We said we would not forget Haiti

 

I spoke with my friend Jean Mariot Cleophat by phone today. It has been five years since I first met him.

He was my guide for much of my reporting journey through Haiti after the massive 2010 earthquake that left Haitians is utter despair. They called in “La catastrophe.”

Reporters from around the world rushed to Haiti then, hungry to tell the story of the disaster. Ordinary people felt moved to make donations, by cell phone even. The world pledged billions of dollars.

Everyone said: Haiti will rise from its ashes and finally succeed in its long struggle to overcome poverty.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.
Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Everyone said: We will not forget Haiti.

But we did forget Haiti, by and large.

It is the fifth anniversary of the earthquake and the world’s focus is not on Haiti today.

The earth shook for a mere 60 seconds that Tuesday and 220,000 people died.

Millions were left homeless, desperately seeking shelter in camps that grew to become huge tent cities.

In their vulnerable state, Haitians braved killer hurricanes and a cholera outbreak.

There are places in Port-au-Prince now that show no hints of the catastrophe.

The palace has been fixed up and shiny new buildings built. There are new roads, new houses. The markets are do brisk business. But, said Mariot, they belie the truth about Haiti. They belie the plight of ordinary people.

I asked Mariot how his life has been.

“I feel without hope,” he told me.

Mariot is not yet 30. He is educated and speaks English fairly well. Since the last time I saw him in early 2011,he has gotten married and now has a four-year-old daughter.

He’s worked numerous jobs in international companies. He got himself OSHA certified and was working for a construction firm but when the World Bank contract ran out, so did his job. He’s moved to the countryside because it’s cheaper there than Port-au-Prince. I asked him what he was dong for money.

He said he finds temporary jobs here and there; makes $300-400 a pop. It pays for food. But it’s hardly enough.

“There are no jobs here,” he said. “What happened to all the promises of jobs for Haitians?”

That got me thinking about a conversation I had with a friend whose father used to work for a major cruise company. He told me how he had been to Haiti as a boy when tourists flocked to its turquoise waters and white sand beaches. I know there had been efforts to restart tourism in Haiti, a notion that irks those who see it as exploitative. But I wondered how much Haiti might profit from a booming tourism trade.

If we can talk about Cuba opening up to Americans who want to sun themselves in the tropics, then why not Haiti?

I don’t know what happened to all the people I met in Haiti. How did they recover? Were they able to regain a semblance of normalcy?

I think of them this week and pay tribute to their fortitude. And resilience.

Before he hung up, Mariot told me he lives by faith. Like all Haitians, he said, he lives by the grace of God.

Read my Haiti stories on CNN.com:

Buried alive for six days, survivors reunite

A day with Sean Penn in Haiti

Rescuer was woman’s last hope

Burying the dead

What it was a year later

 

 

Cuba, Si!

CNN interviewed former President Jimmy Carter tonight about the thaw in relations with Cuba. Carter, of course, made a historic trip to the Caribbean island in 2002 with the intention of improving relations.

I was fortunate enough to make that trip with Carter. I will write more about that. But for now, here is one of my favorite pieces from that assignment. It ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is about the Harlistas.

 

HAVANA — Cuban legend has it that Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara buried a thousand Harley-Davidson motorcycles after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

Harleys, perhaps one of the noisiest symbols of America, were used by the police and army under the U.S.-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, and Castro felt compelled to reject them.

The tale has it that the bikes were put to rest on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island–buried deep in the soil of Communism but not forgotten.

Ask Adolfo Preito, 44, who as a child watched officers roar by on their hogs. He is an engineer for the Castro regime, but his life revolves around his white 1950 Panhead Harley. His wife, Linett Suarez, is convinced that he would forsake her for his Harley.

“I love this bike. It’s my life,” said Preito.

Not one new Harley has entered Cuba since the revolution–and parts and mechanics are scarce.

Many of the old bikes barely work, patched together with bits and pieces from Soviet-made Ladas and other vehicles, but they represent high-speed rebellion in a land struggling for free expression and civil liberties.

About 200 Harleys are running in Cuba.

Preito has been trying to organize a Harley club with 30 fellow “Harlistas” since 1976. An official stamp of approval of the club’s charter would mean the Harlistas could gather at formal meetings instead of having to get together at streetside cafes and taverns.

“But in Cuba, it’s difficult to form an association,” said Preito, tucking his Latin American Motorcycle Association T-shirt into his jeans. “We are not a political group but a social one. But if we were officially sanctioned, then we could have a clubhouse behind walls, and the government doesn’t want that.”

That’s why Georgia Tech professor Kirk Bowman decided to dedicate time for his 23 study-abroad students in Cuba to meet with the Harlistas.

“I wanted students to get a feel for Cuban civil society,” said Bowman, not revealing at first his love for all things Harley. “Civil society, according to the revolution, is a bourgeois practice and as such has become almost nonexistent.”

That makes organizations that seem conventional to Americans–from church choirs to the Sierra Club–rare in Cuba. Bowman, a specialist in Latin American studies, said that as a social institution, the boisterous Harlistas fall into the same category as Cuba’s independent librarians who quietly defy the government by making materials available for everyone to read.

When he left Atlanta for Cuba, Bowman had no idea whether he would be able to contact the Harlistas, but he brought souvenirs of the American motorcycle maker just in case: T-shirts, bandannas and a new mirror for Preito.

Even with the ears and eyes of Cuban authority monitoring them, the Harlistas find innovative ways to keep their traditions going. They barter for parts to keep their bikes running and make a special homage ride each Father’s Day, which was when Cuba’s most famous mechanic, Pepe Millesima, died.

“Everyone looks at us with admiration,” Suarez said. “People identify it as something American.”

The Harlistas are ordinary people with ordinary jobs making not more than $15 a month. They dream of the day when new Harleys will be available and when they will be able to journey to Daytona, Fla., to join the 300,000 bikers at Bike Week each year.

Some signs of change are starting to surface in Cuba, however. As many as 370 Masonic lodges exist, Bowman said.

“I don’t want to say there is a boom in civil society, but it’s definitely percolating,” he said.

Ferguson

Many businesses on West Florissant Avenue are boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision.
The convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars is  boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision. 

I did not cover the story in August when a black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor did I have any idea that I would be thick in the middle of things one day.

But here I am, amid a deep freeze in Missouri, waiting with everyone else for a grand jury decision on whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, should be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.

So far, it’s been an eye-opening experience. I am learning about a part of the country that I have not seen before.

Here are links to a few of my stories:

It’s her Ferguson — and it’s not all black and white

Ferguson awaits grand jury ruling

A tale of two streets

In the shadow of the storm, a quiet grave

 

 

Rembering Blacksheep on Veterans Day

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Here’s to you, Blacksheep — 3rd platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment.

Thinking of that hot day in April, 2006, when you completed your last patrol.

I was with you in the worst of times and you showed me the best. I feel proud to know all of you. Saluting your courage on Veterans Day.

ERC.

 

Mechanic, missionary, master of massages

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My friend Val gave the coolest birthday gift: a vanity plate for my Mini Cooper that says an abbreviated form of “EVILREPORTERCHICK.” So on Sunday, I went about trying to get it mounted on the front of my car.

Val and I stopped at an AutoZone on Memorial Drive only to learn that the store does not do any installations. I was disappointed but not for long.

IMG_4102“What do you need done?” said a man in the checkout line.

We showed him. He said he could do it. Wouldn’t take but a few minutes. If we wanted, we could follow him to his auto shop just down the road.

“I’m in the convertible Jag,” he said.

Sure enough, he climbed into the forest green Jaguar. I’d say it was circa 1980 or so. We followed it to a small house that looked like it was stuffed with things inside and about to fall apart on the outside.

“I’m Rodney,” the man told us.

Then he closed the gate to his back yard, teeming with junky cars and trucks. I looked at Val, wondering why Rodney felt compelled to close the gate. No one could see us anymore. What if Rodney turned out to be a troubled man?

But he wasn’t. Not really.

cardsHe told us how he was a preacher at the Emman-U-El Remnant Church. He does “special prayers” and marriage counseling, according to one of the business cards he gave us. He said he traveled all over the world as a missionary. He’d just been to Ethiopia.

Another card advertised Genesis Luxury Auto Broker, Inc. And a third said: “Rodney Holder, Master of all Massages. By appointment only.”

Whoa. I could have had him tackle my neck ache.

Instead, Rodney drilled and screwed and within minutes, my vanity plate was firmly attached to my Mini. He wouldn’t say how much we should pay him but we gave him a $20 — for his labor and the conversation. It was certainly the most interesting afternoon I’ve had in a while.

Whether it’s a auto repairs or soul searching or back pain, keep Rodney in mind. He’s a jack of all trades and apparently, a master of a few.

 

 

It’s about the women, stupid!

 

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Women will be key in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. I joined colleagues Ann O’Neill and Jessica Ravitz in reporting what women want from three battleground states. Check it out on CNN here: http://cnn.it/1oat8DM

No longer one

India now has a 29th state. Telangana.

It was six decades in the making, the fruit of a strong separatist movement that argued neglect by successive governments and finally succeeded in breaking off a chunk of land from Andhra Pradesh. The man who once went on a hunger strike in defense of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao, became its first chief minister Monday.

The celebrations began Sunday night. Hyderabad, which will now serve as capital for both states, was awash in pink, the color of Rao’s party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the newest state in the republic.

Amid the joy, however, there was reason for pause, especially among the citizens of Andhra who were against the carving up of their state. For economic reasons. For political reasons.

Proponents of Telangana argued that holding together different peoples under linguistic lines was silly; that it was better to have a more culturally cohesive state. Others pulled out proof that small states can prosper in India. The cited Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh as examples.

It’s a good thing the two states will share Hyderabad, a city that was at the forefront of India’s high-tech boom and houses corporate giants like Infosys. I visited there in 2000 and remember being so impressed with the efficiency and cleanliness there compared to my hometown, Kolkata. Without Hyderabad, I worry Telangana might flounder.

I am always wary when states are split because I fear that it might lead to a deeper division of people. We certainly don’t need to add to that problem in India.

But now the deed is done. I hope for Andhra and its sister Telangana to both prosper. Only time will reveal if this was the right decision.

‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’

 

I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day

 

Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery.

Occasionally, I pick up my iPhone and am pleasantly surprised to see an incoming call from a soldier I met in Iraq. The other night, it was Mike Brown, who helped train Iraqi security forces for a year in Baghdad.

He wanted nothing in general, nothing in particular. Just to say hello.

His call was a good reminder, just ahead of Memorial Day.

There’s a photo that went viral on Facebook and Twitter of a grill. The caption says: Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day. So true.

For many of us, the three-day weekend has become synonymous with the beach or hamburgers or a chance to get away. It means the start of summer, the start of lazy afternoons under a hot sun.

We are quick to forget the true meaning of the holiday.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

It used to be known as Decoration Day and was started after the Civil War to remember the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died on bloody battlefields. Later, Memorial Day became a remembrance of all men and women in uniform who gave their lives for America.

Mike Brown served in the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, which lost nearly 30 soldiers in the year it spent fighting in Iraq. I covered memorial services for the 48th as well as other brigades in Iraq that lost almost as many soldiers. I attended too many services.

They were men and women who lost their lives too young. They left behind shattered families and communities. I think of them and all our servicemen and women this weekend and salute their courage. I urge all of you to do the same.

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