Sunday, April 17, 2022

Restoring Glory to a Baltimore Neighborhood

Restoring Glory to a Baltimore Neighborhood

The Sandtown-Winchester area burst into America’s consciousness with the murder by police of Freddie Gray in 2015. But the struggle to recapture its greatness predates one unhappy Sunday morning

Michael Deibert

New Lines Magazine

(Read the original article here)

Humanity pulses like blood through a vein along West Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, a whirl of people moving beneath a cloud-dappled winter evening sky illuminated with blazes of crimson fire from the setting sun.

At the Avenue Bakery, Jim Hamlin is dishing out dinner rolls, Jewish apple cake and morsels of the history of the storied Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, whose trajectory mirrors that of many just like it around the United States.

“I was fortunate that I grew up on the cusp of segregation and integration,” says Hamlin, a 72-year-old who grew up in Sandtown and opened the bakery after working for UPS for 35 years. “Pennsylvania Avenue was the business district for this community. The Royal Theatre was still open and there was nothing but nightclubs, restaurants, barber shops, all the staples we needed in our community. Some were owned by African-Americans, some were owned by Jewish folks. It was the thriving entertainment center for Baltimore from the 1930s to the 1960s.”

Recent decades, however, have been less kind to Sandtown. The neighborhood erupted into the national consciousness following the April 2015 murder of Freddie Gray by officers of the Baltimore Police Department and subsequent protests that spiraled into riots that rocked the city. (Though Gray’s death was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner, attempts to prosecute the six officers involved ended in acquittal and dropping of the charges against them.)

But the story of Sandtown’s struggle long predates that early Sunday morning when the 25-year-old Gray’s path crossed with the police outside The Gilmor Homes, a now largely demolished public housing facility named after a wealthy merchant family that included a Confederate cavalry officer. Those struggles say much about the attitude of successive city, state and federal governments toward some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized people in the United States and the herculean efforts of those in the community to rescue it from the jaws of despair.

Settled by Europeans on what was largely a traditional Native American hunting ground in the second half of the 1600s, Baltimore soon boomed thanks to extensive trade with Britain’s sugar-producing Caribbean colonies in products such as grain and tobacco, the commerce facilitated by the extensive use of an economic model based on slavery. Decades after the U.S. won its independence from Great Britain, in September 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore fought during the War of 1812, a local lawyer, Francis Scott Key, penned the words to what would later become “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States. Among its lyrics is one line, from the third verse and thus not performed often today, that gives a hint of the flavor of society there: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

Despite its northern location, Baltimore was a city that, culturally and politically, in many ways remained part of the slave-owning Deep South. Though it also boasted shipbuilding yards, sawmills and other factories, an undercurrent of violence and chaos rumbled beneath the hum of industry. In 1835, the Baltimore bank riot saw a three-day spree of pillage and looting after the collapse of the Bank of Maryland resulted in the overnight evaporation of millions of dollars in depositors’ savings. In October 1849, the author Edgar Allan Poe was plucked “in distress” from its streets wearing clothes that were not his own and died a few days later. In April 1861, at the very beginning of the Civil War, Confederate secessionist sympathizers attacked members of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania state militia regiments en route to Washington, sparking a clash that left four soldiers and 12 rioters dead. As the war progressed, Abraham Lincoln found it expedient to clap George William Brown, the city’s secessionist mayor, in jail for more than a year. After the war, the city again saw riots in 1877 when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut the wages and reduced the hours of its workers, leading to a clash between civilians and the National Guard, federal troops and local police in a melee that left at least 10 dead.

But the postwar period and into the first half of the 20th century also saw a flourishing of Baltimore’s African-American community in general and in Sandtown in particular. Factories like the Mount Vernon Mill, a cotton textile mill in nearby Jones Falls, provided plentiful employment and Pennsylvania Avenue itself became a glittering mecca for Black culture, with the nearby Royal Theatre (built in 1922) and the Penn Hotel serving as anchors for the area’s artistic milieu. Thurgood Marshall, who as an attorney successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court (which ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional) and later became the court’s first African-American justice, lived in Sandtown. So did jazz musicians like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway (whose songs such as “Minnie the Moocher ” and “Reefer Man” in some ways encapsulated the district’s libertine appeal) and Chick Webb. For a touch of the bucolic, the horse-drawn carts of the arabbers, or street vendors, plied the lanes of the neighborhood carrying vegetables, fruits, blocks of ice and other necessities. The economic development of the city was frequently spoken of in terms of a “black butterfly,” with its majority African-American population spreading like a butterfly’s wings on either side of a highly moneyed white corridor of real estate running through Baltimore’s center.

“The community then, when it came to economic opportunity, there were many options for young people,” says Jim Hamlin, whose bakery features photographs of Sandtown’s notables and a mural celebrating some of its famous figures. On the first Saturday of each month from May to September, the bakery hosts concerts in its small courtyard.

When the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was slain on the evening of April 4, 1968, the shots that killed him may have been fired in Memphis, Tennessee, but they were heard in many other U.S. cities, including Baltimore. The city was marked by a week of rioting after the assassination, unrest that hit Sandtown particularly hard (Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew — later Richard Nixon’s vice president — responded by sending the National Guard to the city and then publicly lambasting local Black leaders for their supposed “failure” in the face of the unrest). The Pennsylvania Avenue business district was devastated, with many businesses opting not to reopen, and by 1971 the Royal Theatre had been demolished, a sadly symbolic act for a community rocked back on its heels. Eventually, hundreds of homes would be abandoned and fall into various states of disrepair.

Baltimore was not spared from the violence associated with the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, nor, along with it, the glaring inequality of law enforcement and sentencing that targeted poor, urban (frequently African-American and Latino) communities. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 led to the notorious “100 to 1” ratio in sentencing, which meant individuals faced far longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving a similar amount of powder cocaine, and leading to African-Americans often serving an equal amount of time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses as arrested whites did for violent offenses. This disparity was not corrected until President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in August 2010.

A level of intergenerational poverty began to afflict neighborhoods like Sandtown. According to the 2017 Baltimore City Neighborhood Health Profile, the median household income in the neighborhood is $24,374, a little more than half of what it is in the city as a whole, while the poverty rate is 50.3%, as compared with a citywide rate of is 28.8%. Progress often seems tenuous. According to a 2015 study by Loyola University’s Peter Rosenblatt and Johns Hopkins University’s Stefanie DeLuca, after an uptick in home ownership at the beginning of the millennium, the 2008 housing crisis led to 350 foreclosures in the neighborhood in just a two-year period.

“There are people who cannot take care of their families or ever get out of their current situations, so they participate in the street economy, and those rules are totally different than the roles we play by, if you make a mistake, it could be your life,” says Ashiah Parker of the No Boundaries Coalition, a resident-led advocacy organization based in Sandtown. “There are people in this city who are fourth or fifth generation impoverished, who have never had a member of their family go to college or live outside of the housing projects.”

Nor has law enforcement been blameless in this dynamic. A 2016 probe by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department had engaged “in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law” including “making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.” The report found that the practices were “driven by systemic deficiencies in [the department’s] policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.”

Many in the city believe these practices solidified during the 1999 to 2007 mayoralty of Martin O’Malley, who went on to become governor of Maryland and ran an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. Though homicides fell during O’Malley’s tenure as mayor (and arrests increased dramatically), the systemic, structural causes behind crime remained stubbornly resistant to correction. In 2010, the city settled for $870,000 a lawsuit brought against it four years earlier by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on behalf of 14 who said their arrests were part of a systematic policy of arrests without cause.

“In Maryland, if you are convicted of a felony, even as a 15-year-old, it can never be expunged from your record,” Ashiah Parker explains. “Walmart checks that. We’re not even talking about becoming a top tier accountant. You can’t have a criminal background and go into senior housing, for example. … We need to do something radical because we talk about second chances, but we don’t really offer them.”

Much of the violence, however, comes from within the community itself. In January 2022, Baltimore’s Child Fatality Review, which brings together various city agencies and experts, released a report on 208 child fatality cases over the previous five years, finding that homicides are the leading cause of death of children in the city, with 90% of the fatalities involving children of color (in a city in which people of color make up about two-thirds of the population). One of the victims was 13-year-old Maliyah Turner, who was shot and killed outside the Lillian Jones Recreation Center in Sandtown, where she had arrived for band practice, this past November.

“It’s painful for me to be a person who God has selected to be a servant to the people to see the suffering of those who God created in his likeness and his image to be a little lower than the angels,” says lifelong Sandtown resident Elder C.W. Harris, the founding pastor of Newborn Community of Faith Church, who, along with jazz musician Todd Marcus, established an organization called Intersection of Change to address and ameliorate poverty-related challenges. “It is inhumane. God is crying because of the way we are treating one another.”

“We are reconcilers,” says Harris. “And those who have lived here have to receive the encouragement and belief that they can do it. The nation should be ashamed of the way this side of central West Baltimore is being treated. We can stop all this if we show some humanity, but we’re not showing any.”

Among those on the front lines of combating violence are men like Wayne Brewton. A 61-year-old released from prison in March 2017 after serving a 31-year sentence for murder, Brewton is what is known as a “violence interrupter” with Safe Streets Baltimore, a violence prevention program operated by Catholic Charities in collaboration with the Baltimore City Department of Health and the Mayor’s Office for Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.

“The nature of civilization doesn’t change. There’s always going to be some version of greed, jealousy and hate,” says Brewton in his spare, tidy apartment as he reaches down to pet a cat purring around his ankles. “And I was led down a path of total destruction.”

It is a fate he hopes to help today’s young people avoid, along with the lure of images of success that can confront them on a daily basis.

“Picture yourself as a child, going to school. You probably haven’t eaten in a couple of days. The teacher probably doesn’t care much about you. You have to walk past nine or 10 blocks of abandoned homes, so you admire the ones who get up and fight through that,” says Brewton. “The main important factor when you deal with the youth of today [is that] you have to listen and stop trying to make decisions for them and they are going to tell you what they need. But you have to earn their trust.”

It is not an approach that comes without risks. In January, 29-year-old DaShawn McGrier, a Safe Streets violence interrupter, was slain as part of a quadruple shooting in the McElderry Park neighborhood east of Sandtown. He was the third member of the organization to be shot and killed in the past year. Nevertheless, Brewton believes it is important to push on.

“A lot of the kids have never been out of Sandtown-Winchester,” Brewton notes. “We might take them to baseball games, to basketball games, to the Museum of African American History & Culture. … For about six hours, we’ll be saving some lives, maybe their own. We need the richness of community back. We’re the change we’re looking for. If you want change, you’ve got to take the initiative to make that change.”

Historically, Baltimore’s politicians themselves have often seemed unable or unwilling to confront the great challenges of communities like Sandtown. For more than a decade, from 1947 to 1959, Baltimore’s mayor was Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the father of current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While mayor, D’Alesandro oversaw the dedication of a large statue of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, seditous traitors who defended the infernal institution of slavery. The statue stood in Wyman Park until it was ordered taken down and put in storage by the Baltimore City Council in August 2017. Pelosi’s elder brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, served as mayor for a single term that overlapped with the 1968 riots. Baltimore saw its first Black mayor, Clarence H. Burns, ascend to the office in 1987 when he took over from William Donald Schaefer following the latter’s resignation after being elected governor of Maryland. Buns was succeeded by the first elected Black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, who served from 1987 to 1999.

In more recent years, the city’s political class has been buffeted by a series of scandals. Sheila Dixon, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from January 2007 until February 2010, was convicted of embezzlement in connection with a scheme to purloin gift cards meant for Baltimore’s poorest residents. Catherine Pugh, who served as mayor from December 2016 until May 2019, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion. In January, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was indicted on charges of perjury and making false statements on mortgage applications.

Baltimore’s current mayor, 37-year-old Brandon Scott, previously served as president of the city council and ran on a promise that he would lower Baltimore’s murders to fewer than 300 a year during his first year in office. But in Scott’s first year, 2021, the city experienced 337 homicides and 726 shootings. Scott has often seemed overwhelmed by the violence afflicting the city, in January 2022 telling a reporter that he was “pissed off” about the violence and that “if folks have something to say, get your ass on the streets, walk with us, do something. Don’t tweet, don’t talk.”

It is hard to spend any length of time in Sandtown, though, and not come away with the impression that many in the community are indeed doing something, although often away from the glare of the cameras and rather in the deep, daily work in the trenches of community-building.

“It’s rough, but I do think things can turn the corner,” says Ashiah Parker. “And I think people are still holding hope that a renaissance era can come back.”

Some in Sandtown’s younger generation hold out that same hope.

“I think a lot of youth aren’t fortunate enough to have the ability to see past the obstacles that other people put in front of you,” says 23-year-old Keyarra Johnson, an artist born and raised in the neighborhood and now a program manager with Jubilee Arts, a community arts program based in Sandtown. “But there are a lot of people in the neighborhood trying to reconnect the community with this rich history and encourage the artistic and entrepreneurial side of Sandtown.”

Midway between Pennsylvania Avenue and Presbury Street, where a fenced-in mural shows Freddie Gray’s face gazing soulfully out at the neighborhood he left seven years ago, Bryan Wright trudges an acre and a half of Sandtown under a slate-gray sky, where neat rows of tarpaulin-wreathed tunnels shelter an unexpected bounty.

On land that was initially reclaimed by Intersection of Change, Wright and other members of the Strength to Love farm cultivate a variety of mustards, kale, spinach, lettuce, bok choy, dandelion greens, arugula, turnips, carrots, garlic, onions, scallions and other victuals that they sell from their own stand at the front of the property to farmer’s markets and a variety of restaurants in the Baltimore and Washington, DC area.

A native of Tennessee, Wright had been traveling back and forth to Baltimore for the better part of 20 years before he moved there permanently to become the farm’s manager at the beginning of 2021. Built on land once occupied by row houses that were demolished in the 1990s, Strength to Love works both to be a place for returning citizens – formerly incarcerated people — to come to get job training and also as a workforce development program that provides 18-to-24-year-old Sandtown residents with agricultural training.

“In our community we talk about all the negatives. But food insecurity to me is a major crisis that no one is really dealing with,” Wright says as the “hoop houses,” as the miniature greenhouses are called, flutter in the chill breeze. “And it affects a community on multiple levels from an economic level to a health level to mental health to environmental justice to mental development in kids. This is really a project of empowerment for trying to create food security,”

It is not an easy task. It is not uncommon to find sex workers using the larger tunnels as places of work or to find addicts securing their fixes inside a tunnel. In the colder months, homeless people sometimes seek out the tunnels to get out of the biting wind and find a warmer spot.

“I don’t think the people sleeping in the high tunnels are being disrespectful to us,” Wright says. “They’re homeless and they’re looking for a warm place to sleep. But at the same time, there is a need for us to make our footprint in the community more profound.”

Across the street from an asphalt plant, the farm uses 100% organic compost and envisions expanding in the near future to include a meditation garden along with its current agricultural project.

“Why wouldn’t you put a farm here?” Wright asks rhetorically. “Doesn’t it make sense to put food where the people are at? A library or a farm, it’s all nourishment. Being able to be self-sustainable is a major weapon and I think there’s a true effort to keep people from being beggars and asking for handouts. Gardens and farms are healing places. There’s no coincidence the majority of creation stories begin in a garden. Growing your own food is a revolutionary act.”

Latin America risk outlook: emboldened criminal groups, failing states and rising climate insecurity

I spoke with Douglas Farah, Dr Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, Dr Vanessa Neumann and Dr Irene Mia under the aegis of the The International Institute for Strategic Studies to discuss the conflict outlook for Latin America, focusing on current and emerging areas of fragility, conflict hotspots and political risks with a special reference to those with regional repercussions. Our discussion can be viewed here.

In Latin America, Backers of Leftist Dictatorships Look the Other Way

In Latin America, Backers of Leftist Dictatorships Look the Other Way

As Latin American dictators marginalize and jail protesters, the leaders rely on backing from prominent but obtuse individuals and organizations

What a night it was for the delegation of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) last June as they gazed down on the Venezuelan capital of Caracas from the five-star, luxury Gran Meliá Hotel.

“View from the dancefloor, it’s absolutely beautiful here,” tweeted delegate Jen McKinney, while fellow delegate Tom Wojcik contented himself with the words “Caracas” and images of the hotel’s glittering façade, where a room for a night costs more than 70 times the Venezuelan monthly salary.

The attendees were ostensibly in town to participate in the Congreso Bicentenario de los Pueblos del Mundo, set to commemorate the 1821 victory of Simón Bolívar over royalist forces at the Battle of Carabobo. But in fact the gathering served as a kind of magnet for partisans of the region’s various authoritarian governments. The DSA junket to Venezuela was part of a growing trend of “anti-imperialist” revolutionary tourism in Latin America where well-heeled outsiders come to glory in the necrotic splendor of dead or aging revolutionary leaders while carefully eschewing any discussion of what kind of conditions citizens in said countries live under. It is an alliance inspired not by loyalty to progressive and leftist ideals and values but of fealty to rulers and power.

In office since the 2013 death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his successor Nicolás Maduro portrays himself and the country’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) as vanguards of an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist nexus of regional powers including Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

As the delegation of the DSA proved, however, interest in Venezuela’s government does not extend to curiosity about the country’s tumultuous history or tormented present. Visiting Chávez’s gravesite, DSA member Sean Estelle tweeted that former President Carlos Andrés Pérez — the mercurial populist who nationalized the oil industry and served as vice president of the Socialist International for 16 years — was a “right winger.”

The incuriosity was complemented by an intolerance for critique or even discussion. Venezuela’s Partido Socialismo y Libertad, itself a left party largely inspired by the Argentine Trotskyist leader Nahuel Moreno, wrote that the DSA delegation “lost the opportunity to meet with worker activists, feminists, the LGBTQ community, indigenous activists, peasants and youth from the popular sectors and the independent left.” As Venezuelans begged the DSA to take a more nuanced approach to the country, DSA member Austin Gonzalez sniffed on Twitter: “Something i would appreciate most is if people did not try to talk down to me when it comes to Venezuela…I’m fully aware of everything going on.” Later, after the DSA was given an opportunity to meet Maduro himself (lovingly documented on DSA social media and by Venezuela’s state-run Telesur network), Gonzalez gushed that “who I met was not a dictator” but “a humble man who cares deeply about his people.”

So, if one takes the DSA — an organization with which at least four U.S. members of Congress (Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib) claim affiliation — at their word, that they were indeed “fully aware of what was going on,” exactly what kind of regime were they giving their full-throated endorsement to? And beyond the gates of the Gran Meliá and the conference halls of the Congreso, what kind of reality do Venezuelans face every day?

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 5.6 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, many living in extremely precarious conditions in neighboring countries such as Brazil and Colombia. The 2020-21 Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida (National Survey of Living Conditions) from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas found that 76.6% of Venezuela’s 28 million residents live in extreme poverty. A 2020 World Food Program report ranked Venezuela among the top four countries worldwide suffering from food insecurity, just behind Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. In a 2020 bulletin, Caritas Venezuela noted that over the past year there had been a 73% increase in levels of acute malnutrition in children under 5. All this being the case, it was perhaps in questionable taste for DSA delegation member Marvin Gonzalez to tweet out photos of his lunch fare while bragging that he “had a dope ass sancococo today!”

When one points out statistics confirming the destitution, the automatic response among DSA types — almost a catechism at this point — is that U.S. sanctions are to blame for Venezuela’s woes. That, simply put, is a lie, but a lie whose eternal repetition some apparently believe will transform it into truth.

During the 2002-03 strike at Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) — the state oil company that Carlos Andrés Pérez had nationalized — the Chávez government fired 19,000 career employees, replacing them with political flunkies, reneging on deals with oil companies, stealing assets and failing to reinvest in the industry. It was a recipe for disaster. Nevertheless, in 2013, just before Venezuela’s economy began its terrifying downward spiral, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) co-director Mark Weisbrot, a longtime acolyte of the regime and certainly a contender for worst economist in the world, wrote in The Guardian that warnings of the country’s impending collapse were the work of “Venezuela haters” and “the international and Venezuelan media” responsible for peddling a false “catastrophic view” of the country’s economy, when in fact “economic disaster was always just around the corner but never quite happened.”

Some six years later, in a 2019 report co-authored with Jeffrey Sachs (an economist whose shock therapy created chaos in Russia in the 1990s), Weisbrot attempted to argue that sanctions caused 40,000 deaths from 2017 to 2018, using the bizarre metric of comparing Venezuelan and Colombian oil production before and after a 2017 round of U.S. sanctions against the regime. An analysis of CEPR’s study by the Brookings Institute published a few weeks later concluded that “the bulk of the deterioration in living standards occurred long before the sanctions were enacted in 2017,” with “worsening trends across all of the socio-economic indicators … well before the sanctions were imposed.”

A culture of robber barons, the famous “boligarchs” who preached socialist revolution but practiced savage capitalism, came to the fore. One official alone — Chávez’s former energy czar Javier Alvarado — stands accused in various legal challenges of diverting $15 million from PDVSA as he lived lavishly and acquired homes in Madrid, Cartagena and Miami. Last year the Swiss newspaper 24 heures reported how Zurich police have identified questionable billions linked to the Venezuelan state in hundreds of bank accounts in Switzerland. This past June, Spain’s El País reported on a vast network circumventing U.S. sanctions on Venezuela traveling through 30 countries and moving money among various tax havens to create opaque multimillion-dollar businesses.

A Human Rights Watch report on a series of roiling April 2017 protests against the government concluded that “security forces and armed pro-government groups attacked protesters in the streets, using extreme and at times lethal force, causing dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.” The report went on to detail the torture that detainees were subject to: electric shocks, severe beatings, asphyxiation and sexual abuse including rape. That same year, pro-government thugs stormed a meeting of the opposition-dominated Asamblea Nacional, savaging legislators and their staff and leaving them bloodied and injured. A subsequent Human Rights Watch report from 2019 characterized the actions of the government’s Fuerza de Acciones Especiales (FAES) — a branch of the Policía Nacional Bolivariana that many Venezuelans consider as little more than a death squad — as committing “serious human rights violations [and] abusive policing practices in low-income communities.” From 2016 to 2019 alone, the Venezuelan police and security forces had killed nearly 18,000 people for alleged “resistance to authority.” A July 2019 statement from the Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA) human rights organization decried what it said had become “a factory for executions” in poor neighborhoods where security forces would burst in late at night, kidnap suspects (often those alleged to have participated in political demonstrations) and then summarily kill them. Another PROVEA report detailed how, in the state of Lara, Venezuelan security forces committed at least 135 extrajudicial killings in the first six months of 2020 alone. A report in Peru’s El Comercio detailed how, in the poor Caracas barrio of José Félix Ribas (a 20-minute drive from the Gran Meliá where the DSA delegation stayed), the FAES murdered at least 10 people in January 2019 after residents had joined a massive protest against Maduro. A 411-page 2020 report by United Nations investigators implicated Maduro and other high-ranking officials in systematic human rights abuses, including killings, torture and sexual violence, amounting to crimes against humanity.

With just an eight-minute drive from their hotel, the DSA delegation could have spoken to the employees of the Hospital Clínico Universitario de Caracas, where most employees are paid less than $1 per month by the regime; doctors and nurses are forced to bring chlorine from home to clean the facilities and desperately search for sutures, gloves or masks though private donations; and employees freely admit (as they did in a June 2021 article in the newspaper El Nacional) that the government had “destroyed” the institution.

The DSA members were far from the only arrivistes in town. Also in Caracas for the Congreso was Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and Manolo De Los Santos, described as a “researcher” for Tricontinental and the co-director of The People’s Forum. During their visit, Prashad posed for a portrait with a member of the security services terrorizing Venezuela while De Los Santos raved on Twitter about the pair’s “unforgettable evening with a dear comrade” (Maduro). The People’s Forum has recently begun boosting an organization called BreakThrough News, which also had correspondents on the ground in Venezuela at the time. BreakThrough News includes among its commentators those who previously worked with the In the NOW and Soapbox video channels, produced by Maffick LLC, a Los Angeles-based social media digital content company frequently identified as “Russia state-controlled” because of its links with the Russian state-funded news organization RT, an assessment a U.S. court agreed with in 2020. According to the Charity Navigator website, the address for The People’s Forum — 320 West 37th Street in New York City — is also the registered address for BreakThrough News.

In nearby Bolivia, the looking-glass perspective of much of the international left has been similar, as it tries to erase a well-documented authoritarian power grab that ended in calamity.

In a 2016 constitutional referendum, Evo Morales, who had served as president since 2006, sought voter approval to allow the president and vice president to run for an additional consecutive term. When the measure was defeated by a 51.3% majority, Morales appealed to Bolivia’s Supreme Court (stuffed with regime loyalists), which struck down the vote — the democratic expression of the Bolivian people — claiming that the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Bolivia is party, guaranteed Morales the right to run as a “human right.” In response, Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), which is responsible for enforcing the treaty, said the document did “not mean the right to perpetual power.”

In Bolivia’s subsequent October 2019 general election (where a substantial amount of preelection polling showed majorities believing Morales’ reelection would be illegal), widespread reporting of irregularities and allegations that Morales’s ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) artificially inflated its tally to avoid going to a second round were borne out by an OAS report that recommended new elections. Here, too, the CEPR issued its own report, unsurprisingly siding with the Morales government and failing to engage with many critiques of the irregularities identified by the OAS, the European Union and local observers. The election’s integrity was further eroded by the presence of a slew of partisan elections officials as well as computer server and chain-of-custody concerns.

After a November 2019 uprising (during which both pro- and anti-MAS forces committed violence) drove Morales from power, a conspiracy theory centered on Bolivia’s reserves of lithium took hold, much of it resting on a July 2020 tweet from eccentric Tesla founder Elon Musk, where he bragged, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” This theory was strongly undercut by observations of those such as Pablo Solón Romero, who had served as Bolivia’s ambassador to the U.N. under Morales. He noted that it was Morales himself who had thrown the country open to lithium speculators and that in the southwestern department of Potosí, for example, “the opposition to the government radicalized before the elections due to the signing of a 70-year contract without payment of royalties for the production of lithium hydroxide in the salt flats of Uyuni.” Oppression in Potosí by the MAS party party (after a year long interim presidency by Jeanine Áñez, in 2020 MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce won with 55.1% of the vote) continues today, with members of the local Comité Cívico Potosinista continuing to be subjects of police harassment and extrajudicial arrests.

But these facts are of little interest to some foreign commentators such as the former British Labour leader Jeremey Corbyn (whose fringe politics and taste for fanaticism managed to hand the party its worst electoral defeat since 1935 two years ago), who last October penned an article claiming that in the 2019 elections “the final result would hand Morales a clear first-round victory as votes from rural, indigenous-populated and Morales-supporting areas,” a view by no means universal among Bolivia’s people.

“The MAS government has been very clever in constructing a false local and international narrative of care and protection for Mother Earth (Pachamama) and respect for human and indigenous rights, which in practice does not exist,” said Alex Villca Limaco, an activist with the Coordinadora Nacional de Defensa de los Territorios Indígenas Originarios Campesinos y Áreas Protegidas de Bolivia (National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas of Bolivia or CONTIOCAP). “This has only served to distract and hide its ambition for merely extractive economic power and hegemonic and totalitarian political power … [They have] only served to continue a policy of looting, dispossession and destruction of indigenous territories and protected areas.”

The situation is far more dire in Nicaragua, where since 2007 Daniel Ortega of the ostensibly left-wing Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) has ruled as president. Since 2017, his wife, Rosario Murillo, a failed poet with more than a whiff of Lady Macbeth about her, has served as vice president. Once revered as the rebel group that helped oust dictator Anastasio Somoza from power in 1979, the FSLN has grown increasingly dictatorial, extractive and repressive during its current reign.

Since 2015, settlers in the country’s heavily indigenous northeast — whom many see as backed by the government — have killed more than 60 indigenous people, according to the Centro por la Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN). (The FSLN has a history of violent hostility against Nicaragua’s indigenous communities, documented well in the 1980s by the geographer Bernard O. Nietschmann.) A recent report by the investigative news site Divergentes revealed that the Ortega-Murillo regime has made 60% of Nicaragua’s surface available to large international investors for mining concessions. A study – based on surveys of excess mortality – published last month by the Observatorio por la Transparencia y Anticorrupción concluded that the regime had purposely undercounted COVID-19 deaths in the country by 6,000 to 9,000.

In April 2018, the regime finally ripped away its veneer of democracy after the government’s proposal to increase taxes and cut social security benefits ignited long-standing grievances. Protests broke out around the country. The government responded with immense brutality that has continued in fits and starts ever since. A May 2018 report by Amnesty International found that in response to the protests, “the Nicaraguan government adopted a strategy of violent repression not seen in the country for years. More than 70 people were reportedly killed by the state and hundreds were seriously injured.” In December 2018, the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), a collection of independent analysts selected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, published a report concluding that the Ortega government “committed crimes against humanity” and that Ortega used “public institutions and pro-government armed groups to establish a repressive state apparatus, with the intention to kill and persecute those who opposed their policies.”

But among many self-described leftists, one hears little of this. As Nicaragua held farcical elections last month with all major contenders for the presidency but Ortega jailed along with over a hundred other political prisoners (the youngest believed to be 21-year-old feminist and student activist Samantha Jirón), the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) published an article praising the regime. It was written by John Perry, an expat Brit living in Nicaragua who, under the pseudonym Charles Redvers, disseminated a “confession” from student protester Valeska Sandoval made when she had a gun pointed at her head by government agents and little choice but to comply with her captors.

During the elections themselves — where the abstention rate was 81.5%, according to the Urnas Abiertas citizen watchdog organization — a carnival sideshow of figures descended on the country to be feted by a regime better known for killing, jailing and exiling journalists than accrediting them. Among them was Craig “Pasta” Jardula, an American podcaster with no experience in the country who told Business Insider that Caleb Maupin, a political commentator at Russia’s state RT propaganda organ, had invited him to come down. Though Jardula had paid for his flight from the U.S., the Nicaraguan government had “covered our rooms and food and that sort of thing” as well as the cost of his flight from Managua to a polling station in the country’s northeast. (In terms of government spending priorities, by contrast, in some of the country’s regions nearly 30% of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.) Jardula would later tweet out that Nicaragua was “a true Democratic [sic] country.” Also ubiquitous was the U.S. journalist Ben Norton, affiliated with the website The Grayzone, which has made something of a cottage industry of defending dictators and their crimes. A reliable government booster nonetheless forced to admit on state television that there were no lines at polling booths, Norton was lampooned by the Nicaraguan blog Bacanalnica as a “cartoon … who hangs out with the most nefarious governments on the planet.” The site went on to ask: “Where were you when members of 100% Noticias were imprisoned and their offices closed? Did you ask for justice when they raided and closed Confidencial? Did you complain when La Prensa’s paper was detained at customs?”

Unlike the visiting Americans, the charade was too much for many regional leaders, with Peru’s left-wing government saying the vote “did not meet the minimum criteria of free, fair and transparent elections” and deserved “the rejection of the international community.” Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the left-wing president of neighboring Costa Rica, wrote that “due to their lack of democratic conditions & guarantees, we do not recognize the elections in Nicaragua” and called on the government to free its political prisoners.

Nicaraguans themselves believe they see the true face of the regime for what it is.

“Ortega is more willing to sell out the national patrimony than even Somoza was,” said Bianca Jagger, the Nicaraguan-born human rights and social justice activist. “When we talk about what people think of this idea of a leftist revolution, they better think twice. If anyone betrayed the principles that inspired this revolution, it was Daniel Ortega. The left needs to come to terms that their utopian dreams of what these revolutions have brought to these countries are completely and totally fictitious. These revolutions have betrayed the very ideals they began to fight for.”

All of this finally brings us to Cuba, the site of the hemisphere’s oldest dictatorship and the nation where sanguinary tyranny marketed with a T-shirt and a beret have seduced more people into dictatorial apologia than any other. When protests erupted on the island this past July, many acted as if the event was unexpected. But in fact the pressure had been increasing heavily in recent years, propelled by both an intolerant, lily-white political and military elite and the ever-tightening grip of sanctions imposed by the United States, theoretically to pressure the regime but in reality punishing ordinary citizens.

Ruled by the Castro family and their allies since 1959 and not having seen a democratic election since 1948, Cuba is a case study in optics versus reality. For more than 60 years, the country has been led by Fidel Castro (1959 to 2008), Raúl Castro (2008 to 2019) and Miguel Díaz-Canel (2019 to present) — three white men — as they have presided over a police state that in its early era rounded up and tortured gay men in concentration camps (an experience searingly documented in the book “Antes que anochezca” by Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas), has aided liberation struggles elsewhere in Latin America and in Africa while denying its own citizens the ability to choose the political or economic system by which they wished to be governed, and has remained passionately hostile to independent expressions of Afro-Cuban and LGBTQ identity. The government sent cadres of doctors abroad but then used them as a source of hard currency, gobbling up most of their salaries and imposing severe curbs on their freedom of expression and freedom of association. To Venezuela, it sent security personnel and torturers. Memorably described by their former close ally Carlos Franqui as a couple of puritanical, intolerant bumpkins from the rural backwater of Birán aghast at the “decadent” Afro-Cuban culture they encountered in cities like Santiago de Cuba and Havana, the Castro brothers set in motion a square, macho military culture on the island that remains very much the ruling aesthetic today.

The latest round of protests can arguably be traced back to 2018, when many young artists and intellectuals began protesting against Decree 349, a draconian edict prohibiting musicians, artists, writers and other performers from operating in public or private without prior approval by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Movimiento San Isidro, a collective named after a poor and historically marginalized Havana neighborhood and encompassing a wide range of artists, writers and musicians. Led by people such as the art historian and gallerist Yanelys Núñez Leyva, the Afro-Cuban poet Amuary Pacacecho and the performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the protests would dovetail in May 2019 with what many see as Cuba’s “Stonewall moment.” Hundreds of LGBTQ activists attempted a conga parade through La Habana Vieja, an unauthorized event that was separate from the regime’s “official” LGBTQ events affiliated with the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX, founded by Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro). The march was immediately set upon by security forces, its leaders beaten and arrested. This in turn was followed by a November 2020 demonstration in front of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture — viewed by many as a turning point with public expression of dissatisfaction with the regime — when hundreds of protesters (many of them young, Afro-Cuban, queer or otherwise marginalized) called on the regime to free imprisoned rapper Denis Solís.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara grew up in Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods with a rich tradition of Afro-Cuban culture. When I spoke to him in late 2020, before the recent upheavals and before he disappeared again into the regime’s gulag (he had previously been arrested more than 30 times), he told me bluntly that “the Cuban regime is weighted on the basis of white men — macho, patriarchal, white men — with white women and wives as well. Cuban television and all the Cuban cultural apparatus still operate on a racist basis.”

Even today, white Cubans are five times more likely than Black Cubans to have a bank account and control 98% of the island’s private businesses.

At the beginning of last year, an anthemic song “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life,” itself a refutation of the Cuban revolutionary slogan “Fatherland or Death”), a collaboration by Yotuel of the rap group Orishas, Descemer Bueno, the group Gente de Zona, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Maykel Osorbo and DJ El Funky, was released and seized the popular imagination. Its lyrics (“No more lies! / My people demand freedom! / No more doctrines! / No longer shall we cry ‘Fatherland or death’ / But ‘Fatherland and life!’”) seemed to articulate the boiling struggle and frustration of ordinary Cubans (the song went on to win the Latin Grammy for song of the year last month).

On July 11 of last year, protests over shortages of basic goods, economic hardship and the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic began in the western city of San Antonio de los Baños. The protests soon spread all over the country in an unprecedented display of frustration and civil disobedience. From Havana in the west to Santiago de Cuba in the east, thousands of Cuban citizens took to the streets chanting both “patria y vida” and “change the system.” Initially taken by surprise, Cuban security forces responded with brutality and mass arrests of protesters, with Díaz-Canel appearing on state television to say, “the order to combat has been given.” Hundreds of people (including at least 44 minors) were arrested (14 of the latter remain in prison). The government cut off internet access around the island, but it was too late. The images of protests and the merciless response of state security forces quickly were seen around the world, as were messages like that of Afro-Cuban rapper Roberto Álvarez, who said, “The streets of Cuba belong to the Cubans. Not to the Communist Party. Not to the Cuban military. Not to the Castro family. To the Cubans.”

The protests laid bare the often thinly disguised racism in the paternalistic discourse of the island’s Communist elite, at this point little more than a wretched, bloated ruling caste guarding their hotels (the Cuban regime spends 57 times more on tourism than they do on healthcare). At the height of last July’s protests, Aleida Guevara March, the daughter of Che Guevara (whose own caustic racism led him to label people of African descent as “lack[ing] an affinity with bathing” as well as being “indolent … spending [their] meager wage on frivolity or drink”) huffed that the protesters “showed a very low level of culture.” When “Patria y Vida” won a Grammy in November, José Carlos Rodríguez Ruiz, Cuba’s aging (and white) ambassador to Italy, tweeted a link to an article clutching its pearls that the young upstarts had “sneaked into the same space” as other artists of superior “caliber.”

In a report published this past October, Human Rights Watch found that the Cuban government “systematically engaged in arbitrary detention, ill treatment of detainees, and abuse-ridden criminal prosecutions in response to overwhelmingly peaceful antigovernment protests” in July. Both Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Osorbo are among those in prison and learned of “Patria y Vida” winning a Grammy from behind bars. In November, UNICEF expressed its concern over the ongoing detention of minors in connection with the July events.

“The Cuban government sells itself as a leftist, progressive government, but the reality is just the contrary,” Abraham Jiménez Enoa, an Afro-Cuban journalist, told me this month. “Historically, those who occupy the highest positions here are almost always white. … It’s the same with the treatment of the opposition. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is in jail, Maykel Osorbo is in jail, but meanwhile with [white oppositionists] the government negotiates exile. … [They] can get on a plane. It’s structural racism and it’s clear how it functions in Cuba.”

The Havana regime — after more than six decades of uninterrupted, total power — still has its apologists. University of Glasgow professor Helen Yaffe tut-tutted in the pages of The Guardian about the “violent” protests (though the protesters damaged some property, nearly all the physical violence came at the hands of the regime). She argued that “US funding and coordination” were behind the protests, as if Cubans were too ignorant and lazy to become fed up on their own with being pauperized and beaten. Yaffe frequently promotes pro-regime content from outlets with links to the Russian government such as Redfish and others like MintPress News, which in 2013 published an article falsely claiming anti-Assad rebels had staged a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta (which one of the authors then denied writing).

The official Black Lives Matter organization (distinct from the ethos and movement of the same name), which had previously praised Fidel Castro and whose co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors owns palatial homes in Los Angeles and Atlanta, issued a press release praising the regime, condemning the embargo but eschewing any mention of the brave Black and brown Cubans being brutalized and terrorized by the regime. In an absurd open letter last November ahead of more planned protests that the regime averted by turning virtually the entire island into an armed camp, a litany of signatories that included both the criminal (former Ecuador President Rafael Correa, in exile and convicted of corruption at home) and the useless (Castro family chronicler and former Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet) attacked the dissidents as “irrelevant within Cuba but praised by the international press with the purpose of damaging the image of the revolution.” The letter accused them of “civil disobedience, anarchy and chaos, with the sole purpose of ending the current political system.” The words were richly ironic, especially coming from signatories like former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, herself once a member of the Vanguarda Armada Revolucionária guerrilla group in Brazil.

But in many ways the July protests marked a serious break with the regime’s formerly good press among the left. René Pérez, better known as Residente, a member of the Puerto Rican musical group Calle 13 and with impeccable anti-imperialist credentials, posted an Instagram message of support for the demonstrators “so that they manifest themselves with all force. … Demonstrating is a human right anywhere in the world.” He added his belief that “this demonstration was born from a tired people … who woke up.” The Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee, Mexican singer Julieta Venegas and Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz also all expressed their support for the protesters. In December, more than 300 prominent figures — including Isabel Allende, Paul Auster, John Lithgow and Orhan Pamuk — released an open letter calling on Cuba’s government to immediately stop its abuses against Cuban artists, intellectuals and others.

There are real-world implications for this ideological rigidity.

Last November, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER) Act. It calls for new initiatives to monitor and address corruption by Nicaragua’s government and abuses by its security force as well as expansion of sanctions against key officials. It also orders a formal review to determine whether Nicaragua should be allowed continued participation in the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). When the bill came up for a vote in the House of Representatives earlier that month, however, many members of the body’s left (including New York Reps. Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez, Missouri Rep. Bush, Michigan Reps. Andy Levin and Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar) joined members of the extreme right such as Florida Rep.Matt Gaetz, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie in trying to defeat it.

A more party-line vote followed for House Resolution 760, a measure “expressing solidarity with Cuban citizens demonstrating peacefully for fundamental freedoms, condemning the Cuban regime’s acts of repression, and calling for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained Cuban citizens.” It also called for the U.S. government to “assess whether the United States can develop methods to allow remittances, medical supplies, and other forms of support from the United States to directly benefit the Cuban people in ways that alleviate humanitarian suffering without providing United States dollars to the Cuban military.” While no Republicans opposed the measure, 40 Democrats voted no, among them all of the aforementioned Democrats as well as California Rep. Maxine Waters, New York Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva. When I contacted some of the above members to explain their vote, the offices of only two responded: Bush, who declined comment, and Grijalva, who in a statement said, in part, “Both bills contained serious economic and humanitarian policy concerns that were not taken into account when these pieces of legislation were rushed to the House floor. The legislation perpetuates a counterproductive foreign policy that would harm millions of innocent civilians instead of the regimes in power.” How either bill, neither of which proposed broad general economic sanctions, would have done this is unclear.

So what is the way forward for those in the principled left who want to stand in solidarity with disenfranchised people instead of regimes composed of their torturers and oppressors?

There is a sector of the Western left eternally enamored of flags, slogans and ceaseless homages to dead leaders that is every bit as illiberal as the caustic right and whose support seems to have less to do with any kind of coherent humanitarian policy outlook and more to do with facile anti-Americanism and an impulse for dictator worship, as if defending the abusive practices of security forces in Venezuela is better than defending them in Colombia, or defending the extractive policies of a left-wing government in Bolivia is somehow more appropriate than defending the same policies when done by the right-wing government of Brazil.

There needs to be an international realignment among left forces and more willingness to listen to movements on the ground rather than only governments. In the recent victory of left wing Gabriel Boric in Chile’s presidential elections — a man whose solidly progressive bonafides did not keep him from calling Nicaragua’s recent elections a “farce” and declaring “solidarity with the people rising up in Cuba and not the Díaz-Canel government” — we may be seeing the beginnings of a regional third way.

Throughout Latin America, there are heroic progressive forces laying down their lives in the service of the most vulnerable every day, fighting to defend the environment, people of African and indigenous descent, the marginalized and the LGBTQ community. It is to them those of us among the international left should extend our loyalty and support, not their jailers and executioners.

Friday, December 31, 2021

2021: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By


 

For everyone, 2021 was an extremely tumultuous year, one that saw me leave Puerto Rico for a (temporary) exile in Pennsylvania, two countries dear to me, Haiti and Cuba, erupt for very different reasons and a failed coup d'état in my home country of the United States. 

I hope that a more just, gentle and humane year awaits us in 2022. I hope that Syrians living under government and Russian bombardment in Idlib or in exile in places like Turkey remain safe. I hope that the people of Afghanistan both in the country and scattered around the world due to a disastrous decision implemented by two successive U.S. administrations are able to begin their lives anew. I hope Haitians are freed from the infernal political and economic machine that has oppressed them for so long and I hope that the people of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are able to at long last free themselves from their tyrants. I hope the people of Tigray see peace. I hope that Puerto Rico, la isla del encanto, is able to become just that for its people, and is protected from the various predators currently encircling it.

As for me, I have a new book to write and a new life to build in a new place, which I will talk about more in the coming months.

Though these years of pandemic have resulted in too many of us being apart if not alone, in 2022 let's live the ethos frequently repeated by members of Cuba's Movimiento San Isidro: Estamos conectados (We are connected). 

I wish you all limitless joy in the new year. 

xo 

MD    

 

My articles

Rumblings of Change in Puerto Rico for Newlines Magazine (22 February 2021) 

The Death of Haiti’s President Summons Ghosts Old and New for Newlines Magazine (28 July 2021)

"Oración" by Amaury Pacheco (Translated by Michael Deibert) for the Washington Post (16 July 2021)

Book Examines African Role in Western Prosperity for Newlines Magazine (26 November 2020)

Interviews 

Can Haiti rid itself of Jovenel Moïse? in The Economist (25 February 2021) 

The murder of Haiti’s president will worsen the country’s chaos in The Economist (7 July 2021) 

Jovenel Moïse: el asesinato del presidente de Haití deja un tenso vacío de poder en el vecino país in El Nuevo Día (7 July 2021)   

Jovenel Moïse: el polémico presidente que quiso cambiar Haití y al que Haití devoró in El Confidencial (7 July 2021)

Asesinado el presidente de Haití in The Washington Post (8 July 2021)

Interview on the assassination of Haiti President Jovenel Moïse on Al Jazeera (9 July 2021)

Magnicidio en Haití: la visión de un exagente de la CIA y un periodista que conoció a Moïse in La Tercera (10 July 2021) 

Haití deposita su futuro en el mundo in El Comercio (10 July 2021)

Haiti’s president is dead — but why did it take a hit squad of 28? in The Times (11 July 2021)

Haiti crisis deepens after prime minister sacks prosecutor on Al Jazeera (15 September 2021)

The History Hour: The earthquake that devastated Haiti on the BBC (18 September 2021)

Biden's Summer of Disappointments & Haiti on From the North (27 September 2021)

Dossier of elite’s links to drug gangs ‘led to murder of Haitian president’ in The Times (18 December 2021)

 


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Books in 2021: A Personal Selection


 

There Are Little Kingdoms: Stories by Kevin Barry  

A collection of gem-like short stories, many of them focusing on life in rural Ireland.  

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov   

A book I last read in late high school, this is a bracing depiction of a Soviet Russia of vodka-swilling black cats, dissolute intellectuals, inquisitive secret police and severed heads flying through the air, One of the more original novels I’ve ever read, informed by a high level of satire and black comedy.  

The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela by Fernando Coronil  

An essential work to understand Venezuela’s fraught decades before the 1990s that helped pave the way for the nation's current collapse and tyranny, this book provides an authoritative analysis of the strengths and failures of the country’s body politic during the era of Venezuela saudita with an especially illuminating examination of the controversial, contradictory figure of the late president Carlos Andrés Pérez.  

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard French  

A panoramic work examining the epochal impact that early European contact with Africans produced from the 13th century onward and provides a deep and unflinching look at how the infernal machinery of slavery spread throughout the Americas, fueling a startlingly rapid industrialization in Europe and North America.  

The Factory of Light: Tales from My Andalucian Village by Michael Jacobs  

An optimistic and upbeat book of love for the author’s adopted home, it reminds one of some of the sublime, simple pleasures that make Spain so seductive and how some of life's greatest pleasures can be among the most simple.  

Bitter Canaan : The Story of the Negro Republic by Charles S. Johnson  

A well-crafted history of the West African nation of Liberia, this book is particularly useful in its highly-detailed account of the political convulsions that accompanied the first years of Africa-American arrival in this patch of Africa, from which the modern state would later emerge. A valuable primer.   

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King  

An interesting book looking at the French serial killer Dr. Marcel Petiot, there are nevertheless hints at what might have been a greater book within it, one that would focus less on police and court procedures and more on the demimonde of culture and conspiracy that existed in Paris during and after the German occupation.   

Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans by Jasmin Mujanovic  

An important work that clearly lays out the failure of the post-war pax europa in the Balkans as the United States and the European Union, rather than supporting the structural and systemic changes needed in the former Yugoslavia, instead opted to deal with habitually criminal and abusive local elites to buttress a predatory system as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin waits, sinister, in the wings. I learned a lot from this book.  

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz  

This memoir by one of Israel’s greatest writers (who passed away in 2018) is an often-wrenching depiction of both the birth of a nation and a family’s disintegration. A deep and thoughtful book.  

It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo  

A haunting book about a desperate flight from the hellscape that 20 years of chavismo has created in Venezuela, this book exquisitely elides the personal and political struggles of people forced to live under a creaking authoritarianism and trying against all odds to hold onto hope.

Michael Deibert interviewed by The Times (UK)

I was interviewed by The Times (UK) for an article on the recent New York Times investigation into the murder of Haiti president Jovenel Moïse. I stand by every word. The original article can be read here

Dossier of elite’s links to drug gangs ‘led to murder of Haitian president’

Jovenel Moïse’s killing by mercenaries may have been prompted by fears that he was about to name corrupt politicians

 
Jovenel Moïse was assassinated and his wife Martine injured at their home by mercenaries who may have been searching for a handwritten dossier detailing links between Haiti’s elite and organised crime
 
Even by the grim standards of Haiti, it was a brazen, brutal crime. Last July, a group of mercenaries stormed a hilltop villa overlooking Port-au-Prince: the private residence of the president. With little resistance from the guards outside, they made their way inside the mansion seeking their target, the 53-year-old Jovenel Moïse. The softly spoken head of state was standing defenceless in his bedroom. His wife was lying on the floor. He was murdered with 12 shots to his abdomen.  Five months later, no one has been charged. But last week, a possible motive for the killing e     merged, following an investigation by The New York Times. The raid, it concluded, was not simply a murder mission. The hired hands, mostly Colombian ex-soldiers, had been instructed to find a dossier, handwritten by Moïse, which detailed links between Haiti’s ruling elite and organised crime.

In the preceding months, Moïse had set about compiling the report, which he told his inner circle would “name names”. Convinced his power was being deliberately stifled by his enemies and that his life was in danger, he planned to hand it over to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the newspaper claimed.

The theory fits in with previously unexplained details from the night of his murder. Officials who went into the villa immediately after the killing, where they discovered Moïse’s corpse, also said his office and bedroom had been ransacked, with documents strewn across the floor.

The president’s wife, Martine Moïse, who said she survived by “playing dead” after being shot in the elbow by the gunmen, has described how she heard the killers searching for something specific on the shelves where her husband kept his files. “That’s not it, that’s not it. Ah, that’s it,” were the words she recalled the men saying, in Spanish, as they rifled through Moïse’s papers. One man was apparently on the phone to someone who appeared to be directing the search. Once they had found what they were looking for, they fled.

The Haitian police have since arrested more than 40 suspects. Those being held include 18 former Colombian soldiers and several Haitian police officers.

But the investigation into who ordered and financed Moïse’s killing has stalled. Suspicions have been cast everywhere, including in the direction of the acting prime minister, Ariel Henry. Phone records indicate that he spoke to one suspect on the night of the killing. Henry, 72, has dismissed all suggestions of his involvement.

Prior to entering politics, Moïse himself reportedly had dubious business connections with at least two men who have been directly linked with drug trafficking. One, Charles Saint-Rémy, is the brother-in-law of Moïse’s predecessor, Michel Martelly, who served as president from 2011 to 2016. Moïse and Martelly, a musician-turned-politician based in Miami, were once close allies. The assumption in some circles was that as Martelly was constitutionally barred from running for two consecutive terms, Moïse would “keep the bench warm” before Martelly returned to office.

However, soon after Moïse was installed, relations between the two men began to strain. “Jovenel felt he was being suffocated by Martelly,” was how one Haitian businessman with government connections described the friction last week.

One senior official Moïse inherited from his predecessor was the head of the presidential security, Dimitri Hérard, who Moïse distrusted and thought was spying on him. In February the unpopular president became convinced that a coup was being plotted.

It was then that Moïse reportedly began compiling a dossier to expose the murkiest side of Haitian crime and politics. A handful of aides were asked to start listing every detail of the country’s smuggling networks. The information was collated by Moïse, a stickler for keeping handwritten notes. In the weeks before he died, Moïse ordered his security forces to close an illegal airstrip that was used for drug shipments, perhaps the decision that sealed his fate.

On the night of his murder, Moïse’s assassins were let in by his guards, who were under the command of Hérard. Moïse made several frantic phone calls to aides, including Hérard, seeking help. None arrived.

“He believed he would likely be killed before the end of his term,” said the American author Michael Deibert, who interviewed the president several times.

Deibert doubts a Haitian president would be killed to obtain a list of drug dealers. “Surely everyone already knows who they are?” he said.

“Hand-in-hand with the political and economic elite, Haiti is run by a criminal monarchy and it has been for many years,” he said. “They control an infernal system whereby if you are not willing to be corrupt that system will, at best, reject you. At worst, it will destroy you.”

The months since the murder have seen Haiti descend into total lawlessness. Local security experts say 20 people are being kidnapped each day. In October, 17 members of a missionary group — including a baby and four children — were taken hostage after visiting an orphanage. Their abductors had demanded a $1 million ransom for each of them. All were eventually released, the final 12 were set free on Thursday. The assumption is that a ransom was paid.

Since the assassination, President Joe Biden has released an extra $50 million of support for police training. Washington is in talks with France and Canada over the possibility of helping Haiti set up an elite force to tackle the gangs. The international community has given about $13 billion of aid to Haiti in the past decade.

Deibert is pessimistic the criminality can be tackled if the murder of the head of state remains unsolved. “No Haitian in any position of power seems interested in finding out who killed the president,” he said. “That, in itself, is telling.”

 

Book Examines African Role in Western Prosperity

Book Examines African Role in Western Prosperity 

A longtime journalist takes a sweeping, centuries-long look at the economic results of African contact with Europeans 

By Michael Deibert 

November 26, 2021

Newlines Magazine

(Read the original article here)

Howard French’s new book, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War” (2021), is a panoramic work examining the epochal impact that early European contact with Africans produced from the 13th century onward and provides a deep and unflinching look at how the infernal machinery of slavery spread throughout the Americas, fueling a startlingly rapid industrialization in Europe and North America.

The book’s sweep covers such often-overlooked events as the visit to Cairo by the Mali Empire potentate Mansa Musa in 1324 at the head of a 60,000-delegation full of “pomp and largess” to the first tentative forays of Portuguese explorers in the 15th century.

In a historical moment when, particularly in the United States, a vibrant discussion is taking place about the framing and meaning of history, the book adroitly points out that in these early years, Europe, far from the bastion of enlightened thought and governance that it has often liked to present itself as, had seen at least one third of its population perish through the Black Death and predatory military classes dominate in countries like Portugal.

As much as seminal texts of African history such as Jan Vansina’s “Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo” and Thomas Reefe’s “The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891” depict tragedy, French’s book also serves as a kind of elegy for the cataclysmic effect that contact with Europeans had on African societies, many of whose monarchs were enthusiastic participants in the slave trade before the Europeans arrived but with considerable differences to how it later became known. When beseeching Europeans of questionable backgrounds suddenly appeared, the local leaders cagily tried to accommodate them while weighing their (seemingly fantastical) promises of great wealth, protection and salvation through Christianity, but as French writes, “in place after place chaos soon followed.”

When the Europeans crossed the Atlantic with their human cargo (Benguela, a port located in the west of what is today Angola, shipped off 700,000 slaves alone, mostly to Brazil), the results were little different. The Europeans exterminated whole societies through brutal work regimes and disease. Once the pool of native labor was extinguished, they institutionalized a fully racialized slavery, dotting bucolic Barbados with the heads of rebellious slaves rotting on pikes, in service of what French calls the “killer apparatus of modernity,” an image that will be familiar to scholars of this region. As industrial development leapfrogged into modernity in the West, what often went unexamined was the human toll on which that development was based.

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The American journalist Howard French was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957 and since 2008 has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 1990 to 2008, he served as the New York Times bureau chief for the Caribbean and Central America, for West and Central Africa, for Japan and the Koreas and for China.

Michael Deibert is a journalist who has focused especially on the Caribbean nation of Haiti and is the author of five books, most recently “When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico” (2019). He sat down to talk with Howard French about some of the larger issues his book raises.

Michael Deibert: When did you first decide that this book, connecting these threads of the history of Africa itself with the history of the African diaspora in the Americas, needed to be written and why?

Howard French: The proximate cause of why it came together in this form at this time was because my last book, which was about East Asia [“Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” published in 2017], was my first book of history and not written in a journalist’s voice at all. The effort showed me how much I like to work in this mode and how things that might have seemed in an earlier stage of my life unreasonable or unrealistic, with the right organization, were actually quite accessible to me. I work at a university now, I’m off the road as a reporter, and I have access to almost any book or document I would want to write about. But probably this question about how we arrived at modernity came to a head in that last book, which in East Asia is embedded in a huge array of political conversations, and these things all kind of pointed me down this path.

MD: I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but reading the book, one thing that certainly foregrounded itself in my mind is the particular cultural and political moment we’re living, certainly in the United States and perhaps to a lesser degree in Europe, where there’s a big discourse around Blackness and what it means and what the history of it and the telling of it means. We’re seeing it around this so-called discourse around critical race theory. Myself, I don’t see how saying the United States is based on slavery and genocide is controversial at all. That’s just basic history, it’s not a “theory.” When you rephrased “the scramble for Africa” as “the scramble for Africans,” it seemed like a much-needed corrective to that rosy-hued view of history we sometimes get.

HF: I definitely did not anticipate the present moment with any great degree of precision. I began to undertake the very deliberate, well-defined research into this book well before “1619” had come into the world. I was aware of the term critical race theory, and this was prior to its entry into the terminology of political war in our society. But I think we have a problem in the United States in first understanding and then accepting the reality that Africans and people of African descent for the most part have been very obviously at the center of our prosperity and at the center of our experience of freedom. The amount of energy that has been invested in the denial of these things I have kind of known all along. I have been inundated by readers — I can only assume, because they don’t state their race, that they are written by white men — that try somehow still to contort themselves out of these facts.

MD: I always tell people that in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I lived about 500 feet from where the last of the Susquehannock nation were massacred by a white mob at Christmas in 1763, which pretty much sums up the pre-Civil War history of the United States for me and some of the post-Civil War history as well.

Another aspect of the book I found very interesting, having lived in Brazil and been interested in Lusophone Africa before becoming interested in Portugal itself as a country, is how the impact of Portugal’s early colonial endeavors in West Africa and the Americas is addressed in the book. Would you agree that the impact of Portugal is often overlooked on this side of the Atlantic?

HF: This is one of the main threads of the book. The standard narratives we tell of this phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade are essentially, mostly wrong. In Britain, it is dominated by a narrative of “Yes, slavery was wrong but we, the British, were the heroes because we were responsible for getting rid of the slave trade.” And that skates over the fact that Britain dominated the slave trade and only relinquished its participation under very particular political and economic circumstances that are not in fact entirely flattering.

In the United States, and I think in Europe, for the most part, the story of the Age of Discovery, which is the story from which the transatlantic slave trade unfolds, is a story dominated by a Spanish narrative that Spain “discovered” the Americas and that modernity begins with Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, with Portugal reduced to a kind of bit player.

I think that is the opposite of the reality. In fact, Spain was driven to do the things that it did largely out of envy of Portugal’s success. Portugal discovered gold in Elmina [on the coast of what is now Ghana] in 1471, and within a decade, gold from Africa constituted half of Portugal’s income. It renders this heretofore fragile and very marginal player in Europe’s political landscape into an important country, and it injects African bullion into the European economy where it begins doing extraordinary things, including reinforcing circuits of trade between northern and southern Europe in powerful ways.

Spain sees all of this happening and decides it can’t let Portugal run away with the game. Seven years later, Spain sends a convoy of 35 ships to try to wrest this away from Portugal, and they have a huge naval battle, which Portugal wins. … And Spain then decides to fund Columbus.

I don’t think there’s any question that Portugal’s creation of the slave agricultural production model, which we now know as a plantation, is the most important discovery/innovation/invention of the age, far more important than Spain’s discovery of gold in places like Potosi. The plantation economy has tentacles that go in every direction in the economy in the North Atlantic that the purely extractive model does not. The influence of Portugal’s breakthrough in Brazil, via this chattel model of plantation slavery, its subsequent adoption first by the English in Barbados and Jamaica, the French adoption of it in Saint-Domingue [later Haiti] and the continental American adoption of it [and the subsequent] migration of slavery from the upper south to the Mississippi River Valley, sees an American economic revolution after the introduction of cotton in quantities that are just breathtaking.

MD: The interaction between the colonies in New England and those in the Caribbean also, in a way, freed the original colonies from depending on the British homeland and indirectly helped fuel a desire for independence for what became the United States.

HF: The original 13 colonies would not have been viable without the slave economies of the Caribbean. They are what made the 13 colonies prosperous. They couldn’t sell finished goods back to England, but they could sell them to the Caribbean. The sugar plantation economies of places like Barbados and Jamaica, the value of what was extracted from the land — that it made no sense to grow anything else — and the American colonial became a kind of service economy to feed, clothe and furnish people of the Caribbean.

MD: You touch on the work of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James in terms of the role Africans played in the creation of wealth in the West throughout the 19th century and industrialization in Europe. But in their time, the conventional wisdom was that Europe was dragging along these places in the Americas.

HF: Eric Williams’ thesis flew in the face of the national myth that the British had worked to establish their own principles and their own selflessness. It was corrosive to the comforting myths that the British have about themselves. But [part of the resistance] was about the temerity of a Black man telling this story. Black people don’t get to tell these stories often in history in very prominent ways. We don’t have a very deep history in the West of listening to versions of history told by Black people themselves. My book enters into a very small bibliography of books written by Black people about world history.

MD: One thing that was striking about the section on Haiti, which is something I’ve thought about a lot, is that the Haitians clearly seemed to take the “Déclaration des droits de l’homme” [Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the 1789 Enlightenment-inspired human rights document of France’s National Constituent Assembly] much more seriously than the French themselves did, which is an aspect that should be wider known among the general public.

HF: They not only took them far more seriously than the French did, but the French under Napoleon tried to reenslave the Haitians, an expedition all across the Atlantic trying to resubject Haitians to slavery. The Haitians were decades ahead of the Founding Fathers in embracing and fighting for and respecting this notion of universal freedom. They took this as self-evident from the very beginning and were willing to sacrifice everything for it.

MD: One could argue that some in the United States still have not accepted this, if one looks at, for example, the measures being enacted that are designed to prevent African Americans from voting today.

HW: I agree. In fact, you have prominent historians like Sean Wilentz expounding on this idea that the U.S. Constitution was an antislavery constitution. There’s this denial taking place at the highest level of intellectual life of this country — not to mention in Trumpland — that the United States has always been about freedom. But we are trying to establish a record based on facts. That’s all.

MD: For me, in some ways, the most perplexing and troubling character in early U.S. history is Thomas Jefferson. Following the uprising in Haiti, he presciently saw that revolts could take place in the United States. There is this incredible intellectual disconnect between these evolved ideas of rights and liberty and humanity while also supporting the removal of Native Americans from their land, sending huge contingents of slaves west and south as if that will somehow solve the slavery problem and who was a slave owner himself. You wonder sometimes how these ideas existed in the same person.

HW: I would say the prosperity, the luxury, the leisure, the education and simply the time that allowed Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and an entire generation of people from Virginia, to think about these noble ideas about freedom that we so celebrate — rightly, but incompletely — were the fruits of slavery. Jefferson would not have been known as a genius without slavery, he would not have had the time to do the things he did. Privilege blinds people, and Jefferson lived a life embedded in privilege, and privilege now and privilege then makes it difficult for people to understand [that] the way the world is isn’t simply the way they see it.