This may be my last blog posting for a while unless something really monumental comes up, so this one is rather long. I’m leaving Feb. 1 for Central America, with a brief stopover in Panama at the insistence of Peace Corps volunteers there before the main task: helping out with medical brigades and touching crucial bases in Honduras. I’ve been returning to Honduras every year since I left the Peace Corps six years ago.
For those living in the DC area, I’ve been invited to give talk about my book at the main DC public library, Martin Luther King, 901 G St NW, Auditorium A-5, 6:30 pm, Monday, March 8, (202) 727-1161 (Gallery Pl. or Metro Center). Mark your calendars now, because I’ll be away in the meantime.
What a surprise! Victoria, International Rescue Committee worker responsible for placing Marielito foster son Alex in my home in 1980, called to tell me that a former colleague of ours is now the foreign minister of Rwanda. Yes, indeed, Louise Muschikiwabo, former director of the board of the Rwanda Children’s Fund (RCF), of which both Victoria and I were members, was just interviewed in Newsweek regarding her new position. Rwandan-born Louise, who married an American, lived for a number of years in the DC area and was actually here when the genocide took place. She returned later to find out what had happened to her family members, several of whom had been killed (her family is Tutsi) and then, with a co-author, wrote a very long, dense book called Rwanda Means the World. Victoria and I can always say we knew her when… RCF financed boarding school education for genocide orphans regardless of ethnicity, but folded after I left for the Peace Corps in 2000.
Our Peace Corps fundraiser for Haiti held last week raised over $1,000. My housemate, whose first name I will not even mention, a water expert for USAID, says she and other technical staff are having trouble getting into Haiti as higher-ups are taking up flights to be able to put the Haiti disaster on their resumes.
On the BBC, I heard interviews with Haitian President Rene Preval and DR President Leonel Fernandez, who were scheduled to meet in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. The two nations, of course, share the island of Hispanola. Flying from the DR to Haiti, we passengers have often remarked on the stark division between the two countries: lush trees on the Dominican side and barrenness on the Haitian, where trees are routinely sacrificed to make cooking charcoal. President Fernandez declared the brotherhood of the two nations and announced that Dominicans had donated $1 million to Haitian relief. In 1996, I was an election observer when Fernandez was elected to his first term. I spoke with him then in Spanish at a campaign rally, not realizing that he speaks excellent English, as he demonstrated in the BBC interview, and Preval speaks fluent English also. (English seems to have eclipsed French as the language of diplomacy.) Fernandez is now in his second term as president, thanks to taking a time-out after his last term. Latin American nations allowing only one consecutive term usually allow for a second term after a period of absence. While Fernandez’s pronouncements of solidarity with Haiti are welcome, there is much anti-Haitian feeling in the DR as the result of Haitian refugees coming across the border to work in the sugar cane harvest and construction and not going home. Their children born on the Dominican side are not considered citizens, nor are their descendants. As volunteer Caribbean coordinator for Amnesty Int’l-USA, I, along with others, have advocated for better conditions and rights for Haitians living in the DR, including their children born there, but we’ve encountered resistance from the DR government. Of course, the DR has plenty of economic and social problems itself without having to cope with an influx of Haitian refugees. Fortunately, so far, Haitians have not been swarming across the border, perhaps because they are still sitting traumatized in Port-au-Prince without the means or strength to even think about traveling. However, reportedly, the DR has militarized its border anyway to stave off any attempted influx, should it occur.
France is reportedly miffed about the swift and comprehensive response of the US to the Haiti crisis, considering itself to have certain proprietary rights over its former colony. Some in France have accused the US of wanting to occupy Haiti. The Haitian elite speak French and Haitian Creole is derived from French, though—to me—much harder to understand. Some French and French Canadian organizations have been working in Haiti, but their presence has never been particularly more prominent than other international groups. US troops have been in Haiti previously without much complaint from France. France needed to get on the ball with earthquake relief more quickly if it wanted to be “in charge.”
About a week after the massive earthquake, Haiti suffered another, less severe 6.1 tremor, literally shaking a nation still in throes of the first. Nonetheless, there were some hopeful stories, such as small baby being pulled alive out of rubble after 7 days. And a 69-year-old woman rescued after 10 days, though the outlook for her survival appeared unfavorable. A move is underfoot by Catholic Charities in south Florida to bring Haitian children, mostly those apparently orphaned, to the US for refuge under a program being dubbed “Pierre Pan,” modeled after “Pedro Pan,” the airlift of Cuban children that occurred after the Cuban revolution. Many of the Cuban children were later reunited with their parents.
In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post (Jan. 22, 2010), Elliott Abrams argues for the US, Canada, and France, which already have substantial numbers of Haitians, to allow more to migrate to create a larger Haitian diaspora that can help sustain the island nation over time.
The Republican senatorial win in Mass. is a disaster in my opinion. But, of course, it was not the only recent setback for Democrats—witness the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia before it. One reason for our economic troubles, I’m convinced, is the ever growing proportion of health care costs, threatening to consume the whole economy. Maybe health care lobbyists contributed heavily to Brown’s campaign, given his avowal to block the health care bill. Certainly that bill is imperfect, but it’s a start. It would be wonderful if a few Republicans, like Maine’s senators, would dare break ranks with their party and vote for health care reform and other agenda items, putting their own stamp on them. But that probably won’t happen, given that Republicans have decided to block en masse everything Obama proposes, whatever the merits. And Obama will be blamed by voters for the state of the nation, even though Republicans are thwarting him at every turn, not only on health care, but everything else. Republicans opposed regulation of financial markets, bringing about the economic collapse, which is proving harder to remedy than it would have been to prevent. They supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, with voters only waking up after the fact. And by voting for Bush, they allowed him to appoint Supreme Court justices who have now dealt a body blow to campaign finance reform. Perhaps with health care, the consequences have to be felt in their pocketbooks and their lives before voters come to their senses.
Democracy has its downside, in that voters have limited vision. While I’m on my soapbox, it also seems pretty obvious with all the mass shootings lately that better gun control is absolutely necessary. Nations that have it have much lower murder rates. But Obama is having enough trouble without tackling that. The US is probably on the decline as a world power, in part, because the electorate is so short-sighted and ill-informed, but still self-confident in its simplistic understanding, later blaming the government and the representatives it originally voted for unfavorable outcomes.
On another subject dear to my heart, I attended a forum held at the Hudson Institute entitled “Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement Five Years On.” Sudan seems to have moved off the world’s radar screen, especially southern Sudan, which was never really there to begin with, all emphasis having centered on the crisis in Darfur. Yet, there have been 4 ½ million deaths in the South Sudan, quite apart from Darfur, and the future looks ominous, with the North digging in its heels against partition. Since the signing of the peace accords between north and south in 2005, a number of deaths have occurred instigated by the North, some 2,500 in 2009 alone. Infrastructure has not been rebuilt, the North-South border has not been defined, and the South, which was supposed to receive 50% of oil revenues originating from its territory, has not been given its share.
Nonetheless, the South has slowly become repopulated and rebuilt and now has some 12 million inhabitants. There has been high voter registration recently, despite intimidation and arrest of candidates by northern officials. In April, the first elections in 24 years will be held in South Sudan, and a year from now, the South will vote on secession. If the latter vote is fair, surely the South will vote to secede. That sentiment was clearly evident when I was there in 2006 and has only grown since.
One of the forum speakers, Roger Winter, a former USAID official and Special Representative to Sudan until 2006, bluntly urged the audience to contact Obama and Hillary Clinton directly about replacing Scott Gration, a former Air Force officer, as special envoy to Sudan. According to Winter, Gration has undermined the South’s government and played into Bashir’s hands by declaring the South to be incapable of self-governance. While the South is still on a learning curve regarding democracy and self-governance since taking charge of its own affairs five years ago, its record, Winter argued, is miles ahead of the Bashir government that is mired in corruption and came to power originally via a coup. He called on the US and the international community to take a swift and pro-active role in this vast territory that borders nine African countries that would become destabilized in any new outbreak of a civil war. With everything else facing the US and the international community, however, his appeal is apt to go unheeded.
A staff member for Republican Representative Smith made a plea for bipartisan support for a measure the Congressman has introduced on South Sudan, but given that Republicans have not demonstrated bipartisanship on Democrats’ measures, reciprocity is unlikely. We seem to be in for a period of prolonged party warfare in the US and Sudan may become one of the casualties.
It looks like Zelaya will finally be leaving Honduras under a safe-conduct agreement, going first to the DR, then to Mexico, and planning a return to Honduras, though, apparently still facing charges and not allowed to run again for president again. Reportedly, the Honduran constitution, unlike some others, does not permit a second term, even a non-consecutive one.
New York Times, January 22, 2010
WORLD BRIEFING | THE AMERICAS
Honduras: Ousted President Agrees to Leave
By ELISABETH MALKIN
The ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has accepted a deal to go to the Dominican Republic next week when his four-year term ends, his top political adviser said Thursday. “If all the conditions are met, then he will go,” the adviser, Rasel Tomé, said in a telephone interview from the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, where Mr. Zelaya has taken refuge since September. In a statement, Mr. Zelaya called the deal “a first step” toward national reconciliation.
Zelaya plans Mexico stay, later return to Honduras
By FREDDY CUEVAS
Friday, January 22, 2010
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Ousted President Manuel Zelaya will leave the Brazilian Embassy next week and travel to the Dominican Republic before settling in Mexico and planning his eventual return to Honduras, an aide said in an interview published Friday.
Zelaya seems destined to continue what has been a peripatetic existence since he was ousted in a June 2009 coup. After being hustled out of the country by his own soldiers, he traveled across much of Latin America seeking support for his reinstatement before sneaking back into Honduras in September and taking refuge at Brazil's embassy. "Zelaya will remain only briefly in Santo Domingo" before traveling to the Mexican capital, aide Cesar Ham told Tiempo newspaper.
Earlier this week, Ham represented Zelaya at the signing of an agreement giving him safe conduct to leave Honduras on Jan. 27, when President-elect Porfirio Lobo is sworn into office.
Another adviser, Rasel Tome, who is inside the embassy with the ousted leader, told The Associated Press that Zelaya would leave for the Dominican Republic "if the necessary conditions are provided." He did not give specifics, but Zelaya has previously rejected the idea of exiting without guarantees to respect his dignity and safety. In a statement, Zelaya praised the deal - though he did not confirm that he would definitely leave under its terms. He said the agreement "allows me to maintain the dignity of my person and my office" as a guest of Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.
Zelaya still faces arrest on treason and abuse of power charges stemming from his campaign to change the constitution despite the Supreme Court ruling his effort illegal. Honduran chief prosecutor Luis Alberto Rubi said the agreement does not cancel out the charges.
Zelaya says he was illegally ousted by Honduras' powerful elite who felt threatened by his attempts to help the poor and give them more voice in the government. The constitution bans former presidents from ever running again for the top office.