September 29, 2005

US Pulls the Strings in Haiti

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Laden with heavy security, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a quick visit to Haiti on Tuesday. Her mission: to reassure Haiti’s interim government that the United States wants the elections to go forward in November, and to see to it that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide does not return to Haiti.

Once again, the US is manipulating Haiti.

On February 29, 2004, the United States had forcibly removed President Aristide from Haiti, then maintained that he voluntarily resigned. President Aristide had been elected with 80 percent of the vote. True to form, the Bush administration, which claims to love democracy, engineered a coup d’etat and removed a democratically-elected leader of another country.

The Aristides are now in South Africa, which granted them asylum. On August 31, President Aristide issued a statement, cautioning that free and fair elections could not take place in Haiti until the thousands of Lavalas [the pro-Aristide party comprised mostly of Haiti’s poor] who are in jail and in exile are free to return home, the repression that has already killed over 10,000 people ends immediately, and national dialogue begins.

President Aristide asked, “In 1994, who could have expected free, fair and democratic elections in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo and other leaders and members of the African National Congress in jail, exile or in hiding?”

Two prominent Lavalas leaders are in jail. Rev. Fr. Gérard Jean Juste, who has been in custody for two months, was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. More than 400 interfaith religious leaders have signed a letter asking for Fr. Jean Juste’s release. Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has been jailed for 16 months, with no charges against him. Both men are in frail health.

The United Nations maintains a peacekeeping force of 8,000 in Haiti. I asked Mildred Aristide, the President’s wife, what role the UN has played in Haiti’s problems. She told me: “Before the coup in February 2004 – up until that very day – the constitutional government requested assistance from the UN to help defend Haitians from the murderous band of former soldiers, drug dealers, and thugs who were set on destabilizing the country and killing innocent people.”

How did the UN respond? It “stood by and allowed a democratically elected President, along with nearly 7,000 elected officials, to be removed from office,” Mrs. Aristide said. Only then, she added, did the UN vote to send an intervention force to Haiti.

“Credible reports of UN complicity in human rights abuses have surfaced,” Mrs. Aristide noted. “The UN has been forced to investigate allegations. The Haitian Police distribute machetes to hooded attachés, gun down innocent demonstrators, systematically raid poor slums, disappear prisoners turned over to them by the UN – all under the official sanction of the UN which voted to exercise control over the police.”

Referring to the police and the UN, Mrs. Aristide said, “The people of Haiti who are under siege are hard pressed to see any distinction among their repressors.” Both Haiti’s police and the UN force are enabled by United States political and economic clout.

When Rice was in Haiti Tuesday, she made clear the US does not want President Aristide to return to Haiti. “The Haitian people are moving on,” Rice said.

But things in Haiti are not going according to “script,” says Mrs. Aristide. Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the State Department, resigned. In August, Haiti’s interim government released the imprisoned Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a leader of the vicious Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a paramilitary group blamed for thousands of killings during the military dictatorship that ruled Haiti after forcing President Aristide from power in 1991. James B. Foley, the US Ambassador to Haiti, left his post in August for unknown reasons. Foley called Chamblain’s release a “sham,” especially in light of Neptune’s continued incarceration with no evidence against him. Foley characterized Neptune’s detention as “a violation of human rights, an injustice and an abuse of power.”

“Kidnappings, murder and other crimes have become widespread in Haiti since the interim government came to power a year-and-a-half ago,” Rep. Maxine Waters (CA) said in an August statement.

On August 20, police accompanied by machete-wielding civilians attacked a soccer crowd of thousands, shooting or hacking to death at least six and as many as 30 spectators. “Our tax dollars were at both ends of the killing,” Brian Concannon, Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told the Congressional Black Caucus last week. “The soccer game was sponsored by a USAID program, to promote peace in the neighborhood. The US also sponsors the killers, the Haitian National Police, by providing guns and weapons despite a consistent history of police killing over the last 18 months.”

“Roads and infrastructure have fallen into disrepair, and public services have virtually disappeared. The interim government has done nothing to stem the growing violence in the country, and it has done nothing to make millions of dollars in promised aid from international donors available to the Haitian people,” said Rep. Waters. “Just about the only thing the interim government has done is jail hundreds of political prisoners.”

Since President Aristide’s ouster, thousands of people have demonstrated to protest the horrific conditions, and the interim government has responded with violence against the people. Spurred by the US to take a more “proactive role” in going after armed pro-Aristide gangs, UN troops have engaged in “a wave of Fallujah-like collective punishment inflicted on neighborhoods known for supporting Aristide,” according to Naomi Klein.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has documented that 18 months after President Aristide was forced out of the country, Haiti remains insecure and volatile. Much of the population displays “disenchantment, apathy and ignorance about the electoral process,” the ICG found.

The IGC reported that “a week before the scheduled close of registration, only 870,000 [of 4 million] potential voters had registered, and none had yet received the new national identity card required to vote.”

Although Rice tried to put a positive gloss on Haiti’s prospects for fair and free elections, “Haiti is in the midst of a comprehensive program of electoral cleansing,” said Concannon. “Its ballots are being cleansed of political dissidents, its voting rolls cleansed of the urban and rural poor. The streets are being cleansed of anti-government political activity,” he said.

Lavalas supporters have said they will not participate in the elections unless political prisoners are released, political persecutions are ended, and President Aristide is returned to Haiti. Senior officials at Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department admit that Lavalas remains Haiti’s most popular party. Thus, an election without Lavalas would be sham.

On June 28, the House of Representatives passed Rep. Barbara Lee’s resolution to block arms transfers to Haiti. The State Department responded by announcing on August 9 that it would send $1.9 million worth of guns and other equipment to the police before the elections and presumably before the Senate could vote on the resolution, according to Concannon.

Rep. Waters’ proposed amendment to H.R. 2601 provides good standards for evaluating conditions in Haiti as the elections approach, in Concannon’s opinion. It requests adequate security, disarmament of paramilitary groups, and trials or release for the political prisoners. Concannon stresses the importance of the opportunity to vote, to organize, and to campaign.

Haitians are still demonstrating in spite of the repression. Haitian democracy supporters are planning a demonstration in Port-au-Prince tomorrow to commemorate the anniversary of the 1991 coup against President Aristide, which they have done every September 30 since 1996. The interim government has outlawed all demonstrations until October 2. That decree “is as unconstitutional in Haiti as it would be in the US and most other countries,” said Concannon.

Demonstrations and other Haiti solidarity events will be held in 38 cities in 14 countries on or around September 30.