Friday, December 30, 2011

Words from the Casa Azul

“Often I feel more sympathy for carpenters, shoe repairmen, etc., than for all that herd of fools who think they are civilized, loquacious, so-called scholarly people.” Frida Kahlo

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Books in 2011: A Personal Selection

During 2011, a year of pretty much unending rough waters, a number of interesting books nevertheless came into my life and. As I have done in years past, I wanted to share my thoughts about some of the more notable ones here.

Best regards and hopes for a 2012 with more love, peace, prosperity and life.



A Palace in the Old Village By Tahar Ben Jelloun

A moving and perceptive chronicle of the lives of a Moroccan immigrant and his family in modern France, Ben Jelloun's novel descends into surrealistic absurdity in its final pages but before doing so nevertheless gives us an important glimpse into the experience of the “new” French in their adopted country.

Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efraín Ríos Montt, 1982-1983 by Virginia Garrard-Burnett

An important and exquisitely researched book that sheds light on one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s violent history, this work by University of Texas professor Virginia Garrard-Burnett examines the March 1982 to August 1983 rule of Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt, a former general, candidate in the 1974 Guatemalan elections (which he likely won but had stolen from him by the same military he had once served) and subsequent founder of Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, seized power from another military man, General Romeo Lucas García, who had presided over what Garrard-Burnett characterizes as “a rapid downward spiral of capricious violence and death.” Those hoping for a break in the country’s civil war, however, - which would only end with 1996 peace accords - were in for a rude awakening. Ríos Montt’s anti-guerrilla campaign, centred largely on indigenous peasant communities, was “more methodical and less chaotic than Lucas García counterinsurgency, but it was also more deadly.”

Ríos Montt’s idiosyncratic populism at the time, propelled forward by his evangelical Christianity, revealed the general to be “anything but a puppet of the far right,” notes Garrard-Burnett. “(He) believed himself to be a prophetic leader, brought by Providence to power at a particular moment in history in which he could lead the people of Guatemala against the forces of evil that besieged them on every side.”

The result was cataclysm, and Garrard-Burnett expertly documents it in great detail here.

Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans by James Gill

A book about the often racially-charged origins of some of the major krewes of New Orleans' storied Mardi Gras (such as Comus, Rex and Momus), this book by a British-transplant living in New Orleans masterfully draws back the curtain on an aspect of the city's carnival revelry that many in its still-ossified economic structure would likely just as soon forget.

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? By Francisco Goldman

A gripping account of the investigation into the April 1998 murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, this book (written by the Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman) reads like a detective novel and reveals the corrupt linkages of Guatemala’s criminal and military elements. A compelling picture of the struggles of committed individuals against a diffuse and often lethal enemy, it also contains disturbing suggestions about the activities of Guatemala’s incoming president, former General Otto Pérez Molina.

Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 by William Ivy Hair

More a pogrom against the Africa-American population of New Orleans than a riot, this account by Ivy Hair tells the story of Robert Charles and, along with the work of historians like John Hope Franklin, serves as an important reminder to Americans of the brutal injustices inflicted on African-Americans after the Civil War, all in the name of scuttling the aims of Reconstruction in the American South.

The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge by Paul Preston

Another example of how a military leader viewed a civil war as a moral-religious crusade, this book by one of the best historians of Span’s recent history makes one wonder how Spain’s Francisco Franco escaped his proper place in the annals of history’s great monsters alongside Hitler and Stalin.

The scale of the slaughter by Franco’s forces - 3,000 killed in Zamora, 3,000 in Valladolid, 2,789 in Navarra, and on and on - still shocks, and Preston lays blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of such largely forgotten Francoist chieftains as General Juan Yague. Preston’s deft exposure of Franc’s “notion of a war of moral redemption by terror,” makes one look forward with expectation to his forthcoming book, author of the much-anticipated forthcoming The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain.

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by Gérard Prunier

An expansive yet nuanced view of the first and second Congo wars, this book is an essential addition to scholarship on the region. Prunier, a longtime observer, analyst and resident of Central Africa, is also an unusually honest and self-critical academic, a fact that adds gravitas to his criticisms of African governments and the international community when dealing with the region’s severe, but by no means intractable, problems.

Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth by Erin Siegal

This debut book by journalist and photographer Erin Siegal has a mystery at its core: What happened to the two young daughters of an impoverished Guatemala woman named Mildred Alvarado, one of whom was literally snatched from her mother’s womb? But the book — comprised of heavy-duty investigative reporting and compelling personal testimony — also examines another mystery: How could so many people in Guatemala and the United States turn a blind eye for so long to an industry that, far from being motivated by the altruistic urge to unite needy children with loving families, has become a world where adults dole out children like cards from a deck and view their young lives as little more than a commodity to be exploited? I reviewed it for the Miami Herald.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns

An interesting book that very laudably seeks to bring the experiences of the Congolese themselves in their own voices to the forefront of an account of that country’s ongoing conflicts. Perhaps a little soft for my taste in its assessments of the failings of the international community and non-governmental organizations operating in Central Africa, but all in all a highly worthwhile read that brings the reality of the conflict home via the eloquent voices of the Congolese who suffered its consequences

Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans by David Stoll

A serious and groundbreaking scholarly work that was unfortunately subject to rather vehemently libelous calumny when it first appeared in 1999, this book sees Stoll - probably the best American anthropologist working on Guatemala - examining both the specifics and broader historical context of the autobiography of perhaps the most famous living Guatemalan. On the way, much as he did with his excellent previous volume, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, Stoll gives the reader of nuanced picture of the torturous position that Guatemala’s indigenous population found itself in during that country’s long civil war and raises some troubling questions about the veracity of Menchu’s famous autobiography.

Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson

A relic from the days when American cultural and political commentators actually had a brain, this collection of loosely-connected short stories casts a witty and darkly jaundiced eye on the upper-middle classes of a fictional bedroom community outside of New York, and within the city itself during the years between the great wars. Wilson, who had previously made his mark with his history of revolutionary thought in Europe, To the Finland Station, was as original and probing a mind as American letters has produced.

Friday, December 16, 2011

In Memoriam: Sebastian Quezada

Sebastian Quezada, one of my best and dearest friends. Thank you for your friendship, I learned so much from you, see you on the other side, hermano. Cuídate.

The stories of the times that Sebastian and I have had together since our first meeting in 1992 could fill a book, although likely one of the transgressive literature variety. Even when we had gone without seeing one another or speaking on the phone for months, I always counted Sebastian as one of my best friends, the kind of person with whom, when you meet up again, you pick up as if no time at all had passed, the kind of person who would open their door, their wallet and their heart to friends in need without a moment's hesitation and without having to be asked twice. If it wasn't for Sebastian, I would never have been able to even begin living in New York for the seven years I was there, as he was the one who opened up his door to me until I found a job and a place to live just after we had both graduated from college. Given how long that took, most people would have been standing by the door drumming their fingers and waiting for me to leave, but with Sebastian one always felt like a welcomed guest.

But, perhaps ironically, two of the most vivid memories of I have of Sebastian are also among the most wholesome.

One dates back to our days at Bard College. I believe it was the autumn of 1995. Sebastian and I had for some reason ventured down to a set of dorms known as the Ravines, built, as the name would suggest, between a deep ravine and a field that would become a soggy lake at the slightest hint of rain. The weather was overcast and moody, the kind of fall-bleeding-into-winter weather that one so often encounters in the Catskills around that time of the year. We were standing by my car, which was a green 1976 Plymouth Valiant at the time, just enjoying the pensive atmosphere, the wind on our faces, the hint of precipitation in the air. At once the sky was full of several, then dozens, then what looked like hundreds of migrating birds, flooding the grey sky in search of a path to warmer climes.

I don't recall Sebastian and I saying much to one another at that moment - perhaps just an "Oh wow" or something like that - but I think it was a sight that affected us both powerfully. Here we were both nearing graduation and entry into another facet of life and the sight of those birds flying loose and free into the unknown somehow evoked the journey that we both were about to commence on, away from an environment that had become familiar for four years - if only as a point of reference - and into the as-yet-unwritten future of our new lives, with no telling where they would take us. As I write these words that was 16 years ago.

My second vivid memory is from the spring of 2003 when I was living in a nice-and-too-expensive loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn just south of the bridge. You could stand at the window during the cold months and watch the boats go up and down the river, carefully navigating their way past chunks of floating ice. As the weather got warmer, it was decided that a house-warming party was in order and when there was a party to be had, there was no better person to ask cook for it than Sebastian.

We decided to make feijoada, that delicious Brazilian beef and pork stew (Sebastian is probably more responsible than any other single person for my first trip to Brasil in 1999, a country I have since been back to several times and count as one of my favorites). We then went out to buy a suitable pot, which is looking down upon me from my mantle here in New Orleans right now as I write these words. Our system was that I would do the chopping and dicing and Sebastian would do the cooking. We bought the white rice, the black beans, the farofa and Sebastian - who I never tire of telling people was the single best cook that I have ever met - blended it all together perfectly. There was more than enough when we were done to feed the 20 or so people in attendance and suffice to say that I was eating feijoada for many days afterwards.

This memory is for me one that evokes a lot of elements of Sebastian, someone who was as excessive in his generosity as he was in anything else, someone who always wanted to make sure that everyone was fed, everyone was happy, everyone was included. That desire for community is one of the nicest traits anyone can have and on that day my friend Sebastian displayed, as always, that he possessed it in multitudes.

The sound of his laugh - booming, boisterous, all-encompassing - was one of the great things to experience in this life. I still hear it in my ears and with it comes the memory of my strange, generous, extraordinary friend.

Cuídate, Sebastian. Wherever you are, I hope that you are cooking a big pot of feijoada and listening to Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 in the sun right now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

NOLA Evolution

(With full credit given to Dirty Coast, whose terrific shop on Magazine Street I found only yesterday. MD)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review of Erin Siegal’s ‘Finding Fernanda’

Posted on Sun, Dec. 11, 2011

Review of Erin Siegal’s ‘Finding Fernanda’

By Michael Deibert

The Miami Herald

Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth.

Erin Siegal.


300 pages.


(Read the original review here)

The debut book by journalist and photographer Erin Siegal has a mystery at its core: What happened to the two young daughters of an impoverished Guatemala woman named Mildred Alvarado, one of whom was literally snatched from her mother’s womb?

But the book — comprised of heavy-duty investigative reporting and compelling personal testimony — also examines another mystery: How could so many people in Guatemala and the United States turn a blind eye for so long to an industry that, far from being motivated by the altruistic urge to unite needy children with loving families, has become a world where adults dole out children like cards from a deck and view their young lives as little more than a commodity to be exploited?

Siegal does a compelling job of sketching out the drumbeat of poverty and fear, born of economic and criminal violence, that makes up the daily lives of so many Guatemalans today, 15 years after a peace agreement ended a 30-year civil war in which some 200,000 people died. Siegal also delves with considerable expertise into Guatemala’s labyrinthine and often corrupt legal system, painstakingly outlining its connections with U.S. organizations, some legitimate and some not.

Early on in the book, then-U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Prudence Bushnell — a diplomat who flits in and out of history from Rwanda to Kenya to Guatemala — warns in a prescient February 2002 memo that if the United States did not “come up with resources to investigate the suspicious (adoption) cases in a timely manner . . . [the U.S. could be] accused of abetting baby trafficking.”

The advice was largely ignored, with the behavior of U.S. embassy staff in Guatemala appearing alternately ham-handed and heartless as Alvarado tries to recover her children. Lax oversight by the Florida Department of Children and Families of the overseas adoption practices of companies operating in the state completes a picture of indifference to the children at the center of the adoption industry. Some practices were allowed to function long after red flags had been raised about criminal conduct.

This pattern continues even in the face of a report by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigating criminal organizations, that between 2008 and 2010 only 10 percent of children who left Guatemala for adoption were legal orphans.

Some of the details of the dark side of the industry in Guatemala — houses where pregnant women are kept while waiting to give birth, nurseries where children waiting to be adopted are given borderline-starvation levels of sustenance — are Dickensian in their cruelty. But the tone of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not despairing. Siegal brings welcome attention to the work of the Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation), a women’s rights organization founded by an ex-guerrilla, Norma Cruz, that has grown into one of the most important pillars of the country’s fragile civil society.

Upon finishing Finding Fernanda, one realizes that supporting of that very civil society, along with the work of bodies such as CICIG, will advance the cause of justice for victims such as Alvarado. Along with its moving personal story of a family torn asunder, Finding Fernanda can also be read as a call to action.

Michael Deibert is the author of the forthcoming Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books).

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sonia Pierre 1963-2011

Sonia Pierre, you were the greatest patriot that the Dominican Republic could ask for, one of the greatest advocates for human rights in the Americas and a hero to us all. Your work and your example live on. Domi byen, fanm vanyan.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We made it! Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair reaches funding goal on Kickstarter

We made it!

Thanks to a pledge from Jean R. Laraque and increase in the pledge of my old friend Matthew Moran, today - Sunday morning - we reached and exceeded our Kickstarter goal of $3,500 for a grand total of $3,512. This means that now - as pre-election violence has claimed at least for lives in Kinshasa in the run-up to today's contest between President Joseph Kabila and challenger Etienne Tshisekedi - I will be able to return to Central Africa in February to conduct a final round of interviews and research for my upcoming book, Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, which will be published next year by Zed Books in cooperation with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute, the Social Science Research Council and Justice Africa.

All of us who have spent time in Congo have not failed to be moved by it: By the incredible resourcefulness of the people, by the varied and dramatic landscapes covering the heart of the African continent, and by the terrible violence with which its citizens have been forced to contend, buffeted back and forth by political and economic currents that are often far beyond their control.

Thank you to everyone who chose to back this project, with a special thanks to Hilary Wallis for the use of her evocative photograph on the fundraising page. In the writing of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, I will do my best to earn your support and to do justice to this very complex story that has continued to progress largely out of the international community's field of vision for so many years.

I thank you all again.

With sincere gratitude from New Orleans,


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Carlos Castresana responds to the Economist

Carlos Castresana, the former head of the United Nations-mandated Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) - the body charged with investigating clandestine organisations and exposing their relation to the Guatemalan state - responded this week to what I thought was a fairly awful article in the Economist about Guatemala last month.

The Economist piece, titled "Parachuting in the prosecutors," repeated pretty much every slur and innuendo against Castresana that the UN bureaucrats who served as nearly as great a hurdle to CICIG's success as Guatemala's criminals have ever whispered about the Spanish prosecutor in their sleek halls along the East River.

Given what I believe is the important role that CICIG may still play in the fight against the criminal oligarchy whose power is pointed like a dagger at the heart of Guatemala democracy, I thought it worth re-printing Castresana's response in full here.

For my views on that oligarchy, readers can look at my 2008 piece,
"Drugs Vs. Democracy in Guatemala," first published in the World Policy Jounal, or my Op-Ed last year in the Guardian, "Guatemala's lonely battle against corruption."


Carlos Castresana

SIR – I want to express my surprise and disappointment at the remarks you made about me in your article on the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which I headed until June 2010 (“Parachuting in the prosecutors”, October 15th). Your description of me as a “clever, cavalier and publicity-seeking Spanish prosecutor” was unfair to say the least. My team and I did our best during three years, risking our families, lives and careers.

I was also offended by your statement that I left CICIG in June 2010 after allegations about my private life. I refer you to a complete and balanced explanation of the circumstances of my resignation in your own pages from an article at the time (“Kamikaze mission”, June 19th 2010).

But more disturbing was your observation that “there was little oversight of Mr Castresana, causing discomfort in New York about how CICIG was operating”. In fact, CICIG was permanently supervised and its accounts audited by the United Nations Development Programme, as that was the agency which managed the donor countries’ trust fund. All substantive matters were exhaustively controlled by the UN Department of Political Affairs and supervised by the secretary-general himself. I sent 314 cables to the UN and reported daily by telephone, and in person in New York every couple of months, as well as filing ten quarterly reports to the secretary-general throughout the three years of my mandate.

Furthermore, while you were publishing your biased report a selection process was under way for an international judicial position for which I was included as a candidate. You might not have been aware of that ongoing process, but surely some of your sources were. I am persuaded that those who made the decision were not influenced at all by your publication, but the fact is that your article appeared just after the interviews, when a decision was being made.

I made many enemies in Guatemala. I am not worried about that, it comes with the job of prosecutor. But on future occasions, before you publish such disinformation, please call me and give me the opportunity to defend my name and my professional work in advance. That way you might get a better and complete story.

Carlos Castresana
Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Spain

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On Kristallnacht and the DRC

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, as the series of Nazi attacks against businesses owned by Germany's Jews are called, regardless of one's native language. I notice that this grim signpost is receiving a respectable amount of coverage and attention but, deep as I am into the writing of my new book on the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I must confess that I have one strong feeling today.

Over the last decade and a half, as many people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo as died during the Holocaust, many as the result of ethnically-based slaughter, all while the West at best largely stood by and at worst actively colluded with the killers. There are places in eastern Congo where as one writer noted one would feels they have stepped into a scene out of the Old Testament. Is it because the Congolese were black and African that so few people know the names of places like Mbandaka, Tingi-Tingi or Kasika? Are we as news writers and news consumers that myopic and that blinded by our own stereotypes of Africa and Africans?

I fear not a whole lot has changed.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Support Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair on Kickstarter

Photo © Hilary Wallis

Dear all,

I am attempting to raise funds via Kickstarter to enable me to complete a final round of research interviews in Central Africa for my book, Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, to be published by Zed Books next year. The goal to be reached over the next 30 days is $3,500, which will cover airfare and accommodation between the United States and Africa. Nearly $1,000 has been raised thus far.

Published in cooperation with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute, the Social Science Research Council and Justice Africa, the book will closely examine the Congolese state as it exists now under the rule of President Joseph Kabila, and how that state was shaped by the long-term involvement of the United States and Europe in supporting and arming many of the belligerents in Congo’s conflicts, the ongoing murky role played by foreign interests in exporting mineral resources linked to the country’s continuing instability and Congo’s own tortuous political and ethnic legacies.

Please consider donating what you can on the project's page on Kickstarter here, and please consider spreading the news of it to those who you feel might support this important new look at recent events in Central Africa.

Many thanks for your time and your support.

Best regards,

Michael Deibert

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Concern Grows Over Plan to Drill for Oil Near Florida Keys

Posted: 10/4/11 12:19 PM ET

Concern Grows Over Plan to Drill for Oil Near Florida Keys

By Michael Deibert

Huffington Post

(Please read the original article here)

This article was first published in slightly different form in collaboration with Panos Caribbean.

The news that the Spanish oil giant, Repsol, intends to begin exploratory drilling in the waters directly north of Cuba, has set off a chorus of criticism in Cuba's neighbor to the north: the United States.

Repsol, which has a presence in more than 35 countries, has announced that an immense, semi-submersible oil rig constructed by the Italian company Saipem, is currently speeding its way from Singapore to the Florida Straits between Key West and Cuba, with a goal of beginning exploratory drilling sometime in December.

With analysts believing that Cuba's coastal waters may contain up to 20 billion barrels of oil, Repsol -- which also drilled offshore in Cuba in 2004 -- is set to partner with Norway's Statoil and India's ONGC in the drilling of a pair of wells as per an agreement with the Cuban government.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with memories throughout the region still fresh with images of the April 2010 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf Of Mexico, there has been an outcry at Repsol's plans.

The Deepwater Horizon incident killed 11 workers and loosed a gusher of oil that leaked an estimated 53,000 barrels a day into the Gulf for three months, fouling beaches in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and killing fish and wildlife.

Following a 17-month investigation, a report last month on the disaster issued by the the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement leveled withering criticism at well owner and operator BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cementing operator Halliburton Co.

"From the Deepwater Horizon incident, we have seen clearly that deepwater offshore drilling is inherently risky," says Dr. Susan D. Shaw, director of the Maine-based Marine Environmental Research Institute. "Even in U.S. waters with the resources, infrastructure and equipment that we have, we watched a massive failure on many counts."

In a rare moment of bipartisanship in the rancorous U.S. political landscape, a Sept. 28 letter to Repsol by 34 members of the U.S. Congress -- including the Cuban-born Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- wrote that the "oil drilling scheme endangers the environment, and enriches the Cuban tyranny" and urged the company to "walk away from the project."

The U.S. maintains a trade embargo with Cuba, and Cuban-Americans make up a powerful voting bloc in the state of Florida, which counts for 27 electoral votes in the U.S.'s electoral college system.

Political considerations aside, however, it is the patch of sea where Repsol proposes to work that has caused the most concern.

The location of the proposed drilling is only 65 miles from the Marquesas Keys, an uninhabited group of islands near Key West, in an area of strong 4-6 mile per hour currents that come from the Gulf of Mexico, shoot through the Florida Straits and then churn northwards up the Atlantic Coast of the continental U.S.

A wide swath of protected areas could be threatened, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary -- which spans some 2,800-square-nautical-miles and includes important repositories of coral reefs, seagrass and 1,600 miles of mangrove shoreline -- and Biscayne National Park, an area that contains the beginning of the third-largest coral reef in the world and mangrove areas along its shore. The million-plus acre Everglades National Park -- a subtropical wilderness that has famously been described as a "river of grass" -- is also nearby.

"It's such an ecologically rich area that any oil in the marine environment could seriously impact the entire ecosystem," asserts Daniel O. Suman, professor of marine affairs and policy at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Repsol's safety record could best be described as mixed.

In February 2008, a spill by the company let free an estimated 100 barrels of crude near the 2.4 million-acre Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. The park, home to populations of jaguars, harpy eagles and other fauna, is also the ancestral home of the Huaorani people, the region's native inhabitants. This was followed by another spill in Ecuador in February 2009. In December 2010, a Repsol petrol platform in Nigeria's Ebro Delta region spilled 180,000 litres of crude into the ocean off that country's coast.

On its website, Repsol -- which did not respond to requests for comment -- states that the drilling equipment to be used "complies with all the technical requirements and all the limitations established by the US administration for drilling operations in Cuba."

Residents of the Florida Keys -- one of the more beguiling corners of the United States with its vistas of blue-green ocean water and endless sky -- remain apprehensive.

"We're very concerned," says Key West mayor Craig Cates. "And because of the embargo (with Cuba) we can't even send any equipment over if anything starts leaking. We just have to wait until it gets into our waters. "

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Autumn in New York City During Dark Times

In the dark autumn of two years later we saw New York again. We passed through curiously polite customs agents, and then with bowed head and hat in hand I walked reverently through the echoing tomb. Among the ruins a few childish wraiths still played to keep up the pretence that they were alive, betraying by their feverish voices and hectic cheeks the thinness of the masquerade. Cocktail parties, a last hollow survival from the days of carnival, echoed to the plaints of the wounded: 'Shoot me, for the love of God, someone shoot me!', and the groans and wails of the dying: 'Did you see that United States Steel is down three more points?' My barber was back at work in his shop; again the head waiters bowed people to their tables, if there were people to be bowed. From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood — everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits - from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground. That was the rash gift of Alfred W. Smith to the citizens of New York.

- From F. Scott Fitzgerald's "My Lost City"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Haunted Latin America, Black Tuesday and a crumbling empire: New books of note

From time to time on this blog, I like to direct readers’ attention to noteworthy endeavors by my colleagues and peers and, fortuitously, this month three new books have crossed my radar that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

I covered Haiti alongside former National Public Radio Latin America corespondent and now Public Radio International Europe corespondent Gerry Hadden from 2000 to 2004. Though based in Mexico City, Gerry’s reportage took him to Haiti many times as well as many other locales throughout the region. Gerry’s new memoir, Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti, (in which, full disclosure, I make a small cameo) is a compelling picture of a tumultuous time in the region while the world’s attention was focused elsewhere after 9/11.

Reading the book as a fellow international journalist, in addition to recounting the political trajectories of countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and the aforementioned Haiti, I think it does a masterful job of illuminating some of the attractions and pitfalls of the journalist’s life - the feeling of on-the-road exhaustion, the mental state of constantly having to negotiate other cultures, the pangs of romance on the run - and it does so while bringing the reader front and centre to some of the most tumultuous events in the first few years of our violent new century.

My dear friend Nomi Prins - a journalist and Senior Fellow at the public policy research and advocacy organization Demos - has authored a trio of excellent books on cooperate malfeasance in the United States: It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bonuses, Bailouts, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street, Jacked: How "Conservatives" are Picking your Pocket (whether you voted for them or not) and the highly prescient Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America. This fall she expands her range into fiction with Black Tuesday, a tale of fraud, obsession and economic devastation set amid the backdrop of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Vividly recreating the immigrant and ethnic potpourri of 1920s New York, the book is a gripping read and a very atmospheric one, as well. Somehow I feel that the music of John Zorn circa The Circle Maker - to me redolent of the immigrant Jewish experience on the Lower East Side - would make the perfect soundtrack to reading this finely-tuned novel with its echoes of our present grim economic state.

A longtime observer and analyst of Russia and the Caucasus, Lawrence Scott Sheets has penned what promises to be a most interesting account of 20 plus years spent there. I have just started reading Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, but if the initial chapters are anything to go on, it will be a most compelling ride. Characters such as the Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev flit in and out of a story of hope and despair as the exuberance of liberation gives way to something far tougher and darker throughout the region, an area that I have promised myself to visit for the first time during 2012.

All in all, three excellent additions to any bookshelf this fall.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ballots and Bullets in Guatemala

Posted: 9/10/11 03:57 PM ET

Ballots and Bullets in Guatemala

By Michael Deibert

(This article was also cross-posted on the Huffington Post and can be read here)

Guatemalans will go to the polls in the fourth presidential election since 1996 peace accords ended that country's 30-year civil war, a conflict that claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly indigenous campesinos caught in the struggle between a militarily-weak leftist insurgency and the ruthless scorched-earth tactics of a national army.

The likely winner of the election will be the man who represented that army during those accords, 60 year-old retired general Otto Pérez Molina. A recent poll by the Guatemala firm Borge y Asociados gave Pérez Molina 48.9 percent of the vote, nearly enough to avoid a November runoff ballot.

Pérez Molina's rise in Guatemalan politics says much about the unfulfilled promise of those 15 year-old accords, and about the vexing problems that still confront Central America's most populous country.

A 1973 graduate of Guatemala's military academy, Pérez Molina came of age in a country ruled by military dictators and where the military itself was divided between those who advocated a take-no-prisoners approach to prosecuting Guatemala's civil war and others who others who advocated a strategy of pacification and stabilization, combining development projects and military objectives while killing only as many rebels and suspected sympathizers as "needed" to be killed.

This is what passed for enlightenment during the civil war, and, though Pérez Molina allied himself with the latter camp, enlightenment proved to be a relative term.

By the summer of 1982, the country was under the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, a former general turned born-again evangelical Christian who had seized power after the chaotic four-year reign of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García.

Pérez Molina was serving as a military commander in El Quiché, one of Guatemala's most heavily indigenous and war-wracked provinces, when Ríos Montt launched what was dubbed Victoria (Victory) 82, a military offensive that the historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett has written led to "the period of most extreme violence committed in the name of counterinsurgency" during the war, and which was particularly furious in El Quiché's northern region.

By 1993, Pérez Molina had risen to become chief of staff of the army's intelligence wing, known as D-2, and it was in this capacity that he led a faction of the military that successfully opposed then-president Jorge Serrano Elías' attempt to seize dictatorial powers that same year. Another sector of the military, led by Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, supported Serrano's self-coup.

The conflict caused deep enmity between the two groups which continues to color Guatemalan political life even today, as one side or the other vies for positions of power and influence within the Guatemalan state.

Pérez Molina subsequently served as the chief of the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP or presidential general staff) of Serrano's successor, Ramiro de León Carpio, until 1995.

A kind of state within the state, the EMP was disbanded in 2003 due to its links to appalling human rights abuses, including the 1994 killing of Constitutional Court President Eduardo Epaminondas González Dubón while Pérez Molina was at its helm.

The group has also been linked to the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the 1998 beating death of Bishop Juan Gerardi two days after a group he headed published a report laying the vast majority of deaths during the country's civil war at the feet of the Guatemalan military.

Selected as head the of the Guatemalan delegation to the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, DC in 1998, Pérez Molina retired from the military in 2000 before forming the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) in February 2001.

An important backer of the 2004-2008 presidency of Óscar Berger, Pérez Molina narrowly lost the 2007 presidential elections to Álvaro Colom of the left-wing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza.

As a politician whose symbol is a closed fist and whose slogan is mano dura (strong hand), Pérez Molina has sought, with success, to portray himself as a law-and-order candidate in a country that is threatening to drown in violence as at no time since the civil war. While to the north Mexico's homicide rate has been estimated at 26 per 100,000 by the Latin American academic body Flacso, Guatemala's numbers a staggering 53 per 100,000.

In addition to a long-standing problem with local maras (street gangs), Mexican cartels pushed south by President Felipe Calderón's militarized campaign against drug traffickers there now do battle with Guatemala's own criminal groups, some of whom have their roots in a military intelligence apparatus set up with U.S. aid during the country's internal armed conflict.

None of the former have made as much of an impression in Guatemala as Los Zetas.

Originally members of a Mexican army unit designed to combat drug trafficking, Los Zetas (named after a radio code for high-ranking officers) defected from the military in the late 1990s to become enforcers for the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel. They later abandoned their employers to become an international organized-crime entity in their own right, and in recent years have been reinforced by members of Los Kabiles, a special-operations unit of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics.

Los Zetas announced their presence in Guatemala in spectacular fashion with the March 2008 killing of kingpin Juan "Juancho" José León Ardón and 10 other people in the eastern state of Zacapa.

They subsequently established a strong foothold in the country, but especially in the departments of El Petén and Alta Verapaz in the north, and Izabal in the east.

This past May, 27 farm workers were found massacred in El Petén, a crime blamed on Los Zetas. Subsequently the dismembered body of the prosecutor investigating the case was found in Alta Verapaz, Both departments have been subject to state of siege orders during the Colom presidency. Mass casualty shootouts in various parts of the country have become commonplace.

It is perhaps little wonder then that Guatemalans long for a commanding figure to take over the reins of this troubled land.

Pérez Molina has been helped along by the disqualification of his main opponent, Sandra Torres. Guatemala's First Lady and wife of the current president until her divorce in April, Torres' candidacy was ruled illegal by the country's Constitutional Court under Article 186 of Guatemala's constitution, which forbids family members of the president or vice-president from running for either of those positions.

The law, which also prohibits those who have seized power in a coup d'état from running, was ignored during the 2003 presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt.

The slickness and professionalism of Pérez Molina's campaign, along with those of protégées such as Guatemala City mayoral candidate Alejandro Sinibaldi, has stood in marked contrast to the hapless efforts of the Torres camp. The struggle of other candidates to make themselves heard in the face of conservative media empires that often refuse to even air their advertisements has also been an asset.

Despite his reinvention of himself as a political leader, though, allegations of human rights abuses during his time in the military - and connections to organized crime both during and since - have continued to dog Pérez Molina

In July of this year, the indigenous Guatemalan organization Waqib Kej sent a letter to the United Nationas accusing Pérez Molina of involvement in torture and genocide during his time in the army, while accusations of his alleged involvement in the disappearance of rebel commander Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in 1992 have never been satisfactorily explained.

Rubén Chanax Sontay, one of the chief witnesses for the investigation of the Bishop Gerardi killing, placed Pérez Molina in the company of Colonel Byron Lima Estrada on the night of Gerardi's slaying. Lima Estrada was subsequently convicted along with three other men of Gerardi's murder.

In addition, Pérez Molina has often been mentioned as one of the alleged more prominent members of El Sindicato, a clandestine network of current and former military officers often at odds with a similar entity, La Cofradia, originally domintaed by Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo. In March 2002, the U.S. government revoked the latter's travel visa under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizing action against people who have allowed or conspired in drug trafficking.

For his part, Pérez Molina has always vigorously denied all these charges.

[Pérez Molina's nearest competitor in the presidential contest, Manuel Baldizón, a congressmen form El Petén, is also trailed by accusations of corruption and abuse of power.]

In the background of Pérez Molina's political ambitions, there has been Guatemala's own struggle to move on from its tortured past.

Many key provisions of Guatemala's peace accords were implemented half-heartedly, if at all.

A civilian intelligence office mandated to combat organized crime was not established until 2007, by which point criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state. The national police force remains ineffectual and numerically small, currently numbering around 26,000 officers, while Guatemala's private security sector has swelled to 120,000. According to UNICEF, despite its lush and varied topography, malnutrition affects one in two Guatemalan children under five, the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world.

Since 2007, the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigating criminal organizations and exposing their relation to the state, has been operating with varying degrees of success. Until June 2010, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana, a Spanish magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico. Castresana resigned last year, charging the Colom government was undermining CICIG's work, and the mantle of leadership was passed to Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, the former attorney general of Costa Rica.

After a string of successes, over the last year CICIG appeared to stumble, recently losing high-profile cases against former president Alfonso Portillo and former prison director and presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei.

Working alongside CICIG, however, Guatemala currently has perhaps its most capable and activist Attorney General in recent memory, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey.

A specialist in criminal law who helped to found the Instituto de Estudios Comparados de en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala, Paz y Paz replaced a lawyer accused of having links to organized crime (his appointment was later annulled).

If, as seems likely, Pérez Molina is inaugurated as president next year, what kind of Guatemala will he work to build?

Will he, as he has stated, work for law and order, an end to corruption and an economically vibrant nation? Or will the questions from his past prove a mere foreshadowing of a nation even more violent and corrupt than the one that now exists?

Only time will tell, of course, in this land that Pablo Neruda once called "the sweet waist of the Americas" and which Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo once referred to as "my sweet storm."

Guatemala is the land of eternal spring, and its people are still waiting for that spring to come.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

CBC's The Current on the UN in Haiti

My interview this morning about the United Nations presence in Haiti on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti can be heard here. MINUSTAH's Nigel Fisher speaks directly following.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

NOLA Politician Pony Show

What kind of city do you live in the when the city assessor, the city's former railroad chief and the head of a well-known nonprofit all show up at the same court on the same day for unrelated criminal trials? And one of them isn't even sentenced to jail time for stealing $1 million in government grants intended for poor people? Why, you live in New Orleans, of course.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The U.N. in Haiti: Time to Adapt or Time to Go

The U.N. in Haiti: Time to Adapt or Time to Go

Sep 1 , 2011

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

In the summer of 2009, visiting Haiti for the first time after an absence of three years, I found the country in better shape than at any time since I started visiting there in 1997.

Three years after the inauguration of René Préval as Haiti’s president (after the two-year tenure of an unelected interim government), the population of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, again felt safe enough to patronize downtown bars and kerosene-lit roadside stands late into the evening, where once armed gangs controlled entire neighborhoods. Billboards that once praised the infallibility of a succession of maximum leaders instead carried messages about the importance of respect between the population and the police, or decrying discrimination against the disabled.

A police-reform program was in its third year, providing the country with a level of professional law enforcement not often seen in a place where political patronage, not expertise, swelled the ranks of security forces with party loyalists. Investment was beginning to pick up and, by the end of the year, Haiti’s delicious signature rum, Barbancourt, had even won the bronze and silver medals at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Presiding over all this was the (at the time) 9,000-member United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH. When I sat that summer in the office of the head of the mission, veteran Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, he seemed to be justified in his pride at the country’s progress, telling me that “the level of respect for basic freedoms, such as freedom of the press, is at a historically remarkable level.”

Of course, all of this changed at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, when the country was struck by an apocalyptic earthquake that leveled much of the capital and surrounding towns and killed an estimated 200,000 people. Annabi, his deputy and nearly 100 other MINUSTAH personnel died as the structures they were in collapsed on them, and the peacekeeping mission itself became one of the many strata of Haitian society that needed rescuing.

A year and a half after the quake, with a new president (popular singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly) and a contentious parliament locked in a bitter struggle for power, MINUSTAH, having picked itself up and dusted itself off, remains in Haiti, its force now increased to 12,000 under the leadership of Chile’s former minister of foreign affairs, Mariano Fernández.

Though an estimated 634,000 survivors of the quake still live in makeshift settlements in and around the capital, and Haiti remains without a government (two of Martelly’s nominees for prime minister have been rejected), it is my conclusion after a visit to Haiti last month that it is now time, after seven years in the country, for MINUSTAH to either significantly refocus its mission or close its operation in Haiti and leave the business of governing and reconstruction to the Haitians themselves.

* * *

Haitians have a keen sense of their own history as the site of the world’s first successful slave revolt (in 1804) and the second independent republic in the Americas (after the United States), a nation that has produced guerrilla leaders of the magnitude of Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batravill when faced with a two-decade U.S. occupation of the country in the early 20th century.

If you ask the average Haitian on the street what the purpose of MINUSTAH in Haiti is now, as I did in a vast tent encampment of displaced earthquake survivors in front of Haiti’s still-collapsed National Palace, they will answer you succinctly: MINUSTAH is in Haiti to protect the interests of the foreigners.

True or not, such a perspective has become conventional wisdom in Haiti, and it was a refrain that I heard time and again as I traveled this country that, though still stricken, is by no means beaten or defeated.

At this point, for the first time since I have been observing the mission, the sentiment on the street among a majority of Haitians appears to be a desire to see MINUSTAH in its current incarnation gone from Haiti.

For several reasons, MINUSTAH’s reputation with the Haitian people has reached its lowest level since it arrived in 2004.

A cholera epidemic that has killed more than 5,800 people since October has been linked convincingly to the mission. A June report by a group of epidemiologists and physicians in the journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that evidence “strongly suggests” that the cholera strain had been brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers and spread through a faulty waste disposal system along the Artibonite River, a conclusion supported by other studies.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception of MINUSTAH’s response to the crisis within Haiti itself has been of the mission stonewalling and obfuscating. This perception was reinforced in August when some residents of the country’s Plateau Central region accused the mission of dumping raw sewage near the Guayamouc River there, something MINUSTAH has denied.

In a far cry from the largely congenial relations I saw between U.N. peacekeepers and the local population in 2009, something of a bunker mentality has also appeared to have developed. On several instances—particularly at the intersection of the busy Route de Delmas and the road that eventually leads to the country’s international airport—I witnessed peacekeepers patrolling with their mounted machine guns pointed down at crowds of people who appeared to pose no threat at all and were merely going about the business of trying to secure the basic necessities of survival on any given day.

Staying in a hotel only feet away from a tent encampment where thousands of Haitians sat in darkness throughout long evenings of pounding rain, an American filmmaker and I watched as a group of rather surly, well-fed men identifying themselves as police advisers with MINUSTAH literally drank themselves into oblivion over the course of two days. This took place under the gaze of local Haitian staff and other guests. Speaking to others in the capital, I discovered that such behavior is evidently not an uncommon occurrence, and it creates the unfortunate perception of a fraternity party amid an apocalypse, and makes the mission appear very removed from the daily struggles of the Haitians it is ostensibly there to protect.

* * *

By any estimation, MINUSTAH has done many things for Haiti during its years in the country. During a 2004-06 campaign of violence in the capital by various armed groups dubbed Operation Baghdad, a ghastly wave of kidnapping, arson and murder affected all levels of society, and at one point an average of one police officer was being killed every five days. The security forces of the interim government then in power often responded to this by broadly targeting the impoverished male population of the capital’s slums with extrajudicial executions. In tandem with Haiti’s police after Préval’s 2006 inauguration, MINUSTAH largely brought this period to an end, something for which Haitians should be grateful to it.

Likewise, when elements linked to political actors used the population’s legitimate anger over the rise of food prices as a cover for violent attacks against government installations and figures in 2008, it was likely only the presence of MINUSTAH that saved Préval from being toppled by a coup organized by these same elements.

MINUSTAH has built roads and worked hard to create a space where nonviolent political debate can take place. Haiti, however, ultimately needs to be governed and administered by Haitians, not as some eternal international protectorate. Having stood with Haitians through some of their worst days, the United Nations is now being seen more and more as an occupying force despite the fact that it has been in Haiti at the invitation of two democratically elected heads of state for five of its seven years there.

If Haiti is ever to change, it is Haitians who are going to have to change it, and MINUSTAH must now give them the space in which to do so. Haiti’s security force—the Police Nationale d’Haiti—has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of professionalism and accountability under the leadership of Mario Andresol, and now must be entrusted with more responsibility in terms of safeguarding the country’s fragile democratic gains.

Simultaneously, with so much hostility building up toward the mission in the country’s agricultural areas and elsewhere due to the cholera epidemic, the mission might do well to engage with Haitian peasant organizations in an effort to help revitalize the country’s ailing rural economy. Though peasant groups such as Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan and the 200,000-member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (the latter led by veteran peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, winner of the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmentalists) have been largely hostile to MINUSTAH’s presence, a détente between the groups could help foster the transition from strict peacekeeping to development, which is needed if the mission is to succeed.

Neither the United Nations, the United States nor any other foreign body can fix all of Haiti’s ills. Ultimately, the Haitians have to do it for themselves. Among Haiti’s political class, Haitians have to stop killing one another, Haitians have to stop being corrupt, Haitians have to stop paying and accepting bribes, and politics must no longer be viewed as a blood sport of winner take all where one side celebrates total victory and one side weeps in abject defeat and marginalization.

This has been the tradition of Haitian politics for more than 200 years, but it has not been the tradition of the majority of Haitians who have historically been excluded from the political process, and whose generosity, industry and fundamental decency impress all those who meet them.

The Haitian people understand this better than anyone else. In its current incarnation in Haiti, the United Nations mission has become an obstacle, rather than an asset, to the country taking ownership of the issues that confront it.

It is time for the mission to refocus on new tasks, or to leave while the Haitians can still see it off as a friend.

Monday, August 29, 2011

New Orleans' Tragedy and Triumph on 6-Year Katrina Anniversary

New Orleans' Tragedy and Triumph on 6-Year Katrina Anniversary

By Michael Deibert

Huffington Pos
Posted: 8/29/11 10:53 AM ET

(This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post, where it can be read here)

When five New Orleans police officers were found guilty earlier this month of a series of murders, shootings and a subsequent cover-up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it seemed a symbolic coda to a catastrophic act of nature that descended upon the Crescent City six years ago today, abetted in its destruction by human failings both at the time and since.

The officers were convicted of killing two people and wounding four others on September 4, 2005 on the Danziger Bridge, an expanse that spans the city's industrial canal, in the chaos of a city largely left to fend for itself after being deluged by a Category 5 hurricane that the entire federal and state government saw coming but did little to prepare for.

Seventeen-year-old James Brissette and forty-year-old Ronald Madison were killed that day, though the conditions that set the stage for their killings had been in place long before and, despite progress in many areas since the storm, a number of them of them remain today.

But despite the city's population having been cut nearly in half since the hurricane, and though large sections of neighborhoods and landmarks such as the former Six Flags amusement part sit eerily abandoned, the heart of the city where jazz was born is still beating.

There is probably no city in the United States that possesses greater physical beauty than New Orleans. From the great mansions of the Garden District, to the latticed-balconies fronting the former pirate haunts of the French Quarter, to the creole cottages in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods existing in various states of dilapidation, for much of its compact central area New Orleans represents a perfect merging of architectural ideas, similar to the aesthetic wholeness one finds in a place like Paris.

Likewise, its music and cuisine, unique and defiantly redolent of the city's individual flavour and history, make it a fascinating cultural quirk in a national landscape that is increasingly bland and homogenized.

But the revelry and indulgence take place to a backbeat of violence and urban dysfunction so severe that last year the city's homicide rate clocked in at 10 times above the national average, on par with those of violence-racked locales such as Guatemala, where warring street gangs and drug cartels do daily battle.

The prevalence of violent crime in the city would be a challenge for any police force, no matter how well-trained and equipped, but it has proved especially taxing for the 1,395-member New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), whose own struggles have often mirrored the city's larger ills.

An investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) published in March by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that "basic elements of effective policing--clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry--have been absent for years" and that "constitutional violations span the operation of the entire Department."

The city's mayor Mitch Landrieu, the scion of a Louisiana political dynasty that includes a former mayor (Moon Landrieu) and a current United States senator (Mary Landrieu), came into office in May 2010 with a wave of optimism. He promptly appointed as the city's new police chief Ronal Serpas, who had previously served as police chief of Nashville but a sea of crises, some of them rooted in Katrina and beyond, awaited them.

On Sept. 2, 2005, four days after Katrina made landfall. Henry Glover, an African-American resident of the Algiers section of the city, was shot by an NOPD officer.

When bystanders took the grievously wounded Glover to an improvised police station, they were surrounded by policeman who handcuffed them along with Glover, who bled to death. Glover's body was then driven in a car commandeered by a policeman who burned both the vehicle and Glover's body after setting it aflame with a traffic flare.

Serpas' second in command, Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo, retired last month after criticism about his actions in the Glover case grew to a crescendo. A 33 page report from State of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Correction concluded that Defillo "repeatedly failed to acknowledge that the circumstances as presented to him were sufficiently suspicious as to require follow up" and that his actions "were neither reasonable or responsible."

This March, two NOPD officers received stiff sentences in connection with the case.

Further complicating matters, wealthy New Orleaneans have institutionalized the peeling off of active-duty police officers into what here are known as "paid details," whereby officers are allowed to work for private companies or individuals while in NOPD uniforms.

The DOJ report called the system an "entrenched and unregulated" phenomenon that facilitated corruption within the department. But the city's elite have been loathe to change it, no matter how much it undermines the capability of law enforcement over the urban landscape as a whole.

To his credit, Serpas in May announced that the NOPD was creating a civilian-administered Office of Police Detail Services that would set restrictions on how many hours officers could work and how they would be paid.

And amid the struggles, there are signs of hope.

The NOPD is currently in the process of negotiating a consent decree with the DOJ, a measure by which a federal judge would mandate and oversee that the report's dozens of recommendations be implemented. A newly invigorated body, the New Orleans Office of the Independent Police Monitor, is also now charged with overseeing the behavior of the NOPD and allegations of police misconduct.

This year, standardized test scores for students in the Recovery School District (RSD), a special state-wide school district administered by the Louisiana Department of Education and which took over most of the city's schools after Katrina, improved for the fourth year in a row.

Students from schools still within the Orleans Parish School Board - whose institutions mostly now fall within the mandate of the RSD - also improved.

This marks a dramatic change in momentum for a city that for decades had failed to provide even the rudiments of a good education to its youth, and one in which early interventions are the key to reducing the appalling homicide rate the now stalks its streets.

For much of its history, the aura of New Orleans has been informed by the interplay of light and shadow, comedy and pathos. A city at least partly built of the legacy of slavery nevertheless helped produced the most ebullient and expressive of African-American idioms, and continues today to hold a mirror up to the country at large of some of its best and worst qualities.

The struggle to rebuild New Orleans - and the debate about what kind of New Orleans that will be - continues six years on, as the winds and rain of a once-mighty storm grow ever more distant, but never fully disappear.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Notes from Haiti's Long Hot Summer

Notes from Haiti's Long Hot Summer
Posted: 8/23/11 07:00 PM ET

By Michael Deibert

(This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post, where it can be read here)


Throughout what has been a dolorous summer in the Haitian capital, the image of the Caribbean nation's new president has gazed out at passersby from billboards and murals affixed to walls that did not topple during the country's apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake.

Depicting a man with a bald pate and broad smile, with messages such as "Nouvelle Haiti" and "Bienvenue au pouvoir" stenciled painstakingly next to them, the murals' optimism belies the intense political struggles of the first three months of the rule of Michel Martelly, a well-known singer who performed under the moniker Sweet Micky.

"I love President Martelly, I voted for President Martelly, so did my mother and my sister," says Carlos Jean Charles, who resides in Camp Toussaint, a 2,800 person collection of fragile tents set up in front of Haiti's once-grand National Palace, which still lies in ruins 18 months after the tremor.

"I think Martelly has a good heart," Charles says, echoing the statements of others in the camp. "But the problem is the parliament. Those people have been doing this shit for 25 years, fighting for power. They don't give him a chance."

A day after he was sworn in this May, Martelly announced that he was submitting the name of Daniel Rouzier, a businessman and devout Catholic, to serve as his Prime Minister, only to have the nomination rejected by parliament a month later.

On July 6th, Martelly announced that his new pick for Prime Minister would be attorney and former Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse, at which point 16 of Haiti's 30 senators announced, before the nomination had even been considered, that Gousse was also to be rejected, which he was earlier this month.

So the country, where an estimated 634,000 survivors of the quake still live in makeshift settlements in and around the capital, remains without a government.


The situation is reminiscent of the the first mandate of the man that Martelly replaced as president, René Préval, in the late 1990s. During that era, following the resignation of Préval's Prime Minister, the post remained vacant for nearly two years as an opposition-dominated parliament rejected successive nominees in an effort to deprive the Préval government of oxygen.

It is a modus operandi that is being repeated today in Haiti, but under much worse conditions and this time with the parliament dominated by members of Préval's own coalition (several of them elected in highly disputed circumstances), though the amount of control the former president still exerts over the disparate group of legislators is a matter of some debate.

"The population who voted for Martelly perceived the change he offered as drastic change, a complete rupture from the way things were done in the past," says Marilyn Allien, the director of La Fondation Héritage pour Haïti, the Haitian chapter of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

"But the way things were done in the past was very good for some people. There are people who thrive when corruption and impunity prevail, and it doesn't serve them at all if a new leader comes in and tries to institute the rule of law."

A political novice who ran on an education platform and whose very distance from Haiti's rancid political class was a large part of his appeal, Martelly has relied on a close circle of advisors, some of questionable reputation, to give him counsel when dealing with parliament.

Lurking in the background to all of this are Haiti's two recently-returned former leaders, Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Duvalier, the scion of a family dictatorship started by his father François that ruled Haiti for 29 years, was chased out of the country in 1986 amidst an uprising that has yet to fulfill its promise of democracy, social and economic justice. He returned to Haiti from his long exile in France in January to the outrage of those who suffered at the hands of his regime.

Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was at the forefront of the anti-Duvalier movement and became Haiti's president in 1991, only to be ousted in a military coup seven months later.

Restored to the presidency by a US-led military intervention in 1994, Aristide turned over the reins of government to Préval in 1996. He was returned to power during a violence-wracked ballot in 2000, with his second mandate marked by high levels of official corruption and political violence before he too was overthrown by an armed insurrection after months of large-scale street protests against his rule.

Since his return to Haiti from exile in South Africa in March, Aristide has been largely silent, though some in the camps and elsewhere have darkly suggested they see his hand in the parliamentary maneuvers currently underway.

Further complicating the mix, the 12,000 person United Nations mission in Haiti, in place since June 2004 and known by the acronym MINUSTAH, has probably reached the nadir of its reputation during its time in the country.

Once welcomed as a bulwark against political chaos, the mission has seemed adrift since the earthquake, which killed nearly 100 of its personnel including the head and deputy head of the mission.

A cholera epidemic which has killed more than 5,800 people since last October, has been linked to the mission, with a June report by a group of of epidemiologists and physicians in the journal of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that evidence "strongly suggests" that the cholera strain had been brought to Haiti by UN peacekeepers.

Often unfairly derided as "turista" (tourists) by Haitians, the mission now appears to be largely living up to the scathing sobriquet, with some of its members a feature in some of the capital's more expensive hotels, getting loudly intoxicated and carousing often only feet away from the meager encampments of those made homeless by January 2010's tremor.


Shortly before I visited Haiti this month, I had made plans to visit with an old friend.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, the co-founder of the Centre Oecuménique des Droits de l'Homme (CEDH), was also a former Minister of Culture, a militant for human rights and democracy and a great Haitian patriot.

Virtually his entire family had been killed by François Duvalier, sending him into a long exile during which he received a PhD from Princeton University in the United States, and lived and taught in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

He fought against both the Duvalier family dictatorship and the military juntas that followed and, in more recent times, against the violent anarcho-populism with which Aristide attempted to rule the country. Well into his twilight years, when most men of his age would be playing with their grandchildren, I would see Bajeux bravely march in demonstrations at times when it was physically dangerous to do. Lately he had provided an important analytical voice to Haiti, critiquing not only Haiti's political machinations but those of outsiders involved in the country, as well.

Bajeux passed away, if not exactly unexpectedly, then rather suddenly, earlier this month at the age of 79, before I had a chance to see him. His goal of an inclusive, transparent and just political system in Haiti is still an unrealized dream.

Shortly before he died, in a conversation with a friend, Bajeux had time enough to deliver a simple charge.

"My generation is passing away," Bajeux said. "We did all we could. Now it is up to you."


There can be a sense of tragic timelessness in Haiti, an impression that one gets when driving northwards from the capital along Route Nationale 1, where tent camps now ring either side of the road, and which meanders along the Côte des Arcadins and into the agricultural heartland of the Artibonite Valley.

As one drives, to the left the Caribbean Sea glitters blue-green, and resorts from when Haiti was once a tourist destination - now largely empty save for Haiti's wealthy and the moneyed foreigners in the country - front the ocean. Skiffs with canvass sails ply the channel between the mainland and the immense, isolated Île de la Gonâve in the bay.

Back in the capital, ebullient Creole evangelical hymns still reverberate in the mornings from the mountainsides and ravines that crisscross the city, and radios still pump out a non-stop diet of sinuous konpa music of the kind that first brought Michel Martelly to prominence along with the driving racine rhythms of vodou and endless political chatter.

Given the long odds he faces, there is something moving about the faith of ordinary Haitians that Martelly is the figure who will transform their immensely difficult lives. And, despite what one may read, the Haitians, even in the wake of the extraordinary amount of suffering that has been foisted on them in recent years, are not a defeated people.

The mood in Haiti today reminds one of the wanly flickering orange glow of the kerosene lamps that Haiti's market women - known as ti machann - use to illuminate their wares as they work late into the night. One can see them by the roadside, hoping for one more customer, one more sale, one more ray of life.

Haiti is like that, too, persevering ever onward as long as the slenderest flicker of hope remains.