Friday, December 24, 2010

Books in 2010 : A Personal Selection

Despite what at times seemed like an endless schedule of travel (a situation to be remedied by settling down to write my third book in 2011), I still found time over the past year to get quite a bit of reading done. Some of the more notable examples appear below.

Feliz Año Nuevo,


The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shadid Ali

I was first made aware of the writing of Kashmiri poet Agha Shadid Ali by the Indian journalist Dilip D’Souza when I was living in Mumbai (née Bombay) in early 2007. This was the same era I paid my first visit to the disputed yet achingly beautiful swathe of Kashmir currently administered by India. It was a trip that left of deep impression on me, as I was welcomed with great hospitality by the Kashmiris whom I met and saw first-hand how, in the words of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s Yasin Malik “the government of India in Kashmir is existing in bunkers, and running their democracy through the barrel of a gun." When protests swirled throughout Kashmir this past year, I purchased this 1997 collection of poems by Ali, who passed away prematurely in 2001. The book is a moving meditation on the costs of Kashmir’s ongoing conflict and the pain of dislocation and exile, musing on “blood sheer rubies in Himalayan snow.” In doing so, it rises to the level of Irish Civil War-era Yeats in its blending of the personal and political.

Alice Lakwena & Holy Spirits: War In Northern Uganda 1986-97 by Heike Behrend

A fascinating and disturbing book that looks at the roots of one of Africa’s most destructive and frightening rebel groups, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the strange milieu, part military organization, part ethno-regional cult, from which it sprang. Details definitively how the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, emerged as a rival to, rather than a disciple of, the mystic Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit Mobile Forces movement.

Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden

An unflinching account of the violence currently ravaging the eponymous Mexican city across the border from El Paso (which I myself wrote about here), Murder City is written in impressionistic, minimalist vignettes. Bowden writes that he wants “to explain the violence as if it were a flat tire and I am searching the surface for a nail. But what if the violence is not a kind of breakdown, but more like a flower springing from the rot of the forest floor?” A sobering subtext to the war on drugs.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin

Not the world’s most effective writer or perceptive analyst, but still has a relatively interesting story to tell of the disintegration of what was one of Africa’s post-colonial success stories: Zimbabwe, under the delusional, tyrannical grip of Robert Mugabe and a small cadre of corrupt party loyalists. Godwin’s memoir would have been better served by a greater willingness to actually spend more time in Zimbabwe during the period in question, and to expand his view beyond the relatively insular world of white Zimbabweans that serves as his focus, but the brief, strobe-light flashes of a country imploding are useful case-studies nevertheless.

Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Set amidst the chaotic, violent scramble for post-colonial Angola, Kapuscinski, taking a different tack from his elegantly restrained portrait of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie in The Emperor, brings about in this book the feeling of what it is to be a journalist covering armed conflict in one of the forgotten corners of the world as well as any writer I have ever read.

Parentheses of Blood by Sony Labou Tansi

This scathingly brilliant dramatic satire of tyranny follows a group of soldiers searching for a rebel leader who is already dead, and was penned by perhaps Africa’s most under-appreciated writer. Favorite passage:

Rama: What’s a deserter?

Mark: A deserter is a uniformed soldier who says Libertashio is dead.

Rama: But it’s true. Papa is dead.

Mark: That’s merely civilian truth.

Between Terror and Democracy: Algeria Since 1989 by James D. Le Sueur

An important chronology of events before, during and beyond what the author at one point calls “an endless season of hell on earth,” this book by University of Nebraska history professor Le Sueur examines the political, cultural and religious elements that sent Algeria spiraling into civil war in the 1990s, a conflict from which it has not yet fully extracted itself. Though relying heavily on an authoritative and even-handed marshaling of secondary source material more than original first-hand interviews, the book nevertheless should prove to be an important work for those seeking to understand the internal politics of North Africa’s most tumultuous country.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One of the best and least-romanticizing chronicles every written about war, examining in minute detail the mud, blood, propagandizing and naked political chicanery that accompanies armed conflict, this book chronicles the ideological disillusionment of its author into the liberal humanist who would later write Animal Farm and 1984.

Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 by Matthew J. Smith

In this book by a young Jamaican historian, Haiti, which has often been the literary and intellectual playground of a host of pampered foreign arrivistes, poseurs and pseudo-radicals, receives what it deserves: Genuine scholarship. Covering the period between the departure of the U.S. Marines after a 20-year military occupation of the country and the coming to power of François Duvalier, Smith’s book demonstrates how the dysfunctional nature of Haiti’s politics cannot be blamed on a single source, but is rather the product of decades of political and economic miscalculation and ill-intention on the part of both Haiti’s leaders and the international community.

Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala by David Stoll

In this revelatory book about the experiences of indigenous Guatemalans during the height of that country’s civil war, noted anthropologist David Stoll examines in detail the effects of insurgency and counter-insurgency in the pueblos in and around the Triángulo Ixil of the department of Quiché. We see a population defenseless against a brutal government but also against rebel pressure, and watch as a power struggle between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism underscores the military struggle on the ground. A must read for anyone who wants to understand Guatemala’s present-day situation.

Children of Heroes by Lyonel Trouillot

First published in French as Les enfants des héros, this 2002 book by the man who is probably Haiti’s greatest living author traces the paths of two children fleeing a Port-au-Prince slum after murdering their abusive father. Unflinching and stunning.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

U.S. must act to curb violence in Mexico

Posted on Wednesday, 12.22.10

U.S. must act to curb violence in Mexico


The Miami Herald

(Read the original article here)

There are few places where the failure of America's drug policy is more visible than in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city of 1.3 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

This month passing the grim milestone of having had 3,000 people murdered within the municipality over the last year -- 10 times the figure of only three years ago -- Ciudad Juárez is the scene of a brutal struggle for control of lucrative drug transportation routes between the local Cartel de Juárez and the Cartel de Sinaloa, a group with its roots in the city of Culiacán.

Visitors to Juárez, previously best known for its maquiladoras, are now greeted by an altogether different picture. Masked gunmen, some federal police and Mexican army, some affiliated with the cartels, set up roadblocks seemingly at will as impoverished neighborhoods stretching out into the Chihuahuan desert have largely been depopulated by drug violence. A micro-industry of contract killing -- doled out to street gangs such as the Aztecas, Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos (Murder Artists) -- has resulted in once-unthinkable acts of violence becoming commonplace.

During my recent visit to Juárez, three federal policemen were killed. The same month, 14 people died when gunmen attacked a party for young people in the city, a grim echo of a similar massacre in January, during which 15 young people died. A casual drive through the city reveals cartel graffiti with the name of Mexico's President, Felipe Calderón, inside a rifle sight along with the words ``in the line of fire.''

Shortly after taking office in December 2006, after one of the most closely-contested elections in Mexico's history, Calderón declared war on Mexico's ever-more powerful drug cartels, which in addition to those operating in Juárez include the Cartel del Golfo and Los Zetas, the latter originally spawned by defectors from an elite U.S.-trained military unit designed to combat drug traffickers.

Calderón's decision to bring in the Mexican military to Juárez and other areas of the country to buttress poorly paid and trained local and federal police helped set in motion a violent clash with cartels that has claimed more than 30,000 lives in the last four years. The decision was not without controversy, as a recently released report from the Washington Office on Latin America concluded that ``the Mexican government's reliance on the Mexican military . . . has subjected the civilian population to numerous human rights abuses.''

However, far from being a uniquely Mexican problem, the violence currently tearing apart cities such as Ciudad Juárez comes in no small part from Mexico's tangled relationship with its neighbor to the north, the United States.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United States, with a population of 310 million, consumed $37 billion of cocaine in 2008, while Europe as a whole, with a population of 830 million, consumed $34 billion. Over the past four years, as The Washington Post has reported, more than 60,000 U.S. guns have been found in Mexico, largely coming for gun dealers in states with conspicuously liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona.

The dual failure of prohibition -- which despite its stated aims in no way curtails one's ability to get any drug they want in any major U.S. city after about 30 minutes of looking -- and the hypocrisy of the United States flooding Mexico with cheap firearms combined to make Mexico, and by extension, the entire border region, less, rather than more, secure.

The price being paid by the citizens of the border regions of Mexico and now, increasingly, to the south in Guatemala, where an even-more fragile state has been overrun by Mexican cartels and their affiliates, calls for a renewed look at the broken policy of drug prohibition and a search for reasonable, responsible alternatives.

During the 1919-33 U.S. prohibition of alcohol, criminal monarchies whose wealth was largely based on supplying the forbidden substance to interested consumers tore a violent swath through the country, with the misplaced puritanism of federal officials providing the atmosphere in which their activities could flourish.

As the largest consumer of narcotics coming from and largest provider of firearms going to Mexico, it is time, in the name of sanity and practicality, that the United States revisit both its drug control and firearms policies to guarantee that the violence ravaging Ciudad Juárez will not be repeated throughout the region and, eventually, in the United States itself.

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.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2010: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

This past year began with a heart-rending tragedy - the devastating earthquake in my beloved Haiti - and ended with a major personal accomplishment, the completion of my first book since 2005, the finishing touches to which I put on in a quiet courtyard in New Orleans some weeks ago. It was a 12 month period that began with a vow to myself not to spend so much time on airplanes and in airports, but which ended with me having logged more miles than I ever had before in a single year.

Whether it was reporting on organized crime and drug trafficking in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, trying to continue to shine a light on some of the complexities of Haiti (which did not begin and will not end with the destruction of Port-au-Prince or the recent corrupted elections) or simply exploring Indonesia or Morocco, I felt, as I always do, lucky to at least have the opportunity to try and contribute in some meaningful way to the struggles of disadvantaged people who want to live more just and decent lives. All my travels and work this year have reinforced again to me the commonality that we as humans share on this planet we inhabit, and how we all have a responsibility, no matter what powerful forces it might upset, to speak out and defend those who are the victims of injustice.

Now preparing to rebase myself once again near my Caribbean spiritual home (and hopefully spend a lot less time flying), I wish you all much success and happiness in 2011 and, for the countries that I report on, perhaps paradoxically, more justice and more peace in the coming year.

Much love,


One Week in, Haitians Are Still Hungry for (19 January 2010)

US Increases Presence in Haiti as Aid Increases:
Interview on WNYC's The Takeaway (20 January 2010)

Haiti: Tearing Down History
for (22 January 2010)

A History of Troubles Is Helping Haitians to Endure for the Wall Street Journal (22 January 2010)

The Haiti I love is still there for (23 January 2010)

Haitian Radio Returns to the Air
for (5 February 2010)

Thoughts on recent Haiti commentaries
for Michael Deibert, Writer (9 February 2010)

Haitians Find Help Through the Airwaves: Interview on WNYC's The Takeaway (10 February 2010)

From rubble to recovery for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (13 February 2010)

Why Haiti’s Debt Should Be Forgiven
for Michael Deibert, Writer (24 March 2010)

Guinea: A vote of confidence? for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (15 April 2010)

Haiti's Peasantry Key to Reconstruction for AlterNet (16 April 2010)

Amid Elections, Armed Groups Hold Colombian Town under the Gun
for Inter Press Service (1 June 2010)

Like Colombia, Iconic City Remains a Place of Promise and Peril
for Inter Press Service (3 June 2010)

Haiti and Dominican Republic: Good neighbours? for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (8 June 2010)

The international community's responsibility to Haiti
for the Guardian (15 July 2010)

Colombia: Turning over a new leaf
for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (8 August 2010)

Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption
for the Guardian (12 November 2010)

Thoughts on Haiti’s elections
for Michael Deibert, Writer (30 November 2010)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on KPFK Pacifica Radio

I spoke with KPFK Pacifica Radio host Suzi Weissman yesterday about the implications of Haiti's recent elections. The interview can be heard about 21 minutes into the program here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Alassane Ouattara wins Côte d'Ivoire presidency

Alassane Ouattara has been declared the winner of Côte d'Ivoire's first presidential election in a decade. Here is my 2007 interview with him.