Cuba: Past, Present and Future

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On the night of June 12, 2009, CSI hosted an event titled, “Cuba: Past, Present and Future” at the Letelier Theater in Georgetown. In this event, the audience was able to hear from four professionals who have done work in Cuban affairs. Each gave the audience a different perspective on how to view the United States’ relationship with Cuba—these experts included Wayne Smith, Eugene Puryear, Jose’ Pertierra and Cecila Domeyko.

Wayne Smith was a former diplomat of the US Department of State that worked on Cuban affairs for well over 30 years. He presented many interesting facts about Cuba, and US-Cuban relations during his tenure working for the State Department. At that time Cuban-American relations were tense with the Bay of Pigs incident and the alignment of Fidel Castro with the Soviet Union. Smith discussed a long history of presidential administrations doing far too little to improve U.S.-Cuban relations, including the most recent Bush administration. It was interesting to note that post-9/11 Cuba kept their airspace open and also signed all 12 anti-terror conventions, which provoked no response from the United States. It seemed to Smith that former President Bush’s main objective was to topple the Castro’s government.

Mr. Smith then came to discuss the current administration under Barack Obama. Smith hopes that the United States will open a greater dialogue with Cuba by allowing for remittances and also by opening channels of migration to the States. This would enable Cuba to be an open society, he stressed. He wants the relationship to move forward and still presses for policy to change towards Cuba. U.S.-Cuban relations are better off now with the Obama administration in power, he said.

Eugene Puryear, a Cuban 5 advocate, talked about the current battle to free five Cubans illegally arrested for preventing anti-Castro terrorist organizations from carrying out terrorist attacks in Cuba. Puryear also discussed the pattern of past presidents dealing with Cuba in a negative light, and all the aspirations attached to the new Obama administration to strengthen relations between the two countries.

The 4th speaker, Jose Pertierra, represented the council for Alien Gonzales, the Cuban illegal immigrant who sailed on a raft to the United States to seek asylum and be with his father. Mr. Pertierra said that there was a abnormal relationship between the United States and Cuba, stressing scornful paternalism with which United States treats Cuba. He wanted the United States to put into focus the geopolitical issues which are at stake with regards to this fragile relationship between the two countries. Pertierra stated that more effort and cooperation is needed between the states when dealing with trade, immigration, and travel. Other issues that need to be deliberated should be prisoner exchange and the way in which the Organization of American States is shifting policy towards Cuba.

The final speaker was Cecila Domeyko, a documentary film-maker. She made a documentary on an all-women orchestra in Cuba, sharing with us her thoughts on making the documentary. She hoped to show women’s empowerment through her documentary, allowing for an unprecedented view into the daily lives of the Cuban women. She wanted everyone to know what their homes looked like, their hopes and dreams. The theme was the artist and family—the universality of the artist struggle.

The various dimensions presented in the panel discussion on the past, present and future of Cuba allowed the audience to see how the relationship between the United States and Cuba has evolved, and how professionals dealing with Cuba advocate for a strengthening of the relationship.

Written by Rajit Das, a CSI volunteer.


Separation of Church and State, Muslim World and Civil Society

Three major power players in the Muslim world held an intriguing discussion under the title, “Separation of Religion and State: Muslim World and Civil Society”, at the Henry L. Stimson Center on the 26th of May.

The first speaker, Elias Aoun, is a lawyer who discussed how the Islamic world should inject their legal system with common principles. Tyranny may have resulted from the lack of common law and lack of adoption of natural rights in some parts of the region. Aoun stated we should learn from religion the basic tenets of Righteousness, and just Truth, resulting in the eventual incorporation of these concepts within the law. Overall he emphasized the need for a reform in the current laws found in Muslim countries.

The second speaker, Dr Katrin Michael, a female member of the opposition party in the Iranian government, spoke about the urgent need for the reformation of existing laws and establishing new ones in regards to a rights of the women. Currently, she is a human rights activist who stressed that women are treated as second class citizens since, in Islam, a woman is legally considered to be half of a man. Furthermore, throughout her speech, she gave numerous citations of passages from the Quran, such as Article III of Surah 1.4 that allows a husband to beat his wife. She also discussed the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. She concluded her speech by saying that countries should create a independent commission for women that works along with the president, ensuring that women have a role in government, and that peace movements towards societal ills against women should become more progressive through the use of the media.

The final speaker, Peshwaz Faizulla, a Kurd and the online editor of, showcased some unique points in ways in which Muslim countries should reform the establishment of their laws. For example, Islam has no “church”, therefore there shouldn’t be a relationship between church and state found in certain Muslim countries. Also he stated that religion is a product of human history, and Islamic disputes are more for power than for necessity. This has led to the continuing bloody conflict found in Muslim history. He also made the point of emphasizing that knowledge is what Prophet Muhammad advocated for, and that knowledge was not desired amongst his people after his death. “Secularism” is deemed to be a western concept, unfamiliar to people in the Muslim world. Yet this form of government should be implemented in its various ways in the Middle East, according to Faizulla.

These speeches were given by reputable Middle East specialists, showcasing the multifaceted ways in which reform ideas are being circulated amongst intellectuals in the Islamic world. It allows one to think how, if possible, any changes may come in future discussions of this sensitive topic. This CSI event allowed an “outsiders” view into what is happening in the Muslim world and I am certainly optimistic of the positive changes that are yet to come for the region.

Written by Rajit Das, a CSI volunteer.


The Conflict in Somalia

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

As timely an issue as ever, the conflict in Somalia was discussed at CSI's latest event, Thursday April 23. The volunteers of CSI pulled together a knowledgeable panel from different sectors to try to help us understand exactly what brought this state to failure.

Abdirahman M. Abdi spoke first. As an economist with ties to the World Bank and Wall Street, Abdi explained the complicated economic situation in Somalia, along with highlighting the historical reasons for the piracy that has so captured the headlines recently.

Next, native Somalia Hussein Yusuf discussed the current state of conflict, bringing in the tribal wars along with the Islamist Movement and the imposition of Shariah law.

Refugees International worker Patrick Duplat discussed the situation on land as a grave humanitarian crisis where even the aid workers are now targeted.

And finally, Hassan Warsame, co-founder and Vice President of the Somalia Diaspora Network (SDN) finished up the panel's presentation by going in depth into the challenges and opportunities with the recent unity government, along with his recommendations for bringing Somalia closer to a peaceful nation.

Check our website soon for a full video recap of the panel discussion and the Q&A after:


Anniversary of a Revolution: Perspectives on Iran

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Last night CSI held its first formal program of 2009 at All Souls Unitarian Church titled: “Anniversary of a Revolution: Perspectives on Iran.” More than 40 people gathered to listen to the expert opinions and commentary of six distinguished individuals as they elucidated the many dynamics of a country that is not well known by the American people.

International political economist Allison Johnson moderated as the speakers each took a few minutes to present the issues they deemed pertinent, specifically when thinking about Iran 30 years after the revolution. The first speaker was former deputy director of the National Cathedral Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation Evan Anderson. He was able to reflect on the history and mindset that brought Iran to revolution in the first place and how those viewpoints inform Iranian decision-making. This was especially important to hear considering the state of Iranian-U.S. relations after their mention as a member of the "Axis of Evil" in 2002, now with a new U.S. Administration and in the future with the upcoming Iranian elections. “If there’s anything we need in this country,” Anderson said, “it’s fresh perspectives on Iran.”

Jamil Shami followed Anderson’s presentation with a lively recounting of the dynamics among the U.S., Arab and Iranian world. She spoke about how the U.S. relationship with Israel affects Arab and Persian perceptions of America, and also about the seeming U.S. hypocrisy of allowing its allies nuclear weaponry but not allowing Iran to develop nuclear capabilities that they consider peaceful. Towards the end of his presentation he also noted the recent empowerment political parties with financial support from Iran have received in the past few years after military engagements with Israel, such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Director of the Islamic Information Center, Nassar Haider was next to speak, choosing to focus on the dynamics between Shia and Sunni Islam, along with adamantly pointing out that “in the last 30 years, Iran has not invaded a single country.” He also spoke about civil liberties in the United States before and after 9/11.

As a reporter for London-based Financial Times, Simon Henderson was a correspondent in Tehran during the revolution, which he described in his presentation as “a chaotic time… it was one day of chaos followed by another day of chaos.” He spoke of the difficulty in putting the events in a regional context as they unfolded, but the ease later in understanding the developing signs of revolution. As a somewhat gray prediction of the times to come, Henderson said in his closing statement: “I’ve had a tremendously interesting time writing about this and writing about it for the past 30 years… but it is unfortunate that it will remain a troublesome area to write about for the next 30 years.”

Fatemeh Mohammadi, a deputy director of diplomatic affairs with the Iranian Interest Section in Washington rounded out the speakers’ comments by describing what she saw as the “peace-loving country of Iran,” a democratic state that guarantees the rights of individuals, including women like herself who choose to cover their heads out of piety, rather than out of fear of retribution. She criticized the biases of the U.S. media where “fiction takes place as fact.” She also chastised the U.S. for holding the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world and accusing Iran of enriching uranium for WMDs. She then praised Iran for it's technological developments, like the launching of a satellite last week.

During the brief Q&A section, two of the brave souls to stand up to the microphone were Iranian-born. One mentioned the victims of chemical attacks perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and the other spoke of her concern over the bias of American media. The third question brought to the discussion some of Iran’s more controversial political moves like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s demonstrated hatred towards the Israeli state, and also Iran's financing of American-recognized terrorist organizations. Mr. Henderson, Mr. Shami and Mr. Haider all responded in their own ways, Henderson stating that “there hasn’t been any indication that there will be a change in unhelpful behavior of Iran” and Haider talking about some of the similarities between Iran and the U.S. in regards to their controversial behavior.

To close, Anderson discussed U.S. engagement with Iran in the Obama Administration versus in the Bush Administration and Mohammadi reminded us all of the large population of Jewish people in Iran. But I think the most lasting message of the final comments to this intriguing discussion—organized by a small, independent organization like CSI— came from the moderator, Allison Johnson: “We are witnesses to the power of the grassroots movement… our voices make a difference.”

And here are some parting words from the CSI President:

Contrary to popular belief, America today is a polarized place. Our event on Iran was one of the very few exceptions. If you go to an event run by Islamic or pro-Iranian groups, you will never hear the voice of the American mainstream with their criticism of Islam. But if you go to any lecture by mainstream organizations, you will never hear the other side. Any foundation with institutional or government money (and those are the only ones that in the end survive) will ever host official Cubans, Iranians or other people that are hostile to the US. We are trying to bring both sides of the same issues under one roof, building bridges.

Check out the Meet-Up site!


Deja Vu

Monday, February 2, 2009

This morning I got a particularly violent case of déjà vu when I read stories about Gaza militants launching rockets into Israel and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert threatening a “disproportionate” response. The likelihood of another escalation in violence makes expediency of peace agreements and ceasefires all-the-more important. But peace negotiations in the region have never exactly been described as swift.

This is mainly because Israeli-Palestinian conflict is facing such an assortment of problems on many levels. One major one seems to be the fact that the Palestinians aren’t united, that an agreement is impossible if not all Palestinians are able to take part. Though the world may see Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader, many of the Palestinians don’t, and it is their opinion that really matters to the success of any peace talks.

In an attempt to work on this particular puzzle piece, Abbas of the Fatah party is now in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak and a few reluctant members of Hamas, trying to “negotiate a permanent ceasefire which could lead to Gaza’s borders being reopened after an 18-month Israeli blockade which has prevented all but the most basic humanitarian supplies from entering.” But they aren’t likely to get anywhere soon, and not just because of the hostility Hamas probably feels towards the Egyptian leader who turned Gazans away at the border during the 22-day Israeli offensive—“Mr Abbas has said talks were impossible with anyone who rejected the supremacy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which he leads. This follows a statement last week by the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said the PLO ‘expresses a state of impotence, abuse and a tool to deepen divisions.’ Hamas has never been a member of the PLO.” [BBC, 2/2/09]


A little closer to home

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In an increasingly lawless Mexico that some have warned may be close to a failed state, a truce has been called between competing drug lords in the infamous Sinaloa region.

The marked decrease in violence in the area after the truce would signal how closely tied the violence is to drug trafficking disputes—it would seem the drug lords have figured out that these constant killings and kidnappings are bad for business. But I’m sure President Felipe Calderon would love to attribute the positive change to his efforts in clamping down on crime—he has sent 45,000 troops around the country, pushed for legislation to decrease the number of readily available weapons and attempted to overhaul a slow and somewhat corrupt judiciary.

I commend Calderon on his courageous efforts to bring his country out of bedlam amid a global recession that Mexico is feeling, badly. But it seems odd that drug lords would just suddenly decide that random violence and kidnappings is rather counter-productive. Maybe the narco-trafficking kings are indeed reacting to Calderon’s crackdown. Let’s just hope they aren’t calling a truce to unite together against governmental forces. And if that really is the cause for the truce, let’s just hope that their compadres in Juarez or Tijuana don’t get similar ideas.

Other news from Mexico:

--Crimes are getting more gruesome: “el Pozolero

--Still no word from the ironic kidnapping of the year: Felix Batista


A ceasefire has been reached, now what?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The other day a friend of mine returned from a group trip to Israel and she seemed changed. I’ve never seen her get emotional or caught up in anything, but as she described one particular story, her eyes welled up with tears and her lip quivered for a moment before she blinked it all back.

She talked about an Israeli girl at a cross-cultural meeting of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. This local girl was confused at much of the talk about Israelis and Palestinians hating each other. She asked an adult nearby my friend why the Palestinians didn’t like her and her family.

“It’s complicated,” the adult replied. “It’s difficult to explain.”

“Well maybe,” the girl bravely replied, “we can send my friend over there to talk to them. He speaks their language very well. He can tell them that we’re nice.”

This was the point where my friend’s big brown eyes turned red.

It truly is complicated, as the adult so matter-of-factly stated to the girl, but it’s also very simple-- it's hatred bred from years of violence based on religion and territory.

The recent events in Gaza were essentially inevitable. Hamas militants were lobbing rockets into Israel, a sovereign state. How long would it take the United States to react defensively if it was being attacked from the south by Mexico, or Cuba? Not long indeed.

However, true to form, Israel reacted disproportionately. Some Israelis have been killed but more than 1,000 Palestinians are dead. A UN school and center for humanitarian aid were shelled (which also brings up the moral question—are the ones who attack the civilians guilty of war crimes or are the ones who hide behind civilians and store weapons in Mosques and schools guilty of war crimes?). So although Israel’s reaction is inevitable, it is disproportionate and, quite frankly, counter-productive.

Hamas gains its strength and support not only from regional nations with similar hatred of the Israeli state, but also from Palestinians who have no one else to turn to. When Israel blockaded Gaza, Hamas was one of the only organizations providing adequate support to a very needy and lost population of first and second generation refugees. So it seems only natural that Hamas receives support from the Palestinians-- “people support the source that meets their needs” (Major Erik A. Claessen, Belgian Armed Forces. “S.W.E.T. and Blood: Essential Services in the Battle Between Insurgents and Counterinsurgents.” Military Review Nov-Dec 2007, p.91).

And those ‘needs’ aren’t merely physical. For a population who has lost hope in peaceful methods of obtaining a land for themselves and adequate jobs and education, who has lost hope in democracy after seeing the world turn its back on their (more or less) democratically elected party, the only hope they can find is in religion. Sadly, many of the religious leaders then use that faith against them to breed violence and more hatred.

With Israel continuing blockades and these past few weeks of air strikes and bringing ground forces into an already dire situation, the religious zealots’ jobs are, unfortunately, much easier. Israel is painted as the evil aggressor and Hamas the defender. No matter how successful Israel believes itself to be after this incursion into Gaza, Hamas will continue to flourish and quite possibly more so.

But then what can be done? Now with a ceasefire agreed upon (albeit, temporarily), what can we do to move forward? Honestly I think the little Israeli girl had it right. We need to start with the youth.

Now this is no short-term solution. This would be a long-term, hard-fought siege against a violent racism that has been stoked and prodded for years upon decades upon centuries. This presence of such deeply engrained prejudices has even forced the international community and country leaders to see very little hope of a light at the end of the tunnel. But if we start now—if the Palestinian refugees were given more aid and unbiased education, clean places to live with health services and food security, if Israel was a part of providing those food and health and educational services to Palestinians, then this majority youth population might choose peaceful economic and political opportunities instead of resorting to violence. If schools were integrated or had regular cross-cultural meetings of children so they could see that the other ‘really is nice,’ then maybe in a generation or two we can quiet the voices of racism and hatred and bring up a generation of those who understand the conflict’s history (from both points of view) and can work towards a more peaceful future.

No this doesn’t solve the territory issue, or stop other nations from funding terrorism, but it’s a start.

And I’m idealistic, I know. But someone’s got to be.


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