Tuesday, December 28, 2010

New Year, Peace Corps Budget, No Snow in DC, Zelaya, Chavez, Latin Violence, Arizona Medicaid, Wiki-Leaks/Cuba

To each and every one, a very Happy New Year! It’s always good to make a fresh start with brand new year, even though we may not live up to all our resolutions or realize many of our hopes and dreams. Still, it’s a good time to take stock, make plans, reevaluate—have that tough conversation, cut up the credit card, really start on that diet, quit smoking or drinking, tell those you cherish that you love them.

On Christmas Eve, about 35 members of Communitas, all ages, races, and nationalities, celebrated Mass. Communitas is the small Catholic group mentioned in my book that meets at the Dignity Center, a gathering place for gay Catholics, though few of us in Communitas are actually gay. We begin the Lord’s Prayer “Our father and mother” and the line between priests and laity is blurred. On Christmas Eve, the sermon was given by a lay member, Chris, a man from Nigeria, who said, corroborated by my own experience as well, that Christmas is celebrated all over the world, even by non-Christians. He cited examples in his own country of Christians and Muslims laying down their arms at this time of year. However, even as he was speaking, Muslims in Nigeria were attacking Christians, which we were unaware of at the time. His 8-year-old son did the Gospel reading in a strong, clear voice. We sang a number of Christmas carols, including “Silent Night,” which brought back childhood memories. Afterward, we held a potluck supper with champagne.

Amazingly enough, while snowstorms battered and inundated the East Coast from Atlanta to Maine, here in Washington, DC, we had only a light dusting on Sunday evening. By the next morning, it was nearly all melted. I went to work in a Md. Suburb without delay.

Much unfinished business will pass over to the new year from the old. Because the federal budget was not approved before this Congress adjourned, there is a real danger that the increases the president included for the Peace Corps will be cut—or even that funding will be reduced below current levels by the new Congress in the name of deficit reduction. This, after all the efforts of former PCVs to get a budget increase. We’ll have to start all over with the new members. I’m not sure that Tea Party folks will be receptive to a Peace Corps message. Peace Corps in a very small part of the federal budget, but all those small pieces do add up. Those reading this who have congressional representation, unlike those of us here in DC, please make a pitch to your representatives about the importance of keeping Peace Corps funding at the levels included in the current Obama budget.

I’ve noticed that ads popping up on my Yahoo account are often in Spanish, sometimes even in spoken aloud in Spanish. How does Yahoo know that I know Spanish? It’s kind of scary.

WikiLeaks cables from the 2008 ambassador to Honduras, Charles Ford, reveal his misgivings about Honduran President Manuel Zelaya well before Zelaya’s mid-2009 ouster. He cites Zelaya’s suspected ties with organized crime and his manipulation of events to make it look like he was a champion of the common man and the poor. Of course, Honduran presidents, even before Zelaya, have been no strangers to corruption and graft. Perhaps what was different about Zelaya was his open alliance with Cuba and Venezuela.

Along with the sweeping emergency powers that his legislature approved, Hugo Chavez has asked for and received power to regulate telecommunications, including the internet, amid protests from media outlets and spokespeople.

In other news from Latin America reported in the local Spanish-language press, a survey of the region shows 61% of respondents supporting democracy, up from previous surveys. Quite disturbing is the finding, no surprise to me, that Latin America with only 9% of world population, has 27% of violent deaths. The only countries in the region exempt from the wave of violence are Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Peru, and Uruguay. Again, that is not a surprise. Cuba, while it has a high suicide rate, does not allow ordinary citizens to have firearms and has lots of police who take their job seriously.

Meanwhile, some 50 migrants, including women and children, from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have apparently been kidnapped by armed men off a Mexican freight train halted with rocks and tree trunks on the track. Some of the US-based families of those kidnapped have apparently received ransom calls.

Arizona is sparking a national debate by cutting off transplants for working-age adults under its Medicaid program. In this recession, the whole question of how far to go with health-care expenditures has come to the fore. Indeed, I would argue, skyrocketing health-care costs are one of the reasons for the recession. Twenty-five years ago, when writing books, book chapters, and articles for my employer’s publications (the American Occupational Therapy Association), I tried to raise questions--ever-so-theoretically--about how far as a society were we willing to go and how much money were we willing to spend on what was already becoming a potentially infinite effort to preserve and extend life? Every time I dared speculate on the topic in print, even obliquely, it was immediately edited out, since our association was trying to increase employment opportunities and reimbursement for our members, as other health professions were also doing, so such cost questions could not be raised. Yet if the task of health care is to keep people alive and, if possible, enhance their quality of life, then the possible interventions are limitless, especially if “health care” is broadly defined to include things like toenail trimming (under Medicare Part B, I believe), Viagra, and hearing aids. Not that such provisions are undesirable; the examples are meant only to demonstrate the elasticity of what is defined as health or medical care. In bygone times, the definition was much narrower.

Additionally, the range of interventions is now much broader than previously and growing every day. Which brings us back to the transplant question. First of all, everyone single one of us will die sooner or later. We will probably die later and perhaps enjoy a better quality of life if we undergo cataract surgery, joint replacement, bypass surgery, and even organ transplant. Can we afford to do that for everyone? In a debate heard on NPR, an administrator for the Arizona Medicaid program argued that state residents have refused to pay higher taxes (no income tax there, only sales and property taxes), so there is insufficient money to fund organ transplants for people ages 21-65. She pointed out that an organ transplant costs about $250,000, is unsuccessful in more than half of cases, and entails life-time expenditures if the patient survives. In comparison, interventions like childhood immunizations are much more effective and cost-effective. “We don’t have the money to do it all; we have to cut somewhere,” she said.

An Arizona resident calling into the program said tearfully that her brother, only in his 40s, will die without a heart transplant. He was on the Arizona Medicaid transplant waiting list until the transplant program was recently eliminated. “You are killing my brother,” she told the Medicaid administrator, “How can you measure the worth of a human life in dollars?” Of course, it’s tragic that her brother had been given hope by being put on the waiting list to begin with, then was shocked when that hope was taken away. But I wondered if she would be willing to sell her house, if she has one, to gamble that her brother might be saved by a heart transplant when the success rate is less than 50% (for Arizona Medicaid recipients, it’s only about 25%, as I recall)? I suspect the answer would be “no,” but she expects the rest of Arizonans to take that gamble and bear that cost.

I’m not saying that Arizona has made the right choice—that’s up to Arizonans to decide—but there are limits, whether it’s heart transplants or something else. (And, of course, someone has to die before a heart is even available for transplant.) Another option would be to cut reimbursements and payments for medical personnel, equipment, and medications, but powerful interests resist that.

Finally, if there could be an expansion of Medicare to all age groups, which would help, but, of course, that would mean less profit for medical providers and more government intervention. All the hue and cry about “death panels” and “Obamacare” are probably designed to head off that possibility—put the onus on the government, whether the US or state government, or on insurance companies. The truth is that “death panels” and health care rationing already exist, but in covert form, otherwise health-care costs would be even higher than they are already. If the family of a very ill patient doesn’t authorize a feeding tube or issues a “do-not-resuscitate” order, as often happens, then the patient will probably die fairly soon. If the intervention had gone forward, the patient would have lived longer, but the cost would be considerable and their quality of life greatly diminished. In the case of patients with severe cognitive deficits and unable to decide independently, letting them go may be best for all concerned, including themselves. The medical-care cost debate is unavoidable—Arizona is only the canary in the coal mine. And Sarah Palin, staunch defender of Arizona and opponent of “death panels,” is strangely silent on the matter in this instance.

Speaking of cognitive deficits, I’ve begun having them myself. As my readers know, I’m an on-call Spanish interpreter, going everywhere by public transportation. Usually my travel to assignments require changing from one metro line to another and taking a bus at the end. And every destination is a different configuration. Sometimes I change trains going in one direction from a particular station, sometimes in another. The other morning, before daylight (maybe I was still a little groggy?), I automatically got on a train going in the same direction as the previous morning, but it was the wrong direction for that particular day. I was engrossed in reading the free abbreviated copy of the Washington Post given out at metro stops when I looked up and suddenly realized my mistake. So I had to get off at the next stop and reverse course, after having lost precious minutes in the process. As a consequence, I missed the bus I was supposed to take at the other end and had to wait for another. So, I barely arrived on time to the hospital where I was to report, whereas I like to arrive early. As it turned out, the scheduled patient never showed up himself and no one answered his phone, so I turned around and went home again, getting on the train going in the right direction this time. However, I must definitely pay more attention and can only hope this was not the beginning of a long downward mental slide. So far, no brain transplants!

Regarding my previous comments on tax breaks for the super-rich, one reader says: The only way progressives can get shitloads of money from "the rich" is to do what Vladimir Putin did: single out a guy like Khodorkovsky, pack his ass off to Siberia, and take his billions. That works just fine, and it also throws a scare into other rich thieves who might have thought about criticizing the government. What it doesn't really do is help the proletariat; but that doesn't matter because in Russia no one is naive enough to expect "fairness." What happened in Russia is just what's been happening in this country. Goldman is still ahead, and the rich thieves the government needs to support its bond market and all like that continue to thrive.

President Obama, no doubt about it, is a smart guy, very insightful, very quick on his feet, a refreshing change after an obviously handicapped poor guy like GW Bush, for whom you would almost feel sorry if he hadn’t been president and capable of inflicting so much harm. I just hope Obama knows what he's doing, but he's not God and cannot know, anticipate, and remedy every problem single-handedly.

Cuba Jeopordizes [sic] Normalization, Publishes Wiki LeaksAuthor: Tim Paynter Published: December 27, 2010
Read more: http://technorati.com/politics/article/cuba-jeopordizes-normalization-publishes-wiki-leaks/#ixzz19Q7at03t

[Anna] Ardin, one of the Assange's alleged victims, works in Sweden's Uppsala University and is known in some Cuban exile and dissident circles. She visited Cuba about four times between 2002 and 2006 as a representative of Swedish social democrats, said Manuel Cuesta Morua, head of Cuba's Arco Progresista, a social-democratic dissident group.

Two left-of-center websites also alleged that she was close to Cuban exile author Carlos Alberto Montaner and the Ladies in White, female relatives of Cuban political prisoners.
The websites portrayed Ardin's links to Cuba as evidence of a U.S.-backed plot to smear and jail Assange. One site said Montaner had links to the CIA.

Montaner told journalists that he did not recall ever meeting Ardin and dismissed the CIA allegation as Cuban propaganda. Ladies in White spokeswomen Berta Soler and Laura Pollán said they did not know Ardin.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Holidays, Human Rights Day, Son’s Death Annivers., Peace Corps on Screen, Raul Castro’s Hanukkah, Peace Corps in NYorker

First off, happy holidays to one and all. It hardly seems possible that another year has gone by. This blog entry is so long and rambling because I haven’t had time to post until now. But I’ve not been just sitting on my hands.

On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, a number of people met at the DC Amnesty Int’l office to write letters to officials and to people in jail considered prisoners of conscience or to their families and supporting organizations. I wrote a few letters in Spanish to people in Guatemala and Mexico. Meanwhile in Cuba, human rights defenders and the Women in White had a peaceful march disrupted and suffered injuries at the hands of government-inspired groups that day, as is customary there. Eleven of the 75 arrested in the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003, have not yet been released, though Raul Castro has promised to do so. And Alan Gross, a USAID contractor distributing electronic equipment to Cuban Jews, has been in prison is Cuba for more than a year without charges (see item below about Raul Castro’s synagogue visit).

On Dec. 11, my local Amnesty group hosted another Human Rights Day letter-writing event at an eatery popular with young people. We had a speaker who was an expert on the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since the program turned out to be about atrocities and rapes in the DRC, with slides of people there, men with AK47s, landscapes, and towns, it was very similar to scenes I had witnessed in south Sudan in 2006--even the terrain was similar. Southern Sudanese had fled to DRC and Uganda to escape the fighting there, only to be killed, raped, and forced to fight in those other countries. I had seen girls coming back to south Sudan pregnant and/or infected with HIV after being raped. I'd also heard similar stories as a board member of an organization called Rwanda Children's Fund. Somehow, to hear about it all happening again in Congo was too upsetting to me, so I had to leave. Maybe I was also feeling more sensitive because of the upcoming anniversary of my son's death and my late foster son's anniversary just past--also worried about the Sudan referendum and the possible return to civil war there.

Dec. 19, the actual anniversary of my son Andrew’s death, turned out to be OK. It was also daughter Melanie’s birthday---and I attended a holiday open house that day at a neighbor’s. Any particular day is usually not that different from the one before or after, but knowing the date of an important event does trigger feelings, as we’re culturally conditioned to recognize anniversaries and special days. Ever since my son died, I have not had a Christmas tree or sent out cards. Of course, the actual December when he died, I already had a tree up and decorated and cards mailed out, but that was the last time. Still, I do appreciate receiving holiday cards. Thanks to the senders. And I hope we are all ready to make a fresh start after New Year’s Day.

At a holiday party at the Museum of African Art, I found myself sitting next to a young woman from Kenya who is the cousin of someone who serves with me on the board of Action for Community Transformation, a local non-profit dedicated to education projects in Honduras and Kenya—small world. And while I am on the subject of the museum, if you are visiting DC, include it in your itinerary, as it really has a remarkable collection and not a huge public attendance. That evening a new acquisition was unveiled, a kaleidoscopic constantly moving artwork with sound, something positively mesmerizing by an Ethiopian artist who was introduced at the event.

I volunteered to do a review of a new Peace Corps self-published book for a writers’ website (the same one that gave me an award). It’s the second review of a self-published book that I’ve done for that website and, in both cases, the books were disappointing and not very well-written. As a self-published author myself and knowing all the hopes and efforts that went into the writing, I was reluctant to sound too critical, but felt an obligation to be honest and not lead readers and would-be buyers astray. On this last one, though I tried to be gentle and give praise where praise was due, the author was angry and upset by the overall tone of my review. If they would only write better books, I’d be most happy to praise them. It’s a thankless task otherwise.

At another recent holiday party, I was talking with a young woman from El Salvador with a son almost 3, born here, She said she had left her 6 year-old daughter back in El Salvador. As an interpreter in juvenile services, I've seen too many cases of mothers who've left kids behind, then had other kids born here, and finally sent for the older one as a teenager. The older child, observing younger siblings who not only speak English and feel at home in this country, but who have had their mother their whole life, feels resentful. Often he or she has not been to school in the interim and now is forced to sit in class with younger kids, not understanding anything. Such teens are often truant or worse, obligating the mother to take time off from work and get an attorney for juvenile court or truancy hearings, surprised that the happy reunion she has sacrificed for has turned out so badly. In Honduras, I've heard radio spots urging parents not to leave their kids, but stay in the country with them.

On another matter, in the current issue of the New Yorker, there's a disquieting article (“The Efficiency Dilemma,” Dec. 20, 2010) showing evidence that energy efficiency and more miles-to-the-gallon don't necessarily reduce pollution, because they increase consumption. The only thing that seems to reduce consumption is introducing higher energy costs.

One of my recent interpretation clients for an unemployment appeal hearing told me as we were leaving that he was from Honduras. I asked where? He was from La Esperanza, Intibuca, my second Peace Corps site!

Here in DC, it has been colder than normal, but no snow yet like that engulfing the mid-west, the northern east coast, and Canada, although we did have 2 inches last Thurs. that mostly melted.

In the local Hispanic press, I see that a deputy of the National Party, the party the current president, Porfirio Lobo, belongs to, was murdered in a carjacking in Copan Ruinas, site of the fabled Mayan ruins and of my first encounter with Honduras at age 3 (as per my book). That area is not considered particularly dangerous and is pretty well guarded because of tourism. But in Honduras, crime and violence can occur anywhere.

In other news from Spanish-language papers, UNICEF is predicting that mother-to-child transmission of HIV will be almost eliminated by 2015.

After natural disasters in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez plans to rule by presidential decree for the next year (and beyond?).

Deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is reported to have said that he is not negotiating with anyone to return to his homeland nor has he been approached on the matter, although he calls on the US to take decisive steps in that regard.

Wiki-Leaks cables have revealed that Zelaya was smuggled back into the country in September 2009 by the FMLN, the militant Salvadoran group that had been involved in a long-standing civil war in El Salvador, with help from Hugo Chavez and his forces. Again, as with much Wiki-Leaks information, this is only corroboration of what was already known or suspected.

In other Honduras news, whereas the 35 OAS member nations voted unanimously to expel Honduras when Zelaya was first forced into exile, now all but 12 favor its return, but the 12, led by Venezuela, are blocking that prospect. A military man involved in Zelaya’s ouster, Brigadier General Romeo Vasquez, says he is writing a book about the incident.

Regrettably, a handful of Republican senators blocked approval of the Dream Act. I hope Hispanic voters will give Republicans their comeuppance in the next elections. Some fault Obama for stepping up enforcement at the border and deportations, leaving no room to bargain with Republicans, who got what they wanted. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner is quite capable of crying when he thinks about the tax burdens of future generations, but seems to have no tears for the current generation of Hispanic would-be college students and military service members who have lived their whole life in this country and would contribute to it.

Here’s a website review of an upcoming Peace Corps TV flick that we can all probably afford to miss: Brooke White, an “American Idol” Season 7 finalist, will star in Change of Plans, a TV movie presented by Fox. The 27-year-old singer-turned-actress will play a woman who becomes the legal guardian of four children after her best friend dies while serving in the Peace Corps. (Wait, a PCV with four kids?)

This is just the latest in a series of movies (and books) that uses the Peace Corps as a plot gimmick. The most famous one, and one of the first, was the very lowbrow movie “Volunteers” starring Tom Hanks years before Hanks was an Oscar-winning megacelebrity.

In this silly movie, Hanks meets and stars with Rita Wilson who Tom later married. Volunteers is set in 1962–back when the Peace Corps was all the rage–and Hanks, speaking with an unfortunate accent meant to represent aristocratic wealth, plays a compulsive gambler, recently graduated from Yale, whose father suddenly refuses to pay his debts. To escape some particularly shady characters, he joins the Peace Corps and boards a plane headed to Southeast Asia. (What no interview? references? endless emailing to the Recruiter? Medical? Hardly realistic.) But nevertheless… .
This movie, as has been written about it, is “far from being politically sensitive.” The politics of the movie are all messed up, and the movie ends as a huge indictment of the Peace Corps as a corrupt tool of the government, despite some kind words for the agency and PCVs at the end.

As more health care reimbursement is set by the government or insurers, doctors’ threats to opt out ring more hollow, because they may not have enough remaining private pay patients to stay in business. Also, consumer spending is never going to recover to its previous level, nor should it, because that level was a bubble, based on phony credit.

As for the tax cut bill, it seems entirely reasonable to me, perhaps because I’m not in that bracket, that a person earning more than $250,000 per year should not continue to get a tax break on the portion of their income over that amount, especially in light of the deficit (the thought of which, apparently moved Boehner to tears, but not sufficiently to let tax breaks for the rich expire). So why do Republican lawmakers insist on giving a break to those earners? Certainly most of their constituents are not in that category and the income gap between rich and poor continues to grow, so they are not responding to a voter mandate. Perhaps a few voters do aspire to becoming rich and so identify with the wealthy, but it seems more likely that Republicans’ insistence on perpetuating these breaks for high earners is because the latter are big contributors to their campaigns. Of course, Republicans are at least nominally against taxes and government programs in general (though not in favor of cutting military expenditures or their pet projects) and also they want to saddle Obama and the Democrats with responsibility for the debt. But even more pernicious, in my judgment, is the fierce Republican objection to taxing estates exceeding $3,500,000. Is it good policy for the nation or for the moral fiber of a single heir to inherit $5 million or perhaps $10 million from two parents, not earned and completely tax-free? Passing on inherited wealth through generations skews the income distribution even more.

An Op-Ed in the NY Times (Dec. 14, 2010) by Ray Madoff (any relation?) argues: In its first 60 years, the estate tax, along with other progressive policies, went a long way toward accomplishing this goal [of avoiding wealth concentration]. By 1976, the amount of the nation’s wealth controlled by the richest 1 percent of Americans had fallen from more than 50 percent to only 20 percent. And this greater dispersal of wealth fostered a strong middle class.
The tax policies of the past 35 years, however, have reversed the trend. Today the wealthiest 1 percent own more than a third of the country’s wealth, leaving 80 percent of Americans with just 16 percent of it. President Obama’s proposal would only accelerate this trend.

But Americans seem little inclined to resist wealth concentration. Efforts to impose taxes geared to the wealthy are lambasted as promoting class warfare. Moreover, because the estate tax is nominally imposed on the deceased, it has been vulnerable to the “death tax” rhetoric, which has convinced the public that it is a second tax imposed on the defenseless dead, who already paid taxes on the money they accumulated.

North and south Sudan cannot split entirely as a result of the January referendum, but must maintain a working relationship because, while oil is in the south, refineries are in the north. That’s one of the issues to be worked out, along with the location of the border. Southerners have unrealistic expectations about the benefits of the final split. Southerners now living in the north are moving back home in expectation of all problems being solved afterward, when, in fact, divisions in the south, now united for secession, will emerge when it actually happens.

No atheists in (Cuba's economic) foxholes? See http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/12/06/1960955/cuban-leader-reaches-out-to-religion.html about Raul Castro celebrating Hanukkah at a Havana synagogue. Cuban Jews there didn’t know about Alan Gross, being held in a Cuban prison for over a year now for distributing electronic equipment to Cuban Jews.
There have been riots in Haiti, protesting that popular favorite Michel Martelly had been eliminated in the presidential run-off despite observers’ claims that he came in second. President Rene Preval has declared his own favorite, Jude Celestin, second when observers say he actually came in third. No one disputes that the top spot was won by 70-year-old former first lady and law professor Mirlande Manigat. Only the top two candidates may be included in a run-off. So, again, Haiti’s problems continue. Back in 1990, when I was an election observer there, we thought progress in rebuilding the country and its institutions could begin with the first free election in the post-Duvalier era. Twenty years later, little or no progress.

And the Wiki-Leaks saga continues. Like everything else these days, it has polarized opinion. While there may have been some value in publicizing a massive leak on a onetime basis, to continue seems unwise for future diplomacy. Is it desirable to promote less-than-candid exchanges among diplomats? I know many people consider Assange a hero, but I have mixed feelings at best. And apparently two Swedish women have genuine reasons for wanting to press charges with no obvious connection with the leaks. Sweden is not known for entering conspiracies with the US government.

A new leaks organization has sprung up to rival and challenge Wiki-Leaks, namely OpenLeaks, started by disaffected Wiki-Leakers who objected to Assange’s release of the names of secret informants and his sole focus and vendetta against the US. OpenLeaks promises to be more circumspect and ideologically neutral than Wiki-Leaks. Probably leaks and their massive dissemination are inevitable in the digital age. However, I still think they are a mixed blessing at best and a real danger at worst. Of course, like many of those aghast at the time at the actions of the GW Bush government, I’m not surprised by leaks confirming that Bush approved waterboarding, for example. And some foreign leaders have been revealed to be as venial and corrupt as I and others have always suspected. I don’t dispute that it gives a certain satisfaction to have guessed right in such cases. Perhaps confidential government documents should have a limited shelf life, a certain number of years, as with copyright expirations or Freedom of Information requests.

But every individual on the planet cannot be expert in everything or necessarily will show good judgment. When we face surgery, we don’t need to be in on the pre-operative staff conference, nor do we have to be awake and observing and critiquing everything being done to us as it’s happening. We have to delegate that to medical personnel who specialize in such matters. They may occasionally make mistakes, but will do better than if we operated on ourselves and there are always second opinions, lawyers, and other expert witnesses we can call on if necessary. Likewise, we have a representative government of elected officials and career diplomats. The American people (and especially all the world’s people) don’t need to know and weigh-in on each and every conversation and decision being made in real time on their behalf by US political leaders and diplomats.

Congressional representatives, the Congressional Research Service, and the Governmental Accountability all can be our watchdogs. Most ordinary people don’t have the intelligence or expertise, nor do they have the time to devote to diplomacy and political decision making. They are doing other things: raising kids, working in other enterprises, watching sit-coms on TV. Many of them don’t even vote. And many non-citizens, even enemies of our country, are now privy to confidential information, which is not desirable. Of course, we don’t want a completely government-controlled information system like Cuba’s, but I still contend that secrecy in diplomacy is no vice. An optimum balance of secrecy and transparency may be something the new OpenLeaks can provide.

Not to get into a long philosophical discourse here, but Wiki-Leaks supporters are probably affiliated with social ecology as a political theory. Social ecology envisages a free society without hierarchy and domination in harmony with nature. The rejection of hierarchy and domination is something that social ecology shares with anarchist doctrines.
The Peace Corps’s brightest hope
by Peter Hessler DECEMBER 20, 2010

The New Yorker, December 20, 2010, p. 101

Read the full text of this article in the digital edition. (Subscription required.)

ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about Rajeev Goyal and his advocacy of the Peace Corps. In the part of eastern Nepal where Goyal served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2001 to 2003, people sometimes weep when his name is mentioned. Locals refer to him as Shiva, the god who is the source of the Ganges River. In the halls of Congress, most people have no idea what to make of him. For the past two years, he has approached the place as if it were just another Nepali settlement with a caste system to untangle. He figured out the Washington equivalent of village-well routes—hallways, hearing rooms, and coffee shops where anybody can hang around and meet a member of Congress. During the past two years, funding for the Peace Corps has increased by record amounts, despite partisanship in Congress and a brutal economic climate. In March, the Peace Corps will turn fifty years old. The anniversary is bittersweet: despite the new funding, which has allowed for a significant increase in volunteers, the agency sends fewer than sixty per cent as many people abroad today as it did in 1966. Goyal grew up in Manhasset Hills, Long Island, where his parents had settled after immigrating from Rajasthan, India. In the Peace Corps, he was assigned to teach English at a school in Namje, a village of fewer than six hundred people, in eastern Nepal. Snowcaps provide Nepal with abundant water resources, but rivers are often inaccessible in mountain towns like Namje. Describes how Goyal and others conceived and executed the construction of a pumping system that brought water to the town. Also describes the later construction of a school in Namje built, in part, with funds from Rotary International. Tells about the history of the Peace Corps, which was created in 1961 by President Kennedy.Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/20/101220fa_fact_hessler?printable=true#ixzz182pUllmX

Now I see that Sarah Palin, perhaps in an attempt regain the spotlight, visited Haiti. Palin’s second book, America By Heart, while now second on the NY Times’ Best Seller list behind GW Bush’s Decision Points, is not doing as well as her first, which sold 2.2 million copies. Maybe her star is fading and people are getting tired of her? We should be so lucky.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Reading, PC Budget, Son’s Death Annivers., Dec. Dates, Tax Cuts, Dream Act, Popular Leaders, Wiki-Leaks, Haiti

On Dec. 5, only about a dozen people came to my presentation and reading at a local arts’ venue, The Corner Store. It was a disappointing turnout, perhaps because the evening was very cold and windy. Still we had a lively exchange about Peace Corps, Honduras, and my book, as well as good refreshments, including hot cider. To my surprise, one woman brought a copy of my book bought used on Amazon. Inside was my personal endorsement to someone else completely. She insisted that I write her name and a message to her above the one I had written to the first buyer. I don’t get any profits from used copies that are resold, but wonder how often that happens? I suppose once a reader is finished with the book, it’s time to move it along, but rather tacky to recycle a book endorsed to a particular individual. From now on, maybe I should just sign my own name for buyers and nothing more.

While increases were included in the current Peace Corps budget, they have not been definitively approved and the agency is operating right now on a continuing resolution, so that’s another item pending before the lame-duck Congress and, if not finalized before January, it’s likely to be torpedoed by Republicans when they assume the House majority. Congressman Sam Farr from California, a former PC volunteer, is taking leadership on finalizing the PC budget for this year.

Dec. 19 is the 16th anniversary of my son Andrew’s death after a work accident, also daughter Melanie’s birthday. I’ve never felt very much in a holiday mood ever since Andrew died so close to Christmas and have not sent out cards ever since, although I do appreciate receiving them. Also in December, one year after Andrew’s death, my foster son Alex died of AIDS.

Another important December date is Dec. 1, International AIDS Day, that we used to celebrate in Honduras with educational skits performed by young people and a parade through town with chants and banners. Dec. 10 is Human Rights Day, which we in Amnesty International in Dc are celebrating on both Fri. Dec. 10 and Sat. Dec. 11.

In all the debate about tax cuts, I had hoped that policymakers would not exacerbate the growing divide between rich and poor. Although “income equality” dares not be put forward in this political climate, it does seem that an effort was made to avoid making things worse for those at the bottom by slashing benefits, while leaving tax cuts for the wealthy and reimbursement to doctors, drug companies, and other special interests intact. Got an e-mail message pointing out that if all the Bush tax cuts were not allowed to expire, millionaires like GW Bush himself, as well as Sarah Palin, Gingrich, Beck, and Limbaugh would benefit. Since Republicans have argued that tax cuts to millionaires spur job creation, I would have proposed giving it only to those millionaires who actually created x number of jobs. Of course, they’ve had the tax cuts for years now, but have been hoarding their money and don’t seem to have been creating many jobs, although their heavy campaign donations do support the legislators who are protecting their wealth, so maybe those are the jobs that they’ve created. But now, although the measures have not been quite finalized, it does seem that both rich and poor will benefit, but at a considerable increase in the deficit.

John McCain, once a champion of immigration reform, himself born in Panama and the adoptive father of a foreign-born daughter, has now bowed down to the donors who helped him retain his office and come out in favor of Arizona’s anti-immigrant assault. Yet, according to Census figures, without Hispanics, the group most excoriated by reform opponents, the number of young people in the U.S. would have declined between 2000 and 2010. Based on the estimates, the non-Hispanic youth population declined somewhere between 1.25 million and 2.9 million. We old people do need young people and so now we need Hispanic young people!

And we especially need college-bound Hispanics—our next generation of professionals. So, the Dream Act is long overdue and is a matter of national self-interest. Those who focus narrowly, labeling undocumented college students “lawbreakers,” have failed to recognize that a key element of any crime is intent, and kids brought to this country illegally certainly had no criminal intent or even awareness that a crime might have been committed.

Fidel Castro and Chavez, the most unpopularBy ANTONIO MARIA DELGADO, adelgado@elnuevoherald.com, 12-04-2010 [My translation from the Spanish]

Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are the most unpopular leaders in Latin America, the NGO Latinobar├│metro said Friday in its annual report highlighting the inhabitants of the region's growing appreciation of democracy.
At the other end of the scale are the U.S. president, Barack Obama, and the outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, both getting the highest reading, 6.3 points on a scale of 1 to 10. The readings of Castro and Chavez were 3.8 and 3.9, respectively, said the report that evaluates the perception of Latin Americans on the issues of greatest impact in the region.
About 20,200 people in 18 countries were consulted by the Santiago-based NGO to prepare the study, which placed the King of Spain Juan Carlos I, in third place in popularity with a reading of 5.8.
As for Wiki-Leaks, I understand that former PFC Bradley Manning, who had been in Iraq with access to the files, has been arrested and, just now, Assange himself has been arrested. To the extent that the leaks reveal possible human rights violations, they do perform a valuable service. Also, this sudden massive burst of information is a historian’s dream, opening up a window onto a secret world. The leaks do offer a titillating, sometimes fascinating (and sometimes tedious) snapshot into that world, and show that US diplomats and others have a greater degree of knowledge and sophistication than was otherwise evident. But the leaks also smack of voyeurism, eavesdropping, and invasion of privacy, especially since the revelations are about current and ongoing relations, not simply long-ago activities. On a continuing basis, the value of wholesale and raw disclosure of diplomatic efforts and private conversations is questionable. Do we really want to get rid of political leaders and spokespeople and leave international relations, decisions, and actions subject to an ongoing plebiscite, with billions worldwide debating and voting online on every conceivable issue? That seems the logical implication of the continuous Wiki-Leaks dumps. Do we want less-than-candid conversations to take place between world leaders? There does seem to be a legitimate place for diplomacy and secrecy in international relations. The motivation for the leaks, while expressed in the lofty terms of promoting transparency, seems based more on a desire for notoriety and for harming US interests, not only reputations, but economies and actual people—and, of course, a means of making money, since payments are collected online.

As a one-time activity, the leaks may have been valuable—and certainly have been revealing, though not terribly surprising. Few shocking backroom deals have surfaced, nor have grand conspiracy theories been confirmed. Mostly, the stuff is just reports of ordinary, day-to-day efforts. Still, the result, regrettably, is going to be more secrecy and less openness, and more double-talk among diplomats, making it harder to reach agreement, especially with so many hard feelings to overcome. Continuous leaking of every private communication among political leaders to the whole wide world is undesirable; since we now get the idea, it needs to stop. Maybe it would be worth revealing such details in 75 or 100 years, but enough for now! That’s my opinion. The internet is truly a 2-edged sword.

The leaks regarding Honduras, so far, reveal that the US government did support Zelaya at first and opposed his ouster, so the US did not engineer his removal from office, as some have alleged.

A contrary view is expressed by The Atlantic contributor David Samuels, who supports the leaks and Assange http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/12/the-shameful-attacks-on-julian-assange/67440/

The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange, Sunday, December 5, 2010

“Assange may or may not be grandiose, paranoid and delusional - terms
that might be fairly applied at one time or another to most prominent
investigative reporters of my acquaintance. But the fact that so many
prominent old school journalists are attacking him with such unbridled
force is a symptom of the failure of traditional reporting methods to
penetrate a culture of official secrecy that has grown by leaps and
bounds since 9/11, and threatens the functioning of a free press as a
cornerstone of democracy.”

However, in quoting what other journalists have said attacking Assange, Samuels undermines his own case. He says, “In a recent article in The New Yorker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll sniffed that ‘the archives that WikiLeaks has published are much less significant than the Pentagon Papers were in their day’ while depicting Assange as a ‘self-aggrandizing control-freak’ whose website ‘lacks an ethical culture that is consonant with the ideals of free media.’"

And, Samuels, again: “In a column titled ‘WikiLeaks Must Be
Stopped,’ Mark Thiessen [of the Washington Post] wrote that ‘WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise,’ and urged that the site
should be shut down ‘and its leadership brought to justice.’ The dean
of American foreign correspondents, John Burns of The New York Times,
with two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit, contributed a profile of
Assange which used terms like ‘nearly delusional grandeur’ to describe
Wikileaks' founder. The Times' normally mild-mannered David Brooks
asserted in his column this week that ‘Assange seems to be an old-
fashioned anarchist’ and worried that Wikileaks will ‘damage the
global conversation.’”

Samuels seems to be damning Assange with faint praise. One thing is certain, opinion on this matter, like on much else in the contemporary world, is highly polarized.
In Haiti, the presidential elections have turned out to be quite contentious and not definitive. Someone has sent me an article from the Wall St. Journal (“Who Cares About Haiti?’ Nov. 23, 2010) alleging—nothing new—that corruption is rampant, especially at the port where crucial goods must enter, yet are being held up until exorbitant bribes or fees are paid.

I have long speculated, as possibly mentioned before, that since the cholera strain ravaging Haiti is of a SE Asian variety and not endemic to the Americas, perhaps one or more peacekeepers from Asia with asymptomatic or mild cholera (possible where cholera is common and people have developed some resistance) could have inadvertently brought it to beleaguered Haiti. Probably no one in the UN would have wanted to advertise this, for fear of provoking more unrest. My brother-in-law almost died of cholera picked up in India recently, which he developed on his flight home and led to an ambulance waiting to take him straight to the hospital from the airport when he arrived. Yet Indians sharing a meal with him before his nighttime departure did not get sick.

Haiti cholera likely from UN troops, expert saysBy JONATHAN M. KATZ, Associated Press Dec. 7, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A contingent of U.N. peacekeepers is the likely source of a cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed at least 2,000 people, a French scientist said in a report obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

Epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux concluded that the cholera originated in a tributary of Haiti's Artibonite river, next to a U.N. base outside the town of Mirebalais. He was sent by the French government to assist Haitian health officials in determining the source of the outbreak, a French Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.

"No other hypothesis could be found to explain the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in this village ... not affected by the earthquake earlier this year and located dozens of kilometers from the coast and (tent) camps," he wrote in a report that has not been publicly released.

A blog reader comments on the last posting questioning how much the health system, and by implication, taxpayers, should spend on prolonging life a few days or months for terminally ill patients. As a society, we not only are failing to admit that life is finite, but our resources as well. She says: I agree not just in principle but in every other way with the fundamental wrongness of spending huge amounts of Medicare funds to extend the lives of terminally ill (or just plain ancient) people another few days. It seems to be wrong for the beneficiaries – more likely their families – to insist on this diversion of money from people who could or will be productive (read: capital-creating, tax-paying) citizens, given the chance to be treated with drugs or by surgery now beyond their reach. Rationing has always been countenanced in emergency situations, and we have one of those now. Pre-senescent Americans won’t like it, but I suggest that the Americans now in their 80s and 90s may well go quietly, even with relief, since their personalities were formed before the current age of entitlement was upon us.---------------------

In a NY Times column entitled “She who must not be named,” Charles Blow argues that even negative attention paid to Sarah Palin keeps her in the spotlight and rallies her defenders. “She’s the Zsa Zsa Gabor of American politics. She once did something noteworthy, but she’s now just famous for being famous. She was a vice presidential nominee. But she lost. She was the governor of Alaska. But she quit. Now she’s just a political personality — part cheerleader, part bomb-thrower — being kept afloat in part by the hackles of her enemies and the people who admire her resilience in the face of them. The left’s outsize and unrelenting assault on her has made her a folk hero.” He vows not to mention her again, good advice for us all.