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March 30, 2010
Preserving memories of terror and loss in Argentina

A woman walks along one of the slabs at the Memorial Parque to the disappeared in Buenos Aires. Photo: Peter Eisner

I was irritated some weeks ago by the comments of Jose Moya, a Barnard College professor, who said on Worldfocus that Argentinians have increasingly little memory of the “Dirty War” of the 1970s and 1980s. “Eventually it will become something like Franco in Spain that fewer and fewer people remember,” Moya said.

He was wrong about Argentina, and wrong about Spain. Both countries are doing much to make sure new generations remember the victims of state-sponsored murder.

The depth of my disagreement with Moya became clear recently during a visit in Buenos Aires to the Parque de la Memoria along the River Plate, which commemorates the deaths of at least 20,000, perhaps 30,000 people at the hands of Argentina’s military government. It reminded me in some way of the Vietnam Memorial, listing thousands of names on slabs of stone, giving substance to the names of mostly young people whose lives were swept away.

Strange thing about the place. It has the look of a monument that hasn’t been finished yet, although it was authorized to be built 12 years earlier.

A statue offshore, commemorates missing Argentinians during the
Dirty War. Their bodies were sometimes hurled into the waters of the River Plate. Photo: Peter Eisner

It is surrounded by barbed wire, empty spaces patrolled by lone guards, at first it seems no one has been there. And then, moving in on the names, I saw little yellow flowers crammed in the chinks. People have come to see the names and remember the loved ones who disappeared often without a trace. When I focused in on the names, I could see each was listed by year with their ages when they died. Most of those listed were very, very young.

From 1976 to 1983, the Argentinian military government practiced state terrorism. They dragged away supposed agitators and terrorists who most of the time where innocent teachers, students, union activists, philosophers, musicians, then tortured and killed them.

Beyond the windswept monument, I looked out to the broad, ocean-like River Plate. On a rock, just offshore, stands the statue of a person facing the waves, symbolizing the people whose bodies were dumped in the river and swept away.

“The list of names on this monument include the victims of state terrorism, those detained, disappeared and murdered, and those who died fighting for the very ideals of justice and fairness.”
Photo: Peter Eisner.

Argentinian writers still focus on the Dirty War, artists produce pictures and sculptures, filmmakers make movies, in order not to forget. In some cases, mothers and grandmothers still search for children who were taken in infancy, given fake names and adopted by the torturers of their parents.

In Spain, meanwhile, more than 70 years after the Spanish Civil War, family members are still hunting for mass graves of the victims of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s regime. The Civil War still haunts Spanish society. In both countries, there are revisionist historians and extremists who try to minimize the brutality or rewrite history, as if the cause of the murders was somehow more justified with time. But monuments, journalism and art will protect and ensure the persistence of memory, and the accuracy of history.

– Peter Eisner

March 5, 2010
Haiti’s earthquake leaves suffering beyond its scale

A woman checks the toe tag on the body of a deceased earthquake victim in the parking lot of Port-au-Prince’s General Hospital. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

There is no Olympics of tragedy nor is there value in engaging in comparative suffering. Nevertheless, if we were to look at the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, an exercise in triage is underway and the work is undone.

The Feb. 27 Chile earthquake registered 8.8 on the Richter scale and was the eighth largest in recorded history.

The January 12 earthquake in Haiti registered much lower, at 7.0 on the scale, yet the suffering, leave out the numbers, appears to never end. In Chile the government is totaling damage reports and checking the wine crop. In Haiti, international agencies face the rainy season, despair and misery.

The difference of course is development. Haiti needs building, more than rebuilding, rescue not just from the earthquake, but from a tragedy that spans generations – a mostly human-made disaster.

On the human dignity scale, Haiti ranks high. Every day, there’s a story about beauty and grace amid the ruins. There’s the story in the New York Times about Beken, the Haitian musician living in the ruins.

The Boston-based relief group, Partners in Health, is the subject of a video worth watching; it offers a look at how the rescuers are drawn close to the victims as they work to save lives.

The heart of the message is a blog by Lisa Armstrong for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, who says that for the rescuers in Haiti “there is no us and them, only we.”

Armstrong’s phrase is a good mantra for considering Haiti and the aftermath of what Haitians refer to simply as the catastrophe. She reminds us that the suffering cannot be forgotten and the rescue mission should be the responsibility of all governments and all people.

– Peter Eisner

March 1, 2010
Humanitarian disaster continues unabated in Haiti

A boy in Cite Soleil carries water. Photo: UN on Flickr

Survivors of the Haitian earthquake need quick solutions that may not come in time for the punishing rainy season that starts in May. They now face the looming threat of disease, misery in makeshift tent camps and a lack of adequate food and water.

Despite all the pledges of rebuilding, there are some basic realities: poor people will suffer and some will die.

Reports from the field show that relief agencies are pushing to make things better, with a deadline from the weather that is almost impossible to meet. Partners in Health, one prominent relief organization, reports that it has to shift priorities “to long-term care and helping the hundreds of thousands of people who urgently need shelter, water, sanitation, and food.

We hear the same concerns from journalists and from relief organizations all around Haiti. The Miami Herald reported on Feb. 24:

The stench of human waste permeates the air around the crude shelters made of sticks and sheets…There are nowhere near enough toilets — portables, latrines or any other kind — for the tens of thousands living in the camps in and around Port-au-Prince.

The squalid conditions have government and relief workers worried about a potential outbreak of deadly diseases, such as diarrhea, spread by unsanitary conditions. And relief agencies scrambling to install toilets are still figuring out how to later dispose of their waste.

Sad to say, but as many people have noted all along, Haiti cannot be handled simply by relief and rescue through normal means. Haiti needs international concerted crisis management –- and Haitians must be empowered to choose the leaders who will allow real, humane, no-nonsense, incorruptible change. Is that happening?

Partners in Health reported this: “With cities destroyed and major roadways and ports obstructed or damaged, food is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. The price of staples, like rice, oil, and beans, has risen dramatically. ‘Prices have skyrocketed – doubling and in some cases tripling,’ says Jesula Pierre, a PIH logistics coordinator currently working in Haiti’s Central Plateau.”

With its Haitian partner, the organization is pushing to plant fallow farmland and ratchet up farm yields. But each organization operating in Haiti can only do a small part to save as many people as possible.
It’s not enough. The list of problems goes on.

This is also from the Miami Herald:

Relief workers blame the shortage of toilets in part on having to deal with more urgent problems — like keeping people alive — immediately after the Jan. 12 earthquake…

But now, more than five weeks after the quake, the dangers of inadequate sanitation could amount to the most pressing public health issue.

At best, many Haitians had neither clean water or sanitation before the earthquake. They deserved help even before the earth shook.

Much more suffering is likely when the rains fall.

February 26, 2010
New Latin American leaders promise to move beyond divides

Election party in Montevideo Uruguay. Photo: Flickr user camerareporter

Is there a new generation of Latin American leaders who have moved beyond traditional labels, rather than isolating themselves in leftist and right-wing camps? Too early to tell, but two new presidents taking office in March, José Mujica of Uruguay and Sebastian Piñera of Chile, will be interesting case studies to follow.

Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Mujica, 74, is a former fighter of the Marxist Tupamaro movement and served almost 15 years in jail during military rule in Uruguay. Piñera is a 60-year-old billionaire businessman and holds a doctorate in economics from Harvard University.

But both men talk about consultation and working on sound economic programs rather than promoting radical politics from one side or the other. Mujica’s Broad Front Party—which itself has members from the traditional left and right–has governed since 2005 under President Tabaré Vázquez. Mujica shows every sign of maintaining a policy more in line with Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, than, say, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Both Mujica and Piñera have praised the Brazilian president as a model for pragmatic governance. Mujica said that he supports, for example, Lula’s decision to invite Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brasilia last year. “The more you fence in Iran, so much harder it will be for the rest of the world,” Mujica said in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo.

Life has taught me that you can’t surround, fence in someone. It’s a mistake. This forces the other side to react, to fight back…The world does not need any more wars. It needs solutions.

In a recent interview with Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald, Piñera said that he was tired of the labels. Ostensibly, he is a conservative, a business leader assuming the Chilean presidency from a more moderate, even left-leaning incumbent, Michelle Bachelet. Piñera was a constant opponent of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He said that he rejects being categorized as being to the left or to the right.

Definitely, I will always be on the side of the defense of democracy
and human rights, which by the way, is a commitment that all Latin
American countries have made in the OAS Charter, which specifically
states that it is the responsibility of all countries to defend
democracy and human rights across the hemisphere.

– Peter Eisner

February 10, 2010
As journalists continue to leave Haiti, hopelessness persists

Workers cleaning in Port-au-Prince. Photo: USAID on Flickr

One month after the Haiti earthquake, where are we? The international television units are mostly gone, a smattering of foreign reporters are still in Port-au-Prince, and what’s the situation on the ground?

Dire, virtually overwhelmed, hopelessness and helplessness.

The Haitian government now estimates that 230,000 people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake. Relief agencies say that they are still only providing immediate relief and haven’t been able to even consider rebuilding and long-term housing. Will things get better any time soon?

My former colleague at the Washington Post, Peter Slevin, reported from Port au Prince: “Haiti is tumbling headlong through a crisis that has not begun to abate, with evidence everywhere that current relief efforts are falling short.”

It’s difficult to know what to say. All along, it has been evident that without a massive effort to start over in Haiti – a Marshall plan-like international operation the likes of which has never been seen – that country will be suffering unbelievable, ineffable horrors.

Slevin wrote: “The sadness is sometimes suffocating, yet the agony of last month’s earthquake is being overtaken by the urgency of now. Every day, tens of thousands of Haitians face a grueling quest to find food, any food. A nutritious diet is out of the question.”

This is not an appeal for money. Many of us have given money. Well-meaning artists have given their energy and their names to raising funds. International organizations are there, the U.S. military has been there. It’s not nearly enough.

What can be done? A lot more than naming a commission comprised by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to raise money for the rescue. Clinton by the way was in Haiti recently, and someone asked if he would be taking over as the virtual leader of the country.

He said it was probably in response to several realities — the Haitian government and the president Rene Preval are hardly visible and hardly leading anything. Second, Clinton has been deeply concerned and even before the earthquake was the special U.S. envoy to the country. (It is not known what Bush has contributed to the rescue effort).

And above all, Haitians are looking for rescue, and they don’t trust their institutions, such as they are.

Perhaps, says another long-time colleague, Amy Wilentz, who has one of the clearest understandings of Haiti among Americans, “that with all the misery, you begin to see that Haiti’s soul resides in its people. Out of this horror, maybe they will finally be released. That is, if the rains or another quake doesn’t stop them in their tracks.”

She warns against complacency, even against tacit racism directed toward Haiti, by people who say the situation is hopeless. She says that the story must endure, and we must continue to shout out on behalf of the Haitian people.

Wilentz wrote last week about a form of “genteel racism” that has set in among some commentators about Haiti, as if there was something wrong with Haitians inherently that relegates them to misery. She rightly decries that attitude.

A reading of Haitian history shows marked colonial mistreatment, disregard and neglect: “Armchair commentators who know nothing about Haiti — many never having set toe there…enjoy rebuking suffering Haitians from the comfort of their white bastions in the United States and Europe.”

Wilentz, writing in the Nation, is recommended reading:

“We need constructive answers….Good ideas are coming in from people like Paul Farmer, who’s run Haiti’s Partners in Health for years and who is now Bill Clinton’s deputy at the United Nations. They’re coming in from Haitian survivors in all rubble-strewn walks of life….people like this are trying to find a way toward rebuilding Haiti, and building it better.

“You have a choice in a situation like the one we’re confronting. You can sit back in your chair and fondle your nihilism, or you can try to be original and work toward something creative.” Some people, she says, “will shrug…and turn away. In a moment of such death and destruction, that’s not the reaction one should hope to elicit.”

– Peter Eisner

January 15, 2010
Haiti needs a Marshall Plan to recover from earthquake

A man injured by Port-au-Prince’s earthquake observes the Haitian government’s taxation building, reduced to a heap of rubble. Photo: UNPhoto

Visits to Haiti by American television cameras and images of suffering — juxtaposed with dramatic music and fancy logos or sad looks on the faces of U.S. politicians as they extend condolences — are not enough.

Sympathy is not enough.

Response to the earthquake in Haiti must be at a level the world has not seen. It is not clear that the message is getting through. Nor is it clear that Haiti will get what it deserves and needs: a new start and the equivalent of a Marshall Plan, war reparations that create a new reality in Haiti.

Already chaos makes small steps impossible. Correspondents in Port-au-Prince report despair, looting and fear of gangs.

Before the quake, the Haitian government functioned, but only thanks to occasional handouts and loans. But the poverty and squalor before last week was shattering and horrible. Now, the Haitian government is virtually obliterated. Survival for millions is at stake.

Words are not enough. Images are not enough.

The challenge for the world is to respond adequately. Neglectful and far from innocent in the progressive
erosion of institutions in Haiti, will the U.S., France and other countries step up now and bring real change?

The work of nonprofits and our individual contributions — crucial though they are — are not enough. We need to build infrastructure, empowering Haitians who are willing and able to act selflessly for the future of their country. And we need vast quantities of money and builders and planners and teachers and doctors.

Any recovery means starting from the beginning — international police and military units on the streets right away, probably led by the United States, to avoid the spread of violence. Next, infrastructure to rescue and treat people to avoid a crisis in which many more people die of injuries or lack of food and water.

Stability for Haiti will take time and endurance. Everything must now change.

– Peter Eisner

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

January 13, 2010
Haiti needs structural change to overcome tragic history

Images from the devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti. Photo: Matthew Marek/American Red Cross

There are those who ask why Haiti has been hopelessly poor for so long. Yes, it is one of the first independent republics, but the Haitian people have suffered just as long, victims of colonial folly. It’s assumed benefactors in France and the United States have hardly been constant. I agree with Paul Farmer, who has long advocated a Marshall Plan for Haiti.

Here is part of what he wrote in the October 6, 2008 edition of The Nation.

Haiti is a veritable graveyard of development projects has less to do with Haitian culture and more to do with the nation’s place in the world. The history that turned the world’s wealthiest slave colony into the hemisphere’s poorest country has been tough, in part because of a lack of respect for democracy both among Haiti’s small elite and in successive French and US governments. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the US simply refused to acknowledge Haiti’s existence. In the latter half, gunboats pre-empted diplomacy. And in 1915 US Marines began a twenty-year military occupation and formed the modern Haitian army (whose only target has been the Haitian people). After the fall of Duvalier in 1986, Washington continued to support unelected, mainly military, governments. Indeed, it was not until after 1990, when Haiti had its first democratic elections, that assistance to the government was cut back and finally cut off. The decay of the public sector–through aid cutoffs and neoliberal policies–is one of the chief reasons Haiti, unlike neighboring Cuba, is unable to respond to hurricanes with effective relief.

Farmer wrote in response to devastation of the 2008 hurricane season. In 2010, structural change has never been more required. Tears must be replaced by an unprecedented international commitment to rescue Haiti for all times.

– Peter Eisner

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

January 13, 2010
The horrors of Haiti demand a response

Some stories and event exceed the ability to use words and adjectives to capture the depths. We cannot gild words or exaggerate the story of the Haiti earthquake. How do you approach the horror, the tragedy and suffering in any coherent way?

The International Red Cross estimates that three million people have lost their homes. The pictures are devastating, the statistics beyond grim.

Short term and medium term, and systemically, Haiti needs help. Among the many options, is Partners in Health, co-founded by Paul Farmer, the physician and public health advocate. Here’s what Partners in Health has said so far about the situation in Haiti:

A major earthquake centered just 10 miles from Port-au-Prince has devastated sections of the city and knocked out telephone communications throughout the country. Reached via email, Partners In Health staff at our facilities in the Central Plateau report that they experienced a strong shock but no major damage or injuries. We are still attempting to establish contact with other PIH facilities and to locate several staff members who were traveling in and around Port-au-Prince.

The earthquake has destroyed much of the already fragile and overburdened infrastructure in the most densely populated part of the country. A massive and immediate international response is needed to provide food, water, shelter, and medical supplies for tens of thousands of people.

In an urgent email from Port-au-Prince, Louise Ivers, our clinical director in Haiti, appealed for assistance from her colleagues in the Central Plateau: ‘Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS.SOS… Temporary field hospital by us at UNDP needs supplies, pain meds, bandages. Please help us.’

With our hospitals and our highly trained medical staff in place in Haiti, Partners In Health is already mobilizing resources and preparing plans to bring medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. In Boston, our procurement and development teams are already fielding numerous offers of support and making arrangements to deliver resources as quickly as possible to the places where they are needed most.

Partners for Health,  and any number of health and relief organizations will receive offers of support.

One concern is Haiti’s ability to absorb an influx of financial support and other contributions without adequate infrastructure. The U.S. government, perhaps international organizations like the OAS and
UN should move to create infrastructure and provide lasting solutions to the long-suffering people of Haiti.

Meanwhile, it’s time to get informed and get involved. The tragedy of Haiti is ours.

– Peter Eisner

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

January 5, 2010
Looking at the invasion of Panama through the lens of Iraq

Manuel Noriega’s mug shot.

Twenty years ago this week, at the culmination of the U.S. invasion of Panama, General Manuel Antonio Noriega was seized and taken in shackles to Miami. Eventually, the Panamanian strongman was convicted on federal drug conspiracy charges for supporting the Medellin cocaine cartel’s shipments to the U.S.

Noriega, 75, has served his sentence and is still jailed in Miami, awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a possible extradition to France.

From today’s vantage point, after a failed war on drugs and the unjustified invasion of Iraq, Noriega, no saint, seems a minor character in a larger game. Panama, along with the Grenada invasion before it,
was a practice run for manipulating the news, selling military action to the public and promoting future military adventures.

Then-President George H.W. Bush justified the U.S. invasion of Panama in various questionable ways, including the charge that Noriega had subverted democracy by faking the 1989 elections — which was true. [Noriega learned all about political forgery from his former American intelligence community teachers, who had pushed through fraudulent elections in Panama five years earlier.]

Bush also claimed that Panama under Noriega represented a threat to American security, that Noriega had declared war on the United States and that Noriega had threatened to block the Panama Canal. These were charges with scant evidence, at best. They emanated from the mouths of U.S. officials — a number of whom would go on to have a role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Elliot Abrams and Richard Perle.

The real reason for the decision to invade Panama lies closer to events surrounding the U.S. war in Central America. Noriega, once a U.S. Intelligence asset, had refused to play ball with the Reagan and Bush administrations by offering little assistance in the counterinsurgency against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. He also neglected to support El Salvador’s right-wing military.

The drug conviction against Noriega was accomplished with the use of two dozen convicted drug dealers, who were freed from jail under plea bargains in return for testifying against Noriega, with whom they had never had any contact.

Placard next to the gate at Manuel Noriega’s house in Panama City. Photo: Flickr user ChuckHolton

Seen now in the light of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Panama invasion and Noriega prosecution make more sense. Noriega and Saddam Hussein were U.S. assets and clients, who fell from grace when their usefulness expired. Once the unsavory leaders had been suitably demonized, policymakers went about molding reality to the charges unleashed against them.

In the case of Panama, Noriega supposedly was shipping cocaine to our shores. That rarely, if ever, happened — though all the while, cocaine was entering the United States through Central America and Mexico.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein became the falsified apostle of mass destruction, allegedly seeking uranium supplies he already had and couldn’t use. [See my introduction and afterward to Noriega’s political memoir. America’s Prisoner, and my book, The Italian Letter, written with Knut Royce, about the Iraq War, focusing on yellow cake and weapons of mass destruction.]

As for Noriega’s fate, it seems unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court will set him free to return to Panama, as he and the Panamanian government want. The French extradition request for Noriega was little more than an effort by President Nicolas Sarkozy to mend fences at the time with President George W. Bush after France declined support for the Iraq invasion.

The Panama invasion was front-page news for a short while 20 years ago, but it was relegated to the back pages by the first Gulf War less than a year later, and by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

There were great differences between the use of force in Panama and the forays into the Middle East. No oil was at stake in Panama, no insurgency developed in the aftermath of that invasion and the loss of life was
relatively low –- 25 American soldiers and an unknown number of Panamanians (estimates range from the hundreds to several thousand.)

But I always recall a comment by a Human Rights Watch official which can be applied to Iraq just as well. “It’s not a question of how many people died, but of why anyone died at all.”

– Peter Eisner

December 2, 2009
Hoping for a decisive end to the Honduran political crisis

The Honduran President-elect. Photo: Al Jazeera English

I’ve got several comments about the context of last Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras, where Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, a conservative businessman, was declared victor.

The hope is that the election will end a crisis that emerged on June 28, when the Honduran military seized the previously elected President Manuel Zelaya, and sent him into exile.

Zelaya is now back in Tegucigalpa, holed up at the Brazilian embassy, where he issued statements calling on supporters to boycott the national ballot.

That didn’t happen, or at least not on any mass scale. An independent Honduran civic group said that the turnout was down only 7.4 percent from the previous presidential election, to 47.6 percent. Government tallies placed the turnout much higher.

By itself, the turnout is not an issue, but legitimacy is. If 47.6 percent sounds like a low turnout, Americans should remember that U.S. presidential elections in recent history haven’t been much higher than that, sometimes lower than 50 percent. In the contested 2000 Gore-Bush election, 54.2 percent of eligible voters turned out.

The difference is, well, the United States is the United States. Americans didn’t take to the barricades after the Supreme Court chose Bush as the winner along political lines; Democrats and the news media
shied away from controversy and swallowed the result.

Honduras, on the other hand, is Honduras. At first, the United States, which played a controversial role in trying to end the dispute between Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, the man installed as president by the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court. Complicating matters was Zelaya’s friendship and growing affinity with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, hardly a U.S. ally.

The United States immediately recognized Lobo’s victory on Sunday, but other countries, notably Brazil, rejected the balloting, which took place in a climate of protest. Micheletti has been widely criticized internationally for human rights violations and suspension of civil liberties during the election campaign.

Significantly, former President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center declined to monitor the election, having supported a national unity government prior to the election. The Center explained its position, thus: “We noted that restrictions on press, protest, and movement have occurred since the presidential coup on June 28, 2009, and into the formal campaign period, impinging on the electoral rights of Hondurans.”

While the ball is in the hands of Hondurans, as it always has been, it’s clear that international support and a healing process are required. Successive U.S. governments have often failed to recognize — even as they rightly speak out for representative democracy around the world — that elections are never an end unto themselves.

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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