Thursday, April 23, 2009

Despite Overtures, Thaw in U.S.-Cuban Relations May Still Be a Long Way Off

Nearly Five-Decade-Old U.S. Trade Embargo Against the Communist-Ruled Island Remains the Major Sticking Point; Obama in No Hurry to End it Right Away

US, Cuba advance dizzying thaw in relations

After almost 50 years, one of the last surviving remnants of the Cold War -- the U.S.-Cuban relationship -- may finally be coming to an end. But don't expect a rapid thaw in relations between Washington and Havana any time soon. Although President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, have been sending conciliatory messages in recent days -- and Obama has loosened restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to their relatives on the communist-ruled island -- the president has indicated that he's in no hurry to end the decades-old trade embargo, at least for now. (Image courtesy WHDH-TV, Boston)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, April 23, 2009)


Inter-Press Service

Despite a growing sense of anticipation coming out of the Trinidad Summit of the Americas last weekend regarding the possibility of a historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations, specialists remain uncertain about how and even if that breakthrough will be achieved.

The uncertainty revolves around the question of whether the Obama administration is prepared to take further unilateral steps to ease the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo and normalize diplomatic relations -- or whether it will first insist that Havana reciprocate in some way for those moves it announced just before the summit.

"The Cuban leadership is fundamentally ambivalent about engaging with the United States, so they're not prepared to make concessions to support greater normalization," according to Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), an influential think tank here.

"And so far it seems like the Obama administration is still wedded to the idea that the U.S. should take incremental steps and wait for positive responses from the Cuban government," Erikson said.

"So there's still this essential deadlock about how far the U.S. is willing to go without a response by the Cubans," added Erikson, author of a 2008 history of modern U.S. Cuba relations entitled The Cuba Wars.


Most analysts here believe that the domestic U.S. debate over Cuba policy has shifted decisively in favor of those forces who have argued that Washington's nearly 50-year effort to isolate the Caribbean island has utterly failed to bring about the changes that it was designed to achieve.

The strength of the new consensus has been made evident not only by the plethora of reports published by the country's most influential foreign policy think tanks, including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, over the past year, calling on Washington lift the trade embargo, if for no other reason, than to improve ties with other Latin American and Caribbean countries.

But it has also been demonstrated by calls by senior Republicans, notably the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, for normalization of ties with Havana, and by a series of recent polls of Cuban Americans -- historically those citizens who have been most strongly opposed to normalization -- that show a sharp shift in sentiment in favor of engagement.

Indeed, in a December poll of Cuban Americans in Florida's Miami-Dade County -- the traditional bastion of fierce anti-Castro sentiment -- three out of four respondents said they felt the embargo had not worked well or at all, and an even higher percentage said they favored direct talks between Washington and Havana on issues of bilateral concern.

Another survey of Cuban Americans nationwide released Monday by the same polling firm, Bendixen & Associates, found that two out of three respondents believed that all U.S. citizens should be permitted to travel to Cuba and an even split between those who favored lifting the embargo altogether and those who believed it should continue.


Evidence of changed opinion -- and indeed growing anticipation of real change -- regarding U.S.-Cuban relations was also on display here Wednesday at the Washington release of a new Brookings report by a 19-member task force that included a broad range of Cuban Americans that called for a "policy of critical and constructive engagement" with Havana.

Indeed, the co-chair of the task force, Brookings vice president Carlos Pascual, a Cuban American who is considered all but certain to become Obama's ambassador to Mexico, said the latest survey results marked a "sea change" in the Cuban community's views and one of which the Obama administration should take advantage.

"Our people are looking to this new administration with the greatest expectation," declared Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, a veteran of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the lobby group that led the drive to tighten the embargo against Cuba during the 1990s in hopes of bringing down the Communist government after the collapse of its most important financial supporter, the Soviet Union.

While his group has not yet endorsed ending the embargo altogether, it called two weeks ago for lifting curbs on cultural and other exchanges, and resuming regular bilateral meetings on migration and other issues, among other measures to increase U.S. engagement and assistance to Cuba.


Despite the broad consensus that the embargo has been a failure, however, Obama has thus far proceeded cautiously; indeed, more cautiously than many of his supporters and advisers had expected.

On the eve of the summit, he fulfilled his campaign promise to lift restrictions on the rights of Cuban Americans to travel to the island and to send money to their relatives there. He also announced that he would lift curbs on U.S. telecommunications companies to provide services to their Cuban counterparts.

At the summit itself, Obama declared he sought "a new beginning with Cuba," adding that he was also "prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues."

What remained unclear, however, was whether those further steps -- and how many of them -- Obama was prepared to take if Cuba failed to respond positively. Indeed, "senior administration officials" who briefed reporters at the summit appeared somewhat uncertain themselves, asserting, on the one hand, that "the ball was in Cuba's court," and, on the other, that Washington would likely take further unilateral measures regardless of Havana's response.


Most analysts believe that if Obama insists on some reciprocity, the process will almost certainly stall. "If the administration says, 'it's now the Cubans' turn, and they have to end the tax on remittances or free political prisoners', that will be a non-starter," according to Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

"The Cubans have made pretty clear they won't respond to humanitarian gestures alone, and that's basically all that Obama has done so far -- that and give a nice speech," Thale said.

"The Cuban position is that the embargo is the U.S.'s problem, and if the U.S. wants to lift the embargo, it should do it, but shouldn't look to the Cubans to make concessions to make that happen," Erikson told IPS.

How Havana responds to the telecommunications offer may also be very important, according to William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University who participated in the Brookings task force. "If they don't [respond], if they say 'we don't want anything to do with that,' it will make it harder for Obama to do more because it suggests that the Cubans are not interested in being cooperative," he told IPS.

At the same time, all three experts said they believe the administration will likely repeal curbs imposed by former President George W. Bush on cultural, educational and other citizen travel to Cuba and press ahead on the diplomatic front, notably in seeking resumption of bilateral talks on migration and on other issues cited by Obama in his Trinidad speech.

In remarks welcomed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just before the summit, Cuban President Raul Castro said Havana was prepared to engage diplomatically on any of those issues -- although his brother, former President Fidel Castro, subsequently stressed in a commentary in the Communist Party newspaper Granma that that offer had been "misunderstood."

In its report, the Brookings task force called for Obama to press ahead on normalization through a series of short-term, medium-term, and long-term initiatives culminating in full diplomatic relations, including an accord on the restoration of Cuban sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay, regardless of Havana's response.

"If the Cuban response is not encouraging, (the administration) might carry out only a few of the suggested initiatives or lengthen the time frame," according to the report. "However, it is important that [it] continue to move toward a full normalization of relations, because doing so would most effectively create conditions for a democratic evolution in Cuba."

# # #

Volume IV, Number 32
Special Report Copyright 2009, Inter-Press Service LLC.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, April 20, 2009

WTF? It Was One F-Bomb Too Many for Head of No. 1 Mixed Martial Arts Circuit

UFC President Dana White Is Well Known for Dropping the Four-Letter F-Bomb on His Own 'Ultimate Fighter' TV Show -- Bleeped Out, Of Course -- But It's the Six-Letter, Anti-Gay F-Bomb That Got Him in Trouble

Dana White is a familiar figure to viewers of Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show. The president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest and best-known circuit in mixed martial arts, is well known for pulling no verbal punches on his show -- including some well-placed F-bombs and other profanities that routinely get bleeped out by Spike TV censors. But last week, White suddenly found himself in the eye of a media hurricane over his use of the other F-bomb: The six-letter version that is as offensive to gays as the N-bomb is to blacks. White quickly apologized for using the slur, but is nonetheless angry at the media's attention to it. (Photo Courtesy Spike TV)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, April 20, 2009)


The Canadian Press

No stranger to dropping the four-letter F-bomb, Ulitmate Fighting Championship president Dana White is still smarting over his use of the other F-bomb -- the six-letter anti-gay version -- in a recent video blog.

He’s sorry he used the slur -- and says he now knows better -- but he’s not about to fade into the background. White is steamed at the way the story was covered. “In the United States, every single media outlet picked that thing up and carried it -- people that won’t even cover us,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview Saturday ahead of a UFC pay-per-view event in Montreal.

“All these major media companies that pulled this blurb and threw it up everywhere, they weren’t looking out for gay people . . . They weren’t offended by it. It’s a cool quote to throw out there, get some attention, get some hits on the Web site, get some people buzzing and watching it. They could care less,” he added.

“I went directly to the people that I offended. And the reality is I have gay friends, I have gay people that I respect, that I work with and do things with. And I reached out to them and the people who could be offended by what I said, and I apologized and I told my side of the story.”

[The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) confirmed that it had been in contact with White. The anti-defamation group had called on the UFC president to issue a public apology.]

As to the rest of the media? White uses the four-letter F-bomb to describe what they can do to themselves. “Because it has nothing to do with them. They used me, that’s the way I look at it.”


White, 39, is the face of the UFC, a colorful advocate of mixed martial arts who swears like a drunken sailor and has no internal self-edit button (Although Spike TV, the U.S. cable network that carries "The Ultimate Fighter," routinely bleeps out his profanities).

It’s part of White's appeal. Fans like his no-bull approach, because he doesn’t try to snow them and because he is as passionate as they are about mixed martial arts.

And reporters love a subject who speaks his mind.

He says exactly what he thinks on just about any topic -- which can be ill-advised at the best of times, let alone for a celebrity who walks around with a camera in his face for blogging purposes.


For those who missed the story, an irate White unloaded earlier this month in his video blog on longtime MMA journalist Loretta Hunt, who writes for, a news-oriented Web site that specializes in covering the mixed martial arts scene.

Hunt’s story -- which she stands by -- said the UFC's parent company, Zuffa, LLC, was trying to prevent managers and agents from being with fighters backstage, and that some managers believed the move was part of a larger attempt to wedge them out of business and deal directly with fighters.

White calls the story "a crock" and dropped the four-letter F-bomb 34 times to make his point in the three-minute video rant against the reporter -- including once in tandem with the six-letter anti-gay slur, which he used generically to reference an unidentified source in the story.

[White was quoted on GLAAD's Web site as saying: “And here’s a quote from a guy who wanted to remain anonymous because of fear of repercussions. Shut the [bleep] up. Any [bleep]ing guy who won’t put his name on it. First of all, whoever gave you that quote is a pussy and a [bleep]ing faggot and a [bleep]ing liar and everything else.”


“Not the F-word I usually use but the other F-word,” he admitted wistfully.

“I grew up saying that word, joking around with your friends. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not the type of guy that would ever hurt anybody because they’re different, no matter whether it’s their sex, race, religion or whatever it is. It’s not me, it’s not what I’m like. I don’t do that.

“Do I swear a lot? Damn right I do. When I said that word, it wasn’t directed toward anybody gay, or anybody’s sexual orientation. It’s not what it was used for. I definitely pulled the wrong swear word out of the swear toolbox.”

White apologized for the use of the gay slur in a subsequent video, and talked to both GLAAD and the national gay magazine The Advocate.

He did not apologize, however, for slagging Hunt.


Take away the anti-gay slur, and the blog in question is still uncomfortable to watch. It is spiteful and nasty -- a long way from the original intention of the video blogs, an attempt to keep White connected to the fans.

And many times, they were amusing, albeit sometimes in a childish way. White’s travels, usually with another UFC exec or billionaire co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta -- backstage, in an SUV or private jet -- were kind of a Richie Rich version of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

There was a giggling White buying Fertitta skimpy workout gear. Or grumpily feeling the effects of a bad burger. Or gleefully pointing out to the camera that Fertitta was the one hung over that morning.

Video blogs that showed White and his fighters playing dueling “Guitar Hero” on his iPhone in the back of their SUV were entertaining. And footage of White, a father of three, playing Pac-Man with his young daughter was downright cute.

But there’s bad with the good of being able to record and share. One moment of pique, with a camera too close nearby, has had consequences -- especially for a sport looking to win over mainstream support.


White admits the story “set me off and it made me mad.” So he fired back, for everyone to see.

“Back in 1987, if the media wrote something about you, you were screwed,” he said. “You had no voice, you couldn’t say anything back. Well now with the Internet, you can. You can come back. Yeah, did I go a little over the top? Absolutely, but that’s me. I am over the top and I was so pissed off about it. . .”

Some thought he also went too far in a blog last year, when he seemed to delight in the demise of a rival MMA organization. He takes things very personally.

“There’s another story that I read yesterday in a fight magazine, on my way here, that is such a crock of [bleep], it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I read this stuff and it’s like these guys make this stuff up. But I’ve got to stop getting so fired up about the small stuff like that.”

He admits it’s hard advice to follow.

“It is. Because we work hard. Man, we work hard at building this sport. We work hard at having great relationships with the fighters. To see people write B.S., it’s crazy.”

White has his detractors, but also many supporters. While the UFC can be cutthroat and cheap to fledgling fighters, managers talk about how it will look after fighters down on their luck or in need of help. Big bonus cheques are awarded backstage, away from the prying eyes of the media.

Reward the UFC and the UFC will reward you right back.

The blog brouhaha came just weeks after the Armed Forces Foundation honored White and the UFC in Washington, D.C., with the Sheldon Adelson Patriot Award for humanitarianism in industry for “raising money and awareness for research and development in the field of traumatic brain injury” in their support of U.S. troops.

White may run a billion-dollar business, but he will stand and talk MMA with journalists until there are no more questions, even while security and aides fidget. And he will do the same with fans.

In person, he is hard to dislike. But his obvious passion can be a double-edged sword.

“I’m still on the fence with the whole blog thing,” he said. “I have a blog right now that we shot Monday and now we’re all sitting around wondering if this is too controversial.”

“I’m me, I’m who I am. That’s not going to change, you know. Maybe who I am is too much, too much for the real world,” he added with a chuckle. “But I’m not going to deal with all the B.S.

“I have enough things to do every day without dealing with people twisting what I said. To deal with what I dealt with last week, it takes a whole week off my plate when I should have been dealing with other stuff -- stuff that matters, real work.”

# # #

Volume IV, Number 31
Special Report Copyright 2009, The Canadian Press, Ltd.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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