Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hawaii Daughter, Magnolia Tree, Author Interview, Earth Day, Transit Ad Wars, South Sudan, FARC, Cuba, Hillary, Patrick Leahy, Peace Corps Sexual Assault Reporting, Free-Range Kids, Food Poisoning


My daughter Stephanie was visiting from Honolulu, reconnecting with high school friends as well as her East Coast family, as per above photos.

 A reader asks regarding the last posting, that whether what I’d called a magnolia is actually a tulip tree? I’d ordered a pink magnolia from the nursery (there are also white-flowered magnolias), but when it was delivered almost three years ago, it was not in flower. Now, in the spring, it bursts forth with the pink flowers that appeared in the photo. Not being a botanist, I asked my daughter visiting from Hawaii who has a master’s degree in botany; she said it was a magnolia, something confirmed by an internet search. The tulip tree, which is related, typically has yellow flowers according to these sources.

 Here's an author interview I gave months ago that was just posted

Sat. April 18 was Earth Day, celebrated with music and speeches on the National Mall, including an appearance by UN Sec. General Ban Ki-moon. It was a bright, summery day, very nice for a celebration.

[This does not need to be all bolded, but I cannot change it.] First, there were the extremist anti-Palestinian signs on public transportation in DC and Philadelphia, equating Palestinians with Hitler. Now, turnabout is fair play, with anti-Israeli signs on Israeli apartheid appearing on public buses here in DC. The transport system has felt compelled to run both types in homage to free speech. [Now I see it comes out in red, not bolded on the blog--???]


As for the senseless tragedy of the current civil war, a power struggle in the fledgling nation of South Sudan, below is an e-mail from a young Kenyan supervising construction there, someone I met in 2006. He is referring to a new hospital that I saw being built then, laboriously by hand, stone by stone, both men and colorfully-dressed women working side-by-side, but now apparently destroyed. Above is a photo of a Sudanese woman and another of me with a local woman.

Hi Barbara
Sorry I was in the field and we do get very few chances to be on net and reply to mails hence this late response.
I am still here trying to do my part in raising this new nation and the current situation is not making it easy, but we are trying.
The hospital was bombed by the Northern Government sometime back and it’s such a tragedy for the people in the Nuba mountains.
Anyway take care and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Kind regards, Omoro
Sorry to get news about the FARC attack on Colombian soldiers, promising to reignite the civil war of so many decades. Colombia is where I went to high school and where my (adopted) son Jonathan was born—also where I graduated from high school and learned Spanish, which has stayed with me throughout my life. Peace Corps volunteers are still in Colombia’s north coast, where the FARC are not active.

Tania Bruguera, the Cuban performance artist prevented from mounting her open-mike performance in Cuba after the announcement of the Obama/Castro accords, now has the support of MOMA, the Guggenheim, and Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. Bruguera had her passport confiscated in December after being arrested and has been unable to leave Cuba.

The Cuban prisoner whose name Afro-Cuban dissident Antunez gave us at the DC Amnesty International last January, Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez, is now mentioned in an article in Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/missing-cuba-thaw-basic-human-rights-322234

 Somehow, now two Cuban dissidents are reportedly on the ballot for municipal elections, something totally unprecedented, Hildebrando Chaviano and Yuniel Lopez. Was that an accident? In any case, it's a good sign--even a year ago, they might have been arrested for even daring to try, so the fact that they are still in the running is a huge change.

However, they did not win—both said the deck had been stacked against them. Still, the fact that their names were even on the ballot was unprecedented. However, one Cuba watcher tells me that they may have been fake dissidents—of whom there are many infiltrating and undermining opposition groups. [Again, excuse different type sizes, no use meddling with them.]

 Some observers have questioned what President Obama got from making nice with Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas, when Castro has not been offering anything—still saying that Cuba will not yield one iota on its revolutionary principles, statements that mostly seem aimed at keeping the Castro family and the Communist Party in power. Whether for Castro, his histrionics are mere rhetoric and bravado, time will tell. It would have been preferable if Cuba could have gone the way of Eastern Europe in shedding communism altogether instead taking the China/Vietnam route of opening up economically but not politically or the Putin route of backtracking on democracy. The problem had been that the Cuban leadership had barely budged for 55 years, so President Obama was trying to give it a nudge. On the other hand, a family dynasty eventually does die out, so perhaps there was a chance that Cuba would have changed for the better politically after the pending demise of Godfather Fidel and Brother Raul, both in their 80s. Now, the regime has been given a new lease on life, seemingly destined to follow the China/Vietnam model of economic opening without a political opening. But Obama was not only trying to offer at least economic hope to ordinary Cubans, who felt they were in a rut, but to free Alan Gross, and to get on a better footing with visceral Latin American opponents, who really were caught off-guard and haven’t known quite how to react, especially Venezuela’s Maduro. And most Americans have applauded the outreach to Cuba, not realizing exactly what it entails. Obama was clearly the star at the summit, taking the wind out of his Latin American critics’ sails.

However, it was disgraceful that at the summit, the Castro regime brought in its usual mobs of physical attackers—the Rapid Response Brigades-- against peaceful dissidents, something it does all over Latin America wherever opposition Cubans appear in public. Independent blogger Yoani Sanchez has encountered them at speaking engagements all over the region, though never in the US, where either they are not allowed entry or the regime decides it’s a better tactic not to unleash them. Some such gang members have said they have been forced to participate, while others seem to relish the opportunity to beat up other people.

Taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, whether or not completely justified, was something required for re-establishing formal diplomatic relations. Certainly Cuba is less of a threat now to the United States and the rest of the world than during the Cold War and maybe the Cuban leadership will now try to live up to the non-terrorist designation? But the regime is not exactly benign and it would have been good if President Obama had gotten something in return in terms of greater freedoms for the Cuban people. Just reducing the pressure on the regime from the US is not going to automatically help ordinary Cubans, even though curbs on their freedoms have long been justified as necessary to protect against American aggression. While most Cubans are not used to having political freedom and a voice, most people everywhere do prefer self-determination if given half a chance. Obama’s apparently unilateral concessions to the Cuban government are somewhat worrying as they are not necessarily being reciprocated. Although Raul Castro has made laudatory remarks about Obama, he remains wary and won’t hesitate to cry “wolf” to arouse his partisans in Latin American and around the world if he feels his position and that of his inner circle are threatened. The Cuban regime long ago won the international PR battle with its appealing David-Goliath narrative. Many other leaders who feel small vis-à-vis the US (and maybe our country and leadership do bear some blame for this) readily identify with poor little Cuba. But poor little Cuban citizens get little sympathy. Predictably, the Wall Street Journal decried the removal of Cuba’s state-sponsor-of-terrorism designation http://www.wsj.com/articles/another-gift-for-castro-1429054312.

President Obama’s game plan regarding Cuba remains murky, perhaps because the American and world public wouldn’t really understand it. Some of us are trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, hoping he’s just playing his cards close to the vest so as not to propel a wary Raul Castro into a defensive mode. He also seems to have taken a somewhat less confrontational approach with Congress, realizing his remaining time is short.

Pres. Obama has wanted to create a Cuba legacy and to counteract the negative image of the US being successfully perpetrated, especially by Latin American leftist leaders. They have been kind of set off-kilter by his outreach to Cuba, especially Maduro, who was ready to pounce on the US for the sanctions against some of his officials in Panama. While Obama in Panama and US officials in Cuba have made a point of meeting with dissidents, this alone does not promote more freedom of expression and association. They still got beaten up, even in Panama. I haven't yet heard Raul Castro castigating Cuban mobs for physically attacking peaceful demonstrators, even if they disagree with them (quite to the contrary, he organizes and applauds them). If and when he tells them to stop, it will be noteworthy.

As I've said before, I do fear that the current US approach will end up promoting a system like China's and Vietnam's (exactly what Raul Castro has been aiming for)--an economic opening under a strict one-party system with executions, political prisoners, and curbs on assembly and communication. Still, most Chinese and Vietnamese are better off because of the economic opening. Yet, it would have been much better if those countries and Cuba could have taken the path of Eastern Europe and moved to a more democratic system, with free assembly, free expression, and elections. Might that have happened if Obama had hung tight and the inevitable demise of the Castro brothers had occurred?

It will be interesting to see how Hillary Clinton handles Cuba and Iran issues—probably distancing herself from Obama, but not too much. Years ago, when Hillary was First Lady, I was with her at some small forums where she seemed candid, thoughtful, and handled herself well. Since then, I’m not as crazy about her performance as she seems less genuine, but, of course, now the stakes are much higher. If she becomes the Democratic presidential candidate, which looks likely, I will vote for her, as I cannot bring myself to vote for a Republican and would certainly like to see a female president. But I’m not committed to voting for her until she actually wins the nomination.

If another Democrat should win, a dark horse like Obama, then he or she will get my vote, unless that person should happen to be Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (quite unlikely), for whom I would never vote, Democrat or not. I believe he behaved hypocritically and in an extremely self-serving manner during the whole Cuba/US debate. Although I often get appeals from him for money, I completely ignore them. Why am I so opposed to him? Leahy seemed to have regularly leaked sensitive USAID Cuba information to the press and therefore to the Castro government, and then loudly berated USAID for being ineffective and for permitting those same leaks (thanks, Leahy, for making USAID even more ineffective). Subsequently, while railing against US government secrecy toward Cuba, he clandestinely arranged to transport sperm (twice) to inseminate the wife of the Cuban Five mastermind, boasting later about that transport, and, then, after all his scathing criticism of USAID’s efforts to facilitate democracy in Cuba (totally non-violent efforts to promote freer communication), he prominently escorted freed prisoner Alan Gross back to the US and supported his several million-dollar settlement with USAID. Sorry, Leahy, if you should happen to aspire to the presidency, you’ve lost my vote.

 Sexual assault—rape, if you will—is now being reported more frequently in the Peace Corps, as well as on college campuses. It is doubtful that such incidents are actually occurring more often in either case—rather, there has been greater public awareness of the problem and an increased willingness of victims to come forward. It’s understandable why rape, especially if done by known persons, has been underreported—young women may be totally in shock, ashamed, and uncertain of how to proceed—perhaps also fearing retaliation and further trauma by having to recount what happened to authorities or even motivated by the desire to protect a perpetrator. For many, it may seem easier to remain in denial and just pretend that nothing has occurred. Similar feelings keep child abuse victims silent.

As for the local “free-range” children picked up again by the police in a DC suburb, it’s quite true that most American adults, myself included, have had ample experience as free range kids them(our)selves. Why then, are most unwilling now to allow their children that same freedom? Perhaps it’s due partly to a few high-profile child abductions now being disseminated more widely in our internet age. My own concern, for my grandchildren and great-grandson, has less to do with unsavory and dangerous strangers and more with fear of accidents. What if a child playing alone or with a sibling at a park falls or chases a ball into the street? An alert parent would intervene quickly. Perhaps I’m being over-vigilant, having lost both my son and foster son in quick succession (but as adults, not children), so I’m not prone to taking unnecessary chances. While realizing that the odds of a serious accident are quite low, the remote possibility of injury or death justifies keeping a parent always on the scene in my opinion, at least until a certain age, maybe 10? The particular age does depend on the child and a child of 10 should not be in charge of a younger one, as in the case of Maryland kids. If children need to learn resilience and independence, parents can take an unobtrusive stance, bringing along a book or electronic device to a park, sitting on the front steps while youngsters ride bikes or scooters around the block, and enrolling them in sports and swimming lessons—then sending kids off to day- and overnight camp. A cell phone carried by a child when not in sight can help parents to check in. Even when physically present, adults cannot always protect children. And, it’s quite true that the greatest danger to kids comes from friends and family members—sometimes even from parents themselves--and occurs in their own homes. The question is how much leeway should parents have in raising their own kids and when does the public and the government need to intervene?

Much has also been made of hovering or helicopter parents who undermine their offspring’s own self-confidence and development, intervening at every turn, but after being a member of The Compassionate Friends, a self-help group for bereaved parents, where all manner of unexpected deaths have occurred, I’d rather err on the side of being overprotective. Bad things happening to kids are rare, but when they do happen, their effects can be devastating and irreversible. Remember a boy walking to school for the first time in a NYC Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and being abducted and murdered by a member of his own community? Why even take that small chance when children can acquire self-confidence and independence with only light adult oversight?

I was painfully reminded of the bouts of vomiting and diarrhea that I endured in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer once again after eating a recent meal prepared by my Zambian visitor. He and his colleague from Kenya were fine after eating it—I was the only one affected. Such an episode has never happened to me here in the US, but, as in Honduras, I woke up at midnight with that familiar horrible feeling of blood flowing from the extremities to the stomach to expel its contents. Amid alternating chills and fever, that continued all night long. The only bright side is that I lost a couple of pounds. But I remembered our advice to Honduran mothers regarding their kids with stomach and intestinal upsets: always keep them hydrated. Even if everything gets expelled, liquids should be kept flowing into the body to prevent dehydration.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spring At Last! New Cuban POC, Panama Summit, Cuban Dissidents at the Summit, Another Rogue Ship Involved with Cuba, Kenya Attack, Chelsea Manning, Flat US Population

Finally, spring has sprung. See photos from around my house and neighborhood. That’s a magnolia tree that I planted 3 years ago in my front yard. The cherry blossoms came in later than usual this year and their duration was short. When in full bloom, they’re barely pink, only a slight tinge. Other flowering trees have pinker blossoms
Lots of Cuba news, as would be expected. Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez has been declared a Cuban prisoner of conscience (POC) by Amnesty International. His case was first brought to our attention in Amnesty by Antunez, an Afro-Cuban dissident mentioned previously in these pages and also in my Cuba book, a towering figure for Cuban dissidents and a former Amnesty POC himself (17 years). In January, he was received in the office of Rep. John Lewis, a former MLKing associate, breaking through the barrier of the Congressional Black Caucus that had distanced itself from him out of loyalty to the Castro brothers. Antunez was also a catalyst for my Cuba book, having been a major figure in the argument with my former friend which led to the writing of that book. I feel vindicated in supporting him and glad he is finally have some influence outside Cuba, though within Cuba, he is still persona non grata with the regime and little known.
We have been seeing that some prisoners of conscience or dissidents have been put back in jail. Some other dissidents have been harassed.
-- Marshelha Goncalves Margerin, Amnesty International advocacy director, on repression in Cuba since Obama's December 17th deal with Raul Castro, VOA, 4/7/15
, 4-7-2015
PRESIDENT OBAMA’s move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in December was supposed to improve political and economic conditions for average Cubans and remove an irritant in U.S. relations with other Latin American nations, which have been pushing to end the isolation of the Castro regime. Four months later — a short time, admittedly — there is no sign of those benefits. According to Cuban human rights groups, political detentions have increased: There were more than 600 in March alone. More than 50 long-term political prisoners are still being held. Several Cuban opposition leaders are banned from leaving the country, which means they cannot attend this week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.
U.S. and Cuban officials have yet to agree on the terms for reopening embassies. But the Castro regime has nevertheless reaped some substantial gains. Raúl Castro will be welcomed to the Americas summit for the first time; Mr. Obama will shake his hand. In the coming days, Mr. Obama is likely to offer another big concession by removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of sponsors of terrorism, an act that would disregard Cuba’s continued support for Colombia’s terrorist groups, its illegal arms trading with North Korea and the sanctuary it provides American criminal JoAnne Chesimard.
As for other Latin American leaders, they are unlikely to pressure Mr. Castro on his human rights record, as White House officials predicted they would once the stigma of the U.S. diplomatic boycott was lifted. Instead, many may join in an ambush of Mr. Obama being orchestrated by Mr. Castro’s closest ally. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claims he will arrive in Panama with 10 million signatures of people protesting U.S. sanctions against his government; his ludicrous but loud propaganda campaign has won support even from supposed U.S. allies such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

In a poll conducted in Cuba (without the authorization of the Cuban government), President Obama enjoyed an 80% approval rating compared to half that for the Castro brothers, whose disapproval ratings were somewhat higher than their approval ratings (even that rate of approval for the Castro brothers seems high to me, based on my own anecdotal experience). It should also be added that Mr. Obama has never come close to 80% approval in the United States. The particulars of how the survey was conducted were not revealed for security reasons, perhaps making the results somewhat suspect, but at least, a survey was conducted in a nation where that is prohibited. See full results: http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/cuba-poll-2015/
 Apparently pro-Castro crowds attacked Cuban dissidents in Panama, as they do in Cuba, calling them “mercenaries” and “imperialists” http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/04/09/cubans-for-and-against-castro exchange-punches-insults-at-summit-americas/
EFE-4/4/2015--Havana – Many of Cuba's dissident groups have come together to take a "message of unity" to the Summit of the Americas in Panama with two specific proposals - a new electoral law and a law of association and political parties.
"It's obvious that an energetic civil society is only possible where the independence of citizens is acknowledged and their rights and freedoms are respected," the dissidents told the press in Havana Friday in a joint statement.Their purpose was to make the summit being held April 10-11 a chance to win recognition for "the legitimacy of an independent Cuban civil society on the island and in exile as a valid representative of the Cuban people," opposition leader Manuel Cuesta Morua of the Arco Progresista group of Cuba said Friday. Other dissident organizations involved are the Patriotic Union of Cuba, or UNPACU, led by Jose Daniel Ferrer, and the Anti-totalitarian Front of Guillermo Fariñas (both mentioned in my Cuba book).
However, even before the convening of the Summit of the Americas, matters got off to a rocky start. Rosa María Payá, daughter of activist Oswaldo Payá, was briefly arrested at the Panama airport and warned not to create a disturbance or she would be deported to Cuba. She has persisted in accusing the Castro government of deliberately murdering her father. (I met him years ago, met her more recently, and agree that most evidence indicates that the regime did deliberately kill her father—see my Cuba book.) Already her arrest has given her cause a higher profile internationally than would have otherwise occurred. Another group of Cuban activists demonstrating in Panama were reportedly beaten up by pro-Castro mobs, similar to those who routinely attack them in Cuba. Among those attacked and arrested were some I know personally: Antúnez, his wife, Yris Pérez, and blind lawyer Juan Carlos González Leyva 
Predictions were that President Obama would have a hard time at the summit because so many Latin American leaders had lined up behind Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in his crackdown against opposition figures, something Obama had criticized. So, the gathering promised to be a contentious affair. Observers were waiting to see how Obama would handle it. Maybe his outreach to Cuba and everything sacrificed in that effort would fall short of expectations. In my experience, the vociferous leadership of Latin America’s anti-US bloc does not actually represent the preponderance of public opinion there, where leaders have become increasingly authoritarian, even dictatorial, controlling media and dissidence. Those leaders are moving in the direction of Cuba, taking lessons from the Castro brothers about how to perpetuate themselves in power and, like Cuba, blaming their own failings, corruption, and mismanagement—and any internal opposition—on the United States. This does not bode well for the beleaguered and struggling citizens of those countries nor for US-Latin American relations. Nor will those countries have sufficient economic growth or democratic freedoms to satisfy their own people, causing those leaders to continue to conveniently blame the US as they tighten their grip even further.
President Obama is taking a gamble, trying to soothe and disarm his critics by saying that strong countries with genuine popular support have nothing to fear from peaceful opponents, but, of course, dictatorial countries really don’t have so much popular support and their leaders do fear losing control. Obama even met with Cuban and Venezuelan dissidents in Panama, which certainly gave them a morale boost. However, curbs on association and expression are likely to continue in both their countries, just as they have in China and Vietnam for decades, even though the US may no longer be specifically blamed. Remember back to when Nixon-to-China took place and look now at China’s current president, Xi Jinping, acting more repressive even than his recent predecessors. In Asia, American diplomats regularly bring up human rights as policy issues and on behalf of named imprisoned individuals, but, by invoking national sovereignty, leaders of dictatorial Asian countries mostly pay no attention. Just saying that the US is “turning the page” in its relationship with Latin America, as Obama said at the summit, and photo ops of Obama and Castro shaking hands are not sufficient for meaningful change, but do have symbolic value. Such gestures have caused confusion among leaders who reflexively blame the US for their own failings and now aren’t quite sure now how to respond. I’ve long contended that being the world’s top super power subjects our nation to a lot of blame. In my experience, most citizens of other countries, though they admire the US and exaggerate the desirability of our way of life, are often too ready to blame our nation for everything that they are suffering daily. A super power is a handy universal target and is ascribed supernatural powers.  
Regarding the pending removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, there has also been a deafening silence surrounding the recent capture by Colombian authorities of a Chinese-flagged ship, the Da Dan Xia, seemingly headed for Cuba with a weapons cache disguised as "grain products." This new discovery is a stark reminder of another recent weapons cache headed from Cuba to North Korea, also mislabeled “grain products.” It came at a delicate time, when President Obama and Raul Castro would be meeting at the Summit of the Americas, with Obama facing hostile authoritarian leaders, so, mostly, it has been ignored. Rapprochement with Cuba carries a high price tag and is an issue that the administration entered into voluntarily, when so much else was already on its plate. They could have had a prisoner exchange to get Alan Gross released without reestablishing diplomatic relations, but that’s hindsight, so forward movement is the only option now
Despite evidence to the contrary, President Obama indicated that he would lift Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism even before the Summit of the Americas to counteract the hostility building up against him over sanctions against some Venezuelan officials. I doubted that this announcement would prevent inevitable histrionics on the Venezuelan issue, which have already won Cuba considerable concessions. Obama seemed to have been put on the defensive regarding Cuba, even though Cuba needs the US more than vice versa. I would advocate for having any such concessions to be exchanged for something benefiting ordinary Cubans, especially since Cuba was again involved recently in a questionable arms shipment disguised as grain. Does Obama think that by taking Cuba off the terrorism list, it will reform? That’s a gamble. While the lifting was not accomplished before the summit, Obama tried to defuse hostility by talking about friendship and mutual respect among the nations of the Americas without getting much into specifics. (Obama and certainly his wife will be glad when his term is over.)
Reportedly, the over 200 Peace Corps volunteers in Panama were explicitly excluded from summit events and from any meeting with President Obama.
Tania Bruguera can't leave Cuba, so the Hammer will stage work in her honor, LA Times—April 8, 2015
The open-mike that Cuban performance artist Tania Brugera had intended to bring to Havana’s Revolution Square was halted by her arrest and the confiscation of her passport in December, after she sought reactions to the announcement of the US/Cuba accords. She has now been released, but is unable to leave Cuba because her passport has not been returned. Nonetheless, a museum in LA decided to stage her open-mike piece there: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-hammer-museum-to-stage-cuban-artist-tania-bruguera-work-20150408-column.html
Numerous academic-type debates on Cuba are understandably occurring now. Here’s another one: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/event/cuba-hope-or-hype-havana
The Venezuelan leadership has been routinely intimidating and harassing human rights defenders, and making unsubstantiated allegations that independent organizations are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, this according to statement issued April 7 by 28 international and Latin American human rights organizations. These groups, including Amnesty International, have defended their legitimate functions of documenting abuses and representing victims before international human rights tribunals despite Venezuelan government accusations that they represent imperialist and US interests. While I was in Honduras, I attended an international forum organized by the Adenauer Foundation which concluded that while many governments in Latin America have anti-US and leftist leaders, civil society groups in those countries are pushing back. That certainly seems to be the case in Venezuela. And, invariably, the leaders blame the United States for any opposition.
Turning to another thorny international issue, William Burns, former State Department official and now president of the Carnegie Endowment, estimates that it will take a generational change—some 30 years—before Iran moves in a more democratic direction. Probably the same is true of Cuba and perhaps of other authoritarian governments—assuming that they even move in that direction, since counterforces are also at work.  
At my local Amnesty International Group, we had a Nigerian speaker and activist, Omololoa Adele-Oso, a former architect who is now co-founder and executive director of Act-4-Accountability (www.act4accountability.com), an organization dedicated to reducing corruption in the Nigerian government and involved in the Bring-Back-Our-Girls campaign. She seemed to feel optimistic about the recently elected president of Nigeria, but said that Boko Haram has infiltrated the entire government and that there were more than new 400 abductions just a month ago. She said 17 parents of the missing girls have died waiting, some from health conditions caused or exacerbated by the stress of not finding their daughters.
My Kenyan visitor has been understandably upset about the massacre at the Kenyan college by Al Shabaab militants, although he believes that God will set matters right. Another Kenyan friend tells me that now Kenyan churches have security checks for parishioners and armed guards posted outside. Especially during Easter services, Christians were on edge.
The problem is that it's impossible everywhere in the world to guard every conceivable target from vengeful attackers considering themselves the only true Muslims. Who would have ever thought the Boston marathon would be a target? Or a Kenyan shopping mall? Or a girls' boarding school in Nigeria? Or this Kenyan college just now? Such violent and gruesome actions only make life worse for the majority of peaceful Muslims and divide people. Life is hard enough for most of the world’s inhabitants without confronting this tragic, harmful, and completely counterproductive activity.
Chelsea Manning –On 4 March, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the US military to stop using male pronouns when referring to Chelsea Manning in all future legal papers filed. Manning also confirmed beginning prescribed hormone therapy treatment to begin a gender transition.
U.S. population rose by less than 1% in 2014, roughly flat from previous years, the lowest growth rate in more than 70 years. There are a number of smaller cities that actually lost population and whose median age is rising. The population loss and aging seen in much of Europe and Japan have now arrived at our shores. Not only did the country have fewer immigrants during 2014, but the domestic birth rate dropped to a multi-decade low. Yet, some politicians are still talking of deporting “illegals” and creating even more border security. Instead, we should welcome young, healthy, working age people who want to come to the US. Letting those already established here remain is also a win-win. (I told you so in my most recent book.) Modest population growth, especially among younger ages, is optimal, not only to increase the number of workers, but also demand, trade, and innovation.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Chagas Patient, Peace Corps Seniors, DR & Honduras Human Rights, South Sudan, Israel, Cuba, Yemeni No-Show, Ted Cruz, Selma Film, A Birthday

In my Honduras Peace Corps memoir, Triumph & Hope, I mention several insect-borne illnesses, including Chagas, transmitted by the dreaded Chinche bug dwelling in thatched ceilings and dropping down on unsuspected sleepers during the night. That’s apparently what happened to my young interpretation patient from Central America who only found out she was infected as a teenager when trying to donate blood in her home country. She doesn’t remember being bitten, but her family did have a straw roof. Her illness first manifested itself clinically in swallowing difficulties and now she’s begun feeling heart symptoms. Chagas affects people differently, with symptoms ranging from virtually nothing to a progression that eventually becomes fatal. I even have a photo of the dreaded bugs in my Honduras book (p. 159).  

 The Personal Business column in the 3/14/15 issue of the NY Times on "Retiring" is about Americans retiring and doing volunteer work with Rotary, AmeriCorps...and the Peace Corps! The push for older volunteers, according to the article, began when the Peace Corps began working with AARP to connect more senior volunteers with service opportunities. Today, 7 percent of PCVs are 50 or older. "I would like to see that closer to 15 percent," says PC director Carrie Hessler-Radelet in the article.

Of course, I’ve been promoting Peace Corps for older volunteers ever since leaving service myself as a senior 11 years ago, as well as advocating shorter term humanitarian service, such as that I just completed in Honduras on my 11th return visit there since Peace Corps. If I can do it, so can you.
First Lady Michelle Obama took Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet to Japan to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Later, the First Lady met PC volunteers in Cambodia. Mrs. Obama traveled to Asia without the President.
After just returning from Honduras and also receiving visitors from Africa, I am struck, as certainly my visitors are, that here in the US, in cities and moderate-sized towns, we have open front yards and naked entrance doors without barriers to the street. We don’t have fortress housing compounds with guard dogs, enclosures topped by razor wire, and closed streets with 24-hour guards—though I suppose gated communities fill that bill in some places. I have a new visitor from Kenya who even insists on locking his bedroom door in my house from the inside when he goes to bed! Fortunately, I happened to have a single key for the room he chose, but, in general, I don’t have keys for bedroom doors (if he locks himself out of his room and loses the key, there isn’t another). I was also expecting a visitor from Yemen, but, not surprisingly, he didn’t show up. He had assured me that he would find a way and said he was planning to seek a visa at the American embassy in Cairo, since the US embassy in Yemen was closed, but after the bombings at two Yemeni mosques and the president’s departure, he gave up.
Another visitor, this one from Zambia, was unable to open his e-mail account here. He contacted an on-line “help” line and got a call back from folks who demanded $350 to fix his account. They asked for his bank account, an obvious scam, though he was ready to pay, as he felt desperate being cut off from e-mail. We all have become so dependent on the internet. When I was in Honduras in 2014, my Yahoo account was blocked there, making me feel I was being kept deliberately incommunicado. (See photo above of my visitors with me.)
Both guys, who’ve met Peace Corps volunteers in their home countries (though I believe that the corps recently pulled out of Kenya), also believed that volunteers are involved in US intelligence gathering! The PC bends over backwards to never approve a volunteer who has ever worked in intelligence in any capacity, but still the myth persists—I also found it in Honduras. How is someone living among local people, often in a small town, going to collect intelligence? What intelligence? A simple tourist would have more opportunity. Unless a foreigner is working for a government agency or in a diplomatic capacity, that seems highly unlikely.

How scary that the co-pilot of the German jet apparently deliberately crashed it. Maybe that's also what happened to the missing Malaysian airliner?
The following information is based on Amnesty International (AI) reports on a controversial Dominican citizenship law apparently aimed at persons of Haitian descent, something within my jurisdiction as volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean for Amnesty International USA.
Dominican Law 169/14 was introduced in May 2014, in response to a court decision requiring those born to undocumented foreign parents, whose birth was never declared in the Dominican Republic, to register to obtain a residence permit needed to later claim citizenship. However, the deadline to register ran out on February 1 and has not been extended. That means that all those not already registered in the system will lose the possibility of being granted Dominican nationality. Just a tiny percentage of those eligible to register under the law had been able to start the process before time ran out.
On 27 January, 51 people, including 30 Dominican-born children, some of their mothers, and 14 other adults were deported without due process to Haiti from the Dominican Republic. In October 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had found that the law in question violated the American Convention on Human Rights. Dominican authorities immediately rejected the ruling and refused to comply. They have also repeatedly stated that nobody has been made stateless.
Hundreds of thousands of descendants of Haitian migrants live in the Dominican Republic. In many cases their relatives had been actively encouraged to come to the DR since the 1940s through bi-lateral agreements to relocate a cheap labor force to work in the sugarcane plantations. For decades the Dominican State formally recognized the children of Haitian migrants born in the country as Dominican citizens, issuing birth certificates, identity cards and passports to them, irrespective of the migration status of their parents. We in Amnesty International are calling for the Dominican Republic to implement the last ruling of the Inter-American Court and restore automatically the nationality to all Dominicans who were stripped of it, both those who were registered and those who were not.

In its recent annual report, Amnesty International also stated, regarding Honduras, that violations against human rights defenders, journalists, women, LGBT people, indigenous, Afrodescendants, and campesinos continued to be a serious concern. Furthermore, “these violations took place in a context where impunity for human rights violations and abuses was endemic.”

In South Sudan, President Salva Kiir has refused to share power with his former deputy Riek Machar, meaning the civil war there rages on—such a tragedy in that new nation facing so many other challenges.

I was frankly disappointed that Netanyahu prevailed in Israel’s recent elections. His behavior may play to the home crowd, but has further alienated him from the rest of the world and makes “fortress Israel” an even greater reality. At least he was honest in saying he does not want a Palestinian state, which his actions had already demonstrated. Now, after the election, perhaps because Israel is so dependent on US aid, he has tried to backtrack on his “no Palestinian state” remark. As for safeguards against Iran’s possible nuclear program, in any agreement there is never 100% certainty; like anything else in life, only probabilities. Everything is a gamble.

If you want to watch a video of a difficult nighttime balloon launch from South Korea into North Korea, see https://news.vice.com/video/launching-balloons-into-north-korea-propaganda-over-pyongyang

In Cuba, something unprecedented and little noticed has happened and, so far, has been allowed to stand. In the small community of Arroyo Naranjo, on March 13, Yuniel Francisco López, a delegate from an independent political party, was elected by his neighborhood as a candidate for the Municipal Assembly of Popular Power. Is that a precedent?

A State Department delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson, recently arrived in Havana for another round of normalization talks. This was the second time that the Cuban regime had hosted the talks. During the first round in January, the Castro government had a Russian military ship, The Viktor Leonov, docked in the Port of Havana, clearly visible from the meeting place throughout the duration of Jacobson's stay. This second time, it simultaneously welcomed a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Su Yong, who arrived in Havana directly from a visit with Putin's regime in Moscow. (Last year, a UN Panel of Experts found Cuba to be in violation of international sanctions -- the most egregious violation by any country to date -- for attempting to smuggle 240 tons of heavy weaponry to Pyongyang.) Then, while Jacobson was still there, the Cuban government staged an anti-U.S., pro-Nicolas Maduro rally. Finally, it arrested over 100 Cuban dissidents. Raul has made angry and open demands to the US: pay reparations, get rid of the embargo, and return G'tmo; he has also said that fugitives will not be returned, Cuba supports Venezuela against the US, and "the Revolution" will remain in control. Are these displays and speeches  just provocations that our diplomats should ignore? The last meeting stopped abruptly with no explanation given, after which Raul Castro jetted off to Venezuela to show his support for Nicolas Maduro in the wake of US sanctions against some Venezuelan functionaries. Observers believe that the US/Cuba rapprochement is not in jeopardy, as Cuba desperately needs US aid, support, and increased tourism, but must stand publicly by its Venezuelan ally and benefactor as well. In a more recent bilateral session in Washington, DC, both sides accused the other of human rights violations.

So, negotiating with Cuba to reestablish both nations’ embassies will be a long, uphill battle. Cuba’s trump card is the successful promotion of a negative image of the United States, something that comes with the territory of being a super power. American negotiators in Cuba must ignore and rise above the “Super Power bully” (Goliath?) stereotype and not be intimidated by that attempted stigma. Just because the US is bigger and more powerful doesn’t automatically make the US wrong or the bad guy. The real Davids are Cubans being crushed by the Goliath of their own dictatorial government and the US must not be a party to facilitating that. While Cuba is feverishly rallying its allies in the negotiations, should the US seek support of a broader coalition or just make its proposals quietly and firmly directly to the Cuban leadership? Unfortunately, few countries would be willing to go out on a limb to publicly support American aims in Cuba—though conceivably there might be support from Canada, the UK, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Spain. Those countries already provide moral and material support to Cuban dissidents, but usually do so quietly. None wants to be seen as “ganging up” on brave, poor little Cuba, which has played the “poor” card for years—with Cuban leaders representing themselves as noble, egalitarian socialists being attacked by powerful, rapacious American capitalists. Still, why doesn’t the Cuban leadership try to make nice and court the US, which it needs more than vice versa? But, I guess, old anti-American habits die hard.

Meanwhile, it might be best for the US to tread lightly until the embassies are actually in place. Then they will have established proper diplomatic channels for working out grievances, although Cuba and the US have been working out problems outside official channels for decades. As I’ve said before, the embassy buildings in both cases are the very same ones that once served as embassies more than 50 years ago and are already staffed, though no staff are formally designated as ambassadors yet nor do they have the same diplomatic powers (though Cubans typically refer to the Chief of the US Interests Section as “the ambassador.”). Once the embassies are recognized, then each side can make its formal demands or requests.

As I indicated in my Cuba book, more visitors to Cuba already come from the US than from any other country, even before the establishment of formal diplomatic relations or the Obama/Raul Castro accords, including visiting family members, as well as regular tourists. The Cuban government is glad that visiting relatives bring money, but is wary of their ideological influence, whereas non-Spanish speaking tourists who stay in government-run facilities and take government sponsored and staffed tours are pure gravy.   

Here’s a spirited Cuba policy debate: http://doleinstitute.org/get-involved/videos/, go to recognizing Cuba, a long presentation, expressing two distinct positions on the Obama/Castro accords. During the debate, one speaker said that Cuba is now importing sugar from the DR--certainly an irony there. But neither answered the question of the aims of our current Cuba policy.

 I’ve been wondering myself what the Obama administration's game plan is regarding Cuba, hoping they have one, though just not being revealed publicly. Perhaps because of the whole David and Goliath narrative, US negotiators don't want to seem too overbearing and dictatorial toward "poor little Cuba" (David), thereby arousing the ire and histrionics of Latin American leaders on behalf of Cuba, particularly before the Summit of the Americas. But no one really knows what the aims of our Cuba policy actually are. It boils down to a question of trust of the Obama administration and that's a big question mark. Presumably, Obama and the administration know that Cuba is a dictatorial regime and their aim is to loosen it up, both economically and politically. I thought the US criticism of Venezuela was not only justified, but demonstrated strategic thinking on the Cuba question. It's good that the US has not responded to Raul Castro's demands, but, certainly, Americans (though mostly not interested) are being kept in the dark on the administration's actual objectives.

I certainly hope that our country will not cede any more ground without getting something reciprocal from the Cuban leadership that may, at least  indirectly, benefit the Cuban people, such as allowing US embassy staff to travel around Cuba (and, likewise, let Cuban embassy staff travel around the US) to talk freely with Cuban citizens. And, as I have said before, American investors should be able to hire, fire, and pay their Cuban employees directly and, furthermore, American visitors to Cuba, like visitors to other countries, including to Communist countries, should be allowed to choose their own accommodations and travel freely around the island. We’re talking here about American citizens’ rights, not Cubans’, and also about friendship and renewed diplomatic relations between our two countries, so American diplomats should not be treated like the enemy any more. We have rights as Americans and our own different economic system, so Cuban negotiators must be willing to go halfway to meet us—the yielding should not be just one-sided on the part of the US. And, finally, let’s not forget my Peace Corps in Cuba proposal!

Cubalex, a Havana website offering free legal advice, centrocubalex@gmail.com (537) 7 647-226 or (+535)-241-5948, reports that a 31-year-old artist, Danilo Maldonado, was arrested on Christmas Day for carrying 2 little pigs in sack, one labeled “Fidel,” the other “Raul.”  

A Cuban Spanish-language journalist Ernesto Perez on Diario de Cubanet (3/27/15) claims that some young Cubans, as the result of the Obama/Castro accords, have been favorably discussing the idea of Cuba acquiring an associative status with the USA like that of Puerto Rico. While that’s unlikely to ever happen, there’s irony in the very idea.

 Certainly the accords have shaken up the discourse and, where that happens, other changes are more likely. Will proposed Cuban currency changes drive political reforms? Freedom of assembly and expression will be slow in coming and the last bastion. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-04-01/cuba-s-new-money

 Now that Ted Cruz has thrown his hat into the presidential ring, where are all the angry folks who questioned the veracity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate and birthplace, when Cruz has acknowledged being born in Canada and only recently gave up his Canadian (dual) citizenship?

Though I rarely attend movies, I recently saw the film “Selma” about the historic march across the Edmund Pettus bridge just celebrated in a 50th anniversary re-enactment. As mentioned in my latest book, my late ex-husband and I were present, not at Selma, but at King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, DC, in 1963, just 2 ordinary people in a crowd of thousands, barely able to hear the words of that speech and not fully recognizing the significance it would come to enjoy. In the Selma film and in real life, John Lewis was a pivotal figure, one reason I was delighted to see the photo of Afro-Cuban dissident Antunez and his wife meeting with Lewis last January. Antunez finally broke through the barrier of African Americans, and especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus, refusing to hear him out. Those who still believe the Castro propaganda that Afro-Cubans have especially benefitted from “the Revolution” are sadly mistaken, a key point in my argument with my former friend that led me to write my Cuba book.

I just had a birthday, not a really big one, though, for privacy reasons, I won’t say exactly which one. On my birthday, I was talking with my friend Anna in Rhode Island, my same age, who is miraculously still alive. Last Nov., as mentioned before, she was run over by a pickup truck at her assisted living facility and now is in rehab. She said while she was unconscious, she dreamed about deciding whether to live or die, realizing that there would be tough times ahead if she chose to live. But she decided to live, so here she is now, still with us. I knew her in Colombia when we were teenagers there and she also visited me in Honduras during Peace Corps, as per my Honduras book.