Saturday, January 7, 2017

Broken Heart Syndrome, Russian Hacking, Inaugural Parade, Obama’s Legacy, Israeli Settlements, South Sudan, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Pending TV Appearance

Scenes from today, January 7, 2017, before and after the first snowfall of the season, hardly enough to make a snowman! The flowers struggling before the snow came are now done for and tomorrow when the sun comes out, the snow, such as it is, will be gone.

Actress Debbie Reynolds, who died suddenly of a stroke a day after her daughter Carrie Fisher had reportedly died of heart failure, probably succumbed to a broken heart. At least, that was my immediate assessment as a mother who has lost a child—also a grownup child; but it’s still your child. In research about that for my two memoirs, I discovered that in the acute phase of grief, physical changes in the heart can occur—so-called “broken-heart syndrome” or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. A stroke is not the same as a heart attack, but both are spasms of the circulatory system that keeps us alive from one second to another, even more essential than breathing. Such a sudden death after a losing a loved one also often occurs when a long-time spouse dies, especially if the first death is sudden and unexpected.  (After I came to my “broken-heart” conclusion about those back-to-back celebrity deaths, the pundits began weighing in to agree.)

In a 2016 study published in the Annals of Epidemiology, researchers found that parents had an increased risk of dying up to three years after their child's death, compared with parents who had not lost children. Deaths among bereaved parents because of coronary artery problems were especially high.

President Obama took steps against Russian election hacking, but only after the fact, too late to reverse our woeful election outcome.

There has been a clamor for Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, which I sincerely hope won’t happen. Putin is a master manipulator who seems to have won over Donald Trump, a political novice. He may have seen Trump’s inexperience and incompetence as his chance to help recover Russian glory and seek vengeance for western “meddling” in his sphere, Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Trump’s presidency looks not only woeful on domestic policy but also on foreign policy. The Republican Party, now holding all the cards, will either rise to the occasion or fall via its own collective incompetence.

However, I do agree with Trump that not retaliating immediately, as the US had expected, was a smart move by Putin, especially with a more friendly and possibly easily manipulated president—who may owe his victory to Putin—now coming into office. We must view the Trump presidency as an unfortunate freak national accident, a calamity that we must fight to overcome and to recover from.

The Peace Corps was turned down in its application to march in Trump’s inaugural parade—his loss. This parade is going to be one of the shortest on record, with no DC-area bands asking to participate for the first time in recent memory.

Apart from choosing simply inappropriate or adverse cabinet and agency heads and advisers, Trump seems to want to reward loyalists such a Mitch McConnell’s wife, Kellyanne Conway’s husband, and his own son-in-law with government positions, never mind conflicts of interest and he seems unconcerned about his own business interest conflicts, nor do the Republican Party and Republican voters seem to care either. He charged a stiff price for attendance at a New Year’s Eve party at his Florida estate. He wanted to rake in the money while he still could. Trump’s incessant tweeting habit, appropriate for someone with a short attention span, is not the best way to run a presidency either, but he says he plans to keep it up. Tweeting is his bully pulpit, used to tweak defense contractors and corporation heads alike, who, so far, have seemed to respond. I’m sure tweeting makes Trump feel powerful, like a kid with a toy gun going “bang-bang.” After a while, tweeting may lose its luster in terms of its effects.

Before the election, the New Yorker ran a cover showing 2 alternative scenarios: Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office with Bill standing by, then Donald Trump, with a smirking Vladimir Putin as witness. The latter is what really happened. Then the very week of the election, just before the actual voting day, a clever cover showed a man on the subway reading an open newspaper whose headline said, “Oh God, Please No.” Whichever result later happened, that image and that headline would fit the bill—either confirmation of previous anxiety or great relief.

The Republicans and Trump say they plan to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare on “Day One,” but, it turns out, their plan is to announce its repeal and replacement, but probably to delay the actual change while they work things out. Kellyanne Conway, perhaps channeling Trump, has said that no one who is satisfied with their current health insurance will lose it. If so, that’s reassuring. Replacement could take years. Meanwhile, Obamacare is still in place. Republicans may thus fulfill their campaign promise without really doing so, at least not yet. They are finding replacement is not so easy and outright repeal is impossible. The horse has already left the barn. The ACA has already moved health care from primarily fee-for-service (the more service, the better for a practitioner’s payments) to outcomes’ based care. A report in the NYTimes on health care focus groups indicates that most people’s complaints against Obamacare are that their costs are too high—they want the same coverage or better at a lower cost. Can Trump and the Republicans deliver on that?

I keep hoping (imaginary wish fulfillment?) that Trump may not be quite as crazy as he seems and is playing with us by seeming totally uninformed and outrageous, getting publicity, and arousing his base. Then when he does something relatively normal, like advise Republican Congressmen to back off their plan to gut ethics oversight, we are pleasantly surprised. Also, we human beings tend to adjust to adverse circumstances. After accidents, job losses, romantic breakups, or even deaths of loved ones, while we still acknowledge and feel the effects, they do soften over time. So that may happen with President Trump, as we come to regard him as the “new normal.”

As President Obama leaves office and takes up residence for a time in our fair city of Washington, DC, we wonder what tasks he and his wife will undertake. We have not heard much about their future plans, only that Michelle has no desire to run for office (she did her best for 8 years, but seems to definitely be glad that it’s over.) I don’t see them retiring, as GW and Laura Bush have done. Barack Obama did quite well as president overall, given the almost visceral opposition of the Republican Party to anything he proposed. Where I fault him most is in regard to Syria, where his reluctance to commit more airpower or troops by a war-weary USA was understandable. But it does seem that the bloodshed there and Russia’s support of Assad, a proven butcher of his own people, could and should have been prevented. I would count Syria as the greatest foreign affairs failure of the Obama administration.

Democrats’ greatest domestic failure was not enough focus on local and state races where Republicans have cleaned up and have re-set district boundaries. So Democrats will need to focus locally and, in Congress, to grill Trump’s picks for office with sufficient rigor that the press picks it up to inform voters. The electorate needs to keep informed and the media is crucial for that. Donald Trump can rail all he wants against the “crooked media,” but it’s more essential than ever to arouse and educate an uninformed electorate. We are now seeing how easily voters can be influenced by fake news and false statements—lies really—by Donald Trump, all the more reason to support genuine news sources. Of course, my pet peeve as a citizen of Washington, DC, is that we don’t have any congressional voting representation. Nor are Republicans likely to let us have it—ditto for Puerto Rico’s bid to become a state, another potential Democratic stronghold.

As for Hillary Clinton, while she put up a good fight against enormous and rather freakish odds and while the majority who voted for her, many women and girls—and men, too—are angry and disappointed that she won’t take office, her presidential ambitions do seem to be finished. She will have to find a new role; it’s hard to imagine just what, but she should not retire completely. Polls show her to be the woman most admired by Americans, so she needs to find a political platform before her influence fades. After aspiring to the presidency, she would not want to go back to a lower elective office, but that might still be her best bet if she wants to remain in public service. Or perhaps she can team up with Michelle Obama in an outreach to girls. I think that she and Bill are wise to plan to attend Trump’s inauguration, hard as that may be. She should not be a sore loser, even though her loss seems unfair.

Or Hillary may decide to simply retire from politics to become a grandmother, write a best-selling memoir that reveals Trump’s true colors, and give speeches here and abroad on behalf of the Clinton Foundation and other causes. Even outside politics, she would have plenty to occupy her time and energy. She also lives in a very picturesque little town and is beloved by her neighbors, who often ran into her and Bill out walking their dog during the sad days after the election. A neighboring house was bought for her daughter’s family. Maybe Chelsea will one day run for office?

Now, even after North Carolina’s disastrous experience with a “bathroom bill,” some in Texas want to try it there. Apparently, unknown to me, transgender people have existed—with or without surgery or hormones—and have been using public bathrooms all these years. Do we women really fearfully scrutinize anyone who looks taller than usual or otherwise not typically feminine using a public restroom? I haven’t heard of cases of a man in drag using a women’s restroom in order to sexually assault women, though when and if such cases occur, the guy should be arrested. Are people supposed to show their birth certificates when entering a restroom? This whole issue is a tempest in a teapot.

Little has been said about Dylann Roof’s family, who don’t seem to be rushing publicly to his defense. However, there is a brief mention of his troubled family past in Wikipedia and he is said to have written his mother a letter of apology.

Here’s a provocative and seemingly accurate article about inequality in Honduras:

Say it isn’t so: “In Zimbabwe, a First Lady Exerts Her Power(NY Times, Jan. 7, 2017) Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, is one of the main actors maneuvering to succeed him. [After Zimbabweans having waited patiently for Mugabe to die, the prospect of his wife taking over later is unnerving, especially as she looks rather young in photos.]

Regarding the US abstention in the Security Council and John Kerry’s frank diatribe against Israeli settlements, it seems obvious that settlements do endanger the “two-state solution” since they encroach on land destined for a Palestinian homeland. We’re talking here about a fight over dividing up a very small piece of territory—Israel-Palestine—a fight that has gone nowhere now for decades due to failings on both sides. Appeals to the Bible and supposed divine promises made thousands of years ago to Jews do not hold much sway with today’s Muslims, whether Palestinians or citizens of Muslim majority nations surrounding present-day Israel. Also, for the US to have continued to support Israel, right or wrong, on the settlements issue would have increased the image of the US as an international bully. Breaking that reputation was one of the same reasons that Obama made the outreach to Cuba. The US had also signed a very generous 10-year aid package to Israel beforehand. Of course, Trump seems to have a different view of Israeli settlements—we shall see—and Israel’s claims and actions are certainly supported by American evangelicals, so the UN abstention and Kerry’s speech may have created a backlash, at least temporarily, among lawmakers of both parties. Certainly Netanyahu seems to feel, as does Putin, that he has an ally in Trump. It will be interesting to see how much Trump changes the Republican Party and vice versa.

South Sudan and the senseless ethnic war taking place there seriously concern me because of my mission in 2006, before independence 5 years later. All the efforts to establish a new nation have been wiped away. Apparently President Salva Kiir, the man in the black hat, has the upper hand, so will he and his forces stop now?

Venezuela has now instituted a food rationing system similar to the one Cuba has had ever since 1962, providing limited items monthly via a ration book called a libreta de abastecimiento [provisions booklet], while Venezuela calls its version carnet de la patria [homeland carnet].

Haiti certifies presidential victory of first-time candidate
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – An electoral tribunal in Haiti has certified the presidential election victory of first-time candidate Jovenel Moise. [Apparently, there were many candidates and a small percentage of the electorate actually voted, so it’s unclear how much support he actually has.]

Regarding Cuba, my special interest as expressed in my Confessions book and my Amnesty International volunteer efforts over the years, Trump may have won Florida in part because of his promise to roll back Obama’s diplomatic accords. However, my advice to Trump now (if he would take it) would be to keep the diplomatic opening and to continue to encourage non-political educational, sports, artistic, and cultural exchanges. But, do not further relax the embargo unless there are concessions on the Cuban side, of which, so far, there have been few to none. Instead, allow US business investment in Cuba, provided such businesses are free to hire, fire, and pay their own workers directly. Of course, such workers would be paid more than the miserable salaries paid by the Cuban government, which could only get its cut through personal taxation, which in all fairness should not exceed the current maximum of 50%. Otherwise, the government would have the same problem it has now of workers not willing to put in much effort, because the leadership takes most of the fruits of their labor. Already, licensed home businesses are taxed up to 50%, but even at that high rate, working for real wages would boost both workers’ rights and wellbeing and still enrich the leadership at 50%, though not perhaps at the 90+% it now enjoys. There is a precedent in that Cuba permitted Indian workers to build a French hotel and to be paid more monthly than a Cuban worker would earn in a whole year. Call the new system “enhanced socialism” or whatever the leadership likes. Already it calls home businesses “work outside the government sector,” not private enterprise.

Cuba should also permit and encourage more production by individual farmers or truly locally organized autonomous cooperatives, with most of the benefit—and, yes, the profits—going to farmers themselves. It is totally unnecessary for a land-rich country like Cuba to have to import most of its food. Get the Peace Corps in there to help Cuban farmers recover their agricultural skills, as I first proposed in the Huffington Post,

This implies that the Cuban leadership would have to allow a relaxation, but it must do something to permit and incentivize workers to produce something of value besides rum and cigars. The leadership (dictatorship) will not remain in power unless it loosens up a bit, even if that seems risky from its own viewpoint. Venezuelan oil donations have been reduced and the Cuban economy, already on life support, is contracting even further. Now that Fidel is gone and Raul is retiring in 2018, the Cuban Communist Party needs to face reality and slightly relax its controls if it wants to survive. Still call the new system “socialism,” just as China and Vietnam do, and maintain one-party political control as they do, but allow ordinary people at least some economic freedom even though they may not be free to vote, speak, write, assemble, or access information. Most people, even in the U.S., care more about economic than civil or political rights. It’s admittedly a half-measure, but better than nothing, which is what Cubans have now, neither political freedom nor economic wellbeing. Some would say that proposing such a mixed system is defeatist, others simply realistic.

Some have argued that the reluctance of the Cuban regime to allow reforms is based on fear due to the proximity and size of the US and the “Revolution’s” historic mistrust of and opposition to the “Empire.” The large US-based diaspora, a crucial economic player through massive remittances, also influences US policy and may, through example and visits, encourage political discontent and dissent among its Cuban-based family members. That’s a risk the leadership will have to take because it faces the risk of even more widespread discontent and dissent if it continues on the current path.

Cuban authorities conducted a big military parade in Havana with marchers shouting threats against President Obama:

Here’s a Cuban exile’s view of Cuba’s recent big military show: The military parade instead of a message to Trump was one for the internal opposition. It said "If you mess with us well obliterate you!" Certainly the Cuban military, whatever its capacities, would be no match for the US if we really wanted to take over Cuba. The Bay of Pigs was botched and not a good example of American military prowess—rather, it was a ragtag bunch of exiles improperly armed and without air backup whose defeat was not a real test of Cuban military might. The Cuban military, given the size of the country and its resources, is really quite capable. It did well in African wars. But it could not withstand a serious attack by the US today, especially if drones and air power were involved.

The military marchers shouted rather scary threats against President Obama, referring to mortars and bullets being sent to him. The soldiers could not have recited that chant without the express permission or orders from the top brass. That Obama’s name was mentioned but not that of Putin’s pal Trump may indicate the Cuban regime is seeking Russian aid once again.

There is a danger to the regime after Fidel's death and Raul's retirement, although Raul will keep hands-on behind the scenes. Still, he is not immortal either and the Cuban economy is shrinking even as American visitors and exile remittances flood the island. Those seem to be the mainstays of the economy now. If Trump imposes conditions on their continuance, the regime may have to yield, while protesting all the way. 

One good sign for the Cuban economy, the first Cuban exports to the US, a special type of charcoal from a local hardwood tree called “marabu.”

A Cuban exile friend wishes that the polemics around whether Fidel was a good or bad guy would fade—he hopes that the very memory of Fidel will fade—so that Cuba can then get down to business. But I feel that it will take some time for the polemics around Castro to die down. The Cuban government would like his (good) reputation to keep them afloat, while some exiles would like his (bad) reputation to be used against the current leadership. Time will tell whether he becomes a bad guy, like Stalin, or an apparently officially revered guy, like Mao. 

The Peace Corps Association is planning a trip to Cuba again this year. It’s good to keep the idea of Peace Corps going in Cuba. Remember that I hope to live to see the day when volunteers are welcome in Cuba, as in China and Vietnam, so Cuba, get used to it! If I’m still around and not too old when that happens, I’d like to be among those pioneering volunteers. (The oldest PC volunteer I know of was 86.)

Here is a frank and seemingly realistic article by a recent American visitor to Cuba:

A friend has sent me a card saying "You Can Do It!" to help me move forward on the daunting task of planning and actually carrying out my Honduras trip. I know I will go, but often at this stage, I start thinking that I really don't have to go and maybe it's time to stop. Once I am actually there, it looks do-able again. I will keep that card to inspire me if and when I go back in 2018.

I’ve been invited to appear on a Spanish-language Miami TV station to talk about Cuba on my return from my annual February trip to Honduras and, if I decide to do it, I will say pretty much what I’ve said here, though some Cuban-born viewers may disagree, those who prefer to completely roll back the US-Cuba accords.

Finally, Trump’s assumption of the presidency is a sober reminder that we never know what will happen next and, while we try to maintain hope and keep up our spirits, that we can fail as well as succeed. Truth, honesty, justice, and other positive virtues do not always win out and sometimes matters actually get worse instead of better, so we may have to brace ourselves for that, even as we try to reverse the current political course. 

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