Monday, December 21, 2015

Books in 2015: A Personal Selection

 Ipanema, Dusk, December 2004  ©  Michael Deibert

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink by Juliana Barbassa

The Brazilian journalist has written a beautiful yet unflinching meditation on one of the world's great cities during a moment of profound change. Her book is a moving examination of the immense charms, staccato violence and unfulfilled promise of the marvelous city and of the heart of modern Brazil.

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest

Given recent events, this classic 1986 work by the great Anglo-American historian of Russia is a timely reminder that Ukraine was “the first independent Eastern European state to be successfully taken over by the Kremlin” and that a destruction of its national identity has been a priority for those who supported Russian expansionism for many generations. Lenin and later, more extensively, Stalin used an intentionally inflicted famine as a way to starve the very idea of Ukrainian nationhood (as they also did in Kazakhstan), with Grigory Zinoviev stating as early as 1918 that “we must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million Soviet Russian population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to then. They must be annihilated.”

Informed by a violent urban chauvinism against the rural poor, the Communist Party overseeing the atrocity “relied continually on a spurious doctrinal analysis to show it a supposed class enemy of a minority in the countryside, whereas in fact almost the entire peasantry was opposed to it and its policies,” policies that were devised. “not [by] a group of rational economists...(But by) a group which had accepted a millenarian doctrine”  As Communist officials dine in special restaurants and shop at “closed” stores, the famine rages and the bodies of dead children are dug up under suspicion that they might in fact be grain pits. The book is also, however, a testament to human resistance to the erasing effects of totalitarianism. But as it makes abundantly clear, the destruction of Ukrainian national identity wasn’t a byproduct of Stalin’s starvation politics, it was their point.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

A deeply affecting drama of a Haitian family both and home and in exile (the latter traumatically affected by the glacial indifference of United States immigration procedures) makes up for the sometimes shaky history.

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by  Karen Dawisha

This scrupulously detailed account of Vladimir Putin’s rise and eventual omnipotence on the Russian political scene is a fascinating account of a vast mafia state being run under cover of patriotic nationalism. Killers, quislings, corrupt business dealers, former and current spooks and other assorted unsavory types make up the Russian leader’s extended political and financial family or, as the author puts it, “such is the quality of the group that Putin has gathered around him from his days in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office.” The combination of the author's own research and investigative reporting by outlets such as Novaya Gazeta quoted therein also leads the reader to the extraordinary conclusion that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), of which Putin was the former chief, likely orchestrated the 1999 Russia apartment bombings that killed 293 people and helped pave the way for the Second Chechen War [Putin was Prime Minister at the time and many who questioned the official version met with extraordinarily suspect deaths]. As Dawisha points out, to keen observers, Putin’s first inauguration was not “a celebration of a transition or of a democracy; this was an occasion designed to herald the the emergence of a single and indisputable leader of a renewed state.”

Miami by Joan Didion

I finally got around to reading this non-fiction book, one of those often bandied about when one is trying to decode the vagaries of the city I live in, and found it both meandering, never quite getting to the point and, to me, at least (someone who has lived in the city off and on over a period of almost 20 years), not terribly perceptive. The author basically repeats stories and allegories from the then-formidable Miami Herald and the writing of historian Arthur Schlesinger, and otherwise writes much as I imagine a drive-by would be composed by someone who spent a few days or weeks here. The Haitian community in Miami is invisible in this book, as are African-Americans, and there is no hint of the city’s physical beauty, nor that of the natural environment that surrounds it, no grasp even of the area’s mired history of corruption. Lines of supposed profundity - “soundings are hard to come by here” or “to spend time in Miami is to acquire certain fluency in cognitive dissonance” - struck me as insufferably pretentious rather than deep.

Dirty Havana Trilogy: A Novel in Stories by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

Filthy, very funny and ultimately a bit wrenching, the novel was originally published as Trilogía sucia de La Habana in 1998 and chronicles the devastating effect of the período especial on Cuba in early 1990s.  The author chronicles the myriad of ways Cubans try to survive, at one point concluding “the only way to live here is crazy, drunk or fast asleep.”

The Boy Is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach

Laura Lee Huttenbach’s debut is a unique first-hand account of cultural lineage, revolutionary awakening and dogged perseverance told in the voice Japhlet Thambu, a man who seems to have fit several lifetimes into the span of one. It is an essential testimony to those seeking to understand modern-day Kenya.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

The story of Macabéa, an impoverished, unwanted typist who migrates from Alagoas to Rio de Janeiro, this last novel by the Ukrainian-Brazilian author is an odd and rare bird, indeed, with some striking passages. I am still not even sure whether or not I entirely liked it, but I am intrigued enough to continue on exploring her work.

The Collected Poems by Czesław Miłosz

The work of the great Polish poet, here presented in luminous English-language translations, is some of the finest poetry of the second half of the 20th century. There are worlds of beauty to be discovered here.

Stray Poems by Alejandro Murguía

Of somewhat uneven quality, this book by San Francisco’s poet laureate still contains some wonderfully evocative sections.

Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden by Heberto Padilla

A shattering portrait of the moment when the great hope of the Cuban revolution disintegrated into tyranny by an author who suffered as much as any artist from the Castro regime’s curdling into dictatorship, this novel marks stark realization of the narrator that "a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice that want to see the light of day which the revolution gushes at its beginning. It has its dark side, too, difficult, dirty almost...Repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads...” It is also a profound psychological portrait of despots themselves, with Padilla asking “Did tyrants love their countries...He thought they did, with the darkest, most jealous and constant love” and later concluding that “In every act of terror there is a desperate desire to persuade.”

Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Man’s wife dies. Man moves to decaying, canal-entwined Belgian city to brood. Man becomes convinced young dancer is the double of his dead spouse and becomes obsessed with her. You know, the usual. Having no idea who he was, I took a photo of Rodenbach’s extraordinary grave at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris during my first visit there in 1994 and only stumbled across this book during a reading I was giving in San Francisco last year. A very strange book by a very strange man, the novel nevertheless evokes Bruges in a certain aspect of saturnalia and morose lassitude, writing that it was a town

Where every day is like All Saints’ Day. A grey that seems to be made by mixing the white of the nuns’ head-dresses with the black of the priests’ cassocks, constantly passing here and pervasive...It is as if the frequent mists, the veiled light of the the northern skies, the granite of the quais, the incessant rain, the rhythm of the bells had combined to influence the colour of the air; and also, in this aged town, the dead ashes of time, the dust from the hourglass of the years spreading its silent deposit over everything.

A little-known book worth spending some time with.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

A youthful effort but one whose charm and power come from its very simplicity., this novel features a young father, a teenage daughter and a summer household in the south of France heading towards cataclysm.

The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy by Yanis Varoufakis

This book by Greece’s former finance minister posits, as a powerful symbol of Wall Street capitalism, a minotaur demanding tribute and fealty from all. It is a piercing criticism of a system where quack theories known by their acronyms - EMH, CEH, RBCT - were cocooned in “mathematical complexity [that] succeeded for too long in hiding their feebleness” and where a credit rating system existed as the purest nepotism. As Varoufakis trenchantly observes

The bankers paid the credit rating agencies...the regulatory authorities...accept these ratings as kosher; and the up and coming young men and women who had secured a badly paid job with one of the regulatory authorities soon began to plan a career move to Lehman Brothers or Moody's...Overseeing all of them was a host of treasury secretaries and finance minister who had either already served for years at Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns etc or were hoping to join that magic circle after leaving politics.

As it continues to be, Varoufakis writes that the rescue plan after the 2008 economic crisis it was not “never again” but rather “business as usual with public funds.”

Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris by Edmund White

A spirited and evocative (though at times gossipy and name-dropping) memoir of la ville lumière by the American writer who lived there from 1983 to 1990, the book made me heavily nostalgic for my own time in this most magical of cities. As White shows, no matter where one might go in afterwards, one who has lived there for any period of time will always have Paris.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

This past year was one in which I struggled with the financial realities of doing serious, independent journalism as much as I ever have in my life, but I was still afforded the chance to visit Cuba for the first-time, return to still-beloved and still-tumultuous Haiti, draw attention to an extraordinary and much-maligned Hudson Valley city and try to reach out to extend aquele abraço to Paris in its moment of great need. Next year, I will be bringing out a new book on Haiti looking at the country's 2004 to 2015 era, and hope to make some progress on getting my fiction before the public, as well. In the meantime, I move forward keeping in mind the words of Federico García Lorca's Cielo Vivo:

Yo no podré quejarme
si no encontré lo que buscaba;
pero me iré al primer paisaje de humedades y latidos
para entender que lo que busco tendrá su blanco de alegría
cuando yo vuele mezclado con el amor y las arenas.

(I won't be able to complain

though I never found what I was looking for;
but I'll go to the first fluid landscape of heartbeats
so I'll know that my search has a joyful target
when I'm flying, jumbled with loved and sandstorms) 
Has Guatemala's Long-Awaited Spring Finally Arrived? for InSight Crime (9 December 2015) 

Paris, je t'aime for the Huffington Post (20 November 2015)


Letter from Havana for the Guardian (17 June 2015)

In from the cold: the implications of the US's thawing on Cuba for Foreign Direct Investment (12 June 2015)
Resurrecting Newburgh for the Guardian (8 April 2015) 

The Dominican Republic's decade of diversification for Foreign Direct Investment (12 February 2015)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Has Guatemala's Long-Awaited Spring Finally Arrived?

Has Guatemala's Long-Awaited Spring Finally Arrived?

By Michael Deibert

When former comedian Jimmy Morales was elected as Guatemala’s president as the candidate for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) this past October, his victory came at the conclusion of perhaps the most tumultuous few weeks the country has seen since the end of its 30-year civil war in 1996.

Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy, Guatemala has often been the called the Land of Eternal Spring due to its temperate highland climate. By the 1980s, in the middle of a three decade long civil war, some added “Land of Eternal Tyranny” to the description in reference to its long list of sanguinary military governments.

In the 20 years since then, Guatemalans have enjoyed democracy, of a sort. Elections were held on schedule and with regularity, and an alternating series of civilian presidents from political parties of various ideological stripes have all taken their turn in steering the ship of state. Violence and corruption, often with official complicity, however, have continued to darken the country’s political landscape, often coupled with a pervasive and corrosive impunity benefiting those perpetuating it.

Following the 1996 peace accords, Presidents 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 civil war’s worst human rights abuses), implemented many key provisions of the peace accords half-heartedly, if at all. By then, Guatemala's clandestine criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state.

By 2005, the government of then-president Oscar Berger warned that Los Zetas, then enforcers for the Mexico’s Gulf Cartel and since 2010 an independent drug trafficking organization in their own right, were recruiting into their ranks members of Los Kabiles, a special-operations unit of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics, and which boasted a horrific human rights record in Guatemala itself. Los Zetas expanded their control of the country roughly at the same time as the beginning of the mandate of Álvaro Colom, who had become president the previous January as the candidate of the of the left-centre Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), and his tenure would forever be marked for their violence.

The July 2010 killing of Obdulio Solórzano, a former Escuintla deputy and member of UNE’s executive committee as he drove through Guatemala City’s Zona 13 district, helped to reveal just how deep the links between crime and politics were.
After his stint in Guatemala’s congress, Solórzano had gone on to head the Fondo Nacional para la Paz (National Foundation for Peace or Fonapaz), a government organization set up in 1991 with the stated aim of funding programs to eliminate poverty. During his tenure it was discovered that some 1.4 billion quetzales (as the Guatemalan currency is known) could not be accounted for, and that some 32 NGO projects had been overvalued to the tune of Q93.7 million. He was dismissed in June 2009.
According to a Guatemala official I spoke with, Solórzano had long been the link between the San Marcos drug lord Juan “Chamalé” Ortíz - credited with first bringing Los Zetas to Guatemala - and several other drug traffickers and certain elements of the UNE. It was speculated that some of the inconsistencies in accounting during his time at Fonapaz may have been attempts to launder illicit drug profits. Jose Rubén Zamora, the crusading editor of Guatemala’s El Periódico, would later say that Guatemalan army general Mauro “Gerónimo” Jacinto (who was himself later murdered) described to him how Solórzano had funneled millions of dollars from drug traffickers such as Juancho León and from Los Zetas themselves into UNE campaign coffers to help Colom triumph in the second round of the contest over former general Otto Pérez Molina.
After Guatemala’s November 2011 presidential elections - which in the final round saw Otto Pérez Molina defeat a congressmen from El Petén of equally dubious reputation named Manuel Baldizón, Pérez Molina  announced that his government would have “a strategic plan to combat drug coordination with authorities in the United States and Mexico.”

But things were murkier than they appeared, as was demonstrated when Pérez Molina’s personal pilot, Haward Gilbert Suhr, the founder of the Aeroservicios Centroamericanos, S.A. group (which Pérez Molina was a shareholder in) was arrested along with a dozen other in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and charged with trafficking drug shipments on behalf of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

Finally, this past October, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned amid a corruption scandal that had reached the very pinnacle of the country’s political establishment, and was jailed the following day. The country’s former Vice President (she resigned in May), Roxana Baldetti, had been arrested and imprisoned in 21 August. Both are charged with running a criminal network known as La línea (The Line) while in office.
The arrests of the country’s two most powerful politicians took place following massive street demonstrations throughout Guatemala, and represented perhaps the apex thus far of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body that has operated since 2007, charged with investigating criminal organizations and exposing their relation to the state. Led by the Colombia judge Iván Velásquez Gómez, the swiftness with which CICIG, along with Guatemala’s Ministerio Público, brought about the downfall of the government was startling, especially given that Pérez Molina had only weeks left in office after this year’s presidential election,.

And what now in Guatemala? President-elect Jimmy Morales’ FCN was founded by former military officers leaning to the extreme right of the country’s military spectrum, including José Luis Quilo Ayuso, an associate of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who currently has a possible genocide trial looming before him.

Will events of recent months mark a definitive break from Guatemala’s corrupt past? Despite the valiant efforts of Guatemala’s civil society. Guatemalan criminal organizations continue to make use of street-level gangsters as foot soldiers, as is evidence by an event several years ago that took place in Guatemala’s lethal and dysfunctional prison system, specifically the Varones in Guatemala City’s Zone 18 district, as was described to me by someone with direct knowledge of the case.

The impetus for the crisis was apparently precipitated by the presence in the prison of two well- known kidnappers, Rigoberto Morales Barrientos, alias Rigo Rico, and Jorge Mario Moreira alias El Marino. A senior government official allegedly received a sum of around 2 million quetzales (about USD 250,000) from the families of those victimized by the kidnappers to facilitate their execution inside the prison. Deciding to kill two birds with one stone, the individual then moved Morales Barrientos and Mario Moreira into two adjoining cells along with two other high-profile prisoners. These prisoners were Axel Danilo Ramirez Espinoza, aka El Smiley, a confessed member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang accused of participating in a wave of slayings of bus drivers that occurred in 2009 and Daniel Pérez Rojas alias El Cachetes, a Mexican citizen convicted this year of involvement in the March 2008 slaying of drug lord Juancho León, Shortly after the prisoners were moved, the CICIG received credible information that the men were to be murdered within hours and sent a delegation to the prison under the pretext that the prison would be receiving donation of closed circuit cameras and that it needed to be determined exactly how many would be needed. Once in the prison, they found the prisoners in two cells adjoining a cell of several gang members who were found to be in possession of several firearms and other weapons. The targeted prisoners were moved, and the incident was never made public.

The Morales presidency, which, despite often being erroneously portrayed as an outsider in the English-language press, is a creation of some of the most recalcitrant members of Guatemalan society, makes it hard for one to believe that Guatemala is not entering a key moment in its battle against impunity and corruption and that, in a year or two, Guatemala’s citizens will be on the streets in protest once again.

(This text was adapted from an address given by the author at an October 2015 conference on Gangs & Drug Trafficking in Central America coordinated by the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at the University of Pittsburgh, with sponsorship from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for International Studies.)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Paris, je t'aime

20 November 2015

Paris, je t'aime

By Michael Deibert

Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

Eight months after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January of this year -- attacks during which the Kouachi brothers killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly murdered an unarmed police woman and four patrons at a Jewish supermarket -- something strange happened.

When the literary group PEN announced that it would be honoring Charlie Hebdo, who had attracted the ire of religious fanatics for its drawings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, with its Courage Award, a group of writers sent a letter to the body to protest this distinction. The letter had been spearheaded by the authors Teju Cole and Francine Prose, who both teach at my former alma mater of Bard College, a place which, at least when I went there, adhered to the rather more open dictum of Walt Whitman which called on artists to unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.

While adding the rather ludicrous caveat that "the murder of a dozen sickening and tragic" the letter attacked Charlie Hebdo for engaging in "expression that violates the acceptable" and accused the publication of "being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering" to "the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France's various colonial enterprises." The letter also said that, by bestowing the award, PEN was awarding a publication "that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world." So, to put it more succinctly, the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had been imperial valets who had brought it on themselves.

(Cole had written an earlier piece for the New Yorker that rather speciously claimed that Charlie Hebdo had "gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.")

In addition to Cole and Prose, among the largely Anglophone signatories were Russell Banks, Eric Bogosian, Peter Carey, Junot Díaz, Francisco Goldman, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Luc Sante, Charles Simic and, strangely, the New York Times opinion page editor, Clay Risen.

I don't think I had ever been ashamed to be a writer until that moment. It was a scandalous display born out of ignorance of the role of Charlie Hebdo, the function of satire, and the history of modern France as a whole. It was obvious from the nature of the letter that few, if any, of the signatories had probably ever read Charlie Hebdo before the attacks, and had instead formed their opinion on a handful of out-of-context cartoons culled from the publication's 40 plus year history.

The authors seemed oblivious to the fact that satire's function is to sting, not cause guffaws, and that by far the most frequent targets of the publication's cartoonists -- artists such as Jean Cabu, Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier and Georges Wolinski (all slain in the attack) -- were France's rancid political elite and, especially, the right-wing Front National founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now run by his daughter, Marine. One of the cartoons most often used to demonstrate Charlie Hebdo's supposed racism, that of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a women of Afro-Guyanese descent, as a monkey, was in fact mocking far-right attacks against her, not Taubira herself. [For her part, Taubira gave a moving eulogy at the funeral of Hebdo cartoonist Bernard "Tignous" Verlhac.] The signatories simply threw to one side the publication's long history of attacking Catholicism, Judaism and, indeed, organized religion of any sort. They seemed unaware of the series of articles Charlie Hebdo's slain economist, Bernard Maris, had written on the effects of austerity on Europe's most vulnerable, especially in Greece, or that the magazine had spoken out in furious dissent against the 2008-2009 and 2014 Israeli assaults on Gaza.

As the French academic Olivier Tonneau wrote shortly after the attacks in response to the venomous social media slander against the paper's slain staff, "if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies."

(Nor were the PEN signatories alone in libeling the dead. The U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote that Charlie Hebdo was "not just offensive but bigoted" and engaged in "a stream of mockery toward Muslims generally" and "the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims.")

Now, 11 months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in La Ville Lumière 129 more lay dead. They were black, white, brown (black, blanc, beur in the French phrase), men, women, Christian, Muslim, atheist, straight, gay. They were committing no other crime than sitting out to have a drink on a warm autumn night, going to see a football match or going to see a rock band play. That scurrilous display of those writers can't help but return to my mind.

Today, it is the false narrative, advanced by both left and right, that last week's attacks were the result of France's so-called "Muslim" problem, with a focus on the supposed radicalization taking place in the banlieues, as the poor, heavily-immigrant suburbs which ring many French cities are known, and a blow struck against the "white" city of Paris.

Having come to France through a somewhat roundabout route of years working in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and having only lived in heavily-immigrant neighborhoods (Château Rouge in the 18th arrondissement and Bagnolet, just beyond the périphérique ring-road from Paris proper), I have perhaps a different perspective on this than some foreigners. I've spent a fair amount of time in the banlieues of Paris, and covered the November 2007 riots in the suburb of Villiers-le-Bel from the ground. Though they have plenty of problems -- unemployment hovers around double the national average, with that for 21- to 29-year-olds ever higher -- a propensity for radical Islam is not one of them.

The so-called "problem youth" I met in places like Villiers-le-Bel and Clichy-sous-Bois (itself the site of riots a decade ago), were about as far away from Islamist as one can get, drinking alcohol, smoking hash, racing up and down the boulevards on their scooters to a soundtrack of French and American hip-hop music.

The pool of these people who would gravitate towards radical Islam was -- and is -- very small, and those who become jihadis are the same ones who would go shoot up a school or movie theater in the United States without the religious trappings, alienated losers with no life and few opportunities, scorned by many, often including their own families, not because of their ethnicity or religion, but because they are viewed as dangerous malcontents. Somehow a burqa-clad Marianne, the female national symbol of France, does not seem a realistic fear to me.

That isn't to say religion plays no role in France's current anguished self-examination, but to see this series of attacks on Paris -- which ISIS in its "communiqué" referred to as "the capital of prostitution and vice" with all the venom of a nerd being left alone at the school dance -- as a political statement by an oppressed minority is thoroughly absurd. Among the Muslims who have emigrated to Europe and their offspring, there are good people and bad people, strong and weak, secular and fundamentalist.

They are, in short, like people everywhere else. The image, somewhat massaged by both apologists of the left and blowhards of the right, that France's Muslims are bearded salafists heading to the mosque to listen to some deranged imam's calls for jihad, scorned by society, is so far off the mark as to enter the realms of science fiction, as is demonstrated by how many Muslims caught the terrorists' bullets while out at the bars last Friday night.

The immigrant and Muslim communities of France and especially Paris are an integral part of the city and help give it much of its pizzazz and joie de vivre. In my heavily-immigrant neighborhood of Château Rouge, virtually all the bars were owned by Algerians and Tunisians, who were quite happy to quaff a pint at the end of the day. And though France's anti-freedom of expression "hate speech" laws can often be selectively enforced (witness the case of the anti-semitic comedian Dieudonné, which I wrote about here), none of that exculpates such an attack, nor does it excuse discourse on France by a clutch of writers who barely know the country at all.

There has been a bizarre grief contest on social media suggesting, alternately, that if one mourns the dead in Paris and the attacks against the city, one could somehow not mourn recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, those dying in the civil war in Syria, or those being killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and that the media had "ignored" such stories, even though they all have received -- and continue to receive -- extensive coverage in every major paper in Europe and North America. Perhaps if people spent less time circulating fake Buddha and Bob Marley quotes they would have noticed.

A Brazilian friend of mine currently based in India (a country that knows a little something about religious-inspired terror) introduced me to the perfect term for both the critics of Charlie Hebdo and those whose mockery and critiques of the genuine pain of so many after the Paris attacks appeared to reveal nothing if not a collection of curdled souls: Catastrophe sommeliers.

After any major example of man's inhumanity, religious fanaticism or simple tragedy, they would appear portentously at the world's side, napkin draped over their arm to decide who, what, where and for how long it was proper to mourn, or whether one was allowed to mourn at all.

And as for me? It would be nice to move back to Paris someday, if I can ever get the money together. In terms of the letter-signers, Michael Ondaatje used to be one of my favorite writers, and I rather liked Francisco Goldman but I'll never buy another book by either man again, and am thinking of getting rid of the ones I have. Most of the rest always struck me as wildly overpraised, so no great loss there.

Though Paris is in deep mourning and will likely remain so for some time, a nation that survived the horrors of a Nazi occupation, World War II and the slaughter of the Paris Commune will certainly wash off the blood, shake off the broken glass, kick the shell casings into the sewer where they belong and get back to doing what it does best, acting as a crossroads for men and women of all faiths and all backgrounds to sample its various charms.

Behind the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 died, an image has already been posted up of five people raising a glass of wine in mute salute under the words Paris encore debout (Paris is still standing). Charlie Hebdo's cover after the attacks was a beret-wearing French caricature guzzling bubbly, which then pours out of copious bullet holes in the figure's body, along with the words ils ont les armes, on les emmerde, on a le champagne (They've got the weapons, fuck 'em, we've got the champagne).
The spirit of Paris, of Charlie Hebdo and the spirit of those lives -- so many of them so young -- snatched away last week can never fully leave us. They will be with us as people drink and eat and laugh and flirt on the cafes along the Canal Saint Martin, the sunlight filtering down through the leaves of the trees as their branches move in a delicate ballet from even the faintest breeze.

They will be with us as people from dozens of countries gather at the Marché Dejean in my old neighborhood to sell their wares and to seek new opportunity in their adopted land. They will be with us in the crowded basement clubs in Oberkampf where people know what it is to be young and full of possibility.

They will be with us as one looks down from the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre at dusk and sees a magnificent, multicultural city spread out beneath them, a thousand possibilities therein yet to be discovered. And they will be with us wherever people feel their hearts are free, and full of love for their fellow human beings.

It is a love that those who attack this beloved city and its culture, whether with kalashnikovs or keyboards, would be fortunate to one day know.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Paris encore debout

Photo © Chantal Regnault.

Ce soir derrière le Bataclan Paris 11ème. Paris is still standing.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Thoughts on the Paris attacks

Back when I lived in Château Rouge, in the northeastern corner of Paris in the 18eme arrondissement, one of my favourite things to do on a Saturday morning - a morning much like this one - was to descend from my flat and walk south.

I would walk through the Marché Dejean, where vendors from places like Côte d’Ivoire,  Sénégal, Congo and elsewhere would sell their wares in front of Algerian-owned bars, and, strolling down the Boulevard Barbès or through the Goutte d'Or, I would eventually cross the Boulevard de Rochechouart, under the elevated métro lines. Walking south, past the Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est which link Paris with so much of the rest of the world either directly or through connections to its airports, I would veer east and, heading towards the Canal Saint-Martin and to the Quai de Jemmapes, arrive at what is possibly my favourite few blocks of the city.

On a mild day anytime of the year, spots like L'Atmosphère, the Hôtel du Nord and Chez Prune would be crowded with people of every background and nationality, eating, drinking, flirting. Couples would be reclining in one another's arms, and some young person would be playing a guitar. Sunlight would filter down through the leaves of the trees around the canal, and the branches would move in a surprisingly delicate ballet from even the faintest breeze. For those moments you sat there, no matter who you were or where you were from, you could feel a measure of peace, and feel embraced by a city whose history was larger than yourself.

For those of you who don't understand or are asking why those who know it and love it are so wrenched by an attack like this on the La Ville Lumière, which occurred only minutes' walk from the place I am describing this is the reason. Despite all its problems, Paris represents so much to love in the world for so many people; liberté, laïcité, sexual liberation, multiculturalism. It represents so much to be aspired to when elsewhere, even within Europe and France itself, there seems to be only darkness.

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure 
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jeune Haiti

On this day in 1964, Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa, the last 2 surviving members Jeune Haiti, a group of 13 young Haitian men who had landed on the island from the United States in hopes of freeing it from the tyranny of François Duvalier, were executed at the wall of the Grand Cimetière in Port-au-Prince. Their comrades who had fallen before them in the Grand Anse were Max Armand, Jacques Armand, Gérald Marie Brierre, Miko Chandler, Charles Forbin, Jean Gerdes, Réginald Jourdan, Yvon Laraque, Roland Rigaud, Gusley Villedrouin and Jacques Wadestrandt. Everyone should know their names. I see a lot of talk about bravery and courage these days but that is what you are looking at right here. Today, Haiti remains in tumult and their dream unrealized. But it's still worth fighting for.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Interview on France 24

Here is my interview with France 24 on the attempt by the Republic of Congo's Denis Sassou Nguesso to cling to power in Brazzaville.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti

10 years ago this month, my first book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, was published by Seven Stories Press. An account of Haiti from 1994 to 2004 and pivotal sections of its history that preceded that time, it was my attempt to tell everything I knew that had happened there to the letter, letting the chips fall were they may, and to give a voice to so many, from the lanes of Cité Soleil to the mountains of the Plateau Central, who had shown me Haiti and helped me begin to understand what the struggle was all about. A decade later, "Notes" keeps popping up in the most unexpected places and pissing off all the right people. Happy 10th birthday, little book.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Ayotzinapa, un año después. Dónde están?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Eid al-Fitr, Bouaké

It was almost exactly this time 8 years ago that I sat on a plastic chair drinking a beer in Bouaké in Côte d'Ivoire, then controlled by the Forces Nouvelles rebels who were seeking to oust President Laurent Gbagbo (now resident at the ICC at the Hague). It was Eid al-Fitr and out of nowhere these three children appeared, dressed for the holiday. For me it served as a remember that gentle moments can exist even in the most chaotic circumstances. A happy memory, la vie continue...

Photo © Michael Deibert

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pastoral letter from El Petén Bishop Mario Fiandri following killing of environmental activist Rigoberto Lima Choc


«Yahveh dijo a Caín: “¿Dónde está tu hermano Abel? ¿Qué has hecho?   
¡La sangre de tu hermano clama a mí!”» (del libro del Génesis: 4,9-10)

A los Fieles Católicos del Vicariato Apostólico de Petén
A las Autoridades Nacionales y Departamentales
A los Hombres y Mujeres de buena voluntad de Petén

Con mucha tristeza y con mucha preocupación constato que la violencia acecha nuevamente a nuestro querido Petén, con el asesinato de Rigoberto Lima Choc, en Sayaxché, en el contexto de un serio y múltiple conflicto social.

Como pastor y representante la Iglesia Católica de Petén y como miembro del Pueblo de Petén, me siente llamado a intervenir con sentido de responsabilidad, y a manifestar mi sentir y mi orientación moral.

—  Con toda claridad expreso mi más profundo dolor y mi más enérgica condena del asesinato del profesor Rigoberto Lima Choc, dentro de una situación generalizada de violencia social e inseguridad personal.

—  Comparto la pena y las lágrimas de la familia del profesor Rigoberto Lima Choc, y acompaño a sus seres queridos con mi cariño y mi oración fraterna.

—  Como cristiano y seguidor del Dios de la Vida, en nombre mío personal y en nombre de la Iglesia de Petén, renuevo el compromiso abierto y decidido a favor de la vida, del respeto de todos los seres humanos y de sus derechos, y del bien común del Pueblo Petenero. 

Y animado y motivado por la fe cristiana y por la búsqueda del bien común pido:

1. Que las autoridades intervengan con decisión, e investiguen pronta y exhaustivamente el crimen, para capturar y aplicar la justicia para los responsables.

2. Que ante la situación tan compleja, difícil y dolorosa, no se busquen soluciones superficiales o momentáneas, sino soluciones reales y permanentes, por la vía del diálogo constructivo entre todas las personas y organizaciones e instituciones involucradas, tocando las raíces profundas de esta situación, en el pleno respeto de las personas y del medio ambiente.

3. Que se deponga toda acción violenta y toda medida de hecho, utilizando los caminos  civilizados adecuados y los órganos legales y judiciales correspondientes.

A este respeto, me permito compartir estas sabias indicaciones del Papa Francisco: «Tenemos que volver a llevar la dignidad humana al centro, y que sobre ese pilar se construyan las estructuras sociales alternativas que necesitamos. Hay que hacerlo con coraje, pero también con inteligencia. Con tenacidad, pero sin fanatismo. Con pasión, pero sin violencia. Y entre todos, enfrentando los conflictos sin quedar atrapados en ellos, buscando siempre resolver las tensiones para alcanzar un plano superior de unidad, de paz y de justicia» (Papa Francisco a los participantes en el Encuentro Mundial de Movimientos Populares, martes 28 de octubre de 2014).

4. Que la gente de Petén, y -en especial- de la zona más directamente afectada por los hechos, guarde la calma y la responsabilidad que la gravedad del momento exige. Es necesaria la participación y la honesta colaboración de todos/as, así como la vigilancia y la denuncia de cualquier abuso.

5. Que los autores intelectuales y materiales de este crimen se arrepientan y se conviertan, teniendo presente la 'imagen y semejanza de Dios' marcada en su persona, y el mandamiento absoluto de Dios: ¡No matarás!

Con la fe puesta en el Señor Jesús, vencedor del pecado y de la muerte, animo a los hombres y a las mujeres de buena voluntad de Petén a vivir -en el día a día- el respeto y la tolerancia pacífica, el perdón y la solidaridad, seguros de que el mal sólo se vence con el bien; y que el bien triunfará sobre el mal, para un Petén distinto, más justo y más vivible y más feliz para todos/as.

Rezo y pido a todos/as rezar -personalmente y en familia y en comunidad- por la paz en Petén,
viviendo la fe y testimoniándola con las obras.

Su hermano: 
Mario Fiandri, Obispo 
Vicariato Apostólico de Petén

Ciudad Flores, Petén, 19 de septiembre de 2015.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Yemayá y Ochún

The great Cuban poet and anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, also a longtime Miami resident, who was one of the world's foremost authorities on Afro-Cuban religion and the Abakuá secret society, as a young woman.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Letter to the New Yorker regarding Dan Slater's “The Missing Story of the Drug War"

To Michael Agger, Cultural Editor at the New Yorker:

In his recent article, “The Missing Story of the Drug War,” Dan Slater characterizes accounts exploring Mexico’s drug trade by Ioan Grillo, Malcolm Beith, Anabel Hernández and myself as “flyover books with little firsthand reporting.”

This is false.

Mr. Grillo and Mr. Beith both lived in Mexico for a number of years while working on their books on the Mexican cartels (Mr. Grillo still lives there), and Anabel Hernández is a respected Mexican journalist who has lived under great threat to her life for many years for her role in exposing the nexus between political power and the drug trade in Mexico, with her house invaded by armed men only last year, and her father kidnapped and killed in 2000.

As for myself, I spent several years working on my book on Mexico’s Gulf Cartel, both in areas of Mexico such as Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Chihuahua and Mexico City, and also in Guatemala and Colombia.

Though I never encountered Mr. Slater in any of the above places mentioned (his own book, I now discover, focuses on the twilight struggle of online dating), his name vaguely rang a bell. I realize now it was because he sent the following email to my publisher, Lyons Press, on the publication of my book, In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico, last year:

From: Dan Slater [] 

Sent: Wednesday, September 03, 2014 9:45 AM

To: GPP-Publicity

Subject: Review Copy Request: "In the Shadow of Saint Death"

Dear Sharon,

I'm a former Wall Street Journal reporter, current freelance writer, author of a recent book called "Love in the Time of Algorithms" (Penguin).

I'm working on my second book, about the life of a former hit man for the Zetas. I'd love to cite Michael Deibert's book in my book, and I was wondering if it'd be possible to get a review copy of "In the Shadow of Saint Death." If so, I'd be hugely appreciative.

My address: 

Dan Slater
xxx Valley Road
Easton, Connecticut 

Though in his article Mr. Slater dismisses the idea that “the drug war is...a problem of hypocrisy and delusion in the United States, and of tumult in Mexico,” I would strongly recommend that he leave the Connecticut suburbs behind and immerse himself on the ground in Mexico itself, as Mr. Grillo, Mr. Beith, Ms. Hernández and I (not to mention Mexico's own heroic journalists) have done. There he will see first-hand the stark reality of the tragedy that U.S. practices connected to narcotics, firearms, money laundering and the private prison industry have helped bring about. He just might learn something. The people of Mexico certainly deserve more in-depth coverage of their travails than can be provided by a journalist sitting comfortably behind his desk 2,000 miles away.

Saludos cordiales,


Michael Deibert, Author
In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014)
The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books, 2013)
Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005)

      Rachel Arons, Associate Culture Editor

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Brief thoughts on Syria and the European refugee crisis

I think at this point we must all ask: What are we - collectively as citizens of Western countries whose actions (and inaction) have contributed so much to this mess - doing to ameliorate the situation of these poor people fleeing Syria, Libya and so on? Though I have not reported on it myself, I feel the situation in Syria, more than any other event today, says so much about who we are as a humanity, now well into the 21st century. There is so much dishonesty and hypocrisy surrounding it: The use and betrayal (again) of the Kurds and the blind eye turned to the pummeling of them by Turkey's would-be sultan; the breaking bread with Saudi Arabia even as they flood Syria and Iraq with money and jihadis; the support by Iran and Russia of the Assad regime, the abandonment of the people of Iraq after we leveled their country...Really, what is the solution to all this, to so much violence, delusion, chicanery and grief? I wish I knew...

Monday, August 10, 2015

In Mexico’s Veracruz, violence stalks journalists and students

4 August 2015

In Mexico’s Veracruz, violence stalks journalists and students

by Michael Deibert


(Read the original story here)

One late summer night in Xalapa, the resplendent capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz, I was walking with a local media worker through a chilly evening drizzle in search of pozole, the delicious, spicy soup that is something of a local specialty. I was researching a book on the country’s oldest drug-trafficking organization, the Gulf Cartel, based in the state of Tamaulipas directly to the north, and their erstwhile comrades-turned-deadly enemies, Los Zetas, many of whose members hailed from Veracruz.

Gazing out at us from the walls of the city were dozens of handmade flyers, most of them asking for information about women who had disappeared, but some asking for help locating missing children as well. As we walked through a beautiful old square that still holds the cisterns to what had been a colonial laundry, my contact mused on the difficulty of working in such a milieu.

“Here journalism exists in the shadow of the government,” he told me.

Despite Mexico’s supposed democratic breakthrough 15 years ago, brought on by the defeat of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the first time in over 70 years, democracy, such as it exists here, has always settled rather lightly in states like Veracruz, a place where, as in Tamaulipas, the PRI’s grip has never loosened. Despite a seductive landscape of mist-covered mountains slouching through deep valleys toward the coast, and a dramatic history that includes occupations by both France and the United States and the first independent community of African slaves in the Americas (founded by Gaspar Yanga in the 1570s), for more than a decade the atmosphere in Veracruz has been one of cyclical terror, with much of the violence directed at journalists and other critics of the government.

During the back-to-back administrations of the PRI’s Fidel Herrera Beltrán, who served as Veracruz’s governor from 2004 to 2010, and now Javier Duarte de Ochoa, another PRI politician, the influence of drug traffickers on the levers of power in the state and the overlap between their cadres and local law enforcement has become so blurred as to be nearly indistinguishable. In 2013 an accountant for the Gulf Cartel told a federal court in the United States that he had funneled $12 million in cartel money to Herrera Beltrán's electoral campaign between 2004 and 2005, in exchange for the cartel moving narcotics freely through the state.

Over the past decade, at least nine journalists have been killed in Veracruz. Some organizations put that number considerably higher. Some of the journalists were ambushed in their homes, such as Proceso reporter Regina Martínez Pérez, while others were found putrefying in sewage canals, including Veracruz News photographer Guillermo Luna Varela, Luna’s girlfriend Irasema Becerra, freelance photographer Gabriel Huge Córdova, and former cameraman Esteban Rodríguez. Without exception, the investigations into their killings went nowhere fast, often tossing up insignificant petty criminals as the culprits who, the public was told, thought up and committed such crimes entirely on their own.

When Rubén Espinosa, a Xalapa-based photographer for Proceso, was found dead this past weekend along with four others in the Mexico City neighborhood of Narvarte, where he had fled for safety after repeated threats to his life, it represented the violence of the state finally reaching into the heart of the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, which to a great degree has thus far been spared many of the horrors of the drug war. Hours after Espinosa’s killing, the Veracruz office of the newspaper Diario Presente was strafed by gunfire.

Espinosa had been a vocal critic of the impunity that had surrounded the murders of his colleagues in Veracruz. During a November 2012 demonstration to protest the results of the election that brought current president Enrique Peña Nieto to power, he was assaulted by police ostensibly under Duarte’s command as he tried to photograph them beating student protesters. Some of the students were part of #YoSoy132, a movement that emerged after Peña Nieto’s disastrous May 2012 visit to the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, during which he was heckled, cursed and eventually forced to hide in a bathroom.

One of those found dead alongside Espinosa this past weekend was #YoSoy132 activist Nadia Vera Pérez, who had been among the students attacked in November 2012. In an interview recorded eight months ago with Rompeviento TV, Vera charged that, should anything happen to her, Duarte would be responsible.

For years Veracruz has been the sight of spectacular violence. When one of Los Zetas’ founders, Efraín “Z-14” Teodoro Torres, met his bloody end in 2007, a group of armed commandos surrounded the cemetery where he had been buried, exhumed the corpse, and carted it away in a typical example of Los Zetas’ ritualistic esprit de corps. In 2009, the dismembered body of a local police commander, his torso and limbs in one pile and his head nearby, was found in the town of Soledad de Doblado, with a message that read Esto es por faltarle a la letra Z (This is for disappointing the letter Z). In September 2011, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), a spinoff of the Sinaloa Cartel that had been percolating for sometime (and who earlier this year shot down a military helicopter), had a spectacular public coming out i when it blocked rush hour traffic and dumped 35 corpses — many of them daubed with a “Z”— into the street while unfurling banners that read “This will happen to all the Zetas that stay in Veracruz.”

Such is the atmosphere in which the journalists in Veracruz and other states in Mexico are forced to work, and such is the climate that Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera Pérez were fleeing.

During that same summer in Veracruz, I found myself one day sitting with two local journalists on the veranda of a fashionable hotel in Veracruz’s eponymous main port city. On a leafy square just off the zócalo, in the shadow of the city’s gleaming white cathedral whose Moorish tiled dome gives it a markedly Islamic feel, our conversation was largely drowned out by the roar of passing taxis and near-empty tour buses. As we spoke, convoys of masked, heavily armed navy commandos rolled by.

“This is a war,” one of my companions told me. ““But in this war, your enemy is not a visible enemy.”

And so the world has again learned as Veracruz —and Mexico — buries more of its courageous children.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

How the OAS Failed Dominicans of Haitian Descent

Earlier this month, the Organization of American States (OAS) sent an "observer mission" to the Dominican Republic to look into that country’s "Haitian problem" (though if we are honest, we should call it the country’s "race" problem or better yet its "money and politics” problem). The mission was prompted, respectively, by a 2013 decision by the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court which retroactively stripped citizenship on an ethnic and racial basis from tens of thousands of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, seizing from them their most basic civil rights. Far from being corrected, this decision was codified by the 2014 Naturalization Law of President Danilo Medina, himself a member of the ruling Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD), the political party which now enjoys a near-total monopoly on power in the country and whose links with elite Dominican business interests, who have historically benefited from access to a disempowered, disenfranchised Haitian-derived labour pool, are longstanding. Though the 2014 law ostensibly offered to “regularize” the citizenship of those who qualified (a relative handful of the Dominicans of Haitian descent), the implementation of the law was carried out in an arbitrary fashion of questionable legality that seemed to put very few indeed on the path to citizenship.

The OAS mission was led by two veteran bureaucrats, Mexico's Francisco Guerrero Aguirre and Uruguay's Gabriel Bidegain, neither of them Creole speakers (the language of the estimated 1 million plus Haitians in the country). They met with government officials and visited a single border area between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the one at Anse-à-Pîtres. Their first observation in their public statement is that the OAS "recognized that the Dominican Republic has the right, as a sovereign country, to establish and implement its own immigration policy," a policy that apparently also leaves the Dominican Republic free to denationalize its own citizens on a racial and ethnic basis as it sees fit.

Though the OAS statement said that the body "recognizes that there are people at risk of not having any recognized nationality," the statement nowhere condemned the denationalization of Dominicans citizens of Haitian descent. The OAS findings stand in opposition to those of groups such as Human Rights Watch, which cited, with evidence and first-hand interviews, acts that it characterized as “ongoing violations of the human right to a nationality" against Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, the United Nations, which cited “arbitrary deportations” of Dominicans of Haitian descent that risked violating international laws and the country’s own constitution, as well as reporting from such news outlets as Agence France-Presse  and Al Jazeera.

By remaining silent in the face of the ongoing violations of the human rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent and of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, and with their mission largely uncritically parroting the Dominican government line, the Organization of American States and Messrs Guerrero and Bidegain have failed some of the most vulnerable on the island of Hispaniola and, indeed, in the Americas as a whole, whose welfare it is their duty to protect.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Could the gangs of Port-au-Prince form a pact to revitalise Haiti's capital?

Could the gangs of Port-au-Prince form a pact to revitalise Haiti's capital?

Haiti’s leaders have long made use of armed groups to impose their will in the streets of vibrant but derelict Port-Au-Prince, offering precious little in return. Now some of those communities may have had enough 

in Port-au-Prince

Tuesday 14 July 2015 12.01 BST

The Guardian

(Read the original article here

Sitting inside the Day-Glo-coloured nightclub that he runs on a hillside speckled with squat cement houses, Christla Chery, 32, pushes his baseball cap back on his head and outlines his community’s problems.

“We don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything here. The state is completely absent from this neighbourhood,” he says, as the Caribbean winds clatter over the zinc roof. “This is a prison where we are deprived of our liberty. We would like the freedom of every person here to enter society.”

The neighbourhood of Ti Bois, where Chery has his nightclub, wraps like a necklace around the southern hills of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. From this remove, the city pulses below: a nearly silent tableau of the tumbling azure ocean, curling smoke rising from burning garbage and thousands upon thousands of cars.
Though many refer to Chery and his compatriots as gang leaders, they have a different perception of themselves and their armed followers, whom they refer to as the baz – the base of the neighbourhood. Chery and his men enact a role that falls somewhere between political pressure group, warlord and tax collector, gathering tolls from the various supply trucks that pass along the narrow lanes.

The baz within Martissant – the larger neighbourhood of which Ti Bois is part – have often been in conflict among themselves. Despite being in a strategic location in the city – it overlooks the main road to the south of the country – Martissant was offered precious little by the state, even before the country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake. The baz have functioned in that power vacuum for years as a kind of de facto community government. Now, with Haitian elections scheduled for this year, the various baz are working to maintain a tense peace between themselves.

Haiti’s leaders have made use of armed groups, some quasi-regular and some not, to impose their will in Port-au-Prince virtually since the country’s founding. The history of the capital city has in part been the history of the fighting between these groups. Now that may be changing. “For years, [the politicians] would ask us to burn tyres, to cause disorder … but there was no development,” Chery says. “And we don’t want that anymore.”

Among those trying to facilitate a peaceful coexistence between the various baz in the city is the Lakou Lapè (the name means “peaceful community” in Creole). The two-year-old group has a mission to promote a culture of non-violence and dialogue.

“It’s like three steps forward, two steps backward,” says Louis Henri-Mars, Lakou Lapè’s executive director and the grandson of Haitian author Jean Price-Mars, one of the founders of the négritude movement of black consciousness. “But we know it takes time. Change comes from positive encounters and relationships that make positive connections happen. They allow you to get a different world view to come out of the craziness you’ve been living in.”

Under Faustin Soulouque, who crowned himself emperor and ruled Haiti from 1849 to 1859, the armed groups supporting him were referred to as zinglin. Around the same time, the peasant backers of the renegade general Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau in the south of the country were referred to as l’armée souffrante (the suffering army). Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971, formed the denim-clad Tontons Macoutes, a kind of shock troop with the dual purpose of repressing dissent and insulating him from an army coup such as those that had ousted his predecessors. His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, inherited the Macoute system when he became president as a morbidly obese 19-year-old. Duvalier the younger was overthrown in 1986, returned to Haiti in 2011 and died peacefully there last year, having never answered for his crimes (of which those committed through the Macoutes were only part). Under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has the unique distinction of being overthrown not once but twice, the (often quite young) gunmen tasked with protecting the regime were called chimère, after a mythical fire-breathing demon.

As much as the better-known slum of Cité Soleil, Martissant has always been a redoubt of such paramilitaries. Roger Lafontant, a feared Macoute leader who died during the 1991 coup against Aristide, formed an armed group that operated in the area in the late 1980s. Later, the most powerful gang in Martissant was run by Felix “Don Féfé” Bien-Aimé, an Aristide loyalist who orchestrated the murder of at least 13 people in the neighbouring Fort Mercredi district, after which he was nevertheless awarded a patronage job as the director of Port-au-Prince’s main cemetery. He was himself later “disappeared” by the police.

Since 2004, an ever-shifting panoply of groups have occupied the various zones of Martissant – Ti Bois, Grand Ravine, Descayettes and 2eme Avenue. One group, the Lame Ti Manchèt (or L’armée des Petites Machettes, the Little Machete Army), was affiliated with rogue elements of the national police. Another of the largest Grand Ravine gangs was run by Dymsley “Ti Lou” Milien, who broke out of jail after being arrested for his alleged role in the 2000 murder of Haiti’s most prominent journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique. Up until recently, from a foreign mobile number, Ti Lou has regularly called his followers who listen, rapt, as a mobile phone is held aloft to transmit his words.

But relations between Ti Bois and Grand Ravine are now relatively calm, which makes many hope that Martissant can perhaps invigorate some of its long-moribund tourism industry. As hard as it may be to envision after the 2010 quake – and despite being levelled by previous earthquakes in 1751 and 1770 as well – Port-au-Prince was once thought of as one of the glorious cities of the Caribbean. Travelling to Haiti in 1929, the British author Alec Waugh wrote that Port-au-Prince was:
One of the loveliest towns in the New World … The walls of houses and the twin spires of the cathedral gleam brightly through and above deep banks of foliage … It is through wide, clean streets, through the open park of the Champs de Mars, through a town that is half a garden, that you drive out toward the hills.
Martissant itself was one of the hubs for visitors to the capital. Just a few streets below Chery’s house is the beautiful Parc de Martissant, a restful space filled with dripping vegetation and bright bird of paradise flowers. The 42-acre park has now been reclaimed by the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Fokal), a civil society group working on education, human development and economic issues.

Within the park sits the Habitation Leclerc, an early 19th-century building that was allegedly once home to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, and her husband, French general Charles Leclerc, who was sent to Haiti to stamp out the slave rebellion that ultimately created the world’s first black republic. The property was eventually purchased by the American choreographer Katherine Dunham, whose 1969 autobiography, Island Possessed, remains an essential read. She turned Habitation Leclerc into a lavish hotel that attracted the jet-set, who availed themselves of nearby casinos and bars staffed by Dominican prostitutes (extraordinarily, despite fear of Aids and three decades of political upheaval, many of these bars still exist). But, by the late 1990s, the property – like some other areas of Port-au-Prince – had been overrun by gangs and squatters.

Recent restoration efforts have begun to return the gorgeous old structure to its former glory. Nor is it alone as a zone of possible rebirth. Outside of Martissant, the district of Bel-Air, which rises on the hills above a broad square that once housed Haiti’s National Palace (destroyed in the 2010 earthquake), has a rich tradition of music and art. For many years it was a centre for the production of drapo vodou, or voodoo flags, beautiful fabric-and-sequin creations bearing representations of the various Iwa (spirits). It, too, fell into disrepair and was heavily damaged in the quake, but it someday might have the potential to be a fascinating neighbourhood again.

Haiti’s current political scene, though, gives rise to concern that national politics will once again factionalise the city’s neighbourhood communities. The outgoing president, Michel Martelly – often referred to as Tèt Kale (Bald Head) – delivered a long, obscene rant against his opponents during a huge concert in the Champ de Mars plaza last month. Among those running to replace him are a senator, Moïse Jean-Charles, whose chief occupation as mayor of the northern city of Milot appeared to be bullying political opponents and journalists, and Jude Célestin, who has been accused by a now-jailed gang leader of involvement in the 2009 disappearance of another government employee. One senate candidate for Martelly’s party, Annette “Sò Anne” Auguste, is running despite being named by a judge for her own alleged role in the Jean Dominique killing.

Strange and somewhat menacing symbolism abounds in the city. Last month, supporters of excluded candidates held a suggestive mock “funeral” for Haiti’s election officials. An unseemly revisionism of the Duvalier years has also taken hold, with magazines advertising “Papa Doc Cigars” printed with the number 57 (the year of his inauguration). The election is also taking place as thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent are being expelled from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which Human Rights Watch called “ongoing violations of the human right to a nationality”.
In such a context, Mario Andrésol, the head of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH), the country’s national police force, from 2006 until 2012, collected 159,000 signatures to be accepted as an independent candidate for president. On a recent day, he was hosting a meeting of young activists from impoverished regions such as Bel Air and Cité Soleil at his Port-au-Prince home.

“We need to redefine ourselves as a nation, and the vision is to change a corrupted system,” says Andrésol. “We need to have institutional reinforcement. The executive, the legislative and the judiciary are supposed to be independent, but they’re not. The president has too many privileges, too many prerogatives. The president needs to understand that he’s the servant of the people.”

Meanwhile, for many of those in the capital who survived the 2010 earthquake – and were not relocated to the questionable sanctuary of some far-flung new camp – life goes on much as it did before, chache lavi (looking for life). The moto taxi drivers still stand in a line outside of the Djoumbala nightclub. The vendor women still haggle and laugh in the Pétionville market. The residents near the Stade Sylvio Cator still go about their lives in a swirl of dust and exhaust fumes and a cacophony of engines, horns and blaring music. In my old neighbourhood of Pacot, wreathed in bougainvillea and full of houses in Haiti’s distinctive gingerbread style of architecture, delicious cabrit en sauce is still on offer and groups playing Haiti’s plangent rara music still march through the streets.

Haiti’s national character – gentle, kind, good-humoured, quick-witted – stands in stark contrast to the take-no-prisoners blood sport of the country’s political culture. But, beyond the shrill ramblings of its politicians, at a certain hour of the day one is reminded of the words of Jacques Stephen Alexis, one of Haiti’s greatest writers, when he described Port-au-Prince in his 1955 book Compère Général Soleil (General Sun, My Brother):
Towards three o’clock in the afternoon the wind picked up suddenly, galloping and roaring through the city. The pelicans over the port whirled endlessly. The sea put on its fancy green dress and donned shawls of lace foam.
Looking down on the capital from Ti Bois as the setting sun lathers a honeyed light on to the surrounding mountains, one can see what he meant.

And Ti Bois, as it happens, does not appear to be the only baz that is gradually awakening to the fact that Haiti’s politicians have long used them as little more than cannon fodder, providing precious little in return as their districts sank ever-deeper into poverty.

Across town, in the popular quarter of Saint Martin, a rabble-rousing deputy in Haiti’s lower house of parliament – known for his violent background and temper – recently showed up in his constituency to seek support for his political ambitions, as he always had. Instead of finding a receptive audience, he was relieved of his weapon, his money and sent out of the neighbourhood with a message not to return.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Making sense of Miami:

Thursday 2 July 2015

Making sense of Miami: what America's strangest city says about the US's future

The dizzying blend of accents entices some visitors and alarms others. But as the US gets ever-closer to Cuba, Miami resident Michael Deibert asks: what can the rest of America learn from its own multicultural metropolis? 

The Guardian
(Please read original article here)

Just off Miami’s busy Calle Ocho, the thoroughfare that is the beating cultural heart of the city’s Cuban community, there rises a splendid ceiba tree whose roots erupt from the ground like waves from the sea, and whose vast branches throw shade far to either side.

All around the gnarled roots and tucked into the tree’s hidden crevices, one finds the offerings of the faithful: candles, bags of food, feathers, bones. In this modern metropolis, whose vaulting skyscrapers a mile away reflect the near-blinding sun, the saturnalia surrounding the ceiba attests to the lifeblood of the Afro-Cuban religion of santería, and Miami’s eternal place in the imagination of el exilio, as the Cuban community is often referred to.

I’ve lived in Miami off and on since the mid-1990s. As much as anywhere in the United States – my native country with which I have an often conflicted relationship – it counts as home. Landing back in Florida from Haiti, Paris or elsewhere, Miami always seems to offer the singular trick of providing some of the efficiency and convenience of living in the US while never seeming entirely a part of it.
Miami has long been a kind of quasi city-state that evokes strong reactions from visitors, especially those from more anglicised parts of the country who cannot make themselves understood in English to a large part of the local population – an experience that annoys and alarms them.

The strangest city in what is perhaps America’s strangest state, Miami is now home not just to Cubans but to thousands of Argentines, Brazilians, Colombians, Haitians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and practically every other Latin American nationality, with sizeable populations of Russians, Indians, Persians and Orthodox Jews as well.

The city has become so micronised that what is commonly thought of as “Miami” in the popular imagination is, in fact, a series of semi-independent small cities – some only a few blocks long – within the urban sprawl of Miami-Dade County (population 2.6 million). It fronts a long sweep of the blue-green Atlantic to the east and finally peters out in the miasma of the Everglades swamp to the west and the necklace of the Florida Keys to the south.

A young city (it was only incorporated in 1896 in what was then mostly wilderness), Miami is often said to have been founded on bootleg liquor and built its skyline on an infusion of cocaine money in the 70s and 80s (at the height of its cocaine wars in 1980 to 1981, the city had the world’s highest murder rate). Nearly 30 years ago, the crime writer Edna Buchanan wrote that Miami had been “a sleepy resort” that had transformed to attract “year-round ... concentrations of everything corrupt, bizarre or dangerous from everywhere in the world”.

Above all, Miami is a place of exile where newcomers try to construct a new life. Upon arriving from Cuba in 1980, the author Reinaldo Arenas – who as a teenaged barbudo had fought with Castro’s forces but was then imprisoned and tortured both for being an independent intellectual and gay – declared Miami “a barren and pestiferous peninsula ... trying to become for a million exiles, the dream of a tropical island”.

No fan of the city, Arenas quickly decamped to New York, where he committed suicide in 1990. Miami, however, continued to percolate like a spoonful of Café Bustelo coffee from the cafe colada that residents traditionally drink every afternoon at 3:05 (the city’s area code). And it has become something more interesting than many had thought possible.

In his office in West Miami near the city’s airport – a few blocks away from a branch of the city’s El Palacio de los Jugos Cuban eateries where the pan con lechón hints at the divine – Armando Valladares sits surrounded by photos of himself with political leaders: Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Florida senator (and Miami native and presidential candidate) Marco Rubio. Now white-haired, bespectacled and elegant, Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for – among other perceived offences – refusing to put an “I’m with Fidel” sign on his desk at the Ministry of Communications in 1960. Upon his release in 1982, he became a United States Ambassador to the United Nations. After residing in Washington for many years, he moved to Miami about 15 years ago.

“The Cubans have demonstrated their ability and their quality of work here,” Valladares says. “It’s a unique case in the history of the United States where the identity of a city was born, in a sense, in another country.”

The Cuban aspects of Miami’s identity appear to be far less monolithic than they once were, though. Many younger Cuban-Americans support the easing of relations with Cuba that US president Barack Obama has been pursuing with the island’s rulers. Events such as the O’ Miami poetry festival bring Cuban cultural groups such as Omni Zona Franca (from eastern Havana’s housing estates) to Miami on a regular basis, demonstrating that the city’s Latin vibe is more than Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday), as one long-standing club wistfully calls itself.

If Miami represents a refuge for Cubans, it serves as no less of one for Haitians who, fleeing a downward economic spiral and the tyranny of some of the country’s leaders, have made a profound impact on Miami’s cultural life over the last several decades.

Along a once-neglected stretch of Northeast 2nd Avenue in the heart of the Haitian immigrant community, a cultural flowering has taken place that has seen the opening of the Little Haiti Cultural Center and its Caribbean Marketplace – a replica of the famed Marché en fer (Iron Market) in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Exuberantly coloured murals by local artists adorn walls, and every Friday night the Rara Lakay band marches through the neighbourhood, beating on drums and blowing on plangent bamboo vaksin trumpets, whose bleat more evokes the deep Haitian countryside than an American city.

“I have seen this city grow culturally,” says the Haitian painter Edouard Duval Carrié, who arrived in Miami from Paris in 1992. “When I moved here it was really a [cultural] desert. That has changed.”
Carrié maintains his studio in Little Haiti. Famous for his painting of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in a wedding dress (an image that did not endear him to the regime), his space now seems a precursor of the area’s renaissance. What was once a district many outsiders approached with trepidation now attracts hundreds of people to the outdoor concerts of its monthly Big Night in Little Haiti.

“This is the doorway to the United States,” Carrié says. “The particularity of Miami is that it has this very ebullient immigration that makes it quite fascinating.”

But Miami’s growth into the multicultural metropolis it is today has had a sinister side, too. In the 1960s, the city built the southern extension of Interstate 95 directly through the heart of the Overtown district, an area that had been a cultural mecca for black culture in the south. “Overtown was a very pleasant place,” says Enid Pinkney, the 83-year-old daughter of an immigrant from the Bahamas (one of the first non-indigenous communities to settle in Miami).

Dispersed to other areas of the city, black residents often found themselves met with hostility. After the 1980 acquittal of four white and Latino police officers for the murder of black businessman Arthur McDuffie, at least 18 people died in rioting and property destruction topped $100m. Fatal police shootings touched off riots in the city at three other points during that decade.

Police departments throughout the county gained a reputation for violence and corruption that intervening years have done little to diminish, with Miami Beach police famously fatally tasering teenage Colombian-American graffiti artist Israel Hernandez in 2013. That same year, a report by the US Justice Department found that City of Miami police had “engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force through officer-involved shootings in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution” and that the department was tainted by “deficient tactics, improper actions by specialised units, as well as egregious delays and substantive deficiencies in deadly force investigations”.

Outside observers often remain mystified by Miami. Three years ago, the author Tom Wolfe attempted to capture it as he had 1980s New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and instead spewed forth a right-wing caricature titled Back to Blood that showed no grasp of the place the city has become. Such misconceptions are helped along by gaffe- and scandal-prone local politicians, whose peccadillos include everything from floating the idea to shut down all the city’s libraries to close a budget gap, to the by-now standard (for Miami) cash-for-favours schemes.

In some areas, things have gone over the top. In South Beach – once a slum for retirees and poor immigrants, now a gay mecca and nightlife hotspot – crass commercialisation has resulted in a kind of Vegas-by-the-sea ambiance, with even the famed Lincoln Road, once a redoubt of local restaurants and retailers, now housing little more than chain stores and the bewildered tourists they prey upon. The preponderance of “juniors” (a derisive term for the rich scions of Latin America’s economic elite) in the city can be somewhat off-putting, as it seems not only the language and music of that elite is being imported, but their class system, as well.

But the city has blossomed from the place that Reinaldo Arenas despised. The great Cuban poet and anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, who was during her lifetime one of the world’s foremost authorities on Afro-Cuban religion, spent the latter part of her life based in Miami, and donated her abundant collection of papers to the university here. It was home, too, for one of Haiti’s greatest poets, Félix Morisseau-Leroy, for the last 17 years of his life. And, as testament to the city’s new cultural heritage, a new major institution, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, opened next to the waters of Biscayne Bay in 2013; the Art Basel festival attracts thousands to the city every year; and the Miami Book Fair is an autumn staple of the literary calendar.

Perhaps more representative of the city than South Beach today are the northern reaches of Miami Beach, an area that is still home to many working-class residents despite spiralling property prices, where the lilting, almost Italianate sound of Argentine Spanish mixes with the caressing sounds of Brazilian Portuguese in the bodegas and on the beach. The Buenos Aires Bakery & Cafe – an establishment on Collins Avenue, only steps away from the sea – sells a variety of pastries that would make any porteño misty-eyed with nostalgia as well as several different kinds of the leafy, highly caffeinated mate beloved in South America, and does a brisk business.

When one drives south towards the Florida Keys – where the last island, Key West, is a mere 90 miles from Cuba – the county begins to descend into farmland. It was here that, in the early part of the 20th century, a Latvian-born eccentric named Edward Leedskalnin created an extraordinary structure known as the Coral Castle, out of coral-formed limestone. As he worked alone and without advanced equipment, just how Leedskalnin created his “castle” remains something of a mystery – with explanations ranging from some secret mastery of the Earth’s magnetic field to telekinesis.

Today, other dreams are played out in Miami-Dade’s fields, and exist in the imaginings of the many migrant workers who toil here, scant miles from the glittering high-rises of downtown Miami. 
Surrounded by fields of squash, okra, beans and tomatoes, the community of Homestead, despite its tropical locale, evokes the somnolent Midwestern communities of a Ray Bradbury story. Low-rise buildings, train tracks and empty playground swings greet the visitor, and in the street one hears the melange of accents and dialects from the agricultural workers here: Mexican, Guatemalan, Haitian, Jamaican.

In the offices of the immigrant support group WeCount! just off of North Krome Avenue (which shares its name with one of the US’s most infamous immigration detention centres located nearby), the connection between Homestead’s rural lushness and the city rising only a few miles away seems obvious.

“The Mexicans are the ones that put the food on Miami’s table,” says Catalina Santiago, an 18-year-old high school student who came to the US with her agricultural-worker parents from the Mexican state of Oaxaca a decade ago. “But they are always spoken of in a condescending manner.”

On the street below, where Santiago sits with her brother and a number of other immigrants, dusk falls and Homestead sees Mexican families gathering for Sunday-night dinner at restaurants such as Casita Tejas. When they rise for work early the following morning, some will be met by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and local police, who will be waiting to check their immigration status and arrest them for probable deportation if they are undocumented (as many are, a state of affairs on which Florida’s agriculture depends).

Perhaps it is impending apocalypse, natural and man-made, that makes Miami’s frivolity all the more poignant. If climate change predictions are to be believed, large parts of Miami – Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Virginia Key – will be under water in coming years, a phenomenon helped along by the fact that many Florida politicians, including Governor Rick Scott and the aforementioned Senator Rubio, deny that climate change can be linked to human activity.

Driving home north along US1, the skyline of Miami rises above the flat land, its concrete and steel wrapped in the warmth of the tropical sunset. A city of outsiders, refugees and immigrants that – in its reflection of present-day America’s diversity – feels in many ways more “American” than the 1950s small-town Americana that some politicians and commentators are perpetually nostalgic for.