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April 9, 2009
Baltic states preserve identities, but remain vulnerable

The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and have since all joined the European Union. Worldfocus producer Ara Ayer reported on a signature series from the Baltics and writes about those nations’ efforts to retain their national and cultural identities, even as the global economic crisis looms and Russia reemerges as a world power.

“Freedom of the moment:” An Estonian boy cries out at the apex of a climbing tower in Tallinn. Photo: Ara Ayer

Symbols of ethnic pride abound in the Baltics. Whether it’s Riga’s Freedom Statue, Vilnius’ Gediminas Castle or a little boy exalting on a climbing tower in Tallinn, no definitive monument stands to represent the ongoing struggle for independence in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The Baltic states may have traded membership in the former Soviet Union for entry into the European Union and NATO, but they struggle to maintain their separate identities. That they exist at all is a testament to the fortitude of their people. Before the Soviet onslaught, empires of Poland, Prussia, Russia and Scandinavia all tried to incorporate one or more of the Baltic states.

Possessing a prized coastline — an approximate collective land mass of two West Virginias, Vermont and New Hampshire, with a population less than New York City — the Baltic states remain vulnerable. Producing stories with Worldfocus colleague Sally Garner, I found each country has different approaches to self-preservation.

Up until the global economic downturn, Latvia had the fastest growing economy in Europe. It quickly shed its communist past and looked for security and success in the credit and economic structures of the West. Yet rather than providing safety and sustainable growth, Western banking policies and an awakened Latvian consumerism exposed the country to excessive risk.

Now, Latvia teeters toward bankruptcy. Street protests, government instability and rising unemployment are the hallmarks of a once-proud nation. In our reporting, we spoke with a Latvian on the brink of losing his job. He said Latvia is failing because it forgot itself, its strengths and limitations, in the headlong rush to become part of Europe. Disenchanted with a dream deferred, he says he’ll join thousands of his countrymen leaving Latvia for a better life. With over 40 percent of Latvians being of Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish descent, the loss of every ethnic Latvian puts the country in a quandary.

Lithuania and Estonia are in better shape economically, but not by much. The Lithuanian government is investing in language, specifically Lithuanian, to help preserve its national identity. Lithuanian is the official and sole language in matters of law, commerce, government and public life. If you are Lithuanian and speak Russian, Polish or German, check your ancestry at the door.

The Lithuanian government has empowered a language police corps to yank down foreign language street signs, correct publications and catch the nation’s newscasters in Lithuanian pronunciation and grammar mistakes. One wonders if such forced obedience will play out in a multilingual world. But then again, they aren’t trying to save the world — just Lithuania.

Estonia by and large is the most technologically-evolved of the trio. The country has placed its future in the digital age by building a “state of the art” civic Internet service. Via computer and phone, one can view everything, from a child’s report card to a live press briefing from the Estonian prime minister. A specially-encrypted Estonian identification card with an embedded digital signature allows Estonians to securely authenticate legal documents, vote, even pay for parking — all online. Estonians believe such Internet access makes for transparent government, responsible citizenry and better business — touchstones of resiliency in uncertain times.

No one can fault these small countries in their ongoing attempts to ensure their existence. Possibly the most important thing each is doing to protect themselves is participate in NATO, United Nations and U.S. coalition military missions. All sent combat troops to Iraq and all are continuing to send troops to Afghanistan. Though their collective deployment has never exceeded 2,000 troops per mission, their commitment to building modern armies and strengthening their ties with NATO cannot be questioned.

The reemergence of Russia as a world power has the Baltics — people, politicians and military men — on edge. Speaking softly but carrying a NATO membership may be the best defense and innovation in preserving Baltic identity and integrity yet.

– Ara Ayer

April 7, 2009
High in the Bolivian Andes women dish out llama pizza

A woman makes pizza at Minuteman. Photo: Ivette Feliciano

Worldfocus producer Bryan Myers is currently reporting from Bolivia and writes about one memorable dining experience high in the Bolivian Andes.

Self-described “foodies” have been known to travel far and wide for a memorable or offbeat dining experience. For sure, the ability to say one has visited an up-and-coming chef toiling away in some lonely outpost is often worn like a badge of honor.

But perhaps no food pilgrimage requires more stamina than the trek to Minuteman Pizza, located high in the Bolivian Andes in the town of Uyuni. If you haven´t been, there are only two ways for a tourist to get there — an entire day spent bouncing down dirt roads in a four-wheel drive SUV, or an overnight ride on a freezing cold train.

Minuteman Pizza claims to be the “highest” pizzeria in the world — and at an altitude of some 13,000 feet, no one is arguing. Minuteman is run by Chris and Sussy Sarage, thirtysomethings with quick smiles. But their easygoing manner belies the enormous perseverance behind everything they do.

“You have to be creative in Uyuni,” Chris told us. “We make our own tomato sauce from local tomatoes. Our fresh basil is trucked in from La Paz overnight. Tour buses operators bring us olive oil from Peru. And I have my cheese flown in from Argentina.”

That commitment has made Minuteman the second most famous tourist attraction in Uyuni. The town is also home to the famous “Salar de Uyuni,” one of the world’s largest salt flats. The “Salar,” as its known around here, is popular among the adventure set.

Each night, weary backpackers crowd the Minuteman. A cacophony of languages can be overheard in between bites of pizza and quaffs of beer.

Chris and Sussy Sarage run Minuteman Pizza. Photo: Ivette Feliciano

Sussy (pronounced “Suzie”) is a native of Uyuni. Her father was once the town’s mayor. She and Chris met at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the mid 1990s. Sussy was studying there; Chris had recently graduated and was managing a pizzeria in Amherst. After marrying, they made their way to Bolivia, first opening a pizzeria in the capital of La Paz, and then deciding to give it a go in Sussy’s hometown.

Finding fresh ingredients and getting them shipped to Uyuni isn’t their only challenge. As anyone who’s ever tried it can attest, baking at high altitude is nearly impossible. For the pizzeria, Chris designed his own special pizza ovens, built by a restaurant supply company in La Paz. When we asked him how they work, he responded in time-honored fashion: “That’s a trade secret.”

Training their local staff to prepare an “exotic” dish like pizza also took time. Most Bolivians have never even eaten pizza, let alone made it. But now, the native Bolivian women who work the kitchen at Minuteman can pound the dough and spin the pies with a flair that would make a Brooklynite proud.

“They may not known how to say ‘hello’ in English,” Chris said, “but they know all the names of the pizza ingredients by heart — caramelized onions, roasted peppers and sun dried tomatoes.”

Minuteman offers plenty of combinations that would be familiar to any American, like pepperoni, Hawaiian and the classic Margherita. But it also offers some with a local twist, like the spicy llama pizza.

So how’s the pizza? Pretty good. Our crew agreed that the classic Margherita, wafting of fresh cut basil leaves, was as good as any we’ve had in the States. But the winner by a landslide? The spicy llama. Unfortunately, you won’t be finding it any time soon at your local Dominos. For that, you’ll have to make the trek to Uyuni.

– Bryan Myers

For more Worldfocus coverage of Bolivia, visit our extended coverage page: On the Ground in Bolivia.

March 31, 2009
Guatemalans shed tears of frustration over U.S. immigration

Some Guatemalan migrants to the U.S. send money back to their families. Photo: Samuel Loewenberg

Samuel Loewenberg of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is currently in Guatemala producing a couple Worldfocus signature stories. He writes about the experience of Guatemalan migrants to the U.S.

People seem to cry a lot in Guatemala.

This applies to men as well as women, the country’s reputation for machismo notwithstanding. The crying seems to come especially when they are recounting their experiences as migrants to the U.S. It has been something of a surprise to be honest.

Over the years I’ve interviewed family members of murder victims, survivors of terrorist bombings, victims of medical malpractice, and I’ve not quite encountered something like this before. It is not that the trauma is greater (how can you quantify trauma?), but it does seem somehow closer to the surface. More than anything, I think what brings them to tears is a sense of grand injustice.

After all, they came to the U.S. to work, to provide for their families by doing jobs that Americans did not want to do, and they ended up being treated as criminals. The minimum wage in Guatemala is about $200 a month, well under the $250 a month considered necessary to feed a family, according to economist Jorge Santos, who says that U.S. economic policies, from the neo-liberal economic regimes known as the “Washington consensus” to the more recent Central American Free Trade Agreement have only increased the pressure on Guatemala’s poor, who make up the vast majority of the country.

Indeed, the level of Guatemala’s income inequality is stunning, with only a handful of families controlling the vast majority of the country’s wealth in what is almost a feudal system. The level of education for the general populace is among the lowest in Latin America, and malnutrition strikes about half of the country’s children — making it one of the worst such situations in the world.

In a small community center of the village of San Miguel Duenas outside of the Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua, dozens of men and women who had been deported after a raid on the kosher meat factory in Iowa, gathered to recount their treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration officials.

They described being held for as long as five months. They said they were given negligible access to lawyers and were unable to communicate with their families. Some said they were stripped naked. According to the Washington-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA, one woman was separated from her one-year-old child during her imprisonment. When she was released, she found her baby had been adopted by an American couple.

Workers told me they were hit by ICE officials, and when describing the abuse, which was not only physical but psychological, a rather tough looking guy with a mustache and gold chain broke down in front of me. “I came back with more scars than benefits,” he said.

– Samuel Loewenberg

Watch for Worldfocus’ stories from Guatemala in the coming weeks.

March 30, 2009
Street gangs target and kill bus drivers in Guatemala

Approximately 33 bus drivers have been murdered in Guatemala so far this year. Photo: Samuel Loewenberg

Samuel Loewenberg of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is currently in Guatemala producing a couple Worldfocus signature stories. He writes about the ongoing violence instigated by street gangs in Guatemala. Approximately 33 bus drivers have been killed so far this year.

In a country as bloody as Guatemala, the last two weeks have stood out. In the last several years, bus drivers have became targets for street gangs seeking extortion money. But the thugs are not breaking the drivers’ kneecaps — they are blowing their heads off. The number of bus drivers killed was around 80 last year.

Last week, as I was heading back from the countryside where I’d been visiting malnutrition clinics, the health worker who was acting as my guide told me that four bus drivers in Guatemala City had been killed all in the same day. During one attack, an infant was shot and killed.

A common theory, taken seriously by both government officials and everyday Guatemalans, was that this was something beyond mere street crime, but was in fact an effort by the right-wing opposition party to spread chaos and fear to undermine the current center-left government. Public officials received anonymous phone calls warning of an imminent coup.

When I asked a U.S. government official if a coup was likely, the answer was “probably not.”

There were fears the government might invoke martial law in response to the bus attacks. It didn’t, but many people hoped it would. The police here are perceived to be worse than useless — they are often considered to be corrupt and part of the problem.

During the elections in 2007 dozens of politicians were killed. It is a culture of impunity that permeates everyday life. This was underscored by a more openly political attack last week. Several days after the country’s human rights ombudsman released a report on atrocities from the country’s 36-year-old civil war, his wife was kidnapped and tortured with cigarette butts.

Thirteen years after the peace accords were signed here, violence and fear continue to be a way of life. Between the gangs, the narco-traffickers, and the looming military and police forces, Guatemala’s violent past continues to intrude in the present like an infected wound. After a long discussion about events both recent and past with a Guatemalan colleague (her father was tortured during the civil war, also with cigarettes), she cuts off the discussion: “I don’t like to talk about the past. It is not good to know too much history — it takes away your hope for the future.”

– Samuel Loewenberg

Watch for Worldfocus’ stories from Guatemala in the coming weeks.

March 27, 2009
Cubans complain about food, bureaucracy and too few jobs

Cubans in line for food. Photo: Peter Eisner

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner recently reported on the signature series Cuba After Fidel. He describes political life in Cuba and the changes in society he’s seen over the last couple of decades.

Before my recent reporting trip to Cuba for Worldfocus, I hadn’t been back to this island nation for 14 years.

I’d spoken with Cubans here and kept up with developments, but with the Fidel Castro era at the crossroads, I was interested in reporting firsthand what might be changing on the political and economic fronts as well as on the street.

Politics in Cuba is largely a guessing game. Since Fidel Castro receded from view, his brother, Raúl, has tantalized the country with scenarios hinting of a new era — do they await a Cuban glasnost?

Cubans have been encouraged to debate more in public, and the gregarious islanders are doing that, gingerly. I heard little griping in public back in 1995. This time I found Cubans, old and young, far more willing to speak outside the party lines, and give their names.

Not enough food, too much bureaucracy, too few jobs — the complaints came from people not about to jump on inner tubes and make their way to Florida. I spoke to people who complained but also valued what the Cuban revolution had accomplished.

Some wanted to leave, no question; but I heard mainly political discontent far short of insurrection, from people intent on staying. They did not mass behind the old party line. I was hearing both the complaints and the aspirations of people who were frustrated enough to try out the freedoms that apparently were being offered them. Stay tuned.

Cubans have more food to eat than they did back in 1995, the toughest part of the “Special Period” when the Soviet Union stopped its food supplies and financial aid, further isolating its statist model in the Americas.

Back then, I spent time with a group of Cuban writers and was overwhelmed by their creativity, their poetry and their generosity of spirit. One day back then, at lunchtime, I was hanging out with a group of five or six writers; one pulled out a package wrapped in paper from his shoulder bag. It was two homemade flour tortillas with processed cheese melted in the middle. Everybody tore off small pieces of the tortilla and they offered a bit to me — they called it Cuban pizza. There was hardly enough lunch for six.

It is evident — and Cubans agreed when asked — that life is much better now. State-controlled rations “guarantee” a decent amount of food to everyone, though there are often shortages in the stores where ration coupons can be used. Scrounging the money for extras, and sometimes for basic necessities such as shampoo, requires conniving or bending the rules and working the black market.

Cuban government officials argue that the U.S. trade embargo is not only unjust, but also anachronistic. While we were there, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet came to town for the annual Cuban Book Fair. Progressively, other countries have disregarded the U.S. trade embargo, which a succession of presidents enforced with pressure tactics on U.S. allies, especially those in the hemisphere.

That policy has collapsed; Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, told me that at first he considered the U.S. trade embargo a nearly successful effort to isolate or even annihilate the Cuban revolution. But he was proud to say that Cuba survived, and “few countries could have withstood that pressure for even three months.”

Now, 47 years later, “it is the United States that is isolated,” he said.

– Peter Eisner

March 26, 2009
War still rages on in corners of eastern Congo

A woman displaced by the fighting between Rwanda and FDLR, outside Pinga, North Kivu. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

PARECO rebel soldier at an integration ceremony where all rebel groups are joining the Congolese Army. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

A boy in Pinga, former FDLR stronghold. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Michael J. Kavanagh of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting returned to eastern Congo last month to understand the conflicting news coming out of the region. Below he explains what he saw in some of the most remote areas of Congo. Along the way, he reconnects with Pascal and Vestine Bumbari. He reported on the signature story: Pascal and Vestine are alive in Congo, but still not home.

Michel, we are suffering so much.” Those were the first words Pascal said to me over the phone in February, when he called out of the blue.

Pascal and his wife Vestine live on non-arable lava rocks in their new camp; his clothes are all torn; they don’t have enough food; the rain seeps through the tarp that covers their hut. Until the day we arrived, Pascal had done nothing – nothing – with his days for four months. Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps are not really the place you’d go to look for work.

There is a misconception right now that peace is spreading throughout eastern Congo. Tutsi rebel-leader Laurent Nkunda is under house arrest in Rwanda. There’s a new peace agreement between his rebel group (the CNDP) and the government. Joint-military operations between erstwhile enemies Congo and Rwanda continue against the Rwandan Hutu rebel group hiding in eastern Congo (the FDLR). It all seems like hopeful stuff.

But this new development, this surprising volte-face, is only a beginning. The main issues that caused the war in the first place – land, resources, tribalism, refugees and the continued presence of the FDLR in Congo – have not gone away.

To use the example of our own story: Pascal is Hutu, and he still doesn’t feel safe enough to return to his home, which is still – for the most part – under control of soldiers once loyal to Nkunda. And while 350,000 Congolese in North Kivu have returned home in the last few months (mainly to land formerly occupied by Nkunda’s troops), another 160,000 have been displaced since January as the FDLR takes its revenge on the villages where (they allege) people collaborated with the Rwando-Congolese joint operation.   It makes your head spin.

This new fighting is taking place in very remote regions – I spent days on the back of a motorbike to get there – and what I found was just as devastating as anything I’ve seen in my previous five years of reporting in Congo: Massacres, executions by gun and machete, kidnappings, sex slaves, torture victims.

So while the conflict in some parts of eastern Congo is settling down, there are other corners where the war rages on. This seemingly-endless string of local battles is often what makes people give up on the region – new place names to learn, new rebel groups to figure out.

But don’t give up just yet.

The new collaboration between Rwanda and Congo is the most important development in the conflict in years, and one of the main reasons the countries are now working together is because of pressure from the international community that intensified after last fall’s humanitarian disaster.  Sustaining that pressure is the only way to make sure this conflict truly turns a corner towards peace, so that good, hardworking people like Pascal and Vestine can finally return home.

– Michael J. Kavanagh

March 23, 2009
The not so friendly skies of Spain’s budget airline

Martin Seemungal took to the skies with one of Spain’s budget airplanes.

Worldfocus special correspondent Martin Seemungal writes about what it’s like to be a mobile journalist and vents about his luggage in Spain.

I’m a frequent traveler, but rarely fly on budget airlines. But when I learned an upcoming assignment would be in Spain, a friend told me “Fly with Vueling!” It’s the Spanish version of Ryanair or Easyjet…and so began my experience with a so-called “budget” airlines.

I had heard many stories about flying with budget airlines: The mad scramble for the elusive seat was a particular favorite and always somehow reminded me of the running with the bulls — only a lot less romantic.

But the crux of this whole matter is luggage. In general, when it comes to budget airlines, it seems you can’t take very much of anything. You can’t take much on the plane and you can’t put much in the plane down below.

When you start the whole process with Vueling, there’s a bunch of rules and regulations — the ones few people read — and somewhere in there is a number 20Kg, which is associated with a word: Suitcase.

You begin the booking procedure, departure and return dates, and then there’s a little box titled “suitcases for check in” which allows you to book/buy a suitcase, should you wish to. If you click on the dropdown you’ll get the option of choosing how many you would like to book/buy.

Now, I’m a television journalist and I travel with two checked bags. So, I chose to pay a small fee for two suitcases. Somewhere in all the warnings, you’re told that if you show up at check-in without paying for whatever it is you’re carrying, you will be charged more. I bought my ticket with two suitcases, confident I had covered all the bases.

Two and a half weeks later, I showed up at the check-in desk in Barcelona with the same two bags, armed with my computer printout. I put my bags on the scale and was immediately told “You have more than 20kg; you’ll have to pay for 25kg excess.”

At that point, I whipped out my printout and pointed to the fact I had already paid for two suitcases. I was prepared to pay for 5kg extra but an additional 20kg was outrageous.

It had no effect. I was told that each passenger is only allowed 20kg of checked baggage. “But I paid for two suitcases — surely that means another 20kg,” I argued.

But I was told that the number of suitcases has “nothing to do with the weight you are allowed.”

I was stunned. “You can’t be serious,” I said. But she was.

“Did you check the FAQs?” she said. “It’s all there.” I went to the relevant bit of the FAQs and came away no further ahead. Passengers can check in up to 20kg of luggage at a cost of 10 euro per flight and suitcase it stated. It then goes on to say that the maximum checked-in weight per passenger is 50Kg. I found it all ambiguous at best, misleading at worst.

I asked to see the supervisor. Despite my protests, he confirmed that, yes, that was the rule — 20kg per passenger, and you have to pay extra for every kilo above that. In the heat of our discussion, he then came out with a line I will never forget: “Sir, you can buy six suitcases if you want, but you’re still only allowed to take 20kg of checked luggage.”

I waited a moment before saying anything, hoping the silence would help amplify the insanity of his remark.

“Well, who would do that?” I said quietly. “Who would buy six suitcases to carry 20kg?”

“Sir, you’re not the first person who has had this kind of problem. Technically you’re supposed to fly back on your return flight under the same conditions as your outward flight. Of course, if you want to fly with the extra weight you’ll have to pay, but if you contact the airline maybe you’ll get a refund.”

I had no choice but to pay the equivalent of about $260 U.S. I later went online and filed an official complaint stating the process is misleading and asking for a refund.

It seems it wouldn’t take much to clear up the ambiguity. Somewhere near the part where you have the dropdown to buy one or two or FIVE suitcases. There should be a clear explanation that in fact: “The number of suitcases has no relation to the amount of checked luggage you are allowed.” Something like that. Or “You can buy all the suitcases you want but we strongly advise you not to put anything in most of them.”

I think if people saw that, they’d make sure to buy one suitcase and one suitcase only and fill it with 20kgs and only 20kgs.

I still haven’t heard back from Vueling, but I did get one of those automatically generated survey things telling me I was a valued and esteemed customer and asking me to comment on my recent flight with Vueling.

They can’t be serious!

– Martin Seemungal

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dr. Jaus under a Creative Commons license.

March 20, 2009
Worldfocus is different thanks to you…

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge writes that thanks to you, your e-mails and comments, Worldfocus has been able to shed light on important international issues that are seldom covered. Join in on the conversation.


Click to listen: Online radio show on the Baha’i faith and modern Iran.

Tuesday night is radio night round here — BlogTalkRadio. This past week we spent a half hour discussing the case of seven Iranian members of the Ba’hai faith who have been arrested by the Iranian government for allegedly spying for Israel.

It’s of course a legitimate story for Worldfocus, and it’s also a perfect example of how we want to make this show different from typical news programs. The difference is you.

This story was first brought to my attention by a viewer.  We ask for your comments usually at the end of the newscast and — perhaps surprising to some of you — we actually read all of them.

Shedding light on injustices around the world is of course a major goal of journalism, but such stories are increasingly seldom seen in the U.S. as domestic networks reduce their international staff and coverage.  After reading the viewer’s e-mail, this story seemed very much a case of religious persecution. We reached out to our partners and found that ITN had actually done a report from Tehran, which was the piece that made it on to our program.

After that piece aired, we had a huge influx of email about it. It was that interest that prompted us to spend more time and go deeper on the issue with our online radio program. Both the communication from you and the radio program are possible because of the new technologies we’re experimenting with online.

We knew from the outset that our broadcast is really only a one-way form of communication. We talk to you. is just as vital because it allows you to talk to us. What you liked or didn’t and what you think deserves to be covered. The site is also a way for you to read what people all over the world are saying about the international issues that impact all of us. You can join the conversation.

That has also been one of the core hopes of Worldfocus, to provide international insight to people that in turn sparks their thinking and a desire to know more. Then we hope you’ll come to our Web site, which is sort of an international watering hole to connect with other people from all around the globe and talk with them. We encourage you to share information or stories from our program with friends on the Web.

Which is another reason you are so important to Worldfocus. All of our budget goes into gathering news. We don’t have a promotions department or even a budget for such — so one last favor you can do for us. If you like Worldfocus…tell someone.

– Martin Savidge

Join in on the conversation by posting your comments below or Talk to US by submitting a video of your views.

March 18, 2009
Liberia rebuilds but fragments of the fighting remain

The streets of Monrovia. Photo: Megan Thompson

The former executive mansion in Monrovia. Photo: Megan Thompson

Producer Megan Thompson just returned from reporting in Liberia, where she encountered daily reminders of the country’s civil war as Liberia emerges from its past.

In Liberia, we listened to many stories of the 14-year civil war, but we also found stories we didn’t ask for: The hostess whose mother was killed, the driver who said he once painted his face with blood, the government intern whose family was almost slaughtered because a wall surrounded their home (soldiers thought that meant they were rich).

The civil war ended six years ago, but it tore apart this small West African nation. From the balcony of my hotel in downtown Monrovia, I looked out at the former executive mansion — now a shattered shell of a building, pocked with bullet marks and surrounded by trash.

The hotel owner told us that while he fortunately fled to his native Lebanon, about 100 people moved into the hotel to seek refuge from the fighting. That night in my dimly lit room, serenaded by the car horns and cacophony of the streets below, I wondered: Who was hiding in my room? What were their war stories?

Liberia is slowly pulling itself back on its feet and rebuilding. But everywhere you go, fragments of the fighting remain. Under the leadership of President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, electricity and water are being restored, schools are being built and Liberians everywhere are trying to find a way forward, away from the past.

In another sign of change, a brand new luxury resort has just opened on the outskirts of Monrovia. One night at the shiny new bar, the bartender tells us about his mother, also dead. He studies the drink recipe book intently, serious about learning this new trade, and talks about trying to make a future for himself: “You just have to move on.”

– Megan Thompson

Read correspondent Lynn Sherr’s blog post from Liberia: Liberian summit celebrates African women with laughter.

Watch for Worldfocus’ upcoming series on Liberia in the coming weeks.

March 17, 2009
A fiancée boards U.S.-bound plane, leaving Cuba for good

The view of Cuba from a plane.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner recently reported on the signature series Cuba After Fidel. He describes encountering young Cubans leaving behind loved ones and heading to the U.S., knowing full well that they may never return to their homeland due to U.S. travel restrictions.

One day in Havana, I had to go down to the state tourism office to change my travel arrangements back to the States. As most people don’t realize, there are a number of charter flights daily between Cuba and the United States carrying Cuban-Americans, journalists, members of non-profit organizations, students and educators who, among others, are in some cases exempt from U.S. prohibition from traveling to Cuba.

At the tourist office, I started chatting with a young Cuban woman who told me she was flying to Miami that Friday and was to be married to her Cuban-American boyfriend and remain there.

Three days later at the airport, by chance, I bumped into the woman, who I hardly recognized — she’d spruced up for the 45-minute flight to Miami. She was weepy, having just said goodbye to her parents and friends, not knowing when she would see them again.

It was the first time she’d ever left Cuba, the third time she’d ever been on an airplane — she’d once taken a domestic flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba to the east. A number of other people on the plane were similar: Young, single women who had obtained visas to go to the United States.

A flight attendant asked for a show of hands: “How many people on the plane are leaving Cuba definitivamente?” (a dramatic word in Spanish which could be translated as “permanently” or “for good”). The young women raised their hands.

It is hard to describe the emotions running through the plane, a lifetime of feelings compressed into a short jet hop across the Florida Strait. When the plane took off, there was applause, and the Cuban woman I’d met was crying as she craned her neck to see the Havana shoreline disappear under the clouds.

Only 30 minutes later, the attendants were announcing the final descent into Miami. There was no single emotion, just bits of emotion tossed together. At wheels down, the flight attendant came on the air again, using that same word. “For those of you who have left Cuba definitivamente, bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!”

Welcome to the United States.

For me, that bittersweet moment summed up the contradictions of the situation. These were young people leaving everything they knew and loved behind, cheered by the possibilities that the United States seemed to offer, frightened by the unknown. One could only wish them well, hoping that politics and ideology on both sides give a chance to the people who have been suffering all along.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yosemitewu56 under a Creative Commons license.

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