Thursday, October 6, 2016

Goodbye to a Friend, Colombia, Cuba, Guns, VP Debate, Trump & Clinton, Obama’s Legacy in Cuba and Beyond

Am now mourning the death of a good friend and a pioneer in intercountry and single-parent adoption, Hope Marindin, herself the single mother of three adopted kids. I served on at least two adoption agency boards with her, traveled with her to adoption conferences, including one held in Ottawa, and wrote about her and her family for the Washington Post. When her daughter received a pioneering hand treatment with Botox, I wrote about that for my occupational therapy magazine, OT Week. On her 80th birthday, her friends and family all participated in a big party for her at her assisted living facility. I don’t think it’s a secret that her memory started fading soon after that. Her decline and death represent a real loss.

[When this posting appeared, some lettering was red, not black, and when I tried to correct it, more red appeared, so this is my 3rd last try--red lettering, if it should appear, has no significance and I never put it there.]

It was a big disappointment, frankly, and a shock that the Colombian people narrowly voted “no” on the peace agreement with the FARC rebels, four years in the making and arrived at after 52 years of civil war. The president of the Puerto Rican Senate even proposed that Raul Castro be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation efforts. What’s next for Colombia and the FARC is now uncertain. Voters, such as the British with Brexit or now Colombians rejecting the peace deal with the FARC or even Congressional representatives overriding Obama’s veto of the bill allowing Americans to sue the Saudi government on behalf of 9/11 victims, may all be expressing public support for policies that actually turn out to be net-harmful. While we may favor voting and listening to the “voice of the people,” the electorate sometimes contradicts and confounds polls and seems to work against voters’ own self-interest. That’s why I don’t discount the possibility of a Trump victory in November, however disastrous that might turn out to be. As for rejection of the FARC deal, Colombians may have been influenced by the turmoil in neighboring Venezuela and the apparent sympathy between FARC rebels and Cuba and Venezuela. I guess Raul Castro won’t get his Nobel Peace Prize just yet.  

 A US summer youth program for kids from many countries, in which some Cuban young people recently participated, has created quite a backlash with the Cuban government and provoked officials there to promote public protests against it. The Cuban regime routinely assembles crowds to attack people and policies it opposes. Some participants eagerly join such protests, while others are coerced. Thus, protests have now been featured in editorials and TV clips criticizing the US program, thereby giving it even more publicity, causing, as independent blogger Yoani Sanchez has reported, parents to approach her, asking how to enroll their own child in the program.

 Apparently, the US and Cuban governments and the Smithsonian could not come to agreement on a plan to feature Cuba in the 2017 Folklife Festival. While reasons for the failure of negotiations are not available, it appears that there were problems on both sides. While I do not mince words about the Cuban government’s decades-long record of human rights abuses, I’ve always been a supporter of cultural exchanges, which seem to be able to bring citizens of both countries together in a politically neutral way.

How can people be so careless, so stupid, with firearms? A family lays down a loaded gun near an 18-month-old, who picks it up and fatally shoots himself in the head. If you feel you must have a gun, please don’t leave loaded guns where children can reach them; that’s just common sense. Also, recently, a young man shot and killed a man whose music he considered too loud, apparently avoiding being charged, as he said he felt threatened and had defended himself with Florida’s “stand your ground” law. And Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, another Florida stand-your-ground advocate who managed to escape punishment, has gone on to get into one episode of trouble after another, indicating that he is an angry, impulsive guy who never should have had a firearm in the first place.

With all the recent shootings, some fatal, of suspects by police, it does seem that simply having a gun at hand makes it more likely to be used to hurt or kill someone, even in the hands of police. Some police have acted impulsively or in response to an erroneously perceived threat, but a stun gun or taser could have achieved the same result without inflicting so much harm, much of it due to police mistakes. It’s becoming harder to say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” Yes, people do shoot guns, but if they didn’t have them, they wouldn’t kill as often. Police in Britain and other countries are unarmed and killings by police are rare. 

The vice presidential debate was more traditional that the presidential one so far. Mike Pence, who once was a radio host, sounded mostly normal and calm, even when Tim Caine was trying to shout him down. I would call their face-off close to a draw. Pence often referred to “the war on coal,” as if that dirty, fossil fuel could ever really make a comeback. At least some laid-off coal miners may vote for his ticket. Pence tried to humanize Trump by calling him a businessman, not a politician, “not polished,” an understatement. But hard-core Trump supporters may be dismayed if he calms down too much.

Adding insult to injury, Trump has not only doubled down on Bill Clinton’s infidelities (while avoiding mention of his own), but now has hinted that Hillary has been unfaithful to Bill. Female infidelity has always been considered more scandalous than male, but Trump’s speculation is only that, an unproven charge —a whole-cloth invention on his part, though he surely must be searching diligently for any conceivable signs of Hillary’s straying. Maybe he will show a photo of her hugging running mate Tim Kaine? If she were actually unfaithful after Bill’s infidelities, would most voters blame her? It’s rather doubtful that she would ever engage in an affair because of her laser-like focus on advancing her political career, well aware of how such a revelation could hurt her. That unfounded accusation is just another dead-end for Trump.

Late-night comics have been having field day with the Donald, but are finding it hard to make him look even more ridiculous than he actually is. He might have entered the presidential race thinking that, at the very least, it would boost his business, but it may end up having the opposite effect. If he should actually enter the Oval Office, he’d have to take a whopping pay cut. Yet some (partisan?) observers are still predicting a Trump win in November, speculating that many voters are planning secretly to vote for Trump, fearful of ridicule for expressing their true intentions. Also, Julian Assange had announced that he would make a shocking revelation about Clinton from the balcony of London’s Ecuadoran Embassy that would devastate her campaign, but then he cancelled that and said he would reveal damaging files slowly all the way up to the election. If ever the Ecuadoran government should change hands, no doubt the embassy would be glad to get rid of their uninvited guest.

If Donald Trump gets so rattled during a debate with Hillary Clinton, how would he do in negotiations with foreign leaders, especially those trying to manipulate him? Already Putin seems to have lured Trump into his camp by flattering him and making him feel important. When Trump’s polls sink and he is criticized, he never blames himself, but, rather, targets unproven shadowy conspiracies all mysteriously arrayed against him. If he is really such a clever, competent, straightforward, and likeable guy, why are so many secret conspiracies being organized to thwart him and why is he unable to counteract them? A man so defenseless in protecting his own reputation can hardly protect our country. Clinton supporters can only hope he keeps on rattling off or tweeting whatever comes into his shallow mind.

As Barack Obama’s presidential tenure comes to an end, I would say he’s done fairly well, good enough, especially given the strong opposition against him, much of it frankly attributable to racism. Obama has never been one of the “good old boys” who seem to still dominate Congress and the Senate. He didn’t ever show a knack for befriending lawmakers of either party, perhaps partly because of his race, partly because of his short tenure in the Senate, and partly, perhaps, because of a sort of cerebral or intellectual temperament that made him shun such efforts. He seemed to think that arguments could made by logic and on the merits. He also must be faulted for not taking a more aggressive and less Soviet-friendly stance on Syria, although I don’t know all of what has been involved and realize that he was trying to prevent bloodshed. But that hasn’t been the result. His gamble, if that was what it was, did not pay off and Putin has double-crossed him and the Syrian people.

In Cuba, while I understand the need to go slow and avoid making the Cuban leadership even more defensive, the US seems now to have totally abandoned democracy advocates there—or, at least, that’s what many of them are experiencing. Obama’s regime-conciliatory tactics may still prove useful in the long run, especially after the Castro brothers’ demise, but, meanwhile, the Cuban people continue to suffer both materially and in terms of liberty—nor is their health care, at least for ordinary people, all it’s cracked up to be. Not only are rights of assembly and expression being severely thwarted, but the Cuban regime is holding tight on controlling the economy, keeping its population hungry and dependent, unlike its mentors in China and Vietnam, two countries that have both welcomed the Peace Corps, as well as the expansion of commerce and entrepreneurship. But maybe it just will take time in Cuba? The raised hopes and continued patience of the Cuban people are being sorely tested and government repression seems on the rise, as least right now. The Cuban dictatorship may feel the need to be especially defensive because of its small size, proximity to the US, and the existence of such a large diaspora—and is now confronting the implosion of its patron, Venezuela. Raul Castro and company are keeping a tight rein, trying to squeeze maximum economic benefit from the US-Cuba accords while making minimum concessions. Still I think Obama’s outreach to the Cuban leadership was a good first step.

Like anything that might be considered progress, there are downsides and unintended consequences, including unpredictability as represented by chaos theory. We like to think that the trajectory of history tends ever toward improvement, always upward and onward, however defined. But there is also backsliding, two steps forward, one backward, that is, if we are lucky, and luck or fortune can always be reversed. Who could have anticipated the rise of Donald Trump? Or, after gay rights blossomed, that AIDS would decimate gay ranks? Other unwelcome surprises have included 9/11, SARS, Ebola, Zika, Boko Haram, and ISIS. Child mortality has been reduced worldwide, people are living longer, but that also has meant a population explosion, more pollution, and a growing cohort of older folks living with mental and physical conditions that are disabling but not fatal. It’s also tempting to link economic prosperity and development to greater freedom, but the tie is not automatic. Costa Rica is a nation of mostly modest earners who enjoy a good deal of personal liberty, while Saudis are wealthy and restricted.

As children and young people, we may expect that everything will become easier for us only when we grow up, finish college, find a job, get married, or buy our own home. Of course, any such respite never lasts for very long. Through experience, we come to recognize “good enough” as a realizable goal in our own personal life and, I believe, the same holds true of collective life. Much of what Bernie Sanders has been advocating is aspirational, a visionary goal to work toward, but, I feel, not totally practical and actually do-able (see his past embrace of Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega). Of course, his supporters would say that such a defeatist attitude and an acceptance of “good enough” are precisely what doom more robust improvement efforts. The vision of Gary Johnson, with no taxes, scant government, and complete personal freedom, I consider utopian as well. Indeed, some of his followers are trying to carve out an actual physical space in New Hampshire to realize their utopian vision, repeating experiments that have begun with much enthusiasm and unbridled hope throughout history, but never lasted very long. Even the Israeli kibbutzim faded despite strong government support. 

In every nation, group, and family, I believe, there must be a balance between individual and common good and between realistic and visionary expectations. Fidel Castro carried matters too far, forcing Cubans to work for an idealized common good as he defined it, using secret police and harsh prison terms to impose his will. Castro advocated a utopian society on a national level, one that was independent, self-sufficient, and with economic and social equality, providing quality universal education and health care for all. Even basic food production and distribution would be equalized. His “new man” would sacrifice himself willingly for the common good. But in the case of Cuba, as elsewhere, the ideal has proved the enemy of the good. And those who have dared to point out the flaws in the Cuban system have suffered—and still suffer—severe punishment.

In our own country, I feel that President Obama has done a “good enough” job and that Hillary Clinton will do the same. However, Trump simply doesn’t have that capacity. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, he is reported to have said about Clinton, "Now, she's got a bad temperament. She could be crazy. She could actually be crazy.”

As for Cuba, I’d like to think that Cuba will eventually emerge from dictatorship, but I’m well aware of how Russia has experienced backsliding and how China and Vietnam, decades after their economic openings, are still one-party states with executions, political prisoners, censorship, curbs on assembly and expression, no free elections, and suppression of religious and ethnic minorities. 

Even on the micro-level of our individual financial survival, occupation, marriage and family life, and health in our own country, the supposed beacon of the world, there is little respite from daily struggle and challenge. Even as ordinary individuals, we experience scant opportunity to rest on our laurels, possessing little time to relax and only sporadic moments of celebration. What I’m saying is self-evident, yet we tend to see—or want to see—our efforts as leading toward future improvements, both personally and collectively, and are often disappointed when our hopes and dreams fall short. Yet, as we observed when I worked at the occupational therapy association, everyone aspires to engage in meaningful activity—subjectively defined—and whenever we reach one goal, we set another. That process continues until death.

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