Leaders, PART II: Memorial Day Thoughts on the Military

“Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Wars never solve anything, and the people who send you there, don’t go there.” Harry Wells, my dad.

“Yes, before 9/11 happened, I counseled high school graduates in Detroit to join the military. You should have seen how changed they were when they came back. They were more organized, disciplined, and confident.” Lenore, my college friend.

“I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms.” Goldie Hawn, playing the lead in the film Private Benjamin.

* * *

Today is Memorial Day, the perfect day to post the blog I started a few days ago.

In my recent blog about leaders (HERE), I mentioned my own shaky relationship with hierarchy, and talked about two well-known leaders in the world, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. It’s impossible for me to think of their huge achievements (see “Notes” section below for details), and not acknowledge that they came from the military — one of the most hierarchical institutions in existence.

I find myself wishing — in social movements, political campaigns, the Green Party, the community house in which I live, as well as the world and myself — that we had more discipline, organization, dedication and commitment. I wish we could count on ourselves and each other to do what needs to be done. I wish we allowed ourselves fewer excuses. I wish we had more confidence to move forward, and less resistance that causes us to hold back. I wish we would follow rules when those rules would get us what we really want.

In other words, I wish we who love peace would learn to organize as effectively as those who love war. I wish we would learn the good things people learn in the military.

The military I mean is a different military from the one that sends people like my dad to wars that “never solve anything.” Dad was in the Air Force because he loved flying. Then he was in World War II and the Korean War. It was late 2001 after the U.S. military went to Afghanistan that my daughter asked him what he thought about the war. I started backing out of the room because I always thought he was gung-ho whatever the military did. I was shocked — and relieved — to hear his answer.

Also in late 2001, I was shocked in an opposite way to learn that my peaceful friend Lenore had counseled kids to go to the military. But it was a different military, and she was counseling people with few options. They lacked the money and/or educational background needed to go to college, and Detroit lacked job opportunities even then.

It was a different military during the years before 9/11. TV recruitment ads showed benefits like traveling, learning new skills, and higher education after your military stint. It has been documented that after 9/11 recruitment ads began to show combat, not before. The kids my friend counseled returned from the military not having been in combat. They returned not with the post-traumatic stress disorder of many of today’s vets. They returned more organized, disciplined, and confident.

They had been trained to follow orders, yes, but they also were trained to know how strong they could be. We can’t forget how important the soldiers themselves were in ending the fiasco in Vietnam, as seen in the documentary Sir! No Sir! They had the same mission as those of us demonstrating against war. We were all serving our country.

As to leaders, I wish all of ours had the dedication and commitment shown by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. We could use leaders who persevere in the face of enormous hostility, and do whatever they can do, while fostering people’s participation, to create a better life for people and the earth.

That’s what I wish on this Memorial Day. That’s what I would celebrate as worthy gifts from the military, a different military, one with a mission to train people to truly protect life on earth.

* * *

NOTES on the achievements of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez

Fidel Castro — working with many other soldiers and with the crucial support of civilians — led a successful revolution against Fulgencio Batista’s military dictatorship, a dictatorship in which 10,000 to 20,000 people were killed from 1952 to 1959. Fidel followed up that feat by continuing the revolution for more than 55 years, with improved healthcare and education, despite the active hostility of Cuba’s neighbor, the United States of America, the greatest military and economic super-power the world has ever known.

Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, breaking through a 40-year fixed two-party system. The Chávez government created a new bottom-up constitution, improved healthcare and education, increased participation in the government, and reduced inequality of wealth. He also led the way in strengthening regional cooperation in South America and beyond. Fifteen years ago, I never thought I would feel great support for a place where a government combined forces with the oil industry, the church, and . . . the military.


Leaders: Do we need them? Thinking about Fidel and Hugo

All my life I have had a problem with leaders. I think the main reason I line up with the movement, whatever you call it (more in a minute, in the next paragraph), is my deep distrust and antipathy toward hierarchies, and toward most of the leaders that top those hierarchies. That antipathy, plus a love for things working well — the solid, practical things of our lives and the less tangible things of our spirits — keep me active.

To describe the “movement” that I feel aligned with: it is a movement toward a world where decisions and choices are made by people at the closest level to themselves as possible. And I don’t mean rugged individualism. The “people” I’m talking about include individuals as well as families, communities, and regions. People power vs. concentrated power. Real democracy vs. de facto oligarchy.

I wonder, however, whether leaders just might be necessary, or at least very useful. I am reading a book about Cuba that was recommended to me, and I highly recommend it to you. One evening our Eco Cuba Network tour of 16 people met with the author at the Hotel Presidente (and he managed to ruffle the feathers of many of us!). The book is Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana (hardcover published in 2013; paperback in 2015 with a brief update about normalization of relations with the U.S.). The author is Marc Frank, a U.S.-born journalist who has lived in Cuba more than 20 years. I’m loving his book.

My favorite part so far is the two-page section entitled “Hugo Chávez” on page 24 and 25 of the paperback version. Hugo Chávez was a breath of fresh air not only for me and others who were inspired by the 2003 documentary film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, but also for Fidel Castro almost 10 years earlier.

It was 1994, and Cuba was struggling during the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hugo Chávez had just been released from prison after a failed coup attempt two years earlier. (To learn more about Hugo Chávez, see my blog from two years ago when, so sadly, he passed. For a very quick read, just read the 10 headers. HERE.)

Marc Frank wrote, “According to my sources, the two men talked day and night on that first visit by Chávez to Havana . . . When the two men appeared in public, it was to heap praise upon one another, and scorn on the Americas Summit and the U.S.-proposed trade agreement. I had never seen him so happy and content. The Cuban leader acted like a giddy child in Chávez’s company as they inaugurated a statue of Simón Bolívar on Presidente Boulevard in Vedado, and then went on to Havana University. There Chávez delivered a televised speech, endlessly praising Castro in Cuba, trashing U.S. trade plans, and predicting that the two countries would join ‘as one river flowing toward better future for the region.’ ”

Two strong leaders, visionaries, revolutionaries.

When people say that leaders are always power-mad, and that there are no good politicians, I say no, there are some who are the “real deal.” Not sold out. To believe there are no good people in the world of politics is to discount people power, i.e. the power of people who want to serve in the world, who want to make a difference, contribute to the public good, do what they can. When I think about my own life, I know that at times I have shown courage, but so many times I have backed away, into what? Comfort, going along to get along? Don’t worry, I’m not blaming myself (not too much!). I’m just sayin’ what’s true about so many of us. Good people, sure, but held back.

There’s a wonderful interview of Hugo Chávez by Larry King in which Hugo says that personally he’d rather have been a baseball player, and play in Yankee Stadium! The whole interview is amazing, and remarkable how Larry King could not actually hear what Chávez was saying, even about undisputed facts. The link is HERE. The baseball bit is near the end, at minute 22:30.

Fidel and Hugo are definitely not perfect — and who is? Nevertheless, it seems to me they were born to take the positions they took in the world. They did what they were led to do. Followed their hearts; committed themselves to a better world. They would not stop.

* * *

This blog about leaders will be continued in the future; there’s a lot more to say. Your comments are welcome.

What will happen to Cuba after normalization with the United States?

The question of the hour is, “What will happen to Cuba after normalization with the United States?”

For me, the real answer is, “who knows?” From what I understand of the “experts” on Cuba, they have the same answer. Cuba is not like other countries,  I do, however, want to list some strengths that I became more aware of since I went to Cuba in April.

But first, it’s ironic, isn’t it, that so many Americans want to “visit Cuba now before a whole bunch of Americans go there and spoil it.” What’s really funny to me is that while I poke fun at that idea, here I am myself, just returned from my first visit to Cuba! (Many of my colleagues couldn’t believe I’d never been to Cuba since they know I’ve been on several political delegations to Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Honduras. The first three countries recently created new constitutions that empower people and even nature. In the fourth country, Honduras, the president was removed after he started taking preliminary steps toward creating a new constitution.)

I used the term “American” above, but I want to switch to a term for people from the USA that differentiates us from the rest of the people living in this hemisphere: estadounidense. That’s the Spanish word, based on Estados Unidos. I’ve often wondered if we should adopt the English-language word, “USers” for US people, since we have about 5% of the world’s people and use about 20% of the world’s resources. (Yes, if you’re wondering, I do love my country — the land and the people. I really do. As a matter of fact, many if not most of the people of other countries such as Cuba and Venezuela like estadounidenses; it’s the U.S. government they have problems with.)

It’s sort of amusing that among the people who are the most afraid that “Americans will spoil Cuba” are … Canadians. They’ve been enjoying Cuba for years and many Canadians are not too keen on the prospect of loads of estadounidenses descending on the island.

That leads me to the first item on my list of some strengths that are likely to help Cuba remain “Cuba,” and not be overrun by the United States of America.

1. TOURISM IS NOT NEW. Cuba has had tourism for a long time, including Canadians, Europeans, Latin Americans. They’ve got resorts, great beaches, and even golf courses, not to mention those cars from the 1950s. Cuba has learned from successes and mistakes in its tourism development.

2. NEW FOREIGN INVESTMENT LAWS. In 2014 Cuba passed a new foreign investment law that gives tax breaks and more investment security to foreign-owned companies engaged in joint ventures with the Cuban state and between foreign and Cuban companies. The fact that the law does not permit investment in health care and education sounds like a valuable protection for Cubans.

3. THEY’VE SURVIVED. Cuba and Cubans have a long history of successfully surviving economic and military hostility aimed toward them by the greatest economic and military power the world has ever known — the U.S.A. — 90 miles away from their shores.

4. LATIN AMERICA IS STRONGER NOW — certainly stronger than in 1959, and even stronger than it was 20 years ago before Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela. The region is now so strong that both Bush and Obama went down to obtain the FTAA, a free trade agreement for all countries in the Americas, and both Bush and Obama came back empty handed. (Meanwhile, we’re trying to “Flush the TPP” — a truly bad free trade agreement.) Cuba is well integrated into the rest of the Americas, and it is not isolated in the world.

5. JOSÉ MARTÍ. I can’t wait to read his book The Golden Age, by which he means childhood. It seems that all Cuban children are familiar with this Cuban hero’s life, poetry, and writings, and I want to understand better how it has helped with the formation of character. What writings do all children in the United States have in common? The Gettysburg address? The Bible? There’s more about Martí in my blog post entitled “Cuba — The Most Surprising Thing.”

6. STRONG FAMILY AND COMMUNITY ORIENTATION. It’s tangible, and it is what helped them survive during the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and during all the obstacles they’ve encountered in the 50+ years of the U.S. embargo.

7. CUBAN PRIDE. Our tour guide pointed out that Cubans are very proud of being Cuban, and they aren’t eager to be changed into something else.

* * *

These are my quick reactions to the question of “What will happen next?” After my 9-day visit to Cuba, I am no expert, but I have a lot of thoughts and ideas. I actually think it’s hard for anyone to be an expert on Cuba. More than usual, my questions led to more mysteries and complications and contradictions. That’s one reason that it’s easy to want to go back.

In that way, I can understand the Miami-Cubans more than I could before.

CUBA – The Most Surprising Thing?

When people first greet me after my return from Cuba and they ask “What was the most surprising or exciting thing?” I have been sort of dumbstruck.

I found myself struggling with wanting to say something profoundly important, while finding that the following responses came to mind:

  • I saw the Tocororo national bird! (like the Cuban flag, it’s “azul, rojo y blanco”)
  • Havana was so much more comfortable to visit than I thought it would be.
  • The temperature was 95 to 100 degrees every day. (April 2015 was the hottest month in recorded history in Cuba.)
  • I was surprised by the variety of alcohol I found myself drinking!

OK, you know, these things actually are significant in many ways, and especially useful when you’re having a 2-minute “small talk” conversation. Upon reflection, however, I realize that I do have a profoundly important answer to the question of “most surprising or exciting thing.”

José Martí.

The surprising thing is that although I had heard his name, I did not realize that José Martí is the national hero of Cuba. Martí played a key role when Cuba’s struggle for independence began in 1868, and our tour guide pointed out that many people clock the Cuban Revolution as beginning in 1868 and ending in 1959. Most if not all town centers in Cuba have a statue of him. In Havana the famed Plaza de la Revolución has a statue and huge monument in his honor, right across from the enormous drawings of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on buildings facing the plaza. Also, the airport is named José Martí-La Habana.

The most exciting thing relates to the question of the hour in so many of our minds: What will happen next in Cuba after normalization of relations with the United States?

José Martí, in addition to being a revolutionary who lost his life in battle, was also a poet, journalist, political theorist, professor, and the author of a book that apparently every Cuban child is familiar with, La Edad de Oro, which translates to The Golden Age, meaning childhood.

My most treasured mementos (treasured even more than the Cuban cigars purchased from a farmer in his tobacco drying barn) are those two books, one in Spanish and the other in English. Since the book was intended for youth, he wrote it “en español simple y puro.” With my getting-more-fluent Spanish, I can read almost every word! Plus I have the English translation to help with words I don’t know.

What excites me, and it’s related to these foundational writings, is that Cuba is not … hmmm.

I can’t quite figure out how to put everything I want to say! I can’t wait until I can:

  • read more writings by José Martí
  • read a book published in 2015 called Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana, by journalist Marc Frank, who has lived in Cuba for 20 years
  • learn more about the concept of “formation” that I keep hearing related to Latin American educational systems
  • understand more about the complex foundations of the resurgence in Latin America related to education, healthcare, and participatory democracy
  • understand more about how in the world can we bring it home to California and to the United States? By “it” I mean a revolution in the way we make decisions and choices about how to create a better life for ourselves, our parents, and our children.

Meanwhile I will say that Cuba is not empty and waiting for the United States to fill it up. Cuba has been developing in its own way, and the people have a strong sense of being Cuban. Cuba is not at all an undeveloped country waiting for the United States to develop it. There are benefits to be had from normalizing relations with the United States, and dangers. Thank goodness Cuba has strategies and strengths and a history of surviving against great odds. Also, Latin America as a whole is much stronger today than it was 20 years ago, let alone 50+ years ago at the time of the Cuban revolution. After all, in recent years Latin America twice turned down the FTAA, a free trade agreement for all of the Americas. In the U.S. we’re struggling to stop Obama and Washington from fast-tracking the TPP, described as “NAFTA on steroids.”

As I said in my “Introduction” to this renewed blog (posted on April 19 just before my Cuba trip), I’m going to WRITE it, shape it up adequately, and POST it. It is not perfect, and for sure this topic is TO BE CONTINUED.

Comments are welcome! You may be able to help me in my understanding and my phrasing. I think it would be easier for me to get the comments via the blog at laurawells.org rather than via facebook or twitter. Thank you!

Back from Cuba: The Difference is Humanity

As I left Cuba two days ago the last message*** I saw, on the airport terminal building, was PATRIA ES HUMANIDAD — “homeland is humanity.” When I woke up my first morning back in the States, thoughts of “humanity” were on my mind.

Cuba has survived because of its humanity.

There are lots of examples and I hope to touch on them as I blog more, or talk with folks, or do presentations, but for now I’ll just talk about doctors, storms, and the “special period.” Cuba is not perfect, I don’t mean to imply that, but it does have some special strengths.

Most of us know about the Cuban doctors. They’ve been a great form of “humanitarian foreign aid” to places around the world. Cuban doctors have helped with epidemics of ebola and other diseases, with natural disasters such as hurricanes (President Bush refused their help for Katrina), and with areas suffering from lack of access to healthcare. They’ve educated their own and thousands of other doctors from around the world, including the United States. The homeland of their medical system is humanity.

When a terrible storm is coming, they have a system for evacuating people so they survive, and they even include people’s beloved pets and are starting to make more accommodations for beloved belongings. There is a much higher survival rate in Cuba than in neighboring Latin American or North American countries.

The special period was the time in the 1990s after their big trading partner the Soviet Union collapsed. Overnight things Cubans took for granted were no longer available. Someone described the special period as like our Great Depression times four, or more!

During the special period, although things were very hard, nobody starved. They lost a lot of excess weight and sure missed the usual variety of foods, but they were not malnourished. The people themselves and the government saw to that. With their rations, people took care of their families. The fact that a Cuban’s “family” includes a lot of adopted uncles and aunties, parents, grandparents, and children, helped a lot. Actually, diseases like diabetes and hypertension were reduced. I’ve also heard about similar effects in other tough times, like during World War II in Europe. That’s something to think about, isn’t it? People can sometimes have more physical health and human connection during periods of material deprivation.

IN MY NEXT BLOG, I expect to list the rest of the questions about Cuba that I gathered on my yellow pad before and during the trip. But I may talk about Prop 13 — as a quick note, consider joining me and others as we take a day trip to Sacramento to “Reform Prop 13.” I’m glad I’m back from Cuba in time to be at the kickoff!  Click HERE.  (See why I’m glad on my blog post Dream Legacy: Help Fix Prop 13 in California.)

***   About messages at the airport or anywhere, personally, I prefer seeing billboards with inspiring quotations rather than commercial billboards about products for sale, such as Coca Cola, electronics, and politicians. I didn’t see a single sign with “Coca-Cola” on it. (I hope I follow through on my plan to count how many times Coca-Cola appears when I walk a single commercial block in my Grand Lake neighborhood in Oakland.) I see that fact as one of the “collateral benefits” of the US embargo. I want to be careful, however, to point out that the embargo — or bloque/blockade as the Cubans refer to it — has had onerous effects on the people of Cuba.  For more than 54 years.

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