As Haiti’s recent political history has swung back and forth between popularly elected governments and right-wing U.S.-backed dictatorships, the Haitian movement for popular democracy has maintained its resilience in the face of horrific odds.
Throughout its resistance to the U.S.-backed coup regime which ousted democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, Haiti’s grassroots Lavalas movement has consistently advanced three key demands: the safe return of President Aristide and other political exiles, the freeing of all political prisoners, and an end to the brutal repression of the country’s pro-Lavalas poor majority. Since Rene Preval was elected President earlier this year with the overwhelming support of the Lavalas base (much to the chagrin of the Bush Administration and Haiti’s tiny right wing elite) some steps have been taken toward achieving these goals of the popular movement. But the powerful few who still control the majority of Haitian media, most ministries, the judiciary and the police are working overtime to stymie progressive change.
The price inflicted on the Lavalas base by the coup regime has been horrendous. An August 2006 study in the British journal The Lancet reinforced earlier documentation by Harvard Law School, the University of Miami and others of systematic atrocities carried out by coup forces. The Lancet disclosed that during the twenty-two-month post-Aristide period of the Washington-backed "interim" Government, 8,000 people were murdered in the greater Port-au Prince area of Haiti alone. Twenty-two per cent of the killings were committed by the Haitian National Police (HNP), twenty-six per cent by demobilized military or armed anti-Aristide groups, and forty-eight per cent by criminals. Both the HNP and members of the demobilized army acted against supporters of Aristide and Lavalas. The study also found that in the same period, a staggering 35,000 women and girls were raped in Port-au-Prince, fourteen per cent by members of the Haitian National Police and twelve per cent by members of anti-Aristide groups. Fourteen per cent of the interviewees accused "foreign soldiers, including those in UN uniform, of threatening them with sexual or physical violence, including death."
The fate of the political prisoners still behind bars remains a key focus of struggle between Haiti’s privileged few and the millions who are barely surviving.* While Preval’s administration successfully secured the release of some high-profile prisoners this summer, including Annette Auguste, the popular singer and organizer, and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, others illegally jailed by the "interim" regime are still languishing in the country’s notoriously squalid prisons.
The August 25 re-arrest of Rene Civil, a grassroots activist close to Aristide, was a chilling development, one that many in Haiti fear could signal yet more arrests of Lavalas figures. Civil, a leader of an organization called the Solidarity Foundation which is working with families of political prisoners and helping poor children attend school, was originally detained while returning from exile in the Dominican Republic on May 12, 2006. After appealing that illegal arrest, Civil was released within two weeks.
The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti noted that Civil’s August re-arrest "was made late at night, without a warrant" and that "one of the charges, use of a stolen vehicle, involves a car that Civil has owned for six years, and registered with the police several times. When Mr. Civil fled Haiti’s repression in 2004, the police themselves took the car (illegally) and used it for two years, returning it in late June 2006. Another charge involves illegal gun possession, but the weapons in question, two pistols, belonged to another passenger in the car when it was stopped, a police officer. The third charge, "association de malfaiteurs", is a vague conspiracy charge that has been used frequently to keep political dissidents (including Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste and Yvon Neptune) in prison despite an absence of proof of criminal activity." On August 28 Civil was interrogated by the new Prosecutor of Port-au-Prince, Claudy Gassant, a prominent Lavalas critic with strong ties to the pro-coup Washington-based group the Haiti Democracy Project.
Civil is now in Port-au-Prince’s downtown penitentiary. I visited that facility in 2005, and can best describe conditions there as medieval.
At a briefing to an international delegation several days before his August arrest, Civil said of his work:
"We’re here to end all forms of discrimination, we’re here to end all forms of violence. The violence of not being able to afford to buy a meal to eat, the violence of not being able to have a house to live inthe violence of not being able to go to school.
"You always hear that it is the people in Cite Soleil, it’s the people in Bel Air who have all the weapons, but what’s actually happening is the people with the most weapons are the people who have money to purchase those weapons. They’re the people who live up in the hills who have a house where they can store the weapons, who have cars to transport the weapons. And yet it’s these very people who carry the weapons who continue to demonize the poor in Cite Soleil and Bel Air."
Civil asked the delegation "for your support in making sure that this demonization of the poor does not continue because the real problems that they have are not weapons, they are the social problems that they face. It’s that they cannot eat, it’s that they cannot have a roof over their heads. And I ask you to get this message out to the media, that this is a demonization of poor people, and actually what’s happening is that they’re suffering because of the economic and social problems in this country."
He told the international visitors, "We are an independent nation, we’re free and we have dignity [but] without the return of Aristide this country can never truly have those things. This is an integral part of our struggle for self-determination."
I briefly spoke to Civil at the Port-au-Prince jail where he was being held on the morning of August 28. He told me that the people behind his arrest were also behind the February 2004 coup, and that his detention was a provocation of the Lavalas base. He said that those forces "hate Aristide, and they hate me."
Journalist and filmmaker Kevin Pina, who has lived and worked in Haiti since the late 1990s, told me he thinks Civil’s assessment is accurate.
Pina pointed to Civil’s leadership in organizing a demonstration for the return of Aristide that drew tens of thousands into the streets of Port-au-Prince on July 15 of this year: "I think that his key role in organizing the poor is behind this false incarceration."
Pina has known and respected Civil for years. He told me, "Rene was part of a Protestant youth group, and really came to prominence during the first coup against Aristide in 1991. In that period, Rene took to the airwaves many times, going in to radio stations to deliver a message of militant, nonviolent resistance for 10 minutes, then fleeing for his life, knowing that the U.S.-backed military would send thugs to come to beat, kill or torture him."
Pina describes Civil as "a man of tremendous courage, who continued the struggle when the destabilization campaign against Aristide began around 2000. He was one of the first to lead demonstrations in the popular neighborhoods of thousands and thousands of people, demanding that Aristide be allowed to serve out his term in office."
On May 14, when Kevin Pina videotaped UN troops opening fire on prisoners in the National Penitentiary, Civil was inside. The inmates took over the facility in a demonstration of solidarity with incoming President Preval, but also to demand an end to detention of political prisoners and the return of Aristide.
Pina commented, "I think Rene is in imminent danger in prison and we
need to hold the Haitian government and the U.N., who are overseeing this nightmare, accountable. Many viscerally hate Civil because he is a conscious and eloquent symbol of resistance to Haiti’s elite and the coup the U.S., France and Canada supported in Feb. 2004. Remember that Emmanuel Wilme was also a symbol of resistance and the UN assassinated him with massive force, also killing more than 20 others, in Cite Soleil on July 6, 2005. People of conscience should demand Civil’s human rights be respected and that he be unconditionally released from prison."
Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, recently wrote,
"The dispute over the political prisoners, like most national disputes in Haiti, breaks down along class lines. Lavalas has some support in Haiti’s middle classes, and Preval’s campaign successfully reached out to people across the economic spectrum. Yet the movement’s base, in terms of loyalty and numbers, is among the vast majority of Haitians who are poor. The opposition to Lavalas comes mainly from people who are relatively affluent by Haitian standards. They range from wealthy factory owners and prominent intellectuals to foreign-supported human rights workers and students, many of whom would be considered lower middle-class in the United States."
The opposition also includes numerous violent individuals who continue to attack Lavalas supporters with impunity, committing far more serious crimes than anything Civil is accused of. On September 14, the Port-au-Prince based Haitian Press Agency (AHP) editorialized against the judiciary’s double standard apparent in treatment of rightist forces. AHP accused Claudy Gassant of treading lightly in negotiations with Michael Lucius, the anti-Lavalas director of the judicial police (DCPJ), regarding a warrant issued against Lucius.
"The manner in which the case has been treated is close to an obscenity, above all because it involves the government prosecutor, chief representative of the public, defender of society, who sanctioned the obstruction of the legal proceedings, while all week those around this very prosecutor made assurances that Judge Napla Saintil had documents and photos establishing connections between Lucius and police auxiliaries implicated in kidnappings and other abuses the accusations are not the result of public clamor but rather are the findings of an investigating judge, and these accusations fall upon a man whose position places him in the very front line of the battle against kidnapping and crime."
Up from the sea, on the other end of Port au Prince from Cite Soleil, I spoke to residents of Grand Ravine, who complained that the UN had done nothing to protect local people from the depredations of Lame Ti Manchet (Little Machete Army). Haitian police supported Lame Ti Manchet in carrying out an August 2005 massacre of unarmed civilians at a USAID-sponsored soccer match. On July 6 of this year the death squad struck again, killing at least 22 area residents with shots to the head. Since then they have burned down numerous homes and killed more civilians.
Many I spoke to in Haiti connected Lame Ti Manchet to Washington-funded politician Evans Paul, who visited former Hatian National Police Director of the west region Carlo Lochard in jail when Lochard was briefly incarcerated for his involvement in the 2005 soccer massacre. Earlier this year, all police involved in last summer’s killings were summarily released from jail, with no charges pending against them.
Esterne Bruner, father of six children and coordinator of the Grand Ravine Community Human Rights Council (CHRC-GR), was assassinated on September 21 after he returned from a meeting with Evel Fanfan, a courageous human rights lawyer defending Lame Ti Manchet massacre survivors. Bruner had been shot on July 7, and though without resources to support his own family adequately, took in an eight year old girl who saw her father, mother, sister and godmother slaughtered on that day. In correspondence to the U.S.-based Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, Evel Fanfan wrote that Bruner "never got discouraged, never stopped demanding justice and restitution for the Grand Ravine victims, never stopped protesting the treatment given the victims by the authorities." Bruner also recently denounced MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, for taking over the local school at Grand Ravin and converting it into a military base. Fanfan stated that whenBruner asked the UN for protection, a UN soldier advised him "to find some weapons to fight back against the men of the Little Machete Army. For this reason I say that MINUSTAH is a source of insecurity in Haiti, counseling Haitians to take up arms."
The UN, theoretically committed to disarming groups with weapons, in reality only takes action against a handful of armed militants standing up to police and right-wing death squads in poor neighborhoods (the UN military operations, employing high caliber weapons in densely-populated areas, have repeatedly killed civilians who had nothing to do with any armed group).
Haitian elites and their backers in the UN mission continue to leverage most of the power in Haiti, and show no interest in limiting right wing violence. Meanwhile, Rene Civil and other Lavalas activists, whose only crime is a commitment to social justice, rot in jail. The only counter to this awful state of affairs will likely be the grassroots organizing and mass demonstrations that have been a hallmark of Lavalas politics. The brave Haitians engaged in this work on the ground will need all the international solidarity they can get.
*Estimates of the numbers of political prisoners range from several hundred to more than one thousand, but documentation is difficult given the lack of transparency under the coup regime. Also, Haitian police and UN Peacekeepers have illegally arrested hundreds of young men in countless sweeps, most for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is fair to say that the majority were criminalized for being poor, and given that the poorest are overwhelmingly pro-Lavalas, they can be described as political prisoners even though they do not necessarily have an official position or title that can establish them as Lavalas. A Haitian government employee conceded to me that many teenagers in Port-au-Prince’s children’s prison are in effect political prisoners simply because they do not have money, or relatives with money, to pay a lawyer or to bribe the right corrupt official for their release.
BEN TERRALL is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org