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.

Moment of desi pride at the Oscars

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Lost in the diversity controversy at the Oscars Sunday night was this: The only woman of color who won was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Who? That’s the problem. Very few people in America know who she is. But they ought to.

Obaid-Chinoy, 37, has two Academy Awards to her name; her latest was in the best documentary short category  for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a haunting  portrayal of honor killings in Obaid-Chinoy’s ancestral Pakistan.

The film tells the story of Saba, 19, who is beaten, shot and tossed into a river because she eloped with a man her family rejected. Saba is a rare survivor of honor violence and Obaid-Chinoy’s film explores in the bleakest way the physical and emotional pain that so many women in that part of the world suffer.

“She wanted her story told,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a CBCinterview. “The impact of her story is tremendous, because it is going to change lives, and it’s going to save lives, and there can be no greater reward than that.”

Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist turned documentarian, has focused her life’s work on social justice and feels compelled to expose wrongdoing in her homeland. Because, she says, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“A Girl in the River” prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pledge that he would change a barbaric law that lets perpetrators of honor crimes go unprosecuted.

“”This is what happens when determined women get together,”  she said with her golden statue in hand. “This week, the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”

Obaid-Chinoy dedicated her accolade to Saba and to all the women who helped her make the film and also to the men who champion women.

Obaid-Chinoy’s acceptance speech was the most powerful Sunday night, though, ironically, it got drowned by the noise of diversity jokes and the buzz over Leo.

But she was the real stuff. Here was a brown Muslim woman totally rockin’ it. She hails from a part of the world where the most barbaric practices against women still exist, and that made Obaid-Chinoy’s win even more worthwhile.

Go, Sharmeen, I yelled in front of the TV. You make desi women proud.

Check out her work here: http://sharmeenobaidfilms.com/

War hero, Indian and Jewish

jacob759

He was known in my native India as the hero of the Bangladesh war.

In Israel, he was known as the highest-ranking Jew in the Indian Army.

Lieutenant General Farj Rafael Jacob died Wednesday morning. He was 92.

Jacob said in interviews that he was drawn to the then-British Indian Army in 1942 because of the massacre of Jews in the Holocaust. He fought on several fronts in World War II and went on to a storied military career. In 1971, he negotiated Pakistan’s surrender in the war that led to the independence of Bangladesh.

Notable Indians paid their tributes on social media after learning of Jacob’s passing:

I read in Indian newspapers that Jacob died at the Army Hospital in Delhi. He had no family in India anymore. That made me think about two things: that few people know about Jewish contributions to India and even fewer probably know that the Jewish community in India has sadly, for a variety of reasons, shriveled up.

Jacob’s family came to India from Iraq and he was born in my hometown of Kolkata, where there was once a thriving Jewish community. Now there are only 30 or so Jews left in a city of millions.

Here is a link to a story I reported  in 2010. I felt sad writing it because the city that I love so much was poorer for the loss of the Jewish community. In writing it, I realized that a big part of Kolkata’s history was vanishing.  Jacob’s death was another stark reminder.

Go to the story here: Twilight comes for India’s fading Jewish community

The saint

mother_teresa-smaller.14704.articlefull.0Pope Francis announced that Mother Teresa is becoming a saint. She will be canonized next fall.

The pontiff attributed the miraculous healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors, which means the Albanian-born nun can now ascend to the most vaulted status in the Catholic church.

But for me, and millions in my hometown of Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s true miracles were on the streets of that city. She didn’t just save the life of a terminally ill Brazilian man; she saved the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa gave everything to make something of people who had nowhere to go. People who had no hope.

I saw this firsthand when I volunteered at an institution run by the Missionaries of Charity. Their main chapel was just down the street from my parents’ home in central Kolkata. I met Mother Teresa many years ago, before she was a Nobel laureate, before the world knew much about her.

She has been criticized in India from various corners. Some thought she was pushing a Catholic agenda in a mostly Hindu city. Others said she gained fame because she was a foreigner. I don’t pretend to know every truth about her. But I will say this: I know she helped care for desperate people who otherwise would have gone without help. I don’t know of anyone else who gave so tirelessly to the poor.

That makes her a saint in my book.

Dear Naren

I first began speaking with K.S. Narendran right after the disappearance of MH Flight 370 in March 2014. His wife, Chandrika, was on that doomed jet.

We spoke by phone, Skype an email — conversations that resulted in several stories on CNN. I finally had the chance to meet him yesterday in Bangalore. I felt honored he made time for me.

I felt some apprehension about the meeting. I was not sure how much he still wanted to talk about the tragedy that befell him; how much he wanted to just move on.

But the meeting was easy. Even though I had never seen him before, at times, it felt that I had known him for a while. After all, he had shared with me some of the most personal parts of his life, the kind of things you share only with family and those closest to your heart.

In the end, we met not as journalist and subject of story but as friends, really — and with the hope that our friendship will continue.

Here are the stories:

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/20/world/flight-370-family-missing-india/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/14/world/asia/malaysia-airlines-families-narendran/

http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/01/world/mh370-conversations-with-missing-wife/

 

 

Diwali, Lakshmi and good winning over evil

The return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya. (From Ramayana online).

The return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya. (From Ramayana online).

Today we mark a day of solemnity, remembering all those who fought for our country. I salute you on Veterans Day, especially those of you I came to know well in Iraq. I think of you often, not just on days reserved to honor you.

Today is also a day of joy. It’s the festival of lights. Happy Diwali, everyone!

Hindus and Jains mark the day by decorating their homes and streets with rows and rows of diyas, or oil lamps. Well, these days, many folks use more convenient candles or electrical lamps.

Light is such an important metaphor in so many religions. It is the presence of a higher being. Hindus see light also as a metaphor for self-awareness and self-improvement.

The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit Deepawali — a row of lights. The festival celebrates a triumph of good over evil.

The story stems from the Hindu epic, “Ramayana,” in which Prince Rama returns to the kingdom of Ayodhya from 14 long years of exile with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakhsmana. Rama comes back a hero after defeating the nasty Ravana, the 10-headed king of the demons.

Rama becomes king and Ayodhya prospers in peace.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi

This was my favorite story of all from the Hindu epics, partly because I was born on Lakshmi puja, the day when Hindus pray to the goddess of prosperity. Sita is an avatar of Lakshmi, just as Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, the preserver.

The story of the  good Sita ends with a dramatic account of the ground splitting apart and Sita enters Earth’s womb. It’s a rescue for her from the cruel world that challenged her purity.

My pishi (aunt) read me stories from the Ramayana when I was a little girl. On Thursdays, I sat with her and my great-aunt in a mezzanine level room that housed the altars to the gods. The two women chanted mantras in Sanskrit in worship of Lakshmi while I gazed on the idols and detailed photos of the gods and goddesses, especially Lakshmi.

I think of those days every year on Diwali. I am so far from home and feel so connected at times through my memories. I don’t have diyas at my home but tonight I will light a candle and think of all the times I have borne witness to goodness winning over evil, something I don’t do often enough.

 

Three executions

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The United States has scheduled three executions this week” Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia, Richard Glossip in Oklahoma and Alfredo Prieto in Virginia.

Gissendaner’s children are pleading for her life. They and others who know her say she epitomizes the prison system in that she has transformed herself behind bars. Gissendaner earned a degree in theology and ministers to fellow inmates. She is deeply remorseful for arranging the murder of her husband, Doug, in 1997. She doesn’t want freedom — she says she deserves a life in prison.

As I write this, a parole and pardons board in Georgia is meeting to reconsider an earlier decision to deny clemency.

Read my stories about Gissendaner here:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/27/us/georgia-sets-execution/

http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/21/us/death-row-inmate-theology/

I spoke with Glossip in Oklahoma last January, days before an execution date was set back then. He has always maintained his innocence and told me he was afraid the state would botch his execution like they had Clayton Lockett’s. Read the story here:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/15/us/oklahoma-resumes-executions/

Prieto  is a Salvadoran national who is lawyers say has an intellectual disability that would render his execution unconstitutional. You can read more about him here: http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/uaa19815.pdf

Here is the link to the Death Penalty Center:

http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

Here is a pro-death penalty forum:

http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/

The United States is the only Western democracy that still has capital punishment. What do you think? Should we still have executions in this country?