Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Incoming Obama Administration and the Political Mythology of 'the Best and the Brightest"



Another outstanding article by the best 'mainstream' political journalist in the United States, Frank Rich. His remarks as usual are right on target and uncannily prescient. I hope Obama, his Ivy League educated neoliberal team, and most importantly the rest of us are paying very close and strict attention to what Rich (and the late, great David Halberstam) are saying. Intelligence used in the servile service of stupidity and oppression is brazen ignorance squared no matter how many academic degrees a person has. I first read Halberstam's classic book 'The Best and the Brightest" 35 years ago and have reread it a number of times since then. The book has not only not dated one minute since it was first published to great and highly justified critical acclaim in 1972, but if anything it is more relevant, useful, and prophetic than ever.

"Change" won't come if we delude ourselves about what our true tasks and responsibilities are or uncritically allow "leaders" (from either Obama's administration or from our own ranks) to simply tell us what to do and how to do it just because they have a certain educational pedigree. If History teaches us anything at all about politics and society it teaches us that...


December 7, 2008
The Brightest Are Not Always the Best
New York Times


IN 1992, David Halberstam wrote a new introduction for the 20th-anniversary edition of “The Best and the Brightest,” his classic history of the hubristic J.F.K. team that would ultimately mire America in Vietnam. He noted that the book’s title had entered the language, but not quite as he had hoped. “It is often misused,” he wrote, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”

Halberstam died last year, but were he still around, I suspect he would be speaking up, loudly, right about now. As Barack Obama rolls out his cabinet, “the best and the brightest” has become the accolade du jour from Democrats (Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri), Republicans (Senator John Warner of Virginia) and the press (George Stephanopoulos). Few seem to recall that the phrase, in its original coinage, was meant to strike a sardonic, not a flattering, note. Perhaps even Doris Kearns Goodwin would agree that it’s time for Beltway reading groups to move on from “Team of Rivals” to Halberstam.

The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, “a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age.” His deputy, Walt Rostow, “had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something,” whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company.

The rest is history that would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that only now are healing.

In the Obama transition, our Clinton-fixated political culture has been hyperventilating mainly over the national security team, but that’s not what gives me pause. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were both wrong about the Iraq invasion, but neither of them were architects of that folly and both are far better known in recent years for consensus-building caution (at times to a fault in Clinton’s case) than arrogance. Those who fear an outbreak of Clintonian drama in the administration keep warning that Obama has hired a secretary of state he can’t fire. But why not take him at his word when he says “the buck will stop with me”? If Truman could cashier Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then surely Obama could fire a brand-name cabinet member in the (unlikely) event she goes rogue.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

Well, nobody’s perfect. Given that John McCain’s economic team was headlined by Carly Fiorina and Joe the Plumber, the country would be dodging a fiscal bullet even if Obama had picked Suze Orman. But I keep wondering why the honeymoon hagiography about the best and the brightest has been so over the top. Washington’s cheerleading for our new New Frontier cabinet superstars has seldom been interrupted by tough questions about Summers’s Harvard career or Geithner’s record at the Fed. For that, it’s best to turn to the business press: Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times, for one, has been relentless in trying to ferret out Geithner’s opaque role in the catastrophic decision to let Lehman Brothers fail.

No doubt the Pavlovian ovations for the Obama team are in part a reaction to our immediate political past. After eight years of a presidency that valued cronyism over brains (or even competence) and embraced an anti-intellectualism apotheosized by Sarah Palin, it’s a godsend to have a president who puts a premium on merit. I also wonder if a press corps that underrated Obama’s political prowess for much of the campaign, demeaning him as a professorial wuss next to the brawny Clinton and McCain, is now overcompensating for that mistake. No one wants to miss out a second time on triumphal history in the making.

This, too, is a replay of what happened when Kennedy arrived, beating out the more seasoned Richard Nixon and ending eight years of Eisenhower rule. “Rarely had a new administration received such a sympathetic hearing at a personal level from the more serious and respected journalists of the city,” Halberstam wrote. “The good reporters of that era, those who were well educated and who were enlightened themselves and worked for enlightened organizations, liked the Kennedys and were for the same things the Kennedys were for.” They couldn’t imagine that “men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century” would turn out to be architects of America’s “worst tragedy since the Civil War.”

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

In our current financial quagmire, there have also been those who had the wisdom to sound alarms before Rubin, Summers or Geithner did. Among them were not just economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini but also Doris Dungey, a 47-year-old financial blogger known as Tanta, who died of cancer in Upper Marlboro, Md., last Sunday. As the Times obituary observed, “her first post, in December 2006, took issue with an optimistic Citigroup report that maintained that the mortgage industry would ‘rationalize’ in 2007, to the benefit of larger players like, well, Citigroup.” It was months before the others publicly echoed her judgment.

For some of J.F.K.’s best and brightest, Halberstam wrote, wisdom came “after Vietnam.” We have to hope that wisdom is coming to Summers and Geithner as they struggle with our financial Tet. Clearly it has not come to Rubin. Asked by The Times in April if he’d made any mistakes at Citigroup, he sounded as self-deluded as McNamara in retirement.

“I honestly don’t know,” Rubin answered. “In hindsight, there are a lot of things we’d do differently. But in the context of the facts as I knew them and my role, I’m inclined to think probably not.” Since that interview, 52,000 Citigroup employees have been laid off but not Rubin, who remains remorseless, collecting a salary that has totaled in excess of $115 million since 1999. You may be touched to hear that he is voluntarily relinquishing his bonus this Christmas.

Rubin hasn’t been seen in a transition photo op since Nov. 7, and in the end Obama chose Paul Volcker as chairman of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. This was a presidential decision not only bright but wise.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Odetta: Revolutionary Artist and Civil Rights Movement Icon, 1930-2008



(Click on link 'The Last Word' below)

The Last Word: Odetta

Watch a full-length version of the video above, including an extended interview with the singer, whose voice was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.
Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77


A cultural GIANT and a great artist died yesterday. Odetta was one of the true authentic icons of the Civil Rights Movement and a major influence on generations of socially conscious and engaged singers, songwriters, and activists. Her tremendous voice, stirring musical vision, and fierce committment to social, racial, and economic justice, as well as gender equality will be sorely missed. Her many and crucial contributions to the Movement were an inspiration and a clarion call for many to join and participate in the ongoing global struggle for Democracy and Peace. Her extraordinary legacy will never die so long as there are other artists and cultural workers to continue in her revolutionary path. Thank you Odetta and rest in peace sister...


Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77
Published: December 3, 2008
New York Times

Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 77.

Odetta became a force of the folk music revival in the 1950s. In the 1960s her renditions of spirituals and blues became part of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.

The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager. He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, made highly influential recordings of blues and ballads, and became one of the most widely known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s. She was a formative influence on dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.

Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington in the quest to end racial discrimination.

Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., was once asked which songs meant the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”

Odetta sang at the march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, in August 1963. Her song that day was “O Freedom,” dating to slavery days: “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me, And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”

Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and place — particularly prison songs and work songs recorded in the fields of the Deep South — shaped her life.

“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007 for its online feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”

Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young, and in 1937 she and her mother, Flora Sanders, moved to Los Angeles. Three years later, Odetta discovered that she could sing.

“A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should study,” she recalled. “But I myself didn’t have anything to measure it by.”

She found her own voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions. She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical music and musical theater was “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life,” she said.

“The folk songs were — the anger,” she emphasized.

In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: “School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.”

In 1950, Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” but she found a stronger calling in the bohemian coffeehouses of San Francisco. “We would finish our play, we’d go to the joint, and people would sit around playing guitars and singing songs and it felt like home,” she said.

She began singing in nightclubs, cutting a striking figure with her guitar and her close-cropped hair.

Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs made new.

Bob Dylan, referring to that recording, said in a 1978 interview, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal,” and added, “I learned all the songs on that record.” It was her first, and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” “ ’Buked and Scorned.”

Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the civil rights movement. They were two rivers running together, she said in her interview with The Times. The words and music captured “the fury and frustration that I had growing up.”

Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But after King was assassinated in 1968, the wind went out of the sails of the civil rights movement and the songs of protest and resistance that had been the movement’s soundtrack. Odetta’s fame flagged for years thereafter.

In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities.

Odetta was married three times: to Don Gordon, to Gary Shead, and, in 1977, to the blues musician Iverson Minter, known professionally as Louisiana Red. The first two marriages ended in divorce; Mr. Minter moved to Germany in 1983 to pursue his performing career.

She was singing and performing well into the 21st century, and her influence stayed strong.

In April 2007, half a century after Bob Dylan first heard her, she was on stage at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen. She turned one of his songs, “57 Channels,” into a chanted poem, and Mr. Springsteen came out from the wings to call it “the greatest version” of the song he had ever heard.

Reviewing a December 2006 performance, James Reed of The Boston Globe wrote: “Odetta’s voice is still a force of nature — something commented upon endlessly as folks exited the auditorium — and her phrasing and sensibility for a song have grown more complex and shaded.”

The critic called her “a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

We Are Already in The Future!


As usual Amiri Baraka is right on time and incisively analytical, armed with the most important and relevant political truths and implications of Obama's electoral victory and the current ideological fallout-- both positive and negative-- from it. It's a great relief and an inspiration to realize that someone on the Left fully comprehends, articulates, and appreciates in both a critical and useful sense what this election actually means and what our subsequent role as genuine progressive citizens could and should be. In other words:
YES WE (STILL) CAN!-- to turn another variation on an important phrase I keep hearing in my head loud and clear as I truly think and reflect upon what we-- via Barack and his consummate campaign--REALLY accomplished. As Amiri clearly points out among his many other highly salient insights:

"It is up to us, the Left, to build on the powerful democratic coalition Obama’s campaign and election have already built. We must strive to make such a democratic coalition more than just a temporary election campaign call and fight to turn such ideas and momentary commitment into a powerful new base on which to focus Obama’s first term, but also to build this into a permanent aspect of US society. The anti war forces are another key aspect of this coalition and a means to call for a refocusing of the 10 billion dollars a month now spent on the Iraq war."


"First of all the very election of Obama has done more to bring some aspect of equality to the society than reams of pseudo leftist posturing. Which, all returns in, is meant merely to show the writer is smarter than you are. But what, dreary pundits, would a McCain victory have done? And supposed your wasted vote had contributed to such? To always be on the outside nitpicking away with not one sign of useful political practice or construction, this is too often what the Left has become. I say it again, people who have never and cannot elect a dog catcher but who are full of immense ideas about politics. Bah, Humbug!"

"No single election, my friends, will ever bring us Socialism, if that’s what you really seek. The struggle is protracted, hasn’t that been said? We have yet even to convince the “revolutionaries” they are in the United States. But Obama is not even in office yet these pundits of pitifulness already have the hole card on what his governance cannot or will not do. This is especially irritating from those commentators who counseled us not to vote for him in the first place....

"We want to build a new Democratic Coalition as an engine for the bringing about of a People’s Democracy. Any narrowing of the “Post racial coalition” that elected Obama is a mistake. We must fight to make it real...."

All I can add to Baraka's typically astute commentary is a resounding AMEN ...Read his entire essay below...


We Are Already In The Future!
by Amiri Baraka
November 29, 2008

At election’s denouement, to the Right the outraged, self loathing of the loser & the losers, including one dude standing mutely in Michigan, a Republican delegate, in a Klan suit, describing Obama as an “Islamic communist”. To the Left, the self important drears who had urged us to throw our votes away, as they objectively, in the name of their “principles”, gave votes to John McCain.

Even dizzier, we supposedly hear from the left right corkscrew terrorist , Al Qaeda insults that Obama is a “house slave” But as I sd in an instant rejoinder, “Anyone who thinks suicide is revolutionary ain’t all that bright to begin with. And as for that slave calling, best they refrain from drawing our attention to the fact that some of the Arab ruling class always thought of Black people as slaves”. But we are willing to be momentarily cool, remembering Mao’s dictum, “fight your enemies one by one”.

But back to reality. We have just won an election. We, meaning the masses in the US, indeed the people of the world. (I was in Italy, France, Spain, Norway during the period leading up to and through the election. In Italy just before the election at my readings I urged the Italians to call the states, since I knew they had a bunch of relatives over here, and tell them to vote. In city after city the crowds all seemed to cheer for Obama’s victory.) And whoever seeks to downplay that victory is fool or enemy.

We shd understand the white supremacy junkies on the right. Their last pop was Old Dutch cleanser and seltzer water, so they have had almost to cold turkey off that WS they been shootin up, though still dizzy from its fumes. But the Left or soi disant would be Left or some who style themselves, what? , progressive, moderate, wheeze wheeze. Some of these, certainly the vote wasters, sound almost as pitiful. As one pitiful pundit warns us, “Obama’s election is to save capitalism…not bring equality to the society.” What a silly person.

First of all the very election of Obama has done more to bring some aspect of equality to the society than reams of pseudo leftist posturing. Which, all returns in, is meant merely to show the writer is smarter than you are. But what, dreary pundits, wd a McCain victory have done? And supposed your wasted vote had contributed to such? To always be on the outside nitpicking away with not one sign of useful political practice or construction, this is too often what the Left has become. I say it again, people who have never and cannot elect a dog catcher but who are full of immense ideas about politics. Bah, Humbug!

No single election, my friends, will ever bring us Socialism, if that’s what you really seek. The struggle is protracted, hasn’t that been said? We have yet even to convince the “revolutionaries” they are in the United States. But Obama is not even in office yet these pundits of pitifulness already have the hole card on what his governance cannot or will not do. This is especially irritating from those commentators who counseled us not to vote for him in the first place. One wonders if they think their counsel, which meant nothing, is more valuable than having an actual person of color with the widest mandate in history actually elected president?

But to run off howling about it’s not this and it’s not that, when we do not yet have a viable analysis of what it really is! Not understand how that victory was achieved is to willfully miss a rare opportunity of learning how to master the capitalist electoral system. One of the reasons we do not yet understand how to harness the electoral process to a revolutionary and socialist agenda is that too many of the very people who should be leading such a process denounce and/or avoid it. To do what? Make statements and demonstrate. To withdraw from the most acceptable way of gaining power in the society defies understanding by any rational means. Except for the hold that infantile leftism and anarchism have on too many wishing to present themselves as revolutionary.

Barack Obama raised hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it as a result of using the internet culture, for fundraising and organizing. Let the foolish Right agonize over their attempt at denigrating “Community Organizer”. Now they have at least felt a C.O. foot planted up their B &A Hinds.

Obama raised 150 million dollars in October alone! He beat both Hilary Clinton & John McCain fund raising. At one point he wanted to buy one hour of time on CNN to lay out a complete campaign message, but CNN vetoed it. And here we thought that money was the ultimate boss. What the Right cannot forget nor the milksop Left is that Obama was/is smarter than both of them! And more in tune with the popular mind, not only of the 98% of the Afro American population but, obviously of the great majority of Americans. This, in itself, is a fantastic new precedent that must be acted upon immediately, before the corporate right media and all our “independent” smarty pants commentators cloud over the main issues.

The “bottom line” of Obama’s campaign was his initiation at the grass level in his appeal. The 2004 Democratic convention is widely seen as the opening of his campaign and I can accept that, but even to be there to do that. A first term senator of color from Illinois. How did he get to be a Senator in the lst place? I watched the biopic on CNN and what I got from it is a skill developed as a, what?, community organizer. To organize significant groups around their own interests and with that connecting them in motion around some larger issue. Obama carried his Chicago experience, his Illinois constituency, with him and as he made more powerful meaningful connections, like an extension cord, his total reach and power expanded.

For the Left, they should never speak another word about “politics” unless they can understand and explain to their own constituents, how this Black man, Ok, this person of color, Ok, this half white dude, became President of the United States. Because it is just such grounding in basic everyday electorally oriented politics that the Left denounces and eschews. To all our detriments. In the main, the Left holds rallies and makes statements. Community Organization is almost as foreign to them as the Right. (But then the Right does its “community organization” through their media).

Usually, when the Left talks about “the people” or “the masses” they come out of some comic book academic manual confusing the US, the most highly developed 21st century monopoly capitalist society, with 19th century Russia or early 20th century China. Both largely peasant societies with small but developing working classes. The US is neither.

The US is both debtor and predator state, at the same time. With a highly developed yet debt burdened working class who are told every day that they are the middle class. There is a middle class, a petty bourgeoisie, a very very affluent sector, who are the lieutenants and paid liars, the middle management who are also deeply in debt. There is also a petty petty bourgeois, the teachers, government workers, civil servants, office workers, &c. Racism still internally divides these classes horizontally, with the Afro American people still at the bottom, yet those same Afro American people, nearly 50 million, have a gross national product of 600 Billion dollars a year , the 16th largest in the world.

There have already been Four Revolutions in the United States. The first in the 18th century, for “independence” (quotes because in some ways it never completely happened. Check out British holdings in the US). The 2nd in the 19th century, the Civil War, which ended chattel slavery (& w/the 13th, 14th 15th amendments) and competitive capitalism, ushered in monopoly capitalism and began to free the white worker from the land.

The 3rd revolution was the 50’s to 70’s Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements which ended petty apartheid & segregation (Civil Rights Bill, Voting Rights Bill, Brown vs. Bd of Ed). Though a case could be made that this was an extended motion that was initiated by the post Civil War move out of the south by millions of Black people transforming the Afro American people from a largely peasant rural people to a working class. An urban proletariat.

The Obama election is the 4th Revolution! What is needed now is for the would be Left, the revolutionaries, the progressive sector of the body politic, the Communists to correctly analyze and project widely just what kind of revolution this is. But more than that, lay out exactly what is to be done at this point, the entry to a new stage of US social development, like we used to say, What is the key link, to make the next forward motion.


We should know that the stage of society to which we are moving toward would be some kind of Peoples Democracy. Fundamentally, this is the social base of Obama’s victory, the so called Post racial coalition. We understand that there is yet no such reality existing concretely in the institutions and relations of US society , except that is the oncoming force that won the 4th Revolution and it is this force that must harnessed as a living material entity in transforming US society.

This would place us near the most advanced stage of bourgeois democracy. We can see Monopoly capitalism crashing down around their and our heads! We have agreed to give the rulers a trillion dollars so they can continue to be rich and the rulers. But for the would be Leftists to tell us that Obama’s Only or that his “primary function is to save capitalism by building a united front to rescue capitalism NOT to bring about a more egalitarian, antiracist anti sexist pro environment society”. Why would anyone who was actually struggling for Democracy say that? It sounds like the sour grapes of the people who wanted us to waste our votes , but even though they tailed 98% of the Afro American and half of the rest of the American people, still want to give us advice and instructions. Actually, it is they who need advice and instructions.

To make such a one sided infantile Leftist or Trot like analysis of the election would only turn that overwhelming majority whom you tail anyway, even more sharply and outspokenly against you. There is neither balance nor real analysis in that statement. Just an attempt to be again, more revolutionary than the people. But the task of the revolutionary is to lead the people by taking what they already know and giving it back to them with the focus of the present the past and the future.

Plus to see Obama’s victory as simply a victory for monopoly capitalism is so thoroughly anarchist that it rejects the most important essence of the entire Obama drama, i.e. it was the highest stroke of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements yet. We bled to integrate lunch counters, buses, public toilets, water fountains, was that struggle just to create a united front to save monopoly capitalism? Do you think Obama’s victory less than those? It was a concrete victory for Democracy. Don’t you understand that you cd say the victory of the North in the civil was just to preserve capitalism? Yes, at a higher level. But don’t you think the concomitant advance of the Afro American people worth noting?

So to say Obama’s only function is to save monopoly capitalism, we say,”I’m glad you can dig it, but that's not all... “To claim merely an anarchist or infantile position and not deepen the analysis so we can understand that monopoly capitalism cannot survive unless it adopts some aspects of social democracy. Obama’s election is the first aspect of that social democracy. In the same way that FDR’s “New Deal” could not survive, even as a method of maintaining monopoly capitalism unless it adopted important features of socialism, social democracy, i.e., social security and Unemployment insurance, the WPA public Works project to put people back to work. Even the artists. I said before that what Obama must bring us is “A New New Deal”! That is why it is so important that he hit the ground running, in much the same way that Roosevelt did in his first 100 Days. (See ….) I was glad to hear that he was reading accounts of the emergency bills Roosevelt passed before the reactionary congress could block him. Obama faces the same exigency. We need a “fast break” strategy with a few”alley oop” dunks perhaps. Before the opposition can resolidify itself.

We have a great unity among the people now with Obama’s victory and we and the people must move forward with that catalyst. We must unite principally against still existing racism and white supremacy. We must also unite against the domination of monopoly capitalism over the people’s needs. The theft of a trillion dollars has infuriated the people, certainly we can unite them, build a united front around the need to destroy surviving racism and white supremacy and for creating greater regulations on monopoly capitalism. If we give the investment banks a trillion dollars we should own those investment banks. If we give another two hundred fifty billion to the auto industry, we should own that auto industry.

We cannot wipe away monopoly capitalism with one election but our minimum program must include regulation of it, Public ownership reversing the trend of outsourcing, and sending factories out of the country, usually out of working class and minority neighborhoods. Certainly we can build a united front around these things.

We should be listing those things we can do, those things that Obama’s election has enabled us to do rather than spending time telling people that what they and he did was nothing!

In attacking monopoly capitalism we shd support small capitalism and minority capitalism and fight that those businesses and institutions in working class and minority communities get the dollars that we are giving the investment banks and auto industry.

The development of small capitalism in those communities and state ownership of these financial institutions would be steps forward in terms of the development of a Peoples Democracy. Is this socialism, No, but we must first regulate and weaken monopoly capitalism, in tune with the peoples newly awakened appetite for expanded democracy and their hard times which we know and can make them better understand is caused by the domination of monopoly capitalism and imperialism, including the Iraq war.

It is up to us, the Left, to build on the powerful democratic coalition Obama’s campaign and election have already built. We must strive to make such a democratic coalition more than just an temporary election campaign call and fight to turn such ideas and momentary commitment into a powerful new base on which to focus Obama’s first term, but also to build this into a permanent aspect of US society. The anti war forces are another key aspect of this coalition and a means to call for a refocusing of the 10billion dollars a month now spent on the Iraq war.

We shd try to build a broad united front out of the consensus coming out of the 53% of the electorate that voted for Obama! One wonders how people in the Black Left who were at the North Carolina meeting, and some others, can really call for an even smaller united front than the hundred or so people who met there. What we need is a unity based on real struggle over actual objectives and motives, i.e. being “open and above board” without “conspiracy and intrigue”.

There are forces who dropped out of the Black Radical Congress because they were angry about alleged CPUSA “domination”, domination of what, and to what end? Just as a somewhat earlier canard that they couldn’t be in any group where there were white people. We wonder is this some fear of not being able to struggle for the correct line in these forces presence?

Too often it seems that some of the Black Left are really nationalists straining for a new identity by claiming to be Left but never Marxist Leninists. Some are Black Nationalists who claim “Left” by being influenced by Trotskyist or Anarchist stands.

At any rate we need an even broader United Front guided by genuine revolutionaries, communists not Trot influenced Black Leftists.


There are questions about Obama’s appointments even before he is inaugurated. Just as there were questions about him refusing public funding. On the second issue, it shd be obvious by now that Obama saw the public funding, as it is now constructed, to be a ruse to cripple his fund raising, while the Republicans would run ragtime and out raise him, just as Hillary would have done.

On the chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, we should try to understand that this was a very smart choice. The constant calumny against Obama that he is a Muslim. The Right kept screaming his middle name, Hussain, in hopes that would stop the Obamacoaster that enveloped the country. The constant questions about his support for Israel or from the other side about his relationship to the “Zionist entity” were a constant negation Obama faced. Even now, after the election, the fool, al Qaeda’s Zawahari, hurls insults about Obama. Just as some ignorant American anarchists threaten to disrupt the inauguration because of “Obama’s Zionism & Militarism”.

Rahm Emanuel’s selection is due to confound those who are not thoughtful about just what challenges Obama faces. The ever lurking actual Zionists will always make trouble until they can have what they really want, not peace, but the entire Middle East as a fiefdom ruled by Israel.

The Emanuel appointment stops Zionist mischief at the door. Karl Rove’s television appearance blasting Emanuel as “combative, ill tempered and foul mouthed” and that he was Obama’s worst appointment , were very encouraging to me. Let the rumor mongers and mischief makers and other nattering nabobs try to cause havoc at the gates. I trust Emanuel to handle that as chief of staff, both the constant undermining questions of the Zionists as well as the others who want to make Obama a Zionist. To be a friend of the Israeli people is no crime, to foster a Zionist dictatorship over the Middle East would be a crime. We cannot see Obama doing the latter.

The first necessity of the Obama precedent is to put out a call for a nationwide Democratic Coalition, to heighten even further the attack on white supremacy and racism. Even to fight to get these made illegal, unlawful. This would be the essence of the Post racial coalition, which has already shown its potential power with the election of the President. The Kennedy years could have set something of a precedent, but his assassination along with the assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, peaked with the election of Nixon and then the takeover at the end of the 70’s by the Reagan steamroller which has been with us in essence until today.

Those assassinations were a Right wing coup, an oil smelling coup that at its denouement was the invasion of the Middle East and the outright takeover of the oil fields, plus the move of the financial markets to Dubai, as alternate to London and Wall St. Monsters covered with and bathing in oil . The crash of the financial markets in the US and to some extent worldwide can mark the end of this domination if we will move on the new precedent of Obama’s election.

Not only must this new Democratic Coalition take on White supremacy and Racism but the oppose and struggle to end the domination of monopoly capitalism over the people of the US, end the war in Iraq and in essence its domination of the world. State ownership, nationalization, new funding for non monopoly and small business. This democratic coalition must be built into a permanent electoral presence as well to combat the still powerful and ruthless forces of white supremacy and the domination of society by monopoly capitalism.

The Public Works' New New Deal would see Katrina damaged New Orleans as a top priority and seek to reconstruct the entire gulf ravaged area from Louisiana to Texas. The sagging infrastructure of bridges and tunnels and urban structures must be repaired. This is one solution to chronic unemployment. Certainly these inner cities are in need of public dollars for employment and reconstruction. Just as in the depression 30’s Roosevelt’s new deal even supported the arts, we must see that our new Democratic Coalition demands the same kind of support after years of the Republicans attacks on public support of the Arts.

We want to build a new Democratic Coalition as an engine for the bringing of a People’s Democracy. Any narrowing of the “Post racial coalition” that elected Obama is a mistake. We must fight to make it real. Those who think that tailing “Labor” mostly the labor bureaucrats or pushing economism as a substitute for political organizing and fielding candidates for every position we are able to are merely continuing the marginalization and irrelevance of the Left. The call for an anti racist anti monopoly Democratic Coalition is correct and necessary and the only move that will give the genuine revolutionaries leadership of the progressive political struggle in the US.

Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones, b. 1934) is one of the major and most important writers of the past half century in the United States, as well as a longtime political and cultural activist and teacher since the early 1960s. Highly gifted and creatively proficient in many different genres of literature--poetry, playwriting, cultural criticism, the essay, fiction, music and literary theory, history, and criticism, as well as journalism --Baraka is also a consummate political organizer, theoretician, and strategist who has founded and/or been an integral part of many different social, cultural, and political organizations and is widely considered the leading force behind the legendary Black Arts Movement (BAM), a national cultural phenomenon that revolutionized American writing and cultural expression in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Amiri is the legendary and prolific author of over 30 books (!), an esteemed member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a past winner of the American Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. Baraka also taught literature, music history, cultural history, politics, and African American Studies for over 30 years at SUNY--Stony Brook, Columbia, Yale, and Georgetown universities.

Change We Can Believe In?



Anjali Kamat, a producer of "Democracy Now!" writes below on the grave necessity of "demanding something more" of our new President-elect.
Remember: Holding Obama accountable is identical to holding ourselves accountable. In fact political responsibility rests with all of us even more than it does with Barack. It is absolutely paramount that we not forget that fundamental fact and act accordingly...


Change We Can Believe In?

Obama's landslide victory marks the beginning of a new era, a moment of enormous possibility and for those of us fed up from the past eight years, long overdue prospect of change. But the change needs our continued efforts and work, unless we are willing to settle for another version of the Clinton years.

By Anjali Kamat
This piece originally appeared in Samar 30, published online November 10th, 2008.

It has been less than a week since Barack Hussein Obama's remarkable victory at the polls. Despite a vicious Republican campaign built on hate, ignorance, McCarthyite fear-mongering, and voter disenfranchisement efforts, the junior senator from Illinois won the election by more than 7.5 million votes. He overturned months of speculation about the "Bradley effect" and the projected disapproval of white working-class voters by winning swing states and turning even reliably red states like Indiana, Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina blue for the first time in decades.

People across the country took to the streets in droves to celebrate President-elect Obama's victory on November 4th. The thousands of volunteers who devoted time and energy to promote his campaign and the millions who donated, many less than $200, are ecstatic. To all those for whom America has represented generations of racial injustice—slavery, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and the Jena Six—the election of America's first Black president marks the beginning of a new era. It's a moment of enormous possibility and the realization of a long-awaited dream that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. And everyone fed up with the past eight years of the Bush-Cheney nightmare (and two elections stolen from under the noses of Gore and Kerry) is overjoyed at the long-overdue prospect of change.

But is this really "change we can believe in?" That depends on whether we're willing to settle for another version of the Clinton years or demand something more. Obama won the election primarily on economic issues but unless his millions-strong grassroots constituency holds his feet to the fire, the banks and the corporations will be the only remaining believers in this brand of change. Obama's support of the Treasury's bailout plan, his failure to call for a complete moratorium on foreclosures until just last month, and the fact that Clinton-era champions of deregulation (like Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin) are among those getting the President-elect's ear on economic issues are not encouraging signs. Nor are Vice-President elect Joe Biden's close ties to the credit card industry.

Obama secured the support many progressives because he was the only Democratic Presidential candidate (besides Dennis Kucinich) who did not vote for the war in Iraq. But his ideas on how to end this trillion-dollar war remain ambiguous at best and his stated commitment to pursuing the "war on terror" in Afghanistan and extending it into Pakistan should be alarming to many. He has repeatedly called for increasing US troops inside Afghanistan and said he supports unilateral attacks on "Al Qaeda targets" inside Pakistan—with or without Pakistan's permission. On Iran, to his credit, he has said he would talk to the leadership but has also argued for increased pressure and tightened sanctions to halt Iran's nuclear program, "before Israel feels like its back is to the wall."

Israel may well be the Achilles heel of Obama's progressive pretensions. It's particularly disheartening given the respect he once held for reputed Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi. A day after winning the Democratic nomination, Obama told AIPAC that Jerusalem should be Israel's undivided capital. Now, just two days after being elected President, he named the hawkish pro-Israeli Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff, crushing any hopes that the coming administration might have a fairer policy on the Palestinian question. In another questionable appointment, Obama just named Sonal Shah to his transition team. A co-founder of Indicorps, Shah was also, until 2001, the National Coordinator of the deeply sectarian Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, tied to the Sangh Parivar in India.

On domestic issues of criminal justice and civil liberties, the Obama-Biden record is not very inspiring either. They both support the death penalty and Joe Biden is infamous for sponsoring some of the most punitive legislation in the war on drugs. Biden voted for the PATRIOT Act and Obama voted to reauthorize it. Equally shameful is the fact that Obama voted this July to cover up the Bush administration's illegal surveillance program. He supported Bush's expansion of warrantless wiretapping as well as retroactive immunity for telecom companies involved in the eavesdropping.

For eight years, people in the U.S. have endured an administration that has blatantly undermined the Constitution, rejected multilateralism and international law, launched illegal and inhumane wars, refused to believe in global warming, and engaged in unmatched lying, scheming, and corporate thieving. An Obama presidency will indeed be an improvement in many respects. But unless the inspired millions who brought him to power continue to believe their demands matter and insist on holding him accountable each step of the way, it will be Obama's corporate and hawkish friends who determine the domestic and foreign policies of the coming administration and our collective future.

"We will not be silent" became a popular slogan during the Bush years, signaling opposition to everything the Bush administration stood for. It is perhaps tempting to remain silent now, during this immediate after-glow of Obama's victory, to allow ourselves a moment of relief. While on the campaign trail Obama often quoted Dr. Martin Luther King to explain why he was running for President: because, he said, of the "fierce urgency of now," because "there is such a thing as being too late." Those words are from MLK's 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech, where Dr. King, unlike Obama, called for an unequivocal end to all American war-making and solidarity with people's struggles against injustice around the world. If we're serious about realizing the kind of change we actually do believe in, then it's worthwhile to remember the letter and spirit of MLK's words and speak up before its too late.

Anjali Kamat is a producer at Democracy Now!

Democracy Now!: Naomi Klein, Robert Kuttner and Michael Hudson Dissect Obama's New Economic Team & Stimulus Plan



This riveting discussion by Naomi Klein, Michael Hudson, and Robert Kuttner on Amy Goodman's excellent program "Democracy Now!" is by far the most honest and erudite yet of the actual severe contradictions, inadequacies, misrepresentations, and weaknesses within Obama's new highly problematic, deeply compromised, and politically elitist economic team, and what their historically complicit role in the current massive capitalist crisis of the thoroughly corrupt U.S. multinational banking system and heavily subsidized financial institutions (via criminally huge public bailouts) augurs for the general future of the American/global economy vis-a-vis Obama's professed and now empirically suspect vision of genuine social and economic "change". All three participants in this discussion are highly prescient and insightful in their respective invaluable analyses and Klein and Hudson are particularly sharp and hard hitting as well as highly skeptical about Obama's new selections of people like the largely conservative economic and financial staff policy advisors Larry Summers (formerly Clinton's Treasury Secretary and now head of Obama's National Economic Council) and Timothy Geithner, Obama's new Secretary of the Treasury (and Summers's former protege). Very disturbing to say the least. Clearly we all have a lot of political organizing work to do to help fully counter and critically oppose the so-called 'safe' and 'conventional wisdom' of Obama's new economic team and their policies...


Sean Penn With Raul Castro & Hugo Chavez


Amiri Baraka sent this to me yesterday. Fascinating interviews by Sean Penn (!) with Fidel's brother and Cuba's president Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez...


Sean Penn Sits Down With Raul Castro for First Foreign Interview


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -- November 25, 2008 Cuban President Raul
Castro Sits Down with Sean Penn & The Nation for First Foreign
Interview Castro Speaks About President-Elect Obama, Guantanamo and
Relations With the Pentagon; Hugo Chavez Interviewed As Well.

In the cover story of this week's Nation Magazine, actor/filmmaker Sean
Penn questions Cuban President Raul Castro in his first-ever
interview with the foreign press. In the wide-ranging, seven-hour
conversation, Castro discusses his views of President-elect Barack
Obama, reflects on his role during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the
Cuban missile crisis, and shares details of the secret but ongoing
military relationship between the Pentagon and Cuba over Guantanamo.

Penn, making his second trip to Cuba, spoke to Castro at the
Presidential Palace in Havana with the knowledge of Castro's
brother Fidel. In the interview, Castro:

* Expands on the secret military relationship between the Pentagon
and Cuba, detailing a remarkably structured series of monthly
meetings, formal response plans to crises on=2 0the base, and even a
hotline and collaborative emergency response exercises held jointly
between the two militaries. This cooperation belies the popular image
of two antagonistic nations on the brink of conflict.

* Offered his prediction about the (then) upcoming U.S. Presidential
election. "If he is not murdered before November 4," he says of
Obama, "he will be your next President."

* Describes the drama and unheard details about the Cuban missile
crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

* Responds forcefully to allegations of human rights violations and
suppression of free speech, and defends criticism of Cuba as a haven
for the drug trade.

* Extends a surprising olive branch to the United States, proposing a
summit with President-elect Barack Obama.

Castro, sipping tea and discussing films as well as politics with
Penn, is at times defiant towards the United States. "Iraq is a
child's game," he tells Penn, "compared with what would happen if the
U.S. invaded Cuba." Largely, though, Castro is respectful towards the
United States and it's people, challenging policy ("a blockade is an
act of war, so Americans prefer the term embargo") but expressing
generosity towards Americans. "The American people are among our
closest neighbors," he says. "We should respect each other. We have
never held anything against the American people. Good relations would
be mutually advantageous.20Perhaps we cannot solve all of our
problems, but we can solve a good many of them."

In the article, Conversations with Chavez and Castro, Penn also
travels to Venezuela as well as to Cuba with journalist Christopher
Hitchens and historian Douglas Brinkley. In Venezuela, the group
interviewed President Hugo Chavez at length, discussing his view of a
potential relationship with President Obama, the Monroe Doctrine and
human rights and freedom of expression under his presidency.

The article is online now at:
[http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081215/penn], along with a
VideoNation interview with Sean Penn.

Conversations With Chavez and Castro
By Sean Penn

This article appeared in the December 15, 2008 edition of The Nation.
November 25, 2008

This article is an adapted excerpt of the essay/interview "A Mountain of
Snakes," which will appear in full December 1 at HuffingtonPost.

Sean Penn: Conversations with Raul Castro about Obama, Guantánamo and the
Pentagon; and with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on human rights in his
country and the next US administration.

Soon to be Vice President-elect Joe Biden was rallying the troops: "We can
no longer be energy dependent on Saudi Arabia or a Venezuelan dictator."
Well, I know what Saudi Arabia is. But having been to Venezue la in 2006,
touring slums, mixing with the wealthy opposition and spending days and
hours at its president's side, I wondered, without wondering, to whom
Senator Biden was referring. Hugo Chávez Frías is the democratically elected
president of Venezuela (and by democratically elected I mean that he has
repeatedly stood before the voters in internationally sanctioned elections
and won large majorities, in a system that, despite flaws and
irregularities, has allowed his opponents to defeat him and win office, both
in a countrywide referendum last year and in regional elections in
November). And Biden's words were the kind of rhetoric that had recently led
us into a life-losing and monetarily costly war, which, while toppling a
shmuck in Iraq, had also toppled the most dynamic principles upon which the
United States was founded, enhanced recruitment for Al Qaeda and
deconstructed the US military.

By now, October 2008, I had digested my earlier visits to Venezuela and Cuba
and time spent with Chávez and Fidel Castro. I had grown increasingly
intolerant of the propaganda. Though Chávez himself has a penchant for
rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war. In hopes of demythologizing
this "dictator," I decided to pay him another visit. By this time I had come
to say to friends in private, "It's true, Chávez may not be a good man. But
he may well be a great one."

Among those to whom I said this were historian Douglas Brinkley and Vanity
Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens. These two were perfect complements.
Brinkley is a notably steady thinker whose historian's code of ethics
assures adherence to supremely reasoned evidence. Hitchens, a wily
wordsmith, ever too unpredictable for predisposition, is a wild card by any
measure who in a talk-show throwaway once referred to Chávez as an "oil-rich
clown." Though I believe Hitchens to be as principled as he is brilliant, he
can be combative to the point of bullying, as he once was in severe comments
made about saintly antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. Brinkley and Hitchens
would balance any perceived bias in my writing. Also, these are a couple of
guys I have a lot of fun with and affection for.

So I called Fernando Sulichin, an old friend and well-connected independent
film producer from Argentina, and asked that he get them vetted and approved
to interview Chávez. In addition, we wanted to fly from Venezuela to Havana,
and I asked that Fernando request on our behalf interviews with the Castro
brothers, most urgently Raúl, who had taken over the reins of power from an
ailing Fidel in February--and who had never given a foreign interview. I had
traveled to Cuba in 2005, when I had the good fortune of meeting Fidel, and
was eager for an interview with the new president. The phone rang at 2
o'clock the following after noon. "Mi hermano," Fernando said. "It is done."

Our flight from Houston to Caracas was delayed due to mechanical problems.
It was 1 o'clock in the morning, and as we waited, Hitchens paced. "Very
rarely does only one thing go wrong," he said. He must have liked the way it
sounded, because he said it again. He was God's pessimist. I said, "Hitch,
it's gonna be fine. They'll get us another plane, and we'll be there on
time." But God's pessimist is actually God's atheistic pessimist. And I
would later be reminded of the clarity in his atheism. Something else would
indeed go wrong. Well, right and wrong, as you'll find out. Within two
hours, we were taking off.

When we landed at Caracas airport, Fernando was there to greet us. He guided
us to a private terminal, where we waited for the arrival of President
Chávez, who would take us on a stumping tour for gubernatorial candidates on
the beautiful Isla Margarita.

We spent the next two days in Chávez's constant company, with many hours of
private meetings among the four of us. In the private quarters of the
president's plane, I find that on the subject of baseball Chávez's command
of English soars. When Douglas asks if the Monroe Doctrine should be
abolished, Chávez, wanting to choose his words carefully, reverts to Spanish
to detail the nuances of his position against this doctrine, which has
justified US interv ention in Latin America for almost two centuries. "The
Monroe Doctrine has to be broken," he says. "We've been stuck with it for
over 200 years. It always gets back to the old confrontation of Monroe
versus Bolívar. Jefferson used to say that America should swallow, one by
one, the republics of the south. The country where you were born was based
on an imperialistic attitude."

Venezuelan intelligence tells him that the Pentagon has plans for invading
his country. "I know they are thinking about invading Venezuela," Chávez
says. It seems he sees killing the Monroe Doctrine as a yardstick for his
destiny. "Nobody again can come here and export our natural resources." Is
he concerned about the US reaction to his bold statements about the Monroe
Doctrine? He quotes Uruguayan freedom fighter José Gervasio Artigas: "With
the truth, I don't offend or fear."

Hitchens sits quietly, taking notes throughout the conversation. Chávez
recognizes a flicker of skepticism in his eye. "CREES-to-fer, ask me a
question. Ask me the hardest question." They share a smile. Hitchens asks,
"What's the difference between you and Fidel?" Chávez says, "Fidel is a
communist. I am not. I am a social democrat. Fidel is a Marxist-Leninist. I
am not. Fidel is an atheist. I am not. One day we discussed God and Christ.
I told Castro, I am a Christian. I believe in the Social Gospels of Christ.
He doesn't. Just doesn't. More than once, Castro told me that Venezuela is
not Cuba, and we are not in the 1960s.

"You see," Chávez says, "Venezuela must have democratic socialism. Castro
has been a teacher for me. A master. Not on ideology but on strategy."
Perhaps ironically, John F. Kennedy is Chávez's favorite US president. "I
was a boy," he says. "Kennedy was the driving force of reform in America."
Surprised by Chávez's affinity for Kennedy, Hitch chimes in, referring to
Kennedy's counter-Cuba economic plan for Latin America: "The Alliance for
Progress was a good thing?" "Yes," says Chávez. "The Alliance for Progress
was a political proposal to improve conditions. It was aimed at lowering the
social difference between cultures."

Conversation among the four of us continues on buses, at rallies and at
dedications throughout Isla Margarita. Chávez is tireless. He addresses
every new group for hours on end under a blistering sun. At most he'll sleep
four hours at night, spending the first hour of his morning reading news of
the world. And once he's on his feet, he's unstoppable despite heat,
humidity and the two layers of revolutionary red shirts he wears.

I had three primary motivations for this trip: to include the voices of
Brinkley and Hitchens, to deepen my understanding of Chávez and Venezuela
and excite my writing hand, and to enlist Chávez's support in encouraging
=0 A the Castro brothers to meet with the three of us in Havana. While my
understanding through Fernando was that this third piece of the puzzle had
been approved and confirmed, somewhere in the cultural, language and
telephonic exchanges there had been a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, CBS News
was expecting a report from Brinkley, Vanity Fair was expecting one from
Hitchens and I was writing on behalf of The Nation.

On our third day in Venezuela, we thanked President Chávez for his time, the
four of us standing among security personnel and press at the Santiago
Marino Airport on Isla Margarita. Brinkley had a final question, and so did
I. "Mr. President," he said, "if Barack Obama is elected president of the
United States, would you accept an invitation to fly to Washington and meet
with him?" Chávez immediately answered, "Yes."

When it was my turn, I said, "Mr. President, it is very important for us to
meet with the Castros. It is impossible to tell the story of Venezuela
without including Cuba--and impossible to tell the story of Cuba without the
Castros." Chávez promised us that he would call President Castro the moment
he got on his plane and ask on our behalf but warned us that it was unlikely
big brother Fidel would be able to respond so quickly, as he was doing a lot
of writing and reflecting these days, not seeing a lot of people. He could
make no promises about Ra úl either. Chávez boarded his plane, and we watched
him fly away.

The next morning we took off for Havana. Full disclosure: we were loaned an
airplane through the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. If someone
wants to refer to that as a payoff, be my guest. But when you read the next
report from a journalist flying on Air Force One, or hopping on board a US
military transport plane, be so kind as to dismiss that article as well. We
appreciated the ride in all its luxury, but our reporting remains

'Very Rarely Does Only One Thing Go Wrong'

For me the personal stakes were pretty high. Getting on the plane to Havana
shy of that guarantee of access to Raúl Castro was making me anxious.
Christopher had pulled out of a few important speaking engagements at the
last minute to make the trip. It was not his practice to leave others
holding the bag. So for him, it was buy or bust, and he was becoming
agitated. Douglas, a professor of history at Rice University, would have to
return imminently for lecture obligations. Fernando was feeling the weight
of our expectation that he'd be our battering ram. And me, well, I was
depending on the call to Castro from Chávez, both to get the interview and
to save my ass with my companions.

We landed in Havana around noon and were met on the tarmac by Omar Gonzalez
Jimenez, preside nt of the Cuban Film Institute, and Luis Alberto Notario,
head of the institute's international co-production wing. I'd spent time
with both of them on my earlier trip to Cuba. We started catching up on
personal matters on the walk to the customs office, until Hitch stepped
forward and unabashedly demanded of Omar, "Sir, we must see the president!"
"Yes," Omar said. "We are aware of the request, and word has been passed to
the president. We are still awaiting his response."

For the rest of that day and into the following afternoon, we tortured our
hosts with the incessant drumbeat: Raúl, Raúl, Raúl. I assumed if Fidel was
up to it and could make the time, he would call. And if not, I remained
appreciative of our prior meeting and said as much in a note I passed to him
through Omar. Raúl I only knew about through what I'd read, and I hadn't a
clue as to whether or not he'd see us.

Cubans are a particularly warm and hospitable people. As our hosts took us
around the city, I noticed that the number of American 1950s cars had
diminished even in the few years since my last trip, giving way to smaller
Russian designs. On a sweep by the invasive-looking US Interests Section on
the Malecón, where waves breaking against the sea wall shower passing cars,
I noticed something almost indescribable about the atmosphere in Cuba. It is
the palpable presence of architectura l and living human history on a small
plot of land surrounded by water. Even the visitor feels the spirit of a
culture that proclaims, in various ways, "This is our special place."

We snaked through Old Havana, and in a glass-encased display outside the
Museum of the Revolution we saw the Granma, the boat used to transport Cuban
revolutionaries from Mexico in 1956. We moved on to the Palace of Fine Arts,
with its collection of passionate and political pieces from a cross section
of Cuba's deep talent pool. We then toured the Higher Institute of Arts and
later went to dinner with National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón and
Roberto Fabelo, a painter they had invited after I'd expressed appreciation
of his work at the art museum that afternoon. By midnight there had still
been no word from Raúl Castro. After that we were taken to the protocol
house, where we would lay our heads till dawn.

By noon of the following day, the clock was ticking loudly in our ears. We
had sixteen hours left in Havana before we would have to head to the airport
to catch our flights back home. We were sitting around a table at La
Castellana, an upscale Old Havana eatery, with a large group of artists and
musicians who, led by the famed Cuban painter Kcho, had established Brigada
Martha Machado, an organization of volunteers aiding victims of Hurricanes
Ike and Gustav on the Isle of Youth. The brigade has the full support of
government dollars, airplanes and staff that would be the envy of our Gulf
Coast volunteers after Hurricane Katrina. Also joining us for lunch was
Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, a handsome young man of humble character who
is the 39-year-old son of Fidel Castro. Antonio is a doctor and chief medic
for the Cuban national baseball team. I had a brief but pleasant chat with
him and re-emphasized our Raúl agenda.

The clock was no longer ticking. It was pounding. Omar told me we would be
hearing the decision of the president quite soon. Fingers crossed, Douglas,
Hitch, Fernando and I went back to the protocol house to get our bags packed
in advance. By 6 pm, we were on a ten-hour countdown. I was sitting
downstairs in the living room, reading in the hazy late-afternoon light.
Hitch and Douglas were in their upstairs quarters, I assumed napping to
offset anxiety. And on the couch beside me was Fernando, snoring away.

Then Luis appeared at our open front door. I glanced over the top of my
glasses as he gave me a very direct nod. Without words, I pointed
questioningly up the stairs to where my companions lay. But Luis shook his
head apologetically. "Only you," he said. The president had made his

I could hear Hitch's words of doubt echo in my head, "Very rarely does only
one thing go wrong." Was he talking about me? Et mi, Br ute? Nonetheless, I
grabbed at my back pocket to make sure I had my pad of Venezuela notes,
checked for my pen, pocketed my specs and headed out with Luis. Just before
I shut the door of the waiting car, I heard Fernando's voice calling after
me. "Sean!" We drove away.

I'm Off to See the Wizard

Stateside, Cuban President Raúl Castro, the island's former minister of the
Armed Forces, has been branded a "cold militarist" and a "puppet" of Fidel.
But the once ponytailed young revolutionary of the Sierra Maestra is proving
the snakes wrong. Indeed, "Raulism" is on the rise alongside a recent
industrial and agricultural economic boom. Fidel's legacy, like that of
Chávez, will depend upon the sustainability of a flexible revolution, one
that could survive its leader's departure by death or resignation. Fidel has
once again been underestimated by the North. In the selection of his brother
Raúl, he has put the day-to-day policy-making of his country into formidable
hands. In a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, US State
Department spokesman John Casey acknowledges that Raulism could lead to
"greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people."

Soon enough I'm sitting at a small polished table in a government office
with President Castro and a translator. "Fidel called me moments ago," he
tells me. "He wants me to call him after we have spoken." There is a humor
i n Raúl's voice that recalls a lifetime of affectionate tolerance for his
big brother's watchful eye. "He wants to know everything we speak about," he
says with the chuckle of the wise. "I never liked the idea of giving
interviews," he says. "One says many things, but when they are published,
they become shortened, condensed. The ideas lose their meaning. I was told
you make long movies. Maybe you will make long journalism as well." I
promise him I'll write as fast as I can, and print as much as I write. He
tells me he's informally promised his first interview as president
elsewhere, and not wanting to multiply what could be construed as an insult,
he singled me out from my companions.

Castro and I share a cup of tea. "Forty-six years ago today, at exactly this
time of day, we mobilized troops, Alameda in the West, Fidel in Havana, me
in Areda. It had been announced at noon in Washington that President Kennedy
would give a speech. This was during the missile crisis. We anticipated that
the speech would be a declaration of war. After his humiliation at the Bay
of Pigs, the pressure of the missiles [which Castro claims were strictly
defensive] would represent a great defeat to Kennedy. Kennedy would not
stand with that defeat. Today we study US candidates very carefully,
focusing on McCain and Obama. We look at all the old speeches. Particularly
those made in Florida, where opposing Cuba=2 0has become a for-profit business
for many. In Cuba we have one party, but in the US there is very little
difference. Both parties are an expression of the ruling class." He says
today's Miami Cuban lobby members are descendants of Batista-era wealth, or
international landowners "who'd only paid pennies for their land" while Cuba
had been under absolute US rule for sixty years.

"The 1959 land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence
for our US relations." Castro seems to be sizing me up as he takes another
sip of his tea. "At that moment, there was no discussion about socialism, or
Cuba dealing with Russia. But the die was cast."

After the Eisenhower administration bombed two vessel-loads of guns headed
for Cuba, Fidel reached out to old allies. Raúl says, "We asked Italy. No!
We asked Czechoslovakia. No! Nobody would give us weapons to defend
ourselves because Eisenhower had put pressure on them. So by the time we got
weapons from Russia, we had no time to learn how to use them before the US
attacked at the Bay of Pigs!" He laughs and excuses himself to an adjacent
restroom, briefly disappearing behind a wall, only to immediately pop back
into the room, joking, "At 77, this is the fault of the tea."

Joking aside, Castro moves with the agility of a young man. He exercises
every day, his eyes are bright and his voice is strong. He picks up where he
left off. "You know, Sean, there was a famous picture of Fidel from the Bay
of Pigs invasion. He is standing in front of a Russian tank. We did not yet
know even how to put those tanks in reverse. So," he jokes, "retreat was no
option!" So much for the "cold militarist." Raúl Castro was warm, open,
energetic and sharp of wit.

I return to the subject of US elections by repeating the question Brinkley
had asked Chávez: Would Castro accept an invitation to Washington to meet
with a President Obama, assuming he won in the polling, only a few weeks
away? Castro becomes reflective. "This is an interesting question," he says,
followed by a rather long, awkward silence. Until: "The US has the most
complicated election process in the world. There are practiced election
stealers in the Cuban-American lobby in Florida..." I chime in, "I think
that lobby is fracturing." And then, with the certainty of a die-hard
optimist, I say, "Obama will be our next president." Castro smiles,
seemingly at my naïveté, but the smile disappears as he says, "If he is not
murdered before November 4, he'll be your next president." I note that he
had still not answered my question about meeting in Washington. "You know,"
he says, "I have read the statements Obama has made, that he would preserve
the blockade." I interject, "His term was embargo." "Yes," Castro says,
"blockade is an act of war, so A mericans prefer the term embargo, a word
that is used in legal proceedings...but in either case, we know that this is
pre-election talk, and that he has also said he is open to discussion with

Raúl interrupts himself: "You are probably thinking, Oh, the brother talks
as much as Fidel!" We laugh. "It is not usually so, but you know,
Fidel--once he had a delegation here, in this room, from China. Several
diplomats and a young translator. I think it was the translator's first time
with a head of state. They'd all had a very long flight and were jet-lagged.
Fidel, of course, knew this, but still he talked for hours. Soon, one near
the end of the table, just there [pointing to a nearby chair], his eyes
begin to get heavy. Then another, then another. But Fidel, he continued to
talk. Soon all, including the highest-ranking of them, to whom Fidel had
been directly addressing his words, fell sound asleep in their chairs. So
Fidel, he turns his eyes to the only one awake, the young translator, and
kept him in conversation till dawn." By this time in the story, both Raúl
and I were in stitches. I'd only had the one meeting with Fidel, whose
astonishing mind and passion bleed words. But it was enough to get the
picture. Only our translator was not laughing, as Castro returned to the

"In my first statement after Fidel fell ill, I said we are willing to<> discuss our relationship with the US on equal footing. Later, in 2006, I
said it again in an address at the Revolutionary Square. I was laughed at by
the US media--that I was applying cosmetics over dictatorship." I offer him
another opportunity to speak to the American people. He answers, "The
American people are among our closest neighbors. We should respect each
other. We have never held anything against the American people. Good
relations would be mutually advantageous. Perhaps we cannot solve all of our
problems, but we can solve a good many of them."

He paused now, slowly considering a thought. "I'll tell you something, and
I've never said it publicly before. It had been leaked, at some point, by
someone in the US State Department, but was quickly hushed up because of
concern about the Florida electorate, though now, as I tell you this, the
Pentagon will think me indiscreet."

I wait with bated breath. "We've had permanent contact with the US military,
by secret agreement, since 1994," Castro tells me. "It is based on the
premise that we would discuss issues only related to Guantánamo. On February
17, 1993, following a request by the United States to discuss issues related
to buoy locators for ship navigations into the bay, was the first contact in
the history of the revolution. Between March 4 and July 1, the Rafters
Crisis took place. A military-to-military hot line was established, and on
May 9, 1995, we agreed to monthly meetings with primaries from both
governments. To this day, there have been 157 meetings, and there is a taped
record of every meeting. The meetings are conducted on the third Friday of
every month. We alternate locations between the American base at Guantánamo
and in Cuban-held territory. We conduct joint emergency-response exercises.
For example, we set a fire, and American helicopters bring water from the
bay, in concert with Cuban helicopters. [Before this] the American base at
Guantánamo had created chaos. We had lost border guards, and have graphic
evidence of it. The US had encouraged illegal and dangerous emigration, with
US Coast Guard ships intercepting Cubans who tried to leave the island. They
would bring them to Guantánamo, and a minimal cooperation began. But we
would no longer play guard to our coast. If someone wanted to leave, we
said, Go ahead. And so, with the navigation issues came the beginning of
this collaboration. Now at the Friday meetings there is always a
representative of the US State Department." No name given. He continues,
"The State Department tends to be less reasonable than the Pentagon. But no
one raises their voice because...I don't take part. Because I talk loud. It
is the only place in the world where these two militaries meet in peace."

"What about Guantánamo?" I ask. "I'll tell you the truth,"=2 0Castro says. "The
base is our hostage. As a president, I say the US should go. As a military
man, I say let them stay." Inside, I'm wondering, Have I got a big story to
break here? Or is this of little relevance? It should be no surprise that
enemies speak behind the scenes. What is a surprise is that he's talking to
me about it. And with that, I circle back to the question of a meeting with
Obama. "Should a meeting take place between you and our next president, what
would be Cuba's first priority?" Without a beat, Castro answers, "Normalize
trade." The indecency of the US embargo on Cuba has never been more evident
than now, in the wake of three devastating hurricanes. The Cuban people's
needs have never been more desperate. The embargo is simply inhumane and
entirely unproductive. Raúl continues, "The only reason for the blockade is
to hurt us. Nothing can deter the revolution. Let Cubans come to visit with
their families. Let Americans come to Cuba." It seems he's saying, Let them
come see this terrible Communist dictatorship they keep hearing about in the
press, where even representatives of the State Department and prominent
dissidents acknowledge that in a free and open election in Cuba today, the
ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the electorate. I list
several US conservatives who have been critical of the embargo, from the
late economist Milton Friedman, to Colin Powell, to20even Texas Republican
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who said, "I have believed for a while that we
should be looking for a new strategy for Cuba. And that is, opening more
trade, especially food trade, especially if we can give the people more
contact with the outside world. If we can build up the economy, that might
make the people more able to fight the dictatorship." Castro, ignoring the
slight, responds boldly, "We welcome the challenge."

By now, we have moved on from the tea to red wine and dinner. "Let me tell
you something," he says. "We have newly advanced research that strongly
suggests deepwater offshore oil reserves, which US companies can come and
drill. We can negotiate. The US is protected by the same Cuban trade laws as
anyone else. Perhaps there can be some reciprocity. There are 110,000 square
kilometers of sea in the divided area. God would be unfair not to give some
oil to us. I don't believe he would deprive us this way." Indeed, the US
Geological Survey speculates something in the area of 9 billion barrels of
oil and 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the North Cuba
Basin. Now that he's improved recently rocky relations with Mexico, Castro
is looking at also improving prospects with the European Union. "EU
relations should improve with Bush's exit," he states confidently. "And the
US?" I ask. "Listen," he says, "we are as patient as the Chinese. Seven ty
percent of our population was born under the blockade. I am the
longest-standing minister of Armed Forces in history. Forty-eight and a half
years until last October. That's why I'm in this uniform and continue to
work from my old office. In Fidel's office, nothing has been touched. At the
Warsaw Pact military exercises, I was the youngest, and the one who had been
there the longest. Then, I was the oldest, and still the one who had been
there the longest. Iraq is a child's game compared with what would happen if
the US invaded Cuba." After another sip of wine, Castro says, "Preventing a
war is tantamount to winning a war. This is in our doctrine."

With our dinner finished, I walk with the president through the sliding
glass doors onto a greenhouse-like terrace with tropical plants and birds.
As we sip more wine, he says, "There is an American movie--the elite are
sitting around a table, trying to decide who will be their next president.
They look outside the window, where they see the gardener. Do you know the
movie I'm talking about?" "Being There," I say. "Yes!" Castro responds
excitedly, "Being There. I like this movie very much. With the United
States, every objective possibility exists. The Chinese say: 'On the longest
path, you start with the first step.' The US president should take this step
on his own, but with no threat to our sovereignty. That is not negotiable.
We ca n make demands without telling each other what to do within our

"Mr. President," I say, "watching the last presidential debate in the United
States, we heard John McCain encouraging the free-trade agreement with
Colombia, a country where death squads are notorious and assassinations of
labor leaders have been occurring, and yet relations with the United States
continue to get closer, as the Bush administration is currently attempting
to push that agreement through Congress. As you know, I've just come from
Venezuela, which, like Cuba, the Bush administration considers an enemy
nation, though of course we buy a lot of oil from them. It occurred to me
that Colombia may reasonably become our geographically strategic partner in
South America, as Israel is in the Middle East. Would you comment on that?"

He considers the question with caution, speaking in a slow and metered tone.
"Right now," he says, "we have good relations with Colombia. But I will say
that if there is a country in South America where an environment exists that
is vulnerable to that...it is Colombia." Thinking of Chávez's suspicion of
US intentions to intervene in Venezuela, I take a deep breath.

The hour was getting late, but I didn't want to leave without asking Castro
about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking
facilitated by the Cuban government. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch
states that Cuba "remains the one country in Latin America that represses
nearly all forms of political dissent." Furthermore, there are about 200
political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4 percent of whom are
convicted of crimes of nonviolent dissent. As I await Castro's comments, I
can't help but think of the nearby US prison at Guantánamo and the
horrendous US offenses against human rights there.

"No country is 100 percent free of human rights abuses," Castro tells me.
But, he insists, "reports in the US media are highly exaggerated and
hypocritical." Indeed, even high-profile Cuban dissidents, such as Eloy
Gutiérrez Menoyo, acknowledge the manipulations, accusing the US Interests
Section of gaining dissident testimony through cash payoffs. Ironically, in
1992 and '94, Human Rights Watch also described lawlessness and intimidation
by anti-Castro groups in Miami as what author/journalist Reese Erlich termed
"violations normally associated with Latin American dictatorships."

Having said that, I'm a proud American and infinitely aware that if I were a
Cuban citizen and were to write an article such as this about the Cuban
leadership, I could be jailed. Furthermore, I'm proud that the system set up
by our founding fathers, while not exactly intact today, was never dependent
on just one great leader per epoch. These things remain in question for the
romantic heroes of Cuba and Venezuela. I consider20mentioning this, and
perhaps should have, but I've got something else on my mind.

"Can we talk about drugs?" I ask Castro. He responds, "The United States is
the largest consumer of narcotics in the world. Cuba sits directly between
the United States and its suppliers. It is a big problem for us.... With the
expansion of tourism, a new market has developed, and we struggle with it.
It is also said that we allow narco-traffickers to travel through Cuban
airspace. We allow no such thing. I'm sure some of these planes get by us.
It is simply due to economic restrictions that we no longer have functioning
low-altitude radar."

While this may sound like tall-tale telling, not so, according to Col.
Lawrence Wilkerson, a former adviser to Colin Powell. Wilkerson told Reese
Erlich in a January interview, "The Cubans are our best partners in the
counter-drug and counter-terror war in the Caribbean. Even better than
Mexico. The military looked at Cuba as a very cooperative partner."

I want to ask Castro my unanswered question a final time, as our mutual body
language suggests we've hit the witching hour. It is after 1 am, but he
initiates. "Now," he says, "you asked if I would accept to meet with [Obama]
in Washington. I would have to think about it. I would discuss it with all
my comrades in the leadership. Personally, I think it would not be fair that
I be the first to visi t, because it is always the Latin American presidents
who go to the United States first. But it would also be unfair to expect the
president of the United States to come to Cuba. We should meet in a neutral

He pauses, putting down his empty wine glass. "Perhaps we could meet at
Guantánamo. We must meet and begin to solve our problems, and at the end of
the meeting, we could give the president a gift...we could send him home
with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay."

As we exit his office, we are followed by staff as President Castro takes me
down the elevator to the lobby and walks me to my waiting car. I thank him
for the generosity of his time. As my driver puts the car in gear, the
president taps on the window beside me. I roll it down as the president
checks his watch, realizing that seven hours have passed since we began the
interview. Smiling, he says, "I will call Fidel now. I can promise you this.
When Fidel finds I have spoken to you for seven hours, he will be sure to
give you seven and a half when you return to Cuba." We share a laugh and a
last handshake.

It had rained earlier in the night. In this early-hour darkness, our tires
streaming over the wet pavement on a quiet Havana morning, it strikes me
that the most basic questions of sovereignty offer substantial insight into
the complexities of US antagon ism toward Cuba and Venezuela, as well as
those countries' policies. They've only ever had two choices: to be
imperfectly ours, or imperfectly their own.

Viva Cuba. Viva Venezuela. Viva USA.

When I got back to the protocol house, it was nearly 2 am. My old friend
Fernando, looking much the worse for wear, had waited up. My companions had
had quite a night. Poor Fernando had taken the brunt of their frustration.
They hadn't known where I'd gone, nor why I had left them behind. And the
remaining Cuban officials they'd been able to contact had insisted they stay
put, should either of the Castro brothers spontaneously offer an audience.
So they had also missed out on a last Cuban night on the town. After filling
me in, Fernando went to get a couple hours' sleep. I stayed up reviewing my
notes and was first at the breakfast table, at 4:45 am. When Douglas and
Hitch ambled down the stairs, I put the edge of the tablecloth over my head
in mock shame. I guess, under the circumstances, it was a bit early (in more
than just the hour) to be testing their humor. The joke didn't play. While
Fernando took a separate flight to Buenos Aires, we had a quiet breakfast
and a quiet flight back to home sweet home.

When we arrived in Houston, I realized I'd underestimated the thick skin of
these two road-worn professionals. Whatever ice I'd perceived earlier had
melted. We said ou r goodbyes, celebrating what had been a thrilling several
days. Neither had been so catty as to inquire into the content of my
interview, but Christopher headed to his eastbound connection with a parting
word, "Well...I guess we'll read about it."

¡Sí, Se Puede!

I sat on the edge of my bed with my wife, son and daughter, tears streaming
down my face, as Barack Obama spoke for the first time as the
president-elect of the United States of America. I closed my eyes and
started to see a film in my head. I could hear the music too, appropriately
the Dixie Chicks covering a Fleetwood Mac song over slow-motion images in
montage. There they were: Bush, Hannity, Cheney, McCain, Limbaugh and
Robertson. I saw them all. And the song was rising as the image of Sarah
Palin took over the screen. Natalie Maines sweetly sang,

And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
till the landslide brought me down.
Landslide brought me down...

About Sean Penn:

Actor/filmmaker Sean Penn's pieces have appeared in the San Francisco

Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone and at HuffingtonPost.com, among others.