Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflections on Santo Domingo

Notes on Hispaniola - October 28,2006
by Elizabeth Roebling, Santo Domingo

In Santo Domingo, the oldest city in the hemisphere, work on the construction of a subway has begun. Few believe that it will actually alleviate the congested traffic as the estimated fare will far exceed the current prices for the public buses or the "publicos", the old taxi cabs that ply the avenues carrying six passengers in the four passenger seats. Nor will the subway curb the Dominican's adoration of the car, which along with baseball, underlines their kinship with their gringo cousins up north. Interest rates on cars can be 16% per year which after the rates of 37% under the last administration, seem reasonable and attractive. And despite all the available statistics on air pollution, the dream car for most Dominicans is an SUV, which admittedly makes accessible the remote areas of the country which are still paved only with "caliche", a limestone sort of road bond.

Yet in the older sections of Santo Domingo, one still hears the clip clop of horse's hooves as the vendors sell giant avocados and pineapples. Walking along the sidewalks of Gazcue, formerly the premier neighborhood, whose pavments are cracked and heaved by the roots of the giant almond and mahagony trees, it is easy to slip back in time. The actual handwriting of Admiral Colombus is on display a few blocks away in one of the museums that dot the colnial zone. The old houses, not "colonial" old, for here "colonial" is two centuries older than in the UnitedStates, but old as in the 30's, when the country was dragged into the modern world under one of the more brutal dictator, whose name and legacy are wiped from history but whose ghost somehow remains are mostly sagging into disrepair. Here, as in Haiti,the neighboring nation, the common legacy of thirty years of strong man rule are not easily shaken.

Here there is no New England restraint on the display of wealth, but rather a striving to appear more affluent than one really is. Appearances, like highly-shined leather shoes and manicured fingers and toes, are important here. The new malls scattered around the city are crowded on Saturdays. Shops selling computers, nintendos, ipods, home appliances, imported chipboard furniture, exquisite jewelry and fancy dress gowns, with staggeringly high price tags, are nevertheless full. Credit is becoming easier to obtain and Domincans, like their American cousins, are learning to live beyond their means, indebted to VISA and Mastercard.

Most believe the subway is yet another way for construction companies and bureaucrats to pocket large amounts of cash. Big development projects, highways, airports, dams, have long been the darling of international donors and lenders, and are notoriously financially porous and cloudy. Witness, for instance, Iraq. Projects such as these, built with borrowed money, put the nation squarely under the control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank who are, for instance, now insisting that the country collect more tax revenues. For the money is needed to pay back the loans, if nothing else. The tax base rests primarily on a 16% sales tax, called the ITBIS, which appears on all hotel charges, all restaurant bills, all computerized receipts from large stores. The higher end restaurants include as well a 10% service fee, making the menu prices almost fictional, as a ten dollar meal costs almost $15, as if there were a drastic inflationary rise in prices during the meal.

Wages are low here. A college teacher, with a master's degree, working from 4 PM to 9 PM , five days a week, makes $600 a month. A newspaper editor can earn $800, a middle bank manager $1000. If you have English, you can work perhaps in one of the free trade zones, answering phones, for 44 hours a week and earn as much as the newspaper editor. Many of the workers in the free zone are ex-convicts deported home, bringing with them their English skills learned at Attica and Sing-Sing. But English tutors can expect at best $10 an hour. The best paid jobs are with the Embassies, the international development banks, the multi-national corporations and the big international non-governmental organizations, whose foreign executives live in million dollar homes under 24-hour guards, often armed. Most of the international workers are here only for a few years, three to five, but their presence drives up the rental market.

It is common to see apartments advertised for $3,000 a month. Landlords will advertise the rents in US dollars, an implicit sign that Dominicans need not apply for those who are paid in pesos can not risk the price fluctuation of the international currency exchange which was, for instance, 50 pesos to the dollar three years ago as opposed to 34 pesos now.

The state of low wages exacerbates the divide between the rich and poor which is estimated as the greatest in the hemisphere, But if you are an entrepreneur, own a colmado, drive your own cab, start a beauty parlor, or have connections with the drug lords, you can rise quickly into the middle class. Condominiums are being built all over the city, often priced in the $100.000s with gates, and car parks, and 30 year mortgages and down payments of $5,000. Most of the older condos have "maid's quarters" , a tiny room with a bathroom off the kitchen. Full time, live-in maids can be found for as little as $150 a month and few women from prosperous families here have ever mopped their own floors.
This perhaps accounts for the contrast between public and private spaces as most Dominican homes are immaculate, being swept, dusted, and washed down with disinfectant daily. Yet the public streets are often full of trash. Never having learned to pick up after themselves in private, perhaps they await the public maids to remove the trash that they put on streets, often while they are standing right next to a trash can. At the expensive international schools, wealthy Dominican children are delivered by white -gloved chauffeurs, and picked up by nannies, like the children of Hollywood.

Guaranteeing the ongoing state of low wages is the presence and continued influx of undocumented Haitian workers, desperately poor and hungry, who do the hard and heavy work that Dominicans will not do, cutting sugar cane, digging foundations by hand in the heat of the sun, often for half what a Dominican will accept. Across the border in Haiti, only an estimated 200,000 of the 8 million Haitians actually hold paying jobs, so the promise of any sort of paid labor has a magnetic draw. International and local human rights advocates have been pressuring the Dominican Republic to grant birth certificates to those children born to Haitian women living on this side of the border. Undocumented Haitians are considered "in transit" and not granted citizenship papers which would entitled them to higher education and health care. Many do not even have legal documents from Haiti, creating a vast sea of "stateless persons".

There has been a mixed response to the pressure. Official announcements declare the government's decision to abide by a recent ruling of the InterAmerican Court of the OAS to remedy the situation while enforced deportations back across the Haitian border and recruitment of new workers into the sugar cane fields or work in heavy construction or brothels continues unabated. Rumors abound of a proposed alteration to the current constitution which technically grants citizenship to all children born in the Dominican Republic. There is a threat that that provision will simply be removed from the constitution, avoiding for evermore the issue of citizenship to children of foreign workers. Advocates of Haitian rights here can expect virulent attacks, including death threats.

Many Dominicans believe that the world at large has abandoned Haiti and holds this country, which has a vastly different cultural history, with a different language and different customs, responsible for the future of Haiti. There is a deep seated fear that the aim of the United States, in particular, is to unite these two lands. While there are signs of progress in Haiti, a new elected government, a general disarming of the population, there is an underlying despair over the environmental degradation, the rising uneducated population, the lack of any infrastructure such as water, sanitation, roads, schools. No formal trade agreements exist between these two nations despite the fact that they are major trading partners. Haitians crossing into the weekly market days inside the DR, selling used clothing, vegetables, and cheap US imported rice, buying eggs and paper and plastic products, and long bologna rolls that have been in sun all day, and live baby chickens arriving, miraculously still chirping, from Georgia, are subjected to the whims and abuses of the Dominican customs officials. Under the new Haitian government, they are now subject to taxation by the Haitian border authorities as well.

Even a short day trip across the border at one of the four authorized crossing points, a trip usually made only by NGO workers and missionaries, produces an intense cultural shock. Akin, perhaps to moving from downtown Johannesburg to one of the Bantu villages, or from New York into one of the shanty towns among the cotton fields of Mississippi. On the Domincan side, cars and motorcylcles ply the paved, albeit dusty streets, electric lights, although with an intermittant supply, illuminate the streets, public hospitals provide free health care, and pharmacies, while expensive, are common. Across the border, along the unpaved streets of the Haitian border towns, mules and bicylces are the more common form of transit and electric poles and lines, if present, have no current running through them. The two nations, historic foes, both turn their backs on the border, leaving it open a continuing traffic in illegal drugs, stolen vehicles, and persons - women into the sex trade, as men on both sides of the frontier consider the women from the other culture more desirable, and men, Haitians, some coming voluntarily looking for work, others being recruited for work in the sugar cane fields.

While many people in the Dominican Republic register among the exceedingly poor, with incomes below $2 a day, Haiti leads all the hemisphere's worst statistics: lowest life span, highest level of unemployment, lowest level of literacy, highest rate of HIV/AIDS, tuberculousis, malaria, waterborne disease, highest infant mortality, lowest per capita income, highest rate of environmental degredation. Life in Haiti, already difficult under the dictatorship of Duvalier became almost impossible under the intermittant leadership of Aristide.

International aid organizations both government and non-profit, often work in isolation, without consulting either one another or the government or, perhaps more importantly, the people. There is such pressing need, a sense of urgency to repair Haiti before complete collapse. Often policies are not thought through well and even two branches of an NGO working on both sides of the border may have no coherent development policies. It is not the lack of international funding for restoration but rather the complicated issue of delivery of funds and empowerment that delays aid. Funds which have, in the past, been freely given to governments on both sides of the border have disappeared into cavernous accounts off-shore or into personal “foundations” of government officials. The concept of fiscal responsibility and accountably is new to both these nations who suffered under dictatorship for much of the last century. On this side of the border, there is a gradual policy shift among NGO’s away from a culture of just dispensing aid into one of empowering people on the ground. But it is a long and difficult process, to deliver millions of dollars of aid in an effective manner, peso by peso, gourde by gourde, without creating dependency.

The Dominican Republic enforces its border with a few armed guards and a strongly instilled prejudice against Haitians, who occupied this country back in the 1800's. The memory is kept alive by repetition and education in the consciousness of the current generation. Dominican children are taught that Haitian children learn in school that the entire island belongs to Haiti. Much as many in the southwest of the United States believe that Mexico is undertaking a conscious recolonization of Texas and California, Dominicans fear giving Haitians within the Dominican Republic the voting rights of citizenship. They insist that it is not racism, but rather nationalism. The Spaniards, one social scientist purports, could not think of Blacks as inferior, as subhumans, since Spain had been ruled by the Moors. This sense of deep history stands in stark constrast to the modernistic outlook of United States whose collective memory hardly stretches back more than two generations.

Here family roots are deep. It may take years to change one's voting residence. During elections people travel back to vote where they were born, as in Biblical times. Unmarried chlidren live with their parents, saving thousands of dollars in rent and producing a peculiar type of prolonged adolescence. The family is still the backbone of the culture. Children, most certainly the youngest, are expected to care for their aging parents, as is true also in the neighboring Spanish island of Puerto Rico.

While the general population of the country is exceedingly diverse in color, the ideal for beauty for Dominican women, portrayed in fashion magazines, is a pale coffee complexion (or lighter, preferably lighter), aquiline noses, thin but voluptuous bodies, and long, straight hair. Despite temperatures that hover between 80 and 90 degrees all year, shoulder length straight (or straightened) hair, is the defining mark of beauty. Long time resident foreign women usually have close cropped hair. Air conditioning is becoming a necessity and CFC pollution levels have soared. For every colmado selling frosty local beer and chips, there is a beauty parlor, dedicated to perfecting the ideal of beauty. Most Dominicans insist that their heritage is a mix between Indian and Caucasian, even though the indigenous Tainos were obliterated within 50 years of the arrival of Columbus. Spanish language books define a “mestizo” as an Indian-European mix, and “mulattos” as a Negro-European mix. As in most of hemisphere, "white" is still the color of the Big Boss Man, as can be seen in a cursory glance at the society pages. The "ruling families" , inheritors of vast lands, the cattle ranches, sugar and rum production, citrus and dairy industries, are concentrated in the fertile Cibao valley, north near Santiago, an area striking in the "whiteness" of the population.

Inflation is down to 3% and the economic figures have posted a remarkable 13% growth rate for the year. Unlike a few years back when one dollar American bought 50 pesos, the current exchange rate of 34 has bought the price of the all-inclusive resorts to over $100 per person per day, which along with increased airfares, strains the purses of the middle class European and North American vacationer. Resort workers, who are often required to speak three and four languages are rarely paid more than $500 month. Food is becoming increasingly expensive, with recent price increases posted in such staples as sugar and rice.
So far, the traditional dish, “la bandera Dominicana”, of a giant helping of rice with beans, two small pieces of chicken in sauce, and grated cabbage salad, holds steady in the Capital cafeterias at 80 pesos, or $2.47. But the chicken pieces are smaller than last year.

Beach development of vacation villas and condominiums is now geared to the affluent, often to the top 10%. More and more hotels are being built with designer golf courses, and nightly room charges that exceed the monthly income of many Dominicans. Smaller towns, particularly on the North Coast, beyond the walls of the all inclusive resorts, are being developed as retirement havens and vacation places for foreigners. Yet since the country has long been a haven for those who are escaping legal actions in their home nations and is located conveniently on the cocaine trade roots to the United States and Europe from South America, security in the beach areas is a difficult proposition. Police officers are not well paid and therefore easily tempted into corruption. And corruption itself, the idea that any government official is entitled to personally prosper from the public trough, has been a long tradition. Last week in the Capital, leaders of the Catholic Church followed by a procession of faithful, led a prayerful march along the historic Malecon, the brick paved seaside avenue, asking for an end to the recent crime wave, the "delinquencia", a delicate word for the gangs of armed robbers who have transformed both the Capital and beach areas into danger zones. Ten years ago, it is said, Santo Dominigo was one of the safest cities in the world. The current government, under the direction for the second time by a US educated Dominican, Leonel Fernandez, has ordered all the bars closed at midnight and placed more uniformed police on duty, particularly at night. Yet the construction of buildings, with locked gates and bars on all the windows up to the third floor, indicate that robberies have long been a part of life here.

While the country is exceedingly beautiful, with more land inside natural preserves than even Costa Rico, and has breathtaking scenery which goes from a below sea level salt lake to the highest mountain in the Caribbean, few tour operators do more than book rooms at the resort hotels on the spectacular beaches or offer day excursions into the "outback" on all terrain vehicles. Cruise ships are beginning to come into the Bay of Samana, to the consternation of many environmentalists who hope that the big ships will not disturb the breeding season of the Atlantic family of the humpback whales, who return here to mate every year. These extraordinary mammals are all Dominican, returning home every year from as far away as Greenland and Newfoundland, fasting for six months en route, to mate and deliver their young in the warm shallow waters of Samana Bay. The males start composing a new song every year on their journey home and by the time they arrive, all the males are singing the same song, a bacchate love song.

Although located firmly in the Caribbean, this nation is part of Latin America, preferring alliances with Central and Latin America (such as DR-CAFTA), broadcasting almost exclusively Latin music, retaining a fierce loyalty to the remnants of Spanish culture. For years the majority of tourists here came from Europe. Spanish and French, German and Italians, all have settled here, intermarried, developed large businesses. Yet above all, it aspires to the United States. New York, with a larger Dominican population than Santiago, is its second city, Miami its shopping Mecca, and baseball its adored national sport and promise of fortune. The United States must have streets paved with gold, judging by the money that is sent back here by families living there, an amount which accounts for 12% of the GNP. And the United Sates, for better or worse, appears to be its dream.

Copyright 2006, E.E. Roebling,

For publication rights or reprint permission please contact:

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

word count - 2724

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The new colonialism

Over the last two weeks I have been right across the country, from southwest to northeast. In the south, they await the ¨tourists¨ -- in the north, I think they really wish they would leave.

Along with the tourists come some of the worst exploitation -- sex trade, gambling, drugs -- the sort of thing that drove Cuba to revolution.

It is a sad thing to see.

Now, when I see a really beautiful place, and think - wow-- how stunning- how beautiful- it would be wonderful if people would come and see this.

But then -- well----- perhaps it is better leaving it just untouched.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New News

See the newest article here

Dances with birds

It was distinct error to take the guagua (the public bus) down to the southern border on a Friday afternoon. No air conditioning. Traffic bottlenecks. Seats designed for very small oriental people. With the customary five across seating, a fold up seat placed in the aisles. Seven hours in which to reconsider the entire escapade.

There is a deluxe air conditioned bus that arrives in the major town of Barahona, about 2 hours from the border but I had been told that connections from there are dicey. Nevertheless, next time, I am on that big bus.

But ohhhhh the ride down from Barahona to Pedernales is the most beautiful in the country - ranking up with the coast of the Big Sur - winding roads beside the Caribbean sea, high mountains, then into desert with cacti (I really love to use that word because how else will you know that I struggled through two years of Latin?) as big as people. The region is mostly national parks. But parks with little or no development, perhaps a main entry road and a visitor´s center but no campgrounds or tours, yet. There is work on that. But as yet the ¨powers that be¨still have not made the connection that you must actually get the people down to the area in some sort of comfort and have rental cars for them at the other end.

Down in Pedernales there is one park, Bahia de les Aguiles, which ranks among the most wonderful in the world, absolutely pristine white sand, miles of pure blue water. You go out by boat now, or take your 4 x4 and camp overnight. The Peace Corps workers are training some locals in how to be tour guides, to identify the local birds, trees, rent out camping equipment protect the environment a bit.

There is always pressure to sell off the land to a private developer, build another big resort complex, bring in massess of the massess.

Please no.

Because behind that park is another one, high up in hills. I had been there by car and so thought little of taking my friend up to see the view from the hills, this time by moto concho - really sort of a two person Vespa. Somehow it didn´t seem like a 25 kilometer ride in the car! But you do feel every kilometer on the back of a concho--- which I have now decided is the only way to see it, unless you went by mule, or horse, or mountain bike...... The road rises, the climate changes from the Carribbean to Canada..... High pine forests, rich red dirt, fresh cool air.

We had not had the forsight -nor had there been any suggestion- that we pack lunch. And falling off my usually good form, I had not even brought water. Next time, I will go for the day as there are trails, with tree identifiers, and markers. The view --- from here to forever, is akin to my beloved mountains of North Carolina.

How glad I am that it is a park, that it will be forever preserved. But how much I hope that people will soon discover the beauty here and come to enjoy it.

I bonded with a bereaved parrot at the local hotel. His mate had been killed by a cat and he sat, bereft and mournful. I pulled up a chair next to the basket where he was eating his breakfast bread and starting singing to him in French. He looked up. He dropped his bread. He came over to the edge. He started bouncing, dancing back and forth with me to "Au claire de la lune, mon ami, Pierrot". B

By the next morning, he was sitting on my shoulder, and then sat down on the table and ate part of our breakfast. Fortunately, my friend does not like papaya.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Destabilishing Haiti

The stability of the very fragile peace in Haiti is being threatened by many who are calling for the withdrawal of the United Nations Forces.

Among the loudest voices are the women of WILPF, heretofore a respected peace organization which is now endangering its credibility over this issue. They appear to be only informed by many paid professionals, of the former, and disgraced President Aristide.

As Michael Deibert, who was on the ground in Haiti at the time, reports in his excellent book, Notes from the Last Testament:
According to U.S. Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings, between the beginning 2001 and the end of 2003, the Miami law firm of attorney Ira Kurzban — responsible for funding the U.S attorney Brian Concannon and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti as well as the Haitian government's domestic representation in the United States — received $3,569,026 from the Aristide government of behalf of its efforts (, The same filings, between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2002, show the public relations firm of former Black Congressional Caucus member California Representative Ron Dellums was paid almost $600,000 by the Aristide government for its lobbying efforts, and that the firm of Hazel Ross-Robinson, wife of TransAfrica founder and vehement Aristide defender Randall Robinson, who had served as Dellums's senior foreign policy adviser before going into the private sector, was paid $367,966 by the Haitian government starting in 1997. Robinson, Dellums and U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters were all official advisors to the tax-exempt Aristide Foundation for Democracy, the body that Aristide had set up to raise and administer funds for projects in Haiti.

None of the scandals of Aristide's corrupt government pass through the guardians of the gate of the American left. Neither the fall of his government's promoted co-operative bank scandal, nor the rice that his cronies stole, nor his taking of kick-backs from the telecom company, nor the fraudulent elections, nor the drug ring that surrounded him,nor deep and firmly rooted opposition to his rule have appeared in the progressive press.

The voices touring the circuit of the American "progressives" appear to have no respect for Haitian democracy, or for the voice of their current democratically elected president, who stated at the UN Security council that the UN peacekeeping forces are "only formula that is realistic and available at this time that enables Haitians to restore freedom and live in peace."

The "progressives" appear to answer only to the call of Aristide.

As Aristide's recently returned-from-being kidnapped spokeswoman said:

"He is in good spirits because he knows he will come back and that we are fighting for that," said Maryse Narcisse, one of five directors of the Aristide Foundation, which bankrolls student stipends, aid for activists with his Lavalas Movement and political agitation for his repatriation.

When pressed by Aristide supporters to invite him back, Preval has pointed out that there are no impediments to his predecessor and onetime mentor's return -- except the former president's own concern about pending charges of criminal drug trafficking and misuse of government funds while in office.

One can only surmise that the goal of the public outcry for the removal of the MINUSTAH troops is so that once again, the drug dealers can control the country.

While Haiti now is enjoying a fragile peace and is in desperate need of all possible public support, the American progressives prefer to spend their time looking backwards and to the left.

I apologize to the people of Haiti for our benighted ignorance of the facts.

You deserve better.

We are, theoretically, a literate nation and have extensive access to the internet.

Perhaps, once the UN troops are removed, and the poor of the slums are once again armed with automatic weapons, Aristide,is counting on the support of yet another Clinton to support his return.

J'en ai mes doutes.

Fortunately, there are quieter, saner, calmer voices who wish for a stable Haiti.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Noel Updated

The Dominican Republic which was just chugging along on its way to become a genuine second world country, has suffered a terrible setback from the storm. Read my story here

Being of Service

I was up in the "campo" on Saturday with a group of volunteers, helping with the hurricane relief efforts. By "campo" here, we in the Capital mean every place that is not here. It was a delight to arrive in San Juana de Maguana, expecting the typical "campo" hotel - one center overhead light bulb, not so clean sheets, fan that does not work, no mosquito net, no screens- to find my contact settled into a lovely hotel run by Lebanese, clean sheets, bedside lamp, even towels and soap. I had nevertheless packed my Bonner's, my pack towel, my LED light, my mosquito net, as I always do.

In the morning, at the front desk, I encountered a Haitian. I have "Haitian" radar the way gays have "gaydar" - I long to be among them, I yearn for their company, I can detect a small rolled "r" inside their Spanish. He was delighted by my French (which has the proper accent since I started at age 5 - can choke back the "r", roll out the double "l" and say "frog" - "grenouille"
which may be the definitive French word.)

Years back, under Trujillo, over 30,000 Haitians were slaughtered here on the border. The test of " Dominicaness" was whether or not they could properly pronounce "parsely" "perejil" - with the proper Spanish . But for my white skin, I would have been massacred. I cannot yet roll those "r's.

He was there representing a group of Haitian churches who were working with the Dominican churches in setting up programs in schools across the border from one another - so that the students could begin to meet with one another, learn the other's culture.

I was there, I reported, with the Collectiva des Mujeres y Salud, to deliver aid to the victims of Hurricane Noel and write a story. They also worked to decriminalize abortion in the cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother's life. I waited for his response.

"We work with anyone. Really. Anyone of good will. I am myself opposed to abortion, but I respect the opinions of others who disagree. We even work with Vouduistes."

So I was able to introduce him to the young woman organizer from the "Collectiva". They were able to sit together at coffee, exchange contact information.

It was one of those moments when I felt that I was, indeed, being of Service. Had answered the true call.

I love to see people of goodwill working together.

I was delighted to read this report of Christians (who often have a problem with tolerance in my experience) from Cuba, posted by the news agency which has printed my stories.

Gives one a bit of hope.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Disturb the comfortable, Comfort the disturbed

On Saturday, I went with a group from the Collectiva des Mujeres to Monte Plata - a region to the north east of the Capital -who were delivering aid: chlorine for water purification, milk, toilet paper, saltines, and vaccinations against typhoid, whooping cough, and diptheria. This region was not particularly hard hit but the Collectiva has an outreach clinic there and there was one community of 500 people who had been completely cut off.

I wish I could describe the scene to you but the truck that I was in got lost and spent two hours driving in a seemingly endless circle amidst a stunningly beautiful African palm tree plantation whose fruit is used to make palm oil. We did arrive in time to greet the 40 other workers, mostly women, almost 25 of them volunteers, who had spent the day in the little pueblo. Ah well, I was there in solidarity, at least!

Among them were two Norwegian volunteers who were overcome by the experience, never having seen this level of poverty. Indeed, most people in the "developed" world have never seen this level of poverty - except when it finally reaches the TV screens at the level of Darfur. I doubt that there is any poverty in Norway that could compete even with the poverty in the United States. Nor does the poverty there compare with the poverty here. Nor can here compare with Haiti.

My first exposure to the sight and smell of poverty came when I was 17 and set out to help the North Student Movement, operating safely on the outskirts of Harlem from Morningside Heights, which was helping organize rent strikes. At our Quaker school the most competitive thing that we did was raise money for the annual school charity drive. Juniors were allowed to chose a non-profit and present their work to the student body which then voted to select the one the funds would go to. Mine lost to the American Friends Service Committee which then "imported" a bright Black student from Florida -- "why not from Harlem, I cried?" -- he later went on to become a major general in the Army. His two years with the Quakers had not been enough not catch the Quaker peace testimony. Yet by our actions we students integrated the heretofore all -white school.

The second day in the North Student Movement office, I was taken across town to Harlem by one of the staff to see some of the apartments. I was the only white face walking down the street, feeling self conscious and awkward and out of place for the first time in my life. The doors of the first five apartments that my guide knocked on slammed quickly shut as soon as they saw the color of my skin. Ah Ha -- so this is what it feels like.......

I held back my tears. "But it wasn't me" I wanted to cry out. "I want to help" "Please let me in." But I remained silent.

By the sixth apartment, my guide had learned a new approach: "She is young. She wants to help. She needs to be educated. Please let her in. She needs to see this."

So I was allowed inside the little two room apartment, with the peeling paint, with three holes that the rats had made in the walls of the bathroom, with the three children, hiding close behind their mother's skirt, looking up at me in fear.

I close my eyes and I am there once again.

I know how those young women from Norway felt yesterday.

Everyone should be required to have this experience.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Some Noel

The ability of both of the nations of this island to recover from the damage done by the recent tropical storm is exacerbated by the fact that in both countries, substantial portions of the population live below the global poverty line (generally accepted at $2 a day)-in the Dominican Republic, 30% - in Haiti, 80%.

I stand corrected about the reports from Haiti. I was forwarded a detailed report.

The government of Haiti released a detailed report of the damages from Noel as of yesterday at 11 AM:
40 dead,
14 missing,
71 wounded,
224 disaster victims,
11139 in shelters
883 homes destroyed
3002 houses damaged

On this side of the border, the reports are that
73 dead
43 disappeared

The roads from the Capital city of Santo Domingo both to the north, Santiago, and the South, Barahona and Pedernales are cut off as bridges are down from the flooding. It is estimated that this storm has done the most economic damage ever sustained in the Dominican Republic.

The President has asked for God's help in overcoming the damages.

The government has started to distribute food to stricken families. This aid will continue along with the distribution of mattresses, sheets, and mosquito nets primarily to the provinces of Azua, Barahona, Bahorucao, Peravia and San Jose de Ocoa.

Catholic and Evangelical Churches and many non profits, have opened up centers to receive donations as has the Embassy of Venezuela.

The German NGO, Farm Action, has donated 50,000 Euros specifically for the workers, both Haitian and Dominicans in Monte Plata and San Cristobal.

Japan has sent donations of $112,000.

The United States dispatched three Navy helicopters to the North Coast, at Puerta Plata to aid in relief efforts.

The transit workers union, the strongest in the nation often at odds with the government, has said that its 100,000 workers are at the disposition of the population and will serve the people of the affected areas, in many cases for no charge.

Reports are that while the plantain crop in Barahona has been destroyed, other production areas in the Cibao and Moca have suffered only minimal damage. The country has sufficient potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yucca so that there will not be a food shortage. However, both the tomato and onion harvest have been affected. The Minister of Agriculture warned speculators that the government will be watching for any possible abuses by speculators during this time of crisis.

Since Haiti has the least capacity to deal with this crisis, I am collecting donations for Anse-A -Pitres from the PayPal button on the right. Anse A Pitres is in the area hardest hit by the storm and is almost inaccessible from the Haitian side of the border - 7 or 8 hours over a road best navigated with a tank, or 12 hours in an over-crowded ferry from Jacmel.

I will wait until communication is re-established with that area and then ask my friends at PLAN international who work in Pedernales, what would be most efficient and how best to distribute it.

Mesi d'avant.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Hail to the Shriners

On Sunday, before the heavy storm, I went to volunteer at a clinic given by the local Shriner's
organization, one of whom I know. Over the course of two days, the doctors and technicians from the hospital in Springfield, MA saw over 300 children who all had different orthopedic problems, some were in wheel chairs, some on crutches. The Shriner's are the ones who wear those red fez(es?) (s) on their heads. I had never met them before.

As a female, I would not have been allowed to join since one has to be a Mason first. And so I would naturally have a resentment. But now I doff my non-existent fez to these people, both the one's who came down from MA for three days (no beach time, no golf games, no time for play) and the ones on the ground who organized it. All the services were completely free to the recipients. Serious cases who would benefit from surgery may be sent to the hospital in Springfield, placed with a local family who cares for them, and operated on. Often this requires several trips. Again - no cost at all to the recipient.

The clinics in the DR are ongoing. Word of them travels via "the coconut vine" from one family to another. I sat with one family who had come from four hours away, who had heard of it through the family of another child.

There is at least one doctor connected with the team who goes to Haiti but there are difficulties organizing clinics there as the facilities are lacking. There are problems as well in getting Haitian children here, across the border since there are visas to be procured and host families must be found who will shelter the children.

Since most of the kids had two or three adults with them, the waiting room of the local rehabilitation center was crowded. I asked what I should do, hoping that there were others whose Spanish vocabulary included far more words than mine - I am not even sure of the words for "elbow" and "knee" , although I had brought my trusted dictionary with me.

Fortunately there were lots of volunteers, the clinic had already been running for a day and a half . So I suggested that I start singing to the kids. My one crowd pleaser is "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" which can be extended rather infinitely. Both kids and parents participated and after four or five rounds, we had produced the first Shriner's Rehab Chorus.

What continues to strike me again and again both here and in Haiti, is the amazing good humor and cheerfulness of the people. They have a deep patience with waiting and a centered calm that is lacking in the frenzy of the "developed" world. I remember years ago, waiting for hours in the Mexico City airport late at night for a friend, surrounded by people who were content to just sit. At the time, I felt very "superior" with my big book. Very "productive". Now I am in awe of the ability to "just sit."

When you ask a Dominican how they are, the answer is often: "Fine, thanks be to God." I have never heard that in the States.

As is usual, I got more than I gave. And I share with you now the words for
La Cucharaca -(you most probably know the tune) written down for me, very proudly, by a young boy of eight, whose arms were connected backwards from his elbows:

La cucharca, la cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar
Pourque le falta
Porque le falta
La partida principal

Una cucaracha grande
Se cajo en un hormiguero
Y las hormigas calientes
La partita le comierion

_ (The cockroach now can not walk -- because he is missing the main part--
A big cockroach fell onto an anthill and the fire ants ate it)

Now form a Conga line.
And Dance.

The Rains have ended.