Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

J-Lo and the dictator: An upside

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 6:47 AM EDT, Wed July 3, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT