Haiti: The Forgotten Country

Filed in Missions by on 21st March 2009

Port-au-Prince, Haïti – Repression has been a recurring theme in Haiti. As one group inflicted its will on the population, it was in turn defeated by another group little better than its predecessor. Since Haiti gained independence from France in 1804, it has had 32 coups d’état. Haitians know only too well about the loss of family members to torture and subsequent death, continued hardship and growing hopelessness.

After the collapse of the Duvalier régime in 1986, people found renewed hope in the election of cleric Bertrand Aristide in 1990. However, from then until the 2nd election of René Préval in 2006, Haiti saw its hopes dashed by growing instability, kidnapping, murders and joblessness. Aristide was deposed in 1991 by Brigadier-General Raoul Cédras whose military government remained in power until 1994. General Cédras stepped down only after the United States threatened to invade the country and Mr. Aristide was returned to power.  RenéPréval was elected as president in 1995 and ruled until November 2000 when Aristide was once again elected to the presidency.  It was a relatively peaceful if not prosperous period.

In 2001, allegations arose of Aristide’s use of gangs to enforce his control through violence.  By 2004, revolution against Aristide broke out in Gonaïves, 110 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince. Gonaïves was not only the birthplace of the revolution against France, it was also where rebels first rose up against Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986.

Several groups joined forces to drive Aristide from power, including a coalition of relatively well-educated Haitians, professionals, unions, civil society groups and small business people formed the “Group of 184”, which along with other groups such as the “Democratic Convergence” and the “Democratic Platform” regularly demonstrated against Mr. Aristide. To quell the mounting violence, the international community pressured Mr. Aristide to resign. Widespread looting and violence between armed groups exploded in Port-au-Prince, including attacks against Mr. Aristide’s supporters.

The United Nations Security Council dispatched an international force to stabilise the situation and it started patrolling the streets of Port-au-Prince within days ofMr. Aristide’s departure.

In June 2004, the United Nations Stabilization Mission for Haiti, MINUSTAH, was deployed to protect the civilian population, restore order and help Haitiprepare for elections in the fall of 2005. Despite their presence, armed gangs continued to attack people, vehicles and residences and the kidnapping of local property owners increased. One woman told me how police attacked her neighbours’ home one night and committed atrocities against the family.  Haitians came to distrust the police. One person summed it up as “police by day, death squad by night”. A journalist friend in Port-au-Prince told me of how armed men showed up at his home in the middle of the night and of how he rushed down the back stairs, jumped a wall and crawled in the mud with nothing but a bathrobe to get away.

Constant reports of break-ins, theft, rape, murder and kidnappings had a profound psychological impact on the population. People stopped going out to restaurants in the evening.  Many closed early because they had no customers. In one case, I witnessed several girls who stayed in a restaurant and slept on benches because they were afraid to go home after dark.

One of the first signs of repression in a country is attacks against journalists, radio and TV stations and newspapers. In one case, armed men raked the front of a radio station with gun fire, and lit a fire at the entrance to the station to force the staff into the street where they would be easy targets. However, people in the neighbourhood put the fire out and chased the gunmen away.

Bullets pierced the front wall, traveling through the newsroom and into the studio narrowly missing an announcer.

In other attacks, well-known journalists were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Their bodies were thrown in the street to ensure the message was understood. In many of my interviews in Port-au-Prince, journalists-in-hiding spoke of intimidation.  “… people with guns went to my house”. Some journalists were forced to leave home, others only went home late at night and left before daylight. Others changed their routines to avoid being attacked. While I was interviewing one journalist, he received a telephone call threatening him, telling him to leave the country or die.

As superficial showbiz and entertainment reports gradually push out serious news on many networks in Europe and North America, such reports get short shrift. However, it is when such reports are ignored that democracy faces its greatest peril.

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