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Will He Stand Up?

Kerry and Haiti

by BEN TERRALL

The hundreds killed this week by tropical storm Jeanne provided Haiti another brief appearance in the U.S. media, but with little context or discussion of the murderous regime now in power. Nor did any reporter point out that when U.S.-backed Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said, "We don’t know how many dead there are. 2004 has been a terrible year," he wasn’t referring to death squads his coup administration unleashed.

Haiti provides one of the clearest opportunities John Kerry has to distinguish himself from George W. Bush. Unlike the ill-advised pro-war corner he has painted himself into on Iraq, Kerry never supported the International Republican Institute-orchestrated February 29, 2004 coup that drove President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office. In fact, Kerry provided one of the more perceptive comments about Haiti policy, saying the Bush Administration has "a theological and an ideological hatred for Aristide."

Bush’s right-wing fundamentalist Christianity has virtually nothing in common with liberation theology, the militantly non-violent tradition Aristide came out of, which emphasizes the needs of the poorest of the poor. No matter how much the recent Republican National Convention tried to soften its image by giving Arnold Schwartzenegger a few lines about "inclusion", the true Bush spirit was more accurately embodied in the venomous fear-mongering of Zell Miller and Dick Cheney.

The government Bush’s minions helped oust in Haiti was one of the world’s two demilitarized democracies, headed by an anti-militarist, democratically elected former priest.

Given his commitment to lifting Haiti "from misery to poverty with dignity," it’s not surprising that, though forced into exile in South Africa, Aristide remains the most popular political figure among Haiti’s poor masses. And given the Bush Administration’s ideological loathing of progressive social programs, it’s also not surprising that Aristide’s solidarity with Haiti’s poor majority made him persona non grata in Washington.

Writing in the web journal BlackCommentator.com, Retired Special Forces Officer Stan Goff observed, "Republicans, as the party that still employs its latter day version of the Southern Strategy, want to see Haiti in chaos. They will put on a mask of paternalistic sympathy while they continue to impose dysfunction, because they need Haiti to continue to serve as an example of Black incapacity for self-governance–to reinforce their white supremacist appeal to the Helms wing of the party, which is still substantial."

Goff’s March 18, 2004 article, entitled "Time for Kerry to Step Up On Haiti," argues Haiti is an obvious issue Democrats could use to rally African-Americans to the polls. But though initially Kerry criticized Bush’s support for the sweatshop owners and paramilitary thugs that led the opposition to Aristide, since Goff’s piece appeared, Kerry has hardly mentioned Haiti.

As Washington committed to send $6 million in new aid to the Haitian police on August 12, ambassador James Foley explained, "There can’t be democracy without security." This statement would be comic if untold numbers of Haitians on the ground weren’t being tortured or killed while Foley and other officials obfuscate reality with such double talk.

The "security" model being advanced in Haiti was also used by Central American death squads of the 1980s. As Iran-Contra veterans Otto Reich and Roger Noriega were key architects of the overthrow of Aristide, the similarity is hardly coincidental. Paramilitary leaders like Guy Phillipe, who received U.S. military training in Ecuador in 1994, are part of a long line of proxy killers and torturers cultivated by Washington. In the winter of 2004, Philippe’s men bragged to U.S. reporters that they had executed Aristide supporters in Cap-Hatian and Port-au-Prince. "I am the chief, the military chief. The country is in my hands," boasted Philippe.

The DEA and U.S. embassy have implicated Phillipe in drug smuggling. But while Foley told the Haitian press, "All drug traffickers, no matter what their political or social membership is and no matter where they are hiding, will answer for their acts one day," few are expecting that day to come soon for Phillipe.

The only trial of any supporters of the Latortue government took place in early August, when notorious death squad leaders Jackson Joanis and Jodel Chamblain were cleared of involvement in the 1993 murder of pro-Aristide businessman Antoine Izmery. Brian Concannon Jr., Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and one of the lawyers who put Chamblain behind bars in 2000, responded, "Neither the judiciary nor the prosecution made even the minimum effort required by law to pursue this important case. The absence of effort combined with top Haitian officials’ public support for Chamblain and his colleagues compels the conclusion that Haiti’s interim government staged the trial to deflect criticism of its human rights record without alienating its military and paramilitary allies."

The Bush Administration and elites in Haiti orchestrated a systematic propaganda campaign implying a broad base of support for opposition to Aristide, as real as the flowers and sweets supposedly waiting for U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Death squad leaders freed from Haitian jails by Washington-backed paramilitaries are now targeting members of Lavalas, the solidly pro-Aristide mass movement. As former soldiers in the Haitian military also mobilize against the corrupt sweatshop profiteers and other faux-civil society leaders who constitute the current coup government, Lavalas supporters will continue to be a common target, crushed in the middle of ongoing battles between thieves.

But in spite of horrific repression, Lavalas has maintained an impressive level of activity, mobilizing tens of thousands in nonviolent demonstrations this summer. Most recently, about ten thousand Haitians marched in Port-au-Prince on September 11, commemorating terrorist attacks which occurred on that day, in Chile (the coup which forced out Salvador Allende) and Haiti (a 1989 massacre of civilians by the military) as well as the U.S. Slogans on signs hoisted included "Down with terrorist George Bush" and "Long Live Kerry".

The Haitian people continue to struggle for freedom and justice, taking horrifying risks to do so. It’s time for John Kerry to take the significantly lesser risk of standing up for Haiti on the campaign trail.

BEN TERRALL is a San Francisco-based writer and activist who co-edits the journal Indonesia Alert!; he can be reached at bterrall@igc.org