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MCCAIN TORTURE BILL A BUST

About the Author

Lila Azam Zanganeh
Lila Azam Zanganeh, a contributor to Le Monde, is the editor of the anthology My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother,...
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Letters submitted by our readers are read and published in the magazine.
Mark Weisbrot
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, DC, is co-author of The...

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Washington, DC

Despite the fanfare, the McCain bill banning cruel and degrading treatment is less a shot in the arm than a shot through the head. The bottom line? All forms of abuse are now illegal, but no torturers will go to prison. For survivors of US-sponsored torture in Latin America, this "wink and a nod" approach gives a chilling sense of déjà vu.

(Torture, of course, is prohibited by our Constitution and treaties. Under 18 USC 2340, torture abroad is a felony. The statute's definition includes virtually all the techniques now used on detainees. War crimes trials are already required. The Administration has tried to side-step this by insisting that waterboarding and other techniques are "merely" cruel and degrading but not torture. That is for the courts to decide. However, it is good that this second, lesser category is now also banned.)

The damning provisions of McCain's bill grant new legal defenses to torturers. The agents can say they were following orders. Rumsfeld will claim he was relying on advice of counsel, and Gonzales will say he merely gave his legal opinion. Meanwhile, the Graham amendment blocks the detainees from going to court directly. These new provisions face fierce legal battles. If we are to comply with international standards, let alone our own laws and treaties, this de facto grant of immunity for war crimes must fall.

Why are trials for torturers necessary? For the same reason Nuremburg was: to assure that this never happens again. A decade ago my husband was tortured for two years, then thrown from a helicopter by CIA informants in Guatemala. Throughout this ordeal, the CIA knowingly paid his torturers. Congress promised "never again," but no one was ever charged or tried. Hence, the crimes continue today.

JENNIFER HARBURY


HAITI THRU ROSE-COLORED GLASSES?

New York City

Having spent the better part of a decade living and working as a journalist in Haiti, I would be remiss if I did not respond to Mark Weisbrot's "Undermining Haiti" [Dec. 12]. Articles like this, hatched in a cocoon of ideology where rude reality never intrudes, do little to help that long-suffering country.

While Weisbrot is content to blame the ouster of the Aristide government on the suspension of international aid to Haiti and a dark cabal of "mass murderers and former death squad leaders" and to bemoan that democracy is being destroyed "openly and in broad daylight," the political landscape in Haiti is far different from the one he paints, just as the popular movement against the brutality and criminality that came to typify the Aristide government in fact has roots that go far beyond recent armed insurrection.

From the summer of 2002, when the Aristide government attempted to seize control of Haiti's state university system and a cooperative pyramid investment scheme that was closely linked to regime loyalists collapsed, the cracks in the government's house began to widen, long before members of the Cannibal Army street gang (which served as a progovernment group until the murder of its leader, Amiot Metayer, in September 2003) rose up to seize the northern city of Gonaives in February 2004.

Nowhere does Weisbrot mention the myriad events that eventually caused tens of thousands of Haitians to take to the streets in protest at the end of 2003 and beginning of 2004: the brutal March 2002 eviction of peasant farmers from the Maribaroux Plain by Aristide's security forces to make way for a sweatshop; the Aristide government's thwarting of the investigation into the murder of Haiti's most prominent journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique; the December 2003 attack on a group of university students by gangs acting in visible collusion with police that saw at least six shot, a dozen more stabbed and beaten, and the university's rector pummeled with iron bars until he could no longer walk.

This past summer's declaration by four of Haiti's most politically progressive organizations--the Plateforme Haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), Groupe d'Appui aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés (GARR), Solidarité des Femmes Haïtiennes (SOFA) and Centre National et International de Documentation et d'Information de la Femme en Haïti (EnfoFanm)--calling for Aristide to be judged for his crimes against the Haitian people is likewise nowhere referred to.

In addition, despite the contention that the Fanmi Lavalas Party "has not registered any candidates for president," two distinct candidates have in fact picked up the Lavalas banner. One, former World Bank official and Aristide Cabinet minister Marc Bazin, has the public support of former Cabinet minister Leslie Voltaire, former Senate president Yvon Feuillé and former Chamber of Deputies president Rudy Herivaux. The other, former president René Préval, whose support among Haiti's peasant majority has always been far greater than anything Aristide was able to drum up, is running under the banner of the former Lespwa (Hope) coalition, and will be the contest's likely victor.

Haiti's problems did not begin and do not end with Aristide, but whitewashing the past ten years of Haiti's history does no one any favors.

Someday, maybe, my compatriots on the left will have the courage and moral energy to examine Jean-Bertrand Aristide's real legacy in Haiti, but neither The Nation nor Weisbrot seems able to muster those virtues with regard to Haiti at present. That saddens me; I feel that all those who lost their lives there over the years deserve better.

MICHAEL DEIBERT
author, Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti


WEISBROT REPLIES

Washington, DC

Michael Deibert does not challenge that a democratically elected president of Haiti (Aristide) was twice (1991 and 2004) overthrown and replaced with a brutal, violent dictatorship. Nor does he deny that the current dictatorship keeps opposition leaders as political prisoners and intends to hold an election to replace the constitutional government with them in jail. Nor does he dispute that the United States waged a multiyear destabilization campaign supporting the 2004 coup, which included cutting off almost all international (not just US) aid to a government that could not function without these funds, as well as providing massive funding for opposition groups.

What then is his point? If Deibert could show that Aristide's government was a monstrosity, like Saddam Hussein's, he could argue that the illegal and violent overthrow was justified, as George W. Bush does regarding Iraq. But Aristide's government compares favorably with previous governments, other countries of similar per-capita income levels (mostly in Africa) and, most glaringly, with the current dictatorship that Washington has installed. These are the relevant comparisons, not some ideal invoked in order to justify this terrible crime. With regard to the current dictatorship, there is no comparison--an uncounted number, probably in the thousands, have been murdered since the coup. Most of the Fanmi Lavalas leadership and activists are in jail, hiding or exile. Nothing approaching this magnitude of state-sponsored violence or repression existed under Aristide. The current violence is primarily a result of trying to deny Haitians the right to a free election, which Lavalas (and even Aristide today) could win overwhelmingly.

Deibert's excuses for this forced exclusion are weak. Marc Bazin seems to have very little support within the Lavalas Party. Préval does have support, and may even win, but so might others who are not allowed to run. And the repression of Lavalas will make it more difficult for Préval to end up with a working majority in the legislature if he wins. Haitians should have the right to vote for whomever they want, as they did before this occupation.

The anecdotal evidence Deibert offers is mostly unsubstantiated or misleading. There is little evidence that the Aristide government "actively thwarted" the investigation of the murder of journalist Jean Léopold Dominique. As for the other violence that he mentions, it has not been shown that Aristide or anyone under his control was responsible for it. He claims that thugs acted in December with "visible collusion with police," but that is simply an allegation.

Aristide made concerted efforts to reform the justice system and to address the root causes of the country's violence. He was trying to reform a judiciary inherited from past dictatorships. But he was also facing a massive, well-funded and ultimately successful effort to rip apart all democratic institutions so as to topple his government.

But even if all of Deibert's allegations were true, which they clearly are not, it would never justify the coup or the current dictatorship. After every US intervention that used violence, economic sabotage and destabilization to topple a democratically elected government--e.g., Allende's Chile in 1973, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (democratically elected in 1984) or even the brief 2002 coup against Venezuela's Hugo Chávez--there has been no shortage of academics and journalists seeking to blame the victims for their own demise. Since all governments commit mistakes and abuses, this argument can always be constructed; it is perhaps easier to do so for a very poor country where the rule of law is not well established. Deibert's efforts fall squarely within that dishonorable tradition.

MARK WEISBROT


STILL NYMPHY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Cambridge, Mass.

Three things to correct in "Succès de Scandale," Lila Azam Zanganeh's December 5 review about Lolita turning 50. "Nabokov admits that in looking for a title for Lolita, he toyed with The Anthemion." Wrong book. He considered that name for Speak, Memory and discusses such in the foreword to that work.

Maar does not suggest "cryptoamnesia" as a possibility but "cryptomnesia." The cryptic part is the remembering, not the forgetting.

And third, I don't "dwell on the writer's supposed abhorrence of his protagonist," the writer does. He calls Humbert a "wretch" and a "scoundrel." As for the abhorrence, that's from the book itself, where the author of the false foreword, John Ray Jr., tells us we should be "entranced with the book while abhorring its author."

LELAND DE LA DURANTAYE


ZANGANEH REPLIES

New York City

Whereas the footnotes to Maar's book refer to "cryptomnesia," Verso's cover refers to "cryptoamnesia," which is sometimes, albeit abusively, used as a synonym. The idea is recollecting the forgotten, while not realizing it was known in the first place. As to Nabokov's supposed "abhorrence" of Humbert, his mischievous manner of calling his own character a "wretch" and a "scoundrel" is hardly proof of actual "abhorrence." As Dmitri Nabokov recently emphasized in an e-mail message, Nabokov was incessantly ironic as to the moral turpitude of Humbert. And in the same vein, taking the faux preface to Lolita literally is a staggering misconception of Nabokov's hilarious parody of the prim and proper reader who will seek the arch-moral excuse to relish and revel in Lolita.

LILA AZAM ZANGANEH

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