Laos, US Legacy, and Unexploded Ordnance

Published July 30, 2014

For decades, Laos’ economic development and relationship with the United States has been strained by unexploded ordnance (UXO), a legacy of the Vietnam War.

Roughly 30 percent of the two million tons of bombs that the United States dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War failed to detonate on impact. To date, only about one percent of affected land has been cleared and over twenty-thousand people have been killed or injured by UXO since 1975.

However, in January 2014, Congress allocated $12 million in funding towards UXO assistance programs in Laos as part of the omnibus spending bill, four times the average annual UXO budget from 1995-2013. This creates an opportunity for the United States to address a key flashpoint in U.S.-Lao relations while making strategic development inroads with the largest single benefactor of Chinese investment in the region.

Since the end of the bombing in 1975, the United States has provided $74 million in UXO assistance in Laos, with forty-percent allocated in the last five years.

Laos receives an annual $4 billion from China in mining, hydropower, and agricultural investments.

U.S. assistance towards improving UXO clearance efficiency will focus on providing better technology and training programs, assistance for families and victims, as well as developing the capacity of national institutions to absorb this assistance.

In previous years, clearance operators reduced cluster bomb related casualties from an average of roughly 300 per year to 41 in 2013. The increase of resources, if leveraged efficiently, can bolster these efforts and set the stage for significant economic development in the country.

There is a long road ahead – or rather very little road. UXO cover half of the country, and as a result only about 53 percent of national roads and 3 percent of local roads are paved. Additionally, there is no national or transnational railway system, and roughly 40 percent of villages and 10 percent of district centers lack road access during the rainy season. Clearing land from UXOs alone add 30 to 40 cents in cost per square meter of road creation.  As a result, large segments of the population remain isolated from basic social services.

UXO has also impacted critical investments in institutional infrastructure including schools, hospitals, water supply facilities, and power plants as scarce public funds are diverted to clearance efforts. The result has been a slew of development challenges that plague Laos, including falling literacy rates (from 89 percent in 2005 to 77 percent in 2012), poor access to clean water and sanitation, and an inconsistent supply of power.

The proliferation of UXO in Laos has stunted development efforts and prevented the creation of infrastructure needed to attract and absorb foreign investment. For example, the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business Indicators  estimates that it costs an additional $1,155 to ship a container across a border from Laos than it does to ship one from Cambodia. In addition, investors surveyed complained that even with low-wages, poor physical and institutional infrastructure, and a poorly educated workforce make the labor force uncompetitive compared to neighboring countries like Cambodia.

UXO also severely hampers Lao agricultural productivity and contributes to persistent food crises as farmers are unable to expand production onto otherwise fertile land. Although agriculture employs 76 percent of the population, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total GDP and as of 2011, only 7 percent of total land in Laos is being used for agriculture.

It is within the United States’ interest to ensure a prosperous Laos, and addressing the issue of UXOs is the first step toward this direction. Laos will ascend to the ASEAN chairmanship in 2016, and like its predecessors Brunei and Myanmar, will be well-poised to influence the agenda in the region. To this end, the UXO issue is low-hanging fruit that yields high dividends in terms of both developmental and political gains.  The United States has the chance to construct a new legacy in Laos, and for a host of reasons, it should seize the opportunity.

Image courtesy of Flickr under creative commons license.

Elena Rosenblum is a researcher for the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at CSIS 

Press Conference: Advocates Call for End of U.S. Support of African Tyrants

Published July 29, 2014

IPS’ Foreign Policy In Focus joins a diverse U.S. based activist coalition focusing on Africa is calling on U.S. leaders to cease their support and empowerment of brutal dictators across Africa.

A diverse U.S. based activist coalition focusing on Africa is calling on U.S. leaders to cease their support and empowerment of brutal dictators across Africa. The Coalition will host a press conference ahead of the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to take place in Washington, DC in early August.

The Coalition will focus on U.S. support for strongmen in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The people of these countries have been caught in a dictatorial death trap since the Clinton Administration that has resulted in millions dead due to wars of aggression and internal repression. The U.S. has dubbed these tyrannical strongmen, a “new breed” of “Renaissance” leaders of Africa in spite of the havoc they have wreaked on the African continent. Other heads of state from Ethiopia, Egypt and elsewhere on the continent will also be addressed during the press conference. A special focus will be placed on heads of state who are seeking to change their constitutions to remove term limits so they can remain in power in perpetuity.

Paul Rusesabagina (who performed Raul Wallenberg-type heroics during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and whose story has been captured in the movie “Hotel Rwanda”) is expected to lead the appeal in calling for an end to the support the U.S. provides to these African strongmen. Other expected speakers include: Congolese human rights activist Nita Evele; genocide survivor Claude Gatebuke; and Ugandan Publisher Milton Allimadi.

Co-sponsors: Coalition members include: Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN); African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN); Don’t Be Blind This Time; Foreign Policy in Focus; Friends of the Congo (FOTC); Hope Congo (HC); Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation (HRRF); Mobilization for Justice and Peace in Congo (MJPC) and la Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH).

Details

Date:
July 31
Time:
2:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Event Category:
Press Briefing

Venue

National Press Club
529 Fourteenth Street NW,Washington, DC 20045 United States

+ Google Map

MAG – Focus on Vietnam

Published July 25, 2014

For 25 years, MAG has been working to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance and, for 15 of those years, we have been in Vietnam. As a result, we have staff there who have spent their careers with MAG, working to make their country a safer place.

Most of the stories in this newsletter are written directly by those staff, so you can hear their voices as they represent MAG’s life-saving and life-changing two-fold approach – how we are the necessary first step in development for the poorest communities in Vietnam and how we represent hope for the wounded and families of the dead – hope that we can finally stop children from being killed from bombs from over 40 years ago.

Helping the Poorest Farmers in Vietnam

by Le Van Minh, Community Liaison Officer, MAG Vietnam

“I didn’t know what happened. There was a very big bang and I found myself covered in blood. I could hear people around me discussing how to take me to the hospital. The village was even poorer then: there was no ambulance, no taxi, no motorbike, not even a bicycle. They had to carry me in a hammock for 25 kilometers to the nearest medical facility. My hands had been blown off and my body was riddled with shrapnel.”

Pictured here is Nguyen Dinh Thu, whose family is one of 700 households in my home province of Quang Tri to benefit from a sustainable agriculture development project, undertaken by MAG and one of our development partners, Roots of Peace. Thu knows the danger of UXO very well. The above quotation describes his experience when he was 21, and his hoe struck a bomb that had stayed undisturbed for 13 years, since the end of the war.

MAG cleared Thu’s land in Son Ha village in 2012, removing 11 unexploded ordnance (UXO) items, enabling him to plant pepper trees so that he can earn a living with his wife and two children.

Pepper is a traditional crop and an important industry here in Quang Tri, due to its suitability to the local weather and soil. Pepper from the province is prized in Vietnam and around the world, and has a high value on the market.

However, many of the most suitable areas for cultivating pepper remain contaminated by UXO left over from the Vietnam War and, due to the farming technique required (digging of trenches up to one metre deep), most pepper farmers underuse the land because of the high risk of UXO accidents.

“We will use the additional income to send our children to school” 

Thu’s land was identified as a priority for the project that aims to produce commercial crops for the poorest farmers in the area. In total, MAG cleared 9,721m² of land at 17 pepper plantation areas, from May to August 2012, finding and destroying 69 UXO items.

Quang Tri Province, Vietnam

                                         

Roots of Peace then helped with seeds and fertilizer, as well as technical support to the farmers. On the cleared plantations, 1,043 one-year-old pepper plants are now growing well, and in two years, the first crop will be harvested.

“We will use the additional income to send our children to school,” Thu told me.

MAG’s work promotes development in Vietnam. New houses have been built, and new schools and roads constructed, on the land cleared by MAG.


June 2014

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

7 Faces of Vietnam

All photos: Sean Sutton/MAG

The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but explosive weapons dropped on the country continue to devastate lives to this day.

Countless unexploded bombs, missiles, artillery shells, mortars and grenades still pose a risk of detonation [There is no precise estimate of how much contamination remains*] – killing and maiming men, women and children.

This unexploded ordnance (UXO) also restricts access to agricultural land, and affects the construction of housing, roads and other infrastructure – stifling development and keeping communities in poverty.

Hear from some of the people affected below…

* Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor

1) Eighty-year-old Mrs. Hoang remembers the Vietnam War and its aftermath well…

“I was here in this village 30 years ago,” she said. “There were holes and craters everywhere. The authorities gave me a plot of land to grow rubber trees. When I went there I saw bombies [cluster submunitions] everywhere, so I asked for another plot.

“The other plot was much further away from the village and I discovered it was even worse! An old man helped me: he picked up all the bombs and buried them in a hole.”

[Quang Binh province]

(2) A grieving mother…

Thai’s son, Vu, was killed when he set off a BLU3/B cluster submunition in the schoolyard.

His friend, Nam, was injured in the same explosion: “Vu called me over to see something he had found. It was metal and was a yellow color. He started to poke it with a nail and there was a big explosion. I felt pain in my body. I didn’t know what had happened.

“Vu was on the ground with holes in him. I had blood coming out and was shocked. I arrived at hospital and, since then, it has been terrible. My friend is dead.”

“It is so unfair,” said Nam’s mother. “He’s just a boy and he didn’t know. He didn’t know it was a bomb. He didn’t know it would blow up.” 

[Quang Binh province]

(3) Tung Van Duc used to collect scrap metal – a deadly business in Vietnam…

“The accident happened on December 13, 2004. I was a farmer, but found it hard to support my family, so I collected scrap metal as well. I knew the job could be dangerous, because I knew several people that had been killed [in unexploded ordnance accidents] doing it.

“On the day of my accident, I was working with my metal detector and found a grenade about 30cm deep in the ground. It was aluminium, so it was valuable. I didn’t know that this grenade was still dangerous.

“I brought it home and used my hammer to open it up, to get the aluminium. It exploded and the next thing I remember was being in hospital. I felt a lot of pain and couldn’t see.

“It wasn’t until a while later that I was told that my wife and one of my sons had also been injured. My wife had shrapnel in her lungs and legs. My son, who was 10, was less seriously injured.

“Since then, life has been very hard. We are the poorest family in the village. I can’t do anything. I can’t see. My wife can’t do heavy work and still suffers pain, but she has to do the farming.

“My son never went to school after the accident. He has never been the same since that day – he has been traumatized. He’s able to do some laboring work, but he can’t do much.

“I still keep my detector: it is a reminder of that terrible day; a reminder that things will never be the same.”

[Quang Nam province] 

(4) Duong, mother of three, has been working for MAG for 13 years…

“I wanted to remove UXO [unexploded ordnance]. There is still so much UXO after the war, and we need to make land safe for families and for the country.

“Before working for MAG, life was very difficult for my family. I didn’t have a job and my husband’s work in a cement factory paid him very little. When I started this job, my family was very worried because of the danger, but now they understand and are very proud of me.

“We’ve been able to buy a small plot of land, and my children all go to school. They have notebooks and other things that they need. Life is good and I’m happy.

“I’m proud, as a woman, to do this work. After work, I have to go to the market and look after the children [her children are aged four, 12 and 16]. When I’m working, my grandmother looks after them.”

[Quang Tri province] 

5) Mrs. Nguyen’s land was cleared by MAG…

This photo was taken shortly after MAG had checked Mrs Nguyen’s land to make sure it was clear of unexploded cluster submunitions [“bombies”, to the locals].

“My son found bombies and mortars here, so I’m so happy that it’s safe and we can extend our house,” she said.

[Quang Nam province]


(6) Mr. Nam found a mortar bomb in his garden…

He is convinced there are more bombs under the ground: “I am too frightened to use the land. When MAG has finished clearing it, I’ll grow vegetables to begin with, and then extend my house. I have three children and when they get bigger, we’ll need more space.”

[Quang Nam province] 

(7) One of the many beneficiaries of MAG’s work in Vietnam…

More than 600,000 people directly benefited from our work to make lives and land safe in Vietnam, during 2013. 

[Quang Nam province]

MAG – Focus on Vietnam

Published July 24, 2014

Two more children die 40 years later



I have worked for seven years for MAG in Quang Binh as a Community Liaison Officer, and have heard about so many accidents in the poor villages: two 14-year-old boys, one killed and one badly injured when they set off a submunition in the schoolyard; a man, who is still suffering from the ballbarings pinned in his body as a result of an explosion; three children, one killed and two injured when they were trying to help their poor parents by risking their lives to collect the scrap metal. I have never witnessed the accidents, but could feel how terrible they were through the conversations with the victims or their families. Yesterday, this changed when an accident occurred 2 km from where I was working – an accident that killed two children, aged 9 and 5, in front of their parents.

It was a hot summer day and our teams were collecting information about the location of unexploded ordnance in Dong Giang village, Hung Trach Commune when we received news that two brothers had been killed 2 km away – they had been tampering with a submunition in front of their house. We went to the site immediately. It was in a rundown house, surrounded by hundreds of people. I couldn’t tell who was the mother of the two kids, among the many crying women there, but one person pointed out the father, still recovering from a recent traffic accident. He couldn’t move, screaming on his knees: “Today is my sons’ first day of summer holiday. How painful! Why didn’t God let me die for my sons, why did he take my sons away? They were still so young.” I couldn’t stop the tears streaming down my face; my heart really hurt.

I saw the pliers and a pair of broken sunglasses that they used to tamper with the submunition, a pair of torn sandals, a hole on the floor, and the balls. I went closer to the bed in the center of the house where the remaining bodies of the two kids lay. Someone pulled the blanket up, revealing the two dead bodies – one had no head:  legs and hands were smashed and blown away. People were picking up pieces of flesh stuck on the wall to put in a bowl, placing it beside the bodies. What a terrifying scene. I closed my eyes, felling breathless, and ran out. People were crying louder and louder.

Above: Tools the kids used to tamper with the submunition

Why did these innocent kids have to die? The older brother was a good pupil at school. He was just nine years old but always tried to help his parents. Every day he walked far to bring back some clean water for the family and took care of his five-year-old brother while their parents were out: a bright future was ahead of them. But the legacy of the war, which ended 40 years ago, has taken their lives away.

I informed a victim assistance organization of the accident, so they might provide support to the family. I left MAG’s hotline number there, in case they needed help. This village was on our list for operations next month. I wished MAG had been there earlier; maybe this accident could have been stopped.

I suddenly thought of my three-year-old son. This should never happen again – I have to do something. I will start teaching my son the first lesson of mine risk education today.

By Mai Chi

MAG Vietnam CLO

Online School for Girls puts focus on connection, collaboration

Published July 21, 2014

Untitled

By SARA HAYDEN

Much to English teacher Ed Raines’ surprise, his students had never heard Puccini’s soaring melodies that inspired David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” nor the way Louis Armstrong could make a trumpet talk in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

In the middle of a faculty meeting at Westridge School in Pasadena, he passed his colleague, a music teacher, a note. “What if we could build an entire curriculum based on pairing music and English together?” recalled Leo Kitajima, the music instructor who had visited Raines’ classroom to discuss musical references in literature.

Last year, the teachers found a way to make their dream course a reality when Westridge became part of Online School for Girls, a nonprofit consortium of independent schools dedicated to educating girls. It’s grown to include more than 80 schools that will offer about 1,050 enrollments this year to middle and high school students.

As educators, we need to decide where

 we fit in that landscape. I felt like it was time to ante in

 or we were going to fall behind.

– Director of Westridge’s Upper School Margaret Shoemaker

Paid by the online school, Raines and Kitajima built the course on their own time. Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition: The Music of Literature will be offered for the first time this fall.

Westridge is one of eight schools in Los Angeles County offering the online classes. The others are Marlborough School, the Archer School for Girls, Campbell Hall, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Louisville High School, Marymount High School and Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School. To join, schools pay a one-time fee that’s adjusted according to their size, and some help students pay tuition, which costs $1,419.75. Students outside the consortium can take the classes by paying a fee of $1,577.50.

The schools say that the cost is worth it and that they chose the 5-year-old Online School for Girls over other online options because it shares the same philosophies in teaching girls through creativity, practical lessons and by building bonds.

“In so many instances, technology is a distraction to relationships,” said Jemma Giddings, Westridge’s assistant head of school, but with Online School for Girls, “the emphasis is on connection and the emphasis is on collaboration. That’s the intersection right where Westridge lives.”

Online School for Boys will launch this fall and will pair with independent boys schools that educate their students with a focus on trust, purpose and character.

Margaret Shoemaker, director of Westridge’s Upper School, said she was excited to have more opportunities for blended learning, or a mix of digital and in-class instruction, after attending an education technology conference.

“As educators, we need to decide where we fit in that landscape,” Shoemaker said. “I felt like it was time to ante in or we were going to fall behind.”

By separating them according to sex

 you’re really acting as though all girls

 are the same or all boys are the same.

– Diane Halpern

Westridge encourages its students to enroll in the online courses if they have a scheduling conflict or a special interest that’s beyond the scope of its offerings on campus. They are taught by other independent, specially trained instructors from across the country and the world, including such places as Albania, Taiwan and Uganda. Classes are capped at 20 students each — setting the program apart from other online providers that don’t limit enrollment.

Teachers upload lecture videos that students watch at their convenience. Girls complete homework assignments in a variety of formats such as audio, video or text, and upload them online. Classmates can share feedback on assignments in real time through a video chat, or by saving comments that can be accessed later.

In many cases, students take courses to “go beyond,” says Online School for Girls Executive Director Brad Rathgeber. Courses such as psychology and computer science are especially popular among girls who are aiming to take Advanced Placement exams. Classes also prepare them for challenges outside of school.

Xochitl “Xochi” Green, an incoming senior at Marlborough School in Hancock Park, aspires to be a psychiatrist or neuroscientist. This summer, she said, she impressed her boss at a psychiatry internship with her newfound knowledge from an Online School for Girls AP psychology course.

“I really enjoyed the material in the class. I find myself talking about it all the time and using it,” Xochi, 17, said. “Right away I could use some of the terminology I’d learned.”

Online School for Girls stands out because it is specifically designed with girls in mind, Rathgeber said.

“It started with the idea that if you believe there’s a power to creating single-gender classes on physical campuses, that could be translated to the online medium,” Rathgeber said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.

Not all support a single-gender model. Diane Halpern, dean of the College of Social Sciences at the Minerva School at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, coauthored a study that found academic performance is more closely aligned with socioeconomic circumstances, as opposed to whether a student is a boy or girl, and that single-sex education reinforces stereotypes.

“By separating them according to sex you’re really acting as though all girls are the same or all boys are the same,” Halpern said, adding that girls and boys alike can benefit from certain lessons. “Everyone needs to learn how to collaborate. Everyone needs to learn how to compete.”

Erica Wu, who just graduated after supplementing her senior year with an Online School for Girls computer science class, said she appreciated having only female classmates at Westridge.

“The great thing about a girls-only school is that people are very open and not afraid to be judged by boys,” Erica said.

But the 18-year-old didn’t think it was essential to take the online classes with only girls; being behind a computer screen makes everyone more confident to share ideas regardless of gender, she said.

As a competitive athlete (she just returned from the U.S. Open for table tennis in Michigan and was one of the youngest athletes at the 2012 Olympics in London), she found the flexibility of the Online School for Girls to be invaluable.

“Online school worked perfectly with my schedule, because if I was out of the country, I could submit online. At school it fit in because if I didn’t have class, I could go do computer science,” Erica said.

She said the Online School for Girls enhanced her Westridge experience, but she wouldn’t want it as a complete replacement.

“Online school is great,” Erica said, “but there’s also something to be said about being with your friends, having that face-to-face contact.”

sara.hayden@latimes.com

Twitter: @haydensaraa

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

 

Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on U.S. Anti-Personnel Landmine Policy

Published July 10, 2014

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on U.S. Anti-Personnel Landmine Policy

Today at a review conference in Maputo, Mozambique, the United States took the step of declaring it will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel landmines (APL) in the future, including to replace existing stockpiles as they expire.  Our delegation in Maputo made clear that we are diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention—the treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of APL.  They also noted we are conducting a high fidelity modeling and simulation effort to ascertain how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of APL.  Other aspects of our landmine policy remain under consideration and we will share outcomes from that process as we are in a position to do so.  

The United States shares the humanitarian goals of the Ottawa Convention, and is the world’s single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action, providing more than $2.3 billion in aid since 1993 in more than 90 countries for conventional weapons destruction programs.  We will continue to support this important work, and remain committed to a continuing partnership with Ottawa States Parties and non-governmental organizations in addressing the humanitarian impact of APL.

U.S.-Cuban Relations on Higher Ed Level Continue to Grow

Published July 7, 2014

Untitled (1)

Something historic happened last January at Miami-Dade College. At a community college that stands as one of the nation’s largest institutions of higher education with approximately 170,000 students spread across seven campuses, 15 foreign exchange students from Cuba arrived at the school for a semester of study.

Despite the trade embargo and the lack of formal diplomatic ties between the United States and the communist island nation, American colleges have maintained relationships with Cuban universities for the last several decades. Many send professors and students to Cuba for study or research. But this was the first time in more than 50 years that the Cuban government had permitted students to come to the United States to study.

The student exchange is just one of several examples of change by the Cuban government in recent years. The government has relaxed some of its hardline policies and restrictions on issues like foreign travel by Cubans, as well as property and small business ownership. Political observers say some of these changes are driven by a need for a greater infusion of cash into the island nation. This way, a significant number of Cubans get to travel abroad. Some of these emigrants don’t return, but most send remittances back to relatives and friends at home, a move that significantly aids Cuba’s tattered economy.

This new form of openness by the Cuban government could lead to more bridge building between colleges and universities in both countries.

International students from Cuba are already studying at American colleges in small but slowly rising numbers. According to Open Doors data supplied by the Institute of International Education, 76 students from Cuba were enrolled in U.S. universities during the 2012-13 school year, up from 57 the previous year.

“There is a great desire from higher education institutions in both countries to see an increase and broadening of U.S.-Cuba exchanges,” IIE president Allan Goodman tells Diverse by email. “There are a number of U.S. college and university pioneers that have been bringing American students to Cuba for many years, but the opportunity for true mutual exchange remains challenging.”

Continues Goodman, “Despite a host of challenges, institutions in both countries have expressed the need to expand exchange opportunities; not only for students, but also for faculty and researchers. The potential for collaboration is clear and the motivation is high, but institutions will need to continue to navigate the ever-changing infrastructure to ultimately see any results.”

Some of the barriers to making programs like this happen are both financial and political. Most Cubans can’t afford the thousands of dollars (in some cases tens of thousands of dollars) to study at an American college. Moreover, many U.S. politicians still have tough attitudes about a communist regime that’s been running the Caribbean nation for 55 years. The state of Florida, for example, has a law that forbids public colleges from using state funds for Cuban-related programs or exchanges.

Most foreign exchange students pay their own way or get scholarships to come to the U.S. to study. The students’ tuition, travel and boarding expenses were paid for by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, which received a grant from a U.S. agency.

Students’ experiences

The students are a diverse mix of gender, race and age. While some of the students are teenagers, others have college degrees or law degrees, says Dr. Victor Vazquez-Hernandez, chair of the Social Sciences Department at the Miami-Dade Wolfson campus and the designated college official who oversaw the process of recommending courses for the students.

In addition to English language classes, the students, who are in the states on a six-month visa and are scheduled to return home in July, took courses in principles of business, psychology of personal effectiveness, introduction to computers and introduction to sociology. In all, they earned 12 credit hours apiece.

“The 12 credits are all transferrable,” says Vazquez-Hernandez. “They will transfer anywhere. The courses were chosen based on information we received about their needs.”

Vazquez-Hernandez says the campus and the community have embraced the students. “They’ve visited all campuses,” he notes. “They have had a chance to interact with students.”

Vazquez-Hernandez adds that the students met with a broad spectrum of the student body, including student leaders.

“One professor invited them to visit her history of Cuba class. They attended graduation on May 2. They were very taken by it. The faculty has indicated that the students have adapted well. They’ve been nothing but welcomed with open hands.”

As is typical with most international students, there have been some adjustments.

“It’s been intense for them because they have a schedule that is pretty full,” says Vazquez-Hernandez. “That took time to get used to. And the fact that they have free time — when you come from a system that is pretty regulated and no one is following you around — [that] took getting used to as well.”

Expanding exchange

The exchange program at Miami-Dade College has attracted the attention of other colleges.

Dr. Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, says his institution had been exploring the possibility of having a similar program at FIU, hoping to bring 15 to 20 students from Cuba.

He says he was pleasantly surprised to learn about the arrival of the Cuban exchange students at Miami-Dade College.

“I was disappointed we weren’t the first,” says Duany, a professor of anthropology.

He says FIU still plans to have an exchange program with a Cuban college. He says they would like to focus on specific areas like business administration, computer programming, English, hospitality and tourism management. Those latter areas, Duany says, are critical for the Cuban economy. He says these kinds of programs can be vital in erasing decades of enmity between the countries.

According to Duany, FIU is targeting next summer for the program, but admits pulling it off is complicated. He says university officials are trying to coordinate interdisciplinary faculty. The university has also identified private partners who would work with them and help fund the program since state law won’t permit the university to pay for it.

Duany says the academy is a great environment for bringing people of both nations together.

“The two countries don’t have diplomatic relations,” he notes. “So it is important to have this people-to-people contact. The university is probably the best place to have this happen.”

Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that has argued that the embargo is ineffective and counterproductive to U.S. interests, says the larger challenge moving forward will be how to expand programs like that at Miami-Dade College so it reaches a wider range of Cuban society and “not just singling out people because of their ideological beliefs.”

“It’s a great start,” he says. “The more people we have, the more diversity of opinion, race, geography and gender, the better. We can’t simply rely on one organization and one community college.”

Bilbao adds that, while he understands the natural affinity for Florida, he would like to see more exchange students from Cuba spread throughout the country.

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and a professor of history at the University of Miami, agrees that, for the program to have significant impact, it has to get bigger. But he says he’s not holding his breath.

“The Cuban government is not going to allow it on a large scale,” says Suchlicki, who left Cuba as a 19-year-old college student in 1960 and has not been back. “They are very concerned about penetrating influence. They are not going to allow it to happen on a large scale. There’s a reason why they’ve been in power for (55) years.”

by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

On Being Gay, And Socialist, In Cuba Today

Published July 6, 2014

by JASMINE GARSD

June 26, 2014 3:46 PM ET

 

Untitled

 

It was very late at night the last time Isbel Diaz Torres and his boyfriend were stopped by Cuban police.

“They asked for our IDs, which is a rare procedure,” Diaz recalls.

The policeman then dropped the men’s IDs on the floor.

” ‘That’s very funny for you, a very funny thing to do,’ ” Diaz, an LGBT activist, said to the policeman. ” ‘Because you want to humiliate me, that’s right?’ ”

He took the policeman’s information down and went to the station to report him.

“It wouldn’t change anything, but it is my civic duty,” the 38-year-old Diaz says.

There is a long history of homophobia on the island. “Sons of the bourgeois, they go around with their little pants that are too tight. … They want to do their girlie scenes out in the open,” is how former Cuban President Fidel Castro attacked the young opposition in a 1963 speech at the steps of the University of Havana.

During that time, gay people, along with other “counter-revolutionaries,” were sent to forced labor camps.

Cuba’s attitudes toward sexual orientation have changed a lot since then: There’s been a recognition of LGBT rights, promoted in no small part by Castro’s own niece, Mariela Castro. Fidel Castro himself has recently criticized the machismo culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality.

Activists like Diaz acknowledge the importance of these changes, but say it’s hardly enough. Diaz says it’s happening mainly in Havana, the capital, where there are gay-friendly bars, for instance.

But Diaz says he wants to be more than just able to have a good time out in the open.

“We can socialize. We can be together and have fun together,” he says. “But you cannot build political groups in those bars. You wouldn’t be allowed.”

Ultimately, Diaz wants concrete laws protecting the Cuban LGBT community.

“We recently have changes in the Communist Party where they included a clause claiming respect for people with different sexual orientation,” he says. “But that is not enough, because most of the people here in Cuba are not part of the Communist Party. We need real laws.”

The Young Cuban Who’s Bringing Activism In Line With The Revolution

For example, if his boyfriend is in the hospital, Diaz wouldn’t be able to visit him.

“Entrance to the hospital is limited to the familia, the close relatives,” he says. “I wouldn’t be allowed in … even if we lived together for 13 years.”

Attitudes toward the Cuban regime have traditionally been very polarized — split neatly between a right-leaning opposition and leftist supporters. But a new generation is changing that. Diaz represents a class of young socialists that is also highly critical of the government.

Diaz is a member of the group Observatorio Critico, or Critical Observatory, a network of collectives seeking a place in the Cuban political landscape. They have a blog, which they publish via email since Internet access is limited in Cuba. The activists aren’t really able to see the final product, or the comments, but still like to have an online voice.

Staking a claim in cyberspace is difficult for these groups. Finding an actual physical meeting place is an even bigger challenge. Often, they meet in the park.

In fact, that’s where we meet with Diaz; he says he doesn’t feel safe bringing us to his house. But meeting in public to discuss discontent has its drawbacks — namely, unwelcome guests from the government listening in.

The Cuba Diaz envisions is one where everyone can be involved in the decision-making.

“We also are fighting for a country where all the differences can be shared,” he says. “Racial differences or cultural differences or sexual differences can be, can live together, can find a space for themselves here.”

It sounds utopian, but Diaz is OK with aiming high.

“Maybe centuries ago it was funny to talk about the eradication of slavery, and it happened,” Diaz says. “I think utopia, that’s what moves a lot of people and thinkers and people of action during the history of humankind. We don’t have to be afraid of that.”

 

Untitled

Travel Freedom Raises Questions About U.S. Policies Toward Cuba

Published July 3, 2014

by GREG ALLEN

After being away for decades, many members of the first generation of Cuban-American exiles are returning to their native land. But there are still many uneasy with the relaxed travel restrictions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I’m David Greene in Miami. We came here after a trip to Cuba. We visited the island now to try and understand how it’s been evolving and what impact, if any, the changes have meant in people’s lives. But one big change is actually playing out right here in Miami. We’re going to talk about with NPR’s Greg Allen who’s based here. And I have the pleasure of sitting right next to him a park bench. Greg, it’s good to see you.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So we’re in a neighborhood called Little Havana. Help us understand exactly what this place is.

ALLEN: Right, well, this was the neighborhood that was first settled by Cubans when they came to America, even before the Cuban revolution. In more recent years, though, many Cubans live, of course, throughout the entire state of Florida. This has remained, though, a cultural touchstone for Cuban-Americans. As you go up and down the street you see plenty of coffee shops – agencies where you can send money directly to Cuba – also botanicas, the little shops that have herbal remedies and religious paraphernalia. It’s got a real feel, here, of Cuba.

GREENE: It does. I mean having just been in Havana, it’s amazing how familiar it is. And you and I are actually sitting in a park looking at a huge map of Cuba, if we needed any help with the geography. But as important as the connections are – as important as Cuban culture is here, it’s important to remember that a lot of people here in these neighborhoods around us, for a long time never traveled to the island even though it’s so close.

ALLEN: Right, for many years – you had people who had arrived here, say, in the 1960s, and they wouldn’t go back at all – refused to go back to the dictatorship, for one reason. Also, it was difficult. In recent years, though, we’ve had – the administration in Washington has lifted most of the restrictions on travel. So for Cuban-Americans, you can go to Cuba as much as you want. Also, even more surprisingly, we’ve had the Cuban government lift restrictions on their citizens in recent years. So now, for the first time, we’ve got Cubans traveling freely from the island – coming here and going back – coming on shopping trips and going back. You see it every day at Miami’s airport.

GREENE: It’s worth noting these changes – really recent. They’re happening really quickly.

ALLEN: Right, I mean, traveling to Cuba was really controversial here for Cuban-Americans until fairly recently. Let me play you some tape from a news report from a TV station here in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Travel agents say that it was set on fire overnight, and investigators believe this was no accident.

ALLEN: And David, that was just two years ago. A travel agency run by Vivian Mannerud that operated charter flights to Cuba was firebombed. Investigators confirmed it was arson.

VIVIAN MANNERUD: It was sobering, but it was right after we had finished the papal visit.

ALLEN: Police still haven’t made any arrests. Mannerud is convinced, though, that the firebombing was connected with work she did with Miami’s Catholic archdiocese, helping fly some 600 people to Cuba to attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict the 16th.

MANNERUD: And we had taken many Cuban-Americans – many who had said they would never go back to Cuba – many prominent Cuban-Americans, many wealthy Cuban-Americans. There was a part of the community that was very upset that all these people went to Cuba for the Pope’s visit.

ALLEN: Many see that papal visit as a turning point. Some prominent Cuban-American businessmen, long opposed to any opening to Cuba, planned return trips and began supporting economic and civic engagement. The most prominent was Alfonso Fanjul, billionaire head of Domino Sugar.

At Miami’s airport, the charter flights that leave daily for Havana are mostly filled with Cubans returning home after a visit and Cuban-Americans who have arrived in recent decades. But you also find Cuban-Americans, like Irene Ruiz, who left Cuba nearly 50 years ago.

IRENE RUIZ: I get out in 1966, and I back in ’96 or ’97.

ALLEN: It’s a familiar story. After being away for decades, in recent years many members of that first generation of Cuban-American exiles have been returning to their native land.

RUIZ: You have family, and then you need your family. You need that love – your family. And then I decide to go and see my family.

ALLEN: Changing attitudes toward Cuba also showing up in polls of Cuban-Americans. Support for the embargo is dropping. A majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida now support unrestricted travel – also talks in trade between the U.S. and Cuba. Tomas Bilbao is with the Cuba Study Group, an organization founded by Cuban-American businessmen who favor engagement with the island. With the upswing travel, he believes Cuban-Americans are voting with their feet.

TOMAS BILBAO: And let me just be clear. I don’t think anyone’s saying that we need to reward the Cuban regime. I think that what we need to do is focus on helping the Cuban people, even if that provides a benefit to the Cuban regime.

ALLEN: But there are still many Cuban Americans uneasy with the relaxed travel restrictions. They include Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: There are people that come here, and six months after they arrive – a year and half after they arrive, they’re going back to Cuba 18 times a year. And I’m telling you, that’s a problem.

ALLEN: That’s Rubio speaking last year to U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, a lobbying group that takes a hard line against any move to weaken sanctions on Cuba. Relaxed travel restrictions now allow Cuban entrepreneurs to travel back and forth, ferrying goods and remittances between Miami and Havana, which Rubio says helps the Castro regime. To counter that, he says the U.S. may want to revisit the special status Cubans have long enjoyed as political refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUBIO: People all over the country are turning to us and saying, well, why do you have a Cuban Adjustment Act? Cuban Adjustment Act exists for people that are refugees and exiles and that – of course there are refugees and exiles from Cuba. But if you’re going back 18 times a year, we have to deal with that issue. That’s a problem.

ALLEN: Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, after being here for a year Cubans receive permanent residency status and become eligible for government benefits, ranging from supplemental social security income to disability. Maurice Claver-Carone of U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC says there’s evidence that some Cuban migrants are abusing their special status, qualifying for government benefits here and spending the money in Cuba.

MAURICE CLAVER-CARONE: In a country where the average salary is $18 a month, which is Cuba, you know, $200 per month is 10 times that. So you live comfortably in Cuba. So people are making the decision – hey, we essentially can live off the government here, but, you know, essentially living most of our time in Cuba.

ALLEN: And David, there has been some talking in Congress about amending the Cuban Adjustment Act to differentiate between political refugees and those who come here for economic reasons.

GREENE: Alright, NPR’s Greg Allen with that report. We’re sitting together in the little Havana neighborhood of Miami. And, you know any changes to the law I can imagine Greg, probably a pretty sensitive topic.

ALLEN: Right, I mean when you talk about Miami’s Cuban Americans, you’re talking about a very important voting bloc in the nation’s largest swing state. So changes will be done very carefully if at all.

GREENE: All right that’s the view of Cuba from Florida. I want to bring in one other voice here and it’s the voice of the person sitting to your left on the park bench here Greg. Jasmine Garsd, our colleague who hosts NPR music’s alt Latino and was the interpreter for our trip to Cuba. And Jasmine, you and I talked a lot during the trip about what you thought of Cuba growing up in Argentina. It had a resonance that’s different than the one that’s sort of Americans are familiar with. Explain to me what you’re talking about.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Sure absolutely. Well I think it’s important to understand that Latin America has a really different relationship with Cuba than the U.S. does. There’s definitely a romantic vision of Cuba, a vision of Cuba as a paradise island, some of that is based in certain facts, I mean it is pretty impressive in a Latin American country to have achieved literacy and college education rates like Cuba has, universal healthcare. And there’s definitely I think a sense in Latin America of Cuba as romantically feisty, you know, of a nation that was at some point exploited by foreign interests like so much of Latin America is and stood up for themselves. Of course, you know that vision is counterbalanced by directors who make legitimate points out human rights abuses, freedom of speech, all valid points. But there’s definitely a very different perspective about Cuba in Latin America.

GREENE: Different perspective. OK, you grew up with that different perspective. Now that you’ve been for the first time what are your impressions?

GARSD: I think a lot of the great things I heard about Cuba are true. There is universal health. As we saw people are so educated on that island.

GREENE: Yeah.

GARSD: But they’re also struggling with serious human rights issues. They’re struggling with access to information; I mean we meet these highly educated people that don’t have access to the Internet. So, I would just say some things are just so wonderful and some things are so disappointing. It’s a complex story.

GREENE: All right, NPR’s Jazmine Garsd and NPR’s Greg Allen. Thank you both so much.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

GARSD: Thank you.

GREENE: We’re sitting on a park bench in Little Havana, also sitting here – NPR’s Nick Fountain, who did the fine production work for our trip to Cuba. You’re listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Cuba’s Budding Entrepreneurs Travel A Rocky Road Toward Success

Published

by  and JASMINE GARSD
When Americans think of business in Cuba, they think of government-owned enterprise. And the vast majority of Cubans do work for the state.
But in recent years, private business owners known as cuentapropistas have flourished on the island.
Cuentapropismo literally means “on your own account.” As far back as the 1970s, Fidel Castro was talking about how socialism and small business ownership could coexist. Today, they do so more than ever: Between 2010 and 2013, the Cuban government expanded the list of privately owned business ventures, such as construction work, restaurants and tailoring, that are legal on the island.
Franco says business was booming when she was able to import clothing from countries like Brazil and the U.S. Once the government cracked down on imports, she learned to sew.

David Gilkey/NPR

About 1 million people — or 20 percent of the Cuban workforce — can now be classified as wholly in the private sector,according to a report by Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution.
Barbara Fernandez Franco remembers being excited when that list of government-permitted businesses first came out. She combed through the 200-odd jobs, and thought carefully about which she could do. She decided on the “tailor and seamstress” category.
We met 28-year-old Barbara in one of the aging but gorgeous buildings that line the narrow colonial streets of central Havana, Cuba’s capital. Sitting in the stairway, she tells us it’s been a difficult road full of stumbles.
She started off reselling clothing a friend made, but the profit margins were very small. Then, she began buying clothing from abroad — from countries like Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico — which she then resold.
At first the project was as rocky as any startup business. But a few months down the line, she says, the profits were outstanding. Barbara was able to save a good amount of money — which today is helping her purchase a new home with her boyfriend, Michel Perez Casanova.
But that boom in business soon came to an end when the government announced that importing clothing for resale on the island would be illegal as of Dec. 31, 2013.
After Franco learned to sew, she started producing baby clothes and mosquito nets for cribs.

David Gilkey/NPR

Barbara was devastated by the news, she says, but while other businesses shut down, she chose to carry on as best she could: She learned how to sew and created her own line of baby clothing and mosquito netting for cribs.
At a small restaurant in the port city of Mariel, owner Onil Lemus told us everyone he knows is absolutely thrilled about the widening scope of legal business ventures. In fact, he jokes that he liked it better when there where fewer cuentapropistas —because he had less competition.
Even though business is good for Onil, he echoed what several other small enterprise owners said to us: One of the biggest challenges has been the lack of raw materials. In Mariel, for example, Onil said, there’s no access to wholesale food markets, which are so important to the restaurant industry.
Pointing to the delicious lamb stew he’d prepared for us, he explained that he’d had to go to a farm to buy the meat, but foods like rice and beans — staples in Cuban cuisine — are hard to buy in large quantities at good prices.
Similarly, Barbara said certain fabrics and ornaments are so expensive, it would be impossible for her to make a profit if she were to use them.
The widespread sentiment here is that the U.S. embargo — which has been in place for more than 50 years and is known asel bloqueo, or “the blockade,” on the island — is largely responsible for these kinds of difficulties.
Since taking over for his brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro has been pushing to modernize the economy. Onil said he’s confident that as the number of private business owners grows, the government will address these issues.
Barbara’s boyfriend, Michel, on the other hand, seemed more disheartened.
“Some tourists say that this country’s growing up now and it’s going to get better and better,” he said. “But, you know, the system here is so slow. Step by step. Very, very, very slow.”