Thursday, March 18, 2021

Between us and heaven

"Entre nous et le ciel, l'enfer ou le néant, il n'y a donc que la vie, qui est la chose du monde la plus fragile..."

In living the peripatetic existence of an author and a journalist over the years, I have often thought of these words by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, which translate into English, more or less, as "between us and heaven, hell or nothingness, there is only life, which is the most fragile thing in the world." 

You end up leaving a bit of yourself in a boteco in Rio de Janeiro, in an outdoor autumn market under slate-grey autumn skies in Paris, in a lakou in Haiti where the bare mountains witness drumming and dancing and singing that show you, despite all the material struggle, the beating heart of a people still endures. 

And you realize that life often hangs by a thread. Life is full of tragedy and struggle, and I have known my share of people who wanted nothing more than to live, but who were deprived of it by some dictator, or a band of criminals or by poverty. And I've known people who couldn't take living and chose, though direct action or slow capitulation, to take their leave of it. 

After a wrenching 12 months characterized by so much loss, it is easy to be engulfed by pain. But life has beauty, too, and the transitory nature of it, the fact that le monde est comme une goutte de rosée qui s'évapore aux premiers rayons de soleil as the wistful Syrian proverb that greets visitors to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris states, is what gives it its intense poignancy. Todavía podemos sonreír, aunque tengamos cicatrices en la cara

So, adieu to los que se fueron. We will never forget you. To those of us who have made it through so far, let's make the time we have left mean something. The world is all before us, where to choose. 

With best wishes and love to you all.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Michael Deibert on BBC Newshour


My interview about Haiti on BBC Newshour appears at the 14 minute mark here. We touch on Haiti's political crisis, the international role in it and the Dominican Republic's proposed border "wall." It appears around the 14 minute mark here.

Haiti: Hoping Against Hope

 I was quoted in this week's article about The Economist on the situation in Haiti.

Feb 27th 2021

Hoping against hope 

Can Haiti rid itself of Jovenel Moïse?  

The country needs a new leader. It is not clear when it will get one

The Economist

(Read the original article here)

NIXON BOUMBA used to take morning jogs through the prosperous Pacot neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The area has steep, tree-lined streets and “gingerbread” houses. (These wooden-lattice structures, built in the early 1900s, survived a devastating earthquake in 2010.) But Mr Boumba does not jog any more. A surge of kidnappings and murders has kept him indoors (see chart). The gangs responsible for those crimes often have links to the police and politicians. The true number of attacks is probably far higher than the reported one. “We are living in a time of terror,” says Mr Boumba, a human-rights activist.

Terror has not stopped him from joining protests against President Jovenel Moïse. These have been going on for more than two years, provoked initially by economic hardship and allegations of corruption. Since January this year crime, and the fear that Mr Moïse is setting himself up as a dictator, have sparked a new wave. The protesters contend that his term ended on February 7th this year. They want his immediate departure.

Terror has not stopped him from joining protests against President Jovenel Moïse. These have been going on for more than two years, provoked initially by economic hardship and allegations of corruption. Since January this year crime, and the fear that Mr Moïse is setting himself up as a dictator, have sparked a new wave. The protesters contend that his term ended on February 7th this year. They want his immediate departure.

Those making that demand are divided into two broad groups. They are as much at odds with each other as they are with the president. Pro-democracy idealists like Mr Boumba are mainly activists, professionals and young people. They have no political parties or elected officials. The established opposition is led by former office-holders. Some have been allies of Mr Moïse. They join the anti-Moïse agitation, but are regarded by the idealists as being just as corrupt as the regime. They seem interested only in taking power, says Rosy Auguste Ducena, a human-rights lawyer. Haiti’s hope lies with the new generation. But the three-way fight makes it harder to predict who will steer the country’s future.

Mr Moïse, a former plantation manager who calls himself “Banana Man”, exemplifies the failings of recent Haitian presidents and has added to them. Popular anger flared in 2017 after reports, which he denies, that he had stolen millions of dollars from PetroCaribe, an aid programme paid for by Venezuela. These allegations, plus fuel shortages and high inflation, provoked demonstrations in the following year. In 2019 a peyi lock (internal blockade) closed schools and businesses for months. This deepened a recession that had already started. Today 35% of Haitians are suffering acute hunger, according to the UN. In the pandemic’s first wave around 120,000 Haitians lost jobs in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, increasing the misery.

Mr Moïse’s alleged use of violence against opponents and his flouting of democratic norms remind some people of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s last despot, who was overthrown in 1986. His foes accuse him of overseeing Haiti’s “gangsterisation”. Politicians have long had links to criminals, but Mr Moïse’s seem especially strong, his critics say. (He denies these claims.) In January Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former police officer and leader of G9 and Family, an alliance of gangs, led a march in defence of Mr Moïse. Last year the United States imposed sanctions on Mr Cherizier and on two senior officials in Mr Moïse’s administration for planning a massacre by police of at least 71 people in 2018 in La Saline, in Port-au-Prince. The motives are unclear. Many gangs are widely thought to have agreements with the government to silence opposition neighbourhoods in exchange for impunity. Mr Moïse disputes this, too.

Within the government, it is Mr Moïse himself who enforces compliance. In the absence of a functioning legislature, he has been ruling by decree since January 2020. Legislative elections were not held on schedule because parliament failed to pass an election law during the peyi lock. Just ten members of the 30-seat Senate still hold electoral mandates and none of the lower house’s 119 seats is occupied. There are no serving mayors.

In November Mr Moïse created an intelligence agency, answerable only to him, and widened the definition of terrorism to include acts of dissent. In February this year he forced three Supreme Court judges into early retirement and ordered the arrest of a score of his most prominent detractors, accusing them of plotting a coup.

Mr Moïse disputes the opposition’s claim that his term is already up. He took office in 2017, after a re-run of a flawed election held two years earlier. His five-year term thus expires next February, he reasons. His foes doubt he will leave office even then. In a referendum to be held in April, Mr Moïse plans to seek approval for amendments he wants to make to the constitution. These might include giving him the right to run for a second term. Under the constitution, a president cannot exercise powers that he introduces into it. Mr Moïse’s foes doubt that he will comply.

Beyond a shared desire to remove him from power, the two currents of opposition have little in common. Established opposition politicians are as bad as the president, activists say. Youri Latortue, a former senator who is one of the old opposition’s most prominent figures, was once described in an American diplomatic cable as one of the most “brazenly corrupt of leading politicians”. (He denies this characterisation.) Some opposition leaders are backed by anti-government gangs, which differ little from pro-government outfits.

The new opposition aspires to reinvent politics. “This is about starting something new, this is about respect of human rights, this is about organising fair and credible elections,” says Emmanuela Douyon, a leader of Nou Pap Dòmi (We Will Not Sleep), a social movement. She and her allies know that will require ending the political instability that began with Duvalier’s fall. Election results since then have nearly always been disputed by the loser. The opposition almost invariably demands the president’s resignation, says Michael Deibert, author of two books on Haiti. In 2016 less than 20% of eligible voters turned out in the election that Mr Moïse won. The constitution, adopted in 1987, has never commanded broad respect. A Creole saying holds that “constitutions are paper, but bayonets are steel”, says Robert Fatton of the University of Virginia. The opposition acknowledges the need for constitutional change, but does not want Mr Moïse leading it.

Civil-society groups are planning to hold a huge march on February 28th. After that, the route is uncertain. Most opposition forces want to install a transitional government as a prelude to holding free elections. But they disagree on how to do that. The old guard want a forcibly retired judge, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, to be interim president. Activist groups want someone outside the political elite in that job. That person may be in power for a while. The interim authority would need to take substantial time to prepare for credible elections, says Ms Douyon. Meanwhile, she hopes, new politicians will offer themselves as candidates, drawing new voters.

Unifying opposition groups behind a single proposal will be difficult. Obtaining Mr Moïse’s co-operation will be impossible. The United States, which is home to 1m Haitians whose remittances sustain Haiti’s economy, fears that his immediate removal would lead to chaos. On February 5th the State Department backed Mr Moïse’s claim that his term ends in 2022, a decision that outraged protesters, who remember with bitterness the United States’ repeated military interventions in Haiti. It is “putting their foot on the scales”, argues Brian Concannon, a long-time Haiti-watcher. Many Haitians, including some in the diaspora, suspect that the United States doubts that Haiti can handle democracy.

The activists confronting Mr Moïse hope to prove that view wrong. Haiti’s well-wishers are cautious. “Maybe we’ve reached the bottom, and the only way is up,” speculates Mr Fatton, who was born in Haiti. But he has thought that before.



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Rumblings of Change in Puerto Rico

22 February 2021

Rumblings of Change in Puerto Rico 

The island territory is ruled by the United States but politically and socioeconomically adrift from it. Many want that to change 

By Michael Deibert

(Read the original article here)

Tamara Zoe García’s great-grandmother remembered when the soldiers came to town.

“She was 10 years old when the Americans arrived,” García tells me as we stand along the malecón in Guánica, a seaside town in southern Puerto Rico.

“She watched them marching the Spanish soldiers in shackles to Yauco,” she says, referring to a hillside town about seven miles away.

Shielded between two hills, the bay of Guánica, where the U.S. military arrived to seize Puerto Rico as war booty during the Spanish-American War on July 25, 1898, glitters under the midday sun, the wind churning the sea to create diamonds on the crests of the waves.

Behind us lies Guánica itself, a colorful sprawl of low-slung structures, many still severely damaged from a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in January 2020, which briefly knocked out power across the entire island. This was the second time Puerto Ricans were plunged into darkness in less than three years; Hurricane Maria in 2017 claimed over 3,000 lives and knocked out power to the island for months while then-President Donald Trump golfed and tweeted his rage at NFL players

Such blows of nature are themselves a testimony to the complex and ambiguous relationship between this island of 3 million people and the giant power that lords over it from the north.

“Even before the earthquake, there were the budget cuts,” says Carlos García (no relation), an unemployed handyman from the town who, like Tamara Zoe García (herself a chef by training), is a member of Team 821, a group of local citizens who formed after the quake to pool their resources and try to improve the lives of residents. He stands before an abandoned pink and white house, dramatic fissures running up its sides, its support pillars looking near collapse.

“There was a consolidation of government offices,” Carlos García says. “The unemployment office went to San Germán [a mountain town about 15 miles away], cupones [the island’s equivalent of food stamps], went to Lajas. We don’t have those services anymore.”

Ringed with glistening white sand beaches and blessed with an interior of undulating, fecund mountains, Puerto Rico (officially the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico or Free Associated State of Puerto Rico) exists in a colonial twilight among the family of world nations. Over the last four years, it has endured the destruction of hurricanes Maria and Irma, widespread protests that drove Gov. Ricardo Rosselló from power in 2019, the 2020 earthquake, and a grinding economic crisis that has now stretched into its second decade and dovetailed with the coronavirus pandemic.

Within a month of Tamara Zoe García’s great-grandmother watching the U.S. forces march the Spanish away in Guánica, they had succeeded in defeating the creaking European empire across Puerto Rico’s entire 100–by-35 mile expanse. The Americans had arrived less than a year after the adoption of the Carta Autonómica, which had granted Puerto Rico significant autonomy from Spain and established an elected House of Representatives, an autonomous judiciary, and a great degree of economic control. The Puerto Rican writer Tomás Blanco would call the Carta Autonómica “the crystallization that has long been claimed and debated, of a rule of law that opened a broad channel for the hope of solving regional problems from the local point of view.”

All of that would change. The island would be ruled by unelected and often racist functionaries for five long decades afterward, and moves toward independence would be violently crushed by U.S.-backed security forces, culminating in a 1937 massacre in the southern town of Ponce on Palm Sunday 1937, during which 19 civilians died and some 200 were injured.

Finally, in 1952, under the aegis of the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) of the island’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, a new constitution came into effect, setting up the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, which still exists today. More populous than 22 current U.S. states, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can vote in U.S. presidential primaries but not in the general election. The island is represented by a single, nonvoting member (known as the Resident Commissioner) in the U.S. Congress, and while it elects its own governor and bicameral legislature, ultimate power over the island’s fate lies with the U.S. president and a U.S. Congress the island’s citizens have no say in electing.

Muñoz Marín and the PPD initiated an aggressive program of industrialization on the once largely rural island that became known as Operation Bootstrap, and soon the income generated by manufacturing outstripped that generated by agriculture as an urban, export-oriented economic model took hold. Puerto Ricans unsatisfied with the arrangement could travel with ease between the island and the mainland United States, where even better-paying jobs awaited, an escape valve that to a large degree headed off the roiling social unrest that occurred elsewhere in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century.

By the end of the 1960s, electoral politics on the island translated into a political tug of war between the PPD and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), which supports the island being admitted as a full state within the United States. (Despite often being characterized as a party of the right, the PNP in fact encompasses an idiosyncratic range of political opinion from Trumpist Republicans to liberal Democrats, only united by their mutual desire for statehood and talent for political fratricide.) The island’s third political tendency — for independence — had been severely weakened following the crushing of violent pro-independence uprisings in the early 1950s and the subsequent targeting of activists by the FBI as part of its Counterintelligence Program and by Puerto Rican police.

A provision of the Internal Revenue Code enacted in 1976 — known as Section 936 — gave companies from the mainland United States an exemption from federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico and helped spur further growth in manufacturing jobs and other sources of work, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. It would be the repeal of Section 936 in 1996 — undertaken by then-President Bill Clinton with bipartisan support to pay for a minimum wage hike on the mainland — that would begin to herald Puerto Rico’s long, steady decline.

During this period, the island was governed by a PNP-affiliated physician named Pedro Rosselló — the father of Ricardo Rosselló — who led a scandal-plagued administration and left office in January 2001, bequeathing the island a public debt of some $25.7 billion.

Over the next several years, the island’s government would impose a range of new taxes to cover the shortfall as the island’s general obligation bonds sank toward junk status, which brought about the arrival of capitalist adventurers. Hedge funds lent Puerto Rico more than $3 billion, envisioning a 20% return on the back of the island’s constitutional clause requiring that bonds be paid back. The funds were dominated by politically powerful entities, such as the Paulson & Co. hedge fund of leading Republican donor John Paulson, who would later serve as an early endorser of and economic adviser for Trump’s presidential campaign. As a territory, Puerto Rico had no legal ability to declare bankruptcy, and repeated downgrades of the worth of its bonds had effectively shut it out of the bond market. The government was reduced to short-term bank credit financing and other schemes to stay afloat from month to month, effectively creating a pyramid scheme where the state was borrowing money from some lenders to pay others.

In June 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which established the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB, though often referred to locally as “la junta”) with the power to restructure $70 billion of the island’s debt. It was signed into law by Obama that same month. Thus, an unelected federal entity was given the ability to manage the island’s finances over that of its elected government.

The protests that erupted in Puerto Rico in July 2019, following the leak of hundreds of profane chats between Rosselló and his close advisers, during which they mocked ordinary Puerto Ricans and fantasized about the assassination of political opponents, grew out of a social milieu that, for anyone under the age of 30, had been only a grinding litany of austerity, natural disasters, and wild political cronyism to rival anything seen elsewhere in Latin America, with the politically connected offered plum government jobs, contracts, and high salaries while the rest of the population was largely left to fend for themselves or exercise “the JetBlue option” (migration to the mainland United States).

After 18 months of custodial governorship by former Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, Pedro Pierluisi, a PNP politician who in his 2009-2017 role as Resident Commissioner was instrumental in crafting PROMESA, was elected as Puerto Rico’s governor this past November with 33.24% of the vote in a five-person race. Pierluisi, who took office in January, had previously served a chaotic five days as governor following the resignation of Rosselló, only to have Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court declare his assumption of the office unconstitutional. The PNP also retained the office of Resident Commissioner and won the mayorship of San Juan, where former Secretary of Labor Miguel Romero narrowly defeated former PPD deputy Manuel Natal, who ran as the candidate for the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizens’ Victory Movement or MVC), a new party formed just before the 2019 protests, in an acrimonious ballot fraught with charges of fraud.

Despite the initial impression of stasis, however, it would be a mistake to say that nothing has changed in Puerto Rico’s political landscape since the 2019 uprising. The long-dominant duopoly of the PNP and PPD appears to have broken down.

Two of the MVC’s members won election to the island’s Senate and two to its House of Representatives, while the right-wing Proyecto Dignidad won one seat in each. For the first time in history, women constitute a majority in Puerto Rico’s Senate, where five supporters of independence will also occupy seats. In an election where 34% of the electorate voted against the two main-party candidates for governor, MVC candidate Alexandra Lúgaro, came in third with 14.21%, while the candidate for the pro-sovereignty Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), Juan Dalmau, received 13.72%, a fairly stunning result considering that in the 2016 elections, the PIP’s gubernatorial candidate received only 2.13%.

Conversely, however, in a concurrent referendum on the island’s status in which voters were asked whether Puerto Rico should be granted statehood within the United States, 52.52% answered “yes” while 47.48% rejected the concept. The referendum, which was nonbinding, followed a two-part 2012 status referendum where 53.97% voted that they did not wish to continue with the current free association arrangement and, for the first time, a majority — 61.16% — chose statehood. (A third of the 2012 responses to the second question were left blank, leading statehood opponents to argue those were in fact anti-statehood votes.)

Statehood opponents frequently reject the electoral results based on what they claim voters “really” want, and the PNP’s near-total domination of the island’s electoral machinery, revealed in a recent investigation by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Investigative Journalism Center), has led to further questioning of the results. In one of the few concrete attempts to engage the issue on the mainland, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, proposed in August 2020 by U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & Nydia Velázquez, both of Puerto Rican heritage, suggested the election of status delegates to “develop a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.”

During his run for the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to “work with representatives who support each of the status options in Puerto Rico to engage in a fair and binding process to determine their own status,” calling the current arrangement “untenable.”

The whiff of colonial domination in the relationship between moneyed mainlanders and the citizens of Puerto Rico — especially since Hurricane Maria and certainly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — is not hard to spot.

On a local level, this is typified by the hundreds of daily indignities Puerto Ricans are subjected to by visitors, from the gringo who spat in the face of the employee of a supermarket in the surfing mecca of Rincón in July after being asked to wear a mask (and got a golf club to the head for his trouble) to the drunkard who attacked members of Puerto Rico’s National Guard for the same reason at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in November, screaming, “It’s going to be all over social media!” while pinned to the floor. Last September, outside the rural mountain municipality of Morovis, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people traveling from the mainland to promote the sale of bitcoin virtual currencies threw a packed, maskless party, images of which they incautiously shared online.

Since the island reopened to tourism late last spring, but especially since this past autumn, the streets of Viejo San Juan, where I live, have been choked with herds of maskless tourists from the mainland, packing the already oversaturated Airbnbs (many of which are replacing the homes of long-term residents who are being forced out of their neighborhood), crowding bars, and posing for selfies in the quarter’s narrow streets, with seemingly little regard for the well-being of the local population. “Maybe you’ll survive, abuelita, now bring me my drink” seems to sum up their attitude.

In 2012, the island’s government passed Act 20, which sought to promote export services on the island via tax credits and tax exemptions, and Act 22, which fully exempts high-net-worth individuals from local taxes on all passive income provided they reside in Puerto Rico (“residing” being defined as being present on the island for at least 168 days per year). In 2019, both acts were folded into the so-called Puerto Rico Incentives Code, which said it wanted to “promote the necessary conditions to attract investment.” Though the logic of the law was to hopefully encourage these individuals to invest in the local economy, it seems to have attracted something else altogether.

One expat website — called “Sovereign Man” — encourages individuals to take advantage of the law, gushing about how the author pays “zero U.S. federal income tax, only a 4% corporate tax for my businesses and zero capital gains and dividends tax … to live a comfortable lifestyle in paradise.”

That such arriviste fantasies are lived out on an island that has had to close 44% of its schools since 2007, which has resulted in “serious harm to the students and communities who rely on them,” as the University of California at Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute and San Juan-based Centro para la Reconstrucción del Hábitat concluded, goes unsaid.

Another investment website, created following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, practically salivates at the potential for displacement, advising readers, “With nearly one-third of the island’s homeowners behind on their mortgage payments … the next several years are going to see thousands of distressed properties coming to market. This presents a significant investment opportunity.”

The financial links between the Act 22 beneficiaries and the PNP, especially, are extensive, with the Public Accountability Initiative and the watchdog network LittleSis reporting that the party had received 70% of its donations between 2012 and 2020, with Pedro Pierluisi receiving $60,000 and San Juan mayor Miguel Romero receiving $44,000.

“Today’s economy is attracting a different kind of Anglo American,” says Julio Ortiz Luquis, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the City University of New York. “Puerto Rico has become a tax haven for rich Americans. These Americans, for the most part, are not the professional class of migrants that came during the 20th century to live in San Juan or around military bases. They have been attracted to the island by the current economic crisis and have no connection to or knowledge about Puerto Rico’s reality. They are land speculators and bitcoin enthusiasts, and most do not know what to do with buildings and land bought. The main difference between the 20th and 21st century Anglo presence in Puerto Rico is that today the presence is more visible, less educated, and more socially disconnected and racist.”

As the mainlanders live out their tropical fantasies, a steady backbeat of violence also stalks the island. Gun battles with high-velocity weapons in the island’s housing projects, known as caserios, are not uncommon, and recently, when a man believed to have been a member of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Cantera (FARC) drug trafficking organization killed three police officers while fleeing pursuit, his body was subsequently found dumped in the busy San Juan neighborhood of Santurce next to a sign that said, “I am responsible for the murder of the policemen.”

Puerto Rico also remains a dangerous place to be a woman. Last month, Pierluisi declared a state of emergency with regard to gender-based violence, a move long campaigned for by activists, and proposed implementation of a gender perspective curriculum in public schools, improving collection of statistics on femicides, review of protocols for sexual harassment, and a strengthened enforcement of protection orders.

When Puerto Rico’s political battles and economic dislocation grow too much, I often seek solace in the island’s mountains where, despite the struggles there, one can feel an almost corporeal lifting of stress and a stronger connection to the island’s rebel soul.

In the mountain town of Adjuntas, where some of the island’s best coffee is produced, Arturo Massol Deyá, professor of microbiology and ecology at the Universidad de Puerto Rico and executive director of Casa Pueblo, is thinking about the future of the island.

“We have a generation that is more aware of what is happening in Puerto Rico because we are confronting a crisis that is right in our face, their definition of stability is not what we had in the past,” says Massol Deyá, the cool mountain air around him filled with melodious birdsong. “What they see is what we have right now has a lot of contradictions, and they don’t see a better future nearby.”

Formed by Massol Deyá’s parents in 1980 to oppose planned strip mining in the central mountains, in the ensuing years Casa Pueblo has grown into both a model of promoting self-sufficiency — from helping to install solar panels all over Adjuntas and beyond, to managing a forest, to tending to a butterfly garden — as well as a kind of signpost of resistance to the conniving designs of the politicians in San Juan and their off-island allies.

“The actual contradiction of the colonial relationship with the U.S. was meant to collapse, and what we are witnessing is its collapse,” Massol Deyá continues. “When you add that reality to what is happening with climate change and the consequences we are going through in the Caribbean, that model that has been imposed in Puerto Rico is our greatest weakness in confronting that reality. We are all about confronting that model of dependency.”

Driving away from Adjuntas, as one’s eyes take in the sight of horses grazing placidly in fields and gurgling mountain streams wreathed by lush greenery, one is reminded that Puerto Rico is not just acquisitive, avaricious politicians, hurricane winds, and angry protests. It’s also listening to the sound of the coquí frog serenading you as you stand with a Barrilito (Puerto Rican rum) in your hand under a sky full of stars in the clear air of cordillera central. It’s wading into the warm Caribbean Sea as the sun sinks fiery in the western sky. It’s the sound of plena played spontaneously outside a bar in Santurce. It’s stopping to feast on lechón in Guavate on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Somehow, amid all the struggle, these aspects of the island stubbornly endure.

One of the harbingers of change in Puerto Rico, elected to the Senate under the MVC’s banner, is Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, an Afro Puerto Rican attorney and member of the LGBTQ community who previously was the first Black woman to head the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico (CAPR), the island’s bar association. When I was writing this article, I asked her what the future held for Puerto Rico.

“The country is going through difficult times that we did not imagine we would have to face,” Rivera Lassén told me, reflexively referring, as many do, to Puerto Rico in national terms. “We have been hit by political storms such as the PROMESA law and the imposition of the fiscal control board, as well as the austerity measures, and we have suffered storms such as Irma and Maria, earthquakes, and now COVID-19. In all these moments, we see clearly the need to have a government that works and has adequate responses to these crises, but what we have seen is how corruption envelops [everything] and fills the country with helplessness.”

“Without a doubt, the country has to solve the status problem,” Rivera Lassén continued. “We need to build an inclusive country, a country that includes all of us. All of us.”


Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020: A Reporter’s Notebook of the Year That Never Was


For me, this past year began in January over the blue-green waters of the Caribbean, as my plane headed home from Panama to Puerto Rico. After a rumbling earthquake nearly thew me out of bed in San Juan a few days earlier, I had passed a few days in the beautiful Casco Viejo in Panama City, and before that in Georgetown, Guyana, where I had given a talk at a workshop for local journalists. I had never been to Guyana before but had always wanted to visit and its spicy mélange of Afro, Indian and indigenous cultures, its beautiful architecture and great spicy food was just to my taste. “Perhaps I’ll come back here later this year,” I thought. 

The world was all before where to choose, to paraphrase Milton. I had a series of lectures I was going to given in the United Kingdom for some badly-needed income, had planned a long reporting trip through Venezuela driving from Caracas to Maracaibo, was scheduled to house-sit for some friends in France’s divine Loire Valley and then was planning on moving to Lisbon by the end of the year, a return to Europe I had long hope to make real. 


It didn’t quite happen that way, and little did I know, when my plane landed in San Juan that would be the last time I would set foot off the island this year. As a cruel virus cascaded over the world, killing over 340,000 people in my native United States alone, we found ourselves confined to our apartments and houses for long periods of time, separate from our loved ones, apart but hopefully not completely alone, for the balance of the year. As a person whose professional life has been devoted to trying to illuminate for people the common humanity we all share, it was a hard slog, confined as I was to the streets of Viejo San Juan (where the neighborhood even lost Mimi, its most beloved street cat), at first utterly empty and since summer far-too-crowded with travelers, for the duration of the year, a year that somehow vanished into the ether, along with the lives of so many beautiful people.  


Coronavirus was not the only struggle the world faced in 2020. The appalling murder of George Floyd reenergized the Black Lives Matter movement in a profound way and spurred what I hope will be a more honest discussion about race and accountability, not just in the United States but beyond. Citizens in countries as disparate as Belarus, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela faced down the awful machinery of state repression as France continued to be stalked by jihadist terrorism and Haiti’s political and economic actors for the most part continued to flail at one another with little concern for their vulnerable people. Here in Puerto Rico, the political duopoly of the two main political parties was broken, but the corrupt system through which they rule seems to remain largely intact. 


But there were bright spots. Firstly, the red-hat wearing cult of the 45th president was vanquished in November, and my home state of Pennsylvania, which shamed me by voting for him in 2016, delivered the coup de grâce. Now all that’s left is to kick his political culture into the ditch where it belongs and cover it with dirt. A man and his criminal low travelers who caused so much misery for so many people will soon be gone from the White House. Secondly, a series of vaccines against the pandemic arrived, raising hope that life might return to some level of normalcy as 2021 progresses. 


And somehow, amid all the unreality of this year, I managed to start work on two new books, began a PhD and to publish the articles that I like to below.  


For me, 2020 will in many ways remain, in the words of the caraqueña band Desorden Público, el año que nunca fue (the year that never was), a strange pause in life between what came before and after. But I hope that, as the sun sets on this most difficult twelve months, it will rise on something brighter, gentler and more humane in 2021, and that I can see you all again very soon.

Y una a una las noches

entre nuestras ciudades separadas

se agregan a la noche que nos une


(And one by one the nights

between our separated cities

are joined to the night that unites us)

Love to you all from Puerto Rico,



Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads for Newlines Magazine (21 December 2020)

New Voices of Rebellion Rise in Cuba for Newlines Magazine (22 November 2020)

Mexico slams brakes on clean energy momentum for Energy Monitor (22 October 2020)

Colombia’s financial services industry flourishes despite domestic headwinds for Foreign Direct Investment (15 October 2020) 

Le rôle de la communauté internationale dans le royaume de l'impunité d'Haïti for Le Nouvelliste (24 September 2020)

Haiti’s long road to energy self-sufficiency for Energy Monitor (18 September 2020)

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Model Doesn’t Serve Its People for Foreign Policy (31 July 2020)

Dominican Republic: George Floyd protests spark reckoning with race as elections loom for The Guardian (15 June 2020)

Donde las vidas de los negros importaban primero en las Américas for El Nuevo Día (17 June 2020)

 'Our heritage is abandoned': burning of Haitian church fuels anger at politicians for The Guardian (17 April 2020)

Puerto Rico earthquakes are just the latest in a string of shocks for US island for The Guardian (12 January 2020)  


Michael Deibert speaking on impact of Tropical Storm Isaias in Puerto Rico on BBC World Service (31 July 2020)


L’église de Milot qui vient de prendre feu est un monument unique in Ayibo Post (13 April 2020)


Can Solar Energy Solve Puerto Rico's Energy Crisis? on The Takeaway (13 January 2020) 


Magnitude 6.4 Earthquake Rocks Puerto Rico on The Takeaway (7 January 2020)

Books in 2020: A Personal Selection

 Arrernte rain ceremony, Alice Springs, Central Australia, c. 1895-1901.


During this very strange year, these are some of the books the made the biggest impression on me. 


Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

A panoply of Bourbon-era France set in a Paris boardinghouse, this book introduces a cast of characters ranging from the devoted father Goriot to the aspirational law student Eugène de Rastignac to the cynic and fugitive convict Vautrin. Balzac casts a sceptical eye on the French capital and its moneyed inhabitants alluding to “the horror under the gold and the jewels” and that “at the bottom of every great fortune without apparent source, there’s always some crime, a crime overlooked because it’s been carried out respectably.”

The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest

This sprawling book, by perhaps the greatest historian writing in English on Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian Communism, is the story of how, through a thousand small compromises and miscalculations, the political class of a society allowed themselves to preside over the building of a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave below. Using the 1934 murder of Sergei Kirov as a pretext to begin mass purges and executions, Stalin was, as Conquest writes, “a monster who, while adhering to abstratct and fundemntally utopian ideas, in practice had no criterion but success – and that meant violence, and physical and spiritual extermination.” He was also a master at tricking his opponents into underestimating him, as “they could - and did - frequently delude themselves into thinking that he had submitted to the will of the politburo majority, and would henceforth be possible to work with.” Given the totalitarian flirtation the United States - through the skin of its teeth - is hopefully about to exit, it is good to remember Conquest’s observation that “Stalin required not only submission, but also complicity” in relation to all those who serve an authoritarian and are then smeared with a stain that will never wash off. Also, at a time when the hammer and sickle - a symbol that ought to be every bit as repellent in modern usage as the swastika - is thrown around by the Western pseudo-radical left as a kind of unlettered shorthand, this book is a good reminder for the grim human toll the disgraced fanaticism behind it exacted on the vulnerable. 

Assad or We Burn the Country by Sam Dagher

This book by a veteran Lebanese-American journalist paints a convincing portrait of Syria’s ruling family as little more than a remorseless criminal enterprise pillaging the Syrian state and picking its bones clean. The supposedly initial reformist instincts of Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad were nothing more than “the beautiful and shiny wrapping paper around what remained a regime of lies and terror on the inside.” A regime that exported terror abroad - almost certainly playing a role in the murders in Lebanon of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, journalist Gebran Tueni and academic Samir Kassir, allowing the rump of Saddam Hussein’s Baʽath party sanctuary in Syria after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and allowing fighters of what was the Al-Qaeda in Iraq to flow freely through the country - at home Assad Inc. became increasingly subservient to the empire-building designs of the mullahs in Iran after the 2006 Lebanon Israel War. Though the recollections of the book’s main source – former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard and Assad confidante Manaf Tlass, who defected from the regime in July 2012 – are clearly self-serving, they still give a fascinating window into the inner working of the corrupt, ruthless and deluded system that currently squats over Syria

In terms of the international community, there are the by now customary assortment of demented, regime apologists and hangers on - the Carmelite nun “Mother” Agnes Mariam, the French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan, Assad and Hezbollah defender Nir Rosen and the right-wing French politician Valérie Boyer - but there are also the United Nations officials and staff sitting breezily at the Four Seasons in Damascus as civilians are gassed and murdered by the regime merely miles away. United Nations official Yacoub El Hillo actually helps coaxe desperate, besieged civilians out of hiding in Homs only to have them disappeared by the regime, blithely dismissing criticism by saying “the UN is not the protector of Syrians in Syria.” There is the often-malevolent role of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And finally there is the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama, whose Syria policy - if it can even be called a policy - proved nothing short of disastrous. 

The failure of the U.S. to act following Assad’s chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta in August 2013, a military response to which had serious Turkish and French support but which died on the vine due to the Obama administration's feckless vacillation - remains a turning point in the war. The French especially, were also ready to support an American military punishment of Assad but Obama blinked. Many saw Obama’s indecisiveness in Syria as interpreted by Vladimir Putin as a sign that he could invade Ukraine at little political cost the following year. And in Syria itself, once the full measure of Obama’s weakness on the issue was assessed, regime atrocity followed regime atrocity and ISIS completed its takeover of Raqqa in January 2014 and took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, only six months later.

The book’s sharp analysis rather falters when confronted with the personality and highly questionable motives of Donald Trump - which it treats with far too much credulity - but overall it is a useful contribution to the literature chronicling a uniquely awful world leader. The regime did not derive “its strength from the army, government and other institutions found in normal states,” Dagher concludes. “In fact the underpinning of this regime were the family and clan, more than two million Alawaites, the Mukhabarat system, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Iran. Tens of thousands of soldiers and officers, a prime minister and other government officials ultimately defected, but all were peripheral to the regime. They were not part of its nerve center.”

Querelle by Jean Genet

An atmoospheric novel about a bisexual sailor, thief and serial killer in the French port city of Brest, this book provides a rich description of Brest and the carnival of the damned that inhabit Georges Querelle’s world.  Brest is “heavy yet luminous...A hard, solid city, built out of gray Breton granite... If Brest ever seems more lighthearted, it is when a feeble sun gilds the facades which are as noble as those of Venice, or when its narrow streets teem with carefree sailors – or, then, even when there is fog and rain.” Through such turns of phrase as describing a thug’s hand, festooned with rings, as “armored rather than ornamented,” Genet displays his ability to bring the denizens of the underworld to life for the reader in original and striking ways.

Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession by Barry Hill

A finely-researched and beautifully-written biography of Australian anthropologist Ted Strehlow, this 800 page book examines the dramatic story of his iconoclastic life along with some very important questions about the role of outsiders in vulnerable communities, how they interact with those communities, who has a right to knowledge and the nature of academic research.

In 2009, I spent several weeks traveling around the Northern Territory of Australia, which forms the basis of the book and much of Strehlow’s work, and it made a deep impression on me, from the intense physical beauty of the place, to the difficult circumstances which many local people lived in to the, to me, at least to me, extremely complex and hard-to-grasp cosmology of spiritual belief and language. 

Strehlow, on the other hand, was not an “outsider” to this region in the sense of many historians or anthropologists. He was born in Hermannsburg, also called Ntaria, and grew up trilingual, the son of a German Lutheran pastor and, in addition to German and English, Strehlow also became fluent in Arranda, the local indigenous language. After spending a decade in Adelaide, more than 1,500 miles to the south, he returned to Central Australia, His father had itemized hundreds of Aranda myths and recounted them by their aboriginal names and sometimes the places to watch the stories were connected. 

Only a few years before Strehlow’s father arrived, a pogrom had been launched against indigenous Australians in nearby Barrow Creek and where the remains of the Kaititya people could be uncovered in and around a locale dolorously named Skull Creek for decades. Press coverage of the violence, often instituted by marauding whites, verged on genocidal, referring to indigenous Australians as “wolves'' and “inhuman monsters'' who were “unfit to live.” In researching the history of this part of Australia, one comes across many Outback versions of Joseph Conrad’s Mister Kurtz. 

Strehlow, on the other hand, treated the indigenous culture with great respect, spending years transcribing Arranda songs and poems from older, initiated men that he feared might be lost and acquiring, in the process, hundreds of ceremonial objects known as tjurunga that the men, he insisted, had passed on to him in formal surrender ceremonies. He witnessed and recorded around 200 sacred ceremonies. 

As Hill writes 

The whole life of the region was, in a sense, conducted according to song, the secrets of which was central to the laws of the culture, so that existence was made to pivot on a stark contradiction: On the one hand a bare, elemental life; on the other one that thrived on an elaborate use of language. The whole region was animated by song that gave almost everything – fauna, flora, much of the typography - meanings. The train was a narrative, and songs, like rain, united the sky with the earth, and day with the stars of the night. The songs were important among the deeds to the land. To sing a song with the transmit proprietorial responsibilities to others. A song serves to locate men and women in totemic terms, and this in turn mapped individuals with regard to birthplace and place of conception. A man or a woman, and the clan to which they belong to, owned the song as they owned the land, rather in the spirit of copyright as it is understood today. They belong to the song and it’s country, as much as the singer’s voice belongs to his or her body.  Everything in the scheme of things was vitally, metaphysically connected. Spirit animated earth: the ground of life was valued as spirit.


In 1971, nearly 40 years after he began his initial research, Strehlow published his study of Aranda ceremonial poetry, Songs of Central Australia. Though mocked at the time by publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, it has since become seen as one of the great works of anthropology to emerge from the continent. 


Towards the end of the Strehlow’s life the question of ownership of the ceremonial objects he acquired became more complex, with younger indigenous representatives calling for the objects to be returned while Strehlow resisted, saying they had been entrusted to his care. As the book makes clear, Strehlow had strong grounds for distrust of any type of officialdom. 


After protracted negotiations that went beyond even Strehlow’s death in 1978, the objects are now housed at the Strehlow Research Centre Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. All in all a bracing biography about a compelling figure that raises many important questions. 

Dubliners by James Joyce

For me, one of the great short story collections of all time and somehow redolent of the fading light and low shadows of autumn, these finely-observed, tender portraits of the working class of Ireland in the early 1900s remain powerful even today.

Clasp by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

The first English-language collection of poems by the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, who had previously written exclusively in Gaelic, this is a volume that alternates between lyrical musings and a sometimes jarring attention to the corporeal world, often in highly musical languages Though many lines concentrate in issues of domesticity, just behind the veil there is a rustling of something more. “I’ve never been so far from home,writes the narrator of the poem Maeve in Chile. “No, I’ve never been so close.” 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads

December 21, 2020 

Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads

As Haiti veers from its constitutional path and armed gangs compete for power, its civil society persists in spite of the odds

By Michael Deibert

Newlines Magazine

(Please read original article here

At the end of November, a curious decree was published in Le Moniteur, the official journal of Haiti’s government. The edict announced the creation of a new security service, the Agence nationale d’intelligence (ANI). Answerable only to the president and immune from criminal charges without presidential approval, the ANI’s anonymous agents will be tasked with the “monitoring of individuals and groups liable to resort to violence and to undermine national security and social peace.”

A Caribbean nation of 11 million, sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti has rarely known a period free of political tumult in its 217-year history. The country was forged in the fires of the world’s only successful slave revolt. Marginalized by outside nations aghast at the thought of a Black republic, bedeviled by internecine political wars and repeated outside meddling (including a 1915 to 1934 military occupation by the United States), this nation of what the Haitian author Lyonel Trouillot called “the children of heroes” has not had an easy path.

Few periods, however, have been as tumultuous as the last year, as President Jovenel Moïse, in office since February 2017, has squared off against a fractious opposition that has thrown everything they have at him to drive him from power, without apparent effect.

From Haiti’s mist-shrouded mountains to its lush rice fields to its glistening tropical beaches, warring politicians now battle in a landscape of competing armed groups. The criminality and economic anguish they stalk are far from natural occurrences like the hurricanes that occasionally batter Haiti’s shores; they have been created by powerful people both within and beyond its borders.

Moïse, an agribusinessman known locally as Nèg Bannann (The Banana Man), won the presidency by gaining 55.60% of the vote in a crowded field in a November 2016 contest marked by feeble participation. The opposition’s earlier promise to wait for voters with “machetes and stones in hand” likely did not help turnout. With the vote overseen by an interim president and political rival — former senator Jocelerme Privert — it was the second attempt at holding a presidential ballot after the first attempt was shelved due to violence and allegations of fraud.

Running as the candidate for the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK) developed by former president and carnival singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, Moïse promised an aggressive infrastructure program to help revive Haiti’s economy, still struggling from January 2010’s devastating earthquake.

Despite the construction of miles of roads and the beginnings of an effort to restructure Haiti’s faltering energy grid, the reality has turned out somewhat differently. Moïse has been dogged by allegations of corruption related to his business dealings before becoming president. A 600-page audit of the Venezuelan low-cost oil program known as PetroCaribe claimed that firms linked to Moïse took part in an embezzlement scheme. Since 2018, a civil society movement under the slogan Kot kòb PetroCaribe a? (“Where is the PetroCaribe money?”) has demanded accountability for the funds, an end to corruption, and other government abuses.

Moïse denied links to the scandal and called on the Organization of American States to investigate, while frequently assailing what he charges is the “state capture” of Haiti’s resources by corrupt business elites and their political allies. Earlier this year, a government anti-corruption task force published a report which concluded that, between March 2019 and May 2020 alone, private oil companies operating in Haiti made $94 million in undue profits at the expense of the state.

After all eight members of Haiti’s Conseil électoral provisoire (CEP) resigned last July, Moïse created a new electoral council and unilaterally named its members. Many have been tasked with organizing local and federal elections and overseeing a commission to re-write Haiti’s often-criticized 1987 constitution. The new document is slated to be approved by a plebiscite, a move that left many stunned.

The president’s actions are “totally, wholly, bluntly unlawful,” says Georges Michel, a Haitian historian and constitutional expert. “It is a move towards arbitrary rule and dictatorship.”

Reached for comment, Haiti’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Claude Joseph said that the changes were needed, noting — correctly — that presidents have been left to govern by decree several times in recent years as legislative elections failed to occur on time. Joseph went on to say, “President Moïse has been absolutely clear that he will not stand for a second term. These reforms will serve no benefit to him but will pave the way for a functioning democratic government in Haiti.”

In fairness, Moïse’s aberrant actions have been equaled if not exceeded by those of his political opposition, a different breed entirely from his civil society opponents. They are a collection of men — for they are almost all men — who have developed reputations for themselves at home often at odds with how they wish to be perceived abroad.

Before the terms of most of its members expired in January, Haiti’s parliament was regularly unable to reach quorum because its members didn’t show up for work. In May 2019, rather than allow a vote on Moïse’s designate for interim prime minister, a group of opposition senators led by Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy, a former rapper turned politician, destroyed the meeting room. After Moïse nominated a Ministry of Finance official for the same post four months later, opposition politicians, again led by Don Kato, once more vandalized the parliamentary meeting hall. One of the president’s fiercest critics, the former senator Moïse Jean-Charles, recently demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy — a favorite target of opposition ire — and vowed to “dismantle this political class to make room for a new dynamic carried by young people.” This promise might have sounded more convincing were it not coming from a 53-year-old man who has not had a job outside of politics since the mid-1990s. In late 2019, an opposition-led armed strike forced the country to a standstill for weeks, further wounding an already grievously ill economy and achieving virtually nothing.

Another of Moïse’s many recent decrees seeks to classify protest strategies such as reducing freedom of movement on public roads as “terrorist acts,” punishable by up to 50 years in prison.

With many of their own families living safely abroad, Haiti’s political operators appear to hold fast to Satan’s maxim in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: It is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

As all of this goes on, Haiti’s security situation has disintegrated. In the space of a few days, kidnappers seized a young doctor from the Hôpital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti, a well-known guitarist from the group Strings, and the wife of the head of the Unité de sécurité générale du palais national (USGPN), the police unit directly responsible for the president’s personal security. Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper recently ran an account of one kidnapping victim that detailed how kidnappers possessed “heavy weapons, dozens of vehicles and government license plates,” performed reconnaissance on potential targets’ social media accounts and were able to open the phones of their victims without asking for security codes. In August, Monferrier Dorval, head of the Port-au-Prince bar association and a well-known attorney, was slain returning home, one of several such assassinations in recent months.

This landscape is even more dolorous when one pauses to consider that, in just over 25 years, Haiti has been host to the Mission civile internationale en Haïti (MICIVIH), the Mission des Nations unies en Haïti (MINUAH), the U.S.-led “Operation Uphold Democracy” in 1994, and, from 2004 to 2017, the Mission des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH), which eventually became the Bureau intégré des Nations unies en Haïti (BINUH), which is presiding over the current implosion.

As the political situation in Haiti has deteriorated, the role of the baz (base) — the armed groups in the country’s most impoverished quarters acting as a kind of netherworld of neighborhood protector, tax collector, muscle for political interests and freelance criminal — has grown to ever more powerful levels.

The baz are descendants of other irregular paramilitary forces in Haitian history — from the zinglin of the mid-1800s rule of Faustin Soulouque to l’armée souffrante of the renegade general Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau to the Tontons Macoutes of dictator François Duvalier. One can almost pinpoint when the baz, as a specific political modus operandi, overwhelmed Haiti’s democratic sector and began the slow, inexorable poisoning of its political system.

After returning in October 1994 from an exile during which hundreds (perhaps thousands) of his supporters were killed by the army and paramilitaries (some of whose leaders were on the payroll of the CIA), then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s first order of business was to disband the military that had overthrown him. He dissolved the military in April 1995 (which was illegal without a constitutional amendment, as the army was still enshrined in Article 263 of the Haitian constitution). With the creation of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH) the following month, many hoped for a more humane face of public security in Haiti.

The PNH faced a rough economic landscape, however. In 1995, as part of an IMF and World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment made with U.S. President Bill Clinton’s support, Haiti lowered tariffs on imported rice to 3% from 50%, quickly becoming the world’s fifth-largest importer of U.S. rice. The backbone of the Haitian economy, local rice could not compete with cheaper American imports, putting farmers out of work. Those who fled the countryside to the cities found few jobs waiting for them, as the early-1990s U.S. embargo that helped drive the military regime that had ousted Aristide also wrecked Haiti’s manufacturing base.

At a January 1996 meeting between the PNH and a gang that referred to itself as Lame Wouj (The Red Army) in the seaside slum of Cité Soleil, a young policewoman named Marie Christine Jeune criticized what she viewed as the president’s attempts to co-opt the nascent police force by suggesting it join forces with pro-government thugs. Two months later, a month after Aristide left office, Jeune was found slain. It was the beginning of a pattern of the killing of police officers who would not turn a blind eye to illegal armed actors that continues to this day.

That same year, Aristide founded the Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) party. In the years leading up to and beyond Aristide’s 2001 return to office, the party nurtured a network of armed supporters in marginalized communities. The network was referred to as chimere, after a mythical fire-breathing demon. Many of the leaders of these groups in Port-au-Prince had grown up in the orbit of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi home for street children. When I was living in Haiti between 2001 and 2004, a number of them became my friends. They would receive a little money for no-show jobs at state industries and, in return, were expected to enthusiastically demonstrate for the president and terrorize his opponents. They were in regular contact with the PNH. Almost none of these young men would make it out of their 20s alive.

Aristide was overthrown in February 2004 after months of massive street protests and an armed rebellion against his rule (a rebellion that began with the Lame Kanibal, a formerly loyal gang in the northern city of Gonaïves). After that, the young gunmen engaged in a brutal war of attrition against police, then under the command of Léon Charles (who would later be named as Haiti’s ambassador to the Organization of American States and was recently re-appointed by Moïse as head of the PNH), that became known as Operation Baghdad. Hundreds would die before some level of stability returned when an unelected interim government was replaced by René Préval, in his second turn at the helm of Haiti’s ship of state. Préval, between his inauguration in May 2006 and Haiti’s apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake, proved that he was Haiti’s wiliest and most able politician.

The only president in Haiti’s history who twice turned power over to a democratically elected successor, Préval – an agronomist by training – represented a figure in whom many sides of Haiti’s stratified nation, from the rich in their villas above Port-au-Prince to those in the slums, felt they had a representative. He managed to bring a measure of tranquility to the divided country, saying that Haiti was like a bottle that must rest on its broad base to be secure. If it rested on its narrow mouth (the presidency and the country’s elite), it would topple over and shatter.

When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, destroying much of the capital city and killing more than 300,000 people, Préval appeared at times paralyzed when faced with the massive task of rebuilding. After a fraught election during which the international community pressured him, and as with his 2006 win, street protests erupted when it looked like the leading candidate might be deprived of victory, Préval (who would die in March 2017) turned the presidency over to Michel Martelly in May 2011. Many among Martelly’s entourage, including some advisers, had either direct or family links to the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1971 until his overthrow in 1986.

Many foreign commentators on Haiti couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that a right-wing populist who had previously performed in drag and a diaper and had once released an album called “100% Kaka” could win a contest for the presidency. But the Haitian sociologist and former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Guy Alexandre, saw things much more clearly. He wrote that Martelly’s popularity was “explained by the frustration of the population and its rejection of Préval, who has not been able to manage the country after the earthquake… [Martelly] is backed by former Duvalierists and the youth of the popular classes for whom he represents a break with the traditional political system.”

A little over a year after his election, Martelly would form the PHTK, whose name — roughly translated as “Bald Headed Haitian Party” — referred to Martelly’s gleaming pate. Corruption and patronage flourished, and the PHTK would enthusiastically embrace the baz model, as had many other political parties as it metastasized throughout Haiti’s body politic.

In recent months, despite the revival of the Haitian army in 2017, two specific armed groups have risen to prominence as the government and its opponents prosecute their struggle for power.

Last year, while the government negotiated with the PNH over the police department’s desire to form a union, a gang calling itself Fantôme 509 (the country code for Haiti) and claiming to be dissident police began appearing at demonstrations. Though certainly dominated by current and former officers, there is some evidence that Fantôme 509 also struck an alliance with a gang operating out of the Village de Dieu slum. Appearing masked and frequently shooting in the air and at vehicles, Fantôme 509 is viewed widely as a wing of the opposition, and the rank-and-file PNH perceives the group’s members as outlaws.

On the opposite side is Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former officer in the PNH’s Unité Départementale pour le Maintien de l’Ordre (UDMO) who went rogue following a November 2017 PNH raid against a gang in the hillside slum of Grand Ravine during which at least two police officers and 10 civilians died. Part of a larger neighborhood called Martissant, Grand Ravine is a known opposition stronghold. About to be arrested amid an investigation of the civilian deaths, Chérizier instead retreated to his home base in the lower Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. He was subsequently linked to a 2018 massacre in the capital’s slum of La Saline that a United Nations report said left at least 26 people dead (a report by the Haitian human rights group Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, RNDDH, put the death toll at 71) and during which the U.N. alleged involvement by two then-government officials.

Chérizier held a press conference last June, dressed in a suit and carrying a machine gun, during which he announced the formation of the G9 an fanmi e alye, an alliance of armed groups around the city. A month later, G9-allied gunmen held a public demonstration in Port-au-Prince during which police did not intervene. Though Chérizier specifically stated that he was not “pro-government or pro-opposition,” many see the G9 as the government’s bludgeon to clear out potentially troublesome elements from opposition neighborhoods before as-yet-unscheduled elections are held. Speaking on Radio Métropole last month, Moïse said, “I have no connection with these bandits, I do not distribute money or weapons to them to maintain order in their neighborhood.”

On December 10, Cherizier and the two officials — Ministry of Interior functionary Fednel Monchery & former West Department delegate Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan — were sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for their alleged roles in the La Saline killings.

Many veteran observers feel the dynamic in Haiti with the armed groups has begun to shift in recent years, with the politicians no longer holding all the cards.

“Many of the gang leaders are very aware that they’re being used, and they want to start doing things for themselves, especially when it comes to the next elections,” says Louis-Henri Mars, the executive director of Lakou Lapè (“peaceful community” in Creole), a group that promotes non-violence and dialogue. Mars is the grandson of Haitian author Jean Price-Mars, one of the founders of the négritude movement of Black consciousness and has been involved working with the most marginalized communities in the capital for decades. “You’re not going to become mayor if the crew don’t say yes, you’re not going to become deputy.”

Earlier this month, the eminent Haitian jurist & homme politique Gérard Gourgue died at 95. Under the Duvalier dictatorship, he bravely created the Ligue haïtienne des droits humains, and was repeatedly beaten and harassed by the tyrannical security forces. He was briefly a member of the military-civilian junta after Duvalier’s fall in 1986, and his likely victory in 1987 presidential elections prompted the killing of voters in what became known as the Ruelle Vaillant massacre. Still opposed to tyranny into his 70s, Gourgue was a member of a wide-ranging opposition when Aristide began his drift toward dictatorship. He was briefly proclaimed “provisional president” in 2001, leading the school he ran to be attacked by Aristide partisans as students cowered inside.

Gourgue was one of the last of the all-but-vanished generation of democratic activists that I met during my first trips to Haiti in the 1990s, notable for their intellectual brilliance. There was the economist, author, and political militant Gérard Pierre-Charles. There was the former head of the Parti unifié des communistes haïtiens René Théodore. There was the ex-priest turned human rights champion Jean-Claude Bajeux, who had lost most of his family to Duvalierist terror. All have since gone to join to the ancestors

It is not easy to find these bright lights in Haiti’s political firmament anymore, but if one knows where to look, one can still find them in the country at large.

The impoverished Cité Soleil is often characterized as a place of violence, but it is a community where fishermen mend nets by the glittering Caribbean and delicately-dressed schoolchildren skip down dusty streets as residents struggle diligently to better their lives. In such communities, one finds groups like the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè and the Konbit Solèy Leve, which have tasked themselves to provide residents with a world-class library, which is already half-built. Further afield, one finds groups like the Asosyasyon Orijinè Granplenn in the northern community of Gros-Morne, which advocates for the interests of Haiti’s long-suffering peasants. In Haiti, even those with the most impetus to give up soldier on, often against extraordinary odds, chèche lavi (looking for life).

In an open letter in Le Nouvelliste published a few months ago, an eminence who even predated Gérard Gourgue’s generation, the 103-year-old author Odette Roy Fombrun, confessed to her compatriots, “I am sad to leave my country in tatters.”

She then went on to implore them to:

Rise to the level of true citizens by agreeing to make personal sacrifices in favor of the country, of political and economic stability, of the return to the constitutional path, and the strengthening of institutions. It is imperative to stop this descent into hell with the humility of each of us to recognize that, alone, not in small, dispersed groups, we can do nothing. …Wisdom and love of country require us to work together.

As they stand, daggers drawn, one hopes that Haiti’s political actors hear her plea.