Thursday, November 26, 2009

Image from Bali

Recently returned from giving a lecture on security sector reporting to the Indonesian Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Bali, perhaps my most vivid, jet-lagged memory of the place, aside from its gracious people, is of the hypnotizing rice fields in the countryside there. Here is one of them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pro-Castro mob attacks spouse of top Cuban blogger

(I am not in the habit of repeating stories that appeared in other venues verbatim on this site, but I believe the ongoing attacks against Yoani Sanchez - whose blog Generación Y I link to on this site - and her husband Reinaldo Escobar by agents of Cuba's ossifying dictatorship warrant it in this case. MD )

Pro-Castro mob attacks spouse of top Cuban blogger

By Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer

Fri Nov 20 2009, 8:38 pm ET

HAVANA – The husband of an acclaimed dissident Cuban blogger was punched and shouted down by a pro-government mob Friday after he challenged the presumed state agents who earlier roughed up his wife to a street corner debate.

As he promised earlier on his blog, Reinaldo Escobar went to the intersection of Havana's 23rd and G avenues for the proposed discussion. On Thursday, Escobar's wife posted President Barack Obama's responses to her written questions on Cuba-U.S. relations on her "Generacion Y" blog.

Escobar was waiting with at least two companions when he got into an argument with another man. What appeared to a prearranged group of government supporters then moved in, screaming obscenities. They hit him and slapped him in the head and pulled his hair and shirt, but never knocked him down.

Soon, Escobar and the others were surrounded by men thought to be state security agents who protected them as they walked about two blocks. All around, Cubans pushed and screamed "Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!" and "Get out worm!" slang for Cuban-American exiles.

At one point, a band organized as part of a nearby street festival joined the mob, marching through flower beds on the median of a boulevard. The music added an odd soundtrack to a tense situation.

After about 10 minutes, Escobar and the others were placed in unmarked cars and driven away.

Ahead of Escobar's arrival Friday, Cuba's Young Communists Union organized a street book fair on the same corner, blocking off traffic.

It was unclear if the security agents who came Friday where the same ones who presumably assaulted his wife, Yoani Sanchez, two weeks earlier. After the incident, Escobar challenged the alleged assailants to a verbal duel.

Sanchez answered the phone at the couple's apartment moments after Friday's bedlam, but hung up without confirming where her husband was taken. Pro-government "acts of repudiation" against dissidents happen a few times a year. Usually, state security gives opposition activists a ride home after a few minutes to keep things from getting too violent.

"This street is Fidel's!" the mob shouted. They eventually chanted the name of the current president, Raul Castro, who replaced Fidel in February of 2008.

A government press agent came to the aid of an Associated Press Television cameraman after a member of the mob shoved him from behind and grabbed his camera. The culprit later apologized, then was led away by another group of men.

For about 10 minutes after Escobar was gone, the crowd continued to chant "Fidel! Fidel!" for international news cameras. Then it dispersed quietly.

On Nov. 6, Sanchez was walking to a nonviolence march when two men in plainclothes forced her into an unmarked sedan, pulled her hair and kicked her. The incident occurred at the same street corner where Escobar was hit and slapped Friday, and Sanchez says state security agents were involved.

The confrontation was so violent, Sanchez said she thought the men might kill her, but instead they dropped her off near her apartment.

She vowed on her blog to keep writing caustic, often witty criticism of the struggles of daily life on an island where there is no freedom of speech or assembly — and people endure shortages of even basic food.

On Thursday, she posted the U.S. president's answers to her written questions but, like nearly all sites critical of the Cuban government, access is blocked on the island.

In the posted responses, Obama said he isn't interested in "talking for the sake of talking" with Raul Castro and indicated he won't visit the island until the communist government changes its ways.

Escobar has his own blog, which is also blocked on the island.

Cuba tolerates no official opposition to its single-party communist system and dismisses nearly everyone who criticizes its government publicly as paid mercenaries of Washington.

Earlier this year, Time magazine named Sanchez — whose blog gets about 1 million hits a month — one of the world's 100 most influential people. Twice this year, she has been denied permission to leave Cuba to collect international journalism prizes.

(Photo: Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of dissident Cuban blogger Yoanis Sanchez, center, is taking away by unidentified men in Havana, Friday, Nov. 20, 2009. Escobar was punched, slapped and shouted down by government supporters in downtown Havana.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A note on Joseph H. Deibert

Joseph H. Deibert (b. 1919), my grandfather and a man who cared about social justice, whether in Rosario and Buenos Aires in Argentina, in Mayagüez in Puerto Rico, in Sunset Park in Brooklyn or in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, passed away last evening. He will be missed.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Women’s untold stories: An interview with Taslima Nasrin

5 November 2009

Women’s untold stories

By Michael Deibert

Le Monde diplomatique

(Read the original article here)

The Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, 47, has the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the Unesco Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. Nasrin is an outspoken feminist and secularist, and a stern critic of the role of religion in the oppression of women and the poor. She worked as a physician in Bangladesh’s understaffed public hospitals before her exile in Europe and the US in 1994.

Since she published her first book Shikore Bipul Khudha (Demands) in 1986, Nasrin’s works, including Lajja (translated into English as Shame), have offended Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh, and the government has banned some of them. In 2004 she settled in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, which has a Bengali-language intellectual tradition. There she ran into trouble with Indian fundamentalists. In 2007 she was assaulted while attempting to speak at a book release event in Hyderabad; among her assailants were members of India’s Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen party, including Indian lawmakers. In Kolkata, religious decrees called for her death and there were violent protests. Nasrin was therefore forced to move to the capital, New Delhi, before once again seeking exile in Europe in March 2008.

Michael Deibert spoke to her in Paris.

MD: Can you tell me what inspired you to become a writer?

TN: I studied medicine, my father was a doctor, and he inspired me. I wanted to be an artist, but when I studied medicine, I really liked it. I always believed in signs, and I had a rational, logical mind, so I became a doctor. I had a practice in public hospitals, but unfortunately I had to quit my job because the government asked me to stop writing if I wanted to continue working in public hospitals, they didn’t like it. As a doctor, I could treat the patients, but as a writer my work was a prescription for a sick society. Lots of people were influenced by my writing, they became agnostic or atheist or secular, and also very aware of their rights and freedoms.

MD: How would you describe the political and social situation in Bangladesh today?

TN: The situation is ever worse. All the politicians use religion for their own interests. They want to get votes from ignorant masses. They don’t think of improving women’s conditions, or economic conditions, or social conditions, even though 80% live below the poverty line, and not many women have access to education or politics. Whoever comes into power, man or woman, from whatever party, they are corrupt, they are hypocrites, and they don’t do anything for women’s equality. They keep Muslim religious law, which is oppressive to women, only to please the fundamentalists, but don’t take action against them even though they are a big threat to the progress of the society and to the equality of women. Half of the population is female, but women don’t have jobs and are forced to stay at home. This economic condition is not good for the country.

MD: How would you characterise the reception your books received in Bangladesh?

TN: People either loved me very much or they hated me very much; there was no middle ground. I got a lot of support and solidarity from the people who were truly secular and humanist. As long as I was writing about oppression of women or criticising traditional customs and culture, I got lots of support. But when I criticised Islam, then I lost support.

It was very difficult to criticise Islam in a Muslim country. Of course, I don’t just criticise Islam, I criticise all religions. But when I criticised Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism for oppression of women, I had no problem; nobody came to kill me. When I criticised Islam, they issued fatwas and put a price on my head. And the government threw me out.

MD: Can you describe the circumstances of your exile?

TN: It happened in 1994. I was in hiding in Bangladesh; the government filed a case against me, claiming that my books hurt people’s religious feelings. I had to go into hiding because prison was not safe for me – my lawyer told me that I must not be arrested because the police might kill me. It was difficult. I got support from western countries, from the European parliament, and from the US. I was granted bail and I had to leave. From then, I moved around in Europe, but life was never easy: I was a Bengali writer, not a writer who writes in a European language, so it was very difficult.

Exile was like waiting at a stop for a bus to get home. After 10 years the bus came, but I couldn’t go back to Bangladesh, so I went to the Bengali part of India, where I could speak the language, where we had the same culture and where I had my publisher and friends. I settled there in 2004. But after three or four years I was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in India, and 10,000 people came on to the streets and demanded my deportation. I was physically attacked in 2007 in Hyderabad; before that I had been attacked in 1993 in Bangladesh at a book fair, where they destroyed a shop and burned my books publicly.

I always had police protection in India. But in Hyderabad, the organiser who invited me to release my book there didn’t provide police protection. After the programme I was about to leave, but 100 or so Muslim fundamentalists started screaming at me in Telugu (a local language), which I don’t understand, except (for the prophet’s name) Muhammad. They started throwing whatever they could find, chairs and things, at me. I thought I would be killed. I was very sure about that. I was really, really scared. I didn’t want to lose my life in that way. The police saved me. Some people tried to close the doors, but they were breaking down the doors and shouting that they would kill me. It felt like a decade passing.

Later I heard they were members of parliament present, but nobody was punished. They said: “We are sad we couldn’t kill her today, but next time we will kill her.” That was broadcast and no one was punished for that.

MD: What was your status in India?

TN: I had a residence permit. When I came back to Kolkata, where I was living, the Chief Minister of Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was constantly asking me to leave the state, and sent policemen to tell me to leave the state and even the country. I said “no,” because I knew leaving the country meant the West, and India was my adopted country. I didn’t want to leave. So the government put me under house arrest in Calcutta, I wasn’t allowed to leave. Then violent protests started and they bundled me out and put me in a cantonment in New Delhi, where I was also under house arrest. The Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, came to me and said that I must leave. I told him I would not leave: if they wanted to put me in prison, fine, I was not leaving. He was very, very angry.

I finally had to leave in March 2008 because my health was getting very bad. I asked my friends to bring all my belongings from Kolkata to Delhi, and the government put them in storage. I don’t know where the storage is. (The Indian government) gave me a residence permit on condition that I don’t live in the country, so it’s a meaningless permit.

MD: How did you arrive in Paris?

TN: Paris is the first city of my life outside of the Indian sub-continent. I came here a long time ago when I was invited to talk about press freedom. My books were published in French. I was invited by FNAC, and by the Nouvel Observateur.

MD: Why do you think it’s important to have a discussion about the role of religion in public life?

TN: I have seen how women suffer because of religion, and because of religious law; if we can have secular law, and a uniform civil code based on equality, then women wouldn’t suffer so much. My writing is not only about religion; it also criticises anti-female traditions and culture.

When I was in India, I wrote that Hindu culture is very discriminatory against women. Nobody punished me for that. Yet they branded me as anti-Islam. But I am not anti-Islam, I’m a secular humanist. Women suffer and people hate because of religious faith. That should end. There should be no Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu law. This is not secularism, this is not democracy, and women do not have equal rights.

I continue to write because lots of people encourage me to go on writing, and to tell their untold stories. They say they get strength from me. And it is important to me to give strength to vulnerable, weak people.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A few notes on the dismissal of Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis

mardi 3 novembre 2009

A few notes on the dismissal of Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis

By Michael Deibert

(Read the original article here)

It was said that during the reign of Jean-Jacques Dessalines - liberation icon, military dictator and “emperor” who ruled Haiti from 1804 until 1806 - a certain level of corruption was tolerated and dismissed with the phrase plumez la poule, mais ne la faites pas crier. Pluck the chicken, but make sure it doesn’t squawk. That tradition of corruption has been a woeful constant in Haiti’s political life since Dessalines was assassinated over 200 years ago.

Another chapter in the disregard for honesty and transparency that infuses the marrow of Haiti’s political class was written last week with the ouster of Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis by a parliament dominated by the allies of Haitian President René Préval, who appointed Pierre-Louis to the position a little over one year ago.

Since she assumed office in September 2008, Pierre-Louis was probably more responsible than any other single individual in beginning to restore some level of confidence in Haiti’s government and in encouraging the stirrings of international investment in a nation of industrious but desperately poor people all-too-often written off as an economic basket case. During her tenure, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the the Inter-American Development Bank collectively canceled $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt, while the latter institution approved an additional $120 million in grants to aid Haiti to improve such sectors as infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention.

Having previously led FOKAL, a civil society group supported by businessman and philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Pierre-Louis was well-regarded both at home and abroad for her personal incorruptibility, and displayed a surprisingly adroit political touch on the international diplomatic stage.

That being the case, one might then ask why Haiti's senate, dominated by partisans of Préval’s LESPWA political current, chose this moment to oust Pierre-Louis under the almost-laughable rationale that, in her year in office, she had not solved the problems caused by two centuries of what Haitian writer Frédéric Marcelin in 1904 called “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism.”

With the ouster of Pierre-Louis spearheaded by such LESPWA stalwarts as Senators Joseph Lambert and Jean Hector Anacasis, and with René Préval himself remaining publicly silent as the plot to remove his Prime Minister came to its inevitable and absurd conclusion, there appears to be an explanation as simple as it is depressing for removing Pierre-Louis at a moment when Haiti finally appeared to be gaining some international credibility: The Prime Minister was standing in the way of some powerful people making quite a lot of money.

Government insiders speak darkly about millions of dollars in aid money being siphoned off via the Centre National des Equipements, a body established by the Préval government to aid in Haiti’s efforts at reconstruction after a trio of hurricanes killed at least 600 people last year and further devastated the country's already fragile infrastructure. The machinations of the Groupe de Bourdon, a cabal of allegedly corrupt businessmen with firm roots in Haiti’s elite who have the president’s ear, are also mentioned as culprits. Many of the leaders of the drive to oust Pierre-Louis in Haiti’s senate are also individuals around whom allegations of corruption - and worse - have swirled for many years.

Pierre-Louis’ assertion to me when I interviewed her in Haiti this past summer that “chaos is good for a few sectors” and that Haiti's political system would reject anyone who would not allow themselves to be corrupted now appears to have been prophetic [1].

After his return to office in 2006, René Préval succeeded, against all the odds, in bringing relative peace to Haiti after years of bloodshed, something for which he should be lauded in no uncertain terms. However, the weight of corruption, along with a tradition of impunity, is continuing to strangle Haiti under his watch, and the ouster of Michèle Pierre-Louis is a worrying sign for Haitians who have long sought in vain for decent leaders who would build a government responsive to the nation’s poor majority.

The fact that Pierre-Louis’ replacement, Jean Max Bellerive, served in the personal cabinets of both Jean-Marie Chérestal and Yvon Neptune, Prime Ministers during the 2001-2004 tenure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an era that was marked by both widespread corruption and political violence, is cause for further concern. Bellerive has more than once been described to me with the rather nasty Kreyol phrase se yon ti poul ki mare nan pye tab yo, an allusion to someone who essentially does whatever they are told.

So the forces of disorder have won this latest round in Haiti. No doubt Haiti’s parliamentarians and perhaps even Préval himself are congratulating themselves at their cleverness, with the country’s corrupt bourgeois no doubt equally thrilled to now have a government with a popular base that will more or less allow them to continue unmolested with their nefarious activities.

But, as Haiti’s politicians strut around in expensive suits and travel over decaying roads in SUVs with impressive armed escorts, they seem not to realize that they should take no pride to occupy the position that they occupy with their country in such a state, a fact that remains equally true for many of Haiti’s economic elites.

Since the deployment of an international peacekeeping mission in Haiti in February 2004, almost 50 members of the United Nations mission in the country and thousands of Haitian civilians have lost their lives to political violence, criminal banditry and environmental catastrophes whose severity is directly linked to the inability of the country’s political class to create some semblance of a state to serve its people. This despite the presence of 7 UN missions to Haiti over the last two decades. Haiti’s long-suffering people deserve better than the country successive generations of leaders have bequeathed to them.

In his finest novel, 1955’s Compere General Soleil, Haiti greatest novelist, Jacques Stephen Alexis (who would be slain by agents of dictator François Duvalier in 1961), wrote of the journey of a pair of Haitians home from near-slavery in the neighboring Dominican Republic that “the closer they came to the promised land, the more they felt the net tightening around them.”

The net of corruption has been tightening around Haiti for far too long, and one hopes that those remaining honest people in Haiti’s political and business sectors, and Haiti’s genuine friends abroad, may find the tools to cut free that confining web that has succeeded in almost choking the life of the country that once taught the world so much about freedom.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read here.

[1] "The Elites Are Like a Huge Elephant Sitting on Haiti," Michael Deibert interviews Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, 3 July 2009, Inter Press Service