Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cuba Libre

Over the last few years, as I’ve watched the melodrama of US politics play out, I’ve been impressed by the number of my fellow Americans who seem to obsess over freedom. America is, after all, the “land of the free”.

I’ve come to believe that freedom is a little like good health. You don’t think much about until you no longer have it -- end up in prison and you’d probably think about it a lot. For some people, this also seems to be true when they just think they’re in danger of losing their freedom, whether or not that really is the case.

After the Republican party was booted from the White House in 2008 and (gasp) the Democrats took over, there has been constant warning and ranting from some folks about the loss of freedom that was about to descend on the nation.

The relentless message from many conservative commentators has been that President Obama is actively scheming to turn the US into a European socialist hellhole by eating away at freedoms that Americans enjoy.

The subtext (and sometimes actual text) behind this way of thinking is that no other country in the world, especially no effeminate European country, enjoys the kinds of freedoms that red-blooded Americans take for granted.

This abundance of freedom, so the thinking goes, is one of the innate blessings that comes from living in the greatest country on earth and sets America apart from the rest of the world. This is what most Americans are brought up to believe. Many, if not most, are not inclined to ever question it. Maybe they never have a reason to do so.

Living, as I now do, in one of those European “hellholes”, I’ve occasionally been thinking about this and trying to work out exactly what freedoms I’m being deprived of here in Finland.

Malecón waterfront in Havana. Photo: Antonio Malena.

I haven’t looked into the question in detail, but no conspicuous lack of liberty comes to mind, except for maybe the freedom to buy a military-style rifle that I don’t need and wouldn’t even want. Even that may not be entirely the case, and there may be other, less trivial infringements. But, as I say, I haven‘t really delved into the matter yet.

However, a bit of celebrity news recently made me realize that there’s a flipside to the question, that is:  what freedoms do Finns have that America denies its own citizens?

Surprisingly, there does seem to be at least one such liberty – Finns can vacation in Havana without flaunting the law. Americans can’t.

This was illustrated when super-star couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé made an unsanctioned anniversary jaunt to Cuba and caused a small uproar. It was a reminder that citizens of the US need a permission slip from our government to travel to a neighboring country only 90 miles off the tip of Florida, permission that Jay-Z and Beyoncé apparently didn't bother to get.

It seems strange to think this is still true in the year 2013. Much like the Castro regime itself (and all those vintage 1950s America cars prowling the streets of Havana), America’s policy toward Cuba seems like a fossil from a vanished era.

The rationale for the travel ban is that, since the Cuban regime has complete control over the country’s economy, any tourist dollars spent there supports the government’s violation of human rights. I doubt this rationale has been applied to any other authoritarian country (there was a similar proposal for Myanmar, but it went nowhere), and certainly not applied so stringently for the last 50-odd years, though since 2009 it has been loosened slightly for Cuban-Americans wishing to visit their homeland.

The difference, of course, is that the US doesn’t have a sizable contingent of émigrés from Myanmar, or from China, Egypt or other authoritarian country, exerting a powerful and very focused influence on US politics. It does, however, with the large community of Cuban exiles in Florida, vigilantly waiting, ever hopeful, for the eventual downfall of Castro’s communist state.

This diaspora, which started when the decidedly communist turn of Fidel Castro’s revolution alarmed many affluent and professional Cubans, reached as far as my childhood home in the Appalachian Mountains some 1300 kilometers (800 miles) from Havana.

When I was young, our town’s only surgeon was a doctor who had fled Cuba after the revolution. One of my classmates had likewise left the island nation with his family, settling in our little town, where his father was the county’s only veterinarian, or the only one we used.

(I still have an image in my mind of Dr. Oliva, under the beam of a flashlight, sticking his arm deep, up to his shoulder in fact, inside one of our cows as he tried to turn around a calf that was trying very hard not to be born. Or maybe that particular image is actually of my father when he, on a later occasion and recalling Dr. Oliva’s example, had to perform the very same messy procedure.)

Anyway, before this most recent celebrity foreign-relations news squall (the other being Dennis Rodman’s weird diplomatic mission to North Korea), I haven't had much reason to think about Cuba. Then there was also the news that the original Sloppy Joe’s Bar (fabled hangout of American expats and celebrities pre-revolution) has been renovated and re-opened after some 50 years. Suddenly, Cuba seems like a place I should think about visiting. Someday. Maybe. (My list of possible places to visit is already really long.)

At least two friends have visited the island, one an American who legally travelled there from Florida when, as a medical student, he took part in a humanitarian mission to deliver free medicine donated to the people of Cuba. The other is a German who has been there at least twice, in no small part because he is a cigar aficionado. Naturally, Cuba has special appeal for him.

Other people I know in Helsinki may have also made the trip, taking advantage of the package holidays to Cuba offered by Finnish tour companies. It would be tempting. My Finnish wife would have complete freedom to do it. I, on the other hand, would be violating US law, though I have heard that the Cubans don’t stamp American’s passports, so it might be a case of what happens in Havana, stays in Havana.

As I say, it would be tempting. Anyway, from what little I know about the matter (that’s a disclaimer), I have always felt that the US embargo against Cuba was unwise and counterproductive. If Cuban exiles wanted US-style democracy to take root in their homeland, wouldn’t more exposure to Yankee capitalists help move that program forward?

After all, nothing undermines communism like consumerism. Just look at China.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Federal Expressions

For some reason, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion in Finland forced to explain a certain fundamental concept of the United States, through the example of the humble driver’s license.

I have a Finnish driver’s license, which is valid until my birthday in the year 2026 – an all too scary-sounding date, to be sure. (I also briefly once had a Cook Islands license, but that is another story. They also had three-dollar bills there. It’s an odd place.)

But my non-American friends, mostly Finns and Brits, are often surprised to learn that, although I started driving in the US at the age of 15, I have never had a United States driver’s license. That’s because there is no such thing.

And this is where a fundamental concept of America – federalism – comes in. When I lived in the States, I drove on a Georgia license, not a US one. The decision on who can drive a car, like many other aspects in daily American life, are left up to Georgia and the other 49 individual US states. It’s federalism in a nutshell. Americans love government so much it seems that they’ll put up with at least three layers of it (national, state, county/city).

Finland, on the other hand, is a unitary state, with authority applied uniformly by the central government, which controls the amount of power that can be held by sub-divisions, like Finland’s 320 kuntia (counties).

The same is true for the United Kingdom – which is not the same as England, though for Americans it’s easy to conflate the two. Trust me, any Scotsman will bristle at being called “English”. Just try it.

While on this subject, I have had a recurring debate with some of my British friends over whether England is really a country. It’s a surprisingly touchy subject. Brits will often stress, in no uncertain terms, that the UK is made up of four separate countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

I contend that these are countries in name only, in reality no different from US states. Though I haven’t taken the time to research it completely, I suspect individual states in America have more actual power and sovereignty than the “countries” of England or Wales. Okay, Scotland does have its own money, but anyway the land of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (love that name) seems determined to make the leap to real independence, eventually, so maybe it’s the exception. (And maybe I’m just being slightly pedantic about the meaning of “country”.)

Anyway, not even Scotland can issue its own driver’s licenses. Georgia can. Nor can Scotland (unless I’m badly mistaken) decide all by itself to allow same-sex marriage (as New Hampshire and eight other states do), or legalize recreational marijuana (as Colorado recently has), or legally put criminals to death (as Texas and Georgia still do).

It’s this degree of autonomy that sometime surprises people who are not familiar with the US federal system, where authority (and responsibility) over US citizens is divided between the national and the state governments. Washington can issue passports, but not driver’s licenses, and the reverse is true for Georgia.

It’s not always been so cut-and-dried. The question over the proper division of power has driven much of the politics throughout US history – at times even explosively so, literally explosively – even after the Constitution tried to settle the issue in 1789. There have been countless arguments over how much leeway individual states should have in making their own policies, even policies that allow their citizens to own human “property”, as inconceivable and wrong as that seems today. The argument over that barbaric "policy" was finally settled, but it took a horrible, blood-drenched war to do it.

The debate over the national-state share of power shows no sign of stopping even today. In fact, it’s been resurging in the last few years, as the “Tea Party” has gripped the Republican Party in a stranglehold of “states-rights” fervor. The election of Barack Obama as president probably had something to do with that.

Just this past week, some lawmakers in North Carolina decided that, using the excuse of "states rights", they could unilaterally declare that Christianity is the official religion of the state. Their proposal went nowhere. It would have never become law anyway since there are limits on state power and the establishment of a state religion is against the US Constitution, thank God.

Now it seems Georgia has begun to delve into foreign relations, an area I have always thought was the exclusive domain of the Federal government. It has to do with driver’s licenses, no less.

You can legally drive in America with a valid license from a foreign country. At least in most states, Georgia included. I’ve driven on my Finnish license in at least 15 states since my last Georgia license expired in 1998. Though it’s printed only in Finnish and Swedish (except for the two English words “Driving Licence”, it’s never been questioned at any rental-car counter. (Using it as an ID to cash personal checks at a small-town Wal-Mart is another matter, resulting in hilarious complications.)

Foreign motorists, however, who have lived in Georgia for more than a year have to apply for a Georgia license like everyone else. A recently proposed law would make that easier by allowing them to skip the normal driving exams, provided their home country and Georgia have reached a “reciprocal agreement”. This means the foreign country would extend the same courtesy to Georgians living abroad.

Maybe US states negotiate these kinds of one-to-one agreements with foreign governments all the time, bypassing the State Department. I’ve just never exactly heard of it.

Anyway, I’d be surprised if Finland ever agreed to such an arrangement. For one thing, it’s much harder to get a license here, since the standards are stricter than in Georgia (at least back when I got my first driving permit). I’m not sure the Finns would see it as an equal trade.

Also, I wonder whether Finland – over something as pedestrian as driver’s licenses – would want to go to the trouble of making similar, but separate, agreements with 50 individual states, all just because of the fragmented, and sometimes cumbersome, nature of American Federalism.