Monday, October 28, 2019

Jacmel in all my dreams

The author at Ti Mouillage outside of Jacmel, Haiti, November 2002.

Jacmel in all my dreams

By Michael Deibert

“At All Hallows Eve, the Guédé spirits of the dead overrun the countryside and towns,” wrote the Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux  in his pioneering 1958 study Le Vaudou haïtien.“Clad in black and mauve, people possessed by them may be met not only in the sanctuaries but also in the markets, public places and on the roads.”

The name given to a family of vodou lwa (spirits) that embody the power of death and fertility (and the interlocking relationship between the two), the pantheon of Gede (as it is spelled in Haiti’s native Creole language) also give their name to Fèt Gede, the time on 2 November when, as Métraux noted, the power of the spirits and those “ridden” (possessed, if you will) by them burst forth from the peristyles (temples) of Haiti’s vodou faith and into its cemeteries, streets and squares.

In November 2002, I was living in Haiti and the country was, as is often the case, in the thrall of a political crisis that would see the ouster of a despotic president a year and a half later. Various political factions stood, daggers drawn, waiting for the final dénouement.  As the political situation deteriorated and Fèt Gede approached, a friend from New York came to visit me, and we decided that we would spent part of the weekend outside the southern town of Jacmel, where I rented a cottage by the ocean.

Haiti’s history may have been a relentless drumbeat of tumult, but Jacmel, looking out to the sea and ringed by mysterious, looming mountains, its colonial architecture falling into deliquescent disrepair and wreathed in dripping greenery, had always seemed to maintain some semblance of equilibrium among the chaos.

After the decisive defeat of the French by Haiti’s revolutionary forces at the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803 and the declaration of Haiti’s independence on 1 January 1804 (the second nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States to do so), Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared himself emperor before being slain in October 1806. After the death of Dessalines, Haiti’s black and mulatto tensions erupted anew, with Henri Christophe controlling the north and crowning himself King Henry I, building an extraordinary palace, Sans-Souci, modeled on Versailles, and a massive fort, Citadelle Laferrière, from which to survey the entirety of the northern plains. In the south, Alexandre Pétion ruled a mulatto-dominated government of a less imperial nature and gave refuge in Jacmel to South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar as the latter plotted his campaign to liberate his own region from Spanish colonial rule.

Jacmel remained one of Haiti’s most iconic towns, hosting its most colorful carnival and serving as the setting for, among other books, René Depestre’s 1988 novel Hadriana dans tous mes rêves, a magic realist and often intensely poignant tale of eroticism and vodou.

For me, at least, especially during my early years in Haiti, the city was always associated with an eccentric American named Selden Rodman.

A writer and critic born in New York City in 1909, Rodman had written a play, The Revolutionists, about Haiti’s slave uprising and along with De Witt Peters, had opened the Centre D’Art, Haiti’s first professional art school, in 1944. He had helped supervise the covering of the interior of Port-au-Prince’s Cathédrale Sainte Trinité with stunning murals by eminent Haitian painters like Wilson Bigaud and Philomé Obin depicting Biblical scenes such as a black John the Baptist and a near-nude Adam and Eve with an apple and a snake in between them. On my first visit to Haiti in 1997,  I wandered around the steaming, fume-choked lanes of anba lavil, as Haitians call downtown, and strolled into the chapel, mesmerized by the art I found there. [The Cathédrale Sainte Trinité was destroyed in Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake].

After that first trip, I returned to New York, where I was living at the time, and eventually looked Rodman up and took the bus out to visit him at his home in Oakland, New Jersey. Elderly but still vigorous, he shared rum punch with me after he came into his ranch-style home from a game of tennis. The house, which he shared with his wife Carole, was adorned from floor to ceiling with Haitian canvases, exquisite examples of work by painters such as Stevenson Magloire, and Magloire’s mother, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, one of the members of the highly regarded Saint-Soleil art movement in Haiti. Still quite lucid, he regaled my with stories of his years in Haiti, and spoke fondly of the rambling colonial house he had maintained for years on Jacmel’s Rue du Commerce which, after he had stopped visiting regularly, had been turned into a guest house, the Hotel Florita. Speaking to him, I had the sensation of being in the presence of a living link to Haiti’s past. As I left him with his memories in the gathering dusk to head back to Brooklyn, I wondered how much of his soul the old man had left back in Haiti.

During my years living in Haiti, first as a correspondent for Reuters and then as a freelance journalist, I developed a deep affection for Jacmel, and frequently stayed at the Hotel Florita, which often appeared otherwise nearly unoccupied. Eventually, along with a French photographer friend, I began renting a small beach cottage in the town of Ti Mouillage just outside Jacmel, where I would go on weekends to seek respite from Haiti’s chaotic political climate, swimming in the Caribbean or reading in a hammock amid the incessant crashing of waves nearby.

So it was to Jacmel my friend and I decided to travel on Fèt Gede. After spending much of 1 November in the Grand Cimetière in Port-au-Prince - a sign at whose entrance helpfully reminded Souviens—Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere (Remember you are dust) - interacting with Gede adherents in various states of exultation, we drove south, through a light rain in the mountains that eventually cleared to reveal Jacmel, glittering like a jewel by the sea.

We spent much of that evening at a vodou ceremony in the countryside, returning to Ti Mouillage to fell asleep to the churning sea. Awakening the next morning, we drove into Jacmel. We parked our car and approached the Hotel Florita.

As we walked through the hotel, on this day eerily empty, all the doors and windows were open and white curtains fluttered in through the doors on the breeze from the Bay of Jacmel, as if airing out before its owner returned from a long absence. The moss and vines in the courtyard hung with melancholy, and my friend and I kept close to one another as we walked through the rooms and looked down from the balcony onto a deserted street.
After returning to Port-au-Prince, and following a drive during which we both felt compelled to comment on the the melancholy, sapient aura that filled the house on Rue du Commerce, we found out that Selden Rodman had died the very afternoon we were walking through the Florita. Perhaps, we thought, the presence we had felt had been the ghost of Selden Rodman, after all, come back at long last to Haiti to be among the lwa on this of all days.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

“Es claro que tenemos a un presidente que ve de forma diferente a las personas que no son blancas”

28 September 2019

“Es claro que tenemos a un presidente que ve de forma diferente a las personas que no son blancas”

Por José Javier Pérez

El Nuevo Día

(Read the original article

El periodista estadounidense residente en Puerto Rico, Michael Deibert, documentó las secuelas del huracán María en el libro "When the Sky Fell"

Winter Park, Florida.– Ver que tanta gente murió innecesariamente durante la secuela del huracán María detonó en la mente y corazón del periodista Michael Deibert la necesidad de plasmar lo ocurrido en Puerto Rico a partir de aquel 20 de septiembre de 2017.

Para este escritor norteamericano, de 46 años, documentar las secuelas de María era un asunto de honor. Se trataba de una historia que debía quedar plasmada en el eterno récord que permite el lenguaje escrito para dejar claro que, si bien ese huracán causó un desastre devastador, ya en la Isla coexistía un catálogo de problemas que el ciclón colocó en una vitrina internacional.

La relación colonial de Puerto Rico con Estados Unidos, que los boricuas son ciudadanos americanos de segunda clase, y la decepción nacional que los partidos políticos puertorriqueños tradicionales han sembrado en la Isla durante las últimas décadas son algunos de esos problemas que saltan en “When the Sky Fell”, cuya presentación ocurrió anoche sábado en el establecimiento Stardust Video & Coffee en la ciudad de Winter Park.

El tema isleño no es abstracto para Deibert. Conoce Puerto Rico por sus viajes frecuentes a la Isla, porque sus abuelos vivían en Mayagüez y porque desde mayo ubicó su residencia en el Viejo San Juan, en un lugar entre la Calle Sol y la Calle Cruz. Actualmente labora como reportero del Caribe para Bloomberg.

El “#RickyRenuncia” fue en realidad un proceso de catarsis colectiva a través de la cual los residentes exorcizaron los demonios que venían acumulando desde mucho tiempo atrás, dijo el escritor en una breve conversación con El Nuevo Día previo a la presentación de su libro.

Deibert fue claro en expresar que la devastación que dejó María se convirtió en una catástrofe mucho mayor cuando la ayuda que Puerto Rico esperaba del gobierno de Estados Unidos nunca llegó, y sugirió que esta escasa o nula respuesta estuvo motivada por la visión prejuiciada del presidente Donald Trump.

“Es claro que tenemos a un presidente que ve de forma diferente a las personas que no son blancas”, dijo. “La respuesta fue nula o escasa y hubo miles de personas que murieron y que no debieron haber muerto. Es algo que no se debe olvidar”, dijo.

Es claro también que, a dos años del paso de ese ciclón, la Isla aún atraviesa las secuelas tempestuosas de ese evento, especialmente en el tema político. Según dijo, hay un desencanto general con los partidos políticos tradicionales y esto es especialmente entre la gente joven”, comentó.

“Hay que ver qué pasará en Puerto Rico en las próximas elecciones. ¿Habrá la misma energía que se generó cuando se logró sacar el gobernador (Ricardo Rosselló)? ¿Se traducirá esa militancia en una fuerza política?”, se preguntó Deibert quien como periodista ha escrito sobre Puerto Rico, Haití y otros países latinoamericanos.

Entre sus publicaciones están "Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti"; “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair"; “In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico”; y “Haiti will not Perish: A Recent History”.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

When the Sky Fell Gives Voice to Puerto Ricans Two Years After Hurricane Maria

When the Sky Fell Gives Voice to Puerto Ricans Two Years After Hurricane Maria


SEPTEMBER 24, 2019

The Miami New Times

(Read original article here)

(Photo by Rachel Templeton)

Three weeks after catastrophic Category Five Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, investigative journalist Michael Deibert traveled to the island to survey the damage. He was planning on writing a series of articles on the recovery efforts — and the shocking lack thereof.

Deibert had grown up listening to his grandfather’s stories of the island, a Lutheran Minister who lived in Mayagüez for three years and ran tutoring programs for neighborhood children. He heard of the shaded coconut palms, the lime trees, and the apricot sunsets. In 2010, he visited for the first time as& the debt crisis began to spiral, and the class divide became even more pronounced. Like many before him, he was wowed by the variety of topography and how quickly you could go from Old San Juan to the middle of the lush mountains. But, this time in 2017, Deibert was greeted with the aftermath of nature’s wrath. Telephone poles sliced through homes and old school buses were left upside down by the wind “like a child’s toy.” It was a far cry from his grandfather’s idyllic memories.

Deibert recounts these experiences and decades of political and cultural dissent in his latest book, When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico, which made the New York Post's list of best books of the week, and will be the topic of conversation at Books & Books in Coral Gables Thursday, September 26. The book exposes the fraught relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, tracing as far back as 1493 when Christopher Columbus set a precedent of colonialism and ending on the cusp of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s ousting which erupted this July and bled into August.

“You can see a lot of the buildup that led to people not being able to take it anymore with the release of the texts,” says Deibert of the political scandal that led to Governor Rossello's resignation. “If you’re 25 years old in Puerto Rico or younger, your entire life has been austerity, it has been a recession, and then the horror of Maria, and the aftermath. No wonder people were fed up.” 

Protests erupted on the streets in July after sexist and homophobic text messages from the ex-governor surfaced, and after days of dissent, the embattled Governor Rossello resigned from the office his father, Pedro Rossello once held. But, the succession process was not any less beleaguered. Protestors marched to the governor’s residence, La Fortaleza, singing the national anthem.

“At one point there were three governors in a week,” says Deibert. “I think what happened this past summer was this intense collective catharsis. I think there is so much trauma that has been foisted on Puerto Rico over the past few years and people have to remember that before Maria, people were leaving en masse to move to the mainland. You’d drive around the island, and you’d have these towns that were being depopulated, full of shuttered stores and businesses. Whether or not [what happened this summer] can lead to the rearranging of the political order [on the mainland] I think is an open question — I think a lot of people hope that it does.”

Puerto Rico has been under the thumb of the United States since 1898 when it went from Spanish to US rule under the Treaty of Paris. Eventually, the Jones Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. But, the political status of Puerto Ricans remains a contentious issue. It is a Commonwealth controlled by the United States, but its citizens do not have a vote in US elections, nor does their representative have a vote in the US Congress.

“No one ever asked the Puerto Ricans if they wanted to become US citizens," says Deibert. "The island was just treated as war booty by the Americans after the Spanish American War, and I think in order to understand a lot of the ongoing dysfunction of the island, one has to reach back to that point. You don’t have to be an apologist for the independence movement to be able to recognize that the fact that three-however million Puerto Ricans are ultimately ruled by a US president and a US Congress that they have absolutely no recourse to, that they can't elect or vote out of office, that is profoundly undemocratic.”

Back in San Juan in 2017, Nydia Melendez-Rivas, a photographer native to Maunabo, joined Deibert and they interviewed locals who were left devastated where the Hurricane made landfall. One Friday afternoon, they arrived in the town of Aibonito. People were still recovering, but much of the town’s urban core had been able to restore electricity. Neighbors from the surrounding towns gathered to drink, eat, and blow off steam after a day of grueling physical labor salvaging their homes and neighborhoods. Later, in a restaurant in a converted colonial building, Deibert watched a band play Marc Anthony’s “Preciosa.” The crowd sang along, recounting all the wonders of the island. Ending with a bittersweet, “Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico.”

“In that moment, you saw the never-say-die spirit of Puerto Rico,” says Deibert. “As we drove out of town the next morning, I saw a banner strung outside of a shuttered escuela de danza. ‘Y si el cielo cae, bailo bajo la tormenta’ it read. 'And if the sky falls, dance under the storm.'”

The vitality instilled in the banner’s message and the resilience of Aibonito's people inspired the book’s title. Deibert weaves incisive history with on-the-ground reportage to explain why the US territory was so badly ignored by the federal government during the aftermath of Maria.

“I think with most Americans you have to start at the level of telling them Puerto Ricans are citizens. You have to start that low and build from there, so I hope this will help educate people on why things are the way they are out here,” says Deibert, who is now the Bloomberg Caribbean correspondent stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Deep in Old San Juan on the corner of Calle del Sol and Calle de la Cruz, there is an unassuming three-story bar where locals drink into the wee hours of the morning. But, in 1950, Nationalist Party President and leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Pedro Albizu Campos, called this place his home. This is where he spent years orchestrating the failed uprising that incited Nationalist revolt all across the island, all for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico. Today, the Nationalist Party headquarters and Campos’ home’s history is forgotten in the lull of music and mundane conversation over stiff drinks — except for a makeshift plaque dedicated to Campos. Deibert now lives across the street.

“I live across the street from the house [Campos] led [the uprising] in, what are the chances of that? It’s so strange,” says Deibert. “There’s a little plaque to him, but the building is not even a museum; it’s a bar. There’s a little plaque that says this is where Albizu Campos lived that looks like an individual put it up. It doesn’t look like an official mark. It's strange to me that it wouldn’t be a museum of the national patrimony. He played a pretty historical role whether you like him or not — he was a historical figure.”

As Deibert and Melendez-Rivas traversed the aftermath of Maria in Aibonito, they drove to a local gymnasium where a group of volunteers was working with the Puerto Rican National Guard to distribute food. Deibert writes that one guard was disappointed to learn he was not from FEMA.

“The thing I think that is really important: It wasn’t the storm that killed so many people here. It was the absolute lack of response on the part of the president, and it was the absolute lack of caring as people here were dying and dying and dying and he was sitting in his golf club in New Jersey and couldn’t care about it.”