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”.