Dr. Walter Rodney – “The Power of A Story”

Anthony Rodney was born to Edward and Pauline Rodney in Georgetown, Guyana on March 23, 1942. He developed into an intellectual and scholar and is recognized as one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant minds.

Rodney combined his scholarship with activism and became a voice for the under-represented and disenfranchised – this distinguished him from his academic colleagues. His interest in the struggles of the working class began at a young age with an introduction to politics by his father, and continued with his involvement in debating and study groups throughout his student years. His PhD thesis illustrated his duality as an intellectual and activist as he challenged the prevailing assumptions about African history and put forth his own ideas and models for analyzing the history of oppressed peoples. Influenced by the Black Power Movement in the U.S., third world revolutionaries and Marxist theory, Rodney began to actively challenge the status quo.

In 1968, while a UWI professor in Jamaica, he joined others to object to the socio-economic and political direction of the government. Unlike his counterparts, however, Rodney involved the working class, including the Rastafarians (one of Jamaica’s most marginalized groups) in this dialogue. His speeches and lectures to these groups were published as Grounding with My Brothers, and became central to the Caribbean Black Power Movement. Rodney’s activities attracted the Jamaican government’s attention and after attending the 1968 Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada he was banned from re-entering the country. This decision was to have profound repercussions, sparking widespread unrest in Kingston.

In 1974, Walter returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. But Rodney remained in Guyana, joined the newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance. Between 1974 and 1979, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He gave public and private talks all over the country that served to engender a new political consciousness in the country. During this period he developed his ideas on the self-emancipation of the working people, People’s Power, and multiracial democracy.

As the WPA gained popularity and momentum, the PNC began a campaign of harassment including police raids, house searches, and beatings. On July 11, 1979, Walter, together with seven others, was arrested following the burning down of two government offices. Rodney and four others (known as the “Referendum Five”) faced trumped-up charges of arson, but without proof and scrutiny from international supporters, the government was forced to drop these charges.

 

Rodney’s voice was not confined to Africa and the Caribbean but was also heard in the U.S. and Europe. In the early-mid 1970s, he participated in discussions and lectures with the African Heritage Studies Association at Howard University; the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA; the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University; and the State University of New York at Binghamton.

The persecution, however, continued: two party members were killed, and the government denied Rodney and others permission to travel. Despite this, Rodney continued his political work and attended Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in May 1980.

On Friday, June 13, 1980, Walter Anthony Rodney was assassinated by a bomb in Georgetown, Guyana. He was 38 years old.

 

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa Cells)

From the very start there was something eerie about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced exuberantly in a lab at Johns Hopkins — the first human cells ever to do so. HeLa became an instant biological superstar, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vibrant 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital’s “colored” quarter.

 

After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone of us who ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin. Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.

 

 

HeLa is so outrageously robust that if one cell lands in a petri dish, it proceeds to take over. And so, like any good celebrity, HeLa had a scandal: In 1966 it became clear that HeLa had contaminated hundreds of cell lines, destroying research as far away as Russia. By 1973, when Lacks’s children were shocked to learn that their mother’s cells were still alive, HeLa had already been to outer space.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

During the eight months that Lacks herself was dying of cancer, the HeLa cells so thoroughly eclipsed her that a lab assistant at her autopsy glanced at her painted red toes and thought: “Oh jeez, she’s a real person. . . . I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

 

In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.

Henrietta Lacks with her husband David
Henrietta Lacks with her husband David

 

Skloot traces the family’s emotional ordeal, the changing ethics and law around tissue collections, and the inadvertently careless journalists and researchers who violated the family’s privacy by publishing everything from Henrietta’s medical records to the family’s genetic information. She tacks between the perspective of the scientists and the family evenly and fairly, arriving at a paradox described by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! . . . But I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”

 

Deborah, a generous spirit, becomes the book’s driving force, as Skloot joins her in her “lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.” To find the mother she never got to know, she read hundreds of articles about HeLa research, which led her to believe that her mother was “eternally suffering” from all the experiments performed on her cells. In unsentimental prose, Skloot describes traveling with her to Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up in her grandfather’s cabin, former slave quarters in a town where the black Lackses and the white Lackses don’t mix. Suffering from hives and extreme anxiety, Deborah seeks out a relative who channels the voice of God. He tells Deborah to let ­Skloot carry the “burden” of the cells from now on, explaining that the cells have become heavenly bodies, immortal angels.

 

But “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is much more than a portrait of the Lacks family. It is also a critique of science that insists on ignoring the messy human provenance of its materials. “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from,” a researcher named Robert Stevenson tells Skloot in one of the many ethical discussions seeded throughout the book.

Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot
Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot

The ethical issues implicated in the HeLa story are many and tangled. Since 1951, science has progressed much faster than our ability to figure out what is right and wrong about tissue culture. In the 1980s a doctor who had removed the cancer-ridden spleen of a man named John Moore patented some of the cells to create a cell line then valued at more than $3 billion, without Moore’s knowledge. Moore sued, and on appeal the court ruled that patients had the right to control their tissues, but soon that was struck down by the California Supreme Court, which said that tissue removed from the body had been abandoned as medical waste. The cell line created by the doctor had been “transformed” via his “inventive effort,” and to say otherwise would “destroy the economic incentive to conduct important medical research.” The court said that doctors should disclose their financial interests and called on legislators to increase patient protections and regulation, but this has hardly hindered the growth of the field. In 1999 the RAND Corporation estimated that American labs alone held more than 307 million tissue samples from some 178 million people. Not only is the question of payment for profitable tissues unresolved, Skloot notes, but it’s still not necessary to obtain consent to store cells and tissue taken in diagnostic procedures and then use the samples for research.

 

In the most touching scene in this book occurred when the Lackses followed Skloot into the world of science, just as she had followed them into the world of faith. In 2001, an Austrian researcher at Johns Hopkins named Christoph Lengauer invited the family to his lab. When Deborah and her brother visited, he led them to the basement, where they “saw” their mother for the first time, warming frozen test tubes of HeLa in their hands and watching as a cell divided into two under a microscope while Lengauer explained his work. Deborah pressed a cold vial to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered. “Just nobody knows it.”

 

“Timbuktu” – (The forgotten victims and heroes)

Abderrahmane Sissako‘s adoring and visually stunning film Timbuktu is a cry from the heart – with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such elegance and such consideration. It is a portrait of the country of his youth, the state of Mali, in West Africa, and in particular the mythic  city of Timbuktu, whose opulent and humane traditions are being crushed, as Sissako perceives it, by fanatical jihadis, very often from outside the country. The story revolves around the death of a cow, caringly named “GPS” – a most suitable emblem for a country that has lost its path.

These Islamist zealots are banning innocent pleasures such as music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stoning for adultery. The new puritans horrify the local imam, who has long upheld the existing traditions of a benevolent and tolerant Islam; they march into the mosque carrying arms. Besides being addicted to cruelty and bullying, these men are enslaved to their modern devices – mobile phones, cars, video-cameras and, of course, weapons. Timbuktu is no longer “tombouctou la mysterieuse”, the dreamlike place of legend, but a strict, grim, unforgiving place of intolerance and fear.

Sissako creates an interrelated series of characters and images giving us scenes from the life of a troubled nation, historically torn apart and prone to failures in communication between its three main languages: Touareg, Arabic and Bambara. At the centre of this is the tragic story of one family: a herdsman Kidane, his wife Satima and their 12-year-old daughter. Kidane angrily confronts a fisherman who has killed his cow, with tragic results. Mali’s new theocratic state must now rule on something that has nothing to do with infringements of its own proliferating religious laws – and its crass callousness and immaturity as a system of government is horribly exposed.

There are some brilliant photographic moments: the panoramic image of the river in which Kidane and the fisherman wobble apart, at different ends of the screen, is superb, composed with a flamboyance that David Lean might have admired. When a jihadi comes close to admitting he is infatuated with Satima, Sissako shows us the swelling dunes with a strategically placed patch of scrub. It is a sudden, Freudian vision of a woman’s naked body, which is then made the subject of a bizarre, misogynist attack.

Elsewhere, young men carry on playing football after football has been banned by miming the game. They rush around the field with an invisible football, earnestly playing a match by imagining where the ball should be. It is a funny, sly, touching scene, reminiscent of anti-Soviet satire. In another scene, a young man is being coached on how to describe his religious conversion for a video (for an awful moment, it looks as if it might be a suicide-bomber “martyrdom” video). The boy talks about how he used to love rap music, but no longer. Yet in the face of the intimidating and gawky direction, the boy lowers his head: he finds he cannot mouth these dogmatic banalities.

Sissako’s portrait of Mali is comparable to Ibrahim El-Batout’s portrait of Egypt and the Tahrir Square protests in his film Winter of Discontent. It is built up with enormous emotion, teetering between hope and despair.  The world of the reddish desert, the limestone houses and the people’s flowing clothes, suggest a harmony with nature that is utterly at odds with the foreign fundamentalists with their confusion of accents and loud technology. Sissako’s point, while never heavy-handed, but so often forgotten in the West:  Muslims are by a very large margin the world’s biggest victims of Islamic terrorism.

Malcolm X – “Our Shining Black Prince”

In 1931, Malcolm’s father died in mysterious circumstances, run over by a streetcar. Although it was never proved, the suspicion remained that he had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The police recorded the death as suicide, thereby annulling Earl Little’s life insurance.

Malcolm Little

Left poverty-stricken, Malcolm’s mother struggled to make ends meet for her large family. The pressure took its toll and in 1937, six years after her husband’s death, she was committed to an asylum. The children were farmed out to various foster parents and homes. Malcolm went to school where a teacher asked the vulnerable Malcolm what he wanted to be. Malcolm answered, a lawyer. The teacher scoffed, told him to be realistic and recommended, instead, he become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he dropped out of school at the age of 15 and went to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.

Detroit Red

From Boston, Malcolm moved to the Harlem district of New York City where he got a job as a shoeshine boy. Called “Detroit Red” for the reddish hint in his hair, he drifted into a life of petty crime, involving robbery and drug selling. He lived well off the proceeds but in 1946, following a failed robbery, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Whilst incarcerated he spent much of his time reading in the prison library, obtaining the education he felt was lacking in his life. He converted to Islam and became a member of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims. Founded by Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah, the Black Muslims rejected Christianity as a white man’s religion and preached separation of the races.

Malcolm X

Having served six years, Malcolm was released from prison in 1952. He moved to Chicago and founded (or took over – resources differ on this point) the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which espoused racially controversial views about the natural superiority of blacks. Malcolm, having shed his “slave name”, advocated black separatism and the use of violence, if necessary, to achieve it. America’s blacks, he said, were in the midst of a revolution and there was “no such thing as a non-violent revolution”. Air time on national television brought him immediate fame, or notoriety. His preaching drew new converts and his charismatic style appealed to much of America’s black youth.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Malcolm X and ML KingDescribing himself as the “angriest black man in America”, Malcolm rejected Martin Luther King‘s non-confrontational approach and mocked King’s March on Washington (August 1963). Achieving integration through non-violence and, as Malcolm saw it, long-term suffering, would not progress the African American’s place in society. Instead, Malcolm preached independence, black power and black consciousness, a message that had widespread appeal. The Civil Rights Movement had, in Malcolm’s view, “begged the white man for freedom”, and begging for freedom did not, he continued, set you free. “The price of freedom is death”. (See clip below).

(The six foot, 3 inches tall, Malcolm  X and Martin Luther King, Jr met just the once, pictured, in March 1964).

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Elijah Muhammad, impressed by Malcolm’s undoubted abilities, named him his second-in-command. Although the two men argued over the direction of the organization, Malcolm saw Muhammad as a mentor and a spiritual guide, and perhaps even a father-figure. But Muhammad’s private life failed to match his public persona as a man beyond reproach. Malcolm was left feeling betrayed when he learnt that Muhammad had fathered six children with different women. Their relationship deteriorated further when, following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm said it was a case of “chickens coming to roost”. Malcolm was ordered to observe a 90-day period of silence. Refusing to comply, in March 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and founded his own Islamic group, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. In 1965 he formed the secular group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm embarked on a tour of Africa and the Middle East, paid a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, having changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. He returned to the US a more moderate man: “I recognize that anger can blind a man”, he later said.

Assassination of Malcolm X

Having left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X received numerous death threats. In 1964, Elijah Muhammad said that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”. Indeed, an edition of Muhammad Speaks that year featured a cartoon of Malcolm X’s decapitated head. On 14 February 1965, Malcolm’s family home in New York was firebombed. He firmly believed that those responsible were members of the Nation of Islam.

A week later, on 21 February, as he was about to deliver a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm was shot fifteen times and killed. He was three months short of his fortieth birthday. Three of Elijah Muhammad’s followers were later found guilty of the murder. The last of the three, Talmadge Hayer, having served 45 years in jail and having been refused parole sixteen times, was released from prison in 2010.

Elijah Muhammad, on hearing of Malcolm’s death, said, “Malcolm X got just what he preached… We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end”.

In 1958, Malcolm had married Betty Shabazz, who, like Malcolm, called herself ‘X’. They were to have six daughters, the youngest two, twins, born after Malcolm’s assassination. On 1 June 1997, Betty’s home was set on fire by her 12-year-old grandson, Malcolm Shabazz. Three weeks later, she died of her injuries. Shabazz, who spent four years in a juvenile detention centre, immediately expressed his remorse. Shabazz himself was murdered in Mexico City on 9 May 2013. He was 28.

Malcolm’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, dictated to Alex Haley and written over two years, was published soon after his death, and remains a cult hit.

Khaled – “The King of Rai”

For millions of people across the world, rai musician Khaled is not just an artist; he’s a phenomenon and the long established star of Arabic popular music. Like many fellow Algerians, Khaled flee to France in the late 80s to escape the brutal civil war.

Born Khaled Hadj Brahim in Sidi-EI-Houri on February 29, 1960, in Oran, Algeria, Khaled sang and learned to play guitar, bass, accordion, and harmonica as a child. He enjoyed the sounds of Moroccan music and Elvis Presley. Though his uncle played the accordion, Khalid’s family looked down on his musical aspirations. His father, a policeman, disapproved of it entirely. Khalid’s debut recording, La Route De Lycee, came out when he was just 14 years old. After that, he dropped out of school, left home, and formed a group called the Five Stars, and started to perform at local weddings, parties, and clubs.

Rai music was originally heard in seedy Algerian bars in the 1920s. This “sinner’s music” was sung to the beat of light percussion and an ancient rosewood flute called a gasba. Khaled released a handful of self-produced rai cassettes before he teamed up with producer Rachid Baba Ahmed, who had a greater pop sensibility. Under Ahmed’s influence, Khaled’s sound increasingly began taking on more of a Western sound, incorporating such Western instruments as synthesizers and guitars. Khaled became the most well-known singer of the revived “pop rai” trend that first became popular during the 1960s. Excite online likened his stage presence and effect on Algeria’s youth to that of Elvis Presley on American teenagers in the 1950s. Though Khaled was embraced by Algeria’s disenchanted youth during the 1980s, not all of Algeria shared the same enthusiasm for rai, which offended the sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalists.

Until 1983, Khaled’s music was censored by the Algerian government for both his candid lyrics about romance and his lyrics against Islamic fundamentalism. The Algerian government attacked what it considered to be outspoken hedonism, and Khaled’s music was banned from Algerian radio and television. In 1985, though, he was crowned the “king of rai” at Algeria’s National Rai Festival in his hometown of Oran. In the late 1980s, sensing trouble in Algeria, Khaled fled to Paris, as did many other Algerian artists and journalists. The 1992 Algerian elections were clearly going to be won by Islamic fundamentalists, so the military government cancelled the elections and violence broke out. Terrorists targeted and killed many artists, including the popular “prince of rai,” singer Cheb Hasni.

The mass exodus of rai musicians to France resulted in a change in the traditional rai sound. Used to shoddy equipment and a strict government, the Algerian singers suddenly had creative freedom and access to France’s high-tech recording studios.

“Khaled”  –  (The Album)

Khaled was the first Algerian expatriate to break out in France with his love song “Didi,” a crossover hit for his French record label Cohiba. On this album Khaled, the singer continued to globalize the rai sound and even began to incorporate funk, hip-hop, reggae, and the French chanson—a song style from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Though his songs had taken on an international flavour, Khaled remained true to the Arabic sound with his “seductive phrasing and nasal, soulfully gruff voice,” wrote Margasak. Khaled’s records became popular in France, the Middle East, and India. In the mid-1990s, Khaled dropped “Cheb” from his stage name, a term meaning “kid” that was given to singers like Khaled to make them distinct from older, more traditional artists.

“Mauvais Sang” starts with the classic Algerian vocal/keyboard intro and gets more complex as melodic motifs are woven in. But the rhythm is driven by keyboard bass blats and a drum machine and the instrumental break features sax over thumb-pop funk bass and James Brown scratch-rhythm guitar before the final call and response between David McMurray’s throaty R&B sax and Mustapha Kada’s Arabic keyboards. To say that’s a blueprint of what Khaled wants to accomplish here is true on one level, but ignores the range and variety of the material. Algerian homeboys Kada (keyboards) and Mohsein Chentouf (derbouka) are on every song and Khaled himself plays keyboards, accordion, oud, and bendir on the Brook-produced tracks. Reggae pops into the bubbling rhythm undercurrent on “Ragda”; “Sbabi” works violin against an atmospheric, Robert Fripp-like lead guitar over Khaled’s voice and a funky, chunky groove. With its near-flamenco acoustic guitar and accordion, “Wahrane” has a French café feel, but “El Ghatli” and “Harai Harai” take it all the way home to Algerian tradition.

“Ne M’en Voulez Pas” is sung in French, with more café accordion set against organ, bass solo, and clattering percussion, and winds up in a near-go-go beat. The song is too busy and never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be, but it’s a unique, invigorating ride, which may be the best capsule summary for Khaled. Some artists are born to try this kind of cultural crossover, and in the context of rai, Khaled is both trailblazer and standard-bearer.

Lastly, an interesting documentary about the origins of Rai music (French only)

Back to the Motherland: Cubans in Africa

Cuba: An African Odyssey is the fruit of fifteen years’ research and organizing on the part of Egyptian Jihan el Tahri. Treating three hot wars within the context of over “a quarter century plus one year, one month and one day” in the life of the larger Cold War.

Disguised in 1965, clean-shaved in a suit and thick-rim glasses, Che Guevara is another man — on shipping across Lake Tanganyika into the Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaïre — to bring revolutionary expertise to those fighting for the leftist MNC ideals of popular PM Patrice Lumumba, usurped and murdered by Col. Joseph Mobutu. Before his own failure, capture and murder, Che would take Bolivian guerrillas to task on “the reality of war. I emphasized the importance of a united command and discipline . . . of the party’s line.” Unable to inculcate military or ideological order, Guevara left Africa secretly after eight months.

So opens the film, followed by a middle section on Cuban aid to also-assassinated Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC movement for Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, separately independent in the wake of Lisbon’s 1974 Carnation Coup, the former as Guinea-Bissau. Speaking of the convoluted situation in, and worldwide concern with, Angola and Namibia — the last section in time but the documentary centerpiece — Fidel emphasizes that, contrary to capitalism’s imputing its own imperialistic ends to Cuba, “we have no selfish reasons.”

An ex-U.S. diplomat assesses that then as now we misread Cuba and the legitimate credit it deserves for bringing settlement to Angola’s alphabet soup of conflicting acronyms, armies and special interests from the Western and Eastern blocs as well as within the African continent. Governed after 1975 nationhood by the formerly Zambia-based liberation party MLPA, large, potentially rich Angola was plagued by warring factions, with South Africa’s “mandate” South West Africa/Namibia serving as a base for UNITA armed incursions (soon also supported by Washington, which as well funded yet another army in FNLA), as Pretoria simultaneously fought Namibia’s revolutionary SWAPO and maintained apartheid in its ex-German protectorate today touted for tourism as “quaint, but a land of stark beauty and riveting contradictions.”

Fidel was so joyfully embraced in Angola’s capital, Luanda, that his visit was extended into a three-week triumphal tour. Already suffering privation, and later itself to lose Soviet aid, his own island had given its lifeblood for emerging brother nations: the remains of ten thousand of Cuba’s fallen (many of them at Cuito Cuanavale, the greatest battle on the continent since El Alamein) were transported home for burial.

The legwork research here is impressive, even for those who question El Tahri’s hagiographic treatment. Protagonists’ motivations and actions are of course open to different interpretation, with interviewees on whatever side seemingly likeable, eloquent and sometimes surprisingly humorous about the past.

Back to the Motherland: Cubans in Africa

On October 14, 1975, as Angolan independence approached and the civil war tipped in favour of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South African armoured column Zulu crossed into Angola. Made up of white troops from the South African Defense Forces (SADF) assisted by several thousand black mercenaries, Zulu rolled over the MPLA’s few defences and started racing for the capital, Luanda. Joining Zulu came a second column, Foxbat, airlifted into the central Angolan town of Silva Porto—a gangster’s Shangri La and home to the warlord Jonas Savimbi and his murderous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Meanwhile, from the north came another anti-Communist guerrilla army, Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was saturated with CIA personnel, South African military advisors, and Zairian troops, plus some Portuguese and British soldiers of fortune.

This secret invasion code named “Operation Savanna” was just the culmination of an older U.S.-backed, Kissinger-approved program of covert action which had begun half a year earlier when it became clear that an exhausted Portugal was giving up on its colonial project and that the Marxist MPLA would win the civil war between itself and the two anti-Communist groups, UNITA and the FNLA. Formal decolonization was set for November 11, 1975, and the CIA/South African invasion was an attempt to steal Angola away from the MPLA before that legitimizing date.

Also on the ground were five hundred volunteer Cuban military advisors who had been training and fighting alongside the MPLA for the last two months, but many of this number were in the country’s detached northern oil-rich enclave, Cabinda. The speed and secrecy of the South African blitzkrieg stunned both the MPLA leadership and the Cubans. Less than three weeks after invading, Zulu was almost upon Luanda, yet the head of the Cuban military mission, Diaz Argüeselles, still did not grasp the magnitude of the situation.

A few days later, the Cubans and the MPLA leadership were disabused of their confusion when all the coastal highway towns south of Luanda had fallen to Zulu. Within hours it became clear to the MPLA and their Cuban comrades on the ground—and then to Fidel and his brother Raul Castro—that they must choose either to abandon Angola to the ravages of South Africa and its proxy warlords or send immediate reinforcements. After consulting with Raul and a few top aids, Fidel dispatched 430 members of the Special Forces and an artillery regiment. Most would go by boat arriving in about a week, but a vanguard detachment of 158 elite Cuban commandos and heavy weapons specialists dressed in civilian clothes boarded two passenger planes and took off for Angola.

Before they left Fidel met them on the tarmac. “He spoke most of all about the South African invasion,” recalled one veteran of the operation. “He said that some of the Cuban instructors had died, that it was a difficult situation, that we must stop the South Africans before they reached Luanda and that many of us would not return. He said that it was very hard for him to say this and not go with us.” Even more chilling were the final instructions: fight with the MPLA, if the MPLA lost the capital go to the hills and fight on, if the MPLA gave up—only then, if possible—the survivors should fall back to Zambia where Cuba had a new embassy.

After two stops for refuelling, the Special Forces touched down in Luanda under the cover of night and immediately raced to the nearby bluff-top village of Quifandongo from which the MPLA was guarding the capital with several hundred of its best troops, some artillery pieces and six Soviet-made rocket launchers. Just outside Quifandongo lay Holden Roberto’s FNLA, a host of 3,500 mounted on trucks, tanks, and mobile artillery, massing for their final assault on Luanda.

But here fate and the megalomaniacal hubris of the CIA’s pet, Roberto, intervened. As one of the South African veterans of the operation wrote: “Unlike Savimbi who…relied on his South African advisors’ professional knowledge, Roberto insisted on going his own way.” As high-flying South African bombers attempted to soften up the village, the attacking foreigners suggested a flanking manoeuvre but “Roberto shrugged off all such subterfuges in favour of an advance straight down what later became known as Road.’ ”

The FNLA forces—described by a South African veteran as a “hoard of partly trained…tribesmen…Portuguese mercenaries…[and] faint-hearted Zairians…” held together by a few SADF officers and CIA advisors—lined up on the road to attack as a convoy. Greeting them was an awful hail of Cuban controlled artillery. As one discouraged white advisor later wrote, “one by one the armoured cars were knocked out.” Mauled and panicked, the attackers scattered.

From there, half the Cubans turned south and ambushed Column Zulu. Put in check, the column tried an end run around the Cubans but was ambushed again. This time, caught on a long open stretch of road surrounded by impassable monsoon-soaked terrain, the South African tanks and trucks were smashed to pieces. From then on Zulu’s war was a fighting retreat home. By March 27, 1976, the last SADF tanks rolled back across the Namibian border where then defense minister, and future South African president, P. W. Botha watched and saluted through “a cloud of dust.”

News of South Africa’s humiliation in Angola swept the Bantustans electrifying and emboldening ANC activists and youth. A few months later the ghetto of Soweto exploded, marking the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Impressive as it may be, the Cuban adventure in Angola was only one piece of a truly audacious African foreign policy. Cuba was not a Soviet pawn in Angola or elsewhere. In fact, in the majority of these interventions the Cubans played a leading role, sometimes acting against the wishes of the Soviet Union. In Angola, for example, the MPLA had been requesting direct military intervention—troops—from both the USSR and the Cubans starting in early 1975. But these socialist states held off: Cuba for fear of antagonizing the United States; the USSR in the hope of achieving a new arms agreement.

When Cuba finally acted it did so without consulting the Soviets. And when the Russian “elder brothers” were presented with the fait accompli of Cuban troops duking it out with South African invaders, requests from Castro and the MPLA for military aid contained as much blackmail as they did supplication. What were the Russians to do—let the Cubans sink? Of course once the tide had turned, the independence date had come, and South Africa had finally been exposed in the western press as the aggressor, the USSR was happy to help out.

Cuba’s interventions were not always victorious. Che’s year in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo was a socialist Heart of Darkness. Che’s host, the dashing, seemingly committed Laurent Kabila turned out to be a soft, jet-setting fundraiser who frequented foreign capitals while his troops languished in the jungles around Lake Tanganyika. Che tried to turn things around but Kabila’s Simbas (meaning lions) preferred to lay low while a U.S.-backed army of white mercenaries supported by Cuban-American pilots had its way with the geographic heart of Africa. Likewise a leftist coup in the nearby French Congo turned out to be heavy on radical pronouncements but light on actual socialist forward motion. The Cuban mission there—to train a more left-leaning popular militia—ended after a right-wing coup.

The Cubans risked all for leaders they liked and respected while often suffering chilly relations with groups that might seem their natural allies. Che set the initial tone in most of these cases during his diplomatic barnstorming through Africa in late 1964 and early 1965. At times the connections and near misses seem counterintuitive. For example, Che offended and alienated the very Marxist, Cuban-oriented Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, but quickly bonded with the ideologically more eclectic, more social democratic, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau’s liberation movement. In later years this meant scant Cuban involvement in Mozambique and a huge military and medical assistance package for Cabral’s forces in Guinea Bissau.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander (TomDispatch)

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race”. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalised, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colourblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

  • There are more African American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began.
  • As of 2004, more African American men were disfranchised (due to felon disfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the 15th amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
  • A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
  • If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labelled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste – not class, caste – permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

There is, of course, a colourblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades – they are currently at historical lows – but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the “war on drugs” and the “get tough movement”. Drug offences alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, between 1985 to 2000, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal, but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of colour, even though studies consistently show that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youths are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youths. They also have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of colour and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing and affirmative action.

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicising inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes – sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words: “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offence) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labelled a felon.

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes … in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: with black people rounded up en masse for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offences. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s – the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war – nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time – a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of colour are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers – not to mention president of the United States – causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in developing countries. And that’s with affirmative action.

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colourblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure – the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.