Saturday, May 14, 2016

Family, Local, National, and International Issues, New Huffington Post Cuba blog

Back yard picnic with neighbors Kilof and Pris and friends

Amnesty International Group 211, Capitol Hill 

 Mother's Day with daughter Melanie, granddaughter Natasha and great-grandson De'Andre

The two photos above are about the subject of my latest Huffington Post blog in my Cuba series, explained below, link is (sorry these photos appear out of order here)

Mother's Day continued 

With friends Jose and Manolo at
Shakespeare's 450th birthday
celebration, Folger's Library, DC

Please excuse the long time between postings, too much going on. I let excessive time elapse between postings, so it became harder then to actually post. Mea culpa. Look in bold below for a topic of interest.

This local murder by a man of his estranged wife took place at a high school where I have served as a Spanish interpreter. Apparently, he went on to kill at least two others at suburban malls, incidents too close for comfort.

DC Emancipation Day
You never heard of it, but District of Columbia offices were closed on Friday, April 15, in advance of a holiday celebrated locally, Emancipation Day. On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, granting freedom to 3,100 slaves in the District of Columbia. The act was passed nine months before Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation and granted freedom to enslaved persons in the District of Columbia, those first freed from the institution of slavery in the US. Now, all we need is voting representation on Congress and the Senate, as enjoyed by all other Americans.

Mexican Flag Flies over Trump Tower in Vancouver, Canada
put there by a Mexican construction worker, where it apparently stayed all day.

Fires raging perilously close to the Alberta tars sands. Alberta was my father’s birthplace, back when it was a wheat-producing province before the oil boom. Our family never cashed in on the oil.

Pope Francis provided a good example by taking Syrian families back to Rome (chosen by lottery, the luck of the draw). Francis is certainly a skilled PR and political operative, much more so than any recent predecessors, though all popes have had a bully pulpit, which they’ve used more or less. Benedict did travel, including to Cuba, but seems to have been mostly interested in parsing the philosophical and historical fine points of church doctrine and tradition. With the European refugee crisis, as with the minors’ border surge previously in the U.S., migration is always a combination of push-pull factors. “Push” are wars, crime, and poverty in the original country, while the pull factors are the attraction and receptivity of the receiving country. There can be too much “pull,” as Sweden and Germany have found out. Certainly, the US has lots of “pull” power, like it or not.


I've been trying to make Cuba a bipartisan issue, but a friend in Florida wrote to her Democratic Congresswoman about the subject of my latest Huffington Post Cuba series (below) and got a call back from a staff person suggesting my friend contact Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, not even her own Congresswoman and a member of the opposite party. Is Cuban human rights only of concern to Republican Cuban American lawmakers? That's stereotyping the issue.  My book has been trying to make the case that even non-Cuban American Democrats, like myself, can support Cuban human rights. Here’s the latest (4th item) in my Huffington Post Cuba series

As an admittedly IT challenged author, I tried to make some changes to my post after it was submitted, along with requested links to statements and quotes, which were not published—supplied for the reviewers, I guess. But it was published without those references or changes, so will mention some additional information now. After Avila found her animals poisoned, house vandalized, and well contaminated, she later had her pig and cherished mare killed. Also, the full statement of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission last Sept. was that she "is at serious and urgent risk, inasmuch as her safety and life are threatened.” Fortunately, her rehabilitation is progressing well and she is starting to walk again. But, she needs protection when she returns home, especially as she is now disabled and more vulnerable, so, as a life-long Democrat, I would hope that both Republicans and Democrats might ask their elected representatives to request that the U.S. Embassy in Havana assure Avila’s protection, as that diplomatic channel is now open to us. Protection of peaceful Cuban citizens, like those anywhere, should be a bipartisan effort.

Personal note: As a former social worker myself who then worked 16 years at the Amer. Occupational Therapy Association, 3 ½ years as a Peace Corps health volunteer in Honduras with 12 return trips for medical volunteering since, and now as a Spanish interpreter in hospitals and schools, I consider it important to focus not only on the physical injuries that Avila and other Cuban dissidents endure, but also on their psychological trauma and recovery.  So I trust that Avila’s rehab takes that into account. I recently helped a Venezuelan woman referred to me by Catholic Charities prepare for an asylum hearing. She lost her job, then was threatened and physically attacked after joining Leopoldo Lopez’s political party. In one of the documents I translated, a Venezuelan psychiatrist diagnosed her with PTSD because of those attacks.

From her own description of her previous life, Avila was a confident woman coping well with daily problems and family responsibilities, a respected member of the community, elected by her neighbors to fulfill a government-sanctioned position. However, after running into government opposition and joining a dissident group, her home and person were attacked and while she tries now to put on a brave front, it is evident from her hesitant demeanor that she is suffering from psychological as well as physical wounds, so that should be considered in her rehabilitation. Since she plans to return to her community in Cuba, where she will no longer feel safe, she needs to learn some coping mechanisms for the attacks she is likely to confront after her trip to the US. Belonging to UNPACU and having support there will certainly help. The psychological aspect must also be addressed for the Women in White and other dissidents who are not only beaten up and often detained, but suffer psychological trauma in addition to physical harm. It’s not surprising that most Cubans are afraid of stepping out of line.

We might ask Cuban authorities in Las Tunas what happened at the hearing for Avila’s attacker. While a response is unlikely, it would not hurt to ask and might afford her a modicum of protection when she returns.

In AI, we advocate the end of the US Cuba embargo in part because the Cuban government would no longer be able to use that as an excuse to attack its citizens. However, the protection of “socialism” and “the Revolution” will remain as justifications for human rights abuses. We can only hope that the Castro offspring and others designated to inherit the crown after the Castro brothers’ demise will follow the example of the Burmese generals and start making some reforms on their own. Meanwhile, Sirley Avila will require continuing support.

Message received by Amnesty International regarding our former Cuban prisoner of conscience of painted pig fame:
Danilo Maldonado Machado, “El Sexto,” has been detained four times in the past month of April, and was detained again today until further notice. His mother, Maria Victoria Machado, called CANF to inform of his situation. As is typical, there are no paper trails or legal explanations for his continued arrests. Danilo’s family will be visiting the police station tomorrow to inquire on his behalf. In the meantime, Maria Victoria has asked that Danilo’s friends outside the Island be informed and circulate the details of his situation throughout the international community.

Cubans stuck in Panama will be flown to Mexico, but Panama says it’s not accepting more Cuban migrants on its territory. First Nicaragua, then Costa Rica, would not let them enter their countries any more.

An open letter was instigated by former Costa Rican President and Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias and signed by 80 Latin American leaders, urging Cuba, at the start of its recent super-secret Communist Party Congress, to  open up to its own people:

As my Cuba book readers know, I met Arias back in 1990, when he was president. I saw him inaugurate a municipal pool by swimming the whole length under water without coming up for breath. A photo in my book shows me greeting him as he emerged afterward. In 1987, he had gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the Central American conflict. I just Googled his age and he is said to have been born either in 1940 or 1941, making him a little younger than I. In 1990, he was about 50, so his swimming feat was pretty good for his age. I felt then and still do that Arias knew the score on Nicaragua and Cuba.

In 1990, I'd been scheduled to be an election observer in Nicaragua, back when Ortega lost, though he has come back now in a somewhat muted form. Just before that 1990 election, I’d gotten a letter from the Nicaraguan Embassy in DC, saying my visa had been revoked and that I'd be turned away at the Managua airport, no explanation given. So, I went to Costa Rica instead, met with then-president Arias, and saw him inaugurate the pool. I then traveled to the Nicaraguan border by ordinary bus to an obscure jungle crossing where the Nicaraguan guards there saw my visa in my passport and let me through. As we all know, Violeta won that election against all predictions. I was at her house that midnight when former Pres. Carter strode in, acknowledged her victory (speaking Spanish with a Georgia accent!), though he advocated delaying the announcement until morning to give him time

The recently concluded Cuban Communist Party Congress included dire warnings from Raul and others that Obama was trying to provoke internal change by friendly means and hence the need to guard against US stealth attacks on “the Revolution” (code for the ruling elite).The US government has been wise to ignore this rhetoric and just continue with friendly overtures.
When Fidel goes (in photos, he looks almost gone already), while some will continue (at least rhetorically) to support policies in memory of their late great founding hero Fidel, gradually that support will fade in practice. Fidel's reign was mostly a disaster for Cuba and Cubans, but it did have some good aspects. Although he pushed the country into the arms of the USSR, he increased its independence from the US (now reverting to that former dependence) and, initially, he inspired many Cubans to work hard supposedly for the greater good. Also, there were gains in education, especially medical and health related education (partly to prepare graduates to earn money for the regime). But the health system for ordinary Cubans, especially in rural areas, is not that different from what's available to Hondurans in rural health clinics—Honduran rural health clinics that are sometimes under the direction of Cuban doctors who have defected. 
I never met totally illiterate Cubans, as I still do among Central American adult interpretation clients; at parent-teacher conferences, it is not uncommon that Central American parents aren't able to monitor students' homework because they never attended school themselves or dropped out in first or second grade. Most Cubans, at least, have had a rudimentary education, although some, like my late foster son Alex or Armando, my kidney patient friend, make frequent spelling and grammatical errors in Spanish. 

One reason for the Cuban government's initial prohibition against allowing Cuban-born Americans to be cruise passengers is because they are still considered to be Cubans (partly to force them to get Cuban passports and pay extra fees to visit their land of birth) and Cubans are not allowed to get into boats and to travel by sea. 
Omar Everleny, a Marxist economist, for years a darling of the party as well as an internationally recognized scholar, has suddenly been dismissed, stripped of his party membership and banished to what is known in Cuba as the “Pajama Plan,” namely retirement into ignominy. An acquaintance of his now living in the US thinks he should come here to teach in a university because his career is obviously finished in Cuba. What did he do or say? Something about the excessively complicated import bureaucracy, while giving a nod to perhaps extending more involvement to private actors.

Well-meaning friends have been urging me to try going back to Cuba. One asked me to join her group to visit Protestant churches (bravo for them, I mean that sincerely). She doubted that I would be turned away, but I certainly wouldn't dare spend money to be stopped at the Havana airport and turned back.
The following case is illustrative: US citizen Arturo Villar, born in Spain of a Cuban mother, decided to attend a family reunion in the small town of Caibarién (I’ve been there) and bought a ticket and visa through Gulfstream Air Charter. At the Havana airport, he was taken aside and questioned by two Cuban agents regarding a story he had freelanced to the Wall Street Journal 23 years ago about the dollarization of Cuba. Villar, now 82, had been on a family visit back then, when he found out that Fidel Castro was getting ready to make that change. His story was a scoop, well-regarded in the U.S. but taboo in Cuba. When he was put on a plane back to Miami five hours after landing, he discovered that the Cuban government holds a grudge. (He did not get his money back.) (The Miami Herald, April 20, 2016, "Usher, Smokey Robinson in Cuba for some cultural diplomacy, but U.S. consumer beware")

I don't think even a small country like Cuba can survive economically only with tourism, remittances, and the earnings of its medical workers sent abroad. All that is money from other sources--charity to some extent. Long gone are the days of the Sugar Daddy USSR. Cuba itself has to begin to produce something, make something, grow something, sell something, and more than just rum and cigars. That Cuba must import sugar from neighboring DR is totally ridiculous.

Cuban Cardinal retires at age 78.  As my book readers know, I met Jaime Ortega in Cuba before he became a cardinal. At that time (in the 1990s), he and his deputy, Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, since deceased, argued that the church had to walk a very fine line to maintain such influence as it was able to muster. Their efforts have allowed the Catholic church to enjoy a little more space than other religions.

A partial way around Cuba’s internet restrictions:
Bystanders protect Woman in White from arrest:
Although the following is in Spanish, it’s also showing that ordinary Cuban citizens can intervene when the authorities are mistreating someone, which may have a moderating effect:
There are parallels between what happens in Cuba when authorities are being filmed and the same happening with police interactions here in the US.

These vintage pre-Castro Cuba travel posters make it look like we’re now going back to the future,

Maybe the Castro government really doesn’t want the embargo gone, as now everything is blamed on the embargo, since they can no longer blame "the Empire" directly. See

Cuba already trades with 120 countries and the US embargo has been gradually rolled back, no longer including food and most medicines and medical supplies, so the end of the embargo, if and when it happens, is not going to make a dramatic difference unless and until the USA actually gives actual aid to Cuba because Cuba is not producing much of anything. One of my correspondents paraphrases Shakespeare: The fault, dear Castros, is in yourselves rather than in the stars …on the US flag.

The following is a thoughtful article that takes a long-term view.

South Sudan
Apparently, the two warring leaders in South Sudan’s civil war have agreed to a truce, a sort of stalemate rather than actual cooperation, so let’s hope their fighters agree? It took a long time for rival vice president, rebel leader Riek Machar to actually return to the capital, Juba, to mend fences and show unity with the president, Salva Kiir. South Sudan has not been helped by the fall in the price of oil, its only export commodity. My heart goes out to the struggling people in South Sudan whom I met there in 2006. Seeing photos of the leaders and South Sudanese people, I am again struck, as I was when I actually saw them in person, by how very dark-skinned they are compared to other Africans, many of whom may have more of a mixed heredity—or perhaps that more intense blackness is a particular characteristic of South Sudanese? Most African Americans, including members of my own family, have a mixed-race heritage.


The current Honduran president, not a very likable guy in my opinion, prone to gestures and histrionics on TV, vows to be tough on crime, corruption, and police misconduct (even recruited a new force, but some have been the same guys). However, is he really doing anything? Is he able to accomplish anything? I wonder if a Honduran president might be worried about losing his own life if he goes too far?
In 2009, former Costa Rican President Arias tried to mediate the conflict in Honduras over the ouster of President Mel Zelaya. Bernie Sanders’ supporters and maybe Sanders himself have accused Hillary of supporting a "coup" against Zelaya. There is much disagreement about whether there ever actually was a coup there--it's complicated--certainly Hondurans don't have a consensus on the question. Zelaya did go back to Honduras, ran his wife as a presidential candidate for a new party he formed; she lost, but he won as a legislator for that same party and now is a gadfly in the legislature, a thorn in the side of his opponents. I do not blame Hillary for supporting a "coup" in Honduras because there is major disagreement there about whether there actually was such a coup. I especially don't blame Hillary, as some are doing, for the recent murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cacares, when her murder had more to do with her activism and her opposition to a local dam project. Hillary has faults, but, in my mind, but failing to call Zelaya's ouster a "coup" was not one of them nor is she omnipotent and all-knowing. However, when the Sanders camp makes such unfair accusations against Hillary, it almost makes me want to actively support her. 

Berta’s daughter Bertita and other Honduran environmental activists are taking their message to Europe with a tour of Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, and Germany. Amnesty International in the various countries is accompanying and supporting these visits.

In the FIFA scandal investigation, it has been revealed that former Honduran President Rafael Callejas (1990-1994) admitted to taking bribes and will be sentenced Aug. 5. He was president before my time there, which began in 2000.

Presidential Election USA
Former presidential candidate John Kasich said that he's against giving us in the District of Columbia voting representatives in Congress and the Senate because we are mostly Democrats—a very sore point for us living in DC. The Republican Party is in a big mess, but Donald Trump has confounded all predictions, so we cannot be sure he wouldn't actually win a presidential election. Many of us had expected him flame out long ago. 

So, it looks like we will have to go with Hillary. No one is perfect--and she certainly is not. But I'm influenced by a couple of small meetings on health care (when I worked at the Occupational Therapy Ass'n) and also on gun control that I attended when she was First Lady; she seemed quite alert and genuine then--now, she's (necessarily) more scripted. Bernie was never really an option, though he does seem genuine, but is always shown frowning and apparently righteously angry (an occasional smile wouldn’t hurt). Single-payer health care would be nice, but Hillary tried that and failed. Her vote for the Iraq war was based on the GWBush administration’s faulty intelligence that many believed at the time, including Gen. Colin Powell. Bernie has never said anything about his previous endorsement of Fidel Castro and of the Sandinistas, certainly mistakes when viewed in hindsight. If it's Hillary against Trump, of course, we have to go with her.

Perhaps Donald Trump, if actually elected, would get some advisers to moderate his positions, but he's unpredictable, like a bull in a china shop, so who knows? I hope if he gets the nomination that he not only loses, but takes down some of the most obstructionist Republican senators and congress people with him. His front-runner status should enliven an otherwise dull Republican convention. If nothing else, the guy is entertaining.

I wonder what Obama plans to do after the presidency, as he says he plans to stay in DC at least until his younger daughter graduates? I wonder where they would live?

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida--recent presidential candidate--was sitting across the aisle from me on my return flight from Miami to DC. He tried to shield his face as he consulted an electronic device during the flight, but I noticed the American flag on his lapel, so there was no doubt. I told him I was surprised to see him flying coach like the rest of us. "It's the way to go," he said. He helped me get my luggage down from the overhead rack. I wonder what his future plans are now that he isn't running again for the Senate? Maybe he hopes for a position in a Republican administration, but no chance of that if somehow Trump wins--not after his remark about Trump's small hands! 

 Above photos of myself, acting as interpreter for Afro-Nicaraguan environmental activist protesting route of proposed Chinese canal, AI USA annual conference 2016

At Amnesty International USA’s annual conference held in Miami, April 1-3, I moderated a panel on human rights in Cuba and internet prospects there and served as interpreter for the Nicaraguan activist shown above. Our local group, 211, received a national award for our activism. 

Use of the death penalty worldwide appears to be on the increase after apparently waning. China is thought to have the highest rate of executions, several thousand a year, but does not release figures nor do Vietnam and Belarus. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan account for most of the current increase, countries in which not all executions are for capital crimes. Of course, the US is a death penalty nation, at least in some states, which saw 28 executions in 2015. Japan and Singapore also use the death penalty.

It does seem that the whole transgender phenomenon and conflicts regarding it have been made possible by modern surgery and hormone administration, but it could further bankrupt the medical system if more people want to do it, as it apparently involves not only multiple surgeries, but also continuing hormone use. Even prisoners have been asking (i.e. Chelsea Manning). What did people who felt they were born with the "wrong" gender do in the old days? Just cross-dress? That would be a lot easier. I agree that no one should be harassed, especially someone who feels vulnerable or looks a little odd, but I do think the bathroom opponents have a point--how to distinguish between someone who is genuinely transgender in "their" heart and a guy wearing a dress who just wants to spy on women? 

Researchers are working against the clock to develop a Zika vaccine, based on some success with closely related vaccines for diseases associated with various forms of encephalitis, including Yellow Fever, West Nile, and dengue.  When I was in Honduras in Feb., contracting Zika was everyone’s the greatest fear. Heavy fumigation, unfortunately, kills not only harmful insects, like mosquitoes, but helpful and necessary ones like bees.

Yahoo in Transition?
Yikes! Yahoo, my main internet provider, is up for sale. If they jettison free e-mail, I am in trouble, though I do have a g-mail account. I wonder if my Yahoo address book could be transferred? If it has to be done one by one, that might force a much-needed pruning.

The following article from the New York Times Magazine prominently mentions the debate within Amnesty International about the decriminalization of sex work.®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0


Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Birthday, Easter Greetings, Amnesty Int'l Conference in Miami April 1-3

Hello folks, I just celebrated my birthday—I won’t say which one—with my daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson. It’s also the end of the cherry blossoms, which arrived early this year. 

Recently, I spoke with Betio, a Honduran environmental activist who I helped obtain asylum in the US and bring his large family here. They recently moved to Texas, but we keep in touch by phone. He knew slain La Esperanza activist Berta Caceres and also the Mexican witness wounded in the case, who is also a friend of a Mexican friend here in DC, small world.

Amarjit Pabla, born in the US of an American father and a Honduran mother, is a gang leader captured in Tegucigalpa.

Here is my panel at the upcoming Amnesty International Conference in Miami (Doubletree Hotel hear the airport)
Freedom of Expression, Dissent, and the Internet – What is the outlook for human rights in Cuba?, Friday April 1, 6:00 to 7:30pm  

Punk rocker Gorki Aguila announced a “performance” a on March 25 in Havana at a place called La Paja Recold. At the performance, the band appeared in a silence. And they all had their mouths taped shut. The place was reported surrounded by State Security and that Cuban graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado (El Sexto) has been arrested by the police. While few Cubans will hear about this, as was the case with Danilo's pig caper, it will be made known outside the country and makes the Cuban leadership look increasingly foolish, as happened also when Raul Castro flubbed a reporter's question on political prisoners. 

This guy just mentioned below must be related to Vladimiro Roca, former decorated fighter pilot and son of late Communist Party stalwart Blas Roca, and is not the only family member to become disaffected. I met Vladimiro the 1990s (as per excerpt below that from my book on Cuba and Latin America).  

Posted: 24 Mar 2016 01:52 PM PDT
From Freedom House:

Cuba: Release Independent Journalist Immediately

In response to the violent abduction of independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, whose whereabouts are unknown, Freedom House issued the following statement:

“The Cuban government should inform Valle Roca’s family of his whereabouts and release him immediately,” said Carlos Ponce, director for Latin America programs. “Despite President Castro’s claims to defend human rights, the Cuban government continues its blatant repression of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to peacefully protest.”


On March 20, Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca was abducted and detained by the Cuban secret police in an incident captured on video by Voice of America, prior to President Obama’s visit. Valle Roca was previously beaten and arrested for his work as an independent journalist. Valle Roca is one of the grandchildren of the late Blas Roca Calderío, founding member and leader of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2016, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015, and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2015.

From my book:
Vladimiro Roca, Famed Fighter Pilot
Vladimiro Roca, the dissident son of late Castro loyalist Blas Roca, was once a trusted MiG fighter pilot trained in Czechoslovakia. An intense, direct man, he expressed absolute conviction in the justice of his cause. In Roca’s frank opinion, the most serious failings of the Castro government were in housing, transportation, and food supply, “There are many other problems, but these are the three basic ones. If they wanted to resolve them, they could… It’s a strategy: as long as you’re kept busy fixing your house, looking for food, and figuring out how to get around, you don’t think about changing the government. You’re preoccupied with just getting by.” The embargo, according to Roca, had helped Fidel stay in power, “He needs an enemy to keep the people in a state of war, even though it’s a fictitious war.” 
Roca was arrested and served five years in prison soon after I met him. He was released in 2002 and became the leader of the outlawed Social Democratic Party. He vowed never to leave the island, but to fight on until his death. He has been denied permission to travel abroad to receive international human rights’ awards or to visit his daughter in Tampa. In a 2004 interview, he said, “I’m convinced that Fidel doesn’t care about the well-being of the people. In fact, I think it would bother him if people were better off. Fidel is not a comandante, but a pretty diabolical person.” 

The following are some articles about Cuba that have come out around President Obama’s visit there. The first one below hones in on something I mention throughout my Cuba book, that most Cubans are always hungry, even though few are actually starving. The tone of the article is more bitter toward Obama’s Cuba policy than I would be, but I definitely agree on the hunger issue. President Obama fully extended the hand of friendship and gave a careful and masterful speech in Cuba, daring to mention peaceful free expression and even voting. Let's hope it had some impact both on the party leaders inside the hall and on the television audience, though it was not reprinted in the official newspaper, Granma, as is usual with such speeches. Raul Castro ended up looking foolish, flubbing a reporter's question on political prisoners.

Of Republican presidential hopefuls, the one I find least objectionable (though I would not actually vote for him) is Kasich, as I believe I’ve said before. I don’t agree with cutting domestic programs and increasing defense as he has proposed, and while I would prefer full rights for undocumented immigrants, allowing them to remain in the US without a path to citizenship seems like an acceptable alternative.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Addendum to 2016 Honduras Trip Photos

Reflecting on my 2016 Honduras trip, I am pleased to report that we examined hundreds of patients via the IHS medical brigade and performed 136 successful lip/palate surgeries with Operation Smile. Again, more than one child underwent surgery in each operating room, two in each of three rooms. Last year, we had only two rooms, three kids in one, two in the other.

I had some thought after posting the photos to leave it at that, but some folks have asked me for a narrative, so I will try to be brief.

First, when I got to the Teguc home of my hosts of the last few years, Martin and Tonya, their daughter Lucy was there, their long-time servant Maria and her young daughter Suyapa undergoing chemo for skin cancer and wearing a cap, but no small adoptive daughter, Noemy. Her little desk was still there, but she was not. Martin said the agency had taken her back. Of course, I had been worried about her then, as it seemed Tonya had been very harsh with her, pushing her beyond her abilities to do first-grade homework in English when, at age 5, she had never been exposed to English before, as had her classmates. The older girl was also very dismissive of and cold with the child, very jealous, her mother said. She smirked when referring to Noemy. The new child was expected to be like their high-achieving, relentlessly pushed older daughter whose command of English was really pretty good and who was said to be an excellent student, though I did not see much physical expression toward her either, unusual as most Hondurans are huggers. I had urged the couple to move the little one back to kindergarten (she was only 5 and her background was unknown) and to consult a psychologist. I had also noticed that the little girl gravitated toward Martin and toward me, seeking some warmth. She would sit with me on the same chair watching TV.

Well, in a private moment on this last visit, Tonya told me that the psychologist had told her to hug and kiss Noemy a lot, but, she asked, how could she do that when the girl did not obey? Martin had blamed her for the failure with Noemy, but he was never around—I did observe last year that Tonya was constantly critical and cold, so, in a way, it was her fault, but I could see that she could not change her nature or her expectations. “I am not an emotionally demonstrative person,” she admitted. Adoption is more challenging than having a birth child and there is little support for adoption in Honduras, though I had also urged the couple to seek out other adoptive families. Apparently, the agency was no help.

I could see in retrospect that, as I had feared, this had been a hopeless case. Tonya said further that when they were discussing an upcoming trip to Rio to celebrate the older girl’s important 15th birthday, they could not bring Noemy with them because the adoption was not final and the child was aware of that. At one point, Tonya told me the girl said, “I am lonely here; I feel all alone. I’d like to be with other children.” That’s when they took her back to the agency and she was put into an orphanage, where Tonya planned to visit her, as the only family she would ever have. I thought that was a good idea and encouraged Tonya to visit, since the agency did not plan to try Noemy with another family. So, that’s the sad story, which I saw coming and had tried to head off unsuccessfully.

I did go to work with Tonya one day to her public kindergarten class. The school had been fumigated the day before. She was very strict and differentiated between boys and girls, who sat at separate tables and did different gender appropriate tasks at play time—boys with trucks and cars, girls with dolls and dress-up. I thought the teaching was very rote, but that’s the system there. Outside at recess, I saw pre-k kids, so am glad there is a public pre-k. At snack time, some kids brought their own, but those unable to do so got a fried plantain.

After class, I went to a cybercafé, as the laptop I had given the family no longer works.  Later, I went to Mass at a Catholic church with the family, a big contrast with the small evangelical service would attend with Luis’s family in La Esperanza. Perhaps 1000 people took communion, which, instead of having them all go up to the altar, was passed along the rows by several assistants to the priest, which I considered a more efficient process than usual.

Now there are 4 main political parties in Honduras, when there were 2 before. One of the new parties is headed by controversial former president Manuel Zelaya, now a member of the legislature.

Traveling by bus around the country, I was amused by the usual vendors and preachers, as well as the kids selling stuff—they seemed to feel proud they were doing an important job. So much for critiques of child labor. In one bus, we were given plastic bags for throwing up in case we felt queasy going around curves.

I’ve noticed a few people in Honduras with blue eyes and black hair, maybe like some Irish, but it is a contrast with the majority who have black or dark brown hair and brown eyes. You have to wonder if the blue eyes are a genetic fluke or whether, as used to be conjectured when I was in Peace Corps, if some American male volunteers had gotten their DNA into the gene pool?

In southern Honduras, in Choluteca and El Triunfo, the temperature would rise to over 100F daily. There was also a very loud, fierce, hot wind, a sirocco, constantly blowing around dust and sand—at night, you could hear it howling and sand and dirt came into through the screened windows at judge Gustavo’s house (he is in my Honduras book), a huge mansion he designed himself, with high ceilings and lots of fans, but A/C only in the living room and master bedroom. He and his much younger 4th wife have a full-time servant and two guard dogs. Gustavo, who is almost 30 years older than his wife, must retire in 2 years at age 65 and is worried that guys he may have condemned to prison may get out and try to harm him. In addition to being a judge, he teaches night law classes. His very attractive wife works at a bank and is lonely and has not been able to conceive. Gustavo has a daughter with each of his other 3 wives, one adopted as an infant at birth—actually he and his then-wife just put their names on the birth certificate and took her from the hospital, legal adoption being too difficult in Honduras. The couple’s servant has studied cosmetology and did the wife’s hair in the evening.

In Choluteca, I visited the family of Dr. Lesly Castro, the young doctor now living with her American husband and two children in NH.

In El Triunfo, I rode around in a mototaxi, visiting the people shown in the posted photos, including Pedro Joaquin, still interested in starting the library, having kept all the books we collected. I gave out some money to certain people whom I felt needed it and gave medical supplies to the newly built health center. One of the nurses says she’s still using the forceps I gave her years ago, which is a little scary as forceps can do damage if misused, though she assured me was adept.

In La Esperanza, wife Wendy’s mother and sister were also staying with her, so it was crowded. The children are growing, Alexandra looks to be overtaking her mother in height. Luis was rarely to be found, traveling around the country distributing bed nets and repellent to pregnant women on behalf of his employer, World Vision. There were too many fierce dogs guarding the place—they didn’t like me. As in Teguc, I felt the family, especially the kids, spent too much time watching mindless TV. I did see Chunga in a new market area that she doesn’t like at all—few sales—and also attended an evangelical service with Luis’s family. I was able to give the walker I had brought to a 60-year-old man with post-polio syndrome and the wheelchair to a boy paralyzed after a fever, though he fought against it at first. These recipients lived in very remote areas with no amenities. I also visited and gave money to a single mother in Jesus de Otoro caring for 2 boys with spina bifida. The older one, age 14, had the same pressure sore he had 2 years ago and I urged him to return to Teguc to have it treated, but he said he refused to go. (It could be fatal.)

I spent a week with the International Health Service medical brigade in Semane, outside Yarmanaguila, where our volunteer crew included people from as far away as Manitoba and even South Africa. We had to take up a collection to send 2 patients to hospitals in Tegucigalpa, one with a mouth tumor, the other with a tumor on her lower chest that looked like another breast. Semane had no electricity, except for a solar panel at the health center. The local elementary school was evacuated temporarily for our use. Residents from different surrounding villages, notified by radio, came on each day.

Later, I participated in Operation Smile at San Felipe hospital in the capital, as well as visiting the blind school and the OT and ortho departments there (as per my photos).

Zika is a big concern in Honduras, as I wrote about for the Honduras Peace Corps newsletter. I’ll repeat my short article here:

Honduras in the time of Zika
By Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-2003) and author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peach Corps in Honduras

At the end of February, I returned from my annual humanitarian and medical brigade volunteer visit to Honduras, the 12th since I left the Peace Corps there 12 years ago. Our International Health Services brigade ( gave out medications, medical advice, and medical and dental treatment to hundreds of patients in villages near Yarmanaguila and La Esperanza in Intibucá province. At Operation Smile in the San Felipe public hospital in Teguc, 136 lip/palate surgeries were performed during a busy week, 2 surgeries at a time in each of 3 operating rooms.
Aware of the high murder and crime rate in Honduras, my children and friends have always expressed concern about my travels there. However, tiny mosquitoes are now proving to be the greatest risk. Since my previous visit in Feb. 2015, Hondurans have been introduced to chikingunya, yet another mosquito-borne illness to accompany malaria and dengue’s 4 variations, with chikingunya sufferers reporting lingering joint aches after the acute illness has passed. However, chikingunya is not the last or least of new mosquito-borne scourges. The most feared now is Zika, first detected 6 months ago in Honduras, not long enough yet to know if unborn babies have been affected, but long enough to bring paralysis and even death from Guillian-Barre. In early February, local papers reported there were more than 14,000 confirmed cases of Zika in Honduras and by month’s end, the total was 27,000. Most transmission occurs via mosquitoes, though there have also been some cases of sexual transmission.
In health centers and hospitals—and at medical brigades where I volunteer annually as an interpreter and helper—I met many anxious pregnant women.  Most health centers lack ultrasound to determine how a fetus is developing. Meanwhile, the government has undertaken a massive fumigation effort, while international agencies have been passing out bed nets and repellant. There is even talk of reviving the use of DDT. Mosquitoes do not live in high-altitude La Esperanza, one of the areas where I volunteer, but cases were arriving there from lower elevations. Although I wore long sleeves and slacks while traveling even in the scorching south and socks with my sandals, I did get a mosquito bite on one hand while in Tegucigalpa, but no illness followed.
Needless-to-say, with all its other problems, Honduras does not need Zika. Water pilas have a big potential for mosquito breeding and efforts are being made to make them less hospitable while maintaining the quality of water for daily use. Some critics of eradication point to the fact that mosquitoes are food for birds, lizards, and other creatures, but most agree human life has precedence.
So now, in addition to gangs and crime, Zika is another risk in Honduras, meaning that the Peace Corps is not likely to return there any time soon. Neighboring El Salvador has now also suspended the Corps, a real loss in such needy countries. Hondurans ask me when Peace Corps will return there. I have to admit, not any time soon, but I do hope to live to see the day.

Honduras newspapers did report on the Dominican citizenship issue that I have been working on with Amnesty International, saying that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission had denounced the policy on Haitian descendants, a statement that the Dominican government described as “unacceptable” and an interference in Dominican internal affairs.

Teresa Calix, a member of the Honduran legislature, was one of many denouncing fellow member Salvador Naralla, who had apparently brought another female legislator to tears with his insults. In La Tribuna (Feb. 12, 2016), under her smiling photo, Calix was quoted as describing Naralla as a “worthless castrated ox” who, when a man like him mistreats a woman as he did, in her region, “he is castrated and is left without balls.” She further characterized him as “only an animal.” Donald Trump’s insults are nothing compared to those of Honduran politicians.

Right after I left Honduras, environmental activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in La Esperanza. I never met her during the time I lived there nor on subsequent visits. She was said to have been a Lenca tribe member, but she had curly brown hair, not straight black hair, and apparently did not wear indigenous garb, as did Rigoberta Menchu in neighboring Guatemala (a chain smoker whom I met in the early 1980s when she visited the DC area). Maybe Caceres was mestizo. My Mexican human rights lawyer friend and neighbor, Priscila, knew the Mexican witness shot in the same event.

The Nation and other left-leaning publications were quick to try to link Caceres’ murder to the failed so-called “coup” against Melvin Zelaya in 2009 and to blame Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at that time. I considered that a ridiculous accusation, as there was no consensus in Honduras, the US, or the world about the “coup” then or since. (Current Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez of the conservative National Party also wants to extend his term, as Zelaya did—would preventing him from doing so be called a “coup”? What about the several leftist Latin American presidents who have tried or wanted to do the same?)

In any case, I wrote a rebuttal to the Nation’s article, but was not allowed to post it, as I am not a subscriber (though I once was). Here it is:

La Esperanza is one of my former Peace Corps sites, where I have returned yearly, including just days ago, ever since leaving Peace Corps in Honduras 12 years ago. It's not the most dangerous place in Honduras, but dangerous enough. Once a robber crashed in through my roof there while I was sleeping. With so many robberies and murders daily in Honduras, it's often hard to distinguish targeted from random. One of my friends, a nurse in La Esperanza, was recently almost killed in knife attack connected with a purse-snatching. Nearly everyone has a friend or relative who has been robbed or killed. 

Berta Cáceres' murder does show every sign that it was a targeted assassination, with the U.S. now assisting in the investigation. Someone wounded in the attack was a witness and one person has already reportedly been arrested. However, it's a complete fiction to blame "the Clinton-backed Honduran regime” for this tragedy, as was done in the Nation and other left-leaning publications. Mel Zelaya, victim of the so-called coup that took place two presidential elections ago, has never been a wildly popular figure and, after he was deposed in 2009, came back to Honduras, mounted his wife as a presidential candidate in a new party in a contest she did not win, and went on himself to win a seat in the legislature under that same party, where he is now a thorn in the side of his colleagues. While he does have fervent supporters in his own district, he is also seen as a somewhat clownish figure, with his signature cowboy hat, black mustache, and extremist rhetoric. Often, the Nation gets it right, but not in this case. To connect Zelaya's ouster with this murder and to blame Clinton is a huge stretch. It was much more likely due to Caceres’ own vociferous opposition to a local dam project.   

Meanwhile, the civil war in South Sudan continues, really heart-breaking and so unnecessary.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Honduras Trip Report, February 2016

This time, will try to let the photos tell most of the story. Here was my Choluteca host, Gustavo, the judge in my Honduras book, whom I first met decades ago when both of us were attending a human rights course in San Jose, Costa Rica. He designed and supervised the building of this enormous house where he lives with his 4th, much younger, wife, and their maid. 

This is a mototaxi, which took me all around El Triunfo during 100+ F temperatures. 

When this woman's daughter, who had spina bifida, was living, I got the girl a water mattress and other assistance, but she sadly died of a pressure sore before her 20th birthday. 

Dona Reina and daughter Solei

Here is Neris, the girl shown with me on my Facebook page, all grown up now and with two children. 

These photos are taken at the new Triunfo health center--Dra. Jeannette in the right corner between two nurses. Pregnant mothers were worried about contracting Zika.

Pedro Joaquin, would-be Triunfo librarian, strums his guitar.

Pedro J's twin daughters, youngest of his 4 kids

PJ's girls braiding a neighbor child's hair

PJ fixing motors, as electricity was out in town

 Sharing lunch with neighbor girl

 PJ is still keeping our future library book collection, including some kept in old refrigerators.
 Choluteca fashion display

Two photos above of Castros in Choluteca, family of the young doctor in my Honduras book

Wind energy is gaining traction 

Pigeons in bus terminal--also an armed guard, but I dared not photograph him

In La Esperanza, at the dinner table at Luis's home--he is absent aa usual--the place is well guarded by fierce dogs.

Why bathrooms and electrical wiring are scary 

Dona Chunga with pal at her new market location, which she does not particularly like

Evangelical service, La Esperanza, woman leading singing

At Esperanza Red Cross. student poster commemorating World Red Cross Day
This volunteer for parallel eye brigade had to have emergency gall bladder surgery and be sent home

Church in Yarmaranguila, near La Esperanza

Semane medical brigade volunteers gathered at the school where we would be holding our clinic the next morning; radio operator in black jacket came all the way from Durban, South Africa

Our local leader had been injured in a bus accident when the driver fell asleep

Patients start lining up before opening at 7 am
Line-up of school latrines

Medical files from nearby health center

Honduran dentist joined our team, same young woman who served with me 2 years ago

This patient had a  mouth tumor, so we took up a collection to send her to Teguc

Our solar shower bags and enclosure

Pharmacy corner--school desks were moved out during our stay

Volunteer IHS nurse from Manitoba interviews a family (with my help)

Path to home of walker recipient


This passage keeps large animals out while letting people pass; sugar cane to the right

Water source

 Paralyzed boy does not like new wheelchair; mother and grandmother try to make him sit

After a time, boy gets used to seeing wheelchair (mother has 3 other children)

Two years ago, in Jesus de Otoro, I met this mother raising 2 boys with spina bifida by herself--older boy has the same pressure sore as last time

"Boot" donated to ortho clinic, San Felipe public hospital (I'm wearing Operation Smile t-shirt)

These are patients in San Felipe OT clinic

Students at the residential school for the blind, Teguc

Awaiting lip/palate surgery, San Felipe hospital 

Six simultaneous surgeries over 5 days at San Felipe hospital, 2 in each of 3 operating rooms, Operation Smile, 136 surgeries in all that week

Child's parents with him in the recovery room

Operation Smile registration notice

Outside the hospital, plant life grows on the electrical wires

In a cyber-cafe

Some Teguc neighborhoods have closed off streets and hired 24-hour guards

Public kindergarten, pre-k, and first grade school

Empty desk of adoptive daughter who went back to the agency just before I arrived

15-year-old daughter's important birthday

Catholic church congregation, Teguc

Host mother's birthday, 2 days after daughter's 

Shopping for vegetables, Teguc

Getting on American A. flight back to the US requires going up the stairs

I've tried to post a large number of photos here. We'll soon see if they made to the blog.