Cuba, Si!

CNN interviewed former President Jimmy Carter tonight about the thaw in relations with Cuba. Carter, of course, made a historic trip to the Caribbean island in 2002 with the intention of improving relations.

I was fortunate enough to make that trip with Carter. I will write more about that. But for now, here is one of my favorite pieces from that assignment. It ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is about the Harlistas.

 

HAVANA — Cuban legend has it that Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara buried a thousand Harley-Davidson motorcycles after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

Harleys, perhaps one of the noisiest symbols of America, were used by the police and army under the U.S.-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, and Castro felt compelled to reject them.

The tale has it that the bikes were put to rest on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island–buried deep in the soil of Communism but not forgotten.

Ask Adolfo Preito, 44, who as a child watched officers roar by on their hogs. He is an engineer for the Castro regime, but his life revolves around his white 1950 Panhead Harley. His wife, Linett Suarez, is convinced that he would forsake her for his Harley.

“I love this bike. It’s my life,” said Preito.

Not one new Harley has entered Cuba since the revolution–and parts and mechanics are scarce.

Many of the old bikes barely work, patched together with bits and pieces from Soviet-made Ladas and other vehicles, but they represent high-speed rebellion in a land struggling for free expression and civil liberties.

About 200 Harleys are running in Cuba.

Preito has been trying to organize a Harley club with 30 fellow “Harlistas” since 1976. An official stamp of approval of the club’s charter would mean the Harlistas could gather at formal meetings instead of having to get together at streetside cafes and taverns.

“But in Cuba, it’s difficult to form an association,” said Preito, tucking his Latin American Motorcycle Association T-shirt into his jeans. “We are not a political group but a social one. But if we were officially sanctioned, then we could have a clubhouse behind walls, and the government doesn’t want that.”

That’s why Georgia Tech professor Kirk Bowman decided to dedicate time for his 23 study-abroad students in Cuba to meet with the Harlistas.

“I wanted students to get a feel for Cuban civil society,” said Bowman, not revealing at first his love for all things Harley. “Civil society, according to the revolution, is a bourgeois practice and as such has become almost nonexistent.”

That makes organizations that seem conventional to Americans–from church choirs to the Sierra Club–rare in Cuba. Bowman, a specialist in Latin American studies, said that as a social institution, the boisterous Harlistas fall into the same category as Cuba’s independent librarians who quietly defy the government by making materials available for everyone to read.

When he left Atlanta for Cuba, Bowman had no idea whether he would be able to contact the Harlistas, but he brought souvenirs of the American motorcycle maker just in case: T-shirts, bandannas and a new mirror for Preito.

Even with the ears and eyes of Cuban authority monitoring them, the Harlistas find innovative ways to keep their traditions going. They barter for parts to keep their bikes running and make a special homage ride each Father’s Day, which was when Cuba’s most famous mechanic, Pepe Millesima, died.

“Everyone looks at us with admiration,” Suarez said. “People identify it as something American.”

The Harlistas are ordinary people with ordinary jobs making not more than $15 a month. They dream of the day when new Harleys will be available and when they will be able to journey to Daytona, Fla., to join the 300,000 bikers at Bike Week each year.

Some signs of change are starting to surface in Cuba, however. As many as 370 Masonic lodges exist, Bowman said.

“I don’t want to say there is a boom in civil society, but it’s definitely percolating,” he said.

Ferguson

Many businesses on West Florissant Avenue are boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision.

The convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars is  boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision. 

I did not cover the story in August when a black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor did I have any idea that I would be thick in the middle of things one day.

But here I am, amid a deep freeze in Missouri, waiting with everyone else for a grand jury decision on whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, should be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.

So far, it’s been an eye-opening experience. I am learning about a part of the country that I have not seen before.

Here are links to a few of my stories:

It’s her Ferguson — and it’s not all black and white

Ferguson awaits grand jury ruling

A tale of two streets

In the shadow of the storm, a quiet grave

 

 

‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

me&helen

On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on CNN.com. Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Cat fight between homeland and home

I just read a CNN-IBN report on the Devyani Khobragade episode that made me squirm.

“Devyani’s arrest,” the report said, “has rattled the Indian Diplomatic Corps.

“It is forcing the government to hit back at the U.S. According to Indian diplomats serving in the Western countries, paying lesser than what is actually on official papers is a common practice among the Indian diplomats. They claim that the salary fixed by the U.S. government is too high for the Indian diplomats.”

Indian diplomats say they cannot afford to pay $4,500 a month for domestic help. They say they, themselves, make just a little bit more than that a month.

What? Really?

In that case, diplomats should not be hiring live-in help.

They certainly cannot expect to treat domestic workers like they are often treated in India — underpaid and sometimes abused in other ways.

The row that has erupted over Khobragade’s arrest and strip search has turned into a Cold War-style standoff between two countries that have enjoyed warm relations in the past few years.

Many of my Indian friends are upset the United States that Khobragade was strip-searched. How dare America treat a diplomat like that? America would not stand for it if one of their own was treated this way. I see their point.

But my guess is that some Indian politicians may be taking a staunchly nationalist stance ahead of critical elections to drum up support for themselves. It pays for them to take a tough position against the United States.

Khobragade, meanwhile, has been transferred to the United Nations mission and can apply for diplomatic immunity. That’s not right if indeed she is guilty of a crime. She, like any other Indian in this country, should be held accountable if she broke the law.

It all seems very stressful as I prepare for an upcoming trip to India. I am stuck watching a political match between my homeland and the nation I now call home. Not good.

Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.

Bhopal’s forgotten tragedy

Bhopal_GasTragedy050This tragedy has been forgotten by most people. It shouldn’t be.

It was 29 years ago on this night that tank 610 exploded at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. A milky fog that spread silently across the sleeping India city, spreading toxic gas in the densely populated slums nearby.

Within minutes, people poured into the narrow lanes and alleys. They grasped their throats as they gasped for air. Their eyes, mouths and bellies were on fire. They vomited blood and frothed at the mouth.

At first, some people thought the chaos was political — India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated weeks before and there had been rioting in the streets. But they learned soon enough that at five minutes past midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas had enveloped their city.

In areas near the plant, it was impossible to walk without treading on the dead.

Bhopal native Nadeem Uddin told me many years ago that he saw tents — colorful ones used in weddings — at a government hospital. They were filled with the dead. “I can’t explain to you how I felt,” he said.

Union Carbide said 3,800 people died that night. The Indian government said 12,000 people were killed. Health workers in Bhopal estimated at least 20,000 people have died from MIC-related diseases like lung cancer and tuberculosis. Another half a million people suffered illness or gave birth to deformed babies.

The legal wrangling goes on, even after 29 years as survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster are fighting for financial compensation for their suffering.

In 1989, the Indian government agreed to a $470 million out-of-court settlement. In 2010, the survivors filed a petition with the Supreme Court demanding the case be reopened. They say the numbers of victims were underestimated.

Besides the compensation, a criminal case against Union Carbide in a Bhopal court and a class-action lawsuit in a New York district court are ongoing.

Bhopal’s mission continues to hold Union Carbide and its parent company, Dow Chemical, accountable. Some Indians have called the gas tragedy a holocaust.

Amnesty International, the global human rights organization, said this about Dow in July:

“The company has been ordered to explain why its wholly-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has repeatedly ignored court summons in the ongoing criminal case concerning the 1984 Bhopal disaster, where UCC is accused of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

“Dow has always tried to claim it has nothing to do with UCC’s liability for Bhopal, but the court has today made it clear that Dow itself has a responsibility to ensure that UCC faces the outstanding charges against it. Dow can no longer turn its back on the tens of thousands still suffering in Bhopal.

“Almost three decades after the Bhopal disaster, victims and their families have yet to receive adequate compensation from UCC or the Indian government.”

Amnesty’s research shows that about 100,000 people continue to suffer from health problems. That’s today, almost three decades after tank 610 exploded.

A friend of mine in India said Bhopal was the most callous manifestation of corporate insensitivity. Had the victims not been poor Indians, Dow and Union Carbide would have been held more accountable. Look at what happened with BP on the Gulf Coast, my friend said. “How is it that no one was made to answer for Bhopal?”

How is it, indeed?

First-person fire

In my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written a lot about victims. Many sorts of victims. Of war. Murder. Illness. Natural disasters. And man-made ones.

I always try to be sensitive and to highlight the incredible resiliency of human beings.

I was lucky enough to have won a Dart-Ochberg Fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I learned many things during that fellowship; how to improve my own reportage about people who have suffered.

All that really hit home last week when CNN published a story I reported from India about a woman who was raped four decades ago. You can read the story here: The Girl Whose Rape Changed a Country.

In the story, I revealed that I, too, had been raped when I was 18. I broke a 33-year silence. I wrote about some of the reaction to the story and how it made me feel in a follow-up. I was reporter and victim all at once.

I so appreciate the outpouring of support from women from around the world. It’s been a very difficult few days, reliving a memory from my past — one that I had put away in one corner of my mind. I tried to forget. But you can never really forget. The good thing is that it is possible to move on.

This post is to thank those who reached out to me. And for my dearest friends who took the time to make sure I was doing OK. Thank you.

I’m moving on to the next story. But I will not be afraid anymore to write about rape.