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.

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