Can Martin O’Malley take on Hillary?

There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the most experienced Presidential wannabe in either party – when she announces her candidacy.  But the lead-up to her announcement has been dogged by missteps and reminders of why people don’t want the Clintons back in the White House. Her baggage piles up every week.  While most of her supporters would prefer a cakewalk, some concede she’d be strengthened by having primary opposition.  But who should it be?

Martin O'MalleyGovernor Martin O’Malley came to New Hampshire on Tuesday to speak to the New England Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. The two-term Maryland governor and former Baltimore mayor is gearing up to run. He is attractive, affable, and has a noteworthy record in 15 years of executive experience. In theory, this past chair of the Democratic Governors Association could be a liberal alternative to Hillary.   (He is also a Bruce Springsteen fan and plays in a Celtic rock band.)

He is good on all the hot-button progressive issues. He supported gay marriage early on and led a successful fight to provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. He was one of the first public executives to implement data-driven strategies, whether the problem was drug abuse, crime, trash collection or fixing potholes.  Under his leadership, Maryland passed a living wage law, raised the minimum wage, expanded the prevailing wage and made Maryland #1 in the level of the median wage. He has actually gotten gun control measures through his state legislature. Under his leadership, the state’s fiscal practices garnered AAA bond ratings, and five times was voted #1 by Education Week in improving education. In 2013, the Washington Monthly called him “the best manager working in government today.” (The National Journal has a comprehensive piece on O’Malley that’s well worth a read.)

He focuses on issues of economic justice and the widening income gap in the United States.  His themes are those of Elizabeth Warren, without the intensity of passion. O’Malley favors the return of the bank-regulating Glass-Steagall law, and bemoans the power of special interest groups (who, he claims, wholly own the Republican Party,  overlooking their undue influence on the Democrats as well)).

Despite O’Malley’s recession-period fiscal reforms, The National Review finds his politics anathema and says his tax policy drove business out of Maryland.  The Maryland electorate seemed to repudiate O’Malley’s administration when it upset his own lieutenant governor, turning to the Republican challenger in the race to succeed O’Malley.

There’s a deep-rooted optimism in O’Malley, his message one of strength through comity. His mantra, “We’re all in this together.”  He has made a point that leadership of this country shouldn’t just be passed back and forth between two families. But he has a lot of work to do if he is to be a viable alternative to Hillary. That work should start with getting smarter about foreign policy. During his meet-and-greet, he said he’s talking to would-be advisers but couldn’t yet reveal their names.

When I asked him about the ongoing negotiations of a nuclear Iran, he skated across the surface of the issue. Despite his having made nine foreign trips as governor, Hillary would have him for lunch if he debated her today on anything but economic justice and moneyed interests.

Some speculate that he’s just putting himself forward to be her vice-presidential running mate.  But it’s useful to remember that a one-term governor and peanut farmer from Georgia got elected President a generation ago. And more recently a two-term governor of Arkansas, nearly as low in the polls at this stage of the campaign in 1991, became a two-term President. Stranger things have happened.

As John Cassidy writes in The New Yorker, as Hillary’s bad press continues, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential growth of Clinton fatigue.  I’m glad O’Malley is considering the race and hope he develops the gravitas to make the 2016 primary a robust one. No one benefits from a coronation.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Dirty little secret about hopes for Israel/ Palestine peace


So Benjamin Netanyahu shamelessly and successfully pandered to Israeli right-wing voters in Tuesday’s election. A politician playing to base emotions and lying to get elected, then changing  positions again. How unusual. The hard Right is pleased by his victory and so is the hard Left. And so, too, Israelis and Palestinians who don’t believe the so-called peace process, indefinitely in limbo, is likely to achieve anything of value.

map of IsraelBibi’s for  a two-state solution. He’s against  a two-state solution. He’s for it again.  He insists his position is unchanged, but circumstances have changed. The Obama Administration is angry. The Israelis are disdainful. The bipartisan special American-Israeli relationship is seriously damaged. Hamas and Fatah are at each other’s throats.  The UN may get more involved. It’s time for threats. It’s time for face-saving moves. So what?  At this point, it all seems to be rhetorical gamesmanship and manipulation of symbols.

The dirty little secret is that,  for the foreseeable future and maybe forever, there is no viable two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. It’s a zero sum game. Both believe that God has given the same sacred land to their peoples, and the perceived risks are too great for either side to make painful compromises. Both can say with justification there’s no serious partner for peace on the other side.

For two decades, political leaders and people of good will have paid at least lip service to the vision of two entities, living side by side in peace. Some have even worked hard to bring about such an objective.  But, if it had been possible, is it not reasonable to think that it would have been achieved by now?

Oslo, Madrid, Wye River didn’t lead to peace agreements. And the unilateral disengagement from Gaza led to terrorism and more violence. The neighborhood now is much more volatile than 20 plus years ago.

Put aside questions of final borders, water access, rights of return, status of Jerusalem, and the lack of a common Palestinian voice able to bind decisions authoritatively.  A single Palestinian state, split in two between Gaza and the West Bank, like West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) once were, would likely have difficulty flourishing economically without massive and sustained outside support.  It could find itself far more dependent on Israel for trade and jobs than it (or the Israelis) would like.  And how would the two Palestinian entities be linked physically (with what security)? Would Palestinian independence, after all the safeguards are imposed,  be a hollow fiction?

Obviously, such a Palestinian state would need to be demilitarized, but for how long? Forever? Even if demilitarized, how could such a state enforce a peace agreement? Many Palestinians would still have long-term irredentist claims to all of Israel.  Rockets could easily reach airports and population centers.  Terrorist tunnels could be dug with impunity. And now, with Iran and its surrogates, and ISIS and its allies spreading their violence throughout the region, it’s doubtful any security deal would be acceptable to the Israelis. And, given the long-term power of demographics and the growth of a free Arab population within a democratic Israel, even an alternative one-state solution would be unacceptable long term to advocates of a “Jewish state.”

The current unilateral expansion of Israeli settlements  continues to make even more remote a negotiated resolution, and the emergence of a safe and prosperous Palestine stillborn.  But the indefinite continuation of  the status quo with no hope for better circumstances is untenable. It will lead to increased international isolation  of Israel and more painful second-class conditions for Palestinians.

Given the failure of the parties to negotiate successfully between themselves, it’s natural to consider looking to others for help.  But efforts to  impose a solution from the UN or outside groups  could make matters worse. If the United States were to cease its role as Israel’s bulwark and sacrifice it diplomatically, the US  could theoretically  open up strategic opportunities for itself  regionally. But that would risk of  ending the founding vision of Israel and would roil domestic American politics for years to come.

Politicians, academicians, pundits and bloviators all pretend there is a viable solution. Some even claim to have answers.  But I, for one, am less certain than I’ve ever been.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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The downhill race for the summer Olympics

Deval head shotFormer Governor Deval Patrick seems to have caught on that the optics of his $7500 per day pay (plus expenses) for serving as a globe-trotting ambassador for Boston2024’s summer Olympics proposal might not play in some future bid for the Presidency or even a U.S. Supreme Court seat. Nor was it helpful when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, an enthusiastic Olympics booster, raised his eyebrows at the financial arrangement.

I was less concerned than others about the amount of the pay. This is, after all, a private organization raising and spending (at least for now) private dollars, free to decide what to pay and to whom. But, when the elite organizing committee agreed to go public with the information only when pressured by the Mayor, it reminded us all of the secrecy surrounding so many aspects of Boston2024’s bid proposal, despite its repeated promises of transparency.

Olympic ringsContinuing skepticism about bringing the Olympics to Boston and doubts about the organizing committee’s pledge that no taxpayer dollars (save for security and already committed transportation projects)  are reflected in the most recent poll done by WBUR with MassINC. Now, just 36 percent favor the idea, down from 44 percent in February and dramatically down from January, when more than half of those polled thought bringing the games to Boston was a dandy concept.

Nearly twice as many of the WBUR poll respondents thought favorably of the opposition group NoBostonOlympics as they did of the Boston2024 organizing committee. And, indeed, despite its high-priced, pedigreed and politically connected consultants, Boston2024 seems to have a tin ear when it comes to what people at the grass roots are thinking.

The MassINC Polling Group spokesman noted that the results came in the wake of mass transit (storm-related) meltdown. But the cooling of Olympic ardor may also be explained because two thirds of voters, after learning some basic truths, now believe that, despite Boston2024’s protestations, big bucks public funding is likely to be needed. That has been the history of the games, with rare exceptions.

Katherine Q. Seelye of the New York Times writes that “this is among the most anemic levels of support ever registered by a potential host city at this stage in the process.” The level of public support in Hamburg, 64 percent as of March 10, was decisive to that city’s beating out Berlin (55 percent) to be Germany’s bid for the 2024 games, even though Hamburg will have to spend more on infrastructure than Berlin would have.  Both Hamburg and Berlin had pledged a public referendum on the proposal.

As one letter writer to the Boston Globe put it, it won’t be Boston’s bid until there’s a referendum on bringing the Olympics here.  NoBostonOlympics, Evan Falchuk’s United Independent Party and Boston City Councillor Josh Zakim are weighing referenda strategies.  And that’s a good thing.  A non-binding city referendum is fine as far as it goes, but that doesn’t take the place of a statewide referendum. If Boston2024 is truthful in its claims, it should have no problems with this.

What would help in the process is having some  independent entity, with no position on the Olympics, serve as a trusted fact checker, sorting out the data (on costs and benefits),  verifying the anecdotes and past histories trotted out by supporters and opponents, and shedding light on what’s really in store for the people of Massachusetts if, indeed, Boston were to be tapped for the 2024 summer Olympics.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Ode to Bill Galvin: Let the Sun Shine In

photo Boston Globe

photo Boston Globe

Close your eyes for a moment and hear the refrain of Aquarius by The Fifth Dimension, “let the sun shine, let the sun shine, the sun shine  in.”  Consider it the anthem for this week: Sunshine Week.  It has nothing to do with the fact that we’re back on daylight savings time, this Friday is the first day of spring, or that we’ve been starved for the sun throughout this trying winter.

Sunshine Week was the creation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to call attention to the need for greater accountability by government through public records disclosure.  This is the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, and it coincides with National Freedom of Information Day today.  Examples abound of how government at all levels routinely confounds people with legitimate requests for government documents.  Government stonewalls in many ways, from claiming the documents aren’t available, to creating enough loopholes and exemptions to public access requirements to make the Freedom of Information Act meaningless,  to charging so much per page that dissemination is prohibitive, to redacting the allegedly sensitive information on documents so that the pages you receive are virtually all blacked out.  The following links to a Miami Herald story covering five FOIA request horror stories from around the country.

But these aren’t just stories happening elsewhere.   Local and state governments in Massachusetts don’t make it easy for people seeking public disclosure. First in  so many ways,  it’s embarrassing that The National Freedom of Information Center has given Massachusetts an “F” for its public records law and its execution.  For example, Secretary of State William Galvin’s office has sided with local police departments deciding to withhold arrest records of police officers, even those charged with drunk driving.

The Globe’s Todd Wallack found that Galvin’s office can take months to respond to a person’s appeal of a government agency’s rejection of a  FOIA request.  And, when the Public Records Division finally replies, it tends to side with the government agency.  Only 27 percent of those seeking public records had their requests satisfied.

Now, obviously under pressure from the Globe and other media outlets, Galvin says he’ll propose a ballot initiative to tighten the Massachusetts law and increase penalties for agencies and individuals who flout it.  A ballot initiative is a cumbersome process, and, since it couldn’t appear until November 2016 at the earliest, a ballot measure could turn out to be just another government form of foot dragging. The legislature should clearly move on the issue before the next statewide election to tighten our public records law, increase penalties for failure to provide requested records, cover legal fees for people wrongfully denied and lower what agencies can charge for providing records.

The media can’t play their rightful role in aiding the public’s right to know, and we can’t be a responsible citizenry without better access to public information. That will require a substantial reduction in obfuscation, obstacles, and other government displays of officious passive-aggressive behavior.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Iran – another “red line” in Obama foreign policy?

photo PBS

photo PBS

Viewed in isolation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week was masterful.  It projected superficial respect for President Obama (if you overlook his trashing the negotiation process to date and  speaking  to Congress in the midst of the Iranian talks) and expressed appreciation for everything the Obama Administration has done in Israel’s behalf.  In fact, he said, there are efforts the President has made of which the public isn’t even aware. Then Netanyahu proceeded to explain why the still incomplete negotiation to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is such a bad deal.

The most important problem is that the yet-to-be finalized agreement, if consummated along the lines Netanyahu surmises, would last only ten years.  As he himself said, that end date may seem like a long time, but it’s a nanosecond in the sweep of history. We could be right back to Square One, with Iran probably having secretly increased its nuclear capacity, guaranteeing its hegemony in the Middle East and becoming an even greater threat worldwide.

So far, so clear. But important questions remain unanswered. What specific alternative does Bibi propose that can realistically be achieved?  If the United States ends up opting for no deal instead of what he calls a bad deal,  the nations allied with us in imposing sanctions, especially China and Russia, will undoubtedly drop their sanctions. No more sanctions, no limits on Iran’s nuclear development, and the United States will have no more leverage. And Iran will march forthwith to finish its development of a nuclear bomb.

As Roger Cohen wrote March 6 in the New York Times,  the alternative to the nuclear limits and regular inspections that seem to be under negotiation may end up being all-out war.  This, to put it mildly, would be counter-productive and eliminate the possibility of anyone  developing relationships with more moderate Iranians of a younger generation.

I am not naïve. I do not see this as a Kumbaya moment.  We can’t trust the Iranians, and we have to hope that the final agreement will provide a scalable, gradual lifting of the sanctions based on steps taken by Iran and verified.  Deadline for that framework agreement is March 24th.

I am really put off by an article in this week’s Forward outlining Israel’s contempt for the  Americans, its belief that, because Americans are pro-Israel, they can be sold anything.  When George Bush was President, Netanyahu was quoted as saying, “America is a thing that can be easily moved, moved in the right direction…”  Cohen also reminds us that Netanyahu called Yitzhak Rabin a Chamberlain for his role in the Oslo Accords. As E. J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post, notwithstanding his initial praise of Obama, the net effect of the speech implies the President is “foolish and on the verge of being duped.”

It’s not particularly important to me that Netanyahu was using the timing of this trip to buoy his own support in the March 17th Israeli election.  I can even take at face value that he truly believes he was doing what is best for Israel (more immediately at risk from Iran than is the United States) and that he felt this speech at this time might result in strengthening the deal being negotiated.  We should never forget that Iran is pledged to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and does all it can to support terrorists working  toward that goal. That’s why the Obama negotiation should strive to dismantle Iran’s non-peaceful nuclear capacity, not just freeze it in place allowing Iran to ramp it up a few years down the road.

Partisan congressional intervention in a President’s foreign policy may not be the norm we were taught in our junior high civics courses, but it’s nothing new.  Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright injected himself into Ronald Reagan’s war in Nicaragua. Democrats went to Iraq to forestall George Bush’s moves. As the NY Times’ Peter Baker points out, examples abound. But partisan intervention can make for messy foreign policy making. (And that includes Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who arranged the visit, acting more like the Republican operative he used to be.)   I’m unaware of a previous instance when the opposing party specifically intervened by an open letter to the leaders of a foreign state with which the President was negotiating. This grandstanding goes too far.

For all of Netanyahu’s lip service about Obama in his speech to Congress, Israelis don’t view Obama as a reliable ally. And Obama has made it clear he doesn’t like Netanyahu. We don’t know what the final details of the negotiated settlement will be.  But no arrangement should involve another movable “red line,” as Obama provided in Syria. We should remember Ronald Reagan’s philosophy in successfully negotiating a nuclear deal with the Soviet Union. What we certainly need is a hefty dose of “trust, but verify.”

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Cuban impressions, pt. 5 – Normalizing U.S. / Cuban relations

The Republicans may be in a snit about President Obama’s initiative on Cuba, but polls show that 55-60 percent of Americans favor his efforts to create a new beginning in our relationship. And that makes sense.  But normalization won’t happen quickly.

Since 2009, scholars in both countries have been exploring ways to normalize relations.  Some call it academic diplomacy. The process has yielded white papers and recommendations, despite the difficulty Cuban scholars have often had in getting visas for U.S.-based conferences.

photo Jim Barron

photo Jim Barron

It seems that the biggest obstacle to success is trust.  Some of the distrust is rooted in history (the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet presence, Cuba’s embrace of the Palestinian cause and anti-Israel posture, Cuba’s exporting soldiers to Angola and involvement in Latin Americans revolutions, its restrictions on journalists and treatment of political prisoners.)  For most of the generation in their ’40’s and ’50’s, on both sides, these are dim memories and relics of the Cold War.  Yet for more than half a century, we have been mired in the rhetoric of the past. What President Obama did on December 17, 2014 was to change the tone.

Cubans with whom we spoke received that rhetorical change well and look forward to next steps. Some are fearful about a rapid expansion of global tourism, especially from the United States. They’re afraid of losing important aspects of their Cuban distinctiveness, and in fact the tourism infrastructure is far from being ready for prime time.

Others, we were told, are wary of opening up the relationship if that just cloaks the U.S. intent to undermine the Cuban government. From Cuba’s perspective, there’s an asymmetry, the world’s most powerful nation vis-à-vis its small island neighbor (about the size of Arkansas). Will the U.S. really allow Cuba to be totally independent? The expression they use is, “big countries do what they want; small countries do what they must.”

Rather than expecting normalization all at once, both sides have been suggesting potential areas for collaboration, some already underway such as  drug interdiction and  the environment.  Cuban and U.S. marine biologists have been collaborating on studies of sea turtles and other ecological projects. More collaboration is possible regarding international terrorism and oil and gas exploration. Such confidence-building measures should lay the groundwork for tackling the more contentious issues like eliminating the embargo (favored by a 2011 vote of the United Nations General Assembly by 187 to 2). removing Cuba from a list of terrorist states, improving Cuba’s record of democracy and human rights, press freedom, the status of Guantanamo,  moving to a free market economy and rationalizing immigration.

One immigration issue was a sleeper for me.  The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed under Lyndon Johnson in 1966, has given preferential treatment to Cubans entering in the United States and living here for a year. (It has also been used by Mexican smugglers to bring illegals from elsewhere in Latin America, claiming they are Cubans  and getting them legal status.) The law continues to one of the obstacles to better relations between the two countries.

There’s forward movement toward at least one goal of the United States. Cuba is updating its economic model. Under Raul Castro, it is  opening up to market forces and anticipates that, within the next few years, 45 percent of the labor force will be in small and medium-sized private enterprises.  A significant step would be to make the dual-currency economy into a single currency system, something the Cubans can do on their own.

The first vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is considered a likely successor to the Castro brothers.  He is an engineer and, according to an esteemed professor who addressed our group, said to be pragmatic and seeking a prosperous, efficient and sustainable economy.  He hadn’t been born at the time of the revolution.

Thought leaders in Cuba see the nation moving to become more democratic, decentralized, autonomous and just. They say that, despite the asymmetry, both countries are exceptional. Both are prideful and must have mutual respect based on what each has achieved.

photo Jim Barron

photo Jim Barron

As one professor said, Cuba is not the paradise that its government sometimes implies, nor is it the hell frequently portrayed by Cubans living in Florida. It’s complex, as is the relationship between the two countries. But there’s much to be gained by each in moving, if not speedily then at least deliberatively, toward a relationship of respect, collaboration and, above all, neighborliness.

I welcome your comments in the section below.





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Cuban impressions, pt. 4 – health care and religion, how much is spin?

As I process my brief experience in Cuba, I am left with many questions, especially about the Cuban health care system and the status of religion. Mostly, I can convey what we were told by guides and academics. I pass this along without the benefit of direct experience.

Health care: Periodically the international media have covered the high quality of Cuban health care and the contribution of Cuban

photo VOAnews

photo VOAnews

practitioners to the ebola crisis in Africa and the Haiti disaster. On our trip, we heard about the comprehensive health care system, the heart of which is the family physician. The government builds a 3-story house, at the bottom of which is a clinic.  The doctor lives on the middle floor, and the nurse upstairs. Each doctor is the assigned provider for 120 families’ basic health, pediatrics and gynecology.  There’s an emphasis on prevention.

Patients get same-day appointments Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m., and, -here’s a shocker –  from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. the doctor makes house calls. Now there’s a novel idea. Specialists are available to consult every week. But because the doctor lives right in the community, he or she knows every single patient. He sees them in the grocery store and on the street.  You can ask a question right there, and he/she won’t put you off with, “Make an appointment.”

Eighty percent of medical care is delivered in family practice. The next step is public clinics, site of dental care, labs and minor surgeries. In an emergency, you go directly to the ER. The next level of care is provided by general hospitals, and, if problems warrant, (say, for a transplant) then research universities.  Care is free (including, shockingly, cosmetic procedures like botox or liposuction), as are prescriptions provided in the hospital.  You pay for other prescriptions, but the prices are very low. For diabetes care, for example, ten Cuban pesos a month……pennies on the dollar.

Many patients come to Cuba for medical treatment, and those patients pay much more than locals but far less than in their home countries.  They come from Central and Latin America and Africa, as do students seeking medical training.  Apparently there are some poor minority individuals from the United States who get their medical education in Cuba.

It all sounds highly professional, robust and affordable, with much to admire about how they do health care. I’ve also heard that hospitals are outdated (like much in Cuba) and that standards keeping things sterile are questionable, including reuse of needles.  I can’t vouch for the condition of equipment or facilities because a planned visit to a private home of a family of doctors was cancelled, and no explanation was given.

Religion: One’s image of religion in Cuba is either that it is, of course, a Catholic country or, alternatively, that, as a Communist state, it is void of theology.  So, here’s what we learned. The Cubans may be divided by color and class, but not by religion.   No census  form has ever asked for religious affiliation. Just some 2 1/2 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics, though more are baptized and married in the church, the extent of their participation. Experts say this reflects a residual aversion to the predominantly Catholic Spanish occupiers.  Through the centuries, the Church has usually been on the side of economic powers-that-be, and the wrong side of the people. Today, the Castro government has come to an appreciation of the social services provided by the church, especially funds  from Catholic charities outside the country.

But if religion is not a popular concern, it is still true that many many religions find a home in Cuba, from Protestants, Bahai, Taoists, Buddhists, Rastafarians,  Christian Scientists and Muslims (about 1500, split between Sunnis and Shiites, and no mosques yet) to the Afro-Cuban religions (e.g., Santeria), which were Cuba santa barbaraforbidden until 1988.  Pentacostals are the fastest growing group.  Those practicing spiritism are in number second only to those in Brazil.

The first Jews in Cuba came with Columbus. There are six Jewish cemeteries in Cuba, a testament to the past. Today about 1000 Jews remain, served by a handful of Jewish synagogues, mostly in Havana, and some informal community clusters outside the capital. A member of a Sephardic synagogue told us that Cuba has always been very hospitable to Jews, and added that, unlike most of the rest of the world, Cuba may be anti-Zionist, but it is not anti-Semitic.

Back in 1954, only 17 percent practiced any religion. By 2004, University research showed that 15 percent were religious, 15 percent were atheists and 70 percent displayed “religiosity based on symbols.”  The explanation for that, we were told, was that, with all the political and economic turmoil, people gravitated toward superficial religious involvement as a kind of insurance, as opposed to deeply held beliefs or consistent observance of rituals.

The reported religious tolerance is both interesting and commendable, but anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-just about anything can also be subtle. Unless you live in a place (or at least visit longer than nine days), you can’t know for sure if what you’re being told is true.

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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