04 February, 2014

King of Cuba: When tragedy turns into parody

King of Cuba
Cristina Garcia

Review by Jorge Reyes

In 1959, a country-wide feud started to divide my family. My family wasn't the only one, of course.  It was a country-wide feud.  It's a pretty old feud that has lasted so long, to this very day in 2014.  Not sure if by now we can call this tragic, or merely farcical.  Just don't tell that to my elders, some of whom have died cursing to die before the feud is over, others so old and with so much time in their hands that to them the feud has just begun.

The year 1959 is, of course, the date of the commencement of the Cuban Revolution when a young, dashing, rebel by the simple name of Fidel who masterminded a guerrilla warfare from the Sierra Maestra mountains with a few dozen men and women ultimately took control of Cuba's political system.  This Fidel promised from his lair deeply entrenched in the mountains many things that sounded too good to many Cubans, such as democratic and fair elections, the rule of law, economic prosperity, etc.  Who, of course, didn't want these things for their beautiful paradise, so mired in dictators, suicides, histrionic politicians, and economic dependency to foreign powers?

It's an old history of almost biblical proportions, but one that still resonates in certain parts of Miami by the mere mention of the Fidel Castro name; something akin to a curse and a fighting word. 

Whatever your take on this may be, this has been quite an adventure for a community that still calls itself “exiled,” though to most inter-generational Cuban-Americans this description of being exiled may seem a bit out of touch with their daily lives. Never mind that to most Cuban-Americans, Miami is home.  Never mind that Cuba is just a side-note to their family's history.  Never mind that as of the writing of this essay, it's been almost 55 years in the making, with no end in sight or rapproachment.  

That seems to be the premise of Cristina Garcia's King of Cuba, a new addition to an already impressive body of work. This is her sixth book.  Her first book in 1993, Dreaming in Cuba, though a powerful first book, was a typical Latin-American novel of magical realism.  The plot followed the same slumbering feel of magic, potents, and, yes, dreams. Garcia was still seen Cuba and the past through sepia-toned eyes, like I used to do myself. Her words, her sentences, her characters all had an aesthetic quality that was tonal, musical to the ear, dream-like in its unreality. 

In this new work of fiction, King of Cuba, Garcia seems to start poking through the holes of sentimentality and nostalgia and, for once, sit back and have a last laugh at that strange island still immersed in so much lore and to which many still talk as if it were a paradise of the bluest seas, the greenish mountains, and the most idyllic childhood dreams.

King of Cuba is above all else a funny book, taking as parody two old men representative of two political types: (Goyo, the octogenerian living in Miami), and a dictator by the name of El Comandante, (Fidel Castro). El Comandante has resigned from his position as dictator due to some unspecified illness and in his stead, his brother Fernando (Raul Castro), has taken on the hold of power, albeit a bit forced. Fernando is not cut out for the job, as El Comandante keeps reminding himself and those he surround himself with. Fernando is more into the perks of capitalism such as Rolex watches than he is about communism. He is portrayed as a failed opportunist, if anything.

Goyo spends his days in his condo on Key Biscayne reading a blog about the dictator's every move, hijodeputa.com. Written by Cuban paid informants within El Comandante's inner circle, it monitors El Comandante's every heartbeat, every bowel movement, every breath he takes. Through the website, Goyo is able to live in a virtual-like, voyeuristic reality in El Comandante's minute-to-minute existence. Goyo's wife of many years, Luisa, has recently passed away and Goyo spends his days listening to boleros by his wife's headstone and bringing her violets, her favorite flowers. He has two children, a woman more concerned with her body weight than Cuba and another son, Goyito, now in his 60's, described as a drug addict, prone to paranoia, most of the time in jail. In other words, Goyito is a failure and everything that Goyo did not want in a son.

Goyo, of course, has a much younger mistress, a bank associate named Vilma Espin. Vilma Espin, of course, was Raul Castro's wife until her death in 2007. She was a staunch communist until her death.

Goyo's main objective at this point in his life is to outlive El Comandante long enough to enjoy the sweet ironies of history. As he muses when El comandante kicks the bucket, “the oldest exiles, now barely distinguishable from the dead, would miraculously spring back to life for one last fiesta with the news. When that hijo de puta kicked the bucket, everyone would be partying like it was 1959.” Amen to that statement. That's what many of the older generations of Cubans expect that would happen, a backward glance at 1959 in all its splendid 35 mm Technicolor.

As it is to be expected, both Goyo and El Comandante are old, senile, decrepit, but still unwavering in their commitment to the reality of their existence, or their dreams. Both share a deep-seated hatred for what the other represents and in this ideological battle, there is no compromise.

But Goyo has a plan to liberate the country of his birth and leave something for history. El Comandante is planning a trip to speak at the United Nations. Goyo has concocted a scheme to kill El Comandante at point blank during his speech. Though crazy and implying his own death, what makes this worth it is what he hopes will be inscribed on his tombstone is “Here Lies a Cuban Hero.” By killing the Devil that has divided families and destroyed his country, he will do what no one has been able to do in more than 50 years.

However preposterous, Goyo plans this with meticulous care up until the minute they each see the other face-to-face, at long last. After so many decades, after so many tears and separations and deaths, it will all come down to a few seconds and if the plan doesn't fail, what then? Though his plan is writ to fail, if it doesn't fail and Goyo will go down in history as the true hero in this war of ideals, always with the expectancy that “everyone would be partying like it was 1959.” What greater accomplishment, indeed? 

 It can't fail. Will it fail?

20 January, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Not sure if this ever happens to you but sometimes I buy books I do not read until years later, much later. This doesn't often happens, for eventually I read all the books I buy. But a strange thing happened with this book I am about to talk about, Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, a book I bought more than 15 years ago and for one reason or another I simply just forgot I had it. About a week ago, looking for some post-Christmas reading, I found that book-- a precious nugget of a book. To my surprise, it was even autographed by the author himself, Oscar Hijuelos, who died a few months ago of a stroke in 2013.

Mr. Ives' Christmas is a modern-day Dickensian little tome of a book. Of about 250 pages only, it distills the life of a man named Ives, a foundling adopted by an Irish man. Of dubious ethnicity, Mr. Ives marries and has two children, a girl and a boy. His life is always interpreted through the prism of religiosity. Mr. Ives, you see, is a deeply religious catholic man who, at times, doubts his own passionate beliefs. In fact, he's smart enough to notice the accidental tragedies that befall people and is intellectually sophisticated to ask the “why's.” He is privy to senseless, tragic accidents that seem to follow him for most of his life.

While still dating the woman he will marry, Annie, early in the book, he witnesses the death of a lady who accidentally falls through her apartment window and onto the pavement, the impact killing her immediately. He himself almost drowns as a youth. The only thing he can extract from both experiences is a sense of sheer horror and desperation. There are no parting clouds, music or angels coming out to greet you at heaven's door. Mr. Ives meets many people who seem to have experienced tragedy first-hand, such as a co-worker who was also a concentration camp survivor and who has never been able to forget the children she saw go to the gas chambers every day, often with flowers in their hands.

But nothing is about to prepare Mr. Ives for what life has in store for him.

From as long as he could remember, Mr. Ives' only boy, Robert, has had a proclivity for the religious way of life. Eventually, Robert tells his dad he wants to join the Dominican order, a decision that at first takes Mr. Ives by surprise but a decision by his son he learns to accept. One day in 1967, Robert is senselessly murdered by a Daniel Gomez, a troubled Puerto Rican teenager, right on the streets near a church. Of course, like the random violence in our streets, there is no logic or reason for the murder. Having lost his only son, on the verge of losing his own faith, and unable to come to grips with the reality of a personal tragedy, Mr. Ives tries to live his life the best way he can. He is not the type of man to harbor bitterness or hatred in his heart, something that sets him apart from the characters, including his wife and his long-time best Cuban friend, Luis Ramirez.

Mr. Ives is given the chance to avenge his son's senseless murder by an Irish friend from the neighborhood, but Mr. Ives declines to take justice into his own hands. For the murder, the youth spends three years in a juvenile detention center, and, upon his release, now an adult, he goes on to commit another murder, for which he is charged with second degree manslaughter and for which he is given a twenty-two years sentence. Almost a tormented soul, Mr. Ives realizes that he could have prevented this second murder at the hands of this troubled youth if, three years before, he had taken his neighbor's deal and pay a hit-man to take the law into his own hand.

Mr. Ives, wavering between faith and doubt, one day has a religious epiphany after being prone to an accident inside an elevator. He will never ever rationally be able to explain the religious experience, enough to say that it seemed as if transcendence went beyond the simple rituals of his catholic faith, a faith he never truly gives up on.

“Then, not knowing whether to shout from ecstasy or fear, he looked up and saw the sun, glowing red and many times its normal size, looming over the avenue, a pink and then flaring yellow corona bursting from it. And then, in all directions the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each defined by a different-colored powder like strange Asian spices: one was cardinal red, one the color of saffron, another gray like mothwing, the last a brilliant violet, and these came from four directions, spinning like a great pinwheel over Madison Avenu and Forty-first Street.”

It's a religious mysticism he's never able to explain, but that each character also experience in their own particular ways.

Way into the 1990's and decades after his son's murder, Mr. Ives finds visits the man who murdered his son in 1967. The youth, now an adult, married, prone to depression, guilty-ridden and weighing over 300 lbs, apologizes and Mr. Ives forgives him. In fact, it is Mr. Ives' sudden benevolence towards him that makes all the difference to his felon.

This is a book that jumps around throughout the decades. It encapsules a New York City long gone as well as a microcosm of a world we're all too familiar with: violence, post-modernity, chaos, you name it. Storylines and character development move in and out with the ease that only a master story-teller can accomplish.

Like most of Hijuelos's other novel, this books is a rich tapestry of music, life and changing times. It is a melting pot of ideas, events, and about living life by faith even under tremendous doubts. I suppose it is the Job story rehashed to modern times. At base is the question: why do bad things happen to good people? More importantly: how can people keep a sense of faith in a world seemingly at odds with human aspiration. At a much deeper level, this is also the story of a man coming to grips with a faith wanting in explanations as to why bad things happen to good people. It is like the atheist who still goes to church in order to enjoy either the ritual, the camaderie, or the music.

The book ends with Mr. Ives having a discussion about why one's religious feelings are truer than what we find in life. It is just because they are so personal, so subjective and, ultimately, indescribable, that they take on a wider meaning. Mr. Ives feels that despite personal evidende to the contrary, there is a form of life after death. He knows that there is a god somewhere, out there, or within. It is something that he just knows, though he, like the other characters in this book, cannot put this into words. It's a matter of faith: you either have it or you don't.

I have given a very quick review of this book. There is more, much more in here to read and enjoy. I found myself agreeing more than disagreeing with the trials and tribulations of Mr. Ives and his family.  

09 January, 2014

EXCERPT from introduction to Day's Night (poems) by Jorge Reyes

Day's Night and other poems

Product Details

Paperback: 82 pages

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First Edition edition (January 3, 2014)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 148121599X

ISBN-13: 978-1481215992

Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.2 inches

Who wrote these poems?

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a stranger. It was at a now-defunct local club in Miami called Pump, the place where these poems were born. I was't planning on going, but a friend of mine had asked me to and even though at the last minute she cancelled on me, I went by myself. Even now years later, often, I close my eyes and still see myself at that club dancing to that trance music I love so much; music that awakens my soul to living. The atmosphere that early morning hour at the club was very intense, edgy, raw; the music had an intense, hard-pounding beat; bacchanalian music, pagan in nature, jam-packed with men and women defying the early morning hours of South Beach. Unbeknown to me as I was dancing someone was observing me intensily. Suddenly, this stranger pulled me by the arm, looked me over and asked, Where have you been all these years? I smiled, laughed nervously. And slowly, oh, so slowly, I opened my eyes and saw a face I’ll never forget. Thank you, I said. We chatted. We danced a bit. We went home….

What a night and what a day that followed! What beautiful days and nights! Days fused into weeks filled with passion. For the first time, ever, passions were awakened in me unlike anything I’d felt before. It seemed too good to last, and it was.

Day’sNight is a collection of poems about those days; of crying alone for no good reason; of feeling alone though surrounded by many people; of being alone in the world, let's face it, is a lonely place. Mostly, these poems are about the mental horror and depression I lived through after the end of a relationship I had idealized like the naïve person I used to be. Written many years ago, these poems today still have the power to unrattle me.

Day’s Night, a fitting title taken right out from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, is a collection of poetry loosely connected to love’s manifold effects.

These poems, however, deal with a troubled mind, mine, lost to itself. Only then are these poems tangentially related to love; I was a troubled man lost to himself; writing about a world in chaos and beyond my own comprehension. (I'd like to think that not all relationships end like this.) In these pages, you’ll read poems that are dark and experimental, often written in a state of complete dejection.

Love, so closely related to a negation, is known for its capacity to trigger the very best in you, or its direst opposite. Love is, after all, a tug of contradictions; an ideal pit against its very antithesis, reality, and we all know that there is nothing loving about reality; reality simply is. And in such war, one side wins, the other side loses. Embroiled in this unexpected battle, all I was able to do was write—just write. Day’s Night became my confessional.

These are my day’s nights. What started as an inconsequential passion of self-destruction, transformed me forever. Who would have known?  

25 February, 2013

Political changes in Raul Castro's Cuba

By Jorge Reyes

This past Sunday, Cuba's Raul Castro announced that he will step down as Cuba's president in 2018 following a final five-year term. For the first time in many years, decades, many can finally put a date to the end of the Castro's dynasty. For heir apparent, Castro seems to have chosen a rising star within the communist conglomerate, a Miguel Diaz-Canel.

With his announcement, the aging Castro, now 81 years old, he is hoping to establish two-term limits and age caps for political offices, including the presidency, for all future elections. This, as everyone knows, is an astonishing speech. Both Castro brothers have led the Cuban nation since 1959, before I was born.

Very little is known outside the Cuban circles of luminaires about Diaz-Canel, 52 years old. What is remarkable that this almost unknown figure has risen higher than any other Cuban official. In fact, he is a product of the 1959 Cuban Revolution and was not one of the original participants of the revolutionary force that toppled the much despised dictator of Fulgencio Batista.

Castro's speech lasted 35 minutes. In it, Castro hinted at various other reforms, changes in the constitution, and also hinted that no revolutionary leader ought to abandon socialism, saying he had not assumed the presidency in order to destroy Cuba's system. As he said, “I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba. I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism, not destroy it."

He continued to say that this moment was of "historic transcendence."

Castro praised Machado Ventura and another aging revolutionary for offering to leave their positions so that younger leaders could move up.

Their selflessness is "a concrete demonstration of their genuine revolutionary fiber … That is the essence of the founding generation of this revolution."

Castro said that Diaz-Canel's promotion "represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation through the gradual and orderly transfer of key roles to new generations."

"Our greatest satisfaction is the tranquility and serene confidence we feel as we deliver to the new generations the responsibility to continue building socialism," he added.

On the streets of Havana, I am not sure how people reacted to this news. In the streets of Miami, however, the announcement was taken with a grain of salt.

It goes without saying that since 2006 when the elder Fidel retired and Raul took over the presidency, the younger Castro has instituted a slate of important economic and social changes, expanding private enterprise, legalizing sales of homes and relaxing travel restrictions. As he alluded in this speech, though, the country remains ruled by a one-party communist Party ideology and any opposition to it lacks legal recognition.

Castro has mentioned term limits before, but he has never said specifically when he would step down, and the concept has yet to be codified into Cuban law. It remains to be seen how this will pan out in the future. But if Castro is true to his word, he will leave office in 2018.

Cuban-American in the United States and the world all over, have waited for decades for the end of the Castro era. I was born at a time when the Cuban revolution was at its hysterical worst, the 1970's. I can still recall how my grandparents awaited with open arms for an end to the political system that systematically destroyed their way of life. My grandfather, particularly, couldn't resist the temptation to tell anyone who'd listen that then elected Ronald Reagan would be the savior of the Cuban cause. That didn't happen exactly as he had hoped. My grandfather died in 1981, still waiting for the freedom he had hoped would set his Cuba free. My grandmother died twenty years later, and by then she could care less.

Nevertheless, the promise of a change at the top could does have deep significance for U.S.-Cuba ties. The 51-year economic embargo against Cuba by Washington specifies that it cannot be lifted while a Castro family member is in charge.

And, so, for every Cuban watcher I know, the end to the Castro regime is coming to a close and the end may not be like the climatic uprising old-timers had hoped. In fact, from what I see, the island will continue on its path of slow changes and change at the top will occur with less gloom-and-doom scenarios and more like a structured change of power than previously expected, "communist style", of course, but transcendent nonetheless.

03 January, 2012

Middle Class America, too big to fail.

By Jorge Reyes

There was a time when the United States had the largest middle class that the world has ever seen. We were the ones too big to fail, to quote a slogan made popular by those much maligned group of people known as Occupy Wall Street. There was a time when, like my parents and grandparents, we were able to buy homes, cars, and many of the things that made this country great. Unfortunately, as you well know, that is rapidly changing. Sadly, also, politicians do not even seem to be aware of this, or are simply ignoring this fact.

The statistics that you are about to read prove beyond a doubt that the U.S. middle class is dying right in front of our eyes as we enter 2012. In fact, the middle class American is poor America, make no bones about it.
This has not been a sudden decline.  It has been slowly corroding our way of living on the edges. Millions of our jobs have disappeared, the rate of inflation has far outpaced the rate of wages, and overwhelming debt, including student loan debt for our youth, has choked the financial life out of millions. Every single day, more Americans fall out of the middle class and into poverty. In fact, more Americans fell into poverty last year than has ever been recorded before. The number of middle class jobs and middle class neighborhoods continues to decline at a staggering pace. But let me give you an example.

Today I went to a local supermarket. The prices of items, even those on sale, were so high that for the time I wondered how any family makes it. Which is why, I guess, so many people have started to go on food stamps. With savings, genetic brands and coupons, I paid over $100 total. Another social issue about to explode is the housing crisis. All those families thrown out of their homes in the foreclosure debacle will, eventually, become renters. Any cursory look at the rents in my local community will simply become appalling. A small studio, $800 to $900. A one bedroom apartment $1,000. And so on.
This is a social embarrassment.   The broad based swathe of people that built this nation has become an anachronism, another myth to defend which, nonetheless, remains a myth.  The problem might be that a new redefinition of what middle class is be needed. 

When the cost of the basic things that we need - housing, food, gas, housing, electricity - go up faster than our incomes do, that means we are getting poorer.

28 December, 2011

Audit Reveals Federal Reserve Gave $16 Trillion in Secret Bailouts

By Jorge Reyes

The first ever GAO (Government Accountability Office) audit of the Federal Reserve was carried out in the past few months due to the Ron Paul, Alan Grayson Amendment to the Dodd-Frank bill, which passed last year. Jim DeMint, a Republican Senator, and Bernie Sanders, an independent Senator, led the charge for a Federal Reserve audit in the Senate, but watered down the original language of the house bill (HR1207), so that a complete audit would not be carried out.  Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, and various other bankers vehemently opposed the audit and lied to Congress about the effects an audit would have on markets. Nevertheless, the results of the first audit in the Federal Reserve’s nearly 100 year history were posted on Senator Sander’s webpage earlier this morning: http://sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=9e2a4ea8-6e73-4be2-a753-62060dcbb3c3

What was revealed in the audit was startling: $16,000,000,000,000.00 had been secretly given out to US banks and corporations and foreign banks everywhere from France to Scotland. From the period between December 2007 and June 2010, the Federal Reserve had secretly bailed out many of the world’s banks, corporations, and governments. The Federal Reserve likes to refer to these secret bailouts as an all-inclusive loan program, but virtually none of the money has been returned and it was loaned out at 0% interest. Why the Federal Reserve had never been public about this or even informed the United States Congress about the $16 trillion dollar bailout is obvious — the American public would have been outraged to find out that the Federal Reserve bailed out foreign banks while Americans were struggling to find jobs.

To place $16 trillion into perspective, remember that GDP of the United States is only $14.12 trillion. The entire national debt of the United States government spanning its 200+ year history is “only” $14.5 trillion. The budget that is being debated so heavily in Congress and the Senate is “only” $3.5 trillion. Take all of the outrage and debate over the $1.5 trillion deficit into consideration, and swallow this Red pill: There was no debate about whether $16,000,000,000,000 would be given to failing banks and failing corporations around the world.

In late 2008, the TARP Bailout bill was passed and loans of $800 billion were given to failing banks and companies. That was a blatant lie considering the fact that Goldman Sachs alone received 814 billion dollars. As is turns out, the Federal Reserve donated $2.5 trillion to Citigroup, while Morgan Stanley received $2.04 trillion. The Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank, a German bank, split about a trillion and numerous other banks received hefty chunks of the $16 trillion.

“This is a clear case of socialism for the rich and rugged, you’re-on-your-own individualism for everyone else.”
– Bernie Sanders(I-VT)

When you have conservative Republican stalwarts like Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Ron Paul (R-TX) as well as self identified Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders all fighting against the Federal Reserve, you know that it is no longer an issue of Right versus Left. When you have every single member of the Republican Party in Congress and progressive Congressmen like Dennis Kucinich sponsoring a bill to audit the Federal Reserve, you realize that the Federal Reserve is an entity onto itself, which has no oversight and no accountability.

Americans, already losing their homes to banks that later on leave homes vacant and vandalized, losing their jobs, and losing their middle class status, should swell with anger and outrage at the abysmal state of affairs when an unelected group of bankers can create money out of thin air and give it out to megabanks and supercorporations like Halloween candy. If the Federal Reserve and the bankers who control it believe that they can continue to devalue the savings of Americans and continue to destroy the US economy, they will have to face the realization that their trillion dollar printing presses will eventually plunder the world economy.

The list of institutions that received the most money from the Federal Reserve can be found on page 131 of the GAO Audit and are as follows:

Citigroup: $2.5 trillion ($2,500,000,000,000)

Morgan Stanley: $2.04 trillion ($2,040,000,000,000)

Merrill Lynch: $1.949 trillion ($1,949,000,000,000)

Bank of America: $1.344 trillion ($1,344,000,000,000)

Barclays PLC (United Kingdom): $868 billion ($868,000,000,000)

Bear Sterns: $853 billion ($853,000,000,000)

Goldman Sachs: $814 billion ($814,000,000,000)

Royal Bank of Scotland (UK): $541 billion ($541,000,000,000)

JP Morgan Chase: $391 billion ($391,000,000,000)

Deutsche Bank (Germany): $354 billion ($354,000,000,000)

UBS (Switzerland): $287 billion ($287,000,000,000)

Credit Suisse (Switzerland): $262 billion ($262,000,000,000)

Lehman Brothers: $183 billion ($183,000,000,000)

Bank of Scotland (United Kingdom): $181 billion ($181,000,000,000)

BNP Paribas (France): $175 billion ($175,000,000,000)

View the 266-page GAO audit of the Federal Reserve(July 21st, 2011): http://www.scribd.com/doc/60553686/GAO-Fed-Investigation

Source: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-696

FULL PDF on GAO server: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11696.pdf

Senator Sander’s Article: http://sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=9e2a4ea8-6e73-4be2-a753-62060dcbb3c3

03 November, 2011

Equal Rights Under the Law?

By Jorge Reyes

47 years ago, most of us were satisfied with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and, not to be outdone, a year later, with the Voting Rights Act. Today, we have new challenges with new areas of civil rights law that, unfortunately, still seem to linger far behind from the evolving mores of the nation.

I am referring to one remaining example of institutionalized, government-sanctioned discrimination: The 1996 law that denies the right of marriage to same-sex couples, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that was passed in the heat of election-year fear and bigotry against men who want to marry other men, and women who want to marry other women. That bill was sponsored by a Republican congress and signed by then President Bill Clinton.

The law denies federal benefits to same-sex marriages. It explicitedly states that marriage is solely defined by two heterosexual couples. President Obama, who used to say his views on marriage were “evolving,” allowed his Attorney General, Eric Holder, to do what the executive branch should have done long ago and declare that Doma is unconstitutional. The administration is no longer defending Doma against legal challenges.

And today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is beginning consideration of a bill that would repeal the law. Dorothy Samuels, a reporter for a national newspaper, believes that the bill will pass the committee with the votes of all 10 Democratic members. Eight Republicans will probably vote against it, and the Democrats may not be able to muster the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the Senate. Prospects in the House are not so great, either.

Sadly, I feel that all of this is a pointless debate because it doesn’t even begin to address the fundamental issue at stake. All this talk of what constitutes marriage is all based on religious beliefs, none of which ought to have much sway in a secular form of government if it is just a way to express discrimination against a particular group of people.

It is far past time to disentangle the religious and the civic aspects of marriage. In such a heterogeneous, secular, and diverse society as ours, it is not the role of government to interfere in an area that is, basically, religious. And, again, that is what all these laws and regulations are all about: religious in nature. True equality in a democracy ought to emphasize equality before the law, not have an oligarchical system pick and choose what is right for some based on some historical misreading of our founding principles.

The only way to ensure true marriage equality is to remove the ability of churches to give its blessing on the legality on any matter that is of a civil nature, such as marriage and family. There are other hot button issues which are all religious in nature, of course. If that continues to happen indiscriminately, we will find ourselves no different from other countries that base their government on a god.

The role of drafting laws or ordinances is reserved to the government, federal, state, or local, not a church. Couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to marry and their avowals, civil or religious, ought to be respected and encouraged. If they so choose, they can then seek the religious (non-legal) blessing of their church, or mosque or synagogue. But that is only a choice, which is a personal matter that should not concern any of us.

Otherwise we really are no different from noxious laws that, though on principle were equal under the law, were on principle second class citizens. We have had plenty of those throughout our history. Let us not go down that path again.

25 June, 2011

Tot Mom Drama: the Casey Anthony trial

By Jorge Reyes

Lately, the news media on TV, the Internet and the blogosphere is filled with news about Casey Anthony, the Orlando tot mom accused of killing in 2008 her two year old daughter, Caley Marie Anthony.

Interesting enough, every time I read something about it in an opinion page there is the almost immediate apology from the writer, a sort of mea culpa for being so riveted by this court drama. I must say I have also become a daily fan of the Anthony dysfunction, which is broadcast live on HLN every day, and then continues throughout the rest of the night. I recently caught myself flipping through HLN and CNN Anderson Cooper just to make sure I was not missing anything.

My own fascination was something of a mistake. When the trial started, I tried to give it but a passive glance on TV and then tried to go about my business. That is what I did with the OJ Simpson trial more than a decade ago.  Little by little, though, this time around I became fascinated by tot mom, to paraphrase Nancy Grace.

What does this say about how we, as a culture, respond to the dark side within us, a dark side that seem to be so gratified by the tragedy of the death, or murder, of an innocent two year old.

Not sure how to answer that question.

I think that some of the answer lies in the fact that this is uncanny, cognitively senseless. Unlike what some TV commentators have said, I don’t think Cindy Anthony is a sociopath or suffering from some deep seated mental disorder. I think she is as normal as you and me. I also equally believe she is gloating in her five minutes of fame.

But these are some of the facts, and it is a circus show.

Casey Anthony, a beautiful 25 year old party girl, who had a daughter out of wedlock, seems to have been a loving mom, but who also had a love hate relationship with her own mom, Cindy Anthony, the woman who just days earlier blamed herself for having done some of those sinister google search, like "chloroform". She denied having searched "shovel", though she remembers seeing a pop up about "neck breaking" feat on youtube. Casey, a liar who knows no bounds and who is very good at convincing people of them. Then there is her brother, Lee, who breaks down in the witness stand admonishing himself for having failed the little girl as an uncle. There are many secrets in this family, and none of it makes much sense unless to me. When the patriarch of the family, George, testifies he seems to be on the defensive. At the beginning of the trial it was hinted that this death was a freakish accident, that the little girl drowned in the family pool, something everyone in the family knew about.

Let us not forget the equally bizarre jinx of those waiting outside the courtroom waiting and hoping to be one of the lucky few to get a ticket into the trial. I suppose that accused murderers have replaced singers and sports players as icons. Forget about a Madonna concert, a murder trial is the only thing that seems to rid ourselves of our ennui. Don’t any of these people work? I have a friend in Italy that follows the live trial everyday. I even have a friend who confessed to me that he wanted to write a letter to Casey Anthony in jail hoping for a reply. He was hoping to sell the letter at auction.

While all of this is going on, there are even Anthony family mementos being sold online, mainly on EBAY. Recently, a baseball signed "Jesus Loves You, Cindy Anthony", sold for about $250.00.

This entire trial is a modern day tragedy. It reeks of decomposition, from which one day we are told it is the smell of a dead body and the next that it is the smell of pizza. What a show. No wonder we are all riveted by this. It is a trial filled with lies, betrayals, hints of incest, murder. Shakespeare could have done no better.

When I stare at the glassy eyed face of Casey Anthony, I see a void within as much as the void that exists in our society, me included. Lest we forget, this is not about a dysfunctional, circus like atmosphere of a family at odds with itself. This is about the life of a little girl who, no matter how she died and I doubt it if any of us will ever find out the truth, had her life tragically taken away from her by the negligence of a mother who, ironically, tattood on her shoulders bella vita, beautiful life in Italian, when her daughter was dead. Bella vita, yes, something Caley Anthony will never know.

07 May, 2011

President Obama did what none of his predecessors could accomplish, and without waterboarding.

by Jorge Reyes

A lot of right wing ideologues are infuriated, to say the least, at the fact that it was a center to left President who successfully sent the order to murder America's Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. As a refresher, we must never forget that one of the many ironies of this same President who signed an executive order clearing the way to ban interrogation techniques of detainees in Guatanamo. Those interrogation techniques had been a hallmark of the Bush administration's war on terror. In fact, it was a program perversely relished by the political right at all levels.  Ex President George W. Bush is nowhere to be found these days. According to what his wife Laura to a news outlet, he just wants to enjoy the fruits of a private citizen. Good riddance, really. He was, by far, the most idiotic President we have ever had.

Regardless of this, key figures from Bush's administration are claiming that most of this victory is theirs too. After all, they were bold enough to inflict waterboarding and other harsh methods on helpless prisoners.

Dick Cheney, a man I have never been able to stand, told some media outlets that "it wouldn't be surprising" if the enhanced interrogation program put in place during "our first term" produced results that contributed to its success. Some of Bush's closest political advisers, joined the fray too. According to them, it is very clear that enhanced interrogation helped "create an environment that gave rise to this information."

What these men conveniently don't mention is they were also part of an administration that let bin Laden slip out of the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan and eventually find refuge in Abbottabad, Pakistan, living it off in a million dollar compound and not in a cave as it was assumed. Like most and much of what that Bush dude did, it was up to Obama to clean up the mess, which includes a war in Iraq, an economy on the brink of a depression, and our standing with the international community. Further, they also left us an extremely bloated bureaucracy, Homeland Security, estimated to have cost us more than a trillion dollars. All in the spirit, of course, to fight terror. Along the way, many of our civil liberties went to hell, too. But as it is, we already live in a police state. We just dont want to admit it.

What is left in much of these discussions is the fact that brutal interrogation methods had very little to do with the capturing of bin Laden. The key to locating bin Laden was to find his trusted courier, a man with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee, told the New York Times that coercive techniques "didn't provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information" and most of his colleagues felt it was "un-American and did not work."

For a country that wants to be a beacon of morality, admonishing other nation states when they are failing to do the same, it is one of the strangest twists of fate that we seem to legitimize torture, when need be, when desired, when it is part of our national interest, which in this day and age means just about anything.

Obama achieved his mission accompkished not by continuing on the same habit of his predecessors. He did their unfinished work without adopting any of their methods. That's something to think about, at a time when everyone is now claiming victory for a job well done.

01 May, 2011

"The Standing Babas" in the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

By Jorge Reyes

I am reading an almost 1,000 page novel titled Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The basic plot of the book, loosely based on the author's own life, is about a man who escapes from prison in Australia (where he was serving a 19-year sentence for armed robbery, which he committed to maintain his heroin addiction) before fleeing to India. By fleeing, he in essence becomes a lifelong fugitive. In India, among many things, he reinvents himself and becomes a "doctor" for people living in a Bombay slum of twenty five thousand families.

The novel, full of amazing stories within stories, describes a religious sect known as the Standing Babas, who have vowed to remain standing for many years. Here's a quote from the book about them.

''Bajrang Das, a 'standing' baba, who never sits down, day and night. He sleeps standing too, hanging over this swing. A metal chastity belt covers his genitals.

''A ‘standing’ Baba, who is called khareshwari, has taken the vow not to sit or lie down for twelve years. He may rest one leg by hanging it in the sling under his swing. It is a painful austerity: the swollen legs and feet tend to develop persistent ulcers.

''Khareshwaris may walk about, but usually just hang in their swing in their corner -- and stand.''

I have yet to finish reading this beautifully crafted and complex novel. But thinking that the standing babas was a fictional ploy, I researched them online and to my even greater disbelief I discovered that the standing babas are real.

As I quoted above, members of this religious group actually make a vow never to sit, not even to sleep. They stand for a specified number of years, 12 years seems to be the target, or they commit themselves never to sit for the remaining of their lives.  To read that particular chapter on the standing babas is to almost to feel the pain and misery these people must endure for their religious beliefs.