Tuesday, July 28, 2015

New Baby, Visitors Go Home, Nephew & Family, New Citizen, Harper Lee, Jorge Valls, Obama’s Press Conference, Netanyahu, Donald Trump, No. Korea, DR, Haiti, Cuba, Building Museum Exhibit, Gun Control

Son Jonathan, his wife Kit, and their family welcomed my new grandson Kingston, born in Honolulu, 7 lbs. 13 oz. (See photos.)

After the graduation ceremony for GAO fellows from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, food was served but since it was still Ramadan, observant Muslims took some in plastic containers to eat after sundown.  A fellow from the UAE had brought his wife and toddler daughter to accompany him during the entire course, as someone from that country could afford to do. When other male fellows tried to shake the wife’s hand after the ceremony, she smiled and shrank back, as apparently a Muslim woman should not touch a man other than her husband. I remember in Thailand traveling with my daughter Stephanie that Buddhist monks also went to great lengths to avoid physical contact with women, not only not shaking hands with us, but writing their names down on a piece of paper not handed to us directly, but set down for us to pick up. These practices may seem puzzling or amusing to us but are dead serious for their practitioners.
My African visitors have now departed, with the man from Kenya anxious to get back before President Obama’s arrival there, expecting to see him as their families hail from the same ancestral village.  (In photos,

they’re sitting down below my 3rd-floor home office on the front porch with a friend on the evening before their departure.)  

Nephew Bryan, actually my nephew via my late former husband, was visiting DC from Oregon with his family, as per photo. I remember first seeing him when he came home from the hospital after being born.

Priscila Rodriguez, a friend from Mexico who once stayed at my house and met her husband through me, recently became a US citizen. Some 110 new citizens swearing in with her were from 49 countries, with Ethiopia having the largest representation. Her father came from Mexico for the ceremony.

I remembered my son Colombian-born Jon's citizenship ceremony when he was 4 years old.

Harper Lee, almost 90 and in assisted living, may have dementia, which would explain why she did not appear in person to sign copies of her newly published book, sold by a bookstore in her very own home town. Does she even know about the publication, something that has happened after the recent death of her older sister who acted as her guardian and protector? From reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, the consensus seems to be, despite the hype, that the book is a real mish-mash, a sort of first draft of what became the best-selling To Kill A Mockingbird. The original Mockingbird may have benefited from the editorial assistance often rendered by publishing houses in a bygone era. There have been no reported sightings of the reclusive, elderly Ms. Lee, nor any live interviews to ask her what she thinks about the publication or if she even knows about it. But seeing dollar signs and after crafting a worldwide publicity campaign, the publisher pushed full speed ahead, promoting at least a temporary selling frenzy, though risking tarnishing Lee’s literary reputation in the process. Hope Lee gets something out of it herself, reflected glory or money, though my experience as I get older is that money and glory are not as important to an older individual as they once were.

Obviously, all those who live long enough begin to grow older and, with age, come inevitable debilities and health problems, no matter how good our heredity, diet, exercise habits, health care, and environment, with death coming at the end. If that sounds fatalistic, it is. Even if we continue to prolong the average lifespan, something is going to end each and every life. That’s the only thing that is 100% certain. Even a future individual living, say, to age 150, is going to experience systems failures or an unfortunate accident.

Even now, accidents combine with frailties to hasten death. But one man who has beaten the odds several times over is my good friend Jorge Valls, profiled in my Cuba book. Jorge, now age 81, survived more than 20 years as a Cuban political prisoner under dreadful and punishing conditions and with a grossly inadequate diet. Since his release from prison in 1984, after a campaign in which I participated, he has had no visible means of support, but has always found people eager to take him in. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which is usually fatal in short order, but he survived it. When I last saw him in Miami in March, on my annual return from Honduras, he was rail-thin and recovering from an elbow fracture sustained in a fall. A friend confided that although Jorge was getting Meals-on-Wheels, he was touching hardly anything on his plate. Recently, Jorge went up to NJ, where he sometimes teaches a philosophy course as an adjunct in a local college (he is fluent in English, also French).  While there, he fell and broke a hip, requiring surgery. I spoke with him recently in the hospital, where he was doing well, in good spirits, with discomfort but no pain, and taking a few steps from bed to bathroom (very carefully, I trust). He was planning to go to a rehab facility. He has taken this newest calamity in stride, like everything else in his life, and, so far, has come out the other side. My thoughts and prayers are with him.

Hearing Pres. Obama fielding questions at his most recent press conference, I was struck by the fact, whatever one’s opinion of the decisions made by his administration, that he is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful guy who can think on his feet. His performance makes an especially stark contrast with that of his predecessor, George W., whose tongue and mind usually became garbled and confused at press conferences—though Bush continues to make big bucks on the Republican talk circuit.

It’s an obvious truism that no decision about foreign or domestic affairs is perfect and problem-free—every decision is a gamble involving risks as well as benefits. A president and most of the rest of us endeavor to choose the best course of action available at the least cost, weighing pros and cons, and making an effort to reduce unnecessary bloodshed and conflict.  Of course, a minority of individuals, including some national leaders, deliberately create mischief and mayhem, but Obama does not appear to be among them. Saying that does not mean that I agree with every decision he has made nor how he has gone about it. But I also know that any course of action, political or otherwise, does not have a 100% certain outcome. As mentioned, the death of each and every one of us is about the only absolute certainty that we confront.

Netanyahu is right—the guarantee against Iran getting a nuclear weapon is not ironclad and never could be, but Obama believes we got the best deal available. Hypothetically, what if Iran actually did get a nuclear weapon? Does that mean an automatic attack on Israel? Obama is trying to de-escalate Middle East tensions and may or may not be successful, but perhaps a less belligerent and defensive Israel might actually be safer? And there are other nuclear powers who may have gotten leverage from their weapons, but who have not actually used them lately, including North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel itself, as well as the US, UK, France, Russia, and China. South Africa dismantled its arsenal. Of course, adding more members to the nuclear club is not desirable, but if Iran actually acquired a nuclear weapon in the future, would that necessarily imply a mortal threat to Israel? Maybe Netanyahu truly believes it would or is he only trying to gain political capital by crying “wolf” and playing on his citizens’ fears, allying with US Republican lawmakers?

If Donald Trump has been trying to get attention, he’s certainly gotten it and has appealed to a core Republican constituency with his inflammatory and insulting remarks about Mexicans, war hero John McCain, and others. Whether he says such things just to get publicity or whether he actually believes them is an irrelevant question. He’s having fun thumbing his nose at the political establishment and many people gleefully identify with his daring. It’s scary to think that his “frank” talk, expressing the opinions of some disgruntled voters, might actually propel him into office. He has a blustery, outsized personality—in some ways like that of Fidel Castro, who through sheer force of will, outrageous demands, and ruthlessness managed to stay in power over a lifetime. Apparently Trump’s financial success is also due to his blustery personality and extreme risk-taking, with most risks turning out in his favor. Gambling on a course of action is a precursor to luck, which can go either way—a lot of luck has gone Trump’s way, but let’s hope his luck has turned. Donald Trump, vowing after the Mexican drug Kingpin’s prison escape to “kick El Chapo’s Ass,” called the FBI to report receiving a threatening message apparently from El Chapo on Twitter—not so lucky there. What if Trump actually wins the Republican nomination and wins the presidency?

How do they do it? What a unified nation! North Korea has reported 99.97% participation in elections, with the same percentage voting “yes” for uncontested party candidates. There apparently weren’t any “no” votes—was that even an option? Only very ill people or those out of the country apparently failed to vote, accounting for the .03% gap. Cuba, with more than 90% voting participation, comes close, but lately, more blank ballots have been turned in there.

There have been anti-corruption protests in Honduras:


The citizenship question for Haitian-descended Dominicans is continuing:

·         Haiti fires ambassador to D.R. amid immigration crisis

The Haitian government fired its ambassador to Santo Domingo, Daniel Supplice, for not "appropriately" defending the country amid the current crisis (Fox News)
Taking a page from the DR Haitian-descendants’ citizenship crisis, Texas denies birth certificates to at least 4 Texas-born children of undocumented mothers.

Cuba still on my mind and in the news

 Google offered Cubans free internet, but the government nixed the idea:

From Newsweek, July 17, 2015--A top Cuban Communist Party official says he is skeptical about any low-cost or free offers to increase Internet access for the island nation, despite the country's notoriously low Internet penetration rate. Only 5 percent of Cubans have regular access to the Internet, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization. About 25 percent of the population has access to the country's intranet, which hosts mostly pro-government websites. José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second-highest ranking member of the Communist Party of Cuba, behind President Raúl Castro, said in an interview with the daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde that "the whole world knows that there is no Internet in Cuba because it has a high cost.... There are some people who want to give it to us for free, but not for Cuban people to communicate but to penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest."
The message that the Cuban government turned down free internet for the island should be disseminated throughout Cuba, though that's hard to do without internet and with strict censorship.

During recent revolutionary commemorations, Cuba has reportedly toned the anti-Yankee rhetoric. Indeed, that was already happening even before the accords and. In recent years, Marx and Lenin’s images have faded and are no longer displayed in military parades. Is that a sign of progress? Cubans tell me that the day the US Embassy is due to formally open, Aug. 14, is Fidel Castro’s birthday.

Half of the Cuban men's field hockey team defected to the United States. It’s unlikely that they are seeking lucrative field hockey contracts. A total of 28 Cuban athletes deserted during the Pan American Games held in Canada. The number of Cuban rafters caught by the US Coast Guard and returned to Cuba keeps rising. In 2010, it was only 210. So far this year, it’s about 2,500. Many more Cubans, thanks to help from US-based relatives, are flying to Ecuador, which does not require them to have visas. Some stay there and many others make the arduous and dangerous overland trek north—thousands are passing through Honduras. These Cubans know that the “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy may soon end, as lawmakers from both parties are arguing for its demise.

Legislative staffers say Cuban officials have made it clear that if Congress members or other US government representatives meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking Cuban officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba who has met with U.S. politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. (AP)

Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter, has called opposition figures “A little group of ignoramuses.” Of course, they are small in numbers because of severe repression. If they could get their message out there, there might be a groundswell of support among the population, especially for a change in leadership.

The Cuba accords, like those with Iran, are trying to establish mutual trust, but in that effort, are human rights being ignored? So far, in Cuba, that appears to be the case. Is Washington just waiting for the right time to start gradually pressing this topic or will we go the way in Cuba that we have with other regimes, where little or no progress has been made? Maybe the US has given up on that fight?

See http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/us-diplomats-in-cuba-would-do-well-to-focus-on-human-rights/2015/07/20/ad4c0f3e-aba4-455d-883d-74fc96b4c1fb_story.html?hpid=z7

From the article: “The United States has diplomatic relations with many authoritarian governments that flout human rights, including China, Saudi Arabia and Russia.” Yes, and little HR progress has been made in those countries. On Russia, you might even say that there has been regression.

Though it's not likely to happen, it would be great if Leahy or even Kerry, when he opens the embassy, invites or meets with dissidents. What would the Cuban regime do then? Cancel the deal? State Dept. negotiator Roberta Jacobson talked with them, but now she’s off to become ambassador to Mexico. Maybe she can do more for Cuba from that vantage point.

A CBS News poll just this week showed that 81% of the American people support ending the Cuba travel ban, including 71% of Republicans.

NEW YORK (July 22, 2015) – To mark the third anniversary of the death of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) published a legal report today highlighting the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of the official government investigation following Payá’s death in 2012.
Police were reportedly called by the new Cuban Embassy when Payá’s daughter arrived there to deliver a letter.

The NYTimes, which has aggressively editorialized to support the US-Cuba accords and praised Cuba at every turn, now seems to have backtrack after the Cuban flag was actually raised over the embassy in Washington (July 21, 2015): "It would be naïve to expect that the Cuban government, a dynastic police state, will take big steps in the near future to liberalize its centrally planned economy, encourage private enterprise or embrace pluralistic political reforms. In fact, in the face of potentially destabilizing change and high expectations at home, Cuban officials may be tempted to tighten state controls in the short term."

Reportedly, in a conversation in Havana, Che asked Fidel Castro, “Do you think we’ll ever re-establish diplomatic relations with the Yankees?” Fidel is said to have replied, “That will be the day when the president of the United States is black and the pope is an Argentinian like you.”

The Cuban Five, the men convicted as spies in a US court, with the three who remained being exchanged for Alan Gross (though that was officially denied), were invited to tour El Salvador. At the same time, prominent Cuban dissidents who arrived in that country were detained without explanation.

Pres. Obama agreed to reestablish relations with Cuba to free Alan Gross and to obtain better relations with Latin America and the world by getting rid of a policy that was universally condemned and had cast the US in the posture of an international bully and also to aid the Cuban people economically and, presumably, to start off a process of internal change that could lead to a gradual peaceful non-violent democratic transition. Unfortunately, Cuban repression has increased since the accords, both because dissidents are more active, testing the waters, and because the regime wants to tamp down their efforts forcefully and definitively. Maybe the Pope's visit will afford some temporary relief?
I had hoped that quiet diplomacy through the Cuban and US embassies might help, but the record of China and Vietnam is not promising in that regard. While the US routinely submits its human rights concerns and the names of political prisoners to those governments, little or nothing happens. And while there is some internet access, it's controlled and blocked. Even Hong Kong, despite China's promises when the territory was returned, has been thwarted in its democracy efforts.

The Cuban embargo is not likely to be relaxed further in the near term, but that hasn't prevented a record number of Americans from traveling to Cuba already this year (including a group of former Peace Corps volunteers). Most of them are unaware of or uninterested in the human rights abuses committed there; most Americans and certainly citizens of other countries have approved the accords and buy into the narrative that the US was bullying a benevolent and progressive Cuban government on ideological grounds, due to the excessive influence of the Cuban American lobby.

However, both Chinese and Vietnamese citizens have enjoyed more economic freedom and prosperity in the last decades and that may be all that's obtainable now for Cuba--and for most Cubans, that will be enough. Would it have been otherwise without the agreement? We will never know. This is the path that was taken. We live in an imperfect world. Of course, we shouldn't be resigned to the status quo in Cuba or any other nation, including the USA, but it's a continuing struggle, just like anything else in life. Perhaps, over generations, more freedoms will evolve in Cuba and those Asian countries, but none of us is likely to live to see the day.

After the embassies are in place, we can only hope that that discreet negotiations will tackle Cuban human rights abuses, which seem to have become more numerous and harsher since the accords. Certainly private negotiations on human rights are the approach being taken with Saudi Arabia, China, and Vietnam, though with little visible effect. The new State Dept. report on human rights in Cuba frankly admits the many violations by the government taking place there.
A Cuban former economist, who never has come out publicly against the Cuban government and still has friends within the official bureaucracy, warns that any further unconditional lifting of the embargo could well turn out to be counterproductive. He claims, "It will strengthen the Castro dictatorship, making it possible for the small group that runs the country to enrich itself, buy more property, and fatten its bank accounts abroad and pass on its command over the island's government and economy to a new generation of offspring after both brothers pass on."
As a lifelong Democrat and two-time Obama voter, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt on Cuba, but really have no idea what the Administration's game plan might be on Cuban human rights or whether there is no particular plan, just a focus on economic engagement, which is what most interests the Cuban government. Likewise, I'm not sure about our stance now as human rights’ activists --just to keep trying to use moral suasion on human rights?

If Obama gives any more away, lifting restrictions on the embargo without getting adequate reforms in return, then what he will achieve will turn out to be counterproductive. As the Cuban former economist mentioned above puts it, He will strengthen the Castro dictatorship, make it possible for the small group that runs the country to enrich itself, buy more property, and fatten its bank accounts abroad and pass on its command over the island's government and economy to a new generation of offspring after both brothers pass on. I favor negotiation as an instrument that will help to further democratic change and the development of a private sector within the island. But the Castro regime must not be allowed to use its control over the island to enrich the descendants of its ruling circle making them, not only, the permanent rulers of the island but its neobourgeoisie as well. The problem that the Obama administration faces is how to accomplish what it seeks instead of reinforcing the parasitic control that the mayimbocracia now wields over the island and its people.
Changing subjects: while passing through the air conditioned National Building Museum from the Judiciary Square metro station to GAO, where my visitors were graduating from their government auditing program, I heard a great commotion behind high walls and saw crowds with small children waiting in line. At the suggestion of a museum guard, I went up to the 2nd floor and looked down on the huge central hall exhibit of “The Beach,” indeed looking very much like a beach where parents sat under umbrellas and children frolicked in “water” made of tiny transparent balls. They really looked like they were swimming. A hefty entrance fee was being required and I was told there was no limit on time spent. I guess if you cannot go to a real beach, this is the next best thing, certainly a novelty and apparently very popular. Who would have had such an unlikely idea and the means to carry it out? I was told the exhibit will remain all summer.

It’s become increasingly apparent that a new system is needed to reduce the access of dangerous and disgruntled people to guns. Sorry NRA, the current system is not working.

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