Friday, June 27, 2014

Communitas Marks 30 Years, Outages Fixed, Primaries, Humanitarian Border Crisis, Preventing More Mass Shootings, Discussion on This & Other Polarizing Issues, DR Citizenship Again, Empty Nest

This month, my storefront Catholic community, Communitas, celebrated 30 years since its formation. Shown with me is one of the original members, Sister Alice, an anti-torture crusader, who came from retirement in her mother-house in Minnesota to celebrate with us. My visitor from Argentina attended with me.

Am back online,after several big rainstorms and electrical and internet outages affecting my home office that lasted days and took two electricians numerous hours to fix on separate occasions (I’m bracing myself for the final bill!). One even came back again on Sunday, Father’s Day, when he charged double-time. I surely hope it’s fixed this time. We also experienced a terrible heat wave along the whole east coast. That’s why this particular blog posting is so long, an accumulation of events and commentary.

Possibly the electrical problem was due to hidden water leakage from recent storm or from squirrels that have taken up residence in nooks and crannies and perhaps chewed through or disrupted electrical wires. The remedy was to block off several electrical outlets, ones I didn’t even know existed, located behind heavy bookcases and file cabinets. Otherwise, the walls would have had to be torn open to find where shorts were occurring. My circuit breaker was no help, as it popped right out again when pressed, fortunately, since if it had allowed electricity to flow despite the short, the whole house could have burned down. I moved my computer temporarily into my bedroom, where I also have the necessary phone jack, as being off-line was losing me interpretation assignments and also inconveniencing my visitors taking a course here. One visitor’s room was also in darkness, though I ran an extension cord from another room into hers. I can appreciate how inconvenient it is to endure electrical outages, as many local families have been doing during these recent storms, though when I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras, it was common go days without electricity, partly because of flimsy wiring.

When the internet continued to have problems, I called the Verizon help line, usually answered by an English-speaker in Bangalore or Manila, but this time, I was surprised that he was in San Jose, Costa Rica!  After the problems continued, I ordered a new modem.

I’m not much into soccer mania, though 3 of my kids once played and now my 6-year-old great-grandson wants to learn.  My visitor from Argentina has been riveted by the games.

I don’t particularly mourn the loss of Va. Rep. Eric Cantor, but fear that his replacement is even worse, though with less seniority. It should be an interesting electoral season, with greater polarization than ever.  In New York City, octogenarian Charlie Rangel, a long-serving member of Congress who managed to get many political endorsements, including from the Clintons, again narrowly beat challenger Adriano Espaillat, a cousin of my Dominican friends of the same surname. Rangel says this will be his last term, but he said that last time. He showed that he still has a lot of fight left. 

As for the border crisis, I remember as a Peace Corps volunteer hearing radio spots, funded by USAID, urging parents not to go north and leave their children behind. Also, in my Spanish interpretation work, I've encountered several youngsters who have come across the border alone looking for their families in this vast country and, after not finding them, then being deported. I've traveled back to Honduras 10 times since I left the PC and often see an airport transport discharging deported people, including kids. My hostess in Tegucigalpa last Feb. is a public school kindergarten teacher of 40 kids, 5 of them born in the USA, presumably of deported parents. It's a discouraging situation. However, this border crisis and VP Biden’s remarks that the “vast majority” will be deported are not helpful to the overall immigration reform effort fought for all these years. While most Americans have expressed support of legalization for long-time de-facto residents, they oppose this sudden flood of children and others now trying to cross the border. VP Biden’s remarks about the “vast majority” being deported leave that sliver of hope that some will actually win the lottery and be among the lucky few allowed to stay. This border crisis seems to have doomed immigration reform for now and may also hurt Democrats’ chances in the mid-term elections, though Hispanic voters will be ever more firmly rooted in the Democratic camp.

This week, I had a patient who came to DC 30 years ago, all alone from El Salvador at age 14 and then became a citizen, thanks to Ronald Reagan's immigration amnesty. He does know English, but for a serious medical procedure, felt more comfortable with a Spanish interpreter. He said he lived completely on his own back then, worked to support himself, avoided going to school, and now has his own family and is employed laying tiles and polishing floors. He’s rooting for the unaccompanied minors now amassing at the border and hopes they will be allowed to stay. I doubt that will happen for most of them--unless they have families already here. Of course, my Cuban foster son Alex, who died of AIDS in 1995, was an "unaccompanied minor," which is how he ended up living with me and my kids.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis has been named to  head of the US Interests Section (embassy equivalent) in Havana, someone who has worked at that mission in the past and is apparently respected by democracy activists. He must know the score on Cuba, which he certainly should in that position.

Recent D-Day commemorations have evoked stories told by my late father, Leonard Currie, who died in 1996 and who participated in the Normandy offensive. He surely would have wanted to attend the remembrances if he were alive today. Born in Alberta, Canada, in 1913, he later became a US citizen and a Lt. Col. in the US Army Corps of Engineers during WW II.

Although there have been no mass shootings in the last few days, there was a whole spate of them recently and nothing has been done since to prevent them. Maybe people have given up in this political climate and have surrendered to fate. However, pepper spray may have gained new-found fame in Washington State as a way to subdue a violent gunman. I don’t know that it would always work for that purpose, but pepper spray’s stock must have gone up a notch. It offers a defensive weapon occupying a middle ground between a gun and nothing at all. It doesn’t seem likely that a suicide or accidental death or even a homicide would result from the use of pepper spray. With another fatal random shooting now in a public place, most recently in Las Vegas, I would think that the public’s tolerance for gun violence, for “the right to bear arms,” “open carry,” and “stand your ground” would be growing a little thin. No wonder restaurant diners, out for a relaxing time, don’t feel protected, but, rather, under siege when heavily armed men come in the door. How does anyone know their intentions?  It’s not just a question of “mental Illness,” something itself hard to define and identify, especially before a horrific act takes place, nor is mental health “treatment” foolproof, far from it. Nor is being armed necessarily protective, as the man killed at Walmart confronted the Vegas pair with his own gun.

Several recent mass shootings no doubt have an element of copy-cat behavior.  Others seem to stem not so much from individual mental illness and personal grievances, but from a group culture of exaggerated anti-government, anti-authority, pro-individualistic  violence—a philosophy of anarchy against any form of authority. I don’t believe the founding fathers intended for armed militias to be able to take up arms against an elected government.  Gun-rights advocates and NRA members should distance themselves from these militants who are really the few attacking the will of the majority in a democracy.

It’s getting risky now to be out in public. But do we just have to be sitting ducks, shrug our shoulders, and take the chance of getting killed because of some abstract “right” for an ever-smaller minority, who, however, own an ever-larger arsenal of personal weapons? What are their motivations for having such vast collections? I can understand collecting antique firearms, but assault weapons? Many collections go beyond the need for simple self-protection. The owners’ angry rhetoric and aggressive slogans on their t-shirts give little comfort about their intentions. Police officers and soldiers who wield firearms are screened and trained, but these folks, railing against the very government that the majority of us have elected and displaying behavior that seems vengeful and impulsive are not acting protectively, as they allege (and as Trayvon Martin found out and George Zimmerman showed in his reckless behavior after acquittal).  These militants want no registration, background checks, or restrictions on where and how they might display or use their weapons, as if the outside world were a war zone and they are in an arms’ race. They’re the ones making it so. Gun murders have been triggered by too-loud music, a dog that poops on a neighbor’s lawn, or simply someone trying to enter the wrong house after a night of partying. I think the right to life or to avoid being injured trump the right to bear arms.

The majority of “gun nuts” are men and some of their aggression is probably fueled by testosterone. Late-night comics have made fun of their obsession, with Jon Stewart showing a weapon hung with a set of large fake testicles. Most of us would have no objection to the sport of target shooting, which some nations allow with guns available only at the shooting range. I’m not a particular advocate of hunting, both because it doesn’t seem a humane way to kill animals if they must be killed and because of hunting accidents (i.e. Dick Cheney hitting his friend in the face), but hunting is probably acceptable to most people. Certainly the military and police need firearms and firearms training, including about when it’s permissible and necessary to use their weapons. That’s about as far as I’d be willing to go on firearms. I haven’t heard convincing arguments on the other side, just angry rhetoric about “constitutional rights,” thanks to the Supreme Court.

I’m not unique in having some close calls in my own family. My younger son Jonathan was about 11 when he and a group of boys found a loaded handgun at the bedside of the father of one of them. Another boy playing with the gun dropped it and it went off, wounding my son in the foot, not a fatal injury, thank goodness, but requiring emergency medical care. More recently, my great-niece was on lockdown for hours during a mass shooting at the nearby Columbia Mall.  And in Honduras and other parts of Latin America, the weapons used in the carnage there are American imports. Granted that some Hondurans have homemade guns that must be reloaded after each shot. These really are perhaps defensive weapons, ready to wound an intruder with a single bullet, but the country’s sky-high homicide rate is attributed to the use of imported firearms.

We never hear much, except locally, about the many private gun deaths: suicides, family murders, and accidents, including of and by children, occurring daily beyond the more high-profile public mass shootings. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a Ford appointee, has argued that the Second Amendment was originally a collective right pertaining to local militias and was never meant to be an individual right. Of course, he is no longer on the Supreme Court, so his opinion has little practical weight. With now so many guns in circulation and the gun lobby and weapons manufacturers have gained so much financial political clout, it’s hard to see how things will turn around. However, turning points have been reached on other polarizing and contentious issues such as ethnic, gay, and women’s rights, so maybe the rights of the majority who favor greater gun curbs will eventually prevail. 

A dialectic rhythm to public opinion is evident on many social and political issues. One side presses so hard that it reaches an extreme, as gun rights advocates seem to be doing right now, provoking a backlash. I believe “abortion rights” has reached a tipping point, with most Americans opposing late-term abortions, especially since the “viability” of preterm infants begins at an ever earlier point, thanks to neonatal intensive care, even though stalwart “pro-choice” people would argue for abortion rights at any stage, as long as the fetus is still inside the womb. Opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants, while still strong, is found in a shrinking minority. Likewise, it would seem that opposition to “Obamacare” and especially to Medicaid expansion, while still fierce among some politicians and their Tea Party supporters, is fading among the general public. I had hoped my book about life in Cuba and the true legacy of Fidel Castro might be part of a reassessment there, but it hasn’t happened yet.

While I and others disagree with “guns-rights” advocates and with folks on the other side of numerous other issues, I don’t know if it would help diffuse this polarization to acknowledge and understand the other side’s motivations, for example, gun people’s genuine fears and their desire  to feel strong, independent, and protected. I don’t know where that leaves us, as the hope would be that the other side would reciprocate by recognizing our own fears of being killed. Unfortunately, sincere and empathetic conversations are rarely held among rivals; instead, there is name-calling, sarcasm, and stone-walling—and reinforcement of a point-of-view by only speaking to those who agree with us.   

             President Obama has tried to bridge the impasse with Congress, inviting the other side to come to the table, but they have largely refused. Some divides seem unbridgeable.

On 3 June, Amnesty International made public an open letter to Dominican President Danilo Medina to share our analysis of the citizenship law that he presented to the legislature, designed to help remedy the situation created by the decision of the DR high court that rendered many Dominican-born individuals of Haitian ancestry stateless. His measure, approved by the legislature, is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough in our opinion at Amnesty. The documents mentioned below express our current concerns regarding the law’s implementation, and the situation of statelessness of some individuals, particularly those never registered.



Public statement (English and Spanish):


The IS Caribbean team sent to all diplomatic representatives in Santo Domingo a copy of this letter and urged foreign government to remain vigilant with regard to the law’s implementation. We in the US have also endeavored to get in touch with Vice President Biden to raise the issue during his trip to Santo Domingo as part of a Latin American tour.

Finally, while I have some empathy for parents facing the “empty nest” when a child goes off to college, as a bereaved parent, I feel like telling them not to complain so much, since at least their child is alive and breathing. They should be immensely grateful for that every single day of their child’s life.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

More on Next-Door Renovation, Compassionate Friends, Belarus, Measles Denialism, Wealth Concentration, Unaccompanied Minors

The above photo, a bit fuzzy because it was taken in haste without focus or flash, gives you an idea of the scope of the “renovation” going on next door, but until I got a peek inside, I never realized how extensive those “repairs” were going to be. No wonder so many dumpsters have been filled up! The entire inside of the house has been gutted, floors, walls, the fireplace—nothing left of the interior of an historic 1850 farm house, the first ever built on this block. Only the front façade and side walls remain; I believe the front façade has to stay because this is an historic district—the back is completely open and a beautiful old flowering cherry tree has been removed there. The house is going to be extended and completely rebuilt inside. I mourn for the house that was before and which I knew from more than 40 years of living next door. The current owners have been there only about 3 years. They have a small daughter of that age. I don’t know if they always planned to remake the house or if they came into a lot of money recently or what. They had told me originally that they just planned to expand an enclosed back porch area. Well, things have gone way beyond that. No wonder they’ve moved out for the duration.
The other photo is from our Spanish-language meeting of The Compassionate Friends at Providence Hospital in Washington, DC. Why are so many people smiling? Perhaps out of habit when facing a camera, perhaps also because they’re glad to be together with likeminded souls after losing their children. The woman center-right in black and white, appearing to be laughing, is not a bereaved parent, but Sister Judy, a nun mentioned previously in these pages, the hospital’s chaplain who fled her native Colombia after she was threatened in her work by both guerrillas and paramilitaries. However, she also was mourning the recent loss of her brother, so was not so far removed from the rest of us. One couple there did not speak Spanish, but we provided interpretation, this time into English! Two couples at the meeting, each with Samsung smartphones, exchanged inspirational comfort music by placing their phones back-to-back. Amazing what smartphones can do. They really are pretty smart!
A volunteer Amnesty International USA specialist on Belarus, just as I am volunteer specialist for the Caribbean, talked at my local Amnesty Group, 211. He is a native of that country, which has a population of less than 10 million and became independent when the USSR dissolved in 1991. Its dictatorial President Alyaksandr Lukashenka controls everything, stifles dissent and human rights, but holds nominal elections which he rigs to win and has won ever since independence. There are no term limits; internet freedom is restricted but not entirely blocked. The country has the death penalty by firing squad. Most employment is with the state. The president tries to flatter Putin and maintain friendly ties so that the country won’t be overtaken by Russia, as happened in Crimea. Our speaker said most citizens feel it is better to be ruled by their president, dictatorial as he is, than to be overtaken again by Russia,
Following up on the “denialism” mentioned in the last blog posting, measles has been spreading recently in the US because children are not being vaccinated for religious reasons or because of unwarranted fears linking other maladies to vaccinations. Those opting out of vaccinations who think they are protecting their children are actually putting them and other children, especially those who cannot be vaccinated because of other medical conditions, at risk. (A mother whose unvaccinated daughter died of measles is now warning other parents.)
Denialism is allied with conspiracy theories, holding that outside forces, elites, and government are trying to manipulate and control us either for their own gain or due to evil intentions. Basically, it seems based on an individual’s urge to be independent in thought and deed, never mind if the person is completely wrong and must engage in odd mental gyrations to reach their conclusion. If the state of Hawaii displays Barack Obama’s original birth certificate, officials there are considered to be part of the conspiracy. Of course, some actual conspiracies do exist, which makes it hard to distinguish truth from fiction. But where are all the “birthers” now when Ted Cruz is being touted as a presidential candidate? Unlike Barack Obama, he clearly was not born in the United States.
The increasing concentration of wealth, especially in the hands of fewer and fewer super-rich, who now apparently control most wealth worldwide, is getting to a tipping point. Highly privileged folks may not realize it yet, as they live in gated communities, send their kids to private schools, travel on private jets, and don’t rely on public facilities and services. But their ever-increasing holdings may end up being counterproductive to their own families down through the generations. This is because, unless their descendants find ways to replenish their inherited wealth through selling ongoing services or products, their wealth will dissipate over time, since the overwhelming majority of poor people on earth will be unable to buy whatever it is that they have for sale. Henry Ford recognized this, paying his workers enough to be able to buy the cars they were making and keeping the economic cycle going.  In the present day, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, George Soros, and Mark Zuckerberg are wealthy entrepreneurs who recognize this and who have endeavored to spread around some of their wealth. However, too many super-rich and their political (Republican or conservative) allies endeavor only to increase their holdings by demanding ever-higher salaries far beyond what any human being could possibly spend, denying workers a living wage, promoting more tax cuts, reducing programs like food stamps (which not only allow some families to eat, but provide grocery chains with customers a la Henry Ford), and opposing universal health care.
 Nations that promote more economic equality not only provide most of their citizens a better quality of life, but the wealthier folks among them suffer no deprivations. What about measuring self-worth through projects that improve human well-being instead of those that increase the size of a bank account or involve the accumulation of still more property, as Donald Trump seems to do? Unfortunately, too many of the non-wealthy buy into specious arguments made by those promoting concentration of wealth who depict any discussion of the “wealth gap,” or any form of taxation or rules to protect the environment as unmitigated evils, amounting to socialism, class warfare, and curbs on individual liberty.  However, a reasonable middle ground exists between unbridled Ayn Rand-style capitalism/individualism and the quagmire of despotic systems like those of North Korea and Cuba.  As citizens, it’s our duty to ourselves and to future generations to actively promote that middle ground.
Why do the 99% not object more to the increasing wealth concentration by the 1%? Perhaps because they hope to become rich themselves—they see that as their future, though, quite obviously, the vast majority are never going to make, at best only a very lucky few.
Finally, a word about underage migrants who cross into the U.S. from Mexico, as has been highlighted in the news recently. This is not really a new phenomenon, though perhaps it has now increased. First, in my experience in my capacity as a Spanish interpreter, most are not small children, but teenagers either fleeing gang threats, seeking opportunity and adventure, or looking for parents living in the US, not realizing what a vast country this is. Some never find parents they feel have abandoned them and whom they hope to join. Possibly—and this is just a guess on my part—the prospect of allowing legal status to some undocumented immigrants has also attracted them, even though new arrivals would not be covered under any of the proposed immigration reform bills. My own late Cuban foster son, Alex, was an “unaccompanied minor” who arrived with the Mariel boatlift in 1980.