Sunday, January 3, 2016

Happy New Year, Feliz Ano Nuevo—Looking Back on 2015

 Cuban artist and former prisoner of conscience Danilo Medina (El Sexto) shown at Amnesty International's DC office with a former Nigerian prisoner on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10.

Christmas photos of daughters Stephanie and Melanie, granddaughter Natasha, great-grandson De'Andre, and myself.

Apologies, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, so hardly know where to begin in this new year. I’ll try to be brief, sort of like Yahoo News or other on-line news services with snippets or websites, since attention spans now for any topic are short. If readers are inspired to explore further on something of interest, that’s great. I tried to make all the fonts the same, but failed and don't know how to do it once it's on the blog site, so please bear with me. 

December was Human Rights Month and Dec. 10 is Human Rights Day. At Amnesty International, we write a lot of letters in marathon sessions at Write-for-Rights events, more than 3 million letters already during December. Surely some of those will have an impact beyond filling up in-boxes. Some letters are even sent directly to prisoners and their families, though those may never get delivered to the intended recipient—still someone in that country will see them.

According to a recent poll, more than half of Americans are unaware we DC residents are disenfranchised and those who know don’t seem to particularly care. We are fighting an uphill battle to enjoy rights other citizens take for granted.

It’s really horrific that Saudi Arabia, our supposed mid-east ally, executed 47 people to mark the new year.

In South Sudan, where I went on a humanitarian mission in 2006, unfortunately, power hunger there apparently overrides commitment to a new independent nation, achieved after so many years of civil war. I’m referring to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir now creating 28 new states to further his hold on power and his drive to divide South Sudan along ethnic lines. Apparently, for him, as for so many other heads-of-state, wielding his own unfettered authority is more important than citizens’ well-being.

Haiti is one of the countries I monitor in my role as volunteer Caribbean coordinator for Amnesty International USA and the news from there is rarely good. (legislative election results announced) Haiti delayed presidential run-off is Jan. 17.

In Chile, where I was an election observer in the 1988 plebiscite that went against General Augusto Pinochet, more details are finally emerging.

As usual, lots of news and commentary regarding Cuba, especially in light of the anniversary of the accords, with the web titles revealing subjects: (Our efforts helped free him and we got to meet him in person at Amnesty International’s DC office)

Below, articles about the stand-off between Costa Rica and neighbor Nicaragua on the Cuban migrants, which apparently is being resolved now by allowing the 8,000 migrants to pay for a flight between Costa Rica and El Salvador, providing someone a profit and costing relatives in the US who are financing most of the journey. The Costa Rican prsident’s trip to Cuba to personally appeal to Raul Castro seemed to go nowehere. The US government kept out of the issue, except to say the Cubans must set foot on US soil by land and not arrive by air.  Costa Rica partially pulled out of SICA, a regional body promoting Central American cooperation, after neighboring nations failed to help handle a growing Cuban migrant crisis.

One of the prisoners released as the result of the accords last year was re-arrested, went on a hunger strike, and is now near death. Last I heard, he was in cardiac arrest in a local hospital. I don’t think the Cuban government would want him to die. If he recovers, he, of course, should be immediately released.

Probably because of my advocacy for Cuban dissidents or perhaps because of my Cuba book, I discovered that some folks at Amnesty Int’l thought I was Cuban! In terms of heredity, I’m as far from being Cuban as can possibly be imagined. In fact, that was the whole basis of the “nunny bunny” critique against me that propelled me to write my second memoir focused on Cuba and Latin America. The initial accusation made by a Latino man, as explained in the book, was that I am not Hispanic or Latina, so how could I possibly dare comment on events in Cuba? In the book, I tried to make the case for my credibility and experience, despite that handicap. If anything, not being Cuban should give me more credibility as an objective observer with no skin in the game. I also corrected the folks at Amnesty that I am not actually of Cuban descent. I thought it was obvious—certainly it would be to a Cuban or Cuban American. Another Amnesty member interested in Cuba, who lives in another city and also has no Latino heritage or appearance, told me that he is also often thought to be a Cuban American—and, though he speaks Spanish, it is with a marked gringo accent. It apparently is just assumed that someone in favor if Cuban democracy must be some sort of retrograde and partisan Cuban American still evidencing a Cold War mentality. (Patrick Symmes) I disagree with Symmes, in saying there is little evidence to implicate the Cuban government in Oswaldo Paya’s mysterious death—I’ve spoken at length with his daughter Rosa Maria and agree with the Washington Post editorially and with several human rights organizations that the issue deserves an independent and more thorough investigation. Otherwise, Symmes tries to be balanced in his article. I am sure he knows that if he said otherwise about Paya’s death, he would have no future access to Cuba, at least as long as the Castro brothers are still alive.

A reader had this to say about President Obama’s comments on the anniversary of the accords with Cuba: More bullshit from the procrastinator in chief. I couldn't finish reading it. He's running out the clock, is all. Of course Raul will promise him full access. Then he'll either renege with no explanation, or the activists who could have given Obama clues of the type he seems to lack won't be there -- gone to Spain, being treated in one of Cuba's excellent hospitals for a mysterious, highly contagious condition, or unavailable for other bullshit reasons. Then there'll be the presidential Potemkin tour in which carefully selected "average Cubans" who've exercised their well-known freedom of speech to criticize the regime will be trotted out. Raul has months to select these folks, bribe them, and coach them. & of course he knows everything everybody's said, so the show of dissenters will be beautifully managed. Anyone who gets brave and goes off-script can be taken out and shot as soon as Obama is airborne. Dictatorship made easy. Obama is smart, but not smart enough to pick up on the practical lessons available in totalitarian states all over the world.

Another reader, familiar with Cuba, says about Obama’s anniversary statement: I am advocating that a prior condition to allow American businessmen to invest in Cuba is that they be allowed to hire, fire, and pay their own workers directly in dollars and that the workers do not have to pay an income tax superior to the US income tax for their yearly income and family size. In other words, that it be guaranteed that American businessmen will not be accessory to slave labor. Until these conditions are met the US government should prohibit US investment in the island.

According to another reader, Negotiations seem to be stuck because the Cuban government wants the lifting of the embargo to consolidate the rule of its ruling elite and to permit this ruling elite to become wealthier while the US government want the lifting of the embargo to introduce reforms in Cuba that will weaken the ruling elite and eventually lead to human right and political reforms.

Already this year, tourism to Cuba has hit a new high mark, 3 million, probably the majority from the US. Of the 53 political prisoners released a year ago during the signing of the Obama/Raul Castro accords, most have reportedly been rearrested. Cuban democracy advocates have been buoyed by the victory of Maduro opponents in parliamentary elections in Venezuela, but not sure how to proceed because of their much greater strictures and lack of real elections.

On the anniversary of the accords, Cuba says Obama is welcome to visit, but not to treat internal matters. The Cuban regime will be in a quandary if Obama does decide to visit, as it can scarcely limit his movements and whom he wants to talk with and also what he wants to say—and his arrival in Cuba would generate a huge amount of excitement. He absolutely should go there and speak with whomever he wants—also say publicly (hopefully on national TV) that Cuba should consider allowing foreign companies to hire and pay workers directly. Freedom of movement and engagement, and the direct hiring and paying of workers, after all, are not just matters internal to Cuba, but involve freedoms of Americans vis-à-vis Cuba. There must be accommodations on both sides.

AFP, Dec. 11, 2015
[Castro's] Attorney General Dario Delgado asserted that Cuba has no political prisoners, only jailed common criminals who "call themselves dissidents."

"It is sometimes said there are political prisoners here. There aren't," Delgado told the official Communist Party daily Granma.

"The majority of those who call themselves dissidents are common inmates who have been attracted by counter-revolutionary organizations, internal or external, and receive payments directly or indirectly," he said.
"But they aren't prisoners of conscience."

One swing of the political pendulum, in the wake of Macri’s presidential victory in Argentina, is the substantial loss of Maduro’s party in legislative elections. Maduro is saying he accepts the results, but he may have some tricks up his sleeve, such creating new government entities to circumvent or supersede existing ones, as he did to override a successful mayoral candidate in Caracas. I’ve volunteered to help a very worthy Venezuelan asylum applicant with interpretation and translation of documents in preparation for her asylum hearing. She fled Venezuela after losing her job during Chavez’s time because she joined an opposition political party. As a result, she was further threatened, beaten, and suffered what her physicians called PTSD, so after the last physical attack, which included a gun being held to her husband’s head, she fled to her sister’s home in suburban Maryland. She is quite hopeful about the legislative election outcome in Venezuela, but knows from past experience, notably with nullification of the Caracas mayoral election, that Maduro may have some other schemes in mind. Before the election, he threated to call out the army if the election did not go his way, but he may now not be so sure that the army would obey him. The legislative victory against him was overwhelming, but there are still 3 years left in his 6-year presidency, which he won by a narrow margin. He and his cronies, under the wily tutelage of Raul Castro in Cuba, will be an obstacle to any democratic reforms, and, in any case, even the best intentions will not allow the opposition to turn matters around quickly. And the price of oil continues to plummet, going at times even below $40 a barrel. Look who’s claiming election fraud—Nicolas Maduro, the king fraud, but only if his side loses.

Mongolia has abolished the death penalty.

A nurse in Sierra Leone was considered to have died of Ebola, but she sneezed when her body was cleaned with chlorine and so was revived. 

He was shot visiting his north coast hometown of La Ceiba.

Central American recent youth arrivals to the DC area are finding themselves being teased by long-standing Hispanic students, being called “chanchi”, which, roughly speaking means “piggish.” Adolescents—even younger kids—can be cruel and prone to being bullies, creating groups that arbitrarily exclude others. After all they have been through, young migrants don’t need that sort of “welcome.”

Organ harvesting
I’ve mentioned this issue before, but here goes again because of serious rumors circulating in Amnesty International circles that China is massacring Falun Gong members to harvest their organs. I objected recently on this blog when a popular (very self-promoting) writer claimed in a radio interview that Central American immigrants were being killed in Mexico for their organs. Falun Gong members are certainly persecuted by the Chinese government and Central Americans are also being murdered in Mexico, but, in neither case, is it for their organs. I’m quite sure of that. As a Spanish medical interpreter for 12 years in DC, including with patients undergoing organ transplants, I am very skeptical of the many rumors circulating around the world of people being killed to harvest their organs. Organ transplant is a very meticulous and sophisticated medical process of matching donor and recipient. In the case of a partial liver or a kidney transplant from a live donor, both parties are usually hospitalized together after undergoing careful testing. In the case of a lung or heart transplant from a just deceased person, usually an accident victim, speed is of the essence and often the victim still has some bodily functions, though may be declared "brain dead." Organ transplants require very careful prior tissue matching and immediate transfer from either a live donor or one barely deceased. In Guatemala, the rumor that adopted children were being killed for their organs led to American humanitarian workers being killed and the shutting down of inter-country adoptions, so the rumors had real world consequences. In China, organs reportedly are sometimes transplanted from prisoners undergoing the death penalty, usually corneas, but if so, there is careful tissue matching before the execution and immediate organ transplant. It's not possible to "harvest" organs and keep them on ice until they are needed, but rumors persist all over the world that mass killings for this purpose are taking place.  

Former President Jimmy Carter announced that his cancer is gone. That’s pretty amazing in such short order, given that it had even spread to his brain. He underwent a new, experimental treatment that seems to have worked for him. I’m glad, as he is a remarkable man, more so post-presidency than during his presidency. Carter’s cancer may be gone for now, but it would not be surprising if it recurred or if a different type of cancer affected him, despite close monitoring. After all, the man is 91 and so may be vulnerable to cancer and other maladies. I recently wrote a letter of condolence to Carter regarding the sudden death of his 28-year-old grandson, as my son died suddenly at age 27 after a work accident and our family just observed the anniversary of his untimely death.  

For the most part, I’ve applauded President Carter’s humanitarian efforts around the world, setting an example for future presidents (GW Bush painting pictures of his dog or himself in the bathtub does not qualify for particular applause). Carter can be rightly proud of his legacy, though I do consider him a bit naïve—if that’s a right word to describe a former president—in Cuba, where he has allowed himself to be shown and to praise showcase AIDS treatment facilities and has made statements that appear not to realize the extent of Cuban repression. Whether that’s a calculated stance to win over the Cuban leadership, I cannot say. I also would fault him as an election observer in Venezuela when Hugo Chavez first was declared the presidential winner for not delving deeper into apparent irregularities. He wanted the Carter Center to demonstrate its complete objectivity in judging an election outcome, despite the political coloration of the candidate, but he might have spared Venezuelans and citizens of allied nations much suffering and strife if he had been more careful in investigating accusations of fraud and manipulation. Otherwise, in Nicaragua and Haiti, where I was an election observer with him in 1990, I fully agreed with him on evaluating those events and he has been successful in the eradication of the Guinea Worm in Africa and in promoting Habitat for Humanity. Kudos for Jimmy Carter.

After Connecticut enacted a law in 1995 that required that people to get a permit before purchasing a gun, a 40 percent reduction occurred in the state’s homicide rate. Soon after the San Bernardino massacre, there was an apparent terrorist attack in Britain with a knife that wounded three people. Knife attacks against several people have occurred in China, but with much less death and injury, obviously, than from an attack with firearms. In Israel, likewise, there have been recent knife attacks, many that were not fatal. Now even gun advocates may be willing to consider some controls.

In Florida, a mother recently shot her daughter to death, fearing she was an intruder. What can I say? If someone insists on having a loaded gun trigger-ready, they need to be very careful with its storage and use and think for a moment before they shoot—and that may include police officers. How about calling out when you hear a strange noise at night, to see if someone familiar might actually be there? Just because you have a gun doesn’t mean that every little situation that surprises or scares you needs to be responded to with lethal force. Think ahead about how your weapon is stored and secured, the (very few) situations that might require its use, and always anticipate what might go wrong, as people are, by definition, accident prone and impulsive, including you, the gun owner. (If you were actually thinking in terms of probabilities, you wouldn’t have a gun to begin with.) Don’t carry a loaded gun in your purse in a grocery cart next to your small child, who may open the purse and shoot the gun, as one little boy did, killing his mother. And don’t leave a loaded pistol at your bedside when you go out for the evening, leaving your pre-teen son and his friends alone in the house, which is how my younger son Jon got shot in the foot, bad enough, but fortunately nothing worse. Maybe you have warned your son never to go into your bedroom, but once you are out the door, you cannot guarantee that the lure of showing off the bedside gun to his friends won’t be too much to resist. 

It’s a dilemma on how to react to the San Bernardino shooting in terms of attitudes towards Muslims. As I’ve said before, obviously not all Muslims are terrorists, but many if not most terrorists around the world these days identify as Muslim. How to tell the difference between them? It’s always hard to predict on the basis of membership in a particular category who will actually become a mass shooter, as their numbers are relatively few. For example, most persons with mental illness are not dangerous, but some of them have become so. And if we treat all Muslims (or mentally ill individuals) as potential terrorists, that’s going to make them feel alienated and more likely to become violent or radicalized, a self-fulfilling prophesy. But if members of suspect groups have no extra scrutiny, are we going to miss chances to thwart any plans they may have? It’s very hard to keep every Muslim or potential murderer under surveillance at all times,
especially since Americans want privacy and don’t like a nosey or intrusive government. We all complain about airport screening, for example, but what’s the alternative?

There seem to be oscillations in public policy and public opinion, a self-correcting Hegelian dialectic that goes in the opposite direction when a position seems to have become too extreme. For example, the hue and cry was that too many children were being born, creating overpopulation (the “population bomb”), so many couples decided (aided by birth control) to remain childless or to have only one child, a policy enshrined in China’s one-child policy. So when it became obvious that this was creating a demographic imbalance, some nations, including China, Japan, and European countries, began encouraging people to have more babies.

I’m wondering  if a tipping point has also come for Latin America’s leftist leadership, whereby constituencies who can still vote will start going in the other direction—as in Argentina and Venzuela. Now Correa in Ecuador, instead of trying to remain in power indefinitely as originally planned, like some of his Latin American counterparts, has announced that he has decided to step down in 2017 after all. What this may mean for Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders?) after 8 years of a Democratic presidency we shall soon see. I am trying to imagine the least bad, least goofy, Republican candidate who might actually have a chance, just in case, not that I would vote for any of them. If Republicans will sober up and get serious, get rid of Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, then I could perhaps stomach Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or even Marco Rubio, though I cringe just thinking about them, but, at least, they all have some government experience and wouldn’t be completely off-the-wall. Rubio, the other day, referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” blatantly courting Israel and hardline Jewish voters, which didn’t endear him to me nor are his finances all on the up-and-up. Still, I’d rather see him elected than his fellow Cuban American Ted Cruz. I hope not see any of them!

I’ve never watched or listened to the Republican candidates’ debates—I just cannot stomach them. Most of them say, “On Day One, I will [blah, blah, blah]…” repeal Obamacare, put up a wall to keep Mexicans out, bomb ISIS into oblivion, etc.” Donald Trump would be entertaining if his poll numbers didn’t keep rising. He seems to be deliberately creating a caricature of himself, saying whatever he wants, bluffing to see if he can get away with it. It’s almost hard for comics to get any traction, because he is already so outrageous. He said recently, “100% of blacks will vote for me.” I’m sure that’s news to African American voters. I can barely stand to listen to Democratic candidates either. What can we do now, move to Mexico? Mexico will have to build a wall to keep us out!