Monday, April 23, 2012

A Colonial WikiLeaks? The Migrated Archives and the Caribbean Pt.2

Originally posted April 19, 2012

As reported last week, April 18th marked the public release of the first batch of the secret colonial documents known as the "migrated archives." Only one day removed from the release, British media has been taken with the story, with headlines like Sins of Colonialists Lay Concealed for Decades in Secret Archive, Crimes of Empire Revealed, Colonial Papers and the Ugly Legacy of Empire, Britain Planned Posion Gas Tests in Botswana, and Colonial Office Files Detail 'Eliminations' to Choke Malayan Insurgency reveals the depth of the archives opening salvo.

In part two, Robert Hill, Professor of Afro-American and Caribbean History at UCLA, who has been deeply involved in the "migrated archives" since their discovery, shares his insights into the release of the archives and what it entails for the Caribbean history. Professor Hill is editor of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project, and is also the Literary Executor of C.L.R. James, the Marxist historian and Pan-African political activist.  

The release of the migrated archives has been called both a colonial conspiracy and a bureaucratic bungle. Can you provide some more insight as to why the British government was compelled to release the documents? Why couldn’t they have just kept them classified?

There was a great deal of bureaucratic bumbling in the handling of the so called “migrated archives.” There’s no question that the migrated archives presented the foreign office with a huge and complex challenge, and in the face of the complexity of what they were presented with, the Foreign Office just dropped them; basically they just could not arrive at any kind of solution. This is going back now to the 1980’s and 1990’s and each time there were so many countervailing problems, but they simply could not solve the most pressing problem: that these archives were removed from former British colonies and they were removed secretly. Government officials and civil servants knew of this, I know for a fact in Jamaica, I talked with two civil servants who are able to tell me the names of the two officials who came out from England to supervise the transfer of the records—but it was done in a very hush-hush way.

Now is that a colonial conspiracy? I don’t know. They certainly weren’t making it public, and they were getting the cooperation of the civil servants who were charged to assist in the secret transfer of these records.

Now having done that, it’s kind of like having a tar baby syndrome, having grasped the files, they did not think through what would later on confront them. Under British law you have to turn over these documents to the national archives or seek an exemption from the Lord Chancellor. Well, they could not, because they tried to turn them over to the National Archives, and the national archives refused to touch them, basically saying this is your baby, we don’t want anything to do with this. But they couldn’t legitimately get an exemption from the Lord Chancellor so essentially the Foreign Office found that it was holding official records illegally—and that’s the problem. And so where were they going to put them? The National Archives, after all, is the legally constituted body set up to receive all official records in Great Britain, yet they would not take them. An impasse, in other words, developed and no one could come up with a solution.

They came up with three possible options. One was to go through them, and to take out items they felt were still very, very sensitive, then return them to their respective colonial governments, that they rightfully belong to. We don’t know why they declined to do that, another option was just to say that these were the property of the government of Great Britain and we aren’t going to return them. The other one was to turn them over to the National Archives – but there were problems with each one of the options.

The people who solved the problem were the former Mau Mau detainees in Kenya, who by suing the Queen for damages for the torture and abuse at the hands of the British colonial regime in Kenya forced the issue, and by forcing the issue into the public domain, into the public arena, they solved the problem. In other words, we have to thank these former Mau Mau detainees, and the British government should thank them too— they came up with a resolution that was to turn these documents over to the prosecution, against the queen for tort damages. They forced, in other words, the resolution.

Now the British government is caught with its pants down, and of course not wanting to seem dishonourable, the foreign secretary of the British government, William Hague, stood up in the House of Commons and made the official declaration that we have nothing to hide, and that they were going to turn over all of this material, except for the names of individuals and identities that are covered under the Freedom of Information act, such as the name of informants. They say everything is going to be released. So I don’t think that if they are being genuine they can say everything but these identities will be revealed and then undertake any major redactions. I’ve also been assured that the person, the master of Claire College at Cambridge, Professor Anthony Badger, who has been responsible for the processing of the material, has also assured me that everything is going to be released. The glare of publicity is so intense that I don’t think the British government would risk being found out that they are releasing and at the same time withholding documents.  

In your opinion, what potential does the release of the migrated archives have in potentially reshaping and rewriting Caribbean history, not only during the colonial period, but also upon many of our traditional narratives of independence?

Until we know for certain, and it’s going to take a little more than a year for us to get all of the Caribbean related migrated archives, on April 18th they’re going to open the migrated archives of Anguilla and the Bahamas. Remember they’re going to release them in alphabetical sequence. In September, Jamaica will be released, and then a year later in November of 2013 they’re going to release Trinidad and Tobago and the West Indies. So between April 2012 and November 2013 is the time frame in which we’re going to see what they have.

Now will this have an impact on the narratives of independence and the colonial period? I think it’s going to have a major impact. I can’t be authoritative or definitive, I think what we’re going to see is the great degree of collaboration between the departing colonial regime, or the colonial imperial government of Britain and its collaboration with the local political elites. That unfortunately or fortunately is going to come to light. It will be of different degrees in Jamaica, it’s going to shine the light on the relationship between the British governor and the British colonial secretary on the one hand, and Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley, the leaders of the JLP and the PNP.

I think that this is going to really enable us to see the agreements, the silent, secret political agreements that were hatched between them. That I think is going to break open a whole important sphere that we have been shut out from until now. In addition, I think it’s going to show us the degree to which the British government resorted to coercion, not just consensus building, but when confronted as they were, say in Jamaica or Guyana, with a serious political challenge—they were quick to resort to coercive measures to suppress and repress these challenges.

Those are the two main areas, now beyond that—what I think we are going to see—and again this is very provisional—we are going to see how fragile the colonial regime was. In my view, the colonial regime was terrified of the populous, it had a profound anxiety of any kind of violent clash—and we will be able to read the official cables between the colony and the metropole in Britain, and trace out their thinking. Remember now, we’re talking about a colonial period that is referred to in the literature as the terminal phase of colonization. That’s the period that I think the bulk of these migrated archives will cover.

I think that some of us have had suspicious about the deals that were struck behind the scenes, between the British colonial regime and (Forbes) Burnham, or a deal struck between the British government in Jamaica and Bustamante to split the popular movement. In Guyana it split along ethnic and racial lines, in Jamaica it was split along ideological lines. But, either way, the divide and conquer strategy, we have long suspected that that was a central element of the British strategy. It always is. And the question is, why did they fall for it? What were they promised? What were the specific rewards of playing along and accepting these deals?

We want to know concretely dates, times, places, identities of people involved in these negotiations. Now we don’t know that this will be in the migrated archives, it is just a suspicion—but the reason why they were removed is because they were potentially very damaging. I don’t think that the nationalist elites in the Caribbean will emerge with their reputations intact. So we have to prepare ourselves for some pretty explosive disclosures, but then again we might be disappointed. We will have to wait and see.

The final segment of my interview with Professor Robert Hill will be continue next week.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Colonial WikiLeaks? The Migrated Archives and the Caribbean Pt.1

Originally posted April 12, 2012

On April 18, England’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will begin releasing the first group of sensitive documents related to the decolonization of 37 former British colonies. The release of the documents was the result of a High Court hearing in London during April 2011, which centered on four elderly Kenyans, who were labelled as suspected Mau Mau rebels by the British government, and thus experienced abuse, torture, and illegal imprisonment during the Emergency period of the 1950s. Nearly 50 years after the widespread repression and eventual process of decolonization, the case brought forth by the four Kenyan pensioners against the British government has the real potential to be regarded as a “Colonial WikiLeaks,” and quite possibly lead to the rewriting of the established narratives of decolonization and independence not only in Africa, but also throughout the Caribbean and all former Commonwealth colonies.

The four claimants, Paulo Nzili, Ndiku Mutua, June Muthoni Mara, and Wambugu Nyingare are seeking compensation and an apology from the British Government for alleged torture they experienced while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion—one of the bloodiest conflicts of the colonial era. In April 2011, the High Court was given the responsibility to determine whether or not the British government had a direct role in the charges laid by the prosecution. The British Foreign Office denied any responsibility for the events in Kenya, claiming that all liability for repressing the Mau Mau rebellion had been transferred to the independent government of Jomo Kenyatta in 1963. Judge McCombe blasted the Foreign Office for such a “dishonourable” argument, and allowed for the case to be heard at a full trial, starting in early 2012.

In an effort to build evidence for the prosecution’s case prior to April 2011, a search for documentary evidence which would corroborate the testimony of the four plaintiffs began in England—as no such papers existed in Kenya. It was long suspected that any sensitive or compromising documents from the former colonies were sent back to England to be destroyed, as large gaps existed within local archival records across the former colonies. During the investigation, the prosecution and honest civil servants assisting on the case were routinely dismissed, being told that no documents existed on former British colonial activities in Kenya, or anywhere else for that matter.

Due to the intensely thorough investigation on behalf of the prosecution and British civil servants, it was revealed that documents had indeed been illegally removed from Kenya on the eve on independence, and were being stored in the FCO at Hanslope Park. The collection on Kenya contained over 1,500 files, in some 300 boxes—taking up 100 linear feet—not something which could be easily missed. The prosecution was informed that the documents were crucial to their case, as they contained meticulously outlined colonial intelligence reports detailing collective punishments, abuse, and illegal imprisonment in detention camps. In short, the documents largely corroborated the testimony of the Kenyan plaintiffs, and also revealed a vast amount of new, previously confidential information about British activities in Kenya.

It turned out that the discovery of the Kenyan documents was just the tip of the iceberg, as the embarrassment due to the Kenyan revelation led the British government to admit that FCO “irregularly held” more than 8,800 files (referred to as the Migrated Archives) relating to at least 37 other former British colonies—including the Caribbean during the period of 1920-1962. It turns out because the sensitive documents were illegally and secretly removed from the colonial territories on the eve of their respective independence, they were not listed under the Freedom of Information Act, and were essentially forgotten. Furthermore, because the documents were forgotten, no decision was made by the Lord Chancellor's Department (now the Ministry of Justice) to classify them as compromising or relevant to the interests of national security, they now enter the public domain.

The release of the Migrated Archives brings forth the very real possibility of rewriting Caribbean history, as the presence or extent of any hidden collaboration between Caribbean independence leaders and the colonial office will be revealed and finally set straight. This is incredibly important, as so much of the real history of the Caribbean colonial era, such as the violent repression of the 1930s labor strikes, was hidden in government offices or in backroom deals. For the first time, Caribbean scholars will be able to read the full extent of co-ordinated British repression and their concerns for the region in the future. Lastly, we must not forget that the British government was incredibly weary of progressive leaders like Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan—whom they overthrew in a coup d’etat in 1953, and it is likely that more details of their operations against him, his government and potentially other Caribbean leaders will be revealed in the Migrated Archives.

In the next part of this article, I will speak in detail with Dr. Robert Hill, Professor of African American and Caribbean History at UCLA, and a leading figure on the Migrated Archives, to gain some insight into their relevance to Caribbean history.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The People vs. The Pirates: Controversy Abounds in Haitian Reconstruction Investigations

Originally posted on
April 5th, 2012

With the release of two separate investigations this week, it is becoming increasingly clear why the reconstruction has failed the Haitian people on such a massive scale—it is lucrative business opportunity first, with the humanitarian priorities coming in at a distant second.

On March 30, the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research’s (CEPR) Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch (HHRW) released the results of a scathing investigation, which revealed that out of the nearly $400 million spent by USAID in Haiti, only 0.02% of the procurement contracts went to local firms. On the opposite side of the procurement spectrum, U.S. firms concentrated in the Washington DC, Virginia, and Maryland area were rewarded with a staggering 77.46% of the contracts.

The largest of the procurements, a $173 million contract to the U.S.-based Chemonics International, was given to the company’s Haiti Recovery Initiation. One of the primary aims of the Initiative was the $2 million construction of a temporary parliament building for the Haitian government. The building itself was inaugurated during a large photo-op with President Michel Martelly and U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merton in November, but has sat dormant ever since. Since handing over the building to the Haitian government, approximately $775,000 has been spent by the Haitian government to date to finish the building. U.S. Embassy spokesman Jon Piechowski regarded the situation as unproblematic, saying that “the offer was to provide a building,” but never to finish it, or even make it functional.

Two weeks ago, Jacob Kushner and Jean Pharés Jérôme of the Global Post reported on the troubling USAID project, writing that “the building is scattered with woodwork trimmings and debris from a costly ongoing renovation paid for by the Haitian treasury because legislators say the United States never finished the job. And critics in Haiti charge that the unfinished work and empty building stand as a powerful metaphor for much of what is wrong with USAID’s approach to development in Haiti: that it lacks coordination with and input from the Haitians themselves about how best to undertake reconstruction projects.”

The lack of transparency surrounding the reconstruction is largely a result of Haiti’s NGO model of development, which entails the privatization of responsibility. While corruption in Haitian public companies was the central justification for their privatization in the past decades, the current reconstruction process has many built in loopholes which invite abuse from international contractors. CEPR has highlighted the existence of one of these loopholes, called an “indirect cost rate.” According to CEPR “This allows a portion of all funds allocated to go towards costs not related to the actual program, in other words, back to their headquarters inside the Beltway. Both Chemonics and USAID declined to provide HRRW with the Indirect Cost Rate stipulated in their contract.”

Unfortunately, Chemonics is not alone in providing shoddy but expensive buildings to Haiti. In August of last year, Isabel MacDonald and Isabeau Doucet wrote an article titled The Shelters That Clinton Built, revealing that one of Bill Clinton’s Interim Haiti Recovery Commission’s (IHRC) first projects sent down twenty formaldehyde-laced trailers to be used as schools in the coastal city of Léogâne. The manufacturer of the trailers, Clayton Homes, is now being sued in the United States for providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with similar formaldehyde-laced trailers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Nor does it make logical developmental sense to ship prefabricated buildings to Haiti, since the construction of the same buildings in Haiti would provide jobs, stimulate the Haitian construction industry, and allow families to send their children to school and support other small businesses. This “multiplier effect” is a common theme in development circles, but is routinely missing in Haitian reconstruction efforts, as the shipping of prefabricated buildings has become the new trend.

Once in Haiti, the trailers were largely unusable, containing high levels of mold, reaching over 100 degrees, and several lacked water and sanitation facilities. Lab tests conducted during the investigation revealed that formaldehyde levels reached 250 parts per billion, which were “two and a half times the level at which the CDC warned FEMA trailer residents that sensitive people, such as children, could face adverse health effects.”

MacDonald and Doucet wrote that “the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Clayton Homes had been awarded a million-dollar contract to ship twenty trailers to Haiti, for use as classrooms for schoolchildren. The Clinton Foundation claims it went through a bidding process before awarding the contract to Clayton Homes, which was already embroiled in the FEMA trailer lawsuit. But despite repeated requests, the foundation has not provided The Nation with any documentation of this process.”

If major donor organizations like USAID and the IHRC can treat the Haitian government with such disregard and disrespect in the reconstruction process, it becomes clearer, but no less disturbing, how Haiti’s half million internally displaced people have been totally marginalized more than two years after the earthquake.

While U.S. companies are taking huge contracts to provide unusable buildings, President Michel Martelly has recently found himself in the middle of a scandal related to his awarding of no-bid construction contracts to Senator Felix Bautista of the Dominican Republic. Dominican journalist Nuria Piera aired a story on Nuria Investigacion where she stated that she had found that one of Bautista’s companies, HADCOM Construction, was awarded a $350 million no-bid contract for reconstruction work. In addition, Piera uncovered that Bautista had allegedly given more than $2.5 million to Haiti’s President Michel Martelly before and after he won the presidency in 2011.

According to the Haitian weekly Haiti Liberté, “If Nuria’s charges prove true, wholly or even partially, they may deal a mortal blow to Martelly’s presidency. Already, Deputy Arnel Belizaire, who was illegally arrested last November on Martelly’s orders, says he is close to calling for the convening of Parliament’s High Court of Justice to impeach the President. Another deputy, Tholbert Alexis, told Scoop FM that he would push for a special commission to look into Nuria Piera’s allegations.”

The newest allegations add on to the growing controversy surrounding Martelly’s relatively new presidency. Already shrouded in an aura of illegitimacy due to highly flawed elections, Martelly has been confronted with allegations that he holds dual citizenship, thereby disqualifying him from holding the country’s highest office. Martelly’s first national program, the implementation of free education to all Haitian children has been under intense scrutiny due to the disappearance of tens of millions of dollars. Finally, it is widely believed that Martelly’s third nominee for Prime Minister (also the choice of Bill Clinton), Gary Conille, was fired from the post for undertaking an audit of several reconstruction contracts because they contained information that was damaging to both Martelly and former Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

With vultures looking to capitalize financially on the reconstruction efforts both inside Haiti and out, a serious overhaul of the reconstruction system is long overdue, but unlikely. The continued neglect of the Haitian state has been the major reason why this cannot be done. At this point in time, a strong Haitian state is the last thing the major donors or politicians like Martelly want, as it would provide oversight and enforce contracts that become bothersome when you are looking to make a quick profit. Instead of helping to rebuild the Haitian institutions like the judiciary, they were bypassed and now face a near impossible task in ensuring integrity and transparency.

Haiti’s failed reconstruction is a clear signal that NGOs cannot replace the state, and that any attempt to do otherwise is destructive and dangerous. The reconstruction effort in Haiti has increased the dependency of the Haitian people through undemocratic and non-transparent projects that serve to entrench the ideals of privatized governance, reduce the role of the state, and free the mobility of both foreign capital and people, while nearly half a million Haitian people stay trapped in the IDP camps. Vast amounts of aid money, which could go to support Haitian grassroots organizations or the Cuban medical missions, are siphoned back to the United States or alternatively spent on expenses for temporary, foreign NGO staffers. Without a doubt, the Haitian people deserve better, yet their oppression continues a pattern that has historically generated profits for the rich, either through slavery, cheap labour, debt bondage, or now as a laboratory for NGO-led development—a politically correct term for money laundering.