Saturday, November 7, 2015


Friends, readers, faithful blog followers, mea culpa for having gone so long without a posting. Life is just too complicated! I thought of breaking this up into several separate postings, but that would take even more time, so here goes, all at once, though divided into topics.  

First, my good friend Jorge Valls, Cuban philosophy professor, poet, playwright, and speaker of three languages, has died. In my capacity with Amnesty International and as a friend of his associates, I worked along with others for his release in 1984 after he had spent more than 20 years in prison. I've translated much of his poetry and at least one play, The Wild Dogs. In 1988, I invited him and former Cuban POC Andres Solares to speak at Amnesty USA's AGM in Atlanta. I last saw him in Feb. and spoke with him by phone about a month ago, when he was in rehab in NJ recovering from a broken hip. Although he has been frail for some time, for me his loss was devastating and unexpected.
Jorge,left, at bookstore reading with me and two cellmates who shared his 2 decades of imprisonment. 

Here is an excerpt about Jorge from my book Confessions: The case that landed Jorge in prison is detailed in a book by Spanish author Miguel Barroso, Un asunto sensible [A sensitive matter] (Mondadori, Barcelona, 2009). The book unravels a convoluted tangle of intrigue involving CIA defector Philip Agee, interviewed in Cuba by the author before his death, and the murder of four student revolutionaries by Batista forces in 1957, two years before the revolution. Seven years later, in 1964, Jorge’s close friend, Marcos Rodríguez, a Communist Party member in good standing since 1954, was accused of having betrayed the murdered students to Batista operatives and was arrested in Prague, where Castro had sent him on a special mission. Jorge, who had been with Marcos at the time of the murders, was convinced of his friend’s innocence and so testified at his trial, appearing as the only defense witness. Marcos was summarily executed and Jorge was sentenced to 20 years, entering prison at age 31 and leaving at 51, several months after completing his full sentence.
Valls now muses that at least ''free thinking dwelt behind prison walls; it was truly the free territory of Cuba.” As for freedom of expression at the time of the revolution, he says: ''None of that in 1959! Just extraordinary exaltation, the fanatical idolatry of the victorious warrior, and rampant folly that made everything acceptable.''

Here I am again on the same topic in the Huffington Post:

Some estimate nearly 100,000 have died crossing the Fla. Straits.

According to The Washington Post, in 2013 alone American travelers took assets worth 3.5 billion dollars to the island, while Cuban-Americans sent 3.1 billion dollars to the country in money wires. And this is in spite of the embargo, which already allows Havana to buy food and medicines directly from American companies
(though the Cuban government has drastically reduced US imports lately to put pressure on Congress to completely lift the embargo).

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are trying to block the confirmation of Roberta Jacobson as ambassador to Mexico because of her role in negotiating with the Cubans. I believe she did the best she could under difficult circumstances. I still am not sure what Obama’s gambit is or whether it will work. He was trying to shatter the Cold War us-versus-them and David versus Goliath narratives. Time will tell if he made the right gamble or gambit. Certainly Putin is on the other side, trying to get back into Cuba. The Latin American Left was left stunned and somewhat in disarray by the US move.   

Associated Press October 7
U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on Wednesday called on the Cuban government to let private enterprise thrive on the communist-ruled island and to grant its citizens greater access to the Internet.
Pritzker was visiting Cuba for two days, leading a delegation of officials from the U.S. Treasury, Commerce and State departments for meetings with officials from Cuban government ministries and businesses.
She started her visit Tuesday with a stop at the Mariel free trade zone outside the capital of Havana.
The commerce secretary is the most senior U.S. official to travel to Cuba since Secretary of State John Kerry visited on Aug. 14 for a flag-raising ceremony outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, which is now upgraded to a full embassy following restoration of relations in July.
“We urge President Castro and his government to make it easier for Cuban citizens to trade and travel more freely, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to access the Internet and to (be) hired directly by foreign companies,” she said Wednesday at the start of meetings between officials from both countries.

See below from Diario de CubaNet, quoting Kerry saying that the US can reestablish relations with Cuba before it becomes a "complete democracy," as was done before with Viet Nam and China, which is not very reassuring, since those countries have never become "complete" democracies after decades. And to refer to Venezuela as an "imperfect democracy" is an understatement.
Democracy Digest, October 6, 2015
Engagement helps Cuban democracy – or kleptocracy?
The United States could end its embargo on Cuba “before full democracy exists” on the island, says US Secretary of State John Kerry.He told Chilean TV that a “full democracy requires time, but there is progress.”
“For instance, we don’t have full democracy in Vietnam, but we eliminated the embargo because we saw progress (…) There was no democracy in China when we normalized our relations and began to make progress,” said Kerry. “Personally, I believe the embargo should be lifted, because it would help the people of Cuba,” he concluded.
He also described Venezuela as a “democracy in trouble,” adding that the upcoming parliamentary elections (Dec. 6) would offer a “measure of what sort of democracy it is.”
But Cuban opposition activists fear that the US rapprochement will legitimize the Communist authorities rather than facilitate democratic change.
I’m also venting about a discussion I heard on BBC early one recent morning, British commentators on the pope's visit to Cuba, praising his role in facilitating US-Cuba relations and helping the US to jettison it's "rigid ideology and the spectacle of a big, powerful country picking on a small one." That, I fear, is a common perception of our previous Cuba policy (also held by many in Amnesty circles) and why the change has been haled around the world. Rightly or wrongly, the US embargo and democracy efforts in Cuba were not designed not to punish Cuba for having a different and more generous "socialist" government ideology, but because its own rigid ideology A) was leading to economic disaster, benefiting only a few at the top, B) did not reflect the collective will of the Cuban people, C) was resulting in beatings, arrests, unfair trials, and incarceration of peaceful protestors, and D) was causing much distress to Cubans, especially young people, propelling them to try to escape and also leading to one of the highest suicide and lowest birth rates in the world and certainly in Latin America. The US was "picking" on Cuba because its government was hurting its own people, not because of some abstract ideological principle or a desire to demonstrate power. Is that so? Or am I missing something? How do you counteract a view that has become accepted and acceptable as something that "everyone" knows?
A U.S. official confirmed to Fox News that Cuban paramilitary and special forces units are on the ground in Syria, citing evidence from intelligence reports. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Cuban troops may have been training in Russia and may have arrived in Syria on Russian planes. General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, Head of the Cuban Armed Forces, reportedly had visited Syria recently.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez points out that unlike many other countries, Cuba has really no immigrants and the only strangers are short-term visitors. She also is skeptical that there will be much progress on civil rights in Cuba as the results of the accords.
Posted: 20 Oct 2015
Excerpt from author and journalist Andres Oppenheimer's review of Obama's foreign policy in his most recent The Miami Herald column, "Will Next U.S. President be a Hawk?":

 Cuba has not made any major economic or political changes since the Dec. 17 start of the U.S.-Cuba normalization talks, despite the reestablishment of diplomatic ties and Obama’s recent announcement of measures that significantly weaken the U.S. trade embargo on the island. An Oct. 8 Washington Post headline read, “U.S. officials are frustrated by lack of progress in trade with Cuba.”
For quite a while, the U.S. was Cuba's top supplier of food and medical goods, even with the trade embargo. But in the past 10 months, trade has dropped sharply, and Castro seems to be buying goods elsewhere. McClatchy News reports that August export trade with Cuba was $2.2 billion, down from $14.3 billion in August 2014, a very significant drop. According to experts McClatchy cited, the Castro regime is cutting down on trade as a means of making U.S. agricultural exporters complain to Congress about the embargo

A bit of good Cuba news, namely that the Buena Vista Social Club, that group of elderly musicians promoted by Ry Cooder, has been invited to play at the White House. Music, art, dance, sports—when not politicized—are bridges between nations.

In another good news item, the Cuban artist Danilo Medina “El Sexto,” who spent 10 months without trial and recently in solitary confinement, was released finally after two hunger strikes and a promised release that didn’t come. Last December, he had painted two piglets with the names “Raul” and “Fidel.” He had been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.


Presidential elections were held in Haiti on Oct. 25, but with scores of candidates, a run-off is virtually certain. Meanwhile, departing cabinet ministers are due to receive golden parachutes.
[Venezuela] is a bankrupt country, where Cubans mostly govern in Caracas.-- Oscar Arias, former President of Costa Rica and Nobel laureate, BBC Mundo, 10/20/15  (I met President Arias in Costa Rica and there is a photo of him exiting a swimming pool in my Confessions book.]
I try to avoid news from Venezuela, because I already have my hands full and that's not one of my Amnesty countries as a volunteer coordinator. But I was asked by Catholic Charities in DC to do basically a pro bono interpretation for them. So, I agreed, expecting it to be a social work or mental health type case, and that I wouldn't be there very long. Well, I was there for 6 hours with a Venezuelan asylum seeker belonging to the same party as Leopoldo Lopez. Essentially her session at Cath. Ch. was a rehearsal for her asylum interview, as well as for nailing down specifics on her application. The poor woman was almost in tears, but I am sure the actual asylum interview is going to be at least as rough as the rehearsal. She gave some really terrible specifics, including losing her job a few years back (when Chavez was still president) and being unable to get another, being pressed to contribute a specified amount to Chavez's party, being threatened with rape and death when she did not cooperate, being beaten more than once along with her Chilean husband and her son, her husband having had a gun put to his head, etc. so they left their home vacant and came to her sister's house in suburban Md. I don't know what AI USA or the US government can do in Venezuela or for the people there, but both the political and economic situation sounds dire, at least based on this woman's very detailed narrative. It was an eye-opener for me and kind of a surprise really. I've lived in Colombia and have been to most Latin American countries, but Venezuela is not among them. 

The Obama administration has crafted a $1 billion aid package for Central America that is being held up by Republican legislators, who are the ones creaming most loudly about illegal immigration. Aid would be more effective than an expensive wall in keeping undocumented people out. An NPR interview featured LA Times reporter Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique’s Journey, about a Honduran boy’s harrowing solo journey through Mexico. She recently visited Mexico’s southern border, where Mexican authorities are being paid by the US government to turn migrants back from there, often brutally, according Nazario, who says that at least 90 people sent back in recent months have been killed after their return.
While I have no doubt that the Mexico border situation is often as desperate as Nazario depicts it, I take issue with a statement she repeated, which I consider unnecessary sensationalism. She said migrants were being killed to harvest their organs. Organ harvesting is a common accusation all around the world, but I doubt its actual prevalence, if it happens at all. I’ve been an interpreter for several organ transplant patients. Believe me, you cannot just kill someone, take out their organs, and transplant them into someone else. It’s a very painstaking difficult medical procedure where exact testing of compatibility between donor and recipient is crucial and speed of transplant is essential. With partial liver and kidney transplants from living donors (some even being paid, say, in India), both parties are carefully prepared beforehand and hospitalized side-by-side. Hearts must come from deceased persons, but there must be minimal delay between death and transplant and all systems must match. I’ve been a phone interpreter in cases where someone has been killed in an accident and a hospital immediately phones the next-of-kin to take tissues and organs. If the relative says no, that’s it, nothing is taken. Sometimes organs are removed from a person declared brain dead while some other systems are still functioning. I believe few if any Central American migrants are being killed for their organs—robbery is a more likely motive. When someone like author Nazario, rightfully praised for highlighting the plight of child migrants, repeats the wildly circulating stories about organ robbing, she loses credibility. 
On the same program, taking a somewhat less sensational approach than author Nazario (who has adapted her book in several versions for different audiences), was Bill Clinton’s former Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner. She pointed out that while many migrants are bona fide refugees, others are economic migrants and many simply want to join family members already living in the US.

An old Soviet cargo plane, like the ones I flew in around in 2006 has crashed near South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Indeed, those planes have seen better days, but are commonly used in that part of the world. The tragic civil, with a few pauses, seems to be continuing. Rivalry for absolute leadership seems to trump the wellbeing or even survival of this new nation.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has crushed political opponents in his country, overseeing the beating, intimidation and deaths of democratic challengers and their supporters. He has presided over economic policies that have resulted in rampant inflation and poverty. Widely condemned by Western governments, he is considered one of the most uncompromising dictators in Africa. Now he can claim the honor of being awarded a Confucius Peace Prize, the Chinese answer to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Unfortunately in Zimbabwe, a German hunter has now killed a magnificent iconic elephant with enormous tusks. These hunters pay big bucks to shoot these beautiful remarkable animals just to have bragging rights (when they should be condemned), providing an income to a few people in that impoverished and badly governed country.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) deplores yesterday’s U.N. General Assembly vote electing the authoritarian regimes of Burundi, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a three-year term. The UNHRC is the highest U.N. body charged with protecting and promoting human rights on a global scale.

DEMO DEBATESWhile I don’t have TV, I did listen on the radio to the Democratic presidential candidates’ first debate (though skipping the Republicans’). They all did OK, in my opinion, though none blew me away. Sanders and Clinton are the only real possibilities. Joe Biden waited too long to decide and certainly his son’s death figured in his delay—we need to remember that this was not the first sudden death of a loved one that Biden has endured. The son he just lost was the same son that barely pulled through an auto accident many years ago where Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed. The son’s death now must have made those memories more acute.
Ed Walker, a blind radio personality who was at the helm of NPR’s Sunday evening “Big Broadcast” died on Oct. 25, only hours after his last show ran. In his early 80s and suffering from cancer, he had already announced that he would retire on that day and had pre-recorded the show and his remarks. It was reported that he and his family had listened to that last program together in his hospital room, a fitting finale to his long and productive life. Apart from listening nostalgically to radio programs from my youth, I was especially interested in Walker because of being married to a blind person myself for 24 years and because I have worked and still do with blind people in Honduras.

Again, besides school and college shootings that have become almost routine, there was another senseless child casualty, an 11-year-old killed an 8-year-old because she said he couldn’t see her puppy. In another family posing for a photo with their guns, one child accidentally shoots another in the face. Every day, there are gun killings. In Colorado, a shooter kills three strangers. Are Americans so enslaved to the gun lobby that we must keep tolerating such preventable disasters? Yes, Jeb Bush is right, “Stuff happens,” but not all of it has to happen—much can be prevented. Progress has been made in child survival and longevity. Vehicle accidents are less frequent. (That’s partly why we have overpopulation right now. Of course, the world is responding to that problem with birth control. At least, all these gun deaths are reducing the population somewhat—a small silver lining perhaps? One could say the same of wars, but what a terrible way to go!). On the pro-gun side, in Chicago, a gun owner kills a would-be mugger. Such instances, especially where the attacker is not actually killed, are hard to document, but do not outweigh the number of people injured or killed by careless or illegal gun use.

While Donald Trump raises false expectations among his base, bloviating about a wall across the southern border that Mexico will pay for, it’s good to hear now, after President Obama was labeled “Deporter-in-Chief” due to the record number of deportations taking place on his watch, that the pace of deportations has finally slowed. However, as an Amnesty activist, I’ve had a number of requests from pro bono lawyers for help with staying the deportations of people who have paid their price in jail or otherwise long-ago and now, after years of upright living, with families, jobs, homes, they are being detained for deportation after a review of old records. This is all part of the new deportation thrust against “criminal aliens.”

At a school interpretation with a group of first-grade parents one evening, the teacher was giving them reading and math exercises to do with their kids along with groups of colored plastic letters and numbers. One man (more Hispanic fathers are now getting involved in school affairs) from Mexico said he had never gone to school and didn’t know anything about either reading or math. I asked about his wife—she was equally unschooled. I asked the other parents around my table about how far they had gone in school and 8th grade was the highest. It’s certainly a handicap for children if parents are illiterate, especially regarding homework. Since the teacher had given each parent a score for where their child stood in terms of being able to read words or do addition problems, I was able to see that the child of the man who had never gone to school had the lowest scores and the child of the 8th grade woman had the highest. Of course, there may be other factors, but that was very telling.

If prostitution is considered desirable, or at least not undesirable, behavior, then full decriminalization should be supported, as is being advocated now in some quarters, even within Amnesty International . But there’s certainly a downside. Rightly or wrongly, when alcohol and marijuana use are decriminalized, their use goes up, as do motor vehicle accidents attributable to them. Likewise, if prostitution is fully decriminalized, it will increase, as in countries where that has happened. Then it’s hard to turn back.
And most prostitutes—or sex workers, as advocates like to call them--begin as minors, are from disadvantaged groups, are coerced, and desperately want to get out.

Folks, you never know where cyber-hackers will be hiding. I was having a terrible time getting into my main Yahoo account—the system kept freezing up, Yahoo kept going off line. Finally, I looked on the Yahoo help line to find tech support. That guy went through my whole system, then asked for $249 to fix it! That was when I hung up, only to see porn filling up my screen as payback for refusing that offer. Thanks to a knowledgeable friend, all eventually got fixed. He also switched me from Internet Explorer to Google Chrome which, so far, is working much better.

for the first time, I participated in a Skype meeting, in this case with Amnesty International activists for the Caribbean from around the world. I don’t have Skype myself, so used the system at the DC Amnesty office. It’s certainly cheaper than actually traveling and, while not as satisfactory as face-to-face, it’s certainly better than e-mail.  

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