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.

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