Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Grave Robbing, Navigating Metro’s Silver Line, Cosby’s Art Collection, President Trump?, Mexico, Guatemala, Hasidic Jews, Iran Deal, A-Bomb Anniversary, South Sudan, No. Korea, DR, Haiti, Cuba, Cecil, Decriminalizing Prostitution

This fluffy little toy llama, from Carlos, a recent house guest from Peru, now sits on my living room mantel.

For reasons too complicated to explain here, I transferred some wooded acreage with a log cabin, pond, and river frontage in rural Virginia to my daughter Stephanie living in Hawaii, who is now selling it. When my 4 kids were young, I used to take them and our black lab Claire up there on weekends, once even with Claire’s 8 purebred puppies (her first and last litter), who, at a few weeks of age, followed her in a straight line as she swam out in the pond, like so many ducklings swimming behind their mother. The pups were born knowing how to swim! But now, with no car and little time, I rarely go there anymore. A complication of the sale has been that my son Andrew, who died in 1994, is buried there—or rather, his urn of ashes brought back from his Fort Lauderdale home, was buried there, resting under a granite headstone bearing a quote from Walt Whitman about someone's ashes under foot: “I stop some where waiting for you.” I do feel he is waiting somewhere for me. (His birthday is coming up next month.)
So, with the sale pending, I went up there with my daughter Melanie and granddaughter Natasha to unearth the urn and take the gravestone. They also wanted a set of bunk beds for my 7-year-old great-grandson De’Andre. Although the stone was very heavy, we brought it back, but after digging a 4-foot square, 2-foot deep hole around the stone’s location, we couldn’t find the metal urn. Apparently, underground items can migrate over the years—or maybe we didn’t go deep enough. We decided to leave the urn there, in a place that Andrew loved. So, we came back with only the gravestone. I’ve contacted the historic Congressional Cemetery near my home and plots are still available there, so I could buy one for my son and myself. Also, it’s not required to have any actual remains buried beneath a headstone.
I must apologize to readers for the length of this and some previous postings, promising more brevity in the future. Sometimes just thinking through these matters and putting all that down on paper helps me clarify my own position, so hope it helps readers as well. Or maybe I have my fingers in too many pies and should prioritize my thoughts and actions.
Recently, walking in my Capitol Hill neighborhood, overheard a conversation between a frantic mom catching up with her pre-teen daughter who had crossed a street on a skateboard without permission, not exactly scolding her but saying, “Please don’t do that; it’s definitely not cool.”
My former visitor from Kenya, from the same ancestral village as President Obama’s Kenyan family, has reported that, “We had a good time with Obama,” without giving details. He had been anxious to get home in time to meet the president.
I went out to the end of the metro system’s new silver line, Wiehle–Reston, for the first time to meet my granddaughter Natasha. Everything at that station looks fresh and new, no gum stains on the platform yet. Going straight out to the left through a very long tunnel, I found a staircase down to the street, but no Natasha. Going out on the long right-hand tunnel yielded office buildings, but nothing else. I finally located her down an out-of-the-way escalator back on the left side with tiny lettering above a glass enclosure, saying “Kiss & Ride, Buses.” A sign pointing to the escalator would have been helpful. On my way back to DC, I saw a group of guys selling barbeque and sides from an ambulatory grill outside the top of the escalator and bought a dinner in a Styrofoam container to take home. When I got home, I was surprised and somewhat annoyed to get an e-mail message, presumably because my credit card is linked to my e-mail address, asking what I thought of the food and service. I did not answer, not wanting to encourage such connections. We already know there is no privacy in the digital age! My sister and several friends my own age refuse to have internet in part because of that.
Some 9,000 Central American kids from last summer’s surge are reported living in the DC area, most still in legal limbo, but at least with their parents for the time being. I met some parents when working as an interpreter at DC schools last fall. My work in schools over the last 10 years  became  temporarily suspended in January when the new mayor, Muriel Bowser (for whom I voted), took office and put in place a number of requirements for anyone working in DC schools in any capacity, including a clear TB test. That involves an easy skin test for most people, but, for me, requires a chest x-ray, since my test is always positive, something I was resisting getting. Well, I finally had it and, of course, don’t have TB, so I’m hoping to return to DC schools in the fall.
When the Smithsonian made arrangements with Bill Cosby and his wife to display their private art collection, Cosby’s sex scandal had not broken, but when it did, a sign went up at the exhibit saying this was an art display and not a commentary on his guilt or innocence.  The exhibit has remained, but has become controversial.
Is President Donald Trump even a possibility? The idea sounds absurd, but really scary. The American electorate is fickle and ignorant, but not quite to that extent in the aggregate. Surely most people would come to their senses? In fact, maybe they are already tiring of Trump’s antics.
In the wake of the Republican presidential candidates’ debates, I would wager that if the Republicans would agree to stop deportations of undocumented persons without offering them a path to citizenship (thereby preventing them from becoming future voters), most would be OK with that. Citizenship is obtainable only through a long, expensive, and arduous process, and many legal residents never attempt it. It would probably be enough for the undocumented that their US-born children could carry on and for members of their family not to fear being abruptly and arbitrarily deported.
On this 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I remember being horrified even as child that such bombs had been dropped on a civilian population, not once, but twice, which forever tarnished my opinion of President Truman’s legacy. According to General Eisenhower: “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Then why were the bombs dropped? Apparently, according to the consensus of historians, to impress the Soviets with the power of nuclear weapons.
In South Sudan, Amnesty International requests the support in highlighting the urgency of international action in bringing an end to the protracted conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile that has led to a human rights and humanitarian crisis (in the very area I visited in 2006).
Sukarno’s daughter, heading up a foundation bearing her father’s name, with a straight face, has awarded the foundation’s peace and justice prize to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi are previous recipients. Maybe Kim will try to live up to their example?
I’m curious as to how and why Hasidic Jews have settled in NYC rather than Israel, an environment not always hospitable to them, as some are finding out when their apartment buildings have moved to electronic keys for front-door entry, something forbidden for them to use on the Sabbath.  
I don’t have enough inside information and understanding about the Iran deal to comment in detail, though I tend to think, on balance, that it’s better than the status quo. Is it the best possible deal imaginable? Probably that’s not obtainable. No doubt, there are elements of the Iranian leadership that would annihilate Israel if they could, but would squelching this deal make that less likely? I don’t really know. It’s a truism—and also true—that every agreement or decision has pros and cons, risks and benefits, and, of course, different stakeholders. No decision outcome carries a 100% guarantee—whether on a personal level, such as in marrying a given partner, having children, or buying a home—or on a larger community, statewide, national, or international level.
In a Peace Corps magazine, an article recently appeared about a same-sex female couple who served together in Ecuador, though without revealing their relationship to local people, although the Peace Corps brass did know. That must have been a Peace Corps first.
 Ex-Peace Corps volunteers unite for U.S. action on Dominican immigration policies
By Mariano Castillo, CNN, Aug. 10, 2015
While the Dominican government seems to have backtracked somewhat on its threat to expel all those of Haitian descent by a certain deadline, many people remain without the papers needed for school or work.  
Haiti’s President Michel Martelly was speaking at a rally July 29 when a woman accused his government of incompetence and complained that it failed to bring electricity to her community. Video broadcast by Haitian media show the president telling her in Haitian Creole to "go get a man and go in the bushes" to have sex. Many in the crowd at the nighttime rally erupted in cheers and laughs at his remarks. A presidential spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Loss of the three officials as the result of Martelly’s remarks is unlikely to affect the outgoing president's ability to govern or the remainder of his term.
Has the international community failed Haiti?
By Owen Bennett-Jones BBC News
7 August 2015
Carlos, a member of our local Amnesty International Group 211 from Mexico, gave us a somewhat gloomy assessment of the rule of law, corruption, and the hold of the drug trade there, a trade fed mostly by demand from our side of the border, no surprise. About half of the country is controlled by cartels, he said, raising the murder rate and inculcating a sense of insecurity and fear among the populace. Journalists and human rights advocates are particularly targeted and at-risk.
The retrial of former Guatemalan strongman General Rios Montt was delayed again. At July’s hearing, the Tribunal decided that a new diagnosis of his health was needed (the prosecutors alleged that the diagnosis presented by the defense was not accurate).  Therefore, the Tribunal stated that Rios Montt should be send to a state mental institution and get a new diagnosis. An appeal was filed by the defense and, up to now, he remains at his house.
Almost 700 political arrests were made in Cuba in July. Since the accords were signed, such arrests have increased, but are no longer considered news.
U.S., Cuba Hold First Formal Talks on Human Rights
by Wochit  
The United States and Cuba met on Tuesday [August 4, 2015] to discuss how they intend to treat future dialogue on the thorny issue of human rights as the countries move toward restoring diplomatic ties. The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the State Department's assistant secretary for human rights and democracy. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and law at the ministry of foreign affairs, led the Cuban side. A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba."
It would be great but unlikely if some peaceful dissidents were invited to the formal opening of the US embassy in Havana by Sec. Kerry on August 14, rumored to be Fidel’s birthday. Already, independent journalists who have applied to cover the event have not been approved. If an opposition figure should actually be present, it would be a big surprise, sure to infuriate the Cuban leadership, though it would be awkward for them to pull out of the deal now. Probably the US won’t attempt that at this delicate juncture. The prospects for free association and expression do not look good in Cuba, but they didn’t look good either before the US-Cuba accords. Now, at least, “the Empire” (the regime’s label for the US) should no longer be blamed for Cuban dissidence. I think the main reason the US sought diplomatic relations with Cuba, apart from freeing hostage Alan Gross, was because our policy was condemned around the world, especially in Latin America, and Obama wanted to attend the Summit of the Americas last April, which he did. The accords took much of the wind out of the sails of Maduro and others who ranted continually against the US. With Cuba and the US having diplomatic relations, one of their main talking points was lost. I’ll bet some invitees at the recent opening of the Cuban Embassy were not in particular favor with Washington.  If most Cuban citizens actually support “the Revolution,” what is there to fear from a few dissidents?
One way for the new embassy to partially redeem itself would be to invite independent journalists to some sort of alternative event or forum, perhaps featuring a frank discussion on the embassy's relationship with them now after the accords and getting their suggestions on how to navigate the relationship going forward. I'm wondering how such matters are handled in China and Viet Nam--are opposition figures ever invited to the embassy or are human rights concerns just mentioned in private diplomatic conversations (which may have little or no effect)? The Pope's visit will probably result in some political prisoners being released, but not much else. It's hard to see how Cuban dissidents will be supported now--European sources may be the best hope.
As the Cuban ration book shrinks, some areas are only dispensing oil, rice, and sugar. A person might not starve with that, but it’s hardly a nutritious and balanced diet.  The idea is to get US-based relatives to send more money to spend for food from government dollar stores.  Those without relatives abroad are out of luck.
Perhaps if USAID and the US government pull back assistance and moral support to Cuban civil society, Cuban activists will redouble their independent efforts? Cubans are inventive and spend their lives skirting strictures. For example, because of punishing tariffs for internet usage, Cubans have found ways to share a single connection wirelessly with cell phones. Of course, stealing from state industries is still universal, but since such industries are shrinking, opportunities now are fewer.
The Cuban regime has begun courting gay tourists from the US and elsewhere, funneling them into government-approved  facilities and tours, all no doubt, bearing the imprimatur of First Daughter Mariela Castro.
As a lifelong Democrat, I am concerned that presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has declared herself in favor of lifting the remaining embargo against Cuba, apparently unconditionally, a position popular with most voters who don’t realize or do not believe that the Castro government is a repressive regime. Lifting it under certain conditions would be OK, but already enough of Cuban citizens’ freedoms have been sacrificed on the altar of rapprochement, so it should be fully lifted only in exchange for additional freedoms for ordinary Cubans, not just benefits for the political elite or members of the Communist Party or even of American tourists. Other nations’ leaders have been castigated for far less than what the Cuban leadership is doing, including some in Africa by President Obama during his recent visit there, calling out African presidents who have served multiple terms. What about 56 years in Cuba? I understand that Obama wanted diplomatic relations with Cuba because US policy, rightly or wrongly, was universally condemned, especially by Latin American leaders. Secondarily, an apparently suicidal Alan Gross was freed in the deal, but many other American hostages around the world have not been so lucky.
Most people everywhere not close to the situation have bought into the very successful narrative disseminated by the Cuban leadership (and the NYTimes) that US policy is to blame for brave little Cuba’s economic woes, notwithstanding that Cuba trades with nations around the world and hosts tourists from everywhere, with the US sending the most visitors there from any country if family visits are also counted. And families bring goods and cash to their relatives in Cuba, often paying exorbitant duties on the gift items. Remittances from the US are a major source of hard currency, most of it going to the Cuban military and political elite through sales at marked-up prices at government dollar stores. To have the embargo lifted unconditionally without requiring any concessions from Cuba in terms of its own people’s human rights and economic freedoms is to give up what little leverage the US still has and merely entrenches the current leadership and may visit harm on ordinary Cubans, especially Afro-Cubans, who are the bottom of the heap. Cuba is an oppressive  police state that not only impedes its citizens’ economic wellbeing, funneling all income from abroad through its military and the Castro family, with very little trickle-down, but that prevents free association and communication among the majority of its citizens—never mind actual voting. Free internet was even turned down by the leadership.
I know Amnesty International’s policy is to oppose all embargoes, but what other leverage exists? Or does the US just give up on human rights in Cuba, as Americans seem to have done regarding some other regimes, and simply aim for economic development, which would still be an improvement for many Cubans who have never known political freedoms anyway? However, as China’s rulers are finding out, it’s hard to mix a more capitalist and competitive economy with a closed, controlled political system. And China’s citizens are becoming more restless now, generations on under their political strictures, especially those who have traveled or studied abroad and have seen how other governments function.
The Cuban Catholic Church is the only institution in Cuba that operates semi-autonomously from the government. What about a meeting of US officials with the papal nuncio? It does seem that Pope Francis will have a chance to speak on behalf of greater freedom of association and expression--also to have some political prisoners released. His Cuba schedule:
Sunday, Sept. 20
— Celebrates Mass in Revolution Square in Havana.
— Visits with state leaders, religious men and women, youth.
Monday, Sept. 21
— Celebrates Mass in Holguin.
Tuesday, Sept. 22
— Celebrates Mass in the minor Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Santiago.
— Meets families in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Asuncion, Santiago.
I don’t really understand the need for personal firearms (here in DC, a little boy just killed a little girl with a gun he found), but do recognize that some feel the need to carry guns to protect themselves from other people or possibly from animals that may attack them in the wild. However, the appeal of trophy hunting and fishing is a complete mystery to me. Why kill magnificent creatures—some endangered--that have survived every natural challenge just to be able to stuff them, insert glass eyes, and put them on display? What are the bragging rights there? It’s an unfair fight. Is shooting  animals or, in the case of giant fish, hooking and hauling them in, thus ending their natural life, something to celebrate? If a rare multicolored lobster or giant octopus is caught by accident, it’s enough just to take some photos, throw it back, and put the episode  on You-Tube. That’s fame enough. If people kill animals or fish to eat, that’s one thing, but killing a lion king is not for eating. Luring a protected lion out of his habitat and killing him is considered sport? Even worse is killing a half-tame lion in a private reserve, like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m glad that Minnesota dentist lion hunter had to shut down his business because of protests and if he makes the lion’s skin into a rug or hangs its head up on a wall, he’d better display it in a secret locale.
Perhaps the death of Cecil the Lion will lead to a prohibition on big game hunting, especially of rare or endangered species. I’m well aware that such hunting expeditions do afford an income to some local people, but perhaps more might be employed in non-lethal safaris (in which I have participated) and in wildlife protection. Now, we hear that the killing of Cecil has been compounded by the reported killing of his brother or best pal, thought to be guarding the lioness and cubs he left behind, although there has been dispute about the veracity of details about that second killing. Apparently, another male lion in the vicinity was killed by another American after Cecil, but may not have been associated with him. Added to lion killing is the senseless the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, butchered in the mistaken belief of mostly Asian males that ingestion of powdered tinctures enhance virility—they should try Viagra instead, much more effective!
Amnesty International, where I have been a volunteer activist since 1981, has really opened up a hornets’ nest by tackling the issue of prostitution and deciding it should be decriminalized as a transaction between consenting adults. Maybe if you are with Eliot Spitzer, that’s the case, but surely that’s the exception. There may be a few others. A professional single woman at an association where I once worked enjoyed making extra money and sharing fun evenings and sexual adventures with well-heeled men by moonlighting as a high-end escort after hours. That was before the internet was in widespread use, so I don’t know how she met her “johns.” What percentage of prostitutes fall into that elite category and is it worth promoting the idea of consensual prostitution to protect them from arrest or reprobation? Do such women even need protection? The line between consensual and coerced sex—even implied coercion because of unequal economic circumstances— is really not so clear.
Amnesty’s pending consideration of the issue was discussed in TIME (Aug. 17, 2015) and the policy was approved at an international meeting https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/global-movement-votes-to-adopt-policy-to-protect-human-rights-of-sex-workers/
While there may be exceptions, I do think the sex trade worldwide is very exploitative of women and rarely a free and equal contract among consenting adults.  However, the new Amnesty policy does not identify prostitution as a human right, but affirms that sex workers have rights. (Yes, that should include the right not be engaged in such work.)
Making Life Harder for Pimps, Nicolas Kristof
[Excerpts] The Nordic model to combat trafficking and exploitation, pioneered in Sweden, has been gaining ground, too. It provides for the arrest of johns while offering help rebuilding the lives of women who were selling sex. Nothing works all that well in curbing sex trafficking, but this model has succeeded better than other approaches.
Yet in some quarters, there’s still a myopia about the degree to which this is a human rights issue. Amnesty International will consider a proposal in the coming days that would call for full decriminalization of the sex trade, including for johns, on the theory that this would benefit sex workers. Nice theory, but a failed one. It has been tried repeatedly and it invariably benefited johns while exacerbating abuse of women and girls: A parallel underground market emerges for underage girls. Let’s hope Amnesty comes to its senses and, as Swanee Hunt of Harvard put it, avoids “endorsing one of the most exploitative human rights abuses of our time.”

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