Thursday, April 17, 2008

Michael Deibert responds to Peter Hallward

Michael Deibert responds to Peter Hallward

On my blog last month, I posted a lengthy review of the book Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, written by Middlesex University Professor Peter Hallward [1].

As I noted at the time, the work - composed chiefly of interviews with supporters of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and often unreliably-referenced secondary source material - appeared to represent an attempt by Hallward, who had visited Haiti only twice during its writing and never bothered to learn to speak its poetic native Kreyol language, to excuse the excesses of Aristide’s 2001-2004 second mandate and argue that the president, far from being an exacerbating force in Haiti’s multitude of problems, was instead the hapless victim of a vast plot by local and foreign adversaries. Having first visited Haiti in 1997, and reported on the country for a variety of media outlets from 2000 until 2006, I knew Hallward’s thesis to be an incorrect one, and set about outlining what I found to be some of the more pernicious falsehoods with which he attempted to back it up.

This month, Peter Hallward, writing on the website Haiti Analysis [2], itself a veritable font of fanatical pro-Aristide propaganda, chose to respond to my critique of his book in an article that was subsequently reprinted on the website of MRZine.

Preoccupied as I am with reporting on the struggles of disenfranchised and disadvantaged peoples from often remote and violent locations (Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, India-administered Kashmir, Haiti itself), I confess that I haven’t had the time or inclination to keep up with every self-justifying bit of moral and intellectual acrobatics performed by the affluent foreign commentators that have comprised the bulk of support for Haiti’s disgraced former president since his ouster in February 2004. Given the array of very serious problems that confront Haiti these days - a dysfunctional parliament, spiraling food costs and attendant demonstrations, rampant deforestation and environmental degradation - the attention of those concerned with the country’s fate may indeed also be better focused elsewhere rather than on a protracted back-and-forth between two foreign intellectuals over a book of negligible interest or value to alleviating those ills.

However, briefly, in the interest of correcting the historical record which he seems content to muddy, I will respond to Peter Hallward’s response of my review of his book here.

Though Hallward writes that my 2005 book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press) was “applauding the overthrow” of the second Aristide government, a more accurate characterization might be that it was mourning the fraying of the broad social-democratic coalition that ousted the Duvalier dictatorship for power in 1986 and first brought Aristide to office in 1990, along with criticizing Aristide’s own role in that collapse. Having seen first hand the hopes that Haiti’s poor majority had invested in Aristide, and the way those hopes were cynically betrayed, far from glee and joy at the events of the president’s second mandate, to me the only appropriate response seemed to be sadness and regret at the waste of opportunity and human potential. Writers like Peter Hallward don’t seem to give much credence to emotions such as those when strident sloganeering will do, but I have found in my years in Haiti that political life there exists, not in black and white, but in varying shades of grey, where today’s democrat can be tomorrow’s despot and yesterday’s oppressor can be viewed as today’s unlikely liberator.

Hallward states in his response that I suggested that he deliberately misquoted Anne Hastings, the director of Haiti's lauded micro-credit institution Fonkoze, as coming out in full-throated defense of the Aristide government in his interview with her. Though Hallward may be bothered by a guilty conscience at this point, I said nothing of the sort. Writing to Hasting, who I have known for the better part of the decade as someone who stayed above the fray of Haitian politics to better continue Fonkoze‘s work of aiding Haiti‘s poor, I simply asked whether or not Hallward’s quotation of her was accurate. She responded in a 27 January 2008 email as follows [3]:

I don't think I have ever said or ever would say that. I am always very careful to say I don't know whether there is substance or not. It is up to the Haitian people to make their decision.

In his response to my review, Peter Hallward confirms that his quotation of Anne Hastings was erroneous. Whether it was intentional or not, I have no idea, but it does point to what, in my view, is a troubling pattern in Hallward’s work. Though I can’t claim omniscience in decoding Peter Hallward’s intentions when it comes to presenting such a curiously selected litany of false information as objective history, I do find, given his stated sympathies to the Aristide government and the Fanmi Lavalas party before starting his book or even visiting Haiti, that all of his “errors” should conveniently support his erroneous thesis rather suggestive. Nearly every one of the main claims in Damming the Flood - that the 2000 elections that returned Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power were free and fair, that the Aristide government was not actively involved in arming and organizing street gangs to crush its political opposition, that the government still retained a great deal of popular support in late 2003/early 2004 - are false, and demonstrably so, by the historical record as I laid out in my original review.

When Hallward, writes, for instance, that the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) Haitian human rights organization was part of "a very partial list of the recipients of USAID, IFES and/or IRI support" during the years leading up to the 2004 overthrow of Aristide, that is false. In his response to my review, Hallward tries to wriggle out of being caught in this obvious inaccuracy by writing that “NCHR’s receipt of USAID money… (is) a matter of the US Congressional record.” In my reviews of the sources of funding for NCHR Haiti (which later became RNDDH), I have found no evidence of money distributed to the group’s Port-au-Prince office by USAID. Seeking further confirmation, I wrote to Pierre Esperance, the group’s director, and he responded on 10 April 2008 with the following email [4]:

RNDDH has never and will not accepted funds from US government.

Though RNDDH/NCHR did receive funding from organziations such as Christian Aid, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Lutheran World Federation and a one-time grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), I still have found no eveidence of the group receiving funding from the United States government.

As to the Hallward’s characterization the massacre of anti-government militants in the northern city of Saint-Marc in February 2004 (along with innocent civilians), as always with Peter Hallward, any vile attack carried out by forces loyal to Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a “clash,” much as the vicious attack on protesting university students on 5 December 2003 (one of the defining moments in the end of Aristide’s second government) was “a brawl.” If Hallward doesn’t view the massacre at least 27 human beings and attendant atrocities such as gang rape which, given the presence of Unite de Securite de la Garde du Palais National d’Haiti personnel and gang members from the capital dressed in police uniforms, was certainly carried out with government knowledge, as a “crime against humanity,” it is hard to know what would qualify as such.

Peter Hallward could have written a perfectly reasonable, factual book outlining why he thought the second Aristide government as it existed deserved to be allowed to finish its mandate, however appalling its excesses, and why the convergence of forces against the president and his political party (many of them thrown together by Aristide’s own actions) would, in the long run, cause even greater harm to Haiti’s poor majority than the violent, corrupt and despotic actors who ruled Haiti from 2001 until 2004.

That is not, however, what Hallward did.

Based on a review of his secondary source material and discussions with some of his primary sources, I have concluded that Hallward, either through intention or through a series of extraordinarily ideologically fortuitous mistakes, time and again printed false information that flies in the face of the documented record and, indeed, the transcripts of his own interviews.

As for Peter Hallward’s statement that I view his book as being written by “an ignorant outsider,” I will simply say this: We are all, those of us of foreign birth who write on Haiti, outsiders to one degree or another. The question is whether or not, that being the case, we operate in good faith when chronicling events in this small, impoverished country. Over the better part of a decade, encouraged by the example of many brave Haitian journalists, I did my best to act in good faith while reporting from a vast array of locales around Haiti about the desire of the Haitian people for a responsive and responsible government to address their legitimate grievances and historic disenfranchisement. I did so often at considerable personal risk and for little or no financial reward. It was the least I owed the long-suffering people there who entrust outsiders such as myself with trying to help the world understand their story.

Finishing Damming the Flood, I believe knowing whether or not Peter Hallward operated in similar good faith is open to debate, but the evidence is not encouraging.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).

1. A Review of Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment , March 16, 2008.

2. One of the “editors” of Haiti Analysis, a seemingly-eternal graduate student named Jeb Sprague, first announced his presence to me by emailing me (unsolicited) a graphic photo of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked bodies of a Haitian mother and her children along with a smiley-face emoticon. I was left shrugging that perhaps Sprague suffered from some sort of mental illness, as he viewed the dead mother and her toddlers appropriate material for some sort of cheap joke.

3. Email from Anne Hastings, 27 Janaury 2008

4. Email from Pierre Esperance, 10 April 2008.

(Author's note: This response was submitted to
MRZine editor Yoshie Furuhashi who, apparently in the interest of stifling and obscuring discussion on the subject of Haiti, refused to print it. So much for free debate.)

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