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

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:, 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, (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

 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.




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