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.

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