Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on Haiti’s elections

Writing from one land of misrule (the United States or, more specifically, New Orleans) about another (in this case Haiti) is always a tricky business. As much as I would have loved to have been on the ground in Haiti for the presidential and parliamentary elections conducted this past Sunday, my work in Guatemala - researching drug trafficking and organized crime - precluded it. However, one doesn’t spend as long as I have visiting and living in Haiti without wanting to follow such a momentous development closely, if only from afar.

In the recent months in the aftermath of January’s catastrophic earthquake that leveled Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns such as Léogâne and Petit-Goâve - killing well over 200,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more - I had grown increasingly worried that the conditions for a well-organized, credible ballot simply did not exist in the country, despite what the voices of the international community were saying.

With well over a million people still homeless and the infrastructure of the electoral authorities decimated by the quake, it struck me as reckless in the extreme that Haiti’s voting process - often fraught and politicized even during what pass for “normal” times in Haiti - would come off well. The last-minute decision of the INITE coalition of Haiti’s current president, René Préval, to throw Préval’s former Prime Minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, overboard in favour of Jude Célestin, the heretofore largely unknown former director of the country’s Centre National des Équipements, likewise to me suggested a dangerous dissension and division at the very top of the political process. That discredited men of violence such as Nawoon Marcellus - who routinely violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien during his affiliation with the 2001-2004 government of disgraced former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide - would be running on the ruling party's ticket was cause for further concern.

The exclusion of Mr. Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party - now a badly fictionalized and divided image of its former self, with many of its former grandees such as Mr. Marcellus and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune having migrated to other political groupings - was, in my view, also conducted by unlawful means, despite the party's mediocre showing in Haiti's 2006 general elections.

During and shortly after the voting on Sunday, reports began filtering in to me regarding its progress from friends of mine both within and outside of Haiti.

This from a friend who spent more than a decade living in Haiti:

Spoke with my people in Les Cayes. Lots of intimidation at the polling places and this was for the people who were allowed the vote. They are apparently turning away potential voters by the drove.

And this, from a friend with family near Pignon, close to Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien:

My wife's brother and cousin [are] in the commune of La Jeune just outside of Pignon. They were attacked by a group of people paid by the INITE party yesterday morning. Evidently INITE had paid a bunch of people money to vote for Célestin and most of them turned around and voted for Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly...The attackers accused my brother-in-law and cousin-in-law of sending a list of actors (intimidators, "magouyè") to the police so they went to be brother-in-law's house armed with machetes and guns. One man beat up my wife's uncle. Another fired a shot over my nephew's head. My brother-in-law wasn't home at the time, but he knows nothing about any list. He's a local candidate for magistrate in Pignon, so it seems they're blaming him and his influence on the lack of votes for Célestin...He told me they're still saying they're going to kill him and his cousin but they're not backing down because they did nothing wrong...If this is happening in a place like Pignon I can only imagine it's happening in many other places, too.

And finally, in a typically comic Haiti touch, from another friend near Port-au-Prince:

Yesterday a dog wearing a Jude Célestin yellow and green campaign t-shirt was sent running down the Kenscoff Road.

In the central city of St. Marc - site of a ghastly massacre by government forces and allied street gangs during the waning days of Aristide’s government in February 2004 - at least fifteen people were injured, including six by gunfire, protesting Sunday’s vote. Several leading candidates for presidency had called on the vote to be annulled, a demand that was modified when it appeared that some of them may in fact be very close to winning if not the ballot as a whole than a place in any potential run-off.

Most worrisome developments, to say the least, especially for those of us who have been observing Haiti for some years and know that the disputed ballots of one year can plant the seeds of chaos that will bloom later.

We are once again confronted with the figure of René Préval, one of Haiti’s most enigmatic politicians, presiding over a deeply compromised and flawed election, as he did in 1997 and 2000 during his first tenure as Haiti’s president, but who has nevertheless governed as one of the more unassuming and least violence-prone of Haitian leaders. Based on my travels around Haiti since 1997, until the earthquake Préval was the single figure in which both Haiti’s poor majority and its economic elite could meet and find common ground. The earthquake, and the government’s disorganized, piecemeal response to it - helped along by an international community that, after the initial trauma, seemed to view Haitian lives and suffering as essentially worthless - has effectively shattered this paradigm, it appears.

As I pointed out in a July opinion piece for The Guardian, it was the economic policies of the international community, along with Haiti’s own irresponsible and rapacious political and economic elites (not always one and the same), that helped drive so many Haitians into the slums of Port-au-Prince where so many of them died. Haiti’s deep structural and political problems have almost always fallen victim to expediency where foreigners, well-meaning and otherwise, were concerned, and the agonizingly slow pace of Haiti’s partners abroad to deliver aid to a country a county on its knees has been sobering for the callousness and cynicism that it has displayed.

Such events have also given an opening for the destructive forces who always seek advantage from Haiti’s misery to move in, and not only from Haiti’s political class itself.

Groups such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which also denounced Haiti’s legitimately democratic 2006 elections, lined up to denounce Sunday’s poll before the results were even announced.

This is not surprising as the IJDH has proven itself in the past to be little more that a well-oiled cog in Mr. Aristide’s propaganda machine, linked inextricably as it is with Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, one of the group’s founders and donors who also sits on its Board of Directors. According to U.S. Department of Justice filings, between 2001 and 2004 Mr. Kurzban’s law firm received nearly $5 million from the Aristide government on behalf of its lobbying efforts, and since Mr. Aristide’s subsequent 2004 ouster from Haiti, Mr. Kurzban has frequently identified himself as the former president’s personal attorney in the United States.

For its part, the CEPR, led by the dishonest and opportunistic arriviste Mark Weisbrot, is perhaps better qualified at weighing in at white-tablecloth Washington luncheons than on the reality of Haiti’s poor majority, but that has never stopped them before. They have tried in recent years to buttress their profile by exploiting Haiti’s woe to further line their own pockets, and they did so again after Sunday's vote.

Such groups, as well as violent, naysaying forces among Haiti's political aspirants, have much to gain from as deeply flawed a ballot as appears to have taken place this past weekend.

But the question remains, where to from here?

It my deep hope, perhaps a naive one, that being one of the very few leaders in Haitian history able to retire to his country home after serving out the full length of his democratically-elected term, René Préval will allow the legitimate electoral desires of the Haitian people to be expressed, no matter if it means that his chosen successor will go down in defeat or not. This will, ultimately, be the final act on which history will judge him and the final good deed he could do in the service of his people. Even before the earthquake, I have first-hand seen Haitians endure unimaginable hardship and difficulty as part of their daily lives at a level that most people can’t even begin to imagine. Since the earthquake, their lot has become more difficult still.

Elections may seem like an imperfect, dull tool with which to confront such systemic problems as rampant environmental degradation, weak institutional traditions, yawning economic inequality and a large swathe of the country that continues to lie in ruins, but it is the best tool that, for the moment, the Haitians have at their disposal.

The Haitians have been deprived of so much. In the cases of the 1.5 million still living in tent cities in and around Port-au-Prince, they have even been deprived of their already-modest homes.

They should not be deprived of their votes, as well.

Exit well, Mr. Préval.

Kenbe fem, tout moun.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why we defend CICIG

Barbara Schieber, editor of the Guatemala Times, sent me the following editorial that she authored for that publication. Given its description of the value of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) from a Guatemalan perspective, I thought it was worth re-printing it here on my blog. I do so with the permission of Barbara and the Guatemala Times. MD

Why we defend CICIG

(Read the original article here)

Reading our most frequent critical messages from readers, we are surprised to see that most people interpret that recognizing the work of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) is equal to defending and supporting the government of Álvaro Colom. For some critics of CICIG, CICIG is the same as the current government, for these critics, there seems to be no distinction between the two institutions. That is not only ridiculous, it is also very scary. It denotes a severe degree of ignorance or an intentional disinformation strategy.

The most hate mail we receive is related to our reporting on CICIG. The readers who write to us are convinced that we must be a government owned news site because we are not attacking CICIG. We want to inform that we are one of the few news sources in Guatemala that does not have any government advertising, nor do we receive funding from any other institution. We are independent.

Having cleared up this misconception we have the following opinion about CICIG:

We applaud, support and believe in CICIG´s work, both under Carlos Castresana and under the new commissioner Francisco Dall´Anese.

CICIG is the only hope for justice that Guatemala has had and will have for the future. Is CICIG 100% perfect? No. But there is nothing 100% perfect in Guatemala or in the world. And for anyone to pretend that an institution has to be 100% perfect in order to be useful and constructive is plain idiocy.

The concept of justice managed by Guatemalans who benefits from an ineffective justice system is self-serving: They only want justice tailored to their benefit. And that is not justice, that is prostitution of justice.

Well, that is what we had before CICIG came to Guatemala, Justice was a prostitute, and it still is in many instances.

In ex-president Alfonso Portillo's case, his friends, allies, ex-members of his government and business associates were attacking CICIG and they keep at it.

In ex- minister Carlos Vielman's case, his friends, allies, business associates, and ex-members of the Berger government are attacking CICIG and they will not stop. The best example is ex-vice president Eduardo Stein, who was an active promoter and supporter of CICIG until it touched some of his friends and ex-members of the government he was part of.

In the Rosenberg case, where CICIG actually saved Guatemala’s democracy, the anti government sectors attacked CICIG because the findings of CICIG prevented President Colom from going down.

Critics of CICIG are people who consider themselves to be from the right wing, from the left wing and whatever else they call themselves (including the dark forces).

By logical deduction, the sectors that have the most to lose by a functional, independent justice system are by default the sectors who want to destroy CICIG. That includes all the sectors that now make more money and have more power - be it economic or political - because justice has not reached them (yet). The current government of President Álvaro Colom has to be included in the list of sectors that are actively obstructing CICIG´s work.

By the way, resistance to functioning judicial systems is not just a Guatemalan phenomenon, or a Guatemalan problem. What makes Guatemala somewhat different is that there are always several Guatemalas, never a nation.

The best example I can give of another very notorious place where the enforcement and strengthening of “Lady Justice”” is very unpopular, is on Wall Street.

Guess why?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

El Choco, dos años después

This journalist, Armando Rodríguez aka El Choco, from the newspaper El Diario, was slain in Ciudad Juárez two years ago today. I took this photo oustide of El Diario's offices in Juárez last month.

Photo © Michael Deibert

Friday, November 12, 2010

Volcano, Friday morning.

Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption

Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption

While Mexico's war on drugs cartels makes headlines, its bloody consequences for its southern neighbour are all but overlooked

o Michael Deibert
o guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 November 2010 13.30 GMT

(Read the original article here)

Fourteen years after Guatemala's government signed a peace agreement with a coalition of guerrilla groups ending a 30-year civil war, the country finds itself once again in the grip of armed conflict, though one in which the battle lines are even murkier than before. While drug-related violence plaguing the border regions of Mexico has achieved a kind of grisly global renown in recent years, the even deadlier battle directly to the south has generated little comment on the international stage.

Central America's most populous country, Guatemala has become the scene of a brutal power struggle involving Mexican cartels who have been pushed south by President Felipe Calderón's militarised campaign against drug traffickers there, and Guatemala's indigenous criminal groups, many of whom have their roots in a military intelligence apparatus set up with US aid during the country's internal armed conflict.

After the peace accords, many Guatemalans hoped that their country was embarking on a brighter future. The preceding conflict had claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly poor, indigenous campesinos caught in the struggle between a militarily-weak leftist insurgency and the ruthless scorched-earth tactics of a national army, whose only military manoeuvre appeared to be the massacre.

But now, nearly 15 years later, more people die in Guatemala every year than did at the height of the civil war. While Mexico's homicide rate has been estimated at 26 per 100,000 by the Latin American academic body Flacso Guatemala's numbers a staggering 53 per 100,000.

What went so wrong? How did the promise of peace become transmuted into the rule of Guatemala by criminal monarchies whose brazen shootouts have become a fact of daily life?

Following the peace accords, President Álvaro Arzú of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional and his successor, Alfonso Portillo of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who presided over some of the country's worst human rights abuses), implemented many key provisions of the peace accords half-heartedly, if at all. A civilian intelligence office mandated to combat organised crime was not established until 2007. By then, Guatemala's clandestine criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state. The national police force remains ineffectual and numerically small, currently numbering around 26,000 officers, while Guatemala's private security sector has swelled to 120,000.

Meanwhile, the driving forces behind the syndicates that solidified in Guatemala during the civil war years as the country's military elite were left to flourish more or less untouched. Indeed, during Portillo's 2000-04 tenure as president, they became virtual contractors of the state.

In recent years, the situation has grown graver still. Guatemala's 2007 electoral contest saw current President Álvaro Colom of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party join battle against Otto Pérez Molina, a former general and leader of the Partido Patriota (PP), in one of the bloodiest ballots in the nation's history. More than 50 candidates and party activists were slain.

Mexican drug cartels such as the Cartel de Sinaloa and Los Zetas have ,meanwhile, expanded their operations throughout vast swathes of the country, ranging from San Marcos along the western border with Mexico, to the northern jungles of El Petén, to the sweltering department of Zacapa in the nation's east.

One ray of hope in this very bleak landscape has been the creation in 2007 of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigation of clandestine organisations and exposing their relation to the Guatemalan state. Until June of this year, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana, a magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico and investigating corruption in his native Spain.

Under Castresana's leadership, CICIG was, for the first time, able to force a discussion about impunity and corruption at the highest levels of Guatemala's political system into the public realm. In another first, a former president, Alfonso Portillo, was arrested and has been held in prison since January on charges of embezzling some $15m in state funds. He also faces extradition to the United States on money-laundering charges, after his trial in Guatemala concludes.

When Castresana resigned earlier this year, charging that the Colom government was undermining CICIG's work, he was replaced by Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, the former attorney general of Costa Rica. Dall'Anese took the reins of an investigative body facing enormous pressures, where death threats against its staff, the murder of its witnesses and rocky relations with its nominal bosses at the UN's department of political affairs have become occupational hazards.

But CICIG remains, however imperfect, the best hope that Guatemalans have in the fight against the corruption that is causing the future of their country – blessed with plentiful natural resources and an inventive, industrious population – to vanish amid the din of automatic weapons fire. It is vital that CICIG's mandate, set to expire just as new presidential elections are held next fall, should be renewed if it is to succeed in this challenging mission. Ideally, its powers would be expanded to give it the ability to subpoena and indict suspects, as well as protect the lives of those Guatemalans who chose to cooperate.

Guatemala's fragile civil society of honest officials, human rights groups and indigenous organisations desperately needs support. As the international community – and especially the United States – saw fit to pour money into the Guatemalan military machine that helped create the criminal oligarchy that now wields such power in the country, it is only just that they should now back the efforts of CICIG and honest Guatemalans in their struggle to bring this monster down.

Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read here.