Friday, December 24, 2010

Books in 2010 : A Personal Selection

Despite what at times seemed like an endless schedule of travel (a situation to be remedied by settling down to write my third book in 2011), I still found time over the past year to get quite a bit of reading done. Some of the more notable examples appear below.

Feliz Año Nuevo,


The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shadid Ali

I was first made aware of the writing of Kashmiri poet Agha Shadid Ali by the Indian journalist Dilip D’Souza when I was living in Mumbai (née Bombay) in early 2007. This was the same era I paid my first visit to the disputed yet achingly beautiful swathe of Kashmir currently administered by India. It was a trip that left of deep impression on me, as I was welcomed with great hospitality by the Kashmiris whom I met and saw first-hand how, in the words of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s Yasin Malik “the government of India in Kashmir is existing in bunkers, and running their democracy through the barrel of a gun." When protests swirled throughout Kashmir this past year, I purchased this 1997 collection of poems by Ali, who passed away prematurely in 2001. The book is a moving meditation on the costs of Kashmir’s ongoing conflict and the pain of dislocation and exile, musing on “blood sheer rubies in Himalayan snow.” In doing so, it rises to the level of Irish Civil War-era Yeats in its blending of the personal and political.

Alice Lakwena & Holy Spirits: War In Northern Uganda 1986-97 by Heike Behrend

A fascinating and disturbing book that looks at the roots of one of Africa’s most destructive and frightening rebel groups, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the strange milieu, part military organization, part ethno-regional cult, from which it sprang. Details definitively how the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, emerged as a rival to, rather than a disciple of, the mystic Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit Mobile Forces movement.

Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden

An unflinching account of the violence currently ravaging the eponymous Mexican city across the border from El Paso (which I myself wrote about here), Murder City is written in impressionistic, minimalist vignettes. Bowden writes that he wants “to explain the violence as if it were a flat tire and I am searching the surface for a nail. But what if the violence is not a kind of breakdown, but more like a flower springing from the rot of the forest floor?” A sobering subtext to the war on drugs.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin

Not the world’s most effective writer or perceptive analyst, but still has a relatively interesting story to tell of the disintegration of what was one of Africa’s post-colonial success stories: Zimbabwe, under the delusional, tyrannical grip of Robert Mugabe and a small cadre of corrupt party loyalists. Godwin’s memoir would have been better served by a greater willingness to actually spend more time in Zimbabwe during the period in question, and to expand his view beyond the relatively insular world of white Zimbabweans that serves as his focus, but the brief, strobe-light flashes of a country imploding are useful case-studies nevertheless.

Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Set amidst the chaotic, violent scramble for post-colonial Angola, Kapuscinski, taking a different tack from his elegantly restrained portrait of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie in The Emperor, brings about in this book the feeling of what it is to be a journalist covering armed conflict in one of the forgotten corners of the world as well as any writer I have ever read.

Parentheses of Blood by Sony Labou Tansi

This scathingly brilliant dramatic satire of tyranny follows a group of soldiers searching for a rebel leader who is already dead, and was penned by perhaps Africa’s most under-appreciated writer. Favorite passage:

Rama: What’s a deserter?

Mark: A deserter is a uniformed soldier who says Libertashio is dead.

Rama: But it’s true. Papa is dead.

Mark: That’s merely civilian truth.

Between Terror and Democracy: Algeria Since 1989 by James D. Le Sueur

An important chronology of events before, during and beyond what the author at one point calls “an endless season of hell on earth,” this book by University of Nebraska history professor Le Sueur examines the political, cultural and religious elements that sent Algeria spiraling into civil war in the 1990s, a conflict from which it has not yet fully extracted itself. Though relying heavily on an authoritative and even-handed marshaling of secondary source material more than original first-hand interviews, the book nevertheless should prove to be an important work for those seeking to understand the internal politics of North Africa’s most tumultuous country.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One of the best and least-romanticizing chronicles every written about war, examining in minute detail the mud, blood, propagandizing and naked political chicanery that accompanies armed conflict, this book chronicles the ideological disillusionment of its author into the liberal humanist who would later write Animal Farm and 1984.

Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 by Matthew J. Smith

In this book by a young Jamaican historian, Haiti, which has often been the literary and intellectual playground of a host of pampered foreign arrivistes, poseurs and pseudo-radicals, receives what it deserves: Genuine scholarship. Covering the period between the departure of the U.S. Marines after a 20-year military occupation of the country and the coming to power of François Duvalier, Smith’s book demonstrates how the dysfunctional nature of Haiti’s politics cannot be blamed on a single source, but is rather the product of decades of political and economic miscalculation and ill-intention on the part of both Haiti’s leaders and the international community.

Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala by David Stoll

In this revelatory book about the experiences of indigenous Guatemalans during the height of that country’s civil war, noted anthropologist David Stoll examines in detail the effects of insurgency and counter-insurgency in the pueblos in and around the Triángulo Ixil of the department of Quiché. We see a population defenseless against a brutal government but also against rebel pressure, and watch as a power struggle between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism underscores the military struggle on the ground. A must read for anyone who wants to understand Guatemala’s present-day situation.

Children of Heroes by Lyonel Trouillot

First published in French as Les enfants des héros, this 2002 book by the man who is probably Haiti’s greatest living author traces the paths of two children fleeing a Port-au-Prince slum after murdering their abusive father. Unflinching and stunning.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

U.S. must act to curb violence in Mexico

Posted on Wednesday, 12.22.10

U.S. must act to curb violence in Mexico


The Miami Herald

(Read the original article here)

There are few places where the failure of America's drug policy is more visible than in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city of 1.3 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

This month passing the grim milestone of having had 3,000 people murdered within the municipality over the last year -- 10 times the figure of only three years ago -- Ciudad Juárez is the scene of a brutal struggle for control of lucrative drug transportation routes between the local Cartel de Juárez and the Cartel de Sinaloa, a group with its roots in the city of Culiacán.

Visitors to Juárez, previously best known for its maquiladoras, are now greeted by an altogether different picture. Masked gunmen, some federal police and Mexican army, some affiliated with the cartels, set up roadblocks seemingly at will as impoverished neighborhoods stretching out into the Chihuahuan desert have largely been depopulated by drug violence. A micro-industry of contract killing -- doled out to street gangs such as the Aztecas, Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos (Murder Artists) -- has resulted in once-unthinkable acts of violence becoming commonplace.

During my recent visit to Juárez, three federal policemen were killed. The same month, 14 people died when gunmen attacked a party for young people in the city, a grim echo of a similar massacre in January, during which 15 young people died. A casual drive through the city reveals cartel graffiti with the name of Mexico's President, Felipe Calderón, inside a rifle sight along with the words ``in the line of fire.''

Shortly after taking office in December 2006, after one of the most closely-contested elections in Mexico's history, Calderón declared war on Mexico's ever-more powerful drug cartels, which in addition to those operating in Juárez include the Cartel del Golfo and Los Zetas, the latter originally spawned by defectors from an elite U.S.-trained military unit designed to combat drug traffickers.

Calderón's decision to bring in the Mexican military to Juárez and other areas of the country to buttress poorly paid and trained local and federal police helped set in motion a violent clash with cartels that has claimed more than 30,000 lives in the last four years. The decision was not without controversy, as a recently released report from the Washington Office on Latin America concluded that ``the Mexican government's reliance on the Mexican military . . . has subjected the civilian population to numerous human rights abuses.''

However, far from being a uniquely Mexican problem, the violence currently tearing apart cities such as Ciudad Juárez comes in no small part from Mexico's tangled relationship with its neighbor to the north, the United States.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United States, with a population of 310 million, consumed $37 billion of cocaine in 2008, while Europe as a whole, with a population of 830 million, consumed $34 billion. Over the past four years, as The Washington Post has reported, more than 60,000 U.S. guns have been found in Mexico, largely coming for gun dealers in states with conspicuously liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona.

The dual failure of prohibition -- which despite its stated aims in no way curtails one's ability to get any drug they want in any major U.S. city after about 30 minutes of looking -- and the hypocrisy of the United States flooding Mexico with cheap firearms combined to make Mexico, and by extension, the entire border region, less, rather than more, secure.

The price being paid by the citizens of the border regions of Mexico and now, increasingly, to the south in Guatemala, where an even-more fragile state has been overrun by Mexican cartels and their affiliates, calls for a renewed look at the broken policy of drug prohibition and a search for reasonable, responsible alternatives.

During the 1919-33 U.S. prohibition of alcohol, criminal monarchies whose wealth was largely based on supplying the forbidden substance to interested consumers tore a violent swath through the country, with the misplaced puritanism of federal officials providing the atmosphere in which their activities could flourish.

As the largest consumer of narcotics coming from and largest provider of firearms going to Mexico, it is time, in the name of sanity and practicality, that the United States revisit both its drug control and firearms policies to guarantee that the violence ravaging Ciudad Juárez will not be repeated throughout the region and, eventually, in the United States itself.

Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2010: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

This past year began with a heart-rending tragedy - the devastating earthquake in my beloved Haiti - and ended with a major personal accomplishment, the completion of my first book since 2005, the finishing touches to which I put on in a quiet courtyard in New Orleans some weeks ago. It was a 12 month period that began with a vow to myself not to spend so much time on airplanes and in airports, but which ended with me having logged more miles than I ever had before in a single year.

Whether it was reporting on organized crime and drug trafficking in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, trying to continue to shine a light on some of the complexities of Haiti (which did not begin and will not end with the destruction of Port-au-Prince or the recent corrupted elections) or simply exploring Indonesia or Morocco, I felt, as I always do, lucky to at least have the opportunity to try and contribute in some meaningful way to the struggles of disadvantaged people who want to live more just and decent lives. All my travels and work this year have reinforced again to me the commonality that we as humans share on this planet we inhabit, and how we all have a responsibility, no matter what powerful forces it might upset, to speak out and defend those who are the victims of injustice.

Now preparing to rebase myself once again near my Caribbean spiritual home (and hopefully spend a lot less time flying), I wish you all much success and happiness in 2011 and, for the countries that I report on, perhaps paradoxically, more justice and more peace in the coming year.

Much love,


One Week in, Haitians Are Still Hungry for (19 January 2010)

US Increases Presence in Haiti as Aid Increases:
Interview on WNYC's The Takeaway (20 January 2010)

Haiti: Tearing Down History
for (22 January 2010)

A History of Troubles Is Helping Haitians to Endure for the Wall Street Journal (22 January 2010)

The Haiti I love is still there for (23 January 2010)

Haitian Radio Returns to the Air
for (5 February 2010)

Thoughts on recent Haiti commentaries
for Michael Deibert, Writer (9 February 2010)

Haitians Find Help Through the Airwaves: Interview on WNYC's The Takeaway (10 February 2010)

From rubble to recovery for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (13 February 2010)

Why Haiti’s Debt Should Be Forgiven
for Michael Deibert, Writer (24 March 2010)

Guinea: A vote of confidence? for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (15 April 2010)

Haiti's Peasantry Key to Reconstruction for AlterNet (16 April 2010)

Amid Elections, Armed Groups Hold Colombian Town under the Gun
for Inter Press Service (1 June 2010)

Like Colombia, Iconic City Remains a Place of Promise and Peril
for Inter Press Service (3 June 2010)

Haiti and Dominican Republic: Good neighbours? for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (8 June 2010)

The international community's responsibility to Haiti
for the Guardian (15 July 2010)

Colombia: Turning over a new leaf
for the Financial Times' Foreign Direct Investment (8 August 2010)

Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption
for the Guardian (12 November 2010)

Thoughts on Haiti’s elections
for Michael Deibert, Writer (30 November 2010)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on KPFK Pacifica Radio

I spoke with KPFK Pacifica Radio host Suzi Weissman yesterday about the implications of Haiti's recent elections. The interview can be heard about 21 minutes into the program here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Alassane Ouattara wins Côte d'Ivoire presidency

Alassane Ouattara has been declared the winner of Côte d'Ivoire's first presidential election in a decade. Here is my 2007 interview with him.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on Haiti’s elections

Writing from one land of misrule (the United States or, more specifically, New Orleans) about another (in this case Haiti) is always a tricky business. As much as I would have loved to have been on the ground in Haiti for the presidential and parliamentary elections conducted this past Sunday, my work in Guatemala - researching drug trafficking and organized crime - precluded it. However, one doesn’t spend as long as I have visiting and living in Haiti without wanting to follow such a momentous development closely, if only from afar.

In the recent months in the aftermath of January’s catastrophic earthquake that leveled Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns such as Léogâne and Petit-Goâve - killing well over 200,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more - I had grown increasingly worried that the conditions for a well-organized, credible ballot simply did not exist in the country, despite what the voices of the international community were saying.

With well over a million people still homeless and the infrastructure of the electoral authorities decimated by the quake, it struck me as reckless in the extreme that Haiti’s voting process - often fraught and politicized even during what pass for “normal” times in Haiti - would come off well. The last-minute decision of the INITE coalition of Haiti’s current president, René Préval, to throw Préval’s former Prime Minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, overboard in favour of Jude Célestin, the heretofore largely unknown former director of the country’s Centre National des Équipements, likewise to me suggested a dangerous dissension and division at the very top of the political process. That discredited men of violence such as Nawoon Marcellus - who routinely violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien during his affiliation with the 2001-2004 government of disgraced former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide - would be running on the ruling party's ticket was cause for further concern.

The exclusion of Mr. Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party - now a badly fictionalized and divided image of its former self, with many of its former grandees such as Mr. Marcellus and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune having migrated to other political groupings - was, in my view, also conducted by unlawful means, despite the party's mediocre showing in Haiti's 2006 general elections.

During and shortly after the voting on Sunday, reports began filtering in to me regarding its progress from friends of mine both within and outside of Haiti.

This from a friend who spent more than a decade living in Haiti:

Spoke with my people in Les Cayes. Lots of intimidation at the polling places and this was for the people who were allowed the vote. They are apparently turning away potential voters by the drove.

And this, from a friend with family near Pignon, close to Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien:

My wife's brother and cousin [are] in the commune of La Jeune just outside of Pignon. They were attacked by a group of people paid by the INITE party yesterday morning. Evidently INITE had paid a bunch of people money to vote for Célestin and most of them turned around and voted for Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly...The attackers accused my brother-in-law and cousin-in-law of sending a list of actors (intimidators, "magouyè") to the police so they went to be brother-in-law's house armed with machetes and guns. One man beat up my wife's uncle. Another fired a shot over my nephew's head. My brother-in-law wasn't home at the time, but he knows nothing about any list. He's a local candidate for magistrate in Pignon, so it seems they're blaming him and his influence on the lack of votes for Célestin...He told me they're still saying they're going to kill him and his cousin but they're not backing down because they did nothing wrong...If this is happening in a place like Pignon I can only imagine it's happening in many other places, too.

And finally, in a typically comic Haiti touch, from another friend near Port-au-Prince:

Yesterday a dog wearing a Jude Célestin yellow and green campaign t-shirt was sent running down the Kenscoff Road.

In the central city of St. Marc - site of a ghastly massacre by government forces and allied street gangs during the waning days of Aristide’s government in February 2004 - at least fifteen people were injured, including six by gunfire, protesting Sunday’s vote. Several leading candidates for presidency had called on the vote to be annulled, a demand that was modified when it appeared that some of them may in fact be very close to winning if not the ballot as a whole than a place in any potential run-off.

Most worrisome developments, to say the least, especially for those of us who have been observing Haiti for some years and know that the disputed ballots of one year can plant the seeds of chaos that will bloom later.

We are once again confronted with the figure of René Préval, one of Haiti’s most enigmatic politicians, presiding over a deeply compromised and flawed election, as he did in 1997 and 2000 during his first tenure as Haiti’s president, but who has nevertheless governed as one of the more unassuming and least violence-prone of Haitian leaders. Based on my travels around Haiti since 1997, until the earthquake Préval was the single figure in which both Haiti’s poor majority and its economic elite could meet and find common ground. The earthquake, and the government’s disorganized, piecemeal response to it - helped along by an international community that, after the initial trauma, seemed to view Haitian lives and suffering as essentially worthless - has effectively shattered this paradigm, it appears.

As I pointed out in a July opinion piece for The Guardian, it was the economic policies of the international community, along with Haiti’s own irresponsible and rapacious political and economic elites (not always one and the same), that helped drive so many Haitians into the slums of Port-au-Prince where so many of them died. Haiti’s deep structural and political problems have almost always fallen victim to expediency where foreigners, well-meaning and otherwise, were concerned, and the agonizingly slow pace of Haiti’s partners abroad to deliver aid to a country a county on its knees has been sobering for the callousness and cynicism that it has displayed.

Such events have also given an opening for the destructive forces who always seek advantage from Haiti’s misery to move in, and not only from Haiti’s political class itself.

Groups such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which also denounced Haiti’s legitimately democratic 2006 elections, lined up to denounce Sunday’s poll before the results were even announced.

This is not surprising as the IJDH has proven itself in the past to be little more that a well-oiled cog in Mr. Aristide’s propaganda machine, linked inextricably as it is with Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, one of the group’s founders and donors who also sits on its Board of Directors. According to U.S. Department of Justice filings, between 2001 and 2004 Mr. Kurzban’s law firm received nearly $5 million from the Aristide government on behalf of its lobbying efforts, and since Mr. Aristide’s subsequent 2004 ouster from Haiti, Mr. Kurzban has frequently identified himself as the former president’s personal attorney in the United States.

For its part, the CEPR, led by the dishonest and opportunistic arriviste Mark Weisbrot, is perhaps better qualified at weighing in at white-tablecloth Washington luncheons than on the reality of Haiti’s poor majority, but that has never stopped them before. They have tried in recent years to buttress their profile by exploiting Haiti’s woe to further line their own pockets, and they did so again after Sunday's vote.

Such groups, as well as violent, naysaying forces among Haiti's political aspirants, have much to gain from as deeply flawed a ballot as appears to have taken place this past weekend.

But the question remains, where to from here?

It my deep hope, perhaps a naive one, that being one of the very few leaders in Haitian history able to retire to his country home after serving out the full length of his democratically-elected term, René Préval will allow the legitimate electoral desires of the Haitian people to be expressed, no matter if it means that his chosen successor will go down in defeat or not. This will, ultimately, be the final act on which history will judge him and the final good deed he could do in the service of his people. Even before the earthquake, I have first-hand seen Haitians endure unimaginable hardship and difficulty as part of their daily lives at a level that most people can’t even begin to imagine. Since the earthquake, their lot has become more difficult still.

Elections may seem like an imperfect, dull tool with which to confront such systemic problems as rampant environmental degradation, weak institutional traditions, yawning economic inequality and a large swathe of the country that continues to lie in ruins, but it is the best tool that, for the moment, the Haitians have at their disposal.

The Haitians have been deprived of so much. In the cases of the 1.5 million still living in tent cities in and around Port-au-Prince, they have even been deprived of their already-modest homes.

They should not be deprived of their votes, as well.

Exit well, Mr. Préval.

Kenbe fem, tout moun.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why we defend CICIG

Barbara Schieber, editor of the Guatemala Times, sent me the following editorial that she authored for that publication. Given its description of the value of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) from a Guatemalan perspective, I thought it was worth re-printing it here on my blog. I do so with the permission of Barbara and the Guatemala Times. MD

Why we defend CICIG

(Read the original article here)

Reading our most frequent critical messages from readers, we are surprised to see that most people interpret that recognizing the work of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) is equal to defending and supporting the government of Álvaro Colom. For some critics of CICIG, CICIG is the same as the current government, for these critics, there seems to be no distinction between the two institutions. That is not only ridiculous, it is also very scary. It denotes a severe degree of ignorance or an intentional disinformation strategy.

The most hate mail we receive is related to our reporting on CICIG. The readers who write to us are convinced that we must be a government owned news site because we are not attacking CICIG. We want to inform that we are one of the few news sources in Guatemala that does not have any government advertising, nor do we receive funding from any other institution. We are independent.

Having cleared up this misconception we have the following opinion about CICIG:

We applaud, support and believe in CICIG´s work, both under Carlos Castresana and under the new commissioner Francisco Dall´Anese.

CICIG is the only hope for justice that Guatemala has had and will have for the future. Is CICIG 100% perfect? No. But there is nothing 100% perfect in Guatemala or in the world. And for anyone to pretend that an institution has to be 100% perfect in order to be useful and constructive is plain idiocy.

The concept of justice managed by Guatemalans who benefits from an ineffective justice system is self-serving: They only want justice tailored to their benefit. And that is not justice, that is prostitution of justice.

Well, that is what we had before CICIG came to Guatemala, Justice was a prostitute, and it still is in many instances.

In ex-president Alfonso Portillo's case, his friends, allies, ex-members of his government and business associates were attacking CICIG and they keep at it.

In ex- minister Carlos Vielman's case, his friends, allies, business associates, and ex-members of the Berger government are attacking CICIG and they will not stop. The best example is ex-vice president Eduardo Stein, who was an active promoter and supporter of CICIG until it touched some of his friends and ex-members of the government he was part of.

In the Rosenberg case, where CICIG actually saved Guatemala’s democracy, the anti government sectors attacked CICIG because the findings of CICIG prevented President Colom from going down.

Critics of CICIG are people who consider themselves to be from the right wing, from the left wing and whatever else they call themselves (including the dark forces).

By logical deduction, the sectors that have the most to lose by a functional, independent justice system are by default the sectors who want to destroy CICIG. That includes all the sectors that now make more money and have more power - be it economic or political - because justice has not reached them (yet). The current government of President Álvaro Colom has to be included in the list of sectors that are actively obstructing CICIG´s work.

By the way, resistance to functioning judicial systems is not just a Guatemalan phenomenon, or a Guatemalan problem. What makes Guatemala somewhat different is that there are always several Guatemalas, never a nation.

The best example I can give of another very notorious place where the enforcement and strengthening of “Lady Justice”” is very unpopular, is on Wall Street.

Guess why?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

El Choco, dos años después

This journalist, Armando Rodríguez aka El Choco, from the newspaper El Diario, was slain in Ciudad Juárez two years ago today. I took this photo oustide of El Diario's offices in Juárez last month.

Photo © Michael Deibert

Friday, November 12, 2010

Volcano, Friday morning.

Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption

Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption

While Mexico's war on drugs cartels makes headlines, its bloody consequences for its southern neighbour are all but overlooked

o Michael Deibert
o, Friday 12 November 2010 13.30 GMT

(Read the original article here)

Fourteen years after Guatemala's government signed a peace agreement with a coalition of guerrilla groups ending a 30-year civil war, the country finds itself once again in the grip of armed conflict, though one in which the battle lines are even murkier than before. While drug-related violence plaguing the border regions of Mexico has achieved a kind of grisly global renown in recent years, the even deadlier battle directly to the south has generated little comment on the international stage.

Central America's most populous country, Guatemala has become the scene of a brutal power struggle involving Mexican cartels who have been pushed south by President Felipe Calderón's militarised campaign against drug traffickers there, and Guatemala's indigenous criminal groups, many of whom have their roots in a military intelligence apparatus set up with US aid during the country's internal armed conflict.

After the peace accords, many Guatemalans hoped that their country was embarking on a brighter future. The preceding conflict had claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly poor, indigenous campesinos caught in the struggle between a militarily-weak leftist insurgency and the ruthless scorched-earth tactics of a national army, whose only military manoeuvre appeared to be the massacre.

But now, nearly 15 years later, more people die in Guatemala every year than did at the height of the civil war. While Mexico's homicide rate has been estimated at 26 per 100,000 by the Latin American academic body Flacso Guatemala's numbers a staggering 53 per 100,000.

What went so wrong? How did the promise of peace become transmuted into the rule of Guatemala by criminal monarchies whose brazen shootouts have become a fact of daily life?

Following the peace accords, President Álvaro Arzú of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional and his successor, Alfonso Portillo of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who presided over some of the country's worst human rights abuses), implemented many key provisions of the peace accords half-heartedly, if at all. A civilian intelligence office mandated to combat organised crime was not established until 2007. By then, Guatemala's clandestine criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state. The national police force remains ineffectual and numerically small, currently numbering around 26,000 officers, while Guatemala's private security sector has swelled to 120,000.

Meanwhile, the driving forces behind the syndicates that solidified in Guatemala during the civil war years as the country's military elite were left to flourish more or less untouched. Indeed, during Portillo's 2000-04 tenure as president, they became virtual contractors of the state.

In recent years, the situation has grown graver still. Guatemala's 2007 electoral contest saw current President Álvaro Colom of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party join battle against Otto Pérez Molina, a former general and leader of the Partido Patriota (PP), in one of the bloodiest ballots in the nation's history. More than 50 candidates and party activists were slain.

Mexican drug cartels such as the Cartel de Sinaloa and Los Zetas have ,meanwhile, expanded their operations throughout vast swathes of the country, ranging from San Marcos along the western border with Mexico, to the northern jungles of El Petén, to the sweltering department of Zacapa in the nation's east.

One ray of hope in this very bleak landscape has been the creation in 2007 of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigation of clandestine organisations and exposing their relation to the Guatemalan state. Until June of this year, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana, a magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico and investigating corruption in his native Spain.

Under Castresana's leadership, CICIG was, for the first time, able to force a discussion about impunity and corruption at the highest levels of Guatemala's political system into the public realm. In another first, a former president, Alfonso Portillo, was arrested and has been held in prison since January on charges of embezzling some $15m in state funds. He also faces extradition to the United States on money-laundering charges, after his trial in Guatemala concludes.

When Castresana resigned earlier this year, charging that the Colom government was undermining CICIG's work, he was replaced by Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, the former attorney general of Costa Rica. Dall'Anese took the reins of an investigative body facing enormous pressures, where death threats against its staff, the murder of its witnesses and rocky relations with its nominal bosses at the UN's department of political affairs have become occupational hazards.

But CICIG remains, however imperfect, the best hope that Guatemalans have in the fight against the corruption that is causing the future of their country – blessed with plentiful natural resources and an inventive, industrious population – to vanish amid the din of automatic weapons fire. It is vital that CICIG's mandate, set to expire just as new presidential elections are held next fall, should be renewed if it is to succeed in this challenging mission. Ideally, its powers would be expanded to give it the ability to subpoena and indict suspects, as well as protect the lives of those Guatemalans who chose to cooperate.

Guatemala's fragile civil society of honest officials, human rights groups and indigenous organisations desperately needs support. As the international community – and especially the United States – saw fit to pour money into the Guatemalan military machine that helped create the criminal oligarchy that now wields such power in the country, it is only just that they should now back the efforts of CICIG and honest Guatemalans in their struggle to bring this monster down.

Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Colombia: Turning over a new leaf

(This article was submitted several months ago, but better late than never. My previous reporting from Colombia, on the situations in Medellín and in the Bajo Cauca region, can be read here and here, respectively. MD)

Colombia: Turning over a new leaf

By Michael Deibert

8 August 2010

Foreign Direct Investment

The exit of president Álvaro Uribe marks a new era for Colombia. Once given a wide berth by investors, security has improved and its capital, Bogotá, is undergoing a revival. Michael Deibert reports.

(Read the original article here)

Amid a warren of alleys where a chaotic jumble of brick and concrete houses springs up on hills that once housed a city garbage dump, Milena Gómez Valencia is quite literally harvesting the fruits of peace.

“I wanted to change and become a new person,” says Ms Valencia, whose new perch behind her computer is hard to square with her former role in the country’s notoriously brutal paramilitaries. “We wanted to leave behind all the fighting, the massacres, the kidnappings.”

Ms Valencia is a former member of the Bloco Centauros wing of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC), which demobilised in August 2005. She is now less concerned with the crushing of either of the country’s leftist insurgencies and more concerned with the daily rounds of accounts billable and payable with which she and half a dozen former fighters try to keep their enterprise, a concern that sells fruit pulp to restaurants and other businesses around Medellín, afloat.

The business, Aso Pulpaz (short for Asociación Pulpaz, a play on the Spanish words for both ‘pulp’ and ‘peace’), was founded with the aid of a government grant, and is emblematic of the complex legacy bequeathed to the country by president Álvaro Uribe, who left office this year after eight years as the country’s premier. Juan Manuel Santos, a former defence minister in Mr Uribe’s cabinet and his preferred successor, captured nearly 70% of the record 9 million votes cast in elections in June.

“Colombia has been able to cross the threshold of being perceived as a place where you would never, ever visit, to being a place where people think about going to Cartagena or [Colombia’s capital] Bogotá or any number of places,” says Alberto Bernal, head of research with Bulltick Capital Markets, a financial services firm specialising in Latin America. “And I think that’s a very important development.”

Past terrors

When Mr Uribe took office eight years ago, Colombia was a country where all but the most hearty or cynical investors feared to tread. Army barracks were regularly overrun by guerillas closely linked to the drugs trade and large swaths of territory were beyond state control.

As he prepares to leave office, the insurgents have peen pushed out to remote areas along Colombia’s borders, Colombian security forces have benefited immensely from a slew of US-led training and financing measures known as Plan Colombia (originally proposed by Mr Uribe’s predecessor, Andrés Pastrana) and Colombia is on the radar in terms of foreign investment – for the first time in many decades.

Medellín, a city of 2.5 million people that has alternately been famous as the hometown of the world’s most notorious drug trafficker (Pablo Escobar) and Colombia’s most famous painter (Fernando Botero), is perhaps the most telling paradigm of Colombia’s complicated renaissance.

The capital of the state of the department of Antioquia, Medellín now bustles with activity under a perpetually spring-like climate, an economic hub and gateway to some of Colombia’s most scenic regions.

“The most important improvement in recent years has been security,” Luis Alfredo Ramos, Antioquia’s governor, told fDi while sitting in an office overlooking some of Medellín’s modern architecture and shadowed by life-sized portraits of the two great leaders of the nation’s rebellion against Spain, Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander.

“For example, it is now easy to transit the road to Bogotá, whereas for many years it was closed. There were kidnappings, acts of terrorism, explosions...Now more than 70,000 people have returned to this region,” says Mr Ramos.

Some 250 kilometres away, Bogotá is also enjoying a rebirth, the benefit of a series of mayors of different political stripes who built on one another’s accomplishments in improving the country’s most important city.

Locals credit Jaime Castro (mayor between 1992 and 1994) with developing a political charter for Bogotá and reforming its tax base, Antanas Mockus (mayor from 1995 to 1996 and 2001 to 2003) with helping to create a sense of citizenship, Enrique Peñalosa (1998 to 2001) with strengthening the city’s infrastructure, public spaces and educational system, and Luis Eduardo Garzón (2004 to 2007) with extending public programmes to help Bogotá’s neediest citizens.

“The change in response by the companies we’re approaching is dramatic,” says Virgilio Barco, executive director of Invest in Bogotá, a four-year-old public-private partnership established by the city and the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. “In 2006 we were having a lot of problems getting any traction at all, and last year we were talking to mainstream, very conservative companies which felt that security was no longer an issue.”

Economic figures from the Banco de la República, Colombia’s central bank, in May, bear out this sense of optimism. The Colombian economy was expected to have grown from 2.3% to 3.1% during the first quarter of 2010, a small increase from the same quarter in 2009, and leading to an overall projected growth rate in 2010 of between 3% and 3.5%. Also in May, Moody’s Investors Service announced that it was upgrading Colombia’s rating for its 2011 notes from Ba2 to Aaa. In Bogotá alone, FDI has grown from $87m in 2000 to $1.7bn for 2009, the largest chunk of it in the transportation sector and with the largest single investor in the city remaining the US, followed by Spain.

Drug problems

Colombia still has significant hurdles to negotiate. A series of vicious new drug gangs, many with links to the former paramilitary groups, continue to wage brutal turf wars in various locations around the country, and the country’s two rebel armies, while knocked back on their heels, remain heavily armed and well-financed by enormous sums of money derived from the drugs trade. A series of political scandals of close allies somewhat tarnished Mr Uribe’s reputation, and there is a sense that, despite the forward movement, more must be done to address the country’s extreme inequality.

“It is very difficult here, everyone is looking for work,” says Rosa Palacio, a 28-year-old mother of two in Soacha, a grindingly poor suburban municipality of about 400,000 on Bogotá’s southern edge.

Amid improvised dwellings scaling steep hills that can be reached only by dirt roads, many refugees such as Ms Palacio from Colombia’s armed conflict remain in limbo, fearful of returning home but not entirely settled in their new lives either. Nevertheless, after so many years of war, Colombians could be forgiven for looking towards the future with a sense of guarded optimism.

In Medellín, as Ms Valencia talks with the staff of Aso Pulpaz as they commence their work for the day, she recalls the story of one of the organisation’s founders, another exparamilitary member who was killed “by delinquents” she says, in Medellín a little over a year ago.

“The dead go to their graves,” she says, using a familiar Spanish expression about soldiering on through tough circumstances. “But the living must get back to the dance floor.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

The international community's responsibility to Haiti

The international community's responsibility to Haiti

By Michael Deibert

The Guardian

12 July 2010

(Please read the original article here)

It is a gloomy anniversary: the six-month mark since the earthquake that levelled vast swaths of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding towns, killing well over 200,000 people.

Though the earthquake was promiscuously destructive, killing the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, those who still remain encamped in sprawling tent cities lashed by tropical rains in and around the capital now represent the lowest and most disempowered strata of Haitian society. They are the Haitians who, for generations, have fled the poverty of the countryside to its largest city in search of jobs that were not there and where only further struggle awaited them.

At a time when only 2% of a promised $5.3bn (£3.5bn) in reconstruction aid has materialised and an equally small amount of rubble has been removed, it is worth pausing to remember how economic policy in a very real way helped drive Haitians off their land and into the labyrinthine slums of Port-au-Prince, where so many of them died.

From the 1940s, when the United States sponsored a half-baked attempt to cultivate rubber in Haiti, to the early 1980s, when 1.2m creole pigs were destroyed in a US-Canadian funded programme to prevent the spread of swine fever, the results were largely the same. Life for Haiti's rural poor got worse.

In 1995, an economic adjustment plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund implemented by the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide cut tariffs on rice imports to Haiti from 35% to 3%. Haiti, which for many years had produced low-cost, inexpensive rice for domestic consumption, effectively lost the ability to do so.

And so the heirs of patriotic leaders such as Toussaint L'Ouverture and Charlemagne Péralte ("Les enfants du héros", as the Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot called them) continued to flood into Port-au-Prince. And six months ago, on a Tuesday afternoon, more of them died there than the mind can really grasp.

Almost surreally, with an estimated 1.5 million Haitians still homeless, presidential and legislative elections are set to be held on 28 November. They will be presided over by an electoral council faced with conducting a legitimate ballot in a country where hundreds of thousands of voters have either been killed or displaced, and during which its own headquarters were destroyed.

Before the earthquake, Haiti had seen a steady, if gradual, improvement in its fortunes. Attracting modest levels of foreign investment and maintaining robust diplomatic relations with neighbours as divergent as the United States, Cuba and Venezuela, the county also enjoyed a more or less extended period of political calm, reinforced by a 10,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission (a mission that also suffered grievously that January day).

The wantonly murderous security services and armed civilian bands of regimes past dissipated as, whatever his other faults, President René Préval marked a change in at least this aspect from the litany of rancid despots who have actively victimised the Haitian populace without cease since colonial times.

With no clear successor to Préval, and a series of badly factionalised micro-parties with little popular support, Haitians now face yawning uncertainty. While elections are a favoured means of the international community to point to progress in countries as wracked by poverty and political unrest as Haiti, most Haitians will tell a visitor that such exercises will count for little if not matched by a commitment to changing the destructive dynamic of rural disintegration and urban migration that has taken hold in recent years.

After the earthquake, the Haitian government produced a preliminary damage and needs assessment that envisioned a decentralisation of the Haitian state. To this date, little has come of this promise. A body set up to manage reconstruction funds chaired by Préval's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, and former US president Bill Clinton – a man with a sometimes worrisomely shaky grasp of Haiti's history – has succeeded in drawing pledges of aid but little in concrete results.

It is important on this date, with so many of Haiti's citizens to mourn and so many still waiting for assistance in conditions that can only be characterised as an affront to humanity, that we in the international community not forget our past follies in Haiti.

Before another six months pass, foreign governments, international agencies and non-governmental organisations must quickly and decisively work with Haitians, both urban and rural, on issues such as resettlement, reforestation and agrarian reform, to help them build a decent country out of the rubble of the broken state that came before.

Among all the Haitians I've met in my travels around Haiti, since my first visit there in 1997, a decent country is all most have ever asked for.

Michael Deibert is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read at

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Srebrenica, 15 years on

On the 15th anniversary of the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, I thought it an apt time to repost this piece I wrote in 2006, which focuses in part on such ill-famed individuals as Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy and their denial of the war crimes that took place during the Balkan wars. Good rebuttals from actual journalists such as Ed Vulliamy and survivors such as Kemal Pervanic included within.


9 October 2006

Freedom speech and its perils

(Read the original article published here)

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist with Novaya Gazeta who had probably done more than any other single person to expose the horror of the war in Chechnya and the involvement of Russian officials in some of its most ghastly aspects, was murdered on Saturday at her Moscow apartment. Her book, A Small Corner of Hell, was one of the definitive portraits of the agony inflicted on the Chechens, and how actors on both sides of the conflict cynically profited from it. When she died, she had been working on an article regarding the use of torture in the regime of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow premier Ramzan A. Kadyrov, which, she told The New York Times in April, would likely include evidence of torture by Kadyrov’s police and paramilitaries, and perhaps even testimony from at least one witness who had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov himself.

Whoever ordered the contract killing, for which at this point no suspects have been apprehended, the intent seems fairly clear: To silence one of Russia’s most powerful voices for human rights, democracy and government accountability. Someone was so threatened by what Politkovskaya would say or write that they decided, in the cold calculations of the brutal, that killing her was an appropriate price to pay to ensure her silence.

It is sadly ironic that this silencing of a dissenting voice should come just days after, for the second time in recent weeks, Columbia University, one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the United States and a fixture on the educational landscape here in my own city of New York, appeared to bow to the voices of intolerance in allowing a scheduled speaker to be silenced by those who differed from their views.

This time the speaker, invited by a campus Republican group, was Jim Gilchrist, the head of the Minuteman Project, which assembled hundreds of volunteers last year, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants. As Mr. Gilchrist spoke, several dozen protestors stormed the stage, unfurled banners and began shouting him down and, by some accounts, attempted to push him off the stage. You can watch film of the disruption here. As the fracas erupted mere weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited, then disinvited, to the campus in the midst of popular outcry, one can fairly ask whether the level of debate at one of our nation‘s most prestigious (and expensive) universities has sunk to the level of sloganeering and fear of allowing the other side be heard. Though I personally have no respect at all for the virulently anti-immigrant and xenophobic position of Mr. Gilchrist and his group, much as I have no respect for the frothingly anti-Semitic rantings of Mr. Ahmadinejad, either our campuses here in the United States are places of free inquiry, where the airing of the views of the minority are given equal protection as the views of the majority, or they are not. On his weekly radio program, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took the right approach, by stating that “I think it’s an outrage that somebody that was invited to speak didn’t get a chance to speak…There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.”

It seems that this current of intolerance is more and more a facet of public discourse in North America. I have experienced it first-hand. At about this time one year ago, I published my first book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), my chronicle of my experiences in that Caribbean country since 1997. Despite some historical sidetracks, the book is chiefly a chronicle of the years between the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government to Haiti by a U.S.-lead multinational force in 1994 to his overthrow and exile amidst massive street protests against his rule and an armed rebellion a decade later.

Having been involved with Haiti for many years and having seen what Mr. Aristide, his government and his Fanmi Lavalas political party had brutalized and cynically exploited the poor majority of Haitians, I was conscious writing the book that, in order to portray accurately the roles of some in Haiti’s fractured and often violent political landscape, some holy cows would have to be slaughtered. I would have to speak honestly about the massive payouts made by the Aristide government to lobbyists and political actors in the United States, several of whom, including former U.S. Representative Ron Dellums, still wield considerable power with my country’s elected representatives. I would have to speak of the break I had with the analysis of some of those who, in progressive circles in North America, had been allowed to speak virtually unchallenged as authorities on Haiti for many years. The statements of individuals such as the American doctor Paul Farmer, whose public health work among Haiti’s poor I had always admired but whose continued vocal support of the Aristide government - a government that was victimizing that very same strata of Haitian society - I couldn’t condone, and Noam Chomsky, whose critiques of Haiti’s political travails were delivered via his tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, needed to be addressed by someone who had lived and moved among the Haitian people, spoke their language, and saw their struggles if there was ever to be an honest discourse of how to best help the country among progressives in the United States. As I regarded Mr. Chomsky’s work on Haiti in particular as fairly marginal to the larger discussion of the fate of Haiti’s poor, though, I restricted my commentary on him to only two (rather unflattering) paragraphs in the book’s 454 pages.

As the book was published, however, admitting that they themselves had not even read it in its entirety, Mr. Chomsky and his literary agent, the author Anthony Arnove, who, like Mr. Chomsky, has made a comfortable living for himself adopting a “radical” position while making sure to steer well clear of the line of fire, launched a campaign against the book by berating my publisher Seven Stories (which also publish several Chomsky titles) on its contents and attempting, so it seemed, to scuttle its publication, or at least the press' support of it. Phone calls were made, emails were sent. Seven Stories, to its credit, stuck to its guns and published the book as written. Why, one might ask, would two such established authors be so threatened by a book penned on a poor Caribbean country by a working-class journalist and writer whom they had never met and whose work they admitted they had barely read? I must say that I was surprised, with all that is going on in the world, that my little book would warrant such attention from two individuals who like to portray themselves as champions of free speech.

These attempts to squelch the book ran roughly concurrently with the campaign against the talented young British journalist Emma Brockes, whose October 2005 interview with Mr. Chomsky in The Guardian caused a great deal of controversy, asking, as it did, tough questions about Chomsky’s relationship with what The Times (UK) columnist Oliver Kamm quite accurately described as “some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.”

The furor at the time centered around Ms. Brockes confronting Chomky with the fact that he had lent his name to a letter praising the “outstanding” (Chomsky’s own words) work of a journalist called Diana Johnstone. Johnstone’s 2002 book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press), argues that the July 1995 killing of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was, in essence (directly quoting from her book), not a “part of a plan of genocide” and that “there is no evidence whatsoever” for such a charge. This despite the November 1995 indictment of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for “genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war” stemming from that very episode and the later conviction by the same tribunal of a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica. Johnstone also states that no evidence exists that much more than 199 men and boys were killed there and that Srebrenica and other unfortunately misnamed 'safe areas' had in fact “served as Muslim military bases under UN protection.” In 2003, the Swedish magazine Ordfront published an interview with Johnstone where she reiterated these views. Chomsky was also among those who supported a campaign defending the right of a fringe magazine called Living Marxism to publish claims that footage the British television station ITN took in August 1992 at the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia was faked. ITN sued the magazine for libel and won, putting the magazine out of business, as Living Marxism could not produce a single witness who had seen the camps at first hand, whereas others who had - such as the journalist Ed Vulliamy - testified as to their horror.

In fact, as recently as April 25, 2006, in an interview with Radio Television of Serbia (a station formerly aligned with the murderous and now-deceased Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), Chomsky stated, of the iconic, emaciated image of a Bosnian Muslim man named Fikret Alic, the following:

Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.

Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'

In taking this position, Chomsky seemingly attempts to discredit the on-the-ground reporting of not only Mr. Vulliamy - whose reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994 - but of other journalists such as Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and Roy Gutman. In fact, Vulliamy , who filed the first reports on the horrors of the Trnopolje camp and was there that day the ITN footage was filmed, wrote as follows in The Guardian in March 2000:

Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathized with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.

In his interview with Brockes, Chomsky stated that "Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."

In a November 2005 column, Marko Attila Hoare, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Kingston (London), wrote thusly:

An open letter to Ordfront, signed by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, stated: 'We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.' In his personal letter to Ordfront in defence of Johnstone, Chomsky wrote: 'I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important.' Chomsky makes no criticism here of Johnstone's massacre denial, or indeed anywhere else - except in the Brockes interview, which he has repudiated. Indeed, he endorses her revisionism: in response to Mikael van Reis's claim that 'She [Johnstone] insists that Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda', Chomsky replies that 'Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.'

Pretty astounding stuff, huh? But, faced with a relentless campaign by Mr. Chomsky and his supporters The Guardian, to its eternal shame, pulled Brockes’ interview from its website and issued what can only be described as a groveling apology that did a great disservice not only to Ms Brockes herself, but also to former Guardian correspondent Vulliamy and all those journalists who actually risked their lives covering the Bosnian conflict, to say nothing of the victims of the conflict themselves.

The caving-in focused on three points, the chief of which appeared to be the headline used on the interview, which read: “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”

Though this was a paraphrase rather than a literal quotation, the fact of the matter was that it did seem to accurately sum up the state of affairs: Chomsky had actively supported Johnstone, who in turn had claimed that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated and not part of a campaign of genocide. The Guardian brouhaha prompted, Kemal Pervanic, author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnia War, and a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, to write that “If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too. Mr Chomsky has the audacity to claim that Living Marxism was "probably right" to claim the pictures ITN took on that fateful August afternoon in 1992 - a visit which has made it possible for me to be writing this letter 13 years later - were false. This is an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself.”

Chomsky complained about that, too, forcing The Guardian to write in its apology that, ignoring the fact that it was Chomsky’s characterization of the Serb-run camps that seemed to outrage Pervanic the most, “Prof Chomsky believes that publication (of Pervanic’s letter) was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false…With hindsight it is acknowledged that the juxtaposition has exacerbated Prof Chomsky's complaint and that is regretted.”

So Emma Brockes (whom I have never met), in this instance, at least, was silenced. There but for the grace of God (and a few gutsy editors) go I and many other journalists who have challenged the powerful.

Retracting our steps slightly, the actions of Chomsky and Arnove were by no means the only efforts to silence the voices of chronicled in my book or that of its author. The others - vituperative and false attacks by a violent and erratic Aristide crony named Patrick Elie, the eruption of Mr. Aristide’s attorney Ira Kurzban and a red-face, apparently unstable man named Jack Lieberman into a shouting, semi-hysterical tirade during a reading of mine in Miami resulting in the summoning (by whom I don’t know) of security personnel, photos of corpses emailed to me last November by a seemingly unbalanced graduate student from California named Jen Sprague, a December 2005 email from Miami celebrating the July 2005 murder of Haitian journalist (and friend) Jacques Roche - continued after the book’s publication and could make an entertaining if disturbing article in themselves. However, at the moment they would serve as a distraction from the issue at hand. Having lost so many friends to Haiti’s political violence over the last decade, I felt that the threats, whether they be professional or personal, that would be visited upon me because of the book were a small price to pay to get the truth of what happened to Haiti out.

This triumvirate of episodes as I have been mulling over them - the murder of Politkovskaya, the shutting down of free discouse at Columbia University and the campaign of a small privileged, insular and delusional elite to prevent the publication of views they deem objectionable by various methods - reminds me of nothing so much as the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” as relevant today as when it was penned in 1939:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

As long as those in positions of power, wherever they may be, are unchallenged authority figures assured of uncritical press coverage and an adoring public, no real dialogue will ever take place. From our prevaricating, duplicitous president here in the United States on down, they must be challenged. The fact is, some people can only react to criticism and dissent by trying to silence those individuals who are dissenting, quite often journalists. Free and open discourse? As human beings, perhaps, I think we still have a long way to go. But we as journalists cannot back down, cannot be intimidated into silence by those who would want to keep us from reporting unpopular and uncomfortable truths. There is too much at stake for us to take even a step back in defending our rights to report honestly on the struggles of the poor, the disenfranchised and the powerless. Journalists like Anna Politkovskaya paid the ultimate price so that struggle could go on, and we owe their memories at least that much.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Good neighbours?

Good neighbours?

Published: June 08, 2010

Foreign Direct Investment

Haiti and the Dominican Republic have endured a fraught relationship over the past 200 years, but could the latter’s response to the former’s recent earthquake lead to a more mutually beneficial partnership in the future? Michael Deibert investigates.

(Read the original article here)

When an earthquake devastated a large section of Haiti in January, no country responded more empathically than the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Despite what has been an often stormy and distrustful relationship between the two countries – due in large part to the many Haitian occupations of the Dominican Republic, as well as the long history of abuses committed against the almost 1 million Haitians living in the Dominican Republic – Dominicans almost immediately began fundraising drives and gathered supplies. These were then ferried across the border to Haiti by a combination of local relief organisations and ordinary citizens.

“I had been visiting Haiti for such a long time, and have such good friends over there, that I knew I had to do my best to help,” says Juan Pablo Fernandez, president of Químicos & Plásticos, a Dominican company that supplies raw materials to the industries of both nations. After the earthquake, Mr Fernandez and his employees joined other Dominican businesses in transporting privately donated relief supplies to Haiti’s stricken capital, Port-au-Prince.

The Dominican response to the earthquake just might have eased some of the mutual recrimination brought on by an oft-tragic shared history stretching back two centuries.

In 1822, then Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer invaded the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. Despite this, country succeeded in declaring its independence in 1844. Another Haitian leader, Faustin Soulouque, who would go on to declare himself emperor of Haiti, then invaded the Dominican Republic twice.

In 1937, following the expulsion of Haitian cane cutters by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, even more Haitian labourers flooded the Dominican Republic, then led by dictator Rafael Trujillo, who would rule the country from 1930 until his murder in 1961. That October, under Mr Trujillo’s orders and for reasons that still remain unclear, Dominican soldiers and police massacred an estimated 20,000 Haitians.

Haitians continue to stream into the Dominican Republic looking for work today, even though they continue to face “severe discrimination”, according to the 2009 Human Rights Report issued by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. But though both countries have experienced authoritarian regimes and high levels of corruption, their economic and investment portfolios paint a markedly different picture, analysts say, especially over the past two decades.

Revealing data

Before the earthquake, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, the GDP real growth rate for the Dominican Republic was 1.8% during 2009, and the GDP per capita was $8300. In Haiti, these figures were 2% and $1300, respectively. While average life expectancy for the Dominican Republic is 73 years, the figure in Haiti is just 57 years. To add to Haiti’s woes, according to its government’s Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment, the damage bill from January’s earthquake was in the region of $7.9bn.

While two-thirds of Dominican exports remain bound for the US, foreign remittances, mostly from the US, continue to account for nearly one-tenth of the country’s GDP, and there remains a robust tourism industry. Boasting the largest economy in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic currently has approximately 50 free trade zone parks, producing everything from textiles to electronic devices and pharmaceuticals. The country’s financial sector has also largely stabilised since the collapse of its second-largest bank, Banco Intercontinental, in 2003, which had to be bailed out by the Dominican treasury at a cost of some $2.2bn.

“Business is increasing on a daily basis [in the Dominican Republic] and there is much optimism,” says Aryam Vázquez, an economist who covers country risk for Wells Fargo’s emerging markets unit in New York. “The banking sector is much better regulated than in the past, and we have seen concerted efforts by successive governments to stabilise the domestic demand market.”

Across the border

Before the earthquake, Haiti seemed to be regaining some of its financial footing following the chaotic presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide between 2001 and 2004 and the often erratic rule of the interim government that replaced him. Relations between Dominican president Leonel Fernández, in office since August 2004, and Haitian president René Préval, who has governed since May 2006, are said to be warm. During their mutual first term in office in the 1990s, Mr Fernández made the first official state visit by a Dominican leader to Haiti since the 1937 massacres.

Political instability in Haiti has led to environmental degradation and economic atrophy. While Haiti was ruled by a series of ravenous civilian and military dictatorships for much of the past 50 years, Joaquín Balaguer, a long-time Trujillo consigliere who led a series of authoritarian governments in the Dominican Republic over the past half-century, was taking steps to prevent the country from sliding into the environmental disaster that was befalling Haiti, including using the Dominican army to prevent extensive deforestation. Haiti, on the other hand, has lost 90% of its tree cover over the past 60 years (and about one-tenth between 1990 and 2000), with the resulting erosion destroying two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland.

Hope beyond the despair

Despite such statistics, there is hope that out of the tragedy of January’s earthquake there lies an opportunity to help Haiti advance beyond the modest improvements in economic stability and security of recent years.

Haiti’s garment industry, once a pillar of its economy, has benefitted in recent years from measures that provided certain Haitian textiles with duty-free status when entering the US. Last year, Haitian firm the WIN Group, along with the Soros Economic Development Fund, announced their intention to construct a $45m industrial park in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil slum region, a project that has been put on hold in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The OTF Group, a competitiveness consulting firm, has continued to advocate for the creation of “growth clusters” around Haiti, a proposal that fits closely with the Haitian government’s desire for decentralisation, economic diversification and the “decongestion” of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, rather than rebuilding as before.

Such measures might well provide a possible future at home for the Haitians currently living in the Dominican Republic and spell a less fractious new era for two nations whose economic destinies, despite frequent tensions, remain inextricably linked.

Trinidad’s gas sector declines

Trinidad’s gas sector declines

June 08, 2010

By Michael Deibert

Foreign Direct Investment

(Read the original article here)

As supplies of liquefied natural gas dry up in Trinidad and Tobago, the industry’s future on the islands is in doubt.

Once the top supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the US, the Caribbean dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago has seen the growth in its production of this lucrative fuel decline sharply in recent years.

The lack of forward motion has led to speculation about possible future paths for developing the sector.

In the years following the country’s first LNG investment in 1996, Trinidad and Tobago’s export capacity grew substantially and reached some 14.7 million tonnes of LNG per year by 2005.

The Atlantic LNG Company of Trinidad and Tobago, owned by the state and the local subsidiaries of LNG giants BG Group, BP, Repsol YPF and Suez, operates an LNG plant at Point Fortin, in Trinidad’s south-west, and four liquefaction trains, including one currently measured as the largest in operation in the world. Plans to develop a fifth train have as yet not materialised.

The battle for Trinidad’s recent general election focused more attention on the government’s approach to developing this most lucrative of natural resources.

In the run-up to the May 24 election, incumbent prime minister Patrick Manning, a trained geologist, put an increased focus on industrial facilities in addition to LNG development.

The fate of the country’s reserves became a political football in Mr Manning’s electoral struggle against former attorney general Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Mr Manning’s People’s National Movement, which had governed the nation since 2001, lost the election to Mr Persad-Bissessar’s United National Congress party.

[Note: The UNC won the May 24 elections]

Since a peak in 2002, the country’s gas reserves have declined by more than a quarter, with a notice­able drop-off in exploration. Three years ago, Houston-based consulting firm Ryder Scott issued a report warning of declining natural gas reserves in the country.

A recent report from liquid flow measurement specialists Badger Meter Inc suggested that, while by 2014 Trinidad will only provide 0.49% of all oil demand in the Latin American region, its LNG output, which formed 19.83% of the region’s supply last year, will continue to contribute an impressive 19.12% by 2014.

There are, however, thought to be substantial undiscovered LNG reserves in the country’s shallow and deep waters. Mr Manning told a political rally in Trinidad in May that 62% of the nation’s reserves are still unexplored.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on KPFK Pacifica Radio

I was interviewed today about my recent trip to Colombia on Suzi Weissman's show Beneath The Surface on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. My segment begins at about the 40 minute mark and can be heard here. For more background on the current situation in Colombia, please read my articles from the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia and from Medellín.

The Face of the Deepwater Horizon disaster

(A bird mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010. Photo by Charlie Riedel of the Associated Press.)

Most things are never meant.
This won't be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.

- Philip Larkin, "Going, Going"

Friday, June 04, 2010

Human Rights Defender Floribert Chebeya Bahizire Killed in Democratic Republic of Congo

"Floribert Chebeya was killed in circumstances which strongly suggest official responsibility," U.N. investigator for extrajudicial executions Philip Alston said in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday.

(Please read my article, Congo: Between Hope and Despair, originally published in the Summer 2008 edition of the World Policy Journal and providing background of the conflict in the DRC, here)

DR Congo: Prominent Human Rights Defender Killed

Joint Government and UN Inquiry Needed into Death of Floribert Chebeya Bahizire

June 3, 2010

Human Rights Watch

(Read the original release here)

(New York) - The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should urgently open a credible and transparent investigation with United Nations assistance into the death of the prominent human rights defender, Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, Human Rights Watch said today.

Chebeya's body was found on June 1, 2010, soon after he had visited police headquarters in Kinshasa. On June 2, the Kinshasa police chief, Jean de Dieu Oleko, announced that Chebeya's death resulted from a criminal act and that the police were investigating. Chebeya's driver, Fidèle Bazana Edadi, is still missing.

"Floribert Chebeya's shocking death is a serious blow for human rights in the Congo," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The announced police investigation needs UN help if it is to be credible and transparent and bring all those responsible to justice."

Chebeya was the executive director of one of Congo's largest and most respected human rights organizations, the Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless), based in Kinshasa, the capital. He was among Congo's most vocal human rights defenders, regularly exposing abuses by the country's security services and the government over many years.

Over the years, Chebeya had been threatened and intimidated repeatedly by Congolese authorities as a result of his work. In recent weeks, he had reported that he believed he again was under surveillance by the security services.

On June 1, Chebeya received a telephone call requesting his presence at the office of the inspector general of the national police, Gen. John Numbi, his colleagues told UN officials. He left his office at 5 p.m. to attend the meeting. A few hours later he contacted his family and said he was still waiting at the police inspectorate, but after 9 p.m. all communication stopped.

On June 2, the police said that Chebeya had been found dead in his car in the Mont Ngafula area of Kinshasa. By midday on June 2, a police account implying that Chebeya's body had been found in the back seat of his car with used condoms and a sexual stimulant was circulated to journalists and others in Kinshasa, though no investigation had begun.

The authorities initially refused requests by Chebeya's family and UN human rights officials for access to the body. Today a family member, a colleague, and UN representatives were allowed to visit the morgue on the condition that they could not touch the body. They identified Chebeya and noticed a medium-size bandage on his forehead, apparently covering a wound. The rest of his body was covered with a sheet, which was not removed during the visit.

"The Chebeya family's very limited access to his body and conflicting police statements about the cause of death raise serious concerns about what really happened," said Van Woudenberg. "These irregularities indicate there may already be an attempt to cover up the truth."

Human rights defenders and journalists in Congo have faced increasing risks as a result of their work. Previous assaults and killings have rarely been properly investigated or those responsible brought to justice.

On July 31, 2005, Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi, a human rights defender, was shot dead at his home in Bukavu, in eastern Congo. His death was followed by the killing of two well known Radio Okapi journalists, Serge Maheshe in June 2007 and Didace Namujimbo in November 2008, also in Bukavu. In November 2005, Franck Ngyke, a journalist, and his wife, Hélène Mpaka, were murdered outside their home in Kinshasa. The investigations and subsequent trials into each of these killings were led by the Congolese military authorities and were marred by serious irregularities.

Human Rights Watch urged the minister of justice and human rights to create a commission of inquiry immediately, including Congolese and UN officials, as well as a representative from the Congolese human rights community, to investigate the death of Chebeya.

"The Congolese authorities should take every possible step to bring Chebeya's killers to justice and not repeat the botched investigations of the past," Van Woudenberg said. "UN and Congolese human rights officials should play a role to ensure that the government investigation is genuine and not merely for show."