Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Greetings, PC Leaves Honduras!, NED Honors Laura Pollán, Dangerous Crossing, “American Muslim,” Interpretation Frustrations

Seasons’ greetings. Hope everyone is spending some down time with family and friends. My interpretation agencies no longer hold office parties, rather, they just send out an electronic greeting instead, which is what I am doing here. Happy New Year, Feliz Ano Nuevo.

Terrible news. Peace Corps is pulling out its volunteers out of Honduras , so I’ve been told by Luis Knight, my former colleague in the Esperanza regional office. I'm brokenhearted about Peace Corps leaving Honduras after almost 50years. Honduras was never a tranquil country, but US drug appetites have deformed it, as happened in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Now Honduras is considered too insecure for volunteers, but I'm still planning to go back there in Feb. for medical brigades and my other projects there.

A former Honduras PC volunteer sent us this message, which expresses our grief so well: A silent tear shed out of the spot light for a tiny country out of the way of ‘important’ world issues. Shed by the more than 5,000 thousand who have left a piece of their heart in Honduras at some point in the last 50 years. For the school teacher who invited an unknown ‘gringo’ off the street to have a drink of water on a hot day; For the grounds keeper at the zoo who stood and watched the young foreigners try to make gas using an inner tube and animal waste; For the young mother who listened to broken Spanish from a blond health worker telling her how to keep her child from dying from diarrhea. Tears shed by engineers who designed water systems, by foresters who helped develop the national parks, by musicians who taught violin. Honduras has stumbled into an abyss of violence where gangs collect ‘war taxes’ and civil society is a distant dream; Where they have earned the unfortunate distinction of having the highest homicide rate per capita in the world; Where Peace Corps considers it unsafe for volunteers.

Honduras, a tropical paradise being plowed under by shortsighted self interest. The tears of thousands, who have been touched by the heart and soul of the Honduran people, are shed for those who have changed our lives. We are who we are, in part, for our experiences there. Honduras, mi pais adoptado, we shed a tear and say a prayer for you. We hope that Peace Corps will not be long absent from your shores.

NY Times,
December 21, 2011
Peace Corps to Scale Back in Central AmericaBy RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD

MEXICO CITY — The increasing drug and organized-crime violence in Central America has led the Peace Corps to pull out of Honduras and stop sending new volunteers to Guatemala and El Salvador, the organization announced Wednesday.
Peace Corps officials said they had taken stock of the worsening conditions and decided to withdraw their 158 volunteers from Honduras in January and scuttle plans to send 29 recruits to complete their training.

“We are going to conduct a full review of the program,” Aaron S. Williams, the director of the Peace Corps, said in a statement.

In Guatemala and El Salvador, officials decided to keep the 335 volunteers already in those countries but not to send the 76 recruits who were to begin training there next month. The trainees will be sent to other countries, the corps said.

Kristina Edmunson, a Peace Corps spokeswoman in Washington, said the moves stemmed from “comprehensive safety and security concerns” rather than any specific threat or incident. However, Peace Corps Journals, an online portal for blogs by Peace Corps volunteers, has an entry referring to a volunteer’s being shot in an armed robbery.

There was no immediate reaction from the governments. All three countries have endured a rash of violence primarily related to drug traffickers using Central America as a staging point to ship cocaine to the United States from South America.

A wave of violence has struck particularly hard in Honduras, whose institutions are still recovering from a coup in 2009. It has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world — the highest by some measures — and this month, Alfredo Landaverde, the country’s former antidrug and security adviser who often denounced corruption, was shot to death.

Ms. Edmunson said that from time to time, the corps withdraws or restricts work in the 75 countries in which it has volunteers.

I never actually met Laura Pollán, leader of the Women in White, Damas de Blanco, as she was not active when I was visiting Cuba. But I feel as though I know her since she and I appeared in the same documentary and I've met other members now in exile. Not previously a leader, she proved to be a relentless and fearless spokesperson for political prisoners after her husband was arrested in 2003 in a Cuban government crackdown known as “Black Spring.” Pollán declared recently, “The government states that there's a lot of freedom in Cuba, that it's a paradise. I'd invite those people who believe that Cuba is free to come and live here; to come and live here like a regular citizen, without bringing dollars; to come to work, and make what a regular worker makes; to come and live in a humble house, buy their food with a ration book, and express themselves here as much as they do in their own countries against their governments and other individuals, so that they see what the outcome is in Cuba.”

Sadly, Pollán died of a reported heart attack on October 14, 2011 while hospitalized with hemorrhagic dengue, soon after her engineer husband's release after spending eight years in prison. Pollán herself had been severely beaten by government-assembled mobs on September 24. Understandably, after her death and another recent hospital death of a dissident beaten by security forces, Cuba opposition figures have vowed to avoid hospitals at all costs. Pollán’s close associates have questioned the official cause of her death because, although she was diabetic, she had it under control. Those in the opposition believe that her condition was either induced or aggravated by the authorities. Her body was reportedly cremated two hours after her death, making it impossible to re-examine the cause. Such immediate cremations have been common after questionable dissident hospital deaths. Friends believe that the Cuban government moved quickly to avoid an international outcry like that following the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata in 2010.

A recent Cuban exile, who once occupied an important position in the government hierarchy, has 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. 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 producing heart attacks that are rapidly eliminated from the body to avoid their discovery during autopsy. We will just have to wait until the secret files of the Cuban Interior Ministry or Party Politburo are opened to verify whether she was murdered. Whatever threat this movement held for the Cuban government, it was, in my opinion, successfully eliminated by the skillful assassination of Laura Pollán, which leaves the Damas de Blanco without a charismatic leader and terrified because they are now aware of the Interior Ministry’s utter lack of scruples and the length it is willing to go to suppress opposition activities.”

He continued, “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 brave 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, so it is a very high a price for our nation to pay. Of course, liberty is 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.”

A dissident named José Angel Luque, hospitalized after being beaten for wearing a T-shirt bearing the word “change,” reportedly said when he was released on Oct. 20 that a state security officer warned him, “We killed Laura and can do the same to you—nothing happens” (Letter to the editor, Wall St. Journal, Oct. 31, 2011). Independent journalist Carlos Ríos Otero’s hint that Laura may have been murdered resulted in his arrest by Cuban authorities (Babalu Blog, October 17, 2011). Journalists and bloggers outside Cuba beIieve Laura was deliberately killed, perhaps by lethal injection, but, of course, in the absence of proof, that remains only speculation.

On December 13, 2011, a bipartisan group of U.S. Congress members nominated the Ladies in White for the Nobel Peace prize. On December 13 and 14, I was invited to speak at a series of meetings on Cuban human rights and Laura Pollán’s legacy sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). At the December 14 ceremony, taking place in an overflowing House office building meeting room, speakers from both parties and both houses of Congress praised Pollán’s contributions while her image flashed on an overhead screen and a musical tribute was played. The Damas’ trademark gladioli were passed around amid a few tears. A man who had spent decades as a Cuban political prisoner commented on how Laura’s death had brought both American political parties together. NED then presented its Democracy Service Medal to Laura Pollán posthumously, accepted on her behalf by another Dama, Yolanda Huerga Cedeño (also appearing in the documentary) whose husband was one of the first Black Spring prisoners to be released. Quite obviously in death, Pollán has become a symbol and a martyr. If she was indeed murdered to quiet her message, that effort has backfired.

Remarkably, these proceedings were carried out with the real-time long-distance participation via webcam of a group gathered in Havana, thanks to a hookup provided by the U.S. Interests Section there. Sitting at a table inside the Interests Section with its chief were the new Damas leader, a young Afro-Cuban woman named Berta Soler; Laura’s widower and recently released Amnesty prisoner of conscience, Héctor Maseda; and her daughter, Laurita Labrada. That they all managed to be present was a feat in itself, since state security often intercepts known dissidents en route to the Interests Section.

An article in this week's El Tiempo Latino says that at least 19 people have been hit and 15 killed this year, many by hit-and-run drivers like the one who hit me, crossing Viers Mill Rd. in the suburb of Wheaton, near the area where I was struck. That is a very dangerous pedestrian area because of the 6 lanes of fast traffic. I’m fortunate to have almost completely recovered, but now I am super-cautious about crossing any street, especially a busy one like that.

After Lowe’s pulled its ads from the new “American Muslim” show, remind me never to shop at Lowe’s. Not that I am a TV watcher anyway, not owning a TV set. It’s certainly true that much, perhaps a disproportionate share, of random violence and terrorism can be attributed to those who identify themselves as Muslims, so it is not racial profiling to recognize this. However, I feel that sure way to radicalize American Muslims is to treat them as pariahs and potential terrorists and by boycotting a show about Muslims. The show seems to be trying to serve as an example to Muslims about how to lead a peaceful American life while also being an observant Muslim, an endeavor we should all support. (I’m reminded of how Bill Cosby created a show to serve as an example of family life for African Americans, encouraging them to identify with it.) I doubt that most apparently mainstream American Muslims are secret jihadists or members of sleeper cells, rather, I suspect, they bend over backwards to assert their patriotism. Perhaps when the “American Muslim” is better established, it could dare to air an episode about a couple fearing that their adolescent son is becoming radicalized. Meanwhile, let’s encourage loyalty, not reject a show outright just because the protagonists are Muslim.

Just sounding off here about a recent interpreting assignment. For the first time in 7 years, I got a bad evaluation for a school interpretation. Without advance warning, it turned out to be a simultaneous interpretation for a meeting that a large group of parents had called to air grievances with the principal, who failed to show up, so things quickly became rather contentious. An Amharic interpreter was also present, but his people were fewer and quieter than the Spanish speaking mothers. First off, I was not given a machine, then I was given one with no batteries, and when finally that was fixed, I wasn't quite sure how to use it. I put it on my head with a wand coming down in front of my mouth, but was told that made it too loud, so moved it over to the side. I rarely do simultaneous interpreting for such a large group outfitted with ear pieces and was not familiar with that equipment. Anyway, my agency later said not to worry, as I've always gotten excellent reviews otherwise. Needless-to-say, I don't plan to return to that school ever, though I finally figured out how to use the equipment. When I had been there before, it was for an annual review of a special ed student’s progress with the mother and school staff.

Monday, December 12, 2011

World AIDS Day, Human Rights Day, Sonia Pierre Dies in the DR, Murder in Honduras, Bob Edwards Show, Et. Al

Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day, which we used to observe in Honduras with workshops by and for teenagers and a march around town with a big banner.

Human Rights Day was Dec. 10, but our Amnesty Group here in DC celebrated it on Fri. Dec. 9 at a Write-a-Thon held at the National Press Club, co-hosted with Reporters Without Borders. At a Write-a-Thon, participants sign letters and postcards already prepared for them about a number of Amnesty prisoners and actions, which we then mail out for them. One of our speakers was an Ethiopian former prisoner of conscience on whose behalf we had written at our 2009 Write-a-Thon, Birtukan Mideska, and there she was, in the flesh, actually speaking to us. Our letters had helped secure her release, for which she thanked us profoundly. That’s always a thrill. Another was Nada Alawadi, a Bahraini journalist who had been arrested, threatened, and silenced earlier this year and decided it was safest to leave the country while she still could. She said the reason we have not heard much any more about unrest in Bahrain is because of a news blackout, the arrest and torture of journalists (and local doctors treating wounded demonstrators), and the refusal of visa requests from foreign journalists. (See photo from that event.)

On the day before Human Rights Day, dozens of Cuban dissidents were preemptively arrested and members of the Damas de Blanco gathered outside the home of their recently deceased leader, Laura Pollan, were set upon by a government-organized mob calling them “mercenaries” and “ a nest of worms” (gusanera, a favorite insult), and shouting “¡Viva Fidel!” “¡Viva Raúl!”

On Human Rights Day itself, a boat from Florida approached Cuban waters and sent up fireworks into the air, causing the Cuban government to denounce violation of their air space. A number of opposition figures had been cleared out of the waterfront where the fireworks could be seen, reportedly including blogger Gorki Aguilar, author of the irreverent blog, Porno Para Ricardo. Foreign journalists trying to film the scene and unrest had their cameras knocked out of their hands.

Caricom and the Cuba leadership have both reinforced calls for the US to lift its longstanding trade embargo against Cuba. The calls came at the fourth Caricom-Cuba summit held at the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port-of-Spain where Cuban President Raul Castro was the guest of honor.

A staunch defender of the rights of people of Haitian ancestry living in the DR, Sonia Pierre, died in Santo Domingo of heart attack at age 45, a real loss. Meanwhile, her death has aroused Dominicans of Haitian ancestry to demonstrate for their rights to obtain a birth certificate needed to attend school or get a job.

My plane reservations for Honduras in February have already been made. And, thanks to Rev. Daniel’s help, I’ve been in e-mail communication with Jorge and Neris, my scholarship students. Daniel was back in Honduras from his new pastor’s position in his native Guatemala, picking up his kids to have them stay with him until school starts again in Feb. (His wife divorced him, as blog readers may remember, and she now wants him back after she broke up with her second husband, but Daniel is not buying it.) He said he had no gas to go looking for the kids for me, so I sent him $100 via Moneygram. I do rely on him and he will be back in early Feb. again to bring his kids back from Guatemala and may help me again then while I am in Honduras. Jorge, after I paid the first part his tuition at an IT school last year, told me now via e-mail that he had to drop out because of a serious stomach ailment so lost the whole year, ending up selling cookies and crackers out on the street. He claims to be better now and is wanting to start over. Jorge is the boy who lost two fingers to infection after surgery, as recounted in my book and on this blog. He also had an eye infection when I saw him last, for which I bought him medication. But he sounds now as though he wants persevere, despite health challenges. Neris has not had another baby, thank goodness, and she did finish high school and still wants to study nursing. Both kids are almost 18, if not 18 already.

Murder in Honduras. First an outspoken former anti-drug chief, Alfredo Landaverde, was murdered in the capital. The day before, female journalist, Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, was killed there, as per item below.

Journalist is shot and killed outside of her home in Honduras

Luz Marina Paz, a radio news host, was shot and killed outside of her home in Tegucigalpa, the AP reports. According to national police spokesman Luis Maradiaga, Paz and her driver were hit by dozens of bullets fired by men on two motorcycles.

Paz hosted a morning radio program called "Three in the News." The program addressed politics and narcotics trafficking; however, the article reports that she was not especially outspoken or well-known. Paz previously worked at Radio Globo, where she was critical of the coup that overthrew former President Manuel Zelaya in June of 2009.

Human rights advocates say that at least 23 journalists have been killed in Honduras since 2007.

Bob Edwards Show, HD Radio, NPR, Tuesday, December 6, 2011

This year marks the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary and ever since President Kennedy issued the call to serve, young Americans have responded. But so have older Americans. Barbara Joe is 73-years-old and she was a health volunteer in Honduras from 1999 to 2003. Every February, she returns annually to Honduras to volunteer with a medical brigade, help kids with scholarships, check in with the community volunteers trained in Peace Corps, and assist a rehab center and a residential school for the blind.

Actually, I joined in 2000, not 1999, but stayed beyond the usual term to 3 1/2 years.

At a recent special education interpretation assignment, the mother expressed regret and upset that she had kept her son, now 19, in a private residential facility in the DR for 10 years, paying for his care from her modest income cleaning office buildings (she is a single parent and also has other kids). Supposedly, they were teaching him skills, but, instead, she found what skills he had possessed before had deteriorated and that he had also adopted institutionalized habits, such head banging from observing other residents. She finally managed to bring him here 18 months ago and was now lamenting that she had left him in that place so long. I was sitting next to her, of course, and said something like. "You did what you thought best and now he is here, better late than never.” I also translated what I had said for the school staff, but, strictly speaking, it was a remark that I had initiated, rather than something said by others at the meeting. I know interpreters are not supposed to become personally involved in the conversation and I will try to curb that in future, but it’s hard, as I’m a former social worker, after all.

It’s shocking that Virginia Tech, where my late father once headed up the architecture department, has again seen murder on campus.

Alabama has suffered economic setbacks because of its draconian anti-immigrant policies. Other towns around the country where immigrants have either been removed or have been frightened away, are facing similar problems. Such unintended consequences may come as a surprise to anti-immigrant lawmakers, but are totally predictable. These long-time residents, whether originally legal immigrants or not, have become integrated into the social-economic fabric. Not only are some types of jobs in Alabama going unfilled, especially in agriculture and construction, but businesses, apartments, and schools are being emptied out, and now legal foreign experts and students on temporary visas are avoiding that state. A Japanese Honda employee was arrested as a suspected illegal immigrant recently and Chinese entrepreneurs have felt unwelcome. The governor is now scrambling to reassure legal foreign residents, defending his support and approval of the anti-immigrant law.

Through the magic of Facebook, I have again found members of the Espaillat family living in Santo Domingo, and discovered that Ana, a psychiatric nurse who used to take me on her rounds is residing in an assisted living facility in suburban Maryland outside Washington, DC.

At Communitas, a small, progressive Catholic community, usually attracting about 30 worshippers on a given Sunday, we were surprised when two homeless men, very aromatic—evident smokers and drinkers—came in and sat down among us. We could not be so unchristian as to ask them to leave, but we felt a bit uncomfortable, especially those of us sitting nearest them. Then one, carrying a sack, while we were greeting each other midway through, slipped upstairs where we had laid out some potluck dishes for lunch afterward. Also, the building where we meet belongs to a gay Catholic group and we felt the need to protect their belongings. So, a couple of people went upstairs and gently persuaded him to come back down. We invited both men to join us at the luncheon afterwards, but they chose to leave. I wonder if they will be back and, if so, what should we do, if anything, if this becomes a habit? Maybe we should concern ourselves with their general wellbeing? How much can we undertake?

Cannot help commenting on Gingrich’s statement that there are no Palestinian people, an easy way to get rid of that problem. “No” turns out to be handy word, as two-year-olds and Tea Partiers have discovered. No evolution, no global warming, no new taxes, and now, no Palestinians. Of course, that’s an appeal not only to Jewish voters, of whom there are not so many, but to evangelicals, who also support the biblical Israel, and are much more numerous.

My ego got a little boost from a man from California who read my book who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile early on (Chile no longer has a Peace Corps program) and later was on staff on Colombia and Costa Rica. He also worked with USAID in Honduras for a number of years and is married to a Honduran. I won’t repeat his whole long message, just this excerpt:

While I have had many opportunities to interact with government officials at different levels during my work and years living in Honduras, I found your descriptions of the people with whom you lived ranging from the different landladies to young maids to health worker assistants to the Honduran men who were trying to capture your amorous attention to be incredibly vivid and accurate. Then there were your descriptions of the kids in rural Honduras with deformed and cleft lips and club feet who had been successfully operated on so that they could live better lives. Such descriptions of people’s suffering and opportunities to have their lives transformed are priceless and definitely speak to the greatness of Peace Corps and its dedicated volunteers like you!