Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

J-Lo and the dictator: An upside

By John D. Sutter, CNN
July 3, 2013 -- Updated 1047 GMT (1847 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Singer Jennifer Lopez draws criticism for her performance in Turkmenistan
  • John Sutter says the "Happy Birthday" concert actually was productive
  • He says Lopez inadvertently lent her celebrity to raising awareness about human rights
  • Sutter: "a diva's visit with a despot can raise more than awareness"

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- American pop star Jennifer Lopez is catching all sorts of heat after her Saturday performance of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to one of the world's most notorious dictators, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

"It was our pleasure, and we wish you the very, very happiest birthday," Lopez says in a YouTube video of the performance. Statements like that feel gross, of course, if you know that Berdymukhamedov has been accused of imprisoning political dissidents, imposing "draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and association," says Human Rights Watch, and, according to The Atlantic, ordering his goons to kill or get rid of stray cats.

"Singing happy birthday to dictators while dissidents and journalists die in their torture chambers?" human rights lawyer Ronan Farrow (son of actress Mia Farrow) wrote on Twitter. "Still Jenny from the block, @JLo?"

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

He followed-up that tweet with this orthographic quip about the pop star's visit to the former Soviet Bloc country, squished between Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

"More like Jenny from the bloc, am I right?"

The criticism is fully warranted. But there could be a positive here: When J-Lo and other celebrities stumble unknowingly (yes, apparently unknowingly: A publicist told CNN that "had there been knowledge of human right issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended." This, in the age of Google!) into human rights quagmires, a kind of awareness gets raised. J-Lo's concert in Turkmenistan may at least give the rest of us a chance to learn something about a desperate nation that never would make American headlines if not for such a celebrity appearance.

Raise your hand if you could name (much less spell the name of) Turkmenistan's president before this weekend? Considering how well-controlled the country's Internet is, I'll assume you're not from there and knew almost nothing about the place.

Now that we (J-Lo, that is) have your attention, consider these sobering facts:

• Freedom House ranks Turkmenistan as one of its "Worst of the Worst" countries. The group says Turkmenistan is "not an electoral democracy" since "none of the country's elections ... have been free or fair." Additionally: "Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government's promotion of Turkmen national identity. Freedom of movement is restricted, with a reported blacklist preventing some individuals from leaving the country. Traditional social and religious norms, inadequate education, and poor economic conditions limit professional opportunities for women, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common."

Human Rights Watch condemns Turkmenistan for imprisoning and silencing political opposition figures. "As a result of more than two decades of the government's practice of using imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation," the group says, "unknown numbers of individuals languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. During the previous (Universal Periodic Review), the government rejected an important recommendation to 'account for those prisoners whose fate is unknown.' The fate of some of several dozen prisoners convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on then-president Saparmurat Niyazov remains unknown, with their whereabouts not disclosed even to their families."

• Turkmenistan is basically North Korea plus oil, as Robert Kelly writes on the Asian Security Blog. (Hat tip to Max Fisher for spotting that. Specifically, Kelly says North Korea has been referred to as "Turkmenistan without the oil.")

• Berdymukhamedov (here's a pronunciation guide from Voice of America) hates pets as well as humans. Eurasianet quotes from a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks: "There have been reports about a recent incident in which a motorist crossed an intersection in front President Berdimuhamedov's motorcade as it moved through Ashgabat. Several high ranking police officials were fired after the incident, and the driver of the vehicle was reportedly beaten and charged with attempted assassination. In another incident, a military official was fired after a cat ran in front of the president's car as he was traveling to his dacha," or second home.

Calls and e-mails to Turkmenistan's embassy in Washington were not returned on Tuesday morning.

It would be easy to argue Lopez's performance served only to legitimize Turkmenistan's government. Or that her appearance could serve to paint the country (inaccurately) as a modern and welcoming place -- the kind of open, dance-ready society that loves freedom and rocks to "Get Right." Exactly the opposite is happening in the wake of her performance, however.

People are learning a thing or two about how desperate Turkmenistan is.

And a diva's visit with a despot can raise more than awareness. After being publicly shamed for performing on behalf of the government of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Beyoncé, Usher, Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado announced in 2011 that they had donated or planned to donate the money they received to charity.

J-Lo should do the same, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has suggested. In effect, that would mean Turkmenistan's dictator unwillingly is funding human rights efforts. And it would be a sign J-Lo, too, learned something from this experience.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT