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.

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