Friday, August 1, 2014

Border Crisis Continues, Cuban Dissident Speaks Out, Peace Corps Exits Kenya, A Peace Corps Death, A Friend’s Passing, Gaza-Israel

July 24, 2014, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez criticized United States lawmakers for creating "ambiguity" over the border laws during the fight for immigration reform. "It is a matter that arises, we believe, from the lack of clarity … the ambiguity .. that has become the hallmark of the policies and the debates that are being carried on the question of immigration reform here in the United States," he said through a translator according to The Hill. "And that is a situation that the coyotes are very perversely taking very much an opportunity to exploit."

Hernandez appeared on Capitol Hill today with Otto Perez Molina, the president of Guatemala, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. During the event, Pelosi urged Congress to pass President Obama’s emergency request for more funding to address the results of the border crisis.

Below is a link to a joint statement released by the Central American presidents after their meeting with President Obama:

NY Times: To Ease Crisis, U.S. May Vet Young Refugees Inside Honduras

Since the US births are not at replacement levels, we might be well advised to take in these Central American young people to replenish our population and support us in our old age. The mayor of Baltimore is inviting Hispanic families to move there, as her city is losing population. The mayor of Chicago has indicated he would also welcome the migrants.

 The US government has recently commissioned the production and playing on radio stations in Central America of a song in the Mexican immigration-corrida tradition warning against trying to make an illegal entry into the United States. It’s called “La Bestia” or “The Beast” for the dangerous freight train that many migrants hop on their trek across Mexico.  Apparently, the song has become pretty popular. The dire risks warned of in that song, as well as American-government-sponsored radio and TV spots depicting the saga of a young man who dies out in the desert, might discourage some, but for others who enjoy the thrill of danger and challenges, and who think they can beat the odds, the effort might backfire. For many bored and stymied Honduran young people I came to know, the prospect of trying to get the USA clandestinely seemed pretty exciting.

 See also: Why Honduras Needs Our Help
By Caitlin Dickson July 27, 2014 The Daily Beast

On July 29, 2014, at a roundtable held at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC, I met with Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, wife of Cuban activist Jorge Luis García AKA Antúnez, profiled in my Cuba book and shown with me in the photo above. She is actually my height, but was wearing some enormous clunky shoes that elevated her several inches. An Afro-Cuban, she is the leader and founder of the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights. She said aggression against peaceful demonstrations, especially against women, has been getting worse this year. In her own home, there have already been 5 police raids this year, breaking down their door while they were sleeping, breaking furniture, and, on Feb. 5, taking DVDs and toys, taking pots and pans and food, destroying or confiscating cell phones, and taking her and her husband to the police station for interrogation. During the last raid, on June 11, her husband was injected with an unknown substance. She herself had to disrobe and was beaten, “They tried to sexually abuse me,” she said, “and this not only happens to me but to other women activists.” She said they are handcuffed while being beaten. She named some names of state security officials carrying out these beatings, but I wasn’t sure I heard her well enough to write down the names correctly.

Remittances go mostly to white Cubans. In May, Pérez said her group had prepared a letter for a Congressional Black Caucus delegation and asked to meet with them, but they refused and wouldn’t accept the letter either. She thinks more Cuban young people are becoming sympathetic to dissidents, perhaps one reason for increased repression. Also, she said, more people are listening to Radio Martí. Official media report extensively on violence and poverty in other countries, not Cuba, and extol the virtues of Cuba’s medical missions abroad.  “Some of us have been allowed to leave and return, but we cannot report on what we saw and did abroad or else we won’t be able to leave again, like now my husband, who cannot leave.”

 The streets are the main vulnerability for the regime, she said. Social media is important, though greatly impeded. Being able to send e-mail from foreign embassies has been particularly helpful. Czech and Dutch supporters have been invaluable. Cellphones are the main means of communication. Small groups acting independently, not in coordination, are engaging in “lightning activities,” not planned or talked about in advance, giving participants a short time to express themselves before the authorities intervene. Now, dissidents would like to mount a nationwide strike, but people are afraid of losing their jobs if they participate, so more time and preparation are needed. Pérez said she would be meeting with members of the U.S. Congress and would tell them:  “We don’t want the U.S. to reconcile with the Castro regime.” On the parish level, Catholic church members and clergy have been supportive, but not the Cardinal, who, she opined, is in league with the regime.

On July 30, I was one of about 18 people meeting at the State Dept. with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, named the new head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Most participants represented NGOs, but a few were State Dept. staff members.  DeLaurentis has served at the Interests Section on 2 previous occasions, but had not been to Cuba for 12 years. Meanwhile, he has had assignments at the UN Human Rights Commission. From the AI website, I had printed out in advance the Cuba section of the annual report, which I gave him, along with our most recent Cuba UAs, and a list of our main concerns in Cuba, namely freedom of assembly, expression, press, and movement inside and outside Cuba, with the right to return. Other priorities are ending arbitrary detentions, freedom for POCs, an end to the U.S. embargo, and an end to the death penalty, although Cuba has not had any recent executions. I said I had not been to Cuba myself since 1997.

Others, who had visited more recently reported both a little more space, mostly because of cell phones, and, as a consequence, more repression, but mostly of a short-term variety: “actos de repudio,” beatings, repeated short-term arrests and releases. Dissidents express themselves outside despite harassment. Some participants described the now-defunct US Twitter program as having been helpful. The Cuban government knows that many people are unhappy, but does everything it can to prevent them from expressing it. Individually licensed vendors are experiencing a little greater sense of freedom. Afro-Cubans are feeling increasing frustration which the government is trying hard to control. The streets were cleared of LGBT people and sex workers when Putin visited.

 The CELAC communique about the “inalienable rights” of states, rather than persons, was seen as a setback.  Cuba has a lot of influence at the UN and in other international bodies, but these need to hold Cuba to its treaty obligations.

The ambassador (as he was called), was warned that Cuban employees of the embassy, chosen by the Cuban government, can be both spies and saboteurs, which he already knew, having worked there before.  They sometimes manage to block visa requests to the US or to other countries from other embassies.  In general, U.S. visas are slow to process and often denied arbitrarily. The U.S. should invite students to the United States to study, with the understanding that they will then return to Cuba. The Interests section, to the extent possible, should support more people and projects in the countryside.

One participant said that Antúnez, according to his wife, had been threatened: “You know what happened to Payá,” referring to the suspicious death of democracy activist Oswaldo Payá.

  The nation of Argentina was declared in default on billions of dollars of foreign-currency obligations today, as they were unable to reach deal with American investors on a missed interest payment. This is the second time in 13 years, the country has gone into default. Argentine spokesmen denied the country was in default (Yahoo News, July 30, 2014).  An auditor for the Argentine government staying with me now is feeling rather discouraged.

 The Peace Corps has now suspended its program in Kenya because of security concerns. It has also left west Africa, at least for now, because of the Ebola outbreak.

 Nick Castle, who graduated from UC, Berkeley, my alma mater, was a Peace Corps volunteer in rural China who came down with an intestinal illness and died, a very sad story, especially if it was preventable and not just a freak accident. The events leading up to his death were reported in the NYTimes (July 25, 2014). As my readers know, I've lost a son and a Cuban foster son, so I know how hard it is to lose a child. However, living as a PCV in a developing country involves a certain degree of risk and some young people attending college in the US or even living at home with their parents die as well. So while this young man did not join the PC with the risk of death in mind, death can come to any of us at any time. Peace Corps should try to prevent every volunteer death, but it's never going to be 100%. There are practical and financial limits as to how well volunteers can be protected if they are out in the world doing their job. Perhaps Nick’s parents can take comfort in that he was doing what he’d always wanted to do. Was the PC negligent in this case? I wouldn't go that far. While I was a volunteer in Honduras, I had my share of illnesses, including malaria, and, since then, have faced considerable risks during ten return trips. So far, I’ve been lucky, but I’ve written my will. Of course, I have lived a long life already, not like this young man, but if the premature deaths occurring in my family have taught me anything, it is that we never know when our time will be up, whatever our age.

 A death closer to home for me was that of my friend Bob King, a Swiss peeler vendor weekends at the outdoor Eastern Market, taking place a couple of blocks from my home. Bob, who was in his late 60s, had been selling very useful and long-lasting peeler made in Switzerland for years. A friendly, generous guy, he is mourned by other vendors and customers alike. Last year, he seemed to have miraculously survived a serious bout of stomach cancer thanks to aggressive VA medical care. But this year, the cancer returned and he lasted only a few months. Until last year, he would give me some peelers to distribute in Honduras on my annual trips. He loved my Honduras book and would recommend it to others. His wife Tracy has taken over his market selling spot.

 A word about Israel-Gaza, about which opinions are as polarized as on anything else, perhaps eclipsing concerns about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine for now—world opinion has a short attention span in this digital age. Hamas started things by sending rockets into Israel and it can only be asked “why?” Was it to call attention to the virtual siege of Gaza? If so, the tremendous destruction being rained down upon civilians there—who are necessarily interspersed among Hamas fighters in such a small, crowded, enclosed territory—has proven not worth the price, but if Hamas has a suicidal impulse and wants to appear the victim, then it’s getting what it wants. It seems to be a variation on people who blow themselves up. Whether or not self-destruction and victimhood are the aims of Hamas, Israel, with its overpowering military force and firepower, financed and supplied by the US, looks like the aggressor, especially when hitting a school, mosque, or UN compound. Many Gazans were said to be opposed to the rockets still being fired into Israel, even though they are doing fairly little damage and with diminishing effect, but after bombardment by Israel, positions in both Israel and Gaza seem to be hardening. And the war is also being fought in the cyber sphere. Already, world opinion had been turning against Israel, which was on shaky ground internationally beforehand, being kept afloat only by US financial and diplomatic support. Now even a number American Jews, and even a few Israelis, are turning against the Netanyahu government, although his support in Israel remains strong. However, Jews have been among vocal demonstrators in front of the White House, calling for an end to arms for Israel. I also have seen reports that Gazans did not kill the 3 Jewish teens, but don’t know how credible that is. Lots of rumors. Amnesty International is also opposed to any further arms to Israel, though it looks like the US is supplying them. Pope Francis is begging both sides to stop immediately!

 In Bolivia, the legal working age has been lowered from 14 to 10. Maybe that’s just an acknowledgment of reality. I know that in Honduras, kids even younger than 10 often are out selling something. See photos of them on pp. 117-118 & 149 of my Honduras book.

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