By Yves Engler
Many Canadians know that on February 29, 2004 Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was sent into exile. But few of us realize that most Haitians believe Aristide was overthrown by a coup d’etat orchestrated by the USA, France and Canada. Or that most of the country’s elected officials were forced from office. Or that in subsequent political repression of Aristide’s party, Lavalas, thousands have lost their jobs, been jailed or killed. Few Canadians understand that our country’s good name has been besmirched throughout the Caribbean by our government’s involvement with the USA and France in this project to once again tell Haitians what is good for them.
Most Canadians would be appalled to learn that our country has sided with Haiti’s small elite against the majority of its population. In order to really understand what is happening in Haiti, I recently travelled there and to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where hundred of thousands of refugees have fled.
Semereste Boliere is the elected mayor of Petit Goave, a town of 15,000. After being arrested in March by the new authorities, he escaped his captors and is hiding out in Port-au-Prince. While we sipped cola from ’50s-style pop bottles in a run-down labour hall near the city centre, he told me that since his departure from office Petit Goave has mostly been in the hands of former military officers who led the rebellion against the constitutional government. (The army, notorious for murderous repression, was disbanded by Aristide in 1995.)
Boliere and Ronald St. Jean, a human rights activist, say that throughout the country hundreds of elected mayors, council members and senators were forced into hiding or exile. Those officials who have kept their positions have made accommodations with the USA-armed paramilitary thugs, many of whom are convicted murderers and drug runners. Boliere and St. Jean are very disappointed with Canadian involvement in undermining Haitian democracy.
Wages and Food
Rea Dol is a 38-year-old mother of three who worked for the District of Petionville, which is an upscale (in Haitian terms) suburb of Port au Prince. When the “interim” government installed Marie Renee, a new un-elected mayor, Dol found herself out of work; fired without cause, with no compensation and owed back wages. Dol says she is just one of thousands (more than 2000 at the state telecom company alone) fired for their perceived political affiliation. She tells me about unemployment lines in a country with no social assistance and where most of the urban population is looking for work. It appears that some of the recently unemployed, especially the hundreds of police officers purged over the past ten months, have taken to crime.
Dol says that the rising cost of rice and beans is also driving people to lawlessness. The cost of these staples, imported by a handful of wealthy families who supported Aristide’s removal, has increased by 40 percent since the coup. Undoubtedly there has been a marked rise in malnutrition, but in the chaos who is keeping track?
Incredibly, for some people food isn’t their top priority. Not getting shot outranks eating. Jeremy is a twenty-year-old who formerly worked for the government TV station. A couple weeks after the coup, armed men came to his house. He wasn’t home, Jeremy tells me with fear still in his eyes, so they killed his aunt. He fled to the Dominican Republic and still does not dare return home. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) have documented hundreds of killings of Lavalas supporters by paramilitary death squads and the police. On October 26, Haitian police rounded up 12 young men in the Fort National slum. They were forced to lie down and then were shot in the back of the head.
Two days later, under similar circumstances, four more were murdered in the Lavalas stronghold of Bel Air. It is almost impossible to ascertain how many have died from political violence and repression since last February. An IJDH report covering the period until the end of July documents (with pictures of over 50 bodies) hundreds of murders, mostly of Lavalas supporters.
During a pro-Lavalas demonstration on September 30th, the anniversary of Aristide’s first USA-backed removal from office, the national police fired into the crowd. At least four unarmed demonstrators were killed under the watchful eye of United Nations peacekeepers.” The next day installed Prime Minister Gerard Latortue announced, “We shot them, some of the them fell, others were injured, others ran away.”
On December 1, two weeks after the government fired more than a dozen experienced prison guards, a deadly riot broke out at the heavily fortified national penitentiary. At first the government claimed seven prisoners were killed. Subsequent investigations by Reuters, the Toronto Star and IJDH suggest that this number is likely a gross underestimate. The actual figure could be as high as 110, according to the IJDH.
I tried to interview prisoners but since December 1 the downtown Port-au-Prince national prison has been off limits to family members and most outsiders. The government admits, however, that of the 1,100 held in the prison when the riot occurred, only 17 had been convicted of any crimes. Hundreds of the detainees still languishing in the overcrowded cells are Lavalas activists, including elected politicians and numerous senators.
Inside the women’s Petionville prison I meet two prominent political prisoners: internationally acclaimed folk music singer, So anne and the former head of the Haitian Senate, Yvon Feulle. So anne is a feisty 70-year-old who brings the music of Haiti to the world and is also a political organizer committed to improving the lives of ordinary people in the poorest country of the Americas. She says, incredibly cheerfully, that she has been behind bars without being charged since May 10, when USA marines barged into her house during the night. The marines killed two dogs and arrested everyone, including a couple of children. Seven months after her arrest, So anne is defiant. She flexes her arm muscles and shouts out, “they won’t intimidate me.”
Port-au-Prince stretches up a mountain from a Caribbean bay. The higher one climbs, the wealthier the neighborhood. At the top is Petionville where the latest SUVs are on display and Western banks are never far away. Luxurious mansions line the peak looking out over the city of two million. But even in Petionville poverty is rampant; at a sprawling market hundreds of women “entrepreneurs” spend their days selling candies and other products we might see in a Canadian dollar store.
I visited SOPUDEP school, which educates hundreds of children whose parents are unable to pay. Although demand for the school rises by the day, in September Petionville’s new (unelected) mayor attempted to shut the school down because she associates it with Lavalas. She sent in machine-gun wielding police during school hours. Ultimately the school remained open with the help of outside pressure, but how long can it continue to operate under these trying circumstances?
Fifty feet below the house where I am staying, a shantytown begins. One evening I lose my direction and find myself in this neighbourhood where it is unclear to me if a burned out car or a pile of garbage are actually dwellings. As children jump from rock to rock in the desolate landscape, I worry about the effects of growing up here.
How to help?
“Canada is not helping by siding with the rich against the poor,” said So anne, the folksinger. “If outside forces would just respect our democracy and give us aid, we can improve our country,” said Boliere, the former mayor. “The Aristide government cut the illiteracy rate from 80 per cent to 50 percent,” said my host. “Poor people understood the government was on their side; that’s why Aristide is so popular to this day. I just want to believe a better life is possible,” said Jeremy. “Can you offer us that”?
As well as a lack of accurate reporting reporting, Canadian media rarely acknowledges that the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) refuses to recognize Haiti. To do so would bring into question the legitimacy of Canada’s operations in Haiti. Reporting on CARICOM’s rationale for freezing Haiti’s membership—they don’t want to support an illegitimate government—would lead Canadians to ask, “Was my government involved in removing an elected head of state? Have their actions lead to the death of hundreds, if not thousands of people?” An empathic “Yes” would undoubtedly be the informed conclusion.
Instead, the media (and Liberal government) cite Canada’s military mission in Haiti as a good reason to increase funding for the armed forces. Barely any information (or prominent people) contradicts the government’s position on Haiti. The Left argue that military funding ($13 billion annually) should be cut and the money spent on social programs, yet Canadian unions, mainstream left-wing columnists, and the NDP have been unwilling to challenge Canada’s military (political) involvement in Haiti.
Why? Certainly there is substantial compassion for Haiti’s impoverished population, as evidenced by the outpouring of aid after Haiti’s recent floods. In addition, how can we (the Left) argue that military funding is a waste when we are unable to stand up and say “No, Canada’s military is not a force for good in Haiti?”
Yves Engler is studying political science at Concordia University in Montreal.