Saturday, August 9, 2014

Translators/Interpreters Get Together, Honduran Friends Move to Texas, Ebola Efforts, Cuban Regime Prisoner Alan Gross Expresses Desperation, More on USAID in Cuba & Elsewhere, Cuban Health System

At the annual summer party of a DC-based translators and interpreters’ organization (see above), I gave a talk and a reading from my Cuba book, two copies of which were given away as raffle prizes. I met a Honduran woman at the gathering, someone who may want to help us as a volunteer interpreter with our IHS ( medical brigades, and who also is considering an interpreting career.
            I received a complaint about a too-small font on the last blog post, so am trying to make it bigger before posting again, so see if that makes a difference.
            A Honduran friend, nicknamed Betio, whom I had once helped obtain asylum in the US and bring his wife and 9 children here, has now moved with his 2 oldest sons to Texas where construction work is more plentiful and better paid. Whew!  What a brave family. First, they all moved here from Honduras after Betio’s life as an environmental activist was threatened, which was quite an undertaking. Then they bought a house, enrolled the kids in school where they learned English and have been doing very well. I thought that was an achievement in itself. But now the parents are planning to move the whole gang to Texas before school starts. I raised 4 kids myself, and a Cuban foster son for part of that time, much of it as a single parent, but If I had had 9 kids and had to move them fifteen hundred miles, I’m not sure I would have had the strength. But Betio and his family seem up to it, despite shaky English on the parents’ part. Betio must be close to 50 now, so needs to make the most of his working years.
            It’s a real dilemma what the US should do about the kids arriving at our national doorstep. Conditions are fairly dire in their home countries (as in many other nations around the world). Probably children under 12 are not a particular danger to us here, but they would be a burden, at least initially. Some fear a disruption in our “American way of life,” though accepting immigrants has always been part of that way. Furthermore, since the European-descended population in this country is not reproducing itself, maybe we need them. The dilemma is that if some were allowed to stay, more would come. We seem to be torn between a hospitality tradition of the “Golden Door” variety and incapacity to actually deal with the current influx. As on other questions, the electorate and its representatives appear sharply divided.
             In an effort organized by a Nigerian member, my Communitas Catholic community has been collecting donations of money and medical supplies to send to West Africa to help with the Ebola outbreak.
            Former USAID contractor Alan Gross, in his 5th year of imprisonment in Cuba for bringing in cell and satellite phones destined for Havana’s dwindling Jewish community, has hinted at taking his own life. Neither the US or Cuban government would want that to happen. The Cuban regime wants its three convicted spies returned in exchange for Gross’s freedom. They were involved in the killing of 4 Brothers-to-the-Rescue operatives shot down and killed while flying two small planes picking up Cuban rafters at sea. Even so, maybe they could now be released? Two of their members are already back in Cuba and Gross was probably seized by the Cuban government precisely as a bargaining chip for the release of those men, touted as heroes in billboards all over Cuba. However, it’s hard to imagine Obama exchanging them before the November elections—on the other hand, if Gross should die in prison, both Obama and Raul Castro would be blamed. Is Gross really going to try to kill or starve himself, or is he simply expressing a desperate plea for freedom? He and his family cite the case of Sgt. Bergdahl being exchanged for 5 G’tmo prisoners.
            For USAID to engage in or fund activities in Cuba considered hostile by the regime carries a big PR risk. Even though such activities would be considered benign elsewhere—like encouraging youth to think for themselves, financing twitter, or supplying communications equipment—the fact that in Cuba these activities must be kept secret and are not permitted by the authorities undermines the reputation of USAID worldwide. Already, in the Peace Corps in Honduras and other countries, some local people suspect volunteers are CIA operatives (why else would they leave to US to help perfect strangers?). President Morales of Bolivia ousted both USAID and the Peace Corps because of suspicions that they were undermining his government. Since I volunteer annually with US-based medical brigades in Honduras, I’ve heard through them that US-based brigades are not welcome any more in Bolivia either because of the same suspicions, although some folks are now participating with Canadian medical brigades, which are still allowed. So the revelation of secret USAID activities has unfortunate ripple effects.
            The Peace Corps bends over backwards to avoid any CIA taint, refusing to accept any applicant who ever worked in intelligence in any context, however briefly or long ago. I’ve talked with very capable people with language and cultural skills who would love to be PC volunteers, but are barred, for example, a young man who had been in the military and was assigned for a few months to an intelligence unit. Nonetheless, the taint of USAID still falls onto the Peace Corps, even though the two are completely separate and PCVs are forbidden to engage in local politics.
            Most Cubans seem to be waiting for something to happen--they are not accustomed to being pro-active, as that can be dangerous. One of my readers who visited Cuba not long ago, has suggested that the US might send in the marines. Not only would that be violating the pact made with the then-USSR when they took their missiles out of Cuba, but the world would be up-in-arms about an attack on a poor, defenseless country. And now that Putin has visited Cuba, forgiven its debt, and offered aid, maybe the Russians would rush in to help. So I don't see that in the cards. But when the Castro brothers have passed on, maybe some changes are possible because at least some of those even among the Communist elite want change, while others who have been wholesale human rights violators will fight to maintain status quo for self-protection.
            From what I know about USAID’s efforts in Cuba, there was no attempt to impose an ideology or even to advocate a change of government. Rather, all the attempts, from Twitter to Alan Gross bringing in phones to the sending of Latin American youths, seemed aimed at facilitating communication and independent thinking. Yet another human rights volunteer colleague, born in Latin America, opined that if Cubans wanted to rise up and oppose their government, they would do so without prompting from the US. That shows considerable naivetĂ© about the severe restrictions imposed by the Cuban regime for generations and the punishment by death or imprisonment for those “rising up.” Another human rights activist pointed to a critique characterizing USAID in Cuba as a “Maxwell Smart” effort, referring to a bumbling well-meaning comical British detective who leaves chaos in his wake. Certainly these revelations of secret programs (secret because in Cuba, they must be) don’t enhance the reputation of USAID; maybe the CIA, which has more experience covering its tracks, should have been in charge. But what was being done was not hostile in any way to the Cuban people, their interests, their nationalism, or their patriotism.
            I don’t think USAID deserves a bad rap everywhere. For example, when I served 3 ½ years as a health volunteer in Honduras, we collaborated usefully with USAID, although they were totally separate. Both USAID and Peace Corps in Honduras always endeavored to see solutions to local problems coming from the people actually living there—we bent over backwards not dictate solutions, but to act as advisors in helping Hondurans achieve their own goals. Much of the inertia displayed by ordinary people derives from their feelings of helplessness, whether in Cuba, Honduras, or elsewhere. We tried to help Hondurans overcome those attitudes and USAID, operating on a much larger scale and with more resources than PC, seemed to be doing the same. We knew that as Peace Corps volunteers, we would be leaving and that local folks would have to carry on by themselves. Little did we know then that the Peace Corps would pull out of Honduras altogether, a real tragedy, but since I still travel there yearly, I’ve seen the security situation getting progressively worse and realize that the decision was probably justified. Obviously neither USAID nor the Peace Corps did enough in Honduras to help improve life there or so many people would not now be arriving at the US border.
            However, in thinking more about USAID in Cuba, if it were to work there at all, it would necessarily have to do so without the approval of the Cuban government and would need to operate in secret, hence the appearance of subterfuge and clumsiness when such secret operations are later revealed.  When the recent USAID program of infiltrating, if that’s the right word, Latin American young people into Cuba was revealed, I thought, as did many others, “Not again!” From the Bay of Pigs to exploding cigars, the US has often screwed up in Cuba. Yet, the fact remains that USAID’s actual recent activities in Cuba have not been propagandistic or ideological per se, nor was an overthrow of the current government actually being promoted. As far as I know, the now-defunct Twitter program did not influence what Cubans had to say on Twitter. When the unfortunate Alan Gross brought communications equipment into Cuba—passing it openly through Cuban customs, I’ve heard—he was not decreeing what the content of the communications should be. And now, the revelation that Latin American youth were being sent into Cuba to get young people there thinking and talking among themselves does not amount to a crime. Cubans do need to be preparing themselves for when Cuba is no longer a dictatorship. It seems that the Castro government, which absolutely squelches any sort of independent expression or assembly, has characterized USAID as part of an American plot to dominate Cuba and many observers have bought into that characterization.
            We could rightly characterize USAID efforts in Cuba as bungled, since they neither opened up much independent space for Cubans, did not remain secret, and, in fact, may have led to even greater harassment and control of activists, yet we still need to question the Castro government’s narrative that those activities were explicitly designed to overthrow a legitimate government that most Cubans actually support, a very questionable conclusion. If, indeed, a majority supports the current government, it would not so consistently engage in draconian measures to prevent any free expression or assembly.  Is citizen government support in Cuba so fragile that the slightest whiff from the USA would upset it? Would our own or world opinion be so condemnatory of USAID-type activities being carried out in North Korea, Iran, or Russia, for example? Weren’t Americans and other westerners active internally in South Africa against apartheid and didn’t they support an embargo against that country? Certainly Cuba is not the only country subject to a US embargo—the US is supporting a partial embargo against Russia right now. Arguably, the US embargo has not led to any more freedom for ordinary Cubans—quite to the contrary, it’s used as a convenient excuse for abridging their freedom.  I’m just asking whether or not world opinion is being influenced by the Cuban government’s own “spin” more than under similar circumstances elsewhere and whether, perhaps, this is due in to a very successful propaganda campaign by the Cuban regime itself? If so, we need to guard against applying a more lenient double standard to that government. We should hold the Cuban government to universal standards.
            I doubt that most observers would condemn European embassies for allowing dissidents to use their internet facilities or would denounce European civil society groups that bring in communications equipment, but when Americans do it, the Cuban government cries “imperialism” and many people around the world believe it. So I don’t believe that USAID efforts in Cuba deserve to be condemned outright. Their execution was not optimal to say the least, but their intent was to help Cubans open up a little more civil space.
            On a related matter, a translation of an article by a French physician praising the Cuban medical system, has appeared in the Huffington Post. Interested parties can search for it; I don’t want to give it more publicity than it already has by citing the author and title. Those who do find it, to get a first-hand contrasting view, should read my book, Confessions of a Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People.

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