Monday, December 28, 2009

Books in 2009: A personal selection

During the past year, for the first time, I kept a record of all the books that I read. With the year drawing to a close, I thought it might perhaps be helpful to share my thoughts on some of the more notable ones that came across my path.

Best regards,


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s elegiac and tragic story of the clash of cultures between Africa and Europe was every bit as moving now - after I have spent some time in Africa - as it was when I first read it in high school 20 years ago.

Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia by Harvey Arden

National Geographic writer Harvey Arden’s penned this quite beautiful account of his conversations with Aboriginal elders nearly 15 years ago, and when I traipsed through similar terrain earlier this year I found the respect with with it treats its subjects highly apt.

Fulgencio Batista: Volume 1, From Revolutionary to Strongman by Frank Argote-Freyre

This revelatory portrait of the formative years of Cuba’s pre-1959 leader portrays him as self-made, ambitious, ruthless, initially idealistic and then severely corrupted by power. The boy from a dirt-floor shack in Banes here stands as a fully-drawn personality as opposed to a mere slogan.

Reconstruction After the Civil War by John Hope Franklin

The eminent African-American history, who sadly passed away earlier this year, lays bare in an authoritative manner that “reconstruction,” such as it was after the American Civil War, was largely a fraud, with the South almost wholly under the control of reactionary southern whites. Highly relevant today, when a South Carolina congressmen sees fit to scream “You lie!” at the nation’s first biracial president during a congressional address.

Resistance and Betrayal: The Death and Life of Jean Moulin by Patrick Marnham

The riveting story of the man who became the most iconic figure of France’s resistance to Nazi occupation is made all the more poignant by the realization of how isolated the resisters were under the boot of a brutal fascist military occupation and amidst the acquiescence of the French population as a whole. The grotesque excesses of revenge, score settling and ideologically-based brutality that followed the arrival of allied forces in France also make for a somber punctuation to this chronicle of human bravery and duplicity.

The Unknown War: The Miskito Nation, Nicaragua and the United States by Bernard Nietschmann

The gifted geographer Bernard Nietschmann worked strenuously for decades to help indigenous peoples chart their own fates. As a result, the longtime fixture at the University of California-Berkeley weathered criticism from comfortable foreign supporters of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government (whose treatment of said groups within their borders was brutal), but in this book he lays bare the epic quest for survival of this indigenous group in Honduras and Nicaragua, often caught up in power struggles between forces far beyond their control.

Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri

This book is a collection of haunting and often surreal short stories by one of Nigeria’s greatest living authors

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

A book as inspiring by its intellectual honesty as for its faith in solutions that common decency demands, Orwell’s account of the life of miners in the north of England - penned shortly before he departed to fight against the fascists in Spain - is also notable for its highly moral thesis that “the people who have got to act together are all those who cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the rent...Poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain pen.”

Indeed, and well said.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

A fairly gripping novel of politics and thwarted romantic set in rural Turkey by this 2006 Nobel Prize winner.

Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System by Roberto Saviano

A stunning non-fiction work that earned its young Italian journalist-author a death sentence from Naples’ grotesque Camorra crime syndicate, this book pulls back the veil on the brutal face of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy

Streets of Lost Footsteps by Lyonel Trouillot

A short work delivered by multiple narrators during the final apocalyptic battle between the cadres of the dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal and the followers of the Prophet, this novel by one of Haiti’s most gifted authors (and winner of this years’ Wepler Prize in France) should be put alongside the writings of Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis and Gary Victor as required reading for those seeking to understand Haiti beyond its bare history. Originally published as Rue des Pas-Perdus in French.

Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack, Jr.

A highly valuable if somewhat somewhat jarringly passionless account of the storied Mexican revolutionary, this 1968 book nevertheless should stand as an example of genuine scholarship about a politically controversial figure in an era (our own) where academia is often conspicuously lacking in such virtues.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

R.I.P Vic Chesnutt

I remember helping Vic Chesnutt offstage in his wheelchair in Galway, Ireland after a solo concert he gave there about 15 years ago. A songwriter of rare power and intelligence, he was one my musical touchstones in my late teens and early twenties, along with such artists as the Clash, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Johnny Cash. Vic Chesnutt passed away, far too early for those of us who appreciated his music, over Christmas weekend.

Thank you, Vic, for all that great music and that very special night in Galway all those years ago.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

2009: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

In 2009 I began the year by attempting to bring attention to the plight of indigenous Australians - as downtrodden and disenfranchised a group as I have encountered - and ended it discussing issues of freedom of expression, secularism and women’s rights with a Bangladeshi author here in Europe. It was, as it turned out, a year during which I had the opportunity to visit a place that I had long wanted to see but never thought I would be able to get to (Papua New Guinea) and returned to my first love, Haiti, for the first time in three years, only to find it dishearteningly poised to lurch away from tentative progress to yet another politically-inspired crisis.

It was a year that began with great hope as we watched Barack Obama, whose candidacy I strongly supported, inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, and ended with more trepidation in the wake of the strong whiff of violence, racism and xenophobia that characterized opposition to Obama’s plan to reform America’s broken healthcare system, and the sober realization that 30,000 more American troops would be sent into harm’s way in Afghanistan in the coming months.

As the whittling down of serious, investigative foreign coverage became ever more dire, I found myself speaking to audiences at places such as the Florida International University in Miami, and the Indonesian Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Denpasar, Bali, wondering aloud what the future holds for a profession in which many of those in positions of power have become ever-more timid in the face of demands that the news business serve as little more than light entertainment for an otherwise-occupied populace.

Since I began reporting professionally a decade ago, I have never for a moment doubted the value of independent journalism, and how it gives voice to suffering and helps to advance the concerns of the disenfranchised in the global discussion of their fate. I have always believed that the highest goal the profession can have, and the reason that we ultimately have to exist as journalists, is to serve the people, not to repeat what the powerful would have us say.

Those wanting to stifle debate about important issues come in many guises, whether as executives of rapacious big-businesses, or as well-heeled intellectuals who seek to deform the struggles of places as complex as Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo to fit into their own narrow and often dilettantish understanding of the world. But I continue to believe that we as journalists, whatever the cost and whatever the financial and societal pressures we may feel, must continue to work for the poor majority that make up this world and whom, in my experience reporting now for a decade from six continents, want little more than an honest wage and a decent government for all their hard labours.

It is to those people who took time to speak with me this year - people such as the Gurdanji, Yanyuwa, Garawa and Mara of Borroloola in Australia’s Northern Territory, and the peasants of Haiti’s Artibonite Valley - that I dedicate these articles, and with them my hope for a gentler, more human and more just 2010.

Much love,


Women’s untold stories: A Conversation with Taslima Nasrin for Le Monde diplomatique (5 November 2009)

A few notes on the dismissal of Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis for AlterPresse (3 November 2009)

A conflict of interests: Corruption case against three African leaders throws into question economic relationships between developed countries and former colonies
for Foreign Direct Investment (15 October 2009)

Haiti: Back to life for Foreign Direct Investment (15 October 2009)

Challenges to Haiti’s Security Gains: An Address to the Applied Research Center and the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University
for AlterPresse (10 October 2009)

Haiti: "We Have Never Had Justice" for the Inter Press Service (21 July 2009)

Tentative calm brings optimism to a 'failed' Haiti for the Washington Times (19 July 2009)

Haiti: Deportees from U.S. Face Culture Shock, Retain Hope for the Inter Press Service (8 July 2009)

"The Elites Are Like a Huge Elephant Sitting on Haiti": Michael Deibert interviews Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis for the Inter Press Service (3 July 2009)

Measuring the Drowned and the Saved in Sudan: A Review of Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors : Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror for the Social Science Research Council (15 June 2009)

Manufactured diversity: Economies of North Africa’s Maghreb region are branching out into manufacturing as the demand for hydrocarbon exports continues to decline for Foreign Direct Investment (12 June 2009)

Papua New Guinea: Time to explore for Foreign Direct Investment (12 June 2009)

More Calls to Ban Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds for the Inter Press Service (24 May 2009)

The Final Testament of Rodrigo Rosenberg
for the World Policy Journal (15 May 2009)

World crisis spurs protest from French workers for the Washington Times (11 May 2009)

A Note on Violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University for the World Policy Journal (4 May 2009)

‘‘King of Kings’’ Gaddafi Tries to Flex Regional Muscles for the Inter Press Service (24 April 2009)

Australia’s Parched Landscape for the World Policy Journal, (26 February 2009)

Bone dry to blazing in Australia for the Washington Times (20 February 2009)

Xstrata Dreaming: The Struggle of Aboriginal Australians against a Swiss Mining Giant
for CorpWatch (16 February 2009)

Echoes of Obama on Australia Day for the World Policy Journal (26 January 2009)

Selectively shrugging off world conflicts: A review of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence is Ignored for the Miami Herald (20 January 2009)

Drugs vs. Democracy in Guatemala for the World Policy Journal (Winter 2008/09)

Politics of brutality: A review of An Encounter with Haiti
for the Miami Herald (4 January 2009)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Image from Bali

Recently returned from giving a lecture on security sector reporting to the Indonesian Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Bali, perhaps my most vivid, jet-lagged memory of the place, aside from its gracious people, is of the hypnotizing rice fields in the countryside there. Here is one of them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pro-Castro mob attacks spouse of top Cuban blogger

(I am not in the habit of repeating stories that appeared in other venues verbatim on this site, but I believe the ongoing attacks against Yoani Sanchez - whose blog Generación Y I link to on this site - and her husband Reinaldo Escobar by agents of Cuba's ossifying dictatorship warrant it in this case. MD )

Pro-Castro mob attacks spouse of top Cuban blogger

By Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer

Fri Nov 20 2009, 8:38 pm ET

HAVANA – The husband of an acclaimed dissident Cuban blogger was punched and shouted down by a pro-government mob Friday after he challenged the presumed state agents who earlier roughed up his wife to a street corner debate.

As he promised earlier on his blog, Reinaldo Escobar went to the intersection of Havana's 23rd and G avenues for the proposed discussion. On Thursday, Escobar's wife posted President Barack Obama's responses to her written questions on Cuba-U.S. relations on her "Generacion Y" blog.

Escobar was waiting with at least two companions when he got into an argument with another man. What appeared to a prearranged group of government supporters then moved in, screaming obscenities. They hit him and slapped him in the head and pulled his hair and shirt, but never knocked him down.

Soon, Escobar and the others were surrounded by men thought to be state security agents who protected them as they walked about two blocks. All around, Cubans pushed and screamed "Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!" and "Get out worm!" slang for Cuban-American exiles.

At one point, a band organized as part of a nearby street festival joined the mob, marching through flower beds on the median of a boulevard. The music added an odd soundtrack to a tense situation.

After about 10 minutes, Escobar and the others were placed in unmarked cars and driven away.

Ahead of Escobar's arrival Friday, Cuba's Young Communists Union organized a street book fair on the same corner, blocking off traffic.

It was unclear if the security agents who came Friday where the same ones who presumably assaulted his wife, Yoani Sanchez, two weeks earlier. After the incident, Escobar challenged the alleged assailants to a verbal duel.

Sanchez answered the phone at the couple's apartment moments after Friday's bedlam, but hung up without confirming where her husband was taken. Pro-government "acts of repudiation" against dissidents happen a few times a year. Usually, state security gives opposition activists a ride home after a few minutes to keep things from getting too violent.

"This street is Fidel's!" the mob shouted. They eventually chanted the name of the current president, Raul Castro, who replaced Fidel in February of 2008.

A government press agent came to the aid of an Associated Press Television cameraman after a member of the mob shoved him from behind and grabbed his camera. The culprit later apologized, then was led away by another group of men.

For about 10 minutes after Escobar was gone, the crowd continued to chant "Fidel! Fidel!" for international news cameras. Then it dispersed quietly.

On Nov. 6, Sanchez was walking to a nonviolence march when two men in plainclothes forced her into an unmarked sedan, pulled her hair and kicked her. The incident occurred at the same street corner where Escobar was hit and slapped Friday, and Sanchez says state security agents were involved.

The confrontation was so violent, Sanchez said she thought the men might kill her, but instead they dropped her off near her apartment.

She vowed on her blog to keep writing caustic, often witty criticism of the struggles of daily life on an island where there is no freedom of speech or assembly — and people endure shortages of even basic food.

On Thursday, she posted the U.S. president's answers to her written questions but, like nearly all sites critical of the Cuban government, access is blocked on the island.

In the posted responses, Obama said he isn't interested in "talking for the sake of talking" with Raul Castro and indicated he won't visit the island until the communist government changes its ways.

Escobar has his own blog, which is also blocked on the island.

Cuba tolerates no official opposition to its single-party communist system and dismisses nearly everyone who criticizes its government publicly as paid mercenaries of Washington.

Earlier this year, Time magazine named Sanchez — whose blog gets about 1 million hits a month — one of the world's 100 most influential people. Twice this year, she has been denied permission to leave Cuba to collect international journalism prizes.

(Photo: Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of dissident Cuban blogger Yoanis Sanchez, center, is taking away by unidentified men in Havana, Friday, Nov. 20, 2009. Escobar was punched, slapped and shouted down by government supporters in downtown Havana.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A note on Joseph H. Deibert

Joseph H. Deibert (b. 1919), my grandfather and a man who cared about social justice, whether in Rosario and Buenos Aires in Argentina, in Mayagüez in Puerto Rico, in Sunset Park in Brooklyn or in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, passed away last evening. He will be missed.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Women’s untold stories: An interview with Taslima Nasrin

5 November 2009

Women’s untold stories

By Michael Deibert

Le Monde diplomatique

(Read the original article here)

The Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, 47, has the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the Unesco Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. Nasrin is an outspoken feminist and secularist, and a stern critic of the role of religion in the oppression of women and the poor. She worked as a physician in Bangladesh’s understaffed public hospitals before her exile in Europe and the US in 1994.

Since she published her first book Shikore Bipul Khudha (Demands) in 1986, Nasrin’s works, including Lajja (translated into English as Shame), have offended Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh, and the government has banned some of them. In 2004 she settled in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, which has a Bengali-language intellectual tradition. There she ran into trouble with Indian fundamentalists. In 2007 she was assaulted while attempting to speak at a book release event in Hyderabad; among her assailants were members of India’s Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen party, including Indian lawmakers. In Kolkata, religious decrees called for her death and there were violent protests. Nasrin was therefore forced to move to the capital, New Delhi, before once again seeking exile in Europe in March 2008.

Michael Deibert spoke to her in Paris.

MD: Can you tell me what inspired you to become a writer?

TN: I studied medicine, my father was a doctor, and he inspired me. I wanted to be an artist, but when I studied medicine, I really liked it. I always believed in signs, and I had a rational, logical mind, so I became a doctor. I had a practice in public hospitals, but unfortunately I had to quit my job because the government asked me to stop writing if I wanted to continue working in public hospitals, they didn’t like it. As a doctor, I could treat the patients, but as a writer my work was a prescription for a sick society. Lots of people were influenced by my writing, they became agnostic or atheist or secular, and also very aware of their rights and freedoms.

MD: How would you describe the political and social situation in Bangladesh today?

TN: The situation is ever worse. All the politicians use religion for their own interests. They want to get votes from ignorant masses. They don’t think of improving women’s conditions, or economic conditions, or social conditions, even though 80% live below the poverty line, and not many women have access to education or politics. Whoever comes into power, man or woman, from whatever party, they are corrupt, they are hypocrites, and they don’t do anything for women’s equality. They keep Muslim religious law, which is oppressive to women, only to please the fundamentalists, but don’t take action against them even though they are a big threat to the progress of the society and to the equality of women. Half of the population is female, but women don’t have jobs and are forced to stay at home. This economic condition is not good for the country.

MD: How would you characterise the reception your books received in Bangladesh?

TN: People either loved me very much or they hated me very much; there was no middle ground. I got a lot of support and solidarity from the people who were truly secular and humanist. As long as I was writing about oppression of women or criticising traditional customs and culture, I got lots of support. But when I criticised Islam, then I lost support.

It was very difficult to criticise Islam in a Muslim country. Of course, I don’t just criticise Islam, I criticise all religions. But when I criticised Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism for oppression of women, I had no problem; nobody came to kill me. When I criticised Islam, they issued fatwas and put a price on my head. And the government threw me out.

MD: Can you describe the circumstances of your exile?

TN: It happened in 1994. I was in hiding in Bangladesh; the government filed a case against me, claiming that my books hurt people’s religious feelings. I had to go into hiding because prison was not safe for me – my lawyer told me that I must not be arrested because the police might kill me. It was difficult. I got support from western countries, from the European parliament, and from the US. I was granted bail and I had to leave. From then, I moved around in Europe, but life was never easy: I was a Bengali writer, not a writer who writes in a European language, so it was very difficult.

Exile was like waiting at a stop for a bus to get home. After 10 years the bus came, but I couldn’t go back to Bangladesh, so I went to the Bengali part of India, where I could speak the language, where we had the same culture and where I had my publisher and friends. I settled there in 2004. But after three or four years I was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in India, and 10,000 people came on to the streets and demanded my deportation. I was physically attacked in 2007 in Hyderabad; before that I had been attacked in 1993 in Bangladesh at a book fair, where they destroyed a shop and burned my books publicly.

I always had police protection in India. But in Hyderabad, the organiser who invited me to release my book there didn’t provide police protection. After the programme I was about to leave, but 100 or so Muslim fundamentalists started screaming at me in Telugu (a local language), which I don’t understand, except (for the prophet’s name) Muhammad. They started throwing whatever they could find, chairs and things, at me. I thought I would be killed. I was very sure about that. I was really, really scared. I didn’t want to lose my life in that way. The police saved me. Some people tried to close the doors, but they were breaking down the doors and shouting that they would kill me. It felt like a decade passing.

Later I heard they were members of parliament present, but nobody was punished. They said: “We are sad we couldn’t kill her today, but next time we will kill her.” That was broadcast and no one was punished for that.

MD: What was your status in India?

TN: I had a residence permit. When I came back to Kolkata, where I was living, the Chief Minister of Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was constantly asking me to leave the state, and sent policemen to tell me to leave the state and even the country. I said “no,” because I knew leaving the country meant the West, and India was my adopted country. I didn’t want to leave. So the government put me under house arrest in Calcutta, I wasn’t allowed to leave. Then violent protests started and they bundled me out and put me in a cantonment in New Delhi, where I was also under house arrest. The Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, came to me and said that I must leave. I told him I would not leave: if they wanted to put me in prison, fine, I was not leaving. He was very, very angry.

I finally had to leave in March 2008 because my health was getting very bad. I asked my friends to bring all my belongings from Kolkata to Delhi, and the government put them in storage. I don’t know where the storage is. (The Indian government) gave me a residence permit on condition that I don’t live in the country, so it’s a meaningless permit.

MD: How did you arrive in Paris?

TN: Paris is the first city of my life outside of the Indian sub-continent. I came here a long time ago when I was invited to talk about press freedom. My books were published in French. I was invited by FNAC, and by the Nouvel Observateur.

MD: Why do you think it’s important to have a discussion about the role of religion in public life?

TN: I have seen how women suffer because of religion, and because of religious law; if we can have secular law, and a uniform civil code based on equality, then women wouldn’t suffer so much. My writing is not only about religion; it also criticises anti-female traditions and culture.

When I was in India, I wrote that Hindu culture is very discriminatory against women. Nobody punished me for that. Yet they branded me as anti-Islam. But I am not anti-Islam, I’m a secular humanist. Women suffer and people hate because of religious faith. That should end. There should be no Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu law. This is not secularism, this is not democracy, and women do not have equal rights.

I continue to write because lots of people encourage me to go on writing, and to tell their untold stories. They say they get strength from me. And it is important to me to give strength to vulnerable, weak people.

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A few notes on the dismissal of Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis

mardi 3 novembre 2009

A few notes on the dismissal of Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis

By Michael Deibert

(Read the original article here)

It was said that during the reign of Jean-Jacques Dessalines - liberation icon, military dictator and “emperor” who ruled Haiti from 1804 until 1806 - a certain level of corruption was tolerated and dismissed with the phrase plumez la poule, mais ne la faites pas crier. Pluck the chicken, but make sure it doesn’t squawk. That tradition of corruption has been a woeful constant in Haiti’s political life since Dessalines was assassinated over 200 years ago.

Another chapter in the disregard for honesty and transparency that infuses the marrow of Haiti’s political class was written last week with the ouster of Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis by a parliament dominated by the allies of Haitian President René Préval, who appointed Pierre-Louis to the position a little over one year ago.

Since she assumed office in September 2008, Pierre-Louis was probably more responsible than any other single individual in beginning to restore some level of confidence in Haiti’s government and in encouraging the stirrings of international investment in a nation of industrious but desperately poor people all-too-often written off as an economic basket case. During her tenure, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the the Inter-American Development Bank collectively canceled $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt, while the latter institution approved an additional $120 million in grants to aid Haiti to improve such sectors as infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention.

Having previously led FOKAL, a civil society group supported by businessman and philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Pierre-Louis was well-regarded both at home and abroad for her personal incorruptibility, and displayed a surprisingly adroit political touch on the international diplomatic stage.

That being the case, one might then ask why Haiti's senate, dominated by partisans of Préval’s LESPWA political current, chose this moment to oust Pierre-Louis under the almost-laughable rationale that, in her year in office, she had not solved the problems caused by two centuries of what Haitian writer Frédéric Marcelin in 1904 called “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism.”

With the ouster of Pierre-Louis spearheaded by such LESPWA stalwarts as Senators Joseph Lambert and Jean Hector Anacasis, and with René Préval himself remaining publicly silent as the plot to remove his Prime Minister came to its inevitable and absurd conclusion, there appears to be an explanation as simple as it is depressing for removing Pierre-Louis at a moment when Haiti finally appeared to be gaining some international credibility: The Prime Minister was standing in the way of some powerful people making quite a lot of money.

Government insiders speak darkly about millions of dollars in aid money being siphoned off via the Centre National des Equipements, a body established by the Préval government to aid in Haiti’s efforts at reconstruction after a trio of hurricanes killed at least 600 people last year and further devastated the country's already fragile infrastructure. The machinations of the Groupe de Bourdon, a cabal of allegedly corrupt businessmen with firm roots in Haiti’s elite who have the president’s ear, are also mentioned as culprits. Many of the leaders of the drive to oust Pierre-Louis in Haiti’s senate are also individuals around whom allegations of corruption - and worse - have swirled for many years.

Pierre-Louis’ assertion to me when I interviewed her in Haiti this past summer that “chaos is good for a few sectors” and that Haiti's political system would reject anyone who would not allow themselves to be corrupted now appears to have been prophetic [1].

After his return to office in 2006, René Préval succeeded, against all the odds, in bringing relative peace to Haiti after years of bloodshed, something for which he should be lauded in no uncertain terms. However, the weight of corruption, along with a tradition of impunity, is continuing to strangle Haiti under his watch, and the ouster of Michèle Pierre-Louis is a worrying sign for Haitians who have long sought in vain for decent leaders who would build a government responsive to the nation’s poor majority.

The fact that Pierre-Louis’ replacement, Jean Max Bellerive, served in the personal cabinets of both Jean-Marie Chérestal and Yvon Neptune, Prime Ministers during the 2001-2004 tenure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an era that was marked by both widespread corruption and political violence, is cause for further concern. Bellerive has more than once been described to me with the rather nasty Kreyol phrase se yon ti poul ki mare nan pye tab yo, an allusion to someone who essentially does whatever they are told.

So the forces of disorder have won this latest round in Haiti. No doubt Haiti’s parliamentarians and perhaps even Préval himself are congratulating themselves at their cleverness, with the country’s corrupt bourgeois no doubt equally thrilled to now have a government with a popular base that will more or less allow them to continue unmolested with their nefarious activities.

But, as Haiti’s politicians strut around in expensive suits and travel over decaying roads in SUVs with impressive armed escorts, they seem not to realize that they should take no pride to occupy the position that they occupy with their country in such a state, a fact that remains equally true for many of Haiti’s economic elites.

Since the deployment of an international peacekeeping mission in Haiti in February 2004, almost 50 members of the United Nations mission in the country and thousands of Haitian civilians have lost their lives to political violence, criminal banditry and environmental catastrophes whose severity is directly linked to the inability of the country’s political class to create some semblance of a state to serve its people. This despite the presence of 7 UN missions to Haiti over the last two decades. Haiti’s long-suffering people deserve better than the country successive generations of leaders have bequeathed to them.

In his finest novel, 1955’s Compere General Soleil, Haiti greatest novelist, Jacques Stephen Alexis (who would be slain by agents of dictator François Duvalier in 1961), wrote of the journey of a pair of Haitians home from near-slavery in the neighboring Dominican Republic that “the closer they came to the promised land, the more they felt the net tightening around them.”

The net of corruption has been tightening around Haiti for far too long, and one hopes that those remaining honest people in Haiti’s political and business sectors, and Haiti’s genuine friends abroad, may find the tools to cut free that confining web that has succeeded in almost choking the life of the country that once taught the world so much about freedom.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read here.

[1] "The Elites Are Like a Huge Elephant Sitting on Haiti," Michael Deibert interviews Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, 3 July 2009, Inter Press Service

Friday, October 23, 2009

U.S. Department of State report on the conflict in Sri Lanka

The report to the United States Congress on incidents during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka by the U.S. Department of State has been published and can be read via the link here. It makes for grim reading and certainly suggests the conflict is worthy of examination by the International Criminal Court.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A conflict of interests?

A conflict of interests?

Published: October 15, 2009

Foreign Direct Investment

(Read the original article here)

A corruption case in France against three African leaders has thrown into question the economic relationships between developed countries and their former colonies, reports Michael Deibert.

A court case brought against three west African heads of state by an anti-corruption group has sparked debate in Europe on the economic relationships between European governments and their former colonial possessions.

The case was brought in December 2008 by the French branch of anti-corruption group Transparency International. It alleges that president Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, president Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and president Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon (who died in June 2009) looted public funds to buy luxury homes and cars abroad. Though representatives for the three leaders were unavailable for comment to fDi, they have denied the accusations in their respective local media.

The accusations have set up a tense legal wrangle in France, which claimed both Congo (often referred to as Congo-Brazzaville to distinguish it from the far larger Democratic Republic of Congo) and Gabon as colonies until 1960. Though a French magistrate agreed in May to launch a probe into the leaders’ assets, the Paris prosecutor’s office has appealed in an attempt to have the investigation halted.

“It shows that not all judges in France are willing to abide by governmental or diplomatic interests, and that they are willing to find out how these people were able to buy these assets,” says Jacques Terray, vice-chair of Transparency International France. “We hope that this will be a precedent for other countries.”

A decision regarding attempts by the Paris Public Prosecutor’s office to halt the investigation – arguing that Transparent International does not have the right to file it as the organisation itself was not a victim of wrongdoing – is scheduled to be issued by a board of inquiry on October 29.

Turbulent history

The trio of countries at the heart of the case all tell a similar story of a surfeit of natural resources and stunted political development that has kept most of the region’s citizens politically disenfranchised and economically impoverished to the benefit of a select few.

Gabon’s former president, Mr Bongo – who was Africa’s longest-serving ruler – was educated largely in Congo, at the time called French Equatorial Africa. A political chameleon, Mr Bongo shifted from running an authoritarian one-party state to participating in relatively free, if flawed, elections.

Accusations of government corruption in Gabon’s oil industry, which accounts for more than half of the country’s GDP, have long been rife, and a 1999 US congressional investigation into Citibank revealed its personal accounts held more that $130m of Mr Bongo’s money. A 2007 French investigation of real estate owned by the president and his family turned up holdings in France worth an estimated $190m.

For its part, Congo saw a series of coups and assassinations from independence onward, with the country ruled by the Marxist-Leninist Marien Ngouabi from January 1969 until his murder in March 1977, and current president Mr Nguesso finally seizing power in 1979. In 1992 he lost a democratic election to Pascal Lissouba but by 1997 had returned to the presidency with the support of the Angolan army in a civil war estimated to have claimed at least 10,000 lives. A peace agreement signed by the Nguesso government with various rebel factions in 2003 is still considered to be fragile.

Equatorial Guinea, meanwhile, gained independence from Spain in 1968, at which point Francisco Macías Nguema assumed power. In August 1979, Mr Nguema was ousted and executed by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled the tiny nation ever since, setting about creating a cult of personality to rival anything seen in Africa.

While state radio praises Mr Nguema as being “in permanent contact with the Almighty”, earlier this year gunmen attacked the national presidential palace. A 2004 plot by foreign mercenaries ended in some people, including British nationals, facing jail sentences of more than 30 years.

Though the three nations are all major oil exporters, foreign investment in the region is hardly limited to the oil sector.

The German energy utility Eon and Spain’s Union Fenosa have recently inked agreements to turn Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko island into a centre for gas exports, not only for the country itself but also for neighbouring Nigeria, the seventh largest holder of natural gas reserves in the world.

Because of a facility constructed by Houston’s Marathon Oil in 2007, Equatorial Guinea at present exports nearly 3.7 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas a year. Such substantial foreign investment could be jeopardised if the lawsuit calls into question the legitimacy of trade with Equatorial Guinea.

Diamond industry

In a further diversification of the region’s economic role, in 2007 Congo was readmitted to the Kimberley Process, which aims to stem the flow of conflict diamonds, after having been expelled from the then year-old process in 2004 for falsifying certificates of origin and exporting diamonds from its war-wracked neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The case is politically sensitive in France, as well, given the country’s long and tangled history with sub-­Saharan Africa.

During the 1981-95 government of François Mitterrand, France was the main international backer of the ethnic Hutu dictatorship of Juvénal Habyarimana, the Rwandan leader whose assassination in April 1994 served as the opening shot in the genocide that swept through Rwanda that year. Policy towards Africa under Mr Mitterrand’s successor, Jacques Chirac, was also marked by a high degree of French business interests, with only muted calls for economic and political reform.

During a 2007 trip to Senegal, French president Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to Franco-African diplomacy based on personal relations between leaders and rather for a “partnership between nations equal in their rights and responsibilities”. However, in the five trips Mr Sarkozy has made to Africa in the past three years, his criticism of corruption in regions where French companies have extensive investment has been minimal.

Changing relationships

“In a larger context, this case is in a sense an end of the France-Afrique foreign policy which has gone all the way back to the time of DeGaulle,” says Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, west Africa analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm based in New York. “Apart from Guinea, all the countries [in west Africa] more or less agreed to remain within the Francophone zone, and the French government had to protect or have a paternalistic relationship with these people.”

Haiti - Back to life

Haiti - Back to life

Published: October 15, 2009

Foreign Direct Investment

(Read the original article here)

The violence, poverty and corruption that has blighted Haiti over the past few years has given way to an air of peace, efficiency and optimism. Michael Deibert reports.

Politically aligned gangs warring across the ramshackle capital of shanty towns and gingerbread houses are a thing of the past in Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti, and visitors cannot help but be struck by the feeling of change in the air.

An airport previously staffed by political cronies, where passengers sweated in boiling halls, is now a model of air-conditioned efficiency. Streets once deserted after sunset now teem with life, with upper-class restaurants in the hillside Petionville district and the kerosene-lit roadside stands of the ti machann (vendors) downtown luring customers late into the evening, something unthinkable only a few years ago.

Peace has been brought to this Caribbean country of 9 million people through the work of president René Préval’s government, and the 9000-member United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH.

Haiti was previously ruled by the erratic priest-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from 2001 until his ousting in February 2004. This was followed by turmoil under an interim government that ruled until President Préval’s inauguration in May 2006.

From a police force of just 3500 at the start of Minustah’s mandate, Haiti now boasts 9200 police officers, a number projected to grow to 10,000 by the year’s end, and to 14,000 by the end of 2011. Recent mid-term parliamentary elections passed largely peacefully – no small feat in a country where ballots often threatened civil order.

In addition, the World Bank, the Inter­national Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) collectively cancelled $1.2bn of Haiti’s debt in June, erasing almost two-thirds of the country’s outstanding debt in one stroke. The IADB went even further, approving an additional $120m in grants to help Haiti improve its infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention plans.

“Haiti has a lot of potential,” says Michèle Pierre-Louis, the country’s prime minster and a respected civil society leader before she joined President Préval’s government. “But we have a very fragile civil society, and we’ve never thought of social mobility and prepared for a middle class.”

Positive outlook

Many observers and investors feel a guarded optimism about the country’s political and economic prospects.

“The investment climate in Haiti is far better now than it was during the [interim] period or the days of President Aristide, that can be said without any doubt,” says Lance Durban, a US businessman who first arrived in Haiti in 1979 and now runs Manutech, an electronics manufacturing company employing about 450 people. “You’re close to the US market, you have a lot of people who speak English and you have the lowest wages in the Americas.”

Last year, Haiti boasted modest-though-respectable GDP growth of 2.3%, and at the beginning of 2009, President Préval created the Groupe de Travail sur la Compétitivité, a body designed to increase Haiti’s competitiveness in attracting global businesses.

Beyond the manufacturing sector, new avenues in Haiti’s potential for investors are also opening up. The garment industry, once a lynchpin of Haiti’s economy, could help the country’s economic revival, if given the right incentives and support. In the US, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008 (HOPE II) built on a 2007 measure that provided certain Haitian textiles with duty-free status when entering the US. Mining is another area of interest (see In Focus, below).

Tourism targets

Also on Haiti’s business landscape is the OTF Group, a competitiveness consulting firm credited with breathing new life into Rwanda’s tourism, coffee and agro-industry sectors following the genocide in the country in 1994. OTF has found encouraging evidence that Haiti might be ripe for a similar renaissance.

“In terms of the business opportunities, I am amazed by what I think is possible,” says OTF director Rob Henning. “And our role is to facilitate a process by which the Haitians, both the public and private sector, take ownership over industries and try to create a prosperous Haiti where poverty is reduced through wealth creation and the creation of businesses.”

Though Haiti currently ranks 154 out of the 180 countries covered by the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, substantial improvement has been made in cutting down the red tape that once made investing in the country an inexplicable maze for foreign capital.

It generally now takes a maximum of 40 days to incorporate a company in Haiti, as opposed to the 202 days that it took as recently as 2003.

However, the challenges the country faces remain substantial. Weak infrastructure, environmental degradation and deforestation contributed to conditions which saw a trio of hurricanes kill at least 600 people in 2008. After Haiti’s Senate passed a measure in May raising the country’s minimum wage to a rate of about $4.90 a day, a 300% increase from its current level, President Préval balked at signing the measure, fearing that it would jeopardise Haiti’s already fragile employment sector.

In unison

Despite this, however, Haiti’s business class and its poor majority have learned some hard lessons about working together.

In the once-violent Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Saint Martin, member’s of Haiti’s private sector and local community leaders have been meeting with the support of the Irish charity Concern Worldwide since 2007. A ‘peace and prosperity’ committee in the district boasts three members from Haiti’s private sector and 12 representatives from the community of Saint Martin. A recent general assembly to address community concerns attracted nearly 150 people.

“You can no longer put a business in a community where it is built against the community,” says Ralph Edmond, the president of Farmatrix, which has manufactured pharmaceutical products in the district since 1994, and who is active in the debate. “If we are to live in this country, then we have to live differently than our fathers did before.”



Population: 9.03 million
Pop. growth rate: 1.84%
Area: 27,560 sq km
Real GDP growth: 1.3%
GDP per capita: $1300
Current account: -$611m
Largest sector (% of GDP): Agriculture 66%
Labour force: 3.64 million
Unemployment rate: na
Source: CIA World Factbook, 2009



Eurasian Minerals, a Colorado-based mining company, in association with Newmont Mining Corporation, has initiated exploratory prospecting procedures at several sites in the north of Haiti, where there could be substantial gold and copper deposits.

In the neighbouring Dominican Republic, the Pueblo Viejo gold deposit has proven to be one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere, with proven and probable reserves of 570,000 kilograms of gold, 3.3 million kg of silver and 192 million kg of copper.

“Mining could represent a substantial investment in the country, its economy and its infrastructure,” says Eurasian Minerals CEO David Cole, noting the potential for “very large” gold deposits in Haiti that have never been properly explored.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Challenges to Haiti’s Security Gains

Challenges to Haiti’s Security Gains

Saturday 10 October 2009

By Michael Deibert

Presented to the Applied Research Center and the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, August 2009

(Read the original article here)

At present, Haiti is passing through a delicate and significant period, one which, while giving hints of hope, also provides ample grounds for caution.

Though there have been significant and laudable improvements in the country’s security situation under the mandate of Haitian President René Préval, inaugurated in May 2006, these gains remain fragile and Haiti’s political situation relatively tenuous, and two stubbornly recurring factors of Haiti’s political life will have to be addressed in order to concretize them.

Though he has been criticized in some quarters for ineffectiveness, I believe that it is hard to overstate the impact the restoration of relative peace around the country since Mr. Préval took office has had on the life or ordinary Haitians. Whereas only a few years ago the authority of the state extended little even in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where entire neighborhoods were held in the sway of various politically-affiliated armed gangs, citizens of the capital, including those in poorer quarters, can now largely go about their business without the ever-present fear of being kidnapped or being caught in an exchange of fire between the gangs, Haitian police and forces of the 9,000 member Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH. 
 Haiti’s long-crumbling road system is being gradually rehabilitated, especially in the country’s south, and its ever-erratic electricity situation has also improved somewhat. The appointment of Michèle Pierre-Louis, a respected and independent-minded civil society leader who formerly directed the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Knowledge and Freedom Foundation or FOKAL), as Prime Minister in September 2008, should also be viewed as a positive sign in a country where the Prime Minister’s office, technically the head of government according to Haiti’s 1987 constitution, has often meant little more than a rubber stamp for the presidency.

On the economic front, there has also been some good news, with the June announcement by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the the Inter-American Development Bank collectively canceling $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt, in one broad stroke erasing almost two-thirds of the country’s outstanding debt. The latter institution went even further, approving an additional $120 million in grants to aid Haiti in improving sectors such as infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention.

Also, in the United States, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008 (HOPE II), with strong support in the U.S. congress, built yet further on a 2007 measure that provided certain Haitian textiles with duty-free status when entering the United States, perhaps a boon for Haiti’s long near-moribund textile industry.

The amelioration of Haiti’s security situation is, in my view, due to several factors, not the least of which has been the steady and principled leadership of Mario Andresol at the head of the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH), bringing back competence and accountability to an institution that, during the 2001 to 2004 rule of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and to a lesser extent the 2004 to 2006 interim government that ruled Haiti before Mr. Préval’s election, was viewed chiefly as a highly politicized bludgeon used by Haiti’s executive branch against its enemies, real or perceived.

A projected five year UN-supported police reform program is now in its third year of implementation, currently providing Haiti with 9,200 police officers, with that number projected to grow to 10,000 by year’s end. For a police force that numbered only 3,500 at the start of the UN mission (of whom over 1,500 had to be dismissed), the target of 14,000 police officers by the end of 2011 would not seem overly optimistic. This surge in police recruits is a far cry from the situation between September 2004 and June 2005, during which a PNH officer was being murdered every five days in Haiti. On the judicial side of law enforcement, Haiti has recently re-opened its school for magistrates after being shuttered for many years.

However, there are some structural problems to Haiti’s political culture that need to be addressed if the calm that we have seen in Haiti over the least few years is to be anything but cosmetic, and if a longer process of both political and economic development can occur.

By now everyone is no doubt familiar with the litany of woeful statistics that so often get repeated about Haiti in gatherings like this: The fact that over 4 million of Haiti’s nearly 9 million people live on less than US$1 a day, that only the people of Somalia and Afghanistan suffer from higher rates of hunger, that 90 percent of Haiti’s tree cover has been destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming, resulting in erosion that has destroyed two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland and leaves it vulnerable to torrential floods such as those caused by a trio of hurricanes that killed at least 600 people last year.

 As already noted, some steps are being taken at an international level to address Haiti’s economic woes and, though far from adequate, small steps to try and address Haiti’s environmental disaster are being taken by such indigenous groups as Tèt kole ti peyizan Ayisyen and the Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay.

Despite this, though, I believe that the two hard grains in Haiti’s political culture that must be addressed, both by the Haitian government and by the international community, if the changes I have outlined are to be anything more than temporary. These grains are those of impunity and corruption, the continuing presence of which have the ability to undermine all of the progress that we have so far seen.

The guilty pleas this past May of two Miami telecommunications executives, Juan Diaz and Antonio Perez. in connection with their roles in a conspiracy to pay and conceal more than $1 million in bribes to former Haitian officials during the Aristide’s government’s tenure is a step in the right direction, but it unfortunately has yet to be see reciprocal prosecutions on the Haitian side for those who accepted the bribes.

Despite the ratification of the UN Convention against corruption by Haiti’s parliament in 2007 and a vigorous speech about the problem of corruption in Haiti by Préval in May of that year, as a Haitian friend of mine recently told me, corruption is a low-risk, high-return initiative in Haiti, one has every chance of becoming very rich, and very little chance of being punished.

Going hand-in-hand with a culture of corruption and impunity, historically in Haiti, armed government loyalists with no formal law enforcement role have essentially became contractors of the state, a phenomenon that held true with the Tontons Macoutes of the 1957-1986 Duvalier family dictatorship, the attaché of the 1991-1994 defacto era and the chimere of Aristide’s 2001-2004 mandate. Under the aegis of the state, such affiliated members, rewarded irregularly through various forms of government largess, were allowed to exist as a competing armed group to the official security forces, and given free reign to commit some sickening crimes, such as the April 1994 killing of Aristide supporters in the northern city of Gonaives and the February 2004 massacre of Aristide opponents and civilians in the central Haitian town of St. Marc, the latter a crime for which no one has as yet been tried.

Though this phenomenon, as far I can tell, is no longer present at the heart of Haiti’s government today as it has been in the past, the aba/a-vie option of mob politics remains an attractive one to many of Haiti’s political and extra-political actors, as we saw with the riots of May 2008 and recent chaotic protests in favour of raising the country’s minimum wage. Legitimate grievances can quickly be manipulated by those seeking instability in Haiti for criminal or political gain.

Though there is a palpable difference now from the years of the second Aristide government and the interim government, when police and security services were objects of fear and distrust in the country and brazen corruption existed at the very pinnacles of power, the Haitian public now needs to feel that the police and judiciary are responsive institutions, not simply commodities that, like so much in Haiti, are for sale to the highest bidder and out of reach of the ordinary citizens.

By my count, there have been 7 UN missions in Haiti over the last 17 years, all of which had been requested by the Haitian government in power at the time. There can be 7 more over the next 17 years, but I believe if these two core issues are not aggressively and substantively addressed, the international community risks only solidifying the already deep and decidedly deserved skepticism that many Haitians have for the political process as it currently exists in the country, as evidenced by recent feeble electoral participation, and the institutions propped up by it, both local and foreign.

The people of Haiti, and by this I mean the poor majority, need to feel that they have some sort of stake in the kind of society that Haiti’s politicians, business elite and the international community are trying to create, because without the reality of a power structure that is responsive to the needs of its citizens and transparent in its governance, the window of opportunity that we are currently provided with will shut rapidly, and those hoping for its closure, and along with that continued drift and anarchy in Haiti’s political system, will once again step into the void, to the detriment of Haiti and its people.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read at

Friday, October 09, 2009

Nobel peace prize citation for Barack Obama

Nobel peace prize citation for Barack Obama

(Read the original Nobel committee citation here)

The Norwegian Nobel committee has decided that the Nobel peace prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The committee endorses Obama's appeal that 'Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges'.

Oslo, 9 October, 2009

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Books for autumn

As we head into fall, and I work on my own pair of new books, several friends of mine have books coming out that are well worth checking out.

It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street , by my good friend Nomi Prins, should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand last year’s financial collapse, centered in the United States but with its repercussions felt worldwide. It outlines how last autumn’s domino-like collapse of banks was linked to Wall Street’s conversion of loans into assets that allowed it to borrow far more than it could ever afford, how bankers gobbled up more than $5 billion in profits while siphoning off more than a trillion dollars in federal bailout subsidies and how, in short, the financial system in the United States has become so rigged that it penalizes ordinary working people with ever-expanding fees and penalties while the barons of commerce like Bank of America’s execrable Ken Lewis get away with barely-disguised theft and extortion on a grand scale.

A former managing director at Goldman Sachs and chief of the international analytics group at Bear Stearns who now serves as a Senior Fellow at the progressive public policy research organization Demos, Nomi knows intimately of what she writes. I highly enjoyed her previous two books, Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How "Conservatives" Are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not), and very much look forward to this third installment

Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910
, penned by Jeffrey H. Jackson, Associate Professor of History at Rhodes College, is a fascinating account of a natural disaster that befell Paris when the Seine overflowed its banks in January of that year. Combining exhaustive archival research and such primary sources as the diary of the city’s chief of police, the book creates a compelling image of what at the time was viewed as an epochal event in one of the world’s great cities. It shows, in compelling fashion and with shades of Hurricane Katrina, how a city that has been often riven by divisions managed to come together to face a body blow from nature and how the City of Light managed to shine once again.

And finally, Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, presents a sweeping and dramatic account of the life of the Brazilian writer, at once iconic and iconoclastic, who overcame hurdles that most people can’t even begin to imagine to become a tremendously important influence on novelists such as Caio Fernando Abreu. Transplanted from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Ukraine to Recife in northeastern Brasil, then to Rio de Janeiro and Europe and beyond, Lispector was a citizen of the world in every sense of the world, and a writer with a very original and powerful vision. Moser does an excellent job of humanizing this at-times inscrutable character who, to paraphrase an old saying, may have made her greatest work of art in the creation of herself.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gorki Águila canta "El General" en Miami, September 19, 2009

"He sings, sways and shouts in his bloody rock lyrics what others mutter with fear” - Yoani Sanchez

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Report of the United Nations fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict

The report of the United Nations fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict has been published and can be read here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Letter from Senator Edward M. Kennedy to President Barack Obama

Below is the text of the letter from Senator Edward M. Kennedy referenced by the President in tonight’s address to a Joint Session of Congress.

(Read at the White House website here)

May 12, 2009

Dear Mr. President,

I wanted to write a few final words to you to express my gratitude for your repeated personal kindnesses to me – and one last time, to salute your leadership in giving our country back its future and its truth.

On a personal level, you and Michelle reached out to Vicki, to our family and me in so many different ways. You helped to make these difficult months a happy time in my life.

You also made it a time of hope for me and for our country.

When I thought of all the years, all the battles, and all the memories of my long public life, I felt confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the President who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society. For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life. And in the past year, the prospect of victory sustained me-and the work of achieving it summoned my energy and determination.

There will be struggles – there always have been – and they are already underway again. But as we moved forward in these months, I learned that you will not yield to calls to retreat - that you will stay with the cause until it is won. I saw your conviction that the time is now and witnessed your unwavering commitment and understanding that health care is a decisive issue for our future prosperity. But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.

And so because of your vision and resolve, I came to believe that soon, very soon, affordable health coverage will be available to all, in an America where the state of a family’s health will never again depend on the amount of a family’s wealth. And while I will not see the victory, I was able to look forward and know that we will – yes, we will – fulfill the promise of health care in America as a right and not a privilege.

In closing, let me say again how proud I was to be part of your campaign- and proud as well to play a part in the early months of a new era of high purpose and achievement. I entered public life with a young President who inspired a generation and the world. It gives me great hope that as I leave, another young President inspires another generation and once more on America’s behalf inspires the entire world.

So, I wrote this to thank you one last time as a friend- and to stand with you one last time for change and the America we can become.

At the Denver Convention where you were nominated, I said the dream lives on.

And I finished this letter with unshakable faith that the dream will be fulfilled for this generation, and preserved and enlarged for generations to come.

With deep respect and abiding affection,


Brice Hortefeux not a fan of black, blanc, beur

Quand il y en a un, ça va. C'est quand il y en a beaucoup qu'il y a des problèmes.

Classy, huh? About the discourse one would expect from the man who was once "Minister of National Identity," and not at all surprising considering what I wrote about him doing back then.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A few thoughts from Paris on President Barack Obama’s healthcare speech to Congress

Barack Obama joue le tout pour le tout, read the first lines of the article in today’s Le Monde concerning the speech on healthcare of the 44th president of the United States to a joint session of Congress last evening. The Guardian newspaper in England declared that the “president issues rousing speech to Congress and promises not to be deflected from universal healthcare plan.”

This was a moment I confess that I have waited for with some trepidation, to see whether or not President Obama, a politician who, as Candidate Obama, was able to inspire even your jaded author as few politicians ever had before, would deliver on his promise of providing affordable, comprehensive healthcare to all Americans. As I have noted on this blog before, the current healthcare system in the United States - if you can call such a patchwork of private insurance schemes absurdly tied to employment status a system - currently gobbles up 17 percent of the U.S. GDP, as opposed to the 11 percent of GDP used here in France, a system that is not gamed by insurance and pharmaceutical companies as our current mode of operation in the United States is, but nevertheless guarantees universal healthcare. The U.S. system, currently ranked 37th in the world, according to the World Health Organization, is corrupt, stupid, brutal, wasteful and as expensive as anything I've ever seen, yet it has powerful forces with an interest in protecting it. I know this not just from statistics but from my own experiences and the experiences of my family and friends. I myself have been ineligible for any type of affordable healthcare since I went freelance full-time in early 2006.

This being the case, and given the vile and sometimes violent eruptions at various town hall meetings across the United States over the month of August, it seemed a reasonable fear that Obama, like many before him, might have been simply outmaneuvered by the frothing craziness and bile of the well-organized and well-funded defenders of the status quo. This, mixed in with a brew of right-wing demagoguery and naked racism, has created a rather poisonous political atmosphere in my native country, where a party that has been in power for 20 of the last 28 years simply cannot seem to get used to being in the political opposition.

However, much to my, dare I say it, joy, President Obama delivered brilliantly, giving what was certainly his best speech since his famous address on race in Philadelphia in March 2008, and perhaps one of the best political speeches I have heard in American politics during my lifetime.

Speaking of an insurance exchange to be created to allow individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a hardship waiver for those individuals who still cannot afford coverage, Obama did not advocate for the single-payer system that I and many who voted for him would have hope for. Nevertheless, his proposal would seem to take a great deal of power out of the hands of insurance company bureaucrats and point towards strenuous government advocacy to create a more just and equitable system that could not help but make Americans’ lives better.

Obama spoke terrifyingly of an Illinois man who lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones the man hadn’t previously known about. The man subsequently died following delays in treatment. He also mentioned the case of a woman in Texas whose insurance company cancelled her policy as she was about to undergo a double mastectomy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. When she finally regained insurance, the cancer had more than doubled. As Obama said “no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”

Perhaps the most moving part of the speech came towards the end, when Obama evoked the name of recently deceased democratic Senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy, referring to a letter than Kennedy had sent him to be read in the event of his death, and to Kennedy’s own long struggle to reform the health system in the United States:

Imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it....Large heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise...

...We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.

Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.

After fearing for the month of August that Obama had lost control of the debate to the bitter fringe shouting that the sky was falling, THIS was once again the man we elected as president last fall. And once again, finally, it appears that we have a genuine advocate for the disenfranchised in the White House.

An additional note: At one point during Obama’s speech, when he asserted that the healthcare proposal now under consideration in Congress would not provide healthcare to undocumented immigrants in the United States (it doesn’t), Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, screamed “You’re lying” from the audience, a breach of decorum that I can never remember seeing before during a presidential address to both houses of congress.

Beyond the ignorance of Joe Wilson himself, who, judging from his performance, is little more than a repulsive piggish caricature of a good ‘ol boy, faced with Obama’s oratorical eloquence and sound political judgement, the Republican Party as a whole appears to be content to continue down a path of political irrelevance, defining itself as a regional, white, Christian party. It is a rather public political suicide that I think is unique in modern American history. Increasingly in the grip of a clutch of extremists, the GOP, a party that once gave us Abraham Lincoln, now behaves as a group of ill-mannered, uneducated spoiled children might.

If this is the best, most principled opposition to that Republicans can muster, I should think that Obama has little to worry about. And I hope the long struggle for national healthcare in the United States might at last be arriving at its defining moment.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A few thoughts on the death penalty

Having covered the debate regarding capital punishment in the Western Hemisphere tangentially for a few years now, both in the United States and Jamaica, I was more or less certain that, sooner or later, a story such as the one that David Grann has penned for the current issue of the New Yorker would come to light. Grann’s story concerns Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 for the murder of his three small children in a fire that prosecutors successfully argued that Willingham had set deliberately.

The only problem was, scientific analysis now proves, there was no evidence that the fire had even been arson, let alone set by Willingham, who had refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life. Though by any standards an unappealing character who had battered his wife and was involved in minor scrapes with the law, it seems now proven beyond any reasonable doubt that, in February 2004, the state of Texas executed an innocent man.

I have seen the potential for error in the death penalty close up, in the person of Carl McHargh, a Jamaican man who was convicted and sentenced to death for the shooting deaths of two men on the basis of testimony of a single witness. After an attempt on his life in prison left him with twenty-three stab wounds on his body, McHargh was absolved of culpability of the crime and freed in June 2006, after spending nearly seven years in jail following the 1999 slayings. In the United States, I have interviewed people such as Lorry Post, whose daughter was murdered in 1989, but who nevertheless is a founder of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

It’s a complicated debate. One can understand how the families of victims would want justice, but when one looks closely at the fact that, since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated by DNA testing, and at the ghastly miscarriage of justice that was the state-sanctioned murder of Cameron Todd Willingham, one can’t help but think that there must be another way to punish these most heinous of criminals.

For further reading on the imperfections of the ultimate penalty, please visit the website of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A further note on the killings at La Scierie

A fellow I hadn't heard of before recently wrote to me in the wake of my highlighting some of the problems with the reportage of Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague for the Inter Press Service on the Ronald Dauphin case in Haiti, given the former's link with paid advocates of Haiti's former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the latter's rather loopy public declarations on subjects Haitian in the past. This commentary in turn had spurred a reply from the ever-opportunistic Kim Ives, late of the Brooklyn-based publication Haiti Progrès, currently of Haiti Liberté. A fellow describing himself as a "friend" of Ives then emailed me (in a thoroughly respectful manner, unlike the apparently unstable Sprague) to ask me a few questions, which I will re-rephrase slightly here, while preserving the correspondent's anonymity.

1) Whether Ronald Dauphin is guilty or not, is it not a violation of human rights to keep someone in prison indefinitely without being charged or put on trial?

2) The Bush Administration circumvented this issue by changing the description of suspected terrorists to detainees in order to rationalize indefinite imprisonment. The overwhelming, humane response has been to set them free or put them on trial. In Haiti, prisoners are simply left to rot. Do you - Michael Deibert - you support this?

3) Are you concerned that if set free until trial, Ronald Dauphin will disappear or commit more crimes? Do you think he is a danger to Haitian society?

My response, which may be of interest to readers as it addresses some important issues, ran as follows:

Hello, and thank you for your email. It addresses an important question, one which goes to the heart of what is happening in Haiti right now.

When I interviewed him in June regarding St. Marc case, Pierre Espérance, the director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), made a very perceptive statement to the effect that, in Haiti’s broken justice system, the criminal becomes a victim because the system doesn't work.

This, in my view as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in St. Marc, is what is happening in the case of Ronald Dauphin. I really defy anyone to spend a morning or afternoon talking with the many families associated with the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), listen to their stories and not come away with the impression that the combined forces of the Police Nationale de Haiti, the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National and especially Bale Wouze subjected them to something truly horrible during February 2004. Yet, strangely enough (to me at least), in the international Haiti solidarity network, nary a voice is raised to offer these people comfort, solace or support. I think this is something of which all us, as foreigners who claim to care for Haiti, should be ashamed.

According to my own interviews in St. Marc and the interviews of others, Ronald Dauphin, along with former Fanmi Lavalas Deputy Amanus Mayette (freed from prison in April 2007) and the deceased Bale Wouze leader Somoza were three of the most visible architects of the slaughter that took place in St. Marc that month, and the offenses such as the gang rape of women that took place then and afterwards.

Do I think that Ronald Dauphin is a danger to his fellow Haitians? Yes, but that is no excuse for holding him in jail indefinitely without trial. If I, as a journalist, can travel to St. Marc and find people virtually lining up around the block willing to share quite lucid and disturbing tales of the state-sponsored violence that they have been subjected to, then it seems not only possible or desirable but essential that the Haitian state find a way to address their demands for justice.

However grave his crimes, as a citizen Ronald Dauphin has his rights, as well. But what disturbs me most, perhaps, is the incredible arsenal of money and personnel arrayed to not only assure Mr. Dauphin of his rights but to discredit the victims of political violence in Haiti and to deny them their day in court. I thought that it was a national scandal, for example, when those convicted of participation in the April 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters in Gonaives had their sentences overturned by Haiti's supreme court in 2005, but at least the people of Gonaives got their day in court, however sullied it later became. What about the people of St. Marc?

The same actors who prosecuted the Gonaives case during the Préval government’s first mandate - the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and (now) the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) - now work on behalf of the victimizers in the St. Marc case. It is a seriously complicated question, but I don’t think that the cause of justice in Haiti is served by having one standard of advocacy for former officials and partisans of the Fanmi Lavalas party and another for everyone else in Haiti.

If these groups are genuinely advocating for an equal measure of justice to be applied to all in Haiti, why were none of their voices raised during the 2001-2004 government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when the prisons were equally swollen with (mostly unknown) defendants who had never seen a judge? Why were no voices raised against the corruption of the judicial process against former dictator Prosper Avril, no matter how distasteful he may be, or against the nakedly political detention of Coordination Nationale des Societaires Victimes spokesmen Rosemond Jean, or against the two-year detention-without-trial of Winston Jean-Bart, aka the famous Tupac of Cité Soleil? Where was their compassion following the horrific slaying of Haitian journalist and poet Jacques Roche? In my view, they were silent then as they are silent now because they see human rights only as an issue to be bandied about when it is politically expedient to do so for the political current they serve, not as a long-term commitment to build a better Haiti.

It is a very thorny problem: How does one give justice to victims while still insuring the rights of the accused? As you correctly point out, it is a debate that still goes on in the United States and in other countries with supposedly functioning judicial systems to this day.

The old adage of following the money is accurate up to a point. Some have pointed out RNDDH’s 2004 award of C$100,000 (US$85,382) from the Canadian International Development Agency, even though, as far as I can discern, most of the group’s funding comes from organizations such as Christian Aid, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Lutheran World Federation. Nevertheless, since that grant,RNDDH has consistently advocated for justice on behalf of a number of Fanmi Lavalas members, including Jean Maxon Guerrier, Yvon Feuille, Gerald Gilles, and Rudy Hériveaux. RNDDH, for me, has shown a commitment to a non-political defense of human rights that BAI/IJDH, linked monetarily and otherwise with Mr. Aristide’s attorney, have never shown.

Perhaps the best we can do as foreigners is to encourage a genuinely non-partisan, non-political development and reinforcement of the Haitian judicial system through institutions such as the newly re-opened magistrate’s school, so that justice can be given to the victims of the human rights abuses and the human rights of perpetrators, accused and otherwise, can also be safeguarded. Perhaps boring and not very sexy, but as a man once told me, the most revolutionary thing you can do in Haiti is to strengthen an institution. I still believe that is true.

I hope this has helped to answer your questions.

Best regards,