Many in the United States were surprised earlier this year when Haiti suddenly burst back into mainstream headlines with reports of an armed revolt brewing in the country’s interior. With more pressing problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush Administration paid little attention to Haiti until increasing violence and instability raised the spectre of large numbers of Haitians heading for Florida in search of political asylum. Since Florida is a key battleground state in the upcoming election, the first makeshift boats leaving Haiti sounded the alarm in Washington.
Anyone who had been paying any attention to Haitian social change organizations could not have been surprised by the upsurge in violence. For at least a year, student groups, organized farmers, women’s organizations, unions and all sorts of professional associations had been saying that Haiti was ready to explode. They all formed part of a protest movement against President Jean Bertrand Aristide, once the hope of Haiti’s poor majority. Even the conservative hierarchy of Haiti’s Catholic Church issued a statement insisting that free and fair elections were impossible under the repressive conditions existing throughout the country.
That movement demanded policy changes from Aristide’s government, as well as concrete steps to end the climate of impunity that allowed police and illegal armed groups to terrorize the population and violate their basic human rights. These organizations negotiated, held press conferences, mobilized, and finally came together to organize mass street demonstrations-all to no avail.
No Turning Back
“The turning point came in the fall of 2003 when student protests about lack of services and lack of university autonomy were met with severe repression by Haitian National Police (HNP) accompanied by extra-legal armed gangs transported in state owned vehicles entered the University Campus and beat and severely injured students and some faculty,” says Camille Chalmers, Executive Secretary of PAPDA (The Platform for Alternative Development Policy). The attacks on the student opposition only intensified the opposition to Aristide, and the demand for the President’s resignation became more widespread.
Collette L’Espinasse of GARR (Support Group for Refugees and Repatriates) says, ”Many sectors of civil society had been working peacefully together to try and heal the rift of the deep polarization of Haitian society – we did not want a rupture of Haitian society. But in the fall of 2003 came events that were like the straw that broke the camel’s back. The women’s organizations held silent vigils asking for an end to impunity – they sat before the National Palace in silence dressed in white – but they too were brutally beaten by Haitian National Police and extra-legal armed gangs. And there was never any legal governmental response to redress the abuse. There was no justice. Impunity reigned.”
Supporters of President Aristide have attempted to discredit the peaceful opposition to the President by pointing out that parts of it were led by Haitian elites and funded by the United States. They also point to continuing support for Aristide, especially among the residents of the populous slum areas in Port-au-Prince and other cities. There is truth to all of this, but that truth cannot obscure the fact that a large number of legitimate social change organizations reached a point where they concluded that Aristide had to go. Is that not their right?
The United States: Up to Old Tricks
The movement to force Aristide from power developed serious plans to achieve his resignation and then put in place a provisional government that would lead Haiti toward new elections. As is well known, that effort was short-circuited by the emergence of an armed opposition led by some of the most notorious violators of human rights in Haiti’s recent past. There is much debate about who armed and supplied these rebels, but it is more than likely that U.S. covert support played an important role.
Those armed units marched to within miles of Port-au-Prince, provoking Aristide’s departure and giving pretext to a U.S. intervention to put in place a new “caretaker” government. While many activists rightly demand an investigation of the U.S. role in what they term a U.S.-led coup, their demand that the ex-President be returned to power has little resonance in Haiti outside of the supporters of Aristide’s own Lavalas movement. While that movement continues to have significant support, especially in Port-au-Prince, the claim that it still represents the majority of Haitians clashes with the findings of observers from too many different political perspectives to be credible.
Regardless of the levels of support for Aristide, the U.S. clearly acted improperly in manipulating the transition in Haiti. But that echo of the past cannot obscure the fact that the transition was well underway before the armed rebels emerged from their hiding places in the Dominican Republic.
What Haitians Still Want
As the opposition to Aristide mushroomed, some activists argued that Aristide opponents were ignoring the fact that the alternatives to Aristide were much worse than he was. So, now that Aristide is gone, what are those social organizations that opposed him doing to be sure that they have not just opened the door to the worst of Haiti’s tragic past? Most are organizing against the U.S. occupation, some are calling for an investigation of the involvement of the U.S. in Aristide’s ouster, and all are dealing with the same critical issues that they were working on before Aristide’s fall. They are not focused on finding a new messiah to lead Haiti to the promised land. They are fighting to mend the torn relations between Haiti’s state and its people, and to create structures that will encourage respect for the human, social and economic rights of all Haitians.
“We want a normal country based in participatory democracy where we can continue to work to change the situation of the popular masses,” Chavannes Jean-Baptiste from the Papaye Peasant’s Movement (MPP) said in a recent statement. Pierre Esperance, of the Haitian Human Rights Platform (POHDH), voices a commonly held view when he says, “In Haiti everything is a priority, but our number one priority is putting an end to impunity. Haiti needs reconciliation, but there can be no reconciliation without justice.”
POHDH is working to document human rights abuses by the present government and the occupying forces as well as by all the regimes-including Aristide’s-that have held (and abused) power in Haiti.
While they acknowledge that their information is preliminary and still in need of verification, POHDH and its member groups have begun to present information on cases of abuse occurring since the beginning of 2004. These include abuses of authority by the multinational forces, reprisal attacks on Aristide supporters by armed rebels and their allies, and attacks carried out by armed supporters of Aristide. Whereas opposition activists lived in fear of their lives prior to February 29, the bulk of attacks since that date have been against Lavalas activists. While there is no credible information on numbers of killings and attacks, reports that killings since February 29 exceed 200 are certainly within reason.
In their reports, POHDH is, however, careful to distinguish between reprisals against Lavalas supporters and arrests of Lavalas members on charges of human rights abuses during the Aristide period. For example, they name five Aristide government figures that have been arrested since February 29 in relation to a massacre that took place in St. Marc just prior to Aristide’s departure. POHDH calls on the authorities to continue to detain all Haitians suspected of abuses, while respecting the due process rights of those individuals.
Those seeking to end impunity in Haiti today face an important test. Former paramilitary leader Louis Chamblain-who was tried and convicted in absentia for his role in the murder of a Lavalas businessman and his participation in a notorious massacre-has surrendered to Haitian authorities and will face a new trial. This court case-which should result in a trial of one of the leaders of the armed revolt against Aristide-will provide important evidence of whether or not the princes of impunity like Chamblain have succeeded in re-establishing themselves in post-Aristide Haiti. Other convicted killers with pasts similar to that of Chamblain remain at large in Haiti and must be brought to justice.
In opposing Jean Bertrand Aristide, grassroots and other social change organizations in Haiti took a calculated risk that it would be possible to move Haiti from the Aristide era in a democratic direction. Those organizations and their leaders were certainly aware of the danger that Aristide’s departure would pave the way for a return to Haiti’s authoritarian past. Any observer of Haiti today would have to say that the jury is still out on which way the country will now move.
In that context, U.S. activists should not allow Haiti to slip from public view. Our country has certainly been part of the problem in Haiti, which leaves us with a heavy responsibility to find ways to be part of the solution, as well. We must;
- Demand that control of the multinational force in Haiti pass to the United Nations as outlined in UN resolutions on the matter
- Join those insisting on a full investigation of U.S. support for the armed rebels who overthrew Aristide and of U.S. actions related to Aristide’s departure
- Insist that Haitians seeking political asylum in the U.S. be accorded their full rights under international conventions
- Support the call for the authorities to arrest all known violators of human rights now at large in Haiti and to disarm all extra-legal armed groups
- Press for the restoration of U.S. aid programs in Haiti, but only insofar as those programs aid in the economic and political development of the country; and
- Continue to provide support for grassroots social change initiatives in Haiti
Pierre Esperance ends his recent assessment of the prospects of ending impunity in Haiti with the following call to not lose sight of reasons to hope.
It is true that we live in a world of conflict and crisis, where much death and despair abound. But it is also true that we live in a world filled with seeds of hope. And I believe that these seeds exist in Haiti. As we strive towards creating a culture based on the supremacy of human rights and the belief in the sacredness of humanity, NCHR will continue to do its part by being a voice for the voiceless, a source of hope for those who have lost hope and in doing so, pave the way for the establishment of the Rule of Law in Haiti.
If Pierre, who two years ago was shot by unknown assailants and left for dead at the side of the road, can find reasons to believe that Haiti can find its way forward out of this crisis, perhaps we can, too.
Mironda Heston and Elizabeth St. Victor contributed to this piece. Grassroots International has provided financial and political support to Haitian social change organizations in Haiti since 1991.
This article will appear in Peacework magazine.