Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

Ozzie Guillen, the First Amendment in the Workplace, and Bromance

The Florida Marlins’ suspension of its manager Ozzie Guillen for his ‘pro-Castro’ remarks provides yet another teachable moment about the First Amendment and its relationship to the workplace. (Guillen has been suspended for five games.)  Guillen’s original remarks read:

 I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.

(As always with deleted expletives, I’m curious: What did he say? Anything worth reusing?)

After a storm of outrage from Miami’s Cuban community, the most ardent ‘anti-communists’ in the US (* see note below), and a quick suspension later, another familiar storm of outrage: How could this be possible in the US? Don’t we have free speech? What about the First Amendment, eh? Land of the free, Schmand of the Free!

In response to which: The Florida Marlins are private actors; they can abridge speech in their workplace as a condition of employment; and Guillen, if he doesn’t like it, is free to move to another employer more tolerant of his professed opinions. Employees have very few constitutional protections in the workplace; it is where we go to cease being citizens and start being minions. This confusion occurs most commonly with regards to the First and Fourth Amendments (“You mean my employer can search my stuff without a warrant?” Yes, they can). For some reason, most folks don’t think of Fifth Amendment protections in the workplace. Has anyone ever complained that he was forced to ‘testify’ to his boss? Has anyone ever tried taking the Fifth in a work meeting? Abandon all Constitutional Rights Ye Who Enter Here, indeed.

Of interest to me, too, was Guillen’s ‘defense,’ offered, in his own words, on his knees (can you back-pedal on your knees?):

This is the biggest mistake of my life…I’m on my knees. When you make a mistake this big, you can’t sleep. If I don’t learn from this I will call myself dumb. Today is the last day that this person talks about politics. Everyone in the world hates Fidel Castro, myself included, and I hate him for all the damage and all the hurt. I was surprised he’s still in power – that’s what I was trying to say.

I find Guillen’s clarification of his remarks quite convincing. This is because Guillen like many men, likes to express his maverick, contrarian self, his individuality, as it were, by expressing a kind of grudging admiration for other men found ‘too hard’ by the soft, weak, masses: ‘You all say he is an asshole, and I agree, but let me tell you, he’s one tough asshole, you gotta give him that! Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like the guy. But you gotta admit, he’s a tough dude.’ Or something like that.

Note: Two anecdotes: First, many years ago, a Cuban friend of mine bought a Yugo (don’t ask). His mother refused to ride with him in the car; not because she thought it was unsafe, but because it was manufactured in a communist country. Second, another Cuban friend of mine threw out her Billy Joel records–a good move in general, I’d say–after he toured the USSR. If it isn’t obvious, these stories date back to the 1980s, when anti-communist sentiment among Miami Cubans was–if it can be imagined–even more visceral than it is today.