Haitian dissidents find themselves
the targets of massive repression.
by Ben Terrall
In These Times magazine, May 2005
In sync with its grandiose claims about
building democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration
is promoting new elections in Haiti in October and November as
the great hope for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Yet, while Washington provides diplomatic, political and military
support for the Haitian government of Interim Prime Minister Gerard
Latortue, hooded police and death squads are systematically repressing
political supporters of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Aristide's Lavalas Party is still the
Haitian political organization with the most popular support by
a large margin. Months after the February 29, 2004, coup that
drove Aristide from office, Conrad Tribble of the U.S. Embassy
in Port-au-Prince conceded, "If there were an election held
today, Lavalas would win." But today, Lavalas partisans can
barely go outdoors safely, while the right-wing paramilitary leader
Guy Philippe, who was trained by U.S. Special Forces in Ecuador
in the '90S, has launched his own political party, the Front for
In the beginning of February 2004, Philippe
led U.S.-trained paramilitaries across the border from the Dominican
Republic in attacks on Haiti's second largest city, Cap-Haitien.
Also directing the paramilitary attacks was Louis-Jodel Chamblain,
former second-in-command of the Revolutionary Front for Haitian
Advancement and Progress, an anti-Lavalas death squad that the
CIA helped create in 1993. In the following two weeks, these forces
emptied Haiti's prisons; among those set free were anti-Aristide
death squad veterans from the 1991-1994 coup period. The new regime
has now filled the jails with government officials, teachers and
Thomas Griffin, a Philadelphia immigration
lawyer, interviewed both poor slum dwellers and rich elites in
Haiti for a report recently published by the University of Miami's
Center for the Study of Human Rights. The report noted, "Haiti's
security and justice institutions fuel the cycle of violence.
Summary executions are a police tactic . ... Haiti's brutal and
disbanded army has returned to join the fray. Suspected dissidents
fill the prisons, their constitutional rights ignored. As voices
for nonviolent change are silenced by arrest, assassination or
fear, violent defense becomes a credible option."
Much of the repression has occurred under
the watch of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti
(MINUSTAH), established by the U.N. Security Council on June 1,
2004. A March 2005 report by the Harvard Law Student Advocates
for Human Rights and the Global Justice Center notes that the
mission was endowed "with a strong mandate in three principal
areas: providing a secure and stable environment, particularly
through disarmament; supporting the political process and good
governance in preparation for upcoming elections; and monitoring
and reporting on human rights," but it has "made little,
if any, progress on any of these three fronts."
The Harvard report concludes: "MINUSTAH
has provided cover for abuses committed by the HNP [Haitian National
Police] during operations in poor, historically tense Port-au-Prince
neighborhoods. Rather than advising and instructing the police
in best practices, and monitoring their missteps, MINUSTAH has
been the midwife of their abuses." The report also attacked
the United Nations' unwillingness to protect civilians from political
violence, saying, "the failure to do so when civilians beg
for U.N. assistance is simply incomprehensible."
Father Gerard Jean-Juste, famous in both
Haiti and the diaspora for decades of service to the poor, is
still working on the ground in Port-au-Prince. On October 13,
2004, masked Haitian police arrested Jean-Juste as he was feeding
hundreds of hungry children at his parish.
Latortue claimed there was a warrant for
Jean-Juste's arrest, but no one ever produced the document or
any evidence linking the priest to a crime. This means the arrest
was in violation of Haiti's constitution, but the U.S. State Department
explained this away, saying, "Haitian legal experts have
told us that under Haitian law, the government can hold Father
Jean-Juste for up to three months in his current status while
finalizing the case against him." A State Department spokesperson
also assured reporters that Jean-Juste was being "lawfully
But as one of Jean-Juste's lawyers, Loyola
University New Orleans professor William Quigley, put it: "The
situation here is very bad-there is no real law except the law
of the powerful."
On November 29, Jean-Juste was released
for lack of evidence. He told In
These Times, "A guy like me is lucky."
While imprisoned, his wrists were cuffed so tightly that circulation
hadn't completely returned in one hand, but "they didn't
beat me." Twelve of his fellow cellmates had been beaten
so badly "their heads were broken."
In contrast to Jean-Juste, Ted Nazaire's
case received no international attention. Nazaire was arrested
after fighting with his brother. Because a judge happened to be
passing by when the fight occurred, a warrant actually was filled
out for his arrest, unlike most of his fellow inmates. A tall,
muscular man of 26, Nazaire spent four months in prison until
his mother resorted to bribing a judge to gain his release.
While in prison, Nazaire witnessed the
bloody December 1 massacre of prisoners by guards at the National
Penitentiary-the same day that Cohn Powell was engaged in a high-profile
meeting with Latortue. Nazaire estimates that police systematically
killed at least 6o prisoners. Other eyewitnesses, including Radio
Megastar journalist Saby Kettny, who saw police firing machine
guns from a catwalk at prisoners, confirm that mass executions
took place. According to the Institute for Justice and Democracy
in Haiti, on December 1, only 22 of the 1,041 prisoners in the
National Penitentiary had been convicted of a crime.
The swollen eye, knot on his head, and
bruised arms and legs testified to the severe beating Nazaire
received from guards who threatened to kill him if he talked about
the massacre. Nazaire and his family have since gone into hiding
for their safety.
A complicit media
Jean-Juste says that on most Haitian radio
stations "everything bad happening this week will be blamed
on Lavalas." The stations, primarily owned by elites who
opposed Aristide's efforts to increase the minimum wage and advance
other progressive initiatives, have demonized Lavalas for years.
The press owner's association, the National
Association of Haitian Media, is a member of the Group of 184,
an anti-Lavalas outfit masquerading as a civil society umbrella
group that spearheaded the coup with funding from the U.S.-based
International Republican Institute (itself an arm of the National
Endowment for Democracy). Between 2001 and 2003 the European Commission
contributed approximately $890,000 to organizations affiliated
with the Group of 184, and the U.S. Agency for International Development
allocated more than $million. This funding occurred during the
U.S. aid embargo that financially paralyzed the Aristide government.
Andre Apaid Jr., the Group of 184's leader,
is a factory owner who founded Haiti's main TV station, Tele-Haiti,
and led the 2003 campaign opposing Aristide's decision to double
the minimum wage. For the University of Miami report, Griffin
talked to numerous sources who described Apaid's support for the
Port-au-Prince gang leader Labanye, who had terrorized the city's
residents before his violent death on March 31. One veteran Haitian
dissident told Griffin that despite Apaid's claims to be non-political,
he was in fact "the government's boss."
Griffin believes "Lavalas gangs"
has become a catchphrase used to justify further repression. "The
U.N. is in there to make it legitimate, but they can't even talk
to the people they're supposed to be helping," he says. "There's
no strategy in entering the poorest neighborhoods during so-called
security operations. They shoot wildly, as do the police. Since
Aristide was ousted, the outspoken democratic leaders, including
government officials, have been either killed or arrested.
"For Aristide to be blamed for their
desperation is absurd," he concludes.
The Latortue regime has also accused Aristide
of orchestrating violence from his exile in South Africa-a questionable
charge according to human rights lawyer Brian Concannon, who worked
for years to put death squad leader Chamblain behind bars. (The
Latortue regime acquitted Chamblain last summer in an overnight
trial that Amnesty International called "an insult to justice"
and a "mockery.")
"Latortue can say that Aristide is
backing violence in Port-au-Prince without presenting any proof
and it's presented as gospel in the newspapers," Concannon
says. "But when people talk to our lawyers in Haiti about
the interim government's persecution of dissidents, they have
extremely credible, consistent and corroborated information. That
information will not get into the mainstream media."
Such bias has also characterized the electoral
process. In November, Roselor Julien resigned as president of
the Provisional Electoral Council, calling preparations for the
upcoming elections a "burlesque comedy." Julien warned
that other panel members were trying to rig the ballot and that
the council was not capable of ensuring free and fair elections.
The council has also excluded representatives of Lavalas.
"Today in 2005, who can expect free,
fair and democratic elections in Haiti with thousands of Lavalas
members in jail, exile and hiding?" asked Aristide at an
April 19 press conference in South Africa. He demanded that four
steps be taken to reverse the "tragic mistake" of the
2004 coup d'etat.
"One, thousands of Lavalas who are
in jail and in exile must be free to return home. Two, the repression
that has already killed 10,000 people must end immediately. Three,
then there must be national dialogue. Four, free, fair and democratic
elections must be organized in an environment where the huge majority
of Haitian people is neither excluded nor repressed as they have
been up until today."
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based
in San Francisco.
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