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 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

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.

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