Saturday, May 30, 2015

Memorial Day Concert, Message from Yemen, Jamaican Lesbian Activist, Gay Rights in Cuba, US-Cuba Prospects, Pope Francis, Wako Gun Deaths, Dennis Hastert, FIFA

During Memorial Day weekend and beyond, I had a Peruvian visitor who accompanied me to the annual capitol concert, as shown. The capitol building is obviously undergoing renovation. As is usual during these occasions, General Colin Powell paid tribute to members of the military and Gloria Estefan, among others, sang for the gathered crowd. My visitor said he had always envisioned attending a colorful musical event at the US capitol, so it gave him a sense of déjà vu to actually be there. On another evening, we ate at a Cuban restaurant in the neighborhood and on the last morning, his uncle came to drive him to his own home in Blacksburg, Va. His uncle worked under my father at the Va. Tech Architectural Department and is still a professor there. He bought the last house my parents lived in Blacksburg, a pioneering solar house designed by my father and built in 1980, which the professor and his wife bought after my mother’s death in 2006. In the photo, the professor is wearing a guayabera that had once belonged to my Dad.
Here is an e-mail message just received from my would-have-been visitor from Yemen, the guy who failed to show up last March: “About the situation in Yemen, unfortunately, we are suffering from all aspects, from inside and from outside. We are passing off slowly. [?] Pray for us.”
There is a new type of cell-phone ride service now competing with Uber called Split that allows multiple pickups along the same route. In Honduras, regular taxis always pick up passengers hailing them even when they have other passengers. It makes sense to share rides.
The segment on Jamaican homophobia that I heard on NPR on May 20 featured Angeline Jackson (standing in photo), a Jamaican lesbian activist with whom I’ve met with and mentioned before. Until I heard her report it on the program, I hadn’t known before that President Obama had recognized her by name when he was in Jamaica in April. In her teens, Angeline endured constant harassment and rejection by her family. She was raped at age 19 by guys who claimed to be trying to “cure” her of being a lesbian. Although they were convicted, they were soon released. Now in her mid-20s, she has decided to no longer hide either her sexual orientation or her rape experience, which she mentioned on the program. She emphasized that homophobia in Jamaica is not legal, but cultural, supported by anti-gay dancehall song lyrics and biblical references. She has been willing to put herself and her story out there despite the risks to her in Jamaica. She has founded a lesbian advocacy and support organization:

Quality of Citizenship Jamaica
Angeline Jackson
Executive Director 
Quality of Citizenship Jamaica
 The Washington Blade’s current issue features Cuban gay rights. While applauding Raúl’s daughter’s advocacy, it points out that gay rights there, like any other “rights,” are only allowed within the Communist Party, an issue concerning me beyond my Amnesty Int’l role. In 1980, as a single mother, I took in 16-year-old Marielito Alex López, an unaccompanied minor who’d been in jail—he wouldn’t say why. Prison guards had forced him and other inmates at gunpoint to board boats arriving at Mariel. Gays were routinely jailed then, so when Alex turned out to be gay, that explained his detention. He died of AIDS in 1995. I visited his family in rural Cuba, but had trouble finding them as authorities were unwilling to help, calling him a “gusano,” a worm.

My 2014 book about my Cuba experiences includes life with Alex (photo with our dog), and incidents of independent gay libraries and exhibits being disrupted by Cuban authorities. I met at Amnesty’s DC office with HIV+ gay rights activist Ignacio Estrada, married to a transgender woman, Wendy Iriepa, also HIV+, who had once worked for Mariela Castro. According to Estrada, Mariela had basically co-opted the gay agenda to keep it within party control. Apparently, he and Wendy decided to stay in Miami rather than return to Cuba.

Despite President Obama taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and also meeting other Cuban demands, as might have been expected, US-Cuba negotiations on opening embassies are moving at a glacial pace. The Cuban political elite is strongly resisting allowing American diplomats to extend their travel and possible influence beyond Havana. Reciprocity would mean that Cuban diplomats could expand their own travels around the US to bring a message of how their country is being mistreated and misrepresented, but that might not find a very receptive or large audience here, whereas the US Embassy in message in Cuba would probably find an eager audience hungry for information. After all, information is tightly controlled in Cuba and the Cuban government has never received a genuine vote by the people (though there are rubberstamp mandatory votes for preselected candidates.) There is a stubborn and relentless effort being made by the Cuban leadership to protect its control, status, and benefits—frankly, its dictatorship—from a dissatisfied Cuban population while trying to extract maximum economic benefits from the United States. But the US negotiators should continue to push respectfully and not give in. This deal means more to the Cuban side than to the US. By the same token, I'm not sure how much effort the US side is willing to put into the human rights fight.
Cuban optimism about the accords with the US, both within the government and among ordinary people, is based almost exclusively on anticipation of extracting more money from American tourists. If Cuban American visitors to the country are counted, then already Cuba gets more visitors from the US than from any other nation, though the Cuban government prefers non-family visitors, as family visitors are allowed to stay with relatives, while others are required to stay in government controlled accommodations. There seem to be few, if any, plans to generate other productive enterprises on the island. Actually making or inventing things desired by Cubans or people elsewhere beyond cigars and rums seems not to be part of the current regime mindset—it’s all about catering to and getting money from American visitors. And that’s the same push that US travel agencies are making.
A realistic prediction by those critical of President Obama’s diplomatic opening to the Cuban regime is that it will cement a Chinese or Viet Nam-style system of more economic benefits coupled with continued political repression. A dramatic change like the Soviet implosion, Prague Spring, or Berlin Wall crash seems not to be in the cards for Cuba, but the question is, would that have happened in Cuba otherwise? Many Cuba watchers have said that as soon as the Castro brothers were gone, it would have been likely, but now may never happen because this new system is benefiting and strengthening the political elite, which will become even more entrenched. It’s always difficult (and ultimately useless) to say what might have been if another road had been taken. Any course of action is a gamble with an uncertain outcome. And Cuba currently is a long way from even the economic freedoms allowed in China and Viet Nam. And, at least in Viet Nam, American diplomats and elected representatives are allowed to visit political prisoners. If that could happen in Cuba, it would be a definite improvement.
So, even if the Cuban government further relaxes its economic stranglehold on citizens, a political opening is not necessarily likely to follow. Certainly that has not happened in China and Viet Nam, which still have executions for property crimes, political arrests, unfair trials, confiscation of passports, censorship of internet and media, prohibitions on association, and restrictions on religion, all decades after re-establishing diplomatic relations with the US and, at least in China, the restrictions now are getting tighter. Those in power won’t relinquish it gracefully or automatically, so while I will never become a Republican, there is merit in some Republican criticisms of the Cuba deal. At best, Cuba may get an economic opening accompanied by one-party rule and restrictions on expression, association, and access to information, with continuing political arrests and actos de repudio.
As indicated before, the deal benefitted the US and President Obama in PR terms because it blunted criticism from Latin America and around the world and also got hostage Alan Gross freed. Most Americans have approved the thaw unconditionally because of their simplistic understanding, as is usual with most foreign policy issues. Cubans are benefitting now in economic terms with increased US tourism and because they are infused, as least for a while, with new hope for change. Since we live in an imperfect world, maybe that’s all that can be realistically expected, at least while the Castro brothers are still living. Of course, they can always put their successors in power (Raúl has a son who is a military general) and there is, according to my information from Cubans reportedly in the know, a split between hardliners with blood on their hands dedicated to protecting themselves from accusations of human rights abuses and more moderate, reformist forces. No wonder that negotiations on reestablishing the embassies have become so slow and difficult!   

From USA Today:

Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which opposed Obama's decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, pointed to three possible sticking points in the negotiations that could delay a deal:

•Diplomatic travel. Diplomats from both countries already work and live in each other's capitals, where they conduct basic consular services such as processing visas. But the diplomats are restricted from traveling. Cuban officials generally cannot travel outside the Washington Beltway, a freeway that circles Washington, D.C., and parts of northern Virginia. American officials are mostly restricted to the boundaries of Havana. Both sides want the restrictions lifted.

•Package inspections. The U.S. side wants to end the Cuban practice of inspecting or intercepting diplomatic packages sent to American officials in Cuba.

•Police presence. The Americans want the Cubans to remove the dozens of government police officers who surround the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a security cordon that they say dissuades many Cubans from trying to enter the building.

Claver-Carone said no other U.S. embassy operates under such conditions, so accepting a deal that maintains any of them would be a disappointment. "If (the Obama administration) accepts those things in order just to raise the flag, then it's pretty clear that this is all about a photo (opportunity) and not about the pursuit of a cohesive, constructive policy," he said.
(Reuters, May 20, 2015) “[Assistant Secretary of State Roberta] Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a U.S. embassy would not reopen in Havana unless American diplomats could travel outside the capital and Cubans were allowed access to the mission without being harassed by security police. State Department officials often point to China and Vietnam as possible models. In China, travel restrictions vary around the country, but in general U.S. diplomats must get permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Vietnam imposes restrictions on travel in some provinces, although U.S. embassy officials do not need approval for personal travel.”
I recently received this sobering commentary from a veteran Cuba watcher: Architects of the new U.S.-Cuba policy rationalize that unconditionally ending economic sanctions will strengthen Cuba’s self-employed sector and, thus, foster a civil society more independent of the government. Eventually, they explain, this more autonomous civil society will function as agents of change pressuring the regime for democratic governance.
This is an ethnocentric proposition anchored on economic determinism that overweighs economic variables and fails to understand the Cuban regime. For example, in a totalitarian system, those in self-employed activities remain bound to the government for the very existence of their businesses. Self-employment in a totalitarian setting does not confer independence from the government. On the contrary, it makes the newly minted entrepreneurs more beholden to the government in myriad bureaucratic ways as few are willing to risk their livelihood antagonizing their all-powerful patrons.
History instructs us as to the outcome we can expect. During the student protest in Tiananmen Square, China’s business community did not come out in support of the students. More recently we also witnessed a similar situation in Hong Kong. Sadly, these business communities were not willing to jeopardize their positions and support the students promoting democratic change. What makes administration officials think that a Cuban business community bound to an all-powerful State for their very existence would act differently?
Here is some speculation on why Pope Francis embraced Raúl Castro:
Whatever the meaning or intent of Francis’s outreach to Raul Castro, here’s a laudatory article about him—he certainly has shaken up the image of the papacy:

 The multiple shooting deaths between biker gangs in Waco, Texas, shows again that a state’s lax gun laws are a danger to life, not a protection, as the NRA and gun advocates allege.  Unfortunately, human beings are prone to rage, impulses, mistakes, and accidents and are not always rational when carrying lethal firearms. Gunshots can kill instantaneously, not allowing the victim any defense or escape, as often happens when a curious toddler gets ahold of a gun and pulls the trigger.
 Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert apparently paid lots of hush money to squelch revelations of the sex abuse of underage boys while he was coach and teacher, which, if it had been revealed at the time, could have landed him behind bars and certainly would have prevented his political career. Again, here is a Republican lawmaker who turns out to be a sanctimonious hypocrite, an evangelic Christian who played a lead role in trying to impeach President Bill Clinton. According to Wikipedia, Hastert entered Congress in 1987 with a net worth of no more than $270,000; when he left Congress in 2007, he reported somewhere between $4 million and $17 million in net worth. He then became a lobbyist, a position he recently resigned.
Regarding FIFA, I predict that Sepp Blatter will play the US bully vs. the developing world card in defending himself and his position.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Surprise Thank-You Letter, Sr. Helen, Summer Already, Malaria Prevention, NY Assembly vs. DR Statelessness, Ferry to Cuba?, Cuban HR Remain Stalled, Fidel in his Heyday, Origins of US Immigrants

A website for returned Peace Corps volunteers put out a call for photos of volunteers mounted on animals during their service. Most posted so far have been photos of volunteers in their 20s (mostly from the 1960’s) posing or clowning atop camels, tortoises, or donkeys. I submitted one from the cover of my Honduras Peace Corps memoir, Triumph & Hope, where I’m riding a horse for actual transportation between remote villages in 2002, at age 64, as shown above.

The other photos are of me and my African visitors with another visitor, Karl, an entomologist from Hawaii who works with my daughter Stephanie there. He came here to examine the Smithsonian’s insect archives. Also shown, Mother’s Day gifts.

After Rep. John Lewis met with Afro-Cuban dissident Antúnez, finally breaking through the boycott he had faced from the Congressional Black Caucus, I sent a thank-you letter to the congressman, along with a copy of my Cuba book, Confessions. To my great surprise, Lewis sent me a thank-you letter for the book. I’ve sent my book unsolicited to a number of academic and public figures and none has ever acknowledged receipt, so I’m grateful for Lewis’s effort.   

Sister Helen Prejean is a friendly, unpretentious woman with whom I was privileged to have had a memorable conversation years ago. She is an outspoken advocate for abolishing the death penalty and recently testified in the penalty phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. I have a signed copy of her book, Dead Man Walking, and saw the film of the same name. It was brilliant move by the defense to enlist her testimony.

Summer has definitely arrived in Washington after a too-short spring. We’ve even had one day with a high near 90F.  But to remind myself that it could be worse, as it often was in southern Honduras, I checked the high temperatures in Choluteca, near my old Peace Corps site of El Triunfo, and found them reaching or exceeding 100 F daily.  Yes, I remember the days of sitting in front of an electric fan (if there was electricity) with a wet rag on top of my head a sipping from a bottle of purified water.

Peace Corps volunteers have often complained of adverse reactions to the antimalarial prophylactic and treatment medication melfloquine, said to sometimes produce hallucinations and nightmares. These claims have been supported by Dr. Remington Lee Nevin, who specializes in the evaluation of adverse reactions to antimalarial medications, particularly the neurotoxic quinoline derivative mefloquine (previously marketed in the United States as Lariam®). Now the Peace Corps reviews anti-malaria options individually with volunteers before assigning them to any one type. Fortunately, the antimalarial drug we took in Honduras was chloroquine, with fewer side effects, still shaped my dreams, as per my Honduras Peace Corps memoir, Triumph & Hope. Of course, prophylactic choice is not arbitrary—it depends on the malaria strain to be prevented or treated.


Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Ends Four Day Hunger Strike As New York State Assembly Passes Resolution Against Persecution of Dominicans of Haitian Descent, May 5, 2015
Amnesty International USA welcomes the [NY State Assembly] resolution and calls on all members of the Assembly to stand in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been stripped of their nationality. The story of Yolanda, whose parents were Haitian, is typical of the stories of discrimination faced daily by those of Haitian descent. Yolanda is a survivor of domestic violence, but was denied the right to lodge a complaint and file for child support because she didn’t have an identity card. Yolanda’s children, though born in the Dominican Republic, were denied birth certificates because of their Haitian ancestry. She is unable to register her children in the civil registry.

Amnesty International USA has been campaigning on behalf of Yolanda, and her family as well as the hundreds of thousands of similarly-situated Dominicans to end the stateless crisis. AIUSA welcomes the resolution in the New York State Assembly and urges its members to stand in solidarity with all those in the Dominican Republic who are facing discrimination and statelessness.

We have a June 15 deadline approaching when stateless persons might be unduly deported from the only country they know as their own.
Dominican Republic action
Social Media ready:

See also Letter from The Dominican RepublicHarper’s, May 2015 issue, "Displaced in the D.R., A country strips 210,000 of citizenship," By Rachel Nolan
Here, for DC residents, says a reader: Direct flights to Cuba from BWI approved.  AA to charge $775 r/t. 

At least four Florida companies are approved for ferry service to Cuba.
The approximately 5-hour trip will probably cost somewhat less than airfare and would be a pleasant way to travel. Of course, the Cuban government would have to allow such service. As per my book, Confessions, my daughter Stephanie and I traveled to Cuba in a small sailboat overnight back in 1994. We had something of a rough ride over many hours and came into an unlit Havana dock where we used flashlights to maneuver into port. Below is the article about the anticipated service.
However, there's a wrinkle that exiles have pointed out: anyone born in Cuba, even if now an American citizen, is prohibited from entering Cuba by boat, presumably to prevent them from spiriting their relatives away. The Cuban regime is likely only to permit visitors of non-Cuban backgrounds to enter via ferry.
From Foreign Policy:
State Dept. Reports No Progress on Restoring Ties With Cuba

The State Department cannot cite any progress on a key step in the Obama administration’s policy of restoring ties with the Cuban government: the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Officials testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Tuesday [May 5] noted continued disagreements between Washington and Havana over the level of access the Cuban government will give U.S. diplomats to island residents if an embassy is opened. That has fueled some concerns that the initial burst of diplomatic progress between the two countries may be stalling.

“Right now we are still … in the midst of negotiations to establish diplomatic relations,” said John Feeley, the principal deputy assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department. “That is a process, and that will take some time, and honestly, I cannot tell you when that will happen.”

Feeley and two other State Department officials appeared on Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the department’s budgetary priorities for operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuban human rights do seem off the table at the moment—no one is talking about them except exile groups. Citizens’ rights don’t flower automatically from an economic opening, as has been evident in other countries. Most Cuba observers have been busy praising the accords. French President Francois Hollande visited recently,
promoting economic engagement, excoriating the US for past isolationist policies toward Cuba, and failing to meet with dissidents. Meanwhile, Raul chided the US Interests Section in Havana for giving free journalism classes, something he characterized as “illegal” and a violation of sovereignty. Still he must be happy about the increased number of American visitors.
In public, Fidel Castro has always feigned a distain of wealth, intimating that he shares the humble lifestyle and privations of his citizens. However, as stated in my book Confessions,Fidel Castro has accumulated multiple residences, yachts, and vehicles, holds a Swiss bank account, and, according to Forbes, is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.” (p. 18) My own observations have been given detailed corroboration by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, who served as Fidel’s body guard for 17 years and finally escaped the island in 2008. His book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, not only reveals details of the many luxuries the dictator demanded and enjoyed, but shows the lengths he went to hide his private privileges.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, below are the top ten countries of origin of immigrants now living in the U.S., with the percentage each has contributed to the more than 41 million total immigrant population (both documented and undocumented). These ten contribute only a little more than half of the immigrant total, so are not the whole story. While Latin Americans, especially from Mexico, predominate, 20% are from Asia, a growing source of immigrants to the US who tend to be more highly skilled and presumably arrive with visas, since it would be hard to enter from Asia otherwise.

1.    Guatemala: 2%

2.    Dominican Republic: 2%

3.    South Korea: 3%

4.    Cuba: 3%

5.    El Salvador: 3%

6.    Vietnam: 3%

7.    The Philippines: 4%

8.    China: 5%

9.    India: 5%

10. Mexico: 28%

Monday, May 4, 2015

Local Drone Victim, Amnesty Team to Baltimore, PCVs Rally to Aid Nepal, Nepal-Israel Connection, Anti-immigrant South Africans, Cuba, Re-visiting Szulc’s “Fidel,” DR Citizenship (Still), Pope Francis Does It Again, Sanders for President?

¡Feliz Día de 5 de Mayo!
Warren Weinstein, killed accidentally by a US drone strike in Pakistan, was once a Peace Corps staff member and a country director in Togo. Drones are a 2-edged sword, just like anything else. The fact that a gyrocopter could breach airspace around the capitol (blocks from  my house!) probably means that a drone could do the same.
Amnesty International USA called for volunteers for an observer team in Baltimore in light of the riots and unrest there. I was invited to join, but the time commitment was considerable, all weekend and including a prior training session. It would have been interesting to observe the situation and try to work matters out in a peaceful manner with the demonstrators—putting our money where our mouth is--but I reluctantly decided that I already have too much on my plate. Then the riots suddenly turned to celebrations after the indictments against police officers were handed down. It’s exceedingly rare for police to ever actually be found guilty—perhaps the officer in SC who was filmed on a cell phone while firing on a fleeing subject will be the exception. Police do have a tough job—to keep citizens and communities safe while also not being too heavy handed. I’m sure the officers indicted in Baltimore would argue that they were only trying to keep order and especially the black members among them now feel betrayed by an African American mayor and prosecutor (both female). From what little I know about the situation, they do seem to have been negligent and indifferent to the suspect, not strapping him into the police van while he was handcuffed and shackled, but it doesn’t sound like they were actually guilty of murder.
Former Peace Corps volunteers, many who have served in Nepal, have been mobilizing to help
It’s really miraculous that two quake victims were pulled out alive after 5 days, including a 15-year-old Nepali boy rescued by USAID workers. Others were surprisingly pulled out alive after 8 days, including a man age 101, though not sure if USAID was involved in that rescue, but it has taken the lead and has been working round-the-clock in Nepal. USAID, which collaborated with us quietly, often, and usefully in Honduras in the Peace Corps, was vilified as a spy network by Bolivia’s President Morales, who ejected both USAID and the Peace Corps from his country. Rep. Patrick Leahy of Vermont tried relentlessly to tarnish the reputation of USAID in Cuba, not only putting a hold on its funds, but revealing and denouncing its democracy promotion work there. He might say now that he was merely trying to get USAID contractor Alan Gross released and to further US-Cuba rapprochement, but he did real damage to the reputation of an agency that works constantly, effectively, and without fanfare to improve life in other countries.
Israel reportedly airlifted out 25 babies born to Nepali surrogates, along with several contract parents who had gone to Nepal to get their newborns and a few pregnant surrogate mothers. Apparently surrogacy, big business now, had moved to Nepal from Thailand when the latter banned it after a twin with Down was left behind when his sister was taken back to Australia. I’m a board member for a local adoption agency, whose business has shrunk in the wake of the rise of surrogacy (and abortion). However, our director (and now lone employee) does have a peripheral role looking into surrogacy pregnancies in the US, which are much more costly than using overseas surrogates. Still, like their overseas counterparts, most American surrogates, according to our local experience, are low income women—many are African American, though the babies they are carrying are not. They are reportedly paid $10,000- $12,000, plus living and medical expenses. I’m sure Nepali women would charge much less. Still, I would say the money is not enough for the surrogate in either case. Who uses surrogacy? Many would have been adoptive parents in earlier times, such as single or married women who may be older, cannot conceive naturally or carry a baby to term, or who simply don’t want to be pregnant, and single men or gay male couples.
The US is not alone in being a magnet for impoverished and threatened people. Australia and Europe also have their unauthorized migrants, as the recent Mediterranean disasters have shown. Now South Africans have been attacking migrants from poorer and more oppressed nations like Zimbabwe.
Americans Care Little About U.S.-Cuba Relations is the title of an article by Pedro Roig of the University of Miami. He cites several polls showing this to be the case, something not terribly surprising. Even fewer Americans are concerned about anti-Haitian descendant laws in the DR; to the extent that they even are aware of such laws, many Americans may be sympathetic and wish we could do the same to the descendants of certain immigrants to this country. Some Republican Congressmen want to take away birthright citizenship, although not for Sen. Ted, Cruz, actually born in Canada. Because these issues happen to be concerns of mine, blog readers are subjected to them, whether making headlines or not.
I mentioned something unprecedented last time: 2 independent candidates were on municipal election ballots in Cuba. They reportedly lost (was the vote count fair?) and one of them, Hildebrando Chaviano, was subjected to the classic “acto de repudio” whereby gangs of government-organized mobs beat up dissidents—in this case, he was not only physically attacked but called a traitor and a mercenary. The more things change, the more they remain the same. In that series of municipal elections, a record number of voters abstained from voting, even though voting is mandatory. One more item about a changing Cuba: the country is now reportedly importing sugar from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
After the initial euphoria of the Obama/Castro accords, maybe things won’t improve as much as either side had hoped. While the Obama administration plans to remove Cuba from the list of international supporters of terrorism, as a necessary prelude to re-establishing diplomatic relations, a Chinese ship, apparently delivering undeclared arms to the FARC in Colombia (similar to the hidden cargo in a North Korean ship from Cuba a couple of years ago), has now docked in Cuba. Why it went through the Panama Canal and deviated to Colombia if that was not is its destination has not been explained. Furthermore, as Martha Beatriz Roque, a former Amnesty prisoner of conscience, told Diario de Cuba, “They have removed Cuba from the list of international terrorism, but, in domestic terror, the Cuban regime continues being number one,” referring to the savage beatings of about 100 peaceful demonstrators on Sunday, April 26.
Right now, while the situation is still in flux, is the time to try to make changes to actually benefit ordinary Cubans. Perhaps after the embassies are officially re-established, some issues can still be tackled in private. But, I am disheartened that Cuomo went to Cuba and apparently signed a blanket agreement, no questions asked, with the Cuban military, the entity controlling virtually all commerce under General Raul Castro’s mandate, agreeing to contract for employees through that mechanism. That means that all employees must be members of the Communist Party, chosen by the Cuban military, and paid only a few dollars a month, keeping them in poverty, while the military keeps over 90% of the payment for their services. If the US starts down that path now, which other countries’ investors in Cuba have already followed, then most Cubans will not enjoy either economic benefits or political freedom. It would have been great if the end of US-Cuba hostilities could have resulted in an Eastern European type of transition in Cuba, with free expression, free assembly, and even eventual free voting, but that doesn’t look likely in the near term and even an economic opening looks doubtful now.

While perhaps not permitting voting or independent communication, if Cuban citizens such as the Damas, are out marching peacefully, carrying flowers, perhaps the Cuban government could be persuaded to actually protect them, rather than deliberately unleashing militants against them to beat them up (as it also did in Panama).  Doesn’t a government have an obligation (especially in light of increased tourist eyes) to protect all citizens who are not harming anyone else? No longer can it be said that they are agents of the “Empire” since now the Empire is now friend, not foe? Just a thought.

I’d dared hope that Cuba might follow the Chinese and Vietnamese model of opening up economically but not politically, though it will only do so if US investors demand it and don’t just acquiesce, as I guess Cuomo did. Even over time, an economic opening doesn’t necessarily lead to free speech, free assembly, or elections, as we have seen in China lo these many decades after Nixon-to-China. Yet, most Chinese are better off today. They may not be able to freely access the internet, write or speak openly, vote, or organize independently (even world famous artist Ai Wei Wei was imprisoned, subjected to a huge fine, and had his passport confiscated), most couples still are allowed only one child, and political arrests and executions even for property crimes are common, yet Chinese are able to travel, they often study abroad, and China even allows Peace Corps volunteers.  Travelers and investors there have considerable freedom to deal directly with local citizens and to make their own choices (though language is more a barrier there than in Cuba), so if something like that should happen in Cuba, even without free assembly and expression, it would be a definite improvement.

However, US investors need to insist on hiring and paying their own workers as a cost of doing business in Cuba. Perhaps they prefer to use the current established system, as long as it brings them profit—probably from US tourists or other outside sources, since Cuba internally is bereft of resources and produces very little, not even its own food—only cigars and rum, the two items Obama cited that visitors are allowed to bring back. I just spoke with a man with long State Dept. experience now going to Cuba on behalf of an investment group. I tried to persuade him to respectfully explore how both sides can adapt and move toward each other, both in terms of civil rights and economic rights that trickle down to workers, but it sounded as though he was just interested in how much money his investors might make. So, I’m feeling discouraged about both the DR and Cuba, not knowing the administration’s game plan in either case (after voting twice for President Obama).

A blog reader who is also a neighbor passed along to me her massive copy of Fidel (1986), the classic biography by the late Tad Szulc, former NY Times correspondent. I read it almost 30 years ago, when it first came out, and now have re-read it from a more experienced perspective. At over 700 pages, it’s an amazing opus. Szulc had extraordinary access to Fidel Castro, meeting with him numerous times, including right after his victory in 1959. Castro apparently spoke freely and at length with Szulc, enjoying ready access to a US-based writer of his caliber. The result is a biography seen mostly from Castro’s viewpoint. Fidel Castro was certainly imaginative in his tireless scheming to stay in power and to aggravate the United States. Interestingly, early Fidel loyalists who turned against him and often suffered years of imprisonment as a result, are only mentioned in the book in their early days of fighting and working by his side, with nothing said about their later disaffection and expulsion from the inner circle, although that had happened well before the book came out. Take one case from my own book, Confessions, that of Jorge Valls, a philosopher and poet, imprisoned for more than 20 years and released in 1984, partly through my efforts, of whom Szulc says only that Valls introduced Fidel to one of his lovers, Naty Revuelta (p. 231). Likewise, early followers Gustavo Arcos and Jesús Yánez, two others profiled in my book, later became staunch opponents of Fidel and suffered years in prison. But only their early years of loyalty are mentioned by Szulc, although their break with Fidel occurred well before the book’s release. This tends to give a skewed picture of the man and his popularity in the 1980s, even though the collapse of the USSR, Cuba’s patron, had not yet occurred and Fidel was still at the height of his powers and his bravado then, though soon the rug would soon be pulled out from under him with the Soviet implosion.

Certainly Fidel Castro had enjoyed overwhelming support in 1959, but the book overlooks the extent of his internal opposition, evident almost from the very beginning. And Szulc describes the Mariel exodus of 1980 mostly as Castro’s retaliation against remarks made by President Jimmy Carter. But what about Cubans only too eager to leave? Of course, I had ringside seat during Mariel, with my teenage foster son Alex having been forced onto a boat at gunpoint as part of Castro’s vengeful emptying of jails and mental hospitals. However, Szulc had it right when he said of Fidel, “He demands instant response to his slightest whims” (p. 43). Now, ironically, brother Raul has seen an alliance with “the Empire” as the only way to save the Communist Party and the ruling elite. It’s hard to believe that Fidel in his right mind would ever have agreed to such a course, his anti-Americanism was so visceral. I note that Szulc’s reputation as a writer and an international correspondent, as well as his unparalleled access to Fidel Castro, made his book an instant best seller and a definitive resource in its time, even though, in my opinion, his portrait is incomplete and relies too much on Castro’s own words and not enough on independent sources.


All this below has been happening, according to Capitol Hill Cubans-- 24 Apr 2015

 On Sunday, over 50 members of the pro-democracy group, The Ladies in White, were beaten and arrested for displaying pictures of current Cuban political prisoners.

-- Cuban political prisoner, Yuriet Pedroso Gonzalez, is on the 50th day of a hunger strike protesting his unjust imprisonment. His condition is life threatening.

-- Cuban democracy activist, Niober Garcia Fournier, of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) was stabbed by a Castro regime agent. He remains hospitalized.

-- The Castro regime ratified a three-year prison sentence against democracy activist, Mauricio Noa Maceo, for trying to set up a satellite television connection.

-- In Palma Soriano, UNPACU activist Victor Campa was arrested, while Ruben Torres Saiz was detained, then left gagged and tied on top of an ant nest.

-- On Wednesday, more members of The Ladies in White were arrested in order to impede a lunch they had organized to help feed the needy.

-- And today, Castro's security forces stormed Havana's Central Park to stop a small protest by democracy activists. Among those arrested was democracy activist, Wilberto Parada. A visiting Spanish journalist was also arrested.

For hardcore Cuba watchers, here’s a thoughtful and extensive exploration of possible future scenarios:

 A lament now about another country in my Caribbean volunteer sphere for Amnesty International: the Dominican Republic. I’ve mentioned the effort to strip Haitian-born and Haitian-descended people living in the DR of their Dominican citizenship. In an earlier Latin American trip, including to the DR, VP Biden apparently failed to raise the DR citizenship issue although we tried to inform him and his staff in advance. The Obama administration has not responded publicly on this issue and seems to be trying to be non-interventionist and uncritical of other governments, not throwing its weight around, especially in Latin America. Revoking the visas of a few Venezuelan officials is as far it has been willing to go. Maybe it has its hands full with ISIS, Iran, and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the DR’s anti-Haitian policy seems popular with most residents; there is much anti-Haitian feeling among ordinary Dominicans, extending not only to recent immigrants but to their descendants, just as there is anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic feeling among a vociferous segment of the US population. I would guess that in the DR, the majority of non-Haitian people are anti-Haitian, so the court degree revoking the citizenship of Haitian descendants meets with their approval. I do understand that the DR is not a rich country and that it must be hard to cope with migrants from even poorer Haiti. Other Latin American leaders are reluctant to criticize the DR government, just as is the US government. DR civil society groups in the US have joined with Haitian diaspora groups to express disapproval, but the Dominican government has ignored them. Most prominently, on May 4, the New York State Assembly voted on resolution K00376 by Assemblywoman Rodnyse Bichotte (a Haitian name?) condemning the denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent, although the language was watered down after objections from Dominican-born lawmakers. In the end, the resolution was not presented on May 4, as scheduled.  Amnesty International issued the following statement, to be added to the record in Albany:

Amnesty International USA welcomes the [NY State Assembly] resolution and
calls on all members of the Assembly to stand in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been stripped of their nationality.
        The story of Yolanda, whose parents were Haitian, is typical of the stories of discrimination faced daily by those of Haitian descent. Yolanda is a survivor of domestic violence, but was denied the right to lodge a complaint and file for child support because she didn’t have an identity card. Yolanda’s children, though born in the Dominican Republic, were denied birth certificates because of their Haitian ancestry. She is unable to register her children in the civil registry.
        Amnesty International USA has been campaigning on behalf of Yolanda, and her family as well as the hundreds of thousands of similarly-situated Dominicans to end the stateless crisis. AIUSA welcomes the resolution in the New York State Assembly and urges its members to stand in solidarity with all those in the Dominican Republic who are facing discrimination and statelessness.

As a Catholic, I must again salute Pope Francis for cleaning up the Vatican bank, among his other reforms. The man continues to surprise.
In the unlikely event that Bernie Sanders should actually win the Democratic presidential nomination, I would vote for him; he’s a principled and refreshingly colorful character. But then, barring something unforeseen, I would vote for any Democratic nominee, even Hillary, so that's not much comfort to anti-Hillary folks. There are certainly troubling questions about donations to the Clinton Foundation during Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state, as, indeed, there are about Jeb Bush and his speaking fees. Is it possible to be totally honest, that is, both truthful and financially clean, and still win in politics? The only Democrat I absolutely wouldn't vote for is Patrick Leahy because, as mentioned before, he was much too manipulative and blatantly self-serving, hogging undeserved credit during the whole Cuba rapprochement to the detriment of the Cuban people. All politicians are self-serving, almost by definition, but I had been watching him more closely. Sanders will make an interesting contrast to Hillary and raise important issues, which he can afford to do because he has nothing to lose and only the bully pulpit to gain. And Hillary might also welcome the chance to face a rival who isn’t a genuine threat, spicing up an otherwise lackluster Democratic race.