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.

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