Robert Dreyfuss on the Cuban embargo, John Nichols on the new RNC chair


ENDLESS EMBARGO: Next year, the US embargo against Cuba will be a half-century old, a mold-encrusted relic in the cold war museum; yet there it is—and it doesn’t look like the Obama administration is planning to end it anytime soon. On January 14 the White House announced a series of half measures that weaken American efforts to isolate Havana, welcome steps all: academic, cultural and religious groups can now freely travel to Cuba; American citizens are free to send money to nonrelatives in the island nation, up to $500 every three months; and any US airport may allow licensed charter aircraft to fly round trip. It’s a follow-up to measures that President Obama announced in April 2009 lifting restrictions on travel and cash remittances by family members of Cuban residents.

Yet the president’s actions hardly qualify as a profile in courage. He held off making the announcement this past fall, when hawks in Congress, including Democratic Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Albio Sires, warned that easing anti-Cuba measures could hurt Democrats’ re-election chances; and when the decision was made, it was released late on a Friday evening, while Republicans were out of town on a retreat. Yet more than two-thirds of voters support easing travel restrictions on Cuba, and 75 percent (86 percent of Democrats) back the idea of a meeting between US and Cuban leaders. Conservative groups, from the Chamber of Commerce to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, want to end the isolation of Cuba. And in the end, what Obama did only gets American policy back roughly to where it was during the Clinton administration, before George W. Bush tightened the screws.

The usual suspects made noise: Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Obama’s decision, and Senator Robert Menendez called it a “gift to the Castro brothers.” It remains to be seen if Obama will quietly ignore their ilk and move forward to end the embargo once and for all.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry, while calling Obama’s actions “positive,” concluded, “They have a very limited reach and do not change US policy against Cuba.” It’s past time for change we do believe in.   ROBERT DREYFUSS

RNC’S UNFAIR NEW CHAIR: The Republican National Committee has replaced the party’s most prominent African-American leader, Michael Steele, with a new chairman whose state party organization has repeatedly faced complaints about moves to suppress minority voter participation. The new RNC chair, Reince Priebus, is the controversial head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, where he has earned high marks for winning elections but low marks for the tactics used to attain those victories.

Priebus lost a high-profile race for a state legislative seat in 2004, despite outspending the Democratic incumbent 3 to 1. A year after Priebus took over as state party chair, Wisconsin swung hard to the Democrats, providing Barack Obama with a landslide victory and sweeping Obama’s ticket-mates into dominant positions in the legislature and the state’s Congressional delegation.

In 2010, however, Republicans won, defeating Senator Russ Feingold, securing the open governorship and taking control of both houses of the legislature. That made Priebus a contender for the chairmanship, as Republican strategists began plotting to replace Steele. Priebus had been a big Steele backer—a stance for which he was well rewarded with an appointment as RNC general counsel. But when the chance came to grab for the top job, Priebus abandoned Steele.

What makes Priebus such an appealing chair? Perhaps not his communication skills; this past fall he stirred national controversy after repeatedly transposing the names “Obama” and “Osama” in an interview about national security. Critics suggest Priebus’s real skill is as a back-room operator with a taste for voter intimidation and suppression. In 2008 an e-mail leaked from his office appeared to advocate moves to suppress voting in African-American neighborhoods of Milwaukee. In 2010 the watchdog group One Wisconsin Now (OWN) filed complaints with federal and state officials, charging that the Priebus-led state party was involved in voter caging strategies that targeted minorities and college students for disenfranchisement. “Now that Reince Priebus will have the RNC’s treasury at his disposal,” warns OWN executive director Scot Ross, “those across the country interested in fair and clean elections will be on high alert.”   JOHN NICHOLS

JOHN ROSS, REBEL JOURNALIST: When John Ross was offered official honors by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2009—for telling “stories nobody else could or would tell”—the journalist refused the recognition. San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond recalled that he “made a short statement in which he managed to insult city government, denounce the entire process of giving out awards and demand that the board reject the Muni fare hike. Then he read a poem denouncing the ‘motherfuckers’ who are driving poor people out of the Mission.” Ross put this all in the context of his practice of journalism: “Life, like reporting, is a kind of death sentence,” he told the supervisors. “Pardon me for having lived it so fully.”

As epitaphs go, that is a good one for Ross, who died on January 17 in Mexico, where he had for five decades chronicled the struggles for justice of indigenous people and the poor. Ross, who received the American Book Award for Rebellion From the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas (Common Courage Press, 1995) and the Upton Sinclair Award for Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left (Nation Books, 2004), died of liver cancer at 72.

His editor Carl Bromley recalls, “I worked with John for seven years, on three books. It was an extraordinary education for me.” Ross’s El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (Nation Books, 2009), was part people’s history, part love letter to the city where Ross lived on and off for decades. “Of all his books, I think El Monstruo, his last, was my favorite,” says Bromley. “I rate him with Eduardo Galeano.”   JOHN NICHOLS

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