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June 26, 2009
Cuba provides free health care without the worry

A hospital in Varadero, Cuba.

Apropos of the current health care debate in the United States: What happens when a government you happen not to approve of does some good things? The case in point is Cuba, where the level of health care is startling.

Medicine has long been held up as one of the success stories of Fidel Castro’s half-century tenure.

During a Worldfocus reporting trip several months ago (February 2009), I had the chance to check out the reality of the claim at various points along the health care track. At one end of the spectrum, I spoke to a retired woman who lives with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in a small apartment in downtown Havana. The family’s basic income is about $40 a month. They could use more money, but not for health care.

The woman, in her 70s, was considering the merits of having a foot operation. It was a standard problem to straighten out some toes. I did hear some complaints from people who complained about a shortage of doctors and waiting times. Not in this case, which I chose at random. The decision was based on the timing; she was confident in her doctor’s skill, was not worried about a delay in treatment and didn’t even consider the cost. It was free.

There was an 80-year-old writer who had a quadruple bypass several years ago. He was taken to the provincial hospital with the best reputation for the surgery, recovered at the hospital and at a facility where his family joined him, and now has regular checkups with a doctor who reminds him to keep exercising. No bill for him or his family. It was free.

I spoke to an African-American woman from New York who attends the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba. The students there are Cubans and foreigners from two dozen countries; the young woman told me the program was life-changing; she would never have had the means to study medicine in the United States. It’s free — but wait; there’s a catch. Americans who attend must promise the Cuban school that they will practice medicine in poor or under-served communities in the United States.

Finally, I interviewed Dr. Gerardo Guillen, the research director of the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, who described pioneering pharmaceutical research. The center is experimenting with drugs to treat and cure prostate cancer and hepatitis C. The center already produces and distributes a drug that treats and cures deep wounds characteristically suffered by diabetes patients. Guillen estimates that tens of thousands of people in the United States could be saved from amputations if they had access to this particular drug. It’s not licensed in the United States.

Cuban Americans, among others, sometimes come to Cuba for treatment or for other medical intervention they could not afford back in the United States. The cost for visitors? Not free — but a fraction of what it would cost at home.

– Peter Eisner

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

June 23, 2009
What do Tehran, Panama & Washington have in common?

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed outrage at Iran’s violent crackdown on protesters in a press conference on Tuesday. Photo: White House

What do Tehran, Panama City and Washington have in common?

Failed U.S. policy and C.I.A. maneuvering played themselves out in those venues 30 years ago. When the shah of Iran was deposed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Carter administration twisted the arm of Panamanian General Omar Torrijos and convinced him to give the shah political refuge. The shah’s chief protector while in Panamanian exile was Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, Torrijos’ intelligence chief — all the while a paid C.I.A. collaborator.

Noriega told me in interviews I conducted with him in the 1990s for the book “America’s Prisoner” that Torrijos accepted the U.S. request “as a goodwill gesture to the United States,” despite protests worldwide.

Several times, there were attempts by terrorists to penetrate the security cordon and reach the shah; at least one occasion involved a zealot on a suicide mission trying to sneak into Panama with false documents. With the ayatollah declaring that killing the shah would be a sure route to heaven, we were certain that there would be such an effort and our guard was always up.

The United States has fingerprints all over the history of Iran, and Panama too — a legacy of manipulation, greed, disregard of human rights and democracy and failed understanding of U.S. long term interests.

The C.I.A. installed the shah on his so-called 2,500-year-old Peacock Throne in Tehran in 1953, overthrowing the democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddeq. Successive U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter, looked the other way while the shah’s C.I.A.-trained SAVAK intelligence agency repressed dissidents and their fight for freedom.

Barack Obama is attempting a new and pragmatic approach toward dealing with Iran after generations of mutual suspicion. He is concerned that a high profile would make the United States a convenient target for Iranian clerics. Obama’s conservative opponents at home are looking for ways to criticize him, charging Obama is not sufficiently vocal in supporting the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.

Where are they now?

General Manuel Noriega is a convicted felon and prisoner of war, held in a Florida jail since 1989 when the United States invaded his country and disbanded the U.S.-trained Panamanian National Guard.

The shah died in Cairo of cancer in 1980. His son, Reza Pahlavi, emerged from obscurity in suburban Washington on Monday. He spoke at the National Press Club, dewy-eyed as he hinted he wouldn’t mind running for president of Iran one day.

For now: “My sole objective is to help my compatriots reach freedom,” Pahlavi said. But if and when that happens, he went on, “I’d like to be able to be in my country one day, come behind such a podium, talk to my people and every other candidate…let the people decide.”

– Peter Eisner

Find our complete coverage of the Iranian elections at Voices of Iran.

June 18, 2009
Election déjà vu, from Mexico to Iran

Many Iranians feel disenfranchised by the results from last Friday’s election.

One day about 27 years ago, I was riding on the campaign bus with Miguel de la Madrid, the shoo-in candidate as next president of Mexico. His party, PRI — the Institutional Revolutionary Party — controlled the country from the end of the Mexican revolution until the year 2000.

De la Madrid was more interested in watching a soccer match – piped onto the bus via satellite–than in talking to a foreign correspondent. His victory, unlike the game, was a foregone conclusion. He looked up at me every once in a while when I asked a question. It was hard to get him to focus, but at one point I asked, “Do you expect to win by a wide margin?”

He turned to me from the screen and with a smirk said that he expected to win “about 71.3 percent” of the vote. He then returned to the soccer match.

The election was held about a month later — what a surprise, he guessed down to the decimal point!

The boilerplate in our news stories back then used to say something like “The Institutional Revolutionary Party has monopolized Mexican politics since 1929.” Code words for the obvious: They were rigging the elections.

This of course is an echo of what’s happening in Iran these days, where the members of another revolutionary party look like they’re trying to rig the elections too.

In the case of Mexico, they used to say that the government could get away with the fraud because people were afraid of a return to the bloodshed they suffered during their revolution. More than one million people died in the Mexican revolution. The PRI, to its credit, peacefully accepted electoral defeat in 2000 and now is in the opposition.

Where is the tipping point when people in any country — fundamentalist, socialist, conservative, liberal, red state, blue state — won’t accept the results of a fraudulent election? The balance involves fighting for freedom and democracy on the one hand, while knowing that uncertainty, even violence lie ahead on the road to get there.

-Peter Eisner

Find our complete coverage of the Iranian elections at Voices of Iran.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ehsan khakbaz under a Creative Commons license.

June 16, 2009
Argentina’s president faces uphill battle as economy tightens

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Listen to our online radio show on Argentina’s farming crisis.

For a snapshot of how the U.S. economy affects everyone, have a look at the travels and travails of the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

And for a confounding case of a great country where democracy never quite gets its act together, have a look at Argentina as well.

Kirchner is midway through her four-year term of office, but questions are being raised about whether she can make it to the end of 2011. The problem involves both style and substance.

The president faces considerable criticism for the flailing Argentine economy. She’s been criticized for measures that expanded state control and for provoking anger by imposing trade tariffs on farm goods. Her style of governing is often characterized as arrogant — the same charge often faced by her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who preceded her as president.

This week, Kirchner was attending a meeting of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, where she and other leaders railed at international financial organizations that provoked the world credit crunch and recession. The results have been strange, to say the least. She said:

My government has just provided credit to General Motors so it wouldn’t shut down. If someone had told me that as president I was going to give a loan to an American multinational car manufacturer, which had just been nationalized by an African American president of the United States, it would have sounded insane.

Mi gobierno acaba de dar un crédito a General Motors para que no cierre sus puertas. Si alguien me hubiese dicho que como presidenta iba a dar un préstamo a una multinacional automotriz americana, que acababa de ser estatizada por un presidente afroamericano de los Estados Unidos, me hubiera parecido un delirio.

Argentina holds congressional elections on June 28, moved up from later in the year by the president and her party in hopes of shoring up waning support. It may not be enough. Clarin, Argentina’s leading newspaper, raised the possibility that Kirchner might be forced to resign or hold early presidential elections if the congressional losses are great.

Unfortunately, that would not be a shocking precedent. Argentinians are proud of 25 years of democracy after the departure of a cruel, murderous military dictatorship. But few of the country’s presidents in recent years have surrendered the blue and white presidential sash at the constitutional end of their terms. One of the few is Kirchner’s husband, Nestor, who served from 2003 to 2007. He is now blaming the news media — especially the leading daily, Clarin — charging they were stirring up rumors and trouble about his wife’s tenure in office.

Clarin reported on Kirchner’s criticism of its own reporting, saying the ex-president “accused Clarin of ‘inventing, lying, manipulating information and threatening the social peace and institutional stability of the nation.’ ”

– Peter Eisner

Also, watch the Worldfocus signature story “Farmers, drought and taxes cripple Argentina.”

June 12, 2009
Somali piracy by a different name

Off the coast of Somalia.

Here’s a different take on the issue of piracy off the African coast: The people we call pirates think that they are the ones under attack?

It reminds me of the old saying: One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. In any case, no one is about to justify piracy on the high seas, but a bit of critical thinking and analyzing root causes never hurt.

The case at hand is a report in The Times of London, in which a 38-year-old man, Farah Ismail Eid, said his life was once based on running humble fishing business. Eid is now held in prison on charges of –unsuccessfully—trying to raid foreign ships.

He sets the story on its head. He told the Times:

“I believe the title of pirates should be given to those who come to our waters illegally,” he said, after shuffling into a room at the British colonial-era Mandheera prison, 40 miles south of Berbera, wearing plastic sandals, a T-shirt and a length of printed material wrapped around his skinny waist.

Eid says that life for Somali fishermen changed when foreign fishing trawlers began operating close to shore and other foreigners began dumping toxic waste close by. He’s well aware that raiding ships on the high seas and demanding ransom is wrong. But he considers it a matter of survival.

As a result, the world’s greatest navies are chasing after fast boats manned by people who feel they are justified. It doesn’t help, of course, that Somalia has been lawless for years and wracked by civil war.

Eid’s solution, also from The Times:

“The international community should come and talk to us; they should compensate us for the problems caused to our waters by illegal fishing and toxic waste,” he said. “Then, until the government is in place in Somalia, we could protect the ships as they cross our waters.”

– Peter Eisner

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

June 12, 2009
U.S. accuses American couple of spying for Cuba

Former State Department employee Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, are being held without bond on charges of spying for Cuba.

A strange case of alleged spying on behalf of Cuba has popped up in Washington, raising fascinating questions about personality, motivation and Cuba’s goals in espionage.

The case involves Kendall Myers, now retired from the State Department’s intelligence branch, and his wife Gwendolyn, a former computer specialist at Riggs National Bank.

The couple is portrayed as enthusiastic converts to the cause of protecting Cuba against the United States and providing information to the Cuban government for years.

They were caught by a sting in which an FBI agent posed as a Cuban operative and asked them to return to the fold after several years of avoiding spy activities.

The magistrate who denied bail in the case indicated, as reported by the Washington Post, that they were caught red-handed.

The judge also noted that Walter Kendall Myers, 72, and his wife, Gwendolyn, 71, had marked on their calendar a yacht trip to the Caribbean in November with no return date, indicating a possible escape plan.

“To put it bluntly, the government’s case seems at this point insuperable,” wrote U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, in an opinion issued after a hearing in U.S. District Court.

Former colleagues of Kendall Myers are obviously upset, as the Post also reported:

“The bureau people are very angry about it. Really angry. But also bewildered,” said Wayne White, who worked on Middle Eastern issues in the bureau for a quarter-century before retiring in 2005. “This seemingly intelligent and urbane person was convinced that Castro’s Cuba was this terrific place?”

Among the interesting side notes to the case is the fact that Myers has an interesting pedigree. He has a PhD from John Hopkins and is a descendant of Alexander Graham Bell.

My friend Jeff Stein points out another interesting sidelight to the story, reported by The American Thinker.

A writer for the Web site noted that Gwendolyn Myers’ position at Riggs Bank, a prominent Washington, D.C. bank which folded several years ago, could have been more valuable to Cuban intelligence than the State Department link:

She could have provided valuable information on her own to the Cubans. At that time Riggs bank was the premiere banking institution in the Washington metropolitan area. It had branches in many big embassies, laundered money for people and governments, had CIA officials on its payroll and otherwise was the repository of significant amounts of information which would be of considerable use to Fidel.

Fidel Castro, for his part, said last week he knew nothing about the couple, and thought their arrest was related to opposition in the United States to a political opening toward Cuba.

He expressed doubt that any of it ever happened, but if it did he admired the Myers for what they might have done.

“The confrontation with the United States is of an ideological character and has nothing to do with the security of that country. Don’t you all find the whole story about Cuban espionage quite ridiculous?”

– Peter Eisner

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

June 9, 2009
Police clash with indigenous protesters in Peru

Peru has seen clashes between indigenous protesters and police.

Alan Garcia, the president of Peru, appears to be a prizewinner for spouting some of the most inopportune, politically incorrect statements we’ve seen this month.

Garcia faces a revolt by an indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon, where protesters have clashed with police over mineral rights issues. About two-dozen police and 30 civilians have been killed, and hundreds of people have been wounded.

There’s no question that the leader of the protest, Alberto Pizango, is out to capitalize on government mistakes. He called a government attack on protesters last weekend “genocide” and is rallying discontent among impoverished Peruvians.

Even in translation, and even allowing for connotations and social context, Garcia’s response is wooden. He rejected the indigenous protest as subversion in terms tinged with ethnic intolerance:

Estas personas no tienen corona, no son ciudadanos de primera clase que puedan decirnos 400 mil nativos a 28 millones de peruanos tu no tienes derecho de venir por aquí, de ninguna manera, eso es un error gravísimo y quien piense de esa manera quiere llevarnos a la irracionalidad y al retroceso primitivo.

These people don’t wear a crown, they are not first class citizens who can tell us, 400,000 natives to 28 million Peruvians, ‘you don’t have the right to come here at all’; this is a very grave error and anyone who thinks that wants to lead us into irrationality and a primitive retreat.

The larger context is the kind of racial intolerance that is too often evident in Peru and its neighboring countries. Garcia’s predecessor was the country’s first indigenous president, Alejandro Toledo, who rose from poverty to attend Stanford University and work at the World Bank. That didn’t stop the Peruvian elite from sneeringly referring to him as “El Cholo” — not necessarily a positive term.

Peruvian violence often has undertones of class warfare: The advance of the Shining Path in the 1980s was a blend of Marxist theoreticians reaching out and cultivating recruits among the dispossessed poor.

Peruvians hear Garcia and many don’t like it. One response on a Web site:

Que son ciudadanos de primera? que yo sepa,no hay nadie superior a nadie por que todos nacemos y morimos igual,la clasificacion y division de personas en rangos sociales(nobleza,burguesia y plebeyos)son cosas que ya no exipten eso quedo atras hace ya mucho tiempo.

Who are first class citizens? As far as I know, no one is superior to anyone else because we all are born and die the same way; the classification and division of people by social rank (nobility, bourgeois and plebians) are things that no longer exist…that was left behind a long time ago.

No surprise that Garcia has a sinking popularity rating — down to around 33 percent, according to recent polling.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jake G under a Creative Commons license.

June 5, 2009
OAS lifts ban on Cuba after compromise with U.S.

The Organization of American States has voted to rescind the ban on Cuba’s membership. Photo: OAS

The Organization of American States has voted to rescind the ban on Cuba’s membership in the largely U.S.-financed, Washington-based assemblage, but don’t stop the presses (or click the send button) on that one. Nothing has happened — not quite, not yet.

The decision was a perfect compromise at the end of an OAS meeting in San Pedro Sula, Honduras this week. The definition of a perfect compromise? Neither side is particularly happy.

Thirty-three of the 34 members of the OAS want to bring Cuba in from the political wilderness and have diplomatic relations with Cuba. But the United States pays for 60 percent of the OAS budget, and OAS headquarters is an august building about a block and a half from the White House. Attention must be paid.

Opponents of the Cuban government in Washington immediately called for a re-examination of providing $47 million toward the OAS budget for the next fiscal year.

The compromise vote to end the Cuba ban came after the United States managed to get a little codicil added to the declaration, in diplomatic speak:

The participation of Cuba in the OAS will be the result of a process of dialogue to be initiated at the request of the Government of Cuba and in compliance with the practices, goals and principles of the OAS.

Apparently, Cuba can only rejoin the OAS if it meets democratic and human rights guidelines, part of the OAS charter. In any case, Cuba hailed the OAS decision as historic, but said it isn’t interested in rejoining, for now.

Nevertheless, the reaction from Havana was triumphant. This was the online headline of Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party:

Fidel and the Cuban people have been absolved by history

The case is left in President Obama’s very full court. U.S. policy, despite some changes in recent months, is pretty much where it was before George W. Bush took office. Opponents of Cuba in Congress will make lots of noise if the Obama administration moves quickly to end the 47-year U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Here’s what William Leogrande, Dean of the American University School of Public Affairs, said, quoted by the Miami Herald:

It was a ”perfect compromise” — with both the United States and its ”antagonists,” chiefly the leftist governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua — declaring victory.

[…] if the United States had failed to accept a compromise it would have left “with a resolution that made no mention of any underlying principles and with the creation of deep animosity toward the U.S.'”

– Peter Eisner

June 3, 2009
“Left versus right” labels should be left aside in Latin America

Cuba is not a member of the Organization of American States. Photo: OAS

The wittiest of the Marxes (Groucho, not Karl) said famously, “I wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member.” It is an often-used quote that fits well with news about Cuba coming from a meeting this week of the Organization of American States in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Hillary Rodham Clinton faced a harangue from OAS members demanding that Cuba be invited to become a member of the organization. A New York Times piece about the meeting said this:

On one level, it seems a sterile debate: Cuba has said often and loudly that it does not want to rejoin the organization. But on a deeper level, the meeting has showcased Latin America’s resurgent political left, which has seized on Cuba as an issue with which to press the United States.

How much does this involve the misapplication of those overused words, “left versus right?” It can also be argued that all of Latin America yearns for a different relationship with the United States under the new presidency of Barack Obama. Cuba has diplomatic and trade ties with something like 170 countries around the world — left, center and right.

Back in Washington, the dominant move for a change in stagnant and stymied Cuban relations comes from the offices of Republican Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who only Rush Limbaugh might try to label as a leftist. Lugar doesn’t support OAS membership for Cuba, but he calls for rethinking U.S. relations with Cuba. 

The OAS is a sideshow compared with appeals from Lugar and others, including U.S. businesses looking to open Cuba as a lucrative new market. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans and even a majority of the Cuban-American community in the United States support an end to the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba. 

So whether or not Cuba is invited to join the OAS, the focus is on Washington: How quickly and to what extent will the Obama administration promote the changes that appear close at hand?

– Peter Eisner

For more, watch Martin Savidge’s interview with Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations: Clinton outlines conditions for Cuba entry to OAS.

June 1, 2009
U.S. watches from sidelines as power shifts in El Salvador

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets children upon her arrival in El Salvador, where she will attend the inauguration of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

An extraordinary event is taking place in El Salvador today — the peaceful exchange of power between two leaders whose parties were once adversaries unto death.

Mauricio Funes becomes the new president of El Salvador, succeeding Antonio Saca. Funes is the standard bearer of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), which waged a guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government in the 1970s and 1980s.

Saca is completing a five-year term. His party, ARENA, the National Republican Alliance, was closely linked to death squads during the FMLN insurgency.

Twenty years ago, the news pages in El Salvador and in the United States were soaked with stories of bloody attacks and assassinations of priests and nuns and people caught in the crossfire. The supposition by some at the time — spouted by then-President Ronald Reagan — was that El Salvador, along with Nicaragua, was a domino in the communist march toward the Texas border.

Tens of thousands of deaths (civilians took the highest losses) and billions of dollars of U.S. aid later, the war is a troubling memory. Funes was a reporter during the civil war, and unlike other current FMLN leaders, was not a combatant.

Dominoes then, the Central American wars can only be remembered as a loss of life and resources, never won, never lost, but evolving into peace only when the United States backed off and the fighting stopped.

What will we be saying in 20 years about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which preoccupy American foreign policy now, and where lives and billions of dollars are also draining away?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in El Salvador for the inauguration. Will she be thinking of the comparison?

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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