Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pakistan Massacre, Visit to Son’s Grave, Another Peace Corps Reunion, March Against Police Violence, South Sudan, Castro’s Peace Prize, Rafter Boat Sunk, Cuba-US Rapprochement, Pope Francis Does It Again, Interpretation Session

After my condolences were e-mailed to a man in Pakistan in the wake of the slaughter of school kids there, he replied: Thanks dear mom, it is very unfortunate. The barbaric act led to killing of our innocent children. Nation will not forgive them and we are not going to leave them scot free. Pray for us.

To observe the 20th anniversary of his death, my daughter Melanie and granddaughter Natasha made a visit with me out to the country where my older son Andrew is buried. His grave was quite overgrown, but we managed to clean it up. (See photos, which got slightly out of order when posted.)
        Had a good visit with my former Honduras Peace Corps buddy Mitch and his family, now living in Austin, Texas. In the photo, I’m giving him a copy of my Cuba book.
        Two young women staying with me now are Friends (Quakers) and attended the march here on Dec. 13 against police shootings of unarmed black men. My granddaughter’s friends were also there. All said they felt inspired and energized by being in such a large interracial crowd. I was reminded of when my late ex-husband and I participated in MLKing’s “I have a dream” speech and march, much larger of course.
        Ethiopia and other neighbors of South Sudan are threatening sanctions unless the leaders of that new country stop fighting and start cooperating. As someone who went to South Sudan before independence, I’ve been mourning the current rift in a brand new, impoverished country with almost no infrastructure and a history of war that it can ill afford to continue.   
          Anna, a friend I first met in Colombia and who visited me in Honduras, as per my Honduras book, has ended up in the hospital, though miraculously not killed in a freak accident. But, then, accidents by their very nature are freak. She was out walking after dark, looking for where her car was parked in her retirement complex, when a pickup truck belonging to the complex ran over her. Then, sensing that he had hit something, the driver backed up over her again, compounding the damage. She is 77 years old and has already been in the hospital for a month with multiple fractures of both legs. What can be said about something like that? Only that she is phenomenally unlucky, though lucky to be still alive, but, then, luck is capricious, as we all know. Our very conception and birth are matters of chance, as is our continued existence.
          Fidel Castro, the 88-year-old Cuban Communist revolutionary, added another line to his résumé when a Chinese group awarded him this year’s Confucius Peace Prize, as reported in Chinese state media. The award was given to him in absentia. That Fidel Castro’s name should be associated with peace is rather a joke, given his brutal history. The award was apparently created to counter the Nobel Peace Prize.
        Cuba RAMMED, SUNK Refugee Boat One Day Before Obama’s Decision To Ease Sanctions, Daily Caller, 12-22-14. Apparently a refugee boat in international waters was rammed, then sunk by the Cuban Coast Guard, with some passengers still missing and others arrested. That news was pretty much eclipsed by President Obama’s historic announcement.
        The US has also been demanding the return from Cuba of a number of fugitives from the law, including Joanne Chesimard, accused of killing a NJ State trooper. Such matters will be subject to future negotiations, but Chesimard is unlikely to be returned, in my opinion. Also, Cuba said it will not negotiate about returning American fugitives.
        Now that Alan Gross has been released in exchange (though it was pointedly stated otherwise) for the 3 remaining Cuban Five prisoners here in the US, time will tell whether Cuban-American relations progress and whether Cuban citizen repression continues unabated. (See Cuban Five billboard, one of many in Cuba.) Readers, please indulge my ramblings here, as I’m trying to get my bearings and sort out my thinking on the current state of US-Cuba relations. Certainly the previous US approach to Cuba was not working, that was President Obama’s strongest argument, and this change may actually result in an improvement, like Nixon to China. Probably the Cuban regime was ready to deal because of apprehension about the reliability of continued support from their patron, Venezuela, which has major problems if its own.
        I suspect that the best we can hope for now is a greater economic opening in Cuba together with continued political repression, as in both China and Viet Nam. Still, that will be better for most Cubans. Maybe, as in China, we can even send Peace Corps volunteers to Cuba. The changed tone of the relationship allows more possibilities. President Obama has acknowledged the failures of human and civil rights in Cuba, but perhaps has decided there is little to be done about that and that half a loaf if better than none. He had to get Alan Gross out of prison—the Cuban regime’s seizing of Gross was a very smart investment on their part—and we live in an imperfect world where compromises are necessary. That’s realpolitik. Meanwhile, dissidents do feel abandoned and the families of the four Brothers-to-Rescue whose deaths were attributed to one of the Cuban Five are anguished. I can understand their dismay. And as an Amnesty International and human rights activist, I cannot to forget Cuban human rights advocates on the island, though helping them achieve free expression and assembly will not get any easier. After Raul and Fidel pass on, more changes are possible, even likely. I'm trying to maintain a realistic optimism about the situation.     
        As an interpreter myself, I do envy the interpreter on the 45-minute phone conversation between Obama and Raul Castro, which would have been very interesting to witness, though interpreters must maintain strict confidentiality.
        I had a premonition that something was going to happen before the end of the year, though I didn’t expect it to be so sweeping. Before the Republicans took over the Senate, I thought that some steps would be taken by the Obama administration, so I was trying to promote, at least, an economic opening more like China's, whereby outsiders can purchase services directly from local citizens instead of paying the state, but I don't know that my message ever reached anyone with influence. If I had been able to give a presentation on my new book, I would have said as much.        
         As for re-establishing embassies and diplomatic relations, the respective embassies have never totally closed--they just have been converted into "Interests Sections." They already function much like embassies, granting visas, arranging meetings, etc., so it's partly a matter of name changes. Crucially, however, they do not engage directly with the other government and their staff movements within the “host” country are restricted in both cases. Two months ago, I was at a meeting at the State Dept. with the new US Interests Section head in Havana, Jeffery DeLaurentis, and everyone at the meeting addressed him as "Mr. Ambassador," though apparently he had been an ambassador in a previous post, so that was proper protocol. “Mr. Head of US Interests Section” or “Mr. Chief of Mission” would have seemed a bit awkward. I imagine that DeLaurentis would be considered for the ambassador post. In fact, he may have been named in anticipation of that transition. On the other hand, since the Cuba-US accords represent a brand new policy, perhaps he will be swept out with the “old,” though his tenure will have been short, and someone brand new may then be brought in. Typically, ambassadors must be acceptable to the host country. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are threatening to block any ambassador nominations to Cuba.
        We shall have to see if these changes in US-Cuba relations result in fewer political arrests--certainly the excuse for arresting people as agents of "the empire" should diminish. Maybe if they feel more secure in power, Cuban leaders won’t be as harsh against those who disagree with them and fewer Cubans will actually be discontent. Also, "actos de repudio" may go down if tourism increases, because tourists might witness such acts. But rhetoric and habits won't change overnight. If the Castro brothers were no longer living, obviously more changes would be possible.
        “I want to see now who they blame for the economic collapse and lack of freedoms we have in Cuba,” independent blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted after Obama’s announcement.
        I tend to agree with Ada Ferrer, Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, that there is much excitement on both sides because of the change, but we really don't know yet how it will play out. The devil is in the details.
        The main argument for change has been that after more than 50 years, the current policy has not worked in undermining the Castro brothers' control and that much of the world, especially among Latin American leaders, has condemned US Cuba policy and has supported the Castros. China does seem to be Raul's model--an economic opening, while maintaining tight political control. I predicted as much in my book.
        In Cuba now, Lady in White Sonia Garro, her husband, and her neighbor have all been released to house arrest after more than 2 ½ years in pretrial detention, so maybe our efforts at Amnesty International have made a difference, though more probably, her release was in anticipation of the Cuba-US accord. NYTimes’ editorial writer Londoño might do well now to comment on her situation as an afro-Cuban member of the Ladies in White mercilessly harassed by Rapid Response Brigades and soldiers who subjected her and her husband to repeated acts of repudiation. Wanting to change a regime that subjects its citizens to such outrages is a crime?
        Therefore, now I have taken a “wait and see” attitude toward the new policy, which, like anything in life, is something of a gamble. It seems that Obama is counting on improved diplomatic relations and more American money flowing into to Cuba to improve life for most people on the island, even if their civil liberties are curtailed and political arrests continue. For most Cubans, bread-and-butter does top civil rights, which they have never enjoyed anyway.
        Rightly or wrongly, America’s Cuba policy has been condemned around the world, especially in Latin America, so now much of the grounds for that criticism has been removed. However, any condemnation of the Castro brothers for their decades of human rights abuses will probably have to wait until after they are no longer with us, even if they survive after Raul steps down from the presidency four years hence. Any investigation into the recent suspicious deaths of Oswaldo Payá, Laura Pollán, and other dissidents will have to be deferred. Dictators often have sufficient followers while still living to make investigation almost impossible, even if they are no longer formally in office. We’ve seen that happen in Latin America with Pinochet, Duvalier, and Rios Montt, to name just a few.

        Unlike the Times, the Washington Post has condemned the US-Cuba deal, (2)

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:
Obama gives the Castro regime in Cuba an undeserved bailout
In recent months, the outlook for the Castro regime in Cuba was growing steadily darker. The modest reforms it adopted in recent years to improve abysmal economic conditions had stalled, due to the regime’s refusal to allow Cubans greater freedoms. Worse, the accelerating economic collapse of Venezuela meant that the huge subsidies that have kept the Castros afloat for the past decade were in peril. A growing number of Cubans were demanding basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly.
On Wednesday, the Castros suddenly obtained a comprehensive bailout — from the Obama administration. President Obama granted the regime everything on its wish list that was within his power to grant; a full lifting of the trade embargo requires congressional action. Full diplomatic relations will be established, Cuba’s place on the list of terrorism sponsors reviewed and restrictions lifted on U.S. investment and most travel to Cuba. That liberalization will provide Havana with a fresh source of desperately needed hard currency and eliminate U.S. leverage for political reforms.
As part of the bargain, Havana released Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who was unjustly imprisoned five years ago for trying to help Cuban Jews. Also freed was an unidentified U.S. intelligence agent in Cuba — as were three Cuban spies who had been convicted of operations in Florida that led to Cuba’s 1996 shootdown of a plane carrying anti-Castro activists. While Mr. Obama sought to portray Mr. Gross’s release as unrelated to the spy swap, there can be no question that Cuba’s hard-line intelligence apparatus obtained exactly what it sought when it made Mr. Gross a de facto hostage.
No wonder Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s leading dissident blogger, concluded Wednesday that “Castroism has won” and predicted that for weeks Cubans will have to endure proclamations by the government that it is the “winner of its ultimate battle.”
Mr. Obama argued that his sweeping change of policy was overdue because the strategy of isolating the Communist regime “has had little effect.” In fact, Cuba has been marginalized in the Americas for decades, and the regime has been deprived of financial resources it could have used to spread its malignant influence in the region, as Venezuela has done. That the embargo has not succeeded in destroying communism does not explain why all sanctions should be lifted without any meaningful political concessions by Cuba.
U.S. officials said the regime agreed to release 53 political prisoners and allow more access to the Internet. But Raúl Castro promised four years ago to release all political prisoners, so the White House has purchased the same horse already sold to the Vatican and Spain.
The administration says its move will transform relations with Latin America, but that is naive. Countries that previously demanded an end to U.S. sanctions on Cuba will not now look to Havana for reforms; instead, they will press the Obama administration not to sanction Venezuela. Mr. Obama says normalizing relations will allow the United States to be more effective in promoting political change in Cuba. That is contrary to U.S. experience with Communist regimes such as Vietnam, where normalization has led to no improvements on human rights in two decades. Moreover, nothing in Mr. Obama’s record of lukewarm and inconstant support for democratic change across the globe can give Ms. Sánchez and her fellow freedom fighters confidence in this promise.
The Vietnam outcome is what the Castros are counting on: a flood of U.S. tourists and business investment that will allow the regime to maintain its totalitarian system indefinitely. Mr. Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life.

Here’s another dissent:

The Cuban people will pay the price for Obama's careless concessions  Roger F. Noriega  

The Cuban regime's decision to release American hostage Alan Gross to celebrate Hanukkah with his family is long overdue, welcome news. Gross is free today; 11 million Cubans are not. President Obama's decision to move toward normalizing diplomatic relations with the Castro regime resuscitates a gasping dictatorship without even asking for anything in return. (Full Story: Noriega on CNBC.)

Some opposition figures on the island have condemned the US-Cuba pact as an abandonment of themselves and of democracy and a legitimizing of authoritarianism, as expressed in the following Spanish-language post, which also says that, at best, only half of political prisoners are to be released.
Although the Castro regime is a dictatorship that has treated too many Cubans cruelly for their peaceful expression and assembly, nonetheless, more than half a century of sanctions and lack of formal relations with the US have not stopped that. As I say in my Cuba book, Obama has seemed to be trying to offer a carrot rather than a stick, since the stick obviously hasn’t worked. More economic development in Cuba, stemming from improved relations, will improve the economic well-being of many ordinary Cubans, while, admittedly at the same time bolstering support for the Castro brothers and their inner circle. It’s a trade-off. Probably the Castro regime was willing to make this deal because of the probability of failing support from Venezuela. As I mention in my new book, sanctions worked in South Africa, but that was because the whole world got behind them and they were of relatively short duration. The Cuban regime has won the PR battle in terms of world opinion and has managed to maintain moral support and trade even after the USSR crumbled. Fifty years is long enough to test out a policy. Apparently, even President Kennedy was considering outreach to Castro before he was assassinated.
        I have gone on too long on this matter in this posting, though, obviously will have more to say as events unfold.
        Pope Francis was reportedly a key player in brokering the Cuba-US prisoner exchange and diplomatic accords. I’ve also been glad to see Francis taking a more conciliatory approach than his predecessor toward American nuns, who do so much of the church’s front-line work with children and people in need. Again, he has struck the right tone, trying to bring everyone together. Another example is his offer to help close G’tmo—not sure what he can do there, but the intent is welcome.

        I just did an interpretation which exemplified what it means to be “on call,” being called only 20 minutes beforehand and told to be there at noon. It was pouring rain and, of course, I got soaked. Also, the metro was running slowly due to a water main break earlier and I had to take 2 trains, then walk several blocks. When I got to the designated apartment building (having been given no name or phone number), I looked through an outside directory in vain, trying to guess who my clients might be and where they might live. The front door was locked. I was about to leave when I noticed a hidden doorway under the stairs. Down there, I found an underground warren of tiny windowless apartments, one of which was the one I was looking for. I can scarcely believe these are legal abodes. Inside, I found a “vision therapist” (never worked with one before) and a child under two who looked familiar, though much younger when I last saw him and living elsewhere. His grandmother cares for him while the mother works. The circumstances for such kids are not optimal, especially for those with developmental disabilities. He was also getting speech, physical, and occupational therapy, according to the grandmother, all as part of DC’s early intervention program. On my way home on the metro, still soaking wet, a young man who said he was moving to Colorado, which gets little rain, gave me his umbrella. 

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