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Return to Port-au-Prince

by BEN TERRALL

As I flew from JFK to Port-au-Prince Airport on August 11, a fellow journalist handed me the front section of that day’s New York Times with a laugh.  My friend pointed to a passage in an article about Russia’s war with Georgia that had prompted her bitter chuckling.

The piece quoted Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad of the United States, who charged that the Russian foreign minister had told Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice “that the democratically elected president of Georgia ‘must go.’” Khalizad described the Russian’s comment as “completely unacceptable.”

Of course, Washington’s posturing as a beacon of peace and freedom has become increasingly more ludicrous as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue with no end in sight and Bush explains that we do not torture while testimony to the contrary accumulates around the globe.  But the U.S. role in supporting the February 29, 2004 rightist coup in Haiti makes the hypocrisy of Khalizad’s statement especially galling.

The Bush Administration made it clear that Haiti’s democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had to go, then flew him to the Central African Republic under U.S. Marine Guard (as detailed in Randall Robinson’s excellent book An Unbroken Agony) as a brutal right-wing military takeover seized Aristide’s homeland. The coup government, UN forces, and anti-Aristide paramilitaries killed around 4,000 people in the next two years, according to a study published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet.

Among the many pro-Aristide activists who were forced into exile was the grassroots leader Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine.  Lovinsky, a key figure in the Port-au-Prince base of Aristide’s Lavalas movement, returned to Haiti during the apparent democratic opening after the 2006 election of President Rene Preval.

I saw Lovinsky speak in July 2007 at a demonstration across from the headquarters of MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti.  The occasion was the anniversary of the 1915 U.S. marine takeover of the island nation.  Lovinsky led a spirited crowd of around 50 Haitians, many elderly.  The psychologist-turned-activist forcefully read out a bill of indictment against the UN:  MINUSTAH’s legitimizing the 2004 coup by replacing the initial wave of U.S., French, and Canadian troops, and propping up an illegal government; UN troops engaging in massacres of unarmed civilians; and carrying out a modern-day colonial occupation  of Haiti.  As a few reporters and activists taped audio or shot video of this fiery speech, across Ave. John Brown at the UN entrance a mix of uniformed and plainclothes military representing a handful of the countries participating in MINUSTAH clicked away on digital cameras pointed at Lovinsky.  This seemed a tactic of intimidation, given the close operations the UN has conducted with the notoriously brutal Haitian police (as documented in reports from Harvard Law School and the University of Miami Law School).  A few weeks later, Lovinsky was abducted after meeting with a human rights delegation from the U.S.  He hasn’t been heard from since.

August 12 was the one year anniversary of Lovinsky’s disappearance.  I walked with a sinking feeling to the demonstration commemorating the sad day.  It was hard to believe such an impressive, committed figure had been missing for an entire year.  Between 150 and 200 demonstrators, many wearing t-shirts bearing Lovinsky’s likeness, marched in a circle around the statue of a man holding aloft a dove in the center of the Plaza of the Martyrs.  Aristide built the monument in memory of the thousands killed in the first (U.S.-backed) coup against him of 1991-1994.

Lavalas activist Rene Civil, imprisoned on trumped-up charges in 2006 but freed under a conditional release after an international campaign on his behalf, addressed the crowd.  He said that Lovinsky’s disappearance was a threat to Lavalas supporters, intended to stop them from struggling for Aristide’s return.

As the demonstration wound through downtown Port-au-Prince, several police vehicles followed.  Police had already blocked off streets near the Plaza of Martyrs, which protest organizers claimed was done to discourage more people from participating.   The police presence as the march ended in front of the National Palace was low-key, but  a jeep with six heavily armed Brazilian troops was a bit more hostile.  I took photos of them as one of them photographed me.

The next day I returned to the Palace of the Martyrs, where the September 30th Foundation, a group co-founded by Lovinsky to support reparations and justice for victims of the 1991 coup, holds a protest at 11am every Wednesday.  Since their leader (one member told me, “we see Lovinsky as a father and a brother”) has been abducted the primary focus of the weekly action has been calling for the safe return of Lovinsky.

Edwidge (for her safety, a pseudonym), a woman participating in the protest, told me “Lovinsky used to help us.  All the time we’re hungry, now we have no one.” She continued, “Lovinsky was not a criminal.  We know when the wealthy are kidnapped the government does everything it can to recover the victim.  Lovinsky is not a dog, not an animal.  He deserves the same treatment as the wealthy people.  Give us a report.  If he’s dead, give us the bones and we’ll bury him.”

Many of his supporters hold out hope that their sorely-missed friend is alive.  The forty present at the Wednesday protest sang political lyrics set to traditional evangelical tunes (and, in  at least one instance, a vodou song).  One roughly translated as “The victims are asking for the key/ give us the key so we can open the door of justice/ who are we asking for? Lovinsky!”

In an interview later that day, human rights lawyer Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) told me that in some ways the current Preval Administration is “worse than the interim [coup] government.”  Joseph said he told the Haitian ambassador in Washington, “your government needs to launch an investigation … [but] on Lovinsky, they don’t want to do anything.” Joseph argues, “The Preval government continues the policies of the Latortue [coup] government,” and says most of those now in power are holdovers from the illegal 2004-2006 government.

(A Lavalas activist who has worked with Aristide since 1984 and who was diplomatic about Preval, told me, “on the social and economic plane, we can work with him.” But this member of the National Cell for the Reflection of the Grassroots, who was beaten so badly he had to be hospitalized in prison under the 2004-2006 regime, said all “ministers, ambassadors, and delegates” left over from the coup period are “criminals” who should be fired.)

Joseph’s family has had to relocate to Miami because of death threats.  Noting that human rights abusers he helped put behind bars under Aristide had escaped prison after 2004, the lawyer said, “They need to arrest people escaped from jail.  My life is in danger.”

Meanwhile, Joseph remains extremely busy defending prisoners, some of whom have been moved to outlying regions he has a hard time getting to.  Of the political prisoners still behind bars, he said, “I have too much work to do, it’s hard to keep track,” but that there “were more than 100.”  Most high profile Lavalas figures have been freed but many less well-known progressive activists remain locked down.  Joseph explained, they “had contact with the Lavalas movement, that’s why they’re in jail.”  Some think the number of political prisoners is higher, given the many poor people picked up in sweeps of “popular,” or pro-Lavalas, neighborhoods.  (The majority of inmates in the country’s overcrowded prisons have still not seen a judge, though the Haitian constitution stipulates that all prisoners must have access to a judge within 48 hours of their arrest.)  Joseph stressed the “really vague” nature of charges made in such sweeps.  “They accused kids of being gang members, bandits, and of ‘association with malefactors,’ the same techniques as under [former dictator] Duvalier.”

Joseph filed a rape complaint against Sri Lankan soldiers accused of sexually abusing Haitian girls, but there was no prosecution.  The Sri Lankans were shipped home.  To add insult to injury, the UN presence has had a harshly inflationary effect on rents and other basic expenses.  UN SUVs are in evidence throughout exclusive Port-au-Prince gated communities, but UN money doesn’t trickle down to many of the country’s poor majority, who are having a harder and harder time surviving.  Several street vendors perched in a heavily flooded corner of an outdoor market in the city’s Lasaline neighborhood told me the cost of a cup of rice had doubled since the capital’s food riots of April.  The vendors could no longer save anything, and had no idea how they were going to scrape together enough to pay school fees for their kids in September. In the stagnant water at their feet parasites were visible.  A health care worker later confirmed a huge number of kids have worms in their bodies.

BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

 

 

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Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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