Aiding Oppression in Haiti

by SETH DeLONG

In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003, President Bush stated, "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." But while the administration appears earnest about promoting democracy in Iraq it has made little progress – in fact it has even regressed – in promoting democracy among America’s southern neighbors. While its relationship with most of Latin America has centered exclusively on trade agreements and, to a lesser extent, drugs and terrorism, its hardline anti-Aristide policy has led to overturning the same democratic principles it claims to be espousing in Baghdad.

Indeed, in Port-au-Prince, the Bush administration has shown that it strongly believes stability can only be purchased at the expense of liberty. In a stunning reversal of the administration’s pre-coup Haiti policy, Secretary of State Colin Powell went from denouncing the opposition as a gang of "thugs" to maintaining that Aristide had to reach political agreement with some of its elements. Powell’s flip-flop signaled the end of the constitutional government, since it then became clear to the opposition that the US would not hinder its openly stated strategy of non-negotiation with Aristide.

Regarding Kofi Annan, he comes to Washington today struggling to hold on to his job which is at risk over his son’s involvement in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. To strengthen his position as Secretary-General of the United Nations, he will be prepared to make many concessions. One of the items of discussion with Secretary of State Powell will be the UN’s role in Haiti. Annan has, so far, been utterly compliant with the Bush administration’s efforts to marginalize ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the days preceding the February 29, 2004 de-facto ouster of Aristide and his U.S. arranged flight into exile, Annan echoed U.S. policy in condemning Aristide as Haiti’s "failed" president and Powell’s cynical scenario that international peacekeepers would be sent to Haiti, but only if Aristide abrogated most of his constitutionally mandated authority. Annan’s backing of Powell’s strategy legitimated Washington’s goal of ridding itself of Aristide. At today’s talks, a politically weakened Annan is likely to discuss next year’s Haiti elections and how to minimize a role for the pro-Aristide Lavalas party.


Dark Days for Lavalas

The second coup d’etat launched against Haiti’s first democratically-elected leader achieved its goal of removing the former president ­ once again ­ from office and has since embarked on what is shaping up to be a scorched earth policy towards Lavalas supporters. Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, Senator Yvon Feuille and former Deputy Rudy Herivaux are still being held in prison without any charges while pro-Aristide demonstrators, who constitute the overwhelmingly majority of the poor, are regularly rounded up or shot in the street by the rebel gangs or the ill-trained police force. The interim government even had the audacity to imprison the country’s most revered Catholic priest, Father Jean-Juste, though he was recently released.

Prior to the coup, the opposition groups – mainly the Group of 184 and the Democratic Convergence – refused to negotiate with Aristide. At the time, Democratic Convergence leader Evans Paul stated, "We are willing to negotiate through which door [President Aristide] leaves the palace, through the front door or the back door." We have yet to see if Latortue will formally ban the Lavalas party: however, current trends suggest that the interim government will continue to tolerate extra-constitutional paramilitary units, such as members of the former army disbanded by Aristide, to repress Lavalas supporters both in their neighborhoods and at the polls. Ultimately, he may move to incorporate the ex-military into a still-to-be reconstituted armed force.


UN Legitimacy at Risk

What can the international community and MINUSTAH, the UN’s peacekeeping force, do to ensure that Aristide’s supporters will be allowed to participate in the next election, scheduled for November 2005? At a minimum, there are two tasks confronting UN Special Representative to Haiti and MINUSTAH head, Chilean diplomat Juan Gabriel Valdes. First, MINUSTAH must begin to enforce its mandate, which states that the first duty of the UN force is to provide support for the transitional government, "to ensure a secure and stable environment within which the constitutional and political processes in Haiti can take place."

Currently the UN force, led by General Augusto Heleno of Brazil, is highly prejudiced in the use of its power. Far from abiding by the impartial language of the mandate "to support the constitutional and political processes under way in Haiti . . . and foster principles and democratic governance and institutional development," MINUSTAH continually sides with the inherently lawless Haitian police during the latter’s repeated raids on Aristide supporters, and with a Justice Minister who has no regard for due process. As described by Chief of Mission of the Haiti embassy in Washington, Raymond A. Joseph, to COHA, "a situation of war exists in Haiti. In war a lot of things are not quite legal, but you have to take measures to protect yourself."

But often these measures go much too far. As reported by the Haiti Accompaniment Project, a coalition of US-based organizations devoted to documenting human rights violations in Haiti, in the lead up to the February 2004 coup and immediately afterwards, "there were large-scale killings and the systematic burning of the homes of people identified as members or supporters of Fanmi Lavalas. The cities of Petit Goave, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitian have been particularly hit hard by the violence." For MINUSTAH to be perceived as a legitimate peacekeeping force, General Heleno must address the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated daily by the rebel gangs and anti-Aristide factions, as well as those by pro-Aristide vigilantes. Haitians, the majority of whom supported Aristide (in the elections of 1990 and 2000 he won two thirds of the vote), will never view the UN force as anything but the international wing of Latortue’s oppressive regime until it metes out justice impartially, regardless of one’s suspected party affiliation.

The second task of the UN is to put much more pressure on Latortue and his rogue Justice Minister Bernard Gousse to release political prisoners and respect due process. This action would satisfy a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for the upcoming elections. Nevertheless, the situation looks grim for the inclusion of the majority Lavalas party in next year’s elections. As noted by the Haiti Accompaniment project, "Fanmi Lavalas has experienced the brunt of repression since the coup. Many leaders have left the country or are in internal exile. Many Lavalas members and supporters have had their homes burned, have lost jobs, and have been separated from their families."

MINUSTAH must be as diligent in protecting pro-Lavalas groups and human rights organizations, like the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, Lafanmi Selavi and the Coordination des Femmes Victimes d’Haiti (COFEVIH), as it gives the appearance of slavishly acting as Latortue’s hit squad. Perhaps a constructive first step in this direction would be replacing General Heleno, who has displayed neither particular competence in the field nor sufficient diplomatic tact, as head of MINUSTAH mission.


Latortue’s Stooge

In an interview with Haiti’s Radio Metropole on October 8, General Heleno, during what must have been an unguarded moment, declared: "We must kill the bandits, but it will have to be the bandits only, not everybody." This statement might even be comforting if we knew it were directed at the roving rebel gangs, former death squad members and rapists – released or broken out from prison following the chaos brought on by the pre-coup turbulence – who terrorized the country throughout the rule of the military junta (1991 ­ 1994). As one COFEVIH member claimed, "the same people who raped us in 1991 are again in power. All those prisoners who were let out are raping women." Unfortunately, the general was not referencing such brigands but rather the pro-Lavalas, poor urban youths. His focus on Aristide’s supporters as the alleged culprits of the violence sweeping the country is also seen in the following imprudent interview he gave to the Brazilian state news agency: "Statements made by [John Kerry] created false hopes among pro-Aristide supporters. His statements created the expectation that instability and a change in American policy would contribute to Aristide’s return." Heleno was referring to Senator Kerry’s remark last March that he would have intervened militarily in order to protect President Aristide.

Clearly, Heleno was eager to place blame for inciting the shootings and unwarranted arrests carried out in raids in the pro-Aristide slums of Port-au-Prince at the feet of John Kerry. But even more ominously, he implies what the Security Council has never said; that advocating Aristide’s return to Haiti would be illegal. Essentially, Heleno was saying that had Kerry not exhibited the sheer audacity of suggesting that the Haitian people should be led by their democratically-elected president, the violence could have been avoided. Given that the Brazilian commander apparently sees his mandate extending only to aiding the current regime’s suppression of the Lavalas democracy movement, he needs to be withdrawn for the sake of the Haitian people, the sake of the UN’s credibility and, lastly, for the sake of Lula’s democratic credentials.

Seth R. DeLong is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Hemispheric Affairs.

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