By John C. Brittain
PORT-AU-PRINCE — "There will be no real Christmas here this year", says the owner of an elegant hilltop hotel with a scenic view of this Haitian capital. The innkeeper is speaking of the unstable political and economic climate here since the September 1991 military coup that deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first popularly elected leader.
Far beneath the hotel, near the oceanfront docks, lies Cité Soleil, a huge slum area adjacent to a large open cesspool containing raw sewage with a terrible stench. One resident, who lives in a tiny shack without water or toilet facilities, laments, "No Christmas for me."
Haitians who live in Cité Soleil and in much of the countryside share conditions that make Haiti the poorest country in the Caribbean and Latin America. The hotel owner and the slum-dweller, who share an anxiety about current conditions, represent the divergent "bourgeoisie" and "peasant" classes, designations commonly used in ordinary conversation. The two are among the approximately 50 people being interviewed here in late December by a US human rights delegation led by the former US attorney general Ramsey Clark.
"The one basic human right gained after the departure of [former dictator Jean-Claude] Duvalier and now lost is the freedom of expression-to meet, to have the press", Father Hugo Trieste tells us sadly.
Trieste represents the Justice and Peace Commission of the Conference of Religions; along with representatives of several other major human rights organisations, he tells us about the repression inflicted by the military forces since the coup.
A pervasive sense of fear prevents rights organisations from adequately documenting the abuses, much less trying to prevent atrocities. Haitians who dare to protest the coup face arrest, beatings in jail and possible death. Almost daily, people report to human rights groups the names of relatives or friends who have "disappeared" into military custody. But families and colleagues of those arrested refuse to discuss any details, for fear of army retaliation.
Prison officials withhold the names and locations of those arrested. When detainees are released from jail, many immediately flee into hiding.
Shutting down schools
In one well-documented incident on October 12, military police surrounded the Faculty of Sciences, a college in Port-au-Prince, where they arrested both students and non-students. Those picked up were forced to repeat, "Long live the army! Down with Aristide!", according to one of the students. The students had assembled that morning to discuss the conditions following the 10-day-old coup.
Tensions began to rise between the multiplying number of soldiers and ers-by and foreign journalists. Soon the soldiers charged into the peaceful assembly, swinging clubs, beating people at random with rifle butts and smashing press equipment. Those arrested suffered further horrors in the local jail or national penitentiary, facing more beatings and confinement in overcrowded cells with only the bare concrete or a few grass mats on which to sleep.
There were no legal proceedings, and the detainees were released without explanation after 10 days. All state colleges in Haiti have been closed down since the coup.
We spend our first night, December 15, at the Holiday Inn in Port-au-Prince, two blocks from the National Palace, listening to loud bursts of rapid gunfire. Dinner in the hotel is by candlelight because of the daily electrical blackouts (the economic embargo has halted most oil supplies). As we eat, Gordon Kirk, the hotel manager, casually describes the sounds from the various "nine-millimetre, Uzi and other weapons shipped from America."
This pressure on the population increases the next day, December 16, the first anniversary of Aristide's election. Gunshots in the dark of the night, in the absence of electricity and during a curfew, intimidate a large number of people.
More than a dozen witnesses from numerous popular organisations throughout the country describe a pattern that forces their members to go into hiding "from the military threats of violence", as one young man puts it.
"The government wants to destroy the labor movement", says Delius Jean Claudy, an official of the Union of Electrical Workers. Claudy is speaking to us the day after the military arrested his union's two top leaders.
The jailed labor leaders had cried foul on December 13, when a company refused to pay its workers for the previous two weeks of work. In response to the outcry, the management belatedly presented a letter, dated December 1, informing the workers that they were being laid off until February.
When we ask why the coup occurred, the various Haitian witnesses give similar responses.
"The coup d'etat stopped reform from military rule to civilian rule", asserts Yves Henri Wainwright, a representative of the Federation of Agronomy and Technicians Associations.
Wainwright, who works closely with peasants in the countryside, talks about Aristide's efforts to quell "drug traffic and smuggled contraband by people in the bourgeoisie and the army. Ever since the first occupation, the army always was installed by the US, and they carried out US interests." (US troops occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.) Another representative of a professional association, Ernst Mathurin of the Haitian Engineers, also speaks about the virtually omnipotent army. "Since the democratic process, many efforts have been made against the Macoutes and the army", he says, referring to the Duvalier regime's murderous paramilitary force, the Tonton Macoutes. "The election of Aristide made the army feel endangered in the society, because Aristide wanted a new kind of army. The army felt they would become less important."
Rose-Anne Auguste of the Association of Nurses gave the most radical analysis: "The army has no spirit of the population. It exploits the civilian population. It works for the interest of imperialism and the bourgeoisie, and it enforces by force for selfishness, not for the people."
(Nurses at the capital's General Hospital were also cheated out of several weeks pay by means of "undelivered" lay-off notices.)
Killing the wounded
On the night of the September 30 coup, eyewitnesses reported seeing and hearing soldiers shoot their weapons at the large crowd that gathered at the National Palace to protect President Aristide.
Dr Juneat Felix, who represents Haitian doctors, says that one of his colleagues, Dr Fenard Dehemistocle, reported that on the morning of October 1, a soldier ordered him "not to accept patients without letting the army know, or they would kill him. A red jeep filled with soldiers entered the National General Hospital and began shooting and wounding people." And, according to Felix, "the army fired guns into patients' wounds."
Auguste adds that doctors counted 160 bodies in the morgue between September 29 and October 1. Also, nurses counted 70 people who entered the surgery room and died from lack of care or no supplies, and 20 died before they received care." Soldiers even shot and killed an ambulance driver on October 1, which scared other ambulance drivers from attempting to rescue patients, says Auguste.
Beatrice Pollini, who represents the Program for Alternative Justice, estimates the total deaths in the coup at "1000 in Port-au-Prince and 1500 in the whole country".
Our delegation decides to look for the sites of mass graves where the army allegedly dumped bodies of its victims. We are directed to an area called Ti Tanyen, about 12 miles north-west of the capital, where we meet with a group of farmers and hear personal accounts of finding bodies since the coup. The men lead us to one spot where the bodies of four men had been dumped about two weeks earlier.
We see one badly decomposed body of a man, his skin brown and taut as leather and his hands tied behind his back.
An overwhelming majority of the bourgeoisie, who have accumulated wealth in business and land ownership — or aspire to do so — make no secret of their hatred of Aristide. Critics accuse the radical priest of encouraging mob violence against well-off segments of the population. But even most extreme charges made by anti-Aristide forces do not begin to approach the evidence of military violence or human by critics of the coup.
In summary, our delegation finds that several basic human rights principles are apparently being violated in Haiti, and have been since the coup.
One man from the Bel Air section of the capital, who asks to remain anonymous, captures the spirit of many witnesses the delegation hears. The cure for the human rights violations, he says, is "the reinstatement of President Aristide." Under generally accepted international human rights standards, we agree, this remedy fits the disease.
[Abridged from the US Guardian. John Brittain is president of the National Lawyers Guild.]