Greek referendum — the right step at a dangerously wrong time

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For the past 48 hours, the rest of Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world have watched Greece come unhinged. Greece Flag Icon

In a speech shortly after midnight Friday night, prime minister Alexis Tspiras announced that instead of continuing negotiations between the Greek government and the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, he would call off talks to hold a referendum next Sunday, July 5, thereby putting the question to the Greek people — will they accept the terms of the latest deal with Greece’s creditor institutions or will they reject it?

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RELATED: Seven lessons from the Greek election results
RELATEDMeet Greece’s new economic policymakers
RELATED: As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal
RELATED:  What are the chances of snap elections (again) in Greece?

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Never mind that the creditors’ offer could be moot by next Sunday.

Never mind that Greece faces, at best, a technical default on Tuesday.

Never mind that the referendum caught everyone else in Europe off guard, eliminating what little goodwill Greece had left.

Never mind that Greece’s constitution seems to forbid direct referenda on fiscal matters.

Never mind that it seems to be accelerating a financial crisis now mandating extraordinary measures in Athens.
Continue reading Greek referendum — the right step at a dangerously wrong time

Why the Supreme Court’s ruling is so important to marriage equality worldwide

joe2Photo credit to Joe Henchman.

With today’s breathtaking victory for marriage equality in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. supreme court, the United States of America joins the ranks of less than two dozen countries across five continents that recognize full equality as between opposite-sex and same-sex marriages.USflag

Generally speaking, there are three ways that countries have gone about enacting same-sex marriage. The first and, by far, the most popular route is through direct legislation, as the United Kingdom, France and many other countries have done. The second is through popular referendum — Maryland and Washington took this path within the United States in 2012 and Ireland, most recently, did so in a near-landslide victory on May 22. The third route is when constitutional courts find that the refusal to provide state-sponsored marriage benefits to a same-sex couple violates a country’s fundamental governing charter.

In that regard, the US path to universal marriage equality is unique. South Africa’s constitutional court in 2005 essentially forced the country’s parliament to enact legislation in 2006, and Brazil’s constitutional court ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2013.

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RELATED: After Irish vote, what next for same-sex marriage in Europe?

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The problem with the legislative path — and especially with the referendum path — is that they both set the precedent in world politics that it’s perfectly fine to leave the rights of a minority group up to the whims of everyday politics. Marriage equality supporters may love that Irish voters delivered such a strong verdict for same-sex marriage, but it subtly validates votes in places like Croatia in 2013, where voters rejected marriage equality by vote. If, in 2019, Poland decides to hold a referendum and Polish voters reject same-sex marriage, the 2015 Irish referendum will nevertheless validate the direct democracy approach — namely, that a popular vote should be able to establish or deny fundamental rights.

Instead, here’s a sampling of what Anthony Kennedy wrote in his ruling today:

Laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter….

These considerations lead to the conclusion that the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.

Not only does the ruling mean that the United States is now more progressive on LGBT rights than much of Europe and the rest of the Western world, it also sets a precedent with which constitutional courts worldwide will now have to grapple.

The decision stands for the idea, long applied to protection on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender, that there are certain principles in a liberal democracy that are ‘above’ petty political fights. Legal scholars will recognize this idea as a principle that flows back to famous footnote in a 1938 ruling, United States v. Carolene Products Company:

There may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth. . . . whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry…

The bottom line is that constitutional courts — for example, those in Australia and Israel, Germany and Italy, or even the European Court of Human Rights, will feel significantly greater pressure as a result of today’s holding in Washington, D.C. Germany’s constitutional court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, for example, has been nudging the country ever so closely to marriage equality in a series of rulings that have almost eliminated the difference between ‘life partnerships’ and marriage.

Could Romania’s corruption-tainted Ponta be gone for good?

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When a country’s prime minister is targeted in a corruption inquiry, you’d expect him to protest vigorously, using every political and governmental lever to bolster his support.Romania Flag Icon

Faced with his own troubles and an investigation by Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (known by its Romanian acronym DNA), prime minister Victor Ponta has apparently done the opposite — citing the need for recovery from a knee surgery, Romania’s prime minister notified the country that he would be stepping down on an interim basis of up to 45 days. For now, deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea is now the acting prime minister while Ponta remains in Istanbul recuperating.

It’s an odd decision, though, and Ponta’s decision to leave the country within days of corruption charges could embolden his political enemies, though his center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party) and its allies have a strong majority in Romania’s parliament.

The National Anti-Corruption Directorate alleges that while working as a lawyer in 2007, Ponta (pictured above) received €40,000 for legal work that he didn’t perform from another attorney — who Ponta later appointed to his cabinet. For now, Ponta’s parliamentary majority refuses to lift his immunity, and his allies are even threatening to weaken the anti-graft laws under which the DNA has stepped up its scrutiny of the entirety of Romania’s political elite. The country consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the European Union alongside Bulgaria, both of which joined the European Union in 2007. Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, a political rival who faced off against Ponta in last year’s presidential election, has already called on Ponta to step down. That’s unlikely — and fresh parliamentary elections in Romania aren’t due until 2016.

The chief prosecutor of the DNA, Laura Codruța Kövesi, has empowered the role of an institution that was founded only in 2002 — under her watch, the office won a conviction against Adrian Năstase, Romania’s prime minister between 2000 and 2004, on corruption charges, among many others.

Nevertheless, it’s odd that Ponta essentially sneaked out of the country for knee surgery on June 14, and it’s odd that Ponta sought to relinquish control as prime minister.  Continue reading Could Romania’s corruption-tainted Ponta be gone for good?

Obama’s error? Prioritizing TPP over TTIP

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I write tomorrow for The National Interest that the Obama administration made a deep strategic error in allowing the fight for trade promotion authority become dominated by the Trans Pacific Partnership when the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would have been an easier sell. USflagEuropean_Union

Now, given the difficult fight to win fast-trade promotion authority, momentum may be shifting against both the TPP and the TTIP, especially in Europe, where leftists in the European Parliament are having second thoughts. The ramifications of the Obama administration’s strategic choice will linger far into the next administration, whether Republican or Democratic.

I argue that TTIP would have been an easier (and better) trade deal for three reasons. Continue reading Obama’s error? Prioritizing TPP over TTIP

Why ‘normalization’ with Cuba will be harder than advertized

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HAVANA — On December 17, U.S. president Barack Obama announced that his administration would pursue executive policies designed to engage Cuba diplomatically and, potentially, restore relations between the two countries severed in 1960 – one year before Obama was born, as he himself noted in a joint conference with Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas, the first time since the summits began in 1994 that a Cuban leader was invited to the affair. USflagcuba

It’s not only the White House that argues the 55-year embargo hasn’t worked – Republicans and Democrats alike, and Cubans, Americans and many others have long held that the embargo’s worst effects have fallen on the Cuban people, even as the policy gave Fidel Castro a convenient foil and excuse for the failures of his own government. No medicine? Blame the embargo, not the Revolution that guarantees universal health care to everyone. No food? Blame the embargo, not the abrupt end of Soviet subsidies, which plunged Cuba into what Castro euphemistically christened the “Special Period in a Time of Peace,” three years of hunger and deprivation where the average caloric intake dropped from around 3,000 calories per day to 1,400, according to some estimates. For all the initial promise of the Revolution, the reality fell far short for many Cubans, most especially for LGBT Cubans shuttled off to labor camps in the early 1970s and Afro-Cubans, who suffer from race-based income inequality decades after the Cuban government’s declaration that the Revolution “ended” racism. Even Fidel Castro admitted as much in a remarkable interview with Jeffrey Goldberg five years ago.

You don’t have to be a Nobel-winning economist, however, to realize that Cuba’s most recent financial benefactor, Venezuela, is going through some tough times. Two years after the death of leftist populist Hugo Chávez, oil prices are down and so is the level of production from PdVSA, the country’s state oil company. The official rate of the Venezuelan bolívar is comically lower than its market value, inflation runs rampant and shortages and rationing of basic foods and household goods is common. These days, everyday chavistas, who still hold faith in the socialist Bolivarian revolution, have taken to lobbing mangoes at Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, with messages desperately scrawled on them. Those less charitably inclined to Maduro, including opposition leader Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, have been imprisoned. It’s dawning on the Castro regime that the days of exchanging Havana-trained doctors, Cuban intelligence agents and revolutionary slogans in exchange for cheap oil and other goodies may be coming to an end.

William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and the author of a new book on decades of back-channel negotiations between Havana and Washington, argues that the current round of negotiations isn’t the first time that U.S. and Cuban officials have sat down for talks, including the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations. This time around, the implosion of Venezuela, has refocused Cuban interest in reconciliation with the United States, which could provide Cuba the kind of tourist revenue and foreign development aid it desperately seeks.

“In one sense, Washington wants [normalization] more,” he said. “The United States was facing lots of diplomatic pressure from Latin America to change its policy towards Cuba. Now, the president has won a lot of credit, not just in Latin America, but around the world, for announcing his willingness to change policy. And it’s an important part of his foreign policy legacy, so I think the administration very much wants these negotiations to succeed.”

Privately, State Department officials agree that the Obama administration and the Castro regime are locked in a giant wager by launching a new era last December. The U.S. government is betting that a wave of liberalization and modernity will drag Cuba into the 21st century by empowering U.S. companies to do business directly with Cuban entrepreneurs, a step that will embolden individual freedom. The Cuban government is betting that it can liberalize à la carte by opening its economy, but not its politics, press or Internet, an approach that China and Vietnam have more-or-less successfully pursued.

News coverage since December paints a rosy, possibly naïve, tapestry of a partnership moving steadily forward. First were reports that Netflix would soon come to Cuba, something of a cruel joke for a country where Internet access is heavily restricted and censored, available for up to $10 an hour at designated government-run Internet cafes, universities and top tourist hotels. Then came AirBNB’s foray into Cuba, where homestays in casa particulares are a more popular option than overpriced hotels. JetBlue, earlier this year, announced grandiose plans to launch a commercial nonstop flight from New York to Havana by year’s end, followed this spring by hopes to re-establish a ferry service across the Straits of Florida between Key West and Havana. In March, Conan O’Brien hosted a virtual commercial for the faded glamour of a Caribbean playground filled with 1957 Plymouths, watered-down daiquiris and overpriced nights at the Tropicana. A high-profile delegation led by New York governor Andrew Cuomo and a group of state business leaders dropped in to talk about future opportunities. Havana is keenly anticipating a scheduled visit from Pope Francis in September, and there are promises of a possible stop by U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and even whispers that Obama himself might make a trip. A visit last month from French president Francois Hollande, the first Western European leader to visit the island since 1986, included an hour-long colloquy with Fidel Castro himself, though it also drew a critique from prolific blogger Yoani Sánchez  when Hollande failed to meet any dissidents during his short trip.

Even in a best-case scenario, the Obama administration’s move could go awry simply because of the political gravity of presidential term limits. None of the nearly two dozen 2016 Republican presidential candidates, excepting Kentucky’s libertarian senator Rand Paul, supports the opening to Cuba. Two candidates, Senator Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, and former governor Jeb Bush, come from Florida and swear fealty to the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami. It’s true that, given the widespread cultural and economic interest among Americans in Cuba’s future, no Republican may be able to undo Obama’s work by the time January 2017 rolls around. In the fight to lift the embargo, the momentum is on Obama’s side, and many business interests, including the American farm lobby, are enthusiastic about accessing Cuban markets. But if the U.S. interests section in Havana is converted into a full embassy, a hawkish Republican in the Oval Office will have vastly greater leverage to undermine the Cuban regime in far more serious ways than broadcasting churlish messages from an electronic ticker or funding outlandish USAID programs to design fake Twitter programs like “ZunZuneo” (the latter ultimately backfired when its popularity crested, filling the coffers of the state-run mobile phone company).

Cuba, too, is set for its own political transition in 2018, when Raúl Castro has pledged to step down as president. For now, his likely successor is 54-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, appointed as first vice president in 2013. Alternate reports describe Díaz-Canel as either a hard-liner or a reformer, with varying strengths of ties to the Cuban military (though Díaz-Canel isn’t himself a military figure).

In short, few have credible insight into what Díaz-Canel truly believes, whether he’ll even make it to 2018 as the heir apparent and, if so, whether he’ll just be the civilian puppet that perpetuates the rule of the Cuban military. In the meanwhile, Raúl Castro has groomed his son, 49-year-old Alejandro, a rising figure within Cuba’s all-important MININT. Alejandro traveled with Raúl to the Summit of the Americas, lingering in the background in the photos where Raúl  shook hands with Obama. Some Cubans believe that he will eventually emerge as the next Castro to rule the island. No one knows for sure, however, what the retirement of the elderly Castro brothers will mean for Cuba.

In the meanwhile, young Cubans are waiting for neither the Obama administration nor the Castro regime to deliver change to them. They’re getting on with making lives for themselves in a Cuba that, though still hampered by a heavy-handed state sector, provides more opportunities for them in decades. An informal poll of young Cubans on one weekend night in late May on the Malecón, the long walkway that rings the edge of Havana’s sea walls and where Cubans of every age and background flock on weekend nights, indicated that while Cuba’s youths are generally excited about closer ties with Americans, they don’t necessarily believe it will translate into better futures personally.

For those who believe that reform will not come soon enough, the United States continues to beckon. In the wake of Obama’s December announcement, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that a sharp uptick of Cubans took to boats in hopes of emigrating to the United States, fearing that reconciliation would mean the end of the favorable U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans. Under the current iteration of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy extends a path to residency for any Cuban who makes it to American shores (though not to any Cubans caught by the Coast Guard en route to Florida).

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In the 2012 film Una noche, a highlight of Cuban cinema in the past decade, NYU-trained Lucy Mulloy directed the neorealistic tale of three young Cubans who ultimately attempt to leave the country on a makeshift raft. Life imitated art when, a year later, two of the three co-stars, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre and  Javier Núñez Florián (pictured above), decided to stay in Miami en route to a film festival in New York. Though they play brother and sister in the film, they fell in love during filming and now live in Las Vegas with their young son.

Unlike the previous generations of Cuban emigrants to the United States, Núñez Florián wasn’t overly concerned about politics when I spoke to him last week. He said that he had always hoped to one day live in the United States and that his decision was about building a better future for himself and his family. He added that it’s not difficult to balance his life between the two worlds, that half his friends are still in Cuba, and that it’s easy for him to visit Cuba. Though he initially demurred when I asked him about the dynamics of US-Cuban relations, he agreed that he sees it in a positive light.

“Yes it’s good,” he said. “The U.S. is meeting in the middle, little by little getting closer to Cuba, and Cuba the same. Little by little everything is changing for the better.”

“Little by little,” though, is the key phrase. It’s easy to forget that, amid the excitement over Cuba’s opening, the Revolution took place only six years after the final armistice that divided North Korea and South Korea. Americans who believe that Cuba will suddenly be transformed, as if overnight, will be sorely disabused. Cuba’s modernization will be a difficult process that moves in zigs and zags.

Former Bush-era commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, himself a Cuban-American, believes that Cuba can be a veritable Caribbean Singapore, but that’s hard to believe after a few days on the ground in Havana. The “romance” of 1950s jalopies subsides after a couple of taxi rides in an overcrowded Soviet-era Lada from the 1970s, and Havana suffers from all the other shocks of decades of economic mismanagement, exacerbated by U.S. stubbornness. On my first Friday night in Havana, I stopped at a bar for a little refreshment but by 10 p.m., it was out of shrimp, it was out of tostones (which I’d thought were ubiquitous throughout the region) and, the greatest sin of all, my waiter informed me that mojitos were no longer available. This wasn’t a flashy hotel or a secluded resort in the foreigners-only enclave of Varadero, but it was still a Chilean-themed bar directly across from the Malecón. From transportation to distribution networks, Cuba is woefully unprepared for a deluge of American tourists who won’t take kindly to surly rooms with Soviet air conditioners and bars that run out of mojitos.

Cubans may also find that competing for U.S. customers will be equally difficult. For years, cigar experts have warned that the Cuban tobacco-growing industry suffers from inconsistent quality control. The Havana Club brand, if it ever makes it into the American market given the copyright tangles with Bacardi, will face stiff competition from much smoother aged rums. After the post-taboo novelty of Cuban cigars and rum wear off, Millennial cognoscenti may find they prefer to sip on Guatemalan rum and smoke Nicaraguan cigars.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s infrastructure is broken. The Cold War never turned hot in Havana, but it did singe Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama City, where U.S. forces bombed the city’s charming Casco Viejo district in its ultimately successful 1989 push to arrest the drug-fueled strongman Manuel Noriega. Remarkably, large swaths of central Havana resemble Casco Viejo as it existed ten years ago, when it was still a bombed-out shell. Today, shopping boutiques and gelato shops adorn the Panamanian neighborhood, but central Havana continues to crumble. Buildings routinely fall to the ground in disrepair and floods in early May resulted in the deaths of at least three residents. Cuba’s currency system is also a mess, with the moneda nacional for Cubans and a fixed-rate convertible peso for tourists that’s created a two-tiered economy of have-nots and have-even-less. Neither currency is worth much internationally, and the Cuban government benefits from the privilege of collecting the hard currency of euros and dollars when tourists arrive to the island. Plans to merge the two currencies worry middle-class Cubans, chiefly in the tourism and hospitality industries, who fear that a botched attempt could wipe out the real gains of the past two decades.

It’s not an exaggeration to argue that the 1959 revolution both won Cuba its independence and conclusively ended the Monroe Doctrine, not only for Cuba but for all of Latin America. The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been troubled since the beginning. In 1854, U.S. president Franklin Pierce came close to annexing the island through the Ostend Manifesto proclaimed by Southern Democrats anxious to expand the geography of American slavery. Many Cubans believe the United States, by entering the Spanish-American War in 1898, stepped into a fight against a colonial Spanish force already chiefly defeated by Cuba patriots. For the next sixty years, under the Platt Amendment and a series of other measures designed to maximize American influence on the island, Cuba became a satellite of the U.S. government, with barely more de facto independence than Guam or Puerto Rico. If Cuba seems to have more in common with post-colonial African countries that won sovereignty in the late 1950s and 1960s, that’s because it suffered the same kind of post-independence growing pains under the penumbra of the Cold War.

“The U.S. has a history of meddling in Cuban affairs well before 1959,” said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “In fact, this is in part what led to the Revolution. Cubans haven’t forgotten that. A normalization of relations doesn’t erase this history, and Cubans are weary of the United States opening an embassy and using it as a base to influence opposition groups.”

That, in part, explains why Americans don’t always understand that Che Guevara is such a hero to Latin America and the rest of the world, no matter how brutal his guerrilla techniques, and that when Fidel Castro dies, his name will be uttered in the same breath as the likes of Nelson Mandela. “Normalization” of U.S.-Cuban relations, as sought by the Obama administration, is really the promise that, for the first time, the United States will treat Cuba as a sovereign equal.

 

About that Mississippi flag…

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I have an idea. And it’s about a heritage that’s unique to Mississippi and Mississippi only.USflag

I’ve only been to the state once, but it was to go to a blues festival in Bentonia, Mississippi. You want heritage? There’s nothing more awesome that Mississippi’s role in creating one of the truly original American music forms — the blues. But this is a heritage that not only sets aside the Confederate battle flag that currently adorns the upper left quadrant of Mississippi’s state flag.

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Most of all, it commemorates the role that African-Americans hold in the creation of the blues, in a state with the highest proportion of African-American residents (37.3%). B.B. King. Robert Johnson. Charlie Patton. Howlin’ Wolf. Muddy Waters. Mississippi John Hurt. These are the brilliant sons of Mississippi just as much as its robust literary tradition.

In the wake of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s call for the state capitol to lower the Confederate battle flag Monday, attention is turning to Mississippi’s state flag.

Mississippi’s governor, Republican Phil Bryant, remains reluctant to change it, partly because of a 2001 referendum whereby voters chose to retain the current flag, which had unofficially been Mississippi’s flag since the 1890s. But the state house’s speaker, Republican Philip Gunn, said it’s time to revisit the issue — and it’s also time to retire the homage to the Confederacy.

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RELATED: The lessons of failed Confederate foreign policy

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Let’s be real. The Mississippi Delta, now a depopulated shell of what it once was (which wasn’t much — a land of sharecroppers and cotton and poverty), is like no other place in the United States. The blues? It’s special, it’s mythical, and it’s the heart of Mississippi’s tourism trade, in a state that’s tortured by its past racial violence, a fact that hits you immediately when you land in Jackson’s Medgar Evers International Airport.

I can’t think of a better way to retire one more controversial flag.

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Interview: Talking to Cuban artist Tania Bruguera

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HAVANA — On the first weekend of the Havana Biennial, artist Tania Bruguera was detained after organizing a 100-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism in her modest home in Havana Vieja.cuba

I write more about that in The Washington Post today:

When I visited Bruguera for the first time, on the final day of the reading, plainclothes policemen from MININT, Cuba’s feared interior ministry, swarmed just outside the doorway, and state workers were jackhammering away, digging forlorn trenches into the dusty road. Bruguera, who once taught art at the University of Chicago, where she also knocked on doors for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has been under a kind of “city arrest” since late December, her passport confiscated and every step under state surveillance, following another public demonstration. We made plans to meet, perhaps later that day. Instead, MININT officials detained and questioned her.

I finally met up with Bruguera on the Tuesday morning after her detention (sadly, she was detained more recently earlier this month), and she spoke to me about several topics.

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RELATED: Photo essay — Cuba on the cusp, but for what kind of future?

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Bruguera, an artist and a daughter of the Cuban revolution, who styles herself at once a revolutionary, a socialist, an anti-capitalist and a “pain in the ass” for the current Cuban government, argues that the Biennial and its much-feted stars are part of a cynical cultural policy that co-opts Cuban artists as little more than pawns of the regime.

The full transcript of the conversation follows.

KL: First off, tell me what’s happened over the past 36 hours. The authorities did not care very much for your reading.

TB: No they didn’t.  

KL: Why did they wait until after you’d finished to detain you? Continue reading Interview: Talking to Cuban artist Tania Bruguera

Center-right looks to minority government after Danish election

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In an election race that finished as closely as polls predicted, the broad center-right ‘blue’ bloc won 90 seats in Denmark’s Folketing, while the broad center-left ‘red’ bloc of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt won just 89.denmark flag

Though that’s a stupendous effort for Thorning-Schmidt and, especially, her Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), which actually gained seats and finished with the highest share of Denmark’s many political parties. Since winning the 2011 election, polls consistent showed Thorning-Schmidt’s coalition trailing by double digits, so the election result represents something of a comeback for the Danish left in general and for Thorning-Schmidt in particular.

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Her coalition partners didn’t manage as well, though, so Thorning-Schmidt will not serve a second term as prime minister and, despite her success, she stepped down as the Social Democratic party leader after the narrow loss.

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RELATED: How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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The center-right’s victory means that former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the leader of Denmark’s chief center-right party, Venestre, will once again return to power as head of a minority government, according to reports on Sunday. But Thursday’s vote is still something of a Pyrrhic victory for him, because his party finished with 19.5% of the vote, about 7% less than the Social Democrats and, more significantly, about 1.5% less than the anti-immigration, eurosceptic  Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party).

While the DF’s leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl (pictured above) didn’t demand the premiership, he will now be the chief driver of Danish government. Rasmussen is an amiable figure, but he’s been damaged by an expenses scandal and his party is now returning to power, despite the fact that it lost more seats (13) than any other party in the Folketing. Though the Danish People’s Party will conceivably his government from outside any formal coalition, there will be no doubt that Thulesen Dahl’s agenda — a populist approach to pensions and welfare spending, rolling back immigration (especially Muslim immigration), and chipping away at the free borders of the European Union’s Schengen zone (the party wants Denmark to leave the Schengen zone altogether) — will figure high on Rasmussen’s priority list. It also means that the Danish government will strongly back British prime minister David Cameron’s push for EU reform, in advance of a 2017 referendum on British membership in the European Union.

More thematically, the success of the Danish People’s Party is part of a broader story about the rise of the alternative right across Europe, especially throughout Scandinavia in recent years:

  • Norway’s anti-tax Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party) had a breakthrough performance in the 2009 election, winning 22.9% of the vote and becoming Norway’s second-largest party. In the September 2013 elections, it still won 16.6% of the vote, and its leader, Siv Jensen, serves as finance minister in Erna Solberg’s conservative minority government.
  • Last September, Sweden’s far-right Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) won 12.9% of the vote to become the third-largest party in the country. Just one month into the premiership of center-left prime minister Stefan Löfven, the Sweden Democrats caused a political crisis that brought the country to the brink of a fresh snap election.
  • The similarly far-right Perussuomalaiset (PS, Finns Party) finished in third place in Finland’s elections with 17.6% of the vote in March 2015, and its leader, Timo Soini, a skeptic about future Greek bailouts, is now Finland’s foreign secretary.

It’s clear that the message of parties like the DF resounds with a significant portion of the northern European electorate, including in the United Kingdom and France, and immigration — from both inside the European Union and from Muslim emigrants from beyond — has a growing resonance. Even Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats felt like they needed to take a harder line on the issue, with advertisements proclaiming that Danish immigrants should be working.

It’s not clear yet which parties Rasmussen will seek to form his minority government, but Thulesen Dahl’s tone seems to indicate that it won’t include the Danish People’s Party. But Rasmussen’s Liberals have just 34 seats — with support from the Liberal Alliance (13 seats), the Konservative Folkeparti (Conservative People’s Party (six seats), it gives Rasmussen just 53 seats.

Vestager’s profile hangs over Danish election

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She’s not running for anything in Denmark’s parliamentary elections on Thursday, but even from Brussels, Margrethe Vestager, the country’s European commissioner for the high-profile competition portfolio, looms larger than just about anyone on the Danish political scene — included prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and her main challenger for the premiership.European_Uniondenmark flag

Less than a year into her tenure as the EU’s top cop on competition law, Vestager has moved forward with narrow charges (in the Commission’s parlance, a ‘Statement of Objections’) against Google for allegedly prioritizing search results from its own Google Shopping program over other results. Hardly a week later, she filed charges against the Russian state energy company, Gazprom, for anti-competitive behavior that the Commission argues resulted in higher prices in the Baltics, Poland and Bulgaria. In recent weeks, Vestager also open an investigation into whether Amazon was abusing its dominant market position to restrict innovation and competition in the e-book industry.

That’s made her, increasingly, a bête noire in the powerful Silicon Valley. Mike Honda, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives for a California district representing Silicon Valley, denounced the charges in April, arguing that Google was instead one of the most ‘innovative and life-changing technologies in human history.’

It’s not just American and Russian companies — Vestager is also looking into allegations that Luxembourg’s aggressive tax deals with companies violated European Union state aid rules, even though most of the tax decisions came during the administration of Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, now the president of the European Commission and who nominated Vestager for the role last autumn. She’s also investigating several European governments for providing assistance to their respective utilities industries.

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RELATED: How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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Not since Mario Monti took on General Electric’s Jack Welch and Microsoft’s Bill Gates has an EU antitrust enforcer taken such an aggressive tone with companies operating in the EU marketplace. It’s certainly a more direct, even transparent way of proceeding that her predecessor, Spanish commissioner Joaquín Almunia, who preferred negotiating closed-door settlements — a tactic that did not work, so far, with Google. In a throwback to the Monti days, Vestager last week threatened to block GE’s bid to acquire the French energy business Alstom without further modifications to the proposed merger — and that’s after the French government last year stepped in to demand a better deal.  Continue reading Vestager’s profile hangs over Danish election

Race politics looms behind potential deportation of Haitian Dominicans

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that relations between the two nation-states that occupy the island of Hispaniola have been strained for centuries.Dominican Republic Flag Icon

The Dominican Republic celebrates its national day on February 27, marking not its independence from Spain but the anniversary of the end of the Haitian occupation of 1822 to 1844. The country’s autocratic leader, Rafael Trujillo launched a 1937 military attack on Haitians living near the nebulous border that, even today, remains particularly porous. The attack left an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians dead. Following the assault, known today as the Masacre del Perejil, Trujillo tried to install a puppet government in Haiti.

Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo’s successor, won a narrow victory in the highly disputed 1994 election in part through attacks on the Haitian ancestry of his opponent José Francisco Peña Gómez. Leonel Fernández, the candidate of the country’s now-dominant Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD, Dominican Liberation Party), which has held power in 15 out of the past 20 years, deployed similar tactics against Peña in 1996.

So racism, both subtle and blatant, against darker-skinned Dominicans of Haitian descent has always been a feature of life in the Dominican Republic.

As Greg Grandin and others are reporting in recent days, the country is gearing up for what might become yet another difficult moment, with up to 500,000 Haitian Dominicans in danger of being deported after June 17 — even though many of them have lived most of their lives in the Dominican Republic, speak Spanish and not Haiti’s French creole and, indeed, have never even set foot on Haitian soil. The debacle has led to a rush of Haitian Dominicans attempting to register for citizenship before today’s deadline, fearing that failure to acquire the right paperwork could result in a massive disruption in their lives.

A decade of setbacks for Haitian Dominicans

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The current crisis stems from a December 2011 decision by the Dominican supreme court that affirmed the government’s decision to reject a request from a Dominican-born man for his birth certificate. The ruling’s effect threw into doubt the citizenship of Dominicans born to Haitian immigrants after 1929. Under significant international pressure, Dominican president Danilo Medina (pictured above), a popular leader who now hopes to run for reelection in May 2016, tried to resolve the situation by allowing undocumented Dominicans to register. Continue reading Race politics looms behind potential deportation of Haitian Dominicans

As ‘Hillary’ and ‘Jeb’ announce, the 2016 buzz is all about Rubio

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In the space of 48 hours, two political scions will announce their candidacy for president of the United States.USflag

Hillary Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, and a New York senator and U.S. secretary of state in her own right, formally launched her presidential campaign in a picture-perfect event on Roosevelt Island in New York City on Saturday.

Jeb Bush, the son of former president George H.W. Bush and the brother of former president George W. Bush, announced that he is formally a candidate for president in Miami later today.

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RELATED: What Republicans could learn from Cameron’s Conservatives

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But the real momentum is with neither Clinton nor Bush. It’s with Bush’s one-time protégé, Florida senator Marco Rubio. At 44, he’s around two decades younger than either Bush (62) or Clinton (67), and it’s an advantage he is using to full effect. Continue reading As ‘Hillary’ and ‘Jeb’ announce, the 2016 buzz is all about Rubio

How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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Not so long ago, British prime minister David Cameron suggested that his Danish counterpart, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, would make a good alternative candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.denmark flag

Thorning-Schmidt (pictured above) demurred the speculation. Ultimately, European leaders embraced former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and instead of seeking a safe job in Brussels, Thorning-Schmidt became increasingly convinced that she could lead her center-left government to reelection in a vote originally expected in September.

A Rorschach test for EU economic policy?

Thorning-Schmidt called snap elections for June 18, hoping to take advantage of a growing sense of momentum. Indeed, she may have taken a different sort of comfort from Cameron, who last month won an even stronger mandate for a second term in his own general election. After a period of GDP contraction and fiscal tightening, Thorning-Schmidt is betting that nascent economy recovery and the promise of greater welfare spending in the years ahead will be enough to replicate Cameron’s feat in Denmark.

If she succeeds, both sides on the European debate over economic policy will try to claim victory. For the European center-right, a Thorning-Schmidt victory would provide more evidence that an electorate is willing to reward a government’s hard grind to demonstrate fiscal stability. For the European center-left, it would show the way forward for social democrats struggling to salvage, reform and reinvent the welfare state in an age of austerity.

Furthermore, as the second-most populous Nordic country, Denmark (with 5.7 million people) is a weathervane of all the recent political, cultural and economic trends across northern Europe — and where the region may be headed.

How Helle turned a near-certain defeat into a dead heat

Thorning-Schmidt is the leader of the Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), the largest party on the Danish left, and she leads an informal ‘red’ coalition of parties that may be willing to join forces for a broad leftist government after the election. Not surprisingly, she won sympathy from voters in the wake of a radical Islamic attack on a Copenhagen cafe and synagogue in February. Moreover, she is hoping that forecasts of 1.5% or greater GDP growth will overshadow the GDP contraction and fiscal contraction that marked the first half of her government. Continue reading How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

The big winner of Mexico’s elections? The not-so-green Green Party

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Of Mexico’s four largest parties, at least as of the last election, only one managed to increase its vote share between 2012 and 2015 — the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM, Ecologist Green Party of Mexico).Mexico Flag Icon

Since its foundation in 1993, the party has developed a cynical reputation for corruption than any particular devotion to the traditional left-wing, environmentalist causes of green parties throughout the world. Nevertheless, if preliminary estimates are correct, the PVEM will have won more than 7% of the vote in Mexico’s midterm elections, which means that it will almost certainly hold more the fourth-largest bloc of seats in the 500-member Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Mexican Congress.

That’s astounding in an environment where Mexicans rank political corruption at the top of their concerns, alongside drug violence and above even a sluggish, uneven economy.

With the exception of the 2000 election, when the Greens backed conservative maverick Vicente Fox for the presidency, the party has been a reliable junior partner for the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Party of the Institutional Revolution) and Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Together with the Greens and another small party, Partido Nueva Alianza (PANAL, New Alliance), the PRI is expected to hold a narrow legislative majority.

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RELATED: Mexican left disintegrates as midterms approach

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That’s not necessarily great news for Peña Nieto, whose personal reputation has been compromised by financial scandals surrounding himself, his wife and close colleagues, and whose party — certainly not impervious to corruption — remains highly distrusted after governing Mexico uninterrupted for seven decades until Fox’s 2000 election.

The Green Party, however, seems to thrill in flouting election law — Mexico’s new electoral authority, the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE, National Electoral Institute) fined the party over $20 million in May after it illegally financed campaign advertisements. One sports personality said he was offered 200,000 pesos by the party to support it on election day via Twitter.

Its leader, Jorge Emilio González, the son of the party’s founder, known as El Niño Verde, has a black-hat playboy image of a corrupt baron. His reputation never fully recovered from videotapes that showed him apparently negotiating $2 million in bribes in relation to a shady land deal in Cancun.

Jo Tuckman, writing for The Guardian, finds that the PVEM draws disgust from analysts across the board as a party of ‘false greens’ that often acts more like an organized crime cartel controlled by the González family:

“The Greens concentrate the bad elements of Mexican politics and take them to an extreme,” said political analyst Jesús Silva Herzog. “There are sinister figures in all the big parties, but there are some respectable ones too. I cannot think of a single respectable figure in the Green Party.”

Continue reading The big winner of Mexico’s elections? The not-so-green Green Party

Photo of the day: The hills are alive with the sound of Merkel

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It’s the most important trans-Atlantic politics meme since that time US president Barack Obama took a selfie with British prime minister David Cameron and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.Germany Flag Icon

A throwback to The Sound of Music, yes, as the leaders of the G7 (just when we’d gotten used to G8) gathered at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps to consider the risks to the global economy — most notably, the risks from Russia’s continued mayhem in Ukraine and its growing isolation in the rest of the world. Greece, too, is high on the agenda, with time running out for the beleaguered country to make a deal with its European and IMF creditors.

It’s disappointing, however, that Obama’s first beer in the country was non-alcoholic. (Hint, Mr. President: You’re doing it wrong).

The real question: how would Julie Andrews tackle Russian president Vladimir Putin, or ISIS, or the fallout from a potential Greek fall from the eurozone, or US-EU free trade? Or climate change? That high-profile conference in Paris is only five months away…

Coalition politics returns to Turkey after AKP loses majority

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The hand-wringing about Turkish democracy turned out to be overwrought — electoral churn is alive and well, despite the efforts of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to consolidate the power of his ruling party, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party).Turkey

For the first time since the AKP came to power in 2002, Erdoğan wasn’t technically leading the party after winning the presidency last year. Nevertheless, his presence was clear enough in the weeks leading up to the vote, threatening journalists and campaigning openly in defiance of the traditional independence of the office of the presidency, which Erdoğan hoped to strengthen significantly by changing Turkey’s constitution.

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RELATED: Turkish election a referendum on
Erdoğan-style presidentialism

RELATED: Who is Selahattin Demirtaş?

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Erdoğan hoped to win the 330 seats necessary to initiate constitutional changes to shift power permanently to the presidency and away from the assembly. Instead, the AKP fell to just 256 seats, 20 short of a majority. While that’s enough for the AKP to remain the largest party, by far, in the  Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly), voters rewarded Erdoğan’s overreach by forcing the AKP to seek a coalition partner, a novelty after nearly a decade and a half of one-party rule.

Accordingly, the results bring more questions than answers. Though the election is probably good for the long-term stability of Turkish democracy, the result could mean a considerable amount of short-term instability, a prospect that’s already spooked Turkish markets this morning.

For the first time in Turkish history, an explicitly Kurdish party will hold seats (as a party) in the Turkish parliament. It’s a great opportunity for political pluralism, but it also brings risks. If Erdoğan turns too sharply against his Kurdish rivals, he could tragically damage the strengthening trust that he’s built over the past decade between the Kurdish minority and the Turkish government.

Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s former foreign minister, had pledged to resign in the event that the AKP failed to win enough seats to form a government, so his future is very much in question. If he goes, Erdoğan will be hard-pressed to find a reliable ally who satisfies both wings of the AKP and who will also govern in deference to Erdoğan’s wishes.

Moreover, shifting to coalition politics will prove difficult for the AKP, most especially Erdoğan. Even if he manages to find a junior coalition partner, Erdoğan might be anxious to hold new elections to restore the party’s majority. As much as the June 7 elections affirmed the resilience of Turkish democracy, snap elections might prove an even more serious test if Erdoğan is willing to resort to extralegal steps — especially after he flouted presidential impartiality and the AKP devoted significant state resources to its election victory.

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Erdoğan, over the years, has gradually consolidated authority into a narrowing group of advisers, to the point that he’s sidelined senior AKP figures, including co-founders like deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç and former president Abdullah Gül, who might otherwise challenge his authority. Increasingly, Erdoğan gradually shifted away from democratic best practices that emphasize liberal freedoms and consensus-building. Turkish voters are also becoming impatient with a slowing economy after years of booming expansion. Continue reading Coalition politics returns to Turkey after AKP loses majority

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN