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.



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