Sunday, January 24, 2016

Haiti dances nervously towards bitterly contested presidential election

Thursday 21 January 2016 13.54 GMT

Haiti dances nervously towards bitterly contested presidential election

Carnival begins on 7 February, the same day it is set to swear in a new leader – unless the vote is delayed. But a mood of foreboding dogs Haiti’s murky politics

Michael Deibert in Port-au-Prince 

The Guardian

(Read the original article here)

They marched in their thousands to the throb of drums and the incantatory wail of the long bamboo wind instruments Haitians call vaksin. Joyously waving flags and chanting, the multitude surged from the wealthy suburb of Pétionville down the traffic-clogged Route de Frères, where phantasmal swirls of dust were illuminated by the lights of cars and the kerosene flames of women selling patties.

Haiti is days away from a bitterly contested presidential election, but this was no political rally. The crowd was following a rara band, street musicians whose appearance marks the run-up to carnival, which this year begins on 7 February – the same day Haiti is slated to inaugurate a new president.
Just hours later, however, the peaceful revellers were replaced by an angry rock-throwing mob protesting against alleged vote-rigging by President Michel Martelly on behalf of his designated successor Jovenel Moïse, an agribusinessman from the country’s north.

Opposition parties and local observers have also charged that the election’s first round in November was marred by fraud. The leading opposition candidate, Jude Célestin, has said that he will not compete in the second round this Sunday and legitimize a “farce” (which the United States spent $30m supporting).

Late on Wednesday night, Haiti’s senate voted to recommend that Haiti’s electoral body, known as the CEP, should delay the vote, though it was unclear if this will happen.

A sense of dread and foreboding has settled on Haiti’s political elite.

“Between now and 7 February we are on a razor’s edge and anything can happen,” said a former Martelly adviser.

Despite a lower rate of violent crime than many other countries in the region, elections in Haiti are often fraught affairs. In 1987, during the first election after the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship, voters were massacred by Duvalierist forces. During the 2000 elections that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to power, opposition politicians were killed.

In the 2010 elections in which Martelly triumphed, only mass street protests (and, some charge, international pressure) saw him advance to the second round past Célestin, the former head of the state construction company, after the first round was allegedly rigged by the outgoing president, René Préval.

Since his inauguration in 2011, Martelly, a former singer turned rightwing populist with political links to the Duvalier dynasty, has overseen many carnivals but held no elections. He seemed at times unsure if his place was among competent public officials or shady cronies both within and without the political arena.

Nevertheless, under Martelly, and his former prime minister, the telecoms mogul Laurent Lamothe, Haiti appeared to be inching forward after years of decline. Roads were paved, investment began to return, and an international airport was inaugurated in the country’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, opening the historical treasures of the north to tourism.

Haiti’s political opposition consists of an assortment of career politicians, ideologically promiscuous opportunists and occasional true believers whose commitment to democracy is questionable.

Along with Célestin – who has long been dogged by dark rumours connected to the 2009 disappearance of a government official – the best-known candidates are a former senator, Moïse Jean-Charles, and Maryse Narcisse, who is seen as a stand-in for Aristide.

“This is not my struggle, but the struggle of the Haitian people,” said Jean-Charles, who has been one of the government’s most vociferous critics. “We will modify our strategy, continuing our mobilisation with strikes, civil disobedience … We need good governance, political and economic stability.”

(One of Jean-Charles’s entourage was more explicit, confiding that Martelly and Jovenel Moïse would be dechouked, a reference to the violence directed at Duvalier’s supporters after the fall of his regime. At protests this week, marchers chanted for the deaths of Martelly and the CEP president, Pierre Louis Opont.)

But many Haitians are not inclined to take to the streets to support either Martelly or his opponents.

“I didn’t vote. Vote for who?” asks Louino Robillard, one of the leaders of Solèy Leve, a collaborative social movement founded in the capital’s Cité Soleil slum. “Look at all of those politicians and all of those rich people and all of those organisations here. What have they done?”

Those who have appeared at political events do little to allay fears for Haitian democracy: one participant in recent opposition rallies is Franco Camille, an Aristide loyalist who was indicted for his alleged role in the 2000 murder of Haiti’s most famous journalist, Jean Dominique.

Martelly’s own orbit consists of men like Woodly “Sonson La Familia” Ethéart, the accused head of an organised crime ring freed under questionable circumstances last year, and Daniel Evinx, a resort owner and suspected drug trafficker who disappeared in early 2014. According to a source familiar with the investigation, police subsequently found a body near the northern town of Anse-Rouge they believed to be that of the missing hotelier, though the discovery was never made public.

Despite all this, the UN and the “Core Group” of international actors in Haiti (Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, the US, the European Union and the Organization of American States) appear convinced the elections should go forward.

“Proceeding with the electoral calendar as provided by the Haitian constitution will avoid going into an extra-constitutional, de-facto government leadership crisis,” Kenneth Merten, the United States’ Haiti special coordinator wrote in an email.

The capital’s restless slums dot Port-au-Prince like a living reproach to the lack of vision of Haiti’s political leaders – and the international community upon whose support they depend.

Martelly’s predecessor Préval launched a disarmament and reintegration programme for the capital’s gangs, but after several years of calm, Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s biggest slum, has begun to bleed again. Leaders of armed groups with alleged links to the government such as Gabriel Jean Pierre and Ti Houngan appear to be flexing their muscles, although to portray them as strictly gangsters misses that nearly all such leaders have set up “foundations” to aid their communities, and say they are helping the forgotten.

But armed men are not the only face of Cité Soleil. Louino Robillard’s Solèy Leve initiated a Cité Soleil peace prize to honour and encourage young people trying to make a difference, and community groups like the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè work diligently to reduce conflict.

“These children need a real school,” says Christly Jackson, the 50-year-old head of a primary school in Cité Soleil that lacks just about everything but rough wooden benches and a blackboard. “And when they become adults, they don’t have jobs and our hunger continues.”

In the capital’s southern hills, the districts of Grand Ravine and Ti Bois are now at peace. A gang war raged between the neighborhoods a decade ago, but the communities, aided by the Irish NGO Concern and the local group Lakou Lapè, have worked to make peaceful coexistence durable.

That does not mean the prospect of violence has disappeared. At the entrance to Grand Ravine, visitors are met by a gang leader nicknamed – like the president – Tèt Kale and about a dozen men with pistols in their waistbands who keep a close eye on visitors.

Up the hill from the improvised checkpoint, in a spotless office, members of a local community self-help group called Plasmagra meet.

“We have been able to put peace in this community, and would like to continue with its development,” says 32-year-old Nicolson Joachim. As he speaks, children play football in the street and a young artist daubs Caribbean beach scenes on to canvases in hopes of selling them later.

Despite the apparent calm, some observers fear that the government and the opposition are playing with fire.

“What the government, the opposition and the international community don’t know is that right now those guys in the slums are thinking they’re always the victims, and if something happens they will be victims again,” says Mario Andrésol, a former chief of Haiti’s national police and presidential candidate. “But they are not just going to stay and die in Cité Soleil and those other areas forever. That’s what the oligarchy also has to understand. Today we’re in a situation that could explode at any time.”

Minustah, the UN stabilisation mission, is drawing down after a dozen years in Haiti, leaving the country much as it found it, amid a government crisis of legitimacy, with a politicised police and a recalcitrant political opposition, and with the added gift of cholera, which UN soldiers introduced in 2010.

Despite the role Haitians have played in their country’s ongoing political trench warfare, many feel this particular crisis has the international community’s fingerprints all over it. Writing in Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste this past week, the author Lyonel Trouillot asked those abroad: “Do you know what they are doing here in your name?”

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Demon Heirs of El Chapo

01.10.1612:15 AM ET

The Demon Heirs of El Chapo

 Like the hydra from Greek mythology, the chopping off of one of the drug cartel’s heads leaves room for many more bloodthirsty replacements.

By Michael Deibert

The Daily Beast

(Read the original here.)

When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted Misión cumplida: lo tenemos (Mission accomplished, we got him), no one in Mexico had to ask who the “him” in question was. After fleeing what was supposedly the nation’s most secure prison in July 2015 for a second time, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of Mexico’s storied Sinaloa Cartel and the world’s most well-known drug trafficker, had been re-captured after six months on the run.

With the exception of his Sinaloa Cartel colleague Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, El Chapo is virtually the last of the old guard of Mexico’s drug trafficking monarchy to fall. Preceding him have been the likes of the Juárez Cartel’s Amado Carrillo Fuentes (who moved so much cocaine into Mexico from Colombia in the hollowed-out bodies of jets that he was called El Señor de Los Cielos, or Lord of the Skies), the Tijuana Cartel’s Arellano Félix brothers (almost all killed or imprisoned), the Gulf Cartel’s Osiel Cárdenas Guillén (currently held at the supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado), the brothers who lead the Beltrán Leyva Organization (dead or imprisoned) and virtually all of the original members of Los Zetas, a group that started out as Gulf Cartel enforcers but violently broke out on their own in early 2010.

Though cartel kingpins have been falling liking dominoes in recent years, the drug trade in Mexico has micronized rather than disappeared. Violence and insecurity, much of it linked to politics, continues to bedevil the country.

In the violence-plagued state of Guerrero, whose Acapulco was once a playground for the idle rich, narco gangs such as Los Ardillos and Los Rojos victimize the state’s indigenous communities as they do battle with one another for lucrative drug-trafficking routes. Los Ardillos are run by a pair of criminally minded brothers, Celso and Antonio Ortega Jiménez (drug trafficking in Mexico is often a family business) from a family where a third sibling, Bernardo Ortega Jiménez, served as president of the state congress in Guerrero. Los Rojos are led by Santiago “El Carrete” Mazari Miranda, a former soldier in the Beltrán-Leyva Organization.

The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG), which began as something of a spinoff of the Sinaloa Cartel, has since emerged as a force all its own. After a spectacular September 2011 coming out—it dumped 35 corpses into rush-hour traffic in a suburb of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz, many of them daubed with anti-Zetas slogans—the CJNG shot down a military helicopter last year. Though many of the group’s chieftains have been captured in recent years, the CJNG’s co-founder, Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, a native of the state of Michoacán and, like so many narcos, a former police officer, remains at large.

Along Mexico’s border with the United States, after a four-year war of attrition against one another in the state of Tamaulipas that saw mass-casualty gunbattles and entire busloads of people kidnapped and killed, Los Zetas themselves and their former employers in the Gulf Cartel have seen their leadership decapitated. But their remaining cells remain active and highly lethal.

After Zetas co-founder Rogelio González Pizaña, known better as El Kelín, was released in August 2014 after serving a decade in prison, he reportedly headed back to Tamaulipas to resume his role in the drug trade, and was there murdered by current Gulf Cartel leaders when he attempted a takeover of the group’s birthplace, the city of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas.

If true, the murder of the old hand, allegedly by forces loyal to the new Matamoros plaza boss, Odon “El Cherry” Azua Cruces, is highly symbolic of the earlier generation being pushed out by the new. In a further illustration of this phenomenon, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas and across the Rio Grande from the U.S. city of McAllen, Texas, splintering factions of the Gulf Cartel now do battle with legions of sicarios (assassins) barely into their teens.

There was supposed to be a changing of the political guard in Mexico, too, after the long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) spent 12 years outside the presidency before returning under the younger, telegenic Peña Nieto. But during that interim, democracy, such as it is, settled rather more lightly across much of the country.

In the state of Veracruz, for example, the administrations of the PRI’s Fidel Herrera Beltrán and now Javier Duarte de Ochoa, which have collectively governed the state for more than a decade, have seen an ever-greater blurring of the lines between political cadres, law enforcement, and drug traffickers. A Gulf Cartel accountant even testified in a U.S. federal court that he had funneled $12 million in cartel money to Herrera Beltrán’s electoral campaign in exchange for moving narcotics freely through the state. And those who criticize the situation in Veracruz too strongly have a bad habit of turning up dead. Just ask the families of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and activist Nadia Vera Pérez, who were slain in a Mexico City apartment along with three others this past summer.

And in the border state of Tamaulipas, likewise, the PRI’s grip on power has never been dislodged.
Two years ago, the chief bodyguard for Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantú was arrested for involvement in the murder of state intelligence chief Salvador Haro Muñoz. Torre Cantú’s predecessor as governor, Eugenio Javier Hernández Flores, saw fit to entrust his personal security to a well-known Gulf Cartel hitman, and was indicted in the United States last year on drug-related money-laundering charges. Hernández Flores’s predecessor, Tomás Yarrington, was publicly praised by then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry but was eventually indicted both in Mexico and the United States for aiding the Gulf Cartel. He has since disappeared.

In the state of Guerrero, governed by the opposition Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD) since 2005, the investigation into the September 2014 kidnapping of 43 students from a teacher’s colleague was bungled so badly that it served to deepen citizens’ suspicion of federal and state governments, rather than assuage it

And the price to be paid by those willing to speak out remains high.

The  killing this month of Gisela Mota Ocampo, a former PRD national deputy one day after she took over at the mayor of the city of Temixco in the state of Morelos, was reminiscent to many of the murder of María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the former mayor of the town of Tiquicheo in the state of Michoacán.

Gorrostieta Salazar had spoken out against the corruption and violence in her state, once telling the newspaper El País “despite my own safety and that of my family, I have a responsibility to my people, with children, women, the elderly and men who are breaking their back every day tirelessly to procure a piece of bread...It is not possible for me to cave into when I have three children whom I have to teach by example.”

After three attempts on her life in as many years—including one that took the life of her then-husband—Gorrostieta Salazar was slain in a fourth attack in November 2012.
It is a crime, like so many in Mexico, that remains unpunished to this day.

Michael Deibert is the author of several books, the most recently In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, Le Monde diplomatique, Folha de São Paulo, and the World Policy Journal, among other venues. He can be followed on Twitter at @michaelcdeibert.

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.)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Paris, je t'aime

20 November 2015

Paris, je t'aime

By Michael Deibert

Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

Eight months after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January of this year -- attacks during which the Kouachi brothers killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly murdered an unarmed police woman and four patrons at a Jewish supermarket -- something strange happened.

When the literary group PEN announced that it would be honoring Charlie Hebdo, who had attracted the ire of religious fanatics for its drawings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, with its Courage Award, a group of writers sent a letter to the body to protest this distinction. The letter had been spearheaded by the authors Teju Cole and Francine Prose, who both teach at my former alma mater of Bard College, a place which, at least when I went there, adhered to the rather more open dictum of Walt Whitman which called on artists to unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.

While adding the rather ludicrous caveat that "the murder of a dozen sickening and tragic" the letter attacked Charlie Hebdo for engaging in "expression that violates the acceptable" and accused the publication of "being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering" to "the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France's various colonial enterprises." The letter also said that, by bestowing the award, PEN was awarding a publication "that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world." So, to put it more succinctly, the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had been imperial valets who had brought it on themselves.

(Cole had written an earlier piece for the New Yorker that rather speciously claimed that Charlie Hebdo had "gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.")

In addition to Cole and Prose, among the largely Anglophone signatories were Russell Banks, Eric Bogosian, Peter Carey, Junot Díaz, Francisco Goldman, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Luc Sante, Charles Simic and, strangely, the New York Times opinion page editor, Clay Risen.

I don't think I had ever been ashamed to be a writer until that moment. It was a scandalous display born out of ignorance of the role of Charlie Hebdo, the function of satire, and the history of modern France as a whole. It was obvious from the nature of the letter that few, if any, of the signatories had probably ever read Charlie Hebdo before the attacks, and had instead formed their opinion on a handful of out-of-context cartoons culled from the publication's 40 plus year history.

The authors seemed oblivious to the fact that satire's function is to sting, not cause guffaws, and that by far the most frequent targets of the publication's cartoonists -- artists such as Jean Cabu, Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier and Georges Wolinski (all slain in the attack) -- were France's rancid political elite and, especially, the right-wing Front National founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now run by his daughter, Marine. One of the cartoons most often used to demonstrate Charlie Hebdo's supposed racism, that of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a women of Afro-Guyanese descent, as a monkey, was in fact mocking far-right attacks against her, not Taubira herself. [For her part, Taubira gave a moving eulogy at the funeral of Hebdo cartoonist Bernard "Tignous" Verlhac.] The signatories simply threw to one side the publication's long history of attacking Catholicism, Judaism and, indeed, organized religion of any sort. They seemed unaware of the series of articles Charlie Hebdo's slain economist, Bernard Maris, had written on the effects of austerity on Europe's most vulnerable, especially in Greece, or that the magazine had spoken out in furious dissent against the 2008-2009 and 2014 Israeli assaults on Gaza.

As the French academic Olivier Tonneau wrote shortly after the attacks in response to the venomous social media slander against the paper's slain staff, "if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies."

(Nor were the PEN signatories alone in libeling the dead. The U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote that Charlie Hebdo was "not just offensive but bigoted" and engaged in "a stream of mockery toward Muslims generally" and "the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims.")

Now, 11 months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in La Ville Lumière 129 more lay dead. They were black, white, brown (black, blanc, beur in the French phrase), men, women, Christian, Muslim, atheist, straight, gay. They were committing no other crime than sitting out to have a drink on a warm autumn night, going to see a football match or going to see a rock band play. That scurrilous display of those writers can't help but return to my mind.

Today, it is the false narrative, advanced by both left and right, that last week's attacks were the result of France's so-called "Muslim" problem, with a focus on the supposed radicalization taking place in the banlieues, as the poor, heavily-immigrant suburbs which ring many French cities are known, and a blow struck against the "white" city of Paris.

Having come to France through a somewhat roundabout route of years working in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and having only lived in heavily-immigrant neighborhoods (Château Rouge in the 18th arrondissement and Bagnolet, just beyond the périphérique ring-road from Paris proper), I have perhaps a different perspective on this than some foreigners. I've spent a fair amount of time in the banlieues of Paris, and covered the November 2007 riots in the suburb of Villiers-le-Bel from the ground. Though they have plenty of problems -- unemployment hovers around double the national average, with that for 21- to 29-year-olds ever higher -- a propensity for radical Islam is not one of them.

The so-called "problem youth" I met in places like Villiers-le-Bel and Clichy-sous-Bois (itself the site of riots a decade ago), were about as far away from Islamist as one can get, drinking alcohol, smoking hash, racing up and down the boulevards on their scooters to a soundtrack of French and American hip-hop music.

The pool of these people who would gravitate towards radical Islam was -- and is -- very small, and those who become jihadis are the same ones who would go shoot up a school or movie theater in the United States without the religious trappings, alienated losers with no life and few opportunities, scorned by many, often including their own families, not because of their ethnicity or religion, but because they are viewed as dangerous malcontents. Somehow a burqa-clad Marianne, the female national symbol of France, does not seem a realistic fear to me.

That isn't to say religion plays no role in France's current anguished self-examination, but to see this series of attacks on Paris -- which ISIS in its "communiqué" referred to as "the capital of prostitution and vice" with all the venom of a nerd being left alone at the school dance -- as a political statement by an oppressed minority is thoroughly absurd. Among the Muslims who have emigrated to Europe and their offspring, there are good people and bad people, strong and weak, secular and fundamentalist.

They are, in short, like people everywhere else. The image, somewhat massaged by both apologists of the left and blowhards of the right, that France's Muslims are bearded salafists heading to the mosque to listen to some deranged imam's calls for jihad, scorned by society, is so far off the mark as to enter the realms of science fiction, as is demonstrated by how many Muslims caught the terrorists' bullets while out at the bars last Friday night.

The immigrant and Muslim communities of France and especially Paris are an integral part of the city and help give it much of its pizzazz and joie de vivre. In my heavily-immigrant neighborhood of Château Rouge, virtually all the bars were owned by Algerians and Tunisians, who were quite happy to quaff a pint at the end of the day. And though France's anti-freedom of expression "hate speech" laws can often be selectively enforced (witness the case of the anti-semitic comedian Dieudonné, which I wrote about here), none of that exculpates such an attack, nor does it excuse discourse on France by a clutch of writers who barely know the country at all.

There has been a bizarre grief contest on social media suggesting, alternately, that if one mourns the dead in Paris and the attacks against the city, one could somehow not mourn recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, those dying in the civil war in Syria, or those being killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and that the media had "ignored" such stories, even though they all have received -- and continue to receive -- extensive coverage in every major paper in Europe and North America. Perhaps if people spent less time circulating fake Buddha and Bob Marley quotes they would have noticed.

A Brazilian friend of mine currently based in India (a country that knows a little something about religious-inspired terror) introduced me to the perfect term for both the critics of Charlie Hebdo and those whose mockery and critiques of the genuine pain of so many after the Paris attacks appeared to reveal nothing if not a collection of curdled souls: Catastrophe sommeliers.

After any major example of man's inhumanity, religious fanaticism or simple tragedy, they would appear portentously at the world's side, napkin draped over their arm to decide who, what, where and for how long it was proper to mourn, or whether one was allowed to mourn at all.

And as for me? It would be nice to move back to Paris someday, if I can ever get the money together. In terms of the letter-signers, Michael Ondaatje used to be one of my favorite writers, and I rather liked Francisco Goldman but I'll never buy another book by either man again, and am thinking of getting rid of the ones I have. Most of the rest always struck me as wildly overpraised, so no great loss there.

Though Paris is in deep mourning and will likely remain so for some time, a nation that survived the horrors of a Nazi occupation, World War II and the slaughter of the Paris Commune will certainly wash off the blood, shake off the broken glass, kick the shell casings into the sewer where they belong and get back to doing what it does best, acting as a crossroads for men and women of all faiths and all backgrounds to sample its various charms.

Behind the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 died, an image has already been posted up of five people raising a glass of wine in mute salute under the words Paris encore debout (Paris is still standing). Charlie Hebdo's cover after the attacks was a beret-wearing French caricature guzzling bubbly, which then pours out of copious bullet holes in the figure's body, along with the words ils ont les armes, on les emmerde, on a le champagne (They've got the weapons, fuck 'em, we've got the champagne).
The spirit of Paris, of Charlie Hebdo and the spirit of those lives -- so many of them so young -- snatched away last week can never fully leave us. They will be with us as people drink and eat and laugh and flirt on the cafes along the Canal Saint Martin, the sunlight filtering down through the leaves of the trees as their branches move in a delicate ballet from even the faintest breeze.

They will be with us as people from dozens of countries gather at the Marché Dejean in my old neighborhood to sell their wares and to seek new opportunity in their adopted land. They will be with us in the crowded basement clubs in Oberkampf where people know what it is to be young and full of possibility.

They will be with us as one looks down from the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre at dusk and sees a magnificent, multicultural city spread out beneath them, a thousand possibilities therein yet to be discovered. And they will be with us wherever people feel their hearts are free, and full of love for their fellow human beings.

It is a love that those who attack this beloved city and its culture, whether with kalashnikovs or keyboards, would be fortunate to one day know.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Paris encore debout

Photo © Chantal Regnault.

Ce soir derrière le Bataclan Paris 11ème. Paris is still standing.