While the world focuses on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti, a recently released documentary is a welcome reminder that Haiti’s history didn’t start in 2010. Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits offers an uncompromising perspective on the years 2004-2005, when Haiti went through a coup that ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a subsequent occupation by foreign troops under a UN Security Council mandate. The director, Kevin Pina, a Creole-speaking American journalist who has lived in Haiti on and off for 15 years, tells a story that has so far largely been outshone by the official narrative.
The title of Pina’s documentary is borrowed from General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, the military commander for the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti from 2004 to 2006. Pereira allegedly claimed that “we” – presumably the UN in conjunction with the Haitian police – had to “kill the bandits – but it will have to be only the bandits, not everybody.” He was referring to the armed gangs reportedly operating from the Cité Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince. The thought of an officer in charge of a UN peacekeeping mission describing his mission as “killing” is disturbing enough, but the term “bandit” also has a heavy historical background. During the 1915-1934 US occupation of Haiti, the Marines were already rounding up “bandits,” as all the young men who were fighting against the US military presence were called. “Bandits” became a popular term to label the resistance movement. That the UN should embrace it decades later is disturbing.
Haiti: We Must Kill the Banditsfollows what happened in Haiti after President Aristide was ousted by a coup in February 2004. While Aristide was forcibly flown to Africa, the Multinational Interim Force (MIF) – mainly US, Canadian and French troops – was sent to Haiti under a Security Council mandate, supposedly to offer “humanitarian” protection to the population. This intervention brought to power a government led by Gérard Latortue, a former UN official who lived in the US at the time of the coup.
In June 2004, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) took over from the MIF. The mission was headed by General Pereira from Brazil, and staffed mainly with Brazilian soldiers. A US cable from March 2004 released by Wikileaks reveals that Brazil first insisted that it would only participate in a peacekeeping mission sent under Chapter VI, but in the end conceded to a Chapter VII mission (see paragraph 4 of the cable). This is not trivial. While Chapter VI missions are “traditional” peacekeeping missions – they require the agreement of all parties concerned and impose heavy restraints on the use of force by peacekeepers – Chapter VII missions can be defined as “peace enforcement” rather than “peacekeeping.” For a Chapter VII mission to be deployed, the Security Council has to determine that the situation constitutes a serious threat to international peace and security. Under Chapter VII, the mandate outlines circumstances in which peacekeepers are permitted to fire their arms, for instance to protect UN personnel or civilians.
The Chapter VII MINUSTAH was mandated, among other things, to “ensure a secure and stable environment” in “support of the Transitional Government” (the Latortue government) and “to assist with the restoration and maintenance of the rule of law, public safety and public order in Haiti through the provision inter alia of operational support to the Haitian National Police and the Haitian Coast Guard.” In other words, the Security Council was lending support to a de facto regime with a heavily-armed peacekeeping mission, contributing to the militarization of the situation in Haiti. After watching Pina’s documentary, one is left with the impression that MINUSTAH was sent less to “keep peace” than to perform riot control. “Without the UN, this government would fall in a week,” Pina rightly points out.
The UN peacekeeping force effectively assisted the Latortue government in its efforts to silence supporters of Aristide’s party Lavalas under the guise of fighting the “bandits.” Pina’s documentary presents compelling evidence that activists from Lavalas suffered harsh repression at the hands of both the Haitian police and MINUSTAH. Large Lavalas demonstrations starting from Cité Soleil, a bastion of Aristide supporters, were met with violence by the Haitian police. While the UN officially condemned the killing of demonstrators by the police, a shocking footage from the documentary shows that in one occasion General Pereira refused to intervene even as demonstrators were being shot a few meters away.
Worse still, in July 2005, MINUSTAH led an assault on Cité Soleil against the “bandits.” 22,000 rounds were shot in just seven hours. The footage from the raid’s aftermath is difficult to watch, even though Pina blurred some of the most graphic footage. We see a woman wailing as the body of her dead husband lies on the floor of their house, and a young priest showing the bullet impacts on the walls of his church. A blind man nursing several gunshot wounds sings a tune he composed after the raid to lament the death of his two children.The chorus goes “What have I done to you, MINUSTAH foreigners?”
The voice of these people is rarely heard in the establishment media. When it is mentioned, it is often to dismiss it as “propaganda.” As journalist Isabel MacDonald underlines in her review of the documentary, “Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits provides a rare account from the other side of the vast racialized class divide that separates the international press from Lavalas’ base of support.” Kevin Pina may show only one side of the story – he acknowledges it at the beginning of the documentary – but it’s a side that remains badly underreported. His documentary is a must-see for anyone trying to go beyond the worn-down clichés the media use to describe the crisis in Haiti.
We Must Kill the Banditscan be seen here.
More info on the Haiti Information Project (HIP), the alternative media organization which produced the documentary, can be found here.
Ansel Herz, a freelance journalist based in Port-Au-Prince, published on his blog an interesting comparative review of Pina’s documentary and “The Battle for Haiti,” a PBS documentary which “lauds the United Nations peacekeeping mission and the Haitian police for waging a heroic but doomed battle against violent gangs.”
Picture credit: Reuters, 2007