Sunday, August 30, 2009

Amidst turmoil, Iranian exiles seek to be heard

Amidst turmoil, Iranian exiles seek to be heard

By Michael Deibert

PARIS - When hundreds of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets to protest what they charged was the rigged re-election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12, it was seen by many as one of the most significant moments in the country since its 1979 revolution ended the 38-year reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and replaced it with a theocracy based on the teachings of Shia Islam.

However, as is often the case with internal power struggles in the oil-rich, politically delicate Persian Gulf region, the reverberations from the protests in Iran and the government’s response to them have been felt far beyond Iran’s borders, and have stimulated a whirlwind of debate and lobbying activity among Iranian exiles in North America and Europe.

Between two to three million Iranians are thought to live abroad, with the largest percentage in the Unite States, followed by the European Union, Canada and the United Arab Emirates. In the run-up to June's ballot, the official website of Iran's government said that 304 polling stations had been established in 130 countries outside Iran.

Many voters living abroad are thought to have supported Ahmadinejad’s main opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a supposition that appeared to gain weight with massive pro-Mousavi demonstrations held throughout Europe between the June vote and its formal endorsement by Iran’s designated spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this August, seven weeks after the election.

Mousavi, who served as Iran’s Prime Minister from 1981 until 1989 (at which point that post was abolished), has run afoul of conservative elements in Iran’s clerical establishment, including Khamenei, with calls for greater civil liberties in the country of 70 million.

A sometimes ally of Ahmadinejad’s, Khamenei’s role in Iran’s political life is specified in Article 107 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a document adopted in a 1979 referendum and modified in 1989. It refers to a “leader” (though not a “supreme leader,” which is an unofficial term of respect), outlining that “the Leader thus elected by the Assembly of Experts shall assume all the powers of the religious leader and all the responsibilities arising therefrom. The Leader is equal with the rest of the people of the country in the eyes of law.”

With Mousavi’s campaign supported by other elements among Iran’s power elite, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who served as Iran’s president from 1981 until 1987), his partisans have been able to marshall a sustained campaign of protests in and outside of Iran that has little been seen since 1979.

The response of the Ahmadinejad government, chiefly through the Revolutionary Guard branch of Iran’s military and the affiliated Basij militia, has been one of extreme violence and mass arrests, with an unknown number of protesters having been killed and hundreds arrested, many disappearing into Tehran's Evin prison. The death of one protester, Neda Soltan, a 26-year-old music student gunned down during a demonstration, was captured on the camera of a mobile phone, and became something of an iconic image of the protest movement.

“What we are seeing is open criticism of the supreme leader and of the supreme leader’s system, and previously that has been the red line that no one has been able to cross,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington DC, referring to Khamenei. “Both the person and the institution of the supreme leader have been above criticism, and that has now changed.”

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are an estimated 1 million Iranian-Americans living in the United States, with substantial Iranian-American communities in San Francisco, New York City and the Washington, DC-Baltimore metropolitan area. In Southern California, the most populous Iranian-American enclave (so much that Los Angeles has occasionally received the sobriquet Tehrangeles), community estimates count some 500,000 among the Iranian-American population there, served by 20 Farsi-language satellite television channels.

In addition, the U.S. government also funds Radio Farda, a Persian language radio station based in Washington, D.C. and Prague, Czech Republic. The station's name means "tomorrow" in Farsi, and its content focuses heavily on Iran, a state of affairs which has resulted in its website being blocked by the Iranian government.

Despite their numbers, however, diaspora voices in the United States and elsewhere have yet to articulate a common approach to Iran’s crisis, with opinions spanning the gamut from former monarchists such as Reza Pahlavi, the former Crown Prince of Iran and eldest son of the late Shah, to civil society groupings such as the Washington, DC-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

Founded in 2002 and partially funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and the non-profit Tides Foundation, the NIAC’s website states that “the organization currently supports the idea of resolving the problems between the US and Iran through dialogue in order to avoid war.”

“As long as we have a state of flux, the proper path is to do nothing,” says NIAC’s president Trita Parsi, of the proper response of the international community to Iran’s upheaval. “Once you reach a position where a greater consensus has formed, however distasteful engagement might appear, that is the only option the United States hasn’t pursued in the last 30 years. And it has worked to the detriment of the forces of democracy inside the country.”

However, Parsi cautions that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama should “not engage the Ahmadinejad government prematurely” as the true measure of current developments in Iran “may take months or perhaps years, not weeks.”

Many critics of the Iranian government’s response to the protests cite what they charge as its failure to honor the terms of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 27 of which states that “public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

In the wake of the crackdown, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the Mousavi campaign’s key backers, told thousands of worshippers at a prayer event in July that the Islamic Republic was in crisis and the Ahmadinejad government had lost the trust of millions of Iranians who didn’t believe that their votes had been counted.

Another former president, Mohammad Khatami, who governed that country from 1997 until Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, called for a nationwide referendum on the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government, though not the Islamic system itself.

“This is not a prelude to a revolution, but a specific demand for civil liberties,” says Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and a native of the city of Ahvaz in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. “The ruling elite is seriously divided...Everybody has known that there were divisions of opinions and factions within the body politic of the Islamic Republic, but it has never been so open.”

Indeed, as opposed to the Tiananmen Square protests which rocked China in 1989 and were met with a more or less unified iron fist by the Chinese Communist party (and initially, according to the Chinese Red Cross, 2,600 fatalities), today’s dissent in Iran appears to be echoed at the very highest levels of the country’s clerical establishment. Expressions of discontent have be voiced not only by former presidents such as Rafsanjani and Khatami, but also by influential religious leaders such as the long-dissenting cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, based in the holy city of Qom.

The risks run by the clerics and protestors have been signifiant, as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have tried to label the current power struggle as little more than treason being orchestrated by foreign governments. Staring down at those moved to act, as well, is Iran’s grim human rights record, which, according the New York-based Human Rights watch, has led to Iran being the world’s leader in overall executions, executing more people than any other country except China, with executions having undergone a 300% increase since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. Iran also leads the world in executing juvenile offenders, persons under 18 at the time of their crime.

Of all diaspora centres in Europe, France has historically been the most vibrant nexus of expatriate Iranian political and cultural life.

Perhaps Iran’s best known author, Sādeq Hedāyat lived off and on in France for much of his adult life, drawing deeply upon the influence of French writers such as Guy de Maupassant before gassing himself in his Paris flat in 1951. Buried in the city's storied Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Hedāyat’s most famous book, Boof-e koor (The Blind Owl), has been heavily censored in modern-day Iran.

In 1978, following his expulsion from the holy city of Najaf, Iraq (where he had lived since 1965) by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s Islamic revolution, spent four critical months strategizing and plotting his return to Iran in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, just outside of Paris.

Today, the Tehran-raised and now Paris-based graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi chronicled her experiences growing up in the Islamic Republic and in exile in Europe in her much-praised works, Persepolis and Persepolis 2.

Following Iran's disputed ballot this year, Satrapi and Vienna-based filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (whose 2001 film Kandahar won the Federico Fellini Prize from UNESCO, and who serves as the the spokesman for the Mousavi campaign abroad), met with Green Party MPs in the European parliament in Brussels. The pair presented what they said was a document from the Iranian electoral commission showing that Mousavi had won the ballot with 19 million votes, a far cry from the official tally that showed 24.5 million votes for the victorious Ahmadinejad and 13.2 million votes for Mousavi.

“We,the Iranian nation, have been taken hostage by the government of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei,” Makhmalbaf said in a speech to the European Parliament in July. “We call on you, the nations and governments of the world, not to give official recognition to the hostage-takers.”

Beyond the passionate artistic dissent of Satrapi and Makhmalbaf, France is also the base for one of the murkiest and most controversial of the exile groups opposing the Ahmadinejad government and Iran’s conservative clerics, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

Founded in Paris in 1981 by Massoud Rajavi, a former supporter of Iran’s Islamic revolution who had fallen out with the Khomeini government, the NCRI grew directly out of the role of Rajavi and his wife, Maryam, as leaders of the Mojāhedin-e Khalq (People's Mujahedin of Iran or MEK, sometimes also abbreviated as PMOI).

With its roots in the firmament of university opposition to the Shah in 1960s Iran and a large portion of its membership female, the MEK blend a peculiar mix of Marxist and Islamic fervor with a rather pronounced and somewhat eerie focus on the Rajavis as objects of public adoration. Leaving Paris in 1986, Massoud Rajavi set up MEK military bases in Iraq for the next two decades with the blessing of Saddam Hussein.

When Massoud Rajavi disappeared in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (he is now thought to be dead or in hiding), responsibility for the day-to-day running of the NCRI fell to Maryam Rajavi. Following the U.S invasion of Iraq, the MEK was largely disarmed, though its sprawling camps in Iraq’s Diyala Province remained until a violent July 2009 incursion by Iraqi security forces sought to dismantle the camps and evict their residents.

Placed on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997, the MEK was also placed on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations in 2002, but removed it in early 2009

In a 2005 report titled “No Exit,” Human Rights Watch wrote that former MEK members at the camps “reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.”

As a measure of the devotion of the group’s followers, when Maryam Rajavi was arrested by French police in June 2003 along with 160 MEK followers on the basis of a court order accusing them of preparing terrorist acts and financing terrorist enterprises from French soil, the group’s supporters staged noisy protests in several European capitals, with several partisans setting themselves ablaze in protest. Rajavi was subsequently released.

The NCRI has apparently taken a page out of the book of the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi exile group whose assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction gained it great influence among Washington’s power elite even though they were later proved false.

In February 2008, the NCRI held a press conference where they charged that Iran was still actively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, a claim that ran counter the assessment of the US National Intelligence Estimate - the collective wisdom of all 16 U.S. spy agencies - that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

Though the group’s links with Saddam Hussein during the vicious 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war are said to have cost it dearly in terms of support on the ground in Iran, the group still has its admirers in Washington.

Tom Tancredo, former Republican member of the United States House of Representatives and failed 2008 presidential candidate, was a vocal supporter of the group during his 10 year stint on Capital Hill, while California Democratic Congressman Bob Filner addressed an NCRI rally in Paris in June 2007, praising the group and Maryam Rajavi in particular. Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee under George W. Bush and a leading proponent of the invasion of Iraq, and Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are also viewed as being sympathetic to the group.

Among quieter voices in the Iranian exile community, however, is the recognition that Iran is currently passing through a supremely delicate and painful moment in its political history.

Above all, they say, the significance of what is happening in Iran now should not be lost on outside observers of the region, and foreign governments should approach this crisis with a new set of eyes, avoiding a repeat of such infamous moments as the ill-fated 1954 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq (carried out with the complicity of British and American intelligence service) or the 2003 Iraq invasion.

While some political players in the West appear genetically disposed to throw their weight behind fire-and-brimstone military scenarios when confronted with the crisis, and while some of those of the intellectual left wrap themselves in ideologically bankrupt slogans about U.S. hegemony far removed from the reality of Iranian risking their lives on the ground, voices in the Iranian diaspora continue to urge, above all things, caution and moderation.

“Any principled person who has a venue and who has a position where they can inform has to be supple intellectually, politically and morally, and be open to the possibility that things can happen beyond our expectations, beyond our theories, beyond our political positioning,” says Hamid Dabashi. “To not allow the facts on the ground as they are unfolding to inform politics and theories, this to me is irresponsible.”

“I think what we are witnessing is not only the rise of national politics into the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf region, but the rise of a civil rights movements quite beyond ideological persuasions or formations.”

Michael Deibert is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Michael Deibert in Lonely Planet guide

Heading out to dinner in Paris tonight with my good friend, the writer Ben Fountain, it was nice to find out that my 2005 book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, is mentioned on page 272 of the new Lonely Planet guide to Haiti and the Dominican Republic as "a gripping eye-witness account of the chaos of the final years of Aristide's rule up to the 2004 coup." Thanks for noticing, Lonely Planet.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy, 77, dies

United States Senator Edward Kennedy was a great legislator on behalf of working class, working poor and otherwise disadvantaged and disenfranchised Americans, however flawed he was as a human being, and as powerful a voice for a national healthcare plan as we have ever had in my native country. May the road rise to meet you, wherever you are off to, Teddy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A note on Jeb Sprague and Wadner Pierre's reporting of the Ronald Dauphin case in Haiti

In an era during which, in my own country, right-wing groups such as FreedomWorks are advising opponents of healthcare reform on how best to disrupt public discussion of America’s appalling healthcare system, it is useful to cast a skeptical eye towards conflicts of interest among those reporting the news. Talking points created by political operatives are then parroted by a compliant media, reiterated by politically-sponsored, ostensibly “grassroots,” groups are then re-reported by sympathetic media outlets as news. It is an old and often surprisingly transparent trick.

Aside from the cable network rantings of Fox News and CNN’s immigrant-hating Lou Dobbs, it is hard for me to think of a more obvious example of the phenomenon of echo chamber news than a recent article on Haiti titled “Calls Mount to Free Lavalas Activist” written for the Inter Press Service by Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague.

The article concerns Ronald Dauphin, a former customs worker in the central Haitian city of St. Marc and partisan of the Fanmi Lavalas political party of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,

Though Pierre and Sprague’s article describes Dauphin as “a Haitian political prisoner,” according to a St. Marc-based group, the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), and a Haitian human rights group, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Dauphin was also an enthusiastic participant in a massacre of Aristide opponents and civilians that took place in the town in February 2004.

During that time, Dauphin, who was known in St. Marc as Black Ronald, was affiliated with a pro-Aristide paramilitary group, Bale Wouze ("Clean Sweep"). According to local residents, Bale Wouze, working in tandem with the Police Nationale de Haiti (PNH) and the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National (USGPN), a unit directly responsible for the president's personal security, swept through the neighborhood of La Scierie, killing political activists affiliated with an armed anti-government group, the Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint-Marc (Ramicos), as well as civilians, committing instances of gang rape, and looting and burning property.

When I visited St. Marc in February 2004, shortly after Bale Wouze's raid into La Scierie, I interviewed USGPN personnel and Bale Wouze members who were patrolling the city as a single armed unit in tandem the PNH. A local priest told me matter-of-factly at the time of Bale Wouze that, "These people don't make arrests, they kill." According to a member of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited St. Marc a month after the killings, at least 27 people were murdered in St. Marc between Feb. 11 and Aristide's flight into exile on February 29.

On a return visit to St. Marc in June of this year, researching for my article "We Have Never Had Justice," I spoke with individuals such as 49-year old Amazil Jean-Baptiste, whose son, Kenol St. Gilles, was murdered, and 44 year-old Marc Ariel Narcisse, whose cousin, Bob Narcisse, was killed. It is difficult to spend a morning chatting with the people of La Scierie without concluding that something very awful happened to them in 2004, a trauma from which they have yet to recover and for which they still seek justice.

Following the massacre in St. Marc, Dauphin was arrested in 2004. He subsequently escaped from jail, was re-arrested during the course of an anti-kidnapping raid in July 2006, and, like 81 percent those in Haiti’s prisons, been held without trial ever since.

In their recent article, Pierre and Sprague take particular aim at Haiti’s RNDDH human rights group, deferring instead to the U.S-based Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH), a group that has been particularly vociferous in its denunciations of possible governmental culpability for the St. Marc killings, and which described Ronald Dauphin in a June 2009 press release as “a Haitian grassroots activist, customs worker and political prisoner,” language curiously mimicked in the Sprague/Pierre article, and which makes no mention of the testimonies of the people of St. Marc.

Though they are never mentioned in the article, the deep and ongoing links between Mr. Aristide, Fanmi Lavalas, IJDH, Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague - links of which the Inter Press Service is aware but has chosen to ignore - have effectively blurred the line between political advocacy, human rights work and journalism.

One needs only to look at the chairman of IJDH’s Board of Directors, Miami attorney Ira Kurzban - also one of the group’s founders - to realize the deeply compromised nature of the organization's work. According to U.S. Department of Justice filings, between 2001 and 2004 Mr. Kurzban’s law firm received $4,648,964 from the Aristide government on behalf of its lobbying efforts, gobbling up from Haiti’s near-bankrupt state more than 2,000 times the average yearly income of the more than 7 million people there who survive on less that $2 per day. Since Mr. Aristide’s subsequent exile, Mr. Kurzban has frequently identified himself as the former president’s personal attorney in the United States. In vintage FreedomWorks fashion, Mr. Kuzban also had to be calmed by security personnel when he hysterically and repeatedly interrupted a reading that I was giving at the 2005 Miami Book Fair.

In IJDH’s 2005 annual report, Mr. Kurzban’s firm is listed in the category reserved for those having contributed more than $5000 to the organization, while in the group’s 2006 report, the firm is listed under “Donations of Time and Talent.”. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, South Florida Chapter, for which Mr. Kurzban served as past national president and former general council, is listed in a section reserved for those having donated $10,000 or more

Though Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague’s elevation of IJDH to an undeserved legitimacy and slander of RNDDH (a group which, despite its advocacy on behalf of the St. Marc victims, has also defended the rights and advocated on behalf of members of the Fanmi Lavalas party) are distasteful, they don’t quite rise to the level of intentional duplicity that another bit of information suggests.

In a stark conflict of interest, Wadner Pierre was once employed by a Haitian legal organization, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which, according to the IJDH’s own website received “most of its support from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.” Pierre has also previously contributed text and photographs to the IJDH website lauding the April 2007 release of Amanus Mayette, another suspect of the St. Marc massacre.

Put simply, when writing about the IJDH, Wadner Pierre is quoting his former employer without acknowledging it as such, a sleight of hand that opponents of health reform in my own country, for example, would recognize immediately.

For his part, Jeb Sprague, the article’s other author, first made himself known to me in November 2005, when he emailed me, unsolicited, a graphic picture of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked bodies of a Haitian mother and her children along with a smiley-face emoticon and a semi-coherent tirade against myself, the World Bank and the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC think tank.

Intimations of violence against my person aside, such a display struck me as less than a class act in giving those sacrificed on the altar of Haiti's fratricidal political violence the respect they deserve. Since then, Sprague has graduated to obsessively slandering progressive elements deemed insufficiently loyal to Haiti’s disgraced former president, such as the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group, and now works as a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Sociology Department, focusing on crime and delinquency, subjects with which his past behavior no doubt gives him a close familiarity.

Taken in total, it is unfortunate that the Inter Press Service, an organization that promotes itself as “civil society's leading news agency,” would allow itself to be used as a front for such propaganda, and throw its weight behind the paid political hacks and human rights abusers who have for too long dominated politics in Haiti. As a fairly legitimate news source, as opposed to, say, the red-faced shouting of Fox News, the Inter Press Service owes its readers, and the people of Haiti, better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A few words about Kenneth H. Bacon

Kenneth H. Bacon, a courageous advocate for refugees, former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and former journalist, passed away this Saturday.

I interviewed him in 2007 about the state of refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, while he was working as president of Refugees International, a Washington-based organisation that works to generate humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced people around the world. For a conflict as surrounded by posturing and propagandizing as Darfur is, I found his comments refreshingly humane and informed by common sense.

Though I didn't know him personally, I did know his career and public persona somewhat, and he seemed to me like someone genuinely committed to trying to lessen the suffering of the less-fortunate in the world, a distinction that fits fewer and fewer in our public discourse these days, and, as such, he seemed someone who deserves this small note of remembrance from the Loire Valley today, far from the refugee camps in Sudan and Chad.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Guns of August

The Guns of August

By Michael Deibert

In November 1787, writing to William Smith from Paris, where I live, Thomas Jefferson, future president of the United States and then U.S. Minister to France, penned the following lines:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.

This month, outside a town hall meeting held by President Barack Obama in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to discuss his efforts to reform America’s health care system, a man named William Kostric appeared with a loaded handgun strapped to his thigh and a sign reading “It’s time to water the tree of liberty.”

At a town hall meeting hosted by Senator Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican turned Democrat, which took place in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes from the working-class, largely conservative enclave of Lancaster County where I grew up, a disheveled man shrieked at Specter, who has represented Pennsylvania in the senate since 1981, that "one day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies.”

In the midst of the debate of overhauling our national health care system, these two eruptions were not isolated incidents. Attendees brought firearms to events held by members of Congress Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, both Democrats. Death threats have been sent to four Democratic congressmen: Brad Miller of North Carolina, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Brian Baird of Washington and David Scott of Georgia. Baird’s office received a fax this month in which Obama was depicted as The Joker from the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” with a Communist hammer-and-sickle painted on his forehead and the words “Death to all Marxists! Foreign and domestic!” scrawled beneath. A similar fax was sent to the office of Scott, an African-American, with the added element of Scott, an Africa-American, being denounced as “a nigger” A large swastika was spray-painted across the sign for Scott’s office.

Firing the furnace of such sentiments have been such ideologues for the right as television host Glenn Beck, who appallingly play-acted the murder of House speaker Nancy Pelosi on his nightly show on Fox News, and the radio host Rush Limbaugh with his opining that President Obama is “trying to destroy the private sector as it exists...Let’s face it, President Obama’s black, and he’s got a chip on his shoulder...He’s using the power of the presidency to remake the country”

This is what the debate over health care appears to have been reduced to in the country of my birth. In a nation where some 46 million Americans currently lack any health insurance whatsoever, and millions more have only the most limited access to any kind of coverage, a reasoned, sober discussion on the best way to overhaul our fabulously expensive and fabulously inefficient system comes down to threats of political assassination and vows of divine retribution.

The words of Jefferson, who was writing at the time in defense of the French Revolution and the overthrow of a monarchy, are now used to intimate violence against the man who occupies the office that Jefferson himself once held, a man whom, in one of those exquisite bits of historical justice, is of mixed-race ancestry much like the children that the freedom-extolling Jefferson fathered with a slave, Sally Hemings, as Jefferson’s compunctions about slavery did not extend to not participating in the institution itself.

Today, however, the Republican Party of another storied U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, which has been in power for 20 of the last 28 years, has been supplanted by Barack Hussein Obama, son of an ethnic Luo Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, a man who seems very earnest about trying to re-tool much that is brutal, wasteful and stupid about American political culture. The party does not seem to be taking to opposition well.

The need to re-haul our health care system could not seem more dire. Knowing, as I do, people in the United States who have gone bankrupt attempting to cover their health care costs, as well as many more who put off going to the doctor, receiving treatment or buying medicine because they simply cannot afford the prohibitive cost, I am also myself a statistic. Despite working 50-60 hours per week as a freelance journalist, I have not had health or dental insurance since early 2006.

The current system, dominated by insurance and pharmaceutical companies and defined by a health-care scheme absurdly tied to employment status, is being portrayed by opponents of change as a triumph of American know-how worth preserving. But compared to the health care system of France, for example, the country where I currently live and from where Jefferson wrote his famous letter, its performance comes up woefully short. Though the French system has consistently been rated among the best in the world (while the U.S. system recently ranked 37th, according to the World Health Organization), the 11 percent of GDP that France spends on it is far below the 17 percent of GDP spent in the U.S., a cost that comes without the vast benefits, safeguards and universal coverage that the French system offers.

However, none of these costs and benefits are currently being debated, nor are the political leaders of the opposition to the new health care reform bill urging any sort of moderation in their discourse.

Former vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin took to the social networking site Facebook earlier this month to denounce the “death panels” she charged the bill would create where “bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,”, a completely false allusion to a provision that would allow Medicare to reimburse doctors providing voluntary counseling regarding end-of-life issues. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa echoed Palin where he told a recent rally that “we should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma.” A memo by a volunteer affiliated with FreedomWorks, a conservative organization chaired by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, recently advised protesters on how to "disrupt" and "rattle" town hall meetings. Obama and the advocates of health care reform in the United States are routinely denounced as “socialists,” compared to Nazis and Adolf Hitler and the very legitimacy of Obama’s birth in the United States (which took place in Hawaii in 1961) is questioned.

Seeing the party of Lincoln reduced to a clutch of Talibanesque religious fundamentalists, science-denying climate change skeptics and openly xenophobic racists and bigots might be simply depressing if the implications were not so deadly serious.

A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center concludes that “after virtually disappearing from public view a decade ago, the anti-government militia movement is surging across the country – fueled by fears of a black president, the changing demographics of the country and fringe conspiracy theories increasingly spread by mainstream figures.” The report echoed in its particulars an April intelligence assessment by the Department of Homeland Security.

In May of this year, George Tiller, a Kansas physician who performed abortions and who had been pilloried by the right and by television host Bill O'Reilly in particular, was shot and killed while attending a church service, allegedly by an antiabortion extremist, Scott Roeder. In June, Stephen Tyrone, an African-American security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, was shot and killed, allegedly by James Wenneker von Brunn, a Holocaust denier and white supremacist with a long history of anti-government militancy.

And, in perhaps a telling echo of the past, the words of Thomas Jefferson that William Kostric alluded to with his sign and gun outside of the Obama appearance in New Hampshire this month where the same ones that Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for carrying out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, wore emblazoned on his t-shirt on the day of his arrest.

Having reported in the past on tumultuous political environments in countries such as Guatemala, Haiti and India, I have watched as pseudo-populist demagogues have often proved highly successful at using intemperate rhetoric to whip up groups genuinely or perceiving themselves to be disenfranchised to act against “the other.” I believe that as my country continues forward this August there is a real danger that a union will occur between the violent and shrill political rhetoric currently being spouted and actual physical violence against those who are being so demonized among anti-government elements of the right. I increasingly fear that I have seen this script played out before, always with the same disastrous results.

Much as we hold the intellectual authors and instigators of political violence in foreign countries such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia culpable for the actions of their underlings even though they themselves may have never carried a weapon into battle, the opponents of health care reform would do well to pause for a breath and look at the political climate they are creating and what its likely outcome will be. And they should remember the oft-forgotten words with which Thomas Jefferson commenced to conclude that famous 1797 missive from Paris:

"I know that there are combustible materials there, and that they wait the torch only."

Michael Deibert is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read at

Monday, August 10, 2009

A sense of Déjà Vu

On the nighttime flight back to Paris from Miami, where I had appeared on a most interesting panel covering Haiti with such scholarly luminaries as the sociologist Laënnec Hurbon and the political scientist Robert Fatton, I was struck by the following passage in a book by the historian Frank Argote-Freyre:

The government of enlisted men and student leaders was surrounded by powerful enemies. [A U.S. Ambassador] was personally embarrassed by the removal of [the president] and would do everything in his power to undermine the new government. The military officers, humiliated by the event of September 4, refused to return to their posts and share power with their former underlings. It was hard for them to imagine that el negro...a guajiro (country boy) from Banes was responsible for their ouster. Their sense of military honor and class superiority posed an obstacle to negotiation and clouded their perception of the new power structure.

The Dominican Republic in 1963? Nicaragua in 1979? Bolivia in 2006?

No, this is Cuba, and not the Cuba of the storied and over-romanticized 1959 revolution, but the Cuba of the 1933 revolution that ousted a dictator, Gerardo Machado, and his successor, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, and was largely led by a low-ranking soldier of origins of desperate poverty and indistinct racial identity named Fulgencio Batista, the same Batista who in later years became another in the island’s long line of reviled despots, and whose ouster paved the way for 50 plus years of communist dictatorship on the island.

Sometimes, people who don’t know the history of places (Haiti, for instance) like to see things in the stark relief of black and white, never allowing their certainty to be clouded by the million shades of grey that inform power, its acquisition, its use and its maintenance.

Reading Argote-Freyre’s riveting book, Fulgencio Batista: Volume 1, From Revolutionary to Strongman, I think back to some of Robert Penn Warren’s musings on the old drama of power and ethics in Huey Long-era Louisiana. Interesting questions are posed in the midst of such dramas, surely, and it is up to us as journalists to answer them as fully and as honestly as we can, as they are not as we wished they would be.

“It is convenient to look at the outcome of an event and then interpret backward to make everything fit a nice and simple interpretation,” Argote-Freyre writes at one point. “But simplicity has its limitations.”

Amen to that.