"A Visit to Haiti": Reflecting on Haiti a year later: December 13, 2004
By Dick Bernard
|SUMMARY: Exactly one year ago today, December 13, 2003, I returned from an intense study trip to Haiti. I was part of a group superbly led by my friend Paul Miller. We met, during our jam-packed week, basically with people who supported and respected the efforts at building democracy in Haiti by the then-government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. This experience was, as I will describe below, a godsend to me. My learning only began on my return from Haiti. On my return I resolved to learn everything I could about the relationship between my country, the rich and powerful United States, and its desperately poor next door neighbor in the Caribbean, Haiti. What follows are only a few of many impressions from the past year as my learning continues.
For those with little or no knowledge of Haiti, here's a thumbnail: Haiti, just east of Cuba, was one of Christopher Columbus' first stops in 1492. It is a very small country - about one-eighth the size of Minnesota - sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. When 'discovered' it was a lush, heavily populated tropical paradise. While small in land area, it has more than 1 _ times Minnesota's population. It became the second country in the western hemisphere (after the U.S.) to gain independence in 1804, and this year is its bicentennial of freedom. Nonetheless, most of its history has been marked by foreign domination and exploitation, including by Spain, France and the U.S. Its exercise in democracy is very recent, beginning with the departure in the late 1980s of Baby Doc Duvalier. A charismatic Haitian Catholic Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won election twice as its president: to five year terms in 1990, and again in 2000, and his political party Fanmi Lavalas, is the dominant political party. Rene Preval, of the same party, was president between Aristide's terms. President Aristide was removed from office by a military coup d'etat 1991-94; reinstated to office by the U.S.; and once again removed from office by another coup d'etat February 29, 2004. His normal term of office ends February, 2006. I see almost nothing about the Aristide/Lavalas 'side' of the story in the U.S. media, and our government by all appearances had much to do with his removal from office. The best alternative publication I have seen about the Aristide/Lavalas perspective about Haiti's history including the coup of 2004 is Haiti:Hidden from the Headlines, available in entirety at www.haitiaction.net/HidFrame.html . I have a more complete resource list, plus a comparison map and historical timeline at www.chez-nous.net/peace_haiti.html. My personal description of my 2003 trip to Haiti is www.chez-nous.net/haitibicentennial.pdf.
Take some time to learn about Haiti.
I was continuing final touches on this article at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, December 12. Shortly after beginning the process, the electric power in our community went off, and stayed off till after daybreak - a very rare occurrence here. Since it was very dark, I went back to bed, with three feelings dominant: first, reflecting on the remarkable dependency we in the U.S. have on services like electricity: the furnace and clocks didn't work; I couldn't even open the garage door to travel to my early morning hangout for coffee. Second, I thought about how usual my experience would be if in Haiti, where something like electricity is an uncertain luxury unless one is wealthy enough to afford a generator and the fuel to run it. Finally, I noticed, other than the wind, the profound quiet on an early suburban morning, compared with the early cacophony in Port-au-Prince of roosters, dogs and early pedestrian traffic of quiet human beings walking to their destinations. Today's experience seemed the perfect one to have while preparing some reflections on Haiti, a year after we returned last December 13.
Before departing Port-au-Prince December 13, 2003, I asked our host if he could get some Haitian money and stamps for me. He came through, with 100 newly minted 10 Gourde notes (each note worth about an American quarter at the time); and some Haiti stamps reflecting the upcoming bicentennial of the country. I remember him commenting about the pride the Haitian government felt to be minting its own money. The crisp notes spoke for themselves.
The day before we left Haiti came word that Andre Jan-Marie, a person we had met December 9 at a school for poor children, had been assassinated December 11 near the Presidential Palace. He was a literacy official for the government, and was one of the founders of the school we had visited.
These three vignettes summarize the Haiti I saw December 6-13, 2003. About three weeks after our return, I wrote my impressions. This document remains at www.chez-nous.net/haitibicentennial.pdf. Today, 11 months and an immense amount of learning later, there are no impressions I would change in that report. Other personally generated documents are at www.chez-nous.net/peace_haiti.html. A number of other archival accounts of our journey remain on the web at www.stjoan.com. Simply click on help, and then search "Haiti" and you will find several references related to our 2003 journey.
On page five of my early January chronicle, I commented on our last full day in Port-au-Prince, Friday, December 12, 2003. The previous day, 'manifestations' (demonstrations) against the Aristide government had brought violence to the street, and, fearing more violence, most businesses were closed on Friday. Our group leader felt it prudent to change our itinerary for the day. But we were out and about all day, and went for a drive through portions of the city, had to repair a flat tire on a city street, couldn't find an open restaurant. "But curiously", I said in my chronicle, "this white faced English-speaker in a sea of dark faces speaking Creole never once felt unsafe in the neighborhood or enroute to or from any place we were visiting. We took no unnecessary chances, but the dominant impression was that we were among a gentle people: one needed to seek trouble to find it."
"REGIME CHANGE" AND ITS EFFECTS: I had no political opinion and little knowledge about Haiti or Jean-Bertrand Aristide or his party, Fanmi Lavalas, when I went to Haiti a year ago. I'm grateful that while we were there we met primarily with people who were very knowledgeable about, and generally supportive of, the Aristide government - a fact which has grown in significance with every passing month. I learned that the Aristide side of the story gets virtually no 'play' in the U.S., except negatively. U.S. consumers of information receive tiny bits and pieces of the Haiti story. Anti-Aristide propaganda is rife in the U.S.
We didn't know it at the time, but the Haiti we saw a year ago was almost idyllic compared to the current reality. Haiti's bicentennial year began January 1, 2004, but an anti-government opposition likely heavily fueled by U.S. dollars and aided and abetted by U.S. tactical support and advice, caused an overthrow of the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004. (France appears to have been a key player as well, and that is a separate story waiting to be told). Haiti was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul news frequently a few weeks before, and after, the coup. Even though the violence, poverty and human rights violations have increased greatly since the coup, Haiti has since all but disappeared from media here, except during tragic storms in May and September, 2004, and occasional accounts about violence in Haiti. Predictably, blame for the current violence has been laid on Aristide and his supporters. At the same time, the blame for earlier violence before the February 29, 2004, coup d'etat was also laid at the feet of Aristide and his supporters. I've become very cynical about "news", U.S. style. Disinformation, misinformation and non-information are the coin of the realm these days.
That a specific person, Aristide, and a specific political party, Fanmi Lavalas, were targeted for attack in Haiti should be no surprise.. Anyone even slightly aware of political 'discourse' in today's U.S. is accustomed to the U.S. tradition of character assassination in political 'conversation'. We just experienced the most recent manifestation of this November 2. We have a long and not proud history of manipulating who governs other countries through covert government agencies like the CIA for the purpose of protecting and advancing 'American' interests. Since 1983 especially, we formalized and institutionalized the process of exporting our brand of "democracy". Since 2001, the tactics have escalated. U.S. government funded agencies like the International Republican Institute or National Democratic Institute, which are branches of the National Endowment for Democracy now assist in manipulation of other governments we feel a need to change (www.iri.org, www.ndi.org, www.ned.org ). Additionally, other agencies which we citizens thought were apolitical, like the U.S. Agency for International Development, www.usaid.gov, seem now to be actively enlisted in regime change in Haiti and other places. "Foreign Aid" now seems to have a definition different than what we generally assumed - it is not a gift, but rather just another tactic. Haiti is just another place to be manipulated and used.
CONDITIONS IN HAITI SINCE THE COUP: One won't learn the truth about this in the normal U.S. news media. News from other than official sources post-coup consistently describe Haiti's people as far worse off now than they had been when we were there last December. That 10-Gourde note is still worth about a quarter in American terms, but even basic goods like rice are more expensive and less available, and fewer people have money with which to make any purchases.
Orthodox Priest and long time Haiti resident Father Michael Graves, who I was fortunate to meet last December 10 and got to know subsequently, died suddenly at his home on November 24, 2004, three days after sending out his final e-newsletter with the headline "WE ARE DESPERATE". "I am reduced to begging", he said in the newsletter, "life in Haiti has become so expensive since the 29 February coup d'etat this year that we just can't make it." His mission was primarily a long running school for poor children.
There has been outrage after outrage in Haiti since February 29, getting almost no publicity in the U.S. media. As I read the visible accounts about Iraq, and the invisible ones about Haiti, I see Haiti as an invisible Iraq, the 'regime change' template essentially identical, hidden behind a privacy screen. The question "why Haiti?" is an important one.
A single small example of outrage, recounted because I know personally the person affected, is Catholic Priest Gerard Jean-Juste, with whom we spent four hours on December 7 and 8, 2003. Jean-Juste was arrested by masked police without warrant in mid-October, 2004, while feeding poor children at the church where we had attended his inspirational and powerful Mass last December 7. On November 29, 2004, he was released after six weeks incarceration. No charges were ever filed against him. His file was empty. He was the lucky one. There are hundreds of other political prisoners still being held in Haiti jails; the current human rights record is abysmal. Aristide is in exile, banished from the country of his birth. Who in the U.S. knows this, or even cares? The U.S. embassy is said to be the de facto government of Haiti in the present day.
At the time we met Father Jean-Juste at Sunday Mass, his Mass was recorded each week for rebroadcast the following Saturday via radio and the internet. (One of my photos of Jean-Juste after that Mass is at www.haitiaction.net/News/FrJJ/10_20_4.html). After the coup, I understand the Mass was taken off the air. Cut off a persons ability to communicate, and you render invisible the person. This is especially true for Haiti, where radio probably ranks second to word-of-mouth as a means of communicating. What has happened to Haitian leaders like Aristide and Jean-Juste is reminiscent of the treatment of German war hero, cleric and dissident Martin Niemoeller, who from the beginning of the Nazi reign in 1933 spoke out against the Nazis. He was too popular and well known to kill, and too dangerous to be free, so they finally imprisoned him from 1937 till he was released by the allies at the end of WWII. Similarly, Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been silenced. It is pretty hard to speak when you're in South Africa and denied communication media to your country. And Jean-Juste and other supporters of Aristide and leaders of Lavalas have had a warning shot fired across their bow: be silent or else.
SO WAS IT A COUP D'ETAT FEBRUARY 29, 2004? Father Michael Graves, for about 20 years a resident of Haiti, sent me a personal e-mail on March 3, 2004, which so vividly described the U.S. involvement in the February 29 coup d'etat, that I decided it would compromise his own safety were I to pass the information along to anyone else. Suffice to say that Father Graves both witnessed and actually talked briefly with a U.S. embassy official entering Port-au-Prince with the rebels of Guy-Philippe on the day of the coup; and he knew police officials who verified President Aristide's version of the events preceding the coup d'etat. I have since received corroboration of other facts in his March 3 e-mail to me. Of course, the U.S. State Department holds with its official version of the story: that Aristide resigned and voluntarily left the country February 29. That story is not true, but who cares? We all should care.
WHAT IS THE TRUTH? I have spent the last year doing the best I can to learn as much as I can about Haiti and particularly its relations with the United States. It is a daunting task. The oft-repeated maxim from my father always comes to mind: "Tis better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." Those in power do not want the truth to be known. One of the first things I learned is that it is foolish to depend on any U.S. official government source for credible information: they are in-credible, sometimes inadvertently, often intentionally. U.S. commercial news sources are scarcely better, due to reliance on unreliable sources, and, likely, a desire not to fall out of favor with the U.S. government sources, thus being cut off from access: the "embedded reporter" syndrome.
The untold story about Haiti, Aristide, the coup and its aftermath, is that the real story is not being honestly told.
In January, 2004, I asked the Haiti Desk at the U.S. State Department what I thought was a simple question. At the time, my question was simply asked out of curiosity. They had issued a news release on December 29, 2003, www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2003/27564pf.htm telling the amount of aid which had gone to Haiti over a ten year period, and how much aid they planned to give in FY 2004. I simply asked for a breakdown of where the money outlined in their own news release went. My repeated requests for specifics have been evaded this entire year. In mid-November I made my first-ever Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request for access to what has to be totally public information - it was, after all, an official news release. I know that State now has my FOI request. It remains to be seen what if anything will be reported back to me, a common taxpaying citizen. I'm not holding my breath, though I remain certain that all the data I wanted was likely in a simple report in somebody's desk at the U.S. State Department. Perhaps the problem is that I am interested in knowing where the money actually ended up. An honest answer might be embarrassing. At this point, I'm not even expecting an answer from State to be an honest one.
Published numbers about U.S. aid to Haiti, no matter what the source, have been so wildly disparate as to be completely in-credible. Did Haiti get $3 billion in aid over ten years as claimed in a Wall Street Journal editorial on November 17, 2004? Or was the number $700 million since 1996, as claimed by a Republican congressman in a letter to a constituent on November 15, 2004? Or was it $850 million as claimed by the aforementioned December 29, 2003, news release? Numbers, even fictitious ones, are easy to print. Caveat emptor.
These kinds of numbers are even less useful unless given context. For instance: a simple calculation about U.S. Aid to Haiti, as revealed in the aforementioned December 29 news release (which asserts proudly that "The U.S. Government is Haiti's largest donor"), shows that the then-proposed U.S. Aid to Haiti for FY2004 amounted to about $7 per Haitian, or twenty cents per U.S. citizen. As I've also learned since, typically 80 or more cents of every dollar of foreign aid actually comes back to the United States (through salaries, contracts, etc. to U.S.companies and employees) so it's not truly aid at all. Truth be told, it can be shown that the U.S., especially since 2001, by withholding aid and loans to Haiti, set out to starve out of existence a democratically elected government in Haiti. This economic starvation made it impossible for the Aristide government to advance its program for the poor. Economic starvation wasn't enough. What economic starvation couldn't do, the coup d'etat did.
DEMOCRACY IN HAITI: Just as a single example: did only 5% of the Haitian people vote in the 2000 election that brought Aristide back into office, as one 'estimate' in an official Congressional Research Service Report, and later an Associated Press story claimed; or was the number 62% as still posted on the CNN website? Or was the real number some other number? Some agency commissioned Gallup Polls on the Haiti election, both before and after the 2000 elections. The polls predicted the ultimate outcome of the elections with fair accuracy - that Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas party would win election by a landslide. The polls were never made public. It was not in the poll sponsors interest to show that Aristide and his party were not only legitimately elected but very popular.
RUMORS: Did Aristide flee the country with $350,000,000 as was the rumor heard by Father Michael Graves on the streets of Port-au-Prince the day after the coup? Or did the President and his wife have little more than the clothes on their back when they arrived in Central African Republic (CAR), as reported by the lawyer who was among the first outsiders to see the Aristide's in exile? Father Michael Graves, who knew a great deal about what was happening on the ground in Haiti, sided with the latter opinion from the very beginning, and he had first person sources - people who actually witnessed the events of the kidnapping.
The St. Petersburg FL Times of March 4, 2004, had a long story, with a color photo of a stack of moldy money captioned "some of the U.S. bank notes looters found in the Haitian president's home were so rotten they crumbled almost to dust." The story said that "a Haitian banker who was asked to calculate the approximate value of a 15-inch pile of the bills estimated the bounty could amount to as much as $350,000." Among many other questions, there was no proof offered that Aristide or his wife even knew that the money was in their house, and no currency experts have even come forward to verify the status of the moldy moneybut when one is about political assassination, proof is not necessary.
"CORRUPTION":The function of malicious rumors about 'corruption' of Aristide and his party, Lavalas, has come to be fascinating to me. The interim government of Haiti continues to talk of possible corruption charges against Aristide, but no charges have ever been filed. Rumors of corruption suffice; perhaps they are even more effective than actual charges. As a practical matter, I've seen and heard nothing to be surprised about: Haiti is, after all, a desperately poor country with far greater population than my own state. It had over 7000 elected officials (effectively fired along with Aristide on February 29) and a bureaucracy similarly decimated, and I'd believe no one who said there was no corruption in Haiti, past or present. As the economic situation seems now to be even more desperate in Haiti, it would be reasonable to expect that the post coup corruption is even worse than it was before. Of course, 'circumstances' today are different - a United States imposed interim regime - so there is no talk about corruption in Haiti, much less that the interim government might also be corrupt. It's only a new crop of entrepreneurs harvesting the sparse resources of a desperately poor country.
Of course, it is convenient to make Aristide and his political party the 'goat' in all of this. But it is not nearly so simple to make the indictment stick when talking about a country, Haiti, long dominated by external powers, and especially by the U.S. in the twentieth century. In mid-March, 2004, I asked Michelle Karshan, longtime foreign press liaison for Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Rene Preval, to "tell me about corruption in Haiti". I really wasn't expecting a reply, but my question was readily answered, and corruption was acknowledged as a problem in Haiti. Here is the response in total, received March 19, 2004: "Haiti was historically built on corruption. Judges used to be paid a tiny salary because the expectation was that they would earn their real money through corruption. The U.S. and its financial institutions also both enriched and profited from corruption so they could impose their agendas on Haitian institutions without question. When the Lavalas government came in they tried to change this by raising judges and police salaries. However, coming out from under corruption is a lengthy and dangerous process. President Aristide and President Preval did make attempts to combat corruption and openly stated that it was a serious problem and a threat to progress. A commercial Aristide ran explained that with corruption monies were not getting into the government to provide services citizens were entitled to. However, under the [economic] embargo [2001-2004] corruption again took on a life of its own, flourishing everywhere. It was the model from Haiti and what people knew. It was very hard to fight it while fighting against the "coup d'etat" machine steamrolling over democracy! This is a subject that will be debated for a long time. It is not a justification for a coup d'etat and the violence against the Haitian people and their vote."
Of course, "corruption" - and its many synonyms - is a very well known word in the United States. During this year, for just a single instance, former head of Enron, Ken Lay, was indicted on charges of corruption, and he represents only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of corporate and government and personal corruption in this country. Indeed, it seems that corporate and other thieves are almost admired for their ingenuity and risk-taking here in my home country.
RETURNING TO DEMOCRACY? The current Haiti fiction is that the "interim government" is preparing for new "democratic" elections. But the United States has a dilemma with Haiti: left to true democracy, even with Aristide rendered invisible to his countrymen, and every attempt made to politically destroy him and his parties leadership, the poor of Haiti, having had 15 years to taste democracy, would likely again, if given the opportunity, reelect the party which was in power when we were in Haiti. Such an outcome is likely unacceptable to the United States. For the "opposition" to 'win' a new election in Haiti, Aristide's partisans have to be discredited, marginalized, intimidated, jailed or killed into silence, with lies spread about them.. It is estimated today that there are 700 political prisoners languishing in Haiti jails and prisons, most without the visibility and thus political leverage of Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste. There are much larger numbers likely in hiding, as during the earlier coup years of 1991-94.
The Haitians I met a year ago, who I worry most about today, are the two dozen poor women and men that we met at Bureau Avocats Internationeaux (BAI) last December. They were all victims of and/or represented poor Haitians in Port-au-Prince slums who had suffered from violence during the 1991-94 coup years. Many of the rapists and murderers who had victimized they, their families and friends, were in prisons last December, and were set free during the coup. These brave advocates are nameless and faceless to the world community, and easily 'disappeared' in their slum communities. I wonder what has happened to them.
Even more, I wonder about the status of children and the poor in today's Haiti. If there was a repetitive theme conveyed about Aristide, it was his passion to help the children and the impoverished of Haiti. That was his life mission. That mission was terminated February 29, 2004.
December 31, 2004, ends Haiti's bicentennial year. It has been a less than festive time.
CONCLUDING COMMENT: The most recent news, as I write, is the possibility of new elections in Haiti, perhaps next November, 2005. December 10 and 11, 2004, interim Haiti president and others from the Haitian diaspora were meeting in Montreal with Canadian officials talking about these elections. Apparently, no one from the Aristide/Fanmi Lavalas faction, which would easily win election again if they could run, was invited to the meeting. For the first time, I read comments about making the country of Haiti into a Protectorate.
The over 15-year experience of Haiti's poor with Democracy, has been a heady and understandably imperfect one. But after a year of trying to get some understanding of the political situation, it is clear to me that the United States and its close allies had and have no interest in anything approaching democracy in this impoverished island nation, especially if the poor wish to govern themselves. Our interest most certainly was for this experiment to fail and not succeed. We were less interested in facilitating freedom and democracy than in control and dominance of that tiny Caribbean nation. There are many upcoming chapters to be written, and it is possible to follow the story through alternative networks, many of which are listed at www.chez-nous.net/peace_haiti.html.
Haiti is a place truly Hidden from the Headlines, well worth your attention.
Peace at Christmas, 2004.