Current reports estimate that there are approximately 700 political prisoners in Haiti's overcrowded prisons, none of whom have been convicted of a crime and many who have never come before a judge. Many powerful Lavalas organizers and leaders, including Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and popular singer Annette Auguste "So Anne", have been imprisoned making it difficult for the country's most popular political party to continue to organize or to carry out many of the community education and development projects that were an integral part of the Lavalas platform.
While heavily armed Chilean UN forces and the Haitian National Police were highly visible throughout the march, there was no violence reported. Although tension and mistrust exists, the interactions between marchers, police and UN forces were largely respectful. The demonstration was unmarred by the illegal arrests, systematic harassment and rock throwings that have become increasingly common in Port au Prince. Demonstrations also took place in the popular Port-Au-Prince neighborhoods of Cite Soleil and Bel Air on the 16th, but protest in the capital has been stifled by a wave of illegal detentions, politically motivated rape, and widespread killing since police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators September 30.
Before the march, organizers met with the both the police and UN to negotiate a route and to set several conditions for the demonstration. Its success is largely attributable to this communication as well as the presence of a group of international observers in the days leading up to the manifestation. The UN agreed that soldiers of the former military that participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected government and have been accused of numerous human rights abuses since the coup would be asked to remain within their compound during the demonstration. Likewise, marchers were instructed to stay away from the compound to avoid provocation. Chilean UN forces also requested that the CIMO-SWAT unit of the Haitian National Police not attend the demonstration as they have been implicated in recent killings and illegal arrests of Aristide supporters.
Tensions between the UN forces and Lavalas supporters in the north of Haiti result from a long history of foreign occupations, language barriers that prohibit effective communication, and reports of UN participation in illegal arrests of Lavalas supporters. Most notable was an incident in June in which French troops broke into the house of Jean Charles Moise, duly elected mayor Milot who was forced into hiding after the coup, without a warrant in an apparent effort to arrest him. * for more information on Moise see Beloved Mayor Continues to Serve his Community from Hiding
In an effort to reestablish communication between Lavalas organizers and the UN Chilean UN officials requested to meet with Moise on several occasions prior to the demonstration. These meetings between Jean Charles Moise and the Chilean UN cleared the way for the peaceful demonstration and opened an important dialogue that could potentially lead to a more cooperative and respectful interaction between UN forces and pro-democracy activists in the north. These developments are tenuous and stand in stark contrast to the antagonistic relationship that has developed between the Brazilian UN and Aristide supporters in the capital. Chilean UN officials stated clearly that they would not participate in any arrests without a warrant and that they would do their best to ensure the safety of Moise and other demonstrators. They also asked that Moise make a statement on the radio requesting that those attending the demonstration not throw rocks at UN troops or burn tires. Moise did in fact speak on the radio the night before the demonstration. He encouraged peaceful expression of the people's demand for democracy and asked that demonstrators not provoke the UN or police in any way. The peaceful outcome of the demonstration is seen as a testament to both the demonstrator's commitment to nonviolence and the level of respect that Moise has within the community.
This peaceful manifestation represents a victory in a sea of defeats for the pro-democracy movement in Haiti. The world cannot afford to overlook the successes of nonviolent resistance and open communication; as a human rights observer I was honored to be present.
Despite the success of the demonstration, organizers remain concerned for their lives and cautious regarding their relationship to the UN. After the demonstration a report on Radio Caraibe in Port au Prince claimed that the government had called for the arrests of organizers and that only several hundred people marched, a figure easily disputed through photographic evidence. Coverage of the demonstration in the capital was overshadowed by the takeover of Aristide's residence by the former military, an act that many believe was orchestrated to distract international attention from the planned Lavalas demonstrations the following day. Only two international journalists were present at the demonstration and coverage thus far has been confined to the internet and the San Francisco Bayview. Unfortunately small successes at the local level are easily eclipsed by national and international mandates and the final outcome of the demonstration on December 16 remains to be seen.
This week Jean Charles Moise will speak on the radio once again to thank the demonstrators for their courage and commitment and to thank the Chilean UN and Haitian National Police for having done their job as peacekeepers. During the meeting with the UN on the 13th one official remarked "neither side likes us, no one ever says thank you." Well here is the thank you they have been waiting for, now let's see if mutual respect and gratitude can make a difference.