Thursday, July 21, 2011

Budget Battle, A Peace Corps Decision, Honduras Truth Commission Report, Cuban Hunger Striker’s Mother Addresses Congress

While I don’t pretend for a minute to be an economist, most congressmen and senators are not economists either. The whole “cut, cap, and balance” charade in relation to the raising the debt ceiling and reducing the deficit uses simplistic arguments that have no actual application in the modern economic world. And voting on that measure in the House has wasted precious time, probably further harmed the economy, and certainly failed to educate the public. Its partisans contend that the federal budget, like personal calculations that a family might make over the kitchen table, must be balanced, with outlays never exceeding income. Do they really believe that or are they only pandering to the misconceptions of Tea Party folks?

In fact, neither personal nor government budgets are routinely balanced, rather, they always mortgage the future, especially if there is to be continued economic growth. World and national economies are pyramid schemes of a sort, based on mutual trust and promises to pay eventually. We use electricity and pay later—it’s not like in pioneer days when settlers gathered firewood and made candles in advance of need. When the end of the world comes, someone will be left holding the bag. The main reason that Cubans are having a hard time right now converting from state jobs to home businesses, for example, is precisely lack of access to capital to invest to get it started. If it weren’t for the Cuban diaspora, they’d be in a real fix. And the same dearth of loans is thwarting new businesses that might get underway now in the US. Of course, borrowing can get out-of-hand, as so many individuals and governments have recently discovered, and, arguably, our country has exceeded a reasonable limit, but to support a constitutional amendment to limit spending to yearly revenues is unrealistic and wiser heads know that, although some ignorant balanced budget constitutional amendment signatories, such as Michelle Bachmann, may truly believe that such a system is feasible in the modern world. Unfortunately, they are not educating their constituents about reality, but confusing them and undermining international trust in the whole American economic system. If the “cut, cap, and balance” measure really became law, there would be economic chaos. But facts and expert opinion don’t seem to matter—the experts are dismissed as eggheads or captives of “big government.” Let’s hope that some cooler heads prevail in time to raise the debt ceiling and also to get a handle on the budget and the debt.

I can’t avoid commenting on the horrible, tragic death of a boy whose body was dismembered in NYC , captured when walking home from day camp. Something like that happening is certainly a parent’s worst nightmare. Though it’s a one-in-a-million occurrence, perhaps like other child murders and abductions by strangers, the mere fact that it occurred at all will lead most parents to redouble their efforts to protect their kids and perhaps to overprotect them by not allowing them appropriate chances for independence, maybe overlooking even more likely threats. I understand the protective impulse entirely after the loss of my (adult) son. As a parent, you want to head off any conceivable danger, though, of course, that’s impossible.

A woman about age 50 from Baltimore who had bought my book back in January just contacted me again to say that she is now fully immersed in the lengthy Peace Corps application process. At this point, she is starting to get a case of cold feet, wondering what she might be getting herself into. That’s fairly normal when making any big change, whether buying a house, changing jobs, moving to a new city, getting married, or having a child. There are pros and cons to everything, and certainly my book is frank about both in regard to the Peace Corps. Every change is a gamble and Peace Corps is no exception. But it’s a gamble where you can win big in terms of personal satisfaction, life enrichment, and making a contribution. I believe it’s gamble worth taking for most people, but, of course, they do face risks and must take precautions—more and different precautions than in the States—such as drinking only bottled water, keeping hydrated, avoiding fresh vegetables, not riding buses at night, and not living alone, among others.

The mechanical condition of buses in Honduras and El Salvador leaves much to be desired, as per the following. Riding buses, that’s certainly a risk abroad, though just a few days ago, a bus going from DC to Richmond overturned, killing four passengers after the apparently exhausted driver fell asleep at the wheel (he survived). And, more recently, a tour bus going from DC to Niagara Falls crashed, killing two. Of course, the US has a much bigger population and has more bus trips, so proportionately, developing countries, with buses and roads in poorer condition, will experience more crashes, one of the risks Peace Corps volunteers always face.

2 Americans among 10 dead in Honduran bus crash
July 11, 2011

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — A bus crash in Honduras near an archaeological ruin popular with tourists has killed 10 people and injured 25.
Among the dead are two Americans, a Canadian, three Salvadorans and three Hondurans. Another victim has yet to be identified.

The U.S. Embassy in Honduras says two other Americans are among the injured, but could not provide any further details on the victims.

Sgt. Wilmer Cruz of Honduras' national firefighters' force said Monday the bus was going down a hill when it apparently suffered a mechanical problem. It flipped on its side in the Sunday accident near Santa Rosa de Copan, a town near the famed Mayan ruins of Copan.

The bus set out from El Salvador and was carrying about 50 passengers.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Honduras? Here are two comments about its report.

HONDURAS: It was illegal, it was everyone’s fault, and everyone is to blame
In a nutshell, that was the conclusion of the Honduran Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de Verdad y Reconciliación [CVR]), which on 7 July finally published its report into the 28 June 2009 overthrow of the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. The report vindicates Zelaya – saying that he was the victim of an illegal coup d’etat– but crucially it does not absolve him, suggesting that he pretty much brought it upon himself through his lengthy brinkmanship with the other institutions of state.

Honduras: HRF Finds Truth Commission Report Conclusive and Balanced; Criticizes Recommended Reform of the ConstitutionNEW YORK (July 13, 2011) – The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) congratulates the Honduras Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR-H) after unveiling its report, calling it conclusive and balanced. In particular, HRF appreciates that the CVR-H based many of its conclusions on the report published by HRF after the June 2009 coup in Honduras. However, HRF criticizes the CVR-H’s conclusions and recommendations regarding the alleged absence of a presidential trial in Honduras and the necessity of constitutional reform.

“We congratulate the CVR-H for successfully documenting one of the most serious democratic crises in Latin America in recent history,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “We are especially glad that our report served the CVR-H in this daunting and historical task,” added Halvorssen.

Last Thursday, the CVR-H presented its report, titled To Prevent these Events from Happening Again: Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examines in detail the events surrounding the coup of June 28, 2009. The 800-page report includes several references to HRF’s legal report, The Facts and the Law behind the Democratic Crisis of Honduras, 2009-2010, published in March 2010.

“The commissioners (…) agree with the analysis made by the Human Rights Foundation, in order to define what happened in Honduras as a coup d’état,” the CVR-H states on page 202 of its report. “[A] coup d’état would refer to a scenario with the following four concurring elements: ‘first, that the victim of the coup is the president or other civil authority with full control of executive power in that country; second, that the perpetrator of the coup has used violence or coercion to remove the victim from his post; third, that the action or actions that constitute the coup are abrupt or sudden and rapid; and fourth, that this action occurs in clear violation of the constitutional procedure to remove the president, or chief executive.’ In the case of Honduras, all of the four aforementioned elements were present,” the CVR-H concludes.

In March 2010, HRF sent a letter to Eduardo Stein, coordinator of the CVR-H, and made its 300-page legal report available to him. Over a year after this exchange, the CVR-H ratified many of HRF’s conclusions. In particular, the CVR-H concludes that the coup occurred in the context of democratic erosion precipitated by unconstitutional actions by the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. The report also concludes that the actions of the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, prior to June 28, affected the credibility of the OAS.

“The OAS sent an accompaniment mission for the [national opinion] poll [mandated by Zelaya], even though relevant authorities of the Honduran State at all levels had issued resolutions stating that the poll was illegal and that it should not take place. This decision by the OAS undermined the confidence of several Honduran groups in the international organization,” the CVR-H determines on page 393 of its report.
However, HRF is careful to note its dissent from the conclusions and recommendations of the CVR-H regarding the purported absence of a presidential trial in Honduras and the necessity to reform the constitution to regulate this procedure (page 398ff.).
A special trial against high ranking state officials, including the president, is already regulated by the constitution (Art. 313(2)) and the code of criminal procedure of Honduras (Arts. 414-417), which grant the attorney general the power to prosecute the president before the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice.
“If they had simply followed this procedure, President Zelaya could have been removed constitutionally, with due process of law,” says Javier El-Hage, general counsel of HRF.

Since 1825, Honduras has enacted 14 different constitutions and modified the constitutional provisions regarding presidential trials at least 15 times.
“The Truth Commission’s assertion that the solution for Honduras is yet another reform, is just plain misguided. In order ‘to prevent these events from happening again,’ Honduran politicians across the spectrum must uphold their country’s constitution, instead of changing it every time it does not suit them,” concludes El-Hage.

Annex 3 of HRF’s legal report includes a detailed description of the constitutional provisions related to presidential trials, both in Honduras and in 17 other Latin American countries.

Posted on Tue, Jul. 12, 2011, Miami Herald

Mother of late Cuban dissident talks to lawmakersBy James Rosen
McClatchy Newspapers

The mother of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after an 85-day hunger strike, gave emotional accounts Tuesday of her son’s death in captivity to dismayed lawmakers.

A sober-faced Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, led Reina Luisa Tamayo to meetings with senators and House members who listened in rapt attention as she described Zapata’s ordeal at the notorious Kilo 7 prison in Camaguey province.

“I would go to every corner of the world to ask for justice for the cause of my son who was assassinated,” Tamayo told reporters in Rubio’s Capitol Hill office. “The Castro brothers (Fidel and Raul) are murderers and every door should be closed to them. We have to fight for liberty and justice for all Cubans. Our people are suffering.”

Her hands shaking, Tamayo held up a blood-stained white T-shirt she said her son gave her shortly before his death at age 42 in February 2010.
Tamayo, 62, said the blood came from vicious beatings Zapata endured while refusing to eat during his 15-month imprisonment. She said his captors denied him water for 18 days toward the end of his life.

“They murdered Orlando Zapata in premeditated fashion,” Tamayo said, her voice rising. “This mother would be incapable of making such a strong allegation against the government unless I held proof in my own hands.”
Tamayo read from writings her son had inscribed on the shirt.
“My blood is in service to liberty for all 11 million Cubans who don’t express themselves because they fear joining the many who are already in prison,” Tamayo read. “Long live the shirt of the prisoner of conscience!”

Rubio, elected to his first Senate term last November, held up what he said was incriminating evidence of a different sort. Displaying a recent newspaper article about increased U.S. tourism opportunities in Cuba, Rubio criticized President Barack Obama for loosening the decades-old travel ban.

The Obama administration earlier this year started allowing students and church groups to travel to Cuba, and it expanded the number of airports that can offer charter service there beyond those in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Rubio, a West Miami Republican, was joined at a news conference with Tamayo by Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Tallahassee and Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Menendez’ parents also emigrated from Cuba.
“We’re honored to be in the presence of a hero who has witnessed firsthand the brutality of the Castro regime and the reality of Cuba today,” Rubio said. “It is the brutal reality of a brutal dictatorship that oppresses its people and violates human rights on a consistent basis.”

Nelson noted that he and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, sponsored a resolution honoring the life of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, which the Senate passed unanimously in March 2010 shortly after his death. The measure called on the United States “to continue policies that focus on respect for the fundamental tenets of freedom, democracy and human rights in Cuba and encourage peaceful democratic change consistent with the aspirations of the people of Cuba.” Before meeting with senators, Tamayo appeared at a House briefing hosted by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who was born in Havana.

“Cuba is a tropical gulag where the Castro brothers serve as prison wardens and executioners,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Anyone who has any doubt about that truth should listen to the sad story of Reina Luisa Tamayo.”
Tamayo gained political asylum in the United States and arrived in Miami last month carrying her son’s ashes in a shoe-size box. The remains were buried June 25 in a Bay of Pigs mausoleum at Dade South Memorial Park cemetery, marking the first time someone who wasn’t a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion was interred with participants in the 1961 failed military action against Fidel Castro.

Read more:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Radio Show, July 4th, Folklife Festival, South Sudan, NM Fires, Honduras Constitution, Chavez Illness, DSK

Hope everyone had spectacular July 4th weekend.

Found out that my July 1 radio interview could have been accessed via streaming on the internet, my daughter Melanie heard it that way, but, being somewhat IT challenged, that had not occurred to me before the last posting. The interview, from my perspective, was too short, as I could have gone on much longer. Just as well that it was limited to a half hour or less. I did invite listeners to connect with me via this blog or e-mail. Finally was able to access the podcast of that radio interview--you have to listen to that day's news first (at least I didn't know how to skip it). Anyway, if you want to hear the interview, go to, then click on Joe and Gross Surreal News 310.

The annual 2-week Smithsonian Folklife Festival got underway on June 30. Peace Corps is featured during this 50th anniversary year. I noticed on the program several groups I am familiar with, including deaf volunteers who teach American sign language and Honduran Garifuna dancers. With some difficulty, because I still have pain walking after the hit-and-run pedestrian accident May 31, I made it down to the Smithsonian mall with my two visitors from Africa, where we saw the Peace Corps exhibits and a series of Garifuna dances. I also posted a note, along with others, on the Honduran wall, one of many walls representing all the countries where volunteers have served. (See photos above of Garifuna dancers.)

On July 9, some of us former Honduras PC volunteers held a party to welcome Martin Rivera, Honduras Peace Corps’ water-and-sanitation director, here on a visit with his family. Many of the young former volunteers are now married and have small children, raising another generation of future volunteers. Because of budget cuts, Martin told us that the number of Honduras volunteers has been reduced to 140, compared to over 300 when I served, and some sectors, like municipal development, have been eliminated, along with their staffs. The core programs, health, water-and-san, agriculture, and youth development remain.
The Republican presidential race is getting almost too crowded, which cannot be good for the party. Most of those folks need to be weeded out. Or let them continue fighting—so much the better for us Democrats.

Meanwhile, the budget and debt ceiling battle continues. The surge of retiring baby boomers is only exacerbating the problem. The question is: who is going to have to make sacrifices, only the poor and middle class, or everybody, including (greedy) wealthy political donors? Unfortunately, slashing budgets and saving money also means cutting jobs, lowering benefits, and reducing spending power. Now that everyone but the wealthy are suffering economically, most people have had to cut back on their buying, so the economy and jobs are not bouncing back, which further reduces spending in a downward spiral. The very wealthy, who control a disproportionate and ever-growing part of the economy, are not spending enough themselves to allow their wealth trickle down. But their increasing accumulation of ever-scarcer resources is likely to backfire if the rest of us have no jobs or income, because ultimately, even the very wealthy, rely on a healthy economy.

Many Republicans have fenced themselves in by signing Grover Norquist’s pledge. They did so also in Minnesota, hence the budget impasse there. It gives them no room to maneuver. Either everyone else capitulates or the situation remains at a standstill. Who will voters blame? If the economy continues to sputter and unemployment remains at current levels, perhaps Republicans think that will give them an advantage at election time, though that may also backfire.

Norquist, a very wealthy non-elected guy who considers himself a self-made man and has a lot of political clout, apparently would like to see little or no government, a return to the unfettered days of the wild west or the new frontier, when rugged individuals carved out their own pioneering destiny for better or for worse. Several members of the Republican Study Committee, headed by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have signed on to a Norquist-inspired “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan pledging not to vote for any debt-ceiling increase without serious spending cuts, spending caps, and a balanced-budget amendment passed by both the House and Senate, something that’s simply not going to happen. So there you have some automatic “no” votes on every conceivable proposal. Because they have so publicly signed the pledge, they can hardly bend an inch. Yet many angry and frustrated voters, ignorant of their own self-interest, may continue to support them.

South Sudan’s official independence day was July 9. However, fighting continues in the Nuba mountain region where I spent time in 2006, a disputed border area whose people want to join the south, but which the north is trying to retain. Despite fears of another Darfur, outside forces seem loathe to intervene and local people are fleeing again fearing for their lives, as they have done so many times before.

This from my cousin living near Los Alamos, New Mexico: There is a haze in the sky all the time. So far, the debris has not come our way, as winds are moving it north, NE & NW. The Wallow Fire that started in Arizona on May 29th and is now their state’s largest fire is just 200 miles from us. The winds blew the smell and debris here for over a week. It was so bad you had to have your doors and windows closed; air conditioning was important. She also mentioned the loss of many trees and that she and her family had decided to go to Hawaii for a couple of weeks until the fires and their effects had dissipated.

Honduras’s current president, Porfirio Lobo, supports efforts to change the constitution to permit a president to be re-elected, saying he has no personal plans in that regard. Official talks on the matter were to get underway on July 9. Hope they do not prove too contentious. From Hondurans, I’ve heard, not surprisingly, that contentious politics have returned, despite Lobo’s efforts at conciliation.

The Honduran ambassador to the US has signed an agreement with ICE to facilitate the deportation of Hondurans detained for immigration violations here.

In Honduras, killings of journalists, whether for political reasons or just random crime, continue, with the 12th in two years just occurring in the northern coastal city of La Ceiba.

Meanwhile, after fervent denials, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez admitted from Cuba that he has cancer. Judging from the time he spent there and the weight he appears to have lost in posted photos, his condition must be fairly serious. He didn’t specify the type of cancer, but I’m guessing advanced prostate cancer. Probably he ignored the symptoms until they became severe. And he probably chose to have treatment in Cuba in part to protect his privacy about the nature of his condition and its seriousness. Since the Chavez government rests entirely on the man himself, with no apparent heir waiting in the wings, such as Fidel Castro’s brother Raul in Cuba, the whole Chavez project would be in doubt without him, although now there are rumors that he’s grooming his brother Adan to succeed him. Adan Chavez, like Raul Castro, is not as charismatic as his brother, but at least would keep power in the family.

If Adan takes over, he will confront Hugo’s mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy and the growing political opposition that has arisen on his watch. Estimates are that it would take a decade of proper stewardship for the Venezuelan oil industry to recover optimum production and distribution, assuming Hugo Chavez’s exit from power. Despite his failure to properly manage the oil industry and his generous oil largesse to political allies, the continued relatively high price of oil has buoyed his fortunes and allowed him to materially help poor Venezuelans on some indices, including food subsidies and medical care with the assistance of Cuban doctors. On matters such as crime, electrical outages, outbreaks of malaria and dengue, and transportation, Venezuela is not doing so well. The Cuban political elite must have been trying mightily to save him, as he has tossed them a lifeline with massive oil donations.

Cuban medicine resurrected Fidel Castro from the brink of death, so perhaps can save Chavez too. Cuban medicine at its best is very good, but the best is not available to most citizens, only to the elite and to medical tourists paying in hard currency. Chavez’s vice president had said that he might be gone as long as 6 months, but now he has suddenly returned to Venezuela, alarmed perhaps by all the speculations circulating during his absence. The consummate showman, he has already given a public address (via video), much to the delirium of his supporters. He must have realized that being gone much longer carried political risks.

On July 1, Yoani Sanchez, probably Cuba’s best-known anti-government blogger, posted the following about Hugo Chávez’s cancer treatment in Havana: Over the past few weeks, panic has gripped fat-necked bureaucrats, officials who control the subsidies that come from Venezuela and entrepreneurs who resell a portion of the hundred thousand barrels of oil sent to us by what we like to call our “new Kremlin.” They are all holding their breath, hoping that, as soon as possible, he will be signing agreements, speaking to the cameras, governing by force of presidential decrees.

As for DSK, apparently the multi-million-dollar defense team in its arduous investigations has dug up some dirt on his accuser, information that either she would prefer not to have made public or might discredit her in the eyes of a jury, such as about her immigration status, associations, and past life. (Who doesn’t have some skeletons in their closet?) I sincerely doubt that their sexual encounter, which DSK cannot deny because of the semen he left behind, was consensual, but these extraneous factors may allow him to beat the rap. His actions in trying to flee the country immediately after make him suspect. But, now it comes down to “he said, she said.” If the case does not go forward or if a jury does not convict him won’t necessarily prove his innocence, only that there was insufficient evidence to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Then, he can present himself to the French public as the innocent victim of overzealous, puritanical American prosecutors trying to nail him for consensual sex. Heaven knows, maybe an anti-American backlash or conspiracy theory adopted the part of the French public will actually catapult him into the presidency of France, where his policies are likely to be hostile to the US. Meanwhile, rape and sexual assault victims will hesitate to come forward in the future.

Now a group of Maryland voters has mounted an apparently successful petition drive for a ballot measure to deny in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants brought to the state as children, so that legislative victory may prove short-lived. It’s hard to believe that so many people are so mean-spirited and short-sighted. Let’s hope for a resounding defeat at the ballot box. The same people who rail against “illegals” have no problem giving big tax breaks to oil companies and the super-rich, maybe because they dream of becoming rich themselves some day? And, while we are on the subject of immigration, I have long contended that legal immigration should be expanded and made much less arduous. At the same time, I have to agree with Obama’s immigrants’ rights critics that his administration should have focused more on deporting criminal aliens rather than sweeping across-the-board and ending up deporting more people than even GWBush. Apparently, now the administration has heard the message and is starting to focus its necessarily limited resources more on criminal aliens. Undocumented people are among us everywhere in ordinary life, as award-winning reporter Jose Vargas is trying to show by “coming out” as an undocumented alien. For a criminal conviction, “intent” is necessary and certainly kids brought by their parents had no intent to break the law. A number of studies, even those done by conservative think tanks, show a net economic gain to the country by passage of the Dream Act—that is, allowing a path to citizenship for those brought to this country as children who enroll in college or join the military.

About Zelaya’s plans to run for the presidency again in Honduras, a blog reader comments: He’s not an old man; he’s still a player. This is the only hand he’s got – for sure he can’t run on his brains.

About Chavez [prior to his cancer revelation], she says: Maybe he’s lying low, letting people worry (as well they might) about how much worse things will get without him, and then reappearing in triumph at a national holiday celebration coming up soon. Or maybe he’s really sick, in which case Venezuela may plunge into chaos the way it did when Eva Peron died unexpectedly.

And, finally, about McCain: I’m sorry, too, that McCain is pandering to the tea party about the fires. His problem is, he’s so important he doesn’t have to listen to anything he doesn’t want to hear. Everybody but him knows he’s irrelevant, though. The one daughter seems to have a spark in her; maybe someday she’ll amount to something.