Monday, August 10, 2015

In Mexico’s Veracruz, violence stalks journalists and students

4 August 2015

In Mexico’s Veracruz, violence stalks journalists and students

by Michael Deibert

Fusion

(Read the original story here)

One late summer night in Xalapa, the resplendent capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz, I was walking with a local media worker through a chilly evening drizzle in search of pozole, the delicious, spicy soup that is something of a local specialty. I was researching a book on the country’s oldest drug-trafficking organization, the Gulf Cartel, based in the state of Tamaulipas directly to the north, and their erstwhile comrades-turned-deadly enemies, Los Zetas, many of whose members hailed from Veracruz.

Gazing out at us from the walls of the city were dozens of handmade flyers, most of them asking for information about women who had disappeared, but some asking for help locating missing children as well. As we walked through a beautiful old square that still holds the cisterns to what had been a colonial laundry, my contact mused on the difficulty of working in such a milieu.

“Here journalism exists in the shadow of the government,” he told me.

Despite Mexico’s supposed democratic breakthrough 15 years ago, brought on by the defeat of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the first time in over 70 years, democracy, such as it exists here, has always settled rather lightly in states like Veracruz, a place where, as in Tamaulipas, the PRI’s grip has never loosened. Despite a seductive landscape of mist-covered mountains slouching through deep valleys toward the coast, and a dramatic history that includes occupations by both France and the United States and the first independent community of African slaves in the Americas (founded by Gaspar Yanga in the 1570s), for more than a decade the atmosphere in Veracruz has been one of cyclical terror, with much of the violence directed at journalists and other critics of the government.

During the back-to-back administrations of the PRI’s Fidel Herrera Beltrán, who served as Veracruz’s governor from 2004 to 2010, and now Javier Duarte de Ochoa, another PRI politician, the influence of drug traffickers on the levers of power in the state and the overlap between their cadres and local law enforcement has become so blurred as to be nearly indistinguishable. In 2013 an accountant for the Gulf Cartel told a federal court in the United States that he had funneled $12 million in cartel money to Herrera Beltrán's electoral campaign between 2004 and 2005, in exchange for the cartel moving narcotics freely through the state.

Over the past decade, at least nine journalists have been killed in Veracruz. Some organizations put that number considerably higher. Some of the journalists were ambushed in their homes, such as Proceso reporter Regina Martínez Pérez, while others were found putrefying in sewage canals, including Veracruz News photographer Guillermo Luna Varela, Luna’s girlfriend Irasema Becerra, freelance photographer Gabriel Huge Córdova, and former cameraman Esteban Rodríguez. Without exception, the investigations into their killings went nowhere fast, often tossing up insignificant petty criminals as the culprits who, the public was told, thought up and committed such crimes entirely on their own.

When Rubén Espinosa, a Xalapa-based photographer for Proceso, was found dead this past weekend along with four others in the Mexico City neighborhood of Narvarte, where he had fled for safety after repeated threats to his life, it represented the violence of the state finally reaching into the heart of the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, which to a great degree has thus far been spared many of the horrors of the drug war. Hours after Espinosa’s killing, the Veracruz office of the newspaper Diario Presente was strafed by gunfire.

Espinosa had been a vocal critic of the impunity that had surrounded the murders of his colleagues in Veracruz. During a November 2012 demonstration to protest the results of the election that brought current president Enrique Peña Nieto to power, he was assaulted by police ostensibly under Duarte’s command as he tried to photograph them beating student protesters. Some of the students were part of #YoSoy132, a movement that emerged after Peña Nieto’s disastrous May 2012 visit to the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, during which he was heckled, cursed and eventually forced to hide in a bathroom.

One of those found dead alongside Espinosa this past weekend was #YoSoy132 activist Nadia Vera Pérez, who had been among the students attacked in November 2012. In an interview recorded eight months ago with Rompeviento TV, Vera charged that, should anything happen to her, Duarte would be responsible.

For years Veracruz has been the sight of spectacular violence. When one of Los Zetas’ founders, Efraín “Z-14” Teodoro Torres, met his bloody end in 2007, a group of armed commandos surrounded the cemetery where he had been buried, exhumed the corpse, and carted it away in a typical example of Los Zetas’ ritualistic esprit de corps. In 2009, the dismembered body of a local police commander, his torso and limbs in one pile and his head nearby, was found in the town of Soledad de Doblado, with a message that read Esto es por faltarle a la letra Z (This is for disappointing the letter Z). In September 2011, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), a spinoff of the Sinaloa Cartel that had been percolating for sometime (and who earlier this year shot down a military helicopter), had a spectacular public coming out i when it blocked rush hour traffic and dumped 35 corpses — many of them daubed with a “Z”— into the street while unfurling banners that read “This will happen to all the Zetas that stay in Veracruz.”

Such is the atmosphere in which the journalists in Veracruz and other states in Mexico are forced to work, and such is the climate that Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera Pérez were fleeing.

During that same summer in Veracruz, I found myself one day sitting with two local journalists on the veranda of a fashionable hotel in Veracruz’s eponymous main port city. On a leafy square just off the zócalo, in the shadow of the city’s gleaming white cathedral whose Moorish tiled dome gives it a markedly Islamic feel, our conversation was largely drowned out by the roar of passing taxis and near-empty tour buses. As we spoke, convoys of masked, heavily armed navy commandos rolled by.

“This is a war,” one of my companions told me. ““But in this war, your enemy is not a visible enemy.”

And so the world has again learned as Veracruz —and Mexico — buries more of its courageous children.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

How the OAS Failed Dominicans of Haitian Descent

Earlier this month, the Organization of American States (OAS) sent an "observer mission" to the Dominican Republic to look into that country’s "Haitian problem" (though if we are honest, we should call it the country’s "race" problem or better yet its "money and politics” problem). The mission was prompted, respectively, by a 2013 decision by the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court which retroactively stripped citizenship on an ethnic and racial basis from tens of thousands of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, seizing from them their most basic civil rights. Far from being corrected, this decision was codified by the 2014 Naturalization Law of President Danilo Medina, himself a member of the ruling Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD), the political party which now enjoys a near-total monopoly on power in the country and whose links with elite Dominican business interests, who have historically benefited from access to a disempowered, disenfranchised Haitian-derived labour pool, are longstanding. Though the 2014 law ostensibly offered to “regularize” the citizenship of those who qualified (a relative handful of the Dominicans of Haitian descent), the implementation of the law was carried out in an arbitrary fashion of questionable legality that seemed to put very few indeed on the path to citizenship.

The OAS mission was led by two veteran bureaucrats, Mexico's Francisco Guerrero Aguirre and Uruguay's Gabriel Bidegain, neither of them Creole speakers (the language of the estimated 1 million plus Haitians in the country). They met with government officials and visited a single border area between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the one at Anse-à-Pîtres. Their first observation in their public statement is that the OAS "recognized that the Dominican Republic has the right, as a sovereign country, to establish and implement its own immigration policy," a policy that apparently also leaves the Dominican Republic free to denationalize its own citizens on a racial and ethnic basis as it sees fit.

Though the OAS statement said that the body "recognizes that there are people at risk of not having any recognized nationality," the statement nowhere condemned the denationalization of Dominicans citizens of Haitian descent. The OAS findings stand in opposition to those of groups such as Human Rights Watch, which cited, with evidence and first-hand interviews, acts that it characterized as “ongoing violations of the human right to a nationality" against Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, the United Nations, which cited “arbitrary deportations” of Dominicans of Haitian descent that risked violating international laws and the country’s own constitution, as well as reporting from such news outlets as Agence France-Presse  and Al Jazeera.

By remaining silent in the face of the ongoing violations of the human rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent and of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, and with their mission largely uncritically parroting the Dominican government line, the Organization of American States and Messrs Guerrero and Bidegain have failed some of the most vulnerable on the island of Hispaniola and, indeed, in the Americas as a whole, whose welfare it is their duty to protect.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Could the gangs of Port-au-Prince form a pact to revitalise Haiti's capital?

Could the gangs of Port-au-Prince form a pact to revitalise Haiti's capital?

Haiti’s leaders have long made use of armed groups to impose their will in the streets of vibrant but derelict Port-Au-Prince, offering precious little in return. Now some of those communities may have had enough 

in Port-au-Prince

Tuesday 14 July 2015 12.01 BST

The Guardian

(Read the original article here

Sitting inside the Day-Glo-coloured nightclub that he runs on a hillside speckled with squat cement houses, Christla Chery, 32, pushes his baseball cap back on his head and outlines his community’s problems.

“We don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything here. The state is completely absent from this neighbourhood,” he says, as the Caribbean winds clatter over the zinc roof. “This is a prison where we are deprived of our liberty. We would like the freedom of every person here to enter society.”

The neighbourhood of Ti Bois, where Chery has his nightclub, wraps like a necklace around the southern hills of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. From this remove, the city pulses below: a nearly silent tableau of the tumbling azure ocean, curling smoke rising from burning garbage and thousands upon thousands of cars.
 
Though many refer to Chery and his compatriots as gang leaders, they have a different perception of themselves and their armed followers, whom they refer to as the baz – the base of the neighbourhood. Chery and his men enact a role that falls somewhere between political pressure group, warlord and tax collector, gathering tolls from the various supply trucks that pass along the narrow lanes.

The baz within Martissant – the larger neighbourhood of which Ti Bois is part – have often been in conflict among themselves. Despite being in a strategic location in the city – it overlooks the main road to the south of the country – Martissant was offered precious little by the state, even before the country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake. The baz have functioned in that power vacuum for years as a kind of de facto community government. Now, with Haitian elections scheduled for this year, the various baz are working to maintain a tense peace between themselves.

Haiti’s leaders have made use of armed groups, some quasi-regular and some not, to impose their will in Port-au-Prince virtually since the country’s founding. The history of the capital city has in part been the history of the fighting between these groups. Now that may be changing. “For years, [the politicians] would ask us to burn tyres, to cause disorder … but there was no development,” Chery says. “And we don’t want that anymore.”

Among those trying to facilitate a peaceful coexistence between the various baz in the city is the Lakou Lapè (the name means “peaceful community” in Creole). The two-year-old group has a mission to promote a culture of non-violence and dialogue.

“It’s like three steps forward, two steps backward,” says Louis Henri-Mars, Lakou Lapè’s executive director and the grandson of Haitian author Jean Price-Mars, one of the founders of the négritude movement of black consciousness. “But we know it takes time. Change comes from positive encounters and relationships that make positive connections happen. They allow you to get a different world view to come out of the craziness you’ve been living in.”

Under Faustin Soulouque, who crowned himself emperor and ruled Haiti from 1849 to 1859, the armed groups supporting him were referred to as zinglin. Around the same time, the peasant backers of the renegade general Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau in the south of the country were referred to as l’armée souffrante (the suffering army). Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971, formed the denim-clad Tontons Macoutes, a kind of shock troop with the dual purpose of repressing dissent and insulating him from an army coup such as those that had ousted his predecessors. His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, inherited the Macoute system when he became president as a morbidly obese 19-year-old. Duvalier the younger was overthrown in 1986, returned to Haiti in 2011 and died peacefully there last year, having never answered for his crimes (of which those committed through the Macoutes were only part). Under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has the unique distinction of being overthrown not once but twice, the (often quite young) gunmen tasked with protecting the regime were called chimère, after a mythical fire-breathing demon.

As much as the better-known slum of Cité Soleil, Martissant has always been a redoubt of such paramilitaries. Roger Lafontant, a feared Macoute leader who died during the 1991 coup against Aristide, formed an armed group that operated in the area in the late 1980s. Later, the most powerful gang in Martissant was run by Felix “Don Féfé” Bien-Aimé, an Aristide loyalist who orchestrated the murder of at least 13 people in the neighbouring Fort Mercredi district, after which he was nevertheless awarded a patronage job as the director of Port-au-Prince’s main cemetery. He was himself later “disappeared” by the police.

Since 2004, an ever-shifting panoply of groups have occupied the various zones of Martissant – Ti Bois, Grand Ravine, Descayettes and 2eme Avenue. One group, the Lame Ti Manchèt (or L’armée des Petites Machettes, the Little Machete Army), was affiliated with rogue elements of the national police. Another of the largest Grand Ravine gangs was run by Dymsley “Ti Lou” Milien, who broke out of jail after being arrested for his alleged role in the 2000 murder of Haiti’s most prominent journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique. Up until recently, from a foreign mobile number, Ti Lou has regularly called his followers who listen, rapt, as a mobile phone is held aloft to transmit his words.

But relations between Ti Bois and Grand Ravine are now relatively calm, which makes many hope that Martissant can perhaps invigorate some of its long-moribund tourism industry. As hard as it may be to envision after the 2010 quake – and despite being levelled by previous earthquakes in 1751 and 1770 as well – Port-au-Prince was once thought of as one of the glorious cities of the Caribbean. Travelling to Haiti in 1929, the British author Alec Waugh wrote that Port-au-Prince was:
One of the loveliest towns in the New World … The walls of houses and the twin spires of the cathedral gleam brightly through and above deep banks of foliage … It is through wide, clean streets, through the open park of the Champs de Mars, through a town that is half a garden, that you drive out toward the hills.
Martissant itself was one of the hubs for visitors to the capital. Just a few streets below Chery’s house is the beautiful Parc de Martissant, a restful space filled with dripping vegetation and bright bird of paradise flowers. The 42-acre park has now been reclaimed by the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Fokal), a civil society group working on education, human development and economic issues.

Within the park sits the Habitation Leclerc, an early 19th-century building that was allegedly once home to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, and her husband, French general Charles Leclerc, who was sent to Haiti to stamp out the slave rebellion that ultimately created the world’s first black republic. The property was eventually purchased by the American choreographer Katherine Dunham, whose 1969 autobiography, Island Possessed, remains an essential read. She turned Habitation Leclerc into a lavish hotel that attracted the jet-set, who availed themselves of nearby casinos and bars staffed by Dominican prostitutes (extraordinarily, despite fear of Aids and three decades of political upheaval, many of these bars still exist). But, by the late 1990s, the property – like some other areas of Port-au-Prince – had been overrun by gangs and squatters.

Recent restoration efforts have begun to return the gorgeous old structure to its former glory. Nor is it alone as a zone of possible rebirth. Outside of Martissant, the district of Bel-Air, which rises on the hills above a broad square that once housed Haiti’s National Palace (destroyed in the 2010 earthquake), has a rich tradition of music and art. For many years it was a centre for the production of drapo vodou, or voodoo flags, beautiful fabric-and-sequin creations bearing representations of the various Iwa (spirits). It, too, fell into disrepair and was heavily damaged in the quake, but it someday might have the potential to be a fascinating neighbourhood again.

Haiti’s current political scene, though, gives rise to concern that national politics will once again factionalise the city’s neighbourhood communities. The outgoing president, Michel Martelly – often referred to as Tèt Kale (Bald Head) – delivered a long, obscene rant against his opponents during a huge concert in the Champ de Mars plaza last month. Among those running to replace him are a senator, Moïse Jean-Charles, whose chief occupation as mayor of the northern city of Milot appeared to be bullying political opponents and journalists, and Jude Célestin, who has been accused by a now-jailed gang leader of involvement in the 2009 disappearance of another government employee. One senate candidate for Martelly’s party, Annette “Sò Anne” Auguste, is running despite being named by a judge for her own alleged role in the Jean Dominique killing.

Strange and somewhat menacing symbolism abounds in the city. Last month, supporters of excluded candidates held a suggestive mock “funeral” for Haiti’s election officials. An unseemly revisionism of the Duvalier years has also taken hold, with magazines advertising “Papa Doc Cigars” printed with the number 57 (the year of his inauguration). The election is also taking place as thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent are being expelled from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which Human Rights Watch called “ongoing violations of the human right to a nationality”.
In such a context, Mario Andrésol, the head of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH), the country’s national police force, from 2006 until 2012, collected 159,000 signatures to be accepted as an independent candidate for president. On a recent day, he was hosting a meeting of young activists from impoverished regions such as Bel Air and Cité Soleil at his Port-au-Prince home.

“We need to redefine ourselves as a nation, and the vision is to change a corrupted system,” says Andrésol. “We need to have institutional reinforcement. The executive, the legislative and the judiciary are supposed to be independent, but they’re not. The president has too many privileges, too many prerogatives. The president needs to understand that he’s the servant of the people.”

Meanwhile, for many of those in the capital who survived the 2010 earthquake – and were not relocated to the questionable sanctuary of some far-flung new camp – life goes on much as it did before, chache lavi (looking for life). The moto taxi drivers still stand in a line outside of the Djoumbala nightclub. The vendor women still haggle and laugh in the Pétionville market. The residents near the Stade Sylvio Cator still go about their lives in a swirl of dust and exhaust fumes and a cacophony of engines, horns and blaring music. In my old neighbourhood of Pacot, wreathed in bougainvillea and full of houses in Haiti’s distinctive gingerbread style of architecture, delicious cabrit en sauce is still on offer and groups playing Haiti’s plangent rara music still march through the streets.

Haiti’s national character – gentle, kind, good-humoured, quick-witted – stands in stark contrast to the take-no-prisoners blood sport of the country’s political culture. But, beyond the shrill ramblings of its politicians, at a certain hour of the day one is reminded of the words of Jacques Stephen Alexis, one of Haiti’s greatest writers, when he described Port-au-Prince in his 1955 book Compère Général Soleil (General Sun, My Brother):
Towards three o’clock in the afternoon the wind picked up suddenly, galloping and roaring through the city. The pelicans over the port whirled endlessly. The sea put on its fancy green dress and donned shawls of lace foam.
Looking down on the capital from Ti Bois as the setting sun lathers a honeyed light on to the surrounding mountains, one can see what he meant.

And Ti Bois, as it happens, does not appear to be the only baz that is gradually awakening to the fact that Haiti’s politicians have long used them as little more than cannon fodder, providing precious little in return as their districts sank ever-deeper into poverty.

Across town, in the popular quarter of Saint Martin, a rabble-rousing deputy in Haiti’s lower house of parliament – known for his violent background and temper – recently showed up in his constituency to seek support for his political ambitions, as he always had. Instead of finding a receptive audience, he was relieved of his weapon, his money and sent out of the neighbourhood with a message not to return.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Making sense of Miami:

Thursday 2 July 2015

Making sense of Miami: what America's strangest city says about the US's future


The dizzying blend of accents entices some visitors and alarms others. But as the US gets ever-closer to Cuba, Miami resident Michael Deibert asks: what can the rest of America learn from its own multicultural metropolis? 


The Guardian
  
(Please read original article here)

Just off Miami’s busy Calle Ocho, the thoroughfare that is the beating cultural heart of the city’s Cuban community, there rises a splendid ceiba tree whose roots erupt from the ground like waves from the sea, and whose vast branches throw shade far to either side.

All around the gnarled roots and tucked into the tree’s hidden crevices, one finds the offerings of the faithful: candles, bags of food, feathers, bones. In this modern metropolis, whose vaulting skyscrapers a mile away reflect the near-blinding sun, the saturnalia surrounding the ceiba attests to the lifeblood of the Afro-Cuban religion of santería, and Miami’s eternal place in the imagination of el exilio, as the Cuban community is often referred to.

I’ve lived in Miami off and on since the mid-1990s. As much as anywhere in the United States – my native country with which I have an often conflicted relationship – it counts as home. Landing back in Florida from Haiti, Paris or elsewhere, Miami always seems to offer the singular trick of providing some of the efficiency and convenience of living in the US while never seeming entirely a part of it.
Miami has long been a kind of quasi city-state that evokes strong reactions from visitors, especially those from more anglicised parts of the country who cannot make themselves understood in English to a large part of the local population – an experience that annoys and alarms them.

The strangest city in what is perhaps America’s strangest state, Miami is now home not just to Cubans but to thousands of Argentines, Brazilians, Colombians, Haitians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and practically every other Latin American nationality, with sizeable populations of Russians, Indians, Persians and Orthodox Jews as well.

The city has become so micronised that what is commonly thought of as “Miami” in the popular imagination is, in fact, a series of semi-independent small cities – some only a few blocks long – within the urban sprawl of Miami-Dade County (population 2.6 million). It fronts a long sweep of the blue-green Atlantic to the east and finally peters out in the miasma of the Everglades swamp to the west and the necklace of the Florida Keys to the south.

A young city (it was only incorporated in 1896 in what was then mostly wilderness), Miami is often said to have been founded on bootleg liquor and built its skyline on an infusion of cocaine money in the 70s and 80s (at the height of its cocaine wars in 1980 to 1981, the city had the world’s highest murder rate). Nearly 30 years ago, the crime writer Edna Buchanan wrote that Miami had been “a sleepy resort” that had transformed to attract “year-round ... concentrations of everything corrupt, bizarre or dangerous from everywhere in the world”.

Above all, Miami is a place of exile where newcomers try to construct a new life. Upon arriving from Cuba in 1980, the author Reinaldo Arenas – who as a teenaged barbudo had fought with Castro’s forces but was then imprisoned and tortured both for being an independent intellectual and gay – declared Miami “a barren and pestiferous peninsula ... trying to become for a million exiles, the dream of a tropical island”.

No fan of the city, Arenas quickly decamped to New York, where he committed suicide in 1990. Miami, however, continued to percolate like a spoonful of Café Bustelo coffee from the cafe colada that residents traditionally drink every afternoon at 3:05 (the city’s area code). And it has become something more interesting than many had thought possible.

In his office in West Miami near the city’s airport – a few blocks away from a branch of the city’s El Palacio de los Jugos Cuban eateries where the pan con lechón hints at the divine – Armando Valladares sits surrounded by photos of himself with political leaders: Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Florida senator (and Miami native and presidential candidate) Marco Rubio. Now white-haired, bespectacled and elegant, Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for – among other perceived offences – refusing to put an “I’m with Fidel” sign on his desk at the Ministry of Communications in 1960. Upon his release in 1982, he became a United States Ambassador to the United Nations. After residing in Washington for many years, he moved to Miami about 15 years ago.

“The Cubans have demonstrated their ability and their quality of work here,” Valladares says. “It’s a unique case in the history of the United States where the identity of a city was born, in a sense, in another country.”

The Cuban aspects of Miami’s identity appear to be far less monolithic than they once were, though. Many younger Cuban-Americans support the easing of relations with Cuba that US president Barack Obama has been pursuing with the island’s rulers. Events such as the O’ Miami poetry festival bring Cuban cultural groups such as Omni Zona Franca (from eastern Havana’s housing estates) to Miami on a regular basis, demonstrating that the city’s Latin vibe is more than Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday), as one long-standing club wistfully calls itself.

If Miami represents a refuge for Cubans, it serves as no less of one for Haitians who, fleeing a downward economic spiral and the tyranny of some of the country’s leaders, have made a profound impact on Miami’s cultural life over the last several decades.

Along a once-neglected stretch of Northeast 2nd Avenue in the heart of the Haitian immigrant community, a cultural flowering has taken place that has seen the opening of the Little Haiti Cultural Center and its Caribbean Marketplace – a replica of the famed Marché en fer (Iron Market) in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Exuberantly coloured murals by local artists adorn walls, and every Friday night the Rara Lakay band marches through the neighbourhood, beating on drums and blowing on plangent bamboo vaksin trumpets, whose bleat more evokes the deep Haitian countryside than an American city.

“I have seen this city grow culturally,” says the Haitian painter Edouard Duval Carrié, who arrived in Miami from Paris in 1992. “When I moved here it was really a [cultural] desert. That has changed.”
Carrié maintains his studio in Little Haiti. Famous for his painting of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in a wedding dress (an image that did not endear him to the regime), his space now seems a precursor of the area’s renaissance. What was once a district many outsiders approached with trepidation now attracts hundreds of people to the outdoor concerts of its monthly Big Night in Little Haiti.

“This is the doorway to the United States,” Carrié says. “The particularity of Miami is that it has this very ebullient immigration that makes it quite fascinating.”

But Miami’s growth into the multicultural metropolis it is today has had a sinister side, too. In the 1960s, the city built the southern extension of Interstate 95 directly through the heart of the Overtown district, an area that had been a cultural mecca for black culture in the south. “Overtown was a very pleasant place,” says Enid Pinkney, the 83-year-old daughter of an immigrant from the Bahamas (one of the first non-indigenous communities to settle in Miami).

Dispersed to other areas of the city, black residents often found themselves met with hostility. After the 1980 acquittal of four white and Latino police officers for the murder of black businessman Arthur McDuffie, at least 18 people died in rioting and property destruction topped $100m. Fatal police shootings touched off riots in the city at three other points during that decade.

Police departments throughout the county gained a reputation for violence and corruption that intervening years have done little to diminish, with Miami Beach police famously fatally tasering teenage Colombian-American graffiti artist Israel Hernandez in 2013. That same year, a report by the US Justice Department found that City of Miami police had “engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force through officer-involved shootings in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution” and that the department was tainted by “deficient tactics, improper actions by specialised units, as well as egregious delays and substantive deficiencies in deadly force investigations”.

Outside observers often remain mystified by Miami. Three years ago, the author Tom Wolfe attempted to capture it as he had 1980s New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and instead spewed forth a right-wing caricature titled Back to Blood that showed no grasp of the place the city has become. Such misconceptions are helped along by gaffe- and scandal-prone local politicians, whose peccadillos include everything from floating the idea to shut down all the city’s libraries to close a budget gap, to the by-now standard (for Miami) cash-for-favours schemes.

In some areas, things have gone over the top. In South Beach – once a slum for retirees and poor immigrants, now a gay mecca and nightlife hotspot – crass commercialisation has resulted in a kind of Vegas-by-the-sea ambiance, with even the famed Lincoln Road, once a redoubt of local restaurants and retailers, now housing little more than chain stores and the bewildered tourists they prey upon. The preponderance of “juniors” (a derisive term for the rich scions of Latin America’s economic elite) in the city can be somewhat off-putting, as it seems not only the language and music of that elite is being imported, but their class system, as well.

But the city has blossomed from the place that Reinaldo Arenas despised. The great Cuban poet and anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, who was during her lifetime one of the world’s foremost authorities on Afro-Cuban religion, spent the latter part of her life based in Miami, and donated her abundant collection of papers to the university here. It was home, too, for one of Haiti’s greatest poets, Félix Morisseau-Leroy, for the last 17 years of his life. And, as testament to the city’s new cultural heritage, a new major institution, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, opened next to the waters of Biscayne Bay in 2013; the Art Basel festival attracts thousands to the city every year; and the Miami Book Fair is an autumn staple of the literary calendar.

Perhaps more representative of the city than South Beach today are the northern reaches of Miami Beach, an area that is still home to many working-class residents despite spiralling property prices, where the lilting, almost Italianate sound of Argentine Spanish mixes with the caressing sounds of Brazilian Portuguese in the bodegas and on the beach. The Buenos Aires Bakery & Cafe – an establishment on Collins Avenue, only steps away from the sea – sells a variety of pastries that would make any porteño misty-eyed with nostalgia as well as several different kinds of the leafy, highly caffeinated mate beloved in South America, and does a brisk business.

When one drives south towards the Florida Keys – where the last island, Key West, is a mere 90 miles from Cuba – the county begins to descend into farmland. It was here that, in the early part of the 20th century, a Latvian-born eccentric named Edward Leedskalnin created an extraordinary structure known as the Coral Castle, out of coral-formed limestone. As he worked alone and without advanced equipment, just how Leedskalnin created his “castle” remains something of a mystery – with explanations ranging from some secret mastery of the Earth’s magnetic field to telekinesis.

Today, other dreams are played out in Miami-Dade’s fields, and exist in the imaginings of the many migrant workers who toil here, scant miles from the glittering high-rises of downtown Miami. 
Surrounded by fields of squash, okra, beans and tomatoes, the community of Homestead, despite its tropical locale, evokes the somnolent Midwestern communities of a Ray Bradbury story. Low-rise buildings, train tracks and empty playground swings greet the visitor, and in the street one hears the melange of accents and dialects from the agricultural workers here: Mexican, Guatemalan, Haitian, Jamaican.

In the offices of the immigrant support group WeCount! just off of North Krome Avenue (which shares its name with one of the US’s most infamous immigration detention centres located nearby), the connection between Homestead’s rural lushness and the city rising only a few miles away seems obvious.

“The Mexicans are the ones that put the food on Miami’s table,” says Catalina Santiago, an 18-year-old high school student who came to the US with her agricultural-worker parents from the Mexican state of Oaxaca a decade ago. “But they are always spoken of in a condescending manner.”

On the street below, where Santiago sits with her brother and a number of other immigrants, dusk falls and Homestead sees Mexican families gathering for Sunday-night dinner at restaurants such as Casita Tejas. When they rise for work early the following morning, some will be met by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and local police, who will be waiting to check their immigration status and arrest them for probable deportation if they are undocumented (as many are, a state of affairs on which Florida’s agriculture depends).

Perhaps it is impending apocalypse, natural and man-made, that makes Miami’s frivolity all the more poignant. If climate change predictions are to be believed, large parts of Miami – Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Virginia Key – will be under water in coming years, a phenomenon helped along by the fact that many Florida politicians, including Governor Rick Scott and the aforementioned Senator Rubio, deny that climate change can be linked to human activity.

Driving home north along US1, the skyline of Miami rises above the flat land, its concrete and steel wrapped in the warmth of the tropical sunset. A city of outsiders, refugees and immigrants that – in its reflection of present-day America’s diversity – feels in many ways more “American” than the 1950s small-town Americana that some politicians and commentators are perpetually nostalgic for.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Letter from Havana


Havana: one of the world's great cities on the brink of a fraught transition 

With negotiations under way to restore US ties, the Cuban capital’s days as a kind of open-air museum where time stood still are numbered. As the country opens up to the outside world, its people look likely to push for faster change

Michael Deibert in Havana


Wednesday 17 June 2015 

The Guardian

(Read original article here)

To visit Havana in the late spring, before the torpid humidity and showers of summer, is a glorious thing. Strolling through the streets of La Habana Vieja, its derelict and weather-worn facades still elegant, one encounters the grandeur of squares such as the Plaza de la Catedral, its church built in 1727, where leisurely cats and songbirds find refuge from the exhaust fumes that plague so much of the city.

As they have for decades, at dusk fishermen cast their lines and nets off the Malecón and into the splashing Caribbean, the sun descending as a fiery globe into the sea before them. In Vedado, once a glittering nightlife destination for the 1950s jet set, the old houses and green parks manage to catch some afternoon coolness as they slouch down towards the bay.

The last few years have one been ones of rapid change in Havana, one of the world’s great iconic cities for well over a hundred years and a traditional weathervane of the fortunes of the country as a whole. The days where it served as a kind of an open-air museum where time stood still appear to be drawing to a close, with the opening of a long-closed system generating an inevitable tension and dynamism.

Ruled by the Communist dictatorship of the Castro brothers since 1959 (and by the US-backed capitalist dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista for seven years before that), last December US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro announced that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the US had placed on Cuba would be relaxed, and that full diplomatic relations would be restored. Confirmation that embassies are to reopen in Washington DC and Havana is expected in early July, according to the latest reports. Many in Cuba and abroad hope that the US embargo on the country – a blunt and ineffective tool that collectively punishes Cubans as a whole rather than their government – will soon end as well.

Such rapid geopolitical shifts mirror the changes taking place within Cuba itself. Beginning in 2008, two years after Raúl took the helm from his brother Fidel, Cubans have been allowed to own cellphones and DVDs, and in 2010 the Cuban government began permitting foreign investors to lease government land and allowed individual Cubans greater control over the island’s agricultural and farming sectors. A 2012 law eliminated the onerous exit permit that, for 50 years, Cubans had been required to possess in order to travel abroad, and Cubans can now get online at a handful of cyber cafes around the island – although the price (around US$5 an hour) remains prohibitively expensive in a nation where many people make only $30 a month.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.

Festooned with its ceaseless homages to the dead, Havana can still feel more like a necrocracy than a living dictatorship. There is the inevitable mustachioed and solemn José Martí, slain by the Spanish in Dos Ríos in 1895. The bewhiskered Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary commander whose plane disappeared while flying from Camagüey to Havana in 1959. And there is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentina-born revolutionary who served as Fidel Castro’s right-hand man perhaps as much as Raúl did and who – when the revolutionary government seized power – oversaw the execution of dozens of prisoners at La Cabaña fortress above Havana, most with only summary trials. Che went on to support the quixotic ambitions of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in eastern Congo before turning his attentions to Bolivia, where he was captured and killed in October 1967.

I opted to spend a morning in a less ideological city of the dead, the Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón, situated in Veadado and spanning many city blocks (the cemetery even maintains little street signs in case the departed should become confused and lose their way). Within the cemetery one can visit the final repose of the Swiss-Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, the photographer Alberto Korda and former senator Eduardo Chibás, who committed a spectacular on-air suicide on Cuban radio in 1951. Scattered throughout the cemetery, too, are graves of a number of members of the Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban initiatory society that may seem to have echoes of the Freemasons, but which has its roots in pre-colonial Nigeria and Cameroon.

An area with a particularly strong Abakuá tradition is Regla, just across the bay. Taking the short ferry ride across from the city proper offers one of the best views of La Habana Vieja. Alighting from the ferry, we were greeted by an Afro-Cuban woman chanting at the water’s edge and employing various accoutrements in what appeared to be a ritual for Yemayá, the chief orisha of Santería (as Cuba’s syncretic Afro-Cuban religion is called) and goddess of the waters and seas.

The orisha spirits kept popping up during my visit. The following evening at a “party for Yemayá” in the Playa neighbourhood just west of Vedado, a local friend and I drove through the dusk-hued streets in a shared public taxi before arriving at a street of modest low-rise concrete block buildings. The 
party was already in progress: mangoes, rum and a fully-decorated birthday cake proclaiming 

“Felicidades Yemayá!” were laid before the altar. 

The people – lovely and welcoming, though threadbare – were drinking rum, wolfing down food, dancing to reggaeton and sitting out on the uncovered roof as the cool night breeze blew in under a blanket of Caribbean stars. The host’s daughter, in her early 20s and conversant in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Italian, wondered if the changes that were coming to Cuba might mean some respite from a life that, for her parents, had seemed to be one of unrelenting grind and struggle.

Walking through Vedado later that night, I was reminded of the great Cuban novelist Heberto Padilla, who had written in his post-revolutionary book En mi jardín pastan los héroes (translated into English as Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden) that “at night the neighbourhood recovered its old majesty. Darkness hid the cracks and grime, and from a distance it took on again its old splendour.”

Padilla was part of a landscape of writers that suffered terribly after the revolution, though rage at his ideological deviation was not further inflamed by his being gay, as was the case with authors such as Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera. (Padilla had also written that “a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice … [but also] repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads.”).

In the sexual sense, times have markedly changed in Cuba, with Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, running the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual and advocating on behalf of LGBT rights. Gay couples, though not exactly flamboyant, certainly do not have to cower as they did in earlier times. A less appetising side to the country’s more permissive sexual atmosphere – prostitution – remains a fact of life in Havana and a draw for a certain kind of male (and to a lesser degree, female) tourist here, as it has since the early 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union sent the country’s economy into a tailspin.

But Cuba, even its increasingly cosmopolitan capital, remains an authoritarian state. The last time Cubans were freely able to chose who represents them was when they voted for Carlos Prío Socarrás for president in 1948, a presidency cut short by Batista’s 1952 coup. And it is highly doubtful that current visitors – sitting in the back of the spotlessly maintained American cars which tour the city, or smoking cigars at the Hotel National or the Hotel Habana Libre – know the names of, say, Wilmar Villar Mendoza, a dissident designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, who died on hunger strike in January 2012. In January, Cuba released 53 political prisoners – but human rights groups here say that other political prisoners remain in jail.

A contrasting city

At the time of the 1959 revolution, Havana ranked as one of the world’s great and dynamic cities. The country’s literacy rate was 76%, the fourth highest in Latin America. Cuba was 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita, and it boasted one of the largest middle classes in the entire region. Hard as it may be to believe today, the country ranked fifth in the hemisphere in terms of income.

But there were also yawning inequalities, between both city and country and black and white. By the mid-1950s, Batista – once a democratically elected president – had emerged into an odious and fully formed dictator who showed little interest in addressing the poverty from which he himself had come (in his case in Holguín province). The place was ripe for revolt, and so it came. But, hobbled both by the nature of Cuban communism and thuggish, cloddish US attempts at intervention and destabilisation, so too a gradual diminution of Havana’s glory took place over the ensuing decades.
As a Cuban-American friend noted upon his first visit, the buildings and vistas of Havana are so overwhelming in their magnificence – and their dilapidation and the poverty surrounding them so apparent – it sometimes seems like a visitor has wandered into the ruins of a once-great civilisation, like the Aztecs or the Mayans, now being squatted by a banana republic.

The grandiose seat of government, El Capitolio, was completed in 1929 during the dictatorship of independence-era general Gerardo Machado. The nearby Gran Teatro de La Habana is even older, having opened in 1838 while Cuba was still under Spanish colonial rule and with its present home having been finished in 1915 during the presidency of Mario García Menocal. Many of the landmark hotels in Havana likewise opened during the reigns of either Machado (the Hotel Nacional) or Batista (the Habana Libre), an irony that seems lost both on many visitors as well as the regime.

Taking a shared public taxi out to the suburb of Alamar, faded imperial grandeur slaps one in the face in the form of both the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (better known as El Morro and named after the Biblical magi) and the aforementioned La Cabaña, both haughtily guarding the city as they did in the days of slavery and plunder.

With the sparkling Caribbean on one side, the cab veers inland and eventually the housing project of Alamar, built in the early 1970s to house workers (and, often, Russian advisers), rears up into view. A visitor steps out to be surrounded by multistorey tenements that would be recognisable to anyone familiar with Latin American urban planning. For all the revolution’s desire to construct a “new man”, the appearance of Alamar is rather similar to low-income housing elsewhere in the world.
I’ve come here to visit a friend, part of a poetry and art collective that has appeared throughout the US and in Latin America. We talk in an apartment that is nearly devoid of furniture, as his small children play outside and neighbours amble by.

“Yes, people can talk now, but nothing changes,” he says. He’s happy about Cuba’s increased access and connectedness to the rest of the world, but also says that exorbitant internet costs have made him “a guerilla” with his time, preparing his emails and internet searches days in advance before hopping on and trying to frantically get everything done before his time (and money) run out.

After sipping some very sweet, very strong coffee, we walk through the entire complex, several miles of similar characterless high-rises, the monotony of which is broken up by unexpected delights such as stumbling across a quintet playing the lilting son music of Cuba’s countryside simply for their own edification in the shadow of one of the towering buildings. Eventually, we walk the whole way down to the glittering sea, so clear you can see right to the bottom.

“It’s so peaceful here,” my friend says. “I like to come down here and meditate.”

As we turn around and face the land, he points out Cojimar, the fishing village that longtime Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway memorialised in his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea. In keeping with the absolute absence of anti-Americanism I have come across in Cuba, Hemingway remains a venerated figure on the island, with the country’s largest marina named after him and his home in San Francisco de Paula, just outside of Havana, a national museum.

As my friend is evidence of, many Cubans cherish and welcome the intellectual interaction of the island with the rest of the world. They hope it will only increase in the coming years.

Stale politics

It is hard to visit Havana today and not feel like the country is entering a potentially fraught period of transition. The levers of power in Cuba are still held largely by men who are immensely old. Fidel Castro – whose occasional essays in the state newspaper Granma get stranger every time they appear – is 88 and infirm, while Raúl Castro is 83.

Cuba’s vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is a youthful 54 – but the political trajectory of all but the Castros themselves in Cuba has often been uncertain. One need only look at the fates of Ricardo Alarcón – once a rising star in the Communist Party who found himself demoted and disgraced in 2013, or Arnaldo Ochoa – a widely popular general and hero of Cuba’s war in Angola who perished in front of a firing squad in 1989, for evidence of that.

The more the country opens up to the outside world – as Raúl Casto seems to know it must do in order to survive – and the more access Cubans have to information, the more they (particularly the young) are likely to push for change. The current, curious sense of idleness in Cuba’s political scene – dominated still by revolutionary slogans painted on public walls and propaganda broadcasts from another age – rings more hollow when one realises that there are many countries with good health and education systems that don’t feel the need to deny people the vote in order to achieve them.

Towards the end of my visit, I was pondering these questions as I sat writing under the shade of a tree in Havana’s Parque Central, just in front of the magnificent Gran Teatro de le Habana. Then I heard the shouts: “Libertad! Viva los derechos humanos!” (“Freedom! Long live human rights!”)

I looked up and saw a slight young man with spiky hair. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old. He was shouting these words with his fist raised. A crowd formed, watching mutely and doing nothing. Within a few minutes the police arrived. They handcuffed him, threw him in a car, and hustled him away.

In from the cold: the implications of the US's thawing on Cuba


In from the cold: the implications of the US's thawing on Cuba

Michael Deibert | 12/06/2015 9:00 am

Foreign Direct Investment

The relaxing of travel and commercial restrictions between Cuba and the US announced in 2014 has already seen a glut of international companies visiting the island, enthused by the potential of the country. But is the 'new' Cuba all it appears to be? Michael Deibert investigates.


(Read the original article here)

On a recent flight to the Cuban capital of Havana via Grand Cayman, your correspondent observed a plane full of Americans who could not wait to travel to a land that had for years been forbidden to them. High school children, college students, music promoters, entrepreneurs and Cuban émigrés all hummed with excitement as the clouds parted to reveal the blue-green waters of the Caribbean and the island’s tapering coastline below.

Alighting from José Martí International Airport, visitors are greeted with a billboard featuring the face of Mr Martí (Cuba’s independence hero) paired with that of long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro, while the face of deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is paired with Latin American liberation icon Simón Bolívar.
And despite the revolutionary slogans that still adorn many walls and signposts in Cuba, and despite five decades of economic mismanagement and absent democracy, Havana remains one of the world’s most beautiful cities, even in its current dilapidated state.

All change

Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which began 56 years of Communist dictatorship that continues to this day, Cuba’s adversarial relationship with the US has been one of the touchstones of regional geopolitics. As guerillas from groups such as the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional from El Salvador travelled to Havana to train, the US poured money into right-wing governments – many with questionable human rights records – to stave off Communist expansion in the region.

However, with Fidel Castro having effectively ceded power to his more pragmatic – though no less authoritarian – brother Raúl in 2006 (Raúl became president in 2008 after having exercised 'acting' decision-making in the previous two years), the changes in Cuba have been rapid and startling.

Since 2008, ordinary Cubans have been allowed to possess mobile phones and DVD players, possessions that had previously been tightly controlled by the government. Beginning in 2010, the Cuban government started to allow foreign investors to lease government land for up to 99 years and granted individual Cubans more control over the island's agricultural and farming sectors, something that had previously been in the hands of the government. In 2012, a new law eliminated the exit permit that for 50 years Cubans had been required to possess in order to travel abroad. Cuba's October 2014 Law on Foreign Investment allows 100% ownership in certain sectors by foreign investors, a radical departure  from previous practice, as well as providing significant tax incentives and increased guarantees. Some 3000 restaurants and 8000 rental rooms are now in private hands.

Contributing heavily to the sense of rapid change, in December 2014, after nearly two years of negotiations, US president Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously declared that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the US had placed on dealing with Cuba would be relaxed, and that soon the countries would resume full diplomatic relations with embassies in Washington and Havana (both countries had previously been represented by Interest Sections, which operated below the level of embassies).

In January, Cuba released 53 political prisoners, though the country's human rights groups say other political prisoners remain in jail. At the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, Mr Obama met Mr Castro, the first time leaders of the two countries had met face to face in five decades.

Gaining a foothold

In response to these developments, in recent months companies such as Pernod Ricard, Carrefour, Total, Alstom and Orange (all from France), as well as Mazda, Mitsubishi Sumitomo and Toyota (all from Japan) have been visiting Cuba in an aggressive push to get a foothold in its potentially huge market.

“Clearly the potential to work soon with the US market is what it is motivating the flow of foreign companies visiting Cuba and trying to find opportunities there,” says Tom Herzfeld of Herzfeld Advisors, a company the specialises in Caribbean Basin investments. “[And] Raúl Castro knows that the support from Venezuela and Russia – mainly when oil prices are the lowest they have been in decades – [only offers] breathing space and he needs to take Cuba from practically zero economic growth to a level assuring stability and sustainability.”

Despite this rapid pace of change, however, and despite how ineffective US policy towards Cuba has proved in dislodging the Castro regime, there are members of the politically powerful Cuban exile community in South Florida, just a few kilometres across the straits from Havana, who remain unimpressed and unconvinced that the new policy of engagement with the US is sincere.

“The Castros need confrontation with the US,” says Armando Valladares, as he sits in his West Miami office. Mr Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for, among other offences, refusing to put an 'I’m with Fidel' sign on his desk at the Cuban ministry of communications in 1960. Upon his release in 1982, he became a US ambassador to the UN.

Mr Valladares says he believes there is “a double standard” in the world’s approach to Cuba, given that other dictatorships in Latin America’s history, such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, were met with economic sanctions and official censure.

Finding a balance

What is beyond dispute is that Raúl Castro is walking a very fine line, attempting to open up Cuba just enough to give its people some level of comfort that has previously eluded them, while at the same time maintaining tight control of the political system (Cubans have not directly elected a president since 1948). Many observers believe that the Cuban government is looking towards China and, especially, Vietnam as potential models.

Everywhere in Havana today, from the relatively posh neighbourhood of Miaramar with its newly opened eateries and embassies, to the more gritty suburb of Regla, with its famous shrine dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Regla, a Catholic icon closely identified with the Santeria Orisha of Yemayá, there is a hunger for change and a hope for the future. Despite a steady diet of government-controlled news that highlights violence and upheaval elsewhere in Latin America in contrast to the calm island on which they live, Cubans, particularly the younger generation, through the use of flash drives and increasingly frequently interactions with foreigners, have more and more of a knowledge of the outside world. And they are increasingly demanding the right to be able to engage with it.

Hungry for economic change, it would not seem long before Cuba’s citizens begin to press for increased political freedoms, as well. How Cuba’s leaders chose to reconcile these two tensions will define the life of this extraordinary country for years to come.