Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Green Growth, Africans’ Departure, An 85th Birthday, Book Sold in £s, Cuba Book Review, Border Kids, Peace Corps Application Streamlined, Chinese Death Sentence Averted, Equatorial Guinea







 

 



 
 

As per photos, heavy rain and just heavy growth led to the collapse of vines that had been growing on a back wall of my yard (actually, the side wall of another house) ever since we moved here in 1969. The house’s owner proposed that we split the considerable cost of cutting it down, which we did. I never knew ivy could fall like that, but, I suppose, like any living thing, its lifespan is limited. Only the naked wall is left. Meanwhile, an avocado plant I grew from a seed has taken over my back porch, so had to be trimmed.  I hope it won’t be harmed in the process.

 My visitors from Tanzania and Zambia have left, leaving a huge absence. The Tanzanian, a devout Catholic
(’m Catholic, but less devout), gave me a Bible Diary for 2014 with Pope Francis’s picture on the front cover
and daily readings inside. In turn, I gave her a copy of my Cuba book.

A friend and neighbor who, like me, joined the Peace Corps later in life and also once worked in Romania, as I did,
recently celebrated her 85th birthday. Our lives have had other parallels. Her former husband, who, like mine, divorced
her after a long marriage and remarried, also, like my late husband, served in the Carter administration. However,
similarities stop there, as her ex is still with the living and attended her birthday celebration, a fact which very much impressed me, as my ex-husband never set foot in our house again after he left and I cannot imagine him attending any event in my honor. After all that my friend has achieved since her divorce, I wonder if her former husband ever feels any regret for leaving her? Perhaps she, like me, found herself able to do much more as an independent person. [Sorry for spacing here, cannot correct it.]

 
Very interesting, first 2 copies of my Cuba book sold in euros—now one has been sold in pounds! How is this happening? It’s a real mystery. Maybe it will do better in Europe than here in the US?

 
Sunday Book review, Roanoke Times, posted July 9, 2014

By Humberto Rodríguez-Camilloni, PhD, Professor of Architecture, Virginia Tech

 
[cover image went here but is not reproducing]

This compelling autobiographical narrative brings into focus the reality of Cuba and the struggle of its people to survive in a world deprived of basic civil liberties, adequate food supplies, medical services, or education. The author — now in her mid-70s — has spent most of her adult life championing the cause of human rights around the world, but especially in Latin America, particularly in Cuba, a culture with which she has come to identify herself in a meaningful way with deep understanding and love. Once an admirer of Fidel Castro as a revolutionary hero, she has witnessed first hand his betrayal of the Cubans, who have not lived to see the realization of the promised democracy with freedom, social health care, economic prosperity and equal opportunity for all.NRVbookreview 071314

A description of the book is as follows: “Whatever your ethnic background or personal opinion of Fidel Castro, you will find something new and revealing in this book. It offers a frank, firsthand account of one woman’s journey, not only through Cuba, but through a life filled with unique challenges and tragedies, including the deaths of her older son and a Cuban foster son. When Castro rose to power, the author, like so many Americans, was entranced by the romantic vision of a scrubby revolutionary defeating the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista. But her years of direct experience with Cubans and within Cuba itself gradually eroded that vision. Then, unexpectedly, she found herself being attacked by a once close friend of Latino heritage. He not only vehemently disagreed with her negative evaluation of Castro’s reign, but harshly questioned her right as a non-Latina to even comment on it. He dubbed her ‘lazy’ and a ‘nunny-bunny,’ namely a phony gringa do-gooder, displaying what he called lamentable ‘Republican-style self-exculpation,’ thereby summarily dismissing her decades of involvement in Cuban human rights as an Amnesty International volunteer. These very personal attacks triggered her own self-doubts, launching her onto a meticulous look back over the 75-year trajectory of her entire life, especially her involvement with Latin America and Cuba.”

Joe writes with passion and great sensitivity, taking her readers on a lifetime journey full of adversities but also triumphs gained through persistent devotion and unconditional commitment to help others in need. As a self-proclaimed “humanitarian,” Joe’s life experiences provide timeless lessons for all. Like her previous award-winning memoir, “Triumph and Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras” (2008), which should be read as a companion work, this book reasserts universal human values and the celebration of the human spirit that have guided the author throughout her entire life.

 
Putin’s courting anew of Cuba, forgiving its debt, offering to help with oil exploration, and renewing the spying post on the US, are very worrisome. If Russia returns to support Cuba, not only does that pose a risk to the United States, but means the prolonging of the Cuban dictatorship. 

 Folks calling for stronger barriers at the US-Mexico border don’t understand that the children and youths now congregating at the border are not actually crossing over. Rather, many are arriving at a fence, gate, or checkpoint and asking for asylum. According to a measure signed by GW Bush, those under age 18 coming from non-contiguous countries have a right in such cases to a hearing before an immigration judge. I’ve been an interpreter at many such hearings, though more recently, have preferred to work only in schools and hospitals. At “credible fear” hearings at the border where I’ve participated telephonically in the past, neither I nor the respondent (as they are called) knows the final decision at that moment, so I have no idea of which cases were sent along to an immigration judge and were actually allowed to stay and how many had to go. But, as I have said, I’ve often seen deportees arriving in immigration transport planes at the Tegucigalpa airport, like those shown above. I also have assisted young men whose legs were severed by trains in Mexico to obtain prostheses. Now, Mexico has apparently announced measures to prevent people from riding on top of freight trains, which should reduce both arrivals at the border and injuries and deaths from falling off. And maybe ads to stay home are working, as apparently the border arrivals are diminishing.

A friend and fellow Spanish interpreter has proposed having immigration hearings in the countries of origin, though I'm not sure those countries would allow it. It would save on migrants making a risky journey, then having to be sent back still owing the coyote. But citizens of other countries might demand the same, such as Syria, Iraq, and Gaza, where people certainly have a “credible fear.” As I may have said before, a teacher in a public kindergarten, with 40 students (!) told me that 5 had been born in the US, indicating their parents had been deported. Just on Sunday, a woman from Guatemala at our Spanish-speaking parental bereavement group, which I am now leading, told us that her 27-year-old son had been killed outside his auto body shop because he couldn't pay extortionists. He had called her the night before, saying. “They are trying to kill me.”

Now some folks from @amnesty are protesting the decision to deport kids from Central and South America @CNNpic.twitter.com/adakgQ59dX.

https://twitter.com/CNNewsCrew/status/489879549627203584/photo/1

 
Of course, the influx of kids—and mothers—from Central America is big news in the local Spanish-language press in free papers that come out weekly. One headline said, “No, no manden a sus hijos” [No, don’t send for your kids] quoting from a Guatemalan mother shown embracing her 14-year-old son who had just made the perilous journey—certainly a mixed message there. But at least 2 planeloads of Hondurans have been sent back already (as per photo), so that may make an impression. We have to hope they got due process, but if it’s very swift, who knows? On the other hand, if they are allowed to stay, that only encourages more. Some folks are saying that we should try to improve life at home for these people, but we’ve already been trying to do that for years with various programs, public and private, with only limited success. There will always be an income gap. Europe and Australia face similar refugee pressures. Canada has a big buffer in between.

 
Bolivia, apparently by presidential decree, has lowered the legal working age to 10 from the UN- mandated age of 14. Ten does seem awfully young, but recognizes de facto what actually occurs. Certainly in Honduras, where 14 is the legal age, it was recognized in the breach.

 
A member of our Caribbean staff at Amnesty International headquarters in London has published an article below in the Huffington Post, July 16, 2014, about the convoluted and ineffective way that the Dominican Republic is responding to its Haitian-descended citizen crisis engendered by a recent and internationally widely condemned high court decree.


 Bravo, regarding simplification and shortening of Peace Corps’ application process, as per article partially copied below. I remember waiting over a year for my assignment and many others have been discouraged by this prospect. Another change would be to encourage more older, experienced people to join, which is what receiving countries prefer. The agency has done that to an extent by opening up Peace Corps Response, usually 6-month tours, to experienced people who may already know the language and country involved but who have not served in the Peace Corps before. Allowing candidates to choose the country where they want to serve would have encouraged a number of people I’ve spoken with to join. Previously, such requests were met by PC recruiters with the pat answer, “We are not a travel agency” and expressing a country preference was often considered a sign of rigidity on the applicant’s part.

 Peace Corps announces major changes to application process

By T. Rees Shapiro Wash. Post, July 14, 2014  

 
The Peace Corps, formed more than 50 years ago to send Americans abroad to perform good works, is in the midst of its most serious challenge, with the number of applicants falling rapidly, leaving the volunteer force at its lowest level in more than a decade.

Recognizing that the organization envisioned by President John F. Kennedy could be endangered, its leaders are scheduled to announce Tuesday a series of steps to make it more attractive, including allowing candidates to choose the country where they want to serve, shortening the year-long application period, and recruiting more minorities and young people…In the past nine months, more than 30,000 potential candidates did not complete their applications, according to the Peace Corps. The number of candidates who have finished them has dropped from a peak of 15,384 in fiscal 2009 to 10,118 in fiscal 2013, a decline of 34 percent…The agency’s recruiting suffered setbacks after several volunteers came forward with harrowing accounts of sexual assaults in their host countries.

Hessler-Radelet said she hopes the improvements will encourage more people to apply and boost the agency’s number of volunteers, especially among minorities. Of the 7,200 volunteers currently deployed, whites make up 76 percent; blacks, 6 percent; Hispanics, 9 percent; and Asians, 5 percent.

“We want to make it simpler, faster and more personal than ever before,” she said. “We don’t want to make our application a barrier to entry.”

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Good news! Remember Li Yan, a Chinese woman who was sentenced to death for the murder of her violent husband, who'd put her through months of domestic abuse?
Following intense international pressure, the Chinese authorities have overturned her death sentence - a very rare decision. Find out more:
http://amn.st/1m12jdR

 Small, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea is not a high profile country for Americans. As the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, I only learned of its horrendous human rights record when translating some documents for Amnesty International. See letter below.

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

President and Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hayes on Africa
The Corporate Council on Africa
1100 17th Street, N.W., Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20036

Tel: (202) 835-1115 Fax: (202) 835-1117


Dear Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hayes,

 A supporter of Amnesty International, I’m writing about a deeply concerning situation of horrific treatment of prisoners in Equatorial Guinea. As I understand you will be honoring the country’s president in August, I appeal to you to confront him on these conditions.
 
Roberto Berardi was detained in February 2013, after making inquiries about revenues from a company he jointly owned with Second Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (“Teodorin”), President Obiang’s eldest son. The company had been identified in US Department of Justice filings targeting properties held by Teodorin in California. Despite reported promises made by President Obiang to the EU Commission Vice President Antonio Tejani that Berardi would be released imminently, he remains in solitary confinement and very ill, according to his family. Photos show red lashing scars on Mr. Berardi’s back and an extreme loss of weight.

In July 2014, Mr. Berardi’s situation indicates that President Obiang has not improved conditions from when UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak visited the country in November 2008 and reported that torture within the prisons was “rife” and that he feared prisoners would suffer reprisals for even talking to his team.

 Cruel and inhumane treatment in prisons should never be tolerated. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention against Torture as well as the US Torture Victims Protection Act and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights state that all people have the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The government of Equatorial Guinea cannot exempt itself from this prohibition.

 Moreover, Roberto Berardi’s detention was unlawful as it did not result from a fair trial or arrest in accordance with international standards. Though allegedly convicted of misappropriation of corporate assets and fraud, Berardi was presented with no evidence against him. Rather, it appears Berardi is being silenced and punished for inquiring into Obiang’s alleged misconduct uncovered by US authorities.

 As his time in prison progresses, Berardi has contracted a number of illnesses. He has been denied proper medical treatment and despite promises of his release from prison, he remains there, growing weaker and more ill.

 I urge you to prioritize human rights in your discussions with the President and all other involved groups about future cooperation and an end to the unjust treatment of Roberto Berardi and all other prisoners in Equatorial Guinea.  The poor human rights record of Equatorial Guinea over the years of Obiang’s government must be highlighted, stressing the need to end impunity for abuses. I ask you to express fears that the Equatorial Guinea government is encouraging abuses in prisons and unfair trials.  I further urge you to emphasize to the government the need to comply with international human rights law in handling issues that may put the Equatorial Guinea government under scrutiny. 

 This August President Obama will host President Obiang along with other heads of state from Africa in an effort to promote investment, trade and good governance in Africa. The Corporate Council on Africa will be holding a dinner in honor of President Obiang and will provide an opportunity to promote transparency, good governance and the rule of law and respect for human rights, all of which are essential to promoting investment and trade. Such conversations are null and void if investors in the country are detained and tortured at will.

 Thank you for your time and consideration of this important matter.



Friday, July 11, 2014

July 4, Citizenship, GAO Cultural Day, My Kids in Hawaii, Ramadan with Rebiya Kadeer, Honduran Miners, Goodbye Mario Coyula




This posting is primarily a photo gallery. Here you see my son Jonathan on July 4, a tranquil scene that he sent from the far end of Oahu, the same island where busy Honolulu is located, then near the same area with my daughter Stephanie. Another photo shows the two of them when they were small. July 4 was a lovely day in Washington, DC. That evening, it was only about 70 F with a gentle breeze blowing with a nice party outdoors featuring live Mexican guitar music, singing, and dancing at a home near my own. A perfect evening for the fireworks and outdoor festivities.

 

 
At the Museum of the American Indian, I met with long-time friend, Manolo, holding up a copy of my new Cuba book in the photo, which was taken (as per copyright notice) by Jose Manuel, a former Cuban refugee rafter who appears in the book.
 
Days later, on July 8, I had the privilege of attending my Czech friend Blanka’s citizenship ceremony. Of 117 new citizens from dozens of countries, two were Czechs. A few children were also present, reminding me of the ceremony we attended for son Jon, adopted from Colombia, who became a citizen at age 4. I recall that many onlookers gave him quarters, to the great envy of his siblings.
 




My three GAO visitors will be leaving soon, shown at recent GAO Cultural Day. They are from Argentina, Tanzania, and Zambia; the other photo is of me with the GAO fellow from Papua New Guinea, a colleague of someone who stayed with me years ago.
 
 
 



On July 9, we in Amnesty International in DC held an Iftar dinner to celebrate Ramadan, a month when no food or water is consumed during daylight hours. Exactly when Ramadan falls depends on geographic location and the cycles of the moon, but I believe the calendar for DC this year is June 28-July 27. Iftar refers to the first meal occurring after sunset, beginning with the consumption of a date. But before our dinner, we heard a speaker, Rebiya Kadeer, as shown above, a leader in exile in China’s Xinjiang region, formerly known as East Turkistan, with a population of 20 million, but, like Tibet and parts of Mongolia, taken over by the Chinese government and subjected to forced assimilation through language and Han Chinese immigration. The inhabitants are a Turkish people, the Uyghurs, most, but not all, Muslims. I had had met Kadeer, a small woman in her 60s with long gray braids, previously at an Amnesty conference in Delaware and rode back on the train with her and her interpreter.  She was once as a very successful businesswoman, but ran afoul of Chinese authorities and spent 5 years in prison as an Amnesty prisoner of conscience.  Two of her sons were also arrested and one is still in prison. One of her daughters attended our event and chatted with me.
 

Kadeer explained Ramadan as time for exercising self-restraint, showing solidarity with and empathy for poor people, and performing good deeds. She said that China is the only country that does not allow Ramadan fasting, forcing people to eat and drink water during daylight hours, contrary to their religious beliefs and preferences.  Many Uyghurs have recently been killed and arrested. She said she has written a piece that appeared recently in the Wall St. Journal asking for peaceful dialogue with the Chinese government and she had also asked Secretary Kerry to bring up Uyghur grievances during his meetings in China. Ask why more Muslim countries don’t support the Uyghurs, she said because of economic and political alliances with China. Her people do feel solidarity with and provide moral support for Muslims in Burma, who are similarly marginalized. The Voice of America recorded and filmed Kadeer’s presentation. I reintroduced myself to her and she acted as though she actually remembered me, smiling broadly and shaking my hand with both of hers.
El Corpus, Honduras (CNN) July 4, 2014-- Three of 11 miners who were trapped in a Honduran gold mine this week were rescued Friday morning, freed nearly two days after a landslide blocked their path out.
After rescuers brought the three out of the mine near the town of El Corpus, live footage shown on Honduran network Televicentro showed ambulances driving them away. Scores of Red Cross volunteers, firefighters and others have been trying to free the miners since a landslide blocked a tunnel late Wednesday, El Corpus Mayor Luis Rueda said. Information on the conditions of the three freed miners and the eight who remained in the mine wasn't immediately available.
 
Mario Coyula, a Cuban architect and planner, with whom I met several times, as recounted (and pictured) in my Cuba book, has died of cancer. He was loyal to the regime, but not uncritical, and
was a champion for the preservation of Havana’s architecture. He was very kind to me personal
and his death is certainly a loss to Cuba and to Havana, especially.
 Too bad the USA lost the World Cup, but actually didn’t do so badly after all.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Japanese Amnesty Visitor, Espaillat Disappointment, Honduran 1st Lady Visits Refugees, South Sudan, Haiti, Inter-country & Agency Adoption Slowdown, Spelling “Corrections,” Garcia Marquez Successor?, Proofing While Reading, Cuba Book Sold in Euros, Witness for Peace in Cuba, Cuban POCS, Google Execs Visit Cuba, School Lunches, More on the Super-Rich, Happy July 4!

A visitor from the board of Amnesty International in Japan met with our local group, as per the above photo, reporting that AI membership in that country is shrinking and consists mostly of older members who write letters, but don’t conduct rallies or marches or engage with public officials. There are only 7,000 members nationwide in a country 1/3 the population of the United States. Most citizens support the death penalty, carried out by hanging, with a death-row inmate only informed the day of his execution. Death-row inmates don’t know when prison officials make their rounds if it will be their turn that day. An innocent man on death row for 47 years was recently exonerated, the longest-serving exonerated capital punishment inmate on record. Many Japanese apparently regard Amnesty as a western import, making them wary, not only because AI opposes the death penalty, but because of its support of the cause of aging Korean “comfort women” gang raped by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
            My Espaillat family friends in the DR are pretty disappointed that their cousin, Adriano Espaillat, again barely lost to veteran Congressman Charlie Rangel, age 84, who got endorsements from the Clintons and many fellow congress members.
The first lady of Honduras, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, toured South Texas immigration shelters to learn more about the plight of thousands of Hondurans, including children, who entered the United States illegally.
It’s troubling that not only is the in-fighting in South Sudan continuing, but is now involving child soldiers, some no doubt forced into fighting, but others probably eager to join with adult men in carrying and shooting guns. 
In Haiti, a country I have visited several times, including as an election observer in 1990, President Martelly seems to dragging his feet on calling for elections and former presidents Duvalier and Aristide are apparently again getting into the political fray.
Meanwhile, there has been an abrupt slowdown in foreign adoptions because many countries are not willing to let their children leave, either because of national pride, failing birthrates, and political or ideological disputes with the US (i.e. Russia). To the extent that such adoptions are still allowed, the fees have become very high, unless a child has a disability. In the US, licensed agencies, such as the local one on whose board I serve, Holy Cross, are also seeing a drop in domestic adoptions and, apparently, the same is true of other agencies, both public and private. Instead, people who can afford it are turning to high-tech fertility treatments and even surrogacy, or to high-priced lawyers who offer expectant mothers everything short of actual payment for relinquishing a baby for adoption. While outright baby buying is prohibited, expectant mothers can get rent, food, medical care, a car, and other benefits, for which adoptive parents pay indirectly through the lawyer. So adoption has become the purview of people with financial means, except for older and disabled youngsters, who are still left with traditional agencies.
I must express annoyance at how Yahoo, Facebook, and even Microsoft Word automatically “correct” my spelling of similar Spanish words into the English version, requiring me to go back to correct those “corrections.” While typing merrily along, I must be super-vigilant, or else posible becomes possible, compromiso becomes compromise, autoriza becomes authorize, Julio becomes July, and poco ends up as pocus. Thanks, but “no gracias” for these misguided efforts!
Some have compared South America’s newest literary star, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The central narrative of his novel, The Sound of Things Falling, is that PC ag volunteers were the originators of Colombia’ drug trade with the U. S. Among other events depicted, a PC staff member is murdered, presumably by drug forces. This story line has now been amplified by Amazon.com reviewers, via insatiable social media, to apply to Peace Corps as an institution, judging by readers’ comments. Of course, the book is fiction but do readers realize that? No PC staff member in Colombia was ever murdered and, from 1981 until recently, there weren’t any PC volunteers in Colombia.
A former PC volunteer reviewer of this book notes: “While it is fact that there were volunteers working in agricultural projects in rural Colombia, it is a mythical transformation of their presence to believe that the indigenous people they worked with were in a suspended state of animation, breathlessly awaiting since pre-Inca times the arrival of complete foreigners to awaken them to a new knowledge of how to convert coca leaf from its centuries old use in religious ceremony to a secular application in lands so distant from their own as to lie beyond their imagination.” During the period 1961-81, some 4,300 Peace Corps Volunteers served in Colombia. There is no record of any of them ever being charged with drug processing or trafficking. All the good that they accomplished over these two decades can be undone through literary inadvertence. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Gabriel “is one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” While his narrative is limited to a small group of imaginary volunteers in ag projects, the powers of social media have now conflated that scope and erroneously applied it to Peace Corps as an institution. One Amazon reviewer recently wrote: “I had no idea Peace Corps was so integral in the growth of Colombia’s drug industry.” I hope I’m not hereby furthering this book’s erroneous message by mentioning it here. A major motion picture may not be far behind.
Rare indeed is the book, even one published by a traditional publisher for a very well-known author, that has no errors. Because I was an editor for years at an association publication, OT Week, I cannot help reading everything with a gimlet eye. On p. 99 of Cheating Death by popular author Sanjay Gupta, MD, I’m sure the word shown in red was omitted from this description of a patient’s near-death experience: “He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a warm, loving spirit of a kind he has never encountered before—a being of light—appears before him.” 
Surprise, according to my last e-report from Amazon, two people bought a copy of my Cuba book in euros! I’m curious about who and where that might have been and hope the reader will get in touch with me via this blog. I wonder how they heard about my book?
                After I gave a copy of my book to someone for her birthday, I learned that she had visited Cuba with Witness for Peace. Ordinarily, WFP protects vulnerable people from government attacks, but, of course, if they were to do that in Cuba, they wouldn't be allowed in. Instead, in Cuba, WFP shows friendship and solidarity with the Cuba government, an interesting twist, just another example of the double-standard among progressives when it comes to Fidel Castro and Cuba. Every day, independent journalists, Ladies in White, and gay people trying to meet or express themselves without government approval are beaten up, arrested, and their writings, books, laptops, and DVDs confiscated. In Amnesty, we just issued an Urgent Action for an independent blogger (very hard to be in Cuba because the internet is virtually inaccessible). He is Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez who was beaten up by a government-sponsored mob, a so-called Brigada de Respuesta Rapida, on his way to the Czech Embassy to use the internet. We also have issued an Urgent Action for three brothers who have been in pre-trial detention in Cuba since late 2012 have now been tried and are due for sentencing. They are at risk of being sentenced to between three and five years’ imprisonment. Amnesty International believes they are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. They are 22-year-old Alexeis Vargas Martín and his two 18-year-old twin brothers, Vianco Vargas Martín and Django Vargas Martín, detained in November and December 2012 respectively, tried on 13 June at the Provincial Court in Santiago de Cuba, south-eastern Cuba. They are now awaiting sentencing for the charges of public disorder of a continuous nature (alteración del orden público de carácter continuado). The Public Prosecutor has asked for Alexeis to be sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and three years for Vianco and Django, who were 16 at the time of their arrest. They were reportedly subjected to a summary trial, with none of the defense witnesses being allowed to testify. The brothers, from the city of Santiago de Cuba, are all members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unión Patriótica de Cuba, UNPACU), a civil society organization which advocates for greater civil liberties in the country.
A delegation of top Google executives, including Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, reportedly visited Cuba this week to push for greater Internet access on the island. The team has met with officials and representatives of the Cuban technology and digital scene "to promote the virtues of a free and open internet," according to 14ymedio.com, an independent news site launched last month by blogger Yoani Sanchez. The group included Brett Perlmutter, Dan Keyserling, and Jared Cohen, a former State Department official who co-authored a book with Schmidt on how ubiquitous internet access will change society.
Moving on to a more low-key issue like the content of school lunches, even that has become more contentious lately, school administrators saying that kids are not eating the new foods, which are too expensive anyway, and with nutritionists accusing them of siding with big producers who don’t want to change over. Working as a school interpreter, even before Michelle Obama’s push for better nutrition, I’ve seen kids in lunchrooms throwing unopened milk cartons, oranges, and vegetables wholesale into the trash. Like most consumers, they prefer the usual salty, sweet, and fatty stuff.  Is that a matter of basic biology or due to advertising? I’m not sure, but I do agree with school administrators that kids don’t benefit if they are not actually eating the more nutritious food offered. The changeover, I would think, needs to be gradual and accompanied by a lot of education of kids, parents, and food manufacturers.
In a previous blog, I commented on the growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of us, that the 1% cannot possibly spend most of their wealth, no matter how many homes, yachts, and sports cars they buy. Well, perhaps I underestimated the value to society of massive wealth held in the hands of just a lucky few. In his 2012 book Unintended Consequences, former Bain Capital (Romney’s former company) executive Edward Conard argues that only those with excessive wealth can afford to take the risks of innovation and investment in new technologies and industries that move an economy forward. 
His book dissects the economic recession and gives it an unusual spin, reserving some fairly critical commentary for the responses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the housing crisis. Curious about the literal meaning of those familiar nicknames, I did some sleuthing, and found that they refer to entities dating back to 1938 and the New Deal. Fannie is the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) and Freddie is the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC). The nicknames have become so much a part of national discourse, we hardly ever ask what the formal names are nor does author Conard bother to define them.
Of course, someone like the now-popular French economist Thomas Piketty and others have argued that some super-rich are being overcompensated for positions heading up corporations because company success is attributed to them alone, as “great men” like other heroes in history, when, in fact, all great men, whether in business or politics, do not act alone, but in concert with advisors and a team of many others, including their workers, soldiers, or constituents.
            Have a good July 4 weekend! ¡Feliz día del 4 de Julio!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Communitas Marks 30 Years, Outages Fixed, Primaries, Humanitarian Border Crisis, Preventing More Mass Shootings, Discussion on This & Other Polarizing Issues, DR Citizenship Again, Empty Nest



This month, my storefront Catholic community, Communitas, celebrated 30 years since its formation. Shown with me is one of the original members, Sister Alice, an anti-torture crusader, who came from retirement in her mother-house in Minnesota to celebrate with us. My visitor from Argentina attended with me.

Am back online,after several big rainstorms and electrical and internet outages affecting my home office that lasted days and took two electricians numerous hours to fix on separate occasions (I’m bracing myself for the final bill!). One even came back again on Sunday, Father’s Day, when he charged double-time. I surely hope it’s fixed this time. We also experienced a terrible heat wave along the whole east coast. That’s why this particular blog posting is so long, an accumulation of events and commentary.

Possibly the electrical problem was due to hidden water leakage from recent storm or from squirrels that have taken up residence in nooks and crannies and perhaps chewed through or disrupted electrical wires. The remedy was to block off several electrical outlets, ones I didn’t even know existed, located behind heavy bookcases and file cabinets. Otherwise, the walls would have had to be torn open to find where shorts were occurring. My circuit breaker was no help, as it popped right out again when pressed, fortunately, since if it had allowed electricity to flow despite the short, the whole house could have burned down. I moved my computer temporarily into my bedroom, where I also have the necessary phone jack, as being off-line was losing me interpretation assignments and also inconveniencing my visitors taking a course here. One visitor’s room was also in darkness, though I ran an extension cord from another room into hers. I can appreciate how inconvenient it is to endure electrical outages, as many local families have been doing during these recent storms, though when I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras, it was common go days without electricity, partly because of flimsy wiring.

When the internet continued to have problems, I called the Verizon help line, usually answered by an English-speaker in Bangalore or Manila, but this time, I was surprised that he was in San Jose, Costa Rica!  After the problems continued, I ordered a new modem.

I’m not much into soccer mania, though 3 of my kids once played and now my 6-year-old great-grandson wants to learn.  My visitor from Argentina has been riveted by the games.

I don’t particularly mourn the loss of Va. Rep. Eric Cantor, but fear that his replacement is even worse, though with less seniority. It should be an interesting electoral season, with greater polarization than ever.  In New York City, octogenarian Charlie Rangel, a long-serving member of Congress who managed to get many political endorsements, including from the Clintons, again narrowly beat challenger Adriano Espaillat, a cousin of my Dominican friends of the same surname. Rangel says this will be his last term, but he said that last time. He showed that he still has a lot of fight left. 

As for the border crisis, I remember as a Peace Corps volunteer hearing radio spots, funded by USAID, urging parents not to go north and leave their children behind. Also, in my Spanish interpretation work, I've encountered several youngsters who have come across the border alone looking for their families in this vast country and, after not finding them, then being deported. I've traveled back to Honduras 10 times since I left the PC and often see an airport transport discharging deported people, including kids. My hostess in Tegucigalpa last Feb. is a public school kindergarten teacher of 40 kids, 5 of them born in the USA, presumably of deported parents. It's a discouraging situation. However, this border crisis and VP Biden’s remarks that the “vast majority” will be deported are not helpful to the overall immigration reform effort fought for all these years. While most Americans have expressed support of legalization for long-time de-facto residents, they oppose this sudden flood of children and others now trying to cross the border. VP Biden’s remarks about the “vast majority” being deported leave that sliver of hope that some will actually win the lottery and be among the lucky few allowed to stay. This border crisis seems to have doomed immigration reform for now and may also hurt Democrats’ chances in the mid-term elections, though Hispanic voters will be ever more firmly rooted in the Democratic camp.

This week, I had a patient who came to DC 30 years ago, all alone from El Salvador at age 14 and then became a citizen, thanks to Ronald Reagan's immigration amnesty. He does know English, but for a serious medical procedure, felt more comfortable with a Spanish interpreter. He said he lived completely on his own back then, worked to support himself, avoided going to school, and now has his own family and is employed laying tiles and polishing floors. He’s rooting for the unaccompanied minors now amassing at the border and hopes they will be allowed to stay. I doubt that will happen for most of them--unless they have families already here. Of course, my Cuban foster son Alex, who died of AIDS in 1995, was an "unaccompanied minor," which is how he ended up living with me and my kids.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis has been named to  head of the US Interests Section (embassy equivalent) in Havana, someone who has worked at that mission in the past and is apparently respected by democracy activists. He must know the score on Cuba, which he certainly should in that position.

Recent D-Day commemorations have evoked stories told by my late father, Leonard Currie, who died in 1996 and who participated in the Normandy offensive. He surely would have wanted to attend the remembrances if he were alive today. Born in Alberta, Canada, in 1913, he later became a US citizen and a Lt. Col. in the US Army Corps of Engineers during WW II.

Although there have been no mass shootings in the last few days, there was a whole spate of them recently and nothing has been done since to prevent them. Maybe people have given up in this political climate and have surrendered to fate. However, pepper spray may have gained new-found fame in Washington State as a way to subdue a violent gunman. I don’t know that it would always work for that purpose, but pepper spray’s stock must have gone up a notch. It offers a defensive weapon occupying a middle ground between a gun and nothing at all. It doesn’t seem likely that a suicide or accidental death or even a homicide would result from the use of pepper spray. With another fatal random shooting now in a public place, most recently in Las Vegas, I would think that the public’s tolerance for gun violence, for “the right to bear arms,” “open carry,” and “stand your ground” would be growing a little thin. No wonder restaurant diners, out for a relaxing time, don’t feel protected, but, rather, under siege when heavily armed men come in the door. How does anyone know their intentions?  It’s not just a question of “mental Illness,” something itself hard to define and identify, especially before a horrific act takes place, nor is mental health “treatment” foolproof, far from it. Nor is being armed necessarily protective, as the man killed at Walmart confronted the Vegas pair with his own gun.

Several recent mass shootings no doubt have an element of copy-cat behavior.  Others seem to stem not so much from individual mental illness and personal grievances, but from a group culture of exaggerated anti-government, anti-authority, pro-individualistic  violence—a philosophy of anarchy against any form of authority. I don’t believe the founding fathers intended for armed militias to be able to take up arms against an elected government.  Gun-rights advocates and NRA members should distance themselves from these militants who are really the few attacking the will of the majority in a democracy.

It’s getting risky now to be out in public. But do we just have to be sitting ducks, shrug our shoulders, and take the chance of getting killed because of some abstract “right” for an ever-smaller minority, who, however, own an ever-larger arsenal of personal weapons? What are their motivations for having such vast collections? I can understand collecting antique firearms, but assault weapons? Many collections go beyond the need for simple self-protection. The owners’ angry rhetoric and aggressive slogans on their t-shirts give little comfort about their intentions. Police officers and soldiers who wield firearms are screened and trained, but these folks, railing against the very government that the majority of us have elected and displaying behavior that seems vengeful and impulsive are not acting protectively, as they allege (and as Trayvon Martin found out and George Zimmerman showed in his reckless behavior after acquittal).  These militants want no registration, background checks, or restrictions on where and how they might display or use their weapons, as if the outside world were a war zone and they are in an arms’ race. They’re the ones making it so. Gun murders have been triggered by too-loud music, a dog that poops on a neighbor’s lawn, or simply someone trying to enter the wrong house after a night of partying. I think the right to life or to avoid being injured trump the right to bear arms.

The majority of “gun nuts” are men and some of their aggression is probably fueled by testosterone. Late-night comics have made fun of their obsession, with Jon Stewart showing a weapon hung with a set of large fake testicles. Most of us would have no objection to the sport of target shooting, which some nations allow with guns available only at the shooting range. I’m not a particular advocate of hunting, both because it doesn’t seem a humane way to kill animals if they must be killed and because of hunting accidents (i.e. Dick Cheney hitting his friend in the face), but hunting is probably acceptable to most people. Certainly the military and police need firearms and firearms training, including about when it’s permissible and necessary to use their weapons. That’s about as far as I’d be willing to go on firearms. I haven’t heard convincing arguments on the other side, just angry rhetoric about “constitutional rights,” thanks to the Supreme Court.

I’m not unique in having some close calls in my own family. My younger son Jonathan was about 11 when he and a group of boys found a loaded handgun at the bedside of the father of one of them. Another boy playing with the gun dropped it and it went off, wounding my son in the foot, not a fatal injury, thank goodness, but requiring emergency medical care. More recently, my great-niece was on lockdown for hours during a mass shooting at the nearby Columbia Mall.  And in Honduras and other parts of Latin America, the weapons used in the carnage there are American imports. Granted that some Hondurans have homemade guns that must be reloaded after each shot. These really are perhaps defensive weapons, ready to wound an intruder with a single bullet, but the country’s sky-high homicide rate is attributed to the use of imported firearms.

We never hear much, except locally, about the many private gun deaths: suicides, family murders, and accidents, including of and by children, occurring daily beyond the more high-profile public mass shootings. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a Ford appointee, has argued that the Second Amendment was originally a collective right pertaining to local militias and was never meant to be an individual right. Of course, he is no longer on the Supreme Court, so his opinion has little practical weight. With now so many guns in circulation and the gun lobby and weapons manufacturers have gained so much financial political clout, it’s hard to see how things will turn around. However, turning points have been reached on other polarizing and contentious issues such as ethnic, gay, and women’s rights, so maybe the rights of the majority who favor greater gun curbs will eventually prevail. 

A dialectic rhythm to public opinion is evident on many social and political issues. One side presses so hard that it reaches an extreme, as gun rights advocates seem to be doing right now, provoking a backlash. I believe “abortion rights” has reached a tipping point, with most Americans opposing late-term abortions, especially since the “viability” of preterm infants begins at an ever earlier point, thanks to neonatal intensive care, even though stalwart “pro-choice” people would argue for abortion rights at any stage, as long as the fetus is still inside the womb. Opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants, while still strong, is found in a shrinking minority. Likewise, it would seem that opposition to “Obamacare” and especially to Medicaid expansion, while still fierce among some politicians and their Tea Party supporters, is fading among the general public. I had hoped my book about life in Cuba and the true legacy of Fidel Castro might be part of a reassessment there, but it hasn’t happened yet.

While I and others disagree with “guns-rights” advocates and with folks on the other side of numerous other issues, I don’t know if it would help diffuse this polarization to acknowledge and understand the other side’s motivations, for example, gun people’s genuine fears and their desire  to feel strong, independent, and protected. I don’t know where that leaves us, as the hope would be that the other side would reciprocate by recognizing our own fears of being killed. Unfortunately, sincere and empathetic conversations are rarely held among rivals; instead, there is name-calling, sarcasm, and stone-walling—and reinforcement of a point-of-view by only speaking to those who agree with us.   

             President Obama has tried to bridge the impasse with Congress, inviting the other side to come to the table, but they have largely refused. Some divides seem unbridgeable.

On 3 June, Amnesty International made public an open letter to Dominican President Danilo Medina to share our analysis of the citizenship law that he presented to the legislature, designed to help remedy the situation created by the decision of the DR high court that rendered many Dominican-born individuals of Haitian ancestry stateless. His measure, approved by the legislature, is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough in our opinion at Amnesty. The documents mentioned below express our current concerns regarding the law’s implementation, and the situation of statelessness of some individuals, particularly those never registered.

 


 

Public statement (English and Spanish): http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR27/009/2014/en

 

The IS Caribbean team sent to all diplomatic representatives in Santo Domingo a copy of this letter and urged foreign government to remain vigilant with regard to the law’s implementation. We in the US have also endeavored to get in touch with Vice President Biden to raise the issue during his trip to Santo Domingo as part of a Latin American tour.

Finally, while I have some empathy for parents facing the “empty nest” when a child goes off to college, as a bereaved parent, I feel like telling them not to complain so much, since at least their child is alive and breathing. They should be immensely grateful for that every single day of their child’s life.