Sunday, December 16, 2012

Holiday greetings, Flying Fish Coffee Shop, Fiscal Cliff, International Human Rights Day, Alzheimer’s Friend, MedCottage Update, Domestic News, Gun Issues, Nigeria Outlaws FGM, Honduras News

Happy Holidays, Felices Fiestas. The decorated house is across the street from where my older daughter Melanie lives in Norfolk, Va., where I visited her recently. The figure is a pottery statuette, a Christmas gift from a friend, who bid on it an auction with me in mind. It is originally from Peru, where I have visited more than once, but whether an authentic antiquity or only a copy is hard to say. It is lovely and I appreciate such gestures all the more this season on the anniversary of my son Andrew’s death, now 18 years ago, but, of course, a parent never forgets.

As mentioned before, I love my interpretation work because it’s so varied and surprising, providing real-life entertainment and drama. No wonder I don’t need TV! On a recent evening assignment, I met a special education teacher and school social worker at a DC hangout called “Flying Fish Coffee Shop” to discuss our strategy in approaching the non-responsive parent of a special ed student. Later, we made an unannounced house call on the family, a non-English-speaking working single mother from Honduras with five children. (No wonder she didn’t seem particularly responsive; she was busy!) Naturally, she was quite surprised and her son, a sixth grader, was obviously not happy to see us. I cannot go into more detail because of confidentiality, but it does seems that we resolved the communication issue. This woman is from a rather remote part of Honduras, so I wondered how she had ever come to this country.

December 10 was International Human Rights Day. My Amnesty International (AI) group celebrated it with a Write-A-Thon held on Friday, December 7, in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which has also worked in the human rights arena since 1980. AAAS forensic teams have gone to Latin America, members’ satellite imagery has shown devastation from the air, and scientists have been jailed for their efforts to disseminate information or help those injured by government forces. In short, AAAS and AI collaborate in many areas. At the AAAS headquarters where we held the Write-A-Thon, we set up separate tables for writing letters to the appropriate authorities on numerous cases, some cases held in common with AAAS. Altogether some 50 people attended our event which generated hundreds of letters, just the beginning of an effort that will last through December. In December 2011, Amnesty members around the world sent about 250,000 letters, some of which seem to have had an impact judging by the results.

Through a webcam connection with Albany, NY, during our gathering, we were able to communicate with an Iranian doctor, Arash Alaei, who, along with his physician brother, has obtained asylum in the United States. They were arrested together for working on HIV/AIDS prevention and sentenced to 6 years for what, they never quite knew. But thanks to a worldwide campaign they were freed after 3 years and escaped from Iran. Their prison treatment was very harsh and their families left behind are still being pressured and ostracized. However, they are continuing their efforts to prevent and treat AIDS and drug addiction in the Middle East from the United States.

I regret to report that a friend age 85 living in an Alzheimer’s facility recently had a fall, was hospitalized (a change of scene for her), and is now recovering physically. I had mentioned this woman once before on this blog, that it was heartening to see her engaged then in an animated nonsense conversation with another resident, a man who said he was originally from Korea (that much was intelligible). Now the home’s staff indicate that our friend’s children have objected to her very chummy relationship with this man and want them separated. If so, what ridiculous kids!! What if, within the bounds of decency allowed at this facility, the two converse, hold hands, and possibly even kiss each other? In fact, if they actually stripped naked in front of other residents, I doubt that anyone would even notice, as each is in his/her own world.

My friend with Alzheimer’s is just one of a growing number of older people with disabilities. If she had been born a century earlier, she might not have lived long enough to get dementia and hence to require 24-hour care, which someone has to provide and pay for. I can attest that 9 years ago, when I came back from the Peace Corps, she was 76 and still had all her faculties. It’s no surprise to learn that people all over the world are living longer and with more disability. But given a choice, most of us would still choose to live longer, disability or no, and would want the same for our loved ones. Soon after 2015, for the first time in history, there will be more people over 65 than under the age of five. Are people living too long? Maybe not you and me, of course, but everyone else? Saving lives, especially of children, which is a priority everywhere, means more people are likely to grow old and frail, becoming a social and financial burden. Every remedy or “cure,” like dialysis, organ transplants, or AIDS drugs, carries its own costs in disability and in treatment for survivors.

Now someone living next door to the MedCottage elder care pod mentioned last time has complained in a newspaper op-ed that the neighbors are not consulted. She says the pod spoils their view and may be a fire hazard (though I believe it’s made of fireproof materials). Several on-line commentators chided the complaining neighbor. However, it’s true that an exemption to zoning laws has been made for such supposedly temporary structures, considering them like a shed. However, if they proliferate and are not removed when the occupant dies or leaves, they will have an impact on a neighborhood. Yet it does seem a more humane way to care for failing elders than sending them to a nursing home and allows some privacy for both sides.

On the fiscal cliff negotiations, both sides seem to be playing a game of “chicken.” As they race toward the cliff, who’s going to stop first?

Cities with falling population, like Philadelphia and Baltimore, are overtly attracting immigrants, documented or not, deciding it’s better to have them than empty houses and neighborhoods. After the election, the Republican party is softening its anti-immigrant rhetoric. In my opinion, the Tea Party did the party no favors.

On other news of the day, I’ll just say that I regard neither Pvt. Bradley Manning nor Julian Assange as heroes. However, the damage done by WikiLeaks is, by and large, not monumental. A lot of information was not so secret anyway or did not need to be secret. The published material does not show any great government cover-ups, but does provide an interesting glimpse into the secret world of international diplomacy and will give ample fodder to historians. Much of what was revealed by WikiLeaks also shows diplomats to be more sophisticated than perhaps their public statements would indicate. Still, leaking secret information is not to be condoned or encouraged, in my opinion. What WikiLeaks has revealed was more than enough.

Here’s headline for you: Twinkie CEO Admits Company Took Employees Pensions and Put It Toward Executive Pay,
By Thom Hartmann, December 11, 2012

Twinkie-maker Hostess continues to screw over its workers. The company is in the process of complete liquidation and 18,000 unionized workers are set to lose their jobs. More troubling – they could lose their pensions.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Hostess’ CEO, Gregory Rayburn, essentially admitted that his company stole employee pension money and put it toward CEO and senior executive pay (aka “operations”). While this isn't technically illegal, it's another sleazy theft by Hostess executives - who've paid themselves handsomely while running their company into the ground. Just last month, a judge agreed to let Hostess executives suck another $1.8 million out of the bankrupt company to pay bonuses to CEOs.

Football player Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide is one of many family tragedies of that sort. Four people, including the shooter, were also shot and killed, with others wounded at a California Indian reservation, then a mass shooting in Portland, Oregon, hitting 60 people, though only 3 dead due to an apparent assault weapon malfunction. It’s almost becoming an epidemic. There have been at least 7 mass shootings in the US this year. Colorado Governor Hickenlooper (there’s a name for you) is the only politician who has even dared to comment openly that maybe gun laws need to be revisited, especially for assault weapons. Of course, the worst and most recent such event was the massive Connecticut school shooting. Like all parents, I am sickened, especially as I know what it is to lose your child. How parents who lost children must have wished that their kids had stayed home sick that day. The constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness trumps the constitutional right to bear arms. We are all at risk. Speaking live on Fox News, Mike Huckabee said that this shooting happened because "we've systematically removed God from our schools," a real insult to the victims and exoneration of the shooter and the NRA. Before the election, fear of the NRA kept politicians, including Obama, mute on the subject. We cannot prevent every such incident, but certainly curbs on automatic and assault weapons, plus background checks on every gun buyer no matter where, would help. Of course here in DC, contrary to the voters' will, we have had our gun controls removed by the Supreme Court.

Many of these tragedies, of course, are copycat, guys wanting to enact vengeance, go out in a blaze of glory, and take others with them. The vast publicity accorded such events may sensitize the public to the problem of gun access, but also fuels the ideas of future mass murderers. The easy availability of firearms not only promotes both planned and impulse violence but also accidents. In neighboring Pennsylvania just now, a father laid down a handgun, supposedly unloaded, on the front seat of his truck, but it discharged, killing his 7-year-old son sitting in the back seat. Of course, it’s always possible to kill someone with a knife, or even with a bow and arrow, as happened recently, but accidents would not be involved there. The carnage is also not as great as with a firearm, especially an assault weapon, more firepower than necessary for self-defense or hunting. (I’m not a big fan of hunting either and mourn along with many others the recent killing of a female Alpha wolf in Yellowstone.) In China, a man recently stabbed many school children with a knife, but none died.

In Canada, with more restrictive laws (it takes up to 60 days to obtain a firearm in Canada after registering, taking a course, and going through background checks) gun violence and homicides are much fewer per capita than in the US, though determined folks there can always get American firearms without that. There’s probably also more of a culture of nonviolence there. And, if not some curbs on gun purchase and possession here, then what is the answer? The NRA and its supporters have only said that this is "not the time" to discuss the issue and some have even said that teachers should be armed (and trained to shoot as part of their educational duties?). What if there were loaded weapons in schools? It's not hard to imagine some disgruntled student getting ahold of them. But gun advocates and the NRA, in its zeal to promote gun sales, are all complicit in the murder of innocents. I only hope there will be a backlash among politicians and the public against the NRA and its tactics and positions. Yet, it must be acknowledged, despite recent frequent mass murders, often of random individuals, the gun murder rate one-on-one is down from a couple of decades ago.

What makes America’s gun culture totally unique in the world [excerpts]
Washington Post, Posted by Max Fisher on December 15, 2012

Americans don’t just have more guns that anyone else – 270 million privately held firearms. They also have the highest gun ownership per capita rate in the world, with an average of about nine guns for every 10 Americans. The second highest gun ownership rate in the world is Yemen; yes, Americans have nearly twice as many guns per person as do Yemenis, who live in a conflict-torn Arab nation still dealing with poverty, political unrest, a separatist Shia insurgency, an al-Qaeda branch, and the aftereffects of a 1994 civil war.

Israel has only 7.3 privately owned guns for every 100 people, which means that the American rate is 12 times as large. For comparison’s sake, Israel’s gun ownership rate is about 12 times that of Japan. That means that the difference between America and Israel, in terms of gun ownership per capita, is about the same as the difference between Israel and Japan, which has perhaps the strictest gun control regime in the world.

America’s gun-related murder rate is the highest in the developed world, excluding Mexico, where the ongoing drug war pushes the murder stats way up.

One might question whether Mexico is exactly part of the "developed world," though it straddles it--certainly in other parts of Latin America, especially in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the murder rate is far higher than in the US.
Senegal will be first African country to end female genital cutting according to TrustLaw

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has denounced a conspiracy by a group of businessmen led by Jorge Canahuati to depose him by colluding with the Constitutional Court. He warns of a “return” to violence if they don’t stop.

(I don’t know about a "return to violence," maybe an increase in factional violence is more like it.)

Honduras ousts high court judges after ruling on police purge
Reuters, Wed, Dec 12 2012

TEGUCIGALPA - Honduran lawmakers on Wednesday dismissed four Supreme Court judges who had declared unconstitutional a law designed to purge the country's police of corruption, deepening a conflict between the ruling party and the court.

Lawmakers voted to oust the justices and name their replacements after a panel of judges on November 27 declared the law that established confidence exams as unconstitutional in a 4-1 vote.

The law in question required officers to undertake lie detector tests, drug screens and a probe of their personal wealth to determine if they could remain in the police force.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo on Saturday said the judges were "against the purging of the police" and accused them of acting "in collusion to attack institutions."

Last week, Lobo said there was a growing conspiracy against him, aiming to remove him from office in coup similar to the ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 that plunged the country into a political crisis for months.

Led by lawmakers from Lobo's National Party, the country's unicameral legislature voted 97-31 in the early hours of Wednesday to remove the four judges from office.

The split ruling against the law by the five-member panel of judges set the legislation up for a review of the full 15-seat Supreme Court.

The head of the opposition Liberal Party, Alfredo Saavedra, said the ouster of the judges was "a blow to democracy" and he said their dismissal undermined the independence of the court.

The move was the latest development in an increasing dispute between Lobo's party and the Supreme Court, which recently threw out a tax on big companies and law designed to attract more foreign investment.

Officers who were fired after failing confidence exams had filed complaints before the Supreme Court, arguing that the law violated their rights to a fair defense and the presumption of innocence.

Lobo pushed for the confidence tests after a surge in violence in the poor Central American country that followed an expansion of Mexican drug cartels into Honduras.

According to the United Nations, Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world, with 86 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.