Santana: Confronting the Little Fidels That Surround Us All

I awoke on my 50th birthday this weekend to find I had gotten a historic shave without even noticing it.

Fidel Castro is dead.

As a Cuban American, this tyrant (the bad president, as my eight year old boy now calls him) has towered over me since my birth in California.

Like shaving off any beard, it feels really refreshing to not feel him there anymore.

Now, as a Catholic, I respect the Pope’s historic call to forgive decades of pain and won’t celebrate another’s demise.

But unlike Secretary of State John Kerry, I won’t be offering condolences to anyone, especially not the Cuban people, on the death of a tyrant.

The Cuban Revolution could have been so much more instead of a eccentric dictatorship, systematically abusing its people. Those leaders took over a nation with brand new infrastructure in 1959. Today, it lies in ruins despite billions in economic aid from places like the former Soviet Union and Venezuela.

And basic human rights, like the need to talk freely, still don’t exist on the island.

Even with the recent so-called opening, most Cubans still live with one goal: leaving.

I agree with President-elect Donald Trump that it is time for the Cuban government to start really opening up and easing up on dissidents (something they have yet to do) since the United States has agreed to soften its stance on the dictatorship – as distasteful as that might be.

Openness at Home?

Yet it’s not just abroad that we as American citizens should be defending the ideals and institutions of democracy.

Given my family’s immigrant experience, I was raised understanding the fact that democracy is fragile. It’s a do-it-yourself system that, like weeding a garden, requires a lot of work, virtually every day.

It’s up to us to hold our elected leaders accountable. And that’s never an easy job.

Consider that here in Orange County, on Election Day, county supervisors severely restricted public comments at their twice-monthly public meetings.

Note that on any given week, out of three million Orange County residents, there are less than five people who show up to the public comment period.

Even that’s too much questioning for supervisors, who run through public meetings like a quick dash, approving millions in public spending each week with limited questioning or changes.

Instead, under the direction of board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, county supervisors have systematically reduced their meetings as well as opportunities for public questioning.

Orange County supervisors used to meet each week, with meetings often times going into the late afternoon. Bartlett changed that, opting for bi-weekly meetings that so far typically don’t last beyond the noon hour.

Lets hope that get’s a rethinking under our next chairwoman in January, when current vice chair Michelle Steel is expected to take over the reigns of government.

A $6 billion county budget should trigger more public discussion that just two times a month for a few hours.

Illegal Jail Interrogations?

If restricting public speech isn’t enough for concern, consider a recent ruling by our local appellate court that shamed our sheriff and district attorney.

When Judge Thomas Goethals essentially fired District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from prosecuting the death penalty phase of a mass-murderer's trial last year after discovering a secret interrogation program in our jails, his action was appealed by Attorney General Kamala Harris, who just won a U.S. Senate seat in last month’s election.

Harris wanted to avoid looking into the matter, saying violations were inconsequential.

Our courts system slapped that down.

“The recusable conflict of interest…is based on the [district attorney’s intentional or negligent participation in a covert [confidential informant] program to obtain statements from represented defendants in violation of their constitutional rights.” the recent appellate decision concluded. “And to withhold that information from those defendants.”

Justices called the conflict “real” and “grave,” adding it “goes well beyond simply “distasteful or improper” prosecutorial actions.

Apparently, our grand jury – a great local beacon of citizen democracy - has also launched it’s own review.

Yet to this date, Orange County supervisors have said very little about the scandal or it’s impact on our justice system.

Only one supervisor, Todd Spitzer, has even raised the scandal publicly. Yet so far, he’s only framed his concerns with regard to his expected challenge of Rackauckas in 2018.

Handcuffing Journalists

Spitzer himself is leading the county into a deeply troubling area of attacking journalists in interrogations to ferret out unpublished information.

This Tuesday, Voice of OC heads into court to defend itself in an expensive legal action brought by county supervisors – who are seeking to depose me to ask me questions about a reporters’ public records request.

Lets be clear.

Deposing me has nothing to do with the legal question of whether Spitzer’s email communications to the county public information officer - about an incident last year where he handcuffed an evangelist at a restaurant while armed – are a matter of public record.

They either are or aren’t.

Conversations between Spitzer and myself have nothing to do with that legal question.

Deposing me has everything to do with an elected official being incensed about public questioning.

When powerful interests are uncomfortable with public questions, they attack.

Even in a democracy.

They reduce chances to debate or protest. They alter judicial trials with illegal interrogations. And even react against the press when questioned.

This is why citizens and residents must stay ever vigilant and involved.

Democracy doesn’t just get threatened in far away places.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Voice of OC legal hearing was Wednesday.