Monday, December 21, 2015

Books in 2015: A Personal Selection

 Ipanema, Dusk, December 2004  ©  Michael Deibert

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink by Juliana Barbassa

The Brazilian journalist has written a beautiful yet unflinching meditation on one of the world's great cities during a moment of profound change. Her book is a moving examination of the immense charms, staccato violence and unfulfilled promise of the marvelous city and of the heart of modern Brazil.

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest

Given recent events, this classic 1986 work by the great Anglo-American historian of Russia is a timely reminder that Ukraine was “the first independent Eastern European state to be successfully taken over by the Kremlin” and that a destruction of its national identity has been a priority for those who supported Russian expansionism for many generations. Lenin and later, more extensively, Stalin used an intentionally inflicted famine as a way to starve the very idea of Ukrainian nationhood (as they also did in Kazakhstan), with Grigory Zinoviev stating as early as 1918 that “we must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million Soviet Russian population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to then. They must be annihilated.”

Informed by a violent urban chauvinism against the rural poor, the Communist Party overseeing the atrocity “relied continually on a spurious doctrinal analysis to show it a supposed class enemy of a minority in the countryside, whereas in fact almost the entire peasantry was opposed to it and its policies,” policies that were devised. “not [by] a group of rational economists...(But by) a group which had accepted a millenarian doctrine”  As Communist officials dine in special restaurants and shop at “closed” stores, the famine rages and the bodies of dead children are dug up under suspicion that they might in fact be grain pits. The book is also, however, a testament to human resistance to the erasing effects of totalitarianism. But as it makes abundantly clear, the destruction of Ukrainian national identity wasn’t a byproduct of Stalin’s starvation politics, it was their point.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

A deeply affecting drama of a Haitian family both and home and in exile (the latter traumatically affected by the glacial indifference of United States immigration procedures) makes up for the sometimes shaky history.

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by  Karen Dawisha

This scrupulously detailed account of Vladimir Putin’s rise and eventual omnipotence on the Russian political scene is a fascinating account of a vast mafia state being run under cover of patriotic nationalism. Killers, quislings, corrupt business dealers, former and current spooks and other assorted unsavory types make up the Russian leader’s extended political and financial family or, as the author puts it, “such is the quality of the group that Putin has gathered around him from his days in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office.” The combination of the author's own research and investigative reporting by outlets such as Novaya Gazeta quoted therein also leads the reader to the extraordinary conclusion that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), of which Putin was the former chief, likely orchestrated the 1999 Russia apartment bombings that killed 293 people and helped pave the way for the Second Chechen War [Putin was Prime Minister at the time and many who questioned the official version met with extraordinarily suspect deaths]. As Dawisha points out, to keen observers, Putin’s first inauguration was not “a celebration of a transition or of a democracy; this was an occasion designed to herald the the emergence of a single and indisputable leader of a renewed state.”

Miami by Joan Didion

I finally got around to reading this non-fiction book, one of those often bandied about when one is trying to decode the vagaries of the city I live in, and found it both meandering, never quite getting to the point and, to me, at least (someone who has lived in the city off and on over a period of almost 20 years), not terribly perceptive. The author basically repeats stories and allegories from the then-formidable Miami Herald and the writing of historian Arthur Schlesinger, and otherwise writes much as I imagine a drive-by would be composed by someone who spent a few days or weeks here. The Haitian community in Miami is invisible in this book, as are African-Americans, and there is no hint of the city’s physical beauty, nor that of the natural environment that surrounds it, no grasp even of the area’s mired history of corruption. Lines of supposed profundity - “soundings are hard to come by here” or “to spend time in Miami is to acquire certain fluency in cognitive dissonance” - struck me as insufferably pretentious rather than deep.

Dirty Havana Trilogy: A Novel in Stories by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

Filthy, very funny and ultimately a bit wrenching, the novel was originally published as Trilogía sucia de La Habana in 1998 and chronicles the devastating effect of the período especial on Cuba in early 1990s.  The author chronicles the myriad of ways Cubans try to survive, at one point concluding “the only way to live here is crazy, drunk or fast asleep.”

The Boy Is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach

Laura Lee Huttenbach’s debut is a unique first-hand account of cultural lineage, revolutionary awakening and dogged perseverance told in the voice Japhlet Thambu, a man who seems to have fit several lifetimes into the span of one. It is an essential testimony to those seeking to understand modern-day Kenya.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

The story of Macabéa, an impoverished, unwanted typist who migrates from Alagoas to Rio de Janeiro, this last novel by the Ukrainian-Brazilian author is an odd and rare bird, indeed, with some striking passages. I am still not even sure whether or not I entirely liked it, but I am intrigued enough to continue on exploring her work.

The Collected Poems by Czesław Miłosz

The work of the great Polish poet, here presented in luminous English-language translations, is some of the finest poetry of the second half of the 20th century. There are worlds of beauty to be discovered here.

Stray Poems by Alejandro Murguía

Of somewhat uneven quality, this book by San Francisco’s poet laureate still contains some wonderfully evocative sections.

Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden by Heberto Padilla

A shattering portrait of the moment when the great hope of the Cuban revolution disintegrated into tyranny by an author who suffered as much as any artist from the Castro regime’s curdling into dictatorship, this novel marks stark realization of the narrator that "a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice that want to see the light of day which the revolution gushes at its beginning. It has its dark side, too, difficult, dirty almost...Repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads...” It is also a profound psychological portrait of despots themselves, with Padilla asking “Did tyrants love their countries...He thought they did, with the darkest, most jealous and constant love” and later concluding that “In every act of terror there is a desperate desire to persuade.”

Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Man’s wife dies. Man moves to decaying, canal-entwined Belgian city to brood. Man becomes convinced young dancer is the double of his dead spouse and becomes obsessed with her. You know, the usual. Having no idea who he was, I took a photo of Rodenbach’s extraordinary grave at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris during my first visit there in 1994 and only stumbled across this book during a reading I was giving in San Francisco last year. A very strange book by a very strange man, the novel nevertheless evokes Bruges in a certain aspect of saturnalia and morose lassitude, writing that it was a town

Where every day is like All Saints’ Day. A grey that seems to be made by mixing the white of the nuns’ head-dresses with the black of the priests’ cassocks, constantly passing here and pervasive...It is as if the frequent mists, the veiled light of the the northern skies, the granite of the quais, the incessant rain, the rhythm of the bells had combined to influence the colour of the air; and also, in this aged town, the dead ashes of time, the dust from the hourglass of the years spreading its silent deposit over everything.

A little-known book worth spending some time with.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

A youthful effort but one whose charm and power come from its very simplicity., this novel features a young father, a teenage daughter and a summer household in the south of France heading towards cataclysm.

The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy by Yanis Varoufakis

This book by Greece’s former finance minister posits, as a powerful symbol of Wall Street capitalism, a minotaur demanding tribute and fealty from all. It is a piercing criticism of a system where quack theories known by their acronyms - EMH, CEH, RBCT - were cocooned in “mathematical complexity [that] succeeded for too long in hiding their feebleness” and where a credit rating system existed as the purest nepotism. As Varoufakis trenchantly observes

The bankers paid the credit rating agencies...the regulatory authorities...accept these ratings as kosher; and the up and coming young men and women who had secured a badly paid job with one of the regulatory authorities soon began to plan a career move to Lehman Brothers or Moody's...Overseeing all of them was a host of treasury secretaries and finance minister who had either already served for years at Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns etc or were hoping to join that magic circle after leaving politics.

As it continues to be, Varoufakis writes that the rescue plan after the 2008 economic crisis it was not “never again” but rather “business as usual with public funds.”

Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris by Edmund White

A spirited and evocative (though at times gossipy and name-dropping) memoir of la ville lumière by the American writer who lived there from 1983 to 1990, the book made me heavily nostalgic for my own time in this most magical of cities. As White shows, no matter where one might go in afterwards, one who has lived there for any period of time will always have Paris.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

This past year was one in which I struggled with the financial realities of doing serious, independent journalism as much as I ever have in my life, but I was still afforded the chance to visit Cuba for the first-time, return to still-beloved and still-tumultuous Haiti, draw attention to an extraordinary and much-maligned Hudson Valley city and try to reach out to extend aquele abraço to Paris in its moment of great need. Next year, I will be bringing out a new book on Haiti looking at the country's 2004 to 2015 era, and hope to make some progress on getting my fiction before the public, as well. In the meantime, I move forward keeping in mind the words of Federico García Lorca's Cielo Vivo:

Yo no podré quejarme
si no encontré lo que buscaba;
pero me iré al primer paisaje de humedades y latidos
para entender que lo que busco tendrá su blanco de alegría
cuando yo vuele mezclado con el amor y las arenas.

(I won't be able to complain

though I never found what I was looking for;
but I'll go to the first fluid landscape of heartbeats
so I'll know that my search has a joyful target
when I'm flying, jumbled with loved and sandstorms) 
Has Guatemala's Long-Awaited Spring Finally Arrived? for InSight Crime (9 December 2015) 

Paris, je t'aime for the Huffington Post (20 November 2015)


Letter from Havana for the Guardian (17 June 2015)

In from the cold: the implications of the US's thawing on Cuba for Foreign Direct Investment (12 June 2015)
Resurrecting Newburgh for the Guardian (8 April 2015) 

The Dominican Republic's decade of diversification for Foreign Direct Investment (12 February 2015)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Has Guatemala's Long-Awaited Spring Finally Arrived?

Has Guatemala's Long-Awaited Spring Finally Arrived?

By Michael Deibert

When former comedian Jimmy Morales was elected as Guatemala’s president as the candidate for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) this past October, his victory came at the conclusion of perhaps the most tumultuous few weeks the country has seen since the end of its 30-year civil war in 1996.

Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy, Guatemala has often been the called the Land of Eternal Spring due to its temperate highland climate. By the 1980s, in the middle of a three decade long civil war, some added “Land of Eternal Tyranny” to the description in reference to its long list of sanguinary military governments.

In the 20 years since then, Guatemalans have enjoyed democracy, of a sort. Elections were held on schedule and with regularity, and an alternating series of civilian presidents from political parties of various ideological stripes have all taken their turn in steering the ship of state. Violence and corruption, often with official complicity, however, have continued to darken the country’s political landscape, often coupled with a pervasive and corrosive impunity benefiting those perpetuating it.

Following the 1996 peace accords, Presidents Álvaro Arzú of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional and his successor, Alfonso Portillo of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who presided over some of the civil war’s worst human rights abuses), implemented many key provisions of the peace accords half-heartedly, if at all. By then, Guatemala's clandestine criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state.

By 2005, the government of then-president Oscar Berger warned that Los Zetas, then enforcers for the Mexico’s Gulf Cartel and since 2010 an independent drug trafficking organization in their own right, were recruiting into their ranks members of Los Kabiles, a special-operations unit of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics, and which boasted a horrific human rights record in Guatemala itself. Los Zetas expanded their control of the country roughly at the same time as the beginning of the mandate of Álvaro Colom, who had become president the previous January as the candidate of the of the left-centre Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), and his tenure would forever be marked for their violence.

The July 2010 killing of Obdulio Solórzano, a former Escuintla deputy and member of UNE’s executive committee as he drove through Guatemala City’s Zona 13 district, helped to reveal just how deep the links between crime and politics were.
After his stint in Guatemala’s congress, Solórzano had gone on to head the Fondo Nacional para la Paz (National Foundation for Peace or Fonapaz), a government organization set up in 1991 with the stated aim of funding programs to eliminate poverty. During his tenure it was discovered that some 1.4 billion quetzales (as the Guatemalan currency is known) could not be accounted for, and that some 32 NGO projects had been overvalued to the tune of Q93.7 million. He was dismissed in June 2009.
According to a Guatemala official I spoke with, Solórzano had long been the link between the San Marcos drug lord Juan “Chamalé” Ortíz - credited with first bringing Los Zetas to Guatemala - and several other drug traffickers and certain elements of the UNE. It was speculated that some of the inconsistencies in accounting during his time at Fonapaz may have been attempts to launder illicit drug profits. Jose Rubén Zamora, the crusading editor of Guatemala’s El Periódico, would later say that Guatemalan army general Mauro “Gerónimo” Jacinto (who was himself later murdered) described to him how Solórzano had funneled millions of dollars from drug traffickers such as Juancho León and from Los Zetas themselves into UNE campaign coffers to help Colom triumph in the second round of the contest over former general Otto Pérez Molina.
After Guatemala’s November 2011 presidential elections - which in the final round saw Otto Pérez Molina defeat a congressmen from El Petén of equally dubious reputation named Manuel Baldizón, Pérez Molina  announced that his government would have “a strategic plan to combat drug coordination with authorities in the United States and Mexico.”

But things were murkier than they appeared, as was demonstrated when Pérez Molina’s personal pilot, Haward Gilbert Suhr, the founder of the Aeroservicios Centroamericanos, S.A. group (which Pérez Molina was a shareholder in) was arrested along with a dozen other in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and charged with trafficking drug shipments on behalf of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

Finally, this past October, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned amid a corruption scandal that had reached the very pinnacle of the country’s political establishment, and was jailed the following day. The country’s former Vice President (she resigned in May), Roxana Baldetti, had been arrested and imprisoned in 21 August. Both are charged with running a criminal network known as La línea (The Line) while in office.
The arrests of the country’s two most powerful politicians took place following massive street demonstrations throughout Guatemala, and represented perhaps the apex thus far of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body that has operated since 2007, charged with investigating criminal organizations and exposing their relation to the state. Led by the Colombia judge Iván Velásquez Gómez, the swiftness with which CICIG, along with Guatemala’s Ministerio Público, brought about the downfall of the government was startling, especially given that Pérez Molina had only weeks left in office after this year’s presidential election,.

And what now in Guatemala? President-elect Jimmy Morales’ FCN was founded by former military officers leaning to the extreme right of the country’s military spectrum, including José Luis Quilo Ayuso, an associate of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who currently has a possible genocide trial looming before him.

Will events of recent months mark a definitive break from Guatemala’s corrupt past? Despite the valiant efforts of Guatemala’s civil society. Guatemalan criminal organizations continue to make use of street-level gangsters as foot soldiers, as is evidence by an event several years ago that took place in Guatemala’s lethal and dysfunctional prison system, specifically the Varones in Guatemala City’s Zone 18 district, as was described to me by someone with direct knowledge of the case.

The impetus for the crisis was apparently precipitated by the presence in the prison of two well- known kidnappers, Rigoberto Morales Barrientos, alias Rigo Rico, and Jorge Mario Moreira alias El Marino. A senior government official allegedly received a sum of around 2 million quetzales (about USD 250,000) from the families of those victimized by the kidnappers to facilitate their execution inside the prison. Deciding to kill two birds with one stone, the individual then moved Morales Barrientos and Mario Moreira into two adjoining cells along with two other high-profile prisoners. These prisoners were Axel Danilo Ramirez Espinoza, aka El Smiley, a confessed member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang accused of participating in a wave of slayings of bus drivers that occurred in 2009 and Daniel Pérez Rojas alias El Cachetes, a Mexican citizen convicted this year of involvement in the March 2008 slaying of drug lord Juancho León, Shortly after the prisoners were moved, the CICIG received credible information that the men were to be murdered within hours and sent a delegation to the prison under the pretext that the prison would be receiving donation of closed circuit cameras and that it needed to be determined exactly how many would be needed. Once in the prison, they found the prisoners in two cells adjoining a cell of several gang members who were found to be in possession of several firearms and other weapons. The targeted prisoners were moved, and the incident was never made public.

The Morales presidency, which, despite often being erroneously portrayed as an outsider in the English-language press, is a creation of some of the most recalcitrant members of Guatemalan society, makes it hard for one to believe that Guatemala is not entering a key moment in its battle against impunity and corruption and that, in a year or two, Guatemala’s citizens will be on the streets in protest once again.

(This text was adapted from an address given by the author at an October 2015 conference on Gangs & Drug Trafficking in Central America coordinated by the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at the University of Pittsburgh, with sponsorship from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for International Studies.)