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.

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