Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bilingualism, Pedestrian Accident, DSK, Zelaya, Guatemala, Eq. Guinea, Economy, Cuba/DR, Israel/Palest.

Bilingualism reportedly delays the onset of dementia, so that’s in my favor. To get the benefit, you are supposed to use both languages on a regular basis, which I certainly do.

To enjoy the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, of course, I have to physically survive. On Tues. May 31, I was crossing Viers Mill Rd. in Wheaton, Md., coming from an interpretation assignment, 3 lanes in each direction. Oncoming traffic was stopped, but a driver was on a cross street and had a green light. He turned right and, evidently, didn't see me crossing since he hit me, knocking me to the hot pavement. He was a small elderly guy; both he and his wife looked all scrunched down low in their seats, so maybe his vision was cut off. He clipped me just before I reached the center median dividing the 2 opposing lanes of traffic. I thought I only had a skinned right arm, so I got up and kept on walking to the median. The driver had stopped momentarily, looking scared, but did not get out of his car. After I stood up and started walking, he drove off. I was stunned and perhaps in shock and didn’t get his license number. A driver going the other direction stopped and asked if I was all right. I said I was OK. It all happened so fast.

I wish I could have reported the elderly driver, as he seems a menace on the road. I remember my father in his later years, almost hitting pedestrians in crosswalks and resisting giving up his driving privileges. In the heat of the moment (in more ways than one, it was 98 F), I had let that driver get away. It was only during my 2-block walk back to the metro station to go home that I became aware of a painful injury to my right hip and groin muscles. Getting on and off the metro and using an escalator to change stations became increasingly difficult. Hobbling along home from the metro stop 3 blocks from my house, a trip that took 1 ½ hours, a neighbor saw me at the very end, hanging onto fences and dripping with sweat, and loaned me a cane, a big help going up my front steps. It was scary, but I could easily have been injured much worse. Unfortunately, I had to give some interpretation assignments for a time because I just couldn’t get there.

As could have been predicted, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is pulling out all the stops by hiring a multi-national, multi-million dollar defense team that the DA or whoever the public prosecutor is on the other side will be unable to match, but let’s hope there won’t be a gullible jury and that all the defense’s histrionics will impress the jury negatively. They’re delving into the alleged victim’s immigration status (is that relevant?) and anything else that might be used to discredit her. Of course, every defendant deserves his day in court, is considered innocent until proven guilty, but here is another case where great wealth makes for unequal justice. And how did DSK amass such largesse working on behalf of the world’s poor? His American (third) wife obviously wants to keep her perks as well and is standing by her man. Apparently much of their wealth actually comes from her side. At least, they are giving a boost to the NYC economy.

Manuel Zelaya did return to Honduras on schedule on a Venezuelan plane from Nicaragua and now Honduras will be readmitted to the OAS.

In neighboring Guatemala, President Alvaro Colom has appealed to the US to stop fueling drug wars in Mexico and Central America by our incessant demand for illegal drugs, especially cocaine. But the “war on drugs” and “just say ‘no’” campaigns championed by Nancy Reagan seem to have lost priority in these difficult economic times. The drug and arms trades—with most arms coming from the US--coupled with the worldwide recession have greatly increased violence, especially in Honduras, now the murder capital of the hemisphere. And internal drug use has also grown in the drug-route countries. If marijuana becomes semi-legal in the US, could that dampen demand for harder stuff—or is it a gateway drug? So far in Cuba, internal drug use is minimal, thanks to lack of personal financial resources and heavy policing. Homicide rates are also much lower than in the rest of Latin America, only a little higher than in the US, thanks to no access to firearms—most murders, I was told when I used to visit there, are committed with knives. But, as I may have mentioned before, Cuba’s suicide rates are extremely high, especially for women.

Before leaving the subject of Guatemala and its president, he has divorced his wife to allow her to run for president, since the country’s constitution prohibits consecutive terms and also prevents a close relative, including a spouse, from succeeding an outgoing president. Pretty tricky, eh?

Will also mention an article about a country rarely in the news, but of special interest to me ever since I translated some really horrendous human rights documents from there for Amnesty International. The country is Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, ruled for more than 30 years by its 70-year-old dictator, Teodoro Obiang, who trained under the Franco regime and has been accused as using North Korea as a role model. The US exchanges ambassadors with this small country and has interests there because of its oil wealth, which does not trickle down to the impoverished population. See NY Times, May 30, 2011,” U.S. Engages With an Iron Leader in Equatorial Guinea.”

Heard an interview with TIME’s Fareed Zakaria, who in a revision of a previous book, attributes the economic recession to several serious GWBush mistakes, including launching the Iraq war, implementing across-the-board tax cuts, and instituting the Rx drug plan, another entitlement. To that Zakaria might have added Wall St. deregulation. He contends, and I fear he is right, that the deficit cannot be tackled through budget cuts alone; any serious plan must also include more tax revenues from all sectors, not just the wealthy, and probably some reductions in Social Security and Medicare. Romney, who seems like a less undesirable candidate than some on the Republican side, is not only backing away from his own Mass. health-care plan which, like “Obamacare” is designed to both extend coverage and control costs, but is also faulting Obama for not fixing the economy fast enough. Obama is trying, but he was given a huge mess to fix and is doing his best in the difficult situation and facing a recalcitrant Republican Party and Tea Party types who are stuck in a “common-sense” mentality and really don’t know anything about economics.

Obama is being blamed for not “fixing” the economy, but he’s thwarted at every turn by Republicans in trying to fix it—such as in preventing the Bush tax cuts from expiring. Nor do Republicans offer an alternative “fix.” Of course, every economic measure is a two-edged sword. Tax cuts do increase disposable income and possible spending, although people at the top have been saving and profitable companies have been hoarding their gains, not spending or hiring. Cutting programs and laying off public servants results in budget savings, but also throws more people into unemployment and reduced spending. The task is reverse the vicious circle, getting the spiral going upward and giving people optimism for the future. Nonetheless, the US and the world economy must not return to the heady days of ever-easier credit, ridiculous rises in property values mostly on paper, and credit default swaps that were simply a giant Ponzi scheme, with nothing to back them up when it all collapsed. There are limits in life--we cannot have everything we want and "need," nor can we live forever, whatever health fads we follow or medical interventions are fashioned.

This in from one of my correspondents: Today it was announced that Japan is planning to double its national sales tax and is imposing means testing on social security pensioners, meaning well-off people will receive less from the government. We in the U.S. will eventually be forced down the same road, leading to unrest and reduced support for the social security system. I don't think there is any way out of our economic decline except by both raising taxes and cutting government spending. Obviously, this "worst of both worlds" approach is going to be bitterly resisted by both parties.

An article below compares Cuba and the DR’s development over the past 50 years. The two countries have similar populations, Cuba, 11 million, DR, 10 million, but Cuba’s territory is more than twice as large. The DR is certainly not free of problems, but has progressed considerably during that period, while Cuba has fallen back. I once met current Dominican President Leonel Fernandez when I was in the DR in 1996 as an election observer during his first successful run. Now he is president again after a time-out, since DR presidents are not allowed consecutive terms. I agree with the article that the country still faces many problems, some derived from its common border with impoverished Haiti, as Haitians often enter illegally and some are now bringing cholera. As for the Cuban neurosurgeon referred to in the article, prevented from emigrating because Fidel Castro said the revolution owned her brain, I had the privilege of once knowing her, Dr. Hilda Molina. She was prevented from leaving Cuba for many years until international pressure and the efforts of the Cuban Catholic church finally convinced the Cuban government to free her. She then joined her son, also a neurosurgeon, in Buenos Aires.

Below that is an article from The Economist summing up the recent Obama/Netanyahu encounter.

50 years after Trujillo’s death, Dominican Republic thrives as Cuba languishes

BY ROLAND ALUM, May 29, 2011

For 31 years, Rafael Trujillo — Latin America’s bloodiest dictator — tormented the Dominican Republic until 1961. As the U.S. commemorates Memorial Day on May 30, Dominicans mark his assassination 50 years ago. This milestone offers an opportunity to reflect on historical developments there compared to neighboring Cuba.

The DR achieved independence earlier than Cuba, yet by the 1950s Cuba’s standard of living was superior. Both countries emerged from militaristic dictatorships about the same time, 1961 with Trujillo’s end, and 1959 for Cuba, after Fulgencio Batista’s flight out. Prior to Fidel and Raúl Castro’s totalitarianism, Trujillo’s despotism had no precedence in the Americas.

Cuba’s remarkable record was accomplished despite Batista’s dictatorship (1952-58) and the widespread corruption of the preceding republican epoch (1902-52). Conversely, conditions were miserable in Trujillo’s DR. The brief 1965 civil war ended with the joint OAS-U.S. military intervention that paved the way for stability and relative prosperity. While the DR moved toward an open society, Cuba went in the opposite direction with the Castro brothers’ tropical version of the Soviet mold.

Five decades after Trujillo, the DR is one of the region’s least militarized societies, with an enviable freedom of expression, religion and movement. There are no political exiles, prisoners or firing squads. Opposition — reflecting all ideologies — is tolerated, and the private business sector and the labor movement thrive. All this sharply contrasts with Cuba, a stagnant, closed society.

The 1966 Dominican constitution established a tripartite government with an executive, a congress and an independent judiciary. Since 1966, the DR has elected five presidents from three alternating political parties (two presidents won re-election repeatedly). But Cuba is still ruled by the same 1959 clique whose average age is now 80.

Dictatorships usually foster foreign apologists who extol alleged achievements. Trujillo even received an honorary doctorate from a U.S. university five years after his 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitian immigrants. Likewise, the Castro duo is continually praised in intellectual circles for supposed attainments, such as in healthcare, notwithstanding contradicting evidence. As ethnologist Katherine Hirschfeld documents in Health, Politics and Revolution in Cuba since 1898, Cuba’s statistics are largely fabricated, medical care for the masses is substandard and, in any case, it depends on generous care-packages from Cubans abroad. (These are the same overseas Cubans relentlessly maligned by Havana’s hate-mongering propaganda.)

Unquestionably, Fidel Castro enjoyed enormous initial popular support; but it soon vanished as he hijacked the liberal-inspired revolution, eliminated pro-democratic dissidents, and turned Cuba into a nightmarish Orwellian dystopia.

There are revealing parallels between the Castro and Trujillo methods of control:
• Trujillo was a product of the army; Fidel Castro was a lawyer. But both militarized their countries; the military became a privileged caste with immense control over economic activities.
• Like Hitler, both granted themselves grandiose titles: “Nation’s Benefactor” for Trujillo, “Maximum Leader” for Fidel Castro.
• Both instituted hegemonic, single-party states encompassing spy networks (of which former collaborators became conspicuous victims).
• Virtually everybody labored for the “highest leaders” — from athletes to physicians — even if limited private sector activities were permitted. Illustratively, Fidel Castro remarked that the brain of a female neurosurgeon wishing to emigrate “belonged to the Revolution” — and, thus, by implication to Fidel the comandante.
• Cronyism and nepotism reigned. The titular power was passed at whim from elder to younger brother — to Héctor Trujillo and Raúl Castro — as each was gifted the rank of “general.” Thus, both Caribbean countries morphed into ridiculous hereditary quasi-monarchies.

The post-Trujillo Dominican journey can serve as an instructive fountain of experiences for a post-Castro Cuba transitioning to a gentler, open society. Along with lessons from former communist Eastern Europe, a new Cuba could learn from the successes, as well as the admitted faults, of the Dominican liberal-democratic experiment.

The DR still has educational, public-health and poverty issues to improve upon, but it has come a long way. Its post-1966 democratic project has outperformed Cuba’s statist economy. For example, the DR’s 2010 GDP growth was about 4.2 percent — almost three times that of Cuba’s at 1.5 percent (ranked 78th and 166th, respectively, of 216 countries). And that’s accepting Cuba’s suspect figures. Now impoverished “socialist” Cuba imports most foodstuffs — even sugar! — despite its blessed agricultural soil.

The DR is a country we rarely hear about in positive terms, other than supplying outstanding baseball players. Yet, there is much to celebrate in that beautiful country as it confidently commemorates its first half century free of despotism, as opposed to Cuba, still suffering anachronistic totalitarianism.

Roland Alum, a former Fulbright Scholar in Santo Domingo, is a consultant with ICOD Associates.

Read more:

Barack Obama mildly pleased some Arabs, annoyed a lot of Israelis and has yet to bring the prospect of Middle East peace any closer

Cairo, Jerusalem & Washington, May 26.─ It was a tricky few days for Barack Obama in his latest bid to please the Arab world in general and, more specifically, to break the logjam between Palestinians and Israelis. By contrast, Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, after frosty talks in the White House and rapturously received speeches to Congress and to the most powerful of America's pro-Israel lobbies, must have chuckled at having once again—at least in the short run—fended off an American president seeking to prod him more brusquely than usual down the road to compromise with the Palestinians.

In the end, after much brouhaha and hyperbole, there were no real winners: no sign that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would resume; no hint of flexibility from Mr Netanyahu, despite his declared readiness to make "painful compromises" in the interest of peace; no expectation that the Palestinians would talk to Mr Netanyahu under present circumstances; no promises that they would put off their quest for recognition of statehood at the UN General Assembly in September; only tepid praise from the Palestinians for Mr Obama's statements that antagonised Mr Netanyahu; and, across the Arab world, in European capitals, as well as in doveish circles in Israel itself, general condemnation of the Israeli leader for his cocking a snook at Mr Obama.

In any event Mr Obama's own speech at the State Department on May 19th was an awkward mixture. Most of it dwelt on the Arab upheavals rather than the Israel-Palestinian tangle. It was the president's first big statement on the Middle East since his acclaimed speech in Cairo two years ago, when he persuaded many Arabs and Muslims that he was genuinely determined to open a new chapter of friendship after years of toxic mistrust, failed military interventions and stalled efforts to make peace between Israel and Palestine.

This time Mr Obama sought to place America on the side of the reformers, putting democratic values above alliances with dictators. He promised a dollop of cash to help countries such as Tunisia and Egypt along the road to freedom. He reassured the Libyan opposition fighting to overthrow Colonel Muammar Qaddafi that he backed them. He took a swipe at his Bahraini ally, which hosts the American fifth fleet, urging dialogue with protesters rather than repression. He told Yemen's embattled president to quit. And he asked Syria's president to "lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way." Mr Obama was notably silent about Saudi Arabia, as though unable to chide so vital an ally for its patent lack of reforming zeal.
But all this was drowned out by what he said about Israel-Palestine.

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