Funding Boost for Cambodia’s Hero Mine-Detecting Rats NGO

Published April 8, 2015

The Belgian demining NGO APOPO, which is pioneering the use of mine-detecting rats in the former battlefields of Cambodia, has received funding from the German government to expand its mine-clearance work in the country.

In November, the government gave the green light for APOPO to begin testing highly skilled African Giant Pouched Rats—nicknamed Hero Rats—on Cambodian soil.

Hero Rats have achieved noted success over the past four years in sniffing out thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Mozambique and Angola.

Germany’s funding will help the NGO deploy 180 specialists in Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces to work alongside the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the organization said in a statement.

“Funding from the German Federal Government will go far to help mine impacted communities and help rid the country of these deadly weapons. We look forward to working with our partner CMAC for this effort,” said Kim Warren, country director for APOPO.

Over the past decade, Germany has provided over $15 million to Cambodia to support mine clearance operations.

Its decision to back the innovative Belgian NGO and its Hero Rats project reflects its ongoing commitment to helping Cambodia achieve the targets set by the 2010 to 2019 National Mine Action Strategy, the statement added.

The value of the grant was not disclosed, but last year Germany pledged $391,467 to APOPO’s demining activities in Thailand along its border with Cambodia, while last month it committed $359,940 to the NGO’s demining efforts in Vietnam’s central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

Mines and UXO have killed more than 19,000 Cambodians and injured about 45,000 since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and though the country is lauded internationally for its demining efforts, much work remains to be done.

Landmines and unexploded remnants of war killed 22 people and injured 111 more last year, according to figures from CMAC.

Ten Hero Rats are in the final phase of training at the organization’s research center in Tanzania before being sent to Cambodia to begin acclimatization and performance tests, according to APOPO.

A team of Cambodian recruits will soon be trained to lead the rats on their first missions outside of Africa.


© 2014, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

A Reason to Smile


Today marks the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.



Joy Watson travelled with Network for Africa founder Rebecca Tinsley and others to Rwanda in March. Today, on the 21st anniversary of the start of the genocide, we share her impressions of Rwanda.

“The land of a thousand hills and a million smiles” declares the large billboard that greets new arrivals at Kigali airport in the beautiful country of Rwanda. This marked my second visit to Africa, my first to Rwanda, but was this bold declaration true? I was intrigued to discover what this small, land-locked nation was truly like, not least because it is the same size as my native Wales, which also boasts a large number of hills. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Wales is surrounded on three sides by the sea, has a population a third of the size of Rwanda and despite political and social injustices laced through its history, did not experience a million deaths in three months, just two decades ago.

As our trip unfolded, it became clear it was going to be one of striking contrasts. We went from visiting amazing life-giving projects funded by Network for Africa, where women and children were given dignity, knowledge, skills for life and productivity, to viewing memorial sites where the clothes of those murdered were draped over pews that had not been used for worship for almost 21 years. The pervasive stench of trauma, desolation and death still hung rank in the air.

As a counsellor, I am used to confronting the effects of loss, pain, abuse and trauma, but what I was seeing and sensing was on a whole different level to that which I had ever seen and sensed before. Here was a country that appeared to have had its very heart ripped out in the seemingly senseless decimation of so many innocent lives. Is it ever possible to smile again after something like that? Apparently so. Admittedly the smiles were slow, reticent, wary, but nonetheless genuine. These remarkable people reached out and responded to kindness, empathy and warmth. They opened up to us in ways hard to comprehend given their experiences. They shared their stories and their lives and the little they have so generously, whilst exhibiting such extraordinary resilience and tenacity.

There’s another tag line bandied around in this enigmatic country: “Rwanda, the heart of Africa.” Whilst I suspect this is a reference to its geographical location, I found myself wondering ‘what if’. What if this stunning, lush, ‘full of potential’ nation were to become the ‘heart’ of Africa? A place of life and energy where the life-blood is pumped carefully, lovingly, equitably to every part; where compassion, empathy and kindness pulse and spill out into all communities and surrounding countries. A place of passion, creativity, colour and restoration, where differences are celebrated and all life is valuable. Now that would be something to smile about.

Copyright © 2015 Network for Africa, All rights reserved.

Cuba Lowers Expectations on Eve of High-Level Talks With US

Published January 21, 2015

HAVANA — Jan 20, 2015, 10:03 PM ET


A senior Cuban official said Tuesday that restoring diplomatic ties with the United States won’t immediately lead to a full relationship between the Cold War foes after a half-century of enmity.

The message appeared designed to lower expectations a day before the arrival of the highest-level U.S. delegation to Cuba in decades and just before President Barack Obama made his case in the State of the Union Address for seizing the opening with Cuba by ending the U.S. trade embargo of the island. Alan Gross, whose release from Cuba in a prisoner exchange last month cleared the way for a new relationship, sat next to Michelle Obama.

“We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama said. “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

The Havana talks start Wednesday morning. But the high-ranking Cuban diplomat said Tuesday: “Cuba isn’t normalizing relations with the United States. Cuba is re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. The process of normalization is much longer and deeper.” Reporters were briefed on condition the official not be quoted by name.

The U.S. has taken “steps in the right direction but there’s still far to go,” the official noted. He expressed optimism about the long-term prospects for U.S.-Cuban relations as long as Washington does not try to change Cuba’s single-party government and centrally planned economy — tenets of Cuba’s system the U.S. has long opposed.

American officials have repeatedly said they hope their new path of engagement will empower Cubans and soften the government’s control over the country.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are opposed to the rapid rebuilding of relations with President Raul Castro still firmly in control of Cuba. Other obstacles include billions of dollars in economic claims against Cuba’s government, American fugitives living freely in Cuba and the opposition of many Cuban-Americans.

Still, the biggest potential challenge is Castro’s government itself, which needs a rapid infusion of cash into its stagnant economy but fears Obama’s new policy merely repackages the longstanding U.S. goal to push him from power.

Leading the U.S. delegation to Havana is Roberta Jacobson, the most senior American official to visit Cuba in 35 years. The rosters on both sides include officials well-known to one another from years of cautious efforts to improve cooperation.

“We always have tough things to say to them but nevertheless this is a professional discussion,” said John Caulfield, who headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana until last year. “You don’t have to break the ice. People understand each other.”

Wednesday’s conversations start with a continuation of efforts by both sides in recent years to promote what the State Department calls “safe, legal and orderly migration,” covering everything from the security of charter flights that travel regularly between Miami and Havana to rooting out fraudulent passports and partnering on potential search and rescue missions.

Thursday’s talks are trickier, dealing with the mechanics of re-establishing a U.S. Embassy in Havana headed by an ambassador, and a Cuban Embassy in Washington.

Immediate U.S. objectives include the lifting of restrictions on American diplomats’ staffing numbers and travel inside Cuba, easier shipments to the current U.S. Interests Section and unfettered access for Cubans to the building. Cuba’s government hasn’t signaled how it will respond, but the Americans say restoration of full diplomatic ties depends on how quickly the Cubans meet the U.S. requests. Jacobson will also meet Cuban activists and civil society representatives.

The U.S. and Cuba haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1961, soon after Fidel Castro seized power. Interests sections were established in the late 1970s as a means of opening a channel between the two countries, but any diplomatic goodwill they generated quickly evaporated. In the years since, both governments have enforced restrictions on the activity of each other’s diplomats.

Some changes have come since December’s declaration of detente. The Cubans last week released 53 political prisoners. Three days later, the Obama administration significantly eased travel and trade rules with Cuba.

Cuban state media have heavily emphasized the restrictions on trade remaining under U.S. law. For many years, Cuba has pointed to the trade embargo as the primary cause of its dire economic woes.

But Cuban economists and ordinary citizens often don’t agree. Cuba’s state-run economy suffers from chronic underinvestment, inefficiency, low productivity and pilfering by employees. U.S. steps to soften the embargo may not solve these problems.

“The day that they lift the blockade, the world will realize that there are millions of things that don’t function well here,” said Maite Delgado, a 52-year-old accountant. “Inefficiency, lack of productivity, the fact that they don’t pay people a living wage,” she said, “none of that results from the blockade.”


AP correspondents Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.

New Rules for Travel to Cuba, a Destination Already in Transition

Published January 17, 2015


A state-run food market in Havana. The Treasury Department announced new, more flexible, regulations on Thursday that will make travel to Cuba easier for Americans. Related article. Credit Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

Estelle Grush sliced cucumber and guava in the busy kitchen one recent evening at Café Laurent, a small, privately owned restaurant in a 1950s penthouse a few blocks from the city’s sweeping seafront.

As she chopped, Ms. Grush, who was visiting Havana from Los Angeles as part of an organized tour, chatted with the chef, Victor Ramón Salgado. She took notes as he prepared rich rounds of flan made with cream cheese, his spin on the popular Spanish dish, and told her how to make caramel. They talked about life in Cuba and in Atlantic City, where Mr. Salgado worked for a couple of years.

“It was a unique experience,” said Ms. Grush, 59, who spent four hours helping at the restaurant, adding, “It was great not just to cook with him, but to be able to talk with people from the country.”

A stint in a Havana restaurant kitchen is hardly a typical element of a Caribbean holiday. As Americans prepare to visit Cuba under new, more flexible regulations announced by the Treasury Department on Thursday, however, American officials still expect them to get a close view of life on the island rather than sit poolside with a margarita.


Havana. Under the new rules, Americans who qualify to travel will not have to apply for a license before they do so – a process that, in the past, could take weeks. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Under the economic embargo, Americans are permitted to travel to Cuba only for specific purposes, which fall into 12 categories and include religious, educational, cultural, professional, journalistic or humanitarian activities. Many Americans visit Cuba on educational exchange programs, known as “people-to-people” tours, whose tight itineraries consist of back-to-back meetings with Cubans — from architects to chefs to farmers — and include minimal free time.

Under the new rules, which will take effect on Friday as part of a deal to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Americans who qualify to travel under one of 12 categories will no longer have to apply for a license before they travel — a process that, in the past, could take weeks or months. And travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco. What is not clear, say travel experts, is how American authorities plan to monitor what its citizens do when they get to Cuba. “What we don’t know is, ‘What is the border of these regulations?’ “ said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which has provided travel services to Cuba for 35 years. “Is anyone going to be vetting travel anymore?”

More flexible travel rules introduced in 2011 have already increased American travel to the island. About 100,000 Americans visit each year, while Cubans living in the United States make about 400,000 visits to see family. Those numbers could rise significantly under the new regulations, travel agents and tour leaders said.

Mr. Guild said “all hell broke loose” after an announcement on Dec. 17 saying that travel rules would loosen.

“I get hundreds of emails every day from people saying, Can I go next weekend?” Mr. Guild said by telephone this week from Miami. Anticipating high demand for hotels, he said, more than 50 travel organizations that have licenses from the Treasury Department to bring groups to Cuba asked him to block-book rooms for them through 2016.

That is another question: As keen as the Cuban government is to receive tourists — about three million came last year — it may not be able to handle a sudden increase in visits from America, which is the source of about half a million visits a year (80 percent of these are Cuban-Americans). The Communist government may also be wary of having a flood of Americans discussing capitalism and democracy with its people, political analysts said.

“If travel picks up three, four, fivefold, what is the Cuban response going to be?” said Collin Laverty, director of Cuba Educational Travel, which organized Ms. Grush’s trip.

“Are they going to have enough hotel rooms?” he added. “Are they going to have the infrastructure to deal with it? Will they issue all the visas?

Travel representatives predicted that Americans would continue to use people-to-people trips to visit Cuba because everything is arranged for them and if their tour is organized by someone knowledgeable, they experience things they might not see by themselves. A large proportion of those Americans who currently visit Cuba do so on people-to-people trips, they said.

Ms. Grush met Mr. Salgado, the chef, during a group cookery class at the restaurant and asked if she could return in the evening. Mr. Salgado said he hoped others who came for cookery classes would ask to do the same.

“I would love to do it again,” he said.

Mr. Laverty, though, believes Americans who dislike or cannot afford group travel will begin to visit independently because traveling under one of the 12 existing categories will no longer involve difficult and time-consuming paperwork.

“I think there’s going to be a shift overnight from group travel to individual travel and from elite travel to budget travel,” said Mr. Laverty. The looser rules would make it “easier and more affordable to visit Cuba in a small group,” he added.

People-to-people trips tend to attract wealthy, late-middle-aged Americans who enjoy the comforts of four-star hotels after days spent in lectures or shuffling through artists’ studios and organic farms. Americans are popular among guides, who can earn hundreds of dollars in tips from one group.

Ms. Grush’s eight-day trip, which included return flights from Miami to Havana, a trip to Pinar del Rio, a tobacco-growing province west of Havana, activities, some meals, and accommodation at the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel in Old Havana, cost $3,850 per person.

Individual travel — particularly if commercial flights open between Cuba and the United States — could be much cheaper. A meal in the best privately run restaurants costs about $35. A typical bed-and-breakfast in Havana charges $35 to $50 a night.

Given the lack of hotel rooms, bed-and-breakfasts could be in demand, said Tom Miller, author of “Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba.”

“The hotel room situation will be the first crisis,” he said, adding, “There are only half a dozen really high-end hotels and, in the midrange places, there are invariably problems: The window won’t shut, the sink isn’t working.”

Mr. Miller, who took a group of Americans to Cuba for a literary tour in January, said solo travelers could visit remote areas that see few tourists.

“If people go in ones or twos and hitchhike, and they are picked up by people along the highway, I think they’ll learn more,” he said.

Even those who are not up for hitchhiking could use almendrones, the clattering American jalopies that operate as communal taxis in Havana, said travel experts. They could venture beyond the prettified district of Old Havana, where tourists are herded, and into neighborhoods where Cubans rarely see tourists.

Visitors could also go to music venues like El Sauce, an outdoor stage surrounded by royal palm trees in a green suburb of Havana, and mingle with young Cubans, they said.

leksas Juskys, 35, a retired F-16 Air Force pilot who visited Cuba in January as part of his dual masters course at the University of Pennsylvania, said he would like to come back on his own.

“When you’re in a group you can’t walk down the street and talk to people like you would if it was just you,” said Mr. Juskys, who was crammed, along with about 30 fellow students, into the tiny apartment of a Cuban hip-hop band, Obsesión, for a talk on racial inequality.

Even so, Mr. Juskys, who also received an explanation of the Cuban rationing system at a bleak bodega in the poor Havana neighborhood of Regla, said the group was getting “the kind of access I never would have expected.”

There were signs, too, that information was flowing both ways. During the talk on race, Alexey Rodríguez, 42, and Magia López, 40, the band members, asked for advice about establishing a community center — perhaps a coy bid for financial help — and about their impressions.

“What’s the image you have of Cuba?” Mr. Rodríguez asked them. “How are relations between the countries going to change?”

Alex Rodríguez, 50, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles who was with his family on the same trip as Ms. Grush, said that Mario Pelegrín, a folk artist who runs community projects in Pinar del Rio, had offered his 21-year-old daughter Mayela, a student at University of California, Berkeley, space to build a sculpture in his lush garden.

Mr. Rodríguez, who was admiring the 17th- and 18th-century buildings of the restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana on a recent morning, said he hoped to return with Mayela and had, separately, emailed California legislators and business people to suggest organizing a delegation.

While he was an evangelist for American travel to Cuba, he hoped mass tourism was not in the cards.

“I’m worried about them opening the flood gates,” he said. “Then everyone and their mother will want to come.”



As Obama makes history over Cuba, will the Castros be the real winners?

Published December 23, 2014

After 50 years of fractious hostility, America has thrown a dramatic lifeline to the island’s bankrupt economy

Cuban children and teachers celebrate after hearing Raúl Castro announce the restoration of relations with the US. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Cuban children and teachers celebrate after hearing Raúl Castro announce the restoration of relations with the US. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP


To the astonishment of even the most seasoned and wired-in of Cuba hands, the half century-long cold (and hot) war between the US and Cuba is over. In what will rank alongside Nixon’s opening to China and Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev, Obama has achieved the diplomatic coup and historic legacy that so insistently eluded his 10 White House predecessors. But the towering question is: what finally drove the Cubans to the bargaining table? Was it political courage, as was certainly the case for Obama? Or was it simply a matter of survival?

Since the untimely death of Fidel Castro’s disciple, Hugo Chávez, the Cubans have been nervously eying Caracas. How much longer – months or weeks? – would Cuba be able to receive its daily subsidy of 100,000 barrels of free Venezuelan crude? Quite simply, the collapsing price of oil, coupled with Nicolás Maduro’s shaky grip on the Venezuelan presidency (not to mention the falling Russian rouble) provided the writing on the wall. Either Cuba had to find a new patron – and one as pliant and generous as the Soviet Union and Venezuela have been – or it would be forced to join the cursed, capitalist free-market economy.

But there was a second issue: the tottering health and diminished capacity of the Maximum Leader, Fidel Castro. Even the bi-monthly staged photo-ops of him with visiting world leaders had come to a halt. Close, trusted friends of mine who have visited the 88-year-old Fidel have confided that he now fully relies upon his spouse, the long-suffering Dalia Soto del Valle. These days, she is Fidel’s wife, his caretaker and, often, his memory.

It is an article of faith that the blame for 50 years of failed diplomacy with Cuba lay with a succession of feckless American presidents who pandered to exile constituents in the key states of Florida and New Jersey. The corollary of this myth had it that the Castros, hats in hand, were incessantly rebuffed by their predatory imperialist neighbour. Truth be told, and borrowing the adage invoked about Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

During the administration of Gerald Ford, a remarkable two-year diplomatic initiative was undertaken by secretary of state Henry Kissinger and his assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, William P Rogers, to normalise relations with Cuba. Had the talks succeeded, the US embargo would have been eliminated, with diplomatic relations between the two countries fully restored as early as 1976. If nothing else, Kissinger wanted to add the notch of Cuba to his diplomatic belt. After China, Kissinger assumed Cuba would be a cakewalk. “Little did we know,” sighed the late Rogers when I interviewed him.

But the potentially historic talks sputtered in December 1975 when Castro decided to intervene in the Angolan civil war. To their everlasting shock, the US team came to the inescapable conclusion that Castro was ready to sacrifice a rapprochement with his most important neighbour to pursue a bizarre military adventure halfway across the globe.

Nevertheless, the talks continued, but it was Fidel Castro who again pulled the plug. The shrewdest of chess players, Castro, who came to power on the irresistible platform of Cuban nationalism, understood that he needed a Goliath if he was to continue to play David – and the imperialist US fitted the bill perfectly. Always, in the Castro rhetoric, America would be El Imperio to denote the evil empire of the north.

Salvador Lew, an attorney, maintains Castro squandered other opportunities including some enterprising rogue diplomacy. After the revolution, when Lew represented the Cuban government in Miami, he was approached by reputable third parties seeking a Cuba-US truce only to be rejected by Fidel. Later in 1959, Lew said he passed on an offer to sell American weapons to the Cuban government through a third party. “Fidel called me the next morning and said that Raúl appreciated it very much but he had a better offer,” Lew recalled. “You see, he felt he had to take on the United States – to oppose a superpower 90 miles away – in order to secure international stature for himself.”

Be it official or rogue diplomacy, what remained strikingly consistent was Castro’s relish at thumbing his nose over and over again at Uncle Sam. In 1976, Jimmy Carter arrived at the White House disposed to resume relations with Cuba. Over his four-year term, Carter would enact the most significant and durable modifications of the embargo, including re-establishing quasi-diplomatic relations. Interests Sections, a euphemism for embassies, in Havana and Washington in 1977, were re-established in the very same pre-1959 embassy buildings – where they remain today.

For his efforts towards normalising Cuba, Carter paid a steep price, a cautionary tale for future presidents about the risks of negotiating with Cuba. Not long after the agreements were signed, Castro unleashed the Mariel refugee crisis. A flotilla of fleeing Cubans, eventually numbering 125,000, headed for the US shores, including hundreds of felons released from Cuban jails. And Carter lost the 1980 election.

Bill Clinton also was keen to defrost relations with Cuba and had none other than the late Gabriel García Márquez, a trusted pal of Fidel Castro, to act as messenger. Those talks went silent in 1996, when Castro ordered the shooting down of two civilian planes of the Miami exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. Four people were killed, prompting international fury. Worse, it led to the enactment of Helms-Burton, which ramped up the US embargo, codifying it into law and placing it squarely under the thumb of Congress. Did the master political tactician Fidel foresee this would happen? Certainly – but it was a price he was willing to pay.

While Fidel and Raúl Castro have proved to be the most successful, political/brother act in history, there have been strains. While it is true that Raúl assumed his brother’s role in August 2006, he was unable to take the reins fully until after his Fidel’s health worsened about two years ago. Until then, he was often second-guessed, overruled and even humiliated, on occasion, by his convalescing sibling.

By the 1990s, Raúl, once a communist stalwart, had begun to moderate his hardline views. Fidel, however, shared none of his brother’s interest in reforms. As far as he was concerned perestroika and glasnost had brought down the Soviet Union. To lose control with open elections and a free media, argued Fidel, was to lose one’s country.

But Raúl had long been impressed with what he has called “the Chinese model” as well as “the Vietnam solution”. He had travelled to China in 1997 to learn more about its emerging new economy. During his visit, Raúl spent a good deal of time with Zhu Rongji, China’s architect of economic reforms under Jiang Zemin. Raúl was so taken with the Chinese programme that he invited Zhu’s chief adviser to Cuba, who went on to enthrall many in the Cuban Politburo over several days of talks. However, there was one person who was decidedly unimpressed – Fidel.

Over the last 18 months, Raúl has proved himself to be a superb negotiator, securing the most prized items on the Cuban wish-list. Although Obama cannot lift the embargo, he has bestowed a plethora of economic and trade goodies to the Cubans, along with full diplomatic relations, thus defanging the most onerous parts of the US embargo.

Although many Republican leaders have been predictably howling, the fact of the matter is that Obama did them a big favour. Not only did he seize the opportunity to dismantle the vestigial restrictions on Cuba, he has taken the pesky, half-century-old issue of Cuba off the table. Other than Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both Cuban-Americans, the Republican party is a dedicated pro-business, free enterprise political outfit. Rand Paul’s welcoming comments on the deal, and the polite silence of many in the GOP, speak volumes.

While the Cubans are clearly the big winners, America relieved itself of a 50-year headache. True, the US secured the freedom of Alan Gross, the bumbling USAID worker whom the Cubans had picked up as a chit to trade, and a valued CIA asset, Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, who had done 20 years in prison. But it is the bankrupt Cuban economy that has been rescued.

Moreover, in a swap they badly wanted, the Cubans got the last three members of the Cuban Five who were still in US jails, a vindication for hardliners in Cuba who had long argued for the chit value of Gross. The Cubans also agreed to free 53 political prisoners, something mentioned by Obama on Wednesday but not Raúl in his remarks.

The losers of this deal will likely be Cuban activists. One of the reasons Raúl favours the China model is his admiration for their control over the internet and dissidents, and for their preservation of the Communist party.

And while the US has agreed to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba, it remains to be seen if the Cubans allow all of us in. Will American reporters still be subjected to the capricious issuance of press visas? Will all exiles be allowed to visit? Will the rules change for the lines of grovelling would-be visitors to Cuba at its re-baptised embassy in Washington DC? Will the average Cuban finally be allowed access to the internet?

As this historic deal was announced, the price of oil dropped to a near record low. “Se salvaron en tablitas,” as they say in Cuba – they were saved by the skin of their teeth – and there is widespread euphoria on the island. The Cubans did so well that Yoani Sánchez, the dissident blogger, declared that “Castroism has won”.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue otherwise.


Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba analyst, is the author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential.

Vietnam Welcomes America with Open Arms

Published December 9, 2014

By Llewellyn King

No grunt slogging through the jungles of Vietnam could imagine that in 2014, 41 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese would be welcoming back Americans as investors, tourists, advisers and protectors.

Next year is a big year in Vietnam. It is the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, on April 30, 1975. It is also the 20th anniversary of the normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam, a country where so much American and Vietnamese blood was spilled.

The Vietnam War started in the Eisenhower administration, dragged down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and was ended in the Nixon administration amid controversy that tore America apart and has informed its foreign policy ever since.

It will be remembered in the annals of war for the limits it revealed on mechanized fighting, and the challenge of asymmetrical fighting and wrong-headiness. But it also deserves mention in the annals of peace for the surprising speed in which the war has been put aside, especially in Vietnam, where the gory past has been buried and the future embraced.

Today’s Vietnam is a place where the United States is admired and emulated. And the Vietnamese want nothing so much as to be closer to Americans.

Twenty years ago when I traveled from Hanoi, south along the spine of the country, to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, I was astounded by the way the war had been willfully forgotten: people I met did not want to talk about it.

Da Nang still was set about with hardened bunkers, Hue, which had been the national capital until 1945, was a sad ruin, but people were determinedly forward-looking. They wanted to know three things: how could they get American goods, how could they sell their goods in the U.S. market, and what was the United States going to do about China?

A generation later, Vietnam is more passionate in its desire to get close to the United States. The government of Vietnam is making a new push for American investment, particularly in the privatization of infrastructure, which is still government-controlled and beset by inefficiency and corruption.

Vietnam Report, a business and data service, has just released a comprehensive white paper, prepared by Corr Analytics, a New York-based risk management consultancy, that paints an agreeable picture of investment opportunities, particularly in those industries that the Vietnamese government is anxious to hive off to the private sector. Of 432 projects identified by the government, Corr has honed in on what it believes to be the 31 best-investment targets. These range from opportunities — from a few million dollars to over $7 billion — in finance, infrastructure, manufacturing and petroleum.

The backstory is that Vietnam needs more than U.S. investment. As it struggles against China in the South China Sea, over territorial claims on small island groups that are thought to contain large hydrocarbon reserves, Vietnam wants the United States to be a visible friend.

There is even talk that the United States, might establish a naval base at Cam Rahn Bay, its legendary base and deep-water port during the Vietnam War. This, the argument goes, would compensate for the loss of the naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Come back, Yanks.

Several analysts have told me that they believe Vietnam to be an excellent investment opportunity, but there are concerns. The government is nominally communist and there is only one party: the Communist Party. It is avowedly pro-business but faces human-rights issues, press-freedom issues, and the impartiality of the judiciary is questionable. Corruption is widespread and debilitating.

Yet Forbes magazine is looking to Vietnam as the new Asian investment haven. In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, according to Corr Analytics, Vietnam is ahead of major investment destinations such as China, India and Brazil. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has made it clear that his country is open for business — particularly American business.

Tourism is growing, especially at Vietnam’s superb beaches. Lauren Graham, who stars in the NBC drama Parenthood, has taken a bicycle trip with her father, a Washington lobbyist and fluent Vietnamese speaker.

Some who fought in Vietnam have joined the ranks of its boosters, like Tom Patterson, the famed Harvard professor, who is helping to develop a high-technology village near Nha Trang and Cam Rhan Bay, where he was once stationed.

The generational change also has made a difference. Much of the Vietnamese population was not born during the war. A new generation of Americans has been shaped by war in the Middle East, not in Asia.



Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t

Published December 2, 2014

American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.




When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.

My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.

It’s often said that spending time in less affluent countries teaches Americans never to take anything for granted. To some extent, this is true. During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitos, and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted,” I now rethought taking at all.

My best travel moments came from subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world.” Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road.” The other man responded, “No, look at the people.”

Traveling to these places made me realize that the “advantages” I initially thought I had over others were not necessarily advantages to everyone. Many actually preferred living with the challenges they faced over living in a country like mine, where other things are missing. A professional I met in South America who had turned down a job offer in the United States told me, “I’d never want to move there, even though I’d make more money. The social part of life is better here, I find people happier here, and my quality of life is what matters most.” Rick Steves, the popular travel guidebook writer and television host, expressed similar thoughts in an interview with Salon when he said, “It’s a very powerful Eureka! moment when you’re traveling: to realize that people don’t have the American dream. They’ve got their own dream. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

These were important lessons for me to learn as a young person in the midst of making important life decisions. It was empowering to know I had experienced a wide range of perspectives and could use them to make choices for myself—that I had been in situations with few resources or comforts, and I was still okay.

This past summer, I volunteered as a program leader for Global Glimpse, a nonprofit organization that takes American high school seniors on three-week trips to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.* My students—who came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds—visited local museums, cultural centers, and businesses, learned about fair-trade business practices, and volunteered at local nonprofits. They milked goats and carried wood on their backs to experience a day working like a local farmer. They spent an afternoon visiting the city dump where families work sifting through the trash to gather recyclable materials to make $1 to $2 a day. They also learned about the ongoing U.S. involvement in Nicaraguan politics, hearing stories from locals whose families had lives been altered by political instability.

Many of my students admitted that they had not once learned about Nicaraguan history or culture in their 11 years of education. Before I traveled, my own public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, cultures, and history, or how American policy had shaped them. American history classes instead focused on wars fought on our own soil instead of the many conflicts we involved ourselves in abroad. The Advanced Placement program in high school still only offers specialized courses in American and European history, and lumps the rest into the broader topic of “World History.” With this Western-focused curriculum, traveling to developing countries is often the only way of gaining any perspective on less-developed parts of the world.

My public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, or how American policy had shaped them.

Yet, unfortunately, most Americans have not prioritized these kinds of experiences. Unlike the U.K., where 75 percent of citizens have passports, in the U.S. the rate hovers around 45 percent, with some surveys showing that more than half of the population has never traveled outside of the country. When Americans do travel, the most popular destinations are in Europe or resort locations around the Caribbean—places that cater to a traveler’s sense of comfort and luxury. I can only imagine how American culture, business, and politics might change if more young people decided to forgo a comfortable vacation and instead pursue a genuine travel experience—not a short-lived, consumer-oriented “voluntourism” trip, where privileged visitors drop in casually without careful research or consideration of long-term needs—but a trip where people are driven to challenge what we accept as “normal” or “real.”

My parents were on to something when they decided to send me to Ecuador years ago. But that trip did far more than teach me lessons on culture and gratitude. It fundamentally changed my life trajectory and the way I wanted to engage with the world. I hope more American students can have the opportunity to experience the same.



A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.

Published November 17, 2014

Cuban health workers in Sierra Leone in October. Credit Florian Plaucheur/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Cuban health workers in Sierra Leone in October. Credit Florian Plaucheur/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have praised the work of Cuban doctors dispatched to treat Ebola patients in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently sent an official to a regional meeting the Cuban government convened in Havana to coordinate efforts to fight the disease. In Africa, Cuban doctors are working in American-built facilities. The epidemic has had the unexpected effect of injecting common sense into an unnecessarily poisonous relationship.

And yet, Cuban doctors serving in West Africa today could easily abandon their posts, take a taxi to the nearest American Embassy and apply for a little-known immigration program that has allowed thousands of them to defect. Those who are accepted can be on American soil within weeks, on track to becoming United States citizens.

There is much to criticize about Washington’s failed policies toward Cuba and the embargo it has imposed on the island for decades. But the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which in the last fiscal year enabled 1,278 Cubans to defect while on overseas assignments, a record number, is particularly hard to justify.

It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy.

American immigration policy should give priority to the world’s neediest refugees and persecuted people. It should not be used to exacerbate the brain drain of an adversarial nation at a time when improved relations between the two countries are a worthwhile, realistic goal.

The program was introduced through executive authority in August 2006, when Emilio González, a hard-line Cuban exile, was at the helm of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Mr. González described the labor of Cuban doctors abroad as “state-sponsored human trafficking.” At the time, the Bush administration was trying to cripple the Cuban government. Easily enabling medical personnel posted abroad to defect represented an opportunity to strike at the core of the island’s primary diplomatic tool, while embarrassing the Castro regime.

Cuba has been using its medical corps as the nation’s main source of revenue and soft power for many years. The country has one of the highest numbers of doctors per capita in the world and offers medical scholarships to hundreds of disadvantaged international students each year, and some have been from the United States. According to Cuban government figures, more than 440,000 of the island’s 11 million citizens are employed in the health sector.

Havana gets subsidized oil from Venezuela and money from several other countries in exchange for medical services. This year, according to the state-run newspaper Granma, the government expects to make $8.2 billion from its medical workers overseas. The vast majority, just under 46,000, are posted in Latin America and the Caribbean. A few thousand are in 32 African countries.


Medical professionals, like most Cubans, earn meager wages. Earlier this year, the government raised the salaries of medical workers. Doctors now earn about $60 per month, while nurses make nearly $40. Overseas postings allow these health care workers to earn significantly more. Doctors in Brazil, for example, are making about $1,200 per month.

The 256 Cuban medical professionals treating Ebola patients in West Africa are getting daily stipends of roughly $240 from the World Health Organization. José Luis Di Fabio, the head of the W.H.O. in Havana, said he was confident the doctors and nurses dispatched to Africa have gone on their own volition. “It was voluntary,” Mr. Di Fabio, an Uruguayan whose organization has overseen their deployment, said in an interview. “Some backtracked at the last minute and there was no problem.”

Some doctors who have defected say they felt the overseas tours had an implicit element of coercion and have complained that the government pockets the bulk of the money it gets for their services. But the State Department says in its latest report on human trafficking that reported coercion of Cuban medical personnel does “not appear to reflect a uniform government policy.” Even so, the Cuban government would be wise to compensate medical personnel more generously if their work overseas is to remain the island’s economic bedrock.

Last year, the Cuban government liberalized its travel policies, allowing most citizens, including dissidents, to leave the country freely. Doctors, who in the past faced stricter travel restrictions than ordinary Cubans, no longer do. Some 20,000 Cubans are allowed to immigrate to the United States yearly. In addition, those who manage to arrive here in rafts or through border crossing points are automatically authorized to stay.

The Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity. It undermines Cuba’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises and does nothing to make the government in Havana more open or democratic. As long as this incoherent policy is in place, establishing a healthier relationship between the two nations will be harder.

Many medical professionals, like a growing number of Cubans, will continue to want to move to the United States in search of new opportunities, and they have every right to do so. But inviting them to defect while on overseas tours is going too far.



President Obama fostering human rights and partnership with Myanmar

Published November 14, 2014

Obama meets Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi at home where she was kept under arrest.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi following the conclusion of their joint news conference

U.S. President Barack Obama and Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi following the conclusion of their joint news conference









Image:  Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press


15 hours ago
President Barack Obama gave a blunt assessment Friday of the need for further reform in Myanmar’s move toward democracy, weighing into sensitive controversies over the treatment of religious minorities and a prohibition keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

Suu Kyi, released four years ago from more than two decades of confinement, is now a member of Myanmar’s Parliament but is unable to run in next year’s presidential election because of a constitutional rule barring anyone with strong allegiances to a foreign national from standing for the presidency. Suu Kyi’s sons are British, as was her late husband.

SEE ALSO: Isolated for half a century, Myanmar is a struggling beauty

“I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are,” Obama said, with Suu Kyi by his side. “That doesn’t make much sense to me.”

Obama and Suu Kyi took questions from reporters from the back patio of the house where she spent much of her time under house arrest. The two were warm and affectionate in their interactions, sharing a long embrace after their opening statements and joking with each other throughout their remarks.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's residence where she was kept under house arrest.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence where she was kept under house arrest.













Obama has been pressing Myanmar’s leaders to amend the Constitution, but has been careful to not directly endorse his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate as the country’s next president. He also raised an issue that has led to criticism for the opposition icon — her reluctance to address the abuse of minority Rohingya Muslims who are deeply disdained by most people in Myanmar.

“Discrimination against the Rohingya or any other religious minority I think does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long term wants to be,” Obama said. “Ultimately that is destabilizing to a democracy.” Myanmar is also known as Burma.

Obama and Suu Kyi met briefly Thursday on the sidelines of a regional summit in the capital city of Naypyitaw. On Friday, Obama flew to the city of Yangon to hold more substantial talks with Suu Kyi and also toured the Secretariat Building, where Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, was assassinated by political rivals in 1947.

Obama in Myanmar: President’s motorcade blasts through Yangon Friday morning.

Obama in Myanmar: President’s motorcade blasts through Yangon Friday morning.










Obama had broadly embraced Myanmar’s move away from a half-century of military rule, suspending U.S. sanctions and rewarding the country with high-level visits from American officials. But Myanmar has stalled in fulfilling its promises of political and economic reforms, and in some cases has lost ground.

“We shouldn’t deny that Burma today is not the same as Burma five years ago,” Obama said. “But the process is still incomplete.” “We shouldn’t deny that Burma today is not the same as Burma five years ago,” Obama said. “But the process is still incomplete.”

Both Obama and Suu Kyi warned against complacency in the move toward democracy. Suu Kyi described the process as going through “a bumpy patch.”

Suu Kyi opened the press conference by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Myanmar. “We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship,” she said.

Obama notably held his news conference on his visit to the Southeast Asian nation with Suu Kyi , not the country’s president. Obama said he told President Thein Sein that he will be judging whether reforms are being fully realized first off by whether next year’s election is held on time and whether the constitutional amendment process reflects inclusion.

Obama touring the Secretariat, site of Myanmar's first parliament and where ASSK's father was assassinated.

Obama touring the Secretariat, site of Myanmar’s first parliament and where ASSK’s father was assassinated.














Suu Kyi said it’s flattering to have a constitutional provision written with her in mind but it’s not how the law should be written. The 69-year-old said she and her supporters are working to change it and welcome Obama’s support.

“The Constitution says all citizens should be treated as equals and this is discrimination on the grounds of my children,” she said.

Learning Through Travel

Published November 13, 2014








Experiential Programs Go Deep

Thursday, November 13, 2014

There’s more to learning than the box of the classroom and the tedium of textbooks, and when students and teachers escape outside, horizons are inevitably broadened. While Santa Barbara schools have long scheduled field trips to Yosemite, Space Camp, and Washington, D.C. — tried-and-true excursions that still hold a lot of value — a new way of breaking up the routine is becoming more en vogue.

“Experiential learning” trips send classes all over the world to turn abstract curriculum into tangible connections ripe for personal growth and college application essays. These programs are admittedly expensive and tend to be more prevalent in private schools, but those lucky enough to take part are stamped with fresh perspectives few other teaching methods can offer. And with new fundraising pushes, the opportunities may soon spread to public school campuses. Santa Barbara is home to a number of these programs, three of which we’ll look at here.

The Hero’s Quest

Ahead of the school-trip curve since its inception, Santa Barbara Middle School’s outdoor program is a cornerstone of its educational philosophy. The school requires that each student go on four outdoor trips a year complete with healthy doses of kayaking, backpacking, or mountaineering and accompanied by most of the faculty and staff. Recently, 191 students and teachers returned to a homecoming party at Goleta Beach after six days of mountain biking in Morro Bay, exhausted but beaming with pride.

“It’s absolutely life-changing for these kids,” explained Whitney Ingersoll, who’s worked at the middle school for nearly 35 years and led trips for 15 of them. “We know what is a challenge, what is going to be hard, and what is going to be doable …. It’s Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in real life, and I’ve seen it so many times for so many generations.” Out on the road during truly challenging cycling trips through Sedona canyons, Catalina Island trails, and Marin County ridgelines, students feel as if they can shake off their armor of manufactured “cool” and truly connect with their peers and the grown-ups. No electronics are allowed. Ninth graders often help out the younger students, Ingersoll said, teaching the simple but profound lesson of taking care of themselves and each other. And they figure out that when the going gets tough, they have a reservoir of inner strength to tap into. “It’s not corny; it’s archetypal,” Ingersoll explained. “It’s what young men and women need.”

Their model has proved so successful that the middle school hosted an ISEEN (Independent Schools Experiential Education Network) conference last year that brought 80 schools from around the world to the campus. There, they learned about the program and heard from administrators about the school’s doctrine that Ingersoll summed up: “At this age, kids are pushing against the edges. They’re pushing against their parents and looking for mentors. Mother Nature is the best teacher possible.”

Arts Alive

Last March, Laguna Blanca School’s 9th and 10th grades flew to New York City for a five-day expedition that wove through their 1920s-’60s American Decades English course. They toured sites of the Harlem Renaissance, saw where The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield lived near Central Park, visited the Vanderbilt Mansion and its Gilded Age trappings of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and capped things off with a night on Broadway to watch A Raisin in the Sun. It was a massive hit, and English teacher Ashley Tidey — who also takes 9th graders to the Gainey Ranch, where they act out scenes from Of Mice and Men — has organized an even more ambitious adventure to London this spring.



With a curricular focus this time around on the World War I centenary, British modernism, and London theater, students and instructors will hit a special production of Othello at the Globe, take tours of the Tate Modern and Imperial War Museum, and explore neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Soho, and Kensington. They’ll also meet with actors, directors, artists, and professors in the Santa Barbara area to get the “backstory” on London theater and turn-of-the-century Europe. “What I’m trying to do is make the experiential learning not tangential but full of deep currents that intersect fields of art, history, and literature,” Tidey said.

Extracurricular Learning

Alethea Paradis, a mom, lawyer, and history teacher, was inspired to start Peace Works Travel after 9/11. Already pushing against the “simplistic platitudes of American myth-making,” she’d been leading kids abroad since 1998 to help them become active global citizens and “change agents” in countries recovering from conflict. “I learned over the years that social entrepreneurship has replaced community service,” she said.


To that end, Paradis and her student travel company organize trips to Cambodia, Cuba, Laos, Myanmar, Rwanda, and Vietnam with a focus on “authentic collaboration” and “long-term investment in communities.” They may help a genocide-survivor co-op write a business plan to sell their handicrafts, create a website and social media campaign for a home with Agent Orange victims, or set up a Skype “pen pal” program with English learners. “It’s not just the colonial mindset of friendly Westerners coming to dig wells,” Paradis said. “We’re not doing standard tourist stuff.”

Peace Works Travel has worked with Santa Barbara City College, Dos Pueblos High School, Santa Barbara High School, Brooks Institute, and other campuses in town and has created a small scholarship foundation for those students who can’t afford the trips. The company also facilitates fundraising campaigns. A product of public schools herself, Paradis said the trips as a whole benefit when there’s a cross section of kids from different economic backgrounds. Lower-income participants are “an effective bridge between the developing world and the developed world,” she explained, and they’re “more sensitive to the nuances of struggle.” And more privileged kids, she went on, come back more attuned to less-fortunate communities. “The kids get interested in solving social problems,” Paradis said. “The learning is undeniable.”