Democracy Progresses in Haiti


      On July 16, the Council of Sages, the Western-backed body that has overseen Haiti’s political affairs since the February 2004 ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, made a startling recommendation. Blaming the exiled Aristide and his Lavalas party for “continu[ing] to promote and tolerate violence,” the council urged the interim regime that it appointed to “make the bold political and beneficial decision to disqualify the Lavalas Family Party from the electoral process.”

 

      The council needn’t worry. International intervention, in which Canada has played a major role, has assured that it will be next to impossible for the country’s largest political party to run freely in the scheduled fall elections.

 

      On July 6, international troops with MINUSTAH, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, conducted a raid into the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité Soleil, a Lavalas stronghold. The UN cast the operation as an effort to confront gang violence, but witnesses and observers tell a different story. CARLI, a respected lawyer-headed human rights group, stated that it had “credible information that U.N. troops, accompanied by Haitian police, killed an undetermined number of unarmed residents of Cite Soleil, including several babies and women.” While the UN claimed that it had killed only five “armed bandits”, Reuters reported that its local television crew “filmed seven other bodies of people killed during the operation, including those of two one-year-old baby boys and a woman in her 60s.” Ali Besnaci, head of the Médecins Sans Frontières mission, said that his hospital had treated 27 residents for gunshot wounds. “Three quarters were children and women,” he said, including one pregnant woman who lost her baby. “We had not received so many wounded in one day for a long time.”  Not one North American newspaper printed the Reuters report that these quotes are taken from.

 

      Canada is an integral member of the MINUSTAH force, contributing over 100 police officers and overseeing its logistical planning. As part of the mission, Canada is also helping to train the Haitian National Police (HNP), which has been implicated in serious abuses of its own.  Earlier this year, the Miami Herald reported that “Haitian police opened fire on peaceful protesters [on February 28], killing two, wounding others and scattering an estimated 2,000 people marching through the capital to mark the first anniversary of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster.” A similar incident two months later was noted by the Associated Press as “the third time in three months that Haitian police have fatally opened fire on demonstrators in Port-au-Prince.”

 

       Through CIDA, Canadian funding has gone into Haiti’s justice system, which this week added a new inmate to its ever growing population of political prisoners. On July 21st, Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Cité Soleil priest, was arrested and accused of charges that include murder and kidnapping. As of this writing, he remains in solitary confinement.   Calling him a “prisoner of conscience, detained solely because he has peacefully exercised his right to freedom of  expression”, Amnesty International noted that Jean-Juste “risks spending a long time in custody awaiting trial on apparently trumped-up charges.” Perhaps until after the elections, in which he was expected to be Lavalas’ Presidential candidate, were it to take part. Fellow Lavalas prisoners like deposed Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and folk singer So Anne Auguste have both spent over a year in prison with no trial in sight.   

 

      Why poor Haitians and their popular leaders are being targeted is not difficult to surmise: in large numbers, they are calling for the return of the government that they elected. One of Aristide’s most popular decisions was to disband the feared Haitian military, whose remnants later led the armed rebellion that ousted him. Today, “the police high command is now dominated by ex-military,” Reuters reports, with “only one of the top 12 police commanders in the Port-au-Prince area” not from its ranks.

 

      Some are not satisfied with the role of the murderers, torturers and rapists taking up the positions they held under previous military regimes.  Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, for example, feels as if they haven’t been able to terrorize the population enough. If the international community “had given us a little more freedom to work with the ex-military, so that they could have participated in the struggle against the armed groups, I am more than certain that we wouldn’t be in the impasse we are in today,” he explained to the Associated Press.

 

      Aristide-led governments were also marred with some credible allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. But the fact remains that “[n]o other political party comes close to the support enjoyed by the Fanmi Lavalas,” as Gallup found in a March 2002 poll (one of the last to widely survey Haitian public opinion), giving Lavalas 37% support. Its next closest competitor, the US-supported Democratic Convergence, attracted 8%. Appropriately, these results, commissioned by the US State Department, were never released to the public.

 

      What is not clear is why popular sentiment is being suppressed with Canada’s support. While none of Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors have recognized the installed regime, the Liberal government has showered it with diplomatic ties,  $180 million in aid, and lofty public apologia. At a June 17 press conference, Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew rejected a question about HNP abuses, declaring his belief that “the Haitian police is doing its very best in extremely difficult circumstances.”    

 

      Perhaps out of diplomatic politeness, Mr. Pettigrew’s podium partner, U.N. mission head Juan Gabriel Valdez, refrained from commenting. But he has not been shy before. Three days after the Miami Herald report above, Mr. Valdez  “said police brutality is undercutting progress and such action will no longer be tolerated,” the paper reported. ‘We cannot tolerate executions,’ he said. ‘We can’t tolerate shooting out of control. We will not permit human rights abuses.”

 

      Although Cité Soleil and many other examples demonstrate that his forces are in fact willing to participate in human rights abuses, Valdez could at least point to a few redeeming exceptions. Canada shows no such ambiguity. Pettigrew continued that while he had not even heard of the police shootings reported in the mainstream press, he could confidently dismiss a critical human rights report put out by the University of Miami’s Center for Human Rights as “propaganda which is absolutely not interesting.” “What interests me,” he concluded, “is the future of Haiti, it is the future of Haitians, it is the progress of democracy, and the progress of the rule of law.”

 

      Some Haitians will certainly be heartened by Pettigrew’s interest in their democratic future. Prominent bureaucrats and ex-military police chiefs come to mind. Residents of Cité Soleil, however, and the many other poor Haitians struggling for their basic democratic rights, will likely have a far different reaction.

 

 

Aaron Maté is a Montreal-based journalist. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star, July 25 2005.

 

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