05 December, 2010

What does the discovery of new life forms mean for God and faith?

By Jorge Reyes Figueras

The discovery in California by NASA scientists what is apparently an entirely new life form, a toxic arsenic bacteria rather than phosphorus, which is one of the six building blocks of all life on Earth, has set the scientific world on fire, threatening longstanding beliefs about biology and religious faith.

The discovery implies that life can spring forth unexpectedly on earth and even other planets in unexpected forms-- developments that seem to run counter to literal readings of biblical creation accounts.

"The polite thing to say is that discoveries such as this don't really impeach the credibility of established religion, but in truth of course they really do," David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association (AHA) said of this week's revelations about the microbes discovered in Lake Mono, California.

"The fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature, taken in context with what else we've learned in recent centuries about space and time, surely makes it less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity," Niose said.

Another example of the war between science and religion?

It all depends.

The arsenic-based microbe discovery "sounds like a nice piece of work; we'll see where it goes from here," Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and a planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, wrote in an e-mail to Politics Daily. "But," he added, "any scientific discovery that broadens our knowledge of creation, deepens our understanding of the Creator."

Consolmagno, who a few weeks ago made news for saying he'd be delighted to find intelligent life on other planets, is typical of religious believers who don't see faith and science as natural enemies.

Atheists who historically have seen belief and science as opponents in a warring duel-- with belief of any type as the problem, not the solution-- weren't buying the AHA's arguments about the discovery's importance.

"I regret to say that the American Humanists got the story wrong," PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota and a famously trenchant critic of religion.   "They say 'a new form of life has been discovered that apparently evolved outside the scope of all previously discovered life on Earth,' and this is not correct: the bacteria studied share a common ancestor with us, and the novelty of the discovery was not the organism, but that this entirely earthly organism was capable of incorporating arsenic into its chemistry. So no, their claims of its significant impact on our understanding of the history of life on earth are overblown."

Faith, it seems, comes in many forms though.  And one thing about is faith is this, it can withstand any attacks no matter how strong is the evidence against it. 

Niose of the American Humanist Association did concede that it is "unlikely that this discovery will change the minds of those who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible." He went on to add that, "to them, the world is about 6,000 years old and evolution is a hoax, and no amount of scientific evidence will change that. For the rest of us, however, this discovery is indeed profound, and it adds to the mountains of evidence that already point to the humanistic lifestance as being our best hope."

It remains to be seen what the implications of this recent discovery will have for a plethora of interrelated issues, such as life in other planets, the nature of the universe, and of course faith in God. What I can only say is that faith has thus far survived attempts to explain the universe in a naturalistic way seemingly devoid of any deity, and discoveries made by science in the last hundred years. And perhaps that is the nature faith, to believe in things unknown, to believe in things impossible, to have faith in a universe that seems to be, in fact, miraculous.

09 July, 2010

So what now for Cuba?

By Jorge Reyes

When Raúl Castro took on the reigns of power Cuba, many people though skeptical actually had hopes that some political opening would take place in Cuba. I, like them, were wrong.

The Cuban government under him has continued to harass and jail political dissenters—even as the blogosphere, egged on by TV stations in Miami, provides new ways for some Cubans to express their criticism.

A couple of days ago, the Cuban government announced that fifty-two political political prisoners will be released, after a decision made after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro himself. The announcement is good news and a welcome relief to many observers, not to mention the prisoners' families. They have been through enough since their arrest in 2003.

According to Freedom House, this is a welcome posture but don't forget that there are 167 other political prisoners of whom very little has been spoken about. 

Is this a new willingness by Castro to tolerate dissent? To stop harassing people whose only crime is simply to act and think differently?

Some have seen this as a major concession by the Castro government, and in many ways it is. Whatever this may ultimately lead to, let's see what this is not about.

Throughout the years, there have been many negotiated releases with very little political change. 

In 1984, Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release twenty-six political.  In 1996, Bill Richardson secured the release of three.  In 2002, Jimmy Carter got one prisoner released. In 1995, the Human Rights Watch managed to get half a dozen released after six grueling hours of negotiation with Fidel Castro in 1995. Pope John Paul II has been the most successful negotiator thus far, who in 1998 obtained the release of eighty jailed dissidents.

Those prisoner releases were also welcome news at the time each occurred. But they did not bring an end to repression in Cuba. The government never stopped locking up its critics and stifling dissent on the island. There is little reason to think this time will be different. Since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2006, the Cuban government has jailed scores of political prisoners, including journalists, human rights defenders, and ordinary citizens engaged in “counterrevolutionary” activities. None of these newer prisoners are among the fifty-two the government now plans to release.

In any case, for now, only five of the fifty-two will actually leave prison—and apparently not for their homes, but rather for forced exile to Spain. “They will go directly from the prisons to the planes,” Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote on Wednesday, citing “a gentleman who keeps his ear glued to the radio” listening to “the prohibited broadcasts from the North.

"The ability to rid themselves of the inconvenient," she continues, "the skill to push off the island platform anyone who opposes them, this is a talent in which our leaders are quite adept…. [S]o many Cubans find themselves caught between the walls of prison and the sword of exile.”

Also, Yoani's sentiments are equally shared by many editorials worldwide.  As Daniel Calingaert, deputy director of Freedom House said: "we’re concerned that these prisoners are being forced to leave Cuba as a condition of their release and, in this way, the Cuban government is trying to physically remove political opposition from the island. The Cuban government should respect the right of its citizens to return home.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to Cuba.

I, for one, has stopped thinking of possible scenarios. What is true is that the release of political prisoners won't do anything to solve any of Cuba's political problems. I was always of the belief that by simply opening an immigration valve allowing Cubans to leave the island, we were doing more harm against the cause of Cuba's freedom than not.  It doesn't solve anything.  It leaves a vacuum for any meaningful and strong dissent. 

Now these 52 released political prisoners are forced to leave Cuba and live somewhere else, like thousands of other dissidents have done. The other political prisoners will remain locked up, their voices muffled, and the dissident movement as weak as ever.

That has always been the problem that has plagued the Cuban nation; those who should stay behind and fight leave by choice or are forced to leave. Others simply remain to whatever they can do to solve a seemingly intractable situation; their voices barely audible in a din of repressive revolutionary distopia.

01 July, 2010

Changes are needed in how our judicial system treats the mentally ill

By Jorge Reyes

Not long ago, I had a chance to meet Judge Steven Leifman, a circuit court judge who is also an advocate for the mentally ill inmates. In a speech in 2007 he said, "When I became a judge I had no idea that I was becoming a gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Florida - the Miami-Dade Jail." And since that time, indeed he has.

Judge Leifman was instrumental in drafting and presenting a massive report to judges and legislators titled "Mental Health: Transforming Florida's Mental Health System" about mentally ill patients and how they have become the forgotten few in our legal system.  The 170-page report is hair-raising.  It highlights in detail how the legal system treats under its case mentally incompetent defendants. 

The report itself was so grim that a local TV station reporter, Michelle Gillen, did an investigative documentary called "The Forgotten Floor."
Here are some statistics taken right out from the report:

"On any given day in Florida, there are approximately 16,000 prison inmates, 15,000 local jail detainees, and 40,000 individuals under correctional supervision in the community who experience serious mental illness (SMI). Annually, as many as 125,000 people with mental illnesses requiring immediate treatment are arrested and booked into Florida jails. The vast majority of these individuals are charged with minor misdemeanor and low level felony offenses that are a direct result of their psychiatric illnesses. People with SMI who come in contact with the criminal justice system are typically poor, uninsured, homeless, members of minority groups, and experience co-occurring substance use disorders. Approximately 25 percent of the homeless population in Florida has an SMI and over 50 percent of these individuals have spent time in a jail or prison.

"A 2006 report by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) Research Institute reported that the State of Florida ranked 12th in the nation in spending for forensic mental health services. Today, this estimate is likely to be considerably higher as this ranking did not take into account the state’s investment earlier this year of more than $16 million in emergency funding allocated by the Legislative Budget Commission and the addition of $48 million in annual funding to add 300 desperately needed treatment beds to the overflowing forensic system. Individuals ordered into forensic commitment are now the fastest growing segment of the publicly funded mental health marketplace in Florida. Between 1999 and 2007, forensic commitments increased by 72 percent, including an unprecedented 16 percent increase between 2005 and 2006.

"To put this in a more acute perspective, the State of Florida currently spends roughly a quarter of a billion dollars annually to treat roughly 1,700 individuals under forensic commitment; most of whom are receiving services to restore competency so that they can stand trial on criminal charges and, in many cases, be sentenced to serve time in state prison. Furthermore, the treatment provided in Florida’s forensic hospitals is funded entirely by state general revenue dollars, as Federal law prohibits Medicaid from providing payment for psychiatric services rendered in such institutional settings. As a result, the state is investing enormous sums of taxpayer dollars into costly, back-end services that may render a person competent to stand trial, but will do nothing to provide the kind of treatment needed to facilitate eventual community re-entry and reintegration.

"Roughly 150,000 children and adolescents, under the age of 18, are referred to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) every year. Many of these youth have been impacted by poverty, violence, substance abuse, and academic disadvantage. Over 70 percent have at least one mental health disorder, with females experiencing higher rates of disorders (81%) than males (67%). Of youth diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 79 percent meet criteria for at least one other co-morbid psychiatric diagnosis, the majority of whom (approximately 60 percent) are diagnosed with a co-occurring substance use disorder."

These are just some of the highlights of the report. There is more, much more, and the more you read it the more alarming this issue will be to you, too.

I ask you to read it for yourself.

Changes are obviously needed, and fast. The problem is that at a time when there are so many budget cuts across a wide variety of services and programs, I feel that the report will simply be an irritant to our legislators who are fully aware of the problem, yet are unable to do much to lead by example and do the right thing.

To read or download the report, please click here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/documents/11-14-2007_Mental_Health_Report.pdf

19 June, 2010

The death by firing squad of Ronnie Lee Gardner: how our civilized society perpetuates barbarism

Bullet holes in the wood panel after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a firing squad

by Jorge Reyes

On Friday, June 18, 2010, the state of Utah ended the life of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad. Shortly before the shooting, Gardner was strapped into a chair and a team of five marksmen aimed their guns at a white target pinned to his chest.

At 12:20 a.m. he was pronounced dead.

Utah adopted lethal injection as the default execution method in 2004, but Gardner was one still allowed to choose the controversial firing squad option because he was sentenced before the law changed. He told his lawyer he did it because he preferred it — not because he wanted the controversy surrounding the execution to draw attention to his case or embarrass the state.

Whatever your personal views on the death penalty, I personally consider this type of execution as barbaric. It is barbaric.

The executioners, all certified police officers, volunteered for this task. All of whom, of course, remain anonymous. They carried the execution standing about 25 feet from Gardner, behind a wall cut with a gunport, armed with a set of .30-caliber Winchester rifles. One was loaded with a blank so no one knows who fired the fatal shot. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner's chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.

About nine journalists were allowed to witness the execution. One wrote that before the barrage of bullets killed him, Gardner's left thumb twitched against his forefinger. When his chest was pierced, he clenched his fist, his arm pulling up slowly as if he were trying to lift something.

Gardner was sentenced to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt. He was at the Salt Lake City court facing a 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender.

Last-minute appeals failed
A flurry of last-minute appeals and requests for stays were rejected Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Supreme Court turned down three appeals late Thursday, although one of its orders showed that two justices, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, would have granted Gardner's request for a stay.

"We are disappointed with the court's decisions, declining to hear Mr. Gardner's case," one of his attorneys, Megan Moriarty, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "It's unfair that he will be executed without a full and fair review of his case."

After a visit with his family, Gardner was moved from his regular cell in a maximum security wing of the Utah State Prison to an observation cell Wednesday night, Department of Corrections officials said.

On Thursday, they said Gardner was spent time sleeping, reading the novel "Divine Justice," watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a bishop from the Mormon church. Gehrke said officers described his mood as relaxed.

Quench that thirst!
Although officials had said he planned to fast after having his last requested meal Tuesday, Gardner drank a Coke and a Mountain Dew on Thursday night. His Tuesday meal consisted of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP.

Attorney Andrew Parnes, who has represented Gardner for 12 years, had his last visit with Gardner around 10 p.m. MDT (1 a.m ET Friday). Parnes said Gardner had been focused on other people and programs he wanted to start, including one for at-risk youth.

"He's concerned about how his family is doing. He's concerned about how I'm doing," Parnes said. "He's just really strong. Now is that bravado? I don't know."

Gardner was the third man killed by firing squad in the U.S. since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Although Utah altered its capital punishment law in 2004 to make lethal injection the default method, nine inmates convicted before that date, including Gardner, can still choose the firing squad over lethal injection.

Troubled Life
I don't mean to excuse anyone's bad behavior, especially when this involves murder. But in trying to piece together the tortured life of this man, I found some interesting, if disturbing, biographical information which might help to explain the destiny he was slated to fulfill. Gardner first came to the attention of authorities at age 2 as he was found walking alone on a street clad only in a diaper. At age 6 he became addicted to sniffing gasoline and glue. Harder drugs — LSD and heroin — followed by age 10. By then Gardner was tagging along with his stepfather as a lookout on robberies, according to court documents.

Not necessarily a perfect childhood. 

After spending 18 months in a state mental hospital and being sexually abused in a foster home, he killed Otterstrom at age 23. About six months later, at 24, he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the courthouse.

"I had a very explosive temper," Gardner said last week. "Even my mom said it was like I had two personalities."

Many of us come troubled and dysfunctional family lives. Luckily, few of us decide to take on a gun and become serial killers or murderers. I've always been fascinated by the troubled minds of those few who do. It seems that somewhere in the deep recesses of one's mind, something snaps, something turns into a cauldron of passion which leads to the desire to destroy and annihilate another human being. What that psychic decision is, no one will probably know. What's so frightening for me to come to grips is that, perhaps, all of us are capable of it. The big mystery remains, though, why some do and others don't.

Either way one looks at this, it is a sad, and tragic, ending to a life. Whatever symbolisms and lessons one may learn about the path of destruction Ronnie Lee Gardner left behind, everyone, including himself, is a victim: to the family he destroyed just as much as himself by the death sentence carried by the state against one of its own citizens.

After the execution, reporters were allowed into the execution chamber. There was only the strong smell of bleach, no blood. The only evidence that a man had been executed in here an hour earlier were four small holes in the black wood panels behind the chair.

I ask: after the state carried out its sentence against Gardner, will this bring closure to the families torn asunder by the killing?  will it help us understand why an abused 6 year old kid became a killer?  will it help deter the crime of other 6 year olds in the future?  Those questions won't even start to answer why we even allowed the precious life of a 6 year old fall through the cracks of the system until it was too late.

20 April, 2010

From Madalyn Murray O'Hair to Antony Flew: My own intellectual journey in unbelief

by Jorge Reyes

Browsing the internet today, I read the obituary of the British rationalist philosopher Antony Flew.

For most of his life Flew has been a consistent and strong advocate for natural philosophy, unemcumbered by belief in God or miracles. To him, he advocated a negative form of atheism, placing the burden of proof of belief in any transcendence squarely on the shoulders of theists. Since propositions of belief in God cannot be disproven, he would say, then he argued that it would be senseless to even advocate a rational marriage between belief and unbelief, like much of philosophy has tried to do. One key to understanding much of Flew's philosophy: to follow evidence wherever it leads, something also said by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.

By a strange twist of intellectual honesty (some people call it intellectual dishonesty or age-old decrepitude), in 2004 Flew changed his mind. Still denying much belief in a personal God, life after death, or the supernatural, he began to argue that discoveries into the DNA prove that an intelligent design of some sort must have brought such complex matter into existence. He went on to argue that although this proved that something-- never calling that something by a name-- had to have been involved in the first act of creation, what is called the Big Bang, the springing forth, of sentient matter from inanimate matter. What that something was, Flew didn't go into detail. It was a deism in the philosophical tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

To deists, nature's god first created the world and then let the world function with its natural laws, letting the great natural machinery of life evolve on its own, without any special assistance from this god. Life, in other words, is like a blind clockmaker created by an unknown clockmaker.

As Flew wrote, DNA had "shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved". It was not coincidental that during his lifetime, he advocated in Great Britain the teaching of creative intelligence, something that their American fundamentalist brethens have tried to push through the public schools for many decades now.

I've always had the intellectual and psychical need to know what's behind religious belief. Call me whatever you want, but to me it all hinges on whether life has or doesn't have meaning, though meaninglessness is something that troubles me because nature equipped us all to find meaning even in the most mundane, trivial acts of living. Since I was a little kid I questioned what it was most people referred to when they pray to god. Believing in the bible stories, I often glanced at the sky trying to see if I would take a sneek peek at that famous Jesus who died for our sins one day, really soon, would come back to take us back into the kingdom of heaven.

I kid you not, growing up in a communist society such as Cuba, my religious curiosity wasn't normal and it would have branded me into an anti-social element, a social deviate who should have been spending more time, instead, delving into the historical materialism of Hegel or Lenin, not Christ's second coming.

(Left to Right: Jon Garth, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Robin Murray O'Hair)

Fast-forward my timeline and years later living in the United States as a young adult enrolled in college, I remember the day I heard the well-known American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair calling all believers idiots, all miracles as a form of mental illusion, and anyone who disagreed with her were just suffering from mental illness. If there were any gods, as she liked to whip, all you had to do is prove it to her and the whole assorted mess would be resolved.

I fell in love with the 70 year old atheist! Unlike Flew whose writings were dense and in the best philosophical tradition, O'Hair made it popular and chic to disbelief, to question god, to grapple with ideas and bring them down to their bare essentials. Her message was not unique, she was just titilating to watch.

As some of you may remember her, during her lifetime O'Hair was demonized. At one point in the 1960's, Life magazine called her "one of the most hated women in America", and indeed she was. Her ramblings, often peppered with nuggets of intellectual insights, didn't win her any fans. It seems that she had an equally dysfunctional family. In the 1980's her eldest son, William Murray, the litigant whose Supreme Court case won them infamy by banning bible and prayer recitation in the United States, had a religious conversion and turned into his mother's worst enemy.

Murray even wrote a "mommie-dearest" sort of biographical book titled "My Life Without God," which is still in print  three decades after it was written.  O'Hair, of course, had her own book titled "An Atheist Epic."  If compared, both books tend to totally contradict one another. 

                                 Photo courtesy of Corbis

Sadly for her and for her other son Jon and granddaughter Robin (William's daughter), in 1995 they were all abducted by their office manager, held hostage for a few months in a cheap motel in Texas and forced to take out of the corporate's account more than $600,000 in gold coins. They were then slowly and brutally murdered, their bodies dismembered, and disposed of in a farm in Texas. A nationwide search led by the FBI and then the IRS found their remains in 1999, five years after their infamous disappearance.

I was often like O'Hair herself. If it couldn't proven, it must be false. I still feel that way, but I often express this in less histrionic ways than hers.

There are things unseen that the mind cannot know, that our rationalism by itself is not fit to know (or at least not evolved yet to know), and that although miracles and belief in the particular of the major religions may be forms of mental delusion and brainwashing, for all practical purposes life itself is a mystery.

It is that same Kantian unknowability, that the mind has not evolved to the point that we can know things as they are, that I think Flew hit on the nail. Still looking at most rational proofs of God as hogwash, Flew nonetheless still marvelled at the uniqueness and unlikely story of existence. His recant and intellectual postulation from outright disbelief to a form of agnosticism is not hypocritical, but I think it goes to the very core of what it is to question, to take ideas seriously, and to "follow the evidence, wherever it leads", a key element to any philosophy.

Antony Flew's and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lives- and deaths-- were as ironic as their ideas. One died brutally murdered and still unrecanted and uncommitted to belief. The other died in peace, with all the accololades that his profession accorded him. In the end, both of them agreed more than disagreed: we just don't know. Or as O'Hair herself may have said: "just f***cking prove it."

Rummaging through my old files, I found a few letters and notes written to me by O'Hair decades ago.  I  intend to publish them one day because they are so interesting, highly intelligent, even funny.  In one of them, she ends by quoting a poem from an atheist poet named Ralph Chaplin.  The poem/note reads as follow:

" 'Mourn not the dead
But rather mourn the apathetic throng
the cowed and meek
Who see the world's great anguish
and its wrong,
and dare not speak.

Your fellow Anarchist,
Madalyn Murray O'Hair' "

Two years later after she wrote this to me, O'Hair was murdered.

04 April, 2010

INS's 400,000 quota will divide families and erode American values

By Jorge Reyes

I recently received a petition to sign from a friend of mine, Andy Hernandez. Since there are so many petition drives for just about every type of issue, at first I thought this one was for the Green Movement, Save the Whales, or something similar. But then when I began reading the petition drive I realized that it had been made on behalf of Andy by his wife and children.

Here's the story.

Andy Hernandez went to live in New York from the Dominican Republic in 1975, age 8, having been granted permanent residency status. His family settled in Washington Heights, where he went to school, got a job, and became thoroughly Americanized.

Washington Heights, as you may know, is one of New York City's "most murderous neighborhoods." Most of the violence could be attributed to the arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s and the activities of the rival drug gangs who plied their trade on neighborhood street corners. In the 1990's, Washington Heights was known to be the largest drug distribution centers in the NE USA. As late as 1998, drug arrests in Washington Heights occurred once every hour-and-a-half, inspiring a book titled Wild Cowboys: Urban Marauders and the Forces of Order, by Robert Jackall. Only in the mid 2000's, after years when gangsters ruled a thriving illegal drug trade, does it seem that some urban renewal has begun for that plighted community.

The harsh realities of Andy's youth, like many kids growing up in similar environments, compelled him to make mistakes. In 1992, he was convicted of criminal possession of stolen property in the 5th degree. Andy never served time for the alleged crime, though he was sentenced to three (3) years' probation. In 1994, he was convicted of conspiracy to possess unauthorized access devices. For this offense he was sentenced to three (3) years' probation and 400 hours of community service. Again, for this crime he was not required to serve any time in jail.

But by the end of 1994 and with most of his legal problems behind him, Andy tried to put his life back together again; he enrolled in college on a full time basis, while he also worked to support himself. In 1999, he got married raising his biological daughter, age 10, and his step daughter, age 5. By 2003, Andy had totally turned his life around and by then had become one of the most admired and respected producers in Telemundo, working for top-rated TV shows such as Caso Cerrado. In 2008 he became a foster parent in order to give unwanted children a better life.

Believing his past was behind him, on July 3, 2007, upon returning from visiting his family in the Dominican Republic, Andy was held in Miami International Airport for 10 nerve-wrecking hours. To the bureaucratic INS officer (a Hispanic), it was sufficient to know that Andy had had prior criminal convictions, regardless and in spite of the fact that he had been living an honorable, honest, and hard-working life for well over 16 years; regardless and in spite of the fact that those problems were a thing of the past; a past Andy recalls as being a nightmare.

Now Andy faces deportation. His fate is to be decided by an immigration judge at his hearing sometime this year, 2010.


If you think that Andy Hernandez's legal problems is an isolated case of an overzealous agency or that it can't happen to you, think again. You're in for a surprise.

Due to dropping deportations the INS have set out to do something about it, creating a new set quota rules for its agency and agents. This is happening, despite the Obama's administration call to focus deportation for illegal immigrants and for only a narrow group of violent offenders.

This has been outlined in documents recently acquired by a senior U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to field directors nationwide. In the Feb. 22 memo, James M. Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, wrote that, despite record deportations of criminals, the overall number of removals was down, and this is where it all starts. While ICE was on pace to achieve "the Agency goal of 150,000 criminal alien removals" for the year ending Sept. 30, total deportations were set to barely top 310,000, "well under the Agency's goal of 400,000," and nearly 20 percent behind last year's total of 387,000, he wrote.

In explicit language, Chaparro set out to explain how to go about achieving the agency's goals: by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; by sweeping prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, with a "surge" in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported.

"These efforts must be sustained and will be closely monitored," Chaparro told field directors in the e-mail, which was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Washington Post.

ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale distanced the agency from Chaparro's remarks, saying, "Portions of the memo were inconsistent with ICE, inconsistent with the administration's point of view and inconsistent with the secretary." He added that the agency has moved to "clarify" the situation.

Chaparro issued a new memo Friday stating that his earlier e-mail "signals no shift in the important steps we have taken to date to focus our priorities on the smart and effective enforcement of immigration laws, prioritizing dangerous criminal aliens . . . while also adhering to Congressional mandates to maintain an average daily [detention] population and meet annual performance measures."

In the new memo, Chaparro did not change nor alter the previous strategies he had laid out.

Advocates on the right and left pounced on the memo and other ICE documents, saying they showed that the agency is being neither tough nor consistent in targeting the worst offenders.

"We cannot allow a preoccupation with criminal aliens to obscure other critical ICE missions," Rep. Harold Rogers (Ky.), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, said in a statement released by his office. "At best, it appears as though immigration enforcement is being shelved and the Administration is attempting to enact some sort of selective amnesty under the cover of 'prioritization.' "

Joan Friedland, immigration policy director at the National Immigration Law Center, countered that quotas will encourage agents to target easy cases, not the ones who pose the greatest safety risk.

"For ICE leadership, it's not about keeping the community safe. It's all about chasing this 400,000 number," said Chris Crane, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees Council 118, which represents ICE workers.

Since November, ICE field offices in Northern California, Dallas and Chicago have issued new evaluation standards and work plans for enforcement agents who remove illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. In some cases, for example, the field offices are requiring that agents process an average of 40 to 60 cases a month to earn "excellent" ratings.

I don't know about you, but I smell a rank and file hypocrisy in all of this double-talk.

The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization never shy about embracing unpopular causes, said in a statement, "These enforcement priorities are in direct contradiction with those set forth by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton who have both repeatedly testified, for much of the past year, that ICE's priority is the deportation of dangerous criminal offenders."

"This is unsound government policy and an imprudent use of American taxpayers' money that can very easily lead to civil liberties abuses," said Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel, who attended the DHS meeting.

"Immigration enforcement practices should be tied to the needs and demands of America, not driven by arbitrary numerical goals set by ICE. The preoccupation with reaching the number 400,000 has placed intense pressure on all corners of ICE to step up immigration enforcement operations," she said.

"The ACLU is very concerned that ICE agents, in the name of meeting specific numerical goals, will feel pressured to cut corners and improperly target people who look 'foreign' for stops and interrogations."

All that is fine, but to an immigrant who under force or intimidation signs away a waiver to his/her rights for an immigration hearing or to an established legal resident with a family to support and a successful business and career whose past seems to be having a deletorious karmic effect years later, change in the law can't come soon enough.


But to Andy all this bureaucratic double-talk means little. His main concern is for the family he might have to abandon if an immigration judge decides that it is in the best interest of our society to destroy it by deporting him. 

That's not the way it should be. It's one thing for a government entity to uphold the law, another thing to over use it in order for its agents to get "excellent" ratings in their personnel job performance evaluations.

We live in a society where many of us have had past legal issues-- misdemeanors, felonies, what not. But once we comply with the requirements of the sanction of the law, it's time to assist them to move on with their lives, which means not subject them to ongoing, often lifelong, forms of discrimination. If that's your interpretation of what a just society should be doing to its productive members of society, then I beg to differ in the strongest possible way.

Sadly, that is exactly what is happening and, surprisingly, what continues to happen despite the election to the Presidency of a man who comes from one of the most discriminated groups in our society, African-Americans.  Ironically, folks, deportations under President Obama are still higher than under the Bush administration.

I hope that when the Obamas come next week to Miami for a Democratic fund-raiser dinner at the palatial residence of Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio, this issue like many others affecting immigrants will be utmost in their minds. That's only a hope, of course, so that at least the Estefans can put to good use their pricey $34,000 a plate invite only fund-raiser-- an event most of us are automatically precluded from attending.

If real reform that respects the full rights of every American (aliens or naturalized) doesn't happen, then the witchhunt against legal immigrant Americans will continue. In effect, this won't be any different than a new form of Jim Crow, something akin to the noxious "separate but equal" laws that for centuries treated some Americans with more rights than others.  This time around, though, it's not against a despised African-American minority, but against Hispanics.  So, watch out with that misdemeanor you had years ago.  You could be next.

If you feel it in your heart that you should sign yet another petition, by all means do so by going to: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/Help-keep-a-loving-man-from-getting-deported.

29 March, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI's knowledge of alleged priestly abuse of minors is not new

by Jorge Reyes

There is a palpable level of frustration for the Catholic faithful with the latest allegations of child abuse by Catholic priests not only in the United States but worldwide.

What's interesting to observe is that unlike the previous Pope John Paul II, this time around the heat may be proving too damaging for the current pope, Pope Benedict XVI.

While opening Holy Week celebrating Palm Sunday, he made vague references to the controversy brewing over how much he actually knew about a priest accused of molesting deaf boys in the United States while he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and if he personally did anything to cover it up.

Revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, again, is nothing new.

A 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is illuminating. The report was based on secret interviews done with US priests accused of child abuse and with their alleged victims. Between 1950 and 2002, there were 10,667 allegations of child sexual abuse. 3,300 of these were not investigated because the priests in question had died. Of the remaining 7,700 accusations, 6,700 were substantiated against 4,392 priests. However, according to the report, only 384 of these priests were prosecuted, 252 convicted, and 100 sent to prison.

The total number of allegations and the miniscule total number of successful prosecutions are astonishing. While the numbers tell only one side of the story, implied is the level of secrecy, cover-ups and civil settlements made by the Catholic church to its victims.

Again, some more numbers may be in order.

To give but one example. Between 1992 and 2002, the Boston Globe reported that the Archdiocese of Boston secretly settled child abuse claims for at least 70 priests. That is only part of a much larger, and tragic, story for dioceses in the United States have paid more than 2.6 billion dollars to settle out of courts cases stemming from priestly impropriety with minor boys.

But back to Joseph Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict XVI.

Absent from all the recent scandals about how much he may have personally done to cover-up allegations of priestly abuse while he was cardinal and archbishop is a 2005 case from Texas that has received almost no media attention these days.  (In fact, in 2005 in didn't receive much attention either, which is a shame.) 

Juan Carlos Patino-Arango was a seminarian who, while studying in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houaston in Texas, was accused of molesting three boys. Eventually the case was settle though the seminarian was indicted on a felony charge of indecency with a child.

If you think that's all, you're in for a surprise because for the first time in recent history, Joseph Ratzinger, our beloved Pope Benedict XVI, was personally named and accused in the lawsuit of conspiring to cover up the molestation charges.

Lawyers for the Pontiff immediately went into action, asking then President George W. Bush to grant the pope diplomatic immunity because, as the memo says, he is a head of state. Bush granted the immunity.

At issue, I think, is not that a head of state be granted diplomatic immunity, but that once again the pope seemed to be so close to the secrecy and conspiratorial proceedings in child abuse cases that has damned the Catholic Church in the eyes of many.

Attorney Daniel Shea, who identified his clients in legal documents as John Does I, II, III, told newspaper reports that then Cardinal Ratzinger, who at that time was heading the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was personally involved in the conspiracy to hide the crime of the seminarian. The attorney pointed out to a letter written in 2001 by the cardinal to bishops asking them that during church proceedings of sexual abuse molestation cases, to make handle them with “pontifical secret.”

Which brings us to the present church scandals of which the now Pope Benedict XVI seems to be embroiled in. How could he not have known about the abuses perpetrated by priests against children?  I ask this question not to jump on the bandwagon of the many vocal critics of the pope in particular or of the Catholic Church more generally.  I think the problem is more endemic than that since it is a structural one, where secrecy above transparency is a cardinal rule; where millenia of medieval, scholastic church dogma trumpets modernism; and where priests, all of whom pledge to be celibate, seem to find a escapist mechanism to deal with their repressed sexuality by overwhelmingly abusing defenseless boys.

Until the church makes badly-needed changes to its modus operandi, we will continue to hear the sporadic  allegations of child abuse stemming from and by an institution that can least afford to sustain such stigma in modern times.  How much the Catholic Church can continue to operate without doing irreparable damage to its legitimacy at a time when all these scandals seem to be so close to the see of power itself is one to observe with an admixture of fascination and disbelief from now on. 

* John Doe I, John Doe II and John Doe III v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Glaveston-Houston, et al. Civill Action No. H-05-1047, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas Houston Division.

16 March, 2010

Health Care Reform and 30 Million Uninsured

by Jorge Reyes

The health care reform seems to be gaining steam now that a final bill seems imminent.

While the news media will bombard us with intricate information about the technicalities of a possible final package (leaving many of us still in the dark about what it will cover and won't cover) absent from all this talk are the everyday, existential struggles endured by the near 30 million men and women from every walk of life without health care insurance or with little access to the health care system. 

I have often said that Middle Class America is poorer than anyone may think. Take into account huge debts, joblessness and foreclosures, and you know what I mean. On top of this, while some economic predictors seem to paint a rosy picture of the future, the greatest number of economists and analysts agree that the end of our economic crisis is far from over. In fact, just today I read somewhere that in the next two years we will see a new cycle of foreclosures.

The newly dispossed are all around you and their numbers will continue to increase. Just look around and you, too, will see.

Which is why not long ago I decided to visit Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of the largest public health care providers in Florida, and see for myself how our hospitals actually do business with our sickness. If you live in South Florida, chances are you already know about the crisis this hospital is facing. For 2010 fiscal year, Jackson Memorial Hospital will have a $229.4 million dollar deficit. Much worse for the local economy, it has threatened to lay off about 4,487 of its employees unless it doesn't get an infusion of capital from state and local governments, both of which have refused to do thus far.

Like 30 million, 4,487 is also a critically high number of unemployed people for any community to absorb at any given point.

But that's what we're facing. More people unemployed than ever before, and the cost of health care higher than ever. More people losing their health care coverage if they had any, while many more have no say in this important discussion.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2009 federal lobbyists and their clients spent more than $3.47 billion trying to influence legislation of all sorts.

Ironically, the only sector in our economic sector that doesn't seem affected by the economic crisis is the lobbying industry. I don't want to harp on more of the same, but here it is. How's this for a shock? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2009 federal lobbyists and their clients spent more than $3.47 billion trying to influence legislation of all sorts. Out of that, the pharmaceutical and health lobbyists spent by far the largest, with an average total of more than $267 million.

Be not surprised, then, that whatever health care reform is passed won't be as far-reaching, as all encompassing, or as geared towards competition between a public and a private plan as it once was hoped for.  That's a shame because this health care reform could have been another truly historic piece of legislation.  Time will tell, though.  Let's not be so negative. 

But how does this, I ask, affect those many uninsured? like the many people I met the day I visited the local public hospital.

While I was pleased with the general level of caring Jackson Memorial Hospital provides the poor and indigent, what I was mostly amazed to see were so many I call "the newly poor", or people who had never experienced long-term job loss, had ever been recipients of unemployment benefits, food stamps, or had ever faced the calamity of foreclosures. 

But here they were, hundreds of people who had come with the hopes of being seeing by a physician, a nurse, anyone who could tell them what was wrong with them.  For some, this was not the first time here so they knew what to expect, a pathetic bureaucracy.  For others, this was their first time and to say that they were in for a surprise doesn't do justice to their shock. 

In more than three hours, I met and talked to a wide number of families from the South Florida community. Most of their stories were similar in nature, and none had anything nice to say about the health care system.

Take for example Miguel, a 60 something Cuban man. Ever since he came to the US in 1982, he worked as
an independent electrician but for the last two years his job offers have dwindled to almost half of what he used to make.  Right now what he makes is unsustainable.  His wife Maria is of similar age, a housewife, with that piqued look of a person who has never been exposed to so much bureaucracy and, from what I could see, she was beginning to lose patience; a futility of emotion many who had been through this hospital before had mastered with stoic resignation, but one Maria had yet to master.

Miguel had begun to bleed through his rectum. He was afraid he had cancer. At his age, anything was possible as he told me. He had gone to a local clinic which had immediately referred to a specialist at Jackson. That specialist, as he was told today, had a waiting list of about a year. Not even if Miguel's case was of an emergency, could he see the specialist before a six months period.

Their choices, of course, were very limited. They can hardly pay $200, cash, to see a private physician, much less pay for the cost of all other medical procedures that would be required. They were at a loss.  One thing was certain, though, they had to wait.

There was another woman with a pea-sized brain tumor. Her name is Ana.  Though it was best to operate the tumor as soon as possible, the waiting time was three months and not a day before. In between the original diagnosis and the day I met her, three months had already elapsed. Her symptoms were typical: she felt nauseous most of the time, passed out at regular intervals, and her headaches were becoming increasingly more excrutiating.  She lived with her 84-year old mother, whose meagre social security benefits were $182.00 a month, and a nephew she had raised as a son and who seemed to be the only breadwinner in the family.  He works at two jobs now just so that they can pay a $950 a month rent.  Ana had been fired from her job as a waitress at a local cafeteria in Hialeah (a local municipality in Miami) because she had passed out too many times and the owner of the cafeteria was afraid of a possible lawsuit. 

When I asked Ana what she intended to do, I kid you not, she told me she was thinking of going to Cuba to have the brain operation.  "At least it's free over there and I can stay with family members," she told me with a shrug.   "I already sold all my jewelry in order to buy a plane ticket to Havana."

Michael Moore may not be so much off the mark. 

So, as we discuss the reasons why we should or shouldn't have universal health care, just drive to a local hospital yourself. Talk to the people. Let them tell you their stories. And while you're talking to them be reminded that one of them could be you one day.

24 February, 2010

The Mischief of Factions

by Jorge Reyes

I actually feel bad for President Obama. Never before has our democratic experiment been confronted by so many well-financed groups calling themselves grassroots movements vying with one another for public attention.

But don't be deceived.

While the clamor for attention in our democratic experiment is not new, what is new is that none of these groups are the spontaneous growth of people rallying around a single cause or theme.  Rather, what we're seen is the din of a disaffected few heavily financed by lobbyist (corporate) moneys with huge bank accounts at their disposal and not being shy about spending it. These lobbyists not only provide the blueprint and toolkit to embolden “the mischiefs of faction,” to paraphrase James Madison in the Federalist paper #51, but also to maneuver the ever increasing political angst and discontent of people. Madison feared, not without reason, that these factions if left unfettered would ultimately hijack the entire political parties and issues, eventually fracturing the entire democratic process.

To take as an example the Tea Party, that unconventional group of people mostly protesting against big government and taxes.  The issues they are embracing, again, is nothing new nor so outlandish. We've all heard it before from every politician: how they're anti-government and anti-tax.

Fine and dandy.

The problem is this: the Tea Party is financed solely by lobbyists organizations, mainly Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works and not by the people, for the people, or we the people. 

It is Freedom Works that provides the Tea Party with coordination, “take over” ideas in local and national political events, “how-to guides”, Web site information, as well as professional-looking press releases. Americans for Prosperity, the other PAC that finances the Tea Party, also coordinates press releases and events information in certain states. More, Americans for Prosperity is run by Tim Phillips, not coincidentally a former partner of Ralph Reed, also a lobbyist for the firm Century Strategies.

President Obama wants to save the economy by pumping federal moneys into it. The disaffected factions, on the other hand, want and need jobs and look to the government for such. Incredibly it is these same people who at the same time don't seem to want the government's involvement in the economy either. In fact, Radio talk-show Rush Limbaugh called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 a “porkulus,” in reference to spending earmarks. So how do we get out of this seeming quagmire?

We can't do it that easily because there are too many knots to be untangled. That's the problem. Our own rhetorical flair is preventing a solution; a set of solutions; any solution. Take your pick.  More, since there's so much money being poured into these highly-vitriolic staged protests the voices of these revolutionaries won't be silenced anytime soon further aggravating any short-term resolution. 

"Do any of these people have foggiest idea what it's like to live under communism, I wonder?"

How about health care reform? Why would anyone argue against reforming a broken system? After all, the rather tepid health care reform would extend coverage to the uninsured, ban the worst practices of the insurers, and guarantee insurance for people who lose their jobs. Yet, everyone seems to think these measures are a bad thing for the country many going so far as to call this reform communism.  Do any of these people have the foggiest idea what it's like to live under communism, I wonder?

There's a lot of anger, and understandably so. More and more people are on the brink of losing their jobs and livelihoods. Unemployment remains at a 10% margin, and some say the percentage is actually higher. As we all know, many Americans don't have health care coverage, something that costs every single one of us who has it more in the long-term. There doesn't to be an end to foreclosures, leaving unanswered an important question: what's going to happen to all this new form of middle-class homelessness? What are we going to do about them?

So, yes, there's a lot of anger and there are a lot of social issues we need to face and solve. The problem is that whenever we start chanting to catch-phrases written by lobbyists posing as leaders of legitimate grassroots movements, we all lose.

We need to wake up. The mischief of factions is eroding both democracy and liberty because what it comes down to is money or how much of it you got in order to effectuate any sort of political changes.  Short of that, you're out of the picture.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective. Take time out of your busy life and write a letter to your representatives in government at all levels. Tell them how you feel. Ask them to respond to your queries not with a pre-packaged set of ideas, but with answers that respect your right as a citizen.

Pardon the redundancy, but I actually feel bad for President Obama. He's got a lot on his plate right now and no matter what he does, I feel that his good intentions are set against a collision course of historical importance not of his own making.

19 February, 2010

Sarah Palin for president in 2012? How dumb can we be?

By Jorge Reyes

I'm one of those people who love to read other people literally. I often equally enjoy to take them at face value. Dare I say that I also tend to be a bit sarcastic?

Since Sarah Palin seems to be a name much talked about as a possible presidential contender in 2012, I think that someone ought to scrutinize her recent ramblings at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville.

Did you watch her less than lackluster performance?

It doesn't matter if you did or didn't because basically she simply gave vent to that “creedal passion” of certain groups who feel that they are not represented in the halls of congress, never mind that most of what they say isn't true. Short of going through their entire list of complaints, you probably already know their basic ones: President Obama is a person not to be distrusted (he could also be of foreign extraction, so watch out); the economic bailout amounts to socialism; the healthcare reform infringes on people's rights; the behemoth of Washington is eroding states's rights. Dare I say it also, do I hear calls for secession from the Union?

All of us have been privy to all of these rhetorical-filled flairs and vitriol by some who consider themselves to be part of the new dispossessed. And while there's no evidence to feel that way, they believe it and that's enough for them to consider it true.

But now they have a savior, someone who happens to also be one of the least qualified woman in this country for such an important responsibility, Sarah Palin. Not that I have anything against her personally. I just don't think she has anything to offer any of us in the form of leadership.

Sorry folks, Sarah Palin isn't much to boast about, and, no, we're not going down the path of socialism. If the economic bailout has done anything, it is to keep the basic structure of mixed capitalism alive and well, thank you very much. In fact, if we are dumb enough to think of the rantings of Ms. Palin as anything other than vapid soundbytes for the evening news, then we have no right to complain when others call us Americans dumb, as when the British magazine The Daily Mirror did when George W. Bush was forced upon us as president by the Supreme Court.

Why am I being so harsh on someone as loveable, as promising, as pure as Ms. Palin?

For starters, she has neither the command of international issues nor the intellectual capacity to verbalize them. She has neither a vision nor a coherent plan for anything beyond platitudes.

As I wrote, her performance at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville was awful and it deserves more scrutiny. After her speech during a question and answer session moderated by Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party, about a plethora of issues Ms. Palin responded with the typical gibberish answers she's well known for. This time, though, her answers were worse than ever.

She was asked about the Palin Plan, as opposed to the Obama Plan. With a timbre of fear in her voice, she responded: “When it comes to national security, as I ratchet down the message on national security, it's easy to just kind of sum it up by repeating Ronald Reagan when he talked about the Cold War. And we can apply this now to our war on terrorism, you know. Bottom line, we win, they lose. We do all that we can do to win.”

Not sure what to make of this statement, but then neither did many of the people in attendance who simply cheered and applauded with an effusion of energy.

When asked about the budget, she dutifully answered: “We've got to rein in spending, obviously, and not raise it extremely high budgets and then say, OK, we are going to freeze a couple programs here. That doesn't do us any good really. We've got to start reigning in the spending.”

Compared to the Ronald Reagan answer, this was more garbled and confused. But it matters not among equals for the applause continued, increasing to an almost frentic crescendo. Ms. Palin, unperturbed, seemed to gloat in the cheerleading moment.

Since God always seems to be a favorite topic of conversation in these pep-rallies, (God is always on the side of the dispossessed remember), she was asked a question about the spirit of America, and trust me, Ms. Palin didn't disappoint: “we should seek some divine intervention again in this country so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again. To have people involved in government who aren't afraid to go that route.”

I don't know about you, but I feel that there's an obvious lack of intellect, substance and coherence to the Sarah Palin phenomenum and I've never been one to be taken by her charm. It's all pre-fabricated, like a mass produced and dangerous talking doll.

Dare I say it: I don't think she's qualified for much except trying to change our public discourse with a baseless and irresponsible call to arms that does more harm to our democracy than not. And heaven knows, we're in need of some new blood pumped into the system and some new ideas infused into our public discourse. But she, like her paranoid ilk, just aren't it.

Sarah Palin for president in 2012? How can so many of us be so dumb?

13 February, 2010

The Terror of Happiness: why Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil could be wrong

by Jorge Reyes

Years ago I had a supervisor who approved my draft memos with a happy face. Of course when one of the drafts weren't approved, I'd see an unhappy face. 

Let's face it, we Americans think of ourselves as a happy people. Even our most basic legal framework, the Bill of Rights, protects such ephemeral concept-- the pursuit of happiness. (A weird concept of a legal right if you think about it.)

How refreshing, then, to read a book that puts the entire business enterprise of happiness into perspective, such as “Bright-sides: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich sets out to analyze that strange notion of happiness which goes by many names and that is so peculiar about this early part of the 21st century.

She feels that happiness, or positive thinking, has become the main and most paradigmatic cultural trend in America today. From the preacher Joel Osteen to Oprah Winfrey to Dr. Phil, she questions why this trend (happiness as the cure for all malaise) has become so entrenched in popular culture, and when, if how, it might end.

"There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.”

Happiness, Ehrenreich says, is not the same as feeling good, or having a generalized positive outlook on life or about being hopeful or even courageous. Feeling good, or feeling bad, are natural human emotions and are legitimate ways to cope with life, especially during times of crisis, such as when suffering from cancer, as the author was. Stricken with this deadly disease, Ehrenreich's therapist asked her on more than one occasion to embrace her ailment, to accept it cheerfully, to befriend it almost in a halo of light.

That, she feels, is brainwashing and a very irresponsible way of looking at the world.

Ehrenreich likens happiness to what it has become in many circles-- a sort of mysterious, supernatural mantra that can be channelled by a proactive mental process in the vain hope of altering reality to conform to our wishful thinking, which is what it is.

Under the veneer of so much happy talk there lurks a darker shadow, though, and that's one of the most fascinating aspect of Ehrenreich's book. By comparison with other industrialized nations, in America children are most likely to die in infancy and grow up in dire poverty. The health care system, as we all know, is fractured at the same time that it is also one of the most expensive. We have a very high rate of incarceration. Our income disparities is becoming alarming. We Americans consume 2/3 of all the world's market for antidepressants.

The list is long. Exhaustive. Sobering under so much talk about happiness.

Throughout the book, Ehrenreich continually asks some very important questions. Do we say that we're happy because we're truly happy? Or do we just say that we're happy in order to fight off personal insecurities? Are we happy because we rely so much on prescription, or illegal, drugs and are constantly in a daze? If we didn't rely on so many antidepressants, would we feel as happy?

As she cautions in the introduction, “there is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” Ouch.

The culture of happiness, in all its variants, is just an offshot of the old idea of progress. It is nothing new. People who adher to it see human nature as malleable, progressing towards a better future based on reason and, yes, happiness. Hence, “the pursuit of happiness” in our Bill of Rights.

But where most of these progressive ideas stopped short, extremism filled the gap. Fast-forward into the 21st century, and you grasp how these extremist ideas have been reinterpreted in a way that has become a billion dollar business.

Happiness, divorced from circumstances, is an utopian ideal, and that's the main theme of this book. After all how can anyone argue against happiness? 

Feeling happy is an ennobling and healthy endeavor, perhaps one of the healthiest feelings any of us can have. As it has been demonstrated by scientific research, without the feeling of feeling happy or without the feeling of what happens generally (to paraphrase Antonio Damasio an expert in neuroscience) our human species would be in a much sorry shape.

Happiness becomes a problem, a pathological New Age mumbo jumbo, though, when all other feelings except it are discredited offhand as less than or unworthy of other forms of human feelings. Like it or not, to be sad has its merits.  To be depressed.  To be angry.  To feel revengeful.  Within the panoply of human feelings, none should be repressed or disregarded.

The world, life, living in general, is full of strife. Unfortunately, as the conclusion of this books attests to, there really isn't a bluepring for living, only a propensity for survival and that can be either good or bad, happy or sad. The world is what it is and we are vulnerable creatures living in it, reacting to circumstances, often times rebelling against them, while at other times accepting our fate with quiet, resigned acquiescense.

If by the end of the book you feel a little less happy, cheer up. A gloom and doom existential scenario is not what this book is about; after all, life-- the mystery of living-- is something not to be despaired about.  On the contrary, there's cause for celebration in living. 

So if along the way in your journey you ever feel genuinely happy about something or someone, then consider yourself lucky and cherish those moments for as long or as short as they may be.

09 February, 2010

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

by Jorge Reyes

One of our most cherished constitutional rights is the first amendment's freedom of speech. With it also comes the free exercise of religion and the establishment clause.

These emblematic basic principles sets us apart from other countries, being unique in many ways. Together, they are a compodium of words, ideas and Enlightenment principles instilled in us from the day we are born. Whatever their real practicalities in our lives, unfortunately we often may take them so much for granted that we often don't realize how vulnerable those first basic rights are, and how they can be taken away from us, often in subtle ways.

Freedom of speech has not been a very popular thing to sell. I think it is one of the toughest things to sell. Historically, there have been times when this right of self-expression has been all but real, such as when it has been used as a tool of suppression or against sedition, or when it has been used against economic reform between the right of contract between corporations and employees.

Even the most freedom-lovers among us defend this right, except when it is not to their liking. After all, it takes a commandable spirit of magnanimity to defend hate groups, to give but one example.

Of late, I haven't seen more academic polemic over a Supreme Court decision than Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which was decided by a five-to-four vote. The Court's opinion overturned the McCain-Feingold Act (the Act) which forbade corporation or union television advertising that endorsed or opposed a particular candidate. In effect, the opinion said that corporations can spend unlimited funds on political advertising in any political election. At issue was a pay-per-view documentary critical about then Senator Hillary Clinton, totally financed by corporate money.

The Court's decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was joined by the conservative wing of the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by the other liberal justices.

Immediately everyone, whether from the Left or the Right, read this decision as flawed, onerous, and simplistic, and mostly for the same reasons. One side saw it as a Right-wing judicial activism favoring the already entrenched power of corporate money into the political arena. The other side saw it as a total disregard for democracy, treating corporations as individuals not as legal fictions, with the same freedoms of speech as you or I have.

Each side, of course, is both right and wrong. One cannot pick and choose what we like and still call it freedom of speech. On the other hand, democracy can become a mockery if one group can buy themselves into power while the rest of us remain on the sidelines as mere expectators.

I happen to be a strong defender of first amendment rights. As a writer, I feel that there should be no infringment on speech, of any type. Whatever reason may exist for suppressing speech is just that-- an excuse, whether it's the Left or the Right doing the suppression.

Years ago when I wrote a book about Cuba, I received a flood of hate mail from people who didn't understand why I had returned to Cuba. Some, taking pen and paper in hand, wrote missives against me in local newspapers. The bitterness was intense. I felt vulnerable. With nothing but my ideas, I spent almost a year in a public relations campaign trying to defend myself and educate people about my decision to travel to Cuba either on TV, radio, or the print media. It never crossed my mind to stop speech by suing my detractors in court for libel. (For the record, I say “sue them” because that's exactly what many prominent Cuban-Americans have often donein the past, shut their oponents up by suing them for libel. I'm thinking of the late Jorge Mas Canosa and his bitter, long-standing feud against the Miami Herald, and even Castro's sister, Juanita Castro, who sued her niece Alina Fernandez in a Spanish court of law after Alina wrote a book critical of her lineage.)

One can't believe in democracy, much less become fully engaged in our democratic experiment, if elections are decided by who has the most money, what group is most vocal, and who has access to the halls of power. That's a problem; a highly dangerous one when so many groups are marginalized or on the fringe of society without the right to vote, others are totally unrepresented, or yet others the apathetic ones don't feel that their vote counts for anything. You can call all these scenarious the sad pathology of our modern democracy, and it is a serious one. While on principle everyone is treated equal, is it true in practice?

That's what the McCain-Feingold Act tried to rectify and what the Supreme Court tipped the balance by saying “sorry, no can do.” The difference is more than one of degree. It is how each side interprets differently one paradigmatic principle.

The implication between the Act and the Court's decision is this: if democracy and the first amendment mean anything it is that democracy is flawed, not perfect, and that it will continue to be so and in need of help; and that the first amendment, instead of guaranteing equality of results, is only a method, a tool at our disposal and nothing more. Whether one group gets the upper hand or not is beyond its purview.

The idea of a populist right (the Act) and a democracy based on majority rule (emblematic of the Supreme Court decision) are often diverging and on opposite ends of the pole. It's an old tug-of- war as old as Athenian Democracy, one that continues in our modern age, and one whose results you may want to monitor yourself next time there is a national debate about a major issue, such as a Presidential election or healthcare reform.

Perhaps the best cure to rectify the democratic malaise of current times between moneyed interest and populism is by becoming more civic-minded and instead of bemoaning the sad state of democracy, becoming fully engaged in it.

01 February, 2010

Cuba's "Los Van Van" concert in Miami not as divisive to Cuban-Americans as it once was

by Jorge Reyes

The first thing my mother said when I told her the Cuban band Los Van Van was going to perform in Miami was: “Wow, what memories.”  She, of course, was reminiscing about a band she remembers fondly from her youth, a band that led by Juan Formell celebrates its 40th anniversary with an international tour, which kicked off with a concert in Key West on Sunday night.

If you're somewhat familiar with Cuban issues this may be yet another instance of our seemingly intractable political impasse.  If you're not familiar with Cuban issues at all and your only idea of Cubans in Miami is via the Elian Gonzalez saga, you must be trying to figure out what all the fuzz is about.

In a nutshell, for years Cubans in Miami have refused to welcome any performer or any other public figure who lives in Cuba.  Anyone disagreeing with this mentality has been called everything from fascist to terrorist to, worse, murderer.  I kid you know.  Whether this is true or not, to the exiles anyone who stayed behind is representative of a communist regime, and that's enough to ostracize them in a free country such as ours.    

This all makes for some weird bad publicity to Cuban-Americans.

To the outside world, Cubans in exile seem like a throwback of another age; a community that does love this country and has done relatively well, yet seems to have very little respect for the first amendment.  That's a shame, though, for it is a myth; one that may be shared, perhaps rightfully so, by that first generation of immigrant Cubans still yearning to return to the Cuba of their dreams in a few month's time; those who think the world has remained still since they first fled a political dictatorship in the early 1960's; those who think the Cold War is still a political presence to be fought.  All of that has been a myth; a myth because it simply isn't true any longer.

Thankfully also, the geopolitical issues of 1959 are not those of 2010.

Times do change, folks, and when Los Van Van played last night in the James L. Knight Center, a cultural shift of sorts seems to have occurred in only a decades' time since they played last in Miami in 1999.  At that time, there were more protesters than concert-goers.  This time around, things were different. Radically different.  As reported in the news media, of all the thousands of protesters expected only about 350 showed up.  The views of a new generation of Cubans seems to have shifted from that of their ancestors.  And that, I think, is a good thing.

For many years, one of the things I've always said is that the Cuban community is not a monolithic group.  We have different views on a plethora of issues, including the Cuban embargo, Castro, and what we would hope happens in the last communist country in the western hemisphere.  I once gave a lecture about a book I wrote about Cuba.  Halfway into the lecture,  I got into verbal scuffle with a lady who defied and interrupted every word I said every time I mentioned what I consider to be the foolishness of maintaining the Cuban embargo.  Call it what you want, but that's how discussions about Cuba end up mainly among Cubans-- personal and highly emotional personal attacks.  That's it. 

Dissidents like me who do not share the either/or mentality of the Cuban exiled community for decades have been the most silent minority due in large part to us not wanting to go against the tribe. In the past, to speak and think differently in my South Florida community is often an attempt in intellectual futility and outright censorship.

But regardless of how you feel about this topic, what 4,000 concert-goers did seem to say is that changes can happen, and often in subtle ways.  After all, what happened to the thousands of protesters that showed up during the last concert in 1999? Did they suddenly die?  Did they have a change of heart?  Are they looking at alternatives ways to end what I call the Cuban impasse?  I wish it's the former for that would imply a different strategy towards the betterment of a 50-year old fractured and volatile relationship.

Protesters, of course, have of course have a perfect right to peacefully protest against anyone they choose to.  Obviously the fact that Cubans are displaced all over the world is significant.  What they don't have a right to do is stifle speech, dissent, or music as in the past.   But how do we change this state of mind?  By further dividing our sense of nationhood against anyone immediately branded a communist? Or by using events, such as a concert, to narrow the gap of our great divide? 

What Los Van Van concert shouldn't be about is politics. That, unfortunately, is what it has always degenerated into.  What it should be about is culture and the arts, something alien it seems to many who hold on to this erroneous belief. 

And this is the bottom line: some famous Cubans have chosen to remain in the country of their birth and not try their luck somewhere else.  Like Los Van Van, I can name a few: writers like the well-known author Alejo Carpentier and actors like Rosita Fornes.  Whatever their personal reasons for staying in Cuba, the discussion should not solely focus on their political views, if at all.  What is important, though, is how we interact with one another from now on and how we choose to engage in a substantive conversation about where we go from here.  Hurling glass bottles and empty cans of sodas is hardly the way to be heard above the dim of ad hominens.

Which is probably what my mother had in mind when I told her that Los Van Van were going to play in the sunshine state.  The sudden joy in her face told me of another story, and another Cuban.  One that is not political.  One that is not divided.  One that can careless about any of the things we are often guilty by association.  Not once did she think of politics, Castro, or the so-called "exiles."  To her it was just about remembering her past, and that had nothing to do with politics.  Thank goodness.

30 January, 2010

The 2010 State of the Union Address in Our Own Lives

By Jorge Reyes

On Wednesday like many of you I watched President Obama's State of the Union Address of 2010.

With great expectancy I tried to make sense of all the promises he made, promises similar to the ones he made as candidate. He talked about the healthcare mess, terrorism, lobbyist reform, among others. One resounding theme was his tackling of the thorny issue of jobs, jobs, jobs. But as we all know, promises and reality are often at war with one another, and despite his best efforts to explain the current state of our economic malaise, I'm afraid that Obama fell short.

Most of the economic problems we now face are not new, especially to working families. These problems have been accumulating for many decades, simmering just below the surface of our conspicuous consumption.

How did we get to this economic mess? That's a problematic question many have tried to answer, to no satisfactory answer. What does seem conclusive is that since the 1970's productivity hasn't risen at the same level as real wages, leaving most middle class workers behind. Again, to the vast number of people who know what I'm talking about none of this is new.  To aggravate this problem, tax laws rewritten to benefit a small percentage of Americans caused a one-sided shift in capital accumulation benefiting the rich. The changes to these tax laws and deregulation were subtle, leaving the rich far richer and that healthy middle class sector which has always been the backbone of our economy poorer. Much poorer.

Some of us grew up with the belief that capitalism would continue to provide us with riches far beyond our dreams. All of us were under the impression that we would be employed for most of our lives earning livable wages. More, we taught our children that they'd be better off than we were.  And that with enough hard work and dedication throughout our lives, we'd be able to retire with enough means to be financially stable for the rest of our remaining days. 

Let's face it, we all bought into this dream. But this dream, like every idyllic dream, had a dark side. In fact, it had a much darker side; a side that hit us in the face in September 2008 when the economic meltdown took a dive for the worse affecting and dragging down many of us to the edge of financial precipice. Jobs were lost. Homes were closed to foreclosures. For the first time perhaps, more and more Americans were in desperate need for social safety programs. The middle class became, in fact, a homeless class. If and when people reentered the workforce they started their new careers at entry-level jobs, or at salaries far less than their previous jobs.

But then something miraculous happened: while many of us were hit hard, another group of people, the super rich, asked for a handout and got it.

What Obama didn't explain to the nation was this: how this economic turmoil got started by those who asked for the handout, how it was a gradual process decades' old in the making caused mostly by tax policies benefiting them, the rich, with deregulation of financial markets, hubris and greed; yes, Wall Street hubris and greed; and how he intends to make sure that this rampant greed doesn't happen again. After all, during his first term in office Obama did what was the simplest thing of all: pour money into a dysfunctional system to the tune of an estimated $4.0 trillion dollars. Oh yes, while he did it, he admonished the super rich and greedy for their greed and avarice while berating himself for being forced to do it. You have to admit, it made for great drama.  Unfortunately, it didn't address fundamental issues that affect us all as a nation.  Not only how to prevent something similar from happening again, but how to make sure that middle class America isn't dragged down again into it. 

The question now becomes: where do we go from here? And, if despite the government's bailout the financial system continues to operate in the same irresponsible ways as in the past, what does that mean for the future and health of our nation for both rich and poor alike?

In Miami-Dade County, where I live, I've spoken to many families whose homes have been foreclosured upon. Some of these families have legitimately lost their jobs. Others simply were just unable to keep up with their high mortgage payments, especially if they lived in a house that is worth less than they paid for. Interesting enough, about a dozen of these families purchased their homes with predatory and subprime mortgage lenders and they are, by far, victims preyed upon by a truly predatory system, pardon the redundancy. These outrageously unregulated mortgages were tagged on with high interest payments, high pre-penalties and other high hidden fees, which balloned already high monthly mortgage payments. (In one instance pre-penalty fees was $30,000 just to get out of the toxic mortgage.) As expected, these mortgages defaulted.

The economic nightmare isn't over and I'm afraid that President Obama needs to do more to educate all of us about specific plans to get us out of this mess. While he's at it, he should continue to speak with the vision and moral authority he had as a candidate for the presidency. If his populist theme is lost in his economic package, he's lost as president and he'll take us further down the precipice, too, or as George W. Bush said in 2008, “This sucker could go down.”

Being a pragmatist, I can only add to that: “only time will tell.”