Sunday, May 27, 2012

05-27-12 Activist Newsletter

May 27, 2012, Issue #180


By Jack A. Smith, Activist Newsletter editor

Less than six months before the November presidential elections in an exceptionally distressed United States the narrow, unpleasant parameters of political possibility are emerging. Two alternatives confront the American people, both to the right of center.

1. If President Barack Obama is reelected, with the Democratic Party retaining control of at least one chamber of Congress, there probably will be four more years of economic stagnation, high unemployment, increasing poverty and inequality, more wars, erosions of civil liberties and global warming.

2. If Mitt Romney is elected, with the right/far right Republican Party dominating either House or Senate, every particular of the travail afflicting the country today will be multiplied, with emphasis on fulfilling the desires of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

What else could be expected during the present conservative era? Paul Krugman, the liberal Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, recently described Obama, whom he supports, as having ruled like "a moderate Republican circa 1992." Viewing the ultra-conservatives, African American professor and left intellectual Cornell West detected "creeping fascism."

In today's society — based on gross economic inequality facilitated by a two-party political system spanning center right to far right and where big money is the decisive factor in the electoral process — an ostensibly democratic election can hardly mitigate the worst of abuses afflicting working people and their families much less bring about substantial reform.

This dreary reality is offset by an important new development. For the first time over the last several presidential elections — when voters are usually cheering exclusively for their candidate — masses of people are protesting in the streets against inequality of income and opportunity, and the class war waged by the wealthy, as well as global warming, ending wars, dismantling NATO and the like. Some unions, too, are not simply backing Obama but protesting on their own against Wall Street's depredations.

Thirty years of wage stagnation, the growing rich-poor chasm, evisceration of the so-called American Dream and the long, painful effects of the Great Recession are the objective conditions behind the developing political consciousness of many Americans. Like the Roman Catholic church after widespread evidence of priests molesting children, sacrosanct capitalism — the economic holy of holies — is finally attracting public criticism for its crimes and hypocrisy, not yet on a huge scale but growing.

The sudden entrance of Occupy Wall St. last September with an open critique of the substantial excesses of capitalism in American society, following the democratic Arab Spring and Wisconsin uprising, has energized much of the left and progressive forces. Nationwide May Day actions and the 15,000 who demonstrated against NATO in Chicago later in May, among other protests, including civil disobedience, are encouraging harbingers that many more people eventually will take their grievances to the streets and meeting halls, where all social progress begins. If this momentum manages to continue for the next few years it could become a broad and diverse national movement for social change — but it's still a big "if."

The political system seems no longer accountable to the public. Several matters of great importance to the American people do not even figure in this year's election because both ruling parties basically agree about them and there's little to squabble about but details. The administration has taken the U.S. up to its elbows in the quagmire of war, so the conservatives cry, "up to the shoulders!" Here are some issues the voters won't be able to influence at the ballot box:

• President Obama is presiding over U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing "terrorist suspects" in Somalia and wherever the CIA targets its drones. May opinion polls show 66% of the American people want the expensive 10 ½ -year-old stalemated Afghan conflict to end, and 40% — many of whom want it terminated now — are strongly opposed. Only 27% support the war, 8% strongly.

For all the chatter about nearing the end of the Afghan war at the NATO summit in Chicago May 20, Obama days earlier announced that he was prolonging the war a decade after his "final" pullout date at the end of 2014. An undetermined number of special forces combat troops, military trainers, and CIA paramilitaries will "defend" the corrupt Kabul government until 2024. American taxpayers will foot the bills — several billion a year. Progressive Democrats in Congress seek to restrain Washington's penchant for wars, but they are consistently ignored and occasionally berated by the Obama Administration for their efforts.

• Most citizens want cuts in the war budget. But as they go to the polls, the American people will be lugging a military and national security behemoth on their recession-bent backs, costing about $1.2 trillion a year. Rumors of meaningful reductions are illusory. The Pentagon accounts for over half of this amount (about $642 billion for fiscal 2013); the rest goes to Homeland Security, 17 spy agencies, nuclear weapons, interest on past war debts, and so on.

• Global warming is here and getting worse while the White House is opening up new areas to drill for oil and supports massive development of shale-derived natural gas (a fossil fuel that requires fracking to extract), "clean" coal (though it does not yet exist), nuclear power (with no safe place to locate spent fuel), and dirty tar sands oil. The Obama Administration's support for alternative non-carbon energy development is a token tossed to the environmental movement. Meanwhile, the U.S. — which demands to be recognized as world leader — is using its leadership to undermine international progress in fighting climate change. Big business and Wall St., primarily concerned with expansion and greater profits, heartily approve. Like Rhett Butler, the conservatives, frankly, just don’t give a damn.

• Since he has borrowed populist phrases for the election, some of from Occupy, President Obama has finally mentioned the words inequality, poverty and low wages, but he has done nothing to remedy this extensive social iniquity since taking office and will not put forward an anti-poverty program if reelected.

Economic inequality dropped in United States between 1930-1980, mostly because of Roosevelt's New Deal, World War II, 25 years of post-war development and a strong union movement, followed by Johnson's Great Society programs and progressive social changes in the 1960s. The turnaround became visible with the conservative backlash of the mid-'70s and it's continuing today. Taking office in 1980, Republican reactionary Ronald Reagan's pro-business, anti-worker policies led the way to ever greater inequality from one administration to another, while the Democrats shifted toward the center and now the center right, contributing toward this historic setback for the American people.

Today, the U.S. is the most economically unequal of the top 20 advanced, industrialized capitalist economies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). American capitalism also pays the lowest wages to its working class compared with OECD countries. Almost 25% of the American work force receives low wages (about $10 an hour down to minimum wage and below), usually without any benefits or healthcare. One in two Americans is low income or poor. The poor account for one in seven people. About 47 million Americans require food stamps to eat. Food stamps are the only "income" for six million of them. The impact of economic inequality, of course, is worse for African Americans and Latinos.

This catastrophe has not come about by mistake; it's the political system's payoff to the ever-richer plutocracy, the fractional pinnacle of the 1%. Inequality of this caliber is a major source of the increasing depletion of democracy in America as well.

• The Obama Administration has responded more resourcefully to the Great Recession than the conservative opposition, but it only goes a quarter or half  way in remedial action, which adds to the stagnation and prolongs the pain for the working class, lower middle class and a large sector of the middle class as well. When Obama delivers on the economy — whether in the stimulus, jobs, foreclosures, bank regulations, or infrastructure — it's always partial and inadequate because the main concessions are made with the power structure up front before the inevitable compromises with the right wing. There's a difference between talking like a fighter when trawling for votes, and avoiding confrontation as president. Krugman says "we have responded to crisis with a mix of paralysis and confusion." This is a major reason why over 22 million Americas need but cannot secure full time work.

• President Obama has retained all former President Bush's many erosions of civil liberties, particularly the onerous Patriot Act, and added  many of his own, such as when he approved of indefinite detention for suspects, including American citizens. A unique coalition of liberals and conservatives in the House tried to pass legislation to reject indefinite detention May 18, but the effort was defeated. The U.S., under Obama, is becoming a full fledged surveillance state. Tom Engelhardt writes that "30,000 people [are] hired to listen in on conversations and other communications in this country."

• Any listing of the important issues that are not part of the election campaign and over which the citizenry has no say must include a foreign/military/national security policy based on exercising world hegemony backed by military power. What's the "pivot" to East Asia really all about, other than to weaken China in its own sphere of possible influence and cling to world domination? Why has the U.S. been taking steps to bring about regime change in Syria, other than to dominate yet another country and weaken Iran in the process? Why did Obama facilitate a violent civil war for regime change in Libya, other than to gain another oil-rich client state, but this time with an enormous aquifer under its sands which may become more precious than the oil as water supplies dwindle through North Africa? Why did the president get behind the coup in Honduras, other than to dispatch a potentially progressive regime friendly to Venezuela?

Further, why does Obama still maintain Cold War sanctions and a trade blockade against Cuba, other than to win Florida votes in November? Why is Washington supporting the vicious Sunni monarchy in Bahrain which routinely oppresses and attacks the Shi'ite majority seeking equality, other than satisfying the obnoxious rulers of Saudi Arabia? Why is Obama now fighting a war in Yemen (Obama just sent in American special forces as well as drones), other than to keep the new president, who ran unopposed with strong U.S. support, in his pocket, and to bestow another favor upon the Saudi lords? Why is the administration seeking to strangle Iran, other than to prevent an Iran-Iraq alliance that might compromise U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf, through which 40% of the world's oil must pass? And what is the real purpose of the Oval Office's new "scramble for Africa," other than establishing a military presence throughout the continent while elbowing China out of the way to grab natural resources, trade and markets.

President Obama blames all his failures in office on the conservatives and the recession, and most Democrats accept this explanation. Even progressive Democrats, well aware of Obama's abundant shortcomings, will cut him slack for fear of the "greater evil."

The corrosive impact of far right ideology in America must not be underestimated. But despite Don't-tread-on-me Tea Party reactionaries and conservative obstruction in Congress, Democrats in the House and Senate remain responsible for many unmet objectives and a weak legislative record. Led by Obama, they would not fight for progressive goals and spent much of the time trying to fulfill the naïve presidential fantasy of "governing like Americans, not Republicans or Democrats." Once the conservatives understood Obama would rather compromise than fight they attacked full force and virtually paralyzed the Democratic agenda.

The silence of some Democratic politicians toward the erosion of civil liberties, indifference to climate change and support for unnecessary wars — a silence many would have broken had a Republican been in the White House — should subject them to publicly wearing scarlet letters inscribed with a "C" (for craven) around their necks.

Despite the stagnant economy —  the main issue in the election according to 86% of potential voters — the Republican Party's lurch to the far right and the bizarre legislative behavior of the Tea Party-influenced GOP House majority led by the ineffable Speaker John Boehner seem to have at least evened the election odds. Stranger things have happened in American politics, but it remains very doubtful that the critically important independent voters will swing toward fringe conservatism. This factor, in our view, gives Obama the edge.

In this connection the April 28 international edition of Britain's conservative magazine, The Economist, wondered "What happens to a two-party political system when one party goes mad?" The article quotes the following from the new book "It's Even Worse Than It looks," a product of one author from the establishment Brookings Institute and the other from the conservative American Enterprise Institute: "The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

Many right wing voters despise Romney, a shape-shifting opportunist whom they distrust, but they will stick with him because Republican leaders and funders insist he has the best chance to defeat the "big government socialist" whom many Tea Partiers scandalously allege conceals his "true" nationality and religion. Those funders, by the way, will see to it that — as opposed to 2008 — the Republicans will spend at least enough money to buy the election as the Democrats, so the race should be close.

Once a moderate Republican, Romney adopted far right positions on most issues to secure the nomination, calling for severe cutbacks in social programs for the poor, unemployed, foreclosed and similarly discarded, among a plethora of counterproductive social and economic nostrums satisfying to the Rush Limbaughs and Michele Bachmanns. Now he's in a tight bind. It is absolutely necessary to gravitate partially toward the center, where the independent votes are, but he is under considerable restraint from his own unforgiving constituency.

Consistent with mendacious ultra-conservative propaganda, Romney attributes the economic crisis entirely to Obama's presidency, without suggesting that the Great Recession emanated from the millionaire tax cuts, war spending and the huge deficits of his Republican predecessor (following years of Clinton Administration deregulations of banking and Wall St. that set the stage for what by now had become a "winner take all" economic system.)

Romney's nonsensical economic speech in Iowa May 15 was an epic self-exposure. While promising to cut social spending, increase the war budget and not raise taxes, he declared: “President Obama is an old-school liberal whose first instinct is to see free enterprise as the villain and government as the hero.... America counted on President Obama to rescue the economy, tame the deficit and help create jobs. Instead, he bailed out the public sector, gave billions of dollars to the companies of his friends and added almost as much debt as all the prior presidents combined.”

Virtually every word was a lie, according to an analysis of the entire speech by the Associated Press the next day which pointed out that "the debt has gone up by about half under Obama. Under Ronald Reagan, it tripled." AP didn't mention Romney's political characterization of Obama, but he's hardly a liberal — as was clear during his first term, and his adhesion to "free enterprise" capitalism is indissoluble.

Romney has been sharply critical of Obama on two of the biggest issues of the campaign — healthcare and the Afghan war —  despite the fact that his own past positions on both matters were nearly identical to those of his rival. Obama's healthcare plan is based on the program Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts. And despite far more hawkish rhetoric to please the far right during the primaries, the Republican's views on Afghanistan did not differ markedly from those of Obama. In recent weeks before and after the NATO summit, Romney has hardly spoken of the Afghan war, obviously recognizing that his primary views are anathema to the American people as a whole.

Obama and Romney have agreed on other issues. An article in Grist April 24 by Lisa Hymas pointed out that  Obama's “smart growth” initiative — the Partnership for Sustainable Communities — was also created in the mold of a Romney program.... As governor, Romney actively fought sprawl and promoted density. He ran on a smart-growth platform: 'Sprawl is the most important quality-of-life issue facing Massachusetts,' he said in 2002.... Under President Obama, the EPA moved from praising Romney’s smart-growth office to mimicking it." It went into effect in June 2009. Romney also supported abortion rights, environmentalism and immigration as governor.

These "coincidences" are the outstanding ironies of the campaign so far. "Far right" Romney and "liberal populist" Obama have both resembled "moderate Republicans" when in power. Obama will revert to his center-right configuration if reelected, but if Romney ever gets to the White House his constituency will force him to largely govern as an ultra-conservative.

A principal Republican issue in the past several presidential elections has been that the Democrats were "weak on defense," including in 2008 when Obama opposed the Iraq war, but the right wing has lowered the volume significantly because it can't work this year.

The Democratic Party, of course, voted for, supported and funded the Afghan and Iraq wars, but Obama defeated pro-war Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination because his critique of the disastrous adventure in Iraq accorded with that of most Democratic primary voters — then turned around when elected and stole the Republican thunder by transforming into a war president. He governs foreign/military affairs as a hawk, juggling several bloody conflicts simultaneously, abjectly pandering to the armed forces and fostering the growth of militarism  in American society. A year after the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, the Obama Administration has launched its own Imperialist Spring in the same region.

Many Democrats voted for Obama in the 2008 primaries because he was considered a "peace candidate" of sorts. A recent article by Atlantic Magazine staff writer by Conor Friedersdorf compiled a brief partial account of Obama's "peace" record:

• Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, adding tens of thousands of troops at a cost of many billions of dollars. • He committed American forces to a war in Libya, though he had neither approval from Congress nor reason to think events there threatened national security. • He ordered 250 drone strikes that killed at least 1,400 people in Pakistan. • He ordered the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. • He ordered the killings of multiple American citizens living abroad. • He expanded the definition of the War on Terrorism and asserted his worldwide power to indefinitely detain anyone he deems a terrorist. • He expanded drone attacks into Somalia. • He ordered a raid on pirates in Somalia. • He deployed military squads to fight the drug war throughout Latin America. • He expanded the drone war in Yemen, going so far as to give the CIA permission to kill people even when it doesn't know their identities so long as they're suspected of ties to terrorism. • He's implied that he'd go to war with Iran rather than permitting them to get nuclear weapons."

No matter who wins in November virtually nothing listed in the above paragraphs will change, except for the worse should Romney enter the White House. Butt does this suggest about the notion that free elections are the very essence of Washington's claim to enjoy a superior democracy when the choice is really between bad and worse?

Progressive change certainly remains possible in America, although neither ruling party is equipped to bring it about. These parties were not prepared to end the Vietnam war either, or to get rid of Jim Crow, or to implement the eight-hour day, or to allow women the democratic right to vote. But the people organized radical mass movements to fight for these goals and won.

The struggles of various organizations that began coalescing early last year, propelled several months later by Occupy's left critique of inequality, Wall St. and the 1% ruling plutocracy, have the potential to become a mass movement. Many such potentials have come along and faded for various reasons, including some that were co-opted or lost their vision. But broad and deep movements — as long as they are massive, activist, radical and well organized — also have significantly changed American history for the better. That's the light at the end of this increasingly dismal electoral tunnel.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

05-08-12 Biden's moment, and Cuba AIDS

May 8, 2012, Issue #179A

New York Times Editorial May 8

Every so often, candidates running for high office say what they really think about an important issue. It’s virtually always a problem, especially if that candidate is a vice president and what he thinks differs from his president.

On Sunday, Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage and portrayed the freedom to marry as a fundamental civil right. It was an important statement of support for marriage equality, and it was a big step forward from the endlessly frustrating hedging of President Obama. It should make it harder for Mr. Obama to cling to the tired evasion that his views on marriage are “evolving.”

Mr. Biden, who is prone to saying a bit too much on a few too many occasions, discussed same-sex marriage with David Gregory on “Meet the Press” on NBC. He movingly described the issue as questions of “who do you love?” and “will you be loyal to the person you love?”

Mr. Biden recalled meeting the children of a gay couple two weeks ago at a fund-raiser at their home. “I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys,” he said he told one host. “And they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.”

Mr. Biden declined to say whether Mr. Obama would endorse same-sex marriage before the November election, or in a second term. He began his remarks by saying Mr. Obama sets these policies, not him.

Still, his comments triggered the panic alarm at the Obama campaign, producing the comical spectacle of aides to Mr. Biden and David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, trying to portray the vice president’s remarks as in line with the president’s views. They are not. Mr. Obama remains stuck publicly relegating same-sex relationships to separate and unequal civil unions.

On Monday, Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama’s education secretary, also endorsed marriage equality. (Shaun Donovan, who is the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, did so earlier.) That made it even harder to figure out what Mr. Obama and his political handlers think is gained by the president’s hedging.

The Obama administration has taken some positive steps against antigay discrimination, such as repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and ending the Justice Department’s legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, the unconstitutional law that bars federal recognition of legally performed same-sex unions.

In stark contrast to Mitt Romney, who has aligned himself with the most fervent opponents of same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama has come out against the proposed state constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriages and civil unions that is going before voters in Tuesday’s primary election in North Carolina.

But, by failing to go the next step and actually say that he supports the freedom to marry as Mr. Biden does and as polls show nearly a majority of Americans do, Mr. Obama risks dampening the enthusiasm of allies without gaining the support of equality’s opponents. It’s not an unfamiliar place for this president to be, unfortunately.

It would be good for a broad range of Americans to see him articulate a clear position of principle and then defend it before the voting public.


New York Times, May 8

HAVANA — Yudelsy García O’Connor, the first baby known to have been born with H.I.V. in Cuba, is not merely still alive. She is vibrant, funny and, at age 25, recently divorced but hoping to remarry and have children.

Her father died of AIDS when she was 10, her mother when she was 23. She was near death herself in her youth.

“I’m not afraid of death,” she said. “I know it could knock on my door. It comes for everyone. But I take my medicine.”

Ms. García is alive thanks partly to lucky genes, and partly to the intensity with which Cuba has attacked its AIDS epidemic. Whatever debate may linger about the government’s harsh early tactics — until 1993, everyone who tested positive for H.I.V. was forced into quarantine — there is no question that they succeeded.

Cuba now has one of the world’s smallest epidemics, a mere 14,038 cases. Its infection rate is 0.1 percent, on par with Finland, Singapore and Kazakhstan. That is one-sixth the rate of the United States, one-twentieth of nearby Haiti.

The population of Cuba is only slightly larger than that of New York City. In the three decades of the global AIDS epidemic, 78,763 New Yorkers have died of AIDS. Only 2,364 Cubans have.

Other elements have contributed to Cuba’s success: It has free universal basic health care; it has stunningly high rates of H.I.V. testing; it saturates its population with free condoms, concentrating on high-risk groups like prostitutes; it gives its teenagers graphic safe-sex education; it rigorously traces the sexual contacts of each person who tests positive.

By contrast, the response in the United States — which records 50,000 new infections every year — seems feeble. Millions of poor people never see a doctor. Testing is voluntary, and many patients do not return for their results. Sex education is so politicized that many schools teach nothing about protected sex; condoms are expensive, and distribution of free ones is haphazard.

Cuba has succeeded even though it has the most genetically diverse epidemic outside Africa. Almost all American cases are of one strain, subtype B. Cuba has 21 different strains.

The genetic diversity is a legacy of its foreign aid. Since the 1960s, Cuba has sent abroad thousands of “internationalists” — soldiers, doctors, teachers and engineers. Stationed all over Africa, they brought back a wide array of strains. According to a study in 2002, 11 of Cuba’s 21 strains are unknown elsewhere, formed when two others mixed.

And Cuba’s success has come despite its being a sex tourism destination for Europeans and Canadians.

While the police enforce laws against overt streetwalking, bars and hotel lobbies in downtown Havana are filled with young women known as jineteras — slang for “jockeys” — who approach foreigners, asking if they would like to go for a drink, or perhaps dancing, with the unspoken assumption that it will lead to more. Even so, of the roughly 1,000 new infections diagnosed each year, 81 percent are among men and very few among young unmarried women.

“Most of those who sleep with tourists know to use condoms,” said Dr. Ribero Wong, an AIDS specialist here.

In a survey in 2009, 77 percent of all sex workers said they regularly used condoms.

There are male jineteras for gay tourists too, of course, “but we believe the main vector is within the people,” said Dr. Luis Estruch Rancaño, deputy minister for public health. “Mainly, the very promiscuous group in the homosexual community who have many partners and don’t take precautions.”

One example is Carlos Emilio García, 50, a registered nurse who lives and works at a former quarantine sanitarium outside Havana. He had negative H.I.V. tests at his job every six months from 1990 to 1996, but became infected in 1997.

He admits to having had many partners; as he put it, “No, I don’t know who my assassin is.”

Asked why a well-educated nurse would risk sex without a condom, he waved his hands in the air and replied, “You know — because we all do crazy things sometimes.”

The few Cuban women who are infected usually get the virus from partners who are secretly bisexual, experts said.

“Homo-bisexual transmission” is its own category in Cuba; socially, a man who occasionally has sex with other men is not considered gay if he is a “top” — the penetrative partner, explained Ramón Arango García, a fashion designer and educator at the National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention Center.

Heroin use, which drives epidemics in many countries, is virtually nonexistent in Cuba, officials insist.

And since 1986, only 38 babies have been born with the virus. In Cuba’s cradle-to-grave health care system, pregnant women get up to 12 free prenatal checkups, during which they are tested for H.I.V. at least twice.

Before antiretroviral drugs were available, H.I.V.-infected women were offered abortions or, if they chose to deliver, Caesareans and free infant formula to discourage breast-feeding and reduce the risk of transmission. Now they get the drugs free.

Universal Coverage

As broken as it is economically, Cuba still points proudly to one legacy of its 1959 revolution: Basic health care is universal and free. Cuba has 535,000 health care workers (“We’re all either doctors or baseball players,” one hospital microbiologist joked) and each citizen is officially registered with a family doctor nearby; if a patient skips a checkup, the doctor is expected to find out why.

“I was trained to expect my patients to come to me,” said Dr. Rafael Mazín, senior AIDS adviser for the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, who is Mexican. “In Cuba, the doctor comes to you.”

Cuba is tied with the United States in both life expectancy and infant mortality.

Dr. Jorge Pérez Ávila is Cuba’s Tony Fauci, its best-known AIDS doctor. He is grandfatherly now, and clearly much loved by former patients like Ms. García, but he has memories of helping his bus driver father make gasoline bombs to throw at the police during the Batista government. As a teenager he dropped out of school to live in the mountains, teaching villagers to read under a literacy program after Castro came to power.

He treated Ms. García’s parents on their deathbeds and heard her father beg, “Do whatever it takes to help my daughter live.” (Her father, who had been a soldier in Angola, was a truck driver. He had nine girlfriends in different towns, five of whom he infected.)

Many medical authorities agree that Cuba had an early and effective response to the epidemic. In his book, “AIDS: Confessions to a Doctor,” published only in Spanish, Dr. Pérez gave his account of the meeting that galvanized Cuba’s response.

In 1983, Fidel Castro visited the Pedro Kourí Institute, Cuba’s top tropical disease hospital, to hear a presentation on malaria and dengue fever.

As it ended, he suddenly asked the director, “Gustavo, what are you doing to keep AIDS from entering Cuba?”

Dr. Gustavo Kourí, son of the institute’s founder, was caught off guard, Dr. Pérez said, and stammered: “AIDS, comandante? AIDS? It is a new disease. We don’t even know whether it’s produced by a bacteria, a virus or a fungus. There isn’t much data on it, just what’s been reported in the United States and a few cases in Europe. It will take time to know how big it is.”

Mr. Castro replied: “I think it will be the epidemic of this century. And it’s your responsibility, Gustavo, to stop it becoming a major problem here.”

This was two years before any American president publicly uttered the word “AIDS.” Asked how Mr. Castro could have been so prescient, Dr. Pérez struggled to find the right word, then said: “Castro has luz larga” — “big lights,” the Cuban slang for automobile high beams. “He reads a lot. He sees far ahead.”

Dr. Pérez is simultaneously both a fan of the Castro government and a bit of a cynic; on Dec. 1, he led a “Viva, Fidel!” cheer at his hospital’s World AIDS Day. But he also mentioned that Mr. Castro once praised him by saying: “Jorge, I’ve been reading your mail. Your patients say very nice things about you.”

The medical establishment reacted quickly. The first step was to throw out all imported blood — 20,000 units. That avoided the devastation that the hemophiliac populations in the United States and France suffered.

Doctors were sent to Brazil and France to study cases.

All of the country’s family doctors were ordered to watch for infections that indicate AIDS like Kaposi’s sarcoma or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.

Because there was no H.I.V. test yet, the first cases were found late in the disease, leading doctors to think most patients died within a year — an erroneous assumption that helped justify the quarantine policy.

In 1986, blocked by the embargo from buying American test kits, Cuba bought 750,000 French ones.

According to Dr. María Isela Lantero, AIDS chief at the Health Ministry’s, Cuba’s 11 million citizens have been tested 43 million times; last year, more than two million tests were done. That is the equivalent of testing the sexually active population every three years, though in reality the focus is on high-risk groups, who are tested more often.

Cubans returning from abroad are routinely tested, as are pregnant women, prisoners, soldiers, hospital patients, health workers and anyone treated for venereal disease. So is anyone whose family doctor suspects he or she is gay, a sex worker or otherwise at risk.

Haydee Martínez Obregón, 33, who has lived in the AIDS sanitarium in Sancti Spíritus, in central Cuba, since she was 19, is an example of that. (She lives there by choice, she said, because she has no home outside.)

Asked how she learned she was infected, she said, “My family doctor thought it was a good idea to test me because I was so promiscuous.”

And how did he know that?

“My mother told him everything.”

Anonymous voluntary testing is also available at 700 clinics and hospitals.Anyone who tests positive gets an appointment with an epidemiology nurse, who asks for the names of everyone he or she has ever slept with.

By law, answering is voluntary.

“If they say no, nothing happens,” Dr. Pérez said.

But pressure is clearly applied. A patient who says no to the nurse gets an appointment with the doctor, then with a social worker and then sometimes with a psychologist. Then a team of H.I.V.-positive educators will make a home visit. So might the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Depending on whom one asks, those committees are the defenders of Cuban democracy, domestic spies or just state-sponsored Nosy Parkers.

Some still refuse. Arachu Castro, a professor of global health at Harvard Medical School who often works in Cuba, described one woman who absolutely insisted that she had never slept with anyone but her husband, who was virus-free.

“We called her the Immaculate Infection,” she said.

There are other subtle pressures, Dr. Castro said. Socialist education teaches Cubans to feel responsible for one another. Also, most Cubans subsist partly on government rations and the sick get extra food, and their lifesaving drugs, from the government.

Everyone who tests positive also must take a two-week course in “living responsibly with H.I.V.”

Rising Challenge

With mandatory quarantine long gone and the virus now mostly in gay and bisexual men, new infections are slowly but steadily rising. They now approach 1,000 a year, “and we’re waiting for the plateau,” said Dr. José Joanes Fiol, the Health Ministry’s chief epidemiologist.

Today, condoms and sex education are the chief weapons.

Cuban society is the opposite of puritanical; scanty clothing is routine, suggestive flirtation is common, and so are divorce and extramarital affairs.

The government distributes more than 100 million condoms a year. Every place with young customers, even pizzerias, is required to stock them.

“The first ones we got were from China, and had butterflies and penguins on the package,” Manuel Hernández Fernández, an AIDS educator for 25 years, said with a snort. “We had to Cubanize them.”

Now one shows a man groping a naked breast; another has two men.

During a condom giveaway for World AIDS Day, women laughed as volunteers — mostly gay men — dropped condoms into their cleavages.

“Just one?” one woman said. “What am I going to do with just one?”

Omairy Lorenzo, 18, a journalism student in Havana watching the giveaway, said she had been shown how to put a condom on a model penis at school when she was 12.

Her classmate Abel Lescaille, 20, said, “Sometimes they do so much sex education that you get tired of it.”

Until recently, Cuban society and government policies were deeply homophobic; in the revolution’s early days, gay men were sent to labor camps. Fidel Castro now publicly says he regrets that action.

Now there is more acceptance.

At the same time, the government controls virtually all real estate, and there are no gay bars or hotels. Cruising men often have unsafe sex in abandoned buildings or parks where muggers lurk and the police conduct raids, said Libán Molina, 41, a volunteer at an AIDS prevention hot line.

Only about half of the 11,674 Cubans living with H.I.V. are now on antiretroviral drugs.

In theory, Cuba would be an ideal laboratory for “test and treat,” the new protocol in which patients who test positive go on drugs immediately to reduce by 95 percent their chance of infecting anyone else.

However, it requires modern drugs and Cuba makes only the older, harsher ones. Only about 1,100 patients get new drugs, paid for by foreign donors.

“We know about test-and-treat,” Dr. Pérez said. “We would do it, if we could. But we need the funds.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

5-2-12 Activist Calendar

May 2, 2012, Issue #660
Send event announcements to
Dedicated to Helping Build  Activist
Movements  in  the  Hudson  Valley

Editor's Notes:
•  The Calendar's late because our email system crashed 10 days ago. We got it back yesterday, though a few hundred addresses were lost for good. We sent out the Activist Newsletter yesterday, and now the Calendar.

•  What a pleasure to see May Day activities make a comeback in the U.S. yesterday. Millions of Americans have had their consciousness raised during the Great Recession and its continuing aftermath. The concept of 99% is simple, direct and it's working. Here's a rundown of all the May 1 activities:

• Three recent programs from Democracy Now! deserve your attention:
(1) Today's (May 2) Democracy Now! has some good May Day coverage and perceptive comments by Tariq Ali on Obama's trip to Afghanistan yesterday,
(2) On April 25 the program included a most important segment on Mumia-Abu-Jamal, America’s best known political prisoner, who has become a national voice for peace and justice despite being locked up in Pennsylvania for over three decades. Amy Goodman interviewed Mumia from prison and he delivered an important message. Video, radio or text is at
(3) On April 24, the program featured an extraordinary exclusive report on the beating/tasering murder of a Mexican immigrant by U.S. Border Patrol Agents who were acting like Nazi thugs.


Thursday, May 3, DELMAR: Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace presents the documentary, "The Last Mountain" at the Bethlehem Public Library, 451 Delmar Ave. at 6:45 p.m., followed by a discussion. The film follows citizens in Virginia's Coal River Valley, as they campaign to prevent Massey Energy Company from expanding mountaintop removal mining in their community.
Information, (518) 466-1192,

Thursday, May 3, POUGHKEEPSIE:
Dutchess Peace will screen Michael Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love story," at Crafted Kup, 44 Raymond Ave., at 7 p.m. The film focuses on the financial crisis of 2007-2010, and the power exercised by Wall St. and the corporations over the U.S. government, political system and the 99%. Information, (845) 876-7906,

Friday, May 4, ELDRED: A public hearing on fracking will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Junior/Senior High School. Eldred is in the Town of Highland in Sullivan County. Said supervisor Andrew Boyar: “I prevail on everyone to let your voice be heard at that time.”

Saturday, May 5, ALBANY and INTERNATIONAL:
The climate change organization is organizing a worldwide protest today "from Vietnam to Vermont" titled "Connect the Dots" between extreme weather and climate change. The theme of Albany's "Climate Impacts Day" is "Connect the Dots: Weird weather, climate change, greenhouse pollution." A climate change awareness walk and rally, with a tour of sites affected by recent severe weather, is what's planned. People will meet by the foot bridge over Rt. 787 to Corning Preserve at Broadway and Pine St., at 2:30 p.m. The will move on to the bike path by the Hudson that was flooded by Hurricane Irene, then on to the Broadway office of Chesapeake Energy (fracking corporation), the N.Y.S. Department of Department of Environmental Conservation, across the street, to the O'Brien Federal building, ending up with a 3:30-4:30 p.m. rally in front of the State Capitol. (In bad weather, rally under the overhang on the State St side of the Capitol.) The sponsors are and Occupy Albany. Information, (518) 466-9339,

Saturday, May 5, MILLBROOK: The Cary Institute Auditorium, 2801 Sharon Turnpike (Rt. 44), is the venue for a 9 a.m.-12 noon forum exploring hydrofracking, the dangerous process of extracting natural gas from shale, of which New York has an abundance. Opposition to fracking is one of the biggest movement issues in a large part of the state. Speakers will include: Cary Institute President William Schlesinger; Avner Vengosh, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University; Radisav Vidic, chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Pittsburgh; Bernard Goldstein, dean emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health; Mark Boling, executive vice president and general counsel of southwestern energy; Simona Perry, science and technology studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Emma Rosi-Marshall of the Cary Institute will moderate the Q&A. Free and public, but an RSVP is required and name tags will be provided at sign in. Information and registration,

Sunday, May 6, ROSENDALE: A memorial gathering for activist Gale McGovern, who died Dec. 27 at the age of 73, will be held at 3 p.m. at the Recreation Center, 1055 Rt. 32. Gale was a long time local activist, involved in many causes. Bring a pot luck dish. If you wish to speak, contact Karen or Miriam at (845) 255-7711, There is need for volunteers to help set up at 2 p.m., break down afterwards, and other tasks. There is also a need for large coffee urns/thermoses. If you have any of those items to loan for the day, or wish to volunteer, please contact Miriam or Karen.

Sunday, May 6, OLD CHATHAM: Local activist Nancy Smith discusses "What's Wrong with Our Prisons," at the Powell House Quaker Conference and Retreat Center, 524 Pitt Hall Rd. (off Columbia County Rt.13) at 12:30 p.m. Smith spent six months in a federal prison for her nonviolent protesting of the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga. Refreshments will be served at this free event. Sponsored by Old Chatham Quaker Meeting. Information, (518) 766-2992,

Sunday, May 6, HILLBURN: Today is Environmental Day in this Rockland town. The Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority is organizing an 11 a.m.-4 p.m. event at Torne Valley, rain or shine. The day includes a visit to the Environmental Education Center, music and food, demonstrations of how to go Green, many Green exhibitors and products, special kids events (balloon artist, face painting, a solar powered merry-go-round), etc. It's free. Information, Kerri Scales (845) 753-2200, ext. 22,

Monday, May 7, POUGHKEEPSIE (Vassar College campus): The Hudson River Environmental Society hosts a conference, "Clean Water Act at 40: Facing the Future," in the Multi-Purpose Room of the Student Building, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Invited speakers 9 a.m.-3 p.m.) Poster session and social from 3:30-6 p.m. Registration at Information, (518) 402-9216, Chuck Nieder at

Monday, May 7, SHOKAN: The Town of Olive board in Ulster County will hold a 7:30 p.m. public hearing at Town Hall, Bostock Rd., to consider the proposed adoption of a local law to put a moratorium on the exploration, extraction, disposal, and storage of natural gas within the Town of Olive for one year.

Monday, May 7, OLD CHATHAM: Old Chatham Quaker Meeting will screen the documentary, "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" at 7 p.m. at the Powell House Quaker Conference and Retreat Center, 524 Pitt Hall Rd. (off Rt. 13). The ELF was a radical environmental group that the FBI called, "number one domestic terrorist threat." The film chronicles the history of the group, which included a member who became an FBI informant and squealed on other members to save himself. Public and free. Information, (518) 766-2992,,

Tuesday, May 8, NISKAYUNA:
Schenectady Neighbors for Peace and Upper Hudson Peace Action hosts "Val Liveoak on Nonviolence and Healing" at 6:45-8 p.m. at Niskayuna Public Library, 2400 Nott Street East. Liveoak will discuss how people can overcome the effects of civil war, violence and poverty, and describe grassroots efforts to change cultures of violence. Liveoak is the volunteer coordinator for "Peacekeeping in las Americas," which works in Central and South America, a reservist for Christian Peacemaker Teams, and co-founder/administrator of Friends Peace Teams. Information, (518) 346-0517,

Wednesday, May 9, POUGHKEEPSIE: The latest in a series of discussions of Michelle Alexander's outstanding 2010 book "The New Jim Crow," will take place at 6 p.m. at the Family Partnership Center, Suite 218, 29 North Hamilton St. It's in the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library. Free and public. Sponsored by the Library, and Occupy Poughkeepsie. Information, (845) 452-6008, ext. 3433,,
Thursday, May 10, SAUGERTIES:
Sustainable Saugerties (a transition town) will screen the documentary film, "The Power of Community, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil," at 7 p.m. in Inquiring Minds Bookshop, 200 Main St, with a discussion to follow. The film documents how Cuba creatively survived when it lost 50% of its imported oil when the USSR imploded. In the process the socialist Cuba became one of the world's most environmentally sophisticated nations. Admission is $5 donation, but no one will be turned away. Information, (347) 680-6626,

Saturday, May 12, NEW YORK CITY:
The Fourth Annual Hudson River Pageant will take place at Hudson River Park in downtown Manhattan 1-5 p.m. (rain date May 13). A community based ecological art and performance project to restore the native species and habitats of the Hudson River and address climate change. We're told this will be big. Information, (212) 777-7969,,,

Tuesday, May 15, ALBANY: New Yorkers Against Fracking Coalition and Finger Lakes Clean Waters Initiative Inc. are hosting a 4 p.m. rally calling for Gov. Cuomo to ban fracking in the state, at 4 p.m. on the West Capitol Lawn, followed by a concert at 7 p.m. at the Egg. The concert features Medeski Martin & Wood, Natalie Merchant, Citizen Cope, the Felice Brothers, Joan Osborne, Tracy Bonham, Toshi Reagon, Dan Zanes, Ida, The Horse Flies, and
the Ahkwesasne Women Singers, and hosted by Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo. Information, John Armstrong,  (607) 220-4632.

Friday, May 18, BEACON: Nora Hamond-Gallardo will discuss "Organic Gardening in Cuba," at the Beacon Sloop Club (across from the railroad station) at 7 p.m. The presentation will include a short history of Cuba, including how a crisis converted the entire country to environmental awareness, with details of how the organic gardens are constructed, what's planted, and how the produce is sold. Information, (914) 879-1082 or (845) 463-4660.

Friday, May 18, NEW PALTZ:
Here's an interesting question: "What If Cannabis Cured Cancer?" It's a 2010 documentary discussing what is said to be "the truth about this ancient medicine as world renowned scientists explain and illustrate their truly mind-blowing discoveries." It begins at 8:15 p.m. Free and public at the Elting Library, 93 Main St. Information,

Saturday, May 19, MONTGOMERY: The Fifth Annual Earth and Water Festival will be held 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at Thomas Bull Memorial Park, Rt. 416. This free, family-oriented festival will offer an opportunity to meet a variety of environmentally concerned businesses, groups, and others from the Hudson Valley. Food, entertainment, green expo, children's games and crafts, programs and more. Music includes: Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, Maxwell Kofi Donkor, and Snakeman Snake Show. Information, (845) 615-3868,,

Sunday, May 20, CHICAGO: Join the Answer Coalition and many other organizations for an extremely important protest against the two-day NATO Summit Meeting taking place here. The action begins at 12 noon in Grant Park Petrillo Band shell. A bus will be leaving from the Albany district. It departs  the CDTA Park and Ride across from Hannaford Plaza on Delaware Ave., Delmar, 5 p.m. Saturday, May 19. (Show up by 4:30 p.m.) The bus will arrive in Chicago around 11 a.m. Sunday. The returning bus will depart Chicago 6 p.m. Sunday, arriving in Albany around noon on Monday. You can leave your car at the park and ride over the weekend. Complete the mail in registration  form from the links below and return with $120 for each ticket to:  BNP, PO Box 473,  Delmar, NY 12054.  Checks made out to “BNP.” All payments must be  received by May 12. Mail in  Registration Form:
Information,  Also, (773) 463-0311,,