The Situation in Haiti and Canada's Role

-by Yves Engler

Four and a half months ago the Liberal government sent troops to a foreign country without the legally elected host government's permission. Since February 29, Haiti has been occupied by foreign troops and a pro-U.S. government has been installed. The Canadian media, and the rest of us, have been nearly silent.

At the end of February, Haiti was front-page news. The Globe and Mail's Paul Knox was there and CanWest's 11 daily papers ran stories from the Montreal Gazette's once-progressive Sue Montgomery. Both reported on President Jean-Bernard Aristide's authoritarianism, drug connections and "thuggish" supporters, known as the chimères. Neither gave much credence to other side of the story and now that Aristide is in exile in South Africa, the Canadian media have lost all interest.

So, what's going on?

No one from Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party is part of the interim government, even though it is by far the most popular political party in the country. The Gerard Latortue regime, which was appointed by the occupying force's council of "wise men," has defied the constitution by refusing to hold elections within 90 days after the presidency became vacant. None will be held until some undetermined time next year, giving the government and paramilitaries sufficient time to thoroughly repress Lavalas.

And that's what they've done, according to Amnesty International, which in mid-June released a report based on a 15-day fact-finding visit to Haiti from March 25 to April 8. "While the authorities have moved swiftly to arrest members of former President Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party, they have not acted with the same commitment against, for example, those accused or convicted of perpetrating grave human rights violations, some of whom played a prominent role in the recent insurgency," Amnesty concluded. A more recent report by the Institute For Justice And Democracy In Haiti details the killing of no less than fifty Aristide supporters, plus deaths of unaccounted thousands, most probably Lavalas followers.

The unsavoury lot of murderous narco-traffickers, including Guy Phillipe, still openly carry weapons in major cities like Cap Haitien, Gonaives, and Hinche. The Miami Herald reports that "rebels control some towns, police some towns and the two sides share control of others."

The Canadian media's silence regarding police and rebel collaboration is striking since prior to Aristide's ouster, it was full of ominous accounts of the politicization of the police force. Yet now with Aristide gone and Canadian troops supporting Haiti's police, our media ignore their crimes, which include the torture and execution of five Aristide supporters in March, according to Amnesty. Haitian police also fired on a pro-Aristide march in May, killing at least one person and allowed former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune's home to be ransacked. He is now in prison with dozens of other Lavalas activists while the jails were emptied of drug dealers, murderers and war criminals.

Coalition forces aren't merely turning a blind eye towards the paramilitary "rebels" and police repression, they are actively participating in the repression. U.S. troops shot dead at least six Haitians between March 7-12 in Port-au-Prince, and, Amnesty reported, "appropriate investigations into these killings have apparently not been undertaken." On May 10, U.S. forces raided the home of Annette Auguste, a popular folk singer and Lavalas activist, killing her dog and arresting 12 people. It is unclear exactly what role Canadian troops have played in these actions. Yet we do know, according to the Maritimes Truro Daily News, that Canadian snipers are operating in Haiti. The story quotes Master Corporal Scott Richardson saying; "We're the cool guys. We're the ones who fly around in the helicopters, drop into the mountains looking for the baddies ... It's a cool job."

On press freedom the Canadian media has also been hypocritical. Prior to Aristide's removal the media complained that he allowed attacks against critical journalists, however, they've failed to report the 'rebels' violence towards journalists. A recently released report from the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists documents three instances of rebels illegally detaining and abusing journalists working for media considered supportive of Lavalas. One radio station has shut down and another suspended broadcast in the face of rebel threats.

The economic situation has also deteriorated since the coup. Immediately after Aristide's ouster, millions of dollars worth of property was looted and destroyed, much of it by infuriated Aristide supporters who blame the one per cent of the population that controls nearly half the country's wealth for Aristide's removal. More significantly, the price of rice has doubled since Aristide's forced departure, worsening life for the poor majority who rely on rice for subsistence. The cost of rice has increased for a couple of reasons including a slight rise in world prices and some disruption of supply routes. But most importantly, Aristide's regime helped stabilize prices and according to Berthony F.A. Mercier, 50, who paints signs in Port-au-Prince, "the people who sell the rice are the people who kicked Aristide out."

The little news we do get from Haiti is wholly lacking in context. The widely reported flood that killed some 1,500 Haitians ten weeks ago wasn't simply a natural disaster. Less than 1.5 per cent of the country is now covered in forest, down from 20 per cent in 1956, and 75 per cent when European explorers arrived five centuries ago. Selling wood to make charcoal - the source of 71 per cent of national fuel consumption - is one of the few ways indigent Haitians can make a living. Yet barren hills exacerbate droughts and floods.

Poverty, however, is so acute that people have little choice but to destroy their own long-term livelihood (the soil to grow foodstuff) to eat today. So the country's extreme poverty, which is in large part a symptom of continuous foreign meddling, helps explain the floods' awful death toll.

Haiti's poverty and instability also makes it ripe for the drug trade. The country's drug industry, worth between $220 and $800 million (US), is second only to remittances from abroad in economic importance. With a government budget of little more than $300 million - $30 million for the police, courts and justice system - and drug traffickers who spend more than $75 million annually in bribes, according to the U.S. State Department, it was no surprise that drugs flowed while Aristide was in office.

Of course things have not changed since he left. The Miami Herald reports: "now, with a new U.S.-backed government in place and a multinational peacekeeping force on the ground, the flow of cocaine through this impoverished nation continues to flow unabated, despite a spate of recent arrests, the sources said. And they fear that some Haitians are vying for key positions in the new government to reap future drug profits… many observers suspect that the rebels who helped drive Aristide out of power did so, in part, to seize control of the drug channels."

Who knows whether or not the U.S really wants to stop the drug trade by pursuing wealthy bankers and current government officials? Perhaps the CIA and State Department prefer to use the drug industry to maintain influence over Haitian politics as it did for many years in Southeast Asia.

The news isn't all bad though. After mid July's meeting, the Caribbean community (CARICOM) still refuses full relations with the illegitimate Latortue administration, even under intense U.S pressure. This honorable position needs defending.

But what has the Canadian left done? Not much good.

During the federal election debates, Paul Martin and Gilles Duceppe agreed that Canada's involvement in Haiti was a success. The NDP's Jack Layton didn't object, wasting an opportunity to provide an alternative view of Canada's role in the troubled nation. Does he really agree with replacing an elected government by force of foreign troops? If so, who speaks for those opposed to Canada's Haiti policy?

It's time the Canadian left supported the Haitians - including another demonstration in Port au Prince of multiple thousands last Wednesday - risking their lives for the restoration of democracy. It's the least we can do after all our troops and media have done.

Yves Engler is a 25 year old expelled student activist who writes from Montreal.

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