Sunday, February 15, 2015

56 years of Cuban Cars






Recently I had the opportunity of visiting Cuba.  Today the island of Cuba is known for many things.  These include outstanding health care and educational systems.  Cuba is also known as a nation that the government in Washington doesn’t like very much.  This dislike centers on someone by the name of Fidel Castro. 

Another striking characteristic of Cuba is the fact that there are many cars that were made in the United States more than 56 years ago.  These cars continue to transport passengers.  This blog attempts to give some perspective about why Cuba has so many of these cars.

Auto manufacturing in the USA

First, you should know that I worked in the auto manufacturing industry in this country for about 21 years.  Given this experience, I have some information about what it means to build a car.  First, we need to consider that there are perhaps a thousand parts needed to build every automobile.  Tools need to be constructed to build each one of these parts.  The investment required to tool up for manufacturing a new model car might be in the billions of dollars.  The electricity required to power up even one factory might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars every month.

Transportation workers then need to bring all these parts to the assembly plant.  Here workers assemble automobiles at the rate of about one car per minute.  If the assembly plant lacks even one part, production stops and the plant closes down until all the parts are available.  This means that if even one part is missing at the assembly plant, the auto-manufacturing corporation will begin to loose about $30,000 every minute.

After someone purchases a car we know that it needs to be maintained.  An auto repair shop might need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to have the equipment required to repair cars.  Auto mechanics need to invest tens of thousands of dollars in order to purchase the tools they will need to repair cars.

Auto repair in Africa, Asia, and Latin America

One of the most compelling facts of life that we all live with is the immense disparity of wealth that exists in the world.  Much of the rest of the world lacks the basic every day conveniences most working people have in the United States.

About forty percent of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.  There are about one billion people in the world who lack direct access to water and electricity.  Many of these same one billion people do not have enough food to eat.  The United Nations estimates that these conditions contributed to the deaths of about 30,000 children every day.

Certainly people who have an income of two dollars per day are not thinking about purchasing a car that might cost between $5,000 and $30,000.  Much of the world’s population isn’t thinking about purchasing tens of thousands of dollars worth of tools to repair cars.  Even if someone from Asia, Africa, or Latin America had the tools to repair cars, car parts would need to be imported at exorbitant prices.

Ingenious methods have been used to throughout these areas of the world to keep cars running.  An auto mechanic in this country will change spark plugs after a given number of miles.  Workers who do not have access to spark plugs might clean the contacts so the spark plugs might last indefinitely.  Cuba doesn’t have good access to anti-freeze.  The Cuban auto mechanics use a concoction made out of hair shampoo that effectively cools engines.

In large areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America only the very affluent have the resources to purchase cars.  Because most of these nations do not manufacture cars, the purchase of autos from third countries is an immense drain on already depleted economies.  

Cuban transportation

The Cuban people are well aware of all these problems.  The percentage of Cubans who can read is among the best of any nation in the world.  The Cuban infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world.

When Cuba had its revolution in 1959, the economy was not equipped to manufacture cars.  Given these enormous limitations, the Cubans have attempted to develop a transportation system that everyone has access to.  As a part of this enormous challenge Cubans have been repairing U.S. made cars for over half a century.  We should keep in mind that because of the U.S. imposed economic embargo, Cuba hasn’t been able to import replacement parts from the United States.

These are some of the facts we might consider when we think about what we confronted when leaving the hotel we stayed at in Havana.  The smell of smog from auto exhaust was in the air.  Yes, the cost of pollution control parts for autos is extremely expensive and Cuba simply doesn’t have the resources to purchase these parts.  However, we might also consider that in the city of Santiago, Chile residents have been encouraged to use gas masks when coming and going to their jobs.


So, when we look at the beautiful 56 old Cuban cars, we might consider some of the ideas in this blog.   

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Selma


A review of the film

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Starring: David Oyelowo & Carmen Ejogo

For anyone who is familiar with the civil rights movement, the word Selma has a unique meaning.  This is where those who dedicated themselves to overturning Jim Crow segregation, faced off against the armed forces of the state of Alabama. 

After the initial demonstration endured an attack by those armed forces, they returned and marched on to the state capitol in Montgomery.  Shortly after this demonstration, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that allowed Black people to vote in the former Jim Crow states.

This is how most history books generally report this momentous event.  The film Selma gives us a more intimate view of the events surrounding the confrontation.  We see the individuals who stood up after being beaten, arrested, and even seeing loved ones murdered, continue to challenge powerful state and federal authorities.

A background to the story

While this is a powerful film worth seeing, there is a considerable amount of information not included in the film that I feel is worth considering.  The confrontation between the civil rights demonstrators and the Alabama armed forces took place at the Edmond Pettus Bridge. 

Edmond Winston Pettus was a brigadier general for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.  He later became a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  After the defeat of radical reconstruction Pettus became a U.S. Senator from Alabama.

We might consider that after the Civil War the U.S. government adopted the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  These amendments gave citizenship rights as well as voting rights to every male citizen of this country.  This included the four million Black people who had been slaves before the Civil War.  It wasn’t until 1920 that women gained the right to vote.

There was an exception to the 14th Amendment.  This stated that anyone who had participated in “insurrection” was not eligible to be elected to public office.  This would include anyone who served in the Confederate armed forces.  If this was the case, how was it possible for Edmond Winston Pettus to become a U.S. Senator after the 14th Amendment was signed into law?  Why was it that millions of Black people were effectively prevented from voting when the 15th Amendment clearly supported this right?

The answer to these questions is clear.  The U.S. government cared more about appeasing Jim Crow segregationists than they did about supporting the rights of Black people.  We can see the slight change in government policy in one of the characters in the film Selma.  This was President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Johnson started his career as a Democratic Party Jim Crow politician from Texas.  His personal friends included many of the Jim Crow politicians throughout the south.  This is why John F. Kennedy chose Johnson to be his Vice-Presidential candidate.

In the film Selma there is a scene that portrayed President Johnson meeting with the then Alabama Governor George Wallace.  At this meeting Johnson chastised Wallace for not allowing Black people to vote in Alabama.  The facts were that it was Johnson who was required to ensure that each and every Black person in this country was in no way restricted from voting. 

In fact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were mere redundancies of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  An honest President would have acknowledged this and admitted that every President since the defeat of radical reconstruction was in willful violation of the law.  This was one of the main reasons why Jim Crow segregation was allowed to exist.

By any means necessary

One of the aspects of this film worth discussion was Dr. Martin Luther King’s advocating of non-violence.  Malcolm X, on the other hand, advocated for defending the struggle “by any means necessary.”  Malcolm went to Alabama and talked to young people about the need to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan.

There are at least two events in history that prove the correctness of Malcolm X’s approach.  Before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power the German Social Democratic and Communist Parties had a massive following.  These parties had armed wings designed to defend these organizations.  However, when armed thugs loyal to the Nazis attacked working class demonstrations, the social democrats and communists refused to use their forces to defend workers.  This was one of the primary reasons why Hitler was able to come to power.

In South Africa the African National Congress advocated for non-violence for most of its history.  Then on March 21, 1960 about 5,000 people demonstrated against the apartheid system in Sharpeville.  The police fired on the unarmed demonstrators and murdered 69 of the participants.  Most were shot in the back.

This event caused Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to abandon their strategy of non-violence.  Clearly non-violence only works when opposing forces are willing to respect it.    

The struggle continues

While I disagree with Martin Luther King’s support of non-violence, he was one of the clear leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.  I would also disagree with his decision to support Lyndon Johnson when he ran for President.

However, while he may have made several mistakes, I believe he was a consistent supporter of the struggle for liberation.  This led King to give a speech in opposition to the war against Vietnam in April of 1967. 

My opinion is that, the resistance of the Vietnamese people, the opposition to the war in the United States, as well as King’s anti-war speech, were the main ingredients that ended the political career of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson had been elected to office by perhaps the largest plurality in U.S. history.  After four years in office, he declined to run for re-election.

The film Selma isn’t just about and event that occurred in the past.  Today demonstrations are erupting against murders carried out by the police, against “stop and frisk” searches, and for a higher minimum wage.  These demonstrators are finding themselves opposed to the same forces that civil rights activists opposed half a century ago.  These would include: corporate interests, the police, as well as local and federal government.      
  
For anyone interested in supporting the struggle for justice in this country, we have a long history to draw on.  The film Selma gives us a glimmer of a part of that history that says that working people have the potential to change the world.



   

Friday, January 2, 2015

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States



By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

A review

In most histories books of this country, the ancestors of the first people who lived here are usually portrayed as being on the sidelines.  In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz quoted author Francis Jennings who described how historians routinely portray the indigenous people from this part of the world:

“In the first place they (US historians) exclude Amerindians (as also Afro-Americans) from participation, except as foils for Europeans, and thus assume that American civilization was formed by Europeans in a struggle against savagery or barbarism of the nonwhite races.”

I’ve read several good books on the history of the indigenous people who lived in this part of the world.  These books would include biographies, histories of the wars against Native Americans, books that included illustrations of the Indian lifestyle, and books on the contributions of Native Americans in the world. 

While many of these books are worth reading, I can’t think of one book that gave a comprehensive picture of this history.  With Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ book, I no longer have that problem.

Why do we study history?

Before we think about the contents of this book, we might ask the question: Why do we study history at all?  Certainly studying history rarely leads to gainful employment.  Many historians write about history as if it were an adventure story that has little or no relevance to the present.  So, why not just forget about the past and live in the present?

The great writer James Baldwin gave the following answer to that question in his book The Price of the Ticket:

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.  And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.  In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view.  In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.”

President Obama ignores the reality of history

So, in reviewing this book on The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, I will start with the inauguration speech of President Barack Obama in 2009.  Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz also quoted this speech to give us a frame of reference for looking at her subject.  Here Obama talks about our ancestors in this country.

“Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.  They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or fraction.”

What did our ancestors work for in reality?  Obama chooses not to talk about the fact that in this country 80% of the population owns no more than 6% of all financial wealth. 

Another issue Obama fails to talk about is the over 100 years of genocidal warfare against the descendants of the first people who lived in this part of the world.  This war started with the following words in the Declaration of Independence.  Here the founders of this country explained one of the grievances they had against the British Crown:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an indistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Clearly indigenous people carried out wars against each other before European contact.  This was the case with the ancestors of all people throughout the world.  The difference is that Europeans had a goal of total displacement and or genocide with respect to the first inhabitants of this part of the world.

The Indigenous people’s history of the United States

Dunbar-Ortiz gives us a brief outline of what indigenous nations looked like before European contact.  These were extremely complex societies.  Emory Dean Keoke and Marie Porterfield also gave a summary of the complexity of indigenous cultures in their book, American Indian Contributions to the World – 1500 years of inventions and innovations.

One of the most striking contributions in this book was the way in which indigenous people raised their children.  Keoke and Porterfield pointed to the work of the psychologist Erik Erikson who used the Native American lifestyle as a model for raising children.  Erikson argued that children need to be a part of an environment where they learn trust as well as autonomy.  If this doesn’t happen children will develop feelings of mistrust, shame, and doubt.  In old age, adults will either have a sense of integrity, or they will develop feelings of despair.   

Dunbar-Ortiz gives us a summary of the history of this country that documents the U.S. government’s policies towards the first nations.   This history points to a consistent policy of attempting to eliminate any trace that Native Americans ever lived here.

We can start this history with the revolution that gave birth to this country.  The indigenous people knew that the British were not their friends.  However, many indigenous nations understood that the American revolutionaries would be even more aggressive in robbing them of the land they had lived on for thousands of years.  For this reason most indigenous nations supported the British during the revolution. 

Many Black people also sided with the British because they felt they had a better chance of eliminating slavery under British rule.  Clearly many Native Americans proved to be correct in anticipating a genocidal war promoted by the new revolutionary government.

In New York the revolutionary forces not only defeated the Seneca people, they destroyed their foodstuffs eliminating their very means to live.  This was the beginning of over 100 years of genocidal warfare against the first nations of this country.

Dunbar-Ortiz spent some time writing about President Andrew Jackson who many historians continue to consider a hero.  Jackson signed into law the 1830 Indian Removal Act.  This law ordered the indigenous nations to abandon their homelands and move to what is now Oklahoma.  Thousands of Native people lost their lives in forced marches where they moved to the west.  In the Indian Removal Act the government argued that indigenous people would have a right to that land “forever.”  This didn’t turn out to be the case.

After the Civil War the U.S. government continued its active war against the indigenous nations.  There was a consistent policy of murdering millions of buffalo in a clear effort to eliminate any chance that many indigenous people had of surviving in their homeland. 

After the active shooting wars ended, the government sent indigenous children to schools where they were deliberately taught to forget their culture.  Recently, archeologists have won government support in preventing indigenous people from having access to the remains of their ancestors.

In all, there were about 371 treaties the United States government violated with the indigenous people of this part of the world.  Understanding this fact, allows anyone to question the entire legal system of this country.  If the government has routinely violated numerous treaties, why would we expect that they will enforce their own laws?

Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the wars against Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have a clear connection to the wars against the indigenous people of this part of the world.  Today, the U.S. government is holding prisoners at their infamous base in Guantanamo, Cuba.  These prisoners were captured in war, but have been denied the status of Prisoners of War.  Instead, they are labeled enemy combatants.  Dunbar-Ortiz shows how the rationalization for these detentions came from the wars against the indigenous people of this part of the world.        

Follow the money

In looking at this history we might also consider Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told.  In this book Baptist argues that the production of cotton by slave labor was the primary economic force that led to the industrialization of the United States and the world.  Baptist also argues that the method that was indispensable to this industry was the consistent and routine torture of slaves.

Dunbar-Ortiz gives us the facts that the theft of Indian land was the primary source of wealth in the early years of this country.  This is how she explains it:

“Neither superior technology nor an overwhelming number of settlers made up the mainspring of the birth of the United States or the spread of its power over the entire world.  Rather, the chief cause was the colonialist settler-state’s willingness to eliminate whole civilizations of people in order to possess their land.”

Why is the Forth of July a national holiday?

So, looking at this history of genocide and torture we might ask the question: Why is the signing of the Declaration of Independence a national holiday on July 4, every year?

Clearly the facts Dunbar-Ortiz presents in her book are thoroughly documented.  On the other hand, I look at this history a bit differently.  Clear advances were made because of the revolution of the thirteen colonies.  These advances would include, freedom of expression as well as citizenship rights.  Advances in the labor movement and the civil rights movement would have been more difficult were it not for the American Revolution.

Likewise, the abolition of slavery in this country was also an important advance that was celebrated by about four million former slaves.  We can also say that all workers and farmers benefitted from the abolition of slavery.  Yet, while President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he also signed the order to execute 38 of the Dakota people in Minnesota.  Lincoln also signed executive orders that violated treaties with indigenous nations.

What does all this mean?  My point is that the advances made because of the American Revolution and the Civil war occurred while these same forces carried out policies of genocide against the indigenous people from this part of the world.  However, a recognition of these advances doesn’t mean that we should go ahead and continue to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

If we recognize the advances made in this country, we should also recognize the genocide against Indians, the routine torture of slaves, the horrendous conditions working people faced, child labor, as well as Jim Crow segregation.  In my opinion, there is no rational reason to celebrate any of these aspects of the history of this country.

The American Revolution as well as the Civil War also established the capitalist system in this country.  Dunbar-Ortiz’ book documents some of the horrors that came along with this development.  However, the working class was also born as a result of this development.

As we wrestle with all the problems we face today, there is a clear road forward.  Working people and farmers have a clear interest in advancing a new kind of government that makes the human needs of all people its top priority.  Native Americans will and have played an invaluable role in advancing this movement. 

The Cuban government has shown that it is possible to give everyone a lifetime right to health care and education using only a fraction of the resources of this country.  As the world capitalist economy continues to fall apart, more and more workers will see this road as our only way forward.  Clearly, a government that continues to make heroes out of those who had a routine policy of genocide against indigenous people is not capable of solving the immense problems we face.

Leonard Peltier

My one disappointment in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ book is that she did not mention Leonard Peltier.  Clearly, her book had much ground to cover and a look at his case would have taken up a bit of space.  Peltier has been serving about 37 years in prison because the U.S. government worked diligently to frame him up. 

I will end this review with a section of the speech Peltier gave at his trial.  In my opinion this is one of the most important speeches in the history of this country:

“I stand before you as a proud man; I feel no guilt!  I have done nothing to feel guilty about!  I have no regrets about being a Native American activist­–thousands of people in the United States, Canada, and around the world have and will continue to support me to expose the injustices which have occurred in this courtroom.  I do feel pity for your people that they must live under such and ugly system.  Under your system, you are taught greed, racism, and corruption–and most serious of all, the destruction of Mother Earth.  Under the Native American system, we are taught all people are Brothers and Sisters to share wealth with the poor and needy.  But the most important of all is to respect and preserve the Earth, who we consider to be our mother.  We feed from her breast; our Mother gives us life from birth and when it’s time to leave this world, who again takes us back into her womb.  But the main thing we are taught is to preserve her for our children and our grandchildren, because they are the next who will live upon her.”