Sunday, February 8, 2015

Pope Francis, Garifunas, Congressional Hearing on Cuba Accords, Honduras Concerns, Corrections, More Cuba, Bedbugs, Kids Left in Cold Car


Didn’t plan on making another posting before I left, but here I am again. A reader points out that maybe I try to put too much in each posting, including too many photos. Certainly that has happened after previous trips to Honduras when some photos became distorted or the narrative just posted before I had finished. In any case, I agree that there has been excess, maybe of interest to me but less so to others, so I will endeavor to be more selective in both narrative and photos after this next trip.

Advance notice: Pope Francis is scheduled to address Congress on Sept. 24, 2015.

Garifunas in NYC, Honduran decendants of black slaves, have a very high HIV rate, also in Honduras.

Roberta Jacobson at hearing spoke at a Congressional hearing on the US-Cuba accords.  She stressed that Alan Gross was not exchanged for the Cuban Three but for unnamed agent, whose name she did not give nor does anyone know his whereabouts. I guess that’s because the US did not want to equate Alan Gross with convicted Cuban spies. The man she was referring to is reportedly Lt. Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years. His current whereabouts are unknown, but his relatives in Cuba say he is no longer in the prison where he was being held.

Although Jacobson was diplomatic in her remarks, it would seem that Cuba is stalling on any furtherance of the agreement before the Americas Summit in April, one of the motives behind the US push to sign the accords before that gathering. Antuñez and Berta Soler of the Damas de Blanco also testified at the hearing, though I only caught part of their live testimony via on-line screening. As I would have anticipated, they are unhappy and pessimistic about the accords.  See report below.

 
·         (EFE) 2-5-2015

A portion of the Cuban dissident movement, speaking before Congress on Thursday, rejected the agreement between Washington and Havana to resume bilateral relations and said that as they as they were not included in the dialogue to reestablish diplomatic ties they would not endorse the talks. 

Appearing before the House Subcommittee on Human Rights were Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as "Antunez," Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White, and another member of that group, Sara Fonseca.

"We're not going to accept the Cuban opposition being ignored," said Antunez.

The three dissidents are representatives of a sector of the Cuban opposition that does not view favorably the political about-face toward Cuba by the Barack Obama administration, although within the dissident movement as a whole there is a group that has come out in favor of the reestablishment of ties.

Antunez told lawmakers that Washington cannot unilaterally decide or interfere in the conditions for achieving freedom for the Cuban people and he reiterated that they are "only" asking that they be acknowledged and not ignored.

"These agreements are considered by a vital segment of the Cuban resistance to be a betrayal of the aspiration for the freedom of the Cuban people. They are unacceptable for us. A country's principles and right to freedom are not the property of any government, no matter how powerful and influential," the activist said.

"This is the time to ask for real changes" from Havana, he said.

"This means the legalization of independent political parties and unions, free elections under international supervision, and for the Castro brothers to give up political power, since they've spent decades suffocating the Cuban people. Only this can lead to the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba," he said.

When it was her turn to speak, Soler demanded the priority of the right of citizens to economic opening, and she claimed that the government of Raúl Castro intends to emulate only the Chinese system.

The Cuban government "seeks the same model as China, seeks oxygen. What he wants is a capitalist economic system and a communist political system. We've been going on like this for more than 50 years and we can't tolerate it. First, human rights. And later, economics," she said.

Fonseca, too, said that ending the U.S. embargo on the communist island "will (only) benefit the Castro regime."

Including the one on Thursday, Congress now has held three hearings since the announcement of the reestablishment of bilateral diplomatic relations was made on Dec. 17, and it is that body that has the ultimate responsibility regarding lifting the embargo, as Obama has requested. 

------------------------------------------------

WASHINGTON (AP) — A series of trips to Cuba by U.S. lawmakers is in doubt amid questions over the communist government's eagerness or ability to accommodate a surge of new interest and possible investment from the United States. American officials said the Cuban government has pushed off all congressional visits, including one by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, until at least mid-April. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington said some will go forward in the coming days, but others are postponed.

Several members of Congress had planned to go to the island country this month. They included Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, who has proposed ending the U.S. travel embargo of Cuba.

President Raul Castro's government has been scrambling to adjust to the possibility of new U.S. travel and investment in Cuba since he and President Barack Obama announced in December that the two countries would repair ties after a half-century of enmity. And in a surprise development, Obama administration officials said they were informed by their Cuban counterparts earlier this week that no congressional visits would be allowed to travel to Cuba until April 15. They spoke on condition anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

A correction: Vermont’s senators are Democrat Patrick Leahy and Independent Bernie Sanders.  I had their party affiliations reversed. In any case, Sanders usually votes with the Democrats. I had Leahy identified as a Democrat in my book, but got mixed up later, obviously. Thanks to an alert reader for pointing that out.

 She also pointed out that in the recent Annapolis fire, the four dead grandchildren were first cousins from two families, not one, as I had assumed—in photos, they were all blonds and looked like siblings—two sets of parents were thus devastated. If misery loves company, the two couples now have each other. That’s the same premise behind the Spanish-speaking parental bereavement group that I’ve been leading, as it helps to know you are not alone in experiencing a particularly devastating loss, though I will miss being with my group in February. Also, I did not quite remember the location of the woman who had lost her parents and three children in a previous devastating fire, something the Annapolis fire had reminded me of; it was in Connecticut, not Pa., and, I’m told, she has now remarried (not to her date on that fateful night, who had moved the coals that caused that devastating fire), so she is perhaps on the road to partial recovery. Still, no one could ever be quite the same after such a terrible loss.

At least 2 people have dibs on a wheelchair I’m taking to Honduras—how to decide between them? Now, suddenly, I find the footrests are missing—I never noticed before. In Honduras, they will have to invent a replacement. I’m also taking an almost brand-new walker.

Here’s another problem: I had an urgent request from Honduras for a medication not available there for a skin condition in a young woman whom I know-- Methoxsalen 10 mg tablets. I Googled the requested medication, which came up with this warning: Do not give this medication to anyone else, even if they have the same symptoms as you do. It can be harmful for people to take this medication if their doctor has not prescribed it. So, I gave up the quest. Hondurans often call me Dra. Bárbara and expect me to get them not only rare medications, but find remedies for Down Syndrome, paralysis, and congenital blindness, which I cannot.  

 I did once have a physician contact at PAHO who would write me Rxs for Cubans for meds not available there, but that was in the 1990s and he's no longer at PAHO. It should properly be difficult to get a prescription medication for a patient never examined by a physician in this country. That PAHO doctor (a Latin American, but with privileges here) did it for me on faith, but really it was illegal. One of my Cuban patients at that time, Armando, had a hereditary kidney disease, cystinuria, for whom his medications were a life or death proposition. I finally had to bring him to this country via Mexico in 1998 (as per my Cuba book) because it was just too hard and too expensive for me to keep on getting his meds and trying to find someone reliable to take them to him, as he lived in a community way outside Havana. I got lost trying to find him the first time. Also, it was not affordable for me as a single parent of modest means to keep on doing that. It was better to invest, once and for all, in a Mexican visa and a roundtrip plane ticket (because, ostensibly, he was just going there for a visit), and pay his Cuban exit fees than to keep on sending his meds indefinitely. He's now a US citizen, married, and living in Miami and a pharmaceutical company is giving him his medications for free.

Our household’s bedbug crisis started with a single bedbug still wiggling on sticky paper days after getting stuck—a total of $1,000 for fumigation and special mattress covers, an expense I was ill-prepared to confront so close to my departure for Honduras. However, the young woman on whose bed the creature was found had prior experience and urged me to act immediately, which I did. DDT would have wiped them out better, but is no longer permitted in this country.

The following is from the end of a column by independent blogger [find and read the whole thing] Yoani Sanchez (Feb. 3): All these hopes, born on St. Lazarus Day and fed with the visits to Cuba of members of Congress and American negotiators, are now a double-edged sword for the Island's government. On the one hand, the existence of so many illusions buys time and sets the horizon at the end of a long process of conversations between both administrations, which could go on for years. But, also, the disappointment derived from not meeting or from postponing such dreams will be focused directly on the Plaza of the Revolution.

The anger towards failure will not fall on Obama, but on Raul Castro. He knows this and in recent weeks his spokespeople have emphasized cutting back on the perspectives filling the streets of the entire country. They are trying to anticipate that everything will be more or less the same and that too many expectations can't be met. But there is nothing harder than countering dreams. The symbolic weight of the beginning of the "thaw" between David and Goliath cannot be alleviated with calls for calm, nor energetic speeches that point toward a halt in the negotiations.

When the months pass and the "bullet train" doesn't arrive, the Internet continues to be impossible, the store freezers are as empty as they are today, the customs rules continue to block commercial imports to private hands, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) maintains its monopoly on film production, and being a member of an opposition party still results in official repression and ideological stigmatization... when the bubble of dreams bursts and the excessive expectations bring collective frustration, what will happen? Maybe from there the energy necessary to push for change will be born.

 This is from a recent Yahoo News item: "The way those (U.S.) diplomats act should change in terms of stimulating, organizing, training, supplying and financing elements within our country that act against the interests of ... the government of the Cuban people," Josefina Vidal said. "The total freedom of movement, which the U.S. side is posing, is tied to a change in the behavior of its diplomatic mission and its officials," said Vidal, Cuba's top official for U.S. affairs. Washington has long criticized the communist government for repressing opponents of the one-party system. While public support for dissidents is limited, they receive plenty of attention from U.S. and Western diplomats. The United States says it supports Cuban activists who exercise their right to freedom of expression.

 Also below from Yahoo News [We’ve all heard about kids being left in hot cars, now here in DC, close to home, was an incident in a cold car—in this case, the name of the kids’ father is unsettlingly the same as that of a fellow Peace Corps in Honduras who had moved to DC—hope it wasn’t him]:

A couple has been charged with cruelty for allegedly leaving their toddlers in a car in the cold this past weekend while wine tasting at an upscale restaurant in Washington, D.C., authorities said. Christopher Lucas, 41, and Jennie Chang, 46, were arrested on Saturday after police responded to a concerned caller who said that two children were unattended in a car at about 3:44 p.m., D.C. police officer Araz Alali told ABC News today. The car was locked, and the engine wasn't running, according to Alali. The temperature at the time was around 33 degrees, though an hour before it was below freezing. "The children were left unattended for about an hour when the parents came out of Ris restaurant, where they were attending a wine tasting," Alali said. "The children were taken care of by the cops and taken to Family and Child Services." Lucas and Chang were arrested on the scene on charges of second-degree cruelty to children, Alali said.

 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Snowmaggedon, Fandango, Equatorial Guinea hosts Soccer Cup, Alberto Misman’s Death, DR Statelessness, Cuba & More Cuba, Gun Deaths, Fickle Fate








Photo above was taken during the “snowmaggedon” that hit New England, but fortunately fizzled for us in DC. While winter has its drawbacks, it can also lead to warm get-togethers, like a Mexican fandango music and dance party in the neighborhood last Sunday (as per photos).
 
[Sorry for font changes throughout, but when I've tried to make it uniformly bigger, the whole thing crashes, so best not to tamper.]
 
Equatorial Guinea, one of the most repressive regimes in Africa (which is saying a lot) and the only one that’s Spanish-speaking, has been hosting soccer’s African Cup of Nations. I do highlight in my Cuba book that country’s abysmal human rights record, which I became aware of only after translating some documents for Amnesty International (see p.16 of my book).

Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor for the 1994 terrorist attack on the Jewish headquarters in Buenos Aires, was found dead in his home; apparently murdered just before he was to testify. I remember being in BA in 1995 and going to the neighborhood where that attack had occurred, seeing the still destroyed buildings there. When I tried to take a photo, a policewoman on guard stopped me. Very strange doings now and stranger still are the comments of President Cristina, who, thank goodness, is on her way out, as she seems to have become increasingly erratic. I’ve asked Argentine friends for clarification, but none has been able to provide it.

 

The statelessness issue of Haitian descended people in the DR continues:


 I had a piece in the Huffington Post, a little pie-in-the-sky, but not inconceivable; I wanted to plant the seed. Read all about it.


They chose to identify me as a “Spanish hospital interpreter,” only one of many hats I wear. Inexplicably, I’m shown in the photo at a reading at an independent bookstore for my new book, Confessions of a Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People, along with 3 long-term (20 years+) Cuban political prisoners featured in the book. If anyone wants to forward my blog to their own contacts, that would help promote the Peace Corps idea. It would also help if mention is made (as it was not by Huffington Post) of my recent book—or books, including Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, which help support my Honduras and perhaps future Cuba projects. 

An actual Amnesty International researcher and staff member, very involved against the US embargo and in favor of the Cuban Five, had his own post:


 

While we are opening websites, here’s another item to be read and forwarded:


Castro told Ted Kennedy 40 years ago that Cuba was ready for change
Mark Schneider, Robert Hunter, The Boston Globe, 22 Jan 2015

Perhaps if the US had reached out to Cuba earlier and if Fidel had accepted (a big “if” when the Soviets were still supporting Cuba), then possibly hostilities would have calmed much sooner. The 1990s’  “special period” 20-25 years ago seems a more likely time when a deal might have been made.

Human rights in Cuba have not been advanced in the short term by the US/Cuba accords—in fact dissidents report that repression is worse, perhaps because they are trying to test the limits now to see if anything has changed, which apparently it has not, and the Cuban government wants to make sure that they understand that. If the most basic human rights are peaceful free expression and assembly, then such rights do not exist in Cuba. If these rights were actually allowed and most Cubans still favored the Communist Party, especially as expressed through a fair and competitive electoral system, most Americans, as well as others from around the world, would gracefully accept that outcome. However, a free election scenario is not going to play out any time soon and would not have played out even if relations between Washington and Havana had remained at status quo ante.

Unfortunately, Cuban authorities have been digging in their heels about allowing their own citizens more freedom. “Even a relatively simple measure such as granting U.S. diplomats freedom of movement around Cuba, she [Cuban negotiator Josefina Vidal] said, is tied to reduced U.S. support of dissidents, whom Cuba says are breaking the law by acting to undermine the government on behalf of U.S. interests.” Since when is supporting free speech a matter of advocating US interests? Aren’t we trying to advocate for ordinary Cuban citsens’ interests? Besides, aren’t our two nations friends now, so that our interests and Cuba’s are not necessarily in opposition?  Vidal seems to be caught up in the old mindset of the US as the enemy. See the full article on http://news.yahoo.com/cuba-digs-heels-concessions-part-better-us-ties-223741839.html

According to a Cuban American observer: Although Cuba is going to play the victim, as before, in advocating the lifting of the rest of the embargo, the best policy is one of a gradual conditional lifting of the embargo where every restriction to be lifted requires a previously specified economic or political reform from the Cuban government. However, I sincerely think Obama has gone too far in the opposite direction! The Cuban maxim that comes to mind is: "¡No tan calvo que se le vean los sesos!" (Not so bald that brains are showing!)

https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gifAnother Cuba watcher comments: Raul is torn. He wants to keep hostility toward the US as the foundation stone of his temple, as seen by the less-than-subtle Havana docking of Putin’s spy ship (at the very visible cruise ship dock!) while negotiations were getting underway. At the same time, the regime has run out of sugar daddies, as Maduro sinks beneath the waves. The US is the most suitable candidate for this role. Raul is confident that the Cuban people’s quasi-medieval mindset will keep them helplessly mired in their customary inmovilismo. The people are unhappy and will grumble in their private conversation but take no public action. Also pathetic is news that Detroit sees little Cuba as the savior of the auto industry, as if 11 million hungry Cubans, after spending their meager $20 monthly income on food, will have any residual income left to save Detroit’s bacon by purchasing shiploads of SUVs!

Still another commentator observes: The Cuban government could afford to keep the US at bay and use them as a big bad wolf while it still had sugar daddies who supplied the minimum amount of basic necessities to keep the Cuban population above starvation levels. But absent Russia or Venezuela, who are having problems of their own with low oil prices, and no other prospective sugar daddy in sight, Raul can't continue to play hard to get with the US now. He has got to make a deal.

 A bipartisan group of senators is pushing to end the travel ban to Cuba, something I would not object to, provided that the Cuban regime yields something in return in terms of rights and benefits for its own citizens: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/senators-end-cuba-travel-ban-114719.html

 Ending the US travel ban to Cuba is something I would not oppose, provided that the Cuban regime yields something in return in terms of rights and benefits for its own citizens, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and movement around Cuba, internet access, and employees' ability to be paid directly by American investors and visitors, maybe only one or two of those things at first, but, step-by-step in tough negotiations. With Venezuela on the ropes, Cuba needs the US more than the US needs it, so let's use our leverage to help the long-suffering Cuban people. Now that the accords are signed and the Cuban spies have been returned, Raul Castro is moving to protect the sovereign "socialist" Cuban system (i.e. his regime and position) and to rally support from around the world, especially among Latin American allies, saying, for example, that future US embassy staff cannot travel outside Havana where they might encourage enemies of Cuba who are in league with them. Aren't our countries friends now? Obviously, there’s a long way to go.

Cuba is important only to a small slice of the American constituency; most would be happy enough to add Cuba to the list of tropical isles they might want to visit--and it's a large, very beautiful island with lots of beaches. But the US is now very important to Cuba and Raul is making lots of bold demands: return G'tmo, get totally rid of the embargo and travel ban, pay reparations for the embargo, have an embassy but with personnel restricted to Havana and keeping their distance from democracy activists, require American investors and travelers to do business only with the Cuban government and military, and Cuba's not returning any criminal fugitives, and don't meddle in its internal affairs. I guess that's his opening salvo, perhaps more to alert the folks back home and his allies around the world, including a few in the US, who have been pretty loyal even though Cuba gives them nothing in return but progressive bragging rights.

A friend agrees with my statement just above: I would assume that Raul's many demands are just opening gambits in the negotiations, stated for domestic consumption and for international supporter, who, he hopes will back up Cuba, since Cuba all by itself is pretty weak at this point, both economically and politically, resting only on the laurels of Fidel's outsized reputation.

A Cuban dissident, who actually prefers to consider himself an opponent, is Jorge Luis García Pérez, nicknamed Antúnez, someone who appears in my book Confessions of a Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People. He provided part of the impetus for me to write the book when my former Latino friend challenged me to substantiate a previous remark about Afro-Cubans being disadvantaged, a statement that had particularly galled him. I cited the case of Antúnez, a human rights and democracy activist imprisoned from 1990 to 2007, referred to by other dissidents as Cuba's Nelson Mandela. His wife founded the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights. Why had Antúnez spent 17 years behind bars? In 1990, State Security agents overheard him saying that communism was an error, words considered treasonous. I said that Antúnez, his wife, and several other Afro-Cubans were then on a hunger strike, something my former friend dismissed by saying “The case of one man who happens to be Afro-Cuban and was imprisoned …doesn't prove a thing.”

Antúnez and his wife Yris were allowed by the Cuban government to travel together recently and met at the Washington office with Amnesty International staff and me in my role as volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean. (See photos above taken of the couple at dinner the night before and at the Amnesty office.) Then, I received the following message:This week, U.S. civil rights icon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), met with Cuban civil rights icons, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez" and Yris Perez Aguilera. Antunez is a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, who served 17-years in Castro's gulag, while Perez Aguilera heads Cuba's Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights.

Previously, I had urged them both, traveling here separately after not being allowed to travel together, to reach out to African Americans. However, they seemed uncertain about how to do that, partly because of languagebarriers, also because of understandable confusion about American politics. Yris, the wife, had then issued a statement castigating the Congressional Black Caucus for snubbing their request for a meeting on a visit to Cuba, not quite what I had in mind. So the meeting with John Lewis is a real victory. (See photo above.)

Antúnez, as might be expected, is not happy now with the US/Cuba accords, which he says have increased repression on the island. He and his wife met with us at the Amnesty International Washington office, where he gave us information about a prisoner named Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez whose case he hoped we would take up. The prisoner, a known dissident, was given 4 years for causing a public disturbance during which he shouted anti-Castro slogans and unfurled homemade banners.
When first meeting Yris last August, I’d given her a copy of my Cuba book, asking whether she thought she could get into the country. She assured me that she had ways, but on this last visit, she said it had been confiscated by state security, so next time, I will try via the diplomatic pouch, if possible. Not that Cuban authorities were necessarily unaware of my book before that, but now they certainly do know about it, not that I was planning a trip there any time soon.

Talk about possibly unintended consequences, releasing the remaining Cuban Three may have now given them a leg-up in the Cuban political system, especially Gerardo Hernández, the ostensible ringleader and convicted spy most closely associated with the deaths of four Brothers-to-the-Rescue, whose plane was shot down by the Cuban military. He and the others have already been touring and speaking all over Cuba and Hernández recently became a father, thanks to artificial insemination facilitated by Vermont independent Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy, who was instrumental inobtaining the release of the Cuban spies as well as in relentlessly denigrating USAID’s Cuban democracy efforts, maybe the man to thank or blame if Hernández becomes Cuba’s future leader. See following article: Heroic homecoming for Cuban agents brings speculation about future in politics By Nick Miroff, Washington Post, 1/18/2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/heroes-welcome-for-cuban-agents-brings-speculation-about-future-in-politics/2015/01/18/390926fe-9a95-11e4-86a3-1b56f64925f6_story.html

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio invited Rosa Payá, daughter of the late Cuban democracy activist Oswaldo Payá, as his State of the Union Guest. (I have met both father and daughter, as mentioned in my Cuba book.)

Antúnez and Yris were invited by Speaker Boehner.
 
Changing focus now, another fatal shooting by a child who found a gun: “Missouri 9-month-old fatally shot in his crib by 5-year-old brother, police say.”  Don’t people know by now to lock up their guns if they feel they must keep them in their homes? More recently, 3-year-old in New Mexico shot his father and pregnant mother with a gun he found in her purse, but didn’t kill them.
 
In a national survey, Hawaii earns top honors as the state with the lowest gun death rate, while Alaska has the highest. Hawaii also has the lowest rate of gun ownership, while Alaska has the highest. Unfortunately, my attempt to post a dramatic chart showing the 5 states with the highest rate of gun ownership with their corresponding highest rates of gun deaths versus the 5 states with the lowest rate of ownership with their lowest rates of gun deaths would not copy onto the blog, so Google such studies yourself and see the differences, indicating that the risk of a gun death in the high ownership states is often more than 4 times as great as in the low-ownership states. Does high gun ownership reflect a more aggressive culture of gun violence, where everyone feels the need of gun protection because other citizens around them are all armed, or does just the sheer rate of gun ownership promote a culture of violence and gun deaths?  Perhaps, gun ownership both reflects a culture of violence and reinforces it, the usual vicious circle. In Alaska and other high gun-owning states, probably animal hunting is also popular, while not so much in the low gun-owning states.
 
The nationwide gun death rate, by the way, is 10.64 per 100,000, and the total number of Americans killed by gunfire rose to 33,636 in 2013 from 33,563 in 2012. Of note: The top five states with the lowest gun death rates are “blue” or Democrat-voting states, while the top five states at the other end of the spectrum are “red” or Republican-voting states.

Finally, we all are familiar with the capriciousness of luck or fate, which guides our entire life despite our most meticulous efforts to plan ahead. It begins, very basically, with our own conception, a unique roll of the dice, resulting in the fusion of gametes, the intermingling of genes, to produce each of us. So, none of us is a stranger to the role of luck in our lives in giving us our parents, connecting us with a spouse or lover, and guiding our career path, also in providing us children and sometimes taking them away, as in my experience. And so did fickle fate wipe out a family on the outskirts of neighboring Annapolis, the quaint, historic city that serves as Maryland’s capital. Just days ago—actually a few nights ago—a luxurious seaside mansion went up in flames, shown by video in real time on the internet as it lit up the winter darkness while firefighters struggled for 10 hours to contain it. Later, in the charred remains, investigators found the incinerated bodies of the owners and their four grandchildren, visiting on a sleepover. Apparently a dry Christmas tree, still up and decorated, perhaps with lights turned on for the kids, was the source of the conflgration.  How it happened is less important than that it did happen to a family who had enjoyed amazing material success, but then was virtually wiped out in minutes. I feel terribly for the parents of those kids, one of whom also lost his or her parents, never mind the great material loss. I’m sure the parents now agonize about how their children might have suffered as flames consumed them. All their good fortune, wealth, and privileges went up in smoke. Can anyone ever recover from something like that? Would they even care to recover and go on living? I remember a similar incident not so long ago, when a woman who had achieved great professional success against the odds and had bought and refurbished an historic mansion, located in Pa., as I recall, then, while she was out in the evening, the house burned down with her parents and three children all inside. I’ve heard nothing about her since, but I’m sure she’s still in pain, assuming she is still alive, exactly what the parents of the four children killed in Maryland will be feeling for the rest of their lives, unless they are fortunate enough to experience amnesia or dementia before their own deaths. Twenty years on, how hard has it been for me to lose my son and foster son in deaths not nearly so painful?
Yet, while some folks are in the wrong place at the wrong time, others are in the right place at the right time—just enormously lucky, as we see constantly on internet news—got a surprise $1,000 tip or found a diamond ring in a wax candle. As former President Jimmy Carter once observed, life is unfair.   
 
Talk with you again after my return from Honduras.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cuba; DR & Guyana; Anna, Wanda, & Claire; Free-Range Parenting; Honduras Bound


Now, all 53 promised Cuban political prisoners have been released, some of whom I mentioned before, namely our own Amnesty prisoners of conscience. I also see that Lady in White Sonia Garro and her co-defendants are included, http://abcn.ws/1y5gril.

        Fox News reports that 2 of the 53 political prisoners released in Cuba were re-arrested:

According to independent media sources in Cuba, Ronaldo Reyes Rabanal and Luís Enrique Labrador – along with other activists – were arrested while attending a meeting of the opposition group, Movement for a New Republic. Lazara María Borrego Guzmán, a member of the Ladies in White opposition movement, was also allegedly arrested during the meeting and Cuban officials allegedly broke her arm.

      The following seems like a fairly balanced and correct summary of the human rights challenges in Cuba now: http://news.yahoo.com/dissidents-struggle-regroup-us-cuba-move-closer-031137060.html

 

The Huffington Post asked for comments on the Obama/Castro accords, but rejected mine, saying it had too many submissions. I noted that all those posted were from Cuban Americans. Here is my submission anyway:

 U.S.-Cuba Agreement, Historic Breakthrough or Backward Step? 

As a lifelong Democrat, former Fidel Castro admirer, and human rights activist involved with Cuba going back to 1951, I’ve greeted the Obama/Raúl Castro agreement with cautious optimism; at least, it has shaken up the status quo. Cubans should no longer be punished for being agents of “the Empire” and internet access may increase. Whether political as well as economic openings will result looks unlikely during the Castro brothers’ lifetime, so, in the short term, probably the best that can be hoped for is a system like that of China or Vietnam: economic opportunities without civil and political rights. Even that would be welcomed by most Cubans, bringing hope to a country with one of the world’s highest suicide rates and the lowest birthrate in Latin America. Pressing to allow outside investors to hire and pay their workers directly would provide a big step forward, replacing a system of selecting workers by the Cuban government, which now gives them only a small fraction of what their services actually command. That also applies to doctors sent to treat Ebola patients or to Venezuela and Brazil to earn money for the regime.  Although I’m of European descent and age 76, I’m now a Spanish interpreter who recently spent over 3 years as a Peace Corps health volunteer in Honduras, working closely with Cuban doctors. I still return annually for humanitarian projects there, including this upcoming February.

            I joined Amnesty International (AI) back in 1981, where in 1984, our local group welcomed 26 long-term Cuban political prisoners whose names we’d given to presidential candidate Jesse Jackson before he traveled to Cuba.  All were released with him, most having been kept years beyond their original 20-year sentences.  For the last 11 years, I’ve served as volunteer Caribbean coordinator for AI USA. Thankfully, the Obama/Castro accords have just resulted in freeing five Amnesty POCs (prisoners of conscience, the only POCs in the Americas): brothers Bianco, Django and Alexeis Vargas Martín, conditionally released, and Iván Fernández Depestre and Emilio Planas, imprisoned for “dangerousness.” Bianco and Django are twins arrested when they were only 16. Afro-Cuban Lady in White Sonia Garro, husband Ramón Muñoz, and neighbor Eugenio Hernández , have now been released to house arrest after almost three years, including reportedly suffering beatings by prison officials. These releases, which we in Amnesty have been working on long and hard, are most welcome, though we still advocate for the removal of all restrictions on those released and for a fair and a speedy trial for Garro and her associates, allowing them to call witnesses and present evidence.

            My Cuba connections are many and personal, including a Cuban foster son, Alex, an unaccompanied minor from the 1980 Mariel boatlift, who was gay and died of AIDS in 1995. Later, I sheltered a rafter released from Guantánamo, José Manuel. Via Mexico, I brought to this country a young mechanic, Armando, with a congenital kidney disease not being in treated in Cuba. I made numerous visits to Cuba in the 1990s, once by sailboat, and met with Catholic clergy and dissidents all over the island, only to be ejected by state security in 1997, so haven’t returned since.  Still, I dare to envision a Peace Corps presence in Cuba’s future, just as now in China. Despite a successful worldwide PR campaign, Cuba is no bastion of social and economic rights; many health service deficiencies exist on the island (except in showplace facilities for paying tourists and the political elite) and in agricultural production (most food is imported, with the US being the biggest supplier despite the embargo); both are areas where Peace Corps works successfully elsewhere. Afro-Cubans are especially disadvantaged because they have fewer relatives abroad sending remittances and are less often chosen for tourism, now the most desirable jobs in Cuba. Formerly imprisoned dissidents estimate that 85% of the island’s prison population has African heritage.

            My special interest, because of my work in Honduras, is blind services. I was recently privileged to meet Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind Cuban lawyer and activist from Ciego de Avila, allowed his first visit outside his country. González Leiva was imprisoned for more than two years, held subsequently under house arrest, and detained several times since. He has repeatedly suffered officially sanctioned “acts of repudiation.” He told me he has organized an (illegal) organization of blind Cubans and gives food and money to some 20 or 30 people who visit his home daily. He mentioned a malnourished little girl whom his family has taken in. “We also help people write letters to the authorities,” he said. He often visits prisons and distributes food 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.

            So the US-Cuba accords have many nuances and unexplored byways—the change is not all black or white, but, like almost everything, represents various shades of gray. Anyway, it’s a done deal, so let’s build on the strengths of the new accords while trying to remedy their remaining deficits.

 

         I wrote letters recently for asylum seekers trying to avoid deportation to the DR and Guyana, both countries within my Caribbean jurisdiction for Amnesty International USA.

 
      Without knowing the details of the death-row inmate’s crimes, I was troubled to see this: 21ST EXECUTION UNDER FLORIDA GOVERNOR, Johnny Shane Kormondy was executed by lethal injection in Florida on the evening of 15 January for a murder committed in 1993. This was the 21st execution under Rick Scott’s governorship, equaling the record for any Florida governor since 1976 [including Jeb Bush].

        My friend Anna, whom I first met when we were teenagers in Colombia, and who visited me in Honduras (as per my Honduras book), is still in the hospital, after being run over by a pickup truck on Nov. 29 at her assisted living facility in a New England state while she was out walking in the evening using a walker. I speak with her periodically by phone where she has been undergoing painful treatments. Although it was a very serious accident and she’s even a bit older than I am, she seems to be progressing, though slowly, and has just started rehab. If I weren’t living so far away and weren’t scheduled to go to Honduras shortly, I would certainly visit her.

        Another visit I would like to make, time and money permitting, is the 100th birthday on Sunday of Egyptian-born Wanda, mother of my friend Carol, living in rural Vermont right next door to her daughter. I sent them a basket of goodies to share at their birthday party, not the same as being there, but recognition nonetheless. Wanda still lives alone on her own, though Carol visits her every day; both are remarkable women.

      Apropos of nothing in particular, I’ve been amused to see an on-line mention of a black lab, looking just like our late beloved Claire, getting on a Seattle bus by herself to take a ride to the dog park, where she duly gets off to run around.

      If dogs can sometimes be free-ranging (though that’s illegal in most cities), with children the practice is even more controversial. A couple living in Suburban Maryland is under fire for letting their two children, ages 10 and 6, walk home alone together, about a mile, coming back from a park, where they were playing apparently unsupervised. I am torn, frankly, about such practices as I walked everywhere, including to school about a mile away, and played freely outside for hours at a time without any adult supervision at least from the age of 8, maybe earlier. At age 9, I even babysat 2 little children living next door, earning 25 cents per hour and feeling very grown-up, able to call my own mother for help in an emergency. However, these days, the outside world is considered more dangerous and, now, I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing my great-grandson, age 7, to play alone outside beyond his own front yard or my front sidewalk. Probably the risks were not any less when we were young, but perhaps we are now more aware of them. Something is lost when children don’t have the chance to gradually achieve independence, yet certainly when we were young, kids suffered injuries and abductions, perhaps even more so than now, though in the absence of social media, we were unaware of the extent.  

       I’ll be leaving in early Feb. on my 11th return trip to Honduras since Peace Corps, so if you have anything to send or to say to me beforehand, remember that once there, I won’t have regular e-mail access.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Arctic Vortex Returns, Child Labor, Radio Show, Cuba & More Cuba, POCs Released, Venezuela, US News, Remembering the Beatles


Brrr, we’ve had another “arctic vortex,” this one was really cold, below 20 F. And when I have to leave for work in the dark at 5:30 am, believe me, it’s frigid. At that early hour, in the dark with little traffic, I often walk in the street to the metro station to avoid ice, as last January, I slipped on the ice and hurt my shoulder, still not 100% OK. Most darn hospitals like to start early and, of course, I’m always traveling by public transportation and walking outside for a few blocks on either end.

        At Safeway, I was put in mind again that we all have a role to play in society. My bagger was a young man with Down Syndrome who efficiently and cheerfully put my purchases in my recyclable bags—a small role, but one he performed with evident satisfaction.

        It’s not a big surprise that child labor is still common in Honduras: http://finance.yahoo.com/photos/child-labor-in-honduras-1420576031-slideshow/

        My last Wed. interview about Cuba and my Cuba book has been posted on the Donna Seebo Show, www.delphiinternational.com. She also interviewed me for my Honduras book. The live program was 196-2, which aired on January 7. After that, it is supposed to be available in the archives. Google ‘Donna Seebo’ and the ‘Donna Seebo Show,’ page link will pop up, tap on that and you’ll be taken directly to the show page itself. The yellow band on the right is for archived programs. My book is a small slice of recent history, of my own history with Cuba, which predicted change, but not such an abrupt and sweeping change as has just occurred.

        The NYTimes seems pleased with the US-Cuba accords and its role in promoting them, generally avoiding any editorial comment that might appear critical of the Castro government, making at best only oblique references. But the Washington Post has had no such editorial hesitation, going back to July 2012, when democracy advocate Oswaldo Payá’s car was run off the road and he and a Cuban passenger subsequently died (though apparently later at a hospital, not immediately, making it more suspect), while two foreign visitors survived, though one was imprisoned for a time. At that time and since, the Post has called for an independent investigation into his death, as has his daughter. Now the Post has been pointing out the delay and secrecy surrounding the promised prisoner releases.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/three-weeks-after-cuba-accord-why-havent-more-political-prisoners-been-freed/2015/01/08/c2fe94f4-975f-11e4-8005-1924ede3e54a_story.html

        Whenever I hear about something on the news about Cuba, I wonder whether Cubans on the island are even aware of it, given their news blackout? Have they heard that Alan Gross was released? Some did know about his capture as an evil agent of “the empire.” Do they know now about the attack on the satirical magazine in France, if so, what’s the spin there? The pending release of some 53 political prisoners is probably not public information, because that would raise questions about whether Cuba has political prisoners, even though everyone knows they exist as a warning to the rest of the populace.

        In light of recent developments and the Obama/Raul accords, I don’t anticipate any reckoning for the Castro brothers during their lifetime. However, that’s pretty much par for the course for dictators—it’s rare that anything happens to them and their reputation while they are still alive. Saddam Hussein was an exception, so was Gaddafi in Libya, but they were defeated in war. Hitler was defeated in war and committed suicide. But absent a war defeat and capture, they are rarely sanctioned for their misdeeds—look at Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Duvalier— they all died first, then has come the reevaluation of their legacy. The same is likely to happen with the Castro brothers—or maybe not even then, as the mystique of Fidel Castro has been so powerful. Look at how so many people still revere Che Guevara, who could be considered a mass murderer, either that or a very efficient and hands-on executioner.  

        The following is an article about Cuba today, mirroring my own journey across the island in 1997 and which has a ring authenticity—I’m glad if Cuba is changing, because it can only change for the better—I don’t see it getting worse. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/world/on-the-open-road-signs-of-a-changing-cuba.html?_r=1

On the Open Road, Signs of a Changing Cuba, By WILLIAM NEUMAN, NY Times, JAN. 6, 2015

        Certainly, the accords between President Obama and Raul Castro have shaken things up, for better or worse, probably some of both. But critics are now saying “I told you so” after peaceful demonstrators were arrested just days after the historic joint announcement. While not totally unexpected—the event was a test of the new atmosphere--that put a damper on the euphoria about the whole enterprise, at least outside Cuba, as inside, probably few even heard about the planned event or the arrests. What had been planned was an “open mike” in Revolution Square, where people could give their reactions to the accords. Of course, the regime prevents unauthorized peaceful demonstrations for fear they may spread and so as not to give the broader Cuban population any ideas, but, those arrests, coming so soon after the agreement was reached, were a big blow to its supporters in the US and around the world. Just inviting Cubans to publicly express their opinions on the accords with the US would not be a threat to the one-party communist system that Raul has vowed to protect, except to the extent that any free speech is a threat.

        Raul and his entourage now seem to have shifted to blaming nefarious “Miami Cubans” for trying to overthrow “the Revolution” in order to recover their confiscated property, rather than the US government (aka “the empire”), since diplomatic relations are set to resume. In the meantime, President Obama was out playing golf in Hawaii while vacationing there with his family and Pope Francis was saying Mass and meeting visitors at the Vatican. Some observers are proposing that the embargo not be further relaxed until human rights improve in Cuba, which seems like a good idea. OK, Senator Leahy, time to use your cozy ties with the Castros to advise them that it’s very bad PR to arrest dissidents and they should stop!

        Raul Castro’s decision a few years ago to allow individuals to sell homemade items has been a definite step forward, but is not an efficient production system, especially since each home business is under constant surveillance to make sure it’s not making too much money or failing report it, using nonproductive manpower to do the intensive monitoring. Home businesses were meant to offer laid-off public sector workers a means of survival but were no actual substitute for larger, more organized industries and enterprises. However, as long as the Communist Party, the Cuban military, and the Castro regime control hiring and firing and payments to workers, outside investors will remain wary. Imprisoning Canadian businessmen and trying to take over their businesses do not provide promising precedents for US-based entrepreneurs, though perhaps some Cuban exiles think they are wily and savvy enough to pull it off.

        While I have been advocating that American investors in Cuba be able to hire and pay their workers directly, a Cuban American friend has pointed out that while that may provide workers with a job and a bit more income, it could also lead to exploitation by investors. She argues, with some merit, that factory workers in China and Vietnam are exploited, paid miserable wages, made to work long hours, and live in tiny warrens within factories, hardly an example to be imitated.

        I can readily understand why many dissidents feel suddenly abandoned, when they had thought that the US had their back against their powerful enemy, namely, the Cuban government that has been systematically hurting, harassing, and punishing them, and stopping them from gathering or speaking for so many years. Now their apparent supporter has joined hands with their enemy with promises to enrich and strengthen that enemy through trade and increased tourism, while the dissidents are left out in the cold, naked and afraid without support.

              I was misinformed about Twitter—now, I’m told, the actual limit is 140 characters, including spaces. I think I may have said 144 characters before. In any case, the Obama/ Castro accords have now resulted in the release of 5 Amnesty Int’l POCs (prisoners of conscience, only POCs in the Americas): brothers Bianco, Django and Alexeis Vargas Martín, conditionally released, and Iván Fernández Depestre and Emilio Planas, arrested for “dangerousness.” Lady in White Sonia Garro, husband Ramón A. Muñoz & neighbor Eugenio Hernández were released after reportedly suffering beatings from prison officials, now under house arrest awaiting trial.

        There was reportedly a rumor going around Havana that Fidel had died, but then the rumor was discredited. Such rumors have circulated before so when he actually does die, no one may believe it. A Cuban friend says, “This rumor of Fidel’s death seems to have originated with an unknown person in the Palacio de Convenciones. That poor guy must have been picked up afterwards by Seguridad del Estado and now be purging his "counterrevolutionary sins" in Villa Marista! One of the blessings of the US is that if anyone begins a nasty rumor about Obama, for example, the rumor that he hadn't been born in the US, nothing happens to him! Obama was just simply was forced to produce his birth certificate! If such a rumor about Fidel had originated in Cuba, would he have produced his birth certificate or ordered the rumor monger's death certificate to be made out?”

Meanwhile, another rumor is that wet-foot/dry-foot which allows most Cubans who touch US soil to stay will be eliminated, so Cubans are taking to the seas in droves in flimsy boats, most being intercepted and returned to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.               

Someone has sent me a report on the recent visit to Havana by Senator Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, who spent several days with Castro government officials, but scrupulously avoided democracy activists. After he returned, he reportedly issued a press release saying "New Mexicans are anxious to meet and work with Cubans, and the time is right to rebuild business and cultural ties between the United States and Cuba." His reported voting record on Latin American trade is as follows:                          

NO on trade with Peru.
NO on trade with Central America.
NO on trade with the Dominican Republic.
NO on trade with Chile.
NO on trade with Colombia.
NO on trade with Panama.
But: YES on trade with Cuba.

                Some of these guys are trying to turn me into a Republican!

        The following article describes the US Interests Section in Havana, a building I know well, and what changes are in store (provided a Republican Congress allows an embassy to be established):


          Here below is a cloak-and-dagger story about the supposed US spy swapped for the Cuban Three. Alan Gross, the US insisted, was never a spy, so he couldn’t be swapped for the Cuban spies. Instead, they were supposedly swapped for another man, a former Cuban Interior Ministry operative who may or may not have been a double agent, Lt. Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years. His current whereabouts are unknown, but his relatives in Cuba say he is no longer in the prison where he was being held. Meanwhile the Cubans freed Gross as a “humanitarian gesture;” such are the intricacies of statecraft.


                                                                 

Has Raul Castro’s agreement with President Obama perhaps inspired North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to reach out to South Korea for “high-level” talks?

        And apparently there was a cordial encounter between President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and US VP Joe Biden at the swearing in of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

          Now Venezuela's Maduro, taking a cue from the Castro playbook, has announced that he would release opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, imprisoned since February 2014 -- but only in a prisoner swap with the United States. In return, Maduro wants the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted and sentenced in 1981 to 55-years in federal prison for seditious conspiracy.
"The only way I would use (presidential) powers would be to put (Leopoldo Lopez) on a plane, so he can go to the United States and stay there, and they would give me Oscar Lopez Rivera - man for man," Maduro reportedly said during a televised broadcast.

        Meanwhile, a Washington Post editorial warns that in its focus on Cuba, the Obama administration is failing to grasp a desperate situation in Venezuela, a nation with 3 times Cuba’s population and a major oil supplier to the US, as well as to Cuba. Washington Post, January 4, 2015, Jackson Diehl: Obama is overlooking deep trouble in Venezuela.

          Oh fickle electorate, Obama is again rising in popularity as he threatens to use his veto pen while facing 2 contentious years with a Republican Congress.

        What can I say about the terrorist attack in Paris that hasn’t already been said?

        As for the report that General David Petraeus, once an illustrious and trusted military commander, may face criminal charges for sharing classified material with his then-mistress, how could he be so careless? I guess “being in love” is a form of temporary insanity whereby hormones and endorphins override reason. No wonder the spy game so often engages in sexual provocation!

        George Zimmerman has again been arrested for assault, one of several such incidents involving a guy who obviously has a short fuse and is impulsive in the extreme, certainly not someone who should be armed and entrusted with neighborhood-watch duties.

        New possibilities for streamlining and reducing the cost of medical care exist with the cellphone, whereby an image of a worrisome skin lesion or a child’s sore inner ear can be e-mailed to a physician for a diagnosis, also allowing a natural experiment in data collection. I joined the Kaiser health plan because, already, it allows e-mail between practitioners and patients, with the ability to attach photos or other documents. That removes the incentive for a physician to schedule an office visit just for the reimbursement and saves time and money for the patient. The downside is that patients get less “hands-on” and “face-time” with physicians and also sometimes have to wait for procedures or prescriptions. Also, we are usually limited by the practitioners actually working at Kaiser.

        The item below came from AFP after a 2-year-old killed his mother with a gun she carried in her purse.

 

Around 30,000 deaths a year in the United States involve firearms. The majority are suicides; many others are murders. But some involve children laying their hands on loaded weapons. In 2011 alone, 140 children and teenagers died as a result of an unintentional shooting, more often than not inside a home, according to a study from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Several thousand more sustained non-fatal injuries.

        What a burden for a child to carry for life, that he killed his own mother! He apparently had seen enough guns being used on TV and elsewhere to know about pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. No doubt, some deaths and injuries are prevented by gun possession or at least by the fear that someone else may be carrying a gun. However, human beings are so prone to accidents and impulses, it does seem that there should be more mandatory safety features built into firearms, as well as mandatory training, along with registration measures to help keep guns out of the hands of known criminals and people with mental illness. That won’t prevent all accidental or impulsive gun deaths, but would reduce them. Never allow guns near kids under 18, would be my motto. If fewer guns were in circulation and reducing a widespread “gun culture” would help too, but isn’t a likely American scenario in the foreseeable future.

        Finally, as a citizen of the disenfranchised District of Columbia, though I’m not a pot smoker myself, I must protest the attempt by a Republican Congressman from elsewhere (don’t even remember who) in trying to override the voters’ decision to allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. It’s bad enough that we are prevented (by the recalcitrant Republican Congress) from having our own congress people and senators—even worse that outside representatives can overrule us as residents and voters.

        On a completely non-newsworthy topic, I happened to tune in to a 2-hour public radio Beatles’ retrospective, reminding us all of what rare popular musical geniuses they actually were in creating such fanciful lyrics and inspiring tunes. Think of such timeless gems as Yellow Submarine, In an Octopus’s Garden, and Let It Be, among many others. Their combined talents created a unique synergy sadly lost when the band broke up and its members went solo. Today’s noisy, fleeting pop hits don’t compare.