Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A little fish heads to jail

Things are getting might interesting in Haiti again. Rene Civil, lately the chief of the Jeunesse Pouvoir Populaire (Youth Popular Power - JPP - but better known as Jan l pase, l pase) was arrested while driving a car stolen from the Dominican Republic and in possession of a 9 millimeter pistol in Petionville on Friday night by men acting under the commend of police chief Varnel Lacroix, reports Radio Kiskeya. A police officer was also apparently also arrested in the incident, and the file turned over to Port-au-Prince chief magistrate Claudy Gassant. "It is not a question of a political business, this arrest is strictly related to the banditry," Lacroix was quoted as saying.

I recall vividly how, during the presidential tenure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Civil was escorted around Port-au-Prince by National Palace security personnel even though he was not an employee of the Palace, but rather of the capital's Autorité Portuaire Nationale (APN). Those familiar with Haiti will recall how university students protesting against the Aristide government accused Civil of involvement in the murder of medical student Eric Pierre, shot to death while leaving the Faculté de médecine building on the morning January 7, 2003. Witnesses at the scene attested that the killers left in an official state vehicle (with official license plates) and another vehicle belonging to Haiti's state telephone company, Teleco. The license plate number of one vehicles of the provided by witnesses vehicles belonged to Civil. To this date, no one has been brought to justice for the killing. Today, Kiskeya reports, Civil was transferred to the National Penitentiary under Gassant's order after questioning. Civil's lawyer, Mario Joseph, formerly of the Aristide-government funded Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and now of the Aristide-linked Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) wasted no time in attacking Gassant, questioning whether or not he had the "independence" to be involved in such a case, all said without a hint of irony, one can assume.

Amidst all this, the bodies of two women and a man, all unidentified, were found on Rue Macajoux in Port-au-Prince's central business district Violence appears to continue in Cité Soleil and Martissant unabated, now nearly a month after I first reported on the appalling conditions and nearly-equally appalling lack of Haitian government or United Nations action in the zone.

In far less grim news, it appears that the American Museum of the Moving Image will be screening one of my favorite films of all time, Marcel Camus' Orfeu Negro, this weekend. A shame I will be out of town and miss it.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Guatemala - Assault on Press Freedom

Three years ago this fall, in Guatemala City, I sat across a table from Jose Ruben Zamora, editor of Guatemala's El Periodico newspaper, and listened to his struggle trying to function as an independent, investigative journalist in that Central American country. It was a tense time in Guatemala, as the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG) party of then-President Alfonso Portillo looked set to win another presidential term, but this time for their candidate Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military dictator. During a single four-month period during Rios Montt's first turn at the helm of Guatemala's ship of state (March-July 1982), Amnesty International estimated over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed and 100,000 rural villagers were forced to flee their homes. The Portillo administration itself had been marked by high degrees of corruption and violence.

On 24 June 2003, Zamora, who had made his newspaper a forum for detailing the links between government figures and the country's criminal underworld, was held captive along with his family and domestic servants, as a dozen armed individuals brandishing the identification of a government ministry and the national police stormed his home, stripped him, and beat his two teenage sons. Zamora, who was awarded the 1995 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists, sent his family into exile in the United States and continued on in Guatemala. Independent investigators later identified some of the assailants as former government employees with links to the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), a controversial military unit, since disbanded, that was responsible for presidential security and was linked to a series of high-profile assassinations over the years, including the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, the 1994 killing of Constitutional Court President Eduardo Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon and the 1998 beating death of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi.

Mercifully, Rios Montt was defeated in the presidential contest by former Guatemala City mayor Óscar Berger, but being a journalist in Guatemala does not appear to have become any easier. Last week, radio journalist Vinicio Aguilar, whose call-in talk show often addresses topics such as organized crime, corruption and tax evasion by big businesses, was shot in the face while jogging near his home in the capital and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived. Radio 10, where Aguilar worked, had previously received an on-air death threat against its owner for their coverage.

It takes a lot of courage to be a journalist in a place like Guatemala, where the struggles are hard, the odds of change long and threat of violence very real and ever-present. If you would like to support a free press in Guatemala, check out the website for the Commite to Protect Journalists. To get involved and support the struggle for human rights there, learn more about the Centro para Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), a Guatemalan human rights organization dedicated to defending the fundamental human rights - civil, political, economic, social, and cultural - of those historically poor, discriminated against and excluded in Guatemalan society, with a particular focus on indigenous Guatemalans and the legacy of Guatemala's civil war.

Help the press in Guatemala know that its work is not going unnoticed by the outside world, and that they have our attention and support.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Salman Rushdie and me

There is an interesting web exclusive essay on Britain’s apparently latest homegrown terror plot by Foreign Policy editor James G. Forsyth recalling January 14, 1989, when "following the public burning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the northern city of Bradford, the country’s largest bookseller withdrew the book from public view in that city." To Forsyth, that signaled that "the British authorities...would abandon liberal values for the false promise of the quiet life. That decision has resulted in a situation where British citizens blow themselves up on buses and subways, plot to take down passenger jets, and young British Muslims believe in surprising numbers (31 percent, according to the most recent poll) that their country’s foreign policy justifies terror attacks."

Even as an author and a liberal intellectual (one who emphasizes freedom of thought, individual rights, rule of law, a market economy and free private enterprise and a transparent, accountable form of government), that seems like a bit of a stretch to me. But as someone who has also confronted the ugly face of intolerance and ignorance when communicating information and ideas that a noisy minority have a vested interest (often economic) in not hearing, I find myself in full agreement with Forsyth's contention that "the mob in Bradford...had every right to do what they wanted with their purchased copies, but no right to intimidate bookshops into pulling it from their shelves. Nor should the police have helped persuade bookstores to give in to this pressure."

If there is one thing that has been striking to those of us on the genuine liberal side of the debate on countries like Haiti, it is the illiberal, intransient and anti-free speech approach adopted by some of our opponents. It is a thread that runs through the attempt to squelch a full and honest discussion of the record of the 2001-2004 Aristide government in Haiti, through the silence of some quarters of the left of the suffering Iraqi people before Bush's ill-considered 2003 invasion, and through the perverse denial of the nature of Serbian atrocities during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts and beyond. In fact, from this week's edition of the online publication The Morning News, which a friend of mine forwarded me, is an interview with the journalist and author Sebastian Junger that spoke eloquently, more eloquently than I would have guessed, to this irony.

"I was in college in the early '80s and I am a liberal politically and Central America was the big leftist cause—human rights, bring peace to El Salvador—that shaped me in some ways [and] was the point of my journalism," Junger tells TMN Contributing Writer Robert Birnbaum "I sort of continue with that idea. And very interestingly, when you get into the '90s, the intervention Clinton led into Bosnia to stop the genocide and into Kosovo to stop the horrors, those were in keeping with liberal ideas of human rights and justice and democracy, and they were denounced by the left, and what I realized was that there is some element of the left that hates the U.S. military more than they love human rights. And that to me—and I am speaking about my own party which I love, and want to change for the good—that to me is an inherent failing of the left. That they are still stuck in a Vietnam-era view of the military. ''

And, I would add, that for some, hatred of the Bush administration and what they perceive, sometimes rightly, as its imperial intentions, often steamrolls any accurate assessment of what is in fact happening on the ground in poor countries, refusing to take into account the motivations and documented histories of individual actors there in a one-size-fits-all charge often lead by desk-bound academics, professional activists of wealthy means or the black sheep of elite families trying to assuage their guilty consciences by adopting a radical chic pose. As in Haiti, in many countries, the most strident commentary comes from those who have spent very little time on the ground, and have not had a great deal of opportunity to interact with people on an everyday level. Poor people are pawns, objects and political talking points, not flesh-and-blood human beings. It reminds me of a passage by the Dutch writer Stephen Ellis in his excellent book about Liberia, "The Mask of Anarchy" where Ellis wrote thusly, describing the incredulity that some ascribed to accounts of Liberia's civil war:

"While descriptions (of the civil war) are routinely dismissed as sensational journalism by high-minded academics, it would be foolish simply to scoff at the opinions of correspondents who glean their impressions at first hand. Journalists acquire detailed knowledge, and an appreciation for the flavor of events, which can escape distant observers."

Salman Rushdie was the speaker at my graduation from Bard College in upstate New York in the spring of 1996. During what was an address far more memorable and powerful than most of the usual "road-less-traveled" bromides, Rushdie talked about his time in seclusion, with some humor, and at the demands for adherence to this or that hierarchy that had been made of him throughout his life.

"It is men and women who have made the world, and they have made it in spite of their gods," he said on what was a brilliant spring day, now over a decade ago. "The message of the myths is not the one the gods would have us learn - that we should behave ourselves and know our place - but its exact opposite. It is that we must be guided by our natures."

"Do not bow your heads," Rushdie said. "Do not know your place. Defy the gods. You will be astonished how many of them turn out to have feet of clay. Be guided, if possible, by your better natures."

As Rushdie finished speaking there was great applause and I looked to the side to see my friend, fellow graduate, committed Muslim and future Afghani Minister of Transportation Enayatullah Qasimi. "Yat," as I was knew him, was none too pleased with Rushdie's appearance and, as a result, opted to sit on his hands and not rise or clap at the end of the address, as was his right. Never for a minute, though, did he suggest that Rushdie should not be heard or that those who might hold a different opinion should be silenced by means violent or venal. His was a protest, like Rushdie's, out of conviction, not pose. It is up to those of us with a genuine liberal agenda for the world - of free speech, human rights, an equitable economic system and accountable and transparent government - to continue agitating and writing, both in our own countries and abroad, not only because it is our right but because it is our responsibility. We owe our friends in countries like Haiti no less.

Do not bow your heads.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

From Haiti to New Orleans

I had a thoroughly enjoyable discourse with New York's venerable radio host Leonard Lopate on WNYC's Underreported today, discussing my latest trip to Haiti and the country's recent history. Leonard was actually highly informed about Haiti's recent political trajectory and never ceases to amaze with the authority and ease with which he can shift gears from one subject to another without breaking stride.

Before I went on, I sat waiting in the studio and listened to an extended segment about the rebuilding, or lack thereof, in New Orleans, now going on one year after Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,500 people while our president enjoyed a late Texas summer, not wanting to spoil such an excellent retreat with the tawdry, boring business of actually governing the country. The Economist this week has a sober article bemoaning the slow pace of the city's reconstruction, noting that the city's "streetscape still looks largely as it did in November, when the last of the water was pumped out...The poorer sections of town are mostly waiting for the dispersal of $7.5 billion in federal aid to homeowners who did not have enough insurance either to repair or rebuild. The first of the grants, which are capped at $150,000, should be handed out any day. Roughly 100,000 people have applied for them. But Congress took nearly ten months to appropriate the money." Don't worry folks, your elected representatives are on the job.

The Democrats proved themselves good for something, though, by releasing a study today outlining how the Bush government awarded 70 percent of its contracts for Hurricane Katrina with limited or no competitive bidding. That's some $7.4 billion out of $10.6 billion in contracts awarded after the storm last year. FEMA recently opted to award new $400 million temporary future disaster work housing contracts to Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure, Bechtel National, CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Enterprises Inc. As the AP wryly observes "The Shaw Group Inc.'s lobbyist, Joe Allbaugh, is a former FEMA director and a longtime friend of President Bush, while Bechtel CEO Riley Bechtel served on Bush's Export Council from 2003-2004. CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp. have done extensive previous work for the government. The companies have denied that political or government connections played a factor." Any appearance of nepotism is, to paraphrase Henrich Boll, neither intentional nor fortuitous but unavoidable.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Michael Deibert on NPR's Underreported

I'll be speaking about my recent trip to Haiti with Leonard Lopate on NPR's weekly Underreported program at noon this Thursday (24 August 2006). The website for the program is:

Gassant steps up once more

With Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH) chief Mario Andrésol, Secretary of State for Public Security Luc-Eucher Joseph and Senator from the Artibonite Department Youri Latortue (ahem) looking on, returned-son -of-Haiti Claudy Gassant was sworn in on Monday as the new Haitian government commissaire for Port-au-Prince, and then gave the Haitian police a dynamite charge to reclaim the streets from gangs pledging allegiance to ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"From now on, the police force must systematically occupy (i.e. control) the streets," Radio Kiskeya reported Gassant as having said.

The announcement comes the same day that Amaral Duclona, the gang leader who took over control of the Soliel 19 section of the vast Cite Soleil slum that was at one time under the command of my sadly departed friend James "Billy" Petit-Frere and his half-brother, Winston "Tupac" Jean-Bart (both killed in Haiti while their erstwhile patron Mr. Aristide was savoring his gilded exile in South Africa) stated that he would defy Préval's order that the gangs disarm until, Duclona said, U.N. peacekeepers stop conducting raids there. A thorny issue for Préval, to be sure. Perhaps the South African government of President Thabo Mbeki, currently hosting Mr. Aristide there and providing him with "accommodation, transport, office support staff and security" at a price that is in "line with the costs of a South African cabinet minister," might think of giving some of that money instead towards a job development program in poor neighborhoods in Haiti's capital such as Cite Soleil and Pele, or perhaps to aid the widows of the political militants, such as James and Tupac, who put themselves on the line for a political leader who so cavalierly abandoned them. No, doubtless that would make too much sense and be too decent.

Half a world away from the slums of Port-au-Prince, other politicians have been having a go at the current Lebanon crisis, with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi saying that his country is willing to lead the UN force in war-torn Lebanon, offering up 3,000 troops but adding that caveat that a new UN Security Council resolution is needed to clearly define any peacekeeping role. Italy's decision to step up to the plate comes after France's paltry promise of a few hundred peacekeepers, which prompted The New York Times to write that ""After insisting for years that they be treated like a superpower, the French are behaving as if they have no responsibility for helping dig out of the Lebanon mess." Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh bemoans the cost of the month-long war, writing that only a year ago, "Lebanon, free from Israel's occupation of South Lebanon, decided to get rid of the last remaining occupation (Syria's) and then shift the gear to derive honor from an independent democratic prosperous Lebanon. (Former Lebanese Prime Minister) Rafik Hariri was the one shifting the stiff gear towards that direction. Too bad Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were pulling from the other direction."

For his part, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth weighs in with a damming Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post where he asks unequivocally that "Why did so many Lebanese civilians lost their lives to Israeli bombing? The government line is that the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) was doing the best it could, but these deaths were the result of Hizbullah hiding its rockets and fighters among civilians. But that assertion doesn't stand up to the facts.”

Roth's conclusion?

"Human Rights Watch investigated some two dozen bombing incidents in Lebanon involving a third of the civilians who by then had been killed. In none of those cases was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack. Protecting Israelis from Hizbullah's deadly rockets is vital, but it does not justify indifference to the taking of civilian lives on the other side of the border."

This is a conclusion that mirrors that of Lebanese-American journalist Anthony Shadid, who reported from the scene in Lebanon for The Washington Post, and authored the excellent book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War.

Braces yourself folks, this is far from over.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lula "Walker" Strolling to Victory?

There is a highly amusing post on the Brazzil Magazine site this week regarding this fall's upcoming presidential contest in Brazil, where Scottish consultant John Fitzpatrick opines from São Paulo that "We are not watching any exercise in democracy at the moment but waiting to see by how many votes Lula humiliates his main rival, Geraldo Alckmin of the PSDB." Truth be told, incumbent Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Partido dos Trabalhadores, despite a series of corruption scandals that rocked his party last year, looks set to romp past the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira's Alckmin if a recent O Globo poll, giving Lula 47% to Alckmin's meager 21% (with to-the-left-of-Lula Heloísa Helena of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade polling 12%) is to be believed. Apparently, having your country's largest city and economic capital (São Paulo, where Alckmin served as governor) the subject of relentless attacks by the Primeiro Comando da Capital gang is not exactly the push one needs to overtake a leader who, though often lampooned in the Brazilian media, doesn't look so bad when held up against some of the messianic crowd attempting to run the show in much of the Americas, north and south. The PCC, it seems, has been busy clandestinely buying it's weapons from a host of enterprising individuals at state security agencies in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, says the Rio de Janeiro-daily, O Dia.

In some melancholy news from South America's most vibrant country, Cordão da Bola Preta vice-president Emílio Jorge Paulino passed away this weekend. Their party for last Carnaval, held in Rio's business center, attracted 250,000 people, so let's hope Senhor Paulino at least left this world with a smile on his face.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Jazz Ayisyen

Though I have been much enjoying the new Nickenson Prud'homme cd, it must be said that the Haitian music that has been inspiring most as of late still continues to be the memory of the fantastic concert I saw at Le Latanier (just up the road from the Teleco building) in Port-au-Prince at the end of July. It was the debut show of Chill, the new band from former K-Dans singer Jude Jean, and will go down in my memory as one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen in Haiti. Maybe it was the Caribbean night, the swaying palms or the plentiful Prestige, but I think what really had the crowd dancing in fine compas rubbing style was some excellent sinuous rhythms that used keyboard lines to great effect but still enjoyed the presence of a full band. The guitarist Paul Claudel Célestin particulary shone, reminding one a bit of Magnum Band's Dadou Pasquet from years back. Word has it that Chill will be playing a few gigs stateside in the early fall and judging from their Port-au-Prince show they are worth checking out, certainement. It never ceases to amaze: Haitian politicians may be largely opportunists seeking the support of craven or gullible foreigners, but the country's musicians never disappoint in reaffirming my belief that Haiti has the most vibrant and diverse music scene in the entire Caribbean. It's nourishing stuff. Sonje lapli ki leve mayi ou.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

An unromanticized look at the Mafia and its victims

Speaking of principled magistrates and their struggles against rancid politico-criminal actors and their bought-off cadres, I recently saw a powerfully moving documentary on the Italian judge Giovanni Falcone and his colleague Paolo Borsellino. Excellent Cadavers traces the lives and careers of the two prosecutors as they held the Sicilian mob and its political allies to account in the 1986-87 Maxi Trial, during which 360 Mafiosi were convicted of serious crimes. A film that strips away any romance surrounding an organization of cheap, criminal thugs, the movie's emotional punch builds up to its tragic climax, when Falcone is killed with his wife and three policemen by a bomb on a road outside of Sicily's capital, Palermo, on May 23, 1992. Borsellino was killed (along with five policeman) by a car bomb in Via D'Amelio less than two months later. A reminder that the struggle against impunity is not confined to far-away countries. The airport is Palermo is now renamed the Falcone-Borsellino Airport.

A good man back on the job?

Good news from Haiti today, as it appears that none other than Claudy Gassant is back, and was greeted at the airport by Police nationale d’Haïti (PNH) Directeur Général Mario Andrésol . Haiti-watchers will recall the heroic way in which Gassant persevered in his investigation of the murder of Haiti's best-known journalist, Radio Haiti-Inter director Jean-Léopold Dominique, and that station's caretaker Jean-Claude Louissaint, gunned down on the morning of April 3, 2000, despite great risk to his own life. With the return of Gassant, driven into exile in early 2002, the presence of Andrésol (jailed without trial and also driven into exile under the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide) and the selection of Luc-Eucher Joseph, Secretary of State for Public, the tide may finally begin to turn against the impunity that has for so long helped to strangle this Caribbean nation no matter who was in power. Let's wish them the best of luck as they will need it.