Sunday, August 28, 2011

Earthquake, Hurricane Irene, Honduras, Nicaragua, DSK, Immigration, Perry & Bachmann, Tax Cuts, Cuba, Amnesty Int'l

In my long life, I’ve come to expect the unexpected, so when an earthquake struck last Tuesday, of course, I was shaken and some artifacts fell off shelves and broke, but I knew right away what it was because such fairly moderate earthquakes were common in southern Honduras. I’ve never been in one where buildings actually collapsed in around me. I felt several small aftershocks that same evening and even the next day—indeed at least five aftershocks were reportedly registered. The top of the Washington Monument cracked, so it’s closed to the public until the Park Service figures out how to fix it, which won’t be easy. The [Episcopal] Gothic National Cathedral and Smithsonian Castle were also damaged.

Of course, after that, we had Hurricane Irene, which hit hard in Virginia Beach, where my older daughter lives, knocking down a tree in their back yard. So far, except for water leaking into the basement, my 100+-year-old house seems to have survived both earthquake and hurricane intact.

In Honduras, President Porfirio Lobo convened 50 sectors of civil society to formulate a plan to improve the education system, which has had dismal results and has been plagued by constant strikes throughout the years, including every single year I was in Peace Corps. Aldo in Honduras, a well-known peasant leader was killed, but it’s uncertain if the motive was political, as he was robbed of a large amount of cash he had taken out of the bank.

I was surprised to see that Arnoldo Aleman, a former Nicaraguan president once put under house arrest for corruption, is now challenging Daniel Ortega for the presidency. At one time (as mentioned in my book), they were allies. Now, the Nicaraguan people will be confronted with choosing the lesser of evils, a matter on which I am not about to make a judgment. However, I will acknowledge that Aleman is probably the only candidate who has chance of beating Ortega.

Also, I see that Spain, Brazil, and the U.S. have gotten together, first to provide food aid to Haiti, Honduras, and Cuba, then to Pakistan, and now will be bringing food aid to Somalia. Brazil provides most of the food, the U.S. pays for transport, and Spain takes care of logistics, a heartening example of international cooperation. I’m glad to see Cuba included as a recipient.

A comment about the DSK case: Its dismissal doesn’t mean that a sexual assault didn’t happen, just that the prosecutors didn’t believe they could prove their case to jurors “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Prosecutors need to protect their own reputations by winning, not losing, cases. The unsophisticated complaining witness (the apparent preferred term for her) seems to have tainted her credibility in the face of the strict rules of evidence needed in such a high-profile criminal trial where the defendant has such huge legal firepower. His lawyers did what they could to undermine her credibility and she herself did not help her case.

I feel a great relief, after the Obama administration had seemed to be deporting people willy nilly, perhaps trying to satisfy Republicans and convince them (unsuccessfully) to sign on to immigration reform, that Obama has now decided to go it alone in implementing a more nuanced, common-sense, and humanitarian approach. The policy of wholesale deportations was a blot on our national reputation. Republicans are never going to agree to any sort immigration reform (even those Republicans, like McCain, who once supported it), just like they are going to refuse to cooperate with Democrats on almost everything else. So, I applaud Obama for going ahead, to the limited extent he is able.

You have to wonder if Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann are calculatingly coming across as characters and caricatures—almost stereotypes— in order to raise their personal profiles, or if they are being genuine and sincere. I don’t suppose it matters. Either way, whether their public images are contrived, exaggerated, or a reflection of the true person, neither is fit to lead this country and the world and I surely hope most voters will wake up to that reality. Meanwhile, maybe we can enjoy laughing at their excesses, which also are causing some amusement abroad—What will those wacky Americans do next? It’s kind of scary that Rick Perry is surging so in Republican Party polls. He’s certainly a folksy, larger-than-life personality, but really pretty wacky, in my opinion—more flamboyantly Texan than GW Bush.

It’s interesting that some Republicans, though steadfastly opposed to taxes on the wealthy, are now opposed to the payroll tax cut extension for working people. Sounds like protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, not others, is all that interests them.

The Cuban public has been largely passive in the face of material hardships and repression. But now, in late August 2011, there have been some small, hopeful signs of change. Four Cuban women chanting anti-government slogans on the steps of the capitol building in Havana drew surprise support from passers-by, who reportedly shouted “bully” and “scoundrel” at police.

According to an article in The Miami Herald (“Four Cuban dissident women detained after public protest,” Aug. 24, 2011) “A video of the incident Tuesday also showed two passers-by who appeared to join the protest, and recorded a man branding a woman who had apparently criticized the protesters as a ‘chivatona’— a government snitch. The video recorded an astonishing show of public and vocal support for the four women, in a country where passers-by normally remain impassive as feared State Security agents and pro-government mobs crack down on dissidents.”

Later, two members of the Women in White were arrested in Central Havana for banging on pots and pans and yelling, “there is hunger here," "food for the people," and "food for the children." Some of the hundreds of people at the market supported the women. Police seemed hesitant to arrest the women at first because so many were taking their side. When the women were finally arrested, people began shouting "murderers, let them go" (Una multitud apoya cacerolazo en mismo centro de La Habana

These developments have indicated that the message of the Women in White may be getting out to the general population. If that starts to happen, a groundswell of anti-government opposition may occur because, doubtless, the majority of Cubans are pretty fed up.

Amnesty International issued a press release below, to which I contributed information. Amnesty also issued an Urgent Action on behalf of the women. The Cuban government continues to try to stop the peaceful silent marches of the Women (or Ladies) in White and to prevent their spread beyond Havana.

Press Release, Amnesty International
Cuba’s ‘Ladies in White’ targeted with arbitrary arrest and intimidation22 August 2011

The Cuban authorities must end their intimidation of a group of women campaigning for the release of political prisoners, Amnesty International said after 19 of the group’s members were re-arrested yesterday.

The latest detentions took place yesterday in and near the south-eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where the women were due to march silently and pray for the end of political imprisonment.

Over the last month, the “Ladies in White” (Damas de Blanco) and their supporters have repeatedly faced arbitrary arrest and physical attacks as they staged protests in several towns in the region.

“The ongoing harassment of these courageous women has to stop. The Cuban authorities must allow them to march peacefully and to attend religious services as they wish,” said Javier Zuñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International.

The latest arrests took place as “Ladies in White” gathered in several locations to make their way to a planned march at the Cathedral in Santiago de Cuba.

Eleven of the “Ladies in White” gathered yesterday morning at the home of a supporter in the town of Palma Soriano. A crowd of some 100 people, including police, officials and government supporters, surrounded the house for several hours.

When the women attempted to leave, police pushed them and pulled their hair before forcing them into buses. They were driven a few kilometres away where they were transferred to police cars and dropped near their hometowns in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Holguín.

Police also surrounded the house of Tania Montoya Vázquez, another “Lady in White” from Palma Soriano for several hours yesterday, preventing her and two fellow protesters from leaving.

Five other “Ladies in White” who live in the city of Santiago were arrested before they could reach the Cathedral and were held in police stations for several hours. It is believed that they have all been released.

Beginning on 17 July, groups of the “Ladies in White” have gathered on Sundays to stage silent protests and attend mass in Santiago de Cuba and several nearby towns.

The “Ladies in White” and the “Ladies in Support” (Damas de Apoyo) are a nationwide network of activists in Cuba that have recently escalated their peaceful protests in eastern provinces. In Havana and elsewhere, they have repeatedly suffered harassment from Cuban authorities for their peaceful protests.

In central Havana on 18 August 2011, 49 “Ladies in White” and their supporters were prevented from carrying out a protest in support of their members in Santiago de Cuba and other eastern provinces.

In 2003, Cuban authorities rounded up 75 of the group’s relatives for their involvement in peaceful criticism of the government.

The 75 dissidents were subjected to summary trials and sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years. Amnesty International considered them all to be prisoners of conscience, and the last of them were finally released in May 2011.

The “Ladies in White” and “Ladies in Support” continue to peacefully protest for the release of others who they believe have been imprisoned due to their dissident activities.

“It is unacceptable for the government under Raúl Castro’s leadership to perpetuate a climate of fear and repression to silence ordinary Cubans when they dare to speak out,” said Javier Zuñiga.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

VOA, Untimely Death, Iktar Dinner, Again at Eastern Market, Rick Perry, Errant Volunteer, Ortega, British Riots, Women in White, Buffet Manifesto

Last Monday, a reporter for Voice of America TV (short programs distributed in many languages through the internet) came to my house to film and interview me. She went through all my photos to select some to use in the piece, which will feature three former Peace Corps volunteers who have come home to do something different than they did before their service. Certainly that is the case for me, Spanish interpreting, annual visits back to Honduras, membership on the boards of three internationally oriented non-profits, and a book.

I was shocked to see this news notice: Saul Solorzano, who escaped the bloody tumult of civil war in his native El Salvador and became a seasoned leader of an advocacy organization for Central American refugees in Washington, died Aug. 17 at Washington Hospital Center. He was 49. The report went on to say he had died after falling down the stairs at his home. I knew the guy! He bought my book! He was only 49! You just never know when your time will be up.

On Tuesday, attended an overflow Ramandan Iktar dinner sponsored by Amnesty International where the fast is always broken with the consumption of date, though there weren’t enough dates to go around that evening. Our speaker was an Arabic-speaking American who had just returned from several months in Egypt, where he said that the military is cracking down more forcefully than before, a worrisome development. The main questions facing the new non-Mubarak Egypt are the relationship with the United States (and the future of US aid) and whether Islamic religious bodies will occupy a separate sphere, like in Turkey, or whether it will be religious state like Iran. At least 10% of Egyptians are Christians.
Probably at least 10% of Americans are non-Christians and American Muslim, especially, have felt alienated and discriminated against since 9/11. But Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann seem bent on declaring ours to be a Christian nation.

Now that my African visitors have departed and before my longstanding housemate returns on Labor Day, my house is very quiet. After many hot weekends when I stayed home, this past Saturday, went out to talk Peace Corps and try to sell my book, taking my table and displays over by myself to the Tortilla Café across from Eastern Market. Few people were out and most who passed by were not anyone who might be interested in the Peace Corps, either to join or even read about it. Many were listening to ipods or talking on cell phones. Others had small children or dogs—not folks exactly ripe for a Peace Corps career, because you wouldn’t take either to a foreign country. Some people my age were with their children and grandchildren—again, they wouldn’t leave their grandchildren. So, I don’t even try to talk Peace Corps with them. Others are not Peace Corps material because they are over or underdressed, i.e. women wearing high heels, low-cut blouses, and too-short shorts with beehive hairdos. Still others have too many tattoos and piercings or are just too overweight to be accepted. So there was only a narrow range of people whom I appealed to. Some turned out to be former volunteers, to whom I gave Peace Corps Response material, that is about 6-month assignments available to former volunteers. Others took my free information packets. Only one person, a French woman my age who had accompanied her American husband to Africa years ago bought my book. I suggested that she and her husband could go back now with Peace Corps, but she said his health is too frail, he has a pacemaker and other health problems, so she will content herself with joining vicariously through my book.

In Honduras, according to the local Hispanic press, 25 policemen were arrested for participating in criminal acts such kidnappings and joining criminal gangs.

Republicans have created a self-fulfilling prophesy, stalling on raising the debt ceiling, refusing the “grand bargain,” helping to send the stock market plunging, then blaming the Obama administration for not fixing the economy. And Michelle Bachmann, who has contributed considerably to the economic jitters, declares that she can fix it all quite easily. I do hope some voters are wising up about her. This whole stock market plunge and ups-and-downs are nothing more than worry writ large. Nothing objectively has really changed to cause such massive sell-offs. Investors concerned about a worldwide recession are making it actually happen! Maybe I’m Pollyanna, but I’m wondering what we ordinary folks can do to reduce the polarization in our country and daily lives. The least we can do is listen to one another. And that means that the other side should listen to us too!

From a recent AP report: “GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry told New Hampshire voters Wednesday that he does not believe in manmade global warming.” He’s even suggested it’s a hoax, invented by scientists to get money for research. I think Michelle Bachmann has said something similar. They both promise to create jobs and grow the economy, but are in favor of slashing government programs and services, which, at least in the short-term, will mean fewer jobs, not more. They are the real job-killers, not Obama. Just repeating something over and over doesn’t make it true, which I hope most voters will come to realize. If not and they vote for these charlatans, they will come to realize it too late for us all.

Distressing news in this Peace Corps 50th anniversary year is that a volunteer in South Africa has been arrested for having sexually molested at least five South African children under 6. Although recruits undergo an FBI check before being accepted, undiscovered or future behavior obviously doesn’t show up there. Another blot on the corps’ reputation.

Looks like Daniel Ortega, technically prevented from running for a second term in Nicaragua, is doing so anyway and is running without genuine opposition. And all he has to do is get more votes than any other candidate, not a majority, according to the constitution. Whatever happened to the spirit of UNO that propelled Violeta Chamorro into the Nicaraguan presidency in 1990 when I was an election observer there? Now, it’s all back to the usual fragmented, weak, and internecine opposition candidacies, which allowed Ortega to win his current term. I’ve spoken ad infinitum in the past with Nicaraguan anti-Ortega leaders, each one resisting giving up his fiefdom and long-shot chance at winning himself. So, Nicaragua will get Ortega once again and the opposition will deserve to lose. Sorry guys, you well know the winning formula from 1990, but refuse to try it again.

I understand that the British riots have been described in Libyan official media as a democratic “uprising” against an unjust system. Certainly, they got out-of-hand, going way beyond London where they first started, with opportunists and anarchists taking advantage and apparently some meddlesome types actually fomenting unrest on purpose, using social media to spread mayhem, an example of the reverse or perverse side of what social media can accomplish. At the same time, doubtless, a feeling of economic frustration and genuine grievance was being expressed by quite a few participants. The same feelings of deprivation and even anger are evident in this country and could lead to destructive copycat flash mobs and unrest here as well. Social media is certainly a two-edged sword.

Amnesty International is investigating the following report.

Santiago de Cuba / Palmarito de Cauto / August 7, 2011

Ladies in White (a peaceful group of Cuban women who are family members and supporters of Cuban political prisoners) and human rights activists holding meetings in their homes, suffered such violent attacks by the political police that many of them had to be hospitalized this Sunday, August 7, 2011, in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Palmarito de Cauto, in the Eastern province of Cuba.

After attending Sunday mass in the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba, government led mobs with blunt objects and members of the Ministry of the Interior were waiting outside for the twenty Ladies in White as they were on their way to march through the streets of Santiago de Cuba with their flowers to demand the release of all Cuban political prisoners. Access to the Cathedral was interrupted by police squads led by Lieutenant Colonel "Elliott" as loud music and governmental propaganda was heard through loudspeakers. The twenty women were followed by the mob, were insulted, threatened, and pushed into buses that took them to an unknown location.
The home of the ex-political prisoner, Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, where activists were gathered as well as three minors, was also attacked by a government led mob that threw stones to the house. The home of activist, Maximiliano Sanchez was also attacked in the same manner.

As a result of the violent acts of repression carried out in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Palmarito de Cauto by the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, six human rights activists were hospitalized with fractures, contusions, and wounds that had to be sutured. By orders of the political police, doctors refused to provide these wounded activists with a medical certificate which they need in order to accuse Cuban authorities of the violence perpetrated against them.

Among those critically hurt: Julio Cesar Salazar Salinas, Osmelis Cruz Dacal, Annis Sarrion Romero, Magalys Fernandez Eulices, Prudencio Villalon Rades, Jose Angel Garrido Morris, Osmelis Cruz Dacal, Juan Carlos Vazquez Osoria, and a neighbor who tried to defend the activists: Rubilandys Torres Perez.

Also attacked and hurt in Palmarito de Cauto: Angel Verdecia Diaz, Andry Verdecia Osorio, Amado Verdecia Vive, Ramon Bolaños Martin, and the wife and daughter of activist Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, Belkis Cantillo and Fatima Victoria (6 years of age ).

The Coalition of Cuban-American Women denounces and makes an urgent appeal before international public opinion concerning the escalation of brutal and aggressive acts by the Cuban government against a Cuban civil society that is peacefully demanding fundamental rights in the island. The lives of these Cubans are in danger and we hold Cuban authorities responsible for their physical and mental wellbeing. Coalition of Cuban-American Women- Translation to English/ / Tel: + 305-662-5947

Information provided by JOSE DANIEL FERRER GARCIA in Cuba – Telephones (Spanish): ( + 53 631267 ) or ( + 53 790867 )

August 14, 2011, New York Times
Stop Coddling the Super-Rich

By Warren E. Buffett

OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.

These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.

To understand why, you need to examine the sources of government revenue. Last year about 80 percent of these revenues came from personal income taxes and payroll taxes. The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 percent on most of their earnings but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. It’s a different story for the middle class: typically, they fall into the 15 percent and 25 percent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Since 1992, the I.R.S. has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.

The taxes I refer to here include only federal income tax, but you can be sure that any payroll tax for the 400 was inconsequential compared to income. In fact, 88 of the 400 in 2008 reported no wages at all, though every one of them reported capital gains. Some of my brethren may shun work but they all like to invest. (I can relate to that.)

I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.

Twelve members of Congress will soon take on the crucial job of rearranging our country’s finances. They’ve been instructed to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. It’s vital, however, that they achieve far more than that. Americans are rapidly losing faith in the ability of Congress to deal with our country’s fiscal problems. Only action that is immediate, real and very substantial will prevent that doubt from morphing into hopelessness. That feeling can create its own reality.

Job one for the 12 is to pare down some future promises that even a rich America can’t fulfill. Big money must be saved here. The 12 should then turn to the issue of revenues. I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.
But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.

Warren E. Buffett is the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Heat Wave, Norway Tragedy, Ramadan, Debt Ceiling, Calif. Dream Act, Ortega Re-Election, Canada Immigrant Issues, Africans Depart, Hospital Interpreta.

For several days, even weeks, in a row, the mercury has climbed to over 100 F here in DC, not even cooling off at night, reminding me of being again in El Triunfo, Honduras. If it’s true, as the preponderance of scientific opinion seems to support, that the extreme weather conditions the world has been experiencing lately: floods, hurricanes, tornados, and excessive heat and cold, are partially caused or exacerbated by fossil fuel use and not just a matter of the gods sending punishment our way, then the need is urgent to reduce use of such fuels. Reduction in the use of oil and coal, oil especially, may hurt the economies of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, but so be it. They need to get on the alternative band wagon too if they want to stay in the game. Of course, during an extreme heat wave, such as we have just had in the eastern half of the US, even an environmentalist like myself turns on the central air conditioning, burning even more such fuel. And the problem is that finding and processing alternative energy sources takes money that no one seems to have right now and also has its own unwanted side effects.

When the massacre occurred in Norway, I immediately sent a condolence message to Gry Winther, the Norwegian director and producer of the documentary Women in White where I make a cameo appearance. “Thank you” was all that she replied. What more can you say when something senseless like that happens in a small peaceful country for no apparent rhyme or reason, just because a guy has a secret grievance or a twisted mind? And I hope right-wing crazies in other peaceful countries don’t try a copycat stunt. There are always people with extreme ideologies of one kind or another everywhere, secretly plotting to deliberately hurt and kill others, something very hard to anticipate or guard against. It took relatively long for Norwegian authorities to get control of the situation because the young people’s camp was apparently on an island and police in Norway are usually unarmed and were not prepared to respond to such a catastrophic event. The fragility of life is demonstrated once again, something I already knew because of the tragedies in my own family. It could be any of us, today, tomorrow, next week.

There had been a rush to judgment, with some media (including Murdoch’s) speculating immediately that it was the work of Islamic extremists. Islamic extremists have given everyone cause to worry, but this episode demonstrates, just as did the Oklahoma City bombing and the Arizona shooting rampage against Rep. Giffords, that rightwing extremism can be just as lethal. There’s a fine line where free speech and assembly—and the right to bear arms—spill over into dangerous territory. Not only was the author of this massacre not an Islamic extremist, he was actually an anti-Islamic extremist by all accounts. We need to steer a moderate course between either type of extremism. And the internet has certainly been instrumental in spreading both Islamic and anti-Islamic extremism—or extremism of any kind. Paradoxically, on-line dialogues warning of Islamic extremism probably ignite both pro- and anti-IsIamic extremism.

We are reminded once again of the dangers of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. More needs to be done in Europe and the US to highlight the positive benefits, contributions, and successes of immigration and immigrants to help counteract the very corrosive and dangerous power of nativist ideologies. The lessons of Hitler’s excesses should not be forgotten. Since the shooter Breivik calls himself an anti-Muslim crusader for Christendom and cites scripture, and since Muslim terrorists are always identified by their religion, then he technically is a “Christian terrorist.”

It’s now Ramadan, reminding me of the fasting of Muslims who have shared my house in the past. I did once join one of them, eating the date that breaks the fast at sunset, but only could keep it up for two days, as it was interfering with my work and thoughts, which became obsessed with food. My Muslim housemate insisted that if I had continued, my stomach would have adjusted to the new eating schedule. Muslims have told me that often during Ramadan, day and night are reversed, with sleeping during the day, feasting and partying during the night, which doesn’t seem to reflect the sacrificial spirit intended.

Unbelievably, Congress and the President, separately and collectively, allowed or facilitated the further erosion of the fragile economy. The President could be faulted for lack of leadership by only in the 11th hour trying to explain basic economics to the public in a rational and dispassionate way—but the public is probably more gut-feeling than rational. And the Republicans, I’m convinced, have been unnecessarily obstructionist, believing it will give them an advantage in the next elections if the economy actually tanks, though finally some came to realize they might have gone too far and needed to avert disaster. The negative consequences of all this, even if not strictly Obama’s “fault,” will inevitably fall on his shoulders. The tea party element in today’s politics, other than serving as an expression of voter discontent, has played a largely damaging role in the economy and polity, in my opinion, and has divided the Republican Party, defeating more experienced and centrist members and reinforcing voter ignorance. The tea party, by hanging tight on “no taxes,” may be said to have “won” in that respect, but to the economic detriment of the country. The public, for its part, wants the deficit reduced and spending cuts and lower taxes, but they certainly don’t want any programs that they personally rely on cut at all, whether a job with federal financing or a benefit, like social security or Medicare, or citizen protection in the form of the military or FBI. So what’s left? Is politics the art of compromise or a matter of sticking to your position, however damaging to the body politic? If high earners and successful businesses care about protecting the economy so it can continue to make them rich, then for their own good, as well as the common good, they should agree to pay their fare share of taxes. The majority of the public wants the high-end earners to pay their share. Scrambling to milk everything they can out of the economy is just making it weaker and less able to sustain the wealthy. The stock market has plunged, in part because of the budget wrangling and Republican intransigence about allowing any sort of closing of loopholes in the tax laws. And after they helped cause the market to plunge, tea party folks, like Michelle Bachmann, blame President Obama for the poor state of the economy and the lack of confidence among investors and business owners. Lack of confidence, of course, breeds more of the same.

Now House Speaker Boehner is urging lawmakers to convince their constituents that a balanced budget amendment is the way to go, an effort doomed to failure, but only after creating more market havoc and political polarization. Of course, the Democrats have yet to make a coherent case for an alternative strategy. “Balanced budget” is a two-word sound bite may have common-sense appeal, but is impractical in the real world.

Republicans, especially tea partiers, got their “no taxes” deal, but otherwise, I doubt most senators and representatives are happy with the final outcome of the budget wrangling. Obama was considered by Democrats to have given too much ground, but the tea party folks were holding the US economy hostage and he ended up paying the ransom. Bridging the differences in such a wide polarization was bound to bring about a result that no one particularly liked. But at least the debt ceiling crisis has been averted and the public is relieved to have the argument over for now. I would hope this is not going to be a recurrent crisis, but it probably will be, unless voters realize that the tea party has held the rest of the government hostage; buoyed by their success, they will continue with such tactics. The only way to defeat them is at the ballot box, should voters be savvy enough to do that.
It’s certainly true, as Michelle Bachmann, has reportedly asserted, that the sun would still rise if the debt ceiling was not lifted. It’s also true that money, whether the paper stuff or computerized bank holdings or the federal budget, is an abstract, artificial human construct. But it’s a consensus construct, a man-made system developed over millennia and now encompassing the whole wide world, with the possible exception of isolated tribes still trading in beads and animal bones. Even as the Aug. 2 deadline approached, US and world stock markets fell, not something exactly needed right now. If Michelle Bachmann’s salary were not paid, if she had no access to her campaign funds, then maybe she would see that her words and actions were having negative consequences in the real world. It’s incredible that she and Sarah Palin, with all their ignorance about everything under the sun, though both with admitted physical glamour and bright smiles, can have risen so far in politics.

I was glad to see McCain back to his old biting form, after wandering lately into goofy far-right territory, saying: "The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . . Barack Obama…The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor."

There are hints that Israel, in its cottage cheese boycott, has been inspired by the Arab spring. Somehow, I’m wondering or hoping that that mini-action might somehow lead to some sort of mutual sympathy and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. I know that’s not a rational thought, more like wishful thinking, but something that popped into my head.

Now California has passed an in-state college-tuition “Dream Act” much like the one that passed recently in Maryland. However, the Maryland Dream Act unfortunately did not go into effect this fall because of a petition challenging it and calling for a referendum to put it on the ballot. Allowing in-state tuition to undocumented students brought here as children would be a good investment, but, obviously, there are people in Maryland who out of spite or malice, felt they had to challenge that provision. I do hope they are overwhelmingly defeated at the polls by fair-minded, rational voters and that opponents in California don’t try a similar delaying tactic. By the way, the local Spanish-language press has been coming down hard on Obama for not passing immigration reform and especially for having deported a record one million undocumented people, most of them with no criminal antecedents.

Rep. David Wu, Democrat of Oregon, is the latest man in power felled by sex allegations. Don’t these guys have any control or judgment?

Not surprisingly, Hugo Chavez is now financing Daniel Ortega’s reelection campaign in Nicaragua, as Ortega has insisted on running, even though the constitution prevents consecutive presidential terms. The perpetually fragmented Nicaraguan opposition allowed Ortega to win last with only about 30% of the vote by running too many candidates. According to the Nicaraguan constitution, the winner does not need to win a majority, only get the most votes. Chavez has announced that he himself plans to retire from the presidency of Venezuela in 2031. (He has a lot of faith in Cuba medicine.) A website called “Democracia Participativa” estimates that the current governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda, a big voter-getter there, could beat Chavez in a presidential election.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has reported that his internet and phone systems have been hacked. So even little Honduras is not immune to such shenanigans.

Canada, surprisingly, is one of the countries included in my volunteer duties as Caribbean coordinator for Amnesty International-USA, I guess because they didn’t know where else to put it. I’ve heard on the news that Amnesty-Canada is concerned about immigrants’ rights and deportation issues due to a campaign now underway there to deport certain immigrants. I need to find out more about that.

My African visitors, Charles from Kenya and Rheah from Zimbabwe, have just departed today. I will certainly miss them. Charles’ wife got a visitor’s visa and was here for several weeks as well and just went home with Charles. While she was here, Charles’ uncle visited from Minnesota (is my house a hotel, or what?. Only Rochelle, my USAID water specialist, is left now. The house seems empty without the Africans, cooking savory dishes, often wearing exotic clothing, and sometimes speaking in Swahili (Kenya) or another native language (Zimbabwe), I don’t recall its name. Once Charles and his wife had a big argument in Swahili. I think it had to do with the fact that his cousins in Dallas had sent him a plane ticket to go there for a long weekend, but did not include Jessie, his wife. He was planning to leave her at my house after she had left their four children at home and had come so far to see him. He ended up buying her ticket to Texas himself and they went together, Jessie wearing a big smile and her best outfit.

Last weekend, I spent several hours and four different sessions with an ICU patient at a local hospital. This young man was an indigenous Guatemalan whose first language was Mam, something not covered by a standard interpretation agency, so he had to make do with Spanish, in which he was completely fluent. Only in his twenties, he had suffered from excruciating and constant headaches, which turned out to be caused by a brain tumor. As you might imagine, removing the tumor resulted in considerable post-operative pain and the need for special treatment. Still, it was heartening that after right after the tumor’s removal, he was able to move extremities and wiggle fingers and toes on command, as well as carry on complex conversations once his breathing and feeding tubes were removed. He became concerned about his clothes and shoes, which I showed him had been stored in a special bag with his name on it. His functioning seemed completely normal and his prospects good for complete recovery.

I feel compelled to comment on hospital vending machines that all sell unhealthy snacks, like chips, candy bars, salty pretzels and crackers, cookies, and sodas. I suppose those are items most buyers crave and which the machines are already set up to dispense. It would be hard to offer say, apples, carrot sticks, and grapes, which don’t store well, but what about cans of juice, unsalted nuts, and dried fruit? Couldn’t the machines be retooled to offer at least some healthy snacks among the unhealthy ones, more in keeping with what hospitals advocate?