Cuba Libre

I’m far from an expert on Cuba policy, but it does not take an expert to understand that our longstanding unilateral embargo is just stupid, stupid policy.  In fact, before getting into it, I think the words of criticism from Republicans make the point enough:

“It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” Rubio said on Fox News, one of multiple media appearances he made Wednesday…

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced this week that he is seriously exploring a 2016 run, weighed in later Wednesday, calling the plans for Cuba “the latest foreign policy misstep” by President Barack Obama and “another dramatic overreach of his executive authority.”

“It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba,” he said in a statement that also welcomed Gross’ release.

The state’s current governor, Rick Scott, also blasted the Obama administration: “As long as Cuba chooses dictatorship over democracy, I will continue to support the embargo and sanctions against them,” he said in a statement.

Give me a self-serving, sanctimonious break.  Of course Cuba has been run by dictators, tyrants, and all around bad people.  Somehow, that has not stopped us from having diplomatic relations with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and a whole bunch of bad actors.  If an autocratic regime is the standard for an economic embargo and no diplomatic recognition, we need to bring home a lot of ambassadors.  This is all just driven by the politics of ethnic Cubans in Florida.  That’s it.  As for how dumb the policy is, I think Yglesias hits it nicely:

I remember about a year ago sitting at a dinner where the featured speaker was a senior US diplomat involved in Iran policy. In response to skeptical questions about the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, he laid out the case that economic sanctions could work. The Iran measures, he said, were textbook examples of effective sanctioning — they were broadly multilateral in terms of who was imposing them, they were targeted at things the regime especially cared about, and they were limited in their aspirations.

“So what about Cuba?” I asked.

It was a bit of a jerk question. The diplomat in question simply wasn’t in a position to admit the obvious corollary. But the Cuba embargo is wholly unilateral, meaning no other country joins us in imposing it. It’s also completely untargeted, hitting essentially all sectors of the Cuban economy. And most of all, it’s utopian in its goals targeted not at specific aspects of Cuban policy but at the very existence of the Cuban regime.

In essence, America’s Cuba policy is a textbook case of an embargo that makes both the United States and the target country somewhat poorer without any realistic hope of accomplishing its goals. [emphasis mine]

I have no expectation whatsoever that Obama’s policy change is going to put Cuba on the path to a free and open society.  But the existing policy sure as hell wasn’t doing it and came with costs that the new policy does not.  This whole “coddling dictators” stuff is risible in it’s puerile and demonstrably inconsistent worldview.

Supreme Court decides police need more power

You’d hope these guys would at least watch the news, but alas, only Sonia Sotomayor gets it.   In the latest decision, the Court has decided a search is reasonable so long as the police officer think he is acting reasonably.  Even if he is actually not.  In this case, the police officer was simply wrong on the law– thought only one working break light working was illegal, it’s not.    The potential for abuse for this is obvious and breathtaking.  “Well, yes, judge, I thought it was against the law to xxx to I conducted a search.”  Here’s Dahlia Lithwick:

Heien v. North Carolina was the first big criminal case to come down this term, and it involved a question of whether a cop’s mistaken understanding of a state traffic law—a misunderstanding that led to a traffic stop for wholly innocent behavior—should be used to throw out a drug conviction that resulted from that stop. On Monday, eight justices ruled that although the police officer stopped a car for having only one working brake light, and having only one working brake light is actually legal in North Carolina, the stop was “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. Thus, the baggie of cocaine the officer found in his resulting search of the car was admissible in court…

Heien has argued that since ignorance of the law is never an excuse for citizens accused of crimes, it defies logic to create that double standard for police. This week, that argument lost by a wide margin. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority: “To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”

Citizens make mistakes and there are consequences– jail, etc.  Apparently, if the police make what is explained as an honest mistake, there simply are no consequences.

Why does any of this matter? Because Vasquez wasn’t stopped by the cops for having a broken tail light. He was trailed by an officer because he was driving while looking “stiff and nervous” and for “gripping the steering wheel at a 10 and 2 position, looking straight ahead.” In other words, he was a Hispanic man driving a beat-up car in North Carolina, and the officer followed him for doing what the rest of us do every single day: driving while holding on to a steering wheel and looking forward.

Yes!  Do we seriously need to give the police more discretion in stopping poor and minorities (we’ve already seen how effective that is for stealing cash from innocent people).

Justice Sonia Sotomayor tried in vain to bring up this underlying concern at oral argument when the case was argued in October. Questioning Robert C. Montgomery, a senior deputy attorney general representing North Carolina, Sotomayor interrupted him to point out that the stop for the brake light was purely pretextual. The officer used it as an excuse to pull over and confront the driver. As the justice put it at the time: “There is a problem, however, I’m sorry. The police officer wasn’t stopping him because of the brake light. The police officer was involved in criminal interdictions and admitted that this was a pretext, a lawful pretext, he thought.” Sotomayor went on: “So how many citizens have been stopped for one brake light who are asked to have their car searched? And is that something that we as a society should be encouraging?” …

You would think that we had not just lived through a summer in which we were painfully reminded of the realities of militarized police, civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling, relentless police harassment of citizens, and frivolous stops for trivial infractions. These infractions can lead to mounting debts which in many minority communities turn the criminal justice system into something like a series of debtors’ prisons. The discussion in Heien never reflects the fact that a long, sordid history of pretextual and harassing traffic stops have fostered fear and anxiety in minority communities. As President Obama put it, there is a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” But from the perspective of the high court, it’s as if the summer of 2014 was happening in an alternate universe.

As ThinkProgress reported in August, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 13 percent of black people and 10 percent of white people in their survey reported that their most recent contact with police had been during traffic stops. Seven percent of black drivers were ticketed, compared with 5 percent for white drivers. Abrief filed in this case by the Rutherford Institute argued that allowing police yet more latitude in their interpretation of the law will disparately harm minorities, because their evidence shows that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be searched. But from the court, silence.

How can I argue for drug dealers going free?  I’ll argue for it every day.  For one, it’s a cost I’ll readily bear to prevent police abusing minority populations.  Even more importantly, I will absolutely take drug dealers going free over a police force that is allowed to search citizens with impunity.  That’s called freedom.

Photo of the day

Awesome, awesome “Advent calendar” of images from Hubble via In Focus:

The Shadow of Ganymede. On April 21, 2014, when Hubble was being used to monitor changes in Jupiter’s immense Great Red Spot (GRS) storm. During the exposures, the shadow of the Jovian moon Ganymede swept across the center of the GRS. This gave the giant planet the uncanny appearance of having a pupil in the center of a 10,000-mile-diameter “eye.” (NASA, ESA, A. Simon/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Vaccinate me

This is a really, really awesome explanation of how vaccines work and the irrational fears that people have in super-entertaining comic form.  Even if you already know it all, it’s fun to check out.  I especially liked the bit on herd immunity:


Kids are getting smarter about drugs

On the one hand, they are realizing that drugs are not the totally horrible things all the alcohol-abusing adults have been telling them; on the other, teens are actually using less drugs.  Of course, not to say that drugs are good for you, but it has long struck me as counter-productive to tell teenagers that taking drugs will instantly turn them into crazy-loser-zombies when most teenagers will know some other teens who take drugs and seem to function generally fine.  The end result is that teens will not trust adults on drugs.  I certainly don’t want my kids taking drugs as teens, but we will (and have had) conversations about the actual negative side effects, the possible long term impact on brain development and cognitive skills, and the real risks of dependency.  Anyway, Olga Khazan sums up the latest research in the Atlantic:

Percent of Who Perceive “Great Risk” of Smoking Marijuana Regularly

As for actually engaging in drug use, the news is good:

Percent of Teens Who Said They Drank in the Past Year

Annual Use of Any Illicit Drug other than Marijuana

Percent of 12th Graders Who Smoked Pot or Cigarettes in the Past Month

I gotta say, I love that smoking decline.  Just maybe this nasty habit is truly on the way out.  Safe to say not too many people start smoking after high school.  Also, these charts show that my college years– early 1990s– were the nadir for drug use, which presumably explains why I basically saw none at college (that and the crowd I ran with).  Anyway, some pretty interesting data all around.

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