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.


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