Sunday, January 30, 2011

Woman’s Day Photo Shoot, Goodbye Barney, Honduras trip, PC Budget, Baby Doc, So. Sudan Vote, Alan Gross, Etc.

OK, folks, don’t hold your breath, but I’m one of a trio of so-called “late bloomers” being featured in the magazine Woman’s Day, April 1 edition, as I mentioned once before. The photos I had submitted apparently were not acceptable, so a local groomer and a photographer from New York were sent to take some better ones. We took photos at my house, the nearby Eastern Market, the local Riverby bookstore that carries my book, and in front of Peace Corps headquarters but were not allowed to go inside. Of course, only one photo will be selected. I hope they sell a lot of magazines, because that one little photo involved a lot of expense. I wonder if they will show our faces looking out of bright flowers to illustrate the late bloomer theme?

On Feb. 23, I attended a memorial Mass for a member of my small Catholic congregation, Communitas. His name was Barney, he was 45 years old, and he had Down Syndrome. Barney died of early onset dementia and other complications typical of Down’s people. It seems unfair that those born with such a disability should also be afflicted with early decline and death, but, of course, life is not fair. Barney was an ardent fan of the Washington Redskins and a pretty good Elvis impersonator. He was friendly and funny. For 20 years, he worked in a restaurant near his home and once hosted us at a luncheon there. He had devoted parents, two brothers, many friends, and a girl friend. He had a rich life and he enriched ours. Only in the last year, did he start going downhill fast. We will miss him. And I do feel for his parents, having lost their son.

Late on a Sat. evening, a friend and I noticed a middle-aged ordinary-looking white woman wearing a clean wool coat start laying down newspapers to sleep out on the sidewalk in a sheltered corner under an overhang. My friend ran over to give her an old quilt that she carried in her car, but the woman refused it. However, she did accept a proffer of a little cash. That night, it definitely got below freezing. I shivered, thinking about sleeping out in Honduras where it only gets down to about 45F, cold enough. I know of some shelters, but not near where the woman was located and, by that hour, they would have been full and have already locked their doors.

Won’t comment on the substance of Obama’s state-of-the-union address, as enough pundits have already done that, only to say that it’s refreshing for a change to hear an articulate, intelligent leader who enunciates his words clearly (unlike some current Republicans who seem to have marbles in their mouth). But, of course, the guy is not a magician.

Coming up is my annual Feb. trip to Honduras for participation in medical brigades and various projects. I won’t be returning until early March, so watch this space sometime after that. Now, at age 72, I don’t know how long I’ll have the strength, finances, even life, to continue with these missions, but plan to keep on going as long as I can. Each year, I wonder if this will be my last trip? And since I’m leaving soon, a lot of different items are gathered together in this posting in a kind of potpourri. Hope I won’t wear out your eyes or your patience.

According to the local Spanish-language press, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo is proposing the creation of model cities with amenities and without crime. Where, how, and with what funding this would be achieved, is not specified, but it sounds like an admirable idea, especially the no crime part. I do remember something similar being done after Hurricane Mitch, when so-called model towns were built at some distance from Tegucigalpa. In my book, I mention one I saw, Ciudad Espana, rows of identical little cinderblock houses. Last Feb. when I was in Honduras, I met a blind woman who comes into Teguc every weekend to sing and play guitar at restaurants with other blind musicians. She lived in Cuidad Espana with her husband and three kids and told me that stores had sprung up there and also regular bus service into the capital. Indeed, crime, she said, was less than in the city, so maybe Lobo is on to something At the blind school, she shared the room that I was already sharing with Martha and Julissa. I believe I’ve already mentioned on this blog that Martha, who had always been in poor health, died several months ago and that Julissa was unceremoniously returned to her birth family for the Nov.-Feb school vacation. Now when school starts again, she will be staying with other girls. I must take her more of the gloves she inexplicably likes so much—small comfort after such a loss.

The Hispanic press also mentions that Honduras is hosting an “Afro-descendant” summit in the Caribbean port city La Ceiba next August, with representatives from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Puerto Ricao, and the US invited.

I was sent an article from the Wall St. Journal (“New Prize in Cold War,” Jan. 15-16, 2011) on a Cuban doctor defector. He was serving in Gambia and is now in Miami, as are five other Cuban defectors from his medical mission. Of course, he is not working as a physician now, but as a “surgical assistant." Passing the highly sophisticated-English language medical exam is tough, expensive (several hundred dollars), and I think then applicants still have to find residencies in this country and many hospitals reject foreign grads, even if they've passed the test. Of course, Miami is full of Cuban doctors not working as such--though most try to get into some sort of medical work. And their families back in Cuba do suffer reprisals, as this defector’s family has.

A reader also shared a terrible story about a young Canadian woman singled out for an extensive and intrusive airport search in Newark, down to her underwear. You have to wonder if it was just random, whether she had some special attributes (like a name similar to one on a no-fly list), or whether it was, as suggested, maybe prurient interest? I hope she will complain to the proper authorities.

A Sunni Muslim center in Cairo that had been in dialogue with the Vatican has cut off ties because of the Pope’s call for Christians being targeted in majority Muslim countries to stand-up for their rights non-violently, even though they have been attacked violently. The center, named al-Azhar, reportedly dubbed the Pope’s remarks “insulting” to Islam and Muslim countries.

I would recommend an article in the New Yorker (Jan. 24, 2011), “The Hot Spotters,” about how a few outlier patients use up a disproportionate medical resources. A case is cited of a grossly obese man whose care totaled $3,500,000 in a single year. However, experiments focusing on such high-utilizing patients, providing them social and other supports plus monitoring and education, have resulted in greatly reduced costs. Of course, as medical costs get reduced, so do payments to medical providers. As the article observes, “one man’s cost is another man’s income.” That is indeed the resistance to reigning in health care expenditures. Each profession, each interest, is trying not only to protect, but to expand its piece of the economic pie. I was acutely aware of that when I worked for an association of health professionals. But the brakes have been put on at last, not only in the medical sphere, but in general. Living on credit and projections of future gains, as we in the US and in the world have been doing, has reached a logical and inevitable end.

That hard reality has also hit the Peace Corps. Here’s somone confirming my worst fears, mentioned earlier, after the federal budget was not approved in the lame duck Congress:

Because of the on-going Continuing Resolution and the subsequent budget worries, Peace Corps Headquarters is scaling back on growth plans. The Agency will level off at 9,500 Volunteers this year and depending upon whatever budget is eventually passed, the overall numbers may drop again. The Obama Administration has told all agencies to scale back their growth plans. And that means you, Peace Corps!
Sorry, Rajeev. You won the battle (s) but you lost the war.
[A reference there to former volunteer Rajeev Goyal, profiled in the Dec. 20, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, who had worked tirelessly and creatively to increase Peace Corps funding.]

R. Sargant Shriver, founder and first director of Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative, has died at age 95, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last seven years. We former Peace Corps volunteers owe him a big debt of gratitude.

With MLKing Day just passed, I was reminded that my late former husband and I were in the massive crowd on that summer day when King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was just a tiny figure standing in the far distance and we could barely hear what he was saying. Little did we know then that he and his words would rise to such prominence.

In all the discussion, drama, and argument about the Arizona shooting rampage, I find myself feeling some empathy for the young shooter’s parents. Surely they were concerned about their son, but he was legally an adult and their influence over him was limited. Commentators allege that “the mental health system failed,” but there is no coherent and comprehensive “mental health system” (that requires public organization and money—both taxes and “big government,” if you will) and even if there were, each and every act of violence cannot be prevented nor every person who enters treatment be made well. We do need a better system to reduce the number of firearms circulating, or, failing that, to prevent unstable people and criminals from obtaining firearms to the extent possible, measures gun lobbyists decry. What about giving gun manufacturers subsidies not to produce guns, like we do to farmers for not planting crops?

The giant Las Vegas gun show opened with gun enthusiasts buying up everything, fearing that the Arizona shooting may result more gun controls. Of course, gun-rights spokespeople say guns have nothing to do with shooting injuries and deaths. "The recent tragedy in Tucson was not about firearms, ammunition or magazine capacity," said Ted Novin, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, "It was about the action of a madman." Since we cannot always control or predict the actions of “madmen,” or apparent accidents like the wounding of two students in an LA school, one critically, some controls on gun availability would surely help. My younger son was shot in the foot at age 13 when kids were playing with a handgun that the father of one boy kept in his bedroom for protection. Fortunately, my son’s injury, though painful, was something he recovered from in a few weeks. It could have been otherwise.

You would think Sarah Palin is the person injured now, not Giffords. “I’m so misunderstood,” she reportedly complained on the Hannity show. She’s been uncharacteristically and mercifully quiet since. Congressman Alan Grayson cites examples of threats that he and at least six other Democrats besides Giffords had received recently, including telephoned and written death warnings, being burned in effigy, and having had a coffin left. I haven’t heard of any Republican lawmakers receiving such intimidations, so calls to tone down the rhetoric “on both sides” have rung a little hollow. Only one side, it seems, has been cranking up the rhetoric and getting dangerously close to the point where it crosses over into action—“reload,” “take him out.” Free speech is not protected to the point where someone is free to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Interestingly enough, although Scalia, the great originalist on the Constitution, delivered the 2008 DC gun rights decision that defined it as an individual right for the first time, in fact, linking gun rights to the second amendment didn’t begin until the 1970s with a push by the NRA. In 1789, when the second amendment was being debated, it was only discussed in terms of arming state militias.

I hope voters will react against the merely symbolic and unproductive House vote to repeal the health care law. It is one thing to propose constructive changes, another to take up valuable time with a repeal destined to go nowhere. And why did House Speaker Boehner refuse Obama’s invitation to ride to Arizona in Air Force One and to attend the China state dinner? Not necessarily because he’s a human rights advocate. Because he didn’t want to appear to be too chummy with Obama by breaking bread with him? If he were sincere about wanting to work in a bipartisan fashion, he might have taken the opportunity to accept Obama’s hospitality, using it as a chance to express or advance positions he favors. But, no, it appears Republicans are not really interested in working with Democrats, rather, bent on undermining the government to give themselves an advantage in 2012, even if it may hurt the country and the economy. At least, that’s how I read it. But some from both parties have now sat together in the chamber, a good sign.

Baby Doc Duvalier has returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile, after the current president, Rene Preval apparently allowed return. I was in Haiti soon after Duvalier was ousted, was an election observer when Aristide was elected in 1990, and returned there once more since. After Duvalier had left, people celebrated and breathed a sigh of relief that he and his brutal Tonton Macoute enforcers would no longer intimidate them. A new era was anticipated in Haiti. However, since then, matters have gone downhill and now some old-timers look back nostalgically to the Duvalier days when there was little civil strife, Haitian factories regularly turned out goods, and tourists visited. Baby Doc’s recent return to cheering supporters brings the threat of even more disruption to this fragile nation. And if Aristide comes back, as he is apparently considering, more disruption. I’m broken-hearted about all the calamities this poor, but once vibrant country, has endured.

A Haitian-American close the politics in his native country opines that Baby Doc will be indicted and tried. However, as with Pinochet, he will never serve time. He said that Duvalier had suffered a mild stroke last year, so his health might be the excuse to keep him out of prison. Finally, under pressure and amid credible allegations of fraud, apparently Preval has agreed to take the name of his favorite, Jude Celestin, off the run-off ballot, leaving it a contest between former first lady Mirlande Manigat and popular singer Michel Martelly.

No doubt, authoritarian Arab regimes (which describes most, if not all, of them) have been viewing developments in Tunisia with great alarm, and now demonstrators in Yemen, Algeria, and Egypt have been following suit. Regarding Egypt, Obama seems to be walking a fine line. And the fact that the Tunisia uprising was triggered or at least amplified via the internet cannot have escaped the Cuban regime, which will redouble its efforts to keep its citizens away from the internet, even if that slows economic development. Without internet and cell phones for the most part, and with an aging population, unlike the youthful Arabs, Cubans are less likely to rise up and, indeed, most of them probably don’t even know what’s taking place in the Arab world. Members of the old regime in Tunisia did seem to be trying to save themselves by hitching onto the new bandwagon, but many citizens saw through that effort and may have stymied their efforts.

Cuba’s self-described “Generation Y” blogger Yoani Sanchez was named for another international press award that she was unable to receive. About the pending mass layoffs from state industries, she has commented on her recent blog entitled “Daddy State and His frightened Children” (Jan. 10. 2011). Since ordinary Cubans do not have internet access, Sanchez is thought to hand off flash-drives to visitors to Cuba to post for her after their departure. She says she is “blogging blind” because she never gets to see her postings online nor are Cubans on the island able to view them. However, among Cubans with computer equipment, flash-drives may also be passed around hand-to-hand within the country.

Nina Shea, a friend from the right-leaning Hudson Institute think-tank, has had a long-running concern with Sudan. She has written an article in National Review online called “Don’t Forget Sudan’s Slaves” (Jan. 17) with some troubling information about ongoing slavery in Sudan, usually southerners abducted by northerners. When I was in south Sudan in 2006, I met a woman whose son had disappeared on a trip north, whom she feared had been abducted into slavery.

Now Ronald Reagan’s son and namesake has come out with a new book saying what we had often suspected, that his father was already getting Alzheimer’s during his second presidential term. I seem to recall some odd remarks by President Reagan at the time and reports of him nodding off during meetings. Older brother Michael Reagan, however, disputes this claim.

I come from a family of architects, so I read with interest an article in the Atlantic, Oct. 2010, called "Design within Reach" by Douglas McGray, about architect Chris Downey of San Francisco who suddenly lost his sight, but is now able to read raised plans printed by a special Braille-type computer.What did I tell you? I had said that if less than 95% voted for secession, I would be surprised. Now that it’s closer to 99%, I am not surprised.

January 21, 2011 NYTimes

South Sudanese Vote Overwhelmingly for SecessionBy JOSH KRON and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

JUBA, Sudan — Nearly 99 percent of southern Sudanese voters have chosen to split off from northern Sudan and form their own country, according to preliminary results of an independence referendum conducted this month. The commission that ran the referendum said Friday that 98.6 percent voted for secession, and 1.4 percent voted for unity, according to more than 3 million votes cast, which brings the largest country in Africa a step closer to splitting in two.

The commission said that the results were still incomplete, and that they were being continually updated, though all indications point to the vote being overwhelmingly for secession. Election officials have also said that the turnout soared past the 60 percent threshold necessary for the referendum to be valid. The official results are due to be released Feb. 14.

“The last counties are about to report in,” said Aleu Garang Aleu, a spokesperson for the referendum bureau in the southern capital Juba. Voters in nearly every state in the south chose independence by 99 percent; in Eastern Equatoria, only 229 people voted for unity with the north out of 455,466 votes, according to the preliminary results.

But southern Sudanese living in northern Sudan were more ambivalent — 42 percent opted for unity and 58 percent for secession. Many southerners work in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and they may fear that secession will mean that they have to leave, though citizenship questions have yet to be resolved.

Now the wait begins. Southern Sudan will not achieve formal independence until July 9, when the United States-backed peace treaty that put the referendum in motion is set to expire. By then southern Sudan hopes to pick a national anthem and a name; leading contenders are Nile Republic and South Sudan.

But there are still a number of delicate and potentially combustible issues that need to be resolved before Sudan can peacefully break in two, namely how the two sides would share the south’s sizeable reserves of crude oil and what to do about the Abyei region, which straddles the north-south border and is claimed by both.
Fighting this month in Abyei claimed dozens of lives, and Western diplomats worry that the region could threaten what has been an otherwise remarkably peaceful and orderly referendum period.

Envoy allowed to meet with jailed American in CubaBy PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press – Thu Jan 13, 2011

HAVANA – Cuba allowed a visiting U.S. State Department envoy to meet on Thursday with a jailed American contractor whose case has been a stumbling block to improved relations between the two Cold War enemies. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Roberta Jacobsen, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Alan Gross, who has been jailed without charge since Dec. 3, 2009. Cuban officials including President Raul Castro have accused him of spying.
Crowley had no details on where or when the meeting took place. "We appreciate the fact that ... she had the opportunity to visit with him," he told reporters in Washington.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official said Washington has heard encouraging signs from the Cuban government that Gross might be tried and allowed to return to the United States."I am cautiously optimistic because of things we hear that that would be the case," said the official. When asked if the optimism was based on direct conversations with the Cuban government over the fate of Gross, the official responded: "Yes."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the case.
Jacobsen was in Havana to lead a U.S. delegation in regularly scheduled talks with their Cuban counterparts on immigration matters. She also met Thursday with several prominent Cuban dissidents as well as Jewish officials and leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, Crowley said.

Cuba reacted strongly to Jacobsen's decision to meet with the dissidents, saying it "confirmed once again that there is no change in the U.S. policy of subversion and meddling in Cuba's internal affairs."

The Foreign Ministry said Jacobsen was warned not to use the official visit as an excuse to meet with the dissidents, who Cuba considers to be mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the government. It called the meeting an "open provocation," a "flagrant violation" of international norms and an "offense against our people." U.S. government officials counter that they maintain a dialogue with members of "civil society," including those in opposition, in countries around the world.

The scenario painted about Gross by the senior State Department official — along with the visit with the prisoner — were the most encouraging signs to date that the case might be nearing a resolution, possibly with Gross being tried, convicted and sentenced to time already served, or granted a pardon or commuted sentence of some sort.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Gross's imprisonment is an obstacle to improved relations with Cuba.

However, the official cautioned that the encouraging words from Havana won't mean anything unless the Cuban government follows up, presumably by finally bringing charges against Gross so a trial can proceed."Words are nice and they are important, but in the end we have to see actions," the official said. "We have to see things happen to believe it is going to take place."

Gross, 60, a native of Potomac, Maryland, was working for a firm contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested and sent to Havana's high-security Villa Marista prison.

Cuban officials accuse him of spying. The U.S. government says Gross was distributing communications equipment to the island's 1,500-strong Jewish community, though leaders of Havana's two main Jewish groups have denied having anything to do with him.
A final thought to ponder: Life is sexually transmitted.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Deaths Close to Home, Ariz. Shooting, Late Foster Son’s B'day, DC Voting Rights, Ariz. Medicaid, So. Sudan, Cuba, Honduras, Rape in Haiti

On last weekend, two days before I was due for an early morning interpretation assignment (6:30am) at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., we heard on the radio that the hospital was on lockdown, as an employee had been killed. By the time I showed up for work two days later, all appeared calm (though the killer had not been found and there were extra guards posted). Few details had been forthcoming and, quite naturally, the hospital did not want to call attention to the matter, carrying on with business as usual. Any disruption in normal routines might jeopardize patients and also result in loss of revenue. Eventually the killer was identified and captured, an employee who had gotten a bad annual review and decided to knife his boss when they were alone in the hospital boiler room.

If words could kill, then Republicans have certainly been throwing them around willy-nilly and exaggerated fashion: “Obamacare,” “Death Panels,” “Death tax,” “Anchor babies,” “blamestream media,” and the “Job-Killing Healthcare Bill.” So it’s little wonder that Arizona’s Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which Sarah Palin had signaled online with a gun-target (she said later it was a surveyer’s mark, hardly credible, but took it down), was shot along with bystanders. Outlandish and fiery claims probably can incite vulnerable and unstable individuals, especially in a nation where “second amendment gun-rights” seem to supersede rights to life. Sharron Angle, Reid’s Tea party opponent, had said during the campaign that voters could pursue “Second Amendment remedies” if the political process did not work for them. No man is an island and if such remarks aren’t intended to influence listeners, why even say them?

Now Palin has added to the incendiary war of words by accusing her accusers of “blood libel,” aligning herself with falsely accused Jews. (Giffords is Jewish, is there supposed to be a connection there?) Palin and other right-wingers are perhaps protesting too much, defending themselves by arguing so vociferously that it’s not their overheated rhetoric or even guns who kill people and that the Arizona shooter is just a crazy lone-wolf guy, acting in a complete void, a random actor surging out of the blue. “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own” and “begin and end with the criminals who commit them,” Palin said in her prepared remarks. Let’s calm down, let’s pray, let’s not rush to judgment, she and other Republicans urge. Of course, she puts herself back in the limelight again.

Well, it’s true that it has not been proven that the shooter was incited by rhetoric and also true that Rep. Giffords was a gun-rights’ supporter, as an Arizona legislator would likely be. However, she did vote for healthcare reform and the Dream Act, which made her a target for Republicans, especially tea partiers. I hope that right-wing talk-show hosts, Fox News, the NRA, and the Republican Party in general and the Tea Party in particular all are taking a step back and reassessing their over-the-top tactics. They’ve gone too far and there is finally a backlash, so my advice to them is: tone it down, try to be more reasonable, and don’t make unfounded accusations because they can come back to bite you. As during the McCarthy era, the pendulum may have finally swung too far to the right for the majority of Americans. If so, serves Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, and their ilk right. Dick Cheney has been mercifully silent of late, perhaps because of his delicate heart condition—so much the better.

In another tragedy closer to home, on Jan. 10, just across the intersection from my house, a neighbor died when her car caught fire inside her home’s garage. She was 37-year-old Ashley Turton, a mother of three small children who worked for an energy company and was married to a White house staffer. A lot of unanswered questions. I did not actually know her, just saw her around the neighborhood with her children, but it has been a blow to us all. The burned garage has been boarded-up and I’ve seen furniture being moved out of the house, whether because of fire damage or moving, I don’t know.

My late foster son Alex’s birthday is this month. Of course, I only met Alex when he was 16, having come here via the Mariel boatlift at that age—never having planned to live in this country at all, but taken from jail on orders of Fidel Castro himself by guards who put him onto a waiting boat. For me, the shock of Alex’s impending death came in 1990, when he first told me he was HIV+. He died in Miami five years later, having gone there in his last year of life without telling me. The day he died, a young woman who had been caring for him called me at my office, saying he had asked her to call me only after his death to protect me. And here I’d been looking all over DC for him in vain. At that time, only a year after my son’s death, I was barely functioning anyway and news of Alex’s passing—not really unexpected—was just a further blow when I was already down about as far as I could go.

Not only does the District of Columbia not enjoy the same congressional representation as other jurisdictions with less or similar populations, but now the House Republican majority has stripped our non-voting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and other delegates from Puerto Rico, Guam, and other territories of their right not vote in committee. All are Democrats, except for one Independent.

In December, while it’s hardly spectacular, Amazon sold 10 of my books, an improvement over previous months when sales were closer to 5 or 6. Every week, one or two books sell, for which I’m grateful, but it would be nice to rev that number up a few notches. I’ll be doing another interview Jan. 14—don’t recall details, but it’s a program from the west coast that, I think, is streamed on-line. I don’t prepare much for these gigs—best to be non-scripted. Will let you know when it becomes available.

Apparently at least two Arizona Medicaid patients have died after being taken off the transplants list. Obviously, it isn’t known whether appropriate transplants would have been available or a transplant would have been successful if it had taken place. As a Spanish interpreter, I have been involved in bone marrow, kidney, and liver transplants, mostly for children. These procedures are very delicate, difficult, and, of course, painful, with life-time monitoring and care stretching out afterward. I’ve often wondered how “my” transplant patients are doing now and whether they are still among the living.

Speaking of both books and transplants, Dick Cheney has begun writings his memoirs (why not?). He has a new heart pump and, at 69, is considering undergoing a heart transplant before reaching the cut-off age of 70. Maybe, because the stats on heart transplants are not so favorable, he’ll stick with his current highly sophisticated pump system. Of course, unlike Arizona Medicaid patients, he doesn’t have to worry about the cost and availability of the latest medical care, including a heart transplant if he wants one, since no doubt we taxpayers are covering all his medical costs.

South Sudan’s referendum has started and if the vote for secession from the north is less than 95%, I will be surprised. There could be some people waffling in the sensitive border areas or southerners living in the north who want to stay there who might vote “no”. But when I was in the south in 2006, I never met one person in favor of staying united with the north—not a scientific sample, mind you, but probably fairly representative. As readers know, the north is mostly Arabic and Muslim, the south black (really black) and Christian or animist. On the first day of the referendum, Jan. 9, I attended a celebration in DC where people who had been working for a time in Sudan all expressed cautious optimism. Someone said that he was surprised that vote was actually going forward, me too, because it looked last year that Bashir was trying to quash the whole thing, asking for a delay and changes. Surrounding nations and the US have supported the referendum.

Points made by speakers at the event included the following: democratic transformation has not occurred in either north or south; if violence breaks out (there have been a few clashes already), it could quickly escalate; south Sudan’s infrastructure and government are very undeveloped [amen to that, I say]; don’t forget the north, which has 30 million residents compared to only 10 million in the south; the north may now move closer to sharia law; the post-referendum honeymoon may be short-lived; and north and south must share oil revenues because, although the oil is in the south, refineries are in the north. For now, southerners are jubilant.

Big economic changes are in store for Cuba, with 500,000 government layoffs announced for the near future, with another 500,000 supposedly to come. This is in a country of 11 million, where almost everyone has worked for the state for generations and where private enterprise, for most of that time, was illegal, although it always occurred under-the-table. Many analysts believe this step is being taken because the Cuban government is broke and cannot afford to pay its workforce. It also cannot afford to keep losing so much from the constant pilferage from state industries. Allowing Cubans to start small licensed businesses will also increase the remittances the country needs to survive because relatives in the US and elsewhere won’t let their Cuban relatives starve. Already, with the elimination of the 10% tax on remittances, the amount being sent by relatives from abroad has soared. The government knows it will recoup that money anyway when it’s spent in government stores. The Cuban Communist Party will be holding a congress in April 2011, so more changes may be in store. There is reportedly tension between the old-line supporters of Fidel Castro and the reportedly more pragmatic faction of his brother Raul, who took over as head of state when Fidel fell ill four years ago. However, Raul has made it clear that while economic changes are going forward, there will be no changes in civic and political life and that the Communist Party will still reign supreme. He argues that economic changes are necessary to protect and safeguard “the revolution.” Cuba will still call its economic system “socialism,” but it’s a different type of socialism—more like state-controlled small business enterprises.

Cuba has taken another significant step by commuting the death sentence of its only prisoner on death row. While the death penalty has not been abolished, this is a favorable development, in my opinion, especially given Cuba’s bloody history of executions.

President Hugo Chavez’s family reportedly has deposited $137 million in US banks—not in Venezuelan banks, mind you—and where did they get all that money in a “socialist” country?

In Honduras, on Dec. 28, another journalist was ambushed and killed, Henry Suazo, of HRN radio. This is the 10th journalist killed in Honduras in 2011, with only two men having been arrested in connection with these crimes.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has invited Manuel Zelaya to come back, saying he will not be arrested. To Latin American presidents that don’t recognize his government, he advises them to get over their anger.
In Haiti, a recount of disputed presidential election ballots is underway to determine the two top vote-getters for the runoff.

Women in Haiti’s squalid refugee camps face rampant rape
By Jade Walker, Jan. 6, 2011, Yahoo News.

One year after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, women and girls staying in the country's refugee camps live without adequate food, water, shelter and medical care. And when the darkness falls, the rapists come.
According to a report from Amnesty International, precarious living conditions and a lack of security in and around the camps have left thousands of women and girls as young as two vulnerable to sexual predators. Many of these women lost their family and community connections in the quake along with all of their worldly possessions.
One widow named Guerline was forced to watch her 13-year-old daughter being gang raped by four men. "They told me that if I talked about it, they would kill me," she told researchers. "They said that if I went to the police, they would shoot me dead." That same night, Guerline was raped as well.

The Commission of Women Victims for Victims, a women's group run by and for rape survivors from the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince, registered 230 cases of sexual assault in 15 camps during the five months after the Jan. 12 quake. There are over 500 camps in the Haitian capital.

The vast majority of the women living in the camps who were interviewed reported being raped by two or more individuals. Most of those assaults occurred at night and by men who were armed.

Rapes are rarely reported to authorities because of the shame, social stigma and fear of reprisals from attackers, USA Today reported. The few brave women who have come forward to file a report with authorities were told that nothing could be done for them. Some police officers even demanded bribes to investigate the assaults, but the victims had no money.

Rape victims are also emotionally, spiritually and physically scarred by their attackers. Some become pregnant, suffer internal injuries or contract sexually transmitted diseases. Haiti has the highest infection rate for HIV in the Western hemisphere, with one in 50 people infected, The Associated Press reported.
In an effort to stem the tide of sexual assaults in Haiti's refugee camps, human rights groups are urging the government and charitable organizations to improve lighting and security in the camps, increase the number of private bathing facilities and make a serious effort to prosecute rapists. Additional tents, a more visible police presence, self-defense courses and better information about medical treatment options are also suggested.