Monthly Archives: February 2009

Haiti’s Harsh Realities

Arguably no country in the Western Hemisphere has suffered as much as Haiti over the last 200 years, and yet, there still seems to be more bad news for the country.  Today’s NY Times (here) and Miami Herald (here) talk about the rather startling decision by the Obama administration to continue deporting upwards of 30,ooo Haitian immigrants that are in the US either as undocumented aliens or without the necessary visa/green card.  The fact that these stories are surfacing almost exactly on the fifth anniversary of Jean Bertrand Aristide’s democratically elected government being thrown out of power by the combined efforts of the US, Canada and French, only adds to the tragedy in all of this.

The double standards of the US’s foreign policies towards Haiti has been painfully evident for decades.  Cubans are granted automatic asylum under the ‘wet foot dry foot’ policy that has been in place since 1995, though in reality they have had a privileged immigration status since at least 1966.  Haitians, however, have been returned by the thousands and have been forced to live in fear of deportation, even though almost all of them could claim to be escaping persecution, economic hardship, or natural disasters.  Why has this been the case?

Haiti holds a special place in the history of the world, in that it is the only country where a slave rebellion actually succeeded in bringing former slaves to power.  The Haitian Revolution has a massive impact on the development of the US (mostly likely the Louisiana Purchase would not have happened without Napoleon losing the prize colony in the Caribbean) and the decisions to ban the slave trade in the early 1800 by the British and others.  Plenty have argued that Haiti is still being punished for its slave led revolution over 200 years later, which I personally think is true, but I find quite impossible to understand why.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere by far, and has been for decades.  Unlike other countries in Latin American and the Caribbean, Haiti has been occupied by the US military or its proxies several times (1915 – 1934; 1994 – 2000; 2004 – present) in a way that is more reminiscent of the gunboat diplomacy of 100 years ago.  While the US has also invaded Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989) during the last few decades, the US has generally used a mix of threats and embargoes, i.e. ‘soft power,’ or simply thrown their support behind sympathetic dictators in a range of LAC countries since the 1960s.   So why does the US keep beating up on the weakest kid in school? All I can guess is that due to Haiti’s chronic instability, endemic poverty and lack of powerful sponsor, it is an easy target that can be used as a reminder of the power that the US can exert to help or to to harm its neighbors.

As for the reasons why Obama has decided to continue with this policy, I think it is another case of long term political strategy trumping an issue.  As excited as I am by the budget that Obama put forward this week, he has continued to operate as if he was still involved in a political campaign for office, rather than a sitting president. In some ways, it brilliant.  Obama knows that his first term is going to be littered with bad news that he is virtually powerless to stop.  He was handed two wars, a massive global financial crisis, rising unemployment, falling housing prices, and a growing federal deficit, just to name a few.  So, my guess is that the Haitians are a group he would rather not screw over, but at the same time won’t bend over backwards to help since he gets almost nothing politically in return.

The number of Haitians in the US has exploded over the last thirty years to around 1 million people in the US, but with the exception of Florida, most of them are in solidly democrat controlled states, such as NY or Massachusetts, or in large cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Washington DC that overwhelmingly voted for Obama.  The only major Haitian enclave missing from this list is in Miami, Florida, a state that has given the Democrats nightmares long before the hanging chads of the 2000 election.  My thoughts are that Obama sees more to gain by trying to win over the larger Cuban-American community in Florida, rather than doing what’s right for the Haitian community right now.  If the economy was stronger or his other priorities were further along, perhaps he would be handling this differently.  I don’t really know, but I imagine that it is a pretty difficult time for a large group of undocumented immigrants to be given safe haven in the US when jobs are being lost at the fastest rate since the Great Depression.

Lastly, Haiti is still reeling from the devastation of the four hurricanes that struck the island between August and September last year.  CounterPunch (here) and the Guardian (here) have good background articles on how dire circumstances are in Haiti these days.  Hopefully, these extenuating circumstances will stop Obama from carrying out the remaining deportation orders, but I doubt it greatly.  The least that he could do is to provide more aid and assistance to help Haiti rebuild Gonaives and other cities that were almost wiped off the map last summer, help international NGOs and non-state actors expand their work in the public health sector, and allow Aristide to come back to the country and clear his name.

Time will tell, but for now it looks like the Haitians are being pushed back out to sea.

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Burma cyclone response was ‘crime against humanity’

The Guardian (here), Telegraph (here) and Reuters (here) have articles dealing with the growing body of evidence that the ruling military junta in Burma (Myanmar) deliberately blocked relief assistance to millions of people living in the Irrawaddy Delta region that was devastated by Cyclone Nagris last May.

Burma has suffered horrifically under a series of military regimes since 1962, but the current one under the leadership of Than Shwe seems determined to raise the level of pain to unprecedented levels.  Cyclone Nagris affected over 3 million people and killed at least 140,000 in a country that had barely started to emerge out of the shadow of a brutal crackdown against the Saffron Revolution in the fall of 2007.

The joint report released by John Hopkins Unversity and the Emergency Assistance Team – Burma discusses the various ways in which the regime sacrifices their own people’s welfare in order to maintain an iron grip over the country during a massive natural disaster.

As the Guardian reported, this “study found that the Burmese army obstructed private cyclone relief efforts even among its own concerned citizens, setting up checkpoints and arresting some of those trying to provide help.  Supplies of overseas relief materials that were eventually allowed into Burma were confiscated by the military and sold in markets, the packaging easily identifiable.”

The Telegraph article pointing out that “there were also anecdotal accounts of people dying in the aftermath of the cyclone due to the actions of the army.  But restrictions in the country mean no one has been able to estimate how many died in a supposed “second wave” of deaths in the period after the cyclone.

Under international law, creating conditions where the basic survival needs of civilians cannot be adequately met, “intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health,” is considered a crime against humanity.”

I can olny hope that such a course of action happens, though I have my doubts.  The various strongmen that have led Burma’s military juntas have literaly gotten away with millions of murders over the last two decades.  If ethnic cleansing, stolen elections, and brutal crackdowns, thousands of political prisoners, beating Buddhist monks wasn’t enough before this report came out, will the ICC and the UN NSC do something now?  Will China and ASEAN condemn the regime and take moves that could undermine the notion of sovereignty that they have used to stop such actions from being taken in the past?

I sincerely hope so.  Such cruelty and human rights violations must be dealt with once and for all.

Rising Tensions between the US and South America

In recent months, a number of US officials have been told to leave various countries in South America, such as Ecuador (here), Bolivia (here), and Venezuela (here), and now it seems like tensions are on the rise with Argentina as well.

The BBC reported (here) today that Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana has summoned the US Ambassador to complain about the comments Leon Panetta, the recently appointed CIA director, made about the potential for the global economic crisis to destabilize countries in the region.  The topic came up during the first Economic Intelligence Briefing report that Panetta gave to Obama yesterday.

As reported in the Washington Post (here) yesterday, “the addition of economic news to the daily roundup of terrorist attacks and surveillance reports appears to reflect a growing belief among intelligence officials that the economic meltdown is now preeminent among security threats facing the United States…. The spy agency is following worrisome trends in many corners of the globe, from East Asia to Latin America.  In private meetings yesterday, Latin American intelligence officials warned their U.S. counterparts of a crisis spreading throughout the hemisphere, particularly in Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela.”

This hardly seems to be the type of remark that would provoke a new diplomatic row between the US and another Latin American country, but it should be seen as an indicator of how easy it is for any Latin American to use the US as a scapegoat for their internal problems.

The Kirchner’s have done a fine job of creating their own problems, so I am sure that Leon Panetta’s comments were seen as a blessing.  Last year, Christina Kirchner found herself on the losing end of a stand off with Argentina’s farmers during the commodities boom and her popularity has yet to recover.

As much as I can understand why Argentina doesn’t wanted to be lumped together with the pink tide governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, since the Kirchner’s have not been driven by ideology to hte same extent.  Furthermore, considering how deeply Argentina was scarred by the collapse of the Argentinian peso in 2001 (which  brought Nestor Kirchner to power), I can see why such a comment might set them off.

The US has a track record of meddling in Latin American affairs that dates back to the Monroe Doctrine, but things really went south during the Bush Administration.  Obama is going to have to work awfully hard to prove that the US can bargain in good faith and accept the elected heads of state (regardless of their ideological persuasion) throughout Latin America.

This comment may be a bit of a red herring, but if Obama is paying attention, he will realize how much it is going to take to mend these fences.

‘Combatant’ Case to Move From Tribunal To U.S. Court

Both the Washington Post (here) and the NY Times (here) have articles that look at the significance of yesterday’s decision to give Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri his day in court sooner rather later.  It is unclear what ramifications this move will have on the fate of the 245 detainees in Guantanamo or the hundreds in Afghanistan and Iraq, due to the particulars of Al Marri’s case.

Al Marri was picked up in December 2001 while he was a legal resident of the US studying at Bradley University in Illinois and has been detained since 2003  in a Navy brig in South Carolina.  In spite of his legal status as a resident of the US, Al Marri has not been sentenced with anything and has been held as an ‘illegal enemy combatant’ and alleged supporter of terrorism for the last seven plus years.  So why has his case moved forward suddenly?

Primarily, Obama and his team is trying to buy as much time as possible without setting a broad legal precedent.   As the NY Times reported:

“The Justice Department faced a March 23 deadline to file a brief with the Supreme Court declaring whether it was continuing to hold to the Bush administration’s position that the government had the authority to detain legal residents like Mr. Marri indefinitely, without charges.  The decision to move Mr. Marri to a civilian court should give the Obama administration time to sidestep that issue for now as it sets about a large-scale review of detention policies that would affect those prisoners being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and those who may later be captured on suspicion of involvement with terrorism.”

Regardless of Obama’s wish to not have this case advance to the Supreme Court in April, the Al Marri case will be a major step towards deciding how to handle the prisoners in Guantanamo.  Issue ranging from whether or not the US has the president’s authority to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely to potential human rights and Geneva Convention violations are sure to come up.  Al Marri’s lawyer have stated that “he was subjected to painful stress positions, extreme sensory deprivation and violent threats while he was denied access to lawyers,” even though his treatment has supposedly improved over time.

Let the games begin.  At least it would seem to be the first step towards proving that the civilian court system is capable of handling such cases and the need to honor the rule of law regardless of whom is being charged.

Pakistan: Militants receive compensation for peace deal

Today’s Huffington Post has article (here) that discusses the fact that the Pakistani government paid upwards of $6 million USD in order to broker the current cease fire in the Swat Valley.  The article states that part of this money came from the US, which makes the whole thing even more bizarre.  It is hard enough to believe that a democratically elected government – even in a democracy as flawed as Pakistan’s – would pay such a hefty sum to turn over a piece of territory to a group of violent extremists, but that the US would contribute to it when it is currently spending billions of dollars fighting the group is simply mind blowing.

Somehow I doubt that this is what John Kerry and Richard Lugar had in mind when they called for the US giving Pakistan upwards of $5  billion USD in emergency aid as soon as possible (see here).  When one takes into consideration that the US has already given Pakistan well over $10 billion USD in the last seven years and you can start to see yet another example of run away spending on the part of the US.  Where has all of this money gone?  What has the US gotten in return for its investment in Pakistan?

So far it seems that this money has resulted in Musharraf being able to stay in power for a few more years than he would have otherwise, which only further weakened Pakistan’s governmental institutions.  The Taliban have gotten stronger in several parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Pakistan extremists managed to plan and to carry out a major terrorist attack in Mumbai with help from parts of Pakistan’s ISI.  Benazir Bhutto was assassinated mere weeks after returning to the country, by the same people that her widower is now apparently trying to appease by paying them off.  And the Pakistani economy is as weak as ever, which will only end up pushing more people into the madrassas and the hands of the Islamic extremists.

While $5 billion may seem like a pitance in these times, it better better be used wisely or Pakistan will continue to spiral downward like money going down the drain.

(If any one is interested in a comprehensive report on all of this from the Atlantic Council, here)

Mugabe splashes out on birthday bash as cholera spirals out of control

The Guardian has another excellent and harrowing report (here) on conditions in Zimbabwe, this time with a focus on the growing cholera epidemic that Mugabe has been trying to keep under wraps as much as possible.

According to the World Health Organization’s most recent figures, which are used in the conclusion of this article:

” 79,613 suspected cases of cholera have been reported by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare of Zimbabwe since the epidemic broke out in August 2008.  Health experts had previously estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, the number could reach 60,000. Of the reported cases, 3,731 led to death, an overall fatality rate of 4.7%.

All 10 provinces in Zimbabwe are affected by the outbreak. Roughly 365 cholera treatment centres and units are now in operation across the country. However, about half of all cholera deaths are still occurring within the community, rather than in health facilities.”

Already 2/3 of the people in Zimbabwe are surviving on food assistance and the country’s health system has collapsed along with the economy.

What is the African Union, the UN, and the rest of the world going to do about this?  The epidemic has already been spreading for over 6 months, while Mugabe negotiated his power sharing agreement with the opposition.   It is clear that conditions have reached a breaking point and if something is not done soon, then the people in Zimbabwe are destined to suffer in medieval ways for even longer.

I recommend watching the video as well.

Qaddafi and the African Union

Earlier in February Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi was elected to be the leader of the African Union completing his unlikely rise to an executive in good standing with much of the world.  All of which is fairly shocking considering that he has been a dictator for 40 years, assumed responsibility for the Lockerbie Pan-Am bombing by paying out a $1.5 billion USD lump settlement to get in the US’s good graces last November (here), and spent decades on the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror.  However, it is interesting to see how he is spending his new found capital.

The AFP (here) and others have reported yesterday that he has demanded that the International Criminal Court stop any legal proceedings in the works against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (here) and that Israel should be held responsible for the ongoing genocide in Darfur.  WTF?  Under other circumstances this might be laughable, but considering that Qaddafi currently serves as the head of the 53 nation African Union, which is struggling with what do with a generation of aging dictators, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, this is alarming.

Qaddafi’s comments are in reaction to the anticipated ICC report due out on March 4th, which is widely expected to call for Bashir’s arrest for war crimes.  Considering the country has been immersed in a civil war for almost the entirety of his reign (since 1989), first with the South, and now with the people of Darfur, during which time well over 2 million have been killed by the violence.  So when an African head of state tries to say that Isreal is responsible for this, it must be widely condemned and back up by possible consequences.

Africa has more than enough of its own problems without being tosses into the three ring circus of the Middle East peace process.  They deserve far better, that much is clear.