Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020: A Reporter’s Notebook of the Year That Never Was


For me, this past year began in January over the blue-green waters of the Caribbean, as my plane headed home from Panama to Puerto Rico. After a rumbling earthquake nearly thew me out of bed in San Juan a few days earlier, I had passed a few days in the beautiful Casco Viejo in Panama City, and before that in Georgetown, Guyana, where I had given a talk at a workshop for local journalists. I had never been to Guyana before but had always wanted to visit and its spicy mélange of Afro, Indian and indigenous cultures, its beautiful architecture and great spicy food was just to my taste. “Perhaps I’ll come back here later this year,” I thought. 

The world was all before where to choose, to paraphrase Milton. I had a series of lectures I was going to given in the United Kingdom for some badly-needed income, had planned a long reporting trip through Venezuela driving from Caracas to Maracaibo, was scheduled to house-sit for some friends in France’s divine Loire Valley and then was planning on moving to Lisbon by the end of the year, a return to Europe I had long hope to make real. 


It didn’t quite happen that way, and little did I know, when my plane landed in San Juan that would be the last time I would set foot off the island this year. As a cruel virus cascaded over the world, killing over 340,000 people in my native United States alone, we found ourselves confined to our apartments and houses for long periods of time, separate from our loved ones, apart but hopefully not completely alone, for the balance of the year. As a person whose professional life has been devoted to trying to illuminate for people the common humanity we all share, it was a hard slog, confined as I was to the streets of Viejo San Juan (where the neighborhood even lost Mimi, its most beloved street cat), at first utterly empty and since summer far-too-crowded with travelers, for the duration of the year, a year that somehow vanished into the ether, along with the lives of so many beautiful people.  


Coronavirus was not the only struggle the world faced in 2020. The appalling murder of George Floyd reenergized the Black Lives Matter movement in a profound way and spurred what I hope will be a more honest discussion about race and accountability, not just in the United States but beyond. Citizens in countries as disparate as Belarus, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela faced down the awful machinery of state repression as France continued to be stalked by jihadist terrorism and Haiti’s political and economic actors for the most part continued to flail at one another with little concern for their vulnerable people. Here in Puerto Rico, the political duopoly of the two main political parties was broken, but the corrupt system through which they rule seems to remain largely intact. 


But there were bright spots. Firstly, the red-hat wearing cult of the 45th president was vanquished in November, and my home state of Pennsylvania, which shamed me by voting for him in 2016, delivered the coup de grâce. Now all that’s left is to kick his political culture into the ditch where it belongs and cover it with dirt. A man and his criminal low travelers who caused so much misery for so many people will soon be gone from the White House. Secondly, a series of vaccines against the pandemic arrived, raising hope that life might return to some level of normalcy as 2021 progresses. 


And somehow, amid all the unreality of this year, I managed to start work on two new books, began a PhD and to publish the articles that I like to below.  


For me, 2020 will in many ways remain, in the words of the caraqueña band Desorden Público, el año que nunca fue (the year that never was), a strange pause in life between what came before and after. But I hope that, as the sun sets on this most difficult twelve months, it will rise on something brighter, gentler and more humane in 2021, and that I can see you all again very soon.

Y una a una las noches

entre nuestras ciudades separadas

se agregan a la noche que nos une


(And one by one the nights

between our separated cities

are joined to the night that unites us)

Love to you all from Puerto Rico,



Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads for Newlines Magazine (21 December 2020)

New Voices of Rebellion Rise in Cuba for Newlines Magazine (22 November 2020)

Mexico slams brakes on clean energy momentum for Energy Monitor (22 October 2020)

Colombia’s financial services industry flourishes despite domestic headwinds for Foreign Direct Investment (15 October 2020) 

Le rôle de la communauté internationale dans le royaume de l'impunité d'Haïti for Le Nouvelliste (24 September 2020)

Haiti’s long road to energy self-sufficiency for Energy Monitor (18 September 2020)

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Model Doesn’t Serve Its People for Foreign Policy (31 July 2020)

Dominican Republic: George Floyd protests spark reckoning with race as elections loom for The Guardian (15 June 2020)

Donde las vidas de los negros importaban primero en las Américas for El Nuevo Día (17 June 2020)

 'Our heritage is abandoned': burning of Haitian church fuels anger at politicians for The Guardian (17 April 2020)

Puerto Rico earthquakes are just the latest in a string of shocks for US island for The Guardian (12 January 2020)  


Michael Deibert speaking on impact of Tropical Storm Isaias in Puerto Rico on BBC World Service (31 July 2020)


L’église de Milot qui vient de prendre feu est un monument unique in Ayibo Post (13 April 2020)


Can Solar Energy Solve Puerto Rico's Energy Crisis? on The Takeaway (13 January 2020) 


Magnitude 6.4 Earthquake Rocks Puerto Rico on The Takeaway (7 January 2020)

Books in 2020: A Personal Selection

 Arrernte rain ceremony, Alice Springs, Central Australia, c. 1895-1901.


During this very strange year, these are some of the books the made the biggest impression on me. 


Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

A panoply of Bourbon-era France set in a Paris boardinghouse, this book introduces a cast of characters ranging from the devoted father Goriot to the aspirational law student Eugène de Rastignac to the cynic and fugitive convict Vautrin. Balzac casts a sceptical eye on the French capital and its moneyed inhabitants alluding to “the horror under the gold and the jewels” and that “at the bottom of every great fortune without apparent source, there’s always some crime, a crime overlooked because it’s been carried out respectably.”

The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest

This sprawling book, by perhaps the greatest historian writing in English on Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian Communism, is the story of how, through a thousand small compromises and miscalculations, the political class of a society allowed themselves to preside over the building of a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave below. Using the 1934 murder of Sergei Kirov as a pretext to begin mass purges and executions, Stalin was, as Conquest writes, “a monster who, while adhering to abstratct and fundemntally utopian ideas, in practice had no criterion but success – and that meant violence, and physical and spiritual extermination.” He was also a master at tricking his opponents into underestimating him, as “they could - and did - frequently delude themselves into thinking that he had submitted to the will of the politburo majority, and would henceforth be possible to work with.” Given the totalitarian flirtation the United States - through the skin of its teeth - is hopefully about to exit, it is good to remember Conquest’s observation that “Stalin required not only submission, but also complicity” in relation to all those who serve an authoritarian and are then smeared with a stain that will never wash off. Also, at a time when the hammer and sickle - a symbol that ought to be every bit as repellent in modern usage as the swastika - is thrown around by the Western pseudo-radical left as a kind of unlettered shorthand, this book is a good reminder for the grim human toll the disgraced fanaticism behind it exacted on the vulnerable. 

Assad or We Burn the Country by Sam Dagher

This book by a veteran Lebanese-American journalist paints a convincing portrait of Syria’s ruling family as little more than a remorseless criminal enterprise pillaging the Syrian state and picking its bones clean. The supposedly initial reformist instincts of Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad were nothing more than “the beautiful and shiny wrapping paper around what remained a regime of lies and terror on the inside.” A regime that exported terror abroad - almost certainly playing a role in the murders in Lebanon of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, journalist Gebran Tueni and academic Samir Kassir, allowing the rump of Saddam Hussein’s Baʽath party sanctuary in Syria after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and allowing fighters of what was the Al-Qaeda in Iraq to flow freely through the country - at home Assad Inc. became increasingly subservient to the empire-building designs of the mullahs in Iran after the 2006 Lebanon Israel War. Though the recollections of the book’s main source – former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard and Assad confidante Manaf Tlass, who defected from the regime in July 2012 – are clearly self-serving, they still give a fascinating window into the inner working of the corrupt, ruthless and deluded system that currently squats over Syria

In terms of the international community, there are the by now customary assortment of demented, regime apologists and hangers on - the Carmelite nun “Mother” Agnes Mariam, the French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan, Assad and Hezbollah defender Nir Rosen and the right-wing French politician Valérie Boyer - but there are also the United Nations officials and staff sitting breezily at the Four Seasons in Damascus as civilians are gassed and murdered by the regime merely miles away. United Nations official Yacoub El Hillo actually helps coaxe desperate, besieged civilians out of hiding in Homs only to have them disappeared by the regime, blithely dismissing criticism by saying “the UN is not the protector of Syrians in Syria.” There is the often-malevolent role of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And finally there is the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama, whose Syria policy - if it can even be called a policy - proved nothing short of disastrous. 

The failure of the U.S. to act following Assad’s chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta in August 2013, a military response to which had serious Turkish and French support but which died on the vine due to the Obama administration's feckless vacillation - remains a turning point in the war. The French especially, were also ready to support an American military punishment of Assad but Obama blinked. Many saw Obama’s indecisiveness in Syria as interpreted by Vladimir Putin as a sign that he could invade Ukraine at little political cost the following year. And in Syria itself, once the full measure of Obama’s weakness on the issue was assessed, regime atrocity followed regime atrocity and ISIS completed its takeover of Raqqa in January 2014 and took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, only six months later.

The book’s sharp analysis rather falters when confronted with the personality and highly questionable motives of Donald Trump - which it treats with far too much credulity - but overall it is a useful contribution to the literature chronicling a uniquely awful world leader. The regime did not derive “its strength from the army, government and other institutions found in normal states,” Dagher concludes. “In fact the underpinning of this regime were the family and clan, more than two million Alawaites, the Mukhabarat system, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Iran. Tens of thousands of soldiers and officers, a prime minister and other government officials ultimately defected, but all were peripheral to the regime. They were not part of its nerve center.”

Querelle by Jean Genet

An atmoospheric novel about a bisexual sailor, thief and serial killer in the French port city of Brest, this book provides a rich description of Brest and the carnival of the damned that inhabit Georges Querelle’s world.  Brest is “heavy yet luminous...A hard, solid city, built out of gray Breton granite... If Brest ever seems more lighthearted, it is when a feeble sun gilds the facades which are as noble as those of Venice, or when its narrow streets teem with carefree sailors – or, then, even when there is fog and rain.” Through such turns of phrase as describing a thug’s hand, festooned with rings, as “armored rather than ornamented,” Genet displays his ability to bring the denizens of the underworld to life for the reader in original and striking ways.

Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession by Barry Hill

A finely-researched and beautifully-written biography of Australian anthropologist Ted Strehlow, this 800 page book examines the dramatic story of his iconoclastic life along with some very important questions about the role of outsiders in vulnerable communities, how they interact with those communities, who has a right to knowledge and the nature of academic research.

In 2009, I spent several weeks traveling around the Northern Territory of Australia, which forms the basis of the book and much of Strehlow’s work, and it made a deep impression on me, from the intense physical beauty of the place, to the difficult circumstances which many local people lived in to the, to me, at least to me, extremely complex and hard-to-grasp cosmology of spiritual belief and language. 

Strehlow, on the other hand, was not an “outsider” to this region in the sense of many historians or anthropologists. He was born in Hermannsburg, also called Ntaria, and grew up trilingual, the son of a German Lutheran pastor and, in addition to German and English, Strehlow also became fluent in Arranda, the local indigenous language. After spending a decade in Adelaide, more than 1,500 miles to the south, he returned to Central Australia, His father had itemized hundreds of Aranda myths and recounted them by their aboriginal names and sometimes the places to watch the stories were connected. 

Only a few years before Strehlow’s father arrived, a pogrom had been launched against indigenous Australians in nearby Barrow Creek and where the remains of the Kaititya people could be uncovered in and around a locale dolorously named Skull Creek for decades. Press coverage of the violence, often instituted by marauding whites, verged on genocidal, referring to indigenous Australians as “wolves'' and “inhuman monsters'' who were “unfit to live.” In researching the history of this part of Australia, one comes across many Outback versions of Joseph Conrad’s Mister Kurtz. 

Strehlow, on the other hand, treated the indigenous culture with great respect, spending years transcribing Arranda songs and poems from older, initiated men that he feared might be lost and acquiring, in the process, hundreds of ceremonial objects known as tjurunga that the men, he insisted, had passed on to him in formal surrender ceremonies. He witnessed and recorded around 200 sacred ceremonies. 

As Hill writes 

The whole life of the region was, in a sense, conducted according to song, the secrets of which was central to the laws of the culture, so that existence was made to pivot on a stark contradiction: On the one hand a bare, elemental life; on the other one that thrived on an elaborate use of language. The whole region was animated by song that gave almost everything – fauna, flora, much of the typography - meanings. The train was a narrative, and songs, like rain, united the sky with the earth, and day with the stars of the night. The songs were important among the deeds to the land. To sing a song with the transmit proprietorial responsibilities to others. A song serves to locate men and women in totemic terms, and this in turn mapped individuals with regard to birthplace and place of conception. A man or a woman, and the clan to which they belong to, owned the song as they owned the land, rather in the spirit of copyright as it is understood today. They belong to the song and it’s country, as much as the singer’s voice belongs to his or her body.  Everything in the scheme of things was vitally, metaphysically connected. Spirit animated earth: the ground of life was valued as spirit.


In 1971, nearly 40 years after he began his initial research, Strehlow published his study of Aranda ceremonial poetry, Songs of Central Australia. Though mocked at the time by publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, it has since become seen as one of the great works of anthropology to emerge from the continent. 


Towards the end of the Strehlow’s life the question of ownership of the ceremonial objects he acquired became more complex, with younger indigenous representatives calling for the objects to be returned while Strehlow resisted, saying they had been entrusted to his care. As the book makes clear, Strehlow had strong grounds for distrust of any type of officialdom. 


After protracted negotiations that went beyond even Strehlow’s death in 1978, the objects are now housed at the Strehlow Research Centre Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. All in all a bracing biography about a compelling figure that raises many important questions. 

Dubliners by James Joyce

For me, one of the great short story collections of all time and somehow redolent of the fading light and low shadows of autumn, these finely-observed, tender portraits of the working class of Ireland in the early 1900s remain powerful even today.

Clasp by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

The first English-language collection of poems by the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, who had previously written exclusively in Gaelic, this is a volume that alternates between lyrical musings and a sometimes jarring attention to the corporeal world, often in highly musical languages Though many lines concentrate in issues of domesticity, just behind the veil there is a rustling of something more. “I’ve never been so far from home,writes the narrator of the poem Maeve in Chile. “No, I’ve never been so close.” 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads

December 21, 2020 

Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads

As Haiti veers from its constitutional path and armed gangs compete for power, its civil society persists in spite of the odds

By Michael Deibert

Newlines Magazine

(Please read original article here

At the end of November, a curious decree was published in Le Moniteur, the official journal of Haiti’s government. The edict announced the creation of a new security service, the Agence nationale d’intelligence (ANI). Answerable only to the president and immune from criminal charges without presidential approval, the ANI’s anonymous agents will be tasked with the “monitoring of individuals and groups liable to resort to violence and to undermine national security and social peace.”

A Caribbean nation of 11 million, sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti has rarely known a period free of political tumult in its 217-year history. The country was forged in the fires of the world’s only successful slave revolt. Marginalized by outside nations aghast at the thought of a Black republic, bedeviled by internecine political wars and repeated outside meddling (including a 1915 to 1934 military occupation by the United States), this nation of what the Haitian author Lyonel Trouillot called “the children of heroes” has not had an easy path.

Few periods, however, have been as tumultuous as the last year, as President Jovenel Moïse, in office since February 2017, has squared off against a fractious opposition that has thrown everything they have at him to drive him from power, without apparent effect.

From Haiti’s mist-shrouded mountains to its lush rice fields to its glistening tropical beaches, warring politicians now battle in a landscape of competing armed groups. The criminality and economic anguish they stalk are far from natural occurrences like the hurricanes that occasionally batter Haiti’s shores; they have been created by powerful people both within and beyond its borders.

Moïse, an agribusinessman known locally as Nèg Bannann (The Banana Man), won the presidency by gaining 55.60% of the vote in a crowded field in a November 2016 contest marked by feeble participation. The opposition’s earlier promise to wait for voters with “machetes and stones in hand” likely did not help turnout. With the vote overseen by an interim president and political rival — former senator Jocelerme Privert — it was the second attempt at holding a presidential ballot after the first attempt was shelved due to violence and allegations of fraud.

Running as the candidate for the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK) developed by former president and carnival singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, Moïse promised an aggressive infrastructure program to help revive Haiti’s economy, still struggling from January 2010’s devastating earthquake.

Despite the construction of miles of roads and the beginnings of an effort to restructure Haiti’s faltering energy grid, the reality has turned out somewhat differently. Moïse has been dogged by allegations of corruption related to his business dealings before becoming president. A 600-page audit of the Venezuelan low-cost oil program known as PetroCaribe claimed that firms linked to Moïse took part in an embezzlement scheme. Since 2018, a civil society movement under the slogan Kot kòb PetroCaribe a? (“Where is the PetroCaribe money?”) has demanded accountability for the funds, an end to corruption, and other government abuses.

Moïse denied links to the scandal and called on the Organization of American States to investigate, while frequently assailing what he charges is the “state capture” of Haiti’s resources by corrupt business elites and their political allies. Earlier this year, a government anti-corruption task force published a report which concluded that, between March 2019 and May 2020 alone, private oil companies operating in Haiti made $94 million in undue profits at the expense of the state.

After all eight members of Haiti’s Conseil électoral provisoire (CEP) resigned last July, Moïse created a new electoral council and unilaterally named its members. Many have been tasked with organizing local and federal elections and overseeing a commission to re-write Haiti’s often-criticized 1987 constitution. The new document is slated to be approved by a plebiscite, a move that left many stunned.

The president’s actions are “totally, wholly, bluntly unlawful,” says Georges Michel, a Haitian historian and constitutional expert. “It is a move towards arbitrary rule and dictatorship.”

Reached for comment, Haiti’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Claude Joseph said that the changes were needed, noting — correctly — that presidents have been left to govern by decree several times in recent years as legislative elections failed to occur on time. Joseph went on to say, “President Moïse has been absolutely clear that he will not stand for a second term. These reforms will serve no benefit to him but will pave the way for a functioning democratic government in Haiti.”

In fairness, Moïse’s aberrant actions have been equaled if not exceeded by those of his political opposition, a different breed entirely from his civil society opponents. They are a collection of men — for they are almost all men — who have developed reputations for themselves at home often at odds with how they wish to be perceived abroad.

Before the terms of most of its members expired in January, Haiti’s parliament was regularly unable to reach quorum because its members didn’t show up for work. In May 2019, rather than allow a vote on Moïse’s designate for interim prime minister, a group of opposition senators led by Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy, a former rapper turned politician, destroyed the meeting room. After Moïse nominated a Ministry of Finance official for the same post four months later, opposition politicians, again led by Don Kato, once more vandalized the parliamentary meeting hall. One of the president’s fiercest critics, the former senator Moïse Jean-Charles, recently demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy — a favorite target of opposition ire — and vowed to “dismantle this political class to make room for a new dynamic carried by young people.” This promise might have sounded more convincing were it not coming from a 53-year-old man who has not had a job outside of politics since the mid-1990s. In late 2019, an opposition-led armed strike forced the country to a standstill for weeks, further wounding an already grievously ill economy and achieving virtually nothing.

Another of Moïse’s many recent decrees seeks to classify protest strategies such as reducing freedom of movement on public roads as “terrorist acts,” punishable by up to 50 years in prison.

With many of their own families living safely abroad, Haiti’s political operators appear to hold fast to Satan’s maxim in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: It is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

As all of this goes on, Haiti’s security situation has disintegrated. In the space of a few days, kidnappers seized a young doctor from the Hôpital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti, a well-known guitarist from the group Strings, and the wife of the head of the Unité de sécurité générale du palais national (USGPN), the police unit directly responsible for the president’s personal security. Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper recently ran an account of one kidnapping victim that detailed how kidnappers possessed “heavy weapons, dozens of vehicles and government license plates,” performed reconnaissance on potential targets’ social media accounts and were able to open the phones of their victims without asking for security codes. In August, Monferrier Dorval, head of the Port-au-Prince bar association and a well-known attorney, was slain returning home, one of several such assassinations in recent months.

This landscape is even more dolorous when one pauses to consider that, in just over 25 years, Haiti has been host to the Mission civile internationale en Haïti (MICIVIH), the Mission des Nations unies en Haïti (MINUAH), the U.S.-led “Operation Uphold Democracy” in 1994, and, from 2004 to 2017, the Mission des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH), which eventually became the Bureau intégré des Nations unies en Haïti (BINUH), which is presiding over the current implosion.

As the political situation in Haiti has deteriorated, the role of the baz (base) — the armed groups in the country’s most impoverished quarters acting as a kind of netherworld of neighborhood protector, tax collector, muscle for political interests and freelance criminal — has grown to ever more powerful levels.

The baz are descendants of other irregular paramilitary forces in Haitian history — from the zinglin of the mid-1800s rule of Faustin Soulouque to l’armée souffrante of the renegade general Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau to the Tontons Macoutes of dictator François Duvalier. One can almost pinpoint when the baz, as a specific political modus operandi, overwhelmed Haiti’s democratic sector and began the slow, inexorable poisoning of its political system.

After returning in October 1994 from an exile during which hundreds (perhaps thousands) of his supporters were killed by the army and paramilitaries (some of whose leaders were on the payroll of the CIA), then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s first order of business was to disband the military that had overthrown him. He dissolved the military in April 1995 (which was illegal without a constitutional amendment, as the army was still enshrined in Article 263 of the Haitian constitution). With the creation of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH) the following month, many hoped for a more humane face of public security in Haiti.

The PNH faced a rough economic landscape, however. In 1995, as part of an IMF and World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment made with U.S. President Bill Clinton’s support, Haiti lowered tariffs on imported rice to 3% from 50%, quickly becoming the world’s fifth-largest importer of U.S. rice. The backbone of the Haitian economy, local rice could not compete with cheaper American imports, putting farmers out of work. Those who fled the countryside to the cities found few jobs waiting for them, as the early-1990s U.S. embargo that helped drive the military regime that had ousted Aristide also wrecked Haiti’s manufacturing base.

At a January 1996 meeting between the PNH and a gang that referred to itself as Lame Wouj (The Red Army) in the seaside slum of Cité Soleil, a young policewoman named Marie Christine Jeune criticized what she viewed as the president’s attempts to co-opt the nascent police force by suggesting it join forces with pro-government thugs. Two months later, a month after Aristide left office, Jeune was found slain. It was the beginning of a pattern of the killing of police officers who would not turn a blind eye to illegal armed actors that continues to this day.

That same year, Aristide founded the Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) party. In the years leading up to and beyond Aristide’s 2001 return to office, the party nurtured a network of armed supporters in marginalized communities. The network was referred to as chimere, after a mythical fire-breathing demon. Many of the leaders of these groups in Port-au-Prince had grown up in the orbit of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi home for street children. When I was living in Haiti between 2001 and 2004, a number of them became my friends. They would receive a little money for no-show jobs at state industries and, in return, were expected to enthusiastically demonstrate for the president and terrorize his opponents. They were in regular contact with the PNH. Almost none of these young men would make it out of their 20s alive.

Aristide was overthrown in February 2004 after months of massive street protests and an armed rebellion against his rule (a rebellion that began with the Lame Kanibal, a formerly loyal gang in the northern city of Gonaïves). After that, the young gunmen engaged in a brutal war of attrition against police, then under the command of Léon Charles (who would later be named as Haiti’s ambassador to the Organization of American States and was recently re-appointed by Moïse as head of the PNH), that became known as Operation Baghdad. Hundreds would die before some level of stability returned when an unelected interim government was replaced by René Préval, in his second turn at the helm of Haiti’s ship of state. Préval, between his inauguration in May 2006 and Haiti’s apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake, proved that he was Haiti’s wiliest and most able politician.

The only president in Haiti’s history who twice turned power over to a democratically elected successor, Préval – an agronomist by training – represented a figure in whom many sides of Haiti’s stratified nation, from the rich in their villas above Port-au-Prince to those in the slums, felt they had a representative. He managed to bring a measure of tranquility to the divided country, saying that Haiti was like a bottle that must rest on its broad base to be secure. If it rested on its narrow mouth (the presidency and the country’s elite), it would topple over and shatter.

When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, destroying much of the capital city and killing more than 300,000 people, Préval appeared at times paralyzed when faced with the massive task of rebuilding. After a fraught election during which the international community pressured him, and as with his 2006 win, street protests erupted when it looked like the leading candidate might be deprived of victory, Préval (who would die in March 2017) turned the presidency over to Michel Martelly in May 2011. Many among Martelly’s entourage, including some advisers, had either direct or family links to the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1971 until his overthrow in 1986.

Many foreign commentators on Haiti couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that a right-wing populist who had previously performed in drag and a diaper and had once released an album called “100% Kaka” could win a contest for the presidency. But the Haitian sociologist and former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Guy Alexandre, saw things much more clearly. He wrote that Martelly’s popularity was “explained by the frustration of the population and its rejection of Préval, who has not been able to manage the country after the earthquake… [Martelly] is backed by former Duvalierists and the youth of the popular classes for whom he represents a break with the traditional political system.”

A little over a year after his election, Martelly would form the PHTK, whose name — roughly translated as “Bald Headed Haitian Party” — referred to Martelly’s gleaming pate. Corruption and patronage flourished, and the PHTK would enthusiastically embrace the baz model, as had many other political parties as it metastasized throughout Haiti’s body politic.

In recent months, despite the revival of the Haitian army in 2017, two specific armed groups have risen to prominence as the government and its opponents prosecute their struggle for power.

Last year, while the government negotiated with the PNH over the police department’s desire to form a union, a gang calling itself Fantôme 509 (the country code for Haiti) and claiming to be dissident police began appearing at demonstrations. Though certainly dominated by current and former officers, there is some evidence that Fantôme 509 also struck an alliance with a gang operating out of the Village de Dieu slum. Appearing masked and frequently shooting in the air and at vehicles, Fantôme 509 is viewed widely as a wing of the opposition, and the rank-and-file PNH perceives the group’s members as outlaws.

On the opposite side is Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former officer in the PNH’s Unité Départementale pour le Maintien de l’Ordre (UDMO) who went rogue following a November 2017 PNH raid against a gang in the hillside slum of Grand Ravine during which at least two police officers and 10 civilians died. Part of a larger neighborhood called Martissant, Grand Ravine is a known opposition stronghold. About to be arrested amid an investigation of the civilian deaths, Chérizier instead retreated to his home base in the lower Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. He was subsequently linked to a 2018 massacre in the capital’s slum of La Saline that a United Nations report said left at least 26 people dead (a report by the Haitian human rights group Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, RNDDH, put the death toll at 71) and during which the U.N. alleged involvement by two then-government officials.

Chérizier held a press conference last June, dressed in a suit and carrying a machine gun, during which he announced the formation of the G9 an fanmi e alye, an alliance of armed groups around the city. A month later, G9-allied gunmen held a public demonstration in Port-au-Prince during which police did not intervene. Though Chérizier specifically stated that he was not “pro-government or pro-opposition,” many see the G9 as the government’s bludgeon to clear out potentially troublesome elements from opposition neighborhoods before as-yet-unscheduled elections are held. Speaking on Radio Métropole last month, Moïse said, “I have no connection with these bandits, I do not distribute money or weapons to them to maintain order in their neighborhood.”

On December 10, Cherizier and the two officials — Ministry of Interior functionary Fednel Monchery & former West Department delegate Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan — were sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for their alleged roles in the La Saline killings.

Many veteran observers feel the dynamic in Haiti with the armed groups has begun to shift in recent years, with the politicians no longer holding all the cards.

“Many of the gang leaders are very aware that they’re being used, and they want to start doing things for themselves, especially when it comes to the next elections,” says Louis-Henri Mars, the executive director of Lakou Lapè (“peaceful community” in Creole), a group that promotes non-violence and dialogue. Mars is the grandson of Haitian author Jean Price-Mars, one of the founders of the négritude movement of Black consciousness and has been involved working with the most marginalized communities in the capital for decades. “You’re not going to become mayor if the crew don’t say yes, you’re not going to become deputy.”

Earlier this month, the eminent Haitian jurist & homme politique Gérard Gourgue died at 95. Under the Duvalier dictatorship, he bravely created the Ligue haïtienne des droits humains, and was repeatedly beaten and harassed by the tyrannical security forces. He was briefly a member of the military-civilian junta after Duvalier’s fall in 1986, and his likely victory in 1987 presidential elections prompted the killing of voters in what became known as the Ruelle Vaillant massacre. Still opposed to tyranny into his 70s, Gourgue was a member of a wide-ranging opposition when Aristide began his drift toward dictatorship. He was briefly proclaimed “provisional president” in 2001, leading the school he ran to be attacked by Aristide partisans as students cowered inside.

Gourgue was one of the last of the all-but-vanished generation of democratic activists that I met during my first trips to Haiti in the 1990s, notable for their intellectual brilliance. There was the economist, author, and political militant Gérard Pierre-Charles. There was the former head of the Parti unifié des communistes haïtiens René Théodore. There was the ex-priest turned human rights champion Jean-Claude Bajeux, who had lost most of his family to Duvalierist terror. All have since gone to join to the ancestors

It is not easy to find these bright lights in Haiti’s political firmament anymore, but if one knows where to look, one can still find them in the country at large.

The impoverished Cité Soleil is often characterized as a place of violence, but it is a community where fishermen mend nets by the glittering Caribbean and delicately-dressed schoolchildren skip down dusty streets as residents struggle diligently to better their lives. In such communities, one finds groups like the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè and the Konbit Solèy Leve, which have tasked themselves to provide residents with a world-class library, which is already half-built. Further afield, one finds groups like the Asosyasyon Orijinè Granplenn in the northern community of Gros-Morne, which advocates for the interests of Haiti’s long-suffering peasants. In Haiti, even those with the most impetus to give up soldier on, often against extraordinary odds, chèche lavi (looking for life).

In an open letter in Le Nouvelliste published a few months ago, an eminence who even predated Gérard Gourgue’s generation, the 103-year-old author Odette Roy Fombrun, confessed to her compatriots, “I am sad to leave my country in tatters.”

She then went on to implore them to:

Rise to the level of true citizens by agreeing to make personal sacrifices in favor of the country, of political and economic stability, of the return to the constitutional path, and the strengthening of institutions. It is imperative to stop this descent into hell with the humility of each of us to recognize that, alone, not in small, dispersed groups, we can do nothing. …Wisdom and love of country require us to work together.

As they stand, daggers drawn, one hopes that Haiti’s political actors hear her plea.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Declaration of Artists Protesting in front of Cuba's Ministry of Culture

Declaration of Artists Protesting in front of Cuba's Ministry of Culture

We, Cuban artists, influencers and intellectuals, repudiate, denounce and condemn the inability of government institutions in Cuba to engage in dialogue and recognize dissent, activist autonomy, empowerment of minorities and respect for human and citizen rights.

We, in solidarity with our brothers in the Movimiento San Isidro, demand that justice not be exercised at the discretion [of the powerful]. Justice cannot protect the government above the rights of its citizens.

We know that today's Cuba demands that the government eliminate political hatred and create real and effective systems from which the demands of the citizens are listened to, establishing guarantees for an unprejudiced and honest dialogue that does not have retaliate against those who speak out.

We cannot continue living in a country where there is no security for journalists, activists and those who disagree. Enough of arbitrary arrests, and causes created at the convenience and whims of the powerful, which today has not been able to respond to the people but only to its own survival in power.

Today, we owe ourselves a different Cuba, where everyone has the same opportunity to participate in the direction that the country takes. 

 In solidarity with the Movimiento San Isidro and against the brutality, the inability to dialogue honestly, and the propensity for defamation, the violence and the discrediting of the Ministry of the Interior and the institutions that appear to the world as representatives of the legitimate interests of Cuban society, we demand the immediate cessation of these attitudes and the beginning of a process that involves dialogue, but that leads to the formation of a society in which all Cubans have the freedom to express themselves and the possibility of participating in the direction the country takes. 

Translation by Michael Deibert.

Mexico slams brakes on clean energy momentum

22 Oct 2020

 Mexico slams brakes on clean energy momentum

Renewable energy has made slow progress in Mexico, where political commitment is lacking.

Energy Monitor

(Read the original article here)

Though often depicted in the foreign media as a left wing firebrand akin to Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in office since December 2018, is a more chameleon-like figure. AMLO, as he is known, grew up in the southern state of Tabasco, sometimes referred to as Pemexlandia in reference to the Centro Nacional de Control de la Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the country’s deeply indebted state oil producer, which has a massive presence there. This upbringing, and AMLO’s erratic nationalism, is now influencing the country’s energy policies.

Having flitted opportunistically for decades between Mexico’s major political parties, in 2012, he formed his own, the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, which propelled him to the presidency at his third attempt. Despite frequently liking to portray himself as an outsider, he is a pure product of Mexico’s political system, with serious repercussions for the country’s burgeoning clean energy transition.

Mexico’s Ley de Transición Energética [Energy Transition Law], passed in 2015, (before AMLO took office), mandated that the nation reach 30% renewable energy generation by 2021 and 35% by 2024. Thanks to this, Mexico, a signatory to the Paris Agreement and the world’s 11th- largest producer of greenhouse gases, has seen its generation of electricity from renewable sources triple in the last five years. Renewables currently generate about 24% of the nation’s electricity.

To help the country meet these targets, a 2013 energy reform allowed private companies to compete with the state-owned Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE). This change in the law attracted energy giants such as Spain’s Iberdrola and France’s Engie to undertake large-scale projects.

However, earlier this year, as Mexico endured the economic and social fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, whose gravity López Obrador had long downplayed, his government took steps to undercut that competition.

López Obrador has made no secret of his scepticism about clean energy. He has previously suggested that wind and solar projects “generate little energy” and expressed puzzlement about the Mexican state “subsidising private companies”. Nevertheless, in May, many were shocked when Mexico’s Ministry of Energy issued a decree de facto banning the initiation of new clean energy projects. Such projects could bring “instability” to Mexico’s energy grid, suggested the government.

“This really changes the plans of investors in renewable energy,” says María Fernanda Ballesteros from Mexico Evalúa, a Mexico City-based think tank. “The previous rules were very clear, and that clarity gave the confidence and security for investment. This change of criteria without establishing clear new rules – only arguing a general principle of ‘reliability’ – leads to a lot of uncertainty, affecting not only investors but also consumers.”

Before López Obrador’s intervention, the renewable energy sector in the country was growing at 4.5% a year. Despite its contribution to the economy, López Obrador, who frequently evokes nationalistic themes in his speeches, suggested private energy companies had “conspired” to undermine the CFE, and that the latter should be the sole electricity provider in Mexico.

López Obrador has also frequently spoken about his desire to rescue PEMEX, including by proposing the construction of an $8bn oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco. Such a project would be a tall order given that last year PEMEX posted an $18.3bn loss, almost double its loss for the previous year.

In a September press conference, López Obrador floated the idea of changing Mexico’s constitution if his attempts to aid PEMEX and the CFE are “tied up by these so-called energy reforms”. Current head of the CFE, Manuel Bartlett Díaz, is a veteran Mexican politician and López Obrador intimate.

“They are strangling renewables,” says Alexander Kebaili, senior adviser with Emerging Markets Political Risks Analysis, a political risk advisory firm in Mexico City. “The government is acting and behaving as if it were an energy company, not a government. It is changing the rules as we go, and generating uncertainty and reducing profitability.”

The president’s move has been particularly disruptive in the south of the country, where a robust combination of sun, wind and ample water for hydropower looked set to make it a clean energy hub.

In the southern state of Campeche, work is still going ahead on the Proyecto La Pimienta, a 300MW solar energy generation park, which should boast 1,053,150 photovoltaic panels to power 300,000 homes when finished. However, similar projects are unlikely to see the light of day, in the near future at least.

High costs

The inability to build more renewable energy capacity is not simply bad for attempts to reduce emissions, but also for Mexicans’ pockets given the cost of electricity in the country.

“The price of energy is very expensive,” says José María Cu Cañetas, director general of Campeche’s Energy Agency, citing the state’s ageing power grid and the fact some power stations are more than three decades old. The average price of electricity in Mexico is $0.078 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for households and $0.155 for businesses, said in March 2020. These figures compare with the global average electricity price of $0.14 per kWh for households and $0.12 for businesses.

“It is very necessary to have renewable power plants here to have lower cost and greater competitiveness,” says Cu Cañetas. “The big problem we have is with the ideology of the current government. I think they are not well informed about the benefits of these projects.”

Despite having succeeded in stirring up an unlikely hornet’s nest of opponents – from private investors to environmentalists – López Obrador’s desire to continue centralising power shows little sign of slackening ahead of Mexico’s 2021 midterm elections. The government’s actions appear to have already had an impact on the renewables sector.

In June, following the government’s announcement, Iberdrola announced it was cancelling its $1.2bn investment to construct a combined cycle – gas-fired and renewables – power plant in Tuxpan, Veracruz. Speaking to MVS Radio, Tuxpan’s mayor Juan Antonio Aguilar, of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional, said conflicts with the CFE had caused Iberdrola to abandon the municipality.

“The reputation of Mexico as a place where contracts are upheld could be severely damaged,” says managing director of energy consultancy GMEC Gonzalo Monroy. And he warns that the decision to “change the rules in the middle of the game” could have “lasting effects”.


New Voices of Rebellion Rise in Cuba

New Voices of Rebellion Rise in Cuba

A new generation of artists is keeping Cuba’s culture and desire for freedom alive, despite government crackdowns

By Michael Deibert

Newlines Magazine

(Read original article here

In July 2018, the locals and foreign tourists who habitually mill around the picturesque Habana Vieja quarter of Cuba’s capital were treated to a startling sight. Walking up the stairs of El Capitolio — the grandiose historical seat of Cuba’s congress completed in 1929 and shuttered after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 — a striking woman appeared covered in excrement and railing against the dictatorship that has ruled the island for six decades.

“It was an act of fury, a gesture of helplessness, of exhaustion,” says Yanelys Núñez Leyva, the 31-year-old art historian and gallerist who made the protest. “The message was that they weren’t going to be able to beat us, that we were ready for anything, that the Cuban art world followed the tradition of resistance that preceded it.”

In 2016, Núñez Leyva and performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara created the Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba, an online platform to highlight acts of dissent — especially in the artistic realm — from Cuba’s colonial era until today. Two years later, Núñez Leyva and Otero Alcántara were among the founding members of the Movimiento San Isidro collective, named after a poor and historically marginalized Havana neighborhood, encompassing a wide range of artists, writers, and musicians.

“We observed the fear that people felt when hearing the word dissident,” says Núñez Leyva, “It was not only the exclusion of the government, but also the exclusion of neighbors, friends, and society in general. If you became a dissident for the state, then you became a social plague. Faced with this context, we created the museum as a way to legitimize being a dissident and give it value.”

Núñez Leyva and Otero Alcántara are among the vanguard of young activists and artists in Cuba today facing down an ossifying machinery of repression that, though the world has changed to the point of being unrecognizable since 1959, often seems to have changed very little at all. Just before Núñez Leyva’s 2018 protest, state security had bundled Otero Alcántara and the poet Amaury Pacheco off to detention (they would be released a short time later) following the group’s attempt to push back against a new government law, Decree 349.

The new law – a draconian edict that prohibits musicians, artists, writers, and other performers from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture – poured cold water on those who had hoped that the piecemeal liberalization of some aspects of Cuban life that began when Raúl Castro took over as de facto leader of the country from his brother Fidel in July 2006 might continue.

To understand the space in which Cuba’s cultural activists operate, it is essential to process Cuba’s history and, especially, its relationship with the United States.

After invading Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the United States would continue to occupy it with a military government until May 1902. The Platt Amendment of 1901 dictated that the United States could intervene in Cuba militarily at any time, even as Cuba ceded the Isla de Pinos and was obligated to “sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations.” The 1903 Cuban-American Treaty of Relations would enshrine these conditions into law.

For decades after the invasion, the United States would exercise outsize influence on Cuba’s turbulent politics, one of its lowest ebbs being the 1925 to 1933 dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. With Machado’s regime in collapse, in September 1933 a sergeant born poor in the province of Holguín, whose alleged mixed-race heritage led to him being referred to as el mulato lindo (“the pretty mulatto”), led a revolt to finish it off. His name was Fulgencio Batista.

Through puppet presidents and directly as president himself, Batista ruled the island until 1944, when his chosen successor for president was defeated and constitutional order returned, however uneasily, to Cuba. The last time Cubans would be able to vote for the government that ruled them was July 1948, when they elected a senate, house of representatives and the dapper, urbane Carlos Prío Socarrás as president. In March 1952, on the cusp of new elections, Batista, again facing certain defeat, connived with the army and seized power in a coup d’état.

For the next seven years Cuba, and Havana in particular, became a debauched playground for vacationing Americans, featuring plentiful brothels and a strong presence of U.S. organized crime. U.S. financial interests exercised an enormous influence over Cuba’s economy and politics, uttering nary a word of condemnation as the reliably anti-communist Batista turned a country with a vibrant if imperfect democracy into a thuggish police state. Discontent grew. In July 1953, Batista put down an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, in the country’s east, led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro.

Nevertheless, the Cuba of the 1950s was not, as some would like to portray it, a place of utter squalor. There were great inequalities between town and country and between the races (Batista himself was famously refused admittance to one exclusive Havana club on this basis). But as the PBS documentary Fidel Castro (2005) notes, Cuba ranked fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, and second in per capita ownership of automobiles, and its literacy rate was 76 percent – the fourth highest in Latin America. It ranked 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita, its income distribution compared favorably with that of other Latin American societies (and certainly in the Caribbean itself), and there was a vibrant, engaged middle class. Music, especially, thrived.

The illegitimate son of a well-off landowner, Fidel Castro — jailed and subsequently released into exile in Mexico — would sail back to Cuba clandestinely in December 1956 with a small band of revolutionaries that included his brother Raúl and the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. When the revolutionaries finally succeeded in ousting Batista on New Year’s 1959, revolutionary euphoria soon turned to bloodletting. In January 1959, outside of Santiago de Cuba, forces under the command of Raúl Castro conducted a mass killing in what became known as the Massacre of the 71. In the months immediately after the revolution, hundreds of people were killed after the most cursory of trials, many of them at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, which guards Havana’s harbor and which was under Guevara’s command.

This did not escape the view of Cuban intellectuals of the time. In his novel En mi jardín pastan los héroes — a shattering portrait of the moment when the great hope of the Cuban revolution disintegrated into tyranny — the author Heberto Padilla wrote that “a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice that want to see the light of day which the revolution gushes at its beginning. It has its dark side, too, difficult, dirty almost — repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads.”

Initially a supporter of the revolution, Padilla would eventually be imprisoned and then flee into exile.

The political compass of the island swung wildly after the revolution. After the Cuban state nationalized U.S. property, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed relations in January 1961 (by the end of the year, Fidel Castro would openly declare himself a communist). When Eisenhower was succeeded as president by John F. Kennedy, relations between the United States and Cuba grew even more fraught. An attempted invasion by exiles in April 1961 — the Bay of Pigs — ended in blood-soaked failure, and in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the United States enacted a series of punishing economic measures against Cuba’s new regime, which barred not only U.S. businesses, but businesses that do business in the United States from interacting with the communist state. Largely sealed off from the giant to the north, the Cuban state developed into a reactionary military dictatorship centered around the Castro family. A network of neighborhood spies and enforcers, the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs) were set up and, as former allies like Carlos Franqui would later attest, what was acceptable in the island’s cultural life became inextricably linked to what its dictator deemed appropriate.

Describing this system of government repression in his 1998 novel Trilogía sucia de La Habana, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez wrote that “it’s the only way to turn people into mercenaries: by convincing them they’re part of the power structure. When the truth is they’re not even allowed to approach the throne …. They’ve enjoyed the power of weapons, the stick in hand, of lording it over their fellow citizens and humiliating them and beating them and shoving them into cells. Finally, some of them understand, with their livers shot, that they’re miserable beasts, club in hand. But by then they’re so scared, they can’t let go.”

Heberto Padilla was far from the only writer that suffered terribly after the revolution, though he only faced rage because of his ideological deviation. Other writers, such as Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, were subject to wrath not only because of their ideas but also because of their sexual orientation. Actual or suspected LGBTQ people were imprisoned and tortured while government critics found themselves without work, as the government was the only legal employer. Millions of Cubans fled abroad, especially to Florida, where the Cuban-American population is estimated at more than 1.5 million and plays a pivotal role in U.S. politics.

Somehow, through it all, Cuba’s dictatorship retained an allure for many on the global left. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who not only failed to denounce the dictatorship’s human rights abuses but, as former dissident and later U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Armando Valladares alleged, collaborated with Cuba’s security forces to entrap academic and pro-democracy activist Ricardo Bofill. As a result, Bofill spent years in prison.

Many on the left were quick to point out Fidel Castro’s support for different global insurgencies and roundabout role in helping to end apartheid in South Africa via his military intervention in Angola. What remained unspoken was the irony that the right to vote is something denied to all Cubans – Black or not – every bit as much as it was under the apartheid regime.

In 2013, when the journalist Yoani Sánchez conducted a speaking tour of several countries, defenders of Cuba’s dictatorship harassed her as she arrived at the airport in Recife and interrupted a film screening she attended. When she visited Brazil’s congress, left-wing politicians berated and insulted her in a manner reminiscent of the behavior of the CDRs. Two days after the 2016 death of Fidel Castro, the official Black Lives Matter account tweeted, “Although no leader is free from shortcomings, we must respond to right-wing rhetoric and defend El Comandante. Fidel vive!” During his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president earlier this year, Bernie Sanders praised Castro’s 1961 literacy campaign, only to be rebuked by those who actually experienced what it was — political indoctrination as much as education — and who pointed out that many countries supplied decent school and decent health care without the boot of dictatorship on the necks of the citizenry. Earlier this year, on the 53rd anniversary of Che Guevara’s death while leading a quixotic and unasked-for insurgency in Bolivia, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the left-wing Podemos party Pablo Iglesias called Guevara an “example for history of the liberation of peoples and social justice.”

All of this adulation of a totalitarian system is, as one can imagine, somewhat hard to swallow for those facing down Cuba’s dictatorship on a daily basis.

“When it comes to Cuba, every human being on this planet, mainly people on the left — and I consider myself to be on the left — has something positive to say about how people live in Cuba,” says Núñez Leyva. “They always have a point of comparison; they always have a justification for cleaning up the government’s image. That, to me, is ignorance, arrogance, and neocolonialism.”

For the young activists in the county, the idea that Cuba’s government is a champion of racial equality is laughable.

“The Cuban regime is weighted on the basis of white men — macho, patriarchal, white men — with white women and wives as well,” says Otero Alcantara. He grew up in Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods, and one that has one of the richest traditions of Afro-Cuban culture. Since 2017, he has been detained by state security 30 times.

“Cuban television and all the Cuban cultural apparatus still operate on a racist basis,” Otero Alcantara says. “One of the great themes in Cuba is that when Castro comes to power, he erases racism with the stroke of a pen, and now there is no more racism and you can’t talk about it and everyone who talks about it is counter-revolutionary. Therefore racism remains intrinsic within society. Racism does not evolve backwards, it is not capable of dying, because it is entrenched within the nation.”

When it comes to art forms that explicitly address race, the Cuban government even tries to control the output and content of the inherently rebellious hip-hop genre through two government-funded groups, the Asociación Hermanos Saiz and Agencia Cubana de Rap. Many of its purveyors on the island, however, aren’t receptive to this.

“Hip hop is a philosophy of life, a social therapy and a kind of liberation for me,” says Soandry del Río, a 42-year-old rapper who helped found the Movimiento San Isidro, though now he identifies as an independent activist. “But we have a government that wants to control all areas of society and that includes the cultural space.”

Which is not to say that, particularly since Fidel Castro stepped down from day-to-day ruling of the island in 2006, there have not been changes in Cuba.

Raúl Castro, who had a more uncompromising reputation than his brother, became acting ruler of Cuba in July 2006 and then head of Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba, the most powerful post in the country, in April 2011. While maintaining an unyielding monopoly on political power, he ushered in changes that were unimaginable 20 years ago, largely ending restrictions on the ability of Cubans to travel abroad (though dissidents are still frequently stopped at airports), allowing private use of cell phones, allowing citizens to connect — for a price — to the internet, and relaxing restrictions on private businesses, which in the last decade has led to a thriving market for services like Airbnb.

In December 2014, Raúl Castro and then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the United States had placed on Cuba would be relaxed and full diplomatic relations would be restored. In August 2015, after 34 years, the United States reopened its embassy in Cuba. In March 2016, Obama landed in Havana, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The image of the young, vital leader of the United States strolling the streets of Habana Vieja, cheered by Cuban citizens, was a striking one when compared with the aging Raul Castro who, at their dual press conference, was peppered with questions about human rights and political prisoners he wasn’t used to answering.

I visited Cuba frequently during this period, and the sense of hope and expectation among ordinary people was palpable. American tourists and businesspeople — and their ideas and their money — flooded onto the island. One night, I sat on the roof of a restaurant in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood with two friends of mine, a gay couple. One of them sighed and said, “I’m just hoping things change. I’m pushing 50 and I’ve waited so long, and I don’t feel like I have much time left.”

When Donald Trump took office in January 2017, of a piece with his seeming obsession to undo most of his predecessor’s accomplishments, he returned to the Cold War policy that had been so ineffective for decades: restricting U.S. residents’ ability to travel to and do business in Cuba and increasing financial, banking, and shipping restrictions to the country. Many observers feel this was a mistake.

“Part of the logic of Obama’s policy was taking the United States out of the middle of Cubans’ battles with themselves, and that was always a long-term bet,” says Michael J. Bustamante, an Assistant Professor of Latin American History specializing in modern Cuba at Florida International University in Miami. “The objective of that policy was not regime change.”

“By and large, that long-term bet made sense and still makes sense,” says Bustamante. “The amount of good that it did in terms of improving people’s lives, opening up space for internal debate in Cuban society, and unleashing civil society was kind of unprecedented.”

The activists in Cuba itself can often seem to be inhabiting a kind of twilight world, denounced as public enemies by the Cuban government and yet not entirely accepted by the Cuban exile community, either. They operate on a shoestring budget, unlike the well-heeled lobbyists and political operators in Washington, D.C., politically connected and advocating for the hardest line possible against Cuba. This past June, at the urging of just this sector, the United States blacklisted Fincimex, the Cuban military-controlled entity that processes remittances for Western Union — a key source of hard currency for Cubans — which has led to the closure of more than 400 Western Union offices on the island.

Nor would the Cuban activists fit in well with many of the younger arrivals in the United States, some of whom have allied themselves closely with the racist, xenophobic policies of the outgoing Trump administration. These are perhaps personified by no one better than YouTube personality Alexander Otaola, who frequently mocks Black Lives Matter protesters as “criminals” who “use someone’s death to destabilize a government” and claiming there is “no difference between these communists and Hezbollah.”

When Trump made a campaign stop in Miami in October, Otaola approached the president to give him a “list” of Cubans with U.S. visas whom Otaola charged were too cozy with the Castro regime. Among those, somewhat absurdly, was Antonio Rodiles, an opposition activist who has been repeatedly detained by Cuba’s state security services. Otaola did not, however, present Trump with a list of the many Cubans languishing in immigration detention, some of whom say they were violently coerced to sign forms claiming they wanted to return to Cuba.

By contrast, after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May, the actress Iris Ruiz, one of the founding members of the Movimiento San Isidro, wrote of how “intersectionality” was key to any civic struggle and that “our societies are structurally and culturally racist and oppressive.”

Some Cuban-Americans in Miami are not above engaging in historical revisionism when it comes to characterizing their relationships with the civil society in Cuba itself, either. When democracy activist Oswaldo Payá showed up in Miami in 2003 to seek support for his Proyecto Varela, an initiative that proposed a variety of measures to increase democratic representation and freedom of expression in Cuba, many exiles mocked him as a “bringer of false hope.” Since Payá died in a mysterious auto accident in Cuba in 2012, however, he has become revered by many among the exiled right-wing, apparently forgetting their previous suspicion of him.

In Cuba itself, meanwhile, despite 60-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel having become president in October 2019, Raúl Castro remains head of the Communist Party and is widely believed to have remained the ultimate power behind the scenes.

Those connected to the Movimiento San Isidro continue to be targets of not only official police harassment but also of the so-called “acts of repudiation,” ostensibly spontaneous (though always carefully choreographed by the government), such as happened in Havana last month. On Oct. 7, Otero Alcántara and a number of other members of the collective, including rapper Maykel Osorbo, were in a building in Habana Vieja creating posters as part of their initiative dubbed #MiCartelParaElCambioEnCuba (“My Poster For Change In Cuba”) when Cuban police sealed off the street, ordered curious residents back into their home as people in civilian clothes arrived brandishing pictures of Fidel Castro and trying to destroy the posters. During the conflagration, Otero Alcántara was beaten and fined by police.

The artists vow, however, not to back down and to keep Cuban culture vibrant and alive.

“The Cuban government has a lot of hostility to popular culture because they know popular culture is the most uncontrollable kind of culture in the world,” says Otero Alcántara. “You can control your intellectuals through cultural structures. You can control the thinking of a group of artists. But popular culture is born from the spontaneity of need, of misery, of experiences that no government, no regime in the world has the power to control.”