Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Surprise Thank-You Letter, Sr. Helen, Summer Already, Malaria Prevention, NY Assembly vs. DR Statelessness, Ferry to Cuba?, Cuban HR Remain Stalled, Fidel in his Heyday, Origins of US Immigrants





A website for returned Peace Corps volunteers put out a call for photos of volunteers mounted on animals during their service. Most posted so far have been photos of volunteers in their 20s (mostly from the 1960’s) posing or clowning atop camels, tortoises, or donkeys. I submitted one from the cover of my Honduras Peace Corps memoir, Triumph & Hope, where I’m riding a horse for actual transportation between remote villages in 2002, at age 64, as shown above.

The other photos are of me and my African visitors with another visitor, Karl, an entomologist from Hawaii who works with my daughter Stephanie there. He came here to examine the Smithsonian’s insect archives. Also shown, Mother’s Day gifts.

After Rep. John Lewis met with Afro-Cuban dissident Antúnez, finally breaking through the boycott he had faced from the Congressional Black Caucus, I sent a thank-you letter to the congressman, along with a copy of my Cuba book, Confessions. To my great surprise, Lewis sent me a thank-you letter for the book. I’ve sent my book unsolicited to a number of academic and public figures and none has ever acknowledged receipt, so I’m grateful for Lewis’s effort.   

Sister Helen Prejean is a friendly, unpretentious woman with whom I was privileged to have had a memorable conversation years ago. She is an outspoken advocate for abolishing the death penalty and recently testified in the penalty phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. I have a signed copy of her book, Dead Man Walking, and saw the film of the same name. It was brilliant move by the defense to enlist her testimony.

Summer has definitely arrived in Washington after a too-short spring. We’ve even had one day with a high near 90F.  But to remind myself that it could be worse, as it often was in southern Honduras, I checked the high temperatures in Choluteca, near my old Peace Corps site of El Triunfo, and found them reaching or exceeding 100 F daily.  Yes, I remember the days of sitting in front of an electric fan (if there was electricity) with a wet rag on top of my head a sipping from a bottle of purified water.

Peace Corps volunteers have often complained of adverse reactions to the antimalarial prophylactic and treatment medication melfloquine, said to sometimes produce hallucinations and nightmares. These claims have been supported by Dr. Remington Lee Nevin, who specializes in the evaluation of adverse reactions to antimalarial medications, particularly the neurotoxic quinoline derivative mefloquine (previously marketed in the United States as Lariam®). Now the Peace Corps reviews anti-malaria options individually with volunteers before assigning them to any one type. Fortunately, the antimalarial drug we took in Honduras was chloroquine, with fewer side effects, still shaped my dreams, as per my Honduras Peace Corps memoir, Triumph & Hope. Of course, prophylactic choice is not arbitrary—it depends on the malaria strain to be prevented or treated.

 

Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Ends Four Day Hunger Strike As New York State Assembly Passes Resolution Against Persecution of Dominicans of Haitian Descent, May 5, 2015
Amnesty International USA welcomes the [NY State Assembly] resolution and calls on all members of the Assembly to stand in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been stripped of their nationality. The story of Yolanda, whose parents were Haitian, is typical of the stories of discrimination faced daily by those of Haitian descent. Yolanda is a survivor of domestic violence, but was denied the right to lodge a complaint and file for child support because she didn’t have an identity card. Yolanda’s children, though born in the Dominican Republic, were denied birth certificates because of their Haitian ancestry. She is unable to register her children in the civil registry.

Amnesty International USA has been campaigning on behalf of Yolanda, and her family as well as the hundreds of thousands of similarly-situated Dominicans to end the stateless crisis. AIUSA welcomes the resolution in the New York State Assembly and urges its members to stand in solidarity with all those in the Dominican Republic who are facing discrimination and statelessness.

We have a June 15 deadline approaching when stateless persons might be unduly deported from the only country they know as their own.
 
Dominican Republic action
Social Media ready: http://owl.li/KvgSS
Friendly-URL: http://www.amnestyusa.org/End-Statelessness-For-Dominicans-of-Haitian-Descent

See also Letter from The Dominican RepublicHarper’s, May 2015 issue, "Displaced in the D.R., A country strips 210,000 of citizenship," By Rachel Nolanhttp://harpers.org/archive/2015/05/displaced-in-the-d-r/
Here, for DC residents, says a reader: Direct flights to Cuba from BWI approved.  AA to charge $775 r/t. 

At least four Florida companies are approved for ferry service to Cuba.
The approximately 5-hour trip will probably cost somewhat less than airfare and would be a pleasant way to travel. Of course, the Cuban government would have to allow such service. As per my book, Confessions, my daughter Stephanie and I traveled to Cuba in a small sailboat overnight back in 1994. We had something of a rough ride over many hours and came into an unlit Havana dock where we used flashlights to maneuver into port. Below is the article about the anticipated service.
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/tourism/fl-havana-ferry-approval-20150505-story.html
 
However, there's a wrinkle that exiles have pointed out: anyone born in Cuba, even if now an American citizen, is prohibited from entering Cuba by boat, presumably to prevent them from spiriting their relatives away. The Cuban regime is likely only to permit visitors of non-Cuban backgrounds to enter via ferry.
 
From Foreign Policy:
State Dept. Reports No Progress on Restoring Ties With Cuba

The State Department cannot cite any progress on a key step in the Obama administration’s policy of restoring ties with the Cuban government: the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Officials testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Tuesday [May 5] noted continued disagreements between Washington and Havana over the level of access the Cuban government will give U.S. diplomats to island residents if an embassy is opened. That has fueled some concerns that the initial burst of diplomatic progress between the two countries may be stalling.

“Right now we are still … in the midst of negotiations to establish diplomatic relations,” said John Feeley, the principal deputy assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department. “That is a process, and that will take some time, and honestly, I cannot tell you when that will happen.”

Feeley and two other State Department officials appeared on Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the department’s budgetary priorities for operations in the Western Hemisphere.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Cuban human rights do seem off the table at the moment—no one is talking about them except exile groups. Citizens’ rights don’t flower automatically from an economic opening, as has been evident in other countries. Most Cuba observers have been busy praising the accords. French President Francois Hollande visited recently,
promoting economic engagement, excoriating the US for past isolationist policies toward Cuba, and failing to meet with dissidents. Meanwhile, Raul chided the US Interests Section in Havana for giving free journalism classes, something he characterized as “illegal” and a violation of sovereignty. Still he must be happy about the increased number of American visitors.
In public, Fidel Castro has always feigned a distain of wealth, intimating that he shares the humble lifestyle and privations of his citizens. However, as stated in my book Confessions,Fidel Castro has accumulated multiple residences, yachts, and vehicles, holds a Swiss bank account, and, according to Forbes, is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.” (p. 18) My own observations have been given detailed corroboration by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, who served as Fidel’s body guard for 17 years and finally escaped the island in 2008. His book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, not only reveals details of the many luxuries the dictator demanded and enjoyed, but shows the lengths he went to hide his private privileges.
 
 
According to the Migration Policy Institute, below are the top ten countries of origin of immigrants now living in the U.S., with the percentage each has contributed to the more than 41 million total immigrant population (both documented and undocumented). These ten contribute only a little more than half of the immigrant total, so are not the whole story. While Latin Americans, especially from Mexico, predominate, 20% are from Asia, a growing source of immigrants to the US who tend to be more highly skilled and presumably arrive with visas, since it would be hard to enter from Asia otherwise.

1.    Guatemala: 2%

2.    Dominican Republic: 2%

3.    South Korea: 3%

4.    Cuba: 3%

5.    El Salvador: 3%

6.    Vietnam: 3%

7.    The Philippines: 4%

8.    China: 5%

9.    India: 5%

10. Mexico: 28%




Monday, May 4, 2015

Local Drone Victim, Amnesty Team to Baltimore, PCVs Rally to Aid Nepal, Nepal-Israel Connection, Anti-immigrant South Africans, Cuba, Re-visiting Szulc’s “Fidel,” DR Citizenship (Still), Pope Francis Does It Again, Sanders for President?


¡Feliz Día de 5 de Mayo!
 
Warren Weinstein, killed accidentally by a US drone strike in Pakistan, was once a Peace Corps staff member and a country director in Togo. Drones are a 2-edged sword, just like anything else. The fact that a gyrocopter could breach airspace around the capitol (blocks from  my house!) probably means that a drone could do the same.
Amnesty International USA called for volunteers for an observer team in Baltimore in light of the riots and unrest there. I was invited to join, but the time commitment was considerable, all weekend and including a prior training session. It would have been interesting to observe the situation and try to work matters out in a peaceful manner with the demonstrators—putting our money where our mouth is--but I reluctantly decided that I already have too much on my plate. Then the riots suddenly turned to celebrations after the indictments against police officers were handed down. It’s exceedingly rare for police to ever actually be found guilty—perhaps the officer in SC who was filmed on a cell phone while firing on a fleeing subject will be the exception. Police do have a tough job—to keep citizens and communities safe while also not being too heavy handed. I’m sure the officers indicted in Baltimore would argue that they were only trying to keep order and especially the black members among them now feel betrayed by an African American mayor and prosecutor (both female). From what little I know about the situation, they do seem to have been negligent and indifferent to the suspect, not strapping him into the police van while he was handcuffed and shackled, but it doesn’t sound like they were actually guilty of murder.
Former Peace Corps volunteers, many who have served in Nepal, have been mobilizing to help http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/faf/nepal/
It’s really miraculous that two quake victims were pulled out alive after 5 days, including a 15-year-old Nepali boy rescued by USAID workers. Others were surprisingly pulled out alive after 8 days, including a man age 101, though not sure if USAID was involved in that rescue, but it has taken the lead and has been working round-the-clock in Nepal. USAID, which collaborated with us quietly, often, and usefully in Honduras in the Peace Corps, was vilified as a spy network by Bolivia’s President Morales, who ejected both USAID and the Peace Corps from his country. Rep. Patrick Leahy of Vermont tried relentlessly to tarnish the reputation of USAID in Cuba, not only putting a hold on its funds, but revealing and denouncing its democracy promotion work there. He might say now that he was merely trying to get USAID contractor Alan Gross released and to further US-Cuba rapprochement, but he did real damage to the reputation of an agency that works constantly, effectively, and without fanfare to improve life in other countries.
Israel reportedly airlifted out 25 babies born to Nepali surrogates, along with several contract parents who had gone to Nepal to get their newborns and a few pregnant surrogate mothers. Apparently surrogacy, big business now, had moved to Nepal from Thailand when the latter banned it after a twin with Down was left behind when his sister was taken back to Australia. I’m a board member for a local adoption agency, whose business has shrunk in the wake of the rise of surrogacy (and abortion). However, our director (and now lone employee) does have a peripheral role looking into surrogacy pregnancies in the US, which are much more costly than using overseas surrogates. Still, like their overseas counterparts, most American surrogates, according to our local experience, are low income women—many are African American, though the babies they are carrying are not. They are reportedly paid $10,000- $12,000, plus living and medical expenses. I’m sure Nepali women would charge much less. Still, I would say the money is not enough for the surrogate in either case. Who uses surrogacy? Many would have been adoptive parents in earlier times, such as single or married women who may be older, cannot conceive naturally or carry a baby to term, or who simply don’t want to be pregnant, and single men or gay male couples.
The US is not alone in being a magnet for impoverished and threatened people. Australia and Europe also have their unauthorized migrants, as the recent Mediterranean disasters have shown. Now South Africans have been attacking migrants from poorer and more oppressed nations like Zimbabwe.
Americans Care Little About U.S.-Cuba Relations is the title of an article by Pedro Roig of the University of Miami. He cites several polls showing this to be the case, something not terribly surprising. Even fewer Americans are concerned about anti-Haitian descendant laws in the DR; to the extent that they even are aware of such laws, many Americans may be sympathetic and wish we could do the same to the descendants of certain immigrants to this country. Some Republican Congressmen want to take away birthright citizenship, although not for Sen. Ted, Cruz, actually born in Canada. Because these issues happen to be concerns of mine, blog readers are subjected to them, whether making headlines or not.
I mentioned something unprecedented last time: 2 independent candidates were on municipal election ballots in Cuba. They reportedly lost (was the vote count fair?) and one of them, Hildebrando Chaviano, was subjected to the classic “acto de repudio” whereby gangs of government-organized mobs beat up dissidents—in this case, he was not only physically attacked but called a traitor and a mercenary. The more things change, the more they remain the same. In that series of municipal elections, a record number of voters abstained from voting, even though voting is mandatory. One more item about a changing Cuba: the country is now reportedly importing sugar from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
After the initial euphoria of the Obama/Castro accords, maybe things won’t improve as much as either side had hoped. While the Obama administration plans to remove Cuba from the list of international supporters of terrorism, as a necessary prelude to re-establishing diplomatic relations, a Chinese ship, apparently delivering undeclared arms to the FARC in Colombia (similar to the hidden cargo in a North Korean ship from Cuba a couple of years ago), has now docked in Cuba. Why it went through the Panama Canal and deviated to Colombia if that was not is its destination has not been explained. Furthermore, as Martha Beatriz Roque, a former Amnesty prisoner of conscience, told Diario de Cuba, “They have removed Cuba from the list of international terrorism, but, in domestic terror, the Cuban regime continues being number one,” referring to the savage beatings of about 100 peaceful demonstrators on Sunday, April 26.
Right now, while the situation is still in flux, is the time to try to make changes to actually benefit ordinary Cubans. Perhaps after the embassies are officially re-established, some issues can still be tackled in private. But, I am disheartened that Cuomo went to Cuba and apparently signed a blanket agreement, no questions asked, with the Cuban military, the entity controlling virtually all commerce under General Raul Castro’s mandate, agreeing to contract for employees through that mechanism. That means that all employees must be members of the Communist Party, chosen by the Cuban military, and paid only a few dollars a month, keeping them in poverty, while the military keeps over 90% of the payment for their services. If the US starts down that path now, which other countries’ investors in Cuba have already followed, then most Cubans will not enjoy either economic benefits or political freedom. It would have been great if the end of US-Cuba hostilities could have resulted in an Eastern European type of transition in Cuba, with free expression, free assembly, and even eventual free voting, but that doesn’t look likely in the near term and even an economic opening looks doubtful now.

While perhaps not permitting voting or independent communication, if Cuban citizens such as the Damas, are out marching peacefully, carrying flowers, perhaps the Cuban government could be persuaded to actually protect them, rather than deliberately unleashing militants against them to beat them up (as it also did in Panama).  Doesn’t a government have an obligation (especially in light of increased tourist eyes) to protect all citizens who are not harming anyone else? No longer can it be said that they are agents of the “Empire” since now the Empire is now friend, not foe? Just a thought.

I’d dared hope that Cuba might follow the Chinese and Vietnamese model of opening up economically but not politically, though it will only do so if US investors demand it and don’t just acquiesce, as I guess Cuomo did. Even over time, an economic opening doesn’t necessarily lead to free speech, free assembly, or elections, as we have seen in China lo these many decades after Nixon-to-China. Yet, most Chinese are better off today. They may not be able to freely access the internet, write or speak openly, vote, or organize independently (even world famous artist Ai Wei Wei was imprisoned, subjected to a huge fine, and had his passport confiscated), most couples still are allowed only one child, and political arrests and executions even for property crimes are common, yet Chinese are able to travel, they often study abroad, and China even allows Peace Corps volunteers.  Travelers and investors there have considerable freedom to deal directly with local citizens and to make their own choices (though language is more a barrier there than in Cuba), so if something like that should happen in Cuba, even without free assembly and expression, it would be a definite improvement.

However, US investors need to insist on hiring and paying their own workers as a cost of doing business in Cuba. Perhaps they prefer to use the current established system, as long as it brings them profit—probably from US tourists or other outside sources, since Cuba internally is bereft of resources and produces very little, not even its own food—only cigars and rum, the two items Obama cited that visitors are allowed to bring back. I just spoke with a man with long State Dept. experience now going to Cuba on behalf of an investment group. I tried to persuade him to respectfully explore how both sides can adapt and move toward each other, both in terms of civil rights and economic rights that trickle down to workers, but it sounded as though he was just interested in how much money his investors might make. So, I’m feeling discouraged about both the DR and Cuba, not knowing the administration’s game plan in either case (after voting twice for President Obama).

A blog reader who is also a neighbor passed along to me her massive copy of Fidel (1986), the classic biography by the late Tad Szulc, former NY Times correspondent. I read it almost 30 years ago, when it first came out, and now have re-read it from a more experienced perspective. At over 700 pages, it’s an amazing opus. Szulc had extraordinary access to Fidel Castro, meeting with him numerous times, including right after his victory in 1959. Castro apparently spoke freely and at length with Szulc, enjoying ready access to a US-based writer of his caliber. The result is a biography seen mostly from Castro’s viewpoint. Fidel Castro was certainly imaginative in his tireless scheming to stay in power and to aggravate the United States. Interestingly, early Fidel loyalists who turned against him and often suffered years of imprisonment as a result, are only mentioned in the book in their early days of fighting and working by his side, with nothing said about their later disaffection and expulsion from the inner circle, although that had happened well before the book came out. Take one case from my own book, Confessions, that of Jorge Valls, a philosopher and poet, imprisoned for more than 20 years and released in 1984, partly through my efforts, of whom Szulc says only that Valls introduced Fidel to one of his lovers, Naty Revuelta (p. 231). Likewise, early followers Gustavo Arcos and Jesús Yánez, two others profiled in my book, later became staunch opponents of Fidel and suffered years in prison. But only their early years of loyalty are mentioned by Szulc, although their break with Fidel occurred well before the book’s release. This tends to give a skewed picture of the man and his popularity in the 1980s, even though the collapse of the USSR, Cuba’s patron, had not yet occurred and Fidel was still at the height of his powers and his bravado then, though soon the rug would soon be pulled out from under him with the Soviet implosion.

Certainly Fidel Castro had enjoyed overwhelming support in 1959, but the book overlooks the extent of his internal opposition, evident almost from the very beginning. And Szulc describes the Mariel exodus of 1980 mostly as Castro’s retaliation against remarks made by President Jimmy Carter. But what about Cubans only too eager to leave? Of course, I had ringside seat during Mariel, with my teenage foster son Alex having been forced onto a boat at gunpoint as part of Castro’s vengeful emptying of jails and mental hospitals. However, Szulc had it right when he said of Fidel, “He demands instant response to his slightest whims” (p. 43). Now, ironically, brother Raul has seen an alliance with “the Empire” as the only way to save the Communist Party and the ruling elite. It’s hard to believe that Fidel in his right mind would ever have agreed to such a course, his anti-Americanism was so visceral. I note that Szulc’s reputation as a writer and an international correspondent, as well as his unparalleled access to Fidel Castro, made his book an instant best seller and a definitive resource in its time, even though, in my opinion, his portrait is incomplete and relies too much on Castro’s own words and not enough on independent sources.

         

All this below has been happening, according to Capitol Hill Cubans-- 24 Apr 2015

 On Sunday, over 50 members of the pro-democracy group, The Ladies in White, were beaten and arrested for displaying pictures of current Cuban political prisoners.

-- Cuban political prisoner, Yuriet Pedroso Gonzalez, is on the 50th day of a hunger strike protesting his unjust imprisonment. His condition is life threatening.

-- Cuban democracy activist, Niober Garcia Fournier, of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) was stabbed by a Castro regime agent. He remains hospitalized.

-- The Castro regime ratified a three-year prison sentence against democracy activist, Mauricio Noa Maceo, for trying to set up a satellite television connection.

-- In Palma Soriano, UNPACU activist Victor Campa was arrested, while Ruben Torres Saiz was detained, then left gagged and tied on top of an ant nest.

-- On Wednesday, more members of The Ladies in White were arrested in order to impede a lunch they had organized to help feed the needy.

-- And today, Castro's security forces stormed Havana's Central Park to stop a small protest by democracy activists. Among those arrested was democracy activist, Wilberto Parada. A visiting Spanish journalist was also arrested.

For hardcore Cuba watchers, here’s a thoughtful and extensive exploration of possible future scenarios:
http://www.e-ir.info/2015/05/03/the-political-economy-of-the-cuban-reforms/

 A lament now about another country in my Caribbean volunteer sphere for Amnesty International: the Dominican Republic. I’ve mentioned the effort to strip Haitian-born and Haitian-descended people living in the DR of their Dominican citizenship. In an earlier Latin American trip, including to the DR, VP Biden apparently failed to raise the DR citizenship issue although we tried to inform him and his staff in advance. The Obama administration has not responded publicly on this issue and seems to be trying to be non-interventionist and uncritical of other governments, not throwing its weight around, especially in Latin America. Revoking the visas of a few Venezuelan officials is as far it has been willing to go. Maybe it has its hands full with ISIS, Iran, and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the DR’s anti-Haitian policy seems popular with most residents; there is much anti-Haitian feeling among ordinary Dominicans, extending not only to recent immigrants but to their descendants, just as there is anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic feeling among a vociferous segment of the US population. I would guess that in the DR, the majority of non-Haitian people are anti-Haitian, so the court degree revoking the citizenship of Haitian descendants meets with their approval. I do understand that the DR is not a rich country and that it must be hard to cope with migrants from even poorer Haiti. Other Latin American leaders are reluctant to criticize the DR government, just as is the US government. DR civil society groups in the US have joined with Haitian diaspora groups to express disapproval, but the Dominican government has ignored them. Most prominently, on May 4, the New York State Assembly voted on resolution K00376 by Assemblywoman Rodnyse Bichotte (a Haitian name?) condemning the denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent, although the language was watered down after objections from Dominican-born lawmakers. In the end, the resolution was not presented on May 4, as scheduled.  Amnesty International issued the following statement, to be added to the record in Albany:
 

Amnesty International USA welcomes the [NY State Assembly] resolution and
calls on all members of the Assembly to stand in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been stripped of their nationality.
        The story of Yolanda, whose parents were Haitian, is typical of the stories of discrimination faced daily by those of Haitian descent. Yolanda is a survivor of domestic violence, but was denied the right to lodge a complaint and file for child support because she didn’t have an identity card. Yolanda’s children, though born in the Dominican Republic, were denied birth certificates because of their Haitian ancestry. She is unable to register her children in the civil registry.
        Amnesty International USA has been campaigning on behalf of Yolanda, and her family as well as the hundreds of thousands of similarly-situated Dominicans to end the stateless crisis. AIUSA welcomes the resolution in the New York State Assembly and urges its members to stand in solidarity with all those in the Dominican Republic who are facing discrimination and statelessness.

As a Catholic, I must again salute Pope Francis for cleaning up the Vatican bank, among his other reforms. The man continues to surprise.
In the unlikely event that Bernie Sanders should actually win the Democratic presidential nomination, I would vote for him; he’s a principled and refreshingly colorful character. But then, barring something unforeseen, I would vote for any Democratic nominee, even Hillary, so that's not much comfort to anti-Hillary folks. There are certainly troubling questions about donations to the Clinton Foundation during Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state, as, indeed, there are about Jeb Bush and his speaking fees. Is it possible to be totally honest, that is, both truthful and financially clean, and still win in politics? The only Democrat I absolutely wouldn't vote for is Patrick Leahy because, as mentioned before, he was much too manipulative and blatantly self-serving, hogging undeserved credit during the whole Cuba rapprochement to the detriment of the Cuban people. All politicians are self-serving, almost by definition, but I had been watching him more closely. Sanders will make an interesting contrast to Hillary and raise important issues, which he can afford to do because he has nothing to lose and only the bully pulpit to gain. And Hillary might also welcome the chance to face a rival who isn’t a genuine threat, spicing up an otherwise lackluster Democratic race.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hawaii Daughter, Magnolia Tree, Author Interview, Earth Day, Transit Ad Wars, South Sudan, FARC, Cuba, Hillary, Patrick Leahy, Peace Corps Sexual Assault Reporting, Free-Range Kids, Food Poisoning








 

My daughter Stephanie was visiting from Honolulu, reconnecting with high school friends as well as her East Coast family, as per above photos.

 A reader asks regarding the last posting, that whether what I’d called a magnolia is actually a tulip tree? I’d ordered a pink magnolia from the nursery (there are also white-flowered magnolias), but when it was delivered almost three years ago, it was not in flower. Now, in the spring, it bursts forth with the pink flowers that appeared in the photo. Not being a botanist, I asked my daughter visiting from Hawaii who has a master’s degree in botany; she said it was a magnolia, something confirmed by an internet search. The tulip tree, which is related, typically has yellow flowers according to these sources.

 Here's an author interview I gave months ago that was just posted


 
Sat. April 18 was Earth Day, celebrated with music and speeches on the National Mall, including an appearance by UN Sec. General Ban Ki-moon. It was a bright, summery day, very nice for a celebration.

[This does not need to be all bolded, but I cannot change it.] First, there were the extremist anti-Palestinian signs on public transportation in DC and Philadelphia, equating Palestinians with Hitler. Now, turnabout is fair play, with anti-Israeli signs on Israeli apartheid appearing on public buses here in DC. The transport system has felt compelled to run both types in homage to free speech. [Now I see it comes out in red, not bolded on the blog--???]

 

As for the senseless tragedy of the current civil war, a power struggle in the fledgling nation of South Sudan, below is an e-mail from a young Kenyan supervising construction there, someone I met in 2006. He is referring to a new hospital that I saw being built then, laboriously by hand, stone by stone, both men and colorfully-dressed women working side-by-side, but now apparently destroyed. Above is a photo of a Sudanese woman and another of me with a local woman.

 
 
Hi Barbara
Sorry I was in the field and we do get very few chances to be on net and reply to mails hence this late response.
I am still here trying to do my part in raising this new nation and the current situation is not making it easy, but we are trying.
The hospital was bombed by the Northern Government sometime back and it’s such a tragedy for the people in the Nuba mountains.
Anyway take care and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Kind regards, Omoro
 
Sorry to get news about the FARC attack on Colombian soldiers, promising to reignite the civil war of so many decades. Colombia is where I went to high school and where my (adopted) son Jonathan was born—also where I graduated from high school and learned Spanish, which has stayed with me throughout my life. Peace Corps volunteers are still in Colombia’s north coast, where the FARC are not active.

Tania Bruguera, the Cuban performance artist prevented from mounting her open-mike performance in Cuba after the announcement of the Obama/Castro accords, now has the support of MOMA, the Guggenheim, and Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. Bruguera had her passport confiscated in December after being arrested and has been unable to leave Cuba.

The Cuban prisoner whose name Afro-Cuban dissident Antunez gave us at the DC Amnesty International last January, Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez, is now mentioned in an article in Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/missing-cuba-thaw-basic-human-rights-322234

 Somehow, now two Cuban dissidents are reportedly on the ballot for municipal elections, something totally unprecedented, Hildebrando Chaviano and Yuniel Lopez. Was that an accident? In any case, it's a good sign--even a year ago, they might have been arrested for even daring to try, so the fact that they are still in the running is a huge change.


However, they did not win—both said the deck had been stacked against them. Still, the fact that their names were even on the ballot was unprecedented. However, one Cuba watcher tells me that they may have been fake dissidents—of whom there are many infiltrating and undermining opposition groups. [Again, excuse different type sizes, no use meddling with them.]

 Some observers have questioned what President Obama got from making nice with Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas, when Castro has not been offering anything—still saying that Cuba will not yield one iota on its revolutionary principles, statements that mostly seem aimed at keeping the Castro family and the Communist Party in power. Whether for Castro, his histrionics are mere rhetoric and bravado, time will tell. It would have been preferable if Cuba could have gone the way of Eastern Europe in shedding communism altogether instead taking the China/Vietnam route of opening up economically but not politically or the Putin route of backtracking on democracy. The problem had been that the Cuban leadership had barely budged for 55 years, so President Obama was trying to give it a nudge. On the other hand, a family dynasty eventually does die out, so perhaps there was a chance that Cuba would have changed for the better politically after the pending demise of Godfather Fidel and Brother Raul, both in their 80s. Now, the regime has been given a new lease on life, seemingly destined to follow the China/Vietnam model of economic opening without a political opening. But Obama was not only trying to offer at least economic hope to ordinary Cubans, who felt they were in a rut, but to free Alan Gross, and to get on a better footing with visceral Latin American opponents, who really were caught off-guard and haven’t known quite how to react, especially Venezuela’s Maduro. And most Americans have applauded the outreach to Cuba, not realizing exactly what it entails. Obama was clearly the star at the summit, taking the wind out of his Latin American critics’ sails.

However, it was disgraceful that at the summit, the Castro regime brought in its usual mobs of physical attackers—the Rapid Response Brigades-- against peaceful dissidents, something it does all over Latin America wherever opposition Cubans appear in public. Independent blogger Yoani Sanchez has encountered them at speaking engagements all over the region, though never in the US, where either they are not allowed entry or the regime decides it’s a better tactic not to unleash them. Some such gang members have said they have been forced to participate, while others seem to relish the opportunity to beat up other people.

Taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, whether or not completely justified, was something required for re-establishing formal diplomatic relations. Certainly Cuba is less of a threat now to the United States and the rest of the world than during the Cold War and maybe the Cuban leadership will now try to live up to the non-terrorist designation? But the regime is not exactly benign and it would have been good if President Obama had gotten something in return in terms of greater freedoms for the Cuban people. Just reducing the pressure on the regime from the US is not going to automatically help ordinary Cubans, even though curbs on their freedoms have long been justified as necessary to protect against American aggression. While most Cubans are not used to having political freedom and a voice, most people everywhere do prefer self-determination if given half a chance. Obama’s apparently unilateral concessions to the Cuban government are somewhat worrying as they are not necessarily being reciprocated. Although Raul Castro has made laudatory remarks about Obama, he remains wary and won’t hesitate to cry “wolf” to arouse his partisans in Latin American and around the world if he feels his position and that of his inner circle are threatened. The Cuban regime long ago won the international PR battle with its appealing David-Goliath narrative. Many other leaders who feel small vis-à-vis the US (and maybe our country and leadership do bear some blame for this) readily identify with poor little Cuba. But poor little Cuban citizens get little sympathy. Predictably, the Wall Street Journal decried the removal of Cuba’s state-sponsor-of-terrorism designation http://www.wsj.com/articles/another-gift-for-castro-1429054312.

President Obama’s game plan regarding Cuba remains murky, perhaps because the American and world public wouldn’t really understand it. Some of us are trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, hoping he’s just playing his cards close to the vest so as not to propel a wary Raul Castro into a defensive mode. He also seems to have taken a somewhat less confrontational approach with Congress, realizing his remaining time is short.

Pres. Obama has wanted to create a Cuba legacy and to counteract the negative image of the US being successfully perpetrated, especially by Latin American leftist leaders. They have been kind of set off-kilter by his outreach to Cuba, especially Maduro, who was ready to pounce on the US for the sanctions against some of his officials in Panama. While Obama in Panama and US officials in Cuba have made a point of meeting with dissidents, this alone does not promote more freedom of expression and association. They still got beaten up, even in Panama. I haven't yet heard Raul Castro castigating Cuban mobs for physically attacking peaceful demonstrators, even if they disagree with them (quite to the contrary, he organizes and applauds them). If and when he tells them to stop, it will be noteworthy.

As I've said before, I do fear that the current US approach will end up promoting a system like China's and Vietnam's (exactly what Raul Castro has been aiming for)--an economic opening under a strict one-party system with executions, political prisoners, and curbs on assembly and communication. Still, most Chinese and Vietnamese are better off because of the economic opening. Yet, it would have been much better if those countries and Cuba could have taken the path of Eastern Europe and moved to a more democratic system, with free assembly, free expression, and elections. Might that have happened if Obama had hung tight and the inevitable demise of the Castro brothers had occurred?

It will be interesting to see how Hillary Clinton handles Cuba and Iran issues—probably distancing herself from Obama, but not too much. Years ago, when Hillary was First Lady, I was with her at some small forums where she seemed candid, thoughtful, and handled herself well. Since then, I’m not as crazy about her performance as she seems less genuine, but, of course, now the stakes are much higher. If she becomes the Democratic presidential candidate, which looks likely, I will vote for her, as I cannot bring myself to vote for a Republican and would certainly like to see a female president. But I’m not committed to voting for her until she actually wins the nomination.

If another Democrat should win, a dark horse like Obama, then he or she will get my vote, unless that person should happen to be Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (quite unlikely), for whom I would never vote, Democrat or not. I believe he behaved hypocritically and in an extremely self-serving manner during the whole Cuba/US debate. Although I often get appeals from him for money, I completely ignore them. Why am I so opposed to him? Leahy seemed to have regularly leaked sensitive USAID Cuba information to the press and therefore to the Castro government, and then loudly berated USAID for being ineffective and for permitting those same leaks (thanks, Leahy, for making USAID even more ineffective). Subsequently, while railing against US government secrecy toward Cuba, he clandestinely arranged to transport sperm (twice) to inseminate the wife of the Cuban Five mastermind, boasting later about that transport, and, then, after all his scathing criticism of USAID’s efforts to facilitate democracy in Cuba (totally non-violent efforts to promote freer communication), he prominently escorted freed prisoner Alan Gross back to the US and supported his several million-dollar settlement with USAID. Sorry, Leahy, if you should happen to aspire to the presidency, you’ve lost my vote.

 Sexual assault—rape, if you will—is now being reported more frequently in the Peace Corps, as well as on college campuses. It is doubtful that such incidents are actually occurring more often in either case—rather, there has been greater public awareness of the problem and an increased willingness of victims to come forward. It’s understandable why rape, especially if done by known persons, has been underreported—young women may be totally in shock, ashamed, and uncertain of how to proceed—perhaps also fearing retaliation and further trauma by having to recount what happened to authorities or even motivated by the desire to protect a perpetrator. For many, it may seem easier to remain in denial and just pretend that nothing has occurred. Similar feelings keep child abuse victims silent.


As for the local “free-range” children picked up again by the police in a DC suburb, it’s quite true that most American adults, myself included, have had ample experience as free range kids them(our)selves. Why then, are most unwilling now to allow their children that same freedom? Perhaps it’s due partly to a few high-profile child abductions now being disseminated more widely in our internet age. My own concern, for my grandchildren and great-grandson, has less to do with unsavory and dangerous strangers and more with fear of accidents. What if a child playing alone or with a sibling at a park falls or chases a ball into the street? An alert parent would intervene quickly. Perhaps I’m being over-vigilant, having lost both my son and foster son in quick succession (but as adults, not children), so I’m not prone to taking unnecessary chances. While realizing that the odds of a serious accident are quite low, the remote possibility of injury or death justifies keeping a parent always on the scene in my opinion, at least until a certain age, maybe 10? The particular age does depend on the child and a child of 10 should not be in charge of a younger one, as in the case of Maryland kids. If children need to learn resilience and independence, parents can take an unobtrusive stance, bringing along a book or electronic device to a park, sitting on the front steps while youngsters ride bikes or scooters around the block, and enrolling them in sports and swimming lessons—then sending kids off to day- and overnight camp. A cell phone carried by a child when not in sight can help parents to check in. Even when physically present, adults cannot always protect children. And, it’s quite true that the greatest danger to kids comes from friends and family members—sometimes even from parents themselves--and occurs in their own homes. The question is how much leeway should parents have in raising their own kids and when does the public and the government need to intervene?

Much has also been made of hovering or helicopter parents who undermine their offspring’s own self-confidence and development, intervening at every turn, but after being a member of The Compassionate Friends, a self-help group for bereaved parents, where all manner of unexpected deaths have occurred, I’d rather err on the side of being overprotective. Bad things happening to kids are rare, but when they do happen, their effects can be devastating and irreversible. Remember a boy walking to school for the first time in a NYC Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and being abducted and murdered by a member of his own community? Why even take that small chance when children can acquire self-confidence and independence with only light adult oversight?

I was painfully reminded of the bouts of vomiting and diarrhea that I endured in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer once again after eating a recent meal prepared by my Zambian visitor. He and his colleague from Kenya were fine after eating it—I was the only one affected. Such an episode has never happened to me here in the US, but, as in Honduras, I woke up at midnight with that familiar horrible feeling of blood flowing from the extremities to the stomach to expel its contents. Amid alternating chills and fever, that continued all night long. The only bright side is that I lost a couple of pounds. But I remembered our advice to Honduran mothers regarding their kids with stomach and intestinal upsets: always keep them hydrated. Even if everything gets expelled, liquids should be kept flowing into the body to prevent dehydration.