Haiti, A Coup Regime, Human Rights Abuses and the Hidden Hand of Washington

In a June 2005 Jamaica Observer column about the significance of the Haitian revolution, John Maxwell wrote, “the slaves of Saint Dominique, the world’s richest colony, rose up, abolished slavery and chased the slavemasters away.” Maxwell, one of the more astute journalists covering US foreign policy, added, “Unfortunately for
them, they did not chase all of the slavemasters away, and out of the spawn of those arose in Haiti a small group of rich, light-skinned people – the elites, whose interests have fitted perfectly into the interests of the racists in the United States. Between them, last year, on the second centenary of the abolition of slavery and the Independence of Haiti, those interests engineered the re-enslavement of Haiti, kidnapping and expelling the president and installing in his place a gang of murderous thugs, killers, rapists and con-men.”

Vehement opponents of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas party, the Bush Administration helped orchestrate the February 2004 coup which ousted the democratically-elected government of Haiti. Among other pro-poor social programs, the Aristide/Lavalas government’s doubling of the minimum wage was anathema to Washington’s “free trade” corporate agenda.

Maxwell argues, “the now rampant neo-facist apologists for so-called neo-liberalism are in direct line of moral descent from those who petitioned Pope Nicholas V in 1454 to sanction the slave trade between Portugal and Africa…in the new world created by the neo-liberal counter-revolution, the rights of workers and the poor are being taken away, they are getting poorer and the richer are getting richer and less accountable. In Africa, that means that hundreds of children die every day from starvation or gastroenteritis because their governments cannot afford to train or pay doctors or to provide clean drinking water.”

The dividing lines resulting from such blatant economic warfare on the world’s poor have created solidarity among the poorest countries such that the African Union and the CARICOM countries have refused to buckle under Bush Administration pressure to recognize the current coup regime in Haiti.

To its everlasting discredit, in 2004 the UN sent troops to Haiti when a U.S. marine occupation became politically untenable. In effect, this international presence, consisting of soldiers from more than twenty countries, comprises an occupation force that legitimizes the current coup regime and controls dissidents unwilling to accept
the new status quo. And, as a Chilean officer told me in Cap Hatien In December 2004, the troops are “trained as soldiers, so it is very hard for us to not react in a military fashion.”

A Haitian activist I spoke to who identifies himself as a member of Lavalas told me that one useful thing the UN has done in Haiti is to bring in health care. Unfortunately, he noted sardonically, the treatment only comes after UN troops shoot civilians.In too many cases, those civilians do not survive. In September, I spoke to witnesses to an unprovoked attack on the poor neighborhood of Bel Air in which Brazilian troops killed several unarmed residents on June 29, including a man in a wheelchair who had the top of his head blown off. Neighbors present at the scene told me the young man was confident he would be safe in front of his residence during the raid, since he was clearly handicapped and unarmed.

On July 6, UN forces perpetrated a well-documented massacre of women, men and children in the Cite Soleil section of Port-au-Prince, killing at least 23 people. During a July 8 interview with U.S. human rights activist Seth Donnelly, UN commanders Lt. General Augusto Heleno Ribiero Pereira and Colonel Jacques Morneau claimed that they were unaware of any civilian casualties and characterized the operation as a success. Colonel Morneau suggested that bodies viewed by investigators could have been killed by “gangs” and blamed on MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti) forces. The commanders stated that MINUSTAH did use a helicopter during this operation for logistical coordination, but that soldiers in the helicopter did not shoot into the community.

Among the Haitians I spoke to in September was a seven-months pregnant woman who was shot while standing outside her Cite Soleil residence by UN troops during the July 6 raid. Despite the heroic efforts of Doctors Without Borders, she later lost her baby.

On the morning of July 6, the woman saw flashes of light coming from a helicopter directly overhead before she felt a stinging in her stomach and realized she’d been shot. Photographs taken by investigators show bullet holes in ceilings of tin shacks, suggesting that they were fired on from above.

A nonviolent Haitian activist I interviewed explained, “I see this situation as very close to what happened in Rwanda, there is a legitimacy of hatred, we hear in the media that everything that goes wrong is the fault of one party… they describe all Lavalas as enemies of the country. The rich keep calling on the UN to crack down harder, calling all people in the popular neighborhoods ‘bandits’. After the July 6 UN massacre in Cite Soleil, the rich said ‘good job’. When 10,20, or 30 people are killed in popular neighborhoods, the wealthy applaud. They pretend that all people in those neighborhoods are ‘bandits’. It’s clear that people in those neighborhoods are pro- Lavalas, but not all are armed. People in those neighborhoods start to feel that people outside are enemies. A real process of reconciliation would have to involve all, with no exclusion, and would have to look seriously at what the needs are in poor neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately the current government seems only interested in dealing with the poorest neighborhoods with military force. Given its cuts to social programs put in place by President Aristide’s Lavalas administration, and the extreme increases in prices of rice and other staples, the dire situation now faced by the poor majority is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.

While political prisoners jailed for their association with Lavalas continued to rot in jail, former anti-Lavalas death squad leader Jodel Chamblain was released in 2005, after a retrial Amnesty International called “an insult to justice.” I interviewed prisoners in Haiti’s jails in December 2004 and July and September, 2005. Numerous incarcerated individuals told me they were arrested for openly supporting Aristide.

In the southwestern town of Aquin, Luc Jean Lamour described his situation to me from the cell he has little hope of leaving under the current government. On November 9, 2004, police conducting a sweep arrested Lamour. He was charged with arson, but at his first hearing witnesses didn’t accuse him of that. Since a police officer testified
he didn’t see Lamour at the site of the alleged fire, his lawyer argued for release. But in a second hearing Lamour’s lawyer was away in Port au Prince, and Lamour was convicted and given a life sentence. Lamour pointed out that the case against him didn’t focus on arson, but instead stressed his political background as a Lavalas activist. Lamour asked, “The witnesses didn’t say anything directly against me. There was no evidence at all, why was I convicted for life?” The young man is in a cell with 8 other prisoners, most of whom sleep on sheets on the ground. As with many other prisoners I spoke to, he complained that their drinking water is terrible and that even shower water is not clean, as the cistern holding it is not cleaned or ventilated.

Amnesty International has named Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a veteran campaigner for justice and human rights in the US and Haiti, a “prisoner of conscience” and called for his unconditional release. The nonviolent activist priest, who has been held on trumped-up charges for five months, was recently diagnosed with a form of leukemia that progresses slowly but can develop into a more virulent strain of cancer.

Sasha Kramer of the Haiti Action Committee visited Fr. Jean-Juste in December. Kramer said, “The Haitian government claims their doctors have found nothing wrong with Jean-Juste, but the coup regime has absolutely no credibility. The Bush Administration could easily pressure the Latortue government, which it helped put in place, to release Jean-Juste.” Kramer noted that in 2005 a US court called condition in a Haitian prison “reminiscent of a slave ship”.

On December 16, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and 41 other members of the US House of Representatives wrote President Bush calling for Fr.Jean-Juste’s release. The priest responded to the Waters and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus by writing, “Your call for my immediate release brings me the holiday season’s hope. It is time for peace, justice, and greater love, particularly among us, various branches of the African Diaspora in America. Can the day come when all of us African descendants in the Americas join together for mutual concerns, unity, and greater solidarity among us in this native continent of ours? Then can we come together in even stronger solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Africa, our grandmother continent? These are my wishes for this holidays season.”

When I interviewed Father Jean-Juste in Port-au-Prince’s main penitentiary in July 2004, he commented on elections the US, France and Canada is financing in Haiti: “We hope they will accept the conditions offered by Fanmi Lavalas, and include everyone in the exile community, Haitian Americans, the diaspora in general, and as
many Haitians as possible within and outside Haiti. Let’s recognize Aristide as our elected President and work on a return program to facilitate passage of power, free all political prisoners, respect human rights of everyone in this country.”

In a July 2004 press statement, The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti commented, “Fr. Jean-Juste’s arrest is well timed to silence the Interim Haitian Government’s (IGH) most prominent opponent in the lead up to the elections. Fr. Jean-Juste has insisted that there can be no fair campaigning or voting while hundreds of
political prisoners fill the jails and police regularly open fire on legal anti-government demonstrations. Most Haitians agree with him: less than two weeks before the end of the registration process on August 9, less than 15% of eligible voters have even registered. Many of those who have registered stated that they did so because registration is required for the national identity card and that they have no intention to vote.”

In mid-November, presidential elections, which had already been postponed five times, were set for January 8. In a November press statement, Rep. Maxine Waters observed, “The Provisional Electoral Council … has yet to hire hundreds of regional election supervisors, provide identification cards to three million registered voters, identify polling locations, or begin recruiting 40,000 poll workers to conduct the elections. One cannot help but wonder how many of these technical problems are the result of simple incompetence and how many are part of a deliberate effort to disenfranchise thousands of Haitians, especially those most likely to vote for Lavalas, the only political party with widespread support among the poor. Cite Soleil, a Lavalas stronghold with an impoverished population of 300,000, had no registration sites at all until after the September 30 registration deadline had passed.”

At press time, in early January, the elections have been delayed yet again. In a memorandum signed by a group of Lavalas leaders including Mario Dupuy, Angelo Bell and Maryse Narcisse, the party asked its supporters to abstain from participation in the next elections so as not to run the risk of being assassinated. Meanwhile, candidates openly running for President include Guy Philippe, a leader of paramilitaries who drove the Aristide government from office and, according to the DEA and US Embassy, closely linked to Haiti’s booming drug trans shipment trade; and Franck Romain, a veteran of the notoriously bloodthirsty regimes of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

In a brief stopover in Port-au-Prince on September 27, Condoleeza Rice staged a photo-op at a voter registration center which National Public Radio described as “carefully scripted”. Rice intoned, “throughout history people have fought for the right to vote, some have indeed died for the right to vote. There is no more powerful weapon in the hands of a citizen…and so to the people of Haiti I urge you to use that powerful weapon, the vote, in the days ahead.”

The irony of Rice, a key backer of the coup government that replaced a democracy with a death-squad kleptocracy, lecturing Haitians on the importance of the ballot box is stunning. As Waters points out, “No matter what the date of the elections, the
people of Haiti cannot be expected to take them seriously as long as voters are afraid to go to the polls and viable candidates are kept off the ballots and in the prisons. The repeated election delays and continuing technical problems of the Provisional Electoral Council are only the most recent evidence that the interim government of Haiti is incapable of organizing free and fair elections.”

Juan Gabriel Valdès, head of UN operations in Haiti, announced on August 9 that the UN forces are determined to stand in the way of all who seek to exclude Haitians from the electoral process. But UN officials have done little to pressure the illegal coup regime (which by its presence the UN occupation legitimizes) to release political
prisoners or to stop its attacks on civilians.

Instead, as a March 2005 report from Harvard Law School noted: “MINUSTAH has provided cover for abuses committed by the HNP (Haitian Police) during operations in poor, historically tense Port-au-Prince neighborhoods such as Bel-Air, La Saline, and lower Delmas. Rather than advising and instructing the police in best practices, and
monitoring their missteps, MINUSTAH has been the midwife of their abuses. In essence, MINUSTAH has provided to the HNP the very implements of repression.”

When Aristide was president and his besieged administration struggled to support the interests of the country’s poor majority, the Bush Administration did everything it could to undermine the Lavalas agenda (for a detailed overview of that history see the Haiti Action Committee pamphlet “The US War Against Haiti: Hidden From the Headlines” at www.haitiaction.net). Today, as the coup regime imprisons and slaughters pro-democracy activists, it continues to receive military, diplomatic and political support from Washington.

A July 23 AP report quoted coup regime Prime Minister Gerard Latortue as saying, “I know that the only topic on which this government will be judged is its capacity to organize fair and representative elections.”

But as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the National Representative of Fanmi Lavalas, recently asked, “In 1994, who could have expected free, fair and democratic elections in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo and other leaders and members of the African National Congress in jail, exile or in hiding?”

Ben Terrall is an activist and works with the Haiti Relief Fund, which is an extremely low-overhead operation that gets money to people in desperate need and can be accessed at www.haitiaction.net.

  • World Hunger Education
    P.O. Box 29015
    Washington, D.C. 20017
  • For the past 40 years, since its founding in 1976, the mission of World Hunger Education Service is to undertake programs, including Hunger Notes, that
    • Educate the general public and target groups about the extent and causes of hunger and malnutrition in the United States and the world
    • Advance comprehension which integrates ethical, religious, social, economic, political, and scientific perspectives on the world food problem
    • Facilitate communication and networking among those who are working for solutions
    • Promote individual and collective commitments to sustainable hunger solutions.