Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Greetings, My Musings, A Honduran Family's Life, The Nature of Human Rights

Happy New Year, Feliz Ano Nuevo

In a random survey by a local Spanish-language paper, those questioned about Honduras (nationality not identified) all considered the question settled by Lobo’s election, resolving what they saw as a standoff or personal rivalry between Zelaya and Micheletti. The military, the constitution, and democratic principles were not mentioned.

Just saw some stats reporting that New York City’s murder rate continues to fall, standing now at 6 per 100,000 population. Six is still six too many, but in comparison to Honduras, which has at least 100 murders per 100,000, it’s pretty good. The mayor has said that the count would be even lower if neighboring states had stricter gun laws. Here in DC, the citizenry voted for a strict gun law, but the Supreme Court invalidated it and now we are forced to allow gun sales and more gun possession. That was a big victory for the IRA, which argues against the licensing of gun owners when guns have only one purpose, to harm or kill someone. But driving automobiles, whose purpose is merely transportation, does require licensure. Food safety is regulated, as is drug manufacture. Food, cars, drugs, are all considered potentially dangerous, but not guns? What about paying gun manufacturers not to make guns, much as farmers are paid not to grow crops? It would reduce the murder rate, not only here but in Mexico, where narco-traffickers rely on US-made weapons. A reduction in the voracious appetite of North Americans for illegal drugs would help there too.

And while I’m on my soapbox, forcing DC to allow more handguns and other firearms in circulation is just one of the indignities foisted on a jurisdiction that not only is the capital of the nation and “free world,” but has a bigger population than Wyoming and one close to that of some other small states, yet we have no voting representation in Congress. Of course, DC voter registration is more than 90% Democratic, which makes Republicans resistant and they also fear that Puerto Rico might want to follow suit, providing another Democratic stronghold.

Heard an announcement that starting Jan. 4, after brief initial detention, asylum seekers will be allowed supervised release, no longer enduring months of detention with parents separated from children and husbands from wives, aggravating the trauma of whatever led them to ask for asylum to begin with.

To readers in the DC area, I recommend a new exhibit at the Holocaust Museum called from Memory to Action about genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, and Bosnia, with additional information on DRC and Chechnya. Exhibits are interactive and allow visitors to place a pledge in huge plexiglas container, saying what they personally plan to do. The container is filling up with pledges. Portions of the exhibit are also displayed on the museum’s website in many other languages, including Spanish, Farsi, and Mandarin.

On e-Bay, saw my book for sale for $24.83! Someone is trying to make a pretty penny on my book, which can be purchased new on Amazon for $18.99. Again I've often wondered what’s happened to all the free review copies I’ve sent out into the void? Enterprises offering to review my book and give it more publicity in their online or print publication often ask for a copy, sometimes two. So, keeping my fingers crossed, I send them the book, which I have to purchase myself and also pay almost $3 in postage. And what happens? Usually nothing. The book may end up on eBay or back on Amazon as a used copy. It’s quite a racket. The only free copies that have come through for me were to the Washington Post and Peace Corps Writers, both of which gave me nice reviews, and Peace Corps Writers also gave me an award for best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009.

After my recent run-in with Google, I will certainly be more careful from now on in quoting from other sources, making sure they are fully public first. I'm not famous in the blogosphere (otherwise, my book would be a best seller), but the woman (see previous) originally named by me in my errant message may be more famous than she wants to be. Also, I'm wondering if whoever found her on my blog after inputting her name may have actually triggered Google to search electronically for her? Maybe her name wasn't on their radar before? Apparently, there is a deep web that brings up more information than the regular web and there are also advanced searches. I'm not sure how all that works. Anyway, it's a different world now and information can go viral. No wonder my sister and a few other friends steadfastly avoid the Internet. They’d like to keep their private lives and activities private.

The Internet is a two-edged sword that has spawned much erroneous information, such as that Obama is a Muslim and born in Kenya or that health reform is a plot to kill old people. The Internet has been instrumental in making Sarah Palin a millionaire. I also think that it created the mammogram tempest. None of us is immortal, resources to keep us alive are not infinite, and, unless there is some extra risk factor, it may not be the best use of medical resources to screen every woman every year between ages 40 and 50. What about screening them every 2 or 3 years instead? But no, because of all the hue and cry, now it’s going to be every year anyway, even though putting that money to other medical uses might be more cost-effective. Or what about diverting the same funds to better nutrition for malnourished kids? Or screening women between ages 30 and 40? An infinitesimal number of them may turn up with breast cancer. A few men also get breast cancer. I don’t know the statistics, but women I’ve known whose breast cancer was discovered before age 50, sometimes by a mammogram, often have had a very aggressive disease and have died anyway. But I suspect that a PR lesson has been learned by policy makers who won’t dare suggest reducing prostate cancer screening or pap smears. People have now been convinced of the value annual screenings and will think they are being short-changed if they don’t get them, even though early detection may have little impact on actual survival. Probably at least some of the vehement mammogram reaction was triggered by clinics performing these tests not wanting to lose patients and revenue. Much of the opposition to health care reform has been fomented by those seeking to protect their economic turf, especially if health care dollars are shrinking

On the other hand, the Internet and instant communication have many benefits, as we all know, allowing the opposition in Iran to flourish, despite persistent government efforts to control it. Cuba has taken a lesson from Iran in prohibiting widespread use of cell phones, laptops, and the Internet—the very technology being distributed by an American now jailed in Cuba. Still, young Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has a worldwide following despite great difficulty in sending out her posts and has won journalism prizes abroad, although prohibited from leaving the country to collect them, and both she and her husband have lately been beaten up on the street by unknown persons. But she has still managed to get her message out and her international fame, acquired through her blog, has protected her from arrest so far.

Talking with another woman who also lost her son just before Christmas, I told her about the ritual held on the anniversary of a loved one’s death in Honduras. A card with the person’s photo on one side and a prayer on the other is passed out at an annual memorial held at the family home, where friends and neighbors congregate, bringing flowers and food. The loved one’s life is celebrated and remembered, tears are shed anew, then for the rest of the year, everyone carries on with life as usual. Mourning is saved only for that special day.

Haven’t heard from my Latin American commentator lately. He may be right that the Obama administration’s unpredictable and inconsistent handling of the Zelaya affair has angered and disappointed many in Latin America, but I suspect that attitude is less widespread than he originally thought and limited to certain heads of state and intellectuals. (Many left-leaning Americans and some Hondurans in the US have felt the same way.) Most ordinary Latin Americans either don’t care or haven’t had a visceral anti-American reaction. A recent survey in Chile, for example, found Obama and Brazilian president Lula high on the list of admired leaders, while Chavez and Fidel Castro ranked toward the bottom. Lula is certainly no capitalist, but not a dyed-in-the-wool socialist either. Both he and Obama tend to be more centrist and pragmatic. But the romantic lure of revolution still burns brightly in some circles, especially among some young university students. In Venezuela, it takes the form of anti-Chavismo, while in other countries, Che and Fidel may be the models and heroes. Indeed, it is not well-known, but many of those killed over a year ago in the Colombian raid on the FARC camp across the Ecuadorian border were Mexican university students who had joined the rebels, a fact little advertised. I know only because a Mexican human rights activist was staying at my home at the time.

In Honduras, an identifiable political and economic elite does run everything, corruption is rampant, and there are vast inequalities of wealth and poverty, with poor people vastly outnumbering the rich. Labor unions and a few budding organizations supporting Zelaya may have been genuine admirers of Chavez and the Castro brothers. But most poor people I knew either had no opinion or a negative view. Yet, novels of the late Honduran author Ramon Amaya Amador, writing in the 1960s, are still popular, depicting brave socialists and admirers of Fidel confronting evil capitalist bosses. Individual attitudes are often not clear cut and contradictory. I find myself hewing more to the middle-of-the-road as I get older.

And there is little doubt that for most Latin Americans, the USA is still the promised land, even as many have returned from there after recent job losses. So, I must respectfully disagree with the Latin American commentator’s argument that lack of strong support for Zelaya universally alienated Latin Americans and was a huge mistake on Obama’s part.

Finally, I'm wondering if Cuba has stopped sending physicians to Honduras in the wake of the Zelaya affair? I’ll find out when I go to Honduras in Feb. Honduras has really come to rely on Cuban doctors, who, by and large, have provided very skilled and much needed care and have also benefited themselves from experiencing life in another country.

See two articles below, one about the current privations of life in Honduras, the other an editorial discussion on the nature of human rights—are civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights all equal and of a piece, or are there divisions and priorities among them?

December 27, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, If anybody knows Pati Castillo in Houston, please tell her to phone home.

Pati is a 30-year-old Honduran whose children and other family members live in a gang-ridden slum here in the Honduran capital. Her mother, tearing up, says that nobody has heard from Pati in two months. Pati’s cellphone number never answers.
This family’s troubles offer a reminder that the most grievous victims of the global economic crisis — triggered in large part by American banking excesses — aren’t just Americans. They include residents of slums and villages in places like Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador — people who had nothing to do with derivatives or subprime mortgages.

The United Nations calculates that because of the economic crisis and continuing high food prices, the number of people going hungry around the world has risen to about one billion. Often, they include the 13 members of Pati’s family here.
The family members, including Pati’s four children, live in a one-room home on a steep hillside in the El Pastel slum. When I arrived a week ago, gang members were selling drugs on the street. And when I left, a boy was sniffing glue outside. Gang members have set up checkpoints and demand payment of a “war tax” to pass.
(A local priest, the Rev. Augustín Vásquez, escorted me in and glared his way through one gang checkpoint. “You ask money from a priest?” he asked indignantly. And he charged on through. Final score: God, 1; gangsters, 0.)

Pati’s mother, Iris, has a job at a music school that brings in about $100 a month, after commuting expenses. But that isn’t enough to keep everyone fed and clothed. So three years ago, Pati decided to sacrifice for her children’s future: She set out across Central America and Mexico for the United States.

After what her mother described as a brutal journey, Pati reached Houston. She found a job as a waitress in a restaurant there and shared a cheap apartment with several other Central American women. Every month, her mom said, she sent home $200 through Western Union.

With this regular windfall, the Castillo family began to live a better life — and overextended themselves. They bought a stove and refrigerator on an installment plan, assuming that Pati’s money transfers would continue indefinitely. “That was a big mistake,” Iris admits ruefully.

Then the economic crisis hit, and jobs began to disappear worldwide. Honduran, Salvadoran and Mexican garment factories that export to the American markets were crushed. Remittances, which amounted to about 22 percent of the Honduran economy, tumbled.

Pati lost her job in June. As an illegal immigrant, she found it impossible to find a new one, so she stopped wiring money home. “My daughter decided she will probably have to come back by herself,” Iris explained.

The last anybody heard from Pati was two months ago. Maybe she couldn’t afford her cellphone anymore; maybe she is en route back home; or maybe desperation pushed her to try something unsavory and to take risks — although her mom doesn’t believe that. “She’s well brought up,” Iris said. “I don’t think that she would do anything bad.”

In the meantime, the Castillos are adjusting to a two-thirds drop in family income. They are bracing themselves for their stove and refrigerator to be repossessed, and they have cut back sharply on food. The adults and older kids get just beans and rice; only Pati’s baby niece gets milk; and the younger children get a few eggs for protein.“Sometimes the kids go hungry, but I work as hard as I can to prevent that,” Iris said grimly.

Father Vásquez confirmed the Castillos’ story and said it is common since the fall in remittances and the collapse in the economy (in Honduras’s case, greatly aggravated by political instability after a coup last summer). “The recession in the U.S. is felt at a grass-roots level here,” he said. “I see a lot of kids who don’t get breakfast now before going to school.” Many children cope, he said, by sniffing glue.

Similar dramas are playing out in slums and villages around the world. In Haiti, I’ve seen a school nearly emptied of children because remittances stopped coming from relatives in Miami.

“One-sixth of the people on earth are hungry,” said Josette Sheeran, director of the United Nations World Food Program. “We’re seeing epidemics of child malnutrition.”
Ms. Sheeran notes that evidence has mounted that babies who are malnourished in their first two years of life are likely to suffer lifelong intellectual impairments that later feeding can never overcome. Yet just as global needs are surging, the crisis is causing a faltering in the commitment to help.

So, Pati, wherever you are, good luck finding a job — and call home. Your family, and so many others, need comfort and help.
Redefining human rights
Washington Post, Editorial, Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE OBAMA administration's commitment to the traditional American cause of promoting democracy and human rights has been widely questioned, and not without reason. So some rights advocates were pleased by an address that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered at Georgetown University, in which she laid out "the Obama administration's human rights agenda for the 21st century." We're not so happy.
Ms. Clinton said that the administration, "like others before us, will promote, support and defend democracy." She pledged that it would publicly denounce abuses by other governments and support dissidents and civil society groups. While saying that "principled pragmatism" would govern human rights discussions with "key countries like China and Russia," Ms. Clinton went on to spell out specific U.S. concerns with those nations, including Beijing's persecution of peaceful reformers and the murders of journalists in Russia.

As Ms. Clinton herself suggested, such pledges have been the common currency of American governments. But she did not limit herself to past principles. She offered an innovation: The Obama administration, she said, would "see human rights in a broad context," in which "oppression of want -- want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact" -- would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. "That is why," Ms. Clinton said, "the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda" would be "supporting democracy" and "fostering development."

This is indeed an important change in U.S. human rights policy -- but the idea behind it is pure 20th century. Ms. Clinton's lumping of economic and social "rights" with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked. In fact, as U.S. diplomats used to tirelessly respond, rights of liberty -- for free expression and religion, for example -- are unique in that they are both natural and universal; they will exist so long as governments do not suppress them. Health care, shelter and education are desirable social services, but they depend on resources that governments may or may not possess. These are fundamentally different goods, and one cannot substitute for another.

Ms. Clinton said that in adding "human development" to human rights and democracy, "we have to tackle all three simultaneously." But there are two dangers in her approach. One is that non-democratic regimes will seize on the economic aspect of her policy as an substitute for political reform -- as dictators have been doing for decades. Another is that the Obama administration will itself, in working with friendly but unfree countries, choose the easy route of focusing on development, while downplaying democracy.

Judging from Ms. Clinton's own rhetoric, that is the approach the State Department is headed toward in the Arab Middle East. In a major speech last month in Morocco, she said that U.S. engagement with Islamic countries would henceforth focus on education, science and technology, and "entrepreneurship" -- all foundations of "development." She made no mention of democracy. If the Obama administration believes that liberty is urgently needed in the homelands of al-Qaeda, Ms. Clinton still has offered no sign of it.

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