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Haiti: Return To Democracy Or Dream Deferred?

Haiti: Return To Democracy Or Dream Deferred? image Haiti: Return To Democracy Or Dream Deferred? image
Parent Issue
Month
September
Year
1993
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Agenda Publications
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Editor's note: Alan Wald traveled to Haití from July 1StoJuly22, 1993, onaCivilian-Observerdelegation to investígate human rights abuses. The delegation was comprisedoffíve Ann Arborites andorganized by the Ann Arbor-based Haití Soldarity Group, in coordination with the Washington Office on Haití. The visit to the island was divided equally between the capital oí Port-au-Prince and the rural área around Cap-Haitien. Wald is a professor of English at the University of Michigan and on the editorial board of the Detroitbased monthly "Against The Current." The Haitian peace accord may be capturing international headlines, but it's being treated with great skepticism on the ground in Haiti. The agreement - brokered n July by the U.N. and the Organization of American States (O.A.S.), using the threat of an economie embargo against the present regime - claims to represent a compromise which will, in the coming months, allow former president Aristide to resume limited powers. On Sept. 30, 1991 Haitian army Lt. General Raoul Cedras led a coup that overthrew democratically-elected Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the years since the coup, a bloody reign of repression by the military regime has ensued. Responses to the coup by world bodies have ranged from recognition of the new government (the Vatican) to half-hearted opposition (U.S. and the O.A.S.). In fact, the best-known part of the U.S. response has been to systematically deny appeals for asylum from Haitian refugees. Few Haitians with whom we spoke have faith in the accord signed by Cedras and Aristide on Governor's Island, New York, in earty July. Among the glaring inadequacies of the agreement are its failure to address the Ilegal parliamentary election of January 1993 that gave a majority to antiAristide forces, and the apparent amnesty it gives to the murderous coup-leaders and supporters. Still, what hope exists among the people we nterviewed is pinned on the return of Aristide and the nspiration to struggle that may be provided by his presence in the presidential post. The majority of the population, over 80% of this extraordinary country, now lingers in a netherworld of bare subsistence. Once "the greatest colony in the world," Haiti's riches were first plundered by the French Empire, then a U.S. occupation (marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934), and finally Haiti's own ruling class. The island nation is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with an average annual income of $400, an average life span of fifty-five years, and an infant mortality rate of 11%. When the coup smashed the dreams and achievements of the seven-month period under the leadership of Aristide and the Lávalas movement (Lávalas means The Flood" and is the term for Aristide's supporters), much of the population receded to a state of demoralized torpor. The worst slums, such as Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince, are no longer sites of public clean-up campaigns but are heaped with garbage as if to make a kind of public statement about the futility of any efforts toward improvement under the present regime. An Eyewitness Report Our delegation visited the orphanage founded by Aristide, La Fanmi Se Lavi, firebombed at the time of the coup (three children were killed, two wounded); it now stands as gutted huik, harassment f rom neighboring attachés (pro-military goons) having forced most of the children to return to the streets. Small demonstrations occasionally break out on the street or in churches, although they are almost always repressed with clubs and gunfire. People usually act cautiously. Gatherings of more than three people are likely to be regarded as suspect, so organizations function underground. A significant amount of political communication takes place through the structures of the f; legliz, the liberation theology wing of the Catholic Church. The country itself is divided into nine departments with over 500 units, each of the latter with its own section chief, most often a brutal thug who holds the power of life and death over the population in his district, especially the rural áreas where most of the people live. Under Aristide there were efforts to créate a functioning justice system, to change the military and pólice leadership (a 7,700person combined force serves both purposes), to improve prison conditions, and even to remove the hated section chiefs. Since the coup such progress has been reversed, returning the country to conditions reminiscent of the worst days of the Duvalier dictatorship. In the office of the beleaguered Peace and Justice Commission in downtown Port-au-Prince, we were told of more than 300,000 people living in hiding. Two of the fugitives were present. The younger man was a school director accused of being a "ring leader" of Aristide supporters by the local section chief. He had been beaten and driven from his home. The second was an elderly peasant, similarly accused, who was ordered by pólice to turn his land over to a stranger. Students at the state university in Port-auPrince, reeling from the effects of mass expulsions of themselves and their professors, were hesitant to meet with our delegation for fear that their identities might become disclosed to the pólice. Some of the purged faculty are drifting toward an altemative university, Quisqueya, a private institution with 400 students. We visited those who founded the institution in October 1 990, mostly disgruntled professors from the Agricultural Program at the state university. Others, such as a pro-Aristide professorof history with whom we met, continue to teach students off-campus. The situation on the other side of the island is even worse. In Limonade, a rural town near CapHaïtien, we discretely linked up with 15 peasant leaders following a Sunday morning mass, in a room near the church arranged by the priest. Photographs and tape-recordings were not allowed. There the Peasant Organization of Limonade (ROPL), an umbrella organization comprised of 55 groups (numbering between 25 and 50 each) of women, youth, peasants, and co-operatves with a shared visión, was formed in 1990, afterthe nation of General Avril. In the Aristide period, they succeeded in replacing the old section chief with a man they trusted, and the región even began to obtain good judges. Corruption diminished and wages of the peasants increased f rom 1 5 to 28 gourds a day . Then carne the coup. The old section chief returned and new judges began to be appointed. Many activists went into hiding, wherethey remain.Thirtyyoungactiviststriedto flee the country in a boat and were drowned. ROPL's list of pólice and army abuses seemed endless. A young girl who refused to sleep with an associate of the section chief was killed, and no legal action was taken. The chief had a peasant activist arrested, beaten, and held nine months in jail. Another was promised f reedom if he paid $600 - to raise the amount he was forced to sell all his possessions. Members of a teachers union, the Federation of Associations of Teachers of the North and Northeast (FAENNE), based in Cap-Haïtien, told our delegation similar stories. The organization was founded in 1 986, after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country into exile in France, and is comprised of 26 associations of teachers, mainly .in secondary schools. During Aristide's dency six new public schools were opened in seven months. Following the coup, the private sector and Tontón Macoute (paramilitary rightwing bands) began to move against the Aristide supporters, forcing leaders and activists in the popular organizations into hiding. Teachers were arrested, beaten and tortured. Forty-two members of the FAENNE in one high school were summarily fi red. Students were killed and disappeared. One of the persecuted teachers with whom we spoke had applied for political asylum in the U.S., but after several months received back only a form letter from the U.S. State Department denying his request. The next day we took a copy of this letter to the Cap-Haïtien office of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the organizaron contracted by the U.S. govemment to process such applications. The young attomey there from the U.S. showed no interest in reconsidering the case, but mainly insisted that he had received much satisfaction from the "success stories." The teachers with whom we spoke, however, claimed that they were unaware that any of their beleaguered colleagues had actually received an immigration . visa. Since February 1993, the United Nations and Organization of American States have placed Missions throughout the country to monitor human rights. At Cap-Haïtien we visited the Mission, located in the center of town between the Mayores office and the Ministry of the Interior. In our interview with a dozen staff members, who had been there for varying lengths of time, we were stunned to discover that no one had ever heard of the Teachers' Union or of its repression. "No one has come in here with that information," a young University of Wisconsin gradúate explained to us. When we pointed out that many of the teachers were in hiding, and that one had even fled to the Dominican Republic, she replied: "We 'II, we can't go to the Dominican Republic to find them, can we?" Acknowledging that the location of the Mission, so near the authorities, might intimidate some of the persecuted from stopping by, members of the Mission pointed out that they did make forays into the región. "What about the peasants organization in Limonade?" we asked. (The leaders of ROPL had claimed that the O.A.S.-U.N. Mission met with the pólice in their regiorj,'bu had ,fai led Jtq show up to meet, wijrj , representatives from ROPL, who were ready and waiting.) Members of the Mission confirmed that this had occurred, but offered no explanation as to why the situation hadn't been remedied in subsequent weeks. Few Haitians with whom we spoke have faith in the July accord. "How can anyone make the army respect any agreements?" one of the Friends of the Prisoners asked. Still, what hope that exists among the people we interviewed is pinned on Aristide's return. To this end," one of the ROPL members said, "the population will gladly suffer the effects of any embargo or boycott of Haiti, even if it drives us back to the age of the donkey." A presen tation by members of the delegation will be made September 14 at 7:30 pm at the First Baptist Church, 512 E. Hurón (see Calendar). A superb newsletter is now being issued every two weeks by supporters of the grassroots democratie movement, available for a subscription fee of $18 a year: Haiti Info, Haitian Information Bureau, co Lynx Air, Box 4071 39, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 33340. ■

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