Friday, December 19, 2014

Books in 2014: A Personal Selection


These are a few of the books that, for good or ill, made an impression upon me this year. MD


Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Séverine Autesserre

An important book that minutely deconstructs both the structural and day-to-day weaknesses of the current model of international peacebuilding, and with recommendations should be seriously considered by peace builders who do not wish to replicate the mistakes of the past.

Nan Domi: An Initiate's Journey into Haitian Vodou by Mimerose Beaubrun,

A welcome addition to the canon of vodou scholarship and a deeply felt inside account of a faith of often daunting complexity by one of the leaders of the Haitian vodou-rock band Boukman Eksperyans.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Amid some beautiful descriptions of the natural world of the Western plains rests finely observed character sketches that are distinctly, recognizably American, and which present two competing - even warring - visions of American identity. One is of “unpractical... dreamers, great-hearted adventurers” and one of “men...who had never dared anything, never risked anything” seeking to destroy a magnificent land and to “cut [it] up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest.”  The nasty, gossipy spitefulness of small-town America is also displayed in what is, finally,  an elegy for the end of the era of the pioneer.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

A little gem of a book telling the story of a young American woman in the France of the 1950s, this tale is, despite being very funny, a story of unexpected depth, suffused through with the excitement, energy and wistfulness of youth.

China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa by Howard French

The veteran journalist French paints a picture of China venturing forth into Africa that is not a pretty one. Despite banal slogans of a “win-win” relationship, the Chinese he meets seem surprisingly unaware of how often the ground they have entered has been trod before, and many appear casually racist about the inhabitants of their new home in a way that one might have thought had largely disappeared from public discourse (if not private thought). But by the end of the book, though, it is hard to argue with French’s conclusion that “here [are] the beginnings of an empire, a haphazard empire, perhaps, but an empire nonetheless."

For Whom the Bells Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

One of the American author’s very best books, this remains, in many ways, the fictional counterpoint to George Orwell’s brilliant Homage to Catalonia, detailing the bravery of those fighting on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War (and the humanity of some of those on the other side), the squalid politicking of those directing it (on both sides) and containing some of Hemingway’s finest writing, such as the wrenching account of the last stand of a Spanish guerilla fighter, made all the more so because it is utterly drained of sentimentality.

The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 by Radu Ioanid

An important work that documents what, far from being a sideshow to the campaign of extermination against Jews elsewhere in Europe, represented perhaps the most frenzied episode of all in violence during fascism’s ascendance. By documenting in grim detail the atrocities committed by Romanian military forces, paramilitary elements and ordinary civilians (often working in tandem with elements of the German military) Ioanid brings the reader vividly back to the madness of such incidents as the 1941 pogrom at Iasi, and reminds the reader that the fever that took over Europe was by no means a German-only affair.

George Groz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic by Beth Irwin Lewis

A fascinating biography of a truly politically-engaged artist , a singularly powerful and committed creative soul living through a chaotic national crisis and responding to it the best way he knew how, by creative defiance.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer

A glimpse of a pivotal moment in U.S. history, the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions (in Miami and Chicago, respectively) penned by the sometimes intriguing, sometimes thuddingly dull literary lion, this book is in many way about the author confronting his own fear; fear of where America was heading, fear of the meagre talents of the politicians tasked with shepherding it to a new day and, perhaps, fear of what he saw when he looked within himself.  Also a glimpse of two American cities that, for all purposes, have ceased to exist in the form that Mailer describes them decades ago.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book by Haruki Murakami

A deeply strange novel that suffused with disappearing spouses, precocious schoolgirls, echoes of World War II and wayward cats, this was the first book I had read by the man who is perhaps Japan’s foremost modern author. A longtime fan of Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Osamu Dazai, I found this book a fascinating if sometimes perplexing evocation of that country, particularly Tokyo, one that made me interested to delve into the author’s works further.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

A memoir by a truly great journalist - who died while covering the war in Syria at the tragically young age of 43 - this book is by turns moving, very funny and eerily prescient as Shadid recounts his effort to reconstruct his long-abandoned ancestral home in the Lebanese village of Marjayoun. Written by the author of Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, the greatest on-the-ground account of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this book points to the great things that Shadid might have accomplished had he lived longer, a fact that adds a great and at times deeply sad poignancy to the book’s account of a veteran rover who seems to have finally found home. and observing that  “part of me was so wary of that old life of guns and misery.”

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

This book, penned by the well-known Colombian author, came with many glittering endorsements, but I’m afraid I found it contrived (fake might be a better word), curiously unengaging and with devices to move the plot along that one could see coming a mile away. The rather whiny, narcissistic characters never felt real to me, and the setting - tangentially amid Colombia’s drug war - to me felt like a fictional conceit rather than something being written about with any level of authority. It does pick up towards the end, though. 

Florida in the Great Depression: Desperation and Defiance by Nick Wynne and Joseph Knetsch

A diffuse but interesting account of a time when the peninsula once looked upon as a promised land for its residents became something of a Canaan, the book educates the reader about such details as the devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, how ticks and screw worms nearly wiped out the state’s population of cattle and how by 1920 nearly 50% of Miami’s black population was Bahamian. Reading it, ones is struck by how the casino-like fixation on land/real estate speculation as a lynchpin of the state's economy never in fact left.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A wish for Haiti



I leave Haiti today after traveling from Port Salut to Au Cap and many points in between, taking the measure of where the country sees itself at this moment. This visit has given me the opportunity to talk with tap-tap drivers, peasant farmers, fishermen, market women, hotel owners and many in between. I have concluded more than ever before that the Martelly-Lamothe government have done a great deal for this country over the last 3 years and, despite the violent naysayers in the political opposition here and those abroad who uncritically buy into their zero option game, a tiny light of hope now flickers in Haiti more than I have seen in the past. I truly hope that in the new year, and under whatever government replaces the recently-departed Lamothe's, that this light is able to burn even brighter in the new year. The people of Haiti deserve, more than anything else, peace. The peace of being able to walk through the streets of their cities without the worry that violent, paid-for demonstrations will terrorize their children and loot their shops; the peace of knowing that they will get a fair price for their rice after they toil away in the fields; the peace of knowing that after they get an education there will be some place for them here, in their home, and they will not be forced to migrate abroad to find work. So, Haiti, as I depart from your shores yet again, I wish you peace.

 Photo © Michael Deibert

Monday, November 03, 2014

Congo in Harlem 6: Special Panel Discussion on DRC's 2016 Elections .




Kambale Musavuli, Alain Seckler, Jason Stearns and I discussing the Democratic Republic of Congo's looming 2016 elections.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mexico’s Endless War

Mexico's Endless War

By Michael Deibert

When 43 students disappeared last month amid a wave of shootouts and assassinations in the Mexican state of Guerrero, it demonstrated in vivid fashion the insecurity still plaguing the country nearly two years into the mandate of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

One of Mexico's most violence-wracked states, where the beach resort of Acalpulco once played host to the rich and famous, Guerrero has in recent weeks seen mass fatality gunbattles in the capital of Chilpancingo, the decapitation of the brother of a federal deputy and the gunning down of the state chief of an opposition party as he sat in an Acalpulco restaurant. Last month, at least 21 people were killed by Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya, just across the border in Mexico State, in what witnesses charge was an execution of disarmed criminal suspects who had already surrendered.

Some of the missing students - only 14 have reportedly been located at the time of writing - were apparently driven away in custody of the state police after attending a protest in the city of Iguala, while others were fired upon as they attempted to talk to reporters. At least six people died in the initial attacks, which for many Mexicans bring back memories of such state-sponsored violence as the July 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the June 1971 El Halconazo killings, also in the capital.

After the discovery of mass graves in the state, two hitmen, connected to the Guerreros Unidos criminal group, have allegedly confessed to killing at least 17 of the students with police complicity.

But today's violence is not confined to Guerrero. In the border state of Tamaulipas, birthplace of the Gulf Cartel - the country's oldest criminal organization - gunbattles and roadblocks flare up with terrifying regularity, and only last week gunmen attacked a police station in Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. In the coastal state of Veracruz, at least four mass graves have been found so far this year. In the western state of Michoacán, violence is rife and hardly a week goes by without another video or photograph surfacing of Servando  "La Tuta" Gómez Martínez, leader of the state's Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug gang, meeting in apparent amity with a local official or journalist.

Though much was made of the supposed different approach Peña Nieto, from Mexico's long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), would take to the drug war from the militarized battle that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN),  had waged, the results have not been encouraging.

More people were murdered during Peña Nieto's first 20 months in office than during same period under Calderón, with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (Inegi) also measuring an increase in kidnapping, robberies and extortions. One of Peña Nieto's first moves - to dissolve a law enforcement unit that Calderón leaned heavily on and seek to replace it with a gendarmerie reporting directly to the Interior Ministry - appears to have had little positive affect.  Though some well-known drug traffickers, such as Los Zetas' Miguel Treviño and the Sinaloa Cartel's Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán have been arrested, others, such as former Guadalajara Cartel grandee Rafael Caro Quintero and Los Zetas' co-founder Rogelio "El Kelín" González Pizaña, have walked out of jail, with the government claiming ignorance about the circumstances of their release.

The United States, its ravenous appetite for illegal drug undimmed, has, for its part, also played and continues to play an integral role in abetting the criminal violence for which Mexico's citizens pay the price.

Much of the money Mexico's narcos make is laundered through the US banking system, with financial institutions such as Bank of America, HSBC and Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) found by US investigators to have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for groups like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. Border states with liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona have long served as a one-stop shop for Mexican drug cartels, with many weapons purchased in the US later found at the scenes of lethal confrontations south of the border. The US also continues with the fallacy of federal prohibition of drugs, despite the evidence of countries such as Portugal that have decriminalized personal possession of narcotics with no marked increase in addiction. Fortunately, states such as Washington and Colorado are beginning to chip away at this deeply cynical policy with their own more progressive drug laws.

Despite the cheerleading, backslapping and nativist incitement that goes on when it comes to the violence that has been wrenching Mexico for a decade, the last 21 months of the Peña Nieto administration have proven that the bloodshed comes from a broken system on both sides of the border, one that is beyond the ability of facile good guy vs bad guy scenarios to fix. Despite flickerings of popular rejection of the power of the cartels and corrupt officials in states such as Michoacán (often quickly and definitively co-opted by the federal government), the Mexican people remain largely at the mercy of powerful, organized bands of ruthless criminals and government players who often appear organically linked with the criminal groups they are ostensibly trying to fight.

While some U.S. publications have myopically lauded Peña Nieto as "saving Mexico," the reality on the ground suggests something far different. Both Mexico and the United States have a role to play in ending impunity, increasing transparency and reforming frankly deadly laws when it comes to the financial sector, drug policy and firearms, lest Mexico's next president also inherit a country in dire need of "saving."

Michael Deibert is the author of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bienvenido October!

Photo © Michael Deibert

Monday, August 25, 2014