pragmatism - A New Look at Cuba

The dictionary defines pride as “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements.” Pride can also be associated with “the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated.” In this way, we can feel pride for being associated with a business or a professional organization or a volunteer group or religion or race. Pride can also be associated with being of a certain nationality. For example, my wife and I were up at 4:00 a.m. to watch the hockey final in the last Olympics. We found bar on Stony Plain Road that was just packed. I wandered through the bar looking for a seat and found nothing. We were just about to leave when a group of people at a table by the door made room for us on the bench where they were sitting. Would I be racist to say that none were of European decent? I’ve rarely had so much fun watching a hockey game. Canada took control from the start and the crowd struck up their own renditions of “Oh Canada” throughout the game.

In this age of globalization, people have begun to associate themselves with an ideology to almost as
great an extent as their nationality.  In the U.S., you have the Red and Blue States. The Red State people believe that people should be self-reliant. They should be able to keep the gains of their hard work. They believe in as little interference as possible by the government in people’s lives. The Blue State people believe that certain essential services must be provided for or guaranteed by government; services like healthcare and education and a minimum standard of living. In Canada, the difference between conservative and liberal beliefs have also become more pronounced and more entrenched in the minds of their followers. In Alberta, the ideological difference between Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals and NDPs would have more a matter of degree than kind. Today, the Wildrose advocate an almost libertarian point of view where the government has little or no involvement in the economy and I would suspect a united party would reflect that view.

People like to take pride in their association with either group ideological group. Ironically, many of the people in states that voted for Donald Trump are most likely to suffer under his leadership. Nevertheless, they take pride in the qualities of the self-made man (or woman) he espouses. They also share in his hatred of immigrants who come into their country and do not obviously share their values because they practice different religions of wear “weird” clothing. Likewise, the liberals take pride in having elected the first black president and the kind of values he espouses like universal healthcare.

Why have we become so entrenched in our beliefs? Why can’t we look at the goals we want to achieve as a society and decide the best method of achieving those. There is no ideal. At one time, government intervention may be necessary. At others, capitalism and free enterprise will be the answer for promoting growth and stability. Sometimes, government regulation is necessary. At others, it’s not. Why do we have to affiliate our identity with an ideological belief? We need to be more pragmatic.

Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man” has amended his position that the liberal democracy the final form of government, or the words of Winston Churchill, the “worst form of government, except for all the others.” In his book, “Political Order and Political Decay,” Mr. Fukuyama talks about the necessity of a professional bureaucracy to make a democracy work. Positions in government must be filled based on ability, not a relationship to who a person knows. When democracy began in the United States, favours would be handed out to those who could deliver a vote. For example, say Tim Robinson had influence over a bunch of people and he could assure their vote for John Henry for state governor in return for jobs, then you have the opposite of a professional bureaucracy. When I taught up north, relatives of the chief worked for the town. They delivered the water, cleared the snow in the winter, plowed the streets, shot stray dogs on specified day and time and every other municipal job you could think of. Democracies in developing countries have a tendency to work this way. Certain religious groups of tribes gain control of government and bestow favours to others based on group affiliation. Positions in government are based on a who you know rather than what you know.

In essence, this is what Francis Fukuyama is saying went wrong with the Arab Spring. A bunch of democracies sprang up without the necessary infrastructure to support them. As a result, the crumbles almost as fast as they arose. For this reason, he says the strongest democracies are those that were established most recently in Western Europe. These countries had years under aristocratic and military rule. Because they were in constant conflict or the threat thereof, a strong and competent professional bureaucracy necessarily evolved to effectively manage these nations in an age of ever-growing complexity.
According to Samuel Huntington in his book, “Political Order in Changing Societies” societies are better off when they made a transition from an authoritarian state to a fully modernized political and economic one. China and Vietnam would be examples. Communism isolated these countries and forced the development of a competent bureaucracy. With a professional bureaucracy, they are now better positioned to take advantage of the benefits of capitalism without becoming victims to its faults.

As Canadians, we have played second fiddle to our southern neighbours but we have a common heritage. We share a common language and share a similar religious, social and cultural heritage. Most importantly, we share a common political and economic background. Both political systems are both dependent on a separation of powers with executive, legislative and judicial branches and elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches. (The proviso for the United States would be that only the president is elected and he selects his cabinet from members of the public.)  Our economic systems are largely capitalist with some government intervention in what the citizens of each country consider essential services.

Not so for our Latin American cousins south of the U.S. border. Many, like Mexico, inherited political systems based on rule by a privileged elite. This elite owned the mines and haciendas upon which most of the economy was based. With huge disparities of income, power was necessarily controlled by a strong central government. When that disappeared, so does the control. According to Mr. Fukuyama, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party maintained a strong political order from the 1940s to the year 2000 but at the expense of democracy and economic vitality. Since that time, it’s spiraled into a country of relative chaos.

Pre-Castro Cuba was haven for gambling, prostitution and drugs. “Havana was what Las Vegas has become” says one Cuban historian. In fact, it became so central to the Mafia that Lucky Luciano held a meeting in Havana in 1946 between the U.S. Mafia and the Cosa Nostra; since known as the Havana Conference. The rich and famous flocked to Havana including the likes of Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. The El Florida bar in Havana claims to have been a favourite hangout for Ernest and has named a daiquiri in his honour. Another writer, Arthur Miller, who later dined with Castro, described pre-revolutionary Cuba and society under President Batista’s regime as “hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”

Even though a middle class had sprung up during this time, much of the population did not share in its prosperity. More than 40% of the Cuban workforce was unemployed or underemployed in 1958. Many of these people were seriously malnourished and without hospitals in the rural areas where they lived. Grave yards dotted the main highways in the Sierra Maestra where the sick had died waiting for a ride to the nearest city. Education was unavailable in the rural areas so only half of the rural population could read and write.  Just 10% of rural homes had electricity and 15% running water. Racism proliferated with Afro-Cubans holding the worst jobs and living in the worst conditions. Beaches were segregated and even President Batista was excluded from membership to one of the most exclusive clubs.

During its early years as a country, Canada combined capital initiative with government intervention to provide essential services to a population sparsely spread over a gigantic land mass. Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) was created in 1906 to provide telephone services to customers outside the Edmonton area until it was privatized in 1991. For other utilities, the government was forced to respond to complaints regarding access and prices by creating quasi-judicial bodies to regulate in 1915.  In 1936, the CBC provided radio and later television services to communities outside the major centres.
Unfortunately for Cuba, provision of utilities was not entirely within its control since 80% of them were owned by U.S. corporations. As well, U.S. companies owned “90% of the Cuban mines, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production and 25 percent of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total.” 1.  So, what to do? How to take control of a country when so much of it is owned by outsiders? The Cuban solution was the same as the actions taken by Vietnam and China. Become communist.

After the revolution in 1959, Fidel nationalized everything. As a consequence, his country paid dearly. IN 1962, President Kennedy placed an embargo on trade with Cuba which President Obama partially lifted last year. The Soviet Union initiated trade with Castro’s Cuba and provided a yearly stipend of $6 billion dollars. That disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since that time, life has become considerably harsher for the Cuban people. The average wage is $25 a month and the country has inadequate access to medical supplies.

Like Vietnam and China, Cuba has turned to the private sector to stimulate economic growth. Cuba
Plea for Trump to lift embargo
has sent envoys to the two countries to better understand how these economies have transitioned from government to capitalist enterprise. In 2011, the government fired 500,000 police and issued one million private licenses to businesses to sell products and services. It also allowed reversed property laws to allow it citizens to buy and sell houses. As one lady stated in an Al Jazeera documentary, it “forces owners to sell products of a better quality and of a wider range . . . It gives back our culture of commerce.”

Ironically, Cuba is in a better position to embrace a capitalist system than many of its neighbours. Consider the opinion of a writer for Bloomberg financial magazine. He states that you’re better off being born in Cuba than Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S. since 1898.  To support his argument, he uses information provided by CIA  World Factbook. He states, “Lower infant mortality? Check! Same with lower unemployment, higher literacy, and a lower overall death rate.”

According to Index Mundi, Cuba is one of only two countries in Latin America with a literacy rate of 100%. The intentional homicide rate is ranked just one above Canada’s at 563 per hundred thousand. That compares with the U.S. at 12,996, ranked 13th or Mexico at 25,757 or third worst in the world.2.  When visiting Cuba, the Government of Canada advises travelers to exercise a normal security precautions.  That would be the same as Britain or Germany or Belgium. For Mexico, where considerably more Canadians visit, the government advises visitors to exercise a high degree of caution and, in the Northern and Western States, that non-essential travel be avoided. A New York travel agent sold out his tour of Cuba in a matter of hours. A Cuban American investor has $300 million ready to invest in Cuba as soon the possibility opens up.

Allegiance to one ideology is a mistake. Pragmatism allows a greater variety of actions to be considered as a solution. Like communism, capitalism is not necessarily right in every situation. The goal of a corporation is to control the market and, by so doing, limit competition. In the case of essential services such a health, or electricity or gas, the danger of collusion is particularly great and so, government regulation may be necessary. Foreign influence may become so strong that a country may no longer control its own destiny. Cuba provided an example for independence in other countries.

 During the 1970s, Angola achieved independence from Portugal with a pro-communist party. In reaction, forces within the Angola, with help from South Africa and the United States, attempted to overthrow that government. In response and completely independent of the Soviet Union, Cuba sent its own troops to support the government. The defeat of South African forces in Cuito Cuanavele in 1987 by the Cuban backed forces in Angola, provided inspiration for Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid movement. After his release from prison, Mr. Mandela stated that the Cuban victory “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor . . . [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa . . . Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point for the liberation of our continent – and of my people – from the scourge of apartheid.”

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Feeling - if it feels right, it's got to be right

I got my first teaching job with my wife in Fort Resolution. That was hard. I used to dream of turning the wrong way when we went to get groceries in Hay River. Instead, I'd drive toward freedom in the south. The residential school was still standing and, although it was no longer in use, you could still feel its effects. Binge drinking was among the worst. For some kids, school was their only refuge. Which was rewarding. I taught grades 2/3 and my wife taught grades 7/8. I took both classes for gym. They loved indoor soccer. And they were good. Really good. They were also artistic. Nicola's cousin taught Grade 2 in Vernon and wanted to exchange letters with my students. The contrast in drawing abilities was stark. When my students drew a person, she had bulk and depth. A ski-doo looked like a ski-doo. Then, Nicola got pregnant. She wanted to stay home with our future daughter. I took over
Nicola, our eldest, and our dog, Emily
her grade 7/8 class in the second year and she became incredibly lonely with only a new-born baby as company for most of the day.  At the end of that year, 
I blanketed the province of Alberta with resumes and got an interview to be the guidance counsellor in Viking, Alberta, home of the Sutter brothers. 

I was given an interim contract for one year but I needed to impress to get that contract extended. So, I volunteered to coach the boys’ junior high basketball team even though I'd never played the game outside a few high school gym classes. The boys were excited. They hadn't a team in Viking for years. Our first game was against Tofield, a larger school about 70 kilometres down the road. We got trounced. Not only did they know their positions, they had plays they could use to take advantage of our weaknesses. By the end of the second half the score was a tad lopsided and my players were getting a little bit testy. One pushed an opponent and then there was a lot pushing and my player got ejected and you'd think that would have been the end of it. But no, the assistant superintendent had been in attendance. We’ll call him Biff. Biff’s son was on the Tofield team and I don’t know whether his son was pushed or what but suddenly, my player who’d been ejected was not only barred from the league but suspended from school for a period of three days. Lets me make this clear. There was no blood, no scrapes, nothing more than battered egos and mostly on our side of the ball. 

My first teaching evaluation was by the superintendent.  He asked me why the class had behaved so well. Good lesson planning, I suggested. He still couldn't understand. Maybe that's the reason, Biff took over my evaluation. Maybe Biff could get to the bottom of my obvious incompetence. He came in during a health class which aren’t positive experiences at the best of time. For better of worse, nobody cares about health class; not the students, the teachers, the administration, or the parents. 

For some reason, I’d planned a role-playing exercise for my grade 9 class. What I was thinking, I don't understand except that maybe, I was trying to hit a home run instead of just getting on base. The assistant superintendent in Ft. Resolution had come in to my grade 2/3 class while we were making butter. This was an enrichment exercise tied to a story we'd read in their reader. That guy was really impressed. Biff was not. The kids did not behave. Probably because they'd never done it before. I should have given them worksheets, the meat and potatoes of most health classes back then. 
My students at recess in Ft. Resolution- always on supervision
At the end of the lesson, Biff had no suggestions nor did he ever visit my class again. In May, he called me into the assistant principal's class to inform me that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. When I asked why, he told me that it was a gut-feeling and he trusted his gut. He said, he liked to shoot from the hip. I had been given no written feedback for my evaluation nor was I being given a reason for my dismissal apart from the fact that he trusted his gut. I called him unprofessional and he exploded. After the health class, he said he'd told me to phone if I had anything to show him. I asked him how I was supposed to interpret that. He said I should have known. I told him that I would have known if I'd actually received something in writing. He told me to get out. I think he was afraid he was going to hit me. 

I couldn't understand his outrage. After all, I was the one being fired. Weirdly, losing that job was one of the best things that happened in my life and that of my family. The staff was great but the principal was an idiot. He was the president of the local ATA and I was the school rep so we drove to Ryley for the meetings. On the way back from one of these things, I complemented him on his Toyota Celica. He interpreted this as meaning I really wanted one. Then, he dropped me off at our house which was one of the biggest in Viking. I could feel the air go out of his balloon. I should have had him drop me off at the school. Our next conversation took place in his office in the evening after he'd had one too many drinks. I can't remember what he said because it made no sense. He definitely didn't like me anymore. 

Biff's explanation for my dismissal stuck as a gut feeling was just so stupid. Making decisions based on a gut feeling and shooting from the hip seems to be quite the fad lately. During the presidential debates, many of us wondered about Donald Trump. Everything seemed off the cuff like he couldn’t even read. Obviously, that was what a good chunk of the American population wanted. Someone who spoke to them. Someone who didn’t think. Someone who just felt. Someone who shoots from the hip because guess what, he’s “like, a really smart person.” That's why he doesn't need daily intelligence briefings. Not because he has the attention span of my goldfish. 

So, this is my theory. We can’t make decisions based on religion. Nobody understands science. So, what’s left. “Feeling.” I was intrigued by an interview of Trump supporters by Jordan Klepper for the “Daily Show”.  One guy in a “United States Army” ball cap says about Barack Obama, “He acts like a Muslim, he talks like a Muslim and he does the Muslim principles as far as the jewelry’s concerned.” “Jewelry?” Jordan asks. “Yah, certain months he doesn’t wear his wedding ring.”

A whole book?
That’s one of the dumbest comments I’ve ever heard. He must have gotten it from somewhere and sure enough, if you do a Google search of "Obama, Muslim, and ring," you’ll get all kinds of hits. For example, Jerome R. Corsi, a correspondent for the website “”, says the inscription on Obama’s wedding ring reads “There is no God but Allah”. The website looks completely legit. looks like any other news site except it advertises Christian literature on its banner. Jerome R. Corsi doesn't look unlike Walter Cronkite, your quintessential veteran reporter. Who wouldn’t believe him? Except that I know that my grandma who I loved dearly referred to the Chinese as Chinamen and my grandfather thought the Chinese woul take over the world.

Of course, the ring accusation is ridiculous. There’s no prohibition against wearing jewelry during Ramadan and the reason Obama was not wearing his wedding ring during that brief period in September of 2010 was because it was out for repair. Besides, who could give a care if he was Muslim? (which he’s not. Let’s be clear on that.) Naheed Menshi, the mayor of Calgary is one of the most popular mayors in Canada. And this is Calgary, not exactly a hotbed of liberal thinking. 

Mr. Klepper ends his interviews with Trump supporters by wondering if they could back up their theories with “iron clad sources.” So, when he asked three people about their sources, one older lady replied, “just Facebook or twitter, everything” and Jordan rephrases her statement by saying that she just takes all the “facts and bullshit and . . . put[s] it all together” and she nods her head and replies, “yah.” To an older gentleman, he asks, “outside of no proof, what proof do you have” and the gentleman replies, “I don’t have any. . . my opinion” and finally, a younger lady replies to his question, “Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No,” and Jordan sums that up by saying “Your mind is made up without any information” and the segment ends with her reply that, “My mind is made up.”

This stuff fascinates me. How can people be so sure about a man and his ideas that they know nothing about? Trump’s the kind of guy that I meet at the bar or at an uncomfortable social gathering and he’ll be holding court to a group of guys, or worse, talking to me and at first, he sounds somewhat reasonable. What he’s saying sounds ridiculous but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he has support for his theories. And then, one theory leads to another and I realize, this is all bullshit and all I’m thinking is how do I escape. But, the Trump supporters not only tolerate the bullshitter. They like him and want to believe him. It feels right and so it’s got to be right. Just shoot from the hip and hope you hit the right target.