By Tom Reeves
March 24, 2005
PRESIDENT BUSH says his foreign policy goal is to bring freedom to the world, but perhaps events in Haiti will reveal what kind of freedom Mr. Bush has in mind.
Just over a year ago, U.S. Marines forced democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to leave the country. This “modern-style kidnapping,” as Mr. Aristide called it, occurred after weeks of rampant brutality carried out by thugs and the former Haitian military to topple the legitimate Aristide government.
But instead of intervening to support democracy, the United States covertly financed these “rebels” – many of whom had been convicted of human rights violations from the previous coup period in the 1990s.
Haiti is in far worse condition today than under the dictatorship of the Duvaliers. Poverty – already the worst in the hemisphere – has deepened. Common crime has escalated. Basic services exist only partially, not at all for the poor. The puppet regime installed by the United States, France and Canada, and propped up since June by a Brazilian-led U.N. force, has committed more human rights abuses than the worst claims against Mr. Aristide. It is led by de facto Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.
On the anniversary of the Feb. 28, 2004, coup, thousands of poor people poured out of the slums, crying, “Bring back Aristide.” According to U.N. troops and international media, the marchers were peaceful. The Haitian police fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding dozens. The U.N. officer on the scene declared, “Everything was peaceful. We are supposed to support the police. We cannot fire on them.”
On Feb. 19, armed men stormed the national penitentiary, behind the presidential palace, forcing former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, imprisoned without trial since the summer, to leave at gunpoint. About 500 prisoners escaped, including murderers and drug dealers.
U.N. troops apparently took their time to respond, arriving two hours afterward even though they had a warning the night before and there were 7,400 U.N. troops in the country. Mr. Neptune was freed and went directly to U.N. soldiers, asking to be returned to prison. This incident alone illustrates a failure of U.N. and U.S. policies, because there is no rule of law in the country after a year of U.S. and U.N. occupation. Mr. Neptune, languishing under horrific conditions, began a hunger strike. His condition is now said to be grave.
A riot broke out in the same prison when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited the palace in December. Mr. Powell heard gunfire. Police admitted they killed seven prisoners and wounded 50. The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) documented dire prison conditions, saying that up to 110 prisoners died. “For most of the dead, their assassination was the last in a long string of human rights violations,” the IJDH said.
A report in November from the University of Miami School of Law Center for the Study of Human Rights documented many abuses by the Haitian police. The report includes horrendous photos of boys as young as 12 lying unattended in pools of their own blood in the general hospital, where doctors refused to treat them. Other photos show bodies left in the street and dozens of bodies rotting at the morgue after police invasions of Port-au-Prince slums targeted as Aristide strongholds. Interviews with police and others indicate a campaign of political repression and assassination against Mr. Aristide’s Lavalas Party.
The “rebels” still control some Haitian cities. They regularly commit violence. One group invaded Mr. Aristide’s former home a year ago and again in November. The Haitian government’s response was to award them $4,800 each in “back pay” since Mr. Aristide disbanded the army, and it already has begun disbursing the money, which would total about $28.8 million, according to the Haitian press. The United Nations has earmarked another $2.8 million to pay the pensions of some 6,000 former officers who are certified to have disarmed.
As Haiti slips further into chaos, U.S., French and Canadian officials have urged the establishment of a U.N. protectorate. U.S. officials such as Assistant Secretary of State Roger F. Noriega support the current regime. “Haiti is on the right track,” he said.
Washington announced jointly with Canada, France and the Haitian government Jan. 12 that $41 million will be given to support Haitian elections in the fall. “The elections will go forward,” Mr. Noriega insists.
Brian Concannon of the IJDH says the choice is not merely between the current mess or a U.N. protectorate. “What about democracy?” he asks. Many observers say Lavalas would win again in a free election.
Half of all U.N. members still recognize Mr. Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa, as Haitian president. The organization of Caribbean states (CARICOM), South Africa and Venezuela have demanded Mr. Aristide’s return to Haiti. They call for an end to human rights abuses against Lavalas supporters and the organization of free elections.
U.S. policy toward Haiti is one of the worst blots on the U.S. record – bringing not freedom but tyranny and brutality to Haiti. Americans should join the Congressional Black Caucus to demand the return of democracy to Haiti.
Tom Reeves is an expert on Haiti and teaches a history course at Baltimore County Community College, Catonsville.