Tuesday, July 27, 2010

L-R, Nephew Darrell, son Jonathan, daughter Stephanie, and me in Honolulu, July 2010

Hoping now that photo mentioned before has been successfully uploaded.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

East.Mkt. Sales, 24 Amazon Reviews, Mayor At B'day Bash, Hond. bk. in CA Alliance, Freed Cubans, Sudan, Immigrat. Ref. Allies, Cell Phones, Chavez

Ah, woe is me! Sat out in the heat and humidity at the Eastern Market for hours for the first time since my return from Hawaii—and it’s not like I have many hours to spare—and never sold a single book! Maybe I looked too wilted and sweaty or maybe everyone passing by was wilting too—a few stopped to chat and picked up some Peace Corps brochures, but, as for book sales, nada. That’s the first time that’s happened since I’ve tried sitting out there. Usually, at least one book is sold and then I feel vindicated. Direct selling is not my forte and I would not even try it unless absolutely necessary. But I now have a large inventory of books purchased in anticipation of several promised shared profit venues that proved overly optimistic. Also, had hoped my sales would help fund my Honduras health and education projects. So, at the moment, I’m still holding a number of large boxes of books at my home altogether containing at least 100 books. Over at Eastern Market, several people decades younger than me responded to my Peace Corps spiel with a laugh, “I’d thought about joining Peace Corps once upon a time, but now I’m too old.” Of course, if they consider themselves too old, they probably are. But they could still read my book and find out what they are missing! And at least a few copies are sold every week on Amazon.com, but please remind me never make a huge bulk order again.

Also, this weekend, when the temperature in DC is peaking at 100+ degrees, putting me in mind of southern Honduras, I didn’t even go out to the market to sell books. This non-stop east-coast heat wave has my short-term housemate Nancy from Kenya yearning to get back to moderate Nairobi, where she will return in early August. My kids’ suggestion that I move to Hawaii sounds more inviting than ever—no snow, no record heat, gentle ocean breezes, and light showers before dawn freshening the flowering trees, though there are occasional hurricanes and, at least on the Big Island, volcanic activity. Was unable to uplaod a photo of my family in Hawaii, but it does appear on my Facebook page.

On my book’s plus side, an e-mail message came in from a retired librarian in another state giving it somewhat exaggerated, but welcome, praise: I just finished your book…It is one of the best books I have ever read. Your story inspires me.

I also now have 24 reviews on Amazon, 22 5-star, 2 4-star. I wonder if potential readers actually look at the reviews? Also, how does Amazon organize the reviews’ listing? Not alphabetically or chronologically.

Neglected to mention that the U of Hawaii folks had given me a jar of passion fruit jam after my talk there, but I wasn’t allowed to bring it through airport security because it was considered a “jell.” I could have checked that bag, but that would have meant going through security again, making me late for my flight and cost $25 for a checked bag (Continental Airlines).

Friday evening, went to a Spanish-language poetry reading with Jose Manuel, who had come to live at my house in 1996. JM had been a librarian in Cuba who’d decided in 1995 to leave by raft—his boat included family members of Mario Chanes, the world’s longest serving political prisoner. They were intercepted by the US Coast Guard, which took them all to G’tmo, where they stayed for over a year until Pres. Clinton relented and let them come to the US. Jose, in addition to many other talents, is an accomplished poet and had five poems included in a recently published anthology, debuting that evening. Between musical interludes, each featured poet read one poem aloud to the gathered audience. To my surprise, a former lover also appeared there, someone I hadn’t seen since before I left for Peace Corps. He was wearing a white linen suit and was accompanied by a lady friend wearing stockings and nail polish (not my style). He looked much older than when I last saw him (as, indeed, is true also of me). Actually, he’s the very same guy who had predicted that I’d “be home by Christmas at the latest” from Peace Corps, part of my impetus to stay on, just to prove him wrong. I went up and shook his hand, much to his surprise, as he hadn’t noticed me,

Last night, at a friend’s birthday party, who should come by to have a bite and use the facilities but DC Mayor Adrian Fenty on a neighborhood campaign swing. He is being strongly challenged in the Sept. Democratic primary by City Council Chair Vincent Gray. I told Fenty how much I’d appreciated his office’s resolution of my longstanding tax problem with DC government, stemming from the time of my Peace Corps service. A young man in Fenty’s entourage pressed me to agree to put a Fenty sign in my front yard.

Lest this blog veer completely away from its main theme of Honduras, I am pleased to report that Honduras is back in the Central America regional political and economic fold after being expelled when Zelaya was removed, with only Nicaragua voting in contra. But Honduras has not yet been readmitted to the OAS.

Last time on this blog, I mentioned the pending release of 52 Cuban political prisoners, all considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience, that is, individuals incarcerated only for their peaceful opinions or associations. By the way, my report on the Cuban prisoner release last time had a portion missing, but you got the idea—and probably have read more ample accounts by now in the mainstream press.

Among the newly released prisoners is Normando Hernandez, a journalist whose mother has been a member of the Women in White and now lives in Miami. Normando had been hospitalized frequently during his incarceration, which originally carried a 25-year sentence. I phoned his mother to congratulate her, but had to leave my greetings on her answering machine as no one picked up. Probably she is in Madrid, welcoming her son to freedom after seven grueling years in prison. His wife and daughter were expected to be allowed to join him there. (See more items below from AFP, Agence France-Presse tying the prisoner release with the possible lifting of the US embargo against Cuba.)

Also, below, see about one of Hugo Chavez’s more bizarre performances (Washington Post).

Unfortunately, no surprise to get the following Amnesty International news about Sudan:

Sudan: Human rights defenders at risk in Sudan
The human rights situation in Sudan is critical. Armed clashes continue to escalate in southern Sudan, and the conflict in Darfur has intensified during 2010. In Sudan, human rights defenders play a crucial role, calling for human rights to be upheld and for those responsible for human rights violations to be held accountable. The National Security Act makes this role increasingly difficult. Human rights defenders in exile have the right to return home and freely practice their activities. Those who remain in Sudan need protection now.

Was heartened to read in the NYTimes that some evangelical preachers have united to support comprehensive immigration reform (“Obama Wins Unlikely Allies in Immigration”). About 15% of US-based Hispanics are evangelicals, comprising a growing segment within evangelical churches. Spokesmen for mainstream religions, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish, have already come out in favor of immigration reform. However, any reform is unlikely to occur in this election year.

Heard an expert say in a radio interview that more people in the world have access to a cell phone than to a flush toilet. I do believe it. I’ve seen Honduran peasants with no hope of ever having a house with plumbing or electricity holding tightly onto their cell phone, providing their only communication link with family, friends, and beyond. Cell phones have a resulted in a worldwide communications revolution and some also have camera and mini-computer functions—all in a tiny portable apparatus.
Re Cuba prisoner release, from AFP, July 21, 2010

Cuba's release of all its political prisoners would improve its relations with Europe and United States, and could lead to the lifting of a US embargo, the Spanish foreign minister said on Wednesday.

Miguel Angel Moratinos welcomed as "good news" Cuban parliament chief Ricardo Alarcon's announcement to AFP on Tuesday that his "government's wish is to free all the people" not accused of murder.

The Spanish foreign minister said before parliament that such releases would yield "political consequences" for relations with the European Union and the United States, in particular a possible "lifting of the embargo" that Washington has maintained against Cuba since 1962.

In a Spain-brokered deal struck between the Catholic Church and Havana, Cuba agreed this month to free 52 of 75 detainees who had been sentenced in 2003 to prison terms of up to 28 years.

Eleven freed prisoners have already emigrated to Spain with their families. A twelfth prisoner arrived on Wednesday and another eight were expected to arrive in Madrid later on Wednesday as part of Cuba's biggest release of political prisoners in over a decade.
According to Cuban dissidents, 115 political prisoners remain in Cuba in addition to the 52 released.

In light of the releases, Moratinos urged the European Union to change its "joint position" linking dialogue with Cuba to progress on human rights. He told Spanish lawmakers that there was nothing "coincidental" in the releases and that they were the fruit of a six-year dialogue with the Cuban government.

Moratinos said he wanted to replace the EU's "joint position" on Cuba with a "cooperation accord" despite the reluctance of some countries, including Germany and France.
Last five dissidents leave Cuba
July 23, 2010

[Accessed 24 July 2010 at http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-world/last-five-dissidents-leave-cuba-20100723-10o1y.html]

The last five of a group of recently freed Cuban dissidents left for Madrid on Thursday, the Spanish Embassy said.Jorge Luis Gonzalez, 39, Blas Giraldo Reyes, 54, Jose Ubaldo Izquierdo, 44, Jesus Mustafa, 66, and 47-year-old Antonio Diaz boarded a commercial flight that will arrive in the Spanish capital on Friday, an embassy spokesman said. Izquierdo, however, may take another flight out of Madrid for Chile, after Santiago on Monday said it would welcome him and his family.

The five dissidents completed the list of 20 who have accepted residency in Spain after Spain helped broker a deal reached on July 7 between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church to gradually free 52 detainees.
The remaining prisoners will remain in Cuba or leave for the United States. The US Interest Section in Havana on Tuesday offered refugee status to all freed dissidents and their families who wish to travel to the United States and began interviewing prospective immigrants.

The deal, the largest release of Cuban prisoners since 1998 when 300 dissidents were spared jail time following a visit by then pope John Paul II, came after dissident hunger striker Guillermo Farinas nearly starved to death.
Havana wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of political prisoner Orlando Zapata on February 23, as it seeks closer international ties to improve its slumping economy. And Cuba's parliamentary chief Ricardo Alarcon has said the country was ready to release more detainees.

Elizardo Sanchez, the president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation that is tolerated by the government, said a further 50 or 60 political prisoners could be freed.

Cuban dissidents said there were approximately 170 political prisoners in Cuban jails before the announced release.
Behind exhumation of Simón Bolívar is Hugo Chávez’s warped obsession
By Thor Halvorssen, Washington Post
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shortly after midnight on July 16, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez reached back in time. He presided at the exhumation of the remains of Simón Bolívar -- Latin America's greatest independence hero, who helped liberate the region from Spain in the 19th century, and the object of Chávez's personal and political obsession.
The skeleton was pulled apart. Pieces were removed, such as teeth and bone fragments, for "testing." The rest was put in a new coffin with the Chávez government's seal. Chávez, who also tweeted the proceedings, gave a rambling speech in which he asked Christ to repeat his Lazarus miracle and raise the dead once more. He also apparently conversed with Bolívar's bones.

"I had some doubts," Chávez told his nation, paraphrasing the poet Pablo Neruda, "but after seeing his remains, my heart said, 'Yes, it is me.' Father, is that you, or who are you? The answer: 'It is me, but I awaken every hundred years when the people awaken.' "

By presidential decree, every television station in Venezuela showed images of Bolívar in historic paintings, then images of the skeleton, and then images of Chávez, with the national anthem blaring. The message of this macabre parody was unmistakable: Chávez is not a follower of Bolívar -- Chávez is Bolívar, reincarnated. And anyone who opposes or criticizes him is a traitor not just to Chávez but to history.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Honolulu, The Compassionate Friends, Burma, Honduras, Cuban Prisoner Releases & Economy

Hello, folks, I’m back from balmy, lush, flowery Honolulu with beaches and friendly people at every turn to hot steamy, Washington, DC, after visiting my kids, Stephanie and Jonathan there. They have suggested I move there, which is tempting, but I do have a job and house in DC and my older daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson are all on the east coast. Real estate in Honolulu is more than pricey—I went to an open house with Steph to an ordinary one-story 3-bedroom bungalow with wall-to-wall carpeting on a small lot, asking price $600,000! (And remember, houses in Hawaii do not need insulation, heating, or A/C.) I’d have to pay capital gains on the sale of my house here in DC, hardly leaving enough for even a condo purchase in Hawaii. In Hawaii, there is little demand for Spanish interpreters and travel from there to Honduras would be long and costly. It’s a rugged trip even from here, at least 12 hours in the air and in airports, with a 6-hour time change at the other end.

In Honolulu, I spoke at the U of Hawaii’s Life Long Learning Center to an 50+ group, one of whose members expressed a possible in interest in future Peace Corps service. I also met with 16 returned PC volunteers, many who had served in Asia (perhaps because that region is closer to Hawaii?). I had brought along a few copies of my book, all of which proved in demand. One recipient was a man walking out on the street who commented on my Honduras-Peace Corps T-shirt, saying he had applied to the PC. He was an engineer in his 50s, originally from Viet Nam, who hoped to be posted to Asia, whereupon my son pulled out a copy of my book that he was carrying. The man asked to buy it and went away happy. (Actually, he offered to pay me $50 for the book, way too much!)

At The Compassionate Friends (TCF) conference held July 4th weekend in neighboring Virginia just before I left, I appeared on a panel on “writing and publishing your book.” As you will recall, TCF is an organization for people whose children have died. After the Sat. evening banquet, there was a very moving ceremony, performed while a professional sang “Blowing in the Wind” and other songs. After banquet room lights were turned off, one by one, participants, some 1400 in all, from all over the US, lit each other’s candles until hundreds of candles were glowing in the darkness, giving us a feeling of solidarity and shared loss.

Although the connection with Honduras is only that Burma occupies the same planet, there’s good news about my local AI group’s release of our Burmese prisoner, including this message:

Dear Barbara,

Much thanks to Group 211 for persevering for so many years on behalf
of U Win Htein. He was the longest held of the Myanmar POC's in AI's
IAR portfolio. As you know, this latest 14-year stint (1996 to last
week) followed a previous imprisonment from 1989 to 1995. He has only
been free for one out of the last twenty-one years.

In news from Honduras, several Garifuna musicians were detained by police on the north coast, their documents and instruments confiscated after they were told not to leave the area. Garifunas, as my book readers will recall, are Afro-Hondurans descended from escaped slaves who speak their own language in addition to Spanish and have distinct music, dress, and traditional dishes. A number now live in NY City. I’ve asked Amnesty International’s Honduras specialist to look into this report.

Most of you are already aware of the large political prisoner release brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church and Spain. Considerable credit belongs to hunger striker Farinas and to the Women in White, and, by extension, the Norwegian documentary of the same name in which I briefly appear. If anyone would like a copy of that DVD, please contact me at my Yahoo address, giving your name and mailing address. See also report below on possible job cuts in Cuba.

Euronews, July 9, 2010

Cuba has taken steps towards freeing 52 political prisoners with the Island’s Catholic church saying five would be released into exile imminently. The planned liberation Doctors say his condition remains serious, although he appeared in good spirits in his hospital bed. Farinas has threatened to restart his protest if Cuban’s hardline leadership fails to fulfil its pledge. The deal with the Catholic church should see the freedom of 52 remaining prisoners out of 75 jailed in a crackdown on dissent in 2003. It’s hoped the agreement may lead to better relations with the West with both Washington and Spain’s Foreign minister, who helped broker the deal, praising Havana’s decision.

While news media around the world have given wide coverage to the prisoner releases, Cuba's government-controlled newspapers, radio and TV reported nothing on the release and departure of the first seven.

Jobless in Cuba? Communism faces the unthinkable
By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA, Associated Press Writer July 18, 2010

HAVANA – At a state project to refurbish a decaying building in Old Havana, one worker paints a wall white while two others watch. A fourth sleeps in a wheelbarrow positioned in a sliver of shade nearby and two more smoke and chat on the curb. President Raul Castro has startled the nation lately by saying about one in five Cuban workers may be redundant. At the work site on Obispo street, those numbers run in reverse.

It's a common sight in communist Cuba. Here, nearly everyone works for the state and official unemployment is minuscule, but pay is so low that Cubans like to joke that "the state pretends to pay us and we pretend to work."

Now, facing a severe budget deficit, the government has hinted at restructuring or trimming its bloated work force. Such talk is causing tension, however, in a country where guaranteed employment was a building block of the 1959 revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power.

Details are sketchy on how and when such pruning would take place. Still, acknowledgment that cuts are needed has come from Raul Castro himself. "We know that there are hundreds of thousands of unnecessary workers on the budget and labor books, and some analysts calculate that the excess of jobs has surpassed 1 million," said Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel as president nearly four years ago. Cuba's work force totals 5.1 million, in a population of 11.2 million.

In his nationally televised speech in April, Castro also had harsh words for those who do little to deserve their salaries."Without people feeling the need to work to make a living, sheltered by state regulations that are excessively paternalistic and irrational, we will never stimulate a love for work," he said. Indeed, the process of labor reform may already have started, albeit slowly.

Workers in the tourism sector say some of their colleagues have been furloughed during the lean summer months, while others have been reassigned to jobs on state-run farms."Since we are now in the low season, the hotel where I work has sent many workers home for two or three months," said Orlando, a chef in Varadero, a sand-and-surf enclave east of Havana.

"It's very hard because you're left with no salary at all," said Orlando, who like almost all state employees, didn't want his full name used to prevent problems at work. He added, "I'm lucky since I'm still in my job." Veronica, a receptionist at another Varadero hotel, said she feared she may be sent home in August, when her resort will be only half-occupied. "Sometimes they offer alternatives, to study in a particular course or another job," she said, "but sometimes, when (workers) ent into the agricultural sector for instance, they just quit."

With the government giving no details of its thinking, rumors have spread that as many as a fourth of all government workers in some industries could lose their jobs or be moved to farming or construction. But Labor Minister Margarita Gonzalez has promised that "Cuba will not employ massive firings in a manner similar to neoliberal cutbacks," using "neoliberal" as a description of free-market policies.
The government has moved to embrace some small free-market reforms. It handed some barbershops over to employees, allowing them to set their own prices but making them pay rent and buy their own supplies. Authorities have also approved more licenses for private taxis while getting tough on unlicensed ones.

The global financial crisis, and the $10 billion in damage inflicted by three hurricanes in 2008, have forced authorities to run a deficit of 5 percent of GDP, leaving them unable to pay back credits received from China and elsewhere. Cuba slashed spending on importing food and other basics by 34 percent to $9.6 billion in 2009, from $12.7 billion the previous year. But so far, the moves have not been enough to rein in the deficit.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba economics expert and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, said Cuban officials have spent months debating cuts in the labor force and economic reforms. He said they know what's needed, but face "a problem of political viability."

Various government perks like cars, gas, uniforms and office supplies have become incentives to bloat the payroll, since they are based on the size of a company's work force. But low pay means low productivity. On Obispo street, a state-run cafeteria sells heavily subsidized soft ice cream and pork sandwiches for the equivalent of a few American pennies — meaning wages and tips are so tiny that the staff is complete indifferent toward customers.

Three waiters sit at the counter cracking jokes. A fourth is the only one working, making coffee for three tables. Nearby, a cashier stares into space, a cook flirts with a scantily clad teen and a supervisor sits idly by.

The state employs 95 percent of the official work force. Unemployment last year was 1.7 percent and hasn't risen above 3 percent in eight years — but that ignores thousands of Cubans who aren't looking for jobs that pay monthly salaries worth only $20 a month on average.

Salvador Valdes Mesa, secretary-general of the nearly 3 million-strong Cuban Workers Confederation — the only Cuban labor union allowed — has instead written that "reorganization" will ensure redundant workers are reassigned rather than fired. He said the government wants more jobs in construction and agriculture.

Still, 35-year-old computer engineer Norberto fears for his job. He thinks it's unfair to keep workers under communist domination and yet call them unmotivated. "I didn't graduate from college to now work as a day laborer or a peasant, he said. If he loses his job and gets an offer to work abroad, he said, "my question is 'Will the Cuban authorities put aside their paternalism and let me leave?'"

Friday, July 2, 2010

July 4th, The Compassionate Friends, Cuba Travel Bill, Ducks and Geese, Hello Honolulu

Happy July 4 to all, a day I plan to spend with family, housemates, and friends, ending with an evening down at the mall watching the fireworks.

I’m registered at this weekend’s annual conference of The Compassionate Friends, a support group for people who have lost children, taking place across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. I was over there last evening to deliver some of my books to be sold to benefit the organization. At registration, I met people from all over the US, wearing nametags and looking much like attendees at any annual conference, giving the gathering a feeling of normalcy. Many were also wearing large buttons bearing their child’s photo, but I am not in that category. One of our keynote speakers, I see on the program, lost her step-daughter during the Virginia Tech shooting. But the program is not all tears and sadness—there will also be a humorous skit performed by the zany satirical group, The Capitol Steps.

Tomorrow, Saturday July 3, I will appear on a conference panel about writing and publishing your book, presumably a book about or dedicated to the lost child. My book falls somewhat in that category, but appeals to a wider audience and, I hope, gives that wider audience a glimpse into the special feelings associated with such a severe loss, which, thankfully, is uncommon in this country these days. The other books I’ve seen being sold at the conference focus more directly and often exclusively on the particular deceased child and the author/parent’s grief. Many are frank tributes to that child, attempting to keep him or her alive, at least in memory.

Meanwhile, back in Honduras, marches in ten cities marked the anniversary of the Zelaya ouster. The Washington Post (June 29, 2010) reports that Manuel Zelaya, from his refuge in the DR, is blaming the US for engineering his ouster. Does he really believe that or is he just parroting Hugo Chavez? He’s undermining his own credibility by such statements, in my view. Hillary Clinton seemed genuinely surprised at the time of his ouster and called it a “coup.” Of course, conspiracy theories attributed to the US abound worldwide, everything from American agents killing foreign children to obtain their organs for transplant(not medically feasible) to blowing up the twin towers to shift the blame to Muslims. Everything that goes wrong is the fault of the United States. But if the US is so omniscient and all-powerful, why are we still struggling in a poor, underdeveloped country like Afghanistan?

Got a notice that Berta Caceres, apparently a strong Zelaya supporter, had been arrested in one of my old stomping grounds, La Esperanza, Intibuca, apparently charged with hurting a policeman. Then I heard that she had been released. I don’t know anything more.

A column in the Wall St. Journal by conservative commentator Mary Anastasia O’Grady (June 28, 2010) decries efforts to lift the Cuba travel ban, pointing out that travel by Europeans and Canadians has resulted in no change whatsoever in Cuban government policies. O’Grady is referring to H.R. 4645, a measure submitted by Democratic Congressman Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Agriculture Committee Chairman and voted out this week. Cuba imports the majority of its food, the bulk of it from the US. While it is true that tourism by Europeans and Canadians has resulted in no visible changes in repressive Cuban government policies, the wholesale arrival of American tourists would probably have a greater impact. More importantly, it would remove the major scapegoat for all of Cuba’s ills, namely US “aggression” in the form of the embargo and travel ban. Of course, having the measure voted out of the Agriculture Committee is only a first step.

Rumor has it that Cuba has appealed to China for economic assistance, but that China is demanding economic reforms along the Chinese model. If that happens, you heard it here first.

Every time I travel out to rural Prince Georges County for my interpretation work, I notice huge flocks of ducks and geese swimming in ponds and waddling together across parks and fields. In Honduras, they would have been eaten long ago.

The Obama recession reduction strategy, apparently, is to stimulate the economy to the point that it begins an upward instead of a downward spiral, generating more jobs and taxes, thereby reducing economic distress and the deficit both at the same time. Of course, stimulus means greater budget deficits in the short term, but without a turn around, matters will continue downward with ever more layoffs and furloughs, reduction of services, less buying power and sales, less tax revenue. How long should the stimulus continue? Obviously, it cannot go on forever. Too much borrowing and debt—too much economic exuberance--is what got us into this fix to begin with. Right now, it seems that we are facing the danger of a double-dip recession, so pulling back on the stimulus and raising interest rates right now would not be a good idea. The challenge is not only a matter of resources but of changing the collective mood, generating confidence and optimism to replace the current skepticism, caution, and pessimism.

Much of the anti-immigrant sentiment that seems to have turned ugly in many places is, I believe, related to the recession. People feel gloomy and angry and are venting their frustrations on the hapless Latinos doing much of our low-level work. However, as a recent NPR commentator so aptly put it, undocumented millions are already here and “You cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.” As he observed, not only is deporting 11 million people completely impractical, it would create havoc in our economy and communities.

As mentioned in the last blog posting, I’m leaving for Honolulu on July 6 and not returning until July 16, so will not be posting meanwhile. If you have any comments, please e-mail me directly. It’s best to always respond to me via my e-mail address anyway (posted at this blog’s heading), as I do not always see your remarks made on the blog itself.