Interview: Before Duvalier There Was Hope

Below, an edited September 2010 interview with Dr. Matthew J. Smith, historian at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies, Mona and author of Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 – the first comprehensive history of the post-occupation era, arguing that “the period (from 1934 until the rise of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier to the presidency in 1957) constituted modern Haiti’s greatest moment of political promise.”

I ordered the award-winning book just in time for it to be delivered before my plane left for Haiti in September of ’09. It goes a long way towards explaining why the Duvaliers rose and clung to power for so long; I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope other American reporters have read the book as well so we can see start to see some desperatelyneeded decent journalism on Haiti in the establishment media. As Gina Athena Ulysse says, “Yes, we are poor and have a history of political strife, but it’s not innate. And hell no, it’s not because we are mostly black. We are not reducible to our conditions.”

What caused you to write Red & Black in Haiti? What kind of response did it generate – both within and outside in Haiti?

Growing up in Jamaica, I had seen how intense political rivalries create dangerous problems and in many instances lead to violent solutions. I wanted to find out to what extent this history was matched in Haiti, a country which I have always considered to be incredibly similar to Jamaica. An earlier generation of scholars, such as David Nicholls, Michel Hector, and J. Michael Dash had indicated in their work that the tension between Marxists and Black Nationalists in Haiti was a defining feature of the 1930s-1950s. This intrigued me and encouraged me to go further and explore this tension.

The two decades before Duvalier were very transformative for Haiti in terms of politics, but in a much larger sense in terms of culture and history. So much happened in the postoccupation period that deserved careful attention. It was really the beginning of a modern political era in Haiti, one that was defined by an increase in popular politicization.

Yet it had not been given the attention it deserved. The possibility of great positive change seemed very real in this period and Haiti could very well have evolved differently as a result. I also wanted to write a political history of Haiti that did not reduce Haitian politics to a series of failures but to give it rigorous and fair-minded assessment and to show that the radical generation of that era had invested a great deal in improving the welfare of their country. Continue reading “Interview: Before Duvalier There Was Hope”

What Progress? Flash Timeline of Haiti’s Disastrous 2010

There are a fair number of narrative reflections by journalists on Haiti’s past year, probably the most moving by the Associated Press’ Jonathan Katz. Of course none of them can be totally comprehensive in covering the past year’s events, tracking promises and pledges, and showing what has changed. Neither is the Flash timeline below, to which I’m still adding posts. But I do think it’s useful as a visual overview of the past year’s ups and downs (mostly downs) and a way to zoom in and out (click on the plus icons along the bottom) on specific months to recall what claims and progress were made at various moments.

For me, something that stands out is the number of times the UN indicates an understanding of humanitarian failures but seemingly ignores suggestions from others on how to do better – for example, that it do a better job of including Haitians and civil society in decision-making.

Let me know in the comments if there are any big events or statistics you think are missing.

No Democracy! Flash Timeline of American Policy Towards Haiti in the 20th Century

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One of the biggest flaws in the major news media is its apparent allergy to important historical context. Past events that help explain complex present-day contours of wealth and power are either inconvenient or uninteresting to reporters and editors, often rushing to make deadline or publish something splashy that will grab readers and boost revenue.

Even the BBC, often seen as the premier international news channel, recently ran a series of stories along these lines. Continue reading “No Democracy! Flash Timeline of American Policy Towards Haiti in the 20th Century”

What Can Radicals Learn from the Young Lords Party, 40 Years Later?

On Sunday leading former members of the Young Lords Party, a militant Puerto Rican community organization active from 1969 to 1971, gathered at the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem for a forum to reflect on the impact of the group. The New York Young Lords took over the church the first time in 1969 in an attempt to use it as a base for community food and health programs. Months later they occupied it again, this time brandishing weapons, in protest of the hanging of Julio Roldan, a Young Lords member who was found dead in his cell after a police raid.

It’s unfortunate that the Young Lords are not as well known among the broader public as the Black Panthers. The group was arguably more progressive for its time. Patriarchy and other oppression within the Young Lords started to break down quickly when members challenged those hierarchies inherited from society. The Lords had deep roots in and support from the “El Barrio” community.

Which makes the New York Lords’ sudden and swift decline all the more puzzling. Why did the group fall apart after just two years of success? What can radicals learn from the Young Lords?

I cannot find any audio or video from Sunday’s forum online, oddly, to help answer those questions. You can hear Democracy Now co-host and Lords co-founder Juan Gonzalez speak on his experience in this interview.

I attempted to answer the question posed above myself last year in a paper for a ‘Radical Social Movements’ class. I’m posting it online now, to share it with y’all and Google’s indexer. It’s entitled “The Young Lords: Examining Its Deficit of Democracy and Decline. Read it here.

An opening summary paragraph is below . Continue reading “What Can Radicals Learn from the Young Lords Party, 40 Years Later?”

As The Pirate Bay sinks, 20 radical technology truths from Eben Moglen

Photo by Duncan Davidson

On June 30, while I was on a mountain in Chile, one of the top 100 most-trafficked websites on the Internet was sold by a group of Swedish geeks to a corporation for $7.8 million. The Pirate Bay as we know it, under constant fire from governments and their patron corporations, is gone after almost six years of defiantly coordinating the sharing of data and culture on a massive scale among users from all over the planet. (Complete coverage at TorrentFreak.)

It’s not clear why the sale happened or what Peter Sunde and the rest of the crew will do now. But it likely had to do with the Bay’s founders being sentenced in April to a huge fines and jailtime. The presiding judge just happened to be a member of several traditional copyright lobbying and trade groups, it was revealed, but there will be no retrial.

So it’s worth revisiting Free and Open Software: Paradigm for a New Intellectual Commons, a talk given in March at Seattle University’s Law of the Commons Conference. The speaker was Eben Moglen, one-time Supreme Court law clerk, now Columbia University professor and award-winning director of the Software Freedom Law Center.

I watched Moglen’s talk a few weeks ago and was blown away. Speaking without notes, he comprehensively packages together a crucial set radical truths about power, technology and society in sixty minutes. Richard Stallman is better known, as the face and founder of the Free Software movement, but he’s an uninspiring (disgusting at times, actually) public figure. Let’s pay more attention to Moglen, who’s collaborated with Stallman over the years, from now on.

20 key points that stood out for me, without Moglen’s eloquence and context, are below. The video too. Continue reading “As The Pirate Bay sinks, 20 radical technology truths from Eben Moglen”

Audio: Howard Zinn takes on America’s “good wars”

I got the chance to interview Howard Zinn three years ago, in a sparse hotel room near the University of Texas campus. It was a cloudy day and with the lights turned off, the room was very blue. Zinn sat on the bed across from me and my co-interviewer in his socks. I wondered if there was a more down-to-earth, wry, and knowledgeable historian in the country. I read his seminal work, “A People’s History of the United States” a few months later.

Zinn spoke a few weeks ago at the 100th Anniversary of the Progressive Magazine. Speaking without notes, he proceeded to lay out a common-sense rebuttal to what passes for common sense in this country – the idea that the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II were all necessary and just wars. Good wars, as many call them. It’s a talk that, like his book, fundamentally challenges the normative identity of America. Watch it here.

He does speak slowly. That might make the talk less accessible to some people, understandably. So if you’re pressed for time, listen to the edited version of the speech below. I shaved about 12 minutes of mostly dead air off the original recording and it moves along more quickly. But in this version you do miss Zinn’s wry humor, which is hilarious at times. Have a listen, and pass it on. Embed code here, mp3 here.