Thursday, August 23, 2012

Medical Volunteers Needed, Hate Crimes, Pussy Riot, Self-publishing, Stay of Deportation, Tax Rates, WikiLeaks, Doctor Shortage, “Vigara”

One photo shows my 4-year-old great-grandson De’Andre taking a break from playing pool. The other is of us clowning around at last February’s IHS medical brigade, a photo just sent to me. If you know of any volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists, or pharmacists possibly willing to join us next Feb., please let me know ASAP.

Was the recent shooting at the conservative Family Research Council in DC as a hate crime, in that the shooter opposed the organization’s stance on gays? Is its position based on political considerations or on religious ones? If the latter, this might be considered to fall into a hate-crime category.

Now the three female Pussy Riot punk rockers have been sentenced to 2 years for criticizing Putin in a one-minute song inside a Moscow cathedral. Time-served (almost 6 months already) would have been more than sufficient for such an infraction, but guess that Putin wanted to send a message. The case has sparked international condemnation, which is not over yet.

An article in the NY Times about self-publishing observes that while an occasional self-published book becomes a best-seller like Fifty Shades of Grey, the majority sell only 100 to 150 copies. At least on that score, I’m ahead of the game, because my book has sold more than 1000 copies, some on-line, some at speaking venues. I’ve given away at least 150 more to family, friends, libraries, and reviewers, so the book is out there in modest quantities. As the article points out, the hardest thing about selling a self-published book is that people don’t know about it. Unfortunately, since the Peace Corps 50th anniversary has passed and since the Peace Corps left Honduras, my on-line sales have plummeted, as I guess that mostly volunteers en route to that country were the ones buying it. Any suggestions from blog readers about how to jazz up sales would be appreciated, as I do partially depend on those sales to finance my annual trip to Honduras and support my projects there. Also, the Salvadoran eatery outside our neighborhood Eastern Market, where I’ve sometimes tried selling my book on weekends, has put up a fenced enclosure around its outside tables, making it awkward for me to set up there any more. And although I enjoy chatting with folks about the Peace Corps when I do set up, it’s hard to be self-promoter for the book either there or anywhere else. I hate to be too pushy. And I hate gimmicks and tricks, like the first person who orders gets a free book or a discount.

As for the quality of self-published books, that’s very uneven—I can testify to that, having reviewed a number of self-published memoirs for Peace Corps Writers. A rare few are gems, but most are just junk and very amateurish. I hate to downgrade them when I post a review (on the Peace Corps Writers’ website), as I can see that an author has often poured out his/her heart and struggled to get words down on paper, but some are just terrible. I still try to find something nice to say while at the same time warning would-be buyers and readers. When a book is self-published, you just don’t know what to expect. That also applies to books from traditional publishers, I might add—some are real doozies, especially diet, dating, and financial advice books and those by someone famous. The latter are just puff pieces and much of their subject matter is trite and, while traditionally published books have fewer typos, all books have some. (I even once found a typo in The New Yorker, the gold standard.) At a public library the other day, I picked up a co-authored sex advice book from a major publisher by Dr. Ruth, whose doctorate is in education, and saw the most inane statements, such as that not spending every minute 24/7 day-after-day with your partner can often enhance desire. (Dr. Ruth was married 3 times, so guess she learned most of what she knew from experience, not from academic study.)

I chose self-publishing myself because it offered me the greatest control in terms of my book’s contents, photos, and design, but the downside certainly is recognition and distribution, especially with so many books coming out every year. If my book got even 1% of the attention and readership that a Dr. Ruth book gets, I’d be thrilled. I think it still has something to offer readers.

Maybe my book has just run its natural life course? Sarah Palin and G W Bush both sold over a million copies of their memoirs when they first came out, but I'll bet none since and, now, if at all, those books are all appearing at yard sales. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's books have staying power, although as friend has observed, once he’s out of office, they won’t be so popular any more.

Most fiction written today falls into a “genre” category: chic lit, mysteries, science fiction, horror, golf, and even sub-niches like African-American romance and detective stories. No more of the great dramas and classics of yesteryear (maybe attention spans are too short for those now). So-called non-fiction titles are mostly “how-to” books, even though the writer may not be an expert at anything. Often these latter books use numerical points, such as “Six Surefire Dating Strategies” or “Ten Steps to a Thinner You.” Never mind whether the author has actually achieved dating or dieting success personally or by helping other people. There are even on-line courses (for a price) that teach you how to write a whole non-fiction book in just days. Most such writing courses or those for marketing your book seem dedicated, as far as I can see, to getting you in the mood, making you feel (over) confident about your own success, expertise, and road-to-riches—never mind the substance of your book—also trying to get you, the would-be author, especially if you are self-published, to shell out money for the course or book that’s being offered. Thus, these advice entrepreneurs are exemplifying the very self-promoting behaviors that they plan to advocate for you and which you then need to implement in turn, like holding your own pre-paid advice webinar where you will also promote your book. It’s like a giant Ponzi scheme, all fluff, no substance, but money changes hands. My book, a simple, honest straightforward memoir, falls outside the usual categories, making it less marketable to a defined sub-group, except maybe to Peace Corps volunteers.

On the first day of the filing for the 2-year stay of deportation for young people, over 1,000 people lined up at one DC-area site. Some young undocumented immigrants have expressed fear that a Romney victory would jeopardize their status, but I can’t imagine Mitt Romney, once in office, undertaking to actually deport them. Even a tea-party Republican like Marc Rubio has suggested accommodating undocumented people brought to this country by their parents as minors. And probably a majority of Americans would not want to witness the spectacle of that group being deported. Romney doesn’t seem like a deliberately cruel guy like some politicians, just kind of an uncomfortable, inept one, who, nonetheless wants desperately to be president, a job he has been running for now for about a decade. He’s been a successful businessman, a governor, in charge of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and now he wants to top off his career with the US presidency.

Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, on the other hand, is not a nice person. She has announced that she is barring those approved under the new Obama immigration stay from getting state ID’s or driver’s licenses and, I suppose, in-state college tuition as well. She says she doesn’t want these people to be a drag on taxpayers, but if she would just give them half a chance, they would become taxpayers instead. I’d expected other Republican governors to follow her example and now the governor of Nebraska has. It’s worrisome that so many governors are defying the federal government or dragging their feet and failing to cooperate on various measures, first heath care, now this. They seem to want to go back to the old days when southern governors resisted desegregation or even to the time before we were a country, before there was a “United” States. Sheriff Arpaio is in the same mold of nasty, mean people apparently elected by the same, who must be a majority in their jurisdictions or they wouldn’t be in office. Not only is their attitude destructive for getting things done, but may also be a tipping factor in motivating some mass shootings, giving legitimacy to angry and hateful emotions. I hope they provoke a backlash for going too far. What if Brewer, Apaio, or some of their supporters suddenly discovered that they had been brought to the US as undocumented children themselves? Would they, in Romney’s words, cheerfully “self-deport”?

Before leaving the topic of nasty, mean politicians, I would also include Dick Cheney in that category. Past the age of heart transplant eligibility, he still got a scarce donor heart, I suppose because no one in the medical establishment dared oppose his request. Hope his new heart might have given him more empathy for others, though he’s been pretty quiet lately, though not displaying any big change of heart. Unfortunately, the addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket, while it has jazzed things up, has also further polarized the electorate and that is not good. Can we expect four more years of partisan gridlock whoever wins the presidency?

Mitt Romney has come out with a statement that he’s always paid about 13% in income taxes. Heck, many of us have paid a far higher percentage than that on a much tinier income, especially if you count social security contributions. I don’t find that percentage particularly reassuring or any evidence that he’s in touch with the common man.

As for Julian Assange, obviously, the man will do anything to avoid a trial and jail. He’s been complaining about being couped up in the Ecuadoran embassy, but that’s nothing compared to what he might face elsewhere. There he is still a celebrity, can have visitors, can use the phone and internet, and gets three meals a day and a place to sleep. Emerging on the embassy balcony recently, he was shorn of his trademark locks, perhaps trying to appear more clean cut and serious.

I received this message on Facebook: “Julian Assange must be set free as he has not committed any crimes - his only crime is to expose the United States and NATO of crimes against humanity and War Crimes committed by the Western Powers!”

Some of the information I have seen revealed by WikiLeaks has been interesting and informative, some damaging, and some actually helpful to US interests. It’s been a treasure trove of historically valuable material over the time-span represented, showing American and other diplomats around the world sometimes coming off better than might have been expected, appearing more nuanced and capable than their public personas would indicate. However, possible secret wrong-doing or wrong-headed actions by the US and other governments has also been revealed. Filmmakers Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, much of whose work I admire (though they give too much credit to conspiracy theories, in my view), have written an editorial in the NY Times hailing Assange as an honest journalist and free-press advocate.

However, I am not one of those believing that this whole WikiLeaks endeavor is something heroic and that all of diplomacy’s dirty laundry needs to be aired publicly, especially if the original communications were expected to be kept confidential. Some matters are best worked out in private, even among nations. I have no particular comment on the sex charges facing Assange in Sweden, except that one of his accusers has visited Cuba and is reported to be a friend of the Ladies in White. It’s ironic that the Ecuadorian government is offering him asylum in the name of freedom of the press when it routinely jails its own journalists for articles the president doesn’t like. Some Ecuadorian journalists have asked for US asylum even as Assange seeks refuge in Ecuador. The police surrounding the Ecuadorian embassy should carefully examine every box and laundry bag that leaves the premises, as Assange may well be squeezed inside on his way to the airport. Once he arrives in Ecuador, if ever, he will be free to visit Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, and even Cuba to bring them his message of press freedom.

Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt in a NY Times op-ed (Aug. 17, 2012) has reacted to criticism of health care reform based on its supposed aggravation of the physician shortage, especially in primary care, because more patients will be seeking care. Some physicians groups have darkly hinted that doctors might just drop out if reimbursement is insufficient. As Reinhardt points out, they are not going to any earn more money by dropping out because no other profession will give them the top income, in the upper 5% of America’s income distribution, that medicine does.

I usually scroll through my spam folder before emptying its contents, as occasionally something important gets sent there. I would advise spammers to learn to spell! It’s not “lotterie win,” “lonly wife,” “xxxx freind,” or “penis enlargment,” nor is it Vigara or Canadiana Pharmacy, which popps up (whoops! you know what I mean) over and over again. These spammers seem to mostly have sex on their minds, or sex and money. And there are all those notices, in my case purportedly from Yahoo, direly warning of an immediate shutdown if certain information is not provided. I’d be really shocked if one turned out to be real and my account actually was shut down! Or if I won that thousand bucks with my name on it!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Honduran Journalist Seeks Protection, Presbyterian College, More Mass Killings, Olympics, Record Heat, Paul Ryan, Nuns, Reading Matter

According to our local Spanish language press, 120,000 Hondurans live in the greater DC area. Consulates are no longer allowed to receive cash payments for transactions, only money orders or credit or debit cards. Cash is an invitation to pocket the money, so that’s a good step.

Meanwhile, local undocumented Honduran and other young people are lining up to apply for the 2-year deportation stay offered by the Obama administration, an action that may identify them for deportation if Romney wins the presidency.

The wife of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Xiomara Castro, is running in this November’s primaries for next year’s elections as a presidential candidate of the Libre Party founded by her husband.

Corruption is nothing extraordinary anywhere in the world, including in the US, but in Honduras, uncovering corruption is dangerous and sometimes fatal for the whistleblower as per the item below.

Honduran journalist fears for safety after uncovering financial corruption

(C-Libre/IFEX) - 2 August 2012, Tegucigalpa, Honduras - "Of course I fear for my life, but I know I am doing what is right," said Ariel D'Vicente, a journalist who uncovered that a million lempiras (approx. US$53,000) seized from the wife of the former finance minister, Héctor Guillen, had come out of a sum of 3.2 million lempiras (approx. US$170,000) in royalty payments collected from shrimp companies in southern Honduras and paid out to an official high up within the Lobo Sosa government.

D'Vicente told the national press that he is aware of the seriousness of his accusations, but added "it is my role as a journalist to report on corruption and as a citizen I have to speak out against financial scandals that impact my country's health and education."

Police commissioner Juan Carlos Bonilla, and the National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (CONADEH), Ramón Custodio, decided to provide the journalist with the necessary support to protect his safety.

Both officials were in agreement that because of these allegations, D'Vicente's life is in danger and that the federal authorities must investigate the matter and protect the journalist. The first step, according to the commissioners, is to provide security measures for D'Vicente and his family.

The Public Prosecutor's Office announced that the journalist will be the main witness in the inquiries into the financial matter, so that at this time D'Vicente is prohibited from commenting on the investigation.

On 31 July 2012, during a routine operation at a post in El Durazno, police seized 1,125,000 lempiras (approx. US$60,000) from the wife of the then minister of finance. The woman, her son, and their driver were freed by the district attorney's organized crime office, but the money was seized by the district attorney pending investigations.


On a recent Megabus trip in Virginia (just before the recent fatal Megabus accident in the Midwest), I met a pair of young men who had just graduated in religious studies from a Nashville Presbyterian college with only 1000 students in all. Interesting to talk with young people living apparently outside mainstream youth culture, guys who don’t drink alcohol, pray daily, and believe in abstinence until marriage. They also were not sure what to do now with their newly minted BA degrees. Become missionaries? Go on to study to become church pastors? Their degrees are somewhat limiting career-wise and opportunities for gainful employment within the Presbyterian church would also be limited, although 1000 students are not a great number to be absorbed. I don’t know how many Presbyterian colleges there are overall. My father, of Scottish heritage, was raised Presbyterian, but in his day, all mainstream churches, at least in the US, had more adherents and stricter expectations, an era Tea Party folks would like to return to.

Another mass shooting, this time in Wisconsin, with a gun reportedly purchased legally. Then three killed in Texas, including the shooter. Only three, does that qualify as a mass killing? We’re almost getting desensitized, as if living a in a war zone. With so many firearms already in circulation, how do we as a nation start to tackle this problem? Are we all just sitting ducks if we go out in public? There will always be people, mostly men, with grievances and anger, who will want to hurt and kill others, and certainly copy-cat behavior is involved, as well as a desire for fame and notoriety, however fleeting. Arms intended for personal defense seem to have little impact defensively—certainly they have not had a role preventing these atrocities. Mental health professionals and criminal behavior experts say it’s hard to predict who will actually carry out a violent offense. Some guys who do so have no prior record of behavior problems and the potential pool of those with anger and other issues is enormous. Other countries seem to reduce the murder rate by reducing the number of firearms in circulation. If we don’t want to do that, then what?

Obama, true to form with the last few killings, offers prayers and lamentations but doesn’t breathe any hint of gun control. Romney has pronounced them individual acts and said that gun laws are not germane. The NRA has been keeping completely silent, although attributing a gun-control agenda to Obama should he be reelected. I certainly hope so. The other factor in the Wisconsin case is misplaced anti-Muslim prejudice because of male Sikhs’ turbans and beards, a poisonous discriminatory atmosphere fomented by Tea Party and other far-right folks. Political and media leaders who feed into such hatred and try to give it legitimacy, including those stigmatizing Obama as a Muslim and born in Kenya, bear responsibility as well.

One of this blog’s readers points out that Obama showed that he knows very little about firearms when he referred to AK47s as more appropriate as battlefield weapons: “Obama would do better to keep quiet on matters he knows little about. The U.S. armed forces don't use AKs, neither the original Russian design nor Chinese knockoffs.”

Again, in the DC area, a toddler has shot himself, this time a 3-year-old who shot himself in the chest, but didn’t die, so may yet survive. Such accidents seem to happen every week, first the boy killing his father, then one killing himself, now this one seriously injuring himself. If adults want to indulge their right to bear arms, they should also have an obligation to keep them safe from use by children or even by adults who might do harm.

The Olympics have gone well, providing a good-news distraction from the usual bad news. Kudos to the UK for pulling them off successfully. I don’t have TV, so only watched at other people’s homes. My new next-door is a sports reporter for the NY Times and went to London with her infant daughter in tow to report on the games. The US won on the medals count. Now, it’s on to the Paralympics!

With record heat this summer, the corn and soy bean harvest has been decimated and wild fires have been taking their toll. We can continue to deny climate change and do nothing about it and just continue to see these effects. Climate specialists predict this will be the hottest year on record ever and July has already been the hottest month.

Romney has energized his conservative base as well as Democratic opposition with his veep pick of Paul Ryan. Ryan has some vote-getting power. The question is whether he will appeal to moderate and swing voters. He has a little more personality and conviction than Romney and is a better speaker, but his message won’t have universal appeal. We might all agree with him that health care costs need to be curbed. Either they will be controlled, as Obama has attempted to do, through better organization, economies of scale, and supporting only outcome-based interventions, or they will be controlled, as Ryan has proposed, by putting the burden on individual consumers to shop around, try to figure out what services they need while being wooed by health care advertisers, and do without when they cannot afford care. Continued growth of this sector cannot be sustained.

Meanwhile, a large portion of American Catholic nuns are seeking “dialogue” with the Vatican, whereas Pope Benedict seems just interested imposing obedience. Ryan, a Catholic, has declined to speak with the nuns. It’s a contest of wills between the nuns and the Vatican. The nuns want to work things out, stay in the church, continue their work in schools, hospitals, and social service agencies with children, the poor, the elderly, and people with disabilities. It would be a huge blow to the American church and to those constituencies and missions if a rupture should occur. Yet nuns are tired of being “put in their place” by an all-male hierarchy. They may be able to observe the vows of poverty and chastity, but obedience is proving a sticking point. The pedophile scandal and cover-up was already a huge blow to the Catholic church, which now faces this additional challenge from the nuns, something in the age of the internet and instant news that may well spread to other countries. I’m Catholic, but, as you might imagine, I side with the nuns. I haven’t abandoned the church because I think the church needs people like me. We are the church—it’s not just the hierarchy. The pope and the Catholic hierarchy, both in Rome and in the US, are short-sighted, in my opinion. Here is a church with more than one billion members in every continent and still growing, with so many dedicated lay and religious members, and yet its leaders are willing to sacrifice much of that to make a point about who’s in charge? I believe Benedict has even said something like: So what if the church shrinks in Europe, as long as it is a more faithful (obedient?) body?

I usually don’t mention the books I’m reading on this blog, but this time is an exception. I read (and write) mostly non-fiction (sometimes reading fiction in Spanish) and just borrowed a trio of books from the public library, all of them provocative. All follow a narrative of economic or power interests controlling or overwhelming ordinary people to their detriment. I would like to think that the authors exaggerate to make their point, but they end up being pretty convincing using nuances, data, and examples. From my brief description, you can decide whether you want to read them.

One is Pornified by Pamela Paul, making the case that access to porn has exploded with the internet—no longer just a matter of a Playboy magazine hidden under the mattress or a seedy “adult” movie theater. Every type of porn is available 24/7 with the click of a mouse: violence, bondage, sadism, group sex, gay, straight, involving children or animals—take your pick. Most consumers are men and many, says the author, become addicted, undermining their relationships with flesh-and-blood women. Not only does internet porn occupy these guys’ time, taking away from work, recreation, and everyday activities, but it projects an image of women being not only busty and beautiful but instantly willing to engage in sexual activities of any type. It takes away from time that might be spent with a real partner and makes actual sex seem tame. It also exploits those appearing in the segments, paying them little and exposing them to desensitizing sex and STDs. However, porn producers know they have a cash cow, which they protect under the rubrics of free speech, personal liberty, and privacy.

Another is a very thoughtful book, a personal and church history, Practicing Catholic by James Carroll, a former Paulist priest inspired by the short tenure of Pope John XXIII (like many of us). He was a fan of the Kennedy brothers and became acquainted with a number of well-known Catholic writers. Like many if not most Catholics, he makes his own judgments on issues of faith and practice, observing that the hierarchy, which warns the laity against being “cafeteria Catholics” practices a cafeteria system itself, such as by protecting pedophile priests rather than molested children, emphasizing the unborn over those facing the death penalty, and opposing contraception but not war.

The third book is Wendell Potter’s Deadly Spin, by a health industry insider who quit a job in “the high six figures” to blow the whistle on the industry’s tactics to scuttle Obama’s health care reform effort while pretending to cooperate. The pretense at cooperation was undertaken because it was felt the “Harry & Louise” tactics used to kill the Clinton health reform effort would not work this time. An early tactic was to systematically undermine Michael Moore’s film “Sicko” and undermine Moore himself, portraying him as someone out to destroy the free-market health care system and the American way of life. That onslaught succeeded to a large extent. I saw the film, which, yes, was slanted and the depiction of Cuba’s health care system was pure Potemkin, but much of it was valid. Mostly, the industry pours money into Republican campaigns and gives talking points to candidates regarding the threat of “big government,” “government bureaucrats,” “a government takeover,” “Europeans-style socialism,” and increased taxes, never mind that the “free market” keeps relentlessly driving up health care costs. Eventually these PR efforts will eventually means that industry folks will end cutting off their nose to spite their face because too many people will end up sick and dying because of lack of care, or go broke, reducing the pool of people left able to pay the high premiums demanded. (That last sentence is me, not the author.) Because of industry efforts, says Potter, the single-payer system favored by most Americans was never enacted and Obama had to compromise on too many issues to gain industry cooperation, giving us a health care reform system that ends up a hodgepodge trying to satisfy all stakeholders and ending up satisfying few, especially among consumers. By successfully creating the “Obamacare” boogeyman, the private health care industry continues to undermine many of the actual benefits of the reform act, for example, by encouraging governors to go against their own constituents by threatening not to expand Medicaid. What can the increasingly impoverished majority do against the industry’s investment in anti-health-care reform advertizing and campaign contributions? We must not listen to these attempts at persuasion and use our vote to go against these moneyed interests. And maybe the conscience of some industry reps will pinch and, like Potter, they will give up their salaries and perks and attempt to alert the public, as he is doing through his book and in congressional testimony.

It took decades for the tobacco industry to finally be controlled. And many people still smoke, including two of my kids. Eventually a tipping point will come for health care, as costs cannot keep rising forever. Real and effective health care reform, Potter suggests, will only happen when voters are able to see through and resist corporate PR. So far politicians and voters have succumbed to the influence of moneyed interests. Other massive PR campaigns successful so far, Potter points out, are the coal industry, big oil, and soda manufacturers. (To his examples, we might add the porn industry, as in Pamela Paul’s book.)

There are many outfits out there promising, for a price, to make a book a bestseller through gimmicks and trickery, the same sort of PR tactics used in politics —or so it seems to me. I do want folks to read my book to get something out of it, but not to buy it out of hype. Maybe that’s naïve and certainly hasn’t propelled my book into best-seller-dom.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Honduran from La Esperanza, Meeting with Freed Dissident, Cuban Dissident Leader Dies, AIDS Quilt, Right to Bear Arms, GAO Grads

In photos in recent postings, you have seen me wearing a red shirt and red shorts. Some 5,000 miles away in Honolulu, my daughter Stephanie sports a similar outfit on weekends, as per the photo of her here holding her pet chameleon.

The other photo is of two former Cuban political prisoners conversing at a meeting in Washington, DC. On the left is Dr. Darsi Ferrer, a recent arrival, described below. The other is Basilio Guzman, one of 26 long-term prisoners freed in 1984 with Jesse Jackson, whose names were given to Jackson by our local Amnesty International group. Guzman, who still lives and works as a carpenter in the DC area, spent 22 years in prison, two longer than his actual 20-year sentence.

At a recent interpretation assignment, this one a license suspension appeal hearing at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Department (not my favorite gig), the client was from La Esperanza, Honduras! I found that out later as we were waiting at the bus stop together after his license was suspended and he was not allowed to drive. Yes, it’s a very small world. By the way, judges in traffic court hearings—or any court appearances—always refer to me as “Madam Interpreter,” a rather formal title. I wonder how male interpreters are addressed?

At a supposed maximum security prison north of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, a prisoner with a gun in his possession shot and wounded three other inmates. Two prison officials were suspended from their jobs as a result. At least there were some consequences for those responsible for letting weapons into a so-called high security prison, though probably not of long duration.

In early August, I had the privilege of meeting Darsi Ferrer during a Washington visit. He is an Afro-Cuban physician, a dissident and former prisoner mentioned in Amnesty International’s annual report, arrested for possession of two bags of illegal cement. He and his family had arrived one month earlier as political refugees from Cuba and had been sent by the U.S. government to live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dr. Ferrer said he had not wanted to leave Cuba, but his wife has a serious health condition not treatable there. He reported that the Cuban health system is on the verge of collapse, with a hidden dengue epidemic in the east and the cholera outbreak still not under control. He saw the regime as having increasing difficulty coping, especially with controlling communications via cell phones and the internet, severe restrictions notwithstanding. He predicted that the death of Venezuela’s President Chavez would deal a near mortal blow to the regime, which he characterized as holding on by its fingernails.

Another Castro regime critic, whom I met years ago on my Cuba journeys in the early 1990s, was engineer and Christian stalwart Oswaldo Payá, leader of one of Cuba’s largest dissident movements, although before his movement got underway. He was a little past 40 at the time, a very sincere, devout Catholic, trying to figure out how to organize under the strictures imposed by the government. In 1998, after spending three years in detention, he founded the Varela Project, named for 19th-century patriot Father Félix Varela. The project sought reconciliation among all Cubans and presented 25,000 signatures to the National Assembly, requesting a referendum on freedom of association, liberty of expression, press freedom, free elections, the right to operate private businesses, and amnesty for political prisoners. Predictably, the assembly made no response. Payá reportedly said, "I have been told that I am going to be killed before the regime is over but I am not going to run away." He opposed the U.S. embargo and refused aid from American sources. In 2002, he was awarded the Sakharov human rights prize. Subsequently, his namesake son was refused permission to leave the country. He was once an ally of Cuba’s Cardinal Ortega, but more recently disagreed with what he saw as the church’s coziness with the regime.

On July 22, 2012, Payá’s prediction of the manner of his own death may have indeed come true when he and a supporter were killed in a vehicular accident in eastern Cuba. His daughter, Rosa María Payá, announced that they had been run off the road by a truck that had aggressively pursued them. She said there had been witnesses and that his death was not an accident, also that he had called for just beforehand, saying another vehicle was pursuing them.

Indeed, Payá had a forewarning three weeks before that the regime might be after him when his car was overturned in Havana, leaving him unhurt. He said at the time that he couldn’t prove that it wasn’t an accident. The car had been rented for him by a Swedish Christian Democratic youth organization (“Oswaldo Paya, Cuba Dissident, Mourned,” AP, July 23, 2012). His followers directly blamed General Raúl Castro and his military junta for the deaths on the organization’s website. Witnesses pointed to the poor condition of the highway and that the two survivors, both foreigners, were the only ones wearing seatbelts.

The driver, Spaniard Angel Carromero, was arrested by Cuban authorities for vehicular homicide, which could carry a sentence up to 10 years. The other foreigner, a Swede, said he was asleep at the time of the crash and was allowed to return home. Dissidents have pointed out that the driver dares not blame another vehicle while he is Cuban custody. "Whatever they say while in the hands of police or the government of Cuba is necessarily skewed, contaminated, due to the lack of guarantees," Human Rights Commissioner Elizardo Sánchez said. "The Swede can't speak freely because his friend is still prisoner in Cuba."

The official newspaper, Granma, accused the foreign visitors of “counterrevolutionary” activities aimed at “destabilizing the country, creating conditions to repeat what happened in Libya and Syria.” (“Angel Francisco Carromero Charged In Cuba Dissident Oswaldo Paya’s Death,” Peter Orsi, AP, July 31, 2012)

At Payá’s burial service, held on July 24, several dozen mourners were reported beaten and arrested by security forces, 200 of whom surrounded the church. Those arrested were released within two days. “The authorities don’t want the public to know how many people were there and that we’re not afraid of them,” said human rights activist Guillermo Fariñas, one of those arrested.

“Tuesday’s events follow the pattern of short-term detentions and imprisonments we’ve seen
the Cuban authorities carry out time and again as a form of intimidation against dissidents and
human rights activists,” said Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International’s Cuba researcher.
“Indeed, it was the very kind of repression which Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas dedicated his life to
combating before his tragic death last weekend.”

Two days later, on the occasion of the annual July 26 holiday, President Raúl Castro warned, "Some small factions are doing nothing less than trying to lay the groundwork and hoping that one day what happened in Libya will happen here, what they're trying to make happen in Syria."

Meanwhile, during the month of July, sections of the AIDS quilt were displayed all over Washington, DC, including in the north hall of Eastern Market in our neighborhood, where I met one of the women in charge of the exhibition. I told her about Alex, my Cuban foster son who had died of AIDS and she told me how I could have a panel in his memory added to the quilt. The quilt’s showing coincided with the International AIDS Conference being held in Washington.

As a country and as concerned citizens, we have to ask ourselves whether massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Arizona, and now Littleton, are the price we have to pay for “the right to bear arms”? Does this right extend to any and all citizens, to those who, like the Littleton shooter, amass an arsenal that includes tear gas, explosives, an assault rifle, and multiple rounds of ammunition? If the right to bear arms refers to self-defense, certainly all that is much more than is necessary for personal self-defense. Since my last posting, a local 4-year-old has killed himself with a handgun. Last week, a 3-year-old killed his father. I suppose these children see guns appearing on TV and decide to pull the trigger when they find one. I wonder if there are estimates of the number of murders, accidental deaths, and suicides from handguns versus how many crimes are actually prevented by using handguns? Owners obviously don’t secure them and keep them away from kids, as my own younger son’s experience of being shot in the foot (thank goodness only that!) showed. So what about the right of citizens to life? Their right not to be shot and perhaps killed accidentally or on purpose by someone who is armed? The constitution refers to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are hard to achieve if someone aims a loaded gun at you.

The presidential candidates finally came out with pronouncements on the Littleton shooting. Romney apparently said that gun control would not solve all our problems, a rather bland, non-controversial statement. Obama, speaking to a friendly audience at the Urban League, called for better screening of gun buyers and mentioned that an AK-47 is a battlefield weapon, not needed for self-defense, but made no specific legislative recommendations.

Meanwhile, Romney, supposedly on an international goodwill tour designed to bolster his foreign affairs credentials, has made some blundering remarks offensive to the British, causing at least one commentator to label him “tone-deaf.” “Tin-ear” is another description that comes to mind. That seems to characterize much of what Romney says, especially his extemporaneous remarks. He should stick strictly to the scripts his advisers have prepared for him and bite his tongue if anything else comes to mind.

My visitors attending the GAO course for auditors held their graduation ceremony on July 26, where I was in the audience. There were 21 fellows in all from almost as many countries. The keynote speaker, chosen from among their ranks, was a woman from Zimbabwe, who has asked me to accommodate her, but my space was already full. Despite its somewhat corrupt and repressive government, Zimbabwe usually sends a fellow to the annual GAO course, indicating an attempt to clean things up, at least on the government auditor level. One of the countries represented was China, and I also had a GAO fellow from China staying with me a few years ago. China, despite its communist and authoritarian government, still sends students to the GAO course and also accepts Peace Corps volunteers.