Sunday, December 29, 2013

Happy New Year, Peace Corps Holiday Party, Son’s Death Anniversary, Target, Honduras Killings, Wash. Post Cuba Editorial Appeal, Sudan Conflict, Mainstream Republicans Fight Back, Feb. Honduras Trip

Here in DC, snow has been predicted several times already, but the snow that has pummeled the northeast has not actually materialized here or has melted the same day. But my sister in Philly, just 3 hours north, says several inches have fallen there more than once already. A big storm was predicted for Sat. Dec. 14, but turned out to be only a light cold rain, at least in my Capitol Hill neighborhood, so did not daunt the attendance at a Peace Corps function that evening. The photo shows me at the Peace Corps holiday party held at the nearby Eastern Market. It reminded me of the Carter presidency inaugural ball that I attended years ago, a live band, but wall-to-wall people making it hard for anyone to move, much less to actually dance, though a few valiant folks tried, more or less standing and moving their feet in one place. Very few people my age were attendance and the few I talked with (shouted to) over the din were surprised to learn that I had served fairly recently—they assumed that it was years ago in my youth, like most of them. One young man had been in Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking African island that sounds quite idyllic. I only saw 2 people I actually knew there and none from Peace Corps Honduras.

Other photos include folks attending a potluck after a Christmas Eve Mass at my local Catholic community, Communitas, and my great-grandson De'Andre, age 6, with an electronic Christmas present and helping his grandmother, my daughter Melanie, rake leaves in my backyard.

Dec. 19 was older daughter Melanie’s birthday (I won’t say her age because it makes me feel too old!), also the anniversary of older son Andrew’s death, now 19 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long. December is also the anniversary month of the death of my Cuban foster son Alex 18 years ago. Except for marking Melanie’s birth, December is not an especially festive time for our family.

Ordering gifts certificates for my grandson Andrew, named for his late uncle whom he never knew, now living with his mother in Texas, I ordered them from Target, his stated preference. The certificates were cancelled after the security breech there and I had to send a check instead. Target really took a beating on this at this crucial time of year, though perhaps they are at fault for their lax security—or perhaps the hackers were just one step ahead. On-line purchasing, like most things, is a two-edged sword.

Internet surveillance and hacking, whether done by governments or non-governmental groups, I consider a fact of life and not particularly shocking. Of course, proper safeguards should be installed to the extent feasible, but the very fact that the internet exists means that breeches will occur and I’m sure all governments try to spy on each other and that they all have to constantly fend off breaches from many sources, including from bad guys conducting cyber warfare. As individuals, organizations, and nations, we have to accept such risks in exchange for the benefits that the internet confers. At the same time, I can see why some folks I know, including my own sister, refuse to connect to the internet or use computers, though she does use a phone and is vulnerable there.

I must express a minor and totally useless complaint about how early darkness arrives these days, though I’m quite happy in June when the days are long. At least now, we are on the upswing.

News out of Honduras continues to be grim. General Mills heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post was found stabbed to death in her luxury Honduras spa on Roatan, one of the northern Caribbean islands. Her assailant was a young Honduran man whom she was apparently trying to help kick a drug habit and who claims to have been her lover, though she was some 20 years older, so that’s somewhat doubtful. He also denies killing her though he was discovered by police driving her car and covered in blood. Below is an article about a more common killing. The US State Dept. has warned travelers to Honduras about the violence there and, of course, the Peace Corps left for the same reason in early 2012.



Amnesty International Urgent Action
Issue Date: 10 December 2013

On 7 December Honduran journalist Juan Carlos Argeñal was shot and killed by two unidentified men in his house. Honduras is an extremely dangerous country for journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders to carry out their work. A full and impartial investigation is urgently needed.

At around 3 pm on 7 December, two armed men reportedly visited Juan Carlos Argeñal’s house in Danlí, in the southern department of El Paraíso, and shot him twice. Juan Carlos Argeñal was a correspondent for both Radio Globo and Globo TV, as well as the owner of a local TV station and an activist for the Freedom and Re-foundation Party (Partido Libertad y Refundación LIBRE). In the months prior to the killing Juan Carlos Argeñal had reported about corruption in local government.
In July 2013 Juan Carlos Argeñal told human rights group Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras, COFADEH) that he had been intimidated because of his work. Juan Carlos Argeñal reported that he had felt pressure from local authorities who summoned him twice concerning broadcasting permits. He told COFADEH that he attended both meetings and that he feared such requests had been provoked by his journalism.
[Sorry for extra space here, cannot close it.]

President Obama should extend a hand to brave Cubans, Washington Post Editorial, Dec, 11, 2013

President Obama's homage to Nelson Mandela on Tuesday was moving and heartfelt. He celebrated a “great liberator” who demonstrated the power of words, ideals and actions to change history. But the president added an awkward footnote to his tribute in Soweto by stopping to shake hands with Raúl Castro, a man whose regime, led for a half-century by his brother Fidel, has bashed heads and broken arms to stifle freedom.
       A handshake is a gesture, in this case one freighted with symbolism that cannot be ignored. Tuesday marked the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. On the streets of Havana and other cities, a crackdown on civil society was underway. Mr. Castro’s goons showed that they have not lost their taste for violence and coercion to extinguish even the slightest protest or expression of free will.
      We called attention two days ago to the work of Antonio Rodiles, a democracy activist who announced his intention to hold a human rights conference in Havana on Tuesday. In a letter to Mr. Castro, he described a litany of harassment and abuse directed at him by Cuba’s security forces and thugs under their control, who threatened retaliation if the conference went ahead. Sure enough, the authorities followed through on their threats. The home of Mr. Rodiles was cordoned off, and most of those who came to participate in the conference were barred from entering. Then Mr. Rodiles and several colleagues were arrested Wednesday.
      According to a Reuters dispatch, about 20 members of the dissident group Ladies in White “were pounced upon and quickly shoved into waiting vehicles by security personnel and government supporters” when they arrived Tuesday at a busy Havana intersection. The Miami Herald reported that the group’s leader, Berta Soler, and her husband, former political prisoner Angel Moya, “were hauled off by plainclothes police as they headed” to the planned protest. Security officials also blocked the telephones of several dissidents in an apparent effort to silence news of other arrests. The popular blogger Yoani Sánchez tweeted Tuesday morning, “Like in a bad horror movie, I am losing communication with . . . activists.”
      Elsewhere on the island, there were reports that independent journalists, filmmakers and writers were arrested. The Herald reported that police left 16 dissidents bleeding and that six others were arrested when they raided the home of Roger Curbelo, a member of the opposition Christian Liberation Movement in the town of Puerto Padre. The movement was once led by Oswaldo Payá, the dissident who was killed last year in a suspicious car wreck.
      While Mr. Obama was shaking hands with Mr. Castro, courageous people attempting to uphold Mr. Mandela’s ideals were suffering beatings and arrests. The president ought to follow his handshake with a loud and unambiguous salute to the real champions of human rights — those fighting for it on the streets of Cuba.

Ethnic divisions in impoverished South Sudan have boiled over into an attempted coup and inter-ethnic fighting. As you know, I was there in 2006. This time, the north seems to be not to blame and the situation is fragile. The country only achieved impendence in 2011, after decades of strife with the north, amid many hopes and celebrations. Now, the State Dept. is warning American citizens not to travel to South Sudan and is evacuating those already there. I’m broken-hearted because that new country has so many problems already and doesn’t need any more war. Is it a matter of principle and issues or just a power struggle? The new nation’s former solidarity was its strength, now divided. Unity often fractures after opposition groups unite against a common foe. It has happened in Afghanistan and Syria and even happened in South Africa after Mandela’s efforts to reconcile with the apartheid regime. Many in the ANC opposed such efforts, including his then-wife, Winnie, who was also carrying on an affair with a more militant guy, leading to Mandela’s decision to divorce her. I even saw it, to my surprise, among the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, two bereaved groups of mothers marching separately, one considering the other too conciliatory toward the government. While I would lean toward reconciliation in most circumstances, there is a point where principle trumps reconciliation—with every observer of a situation drawing that point at a different place. 

Glad that the mainstream Republican Party is finally pushing back against the teapartyers and that ordinary citizens are finding their voice. Some Republican office holders are realizing that catering to the extreme right-wing is not necessarily going to keep them in office.

Finally, despite the violence, I am now planning my Feb. trip to Honduras, my 10th return trip since leaving the Peace Corps. More on that later.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Radio Interviews, DC Area PCVs, Honduran Elections, A Handshake, Africa Photo Exhibit, Dementia Upswing, Rare Illness, Fellow Catholic

OK, did this one-hour interview on Dec. 2,

 On Dec. 6, was my 15-minute segment of the show that didn’t go through on Nov. 30 as previously scheduled,

 The DC metropolitan area fell to second place in 2013 in its per capita rate of sending volunteers to the Peace Corps. DC produced 7.6 Peace Corps volunteers per 100,000 residents this year, compared to 8.1 volunteers per 100,000 residents in 2012, when the district placed first in the nation. Vermont ranked first with 7.8 volunteers per 100,000 residents.

 If my readers are following the news from Honduras, they know that there is much upheaval over the recent results of the hotly contested presidential elections in which 8 candidates were running, so whoever ran was sure to have garnered a minority of votes as the highest vote getter, not of a majority of votes, wins. As in neighboring Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega has perpetuated an initial minority win into perpetuity by jettisoning a previous rule prohibiting consecutive terms, a minority win is not a good recipe for maintaining political stability. In both Honduras and Nicaragua, it would be better, in my opinion, to have the 2 top candidates face a run-off election, such as happens in Chile. Frankly, unlike my fellow would-be liberals, I was never an admirer of Zelaya, considering him inept, a fraud, an opportunist, and a demagogue, so would hardly have supported his wife Xiomara. But I realize that she has many ardent advocates, including the family of the young doctor called “Loni” in my book, who are her immediate relatives. Many Hondurans rightly feel the economic and political system is stacked against them—certainly there are obscene extremes of wealth and poverty, with those in poverty far outnumbering the wealthy (as in the US also). However, whether Zelaya and his wife would actually help the majority of the poor while feathering their own nest  is questionable in my view and I never considered Zelaya’s ouster a “coup,” though the action was highly irregular and the situation murky because of the lack of impeachment powers in the Honduran constitution. During his presidency, Zelaya did raise the minimum wage to something equivalent to $280 a month, which was never enforced, except among Peace Corps volunteers who argued to be included. He also got cheap oil from Venezuela, which helped everyone. However, now Venezuela is in fairly dire financial straits and unlikely to keep expanding its oil largesse. If, indeed, the US did favor or assist the winning candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, that was not obvious and there is no such evidence, and, nonetheless, EU observers have certified the election results, despite irregularities. As indicated, Hernandez had a substantial lead, though not a majority of all votes cast. Ortega already has called from neighboring Nicaragua to congratulate Hernandez. Doubtles Zelaya’s wife’s supporters still believe there was fraud, with Zelaya loudly denouncing the results, and the article below in the Guardian disputes the outcome—however, with much opinion and little proof, I would say. Very belatedly, am regretting not volunteering to be an election observer for this contest. I do have election observer experience (Chile, Nicaragua, Haiti, and DR) and an abiding interest about and concern for Honduras, but I was distracted by other responsibilities and just didn’t present myself beforehand. Who knows for the next presidential election in Honduras? I might be considered too old then and fear much turmoil in the meantime.

Of course, we all saw the photo of Barack Obama shaking the hand of Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, apparently as he was going down a line of heads-of-state. In his later remarks, he mentioned that some in attendance at the service praised Mandela for his support of democracy and reconciliation while not observing it in governing their own people, an oblique reference to leaders such a Castro.

With Mandela’s death, the new film Nelson Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is likely to do well. South Africa is one of the country’s I hope to visit, just waiting for the opportunity to arise. I rarely travel for just a vacation, usually only when I’m invited and have a specific task. I would recommend that my readers do the same; it makes your visit so much more meaningful and memorable.

 My nostalgia for Africa was re-awakened the evening of Dec. 4 when I was invited to the opening of an archival exhibit of the Africa photos, taken over decades all over the continent, by the late photographer Eloit Elisophon, many of which appeared in National Geographic and LIFE. The exhibit appears in the Museum of African Art, but I note that the accompanying literature says that a larger archive is accessible only by appointment. The main exhibit, mounted right next to the museum shop, appears fully accessible and inviting and will keep visitors busy for quite a while. I was invited to the opening because of my hosting of fellows at the museum. Not only were African hors d’oeuvres served but we were serenaded by a hefty African wearing a cute top hat, singing and playing a large unfamiliar instrument that combined strings with a drum and bells. Two of the photographer’s daughters came from Arizona for the opening. I have only visited 3 African countries: Kenya, Morocco, and what is now South Sudan. But I have always been enthralled, perhaps because those countries were so exotic and different from what I already knew. Also, I have had visitors from Africa attending other programs and those people have always been delightful guests. Someone of Latin American heritage once told me that he had no desire to visit Africa, considering it dangerous, backward, and ruled by demagogues. All that is true to some extent, but shouldn’t keep someone from experiencing the richness and variety of that continent, which is experiencing explosive development, growth, and opportunity. And, I would say, the Peace Corps is having role in all that.

 Predictions are that worldwide dementia numbers are likely to triple by mid-century, not due primarily to overall population growth, but, rather, because of the increase in the elder population, an unfortunate side effect of extending life spans and treating formerly terminal maladies. Likewise, I suspect, the number of people living with disabilities of all types will increase, creating an extra burden for the well population, as is already happening in China, Japan, and Europe, where birthrates are below replacement. They are still at replacement in this country only because of immigration, something Republicans, especially the Tea Party wing, fail to acknowledge.

 Had a fairly young patient the other day with aplastic anemia, an uncommon but serious disease of the bone marrow and blood cells. It has multiple causes, though in many cases, the cause is unknown. My patient and his wife left their children with relatives in another state to travel to this area for the most advanced (free) treatment at the National Institutes of Health. So far, he has experienced some relief, but is not “cured.”

 Here’s an article about a member of my small Catholic community, Bill D’Antonio: