Alternatives… to what?


{The piece to which this article is responding is available in French at Alternatives and an English translation is available here)

It is a strange day indeed when a progressive NGO finds itself on the same side of an issue as Roger Noriega, the U.S. diplomat notorious for his role in organizing the Contra army that terrorized Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. Yet this is precisely the case with Alternatives, a Quebec-based “non-governmental international solidarity organization” dedicated to promoting “democracy” and “socio-economic justice and equality”. Its mandate and prominent contributors, including Naomi Klein and Judy Rebick, would normally put such a group at odds with Noriega. Not so, reveals the July edition of Le Journal Alternatives, a publication inserted once per month in Montreal’s daily Le Devoir with the express purpose of “creating a window of alternative information on our world”.

François L’Ecuyer’s front-page article titled “The Militarization of Peace in Haiti” is a shameful parody of journalism: unsubstantiated assertions, illogical arguments, anonymous sources and anecdotes masquerade as hard evidence throughout the article. Chief among these transgressions is L’Ecuyer’s claim that “Chimères, gangs loyal to and armed by President Aristide,” have launched a campaign to destabilize the country called “Operation Baghdad” in an effort to derail elections planned for October and November 2005. Deposed Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide is said to be profiting politically from the violence afflicting Haiti, while other sectors benefit from the chaos financially.

L’Ecuyer’s analysis of the situation in Haiti bears a disturbing resemblance to the propaganda disseminated by high-level U.S. and Canadian government officials. A week before L’Ecuyer’s article appeared, Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, gave a similar account: “Aristide and his camp are singularly responsible for most of the violence and for the concerted nature of the violence,” (Miami Herald, June 24, 2005). Like L’Ecuyer, Noriega argues that while some “opportunistic criminal organizations” are engaged in kidnappings and other crimes, “Aristide and his gangs are playing a central role in generating violence, and trying to sow insecurity,” in a desperate “last stand to terrorize the Haitian people and deny them good government.”

L’Ecuyer uncritically repeats the “Operation Baghdad” fiction spun by the Haitian elite to justify increased repression of the poor. Notably, the label “Operation Baghdad” was concocted by Jean-Claude Bajeux, a member of an anti-Aristide political party, and repeated incessantly by the interim government and the international press. Fanmi Lavalas spokespersons immediately denounced the violence of September 30 – the day that supposedly heralded the start of the destabilization effort – claiming that “Operation Baghdad” was “a calculated attempt to manipulate the media and U.S. public opinion”. Lavalas’ base also rejected the label: on December 16, 2004, in Cap-Haitien, ten thousand Lavalas supporters marched behind a banner reading “Operation Baghdad is a plot by Group 184 to put an end to Lavalas. They will fail!” One is left to wonder what groups L’Ecuyer has in mind whose “admitted purpose” is the destabilization campaign called “Operation Baghdad”, given the distanci! ng of Lavalas and their supporters from the title.

On September 30, 2004 masked policemen killed several unarmed protestors commemorating Aristide’s first overthrow. Installed Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, in a radio interview on October 1, was unrepentant: “We fired on them. Some died, others were wounded, and others fled.” Police and government officials subsequently claimed protestors attacked police, killing and decapitating three officers. The government declined to release the identity of the police officers or allow journalists and human rights investigators to view the bodies. No photos of the bodies were provided either. The Comité des Avocats pour le Respect des Libertés Individuelles (CARLI), a severe critic of Aristide during his time in office, investigated “Operation Baghdad” and concluded that no such operation had been launched by Lavalas supporters. CARLI found that two officers, Ancelme Milfrane and Jean Janvier, had been decapitated, but they were killed on September 29 by former soldiers. It was n! ot until after the massive demonstration on September 30 that the government and elite-owned media began to blame Lavalas for the killings. Beheading, incidentally, was (and is) a common practice of the hated and feared former Haitian Army (FAd’H).

L’Ecuyer also bizarrely announces that “word is spreading” that MINUSTAH (the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti) has a pro-Lavalas bias, yet can only muster one rather vague incident in as evidence: “In February 2005, demonstrations by armed Aristide supporters proceeded under tight protection of the U.N. forces, who carefully kept the police away. [Former USAID employee] Bernard Gousse, then minister of justice, even stated that some ‘escapees from prison’ were among the demonstrators.” Without giving a specific date, we can only presume which demonstrations L’Ecuyer is referring to; perhaps the February 8 demonstration by thousands of peaceful Lavalas supporters that, according to Agence Haitien Presse, “was interrupted by a police patrol accompanied by individuals in civilian dress, known as attachés, who reportedly began shooting at the demonstrators, injuring several of them,” before UN troops intervened. Or maybe L’Ecuyer had in mind the February 28 demo, where MINUST! AH troops stood by as police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing five and wounding dozens. A serious case of pro-Lavalas bias indeed.

This last incident proved to be such an embarrassment to the UN that it was compelled to provide a modicum of protection to demonstrators and even began cracking down on the reconstituted FAd’H in the countryside. Under the heightened protection of the UN, numbers swelled at peaceful demonstrations calling for the return of President Aristide and the release of hundreds of political prisoners. MINUSTAH, however, soon returned to its habit of letting the Haitian National Police (HNP) terrorize peaceful protestors. On March 24, police opened fire on a demonstration in Cite Soleil, killing 3 to 5 demonstrators and on April 27, nine more protestors from Bel-Air were killed despite UN supervision. The UN’s quick reversal was largely due to the badgering by the interim government and elite-owned Haitian media accusing the UN of defending Lavalas “gangsters”. L’Ecuyer’s hazy accusations are flatly contradicted by a detailed Harvard Law School human rights report studying the performance of the UN in Haiti. The Harvard report, conducted in October 2004 and January 2005, found that “MINUSTAH has effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Prince’s slums. Even more distressing than MINUSTAH’s complicity in HNP abuses are credible allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by MINUSTAH itself.” On July 6, Reuters reported, “about 400 U.N. troops with 41 armored vehicles and helicopters, and several dozen Haitian police officers, conducted a raid in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s largest slum.” While the UN claimed only 5 “criminals” had been killed, “[r]esidents said the number of people killed . . . ranged from 25 to 40.” The Reuters article also quoted Ali Besnaci, head of the Medecins Sans Frontiers mission in Haiti: “We received 27 people wounded by gunshots on July 6. Three quarters were children and women.”

By thoughtlessly regurgitating claims of the U.N’s pro-Lavalas bias, L’Ecuyer is not only obscuring serious human rights abuses being committed by the UN in Haiti, but also aiding the elite’s push for more repressive UN actions against the poor, such as the July 6 massacre.

L’Ecuyer’s solution to the problem of insecurity in Haiti’s capital (given the allegedly compromised nature of MINUSTAH) is to provide more arms and support to the HNP. The Bush administration complied with another shipment of weapons to the installed government in early August, despite a long-standing arms embargo. According to numerous human rights reports, however, the HNP are the leading cause of Haiti’s escalating violence: a recent International Crisis Group report notes that the HNP “have taken over old FAd’H practices, including military-style operations in the capital’s poor neighbourhoods with little regard for collateral damage to civilians.” Hardly a surprise, considering more than 500 ex-soldiers have been integrated into the HNP, with the top ranks of the HNP now staffed almost exclusively with former FAd’H officers, while another 500-1000 are in the process of being trained. In addition to their wanton attacks on the poor, according to the ICG report and o! ther sources, the new HNP are engaged in kidnapping and drug running, an old habit of the FAd’H. Astonishingly, in an article about the sources of instability and “militarization” in Haiti, L’Ecuyer does not make any mention of the former military, rebranded first as “rebels” while they helped overthrow Aristide and now as “police” as they repress the poor neighbourhoods.

Correcting L’Ecuyer’s erroneous views on “Operation Baghdad” and MINUSTAH leads to an inversion of the article’s main arguments. The cries of UN bias or “softness” towards pro-Lavalas gangs are no longer justified complaints but rather attempts to bully MINUSTAH into even greater repression of the poor majority. Sadly, the increased frequency of brutal “anti-gang” raids into neighborhoods like Bel-Air and Cite Soleil appears to indicate that the UN forces are heeding these calls. Likewise, “Operation Baghdad” no longer appears as a violent political tool of Lavalas, but as a major disinformation effort serving to justify intensified anti-Lavalas attacks. L’Ecuyer joins this effort when he accuses, without a shred of evidence, prominent Bel-Air activist Samba Boukman and human rights worker Ronald St. Jean of being “notorious criminals.” In an environment where the victims of police operations are routinely labelled “bandits” and “criminals” post-humously, this is exceedin! gly dangerous.

Alternatives’ website gives an indication of the forces behind their reprehensible position on Haiti: over 50% of the organization’s funding comes from the Canadian government, with the bulk received from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). Moreover, in a recent interview, François L’Ecuyer admitted that all 15 groups Alternatives works with in Haiti (many of whom are themselves funded by CIDA) are anti-Lavalas. Not coincidentally, L’Ecuyer and Alternatives have said little about the widespread human rights abuses being committed by Haiti’s interim government, a regime strongly supported by Canada. This severely undermines Alternatives credibility as an organization committed to social justice. While Alternatives would no doubt object to being called a tool of Canadian imperialism, L’Ecuyer’s article may lead many to such a conclusion.

Please forward this article to François L’Ecuyer and Alternatives and demand that Alternatives print in full the World Social Forum’s January 2005 Declaration on Haiti in their newspaper’s next issue.

François L’Ecuyer, Africa Project Director – [email protected]

Alternatives – [email protected]

For an introduction to Canada’s role in Haiti: www.outofhaiti.ca

For in depth and up-to-date news and analysis: www.canadahaitiaction.ca 

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