Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup, GAO Fellows, Honduras’s Mosquitia, Violence in Mexico, Cuban Prisoner Release, 60th Anniversary Celebration, Arizona Anti-Immigrant Law

On June 16, Honduras played its first World Cup game, losing 1-0 to Chile. It still faces Spain or was that today? I know that Hondurans are glued to radio and TV these days, especially when the home team plays. It’s been a while since Honduras qualified to pay in a World Cup, way back before most Hondurans now living were born (the medium age there is under 20).

Had a patient this week scheduled to have an MRI scan on his heart through an NIH research program. However, years ago in El Salvador, he had been shot several times in the chest and although he was pretty certain any bullets had been removed, we had to make sure before he had an MRI scan, done with a huge magnet. When sitting inside the chamber with a patient, I’ve had my watch batteries zapped before and also my metro fare card erased when I’ve forgotten to leave them outside. Several x-rays were taken of this man’s chest, revealing two bullets and some fragments still inside, to his very great surprise. So his MRI was replaced with a CT scan, less precise for diagnosing cardiac problems, but the only option available to him.

Saturday, sitting out at the Eastern Market in 90+F heat, I sold only two books, but got into some interesting conversations, including with an RPCV (returned PC volunteer), an occupational therapist (OT) who’d been working in special education in Jordan. I hope to connect her with a rehab brigade in Honduras and she said she might also give me some used OT equipment, which would be very useful for the Choluteca rehab center. I learned from a couple of people who stopped by to chat that anyone who has once been in intelligence cannot join the Peace Corps, nor can someone who is HIV+.

As mentioned previously, I have a visitor from Kenya staying at my house this summer, a government auditor called Nancy, attending an annual course given at GAO (Government Accountability Office). This year, there are 22 fellows from 20 countries and on June 16, they held a cultural information day in the main hall of GAO, each one with a table set up with artifacts, folk art, products, and brochures, with posters and maps hung on the wall behind them. Most wore native dress and many had a video running continuously. Nancy looked very cute in her tribal Kikuyu dress. Most of the African countries touted majestic mountains, waterfalls, and wildlife, as well as products like coffee. The spread of coffee cultivation around the world has lowered the earnings of Honduran coffee farmers, among other traditional growers in Latin America. I picked up a brochure for Zimbabwe, wondering what tourist attractions that beleaguered country might have to offer. On the brochure’s cover was a photo of a white man playing golf. Is that what you would think of when Zimbabwe is involved? Samoa’s brochure included a map showing the geographic relationship between Samoa’s two main islands and the nearby smaller islands of American Samoa. Why we still have American Samoa is probably an accident of history.

Have attended Amnesty International (AI) information sessions on Sri Lanka and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), but don’t feel I can devote myself much to bettering human rights in those countries, however desirable, being already spread much too thin. Unfortunately, those conflicts are ones where the US government cannot afford to invest too much in resolving either, because our nation also is spread too thin. People in those countries will have to rely on civic organizations like AI and their own diasporas.

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is an island off the Indian coast where a 26-year civil war between the government-backed majority Sinhalese (ethnically related to a sector of the Indian population) and the minority Tamils finally ended in 2009, when the Tamils were defeated. The Tamils, who have a different language and religion, had been seeking to establish a separate homeland. Some 100,000 people died during the conflict and many Tamil civilians are still displaced. Civilians were used by the Tamils as human shields and many were killed in the last months of the conflict.

Three DRC women, at least one of whom reported suffering brutal rapes and said she was now
engaged in helping other women in similar circumstances, spoke to us at the local AI office (in French). This main spokeswoman told of recently taking a 90-year-old woman who had been serially raped to the hospital, where she died. Soldiers, both from government forces and rebels militias, engage in rape, she said, thinking that it makes them stronger. Impunity and corruption mean that perpetrators go free; victims who complain suffer reprisals. (All that is similar to what happens in rapes in Latin America, including Honduras.) Children of rape are sometimes not accepted by their mothers or their communities, she said. (In Honduras, rape was so common that the children were accepted, and sometimes there was a question of whether a rape had actually occurred or if a woman had invented it to explain her pregnancy.) One tactic DRC women have used to prevent being raped is to warn against the transmission of HIV (even though they are not HIV+ and HIV transmission from men to women is much more common than the reverse). Also, with the reduction in hostilities, rapes in the DRC have gone down as combatants have returned home. As one panelist put it, “War is the major cause of violence against women.”

However, stopping that violence or any established pattern is fraught with its own risks. Look at Mexico, where the campaign against impunity, corruption, and reprisals has stirred up a hornets’ nest amounting almost to a civil war, fueled by demand for illegal drugs on this side of the border and illicit arms shipments from here as well.

I am glad to hear that the Gaza blockade is being eased. It does not seem that ordinary Gazans should be punished by being deprived of non-threatening items because Hamas shoots rockets into Israel. Such collective punishment only foments distrust of Israel and sympathy for Hamas, not only among Gazans, but worldwide.

The other evening, went with a friend to a bar/restaurant on U St., fast becoming a trendy DC neighborhood, after being considered deep ghetto for many years. Actually, Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I ate lunch with my brother and company over Memorial Day weekend, is in the heart of the U Street neighborhood, a pioneer establishment in attracting tourists and young party-goers to the area. The evening in question, we were outside on the roof deck of a local restaurant. Young people wearing all sorts of interesting outfits, piercings, and hairstyles milled around carrying drinks and jiggling to very loud, extemporaneous music created by a disk-jockey putting his fingers on two spinning LP records and doing something with an Apple computer. Meanwhile two documentary filmmakers’ works were running continuously on large screens. I talked, as best I could over the din, to one filmmaker, Michael Bonfigli, whose scenes of the Feb. DC snow blow-out, which I had missed by being in Honduras, gave me a close-up look at that event, which had paralyzed the capital for days. Reportedly a native of Argentina, Michael must be a US citizen, as he said he had served in the Peace Corps in Honduras, spending three years in the remote Eastern Mosquitia, which he described as almost a separate country. Of course, he speaks Spanish, but he also learned to speak Misquito, the local indigenous language. Since he had once filmed Operation Smile, the harelip-cleft palate brigade in which I have participated in Tegucigalpa, I hope to get him interested in filming International Health Service’s October brigade to La Mosquitia. I’ve never joined that particular effort myself because I’ve been told it’s even more rugged that the Esperanza-area Feb. brigade that I normally join and, furthermore, takes place during the rainy season, which turns the ground into a muddy mess and causes mosquitoes to proliferate. Since I don’t speak Misquito, I would probably be more of a burden than a help. But Michael might really be useful because of his language skills. He seemed somewhat interested, but said he didn’t know if he had the time or money. Still, I planted the seed.

While on the subject of Honduras, the local Spanish-language press reports that a TV-reporter was shot and killed at point-blank range as he left his nightly news broadcast in Santa Clara de Danli and as associate of deposed president Manual Zelaya was shot and killed after an argument in a bar in San Pedro Sula.

On a more upbeat note, today, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of a couple belonging to our small church group, Communitas. Although in his 80s, the husband is still teaching graduate courses in sociology and doing research at Catholic University. They have six children and countless grandchildren, including a granddaughter adopted from China, and several great-grandchildren. Apparently, it’s possible to have a satisfying relationship that lasts that long. Bravo!

More than 90% of Cubans work for the government and although their monthly wages are less than $20, they have always had a free lunch at work. Now 5% are seeing that benefit cut and more such cuts are anticipated. No more free lunch.

According to the Cuban Catholic church, Ariel Sigler Amaya, convicted in 2003 is being released from prison in Cuba for health reasons. He was accused, among other alleged crimes, of gathering books for an independent library. He is the first prisoner released following the dialogue opened up between the government and the Cuban Catholic Church.

A rarely heard-from correspondent says this: It appears to me that Raul finally summoned up the courage to read the riot act to Fidel, banning him from criticizing Cuba's economic reforms while requiring him to stick to foreign policy themes in his Reflexiones [lengthy commentaries published in Granma, the official press]. In his latest, the Maximum Leader accused the U.S. of torpedoing the South Korean navy ship!And the voices of the "revolutionary reformers" (condemning the dissidents while cautiously calling for greater freedom of expression and economic reform) are growing stronger.

Cuba and the US are reported to be collaborating on oil spill containment preparations for the island. Such instances of cooperation can increase mutual trust and, let’s hope, lead to reduced hostility.

Finally, I was disheartened by the report of a survey that found a slight majority of Americans in favor of the new Arizona law allowing police to ask for proof of citizenship or residence from anyone they think may be in the country illegally. If I recall correctly, a somewhat smaller majority also believed that children born in the US of non-citizen parents should not be allowed automatic citizenship, which would be a major shift in longstanding American policy and against the norm in the rest of the world. There were few undecideds, indicating that immigration is a highly polarizing issue, with strong feelings on both sides. Denying citizenship to children born in the US is not going to happen, nor are 11 million people going to be deported, because it’s not logistically feasible and would have a seriously negative impact on our economy, also creating havoc in other countries sustained by remittances. We already have a deep recession that would only be aggravated by attempting such a disrupting tactic. Not only is it impractical, but how anyone can be so myopic and mean-spirited is beyond me; if only they knew these “illegals” as individuals, as I get to know some of them through my interpretation work, they might feel differently. But I suppose it’s not surprising that the recession has made people want to lash out and undocumented folks are an easy target. If folks were feeling more optimistic, they wouldn’t have look for scapegoats.

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