Monday, March 25, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: What Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez left behind

(Note: The Miami Herald published a somewhat-mangled edit of a review I wrote of the fine new book on Venezuela by Guardian reporter Rory Carroll. I don't know if wires got crossed with the Herald's impending move or what, but the version of the text that was agreed to - and which they somehow forgot about - is below. MD)

BOOK REVIEW: What Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez left behind

By Michael Deibert

Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. 
Rory Carroll. 
Penguin. 320 pages. $27.95

Read more here:

In his new book Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Irish journalist Rory Carroll delivers an authoritative account of the complicated legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who died earlier this month.

Carroll — who served as The Guardian correspondent in Caracas from 2006 until 2012 — describes in minute detail how Chávez, who ruled Venezuela from 1999 until his death on March 5, created something unique, “an authoritarian democracy . . . . a hybrid system of personality cult and one-man rule.” Here is Chávez not as a one-dimensional symbol but in all his complexity: The utopian socialist, the voracious reader, the vainglorious militarist, the bad husband, the doting father.

Even as he describes how Chávez empowered poor communities in Venezuela by creating communal councils and built homes for thousands of people who had never known decent shelter, Carroll succinctly outlines how the president squandered the great opportunity for durable development afforded to him by record-high oil prices, failing to diversify the country’s economy.

At the heart of this failure proves to be a desire — above all else — for power. Chávez had a digital record of the names of three million people who had voted against him in a 2004 recall referendum which was then used “to purge signatories from the state payroll, to deny jobs, contracts, loans, documents, to harass and punish, to make sectarianism official.” The mastermind behind the list, Luis Tascón, went on to become a strident critic of government corruption and was banished from Chávez’s inner circle before his own untimely death in 2010.

Giving the reader a brief tour of the Venezuela’s tangled and often violent history, Carroll shows how intimately Venezuela’s underclass knew — or thought they knew — the country’s wealthy and how the wealthy understood that underclass not at all and cared still less.

Chávez’s opposition - a diffuse and disorganized group of former military allies, civil libertarians, the country’s besieged middle class and what Chávez would doubtless refer to as the country’s rancid oligarchy - never managed to unseat him through means fair or foul. This is perhaps not surprising as they were faced with the cheerleading omnipotence of state media — its ubiquitousness the result Chávez’s war against Venezuela’s virulently hostile private media — and massive slush funds paid for with money siphoned off from the state oil company.

Chávez did not ascend to and retain power alone, though, and contained in Carroll’s book are revealing snapshots of those who accompanied the president during his time in office: The Machiavellian academic turned government official Jorge Giordani; the gruff bus driver who would become foreign minister (and now President) Nicolás Maduro; the slippery former army officer Diosdado Cabello.

Outside the sphere of officialdom, those in the Chávez camp are a diverse bunch, with some appearing earnest and committed, such as members of an agricultural cooperative Carroll visits in Chávez’s native state of Barnias, Others, such as the Venezuelan-American attorney and government apparatchik Eva Golinger, coming across as slightly mad in their cultish devotion to El Comandante. Those who fall out of favor, such as former Minister of Defense Raúl Baduel, who helped crush a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez but then denounced the president’s 2007 bid for perpetual reelection, are dealt with harshly.

But despite Chávez’s political domination of the country, so many of his grandiose ideas came to naught

After the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez fell ever-more under the spell of Cuban leader Fidel Castro (“The Cubans took us over” states a former ally glumly), who supplied revolutionary manpower in exchange for cheap Venezuelan oil. Cuban doctors poured into Venezuela to provide their services in the slums of Caracas, but soon enough they returned to Cuba, moved on to work in Bolivia or defected to Colombia or the United States, leaving their clinics abandoned. Government officials, meanwhile, sought care from elite private hospitals. Roads, bridges and factories all crumbled due to mismanagement and lack of maintenance.

And as Chávez’s revolution went along, Venezuelans killed one another in ever greater numbers. In 1998. there were 4,500 murders in Venezuela. In 2008, there were more than 17,000, less than 1% of which were ever solved. The prison population tripled to 50,000 in a prison system built for 12,000.

“The revolution inherited grave social problems and made them worse,” Carroll writes. “The maximum leader who liked to micromanage everything lost control of society’s most fundamental requirement, security.”

To compare Chávez’s, as some did, to his allies such as Castro, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus was absurd, and Carroll does not fall into this trap. Rather, even before Chávez died after ruling Venezuela for 14 years, Carroll reveals a creaking authoritarian edifice that may or may not outlive its maker. A leader who once filled the television screens of his country non-stop has now fallen silent. And Venezuela is left to wonder what will come and fill the void.

Michael Deibert is the author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Michael Deibert's Haiti Bookshelf

18 March 2013

Michael Deibert's Haiti Bookshelf

The Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

Despite its image of relentless poverty and political unrest, Haiti is the most beguiling and charming of destinations for foreign observers, but also one of the most maddeningly complex. From broad brushstrokes outlining the surface of events, outsiders, often devoid of context, are sometimes forced to draw not-always-accurate conclusions. As the place that gave me my start as a foreign correspondent and which was the subject of my first book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005), Haiti has always had a special place in my heart and trying to inject some history into the discussion of the country has become something of a personal mission. Below are several books that I think would add greatly to our general understanding of Haiti. Though I am sure readers would care to add their own to this list (and though I am sure I have forgotten something essential), this strikes me as a good place to start. MD


Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren
This book, poetic and impressionistic much like the author's more-famous experimental cinema, was the result of years of immersion in Haiti's religious culture, and acts as a worthy companion to the film of the same name.

Papa Doc: Haiti and Its Dictator by Bernard Diederich & Al Burt
This book by two veteran journalists bring to life the tyranny of the dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971 and set a bloody benchmark for despots ever since.

Island Possessed by Katherine Dunham
A memoir by the famous African-American choreographer, who lived in Haiti and became the lover of its future president, Dumarsais Estimé, this book is eloquent testimony to the power of Haiti to move and change those who visit her.

The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community, and Haiti by Alex Dupuy

This important book by the Haitian sociologist and Wesleyan University professor looks with an unsentimental lens at the the second mandate of Haiti's twice-ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti by Gerry Hadden
A former National Public Radio correspondent who covered Haiti's chaotic 2000 to 2004 era gives us an eyewitness account of how the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to an end amidst a tidal wave of corruption, violence and dashed dreams.

Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People 1492-1995 by Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl

The best general history of Haiti available in English comes from perhaps an unlikely source, a former chief of the U.S. naval mission to Haiti who ran afoul of dictator François Duvalier. Nevertheless, over a gripping 889 pages, the military man and his journalist wife sustain a compelling narrative of Haiti's tumultuous history, resurrecting names and events that have been all-but-forgotten in most English-language writing on the subject.

Voodoo in Haiti by Alfred Métraux
The result of travels through the Haitian countryside by the Swiss Métraux along with his friend, the great Haitian author Jacques Roumain, this decades-old work remains the best overview of Haiti's syncretic indigenous religion.

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

This book by a young Jamaican historian covers the period between the departure of the U.S. Marines after a 20-year military occupation and the coming to power of François Duvalier. In doing so, it 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.

Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti by Ian Thomson
The English author's experiences traveling through Haiti may be 25 years old, but this book reveals the colour, grime exhilaration and despair which foreigners often experience when ranging through Haiti better than almost any book before or since.

The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier by Amy Wilentz
A beautifully-written account of the years immediately following the fall of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship, this book also served to bring to international prominence a young Haitian priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose depressing legacy once he entered politics gave lie to the man's once-rich promise.


General Sun, My Brother by Jacques Stephen Alexis
A timeless novel of poverty, oppression and flight, this enthralling work is the most famous by the author, who died in an unsuccessful 1961 attempt to overthrow François Duvalier.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories by Ben Fountain
This PEN Award-winning 2007 collection of short stories contains several set in Haiti that are obviously the work of someone who has experienced the country at great length.

Vale of Tears: A Novel from Haiti by Paulette Poujol Oriol
A vivid depiction of Port-au-Prince and the life of a woman whose existence has been one of endless struggle, this book is one of the key works from one of Haiti's most important novelists.

Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain
This 1943 novel by a Haitian author and diplomat eloquently addresses the plight of Haiti's peasantry in terms that sadly are as relevant today as when the book first appeared.

Children of Heroes by Lyonel Trouillot
A short novel by the man who is probably Haiti's greatest living author, sensitively translated by Linda Coverdale, this book tells the bleak story of two children attempting to flee a Port-au-Prince slum after killing their abusive father.

En français

The works of the Haitian scholars Roger Gaillard, Suzy Castor and Laënnec Hurbon, novelists such as Gary Victor, and others such as the French anthropologist Gérard Barthélemy, are indispensable to any serious understanding of Haiti.