Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thanksgiving, Czech Anniversary, Marion Barry, Haiti Housing, Obama’s Immigration Order, Miss Honduras Murdered, Cuba, Venezuela, Pope Francis

Photos are of my daughter Melanie, granddaughter Natasha, and great-grandson De’Andre on Thanksgiving Day and with visiting Va. Beach friends Javier and family.

My Thanksgiving weekend was disrupted somewhat by persistent furnace problems, as well as computer issues, all of which I trust have now been fixed.
Very sweetly, the wife of a Guatemalan medical interpretation patient I had on Wed., the day before Thanksgiving, invited me to dinner at her house, an invitation I had to decline, but appreciated the gesture.

Vaclav Havel Tribute, Nov. 19, 2015, Washington, DC
While Vaclav Havel may seem far afield from my concerns as an Amnesty International volunteer in charge of the Caribbean and an advocate for human rights in Cuba, Havel and the Czech Republic have always understood and strongly supported Cuban dissidents in their struggle against tyranny. As a Czech citizen once commented to me at a Czech Embassy event on behalf of Cuba, “We know in our bones what Cubans are going through.” Therefore, I was honored to be invited to a celebration at the Library of Congress of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and Havel’s legacy. Among the speakers were former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, and Sen. John McCain, who shared Havel’s experience as a political prisoner. Havel’s white-haired brother also spoke, saying, “Totalitarian regimes live a lie.” In a short video clip of Havel’s life, he’s shown saying, “Evil triumphs because good people do nothing.” Havel also often used satire against the USSR. McCain warned of new threats from the Putin regime, which he sees as trying to revive the Soviet Empire. Albright, now age 77, one year older than I am, looked somewhat elderly, but was sharp and eloquent in her remarks. I had brought along 3 (heavy) copies of my Cuba book to the event, hoping to have a chance to give them to Albright, McCain, and the Czech ambassador, but they were mobbed by reporters on their way out, so I couldn’t get close enough. I’ve sent copies to several figures I thought might be interested, but only one has even acknowledged receipt. I suppose prominent individuals get many unsolicited items, mostly relegating them to the trash, which is why I had hoped to make a brief personal spiel while handing over a copy of my book. I am trying to create awareness of my new book, but perhaps need to do something dramatic to get it on social media—or at least figure out Twitter, which has so far eluded me.

 DC’s iconic and irascible “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry has died at age 78, a man who often made headlines because of his drug use, sex escapades, and tax and corruption problems. Nonetheless, he was repeatedly reelected to the city council after four troubled terms as mayor. When he was running for mayor the first time as a champion of racial equality, I voted for him, but, that once only, as in office, he displayed a distressing unreliability and cronyism. He was a colorful character, who always managed to grab headlines. For him, all news involving him was good news.

Fooling the Sun, Not Fooling the Rain: Housing and Shelter in Haiti 5 Years After the Earthquake was an all-day conference I attended at George Washington University in Washington, DC, hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee and Church World Service. Five years after the devastating Haiti earthquake, housing is still lacking for many of those displaced. The program did a good job of identifying problems, but was short on remedies. Most speakers were Haitian and spoke in creole. Based on my limited experience in Haiti 20 or more years ago, I expected them to speak in French, as back then, educated people spoke French, which I do understand somewhat. However, creole is pretty much beyond me and most spoke in creole, including a young Haitian man studying in Montreal. We had simultaneous interpretation, fortunately, and the interpreter turned out to be my own former Haiti assistant at Amnesty from a few years back, Hyppolite Pierre, a young man who also was an interpreter of French and creole for one of the agencies I still work for. However, he told me that he was there working on his own, which was to his advantage, as agencies typically take half our hourly pay for arranging an interpretation and for having a contract with the payer.  Simultaneous interpretation takes a tremendous amount of concentration and, although I have done it on occasion, I avoid it, even though it pays more than consecutive interpretation. Besides being difficult, I find simultaneously interpreting for a large group, such as we had, and using electronic equipment, intimidating. I don’t mind doing it with a group of parents sitting together around a table during a school meeting, but prefer just speaking to them directly, no equipment.  But Hyppolite was a real trooper, although once when a creole speaker was going too fast, in a rapid staccato-like cadence, he asked him to slow down. Although I am certainly not able to judge his reliability in creole, I was impressed that he never flagged at all during that long day. Usually simultaneous interpreters take turns during an all-day session, but he never stopped.

This conference reawakened my nostalgia for Haiti. If I spoke creole and weren’t already so invested in Honduras and also Cuba, I’d be tempted to try to do something for Haiti, such a colorful country with such quirky, but engaging people. However, my personal time, energy, and money are necessarily limited.

As for the substance of the meeting, Haiti’s history was reviewed, including that Simon Bolivar once sought asylum in Haiti. There was a synopsis of the Duvalier days, 1990 election of Aristide, and situation of the country after his ouster, all of which I witnessed in Haiti at the time. (During my 1990 visit, I was an election observer and stayed the Victorian-style Hotel Oloffson immortalized by Graham Greene.)  Haiti has a winner-take-all political system; an election winner installs his friends, as the speakers pointed out.

Haiti was moving forward before the earthquake, according to several speakers; in 2005, the army was disbanded (does Haiti really even need an army?).  Slides were shown of the current situation: dirt roads leading to hillside tent camps with women walking along carrying bundles on their heads, rubble strewn along the way from the wreckage of destroyed dwellings, and evidence of deforestation. Housing is more than a matter of building codes and architecture, but of health and human rights as well. Links were made between housing and children’s, women’s, and LGBT rights. Housing must include education and cultural awareness; people need to be involved in creating their new habitats. Chaos and informality have dominated the housing sector, especially after the earthquake. Criminals and robbers still hide out in the camps. People need health services, education and jobs, not just housing; unless they have work, new homeowners cannot pay property taxes. An IDB representative in the audience said displaced people have been offered either housing or financial compensation.

A few other highlights from the day-long event:

Only a small proportion of promised aid has actually arrived.

Aid has steadily diminished.

People in transitional housing have not been able to move into permanent housing.

Haiti’s legal system is deficient; there is a lack of coordination between government agencies and unregulated NGOs; who is actually in charge? (Corruption, waste, lack of transparency.)

2.5 million people are still living in tents 5 years later; 50% of the population lives on less than $1 per day.

Families are being forcibly evicted from tent camps.

Haitian homes may be brightly painted, but many lack water, sanitation, and electricity and are plagued by termites.

Housing for the elderly and those with disabilities is particularly lacking, as well as for families with more than 5 children.

When new housing actually becomes available, it is better than what went before.

Legal issues abound, including competing claims and lack of a good land registry system.

In summary, many problems were identified but few remedies were offered.

The local Hispanic press reacted swiftly to Obama’s temporary immigration order. The Washington Hispanic’s headline said, “Some laugh, others cry.” Parents of “dreamers” had hoped to be included, but were not. El Tiempo Latino featured a dramatic front-page story of a Honduran father actually on the deportation plane when he was abruptly taken off and reunited with his wife and kids in time for Thanksgiving, giving them a lot to be thankful for. But he reportedly had to post an immediate bond with Homeland Security of $4,500—not sure why, but friends and in-laws were able to come up with the money.

Obviously, quite apart from my many connections with undocumented immigrants, I feel personally invested in the immigration fight. My Dad was born in Canada, a country whose immigrants to the US don’t arouse particular hostility. My late foster son Alex was an unaccompanied minor from Cuba. And my son Jonathan was adopted from Colombia. I made sure that Alex and Jon became US citizens and, of course, my Dad did too. Maybe Obama can trade approval of Keystone for approval by Republicans of a more permanent immigration fix. It would be wise for Republicans to find a face-saving way out of their implacable opposition to immigration reform. The oil is going to be squeezed out of Alberta (my Dad’s original home) anyway, but the question is: will it be sent by ship or pipeline? Either method is risky and, in both cases, fossil fuel is going to be producing energy, like it or not. So maybe some political horse-trading is in order on that issue. It would be great if we could find a viable alternative to oil. I’ve now signed up for a program whereby all my electricity will come from wind, but wind is not going to replace oil most places any time soon.

You’ve already heard that Miss Honduras and her sister were murdered by her sister’s boyfriend, a rare Honduran murder that actually reaches US news.

Now US travelers to Havana can fly directly from NYC, as well as from Miami. The travel ban exists only in theory.

Moreover, in recent weeks the New York Times has published several editorials in support of closer US-Cuba ties, all of which have been reproduced verbatim by Cuba’s government-run press — something never seen before.

A Cuban doctor working in West Africa has come down with Ebola and is being sent to Geneva for treatment, according to Michael Weissenstein on Someone commenting on the story, asks why isn’t he being sent to Havana if Cuban health care is so superior?

While Cuba issues are not of paramount importance to most Americans, ever since Ernesto Londoño (apparently originally from Colombia) came on board only on Labor Day as a NY Times editorial writer, he has been ceaselessly criticizing US Cuba policies. This must have been something he had been itching to do and was not allowed to do on his previous job at the Washington Post, which has taken a much more critical stance toward the Castro regime. He never evaluates the Cuban regime’s own policies and is apparently trying to counter criticisms of the regime coming from rival papers, both the Wall St. Journal and the Washington Post. The latest, 6th in the series by my count, is: A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S., NY Times editorial, 11-17-2014. It berates the U.S. for giving immediate asylum to defecting doctors and other medical personnel working abroad. There is no apparent questioning as to why such personnel might want to defect from their homeland, especially when they probably don’t know English and most will be unable to work in their field in the US, in part because the Cuban government will not release their educational transcripts. A few do manage to take courses and exams in the US and end up as doctors again, though they more commonly work as nurses or physicians assistants after taking courses here. This recent Times article seems to acknowledge, for the first time, that most payment for the doctors’ services abroad goes to the Cuban government. If the Ebola doctors themselves are receiving a stipend of $240 a day from WHO, that’s as much as they might earn at home in several months or a whole year, but I sincerely doubt they get all that. If all actual payment for their services went directly to them, the government could always tax it fairly heavily, because the Cuban government has given them an excellent medical education—which I don’t dispute. The editorial repeats the Cuban government’s assertion that everyone sent to the Ebola fight is going voluntarily. Yes, perhaps in part because of the chance to defect, a problem that has plagued Cuba’s medical diplomacy for decades. Usually passports are seized by the mission’s director “for safekeeping.”

Although perhaps no unilateral action on the embargo by the US is warranted, sometimes unilateral actions do have positive consequences. Remember Nixon to China? So Obama to Cuba might open up that country, or even more so, if a Republican president did it.

In Cuba, now that the Communist Party has been largely discredited in the eyes of the population, new entities need to be developed to replace Fidel Castro and the party. Civil society must be allowed to grow. Also, I eventually hope to live to see the day when the Peace Corps works to help restore much of what is lacking now in Cuba, if luck is with me, myself among its volunteers there. I can see a future role for IT specialists, English teachers, and agricultural advisors, among other Peace Corps volunteers in Cuba.

An Amnesty representative working on Venezuelan issues has had his London flat broken into and his laptops stolen while other items were left intact. Video footage shows 3 guys entering the building, one of whom left his cellphone behind with conversations recorded in Spanish. This doesn’t look like an ordinary burglary. The victim has been increasingly outspoken about the human rights abuses of the Venezuelan government. Photos of him with his children, snapped when they were walking outside have also surfaced, which is pretty scary.

So Pope Francis is planning a US visit next Sept., perhaps including Washington, DC. I was so not eager to meet Benedict when he was here, but would like to actually meet Francis in person, not just his cardboard cut-out, though I wouldn’t particularly want to be part of a huge crowd just seeing him from afar.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Holidays, LGBT & AIDS Activists, Latest on Cuba, School Interpretation, Cycle of Misinformation

Now with the anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I wonder what, if anything, is being reported in China, or in North Korea—where it must be a sensitive topic—or in Cuba, where most citizens have no access to the internet?
Veterans Day, which featured an outdoor concert on the Smithsonian Mall, was dry and mild, with a high in the low 70s, very lucky for the observance of holiday events.
In case I don’t get back to the blog before Thanksgiving, wishing you all the best.
The above photo, taken at a meeting in a DC residence, shows young Jamaican LGBT activist Angeline Jackson, whom I had met before and mentioned previously on this blog, and Nakibuuka Maxensia Takirambule, an AIDS activist in Uganda. By their embrace, they are expressing a collaboration between LGBT and AIDS advocacy across continents. Angeline heads up a fledgling Jamaican LGBT organization, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica in Kingston, focused mainly on gay women, who seem to have even less support than gay men and are often subject to rape, as in her own experience. (Jamaica is one of my Caribbean countries for Amnesty Int’l USA.) Her group tries to counter biblical passages that are used against gays and also works in prisons. She connects women’s rights with LGBT rights, as does Xensia from Uganda, who uses a nickname (thank goodness) and is the executive director of Lunguzza Community Health Caring Organisation in Kampala. Xenia has been HIV+ since 1998, having contracted it from her husband, who died in 1999 (a pattern similar to what we saw in Honduras in the Peace Corps). She has felt stigmatized by her HIV status and has made common cause with LGBT Ugandans with HIV/AIDS. She has been working on reducing social rejection of both LGBT persons and those with HIV. They were brought together by St. Paul’s Foundation, a religiously oriented gay rights advocacy organization now focusing on gay rights in Cameroon, Jamaica, and Uganda.
Readers of my books know that my Cuban foster son, Alex, who came to the US at age 16 as an unaccompanied minor in 1980 via the Mariel boatlift, had been freed from jail and put on a boat at gunpoint, as happened with many prisoners then. He was gay, learned he was HIV+ in 1990, and died of AIDS in 1995, one year after my son had died as the result of a work accident. Xensia contracted AIDS a few years later, when anti-retrovirals were just coming into use. AIDS was also a priority for us as health volunteers in Honduras where women often contracted it from their husbands, as Xenia did. Now, the incidence in Honduras has leveled off, in part because of our educational campaign. Of course, there is much anti-gay discrimination in Honduras.  In Cuba, one of my Caribbean countries for Amnesty, Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela has been an advocate for gay rights there, but only within the Communist Party—all independent gay rights efforts, like any independent action, are not permitted. Still, that’s progress from the time of my foster son, when gays were jailed or sent to labor camps. 
Last time, I mentioned that Sonia Garro, the Afro-Cuban human rights activist and member of the Ladies in White, scheduled to finally go on trial with her husband and neighbor on Nov. 7 after more than 2 ½ years of detention, has had her trial postponed without explanation again, for the 4th time.
I’ve never called attention to an article from the Wall St. Journal before, but am doing so now, because it’s something I’ve been saying for a long time, both in my Cuba book and on this blog. Bravo to Cuba for sending doctors to West Africa to fight Ebola, but it’s not a matter of pure altruism, despite the NYTimes editorial that praised “impoverished” Cuba for sending doctors there, saying it put US Ebola efforts “to shame.”  (Americans are no slackers in Ebola efforts, which have eclipse those of other nations, both in terms of sheer money, expertise, and the number of medical volunteers going to the area.)
Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors. Havana earns almost $8 billion a year off the backs of the health workers it sends to poor countries.
Well now, after a balmy fall, winter has finally arrived ahead of schedule, and we’ve found out the radiators on the 3rd floor of my big old house are not working. Of course, with overloaded furnace repairmen, it’s been a long wait to get the problem fixed and, alas, it’s not fixed yet. Reminds me of being in the Peace Corps in La Esperanza, Honduras, and bundling up because houses and buildings there had no heat, despite winter temperatures sometimes falling into the 30s F. There, when using a computer, I wore gloves with holes cut out for my fingertips. I wish I could find those gloves right now, as my home office is on the 3rd floor.
I had a most enlightening interpretation assignment at a parent-teacher day at a DC public high school that focuses on teaching newly arrived students English in a special unit. As you would expect, most of the students in that unit are Spanish-speaking, though I was told some are also from India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. Non-English-speaking parents of those students had to make do with telephonic interpretation using a speaker phone. In the unit that I was assigned to work with, we went non-stop from noon to 7 pm, talking with 40 parents during that time (only 10 minutes each, using a timer), most of them from Central America, though one was from the DR and another, Peru. According to their teachers, most of the students were doing very well and were actually learning English by leaps and bounds, as well as other subjects like math and science that they hardly knew anything about, as many had not attended school recently in their home countries. Some parents were not literate themselves and I had to help them fill in a sign-up sheet. Most were from El Salvador or Guatemala and at least one was from Honduras! Most kids had arrived during that surge earlier this year and immigration court appearances and possible deportation are still hanging over them. Some parents had not seen their children for 10 or 12 years, so there have been family adjustments as well as adjustments to a new country and language. One mother, in tears, said her 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son had had some terrible experiences going through Mexico together that they have been unwilling to talk about. Another mother, who brought 3 small US-born children to the meeting with her, said her 2 teenage daughters had surprised her by arriving pregnant--pregnancies that began in El Salvador, not en route. The surge has stopped now, mostly because Mexican authorities have agreed to a US request to stop migrants trying to cross their southern border.
We cannot take in all the needy people in the world, still, but after the tremendous risks and efforts these kids have made to get here, I hope President Obama lets them stay and that he gives relief to a major proportion of other undocumented people; as with squatting or common-law marriage, after a certain amount of time, their existence and right to be here should be acknowledged—a path to citizenship is more controversial and not as crucial. And it’s unfortunate that Obama has deported over 2 million people, more than any other president. Now, he needs to make good on his promise to give some relief to the undocumented.
Politicians encourage and reinforce misinformation that helps them get elected and then promote legislation based on false premises. Most Americans think the foreign-born population is many times greater than its actual 13% and that President Obama is soft on illegal immigration, when his administration has actually deported more than any other. They also overestimate by far the percentage of Muslim citizens and residents. The public and voters also believe crime statistics to be much higher than they really are, and that they growing, when they are actually falling. Teen pregnancy has also taken a nosedive, though most Americans believe the opposite. Nor will most Republican politicians want to set them straight, preferring to berate the Democrats with erroneous, but still widely believed, conjectures. As I note in my recent book, an ignorant public and deliberately deceptive politicians mutually reinforce false impressions in a vicious cycle.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Aggravating “Corrections,” Writer’s Digest Award, Medical Brigade Appeal, Election Results, Amnesty Conference, Cuba Again, Health & Aging

Very annoying and unhelpful are computer auto-corrections of Spanish spellings. It requires super vigilance to go back to correct those darn “corrections.”

Here’s something nice said about my Cuba book: This book is an engaging and worthwhile one that would be at home on the shelf of any bookstore. --Writer’s Digest Book Awards, 2014

In Feb., I always travel back to Honduras, my Peace Corp country. Next Feb. will be my 11th time since I left in 2003. Tasks include volunteering with International Health Service of Minnesota medical brigades, We are still short doctors, nurses, dentists, and interpreters. If you have a spirit of adventure plus extra time and cash for your expenses, join us then or throughout the year. Contact Renee: or John: Photos above are from last Feb.’s brigade. The baby is all dressed up to meet our medical team.
While the rest of the country blithely voted for their senators and representatives, those of us living in the District of Columbia, in the capital of the free world, with a population bigger that Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming and not far behind the population of Alaska, have no voting representatives whatsoever in Congress, a fact not known or appreciated by most of the rest of the nation. Some people maintain absentee voting registration for years in other states to give them that leverage. Of course, voter registration in DC is more than 90% Democratic, so Republicans are not about to allow us to have the vote, though we are permitted to vote for president. We did elect a new mayor this time, a young African American woman, Muriel Bowser, and also approved the use of small quantities of pot for personal recreational use—I voted “yes” on that, though I’m not happy to approve another mind-altering substance, but it did seem that probably people were already using small amounts of pot and should not be prosecuted for that. For the first time since I moved here in 1969, the city is less than 50% black, so we might eventually have a non-black mayor. Two white independents ran against the winner this time.

 As all the pundits had predicted, Republicans really surged ahead in this election. Democrats apparently stayed home, as voter turnout was low. Only when the consequences actually fall on voters will they see their mistake—or maybe not, because they won’t make the connection. Two years from now, the electorate may well be tired of the Republicans. It seems we are doomed to a continuous Hegelian cycle of action and reaction where each side keeps cancelling the other out. Unfortunately, President Obama is a cerebral guy who doesn’t glad-hand members of Congress or go out golfing with them very often. He is apparently not good at informally engaging with members, joking around with them as a really good politician should—I don’t think it’s just a matter of race, but mostly an expression of his personal more intellectual style. Also, he only served in the Senate 2 years before running for president, so didn’t have much time to build up relationships there.

 Now that Obama has been rebuked so soundly by the mid-term elections, I retract my prediction that he would lift the Cuba embargo, despite pressure from other governments and some sectors in the US (and the Cuban regime) to do so. Obviously, Cuba is not an important issue now, so why would he rile up Republicans on this essentially non-issue, unless he would do so at the very end of his term? But if he is going to try something on immigration reform, I still think that wet foot/dry foot may go. McConnell has publicly warned him not to take action on his own, however, something needs to be done. Maybe Republicans would now be willing to deal on immigration reform, but without a path to citizenship whereby Hispanic voters might eventually come to vote against them. Most undocumented people would be satisfied with living without the threat of deportation—never mind citizenship, which is a long, expensive, and arduous process anyway.

Attended a weekend Amnesty International regional conference held in DC whose theme was “Bringing Human Rights Home,” focusing on what we can do in this country to make human rights universal. It began with demonstrations the first day at embassies with certain highlighted human rights violations. Of course, there is no worldwide consensus on exactly what universal human rights are, but I won’t get into that issue here. The photo above show the youthful panel providing the opening keynote. Most of the several hundred attendees from the states surrounding Washington were also young. My experience after having been in this organization since 1981 is that these young enthusiasts end up finding a full-time job, getting married, having kids, and dropping out for the most part—only a few of us stick with it. Of course, having been to many of these conferences over the years, although the themes do change and evolve, there are certain patterns that remain, so, for me, there was not the newness that many conference-goers felt.

One panelist talked about being tear-gassed in Ferguson. Yes, I remember being tear-gassed myself, in Chile in 1988. Another panelist, born in Peru, didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was almost 18 and asked her mother for her social security number—her parents had protected their children from that knowledge. When she came out as undocumented, she “outed” her whole family. In panels and workshops, the power of social media to organize ordinary people and forge national and international connections in real time was touted, which is why Cuba is suppressing that media—also China, to some extent.  

In a workshop on immigration, we did exercises regarding how it might make us feel if we were in a new place, hearing a language we didn’t understand. One of the moderators was from Catalonia and spoke in Catalan, a language I have actually encountered in Barcelona, and also inadvertently in doing translations from medical facilities in that city where some doctors have reported in Catalan rather than Spanish. The two languages are similar and on-line dictionaries are always available.

I felt like an outlier at the immigration workshop, which emphasized the divide between white people and communities of color and how white people may be unaware of their privilege and lack of knowledge of other communities. Of course, I have experienced the reverse of the immigrant experience by living 3 ½ years in Honduras, though, frankly, I’ve never been made to feel out-of-place there, partly because of my language facility, which sometimes made Hondurans forget my foreigness. However, other Peace Corps volunteers were not so lucky and many felt alienated. I also don’t consider myself part of the “white community,” whatever that is, as my family has always been a blend that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, disabled, and gay members. And the prejudice can be reversed, as in my Cuba book, when my Hispanic friend disputed my ability, because of my ethnicity, to understand or comment on life in a Latin American country like Cuba.

Via a disgruntled Cuban-born parent, I’ve gotten a report that Che Guevara’s image has been posted at the entrance to Central High School in Newark, NJ. Probably neither staff nor students are aware of his bloody history.

I was recently privileged to have met a Cuban blind human rights lawyer, mentioned briefly in my Cuba book (p. 312), Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, on his first visit outside of his country. He is shown above with another Cuban appearing in my book, Basilio Guzman, one of 26 political prisoners who arrived in Washington in 1984, after our local Amnesty International group asked presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who was visiting Cuba, to obtain their release. They are holding up a copy of my Cuba book, which I had just given to Gonzalez Leiva, although it is written neither in Spanish nor braille. However, he asked me to send him digital copy that he would listen to via computer-speak in an attempt to understand it with his uncertain English.

I did tell him that my late former husband was blind and I asked about services and support for the blind in Cuba, which he said are very limited. He has been arrested numerous times, served prison time, and suffered repeated “acts of repudiation” at his home in Ciego de Avila, a town I visited in 1997, but although he was active then, he was not among activists who were convened to meet me there. He told me he has organized an illegal organization of blind Cubans and gives food, money, and advice to some 20 or 30 people who visit his house daily. He told us about a malnourished little girl that his family has taken in. “We also help people write letters to the authorities,” he said. He also visits prisons and distributes food and money there. The government would like to shut down his operation and at many of his meetings, there are more state security agents than genuine members. He said that while in theory, now Cubans are allowed to exchange houses and cars or use the internet, few can afford those transactions. Even the cost to operate a cellphone exceeds most Cubans’ monthly income.

Gonzalez Leiva opined, as do many Cuban dissidents, that the regime murdered both Damas’ leader Laura Pollan and activist Oswaldo Paya, both featured in my book. Yet, he said, we must not lose hope, “A free Cuba is not impossible—dreams can come true. I am here now, something unimaginable before.” If my Cuba book ever recovers its production costs, his is an organization in which I would like to invest any Cuba book proceeds, just as I use my Honduras book proceeds for my Honduras projects. However, it is not so easy to send money to a designated person in Cuba, especially a dissident.

Finally, an Afro-Cuban human rights activist and member of the Ladies in White, Sonia Garro, in pre-trial detention for 2 ½ years, along with her husband and a neighbor, is finally scheduled to go on trial for “attempted murder” in Havana (p.309 of my Cuba book). When the trio was on a rooftop surrounded by soldiers and others carrying out an “act of repudiation,” apparently the two men threw objects at the soldiers, one of whom was trying to reach the rooftop via a ladder, though the soldiers were not injured. However, Garro herself was said to have been hit in the foot with a rubber bullet. Now I’ve gotten word that the trial is postponed once again. Our position in Amnesty is that that all three should be released until they go to trial.

The New York Times has been on a tear regarding Cuba, with the 3rd recent editorial I’ve noticed favoring the Cuban government (the first 2 called for an end to the embargo and praised Cuba for sending doctors to fight Ebola), this one calling for a swap of the three remaining Cuban spies of the original Cuban Five for USAID contractor Alan Gross, now in his 5th year in imprisonment in Cuba. (An anti-Castro blog says that five such pro-regime editorials have appeared in the last three weeks, though I’ve only noticed three.) Two of the Cuban Five have already been released and have returned to Cuba. While the deaths of four members of the Brothers to the Rescue have been attributed to the Cuban prisoners, perhaps letting the three remaining men go is the only way to liberate poor Alan Gross. This prisoner swap would be something I could very reluctantly support, if only for Gross’s sake. At least the Cubans have served a few years’ prison time. We don’t live in an ideal world. All the seeming pro-Cuban government editorials appearing recently in the Times have appeared under the byline of Ernesto Lodoño, who joined the paper only in July, after working at the Washington Post, which has a much less favorable editorial position toward the Castro regime. It is curious that all these editorials have appeared since Lodoño’s arrival, as I don’t recall the Times being so pro-Castro before.

As for the embargo, should it become an issue in the future, I’ve suggested a focus on Americans' rights in Cuba rather than on Cubans' rights in the embargo debate. I mean it not as my preferred position but as a middle way, since the embargo has failed to improve Cubans' rights for more than half a century; I’m simply trying to suggest something that might be doable and offer a little relief. Obviously, I would love to see the Castro brothers gone, along with allowing free expression, assembly, and elections. However, that is unlikely to happen in the near term unless we get lucky and someone like a Gorbachev appears in Cuba or there’s a fortunate fluke like the tumbling down of the Berlin Wall. Sudden, unexpected events do happen, as in the confluence of factors that allowed Fidel Castro to triumph in the first place. But we cannot bank on that. What I propose is a possible way to reach US politicians and voters in the vast middle, something simple that they might actually be able to understand and accept, couched in terms of Americans' rights to hire and pay their own workers and of American visitors to choose their own accommodations and tours and pay directly, rather than inferring any effort at regime change. The Cuban government could tax earnings, of course. But that would still be better, in my opinion, than simply unilaterally and unconditionally lifting the embargo, which is the direction being advocated by many right now. Of course, the Cuban government could reject any such proposal, but then the ball would be in their court.

Frankly, I’ve been alarmed by the apparent current groundswell of support worldwide for unilaterally lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba without requiring anything in return, depicting it as merely the expression of an outmoded historic grudge. Once again, the UN General Assembly has come out against the embargo, as has the New York Times, as mentioned, as well as those attending a recent high-level conference on Cuba held at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Most Americans, even Cuban Americans, according to recent polls, would favor or not oppose ending the embargo completely and it’s been an issue in south Florida electoral politics. Even the Fanjul sugar baron family has switched sides, hoping to revive the Cuban sugar industry. The main arguments used in favor of abolishing the embargo are that it hurts the standing of the United States, especially in Latin America, divides Cuban families, and is used as an excuse to prevent freedom of expression and association inside Cuba. If those arguments were to prevail and the embargo were lifted without requiring any concessions whatsoever on the Cuban side, the Castro brothers would once again have won the PR battle, thus helping them to retain power to further enrich and protect themselves and their legacy and avoid possible future human rights sanctions.

Most Americans are apparently unaware that ample outside investments and visitors from other countries (and many from the U.S.) have not automatically led to any meaningful economic or political freedom for ordinary Cubans; rather, Canadian entrepreneurs have been arrested and their holdings seized apparently for giving Cuban employees direct bonuses.

A more effective stance than outright opposition to any further relaxation might be: Yes, by all means, let’s end the Cuba embargo, and do so without “interfering” directly with Cuba’s internal affairs, rather seeking only basic protections for American visitors and investors, such as those afforded in other communist countries and in nations allied with Cuba in Latin America. That position might be more palatable to US and world opinion than insisting on free speech, assembly, and elections in Cuba right now. Of course, with recent ++Republican victories in Congress and the Senate make the question of the embargo moot for the time being.

At my current age, way past 70, I have numerous friends and acquaintances with health problems undergoing extensive medical treatment and surgery, and sometimes facing death. What surprises me is that they express feelings of shock, betrayal, and anger, not so much at their deteriorating bodies, but at the medical establishment that has failed to restore them to their previous health and function. Surely they must be aware that everyone gets old and dies, but are apparently in denial and don’t really believe it applies to them, and, so, often opt for medical interventions that actually make matters worse. Usually the odds of success are explained beforehand, as well as the chances of complications, but they never expect to be on the losing side, not realizing that medicine is not an exact science, never 100% successful, so it doesn’t always makes things better, though that’s the intent. The longer we live, the more likely that surgery or another treatment won’t work well or will have unfortunate side effects. We are all going to die and there are times when we should choose not to have medical treatment and just let nature take its course. When we face such a choice, especially if, like me, we are well past 70, and if we opt for treatment anyway, we should not be terribly surprised and blame our doctors if we take the chance and don’t actually improve.