Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s stopover in Haiti last September was notably brief. The itinerary of her less than 24-hour visit included a cameo appearance at a voter registration site, a tour of the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, from the seat of a helicopter, and a news conference during which she expressed U.S. support for the Haitian people and the importance of voting in the country’s upcoming elections.
She urged Haitians, “Please go and register and reclaim your right to choose a democratic leader for Haiti.”
There was a bitter irony to the secretary’s recommendation. Without any encouragement from Rice, Haitians had already claimed their “right to choose” during the presidential elections in 2000. They voted overwhelmingly for Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In February 2004, the democratically elected leader was forced to leave Haiti in the face of an armed rebellion that many believe was made possible with U.S. and French assistance.
The extent of U.S. involvement in Haiti’s coup remains unexamined in the mainstream press. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has requested a congressional investigation into the former president’s precipitous departure. According to several reports, the U.S. Agency for International Development helped orchestrate political opposition to Aristide’s government and the International Republican Institute, created during the Reagan-era to “advance democracy,” funded and armed the rebels who overthrew him. Aristide says U.S. forces “kidnapped” him from his homeland; an allegation the State Department denies.
Undeniable, however, is the chaos that has followed Haiti’s regime change. Approximately 1,600 people have been killed since the 2004 coup. Like Iraq, the sources of Haiti’s violence — political repression, militant resistance and lawlessness — are multiple and fuel each other.
The United Nations’ top human rights official in Haiti recently described the country’s human rights situation as “catastrophic.” Numerous human rights reports have documented abuses committed by the Haitian National Police that include beatings, illegal arrests and summary executions. On Aug. 20, members of the police accompanied a band of machete-wielding civilians who attacked a crowd at a soccer game in Port-au-Prince, killing at least 10 people. Sixteen police officers were disciplined but no civilian attackers have been charged, according to the human rights organization Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Even U.N. peacekeeping troops have been implicated in some of the violence, accused of shielding the police from accountability or participating in assaults on poor neighborhoods. In mid-November, a dozen U.S. rights groups, attorneys and activists submitted petitions to the human rights arm of the Organization of American States, requesting measures to protect Haitians from U.N. peacekeepers and the Haitian police.
Encumbered by the instability, election preparations have been neither swift nor fair. After changing the date four times in five months, Haiti’s interim government has scheduled the first round of presidential and legislative elections for Jan. 8 with runoffs to be held Feb. 15. Haitians’ “right to choose” their government comes a full two years after their president was removed.
It is hard to know how much of the election delay is due to corruption, incompetence or a deliberate effort to disenfranchise the poor, many of whom support Fanmi Lavalas, the country’s largest political party. The voter registration center Rice visited was unavailable to most Haitians because these centers were not installed in poor urban and rural areas. Under pressure from the international community, the Provisional Electoral Council, the electoral agency responsible for running the elections, expanded voter registration opportunities. Seventy-five percent of Haitian voters have reportedly registered.
As one observer noted, Haiti’s interim government, with much help from the international community, might overcome the remaining logistical obstacles to the electoral process and pull off “technically acceptable elections.” But unless the country’s political prisoners are freed, the 2006 vote cannot be considered a fully democratic event.
Among the incarcerated is Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste, the Catholic pastor of a large poor parish in Port-au-Prince. Arrested July 26, he is accused of participating in the murder of his cousin, journalist Jacques Roche. Like so many Haitian prisoners, Jean-Juste is being held without charge. He sits gravely ill in the annex of Port-au-Prince’s National Penitentiary where many fear he will remain until the elections are over.
Thousands have called for his release, and even Rice urged that his case be dealt with quickly.
The first Haitian priest ordained in the United States, Jean-Juste has defined his priesthood by a courageous commitment to justice. In 1978, while living in Miami, he founded the Haitian Refugee Center, an organization that has fought for the rights of Haitian immigrants all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He is well-loved and well-remembered in Miami as the “gutsy” priest who spoke out against the repression of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and what many consider the discriminatory policies of the United States toward Haitian refugees.
A long-time friend and ally of Aristide, Jean-Juste is an outspoken critic of the interim government. He has repeatedly called for Aristide’s return, the release of political prisoners, and respect for Haiti’s Constitution. (The document grants democratically elected presidents a four-year term in office and requires the judiciary to charge prisoners within 48 hours of their arrest.) The price for preaching such a message has been high for Jean-Juste — seven weeks of imprisonment in the fall of 2004 and now a second incarceration.
The Haitian Catholic hierarchy recently distanced themselves from the outspoken priest because of confusion over his decision to enter the presidential race. Jean-Juste pondered a try; last August he told The Associated Press he would run for president “if Aristide approved my candidacy.” The following month, Fanmi Lavalas, without consulting the priest, named him as its presidential candidate. (Some have speculated the announcement was little more than a tactic to draw attention to the plight of the imprisoned cleric and other political prisoners.) In response, the Haitian hierarchy suspended his faculties as a priest. A devoted and much-needed pastor, Jean-Juste decided not to enter the presidential race. He is appealing the suspension to the Vatican.
In a country where armed leaders abound and the gun is the most consulted tool for political conflict, Jean-Juste has remained unequivocally nonviolent. He counts Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. among his guides. In his cell at the penitentiary, he sleeps beneath a picture of Salvadoran martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero.
When pro-Aristide demonstrations erupted into violence in September 2004, he advocated repentance.
“Haiti has gone too far in being violent to our sisters and brothers,” he said. “We must kneel down, ask forgiveness, and start over.”
In November 2004, Haiti’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission estimated that as many as 700 political prisoners filled the country’s jails. Grass-roots activists, local leaders for Fanmi Lavalas, were rounded up in the months immediately following Aristide’s removal. How many remain imprisoned is unknown but among those still incarcerated are folksinger Anne Sosin and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. Arrested May 2004, Neptune has yet to go to trial.
Some see Rice’s words for the Haitian people, however noble, as disingenuous. Too many questions remain about the U.S. role in Aristide’s overthrow for Haitians to take seriously her exhortation about voters’ rights. The interim government’s commitment to free and fair elections needs to be better demonstrated, say critics, who contend that passing out ballots while imprisoning the opposition is a meaningless expression of democracy.
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a longtime contributor to NCR.
National Catholic Reporter, January 6, 2006