Friday, December 12, 2014

My Books as Gifts, IHS Brigade, World AIDS Day, Human Rights Day, Cuba Issues, CIA Torture Report, Congressional Interference in DC, Colombia Reunion, Landrieu, Son’s Death Anniversary, Air Accident, Season’s Greetings

Since the holidays are upon us, a reminder that my books are available for holiday gifts and you can say you know the author! Here I am again in the photo with both books at a recent library event. You can find them on Amazon, but not necessarily linked. Just key-in “Barbara Joe, Honduras” and/or “Barbara Joe, Cuba.”

The following is a link to a You-Tube video of an IHS ( medical brigade, this one to a more remote area than the one where I go—where we don’t have to travel by boat, but the setup is the same. Last Feb., I served with Teri and Mary, shown here.

Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day and, for the first time, fewer new cases are being identified and more people are surviving thanks to AIDS drugs. Also, AIDS has apparently evolved into a less deadly form. In Honduras when I was in the Peace Corps there, AIDS Day was always an opportunity to raise awareness and I remember working with groups, including adolescents, to create educational skits and songs to commemorate the day. Thanks to educational efforts and anti-retrovirals, AIDS has diminished in Honduras and few children are now born with the disease. Of course, all this progress has come too late to save my Cuban foster son, Alex, who died of AIDS in 1995.

December 10 was Human Rights Day around the world, a time when Cuban dissidents try to gather together and when state security is especially vigilant in stopping them. See and

I attended two Human Rights Day Amnesty International letter writing events, one on Dec. 9, the other on Dec. 10, actual day of the observance. (See photos.) We not only wrote letters to officials, but sent holiday greetings to prisoners or their families, where possible. My friend and fellow Amnesty activist Dexter Sumner presented a video, Yellow Candles, about Amnesty actions around the world. I am briefly featured, speaking about Dominican Juan Almonte, who disappeared five years ago. He was an accountant who also belonged to a human rights organization.

Not surprisingly, talks have apparently been underway for some time between the US and Cuban governments over the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross, now incarcerated in Cuba for 5 years and threatening a hunger strike, which may result in his death, which he feels is preferable to staying in prison.

Ernesto Londoño, the new NY Times editorial writer with an apparent itch to disparage US Cuba policy and elevate the Cuban regime, went to Havana and agreed to listen to talk by dissidents, much of it skewering his editorials. He said he was unable to join in the conversation, but agreed to listen. He also refused to allow himself to be photographed by or with the dissidents, saying that wasn’t authorized by his publication, though during his Havana visit, he was photographed several times with Communist Party and Cuban government officials. Here below is a link to a report of the one-way conversation. Let’s hope it ends up tempering his future editorials on Cuba, though his opinions appear to be pretty fixed. It’s hard once someone has taken a strong public stance to see a modification in that expressed opinion.

WOLA has issued a cautiously optimistic report on labor relations in a changing Cuba, “Signs of the Changing Cuban Economy,”

However, a Cuban exile economist comments: The WOLA report attempts to be even-handed and objective, but simply does not seem to understand that labor unions in a totalitarian state are not an institution to protect workers' interests from their employers, but rather to control workers in favor of the interests of the ruling clique.
A further sign of possible change in Cuba is a staging there of a Spanish-language version of the Broadway musical “Rent,” something that Fidel Castro would have considered decadent in his glory days.

Some Cuban comics are also reportedly taking aim on state television at shortages, shoddy goods, and bribery, though caricatures of Fidel and Raul Castro are still off limits. Panfilo is the name of an elderly comic, who ten years ago, would not have dared offer certain skits—for example, one about bribing a city repair worker to fix a broken water pipe by offering her bottle of shampoo than ends up frying her hair.

Here is an ABC News item with more details about USAID programs to influence Cuban youth, mentioned before on this blog, including the controversial but now abandoned Twitter program:

I recently met a sincere non-Spanish-speaking human rights advocate who recently visited Cuba with a religious delegation. She was positively impressed and told me that much has changed since I last visited Cuba. Doubtless that’s true, as is acknowledged in my book. But whether the glass is half full or half empty is a matter of opinion. Certainly, the Cuban regime is slowly evolving under real world pressures and I would credit Raul Castro with recognizing that necessity, yet who knows what results will come and when? Positive observations, as expressed by this recent visitor, while genuine, fail to see beyond the superficial picture presented before their very eyes, something hard for them to refute. This woman was trying to convince me that I was wrong in my assessment of Cuba today and I am certainly willing to acknowledge that there is nothing like firsthand observation. Most visitors like her will believe what their own experience tells them. However, it is only by spending considerable time in Cuba, knowing the language, and going beyond the tour trajectory that someone can actually fathom or intuit the undercurrents of self-censorship, frustration, and material deprivation in Cuba. For example, when I casually mentioned that Cubans routinely steal from state industries, this woman expressed surprise and disbelief, yet anyone who has spent any time in Cuba, even a stalwart Communist Party member, knows that. As I mention in my Cuba book, East Germany was considered the crown jewel of the communist world, so, many westerners were shocked when the wall came down and easterners rushed to the other side. That same pent-up frustration exists today in Cuba.

This woman also argued that USAID contractor Alan Gross deserved to be in prison because, by bringing satellite and other communication equipment into Cuba, he was violating that nation’s sovereignty. That certainly is an arguable point. Gross has contended that he was only trying to provide communications equipment to the Jewish community. Communications in Cuba are impeded and closely monitored, although now, nominally, restricted internet has been opened to Cuban citizens who can afford to spend their whole monthly income on an hour of computer access. Not only is their internet use monitored, but this is yet another government ploy to squeeze dollars out of relatives living abroad. At the same time, we know that surveillance of internet and phone use is routinely taking place in the United States and elsewhere, so Cuba is not so out-of-line on that.

However, I would argue that sovereignty is a less compelling argument when it is used to protect a dictatorship, which Cuba certainly is. The issue is really not sovereignty, but representative government. Many of Cuba’s supporters overlook this. I feel most people have a superficial view of Cuba, either good or bad, which is why I wrote my book; I wanted to include the nuances. I feel the same way about many outsiders’ views of black people, Hispanics, Asians, single parents, the disabled, gays, and other people who are my family members and friends. We all rely on stereotypes to simplify our thinking, so I don’t argue with those who have simplistic views, as that usually proves futile. We all know folks who believe that the world was made in 7 days. We also know women with flagrantly unfaithful husbands who seem to be wearing blinders. It’s no use telling them they are wrong, any more than to people who have firm opinions about Cuba, especially if they’ve actually been there. We all necessarily see things from our own viewpoint and nothing in life is perfect or static. Everything, whether a nation, a family, an individual, or an enterprise, is a work in progress, or at least process.

Imperfection and omissions apply as well to my books, which I still feel are good enough. “Good enough” is the standard to which most of us can realistically aspire regarding anything. I did my best in writing those books, using my own memory, notes, and resources within the time available. I did consult with both friends and literary agents beforehand, at least for the Honduras book, but their recommendations varied all over the map. I wasn’t willing to bend my narrative like a pretzel to satisfy all their conflicting demands. Agents would have had to sell the book to a mainstream publisher, who, in turn, would be most interested in making sales and profits. While I do want people to buy and read my books, expressing my own truth is important to me. If people want to disagree with me after reading my books, at least I’ve had my say, though I’d prefer to engage in a 2-way conversation. Thanks for indulging my ruminations on all this.

A Cuban-born US resident who wants to marry a woman he met in Cuba told me that her request for a visa was denied by the US Interests Section in Havana. When I suggested he marry her there, he said that the Cuban authorities require payment of an $800 fee for a marriage between an outsider and a Cuban. No revenue stream is left untapped.

In an article in the December issue of Population and Development Review, “Accounting for Recent Fertility Swings in Cuba,” the author, Sergio Díaz-Briquets, reviews the decades-long below-replacement level of Cuban childbearing, unusual for a poor country. (Other Latin American countries still have a growing overall population, even as fertility levels decline, though not to the very low level they’ve reached in Cuba.) Unlike the delayed childbearing pattern in more affluent nations, young Cuban couples aspire to emigrate to start their families after doing so, although only a small percentage are actually able to leave. Housing is in short-supply and economic opportunities are limited in a centrally controlled economy sustained by tourism, remittances, Venezuelan oil, and the sending of Cuban medical workers abroad. The result in Cuba has been an absolute decline in total population. Cuba has been experiencing what the author calls “ultra-low fertility,” accompanied, of course, by the aging of the population, as is also evident in more developed countries.

Speaking of fertility, US fertility rates are declining as well because of better birth control and more women delaying childbearing. As Yahoo Finance states: No kidding! We need more babies. American fertility rates are declining at a record pace. A new Wall Street Journal report citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that fewer births mean less workers to drive the economy and fewer people paying into a tax base to finance benefits for the elderly. “This is one of the first signs we’re seeing of a real tangible threat to the long term economy,” says Yahoo Finance’s Jeff Macke. The U.S. needs 2.1 children per woman to keep the population stable. In 2013, women were only averaging 1.86.

It’s another argument for not deporting undocumented immigrants who are, on average, younger than the general population and also more fertile.

As for the release of the Senate CIA torture report, it’s proper for the public to know about what has been done in our name, though the repercussions worldwide may be dire. I blame Dick Cheney for defending the most egregious of these tactics, methods worthy of the Cuban regime. In the NYTimes, Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, urges the issuing of pardons by President Obama to GW Bush, Cheney, and others who authorized or oversaw CIA torture as a way of acknowledging what really happened, since prosecution is unlikely. But even the issuance of such pardons is also unlikely. Perhaps it’s enough that the redacted report summary has been made public. Of course, it was done now before the Republican Congress takes over completely and appropriately just before Human Rights Day.

In yet another affront to self-rule in the District of Columbia, a measure approved by 2/3rds of voters to allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use is facing a Republican congressional threat to block it. I did vote for it because I don’t believe small amounts of possession should be prosecuted and also think people will continue to smoke pot anyway. It’s bad enough that we have no voting representatives in Congress, but even worse when Congressmen from other jurisdictions interfere with our purely domestic internal affairs.

I was contacted by a neighbor who had adopted two children, a boy and a girl, from Colombia as the result of my connections there in the adoption of my son Jonathan almost 40 years ago. We had not seen each other for quite a while and I haven’t seen her children, now parents themselves, since they were babies. The occasion for our meeting was the arrival of the birth mother of the son, a woman who had moved from Colombia to Argentina, and was tracked down there by a Colombian sleuth. She spoke only Spanish, so I served as interpreter with the adoptive family. She said she had married a man from Argentina and had three children born there. If that sort of tracking can be done successfully after so long, perhaps Jonathan will want to try it.  

Sorry that adoptive mother and adoption advocate Mary Landrieu lost in La., as the only Democrat in the Deep South. Even though she supported the pipeline and although fossil fuels are polluting, I expect that the Alberta oil sands are still going to be extracted and burned, so maybe Obama can trade that for something else, like more support for renewable energy. As I believe I’ve said, all my electricity now comes from wind. Nuclear looked promising until Fukushima. Perhaps sinking oil prices will make the oil sands less viable, though I wouldn’t expect this plunge in oil prices to persist.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my son Andrew’s sudden death on December 19, also my daughter Melanie’s birthday. Now the crash of a private jet into a house in suburban Gaithersburg has killed not only the three occupants, but a mother and her two children in a house on the ground. It’s another example of how we never know what to expect from one day to the next, as much as people try to plan for and predict all contingencies.

If I don’t post again until after Christmas, have a very good holiday, feliz navidad.


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