Haiti Visit

simms, Vendredi, Mars 4, 2005 - 06:41

Yves Engler

While many Canadians know that on Feb. 29, 2004, Haiti's democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was sent into exile, few of us realize what most Haitians believe -- that Aristide was in fact overthrown by a U.S., France and Canadian-orchestrated coup d'état.

Along with Aristide, most of the country's elected officials have now been forced from office. With subsequent political repression against Aristide's party, Lavalas, thousands have lost their jobs, been jailed or killed.

Instrumental in the country's post-coup "process of democratization," Canada remains a top international supporter of installed President Gérard Latortue and the changes his government is implementing. We have offered continued financial backing, and helped train its new police forces through the UN.

But instead of praise, it appears that people throughout the Caribbean see Canada as supporting a project to once again tell the country's poor what is good for them.

In order to better understand what is happening in Haiti, I recently travelled there and to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where thousands of refugees have since fled. I spoke with people whose stories haven't been heard by the majority of Canadians, and the situation is chaotic. Haiti is a country that assaults the senses and the intellect.

Politically motivated firings

Semereste Bolière is the elected mayor of Petit Goave, a town of 15,000 in southwestern Haiti. Arrested in March by new authorities installed after the coup, he escaped his captors and is now hiding out in Port-au-Prince.

While we sip cola from '50s-style pop bottles in a run-down labour hall near the city centre, he tells me that since his departure from office, Petit Goave has mostly been in the hands of former military officers who led the rebellion against Aristide's constitutional government. This army, notorious for murderous repression, was disbanded by the former leader in 1995.

Bolière and Ronald St-Jean, a human rights activist also with us, say that throughout the country hundreds of elected mayors, council members and senators were forced into hiding or exile. Those officials who kept their positions have made accommodations with the U.S.-armed paramilitary thugs, many of whom are convicted murderers and drug runners. St-Jean and Bolière are very disappointed with Canadian involvement in Haiti, believing it is undermining democracy rather than fostering it.

Rea Dol is a 38-year-old mother of three who, before February's upheaval, worked for the District of Petionville, which is an upscale -- in Haitian terms -- suburb of Port-au-Prince. When the interim government installed Marie Renée, a new unelected mayor, Dol found herself out of work. Fired without cause, with no compensation and owed back wages, she says she is just one of thousands -- more than 2,000 at the state telecom company alone -- fired for their perceived political affiliations.

As we lunch on chicken and rice, she tells me about long unemployment lines in a country with no social assistance and where most of the urban population is looking for work. It appears that some of the recently unemployed, especially the hundreds of police officers purged over the past ten months, have taken to crime. Some have probably become "Chimères," a gang no one seems able to define, and that the mainstream media claims is pro-Aristide and behind Haiti's violence.

She says that the rising cost of food staples--rice and beans--is also driving people to lawlessness. Imported by a handful of wealthy families who supported Aristide's removal, costs have increased by 40 per cent since the coup. Undoubtedly there has been a marked rise in malnutrition, but in the chaos who is keeping track?

Trying not to get shot by the police

Incredibly, for some people food for survival isn't their top priority. Not getting shot outranks eating.
I meet Jeremy, a 20-year-old who used to work for the government TV station.

A couple of weeks after the overthrow of the elected government, armed men came to his house. He wasn't home, Jeremy tells me with fear still in his eyes, so they killed his aunt. He fled to the Dominican Republic for six months and still does not dare return home.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, with respected Harvard professor Paul Farmer as a board member, have documented hundreds of killings of poor Lavalas supporters by paramilitary death squads and the police. On Oct. 26, Haitian police rounded up 12 young men in the Fort National slum. They were forced to lie down and were then shot in the back of the head.

Two days later under similar circumstances, four more slum dwellers were murdered in the Lavalas stronghold of Bel Air. Haitian journalist Abdias Jean was killed by the Haitian National Police January 14 after he witnessed the police execute three people in the slum of Village de Dieu. These incidents were reported in the mainstream media, but most killings are not.

It is almost impossible to ascertain how many have died from political violence and repression since February. An IJDH report covering the period until the end of July documents -- with pictures of over 50 bodies -- hundreds of murders, mostly of Lavalas supporters. An exhaustive human rights report released at the end of January by the University of Miami School of Law Center for the Study of Human Rights confirms the brutality of the installed Gérard Latortue regime. It is reasonable to assume that hundreds -- maybe thousands -- more have been killed since August.

During a pro-Lavalas demonstration on Sept. 30 -- the anniversary of Aristide's first U.S.-backed removal from office -- the national police fired into the crowd. At least four unarmed demonstrators were killed under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers. The next day, installed Prime Minister Gérard Latortue was quoted as saying, "We shot them, some of the them fell, others were injured, others ran away."

On Dec. 1, two weeks after the government fired more than a dozen experienced prison guards, a deadly riot broke out at the heavily fortified national penitentiary. At first, the government claimed seven prisoners were killed. This was later increased to ten but subsequent investigations by Reuters, the Toronto Star and IJDH suggest that this number is likely a gross underestimate. The actual figure could be as high as 110, according to the IJDH.

I tried to interview prisoners to find out what happened, but since Dec. 1, the downtown Port-au-Prince national prison has been off limits to family members and most outsiders. The government admits, however, that of the 1,100 held in the prison when the riot occurred, only 17 were convicted of any crimes. Hundreds of the detainees still languishing in the overcrowded cells are Lavalas activists, including the elected Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and numerous senators.

Political prisoners and growing poverty

Inside the women's Petionville prison, I meet two prominent political
prisoners: internationally-acclaimed folk music singer So Anne and the former head of the Haitian Senate, Yvon Feuille.

So Anne is a feisty 70-year-old who brings the music of Haiti to the world and is also a political organizer committed to improving the lives of ordinary people in the poorest country of the Americas. She says, incredibly cheerfully, that she has been behind bars without charge since May 10 when U.S. Marines barged into her house at one in the morning. The Marines killed two dogs and arrested everyone, including a couple of children. Seven months after her arrest So Anne is defiant.
She flexes her arm muscles and shouts out, "They won't intimidate me."

Port-au-Prince stretches up a mountain from a Caribbean bay. The higher up one climbs, the wealthier the neighbourhood becomes. At the top is Petionville where the latest SUVs are on display and western banks are never far away. Luxurious mansions line the peak looking out over the city of two million. But even in Petionville, poverty is rampant.

At a sprawling market, hundreds of women entrepreneurs spend their days selling inventories of a few dozen small candies and other products that would take up a couple inches of shelf space in a Canadian dollar store.

I visit SOPUDEP school, which educates hundreds of children whose parents are unable to pay even a tiny fee. Demand for the school rises by the day.
But in September, I am told, Petionville's new (unelected) mayor attempted to shut the school down. The new mayor associates the school with the Lavalas party, so she sent in machine-gun wielding police during school hours. Ultimately the school remained open with the help of outside pressure, but how long it can continue to operate under these trying circumstances is open to question.

Sorting through the rubble

Fifty feet below the house where I am staying, a shantytown begins. One evening on my way back, I lose my direction, finding myself in a neighbourhood where it is unclear what is a dwelling and what is a burned-out car or a pile of garbage. It's scary, but as children jump from rock to rock in the desolate landscape, I am even more fearful of what growing up here must be like.

Almost one year after the coup, the stories I hear still resonate with strong opinions about what has befallen these people's country, and who is responsible.

Canada is not helping by siding with the rich against the poor, says So Anne, the folksinger.
If outside forces would just respect their democracy and give them aid, they could improve their country, says Bolière the former mayor.

The Aristide government cut the illiteracy rate from 80 per cent to 50 per cent, says my host. Poor people understood the government was on their side -- that's why Aristide is so popular to this day.
"I just want to believe a better life is possible," said Jeremy. "Can you offer us that?"

This article by Montrealer Yves Engler is reproduced here with the author's kind permission. Thank you, Yves.

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