Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving, Pinochet Fan, Honduras Drug As Conduit, Hugo Chavez, Burma, Oregon Death Penalty Moratorium, New Amnesty Director

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. My daughters Stephanie from Honolulu and Melanie from Virginia Beach joined me, along with Arianna, the 12-year-old sister of Mel’s husband, who lives with them. Later we had my 4-year-old great grandson, DeAndre, who stayed with us overnight while Natasha, my granddaughter and his mother, worked night shifts at her women’s clothing sales job, starting at 2 am on Black Friday morning. She said her feet hurt afterward, as there was quite a rush. Is this going to be the norm from now on, 24-hour retail? A few photos are posted, but it’s always a surprise seeing how they come out on the page.

Had a cardiac MRI patient from Chile as a Spanish interpretation subject this past week and, to my surprise, she was a fan of the late president General Augusto Pinochet. She told me that he had helped the poor. I don’t know about that, but the economy did not do too badly under him. However, as an election observer in the 1988 plebiscite, I can vouch that he did not have widespread support and that much of the population feared him and those he considered his enemies were often mistreated and disappeared. Our election observer team traveled around the country interviewing people confidentially and experienced being hit ourselves along with peaceful anti-Pinochet demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons. However, he did garner 40% of the plebiscite vote and, although he was brought to tears when he lost, he never really suffered any punishment for his misdeeds.

Stratfor, a geopolitical strategic forecasting organization, has issued a really scary, but not surprising, picture of how the drug trade destined for the US has mushroomed. According to a recent report, “Honduras, for example, reportedly has become a major destination for planes from Venezuela laden with cocaine. Once offloaded, the cocaine is moved across the loosely guarded Honduran-Guatemalan border and then moved through Guatemala to Mexico, often through the largely unpopulated Peten.”

Hugo Chavez, who claims to have vanquished cancer, now says he feel fit enough to rule his country until 2031, ten years beyond his previously announced retirement date. So much for term limits on Venezuelan presidential candidates, limiting them one consecutive term.

Myanmar or Burma is showing welcome signs of a human rights’ thaw which we can only hope and pray will continue. Sometimes such changes come from the top as in this case. Certainly the country’s military rulers want to improve their international reputation and their economic prospects.

Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon has announced that he won’t allow the execution of Gary Haugen, scheduled for Dec. 6 -- or that of any other death row inmate -- while he is in office. It would have been Oregon's first execution in 14 years. Twice before, in his first term as governor in the 1990s, he allowed executions to go forward, something he now regrets. We in Amnesty International oppose the death penalty in all cases and have applauded this decision.

Amnesty International-USA has a new Executive Director, Suzanne Nossel, who will begin her duties on January 2 in the New York office. She is a human rights lawyer who has worked the State Department and Human Rights Watch and also spent two years in South Africa working to implement that country's National Peace Accord.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

DC False Alarm Storm, Halloween, DR Connections, Honduras News, Cuban Dissident’s Death, Gross & Cuban 5, Regional Amnesty Meeting, Money & Happiness

While the east coast was buffeted by a pre-Halloween snow storm, here in DC we just had cold drizzle on Saturday, followed by a sunny day near 60 on Sunday and it has been pretty mild ever since. But I finally turned on our central heat, partly because I had visitor from California, Elsie, who had stayed with me while volunteering last year at the Amnesty International office. She has taught teachers in Afghanistan and is an Amnesty country specialist for that country, just as I am for the Caribbean.

Halloween night was uncharacteristically chilly, only in the 50s when the kids came around, so there were not as many as last year, but, as usual, no candy was left over.

Sunday, Nov. 6, was a pleasant afternoon, so I sat out at the Eastern Market talking Peace Corps with a few folks and selling only one book. However, I did chat with some folks who work for GOCorps, a fairly new Christian-oriented sort of Peace Corps for college grads that offers $5,000 of student loan forgiveness to selected participants. Service is for two years and includes practical content (i.e. business, engineering, sports, teaching), as well as religious proselytizing. Applicants must pay their own way and receive advice on fundraising. The group works in Muslim countries and the Far East, not in Latin America, though, I was told, it may eventually go there. It seems the emphasis is on converting non-Christians (which causes me some concern), though it’s combined with development work, which should be helpful, although maybe that is just a cover. Of course, many religious groups have projects in the developing world and most are welcomed. But this organization seems more overt about its religious conversion aims, which may get its volunteers in trouble.

Just got word that Marian, a “mature” woman whom I once met and who has read my book, just joined the Peace Corps and is now in training in Armenia. Of course, I cannot claim credit for her decision nor am I ultimately responsible for how well her service goes, but I’d like to think that my book gave her a little nudge.

Have happily reconnected via Facebook with the Espaillat family, possessing a famous name in the DR where they are back living now. I first met them in DC and visited them several times in Santo Domingo, usually going to and from Cuba in the 1990s. Amnesty International has just issued a report on the DR regarding police brutality and the wholesale deportation of Haitians and Dominican-born persons of Haitian descent. Another Amnesty initiative focuses on children’s rights.

In a local newspaper written and sold by homeless people, there appears a heartfelt poetic ode to recently executed Georgia death-row prisoner Troy Davis.

I’m planning to go again to Honduras in February for the International Health Service of Minnesota medical brigade taking place in villages near La Esperanza, Feb. 12-22. Unfortunately, Operation Smile is scheduled for January in Honduras, so will miss that this time. I also have other projects planned there, which I will mention closer to the dates.

In Honduras, according to the local Spanish-language press, the Supreme Court voted 12 to 3 to absolve the military men involved in spiriting President Zelaya out of the country in 2009. Zelaya has been back in Honduras for months now and has announced plans to run again for the presidency, but my contacts there believe his following has diminished.

The Honduran Embassy in the Washington, DC area, together with Honduran banks, is promoting purchase of property and dwellings in Honduras to help those in the diaspora house their families there and provide a place for them to visit. Meanwhile, on the north coast, authorities have confiscated 13 luxury haciendas and residences, two vehicles, and 17 boats believed used in drug smuggling.
Here is the beginning of an item in the Huffington Post (October 30, 2011)—read the rest there.

Honduras Becomes Main Transit Route For Cocaine Trafficking
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- On Honduras' swampy Mosquitia coast, entire villages have made a way of life off the country's massive cocaine transshipment trade. In broad daylight, men, women and children descend on passing go-fast boats to offload bales of cocaine destined for the United States. Along the Atlantic coast, the wealthy elite have accumulated dozens of ranches, yachts and mansions from the drug trade.
And in San Pedro Sula, local gangs moving drugs north have spawned armies of street-level dealers whose violence has given the rougher neighborhoods of the northern industrial city a homicide rate that is only comparable to Kabul, Afghanistan. Long an impoverished backwater in Central America, Honduras has become a main transit route for South American cocaine.

The article goes on to say that the cocaine is not processed in Honduras and presumably is not used by Hondurans. The country is just a transit point.

On another front, close associates of Laura Pollán, the member of the Women in White who died recently in a Havana hospital, have questioned the official cause of her death, since a week before she seemed in good health. She was diabetic, but that was under control. Those in the opposition believe that either her condition was deliberately induced or was aggravated by the authorities. Her body was cremated within two hours of her death, making it impossible to re-examine the cause. Such immediate cremations have been common after questionable dissident deaths. Her friends believe that Cuban authorities moved quickly to avoid an international outcry like that following the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata in 2010. A recent letter in the Wall St. Journal (Oct. 31, 2011) quotes a Cuban dissident, hospitalized after being beaten by government-sponsored mobs, alleging that a state security agent warned him, “We killed Laura and can do the same to you—nothing happens.”

A Cuban exile, who once occupied an important position in the government hierarchy, commented, “My gut feeling tells me it was murder because the Cuban totalitarian state did not know how to respond to her efforts to spread the women’s protests around the country, so murdering her would be par for the course. But if it was murder, it was very well planned and carried out meticulously, leaving no proof behind. Let's face it, the Cuban G2 is a very professional and unscrupulous organization, trained by the NKVD. The NKVD is reported to have developed chemical substances that produce heart attacks, but are rapidly eliminated from the body so that they will not be found during an autopsy. We will just have to wait until the secret files of the Cuban Ministry of Interior or the Party Politburo are opened to find out whether she was murdered or not.

“This whole affair should make quite clear the risks that dissenters take in Cuba when they protest in public. That is why I favor anonymous methods to get the message out to the general Cuban population, rather than having these people go out and face repression that could even lead to death. It is not only a quantitative matter of a loss of lives. It is that those activists willing to sacrifice themselves are the qualitative acme of the Cuban people, the cream of our crop, and so it is a very high a price for our nation to pay. Of course, liberty and progress are priceless, but when these people are gone, who will be left to lead Cuba? Only the bottom of the barrel, the opportunists and yes-men who run no risks and arrive at the last minute to gather the fruit off low hanging branches.”

Alan Gross, the USAID contractor now imprisoned for 2 years and given a 15-year sentence, now, according to a Cuban government website, has reportedly told a visiting rabbi, that if an Israeli Jew is worth 1,000 Palestinians, why isn’t an American Jew worth 5 Cubans, referring to the Cuban Five, Cubans and Cuban American convicted of espionage and of being involved in the shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes. An exchange of Gross for the Five has been talked about ever since Gross was arrested in Cuba and it has been speculated that was the reason he was arrested and given such a harsh sentence in the first place. I’ve read the State Dept. report on the Cuban Five which goes into considerable detail about their activities, but is dated 2007, during the Bush administration. One of the Five completed his sentence recently and was released, but is on 3 years parole and may not leave the US until it is over. I believe he is staying with his children in the mid-west. Meanwhile, I have no doubt that Gross is anxious to be released and probably the other Cuban Five prisoners too. Amnesty International has questioned the fairness of their trial, based on the Miami venue.

Today, I attended a regional Amnesty Int’l meeting held at National Harbor, Md., a brand new hotel, restaurant, and convention complex built on empty Maryland space fronting on the Potomac River. The complex is very large, but didn’t seem to have a lot of business. I understand it was completed in mid-2008, when the recession was just starting. Eventually, there will be residences and probably more population will cluster there, but, right now, it looks something like a white elephant.

About 300 people attended the conference, which included a keynote by the FM radio host of “Democracy Now” Amy Goodman. She talked about her involvement in East Timor’s independence movement, actions against Shell in the Niger Delta, and holding vigil outside the prison when Troy Davis was executed. I participated in a workshop on torture, which, it was argued, is immoral, illegal under US and international law, and ineffective, often leading to false confessions, as DNA exonerations have shown. Evidence and confessions obtained under torture are not allowed in US courts, which may be the reason for military tribunals being held in Guantanamo. What is torture? Dick Cheney has said that waterboarding is not torture and, in any case, that torture is OK. In the afternoon, we were bused down to the White House, where we held a march and rally to free Filep Karma, imprisoned since 2004 in Indonesia for raising a flag in favor of Papuan independence. Other demonstrators were on hand in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, representing Iranian prisoners and anti-nuclear and anti-carbon emission positions.

Although companies and individuals naturally want to maximize their income and profits and reduce their taxes vis-à-vis the rest of society, they will reach a point of diminishing returns if most fellow citizens become too impoverished to buy their products and services or to keep up with their public subsidies, salaries, and pensions (I’m thinking here of publicly funded payments and benefits for wealthy farmers and those in the upper echelons of public service, including elected officials). Unless the lower 99% have sufficient income to be taxed on or to spend, eventually there will be no “trickle up” and the top 1% will suffer too. A modest millionaires’ tax increase, which would help to slightly reduce the deficit and spur the economy somewhat, is not something that Republicans should categorically oppose as it would eventually rebound to the benefit of rich folks (their constituents), who are ultimately supported by everyone else. Henry Ford recognized that he had to pay his workers enough so that they could afford to buy his cars. Evolutionary theory posits survival of the fittest, but also reveals the importance of altruism in species survival.

Nor is simply getting rid of regulations the best way to spur the economy. Lax financial regulations got us into this mess to begin with. Business surveys show that weak demand is a bigger factor retarding hiring and business expansion now than the existence of regulations. And businesses have plenty of spare cash, but have been reluctant to invest in new hires because they lack customers. Putting more money into the hands of average citizens would spur demand and get the business cycle moving upward again.

Both tea party folks and Occupy Wall Street protestors in cities around the nation are expressing frustration with the powers-that-be and with political gridlock. It’s astounding how fast both movements have spread and, though they show similarities, apparently there has been no merger of efforts. President Obama has not been able to do much to overcome the financial impasse and neither has anyone else. Job training funds for veterans, a social security payroll holiday, extension of unemployment benefits, foreclosure relief, or other stimulus measures aimed at lower and middle income people would probably increase buying power, but unfortunately would end up increasing the deficit short-term. Still, something is needed to jump-start the economy. None of the Republican candidates’ jobs plans are credible and the “no new taxes” pledge is throttling the economy and leading to political gridlock. The Bush tax cuts have done nothing to revive the economy.

Another point seems obvious: if human beings are living longer and are remaining healthier into older ages, then they need to be productive and working longer and retiring later (and unfortunately, not yielding their positions to younger workers). So that means the beginning age for social security and pensions needs to keep going up. I’m in favor of increasing the starting age for regular social security payments as average life expectancy rises, but for keeping Medicare at 65, because it’s the only universal health care program available in this country and, if anything, the age there needs to be lowered, or else “Obamacare” needs to become more fully implemented.

According to an item in TIME (Oct. 10, 2011, p.40), an annual income of $75,000 is where happiness derived from income peaks. After that, it levels off. I was curious whether that amount applies to one person or to a whole family, so I looked on-line for the original Princeton study. Apparently it applies to a person earning that amount, but how many others are being supported is not specified. Maybe just earning that amount (which I never have) makes individuals feel that they are doing well.