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Experts discuss the pros and cons of communism


Published: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010

Russia, China and Cuba each have governments that are mysterious to the outside, but well-known to their citizens, according to a panel of UNCG professors who spoke at a History Club-sponsored lecture Thursday night in the Sullivan Building’s Jaylee Mead Auditorium.

Dr. William Crowther is a Political Science professor who has a Ph.D. from UCLA and has taught at UNCG since 1986. He filled in for Dr. Jeff Jones, a history professor saying that the Russian government has not been very secretive in its actions since Vladimir Putin became president nearly 10 years ago. Crowther said that he and Jones differ on the path Russia has taken lately. Crowther thinks that Russia has been direct and obvious about its intentions, while Jones thinks that the Russians have tried to be subtle. The lecture that Dr. Jones had planned to give was entitled, “Putin’s Secret State.”

Soon after taking office, Putin established seven different regions in Russia. The governors of these regions were appointed by Putin and answered to Putin instead of having free-reign of their respective regions. This helped to reverse democratization in the country soon after it had become a democracy.

Russia’s once democratic election laws were altered to make it almost impossible for new political parties to form. Dr. Crowther said that running in a Russian election is now out of reach for anyone who does not already belong to an existing party. In the most recent election, only one real opposition party ran, as the winning party, the United Russia party, took over 50 percent of the votes and other parties who support the United Russia party received significant votes.

Crowther described the Russian mass media as, “Sort of like the Wild West of media,” prior to the year 2000. This changed when Putin became president. The Kremlin bought almost every media outlet in the country, with newspapers being the only untouched medium. The Russian government then instituted a policy which said that half of all reporting about the government must be positive, and it also issued a list of people who cannot be mentioned in the press.

Many of Russia’s capitalists have been forced out of the country as well. Professor Crowther used the example of Mikhail Khordorkovsky, who has been in prison for nearly five years now. Khordorkovsky, former president of Russian energy giant Yukos, was the richest man in Russia when Putin had him arrested. It is unknown when he will be released, if ever.

A politics of intimidation has come about in Russia recently. There have been 21 journalists murdered over the last 10 years, but no case has been prosecuted. This leads Crowther and many others to view these killings as political assassinations. Two years ago, there was the high profile case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy who was poisoned to death by radioactive plutonium, a substance to which only government officials would have access.

Crowther also talked about external assassination attempts by the Russian government in recent years. Viktor Yuschenko, president of Ukraine, had an attempt made on his life during the 2004 Ukrainian elections. Although he survived, his face has been badly disfigured from dioxin poisoning. A Russian man has been connected to the crime, but officials in Moscow have refused to extradite him.

Two Chechens, one of whom was a human rights activist, have been assassinated in the past year. Both were opponents of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Russian-supported president of Chechnya.

In response to all of this, Professor Crowther said, “…I don’t think it’s a secret state at all,” and even called it, “Putin’s brazen state.”

Dr. James Anderson, whose lecture was about China, holds a Ph. D. from the University of Washington, has been at UNCG since 1999 and had a book published in 2007.

The bespectacled Professor Anderson focused on what the future holds for China, both domestically and internationally. In the total of six years he has spent in China, he has seen dramatic changes, mostly in the growth of its cities.

One of China’s main concerns has been ridding itself of the humiliation felt after Western imperialism left its mark on the country. Since the 1990’s, the government has emphasized this part of Chinese history. Anderson said this has shown that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can protect its people.

The communist party has also tried to revamp its image by showing that it is responsible for the recent economic growth China has seen. Dr. Anderson said that China has emerged from the global economic crisis in better shape than most other countries. Urban growth is still a major part of China’s future plans.

Anderson said that because of the current economic climate, most Western nations will no longer focus as strongly on the complaints they have against China. Human rights, pollution and China’s involvement in the Darfur region of Sudan were all concerns of the international community, but they will be set aside in favor of economic issues.

The Chinese countryside is nowhere near as prosperous as the cities, and this is an area the communist party is beginning to focus on. China’s rural areas lack infrastructure, so developing it must become a priority for the government.

A major question is facing China regarding its culture. Dr Anderson asked, “What’s to be retained from the past and what’s to be jettisoned?” This has caused a controversy lately as many, both within and outside China, have criticized the Chinese government for demolitions taking place in cities. The critics have said that the demolitions are destroying Chinese culture.

Professor Anderson seemed fairly confident that the CCP will remain in power, mostly because China is experiencing a booming economy.

Lecturing about his native country was Cuban-born Dr. Antonio de la Cova, who has a Ph. D. from West Virginia University and is in his first year as a professor of Latin American history at UNCG, having previously taught at Indiana University.

De la Cova’s part of the lecture was entitled, “Cuba: Myth and Reality.” Professor de la Cova, wearing a three piece suit, addressed America’s main concerns with Cuba, and the differences between the way the Cuban government portrays itself and the poverty and human rights violations that its citizens face.

The biggest issue the United States faces in its relations with Cuba is the $1.4 billion of U.S. assets that Cuba expropriated in 1959. De la Cova said this must be resolved in order to lift the trade embargo the United States has on Cuba.

Dr. de la Cova, author of the 2007 book The Moncada Attack, said that the revolution, which he saw firsthand as a child, has lived on the two great myths of universal healthcare and free education for Cubans. He sarcastically said, “The beard watches over you,” when referring to the political, social and economic controls that Fidel Castro has instituted.

The healthcare system in Cuba is in a horrendous state, and only government officials and tourists receive start of the art care. The facilities for regular citizens are in what de la Cova repeatedly called, “shabby conditions.”

Professor de la Cova showed receipts from the University of Havana prior to Castro taking power, showing that college was affordable for Cubans before the revolution. Schools track their students’ activities from the time they are young, attempting to see if their parents are integrated into the revolution. Cuban children who are deemed deviant have no shot at college.

The Cuban government controls media outlets and also monitors Internet activity, placing government employees in Internet cafés.

Human rights activists are beaten in Cuba and many are sent to jail. There is very little international support for Cuban dissidents. De la Cova spoke about Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who has been imprisoned for criticizing the Castro regime as undemocratic.

Cubans don’t have the freedom of movement. They must carry internal passports to leave their own city, and are fined if they do not have their passports.

There is a Cuban housing shortage, which leads to many Cubans building apartments for the government in the hopes of having their own dwelling. Many times, though, the apartments are given to government officials. The capital, Havana, is overcrowded and crumbling. Professor de la Cova also talked about the lack of government services for the needy, many of whom resort to dumpster diving. Water and food have been rationed at Cuban grocery stores for nearly 50 years.

Dr. de la Cova ended his portion of the lecture talking about Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, who recently became the president of Cuba. De la Cova showed Raul Castro participating in an execution, and called him, “A cold-blooded killer.”

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