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The Case of Haiti

How Bush Brings Freedom to the World

by TOM REEVES

Now that President George W. Bush has outlined his plans to "bring freedom to the world," it would seem urgent that the world look closely at what Bush calls his successful mission to bring freedom to Haiti in 2004. Yet with Iraq dominating the news, most media ignore Haiti. When there is coverage, as when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited in December to celebrate the U.S. and U.N. "success," it is brief and distorted. Recent international documentation of extreme human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed de-facto Haitian government should wake up the media.

Liberals–and liberal media–are spot-lighting and decrying what they rightly identify as a campaign of pre-emptive and unilateral intervention world-wide to eliminate all regimes deemed hostile to U.S. interests and influence. They correctly point out that Bush will not challenge the extremely oppressive regimes–like Egypt and Saudi Arabia or Israel and China–that are its political allies and/or economic partners. They are quick to show that U.S. campaigns to "liberate" Afghanistan and Iraq have brought more violence and oppression than they claim to have dispelled. Why, then, have liberals either wholly ignored the case of Haiti–or, worse, praised the U.S. for its role there last year?

Last February 29, U.S. diplomats–backed by marines–forcibly escorted Haiti’s first democratically-elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, to a waiting U.S. military plane. Without telling him where they were headed, they dumped him unceremoniously in the Central African Republic–a country the State Department itself called one of the most violent and corrupt in the world. At the time, extreme right-wing former military and para-military "rebels," who themselves admit massive funding from U.S. sources, had seized Gonaives, Cap Haitien and several other Haitian cities–committing now documented rapes, murders and other atrocities.

A coalition of elite Haitian business interests and university "student groups" –put together by U.S. AID "democracy enhancement" teams, was demanding Aristide’s ouster for alleged corruption and human rights violations. The most they could point to were three unsolved murders of journalists and several cases of obvious political arrests. Wholly ignored were on-going attacks on activists within Aristide’s Lavalas party, as well as ambushes and assassinations of judges and other government officials. The "opposition" coalition, self-named "the 184," claimed that elections for President and the Haitian parliament in 2000 were deeply flawed. In fact, only a few Senatorial elections were clouded by controversy, and the OAS and even the U.S. accepted as valid the Presidential election in which Aristide received more than 90% of the vote in a 60% turnout.*

With U.S., Canadian and French troops already on the ground, the United Nations was obliged after the fact to endorse what amounted to a coup d’etat and invasion. A de-facto government was quickly installed, which consisted almost entirely of U.N. and other international agency employees living in exile, and dedicated to neo-liberal programs of structural adjustment recognized by most progressives as devastating to programs of social justice in poor countries around the world. Gerard Latortue was chosen as interim Prime Minister. Latortue had lived for more than a decade in a luxurious villa in Boca Raton, Florida. Latortue called the right-wing rebels "freedom fighters." These included some convicted of mass murder and other human rights violations from the previous coup against Aristide in 1991, when at least 5,000 Lavalas supporters had been killed.

The U.S. backed coup was applauded by some progressive elements in Haiti, and many of the non-governmental organizations in the U.S. that backed them. They criticized Aristide for not fulfilling his own populist programs of land reform and poverty alleviation. They were particularly critical of "free trade zones," accepted by Aristide, that were pushed by the U.S. and the World Bank, and would forcibly remove peasants in areas along the Dominican border, to work in Dominican-owned sweat shops. These "radical" groups did not seem bothered by the odd coincidence that the opposition to Aristide was led by owners of the worst Haitian sweat shops. Some, like Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, of the MPP–the largest peasant group in Haiti–gave support to some of the former military who had once driven his family out of the Central Plateau and destroyed MPP headquarters there. Jean-Baptiste went so far as to accept a position in the new government. Grassroots International, based in Boston, which funds MPP, continued to take the position that Aristide’s removal was justified.

Yet Haiti is in far worse condition today than before the coup last February. Arguably, it is in worse shape than during the previous coup or under the Duvaliers. Poverty–already the worst in the hemisphere–has deepened. Now even the U.S. military, in a report last November for it’s Southern Command, called the current government a "failed regime." A plan hatched by Canadian and other officials in a secret Quebec meeting in early 2003 for a U.N. "Trusteeship" of Haiti as a "failed state" is seen even by some "progressives" as an alternative to the current mayhem.

Now a new human rights report from the Center for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) at the University of Miami (Florida) has documented some of the worst abuses committed directly by the Haitian National Police (HNP), and in some cases by the UN forces (MINUSTAH) accompanying them. The noted Philadelphia attorney, Thomas Griffin, and other investigators include horrendous photos they took of boys as young as twelve, lying unattended in pools of their own blood in the General Hospital, where doctors refused to treat them. Other photos show bodies left in the street and dozens of bodies rotting and piled high at the morgue after police and UN invasions of Port au Prince slums targeted as Aristide strongholds. Interviews with police and others make it clear that there has been a systematic campaign of political repression and assassination aimed at Aristide’s Lavalas Party. The report ties the abuse directly to "sensitization" of many sectors of Haitian society–human rights groups, judges, students and police alike–by U.S. non governmental organizations like IFES (International Foundation for Electoral Systems) with support from USAID. (See www.ijdg.org/cshrhaitireport.pdf).

Extensive interviews with staff of CARLI, a Haitian human rights organization, revealed that IFES funded CARLI during the lead-up to the ouster of Aristide– with technical support and as much as $54,000 during 2003. CARLI staff revealed that it was instructed to provide lists of alleged Lalavals human rights violators, which were then read out on Haitian commercial radio. (Twenty of the twenty-five commercial stations and several of the Haitian daily and weekly newspapers are owned by members of the "184" anti-Aristide coalition.) It is now feared that these lists have been used since the coup to target Lavalas leaders for summary arrest, attacks on property, and even death. With IFES funding slowly removed during 2004, CARLI began to report on fraudulent human rights cases put forward by the government, and on violent campaigns against Lavalas and other community groups who refused to endorse the removal of Aristide. It investigated the claim of Latortue that Lavalas had ordered decapitation of police officers in a campaign dubbed "Operation Baghdad." These accusations were picked up and spread uncritically by Haitian and U.S. media. CARLI now says no such campaign by Lavalas existed, and that the only two decapitations of police were committed by former Haitian army officers, not Lavalas. Such disinformation played a major role during the previous coup as well as during the campaign to vilify Aristide.

On January 14, eyewitnesses say Haitian police murdered Abdias Jean, journalist for Miami radio station WKAT, after he witnessed police execution of two or more young boys in such a police operation in the Port au Prince neighborhood, Village de Dieu. IAPA (Inter-American Press Association) has condemned the murder and demanded an immediate investigation. It is particularly ironic that among those strongly condemning this murder, as well as the lack of coverage in the commercial Haitian media, is Joseph Guy Delva, President of the Haitian Journalists Association. Delva was a leader among journalists who condemned Aristide. The CSHR investigators report that Delva told them "if a journalist was arrested during Aristide’s government, there would be a public outcry from print and radio journalists. ‘Now,’ said Delva, "when a journalist is arrested, the newspapers and radio stations applaud.’" De-facto Prime Minister Latortue contacted the Reuters news-service to complain about an article written by Delva concerning the murder of Jean. The Haiti Support Group in Britain, critical both of the Aristide government and the U.S. intervention, has protested Latortue’s intervention as a threat to Delva as well as freedom of the press.

The human rights investigators quoted a Quebec police officer who is a commander of the UN unit, CIVPOL. He told them he was "in shock" with the conditions he faces in attempting to train the Haitian National police, "Our mandate is to coach, to train and to provide information, but all we’ve done is engage in daily guerrilla warfare….Where are the newspaper reporters?" he asked.

The CSHR reports credible evidence that raids began on Port au Prince’s poorest neighborhoods immediately after the landing of U.S. troops, and that these sped up after major pro-Aristide demonstrations in September illustrated continuing wide support for his return. The human rights investigators themselves witnessed events immediately before and after one such raid on Nov. 18 in the neighborhood of Bel Air, near the Presidential palace. They photographed and interviewed Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH as they entered the neighborhood They photographed bodies of those killed–including women and teenagers–during the operation, and interviewed some of the severely wounded–including at least one who identified the MINUSTAH (UN) soldiers who shot him. Police and residents alike told them such raids had taken place almost daily since September–with deaths and injuries. One police officer said that they were pushed to target specific individuals for assassination, but that for every ten killed, six were merely witnesses or bystanders. Residents were afraid to take the wounded to the General Hospital, where doctors often refused to treat patients without money (the former staff of Cuban volunteer doctors was expelled after the coup), and where the HNP often came to seize such victims who subsequently disappeared.

The CSHR report now documents beyond doubt what other human rights delegations and the Lavalas activists have been claiming all year: the puppet regime installed by the "international community" (the U.S., France and Canada) has committed far more human rights abuses than even the worst claims against Aristide’s government. In a New Year’s message from South African exile, Aristide claimed 10,000 have been killed and 1,000 of his supporters illegally detained since his "modern-style kidnapping" last February. Mainstream media have documented some 200 murders of Aristide supporters since September, and there were as many as 700 political prisoners by late last fall.

In November, Amnesty International issued an appeal to the Haitian government and to MINUSTAH to investigate police massacres in pro-Lavalas neighborhoods, as well as detentions for long periods without charges. Among those detained were world-renowned human rights leaders like Father Gerard Jean-Juste, violently snatched by masked men while distributing food to poor children in his Port au Prince parish, as well as the former Prime Minister, the President of the Haitian Senate and the former President of the House of Deputies. After a world-wide outcry, Father Jean-Juste and the parliamentary leaders were released–but many, including journalists and activists–as well as Prime Minister Yvon Neptune–remain behind bars, most without having even seen a judge.

Then on December 1, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell touted U.S. policy at the Haitian Presidential palace, a riot broke out in the penitentiary several blocks away. Gunfire could be heard by Powell and reporters accompanying him. The mainstream media reported that Aristide supporters did the shooting. Yet the anti-Aristide human rights group, NCHR (National Council on Haitian Rights) documented that Haitian National Police had killed seven and shot or beaten nearly fifty prisoners, three of whom died from wounds. Journalist Reed Lindsay, in the January 2 San Francisco Chronicle, reported interviews he held inside the penitentiary in December. Prisoners claimed between thirty and 110 prisoners were slain in the massacre, and scores injured.

The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) issued a detailed report on the massacre, documenting incredibly dire prison conditions, and the likelihood that many, many prisoners were killed. The IJDH report emphasizes that "for most of the dead, their assassination was the last in a long string of human rights violations. Only one in fifty is likely to have actually been convicted of committing a crime. The vast majority were likely arrested illegally without a warrant and detained on vague charges with no evidence in their file and no chance of judicial review of the detention."

Meanwhile, former Haitian military who led the violent revolt against Aristide last January continue to control several small cities. They include convicted murderers and human rights offenders who broke out of prison during the coup. Their commander, Remissainthes Revix, holds press conferences in the up-scale neighborhood of Petionville. He refuses to disarm and calls for violent opposition to U.N.-led disarmament. After a recent take-over of Aristide’s former residence by Revix and other former soldiers, the Haitian government arranged payments of nearly $5000 to each former officer, beginning with those who participated in the take-over, and eventually to include some 6000 former soldiers. This is an astounding potential sum of $30 million for a cash-strapped government. The money is ostensibly compensation for Aristide’s "un-Constitutional" disbanding of the army during his first term–a move highly popular in Haiti and praised internationally by human rights and peace organizations.

At the same time, the Latortue government has not re-opened many schools for the January session (some for lack of cash, some for political reasons), and has failed to pay doctors and other professionals at hospitals and clinics. More than sixty doctors and
other health workers at the largest hospital in Port au Prince have gone on strike.

The role of Brazil, which heads MINUSTAH, remains ambiguous. Brazil’s President Lula was long known for opposition to U.S. hegemony in Latin America, and his social program is similar to that of Lavalas. Yet the Brazil-dominated force has accompanied the Haitian National Police in several attacks on Lavalas neighborhoods, at least present during killings, if not participating. Brazil has long complained that the promised international aid has not materialized (less than $100 million of the 1.2 billion pledged as of December), and that the international force is under-manned. Only in December, however, did a rift between Brazil and the U.S. come into the open. Brazilian commander, General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, insisted, "We are not an occupying force…yet we are under extreme pressure (from the U.S., France and Canada) to use violence."

As Haiti slips further and further into chaos, as violence and human rights abuses escalate, and as the de-facto government fails to function in more and more areas, groups like the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), which have criticized U.S. policies and the Latortue government, urge that Brazil be given a new mandate: to lead a 10-year United Nations protectorate–the very scheme proposed in Quebec two years ago.

On the other hand, U.S. officials like the ultra-right-wing Roger Noriega (Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs), continue to express support for Latortue. "Haiti is on the right track," he insisted recently. The U.S. announced jointly with Canada, France and the Haitian government, that $41 million will be given to support Haitian elections next fall. "The elections will go forward," Noriega insists–a refrain heard nowadays in that other U.S. protectorate, Iraq. Charles Arthur, of the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group, says the timing of this announcement of elections while serious human rights abuse charges have not been addressed is suspicious.

Brian Concannon, of the IJDH, an American attorney who successfully prosecuted human rights abusers from the previous coup, does not agree that the options are either the current mess or a U.N. protectorate. "The great majority of Haitian people prefer democracy. In any truly democratic elections, most observers believe, including recently the Canadian Ambassador, the Lavalas party would win again."

It was recently announced in South Africa that two former Nobel Peace
Prize winners from the African National Congress and Inkatha movements will travel to Haiti to work toward a resolution to the crisis that would include Aristide’s Lavalas party. South Africa continues to treat Aristide as the legitimate President of Haiti, and to demand that he be allowed to complete his term of office. CARICOM (the organization of Caribbean nations) and many African nations continue to refuse to recognize the Latortue government–despite extreme U.S. pressure–and to demand investigations of the original removal of Aristide as well as on-going human rights violations. These would seem to be the only glimmers of hope on the bleak Haitian political landscape.

The question remains: why have NPR and the CBC and most other liberal or even most "progressive" media not covered any of this? How can Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin get away with claiming Haiti as a major success of Canadian foreign policy–with no outcry in either Parliament or the Canadian press? Where are the American non-governmental organizations that funded grassroots groups in Haiti now? Recently, I forwarded information from the CSHR report to U.S. Haiti solidarity leaders who were strong critics of Aristide and who gave reluctant support to the U.S. intervention last year. One wrote me, "We were wrong about our hopes for the U.S. installed government. We have no confidence now at all" in the Haitian police and interim government. Yet this activist added that he was depressed about Haiti, with no idea about what to do. Unless we are to give up altogether and let Bush have a free-hand in building up the American empire and installing it’s repressive, violent version of "freedom" world-wide, there is something very urgent that we must all do: expose the U.S. game everywhere for what it is: blatant tyranny. Nowhere is that plainer than in Haiti.

TOM REEVES is a retired Caribbean studies professor from Boston.

To keep up with Haiti, visit these web sites: www.ijdh.org; www.haitisupport.gn.apc.org; www.haitiaction.net; www.coha.org.

*See articles in 2003-4 by Kevin Pina in the Black Commentator, by Anthony Fenton in Z and elsewhere, and my own articles in Z, CounterPunch, Dollars & Sense, the NACLA Report, Interconnect, the Montréal Gazette and Rabble.Ca., and go to coverage by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now Radio; or Flashpoints (Pacifica Radio).