Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Autumn in New York City During Dark Times

In the dark autumn of two years later we saw New York again. We passed through curiously polite customs agents, and then with bowed head and hat in hand I walked reverently through the echoing tomb. Among the ruins a few childish wraiths still played to keep up the pretence that they were alive, betraying by their feverish voices and hectic cheeks the thinness of the masquerade. Cocktail parties, a last hollow survival from the days of carnival, echoed to the plaints of the wounded: 'Shoot me, for the love of God, someone shoot me!', and the groans and wails of the dying: 'Did you see that United States Steel is down three more points?' My barber was back at work in his shop; again the head waiters bowed people to their tables, if there were people to be bowed. From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood — everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits - from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground. That was the rash gift of Alfred W. Smith to the citizens of New York.

- From F. Scott Fitzgerald's "My Lost City"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Haunted Latin America, Black Tuesday and a crumbling empire: New books of note

From time to time on this blog, I like to direct readers’ attention to noteworthy endeavors by my colleagues and peers and, fortuitously, this month three new books have crossed my radar that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

I covered Haiti alongside former National Public Radio Latin America corespondent and now Public Radio International Europe corespondent Gerry Hadden from 2000 to 2004. Though based in Mexico City, Gerry’s reportage took him to Haiti many times as well as many other locales throughout the region. Gerry’s new memoir, Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti, (in which, full disclosure, I make a small cameo) is a compelling picture of a tumultuous time in the region while the world’s attention was focused elsewhere after 9/11.

Reading the book as a fellow international journalist, in addition to recounting the political trajectories of countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and the aforementioned Haiti, I think it does a masterful job of illuminating some of the attractions and pitfalls of the journalist’s life - the feeling of on-the-road exhaustion, the mental state of constantly having to negotiate other cultures, the pangs of romance on the run - and it does so while bringing the reader front and centre to some of the most tumultuous events in the first few years of our violent new century.

My dear friend Nomi Prins - a journalist and Senior Fellow at the public policy research and advocacy organization Demos - has authored a trio of excellent books on cooperate malfeasance in the United States: It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bonuses, Bailouts, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street, Jacked: How "Conservatives" are Picking your Pocket (whether you voted for them or not) and the highly prescient Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America. This fall she expands her range into fiction with Black Tuesday, a tale of fraud, obsession and economic devastation set amid the backdrop of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Vividly recreating the immigrant and ethnic potpourri of 1920s New York, the book is a gripping read and a very atmospheric one, as well. Somehow I feel that the music of John Zorn circa The Circle Maker - to me redolent of the immigrant Jewish experience on the Lower East Side - would make the perfect soundtrack to reading this finely-tuned novel with its echoes of our present grim economic state.

A longtime observer and analyst of Russia and the Caucasus, Lawrence Scott Sheets has penned what promises to be a most interesting account of 20 plus years spent there. I have just started reading Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, but if the initial chapters are anything to go on, it will be a most compelling ride. Characters such as the Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev flit in and out of a story of hope and despair as the exuberance of liberation gives way to something far tougher and darker throughout the region, an area that I have promised myself to visit for the first time during 2012.

All in all, three excellent additions to any bookshelf this fall.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ballots and Bullets in Guatemala

Posted: 9/10/11 03:57 PM ET

Ballots and Bullets in Guatemala

By Michael Deibert

(This article was also cross-posted on the Huffington Post and can be read here)

Guatemalans will go to the polls in the fourth presidential election since 1996 peace accords ended that country's 30-year civil war, a conflict that claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly indigenous campesinos caught in the struggle between a militarily-weak leftist insurgency and the ruthless scorched-earth tactics of a national army.

The likely winner of the election will be the man who represented that army during those accords, 60 year-old retired general Otto Pérez Molina. A recent poll by the Guatemala firm Borge y Asociados gave Pérez Molina 48.9 percent of the vote, nearly enough to avoid a November runoff ballot.

Pérez Molina's rise in Guatemalan politics says much about the unfulfilled promise of those 15 year-old accords, and about the vexing problems that still confront Central America's most populous country.

A 1973 graduate of Guatemala's military academy, Pérez Molina came of age in a country ruled by military dictators and where the military itself was divided between those who advocated a take-no-prisoners approach to prosecuting Guatemala's civil war and others who others who advocated a strategy of pacification and stabilization, combining development projects and military objectives while killing only as many rebels and suspected sympathizers as "needed" to be killed.

This is what passed for enlightenment during the civil war, and, though Pérez Molina allied himself with the latter camp, enlightenment proved to be a relative term.

By the summer of 1982, the country was under the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, a former general turned born-again evangelical Christian who had seized power after the chaotic four-year reign of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García.

Pérez Molina was serving as a military commander in El Quiché, one of Guatemala's most heavily indigenous and war-wracked provinces, when Ríos Montt launched what was dubbed Victoria (Victory) 82, a military offensive that the historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett has written led to "the period of most extreme violence committed in the name of counterinsurgency" during the war, and which was particularly furious in El Quiché's northern region.

By 1993, Pérez Molina had risen to become chief of staff of the army's intelligence wing, known as D-2, and it was in this capacity that he led a faction of the military that successfully opposed then-president Jorge Serrano Elías' attempt to seize dictatorial powers that same year. Another sector of the military, led by Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, supported Serrano's self-coup.

The conflict caused deep enmity between the two groups which continues to color Guatemalan political life even today, as one side or the other vies for positions of power and influence within the Guatemalan state.

Pérez Molina subsequently served as the chief of the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP or presidential general staff) of Serrano's successor, Ramiro de León Carpio, until 1995.

A kind of state within the state, the EMP was disbanded in 2003 due to its links to appalling human rights abuses, including the 1994 killing of Constitutional Court President Eduardo Epaminondas González Dubón while Pérez Molina was at its helm.

The group has also been linked to the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the 1998 beating death of Bishop Juan Gerardi two days after a group he headed published a report laying the vast majority of deaths during the country's civil war at the feet of the Guatemalan military.

Selected as head the of the Guatemalan delegation to the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, DC in 1998, Pérez Molina retired from the military in 2000 before forming the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) in February 2001.

An important backer of the 2004-2008 presidency of Óscar Berger, Pérez Molina narrowly lost the 2007 presidential elections to Álvaro Colom of the left-wing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza.

As a politician whose symbol is a closed fist and whose slogan is mano dura (strong hand), Pérez Molina has sought, with success, to portray himself as a law-and-order candidate in a country that is threatening to drown in violence as at no time since the civil war. While to the north 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.

In addition to a long-standing problem with local maras (street gangs), Mexican cartels pushed south by President Felipe Calderón's militarized campaign against drug traffickers there now do battle with Guatemala's own criminal groups, some of whom have their roots in a military intelligence apparatus set up with U.S. aid during the country's internal armed conflict.

None of the former have made as much of an impression in Guatemala as Los Zetas.

Originally members of a Mexican army unit designed to combat drug trafficking, Los Zetas (named after a radio code for high-ranking officers) defected from the military in the late 1990s to become enforcers for the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel. They later abandoned their employers to become an international organized-crime entity in their own right, and in recent years have been reinforced by members of Los Kabiles, a special-operations unit of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics.

Los Zetas announced their presence in Guatemala in spectacular fashion with the March 2008 killing of kingpin Juan "Juancho" José León Ardón and 10 other people in the eastern state of Zacapa.

They subsequently established a strong foothold in the country, but especially in the departments of El Petén and Alta Verapaz in the north, and Izabal in the east.

This past May, 27 farm workers were found massacred in El Petén, a crime blamed on Los Zetas. Subsequently the dismembered body of the prosecutor investigating the case was found in Alta Verapaz, Both departments have been subject to state of siege orders during the Colom presidency. Mass casualty shootouts in various parts of the country have become commonplace.

It is perhaps little wonder then that Guatemalans long for a commanding figure to take over the reins of this troubled land.

Pérez Molina has been helped along by the disqualification of his main opponent, Sandra Torres. Guatemala's First Lady and wife of the current president until her divorce in April, Torres' candidacy was ruled illegal by the country's Constitutional Court under Article 186 of Guatemala's constitution, which forbids family members of the president or vice-president from running for either of those positions.

The law, which also prohibits those who have seized power in a coup d'état from running, was ignored during the 2003 presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt.

The slickness and professionalism of Pérez Molina's campaign, along with those of protégées such as Guatemala City mayoral candidate Alejandro Sinibaldi, has stood in marked contrast to the hapless efforts of the Torres camp. The struggle of other candidates to make themselves heard in the face of conservative media empires that often refuse to even air their advertisements has also been an asset.

Despite his reinvention of himself as a political leader, though, allegations of human rights abuses during his time in the military - and connections to organized crime both during and since - have continued to dog Pérez Molina

In July of this year, the indigenous Guatemalan organization Waqib Kej sent a letter to the United Nationas accusing Pérez Molina of involvement in torture and genocide during his time in the army, while accusations of his alleged involvement in the disappearance of rebel commander Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in 1992 have never been satisfactorily explained.

Rubén Chanax Sontay, one of the chief witnesses for the investigation of the Bishop Gerardi killing, placed Pérez Molina in the company of Colonel Byron Lima Estrada on the night of Gerardi's slaying. Lima Estrada was subsequently convicted along with three other men of Gerardi's murder.

In addition, Pérez Molina has often been mentioned as one of the alleged more prominent members of El Sindicato, a clandestine network of current and former military officers often at odds with a similar entity, La Cofradia, originally domintaed by Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo. In March 2002, the U.S. government revoked the latter's travel visa under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizing action against people who have allowed or conspired in drug trafficking.

For his part, Pérez Molina has always vigorously denied all these charges.

[Pérez Molina's nearest competitor in the presidential contest, Manuel Baldizón, a congressmen form El Petén, is also trailed by accusations of corruption and abuse of power.]

In the background of Pérez Molina's political ambitions, there has been Guatemala's own struggle to move on from its tortured past.

Many key provisions of Guatemala's peace accords were implemented half-heartedly, if at all.

A civilian intelligence office mandated to combat organized crime was not established until 2007, by which point 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. According to UNICEF, despite its lush and varied topography, malnutrition affects one in two Guatemalan children under five, the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world.

Since 2007, the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigating criminal organizations and exposing their relation to the state, has been operating with varying degrees of success. Until June 2010, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana, a Spanish magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico. Castresana resigned last year, charging the Colom government was undermining CICIG's work, and the mantle of leadership was passed to Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, the former attorney general of Costa Rica.

After a string of successes, over the last year CICIG appeared to stumble, recently losing high-profile cases against former president Alfonso Portillo and former prison director and presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei.

Working alongside CICIG, however, Guatemala currently has perhaps its most capable and activist Attorney General in recent memory, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey.

A specialist in criminal law who helped to found the Instituto de Estudios Comparados de en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala, Paz y Paz replaced a lawyer accused of having links to organized crime (his appointment was later annulled).

If, as seems likely, Pérez Molina is inaugurated as president next year, what kind of Guatemala will he work to build?

Will he, as he has stated, work for law and order, an end to corruption and an economically vibrant nation? Or will the questions from his past prove a mere foreshadowing of a nation even more violent and corrupt than the one that now exists?

Only time will tell, of course, in this land that Pablo Neruda once called "the sweet waist of the Americas" and which Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo once referred to as "my sweet storm."

Guatemala is the land of eternal spring, and its people are still waiting for that spring to come.

Follow Michael Deibert on Twitter: www.twitter.com/michaelcdeibert

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

CBC's The Current on the UN in Haiti

My interview this morning about the United Nations presence in Haiti on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti can be heard here. MINUSTAH's Nigel Fisher speaks directly following.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

NOLA Politician Pony Show

What kind of city do you live in the when the city assessor, the city's former railroad chief and the head of a well-known nonprofit all show up at the same court on the same day for unrelated criminal trials? And one of them isn't even sentenced to jail time for stealing $1 million in government grants intended for poor people? Why, you live in New Orleans, of course.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The U.N. in Haiti: Time to Adapt or Time to Go

The U.N. in Haiti: Time to Adapt or Time to Go

Sep 1 , 2011

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

In the summer of 2009, visiting Haiti for the first time after an absence of three years, I found the country in better shape than at any time since I started visiting there in 1997.

Three years after the inauguration of René Préval as Haiti’s president (after the two-year tenure of an unelected interim government), the population of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, again felt safe enough to patronize downtown bars and kerosene-lit roadside stands late into the evening, where once armed gangs controlled entire neighborhoods. Billboards that once praised the infallibility of a succession of maximum leaders instead carried messages about the importance of respect between the population and the police, or decrying discrimination against the disabled.

A police-reform program was in its third year, providing the country with a level of professional law enforcement not often seen in a place where political patronage, not expertise, swelled the ranks of security forces with party loyalists. Investment was beginning to pick up and, by the end of the year, Haiti’s delicious signature rum, Barbancourt, had even won the bronze and silver medals at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Presiding over all this was the (at the time) 9,000-member United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH. When I sat that summer in the office of the head of the mission, veteran Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, he seemed to be justified in his pride at the country’s progress, telling me that “the level of respect for basic freedoms, such as freedom of the press, is at a historically remarkable level.”

Of course, all of this changed at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, when the country was struck by an apocalyptic earthquake that leveled much of the capital and surrounding towns and killed an estimated 200,000 people. Annabi, his deputy and nearly 100 other MINUSTAH personnel died as the structures they were in collapsed on them, and the peacekeeping mission itself became one of the many strata of Haitian society that needed rescuing.

A year and a half after the quake, with a new president (popular singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly) and a contentious parliament locked in a bitter struggle for power, MINUSTAH, having picked itself up and dusted itself off, remains in Haiti, its force now increased to 12,000 under the leadership of Chile’s former minister of foreign affairs, Mariano Fernández.

Though an estimated 634,000 survivors of the quake still live in makeshift settlements in and around the capital, and Haiti remains without a government (two of Martelly’s nominees for prime minister have been rejected), it is my conclusion after a visit to Haiti last month that it is now time, after seven years in the country, for MINUSTAH to either significantly refocus its mission or close its operation in Haiti and leave the business of governing and reconstruction to the Haitians themselves.

* * *

Haitians have a keen sense of their own history as the site of the world’s first successful slave revolt (in 1804) and the second independent republic in the Americas (after the United States), a nation that has produced guerrilla leaders of the magnitude of Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batravill when faced with a two-decade U.S. occupation of the country in the early 20th century.

If you ask the average Haitian on the street what the purpose of MINUSTAH in Haiti is now, as I did in a vast tent encampment of displaced earthquake survivors in front of Haiti’s still-collapsed National Palace, they will answer you succinctly: MINUSTAH is in Haiti to protect the interests of the foreigners.

True or not, such a perspective has become conventional wisdom in Haiti, and it was a refrain that I heard time and again as I traveled this country that, though still stricken, is by no means beaten or defeated.

At this point, for the first time since I have been observing the mission, the sentiment on the street among a majority of Haitians appears to be a desire to see MINUSTAH in its current incarnation gone from Haiti.

For several reasons, MINUSTAH’s reputation with the Haitian people has reached its lowest level since it arrived in 2004.

A cholera epidemic that has killed more than 5,800 people since October has been linked convincingly to the mission. A June report by a group of epidemiologists and physicians in the journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that evidence “strongly suggests” that the cholera strain had been brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers and spread through a faulty waste disposal system along the Artibonite River, a conclusion supported by other studies.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception of MINUSTAH’s response to the crisis within Haiti itself has been of the mission stonewalling and obfuscating. This perception was reinforced in August when some residents of the country’s Plateau Central region accused the mission of dumping raw sewage near the Guayamouc River there, something MINUSTAH has denied.

In a far cry from the largely congenial relations I saw between U.N. peacekeepers and the local population in 2009, something of a bunker mentality has also appeared to have developed. On several instances—particularly at the intersection of the busy Route de Delmas and the road that eventually leads to the country’s international airport—I witnessed peacekeepers patrolling with their mounted machine guns pointed down at crowds of people who appeared to pose no threat at all and were merely going about the business of trying to secure the basic necessities of survival on any given day.

Staying in a hotel only feet away from a tent encampment where thousands of Haitians sat in darkness throughout long evenings of pounding rain, an American filmmaker and I watched as a group of rather surly, well-fed men identifying themselves as police advisers with MINUSTAH literally drank themselves into oblivion over the course of two days. This took place under the gaze of local Haitian staff and other guests. Speaking to others in the capital, I discovered that such behavior is evidently not an uncommon occurrence, and it creates the unfortunate perception of a fraternity party amid an apocalypse, and makes the mission appear very removed from the daily struggles of the Haitians it is ostensibly there to protect.

* * *

By any estimation, MINUSTAH has done many things for Haiti during its years in the country. During a 2004-06 campaign of violence in the capital by various armed groups dubbed Operation Baghdad, a ghastly wave of kidnapping, arson and murder affected all levels of society, and at one point an average of one police officer was being killed every five days. The security forces of the interim government then in power often responded to this by broadly targeting the impoverished male population of the capital’s slums with extrajudicial executions. In tandem with Haiti’s police after Préval’s 2006 inauguration, MINUSTAH largely brought this period to an end, something for which Haitians should be grateful to it.

Likewise, when elements linked to political actors used the population’s legitimate anger over the rise of food prices as a cover for violent attacks against government installations and figures in 2008, it was likely only the presence of MINUSTAH that saved Préval from being toppled by a coup organized by these same elements.

MINUSTAH has built roads and worked hard to create a space where nonviolent political debate can take place. Haiti, however, ultimately needs to be governed and administered by Haitians, not as some eternal international protectorate. Having stood with Haitians through some of their worst days, the United Nations is now being seen more and more as an occupying force despite the fact that it has been in Haiti at the invitation of two democratically elected heads of state for five of its seven years there.

If Haiti is ever to change, it is Haitians who are going to have to change it, and MINUSTAH must now give them the space in which to do so. Haiti’s security force—the Police Nationale d’Haiti—has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of professionalism and accountability under the leadership of Mario Andresol, and now must be entrusted with more responsibility in terms of safeguarding the country’s fragile democratic gains.

Simultaneously, with so much hostility building up toward the mission in the country’s agricultural areas and elsewhere due to the cholera epidemic, the mission might do well to engage with Haitian peasant organizations in an effort to help revitalize the country’s ailing rural economy. Though peasant groups such as Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan and the 200,000-member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (the latter led by veteran peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, winner of the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmentalists) have been largely hostile to MINUSTAH’s presence, a détente between the groups could help foster the transition from strict peacekeeping to development, which is needed if the mission is to succeed.

Neither the United Nations, the United States nor any other foreign body can fix all of Haiti’s ills. Ultimately, the Haitians have to do it for themselves. Among Haiti’s political class, Haitians have to stop killing one another, Haitians have to stop being corrupt, Haitians have to stop paying and accepting bribes, and politics must no longer be viewed as a blood sport of winner take all where one side celebrates total victory and one side weeps in abject defeat and marginalization.

This has been the tradition of Haitian politics for more than 200 years, but it has not been the tradition of the majority of Haitians who have historically been excluded from the political process, and whose generosity, industry and fundamental decency impress all those who meet them.

The Haitian people understand this better than anyone else. In its current incarnation in Haiti, the United Nations mission has become an obstacle, rather than an asset, to the country taking ownership of the issues that confront it.

It is time for the mission to refocus on new tasks, or to leave while the Haitians can still see it off as a friend.