Friday, December 28, 2018

2018: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to share some of the articles I have written/been involved with this year. It was a year that was often hard on the soul, when evil seemed ascendant in many places, & the good, righteous & tolerant assailed from all sides. But push on we must, and will.

For me this means continuing to do the kind of journalism I do, despite the economic hurdles it presents, publishing my new book on the history of the United States in Puerto Rico, possibly starting a new one on DR Congo & continuing to help, how I can, Haiti on its path.

For all of us, I think it means trying to create a more gentle, humane and decent world, and to try to amplify the voices of those who for so long have had none in the discussion of their fate.

Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.

Feliz año nuevo.



A Review of Michael Deibert’s Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History in AlterPresse (3 January 2018)

Haïti ne périra pas: une histoire récente de Michael Deibert in Le Nouvelliste (16 January 2018)

Haiti: time to take a second look? for fDi Magazine (13 April 2018)

Haiti's new president embarks on cross-country mission for fDi Magazine (13 April 2018)

On the Ground With Cops Hunting El Salvador’s Gangs for The Daily Beast (30 April 2018)

El Salvador seeks to ride an investment wave for fDi Magazine (14 June 2018)

Portugal's impressive turnaround for fDi Magazine (16 August 2018)

Portugal economy minister shows power of positive adjustment for fDi Magazine (16 August 2018)

Trump Says Puerto Rico Is ‘Unsung Success.’ Actually, Power Still Goes Out and People Aren’t Coming Back for The Daily Beast (12 September 2018)

San Juan’s Iconic La Perla Neighborhood Defies Trump for The Daily Beast (17 September 2018)

Puerto Rico still rebuilding one year after Hurricane Maria: Interview with CCTV's The Heat (20 September 2018)

Mixed signals after victory of Mexico's longtime maverick
for fDi Magazine (18 September 2018)

What is forcing thousands of migrants to flee their home countries? for The Guardian (5 December 2018)

The winter of the gilets jaunes for Michael Deibert's Blog (11 December 2018)

DRC elections: 'people aren't just angry - they're outraged': Interview with the BBC (27 December 2018)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Books in 2018: A Personal Selection

"Freedom is my sect," protest in Al-Zabadani, Rif Dimashq Governorate, Syria

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Published in 1968, this book serves as something of an elegy to an American West that was vanishing even then, suffused with lyrical, though never mawkish, descriptions of desert springs (some of them poisoned), thunderstorms and a beautiful account of a multiday odyssey paddling down the Colorado River.

“The desert says nothing,” Abbey writes. “Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation…Despite its clarity & simplicity, however, the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically, a view of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed. Since the desert does not act, it seems to be waiting - but waiting for what?”

Congo's Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle Since the Great African War by Kris Berwouts

A very useful primer by the Belgian author and analyst that is especially illuminating in the light it sheds on the inner working of the government of Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, in office since 2001 and now attempting to cling to power.

Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth

One of the darkest figures in the Nazi pantheon, police chief and and “Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” Reinhard Heydrich is the subject of this chilling, highly readable biography by German historian Robert Gerwarth. Tracing Heydrich’s role in the Nazi evolution to genocide, Gerwarth does an excellent job of demonstrating how the gradual whittling away of the ability to see any humanity in Nazi opponents - Jews, communists, gypsies and others - eventually laid the groundwork for mass slaughter, as telegraphed by the invasion of Poland in September 1939 when “the targeted liquidation of Poles noted for their education, nationalism or social status demonstrated that the Nazis were capable of and committed to murdering by the thousands.” The “effective system of terror” it had taken Heydrich and his nominal boss Heinrich Himmler less than a year to set up in Bavaria was soon ubiquitous, with traditional security forces now managed by rabid ideologues and, as this book demonstrates, step by step, the minute bureaucracy of mass murder becomes a tool of the German state.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

A 100 page satirical tirade against the author’s native country of El Salvador - in which the narrator expressed a consuming terror of one day being trapped and which, in his view, “is a hallucination, it exists only because of its crimes” - this often uproariously funny novella provides a dim survey of the nation in the years following the end of its civil war.

“These politicians reeking of the blood of the hundred thousand people they sent to their deaths thanks to their big ideas,” Castellanos Moya writes. “It doesn’t matter if  they’re right-wing or left-wing, they’re equally vomitous, equally corrupt, equally thieving, you can see in their faces how anxious they are to rob what they can...These crooks in suits and ties that once had their feast of blood, their orgy of crimes, they dedicate themselves now to a feast, an orgy, of plundering.”

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre

A magical realist tale of eroticism and vodou that brilliantly evokes the southern Haitian town of Jacmel (where I lived for a time), this novel by one of Haiti’s greatest living author appeared in English for the first time last year. Though the text becomes somewhat bumpy with awkward literal translations of place names (the Haitian town of Croix-des-Missions becomes “Mission’s Crossing,” for example, a name meaningless to anyone in Haiti), Depestre’s words still come through as often intensely poignant, such as when he writes “for the first time since leaving Jacmel, I was able to think without sadness about all those years of failure and guilt that stretched behind me in the swirling elsewhere of Haiti."

Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Spooky and intensely British, this collection contains such classics of the genre as “After Dark in the Playing Fileds,” “A View from a Hill” and “Casting the Runes” and makes an entertaining distraction from weightier matters.

Moonbath by Yanick Lahens

A beautifully conceived and realized novel from Haiti appearing in English for the first time, this book tells the story of “a village lost between stone, sun, sea and rain” in “a country where the most dependable weapon is erasure; the most lucrative defense, evasion. To let the storm pass, before spreading our wings again and running with the pack of the moment.” Moonbath shows how the destitute and struggling so frequently find themselves, through little fault of their own, either the subjects of the cloying largess or violent bullying of the country’s various political factions, with repeated references to the depredations of both former presidents François Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Simone by Eduardo Lalo

Part romance, part detective story, this novel traces the fraught relationship between a Puerto Rican writer and an immigrant Chinese student in San Juan .

Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

I would not have predicted that the author of the World War II historical novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) would author one of the best pieces of modern war reportage I’ve read in many years, but this account of the resistance to Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad and his crime family in the western Syrian city of Homs is certainly that. Introducing the reader to an extraordinarily wide swathe of liberation fighters, civil society activists, doctors and others, Littell gives some flavor of the scope and complexity of the forces that rose up to try and topple Syria’s dictatorship. As regime snipers deliberately target children and non-Arabic speaking “specialists of the Arab-Muslim world” serve up war crimes denial, the tragedy that later befell the rebel movement, becomes palpable.

“Smiling and full of life and courage,” Littell writes of these early heroes. “For whom death, or an atrocious wound, or ruin, failure, and torture were nothing compared to the incredible joy of having cast off the dead wight crushing, for forty years, the shoulders of their fathers.”

Guadalajara by Quim Monzó

Brief, surrealistic vignettes by the respected Catalan writer

Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

By a noted Puerto Rican author, one of the best short story collections I've read in years. Poignant, wistful, emotionally powerful. Recommended.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

An important survey of how fascism took hold in the first half of the 20th century in Italy, Germany, Hungary and Romania, this book examines how a mad supremacist philosophy was able to sweep to power with establishment “accomplices who helped at critical points,’ whether they be Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, who refused to sign Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s martial law decree blocking Mussolini’s blackshirts from entering Rome, or the veteran diplomat Konstantin von Neurath, who served as foreign minister during the early years of Nazi rule. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell might find much to recognize here.

“The fascist route to power has always passed through cooperation with conservative elites,” Paxton writes, going on to conclude “no dictator rules by himself. He must obtain the cooperation or at least the acquiescence of the decisive agencies of rule - the military, the police, the judiciary, senior civil servants - and of powerful social and economic forces.”

Though published more than a decade ago, the book reminds more timely than ever, as does Paxton’s conclusion about the nature of fascist political rule:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography by Michel Surya

An interesting survey of a deeply strange man, this biography of the transgressive French writer and philosopher contains many surprising details, such as those of Bataille’s early fervent Christianity and of the internecine politics and squabbles of the French surrealist movement of the 1920s.

“My true church is a whorehouse, the only one that gave me true satisfaction,” Bataille once wrote. “Ending up drunk and red-faced, in a dive full of naked women.” This book gives some idea of the kind of figure who managed to hold down a job with the Bibliothèque Nationale while still penning such works such as L'histoire de l'œil (Story of the Eye).

The Collaborator Book by Mirza Waheed

A searing portrait of occupation, repression, state terror and familial and community ties amid India’s war in Kashmir.

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

An indispensable history of the uprising against Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, this book lays out clearly why the ossifying, four decade-old family dictatorship was ripe for collapse.

Cosmetic attempts at reform in the early 2000s were then ruthlessly reversed when it appeared they might flower into an actual independent civil society, a reaction that included the ruthless repression of Syria’s Kurds and the apparatus of a terrifying police state where torture was systematic and systemic.

Despite the “anti-imperialist” rhetoric Assad’s regime employed, it was only too happy to put its skills in oppression to use on behalf of the “war on terror,” hosting and torturing terrorism suspects on behalf of the United States following 2001 (despite at the same time allowing Salafist remnants to operate unimpeded in Syria to launch attacks against the U.S. in Iraq).

Though little remarked upon at the time, the spark for Syria’s revolt was not some dark foreign plot, but was rather literally set when Hassan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in in the small town of al-Hasakah in January 2011, only weeks after Mohamed Bouazizi had done the same in Tunisia. The Assad family responded to the Syrian peoples’ calls for democracy with sickening crimes, including the kidnapping and killing of schoolboys who wrote revolutionary graffiti in Daraa in March 2011 and the torture and murder of 13 year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb in the same city two months later.

The book reminds readers that, from March to October 2011, while it was massacring non-violent protesters, the Assad regime was busy releasing violent jihadists from its own prisons, including Jaysh al-Islam’s Zahran Alloush, Ahrar al-Sham’s Hassan Abboud, Awad al-Makhlaf (late a key figure in ISIS) and founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra. Eager to brand the Syrian revolution as a sectarian conflict, the regime itself targeted Sunni areas for collective punishment, including during massacres of Sunnis on Syria’s central plain between Homs and Hama during the summer of 2012. As the authors note, by the summer of 2013, Assad’s battles were increasingly directed by Iranian military experts, and Iranian-funded and trained Shia militias helped the regime ethnically cleanse areas such as Zabadani and Daraya. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Iraqi organizations Kata’b Hizbollah and Asa’b Ahl al Haqq also helped.

Assad was often helped in buttressing this narrative by the lack of nuance of foreign writing on the revolt. Early banners with slogans such as “Freedom is my sect” and the early demonstrations in Aleppo which brought together Arabs and Kurds, Christians & Muslims, holding both cross & crescent aloft, and the winter 2013/2014 offensive in the same city which pushed ISIS out, were lightly covered by the Western media. United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura also proved reliably sympathetic to the regime’s point of view.

In the most shameful chapter of his presidency, readers witness U.S. President Barack Obama’s erasing of his own “red line” following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, after which, the activist Lubna al-Kanawati says, “a profound sense of depression and isolation afflicted the people. They knew they’d die hungry and in silence, ignored by the world.” Likewise, we witness Obama’s refusal to help local forces in Deir ez-Zor which fell in July 2014, leaving its oil fields to ISIS, and the cynical on/off spigot of arms to bring Assad to negotiating table but not topple him.

The book does a great service to the historical memory of the Middle East, preserving for history within its pages such important (and now dead or missing) figures as human rights lawyer and civil society activist Razan Zaitouneh, Ghaith Matar (who came up with the idea of giving a rose and bottle of water to soldiers during protests) the filmmaker Bassel Shehadeh and the economist and anarchist Omar Aziz.

We are left with a chronicle of the failure of humanity to stop, as they did Franco’s march across Spain more than 70 years earlier, a great atrocity that the whole world watched unfold, and a betrayal of the dreams all freedom-loving people hold dear. With many of my fellow Western leftists engaging in genocide and war crimes detail on behalf of the Assad regime, we are left to ponder the words of the great Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, quoted within its pages

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftist of the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. what I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, it contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analysis. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional; occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate…We rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners…do not exist…But honesty I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view…Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream western left needs to help themselves.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The winter of the gilets jaunes

From my home in Pennsylvania, I have watched the evolution of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in France.

The phenomenon has been badly misunderstood by much of the Anglophone media (who often seem puzzled by the peculiarities of Gallic history and culture, and couldn’t quite figure out the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, for example, either), and I thought it might be worth writing a short explainer and analysis for my English-speaking friends. By way of background, I've been visiting France regularly for the last 24 years, lived there for a number of years in two working class communities (Château Rouge in the 18eme and Bagnolet in Seine-Saint-Denis), follow its media and culture and have traveled relatively widely there.

There is a lot of legitimate anger at the French state and political class as whole, which, make no mistake, for many people includes the whole political spectrum, from President Emmanuel Macron's La République En Marche! to the traditional left Parti socialiste to the traditional right Les Républicains to even the far left La France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far right Rassemblement national (formerly Front national) of Marine Le Pen

A lot of people in France really have seen their lives becoming worse, with wealth distribution over the last decade (at least) concentrated among the urban upper classes, while middle and working class people - especially in non-urban areas - have seen their services cut in terms of public transportation (leading people to depend more on cars) and healthcare. People have seen their wages stagnate as the cost of living has increased.

The comments of a 32 year-old mother of three interviewed by the Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis, who bemoaned the fact that she “lived in misery” and was “constantly overdrawn at the bank” (a struggle I can relate to all too well) and that should couldn’t “see a better future” for her children are fairly typical.

For people like this, the glittering “startup nation” that Macron - who himself was elected only last year as a rupture with the traditional political establishment - has talked about might as well be as distant as the moon, as they are really struggling just to get from one week to the next, to raise a family on 2,000 euros a month, to figure out how to get to work every day. One can see why the new fuel tax, which would impact this strata of society immediately and brutally, would prove a spark to a tinderbox. To view this mass of people - many of whom have few if any connections to traditional political parties, labor unions or other linchpins of French civic life - as mere pawns of local or foreign powers would be a big mistake.

In many ways, the movement is schizophrenic, on one hand demanding more services while on the other hand demanding lower taxes, restrictions on immigration and other, frankly reactionary, aims.

However, it would also be deeply naive to see the violence that has wracked France in recent weeks as the simple cri de coeur of France’s working class, and to miss the more ominous signals coming from the gilets jaunes.

It is worth noting that, thus far, France’s non-white working class, the inhabitants of the cités and habitation à loyer modéré (often abbreviated to HLM, and meaning rent-controlled public or private housing), who demonstrated after the deaths of youths in the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005 and in Villiers-le-Bel in 2007 (I reported on the latter) have thus far been largely absent from the gilets jaunes movement. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that they often have even-lower paying jobs than the gilets jaunes, use public transportation within and around major cities (and thus are less dependent on private cars) and may simply not want to expose themselves to the violence that has been an inescapable element in recent weeks.

However, there are other, more troubling signs. Last month, at a gilets jaunes roadblock in northern France a truck full of migrants was stopped and turned over to police amid gloating abuse from the demonstrators. The fact that, at various points, outside agitators, including those from the extreme right and those from other countries, have been involved in the Paris violence is beyond dispute. Policewomen working at the protests have been the subjects of base, misogynistic abuse.

Some demonstrator have called for Pierre de Villiers, a French army general and former Chief of the Defence Staff, who had publicly criticized Macron’s plan to reduce defense spending, to replace Macron. As Daniel Cohn-Bendit, better known as Dany le Rouge (Danny the Red), one of the leaders of France’s May 1968 student uprisings has pointed out, the uprisings of 50 years ago sought to oust a general (Charles de Gaulle) from power, not put one in as head of state.

The parties of France’s bitter, naysaying extremes have also, quite naturally, attempted to use the unrest to their advantage and as a recruiting tool.

As is their wont, accounts known to promote Kremlin views have signal-boosted news of the gilets jaunes protests and encouraged extremism and recrimination across a variety of social media platforms.

It remains to be seen whether or not Marcon's address to the nation yesterday - during which he announced a range of measures while admitting  he knew he had "hurt" some by his words and actions and pledged that he "fought to shake the system in place... precisely because I want to serve our country and I love it"- will be enough to placate the gilets jaunes and the potentially far more destructive forces percolating around their fringes. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

What is forcing thousands of migrants to flee their home countries?

Wed 5 Dec 2018 15.48 GMT

What is forcing thousands of migrants to flee their home countries?

The United States is more to blame for its immigration problem than it would like to take credit for
By Michael Deibert

The Guardian

(Read the original article here)

The mass of humanity living in a makeshift encampment at the US border with Mexico is driven by historical forces of which many Americans are only dimly aware.

Demonized by Donald Trump as an “invasion” of miscreants who should be housed in concentration camp-like tent cities, the migrants, many of whom are in fact planning on applying for asylum, persist under the weight of a US history in their home countries as heavy as any burden they carry with them.

Though several caravans have made the trek to the United States over the last year, the one that attracted Trump’s attention left San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, on 12 October. It was largely made up of citizens of that country, as well as some from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Traversing a route infamous for its danger – the Mexican leg of the journey crosses states long in thrall to the country’s powerful drug cartels – their safety in numbers logic is self-evident. What is forcing thousands of people into such a precarious flight?

In Honduras, where the caravan originated, the past decade has seen the terrorizing effects of street violence by criminal gangs exacerbated by an increased presence of Mexican cartels, police abuses and the murder of human rights and environmental activists, most notoriously that of Berta Cáceres in 2016.

Much of this current instability can be traced back to the June 2009 ouster of its then president, the erratic leftist Manuel Zelaya. Though the then US president Barack Obama declared the ouster “not legal”, his administration subsequently worked with regional powers such as Mexico to assure Zelaya did not return to office.

After Zelaya’s overthrow, Honduras was run by a series of rightwing leaders. When the most recent of them, Juan Orlando Hernández, looked likely to lose his re-election last year to the former journalist Salvador Nasralla, his government responded with a repression that Amnesty International characterized as having “violated international norms and the right to personal integrity, liberty and fair trial guarantees”.

At least 31 people, the vast majority civilians, died in the violence, but Orlando Hernández continued in office, with Trump’s state department congratulating him on his victory while stressing “the need for a robust national dialogue”.

Honduras is hardly the only country whose society has been undermined by US political decisions both recent and historic.

In neighboring Guatemala, the US provided extensive aid to the Guatemalan military during the country’s 1960 to 1996 civil war, which killed an estimated 200,000 people. The war itself was to a large extent an outgrowth of a US-backed coup that ousted the country’s democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954.

More recently, the Trump administration has lent its support to attempts to neutralize the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Cicig), a United Nations-backed body tasked with investigating organized crime and its links to political actors.

One of those actors is Guatemala’s current president, former comedian Jimmy Morales, who is under investigation for allegedly accepting illicit campaign contributions, and came to power with the support of some of the most reactionary elements of the country’s military.

Under the rule of Morales, the Guatemalan government was one of only a handful that followed Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this past May. With his undercutting of Cicig, many view Trump as returning the favour.

But perhaps no country’s history attests to the US role in helping to create the conditions for this latter-day exodus than El Salvador.

After an October 1979 coup resulted in a military-civilian junta, the US government, first under Jimmy Carter and then under Ronald Reagan, supported the junta even as its civilian members resigned and it grew more violent.

As political polarization accelerated, a bubbling multi-front guerrilla insurgency united under the umbrella of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). In turn, the FMLN was met with increasing death-squad activity by the right. Much of this violence was orchestrated by US-trained Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former intelligence official.

The United States worked furiously to prevent a D’Aubuisson victory in 1984 elections that saw center-right José Napoleón Duarte come to power. Despite its role in preventing D’Aubuisson’s election, the US government for years poured money into Salvadoran military bodies such as the Atlacatl Battalion, whose chief military maneuver appears to have been the massacre, a tendency which it carried out in mass killings in hamlets such as El Mozote and El Calabozo and even in the capital, where it murdered six Jesuit priests and two lay workers in 1989.

Both during his campaign and his president, Trump has frequently inveighed against criminal organizations with links to El Salvador and their malign influence on the United States. Here, too, the history is more complicated – and more shaped by the US – than many acknowledge.

During El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted until 1992 and killed an estimated 75,000 Salvadorans, hundreds of thousands fled to the United States, especially to southern California. There, young Salvadoran boys found themselves endangered by local gangs and coalesced into their own groups, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

When some of these young gang members, not US citizens though culturally American, were deported back to El Salvador, they took California’s gang culture with them. The gangs have since proliferated throughout Central America. Though MS-13 remains the bete noire of Trump and his acolytes, the American origins of the gang go almost unreported.

All this being the case, it is rather irresponsible for the United States to take such an active role in creating the conditions that make people want to flee the countries that make up the Central American isthmus and then profess shock when they do so.

The caravans themselves push on, as the assassinated Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton once wrote, “far from where hope is already left behind”.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Moment of Truth

Moment of Truth

Text of Michael Deibert's address at Millersville University Literary Festival

2 November 2018

Good evening to all of you and thank you for coming. Thank you also to Millersville University and the Writing Center for inviting me to speak. As Bill mentioned I grew up in Lancaster and have spent much of my career as a journalist and author traveling the world and working in different countries, and that’s one of the ways I know it is particularly auspicious that I have been invited to give a talk on November 2nd which, in Haiti, is Gede, which celebrates the lwa or spirits of death and fertility, and in Mexico and in many places in Central American Dia de los Muertos, which marks los que se fueron, or those who have departed.

It’s interesting for a guy who grew up as a lower middle-class kid here in Lancaster to see what changes have taken place since I was young. The city seems to have really blossomed into a very vibrant, multicultural politically active place over the years and, of course, thanks to the advancements in communications, people really have the world at their fingertips if they choose to avail themselves of it these days.

Having been to something like 60 countries or thereabouts now, one of the messages I try to communicate to people here in the United States is that, despite the current political discourse of the day, you don’t have to be afraid of people who don’t look like you, speak like you, follow your religion or dress like you. There are predators in every country & every culture, but in general in my travels I’ve found people to be more or less ok.

There is something you should be frightened of, and I would like to talk to you about it tonight.

Americans are cocooned and cushioned by the reality many (though not Native Americans or African–Americans, to name but two groups) have shared since the country’s founding, decades of stable institutions and, in the national main, political fair play. They cannot imagine how quickly, and how violently, things can change.

I can.

In my 20 years as a journalist reporting on international affairs, I have come across the template we see being used in the United States before, employed by those whose political behavior is marked by, as Robert Paxton said in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism

(An) obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In Côte d’Ivoire I saw how Laurent Gbagbo’s promoting his ethno supremacist cult of Ivorité took one of Africa’s richest countries and toppled it over into civil war. In Haiti, I saw how Jean Bertrand Aristide took the rancour of the masses and stoked it into an attempt to create a kind of garish fiefdom modeled on those of Uganda’s Idi Amin and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa. In Guatemala, I watched former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who oversaw the country’s worst period of genocidal bloodletting, form a political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), whose entire motor ran on anti–elite rage and was eventually revealed to be more criminal enterprise than political vessel.

As I come from the exact strata of American society – the white, blue collar, Rust Belt working class – among whom the current president’s message has the most resonance - and have seen its like up close before, I feel a special duty to speak out.

People with a strong work ethic feel all their hard work has been spat upon and shunted aside by years of free trade deals championed by both parties and a tax system that lavishes breaks on the wealthy and penalizes those of more modest means (championed, ironically, by the very same party to which they now claim allegiance). There is real pain and real despair there. But there is also a whining self pity that often can’t see anyone’s struggle as worthy as their own and a nearly millenarian sense of grievance that sees politics not as the art of the possible but as an apocalyptic struggle between a largely white industrial world that has gone and will never return against a confusing kaleidoscope of liberal urban elites, the country’s burgeoning non–white population, immigrants, alternative sexual orientations and other shocks to their system. If Trump voters often sound as if they think the world is about to end, it’s because the world as they have known it is ending. But these forces of demography cannot be reversed, and it is not a world my fellow working–class whites need to fear, but fear is the currency on which our president trades.

The American democratic project has been characterized by inconsistencies since it commenced in 1776. Some of these tensions involved America’s actions abroad, and some in the way it treated its most vulnerable citizens at home. But, with the exception of a wrenching civil war that saw over 600,000 Americans die, few have ever questioned the value of the project itself.

When, at the end of the Revolutionary War, a group of dissident officers in the Continental Army all but suggested a coup against the newly inaugurated Congress in what came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, the army's commander in chief (and future first U.S. President) George Washington gave an impassioned speech in which he inveighed on behalf “of our common country,” charging

As you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.

America has had a complicated, schizophrenic history and it has been a messy project.

In the mid-1700s, a group of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen who had settled along the Susquehanna River became known as the Paxton Boys and conducted a spate of racially-motivated violence here in the south-central and eastern portions of Pennsylvania.

On December 14 1763, the gang murdered six members of the Susquehannock tribe (known as Conestoga among English-speakers) and burned their cabins for good measure. When 16 of the remaining Susquehannock were placed in protective custody in the old city jail in Lancaster (just next to the site of the present-day Fulton Opera House), on 27 December, the Paxton Boys broke into the jail and killed, scalped and dismembered the six adults and eight children who sheltered there.

Just last year, Scott Wagner, who is running for governor, was recorded disparaging the businessman and philanthropist George Soros as a “Hungarian Jew” who harbored “a hatred for America.” Soros, along with a number of prominent other individuals and journalists was sent a bomb last month,

Also last year, a white supremacist organization called Identity Evropa held a rally in Penn Square, and at around the same time stickers and posters promoting it were found plastered at Elizabethtown College and here at Millersville.

That’s part of our history and present. But equally a part of it is Lancaster’s  prominent role as the political base of the fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who represented the region in the U.S. Congress for most of the era between 1849 to 1868. Equally part of it is Lancaster’s history of religious tolerance and welcoming attitude towards those fleeing persecution. The fact that the county welcomes 20x as many refugees per capita as the rest of the country is something you can all be proud of. The future is unwritten.

But need to think very carefully about the path we are heading down.

In the July 1932 elections in Germany, also a democracy at the time, the Nazis received 37% of the vote, the most they every got. In the next election four months later, their share shrank to 32%. But by then it was too late. The serpent was already in the garden. Tellingly, in their quest for absolute power, the Nazis were aided unwittingly by leaders such as the German Communist Party’s Ernst Thälmann, who thought the centre left was a greater danger than the extreme right. Before he realized his miscalculation, he was arrested, held in solitary confinement for eleven years and then shot in Buchenwald.

In the 1990s, the people of the Balkans put their faith in leaders like Serbia's Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić who led the region into ethnic cleansing, genocide, NATO bombing and bloody war for a decade. In 1999, the people of Venezuela, desperate and vengeful after being ignored by their politicians for years, turned the reigns of their country over to former coup leader Hugo Chávez, his successor Nicolás Maduro and their “Bolivarian revolution.” They haven’t gotten it back since.

In Cuba, where I have spent a lot of time and which has its own experience with strongmen promising to expunge a collective grievance through a cleansing release of violence, after the 1959 overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the new government, led by Fidel Castro, executed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people tied to the ancien régime after only the most summary trials (and many with no trial at all). Whether all or even most of them were guilty will never be known. The cry of paredón (to the wall) resounded, and the will of the maximum leader had to be obeyed. Today, one can still visit El Morro, where so many of them died, and El Capitolio, where Cuba’s congress met and debated, but which was shuttered after 1959, and remains so to this day.

Now, at another time, in another place, that cry raises its sanguinary voice again, with  calls for political opponents to be jailed, for journalists to be arrested and killed, for desperate people who could just as easily be any one of us to be described in terms of vermin and plague and for those who speak out against this rhetoric of terrorism to be attacked and battered into submission.

When things like this start, at first it might be the opposition party that is sent to the wall. It might be Jewish journalists, or Muslims, or Latinos or immigrants. But one of these days, not too long from now, the mob will scream for blood and it will be someone you love who is brought to the wall, for some transgression real or imagined. It might even be you. In my 20 years as a journalist I’ve seen it in countless countries before. People think it can’t happen here, but it can.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Tucydides discussed a reinvention of vocabulary for the civil war in Corcyra that went thusly:

What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfit for action.

So what is the solution to all of this, when we’re confronted with such cruelty and brutal machinery - when things like building tent camps in the desert for children who have been forcibly separated from their parents and calling journalists “enemies of the people” - a direct reference to genocidal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin - have become normalized?

One of the writers who had the biggest influence on me over the years was the British author George Orwell. A lot of people know his anti-totalitarian fables 1984 and Animal Farm, perhaps fewer his gripping account of fighting against the forces of fascism during the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, and perhaps still fewer his 1937 study of the living conditions among the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of England, The Road to Wigan Pier. But there are some words from that book that I think are worth reading here tonight

The people who have got to act together are all those who cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the rent. This means that the small-holder has got to ally himself with the factory-hand, the typist with the coal-miner, the schoolmaster with the garage mechanic. There is some hope of getting them to do so if they can be made to understand where their interest lies….Poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain-pen.

I encourage all of you here to night to embrace the world as much as you can, not to shrink from it. Along with my time spent in distant lands, my view of the world and its struggles have been equally shaped by the books I have read, as literature as an art form, both fiction and non-fiction, can be a kind of pinnacle of dissent. Writers like Reinaldo Arenas, Marguerite Duras, Milan Kundera and Mario Vargas Llosa helped influence me and hone my analytical mind in a way that, say, engaging on Twitter does not.  And as the struggle to build a more decent and just world continues, I try to remember the words of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who, in her penultimate book, A hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star) wrote of her main character, Macabéa’s, struggle to survive in Rio de Janeiro, that “she saw among the stones lining the gutter the wisps of grass green as the most tender human hope.”

Don’t give up.

Thank you.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

San Juan’s Iconic La Perla Neighborhood Defies Trump

San Juan’s Iconic La Perla Neighborhood Defies Trump 

Battered by disasters natural and man-made, this ebullient Puerto Rico area refuses to give up or give in.

Michael Deibert

09.17.18 5:05 AM ET

The Daily Beast

(Read the original article here)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Just above the tumbling Caribbean surf in the San Juan neighborhood of La Perla, Antonio Rosario Fernández sips a beer after a day’s work and watches the sun begin its slow descent into the sea.

“We are in survival mode, here,” says Rosario, a 44-year-old salsa band leader sitting in a makeshift bar in what was once a home that was largely destroyed by Hurricane Maria last September. “This place was abandoned, with no light, no water and very little information, for a long time and there are still a lot of houses where people can’t live.”

One year after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths, this iconic neighborhood, nestled along a narrow band of land between the walls of the Castillo San Cristóbal and the ocean, is clawing its way back.

Its story says a lot about where Puerto Rico finds itself today.

First settled at the tail-end of the 19th century on the site of what was then a slaughterhouse, La Perla was initially home to many descendants of former slaves and poor arrivals from the countryside. Over the years, the neighborhood’s distinctive homes—first mere wooden shacks and now mainly concrete structures painted ebullient colors—became one of the iconic images of Puerto Rico.

The neighborhood was celebrated in a 1978 salsa song by Ismael Rivera, who praised the neighborhood’s “noble citizens” who “earn their bread with sweat” and whose “youth dream of tomorrow.” In 2009, the band Calle 13, whose members, like Rivera, did not themselves hail from the neighborhood, released their own song “La Perla” in collaboration with the Panamanian salsero Rubén Blades. Its hard-edged lyrics and joyful music capture something of the neighborhood’s never-say-die spirit. Perhaps most famously, the quarter served as the setting for the video of the song “Despacito,” by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee.

Despite its cultural heft, after Maria, the residents of La Perla felt largely abandoned by the federal and local governments, so residents had to pitch in and help one another.

“All of our community—adults, children, young people—had to come together to clean up after the storm,” says Sonia Viruet, 62, who has lived her whole live in the neighborhood. “We had aid from private agencies and artists like Luis Fonsi, but we didn’t get a lot of help from the federal government, the island government or the mayor’s office.”

According to Vivuet and other residents, people living in La Perla whose homes have been totally or partially destroyed have received sums as little as $1,000 to rebuild them from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been criticised for its slow and inefficient response to the hurricane.

A Department of Homeland Security document released earlier this week appeared to show that the Trump administration had siphoned off $10 million of FEMA’s funding and redirected it towards U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency currently under fire for its role in separating hundreds of immigrant children from their families.

A FEMA spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Privacy Act restrictions prevented them from releasing information specific to the neighborhood, but that more than $65 million has been approved for the municipality of San Juan under FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program.

While residents are furious at the feds, they are also unhappy with local leaders like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whose offices are in the Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) neighborhood next to La Perla. Cruz gained international fame for strongly criticizing Trump’s callous indifference to the storm’s human cost, which he reaffirmed this week by lying about the storm’s death toll, and the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria, Back home, however, some see her as having been largely absent since, politicking and appearing with Democratic Party luminaries on the mainland.

“The government gave us nothing, not the federal government nor the municipal government,” says La Perla resident Irma Navarez Gonzalez, 56. “The military helped us when they were here, but the government,  in general, we haven’t really seen them.”

Cruz’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The island’s internal politics—with some like Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s party favoring full statehood for the island, and others favoring a continuation of its current Commonwealth status and still others favoring independence—may go part of the way to explain the atmosphere of mutual recrimination. In the most recent plebiscite on the issue, held last year, 97 percent voted for statehood, but only 23 percent of eligible voters participated, a historic low for such a vote.

One issue that is particularly galling, say residents, is the federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which was established in 2016 to combat the island’s $70 billion debt. The FOMB has the power to unilaterally impose austerity measures on the island and has consistently pushed for secrecy to the point of being reprimanded by federal judges for failing to comply with the island’s local disclosure requirements.

“We are getting deeper into the colonial relationship and they’re not solving that lack of democracy,” says Juan Ruiz-Robles, a 31-year-old vacation rental property manager who lives in Old San Juan and helped set up a soup kitchen in La Perla after the storm. “Nobody voted for [the FOMB], it’s completely undemocratic.”

La Perla may be struggling, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made in today’s Puerto Rico. A few hundred yards away, in Old San Juan, where cruise ships began docking only three months after the storm, the streets have been restored to something resembling their former glory, with gaggles of tourists passing in front of its ornate colonial building and dining in its varied restaurants.

The incentives for mainlanders to do business in Puerto Rico are substantial: Puerto Rico imposes no federal personal income taxes mor a capital gains tax and has tax incentives extremely favorable to U.S. businesses.  This past summer, Gov. Rosselló signed a bill to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) , the island’s power company and one of the largest public utilities in the United States. He also actively courted the tech sector as a way to bring investment to the island.

After the storm, a wave of investors and entrepreneurs with links to the cryptocurrency industry arrived in Puerto Rico from the mainland, their most visible representative being Brock Pierce, an eccentric former child actor who became a multimillionaire via the industry. As they rented out palatial buildings in Old San Juan and started speaking of how they were going to transform the island, ambitions that seemed to go beyond mere investing, this new form of capitalism seemed reminiscent to some of the old form of colonialism. The pushback was intense.

“We are infested with these people who think they are coming to save the primitive people of Puerto Rico who can’t get it together,” says Gabrielle Perez, 27, who works as a shop assistant in one of the stores selling trinkets to tourists in Old San Juan. “How dare you? It hurts, it’s insulting. They want this garden and they see us as the weeds.”

For their part, the new flock on investors insist they come in peace.

"I'm aware that the crypto community came down here without a well thought-out game plan," says Adam Krim, Acting Executive Director of the Restart One Foundation, which describes itself as a non-profit organization supporting the redevelopment of Puerto Rico and which was largely seed-funded by Pierce. "Nonetheless, they came down with the proper intention. We’re in the process of building that trust, which is going to take time.”

But in a country whose present was almost erased by a monstrous storm and whose past is so often badly understood by the mainland, nearby La Perla remains stubbornly, emphatically Puerto Rican.
For years, investors and developers have looked upon La Perla’s enviable seaside location and salivated with plans about how to redevelop the place. But its residents have remained planted where they are, through good times and bad.

On a recent night, people sat in a little park beneath the colonial castle’s walls, laughing and talking as the sound of crashing waves echoed nearby. The strains of salsa and reggaeton weaved through the palm fronds of the moonlit trees.

“This kind of life…” said Juan Ruiz-Robles, the property manager who helped run the soup kitchen after the storm, as he took in the scene. “This is a kind of resistance.”

Friday, September 21, 2018

Trump Says Puerto Rico Is ‘Unsung Success.’ Actually, Power Still Goes Out and People Aren’t Coming Back.

Trump Says Puerto Rico Is ‘Unsung Success.’ Actually, Power Still Goes Out and People Aren’t Coming Back.

Thanks to FEMA’s fumbling response, the island isn’t back to normal a year after Hurricane Maria.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Thoughts on the passing of Senator John McCain

Do not take at face value those who claim to be for human rights, as so many of those criticizing the late U.S. Senator John McCain do, if they nevertheless stood silently by as Muammar Gaddafi terrorized & pauperized Libya for decades and, through his support of armed groups like the the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and the Tajammu al-Arabi (later the Janjaweed) in Sudan's Darfur, probably killed more black Africans than any one single person since King Leopold.

 Do not take at face value the claims of those who say that foreign policy should be approached from a position of respect, who paternalistically and dishonestly argue that Arabs are subject to "age old" enmities and thus "aren't ready" for democracy in places like Bahrain or Egypt.

Do not take at face value people the claims of those who argue they stand up for the sacredness of national borders but nevertheless, at best, sat silent and often actively applauded as the Assad crime family in Syria invited the Russians, Iranians and Lebanese onto Syrian territory to aid in its ghastly slaughter of people who, when they first rose up in 2011, simply demanded to be able to chose democratically who governs them (and if anybody doubts that, read the reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from 2011/2012 or books like The Impossible Revolution by Yassin al-Haj Saleh or Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab & Leila Al-Shami).

John McCain was a very flawed politician, as he would have been the first to admit, and his flaws were often reflected in his politics. But as the world stood by and watched the dream of Syrian democracy get extinguished by Russian bombing in places like Aleppo, by chemical weapons in places like Talmenes, Sarmin, Qmenas & Khan Sheikhoun, by mass murder in Assad's death camps such asthe Saydnaya military prison, John McCain stood - and remained - on the right side of history, with the people of Syria, who have now seen that flicker of freedom that first grew visible seven years ago all but vanish. It was our generation's Guernica, and most politicians - including Barack Obama, who I voted for twice - blew it. John McCain did not.

So here lies John McCain, imperfect American, Navy veteran, public servant, and friend - when so many of my fellow self-described progressives were not - to the people of Syria. Perhaps when he gets to the other side he can talk to so many of the Syrians already there about what that meant.

Friday, July 20, 2018

What Lies Behind the Unrest in Haiti?

What Lies Behind the Unrest in Haiti?

By Michael Deibert

As soon as Brazil went down in defeat to Belgium in the World Cup earlier this month, the barricades began to appear. In Haiti, a football-loving country whose fans are divided between passionate supporters of Brazil and Argentina, the government of President Jovenel Moïse had just announced an end to subsidies in the price of fuel. Part of the terms of a deal hammered out with the International Monetary Fund earlier this year, the move set prices to skyrocket overnight, with the price of petrol set to increase by 38%. In a country where World Bank figures put more than more than 6 million of Haiti’s nearly 11 million people living on less than US$2.41 per day, the news was too much to bear.

Along with the de rigueur forms of protest - burning tires and barricades made of tree branches, cement blocks and other cast off material - there was very targeted violence, as well. The Delimart, a grocery store along the busy Route de Delmas thoroughfare, was looted and burned. In Pétionville, a once-tony enclave in the hills above the city now ringed with bidonvilles (slums), a mob marched to the glittering Best Western, a favored locale for international diplomats and businesspeople, and shattered its windows and glass facade with hurled stone before moving on to another target. Scores of cars were not stolen, but were set aflame instead, as a kind of smoldering, stygian warning. By Saturday night, the government had reversed itself, indefinitely suspending the fuel hike, and there were calls for Moïse’s Prime Minister, Jack Guy Lafontant, to resign. This past weekend, he did just that.

Less than a year after the end of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH,  after a 13 year presence in the country (which saw, among other distinctions, the unintentional bringing of a cholera epidemic to Haiti by UN troops) and a little over a year since Jovenel Moïse assumed office, Haiti’s political demons, somewhat dormant in recent months, appear animated again. The question is, why now?

Moïse became president as the candidate of the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), the political current founded by the man who preceded him in that office, Michel Martelly, a famous crooner of Haiti’s konpa music and better known by his nickname, Sweet Micky (Tèt Kale means “bald head” in Haiti’s poetic Creole language and refers to Martelly’s gleaming pate). Like a number of political currents before them including the Lespwa (Hope) coalition of the late René Préval (whose second term as president spanned 2006 to 2011) and the Fanmi Lavalas party of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (whose 2004 overthrow precipitated MINUSTAH’s deployment), PHTK is a juggernaut of opportunistic political operators less focused on a rigid ideology than on ambition, personal and political. Though both Martelly and Moïse worked mightily to bring foreign investment to Haiti, they have done so in a political atmosphere of rampant cronyism and corruption (a value judgment that includes the country’s bi-cameral parliament and opposition as well as the executive) and lingering questions about how $2 billion of money linked to the Venezuelan Petrocaribe fuel program - overseen by Préval and then Martelly - was spent.

Despite the ostensible return to Haiti of democracy more than a decade ago, life for the average Haitian continues to be a series of grinding endeavors to stay just out of the jaws of destitution. Though it is often loathe to issue a mea culpa, the policies of the international community have often contributed to this despair.

In the early 1980s, a U.S.-Canadian funded program killed most of the country’s pigs due to worries they might be infected with African swine fever, and only haphazardly replaced them. A draconian World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment program of austerity and privatization in the mid 1990s lowered the tariff on imported rice from 50 percent to 3 percent, effectively destroying the ability of Haiti’s domestic rice producers to be competitive. For years, assistance to Haiti’s beleaguered agricultural sector has often been only a fraction of its total foreign aid, leading to an influx of internal migrants to cities around the country, especially the capital, Port-au-Prince, where many of them died in Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

Much has been made of the muted response by the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH), Haiti’s national police force, to the violence. This is doubtless due to at least in part to the prickly relationship between Moïse and PNH chief Michel-Ange Gédéon, whose authority Moïse appeared to undercut with a controversial May decree. Though though many rank and file members of the PNH work diligently for meagre pay under grueling conditions, the moral of the body is constantly undermined by politicians who pay armed actors around the country (referred to as the baz, or base) to commit violence and deliver votes at election time.

Though the use of irregular armed partisans dates back in Haiti at least to the reign of Faustin Soulouque, who ruled from 1847 to 1859, the practice became part of the country’s political DNA during  the 1957-1986 Duvalier family dictatorship (whose milita was the feared Tontons Macoutes) and Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s truncated 2001 to 2004 term (in the shape of quite young gunmen referred to as chimere, after a mythical fire-breathing demon) and now has metastasized down to the most local level. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant.

Set in the southern hills above the capital, Martissant has been carved into smaller zones of influence for various baz leaders, with names such as Ti Bois (Little Woods) and the self-explanatory Grand Ravine. In 2012, a young policeman named Walky Calixte was slain in the zone. Despite what a judge said were phone records linking two parliamentarians - Rodriguez Séjour and M’Zounaya Bellange Jean-Baptiste - to the crime and police protests, Haiti’s parliament refused to lift their colleagues’ immunity and the killers were never brought to justice. When a former Grand Ravine baz leader, Romelien Saint Jean (also known as Tèt Kale though not directly affiliated with the PHTK), was released from prison last month and tried to reassert control, he was slain by his successor, bearing the nom de guerre Bougoy, who has also been linked to the disappearance of Haitian journalist Vladimir Legagneur this past March. Much of the violence in the zone is believed linked to positioning ahead of elections scheduled for next year.

Their families driven into the capital’s slums years ago by the destructive policies foisted upon the country by outside entities, the baz has shown they are still a potent tool in the hands of actors, public and hidden, in Haiti’s political firmament, as an anecdote told to me by a friend in Haiti amid this week’s violence makes clear.

A mob arrived to set fire to a businesses by the house of a woman she knew. Some people from the neighborhood came out to talk with them and to ask them to not go through with it as the building was near a bunch of homes that could have caught fire. After listening to them, the leaders of the mob told the residents they were “sorry” but “we have a job to do and we have to go through with it."

Michael Delbert is the author of Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History (Zed Books) and is a Visiting Scholar at Franklin & Marshall College.

Monday, June 25, 2018

On the Ground With Cops Hunting El Salvador’s Gangs

04.30.18 5:23 AM ET

On the Ground With Cops Hunting El Salvador’s Gangs

Police and soldiers are fighting an endless war against groups like MS-13 and Barrio 18. Can God sort out what the cops have failed to do?

Michael Deibert

The Daily Beast

(Read the original article here)

PANCHIMALCO, El Salvador—Under a blanket of stars on a forested hillside overlooking a series of deep ravines, four policemen hop off the back of a pickup truck and rendezvous with colleagues—another policeman and three soldiers—guarding a school in this gang-ridden suburb of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.

A day earlier, responding to reports of gunfire, police arrived in the neighborhood to encounter a group of armed members of Barrio 18, one of El Salvador’s two largest gangs. After an exchange of fire, police said, three of the young men lay dead.

“They were trying to flee and this is where we encountered them,” says the commander from the Sección Táctica Operativa (STO) of El Salvador’s Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) as his men, toting U.S.-made M16s, set up a perimeter.

“The more we apply pressure, the more the gangsters are forced to flee,” said the commander, going on to explain the region’s complex topography. “Here, this whole area belongs to Barrio 18, but over there, beyond that hill, is MS-13 territory.”

For the last 25 years, the state in El Salvador has fought a roiling war against two gangs, Barrio 18 and MS-13 (also known as Mara Salvatrucha), both with their rough-hewn roots on the streets of Los Angeles, California, where thousands of Salvadorans sought refuge during the country’s 1980 to 1992 civil war.
Eventually, the guns fell silent after peace accords were signed and the combatants of the right wing and left wing decided to resolve their differences via electoral politics rather than military means as the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) and Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), respectively.

The two main gangs, however, continued to thrive as many of their founding members were deported from the United States to El Salvador, a country many barely knew.

From street corner toughs, Barrio 18 (in recent years, further factionalized into two groupings, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and Barrio 18 Sureños) and MS-13 have developed into international criminal enterprises and an alluring target for the rhetorical flourishes of self-proclaimed law-and-order politicians in both El Salvador and the United States, including Donald Trump.

The impact they have had here, not just in the urban core of the cities but in areas like Panchimalco, a semi-forested working class suburb on the city’s southern fringes, has been profound.

Many in this part of the capital are descendants of the Pipil indigenous inhabitants who populated the area when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. These verdant hills were once famed not for violence but for natural beauty spots, while the towns were known for colonial architecture, such as the Iglesia de la Santa Cruz de Roma cathedral in Panchimalco’s central square, and handicrafts.

Today, the police commissariat here is in charge of patrolling the area covered by five separate municipalities, with a total population of around 161,000 people. For the 520 policemen tasked with enforcing the law here (assisted by about 150 soldiers of El Salvador’s army), there are, according to police estimates, nearly 3,000 gang members: 1,746 from MS-13, 671 from Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and 379 from Barrio 18 Sureños. Nearly 900 of the gangsters are believed to be based within Panchimalco itself. Last year, the area saw at least 23 homicides, but the habit of the gangs (referred to in Spanish as pandillas) of dismembering and disappearing their victims make exact numbers hard to come by.
The four police guarding the school in Panchimalco—all of whom look barely out of their teens—seem to see this situation as ordinary.

“This is normal for us,” says one police officer, a fringe of mustache on his upper lip. “This is simply our job.”

Although the forces of the state heavily outgun the gangs—the response of the pandillas when the police move in on their turf is to hide rather than confront—the situation in Panchimalco suggests a shift in way crime in El Salvador organizes itself.

“In 2000, the normal pattern was to have the gangs and criminality in general in urban zones, but in recent years, especially the last three years or so, these phenomena are more or less at the same level in both urban and rural zones,” says Howard Cotto, the PNC’s director general. “The zones within the urban districts, but close to rural parts of the country, are where the gangs have proliferated the most. They have the opportunity to be in contact with a large population, but in situations where, when the police arrive, they can flee to a rural zone.”

This is not a battle for the faint of heart. Last year, El Salvador, a country of around 6.5 million people saw 3,947 homicides, a shocking number that averages out to about 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, though it actually represented a steep drop from the 2016 rate of 81.2 per 100,000. Increasingly, uninvolved civilians find themselves caught up in the mix.

In 2016, a clique of Barrio 18 Sureños filmed themselves slaughtering three day laborers and eight workers of an electric company in the town of Opico, northeast of the capital. More than 40 of those killed last year were police officers. Nor do the police themselves have a spotless record. In recent years, police were linked to extrajudicial killings in at least two departments: La Libertad, were eight people were slain on a farm in San Blas de San José Villanueva, and in Panchimalco itself, were five people were slain in the Los Pajales district.

“Initially, many of the gangs had a similar concept of defending their barrios and communities against other gangs while being against the system at the same time,” says Cotto. “Now they’ve realized the economic value of drug trafficking, extortion, robbery, and they place an economic value on the control of their territory. This is a vision of organized crime.”

Some argue for a holistic approach.

“I don’t like gangs at all, but you have to remember something,” says San Salvador’s outgoing mayor, Nayib Bukele, who took office as part of the ruling FMLN in 2015 but has since been expelled from the party and become a fierce critic of both it and ARENA. “If you see, out of 70,000 or so gang members, there’s not one that comes from a high-income family, why? If it’s a crime problem, wouldn’t all members of society be involved? You can find drug dealers in low-, middle- and high-income families, the same with murderers… It’s not whether you have money or not that defines you as a criminal. So why does being a gang member involve being poor? It’s obviously a social problem. So you have to fix that in order to fix the problem.”

During his mayorship as the capital’s mayor, Bukele reached out to heretofore marginalized young Salvadorans—graffiti artists, hiphop emcees, skateboarders and others—as a way to lure them away from the call of the gangs. He invited them, among other initiatives, to participate in painting enormous murals on the side of the Mercado Cuscatlán, a recently opened market in the city’s urban core, and in a special football program with La Liga, the top professional association men’s division of the Spanish football system.

“Do you think those kids are going to join a gang? Or these kids who paint graffiti murals and now have thousands of followers on Instagram?” asks Bukele. “If you open the world to them, they wouldn’t join a gang. Infrastructure is important, but we try to include all of these people. You should have opportunities in life without joining a gang. Here, the only way for a lot of kids to be someone—in a bad way—is to join a gang.”

The city, however, remains a patchwork of neighborhoods under control of one or the other of the country’s main criminal factions. In Colonial Modelo, where a museum housed on the grounds of a former army base pays tribute to such sanguinary figures from El Salvador’s civil war as Domingo Monterrosa (the driving force behind the 1981 massacre in the village of El Mozote), the zone’s eponymous main thoroughfare divides Barrio 18 on the north side from MS-13 on the south side. Even the tony Colonia San Benito, which hosts the city’s Zona Rosa nightlife and hotel district, boasts an active Barrio 18 faction wedged in between its bars and restaurants.

In the capital’s Colonia Dina, a group of former Barrio 18 members, most of them recently released from prison, labor in a bakery under the watchful eye of Pastor Nelson Moz of the Iglesia Bautista Misionera Ebenezer.

“I was born in Usulután, but came to the capital with my family when I was 8 or 9 years old because of the civil war,” says Saúl, a 37-year-old former Barrio 18 member. “I was living in Apopa. For 10 years, my life was in the street, with the pandilla. Then at 19 years old, I went to prison, and I was there for 15 years and I just got out six months ago. In 2010, my mom, who used to visit me in jail, died. And then God was the only one there for me… I have a year and eight months of being a Christian now and have left the gang and I only want to serve God. A lot of us here don’t have anywhere to go. Thank God the pastor opened these doors to us.”

The pastor views his work among the gangs as central to the type of evangelical Christianity that he practices.

“Historically, this is a community with a strong presence of the gangs,’ says 55-year-old Moz, whose church runs the bakery. “We needed to open our doors and provide an option other than delinquency. A lot of these guys have nothing. A lot of people think they are monsters, or machines of destruction, but they’re human beings, they have souls, they’ve made grave mistakes in their lives, but they need this opportunity.”

Security forces take a dimmer view of the 13 former gang members—many of them heavily tattooed with gang insignias—who live here, and several told a visiting journalist that the bakery is regularly harassed by police who enter it without a warrant to question and otherwise disturb those seeking refuge.

The depth of the pastor’s commitment to his new charges is attested to by the fact that the world between the gangs and the organizations seeking to help them can be a complicated one, and the consequences for those seen by the state as falling on the wrong side are severe.

After his release from prison in 2006, Dany Balmore Romero García, a former MS-13 member known to most by his previous moniker, Danny Boy, became deeply involved in a non-governmental organization—Optimismo, Paz, Esperanza, Renovación y Armonía (Optimism, Peace, Hope, Renewal and Harmony or OPERA)—that sought to provides a creative outlet and counseling to gang members. But in 2016 Romero García was arrested on terrorism charges after the government accused him of using the organization as a front for gang activities. He is now held incommunicado in a maximum security prison.

In Soyapango, a gritty suburb on the city’s eastern fringe, neighborhoods serve as bastions for three main criminal organizations: MS-13, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and a new group referring to itself as Mao Mao.

“There is a very large presence of the gangs here,” says Soyapango’s police chief, Romeo Lazo. “When people—not police but civilians—not local to a neighborhood enter, they are immediately intercepted, interrogated and sometimes robbed. There are a number of abandoned houses here, too.”

Noting that MS-13 is the strongest and “most bloody” faction in the zone, Lazo goes on to explain that, as in Panchimalco “we have a permanent presence of police in schools during class hours and patrols on the routes students take to and from school. We are trying to approach this from both a repression and prevention perspective, with recreational activities and other things for the youth, as well.”

Away from the police station, in Soyapango’s 22 de Abril neighborhood district, graffiti from MS-13 can still be seen daubed onto the walls on squat cement homes clinging to a hillside as a contingent of STO officers rumbles slowly through in search of a suspect. They quiz one young man because of his very stylish and very new sneakers. They check his identification for outstanding warrants. It turns out he lived for years in Virginia, and speaks passable English.

“There are a lot of guys deported from the United States in this zone,” says the STO team’s leader. “One of the gang’s objectives is always to extend their territory, and as a result there are a lot of the battles between them.”

Many Salvadorans are exhausted by the grinding violence and perplexed by the government’s often schizophrenic approach to it.

Under the government of President Mauricio Funes (the first FMLN candidate to win the post, in 2009), a murky 2012 truce was hammered out between the gangs and endorsed by the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States. The killing diminished but the gang’s other criminal activities, such as extortion, continued unabated and a steady stream of reports depicted a lavish lifestyle for gang leaders in prison.

Funes’ successor as president, the FMLN’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander, took office in June 2012 and threw the truce out, and many of those who negotiated it were put on trial for conspiring with the gangs (all were acquitted). Funes fled to Nicaragua in 2016 and has subsequently been convicted of illicit enrichment.

Accusations of links of politicians to the gangs continue. During the campaign for the mayorship of San Salvador earlier this year, the FMLN’s candidate, Jackeline Rivera, suspended her campaign after what were said to be threats emanating from MS-13.

An MS-13 leader later claimed, in a testimony presented to the public prosecutor’s office, that the group had supported the ARENA candidate for the post, Ernesto Muyshondt, who had given them “tens of thousands” of dollars in previous years which they then used to buy cocaine. Muyshondt denies this.

At the Iglesia Bautista Misionera Eben-ezer, though, those who are trying to extract themselves from the cycle of violence and rejoin the straight and narrow path that leads to something like a normal life continue to persevere despite their long odds.

“I lost my family, I lost my son, I lost my woman, I lost everything,” says Saúl, the former member of Barrio 18. “I have friends who have gone back to the pandillas, but in reality nothing good will come of that. I hope they will open their eyes.”

Michael Deibert is an author, journalist and Visiting Scholar at Franklin & Marshall College.