Truthdig Radio: How the U.S. Co-Opted Human Rights
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
On this week’s show we hear from Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb on our imperial military budget, and James Peck tells us how the U.S. co-opted human rights. And we send Reese Erlich to Cuba to find out how Raul Castro’s economic reforms are affecting the island’s world-famous music scene.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
Welcome to a special militarized edition of Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews and commentary from the Webby Award-winning Truthdig.com and KPFK. On today’s show, we hear from former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb on our imperial military budget, and James Peck tells us about how the U.S. co-opted human rights. And we send Reese Erlich to Cuba to find out how Raul Castro’s economic reforms are affecting the island’s world-famous music scene. Vámonos.
* * *Peter Scheer:
I’m Peter Scheer with Robert Scheer, and we’re speaking with Dr. Lawrence Korb, a veteran of the Navy, former assistant secretary of defense in the Regan administration and currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Welcome.
Lawrence Korb: Nice to be with you.
Robert Scheer: So, Dr. Korb—this is Robert—you’ve written some important pieces about how we could cut the military budget. And of course there’s resistance, there’s some feint in that direction by [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and by the Obama administration, but they don’t seem to be ready to make the kind of serious cuts that you suggest. What do you have in mind?
Lawrence Korb: Well, what we’re talking about is that when you get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, which will be no later than 2014, then you can cut the Army and the Marines back to the level they were before 9/11. That gets you a hundred thousand people off. You can cut the number of nuclear weapons down to 311, which is what the people at the Air War College—the Air Force’s think tank—feel are necessary for deterrence. You can slow down the production of a lot of planes—for example, you have 35 that you’re rushing into production; and you can allow the Navy and the Air Force to buy existing planes, which are the best in the world. You can cancel, you don’t need to have 11 aircraft carriers, so that would mean you could cancel the construction of the second Gerry Ford carrier.
So you take a look at all of those things, and then you can also take a look at the military health care system, which—Secretary Gates, as you know, is eating us alive. And you can make military retirees who are working and earning good salaries, you can get them to take the plans of their companies rather than relying on the Pentagon. There’s a whole list, and, you know, we’ve taken a look at it, and you can basically cut about, by 2015, $100 billion from the projected level of defense spending.
Robert Scheer: You know, you worked in the Reagan administration, and that’s when the first President Bush was then vice-president …
Lawrence Korb: Right.
Robert Scheer:… and when he came in—and Dick Cheney was his secretary of defense—he proposed a pretty quick one-third cut in the military budget, because he said the Cold War is over. And then under his son, we raised military spending back to Cold War levels. What is the justification? What do these people tell you when you say you can cut?
Lawrence Korb: Well, I mean, a couple of things to keep in mind. Even before the end of the Cold War, in the second Reagan administration, and in the first couple of years of the administration of the first President Bush, we cut defense spending significantly because we had a deficit problem. And we know we needed to, you know, deal with the deficit. Then when the Cold War ended, President Bush, and then President Clinton in his first term, did cut it substantially.It has gone up in real terms, that is if you control for inflation, since 1998. Clinton didn’t want to be seen as, quote unquote, “weak on defense,” so he gave in to the Republicans. And then after 2001, two things happened: We went to war, and we had a budget supplemental. But at the same time we also increased the base budget, and the normal budget went up 70 percent in real terms under the administration of the second President Bush and the first two years of the Obama administration. Now, that’s about a trillion dollars that was added to the base. And then the war costs are about—the direct costs are about a trillion and a half dollars. And, you know, this is the first time we’ve ever gone to war in our history of significant conflicts where we haven’t raised taxes. Not only we didn’t raise them, we cut them. And we didn’t have a draft, which meant that the men and women that were on active duty were really overstretched, and partly as a way to compensate them we raised their pay substantially.
Peter Scheer: I’m looking at a Gallup poll here that says, as of February, that only 39 percent of Americans think we spend too much on defense. And we spend more than every other country in the world combined, or about as much. What’s the disconnect here? Why don’t people realize …
Lawrence Korb: Because I think—I think people are worried, and then people present all these apocalyptic scenarios that, oh my goodness, if we do this the Chinese will be invading, and you know, whatever else you may want to think about. But I think if you take a look at some of the polls, when you point out to people the second thing that you mentioned, about the fact that we’re spending more than the rest of the world combined—or six times as much as the Chinese—then I think they take a harder look. Or that you still have 80,000 troops in Europe, you know, 20 years after the end of the Cold War and 60 years after the end of World War II. And that the Europeans are cutting their defense budgets to deal with the deficit, so that they can rely on us to fill in the gaps for them. And then I think people take a harder look at it.
Peter Scheer: You wrote an article about Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget. Can you expand on that here?
Lawrence Korb: Well, I think, in terms of Congressman Ryan’s budget, he didn’t put defense on the table; in fact, he went along with this shell game that the current secretary of defense, Gates, is playing. Gates keeps talking about, well, I’m cutting the defense—I found all these deficiencies in the defense budget, and everything like that. But what he doesn’t tell us is, yeah, he finds them, but he takes them out of one program and puts them into another. I’ll give you an example. Back in 2008, when Secretary Gates thought this [would] be his last year at the Bush administration, he projected in 2012—the current budget that’s before the Congress—defense would need $544 billion. You know what he asked for this year? 553! That’s the baseline budget, doesn’t include the war costs. So with all these, supposedly, cuts, the budget’s still going up significantly.
Peter Scheer: President Obama promised that he would have more transparency, he wouldn’t play games with funding the wars—you bring up the war budget. Has he been doing that?
Lawrence Korb: Yes, he has. Because unlike President Bush, he does put it up in the beginning of the year, whereas Bush would wait halfway through the fiscal year, send it up, and the Congress really wouldn’t have time to look at it because they would be worried about the troops in the field. So yeah, he has sent it up in the beginning of the year; there is more transparency, and we’ve found some things. Like Sen. McCain said this year, why are you funding missile defense in the war budget that has nothing to do with it?
Robert Scheer: You know, you’ve been a sane voice on these issues, a nonpartisan voice. But you’re up against a huge lobbying enterprise. I mean, these defense contractors, others who benefit from the military budget, they really aren’t there to make logical arguments about national security. They’re there to get the money. And how come their power is never effectively challenged; is there no countervailing force?
Lawrence Korb: Well, people forget when Eisenhower gave the speech, the original draft was “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but he took the congressional out because he thought he might be giving the talk in front of the Congress. Yeah, I mean, there’s a combination of things. That after 9/11 we overreacted, so it was easy; the Pentagon didn’t have to make any hard choices, they could get everything. Then, of course, when you want to cut it, now you’re—the economy is not what we would like it to be, and so they talk about the jobs that will be reduced. I mean, it’s an interesting thing; last year we had this thing about a second engine for the F-35, the new fighter that they’re building. Well, the Pentagon conducted a competition, they chose one company; you know, GE lost; and so they’ve been lobbying to build a second engine. It cost us $4 billion more to do that. The Pentagon doesn’t want it. But if you take a look at who voted for it, you get Scott Brown—the new senator from Massachusetts who was going to do things differently—because it will be built in his state; John Boehner, ’cause part if it’s in Ohio; Eric Cantor, ’cause part of it’s in Michigan [Laughs]—I mean, in Virginia. And all these people are theoretically concerned about the deficit.
Robert Scheer: So how do you challenge this? I mean, 9/11 was the excuse for ramping up the budget, but the people we were combating had an arsenal you could buy at Home Depot. They didn’t have sophisticated …
Lawrence Korb: Well, I agree.
Robert Scheer: … weapons. And so … it was absurd from the beginning. I mean, as I recall, Rumsfeld had come in saying he was going to cut the military …
Lawrence Korb: He was, yeah.
Robert Scheer: … and he collapsed after 9/11. So what is it, just the power of these lobbies? And they’re actually supported by some labor unions; they’re supported by plenty of Democrats, not just Republicans. Is this an unstoppable force, or is …?
Lawrence Korb: Well, I think with the death of bin Laden, and also our deficit problem … but see, what you need—and President Obama did take a step in the direction; he talked about cutting $400 billion over the next … between 2013 and 2023. We’re moving, I think, in the right direction. But you know, the great irony is you go back and look at history, the people who really got the defense budget under control were Eisenhower, Nixon and the first President Bush. And it’s a great irony because, politically, they could do it and nobody could challenge them. Remember that Bush’s secretary of defense was a fellow by the name of Dick Cheney. And so when Cheney—in fact, it’s interesting; Cheney tried to kill this … Osprey; it takes off like a helicopter, flies like a plane, the V-22. And he lost the thing, and he called the weapon system a “turkey.”
Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with Dr. Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Dr. Korb, we’re deployed militarily in a hundred and fifty countries, something like that, in the world. What is the true cost of this—what you might call an empire-building?
Lawrence Korb: Well, again, if Iraq and Afghanistan this year are costing us $170 billion—they’ve cost us well over a trillion dollars so far in the direct cost—but this is where I talked about the fact that you got to take a look, why do you got 80,000 troops in Europe? I mean, you don’t need them. And taking them out, and then taking them out of the force, is how you save the money. And I think right now, President Obama has directed the Pentagon to take another look at the strategy, because the first review they did, they wanted to do everything and go every place. And that’s—you got to ask these questions; why are you in all these countries? What would happen if you weren’t there?
Peter Scheer: Yeah, why are we in Germany?
Lawrence Korb: Well, that’s what I mean, because we were there at the end of World War II, and nobody ever wanted to get out! And again, people say, oh, you can never tell what will happen, and stuff like that.
Peter Scheer: But Germany’s not that great. I mean, why do we want to be in—I don’t even understand any justification for that …
Lawrence Korb: Well, I agree, I agree …
Peter Scheer: … I can understand Korea; you could say China’s there, we have to be worried about China, we have to project power into that region. But Germany?
Lawrence Korb: No, I agree. That’s why you have to raise the issue. And I think when you do that with the American people, then they say, wait, now I understand.
Robert Scheer: Well, you know, you’ve raised an interesting thing politically. You’re right; we did much better under some Republicans; not under George W. Bush, he went to the races with this stuff. But you’re absolutely right, under Nixon and under the first President Bush, and certainly under Dwight Eisenhower, we had Republican politicians with the courage to stand up to this military-industrial complex …
Lawrence Korb: Well, they also had the political clout. See, and again, the Democrats, you know, are still concerned about being seen as weak on defense.
Robert Scheer: Right. Now, what about the existence of these libertarians—the Pauls, father and son—who have in the past challenged the military budget? Certainly Ron Paul has. Do you get any support from them for your position?
Lawrence Korb: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, we do a lot of—you know, our views are accepted by the Cato Institute, which is the libertarian think tank.
Robert Scheer: So you do cooperate, to some degree.
Lawrence Korb: Oh sure, yeah. Yeah, we sure do.
Robert Scheer: Because I know, I’ve talked to Dennis Kucinich about that—he told me that on some of these issues he gets along really great with Ron Paul. Do you think that could be another center of criticism …
Lawrence Korb: Yeah … we did a study this year for Barney Frank and Ron Paul called the Sustainable Security Task Force, to make sure that the deficit commission focused on defense, and the chairs were Barney Frank and Ron Paul.
Robert Scheer: Let me conclude—you wrote an article that was in CNN Money, “The $1 million soldier.” What’s wrong with how we budget war? What’s your one-minute answer to that?
Lawrence Korb: Well, I mean basically the fact is that if you’re going to go to war, you’ve got to realize it’s much—it’s very expensive—like in Afghanistan, because it’s landlocked, to support those things—it’ll cost you a million dollars a troop. So when people say, well, let’s add 30,000 more, you’ve got to realize that’s $30 billion before you do it.
Peter Scheer: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks so much, Dr. Lawrence Korb.
Lawrence Korb: OK. Thank you for having me.
Robert Scheer: Thank you. Bye.
Peter Scheer: Dr. Korb was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and he is currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Peter Scheer with Josh Scheer. We are speaking with James Peck, who is the author of “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights.” Welcome.
James Peck: Welcome, I’m glad to be here.
Josh Scheer: So, human rights—how does the government do it? … I’ve read the introduction; you talk about the Cold War and, you know, setting up dictatorships. And then when did the, as you put it, ideological weapons … that our national security infrastructure used to bring human rights as a motivator for war?
James Peck: Human rights, I think, really began to emerge in the public in the United States in the 1970s. Sort of the late ’60s, early ’70s … in the public; it came with Soviet dissidence; it came up with Allende and things like that, in the Congress. But the national security people were faced with the enormous implications of the defeats in Vietnam, the discrediting of anti-communism, and all the resistance that had occurred in the Vietnam struggles. And I think what really happened, if I could put it sort of in a, really sort of a nutshell, is this: The human rights movement really was grabbed upon by the Carter administration, and ever since, in order to cut off—in order to create sort of a new idealism, on the one hand; but also to bifurcate what had been some of the deepest demands within the peace movement. The human rights movement, in a way, really broke from some of the fundamental concerns that dominated the peace movement. For example, the human rights movement has developed various things about laws of war; but they’re not against war. They are about—they’re not against occupying other countries; they’re concerned with the laws of occupation. They’re not concerned with the size of military spending, or the pre-eminence of American power. And those kinds of concerns, which had been so central to the issues of Vietnam, were ones that the human rights movement—when it really began to be taken into the national security world—were broken away from. And you see it, as well, in the civil rights movement, because in the last years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he had begun to speak very eloquently about the need to link a peace movement with civil rights, and if you broke the two apart, you would end up with neither, because the civil rights movement, in the end, was going to have to deal with issues of inequality and restructuring of American society. And that also, in a way, is what the fundamentals of human rights have broken from.
So what the national security managers basically needed was a new idealism. What they needed was an idealism that said, look: Vietnam was a mistake; if we’d lived up to our ideals, we probably wouldn’t have done it; we’re a different kind of country than that. And that can be sort of the foundation for a new way of re-idealizing American power and asserting a new kind of globalism.
Peter Scheer: I want to—can we jump into China real quick, because you’re also the author of “Washington’s China,” and a China expert yourself. And speaking of human rights, this week Hillary Clinton came out in an interview in the Atlantic and said some nasty things about China’s human rights record, which we’re used to hearing from Washington since 1949. And as we pointed out on Truthdig, it’s awfully hypocritical, considering that the United States is now executing people abroad; it has an island gulag; we have more of our population in prison than any country in the world …
Josh Scheer: Now? [Laughs]
Peter Scheer:… including China …
Josh Scheer: James’ book is filled with the history of examples of setting up dictatorships, torture …
Peter Scheer: Right, but I’m saying, in pursuit of these wars, we have used the human rights argument. But does it have any credibility at this stage?
James Peck: I think it has a great deal of credibility in the United States, unfortunately. I think its credibility overseas is basically diminished, and is pretty much gone. I mean, I think if we look at what’s happened in the Middle East, I would say one of the overwhelming demands in the Middle East is freedom from us. And it’s not that they don’t want radical transformation and change. But when I talk in the book about two currents of human rights, I show, in part, about how America keeps invoking things about freedom of speech and things like that. But—and those things are very important—but the other issues of radical transformation of wealth and power, of collective mobilization, of a way of reducing American military presence in the Middle East—these issues are now all back on the agenda. And in that context, the traditional human rights language is coming to an end, I think.
Josh Scheer: And you talk in the book about Amnesty International, and talking about—in particular about China, the Chinese revolution being an atrocity, or one huge atrocity; the Iranian revolution being, you know, an atrocity, among others; and then defending some acts of violence as necessary. How do human rights groups like Amnesty International, which I believe you put at 1961, right, as being founded …
James Peck: Yeah.
Josh Scheer: … how do they work with the government? I mean, are they kind of—are they important … or are they doing the government’s work? Are they kind of feeding this war machine?
James Peck: You know, Amnesty … Amnesty is somewhat different than, say, Human Rights Watch, which of course is an American organization; Amnesty was a British. And indeed, when the national security managers were first talking about the issue of human rights, and bringing it into American foreign policy, there weren’t major American human rights groups yet; there was only the British, and they were uneasy about the fact that the only organization … was British. Amnesty has been much more leery of association with the American government than, say, Human Rights Watch, which has a great many people on it who are former national security people. So the linkage is much greater.
On the China issue, I would say the human rights vision basically is the further away you get from the Chinese revolution, the better. And in that way, though there are many egregious problems of human rights in China, it doesn’t give you a lot of insight into what’s happening in the protest movements in China, unless they happen to conform to the language we’re used to. And China, I think, actually is going to surprise a lot of people in terms of the wealth and diversity of its protest movement. But if you’re looking at it through the eyes of the dissidents who’ve been significantly—and they’re courageous, often, people—but if you look at it through the eyes of the dissidents who are known in the West, you probably won’t get what’s really happening in China.
Josh Scheer: It’s funny, because … the different eras, before we started doing human rights—I know Bob would have a fit if we didn’t mention it—but in Iran, and the Iranian revolution … they talk about … a lot of these groups …
Peter Scheer: Were assassinated …
Josh Scheer: … [by] Mossadegh … in 1945. So that was before we started selling human rights, and now we’ve got this problem in Iran, where people do not like their administration; they do have human rights …
Peter Scheer: Well, no, but I mean the irony—you know, in Afghanistan, we were talking about human rights when we were trying to fight the Russians in a proxy war that ended up installing this horribly anti-human-rights regime. And now in the name of human rights against that regime, we are air—you know, firing missiles into wedding parties. So it seems like a big mess all around.
James Peck: One of the things—it’s interesting that you put it that way, because one of the things the U.S. government, oddly enough, can live with is hypocrisy. [Laughter] And I think people underestimate why this is true, so let me give you a very specific example. The laws of war—which the human rights community radically and rapidly developed during the 1980s, during the violent struggles in Central America and the effort to suppress the Sandinistas—were actually strongly advocated by the national security managers, like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams. And one of the things people don’t seem to realize is why so many of the hawks, up to Wolfowitz today, keep pushing for human rights. Well, what they understood in the ’80s was not that the people they were working with weren’t murderous thugs, but they needed to do what they had not been able to do in Vietnam, which is to discredit the struggles against the Americans. And they’ve not been able to do that against the National Liberation Front and the Vietnamese. They tried to label them as terrorists—essentially if you go back and read these documents, there are reams of documents trying to label them as terrorists. But the label didn’t stick.
And so what happened in the ’80s is that the human rights community, on the one hand, started to document the extraordinary atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala and the death squads. But at the same time they wrote reports about some of the violations—which were true—of some of the resistance movements in El Salvador, and Guatemala, and Honduras. And what the U.S. government did was to say, you see? Everybody … nobody’s really on a good cause here, everybody’s doing these atrocious acts. And it sort of tarnished the whole notion of, well, what is social justice? How do you deal with oppression? And when you’re reading reports about guerrilla groups killing certain people, and you stop there, you lose the mobilizing ability to try and think through, well, what movements do have a certain justice on their side, and which ones are thuggish, and which ones should not be supported? So there’s a case where by spreading the darkness all around, you—in a way, it’s endlessly hypocritical, but it’s also effective. Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with James Peck, the author of “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights.” Let me ask you, you’ve been framing a lot of these—this is sort of like a manipulative strategy by people who are really interested in war for, maybe, other reasons to help sell war. Are there people—Tony Blairs, people like that—who are really committed to this idea and maybe misguided? Are there people who truly believe this is, perhaps … I don’t know, Hillary Clinton, Samantha Powers, people like this, who are truly committed to the idea of human rights, or …?
James Peck: I think the real core issue is, there are—and I wouldn’t include Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton in this—but I think there are indeed people who are deeply committed to human rights. But the problem is, as I try to—as I do, as I try to point out about the various currents of human rights, is usually what we mean by human rights does not involve the issues of inequality, or war, or occupation, or how you restructure resources, or how you gain control over corporations. These are all the kind of issues that would have interested a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, or we could go through a long list of people. And it’s the bifurcation of those two things, so that they almost stand against each other, that makes the advocacy of human rights so narrow and limited to a very individualized, and often a very individualistic thing.
And there are good things there, you know; civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights—all of those are terribly important. But if you set up human rights so it leaves out these other issues, and you look at the struggles of people who are dealing with those issues, and you don’t really figure out a way to insist that they be brought in to as much of the mainstream as the first current of what we’re very used to, of what we normally think of as human rights—then basically you’ve structured the issue against people who are really, profoundly trying to change—and are in the desperate straits they are—who are trying to change their world.
I came across a statistic recently that I thought was sort of graphic in this way. It was done by somebody at the World Bank—not one of my favorite institutions [Laughter]—but nonetheless, he was trying to point out how people actually lived on the planet. And the statistics exist: 65 to 70 percent of the planet lives less well off than the bottom 5 per cent of Americans. And if you’re trying to think about the kind of desperateness and need for radical transformation that’s necessary and that has long historical roots that go back—if we can—if those were really brought into human rights with the fervor and intensity that is often, say, used about an individual prisoner in another country, or—then I think we have a very, a more fluid and a far more dynamic conception of human rights.
Josh Scheer: And the question now is, should these countries be allowed to make their own history, even if their behavior upsets and sickens …
Peter Scheer: No, but I want to—I want to complicate that, Josh. Because you have countries, if you expand this issue, like you said, of human rights to religious freedom, you have a situation now where France has banned the veil, and Switzerland has banned minarets. I mean, you know, there are countries that we consider, you know …
Josh Scheer: Peter, can you explain to the—most of the KPFK audience—what a minaret is?
Peter Scheer: I think the very sophisticated KPFK audience knows that a minaret is the tower of a mosque.
Josh Scheer: OK, thank you.
Peter Scheer: But the point is that, you know, who is off-limits? Who do we not go to war with? This is insane.
James Peck: The issue of who we go to war with is … such a pivotal one, because the inclination has been so—I mean, Libya is an example …
Peter Scheer: Well, there President Obama laid out these reasons, why Libya, why not else, and obviously there’s reason to be skeptical of that. But can you talk about …
James Peck: Well, that gets us into, sort of, what I call back, once again, the hypocrisy issue, in terms of why it works. You’re asking a very valid and central … question of why the involvement in Libya, and not the involvement in Bahrain. And I think …
Josh Scheer: Or France.
James Peck:… or France. [Laughter] In one sense, it’s obvious. And what I try to get at is, why, if we get stuck at that level of discussion, we don’t get away from seeing certain systematic ways in which American power operates. For example, if we had to look at American power operating, but could hear no words to describe it—if we just had to watch the actions through some sort of silent screen—I think you’d see a great deal of consistency. But it’s the words that often play out. In other words, there are ways that American power can operate in certain places, and it appears to be promoting certain progressive changes temporarily. Then it doesn’t quite work that way, and it keeps working out somewhat differently.
So if you can take away the words, you’d see more of the consistency. Put the words in, people say, ah, but it’s hypocritical. Well, it is hypocritical. But that doesn’t take us far enough into the fundamental issue. And it goes right back to when the human rights movement began, about Vietnam—was Vietnam a hypocritical exercise, or did it reflect something which people like Martin Luther King and others really did try to raise? That it was something very systemic about American power, as it has operated ever since 1949.
Peter Scheer: He said “the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and, sadly, that appears to still be true.
James Peck: Yes.
Josh Scheer: One last thing for me—I don’t know about Peter—but the question would be, how do we shut down the ideological weapons that Washington has, and should we watch these human rights groups even though they’re trying to do good things with kind of a—should we take them with a grain of salt, watch them with, you know, our good eye?
James Peck: Two things—I’d push them incredibly strongly on why they are so limited in their conception of human rights. Because—as long as they’re so limited, they cannot push a certain kind of critique of power. But the other one is, the only way that you, I think, in the end truly create empathy and compassion and understanding of the world you live in, is if you have struggled in your own society that, as King himself argued, collectively based, that are trying to meet the needs, empathetically and compassionately, of your own people. There’s a trajectory between that and the rest of the world. I think we’ve moved into the stage where we’re in a rather increasingly hardened attitude at home, that feeds and is fed in for a long time. But there is—there is something to be said—not that the U.S. is a model; it isn’t; not that the U.S. should show the world how to do things; it shouldn’t. But if its own people are involved in struggles to actually create and deal with certain needs, and do so compassionately, that will have an implication for how it sees the rest of the world in a more meaningful way.
Peter Scheer: James Peck is the author of “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights.” Thank you so much for joining us.
James Peck: Thank you. It was a delight to be here.
Josh Scheer: Have a great day.
* * *Peter Scheer:
And now, Reese Erlich reports from Cuba.
Reese Erlich: Pedro Luis Ferrer is a household name in Cuba. He became famous in the 1970s, and then the government banned his music from being played on radio and TV during the late 1990s because of his highly critical lyrics. But he’s back, playing public performances once again with a new style of music he calls “Changuisa.”
For years, Cuban musicians like Ferrer were employed by the Cuban government at a good salary. But after Cuba’s economic crisis in the early 1990s, those salaries became meaningless. In the midst of socialist Cuba, musicians were forced to become entrepreneurs. The government loosened restrictions on travel abroad. Ferrer says musicians scrambled to find gigs overseas and sign international recording contracts.
Ferrer says normally musicians get a salary from the government’s musicians association. “But we have the option of not taking a salary. The musician pays for expenses to put on the show and then takes a percentage of the ticket sales.”
Musicians use leaflets and the Internet to advertise live gigs.
Ferrer says, “You don’t have to have support of state-owned TV and radio anymore. You have our own, independent methods of reaching an audience.”
In some ways, musicians were early practitioners of the economic reforms now under way in Cuba. The Cuban government plans to lay off 500,000 unproductive state workers and increase the number of small businesses.
Nestor Garcia, a former U.N. diplomat, agrees that both musicians and academics have been entrepreneurs for some time.
Nestor Garcia :“Cuban music is very popular in the world. I know a lot of professors that have been invited to universities in the United States, in Canada, in Mexico, in Spain. You know? And they pay a good amount of money to give conferences in those places. So those people, when they come back to Cuba, they bring their money, they pay their taxes, and they have no problem with that.”
Reese Erlich: Diplomat Garcia says the reforms don’t mean Cuba is giving up socialism. Education and health care will remain free. Government subsidies will make music concerts and other cultural events affordable to ordinary Cubans.
For the reforms to succeed, however, Cuba needs foreign investment, much of which is hampered by the U.S. trade embargo.
Ferrer points out that the embargo hurts Americans as well as Cubans, because many world-class Cuban musicians don’t perform in the U.S. Ferrer says, “I can’t work in the U.S., even though the two countries are very close [physically]. It’s a natural market for us. Musicians always have a lot of hassles getting visas from the U.S. government. Over the past few years, I’ve forgotten about the U.S. and performed in Europe instead.”
Over the past six months, the Obama administration has allowed more Cuban musicians to obtain visas. But Cuban artists still face far more difficulties touring in the U.S. than going to Europe. And, of course, the U.S. still prohibits most Americans from legally traveling to the island. So, at least for now, Americans must visit Canada or Europe to hear live performances of some of the world’s best musicians.
For Truthdig, I’m Reese Erlich—Havana.
* * *Peter Scheer:
…Thanks to our guests; thanks to our engineer, Stan and our board-op Jeff. For Robert Scheer, Reese Erlich, Josh Scheer, Alan Minsky and myself, thanks for listening.Wait, before you go…
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