Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A new Lebanon-based blog of note

My friend and fellow journalist Irina Prentice has a new blog written from her home in Beirut featuring her articles and observations about life and politics in Lebanon since her arrival in January 2005. It’s definitely worth a read to get some on-the-ground, unfiltered perspective on the complex political situation in the country, so you go have a look at it here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obama's election night party in Columbia, South Carolina.

There are about 300 million reasons why I like this picture.

Fidel's view

My review of Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography, as told by Fidel Castro to Ignacio Ramonet, is the lead book review in today's Miami Herald. As Herald links tend to become defunct after a few week's time, following tradition, I am reposting the review in its entirety here. To read the original review, please click on the link below.


Fidel's view

The lack of hard-nosed questioning by the interviewer disappoints, but the drama of the dictator's life remains.

Posted on Sun, Jan. 27, 2008


The Miami Herald

(Read the original review here)

FIDEL CASTRO: MY LIFE: A Spoken Autobiography.

Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet. Andrew Hurley, translator. Scribner. 724 pages. $40.

Deeply flawed but still fascinating, Cuban leader Fidel Castro's sprawling attempt at autobiography -- as told to Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of the left-wing French monthly Le Monde diplomatique -- represents perhaps the most sustained document yet extant of Castro's vision of himself and the nation he has ruled for almost 50 years.

The product of more than 100 hours of interviews conducted in Havana between 2003 and 2005, the book opens with an introduction by Ramonet that lets the reader know that any semblance of a vigorous interrogation in the book's 700-plus page Q&A format will not be in the offing.

Cuba is ''part of the vast offensive against neoliberalism and globalization'' in which ''the vindication of the figure of Fidel Castro (has) never been so strong,'' Ramonet writes before announcing that, at any rate, he never intended to be too confrontational in the questions put to his subject.

Fortunately, with a life rich in drama and with a subject as skilled in the nuances of sustained public speaking as Castro, there is still plenty here of interest.

Castro's accounts of his incipient rebel movement's disastrous attack on the Moncada Barracks in July 1953 (an attempt to oust the dictator Fulgencio Batista that resulted in the deaths of around 70 of the 160 men fighting and in Castro's imprisonment) and his later account of the guerrilla war against Batista's troops in the mountains of eastern Cuba make for riveting reading. Likewise, Castro's long ruminations on the person and legacy of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara (whom Castro describes as having had ``a presence so strong, so powerful, so intense that you can't manage to conceive that [he is] dead''), and his dealings with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis, add a welcome new personal dimension to already well-documented historical events.

In Castro's view of the world, whether admitting to supplying weapons to Algerian independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella's FLN in 1961 or to El Salvador's FMLN rebels in the 1970s, or in his fits of pique against the Soviet Union (''They negotiated everything without consulting us,'' he says bitterly and probably accurately), he speaks of a vision of Cuba as a global player in some of the great political struggles of the second half of the 20th century. Clearly, Castro seems to be saying, Cuba had an historical role to play in global liberation movements from Africa to Latin America, and the country under his leadership didn't shrink from its responsibility.

In the face of his garrulous subject, though, Ramonet appears to have a hard-time prioritizing different aspects of the book's narrative. Guevara's death during a guerrilla campaign in Bolivia warrants an entire chapter, but then again, Ramonet appears to think, so does former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's largely inconsequential 2002 visit to the island.

Diffuseness is not the book's Achilles heel, however, which instead comes from the over-awed nature of the questioner himself. Castro has a rather prickly attitude toward criticism, so it's likely that, with a less star-struck interviewer, this book might not exist at all. But it is hard not to be bothered by Ramonet's credulity, which often veers dangerously close to hagiography.

Castro's claims regarding Cuba's human rights record go unchallenged by undue mention of his government's systematic imprisonment of such writers as Reinaldo Arenas and Raúl Rivero, or human rights activists such as Oscar Elías Biscet (currently serving a 25-year sentence in a Cuban jail). Castro's explanation of the 1989 show trial and execution on drug trafficking and treason charges of Arnaldo Ochoa, a general whose independence and popularity were said to be viewed as a threat by the Cuban leader, rings brutally hollow, and Ramonet blithely allows the opportunity for a more rigorous examination of one of the most shadowy elements of recent Cuban history to slip away.

Similarly, some of Castro's more outlandish statements, such as that Batista's government (however wretched and violent) was guilty of ''genocide'' and that the United States supplied nuclear weapons to the apartheid regime in South Africa -- a charge for which no evidence at all exists -- are unquestioningly accepted. While lauding the country's progress in health care and education, Ramonet appears supremely unbothered that Castro leads a tightly controlled single-party state where public criticism of the government and its leader are strictly prohibido.

One concludes that, with more ambition and more objectivity, and by supplementing his unparalleled access to Cuba's leader with interviews from other sources pivotal in his history, personal and political, Ramonet could have well come up with a touchstone work of biography. Unfortunately, though, with its uncritical tone and unquestioning, doctrinaire approach, Fidel Castro, while interesting for the window it gives us into the thoughts and analysis of one of the 20th century's most important and iconic political figures, leaves the opportunity for the definitive portrait of this complex world figure yet to be written.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

45,000 people dying a month in Congo, says report

As the government of President Joseph Kabila squabbled with representatives of renegade general Laurent Nkunda’s Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) and local Mai-Mai militias over the terms of a peace deal in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war-wracked east, a new report sheds light on the human cost of this largely-ignored conflict.

The report, by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Australia's Burnet Institute, asserts that mortality rates remain “unchanged” since the group’s last survey in 2004 and that even as “mortality rates are significantly higher in the volatile eastern provinces than in the west of the country… mortality rates have risen significantly in the center of DR Congo.”

The study goes on to estimate that 5.4 million excess deaths have occurred between August 1998 and April 2007, and an estimated 2.1 million of those deaths have occurred since the formal end of war in 2002. That comes out to 45,000 people dying every month, largely from preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. That is a monthly death rate nearly 60 percent higher than the average for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide helped tip central Africa into perpetual war, a little-reported humanitarian disaster has unfolded, month by month, year by year, with the most vulnerable of Congo’s populace - especially women and children - being subject to unimaginable cruelties by various Congolese political factions as well as the cross-border ambitions of Rwanda, Angola and other countries. As multinationals line up to exploit Congo’s rich mineral resources, the political problems that have helped cause these problems still have yet to be addressed in a substantive way by the international community, despite the presence of nearly 17,000 United Nations troops in the country.

I depart for Congo in little more than a week, and over the next several months, will do my best to cover the struggles of the people there in the face of such violence and hardship. Hopefully, in some way, these reports will help turn the focus of international discourse to this long-suffering part of the world.

Peux ce que veux.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Reflections on Côte d’Ivoire’s economic outlook

My five-part series on Côte d’Ivoire’s economic prospects was published by the Financial Times’ Foreign Direct Investment magazine at the end of last year and recently became available online.

The report include a pair of overviews of the country’s current political-economic condition, which can be read here and here, an interview with Chairman and CEO of the Village de Technologies de l’Information et de la Biotechnologie Vincent Gadou Kragbe, an examination of other commodities looming on Côte d’Ivoire’s horizon beyond cocoa and a look at the country’s vibrant telecoms industry.

Remembering Andy Palacio

In the fall of 2003, I lived in Guatemala for a time while covering that country’s presidential election. My work reporting on the electoral contest between former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his opponent Óscar Berger, and the legacy of the country’s terrible 36-year civil war, took me to many parts of this often almost surreally beautiful place.

In Guatemala City, I spoke with people like Jose Ruben Zamora, editor of Guatemala's El Periodico newspaper, and listened to his struggle trying to function as an independent, investigative journalist in a country where clandestine forces attacked him physically and regularly threatened him with death. I traveled through the breathtaking but tragic Triángulo Ixil, the homeland of the Ixil Maya nestled in the Cuchumatanes mountains, interviewing Indians and religious officials about their experiences during the war and during the then-current rule of Rios Montt’s political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG). I ventured into the lush jungle of the Petén to interview former members of the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC) that Rios Montt had set up in the 1980s as a kind of civilian paramilitary against the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP) rebels, as if the military’s scorched-earth attacks against Mayan civilians weren’t enough.

But I also saw the pleasant side of Guatemala, and one of the most lovely parts began with a voyage down the Rio Dulce on a small boat, fecund vegetation hanging from the opposite banks, on my way to a small town named Livingston on the Bahía de Amatique. Quite different from the indigenous and mestizo culture that dominated elsewhere in Guatemala, Livingston was in fact home to the Garifuna, the descendants of Amerindian tribes and African slaves who live scattered in coastal settlements in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua, speaking an Arawakan language as well as an Spanish and often Caribbean-accented English.

When my boat pulled up to the jetty, a dreadlocked old man threw a rope around it and said “You don’t have to worry no more. You’re in Africa now.” I spent quite a few days in Livingston, decompressing from several stressful weeks reporting, and I got to see a bit of the Garifuna and their culture, which often included pumping Garifuna-language music blaring out of the speakers at hotels and restaurants. It was a constant echo in the background when I would stop to chat with the matrons sipping lemonade at the Café Bar Ubougarifuna.

Many Garifuna worry that their culture - the unique language, the music, the history, the very way of life - is disappearing amidst the influence of other Caribbean styles and, particularly, North American hip-hop culture.

No one in recent years did more to promote Garifuna culture than the songwriter, singer and guitarist Andy Palacio. Born in a small coastal village in Belize in 1960, Palacio defiantly sang the vast majority of his songs in Garifuna, and utilized distinctive Garifuna rhythms in his compositions. Named a UNESCO Artist for Peace last year, he also released an outstanding album, called Wátina (which means “I called out” in Garifuna) in 2007. Buoyant, uplifting, yet at the same time, thoughtful, music. Palacio’s recent success has helped spur a revival of interest in preserving Garifuna culture, not least of all among the Garifuna themselves.

Andy Palacio passed away, far too young, of a massive stroke and heart attack on Saturday evening. An eloquent spokesman and passionate artistic champion for an often-marginalized people, Andy Palacio’s loss will be deeply felt, but all his work at promoting and helping to preserve Garifuna culture will not be forgotten, not least of all by this journalist. When my African sojourn finishes this fall, it may very well be time to visit with the Garifuna again, and listen closely to what they and their music have to tell the world.

Ayo, Andy Palacio.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The case of Altaf Ahmad Khan

It is easy to destroy someone’s life and reputation. It is much harder to give such things back.

On my daily perusal of news this morning, the sky still hovering black over Paris, I came across the story of Altaf Ahmad Khan. On 7 January, the Times of India reported the following:

In what could be a pointer to the terror build-up in the state, Kerala cops on Saturday night arrested a Srinagar resident for his alleged links with Pakistan-based Hizb-ul Mujahideen. Altaf Ahmad Khan — wanted in several terror cases in Jammu & Kashmir — was held from the tourist town of Kumili in Idukki district where he was working in a shop, police said.

Terrible, the casual reader might say, that Kashmiri militant groups who have committed such acts as the December 2000 attack on New Delhi’s Red Fort , in which three people died, and the 2001 suicide attack on India’s parliament which left 14 dead, would set up shop in the Indian state known for its tropical Malabar Coast, one of the country’s main tourist attractions. In a follow-up article, the Times of India announced that “security in Kerala assembly was stepped up on Friday following an anonymous letter threatening to blow up the building to avenge the arrest of a Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) terrorist in Idukki district,” going on later in the article to note that Altaf Ahmad Khan was “a Srinagar resident with alleged links to Pakistan-based HuM.”

All of this would be all well and good except for the fact that, as of yet, Altaf Ahmad Khan is apparently not, in fact, wanted for any terrorist activity at all in Jammu and Kashmir. This is a fact that the Times of India apparently feels no need to correct even given the attestation by Senior Superintendent of Police in Srinagar, S A Mujtabah, to the Greater Kashmir website, that “We have written to Kerala police that Altaf Ahmad Khan is not required by Jammu and Kashmir police and is not involved in any activity.” In fact, more than any great coup on the part of Kerala’s law enforcement agencies, the arrest of Altaf Ahmad Khan appears to be little more than the latest indication of a pattern of harassment of Kashmiri merchants in the state, a pattern I recall continuing from at least this time last year when I was living in Bombay and read about Kashmiri immigrants being harassed as “terrorists.”

I have hoped for a greater engagement with the complex political and ethno-religious dimensions of modern India by the international media, many of whose members seem as if they can barely be bothered to move from their desks in New Delhi. Having reported from places like Haiti over the years, where I have seen both mainstream journalist and shrieking activist types fall victim to the same newcomer arrogance, I have never thought that repeating one’s own opinions, without vigorously challenging them with boots-on-the-ground, enterprising journalism, is any way to go about what I still believe can be a fairly important and influential profession.

But I must say, particularly as I read this news about the casual defamation of an (apparently) blameless man, it did nothing to dissuade me of the notion that the local Indian press also has done a pretty underwhelming job of covering the country and its political and social developments, particularly in its constant uncritical repetition of the Indian government line when it comes to writing about "militants" in Kashmir. As I wrote in my article The Dead and the Missing in Kashmir, published in the Spring 2007 issue of the World Policy Journal and the product of many hours interviewing around the state, the Indian government's portrayal of the complex, violent conflict there has been so awash in lies and deception over the years that, in my view, it represents a terrible failure on the part of many sectors of the Indian press that they remain so silent on it.

Much of the pedestrian spleen-venting that does make into the (particularly) U.S. press as commentary on coverage of India (such as Samanth Subramanian's lazy, haphazard article in the recent New Republic) hardly helps matters, in my view, and is one of the reasons that the stereotypical images of India continue to dominate as opposed to measured, critical pieces on such subjects as the reelection of the xenophobic demagogue Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat or the murderous actions of the government of West Bengal against the farmers of Nandigram, to say nothing of the country’s dazzling modern culture and intellectual life, which goes far beyond simply Bollywood to include thinkers running the gamut from Bangladeshi émigré writer Taslima Nasreen to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and beyond.

There are notable exceptions, of course, journalists who do a far better job writing about India’s complexity than most. I unfailingly learn things from reading local commentators like my friend Dilip D'Souza and Humra Quraishi, as well as nominally "foreign" journalists such as the New York Times’ Somini Sengupta, whose reporting has increasingly impressed me over the last year. Asia Society fellow Mira Kamdar, whose book, Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming the World, I reviewed in the Miami Herald last year, also does a good job about educating folks on the nuances of India’s current milieu in two languages (English and French).

Even given these exceptions, though, as someone who consumes literature on India despite my geographic distance and recently finished reading Sanjib Baruah's excellent India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, I wish that that some of the nuance that I find in academic texts such as Baruah's would filter down to the local and international media coverage of India

All journalists, local and foreign, can do better in covering the nuances of modern-day India, and I think that beginning to take the reputations of even humble shopkeepers like Altaf Ahmad Khan as seriously as we do those of politicians and titans of industry would be a good way to start. It is the least we owe to the people who entrust us to tell their stories.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

How Cigna HealthCare killed Nataline Sarkisyan

I had a very pleasurable break visiting family and friends in the United States for Christmas and then visiting an old friend in Roma for New Year’s. Back in Paris, awaiting my eventual departure for Congo, the skies roll across the city, briefly blue in the morning and then various shades of gray for the rest of the day. 2008 stretches out before us all, with presidential elections this fall capping off what I hope will be a gentler, more humane and healthier year, with greater freedom married to a greater sense of local and global community than we saw in the one that just passed.

It is fitting I suppose, to this hoped-for sense of shared community, that my first post of the year pay tribute to the 150-odd people, including nurses, students and relatives, who rallied in front of the headquarters of Cigna HealthCare in Glendale, California last month, to demand that the health insurance company reverse its refusal to pay for an emergency liver transplant for 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan . The California teenager, who wanted to be a fashion designer and had battled leukemia for three years, was fully insured by Cigna when her brother became a donor for a bone marrow transplant that doctors hoped would save her life. When complications arose after the transplant and Sarkisyan’s liver failed, doctors recommended the emergency transplant procedure

Cigna, which expects to earn an income of around U $1.2bn next year, thought otherwise, though, and refused to pay for the liver transplant on December 11th, on the grounds that Sarkisyan’s health plan "does not cover experimental, investigational and unproven services.”

The doctors at UCLA's Pediatric Liver Transplant Program and elsewhere at the hospital called CIGNA begging them to reconsider their decision but, to their own eternal shame, if true, would not perform the procedure unless the Sarkisyan family placed an immediate down payment of US$75,000 which it was, needless to say, beyond their power to do.

Faced with over a hundred protesters on its front law, CIGNA finally reversed itself, but only after Sarkisyan had lapsed into a coma while her fate was decided. CIGNA’s momentary drift into magnanimity came too late, though, and Nataline Sarkisyan died on December 20th, the liver transplant having never been performed.

As one of the nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance, I know that this is the nightmare that many Americans dread every day. But even for the Americans, like Nataline Sarkisyan's family, who are lucky enough to have health insurance, what is the value of that insurance when it lets you die in a hospital while denying you a life-saving procedure? What kind of country would allow such a system to flourish in the first place? How do CIGNA executives like CEO H. Edward Hanway and Executive Vice President Michael W. Bell not throw themselves from the windows of their lavishly appointed offices when they realize what they have overseen?

In this election year, perhaps the American public’s patience with the malevolent joke our health care system has reached its limit. The three major Democratic candidates - Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and John Edwards - all have substantial plans to revise the nation’s avaricious, inefficient health care industry, although none go as far towards the French model of low-cost (though paid through taxes), high-quality, universal health care as I would like them to.

In the meantime, Nataline Sarkisyan has been laid to rest and the family’s attorney, Mark Geragos, has announced his intention to press the Los Angeles district attorney to press murder or manslaughter charges against Cigna, on the grounds that the firm "maliciously killed" Nataline Sarkisyan with its unconscionable refusal to provide her with treatment. I hope that he succeeds in getting the courts to act and hold the executives of CIGNA responsible for its murderously adversarial and exploitative relationship with its customers (behaviour which, among health insurance companies, is the rule rather than the exception). And I hope that someone is elected in the United States this fall with the courage to implement the radical change that such a faltering system demands.

Here we come, 2008. Deye mon gen mon.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Controversy Follows Gaddafi's Rapprochement With Europe

Controversy Follows Gaddafi's Rapprochement With Europe

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Dec 31, 2007 (IPS) - The re-emergence of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi into the diplomatic good graces of Europe has met with a decidedly mixed response, even in some of the governments ostensibly courting his favour.

Gaddafi's official visits to France and Spain earlier this month, the first in decades, come on the heels of an attendance at the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon, also in December, and have lead to furious debates and soul searching about his past actions and the EU's much-professed commitment to human rights.

Read the full article here.