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Columbia Magazine Fall 2016

Excellent article on Cuba in the fall issue (“Bridges to Cuba”). When I was a student at Columbia College in the early 1970s, spending half my food money every week at Laissez Faire Books, near NYU, I shared the comfortable belief that trade and tourism could reform an authoritarian regime. It sounded a lot easier than JFK’s promise that we would “pay any price, bear any burden.”

Unfortunately, the years that followed showed that the easy way didn’t work. South Africa ended apartheid not because we engaged with it, but because we embargoed and ostracized it. The Soviet Union changed because the Reagan administration put pressure on its every weak point simultaneously. In the meantime, engagement with China helped transform an authoritarian regime that was too poor to do much damage in the world into one that now has the wealth to do a great deal of damage.

In much the same way, it’s likely that opening to Cuba will merely throw a lifeline to the ruling elite. Elites don’t reform because they want to but because they have to; and we’ve told them they don’t have to.

Taras Wolansky ’74CC
Kerhonkson, NY

I was one of the students who listened to Fidel Castro’s speech on College Walk on April 21, 1959. But I was not seduced, since I knew about communism from my parents, who were refugees from the Soviet Union. Your article quotes President Obama as saying, in Havana, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” This is a naive statement. Cuba has a dictatorial communist regime, and so as long as there is no democracy in Cuba, there will be a remnant of the Cold War.

There is also no point in people-to-people engagement if the Cuban people have absolutely no power to change the government. SIPA professor Christopher Sabatini is quoted as saying, “There’s never been a democratic transition in a country under an embargo as tight as the one we have on Cuba." But Cuba has been trading and has had full relations with Canada and Europe for decades, yet the Cuban communist government is as repressive and dictatorial as ever.

The writer of the article states that “the values that most Cubans want to preserve” are “universal health care, universal education, egalitarianism, anti-imperialism.” How does he know this? There is no democracy in Cuba, so there has never been an election to test what Cubans value the most. Even if you polled Cubans, people would not tell you their true feelings, since they are afraid of being arrested. How naive can you get?

Roman George Kernitsky ’62CC
Colts Neck, NJ


I enjoyed your article “Leave Them Laughing,” about comedian Negin Farsad (Network, Fall 2016), but I noticed an incorrect term being used. You quote Farsad as saying, “I always think about the ex-Marine who had been stationed in Afghanistan. He came in angry and left laughing.” As the daughter of a Marine who is a combat veteran of Vietnam, and as a cousin or friend to many Marines who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, I wanted to clarify that for Marines — as my dad always says — “once a Marine, always a Marine.” There are no “ex-” Marines — except, perhaps, in the case of a dishonorable discharge.

Jillian Kelly ’10SW
Brooklyn, NY


What happened to Columbia Magazine? Did some marketing guru tell you that you are not up-to-date, that we have short attention spans and have become a foodie nation? I used to read long, thoughtful, well-written articles. Now pictures have replaced text, and short, breezy, uninteresting articles dominate. The new look: glitz without substance.

Peter Gibbon ’80TC
Duxbury, MA

Good idea to have the caption contest, and nice changes to the magazine.

Al McGovern ’78SEAS
Naperville, IL


Every issue of the outstanding Columbia Magazine seems better than the one before! I frequently feel nostalgic about, and am always grateful for, the classes taught by Mark Van Doren, Eric Bentley, and especially William York Tindall. 

Ellie F. Schmidt ’63GSAS
Santa Rosa, CA


Readers who enjoyed the fall issue’s Network feature on alumni TED Talks sent in a few more suggestions for your viewing pleasure.

Pamela Payne Foster
“Bridging civil rights and health care”
April 2015, TEDx

According to the American Journal of Public Health, the number-one cause of death in the US isn’t disease; it’s poor education. To change this, physician and advocate Pamela Payne Foster seeks to build a “bridge” between social equality and health care.

Mike F. Coffin ’85GSAS
“Mass extinction”
January 2014, TEDx

Mike F. Coffin, a marine geoscientist, says that humans are dramatically accelerating the arrival of the planet’s sixth ‘mass extinction’ through climate change.

Sczerina Perot ’90CC
“Housing is a human right”
October 2013, TEDx

A civil-rights lawyer who fights for the universal right to “adequate” housing, Sczerina Perot calls for increased social awareness of the circumstances that can force people onto the streets and calls homelessness a “moral outrage.”

For those who wrote to express disappointment that your school was not listed in our fall issue’s abbreviation key, we hear you loud and clear! We were experimenting with listing only the abbreviations of schools that appeared in a given edition, in an effort to save space. We’re now reevaluating, and we appreciate your sharing your views. — Ed.

Key to abbreviations


Questions? Comments?


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Letters may be edited for brevity or clarity.

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Dear Roman:

Wondering if you support a similar totalitarian approach to China: As equally an autocratic state as the Cuban dictatorship is?

How about Syria? How about Russia itself?

Or is it only a question of punishing the Cuban resistance to US economic hegemony?

I am not a fan of autocratic rule anywhere, by the way.

But let's not be blind to the hypocrisy of holding the Cuban state to a higher standard than even the one to which we in the US hold ourselves.

Paul Grajnert
SOA '05

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