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.

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