Friday, November 30, 2012

Letter from Haiti

Letter from Haiti 

By Michael Deibert

The Huffington Post

(Please read the original article here)

During late November, the clouds hung low over Port-au-Prince, pregnant with the threat of rain. When it did issue forth, life in Haiti's overpopulated capital, partially destroyed in a January 2010 earthquake but still vibrant between the Caribbean Sea and looming mountains, continued irrepressibly on. Moto-taxi drivers plied the streets in their jaunty raincoats, and people continued hawking anything there was to sell under any surface providing shelter from the deluge.

In the middle of one Saturday afternoon, with clouds rumbling down from the mountainside, a group of about 200 young men commandeered the central Place St. Pierre square in the tony suburb of Petionville, halting traffic and periodically hurling bottles in various directions (one of which shattered at my feet). The lads thumped their chests for about three hours before moving on. Their message was that life was too expensive for people in Haiti and that Haiti's President Michel Martelly, whom they said they had previously supported, wasn't doing enough to ameliorate the situation.

Martelly, in his previous life perhaps the most well-known (and most frequently cross-dressing) purveyor of the sinuous Haitian music known as konpa and popularly known as Sweet Micky or Tèt Kale (Bald Head), was not even in the country at the time, a fact not lost on the protesters.

In office since May 2011, Martelly was winding up a long trip to Europe during which he addressed the European Parliament, attended the Ibero-American Summit in Spain and met with the Pope at the Vatican. He was even absent from Haiti during the must-attend 18 November anniversary of the Battle of Vertières, the 1803 clash during which the rebel Haitian army defeated the French near the northern city of Cap-Haïtien and thus paved the way for Haiti's declaration of independence soon thereafter.

"He wants to work well for the people," said a middle-aged taxi driver named Jackson plying the road near the airport, summing up popular sentiment. "But the problem is his entourage."

Elected to succeed René Préval, the only democratically-elected president in Haiti's 208 year history to finish his term in office (a feat the wily, white-bearded Préval managed twice), the political novice Martelly inherited a to-do list that would have daunted even the most skilled politico.

Much of the country's capital was leveled and some 200,000 people believed killed in the January 2010 earthquake, which at one point had left at least 1.5 million people homeless. Tent encampments dotted the capital and its environs and a cholera epidemic, almost certainly brought to the country by the rather-unloved UN peacekeeping mission in place since the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has thus far killed more than 7,500 people.

The most basic services and healthcare remain out of reach of much of the nation's 10 million inhabitants, scattered in far-off provincial districts reached by badly decayed roads. A gradual diminution of Haiti's security situation since the tumultuous ballot that led to Martelly's election culminated last month with the spectacular arrest of Clifford Brandt, scion of one of Haiti's wealthiest families, as the alleged mastermind behind a long-running kidnapping ring.

Also arrested as part of the gang was the commander of a security unit from Martelly's National Palace (there has been no suggestion the president himself was involved), who entered prison as Calixte Valentin, a Martelly advisor accused of murder, exited it. Former members of the country's army, demobilized but not constitutionally disbanded by Aristide in 1995, continue to agitate for the force's reinstatement despite the existence of a police force - the Police Nationale d'Haïti or PNH - currently numbering some 10,000 recruits. A battle over the composition of the country's electoral council has raged for months.

"A stabilization process is taking place albeit a fragile one," says Mariano Fernández, the Chilean diplomat who heads the UN's peacekeeping mission, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, which is envisioned to be scaled back to around 6,300 military personnel in coming months. "We continue planning to reduce and reconfigure MINUSTAH in the coming years depending on the stability of the conditions."

The last caveat is an important one. Haiti's security forces have enjoyed a steadily-improving reputation since the 2006 inauguration of Martelly's predecessor Préval. It has been a marked change from Aristide's 2001-2004 tenure, when politically-connected partisans were inserted into the PNH regardless of their competency or culpability in various crimes, or that of a 2004-2006 interim government when police often made little distinction between armed pro-Aristide gangs and ordinary residents of the capital's poorer neighborhoods.

Until recently, the PNH were headed by Mario Andrésol, widely regarded as one of the most honest and competent officials in the country and who was replaced by Gotson Aurélus in August. Since then, something of a delicate realignment has been taking place. It is widely believed that Secretary of State for Public Security Reginald Delva exercises more operational control over the PNH than Minister of Justice Jean Renel Sanon, his nominal boss. A former senator, Joseph Lambert, now a Martelly advisor, is also spoken of as wielding influence beyond what one would expect.

Though the Brandt arrest was greeted with a gasp in much of the international community (this is, after all, the strata of society most international actors interact with) in Haiti the view was more circumspect.

"The bourgeois control the police with their money, and a lot of police officers also provide security for businesses and the private sector because there is no control, and they can receive more money for their work," says Pierre Espérance, the Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, Haiti's most prominent human rights organization. "Each kidnapping gang has its connection with the police."

Despite such realities, one of Martelly's chief plans of attack appears to be an attempt to re-band Haiti and change its relentlessly negative image from a place solely of natural disaster, coups, misery and death to one of a place open to investment and boasting a vibrant and tourist-friendly culture.

Though this approach has been rather too smugly sneered at by the international chattering class that comments on Haiti, most people I spoke with in the country actually saw its value and supported it in principle, even if they didn't quite understand why the president was spending so much time abroad.

There is some evidence that Martelly's approach may be succeeding. The president, ever the extrovert natural showman, would seem a perfect fit for such a campaign. In July, the president even declared a three day out-of-season Carnaval des fleurs (Carnival of Flowers) designed to highlight the country's flair for music and pageantry. The camps from the central part of the capital have mostly been cleared, but with some to their inhabitants relocated to a windswept moonscape situated on denuded land on a road leading north out of the city

A new industrial park in the country's north - which itself has hardly been free from controversy - was opened in October, with, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British billionaire Richard Branson in attendance. The lure of potential gold reserves in northern Haiti has brought a number of international mining companies, some with questionable records, to stake claims on huge swathes of land, creating economic potential but only of the most fraught kind.

Though the vast overpopulation of the capital - a consequence in part of international economic policies inflicted upon Haiti - helped lead to the vast death toll from the earthquake, the decentralization of economic and political power from Port-au-Prince still remains an agonizingly slow and complex process. Privately, many in Haiti's business community, intensely nationalistic at heart despite their comfortable economic status, complain the country has been "invaded" by foreign companies and non-governmental organizations.

In some economically struggling communities, the feeling is one of hopes delayed if not dashed entirely.

"We liked Martelly and we thought he would help a lot of people," says Pè Nico, a diminutive young man whose moniker ("Father Nico") belies his youthful appearance. "But this neighborhood has always been forgotten."

Pushing 30 years old but looking barely into his 20s and resplendent in a Miami Heat baseball cap, Pè Nico leads an armed faction in the capital's quartier populaire of St. Martin, an area of deeply-rutted roads and at times precarious-looking structures from which the PNH and MINUSTAH appear completely absent.

Pè Nico's baz say they voted - "99%" in their words - for Martelly. In their neighborhood, once a war zone and still subject to occasional bouts of violence, residents have been tending to the Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Saint Martin, under whose aegis members of the private sector operating in the zone and local community leaders have sought dialogue and improvement in living conditions there. The two sides began talking in 2007 and, even through the earthquake and after, they are still talking. It is perhaps a hopeful sign.

I had known Martelly very slightly in his previous life as Sweet Micky. We spent a memorable evening more than a decade ago cruising through Port-au-Prince in his SUV with a loaded pistol between us as he bemoaned the state of Haiti and the irresponsibility of its leaders both political and economic, a scene depicted in a book I later wrote about the country.

When I visited Haiti in August 2011, just after Martelly's election, I found popular support for the colorful, eccentric president among the pep la, as Haiti's struggling class (which is to say almost everybody) is known, still high.

Despite the eroding of that hope when confronted with the immense challenge of governing Haiti and his own missteps, Haitians still seem to be giving Martelly the benefit of the doubt.
So many factors - rising food prices, civil unrest underwritten by various malefactors, another natural calamity - could change that. But in a country whose leaders have often promoted themselves through terror and abuse, Martelly - whose signature colour is pink - has offered something of a change of tone, however unorthodox.

On my last day in Haiti, purely by chance, my path overlapped with that of Michel Martelly.

Waiting at the airport to board my flight home, I saw Martelly's American Airlines plane fly in from Miami. As if on cue and so apt for a showman, the cloudy gloom that had plagued the capital for days broke and rays of brilliant golden sunshine spilled out of a blue sky. Diplomats, Haitian police officers in their crisp khaki uniforms and every airport worker that could sneak away from their job were standing there to greet him. He was going to be inaugurating a new arrival hall, they told me, then this week he would be leaving again, this time for Cuba.

Martelly disembarked from the plane, his bald head and smiling visage visible among the mostly smaller Haitians.

They cheered.

Michael Deibert's forthcoming book, Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, will be published by Zed Books in cooperation with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute and the Social Science Research Council. His previous book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005), was praised by the Miami Herald as "a powerfully documented exposé" and by the San Antonio Express-News as "a compelling mix of reportage, memoir and social criticism."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Fall of Goma

The Fall of Goma 

By Michael Deibert

The Huffington Post 

(First published here)

When the provincial capital of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo fell to rebel forces today, the rapidity of the rebel advance was shocking, but the fait accompli failure of both Congo's armed forces and the country's United Nations mission was not.

As 2012 dawned, the international community and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo - known by its acronym, MONUSCO (formerly MONUC) - were hailing the peace and stability that a 2009 deal with the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) rebel group had supposedly brought to the eastern part of this vast country.

Formed by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, the CNDP's ostensible goal was the protection of Congo's Tustsi ethnic group and the defeat of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the main Hutu-led military opposition to the Tutsi-led government of President Paul Kagame in Rwanda. The FDLR, though a severely degraded force from what it once was, has its roots in Rwanda's 1994 genocide when several hundred thousand Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered by extremist Hutu supremacist elements.

Succored by Rwanda, Nkunda nevertheless proved himself to be a headstrong and unreliable negotiating partner with the regional powers and with the government of Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, who Nkunda openly talked about toppling. Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, had seized power with Rwandan help in 1997 only to then go to war with his former patrons and die by an assassin's bullet a little over three years later.

As a result of his recalcitrance, Nkunda was jettisoned and replaced at the negotiating table by another CNDP leader, Bosco Ntaganda, who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in January 2006 on three counts of war crimes allegedly committed while he was helping to command another rebel group in Congo's Ituri region, a time during which he earned the sobriquet "the Terminator."

The deal struck between the Kabila government and Ntaganda's CNDP in March 2009 saw the rebels become a registered political party and their forces integrated within the official armed forces, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). Bosco Ntaganda became an important powerbroker in the province of North Kivu, the Rwanda and Uganda-border region of which Goma is the capital.

Far from a road to Damascus moment, the agreement was rather a modus vivendi by cunning, ruthless political operators.

Kabila, reelected in a highly controversial 2011 ballot, has fashioned a government that is in many ways a younger, more sophisticated version of his father's. Relying on a narrow circle of trusted individuals and a network of international alliances, Kabila's power is built on a patronage base rather than a political base. This model was dealt a serious blow when one of Kabila's most trusted advisors, Augustin Katumba Mwanke, a man who often handled Kabila's most delicate financial and political transactions, was was killed in a plane crash this past February.

Across the border, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for so long a darling of western donors and development workers, has for many years presided over a tight-lidded dictatorship where government critics meet either death (opposition politician Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, killed in Rwanda in July 2011), exile (former general Kayumba Nyamwasa, wounded in a shooting in South Africa in June 2010) or both (Inyenyeri News editor Charles Ingabire, shot dead by an unknown gunman in Kampala last December).

[Along with other neighbors who have seen fit to intervene in Congo over the years, Rwanda has been happy to help itself to large amounts of the Congo's extensive mineral wealth, as documented in a 2001 United Nations report]

As a number of people (myself included) warned at the time, the peace deal as implemented was a marriage of convenience destined for a nasty divorce. Unfortunately, the international community itself gave an additional seal of approval when, against the advice of their own Office of Legal Affairs, UN forces backed Congo's army as the latter launched Operation Kimia II ("Quiet" in Swahili) in March 2009 against the FDLR.

Despite the common knowledge that Ntaganda - a wanted accused war criminal - was acting a de facto deputy commander for Congolese forces during Kimia II, MONUC's command hid behind transparently false Congolese government assurances that Ntaganda was not involved.

According to one investigation, between January and September 2009 more than 1,400 civilians were slain in the provinces of North and South Kivu, at least 701 by the FDLR and the rest by Congolese and Rwandan government-allied forces. Over the same time period in the same provinces, over 7,500 women and girls were raped and over 900,000 people forced to flee their homes.

Despite these excesses, the UN signed a Joint Operational Directive with Congo's army as it launched yet another operation against the FDLR, this one dubbed Amani Leo ("Peace Today"), during January 2010. Immaculée Birhaheka of the Promotion et Appui Aux Initiatives Feminines (Promotion and Support for Women's Initiatives) pleaded that "the name of the military operation has changed, but the situation remains the same: Women are still being killed, maimed, abused like animals."

They would have been wise not to look to the UN for help. Though the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo is the largest in the world at nearly 17,000 military personnel, it is still cartoonishly small for a country the size of Western Europe.

Nor has the mission shown any great appetite for adhering to its mandate, which charges it with working "to ensure the protection of civilians, including humanitarian personnel, under imminent threat of physical violence."

In May 2002, when dissident soldiers mutinied against their commanders in the central city of Kisangani, MONUC troops did almost nothing as those commanders (including Laurent Nkunda) oversaw the killing of at least 80 civilians and a ghastly bout of rape. Two years later, in the city of Bukavu, Nukunda was again present as a series of ethnically-based attacks in and around the city saw looting, raping and murder take place as MONUC did little to aid common citizens. In November 2008, CNDP forces led by Bosco Ntaganda killed at least 150 people in the town of Kiwanja despite the fact that 100 UN peacekeepers were stationed less than a mile away.

Once part of the official apparatus in North Kivu, as pressure grew (as it inevitably would) on Ntaganda to break the parallel chains of command within the FARDC-integrated CNDP units, and with chorus of calls demanding his arrest, the warlord finally decided that the pressure was too much.

By early April of this year, former CNDP members began to desert their posts in North Kivu and fighting broke out around the province. By May, the deserters had named their group the Mouvement du 23 mars, or M23, a reference to the date of the 2009 peace accords between the CNDP and the Kabila government. They operated, as they always had, with strong Rwandan backing.

In July, saying that the Obama administration had "decided it can no longer provide foreign military financing appropriated in the current fiscal year to Rwanda," the United States announced - for the first time since 1994 - that it was suspending military aid to the Kagame regime, citing "evidence that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups, including M23." That same month, the Netherlands announced that it was suspending five million euros ($6.2 million) in aid to Rwanda, a decision it said was directly linked Kigali's support of M23. The following day, the British government also announced the freezing of £16 million of aid.

[The recent decision of the UK's international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, to restore aid to Rwanda on his last day on the job resulted in a storm of controversy and a pledge by his successor that she would gather evidence in terms of Rwanda's linkage with M23 before deciding on any new aid.]

But today, with almost-certain Rwandan (and Ugandan) backing and with, by all accounts, barely token opposition from UN forces stationed there, the M23 seized Goma. And tonight, as the United Nations and the international community stand by, the people of Congo are once again at the mercy of those who have tormented them in the past.

The approach of the international community thus far, both in exercising its mandate to protect civilian lives in Congo and in holding the outside supporters of Congo's rebel groups to task, has thus far proved woefully insufficient.

As word of Goma's fall spread throughout Congo, reaction was immediate. Buildings belonging to Kabila's political party - with many Congolese accusing the president of caving in to the Rwandans - were burned in the cities of Kisangani and Bunia, and UN buildings were pelted by stones in the latter town.

The fall of Goma may prove a defining moment, for both the Congolese government and for the gulf between the actions and the words of the international community in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Michael Deibert's forthcoming book, Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, will be published by Zed Books in cooperation with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute and the Social Science Research Council.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Monday, November 05, 2012

Why I am voting For Barack Obama in Florida in 2012

During the primary season of 2008, I wrote on this blog about why I was voting for then-candidate and now-President Barack Obama for the nomination of the Democratic party.

As everyone knows, since then Obama won primary and then the presidency. Despite being somewhat underwhelming in his first term to those of us who expected a more progressive agenda, it must also be admitted that he has been hamstrung at every juncture by the most extremist and hateful opposition party that I have seen in the United States in my lifetime. Despite that and many disappointments, the Obama administration has managed to get a number of very important things done.

I've been a frequent critic of the Obama administration's policies on a range of issues, but I truly believe at this moment - however flawed - his reelection is what stands between us and the enveloping darkness of the Christian sharia fanatics, Dickensian robber barons and science-denying flat earthers of the Republican Party, as exemplified by Mitt Romney and his even-more repulsive running mate, Paul Ryan. So I will do my part to try and put Florida in the Democratic column tomorrow.

If you believe that the United States should have a middle class and not be a nation of masters and serfs, if you believe that women should control their own healthcare decisions, if you believe that our LGBT friends should enjoy the same rights that we do and if you believe that climate change is a reality and not a myth, I think you should, too, and vote for Barack Obama.