Friday, August 28, 2009

Latin Music is Having a “Dixie Chicks” Moment

"Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Those words by Natalie Maines at the Dixie Chicks’ 2003 London concert created a firestorm within the center of the country music world. The women were blacklisted on radio, their CDs were destroyed, and they became pariahs within Nashville and their own home state of Texas.

A similar situation is brewing within Latin music. Juanes (Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez) is a Colombian multi-platinum selling artist considered by Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential in the World.” His songs have themes of love and peace, from his early 2000 title “Fíjate Bien” which addressed the problem with land mines in his native country – to the most recent album which talks about change and peace globally.

Juanes’s problems began after his announcement this month of a second "Peace Without Borders" concert to be held at Havana's Plaza de la Revolución on September 20, 2009. His first concert was at the Colombian/Venezuelan border. This immediately was met with sharp criticism from the Cuban American anti-Castro establishment, especially in the exile epicenter of South Florida. Protests have been orchestrated where people destroyed copies of his CDs, and Juanes has had round the clock police presence at his Miami home where he lives with his wife and children because of numerous death threats. Critics are calling him a communist and an enabler of the Castro regime. A recent poll by the DC based Cuba Study Group found 47% of Cuban Americans opposed the concert, with just 27% in support.

Miami is the “Nashville” of Latin Music, and many of the powers that be want Juanes to denounce the Castro regime as a condition to getting community support. So far he has resisted making any political statements. The pressure has also spread to artists who have confirmed to perform with Juanes, including Latin music superstars Olga Tanon of Puerto Rico, Spain’s Alejandro Sanz and Dominican Republic’s Juan Luis Guerra. Cuban-Americans artists like singer Willy Chirino and actress María Conchita Alonso have come out to criticize the concert. The Cuban Government doesn’t help matters by not allowing Cuban-American artists to organize their own concerts on the Island.

While the initial backlash against Juanes is similar to the one The Dixie Chick’s experienced, Ms. Maines woes began because of a political statement about a current president while Juanes is simply holding a music concert. His situation is more like Bruce Springsteen’s 1988 concert at the Berlin Wall. Some have attributed that concert as one of the catalysts to the wall coming down. Springsteen’s goal for the event was not to make a statement but to play his music for people who did not have access to it before. According to Juanes, that is also his motivation for playing in Cuba.

There was no backlash against “The Boss” for his Berlin concert, so why are segments of the Cuban-American community so up in arms? One reason may be that hard-liners are struggling against a generational and political shift within South Florida and the rest of the country and are finding themselves on the loosing side of the long debate on US-Cuba relations.

This shift is palpable in the blogosphere and on the streets. Younger generations of Cuban Americans are more willing to discuss engagement with Cuba as a path toward Democracy. There is an understanding that the current isolation and embargo policies haven’t worked. Castro has seen 10 American Presidents during his 50+ year reign.

Additionally, the hard-line exile community has lost influence politically. They supported the Republicans during the 2008 presidential election because they opposed Obama’s engagement policies. Democrats owe little to this special interest group, and are focusing on things like healthcare and immigration which affect more segments of Latinos throughout the country.

This hasn’t stopped the hard-liners from engaging in their version of book burning. The death threats to Juanes are particularly disturbing, especially as it seems antithetical to the general argument that the Castro government shouldn’t be supported because of their treatment of political dissenters.

Despite the initial uproar, there is evidence that the Cuban/Miami “Cold War” is melting. Juanes has gotten support from prominent Miamians, like Latin music crossover pioneer and Cuban American Gloria Estefan. The artist himself talks about the support he’s gotten from fans on his twitter page.

After the concert, we will see how strong the backlash becomes. Will it be on the level of the Dixie Chicks, where sales began to plummet and they had to deal with bans on country radio? To date no major radio station has said they were banning Juanes from their play lists. Perhaps Juanes’ story will read less like “The Chicks” and more like Springsteen’s in the end. Let’s hope so.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Bronx group's battle with the Yankees reminds us about REAL community organizing

In an era where conservative lobby groups can muster dozens of misinformed citizens to disrupt congressional town halls and claim they are engaging in “grass roots” campaigns, we all need a reminder of what real community organizing is about.

Community activism is an important part of American culture. The ability to raise awareness and bring people together to right an injustice, or to have their voices heard by the rich and powerful is a right cherished by few countries. Community organizers provide a vehicle for real change. Unlike the current lobby-supported “astroturf” organizing, most community activists and organizers don’t stand to win millions of dollars, or stop legislation that would hurt an industry paying their salaries. Most are simply trying to give a voice to the voiceless.

One example is a little known non-partisan group made up of various local community groups and activists in the South Bronx, NY, where I grew up. They call themselves the “4DSBx Coalition.” The name sounds complicated (it stands for “For the South Bronx,”), but their mission is simple – to make sure the Yankees organization live up to promises they made while getting community support to build their new stadium in the Bronx.

According to the coalition, the Yankees are on record as having promised to:

  • Award 25% of construction contracts to local Bronx based business for the building of the new stadium and demolition of the old stadium
  • Demolish the old stadium by 2010
  • Construct a new public park to replace the one they took over to build the new stadium by 2010
  • Hire Bronx residents (at least 25%) to work in the construction and in the finished stadium.
  • Contribute $800,000.00 a year to local community organizations from the start date of construction.

Now that the stadium is up, the Coalition states very few of these promises have been kept.

The local political elite has been very quiet, mostly because many of them came out in early support of the stadium, or are tied themselves to Yankee management. The borough is also in a state of flux as the past borough president was called to D.C. by the Obama administration and his replacement was elected in a recent special election which drew less than 35,000 votes.

With a lack of political help, and having to go against a goliath of a corporate organization like the New York Yankees, the coalition has gone to the streets for support. They’ve gotten residents to attend city council meetings and have organized protests in front of Yankee stadium, which has gotten some media attention. They are forcing the Yankees to answer questions and defend their current position. They keep concerned people abreast of the situation via social networking sites likeFacebook and Twitter, and have gotten a modest online following, especially among college students and grads who currently live or come from the area.

To be fair, The Yankees participate in a whole host of community programs and no one is against the players themselves. The Coalition states they are loyal Yankee fans. But whether the Yankees organization will make good on their promises regarding the new stadium is yet to be seen. Under the Coalition, the community is holding the Yankees accountable. They are informed, and perhaps more importantly, they are an example of civil community empowerment. The protests, while small, are organized and professional, the meetings they attend are passionate but respectful, and those who speak for the organization are talking from factual points and concrete proposals for resolution. They have a long way to go, but are headed in the right direction toward real change.

So when we see red-faced zealots screaming at their representatives, or media types giving credence to rumor and speculation intended to muddy the debate, let’s remember that real community organizing is a civilized, noble calling. Often the work is local, and rarely makes the main story of the major news networks. The purpose is ultimately to serve as the last check on power of corporate interests and a weak or compromised political elite. It is not about stopping progress, or spreading lies and misinformation for political gain. We should continue to support legitimate community organizing as an important American tradition, and say no to "astroturfing." Good luck to the 4DSBx Coalition.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hey, Obamanation: WTH R U?? or Why Young People MUST Enter the HealthCare Debate

I'm 33. Wife, Kid, house, and (thank god) job. During the presidential election I was impressed with the level of activity of those my age and of those (just slightly) younger than me. The Obama Nation. A new generation of activists fighting for change. I dug it.

Now President Obama is in the fight of his life over health care reform, and the nay-sayers are drowning out reason. While these detractors seem to come from a very small percentage of American society, they are screaming their red-faced heads off while everyone else is trying to behave - thereby making YouTube and the major news networks, amplify their message. The conservative elite are stoking the fires, and our representatives are starting to doubt their own logic and conviction. The idea that Obama may remove the public option speaks to how the loud minority is having an impact over the majority.

So where are the masses of young folk that powered the Obama machine? Why was my town hall full of scared retirees and nut jobs, and not recent grads and young employees? The few rational comments i heard there came from a young teacher and a nurse. Everyone else sounded like they were reading Glenn Beck's talking points.

This health care issue affects young people too. Recent grads and college kids may be considered "immortals" but they still get sick. Accidents are common, and the cost of treating them is astronomical, especially when doctors engage in "defensive" care, screening for everything under the sun so they won't get sued.

But beyond the obvious, there are many reasons for young people to feel equal ownership of this debate. Unlike our parents, our generations (X, Y, Millennials, etc) are more likely to change jobs and careers multiple times. Because of this economy, we are more likely to experience a lay off or downsizing. Long gone is the time when you could count on staying with a company for 30 years through thick and thin. Most of the time, if you are laid off, you are offered a really expensive individual health care option (COBRA) that most people can't afford, especially if they no longer have a steady paycheck. If you quit, go back to school or move, you don't even get that.

These changes can happen just as young adults are in their most vulnerable positions financially: new marriages, first homes, young children, etc. The idea of health care portability is serious progress from what is currently available to young people starting out.

And let's be direct for a second here. Young people DO need to see doctors. Even if it's just for birth control, or check ups, or to treat carpal tunnel. The ailments may not be the same as our older compatriots, but nevertheless, many young people put themselves in more danger by not going if they think they can't afford the bill.

I know a colleague of mine who was laid off and had a chronic condition despite being in her 20s. I've seen young men get laid off whose wives are pregnant with their first babies.

I know a young mother who stays at a job she absolutely hates simply to have health care while her and her husband run a family business. As entrepreneurs, they are stuck because they can't commit fully to their dreams due to the need of being covered.

I know a freelance cameraman who doesn't qualify for company benefits or any government program, who must pay $45,000.00 for his wife's high risk pregnancy.

Having corporate coverage as the only way young people can get health care is as much an injustice as it is to deny coverage to older folks. but to change this injustice, they must make their voices to be heard.

From a different perspective, having young people enter the debate livens things up a bit. Right now both sides are all doom and gloom, and it's a contest of who can scare the other side into submission. One of the best things about having more young people in the debate is the level of creativity they bring, the energy and the boldness to confront ignorance without being confrontational. Rather than the dangerous gun-totting lunatics who are stealing focus, young people can lighten up the mood while making serious points. Best example I've seen is the gentleman in the picture .

Young people - you helped changed the course of history by electing President Obama. You have the power to also change this debate. Take ownership of your future and get involved.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why This Health Care Debate is So Personal

I am mentally exhausted. I am horrified by what I see on TV and by what I witnessed at my own Town hall meeting - rabid detractors of Health care reform who have been led to believe that covering 47 million people is somehow a threat to the American way of life.

To start, the information they have is just wrong. The "death panels," the "forced single payer" the "taxpayer money going to illegals," the "secret plot for socialism" are all farcical falsehoods introduced to muddy the debate so that our elected officials waiver in making perhaps the most meaningful civil rights advancement since the 14th amendment.

Reform of the health care system was a priority for me when deciding who to support in the US primaries, and during the national presidential elections. I supported Hillary not only for her "more realistic" view of Washington (sorry to say I told you so, Barack) but also because of her work on Universal Health care. When Obama won and I understood that he too would work toward closing the coverage gap, I supported his campaign as well.

This is a very personal issue for me because my mother, who is now 57 yrs old, doesn't have health care. She is too young for Medicare, and does not qualify for social programs like medicaid because she is self employed. She runs her own business caring for children of working parents, airmen, soldiers, and reservists stationed at the nearby bases in Homestead FL.

Her business is home based, and while it provides enough money to pay the bills, her clients are mostly low income, so she charges low fees despite providing high quality services and having excellent qualifications. The revenue from her business is not consistent, especially as parents lose their jobs, travel for vacation, move, or have other life changes. When she closes or goes on vacation or gets sick, she doesn't get paid. This is her passion, but in terms of money, very little is left over to pay the ever increasing price of private insurance for a single person.

While I am employed and have insurance, I cannot help her because A - I live in another state, B - I cannot claim her as a dependent since she files taxes herself and C - My insurance company doesn't cover parents. I also work for a start up company, which, while we are doing OK in this economy, means there is a very real risk of losing my insurance myself. We also struggle with our own costs of mortgage, childcare, insurance, etc.

My mother is a cancer survivor, and has arthritis. She requires regular screenings, and at times, pain medication. She must go into debt every time she needs to get a checkup. Should she need a major procedure, or treatment, the only option would be for her to go into serious debt to pay her medical bills. She could lose her business, her credit, her home. Often to avoid costs, she'll postpone checkups, or choose to live in pain rather than buy medication.

My mother is not illegal. She was born and bred in New York and has worked all her life helping others, first as a social worker, than caring for children. She put me through college, sometimes working two jobs to do so. She raised a half dozen of my cousins as her own.

There are others who have coverage with much less effort due to public assistance and medicaid, or because they claim federal benefits due to disability. My mother, despite her real physical ailments, has never stopped working because she believes in contributing to society and working for her money.

Yet these health care reform detractors would deny her the chance of getting affordable health care. They would include her in false statistics that those without care are either "immortals" or "illegals" or that her being able to see a doctor on a regular basis will somehow take away their freedoms. They callously claim to be Christians and concerned citizens while ignoring the real people who die everyday because they can't access what these detractors have and only want the choices most of America enjoys.

I understand the frustration with the recent happenings in this country. Specifically, I understand the frustration with the amount of money spent during the financial crisis, how the banks gave up nothing while getting our money to save their over-leveraged hides. I understand the frustration with the amount of money spent on the stimulus package which has been slow to be realized, let alone all the money already spent on two seemingly endless wars, one of which was totally unnecessary.

But what I also understand, is that this is not about health care. This is about a population of people who are still sore about losing the presidential election, of losing power in Congress, and of seeing "other people" rising to power. The statements I hear have little to do with details of health care reform but about their general displeasure of not being in power, of feeling "their way of life" is somehow under attack.

In venting their rabid frustration, they are hijacking the lives of people like my mother, for the selfish purpose of trying to snatch some shallow victory vs. the current President and Democratic congress. I am disgusted that there are people willing to do this, to deny life and the right to health to make their political points.

The ugly underbelly of this country shows itself again, but I have faith that change will come. Change is always hard, and what we are seeing is the quintessential example of the last throes of a dying animal. While still dangerous, it thrashes with vigor before taking it's final breath.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

HealthCare Town Halls - A Revolution of the Misinformed?

I had seen the images on TV, town halls being taken over by anti-health reform zealots shouting down their local representatives, and shouting a mix of personal scepticism, misinterpreted facts, and regurgitated lies.

So I decided I would go to my own Congressman's town hall, New Jersey Congressional Representative Steve Rothman. He's been holding a series of "Listening Tour" events throughout Bergen and Hudson Counties, and I figured I'd see for myself if there was really a groundswell of opposition as conservatives would have us believe...

The place was full, about 150+ people in Palisades Park. Rothman and his team organized the town hall well, getting questions on paper in advance and calling on individuals to ask their questions. For the most part the town hall was civil, and people were not very tolerant of people who spoke out of turn. There was a general consensus that everyone was going to behave. It lasted from 7pm till 9:30pm, afterwards Rothman met people in the street and listened to their questions. What I found there was really interesting.

The issues that came up were numerous, but the take aways from the people attending were such:

A deep distrust of politicians, and apparently, of the Obama administration. There were many times that people mentioned a distrust of Congress and that there was something that was being hidden in the bill, or that parts of the bill were being mis represented to appease the crowd. There was a mention of patient's personal information being abused by the government, despite the fact that the govt currently protects personal information from being abused by insurance companies now. One person's comment "The real problem is that there is one person up there who wants to take over the world..." Who might this be????

Continued anger over stimulus and TARP. Whenever these topics were brought up the detractors in the meeting would go ape. At one point Rothman tried to make the case that the stimulus was showing signs of working, and that was when there was very loud jeering and drowning him out. They did not want to hear that TARP was neccesary, or that the stimulus was anything but a waste of their money.

A belief that at some level, illegal immigration is behind this. There was a man who tried to make the case that up to 30 Million of the 47 million of uninsured were either illegals or families of illegals (and therefore apparently not deserving). The loudest applause came after a commenter demanded Rothman take a hard stance on immigration. To his credit, Rothman stated his stance was clear - prevention, enforcement, and a path to citizenship.

The impression that health care reform is a zero-sum game, that if other people get it, what they have will somehow disappear, or that their insurance companies will not be able to compete and eventually die out, leaving the only choice to be the government option.

That abortion will be paid for with government dollars

That doctors will be incentivized into talking people into having living wills (AKA the "kill your grandma/death panel theory")

I scanned the room and many of the people there had what looked like print outs of talking points from the internet. One man tried to read what he claimed was actual verbage from the bill illustrating his point that the bill was socialist "On page so-and-so it says..." but wasn't allowed to speak out of turn. When I looked at his paper from a few feet away, it wasn't the bill at all, it was a 3 page bullet pointed sheet of apparent "excerpts" from the bill with commentary.

When I hear descriptions of the other town halls, I hear the same questions, fears, and scenarios.
The fear of the people seemed real, the sceptism definitely did, but the information which seem to be fueling this fear and sceptism was suspect at least, and I couldn't shake the feeling that some it it was purposely misleading to incite the negative reaction from apparently normally rational and understanding people.

Those who were close to the front lines within healthcare also got to speak. A couple of nurses, a woman trying to get approval for her medical procedures, a young teacher who never had healthcare until recently. They all seemed to come to the meeting with personal stories, and personal questions, and basic support for the initiative. But those who seemed to spend their time fear mongering, all had the same points, the same type of disaster scenarios, even some of the same rebuttal arguments you've been hearing at other places, so much so it was very hard to believe that the info they were getting wasn't from the same place.

A bit disturbing was the lack of real voice from those who wanted healthcare reform. There were a few people there, some with shirts, buttons, a woman with a sign she printed from an Obama website. But for some reason they didn't get to the mike as much. Now I assume that this was an exercise in "squeaky wheel," but it seemed as though the supporters were quietly waiting their turn while the detractors spent a lot of time reiterating each other's points. The longest speeches were diatribes about government takeover, illegal aliens, and leaving "my coverage alone..." while those who were asking about clarification points, or showing support had short turns. Again, no overtalking, no booing (well except for at Rothman), but the loudest applause lines went to those who were making points that seemed to come from a set of "facts" they all had read beforehand.

Even more disturbing was a conversation I heard between two people after the town hall was over. They had both expressed their opinions earlier at the meeting. They were just outside when I was walking towards them and I stopped to wait and see what would happen when Rothman joined the crowd outside. They quickly stopped talking, though I never spoke in the meeting and no one knew my political affiliation. But before they did, the woman told this to her comrade:

"We need to take this country back....They made have had a coup, but this is a revolution..."