Sunday, April 26, 2009

War and Genocide

Its this time of year again, the season of genocide remembrances and conferences; President Obama went to Turkey and without using the dreaded word “genocide” spoke harshly about the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Turks. It is the time of year to remember genocides and its victims.
The local paper displayed a bar graph of different genocides: 200,000 persons killed in Bosnia-Herzogovina in 1992- 1995; 800,000 in Ruanda in 1994; 2 million in Cambodia under Pol Pot in 1975 – 1979; 6 million in the Nazi Holocaust 1938 – 1945; 300,000 killed by the Japanese in Nanking, China in 1937- 1938; 7 million killed in Stalinist Russia during the forced collectivization of agriculture; 1.5 million killed in Armenia in 1915.
In this chart the word “genocide” is applied very loosely. The Nazis set out to wipe out the Jews. They were aiming to destroy a people. Stalin was trying to rid Russia of perceived enemies of the modernization project set in motion by the Communist party. The large loss of lives had nothing to do with ethnic identities. If they were seen to be enemies of the Stalinist state, they would be killed whether they were Russian or belonged to some other nation. Similarly the killers and killed in Cambodia were for the most part Cambodians (Khmer). National identities were not the primary issue. The word genocide is here simply a synonym for “mass murder.”
But if that is what genocide has come to mean—the killing of large numbers of people in a fairly short time, why does the chart not mention Word War II which is reputed to have cost the life of 50 million people? Why is there no mention of the Korean war (2,800,000 victims) or the war in Vietnam 3,500,000 victims)? It is common to distinguish genocide from wars. Genocides are deplored and remembered tearfully. Many holocaust museums and commemorations have been erected. There are some but many fewer war memorials or remembrances of its many, many victims. Few, if any, university institutes study war; more study genocide. But if genocide refers to mass killings, wars should surely also be included.
Wars are different from genocide, but not that different. The carpet bombing of German cities, the methodical bombing of London and other cities in England had as their goal the destruction of civilian populations. In genocide the destruction of a people is the end; in methodical bombing of cities the destruction of a people is a means. For the persons who fall victims to either, the difference is non-existent. All die a horrible death. Modern wars in which the distinction between combatant and non-combatant has disappeared involve genocide. The distinction between war and genocide becomes blurred.
Of course we Jews should mourn our dead. But we must strenuously resist the temptation to think that death of our people is a more serious tragedy than that of others. We must not be tempted to acquiesce in the killing of more than a thousand residents of Gaza in retaliation for 14 Israelis killed by the rockets of Hamas. We must not for a moment accept the argument, often offered to justify dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, that these bombs served to save American lives. Upward of 700,000 persons died in these twin bombings. The number of American lives saved would certainly have been much smaller. The justification for dropping those two atomic bombs assumes that American lives are worth much more than the lives of Japanese.
But that sort of thinking—that some lives are worth a lot less than ours—legitimates genocide: Jews could be killed because the Nazis called their lives worthless. That sort of thinking stands behind slavery—including the sexual slavery of our day. That sort of thinking makes war and mass killing thinkable.
Holocaust remembrances and museums thus are very ambiguous. They allow us Jews to mourn our terrible losses and to mourn, and protest, the hatred so many people have felt for us in the past and still feel for us in the present. But when these remembrances reinforce the belief that Jewish lives are more valuable than the lives of Palestinians, they become a justification for repeating genocide, only this time the Jews are not the victims.
Holocaust remembrances accompanied by the strident insistence that genocide is different from war, conceals the evil of war, conceals the millions and millions of persons who die miserably in war, and allow us to continue to use violence as our chief tool in international relations.
When Holocaust remembrances remember only “our” dead, they support the widespread nationalist assumptions that “our” lives—whether they be American, or German, or Israeli, whether they be Sunni or Shia, Hindu or Muslim, Chinese or Tibetan—are worth more than those of our enemies. A people that believes that, will ruthlessly kill its enemies and not shrink back from genocide. The cry “Never again” is emptied of all content once we fail to accept the value of all human lives as equal.
Until we learn to consider every human death a tragedy whatever the victim's ethnic affiliations , the world will continue to suffer bloodbath after bloodbath. Hundreds of thousand, millions will die whether we call it genocide or not.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The US and Cuba

Last week President Obama relaxed the previous restrictions on Cuban-Americans returning to their native land to visit their families. He also eased telephone communications between the two countries. Over the weekend, at the summit of the Organization of American States bringing together all the heads of governments in the hemisphere—except Cuba-- President Obama reached out to President Chavez of Venezuela and signaled that he wanted to try for better communication with Cuba.

For more than 50 years, successive US government have been more or less hostile to Cuba. There have been some thaws before, but the embargo on Cuba has been in existence since the early 1960's. US companies have been forbidden to do business in Cuba and in periods of heightened anti-Cuban sentiment, the US also attempted to force European businesses to refrain from doing business in Cuba.

US hostility to Cuba has at least three different sources: The Cuban government is in the hands of the Communist party of Cuba. Even before Fidel Castro himself declared himself to be a Communist, American observers called him one. Secondly, the Cuban government, American politicians say, is not elected democratically. Although Cuba does hold elections, there is only one party and the electoral procedures are quite different from our electoral system. Finally, the US has always regarded Cuba as our own, or in our sphere of interest and influence.

From 1934 on Cuba was ruled directly, or indirectly, by General Fulgencio Batista, a violent dictator, friend of underworld criminals who made Havana into a paradise of gambling, prostitution, and illegal drug traffic, with generous kick-backs to Batista and his cronies. In the early fifties, Fidel Castro mounted an attack on Batista but failed. In the late fifties, a second attack succeeded and Batista fled. The US government had supported Batista until it became evident that his regime had come to an end.

The first wave of Cuban immigrants to the US(1959–62) consisted of Cuba’s elite: executives and owners of firms, big merchants, sugar mill owners, cattlemen, representatives of foreign companies, and professionals. They left Cuba when the revolution overturned the old social order through measures such as the nationalization of American industry and agrarian reform laws, as well as through the United States’ severance of diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. In the US they have had a significant influence on domestic US politics, especially policies concerned with Cuba and Latin America. Together with the CIA, they have hatched a long series of failed plots against Fidel Castro including exploding cigars and similar attempts that could only have been invented by script writers for James Bond movies. Some people claim to have counted 638 assassination attempts. There have also been various attempted invasions of Cuba, all of which failed miserably.

Batista was hated by most Cubans the majority of whom were poor; they supported Castro and his young rebels. They were not troubled by Castro's left-wing politics and leaning to Communism. But to the US, at the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, his leftism made Castro unacceptable. Recall that in the 50ties America was in the midst of a hysterical hunt for communists, with politicians holding hearings looking for communists, state governments and private employers demanding that their employees swear loyalty to the US or lose their job. Led by the sleazy Senator McCarthy, the hunt for communists in the government and private employ made the 1950s one of the dark periods for freedom and civil liberties in the US. With that climate at home, a Latin leader who leaned towards communism needed to be overthrown.

Then and now, many leaders in the have US justified the embargo against Cuba by saying that Cuba is not a democracy. But why then did our government amply support the dictator Batista for 25 years? The persons most hostile to Castro--American conservatives—had no problems with the dictator Batista. Our commitment to democracy in Latin America is very weak.

During the years that we tried to subvert the Cuban government by prohibiting trade with Cuba and foreign investment in the country, we fomented military takeovers in several Latin American countries where the people had elected leftist leaders who promised to redistribute land, to use the country's resources to benefit the large masses of poor people and who threatened the huge profits made by US companies. In 1954 the people of Guatemala elected Jacobo Arbenz, an avowed leftist. The CIA fomented a successful military uprising that cost the lives of many opponents of the military. In neighboring Nicaragua, the US Marines, who had occupied the country between 1912 and 1936, established Somoza as dictator; the US supported him and his son until their overthrow by the Sandinistas in 1979. President Reagan then waged a covert war against the Sandinistas. In Haiti we supported the Duvaliers—father and son-- as dictators from 1957 to 1986. The Dominican Republic was under the thumb of dictator Rafael Trujillo for many years with full and open support of the US government. In 1972, the Chilean people elected Salvador Allende, an avowed socialist, in a free democratic election. The CIA managed to have him overthrown by the military under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet. Hundreds of thousands of Chilean died in the repression that followed. The list of US sponsored dictators who overthrew of legitimately elected governments is still longer.

The US has been bitterly hostile to Cuba and Fidel Castro for 50 years or more because theirs' is not a democratic government. But at the same time, the US government has been supportive of one brutal military dictator after another and has helped them to get rid of democratically elected leaders.

We can understand that puzzle once we recognize that Cuba—and the same is true in many other Latin American countries—was at one time largely owned by US companies. In 1958, US interests controlled 80% of Cuba’s railroads and 90% of its electrical and telephone services. Ian Chadwick's history of US-Cuban relations summarizes the situation as follows:

“In January of 1960, Cuba expropriated 70,000 acres of property owned by US sugar companies, including 35,000 acres owned by United Fruit Company (UFC owned approximately 235,000 acres more). United Fruit (later United Brands and Chiquita Brands) was a powerful organization with strong ties in the US administration and the CIA. The UFC was instrumental in overthrowing the elected Arbenz government in Guatemala, in 1954. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was both a stockholder and longtime legal adviser for the company. He prepared contracts in 1930 and 1936 between UFC and the Ubico dictatorship in Guatemala. Allen W. Dulles, his brother and director of the CIA, was once president of the company. UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge was a member of its board of directors. Walter Bedell Smith, head of the CIA before Dulles, became president of United Fruit after the overthrow of Arbenz.”

Latin America, in general, and Cuba, in particular, was a fertile ground for US investment and super profits for US companies. The populations of Latin American countries toiled for US companies; huge profits were sent back to the US while working populations remained mired in poverty, ill health, poor education, without prospects for improving their lot. No wonder that they voted again and again—the few times they got a chance to vote—for left wing candidates who promised to limit the sway of foreign investors in order to improve the lot of the local people. But US leaders, deeply involved in sucking profits out of Latin America, managed to maintain the power of their companies by sponsoring local strong men to protect the foreign investors and profits.

Against this background of US exploitation of Latin America, maintained through a string of right wing military dictators, the sometimes hysterical enmity towards Fidel Castro becomes intelligible. Cuba—whatever its faults and short comings—has turned its energies toward making life better for ordinary Cubans in spite of 50 years of US efforts to damage its economy and its government. Cubans have better medical services than almost everyone else in Latin America—and many people in the US. Cubans are better educated than many other Latin Americans and many people in the US. Most important of all, Cuba has refused to submit to US bullying. It has exposed the real reasons behind US opposition to its way of running its country-- the threat to US investments in Latin America and the super profits made by US companies to the detriment of large masses of terribly poor people who must struggle daily to stay alive.

President Obama seems committed to a more civil and less macho foreign policy than his predecessor. But his attempt at a balanced foreign policy will try to do justice to all sides—to American businesses in Latin America and to the just demands of large masses of the poor. It is not clear today how this balancing act with turn. After all the basic mission of the US government remains unchanged: to make the world safe for US investments and profits without regard to the men and women whose work produces those profits.