Thursday, June 28, 2012

Amnesty Staff Cuts, Drone Strikes, Rangel Triumphs in Demo. Primary, Supreme Court, Moving Beyond Malicious Amazon Review, Radio Program Reminder

One of the hats I wear is an Amnesty International (AI) volunteer activist. In 1981, I helped found group 211 in Washington, DC, to which I still belong. Until I joined the Peace Corps in Honduras in 2000, I was Cuba and Dominican Republic coordinator for AI USA. After returning to Washington in 2004, I became coordinator for the entire Caribbean and Canada (with concerns there regarding indigenous and environmental rights). In 2005, I participated in an international Amnesty conference held in Morelos, Mexico. In 2011, I was in San Francisco when we celebrated Amnesty’s 50th anniversary. So, I have stuck with Amnesty through thick and thin, but now our organization is undergoing its thinnest period, facing serious financial challenges, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. The reasons are many, including the economic recession, an expansion of our mandate, and, perhaps, insufficient attention to financial and organizational matters as we confront human rights emergencies around the world, including, right now, those in Syria. It’s been tempting to respond to every identified need when we don’t really have the resources to do it all. The one staff member of AI USA supporting our volunteer efforts around the world for the last decade, working heroically with only the help of rotating volunteer interns, is now being laid off as a cost-cutting measure. As long-time volunteers working with him for years, we were not consulted or forewarned, even though Amnesty is supposedly a grassroots organization. I fear our protests after-the-fact will be to no avail. Our own experience in this regard has been repeated in organizations, public, private, and non-profit, around the country. The money just isn’t there.

My old friend Jimmy Carter has dropped a bombshell, accusing the Obama administration of violating human rights through targeted drone killings. I wondered when any prominent domestic voice was going to call Obama to task on what, arguably, are assassinations carried out without trial or due process. Even though the American public may condone them as effective self-defense, they are ethically questionable. I had thought maybe human rights organizations were shying away from direct criticism, considering Obama preferable to Romney in this case. So far, have not heard a defense from the administration.

My Dominican friends’ cousin Adriano Espaillat running in the Democratic primary in NYC against Charlie Rangel lost, so it looks like Rangel is in again. Everyone in the DR was rooting for Adriano, according to my sources. He gave Rangel a run for his money, but didn’t make it. He did get 40% of the vote, so may do better in two years time. After all, Rangel is 80, has had some ethics challenges, and the district is more Latino than before.

Mixed and somewhat confusing decisions on the Arizona immigration verification law and the Obama health plan have emerged from the Supreme Court, providing at least substantial support to the administration. The court has not split entirely along the usual ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts playing a mediating role. However, is becoming increasingly apparent that at least some Supreme Court justices are highly partisan, not the objective, letter-of-the- law authorities we rely on to independently resolve the nation’s most contentious disputes. It does seem that the time has come to have limited, rather life-time, tenure for the Supremes. First, there was their bald favoritism in Bush vs. Gore that possibly resulted, because of the Bush administration’s neglect of warning clues, in 9/11 and, even worse, Bush’s launching of the unnecessary, costly, and deadly Iraq war. Now Justice Antonin Scalia, whom I consider evil personified in the same mold as Dick Cheney, is denouncing the “evil effects of illegal immigration.” How about looking at the useful effects of immigration, whether legal or not? Sphinx-like Clarence Thomas, the man who never says a word, and who tried to savage Anita Hill’s reputation, probably agrees with Scalia, but will only say so in writing. From my perspective, they are both a joke, and not a funny one. In my old age, I’m becoming more pessimistic about humankind and its ability to progress or act half-way rationally. I do think the high court’s decisions on Arizona’s immigration-verification law and health care were somewhat balanced, no thanks to Scalia and company.

While I’m trying to leave behind the shock of that vicious and vindictive (why?) review of my Honduras book, the fact remains that ever since that guy put that up on Amazon in mid-May, I’ve had no sales whatsoever. If he reads my blog, that should give him some satisfaction. My sins, if any, were sins of omission in that I didn’t buy his Honduras memoir and didn’t promote it for an award. Although he has written and self-published many books, apparently none has gotten the recognition he craves. Usually, I’ve had one or two sales of my Honduras book at least every couple of weeks. Now, weeks after his posting, nada. It could be just coincidence or due to the Peace Corps’ departure from Honduras, but it’s rather troubling. If his objective was to stop my sales, he may have done a pretty good job. I also realize that a book’s sales do tend to diminish over time, not that mine were ever that robust. I anticipated that they might pick up after the Canadian radio show, but if listeners go to Amazon, I hope they won’t be discouraged by his review, which will remain there starkly visible in perpetuity. I’m open to suggestions about how to deal with this. Just ignoring it doesn’t seem to be working particularly well, though that’s the main advice I’ve gotten. Would-be readers may not take the trouble to go through all the other 5-star reviews. I notice that his own books have few Amazon reviews. One friend who has seen his review on Amazon is even worried about my physical safety, as he seems to be, in her words,
“ a nut case.” He lives in California, but was out here last September for the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary where I don’t recall ever running into him. Others tell me he was obnoxiously trying to get everyone to buy his books, which he described as “wonderful.” I hope I’m not that pushy.

Gentle reminder about my radio interview (via telephone) this coming Sunday: Conscious Discussions Talk Radio, Vancouver, BC

Interview Time-line

Conscious Discussions airs LIVE at 10 AM (Pacific) Sunday July 1 [Eastern time 1 PM]

The show will be 60 minutes in duration.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Canadian Radio Show, Senior Citizenship, Gabrielle Giffords, Warren Buffet, Rangel’s Challenger, Obama’s Immigration Move, Honduras HR, Cuban Leader’s Arrest, Ethiopian Dinner, My Book’s Defenders on Amazon

Posted here is a photo of Amy, my former Honduras Peace Corps volunteer colleague, with her brand new daughter. We reconnected recently at my April talk at the Mid-Manhattan public library, when Amy was obviously pregnant, and now here she is with the new bundle of joy actually in her arms. Congratulations, Amy!

Also, photos of my visitors now taking a course at GAO. They are at the GAO fellows’ “cultural day” where each of the 20 showcases his or her country. George from Georgia is wearing a fur hat used by shepherds and Tabitha from Kenya is in her tribal dress.

Next, I’ve been invited to talk about Peace Corps by a Canadian radio show, even though Canada has no Peace Corps and its citizens cannot join ours unless they become American citizens. OK, my policy is to accept any and all invitations to talk Peace Corps. I’m not sure how access works, but here is the information given to me:

Conscious Discussions Talk Radio, Vancouver, BC

Interview Time-line

Conscious Discussions airs LIVE at 10 AM (Pacific) Sunday July 1 [Eastern time 1 PM]
The show will be 60 minutes in duration.

Have now gone back after my surgery to working as an interpreter, a job that’s not physically demanding, except for going and coming on public transportation. I was heartened recently when a Nicaraguan patient who really spoke quite passable English said he was happy to have me there for moral support anyway, “You calmed me and made me feel less nervous; I have no family here.”

I’ve become an official senior citizen now, with bus drivers no longer asking for my ID when I pay senior fare and young people sometimes offering me their seats on the metro. I have mixed feelings about being so obviously recognized as an older person!

Riding a bus back to the metro station after a recent hospital interpretation, I saw a car hit a cyclist, knocking him to the ground, evoking flashbacks of the pedestrian hit-and-run I endured now over a year ago. In this case, the driver stopped and witnesses called the police. Several people took cell-phone photos of the prone victim lying in the street. Fortunately for me, although the driver who hit me had gone on, I’m unaware of suffering any permanent injury. But when a vehicle hits you, it’s a very heavy blow and really quite a shock.

Walking by our local Eastern Market on a recent evening, I saw a big party going on inside. Those manning the door told me it was a dinner celebrating Gabrielle Giffords who resigned from Congress to focus on her recovery from gunshot wounds. She was said to be attending in person, so I tried to get a glimpse inside, but the view was blocked. I do wish her the best.

Warren Buffet, it turns out, was a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, a DC public school from which my kids also graduated.

The following gives more details about Rangel’s primary challenger, a distant cousin of my Dominican friends in the Espaillat family:

As you might imagine, I applaud Obama’s decision to give undocumented people brought to this country as children a temporary stay, though, like many others, especially those recently deported who fall into this same category, I have to ask that if this option was available before, why wait until now, in an election year, to implement it? The timing does seem a bit opportunistic. .

Honduras was singled out for a recent visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, who, following her visit, asserted that: "The 2009 coup d'état aggravated institutional weaknesses, increased the vulnerability of human rights defenders and provoked a major polarisation in society. Due to the exposed nature of their activities, human rights defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, death threats, attacks, harassment and stigmatisation." She went on to say, "I have observed that certain categories of human rights defenders are at particular risk, including journalists, staff of the National Human Rights Commission, lawyers, prosecutors and judges, as well as defenders working on the rights of women, children, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex community, the indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities as well as those working on environmental and land rights issues." (Wake Up Call: Human Rights in Honduras, By: Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group, 6/8/2012)

Amid violence, lack of unity among Honduran journalists

By John Otis/CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] June 12, 2012

On May 25, the Honduran press corps took to the streets of Tegucigalpa and four other cities to reject the growing levels of violence against members of the media. Many marchers donned yellow-and-black t-shirts emblazoned with the words: "Killing journalists will not kill the truth."

It was an impressive show of solidarity but in the aftermath, a question hung in the air: what took them so long? Though the pace of attacks and killings of reporters picked up dramatically after a 2009 coup ousted the country's president, last month's march was the first nationwide protest by journalists.

Due to political and drug-related violence as well as widespread impunity, Honduras, a nation of 7.5 million people, is one of the most dangerous countries in the region for journalists, CPJ research shows. At least 14 journalists have been killed since President Porfirio Lobo took office in January 2010. The systematic failure of Honduran authorities to investigate these crimes has frustrated any attempt to solve the murders, CPJ said in a letter sent to Lobo in December.

The climate is so intimidating that reporters told CPJ that they don't dare probe deeply into crucial issues like drug trafficking or government corruption. Many print reporters have removed their bylines from their stories. Tiempo, a San Pedro Sula-based daily newspaper that consistently criticizes the government, has shut down its investigative unit due to safety concerns. Some reporters claim the only safe way to tell the truth about Honduras is to write a novel. "Everyone feels vulnerable," said Mavis Cruz, director of the news program Noticias a la Hora on Radio Libertad in San Pedro Sula. "There have been so many abuses against journalists and there is almost total impunity." But rather than coming together to face this crisis, Honduran journalists are deeply divided and suspicious of one another.

Besides damaging the country's democracy, the June 2009 military-backed coup that ousted leftist former President Manuel Zelaya fractured the national press corps into opposing camps, according to Juan Carlos Rodríguez, a general assignment reporter for Tiempo in San Pedro Sula.

Journalists in favor of the coup or who work for media outlets that supported Zelaya's ouster are known in Spanish as golpistas or "coup-backers," while those who opposed it have been pigeon-holed as resistencia, or part of the political resistance.

Rodríguez says that when "resistance" journalists are attacked or killed, the news receives scant attention or comment from pro-coup media--which includes most of the country's major television, radio, and print outlets. By contrast, the May 15 killing of Ángel Alfredo Villatoro, a prominent radio host and close friend of President Lobo, has been headline news for days. Indeed, it was the killing of Villatoro, one of the country's best-known journalists, which prompted the Honduran press corps to temporarily set aside its differences and stage the May 25 nationwide protest, according to Karina Interiano, who anchors the Noti6 TV news program on Channel 6 in San Pedro Sula. Journalists in Tegucigalpa did participate in a smaller march in December after the murder of reporter Luz Marina Paz Villalobos. They were beaten and tear-gassed by soldiers and police, according to press reports.

Honduras is one of the world's most violent countries. A 2011 United Nations report found it has the world's highest per capita homicide rate, with 82.1 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants.

As CPJ noted in its Journalist Security Guide released this year, professional solidarity is important in situations in which local journalists face sustained risk. "Perhaps the best step journalists can take in such environments is organizing themselves first in their newsroom, then with other journalists and news organizations within their city or region, and ultimately across their nation," the guide states. Groups such as Colombia's Foundation for a Free Press and the Brazilian Association for Investigative Reporting have played valuable roles in curbing attacks on journalists.

In Honduras, adding to the mutual suspicion among reporters is the fear that they are being spied on by colleagues who may be passing information to security forces. These journalist/informants are known locally as orejas, Spanish for "ears." The scenario is especially chilling because many reporters believe that some of the attacks on journalists have taken place with the tacit approval or complicity of the country's police and military."Lots of journalists are corrupt and receive payoffs," Cruz said. As she spoke in a hotel restaurant, a reporter suddenly approached the table, uninvited, to greet her. Later, Cruz whispered that the reporter probably doubled as an informant.

These tensions add to the regional rivalries that have long existed between reporters in Tegucigalpa, the capital, and those based in San Pedro Sula, the country's industrial center and largest city. Even within news organizations, there's often a lack of solidarity, reporters told CPJ.

Rubén Escobar, an editor at Tiempo in San Pedro Sula, told CPJ that his supervisors have failed to hold a single meeting to discuss the deteriorating security situation and have neglected to provide any guidance or training to help reporters protect themselves. "I have taken some courses in personal security but I did that myself," Escobar told CPJ.

And trying to bring rival reporters together to work out their differences is getting more difficult due to the spiraling violence. Escobar said that reporters in San Pedro Sula rarely meet after work for drinks or dinner anymore because that could expose them to shootouts between gang members or drug lords. "These days if I want to have a few beers I buy them at the supermarket and bring them home," he said.

Not sure how to access it, but CNN (June 12) carried a story about Afro-Cuban dissident Antunez’s recent police beating and arrest, with pepper spray shot into his mouth, according to his wife, who was also briefly detained. After spending 17 years in prison, he still isn't shy about speaking out. His latest arrest happened after he gave videocam testimony from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to a Senate committee about seeing authorities kill another pro-democracy activist, Antonio Ruiz. A few days later, he was conditionally released, but still faces trial.

In June 2012, I had the good fortune to meet a released Cuban Black Spring prisoner of conscience, Normando Hernández, on whose Amnesty case I had worked for several years. He and his family were visiting Washington, DC. During his imprisonment, I’d been in regular phone contact with his mother in Miami, Blanca González, a member of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White). We both were pleased when he won the PEN Freedom to Write Award in 2007, but, of course, he was unable to actually receive until after his release. Still, Normando said, word of the prize buoyed his spirits, “I knew I wasn’t forgotten.” At his release, brokered by the Cuban Catholic church, he and his family met at the airport and boarded a flight that same day to Madrid, later moving to Miami to join Normando’s mother living there.

Normando told me that he is slowly recuperating both mentally and physically from the torture, solitary confinement, and medical neglect of his seven years in prison. He still looks thin and pale and is under medical treatment. His personal life is looking up, however, although he remains gravely concerned about Cuba and its people, “those we left behind, both in and out of prison.” He called his time in prison “Hell on earth,” including three years in solitary confinement in tapiada (a covered windowless enclosure). Occasionally, when not in solitary, he received outside news from other prisoners with clandestine radios tuned to Voice of America and Radio Martí. He has authored a prison memoir, El Arte de La Tortura: Memorias de un Prisoneo de Conciencia Cubano (Hispano Cubano, Mardi, 2010) and now works as a freelance journalist and a researcher for the National Endowment for Democracy. He had been arrested for being an independent journalist and belonging to the Fundación Cubana de Derechos Humanos (Cuban Foundation for Human Rights), an organization led by Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind lawyer and activist from Ciego de Avila. Leiva himself was imprisoned for more than two years until April 2004, held subsequently under house arrest, and detained additional times since.

Normando’s wife, Yarai Reyes, lost her teaching job as soon as Normando was arrested. Lacking funds, she said she found it hard to visit him as he was moved from one prison to another—from Boniato in Santiago, to Kilo 5 1/2 in Pinar del Río, to Combinado del Este in Havana, and to Kilo 7 in Camagüey. She joined the Damas and once, when she inquired about her husband’s whereabouts as “a political prisoner,” a female agent reportedly reprimanded her for using that term, declaring, “We have no political prisoners here in Cuba, only counterrevolutionary mercenaries funded by the empire.”

The couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Daniela, already fluent in English, said she now writes poetry in both languages, reciting for me one of the rhyming poems she exchanged with her father, also a poet, while he was in prison.

Todos sabemos lo que cuesta ser humano.
Pero no todos sabemos lo que cuesta ser cubano
Y vivir en las garras
De un gobierno tirano.

[We all know what it means to be human.
But we don’t all know what it means to be Cuban
And to live within the clutches
Of a tyrannical government.]

At the same gathering where Normando was present, I met Yuri Pérez, now performing a summer internship in the nation’s capital, who, in short order, had mastered quite fluent English. Emblematic of Cuba’s disillusioned young people, he left Cuba two years earlier at age 27 after being expelled from the University of Camagüey where he was studying law. His crime had been joining an illegal youth organization, Juvenil Martiana, named for patriot José Martí. I told him that I’d received a warm welcome from democracy activists in his hometown in 1997. As a refugee, he’d been sent directly to Las Vegas, Nevada, which has few Cuban residents and few job opportunities, but, he said, “Still better than Cuba, since we do have freedom and that is precious.”

At Amnesty International’s DC office, we held an Ethiopian dinner attended by both Ethiopian nationals and Amnesty activists. Hearing the Ethiopians talk among themselves, I was reminded of public school events where I’ve worked as a Spanish interpreter side-by-side with Amharic interpreters. The dinner was served on large spongy pancakes torn off to pickup mouthfuls of food, an eating style similar to what I experienced in South Sudan in 2006. Our two speakers at the event argued that while Ethiopia is considered a human rights and democratic success by the US and the West, it still has prisoners of conscience and human rights violations justified largely as part of the “war on terror.” Ethiopian troops are in Somalia, but are not always peace keepers, corruption can be found within the Ethiopian government, and opposition is not permitted, according to our speakers, one an Ethiopian national. There is a danger that Ethiopia and other African nations may fall back to dictatorial model of the 1990s, they warned. Africa is an area of marginal concern for the US Congress, so no one is paying much attention.

Friends have advised me to forget about my bad Amazon review, arguing that most thoughtful people will not be influenced by it, since the writer so obviously bears some sort of crazy grudge, so I’m trying to take their advice and calm down. Some have even suggested a backlash effect, giving me more credibility, though others have warned that maybe would-be readers will think all those 5-star reviews came from friends of mine. If so, I apparently have a lot of friends. A subsequent review (making no mention of his terrible one) has appeared now along with two comments, both characterizing his review as “mean-spirited,” so I’m grateful that some readers out there have come to my defense. He even took the time to rebut them, saying that my book was the worst Peace Corps memoir of the many he had read. He’s like a dog with a bone that won’t let go, hell-bent on damaging me and my sales, that’s all I can figure out and why? I don’t for a minute believe that he really believes what he has said. It’s pure meanness or else a mental health crisis on his part. What did I do to arouse his ire? Didn’t buy his Honduras book, didn’t vote for him to get an award from PC Writers, got awards myself, I guess. Although I’d sent him my book a couple of years ago, he waited until now to pan it. His little book, the one that he’d sent in exchange for mine, was not about Honduras; it was sloppily written, but frankly not the absolutely worst PC-related book I’ve ever read. It’s a real puzzle. If I should ever run into that guy at a Peace Corps or Honduras reunion, it will be hard for me to remain civil. A friend now in Peace Corps Response, a shorter-term service for volunteers who have already completed a full term, reacting to my critic’s posting (privately, not on Amazon), said he still considers my book top-notch, and he has read and reviewed a ton of PC memoirs. He even envisions a film with Judi Dench playing me! Thanks so much to all who have come to my defense.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Photo Caption, Woops! Forgot Cuba Book Last Time, Honduras Murder Arrests, Dolores Huerta, Rangel Challenger, Newseum, Gun Rights & Wrongs, A “Rotten Book”

First, the most recent photo was posted on June 5 by my daughter Stephanie, whose friends from Honolulu are standing there with me in my Washington, DC, kitchen on a recent visit.

Mea culpa, dear friends and readers, I fully intended to mention my current Cuba book-in-progress on the last blog as cited in the header, but forgot to include it in the text. Trying to go back and remove that header reference was unsuccessful. If your curiosity was aroused, I’ll tell you now that it will be a book about my extensive Latin American, and especially Cuban, experiences beyond Honduras, which has already been covered sufficiently. I’m looking for a graphic designer to help me put the book together and insert photos, so am open to recommendations, preferably for someone willing to work with my idiosyncrasies who wouldn’t charge me an arm and a leg. It would be great to have the same guy who helped me with the Honduras book, but he’s too busy right now. A graphic design student needing to get some real world experience and add a book to his/her resume would be ideal. I’m willing to pay, but would expect a price break while the designer is learning on-the-job. Commercial publishers are usually unwilling to include photos except for famous authors, one reason I’ve decided to self-publish again; it’s also a matter of having more complete control. For your designer suggestions, please contact me via my Yahoo address.

IFEX 6 June 2012 Unprecedented arrests of suspects in journalist's murder

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and IFEX's member in Honduras Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre) welcomed the unprecedented arrests of 10 suspects linked to the kidnapping and murder of a radio reporter whose body was found last month.

Alfredo Villatoro, a director of HRN radio, one of the oldest broadcast stations in the country, had been blindfolded and shot twice in the head. His body, discovered on 15 May in a busy street near the capital, had been dressed in a police uniform.

Thousands of people had taken to the streets around the country to protest a wave of journalist killings in Honduras in the wake of Villatoro's brutal murder, reports RSF. He is the second reporter killed last month after journalist and gay rights activist Erick Martinez was murdered on 7 May, says C-Libre.

The IFEX members say more than 20 reporters have been killed in Honduras since a 2009 coup that ousted then President Manuel Zelaya. None of the murders have been solved. In the face of growing protests and international condemnation, "the police and the national authorities have been prompted to act," says the "Guardian".

According to news reports, five suspects - two women and three men, aged 15 to 29 - were arrested last week. An AK47, rifles, handguns and bullets were recovered from their homes, and two cars, thought to be linked to the kidnapping, were seized.

This came days after three other arrests in connection with the kidnapping and murder, report the IFEX members. Two prison inmates are also being questioned after a call from a mobile phone traced back to the prison was made to Villatoro's family, says RSF. One of those arrested is allegedly a police officer, RSF says.

According to the "Guardian", in recent days the Honduran government also announced its intention to draw up an emergency national protection plan for journalists at risk. Justice Minister Ana Pineda said the plan was designed to "ensure adequate security to enable journalists to be able to work free from threats and intimidation."

Newspapers, too, have joined the call for action against the drug traffickers, criminal gangs and political forces that have created a climate of fear and intimidation for Honduran journalists since the coup. On 28 May, "La Prensa", a leading Honduran daily, wrote a story headlined "Enough Already!" which demanded the right to "exercise our vocation and have the freedom to show Hondurans the reality as it is."

According to the UN, Honduras had the world's highest murder rate in 2011, with 86 homicides per year for every 100,000 inhabitants - which is roughly 20 times the murder rate in the U.S.

Perhaps signifying a shift in political will in Honduras, suspects have been arrested in two other cases, reports C-Libre. Former police officer David Lanza Valdez was arrested in connection with the August 2010 murder of journalist Israel Zelaya Díaz. And in Colón, Gabriel Menocal Vargas was arrested for the murder of journalist Fausto Elio Hernández, who was hacked to death with a machete in March.

On another subject, a distant relative of my friends in the Espaillat family in the Dominican Republic, Adriano Espaillat, is challenging veteran Charlie Rangel in the Democratic primary in a newly redrawn congressional district.

According to our local Spanish language press, Dolores Huerta, who took over Cesar Chavez’s farm workers organization after his death, has received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Now 82 (and the mother of 11 children), Dolores was a frequent overnight visitor to our apartment in Sacramento, California, where she did lobbying for farm workers’ rights. Glad to see her lifelong efforts recognized.

I’ve gone back to work after my hernia surgery—which not a big deal, but big enough, making me realize that having any surgery at my age (74) is not a trivial matter.

At a reception at the Newseum, a private media museum located in downtown Washington, we guests were given a private tour of the impressive exhibits, including a big section of the actual Berlin Wall with a guard tower erected behind and an extensive FBI exhibit, featuring such news milestones as the Lindberg baby kidnapping, capture of the Unabomber, and the Oklahoma City bombing and its aftermath. The building has a lovely high terrace looking out over the capitol and monuments. A Citibank director, Jonathan Clements, an amusing and informative speaker, told us that we are unlikely to ever see return to the glory days of pre-crash profits in our lifetime, giving each of us a signed copy of his book, The Little Book of Main Street Money.

No doubt this happens to anyone who uses a computer a lot, that is, dreaming about being on the computer, erasing and moving words, pressing the “send” button. I’ve awakened suddenly to realize I was keyboarding in my sleep!

In a town outside Washington, an 8-year-old boy accidently killed his 11-year-old brother with a handgun taken from a house where the boys were helping a neighbor with yard work. My younger son, at about age 12, was shot in the foot by another boy playing with a handgun found at the parental bedside of third boy whose home they were visiting. Fortunately, though he suffered pain and had to go to the hospital, my son survived. Perhaps personal guns are useful to some degree for protection or hunting, though I am not a fan of hunting either. However, I suspect that if a statistical analysis were made, many more people are hurt or killed through gun misuse than are ever saved. Although guns, especially loaded handguns, are supposed to be locked away from children or others who might misuse them, that often doesn’t happen. The NRA seems to have stranglehold on politicians, including Obama and other Democrats, who seem unwilling to tackle any curbs on gun ownership in an election year, even regarding background checks. And, in the District of Columbia, the US Supreme Court has imposed gun “rights” that the majority of citizens had roundly rejected. So, for the time being, we seem to be stuck with those “rights” and children and other innocent victims will continue to be killed as the price to be paid for the “freedom to bear arms.”

Well, my Honduras book recently received its first bad review and it’s a real humdinger! One-star and titled “This Is A Rotten Book!” with a strong recommendation not to buy it. It’s so over-the-top, it made me laugh, although it sounds like a vendetta. I never actually met this person, a former PC volunteer in Honduras from years ago who first contacted me after seeing my book’s award for “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” posted on the Peace Corps Writers’ website. At his request, I sent him a free copy (though his review says he bought it) in exchange for one of his early self-published books about his travels with his sons in Latin America, a slim uneven chronicle with quite a few typos, really almost a pamphlet. Although he says he has a Hispanic wife and has traveled extensively in Latin America, I found his quotes in Spanish awkward, not quite wrong grammatically but not how a native speaker would say them. I didn’t consider that a fair exchange and he has written many other books that I have not read which may be better. He urged me to purchase his own book about his Peace Corps experiences in Honduras, saying it was very good, but based on the first book he’d sent, I declined. Later, he urged me and others to vote for his Honduras book for an award by the same writers’ group that had given me an award. I didn't vote for it and he didn't win, which I suppose upset him. He once did a valuable job in chronicling crime and other statistics about PC volunteers throughout the years and I publicly thanked him for that on the writers’ website. He also put together PC books for a special collection at the Library of Congress (maybe he threw mine out?).

I was frankly surprised by the vehemence of his negative review of my book (the only negative review posted), a book which many readers have praised and which a few have said inspired them to actually join the Peace Corps. Of course, I am not able to judge my own writing objectively, but aspects he found so objectionable, like my recounting of my early experiences in Honduras as a small child, have proven interesting to many readers and go beyond the usual PC story. Also, my book is a memoir, not a travelogue like his own little book sent to me. My book has been favorably reviewed by a number of outside reviewers, including a reporter for The Washington Post, Ed O’Keefe, who said, “Barbara’s book is a great read… Buy and read this book, no matter your age.” It has also won at least three literary awards. The Peace Corps’ director and assistant director have praised it highly, but were unable to endorse it because of legal advice. Maybe this guy is angry because I never bought his Honduras book? Because my Honduras book was more successful than his and he is envious? He may be a frustrated writer who never has hit his stride or gotten the recognition he craves.

I do feel somewhat vindicated by a positive review that came in since, making no mention of his negative one, probably just as well, though Amazon has given his review such a prominence that I hope won’t discourage future readers. If anyone reading this blog cares to counteract his review (there’s a commentary space right after it), I certainly won’t object. I hope his review won’t affect sales and therefore my future work in Honduras, since my project support depends in part on book sales. Already, my sales on Amazon are down because of Peace Corps’ departure from Honduras. Maybe it’s not necessary to take him on point-by-point or set up a war of reviews by disparaging his own books, some listed on Amazon. His review of my book is so crazy that maybe no one will take it seriously. They may chalk it up to sour grapes, which is probably the case. I really don’t know, except to repeat that old adage, “Different strokes for different folks.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Friday, June 1, 2012

Surgery Is Over, House Repairs Underway, Cuba Book Pending, Bullying & Other High School Challenges, Raul Castro’s Daughter Visits US

Photos being shown here are of my house repairs and of a lunch with former Cuban rafter Jose Manuel and his partner.

This letter is being sent out a little late because I’m recuperating from recent surgery for a hernia first noticed before my trip to Honduras in Feb., requiring extra care in lifting heavy suitcases during that trip. Fortunately, I always leave my suitcases and their contents behind in Honduras, returning with only a carry-on. While my surgery was underway, I was in a sort of fugue state, drifting in and out of consciousness, with my outspread arms tied down and a mesh cloth over my face. At one point, I heard those working above exchange remarks about Cuban doctors and Cuban medicine being excellent. I wanted to say something like, “Yes, their training is excellent, but they lack equipment and medicines,” but I couldn’t speak. I think that conversation was real and not just a dream.

Meanwhile, I was attended during my immediate post-op period by daughter Melanie, along with her 13-year-old sister-in-law Arianna and my 4-year-old great-grandson De’Andre, which made for a lively get-well combination. Of course, my housemates were also present and adding to the mix was my friend Basilio, a carpenter making major repairs on the back of the house. Basilio, now age 75, is still doing remodeling and is a meticulous worker. He is not afraid to climb high ladders and scaffolds and is not afraid of much of anything. He spent 22 years as a political prisoner in Cuba, released only in 1984 when our local Amnesty International group gave his name, along with that of 25 other Amnesty prisoners, to then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who brought them all out. We were at Dulles International Airport, waiting to greet them in the wee hours of a June morning. Basilio ended up marrying a member of our Amnesty group, with whom he has a daughter now age 21. When I finish my own Cuba-memoir-in-progress, I’ve promised to help Basilio write his prison memoir. If anyone in the DC area needs house repairs or remodeling, call Basilio Guzman (703) 338-4348.

For a few days, I’ve had to reluctantly turn down interpretation requests. However, 2 days prior, I did put in 7 hours at a high school with over 700 students on parent/teacher day. No classes were being held. Instead, parents were invited to come by to speak with their student’s teachers. All together, we were 3 Spanish interpreters and 2 Amharic interpreters on duty, with the Spanish interpreters much busier. It was an old-style school building with several levels requiring much up-and-down via steep stairs—I was worn out at day’s end. One 16-year-old student had arrived 3 weeks before from a Latin American country, having been separated from his parents for several years, a typical case where younger siblings had been born meanwhile. He was not a happy student, despite the best efforts of the school to integrate him, including having him attend special language and orientation classes for recent arrivals. He was looking forward to the pending summer vacation.

Another mother reluctantly confessed that her son is absent from school and especially from first- and last-period classes because of fear of “black boys” who would wait to beat him up and steal his lunch money. He did not want to report this for fear of even fiercer reprisals. The school agreed to try to look into remedying the situation delicately, but, of course, who knows what will happen? With the new anti-bullying emphasis, maybe something can be done, though these situations are difficult to manage without making matters worse for the victim.

In my various encounters as an interpreter with DC public schools, I have been impressed by teachers’ and administrators’ dedication, understanding, and flexibility. The schools seem to have improved considerably since my kids attended in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Perhaps much of the credit goes to the much-maligned education reformer Michelle Rie?

Both Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, a gay rights advocate, and delegates from Jamaica came to this country to participate in meetings for LGBT rights in San Francisco and New York City. Mariela used the opportunity to excoriate exile Cubans for holding Americans “hostage” by spreading disinformation about Cuba and for preventing their freedom to travel to Cuba. Questions were not allowed. Although her visa had been approved and, according to the State Department, she also made three trips to the U.S. during the George W. Bush administration, she went out of her way avoid extending an olive branch. “Bite the hand that feeds you,” seems to be the motto of the increasingly defensive Castro regime in not admitting that the largest portion of its imported food and medicines comes from the U.S. and that Americans now comprise the biggest tourist group. She failed to acknowledge that the embargo is now just a shadow of its former self, though still a potent excuse for cracking down on internal dissent. Mariela deserves credit for her gay-rights’ advocacy, but it doesn’t extend into other human rights realms or to gay rights activities outside the official government-sanctioned body .