Cuban-American relations were long in need of an overhaul and, as the Obama presidency draws to a close and with an eye on his legacy, the US president is working hard to leave on a positive note. The presidential visit to Cuba is the first in 88 years and, historic as it is, it is overshadowed by the innumerable and serious differences that remain between two countries separated by 90 miles of open water and a century or two of ideology. The re-opening of the American embassy in Havana, the restoration of direct postal services and the setting up of a small tractor factory by an American entrepreneur are all positive moves — but to a degree cosmetic and small-scale symbolic.
The nitty-gritty issues — Guantanamo Bay, men and women held as political prisoners in Cuba (denied by the Cuban government) and the freedom of the media to criticise the regime without fear of arrest or worse — were all on the table. America has been long critical of the Cuban human rights record as has Cuba of the American failure to close Guantanamo — a signature goal of the first Obama term, it will be recalled. Cuba has also berated America for its own decidedly patchy civil rights record. Differences aside, none of which are capable of early resolution, the visit marks a sea-change in both American foreign policy and in Cuban engagement with the wider world — a world where communism has become a relic, a political has-been, and the number of communist countries continues to dwindle. China remains and will endure as a communist state, and Cuba seems no less durable for all its faults and inherent weaknesses. For America it is disentanglement from a Cold War anachronism and a chance to export American goods — and values — to a country hungry for one but perhaps not the other. President Obama spoke at the El Gran Teatro de Havana where Calvin Coolidge last spoke in 1928. His speech pulled no punches but was sufficiently conciliatory to be seen as feeding into his ‘peacemaker’ legacy, ending a timely and historic visit on a note of positivity.
The war between the MQM and the PPP continues to play out on Karachi’s turf. In the latest battle, the PPP government has scored an ostensible victory by cleverly wresting control of the Karachi Development Authority (KDA). The KDA, formed in 1957, was once a powerful entity, responsible as it was for land development. In 2002, however, it was wrapped up and its 19 departments were merged with the KMC during the rule of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf when the MQM was running the city. With the KDA (Revival & Amendment) Bill of 2016, the PPP has exacted its revenge for the MQM’s 2002 decision to place the KDA under the mayor by amending the KDA Ordinance of 1952. To add insult to injury, it has been placed under the minister for local government and not the mayor of Karachi.
The KMC is already no longer responsible for garbage collection as this is managed by the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board. The KMC is not in charge of water either because that responsibility lies with the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board. The KMC has nothing to do with transport, except for maintaining 32 roads in the city. Last year, health, education and local taxes were also taken away from the entity. It isn’t responsible for planning Karachi either — the department that did that, the Master Plan Group of Offices, will return to the KDA from the Sindh Building Control Authority. This is perhaps the only silver lining as Karachi needs a robust research-oriented planning office. But no clarity has been offered on this yet and the master plan office needs competent manpower and the authority to implement its policies instead of taking dictation from politicians. The timing to pass this bill is important. Karachi doesn’t have a mayor in office yet. The Karachi administrator will sign whatever is needed to usher in the director-general for the revived KDA. And since the Civic Centre was originally the KDA headquarters, the new DG can effectively tell the entire KMC to pack up and return to the Old KMC building where it used to be housed before 2002.
Another alcohol tragedy
It is a sad reality that once invented or discovered, it is impossible to reverse the process and un-invent or un-discover that which has been revealed. From time immemorial, humankind has made fermented drinks containing alcohol from a range of substances from rice to wheat to potatoes to any other ingredient that may be fermented. The production and consumption of alcoholic drinks in Pakistan is strictly regulated and limited, at least theoretically, to the non-Muslim minority population. Unfortunately, the consumption of illegally brewed alcoholic drinks is widespread and tragedies such as that now being reported as having happened in Tando Muhammad Khan District are disturbingly common. As many as 40 people may have died from consuming tainted liquor, including women. Two of the victims were Muslim but the majority was Hindu, presumably drinking in celebration of the Holi festival. The number of dead is likely to be higher as some families will not report a death due to alcohol consumption.
Recurrent events such as this have links to corruption in the forces of law and order, and corrupt police play a part in the ‘facilitation’ of illegal brewing and distribution. The police also on occasion interdict illegal alcohol with 65,000 litres being found recently, according to a senior police officer. This is a considerable haul but even so is probably the tip of the iceberg as far as illegal alcohol distribution and consumption is concerned. There has been concern about ‘leakage’ from various diplomatic missions but, compared to the scale of illegal produce nationally, the amounts are tiny. The real problem lies within marginalised and poor communities. The middle classes and the wealthy can afford the unadulterated ‘real thing’ and mass poisonings in that demographic are extremely rare. Pakistan has a largely unacknowledged alcohol problem that crosses social classes. Treatment facilities are scarce and poorly regulated and in a cash-strapped health service, prioritising finance for self-inflicted wounds finds little favour. The alcohol problem, legal or illegal, is only ever going to get worse and un-invention is not an option.