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.

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