Friday, April 18, 2014


Photo © Michael Deibert

In July 2006, I picked this shell casing up from the ground in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant , during one of the worst bouts of gang warfare Haiti's capital had ever seen. I was there working on an article trying to explain what was going on, why the violence was happening. Two of the people I interviewed during those visits were killed shortly thereafter, and it was there that I finally learned the fate of an old friend who had disappeared the year before. I don't know why I keep it, but I do, right here next to my collection of books on Haiti.

Thoughts on the passing of Gabriel García Márquez (and Heberto Padilla)

Great writers are not necessarily great human beings. Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a rabid anti-semite and Nazi collaborator. Ernest Hemingway after about the age of 40 curdled into a nasty bully. William S. Burroughs spent much of his life as basically a sex tourist with "boys" whose ages can only be speculated at. Gabriel García Márquez was a great writer, but he was also a dictator's tool who, when the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla was imprisoned for his political beliefs (his words alone), sided with Fidel Castro, Mr. Padilla's jailer. Heberto Padilla paid the price for his convictions with jail, a forced grotesque "public confession" straight out of Stalin-era Soviet Union, a lonely exile and finally dying largely unremembered in Alabama. I wonder how many of those floridly praising García Márquez now - not just the man's magnificent writing but also his public image as some sort of pan-Latin American secular prophet - ever imagined what it would have been like to be in Heberto Padilla's position, rotting in prison and having a fellow author, who one would have thought would have been a natural ally, instead supporting your imprisonment as the price to be paid for a tyrant to create his kingdom?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Literatura sin fronteras

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity this past weekend to discuss writing and literature with the Cuban poet Amaury Pacheco, who came to Miami as part of the O Miami Poetry Festival. Talking with Amaury and his fellow artists reminded me once again that art truly transcends borders, and that there is so much more to the histories of countries than just politics.

Photo © Michael Deibert 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Haiti: In the Kingdom of Impunity

Haiti: In the Kingdom of Impunity 

By Michael Deibert

There are many striking sights to be seen in Haiti today. In the north of the country, where over 200 years ago a revolt of slaves began that would eventually topple French rule, a 45-minute journey on a smooth road traverses the distance between the border with the Dominican Republic and Haiti's second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, replacing what used to be a multi-hour ordeal. From Cap-Haïtien itself, a city buzzing with economic activity, travel to Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, could previously be a 10-hour odyssey, but is now accomplished in around 5 hours via a comfortable air-conditioned bus. Once the traveler arrives in Port-au-Prince itself - a city which, along with its environs, was largely devastated by a January 2010 earthquake - one finds, startlingly, functioning traffic lights, street lights powered by solar panels and armies of apron-clad workers diligently sweeping the sidewalks and gutters of what has historically been the filthy fiefdom of Haiti's myriad of warring political factions. To the south, in the colonial city of Jacmel, which sheltered the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar at a critical time during his struggle to break South America free from the yoke of Spain, one of the most pleasant malecóns in the Caribbean has been built, facing the tumbling sea and mountains sloping dramatically in the distance.

But perhaps no scene in the new Haiti - governed since May 2011 by President Michel Martelly, now assisted by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, a former telecommunications mogul - was as striking as that which occurred in the northern city of Gonaives on January 1st of this year. There, at annual ceremony marking Haiti's independence, President Martelly, who in a previous incarnation was known as Sweet Micky and was perhaps the best-known purveyor of Haiti's sinuous konpa music, greeted on the official dais none other than Jean-Claude Duavlier, who ruled Haiti as a dictator from 1971 until 1986, and fled the country amid pillaging of the state and gross human rights abuses.

"Despite everything that has happened in the last 30 years, it is as if they want us to return to the situation that existed before February 7, 1986," says Laënnec Hurbon, Haiti's most well-known sociologist, referring to the date of Duvalier's departure.

Duvalier had taken over from his dictator-father, François Duvalier, a psychopath who lorded over a terrifying police state since 1957, and had created the infamous Tontons Macoutes, denim-clad paramilitary henchmen.

The younger Duvalier was only 19 when he ascended to office, but he grew into the role soon enough. In a speech in October 1977 - the 20th anniversary of his father's assumption of the presidency - the 24 year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier gave a speech in which he heralded the advent of "Jean-Claudism," supposedly a liberalizing trend in Duvalierism that would foster economic development. The near-fatal beating of a prominent government critic, Pastor Luc Nerée, only weeks later gave a flavour for how limited that liberalization would be. Fort Dimanche, a Port-au-Prince prison, during the Duvaliers' reign became known as the Dungeon of Death for the thousands of government opponents and other unfortunate souls who perished there.

In a landmark decision last month, a Haitian court ruled that Duvalier could be tried for crimes against humanity and for abuses committed by security forces during his rule, but deferred a decision as to whether he could be tried on various corruption charges.

"The Duvalier decision is a little victory against impunity and corruption," says Pierre Espérance, director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Haiti's most well-known human rights organization. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

Along with several other organizations, RNDDH is a member of the Collectif contre l'impunité, a coalition of groups advocating for legal action against Duvalier.

Duvalier is far from the only Haitian politician with a trial potentially in his future. The former boy dictator, now grown gray and sallow in old age, returned to Haiti in January 2011 in the midst of the contentious vote that saw Martelly elected. He was followed by another former president, and arch-rival, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

During his 2001 to 2004 second turn in office and immediately preceding it, Aristide was accused of, among other misdeeds, arming and organizing paramilitary youth groups known as chimeres, presiding over brutal collective reprisals by his security forces against the rebellious city of Gonaives, and a ghastly massacre in the town of Saint-Marc in February 2004, the latter killings by a combination of police, security personnel from Aristide's National Palace and allied street gangs having claimed at least 27 lives. In recent testimony presented in a Haitian court, Aristide was also accused of orchestrating the April 2000 murder of Jean Dominique, the country's most well-known journalist. Two separate bodies - the Unite Centrale de Renseignements Financiers (UCREF) and the Commission d'Enquete Administrative - that examined financial irregularities from Aristide's time as Haiti's president found that "Aristide's government illegally pumped at least $21 million of his country's meager public funds into private firms that existed only on paper and into his charities."

Nor can those tasked with checking the power of the executive branch be viewed with great confidence, with Haiti's legislative branch of government often resembling a prison more than a parliament.

Two members of Haiti's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, Rodriguez Séjour and  N'Zounaya Bellange Jean-Baptiste (who as parliamentarians enjoy immunity from prosecution), have been credibly accused of involvement of the April 2012 murder of Haitian police officer Walky Calixte, but both men remain free with apparent little fear of trial or even arrest. In the slain policeman's Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour, mournful graffiti still reads Adieu, Walky. Another deputy, fierce Martelly critic Arnel Belizaire, is alleged by the government to have managed to get himself elected despite the fact that he was a fugitive who had broken out of jail a few years before [What is beyond debate is that Belizaire is prone to bouts of physical violence in the parliament itself].

One of President Martelly's chief advisors, Calixte Valentin, was identified as being responsible for the killing of a merchant named Octanol Dérissaint in the town of Fonds-Parisien, near the border with the Dominican Republic, in April 2012. Valentin was never tried for the crime and remains a free man to this day.

It is amid such a discordant background - foreign investment flooding into the country as never before in terms of tourist initiatives and industrial parks even as Haiti's politic milieu remains deeply dysfunctional - that long-delayed legislative elections for two-thirds of the country's senate, the entire chamber of deputies, and local and municipal officials such as mayors are scheduled to take place in October. Several political parties have not as-yet signed on to the electoral plan.

"There are a few parties who chose not to participate, but it was an open process," says Carl Alexandre, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH. "It is our hope that those who didn't participate initially will want to join as the process unfolds, because the alternative is unthinkable. If the elections are not held this year, in January there will not be a functioning parliament. There will be no one there."

[The UN mission in Haiti has had its own issues with impunity. A cholera epidemic, all-but-certainly introduced by Nepalese peacekeepers, has killed over 8,000 people in the country, but the UN has claimed immunity from any damages.]

Around the country, the Martelly-Lamothe government seems to remain broadly popular, with one moto taxi driver plying Port-au-Prince's dusty Route de Freres telling me "they are working well for Haiti," a sentiment I heard often in my travels around the country. This despite the fact that  - from the crowds in Gonaives chanting "Martelly for 50 years!" to the huge billboards around the country bearing Martelly's image (in violation of Article 7 of Haiti's constitution, which bans "effigies and names of living personages" from "currency, stamps, seals, public buildings, streets or works of art") -  the government seems to have by no means entirely abandoned the realpolitik of Haiti's past. As they once did for Aristide, graffiti slogans around Port-au-Prince laud the bèl ekip (beautiful team) of Martelly-Lamothe.

Haiti's economy is indeed moving - even roaring - forward, but the old need for a mechanism for crime and punishment of the country's powerful keeps knocking on Haiti's door, unbidden, perhaps unwanted, but there nonetheless. In a marriage of impunity and economy, perhaps the echoes of Jean-Claudism do not appear so distant after all.

"We are talking about the situation of impunity that has been the rule since François Duvalier came to power in 1957, and something has to be done to stop that," says Sylvie Bajeux, director of the Centre Œcuménique des droits humains (CEDH), who also served as one of the officials who investigated Aristide's alleged financial misdeeds. Like RNDDH, the CEDH is a member of the Collectif contre l'impunité. "If we don't, we are going nowhere, we cannot talk about reconstruction."

"Jean-Claude Duvalier's case has become the symbol for the need to put an end to impunity," Bajeux  says. "He's being charged with monstrous deeds. So what is going to happen? What happens with Duvalier's case is something that will affect the whole future of this country, one way or another."

Michael Deibert is the author of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014), The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books, 2013) and Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005).

Monday, March 31, 2014


Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz. Do yourself a favour and read El Laberinto de la Soledad this year.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Exploring the world of Haitian vodou

The Miami Herald 

Posted on Sun, Mar. 02, 2014 

Exploring the world of Haitian vodou   

By Michael Deibert 

(Read the original article here)

Mimerose Beaubrun's book Nan Dòmi: An Initiate's Journey into Haitian Vodou — the first part of the title refers to a spiritual state — is a welcome addition to the canon of vodou scholarship, a deeply felt inside account of a faith of often daunting complexity. 

Beaubrun is one of the leaders of the Haitian vodou-rock band Boukman Eksperyans — named for one of the heroes of Haiti's revolution — which features music that combines propulsive vodou drumming with Jimi Hendrix-like guitar runs. Beaubrun came to the religion as a trained anthropologist, but as the narrative makes clear, she soon found a deeper and more fundamental connection to it. 

Often given short shrift by journalists and others seeking to understand Haiti's turbulent political history, the vodou faith has been pivotal at many critical times in Haiti’s development, including during its long struggle for independence from France. Its relevance continues into the present day, when watchful eyes can discern subtle vodou imagery among Haiti's politicians. Vodou remains at the center of the daily experience for many in the country, its complex web of deities and rituals throbbing through life like the plangent sound of a rada drum beating in the tropical night. 

Over the years, outstanding books have been written about Haiti's distinctive blend of African religious faith and European-derived ceremonial flourish.  In 1953, the Russian-American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren published Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a companion piece to her film of the same title, which chronicled four years of research into the faith. Five years later, the Swiss anthropologist Alfred Metraux published Voodoo in Haiti, in large part the result of his travels around the country with the great Haitian author Jacques Roumain. They documented vodou traditions for Haiti's Bureau d’Ethnologie, which Roumain had established to legitimize the study of Haiti's peasant traditions. 

To this tradition Beaubrun makes her contribution. Among her first-person accounts of possession and other interior aspects of the faith, readers are treated to a tapestry of invocations, consumption of esoteric, perhaps hallucinogenic, concoctions, lots of drumming, dancing and chanting. Some of the direct descriptions of vodou goings-on may seem esoteric to the point of magic realism to the lay reader, and the book could have used a heavier, more explanatory editorial hand. Many readers may be left wondering what a “caco” (basically an armed peasant rebel) is, for example, but the intimacy with which Beaubrun relates her strange tale gives a unique immediacy to the book. 

Beaubrun does not present her story in an overtly political context. But a shadow of Haiti's fratricidal political battles is apparent when one of Beaubrun's vodou mentors tells her that “each living being is a warrior and he is alone in combat. Depending on his magical force . . . to undertake battle, he will be the victor or the loser.” 

At one point in the narrative, one member of Haiti’s vodou pantheon — said to have been a Carib chieftain on the pre-colonial island — is said to have prophesied that Haiti was “going to experience two hundred years of tribulations” but “she will not perish.” In the faith documented in Nan Dòmi, the reader begins to get a flavor for how such a seemingly benighted place could have endured for so long.  

Michael Deibert is the author of The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Horror, the Horror

Posted on Feb 28, 2014

The Horror, the Horror 

A review of The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, a book by Michael Deibert

By Nomi Prins  


(Please read the original article here)

“The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair” by Michael Deibert is a grim and difficult book to read, despite the author’s masterful reporting. It is painful because of the visceral attention and emotion his work demands. The tragic and depressing tale of Congo is steeped in the gruesome brutality and avarice of elite leaders-cum-plunderers. It is a story we must know.

Deibert spares readers no detail of the horrors inflicted on a population whose only crime is one of location. It is agonizing material to absorb. After yet another killing, another raid and another rape, you want the book to end. Only there is no end. Not for the Congolese. That Deibert can so compassionately balance their predicament against the voracity of their leaders and pillagers speaks volumes about his skill as an on-the-ground journalist.

He expertly untangles the myriad political and ethnic factions, their acronyms (for which he helpfully provides a glossary), and the leaders who dwell in Congo and the surrounding countries of Rwanda, Zaire, Uganda, Angola and the Central African Republic.

Today, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Congo’s Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame flit between competing and collaborating on a long-standing mission: gaining control over Congo’s abundant natural resources. Meanwhile, the world does precious little, beyond lip service, to defend Congo’s inhabitants. Indeed, world political and economic powers are not only complicit through passive acquiescence, but also actively encourage and facilitate the monstrous pillage of Congo.

Deibert begins with his exploration of the remote Eastern part of Congo, which he traverses with a driver and a translator. He ushers us “over windswept green hills from the dusty, dilapidated provincial capital of Bunia” to Ituri, “a patchwork of ethnic groups and subgroups”—broadly, the “Hema” and “Lendu.” Stemming from these divisions are “a panoply of other armed groups, each with its own competing, overlapping and colliding agendas, and a civilian population, including a substantial number of Mbuti pygmies, made to suffer the consequences of the mad scramble for power and riches.” He explains how slaughters in Ituri, as for Congo, trace back to Uganda and Rwanda. Such is the entwinement of Africa’s power elite.

Deibert examines U.S. support for the colonization of Congo, how American President Chester Arthur came “to recognize [Belgium King] Leopold’s claim to Congo in early 1884,” and the Berlin Conference that “entrusted an expanse the size of Western Europe to the whims of a king who had never set foot there.”

Echoing Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Deibert writes, “the 1885 to 1908 existence of the Congo Free State was and remains one of history’s great crimes, but at the time the rape and pillage of the prostrate land continued with much approbation from the world at large.” At the time, plundering another country’s resources did not raise eyebrows among the powerful. Sadly, the only change has been the perpetrators, as Deibert elucidates throughout the book.

After decades of struggle, Congo declared itself independent on June 30, 1960. Seven months later, foreshadowing the corruption and violence that would escalate for decades, “[Patrice] Lumumba, the figure that more than any other single person symbolized Congo’s independence and its refutation of foreign domination,” was killed.

Deibert then depicts the rise of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who after launching two coups, declared himself president in November 1965. Ruling for 32 years, he infused Congo with a “cult of personality to rival anything Africa had seen before or since.” He despotically centralized state control over Congo’s provinces, reducing their number from 21 to eight within eight months in 1966, instigating massacres along the way.

Deibert broadens the story of Congo’s ongoing conflict with its neighbors, bluntly recounting their genocidal actions. “The opening shot in the Rwandan genocide was fired,” Deibert explains, “around 8 p.m. on the evening of 6 April 1994.” Hutu military and militia went on to kill nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 100 days.

As Deibert fumes, based on voluminous evidence, “It is hard to overstate the immorality that characterized the response of Western governments during the crisis. … In the case of US President Bill Clinton, it meant a policy of feckless, narcissistic self-interest, as the administration … spearheaded efforts to remove UNAMIR troops from Rwanda, refused to use US technological know-how to block genocidaire radio transmissions and avoided any public use of the word ‘genocide’ for fear that it somehow might be compelled to act.”

After further violence through the 1990s, Deibert presents Congo’s young current leader, Kabila, taking the helm of a nation crippled by decades of corruption and half a decade of war. Sworn in as president on Jan. 25, 2001, Kabila sought international favor through a whirlwind tour of world capitals, including visits with French President Jacques Chirac, a prayer breakfast with President George W. Bush and Rwanda leader Kagame, and a meeting with Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. Deibert illuminates the swath of atrocities since Kabila’s reign began, as factions within and beyond Congo fought Kabila’s power and he fought theirs. The civilian populations were the casualties.

In stark contrast to these embattled, impoverished and powerless citizens are Congo’s vast resources. Their pillaging is an “armed robbery of epic proportions,” in which “Congolese officials, their neighbors in Africa and the international community were all complicit.”
It is these resources—and the host of ethnic groups vying for control over them—that lie at the crux of the violence. Congo contains more than 1,100 mineral substances, including 25 percent of the total known diamond reserves in the world in terms of carats, and 64 percent of the world’s known reserve of coltan, a metallic ore used in electronics. The province of Orientale is “studded with vast deposits of gold.” Those resources represent large, tantalizing profits to its leaders, neighbors and mining speculators from Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and China.

None of the spoils from these resources make it to the average Congolese citizen. As Deibert points out, “Congo should stride across the continent as an economic and political powerhouse; however, for the first half of the twentieth century the country was little more than an open cupboard of baubles to be looted by the Belgiums, and for the second half as a personal, seemingly bottomless bank account for its kleptocratic rulers.”

Indeed, official estimates from 2006 (the last ones available) cite 71 percent of the country living in poverty, and the 2012 per capita GDP at $400 per year. Congo ranks lowest on the International Human Development Indicators at 186, tied with Niger.

There exists no great plan to alter these abysmal statistics. Much as government officials in the U.S. cycle through the private sector and vice versa, Congo appoints “some of the country’s worst human rights abusers into senior positions” in the government. Meanwhile, as Deibert bemoans, “the international community’s refusal to hold the Kabila government to account for its more flagrant human rights abuses” (and there are many) only emboldens Congo’s government “in its belief that the path it had chosen was the correct one, and one that would bear very few negative consequences.” This attitude also allows regional and international predators to keep circling their prey.

“The Democratic Republic of Congo” will captivate readers already familiar with the blood-soaked, resource-intense country, as well as those being introduced to the struggles facing the Congolese. Deibert provides a relentless list of brutality; women are raped; children are killed; young men are dismembered; and political party leaders, supporters and journalists are routinely murdered. There seems to be no reason for optimism about the country’s future.

And yet, the book ends with a ray of hope emanating from the people themselves. “Despite what might seem like overwhelming odds,” Deibert writes, “the Congolese continue. They persevere.” I was amazed by this sentiment, so I decided to ask Deibert what he really thought:

“Michael, you penned the book ‘Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti’ and now, this one. You’ve spent years living in, and reporting on, torn countries as the bodies pile up. What keeps you going?” I asked him. “Telling these stories? Are you hopeful about the future? Or is Congo much closer to despair than hope?”

He responded, “Given the role that is often played by politically and economically powerful countries in the difficulties experienced by less powerful ones, I think that it is important that journalists bring back to readers in places such as the United States and Europe the impact that the measures being enacted in their name—by their politicians, their private sector actors and their institutions—have on the lives of people who are often so removed from the levers of that power. Hopefully, by doing so, by afflicting the conscience of the privileged, this will help affect a move towards less wantonly destructive, more humane policies.”

And it is for this very reason that everyone should read “The Democratic Republic of Congo.” If the Congolese can maintain their hope in such horrific circumstances, and journalists like Michael Deibert can literally risk their lives to bring us the stories of the voiceless, then it is our moral and human obligation to read them.