Friday, September 26, 2008

This is our moment

Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, September 2008. (Photo by Benjamin Deibert)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Haiti Is Going From Catastrophe to Catastrophe"

"Haiti Is Going From Catastrophe to Catastrophe"

Michael Deibert interviews Chavannes Jean-Baptiste

Inter Press Service

NEW YORK, Sep 23, 2008 (IPS) - Peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste has been at the forefront of the struggles of Haiti's peasants for over 35 years. Born in the village of Papay in Haiti's Plateau Central, Jean-Baptiste helped found the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) peasant union as well as the Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (MPNKP), the latter a 200,000-member national congress of peasant farmers and activists.Jean-Baptiste's role is an important one in a nation where, over the past 50 years, 90 percent of the tree cover has been destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming, with resulting erosion destroying two-thirds of the country's arable farmland.

For his work on behalf of Haiti's peasantry, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste was awarded the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize, sponsored by the Goldman Environmental Foundation, the world's largest prize for grassroots environmentalists.

In recent weeks, a series of hurricanes have struck Haiti, killing what is thought to be hundreds of people and devastating the country's already-decrepit infrastructure. The United Nations now estimates that 800,000 people are in need of emergency food aid. Haiti is currently the location of a U.N. peacekeeping force numbering over 9,000 uniformed personnel.

IPS correspondent Michael Deibert, who covered Haiti as a journalist from 2000 until 2006, sat down with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste during his recent visit to the United States. The interview was conducted in Haitian Kreyol in Brooklyn, New York, on Sep. 14, 2008.

Read the full interview here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Congo: Between Hope and Despair

Congo: Between Hope and Despair

By Michael Deibert

(The following the complete text of my article on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo that appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of the World Policy Journal.)

RUTSHURU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO—In the middle of a schoolyard in this war-torn corner of eastern Congo, a village of fragile tarpaulin has sprung up amid the weed-choked gravel. Surrounded by children in ragged clothing, Bonaparte Kananzo, a farmer, steps forward to explain what has brought the local population, now refugees in their own country, to this pass.

“We arrived here at the beginning of February,” explains Kananzo, who says that some 1,000-plus villagers trekked here through the lush mountains of North Kivu province fleeing fighting between forces loyal to the government of Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, and the army of renegade general Laurent Nkunda. An ethnic Tutsi, Nkunda leads the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP), a politico-military organization.

“The war in Kivu brought a lot of insecurity to our town, a lot of violence against women and other things,” says Kananzo. “People are afraid to return home.”

It has been two years since the international community, led by the United States and the European Union, spent tens of millions of dollars organizing the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) first democratic elections in 40 years, which solidified Joseph Kabila’s rule and marked the end of the main phase of Congo’s civil war. The war was a conflict which, according to a report released in January by the International Rescue Committee relief organization, killed an estimated 5.4 million people between August 1998 and April 2007— many from health-related concerns caused by the social and economic disruption of the ongoing conflict. Since the formal end of Congo’s 1998–2002 civil war, about 2.1 million have died from similar causes, the report said, with, at present, some 45,000 dying monthly.

As if to underline the gravity of Kananzo’s words—that intense combat and attendant atrocities, including widespread rape and the forced recruitment of child soldiers, have succeeded in emptying whole villages—the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that, since 2003, some 800,000 people have been displaced by fighting in North Kivu out of a population of 4.2 million, or roughly one in five individuals.

In addition to the CNDP and Congolese government forces, two other armed groups operate and frequently clash in the region: the government’s local paramilitary allies such as the Patriotes Résistants Congolais (Congolese Resistance Patriots, PARECO), and the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR)—a group comprised mainly of ethnic Hutus with its roots in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

A Century of Blood

Congo’s bloody decades must be seen in the broader context of Central Africa’s regional conflicts that have left vast territories traumatized and victimized by rebel forces that sweep across borders, often with the complicity of governments that have profited from the terror and violence.

Congo—a nation as vast as Western Europe and dotted with rich reserves of cobalt, coltan, copper, diamonds, and gold —is a case study in human avarice, vanity, and misrule. With its western reaches comprising part of an African empire for centuries, by 1877, Congo was occupied by the forces of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

As brutal a tyrant as Africa has ever seen, Leopold, though cloaking his presence in the guise of a civilizing mission, instituted mutilation and massacre as the rules of the day while extracting huge quantities of rubber. After Leopold reluctantly relinquished his personal administration of the territory to his nation’s civilian bureaucrats in 1908, the Congolese were governed by colonial functionaries until independence in 1960. One of the heroes of that independence, Prime Minister Patrice Émery Lumumba, was killed the following year, and General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu seized power in a military coup in 1965, ruling the nation until his ouster in 1997.

Mobutu subsequently renamed Congo as Zaire and dubbed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”). Mobutu’s three decades of brutal kleptocratic rule saw the country virtually disintegrate: inflation, unemployment, illiteracy, and infant mortality rates sky-rocketed, while the dictator and his cronies enriched themselves. The name “Zaire,” incidentally, died with his ouster as the nation reverted to Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Recent events have been little kinder to Congo. Following the mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighboring Rwanda by Hutu extremists there in 1994 —and because of the subsequent success of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in wresting power from the authors of the genocide—an estimated two million refugees flooded into eastern Congo. Mixed in among them were many high-ranking figures in the brutal interahamwe Hutu militias that had taken the lead in organizing the genocidal massacres in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilian refugees feared RPF reprisals. The interahamwe, direct precursors of today’s FDLR who spread terror in vast reaches of eastern Congo, created spheres of influence in the squalid refugee camps of the provinces of North and South Kivu, from where they launched cross- border attacks against Rwanda’s new government and harassed local Congolese Tutsis known as Banyamulenge.

Mobutu, echoing the behavior of King Leopold II, had by this point ruled Congo for three decades as little more than a personal fiefdom, and allowed these génocidaires, as they were known, to go about their murderous business largely unmolested, much to the chagrin of the ruling government in Rwanda. In late 1996, using a rebellion by the Banyamulenge as cover, an umbrella group of Congolese rebel factions calling themselves the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) launched an insurgency to oust Mobutu with extensive Rwandan and Ugandan backing. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni were both eager to see the duplicitous Mobutu fall so that they might pursuetheir own interests in Congo—a country of vast mineral wealth.

With longtime rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila at the helm, the AFDL and their foreign patrons made quick progress across Congo’s vast interior, marching westward to the capital, Kinshasa, with tacit approval provided by the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, still stung by its failure to do anything to halt the Rwandan genocide two years earlier.

Tens of thousands (and possibly hundreds of thousands) of Hutu refugees are
thought to have been slain in eastern and central Congo as the AFDL and Rwandan security forces pursued the interahamwe and their civilian human shields through the forests and jungles of the region. Largely painted in the West in simplistic terms of good vs. evil, the rebellion against Mobutu was anything but a simple homegrown revolution, and in fact represented the extension and continuation of a brutal policy of ethnic warfare that would soon engulf the entire country.

Kabila‘s Gunpoint Diplomacy

Once Kabila ascended to power, however, relations with his Rwandan and Ugandan backers cooled rapidly. Apparently feeling that he had solidified his political base within Congo enough to jettison his foreign supporters—a conviction that would prove a bad miscalculation—Kabila ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan military units to depart Congo in August 1998.

Following their departure, and in apparent response to this order, a rebel group calling itself the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), made up of Banyamulenge and other ethnic groups and operating with extensive Rwandan and Ugandan backing, took up arms in North Kivu province.

Kabila, in a dizzying about-face, en-listed the help of the very same interahamwe remnants his forces had once pursued through the region to defend his tottering government. With rebellion also erupting in the west of the country, Kabila recruited the governments of Angola, Namibia, and Zim-babwe to his side, and these forces, combined with still-loyal elements of the Congolese army, succeeded in stemming the rebel advance.

At the same time, in northern Congo, a new rebel group, the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC), another partial creation of the Ugandan government, also appeared.

In August 1999, following a faltering series of peace talks, a split between the Rwandan and Ugandan factions within the RCD resulted in the two sides turning their weapons on one another in the central town of Kisangani, which lies astride the Congo River and is bitterly immortalized by V. S. Naipaul in his 1979 novel, A Bend in the River.

With the Rwandans and Ugandans squaring off against one another at various points across the country, the war expanded rapidly northward to the hitherto largely peaceful Ituri region. An amalgam of ethnic and linguistic groups like much of Congo, the dominant tribes in Ituri had traditionally been the Lendu, a group composed mainly of farmers who arrived from southern Sudan centuries before; and the Hema, a Nilotic people who came to the area more recently and devoted themselves to livestock grazing. The two had co-existed in a tense calm for many years, helping to form a tapestry that had encompassed other ethnic groups such as the Ngiti, who are sometimes associated with the Lendu, and the Gegere, sometimes linked to the Hema.

With the rest of Congo engulfed in war, the tensions between the Lendu and Hema erupted into violence in 1999, in a conflict that would last until 2007 and claim at least 60,000 lives. Rwanda and Uganda again proved only too happy tosupply men and arms to shore up local militias such as the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), which claimed to be defending the interests of the Hema and Gegere, and the Forces de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri (FRPI) and Front Nationaliste et Intégrationniste (FNI), which pretended to defend the interests of the Lendu and Ngiti people.

Growing Pains

Although the conflict in Congo continues most vigorously in the provinces of North and South Kivu in the east—a mineral-rich region of looming mountains, fertile pastures, and mist-shrouded volcanoes—the rest of the country has not been spared occasionally violent outbreaks that, while dismissed as the growing pains of a country emerging from decades of dictatorship by some, are viewed by others as signs of a deeper malaise at the heart of the international community’s involvement in the country.

In March 2008, Titinga Frédéric Pacéré, an independent United Nations expert for human rights, lamented Congo’s situation. Some 14,200 rape cases were registered in South Kivu alone between 2005 and 2007, Pacéré reported, while only 287 were taken to court. The decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council not to renew Pacéré’s mandate to continue working in the country has subsequently drawn vigorous criticism from human rights quarters.

Congolese security forces, meanwhile launched a scorched-earth campaign against the Bundu dia Kongo (“Kingdom of Kongo” in the Kikongo language, BDK) in the western province of Bas-Congo, torching and looting BDK strongholds throughout the province. The BDK, who only nominally acknowledge central state authority, have as their stated goal the reunification of Kingdom of Kongo, an empire that existed in various incarnations for nearly 500 years until the early twentieth century, encompassing swaths of what is now Angola, Gabon, the Republic of Congo (a former French colony once called Congo- Brazzaville), as well as the DRC. A June
2008 report on the violence published by the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said that at least 100 people were killed in the clashes and noted that “the high death toll resulted, in large part, from unwarranted or excessive use of force.”

During a trip through Bas-Congo at the height of the violence, I frequently encountered individuals dressed in Congolese police uniforms speaking Lingala, the lingua franca of Congo’s army, who attested that they had been sent from Kinshasa to contain unrest there. Lorries full of armed men ferried police equipped with Uzi submachine guns and automatic weapons with fixed bayonets through country crossroads.

“There is a cleavage between east and west when you look at the election results,” says Theodore Trefon, who directs the Contemporary History Section at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. Trefon points to President Kabila’s roots in the eastern province of Katanga, over 1,000 miles away from the DRC’s capital of Kinshasa, and where English and Swahili are spoken, as opposed to Lingala, Kikongo, and French in the west. “This is representative of a deep- rooted issue.”

Ethnic Enigmas

The current president, Joseph Kabila, who assumed office following the assassination of his father in 2001, remains something of an enigma. Said to be shy and reserved, the 38- year-old president goes for weeks at a time without making public appearances or statements, leading Congo’s rumor mill, always active on matters of political intrigue, to engage in frequent public speculation about possible ill-health or even plots against his life. Despite his seeming elusiveness, Kabila has surprised many with his adroit hand when it comes to international relations, deftly balancing allies such as Angola and Zimbabwe while also engaging potentially hostile states like Rwanda.

He has also shown great savvy in attracting foreign investment to boost the country’s economy, battered by a decade of war and Mobutu’s 30 years of larcenous rule. Just days ahead of an important EU-Africa summit held in Lisbon, Portugal, last December, the Chinese government announced a $5 billion loan to Congo, one of many such trade projects that Kabila’s government has overseen in its two years of democratically elected rule.

However, many of these investments have themselves been controversial. The activities of the Australian company Anvil Mining, for example, have come under close scrutiny: in October 2004, at least 73 people were killed when Congolese soldiers raided the town of Kilwa, in response to a half-dozen self-declared “rebels”from an obscure group that had appeared in the village. A quartet of human right organizations, including the London-based Global Witness, have charged that Anvil, the leading copper producer in the DRC, provided logistical support to the army during the siege, including allowing use of its company cars to transport bodies of those killed in summary executions and to ferry stolen goods looted by soldiers. Investigators for the United Nations mission were later able to confirm that three of the company’s drivers were behind the wheel of Anvil Mining vehicles used by the Congolese army during the raid. Similarly, the South African company AngloGold Ashanti has been accused of fostering links to the FNI militia to ensure the security of mining operations in Ituri during that region’s armed conflict.

The UN peacekeeping force in Congo (the world’s largest at some 17,000 troops), meanwhile, has also come under criticism since its creation in 1999. UN peacekeepers were linked to a gold smuggling enterprise with local militias in Ituri in 2005, and a 2004 internal UN report concluded that sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls by both military and civil elements of the force appeared to be “significant, widespread and ongoing.”

The State of Modern-Day Congo

Today, a largely undefended population is at the mercy of competing armed factions; natural resources are being looted by avaricious multinationals with precious little oversight; the UN mission is at once under- manned, ineffective, bloated, and unresponsive; and the nominally elected government shows a commitment to representative democracy that is, at best, questionable.

Perhaps things did not have to be this way. Cold-War era backing for the Mobutu dictatorship was followed by the callous foreign policy of a Clinton administration that uncritically lauded Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni as they supported the AFDL rebels’ bloody march across Congo. More than a decade of violence has followed, shredding an already fragile kaleidoscope of diverse ethnic groups that have been compressed within the country’s largely arbitrary, European-drawn borders. Congo’s African neighbors— especially overpopulated and resource-poor Uganda and Rwanda, though also Angola and Zimbabwe—are more than eager to throw political and military support behind ethnic factions in the DRC in an attempt to carve it into spheres of influence. Foreign companies, equally keen to profit from
Congo’s resources, have legitimized some of the worst human rights abusers in the country in their desire to exploit natural resources. And the international community is also culpable: anxious to write off Congo’s 2006 elections as a success, it continues to turn a blind eye to some of the more troubling signals sent by the behavior of Congo’s young president and those around him towards forces who would oppose his government.

If Congo’s future is to be different from its tragic past, there is much to be done. But time is running out when international intervention can still turn the tide toward a true democratic system where violence is suppressed before it can threaten the way of life of millions of innocent men, women, and children. Among the ingredients of a potential antidote to the country’s ills, would certainly be a more robust, transparent, and responsive United Nations mission; greater international diplomatic engagement to insure the right of expression and dissent for Congo’s diverse opposition; and an active and sustained campaign to demand accountability of the foreign companies doing business there.

Trapped between these competing forces, the Congolese people know only that the suffering that has seemed assured to them in recent years is continuing with precious little abatement.

Peace at Last?

In Bulengo, a camp for internally displaced persons reached from North Kivu’s provincial capital of Goma via a rough ride in a 4x4 down a dirt road, a group of children are performing traditional dances and singing in the Hunde language of eastern Congo to celebrate the installation of a new committee to advocate on behalf of those living in the camp. They are watched over by adults who, unlike them, can remember a time when life held the promise of something other than deprivation and seemingly endless war.

“All of these groups have caused a massive flight of the population here,” says Chantal Lenga, 32, dressed in a distinctive brightly colored blouse, or libaya. Referring to the combatants as she watches the ceremony, she adds. “Before the war, all of these communities lived together without any problems.”

Nearby, Baguma Bashombana, a diminutive, pygmy farmer dressed in tattered clothes, who arrived in the camp with 150 members of his community, echoes her words.

“The children, the fathers, the mothers, we are all hungry,” says Bashombana. “These fighters have all been negative forces that have menaced us.”

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005). He has reported on Africa for a variety of publications since 2007 and served as the Democratic Republic of Congo correspondent for the Inter Press Service.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Distilling the ties between Bacardi and Cuba

Posted on Sun, Sep. 14, 2008

Distilling the ties between Bacardi and Cuba

By Michael Deibert

The Miami Herald

Tom Gjelten. Viking. 480 pages. $27.95.

(Read the original article here)

When a Catalan merchant named Facundo Bacardi purchased an underperforming rum distillery in Santiago de Cuba in 1862, he likely could little have imagined how vast his business venture would one day become, nor how intertwined its rise would be with the fate of a nation.

The story of Facundo and his descendants is the focus of the new book by National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten, who seeks in his narrative to view much of Cuba's history through the microcosm of a single sprawling, occasionally squabbling Cuban family. He is largely successful in painting an engaging portrait of a vibrant though often tragic national trajectory.

Gjelten writes that what made the family-held company unique was its ''intertwining of nationalist and capitalist identities.'' These dual strands never coalesce with greater passion than in Emilio Bacardi, Facundo's son and the dominant figure in the first half of the book. Twice imprisoned by the Spanish and subsequently Santiago de Cuba's first Cuban-born mayor and a national senator, Emilio represents perhaps the greatest flowering of these complementary identities. A fine portrait is likewise drawn of the corrupt playground Cuba became under presidents Ramón Grau San Martin and Fulgencio Batista.

Gjelten does not paint the island in stark primary colors of good and evil, instead portraying a Cuba of imperfect patriots, conflicted loyalties and sometimes disastrous rebellions. Fidel Castro's ill-advised nationalization of businesses finally succeeds in driving the Bacardis out in a melancholy coda to a business identity that always seemed inextricably linked with the soil on which it was founded.

The book has some shortcomings, as Gjelten appears to have gotten a little too close to his subject and thereby lost some of the objectivity that is so important in such a definitive undertaking. The Bacardi family is almost always portrayed as selfless, while the company's workers are often portrayed as difficult and opportunistic, though Gjelten does make a point of expounding upon the stark inequalities between Cuba's rural poor and urban elite.

The family squabbles that mark the narrative once the Bacardis move to the United States prove nowhere near as engaging as the chronicle of revolution, politics and commerce that precedes it, though the company's ability to get a pro-Bacardi amendment inserted into the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1999 vividly illustrates how powerful corporations can bend legislation to suit their interests.

One is left with the sense that Cuba was a nation of missed opportunities. The original Bacardi credo of responsible civic engagement, one that the powerful in both Cuba and the United States could do well to remember, is perhaps best summed by lines that Emilio Bacardi penned following the start of the U.S. occupation of Cuba at the close of the 19th century: ``The obligation of those in authority is to be at the service of those who suffer. It is not for those who suffer to be at the disposition of those who command.''

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A good speech by Joe Biden that never made it onto television

"When you lose your job, it's not just about your job, it's not just about your home, it's not just about whether you can take care of getting your kid to college...It's about your dignity, it's about your identity."


Friday, September 05, 2008

Looking for Walt Whitman's America in Saint Paul

Amidst days of writing and swimming off the coast of Belize, at the conclusion of a long trip through Central America, I tuned into the Republic convention, broadcast from Saint Paul, Minnesota, in my native United States.

How to describe what awaited me? In their nomination of Arizona Senator John McCain for the Republican presidential ballot, the party of Abraham Lincoln put on a stomach-churning display of vainglorious militarism, moral hypocrisy and hysterical speechifying that seemed designed to do nothing so much as deepen the divisions that already exist in a very polarized country.

Watching former Massachusetts governor and failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the billionaire son of a former Michigan governor who has never had to break a sweat doing a day’s work in his life, rant against “liberals” and “timid, liberal empty gestures,” was an experience rich in irony. Former Tennessee Senator and television mediocrity Fred Thompson told the audience that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was "the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for President." Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at least came across as a human being, but the Republicans’ much-heralded Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, by trying to paint herself as the darling of small-town America, appeared to equate being from a small town with being small-minded, a continuation of the proud ignorance that appears to be the Republican party’s standard fare these days. As someone who grew up in working-class Pennsylvania, Palin reminded me not of the values of hard work that I saw there, but rather of the worst nasty, gossipy tendencies and insularity that sometimes came along with them. Palin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actress who played “Elaine” on the television show Seinfeld and possesses a grating, nasal whine of a voice, mocked Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago and went on to commit herself to overturning the Bill of Rights by saying that Obama, in dealing with suspected terrorists, is “worried that someone won’t read them their rights,” as if a lawless nation is something that Americans should be proud of.

John McCain, for his part, was content to allow his convention to denounce anything bipartisan, and seemingly anything modern, in an attempt to define patriotism solely in military terms and with a geometry that focuses on those to be excluded from the American family, not those included. The focus on McCain’s heroic service in Vietnam was particularly ironic as it was lauded by the very same people who lied and slandered Senator John Kerry, a three-time Purple Heart winner, when Kerry was running for the presidency in 2004. Coupled with the non-stop attacks on the press (“liberal,” “elite,” etc) at a convention nominating a candidate who has courted that very same press more enthusiastically than perhaps any other member of Congress, the effect was surreal and matched perhaps only by the seeming hoped-for amnesia of a party promising “change” that had been in charge of the presidency for the last eight years and both houses of Congress for much of that time, as well.

What a contrast, I thought, with Barack Obama’s declaration at the Democratic Convention in Denver that "patriotism has no party" and that "the men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America."

McCain’s claims in his speech last night that the fact that he and Obama are both Americans is the distinction that means most to him was a statement that flew in the face of the fact that his supporters spent three nights trashing Obama, Democrats and urban America as a whole. Indeed, the struggles of America’s working-class went almost unmentioned during the convention, after which it was announced the that unemployment rate in the United States - after eight years of Republican rule - had jumped to 6.1% , with 84,000 jobs lost in august and 605,000 jobs lost thus far this year.

The raging, angry, insular, overwhelmingly white Republican Party of John McCain does not reflect the America I know, the towns and cities that raised me, and the values that I found there. It says nothing to me of the country’s scientific or artistic prowess, its history as a beacon for immigrants or its famous encouraging of individual initiative.

The effect was particularly jarring as I watched the convention at the same time as reading Jerome Loving’s biography of Walt Whitman, a real American patriot and visionary who, had he been alive today, would no doubt have been equally derided and denounced by the frothing crowd in Saint Paul for his intellectual and secular humanistic bents (to say nothing of his homosexuality), despite his history of physical labour and his endless hours spent nursing wounded soldiers in the military of hospitals of Washington, DC during the Civil War.

As I watched the delegates in Minnestotra salute the stage in a quasi-facist raising of cowboy hats, I thought of Whitman’s expansive definition of our nation in his most famous poem, Song of Myself, and how it stood in contrast to the intolerance vision on display before me:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff
that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth...

After such a display as I have witnessed over the last couple of days, John McCain’s much-vaunted reputation and honor seem too be worth little more than a cardboard tombstone, perhaps made of one of the vitriol-spewing, sloganeering signs waved by the delegates at the convention in St. Paul.

If my country falls for the bitter, cynical display that I have watched over the last several nights from the Republican Party, the reputation of the United States will be well on its way to joining it.

Let us hope that some wisdom will prevail.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Postcard from Belize

After traveling on three boats and a bus, we arrived in the idyllic and largely deserted town of Plancencia, ambling out to meet the Caribbean waves here in Belize. It has been a long journey, one that has brought us face to face with many of the joys and difficulties of modern Central America, from Nicaragua's radiant towns and warm people facing down a cynical and corrupt political elite, to Guatemala continuing in the grip of hidden armed groups with links to current and former military officials, teetering on the edge of collapsing into the hands of drug traffickers.

The region remains stunning in its natural settings, with mist-shrouded hills, great mountain lakes and seductive stretches of Caribbean coastline along which Landino, Garifuna and indigenous cultures blend in an appealing potpourri. The politics, however, remain troubling.

Watching Barack Obama's stirring, emotional and intelligent speech from a hotel room in Guatemala, in the shadow of a lovely ochre-hued colonial church, and recently seeing snatches of the Republican convention on television, where an overwhelmingly white crowd saluted the stage with cowboy hats in a gesture that to this white, working-class boy was shockingly reminiscent of the fascist salutes of old, one is reminded of how much work there is left to do in the world.

Times and needs are changing and we must change with them. A sunset and the lilt of reggae tonight, and tomorrow to work once again.