Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mobile Med, Md. Dream Act, Get on the Bus, Cuban Congress, Honduras in OAS, Memory Loss, Federal Budget, Shrinking WASP Majority, Amnesty Activism

Happy spring, Easter greetings, happy Mother’s Day.

A few readers have compared my book to Greg Mortenson's bestselling Three Cups of Tea, which I’ve always considered flattering and have even thought about imitating him by setting up a non-profit for Honduras, using my book as a platform, as he has done with his book. But now, with both the book and his charity under fire, I'm less enthusiastic about the comparison.

A disquieting development regarding The Compassionate Friends, a support group for bereaved parents, has arisen. In our monthly area newsletter, we used to list that month’s birthdays and death days for our lost children. However, it now turns out that fraudsters have been using this information to set up phony credit card accounts in our loved ones’ names, so now we only list the day and month, not the year.

Recently, had an interpretation assignment at a children’s mobile medical clinic operated by Georgetown University Hospital in an underserved neighborhood. I was there for Spanish-speaking parents bringing their kids. Thinking of our IHS medical brigade, I was green with envy seeing the equipment and layout of this modern clinic, with its two waiting rooms, a bathroom, x-ray machine, climate control, and computers. I wonder if a second-hand, older mobile clinic of this type would be available to us for use in Honduras? After all, used school buses, ambulances, and fire trucks are exported to Honduras, so why not a mobile med clinic? I’m sure they are expensive to buy, even used, and require some precision and expertise to maintain and operate, but what convenience! I assume they use either gasoline or diesel for fuel and to keep the electricity operating. This possibility needs to be explored further. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If any reader knows anything about mobile med clinics, where they are made, where they go in retirement, how much they cost, and specifics of their operation, kindly let me know here on this blog or at my e-mail address (above).

Well, it’s happened in Maryland, a version of the Dream Act has passed. This is much more modest than the federal version, which would have allowed some undocumented college students to eventually earn citizenship. Rather, the MD Dream Act permits in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for certain undocumented students brought here as children—much celebration in Maryland among future students.

Recently, I was invited to a service at a local Episcopal church along with my new temporary housemates from Kenya and Zimbabwe. The service, as I have observed before, is so much like a Catholic mass. In fact, in this church, it was even like an old-style Catholic mass with songs in Latin and bells ringing, more so than the way we celebrate with my local Communitas Catholic group.

Last Friday, my local Amnesty group held a day-long rally at 7 embassies to protest specific human rights abuses or to advocate for a particular prisoner of conscience or beleaguered activist group in that country. The embassies were Zimbabwe (to the consternation of the Zim lady staying with me now), Iraq, Indonesia, Chad, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and China. The event was called “Get On the Bus,” after a similar effort in NYC where Amnesty members target the consulates of different nations. This was our first time in DC and drew about 120 participants, some from as far away as Pittsburgh. Fortunately, the weather was sunny and mild and all the embassies were within walking distance of the DuPont Circle metro stop, though some were perhaps as far as a mile away along a fairly straight trajectory. At the Zim embassy, we laid paper flowers at the doorstep entrance, something activists for the group we were representing were arrested for doing in their own country. At the Indonesian embassy, we donned black t-shirts bearing the name and likeness of our prisoner there. There were interviews from a reporter for Voice of America, people filming and taking photos (maybe some of them embassy reps?), and many honks of support from passing cars. At none of the embassies did anyone answer the door or even visibly peek out the window. In all, it was a successful event. However, I’d joined after an early morning interpretation assignment in a clinic in College Park, MD, so was pretty beat at the end of the day.

My daughter Melanie, her step-children, and grandchild (my great-grandson) were visiting last Sat. and on their way back to Virginia Beach, got caught in a sudden terrible storm, actually the edge of a tornado. When they finally arrived home, the electricity was out, but they made it safely.

The Cuban Communist Party Congress got underway last weekend and has just concluded. In speeches, Raul Castro almost started sounding like Barak Obama, or even a Republican, warning about the need to control spending and the public budget deficit. He has said this will be “our last congress,” apparently referring to the old guard. The self-employment initiatives are capitalism-lite, hardly socialism, more like an effort at government-controlled free enterprise. They hardly seem the answer to Cuba’s economic woes and can they survive without any political changes? The worldwide recession has undoubtedly impacted Cuba, already in economic trouble for decades, though that country and its patron, Venezuela, are benefiting right now from high oil prices (Cuba resells much of donated Venezuelan oil). And now Raul is even suggesting 10-year term limits (something Fidel certainly never advocated!). A Cuban friend comments: A good idea, but it should be accompanied by freedom of association, speech, and assembly; periodic competitive elections; checks and balances; an independent judiciary; and due process. By itself, it falls short of ensuring a democratic process and a non-corrupt government. (See AP report below on party congress.)

It looks like Honduras will now be readmitted to the OAS after being expelled over the Zelaya affair. Even Chavez is accepting the return of Honduras to the fold. Also, striking Honduran teachers (they strike every year) have reportedly gone back to work. Honduras now has the dubious distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the Western Hemisphere, recently surpassing even neighbor El Salvador. I think the Honduran police are afraid to investigate and arrest people. The US also contributes to this delinquency, both in terms of illegal drug consumption and gun manufacturing,

Many of us are getting to a certain age. My own age is no secret, 73, as revealed openly in the recent Woman’s Day article. That means contemporaries are becoming ill, having joint replacements, and dying at a troubling rate. My mother, who passed away at 92, was attending almost weekly funerals, until finally, it was her turn. Memory loss and language aphasia seem to be an inevitable part of aging and heaven help me if they start impacting me in both English and Spanish; then, my interpreting days will be over.

A friend my age and I recently visited a mutual friend who had worked closely with us in international adoptions. The woman we visited is 84—she and I share a birthday and usually celebrate together. But this year, when she failed to respond to e-mails and phone messages about getting together, we discovered that her kids had moved her to an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility, one with locked doors and no way out. Our unhappy friend, a very reluctant resident there, admitted to scheming constantly about how to escape, whether over the fence or up through the roof. Nor were we allowed to take her out, a wise prohibition in retrospect, as it would have been devilishly hard to get her to return if we had been granted permission. Physically, so far, she appears to be in good shape and could be expected to put up a fight against any attempt to return her to the facility. In the seven months since we last saw her, she has mentally deteriorated to the point where her children felt they had no other option but to place her there. She had always feared getting dementia and now it has come to pass.

The facility is cheerfully laid out and painted with warm colors, but there is no exit and our friend feels like she’s in jail. She told us she expects to be out of there soon, somehow. She has a small private room with her name in large letters on the door and family photos posted outside the entrance. It has its own bathroom, but no tub or shower. Residents must be bathed under staff supervision to prevent falls, scalding, or drowning. It was rather disconcerting to see residents wandering the halls rather aimlessly, babbling to themselves with one woman clutching onto a teddy bear. Our friend did not remember our names, but she seemed to recognize us and was delighted to see us. Some of her old personality showed through and she even came out with a couple of witticisms. She told us her problem was “up here,” pointing to her head and would get worse, so, unfortunately, at this stage, she has awareness of her condition. She seemed able to remember a house that she lived in six years ago, but not her more recent stay in a regular assisted living facility. It remains to be seen whether she will recall our visit, probably not. Seeing her frustrated, helpless, and confused, I could only hope that my body goes before my mind, as the latter is so very hard on both the individual and his or her associates and loved ones. Reportedly the late former President Reagan, out walking with his daughter, was often surprised when neighbors greeted him. “Do we know them?” he asked, not recalling his own presidency.

My mood was much more upbeat visiting a couple who had lived next door for 41 years and who had just moved to a senior complex in suburban Silver Spring, MD. They occupy a spacious, cheery first-floor apartment, the grounds all nicely tended with 24-hour security and ability to eat one meal a day in a central dining room that looks almost like a restaurant with cloth table-cloths and napkins. Some other former neighbors and I shared a tasty buffet brunch with them and walked around the grounds, where spring flowers and trees were in bloom. The main drawback, as I saw it, is that only older people live there, many with walkers, canes, and wheelchairs. I like older people—I’m one after all—but associating only with that age group could get a little monotonous. There were high school students waiting on us in the dining room, at least.

We, in the Washington area especially, were relieved when a preliminary budget deal was reached for this fiscal year, preventing the federal government from shutting down. Tea Partiers demonstrating in front of the capitol, loudly chanted “Shut it down!” Most people probably don’t realize that an actual shutdown would only worsen the country’s economic problems, as will failure to raise the debt ceiling to an even more catastrophic extent. Deficit growth cannot continue at the current rate, but the reduction of public funding at this critical economic juncture on all political levels is seriously impacting employment and having a detrimental ripple effect throughout the economy. Taxes, especially on those with higher incomes, are not as big a brake on the economy as is unemployment and, per se, are not necessarily evil, though no one likes to pay them. Republicans keep harping that “taxes hurt small businesses,” but the businesses they most fear hurting are not small businesses, rather, big businesses that are their big donors. In an era where the rich keep getting richer, thanks in part to Republican tax breaks, as well as government subsidies for and contracts with private businesses , the middle class and poor keep getting poorer. “Let’s not spark a class war,” Republicans warn, but that war is already on, with wealthy political donors winning the war in terms of government largesse. And I do think medical salaries should be frozen at current levels, as they already are far above average incomes and far above what medical practitioners earn in other developed countries where health outcomes are even better than here. Perhaps some doctors, therapists, and others would then opt out of participating in public programs, but if they don’t get enough private patients, they will opt back in. Of course, many Republicans want to privatize all medical care, prescription drug payments, and health insurance, so that individuals will have to negotiate and pay on their own, giving them virtually no leverage. If some Republican legislators are so incensed about taxes and government spending, why don’t they take the lead by giving up all their salaries, including of their aides, whom they could then pay out of their own pocket, as well as travel and office expenses, including rent and utilities on their office space? Let’s privatize Congress, for starters. That would begin to make a dent, set an example, and demonstrate Congresspersons’ resourcefulness and independence as individuals. Let them put their money where their mouth is.

This year’s budget cuts immediately hit home for my family. My son Jonathan, starting back to college in summer school after a rocky last few years, was promised a Pell grant for his tuition, but Pell grants for summer school were eliminated in this fiscal year’s budget agreement and the Republican Congress wants to eliminate Pell altogether. The current Peace Corps budget also took a big hit, affecting volunteers already in the field, with more attempts to cut to come. The budget agreement hit home as well in the District of Columbia, affecting, one way or another, abortion, school vouchers, and needle exchange programs. DC, having no voting member of Congress, apparently was a sacrificial lamb, whatever one feels about those particular issues. Other jurisdictions with similar populations do not have outside members of Congress dictating what they can or cannot fund with local tax dollars. But because DC is overwhelmingly Democratic (over 90%), Congressional Republicans have continued to block national-level voting representation. The last time that a single voting Congressional delegate was proposed, they attached an onerous gun rider, opening up the District’s gun laws to an extent considered dangerous and no longer acceptable to local citizens. Mayor Vincent Gray and others in local government just this week blocked traffic in protest over the budget deal and the failure of both major parties to even consult with district representatives before making policy for the District, throwing those few DC carrots to Republicans in the budget deal. No wonder our local license plates say “Taxation without Representation.” Probably the rest of the country doesn’t know or care, but people elsewhere would scream bloody murder if their own Congressional reps were eliminated.

There is agreement that our country must get public finances under better control. The disagreement and bitter fight comes over who is going to make the necessary sacrifices in dividing a shrinking pie. When the economy was expanding, social programs and defense could grow, while taxes for wealthy political donors could shrink. But now, it’s a different story. Tea Partiers’ desire to have a more direct voice and to become more involved in decision making is understandable, but they don’t always foresee the impact of their choices.

The newest census data shows a big increase in the Latino population, mostly from births in this country, probably accelerating the push in some quarters to eliminate birthright citizenship. A proportion of native-born whites, fearing loss of their majority, have mounted fierce opposition to any kind of path to citizenship (it wouldn’t be automatic) for long-time undocumented residents. They talk incessantly about the importance of laws and legality, but place continual obstacles in the way of actually creating a legal system to incorporate obvious “facts on the ground.” Immigration and citizenship laws, after all, are not handed down from on-high; they are made by human beings and can and do change. Some states have sanctioned gay marriage, giving official status to unions that began when gay sex was completely illegal. But even in Maryland, a fairly progressive state, there was a pitched battle over whether to grant in-state college tuition to undocumented students brought here as children—a modest investment in education likely to yield benefits to society as a whole. Ultimately, these frantic opponents are supporting a lost cause by fulminating against “illegals”—the train has already left the station and, legal or not, most of the folks they’d like to get rid of are here to stay.

Likewise, efforts to paint Barak Obama as “other,” not really one of “us,” have failed, as he was neither born in Kenya nor is he a Muslim and, more importantly, he is the sitting president, elected by a majority of voters. No one made a peep about McCain’s birth in Panama. Yet a uniquely unqualified would-be presidential candidate like Donald Trump, a blowhard self-promoter, now cynically seizes on the birthplace non-issue to trump up his own prospects and still manages to garner support, beating out more seasoned politicians in recent polls. Really, it would be wonderful to be able to isolate his supporters in their own country, maybe the states of Texas and Arizona, and let them fly Confederate flags, elect Trump and Palin, tote concealed weapons, rail against gay marriage, and put up a fence to keep out all immigrants and to keep themselves barricaded inside their own enclave, leaving the rest of us alone. Then they can return, as they seem to want to do, back to the 19th century.

As an addendum to my report on our Amnesty International conference posted last time, our purpose as activists is not only to advocate for political prisoners, humanitarian laws, and the protection of people at risk, but to enlarge the pool of advocates and sensitize our members and the general population to human rights issues. We want to be the leaven for raising more societal awareness of human rights, serving as role models and examples in order to educate and permeate the thinking and action of the citizenry of this country and the world, admittedly a very tall order. Our efforts therefore include consciousness raising, going beyond taking action on this or that specific issue or individual, trying to involve and engage others outside our movement.

While I was in San Francisco at the Amnesty conference, I stayed in an area called Noe Valley. The weather was cool, windy, and rainy the whole time and it wasn’t easy walking up and down the city’s famous hills. In some places, the sidewalks were so steep, they had steps and railings. I had forgotten that SF has palm and citrus trees (I attended UC, Berkeley, across the bay, many years ago). The citrus trees were heavy with fruit. On one of my flights, my seatmate ordered four alcoholic drinks in quick succession, causing the stewardess to refuse him any more, after which he fell asleep practically on my shoulder. On another flight, I was sitting on the aisle right in front of the john, unable to recline my seat, while the guy in front of me inclined his to the max. After our long night-time flight from Honolulu, the smell from the bathroom and the constant opening and shutting of that door really got to me. I would not have voluntarily chosen that seat.
April 21, 2011, at 11:30 a.m.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns will present the Diplomacy for Human Rights Award, the Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award, and the Human Rights Defenders Award in the Department of State’s Treaty Room, The Human Rights Defenders Award recognizes individuals or non-governmental organizations who show exceptional valor and leadership in advocating the protection of human rights and democracy in the face of government repression. The Department will honor the Cuban NGO Damas de Blanco – “Ladies in White”. Damas de Blanco’s visible, consistently observed vigils focused international attention not only on political prisoners, but the overall human rights situation in Cuba.
Tuesday, 04-12-11
Honduran police ignore rise in attacks on journalists, gaysBy TIM JOHNSON
McClatchy Newspapers

PUERTO GRANDE, Honduras -- In a nation with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, it's perhaps not a surprise that someone armed with a 9mm pistol opened fire last month on Franklin Melendez, wounding the radio journalist in the thigh.
What astonishes is what happened next: Police refused to go to the crime scene. Later in the evening, the three officers on duty also didn't budge when the alleged assailant waved his gun out of a moving vehicle and threatened to shoot another reporter for the radio station.

"He pointed the pistol at me and said, 'You're next, bitch. We're going to kill you,'" recalled Ethels Posada, a 30-year-old part-time reporter.

Numerous witnesses saw the assailant shoot Melendez and threaten Posada, but the police wouldn't act without a formal complaint. Once the complaint arrived, eight days later, they still refused to do anything, saying an arrest order was needed. The assailant has now fled the area.

"They didn't lift a finger to help us," Posada said of the police.
That inaction underscores why gunmen in Honduras have gotten away with a string of attacks that have claimed the lives of at least 10 journalists, 60 lawyers, 155 women, and 59 gays, lesbians or transgender people since 2008.

Those cases remain unprosecuted, a trend that's alarmed international human rights advocates. In its annual human rights report last week, the U.S. State Department noted the upswing in "hate crimes" against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Honduras, including two transvestite leaders, one of whom was executed by gunmen on a motorcycle.

The Obama administration has deployed FBI agents and prosecutors to Honduras to help investigate murders in several of the more prominent cases. In response, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez in March announced the creation of a special unit to look into the murders.

Yet no one is expecting much to happen.

The number of murders committed in Honduras has soared, from 4,473 in 2008 and 5,265 to 2009 to 6,236 last year, a 39 percent increase in two years. One is five times more likely to be murdered in Honduras (population 8 million) than in Mexico (population 112 million), making Honduras the deadliest country in the hemisphere.
Experts say killings have risen because of a surge in narcotics trafficking, general crime and the chaos after the June 2009 coup, which monopolized Honduras' attention for months. Of the 10 journalists killed, most died in the year after the coup.
They also say the government bears some blame for the murders.

"This isn't to say that the state commits the crimes, but by not investigating ... it is complicit. It sends a message to the criminals, the paramilitaries and the hit men that they can do as they please," said Osman Lopez, who heads the Committee for Free Expression, a news media advocacy group.

Homicides roiling the gay, lesbian and transgender community have earned Honduras comparisons to Uganda, the African nation that recently debated a proposed law that would make homosexuality subject to the death penalty in some instances.
In late December, two assailants kidnapped and stabbed a 45-year-old transgender leader in Honduras, Oscar Martinez Salgado, known as Lady Oscar, tied him to a chair and set him on fire.

Journalists have been gunned down primarily in parts of Honduras where landownership is in dispute or where drug-trafficking gangs proliferate.
The root of the assault March 13 on Melendez, 35, appears to be differences over who owns the land on Zacate Grande, an island in the Gulf of Fonseca on the nation's Pacific Coast.

With a 2,100-foot dormant volcano and a rudimentary causeway to the mainland, the island is both an enclave for Honduran tycoons and politicians and home to impoverished farmers and shrimp netters in dusty hamlets. Melendez's family has lived on Zacate Grande for nearly a century. Like many residents of the island's 10 villages, the Melendez family had no title to its holdings, thinking that it was all state land.

Then, nearly half a century ago, a Honduran mogul named Miguel Facusse obtained a deed to most of the island from a Nicaraguan-born woman. He and dozens of other rich Hondurans proceeded to build mansions, swimming pools and a heliport in a resort development known as the Club de Coyolito. They hired villagers to tend their gardens, wash their clothes and wait on tables as they enjoyed their Jet Skis, sunbathed and played tennis.

The trouble began last year, when Melendez and other island residents received seed money from Italy to start a tiny radio station, the Voice of Zacate Grande. The 250-kilowatt station became an outlet for those, such as Melendez, who claim they have a legal right to part of the island.

They question how a Nicaraguan could have sold the island to Facusse when Honduran law at the time prohibited foreigners from owning land on the nation's islands (that prohibition has since been changed). The claims have split the island's population, with many of the villagers employed by the owners of the 60 or so mansions labeling those involved in the radio station as troublemakers.

Tension is palpable among the 1,200 residents of this hamlet of wooden shacks and rutted dirt tracks. The station's 18 volunteer reporters move about only in pairs. "All of us are at risk," said Aaron Rivera, who's 23.

Land development has been an issue in other shootings. On Jan. 6, assailants sacked the transmitter and two computers of Radio Coco Dulce, on Honduras' Caribbean coast, and set the building afire. The station, which gives voice to the minority Afro-Honduran Garifuna community, had opposed real estate developments on ancestral lands.
A year ago, gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles killed Nahum Palacios, the news director of Channel 5 TV in Tocoa, a town on the north coast of Honduras where private militias have helped Facusse expand his African palm plantations. Palacios was shot 20 times.

Lying on a bed while his wife tended to the wound in his left thigh, Melendez reflected on the telephone calls and messages of support he's received since the shooting from news media advocates and authorities in Colombia, Mexico, France and the United States.

No such signs of concern have come from anyone in his own government.
"They haven't called," Melendez said. "They haven't done anything."

Read more:
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Raul Castro proposes term limits in CubaBy PETER ORSI, Associated Press, April 16, 2011

HAVANA – Raul Castro proposed term limits for Cuban politicians on Saturday, a remarkable gesture on an island ruled for 52 years by him and his brother, but one unlikely to have a major effect on his own future. The 79-year-old president told delegates to a crucial Communist Party summit that Cuban politicians and other important officials should be restricted to two, five-year terms. Castro officially took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, meaning he'd be at least 86 when his second term as Cuban leader ended, depending on how the law is written.
The proposal was made at the latter stage of a long speech in which the Cuban leader forcefully backed a laundry list of economic changes which together represent a sea change for the country's socialist system, including the eventual elimination of the ration book and other subsidies, the decentralization of the economy and a new reliance on supply and demand in some sectors.

Still, he drew a line in the Caribbean sand across which the reforms must never go, telling party luminaries that he had rejected dozens of suggested reforms which would have allowed the concentration of property in private hands. Castro said the country had ignored its problems for too long, and made clear Cuba had to make tough decisions if it wanted to survive."No country or person can spend more than they have," he said. Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven — as we have sometimes pretended."

Dressed in a white guayabera shirt, the Cuban leader alternated between reassurance that the economic changes were compatible with socialism, and a brutal assessment of what has not worked in the past. Castro said the monthly ration book of basic foods, perhaps the most cherished of subsidies, represented an "unbearable burden ... and a disincentive for work." Still, he said that in Cuba, "there will never be room for shock therapy."

Of the term limits, Castro said: "We have decided to limit politicians and other key positions to two terms of five years each."

As with the proposals on economic changes, the idea does not yet carry the force of law since the party gathering lacks the powers of parliament. But it is all but certain to be acted on quickly by the national assembly.

Fidel Castro was not present for the speech, but a chair was left empty for him near his brother.

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