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While you were out
Politics and war grab our attention. But Yasser Arafat’s imminent demise, and ongoing troubles in Haiti and Cuba, speak to a dangerous world beyond the headlines.

FOR MONTHS NOW, the attention of most Americans has been focused on the presidential election and the war in Iraq. The election is over, but the war has reached a new level of intensity, with US and Iraqi forces fighting against insurgents in the city of Fallujah. With Americans — and Iraqis — dying, it’s understandable that little else in the way of international news is getting much notice. But this remains in many ways a chaotic and troubling world. Here are three corners of it that warrant more thought than they’ve been getting.

The Middle East. With the corrupt and violent rule of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat coming to an end, there is reason to hope that the seemingly endless conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may give way to negotiations aimed at a peaceful settlement. Arafat, as Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once observed, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. His refusal to reach an agreement over the borders of a Palestinian state during the closing days of the Clinton presidency was a tragedy for which both Israelis and Palestinians have paid in blood.

Sadly, Arafat’s death may lead to more violence before progress is possible. The two most credible Palestinian leaders, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and PLO executive director Mahmoud Abbas, are thought to be relatively moderate. But they will be buffeted by strains within the Palestinian leadership — exacerbated during Arafat’s dying days by his wife, Suha, who has accused Qurei and Abbas of plotting against her husband, and who appears to have the support of more-radical leaders. There is also the danger that terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Arafat’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades will take advantage of the leadership vacuum to advance their own deadly agendas.

In the long run, though, Arafat’s death has to be regarded as an opportunity. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has observed, Arafat devoted far more of his energies to carrying on a murderous, self-defeating struggle against Israel than to the education of his own people — the key to their eventual success in the independent state to which the Israeli government agreed in principle more than a decade ago. The Palestinian dream of independence will never — and should never — come true unless its leaders agree that Israel has an unequivocal right to exist within secure, internationally recognized borders. Arafat’s death will bring the region and the world one step closer to realizing that goal. But under the best of circumstances, it will take enormous efforts on the part of the United States and the surrounding Arab states to nurture this opportunity for peace. Apparently President Bush has already called on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to commit to such an effort. Let’s hope that, this time, Bush is speaking the truth.

Tragedy in Haiti. Good times in Haiti are when the news is merely bad. Bad times are when conditions become unspeakable. Now is one of those moments. Haiti rarely makes headlines. But this poverty-stricken half an island, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is of vital importance to the United States. The American-backed ouster earlier this year of the country’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has not led to greater stability — far from it. According to media accounts, Haiti remains beset by horrific gang warfare and street-fighting between followers and opponents of Aristide.

Worse, Haiti has been severely battered by hurricanes this fall — and Haiti’s not Florida in terms of having a functioning government that can assist people whose lives were upended by the storms. Indeed, according to media accounts, Tropical Storm Jeanne led to floods that killed more than 2000 people, a toll that would be unimaginable in a developed country. A promised United Nations peacekeeping force of 8300 troops has only partly materialized.

Because Haiti is such an appalling place, its more enterprising citizens often emigrate to the United States. Greater Boston, especially, is home to a burgeoning Haitian-American population — more than 100,000, according to some estimates, making it the third-largest Haitian community in the US. What’s happening in their native country is of tremendous interest to Boston’s Haitian-Americans. And their presence is a reminder to the rest of us that Haiti is everyone’s concern.

Crackdown in Cuba. Unbeknownst to all except the handful of Americans who pay close attention to Cuba, that country’s leader, Fidel Castro, began a new crackdown on dissidents earlier this year. Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine offered a rare look into the cost of that crackdown by profiling Claudia Márquez Linares, a 27-year-old independent journalist whose husband, himself a well-known dissident, is in jail. She is now seeking to emigrate to the United States so that she and her young child can begin a new life.

Márquez’s story underlines the absurdity of our decades-old economic embargo against Cuba — an embargo that became more onerous thanks to the Bush administration’s decision to cut off the cultural exchanges that had made it easier for Americans to visit Cuba. By seeking to punish the Castro government, the White House is actually punishing Cuban-American families. Under even more draconian measures recently instituted by the White House, these families are now unable to visit their loved ones more than once every three years. Not only is this a terrible hardship for them, but dissidents such as Márquez are now more isolated than ever. So absurd is the Bush administration’s policy that Americans have even been barred from helping to restore and transform Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home into a museum and library.

Both Republican and Democratic presidents have agreed that the best way to nudge the world’s largest communist country, China, into the light is through trade, tourism, and cultural exchange. That policy has worked. Yet, with respect to Cuba, the opposite approach has been taken, and it’s been a disaster. Now that President Bush no longer has to worry about the politically powerful, conservative Cuban-exile community in Florida (let Jeb say he disagrees), he should take the opportunity to craft a more rational approach for dealing with our nettlesome neighbor. Of course, it would help the process immensely if the now-78-year-old Castro would, at minimum, stop sentencing the few dissidents who dare to speak out against his regime’s repression of human rights to prison terms of 20 years and more.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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