Cuban Transition

Years ago–in the 1990s–my wife and I were visiting with friends in Havana. In their modest apartment sanctuary of privacy and candor–amid lives that were being underlived–one of them acknowledged that the only thing that would truly be a game-changer for the island they loved would be the “biological solution.” That was the ironically respectful euphemism for the death of the Castro brothers. Only then could there be meaningful change.

I reflected on that experience during the recent transition in Cuba where Raúl Castro turned over the presidency to Miguel Díaz-Canel, 57. But the 86-year-old Castro will remain at the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, until 2021. That’s three more years of being the de facto authoritarian. Díaz-Canel and the rubber stamp National Assembly know that.

No one expects a dysfunctional economy that’s out-of-sync with economic reality and human initiative and features $30-a-month state salaries to now morph into a real marketplace.

After 2021, Castro would still be the revolutionary, iconic elephant in the room–until the “biological solution.” That’s what it will take to ultimately usher in an era that no longer prioritizes Cold War ideology and anti-capitalist swagger over a better 21st century life for its people.

Russian Retaliation

So in response to the West kicking out a bunch of Russian “diplomats,” Vlad Putin replies in tit-for-tat kind. As a result of East-West tensions, both sides have now expelled more than 150 of each other’s diplomats from two dozen countries.

So, what’s next? Well, how about a Kremlin response to the well-received comedy, “The Death of Stalin”? It brutally satirizes the in-fighting and paranoia-made-for-parody of  the 1954 Soviet regime change in the aftermath of Josef Stalin’s death. You just know Putin, who likely waxes nostalgic for a kick-ass, West-tantalizing leader, is not laughing at this disrespectful, authoritarian send-up.

Don’t discount a cinematic response. Can you imagine how America would look in a Russian-made, “Watergate” spoof? Or … No, let’s not go there. Besides, Putin likely has better cards to play on Trump.

Regardless of such scenarios, “The Death of Stalin” is worth catching. It’s funny shy of flat out farce. Most reigns of terror aren’t given to humor. It’s historic, geopolitical satire, and it’s (sight-gag executions) black comedy. It’s also very well scripted. Listen carefully to the dialogue asides.

Foreign Affairs

*As the U.S.-North Korea summit gets closer, we’ll be hearing more about–and from–China. It is no mere border neighbor.

But what’s making news right now out of Beijing is that President Xi Jinping will be president for life. Sounds like Mao Zedong in a business suit.

It’s a reminder that for all of its billionaires, casinos and economic-growth ploys, including steel dumping, China still remains a sovereign hybrid. More authoritarian than inscrutable.

If Xi were merely benefiting by the removal of term limits–and letting the people ultimately make the call–it would be much less newsworthy. Like a Mandarin FDR. But he’s not popularly elected. His president-for-life status was rubber-stamped by the country’s ceremonial parliament, the National People’s Congress. Sounds more Cuban than Chinese.

But something else, no less illustrative of what contemporary China is all about, is also making news out of Beijing. The hands weighing on social media just got a lot heavier. As in, the policing of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Among what is now officially forbidden are the dissident use of terms such as “re-election” and “proclaiming oneself an emperor.” Also banned: images of Winnie the Pooh, perceived to share some of the unflattering features of President-for-life Xi. It would be humorous–if authoritarian overreaction were ever funny.

But, yes, it’s still OK to reference “climate change.”

* This just in. Anti-discrimination reforms and overall societal freedoms just keep coming in Saudi Arabia. By June, the ban on women driving will be lifted. Already we’ve seen women allowed into stadiums to watch sports. In addition, musical concerts are back, and later this month movie theaters will return after being banned since the 1980s.

The motivation? Somewhat shy of doing the right thing for the right societal reason. In short, Wahhabism and second-class status of women can be marketing challenges for a country trying to attract foreign investment. Image matters. Economically, there’s also a serious need to have more women participating in the workforce.  Arguably, more pragmatic than progressive.

The Saudis have hardly done a 180 pivot. Guardianship laws still give men the final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, get a passport–or marry. Image only matters so much.

Olympic Spirit

Olympic ideals–excellence, friendship and respect–have seemed diminished in the era of network bidding, global commercialization and drug scandals. But here’s hoping that maybe, just maybe, the two-Koreas approach will yield something transcending sport and endorsements at this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both North and South Korean athletes will symbolically march under a “unification flag” in opening ceremonies next month.

Don’t look for many, or maybe any, of the 22 participating North Koreans to bring back medals for Kim Jong Un to gloat over. But do look for the world to exhale a bit as any sign of rapprochement, North Korea’s overall agenda notwithstanding, in a time of nuclear tension is more than welcome.

Persian Plots

I’ve spent some time in post-Shah Iran, enough to know that there’s a frustrated, festering young population, especially women, who are less than pleased about dress codes and public-morality policing. Worse yet is the hypocrisy that it’s not remotely like that–including liquor in a dry country–behind closed doors in certain privileged communities.

As a means of placating would-be reformers and angry protesters, police in Tehran have announced that they will no longer arrest women for failing to observe the Islamic dress code that’s been in place since the 1979 revolution.

Just a hunch. This won’t work.

The massive, increasingly violent, street protests–expedited by social media–that we’re now seeing in Tehran and elsewhere reflect something we can identify with right here: It’s the economy, stupid. Inflation, unemployment and the shortage of consumer goods are roiling the masses. Blatant, hard-liner corruption adds insult to the outrage, and expensive foreign-policy adventures are scorned. The 2015 nuclear deal hasn’t brought a better life yet.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has no mandate from these masses. Moreover, he’s become the target of “Death to the Dictator” chants. Maybe the Pahlavi family doesn’t look so bad after all.

One thing the U.S. should not do: Get involved. Unfortunately, President Trump finds Iranian protests to be irresistible grist for his tweet mill. The U.S. is still relatively toxic in official Iranian circles, so Trump’s insertion–goading the government and cheerleading the protesters–is counterproductive, provocative and, ironically, a welcome diversion for the government.

So far, the upheaval in Iran has little to do with the “great Satan,” but Trump’s intrusion could alter that script.

Foreign Fodder

*Grizzly murders. Corpuses of intimidation hanging in public. A cartel culture. International condemnation  over a wave of journalist killings. It doesn’t make the case for an unnecessary, obscenely expensive border wall, but it might make the case for a Mexistan moniker.

* One notable impact of “Brexit”: Net migration in England is down by more than 100,000, the biggest annual drop since records began in 1964. Notably impacted: Farms, construction, hospitality industry, hospitals and universities. Another reminder that populist rhetoric can win a referendum, but there’s a bottom-line reality beyond the pandering nationalism.

* Imagine, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, has become known as a reformer and an advocate of fiscal austerity. He’s also the new owner of the $300-million Chateau Louis XIV near Versailles, a $500-million yacht and a $450-million Leonardo da Vinci painting. Sounds like Saudi “fiscal austerity” now rivals American billionaire “populism” for oxymoronic hypocrisy.

Foreign Fodder

* Who would have thought less than a year ago that the 30-something, internationally unknown Frenchman, Emmanuel Macron, would now be a major world-stage player and the de facto leader of a fractured Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel can’t form a coalition government and no longer wields uber influence. The leaders of Britain, Italy and Spain have serious home-front priorities. President Macron is now the EC’s go-to guy for progressive thinking, continental optimism and hope for some form of unity. Sacre bleu.

* “My desire  to  resign is voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire for a smooth, non-violent transfer of power.” So said, possibly with a straight face, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, 93, who once vowed to rule for life. Well, his 37-year, corruption-rife, economically-chaotic rule ended before his life did. As for that “voluntary” resignation, chances are impeachment proceedings and military house arrest were key motivators.

* This just in from impoverished North Korea and blind-sided Egypt, which just experienced a horrific, massive assault on a mosque full of worshipers. Are there more outrageous examples of warped, tragically unconscionable priorities than nukes over food or the murder of innocents in the name of religion?

Foreign Fodder

* Not that it’s a major consolation, but it’s now apparent that the Russians didn’t limit themselves to the U.S. when it came to sovereign, political disruptions. Britain and Spain also have issues with Russian meddling: the former with its Brexit referendum and the latter over Catalan independence.

The common theme, as noted by British Prime Minister Theresa May, is Russia’s intent to “sow discord  in the West.”

* Hardly surprising, but still somewhat humbling that other countries issue travel warnings to its citizens who are planning to visit the U.S. And those warnings have been picking up apace recently. A scary gun culture, beyond-volatile politics and a rash of high-profile violent crimes are the major factors behind the advisories. The countries involved include Canada, England, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany and the Bahamas.

Embassy Departures

The U.S. State Department has announced that it is withdrawing all “non-essential personnel” from its embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia. For those impacted, it was undoubtedly appreciated; these are starkly dangerous, terrorist times. Have to wonder, however, if it isn’t just a bit bittersweet. How does it feel to be labeled, well, “non-essential”?