Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Books for autumn

As we head into fall, and I work on my own pair of new books, several friends of mine have books coming out that are well worth checking out.

It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street , by my good friend Nomi Prins, should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand last year’s financial collapse, centered in the United States but with its repercussions felt worldwide. It outlines how last autumn’s domino-like collapse of banks was linked to Wall Street’s conversion of loans into assets that allowed it to borrow far more than it could ever afford, how bankers gobbled up more than $5 billion in profits while siphoning off more than a trillion dollars in federal bailout subsidies and how, in short, the financial system in the United States has become so rigged that it penalizes ordinary working people with ever-expanding fees and penalties while the barons of commerce like Bank of America’s execrable Ken Lewis get away with barely-disguised theft and extortion on a grand scale.

A former managing director at Goldman Sachs and chief of the international analytics group at Bear Stearns who now serves as a Senior Fellow at the progressive public policy research organization Demos, Nomi knows intimately of what she writes. I highly enjoyed her previous two books, Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How "Conservatives" Are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not), and very much look forward to this third installment

Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910
, penned by Jeffrey H. Jackson, Associate Professor of History at Rhodes College, is a fascinating account of a natural disaster that befell Paris when the Seine overflowed its banks in January of that year. Combining exhaustive archival research and such primary sources as the diary of the city’s chief of police, the book creates a compelling image of what at the time was viewed as an epochal event in one of the world’s great cities. It shows, in compelling fashion and with shades of Hurricane Katrina, how a city that has been often riven by divisions managed to come together to face a body blow from nature and how the City of Light managed to shine once again.

And finally, Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, presents a sweeping and dramatic account of the life of the Brazilian writer, at once iconic and iconoclastic, who overcame hurdles that most people can’t even begin to imagine to become a tremendously important influence on novelists such as Caio Fernando Abreu. Transplanted from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Ukraine to Recife in northeastern Brasil, then to Rio de Janeiro and Europe and beyond, Lispector was a citizen of the world in every sense of the world, and a writer with a very original and powerful vision. Moser does an excellent job of humanizing this at-times inscrutable character who, to paraphrase an old saying, may have made her greatest work of art in the creation of herself.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gorki Águila canta "El General" en Miami, September 19, 2009

"He sings, sways and shouts in his bloody rock lyrics what others mutter with fear” - Yoani Sanchez

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Report of the United Nations fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict

The report of the United Nations fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict has been published and can be read here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Letter from Senator Edward M. Kennedy to President Barack Obama

Below is the text of the letter from Senator Edward M. Kennedy referenced by the President in tonight’s address to a Joint Session of Congress.

(Read at the White House website here)

May 12, 2009

Dear Mr. President,

I wanted to write a few final words to you to express my gratitude for your repeated personal kindnesses to me – and one last time, to salute your leadership in giving our country back its future and its truth.

On a personal level, you and Michelle reached out to Vicki, to our family and me in so many different ways. You helped to make these difficult months a happy time in my life.

You also made it a time of hope for me and for our country.

When I thought of all the years, all the battles, and all the memories of my long public life, I felt confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the President who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society. For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life. And in the past year, the prospect of victory sustained me-and the work of achieving it summoned my energy and determination.

There will be struggles – there always have been – and they are already underway again. But as we moved forward in these months, I learned that you will not yield to calls to retreat - that you will stay with the cause until it is won. I saw your conviction that the time is now and witnessed your unwavering commitment and understanding that health care is a decisive issue for our future prosperity. But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.

And so because of your vision and resolve, I came to believe that soon, very soon, affordable health coverage will be available to all, in an America where the state of a family’s health will never again depend on the amount of a family’s wealth. And while I will not see the victory, I was able to look forward and know that we will – yes, we will – fulfill the promise of health care in America as a right and not a privilege.

In closing, let me say again how proud I was to be part of your campaign- and proud as well to play a part in the early months of a new era of high purpose and achievement. I entered public life with a young President who inspired a generation and the world. It gives me great hope that as I leave, another young President inspires another generation and once more on America’s behalf inspires the entire world.

So, I wrote this to thank you one last time as a friend- and to stand with you one last time for change and the America we can become.

At the Denver Convention where you were nominated, I said the dream lives on.

And I finished this letter with unshakable faith that the dream will be fulfilled for this generation, and preserved and enlarged for generations to come.

With deep respect and abiding affection,


Brice Hortefeux not a fan of black, blanc, beur

Quand il y en a un, ça va. C'est quand il y en a beaucoup qu'il y a des problèmes.

Classy, huh? About the discourse one would expect from the man who was once "Minister of National Identity," and not at all surprising considering what I wrote about him doing back then.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A few thoughts from Paris on President Barack Obama’s healthcare speech to Congress

Barack Obama joue le tout pour le tout, read the first lines of the article in today’s Le Monde concerning the speech on healthcare of the 44th president of the United States to a joint session of Congress last evening. The Guardian newspaper in England declared that the “president issues rousing speech to Congress and promises not to be deflected from universal healthcare plan.”

This was a moment I confess that I have waited for with some trepidation, to see whether or not President Obama, a politician who, as Candidate Obama, was able to inspire even your jaded author as few politicians ever had before, would deliver on his promise of providing affordable, comprehensive healthcare to all Americans. As I have noted on this blog before, the current healthcare system in the United States - if you can call such a patchwork of private insurance schemes absurdly tied to employment status a system - currently gobbles up 17 percent of the U.S. GDP, as opposed to the 11 percent of GDP used here in France, a system that is not gamed by insurance and pharmaceutical companies as our current mode of operation in the United States is, but nevertheless guarantees universal healthcare. The U.S. system, currently ranked 37th in the world, according to the World Health Organization, is corrupt, stupid, brutal, wasteful and as expensive as anything I've ever seen, yet it has powerful forces with an interest in protecting it. I know this not just from statistics but from my own experiences and the experiences of my family and friends. I myself have been ineligible for any type of affordable healthcare since I went freelance full-time in early 2006.

This being the case, and given the vile and sometimes violent eruptions at various town hall meetings across the United States over the month of August, it seemed a reasonable fear that Obama, like many before him, might have been simply outmaneuvered by the frothing craziness and bile of the well-organized and well-funded defenders of the status quo. This, mixed in with a brew of right-wing demagoguery and naked racism, has created a rather poisonous political atmosphere in my native country, where a party that has been in power for 20 of the last 28 years simply cannot seem to get used to being in the political opposition.

However, much to my, dare I say it, joy, President Obama delivered brilliantly, giving what was certainly his best speech since his famous address on race in Philadelphia in March 2008, and perhaps one of the best political speeches I have heard in American politics during my lifetime.

Speaking of an insurance exchange to be created to allow individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a hardship waiver for those individuals who still cannot afford coverage, Obama did not advocate for the single-payer system that I and many who voted for him would have hope for. Nevertheless, his proposal would seem to take a great deal of power out of the hands of insurance company bureaucrats and point towards strenuous government advocacy to create a more just and equitable system that could not help but make Americans’ lives better.

Obama spoke terrifyingly of an Illinois man who lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones the man hadn’t previously known about. The man subsequently died following delays in treatment. He also mentioned the case of a woman in Texas whose insurance company cancelled her policy as she was about to undergo a double mastectomy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. When she finally regained insurance, the cancer had more than doubled. As Obama said “no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”

Perhaps the most moving part of the speech came towards the end, when Obama evoked the name of recently deceased democratic Senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy, referring to a letter than Kennedy had sent him to be read in the event of his death, and to Kennedy’s own long struggle to reform the health system in the United States:

Imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it....Large heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise...

...We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.

Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.

After fearing for the month of August that Obama had lost control of the debate to the bitter fringe shouting that the sky was falling, THIS was once again the man we elected as president last fall. And once again, finally, it appears that we have a genuine advocate for the disenfranchised in the White House.

An additional note: At one point during Obama’s speech, when he asserted that the healthcare proposal now under consideration in Congress would not provide healthcare to undocumented immigrants in the United States (it doesn’t), Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, screamed “You’re lying” from the audience, a breach of decorum that I can never remember seeing before during a presidential address to both houses of congress.

Beyond the ignorance of Joe Wilson himself, who, judging from his performance, is little more than a repulsive piggish caricature of a good ‘ol boy, faced with Obama’s oratorical eloquence and sound political judgement, the Republican Party as a whole appears to be content to continue down a path of political irrelevance, defining itself as a regional, white, Christian party. It is a rather public political suicide that I think is unique in modern American history. Increasingly in the grip of a clutch of extremists, the GOP, a party that once gave us Abraham Lincoln, now behaves as a group of ill-mannered, uneducated spoiled children might.

If this is the best, most principled opposition to that Republicans can muster, I should think that Obama has little to worry about. And I hope the long struggle for national healthcare in the United States might at last be arriving at its defining moment.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A few thoughts on the death penalty

Having covered the debate regarding capital punishment in the Western Hemisphere tangentially for a few years now, both in the United States and Jamaica, I was more or less certain that, sooner or later, a story such as the one that David Grann has penned for the current issue of the New Yorker would come to light. Grann’s story concerns Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 for the murder of his three small children in a fire that prosecutors successfully argued that Willingham had set deliberately.

The only problem was, scientific analysis now proves, there was no evidence that the fire had even been arson, let alone set by Willingham, who had refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life. Though by any standards an unappealing character who had battered his wife and was involved in minor scrapes with the law, it seems now proven beyond any reasonable doubt that, in February 2004, the state of Texas executed an innocent man.

I have seen the potential for error in the death penalty close up, in the person of Carl McHargh, a Jamaican man who was convicted and sentenced to death for the shooting deaths of two men on the basis of testimony of a single witness. After an attempt on his life in prison left him with twenty-three stab wounds on his body, McHargh was absolved of culpability of the crime and freed in June 2006, after spending nearly seven years in jail following the 1999 slayings. In the United States, I have interviewed people such as Lorry Post, whose daughter was murdered in 1989, but who nevertheless is a founder of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

It’s a complicated debate. One can understand how the families of victims would want justice, but when one looks closely at the fact that, since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated by DNA testing, and at the ghastly miscarriage of justice that was the state-sanctioned murder of Cameron Todd Willingham, one can’t help but think that there must be another way to punish these most heinous of criminals.

For further reading on the imperfections of the ultimate penalty, please visit the website of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A further note on the killings at La Scierie

A fellow I hadn't heard of before recently wrote to me in the wake of my highlighting some of the problems with the reportage of Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague for the Inter Press Service on the Ronald Dauphin case in Haiti, given the former's link with paid advocates of Haiti's former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the latter's rather loopy public declarations on subjects Haitian in the past. This commentary in turn had spurred a reply from the ever-opportunistic Kim Ives, late of the Brooklyn-based publication Haiti Progrès, currently of Haiti Liberté. A fellow describing himself as a "friend" of Ives then emailed me (in a thoroughly respectful manner, unlike the apparently unstable Sprague) to ask me a few questions, which I will re-rephrase slightly here, while preserving the correspondent's anonymity.

1) Whether Ronald Dauphin is guilty or not, is it not a violation of human rights to keep someone in prison indefinitely without being charged or put on trial?

2) The Bush Administration circumvented this issue by changing the description of suspected terrorists to detainees in order to rationalize indefinite imprisonment. The overwhelming, humane response has been to set them free or put them on trial. In Haiti, prisoners are simply left to rot. Do you - Michael Deibert - you support this?

3) Are you concerned that if set free until trial, Ronald Dauphin will disappear or commit more crimes? Do you think he is a danger to Haitian society?

My response, which may be of interest to readers as it addresses some important issues, ran as follows:

Hello, and thank you for your email. It addresses an important question, one which goes to the heart of what is happening in Haiti right now.

When I interviewed him in June regarding St. Marc case, Pierre Espérance, the director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), made a very perceptive statement to the effect that, in Haiti’s broken justice system, the criminal becomes a victim because the system doesn't work.

This, in my view as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in St. Marc, is what is happening in the case of Ronald Dauphin. I really defy anyone to spend a morning or afternoon talking with the many families associated with the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), listen to their stories and not come away with the impression that the combined forces of the Police Nationale de Haiti, the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National and especially Bale Wouze subjected them to something truly horrible during February 2004. Yet, strangely enough (to me at least), in the international Haiti solidarity network, nary a voice is raised to offer these people comfort, solace or support. I think this is something of which all us, as foreigners who claim to care for Haiti, should be ashamed.

According to my own interviews in St. Marc and the interviews of others, Ronald Dauphin, along with former Fanmi Lavalas Deputy Amanus Mayette (freed from prison in April 2007) and the deceased Bale Wouze leader Somoza were three of the most visible architects of the slaughter that took place in St. Marc that month, and the offenses such as the gang rape of women that took place then and afterwards.

Do I think that Ronald Dauphin is a danger to his fellow Haitians? Yes, but that is no excuse for holding him in jail indefinitely without trial. If I, as a journalist, can travel to St. Marc and find people virtually lining up around the block willing to share quite lucid and disturbing tales of the state-sponsored violence that they have been subjected to, then it seems not only possible or desirable but essential that the Haitian state find a way to address their demands for justice.

However grave his crimes, as a citizen Ronald Dauphin has his rights, as well. But what disturbs me most, perhaps, is the incredible arsenal of money and personnel arrayed to not only assure Mr. Dauphin of his rights but to discredit the victims of political violence in Haiti and to deny them their day in court. I thought that it was a national scandal, for example, when those convicted of participation in the April 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters in Gonaives had their sentences overturned by Haiti's supreme court in 2005, but at least the people of Gonaives got their day in court, however sullied it later became. What about the people of St. Marc?

The same actors who prosecuted the Gonaives case during the Préval government’s first mandate - the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and (now) the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) - now work on behalf of the victimizers in the St. Marc case. It is a seriously complicated question, but I don’t think that the cause of justice in Haiti is served by having one standard of advocacy for former officials and partisans of the Fanmi Lavalas party and another for everyone else in Haiti.

If these groups are genuinely advocating for an equal measure of justice to be applied to all in Haiti, why were none of their voices raised during the 2001-2004 government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when the prisons were equally swollen with (mostly unknown) defendants who had never seen a judge? Why were no voices raised against the corruption of the judicial process against former dictator Prosper Avril, no matter how distasteful he may be, or against the nakedly political detention of Coordination Nationale des Societaires Victimes spokesmen Rosemond Jean, or against the two-year detention-without-trial of Winston Jean-Bart, aka the famous Tupac of Cité Soleil? Where was their compassion following the horrific slaying of Haitian journalist and poet Jacques Roche? In my view, they were silent then as they are silent now because they see human rights only as an issue to be bandied about when it is politically expedient to do so for the political current they serve, not as a long-term commitment to build a better Haiti.

It is a very thorny problem: How does one give justice to victims while still insuring the rights of the accused? As you correctly point out, it is a debate that still goes on in the United States and in other countries with supposedly functioning judicial systems to this day.

The old adage of following the money is accurate up to a point. Some have pointed out RNDDH’s 2004 award of C$100,000 (US$85,382) from the Canadian International Development Agency, even though, as far as I can discern, most of the group’s funding comes from organizations such as Christian Aid, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Lutheran World Federation. Nevertheless, since that grant,RNDDH has consistently advocated for justice on behalf of a number of Fanmi Lavalas members, including Jean Maxon Guerrier, Yvon Feuille, Gerald Gilles, and Rudy Hériveaux. RNDDH, for me, has shown a commitment to a non-political defense of human rights that BAI/IJDH, linked monetarily and otherwise with Mr. Aristide’s attorney, have never shown.

Perhaps the best we can do as foreigners is to encourage a genuinely non-partisan, non-political development and reinforcement of the Haitian judicial system through institutions such as the newly re-opened magistrate’s school, so that justice can be given to the victims of the human rights abuses and the human rights of perpetrators, accused and otherwise, can also be safeguarded. Perhaps boring and not very sexy, but as a man once told me, the most revolutionary thing you can do in Haiti is to strengthen an institution. I still believe that is true.

I hope this has helped to answer your questions.

Best regards,