March 4, 2014

Vodou Lounger: A tourist’s eye-view of Haiti

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jane Stillwater @ 11:23 pm

“Please don’t go to Haiti — it could be dangerous down there!” several worried friends begged me right before I left. But boy were they wrong. Haiti is totally fun! I never had so much fun in my life as I did this past week in Haiti. And this is my very own tourist guidebook to all the neat stuff that I’ve done down here. Not exactly the Lonely Planet. But boy am I having a good time.

The most frequently asked question before I left was, “Are you going down there to do humanitarian work?” No no no. I’m going down there to be a tourist!

To start with, I got a really great bargain deal on Expedia — $800 to fly me from SFO to Port au Prince and five nights in a convenient, clean and quiet hotel called the Diquini Guest House. This was absolutely the smartest thing that I did on this trip. Why? Because the manager of the guest house, a former member of the Haitian diaspora and long-time resident of Washington DC, took me under his wing and for a reasonable fee let me hire his driver, translated for me, kept me fed on nicely-flavored Haitian stew and rice — and then took me off to explore Port au Prince.

First we went to the famous Hotel Oloffson where the ghosts of past American ex-pat writers such as Graham Greene and Lillian Hellman roam its gardens, terraces and gingerbread-style balconies; where Mick Jagger and even Jacqueline Kennedy have stayed — and where the famous vudou-inspired RAM band was playing that night.

The next day we explored what is left of the 2010 earthquake ruins, from what was left of the tragically beautiful stone-filigreed huge rose window of the old cathedral and the site of the historic National Palace to various small tent cities dotting Port au Prince that still house earthquake victims today, and the ruined buildings that still have market stalls precariously tucked into whichever concrete slabs are still left standing.

“So, Jane, how is Port au Prince actually doing now, four years after the quake?” you might ask, now that I’m an actual eye-witness to the scene of the crime. It’s not doing super-good, but not doing as badly as I had expected either. Most of the tent cities are gone now — as a lot of the homeless victims have by now squashed themselves in with relatives, left for the countryside or otherwise made do.

“But what are Haitians really like?” you might ask next. You can tell what Haitians are really like by the way that they drive. There are only a handful of traffic signals in Port au Prince and even fewer rules of the road. And Haitians drive very fast. But they also drive in a way that is almost polite. Everyone wants to get where they are going (and to get there fast) — but no one wants to actually hurt anyone else. I didn’t see any road rage there. Just people trying to get by.

Basically, Haitians are just people trying to get by after having been dealt a very rough hand for a very long time, from the moment they were kidnapped from Africa and sold as slaves here — starting in 1503, just eleven years after Columbus discovered the island. And those slaves were expendable too, worked to death in a few years at most and then replaced by other new slaves.

Then after having fought for and achieved its freedom in 1804, Haiti was also constantly attacked, exploited and/or invaded for the next 200-plus years by America, Canada and various combinations of European nations. And now Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, resembling the slums of Uganda or the slums of Zimbabwe. And yet despite their poverty, which is dire and extreme, Haitians still remain stoically polite.

Next we went off to the Iron Market bazaar to buy Haitian stuff to hang on my walls when I get home. And then we drove all over Port au Prince — the grand tour. And that night we went off to Carnival in the Carrefour district. Are you jealous yet?

Carrefour’s pre-Lenten carnival was like one gigantic block party and was actually as much fun as Berkeley in the 1960s, the benchmark against I always measure how much fun something is.

I also wanted to go see San Souci and the Citadel, UNESCO world heritage sites up in Cap Haitien, but it was a seven-hour drive to get there, so we went to Fonds des Negres instead, which was only a three-hour drive, and I met a vodou master there. “No one is cursing you,” he told me. Not even the NSA? Good to know. Then he performed a candlelight ritual to help my knees get better. Then he pulled out a business card for his son who owns a botanica in SoCal who, for a price, could finish my knee treatment when I got back home And then the vodou master pulled out his cell phone and started texting someone. Guess the ritual was over.

And there’s also a cave in the mountains near Fonds des Negres where a “Suzan,” a vodou spirit, resides. But you have to get there by motorcycle and we didn’t have time to do all that on this day trip. So I just bought a sequin-covered vodou flag instead.

“Have you seen any zombies in Haiti?” might be your next question. Sorry, no. But on my plane ride down here, we ran into a bunch of really scary turbulence over Chicago and I thought I was going to die. So I had an epiphany. “When you are in your mother’s womb, the only way out is by going through a whole bunch of pain first — and death is also like that. First you pass through a whole bunch of pain and then, poof, you are out on the Other Side.” As a zombie? Let’s hope not.

The next day we went out searching for Jean-Bertrand Aristide and then ended the day in that famous five-star hotel in Petionville — just to see how the other 1% lives. Trust me, they are living well.

What else have I done down here? I can’t remember exactly. But I will tell you this: I have really had fun. And if you ever want to go to Haiti too, I totally recommend it highly. And, no, I’m not getting paid to say this.

PS: While in Haiti, I also watched the winter Olympics on TV — thus getting a chance to compare Port au Prince and Sochi. One city has far too little city planning and one city had far too much!

According to journalist Roi Tov, “With less than 350,000 denizens, [Sochi] has been occupied by at least 25,000 police officers, 30,000 soldiers, 8,000 special forces, and an undisclosed number of FSB agents.”

Port au Prince is nothing like that. The streets go every which-way like a patchwork quilt. But it does have one thing in common with Sochi — abuse of its fragile labor force.

And let’s also compare Port au Prince with Havana. I’m currently reading Carlos Eire’s autobiography, “Learning to Die in Miami”. Eire appears to believe with all his heart that the Castro experience was a nightmare — and yet just compare Cuba and Haiti today. Haiti has been under the thumb of American and European corporatists for ages and ages. And now, despite all its amazingly fertile soil and impressive mineral riches, Haiti is currently one of the poorest countries in the world. Seven out of ten Haitians live on less than $2 a day, according to the International Red Cross.

But in Havana under the Castro brothers, everyone has a good chance of getting a college education.

But, hell, most Haitians are lucky to have a chance to even get as far as fourth grade!

If Fulgencio Batista and the American corporatists who owned him back in 1959 had remained in power and Castro had never taken over Cuba, Cuba today would more than likely look just like Haiti today. And does anyone with a working brain really think that having American and European oil companies, bankers, war profiteers and neo-cons in control in Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine are going to help those countries either? Hell, just look at what those guys did to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — and to Detroit!

February 27, 2014

Haiti & me: In search of Jean Bertrand Aristide

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Jane Stillwater @ 5:33 pm

When thinking about Haiti, a lot of people think first about that terrible earthquake disaster of 2010 — and also about President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And I do too. So on my first day in Port au Prince, I toured most of the earthquake disaster areas. And on my third day there, it only seemed logical that I also attempt to meet up with the great man himself. And I actually came THIS close to doing that too!

After recovering from wandering around the Carrefour district’s Carnival celebration the night before, I then went over to check out Aristide’s house. “President Aristide is actually here today,” said the guard at the door, “but he’s not seeing visitors right now. However, you can always wave to him on our closed-circuit TV camera.” Great idea! So I smiled and waved and smiled and waved at the CCTV camera like the idiot tourist that I am.

Next I went off to visit Aristide’s Foundation Pour la Democratie and looked around there. Met some interesting diplomats, students, professors and a chicken.

Then I visited UniFA, a medical school established by Aristide in order to create more doctors in Haiti — where the ratio of Haitians to doctors is 10,000 to 1 in urban areas and 20,000 to 1 in the countryside (no wonder vodou cures are so popular here). “How many students study here?” I asked a bright-eyed first-year physician wannabe, sitting outside eating her lunch between classes. (Actually all the students here are clearly bright-eyed and diligent and idealistic — all young, gifted and Black. Go them.)

“About 700,” the student replied.

“So can you tell me how cure my sore knees?” I asked.

“No, we haven’t gotten that far in our curriculum quite yet.” Rats.

Lastly, I stopped by a large apartment building that had been constructed during Aristide’s presidency in order to house some of Port au Prince’s homeless population, right before GWB sent in the Marines. Two things about this apartment building were note-worthy. First, it was the only building for blocks around that had actually withstood the 2010 earthquake. And, second, the apartments all had two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen.

In stark contrast, directly across the street one could also see a hundred-odd new U.N. housing units — such as they were. Each family had been allocated a really really small cube-shaped one-room dwelling with no bathroom, no bedroom, no kitchen and no running water. And their shared port-a-potties were all way down the street.

So just exactly who is this guy Jean-Bertrand Aristide? And why do American neo-cons and corporatists all hate him so much? I don’t know. Maybe because Aristide doesn’t want to keep Haiti forever “barefoot and pregnant”? Maybe because Aristide, a former priest, actually tries to practice the teachings of Jesus? Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, here’s a bit more about Aristide’s back-story for those of you who have never heard of the guy. In 2001, Aristide was democratically elected as president of Haiti, just one year after George Bush stole the 2000 American election. But, unlike GWB, Aristide’s emphasis was on inclusion and education.

In just the few years that he was president, Aristide built more schools in Haiti than had ever existed in all of its long miserable history of being controlled by U.S. interests. Aristide also devoted 20% of the nation’s budget to healthcare. Good grief! No wonder Wall Street and War Street hated him. And overthrew him too. Violently. In favor of deadly U.N. “peacekeepers” and the Marines, who immediately shot everything up and turned UniFA into a military barracks. That was back in 2004.

And now, ten years later, Haiti has been stuck with President Michel Martelly, aka the “Neo-Cons’ Choice,” elected in the same way that the U.S. got stuck with Dubya — illegally. “He is our guy!” cries Wall Street, War Street and the Deep State.

And now WalMart is once again happily running sweatshops in Haiti, where workers get paid $4.56 a day

What the freak was Aristide thinking!

Surely Aristide should have known that anybody who denies WalMart access to economic slave labor is naturally gonna be in big trouble — and educating a country’s children and providing its citizens with healthcare is also a really bad idea because then countries like Haiti will no longer have a subservient labor force and a really dumb electorate — and that’s just not the corporatist way. Aristide should have known better. Even most Americans are clear on this concept, keeping their eyes down and their mouths shut. Why couldn’t Aristide do the same?

And if you still want even more information on Aristide and Haiti, here’s a great video to watch:

PS: I truly love being in Haiti! It’s an amazing country. You all should all come visit it sometime. And, unlike those nasty rumors spread by neo-cons hell-bent on colonizing Haiti for fun and profit, Haiti is perfectly safe. And it’s lovely here too.

PPS: Here’s another interesting fact about Haiti: The whole population of this country has African DNA. So far, I’m the only white person I have met in all of Port au Prince. For instance, there were over 2000 people at the carnival in Carrefour last night — and only yours truly was white. And you know what? No one cared — because everyone was having such an amazingly wonderful time there, dancing in the streets, even me (except, of course, for my sore knees).

February 12, 2014

Snowstorms just cancelled my trip to Haiti. No-o-o-o-o!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Jane Stillwater @ 1:05 pm

I have been trying to get down to Haiti ever since the 2010 earthquake — and now, four years later, I thought that I was finally going to get that chance. But no. Leaving today as planned? Not.

“Severe weather in NYC has caused your flight to Port au Prince this evening to be cancelled,” said a rep from Jet Blue. “But we can still get you down there just two and a half days later — and we can probably still get you back home as scheduled.” Oh great. Just three days in Haiti? Or I could stay longer but with no guesthouse reservations? Forget that.

Damn you, climate change! Damn your eyes.

But one good thing has come out of this. I have been reading up on Haiti. A lot. Things are not really all that rosy down there right now. Lots of people still don’t have homes, food or even access to clean water — despite all the billions that have been spent on “building back better” after the quake. Most of that money seems to have gone to outside contractors and NGOs, according to Paul Farmer in “Haiti After the Earthquake,” not toward creating local jobs.

And Baby Doc Duvalier has been back in Haiti for over three years and is still running around free and acting like George W. Bush — like all those killings and tortures they committed weren’t really real, just stuff that has been made up by disgruntled liberals. Yet nobody seems to be asking all the amputees and ghosts born from their regimes.

According to Amnesty International, “While the victims await the Court’s decision [on Baby Doc's crimes], Duvalier has been taking part in public events. Most recently, on 1 January 2014, he attended a state ceremony to celebrate Independence Day in the city of Gonaïves. Former president Prosper Avril, a close Duvalier ally who came to power following a military coup in 1988 and ruled until 1990, also was there. President Michel Martelly justified Duvalier’s and Avril’s invitations as important to promote national reconciliation.”

National reconciliation? Then perhaps we should send GWB back to Iraq so Dubya could do some hands-on “reconciliation” with the million ghosts he created there. Or we should send Obama to Pakistan and Afghanistan for even more and better “reconciliation” after all his drone strikes on weddings.

Baby Doc? Nelson Mandela he is not.

I also learned that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is now living in Port au Prince but isn’t allowed to run for office again. And who isn’t allowing him to run? One guess. The same folks who had him ousted the last time he was legally elected. Or was it the last two times he was legally elected? Wall Street and War Street.

As Jose Marti once said, “If you look at all South American countries, the ones controlled by the United States are the poorest and the least free.” And over a hundred years later, this simple fact still rings true. Just look at Honduras. Just look at Haiti.

Then I read Isobel Allende’s book that took place in Haiti back when French “Christian” slave-owners were torturing their slaves and working them to death; for fun and profit. Nowadays slavery is illegal per se in Haiti, but American corporations have now replaced French slave-owners — and they can still get Haitians to work for them for slave wages and they can still work them to death.

“But Jane,” you might say, “if Haiti is such a freaking nightmare, why in the world would you want to go there?” Great music, nice people, wonderful historical sites, fabulous beaches — and a chance to give something back to the people of Haiti after European and American “capitalists” have spent the last six centuries taking so very much away.

PS: I haven’t given up yet. Sooner or later I WILL get to Haiti. And you should come too!

And when you get there, ask Ravix Evens ( to meet you at the airport and take you straight to the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince — and then, later on, ask him to drive you over mountains beyond mountains to the beautiful historical city of Cap Haitien, a UNESCO world heritage site. That’s what I would have done.


January 29, 2014

Global (and judicial) warming and cooling: Why we get both

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jane Stillwater @ 1:17 pm

It seems to me that the reason we get global warming in some places and global cooling in others should be as plain as the nose on your face — at least to those of us who live in Berkeley.

Whenever it gets hot in Walnut Creek, over the hill from Berkeley, we always get a strong wind here as our own cooler air rushes over to balance out Walnut Creek’s hotspots.

So global warming and cooling should clearly work in the same way — except on a planetary scale. As Florida really heats up, for instance, cold air from the Arctic should rush in to balance temperatures out. And hurricanes and tornadoes appear to be getting bigger and nastier here to compensate for temperature changes somewhere else. All over the planet, increased warm areas are being balanced out by increased cold areas — and vice-versa. That’s my new climate-change theory and I’m sticking to it.

And Justice works the same way as well. We gotta have liberty and justice for all — and not just for Poobahs and cartels. Because if we don’t, it’s all going to even out in the end eventually — one way or another.

Everyone everywhere keeps track of these things.

And when justice only goes to the wealthy and not to the poor, things definitely get hotter in one spot and cooler in another.

When big banks act unjustly and screw small homeowners, they are creating a financial “Polar Vortex” When corporations get billions in welfare while people who actually need government services — and pay taxes for them too — are told they are moochers, then areas of highs and lows are created and wretched imbalances are struck.

When Justin Bieber doesn’t get deported for being drunk and disorderly yet other hard-working non-citizens who are helping to make America stronger get thrown in jail just for being on this side of a border, fair weather could become cloudy with a chance of injustice (although Bieber has just set a legal precedent that immigration attorneys all over America can now use to defend their clients. Way to go, Beebs!)

According to Noel Castellanos, “Justice is doing more than saving the drowning people, it’s changing the ones who are pushing them into the lake.” And in all too many countries all over the Global South, where social justice and economic democracy are in short supply, both economic disasters and violent (and non-violent) revolutions are common. “Why should I respect the rule of law when it doesn’t respect me?” seems to be the gist of thinking in the Global South.

And as social, economic and legal injustices become more and more common in America now too, and more and more of America’s “justice for all” has become only “justice for corporations,” economic democracy is now becoming a museum piece here too, a thing of the past along with crank telephones and kerosene lamps — leaving us open for violent (and non-violent) revolutions to start flowing into the low areas here too.

Handing out fake justice to some but denying it to others is a really good formula for making peace impossible all over the world and in America too — and, to paraphrase that old TV commercial, “Peace is our most important product”.

And apparently both the weather system and the justice system in America right now are refusing to tolerate extreme highs and lows.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

PS: Speaking of justice, at this month’s Berkeley-Albany Bar Association luncheon (curried chicken and caesar salad at the Berkeley City Club), a prominent trial attorney gave us his annual talk on what the U.S. Supreme Court had been up to this past year. And here are some things that he said. If I got any of it wrong, it’s my fault — not his. So don’t judge him. Judge me — for taking bad notes.

“The first thing you should know about the current Supreme Court is that it has a 44% approval rating with the American public.”

And regarding individual judges, the speaker told us that, “Thomas is silent on the bench at all times. He never asks any questions. Scalia is very influential, but I can’t see why. He also never looks at any foreign laws and is totally not interested in what other countries think. His originalism comes at a very bad time, however. Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had been like that. Kagan used to be a dean — and deans are all about authority. Alito is a pleasant person but has always worked for the government and has never worked with individuals who were being oppressed. Ginsberg used to work for the ACLU. Sotomayor is one of the most impressive on the court.”

“Five of these judges have committed our country to terrible things that they never revealed to the Senate during their confirmation hearings.”

“According to Dworkin, the job of a judge is philosophical and broad — and when doing it in a democracy, you also need to understand the basics of a democracy as well.”

“This year it is still the five vs. the four, and the four’s teeth are worn down to a terrible point because four is not enough.”

“Scalia came out against actual innocence this year. Most of us think that if you are proven innocent after sentencing, you should be able to turn in your orange jump suit and go home. One man, after 17 years in jail, was proven not to have committed the crime. Scalia disagreed that he should be released.”

“Criminal law has become an incredibly regulated event with regard to sentencing. Judges no longer have the flexibility in this area that they once had.”

“The Court struck down the identity-card voting law in Arizona. Thomas and Alito dissented.”

“Regarding ex post facto sentencing, Sotomayor wrote the opinion. Guidelines that were not in effect at the time of sentencing can’t change the sentencing later.”

“Regarding one DNA verdict, Scalia, Kagan Sotomayor and Ginsberg got together on this one — slowing that it was not just the usual straight five-to-four mix last year.”

“What if a defendant stops talking after he is arrested? Can his silence be commented on or held against him as evidence of guilt?” Not sure how that case turned out.

“Right to a lawyer — a competent lawyer, providing standards for attorneys not only the standards provided by the state bar. Trevino v. Thaler was habeas corpus case regarding ineffective assistance of counsel.” The court ruled that Texas didn’t consider that Trevino had ineffective counsel before sending him to Death Row.

“Daimler v. Bauman. Dealt with Argentina’s Dirty War and jurisdiction. No, you can’t hold to account foreigners involved in torture overseas. This one was recently decided.”

“The race factor: Not appropriate for U-Texas Austin to use it for admissions without an airtight justification and the application of direct scrutiny. Only Ginsberg dissented.”

“Adequacy of drug warnings are preempted by federal law.”

“U.Texas medical center v. Nassar: Employment discrimination must be proved by lots of evidence. Ginsberg dissented.” The Supreme Court made it harder for employees who were charging discrimination and retaliation to win their cases.”

“Class actions: The Supreme court has been limiting them in the past. However, in Angen v. Connecticut Retirement Plans, materiality did not need to be proved in order to establish a case as a class action. Alito, Thomas and Scalia dissented.” I just bet they did.

“Patents: DNA cannot be patented. Unanimous decision. Things that are open and obvious don’t deserve a patent. But no one on the Supreme Court knows much about patents. They are all generalists in an age of specialization — but, in their position, must take a broad range of cases anyway.”

PPS: Am leaving for Haiti on February 12. According to Dr. Paul Farmer, Haiti has undergone centuries of injustice on a frightening scale. According to Farmer, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” And Haiti is now also the victim of climate change as well.

Haiti is a perfect example of what I have been talking about here. And apparently Haitians are totally ready to support both “justice for all” and climate stability — and also Jean-Bertrand Aristide as well. Go them.

January 17, 2013

In your face: Homelessness in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Jane Stillwater @ 9:56 pm

And what are YOU doing about the vast new epidemic of homeless people flooding the streets of America right now?

America’s wealthiest 1% are doing something about it — they’re creating even more homeless men and women just as fast as they possibly can!

The Department of Defense is doing something about this problem too, creating vast brigades and armies of blind, paralyzed, traumatized and/or limbless disabled 20-somethings who should have been in their prime of life right now, the backbone of America’s labor force — but are instead sleeping rough, out on the streets.

The CIA, DEA, FBI, local police forces, INS, Homeland Security, TSA, etc. are also doing their bit regarding homelessness here as well — they are housing Americans in jails just as fast as humanly possible, with or without being charged with a crime. How patriotic is that! And you can even get thrown in a jail cell for using legal medical marijuana or driving an unregistered car (or being homeless). The vast American prison-labor system is always here to help out.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is also doing something about homelessness in America too — by actually supplying housing. Imagine that. And if HUD closed its doors tomorrow, America would immediately reveal its true self — as Great-Depression-style tent cities begin springing up like mushrooms and we start tripping over the dead bodies of homeless senior citizens left and right. Without HUD, America would look like background shots from the movie “Les Miserables”.

Thank you, HUD. It’s nice to know that somebody else besides just America’s 1% is getting a safety net these days.

But what am I myself doing about homelessness in America today? Besides giving an occasional dollar to a street person shivering out in the cold? Obviously not enough. (But I did act in a docu-drama on the subject recently. Does that count?

Can you imagine what it is like to stay out all night, every night, in the rain and the cold, vulnerable to criminals and rapists, being humiliated, vilified and scorned by those lucky enough not to have been chewed up and spit out by Wall Street and War Street quite yet, shamefully begging for spare change and having no place to go? I can’t.

If it was me out there on those mean streets, I’d be lucky to still be alive after only a week.

PS: Speaking of being homeless, I will be going to Haiti as part of a Global Exchange delegation at the end of March to do research on homelessness there. No other country in the western hemisphere has as many homeless people as Haiti — even though it is still being milked like a cash cow by the world’s NGOs.

According to journalist Bill Quigley, “Despite billions in aid which were supposed to go to the Haitian people, hundreds of thousands are still homeless, living in shanty tent camps as the effects from the earthquake of January 12, 2010 remain. The earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010 killing, according to Oxfam International, 250,000 people and injuring another 300,000. 360,000 Haitians are still displaced and living hand to mouth in 496 tent camps across the country according to the International Organization of Migration. Most eat only one meal a day.”

And you think that America’s homeless won’t fare any better than Haiti’s homeless if the 1% have their way? Think again. Just remember all those homeless Americans created by Hurricane Sandy — who are still homeless now. And then thank whichever God that you pretend to follow that it wasn’t you living out there in Far Rockaway.

And when the 1% finally get their hands on your Social Security money pot like they have been trying to all along, you won’t need a hurricane to know which way the wind blows either.

PPS: If you want to be a part of Global Exchange’s delegation to Haiti in March 2013, here’s the program’s contact information: See you there!

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