Monday, January 23, 2012

Annual Honduras Trip Pending, More on Peace Corps Honduras Departure, Our Nigerian Amnesty Prisoner, Son Back in College, Cuban Hunger Striker Dies

Hello folks, I will be leaving soon for my annual trip to Honduras, but will try to post another letter beforehand,

Just heard that Honduras has raised its fees for tourists, which does not seem like such a wise move, given the country’s unfortunate fame as a dangerous place with the highest murder rate in the hemisphere. Instead of just an exit fee of $37, now there is an entrance fee of $23 and an exit fee of $54, so they get us coming and going.

Our DC local Spanish-language press has an article about the departure of Peace Corps from Honduras. I have wondered since if PC might not have overreacted in the Honduras matter. Of course, since a volunteer was shot, even though she is now recovering, that is very serious and PC would not want to chance any such further incidents. But it's also true that PC service has never been entirely safe, although the murder, suicide, and rape stats are fairly comparable to those on US college campuses, which, unless murder is involved, rarely come to media attention and colleges like to keep it that way. I couldn't help thinking that after almost 50 years, throughout CA's civil wars, through hurricanes and Zelaya's ouster and return, through other incidents of gunshot wounds, rapes, and robberies, PCVs have remained in Honduras. At what point do you pull the plug and take preventive action? Certainly, no one wants a PCV to be killed or seriously injured. But I couldn't help wondering if the fact that the Honduras country director involved in this decision had never been a volunteer or PC employee before might have played a role? It's regrettable that the country has become more violent and that volunteers may be in greater danger, but it's also a tragedy that volunteers are leaving Honduras and may soon leave neighboring countries.

In an op ed in the LA Times, (Jan. 16, 2012), a current Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, commenting on all the recent negative publicity about the dangers faced by volunteers in Central America, assures his mother and readers, that “Guatemala is not Afghanistan. Not even close.” For the full article, go to,0,5317022.story.

For more on the Peace Corps departure from Honduras in The Miami Herald see article below.

On a more positive note, an article (“Hong Kong in Honduras”) appearing in the December 10, 2011 issue of The Economist discusses President Porfirio Lobo’s plan to establish semi-autonomous “charter cities” with their own security and rules, along the lines advocated by New York university economics professor Paul Romer. The first such city may be developed in the area of Trujillo, on the northern Caribbean coast.

Members of our local Amnesty International group got this good news about the the letters we have bee sending to Patrick, our Nigerian prisoner:

We have spoken to Patrick's brother. He told us that at the end of last year, Patrick received over 1,000 cards and letters from Amnesty International activists, which he was pleased about. The solidarity cards and letters have made huge positive impact on his situation in prison. He feels proud among his fellow inmates. He's regarded as "the big man" in the yard. The cards and letters he receives from Amnesty members globally have led to him being given special treatment by the prison warders. He's not maltreated and his condition in the prison has improved positively since the start of his campaign. Patrick's brother told us that the solidarity cards made him feel human again and he feels special knowing that there are people all over the world showing concern for his life and safety.

My son Jonathan, now in his 30s and living in Honolulu, has gone back to college full-time. He was adopted from Colombia at age 1 and I have told him that if he learns passable Spanish, we’ll take a trip back his birth country together. We last were there in 1985 when he was 11. Now he tells me that his Spanish teacher in his first semester of Spanish is from Japan, which doesn't sound too promising. I hope she has the right accent, because members of the Japanese Peace Corps I knew in Honduras had a heck of time pronouncing Spanish. Well, at least he will get the grammar. I'm sorry my kids resisted learning Spanish when they were young, when it would have been so much easier. My daughters are also in college part-time, adding to previous coursework, but not studying Spanish.

The Boston Globe reports that Joe Kennedy III, a 31-year-old prosecutor and son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy, might run for the Democratic nomination of the redrawn Barney Frank district seat. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School graduate, was in the DR as a Peace Corps volunteer. If he runs and wins, he would be the fifth former volunteer in Congress. He would also be the first in the fourth generation of Kennedys to thrust himself into electoral politics. And he is the only one of the Kennedy/Shriver clan to have joined the Peace Corps.

Forgot to mention last time that The Washington Post, on its editorial page on New Year’s Day, reminded readers that a local resident, Alan Gross, was starting his 3rd year in prison for having brought electronic equipment into Cuba, equipment cleared by Cuban customs, which charged him duty on the items, For that, he was sentenced to 15 years. Of course, he was arrested precisely to be used as a bargaining chip for the release of the Cuban Five, four of whom are still in prison in the US and one is out on a three-year parole, but not allowed to leave the country during that time.

Meanwhile, a dissident hunger striker has died in Cuba. Arrested in November after a peaceful protest in the eastern town of Contramaestre, he was 31-year-old Wilman Villar Mendoza, a human rights activist whose wife belonged to the Ladies in White. He was given a four-year sentence for refusal to obey an officer, resistance, and assault, and began a hunger strike in prison, where, it was alleged, he was treated as a common criminal, thrown naked into a humid punishment cell, deprived of food and water, and refused medical assistance until he was near death. He died on January 18, 2012 in a hospital surrounded by military guards and his widow was reportedly denied access to his body. Local dissidents’ homes were also surrounded. Amnesty International has protested Mendoza’s arrest and death. On January 20, three Cubans designated as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty were released.

As a Catholic, I’m not particularly gloating, in fact, am uneasy, about the
Episcopal parishes that are moving wholesale to Catholicism. They are allowed to have married priests, but we “born” Catholics are not. It’s high time, in my opinion, that married priests be allowed across-the-board and also women priests. Pedophilia would be less common and the priest shortage would be alleviated, not to mention that it would be a fairer system, more in line with present-day realities.

Not satisfied with the mandate to teach creationism in public schools, some evangelicals are now pushing for the teaching of climate change denial. Come on folks, do we have to perpetuate ignorance from one generation to the next? What’s the point of having scientific inquiry?

As the political campaign season continues, I am struck by how easily manipulated voters and the public are, by rumors, sound bites, and appeals to emotion. It’s not only dictators who manipulate the common man.

Peace Corps pullout a new blow to Honduras

The Miami Herald, Jan. 18, 2012
All 158 Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras left the country on Monday, weeks after the United States announced that it would pull them out for safety reasons.
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The U.S. government's decision to pull out all its Peace Corps volunteers from Honduras for safety reasons is yet another blow to a nation still battered by a coup and recently labeled the world's most deadly country. Neither U.S. nor Honduran officials have said what specifically prompted them to withdraw the 158 Peace Corps volunteers, which the U.S. State Department said was one of the largest missions in the world last year.

It is the first time Peace Corps missions have been withdrawn from Central America since civil wars swept the region in the 1970s and 1980s. The Corps closed operations in Nicaragua from 1979 to 1991 and in El Salvador from 1980 to 1993 for safety and security reasons, but has since returned to both countries. But the wave of violence and drug cartel-related crime hitting the Central American country had affected volunteers working on HIV prevention, water sanitation and youth projects, President Porfirio Lobo acknowledged.

On Wednesday, Lobo met with senior U.S. officials to speak about security. The U.S. agreed to send a team of experts to help the Honduras government with "citizen security issues," said a State Department news statement. The U.S. Embassy in Honduras did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Monday's pullout also comes less than two months after U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reconsider sending police and military aid to Honduras as a response to human rights abuses. "It's a welcome step toward the United States recognizing that they have a disastrous situation in Honduras," said Dana Frank, a University of California Santa Cruz history professor who has researched and traveled in Honduras.

The decision to pull out the entire delegation came after a Peace Corps volunteer was shot in the leg during an armed robbery on Dec. 3 aboard a bus in the violence-torn city of San Pedro Sula.

Hugo Velasquez, a spokesman for the country's National Police, said 27-year-old Lauren Robert was wounded along with two other people. One of the three alleged robbers was killed by a bus passenger, Velasquez said. The daily La Prensa said Robert is from Texas. Most areas of San Pedro Sula, like other specially violent parts of Honduras, had been declared "banned or highly discouraged for volunteers," according to the June 2011 edition of the Corps' "Welcome Book." Also banned were "all beaches at night" and a large part of the country's Atlantic coast.

Also, on Jan. 24, 2011, a Peace Corps volunteer was robbed and raped near the village of Duyure in southern Honduras. Three men were found guilty of rape and robbery in that case, according to an employee of the regional court in the southern city of Choluteca who was not authorized to be quoted by name. Sentencing is scheduled for February; the three men face up to 26 years in prison. The volunteer was apparently assaulted while hiking in a remote area.

The U.S. also announced it had suspended some training for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala, though they kept open the possibility of sending new teams of volunteers once a review of security conditions is finished. El Salvador has 113 volunteers, and there are 215 in Guatemala, where the head of the Peace Corps pledged the program would continue. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said in a statement the suspension only applied to the January Peace Corps class. Further reviews will determine future training in that nation.

The three countries make up the so-called northern triangle of Central America, a region plagued by drug trafficking and gang violence. El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate with 66 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, the U.N. has said. Numerous non-governmental aid groups work in the region and the Peace Corps decision has raised concerns that they could also be affected.

"This is not a good moment for Honduran NGOs," said Oscar Anibal Puerto, director of the Honduran Institute for Rural Development, which works on school construction and water projects, often with Spanish financing and sometimes in informal cooperation with Peace Corps volunteers. He said financing from Spain has begun to dry up because of that country's debt crisis, and while the Peace Corps withdrawal "has not significantly affected us," he said he worried it could set an example for other donor countries to pull out.

But Puerto said he could understand the U.S. decision. "Their concerns are justified, until the security situation in Honduras improves," he said. "Human values have been lost. Crime is the order of the day."

Honduras joins Kazakhstan and Niger as countries that have recently had their volunteers pulled out. The Kazakhstan decision followed reports of sexual assaults against volunteers. In Niger, volunteers were evacuated after the kidnapping and murder of two French citizens claimed by an al-Qaida affiliate.
A U.N. report, released in October 2011, said Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world with 6,200 killings, or 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. "Violence affects all Hondurans. It wouldn't be surprising if Peace Corps members, too," said Jose Rolando Bu, president of a group that represents non-governmental agencies.

Sarah Smith, a 25-year-old health volunteer who lived in the town of Taulabe, said she was once robbed and knew a friend got her computer stolen at gunpoint. "Just about everyone had something happened to them at some level," she said Wednesday.
Smith said she also received an email regarding the pullout and, although the bus attack was not cited as the reason, "it was in the back of our minds," said Smith, back in Cincinnati after a nearly two-year mission.

Between June 2010 and June 2011, nine U.S. citizens were killed in Honduras, most in San Pedro Sula or northern coastal areas.

The Peace Corps had sent volunteers to Honduras since 1962, and around 1982 it was the largest mission in the world, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. sent more people to help after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. It was not clear what effect the volunteers' departure would have on the Corps' efforts; no other aid agency immediately announced any pullout based on security concerns.

Peace Corps volunteer Claire Krebs, an engineer from Houston, Texas, described her work in the mid-sized city of Choluteca on the Peace Corps Journals blog site. Krebs wrote that she surveyed, planned and designed water systems for rural Honduran villages, which involved visits to rural areas in the country's somewhat more tranquil southern region, where there were few apparent security problems.
Berman said in the Nov. 28, 2011, letter to Clinton that he worried that some murders in Honduras appeared to be politically motivated because high-profile victims included people related to or investigating abuses by police and security forces, or to the June 28, 2009, ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. The coup lead to the temporary diplomatic isolation of Honduras.

On Tuesday, a Honduran lawyer who had reported torture and human rights violations by police officers was killed by gunmen, authorities said.

Three men stormed into the office of Ricardo Rosales, 42, shot him dead and escaped, said Hector Turcios, the police chief of Tela, a city 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of the capital. Rosales had told local press that officers had tortured jail inmates in his city.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Family New Year’s Celebration, Reconnecting with Nicaragua, More on Honduras, Republican Primary, Haitian-Domincans

On December 30, when my daughter Melanie was arriving from Virginia Beach to spend New Year’s weekend with me and her daughter and grandson, the furnace in my house went out, so we all decamped to a hotel. That seemed easier that all sitting around in a cold house waiting all day for a furnace repairman possibly to show up. Fortunately, it was not cold enough for pipes to freeze or indoor plants to suffer. Melanie was able at the last minute to find us a room at a top-notch hotel (Hyatt near Dulles Airport) for low-price bid. I never knew before that you could do that, but apparently it’s a way for hotels to fill a vacant room—better something than nothing. So we all enjoyed the heated pool and hot tub, especially my 4-year-old great grandson De’Andre. Hope you all had an equally memorable New Year’s celebration. (Will try to post the photos.)

Facebook is quite an invention. I just heard via Facebook from Edward Schoures, who, when I last saw him in 2003, was living with his parents in a rural extended family compound outside Managua, Nicaragua (as described in my book). Of course, I haven’t gotten any older since then, but Edward, who was about 18 at the time, must be in his mid 20s by now. I’m waiting to hear what he is up to and how his folks are doing. Since he would not have e-mail access in his home, I’ll have to wait until he next visits an internet center to get the answer.
* * * * * * * * * *
Well, I heard back from Edward, who is now married, with 2 kids and another on the way. He’s been busy since I last saw him in 2003! He says that his father, Larry, has had a stroke. I don’t know how serious. Larry is mentioned in the chapter in my book about visiting Nicaragua.

A message received from Martin Rivera, long-time water-and-san director for Peace Corps Honduras, a very dedicated guy now out of a job, says that there have been at least 6,000 volunteers in Honduras.

Article below more about drug trade in Honduras. I don't know what the answer is. Some people think we should legalize drugs--that it's like alcohol prohibition, cut out the illegal vendors, control it. But alcohol still takes a terrible toll. Maybe marijuana should be legalized--it's already sort of legal in some places, but not very well controlled. "Just say 'No'," as Nancy Reagan advocated, hasn't worked either.

One of my correspondents, herself in AA for an alcohol problem, says:
I’ve believed for a long time in legalizing drugs. Not just putting them on the open market, like candy bars or something, but regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco sales. For one thing, it would make them less accessible to children and teenagers. Right now, they use drugs in part because drugs are easier to get than alcohol. It’s a way of regulating things like cleanliness and potency as well as the most important thing, to my thinking, who buys the drugs. They would also be considerably cheaper which should have some effect on the crime rate.

When I go to Honduras in Feb. will have to land in a city, but will try to get out of there ASAP. The countryside is usually much safer.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Grim toll as cocaine trade expands in HondurasBy Nick Miroff, December 26, 2011, The Washington Post

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — In the most murderous part of the most murderous country in the world, the families of murdered sons and husbands and sisters meet each month in a concrete building next to the Nuestra Senora de Guada¬lupe church. They sit in plastic chairs, leaning forward to speak, and the anguish pours out. There is the dread of birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. Or knowing who the killer is, and that he will not be arrested, and the perversity of that. The group had 10 families when it started three years ago. Today it has 60, and all but one of their cases remain unsolved.

“We are living in constant fear,” said Blanca Alvarez, wearing a pin bearing a portrait of her dead son, Jason, shot in a carjacking in 2006. “We have had marches for peace, wearing white, releasing white balloons into the air. Nothing is going to change here. Nothing.”

Honduras had 82.1 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, the highest per-capita rate in the world, according to a global homicide report published by the United Nations in October that included estimates for Iraq and Afghanistan. Security concerns prompted the U.S. Peace Corps to announce last week that it would pull all 158 volunteers out of Honduras.

As in Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras’s neighbors in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, the homicide problem goes back decades. But as Mexico’s billionaire drug mafias expand their smuggling networks deeper into Central America to evade stiffer enforcement in Mexico and the Caribbean, violence has exploded, as if the cocaine were gasoline tossed on a fire. Honduras’s grim tally reached 6,239 killings in 2010, compared with 2,417 in 2005, and researchers say the count will be even higher this year. The largest number of homicides occurred here around San Pedro Sula, a once-booming manufacturing center that is fast becoming the Ciudad Juarez of Central America.

That troubled city on the U.S.-Mexico border and San Pedro Sula share more than a reputation for low-wage assembly plants and fratricidal violence. They are at opposite ends of the billion-dollar smuggling chain that extends from the north coast of Honduras to the United States.

It starts on the isolated beaches and jungle airstrips of Honduras’s Mosquitia region, where 95 percent of the suspected drug flights from South America to Central America land, according to U.S. narcotics agents. U.S. radar detected 90 such flights into Honduras last year, compared with 24 in 2008, marking a major shift in trafficking patterns that indicates a strong preference for the country’s rugged geography and feeble institutions.

In March, authorities raided a cocaine processing lab in the mountains near San Pedro Sula. The facility was the first of its kind in Central America, capable of churning out a ton of powder each month by combining imported coca paste with hydrochloric acid and other chemicals.

Then, in July, a semi-submersible “narco submarine” with $180 million worth of cocaine was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters off Honduras, the first such craft detected in the Caribbean. Since then, three more have been busted.

Honduran lawmakers voted overwhelmingly last month to deploy the country’s military against drug traffickers, adopting the security strategy charted by Mexican President Felipe Calderon with mixed results. Overall, U.S. officials estimate that 25 to 30 tons of cocaine arrive in Honduras each month by air and sea — one-third of the world’s total volume — before continuing north into Mexico through Guatemala and Belize on fast boats, fishing vessels or cargo trucks.

“Honduras is by far the world’s largest primary transshipment point for cocaine,” said a U.S. official working here who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security protocols. Shepherding the precious merchandise is a dangerous but lucrative occupation, as the payoff to local smugglers for receiving an average-size planeload of 500 kilograms and delivering it to Guatemala can be $1 million. Honduran police commanders say smugglers are also increasingly paying their contacts in raw product rather than cash, driving up local drug-dealing and the lethal violence that accompanies it.

‘Total impunity’
Researchers caution that the surge in killings here cannot be attributed entirely to narcotics trafficking. As in Ciudad Juarez, drug-fueled violence appears to have fostered an overall climate of impunity, in which bullets settle the slightest dispute and anyone can literally get away with murder.

Journalists, labor activists and gays also are apparently being killed at elevated rates, and political violence has flared since the 2009 coup that deposed leftist President Manuel Zelaya. Then there are the thousands of other Hondurans who seemingly have nothing to do with the drug trade who have been slain in carjackings, muggings and hotheaded feuds.

“You always imagine that your parent will die of old age, not murder,” said Claudia Castillo, whose father, who drove a grocery delivery truck, was killed last December in San Pedro Sula for falling behind on extortion payments, which gang members here call the impuesto de guerra (“war tax”). He had been mugged, assaulted or shot at on at least eight other occasions, Castillo said, including an incident a few months before his death in which teenage gangsters ordered him to dance and fired at his feet.
“We begged him to quit, but he said he had to pay for us to go to college,” Castillo said. After burying him, her family moved to another neighborhood after receiving new threats from the gang.

At nearly every business here, from Burger King to the smallest mini-market, armed men with 12-gauge shotguns stand guard. Those who can afford it barricade their families behind razor wire, 10-foot walls and electrified fencing.

“If a person kills someone and the next day they’re sitting in a restaurant drinking coffee as if nothing happened, then that person feels they have permission to kill anyone they want,” said Jose Antonio Canales, a priest who works with the support group for victims’ families. “There is total impunity.”

Gang warfare
For much of the 20th century, Canales said, the north coast of Honduras was a place of opportunity, drawing workers to the vast banana plantations owned by U.S. fruit companies. In the 1980s, as civil wars raged in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras and especially the San Pedro Sula area were held up as a model of export-driven development, attracting waves of workers to the assembly plants known as maquilas.

“People came from all over, but when they didn’t find opportunity, the pockets of misery formed,” Canales said. “Then a lot of kids were raised by a single mom or a grandmother because their parents were in the United States.”

The transnational gangs MS-13 and 18th Street took root in the city’s slums and have been warring ever since, reinforced by deported criminals from Los Angeles street gangs and U.S. prisons. The United States has been drawn deep into Honduras’s counter-drug fight, spending at least $50 million on security assistance since 2008, according to U.S. officials. “This is a poor country where 65 percent of the people live in poverty and the government’s law enforcement budget cannot begin to compare to the funds that drug trafficking organizations have,” U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said in an interview here. “It’s clear the country needs help.”

Armed American drug agents are on the front lines of anti-narcotics operations, launching helicopter raids into the jungles of Mosquitia from the Soto Cano air base, where the United States has a large military presence. U.S. advisers are teaching police how to gather evidence and are helping modernize Honduras’s ghoulish prison system. The United States has provided armored vehicles to protect judges from assassination and sophisticated mobile X-ray equipment that can scan vehicle cargo at checkpoints and border crossings.

But setbacks have undercut recent security improvements. On Dec. 7, former security minister Alfredo Landaverde — an outspoken critic of growing police corruption tied to organized crime — was gunned down in his car, a day after assassins pumped 37 bullets into the vehicle of radio journalist Luz Marina Paz Villalobos. Since then, Honduras’s Congress has banned all motorcycle drivers from carrying passengers, because both victims were slain by hit men riding on the backs of motorbikes.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a good or a bad person here, or if you’re someone with a future,” said Irwin Santos, whose brother Deybis — a university student — was killed in 2008 in San Pedro Sula. “In the end, you become just another statistic.”

Oh, dear, such a sorry roster of candidates for the Republican primaries. Of course, everyone is mortal and has human faults, including yours truly and President Obama, but from my perspective, the Republican candidates are across-the-board dishonest, thoughtless, and singularly lacking in abilities and basic smarts. They do have tremendous ambition and money at their disposal, that’s about all.

They all have lots of chutzpah too and each obviously has a fair number of followers. How so many ever got this far is beyond me, but, then, I admit to being biased. It’s really scary to think one of them might actually become president. Of course, most of the electorate is ignorant and biased, so that’s the obvious answer. A large proportion of the electorate does not believe in evolution or that human-impacted climate change exists, many still think Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim, others see 9/11 as a US government conspiracy, and people flock to see images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast. Presidential candidates pander to them, reinforcing their beliefs. It’s enough to make you lose faith in democracy and voting. Money seems to be the main political driver and the incentive for people wanting to be elected president of the USA. Even candidates with no chance of winning probably remain in the race because of the money involved and the ego-boost of having people cheer on and support them.

And now, in the Arab Spring countries, well-organized Muslim groups seem poised to set back the clock on women’s rights and those of religious minorities. A voting majority probably propelled Hugo Chavez into office for the first time, from whence he solidified his power. Massive crowds cheered Fidel Castro’s victory over Batista. Same with the Iranian revolution. So are elections really worth it?

The man-on-the-street seems to be unable to anticipate future developments, only to react after-the-fact, often after the damage has already been done. Think not only of the entrenchment of dictators, but how the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush vs. Gore led our country into an ill-fated, mistaken Iraq war, with all the unnecessary ensuing deaths, injuries, and financial cost, as well as into the lack of financial oversight that helped sink us into recession. So what’s the Republican answer to get us out of recession? Even less regulation and government oversight! The problem is, what’s the alternative to voting and representative government? We can’t go back to hereditary monarchies. Is a voting system simply the lesser of evils? ------------------------------------------------------------------

A diatribe was sent to me on Christmas Day in response to a posting I had made some time ago on an Amnesty International Spanish-language human rights blog, Aliados, about the rights of people of Haitian descent living in the DR. For those unfamiliar with Spanish, let me just say that the writer sounds like the equivalent of some rabid anti-immigrant folks here in the US, using a lot of capital letters and exclamation marks to make her point. Among other complaints, she calls Haitians a “rock in the shoe” and “monkeys.” A Colombian colleague in my Caribbean action network who helps me with Haiti posted a calm, beautiful reply.