[Documents menu] Documents menu

The Land Issue, Justice and Elections

Haiti Info, Vol.3 no.11, 11 March 1995

One of the most endemic problems facing Haiti is the land problem. To realize the importance and cruciality of this sensitive question in Haitian history, one need only know that all 24 constitutions since independence in 1804 have mentioned land reform, and that practically every time a chief of state tried to put it into action, he was ejected or assassinated. Even Jean- Jacques Dessalines, founder of the Republic and hero of the independence struggle, did not escape this tragic reality.

Today, according to official statistics, at least 65 percent of the population lives in the countryside, but very few actually own the land they work. Instead, large landowners (grandons) own or run large tracts and rent land out in an exploItative sharecropping system. Those few peasants who do own land generally have a tiny patch - 70 percent of all farms are under one hectare - which can only be cultivated in the most basic manner.

Haiti Info decided to talk with Father Daniel Roussiere of the Gonaives branch of Commission Justice et Paix, the Catholic church's human rights group, to hear how he sees the question and to hear his opinion on the general situation of justice and the upcoming elections.

Father Roussiere, in Gonaives since 1988, knows the land problem well.

In the land conflict problem, you have the trilogy: the big landowners, linked and in complicity with the army and the military-macoute sector, and the 'authorities' - the local elected officials, many of them landowners, the notaries, who are corrupt, the surveyors, who are corrupt and worm-eaten, lawyers... As long as that trilogy is there, the land conflicts will appear, disappear and reappear again. The principle becomes that there should be a maximum of procedures [because each party extorts money]. At different points in time they will decide for one party of the conflict and one month or two months later, opp!, they turn over the judgment, the procedure continues and a lot of money changes hands...

That is not even talking about the cadastre (land-survey register). We should re-do the entire cadastre system... Everybody has papers in their hands...

You have six or seven zones of big land conflicts [in the Artibonite Valley] that always reappear at the moments of political change. The peasants who were excluded from their land that believe that their rights were violated try to take back their land... at planting time. In the month of April, if there is no pacification, there will be trouble...

Last month, the Aristide government announced that the state will take over all land under conflict, but the same was tried just before the coup, and according to Roussiere, Whoever touches the land reform issue is two steps from a coup d'etat.

A Rotten Justice System

Roussiere links the endemic land problem to the rotten justice system and the way the elite, army and others use it against people.

The judges are totally corrupt [and]... there is a utilization of the judicial as a front, he explained. For example, how could the justices of the peace accept to go and make arbitrary searches with the military people? Their mission should have been to arrest the military. [Instead], they have a tendency to embrace the system...

We are at the stage now where there is the appearance of a legal system. Why do I say appearance? That's because normally, the justice of the peace and the commissaire (like a U.S. district attorney) are charged with investigating crimes and abuses... It's not a question of waiting for people to come and make complaints while they sit behind their desks. They are supposed to research the crimes and abuses. They are there to protect society. When a member of FRAPH (the CIA-linked Front pour l'Avancement et le Progres Haitien) is terrorizing Anse-Rouge, the local justice of the peace should open an inquiry, without waiting until the population makes a complaint. He is the defender of society.

Instead, Roussiere said, the judges do nothing or the contrary.

This results in a prize to impunity and permits the military- macoute sector to come back in force. The military-macoute sector understands this very well, and now it uses the legal procedures to issue arrest warrants against the population.

For example, at Anse-Rouge, the day that the president came back, a member of FRAPH went to shoot, with soldiers, against people who were celebrating. They burned the place down. The justice of the peace did nothing, and then he issued a warrant against 21 members of the community, accusing them of organizing a meeting to burn the FRAPH member's house. Since the mandate was legal, the American soldiers rushed to make the arrest. The judicial machine moved into action, and there were six youth that were arrested and spent more than 17 days in prison. So, 'legal' arrest but totally arbitrary. We had to intervene and so did the Civilian Mission in order to have these people let out 'provisionally.'

Five months later, Roussiere said, the FRAPH member is still walking the streets.

It is not justice that is being served, it is the world upside-down that continues, he continued. The knowledge and the utilization of the law belongs to those who violate the law...

The Dolcines: A Concrete Example

Late last month, 53-year-old Ostan Dolcine and his son finally got out of prison after a month and three days. Their crime? After the U.S. invasion and the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, they attempted to retake land which had been stolen from them in 1988, which they reclaimed during Aristide's seven months, and which was restolen during the coup d'etat. The land now has an eight-room building on it.

Dolcine remembered the day he showed up to plant and found posts in the ground with a flag and signs saying dispensary and school. A day or two later, Sister Marie Joseph, an ex-nun in the region who owns land nearby and had decided to build a school, accused him of stealing the flags. He was arrested and spent eight days in jail.

Dolcine's family tracked down and paid a lawyer, but we never saw him again. Dolcine was eventually released provisionally. During the coup, Marie Joseph used the building with impunity, but after the invasion, the family boarded up the door, began legal proceedings to get the building off their land and tried to plant once again.

In December, officials showed up to survey the land and to check the building, but according to Dolcine, they had decided what to report before they even arrived, and asked Dolcine to simply sign a document. He refused. On Jan. 21, five Haitian soldiers in the Interim Public Security Force and a judge showed up at the Dolcine house at midnight. In a warrant later found to be full of contradictions, Marie Joseph accused the family to stealing 13,000 Haitian dollars.

Now not only do they arrest me, but they don't only go after me, they go after my son, too, he said. They came with seven guns...

The soldiers roughed up Dolcine, his son and a woman, making them lie on the ground.

You came to get me? I am already in litigation over the land, but if it's for the land you came, I am ready to die for it, he said.

After handcuffing the Dolcines, the soldiers and judge went to Marie Joseph's house to eat, as she had prepared a midnight supper. The men were then taken to the Petite-Riviere de l'Artibonite jail, where they ended up spending over a month, partly because nobody paid off the judge. The two were finally released provisionally on a supposed technicality after three court appearances.

Roussiere Skeptical on Elections

The elections are obviously under American control... because of the problem of insecurity and the problem of impunity. The insecurity is always good to keep the democratic sector from coming out into the open too fast. Another control is exercised by the impunity, because the justice system does not attack the military-macoute sector, which is always interesting at the electoral level. These elements on the terrain that are always present... exercise some pressure.

The third element the control of the American organizations that are massively present on the terrain like the OIM (Organisation Internationale de la Migration), Roussiere said. The OIM is installed everywhere. They finance hugely and they infiltrate the sectors of civil society...

The elections are announcing themselves very badly because the military-macoute structure is present in its entirety. It is very proud, it is visible, and in some places is on the offensive, like Desdunes, Oranger, it is on the offensive during the day, it is on the offensive during the night...

On the other side, in the democratic sector, there is total confusion with a sprouting of groupuscules that are not really fighting for the fundamental questions... but for jobs or some electoral questions, but without any profound convictions.

All of these sectors will be 'lavalassien' in order to pass... which creates a confusion at the level of the population and the electorate, which is already not motivated for these elections. We will see that at the level of registrations. All of this confusion will increase the reflex of fear of elections... which will give a carte blanche to the military-macoute and bourgeoisie sectors that will be massively present in the electoral process.

The elections are determining, because in Haiti the parliament is a 'parliamentary dictatorship' because the constitution gives the power to the parliament, Roussiere said. The Americans understand the functioning of the Haitian system - control the parliament and you control all. If you can control some of the mayors, that's not too bad, either.

Roussiere noted a sickness of campaigns of 'civic education.'

The entire world has a craziness to do civic education, he said.

The same moment as they continue to support the military-macoute system, the same moment they do not do anything against insecurity, the same moment they do not change anything in the justice system, that is when they launch the campaign of 'civic education.' The first civic education that should be done is for the American government and the judicial authorities and the military! I do not think it is a priority to do civic education for the population at this current point in history.

Despite the odds, Roussiere is still confident in the Haitian people and in the democratic and popular movement.

We are not in Chile. We are not in Colombia. So you can't do anything with a people who represents 80 percent of the population and you can't count on a democracy of a purely formal type. That is where the future relations of forces come in, he said.

Will the people organize? Will the democratic sector organize itself seriously? Will civil society organize itself to fight against the low intensity war that is trying to divide and buy its organizations? That is a question. Will the churches accept this system of formal democracy? Accept other relations of forces? Those questions are important...

Will the American government win totally? I don't think they will win totally. They will win partially. The margin rests in the popular camp, but I think that the popular camp is very fragile and very divided. It is not yet organized. The political class does not yet have a mass political party... It needs to be created rapidly...

But Roussiere noted that in Haiti, there is

the question of the political consciousness of the people, including the illiterate population. This is one of the rare countries where you can be on top of a mountain and hear a peasant criticizing the American government... The problem is channeling this political consciousness...