Thursday, May 31, 2007

Economiques africaines: Deuxième partie

The second article in my series on African economic issues, this time focusing on efforts to encourage diaspora investment in the continent, was published by the Inter Press Service today. It can be read here.

West Africa: Currency Integration A Few Years Off

My new article for the Inter Press Service, on the process of trying to create a single unified currency for many of the country's in West Africa, was published today and can be read here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

New York City Serenade

When I first arrived in New York City in the spring of 1997, being a relatively impoverished recent college graduate, I roomed with my friend Sebastian Quezada at his modest apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood at that time, as I have noted on this blog before, had a distinctly Latin flavor, largely of the Puerto Rican and Dominican variety, with a smattering of Mexican influence, as well as a large and still-remaining population of Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hassidim Jews in rather far-out traditional costumes living along the southside. Beyond the main strip of Bedford Avenue, warehouses, many rusting and disused, still stretched on for blocks at a time before halting at the churning expanse of the East River, the Lower East Side of Manhattan visible in the distance. The Domino Sugar refinery, which had been part of Brooklyn's waterfront since the 19th century, was still the neighborhood’s most regular employer. At that time, Williamsburg was a place where, at a local joint called simply “Pizza Restaurant,” one could get a $5 plate of carne guisada con arroz y habichuelas, and young folks who were actually struggling financially could afford to live.

It has been quite a pivotal decade both for myself and New York City since then. On the personal side, I’ve gotten to know all of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in - Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Park Slope and now Astoria - quite well, never having the funds to live on the other side of the East River in Manhattan and being perfectly fine with that, as Brooklyn and Queens offer a dizzying diversity that much of Manhattan (not named “Millionaire’s Island” for nothing) decidedly lacks. I’ve traveled to quite a few countries, writing probably hundreds of articles at this point, having written and published a book, watched my friends and I edge into out thirties (losing some on the way and gaining new ones) and had about as many amity and romance-based interactions as one could ever ask for in that amount of time. I’ve acquired so many books that any apartment I have is now essentially a library where I sleep, witnessed some great concerts lots of concerts (Cheb Mami in Prospect Park and the Tindersticks and Seu Jorge in Central Park come to mind) and seen how truly glorious and alive New York becomes as the city edges into its lustrous summer, as it’s doing now.

For New York’s part, we witnessed the 1997 campaign and re-election of mayor Rudolph Giuliani (now running for president) as mayor, the 1999 slaying of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by four New York Police Department plain-clothed officers (who were subsequently acquitted in a criminal trial), the terrible attacks of September, 11, 2001 (which I witnessed first-hand and during which I walked home to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge with tens of thousands of other New Yorkers) and the subsequent election (and re-election) of billionaire tycoon Michael Bloomberg as the city’s mayor. The city that was robust and vibrant when I arrived in 1997 picked itself up and dusted itself off after the events of 2001 and now is every bit as vital as it ever has been.

It really has been quite a time.

But now I start a new chapter, and, tomorrow, I say goodbye to the city I have called home for the last ten years. I do so without regret, but perhaps a twinge of melancholy that we all feel when parting from a familiar companion, one so we’ve become so used to that we often take for granted how deeply it has immersed itself into our daily lives, out habits, our personalities. No matter where I go in the world, a large part of me will always be a New Yorker, and that is a sobriquet that I am very proud to carry.

Many things have changed with the city’s economic and political fortunes over the years. The Old Dutch Mustard factory on Metropolitan Avenue is now gone, torn down last year. The Domino Sugar refinery largely ceased business in 2003. The great Norfolk Street music venue Tonic shut down this spring. But, mercifully, as I found out this week, Pizza Restaurant still exists, with the same ebullient boriqua women behind the counter, dishing out Caribbean food, a place to sit and chat and a measure of my past, $5 at a time.

As Walt Whitman wrote in his 1860 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,”

We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us;
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also;
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

Adios, New York, and cuídate, may you always shine so lovely, reflecting the firmament to those of us here on earth.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bombay, Meri Jaan

Sometimes nostalgia bubbles up at the most unexpected and inexplicable moments. For instance, this week, as a stretch of fairly glorious spring weather (blue skies, warm days) has descended on New York City, I have felt drawn to the memories of some of my days in Bombay earlier this year, and particularly to the smog-choked, very-crowded lanes of the Fort Area, where I spent much of my time.

With vendors from Sikkim and other remote parts of India clogging the sidewalks, the friendly Nepalese man who would sell me a Diet Coke on hot days, the busy restaurants and sweets shops churning out mouth-watering vindaloo, channa masala and nan (with the Parsi café where I often had breakfast opting for simpler fare of eggs, bread and excellent chai) and the Great Britian-on-ayahuasca architecture of Victoria Terminus and the General Post Office rising in the background, Fort was my first taste of Bombay, and it remained a seductive blend. With the exception of the slum of Dharavi (population 1 million), I don’t know if I have ever seen a part of the city more thoroughly representative of the vast polyglot of modern India, with the tongues of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil (and many others) all represented in its lanes.

And then there were the bookstores. It seems to be a well-kept secret, but Bombay is about the greatest place to buy English-language books that I’ve ever found, with dozens of open-air stalls and an equal number of fine bookshops selling new books for as little as 100-200 rupees (about US$3-$6).

Though some favored the more politically-minded Bookzone, I myself was quite taken with the Strand Book Stall, first pointed out to me by my friend Ashim Ahluwalia. Almost hidden among a warren of alleys the Strand is still a favorite of the Bombay literary cognoscenti . Founded in 1948, and much like the eponymous-though-unrelated Strand here in New York City, the Strand in Bombay has become something of a ritual for bibliophiles in the city and, unlike the New York version’s increasingly rapacious pricing (which make it not much less expensive than an ordinary bookshop and significantly more expensive than online buying options), Bombay's Strang has kept its prices modest enough that strapped-for-cash readers can enter knowing that they will be able to leave with something eminently worthwhile. It was in the lanes of Bombay that I discovered the work of Mohsin Hamid, Humra Quraishi and Kalpana Sharma, all significant contributors to my yet-ongoing Indian education.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Appeal to Decency on behalf of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent

Address to Journalists & Editors Workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean delivered at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel, May 12, 2007, Miami, Florida.

Sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which its indigenous Arawak inhabitants had historically called Haiti, which meant "mountainous land," and Quisqueya, meaning "vast country," the present day nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic have shared a long and complex history together. It has been a history suffused with mutual resentments, suspicions and hostilities, though it could be argued that, despite marked cultural and linguistic differences, what the peoples of both sides of la frontera have in common far outweighs the traits that differentiate them.

From the revolutionary stirrings lead by Toussaint Louverture in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the 1790s, to the 1804 declaration of the founding of the Republic of Haiti in the city of Gonaives by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to the Dominican Republic’s own declaration of independence from Haiti in 1844 and the five subsequent invasions by Haitian leaders in attempts to recapture it that came after, the political geography of each country has been marked by certain unfortunate similarities. Long periods of military or quasi-military rule interrupted by various, often highly authoritarian and corrupt, civilian leaders, a deeply entrenched economic elite and a highly disenfranchised poor majority, a relatively weak judiciary and repeated interventions by foreign powers.

The trajectories of the two nations began to diverge somewhat, though, over the last twenty years, when Haitians witnessed a long-cherished goal - the overthrow of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986 and the holding of free elections in 1990, and ten years later, when the Dominican Republic elected Leonel Fernández as president in 1996, marking a final break from the tradition instituted by the dictator Rafael Trujillo which had seen Trujillo, his vice-president Joaquín Balaguer or their surrogates dominate the country's politics largely since 1930.

Since those pivotal moments, fate has not smiled on Haiti. The joy of the 1990 election, which saw the elevation to the office of the presidency of the former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was lost in the bloodshed of the coup that followed in 1991 and the military junta that ruled the country from 1991 until 1994. Returned to office by a U.S. invasion in 1994, Aristide again assumed the presidency in 2001, only to be ousted once more in 2004 by massive street protests and an armed rebellion, his administration drowning in a sea of violence, nepotism and corruption. A 2004 -2006 unelected interim government oversaw what can only be described as a low level civil-war between police, former rebel forces, street gangs loyal to Mr. Aristide and United Nations troops, finally culminating in the election and inauguration of René Préval , the only Haitian president ever to serve out his constitutionally-mandated term to elected office. Though Préval has made some steps towards stabilizing Haiti’s political situation and, to some degree, arresting its downward economic spiral, the essential myopic venality of Haiti’s political and economic classes and the dire poverty that contribute to that instability remain essentially unchanged.

In the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, despite its own share of corruption scandals since the mid-1990s, we have witnessed the peaceful handing of power from Leonel Fernández to Hipólito Mejía in 2000, and from Mejía back again to Fernández in 2004. The Dominican tourist industry has continued to blossom, and the passage of the DR-CAFTA treaty has opened the door for more economic development, such as was witnessed by the DR’s 10.7 percent economic growth last year.

But when we look more closely at these broad strokes, what kind of picture do we see?

The Dominican Republic, with a population of nearly 10 million, has an average life expectancy of around 73 years. It’s total infant mortality rate is around 28 deaths for every 1,000 live births, its literacy rate hovers around 85%, its unemployment around 16% and around 25% of its citizens are said to live below the poverty line. Many of these statistics would be considered fairly dreadful by most standards, but venture across the border to Haiti and observe the situation there. Haiti’s nearly 9 million people can look forward to a life expectancy of just 57 years, and the nation’s infant mortality rate claims almost 64 babies for every 1,000 live births. The literacy rate creeps just north of 50% of the population, two-thirds of the labor force have no formal jobs and 80% of people live below the poverty line. Over the past 50 years, 90 percent of Haiti’s tree cover has been destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming, with the resulting erosion destroying two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland.

But these are, in many ways, simply dry figures, devoid of humanity. What does it mean, for instance, to say that almost 100% of a country’s total population lives in the direst poverty, or that a natural resource as basic as tree cover has now been almost completely exploited and exhausted?

For me, the face of Haiti, its suffering, and its resilience, came in a thousand faces across this battered, bleeding land. I saw the history of Haiti written in the face of a young man from the slum of Cite Soleil, home to 250,000 souls in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, who spoke proficient English and French along with his native Kreyol and yet was forced, along with his brother, to work as a government gunman following the murder of his parents, only to be abandoned when his political patron fled the country and left his minions to fend for themselves. I saw the history of Haiti in another nearby slum, where a group of gentle souls had attempted to build a community out of the hollowed-around ruins of an expansive former torture chamber, so poor that they subsisted on cakes made out of clay and seasoned with inexpensive cubes of chicken or beef bouillon. And I saw the history of Haiti in the weathered visages of peasant farmers and market women in the village of Fonds-Verettes, below mist-shrouded mountains largely bare of trees, amidst a clutch of tarp-covered market stands and beside an immense field of boulder-sized rocks, where the rains of May 2004 killed over 900 people, their ferocity made doubly so by the lack of any trees to hold the topsoil fast when the tropical rains burst forth.

Not surprisingly, the lure of a better life in the Dominican Republic has proved irresistible to many Haitians, and currently there are an estimated 650,000 to one million undocumented Haitians living there. Though traditionally these Haitians have labored in the sugarcane fields, known as bateys, owned by individuals such as the Cuban-American sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, and the wealthy Vicini family, who are also owners of the Diario Libre newspaper, recently Haitians have also taken jobs in such urban endeavors as construction, auto repair and working in the country’s booming resorts. In the last several years, great tension has erupted between Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian-descent in the Dominican Republic, their advocates, the Fernández government and some of those in the country’s economic elite. Though many of the country’s industries, including the sugar and construction industries, are largely dependant on immigrant Haitian labor, an increasingly assertive movement for immigrant and worker rights in the Dominican Republic, spearheaded by such individuals as Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA) leader Sonia Pierre (herself born in a batey) and the Anglo-Spanish priest Father Christopher Hartley, have met with fierce resistance. The hostility between the Haitians and those who, on one hand, need their labor but on the other hand resent what they view as their ingratitude, as well as between the Haitians and poor Dominicans who view the Haitians as usurping their jobs and working for lower wages, has often erupted into violence.

In May 2005, in the border towns of Ouanaminthe and Dajabon, I witnessed the aftermath of the summary eviction of at least 3,5000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent following the murder of Dominican businesswoman Maritza Nuñez in Hatillo Palma, 166 miles northwest of the capital, Santo Domingo, for which four Haitian immigrants were blamed. I heard numerous stories of families separated, husbands from wives, parents from children, of destruction of homes by civilian mobs at times lead by local political leaders, of mistreatment at the hands of the Dominican military (including of immigration documents torn up by soldiers at the border) and of occasional murder, as well. These expulsions resulted in a formal protest being sent to the Fernández government by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, demanding that they not be repeated. But, unfortunately, the events of May 2005 appear to have been an opening salvo in an ongoing drumbeat against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent that has only grown shriller and uglier over the last two years.

Expulsions of this nature have continued, albeit on a smaller scale, as has violence against Haitians in the DR. In August 2005, three young Haitian men on the outskirts of Santo Domingo were set ablaze by a mob, and later died from their wounds. That same month, four Haitians were murdered by guards in a banana field in the Barahona region. In 2006, two more Haitians were burned to death by a mob in the village of Las Matas de Farfan. Two activist priests who had long advocated for the rights of Haitians laboring in the bateys, the aforementioned Father Christopher Hartley and the Belgian Father Pedro Ruquoy, were driven from the country in late 2006 and late 2005, respectively, amidst credible death threats and a campaign of vilification by some in the Dominican government and some elements of its media. In a May 2006 open letter to President Fernández , Amnesty International Secretary General IRené 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." A similar March 2007 press release by Amnesty stated that the "Dominican-born children, and even grandchildren," of Haitians, remained "as a permanent underclass, denied birth papers, and thus, access to schooling and decent jobs."

This release came after September 2005, when a legal team that included Sonia Pierre, successfully argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Dominican Republic was in violation of Articles 3, 5, 19, 20 and 24 of the American Convention on Human Right Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica in denying citizenship to two young girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico, born in the Dominican Republic. That decision also reinforced the fact that, in its denial of citizenship to persons born within its borders, the Dominican Republic was in violation of Article 11 of its own constitution, which guarantees Dominican citizenship to the all those born within its territory save for those "in transit" and the children of foreign diplomats. The Fernández government has said that, though it has begun paying damages to the two girls, it intends to disregard the commission’s expansive ruling.

What has been the broader response of the Fernández government to these incidents? A call to the rule of law? An appeal to Dominicans to make their vibrant, culturally rich, economically viable nation a place where those of whatever descent and whatever skin color can live together? Unfortunately, no.

Since its return to power in 2004, the Fernández government, which many had great hopes for, has appeared to be completely beholden to the whims of the country’s economic elite, and seems more than happy to use the plight of the Haitians within the Dominican Republic as a convenient scapegoat for its own failings. Recent threats to revoke the citizenship of Sonia Pierre, Dominican born and raised, an endeavor that would seem farcical were not the Dominican authorities apparently so set in carrying on with it to its logical, absurd and bitter conclusion, typify this approach. Dominican Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso, one of the bitterest critics of the newly-assertive Haitian presence in the Dominican Republic, has a long-standing relationship as an executive and major shareholder of the Central Romana sugar concern, along with the aforementioned Fanjuls; the Vicini family, who run the Batey dos Hermanos sugar-growing territory and whose Diario Libre newspaper has often been the font of vitriolic attacks against the advocates for the rights of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, also maintain close ties with the Fernández government.

Confronted about its human rights record in this regard, the Fernández government often posits, without any concrete proof, that a conspiracy of foreign governments and NGOs is underway, in an attempt to make the Dominican Republic take responsibility for Haiti, which they claim the international community has largely failed to do. While the incidents of violence against Haitians here described and the Dominican government’s response in no way rise to the level of the dictator Trujillo's 1937 massacre of between 15,000 to 20,000 Haitians throughout the country, they are nevertheless troubling coming from a country lead at present by a group of highly educated technocrats who, quite frankly, should know better.

By no means am I trying to let Haiti’s leaders off the hook for the calamitous condition their countrymen find themselves in. Over the last decade, as the Dominican Republic has prospered, Haiti’s political class has succeeded in murdering almost any hope the vast majority of decent, honest, hard-working Haitians have for their beleaguered country, along with thousands of Haitian citizens, continuing in a tradition that Frédéric Marcelin, a former Minister of Finance and noted author, characterized in 1904 as "civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism." Haiti’s leaders in general and Mr. Aristide in particular have much to answer for in their chronic betrayal of the legitimate hopes of Haiti’s poor majority. Likewise I agree that the Dominican Republic cannot accept unfettered and unrestrained immigration from its neighbor to the west.

However, I would argue that the present approach of the Fernández government to the Haitian question in the Dominican Republic is both disingenuous and inhumane. Disingenuous because it refuses to adequately address the vast networks of human trafficking and abusive labor practices that bring Haitians to the Dominican Republic in the first place, many with credible links to some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, while essentially choosing to crucify the powerless victims of such smuggling. Inhumane because it seeks to disenfranchise tens of thousands of Dominican citizens for no other reason that the country of their ancestry and the color of their skin. I know the righteous and justifiable outrage that would greet any similar treatment meted out to the estimated 1 million Dominicans living in my hometown of New York City, and I can only ponder the motivations of such policies.

In November 2006, speaking at Counterpart International's headquarters in Washington, DC, President Fernández said that, regarding Haiti’s security and economic development, Haiti could not "do it alone," and that he hoped that Haiti could " turn around economically." On some level, then, the Dominican government must. in fact realize what is at stake is not the political expediency of the moment, but the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

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 appears content to fan the flames of xenophobia and bigotry.

In his 1943 novel of Haitian peasant life, Gouverneurs de la Rosée (translated into English as Masters of the Dew), the great Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain surveyed the environmental and economic devastation of his country and penned the following lines, and I would like to conclude with them as they give a poignant window into the human dimension of the forces that drive Haitians across the border in the first place, and the gravity of what they risk once they get there.

Life had dried up…One only had to listen to this silence to hear death. One yielded to this torpor and felt himself already buried. The regular and repeated blows of the mallets in the mortars had become stilled since there wasn’t a grain of millet to husk. How far things were from the good old days of the konbit, from the virile joyous chants of the men folk, from the sparkling, swinging hoes in the sun, from those happy years when we used to dance the minuet under the arbors with the carefree voices of dark young girls bursting forth like a fountain in the night. . . . Can a man die like that, as a breath of air blows out a candle, as a pruning knife cuts a weed, as fruit falls from the tree and rots?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A brave battle against corruption?

Let's hope so...

Late this week Haiti's president René Préval, following the lead of such brave voices-in-the-wilderness as Haitian senator Gabriel Fortuné, declared at an event celebrating the 204th anniversary of the Haitian flag that 2007 would be "the year of the war against corruption," and compared those involved with corrupt practices today to the "traitors" of two centuries ago.

Notably, Préval included in his denunciation, customs officials who receive bribes to let contraband cargo pass through, state employees dipping into the government till and judges who free prisoners in exchange for cash payments.

Calling on both the Unité de lutte contre la corruption (ULCC) and the Unité centrale de renseignements financiers (UCREF) to aid in the battle, one would hope the declaration of Haiti's president is a welcome official nod of solidarity with the efforts of organizations such as the Fondation Héritage pour Haïti, the domestic branch of Transparency International, which has pushed to keeo the ULCC as an autonomous body, rather than one under the control of Haiti's Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances, a move pushed for by members of Haiti's parliament.

If Haiti is ever going to succeed in weeding out the corruption that has had its tentacles coiled around the state almost since its founding, and reduce the poverty which former Police Nationale de Haiti director Jean-Robert Faveur once mournfully noted, is "killing the country," it will need autonomous agencies such as ULCC and UCREF that are not beholden to any politician's ego or vested interests.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Another journalist slain in Haiti as an accused murderer walks free

From Haiti we hear that Alix Joseph, director of Radio-Télé Provinciale, a private radio station in the northern Haitian port town of Gonaives, was shot and killed there on Wednesday night by two unidentified gunmen as he sat in a car with his fiancée, the Associated Press and Haiti’s Radio Kiskeya are reporting. Evidently, some in the town, which is rife with competing armed politico-criminal factions of varying loyalties, had recently grown irked at the station’s reporting on corruption issues in the region. In some aspects, the killing is worryingly reminiscent of the slaying of government Deputy Marc-Andre Durogène in February 2002.

The killing comes following what is possibly the darkest day for the Haitian judiciary since René Préval assumed the presidency last year: The liberation without trial of former Fanmi Lavalas party Deputy Amanus Mayette, a man accused of the most atrocious human rights abuses as the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide sputtered to an end in February 2004. As one of the leaders of the pro-Aristide Bale Wouze paramilitary gang in the northern Haitian town of Saint-Marc, Mayette has been accused by multiple witnesses of being one of the organizers of the multi-day mass killing of Aristide opponents - as well as politically unaffiliated civilians - in the town over that month when, by authoritative accounts, at least 27 people were slain . Mayette, accounts of eyewitnesses claim, also helped to decapitate Leroy Joseph in front of his wife and children in Saint-Marc that month. The result of some rather curious maneuvering by public prosecutor Rocky Pierre, the release occurs shamefully on the heels of the death of Hugues Saint-Pierre, the president of the Cour d’Appel des Gonaïves, in a road accident and has occasioned protests by the victims and families of victims of the 2004 killings.

Those victims of Saint Marc still cry out for justice but, alas, there still seems to be precious little of that in today’s Haiti.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Cidade Maravilhosa, Bala perdida

Thanks to the Rio de Janiero daily O Dia for this sadly apt portrait of my favorite city.

Ghosts, Bandits and Cité Soleil

Recently, while perusing some new Haiti-related news items, I came upon a piece titled, with typical sober understatement, "Leni Riefenstahl goes to Haiti' on the Haiti Action Committee website. The Haiti Action Committee, for those who have been mercifully spared taking any notice of them, is the largely lily-white collection of Northern California "activists" that coalesced in 2004 following the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after months of massive street protests against his rule and an armed rebellion in February of that year. Since then, the organization's mission has seemed chiefly to excuse all of the excesses of Mr. Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas political party, prevent the voting that brought Haitian President Rene Preval back to office last year, and attack the democratic left in Haiti at every turn.

Written by one Charlie Hinton, whose previous contributions to Haiti Action Committee website included a piece accusing the progressive publication In These Times of being part of "an international media campaign designed to tarnish and discredit the Aristide government," the article is mostly a fairly routine denunciation of the Danish director Asger Leth's upcoming documentary Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which in part focuses on two young brothers I used to know from the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité Soleil, James Petit-Frere and Winston Jean-Bart, aka "Billy" and "Tupac," both since slain in Haiti's political wars. The Hinton article (also reprinted on the mirror Haiti Solidarity website) is standard for this sort of stuff - it accepts Aristide's claims that he was "kidnapped" by U.S. forces at fact value despite substantial evidence to the contrary - but what really caught my eye was a statement from the American filmmaker Kevin Pina stating that "Billy (James) and I had a falling out over the question of his accepting money from foreign journalists to hype this question of Aristide and gangsters. The more they paid the more outlandish became his claims "

Having seen neither Ghosts of Cité Soleil nor Kevin Pina's new film, We Must Kill Bandits, I make no judgment on the value or lack thereof of either of them, but Kevin Pina's statement about someone I considered a friend, now no longer around to defend himself, is something I can comment on, all the more so because, though he would probably be horrified should anyone on the pro-Aristide fanatic fringe he associates with find out, Kevin Pina and I actually used to be pretty good friends.

But first a little about James Petit-Frere. I myself was introduced to James on the steps of the Hotel Oloffson in November 2001 by a French photographer with over 20 years experience living and working in Haiti, who spoke Kreyol fluently and had been visiting Cité Soleil since it was known as Cité Simone (in honor of the dictator Francois Duvalier's wife) in 1979. The photographer had known James, as had the award-winning photographer Carol Guzy, since he was a young boy, carrying photography equipment around for reporters covering the Aristide-requested U.S.-lead invasion of Haiti in 1994. Trenton Daniel, at the time a Reuters reporter in Haiti and now ably reporting for the Miami Herald in South Florida was also present at that first meeting.

James hailed from Cité Soleil, and he was nothing if not a child of Aristide. His mother, a community activist, had been killed in Cité Soleil shortly after the coup against Aristide in 1991, and his father during the FRAPH paramilitary raid on the bidonville in December 1993. Afterwards, for a time, he had become a habitué of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi organization and a favorite guide for English-speaking journalists who wanted to visit his home district. Following Tupac’s incarceration on kidnapping charges he was never convicted of (after Tupac dared to question his bosses among the Fanmi Lavalas grandees), he had also become the leader of his older brother’s group of armed pro-Aristide militants in the Soleil 19 section of the slum. Like all of the Cité Soleil "militants," as they called themselves (save for the truly psychotic among them), James was a complicated human being, capable of great insight, warmth and friendship, but also capable of real violence as a result of both the situation they found themselves in and personal proclivity (the majority of people in poor neighborhoods like Cité Soleil never touched a firearm in their lives but were merely innocent bystanders - and victims - of the various armed group vying for power in Haiti).

Over the years, I got to know Cité Soleil through the eyes of James and his friends. I met his wife, Helena, and their children, and accompanied people from the slum to the public beaches north of Port-au-Prince when they would rent a tap-tap to take their families to frolic in the polluted water there for the day. Though he had difficulty reading, James did his best to work his way through John Lee Anderson's massive and brilliant biography of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and really did believe, as Aristide frequently told the young gunmen at meetings which took place at Haiti's National Palace and at Aristide's private resident in the suburb of Tabarre, that he was at the vanguard of a much-needed and long-awaited change to empower the poor majority in Haiti. As the situation in Haiti deteriorated, though, and as the gunmen in the slums continued to be alternately courted and killed by political and police officials of the Fanmi Lavalas political party, the dance between the Cité Soleil boys and their patrons in the government became one of extreme mutual circumspection. Following Aristide's flight into exile, the boys followed their former leader's lead by heading abroad for a time, but both found themselves back in Haiti in late 2004. Winston "Tupac" Jean-Bart was slain by police working in collusion with the gang leader Robinson "Labanye" Thomas in September 2004. James himself, wounded in a gun battle with police, dragged from his hospital bed and arrested, escaped in an early 2005 jailbreak only, by all reports, to be recognized by police and killed a short time later, a terrible waste of human potential that still bothers me to this day. The circumstances of James' alleged murder were re-confirmed to me by the Martissant gang leader Wilkens "Chien Chaud" Pierre, when I visited that neighborhood in July 2006. Wilkens himself was killed later that year.

As for Kevin Pina. I was first introduced to Kevin at the beginning of 2001 by the American anthropologist Nina Clara Schnall, who knew of my interest in making sure that all voices in Haiti's political drama be heard. Knowing that Kevin lived in a very working-class (if they only had work) neighborhood in the upper Delmas Road region, Nina and I visited to attend a meeting of the Organisation de la Providence Unie pour le Développement Socio-Economique de Pétionville (SOPUDEP). When I returned to Haiti to take over the job as Reuters correspondent in Port-au-Prince in the fall of 2001, Kevin and I saw one another fairly regularly. Though he never mentions it (and though he frequently assails any appearance of conflict of interest in others), Kevin at the time was a frequent employee of the Aristide government-run Television Nationale d'Haiti (TNH), and received regular payments from the Aristide government for his work there. I visited him at the station several times and he often complained about how late the Aristide government was in paying him (a concern, as an often freelance journalist, that I could relate to). We attended quite a few meetings of Fanmi Lavalas political organizations together an often discussed the political goings-on over beer and griot either at my home in Pacot or Kevin's house in Delmas, back when foreigners in Haiti could still seem to discuss politics on a civilized, non-dogmatic level.

Interestingly enough, Cité Soleil was one of the engines for our growing apart. When I started going down there with James and many of his friends, seeing the firepower they had, seeing them meet (visibly armed) with the police, seeing them sitting around a table with Aristide at the National Palace, I felt that I could no longer ignore the Aristide government's obvious reliance on paramilitary and extra-judicial actors to enforce its will. In fact, as I allude to in my book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), it got to the point where the militants would call me when the National Palace instructed them to attack this or that demonstration to A) tell me I would have a good story the following day or B) be careful. At that point, having never taken me up on my offer to meet with them, Kevin told me that the militants were "lying" to me. Again I told him to come see for himself. Again he refused. To my knowledge, despite Kevin's claim in the Hinton article that he introduced James and Tupac "to several foreign journalists," up until mid-2003, contact between the two was virtually non-existent, though that situation may have changed over the last few months of Aristide's reign. Tupac only exited jail in the famous January 1, 2004 "escape," and to the best of my knowledge he and Kevin never had any sort of substantial contact at all. With plenty of contacts in (and respect from) various international journalists who worked in Haiti, James didn't really need anyone's largess in terms of making introductions for him.

After some among these self-same militants were sent out to beat up the university students over the summer of 2002 (who were protesting against Aristide's attempt to stuff the university administration with Lavalas die-hards), the students, people who had lost their money in a government-endorsed pyramid investment scheme, and the political actors who had always hated Aristide began to link up. The weekend of a huge demonstration in Cap Haitien in November 2002, I invited Kevin to drive up with me as I knew he was working on a film about the Haitian political scene. Again, he refused. It turned out to be the largest demonstration against Aristide (with many peasants) that had taken place in the country up to that point. After that, we didn't have much to say to one another. To me, when someone closes their eyes and their mind to what's going on in front of them, that with every violent action against his opposition that Aristide was provoking an ever-bigger and more uncontrollable reaction, and that the arming of the gangs was bound to blow up in his face (as it did in the city of Gonaives following the September 2003 murder of Amiot "Cubaine" Metayer), it is simply counterproductive to the struggles of the poor people that government claimed to represent and a betrayal of one's journalistic mission to tell the unvarnished, unpleasant truth. Out of the respect I hold for friendships, be they defunct or not, I've never criticized Kevin publicly, but this recent slur against James, someone I considered a friend, someone no longer around to defend themselves, compels me to speak. In the years that I knew him, I never once saw James exaggerate the Aristide government's collusion with the armed gangs in the slums and to say that he did so, and what's more did so for money, is a grievous misrepresentation, pure and simple

James Petit-Frere and those like him where never feted in the grand salons of the Lavalas barons like former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Aristide government spokesman Mario Dupuy, they were never pampered and received like the regime's spokesman such Annette “So Anne” Auguste when they traveled abroad. Indeed, for these guys, going across the border to the Dominican Republic represented that height of exotic international travel. James, his brother and hundreds of other young men like them were disposable; to Haiti's economic elite, to Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas government and to its foreign supporters, and to the interim government that came after. Once they outlived their usefulness to any particular political patron, they had a very short life-expectancy, and they knew it. I have often been criticized for, in my articles, trying to give some insight into the lives of these young boys, with both Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters and opponents seeking to discredit their views and experiences at every turn for the bitter mirror they turn on the irresponsibility of Haiti's economic and political classes.

Though I still bear Kevin Pina no ill will, it is unfortunate that he could not restrain himself from libeling the dead, who gave the ultimate measure of devotion, misguided or not, in trying to change their country. It is also unfortunate that, after all his time in Haiti, Kevin Pina could not come up with a more accurate and truthful depiction of the political battles that have claimed the lives of so many young men and women such as my dear, dead friend James. They deserved much better than to be used as political footballs by the cynical, the deluded and the naive.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Underreported: An Update on Kashmir

I appeared on WNYC New York Public Radio today discussing the situation in Kashmir and my recent trip there, rather amusingly sandwiched in between Mathieu Eugene, celebrating his election as the first Haitian-American member of the New York City Council, and the still-very-fetching supermodel Paulina Porizkova, discussing her new book. You can listen to Leonard Lopate’s full interview of me here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Deibert on WNYC

I will be interviewed on the Underreported segment of WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show regarding my recent trip to Kashmir at some point between 12 noon and 1pm tomorrow. Tune in if you have a chance!