Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 November 2016

Fidel: Lord Acton’s Ultimate Proof


[For an updated analysis of Trump’s Team, as of November 30, click here. For comment on the real meaning of Trump’s conflicts of interest, click here.]

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, aka Lord Acton

Let’s begin Fidel Castro’s obituary with a comparison to another populist Latin American leader, Hugo Chavez.

A former paratrooper, Chavez was a blustery and authoritarian leader. He first took power in a coup. Then he was jailed. After he emerged from jail, he seemed to understand, however dimly, that power comes from the people. So he spent the rest of his political career gaining power through elections.

Sure, he gamed the system. He re-engineered the Venezuelan constitution to scrap term limits and to give himself greater power. He stacked the army with his cronies like any two-bit dictator. But like Vladimir Putin, he never lost sight of the need to win elections, however slanted they might have been.

In that respect, Chavez was worlds apart from Fidel, who never stood for a real (i.e., contested) election in Cuba, not even once. (Fidel was elected twice, during the Cold War, to lead the international Non-Aligned Movement. [click on “Special Period”]) Even Stalin had run for office, against General Kirov, although he stuffed the ballot box and had Kirov shot the next day.

Fidel was aptly named. His name means “faithful.” It comes from the same Latin root as the English word “fidelity.”

He was faithful, all right. In all things, he was faithful to himself and his own inner vision, which only he could see. His rule was much like a religious order’s: mysterious, obscure, secretive, and unquestionable.

But before we recount that sordid tale, let’s give the devil his due. When Fidel took Cuba by force, a two-bit tyrant named Fulgencio Batista ruled it.

While quite young, I had a small personal insight into what Batista was like. Just before Fidel’s takeover, my family was in Cuba visiting an Havana hotel that my paternal uncle had helped finance. We got lost in the slums on the way to a nightclub. As our taxi backed out of a cul-de-sac, we saw a sign, high on a bleak brick wall: “Batista es la paz.”

“Batista is peace.” Surrender your life and dignity to the dictator, ye poor, and ye shall have peace. George Orwell couldn’t have said it better.

Few inside or outside Cuba mourned Batista’s passing. When Fidel took over, he had widespread support from Yanks who knew Cuba. They hoped he would usher in a better regime to replace Batista’s two-bit tyranny.

Castro’s US supporters were both right and wrong. He did usher in a new regime for Cuba. But it wasn’t what US supporters had hoped for. Doubt quickly emerged that it would stay better.

Fidel did some good things. Over decades, he took a largely illiterate and ignorant plantation population and gave it near-universal schooling and literacy. He also gave it free medical care, subsidizing the education, practice and eventually the international loan of tens of thousands of doctors.

Some of those doctors treated Hugo Chavez. They are reasons why Cuba’s pathological regime still enjoys widespread respect in Latin America and throughout the third world. And their presence in Venezuela and treatment of Chavez paid for the highly subsidized Venezuelan oil that kept Cuba’s economy running long after Soviet energy subsidies lapsed. Maybe Fidel got the idea of using doctors as cultural ambassadors from Che Guevara, who had been trained as a doctor before becoming a revolutionary.

Fidel did one other good thing, although the credit due him is unclear. He ruled while Cuba—always a multiracial nation—became a tolerant, classless society. Earlier than most nations, including ours, Cuba was and is a place where race doesn’t matter much.

Life in Cuba is hard. But it’s equally hard for everyone, regardless of race. That’s progress of a sort. Yet the ultimate power in Cuba was always in white hands of European descent. Fidel and his crew didn’t change that. It took our own imperfect, noisy Yankee democracy to put a “black” man on top.

And so begins the heaviness of Cuba’s tragic tale. Faithful to his own internal vision, Fidel presaged and may have inspired the Kims, earning a place among human history’s most ruthless dictators.

After Fidel took over, he held a bunch of show trials and executed thousands. He had won the civil war decisively, and most Yanks saw no need for all the killing. Exile might have been simpler, quicker and more humane. Fidel’s Cuban enemies had close Yankee ties and little desire to stay, especially after Fidel had confiscated their property.

But with those trials Fidel gave notice of his Stalinist bent. At the height of the Cold War, he publicly avowed Communism. Only his closest friends knew whether that avowal came from real conviction, a lust for personal power, or a desire to put a thumb in our Yankee eyes.

Like Hugo Chavez much later, Fidel defined himself and his government in opposition to us Yanks. But unlike Chavez’, Fidel’s opposition was inflexibly adamant and extreme. Chavez called our president (Dubya) the devil but compromised with us on oil. Fidel built his government and policies on the belief that all of us Yanks—and our businesses—come straight from Hell. The result has been six decades of extreme economic isolation and the most mindless enmity that ever existed between a major power and a tiny independent nation not far away.

Fidel didn’t seem to care. A self-centered and verbose man, he offered justifications for all his beliefs and actions (some quite bizarre!) in hours-long harangues, which he forced his cadres to listen to respectfully. In his view, he could justify anything for his “people,” whose wants and needs he knew best.

Fidel did many things for “his” people. But giving them a choice was not among them. He decided all.

Not only that. At some level deep in his psyche, he believed that the United States, which had once owned Cuba as a colony and had let it go free, was Cuba’s eternal, mortal enemy. He refused to cooperate in simple humanitarian measures to east the plight of families divided by Cuba’s economic and cultural isolation.

For many years he refused even to let his people go. And so we had the sorry boat brigades, landing soggy and half-drowned on Florida’s shores. (Neither Marco Rubio nor his parents were among them. His parents came here years before Castro’s takeover, for “economic opportunity.” They were prescient economic migrants, not refugees.)

The apex of Fidel’s faith in himself came in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A few Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles were assembled in Cuba and ready to fire. Fidel’s underlings wanted to use them against targets like Washington, D.C. and New York, to head off a feared US invasion of Cuba. Better to have the whole world perish in nuclear fire than to let Cuba’s Fidel-proclaimed rival—an infinitely larger, more advanced and more powerful nation—survive and threaten attack.

What saved the world then were three people: our president JFK, General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, and a Soviet submarine flotilla commander named Vasiliy Alexandrovich Arkhipov, who refused to let Soviet nuclear torpedoes fly. Without these three men’s coolness and restraint under fire, we humans might be an extinct species, extinguished by our own hands.

Fidel and his crew didn’t much care. They would have let the nuclear missiles fly, just to beat the “Yankee imperialists.” Fortunately, only Russians had the keys.

Absolute power, Lord Acton said, corrupts absolutely. What could be more absolute than species self-extinction? And what could be more corrupt than risking it to prolong one’s personal rule and tyrannical vision? If you want a reductio ad absurdum of the evils of tyranny, you need look no further than Fidel. He and his crew personified the Communist credo: only ends matter; means don’t. With that philosophy, he almost caused our species’ end.

Fidel ruled Cuba absolutely since 1959. By the time he ceded power to his brother Raul in 2008, he had ruled for nearly half a century, more than any leader of a major power in the twentieth or twenty-first century save Queen Elizabeth II, who “reigns” in name only.

Fidel survived ten US presidents, some literally, all in office. His ghost will continue to influence, if not rule, Cuba for a long time to come.

As part of the deal to avoid Armageddon, Fidel managed to secure a US guarantee against invading Cuba—and thereby perpetuation of his own power—despite our perpetual “lease” on Guantánamo. That guarantee, given to the Soviets in 1962, stands to this day. For a small island nation so close to the “Colossus of the North,” that may seem like a major achievement.

But would we Yanks ever have had any interest in invading and occupying Cuba if not for Fidel’s implacable enmity and his conspiring with our then worst enemy against us? After all, didn’t we once own Cuba as a colony and set it free? Did Fidel really think we Yanks had seller’s remorse?

Fidel won his place in history at the risk of species self-extinction. He and his policies kept a small, pleasant, sunny island in a time warp for nearly six decades. Patched-up Yankee cars of 1950s vintage still prowl Cuba’s streets.

So, no, his obit doesn’t rate a black border. His passing is nothing for good people anywhere to mourn.

But it’s nothing to celebrate, either. It’s much like the end of World War II, as described by pundit David Brooks in one of his best columns. It’s cause for relief, humility, thanking God, sober reflection, and solemn resolution to do better.

Fidel’s absolute self-assurance, absolute enmity, and absolute arrogance nearly destroyed our species. And the abysmal relations that he and his refugees fostered between our two nations is an absolute model for how not to manage diplomacy and foreign affairs. (For this Fidel had—and still has—plenty of co-conspirators from the Cuban-American community and the right wing here at home.)

Both ordinary Cubans and ordinary Yankees overwhelmingly want better relations. Our current President, whose biracial genetic makeup (not to mention the Tea Party) has taught him something about intransigent enmity, has made a good start. So has his inveterate humility. But both sides have a long, long way to go to get back to some semblance of human normalcy.

Now that Fidel is finally gone, some will hug, sing and dance in the streets. Surely Cuban-Americans will do that here. Maybe some Cubans will also do so (secretly!) inside Cuba.

But people and leaders everywhere should ponder Cuba’s tragic history. They should recall how a tiny island nation, a freed colony, dragged its people into absolute tyranny and the entire world to the brink of destruction.

Next they should ponder how most leaders age like eggs, not wine. They should mull how—from Rome and Carthage to the Cold War—absolute enmity between two nations, let alone neighbors, has never done anyone but arms suppliers any good. Then, finally, they might begin to ken the central lesson of Fidel’s anomalously long and anomalously tragic rule: the transcendent value of term limits.

Trump and Conflicts of Interest

Today (Sunday, November 27, at A1, A-20-22 ), the New York Times published a massive report on the potential for conflicts of interest between Donald Trump’s global business empire and his presidency. In whole, the report confirmed my view that Trump cannot and will not banish such conflicts. It did so by enumerating, in excruciating detail, how many projects he has in how many foreign countries, and how—even since his election—he and his offspring who help run his business empire already have met with foreign political leaders to discuss political issues that might affect his business interests.

Among the countries detailed were the Philippines and Turkey, now in the State Department’s crosshairs for repressive acts by strong-arm leaders. Also detailed was India, which is in the throes of a drastic, seemingly failing experiment to get business people to pay their taxes by extinguishing its most-used paper currency. Might State-Department criticism of increasingly restive “friendly” governments on these measures affect Trump’s business interests, or vice versa?

The simple fact is that much of Trump’s worldwide business empire is a riff in glass and steel on his name. Some of his projects are simply name-licensing deals with, as the Times put it, “no equity.” The local desirability of that symbol in business surely will change with politics and criticism of the government that Trump leads.

Trump himself doesn’t see a problem. To some extent, he’s on solid legal ground. Specific conflict-of-interest statutes don’t apply to the president. The Constitution’s Emoluments Clause is couched in vague eighteenth-century language and is virtually devoid of useful precedent. Very likely, the courts, if asked to rule on a specific conflict, would simply punt, calling it a “political question.”

And rightly so. Ultimately the main check on any president, as it was on Richard Nixon, is Congress’ impeachment power, over which our courts have no authority. If the House indicts Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause (or any other legal norm) and the Senate convicts him by a two-thirds vote, he will be out. Period. Like Nixon, who resigned before certain conviction, he will have no appeal.

About a generation ago, the House indicted Bill Clinton for receiving fellatio from a White House intern and lying about it. But the Senate did not convict. Presumably, a messy conflict of interest affecting our relations with the Philippines, Turkey or India, let alone China or Russia, would be a far more serious matter.

The simple fact is that Trump has few friends in Congress, even among Republicans. Most of the leading members hate him because he made fools of them and their useless certitudes on his scorched-earth march to the White House. Many of them—even those whom expediency has moved to hitch their wagons to his star—still consider him unfit and unqualified and a disaster in the making. He will have an uphill battle to make enough friends quickly enough to avoid quick ouster in the event of any serious error in decision or policy. Whether conflicts of interest will be just a pretext or part of the error doesn’t really matter.

Perhaps Trump might avoid all this by totally divesting his business interests, as some have recommended. But he won’t do that because that’s not who he is. He is his business empire, every part of which bears his name. Anyway, the law doesn’t clearly require total divestiture, at least before any serious conflicts arise. And it’s hard to see how even total divestiture would avoid all conflicts involving a business empire in which everything bears his name and that name is often an important asset.

Of course the media should keep score. Of course the Democrats should, too, especially after the years and millions the GOP spent to tar Hillary with “scandals” on far flimsier evidence for far less serious and widespread conflicts.

But the reason is not a quixotic push to avoid conflicts involving a man who is his business empire and has shown no capacity for the kind of persistent attention to detail that might avoid them. The reason is to have a good and ready cause—or prextext—to get rid of Trump as president if the worst occurs and, as many rightly fear, he makes a ghastly mistake.

That’s precisely what our Founders intended when they used the unique and undefined term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” as cause for impeachment. They wanted us to be able to get rid of a president who has proved himself, by action, unfit to govern. We can only hope that the cause will not be something irremediable, like impulsively launching one or more of our nukes.

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