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?'"

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