Friday, March 31, 2017

Paul Manafort and Me in Ukraine

Paul Manafort had been in Ukraine for five years when I arrived in 2009 as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Our experiences could not have been more different.

Manafort spent most of his time in Kyiv (Киев) or running back and forth between Kyiv and Moscow and Cyprus, where there are big money-laundering banks.  Remember the Bank of Cyprus, the bank once headed by Trump's Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross.
With master embroiderer Marta.

I spent most of my time in Starobelsk, a rural town in far-eastern Lugansk oblast near the Russian border. This is part of the industrial region of Ukraine called the Donbas, and it covers Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, my old stomping grounds. Friends joked that I could see Russia from where I lived. They weren't far off.  Large swaths of the Donbas have been invaded, occupied and destroyed by Russia since 2014.

AP photo. 
Manafort worked for the pro-Russian Party of Regions and its candidate Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt oligarch and buddy of Putin. Manafort helped him revise his image in order to become the president of Ukraine in 2010.

During the election, I accompanied friends to polling places in Starobelsk. They were not for Yanukovych, who was never popular and ended up fleeing to Moscow with his billions after the 2014 Euromaiden revolts. That's when Putin was making plans to invade Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. I'm sorry that Yulia Tymoshenko, a veteran of the Orange Revolution for Ukrainian autonomy, didn't win that election.  Now we are learning that it was Manafort who helped Yanukovich put her in jail, with the help of the Skedden Law firm and the lawyer now under indictment, Van der Zwann, connected to the Russian mob by marriage.

Manafort worked for Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, like the mineral magnate Oleg Deripaska, who paid him lots of money to promote Russian interests and curry favors with the USA. Manafort arranged special meetings, like the one between Yanukovych and Obama in 2012. During the Trump campaign, he flew Russian colleague Konstantin Kilimnik to the USA to meet with Trump and his advisers, and he arranged the secret and now-suspect Mayflower Hotel meeting between Russian Ambassador Sergay Kislyak, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner.

The closest I came to any oligarch was knowing of Rinat Akhmetov, one of the richest men in the Donbas, who built a fabulous soccer stadium in his hometown of Donetsk. Football in Ukraine is as big as it is in any European city. Turns out Manafort worked for Rinat Akhmetov, too. Russian troops and Russian-armed proxies have since decimated the city of Donetsk. I think Manafort has Ukrainian blood on his hands.

While Manafort worked with the rich and powerful, I worked with the ordinary and powerless. It was my great privilege to become part of the community of Starobelsk, and to find out the best way I, an American stranger in Ukraine, could help them achieve their dreams. What were their stories? What did they want? What did they need? I was there to help. This is what PCVs do.

After many cups of tea, listening, and gaining trust, I began to make lists. I loved the people. I saw the faint hope. I saw the doubt and suspicions. "Why is she here?" I was the first American most of them had ever met. I made myself accessible. I never turned down an invitation, even if I didn't understand where I was going, which was half the time. I created my own well-worn path between Panfelova Street, where I lived with my host mom Luba, to the Market (where you could get everything you ever needed), and to the center of town, St. Nikolas Church, Schools #2 and #3. The Monastery on Kyrova was also nearby. I learned from my friend Olga, a font of Ukrainian history, that this was a place Polish army officers were imprisoned during WWII, before being shot to death on Stalin's orders. It's part of the story of what's known as the brutal "Katyn Massacre," its history shrouded in mystery until recently.

That's how I learned first hand the history, culture, traditions and folkways of the people. I learned about Starobelsk poets and writers, artists, embroiderers, jewelry makers and dressmakers. I learned about Ukrainian national culture, sometimes strained, but I focused on the things that united Ukraine east to west of the Dneiper River.

It's hard to accept that Manafort, on the contrary, exploited and even provoked divisions on behalf of Putin and against the interests of Ukraine and its people. It's hard to accept that he helped shove Putin's puppet Yanukovich down Ukrainians' throats, helped imprison Yulia Tymoshenko, and used the same propaganda techniques during Ukraine's 2010 election that were subsequently used here during the 2016 Trump campaign. I believe Manafort and his associates carried his Russian connections with him to the Trump campaign, and worked on behalf of Putin against the United States as he had worked for him against Ukraine.
A collage of English Club photos: club meetings, getting books, sharing.

Meanwhile, I was busy working from the bottom up. I discovered that there was great interest in learning English and practicing with a native English speaker. That led to the English Club at the Public Library (Biblioteca).  I learned the Library had no English-language books. That led to a successful book drive, with friends from America joining in.  I learned the Library needed computers and the community wanted free public access to the internet. That led to an application to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which led to getting ten computers and WiFi for public access. I learned through my work with the human and women's rights NGO Victoria that many people were victims of violence or falsely detained for crimes they did not commit. That led to a "Know Your Rights" project that reached 10 rural villages around Starobelsk.

With friends after an English Club meeting
While I tilled the fields, as it were, Manafort milked the oligarchs. He was busy in Kyiv with his projects for undermining Ukrainian nationalism and making Putin look good in the USA.  He sure made more money than a Peace Corps Volunteer, who got a monthly stipend closer to what the average Ukrainian lived on, about $300 a month.  I wonder now what Manafort did with all the money from the Oligarchs. 

Manafort flew all over the place, while I took trains and buses. At first, the 20 hour overnight train ride between Lugansk and Kyiv was a killer, and on top of that it took almost 2 hours to get to and from Starobelsk to Lugansk. I got used to it, grew to like it. I was a traveler meeting all kinds of interesting people: students, workers, teachers, nurses, a trucker, a psychologist, farmers, computer specialists, small business people. I made friends of strangers. As soon as they learned I was American, and that didn't take long, they wanted to talk. My Russian was basic but we managed to get around it. I doubt Manafort ever had these experiences.

Manafort hung out with the super rich and dined in mansions or ate at fancy restaurants, while I
Luba's Paska bread at Easter, a Ukrainian.
Luba's New Year's Eve meal,
12 delicious salads
I ate delicious home-cooked meals with Luba, sometimes with her grown son Sergei or her grandson Nikita, often with her many friends. She was an extrovert--witty, brilliant, funny. She was a fantastic cook, using fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits in season from her garden to make borscht, vereneky, and holubtsi. Luba prided herself on using "all natural" foods, no pesticides (Все натуральные продукты, без химических веществ). I also remember memorable meals with Natalya on Kyrova Street and with dear friends Olga, Tonya and Natalia the English teacher. I doubt Manafort could say the same.
Lunch at Olga's. I fell off my bike. and broke
my arm.  Home healing helped.

Not only did I savor the food but I savored the culture. I took the train all over Ukraine, to Lviv, Uzegorod, the Carpathians, Slavsky in the far west, down to beautiful Odessa and Crimea to the south. I spent as much time in Crimea as I could because my PCV friend Barbara worked with the Crimean Tatar library (forced to shut down). We visited fabulous places: Simferopol, Bachysaray, Yalta, Yevpretoria.  It saddens me that Crimea has since been been illegally invaded and occupied, Stalinized and militarized, its social fabric destroyed, its tourism economy in ruins, and the Tatars, the indigenous people, once again victims of Russian human rights abuses. 

Manafort doesn't care.  He doesn't care that the train station so many of us relied on in Lugansk or the beautiful airport in Donetsk have been destroyed. He didn't travel by train across Ukraine's sunflower fields, where a Russian BUK missile blew MH-17 out of the sky killing 298 people. He wouldn't know about those fabulous English bookstores in Lugansk either, where we bought books for the Starobelsk Library. They are gone. The great Taras Schevchenko National University is shut down.
Vera Flyat, head of NGO Victoria, at a seminar 
on women's rights in Lugansk. The women leaders 
learned from each other. I had the chance to
to tour the city & meet up with Lugansk PCVs..
With Natalia, the fabulous English teacher and
interpreter, & her husband Vasyl, at
the Lugansk Train station. 
Nor would Manafort know much about the dedicated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work on a shoestring to promote civil society and transparency in government, defend the poor, the disabled, the victimized. PCVs work with lots of NGOs. Sadly, their leaders had to flee the Donbas, along with thousands of other "internally displaced persons." When I hadn't heard from Vovo, director of an eastern Ukraine civil society NGO, I got worried. He finally emailed that he was living in Kyiv, that his name was on a target list and he had to leave his beloved Lugansk. My friend Serdar, whose family still lives in Crimea, fled to Lviv to finish dental school; he now volunteers his services on the front lines of war-torn Ukraine.

When I left Ukraine in 2011, unrest was growing, young people couldn't find jobs, taxes were rising and wages were going down.  The Party of Regions was viewed as a den of thieves, and Yanukovych's approval rating was lower than tRump's is now.  My friends in Starobelsk worried about their jobs and railed against the rampant, outrageous corruption. "What can you do?" I'd ask them. They'd smile at my American "can do" attitude. I was accused of being always positive! They would shrug their shoulders and say "That's the way it is" (Так оно и есть).

I didn't know when I left Ukraine how bad it would get, how unsettled, how vicious and violent. Then all hell broke loose.

What I didn't know then, what no PCV knew then, was that while we worked with dedication and enthusiasm to strengthen and support Ukraine, there were Americans like Manafort working to undermine it. While we worked on behalf of the people to help them build their communities, Manafort worked with Yanukovych on behalf of Putin to undermine loyalty to Ukraine. That remains one of the greatest shocks to absorb.


Natalia Artelava, "How (Not To) Cover Lies," Coda, 3/28/2017.  Excellent article on how Putin went into Crimea and how his "alternative facts" propaganda campaign fooled western journalists.

*Steven Lee Myers and Andrew E. Kramer, "How Paul Manafort Wielded Power in Ukraine Before Advising Donald Trump," New York Times, July 31, 2016.  This is one of the best articles on Manafort's work in Ukraine.

This just out on Mariupol, as I was finishing up this blog:  Reprinted in the Kyiv Post, an excellent source for Ukraine news.

Natalya's beautiful beaded artwork, a special gift.
This photo doesn't do it justice.

Natalya and son Ivan visited me and my family
in Sylvania,  December 2016. We were amazed 
it really happened! She was visiting
 Ivan and his wife, who live and work in NYC.

The people of Mariupol protest Putin's aggression. "Putin out."
I think Putin still has his sights on this strategic  port town on the Sea of Asov.
(AP photo/Sergei Grits) 
My three host moms: Vera in Chernigov, where I had 3 months of culture and language training;
Olga (we're sledding down Panfelova Street; and for my last few months,
Natalya on Kyrova Street. All great cooks and fabulous women. 
Manafort helped Putin's propaganda machine, which was incessant and brutal, full of fake news and "alternative facts" before most western reporters knew what hit them.  Hyper cyber warfare full of hyper nationalistic propaganda.  Manafort even "echoed Putin's justification for the annexation" just recently saying the majority of its people wanted to be part of Russia. Wrong. I weep for Crimea and the Donbas.
Manafort views Ukraine as belonging to Russia. He thinks Crimea belongs there, too, recently saying "the people voted for it." That's a lie. It was a totally rigged election. People voted at the point of a bayonet, with only one choice on the fake ballots. Manafort was simply repeating the propaganda he had a hand in creating to whip up a hysterical nationalism in preparation for Putin's takeover. It infuriates me. But it was the election that served as the protoptype for our 2016 election, full of hyper cyber propaganda from Russian trolls and bots.

I view Ukraine as an autonomous sovereign nation with clearly defined, internationally recognized borders, with its own distinctive history and culture. Russia invaded the territorial integrity of a foreign country, and has gotten away with it. Russian-speakers had close ties to Russia, yes, but no more. They feel betrayed. Putin turned on them, like Stalin had done during and after World War II. It's a story told by historian Timothy Snyder in "The Bloodlands."  Today, in the Donbas, a renewed Ukrainian identity has been forged and it is stronger than ever. If nothing else Putin's aggression has solidified a sense of Ukrainian unity. Russia is a common enemy.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

No on Neil Gorsuch

Photo: Leadership Conference on Civil Rights/Twitter
On March 22, the Supreme Court ruled against Neil Gorsuch's opinion in a case involving autistic children's access to a meaningful public education, as required in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion.  It was unanimous. 

This rejection of Gorsuch's reasoning says it all: His views of the law are extreme, in this case more extreme than the conservative justices on the Court.  

Gorsuch prides himself on being an "originalist," meaning he interprets the U.S. Constitution as it was originally written in the 1780s. He's stuck in the 18th century and calls it "the law."  In 1787, folks, only white males with property could vote. Does he support this, too?  

Do we really need a justice who channels John Jay (1789-1829), John Marshall (1798) or Roger B Taney (1777-1864), the most racist justice in America leading up to Civil War?  Do we really need another Antonin Scalia on the court for life?

This is the 21st century, and we have 21st century issues that the original founders could not have anticipated or imagined. We don't need a justice who rules against women, autistic children, and a frozen truck driver, and who supports big companies, bosses over workers, and "dark money" in politics, all in the name of "It's the law."

No, it's not the law, Gorsuch. It's YOUR opinion of the law, taking us back to 1787. 

Here are 10 reasons to vote "No on Gorsuch," which I've collected and borrowed from various online article.  He is no Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee and a true moderate.  
1. Thinks corporations are people who can hold religious views and deny women coverage for birth control. Remember Hobby Lobby.
2. Believes women are "manipulators," as in women "manipulate maternity leave."
3. Endangers Planned Parenthood. Come on folks, this is the 21st century. What's wrong with birth control?
4. Rules against the rights of people with disabilities, as in his ruling against autistic kids.
5. Opposes marriage equality and gay rights. Pence and the extreme-right evangelicals support him for this reason.That's why I call Gorsuch Pence on the Bench.
6. Rules against workers, like the frozen truck driver, and for employers & big companies.
7. Has ruled against Environmental Protection. Is he a climate change denier?
8. Has ruled against consumer protection.
9. Supports Citizens United, like the $10M 'dark money' now funding his campaign for the Court,which he refuses to discuss. If you want to limit the influence of money in politics, this is NOT your man.
10.Has weakened the Sherman anti-trust laws, and will continue to do so, with his narrow reading of the law. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

TIFF Final Night Honors Migrants and Mayans

The final evening of the 2017 Toledo International Film Festival concluded with Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), a documentary drama that puts a human face on our current and distressing immigration policies, and Ixcanul/Volcano (2015), a Mayan-language film that takes us into the indigenous world of the Guatemalan Kaqchitel and their encounter with a cruel modern-day reality.

Who is Dayani Cristal? begins when the dead body of an unidentified young immigrant is found in Arizona's Sonora Desert with the words Dayani and Cristal tattooed across his chest. We learn that this "John Doe" is just one of hundreds of migrants who die every year in this "corridor of death." It's a sad and surprising fact. We follow along as the dedicated coroners and staff of the Pima County Coroner's Office, and employees at various consulates, work like detectives to put together the pieces of the puzzle in order to learn the man's identity. We are glad that, given the grim task, they are earnest and compassionate. The investigation runs parallel to the drama of a family in Honduras anxiously awaiting word about a missing migrant named Yuban, a beloved son, husband, and father of three children. We learn about the migrant's home, the family circumstances, the daily struggle to survive, and the reasons the young man decides to go to America. It's the universal dream of a better life that has pushed and pulled all immigrants throughout the ages.

Another thread in the developing investigation retraces the young man's journey from Honduras through Guatemala and across Mexico to the Arizona border, where he climbs over a high fenced wall onto the arid desert. He is holding "The Migrant's Prayer" for a safe journey, given to him by a priest who provides shelter and comfort along the rail route. The photography, of the landscapes of Central America and the Arizona desert, is stunning, but the journey, mostly atop trains, is treacherous and the outcome heartbreaking.

Marc Silver, the director who embedded himself in the Pima County Coroner's office to document the story, and Gael Garcia Bernal, the actor who plays the young migrant (also a producer), brilliantly develop the three threads of the migrant's story into a seamless and powerful mosaic of the human cost of migration. We can't help but think of how demented, in the face of it, the focus on building a wall. How cruel and insensitive the plans for mass deportations. How galling the attacks on immigrants when America is a nation of immigrants. How heartless the treatment of people who make the journey against the odds, and whose families are now under the gun, being disrupted, tragically so. It makes me weep.

The second film is no less haunting. Ixcanul, meaning volcano or more precisely the spirit of the
volcano in the Maya language, focuses on two strong women, a mother Juana, played by Maria Telon, and her daughter Maria, a shy 17-year old, played by Maria Mercedes Coroy. Director Jayro Bustamante insured the authenticity of the story, as well as its magic realism, by casting Mayans from the local community and training them to act in the film. It's lovely. Bustamante grew up in this part of Guatemala and learned Kaqchikel from his grandmother, though he was warned not to use it in public "for fear of getting bullied." This is how strong the prejudice is against the indigenous people.

Maria lives with her mother and father on a coffee plantation near the foot of the big mountain. They work hard, crushingly so, but they receive little wages in return. In a quiet but moving scene, the father hikes a long distance up the mountain, a huge bag of coffee on his shoulders, to get his money from the plantation overseers, only to be accused of adding water weight to the bag to make it look bigger than it was. He is thus denied the wages he has earned. It's a form of modern-day slavery that makes it impossible to survive. It reminded me of the sharecropping economy endured by former slaves after the American Civil War. The system was so exploitive and demeaning that sharecroppers could barely make a living, barely support families. They viewed sharecropping as another form of slavery, and it was. Out of desperation, farmers and sharecroppers left the South in the "Great Migration" to the North, swelling our cities and changing our culture. The ramifications of this internal migration are still felt today. Yes, we are all migrants and we are all immigrants in this land.

In Ixcanul the ever-present volcano is a silent witness to the struggle for survival."What's behind the mountain?" Maria asks. It's America, the dream of a better life. Pepe, the young suitor Maria is supposed to marry, falls under its spell, follows the dream, leaves Maria behind, and pregnant, and is not heard from again. It's the story of "Who is Dayani Cristal?" .

Another marriage is arranged for Maria, but not before her devastating encounter with the Spanish-speaking Guatemalan doctors and authorities who care for her after she gets a deadly snake bite. She survives, but she is told her baby did not. She is given a paper to sign, which is in Spanish and which she does not understand, and given a sealed coffin to take home for burial. Only when Maria opens the coffin to find it empty are the consequences of her signing a document in the hospital revealed. The language barrier had been used to take advantage of her. A thumb print had taken her baby away. The discovery is shocking and we gasped at the injustice. It was as if the volcano had suddenly erupted and destroyed everything in its path. Through the tragedy, the mother remains as strong as the volcano, and she helps Maria survive. Juana becomes the hero of the story, a determined survivor in the face of adversity, a bulwark of strength in the face of pain and depression, the elegant saving grace of her family.

Once the movie won accolades in America and abroad, it was well received in Guatemala, where filmmaking is new and a film that focuses on the indigenous populations is rare. It put the Guatemalan film industry on the map.

The evening program also featured a film discussion and a special performance by El Corazon de Mexico Ballet Folklorico. Dancers of all ages in wonderful costumes filled the stage of the Ohio Theatre. The beautiful dancing, in different styles, all with gusto, added to the celebration of diversity that makes Toledo's International Film Festival a wonderful asset to our welcoming community.

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