Another Dispatch from a Gringo in Havana

(Editor's Note: After Fidel Castro officially stepped down as Cuba's president, Lagan Sebert, a contributor to this blog, contacted one of his American friends in Havana. The result was a series of reports about Cuba and a photo essay. Lagan's contact must remain anonymous due to the repressive political atmosphere in Cuba, but his dispatches provide insight into the current climate there.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

Along the Malecon...

It’s a Friday night on the malecon (Havana’s sea-front drive). There are few seats available for over a mile on the sea wall. The scene: bottles of rum; teenagers in white shirts with “Dolce & Gabbana" logos stiched in gold on them and shiny belt buckles; families; guitars; a bagpiper; police across the street — and the night is getting slowly louder. A black transvestite, well over six-feet tall, has passed for the third time: languid expression, thin hips, and tremendous hands. Like Wormold’s daughter in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, I can hear her coming through the rising pitch of whistles and cat calls. As it has been for years, the malecon is the social barometer of Havana.

First I am approached by a middle-aged man in a worn out wetsuit. He asks my pardon as he approaches; he must be used to foreigners being afraid of anyone who approaches them unsolicited. “Have you seen any kids running around with a spear gun?” he asks with a worried glance up the coast. He takes a seat and we strike up a conversation.

His name is Yosmani and he fishes at night along the malecon, “about two-hundred meters out,” he tells me. This type of fishing is illegal. It is also illegal to serve seafood, especially lobster and shrimp, in your home. Most of the desirable meats, beef included, are reserved for tourists. When a Cuban casa particular (private homes licensed to rent to tourists) serves lobster, it is always with a wink and a “shhhh.”

Yosmani, like most Cubans, is forced to be a jack of all trades. He lives most of his life dealing in the black market economy. He fishes at night and in the day time he dives to collect the almost worthless Cuban coins that litter the bottom of the ocean a short distance from the sea wall. Believers in Santeria throw these and small lead statues into the sea to curry favor with their particular orisha.* I don’t ask him if there is any moral dilemma in collecting these offerings.

Yosmani has a brother who was born in Miami. He came to Havana to visit a few years ago for the second time; the first trip had been during the worst years of the “special period,” (after the fall of the Soviet Union and the overnight disappearance of billions in subsidies for Cuba).

“There was nothing to buy,” Yosmani tells me, emphasizing the nothing with empty hands. It bothers him that his brother speaks little Spanish.

Before long, a group of musicians approaches. Yosmani has continued to search for his spear gun. An old, thin black man speaks to me in Italian before switching to perfect, almost lilting English. He is the guitarist. Most Cubans in Havana know at least a few words in English but nothing on the level of this man. He can see that I am surprised. He has never been out of Cuba. I tell him that his English is incredible.

“I went to the Chandler School here, an American school. This was before the triumph of the Revolution.” I’ve read about it, I tell him. He hands the guitar to a teenager behind him and sits down. The rest of the group keeps moving down the malecon. “For a long time it was not a good idea to be a Cuban and speak English on the street. I practice a lot more now.” He has a drink and we keep on talking.

I met a guy like him before in a bar bathroom. Another older black man with very correct, almost archaic English, he worked the bar bathroom handing out soap and collecting dimes. “I once went to Kentucky. I love Nat King Cole,” I remember him telling me with a smile.

My new friend on the malecon says his name is “William.” He also wants to talk about music. “Do you know Bill Haley? Little Richard?” He asks as if I might have their latest records. He slaps me on the back when I tell him that I know their music. We shake hands and he hurries to join up with his band that has started playing for a group of people celebrating a birthday.

The malecon is one of the few places where a foreigner can sit and talk to Cubans in public without raising suspicion. Generally, the police stay on the other side of the street, across six lanes of traffic. Old women sell pork rinds, candy and peanuts. On this Friday night, only days after Fidel Castro announced that he will not continue in office, I wait for someone to bring up politics. No one does.

*An orisha is a spirit in the Yoruba spiritual system.

(To see a photo essay that prominently includes several photos of the malecon, please go here.)

(The photo of Old Havana is by a Gringo in Havana; this photo is © copyright iVoryTowerz and a Gringo in Havana, and may not be republished without written permission.)

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The NFL vs. Comcast, the Next Round

by Rick Rockwell

Football season in the U.S. may be over until the teams gather again in July, but the justice system finally plods ahead for fans of pro football in the offseason.

A New York State Appeals Court ruled this week that Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, and the National Football League should resolve at least some of their differences through a trial.

At least the judiciary in New York is moving forward because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress have been dragging their feet for more than two years when it comes to the issue of the league’s cable channel, the NFL Network.

This blog has been following the issue almost from its inception and frankly like many football fans the whole mess makes us tired and disgusted.

For those who haven’t bothered to keep up with this, the larger dispute almost derailed having fans watch the regular season match-up between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. That game was not only stupendous but provided a warm-up for a great Super Bowl. That regular season finale was the most watched regular season game in many years. And during the 2006 season this problem of access to the NFL Network not only caused controversy among fans who couldn’t watch great NFL match-ups, but it almost kept college fans (especially fans of Rutgers) from seeing various bowl games. To resolve these issues, usually the league has offered these games at no cost to both cable and broadcast networks or cut deals that allowed generous sharing of advertising revenue among the league and the broadcasters.

The issue in New York goes to the core of the problem. Comcast puts the NFL Network on a special expensive sports tier. The cable firm says it needs to do this to offset costs because the league charges more for its cable channel than most other channels. The league counters that putting its channel on an expensive sports tiers is unnecessary because the cable firms can more than recoup costs from consumers using less exclusive (and less expensive) tiers.

Fans don’t really want to wade into the complex economic and contractual issues. They just want to be able to see their games without a whole lot of complexity and without paying what many consider to be exorbitant costs. Fans wouldn’t have to pay those exorbitant costs if they switched from cable television to satellite. But when the NFL got involved in promoting that option with its satellite TV partners, Comcast sued.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) has threatened in the past to bring the NFL’s anti-trust exemption before the Senate Judiciary Committee if the league wouldn’t work harder at resolving the dispute with cable. Specter has been rather quiet about that lately, although he has made noise about pursuing how the league handled the scandal involving the Patriots and their video spying operation. Of course, Specter seems to have a burr in his saddle for the NFL because Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia, is one of his powerful constituents.

So let the courts work this mess out. That solution is long overdue. Perhaps the courts in New York can settle this, set a precedent and fans can have their NFL Network without any pains next fall.

But not likely.

Expect this to be tied up in court and in appeals for years to come. There’s more teeth grinding ahead for fans come fall 2008.

(Photo by C.P. Storm via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Ohio Democratic Debate Highlights

(Editor's Note: As the usual public service after the Democratic presidential candidate debates, this blog is providing video highlights of the key moments. The debate was sponsored by NBC News and was shown on MSNBC. This debate was held at Cleveland State University.)

by Rick Rockwell

The 20th debate of the Democratic campaign may have been the best. This third head-to-head meeting between Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) featured less of the canned responses of the campaign trail and more spontaneous remarks on a wide range of topics from healthcare to environmental policy. The debate also featured more discussion of foreign policy issues, including a special focus on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), than any of the previous debates this year. Frankly, the entire debate was engaging, so highlights may not give the sense of how serious and contentious this meeting was when compared to previous meetings between these candidates.

Clinton led off the debate on the offensive, taking on Obama's campaign tactics.

A centerpiece of the debate included a discussion of NAFTA.

Once a discussion of foreign policy began, the question of Obama's qualifications in that arena moved to center stage.

One of the journalistic techniques that sharpened the tone of this debate included the use of videotape from the candidates' speeches to hold them to account for what they are saying about one another while they stump for votes.

This is the last scheduled debate before Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island hold primaries on March 4.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo shows Sen. Barack Obama campaigning at the University of Iowa in 2007; the photo is by Stephen Cummings of Iowa via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Flirting with Wales

by Molly Kenney

I have a rocky relationship with London, and we’re going through a rough patch right now. I love cities, so London’s got that going for it. It’s also got some great markets and a few good museums. But currently, that seems about it.

I’m sure London has lots of other redeeming qualities, but I can’t see them while being pushed aside by hurried Londoners with eyes only for investment banking. I can’t afford to explore cool hidden bars and clubs — even the public transportation to get me there is exorbitant. Seemingly unconstrained by zoning regulations on building height, London's skyscrapers, particularly in my East End neighborhood, block out all hope of sun. More often than not, London and Londoners, seem grey and impersonal.

The bumps in the road of our relationship grow only more pronounced when I get away from the city, and last weekend, I must admit I had a bit of an affair. Recently, I returned to the city after several days in Wales — one spent visiting Tintern Abbey and a couple small towns (including Hay-on-Wye, a tiny hamlet with 35 bookshops) and the other spent horseback riding in the Brecon Beacon National Park. That’s all it took to fall in love.

The weather in Wales didn’t have much on London’s, but out in the Brecon Beacons, you can see the rain for miles. The Welsh we met were incredibly kind, and for the first time in my five months in the UK, someone held a door open for me. Hay-on-Wye had a bookstore where everything cost one pound, and The Three Horseshoes pub actually gave me the appropriate amount of food for my money. I also rode a horse named Midnight, and although she walked me into a fence, I still felt safer perched on the edge of a hill with her than on a London bus. Wales is about the same size as Massachusetts, but it feels homey and welcoming in a way that densely-packed London never could.

I’d love to go back some day, but London will have to do for now. I suppose I am pretty comfortable here in my flat with some biscuits and tea, and I am looking forward to my morning walk past St. Paul’s Cathedral and evening happy hour at the local Drunken Monkey. London, the old ball and chain, isn’t perfect, but it’s home until June.

(For another view of expatriate life in London, please see: "Sporting London.")

(Photo of Tintern Abbey by PhillipC of Wellington, New Zealand via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Photos from a Gringo in Havana

(Old Havana along the malecon, the city's famous seaside walkway)

Editor's Note: During the past week, after Fidel Castro officially stepped down as Cuba's president, Lagan Sebert, a contributor to this blog, contacted one of his American friends in Havana for a report on the political climate. After sending a series of reports about Castro, Lagan's contact also produced a photo essay on Havana. Although Lagan's contact must remain anonymous due to the repressive political climate in Cuba, his photos show a bit of the Cuban reality. These are just a few of the photos from our contact's Cuban portfolio.

(Crowds gather on Havana's malecon on many nights to socialize.)

(Cubans call restored American classics, like this car, maquinas.)

(A young mother cradles her child.)

(A wrecked boat offsets the blue waters of Cuba's coast.)

The photos in this essay are © copyright iVoryTowerz, and may not be republished without written permission.

For more background on the current happenings in Cuba, please see these archival posts:

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Cuba: Raul Castro Officially Takes Command

by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

Raul Castro takes the reins in a historic transition of power that changes…nothing — at least for now. Raul has been acting president of Cuba for the last 19 months since Fidel Castro underwent multiple intestinal surgeries. As long as Fidel is alive, it is probable that he will retain veto power, keeping the Cuban power distribution largely unchanged.

It is perhaps more telling that Communist party hard-liner Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was chosen as the country’s vice president. The message is clear; deep systematic changes to the Cuban state are unlikely in the near future. The passage of power came out of necessity rather than a willingness to change.

Though Raul is a very different leader than Fidel, big brother is watching — literally. It’s also important to remember Raul has been a member of the Communist party longer than Fidel and he is the leader of the Cuban army, so in some aspects, this transition could almost be interpreted as a step backwards.

But then there is the other side to Raul. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Raul led a movement to privatize some small sectors of the state-controlled economy. The reforms legalized a number of micro-businesses at a time when the Cuban government was having a hard time feeding the population.

Now, the Cuban economy is being held up, to some extent, by the largess of the new leader of U.S. antagonism south of the border, Mr. Hugo Chavez. But with recent food shortages in Venezuela and a likely end to Chavez’s presidency in 2012, this assistance should not be relied on either. The pragmatist in Raul will likely lead him toward gradual market liberalization without political reform, much in the style of China.

Some may argue this style of reform would be detrimental to the ideological foundation of the Revolution, but that foundation has been damaged for years. The tourist industry has become one of the strongest sectors of the Cuban economy, but average Cubans are banned from entering ostentatious resorts built with foreign capital and frequented by foreign travelers.

While hotels more glamorous than the ones funded by mob money during the Batista days serve luxurious meals to international tourists and charge hundreds of dollars a night, locals live off of meager rations with little hope for anything more.

Without reform and increases in productivity, the Cuban economy is probably unsustainable in the long run. Any economy where taxi drivers make more money than doctors has serious transparency issues.

Since the '90’s, the black market has exploded. Many Cubans supplement their meager rations by working on the sly. Ironically, this phenomenon has helped create a culture of resourcefulness that may become one of Cuba’s strongest assets in a more market driven economy. These are people who have kept '57 Fords running for a half a century, and they do it without duct tape or any other U.S.-made products.

Which brings us to the embargo. Many argue without the economic embargo, Fidel Castro could never have ruled the island nation for almost fifty years. It is widely considered a failed U.S. policy, yet dropping it at once would create chaos.

Millions of Cubans are itching to leave the island. Cuban-Americans still dream of reclaiming family estates, and U.S. real estate speculators are ready to gobble up Old Havana as quickly as allowed. With Raul and a new U.S. president there is a historic opportunity to normalize economic relations. While normalizing economic relations is in the interest of both Cuba and the United States, Jamba Juice is probably not going to be opening its Old Havana location anytime soon — and rightly so.

Raul Castro brings with him an important step in what will likely be a long, slow transition in Cuba, as long as Raul embraces change. There is, however, an educated, tech-savvy, and restless youth movement in Cuba that is not as smitten with the tainted mysticism of the “Revolution” as much as they are eager to enter the 21st century.

Without the impending figure of Fidel, calls for more personal freedoms and economic opportunity will only get louder. Unless Raul and others acknowledge the desires of a new generation, young people may be tempted to give new meaning to the word revolution in Cuba. To drive Cuba toward violence now would be a tragedy — despite it’s failings, Castro’s Cuba is a largely nonviolent place.

(For more background on the historic changes in Cuba, please see these archival posts: "Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana;" and "Predicting the End of Fidel Castro.")

(The photo of Raul Castro is © copyright the Cuban News Agency (ACN), one of two official government news agencies. As the news agency is a product of the Cuban state, the photo is actually in the public domain.)

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Bush, Musharraf & Pakistan's Democracy

by Laura Snedeker

Pakistanis rejected religious extremism and authoritarian rule last week as moderate parties won a landslide victory, marginalizing President Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban parties in the frontier provinces. Underwhelmed by the results, the Bush administration issued vague congratulations to the winners and reiterated its support for Musharraf.

The parliamentary elections delivered a blow to the pro-government Pakistani Muslim League-Q and empowered the parties of Musharraf’s two main political rivals, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December. Until recently, Sharif had been living in exile, after Musharraf ousted him during a coup in 1999.

Instead of jumping for joy at the poor performance by Muslim extremist parties and encouraging democracy in Pakistan, President George Bush issued a thinly-veiled threat to Pakistan’s new majority. “It’s now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government,” he said. “The question then is, will they be friends of the United States? I certainly hope so.”

Hope so, or demand so? The last time the Bush administration appeared so openly hostile to the democratic process in the Middle East was after Hamas swept the Palestinian parliamentary elections two years ago and the United States and the European Union cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. Neither of Pakistan’s victorious parties ideologically resembles Hamas and the U.S. is unlikely to shun the new government as long as the new coalition refrains from impeaching Musharraf.

“We’ve got interests in helping make sure there’s no safe haven from which people can plot and plan attacks against the United States of America and Pakistan,” Bush said at a press conference following the election.

Musharraf, a former Pakistani army general who seized power and aided Taliban militants prior to Sept. 11 was persuaded with the promise of American military aid to help the United States in the so-called “War on Terror.” Since then, Musharraf has been a staunch ally, receiving only token criticism from his benefactor even when he fired the nation’s chief justice and imposed emergency rule.

The Bush administration sees no contradiction in supplying the often brutal Pakistani regime with military aid and advisors while championing democracy as the key to a functional society and a deterrent to terrorists in Iraq. Musharraf’s increasingly shaky rule and his inability to reign in militants on the border with Afghanistan have contributed to discontent, but the Bush administration and the Pentagon would rather take their chances with a reliable ally than allow reformers to pursue their own strategy.

In return for allowing the U.S. military to operate with impunity in Pakistan’s tribal border region, the Department of Defense has dispatched nearly $1 billion each year for the last six years in response to the Pakistani government’s request for money to maintain its army. That money is the United States’ stamp of approval on Musharraf’s rule, since he derives most of his power from the military. The new parliamentary majority must weigh the cost of continued military aid with the cost of incurring the army’s rancor. Additionally, a different strategy in the fight against militants in the border region could diminish the U.S. military’s role, a change the Bush administration would not appreciate.

The Bush administration’s obvious displeasure over the election results demonstrates its unease with democracy and sends a clear message that the United States has more right to determine a country’s future than its citizens have. That the opposition’s gain is interpreted as America’s loss speaks volumes about our commitment to democracy and the incompatibility of the War on Terror with the right to self-determination.

(For more background on Pakistan, please see these archival posts: "Executive Powers;" and "Pakistan: Where Terror Trumps Democracy.")

(The photo of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and President George W. Bush is from a White House meeting in 2004. The White House photo is by Tina Hager and is in the public domain.)

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Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana, Part III

(Editor's Note: After Fidel Castro officially stepped down as Cuba's president last week, Lagan Sebert, a contributor to this blog, contacted one of his American friends in Havana for a first person account of the political climate. Despite this historic transition, the mood remains tense enough in Cuba, even for a foreigner, that Lagan's Havana contact wanted to remain anonymous. As part of the transition, Cuba's National Assembly is meeting today to officially pick Castro's successor. This is the third part of a three-part series reacting to Castro's retirement. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

Seeds of Transition...

There are fissures, small ones, appearing in the silence that is Cuba. A few weeks ago an electronics student stood at a podium and asked difficult questions of Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly. The student asked why there was official apartheid between Cubans and tourists or other foreigners. He asked why Cubans were not allowed to travel abroad and why they were paid such miserable wages under which he or she must work several days to be able to buy a toothbrush. These are devastating questions to be posed to a top official of a regime not accustomed to such forwardness.

Alarcon answered that when he traveled to New York to speak at the United Nations, he had often experienced discrimination because he was Hispanic. He explained, over the course of a thirty-minute response, that he was asked to leave stores because he was not welcome.

Alarcon told the audience he would like nothing more than for every Cuban to be able to travel, but he implied if they did they would only realize how dangerous the world is and how superior life is in Cuba.

But no one believes these fantasies anymore.

Many of the students Alarcon addressed study computers and are very aware of life outside Cuba. Telling these students “the world is an awful place, take my word for it,” is a great insult to their intelligence.

One of Fidel Castro’s success stories is the Cuban education system. By some indicators, Revolutionary Cuba has obtained higher literacy rates than the United States. In medicine, for example Cuban education is excellent. But in the humanities the argument can easily be made that educating a population, teaching them to think critically, and then putting your boot on their face when they dare to critique is crueler than not having an education to begin with. It is forced intellectual sterilization. However, as Fidel famously stated “with the Revolution everything, without it, nothing.”

Technology is one of the major factors in the slow demise of the regime. Compared with even five years ago, a much larger portion of the population has access to unfiltered news from outside Cuba. A few people have found ways around the internet firewall that prevents people who are lucky enough to have computers from accessing information not approved by the government. Those few who can get around the firewalls share information with those with less access.

The police sometimes raid homes to confiscate illegal satellite dishes by following suspicious wires that lead to private computers and televisions. These police raids are often disguised as rescue operations, Cubans tell me with disgust.

(This the final part of this series. To read this series from the beginning, please go here. To read the previous part in the series, please go here.)

(The photo of Fidel Castro convalescing is © copyright Juventud Rebelde, one of the official Cuban government newspapers. As the newspaper is a product of the Cuban state, the photo is actually in the public domain.)

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Hug a Wolf

by Robin Forman

You hear the word “wolf” and what comes to mind?

Little Red Riding Hood?

Le Pacte de Loups or The Brotherhood of the Wolf?

Maybe a guy named Blitzer?

Stay those guns, and put that red cape away.

Wolves are widely misunderstood creatures. They have earned a dreadful reputation in fairy tales and they have yet to recover from this.

Last week, the Department of the Interior announced that gray wolves in the Northern Rockies are being removed from the endangered species list. This is good in that this means the wolves have reached a respectable population so they are no longer endangered. Their numbers are somewhere around 1,500 in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

However, this means that the governments of those states will probably open up wolf hunting again as early as this fall. Bet you the whole hundred dollars wolves drop back down to endangered levels within two years.

Once upon a time, wolves were common throughout the United States, but, like the Native Americans, we rounded them up and killed them. And just like the Native Americans — who, mind you, respect and honor the wolf — we almost killed them all!

Here are a couple of things you should know about the wolf:

First, and most importantly, wolves rarely attack humans. No human was killed by a wolf in the 20th century. This century is clean too.

The few attacks that have occurred are mostly because humans have encroached on wolf territory. Wolves tend to be shy and actually afraid of humans. I mean, wouldn’t you be shy too if all the wolves you knew who met humans didn't survive?

Second, all dogs are descended from wolves. Yes, even you’re tiny squirrel of a Chihuahua. There are some theories that they actually evolved into domesticated dogs in a matter of ten generations because they, somewhere in their genetic mind, knew it was the only way to survive with humans.

Third: Gray wolves mate for life. That makes them better than a whole lot of people I know.

Long ago, I met two wolves in person at the Natural History Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. They walked calmly and curiously around the lecture room as the people doing the presentation explained about the misconceptions about wolves. It profoundly changed my life and sparked a lifelong love of wolves. I know. Now you’re thinking I was one of those people in the tech club who wore a tee-shirt with a wolf portrait on it. Well, buddy, I love wolves. And I was a friggin’ cheerleader.

(The photo is of a Mexican wolf at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio by Sleestak66 of Canal Winchester, OH, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Coach K Misses the Point

by Suzie Raven
Special to iVoryTowerz

No one expected Duke University’s men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (a.k.a. Coach K) to be happy about a loss to unranked Wake Forest, especially since it helped rival North Carolina take his team's place at #3 in the polls. Still, there’s no need to make excuses or comment on the styles of other teams.

Krzyzewski‘s indirect jab at North Carolina's Coach Roy Williams on Duke’s radio station after the Wake Forest game was even more unnecessary than making excuses. "[Freshman guard] Nolan [Smith] hyper-extended his knee at Maryland and has been dealing with that since – and unlike other schools we don’t release our injuries – so I thought he played a strong game tonight. It was good to see that. He has been getting healthier although he did tweak it again tonight," Krzyzewski said.

Williams, who openly discusses his team's injuries with the press, reacted to Krzyzewski's reference to “unlike other schools” on his radio show this week. He told an “unspecified person” to "coach their own damn team, I'll coach my team."

Criticizing Williams for disclosing injuries makes no sense. North Carolina’s most notable injury this season is a sprained ankle that star guard Ty Lawson suffered four minutes into UNC’s victory against Florida State three weeks ago. Lawson’s a key player – he averages 13.6 points a game and leads the team’s signature fast break with his speed. When Lawson misses five straight games, people are going to notice. People surely noticed him writhe in pain on the court after diving for the ball and then walk to the locker room on crutches. Fans immediately panicked about the upcoming game against Duke. Why shouldn’t Williams disclose the status of Lawson’s injury? We’re talking about a high ankle sprain, not a top secret new strategy that will be the key to winning another national championship.

North Carolina’s laundry list of injuries does not end there. Reserve guard Bobby Frasor suffered a season-ending knee injury in December and back-up point guard Quentin Thomas started games while suffering from the flu. Fourth-stringer Marcus Ginyard has seen significant playing time despite his own sprained right ankle. In the Virginia Tech game, forward Danny Green also played with the flu.

North Carolina has a deep bench, but these injuries obviously don’t just skim the surface. Still, unlike his counterpart at his rival, Williams took their loss against Duke gracefully two weeks ago and without excuses. "They got any shot they wanted," Williams said after that loss. "I don't know very many times tonight that our defense dictated what shot they got. They had better spacing, more patience."

The classiness with which Williams leads his team allows fans to focus on what’s really important, such as the 32 points Tyler Hansbrough scored in this week's 84-70 victory against North Carolina State.

Duke’s second straight loss to an unranked team cost them: they slid down to the #5 spot in the nation. Williams said it best when he told Krzyzewski to “coach their own damn team and I’ll coach mine.” Clearly, Williams' strategy works.

(Duke takes on St. John's today – Saturday, Feb. 23 – and UNC plays Wake Forest tomorrow.)

(In the photo, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr. – left – accepts a USA Basketball jersey from Coach Mike Krzyzewski – right – during a special program at the Pentagon's athletic center called "Hoops for Troops" in 2006. The photo is by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, USAF, for the Department of Defense; the photo is in the public domain.)

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Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana, Part II

(Editor's Note: After Fidel Castro officially stepped down as Cuba's president this week, Lagan Sebert, a contributor to this blog, contacted one of his American friends in Havana for a first person account of the political climate. Despite this historic transition, the mood remains tense enough in Cuba, even for a foreigner, that Lagan's Havana contact wanted to remain anonymous. This is the second part of a three-part series reacting to Castro's retirement. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

Analyzing Fidel's Letter...

“I will not aspire to nor accept — I repeat — I will not aspire to or accept the charge of President of the State Council and [the position] of Commander in Chief.”

This week, the Cuban government published this letter from Fidel Castro addressed to the Cuban people. Hours after it appeared on the website of Granma, one of the official government newspapers, the letter made headline news the world over.

The speculations of the international press are largely irrelevant to everyone I have spoken with in Cuba. Most agree it is time for change, but few Cubans express optimism.

Fidel's letter is composed in the familiar self-laudatory style that characterizes official pronouncements of the Cuban government, and Castro uses the letter to once again justify his own legacy.

Castro wrote that he has always done what was necessary to move the Revolution forward with the support of the “immense majority” of Cubans, regardless of U.S. policy. “My desire was to fulfill my duty until my last breath. That is all I can offer.”

Since his illness which caused him to hand over at least temporary powers to his brother more than 18 months ago, Castro has become increasingly nostalgic and consumed with the problematic issue of how he will be remembered. By resigning before his natural death, assassination, or popular upheaval he is taking the initiative away from the United States government. This is change on Fidel’s terms. How frustrating for Washington.

In his letter, Castro never mentions a possible successor by name and this has fueled debate in the international press. Although he does write of his brother, Raul, it is only to recount the past year of Raul's custodianship running the Cuban government.

He also mentions Randy Alonso, a journalist and graduate of the University of Havana who chairs the Mesa Redonda “debates” on Cuban TV. Castro writes that he trusts Alonso and has known him since his days as a student when they met each week. The Alonso interlude is an awkward allusion and does not really fit with the rest of the letter. This could be telling.

Though few in Cuba believe the National Assembly will make an independent choice for a new leader, the illusion of democracy is necessary. Were Fidel to make a public choice of his successor, which he has without a doubt already made, it would open him to even greater criticism.

The last two paragraphs of his letter deserve to be quoted in their entirety; they set the tone for the transition:

The way will always be difficult and will require the force of intelligence from everyone. I don’t trust easy and antithetical paths of apologetics or self-flagellation. Always prepare yourselves for the worst of possibilities. Being as prudent with success as you are firm in adversity is a principle that one should never forget. The adversary to be defeated is enormously strong, but we have kept it at bay for a half-century.

I do not say goodbye to you all. I wish only to fight on as a soldier of ideas. I will keep writing under the title “Reflections of Comrade Fidel.” It will be one more weapon in the arsenal that can be counted on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I’ll be careful.

Thank you.

Fidel Castro Ruz
18 February 2008
5:30 p.m.
[translation of correspondent]
This is classic Fidel. He has always argued (whether he believes it or not is impossible to tell) that the Revolution is bigger than one person: the Revolution itself is immortal and each Cuban must do his or her part. Now that he is physically unable to continue in power, he is doing his duty in stepping down so that the Revolution will not be pulled down with him. He will continue as a “soldier of ideas.” This vision of perpetual revolution is wishful thinking, to say the least. Fidel is not a fool — he has exited on his own terms.

(To read this series from the beginning, please go here. To read the next part in the series, please go here.)

(The photo shows Fidel Castro's arrival in Washington, D.C. in 1959 after his revolution triumphed in Cuba. The photo is from the Library of Congress' U.S. News and World Report collection; the magazine donated much of its photo archives stretching through the 1980s to the Library of Congress. This photo is by Warren K. Leffler and is in the public domain.)

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Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana, Part I

(Editor's Note: With the official changing of the guard in Cuba, Lagan Sebert, contacted one of his American friends in Havana for a first person account of the political climate. One would assume a foreigner would feel comfortable expressing himself openly in this time of historic transition. His nervousness and need for anonymity speaks volumes about the continued repressive nature of the Cuban state. All those interviewed for this story also were kept anonymous for their safety. This is the first part of a three-part series.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

After the Change...

After Fidel Castro announced his resignation as president of Cuba, Havana appears unchanged. The peanut sellers walk the streets of Old Havana announcing their wares while women sell shots of coffee from their street-side windows. The diesel engines of the maquinas (the crude term used for the many pre-1959 American cars) sound like tractors amongst the bicycle-taxi bells, music (a mix of Reggeaton and 90's pop), and shouts from the street to friends in their apartments. Judging by appearances, life in Havana is the same.

“Nothing will change as long as he [Fidel Castro] is alive. Everyone is too afraid to speak up,” a middle-aged hotel worker said. I had to explain to her what exactly Fidel had said. She hadn’t read Granma, the official paper, and although she overheard people talking about it, she hadn’t paid much attention. “Cubans survive because they are optimists,” she said with a shrug.

The hotel worker makes more money than most Cubans; she earns about twenty dollars a month working at the hotel on top of 700 dollars a month she makes by renting out an apartment to tourists. Much of the money she makes from her apartment she gives back to the government. She is amused when I tell her that Fidel’s pronouncement was front-page news in most of the world.

“This is all very well planned-out. This has been in the works for months. He is definitely not dead, I saw him myself a couple of weeks ago,” a thirty-year-old university professor assures me as we sit over a two dollar meal that he can’t afford. “I am still a militant, but the time is coming, everybody knows that,” he says without looking over his shoulder or caring who hears.

After we leave the restaurant, policemen constantly stop us on the street. They ask for his papers because they assume that any Cuban with a foreigner must be a hustler. Add to that the fact the professor is black, and getting stopped is a sure bet. It’s even worse to walk around with a woman. It’s best for them to walk in front or behind any foreigner.

Though the professor is a hard-line Communist, he has become far less dogmatic over the years. He still believes, somewhat nostalgically, in the potential of the Revolution, but admits he believes “less everyday.” He lives with his mother, father, and a few cousins in one of the massive apartment buildings erected in Havana to solve the problem of shantytowns that began springing up after the beginning of the Revolution.

Then there is the 43 year-old bartender, who I have only met once before this conversation. She has dyed blond hair and is a hit with men in the neighborhood. The bartender is unafraid to speak openly to me about politics. Perhaps it’s because the blaring music drowns out our voices inside the bar. “Raul [Castro],” she tells me with a flick of the hand, “he is just like Fidel, igualito.”

She recounts common rumors regarding the acting president, Raul Castro: he is a drunk, he is gay, he likes children too much, he is half Chinese and only Fidel’s half-brother.

Almost everyone I have spoken with sees little likelihood of immediate change. Perhaps this is due to people’s concentration on simply getting by each day — making just a bit more money to reach a bit more comfort. Most don’t see the utility of daydreaming for abstract possibilities.

(This is the first part of a three-part series. To read the next part, please go here.)

(Photo of Fidel Castro visiting Brazil in 2003 from Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons License.)

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iVoryTowerz Radio: A Walk on the Wild Side

The shock jocks have nothing on the underground podcast this week. Come aboard for an adventurous ride to the wild side of town: where there's plenty of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. Yes, it may be unusual for us to embrace debauchery so openly, but that type fun is at the core of the music we love. So get ready because no holds are barred as we dole out hefty portions of blues, alternative, and garage rock covering more than 35 years of music history, not to mention the usual slices of heavy metal, new wave and new music. Watch out because dangerous musical curves are ahead!

(This podcast is no longer available for download.)


"Young Fashioned Ways" by Koko Taylor
"You Can Have my Husband" by Lou Ann Barton
“She's Tough" by The Fabulous Thunderbirds

"Something's Gotta Give" by Shawn Pittman

"A Woman's Voice" by Chuck Prophet
"Take a Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed
“Candy” by Iggy Pop
Jeff’s New Wave: “Heart of the City” by Nick Lowe
Cover Me: "Mexican Radio" by Kinky
“Doin' Time” by The Mockers
“Work It Out" by The Glands
"When You See Right Through Me" by MHR (request)
"Murder Babe" by Blitzen Trapper
"No Pussy Blues" by Grinderman
"I've Still Got You (Ice Cream)" by Pissed Jeans
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “On March the Saints” by Down

(Mp3 Runs - 1:29:32; 82 MB.) Program contains explicit lyrics and discussions of mature content.

(Photo by Powderruns of Ontario, Canada, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Texas Democratic Debate Highlights Plus

(Editor's Note: As the usual public service after the Democratic presidential candidate debates, this blog is providing video highlights of the salient moments. The debate was co-sponsored by Univision and CNN. This debate was held at the University of Texas in Austin.)

by Rick Rockwell

Although most of this debate was a repetition of past exchanges, stump speeches and policy notes, the candidates did get into more detail on issues key to Texas voters such as immigration and bilingualism. The sharpest exchange of the night also centered on the charges that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) plagiarized parts of a speech he gave in Milwaukee during the campaign leading up to the Wisconsin Primary.

Anchor Jorge Ramos of Univision led off with a question about whether the candidates would reach out to Raul Castro, after his brother Fidel stepped down as president of Cuba.

The candidates also discussed immigration policy, relations with Mexico, and the construction of fences along the border.

The only heated moments of the debate centered around the charges of plagiarism leveled against Obama.

Although Obama calls the plagiarism charges "silly" now, when he was first confronted with them by the media this week, he had different answers. At first, Obama said perhaps he should have cited Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) as the source of part of his speeches, but simply forgot to do it. By the time of the debate, the Illinois Senator had a smoother response. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) put the issue of plagiarism on the table to highlight Obama's inexperience and question his character. The video comparison of Patrick's speech and Obama's speech is below.

Although Obama downplays the plagiarism issue now and Patrick says he gave Obama permission to use his speech, plagiarism charges were enough to knock Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) out of the presidential race the first time he ran in 1988. Politicians, students, and others have lost their positions, degrees and reputations over plagiarism in the past, although it doesn't seem to have much traction so far in this campaign.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(Photo of Sen. Barack Obama campaigning in Washington, D.C. in 2007 by realjameso16 via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Princess Diana's Never-Ending Saga

by Molly Kenney

It’s been more than a decade since Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris along with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul. But these days in London, you’d think she died last week.

Dodi Fayed’s father, Mohammed al Fayed, is before the Royal Courts of Justice this week as part of the English inquest, which began in October 2007, into the deaths. In court, Fayed emotionally testified that Diana was pregnant and engaged to his son when they died. He claims that the British royal family enlisted MI6, the British version of the CIA, to kill them both and pave the way for Prince Charles to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, his long-time girlfriend. According to the BBC, Fayed called Prince Philip “a racist” and “a Nazi” with family ties to the “Frankenstein” clan. With such exciting goings-on inside the courts, it’s no wonder I have to fight through the camera crews every morning to get to school next door.

Debate about the crash was first focused on the blood alcohol level of driver Paul. Then, attention shifted to James Andanson, a French photographer and the driver of a white Fiat Uno, the car that may have caused the crash. Stories abounded about a flash of light from the Fiat blinding Paul, who lost control of the princess' car. When Andanson killed himself a few years later, MI6 involvement became the popular explanation. Was the Princess pregnant? Why was her body embalmed without the proper paperwork? Were the seatbelts in the princess' Mercedes just unworn or had they been broken by the MI6? Most explanations involved royal tendencies for homicide and/or cover-ups.

The web of conspiracy theories is almost as complex as those surrounding September 11. Their individual merits are questionable, but the sheer number of questions surrounding the crash does give a bad feeling. It’s clear that Diana was beloved in the U.K. and internationally, and the sudden deaths of three people are awful in any context. But there appear to be no answers to the tragedy, and it’s time to move on.

In the U.K., there is palpable frustration about what Diana’s death has become: another media circus. No new physical evidence can be discovered so long after the incident, and recent case developments are little more than fresh conspiracy theories and blaming. The inquest should be closed to prevent Diana’s legacy from becoming little more than another decade of media madness.

After the Diana mania is put to rest, Britain’s highest court can carry on with other crucial business, like the divorce proceedings of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

It seems I’ll never to get to school on time.

(Photo of Princess Diana shaking hands at an event in Bristol in 1987 by Floyd Nello of Bristol, UK, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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