Thursday, December 28, 2006

Haitian senator: Aristide party involved in kidnapping plague

As Haitian senator Gabriel Fortuné, speaking to Radio Metropole, fingers former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and sectors of his Fanmi Lavalas party as being behind the recent wave of kidnapping, Florida's CBS 4 aired grisly footage of several small children murdered by kidnappers after their families went to the police. Fortuné, who survived an attack that killed deputy Jean-Hubert Feuillé in 1995, was jailed without trial by Aristide for two weeks during the latter's second term in office in 2001, would appear to be responding to a threatening "message" distributed by Aristide's supporters in which the former president, with typical self-interested myopia and never mentioning the legitimate government of Haitian president René Préval, bemoaned his "presidential kidnapping" (i.e. his resignation and flight from the country) as the root of the current phenomenon. Haiti's Senate president Joseph Lambert, a member of Préval's own Lespwa party, likewise saluted the 22 December UN operation aimed at dislodging kidnappers from their base in Bois Neuf in the Cité Soleil shantytown.

Dear Haiti, may you have a better 2007.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fin de l'année review

Here is a quick review of some of the articles that I authored this year:

Accustomed to scandal in Newsday (March 6, 2006)

Drug gangs plague Rio's slums in the Washington Times (March 14, 2006)

Time to Support Haiti for the Henry Jackson Society (April 23, 2006)

Brazil stays in foreign investors’ good books in Foreign Direct Investment (August 01, 2006)

Storm of Killing in Neighbourhood Has Wide Implications for Nation for the Inter-Press Service (August 2, 2006)

As Annan Visits, UN Mission Seeks Reinforcements for the Inter-Press Service (August 3, 2006)

Underreported: An Update on Haiti on the Leonard Lopate Show (August 24, 2006)

Human rights, not politics, should be priority for Haiti for AlterPresse (September 12, 2006)

Grieving Father Takes on Police Impunity for the Inter-Press Service (September 25, 2006)

Hauling HIV/AIDS Out of the Closet for the Inter-Press Service (September 26, 2006)

Jamaicans hope to separate crime, politics in the Washington Times (October 3, 2006)

Death Penalty:Jamaicans Debate Re-introduction for the Inter-Press Service (October 6, 2006)

For U.S. Haitians, Home Is Both Near and Far Away for the Inter-Press Service (November 21, 2006)

Death Penalty: Victims' Families Weigh In on State Moratorium Debate for the Inter-Press Service (December 6, 2006)

And one article about my book:

Author gives insight into Haitian politics by Char Miller, special to the San Antonio Express-News (February 19, 2006)

Happy 2007, everyone!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

After a 2006 that was productive in many ways and left something to be desired in others, here is a wish to all for much contentment over this holiday season and much joy and fulfillment for 2007.

The world these days - in places like Haiti, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and here in the United States - is probably not the gentler, more humane, and less pointlessly brutal one that many of us had hoped for. I believe, though, that leaves us with no choice but to redouble our efforts to whatever our passions are in constructing a world that more accurately reflects the one we desire, savoring every moment as if it's our last because, as we have seen, someday it will be. You're all in my thoughts, as are the people in places like Martissant slum in Port-au-Prince, the little village of L'Estere where my car broke down in the Artibonite Valley one day and the residents of the Vigario Geral favela in Rio de Janeiro. All of them and many more have contributed to giving me a deeper, more profound appreciation for this world and the lives of those who inhabit it.

As I prepare to open up another chapter with my imminent departure to India, a sincere feliz ano novo to everyone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Response to Roberto Alvarez, Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the OAS

(I recently had an exchange of views with Roberto Alvarez, the Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the OAS, on the Dominican-issues discussion group moderated by author and journalist Michele Wucker. As it was an interesting opportunity to explore the thinking and rationale of the Dominican government with regards to their treatment of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, and as it took place in a semi-public forum, I thought I would re-post some of it here. While it would seem to me unfair to post Mr. Alvarez's original comments (they were, after all, made in a subscription-required-though-open-to-the-public forum), I think that I am within my rights to post my response, addressing as it does several of the contentions of the government of Dominican president Leonel Fernandez with regards to its treatment of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian-descent in that country, chiefly that demands that the Dominican state respect the decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I would stress, though, that I believe Mr. Alvarez is perfectly entitled to his opinions, and I, for one, would never attempt to silence them, no matter how disagreeable I may find some of their implications. Likewise, I am not casting aspersions on him as a person, but rather on the actions of the government he represents in an international capacity at the OAS. My response, with relevant links, is below.)

Michael Deibert, Journalist and Author, responds

I am glad that Roberto Alvarez - Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the OAS -has felt the need to step forward to put forth the Fernandez government's position on this issue. If Mr.Alvarez, an official representative of the Fernandez government, feels the need to respond in such a humble forum as ours, we must be having some kind of effect. Unfortunately, Mr. Alvarez's statements are but another attempt, in my view, to defend the indefensible, and to cast a sheen of legitimacy on apolicy that is not only inhumane, but illegal and detrimental to the long-term interests of the Dominican Republic to portray itself as a modern and stable member of the family of nations.

When Mr. Alvarez writes that "the IACHR did not order the Dominican government bestow Dominican nationality on anyone, regardless of what anyone may think," and then in his "summary" of the case writes that "the Dominican Supreme Courts decision of December 14th 2005 decided: first, that the Dominican Constitution does not grant Dominican nationality indiscriminately to all persons born in Dominican soil" he would appear to be trying to actually deflect attention away from the actual wording of the IACHR decision and the ways in which the government of the Dominican Republic was found in violation to an international pact - the American Convention on Human Rights "Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica" - to which it is a signatory.

As stated before, Article 11 of the Dominican constitution reads in the original Spanish as follows:

“Todas las personas que nacieren en el territorio dela República, con excepción de los hijos legítimos delos extranjeros residentes en el país enrepresentació n diplomática o los que están de tránsitoen él.”

Despite Alvarez's claims to the contrary, the actual official summary of the position of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights - which can be read here -states the following:

"On July 11, 2003, the Commission lodged an application with the Court against the Dominican Republic, in case 12,189, the first one ever brought to the Court against that country. The case is that of two young girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico. The Commission is asking the Court to find that theState’s international responsibility has been engaged by the fact that the Dominican authorities refused to grant Dominican citizenship to Dilcia Yean and VioletaBosico Cofi even though they were born within the territory of the Dominican Republic and the Dominican Republic recognizes the principle of jus soli. In view of the foregoing, the Commission asked the Court to declare a violation of the right to juridical personality, the right to a fair trial, the rights of the child, the right to nationality, the right to equality before the law, and the right to judicial protection, set forth respectively in Articles 3, 8,19, 20, 24, and 25 of the American Convention, in conjunction with Articles 1 and 2 thereof. "

The Court delivered its Judgment in the case on September 8, 2005. It began by dismissing the State’s three preliminary objections and went on to declare that the State had violated the right to nationality and the right to equality before the law, upheld in Articles 20 and 24 of the Convention, in relation to Article 19 and Article 1.1 thereof, to the detriment of the two girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico; it also found that the State had violated the right to juridical personality and the right to a name,recognized in Articles 3 and 18, respectively, in relation to Articles 19 and 1.1 of the Convention and to the detriment of the two young girls Dilcia Yeanand Violeta Bosico; it also ruled that the State had violated the right to humane treatment recognized in Article 5 of the Convention, in relation to Article1.1 thereof, to the detriment of Leonidas Oliven Yean,Tiramen Bosico Cofi and Teresa Tucent Mena."

The IACHR thus found the government of the Dominican Republic in violation of the following articles of the American Convention on Human Right "Pact of San Jose,Costa Rica" (which can be read here):

Article 3. Right to Juridical Personality "Every person has the right to recognition as a person before the law."

Article 5. Right to Humane Treatment “1. Every person has the right to have his physical,mental, and moral integrity respected. 2. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.3. Punishment shall not be extended to any person other than the criminal. 4. Accused persons shall,save in exceptional circumstances, be segregated from convicted persons, and shall be subject to separate treatment appropriate to their status as unconvicted persons. 5. Minors while subject to criminal proceedings shall be separated from adults and brought before specialized tribunals, as speedily as possible,so that they may be treated in accordance with their status as minors. 6. Punishments consisting of deprivation of liberty shall have as an essential aim the reform and social re adaptation of the prisoners.”

Article 19. Rights of the Child "Every minor child has the right to the measures of protection required by his condition as a minor on the part of his family, society, and the state."

Article 20. Right to Nationality "1.Every person has the right to a nationality. 2.Every person has the right to the nationality of the state in whose territory he was born if he does not have the right to any other nationality. 3. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality or of the right to change it."

Article 24. Right to Equal Protection "All persons are equal before the law. Consequently,they are entitled, without discrimination, to equal protection of the law."

Mr. Alvarez may thus find my statement that "the decision of the Supreme Court of the Dominican Republic...followed and came in direct contravention of the decision by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights Court (IACHR) of the Organization of American States(OAS) in September 2005" to be, in his words,"wrong" and "arrogant," but, alas for his argument, the evidence supports my position.

The treatment of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent by the government Mr. Alvarez represents has been not only "wrong" and "arrogant," but also brutal, stupid and against the long term interests of the Dominican Republic to establish itself as nation under the rule of law and a responsible member of the international community. It is a precedent which will be to the long-term detriment of all Dominicans,whether they are of Haitian or "Spanish" descent, ebony-hued or lily-white, rich or poor.

One need only to review , in addition to the IACHR decision, the statements of organizations such as Amnesty International, Christian Aid and Human Rights Watch over the last few years to see the effect this policy is having on an international level. In its April 2002 release "Dominican Republic: Deportations Conducted Unfairly," Human Rights Watch wrote "Targeted because their skin color is often darker, ‘Haitian-looking’ people are frequently deported to Haiti within hours of their detention,causing families to be separated and children to be left behind. Suspected undocumented Haitians -including Dominicans of Haitian descent - have no fair opportunity to challenge their expulsion." In her May 2006 open letter to President Fernandez, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan bemoaned the fact that "since May 2005, Haitian and Dominicans of Haitian descent have been subjected to collective and arbitrary expulsions by the Dominican authorities in violation of the Dominican Republic’s obligations under international standards including the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights." In its October 2006 release "Christian Aid protests human rights abuses against Haitian migrants," the UK-based Christian Aid wrote that "numerous cases have been documented in which immigration officials have broken into homes and forced people at gunpoint onto buses giving them no chance to collect documents or inform relatives. When they reach the Haitian side of the border, many have been able to prove that they were in the Dominican Republic legally.”

I fear that this issue will follow Mr Alvarez's and Mr. Fernandez's every step until the government of the Dominican Republic chooses to acknowledge the fundamental rights and humanity of all its citizens,not just those with access to the levers of power.

In closing I would like to say that I thank Mr.Alvarez for giving me this opportunity to address in some detail the Dominican government's rather tortured logic on this situation. In the face of the seemingly endless march of violence in Haiti, and the equally endless assault on the rights of the disenfranchised we are currently watching in the Dominican Republic,those of us who love those two countries can often feel powerless to effect change in the face of such brutal machinery. As Graham Greene once wrote, though, perhaps after all "a writer is not so powerless as he usually feels, and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood."


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The passing of a tyrant

The Economist has an unusually eloquent epitaph to the life of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, and who died last weekend. "No ifs or buts," the article states. "Whatever the general did for the economy, he was a bad man." Quite so. Read the piece here.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Senator is kidnapped, then escapes

The kidnapping scourge that has plagued Haiti reached a new peak this week with not only the kidnapping of some 20 schoolchildren (nine of whom were subsequently freed) but also the kidnapping Friday night and escape of Haitian senator Andris Riché, who represent the Organisation du Peuple en Lutte (OPL) for the Grand Anse department. Riché was kidnapped off the capital's Route Nationale #1 near the Cité Soleil bidonville, reports said, and bore signs of grave ill-treatment by his captors. Two others kidnapped with Riché are said to remain missing. With the Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH) presence in Haiti now going on for three years, one wonders what if any plan the U.N. has to address this spiraling violence and insecurity, which plagues no sector in Haiti so much as it does the poor.

James Petit-Frere and his child, Cité Soleil, summer 2002.

It was the summer of 2002 and we had left a meeting of gang members working with the Aristide government in the Cité Soleil shantytown in Port-au-Prince. I was heavily dispirited by what they had to tell me about their direct and often brutal relationship with country's ruling regime at the time, a feeling that was not lifted as we walked down rubbish-strewn lanes with James to visit his wife and child.

“One day, man, I’d like to be able to give up this politics,” James told me, as we picked our way down a hill of shacks and were met by naked, laughing children. “If not, I’ll die and I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

“You know, my mother died in ‘91 and (the paramilitary) FRAPH kidnapped my father in 1994 and killed him, too,” he said, looking down at the child in his arms. “I’ve done too much work for politics. Now, too many people hate me, and they hate what I say. But it’s for this I try to help my little son, so we can arrive at a new place.”

James was a dear friend and, from all accounts, was murdered by Haitian police in 2005. Among the many human faces that the cycle of violence that is eating Haiti alive has, these are two, father and child. Once we peel off the labels - pep la or bourgeois, blan or Haitian, man or woman - this is the humanity that we all share.

A shame that we treat it so lightly.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

H.O.P.E. for Haiti

Last week, after years of inaction, the United States House of Representatives finally passed H.R. 6406, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (H.O.P.E.) Act by a vote of a 212-184. Supporters, including California Republican Bill Thomas (whose voting record I disagree with on many other issues) and Florida Democratic Representative Kendrick B. Meek (who I often concur with), say that the bill has the potential to create tens of thousands of new jobs in the Haitian textile industry, no small thing in a place where two-thirds of the labor force has no formal employment. The bill, which allows certain types of apparel assembled in Haiti to be brought into the States duty-free even if the materials originate a third country, now moves to the Senate

With support from a broad range of U.S. corporations, church groups (the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the United Methodist Church, to name a few) and the government of Haitian president René Préval, the bill nevertheless faces fierce opposition from the U.S. textile industry. My fervent desire is that this opposition will not succeed in scuttling what for Haiti is a desperately needed lifeline. H.O.P.E., which is a watered-down version of the Haitian Economy Recovery Opportunity (H.E.R.O.) Act, may be but a tiny step in the right direction of trying to revive Haiti‘s economy, but you take your signs of hope, pun unavoidable, where you can get them..

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pinochet: Justice delayed was justice denied

The death of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on Sunday, eight years after his arrest on an international warrant in London in 1998, but before any trial where Pinochet was held accountable for crimes his government committed during its 1973-1990, was a final slap in the face of the estimated 3,000 people killed or disappeared and 28,000 tortured during the regime's tenure. The death of Pinochet, coming on the heels of the March 2006 death of former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic before a resolution in the latter's war crimes trial at the Hague for actions taken during the Bosnian wars of the 1990s, should serve as a reminder to people of the toll on historical memory when, as Chilean human rights lawyer Hugo Gutierrez, said, "(the) criminal has departed without ever being sentenced for all the acts he was responsible for."

The cases still pending are a myriad: That of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, whose1982–1983 military regime killed tens of thousands of people, many of them from Guatemala's indigenous population, many of them civilians, and who has never seen trial for those acts; the former officials of the government of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who oversaw several massacres of government opponents in Haiti during its 2001-2004 existence (the most notorious being that in the northern city of Saint-Marc in February 2004), hundreds of politically-related murders and illegal detentions and the illegal arming and organizing of civilian gangs; in our own nation, officials from George W. Bush on down have yet to face trial for waging an illegal war based on a foundation of lies in Iraq, overseeing the use of torture and illegal detention and leaving the citizens of New Orleans to drown during Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005.

As I have written before, at moments like this, I recall Eric Pierre, a 27-year-old medical student from the southern Haitian town of Jacmel, who was shot and killed while leaving the Faculté de Medicine in Port-au-Prince on 7 January 2003 by attackers who fled the scene in a car with official TELECO plates. In a notebook of his thoughts Pierre was carrying at the time, there was written the following words:

Justice, quand?

Préval to return to Cuba for cancer tests

The Associated Press’ Stevenson Jacobs is reporting from Port-au-Prince that Haitian President René Préval will venture back to Cuba, from where he just returned, after Christmas for further medical tests, as blood tests conducted there have thus far shown possible signs of cancer. Saying that he felt “physically and mentally well," Préval said that it was too early to determine whether the cancer he had been treated for following the end of his first mandate in 2001 had returned. Not surprisingly, in Haiti, still wracked by bloodshed, kidnapping and environmental devastation, the news has been received with much worried speculation

For my part, honestly, the news that Préval might be ill fills me with dread, as all of the jackals waiting to feast on the meager remains of Haiti and their foreign lackeys are looking for just such an opportunity to capitalize on any perceived sign on instability, hesitancy or weakness on the part of his government.

All one can do, I suppose, is hope and pray that even Haiti’s luck is not this bad.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Death Penalty: Victims' Families Weigh In on State Moratorium Debate

My latest article for the Inter-Press Service, on the current study of and debating regarding the ramifications of capital punishment in the state of New Jersey, can be read here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Speculation grows about Préval’s health

Following an announcement by Haitian President René Préval’s advisor Fritz Longchamp that the president has returned to Cuba for an undisclosed series of medical “tests,” concern has grown in Haiti about the president’s health. Préval’s return to Haiti’s island neighbor comes less than a week after he celebrated Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday along with a host of other Latin American leaders in Havana’s Revolution Square.

Rumors of ill health have dogged the Haitian president since his return to office this May, likely linked to the fact that he was treated for prostate cancer in Cuba once before after he left office following his first mandate in 2001. One can only hope that the whispers are only the rumors of Haiti’s well-oiled gossip mill as, however effective or ineffective Préval has been since return to office, any leadership crisis in the political scene at this point could only spell more chaos and bloodshed for the long-suffering Haitian people.

The news comes the day that the New York Daily News, of all places, reported that Préval intends to marry Elisabeth Delatour Debrosse. If true, it would be the third marriage for Préval, and would not appear to be a decision taken by a man in faltering health.

Time will tell, but one must certainly wish that Haiti's old "no smoke without fire" proverb is proved fase in this case.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Haiti votes, Martissant bleeds

On Sunday, Haiti’s local elections came to pass, and, despite the ongoing march of violence in the capital, Port-au-Prince, things seem to have remained relatively peacefully in the rest of the country. Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, though, said he was surprised by the "feeble" participation of the public in the ballot, the last of Haiti's electoral year. One person was slain in an apparently electoral-related killing in the northern town of Limonade and there were also reports of political gangs brawling in the Artibonite town of Marchand-Dessalines and the southern hamlet of Mapou.

In an act that will likely have graver implications, however, on election day André Jean-Noël, an officer of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH), was shot in the head and killed on Avenue Bolosse in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant, where I interviewed survivors of bloody gang warfare this past July, and where an appalling cycle of tit-for-tat murder continues to this day.

Following Noël’s killing, gunmen, evidently working at the behest of a local gang called Base Pilate and, some reports spectulate, taking retaliation for the murder, shot dead at least four people in the same area. With the war between gangs in the Grand Ravine, Ti Bois and Descartes areas of Martissant continuing, the merciless campaign for power in the neighborhood between the Ti Bois-based Lame Ti Manchèt, the Base Pilate and several other gangs in the vicinity shows no sign of letting up, in a story that is shaping up to be one of the great tragedies of René Préval’s second administration and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) . As if to complete the tableau of percolating anarchy and insecurity, over 30 prisoners succeeded in escaping from the capital’s Pénitencier nationale on Monday afternoon.

My one question to those voted into office in February’s presidential and legislative elections and those voted into office this past Sunday: Will anyone hear the cries of the victims of Martissant?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Quite a quartet...

Cuba's acting president, Raul Castro, left, brother of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, talks with Bolivian President Evo Morales, Haitian President René Préval, and Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega during a military parade along the Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Brignol Lindor: Cinq ans après

Around this time five years ago, I was beginning my stint as the Reuters correspondent in Port-au-Prince. One of the first big stories that I covered was that of the murder of Haitian radio journalist Brignol Lindor by a gang named Domi Nan Bwa (Sleeping in the Woods), who were loyal to then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

On December 3, 2001, Lindor, the news director of Radio Echo 2000 in the provincial town of Ti Goave was macheted and beaten to death by Domi Nan Bwa members following a similar though non-lethal attack against Domi Nan Bwa member Joseph Céus Duverger (in which Lindor had no involvement). Lindor’s radio program “Dialogue” though, which often featured speakers strongly denouncing the Aristide government and local officials, had drawn the ire of Petit Goave’s mayor, Dume Bony, a member of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas political party, who had held a press conference immediately preceding the killing and, seated next to Domi Nan Bwa’s leader Raymond Jean Fleury, called for the application of “zero tolerance” to be directed at Lindor.

And so Brignol Lindor was murdered. His funeral a week later (which I witnessed first-hand) was one of the first major expressions of popular outrage at the Aristide government, with thousands of angry protesters flooding Petit Goave’s narrow streets to denounce the killing and call for justice for Lindor and his family. The funeral was interrupted several times by police opening fire on the periphery of the crowd.

Now, five years later, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans frontières has sent an open letter to Haitian president René Préval and public prosecutor at the Port-au-Prince court Claudy Gassant asking that after “five years of judicial paralysis and intervene so that a new investigating judge may be appointed to this case as soon as possible."

"We are aware of the enormous challenge that the reconstruction of an honest and effective judicial system represents in Haiti,“ the letter continues eloquently. “This process will not be able to take place if Lindor's murder remains unpunished.”

Remember Brignol Lindor.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Michael Bloomberg’s Unseemly Companions

Earlier this month, while taking him to task for the out-of-control building spree currently affecting north Brooklyn, I opined that, despite my criticism, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has, in my view, thus far largely been a good mayor for the city. That is a judgment I may have to re-examine given Mayor Bloomberg's pandering response in the wake of the shooting of 23 year-old Sean Bell outside of a Queens strip club early Saturday morning.

To be sure, something went terribly wrong in those early morning hours outside of Club Kalua on 94th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. Police fired 50 rounds at a car of unarmed men departing a late-night bachelor party, hitting the vehicle 21 times. The shooting apparently stemmed from undercover police surveillance of the club and followed what officers and witnesses said was the vehicle's ramming of an undercover officer and an unmarked NYPD minivan. Sean Bell, who was to be married that day, was killed, while front-seat passenger Joseph Guzman was shot at least 11 times and back-seat passenger Trent Benefield was shot three times. The most complete account I have found of what allegedly happened was penned by Newsday correspondent Deborah S. Morris. Quoting New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly that the nightclub in question "had a chronic history of narcotics, prostitution and weapons complaints," and that the three men who were shot were moments before involved in street altercation where one of them - Guzman - made reference to a firearm.

Even if all of this turns out to be the case, Queens district attorney Richard A. Brown will almost certainly and absolutely should impanel a grand jury to uncover what lead to such an overwhelming and deadly display of violence on the part of the police, and to punish any officers who are found to have acted in violation of the law. Of the NYPD officers who opened fire on the African-American Mr. Bell’s car, their racial make-up is mixed: two are black, one is Hispanic and two are white.

However, when Mayor Bloomberg addressed reporters yesterday flanked by the Reverend Al Sharpton and City Councilmen Charles Barron, and pronounced that "to me that (shooting) sounds excessive and unacceptable," before any investigation had taken place, he appeared to be catering to the lowest common denominator of New York city's political landscape. Despite the presence of decent public servants such as Queens councilman Leroy G. Comrie, Jr. (who did, however, go along with the city council's recent 25 percent pay raise for what is a part-time job), the presence of Sharpton and Barron on any mayoral platform should be a cause for shame and reflection among all New Yorkers.

Who can forget Sharpton's cynical exploitation of Tawana Brawley in 1987, or his conviction in 1998 for making defamatory statements against former Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones in connection with that case? In 1987, Brawley was found naked inside a garbage bag, smeared with dog feces and with racial epithets written on her body, four days after disappearing from home. Though Brawely initially contended that a gang of white law enforcement officers had abducted and raped her, a grand jury declared that the entire story was a hoax. Not before Sharpton, though, as well as attorneys Alton H. Maddox, Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, made statements claiming that Pagones was among those who had assaulted Brawley. Alton H. Maddox, Jr. and C. Vernon Mason were later convicted along with Sharpton, and also disbarred for good measure. Sharpton was found liable for $65,000 of the total damages and, not willing to reach into his own pockets, had an acquaintance pay the penalty. If such a man wants to be a service to his community, humbly attempting to rebuild his reputation at ground-level rather than political grandstanding for personal gain might be a good place to start but, of course, that is not the Sharpton way.

For his part, Charles Barron has marked out a career as probably one of the most morally bankrupt public officials in the United States, which is quite something given the current gang running Washington. In September 2002, Barron welcomed Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe to City Hall here in New York, apparently pleased with the rapes and murders that Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party have been committing against poor blacks and white farmers alike in that African nation.

Perhaps Barron's fêting of the pitiless despot Mugabe gave the latter the necessary energy to return to Zimbabwe and embark on Operation Murambatsvina - Operation Drive Out Trash - which, as The Guardian in 2005 described thusly:

Zimbabwe's police have used sledgehammers and bulldozers to reduce brick homes to rubble, and they have torched flimsy shacks. At the same time, thousands of informal businesses have been destroyed, with more than 20,000 traders arrested, their possessions smashed or irretrievably confiscated by those entrusted to uphold the law...The onslaught came like a military raid with overtones of a Zimbabwean Kristallnacht. As on November 9 1938, when rampaging Nazi mobs violently destroyed Jewish properties and businesses, the Zimbabwean police have completely disregarded the law, focusing instead on wholesale destruction.

The campaign was also described as "slow genocide by bulldozer," and Amnesty International described "heart-wrenching scenes of ordinary Zimbabweans who have had their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed crying on the street in utter disbelief."

Whatever his motivations, it is also bitterly ironic that Bloomberg's pandering to a convicted criminal like Sharpton and a supporter of tyranny like Barron occurs on the same week that Staten Island drug dealer Ronell Wilson finally goes on trial for the March 2003 murder of two black New York City policemen, Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin (a native of Haiti), both executed with shots to the head from a .44-caliber handgun. Following the murders, neither Sharpton nor Barron could bring themselves to express condolences to the victims' families, nor could they bring themselves to muster any outrage at the execution of two men. The pair maintained, as one critic put it, "a perfect silence" in the face of a killing of exactly the kind of officers that the NYPD needs more of, officers of color with roots in and an understanding of urban communities.

I will still keep an open mind and hope that Bloomberg recovers some of the backbone that he has demonstrated in breaking with his own Republican party over issues as diverse as gun control, abortion and the share New York City should get from the nation's anti-terrorism budget. But it would be hard not to argue that, this week, Bloomberg reached the absolute nadir of his term as mayor thus far.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Violence threatens to blow away Haiti’s fragile democratic gains

Following two shocking recent murders in Haiti of 20 year-old university student Farah Natacha Kerby Dessources and 6 year-old Carl Rubens Francillon, coming as they do on the heels of the grinding march of violence in the Martissant neighborhood, which began in July and seems to show no signs of abating, the tenure of Haiti’s president René Préval appears to be entering a new phase. Unfortunately it seems to be one which is dominated by fears of insecurity as opposed to hope that Haiti’s democratically-elected president and parliament (installed in May) will be able to rapidly turn the country around from its path of political violence and economic exclusion.

Haiti had no longer attempted to recover from Natacha Kerby’s slaying - which found the first year student at l’Ecole Normale St-Louis de Gonzague kidnapped, horrifically tortured and thrown onto a rubbish pile - than young Rubens Francillon was kidnapped from his school in the capital’s neighborhood of Turgeau on November 8th and found strangled outside of the northern city of Cap-Haïtien this weekend.

At Farah Natacha Kerby’s funeral in Haiti’s capital on Port-au-Prince on Saturday at the Pax Villa Sainte-Anne downtown, a demonstration of several hundred people lead by former student leader Josué Mérilien and Rosemond Jean, the former head of the Coordination National des Sociétaires Victimes (CONASOVIC), marched to Haiti’s National Palace and chanted that Préval himself “an accomplice with criminals,” a charge that, however unlikely, gives a glimpse as to the sense of exasperation Haiti’s urban population feels with violence that has continued to claim lives despite a new government with extensive foreign support. Given Mérilien’s and Jean’s years of street-level organizing, this could represent a significant moment in its relations with a population that, on many sides, have grown weary of being victimized with impunity by criminals and criminal-political actors (the two vocations often being interlinked in Haiti).

Haiti’s urban population is not alone. Recently, the Plateforme nationale des organisations paysannes haïtiennes (PLANOPA), meeting at the peasant bastion of Papaye in Haiti’s Plateau Central region, assailed the Préval government for what the organization charges was a lackadaisical approach to combating Haiti’s insecurity.

One hopes for the best, but I fear that things are about to get quite a bit darker before they get any better.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

For U.S. Haitians, Home Is Both Near and Far Away

My most recent article for the Inter-Press Service, For U.S. Haitians, Home Is Both Near and Far Away, which contains interviews with Roman Catholic Bishop Guy Sansaricq and members of the Consortium for Haitian Empowerment (CHE), can be read here.

Meanwhile, back in Haiti itself, Wilkens, the Martissant gang leader I interviewed back in July of this year, appears to have been grievously wounded along with over a dozen other people - in addition to three people killed - in that neighborhood this week.

"A welter of tears and vodka..."

This past weekend, while venturing around New York with a friend visiting from London, I stumbled upon an excellent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, titled Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, is a retrospective featuring portraits from Germany’s Weimar Republic era, which lasted from 1919 until 1933, including sketches and paintings by such top-flights artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Christian Schad. Often depicting obese war profiteers, disfigured soldiers, fascist demagogues, kohl-eyed wantons and other iconic images from a Germany that was staggering towards the dual disasters of a Nazi government and World War II, the show’s visual portrait of a country in freefall serves as an excellent compliment to Otto Friedrich’s gripping history of that era, Before the Deluge, which remains, along with Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, as probably the best record we have of Germany between the wars.

Particularly outstanding is the series in the show from the Dadaist/Expressionist painter George Grosz, who volunteered for the German army in 1914 only to be deeply disillusioned with what he later referred to as “the mass intoxication.” Discharged in 1915 and drafted again in 1917, Grosz subsequently suffered a mental breakdown and was almost shot as a “deserter” before being permanently discharged through the intervention of the eminent patron of the arts and diarist Count Harry Kessler.

This show includes some of Groz’s most scathing work, including Eclipse of the Sun, depicting a rotund Paul von Hindenburg (World War I field marshal and second president of the Weimar Republic) and a group of headless ministers conspiring around a table, as well as Pillars of Society, which mercilessly lambastes the Nazis, the Socialists and the church.

When one reviews these haunting and visceral paintings, it is hard not to recall Count Kessler’s words upon hearing of the terms of Germany’s “peace” with France in January 1920:

Today the Peace Treaty was ratified at Paris; the War is over. A terrible era begins for Europe, like the gathering of clouds before a storm, and it will end in an explosion probably still more terrible than that of the World War.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bonnes nouvelles

It appears that the Inter-American Development Bank has agreed to forgive Haiti's debt to that entity, along with the debts of Bolivia, Guyana, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"The general human rights situation under the administration of the transitional government was catastrophic."

Chronicling a grim roll call of murder, rape and wanton destruction descending upon the Haitian people from a variety of actors, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) report, February 2004 – June 2006: Overview of the General Human Rights Situation in Haiti During the Interim Government, represents perhaps one of the most thorough accountings yet of the situation René Préval inherited when he assumed Haiti's presidency in May. Among that tableau was the murder of 1,821 civilians, 108 police officers and 10 United Nations soldiers.

"Even if the interim government was not the direct source of the political violence," the report states (a statement I, for one, find highly problematic). "It is evident that they failed in their mission to guarantee the population’s right to life and security. They could not prevent the degeneration of the lawless zones in the metropolitan areas where gang leaders practiced the worst violent acts on the population.”

"The general human rights situation under the administration of the transitional government was catastrophic," the report, whose findings more or less line up with those of Haiti’s Commission Episcopale Nationale Justice et Paix (which counted 2506 dead victims of violence during the 47 months it has been operating), goes on.

The farcical acquittals of Louis-Jodel Chamblain, the exoneration of all suspects in the 1994 slaying of Father Jean-Marie Vincent, the failure to pursue the investigations into the murder of Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint and the fact that 86% of Haiti's prison population was (and is) held without the benefit of a trial are all cited as part of the interim government's failure. As well as, in the report's words, the fact that "the Haitian National Police (PNH) was implicated in a number of human rights violations: summary executions, kidnapping, drugs, corruption, and many other exactions." Unfortunately, the report does little to shed light on the details of the fact that the PNH regularly summarily executed individuals they, rightly or wrongly, suspected of involvement with the pro-Aristide gangs that were terrorizing the capital.

The report does, however, allude to one of the era's darkest incidents, the burning by gangsters of the Tête Boeuf Market in Port-au-Prince in May 2005, which killed seven people, and which lead to a call by four of Haiti's most politically progressive organizations - the Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatries et Refugies (GARR), the Platforme Haitienne de Plaidoyer pour un Developpement Alternatif (PAPDA), Solidarite Famn Ayisyen (SOFA) and Centre National et International de Documentation et d’Information de la Femme en Haiti (EnfoFanm) - that former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide be judged for what they called his crimes against the Haitian people.

Meanwhile, proving that short-sighted self-interest is not limited to developing nations, New York's City Council yesterday voted itself a 25 percent pay raise for its part-time job, with council members now having to stagger along with a mere (!) $112,500 a year, which doesn't even include the lucrative stipends — known as lulus — that are given as perks to committee chairmen and other Council leaders which often total tens of thousands of dollars a year.

In a city where one in five live in poverty, City Council speaker Christine Quinn has proven herself to be just as corrupt, cronyistic and self-interested as any who have come before her. Perhaps the only council members who came off looking not like a bunch of overpaid, crapulent babies were Queens council members Tony Avella and Hiram Monserrate, Staten Island members Andrew J. Lanza and Michael E. McMahon and Brooklyn member Darlene Mealy, all of whom voted against the measure. Avella, for his part, stated that "it is unethical for this body to vote itself a raise,” as indeed it is.

The New York City Council and Christine Quinn should be ashamed of themselves and I for one hope voters remember this moment come next election time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

As Fernández addresses Washington, expulsions of Haitians continue in DR

Haiti’s Radio Kiskeya yesterday reported that more than 800 Haitians have been deported from the Dominican Republic in the preceding four days, bringing the total of Haitians, legal and illegal, deported from that country this year to over 25,000. As I demonstrated in my June 2005 article for Newsday, “Thousands of Haitians are expelled by Dominicans,” these expulsions are often carried out in an extremely brutal and arbitrary fashion and often respect neither the letter nor the sprit of Dominican law and the statutes it sets down for immigration, repatriation and appeal.

As these actions were taking place, Dominican President Leonel Fernández, in statements made at Counterpart International's headquarters in Washington DC, said that, regarding Haiti’s security and economic development, that Haitian President René Préval "cannot do it alone ... we hope Haiti can turn around economically. There is a need for infrastructure. The World Bank and the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) need to perform on their pledges for Haiti."

Of course, who could argue with that? But who could also argue that Fernández, who rode a wave of such hope and optimism to victory in the Dominican elections of 2004, has played a rather cynical and double game when it comes to the Haitian question in the Dominican Republic, talking of development on the international stage while at home presiding over a sustained campaign targeting Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans with little or no regard for due process or human rights, dubbed Operation Vaquero (Operation Cowboy), an ugly moniker which speaks of the de-humanization that Haitians working the Dominican Republic are subjected to by politicians and officials at the local level. It is a trend that Fernández himself has, at best, passively presided over and at worst actively encouraged, though the jury is still out on that one.

The Dominican Republic and Haiti need to address their linked destinies in an honest and non-demagogic way. For Haiti, that means that its political class will have to behave in a responsible and competent way that it has never seemed to master in the country’s 200 year history, so more Haitians are not forced to seek economic sustenance in neighboring countries where they are met by exploitation, brutality and racism. For the Dominican government, it means not wearing one face abroad, where it talks of development and the international interest, and another at home, where it is content to fan the flames of xenophobia and bigotry as a diversion from its own failings.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Fleeing a sinking ship?

An excellent article earlier this week by the New York investigative journalist Lucy Komisar revealed that five prominent Republicans have resigned from the board of a telecom company accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Former Minnesota senator Rudy Boschwitz, former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, former Washington senator Thomas Slade Gorton III, former NewYork congressman and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Ronald Reagan Jeane Kirkpatrick were not included among nominees on the proxy statement filedby the IDT telecom company with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Oct. 30, the article states.

IDT has been the focus of bribery charges centered around Aristide's second term in office from 2001 until 2004, alleging that the Haitian president took hundreds of thousands of kickbacks in money that should have been deposited in Haiti's meager treasury, in exchange for giving IDT a favorable rate on international calls. A former IDT executive, Michael Jewett, claims the he refused to go along with the scheme and was fired for his trouble. Jewett, who sued IDT in October 2005 for wrongful dismissal, charges that the deal enabled several North American companies (including IDT) to operate in Haitifor a cut-rate fee of nine cents per minute, three cents of which promptly disappeared into an Aristide shell company called Mont Salem set up in Turks and Caicos, as opposed to going to TELECO, the Haitian state telephone company, where the money belonged.

Two fairly disturbing bits of news, this time out of Egypt and Kenya. This morning while listening to the BBC, I heard a piece chronicling yesterday’s demonstration by women in Cairo held to protest a series of sexual assaults that took place against women there during the recent Eid el Adha (the feastof the sacrifice), which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Witnesses also charge that Egyptian police did nothing to defend the women. Evidently filmmaker and activist Sherif Sadek documented something very similar in January 2006.

And, in a chilling echo of the violence that has depopulated the Martissant neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, residents of Nairobi’s Mathare shantytown have fled an explosion of gang violence that has killed nearly a dozen people in the last week. An article by the Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman asserts that what “began with a bootlegging dispute…has been fueled by ethnic rivalry,” with the two criminal, quasi-religious gangs at each others throats being members of the country’s Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

On the results of the mid-term elections

Well, you won’t have Senator Man-on-Dog to kick around anymore. For the first time in 12 years, the Democrats succeeded in gaining control of the House of Representatives and scored significant victories in the Senate, which hangs in the balance as I type this. The jury remains out on whether or not former Secretary of the Navy James Webb has triumphed over Virginia Senator George “macaca” Allen, but Rick Santorum, senator from my native state of Pennsylvania, has mercifully been removed from the national stage. Readers may remember Santorum from this immortal exchange with an Associated Press reporter in 2003:

SANTORUM: Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. … It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality —

AP: I'm sorry, I didn't think I was going to talk about "man on dog" with a United States senator, it's sort of freaking me out.

SANTORUM: And that's sort of where we are in today's world, unfortunately.

South Dakota voters also rejected a sweeping abortion ban, approved by the state legislature to outlaw all abortions except in cases where a mother’s life was at stake. Despite what were allegations of voter intimidation in Virginia and technical difficulties elsewhere (I myself voted without incident here in Queens), it appears that America took a long look at six years of war-mongering empire-building, ceaseless scandals and attempts at far-right fundamentalist social engineering and decided that, no, they had just about enough of that.

Finally some good news.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The changing face of old Brooklyn

An interesting article in the Times today addresses the roaring (and for all intents and purposes completed) gentrification and development affecting the Greenpoint and Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where, in 1997, a friend and I split a one bedroom apartment for $600 per month, a sum that would be twice that now, and where I had probably the nicest apartment I've ever had in New York, a loft overlooking the East River in the neighborhood's (at the time) rundown Southside district, a few years later. When I first moved there, I recall the distinctly Latin flavor of the place, largely Puerto Rican and Dominican with a smattering of Mexican influence (and a large and still-remaining population of Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hassidim Jews in rather far-out traditional costumes), where a $5 plate of carne guisada with arroz and habichuelas was easy to come by, and where young folks who were actually struggling financially could afford to live.

About two years ago, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who I think has been largely a good mayor, lead the charge for a rezoning program in the neighborhood (coming in tandem with the general gentrification that really began to change the character in the neighborhood around 2000/2001), and developers began changing the once-industrial landscape with luxury apartments that continued to price-out longterm residents, falling far short of the promises of housing for low- and middle-income families. The Old Dutch Mustard factory on Metropolitan Avenue is now gone, torn down last month. The Domino Sugar refinery, which was part of Brooklyn's waterfront since the 19th century before largely ceasing business in 2003, and which I walked by on my way home for a year, will probably not be long to follow. The neighborhood that the 1937 W.P.A. Guide to N.Y.C. once described as "a virtually unrelieved slum" and which was carved in half by the building of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the 1950s, now seems to be in danger of becoming little more than an extension of "millionaire island" Manhattan.

And my favorite Mexican grocery (Matamoros) has been replaced by a Subway. Oh well, at least Hasidic Rebel is still posting.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Amusing hypocrisy while Haiti continues to simmer

Sometimes headlines are just priceless, and a mere recitation of the facts becomes high comedy. Such is the case with the recent article on the travails of Ted Haggard, evangelist and outspoken gay marriage opponent, by Catherine Tsai of the Associated Press. Under the headline "Evangelist Admits Meth, Massage, No Sex," the article goes on the recount that "Haggard admitted Friday that he bought methamphetamine and received a massage from a gay prostitute who claims he was paid for drug-fueled trysts" and that "Haggard denied the sex allegations but said that he did buy meth from the man because he was curious."

"I bought it for myself but never used it,'' the article quotes Haggard as saying. ``I was tempted, but I never used it.''

One can only assume that Haggard's comments were delivered with a "straight" face.

In far more serious matters in Haiti, meanwhile, the terrible violence in Martissant , which seems to be on its way to matching Cité Soleil as Port-au-Prince's most brutal and unforgiving slum, marches on unabated and, again neither Haitian president René Préval nor the U.N. mission in Haiti seem to have any sort of a plan for how to definitively halt it, though they do appear to be at least engaging the gangs of various political persuasions who have been terrorizing residents there since late June.

The new violence comes after Haitian radio reports that members of the Organisations Populaires Lavalas (OPs), representing the political current of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, set up flaming barricades in the Bel Air section of Port-au-Prince, within sight of Haiti's National Palace, demanding the release of what they charged were political prisoners and the rehabilitation of thousands of employees excised from the government payroll during the interim government that ruled Haiti from 2004 until 2006, before the innauguration of René Préval this past May. In late October, Hilaire Prophète, a spokesman closely linked to the OPs, threatened to re-launch Opération Pa Ka Tan-n (Operaion Can't Wait), itself a successor to late 2004's Opération Baghdad, as a violent means to pressure the Préval government into re-integrating thousands of cashiered workers onto the government payroll, something that Préval cannot and likely does not want to do.

There are thousands of people in Haitian jails at present (just as there were under the interim and Aristide governments) who have never had the benefit of trial. Some of them - such as former Lavalas Deputy Amanus Mayette, who lead the Bale Wouze street gang in the central town of Saint-Marc and who witnesses depict helping to murder Rassemblement des Militants Conséquents de la Commune de Saint-Marc (RAMICOS) member Leroy Joseph and terrorizing his family on 11 February 2004 - no doubt deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars but, also doubtless, many have been caught up in police sweeps whose involvement in violence was probably marginal at best. Haiti's judicial system desperately needs reform to address this issue, but it is not clear what steps are being taken in this direction at present.

Likewise, in a country with as high an unemployment rate as Haiti's (around 80%), government jobs are often one of the few means to which the country's poor can look for improvement in their situation, a fact skillfully manipulated between 2001 and 2004 (the years of Aristide's second term in office) when Haiti's Direction Générale des Impôts ( DGI), Office Nationale Assurance (ONA) Autorité Portuaire Nationale (APN) and Teleco state industries became repositories for government patronage that was doled out and withdrawn at whim depending on how desperate those in command wanted to keep their troops in the slums. Several gang leaders I knew from Cité Soleil had government identification issued from one or more of these institutions, though there was often little work for them there as they were so far down the totem pole of people the government owed favors to. During a 2003 conversation in Guatemala City, former Secretary of State for Public Security Bob Manuel (now René Préval 's chief political advisor) stated pointedly that " Aristide (couldn't) work with someone who has a base independent of being bought by the state," which rather succinctly describes the situation that existed in Haiti between 2001 and 2004. Unfortunately, nothing has replaced the meager income that thousands derived from this patronage, and with the decision by Republican leaders in Congress to postpone consideration of H.R. 6142, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) act, our own short-sighted politicians do not seem to be helping matters.

Haiti's Ministre des Affaires Sociales, Gerald Germain, launched an appeal for calm and negotiation, but it remains to be seem what effect it will have.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


So, today is Gede in Haiti, the day when the eponymous family of vodou lwa hold sway in the cemeteries and the lanes, lead by the guardian of the cemetery himself, Baron Samedi, a.k.a Baron Cimetiere, Baron La Croix or simply Baron. The Gede lwa are believed to flow from the spirits of a group of slaves conquered and shipped to Saint Domingue from Benin, but, in Haiti, black is their color and the tomb is their favored abode. If you would have gone to the main cemetery in downtown Port-au-Prince today (as my friends Adele Waugaman, Herby, Etzer and I did in 2002), you would have seen the Gede acolytes conducting tributes and rituals amidst the half-demolished tombs. To enter within the cemetery itself, you would have had to pass beneath the sign over the entrance. Souviens—Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere, it reads. Remember you are dust.

In a slight, forward-looking change of gears (with a still Haiti-related component), for those readers in the Miami area on November 11th, I highly recommend checking out the Voces Latentes photo exhibition of my friend and colleague, the talented Haitian-American photographer Noelle Theard. Noelle, whose beautiful photo graces the cover of my first book, has crafted a presentation of underground hip-hop culture from New York to Paris to Caracas and beyond, and will be displaying the photos at Miami's Filtro photo gallery. Well worth a look see.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A chill wind through foreign coverage?

When I heard this summer that Newsday, a newspaper I often write for, was closing its bureaus in Beirut and Islamabad after the scheduled terms of correspondents Mohamad Bazzi and Jim Rupert expire over the next two years, I felt again another sensations of the fingers of the bottom line tightening around the throat of responsible, authoritative, on-the-ground coverage as it appears in America's newspapers. Newsday's move is by no means unique. The Tribune Co., Newsday's corporate owner, is also closing down the Moscow and Johannesburg bureaus of The Baltimore Sun over the next two years, following the shelving of the paper's Beijing and London bureaus last year. The Miami Herald, which likes to regard itself at the last word on Latin America and is owned by McClatchy (which consumed Knight Ridder's foreign bureaus earlier this year), now attempts to cover all of South America with only one staff correspondent, the able Steve Dudley, based in Bogota, and two freelancers, in Caracas and Lima.

In fact, a recent article by Sherry Ricchiardi in the American Journalism Review noted that, when war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon this past summer, The Washington Post was forced to fly in correspondent Edward Cody from his Beijing headquarters to help cover the violence, McClatchy ordered in reporters from Cairo, Nairobi, and Fort Worth, Texas and the New York Times sped Hassan Fatah in from Dubai. Forced with Tribune Company demands that he make deep cuts in the paper's reportorial and editorial staff, Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet publicly opposed the cuts, saying they would betray the public-service aspect of journalism in keeping readers informed, and promptly found himself out of a job.

It seems to me that, beyond any reasonable doubt, the bottom line is decimating print journalism at a moment when, as much as any in our history, Americans need to be informed about what is going on in the world. Locally-based reporters in regions such as the Middle East and Latin America are increasingly disappearing except for outposts manned by Reuters and The Associated Press and, as such, American readers are being deprived of valuable insight that can only come from reporters on-the-ground, speaking the local language with an intimate knowledge of the key players and flavour for the flow of events that one simply cannot get by jetting in somewhere a few times a year. Expecting someone to cover all of Latin America from a base in Mexico City, the entire Middle East from a base in Jerusalem or all of Europe from a base in London is by any measure an unfair proposition, no matter how gifted a journalist is. The idea that seems to have gained currency with large chains such as Tribune and McClatchy is that one or perhaps two correspondents in each region will be enough to supply all of the newspaper's in that chain distribution with coverage. With the world in great upheaval and incipient crises bubbling up in countries as diverse as Egypt, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Uzbekistan (by no means an exhaustive list) in addition to the front page stories of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, who is going to pick up the slack when conflict occurs in these regions? The thinly-stretched and overworked wire services, who (and I speak from personal experience, having worked for Reuters in Haiti from 2001 until 2003), at the most generous, are allotted perhaps 700 words for their stories? Freelancers (again I speak from experience) who get paid a pittance for risking their lives and are often left scrambling just to afford the basics - phone cards, transportation, internet - that their profession demands? The newish crowd of activist/journalists for whom the truth and hard-nosed, skeptical, objective reporting seems to take a back seat to trying to further whatever political bandwagon the correspondents in any given country have momentarily hitched themselves to? Not likely, folks.

It is only by reconsidering their massive downsizing of their competent, able staffs that chains like Tribune and McClatchy can do justice to the proud traditions of international reporting that papers like Newsday and The Miami Herald have. The reason newspapers have for existing in the first place is to inform the public about the world around them, and they should be willing to pay for a variety of voices to be in the field in order to do so. As much as I have seen violent political currents succeed in stilling independent media voices in places in Brasil, Guatemala and Haiti, I fear that particularly ruthless and short-sighted business dealers will succeed in doing the same to foreign coverage in the United States, that is, narrowing the voices providing foreign coverage to American readers to an ever-decreasing few, a formula which would seem to spell trouble for the very bottom line those same individuals claim to protect.

One independent journalist who has managed to make a difference, my friend Nomi Prins, will be reading from her book Jacked: How "Conservatives" are Picking your Pocket (Whether you voted for them or not), published by PoliPointPress, at the Housing Works Bookstore Café at 126 Crosby Street on Thursday here in New York. I myself will be attending the lecture/book signing for my friend and colleague Jonas Bendiksen's new book, Satellites - Photographs from the Fringes of the Former Soviet Union at the Aperture Foundation that night, but both events are highly worth checking out.

Oh, and Lula is back for another four years.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Some help for Haiti's farmers, Toto told to pay up and Republicans drag their feet on Aristide probe

Finally appearing to bow to the reality that Haiti is a peasant-majority country and that the deforestation, erosion and concurrent economic devastation of Haiti's countryside is at the root of many of the nation's political problems, the Inter-American Development Bank approved on Wednesday a $17.8 million loan earmarked to help the nation's farmer's, marking a new chapter in the long struggle for those who have often found themselves at the bottom of most economic and social indicators there. The program, set to reinforce Haiti's Ministère de l’agriculture des ressources naturelles et du développement rural (MARNDR) is set to rehabilitate four "extension" centers in Dondon, Lévy, Baptiste and Savanne Zombi and, among other measures, the IADB release says the plan will

"Improve planting stock; production of high-value fruits such as avocados, mangoes and citrus; horticultural marketing and processing, coffee pest and disease control, propagation of disease-resistant banana varieties that also serve as shade trees for coffee; garden and root crops; corn and beans, essential oils and livestock."

A second aspect will focus on disease and pest control.

Having observed the work of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) and the twenty-thousand member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (MPNKP) (both named for the village of Papay where they are based) peasant unions over the years, and the dedication of their leader, 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, as well as similar movements in the Artibonite Valley, I can only hope that much more help for Haiti's beleaguered farmers will be on the way. The IADB loan represents a step in the right direction but, with massive deforestation having claimed 90% of Haiti’s tree cover for charcoal and to make room for farming in the past 50 years, so much more needs to be done.

In other Haiti news, one strike against impunity, one apparent step back in the face of it.

A New York district judge this week declared that Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, former head of the Front Pour L'Avancement et Le Progres Haitian (FRAPH), a paramilitary death squad that terrorized Haitians in the early 1990s, was "liable for torture, attempted extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity," and ordered him to pay $19 million to three women who say there were raped by Constant's forces. Constant is currently in jail on Long Island after being charged in connection with a $1 million mortgage fraud scheme this past July. It remains an open question as to whether Constant's victims will see any money, but it is at least a decent move towards stripping away the veil of international invulnerability that some, including some in the United States as we speak, exist within despite crimes of the most grotesque sort which they committed abroad.

In less encouraging news, apparently due in at least part to close connections a multimillion dollar telecom firm has with some prominent Republics, an article by investigative journalist Lucy Komisar reports that "the U.S. Justice Department is withholding agreement to share assets seized from Haitian drug traffickers to finance a lawsuit by the Haitian government charging former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide with taking bribes."

The bribery charges center around Aristide's second term in office from 2001 until 2004, and focus on the IDT telcom company, alleging that Aristide took hundreds of thousands of kickbacks in money that should have been deposited in Haiti's meager treasury in exchange for giving IDT a favorable rate on international calls. A former IDT executive, Michael Jewett, claims the he refused to go along with the scheme and was fired for his trouble. Jewett charges that the deal enabled several North American companies (including IDT) to operate in Haiti for a cut-rate fee of nine cents per minute, three cents of which promptly disappeared into an Aristide shell company called Mont Salem set up in Turks and Caicos, as opposed to going to TELECO, the Haitian state telephone company, where the money belonged.

"These companies then allegedly resold the minutes to U.S. customers for 16 or 18 cents," Komisar writes. Jewett sued IDT in October 2005 for wrongful dismissal.

If true, Komisar notes, in addition to being an appalling betrayal of the Haitian people by their president in contravention of Haitian law, the actions would also be a violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

However and alas, IDT's board of directors includes Ronald Reagan's former ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III and former Minnesota senator Rudy Boschwitz. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney bought 1,000 initial shares of IDT-run internet phone company in 1999. Even more suggestively, the current head of the Justice Department Criminal Division, Alice Fisher, had previously served as a lawyer for IDT. So, does anyone want to take any wagers on how this will proceed?

One remembers Eric Pierre. Pierre, a 27-year-old medical student from the southern Haitian town of Jacmel, was shot and killed while leaving the the Faculté de Medicine in Port-au-Prince on 7 January 2003. That was a day that saw a series of strikes in the Haitian capital against Mr. Aristide's government following a steep rise in gas prices. The students of Haiti's State University, of which the Faculté de Medicine was a part, from the summer of 2002 onwards had played a lead role in the demonstrations against the violent excesses and corruption of Mr. Aristide's government, and continued to do so until his ouster in February 2004. That morning, according to witnesses, Eric Pierre's attackers fled the scene in a car with official TELECO plates. In a notebook of his thoughts Pierre was carrying at the time, there was written the following words:

Justice, quand?

The U.S. Department of Justice needs to ask itself that same question, on behalf of all the Eric Pierres who fell in Haiti or saw their dreams dashed because of the actions of a few ravenous politicians and there unscrupulous foreign partners. Justice, when? Well, U.S. Department of Justice? Haiti is waiting.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A writer reading a writer

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."

These are the opening words to the 1984 novella The Lover (L'Amant in the original French) by the French author Marguerite Duras, one of the best works of short (or in this case, a bit longer) fiction that I, as a writer, have ever read and certainly equal in to others I hold in high esteem, such as Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, Carlos Fuentes' Aura and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, to name just three.

I have recently been re-reading Duras' four "novels" collection (and, indeed, I have been re-reading a bit in general as I have been too poor to buy new books), and I find that the stories contained therein - The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas - resonate perhaps even more with me as I enter my mid-thirties than they did when I first perused them in my early twenties. The situations that Duras presents - of characters trying to extract themselves from or surrendering to situations that often seem strangling and constricting, which nevertheless at times threaten to boil over with emotion, is revealing in its depth of understanding human motivation in a current literary landscape that seems less and less interested in exploring such terrain and more and more interested with the newest flavor of whatever the bright, young, wealthy, shallow urbanites (called it the Sex and the City syndrome) are doing this year, and how this can best be exploited for marketable purposes. I have also been reminded again of what a great gift for dialogue Duras as a writer had, and how she builds the tensions in her stories, particular in The Square and 10:30 on a Summer Night, with minimal attention to descriptive prose stylings and a rather heavy reliance on conversational flows that grow more pregnant with meaning as the reader turns every page. This is perhaps not surprising as Duras was the screenwriter for Alain Resnais' acclaimed 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Having penned some 70 (!) novels over a 50 year period, Duras, born in the Gia Dinh suburbs of Saigon, in 1914, the daughter of a mathematics teacher (who died quite young) and his wife, remains, a decade after her passing, a great teacher for those writers who want to dive deeply into human experience and bring back something really raw and vital to the page. Hmmm, maybe there's a story in there somewhere...

Friday, October 20, 2006

On The Battle of Algiers and the Military Commissions Act of 2006

I have a confession to make: Though I had often heard of its greatness, until this week I had never seen Gillo Pontecorvo's highly influential film Battle of Algiers, which chronicles some of the key moments in the bloody revolution that eventually saw Algeria win its independence from France in 1962 after an eight year war. That being the case, I was stunned by how relevant the film is to present-day debates in the United States about the methods which the U.S. government should employ to fight its terrorist foes and proceed amidst the current relentless march of carnage in Iraq. The parallels are even more suggestive given the August 2003 screening of the film by the US Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon, a flyer for which stated that the film illustrated "how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas."

On this day when militiamen linked to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr overtook the southeastern Iraqi city of Amara, and when the United States seems to have sacrificed many of its fundamental liberties in the name of security, the power of The Battle of Algiers remains in its refusal to sanitize the violence that came from any side in the Algerian conflict, showing civilians as victims equally of the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale as well as French miliatry and colonial forces.

When one witnesses the great French actor Jean Martin, in perhaps his most memorable role as the imperious Colonel Mathieu, telling assembled reporters that “the word ‘torture’ isn’t used in our orders, we use interrogation as the only valid police method against clandestine activity,” the words of U.S. president George W. Bush from a September 6th press conference this year echo strongly.

At that press conference this year, Bush declared that, when the U.S. government captured the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures” to question him.

“These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.” Bush went on. “The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.”

One month later (this month), President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a piece of legislation which, though it specifically bars acts such as murder and rape and "cruel and inhuman" treatment, gives the green light for, among other things, withholding evidence from defendants, denying defendants the right to file habeas corpus petitions, establishes military tribunals for terror suspects, retains the right to send detainees to secret prisons abroad and gives immunity to U.S. government agents for acts regarding their interrogation practices. The Act also broadens the definition of “enemy combatant” to include anyone who offered “material support” to a person or persons engaged in hostilities against the U.S., enabling them to be held indefinitely in military detention regardless of whether or not they took any active role in any hostilities.

Following the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, such a policy would seem short-sighted at best and an active undermining of the rule of law, both national and international, well, by any rational context.

Hopefully the next administration will try and stitch the shreds of the Constitution back into something that resembles America, as that image seems to be getting more and more distant everyday.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A few thoughts on my profession

Re-reading Anna Politkovskaya's A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya following the courageous journalist's murder in Moscow earlier this month, I am reminded again of the words of my friend George Murer, who, commenting on Politkovskaya's passing, observed that she "did remarkable work because she was dropped, unknown and defenseless, in the middle of a horrible situation that had no exterior witnesses." Or at least very few of them.

Journalists like Politkovskaya, Anthony Shadid (whose book Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War remains probably the greatest portrait yet drawn of the hubristic and disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq as told from the point of view of the Iraqi people) and Alonso Salazar (whose Born to Die in Medellin provides a stunning glimpse into the violence in one of Colombia's largest cities) are invaluable in an age when so many timorous, self-involved political analysts of the left and the right are content to analyze world events from the safety of a desk and a computer. A simple concern with the fate and voices of people in areas of conflict, while exposing those who make them suffer and, hoping against hope, to spur the world at large to some kind of action, seems like the best and most noble pursuit one can have in a profession whose ultimate driving force the the photographer James Nachtwey once summed up thusly:

It has occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone's leg off - if everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.

Adieu, Anna Politkovskaya. There aren't many like you and you will be missed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Brief Encounters with independents

I attended a very interesting reading and editor discussion featuring my friend author Ben Fountain and his editor Lee Boudreaux at the most excellent McNally Robinson independent bookstore on Prince Street in Soho last evening. Founatin, who I first met in Port-au-Prince, Haiti back in the misty days of 2002, has just published a fantastic collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara that takes his (not always so) innocents abroad characters to locales as diverse as Burma, Colombia, Sierra Leone as well as Haiti. To an audience that included the authors Laura Moser and Lauren Mechling, Founatin and Boudreaux discussed the difficulty in getting publishers to take a chance on serious fiction these days, particularly short stories, as well as the essential role independent bookstores still play in getting important books such as Fountain's off the ground.

I was reminded of how some of the pivotal cultural events of recent decades have been the result of a few dedicated people persevering with their vision against great odds. The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976, organized by Howard Devoto, who later went on to form The Buzzcoks, for instance, was attended by perhaps 40 people, but of those people in the audience were members of bands such as Joy Division and The Fall, who went on to play pivotal roles in the development of Britain's post-punk music. The Velvet Underground sold an infinitesimal amount of their-now classic first album in 1967 but, as the saying goes, it seemed as if every one of the people who bought that album went out and formed a band. The author Henry Miller could not even get his writing published until the Parisian imprint Obelisk Press took a chance in 1934 on Tropic of Cancer, though Miller had to wait nearly 30 years to see it published in his native United States.

One of the fringe benefits of the book tour I did around the United States last fall was the opporuntinuty to see a few independent bookstores operating around the U.S., stores that support work of writers such as Ben and myself operating outside the obviously commercial realm. Bookstores such as Paperbacks Plus in Dallas, Books and Books in Miami and Robin's Bookstore in Philadelphia all still have an important role to play in the growth and publishing of challenging literature in the United States and, as such, deserve our support. Buy independent!