Obama's 'Tear Down This Wall' Moment in Cuba

Weeks before President Obama's arrival in Havana, uneasiness was already perceptible in the ranks of the Cuban government. For sure, President Raul Castro knew how much his regime could benefit from a historic event that would signal, better than anything else, the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. He was no less aware, however, of the risks associated with hosting an American president who was intent on openly defending the cause of human rights and liberty during his journey.

The ruling government's anxiety was all the more understandable considering that a poll carried out in April 2015 found President Obama's popularity among Cubans (80 percent) soaring well overhead that of the Castro brothers (47 percent for Raul and 44 percent for Fidel).

To unnerve the regime further still, there was Obama's sine qua non condition for visiting the island, namely: to be able to meet with representatives of the Cuban dissidence, including the Ladies in White, who are beaten and detained practically every Sunday after they take to the streets of Havana and other major cities of the island to call for freedom of expression and association.

Compelled to tolerate the meeting requested by Obama, the Cuban authorities attempted to dilute its impact by pressing the U.S. negotiators to include regime-picked representatives of so-called civil society -- a move that would enable the Cuban government to infiltrate its pawns and police informers into that gathering. Obama's negotiators, however, made it clear that the list was non-negotiable: only the Cubans chosen by U.S. authorities would be invited to the meeting.

The malaise on the Cuban side manifested itself from the very first minutes of Obama's journey. In a departure from the practice of protocol, the Cuban president was not present on the tarmac of Havana's airport to welcome his American homologue.

All things considered, that absence played into Obama's hands, for it was in consonance with his unhidden aim of making the trip not so much a state visit as an encounter with the Cuban people.

Rain was falling when Air Force One landed, and President Obama came out of the plane holding an umbrella -- which he shared with his wife Michelle -- instead of asking a subordinate to do so for him. The gesture had a successful -- and probably intended -- PR dimension, all the more so as Latin Americans will have noted the contrast between that moment and the moment, a few months ago, when Bolivian President Evo Morales -- a political heir of the Castro brothers and an all-out egalitarian leftist -- instructed one of his bodyguards publicly to kneel down and lace Morales' shoes.

The press conference held on the first official day of the visit was a chance to show to Cubans the abyssal difference between a democracy and a dictatorship in the realm of communications and public debate. While Obama looked relaxed throughout the exercise, President Castro lost his temper when a CNN journalist dared to ask about the existence of political prisoners in Cuba.

Unable to conceal his annoyance, President Castro had the gall to assert that there were no prisoners of this kind on the island under his charge, and he challenged the journalist to submit a list of such prisoners so he could free them before the end of the day. Cuba's internal dissidents and exiles swiftly submitted lists showing the existence of 87 to 89 prisoners of conscience.

President Castro's reply on that occasion likely will embarrass the Cuban government in the weeks and months to come. From now on, when the Ladies in White and other dissidents are beaten in the street after their Sunday march, and taken by force to a police station, Raul Castro's denial of the existence of political prisoners will resonate worldwide as blatant hypocrisy.

The high point of the journey undoubtedly was the speech delivered by Obama at the Grand Theater of Havana -- a speech that the regime grudgingly agreed to broadcast nationwide at Washington's request.

In front of Raul Castro and an audience carefully selected by the Cuban government, President Obama made an unambiguous plea in favor of freedom of expression, pluralism, and free enterprise. References to human rights spread throughout the speech and must have been felt, both by the government and the population, like political darts aimed at the Castros.

Like all historic speeches, Obama's will be remembered by one sentence -- one addressed to President Castro: "I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders."

It is a safe bet to argue that Cubans yearning for Liberty vibrated with delight as they heard -- via state-controlled radio and television -- this request, comparable to Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall," addressed to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

A few hours after the speech, the meeting between Obama and Cuban dissidents took place at the U.S. Embassy. That such an encounter even took place no doubt helped to increase the international profile and visibility of the courageous men and women whom no head of state -- not even Pope Francis -- had hitherto dared to meet.

At an earlier event, President Obama had expressed admiration for Cubans' ingenuity, which in his view is at the core both of the economic vitality of Miami ("one of the world's most dynamic cities") and of the resourcefulness of Cuba's incipient entrepreneurial class, the cuentapropistas -- namely self-employed workers who, although tolerated, are straitjacketed by absurd restrictions and smothering taxes and confined to very few areas of activity. By hearing Obama's words, those cuentapropistas could not but dream of how far they can go, and how they might prosper the day free enterprise is fostered, rather than vilified, on their island.

Aware of the lasting impact that Obama's visit would have on his fellow countrymen, the Cuban government organized a Rolling Stones concert (whose songs had remained prohibited for decades and anathematized as a symbol of capitalist decadence). The concert took place in Havana in the wake of President Obama's departure. One cannot help but think that the timing of the Rolling Stones' performance was aimed at making Cubans forget what Obama had said during his journey.

It is far from sure, however, that a rock ‘n' roll show, famous though the performers may be, can erase the impact of the visit of a president of the "Empire" who, by his multiple gestures and words, will have managed to instill hope (Sí, se puede -- Yes, we can) in the hearts and minds of the Cuban population.

Obama's Cuban Disgrace

I had the opportunity to visit Havana with the permission of the U.S. government in March 2013. Thankfully, I am blessed with a vivid imagination, and I could see that it must have been an incredible city prior to 1959 -- certainly the crown jewel of the Caribbean. That is no longer the case. The torment of communism is absolute, and it eats away at buildings the same way it does mankind.

Those buildings tell their own story. Once-beautiful facades, paint chipped and fading, hid rotting wood floors and crumbling walls. Famed cars from the 1950s drove past these buildings, several now serving as taxis, driven by doctors who pick up fares to supplement their measly incomes. Nothing brought home the lasting impact on everyday life of the Castro regime so much as to see the homes along once-spectacular boulevards once bedecked with flowing water fountains. These served as single-family homes. The former owners of the remarkable buildings, however, fled long ago to American shores, and the homes now are filled by three or four families that hang their clothes on wires from window to window and sit hunched over listening to radios, while their 60+ year old car, if they have one, sits idle in the driveway.

So I wanted to observe President Barack Obama's visit in Cuba without any bias. After all, I had been to Havana, and unlike so many others I know, I do not have a personal connection to Cuba, nor was my family displaced because of the Castros and their band of thugs. But I know too much -- not just what has been written about the Cuban revolution, but the real, often unpublished, gut-wrenching personal accounts from first- or second-generation Cuban-American families who are in utter disbelief that Obama would visit the failed state of Cuba to kiss the ring of President Raul Castro when this could have been accomplished from Washington -- without the president shaking the bloodstained hands of old men in Havana. Why could he not just send a mid-ranking official from the State Department to do this dirty work, they wonder.

Nevertheless, all those feelings aside, I watched hoping President Obama would not just roll over upon his arrival. I hoped that he had learned from his past foreign policy fiascoes in Libya and in Syria, from the bad Iran deal, from the failed reset with Russia, and from the rise of the Islamic State group.

I do not, moreover, entirely disagree that the embargo has probably run its course and remains an outmoded relic of the Cold War. It is however the moral imperative of the United States to be doing all that we can to help the Cuban people break the chains of their decades-long communist bondage.

An incredible history binds the United States and Cuba. Almost since the beginning of our republic, Cuba has been held in high regard. Early American leaders advocated for the inclusion of the island into the Union at first chance. Americans fought for Cuban independence. And our nations only became closer when Cuba gained its independence -- that is, until the brutal Cuban Revolution, and the beginning of the Castros' reign of terror. I had therefore hoped that when the U.S. government eventually advocated for the end of the embargo, it would also mean the end of the Castros. Unfortunately, it does not.

The policies of the Obama administration serve to fill the coffers and prop up the Castro regime and their ilk, enriching another crop of communist thugs so that they will remain in power after the eventual death of Fidel and Raul, whenever the devil should take them. The visit of an American president should have been to usher in a new era of freedom and democracy in Cuba, not inflict another generation of Cubans with the soul-crushing disease of communism.

The United States has lost its way. Our moral compass is broken. We used to stand for something. We are supposed to be the nation that shines as a beacon for freedom and democracy. We used to believe there is only one simply truth to life: live free or die.

Yet when given the chance, we turned our back on the political prisoners and dissidents who have been killed, imprisoned, or exiled by the Castro regime. We have disgraced all Cubans who have left everything behind over the years and traveled to this nation, making perilous journeys without the guarantee they would reach our shores or borders. Obama could not bring himself to acknowledge the Ladies in White, who rallied for human rights on the day of his arrival and were subsequently imprisoned. Even Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Obama, turned into a shill for the Castro regime's deplorable detention of political prisoners by stating, "It's their [the Cuban government's] belief that they are not political prisoners, that they are in prison for various crimes and offenses against Cuban law."

Furthermore, President Obama chose to stand side by side with Raul Castro, a military dictator, not a president, legitimizing the violence and brutality of a "revolution" that overturned a democracy. This would be like a future president standing side by side with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS, six decades from now. That would be incomprehensible and unacceptable, and so too should be this meeting between Obama and Castro. While Brussels burned, Obama sat coolly next to Raul, a man whose reign of terror was just as heinous as the enemy we now seek to eliminate.

This is not merely hyperbole. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Cuban revolutionary, homicidal maniac, and the Castros' brother-in-arms, eerily echoes leaders of ISIS of today:

"The U.S. is the great enemy of mankind! Against those hyenas there is no option but extermination. We will bring the war to the imperialist enemies' very home, to his places of work and recreation. The imperialist enemy must feel like a hunted animal wherever he moves. Thus we'll destroy him! We must keep our hatred against them alive and fan it to paroxysms!"

Now, President Obama shakes the hand of a man that helped blindfold people as Che prepared to shoot them. Not to mention, he stood in front of this man's likeness for a photo-op. This is change I cannot believe I am witnessing.

The years of communist rule have taken their toll; on Cuba's buildings, on its people, on its economy. The Castros long ago submitted to Soviet overlords, only to be abandoned and left in ruins. The communist Cuban Revolution failed. The United States should have come to put them out of their misery; instead we gave them life.

The Blood on the Hands of Belgian Politicians

Several days after the terrorist mayhem in Brussels, reflection on how the attacks could happen is in full swing. Part of the answer: Belgian politicians simply don't care about the safety of their citizens.

Ever since the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, and the leading roles Belgians played in them, Europe and the Belgians have wondered why so many of the leading perpetrators hailed from one quarter in Brussels.

When the questions were answered, security experts across the globe were left baffled when they found out that the Brussels agglomeration counts no fewer than 19 separate municipalities. The mayors rule over police forces divided over 6 police zones.

Of course, many factors are at play. But since the devastating attacks this week in Brussels itself, many stories have surfaced about dysfunctional police bureaucracy. Anti-EU pundits and publications were quick to compare Belgium with the bureaucratic European Union.

Were it only this simple; the truth is far more complicated. The Belgians themselves know better. As this story by Belgian media outlet Newsmonkey shows, the main problem isn't bureaucracy itself but the deep divisions in Belgian politics. The resulting dysfunctional bureaucracies were intentional.

The 19 municipalities and 6 police zones in Brussels are the product of bitter political wars among various parties on a horizontal level and exacerbated by divisions along cultural lines on the vertical level.

Belgium is a fairly recent construct. Founded in 1830 after a revolt against its Dutch overlords, and recognized after much wrangling by the dominant powers of the age in 1839, the country is divided by two main languages, and actually by three: Flemish-Dutch in the north, Wallonian-French in the south, and a Belgo-German zone in the east.

In the past decades, political parties of all stripes have used the bitter linguistic divisions to their own benefit in a cynical game of divide-and-conquer.

These cultural divisions were layered atop a political landscape polarized between left and right. As the Newsmonkey article reveals, mayors of the Parti Socialiste and the liberal MR simply refuse to cooperate, much less to be directed by politicians of a competing party. As a result, the exchange of information among various police forces has been dismal.

The parties claim to be doing all this because they are representing the will of the people. They are not. It smacks of old-fashioned clientelism, with the sole aim of retaining power.

It is telling that the parties are still not willing to change their ways, even after all that has transpired since the Paris attacks. As a result, the terrorist enclaves in Belgian societies are thriving while parties bicker.

By their willful inaction, the parties have the blood of their own citizens on their hands. But in the end, those very citizens are the real decisionmakers in any democracy, even such a dysfunctional one as Belgium.

It is time that Belgians show their parties where priorities must lie: in providing safety and security. This is non-political, and above all, non-negotiable.

And even if Belgian voters prove to be victims of Stockholm Syndrome and are beyond help, then the governments of countries bordering Belgium should put the dysfunctional political parties under severe pressure to change their deeply polarizing and egotistical ways.

(AP Photo)

New Missiles, Old Trains: The Future of Warfare in the Former Soviet Union

In the near future, Ukraine plans to conduct test launches of domestically produced ballistic missiles built without the involvement of foreign companies, said National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchinov in an interview with Interfax-Ukraine news agency. According to Turchinov, resuscitating the domestic missile industry is a priority for Ukrainian authorities. "We need to develop as a space-faring nation, producing high-tech spacecraft, but we also need to restore the necessary production line of combat missiles that will protect the country," added the secretary. "We will soon carry out test launches of missiles of indigenous production, created by exclusively Ukrainian enterprises."

Turchinov noted that the domestic rocket industry has struggled since the loss of close cooperation with Russian enterprises after 2014. Turchinov would not specify the missile types, citing the interests of strategic partners, but he stressed that Ukraine has strengthened its defense without violating any of its international obligations. This development follows plans laid out in 2014 by the newly elected pro-Western Ukrainian President Poroshenko -- his "Strategy 2020" plan called for major overhaul of the nation's armed forces, a plan that involved increasing domestic development of the armaments industry and decreasing reliance on certain exporters, such as Russia, which drove domestic military production without leaving much for Ukrainian forces.

In Soviet times, Ukraine produced numerous rockets, satellites, and missiles, most notably at its Yuzhmash factory, which Kiev inherited after 1991 and which sold much of its production line to Moscow until Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Back to the Future

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry is once again considering reviving a century-old military concept - the use of armored trains. Last year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu decided to overturn an order by his predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, to eliminate the four armored trains still in country's service. During Russian military operations in the North Caucasus and Chechnya from 2002 to 2009, the Russian military created an entire group of armored trains. However, once military operations in Chechnya wound down, the Defense Ministry has decided that a modern army no longer needed such trains.

According to Russian daily Izvestia, the decision to save these special armored trains was made personally by Minister Shoigu. When Serdyukov unexpectedly resigned in late 2012, many of his orders on the reorganization of various units of the Ministry of Defense were not fulfilled, explains Izvestia. After Shoigu audited all military assets, he overruled his predecessor's orders on the reduction of military educational institutions, refused to disband mobile and airborne units, and decided to keep armored trains in the nation's Southern Military District. "When he was the head of the Emergencies Ministry (the Russian equivalent of FEMA), Shoigu, while in Chechnya during the counter-terrorist operation, saw these special trains working and found them useful for the Armed Forces," Izvestia explains.

Russian military officers emphasized that these armored trains proved themselves ably in Chechnya, where it was necessary to protect military cargo and personnel transported via rail from Chechen insurgents. Such armored trains were also essential to protect combat engineers who cleared the railway tracks of improvised explosive devices. Each of the trains included repair teams capable of restoring damaged tracks within hours. The four trains, built in the middle of the last century, were on duty in the Soviet Far East until the 1980s -- there they guarded bridges and railways along the Soviet-Chinese border.

Such armored trains have near-legendary status in Russia. When mobility and concentrated firepower were scarce during the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War that raged across long stretches of today's Russia and Ukraine between 1917 and 1921, trains equipped with cannon and other weapons allowed Bolshevik forces to gain an upper hand over their opponents, at times deploying more than a dozen such trains in a single battle. By the end of the conflict, the newly formed Russian Red Army had 121 such trains in service, which were also used in World War Two and were immortalized on propaganda posters and numerous Soviet and Russian films. However, in the following decades, advances in artillery, missile guidance, aviation, and other technologies made such trains easy targets and therefore virtually irrelevant in large-scale military operations.

Today, Russian military experts have differing opinions on using such old technology for future operations. According to retired Col. Victor Litovkin, a military expert, it is still too early to retire such trains. "Of course, during a modern war with NATO, such armored trains don't carry any defensive or offensive advantage. However, in local conflicts -- such as the ones in the North Caucasus -- armored trains proved indispensable." According to Litovkin, the armored trains were ideal for the destruction of militant formations that operated near railways, as well as for the evacuation of the wounded and during demining operations. In addition, special trains housed modern Russian offensive weapons, such as the MSTA long-range howitzer or Tornado multiple launch rocket systems. However, Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, considers it archaic to use World War One-era technology in a modern military: "Now, in the 21st century, an armored train is a relic of the past, which is useless in modern warfare."

Whether right or wrong, the experts may be debating the use of old military technology in modern warfare for a long time: For instance, the American B-52 strategic bomber may fly for up to 100 years after its initial use in the early 1950s, given its versatility as a diverse platform for a variety of weapons and the absence of a viable replacement for at least two more decades.

(AP photo)

Brussels Then, Now, and in the Future

My daily digest of reading this morning started on a troubling if relatively speculative note. As a naturalized Dutch citizen living in the United Kingdom, I take a personal as well as professional interest in Britain's June 23 vote on whether to remain in the European Union. This article in the Financial Times encapsulated the concerns of the 2.9 million EU citizens living here, as it described a rush on applications for British citizenship by long-time residents hoping to avoid their status being subject to "negotiations between the UK and Brussels" in the event of a so-called Brexit.

I'll come back to that topic in proper context. No sooner was that article digested than Twitter feeds, smartphone alerts, and front pages across the web began to blaze with the news of just the latest vicious attack on Europe's open forums. The details are still coming in now, three-quarters of a workday later, with the latest updates being the inevitable claim of responsibility by the Islamic State group, and the disarming, reported by AP, of a third bomb at Zaventem Airport.

Brexit suddenly mattered very little. What mattered, instead, was the safety of friends and colleagues in Brussels. Messages fly across WhatsApp, status updates on Facebook. The defiant face of the Je Suis social media emblem popularized when Paris was attacked last year turns to an acerbic grimace. This is the new normal, and it's sinking in. Projecting further down the line, we in Europe consider our daily commutes -- the trains connecting Utrecht to Amsterdam or Amsterdam to Brussels, or the Eurostar that flies the flag of white-collar European integration under the English Channel between Paris and London -- every journey, every day, is its own small risk. It is a secular reality that is not changing any time soon.

Where security is no longer a given, the politics will only turn ever more sour. Brussels is a synecdoche. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the Belgian and European capital knows the hopes it physically embodies: With its smart, polyglot mix of workers from across the Continent populating the areas around Schuman Square where the European institutions have their home, it gives credence to the ideal of a Europe that works better when it builds together, if you'll excuse the sloganeering. In its own smaller, grittier way, it is as vibrant as London or New York, and every bit as intelligent.

Yet its darker realities in their own parochial way epitomize everything that has gone wrong on a Continental scale within the European Union. The capital of a country divided among itself between Flemish and Walloon aspirations, Brussels has 19 municipal mayors - nineteen! -- creating what German publication Der Spiegel calls a "tangle of bureaucracy" that makes a muddle of basic policing, and helps perhaps explain why the capital of Europe has become the European capital of jihad. Take the view of former FBI and U.S. Army counter-terrorism official Clint Watts, quoted today by CNBC:

"'It is hard to conceive that this would happen on such a large scale when it was so obvious that these guys were operating there,' Watts said of ISIS. ‘After [Abdeslam's] arrest, you would have to assume everyone in the network was preparing to launch whatever they had.'

"‘After the Paris attacks, it was a question of not being able to run all the leads down,' Watts said. After Tuesday, "It's no longer a capacity problem, it's a competency problem.'"

So who does one blame, as the new normal sets in? Some will blame lax security measures, and cry for more enforcement. Some will blame the lack of earnest dialogue on immigration and integration, pointing the finger at failed policies decades old. Perhaps it's the fault of the refugee crisis, or of the inability to track the flow of fighters between Europe and the Middle East. Maybe the neglect and marginalization of immigrant groups will be part of the conversation.

One thing is sure: A citizenry must feel safe before it can be idealistic. Europe as an integrated entity is an ideal, it's a notion. It feels good to take down borders when those borders are seen as hampering prosperity, and when the lack of an external threat keeps harder, more practical questions at bay.

Those questions are now baying. It's hard to say what security measures could keep a handful of society's most motivated losers from acting out their delusions. It is simply too easy, in an open society, to kill lots of people.

So today's new normal moves tomorrow's ever closer: If we aren't safe when we are open, we will close. Europe's mainstream politicians struggle to respond in the aftermath of attacks like this. France's centre-left President, Francois Hollande, put on a tough guise, reiterating bellicose rhetoric he had already used in the aftermath of attacks in Paris in November 2015, but each of these attacks strengthens his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. And it does the same for the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, who sounds perfectly sensible in calling for a closure of the borders. And it does the same in the United Kingdom for Nigel Farage, the original Brexiteer, who wasted no time.

This is where the Old Continent starts to feel, well, old. The idealism that is the European Union is under pressure from every side, but beneath its idealism there has always been a practical intent, which is to bind the Continent in shared peace and prosperity. To paraphrase what a colleague recently told me, it is right now as though the Continent has lain under a blue pan-European veil for decades. As that veil is lifted, it turns out, the same nationalisms, the same mutual suspicions that lay dormant for so long, are still alive. Their voices are getting louder, and as Brussels becomes a symbol for failed ambition -- ambition to open borders without securing them, ambition to open up the economy without unifying it -- their chorus may overwhelm the rest. That is the crescendo that brings us to the Brexit vote on June 23 -- a key test for whether Europe as a whole can survive the moment.

If it doesn't, yesterday's Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or Je Suis Paris, may well turn into a new, unspoken reality: On est seul. Today, from Brussels to Bristol, that reality feels as close as ever.

(AP photo)

This Is Not the Path to Cuban Freedom

The U.S. president had not set foot in Cuba when the regime began to drop rhetorical bombs. First came a long editorial in Granma. Its essence? That Cuba won't budge an inch from its socialist and anti-imperialist positions, including its support for the Chavismo it spawned in Venezuela, an enormous source of subsidy for the Cubans, of woe for the Venezuelans, and of unease for its neighbors.

Then, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the Castros' diplomatic errand boy, warned that his government would not appreciate it if Obama spoke about empowering the Cuban people. Or if the United States tried to impose the Internet on the Cubans. Cuba, he said, "will protect the technological sovereignty of our networks." In plain language he meant that the political police will continue to control communications. They live for that and make a living from that. 

The U.S. president was undeterred. He will speak openly about human rights on his visit to Cuba. He has said so and will do so. But there's more: Barack Obama apparently won't visit Fidel Castro. (Caution: Never say never about this dictator.) At least for now, he will downplay the anthropological curiosity that this elderly tyrannosaurus always arouses. Today, Fidel is a slouched caricature of himself, but there is a certain morbidity in talking with a historical figure who has managed to spend 60 years flitting through TV newscasts.

Besides, Obama will be generous enough to meet with some of the democrats in the opposition. There's a whole message there. It's a good lesson for Mauricio Macri, who has still not gone to Cuba, and for François Hollande, who went through Havana and didn't have the civic valor to perform a gesture of solidarity with the dissidents. Obama will meet with the hard-liners. He will place his arm over the shoulders of the fighters, the most abused and the most seasoned. Those whom the political police describes falsely as terrorists and CIA agents.

In any case, I think that Obama has not quite realized the hornet's nest he has walked into. He has unilaterally decreed the end of the Cold War with Cuba, even though the island nation insists on assisting the North Koreans with weaponry, helping terrorists in the Middle East, and backing Syria's Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian ayatollahs.

It also seems unimportant that Havana leads the orchestra of 21st-Century socialist countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua), all of which are decidedly anti-American and intent on reviving the battle that the Soviet Union left unfinished.

Obama feels invulnerable. He rides a huge elephant, the greatest that history has ever known and, from his perspective of the world's leading power, those colorful Latin American pygmies are like fleas that will naturally be crushed by the weight of a reality that's inevitably overwhelming. 

That might be, but there's a serious flaw in his logic. In Panama, Obama stated that the United States had given up trying to change the Cuban regime, but that it would continue to push for the defense of human rights and the West's democratic vision. That's a clear contradiction.

The Castro brothers' dictatorship violates human rights precisely because it subscribes to the Leninist vision that the very idea of such right is subterfuge by the calloused capitalist bourgeoisie. It doesn't believe in them. "The revolution" subscribes to other values, expressed in the so-called social rights. To achieve them, the Communist Party deserves sole and total control over society. That's written in the Constitution, inspired by the one that Stalin imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

When a Cuban expresses his opinion freely, and that opinion contradicts communist dogma, he is not exercising his right to the free expression of thought, but is committing a crime. When two or more Cubans try to meet to defend their ideals or interests outside of official channels, they are not exercising the right to assemble. They are committing a crime.

These abuses won't stop until the island changes regime. It is possible that the thaw will improve the living conditions of some Cubans, and it is probable that certain U.S. exporters will profit from the opening of this famished market, even though the bill will eventually be paid by U.S. taxpayers.
But there will be no freedoms granted, no respect for human rights, and anti-American zealotry will not end until the totalitarian regime ends and is replaced by a real democracy. And that will hardly be accomplished by granting concessions to the dictatorship. Appeasement is never a good policy.  

Hard Times for Castro's Latin American Heirs

These are hard times for Latin America's populist left, the one that, inspired by the Castro model, was brought to power at the dawn of the present century by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil. After claiming the moral high ground for years, it sees its popularity and electoral weight shrinking by the day.

In Argentina, the hard-left Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner handed over the country's presidency to the pro-market Mauricio Macri, after the latter defeated the candidate of Ms. Kirchner's party in elections held last December. Around the same time, Venezuela's regime, led by President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's uncharismatic handpicked heir, was dealt a crushing blow at the parliamentary elections held on Dec. 6. More recently, Bolivian President Evo Morales lost a referendum that he organized to allow him to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa's popularity fell in 2015, from 60 to 41 percent. More worrisome for him, in a poll conducted last December, 60 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track and 72 percent regarded as "incorrect" the way the government has been dealing with economic problems.

In Brazil, Lula's successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has an approval rating at an abysmal 11 percent, the lowest in Brazil's contemporary history, while 56 percent call for her resignation.

Maduro's popularity is no better. According to a poll carried out last February, 70 percent regard him as incapable of solving the country's crisis, and 72 percent want him to leave the presidency before the end of his mandate in 2019.

Such disaffection stems to a large extent from the limits and flaws of the anti-market model that Latin America's hard left has put in place.

As long as the region was profiting from the unprecedented boom in world markets for commodities, hard-left governments were able to manage in a capricious and inefficient manner the resources at their disposal. Export earnings were enough to fund practically everything: social programs with a high patronage content, of course, but also bloated bureaucracies, lavish public spending and, last but not least, corruption networks.

As soon as the commodities boom came to an end, however, the economic model of the populist left began to crumble and has fared worse than the pro-market agenda implemented in other Latin American countries (Chile, Colombia, and Peru, in particular).

The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America forecasts that Venezuela and Brazil will be the region's worst performers in 2016. Venezuela will be in recession for a third consecutive year, and its annual inflation rate is expected to reach 720 percent, according the International Monetary Fund.

Regarding Kirchner's Argentina (that is to say, before Mauricio Macri's presidency), the IMF warned that the country is showing "unsustainable trends" that will only lead to higher levels of inflation and deficit.

To the public discontent aroused by a deteriorating economic situation, we should add the discredit brought by the rampant corruption that prevails in many if not all of the countries ruled by Latin America's populist left. Scandals involving high-level authorities in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, to name just a few, have torn into pieces the myth of a left keen on, and capable of, ensuring probity in the management of public funds.

A third and no less important cause of public discontent lies in the tendency of those governments to hinder and eventually suppress fundamental rights and freedoms.

Harassment against the independent press and even simple cartoonists, elimination of the autonomy of the judicial system and of the national electoral board, suppression of the constitutional prerogatives of parliaments controlled by the opposition, beating of opposition MPs, arbitrary detentions, as well as torture, form part of the methods employed by those governments with the purpose of quelling criticism and discontent.

The recent electoral setbacks should induce Latin America's hard-left governments to think out of the box and refurbish their economic strategies and governance methods.

A change of tack, however, doesn't seem to figure in their agenda; quite the contrary. The trend is toward "radicalizing the revolution," which in hard-left jargon means to crack down with greater virulence on the opposition, the independent press, and the entrepreneurial class.

Thus, in Venezuela, President Maduro has vowed not to change course. He promises more socialism and more revolution.

Recent moves aimed at tightening Maduro's grip include making career advancement in the military dependent on filling a questionnaire stating allegiance to Hugo Chavez's legacy, and the issuance of a so-called Bolivarian card for followers of Chavismo. Needless to say, those who do not request that card will be identified as opponents to the regime, and they may have serious difficulties in securing or maintaining a job in the public sector (government and state-owned firms) and in obtaining food and medicines at subsidized prices.

Bolivia's Evo Morales, for his part, envisages taking on social media -- responsible in his view for his referendum defeat -- and has requested the resignation of public officials who voted no.

The taste for coercive and repressive methods has much to do with the populist left's fascination with the Castro regime. Since Fidel and Raul Castro have succeeded in holding power for more than half a century by smothering dissent, their emulators in the region seem to think that they can reproduce the Castro brothers' prowess by resorting to similar strong-arm methods.

The calculation is risky at best, for the Cuban experience can hardly be transposed today to other countries of the region.

It will indeed be difficult, if not impossible, for any government in the region to apply the level of repression that has enabled the Castro regime to cling to power. In today's Latin America, the political conditions are not the same as those prevailing in Cuba at the time the Castro brothers consolidated their dictatorial grip. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that, however hard Venezuela's leadership tried to prevent an electoral defeat through intimidation, imprisonments, torture, control of the media, gerrymandering, and other dirty tricks, that defeat ultimately took place.

At the turn of the 19th century, the French writer (and disenchanted socialist) Charles Peguy coined a sentence that may be used in due time as an epitaph for Latin America's hard left: "Parties live from their mystique and die of their policies."

(AP Photo)

The Curious Case of Succession in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has long been a model of post-Soviet cooperation with Moscow and a cornerstone of the Kremlin's plan for a Eurasian economic block drawing on the allegiance former Soviet states have to their onetime motherland, or the Russian Federation. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only leader the littoral Caspian state has ever had. Nazarbayev gained power for good in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed, and he stayed firmly ensconced at the top through suppression of the political opposition. Today the Russian-Kazakh relationship is one of Moscow's closest in terms of post-Soviet leadership.

However, there are troubles ahead for this cozy alliance. Nazarbayev is aging, and his health is failing. There is no clarity on who will succeed him, says Alexandre Mansourov, adjunct professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the Security Studies program at Georgetown University. Nazarbayev's daughter, as well as the current prime minister, Karim Massimov, have been floated as possible successors, but neither is seen as reliable to the Kremlin. The next leader of Kazakhstan will most likely be less pro-Russian and more open to better relations with China or engagement with Europe, an outcome that is Moscow's worst nightmare.

Russia has invested a great deal of diplomacy into the development of the Eurasian Economic Union,or EEU. President Vladimir Putin has seen this economic alliance as a way to further his efforts to bring back the economic and political power of the Soviet Union -- without the communism, and controlled of course by Russia. The EEU also has the benefit of preventing prior Soviet satellites from migrating their allegiances to the West. Nazarbayev himself suggested the creation of the entity in 1994 while giving a speech in Moscow, but has refrained from allowing further political integration out of concern for Kazakh sovereignty.

The Kremlin really can't afford for a successor in Kazakhstan to be less friendly to Russia or more oriented to other places economically, as the rationale for the union would fall apart. Hence the Kremlin's dilemma in Kazakhstan, and Moscow's efforts to lock in as much Eurasian economic integration as possible before Nazarbayev's passing. The relationship with Belarus -- the only other major state in the EEU -- is tenuous as well for Moscow. Belarus also has more political integration with Moscow in the Union State arrangement. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are minor players in the economic block.

Additionally, with all of Putin's talk about defending Russian-speaking minorities around the globe, which was his primary justification for annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the plight of Russian-speaking people in the north of Kazakhstan has gone unheeded.

"The Kremlin doesn't want to hear about the problems in the north," says Dr. Mansourov. "Even when [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky has brought up the issue, highlighting that Nazarbayev has repressed the Russian-speaking people of Kazakhstan, where Zhirinovsky was born, the Kremlin turns a deaf ear. Moscow has given marching orders to ignore the Russian minority and to deal with the government in Astana."

Interestingly enough, this was the same tack the Kremlin took with Crimea, saying it would deal with the government in Kyiv while ignoring the pro-Russian population in Crimea for decades; that is, until it became advantageous for Moscow to do alter course when the Maidan Revolution removed pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych from power.

When Nazarbayev is gone, there will be great uncertainty regarding the Kazakh relationship with Moscow. The entire construct of Eurasian economic integration will be called into question. If the EEU cannot outlive the current government in Astana, this outcome will deal a severe blow to Putin's efforts to control the old Soviet periphery.

(AP Photo)

The EU's Deal With Turkey: What Comes Next?

Turkey and the European Union achieved a Herculean feat, finally sealing a deal that has been in the works since October. According to the agreement, Syrian refugees fleeing to the Continent via Turkish-Greek waters will be sent back to Turkey. With this, European leaders hope to put a stop to the hitherto unstoppable influx of asylum seekers from the Syrian civil war. However, now comes the hardest part, one at which the European Union has in the recent past proven incredibly inept: actually executing the agreement.

Starting this Sunday, Syrian refugees reaching Greek shores will be processed in Greece and then sent back to Turkey. From there, the deal stipulates, the European Union will take refugees and redistribute them among the member states that are willing to accept them. This will happen according to the so-called 1-for-1 rule demanded by Ankara: For each refugee taken back by Turkey, another one will be taken in by an EU member state.

The goal of the deal with Turkey is to stem and regulate the flow of asylum seekers. The deal should also allow the European Union and Turkey to better distinguish proper war refugees from migrants fleeing economic and social hardship in other countries.

Once Syrian refugees understand that there is no point in fleeing to Greece, as they will be sent back to Turkey anyway, they will stop undertaking the perilous journey to Greece -- so goes the reasoning. On paper, this should turn Turkey into one big, EU-financed refugee camp. Of course, this assumes the erratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not use refugees as a tool to blackmail the European Union into accepting new demands.

Right now, such concerns lie in the future. The immediate problem now facing the European Union is whether its member states actually will follow through on their promises.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte -- the temporary chairman of the Council of Ministers of the European Union -- recently lamented that the Union's biggest problem has always been the delivery on promises made.

The very reason why the Syrian refugee crisis became a sudden, massive problem for the European Union was that member states in the past decade simply refused to put their money where their mouth is. Former European Commission chairman Jose Manuel Barroso on Dutch television criticized EU member states for refusing to commit themselves to an EU-wide border regime and delivering the goods for it: money, personnel, and ships to monitor and guard the Mediterranean Sea.

Properly enforcing a tight border regime along the Mediterranean shoreline and the Bulgarian Black Sea shore will be paramount to preventing smugglers from finding new routes to herd refugees into Europe.

If the member states again fail to live up to their promises, the expensive deal with Turkey will have been for naught.

How Much Did Russia 'Win' in Syria?

Russia's announcement that it is pulling troops out of Syria has been met with surprise from the Obama administration and a fair amount of clucking from pundits who see it as a vindication of Vladimir Putin's strategy in the region. It is also proof, many of those same pundits argue, that the Russian leader out-maneuvered U.S. President Barack Obama. Alexander Titov has a good rundown of the prospective gains that Russia will supposedly reap from its adventure in Syria, including the preservation of the Bashar Assad regime and Putin's ability to have a seat at the table for future negotiations.

But how much did Russia actually win in Syria?

First, it's important to emphasize that Russia hasn't actually withdrawn from Syria. They've merely announced their intention to do so. As the New York Times notes, they've pulled out about 10 planes and no sizeable number of troops. The United States should be acutely cautious about politicians claiming 'mission accomplished' before fully extricating themselves from a foreign entanglement. Even without frontline forces, Russian military advisers will undoubtedly still remain in the country.

Second, Putin's biggest accomplishment is unquestionably that Russia turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor. With Russia's help, the Assad regime has managed to cut rebel supply lines and reclaim territory in the north and south of the country. Militarily, a regime once reeling is no longer on the ropes.

In other words, instead of having Syria devolve into a totally lawless failed state, it's only now a semi-failed state with a ramshackle government that is still not in full control of its territory and has an Islamist insurgency raging in its borders. Assad's forces are unquestionably better positioned today thanks to Russian help, but Syria is a long way from being a viable, functioning state. Russia's client government is probably an assassination or two away from utter turmoil.

More importantly, what tangible good has propping up Assad done for Russia? Has it boosted the Russian economy? No. By all accounts, the Russian economy is performing poorly. Has it improved the standard of living for ordinary Russians? No, things look pretty bleak on that front too. Has it broken open new markets for Russian enterprises to sell into? Perhaps if Assad gets back on his feet, but not now. Has it gained Russia a powerful geopolitical ally? Even before it was a failed state, Syria was no regional powerhouse.

Meanwhile, Russia was flushing roughly $4 million a day into Syria as of October 2015 -- cheap by the standards of America's extravagant Mideast boondoggles, but costly nonetheless. It's not clear how many Russians have been killed in Syria, in part because Moscow is going to great lengths to obscure those figures, but Russia has seen its share of lives lost as well.

Still, Russia has achieved a limited set of results. It successfully propped up Assad and helped that regime recoup some of its lost territory. It has also ensured that it will be consulted in any negotiations involving the long-term fate of Syria's internal governance. Whether Syria was a prize worth investing in, only time will tell.

(AP Photo)

Turkey Delights

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's police forces close newspaper after radio station after news website, and while Turkish armed forces pursue a veritable civil war with the Kurds, the European Union signals that it is ready to forever stain whatever reputation it once had.

After 29 years of humiliation and being held at arm's length, Turkey delights in the fact that it has completely turned the table on the European Union. On April 14, 1987, Turkey formally applied for membership of the European Community, which has since become the European Union. After almost three decades of standstill and of insults to Turkey's pride, it is now President Erdogan who calls the shots.

For this, Turkey needed no army. This time, there was no Ottoman force at the gates of Vienna.

Nor is the host of refugees Turkey's biggest ally. Erdogan can unleash a stream of refugees at his beck and call. Within Turkey's borders resides a huge number of refugees from a variety of nations, most of them Syrian. And as Turks, Kurds, Assad's forces, and fundamentalist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State battle it out, more desperate Syrians join the ranks of the refugees every day.

No, Erdogan's real army is the millions of very angry European voters who simply want an end to the influx of refugees. Erdogan is counting on voter fear among his European peers.

The heads of state do not fail to disappoint. The elected leaders of the EU member states appear to be in a state of shock. As poll numbers turn against them because of the refugee crisis, they desperately want a deal -- any deal -- to stem the refugee tide.

They will look away from Erdogan's many atrocities against his own people and especially against the Kurds, if only Erdogan signs a contract that will oblige him to take back refugees from Greek islands and prevent people from stepping into leaking dinghies, choosing peril over uncertainty in Turkey.

The European Union's leaders in principle have now agreed to taking refugees "one for one," as per Turkey's suggestion. Every Syrian taken back by Turkey from the Greek islands will be processed in Turkey and then flown to EU nations that sign up to the deal. Most Eastern European member states have already flat-out refused to accept any refugees within their borders, so it will be a sort of coalition of the willing -- mainly Western European countries -- that will have to redistribute the refugees among themselves.

Aside from this, Turkey has demanded a doubling of the annual funds promised by the European Union for shelter relief for the approximately 2.7 million refugees already in the country. Yet all that didn't quite satisfy Erdogan. At the last moment, he added the demand that the European Union restart in earnest the stalled accession process. The EU member states swallowed the poison pill and agreed.

Principles don't vote. People do

Western Europe's leading politicians privately wince at having to deal with Erdogan. But they also admit that they have little choice.

Poll numbers show that many voters want an end to the seemingly endless stream of refugees trudging along Europe's pastures in search of a better life, of peace and prosperity. Right-wing extremist parties are either winning elections or seem more destined with each image of refugees to do so.

Huge logistical problems in some countries are also forcing hands. Sweden's resourcefulness has been pushed to its limits, while in the Netherlands, the government is having severe difficulties finding enough shelter to house the many displaced. In Germany, local government services have effectively collapsed, unable to cope with the influx.

What these nations are looking for is an orderly way to distribute refugees -- to buy time and increase their societies' absorption capacity and public support for giving shelter. And all this before spring sets in, when the weather in the Aegean Sea calms down, temperatures rise, and refugees will again set out on boats in the mass numbers seen at the end of last summer.

The agreement to restart Turkey's accession talks is publicly ridiculed by some leading players in the European Union. The party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who currently heads the rotating chair of the presidency of the Council of the EU, cynically said that sure, they will talk to Turkey about EU membership, but that it will never happen. There is no doubt that the Turkish embassy relayed those remarks to Ankara.

Between a rock and Erdogan

The European Union doesn't have much of a choice indeed. It either deals with Erdogan, or it will in the end have to take more desperate and certainly harsh measures. Leaders of some right-wing parties now making strong gains in polls are increasingly giving voice to what those harsher measures would be.

The leader of the Alternativ für Deutschland, or AfD, for instance suggested that German police be allowed to shoot at refugees trying to cross the border. The vice-chairwoman of the AfD later clarified that children should be left alone, but mothers and women are "sensible," so border police should be allowed to use lethal force against them if needed.

And so this is why Europe's leaders are prepared to dance with the devil in Ankara. Their successors may have very different views on how to solve the humanitarian problem. Better to take the initiative now and solve the problem.

(AP photo)

Is Ukraine's Military Ready for a Fight?

Two years ago, the Ukrainian military found itself badly outmatched and unprepared to fight Russian special forces who quickly took over the Crimean peninsula. They also struggled against Moscow-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine in 2015. While Kyiv is finally getting much-needed training and limited support to its various military and security branches from NATO, its forces are far from reaching the desired degree of readiness to take on its security challenges. Among Ukraine's problems is a lack of modern equipment and professional service capable of dealing with advanced Russian weapons and tactics. Trying to reverse these developments, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov recently stated, during a televised address on Ukraine's 1+1 network, that his country needs to modernize its military in order to return Crimea to Ukraine.

According to Avakov, "Ukraine will have to recreate and rebuild the army, the National Guard and the police, since the country had virtually nothing prior to the start of hostilities. ... and then, by our will, the Crimea will be with us -- in this I have no doubt." He added that the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, along with Ukrainian lawmakers, is working on creating a special National Guard unit in order to be "ready for the return of the Crimea." According to the minister, Ukraine failed to defend Crimea two years ago because of the Kharkiv Agreements signed by previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- the man who was chased out of his country to Russia by the Maidan protests, an event which in turn triggered Russia's military involvement. Avakov criticized the agreements for allowing Russia to significantly increase its military presence on the peninsula prior to the takeover: "We could not do anything when the Russian planes landed at the Crimean airfield, because Yanukovych signed the agreement."

The same TV program featured Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who spoke on the information methods to return the peninsula to Kyiv. According to Klimkin, the inhabitants of the peninsula should be shown the advantages of living in a democratic and European country, which is what Ukraine is today as it seeks to join the European Union: "The residents of Crimea are under fierce (pro-Russian) propaganda, we must show them by our example that their future is in the European democratic Ukraine and not in Crimea under Russian occupation, where they can go nowhere."

As Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets noted, the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Federation following the results of the 2014 referendum after the annexation of the region by Russian special forces. According to Moscow, the region's reunification with Russia was supported by nearly 96 percent of the population -- a fact that Kyiv and a number of Western countries have refused to recognize, instead imposing sanctions against the region and Russia. Recently, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that the question on the status of Crimea is "closed forever -- the peninsula is part of Russia."

While Ukrainian forces could indeed raise their effectiveness through training, much-needed reforms, and inclusion of new military technologies and tactics into their concept of operations, these things take time. Such steps, morevoer, increase the likelihood of a costly confrontation with Russia over Crimea, which is probably out of the question for a Ukrainian government struggling with political upheaval and a worsening economy. Nonetheless, such issues are apparently not stopping other members of the Ukrainian government from making statements that call for additional military action against Russia-backed insurgents in the country's eastern regions. According to Ukrainian daily Obozrevatel.ua, Col. Peter Nedzelskiy, a senior military intelligence officer, recently said that military forces are ready to take action "on the liberation of temporarily-occupied areas of Donbass -- the Army awaits the relevant decision of the military-political leadership of the country." He added:

"Our soldiers are mentally ready for defense -- and they are also waiting for the command to attack. The moral and psychological state of the Ukrainian army is high enough -- we have learned to fight. If not for the Minsk Agreements, we would have expelled these terrorists from our land long ago."

Nedzelskiy assured: "Supposedly these terrorists are training to attack us or they are imitating an offensive -- this is laughable. We are always ready to give them an answer that will be very adequate and very strong." At the same time, the colonel stressed that " the Army is an instrument of policy, and the war is a continuation of the policy by armed methods -- of course, we cannot act without a decision by the military-political leadership -- we are waiting for such a decision."

While such statements may indeed raise the confidence of Ukrainian military forces, the facts on the ground may be very different, especially given visible improvements in Russian military capabilities following Moscow's involvement in the Syrian civil war.

(AP photo)

Russia Can't Find Enough Skilled Workers

As the world grudgingly grows to accept Russia's role in Syria, Russia's industry is struggling to keep pace the country's geopolitical success. Lacking sufficient qualified labor, some military factories have begun to operate on three shifts in order to support the ongoing aerial campaign in Syria. According to Russian daily Gazeta.ru, the transition by individual departments of the Tactical Missiles Corp. was probably caused by growing demand for the arms technology in use in Syria, as well as by chronic staff shortages. The paper notes that such shortage of skilled professionals also applies to the parent company of the holding, alluding to a much wider workforce problem.

While Russian officials and international commentators are noting increased concern at the state of the Russian economy and the worsening situation for its vast labor force, numerous jobs have gone unfilled, even in national security-related enterprises.Tactical Missiles advertised dozens of engineering jobs in the hope of quickly ramping up production to support Russian Air Force efforts, even promising raises to younger workers and paid hotel stays for out-of-town applicants.

Altogether, the corporation needs to fill 300 jobs -- a significant gap in its production capacity. A company spokesman tried to downplay the urgency, noting that "certain departments may have indeed switched to three shifts in order to fulfill government orders. As for the shortage of staff, that periodically happens in blue-collar specialties that have now, unfortunately, become rare, such as with millers and electric turners."

He added that the Russian government is sponsoring a program that trains people for work at defense enterprises and corporations, realizing that such enterprises need not only engineers, but also highly skilled blue-collar workers. "Unfortunately, young people today are reluctant to train for such professions, because they must train for a long time long to gain experience and start to earn good money." 

The Russian government indeed has been vocal about its lack of highly qualified workers. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev noted in 2014 that "trained and skilled workers and laborers are now sorely lacking in virtually all (industrial) sectors...We need to change stereotypes about the low prestige of these professions."

That lack of prestige is due to the fact that in the Soviet Union, the word rabochiy -- worker, or laborer -- was a common description for tens of millions of men and women working blue-collar jobs in sprawling state factories and enterprises, performing menial labor under minimal safety standards for relatively low pay. These jobs were supposed to offer security -- guaranteed pensions and social services -- yet such guarantees evaporated during Russia's painful economic transition in the 1990s, which decimated numerous state enterprises unable to compete in the global economy. A vast workforce was left on its own, often lacking pay and basic benefits.

As the Russian economy began to improve in the 2000s, many young people saw a future not as welders and electricians, but as players in the then-growing domestic and international high-tech, services, energy, and financial sectors. It is worth noting that Western nations are suffering the same shortage of highly-skilled laborers now. The United States, for example, needs welders, and many industries are willing to pay high salaries for the right set of skills.

Moscow is trying to throw money at the problem. In 2014, Medvedev launched a government program called  Development of Vocational Education, which received 405 billion rubles (about $6.2 billion) in 2015. Moreover, last year the Russian government approved a plan to train the military-industrial complex workforce for the 2016-2020 period, and it signed a decree which contains a plan aimed at popularizing labor and engineering professions.

It's not only about money -- it's also about games. The plan, which should help increase the popularity of blue-collar occupations, included activities such as the All-Russian professional skills competition Best in Profession, the WorldSkills Russia national championship, a national career-oriented festival, Profi, and an All-Russia forum of young workers. The plan hopes to entice no fewer than 600,000 potential applicants. According to the head of the Empire Personnel recruitment agency, Olga Glukhov, "blue-collar jobs are not currently held in high esteem, because they are associated with hardship and low pay. Those who wish to work are faced with the fact that companies need specialists with extensive experience. The result is a vicious circle, when college graduates with no experience can't find a job in their field."

Such government activity can't come at a better time for the nation that is facing continued economic decline this year.

(AP photo)

There Is no Hollywood Ending for Syria

Maybe the U.S.-Russian cease-fire will hold in Syria, or at least tamp down the level of violence in that country. But whether it does or not, there are a few American assumptions about the U.S. approach to the Syrian civil war that need to be seriously revisited. Maybe Washington policymakers don't really believe in these assumptions. I suspect that's the case; after all, those assumptions are not holding true. And here's why.

Must Bashar Assad go? The logic is certainly compelling. He's a war criminal responsible for the deaths of scores of thousands of innocents. Without his departure, ISIS will continue to feed on Sunni disaffection and alienation; Sunni opponents will never give up the fight; and Russia and Iran will have won. The only problem is that in reality, Assad is not going, and there is no constellation of forces that appear willing or able right now to make that happen. Unless the Iranians and Russian President Vladimir Putin are willing to sacrifice him -- and for what, you might ask -- it seems Assad is here to stay. That's hard to accept if you argue that there can be no definitive solution with Assad around. But perhaps that is precisely the point. There will be no determinative end state; perhaps just a stalemate locked in with a predictable level of accepted violence. Which leads us to the next point.

The notion of a unified, cohesive Syria is dead, and that begs a related and broader question: Is there an end game in Syria? Perhaps, but not one that provides the stable, inclusive, non-sectarian future envisioned by the International Syrian Support Group. Once the authoritarians in Iraq, Syria, and Libya went the way of the dodo, the odds that the polities in these countries could hold together were long indeed. Tribes with flags, one observer said of the Arab states -- excepting Egypt.

This doesn't mean the redrawing of these countries' borders. But it does mean that what happens within those borders is likely to be quite different than what we've seen for the past half century or so. It's hard to imagine -- and Iraq is no great precedent -- that in Syria, Alawite and Kurds would agree to surrender power to a centralized Syrian state on the assumption that it would protect their interests to do so, and certainly not after five years of bloody civil war. The age of Alawite dominance in Syria, furthermore, is over, and in that context you can count on Iran to ensure a decentralized Syria so that Tehran's Alawite allies remain relevant. On the other side, the country's Sunni majority and its Saudi backers wield predominant influence in Damascus.

The exact nature of the new Syria is unclear. But it will be based on some kind of a confederal structure where various confessional groups will maintain control of autonomous areas. Syria will continue to be messy, with areas that include a mix of Sunnis and Alawite. But it's hard to envision a workable alternative.

Arabs and Turks will not come to the rescue: They will all continue to meddle, but their goal will not be to save Syria so much as to protect their own, narrow interests. And the elusive notion of a regional Sunni army will not rescue Syria. The Saudis are overstretched in Yemen and talk a bigger game than they're willing to play. Their real goal in Syria is to check Iran's growing influence, but Riyadh is simply unwilling to commit sufficient resources to do so -- a reticence not shared by Tehran. As for Turkey, if Ankara did send in ground forces, it would be to check the Kurds, not to fight the Islamic State or overthrow Assad.

So will the U.S. cavalry? We need to be honest about what the United States has been and will be willing to risk in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear in his Congressional testimony this week that the United States has a Plan B should the cessation of hostilities fail. That seems to imply a more concerted effort to support the Syrian opposition, and perhaps consideration of some kind of no fly zone or safe area that would put more U.S. assets on the ground and in the air. Is this a bluff, or a real contingency? And more important, what would it accomplish? Is Washington prepared to challenge the Russians and Iran and trigger a hotter proxy war by upping the level of U.S. assistance, or even intervening directly? Would that produce the kind of painful stalemate that would compel Russia to negotiate a transition without Assad? There really are no good options, let alone choices free of risk, in pursuit of such a goal. And nothing indicates that U.S. President Barack Obama is prepared to risk more than the Russians are in Syria in order to force them to the table.

The shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan still looms large, and there's no will in Washington to own Syria, or to engage in nation-building. Listening to the Republican and Democratic candidates only suggests that none of them has ideas that are compelling, new, or workable -- from John Kasich's Sunni army, to Ted Cruz's carpet bombing campaign, to Hillary Clinton's no fly zone -- an idea in search of a strategy.

If there ever were really good options in Syria, there aren't anymore. Iran and even Russia are willing to sacrifice quite a lot to protect what they believe are their vital interests. The United States is not, and that should be clear by now. Whatever is done in Syria can be coordinated by Washington, but the United States isn't going to pay the estimated $100 billion required to rebuild the country, nor to provide the peacekeepers needed to oversee the process.

Syria is only part of the problem: If Syria's were the only crisis in the region, or neatly cut off from the interests of a range of regional actors, perhaps the problem would be more tractable. But Syria is part and parcel of a turbulent region that is on the whole in crisis. No regional party or set of parties is prepared to co-own a Syria solution, and neither are the big outside powers. Russia has its own agenda, and the U.S. administration seems determined to avoid confronting Moscow and being drawn deeper into conflict. A U.S.-Russian agreement on the core issues, including Assad's future, might be the first step in imagining a transition to a more stable future. If you're looking for Hollywood endings you won't find one in the blood and tragedy of Syria. I suggest you go to the movies instead.

(AP photo)

Manufacturing Consent in Iran

Last week's so-called elections in Iran were met with much fanfare from both the regime and some in the West. Despite the predominant narrative focusing on the factional split within Iran, the elections themselves underpin a much deeper issue within Iranian society. Namely, the legitimacy of the regime, and its efforts to compel its citizens to continue to exist within its institutional framework.

The famous linguist Noam Chomsky once remarked: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum -- even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

The regime has done everything in its power to limit the discussion on the elections in such a way that the fact that they are neither free nor fair is left out of the narrative.

Leading up to the election, Khamenei repeatedly attempted to invoke the threat of Western imperialism as a means to encourage participation in the process. In fact, the supreme leader went so far as to state that those who boycott the regime are actually opposed to the Islamic Republic as a whole, a sentiment not only containing a degree of truth, but one that is indicative of the stakes at hand regarding the legitimacy of the regime.

Many Iranians continue to call for a boycott of the regime in its a totality, arguing that the current system leaves little room for change with the existence of a "supreme leader," and an electoral process that is hardly pluralistic. The regime itself has desperately sought to cast this election as a meaningful choice for Iranians and their future, and has referenced the fact that the vote on the Assembly of Experts may determine the future supreme leader of Iran. Khamenei is not wrong to point out that the Assembly does have that role. However framing the debate in this manner serves a specific purpose.

Within this particular context, the issue of actual democratic elections, without the disqualification of candidates, is not even part of the discussion. There are no parties that do not swear allegiance to Khamenei as the supreme leader, let alone advocate serious institutional reform. The discussion leaves no room for the idea that institutions such as the Assembly of Experts are simply incompatible with notions of modern democracy or pluralism. These points are moot.

Instead, what is left is intense debates by so-called reformists or moderates about how bad things could get if they boycott the election. Setting aside the fact that the "moderates" in Iran continue to pursue the same ultimate goals as the "hardliners," what begins to emerge is a picture of desperation and distorted reality that only serves the government's interests.

For example, one of the reformist candidates elected to the Assembly in last week's vote was Mohammad Reyshahri, who served as the head of the intelligence ministry during the 1988 massacre against political prisoners during which thousands were put to death for their beliefs.

The logic behind voting for such a candidate was articulated by reformist professor Sadegh Zibakalam, who stated: "Unfortunately, we had to choose between bad and worse ... I agree Reyshahri has killed a lot of people ... He has no democratic background, but he is also not against democracy and freedom. And also, what other options do we have? To let [Guardian Council chairman Ahmad] Jannati and [Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi] Mesbah-Yazdi, who are openly against any freedom, get in?"

Zibakalam appears to be willfully ignorant of two very simple facts. The first is that the entire regime, much like Reyshahri, is against freedom and democracy, a fact not only evidenced by 37 years of repression, but by its disqualification of 6,000 candidates from this election. Zibakalam, secondly does have another option, and that is to boycott the process altogether.

The simple fact that Khamenei and the regime have gone out of their way to urge ordinary Iranians to participate in this archaic system speaks volumes about who the real winners are in the Islamic Republic.

One need look no further than the words and actions of the regime to understand that it has taken its own people hostage in order to compel them to vote and legitimize a brutal, corrupt, and undemocratic system. Voting out of fear and desperation are not hallmarks of a healthy democracy or an open society. Ideas put forth by individuals like Zibakalam are not only disturbing, but show just how successful Khamenei has been in manufacturing his desired outcome -- one that forces ordinary Iranians to participate in the elections, lest they be punished by threats from both at home and abroad.

(AP Photo)

Why Russians Love Putin

Over the past decade and a half, Russian President Vladimir Putin has enjoyed consistently high rankings and the continued support of the majority of his country's population, as well as that of the country's military, political, and economic elites. There are straightforward explanations for such strong support. His government's control of practically all major media outlets; the crafting of an image that shows him as a virile and masculine figure; his success in silencing and marginalizing practically all opposition; and other factors like his successful exploitation of the patriotism rooted in the Russian psyche have helped sustain his success. But many in the West have struggled to comprehend why Russian people, whose lives and livelihoods seem to have taken a turn for the much worse since the imposition of Western sanctions in 2015, love their leader. 

Russian political commentator Ilya Konstantivov, writing in the Svobodnaya Pressa (Free Press), took a more personal look at the support Russian people give to Putin, and how the attitude points back to the days of President Boris Yeltsin, the man who nominated Putin to the nation's highest post on Dec. 31, 1999.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, following the attempted Soviet political and economic reforms dubbed perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin, who was elected as the first Russian President in June 1991, cut a dashing figure for Russians tired of cookie-cutter Soviet leaders, Konstantinos writes: 

"The masses fell in love with him at first sight, loved him as only a woman can love: fervently, recklessly and with all their hearts. And he was quite the man, too -- tall, barrel-chested, with a commanding posture and an intense stare. That he did not seem too intelligent was probably for the better -- people understood him well, he seemed close and familiar."

Konstantinov writes about a dinner meeting Yeltsin once attended in the spring of 1990, prior to the breakup of the USSR, when he was asked what leadership qualities the man who leads modern Russia should possess. Yeltsin, the writer relates, was already tipsy from several shots of vodka, when he stammered out: "He must be a strong politician and a strong man." With the word "strong," Boris slammed his fist on the table so that all the dishes rang. Such a man, Yeltsin continued, needs to understand the aspirations of the Russian people. But most importantly -- "he must be a strong man with strong policies!" 

Konstantinov then recalled why Yeltsin drank tall glasses of vodka - to demonstrate his power. "I remembered this little episode not to expose the Russian president's drunkenness," writes Konstantinov. "Yes -- he loved to drink. But his real illness was not alcoholism [which was highlighted throughout Yeltsin's presidency], but an unbridled love of power, from which he got drunk more than from alcohol. And behind the image of a reckless drunkard stood an experienced, shrewd and ruthless beast."

Russia in the 1990s, headed by Boris Yelstin, went through numerous economic, political, and socio-cultural upheavals. Old norms, principles, and practices were dismantled, and new democratic habits did not evenly or successfully replace the old ones. Many Russians today rue that decade. They view it with mixed emotions at best, and at worst as a painful period in their lives. Konstantinov describes people's attitudes by comparing Russia and its people to a woman in a marriage: 

"This often happens in life: the first marriage based on passionate love is unhappy. The beloved husband, a handsome man, drinks, beats his wife, often does not bring money to the family, and may even cheat. ... Russian women are able to tolerate such behavior for a long time, even when love turns into hate -- but following a divorce, they sometimes look for a life partner who is the opposite of the first experience. If the first husband was tall, burly, and prominent, then the second will be small, lean, and rather unsightly. If the first husband drank, the second will be totally sober. If the first was a partier, then the second will be a quiet one. If the first had a great head of hair, the second will be balding..."

He continues by saying that "Yeltsin abused Russia thoroughly: stole everything from home, left the country battered and naked. ... The people hated it. And the country would never accept his successor if he did not seem the antithesis of the retired ‘master,' not only in appearance. ... (Putin) does not drink, does not fall off bridges, does not attempt to conduct orchestras -- he behaves well.

"This is happens a lot -- first, you get used to something, then you grow to love it. ... Slowly, gradually the country begun to respect, and then fell in love with Putin." 

While this point of view may effectively illustrate a more personal view of Putn's popularity with the Russian people, it is obvious that not everyone is happy with such a so-called marriage, no matter how stable if may seem. Street protests by the still-active Russian opposition, even in the wake of murders of major political figures such as Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as well as a continued brain drain, underscore many people's unhappiness with the way things are going in their country.

Konstantinov's personal take on Putin centers on the worst of Yeltsin's years, when the economy seemed to have been partitioned among powerful interest groups, giving rise to the oligarch class, a rising criminality that threatened the once-stable Russian society, and the eventual control by pro-government elites of the nation's economic output. Yet in those years there were positive developments as well, such as the emergence of a vibrant and free press, and the freedom to travel overseas following decades of Iron Curtain rules that locked the Soviet population within the borders of the USSR.

The writer does end on an interesting note -- that after the past two and a half decades of major changes under Yelstin and Putin, the country may not survive the economic, political, and social upheavals that could follow should Putin leave his post without nominating a successor who appeals to the population and elites. Time will tell how this will play out -- for now, any talk about Putin's successor is pure speculation.

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