Political Prisoners in Haiti

One year ago, rebel attacks against the government of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide led to the Feb. 29 overthrow of that Caribbean nation’s first democratically elected president. The former Catholic priest charged that he was the victim of a political kidnapping carried out by members of the United States military when he was taken aboard an American plane and forced into exile in the Central African Republic. Aristide was later given political asylum in Jamaica and now resides in South Africa.

Haiti’s Washington-installed Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue, has imprisoned hundreds of officials and supporters of Aristide’s overthrown government, including former Prime Minister Yvonne Neptune and Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert. Both men, detained since June 27 without charge, have undertaken a hunger strike in protest. Neptune, who was hospitalized on March 10 for treatment of severe dehydration, has vowed to continue his fast until he’s released.

California Congresswoman Maxine Waters visited Haiti on March 7 with a delegation of American human rights advocates and met with Neptune and Privert. The Democratic lawmaker expressed grave concern about the deplorable prison conditions and the human rights situation she observed in Haiti. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Congresswoman Waters about her fact-finding trip to Haiti and her criticism of Bush administration policy toward that troubled island nation.

Rep. Waters: We learned that Yvonne Neptune, the former prime minister under president Aristide was in prison and was on a hunger fast. We knew he had been arrested some time ago, but we became worried about him because we learned that he was on a hunger fast — by that time he had been on it, I guess almost two weeks.

So, I went to Haiti along with some other people to basically see about him, to see what his health condition was and to try and encourage him to either discontinue the strike or certainly try to encourage the United States government to assist him in getting him out of jail.

I traveled there and was able to visit with him. He was very weak when I visited and he was just talking above a whisper. And I held a press conference and I let everybody know that I thought that he was in danger. I talked to our embassy personnel down there, I sent a letter to (Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice, to the president of the United States and when I returned, I sent out more information describing his condition.

Well, since that time he’s been moved to a U.N. hospital and I understand that he’s doing better and I’m anxiously awaiting more information even today as I fly into Washington.

Between The Lines: As your delegation reported, there are many political prisoners being held by the government of Gerard Latortue, which was installed by the U.S. military after the coup one year ago. What is the situation for political prisoners in general in Haiti?

Rep. Waters: The conditions are absolutely deplorable. We did visit with former minister Privert who’s in prison, who also has started a hunger fast. We visited with other political prisoners. I had a chance to talk with a young man named Jacques Mathelier, who had served as counsel to President Aristide at one time. He was in prison in filthy conditions. He was guilty of nothing; he had not been charged with anything. They simply had arrested him because of his relationship to President Aristide.

We had been hearing these stories about members of the Lavalas party, President Aristide’s political party, being thrown in jail — like So-Anne the very popular singer and humanitarian that is also in prison — we didn’t get a chance to see her. Not only are they being thrown into prison, a lot of Lavalas members have been killed particularly in Cite Soleil and Belaire and some of the very poor areas. So, I think that there is an attempt to literally get rid of Lavalas leaders so that when they hold this fake election they’re planning, they won’t have anybody to run representing the Lavalas party. So I think it’s an effort to silence them prior to this election they plan on holding.

The United States has to accept responsibility for Latortue, he’s basically our puppet. And so I’m calling on the United States to accept responsibility and see to it that these political prisoners are released and provide some real security for them.

Between The Lines: Congresswoman Waters have you been in touch with ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide lately, he’s in South Africa I believe. What are his plans if any, do you know?

Rep. Waters: Well, yes I’ve been in touch with him, and he is working to see what he can do to get South Africa, CARICOM (Caribbean Community) and the A.U. (African Union) involved in helping Haiti, particularly if there are going to be any elections. We believe, and he believes, that it’s very important that a number of countries get involved to try and help organize and implement a true free and fair election in Haiti. So, I know that that’s foremost on his mind.

Between The Lines: Congresswoman Waters, President Bush has been using his office, the presidency, to promote democracy all around the world; particularly the Middle East has been a focus of his administration in recent months. How do you square the rhetoric coming out of the White House with the U.S. policy towards Haiti?

Rep. Waters: Well, you know, anybody who observes our relationship to Haiti would soon conclude that we really don’t care about Haiti. That if there’s any stepchild of the foreign relations agenda of America, it’s Haiti, despite the fact it’s right here in the Western Hemisphere, right here next door to us, we have disrespected Haiti in every way. We have a discriminatory immigration policy toward Haiti. We have abandoned Haiti and left it to Brazilian forces who know little or nothing about the culture, and basically are there for political reasons in an attempt to get the support of the United States so that President Lula (da Silva) can serve on the Security Council at the U.N. So all that I can explain is, it’s a black country of poor people who mean little or nothing to the United States of America.

Democracy is about letting the people decide. The people decided they wanted to elect, and did elect Mr. Aristide — and the United States assisted in removing him. That certainly doesn’t speak to our support for democracy. So yeah, there’s a contradiction in what they say and what they do.

For more information, call Congresswoman Waters’ office at (202) 225-2201, or visit her website at http://www.house.gov/waters .

Related links at http://www.btlonline.org/btl032505.html#2hed :

* Center for Constitutional Rights * Council on Hemispheric Affairs * Haiti Progres * Haiti Action

Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org . This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 25, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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