How Jimmy Carter paved the way for Obama in Cuba

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 1.47.11 PMPresident Barack Obama made history on his arrival in Havana on Sunday. “The first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928,” said all the news stories.

Yes, Obama is the first sitting president to land on Cuban soil since Coolidge. But let’s not forget Jimmy Carter’s equally momentous trip to the island nation in 2002.

Carter went as a private citizen, of course. But he made great strides in opening the door to better relations between the world’s superpower and one of the world’s few remaining communist countries. That visit contributed to making  Obama’s olive branch possible.

Carter met with Cuban leaders as well as political dissidents. He went to a baseball game with Fidel and delivered a speech broadcast on Cuban national television. Obama’s agenda is very similar.

I was lucky enough to go to Cuba to cover Carter’s journey to Cuba for Cox Newspapers.  It’s hard to believe that was 14 years ago. It’s also hard to find the stories I wrote online. So here is a snippet of one of the first ones that published after reporter Mike Williams, photographer David Tulis and I had melted waiting on a hot Havana tarmac for the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, to land. It’s excerpted from the wire story sent out by Cox:

It was a day of rarities in Havana.

The Star Spangled Banner, heard only at a few sporting events, roared through a loudspeaker. Old Glory fluttered in the balmy breeze. And the historic Cuban capital opened its doors for an equally historic visit.

With the landing of his private jet on Sunday morning, Jimmy Carter became the first former or serving United States president to touch Cuban soil since the 1959 revolution that hurled Fidel Castro to power.

The 75-year-old Cuban president shed his usual military fatigues for a dark, double-breasted suit and black leather sports shoes to personally welcome Mr Carter and a seven-member Carter Centre delegation to the Cuban capital.

Mr Carter, 77, who is in Cuba on what he emphasises is a private visit, flashed his signature smile and shook Dr Castro’s hand shortly after his jet, donated by an Atlanta businessman, touched down at 10.45am.

The mood was almost as warm as the weather as Mr Carter began an unprecedented six-day mission to overcome four decades of enmity between the US and the communist island.

Mr Carter said he was delighted to be back in Cuba, where he and his wife had holidayed shortly before the revolution.

Dr Castro expressed his respect for Mr Carter, and has ensured him free access to the country’s institutions and people.

A meeting is planned on Thursday between Mr Carter and Cuba’s religious and human rights leaders, who are seeking to reform the country’s authoritarian one-party system.

Mr Carter, a global peacemaker and champion of human rights, acknowledged disagreement with some of Dr Castro’s policies but said he looked forward to the opportunity to see Cuba at first hand. Dr Castro specifically invited Mr Carter, a nuclear physicist, to tour Cuba’s scientific development and research centres, which the US, just days ago, accused of making biological weapons.

The two men walked down a dusty red carpet laid out on the tarmac and onto a podium where the Cuban and US flags flew side by side. Mr Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, flanked Dr Castro at the podium and placed their right hands over their hearts during the Star Spangled Banner.

As night fell, Dr Castro met Mr Carter again for a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution. He awaited his guests, who pulled up in a black Mercedes-Benz, at the top of three sets of marble stairs covered with red carpet. The pair were to dine again on Monday night.

Earlier in the afternoon the Carters emerged into the heat for a walking tour of Old Havana, a district rich in architecture and dotted with picturesque plazas.

Dressed in white Reeboks, white trousers and a white shirt that seemed a modern version of a guayabera, a traditional pleated men’s shirt popular in Cuba, Mr Carter strolled the streets hand in hand with Mrs Carter.

The Carters began their tour at the Cathedral of Havana, restored in the past decade and now a popular Sunday destination for Cuban Catholics. Cuban authorities suppressed organised religion for decades after the revolution, but since the Pope visited the island in 1996 religious activity has been allowed.

Along the route of the walking tour, Cuban families crowded iron-railed balconies to catch a glimpse of the former president, many drawing waves and smiles from the Carters.

Advertisements

It’s about the women, stupid!

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 9.46.26 AM

Women will be key in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. I joined colleagues Ann O’Neill and Jessica Ravitz in reporting what women want from three battleground states. Check it out on CNN here: http://cnn.it/1oat8DM

No longer one

India now has a 29th state. Telangana.

It was six decades in the making, the fruit of a strong separatist movement that argued neglect by successive governments and finally succeeded in breaking off a chunk of land from Andhra Pradesh. The man who once went on a hunger strike in defense of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao, became its first chief minister Monday.

The celebrations began Sunday night. Hyderabad, which will now serve as capital for both states, was awash in pink, the color of Rao’s party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the newest state in the republic.

Amid the joy, however, there was reason for pause, especially among the citizens of Andhra who were against the carving up of their state. For economic reasons. For political reasons.

Proponents of Telangana argued that holding together different peoples under linguistic lines was silly; that it was better to have a more culturally cohesive state. Others pulled out proof that small states can prosper in India. The cited Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh as examples.

It’s a good thing the two states will share Hyderabad, a city that was at the forefront of India’s high-tech boom and houses corporate giants like Infosys. I visited there in 2000 and remember being so impressed with the efficiency and cleanliness there compared to my hometown, Kolkata. Without Hyderabad, I worry Telangana might flounder.

I am always wary when states are split because I fear that it might lead to a deeper division of people. We certainly don’t need to add to that problem in India.

But now the deed is done. I hope for Andhra and its sister Telangana to both prosper. Only time will reveal if this was the right decision.

India’s day of reckoning

photoBy Friday afternoon, everything should become clear.

Who did more than 500 million voters choose to lead India? India’s day of reckoning is here. Election results will be announced soon.

All week, there has been so much speculation and interpretation of exit polls that my head is spinning. By all guesses, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party will become the next prime minister of my homeland.

Modi is known as a Hindu nationalist. He is controversial, polarizing. Under his watch, Gujarat suffered Hindu-Muslim carnage. But he also inspired voters who are fed up with the same old corruption and drudgery of government. For them, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Congress stopped delivering, despite being the party of independence and freedom.

People in India are hungry for change. They grew disappointed after India failed to launch, as it were. How many people predicted India would be the next Asian tiger? But the growth slowed and India is still a poor nation that lags far behind rival China.

Today, I received my Overseas Citizenship of India certificate. With OCI status. I am entitled to most of the rights and privileges I once had as a citizen of India, except I can’t vote. I wished that I had been able to in this landmark Indian election.

I cannot say who I supported — I am a journalist, after all. But I can say this: I hope, for the sake of my homeland, someone steps in and cleans up government. I am done paying bribes and drowning in bureaucracy and dealing with inefficiency.

I am done waiting for India to arrive.

Read my India stories on CNN.com:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/world/india-hotel-death/index.html

http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2013/11/world/india-rape/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/26/world/asia/india-rogue-tiger/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/22/health/india-end-of-polio/

 

Looking like change in India

india-voter
Voters in India get their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot.

Today was the last day of polling in India’s mammoth parliamentary elections. Five weeks of voting; Nine polling days; 814 million eligible voters; 543 Lok Sabha (lower House) seats.

From all the exit polling I’ve seen, it looks like the worst loss ever for the Indian National Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that for so many years led an independent India.

But people are fed up with corruption and inefficiency. The polls show a huge victory in the making for Narendra Modi, a self-avowed Hindu nationalist.

Modi has been a controversial and polarizing figure in India. Hindu-Muslim violence under his watch in 2002 earned him the nickname, “The butcher of Gujarat.”

But Modi’s Bharaitya Janata Party is known as entrepreneurial and business-friendly. That’s why a lot of people I know in India voted for Modi in the election, the largest ever in the history of mankind.

Exit polls have been proven grossly wrong in the past in India. But still, it’s not looking good for Congress. I think there are big changes looming in my homeland.

Read my story on Varanasi, a city that was the epicenter of the election on CNN.com.

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.

Obama’s big night

I was thinking about the words of Joe Senato, who eight years ago at this time was an undecided voter from Berkley, Massachusetts.
After hearing the keynote speech delivered by a guy who was the odds-on favorite to win a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, Senato was impressed.
“He is a prolific speaker,” Senato said. “But more importantly, he wasn’t like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. He wasn’t divisive. If he doesn’t get a place in a Kerry administration, well, he should.”
Well, there was no Kerry administration, of course.
But Barack Obama did reach the hallowed halls of the Capitol. And then, just four short years later, he was sitting in the Oval office.
Obama has a tough job tonight when he delivers a speech that I think is far more important than the one I heard at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The one that caught the attention of Senato and an entire nation. The one that launched Obama Fever.
This year, so much more is riding on Obama. He’s up for a second term in an election that promises to be close.
One criticism — among many — of Obama is that he has been a president who divided the nation and drove home differences between Americans in terms of class, race, ethnicity. I heard that from a commentator talking about that during the convention this week and it made me think of what Senato had said.
Obama’s message eight years ago was this:
”There’s not a black America and a white Americaand a Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America.”
His fellow Democrats saw a future president.
What will he say tonight that will win back those who lost faith in him?
We’ll have to wait and see.
But Obama’s got another problem after last night. He’s got to top Bill Clinton.
Now, that’s a tall order.

Bobbie and Wallace

Bobbie and Wallace Edwards

Almost eight years ago on an early July morning, I got into my Honda CRV and raced like the wind towards Robbins, North Carolina.
It’s a small town east of Charlotte where John Edwards’ parents, Wallace and Bobbie, lived. I wanted to see firsthand the excitement about their son being named as John Kerry’s running mate.
They were simple folks and lived in a comfortable but modest house — considering that their son was a successful trial lawyer, a U.S. senator and now a vice-presidential candidate.
But despite his own success, John Edwards had always called himself a champion of regular people. He was the son of a mill worker who worked hard to support his family in the Deep South.
It all showed in Bobbie and Wallace.
They were simple, down-to-earth people who were fiercely proud of their son.
Bobbie opened the door for me and when she found out I had driven all the way from Atlanta, she welcomed me in.
They were sitting down to dinner and had the television set tuned to CNN to watch their Johnny. They graciously asked me to join them.
“We weren’t absolutely sure it would be him until this morning,” Bobbie said.
The morning announcement was emotionally overwhelming. After that, they had tried to go about their day as routinely as possible. But, of course, their emotions leaped out of their hearts
“It just doesn’t seem real, ” Wallace told me.
He said that when his son talked about the values instilled in him, he wasn’t just spewing rhetoric.
Last week, I looked a photographs of John Edwards escorting his parents into the federal courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina. The man who’d been hailed once as a populist candidate had fallen so far from grace, accused of conspiring to secretly obtain thousands of dollars from wealthy supporters to hide his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter.
His wife of many years, Elizabeth, lost her battle with cancer and is no longer here to see John Edwards lowest moment before the public.
His daughter, Cate, who has been by his side all along had to leave the courtroom one day last week when a former aide described a moment when Elizabeth found out about the affair in the National Enquirer. She confronted her husband at an airport, ripping open her blouse in front of staff members.
Bobbie and Wallace stand by their son but I can imagine the agony inside being just as strong as was the excitement on that July day in 2004.
John Edwards proved to be more disappointing to me than any other politician, perhaps because I felt so betrayed. I had written countless stories about a man I once perceived as genuine. 
Now, I feel sorry. Not for him but for Bobbie and Wallace, who raised him to be a good man. Even if he is found not guilty, his name is marred forever and his parents will end their lives with that painful knowledge.