Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hamlet, Oliver, Immigration court, Amazon rankings, Sudan, Innocent Priests, Transvestite Beauty Salon, Spanish Artists for Cuba, Dania Garcia, Damas

A diversity of topics this time, but hope you find something of interest. Please excuse the long interval since the last blog entry.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to take time-out to recharge the personal batteries. I’ve done that during the last couple of weeks, first by attending a superb performance of “Hamlet” at the nearby Folger Theatre, a physical reproduction of the theater where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, then on Mother’s Day weekend, on the annual House & Garden tour to benefit the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. Hamlet, which I hadn’t seen for some years, is overloaded with phrases that have entered common parlance in the English language, most notably “To be or not to be.” The actors, including “Hamlet” himself, have been seen dining and drinking coffee at local venues. As for the house and garden tour, next-door neighbors Carol and Joe had their rear garden featured on the tour, a project that Carol works on tirelessly. On Mother’s Day evening, my Kenyan housemate Nancy and I went to see a local production of “Oliver,” very well done, all the more challenging, as it involved singing by child performers, including “Oliver.” I could not help viewing the familiar tale of Oliver Twist from the vantage point of Honduras, where abandoned street children still abound in cities, many involved in pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, and petty theft, not unlike kids in early 19th-century England. The human energy in a live performance is exhilarating. It’s kind of like interpreting: no revisions or retakes.

Earlier this week, I appeared as one of two personal witnesses in immigration court in Arlington, Va., on behalf of a couple I know. That’s the court where I first started out as a Spanish interpreter in 2004 after returning from the Peace Corps. I soon switched from immigration court to hospitals, schools, and social service settings, more line with my experience and preferences. The couple appearing were David and Hloni, she a native of Swaziland where David, a nurse, worked for six months in AIDS treatment and prevention for Catholic Relief Services or its affiliate. David had been one of my housemates before I joined Peace Corps. Apparently, an immigration interviewer had been suspicions about the validity of their marriage, not only because of their racial difference, but because Hloni is 35 years younger than David—she is only 29, with a 9-year-old son, Lethu, who lives with them also. Not to keep you in suspense, the case was decided in their favor and Hloni and Lethu can now stay in this country, but why it ever had to go to court is the question. The case caused them considerable anxiety, not to mention costs in lawyer’s fees. I would hope that any immigration reform package would address roadblocks, as well the status of those who have entered illegally simply to avoid such roadblocks, many of which are arbitrary and counterproductive, as in this case.

Libraries, I’ve already mentioned as natural venues for my book. Book clubs are another. I’m trying to think of what sorts of groups might want to be better informed on the dual themes of themes of Peace Corps service for more seasoned folks and Honduras, one of the lesser known countries in the hemisphere, which has just undergone a political crisis and seems to be coming out the other side. And there’s the sheer value of service abroad, even of a lesser duration, such as with medical brigades, Habitat, or other non-profits, which I also promote.

I entered the simple term “Peace Corps’ in Amazon’s book site and my book came up as #34. A really terrible Peace Corps memoir that I’d reviewed for PC Writers ranked #21. I don’t know how those rankings are made, not alphabetically, not according to the number of positive reviews, maybe according to their online sales? If so, perhaps friends and relatives of the terrible book’s author flooded the system with purchases.

It’s not surprising that a main opposition figure has been arrested in Sudan, but distressing to see the progression of Bashir’s very predictable scheme of preventing the secession of south Sudan from going forward next year. On these pages, I’ve already expressed my concern about Sudan, where President Bashir has not only eluded the International Criminal Court, but just pulled off his own big “win” in a fraudulent election, trying to create an aura of legitimacy to his rule. Next year, as per an accord signed with southern rebels in 2005, South Sudan’s voters will have a chance to vote to secede and create an independent country, which 99% of them will want to do. That was evident to me even back in 2006 when I visited the south. Bashir is not going to let the south and its oil wealth slip out of his grasp, so he will preside over another fraudulent vote, a referendum in which the south seems to reject secession. And the US, in a bow to the realpolitik that has become the Obama administration’s hallmark in foreign affairs, is going to allow that to happen—at least that is the likely outcome. Meanwhile, the rebel groups are probably not going to stand still for such a Bashir double-cross and the country will be plunged again into civil war, after all the progress that has been made so far. Perhaps the Obama administration's tactic will be to try to minimize bloodshed by giving Bashir some of the cover he needs. Certainly the return to decades of civil war is not desirable and neither the US, the African Union, nor anyone else has an appetite for intervention and nation-building in Sudan. Iraq and Afghanistan have proved the difficulty of doing that. The US cannot set things right everywhere in the world and must choose its battles. This is one where we will express moral support for the right course, but probably not put any muscle behind it.

As one of my correspondents observes: Bashir is such a loose cannon and such a total barbarian that at this point (when we can't go in and occupy the country), the best we can hope to do is make him look respectable enough to forestall another bloodbath…Doesn't do much to improve the Darfuris' day-to-day prospects, but I do think it's the best they're going to get.

Heard a public radio program, Interfaith Voices, exploring a topic that has had little publicity, namely that a minority of priests accused of pedophilia are probably actually innocent. But even when civil authorities have found no evidence, the Catholic Church hierarchy has been reluctant to return them to ministry. One of the interviewees on the program, a priest from Sri Lanka working here in the US, was at a school function, with many people present, when he helped a girl trace her name in his native language, Tamil, on a blackboard by guiding her hand. Her mother lodged a criminal complaint of inappropriate touching that was dismissed by the police after an investigation. Yet, he is still not restored to his priestly functions because the church is so skittish about any such complaints. Some cases, it was suggested by an expert on the subject, may have been motivated by the large financial settlements being acquired by victims.

One of the more bizarre sights in Chitre, Panama, which I neglected to mention when writing up my Feb. trip report, was of the transvestite beauty salon on a busy corner, where patrons could be observed having hair straightened or curled, dyed, teased, interwoven with wigs, and decorated with artificial flowers and jewelry in anticipation of the upcoming pre-Lenten carnival. I watched in fascination, not wanting to appear too curious as I lingered near the open doorway, but those inside didn’t seem to mind. After all, their hairdos and clothing were designed to call attention.

The next two items are on the same subject.

Spanish artists launch 'platform for democracy' in Cuba
(AFP) – May 12, 2010

MADRID — Spanish artists and intellectuals, including Oscar-winning film-maker Pedro Almodovar, Wednesday launched an initiative to press for democracy in Cuba.
"The Platform for Spaniards for the Democratisation of Cuba" aims to defend "the basic and essential human rights" of the people of the communist-ruled island and help them choose between "democracy and totalitarianism."

"We Spaniards well know that nothing can justify lack of freedom," the manifesto said, referring to the 1939-75 dictatorship in Spain of Francisco Franco. The initiative came just days before an EU-Latin America summit in Madrid during which the question of Cuba will be discussed.
Signatories to the platform called on the Spanish government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to drop its policy of rapprochement with Cuba, which they said had led to "no result." Spain, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, has been at the forefront of efforts to boost relations with Cuba, a former Spanish colony.

Spain's Socialist government wants the EU to modify its 1996 common position on Cuba, which links dialogue to freedoms and human rights on the island, arguing it has yielded few results. The EU suspended ties with Cuba after a major roundup of 75 dissidents in March 2003, but resumed aid cooperation in 2008. Spain and Cuba renewed ties in 2007.

Besides Almodovar, other celebrities signing the manifesto were Spanish-Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa and Spanish actress Victoria Abril. The new platform "may seem like a small gesture but for those who resist the dictatorship in difficult, even heroic, conditions, it is something very important," Vargas Llosa told a news conference called to launch the initiative.
Artists, Writers Protest for Democracy in Cuba
Latin American Herald Tribune, May 13, 2010

MADRID – So that Cuba can achieve democracy “as soon as possible,” a group of outstanding writers, intellectuals and artists including Mario Vargas Llosa, Pedro Almodovar, Antonio Muñoz Molina and Rosa Montero on Wednesday demanded the solidarity of Spanish and Latin American societies.Madrid was the stage for the presentation of a manifesto supported by 62 artists, writers and intellectuals aimed at mobilizing society in favor of the democratization of the communist-ruled island.Attending the event, in addition to Vargas Llosa and Montero, were actress Aitana Sanchez Gijon, the former president of the Spanish Film Academy, and moviemaker Fernando Trueba, among others. Vargas Llosa asked the Spanish government, the current holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency for the first half of this year, for “solidarity for those in Cuba who are asking for what Spain and Europe have, and not a policy of complicity.”The novelist recalled that what the Cuban dissidents are asking for is “democracy, freedom, for their citizens’ rights to be acknowledged: the right to dissent, to criticize, to organize politically, to elect their own leaders, to travel, to work in freedom.”The initiative was presented just days before the holding of the summit between the EU and Latin America and the Caribbean in the Spanish capital. The manifesto, which citizens can join on the Web at, emphasizes that the Cuban case is a question of “basic and essential human rights” and that the choice “is simply between democracy or totalitarianism.”Malena Aznarez, the vice president of Reporters Without Borders, recalled that at this time “in Cuba there are 25 journalists imprisoned for having tried to do their jobs.”Aznarez said that the Cuban regime, after the death of Orlando Zapata Tayamo in February after being on a hunger strike for 85 days, “has increased the campaign of harassment of journalists and bloggers who try to be independent, with serious risk to their lives and freedom.”

Finally, last but not least, the arrest of Dania Garcia, new limitations on Women in White
I mentioned previously that Dania Garcia, a sympathizer of the Women in White, had been arrested. Well, it turns out she was arrested after her adult daughter accused her of throwing the daughter out of their home, apparently because the latter strongly supports Fidel and disapproves of her mother’s activities blogging on behalf of the Women in White. Now, after international pressure, Dania has been released pending appeal. We shall see what happens. The Cuban government is sensitive to international disapproval, but, at all costs, wants to avoid having dissidents spread their message to the Cuban population. After an agreement brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, the women will still be allowed to march, provide they keep to their original trajectory next to the church where they attend Sunday Mass (“Cuba frees backer of dissident group amid appeal,” By WILL WEISSERT, AP- May 10, 2010). Thus, my previous US-based Cuban commentator seems to have predicted correctly, that the women will be allowed to march, provided they do not stray into areas where numbers of Cuban citizens may see them.

My Cuban commentator says that the agreement between the Cuban government and Catholic Church specifies the following:

The conditions for allowing the Damas de Blanco to march at all was that they: 1- Could only march on Sundays. 2- Could only do so four blocks in the Quinta Avenida area. 3- Would not be allowed to have non-family members of the March 2003 political prisoners march with them. 4- Would be granted this permission conditionally based on the fulfillment of these previous conditions and that the government reserves its right to cancel this agreement if any of them are not met.

While it is true that the agreement limits the Damas’ activities, the very fact that the government negotiated with the church seems to be an important step.

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