Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving, Another Honduras Book Reading Dec. 5, AI Regional Conf., Medical Costs, Sarah Palin, Cuba, Sudan

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving holiday. I spent it with my older daughter Melanie and her family in Virginia Beach. Our Thanksgiving dinner got off to a late start. I’d bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Richmond, about a 2 ½ hour drive from Va. Beach where my older daughter lives now. Her husband was planning to meet me in Richmond, because the bus beyond there stops too often. My lone housemate with a car offered to drive me to the bus station, about a mile away, but when the departure time arrived (8:45am Thanksgiving Day), I discovered he was not at home, so I set out on foot with my luggage, walking as fast as possible. The bus was due to depart at 9:30am and, miraculously, I arrived a few minutes beforehand, taking up my place at the end of the line. The bus soon filled up and the door was shut in my face—I was the only one left still standing out there and told to wait for the next bus, leaving in 3 hours. I borrowed a cell phone and called my daughter’s cell, the only number I had with me, no answer, so I left a message. I called her several times, but by the time she answered, her husband and step-daughter were already in Richmond waiting there for me. Needless-to-say, about 30 guests had gathered before we ever got to their house. Still, it was a big festive spread and much good cheer, all the more appreciated by us weary travelers.

Another event is coming up, namely my next Honduras Peace Corps book reading and discussion at a DC arts venue, The Corner Store, 900 SC Ave. SE, 4pm, Sunday, Dec. 5. Refreshments will be served. If you will be in the area, even if you already have the book, please come (near Eastern Market metro stop), phone 544-5807,

Now that the US seems to be inching toward economic recovery, European dominos are falling and creating a downward drag. In Europe, as in the US, the main problem has been borrowing and living on ever-expanding credit. We’ll never see the same level of prosperity as before, because it was built on a false foundation.

Our attendance at an Amnesty International (AI) regional conference held in Pittsburgh Nov. 19-21 came to about 220, not a large number, perhaps because of the distance of that city from other population centers in the region. However, AI members in Pittsburgh were gracious hosts, glad to have the meeting held in their hometown. It’s always energizing to be in contact with newly active members, in this case, mostly young people. As probably mentioned before on this blog, since my return to DC from Honduras in 2004, I’ve been volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean for AIUSA, a region consisting of about 30 small, mostly island countries (my territory also includes the three Guyanas and, inexplicably, Canada).

The conference venue, the Omni William Penn, was a beautiful old downtown refurbished hotel with friendly staff. I had not been to Pittsburgh for many years and was happy to learn that it is apparently recovering from the loss of steel jobs by becoming an IT hub. The weather was a few degrees cooler than in DC and the trees were already bare of leaves. Pittsburgh’s downtown area, with its mix of old and new buildings, reminded me of Philadelphia on a smaller scale--Philly has about 1.5 million residents and Pittsburgh only about 310,000. Both cities have lost population in recent decades, although the losses are slowing. Washington, DC, where I live, had also been losing population, but is now gaining once again. Maybe Pittsburgh will also see a turnaround as people begin to appreciate the amenities and convenience of city life.

An informative session was held on the stereotyping of US-based Muslims and misconceptions about them. Muslim and Arab comics seem to have helped expand understanding and sympathy. While ethnic profiling might make for quicker and less intrusive air travel for a majority of passengers, exempting certain categories, such as little old ladies, from scans or pat downs would be a surefire way to have those become the preferred “mules” for terrorist attacks. (I don’t really understand all the concern about scans—except perhaps for x-ray exposure for frequent flyers. Don’t most people have similar body parts, depending on their gender? Is someone scanning thousands of passengers anonymously in a separate room really going to become titillated? What if they do?)

I would not dispute certain stats presented at the session on Muslim-Arab stereotyping, such as that Muslims now make up 1/4 of world population; that there are 7-10 million Muslims in the US and 1.2 million Americans of Arab descent, most of them Christians; that most Muslims are not terrorists and most Muslim violence in the world is committed against other Muslims. Also, members of the audience pointed out that the Crusaders specifically targeted Muslims and that there are non-Muslim terrorists, like the Basque separatists and both sides in Northern Ireland. Yes, all that is true. However, what most concerns us here in the US, I pointed out, especially in regard to air travel, is that the 9/11 high-jackers, the shoe and underwear bombers, and even the New York failed car bomber, are all Muslims. It’s not a matter of unjust racial profiling to point out that while the vast majority of Muslims living in and entering into the US are not terrorists, lately all the terrorists seem to have been Muslim, something that cannot be ignored.

A conference highlight for me was getting to talk privately with Rodolfo Montiel Flores, a former Mexican prisoner of conscience (POC) and environmental defender, who was jailed after working against wholesale local logging by Boise Cascade. He gave a keynote through an interpreter and wore his campesino straw hat throughout. While Mr. Flores does a service by making us aware of what really happened to him and how we in AI helped, I do have some misgivings about putting survivors of human rights abuses on display to repeat what happened to them over and over, making them relive their trauma and rewarding them for doing so, which may hamper their recovery.

I’ve been an Amnesty member since 1981, so there is a certain repetitive quality to our conferences, although the mission has evolved and broadened. I’m still of the old school. While I understand the logic of working for campaigns against the death penalty, violence against women, persecution of gays, and support for indigenous rights including in the US and Canada, it’s hard to make headway without a focus on individuals, including on prisoners of conscience, of which there are still too many in the world. Such individuals may be emblematic of large groups of people in similar circumstances, but we still need to focus on each person because it’s very hard for us to facilitate change en masse, especially in other countries. A focus on individuals has always been Amnesty’s unique contribution differentiating it from other human rights organizations. Amnesty has a maternal death clock running in NYC’s Times Square, showing a maternal death occurring somewhere in the world every 90 seconds, a total of 358,000 mothers lost in one year. As mentioned in previous blogs, the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International is coming up, as is the 50th of the Peace Corps. However, it’s very hard for a worldwide grassroots movement like AI with millions of volunteer members in so many member countries to work both broadly and on individual cases. The worldwide recession has dealt a further economic blow and increased reliance on volunteers, such as myself (a 30-year volunteer), where our Amnesty work can easily exceed the time and effort we invest in paid work.

A book review and subsequent debate in November in the New Yorker questions whether Medicare or any insurance plan should spend $26,000 for a drug to extend the life of pancreatic patients only 12 days or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a drug to extend life for prostate cancer sufferers 4 months, though, of course, those are only averages, with some living for shorter or longer periods. While a patient and his or her loved ones might consider those few days or months precious and well worth the price, would they still consider the cost worthwhile if they had sell their house or business to cover it? I doubt even a patient would agree to that. Yet, they are asking the rest of society to pick up that burden. Somehow, reasonable limits have to be set if this country is not to drown in medical costs. Call it rationing, death panels, or whatever you like, but I’ve been saying it for a long time. None of us is going to live forever and maybe that $26,000 or those hundreds of thousands of dollars could be better spent on prenatal or infant care or even food for malnourished kids.

Apparently Sarah Palin has announced that she is seriously considering a run for the presidency and thinks she can beat Obama. That woman has no shame, displaying her family on a so-called reality TV show and promoting her daughter on Dancing with the Stars. We need to pray that the Republicans come up with another candidate soon, before she formally tosses her hat in the ring. If we thought GW Bush was out-of-touch and not too swift intellectually, he was a paragon compared to Palin. Do we really need to make our nation a laughing stock? Do we have to run the whole world as well as our own country right into the ground? Let’s hope the American electorate will sober up and not be so stupid, but you never know. They elected a lot of iffy characters in the mid-terms just past. When folks feel very frustrated, as many do right now, they can go kind of crazy, lashing out in all directions with little concern for consequences. They often wise up only after the fact, as they finally did with GW, but too late. Sarah Palin is such a loose cannon, she could do a lot of damage before the electorate came to its senses. And she doesn’t seem to be someone who listens to the advice of others, instead going her own sweet way in willy-nilly fashion, grabbing for all the attention and money she can get while she’s still in the spotlight (and, she does know how to command the spotlight). John McCain may privately rue the day he ever picked her as his running mate. Some Democrats consider her so ignorant and outlandish, that voters would certainly reject her, so she’d be the ideal candidate to assure Obama’s reelection. Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. It could be a real gamble, as absurd as that may seem. Some 80% of Republicans are said to approve of her. Meanwhile, I recommend the article, title only below, which is both funny and scary.

Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You BetchaBy FRANK RICH
Published: November 20, 2010
Fox News is now reportedly criticizing Obama’s children’s book of American heroes for describing Sitting Bull as “A Sioux medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises,” when, according to Fox, he really was “an Indian chief who killed a U.S. general.” In fact, a biographer of the Lakota chief contends that he “was too old to fight at the June 1876 battle…Crazy Horse led the group of tribes, including Sitting Bull's, that defeated Custer's army.” No matter is too trivial to be used against Obama.

A blog reader has pointed out that portions of GW Bush’s memoir were plagiarized. I’d missed that, though maybe Bush himself cannot be totally blamed. While no co-author is listed for his book, he probably didn’t write most of it, though he presumably reviewed it and he did put his name on it. Still, the book seems to be enjoying brisk sales (though not the blockbuster that Palin’s books are) and Bush is enjoying being the center of attention, sitting there, chatting and signing books. He reportedly told NBC in a post-book-launch interview that the worst moment in his presidency was when rapper Kanye West shouted out that Bush didn’t care about black people. Truly, was that the worst moment during his presidency, when someone bad-mouthed him? Poor baby!

It’s discouraging for a struggling author like myself, trying to convey a truthful, sincere message: that it’s always possible to embark on a new path, no matter your age or what you have been through, and vetting every single word and sticking closely to the actual details of my own experience, to have to struggle to sell even 1,000 books (not there yet, folks), while GW sells thousands in a single day and Sarah Palin, even hundreds of thousands. Both Bush and Palin have exceeded the million mark, so no wonder Palin’s written another book (or, at least, someone did).

The other night, I dreamt that I read—or perhaps wrote—a whole epic novel, with successive generations depicted in detail from birth to death. In any case, I wasn’t part of the novel, but outside it, as either observer or author. I rarely recall my dreams, but this one lingered, like dreams during Peace Corps fueled by a malaria prophylactic, as mentioned in my book. We have a whole parallel life in our dreams, experienced as real while it’s happening. Which evokes the question of what is reality? Whatever we experience or something “out there,” independent of ourselves?

A friend has told that he dreamed my book became a movie, something I could imagine happening, but only with a complete rewrite—one of those films “based on a true story.” A lot more dialogue would be required and the chronology would have to revamped to create more drama. All my calamities would need to be bunched together until the point that I’m almost ready to quit and just counting the days until the end. But, voila! something happens to change my mind, such as saving a child’s life, and the parents and all the townspeople beg me stay (and my late son Andrew urges me on in a dream). And so I extend my term, eventually quitting when my 90-year-old mother pleads with me to come home, becoming a Spanish interpreter, and ending up returning every year to Honduras with medical brigades and other projects, etc. Or, rather, the actress playing my character does all that on screen, an idle dream—in this case a waking dream. If I had actually written the book in that more dramatic fashion, perhaps more copies would have been sold by now.

As for the Wiki-Leaks leaks, is there any speculation about or attempt to find out how they got all those documents? Was someone inside the US government the source or is there a way to break electronically into secret files? I haven’t seen any commentary on that.

Not surprisingly, given all the country’s challenges and unrest, Haitian elections held Nov. 28 did not go smoothly.

But quite surprisingly, Hugo Chavez has denounced his former ally, OAS Sec. General Jose Manuel Insulza, for “meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs” for having made a public comment on an irregular military personnel matter. Chavez is a law unto himself and brooks no criticism of any of his decisions from any quarter.

Apparent good news from El Salvador, which, according to the local Spanish-language press, has lately seen a small but welcome reduction in the rate of murders, kidnappings, and other crimes of violence that had been rising every year. Hope it’s the same in Honduras.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has won another prize that she will probably not be able to collect, namely, a $50,000 Freedom Award from the Danish think tank CEPOS ( Sanchez, now in her early 30s, has been beaten and harassed by Cuban authorities, but not imprisoned because of her large following around the world. Although barely known inside Cuba because most citizens have no access to the internet, she has been able over the last few years to send her blog outside the country, apparently on flash drives given to visitors to the island. Her cogent commentaries have afforded a first-hand look at the myriad challenges of everyday Cuban life.

In other Cuba news, Freedom House has identified Cuba as the only “not free” country in the Americas. Thirteen of the original 70 dissidents arrested in 2003 remain in prison, despite the government’s promise that they would be released, as they are refusing exile.

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, now 70 and once a darling of the regime who served in Eastern Europe, was also arrested in the 2003 crackdown, but released early for health reasons and allowed to remain in Cuba. He is one of the mysterious bloggers able to get his writings out of the country, but virtually unknown inside because ordinary Cubans don’t have internet access. In a lengthy commentary posted Nov. 26, he states that socialism has never existed in Cuba, only “a very inefficient state capitalism” that “has tricked the people by talking about fraternity and solidarity, and promising them a bright future that never arrives.” Cuban official Ricardo Alarcon is reported to have said that Cuba is now following the Chinese economic model, opening up aspects of the economy but maintaining communist party political control. Still, that’s an improvement and may eventually give the Cuban people a little more breathing room, though the transition promises to be abrupt and difficult.

Jan. 9, 2010 is the date of the south Sudan referendum on secession from the north, which the Carter Center and other groups will be monitoring. There is some speculation now that Bashir and company in Khartoum may be willing to accept the inevitable, since sanctions are already hurting. Two questions that remain unresolved are the exact location of the border (I was mostly in the border area during my 2006 trip) and what happens to the many southern Sudanese now living in the north.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Honduran Refugee Success Story, Employer Anger During Appeal, Aung San Suu Kyi, Pittsburgh Meeting, Bush at The Villages, Recommended Reading, Cuba

Last weekend, visited the house in suburban Alexandria, Va., purchased recently by my Honduran friend Gilberto “Betio” Flores. Some readers will recall that he was an environmental activist whose life had been threatened in his rural province of Olancho. I helped him obtain political asylum in the US and bring his wife and seven minor children here. (Two daughters over age 21 were ineligible to come and remain in Honduras.) Somehow, this large, tight-knit family managed to purchase a four-bedroom house with two bathrooms and a fireplace located in a quiet neighborhood on a large lot with many trees. The elementary school, which several of the children attend, is within walking distance. The children are now bilingual and doing well in school.

Their new home is certainly a cut above the tiny two-bedroom, one-bath apartment this family of nine occupied before. Both Betio (who is now 50) and his oldest son have learned to work in construction, although the family had been subsistence farmers in Honduras. The hours are long and the work is hard, but they are grateful to have it, enjoying the advantage of being legal residents and also union members. The oldest son and daughter have both learned to drive and have licenses and second-hand cars. Betio says he has not had time to learn, what working six days a week. I’m so happy and proud of this family’s success in making a new life, despite obstacles. They still miss Honduras, but it would be too dangerous for Betio to return, as several colleagues in his environmental movement have been murdered.

Last time, I mentioned a rare interpretation client appealing a denial of unemployment benefits whose daughters were angry about my services because it was evident that their mother was probably not going to have that denial reversed. This week, an employer appealing the unemployment benefits granted to his separated employee (for whom I was interpreting), became angry during the hearing because it was fairly evident that he was going to lose and that the former employee was going to continue to receive benefits. (Of course, it can never be said with certainty what an administrative hearing judge will decide, as they always send their decision later in writing to avoid clashes in the hearing room.) The employer stood up, looking red in the face, admitting that he was getting pretty hot under the collar, and saying that the former employee did not need an interpreter. My client, who had a fairly rare skill, had announced his plan to retire at the end of the year. His employer then began looking for a replacement because it was hard to find someone with that skill and, when he found one in September, he terminated my interpretation client. The client would have done well not to announce his retirement so far in advance.

After working for years with my local Amnesty International group to free Win Htein, an associate of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this year, now, I salute the freeing of the lady herself, done strategically only after her country’s elections. She seems to be trying to strike a conciliatory note now with Myanmar’s junta.

Speaking of Amnesty, will be attending a regional meeting of that organization in Pittsburgh next weekend, reporting back after my return.

The following item caught my eye because the first half of a radio show where I was interviewed (podcast at, Oct. 9, 2010) had to do with The Villages, a senior community near Orlando with a Disney-theme-type layout. Former President GW Bush has also been quoted as saying that people didn’t believe he could read, much less write, a book (no doubt with a lot of help). You have to feel kind of sorry for an intellectually challenged guy like GWB, who was way out of his depth in the presidency. Maybe so many people voted for him because he was on their same level. Obama, in contrast, is much smarter than most Americans, which some of them may resent.

Bush on post-presidency: 'I miss being pampered'
AP, Sat Nov 13, 2010

THE VILLAGES, Fla. – Former President George W. Bush says he doesn't miss much about the White House, just the pampering. Bush told more than 3,000 people at a sprawling central Florida retirement community on Saturday that he misses the convenience of Air Force One and never waiting in traffic jams. The 43rd president said, most of all, he misses being commander in chief of the U.S. military. In his 30-minute speech, he talked about what it was like to return the salute of men and women.
The Villages retirement community is heavily Republican. Many in the crowd waved American flags and wore hats noting their military service. Bush is on a national tour promoting his new memoir, "Decision Points."
In this posting, I’m straying far from Honduras and Peace Corps to recommend reading the following four items in full, shown in brief below. Following those are two recent articles on developments in Cuba.

Government breaks promise by keeping three "Black Spring" journalists in prisonInternational Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) - 8 November 2010, _exile/

Excerpt from NY Times, Editorial, November 12, 2010
Politics Over Peace

What Mr. Netanyahu does not seem to realize is that a peace deal with the Palestinians is not a favor to President Obama. It is vital to Israel’s long-term security. If he squanders this moment, the only ones who can celebrate are the extremists.

Joseph Wilson, in an item in the Huffington Post (Nov. 9, 2010) entitled “George Bush’s Deception Points,”, takes apart Bush’s rationales both for his mention of “yellow cake” in his State of the Union address as a reason for going to war against Iraq and his commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence.

The Economist
Reform in Cuba
Trying to make the sums add up

Raúl Castro unveils his plan for an economy of powerful, more efficient state companies and the legalisation of small businesses
Nov 11th 2010 | Havana

Here are the two full Cuba articles.

Castro Tells Cuban Labor Union to Accept Layoffs for Revolution's Survival

By Blake Schmidt - Nov 1, 2010,

Cuban President Raul Castro told unionists to accept layoffs and reforms that open the way for private enterprise as necessary for the survival of socialism.
“To defend and explain these measures, the working class must learn and be convinced of their importance for the survival of the revolution,” Castro said in an address to the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, the only union recognized by the Communist Party. “Otherwise we will fall off the cliff.”

Castro’s speech was published in the party newspaper Granma as Cuba prepares to dismiss 500,000 state workers by March, affecting 10 percent of the workforce. The dismissed workers are being encouraged to go into business for themselves, and Granma said the central bank may offer micro-credits to new entrepreneurs as the island faces its worst economic slump since the former Soviet Union ended support in the 1990s. Economy Minister Marino Murillo said workers aren’t productive enough to merit their salaries and Cubans are consuming faster than they produce, according to Granma. The average worker earns $20 a month in addition to free rationed food staples and health care, and nearly free housing and transportation.

Castro, 79, has initiated measures to open the economy, including loosening of property laws and controls prohibiting private enterprise such as taxi and mobile phone companies, since his brother Fidel began handing over power in 2006. The state still controls 90 percent of the economy. In August the government eased controls that prohibited Cubans from selling their own fruit and vegetables. It also extended lease periods to 99 years from 50 years for foreign investors in an effort to build up tourism infrastructure and draw more visitors to the Caribbean island of 11.4 million people.

Cuban authorities cracked down on a march Sunday to pray at the tomb of a dissident whose death became a rallying cry for human rights activists.BY JUAN O. TAMAYO, Nov. 2, 2010

Cuban security agents beat and detained about 40 dissidents after the mother of the late political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo and her supporters prayed at his tomb, activists reported Monday. The mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, said she was repeatedly hit on the head, thrown to the ground and gagged with a smelly rag that left her breathless as she shouted anti-government slogans. Security officers also kicked several handcuffed young men during the incident Sunday, added Marlon Martorell, a dissident who took part in the protest.

Tamayo and most of the 40 others detained were released later Sunday or early Monday but some remained unaccounted for Monday afternoon, including one of Tamayo's sons, Martorell reported. The detentions appeared to be one of the harshest crackdowns yet on supporters of Tamayo, whose son's death in February after a lengthy hunger strike became a rallying cry for dissidents in Cuba and abroad.

Tamayo and Martorell said about 40 supporters joined the regular Sunday march from her home in the eastern town of Banes to Mass at a local Catholic church and to the cemetery where her son is buried. The mother said groups of government supporters harassed them on the way from church to the cemetery, and one man "authorized by the state security" threw rocks at the marchers, hitting at least three.

Martorell also reported that a "security agent in civilian clothes" shouted epithets and threw rocks at the marchers. Some of the marchers threw rocks back, he said by phone from Banes, but kept walking toward the cemetery.

Scores of police and state security officers ringed the cemetery by the time the marchers had finished praying at Zapata's tomb, Tamayo and Martorell said. "They attacked when I set foot outside the gates to the cemetery," Tamayo told the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate. "They threw me to the ground and dealt blows and kicks to all the brothers."

Martorell said agents carried out the crackdown "with a lot of violence, with beatings for all."

Tamayo, who is Afro-Cuban, said she was forced into a police vehicle and as she shouted "Down with Fidel!" one officer shouted at her, "Shut up, you lousy black." She was then gagged with a rag smelling of gasoline that nearly asphyxiated her, the mother added.

Police threw the protesters into two waiting buses, Martorell said, and he later heard Tamayo shouting "Down with Fidel" and "Zapata Lives!" while they were held in a Banes lockup.

"Once again, there's proof that they are a bunch of murderers," Tamayo added.

"Let them kill me, but I will die with honor, dignity and valor."

The Miami-based group Cuba Independent and Democratic reported Monday that one of its members in Banes, Daniel Mesa, suffered an injury to his hand during the detentions. The cell phones of Tamayo and those of several other supporters involved in the incident appeared to have been blocked Sunday afternoon and much of Monday.
State Security agents initially blocked Tamayo's marches to the church and cemetery, sometimes with mass detentions like Sunday's. But they had been allowing the protests since mid-August, when Catholic church officials intervened on her behalf. Church officials told Tamayo last month that she and her immediate family had government permission to leave for the United States, but she replied that she would not leave unless she was allowed to take her son's remains.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

DC: No Taxation without Representation, Election Central, at Eastern Market, Interpretation Observations, Honduras Happenings, Cuba’s Catholic Church

While the Stewart-Colbert rally was being held on the national mall and election fever was sweeping the nation, we here in DC were mostly onlookers since we are disenfranchised, something most other citizens are unaware of. They take for granted their votes for governors, congresspeople, and senators, not realizing or caring that a jurisdiction about the size of some small states doesn’t enjoy that same right. Specifically, Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming, with two senators and a congressman, has a smaller population than the nation’s capital. Alaska, home of the vaunted Sarah Palin, boast’s a population barely larger than DC’s and Delaware’s is only slightly larger still. However, since more than 90% of Washington voters are registered Democrats, Republicans have blocked any attempt to provide our city with even a single voting congressional delegate. That’s why DC license plates sport the motto “No taxation without representation,” more of a protest than a fact.

As for the mid-term elections, I would recommend an article on the tea party movement (“Confounding Fathers,” The New Yorker, Oct. 18, 2010) written beforehand. Not to oversimplify, the article compares the tea party to historical extremist precedents and notes that Republican Party pragmatists have always tried to buck that fringe trend. Now, there seems no trusted conservative pragmatist with sufficient influence to counteract the tea partiers, although Karl Rove (who would have thought him to be a voice of reason?) has tried. While more than 70% of Republicans supported the tea party going into this year’s elections and while the scope of their current influence goes beyond that of past extremists, the article speculates they may soon wane. “Candidates like O’Donnell may prove too eccentric to prevail, or voters may simply become disillusioned by politicians who campaign on their hatred of government.” Let’s hope so.

I spent election night at a nearby residence with a group of folks watching a huge flat-screen plasma TV. I don’t have a television set, so it was really a revelation to see the crisp, bright images shown there. Everything moved so fast on the blue and red states filling in the national map—instant counts and communication, projected winners sometimes declared at the very moment the polls closed. So different from my election observer experience where ballots have been hand-counted throughout the night.

On NPR post-election, a tea party activist in Texas talked about lowering taxes, reducing government spending and intrusion, and--in the same breath--berated the failure of her state to complete an interstate highway extension in her region (!). So, does the tea party mean everyone clamoring for what they personally think public priorities should be and to heck with representative government? How does that work in practice? I don't think it does. The tea party folks talk in clichés and generalities (i.e. constitutional government, small government), but avoid specifics, or they pick and choose specifics according to their personal preferences. I’ve heard that the typical tea partier is an older white male with a high school or less education (an Archie Bunker guy, a demographic hard hit by the recession). Since tea partiers are older than average, they may be going to their heavenly reward in the next few years, leaving room for a different viewpoint to replace theirs. But, the country faces gridlock in the near term, given that Republicans have vowed publicly to obstruct the “Obama agenda” to make sure he’s a one-term president—something that sounds rather harsh, but maybe not to tea party stalwarts and to Republicans in general. Of course, the problem is the economy and that’s not likely to recover fast enough for voters. Tea partiers—and almost everyone else—is frustrated and upset over the state of the economy. Yet, I don’t expect any recovery to reach the earlier peak during my lifetime, whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge.

The health care reform measure, with all its faults and concessions, was an effort by the Obama administration to actually reign in that ever-growing portion of the economy and government spending. Rolling it back, which isn’t going to happen anyway, would certainly not help economic recovery. Improving it, with bipartisan cooperation, might help, but bipartisan cooperation may be an impossible dream. Obama may be talking compromise, but the electorate and Congress are completely polarized.

It has been pointed out that Franklin Roosevelt became president three years after the Great Depression started, after things had kept going downhill, and so, in no way, was he blamed. But Obama had the misfortune of coming into office while the Great Recession was still underway and so he is blamed, as it continued on his watch, even though he did not cause it. I do believe that the actions of this administration kept it from being worse, but obviously did not restore the status quo ante. And while the Republicans complain about the deficit, they are unwilling to let the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy expire. Is that a logical position? There is actually very little trickle-down from the super-rich, whose share of the national income has kept growing and who can only spend so much, tending to hoard, increase, and pass along their wealth from one generation to the next.

At times, it seems that voting and democracy do not provide the optimal form of government because, let’s face it, most people don’t know or understand their own interests. That is, they seem unable to anticipate consequences, only to acknowledge them after-the-fact. When I see tea party folks getting all fired up right now, I think about the adoring crowds who initially greeted Hitler, Mao, and Fidel Castro. Or, more recently, the Greeks rioting over unavoidable austerity measures, or the French striking over the increase in the retirement age, when it’s fairly obvious that if they are living longer, it’s a financial necessity.

On another topic, most interpretation clients are grateful for my help, one reason why this job is so satisfying. But one day last week, I experienced a rare reversal of that stance. It was an unemployment denial appeal made by a frail older woman who rested her head on the desk during the proceedings and had to be prodded gently by me to reply to questions, as she seemed to be falling asleep. She was also hard-of-hearing, so I had to shout, while she spoke in barely audible tones. One of her daughters was allowed into the hearing room and, afterward, as I was leaving, berated me for not interpreting word-for-word in the order spoken exactly what her mother had said. First of all, the mother’s answers were rather garbled, so I tried to make sense out of them. Second, interpretation, because of differing grammatical rules, is never a matter of putting one word in front of the other in the order spoken in the first language. The result would be unintelligible. But I did not want to argue with the daughter. Her anger, I believe, resulted from the realization that the appeal would be lost, since a key requirement for receiving unemployment benefits is that the person be able to work and be actively seeking employment. This woman said she was ill and could not possibly work, so I advised her as I was leaving to apply for disability benefits instead, but she said she had already tried and it was too complicated. So, I guess she had thought she’d give unemployment benefits another shot by appealing their denial.

Had another recent interpretation assignment that exemplified what happens when many Central American immigrants—usually undocumented—leave their children behind and finally are able to send for them later. This was a typical case of a mother (no father in the picture) who managed to take her older daughter with her when she crossed the border years ago, but left her son, only eight at the time, behind with her parents. Now the son, age 15, has arrived, but he is already a teenager, resentful that his mother took his sister with her and not him. Also, he never went to school after his mother left, so not only does he not know English, but cannot read and write, even in Spanish. However, he has been placed in 9th grade and, no surprise, cannot do the work and has been truant and getting into trouble playing hooky from school while the mother works. The court has ordered him to attend classes, but he is resisting. The family lives in Maryland where school attendance is compulsory until age 16. The mother, who, with considerable effort and expense, has been reunited with her son, is finding that it has not been the happy homecoming both had anticipated.

My efforts at book-selling last Sunday faltered because of high winds. I spent most of the time shouting over the gale and trying to hold down Peace Corps pamphlets and supporting documents, including copies of my Beacon article and a notice of my 2BoomerBabes podcast. No books were sold. However, a dark-haired young woman stopped by, who, like my younger son, Jonathan, was adopted from Colombia. It so happens that I know her parents and knew all about her, but had not actually seen her since she was a baby. She once served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, where she became fluent in Spanish and met her Nicaraguan husband. She introduced me to him and also to their little daughter, so that was all quite a thrill. Therefore, I didn’t consider my market foray that day a total loss, as I also managed to talk to a few people about Peace Corps service, at least to plant the seed.

In the Nov. 1 Washington Post, was an item about 14 people being slain in a sports stadium in Honduras in an apparent gang attack. Later, the local Hispanic press showed a grisly photo. On Nov. 2, there was a report in the Post that five men had stolen a small plane from a Honduran military base.

A correspondent sent me a declaration from Common Dreams ( regarding the efforts of what is called the Honduran Resistance to the 2009 “coup” against President Manuel Zelaya and its continuing protests against the administration of President Porfirio Lobo. The statement alleges that at least ten Honduran journalists have been killed so far in 2010 and other violence has been waged against activists, but erroneously blamed on gangs. It laments Secretary Clinton’s efforts to have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.

I’m unable to judge what is behind the killing of journalists and opposition activists—it’s probably a combination of bona fide political repression (not sure by whom) and random crime. I certainly would favor the readmission of Honduras to the OAS because keeping it out helps neither Zelaya’s supporters or opponents, nor the majority of Hondurans. However, I would agree with the writers of this declaration that “Honduras has one of the highest poverty rates and gaps between rich and poor in the Americas,” an issue that has not been adequately addressed, though we in the Peace Corps, as well as USAID and many other bodies have been constantly working on it. I believe that poor Hondurans, the majority in that country, were energized and inspired by Zelaya, and were angry and disappointed over his ouster. However, in my recent observations on the ground, most seem to have accepted that he won’t be coming back and, either out of resignation or realism, have “moved on.”

Someone else sent me another document, this one in Spanish, called Compromiso Con Honduras (CCH), Commitment With Honduras, but I’m not sure who created or has subscribed to it. It looks like a fairly promising statement, though lacking in specifics. It seems to attempt to build on the spirit that Zelaya inspired and to bridge the gap between his dispirited and still-loyal followers and the rest of Hondurans—also to influence the holdouts in Latin America who still want to punish Honduras for Zelaya’s ouster. Unity, consensus, citizen participation, reduction of inequality, economic growth, attacking corruption, developing sustainable natural resources, encouraging a common national identity—these are some of the stated goals and principles. Sounds quite laudable, but I don’t have enough context to guess whether anything might actually come of it.

Cuba has been reported to be inaugurating its first seminary in over 50 years, another example of how church and state have become more cooperative there. Critics of the Castro government have criticized the Catholic church for being too acquiescent, but the church’s stance has not only won the release of a number of political prisoners, but, now, allowed a new seminary to open. Is there a lesson here for Democrats and Republicans in our own country? Surely there could have been no deeper divide than that between the Cuban communist government and the Catholic church in Cuba.