Since U.S.-funded death squads and “rebels” overthrew Haiti’s popular democracy in February 2004, media reports have been filled with the voices of those with power, influence and money in Haiti. What’s been missing are the voices of ordinary Haitians, members of the pro-democracy movement, who overwhelmingly oppose the new regime of Florida businessman turned prime minister, Gerald Latortue.
SF Bay View correspondent Lyn Duff spoke with Rosean Baptiste, a resident of Bel Air in Port-au-Prince, whose neighborhood has been targeted since 2004 for mass arrests and killings by both the United Nations and the Haitian National Police.
Lyn Duff: Last time we spoke, the situation in Bel Air was transforming for the first time since the invasion of Haiti by U.S. troops last year. For the first time since then, the people rose up and resisted the atrocities, the crimes being committed against them by the paramilitary death squads, the polices and the foreign military. What exactly happened?
Rosean Baptiste: We, the residents of Bel Air, took over our neighborhood. We erected barriers at the crossroads to prevent the police and the white (“white” is translated from the Kreyol “blan” which can also mean “foreign”) military from entering our area. We also set up a special watch to warn the residents of attack from both the official forces and from the paramilitary groups, the reconstituted death squads. This rebellion in Bel Air continued for several months before it was quashed by the United Nations soldiers last December.
The situation in our neighborhood is grave, but we are hopeful because we know that we have taken matters into our own hands. We aren’t sitting by peacefully watching while military snipers execute us one by one. We aren’t sitting on our hands while each and every nonviolent manifestation (or demonstration) is met with murderous force on the part of the police.
Lyn Duff: How would you describe the movement in your neighborhood? Are you trying to seize power?
Rosean Baptiste: No, not at this time. We would like to build for a time when we could seize power, but we are not prepared yet for that and we don’t have the resources or arms to launch a civil or a revolutionary war at this very moment.
Lyn Duff: When you say “we,” you’re talking about â€¦
Rosean Baptiste: We are the poor majority. We are the ordinary Haitians, the 95 percent of the country that lives in the poorest conditions. We are the people who have no jobs or just have a little work to maybe buy a small amount of food to keep from starving each day.
We are the people who cannot pay for a doctor when we are sick. We are the people who cannot pay the 200 gourdes a year to send our children to school (17 gourdes equal one U.S. dollar). We are the people who live in houses made of sheets of hammered tin or concrete blocks or scraps of cardboard and trash.
Our movement at this point is a movement of resistance. We are abandoning the position of the moderates who tell us to be peaceful and work within the system while we starve and the interim government kills us. While we don’t have the weapons to go seeking out battles, we have decided as a community that enough is enough.
When the white military comes in here with the police or the paramilitary death squads, we won’t be peaceful and let them kill us any longer. We won’t be peaceful and let them kidnap and disappear our children.
No, since the murderers fired on our protest march on Sept. 30, 2004, we have changed our strategy, and today we say, “If you come in here to shoot us, we will resist. If you come in here to arrest us illegally, we will fight you off with stones and bottles and whatever weapons we can find or create.”
Lyn Duff: How would you describe to me the conditions that made your resistance necessary?
Rosean Baptiste: Last year, on Feb. 29, 2004, the United States and France strangled our democracy. The members of the disbanded military who came together to overthrow President Aristide admit the CIA funded them.
Even the U.S. government acknowledges that they trained these men and that some participated in so-called “democracy enhancement” programs in the Dominican Republic which were paid for the U.S. government and were essentially a training and organizing workshop for the people who staged the coup.
I should say, this coup caused many deaths initially. Some say thousands were killed in the weeks that the reorganized death squads came across from the D.R. and began to take control over the countryside in the North. But since then, since the U.S. ambassador (Foley) put Latortue in place, since then many people have died.
Lyn Duff: If a person gets their news from the New York Times, they’re going to be left with the impression that few people have been killed and those that have died in Haiti have primarily been killed by what they call the “pro-Aristide gangs.”
Rosean Baptiste: And that is so ridiculous to us when we hear those kinds of reports. Do I look like a gang member to you? I am just a regular person, a woman who is tired of all this garbage. I don’t hang out on the streets drinking and gambling all day.
By saying we are “gang members” or “chimÃ¨res,” the press are trying to discredit our demands for justice because the journalists think: Who cares about giving justice to those criminal gang members who just sell drugs and misbehave?
But our demands do have point and we should be listened to, but it is also because of this dynamic that that poor are ignored, that we have chosen not just to make peaceful demands but also to take actions to defend ourselves and promote our cause. Besides, if fighting back against the horrors of this government and the foreign governments that oppress us is criminal, well then I am proud to commit this crime.
By the way, we also wouldn’t call ourselves “pro-Aristide” because even though most people in our neighborhood voted for Aristide – just like the majority of the country did – we do not limit ourselves to simply calling for his return. We have different opinions about this amongst ourselves.
Some here are Lavalas every moment of the day and in every kind of way, and for them this struggle will end when Titid returns to the National Palace. But for more and more of us, this is not just about Titid’s return. It is about a real and lasting change that we are demanding, and if he returns to the National Palace then the conditions would need to change so that he could improve our lives.
Lyn Duff: And what is that change?
Rosean Baptiste: Well, some people say this is unrealistic for the poor to dream this, but we would like to be respected, to have human dignity. We would like to be able to work, to have food for our children.
There is a great distance from where we, the poor, are and where the rich are. We demand that that distance be closed and that the rich come closer to us and that they experience our lives, they experience hunger.
They need to come down from the mountains to the sea. (Areas where the wealthier people in Port au Prince live are all in the foothills or mountain suburbs such as Petion-ville and Kenscoff. The slums are most in the low-lying area, and in particular there are a number of slums that directly border the sea, such as Cite Soleil and La Saline. Bel Air, however, is actually on top of a hill and nowhere close to the water, but I think that she was speaking more metaphorically.) And we want to come closer to where they are and to have the same opportunities for education and for life that the rich already have.
You see that it is very difficult to be poor in Haiti because when you are poor you have nothing to rely on. If you have many children and you cannot feed them all you have to choose: Which one will I not feed this meal? This is a difficult choice that no mother should have to make. And it is not something that I would wish on a rich mother as revenge for how she treats me.
Lyn Duff: So let’s back up a minute and return to the here and now. You’ve said you’re afraid of what the HNP, the death squads or the foreign military would do to you if they heard you speaking out this way.
Rosean Baptiste: No, I am not afraid. I am realistic. You have to understand what is happening in our area every day to understand the reality that we face.
Even someone like you who knows what is going on, who is a friend of the Haitian people, who speaks Kreyol, even you do not feel the full weight of the basket we carry on our heads, because you can return to your home with your foreign passport and you will be safe. But we have no security.
Lyn Duff: Why don’t you detail then the reality that you face, the horrors that daily life in Haiti under the new regime brings. What’s going on right now that people all over the world who care about changing this horrible situation of exploitation, this malevolence, should know about?
Rosean Baptiste: Since Sept. 30, 2004, when we began to have an organized resistance to the Latortue regime, there has been a growing oppression of the poor in all areas of the country against all types of people – market women, students, residents of poor neighborhoods like ours, street children, pastors and priests – who tell the truth about what is happening. The oppression is widespread and systematic. When you speak the truth, you risk being murdered.
There have been many other incidents as well. Pastors and priests have been illegally arrested, assassinated or disappeared. Students have been dragged from their classes and beaten by other students who are part of a pro-occupation student organization funded by USAID. Police, foreign military and death squads have murdered women at the market.
The former military are armed with sophisticated weaponry, and they set up their own roadblocks, search people’s cars and the tap-taps (communal taxis or buses) and arrest people. Those arrested just disappear. Sometimes their bodies are found in a few days or a few weeks dumped in a ravine. The hands are tied together and sometimes the heads are cut off or they are covered with burns on their backs.
Lyn Duff: Are all of these crimes that you have mentioned been committed by the members of the disbanded Haitian military that are now reformed into their own death squads?
Rosean Baptiste: No, the Haitian National Police have committed unbelievable atrocities. Since the coup, the HNP has hired and integrated into the police force many former soldiers who were part of the army that was disbanded after the last coup.
And let me remind you that the army was disbanded because they committed so many crimes against the people, like raping women and little girls, the massacre of peasants in the North and murdering people for sport. These rapists and murderers were hired into the police force even though most of them were part of the armed groups that took over the country earlier this year and then set lose to wreak havoc on the population.
We know the conditions of violent repression are very bad. I think now the Latortue regime is exposing its true colors and that now is the time for people everywhere in the world who oppose this kind of system and these horrors to stand up and resist.
Email Lyn at [email protected].