Sunday, November 16, 2014

Holidays, LGBT & AIDS Activists, Latest on Cuba, School Interpretation, Cycle of Misinformation

Now with the anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I wonder what, if anything, is being reported in China, or in North Korea—where it must be a sensitive topic—or in Cuba, where most citizens have no access to the internet?
Veterans Day, which featured an outdoor concert on the Smithsonian Mall, was dry and mild, with a high in the low 70s, very lucky for the observance of holiday events.
In case I don’t get back to the blog before Thanksgiving, wishing you all the best.
The above photo, taken at a meeting in a DC residence, shows young Jamaican LGBT activist Angeline Jackson, whom I had met before and mentioned previously on this blog, and Nakibuuka Maxensia Takirambule, an AIDS activist in Uganda. By their embrace, they are expressing a collaboration between LGBT and AIDS advocacy across continents. Angeline heads up a fledgling Jamaican LGBT organization, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica in Kingston, focused mainly on gay women, who seem to have even less support than gay men and are often subject to rape, as in her own experience. (Jamaica is one of my Caribbean countries for Amnesty Int’l USA.) Her group tries to counter biblical passages that are used against gays and also works in prisons. She connects women’s rights with LGBT rights, as does Xensia from Uganda, who uses a nickname (thank goodness) and is the executive director of Lunguzza Community Health Caring Organisation in Kampala. Xenia has been HIV+ since 1998, having contracted it from her husband, who died in 1999 (a pattern similar to what we saw in Honduras in the Peace Corps). She has felt stigmatized by her HIV status and has made common cause with LGBT Ugandans with HIV/AIDS. She has been working on reducing social rejection of both LGBT persons and those with HIV. They were brought together by St. Paul’s Foundation, a religiously oriented gay rights advocacy organization now focusing on gay rights in Cameroon, Jamaica, and Uganda.
Readers of my books know that my Cuban foster son, Alex, who came to the US at age 16 as an unaccompanied minor in 1980 via the Mariel boatlift, had been freed from jail and put on a boat at gunpoint, as happened with many prisoners then. He was gay, learned he was HIV+ in 1990, and died of AIDS in 1995, one year after my son had died as the result of a work accident. Xensia contracted AIDS a few years later, when anti-retrovirals were just coming into use. AIDS was also a priority for us as health volunteers in Honduras where women often contracted it from their husbands, as Xenia did. Now, the incidence in Honduras has leveled off, in part because of our educational campaign. Of course, there is much anti-gay discrimination in Honduras.  In Cuba, one of my Caribbean countries for Amnesty, Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela has been an advocate for gay rights there, but only within the Communist Party—all independent gay rights efforts, like any independent action, are not permitted. Still, that’s progress from the time of my foster son, when gays were jailed or sent to labor camps. 
Last time, I mentioned that Sonia Garro, the Afro-Cuban human rights activist and member of the Ladies in White, scheduled to finally go on trial with her husband and neighbor on Nov. 7 after more than 2 ½ years of detention, has had her trial postponed without explanation again, for the 4th time.
I’ve never called attention to an article from the Wall St. Journal before, but am doing so now, because it’s something I’ve been saying for a long time, both in my Cuba book and on this blog. Bravo to Cuba for sending doctors to West Africa to fight Ebola, but it’s not a matter of pure altruism, despite the NYTimes editorial that praised “impoverished” Cuba for sending doctors there, saying it put US Ebola efforts “to shame.”  (Americans are no slackers in Ebola efforts, which have eclipse those of other nations, both in terms of sheer money, expertise, and the number of medical volunteers going to the area.)
Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors. Havana earns almost $8 billion a year off the backs of the health workers it sends to poor countries.
Well now, after a balmy fall, winter has finally arrived ahead of schedule, and we’ve found out the radiators on the 3rd floor of my big old house are not working. Of course, with overloaded furnace repairmen, it’s been a long wait to get the problem fixed and, alas, it’s not fixed yet. Reminds me of being in the Peace Corps in La Esperanza, Honduras, and bundling up because houses and buildings there had no heat, despite winter temperatures sometimes falling into the 30s F. There, when using a computer, I wore gloves with holes cut out for my fingertips. I wish I could find those gloves right now, as my home office is on the 3rd floor.
I had a most enlightening interpretation assignment at a parent-teacher day at a DC public high school that focuses on teaching newly arrived students English in a special unit. As you would expect, most of the students in that unit are Spanish-speaking, though I was told some are also from India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. Non-English-speaking parents of those students had to make do with telephonic interpretation using a speaker phone. In the unit that I was assigned to work with, we went non-stop from noon to 7 pm, talking with 40 parents during that time (only 10 minutes each, using a timer), most of them from Central America, though one was from the DR and another, Peru. According to their teachers, most of the students were doing very well and were actually learning English by leaps and bounds, as well as other subjects like math and science that they hardly knew anything about, as many had not attended school recently in their home countries. Some parents were not literate themselves and I had to help them fill in a sign-up sheet. Most were from El Salvador or Guatemala and at least one was from Honduras! Most kids had arrived during that surge earlier this year and immigration court appearances and possible deportation are still hanging over them. Some parents had not seen their children for 10 or 12 years, so there have been family adjustments as well as adjustments to a new country and language. One mother, in tears, said her 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son had had some terrible experiences going through Mexico together that they have been unwilling to talk about. Another mother, who brought 3 small US-born children to the meeting with her, said her 2 teenage daughters had surprised her by arriving pregnant--pregnancies that began in El Salvador, not en route. The surge has stopped now, mostly because Mexican authorities have agreed to a US request to stop migrants trying to cross their southern border.
We cannot take in all the needy people in the world, still, but after the tremendous risks and efforts these kids have made to get here, I hope President Obama lets them stay and that he gives relief to a major proportion of other undocumented people; as with squatting or common-law marriage, after a certain amount of time, their existence and right to be here should be acknowledged—a path to citizenship is more controversial and not as crucial. And it’s unfortunate that Obama has deported over 2 million people, more than any other president. Now, he needs to make good on his promise to give some relief to the undocumented.
Politicians encourage and reinforce misinformation that helps them get elected and then promote legislation based on false premises. Most Americans think the foreign-born population is many times greater than its actual 13% and that President Obama is soft on illegal immigration, when his administration has actually deported more than any other. They also overestimate by far the percentage of Muslim citizens and residents. The public and voters also believe crime statistics to be much higher than they really are, and that they growing, when they are actually falling. Teen pregnancy has also taken a nosedive, though most Americans believe the opposite. Nor will most Republican politicians want to set them straight, preferring to berate the Democrats with erroneous, but still widely believed, conjectures. As I note in my recent book, an ignorant public and deliberately deceptive politicians mutually reinforce false impressions in a vicious cycle.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Aggravating “Corrections,” Writer’s Digest Award, Medical Brigade Appeal, Election Results, Amnesty Conference, Cuba Again, Health & Aging

Very annoying and unhelpful are computer auto-corrections of Spanish spellings. It requires super vigilance to go back to correct those darn “corrections.”

Here’s something nice said about my Cuba book: This book is an engaging and worthwhile one that would be at home on the shelf of any bookstore. --Writer’s Digest Book Awards, 2014

In Feb., I always travel back to Honduras, my Peace Corp country. Next Feb. will be my 11th time since I left in 2003. Tasks include volunteering with International Health Service of Minnesota medical brigades, We are still short doctors, nurses, dentists, and interpreters. If you have a spirit of adventure plus extra time and cash for your expenses, join us then or throughout the year. Contact Renee: or John: Photos above are from last Feb.’s brigade. The baby is all dressed up to meet our medical team.
While the rest of the country blithely voted for their senators and representatives, those of us living in the District of Columbia, in the capital of the free world, with a population bigger that Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming and not far behind the population of Alaska, have no voting representatives whatsoever in Congress, a fact not known or appreciated by most of the rest of the nation. Some people maintain absentee voting registration for years in other states to give them that leverage. Of course, voter registration in DC is more than 90% Democratic, so Republicans are not about to allow us to have the vote, though we are permitted to vote for president. We did elect a new mayor this time, a young African American woman, Muriel Bowser, and also approved the use of small quantities of pot for personal recreational use—I voted “yes” on that, though I’m not happy to approve another mind-altering substance, but it did seem that probably people were already using small amounts of pot and should not be prosecuted for that. For the first time since I moved here in 1969, the city is less than 50% black, so we might eventually have a non-black mayor. Two white independents ran against the winner this time.

 As all the pundits had predicted, Republicans really surged ahead in this election. Democrats apparently stayed home, as voter turnout was low. Only when the consequences actually fall on voters will they see their mistake—or maybe not, because they won’t make the connection. Two years from now, the electorate may well be tired of the Republicans. It seems we are doomed to a continuous Hegelian cycle of action and reaction where each side keeps cancelling the other out. Unfortunately, President Obama is a cerebral guy who doesn’t glad-hand members of Congress or go out golfing with them very often. He is apparently not good at informally engaging with members, joking around with them as a really good politician should—I don’t think it’s just a matter of race, but mostly an expression of his personal more intellectual style. Also, he only served in the Senate 2 years before running for president, so didn’t have much time to build up relationships there.

 Now that Obama has been rebuked so soundly by the mid-term elections, I retract my prediction that he would lift the Cuba embargo, despite pressure from other governments and some sectors in the US (and the Cuban regime) to do so. Obviously, Cuba is not an important issue now, so why would he rile up Republicans on this essentially non-issue, unless he would do so at the very end of his term? But if he is going to try something on immigration reform, I still think that wet foot/dry foot may go. McConnell has publicly warned him not to take action on his own, however, something needs to be done. Maybe Republicans would now be willing to deal on immigration reform, but without a path to citizenship whereby Hispanic voters might eventually come to vote against them. Most undocumented people would be satisfied with living without the threat of deportation—never mind citizenship, which is a long, expensive, and arduous process anyway.

Attended a weekend Amnesty International regional conference held in DC whose theme was “Bringing Human Rights Home,” focusing on what we can do in this country to make human rights universal. It began with demonstrations the first day at embassies with certain highlighted human rights violations. Of course, there is no worldwide consensus on exactly what universal human rights are, but I won’t get into that issue here. The photo above show the youthful panel providing the opening keynote. Most of the several hundred attendees from the states surrounding Washington were also young. My experience after having been in this organization since 1981 is that these young enthusiasts end up finding a full-time job, getting married, having kids, and dropping out for the most part—only a few of us stick with it. Of course, having been to many of these conferences over the years, although the themes do change and evolve, there are certain patterns that remain, so, for me, there was not the newness that many conference-goers felt.

One panelist talked about being tear-gassed in Ferguson. Yes, I remember being tear-gassed myself, in Chile in 1988. Another panelist, born in Peru, didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was almost 18 and asked her mother for her social security number—her parents had protected their children from that knowledge. When she came out as undocumented, she “outed” her whole family. In panels and workshops, the power of social media to organize ordinary people and forge national and international connections in real time was touted, which is why Cuba is suppressing that media—also China, to some extent.  

In a workshop on immigration, we did exercises regarding how it might make us feel if we were in a new place, hearing a language we didn’t understand. One of the moderators was from Catalonia and spoke in Catalan, a language I have actually encountered in Barcelona, and also inadvertently in doing translations from medical facilities in that city where some doctors have reported in Catalan rather than Spanish. The two languages are similar and on-line dictionaries are always available.

I felt like an outlier at the immigration workshop, which emphasized the divide between white people and communities of color and how white people may be unaware of their privilege and lack of knowledge of other communities. Of course, I have experienced the reverse of the immigrant experience by living 3 ½ years in Honduras, though, frankly, I’ve never been made to feel out-of-place there, partly because of my language facility, which sometimes made Hondurans forget my foreigness. However, other Peace Corps volunteers were not so lucky and many felt alienated. I also don’t consider myself part of the “white community,” whatever that is, as my family has always been a blend that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, disabled, and gay members. And the prejudice can be reversed, as in my Cuba book, when my Hispanic friend disputed my ability, because of my ethnicity, to understand or comment on life in a Latin American country like Cuba.

Via a disgruntled Cuban-born parent, I’ve gotten a report that Che Guevara’s image has been posted at the entrance to Central High School in Newark, NJ. Probably neither staff nor students are aware of his bloody history.

I was recently privileged to have met a Cuban blind human rights lawyer, mentioned briefly in my Cuba book (p. 312), Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, on his first visit outside of his country. He is shown above with another Cuban appearing in my book, Basilio Guzman, one of 26 political prisoners who arrived in Washington in 1984, after our local Amnesty International group asked presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who was visiting Cuba, to obtain their release. They are holding up a copy of my Cuba book, which I had just given to Gonzalez Leiva, although it is written neither in Spanish nor braille. However, he asked me to send him digital copy that he would listen to via computer-speak in an attempt to understand it with his uncertain English.

I did tell him that my late former husband was blind and I asked about services and support for the blind in Cuba, which he said are very limited. He has been arrested numerous times, served prison time, and suffered repeated “acts of repudiation” at his home in Ciego de Avila, a town I visited in 1997, but although he was active then, he was not among activists who were convened to meet me there. He told me he has organized an illegal organization of blind Cubans and gives food, money, and advice to some 20 or 30 people who visit his house daily. He told us about a malnourished little girl that his family has taken in. “We also help people write letters to the authorities,” he said. He also visits prisons and distributes food and money there. The government would like to shut down his operation and at many of his meetings, there are more state security agents than genuine members. He said that while in theory, now Cubans are allowed to exchange houses and cars or use the internet, few can afford those transactions. Even the cost to operate a cellphone exceeds most Cubans’ monthly income.

Gonzalez Leiva opined, as do many Cuban dissidents, that the regime murdered both Damas’ leader Laura Pollan and activist Oswaldo Paya, both featured in my book. Yet, he said, we must not lose hope, “A free Cuba is not impossible—dreams can come true. I am here now, something unimaginable before.” If my Cuba book ever recovers its production costs, his is an organization in which I would like to invest any Cuba book proceeds, just as I use my Honduras book proceeds for my Honduras projects. However, it is not so easy to send money to a designated person in Cuba, especially a dissident.

Finally, an Afro-Cuban human rights activist and member of the Ladies in White, Sonia Garro, in pre-trial detention for 2 ½ years, along with her husband and a neighbor, is finally scheduled to go on trial for “attempted murder” in Havana (p.309 of my Cuba book). When the trio was on a rooftop surrounded by soldiers and others carrying out an “act of repudiation,” apparently the two men threw objects at the soldiers, one of whom was trying to reach the rooftop via a ladder, though the soldiers were not injured. However, Garro herself was said to have been hit in the foot with a rubber bullet. Now I’ve gotten word that the trial is postponed once again. Our position in Amnesty is that that all three should be released until they go to trial.

The New York Times has been on a tear regarding Cuba, with the 3rd recent editorial I’ve noticed favoring the Cuban government (the first 2 called for an end to the embargo and praised Cuba for sending doctors to fight Ebola), this one calling for a swap of the three remaining Cuban spies of the original Cuban Five for USAID contractor Alan Gross, now in his 5th year in imprisonment in Cuba. (An anti-Castro blog says that five such pro-regime editorials have appeared in the last three weeks, though I’ve only noticed three.) Two of the Cuban Five have already been released and have returned to Cuba. While the deaths of four members of the Brothers to the Rescue have been attributed to the Cuban prisoners, perhaps letting the three remaining men go is the only way to liberate poor Alan Gross. This prisoner swap would be something I could very reluctantly support, if only for Gross’s sake. At least the Cubans have served a few years’ prison time. We don’t live in an ideal world. All the seeming pro-Cuban government editorials appearing recently in the Times have appeared under the byline of Ernesto Lodoño, who joined the paper only in July, after working at the Washington Post, which has a much less favorable editorial position toward the Castro regime. It is curious that all these editorials have appeared since Lodoño’s arrival, as I don’t recall the Times being so pro-Castro before.

As for the embargo, should it become an issue in the future, I’ve suggested a focus on Americans' rights in Cuba rather than on Cubans' rights in the embargo debate. I mean it not as my preferred position but as a middle way, since the embargo has failed to improve Cubans' rights for more than half a century; I’m simply trying to suggest something that might be doable and offer a little relief. Obviously, I would love to see the Castro brothers gone, along with allowing free expression, assembly, and elections. However, that is unlikely to happen in the near term unless we get lucky and someone like a Gorbachev appears in Cuba or there’s a fortunate fluke like the tumbling down of the Berlin Wall. Sudden, unexpected events do happen, as in the confluence of factors that allowed Fidel Castro to triumph in the first place. But we cannot bank on that. What I propose is a possible way to reach US politicians and voters in the vast middle, something simple that they might actually be able to understand and accept, couched in terms of Americans' rights to hire and pay their own workers and of American visitors to choose their own accommodations and tours and pay directly, rather than inferring any effort at regime change. The Cuban government could tax earnings, of course. But that would still be better, in my opinion, than simply unilaterally and unconditionally lifting the embargo, which is the direction being advocated by many right now. Of course, the Cuban government could reject any such proposal, but then the ball would be in their court.

Frankly, I’ve been alarmed by the apparent current groundswell of support worldwide for unilaterally lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba without requiring anything in return, depicting it as merely the expression of an outmoded historic grudge. Once again, the UN General Assembly has come out against the embargo, as has the New York Times, as mentioned, as well as those attending a recent high-level conference on Cuba held at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Most Americans, even Cuban Americans, according to recent polls, would favor or not oppose ending the embargo completely and it’s been an issue in south Florida electoral politics. Even the Fanjul sugar baron family has switched sides, hoping to revive the Cuban sugar industry. The main arguments used in favor of abolishing the embargo are that it hurts the standing of the United States, especially in Latin America, divides Cuban families, and is used as an excuse to prevent freedom of expression and association inside Cuba. If those arguments were to prevail and the embargo were lifted without requiring any concessions whatsoever on the Cuban side, the Castro brothers would once again have won the PR battle, thus helping them to retain power to further enrich and protect themselves and their legacy and avoid possible future human rights sanctions.

Most Americans are apparently unaware that ample outside investments and visitors from other countries (and many from the U.S.) have not automatically led to any meaningful economic or political freedom for ordinary Cubans; rather, Canadian entrepreneurs have been arrested and their holdings seized apparently for giving Cuban employees direct bonuses.

A more effective stance than outright opposition to any further relaxation might be: Yes, by all means, let’s end the Cuba embargo, and do so without “interfering” directly with Cuba’s internal affairs, rather seeking only basic protections for American visitors and investors, such as those afforded in other communist countries and in nations allied with Cuba in Latin America. That position might be more palatable to US and world opinion than insisting on free speech, assembly, and elections in Cuba right now. Of course, with recent ++Republican victories in Congress and the Senate make the question of the embargo moot for the time being.

At my current age, way past 70, I have numerous friends and acquaintances with health problems undergoing extensive medical treatment and surgery, and sometimes facing death. What surprises me is that they express feelings of shock, betrayal, and anger, not so much at their deteriorating bodies, but at the medical establishment that has failed to restore them to their previous health and function. Surely they must be aware that everyone gets old and dies, but are apparently in denial and don’t really believe it applies to them, and, so, often opt for medical interventions that actually make matters worse. Usually the odds of success are explained beforehand, as well as the chances of complications, but they never expect to be on the losing side, not realizing that medicine is not an exact science, never 100% successful, so it doesn’t always makes things better, though that’s the intent. The longer we live, the more likely that surgery or another treatment won’t work well or will have unfortunate side effects. We are all going to die and there are times when we should choose not to have medical treatment and just let nature take its course. When we face such a choice, especially if, like me, we are well past 70, and if we opt for treatment anyway, we should not be terribly surprised and blame our doctors if we take the chance and don’t actually improve.



Friday, October 31, 2014

Bigger Font, Halloween Greetings, Confession, DC Library Book Fest, Little League Football, Teatro de La Luna, New York Times’ Cuba Push, More on the Cuba Embargo

Hope that readers complaining about a small font in recent postings, will be satisfied now with this font, which should be big enough even for readers my own age. If not, put on your reading glasses!

 Happy Halloween! Above are some neighborhood decorations, including the guy with the scythe who actually moves!

 Confession: sorry to have fooled some of you, but Pope Francis really wasn’t here in DC, only his image, alas! I once met Pope John Paul II and would also like to have a chance to meet Francis, as he seems like a pragmatic and likeable guy. He comes to the church’s leadership at a time when the church desperately needs a fresh outlook.

We were 80 DC authors, all competing with and supporting each other, at a book fest and the main public library, Martin Luther King, on Saturday, Oct. 18.  It was fun, but most of us had only modest sales. Library patrons arrived expecting to borrow, not buy, books. A number of folks looked like homeless people attracted by the free candy and snacks some book vendors offered in addition to selling their books.

 A neighbor has written a book about Diogenes, named for her "philosopher dog," a book featuring many dog photos juxtaposed with sayings from Diogenes. She actually brought the dog to her display table at MLKing Library where he sat obediently, going out for periodic walks with her husband, who accompanied her. The couple was also wearing Diogenes t-shirts, which were being sold as well. Dogs and cats are always popular book topics.

On Saturday morning, I attended great-grandson De'Andre's  football game, as per above photo. He made a touchdown and his team won. I'm not crazy about allowing kids his age to play football, but it's tag, not tackle, and they don't wear helmets, rather pulling off a red waist tag instead. Two girls are on his team. We were not the only ones there to cheer on De'Andre; also present besides me, daughter Melanie, and granddaughter Natasha, were Natasha's dad and the mother of De'Andre's dad.

Folks stripping off the paint of the adjacent house undergoing renovation (rebuilding really) for the last 6 months began spraying water on the outside to remove old paint. In doing so, they sprayed paint debris all over my side windows, including between storm and interior windows, causing a huge mess, very challenging to clean off both outside and between the 2 panes. If they had put plastic over our windows, as they did on the house they were spraying, that problem could have been avoided.

In the company of two women friends, saw a hilariously funny, clever one-woman play at a local Spanish-language theater, Teatro de La Luna. By an Ecuadoran playwright and titled “Loca la Juana” (That Crazy Joan), it depicted various historical Joans, including Joan of Arc, Joanna of Castile, and Pope Joan. All the parts in this one-woman show were played by a marvelous and versatile Ecuadoran actress also named Juana, or Joan, herself. For us, the event was also a reunion of sorts. One of my fellow theater-goers, also Ecuadoran, was the International Rescue Committee staffer who first placed unaccompanied Cuban minor Alex in my home, as per my Cuba book. The other friend also has a connection with that book, having been a fellow member of our Amnesty Group 211 who later married Basilio, one of the 26 long-term Cuban prisoners freed by Jesse Jackson in 1984 at our request.
At a baby shower and potluck for a Nigerian couple belonging to our Communitas Catholic community, a child, also from Nigeria, began feeling ill and vomited, sparking concern about Ebola, even though I doubt he and his family had traveled there recently, nor is Nigeria an Ebola hotbed. Yet, even though I know better, I, like some others, indulged in these paranoid thoughts, an even worse tendency among much of the public whose fears sometimes approach panic. Tourism to Africa is down sharply, even to South Africa and other countries located far from the outbreak. 

The link below refers to an article in the Spanish-language version of the Miami Herald, noteworthy because Cuban independent blogger Yoani Sanchez, speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum, has identified the flash drive as the secret weapon of the new Cuban revolution (see also a section on Yoani in my Cuba book). Although Cuba has less internet penetration (thanks to regime strictures) even than Haiti, Twitter feeds sent into the diaspora have often been multiplied by being sent back into Cuba, informing citizens of such hidden events as the collapse of a crumbling Havana building or police abuse captured on one of few existing Smartphones.

 The Washington Post seems to be bucking a trend to get on the anti-embargo bandwagon. From The Washington Post's Editorial Board, Oct. 20, 2014:

Cuba should not be rewarded for denying freedom to its people

The other day, Fidel Castro wrote an opinion column for Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, as he has done periodically from retirement. He lavished praise on an editorial in the New York Times that called for an end to the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. But Mr.
Castro had one complaint: The Times mentioned the harassment of dissidents and the still-unexplained death of a leading exponent of democracy, Oswaldo Payá, and a younger activist, Harold Cepero, in a car wreck two years ago.

The assertion that Cuba’s authoritarian government had yet to explain the deaths was “slanderous and [a] cheap accusation,” Mr. Castro sputtered. [Editorial continues.]

Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly has again condemned to US embargo on Cuba, a position also taken in a recent NY Times’ editorial. The NY Times editorial staff seems to be making a concerted effort to enhance Cuba’s image, also lauding its sending of doctors to West Africa to fight Ebola, saying that Cuba is putting American efforts to shame. Previously on this blog, I too praised Cuban doctors both for their expertise and for putting themselves at risk to fight this illness. And it’s great that Cuba and the US are cooperating in the effort to contain Ebola. While mentioning that WHO is directing the Cuban team, the editorial fails to tell the whole story, that WHO is also probably fully financing that team’s participation, making it sound instead as though Cuba is operating completely on its own steam. And are these brave Cuban doctors being adequately paid for their sacrifice, or does the money go, as it usually does, directly to the Cuban government which then gives them a small living allowance while confiscating their passports? Cuba deliberately trains an excessive number of health workers—and trains them well--to dispatch all around the world to earn money for the regime or to be deploying in medical tourism on the island, paid for in dollars to the government. (Read about neurosurgeon Dr. Hilda Molina in my Cuba book.)

“Cuba is an impoverished island that remains largely cut off from the world,” says the most recent Times editorial on Cuba. Yes, it is impoverished, but not exactly cut off from the world because people from every country travel there regularly, including thousands of visitors from the United States. These visitors and investments from many countries have failed to soften the regime’s political and economic strictures on the Cuban people, as anti-embargo advocates argue will happen when the US engages more fully with Cuba. I thought of leaving a comment after reading the Times editorial, but saw a huge number of comments already posted there, running the gamut of extremes in either direction. One woman alleged that Cuban children get better health care than American children, something widely believed, but still a myth largely perpetuated by the Cuban government. All children in the US can get free medical care if their families are unable to pay. Meanwhile, health care for ordinary Cubans over the last few decades has been markedly deficient, not only because of the embargo. Epidemics are covered up, as happened with dengue, as recounted in my Cuba book, and, more recently, with cholera.

During an embargo discussion on Oct. 15 on NPR’s On Point, a Canadian caller pointed out that many of his fellow countrymen have gone to Cuba for surgery. The program’s moderator reiterated the truism that Cuba has excellent medical care. What neither acknowledged is that Canadian medical tourists pay in hard currency for care unavailable to ordinary Cubans. From what recent Cuban exiles, including doctors, have told me, care for Cubans outside elite political circles has deteriorated considerably. That deterioration was apparently already starting more than 25 years ago, even before the Soviet exodus from Cuba. Yet, the reputation remains. Certainly Cuba trains its medical personnel well and they have performed well abroad, including in Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, and now, Liberia. The US State Department has said the contribution of Cuban doctors is welcome in the fight against Ebola. They were also well respected when I worked with them in Honduras. While UN agencies have donated medications to Cuba, practitioners providing care to ordinary citizens are financed by the Cuban government itself, with most medications and equipment in short supply and doctors earning only about $20 per month from their cash-strapped government.

The embargo should not be removed entirely unless US investors and travelers are allowed more freedom to engage with Cuban citizens by being able to hire and pay them directly. Most Americans would not consider that an outrageous requirement, since it’s taken for granted in most other places, including China, Viet Nam, and Cuba’s “socialist” allies in the Americas. It’s a restriction on the rights of purchasers of, or investors in, goods and services to have the Cuban government intervene to make those decisions for them. Freer commerce might finally allow Cuba to start emerging from the economic and political doldrums of strict state control.

The US embargo should not be ended unilaterally without any conditions whatsoever required of Cuba, in my opinion, speaking now as a private citizen, not in my role with Amnesty International. That’s why I’ve put forward the modest proposal of allowing more choice for visitors and investors. However, the political momentum seems to be moving in the direction of a unilateral lifting by the US with nothing required of the Cuban government in return. So, I would not be surprised if the Obama administration does as much as possible administratively, at the same time eliminating "wet-foot/dry-foot." There would be some upsides, namely, that the embargo’s elimination would lift that cloud from the American image. It might also engender a more cooperative attitude toward the US among the Cuban governing elite and certainly takes away the main excuse for cracking down on ordinary citizens and for the existence of domestic scarcities, but how that would translate on the ground remains to be seen. The main objective of the Cuban elite is to remain in power, so they will do whatever they deem necessary to achieve that.

Politics—or economics—makes strange bedfellows. Now even the Fanjul south Florida sugar baron family, whose members were once staunch supporters of the Cuba embargo, has shifted its stance, seeing the prospect of investing in and reviving the sugar industry on the island.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Fest, Wasp Nest, Franciscan Catacombs, Interpretation Adventures, Friend Loses Her Son, Gay Marriage Quirk, Malala, Cuban Migrants, Cuban Five, Drones, Healthcare Efficiency, Peace Corps Adjustment

Again, mysterious underlined words appeared in my last blog. Why?

 OK Folks, here’s your chance to stop by to chat with the author and get your signed copy of either or both of my books, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras and Confessions of Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People. Meet with me and other outstanding local authors at ML King Library, 901 G St. NW, on Saturday, Oct. 18, 9 am to 12:30 pm or 1:30 pm to 5:30 pm, across the street from Gallery Place metro stop (9th & G exit).  Mark your calendar today!

A wasp nest appeared mysteriously clinging to a cloth embroidered wall hanging that I had gotten in Kenya, a scene featuring ostriches. I carefully removed the mud nest, which was empty, and scraped the cloth with a butter knife, but a residue of mud-dust remains, as seen in the corner depicted. I am wondering how to clean the rest without damaging or staining the fabric, as I fear using water or alcohol would do. Maybe a vacuum cleaner? Any other suggestions would be welcome.
Above photos are from a visit to the Franciscan monastery located in DC, with its underground catacombs, a smaller  copy  of those in Rome. They’re kind of macabre, with shrines and replicas of tombs of saints, including one of St. Sebastian, killed by an arrow in a thigh, of particular interest because of preshooler Sebastian in our party. Included is a bas-relief representation of purgatory, with unfortunates struggling to get out. You’ll be surprised that I met Pope Francis there! Perhaps the most eerie was the glassed enclosure containing an actual desiccated body, that of a little girl who died centuries ago, nicely dressed with a cherubic face mask, but with her actual dark shriveled hands emerging from her gown.

 At a recent hospital interpretation assignment, I ran into another interpreter, I think for Hindi. His client was spectacular-looking, wearing a turban, robes, and a long beard. My own patient that day was very hard of hearing and needed an MRI test requiring her to remove her single hearing aid. I then had to shout instructions to her, wearing out my voice until I was almost hoarse by the end. Another patient told me he works nights on the current capitol building repair project, something I can see from my neighborhood, the dome now surrounded by scaffolding. With interpretation, we never know whom or what to expect, which keeps it interesting.

 I was devastated to hear that my kids’ childhood friend, who used to live 2 doors away, has died suddenly. I just talked with his mother and, of course, there is no consolation for such a loss. I mentioned The Compassionate Friends to her, a support group for bereaved parents, but it only helps them feel less alone and does nothing, obviously, to bring back the lost child. The death of a child is simply something a parent never gets over. If an analogy can be made with a physical loss, it might be like learning to live without a limb or eyesight, though most parents would gladly give up a physical attribute in exchange for the life of their child. Most would even give up their own life for their child’s life. But we are not given that choice. We are acutely aware of the fragility of life and how any of us and those we love could die tomorrow, or even today.

 Now all local jurisdictions, DC, Maryland, and Virginia, allow gay marriage. A young woman I know works in a restaurant where a waitress from Eastern Europe asked her to marry her, only on paper, so she could get a green card. When my younger daughter was a college student out in Washington State, she had similar marriage proposals from foreign students, but back then, all were men. Now the marriage possibilities have doubled! When I travel, I wonder if foreign women will begin to ask me to marry them just as men do now? Who would have envisioned this consequence of the gay marriage boom?   

 Kudos to Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. She is a brave, well-spoken young woman. In a recent radio interview, a prominent Pakistani newspaper editor, whose name escapes me, declared that the prize was all part of an American (?) plot to undermine Muslim values and mix boys and girls together in schools where immoral acts could take place. Of course, girls can always be educated separately from boys to avoid such risks. And Malala is still targeted for death by the Taliban and must live under guard at all times, probably even more so now because of her increased notoriety and recognition in the west. The editor said he didn’t believe that she had actually been shot. It was all a conspiracy against Muslims.

 A New York Times editorial for October 12, 2014 urges ending the US embargo against Cuba, a process that has been occurring gradually already de facto, but is unlikely to end completely until perhaps after the November elections. Jesse Jackson, whom I met in 1984, along with 26 long-term Cuba prisoners that our local Amnesty International group had asked him to get released (as per my book), has also come out in favor of jettisoning the embargo, in a statement in the Chicago Sun-Times. If the embargo is gone, what will be the Cuban government’s justification for restricting and punishing its own citizens?

 It would not surprise me, as part of his post-election immigration reform efforts, if President Obama rescinds the “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy for Cuban rafters established by Bill Clinton, allowing them to remain if they touch US soil. I know several successful rafters and also heard of those arriving at the Honduran Caribbean coast while I was living there, some of whom stayed in Honduras. But others were picked up at sea by the US Coast Guard or in the Bahamas and returned to Cuba, so must have suffered reprisals. And, who knows how many have been lost at sea, like the unfortunate rafters mentioned below? The safest, but most expensive, way for Cubans to cross into the US is via Mexico, requiring relatives outside Cuba to obtain for them a flight to Panama or Ecuador and, from there, usually ground transportation through Central America and Mexico, then across the Mexican border after paying off Mexican border guards. I brought Armando, my Cuban kidney patient to the US that way, 16 years ago, and he did the same with his own son, as recounted in my Cuba book.

Reuters, Oct. 5, 2014 [excerpts]

A group of Cuban migrants drank their own urine and blood after the engine of their homemade boat failed, leaving them adrift in the Caribbean for three weeks without food or water, according to survivors who reached the United States this week.

 "I’m happy I made it, alive, but it was something no-one should have to go through,” said Alain Izquierdo, a Havana butcher, and one of 15 survivors of the 32 passengers. Six passengers are missing after they tried to swim to shore, while 11 others died of dehydration.

 “I just feel sad for those who didn’t make it,” said Izquierdo, sitting under a sun shade by the pool of his uncle and aunt’s home in Port St Lucie, on Florida’s east coast.

 The survivors were rescued by Mexican fishermen 150 miles (240 km) northeast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and were briefly detained in Mexico before being released late last month…

 U.S. authorities said last month more than 16,200 Cubans arrived without visas at the border with Mexico in the past 11 months, the highest number in a decade.

 I missed this article about Cuban US Dept. of Defense “mole” spy Ana Montes when it first came out, but I did know about her. Many thanks to an alert blog reader for sending it to me, a fascinating story,

While the Cuban government has made a full-court press for the release of the three remaining Cuban Five prisoners, with a relentless US and European campaign and the arrest of Alan Gross 5 years ago, it has said virtually nothing about Ana Montes. A reader speculates that the Cuban government isn’t going to waste its time on Montes, a lost cause, as the evidence against her was pretty overwhelming. But, apparently, it considers the Cuban Three not to be a lost cause and certainly I’ve heard from a fair number of Americans involved in campaigning for their release—considering them innocent and victims of an unfair trial, as the Cuban government alleges. There is also a vocal contingent of Europeans convinced of their innocence and involved in the same campaign to free them. So an exchange of Alan Gross for the Three after the November elections would not surprise me, along with a further easing of the embargo and immigration measures including getting rid of wet-foot/dry-foot (on grounds that it puts rafters in serious danger), as I’ve said. I’m not sure how much Congressional approval might be required for these last two measures.   

 I have a Cuban-born friend who fears in the abstract—he has absolutely no actual information on this—that with the growth and proliferation of drone technology, Cuban exiles might attempt a drone attack on Cuba, perhaps from another country, causing all hell to break out there. The US government would certainly want to prevent such a scenario. I don't know how easy drones are to make or acquire, but if they were launched into Cuba from another country--such as the DR or Haiti--the US government might not be able to stop them. And there's nothing to say that drones from elsewhere won't be launched against the US. We don't have an iron dome over the whole USA. This whole drone business, like anything else, is a two-edged sword, potentially very scary for us, as well as protective.  Certain nations, like Iran, have captured American drones and have studied how they are made and operate. Once nuclear weapons were the big fear in the arms race; now, it’s drones. If our country can use them, others cannot be far behind.

The US is number 44 according to a ranking of healthcare efficiency done by Bloomberg, examining "health care costs as a share of GDP and per capita, as well as life expectancy and improvements from last year." If it’s any solace, Russia was the worst at #51.

 Reading about the usual struggles and adjustment of Peace Corps volunteers, I realize again how lucky I am that when I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras and during my 10 return trips so far, I’ve never felt or been treated like a foreigner or a second-class citizen. Of course, most (but not all) people there know objectively that I'm a "North American," but sometimes they forget during their conversations and I'm always welcome as a guest in their homes. Often, I'm offered the "Honduran" price for something, including the senior citizen price. I was perfectly happy to be the only foreigner living in El Triunfo during PC. It must be harder for most volunteers, as I’ve come to realize reading their memoirs and postings.



Sunday, October 5, 2014

Great-grandson is 7, Computer Gremlin, Ebola, Leader Deaths-Past & Present, Hong Kong, Netanyahu at the UN, Collateral Damage, Jeb Bush, Canadian Investor Sentenced in Cuba, Gun Accidents

Readers, it’s a complete mystery why some words in the previous posting appeared in blue and underlined—I did not do that intentionally and have no idea what it was supposed to signify, but it seemed best to leave well enough alone. Has a gremlin gotten into my blog?
A gremlin definitely kept invading my computer system, messing everything up. My daughter Melanie got rid of it one Sunday, but the very next day, it popped right up again. After thoroughly blocking everything and making my life miserable, it boldly asked for a credit card number (are they crazy?), warning of a dangerous invading virus that could destroy all my files, then offering to sell me an anti-virus program to get rid of the very virus it had provoked. It was driving me crazy! How much we depend on our computers and internet access! My sister, who refuses to have e-mail or a computer, may have the right idea. An IT-savvy friend was able to enter my computer remotely via something called Team Viewer and eject the unwelcome intruder. I suspect that the virus sneaked in through a Yahoo news item on whose title I had carelessly clicked.
While sending a Moneygram to the guy who helped me vanquish the computer virus, a gentleman waiting in line insisted on taking a photo with me. He said he was 72, a little younger than me.  Photo appears above.
Another photo shows my great-grandson, De’Andre, with his mom, granddaughter Natasha, on his 7th birthday.
How is that a Texas hospital examined an ill man who mentioned that he just returned from Liberia and failed to imagine he might have Ebola, instead, in a glaring breech, sending him home to endanger others and allowing his own illness to worsen? Apparently there was some glitch in the hospital’s record-keeping system (since remedied) and the patient also lied, saying he had not been in contact with Ebola victims in Liberia, which was untrue. He apparently didn’t want to miss his flight to the US. Now we have 2 possible cases in the DC area.  With air travel from the affected countries, some contagion is inevitable.
Incredibly, a Delaware State U. professor, Dr. Cyril Broderick, has apparently speculated that Ebola and AIDS are both conspiracies of the US Dept. of Defense unleased to harm helpless Africans, just for the heck of it—allegations quoted in a Liberian newspaper.
Efforts to bring Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier to justice have ended with his death, so, like many other dictators, he won't pay the price for his misdeeds. He had said he wanted to die in Haiti and now he has.
President Cristina de K. of Argentina speculates that the United States is trying to kill her, on a par with Hugo Chavez saying that the US gave him cancer. Some people may actually believe that the US is so all-powerful that it could do such things. A woman from Argentina tells me that Argentines are posting humorous responses on Twitter #SiMePasaAlgo.
Not that political assassinations are beyond the pale for the American government. Witness the killing of Osama Bin Landen, not to mention targeted drone strikes against other militants. And the apparent paranoia and present-day vigilance of the Cuban government is not without historic foundation, as recently released details of the early hostilities between the US and Castro’s Cuba have revealed.  
“I think we are going to have to smash Castro”; Ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made plans to attack Cuba, AP, Oct. 1, 2014
Kissinger was incensed over Cuba deploying troops to Angola, so he advocated for strong action to stop Fidel Castro, according to declassified government records posted online Wednesday. He created a contingency plan that outlined military options from blocking outgoing Cuban ships carrying troops and war material to airstrikes against Cuban bases.
Another recently declassified top-secret memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, dated March 13, 1962 and titled “Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba,” recommended an invasion. Of course, we all know how an invasion the previous year went, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba, ill-fated not only in its abject failure, but also in providing the Castro regime with a perpetual grievance against the United States and an excuse to crack down on its own citizens ad infinitum. Yet relations among former enemies can change after more than half a century, provided both sides are willing; witness the US today with Germany and Japan.
In confronting the unrest in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities don’t dare risk another Tiananmen Square, but it’s hard to imagine them meeting any of the protestors’ demands. The government’s likely tactic is to just outwait the demonstrators until they get tired and finally go home. The rest of China is not likely to learn much about the actions and grievances of Hong Kong residents because of strict media controls, thus avoiding any contagion, especially since there is no regular movement between the two sectors. China is many times bigger and much more open to the world than Cuba, but I’ve always marveled at how well the Cuban government, assisted by its secluded island status, manages to control the news reaching its citizens. Most Cubans have never heard of the Ladies in White’s silent Sunday marches, never heard of world-famous blogger Yoani Sanchez, don’t know about dissidents dying on hunger strikes or under mysterious circumstances, and, now, are probably unaware of the protests and demands of Hong Kong citizens, reminiscent in a perverse way of the massive gatherings in support of Fidel Castro after his 1959 victory.
Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN: The people of Israel are not occupiers in the land of Israel. History, archaeology and common sense all make clear that we have had a singular attachment to this land for over 3,000 years. Now waters of that conflict have been stirred up even more by Sweden’s recent unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
It’s very troubling that American air strikes in Iraq against ISIS are hitting civilians, considered unavoidable collateral damage. Logistically, of course, civilian casualties are hard to prevent, as Israel found when striking back at Hamas. However, it is regrettable and obviously should be avoided as much as possible. Gone are the days, as in World War II, when carpet bombing and even nuclear strikes in cities, such as the US visited upon Japan, were considered acceptable (though, even as child, I never acceptable H-bombs hitting cities). In ancient wars, although weapons were less lethal, the rules of war were wide open and killing, pillage, and rape were routine—rewards of the victors. Fortunately, as weapons have become more deadly, more restraint is being used, but not enough to avoid harm to innocents.
If Jeb Bush should become the Republicans’ presidential choice for 2016, he would have to overcome the tarnished legacy of his brother, not to mention wariness of dynastic succession (something Hillary also faces). However, I suspect he would attract Hispanic voters, since his wife is Hispanic and he speaks quite credible Spanish himself, at least from what little I’ve heard, certainly much better than his brother’s efforts.
Readers of my Cuba book may recall my mention of Canadian investors arrested in part because of giving their Cuban employees direct supplementary payments beyond the meager salaries passed through to them by the Cuban government. Now, negotiations are underway for the investors’ release. I wonder if the jailed Canadian entrepreneur mentioned below is allowed any contact with American Alan Gross?
Cuba asked for $55 mln, assets to release Canadian CEO -company
Reuters, September 29, 2014 [excerpts]
TORONTO, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Cuba had offered a deal to release a Canadian executive sentenced to 15 years in prison last week in return for C$55 million and company assets, the Canadian firm's officials said on Monday.
Cy Tokmakjian, 74, was convicted of bribery and other economic charges. Two of his aides from the Tokmakjian Group, an Ontario-based transportation firm, received sentences of 12 and 8 years. Fourteen Cubans were also charged. The Tokmakjian Group, which did an estimated $80 million in business annually with Cuba until it was shuttered in September 2011, filed claims worth more than $200 million through the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris and an Ontario court.
The case has strained Cuba's relationship with Canada, one of its biggest trading partners. Western diplomats have said it would dissuade foreign investors at a time Cuba is actively seeking partners from abroad to do business on the communist-ruled island.
After Tokmakjian was detained in 2011, company lawyers met with Cuban officials about the case. "They were ... told 'We're taking all your assets and in addition you're going to have to send another $55 million down before Cy will be released,'" Lee Hacker, Tokmakjian Group's finance vice-president, told reporters at the company's Ontario headquarters. He did not say why the deal fell through…A call on Monday to the Cuban embassy in Ottawa for comment was not returned…The bribery charges included salary top-up payments to employees in joint venture operations, the company said. Tokmakjian is the distributor for Hyundai vehicles and construction equipment in Cuba, as well as other mining equipment…
"We would pay incentives to everybody, from the lowest person to the highest person, and it was clear that there was no link between any incentive payments versus any advantage that was given to Tokmakjian whatsoever."
Tokmakjian, the company's founder and president, has been transferred to a military hospital, his son said on Monday.
Someone who formerly worked in the Cuban bureaucracy and is now exile, has commented on the Canadian affair: It's very difficult to understand how the Cuban government would be interested in fostering foreign investment in Cuba and at the same time following such a policy with the Canadian businessman. I suspect that what is really involved was a desire on the part of the ruling clique to kill two birds with one stone. First to get him out of the way because he was interfering with some money making scheme of their own and to do it in a profitable way by taking over his business. They simply prioritized their private interests over the country's.
A recent terrible gun accident in Pennsylvania stays in my mind. A father was holding his newborn son when a hunter’s stray bullet came through the window, leaving the child blind and brain damaged and perhaps unable to survive. Of course, it was not intentional, but has devastated a life and a family nonetheless. My readers know that I’m not a fan of private gun use and ownership for any purpose, either for personal protection or hunting. While there may be cases where a gun has been protective, the odds of harm far outweigh them, according to statistics—and odds are all we have for anything. Here in Washington, DC, voters have repeatedly expressed approval of strict gun control, especially given all the sensitive areas in this city—the White House, Congress, embassies, military bases, and federal offices. However, second-amendment advocates have forced us to have less restrictive gun laws than most residents really want, putting us all at risk.  
Here in Washington, DC, several young teenage boys were playing with a loaded handgun when it went off, fatally shooting a 13-year-old in the chest, a chilling reminder of a similar incident years ago when my then 11-year-old son Jonathan was shot in the foot by boys playing with a loaded handgun found in a parents’ bedroom.