Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cuba; DR & Guyana; Anna, Wanda, & Claire; Free-Range Parenting; Honduras Bound

Now, all 53 promised Cuban political prisoners have been released, some of whom I mentioned before, namely our own Amnesty prisoners of conscience. I also see that Lady in White Sonia Garro and her co-defendants are included,

        Fox News reports that 2 of the 53 political prisoners released in Cuba were re-arrested:

According to independent media sources in Cuba, Ronaldo Reyes Rabanal and Luís Enrique Labrador – along with other activists – were arrested while attending a meeting of the opposition group, Movement for a New Republic. Lazara María Borrego Guzmán, a member of the Ladies in White opposition movement, was also allegedly arrested during the meeting and Cuban officials allegedly broke her arm.

      The following seems like a fairly balanced and correct summary of the human rights challenges in Cuba now:


The Huffington Post asked for comments on the Obama/Castro accords, but rejected mine, saying it had too many submissions. I noted that all those posted were from Cuban Americans. Here is my submission anyway:

 U.S.-Cuba Agreement, Historic Breakthrough or Backward Step? 

As a lifelong Democrat, former Fidel Castro admirer, and human rights activist involved with Cuba going back to 1951, I’ve greeted the Obama/Raúl Castro agreement with cautious optimism; at least, it has shaken up the status quo. Cubans should no longer be punished for being agents of “the Empire” and internet access may increase. Whether political as well as economic openings will result looks unlikely during the Castro brothers’ lifetime, so, in the short term, probably the best that can be hoped for is a system like that of China or Vietnam: economic opportunities without civil and political rights. Even that would be welcomed by most Cubans, bringing hope to a country with one of the world’s highest suicide rates and the lowest birthrate in Latin America. Pressing to allow outside investors to hire and pay their workers directly would provide a big step forward, replacing a system of selecting workers by the Cuban government, which now gives them only a small fraction of what their services actually command. That also applies to doctors sent to treat Ebola patients or to Venezuela and Brazil to earn money for the regime.  Although I’m of European descent and age 76, I’m now a Spanish interpreter who recently spent over 3 years as a Peace Corps health volunteer in Honduras, working closely with Cuban doctors. I still return annually for humanitarian projects there, including this upcoming February.

            I joined Amnesty International (AI) back in 1981, where in 1984, our local group welcomed 26 long-term Cuban political prisoners whose names we’d given to presidential candidate Jesse Jackson before he traveled to Cuba.  All were released with him, most having been kept years beyond their original 20-year sentences.  For the last 11 years, I’ve served as volunteer Caribbean coordinator for AI USA. Thankfully, the Obama/Castro accords have just resulted in freeing five Amnesty POCs (prisoners of conscience, the only POCs in the Americas): brothers Bianco, Django and Alexeis Vargas Martín, conditionally released, and Iván Fernández Depestre and Emilio Planas, imprisoned for “dangerousness.” Bianco and Django are twins arrested when they were only 16. Afro-Cuban Lady in White Sonia Garro, husband Ramón Muñoz, and neighbor Eugenio Hernández , have now been released to house arrest after almost three years, including reportedly suffering beatings by prison officials. These releases, which we in Amnesty have been working on long and hard, are most welcome, though we still advocate for the removal of all restrictions on those released and for a fair and a speedy trial for Garro and her associates, allowing them to call witnesses and present evidence.

            My Cuba connections are many and personal, including a Cuban foster son, Alex, an unaccompanied minor from the 1980 Mariel boatlift, who was gay and died of AIDS in 1995. Later, I sheltered a rafter released from Guantánamo, José Manuel. Via Mexico, I brought to this country a young mechanic, Armando, with a congenital kidney disease not being in treated in Cuba. I made numerous visits to Cuba in the 1990s, once by sailboat, and met with Catholic clergy and dissidents all over the island, only to be ejected by state security in 1997, so haven’t returned since.  Still, I dare to envision a Peace Corps presence in Cuba’s future, just as now in China. Despite a successful worldwide PR campaign, Cuba is no bastion of social and economic rights; many health service deficiencies exist on the island (except in showplace facilities for paying tourists and the political elite) and in agricultural production (most food is imported, with the US being the biggest supplier despite the embargo); both are areas where Peace Corps works successfully elsewhere. Afro-Cubans are especially disadvantaged because they have fewer relatives abroad sending remittances and are less often chosen for tourism, now the most desirable jobs in Cuba. Formerly imprisoned dissidents estimate that 85% of the island’s prison population has African heritage.

            My special interest, because of my work in Honduras, is blind services. I was recently privileged to meet Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind Cuban lawyer and activist from Ciego de Avila, allowed his first visit outside his country. González Leiva was imprisoned for more than two years, held subsequently under house arrest, and detained several times since. He has repeatedly suffered officially sanctioned “acts of repudiation.” He told me he has organized an (illegal) organization of blind Cubans and gives food and money to some 20 or 30 people who visit his home daily. He mentioned a malnourished little girl whom his family has taken in. “We also help people write letters to the authorities,” he said. He often visits prisons and distributes food 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.

            So the US-Cuba accords have many nuances and unexplored byways—the change is not all black or white, but, like almost everything, represents various shades of gray. Anyway, it’s a done deal, so let’s build on the strengths of the new accords while trying to remedy their remaining deficits.


         I wrote letters recently for asylum seekers trying to avoid deportation to the DR and Guyana, both countries within my Caribbean jurisdiction for Amnesty International USA.

      Without knowing the details of the death-row inmate’s crimes, I was troubled to see this: 21ST EXECUTION UNDER FLORIDA GOVERNOR, Johnny Shane Kormondy was executed by lethal injection in Florida on the evening of 15 January for a murder committed in 1993. This was the 21st execution under Rick Scott’s governorship, equaling the record for any Florida governor since 1976 [including Jeb Bush].

        My friend Anna, whom I first met when we were teenagers in Colombia, and who visited me in Honduras (as per my Honduras book), is still in the hospital, after being run over by a pickup truck on Nov. 29 at her assisted living facility in a New England state while she was out walking in the evening using a walker. I speak with her periodically by phone where she has been undergoing painful treatments. Although it was a very serious accident and she’s even a bit older than I am, she seems to be progressing, though slowly, and has just started rehab. If I weren’t living so far away and weren’t scheduled to go to Honduras shortly, I would certainly visit her.

        Another visit I would like to make, time and money permitting, is the 100th birthday on Sunday of Egyptian-born Wanda, mother of my friend Carol, living in rural Vermont right next door to her daughter. I sent them a basket of goodies to share at their birthday party, not the same as being there, but recognition nonetheless. Wanda still lives alone on her own, though Carol visits her every day; both are remarkable women.

      Apropos of nothing in particular, I’ve been amused to see an on-line mention of a black lab, looking just like our late beloved Claire, getting on a Seattle bus by herself to take a ride to the dog park, where she duly gets off to run around.

      If dogs can sometimes be free-ranging (though that’s illegal in most cities), with children the practice is even more controversial. A couple living in Suburban Maryland is under fire for letting their two children, ages 10 and 6, walk home alone together, about a mile, coming back from a park, where they were playing apparently unsupervised. I am torn, frankly, about such practices as I walked everywhere, including to school about a mile away, and played freely outside for hours at a time without any adult supervision at least from the age of 8, maybe earlier. At age 9, I even babysat 2 little children living next door, earning 25 cents per hour and feeling very grown-up, able to call my own mother for help in an emergency. However, these days, the outside world is considered more dangerous and, now, I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing my great-grandson, age 7, to play alone outside beyond his own front yard or my front sidewalk. Probably the risks were not any less when we were young, but perhaps we are now more aware of them. Something is lost when children don’t have the chance to gradually achieve independence, yet certainly when we were young, kids suffered injuries and abductions, perhaps even more so than now, though in the absence of social media, we were unaware of the extent.  

       I’ll be leaving in early Feb. on my 11th return trip to Honduras since Peace Corps, so if you have anything to send or to say to me beforehand, remember that once there, I won’t have regular e-mail access.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Arctic Vortex Returns, Child Labor, Radio Show, Cuba & More Cuba, POCs Released, Venezuela, US News, Remembering the Beatles

Brrr, we’ve had another “arctic vortex,” this one was really cold, below 20 F. And when I have to leave for work in the dark at 5:30 am, believe me, it’s frigid. At that early hour, in the dark with little traffic, I often walk in the street to the metro station to avoid ice, as last January, I slipped on the ice and hurt my shoulder, still not 100% OK. Most darn hospitals like to start early and, of course, I’m always traveling by public transportation and walking outside for a few blocks on either end.

        At Safeway, I was put in mind again that we all have a role to play in society. My bagger was a young man with Down Syndrome who efficiently and cheerfully put my purchases in my recyclable bags—a small role, but one he performed with evident satisfaction.

        It’s not a big surprise that child labor is still common in Honduras:

        My last Wed. interview about Cuba and my Cuba book has been posted on the Donna Seebo Show, She also interviewed me for my Honduras book. The live program was 196-2, which aired on January 7. After that, it is supposed to be available in the archives. Google ‘Donna Seebo’ and the ‘Donna Seebo Show,’ page link will pop up, tap on that and you’ll be taken directly to the show page itself. The yellow band on the right is for archived programs. My book is a small slice of recent history, of my own history with Cuba, which predicted change, but not such an abrupt and sweeping change as has just occurred.

        The NYTimes seems pleased with the US-Cuba accords and its role in promoting them, generally avoiding any editorial comment that might appear critical of the Castro government, making at best only oblique references. But the Washington Post has had no such editorial hesitation, going back to July 2012, when democracy advocate Oswaldo Payá’s car was run off the road and he and a Cuban passenger subsequently died (though apparently later at a hospital, not immediately, making it more suspect), while two foreign visitors survived, though one was imprisoned for a time. At that time and since, the Post has called for an independent investigation into his death, as has his daughter. Now the Post has been pointing out the delay and secrecy surrounding the promised prisoner releases.

        Whenever I hear about something on the news about Cuba, I wonder whether Cubans on the island are even aware of it, given their news blackout? Have they heard that Alan Gross was released? Some did know about his capture as an evil agent of “the empire.” Do they know now about the attack on the satirical magazine in France, if so, what’s the spin there? The pending release of some 53 political prisoners is probably not public information, because that would raise questions about whether Cuba has political prisoners, even though everyone knows they exist as a warning to the rest of the populace.

        In light of recent developments and the Obama/Raul accords, I don’t anticipate any reckoning for the Castro brothers during their lifetime. However, that’s pretty much par for the course for dictators—it’s rare that anything happens to them and their reputation while they are still alive. Saddam Hussein was an exception, so was Gaddafi in Libya, but they were defeated in war. Hitler was defeated in war and committed suicide. But absent a war defeat and capture, they are rarely sanctioned for their misdeeds—look at Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Duvalier— they all died first, then has come the reevaluation of their legacy. The same is likely to happen with the Castro brothers—or maybe not even then, as the mystique of Fidel Castro has been so powerful. Look at how so many people still revere Che Guevara, who could be considered a mass murderer, either that or a very efficient and hands-on executioner.  

        The following is an article about Cuba today, mirroring my own journey across the island in 1997 and which has a ring authenticity—I’m glad if Cuba is changing, because it can only change for the better—I don’t see it getting worse.

On the Open Road, Signs of a Changing Cuba, By WILLIAM NEUMAN, NY Times, JAN. 6, 2015

        Certainly, the accords between President Obama and Raul Castro have shaken things up, for better or worse, probably some of both. But critics are now saying “I told you so” after peaceful demonstrators were arrested just days after the historic joint announcement. While not totally unexpected—the event was a test of the new atmosphere--that put a damper on the euphoria about the whole enterprise, at least outside Cuba, as inside, probably few even heard about the planned event or the arrests. What had been planned was an “open mike” in Revolution Square, where people could give their reactions to the accords. Of course, the regime prevents unauthorized peaceful demonstrations for fear they may spread and so as not to give the broader Cuban population any ideas, but, those arrests, coming so soon after the agreement was reached, were a big blow to its supporters in the US and around the world. Just inviting Cubans to publicly express their opinions on the accords with the US would not be a threat to the one-party communist system that Raul has vowed to protect, except to the extent that any free speech is a threat.

        Raul and his entourage now seem to have shifted to blaming nefarious “Miami Cubans” for trying to overthrow “the Revolution” in order to recover their confiscated property, rather than the US government (aka “the empire”), since diplomatic relations are set to resume. In the meantime, President Obama was out playing golf in Hawaii while vacationing there with his family and Pope Francis was saying Mass and meeting visitors at the Vatican. Some observers are proposing that the embargo not be further relaxed until human rights improve in Cuba, which seems like a good idea. OK, Senator Leahy, time to use your cozy ties with the Castros to advise them that it’s very bad PR to arrest dissidents and they should stop!

        Raul Castro’s decision a few years ago to allow individuals to sell homemade items has been a definite step forward, but is not an efficient production system, especially since each home business is under constant surveillance to make sure it’s not making too much money or failing report it, using nonproductive manpower to do the intensive monitoring. Home businesses were meant to offer laid-off public sector workers a means of survival but were no actual substitute for larger, more organized industries and enterprises. However, as long as the Communist Party, the Cuban military, and the Castro regime control hiring and firing and payments to workers, outside investors will remain wary. Imprisoning Canadian businessmen and trying to take over their businesses do not provide promising precedents for US-based entrepreneurs, though perhaps some Cuban exiles think they are wily and savvy enough to pull it off.

        While I have been advocating that American investors in Cuba be able to hire and pay their workers directly, a Cuban American friend has pointed out that while that may provide workers with a job and a bit more income, it could also lead to exploitation by investors. She argues, with some merit, that factory workers in China and Vietnam are exploited, paid miserable wages, made to work long hours, and live in tiny warrens within factories, hardly an example to be imitated.

        I can readily understand why many dissidents feel suddenly abandoned, when they had thought that the US had their back against their powerful enemy, namely, the Cuban government that has been systematically hurting, harassing, and punishing them, and stopping them from gathering or speaking for so many years. Now their apparent supporter has joined hands with their enemy with promises to enrich and strengthen that enemy through trade and increased tourism, while the dissidents are left out in the cold, naked and afraid without support.

              I was misinformed about Twitter—now, I’m told, the actual limit is 140 characters, including spaces. I think I may have said 144 characters before. In any case, the Obama/ Castro accords have now resulted in the release of 5 Amnesty Int’l POCs (prisoners of conscience, only POCs in the Americas): brothers Bianco, Django and Alexeis Vargas Martín, conditionally released, and Iván Fernández Depestre and Emilio Planas, arrested for “dangerousness.” Lady in White Sonia Garro, husband Ramón A. Muñoz & neighbor Eugenio Hernández were released after reportedly suffering beatings from prison officials, now under house arrest awaiting trial.

        There was reportedly a rumor going around Havana that Fidel had died, but then the rumor was discredited. Such rumors have circulated before so when he actually does die, no one may believe it. A Cuban friend says, “This rumor of Fidel’s death seems to have originated with an unknown person in the Palacio de Convenciones. That poor guy must have been picked up afterwards by Seguridad del Estado and now be purging his "counterrevolutionary sins" in Villa Marista! One of the blessings of the US is that if anyone begins a nasty rumor about Obama, for example, the rumor that he hadn't been born in the US, nothing happens to him! Obama was just simply was forced to produce his birth certificate! If such a rumor about Fidel had originated in Cuba, would he have produced his birth certificate or ordered the rumor monger's death certificate to be made out?”

Meanwhile, another rumor is that wet-foot/dry-foot which allows most Cubans who touch US soil to stay will be eliminated, so Cubans are taking to the seas in droves in flimsy boats, most being intercepted and returned to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.               

Someone has sent me a report on the recent visit to Havana by Senator Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, who spent several days with Castro government officials, but scrupulously avoided democracy activists. After he returned, he reportedly issued a press release saying "New Mexicans are anxious to meet and work with Cubans, and the time is right to rebuild business and cultural ties between the United States and Cuba." His reported voting record on Latin American trade is as follows:                          

NO on trade with Peru.
NO on trade with Central America.
NO on trade with the Dominican Republic.
NO on trade with Chile.
NO on trade with Colombia.
NO on trade with Panama.
But: YES on trade with Cuba.

                Some of these guys are trying to turn me into a Republican!

        The following article describes the US Interests Section in Havana, a building I know well, and what changes are in store (provided a Republican Congress allows an embassy to be established):

          Here below is a cloak-and-dagger story about the supposed US spy swapped for the Cuban Three. Alan Gross, the US insisted, was never a spy, so he couldn’t be swapped for the Cuban spies. Instead, they were supposedly swapped for another man, a former Cuban Interior Ministry operative who may or may not have been a double agent, Lt. Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years. His current whereabouts are unknown, but his relatives in Cuba say he is no longer in the prison where he was being held. Meanwhile the Cubans freed Gross as a “humanitarian gesture;” such are the intricacies of statecraft.


Has Raul Castro’s agreement with President Obama perhaps inspired North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to reach out to South Korea for “high-level” talks?

        And apparently there was a cordial encounter between President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and US VP Joe Biden at the swearing in of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

          Now Venezuela's Maduro, taking a cue from the Castro playbook, has announced that he would release opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, imprisoned since February 2014 -- but only in a prisoner swap with the United States. In return, Maduro wants the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted and sentenced in 1981 to 55-years in federal prison for seditious conspiracy.
"The only way I would use (presidential) powers would be to put (Leopoldo Lopez) on a plane, so he can go to the United States and stay there, and they would give me Oscar Lopez Rivera - man for man," Maduro reportedly said during a televised broadcast.

        Meanwhile, a Washington Post editorial warns that in its focus on Cuba, the Obama administration is failing to grasp a desperate situation in Venezuela, a nation with 3 times Cuba’s population and a major oil supplier to the US, as well as to Cuba. Washington Post, January 4, 2015, Jackson Diehl: Obama is overlooking deep trouble in Venezuela.

          Oh fickle electorate, Obama is again rising in popularity as he threatens to use his veto pen while facing 2 contentious years with a Republican Congress.

        What can I say about the terrorist attack in Paris that hasn’t already been said?

        As for the report that General David Petraeus, once an illustrious and trusted military commander, may face criminal charges for sharing classified material with his then-mistress, how could he be so careless? I guess “being in love” is a form of temporary insanity whereby hormones and endorphins override reason. No wonder the spy game so often engages in sexual provocation!

        George Zimmerman has again been arrested for assault, one of several such incidents involving a guy who obviously has a short fuse and is impulsive in the extreme, certainly not someone who should be armed and entrusted with neighborhood-watch duties.

        New possibilities for streamlining and reducing the cost of medical care exist with the cellphone, whereby an image of a worrisome skin lesion or a child’s sore inner ear can be e-mailed to a physician for a diagnosis, also allowing a natural experiment in data collection. I joined the Kaiser health plan because, already, it allows e-mail between practitioners and patients, with the ability to attach photos or other documents. That removes the incentive for a physician to schedule an office visit just for the reimbursement and saves time and money for the patient. The downside is that patients get less “hands-on” and “face-time” with physicians and also sometimes have to wait for procedures or prescriptions. Also, we are usually limited by the practitioners actually working at Kaiser.

        The item below came from AFP after a 2-year-old killed his mother with a gun she carried in her purse.


Around 30,000 deaths a year in the United States involve firearms. The majority are suicides; many others are murders. But some involve children laying their hands on loaded weapons. In 2011 alone, 140 children and teenagers died as a result of an unintentional shooting, more often than not inside a home, according to a study from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Several thousand more sustained non-fatal injuries.

        What a burden for a child to carry for life, that he killed his own mother! He apparently had seen enough guns being used on TV and elsewhere to know about pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. No doubt, some deaths and injuries are prevented by gun possession or at least by the fear that someone else may be carrying a gun. However, human beings are so prone to accidents and impulses, it does seem that there should be more mandatory safety features built into firearms, as well as mandatory training, along with registration measures to help keep guns out of the hands of known criminals and people with mental illness. That won’t prevent all accidental or impulsive gun deaths, but would reduce them. Never allow guns near kids under 18, would be my motto. If fewer guns were in circulation and reducing a widespread “gun culture” would help too, but isn’t a likely American scenario in the foreseeable future.

        Finally, as a citizen of the disenfranchised District of Columbia, though I’m not a pot smoker myself, I must protest the attempt by a Republican Congressman from elsewhere (don’t even remember who) in trying to override the voters’ decision to allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. It’s bad enough that we are prevented (by the recalcitrant Republican Congress) from having our own congress people and senators—even worse that outside representatives can overrule us as residents and voters.

        On a completely non-newsworthy topic, I happened to tune in to a 2-hour public radio Beatles’ retrospective, reminding us all of what rare popular musical geniuses they actually were in creating such fanciful lyrics and inspiring tunes. Think of such timeless gems as Yellow Submarine, In an Octopus’s Garden, and Let It Be, among many others. Their combined talents created a unique synergy sadly lost when the band broke up and its members went solo. Today’s noisy, fleeting pop hits don’t compare.