April 2004 Report of FOR Delegate to Haiti
Haiti: Violence, fear in wake of Aristide ouster
Report of FOR delegate to Haiti, April, 2004
Rev. Angela Boatright
15. The Group of 184
17. Color and Class
Note: Since writing this report, Angela Boatright has learned that the delegation’s guide and translator, Marx Aristide, died June 20 in an automobile accident. A photograph of him is included in the gallery of photos from the delegation.
PORT AU PRINCE — April, 2004. First, one sees the abundant beauty of the place: the dignity and attractiveness of the people, the vibrant colors; the lushness and density of the foliage; the hypnotic movement of the trees, seductively graceful, deceptively calming. And then one sees the cracks in the concrete, as if everything is under construction still, and the garbage oozing from the curbs toward the middle of the street.
And so begins the fact-finding tour of the delegation from the Washington-based Ecumenical Program for Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA), sent to learn what role the United States played in the resignation and departure of Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004.
Our first fact: Poverty is alive and well, Aristide or no Aristide. Beggars are quick to stand at one’s elbow, hands outstretched for change: “Maman, donnez-moi …” “Mother, give me.” Some of the hands are missing fingers. We don’t know why. For a brief moment, we are caught up with our identities as tourists: Eyes down, we rush to the van, mindful of warnings not to give money or stop. It is a painful instruction to follow. We came here to help, yet our first act is to dodge people in need. We hurry into our van, bright red but inconspicuous amid all the “tap-taps” — pickup trucks wildly decorated and converted into taxis, like moving art with catchy slogans and designs in splashy, primary colors. We pull out of the airport, following no apparent traffic laws, and become part of the mix. “The right of way is determined by the nicer car,” our guide and interpreter, economist Marx Aristide* (no relation to either) observes.
Marx was born in Haiti and has lived in New York and Washington as an adult. The van bumps over rough roads and veers left and right as the driver expertly dodges potholes. Concrete walls lined with graffiti loom into focus: “Viv Aristide 5 ans … Aristide pour 5 ans“ (Long live Aristide five years, and Aristide for five years); “Eleksyion” (Election); and “Deparu Aristide = Coupe” (Aristide’s departure was a coup.) Less often, one sees “ABA Aristide, (Down with Aristide). We rush by a statue with many brown hands supporting a globe, and in the distance we see the mountains, always the mountains. The word “Haiti,” I’m told, means “Land of Mountains.” It was to the mountains that the Maroons (free blacks) fled to avoid enslavement by the French. It was from the mountains that the first freedom fighters, led by ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, emerged to win independence from France in 1803.
It was also from the mountains in the north that rebels, among them former Cap-Haitien police chief Guy Philippe, began the push in 2004 to Port au Prince to oust Aristide from the Presidential Palace. The rebels were armed with weapons no ordinary citizen could match: guns never collected from members of the disbanded Haitian army, plus hefty M-16s obtained in the Dominican Republic and originating in the United States.
The U.S. Embassy stated that the weapons may have gotten into Haitian hands as a result of a weapons “swap -up” in the Dominican Republic, where Haitian rebels have been training. Mario Joseph, an attorney with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) voiced a widely-held opinion when he told us, through a translator, that “the president of the Dominican Republic received arms shipments from the U.S. It was very clear the arms were for the Haitian rebels …The people are poor; they can’t buy arms — where do they find the money for weapons? I think that the Americans who know the system, they can easily put this together.”
Others — in both the pro- and anti-Aristide camps — say the rebels did not have sufficient numbers to defeat Aristide supporters and only gained ground because of their superior weaponry. A spokesperson for GARR, an organization of repatriated Haitians, said the majority population had turned against Aristide in 2003, yet there was no concentrated effort to oust him. The insurgency occurred only “at the last hour, “the GARR spokesman said, because “there was never any alliance between the popular sector and the armed insurgents. Various sectors were against Aristide, but each had different reasons for calling for Aristide to go.”
GARR is part of a 30-member group of non-profit organizations — largely middle class — called PAPDA. It was formed in October, 1995, and states its objective as helping the Haitian population create a credible, realistic economic plan. PAPDA is critical of the Aristide government’s economic policies. A Haitian journalist we spoke with on the condition of anonymity, voiced the popular opinion that the United States was the driving force/orchestrator of Aristide’s departure rather than a somewhat neutral facilitator. “When they (those in opposition to Aristide) saw it was not possible for local organizations to overthrow him,” the journalist said, “the U.S. took action.”
Had the anti-Aristide groups been organized, they still would have had to face down a formidable force. According to members of Aristide’s own party, Fanmi Lavalas, who came out of hiding to meet with the delegation, as well as various residents from outlying villages (also out of hiding to speak with us), the presidential palace was protected by hundreds of supporters gathered in the plaza in front of the building, chanting “Long Live Aristide” and making it impossible for anyone to storm inside and remove the president. “There were rumors about a coup just beforehand,” one Lavalas member said. “The people were on the street 24 hours a day to prevent rebels from advancing … That’s why they had to do it (remove Aristide) at 1 a.m. in the morning. There would have been killings.”
Others confirm this overall picture. Twenty thousand people demonstrated in favor of the president on the eve of the resignation, said the director of a radio station generally credited with providing “balanced” coverage of the news. Conventional wisdom is that the radio stations have been co-opted by anti-Aristide factions. “Clearly, it was evident that the opposition had no strength that was capable of overthrowing Aristide,” the radio station director maintained. “Even the opposition didn’t know that (Aristide’s departure) was going to happen. …One radio station reported with glee that marines were coming.” It was thought at first that the marines might be coming to stop the rebels, but they (the radio station) were “reporting as if they (the marines) were not just coming to protect the (US) Embassy, as if the mission was larger.”
As it turned out, Aristide was taken from his private residence, which was surrounded by French and U.S. troops, after a day described in conflicting ways by U.S. ambassador James Foley and Lavalas members. Ambassador Foley said in an April 13 Associated Press interview with Paisley Dodds that he and Aristide “talked all night, at least four times … I saluted him for putting the interests of the country first. It was a friendly conversation … What was surprising was his passivity and philosophical resignation. … My own feeling was that Aristide had already decided to leave. He didn’t need convincing.” Dodds quoted Foley as saying that Aristide “never challenged our position” that there would be a bloodbath if he did not leave, as rebels who had overrun half the country in three weeks closed in on Port-au-Prince.
But the Lavalas members, who said they had received a tape from Aristide describing the situation, claim it was “not true that they (Foley and Aristide) were in communication.” “The pressure was intense,” the Lavalas members said. “President Aristide preferred not to speak to them (Foley and U.S. diplomats) at all that day.” Another Lavalas member, elected as a deputy from the North in May, 2000, and now in hiding, said: “Two days before February 29th, President Aristide told (us) to go back to our bases and work with the people for new elections.” As for the threatened bloodbath: Even though it had already been said that “there would be killings,” one Lavalas member said, “This is nonsense. The rebels created the trouble. Aristide was busy calling for reconciliation and [the rebels] said, ’No,’ because they wanted the national palace. There was not going to be a bloodbath.”
Later in the week, though, another man, from Cite Soleil, told of a meeting with Aristide on February 27th that gave credence both to the violence Ambassador Foley feared and the idea that Aristide’s resignation was forced. “He told us that he was not going to leave, but would die with the people. George Bush and his cohorts kidnapped President Aristide.” A question often asked was, if Aristide had intended to leave, why didn’t he arrange for asylum first?
With Aristide gone, Lavalas party members say they became instant fugitives. Kiskeya, a popular radio station, we are told, broadcasts the names of suspected Lavalas members, targeting them for capture without investigating the whether they are in fact Lavalas members. (A representative from the station was to meet with us but cancelled. EPICA’s schedule made it impossible to reschedule a meeting.)
Fear is very real, but one would not know this by merely looking around. Haiti appears calm. Vendors line the sidewalks in front of courtyard walls, just as they always have, selling whatever they can lay their hands on, for whatever amount they can get. Small tables are set up on the narrow walks; fruit here, clothing there, batteries and ball point pens, wood carvings, soap, shoes, paintings featuring bright turquoise, red, vibrant yellow, bright green. In the evening, votive candles provide just enough light to see the wares. There is little electricity. Naked bulbs glare out from modest homes and, sometimes, shacks. But there is a curfew, alternately posted as 10 p.m. or midnight, depending upon who is doing the telling.
On our first night, we sat on a rooftop listening to a lecture on Haiti’s history. And as the sun set — a spectacular array of colors, culminating in the image of a bright orange globe against the smoky outline of the mountains — in crept a dense night in which only a few electric lights dotted the hillsides. The view was achingly beautiful and serene; the dark, smooth outline of the mountains was soothing. And then there was the unmistakable drone of a helicopter … and then the chopper came into view, and there was the reminder that peace did not live here, not yet. There was an occasional loud popping sound, perhaps gunfire, perhaps something quite innocent. The chopper’s silhouette hovered in front of the sun, almost as if posing for a photograph, then moved across the darkening sky.
One might have felt comforted by its presence. The jails, after all, were largely emptied of prisoners in the weeks preceding Aristide’s departure. Murderers, rapists, burglars, and petty criminals alike now roamed free, courtesy of either Aristide or the rebels — depending upon who’s talking. But in the days that followed, we learned that the choppers were searching not for convicted criminals but for Lavalas members and supporters. Many Haitians said they were uncertain as to the precise mandate of the multinational troops, but credited them with the Lavalas roundup. Teachers, union leaders, students, Lavalas members or supporters and police officers now spend nights on rooftops, dodging from one residence to another. They, along with anyone suspected of being pro-Aristide, are being made to “disappear.” They go to work in the morning and never return.
One police officer, now in hiding with his family, tells this story:
“I joined the police force to help support the democratic process in Haiti. During the events leading to the 29th of February, which I characterize as a kidnapping, certainly not legal, an opposition group came to St. Mark. …The word was that if you are militant Lavalas, you have absolutely no right to be around. They kill, they burn houses. We have the names of Lavalas leaders who have been killed.” He paused, then listed some names. “It’s my right to be a member of Lavalas, even if I am a police officer. Myself, my wife and my kids, we are in hiding. All of us are in hiding. Others have been arrested. They consider us like chickens: They can sacrifice the chicken whenever they want.”
A former teacher from the North, also now in hiding, said this:
“I was arrested on March 15th, due to pressing for trade union organization. I was released on March 16th at 5 p.m. On March 17th, they again came for me at home, so I had to leave the 10 children I have. While I was in prison, there were some people in prison who also had friends, some 27 people, who died. I know at least three police officers who were killed near Cap-Haitien. A lot of the fishermen were eyewitnesses who have seen it. The rebels [are] supported by the private sector. … Rebels arrested people, tied them up with bricks or rocks and threw them into the ocean. They put a hood on their heads … one was able to free his hands and survived.”
A leader of the Lavalas party in the South told us this:
“I used to make public declarations on the radio. Ever since the departure of President Aristide, I cannot go home. The Group of 184 [a newly emerging political force], they invited me to a meeting. They invited everyone in the sector I’m directing. And they did go. Immediately afterwards, they (Group of 184) came to my house. There were many of them. I saw that they were approaching … I escaped and was able to hide. This occurred at five in the morning. I went to the mountains and hid. They burned down my house; beat up my wife and my daughter. Right now, my daughter is in the hospital …”
Haiti’s infrastructure is slowly being whittled away. Union offices are closed; leaders are in hiding. At the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, cubicles once filled with computer banks for processing complaints lodged during the earlier coup (predominantly rapes) are empty. The money for them has dried up. On our first day in town, we heard a report that a Lavalas roundup had taken place and our driver rushed us over to the National Penitentiary, a huge building taking up nearly an entire square block, to catch one in progress. We found clusters of people outside the walls, perhaps waiting to visit someone inside, but no military vehicles. When we asked about the reported roundups later on, various Haitian groups said that such roundups are commonplace, and are orchestrated by U.S. Marines.
The multi-national troops were a troubling presence for most of the people who spoke with us. In the United States, the impression is that they are keeping the peace. That is what we are told. Luis Moreno, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, says the Haitian people welcome them, and described scenes in which off-duty soldiers share a friendly beer or two with the Haitian locals and kick a soccer ball around with Haitian youths wearing pro-U.S. t-shirts. Others interpret such scenes slightly differently. Sitting in the office of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux with a group including Haitians from Cite Soleil and Bel Aire, two of the poorest, most crowded areas of Port Aux Prince, and members of women’s rights groups, there is laughter when one asks about soccer and beer with the soldiers. “The minute the American soldier takes off his uniform, it is the pleasure of any youth to beat that soldier in soccer game,” attorney Judy DaCruz says, in English. “It is outrageous to say that there is a huge welcome. This is just not the case. … In 1994, when the marines came (to restore Aristide to power), they were welcome,” the attorney says. Now, it’s a different story. A feisty young rape victim and widow — thanks to the previous coup — representing a group called FAVILET (Women Victims Stand Up), puts it this way: “When multinationals are on the street, people are afraid to scratch themselves. They might get arrested or shot.”
In the circle with her was a young man from Bel Aire, just 16 years old, who must have scratched. A bandage covers the spot where a bullet pierced his lower back. He lifts his t-shirt (ironically proclaiming, “I survived Jurassic Park”) to show us the wound. “I saw soldiers,” he told us, his voice faint and somewhat quivering, the sequence of events disjointed. The translator’s usually strong voice is hushed, mirroring his weakness. His mother, who had brought him, said the boy had been feverish for some time. “I saw them and started running away …They chased me.” The boy said. “They had flashlights and they shot me. She (his mother) said a few things to the men who shot me. They pulled out a weapon on her as well. When I was able to get inside the house, they couldn’t find me. They left.”
His mother takes up the tale: “When I saw he was bleeding, I lifted my hands. They said, ‘Stop.’ I started running.” That reaction is, apparently, quite common. The soldiers — some reportedly trained for the war in Iraq, not peacekeeping in Haiti — do not speak Creole or French. Faced with a strange person, in uniform, with a gun, shouting, the frightened residents do what seems natural: They run. “To this day, we cannot live in peace, “the mother continues. “We would be sitting in our house and, for no reason, the marines (foreign troops) come and take (people) away.” Young people “don’t feel at peace after what has happened. In my neighborhood, things are very, very bad.” The Platform for Haitian Rights, formed in 1991 by various human rights groups within Haiti, corroborated the report that several people, all unarmed, were shot by U.S. soldiers during raids in Bel Aire. In mid-March, the GARR spokesman told us, 38 people were killed in one week.
Subsequent email messages from EPICA in May relayed news of the Mother’s Day arrest of an elderly, popular singer and Aristide supporter known as So Anne, at her home while recuperating from surgery: “On or about 12:30 on May 10, 2004, the U.S. military, acting as the Multinational Interim Force (MIF) in Haiti violently gained entrance to the home of Annette Auguste, aka ‘So Anne.’ No Haitian police were present at the time of the forcible entry, at the time of interrogations or during the arrests. The U.S. soldiers are said to have blown up the gate to the house where So Anne was living and accused her of making threats against the MIF … No charges were pressed against any of the twelve Haitian detainees taken from So Anne’s house. … So Anne was arrested and transferred to the National Penitentiary after having been interrogated all night. … At a press briefing … MIF Public Affairs Officer Col. David Lapan reportedly said that in operations of this type, it is necessary to use violence in order to show the individuals who are the objective of the operation that the MIF means business.”
Incidents such as this show how uncertain the international troops’ mandate really is. Are they keeping the peace, or disturbing it, rounding up pro-Aristide supporters, or harassing the populace? Are they assisting the Haitian police, or operating on their own? Are they seeing that hallmarks of democracy and freedom, such as due process under the law, are observed, or are they violating them?
We did not see a great many soldiers. During our week in Port-au-Prince, perhaps half a dozen military vehicles crossed our path and we occasionally spotted clumps of soldiers as we drove through the crowded streets. We were told that the troops have converted high schools, universities and other places of learning into barracks for their own use. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman noted that they also make substantial repairs to the buildings they occupy. Toilets in one university, for example – smashed to pieces in an upheaval – have now been repaired. (Improved plumbing notwithstanding, the loss of educational space in a nation so in need of training for its young people seems illogical.)
Ever present at our hotel (the gingerbread-y Olofsson, made famous in the novel The Comedians and now in various stages of disrepair) were French soldiers. Coincidentally, they were in the lounge when we arrived, and remained there throughout our dinner the first night; they were spotted downtown during our first excursion, were back at the hotel just as we returned, and sat one table down from us in the dining room at lunch. From the outset, we were told to be careful of what we said, to check out who was around us when we were saying it, and never to leave our notes behind or out in the open. A hotel guest spotted sitting in the courtyard below our table was later engaged in conversation to find out who she was. (She was okay.)
It was obvious that we were a delegation of some sort and we had to be careful not to jeopardize the safety of someone having an innocent conversation with us. I had intended to pay a courtesy call to friends of a parishioner while there, but changed my mind for fear that the call, however innocent, might create suspicion. While the air did not seem charged with tension most of the time, there were moments when the gravity of the situation and the real threat of danger loomed large. A delegation member innocently pointed a camera at a monument and was immediately reprimanded by a passerby standing in range. One late afternoon, at a gathering of unionists and students smuggled out of hiding to meet with us, there were reports of someone suspicious checking the area out, and we dispersed quickly. Our hotel, Marx said, had a reputation as a gathering place for … well … spies. Exploring the courtyard beyond the dining room one evening, puzzling over statues of women and snakes and symbols of voudoun standing guard over the years, one wondered why we had come to this hotel … and who that might be moving through the shadows just beyond the bush.
With the dawn, however, the appearance of normalcy returns to Haiti. At 6:30 a.m. — up early in order to take a quick shower (cold) before the morning’s electricity gives out — Port-au Prince is already moving briskly along. There is the sound of tap-taps bouncing and careening down the uneven streets; a jackhammer drilling, dogs barking. A buffet table is set with toast, coffee, cereal and milk, and a wonderful jelly made with coconuts and mango or papaya. Those who want a more substantial meal can place an order, but a frequent refrain throughout the day was that there was no more. We sit at a large table on a balcony overlooking a vast, sloping courtyard. The walls around us are covered with Haitian paintings, many, Marx says, depicting symbols for Erzulie, the divinity associated with love. Large totems grace an open space in the lobby. The building itself is elegantly designed but badly needs a good coat of paint. The potential for greatness is there, but, as seems to be the case for many things in Haiti, somehow the money to fulfill the potential has vanished. The spirit to persevere, however, is palpably strong.
Conventional wisdom says support for Haiti from the European community — particularly France — has always been grudging because of the successful slave revolt that led to Haiti’s independence and first constitution under General Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1804. Dessalines’ statue stands across from the presidential palace, along with likenesses of Henri Christophe, another founding father who died a suicide, in 1820, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the friend of the colonial U.S. and the former slave who led the revolt and died in prison under Napoleon I. The presidential palace is a surprisingly open two-story structure with domes, large columns, shadowy portico and lush lawn surrounded by a delicate, green wrought-iron gate. No soldiers surround it. It is dazzlingly fresh and white, now decorated with stars and the number 2004 in blue and red for the bicentennial celebration. It also is one of the few buildings that do not have cracks. Elsewhere is a monument to Haiti‘s independence, the Tower of 2004. It is unfinished. Freedom has not yet come to Haiti, not totally, even if 200 years have passed since independence in 1804.
The ancient contest between France and Haiti was a David and Goliath story. As was true in the Biblical account of a young Hebrew boy defeating the Philistine giant, the Haitian people were unlikely victors in a mis-matched battle. “When they took to the mountains in 1791, they didn’t know anything about war,” said a well-known Haitian author, historian and poet who did not want his name used. Squinting through puffs of cigarette smoke, he said: “They were slaves. Most of them didn’t know how to read or write. And who did they have to fight? France. In Europe, wars lasted sometimes 100 years. This illiterate people from an “inferior” race took twelve years to master all that and kick out France and, in the process, they took out Spain and England. …We had giants as forefathers,” he says, his eyes widening behind spectacles. “Now … all dwarfs.” This sadness, almost but not quite approaching a lack of hope, was heard often. “The dream has been wiped out,” attorney Mario Joseph admitted. “It ended on February 29th.” And then he added, “The American soldiers are not welcome. The American government — they created this situation. It’s an imposition. It’s not help.”
Few hesitate to place a huge chunk of the blame for Haiti’s troubles at the feet of the United States. At times – in the case of conditions placed upon Aristide by the Clinton Administration in order to effect his return – the meddling was politics as usual, ways to gain an advantage in a moment of vulnerability. One such deal allowed U.S. companies to sell rice to Haitians at prices higher than Haitians charged themselves, a situation roughly equivalent to selling ice cubes in the Arctic for twice the price of water. At other times, there seemed to be a conscious attempt to stir up conflicts already inherent in Haitian society. The historian paraphrases a statement made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “We have to maintain a permanent conflict between those who have shoes and those who don’t have shoes. That’s the only way we can maintain control.”
Journalist Kevin Pina deftly weaves a tapestry of U.S. involvement in Haiti’s recent affairs, beginning with a media campaign to avoid positive stories about the Aristide government. For example, there is a literacy program for adults and children, located in a house near the upscale hotel, Montana, in Petionville. The program provides food as well as education. The building itself was once used by a drug dealer during the Duvalier years. The Aristide government turned the building over to the program and, he says, transformed “a symbol of oppression into a symbol of hope.” Stories about the program were written up, submitted and turned down by wire service editors. It seems common knowledge that the media in Haiti has been co-opted by U.S. or European money, but proof is shadowy. Describing the news coverage in the days preceding Aristide’s departure, a radio station representative said, “It is the first time in my life as a journalist that I saw the media become part of the opposition. …They only talk about what is dear to the opposition.”
Another big thread in the tapestry, according to Pina, is the coverage of the November, 2000 presidential and legislative elections, in which Aristide was the victor. Early reports hailed it as a model of democracy. “OAS (the Organization of American States), everybody, praised the elections” — he makes little quote marks in the air — “as the most free and fair in the history of Haiti.” There were some reports from opposition parties that ballots had been stolen in the night, but they were not given credence by other nations such as the U.S. and Canada. An OAS memo questioning the outcome of elections for seats in the western part of the country was written but not publicized. It was later leaked to the press by the OAS. Financial backing from other countries stopped. A new political voice, the Democratic Convergence, joined the dispute, reportedly supported by funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“The U.S. and the OAS chose, rather than negotiate a settlement that would not irreparably taint the election process in Haiti, they chose to release the memo — and the stage was set,” Pina said. “If the U.S. wanted Lavalas, they would have found a way to resolve the situation behind the scenes.” There were questions about irregularities, the low voter turnout, and whether the election truly represented the will of the Haitian people. The election eventually was challenged; the disputed victors (seven) resigned. But the once perfect process was tainted in the minds of the global community and of Haitians as well. Speaking in his office at the OAS in April, 2004, spokesman Ettore Di Benedetto added one more damaging element: “To have a free election (one) should not have political violence.” In other words, one should not have the chimeres.
A chimere is a shadow — illusive, impossible to pin down. In Haiti, the word is used generically, in much the same way the word “terrorist” now is used in the United States. Although the term originally referred to Aristide agents sent to quell opposition, almost anyone who wreaks havoc on the population now is labeled a chimere. The word gradually appeared in news stories, increasingly negative, about the troubled Aristide government. One source traced its use directly to a Reuters reporter who began associating with the elite in Haitian society, individuals who were against Aristide. The chimeres are widely held to be responsible for kidnappings, beatings, and general acts of violent intimidation. Their presence added to the overall instability U.S. ambassador Foley and others described toward the end of the Aristide administration. Some of Haiti’s young people saw in the rise of the chimeres a manifestation of the disappointing performance of President Aristide. One sociology student, part of a group called MEGA (Sovereign Movement of Haitian Students), said: “(Aristide) transformed leaders into veritable gang members, which is exactly what Duvalier used to do (with the Tonton Macoutes or secret police): Take and co-opt organizers so they terrorize.“ Although the chimeres are “linked directly to Aristide,” one journalist said, “it is natural when you have people living in abject poverty” to see the emergence of gangs such as these. The United States certainly can testify to this reality. Now, the journalist says, “as soon as you say chimere or kidnapper, people assume it means Aristide. But others were doing it.”
Among those reportedly involved in terror and mayhem was a newly emerging political voice in Haiti and the successor to the Democratic Convergence, the Group of 184. It is so named because it is an amalgam of 184 civic groups or parties. It sounds formidable, but its critics claim that some groups have few members … the founder, his wife and her cousin, for example. (One individual called them “loveseat parties – if you have a couch, there is too much room for the party.” The Group of 184 had so much money and the support of the intellectual community,” the journalist told us, “beatings, etc. were never reported.” Here is one account of Group 184’s activities, again told to us by a gentleman-in-hiding, at a gathering in a diner one late afternoon: “Delegates with official license plates, including Andre Apaid (the head of 184)” came to Cite Soleil. “The mission was to destroy businesses in downtown Port-au-Prince and blame it on Lavalas. After that, they gave $150.00 to kill someone in an orphanage Aristide had built. He didn’t. They took his wife and kids.”
When asked where the money trail between the U.S., Haiti, and anti-Aristide forces begins, Haitian fingers almost invariably point in the direction of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), now celebrating 20 years of supporting “the growth of political and economic freedom, good governance and human rights around the world by educating people, parties and governments on the values and practices of democracy.” (from the IRI website.)
The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs describes itself as “a nonprofit organization working to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide. Calling on a global network of volunteer experts, NDI provides practical assistance to political and civic leaders advancing democratic values, practices and institutions. NDI works with democrats in every region of the world to build political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. … NDI’s Civic Forum program helps Haitians understand their political rights and use this knowledge to solve problems in their communities.” (from the NDI website)
“Between 1990 and 1997,” the IRI website states, “IRI monitored local, municipal, legislative, and presidential elections in Haiti. In 1998, the Institute initiated a program that included party building, civil society work and public opinion polling. In late 2002, IRI initiated a new program in anticipation of scheduled parliamentary and local elections in 2003, and eventually presidential elections in 2005.” The Institute closed its Haiti operation in 1999 for security reasons, but “conducts its programs outside the country with oversight from USAID,” the U.S. Agency for International Development, its funding source. The IRI’s attention has moved toward the Haitian diaspora, particularly in Boston, Canada, Florida and New York, and the organization sponsors a chat room to create an open forum for exploring solutions to Haiti’s “democracy and governance obstacles.”
The NDI has a Civic Forum project to advocate for varied development projects – some agricultural (reforestation), some economic. It also became involved in the electoral process, training poll watchers and “fostering the organizational development of political parties.” Unlike the IRI, however, NDI still operates in Port-au-Prince (website information). EPICA staffers in Washington met with Susan Riley, Chief of the Economic Growth & Education Division of USAID-Haiti, and asked about its involvement in Haiti. Ms. Riley said: “We have three main areas that we have focused on: independent media, judicial reform, and political party assistance. Through the IRI and the NDI, training is set up for independent journalists in Haiti. Everyone is invited to trainings for the media; the only ones who may not be are those unsavory types like Guy Phillippe, for example. Political parties and their development are also equally funded and open to all. Our judicial reform program consists of training judges and prosecutors in Haiti and a large amount is given for elections. Right now, in fact, we have someone down there to help out the financial minister.”
Riley was unable to supply a list of groups receiving money from USAID. One attorney called the IRI “the devil for Haitians,” and insisted that it provided the funding that allowed individuals from opposition organizations to hire anti-Aristide demonstrators. He also believed the IRI assisted in the plan to oust the president from office. “It governs the political parties in Haiti. Before the kidnapping, there was a meeting in Santo Domingo (in the Dominican Republic) … that’s where they prepared the plan. All of a sudden, there comes the Group of 184 and (its leader, Andre) Apaid. There is a meeting with Republicans and university students and civil society groups. They prepared another strategy.” Ms. Riley and Luis Moreno of the US Embassy in Haiti confirmed that the trainings take place in the Dominican Republic. A March 4, 2004 BBC report places Guy Phillippe in Santo Domingo from 2000 until February 10, 2004, when he returned to head the rebel army, the National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti.
The Lavalas party clearly is the strongest in Haiti. Even Aristide’s detractors acknowledge that if elections were held right now, Lavalas would win, hands down. At the same time, another group, the Group of 184, adamantly lays claim to serve all the people of Haiti. However, it is widely considered a tool of the bourgeoisie and business interests: University students told us that the Group of 184 represents “people who only want to suck and squeeze.”
Seated around large tables in a boardroom setting, munching on nuts, about a dozen members of the Group of 184 speak forcefully and passionately about their plans for the economic advancement of their country, uniting all sectors. “Analysis that says we are the bourgeoisie is minimizing what the other sectors bring,” said the representative from the Civic Organization for Civil Dialogue for the Development of the Haitian Democratic Initiative. “We have invented dictatorship. Now we have the task of rebuilding society and our project is to understand how to live together.” The Group is concerned about the problems that have plagued Haitians virtually for all two centuries: poverty, the exclusion of some from the system, problems delivering education, healthcare, housing; barriers to putting businesses in place so everyone has a chance to earn a living. “Society has been deeply divided,” another adds. “Dictators feed the process of division. Rich, poor, urban, rural – all dictators have fed the divisions, including Aristide. This is one of the major reasons Aristide was against us. He was in the old style. In order to be able to rule, he therefore characterized 184 as a group of the well-off.”
A common criticism of Haitian politics, in general, is a “winner take all” attitude that does not allow the opposition to have a seat at the table. It is this attitude, the U.S. Embassy’s Luis Moreno said, that landed Aristide in trouble. The government politicized the police, he said, and all the “rules and regulations that we had set up were being thrown out the window. Lavalas people (who) couldn’t read or write, had no qualifications to be police at all” were being placed in the department. The idea of the new vision for Haiti, the Group 184 delegate continued, was for all sectors in Haitian society to come together, discuss the challenges, and reach a common vision. “We are against Aristide because he was against this progress, and we will fight him if he returns,” he vowed.
Group 184 head Andre Apaid, a businessman whom unionists described as a sweatshop owner, said, “We, the business people, received tremendous support from Aristide supporters who said he should not remain president. Considering the drama of corruption and crime, there was criticism that we were not moving fast enough. … We were going to propose that Aristide remain president. Ask OAS (the Organization of American States) how much we played a role to get the other side almost to an agreement (on a new social contract.) Then the human rights situation began deteriorating. …The Americans did not come here to establish Aristide for life.”
Class and color play a role in Haiti’s past and present dilemmas. “There are two Haitis,” our guide explained that first day as we drove past neighborhoods reflecting distinctly different economic strata. Some are elegantly laid out with large gates coming all the way to the narrow sidewalks. Honk your horn and someone will swing open the gate and reveal a pleasant courtyard beyond which is the office or house. Then there are shacks built into the hills, and there are houses that are in between – with gates and courtyards but on a less grand scale. As we drive by, a young man drops his sweetheart off in front of her gate, gracing her cheek with a quick kiss before dashing off down the street. Most of the homes are square and flat and made of brick or concrete.
But there is a color line and an economic line, and the two intersect. Standing at a makeshift blackboard on the rooftop of Hospice St. Joseph, a college professor/activist says the struggle between mulatto bourgeoisie and the black poor has existed since 1804. The first constitution — “the first feeling of being masters of our own destiny,” he said — freed the slaves, gave equal rights to everyone, and prohibited foreigners from owning land. An outraged France demanded that Haiti pay restitution for money it lost in the process. (Centuries later, Aristide issued a counter-demand for 21-billion dollars in restitution from France, an issue that many say contributed to his lack of popularity with the West.) “People wanted a new kind of society, particularly those from the North, where there had been the largest concentration of slaves,” the professor said. What “they” — the U.S., the Haitian bourgeoisie, Europe — don’t want is for “the former slaves to form their own society according to their own values.”
The desire for a uniquely Haitian form of democracy is, in part, what put Lavalas at loggerheads with the International Republican Institute. In late April, 2004, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who serves on the IRI’s board of directors, praised its record of embodying “the fundamental values on which the American political system is based, and which we must encourage around the world.” (Congressional Record S4426, 4/27/04). McCain has been involved with the institute for 14 of its 20 years. But many in Haiti don’t want American democracy exported. “I don’t think an American political party can show Haiti what democracy is,” Camille Chalmers of PAPDA said. “The model cannot be applied universally. …The future of democracy in our country depends on institutional models that are based on the country’s culture.”
This means contending with Haiti’s spirited poor, who refuse to be ignored, and who are, still, devoted to Aristide. Some beseeched us with the lament, “When is he coming back to us? We want our president back.”
A liberation theologian who believes God has a preference for the victims of greed, Aristide represented the poorest of the citizens of Haiti. He gave them power. In the United States, Aristide’s rhetoric about the poor sounded like the beginnings of Communism, and he was quickly branded another Fidel Castro. Aristide fanned that fire by re-opening relations with Cuba; Cuba, in turn, sent doctors and professors to Haiti.
Lavalas leader “J” was one of the poor Aristide empowered. “I am a founding member of Lavalas and have been working with Aristide since he was a priest; I was a student,” he says through an interpreter. “I was a member of the National Federation of Haitian Students. President Aristide used to support the student movement. From the time I met him, I saw in him a man of strength who could help the country. He was from the countryside … someone I could walk with side by side. From the time President Aristide came to power, we knew it would be very difficult …Since President Aristide was from the masses himself, he believed in educating the masses. (He) wanted to launch a literacy campaign … Unfortunately, the U.S. did not allow him to complete (his project).”
Yet the desire for education is everywhere in Haiti, evidenced in the wide variety of school uniforms on the streets in the noonday sun. The sidewalks are filled with tiny scholars, all dressed in the uniform of the school of their choice. Little girls in hair ribbons to match their skirts, young men in starched shirts and pressed trousers dot the streets like so many swatches in a fabric store. Turquoise, lime green, coral, grey, plaids, polka dots… all sorts proclaiming the colors of private schools. (Public schools are in disarray or just plain closed; many of the teachers are in hiding. We met a few during the week.)
The appearance is deceptive, however. According to Marx, our guide, there are no official standards for education; one school’s sixth grade curriculum might be the same as another’s fourth grade, so obtaining a diploma says little about the actual education received. The best schools are the ones set up by religious organizations. “There’s no regularity, no standards,” he explained. “No one comes and says you have to be certified. The constitution says all can receive an education. That’s the constitution. It’s just not a practice.” While the younger ones struggle with the basics, their counterparts in college are struggling with the realities of a political system that may not have a place for them.
We met two students who were in hiding in their last year; one had been studying to be a diplomat, another was in law school. Both probably will never practice in their chosen professions. Sitting in a classroom at L’Universite d’Estat d’Haiti, learning from the students in MEGA, we understand that their despair and anger is very real. Aristide, once a hero, has fallen from grace with them. As the students speak, one hears a mixture of youthful naiveté, which tends not to acknowledge the need for occasional compromise, the bitterness of betrayal, and a mistrust of the current government. “Aristide symbolized the aspirations of the popular movement. After the (1991) coup, we continued to struggle, to demand the return of Aristide,” a sociology student said. Another added, “When Aristide returned, we witnessed the formalization of the stab in the back, which destroyed the basis of the popular organizations.”
In order to regain office, Aristide had to agree to certain conditions set by the Clinton Administration, who provided the marines who escorted him back home. Former foes had to be included in the government. He had to agree to a structural adjustment program designed by the International Monetary Fund that virtually hamstrung any attempts at reform. And, having lived through one coup, he brought with him the fear of facing another. The national army was disbanded, for fear of another coup, but the weapons were not confiscated. Supporters became the new police force, but reportedly, were sometimes poorly trained. More and more, the students said, Aristide was perceived as a tool of the West, one who catered to the Congressional Black Caucus. “Haiti is the poorest country; the U.S. is the richest,” one student said, indignantly. “Haiti is the fourth largest country that employs lobbyists in Washington. The poor cannot pay for lobbyists in the richest country of the world. To control information, you must have a lot of money, so he has given a lot of money to lobbyists on his behalf.”
While the president entertained Caucus members, they said, the chimeres were terrorizing his constituents. Despite all of that, the Haitian people were just about to get their second wind. “From 2002 to Aristide’s departure,” the sociology student told us, “the popular masses began to regain confidence in their abilities. The level of consciousness was beginning to arrive … to feel the need to clean the image of popular organizations that had been perverted by Aristide.” And just as they were about to rise, the plane arrived to take him away, and a new government was ushered in, one under an “imported” Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue, one that “does not represent the aspirations of the people.” The occupation by multinational forces is unjust, the students say, but they are supportive of the move to put the Lavalas party under wraps. “Everyone in Lavalas must be incarcerated,” one student insists, “so tomorrow they will not re-emerge as tools to oppress. We are very conscious of the fact that we are not living in a democratic space.”
Nor are they living in a very safe space. At another meeting a few days later, a third-year law student tells this story:
I suffered a lot of blows at the University. They accused me of being a supporter of Lavalas and would not allow me to set foot in the University. … After February 29th, we had to go into hiding underground. Many of us are victims; at least two other students were killed … others have disappeared, never to be seen again. As a leader of the student movement, I returned to the University. I went to the classroom and almost instantly … saw people coming to pick me up. Right in front of the dean, they started to beat me. I ran upstairs and tried to hide. Also, many other students supported me, said they had no right to beat me up. The crowd was able to get to me. The beating started at 3 o’clock, lasted that day until someone said they should let me out. The crowd said if I got out, they would kill me. Judy (DaCruz of BAI) helped me; even though they threatened her and cursed her out, she still helped me.
Not at all helpful, the student said, was a representative from the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a human rights organization, who at first tried to hide his identity, then left without offering assistance, allegedly for fear of being injured himself.
The issue of human rights abuses looms large in Haiti. It is the noisiest issue by far –and, perhaps, the single most damaging as it suggests that Haitian society cannot take care of its own. It is also a difficult issue to pin down. That people are suffering is clear. Whether something is being done about it, is not. In April, 2004, a delegation from the National Lawyer’s Guild (which included attorney Judy DaCruz) met with two major human rights groups, CARLI and NCHR.
The Lawyers Guild issued this report:
“The Delegation spent time with the directors and legal staff of CARLI (Comite des Avocats pour le Respect des Libertes Individuelles) and NCHR (National Committee for Haitian Rights), two well-known ‘human rights’ organizations based in Port-au-Prince. CARLI has an IFES and USAID-sponsored ‘Hotline’ for victims of human rights abuses. CARLI then publishes a list each month of the names of the “abusers” using conclusory language condemning the person for the acts (typically murder and attempted murder) and calling for their immediate arrest. There is no evidence that CARLI conducts any investigation before condemning the named person. The person “condemned” to the list is never contacted to answer to the allegations. CARLI insisted that it conducts a thorough investigation of each of the 60 to 100 monthly calls and verifies all information beyond a reasonable doubt before publicly condemning a person by naming him/her.
CARLI has no full time staff, there are only two lawyers at the office, and all are volunteers. The February list contained the names of approximately 85 human rights violators against whom calls were made in February, and their political affiliations. All were Lavalas supporters or HNP. Prior lists observed also contained only people who are deemed by the list to be Lavalas supporters. … CARLI insists that it will investigate cases involving Lavalas victims, but admits that none have come forward.”
The lists are given to the police, governmental agencies, USAID, and the public. They list names and party affiliations.
“The Delegation met with people who are now in hiding because their names appear on the CARLI list. All deny being involved in any human rights abuses, and insist that the list exists to serve the political ends of the opposition and to instill fear.”
A teacher from Cap-Haitien complained that “I approached CARLI to see if they could help us with all of these human rights violations going on. Instead of them giving us their solidarity, they have worsened the situation. Masked individuals went to our houses. Many have had to leave their homes and come to Port au Prince …”
The NCHR does not fare much better in the Lawyers Guild report.
“The Delegation noted that many of the newsletters, ‘open letters,’ and advisories available in the NCHR waiting room refer to Aristide as a ‘dictator’ and that none of them concern abuses against supporters of the elected government or Lavla. … NCHR was asked if it would investigate the dumped bodies at Piste D’Aviation. The director and his staff laughed and denied that it was true. The Delegation then showed NCHR the photographs we had taken of the ashes and fresh human skeletons. In response, the NCHR director told us that the General Hospital routinely dumps bodies at the Piste D’Aviation.”
NCHR director Pierre Esperance was not laughing when we met with him. He denied being present at the meeting with the Lawyers Guild. He said he passed by, but did not stop to speak with anyone. “I didn’t even look at them and they say I was laughing at them,” he stated. Esperance denied that names are broadcast over the radio. He affirmed that his organization meets with many different types of people. When five Lavalas youths were killed, NCHR met with their families and helped with funeral arrangements. They met with families of individual killed by the multinationals in Bel Aire.
Having dispensed with the criticism, he launched into what he deems Haiti’s biggest problem: impunity. “Nothing can move forward without an effort to contain impunity,” he said. “We see the authorities have a tendency to forget what transpired in the coup of 1991–1994. We don’t agree with that. The authorities only want to give priority to human rights violations under the Aristide administration, when we say they were judged, and escaped. After 2/29 we did not have even one prisoner in jail. All of them had left. Those who committed crimes must be prosecuted as well. It’s interesting to note that, to date, Lavalas people are being arrested for the crimes they committed. Our position is that they deserve to be arrested because they have committed crimes. The question of a state of law cannot be slanted one way or another. That’s what we are fighting for today, with all of our independence. ….
If Lavalas people are in hiding, he continued, it is because “many of them participated in crimes or even kidnapping. Many of those in hiding have problems with the judicial system. There is not a systematic repression on the part of authorities. …There is not a deliberate attempt to chase away Lavalas. During the course of three years, we have met with many Lavalas supporters.” Esperance insisted that individuals who are incarcerated are seen by NCHR and an attorney. Judy DaCruz disputed that claim. (We did not go inside the jail). She also claimed that witnesses placed Esperance in the room during the Lawyers Guild meeting. “He came in and asked what’s happening,” she said.
The delegation wondered if any IRI or NDI dollars had found their way into the NCHR office on Rue Riviere. “I don’t know them; I don’t even know what they do,” Esperance told us. “We do not receive or get any money from the U.S. government. When the U.S. gives you $100, $80 goes back to its country. They have to get their own consultants, their own people. They think that people who know how to read and write only reside in their country. They should recognize that they are not the only experts.”
There also is another human rights group, Platforme for Haitian Rights (POHDH), which says it has tried to remain above political rivalries. It denounced the Aristide government, but it also declined to become involved with the Group of 184. The Platforme provides legal assistance in human rights cases. It was formed in 1991, and is an umbrella for several rights organizations.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone …
A General Confession, Book of Common Prayer, p. 360
History always is more than the facts alone; it is the spirit that drives human beings to make changes, to persevere. If poverty in goods is the first fact one learns about Haiti, the incredible wealth of spirit certainly is the second. To some extent, the spirit was broken by the events of February 29th. And, certainly, the United States played a role in those events. Our unofficial status and lack of time limited the amount of true investigative work that we could carry out, but these trends seem to be borne out, at least in the conventional wisdom of the Haitians we met.
What the United States has done
§ We have supported, in the name of promoting democracy, the development of political parties that did not have the degree of popular support necessary to succeed in the democratic process and, otherwise, would not have merited the political position they now enjoy. Dollars coming from the IRI and NDI appear to have contributed to the overall atmosphere of upheaval in Haiti, perhaps as some said, funding dissidents (paid anti-Aristide demonstrators, fake chimeres) and training journalists who now are part of an apparently biased media machine.
- Arms from the United States, eventually falling into Haitian hands, enabled anti-Aristide rebels to wield power without necessarily having popular support. There is an uneasy coincidence in the timing and location of IRI training in the Dominican Republic and the development of armed opposition to the Aristide government.
- The dream of a new Haiti, in which the basic principles of democracy would be worked out in a manner consistent with the culture and history of Haiti, appears to have been short-circuited. Demands for reparations on the part of France in its early days hamstrung the fledgling government; structural changes imposed by the West after Aristide’s return continued the crippling effect; funding of rival political parties, albeit in the interest of promoting a wide range of ideas, assisted in the creation of a continued atmosphere of upheaval.
- Multinational forces are effectively weakening the Lavalas party by jailing its members; due process — access to an attorney, human rights assistance — appears to have been suspended. Due process also apparently was violated in the resignation (“kidnapping” as many describe it) of President Aristide as well. Those who knew him provide evidence that he would not have left Haiti willingly, and did not intend to step down from office; whether the soldiers surrounding his home were protecting him or threatening him is uncertain.
What the United States has left undone
- The reports we heard bear out the belief that the United States has not supported the Haitian political process in working out its problems democratically, but has assisted in the continuation of an environment of fear and violence in which free speech is not likely to flourish.
§ The presence of the multinational forces was described as an intrusion, a lack of respect for the sovereignty of Haiti.
§ Charges against the Aristide government might have been brought before the Haitian parliament; hearings could have determined the extent and source of corruption. If the parliament was in disarray, as U.S. Embassy officials claimed, then the United States could have assisted in the effort to determine what had gone wrong and work with the Haitian people to find solutions.
§ If the official peacekeepers – the Haitian police – were poorly trained, the United States could have provided assistance in that area, working within the established structures.
§ With regard to the 2000 election: observers originally found the process to be exemplary; only later, when certain political considerations came into play, were questions raised as to its validity. As the Bush/Gore election debacle in the U.S. demonstrated, the democratic process can be messy, but messiness does not make it invalid.
§ Most telling, perhaps, is that we have not allowed ourselves to see Haiti as a nation unto itself, with a right to determine, for itself, how its future will unfold. In our heart of hearts, perhaps, it is still a slave nation governed by people we see only as servants. We have forgotten, as one person said, that Haitian volunteers helped win the Revolutionary War, that the United States and Haiti are sisters in freedom.
On a late afternoon, our van drives along the ports. To our left is the Gulf of Gonave; to the right, clusters of would-be merchants with makeshifts booths of clothing, tables of fruits and vegetables piled up and for sale. Women sit, leaning forward, chopping produce between their legs, their heads covered with large straw hats almost like canopies. A few step slowly over piles of yesterday’s refuse –decaying food mixed in with odd items of clothing, plastic jugs and other unrecognizable trash, all trampled into an undifferentiated mess. Behind them is a ditch, and behind that are what appear from our vantage point several yards away to be abandoned shacks of tin or maybe brick, dull affairs thrown close together and mostly falling down.
The heart breaks to see this, to watch people making a living in this place. In the distance are some pastel-colored buildings a few stories high, built by the Aristide government in an urban renewal effort. The colors are still bright and optimistic, a sure sign of hope. Then, suddenly, the eye is pulled away toward one of the abandoned shacks, where a splash of bright fuchsia waves in a breeze. One looks closely, and the patch of fuchsia becomes a curtain with ruffles along the edges. And beyond the ruffles, one sees an arm … and then a shoulder … and then it becomes clear that this shack is someone’s home. This is LaSaline, the second largest slum in Haiti. Tucked within its borders is the church where a young priest name Jean Bertrand Aristide once said Mass. This is where Lavalas – “life” — started. Someone else is praying there today.
The Rev. Angela Boatright, an Episcopal priest from Spring Valley, NY, represented The Fellowship of Reconciliation-USA on A People’s Fact-Finding Delegation to Haiti
April 18-23, 2004. The delegation was sponsored by the Washington D.C-based Ecumenical Program on Latin America and the Caribbean.
This is not the official report of the Delegation. It is the Rev. Boatright’s individual report, on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. For a summary of the official EPICA report, see http://www.epica.org/haiti/action_haiti.htm
To purchase a copy of the full report, go to http://firstname.lastname@example.org./Bookstore/Caribbean.htm
Link reading “Photos of the delegation”
Link reading “What you can do about Haiti”
For further information: Olivia B. Goumbri at email@example.com.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation
P.O. Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960
( 845) 358-4601; Fax:(845) 358-4924