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Article distributed by Activists Mailing List (ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu) on Thu, 2 Feb 1995

A Window of Opportunity

By Jeremy Allaire (allaire@worldmedia.com),
2 February 1995

When there is hunger in your stomach, there is no peace in your head.
      Jean-Bertrand Aristide

In an effort to restore order, control the flow of refugees, and pave the way for a new political-economic order in Latin America & the Caribbean, the United States unilaterally (aside from traditional pretensions about multilateralism) occupied Haiti during the first weeks of October, 1994. Since that time, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been returned to power, extreme repression has subsided, and the country is beginning to function once again. While Aristide's original mandate has largely been usurped by the presence and dominance of the US in Haiti, opportunities for progress remain, though the future is highly uncertain.

The picture in Haiti is certainly not rosy since the restoration of democracy to this tiny and impoverished island. The nation remains highly class-stratified, impoverished, malnourished, and ecologically devastated. The nation's merchant and military elite have reluctantly accepted the return of the so called reformed, or as the Wall Street Journal called him, tamed Aristide. In exchange for his return, the US has offered the elite an economic program which would be highly beneficial for the manual-labor intense export-assembly sector, a cutting of virtually all public social services, and a strong commitment to keep labor rights to a minimum.

The military aren't without their benefits either. In a move which violates UN and Geneva conventions, the US pushed Aristide to pursue a path of reconciliation: a code word for keeping him from pursuing a path of justice by arresting, trying, and jailing those members of the military responsible for the some 4,000 plus Haitians killed during the previous three years of repression. A blanket amnesty combined with a program to train and integrate the Haitian military into the police and other sectors of society has kept the guns silent -- for now.

With the elite and military pacified for the time being, the situation is stable and calm. As London-based reporter Charles Arthur describes the situation, Now the streets of Port-au-Prince are bustling with people and traffic. There is electricity 24 hours a day. Groups of men sit outside their houses playing cards and dominoes, and street vendors ply their trade late into the evening. One man in the poor district of Bel-Air said, 'for the first time in three years we can actually sleep at night without fear of being beaten or shot.'

For Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a leading member of the Ti Legliz, the liberation theology wing of the Catholic Church in Haiti, the US intervention means, we can speak, we can walk, we can assemble. We are on our way to most of the basic human rights.

While this may characterize the situation in Port-au-Prince, things are less than rosy in other sections of the country, particularly the country-side where human rights groups and Lavalas members (the movement which originally brought Aristide to power) continue to report harassment, abuses, and many incidents of extortion and murder by Section Chiefs and paramilitary associates.

Merrill Smith, attorney with Church World Service in Miami issued a report on January 6 documenting more than 70 cases of politically motivated killings during just the first two months of the US occupation. This level of political violence is comparable to all but the very worst periods of the pre-occupation regime, he argued.

A program for disarming the country was stopped short almost immediately following the US intervention. And many former paramilitaries who were known to have been involved in political killings over the past years are known to be hiding weapons. Several incidents have even occurred where known murderers were brought to US authorities, only to be turned away with the claim that the US role was to protect Haitians from ongoing, as one military official stated, Haitian-on-Haitian violence.

Major concerns continue over the extent to which paramilitaries and others have been demobilized. Of the some 5000 troops let go by the Army, approximately 2000 have been asked to remain as part of a civilian police force, but the rest have left, retaining rights to pensions -- and guns. As a result, crime has been surging in Haiti's urban areas, as the former military use their weapons to steal and rob from businesses, the government, and the military. Unemployment among the military is a major concern, one reason the US has acted quickly to recruit members back into a training program for police service.

Major concern also continues over the forcible repatriation of Haitian refugees in violation of International and US law. Some 5000 refugees remained at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, where US officials have begun to return refugees against their will without allowing for hearings or right to political asylum. In many instances, refugees were handcuffed and harassed, then repatriated to a US military base at the docks of Port Au Prince, where they were given some $16 and a note asking that they be employed for a government service.

Not only is the policy inhumane and a violation of international conventions, but it is also a visible double-standard. Of the some 30,000 Cuban refugees waiting for political asylum, the US anticipates accepting the vast majority of applicants, despite a memo leaked by the US Interests Section in Cuba claiming that they have been virtually unable to document evidence suggesting that the Cubans face political persecution or extreme violence in their home country. Meanwhile, the situation remains quite violent in Haiti, and the prospects for ending such violence are slim as US troops are scheduled to depart sometime in March.

The United Nations High-Commission on Refugees condemned the actions as a violation of international law. UNHCR delegate Rene van Rooyen issued a statement to the State Department claiming that the forced repatriation procedures significantly violates international and US laws on refugees.

Haitian and American human rights groups echo these concerns. Those people upon return face outlawed members of the former military regime who no longer have the support of the government but who nonetheless remain armed and at large, said Ahpaly Coradin, policy advocate for the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR).

NCHR Executive Director Jocelyn McCalla argued, Without a functioning judiciary, a civilian police force capable of law enforcement, or disarmament of abusive military and paramilitary agents, the situation remains volatile and hostile, particularly in the rural areas.

The economic reform component, imposed as a condition on Aristide in order to guarantee his return, is a traditional IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Package. The reforms, aimed primarily at stimulating foreign investor and domestic elite profits, will virtually cripple any efforts to adopt domestic oriented economic reform. The package calls for the vibrant Civil Society to replace social services formerly provided by the government, though these were already skimpy. Official aid will be directed through the USAID and NED, typically to organizations compatible with US political interests.

Aristide's capitulation on this and other accounts has troubled many of his original supporters. His speeches have tended to be more moderate, a major detraction from his earlier and more impassioned and critical words in the pre-coup year. Others believe Aristide is doing the best he can given the overwhelming dominance of the US in current Haitian affairs.

As US troops leave Haiti and as elections near, tensions are likely to rise. With an armed population of former military and paramilitary, an essentially unstable economy and political system, and a highly class-conscious Haitian elite, the future is unlikely to change dramatically.

But the next year does offer opportunities, and Lavalas is organizing and building momentum around the coming parliamentary and then presidential elections. Father Jean-Yves Urife, editor of the pro-Lavalas weekly, Libete, acknowledged this window of opportunity for the Haitian democratic movement. The people have recovered their freedom of speech, their freedom of association, and so on. The Haitian type of democracy is grassroots democracy. So if we take the chance that has been given to us by the same nation that made the coup, we can organize ourselves for the future.