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In the August 9, 2007 Washington Times, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described his late July visit to the Haitian shantytown of Cite Soleil. Ki-moon trumpets armed incursions waged by the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and their success in establishing “security,” and concludes, “I am convinced Haiti is at a turning point. Long the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, seemingly forever mired in political turmoil, it at long last has a golden chance to begin to rebuild itself. With the help of the international community — and the United Nations in particular — it can.”
On a July visit to Haiti, most of the people I spoke with were less enthusiastic about the UN presence in their country. On July 28, I observed a spirited demonstration across from UN headquarters on Ave. John Brown in Port-au-Prince. The protest took the form of what Haitian activists call a “sit-in”; such actions are smaller than mass mobilization “manifestations” which involve thousands of people marching. July 28 marked the 92nd anniversary of the 1915 US Marine invasion of Haiti, which many Haitians I spoke to see as a direct precursor to the current UN presence in Haiti, given that MINUSTAH, as the mission is known, was established in 2004 to legitimize the US-backed coup regime which ousted the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (Aristide remains in U.S.-enforced exile in South Africa.)
Several activists began posting photos of dissidents killed by military, police and death squads over the past few decades. The photos were placed on a banner that said in Kreyol, “everytime a militant falls, 1,000 will rise to take their place.”
The protestors danced as they chanted, calling out in Kreyol, “what are we asking? For MINUSTAH to leave!” This was immediately followed by a song about their deposed President, which explained “our blood is Aristide’s blood.”
A bitterly angry Haitian woman informed me that her 25 year-old daughter was killed in the middle of the night by the UN during a raid on her neighborhood. She told us, “we will never forget how many people the UN has killed.” On previous trips to Haiti, I spoke to other family members of innocent civilians who became “collateral damage” – picked off for no other reason than that they were in the line of fire when UN soldiers went into assault mode on flimsily constructed, densely packed neighborhoods. In one such raid in Cite Soleil, MINUSTAH fired up to 22,000 bullets, according to declassified documents from the U.S. embassy.
The chanting continued in Kreyol: “Calling George Bush, come and get your thieves!” Then the demonstrators began moving up Avenue John Brown, to another entrance to the UN facility about a city block away.
There Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, the head of Fondasyon 30 Septanm, a Haitian human rights organization which advocates for victims of the 1991 and 2004 coup d’etats against the democratically-elected governments of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, read a statement that included this passage: “Yes in 1915 we were subjected to an imperialist, criminal and ruthless occupation. In the year 2004 we again were subjected to another imperialist, criminal and ruthless occupation, even if the dark forces tried to hide their faces behind the army of a few countries that are poor like us.” Lovinsky then added the Kreyol proverb, “Those who pay the band decide what music to play.”
Lovinsky expressed vehement opposition to President Rene Preval’s extension of the UN mandate in Haiti. Though elected by the country’s poor majority largely because of his past association with Aristide (he was Prime Minister in the first Aristide administration which ended in the 1991 coup), most activists I spoke to now see Preval as at best ineffectual in standing up to rightist forces. And unlike Aristide, Preval has delivered few concrete gains for the poor masses and appears to have little ability or interest in communicating to them what he plans to do to improve their lot.
At the checkpoint Lovinsky directed his bullhorn toward, Jordanian troops stood poised with weapons at the ready in front of a roadblock covered in razor wire. Brazilian, Nepalese, and Bolivian soldiers had also driven by and scrutinized the demonstration at various points.
It was striking how many different uniformed and plainclothes soldiers and officers, including a Phillipine officer wearing a beret, a French officer, and a man with a U.S. flag on his shoulder, repeatedly photographed the assembled demonstrators. UN occupation forces have worked closely with Haitian police, whose widespread use of torture and extrajudicial execution under the post-2004 coup regime has been widely documented, in reports by the University of Miami, Harvard Law School, the Institute for Justice and Democracy and other organizations. Given that holdovers from the coup period still dominate the Haitian police (as well as the judiciary and most ministries), repeatedly photographing protestors seemed more about sending a message of intimidation than a matter of developing files on the fifty mostly elderly men and women in attendance, none of whom posed any physical threat to the heavily armed UN forces.
While Ban Ki-moon praised the Haitian Senate for passing legislation aimed at “creating a legal climate more conducive to economic development and foreign investment,” Lovinsky had a more grassroots perspective at the UN demonstration: “The bourgeoisie favored an occupation which would bring it big profits.”
Certainly a key factor in Jean-Bertrand Aristide earning the enmity of the small number of Haitian super-rich, who collaborated with the U.S., France and Canada on his 2004 ouster, was his Lavalas Party government’s work to provide some measure of economic justice by doubling the minimum wage and pushing elites to pay taxes. The Lavalas motto was “from misery to poverty with dignity,” not “working to create a climate more conducive to foreign exploitation.”
Poor Lavalas supporters were swept up en masse throughout the “interim” coup government of 2004-2006. (One of the more prominent current political prisoners, Lavalas grassroots organizer Rene Civil, who helped mobilize thousands in demonstrations to demand the return of Aristide, was arrested on trumped-up charges after Preval took office.) I spoke to a young man in the horrifically overcrowded downtown penitentiary in Port-au-Prince who has been trying with no success to get evidence of his innocence to a judge. His lawyer told me his client was picked up by police in a sweep after the business he worked in was robbed, then he was the one “suspect” police held on to after scrutinizing his history as a nonviolent Lavalas activist.
Untold numbers of other prisoners who identify as Lavalas remain in jail in similarly dubious circumstances. Some have been inside since the 2004 coup without once having seen a judge. One current prisoner estimated that more than 65% of those in the main penitentiary are there for political reasons. Given that I have heard repeatedly from prisoners and families of prisoners that they were offered freedom for cash payments of thousands of U.S. dollars they did not have, in a very real sense these people have been criminalized for being poor.
Incredibly, the outgoing head of UN peacekeeping operations in Haiti, Guatemalan Edmond Mulet gave a recent interview in which he admitted how awful jail conditions are: “We are victims of our own success. They are completely overcrowded. They even have to take turns now to sit or to lie down or to sleep because there is not enough room. So they take turns. They sleep for four hours and then are woken up so the others can sleep. It’s pretty horrible. And the sanitary conditions, you have cells that were made for four people and you have
40 or 50 in them. And this poses not only security problems, but also on human rights issue as well. So we are hoping some countries will be interested in putting a remedy to this.”
Mulet went on, “One of the problems we have in Haiti is most of the inmates are in preventive detention mode. They have probably never seen a judge, there’s no formal accusation, there’s no file, there’s nothing. Some of them probably stole a chicken and probably the penalty for that would be five days in jail and they’ve been in jail two or three years.”
Meanwhile anti-Aristide death squad thugs, including perpetrators of the April 1994 Raboteau massacre of Lavalas supporters, convicted and jailed under Haiti’s democratic governments are still roaming free after being sprung from jail by paramilitaries who did the dirty work of the 2004 coup.
The sense of solidarity the poor still have for Aristide (a Port-au-Prince resident told me, ‘Aristide was trying to help the lower classes — that’s why he was kidnapped”; the graffiti “VIV RETOU TITID,” or “long live the return of Aristide,” was everywhere) is indicative of the resilience of the popular movement for social and economic justice in Haiti. But given that the current UN mission in the country was established to support a status quo at odds with that popular movement, renewing the UN mandate there will only be another barrier to real democracy and progressive change for the vast majority of Haitians.
On Tuesday, September 18, the Bay Area-based Haiti Action Committee (HAC) held a rally in downtown San Francisco to call attention to the unresolved kidnapping of veteran Haitian human rights activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine.
Robert Roth, a San Francisco high school teacher and long-time solidarity activist who took part in a delegation to Haiti in late July (which this writer joined in Port-au-Prince), spoke first at the rally. Roth explained, “It’s been over a month since Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine has disappeared. He is a human rights worker, he’s a psychologist, he’s worked with victims of torture from the coup of 1991-1994. He’s continued his human rights advocacy in Haiti during this recent coup in 2004, a coup organized and created by the United States government.”
Roth continued, “When we were there in Haiti, we met with Lovinsky at his house, he talked to us about the current situation in Haiti and how the human rights violations continue against the people. He talked to us about political prisoners, and how they continue to be held in Haiti under the UN occupation, and how they continue to be held under the Preval government.”
Roth added, “He is a deep thinker, and he is a very, very important leader of the people’s movement in Haiti. And he has disappeared for over a month, and that’s a crime against the people of Haiti, it’s a crime against anyone who believes in freedom and justice. It’s a crime against anyone who believes in peace and dignity and human rights and all the things that we cherish. And so our hearts are with him wherever he is. And we will not give up. We will not give up our solidarity with Lovinsky. We will not give up hope for his safe return, we will not give up our demand that the authorities in Haiti account for his disappearance, and bring him safely back to his family, his people. And we don’t see this as just about Lovinsky. It’s about the people of Haiti, it’s about the people of Iraq, it’s about the people of Palestine, it’s about the people of the Philippines, wherever people are fighting for justice. And so we take a moment here to honor him, and we take a moment to let people all over the world now that Lovinsky is with us, we’re with him, and we’ll continue to be out here until he returns home safely.”
HAC co-founder Pierre Labossiere echoed that internationalist perspective in his comments about “this beautiful brother, psychologist, human rights worker, someone who’s at the forefront of the movement for justice, for economic and social justice for the people of Haiti, and for people throughout the world.” Labossiere noted that when a member of the July delegation who was helping organize a Human Rights Tribunal on crimes committed during Katrina told Lovinsky of that New Orleans-based solidarity initiative, “Lovinsky said, ‘how do I support it? Let me sign up.’  As a matter of fact he was supposed to attend the tribunal when he disappeared three weeks before, the actual tribunal took place. So Lovinsky is one of those brothers who care for people world-wide, he’s just not limited to Haiti. He sees the struggle for justice, and human rights,and equality as a world-wide struggle, and that people need to rally around from wherever you are from and link arms with each other, so we can have a world of peace, a world of justice, where human rights are
Labossiere asked the San Francisco protestors to write or call “the US embassy in Haiti, to the Brazilian authorities, who are in charge of the UN mission in Haiti, to the Haitian authorities.” The message: “we need them to exert all their influence – they are very powerful, very influential – with all sectors of Haitian society, from the very top politicians to the underworld, to demand one thing: that brother Lovinsky be returned to his family safely.”
In a September 13 letter to the Brazilian government, Dominican Sister Stella Goodpasture of the Mission of San Jose, emphasized that her appeal was not a request “for the Brazilian mission in Port-au-Prince to crack down militarily as they have in the past. What we are asking for is that Brazilian officials express their concern through any and all channels that the kidnappers should negotiate with Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine’s family and that Lovinsky needs to be released unharmed.”
More such messages to the authorities in Haiti are still needed.
Haitian Ministry of Justice
UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)
Or, Fax Office of UN Secretary General in New York: 212-963-4879
United States Embassy in Haiti
Tel: 011-509-223-4711, or 222-0200 or 0354
Embassy of Brazil in Haiti
Tel: 011-509-256-9662 or 6208 or 7556 or 7578
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org