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Jean Rabel Massacre commemorated with outcry and excuses

In Haiti Progres, This Week in Haiti,
Vol. 16, no. 19, 29 July - 4 August 1998

Television viewers around Haiti were shocked by the images they saw during the final days of July 1987. Ditches and bushes strewn with lifeless dismembered bodies. Dozens of bandaged and bleeding peasants lying on the floor of a rural medical clinic. A corpulent big landowner sitting on a sofa proudly and virulently boasting to the camera that he and his goons had killed 1042 Communists.

The scenes were the aftermath of the massacre of July 23, 1987 in the northwestern town of Jean Rabel, where armed gangs in the pay of big landowners attacked small peasants demonstrating for land redistribution in the region. Some 139 peasants were killed and many more wounded.

On the eleventh anniversary of the massacre, the peasant organization Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads Together of Haitian Small Peasants) organized a commemoration in the northwest village of Bochan, near Port-de-Paix, to protest that none of the attackers have ever been tried, and only five are under arrest, and those only within the last six months.

On July 20, government authorities arrested Luckner and Danovil Saint-Vil, who are both accused of participating in the 1987 massacre. The arrests only came after Tet Kole held a July 17 press conference denouncing government inertia in pursuing those responsible for the massacre. Last January, ring-leader and big landowner Remy Lucas and two others were also arrested following popular outcry.

They have arrested two or three guys, but all the rest of the criminals are free and walking around, complained Pierre Joseph, a Tet Kole leader. I don't think that the government has the will to place the criminals who circulate in Jean Rabel under arrest. Why can't they get their hands on them? The government has been irresponsible and negligent on justice matters.

Joseph said that many of the victims of the 1987 massacre have gone to live in other parts of Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Many of the children of those who died in Jean Rabel feel bitterly frustrated today when they see a [supposedly] Lavalas government in power which has wasted a lot of money and left the poor without any hope, he said. (Many popular organizations, like the National Popular Assembly or APN, do not consider the present Haitian government to be Lavalas but rather one of opportunists who have betrayed the democratic nationalist ideals of that movement as articulated in 1990.)

Hundreds of peasants, popular organization militants, and their supporters from around Haiti gathered for the commemoration which had as its theme: The criminals must pay for the blood of the small peasants. The Tet Kole rally was held for the first time in Bochan as a gesture to the 25 peasants from the area who died on July 23, 1987 after they had come to show their solidarity with the peasants of Jean Rabel, where the annual commemoration of the massacre is traditionally held.

Meanwhile in Port-au-Prince, the September 30th Foundation, which last week held its 39th weekly sit-in for justice in front of the National Palace, also expressed solidarity with the massacre victims and condemned government foot-dragging. We have the impression that the arrest of the [Saint-Vils] was done impulsively, said the foundation's spokesperson, Pierre Antoine Lovensky. Once in a while you hear that they have arrested two people or that something spectacular is being done, but in fact most of the criminals are still freely walking around the streets of Jean Rabel and Port-de-Paix. So it seems to be mere demagogy. When things are hot, they make some arrests to calm people down.

Lovensky characterized the Saint-Vil arrests as whimsical and said that justice in Haiti was still in shambles. The bad conduct of the people in the justice apparatus, from its head to its toe, works in favor of impunity, in favor of criminals, in favor of Macoutes, and thus in favor of the return of a system of repression, a system of the coup d'etat, he said.

In fact, Lovensky was addressing Justice Minister Pierre Max Antoine, who has delayed or balked at firing corrupt reactionary judges and prosecutors, laced the police and judicial apparatus with former soldiers and Duvalierists, and taken initiatives which can most charitably be described as lethargic, non- responsive, and lacking follow-through. His approach, of course, suits the U.S. State Department but has enraged coup victims, popular organizations, and human rights groups. Likely calculating that the best defense is a good offense, Antoine routinely inveighs against the lack of justice in Haiti, as if he were not responsible. This was precisely the tack he took in his remarks at the massacre commemoration, which he prudently attended with several other government officials.

The justice we have in Haiti today is in the same state as it has been since independence [in 1804] and even before independence, Antoine declared, using the weight of history defense which has become a favorite of President Rene Preval and his ministers over the past two and a half years. It is a justice which unfortunately serves the big landowners and which is used against the poor, women, and everybody who is exploited in the society. Goodness, what fierce words!

I have been in office about 28 months, Antoine sputtered. Can you change something which as been there for 100 and however-many years in only 24 months? he asked, shortening his term just a little more to make his point. He abstractly called on Tet Kole and other organizations to continue your mobilization and assured them that things would improve when his always-touted law on judicial reform -- unveiled over one year ago -- is passed by the parliament.

Antoine's arguments did little to assuage the anger of Jean Rabel peasants over their inability to obtain justice. Unfortunately, the problem exists all over Haiti and shows no signs of being seriously addressed by Justice Minister Antoine or the Preval government as a whole.