December 16 is an important date in Haitian history, as it marks Jean Bertrand Arisitide's electoral victory in 1990 in Haiti's first ever democratic elections. Many of the people who came to Milot were elected Lavalas officials and supporters who have been forced into hiding since the coup.
Our group met with Jean-Claude Debel, organizer for the Lavalas party in the central plateau and regional coordinator of the literacy program (alphabetization) in Hinche, and Garcon Rosemaire, ex mayor of Hinche. Both men were forced to leave their families and go into hiding following the overthrow of the elected government, as have approximately 4000 other people from Hinche according to the former mayor. The two men report that the situation in the Central Plateau is highly repressive. The former military controls much of the area, carrying out illegal arrests and terrorizing poor neighborhoods. Reports indicate that many Lavalas supporters have been arrested without warrants and imprisoned in the Central Plateau. Debel and Rosemaire said that many of these people are being held in crowded houses under terrible conditions since many of the prisons were burned in raids by the former military leading up to the coup.
Debel left Hinche on February 28, one day before coup. He stayed with friends around the country until he returned to Hinche to see his family in mid October, just before the US elections. Immediately after he got back into town Jean-Chavan Batiste, influential leader of MPP (Mouvman Peyisan Papay) and outspoken critic of Aristide, got on Vwa Peyisan Radyo and accused Debel of having received money from Aristide to purchase guns and fight with the police. During his first week back in town Chavan Batiste denounced him each night on the radio and hung signs around town with a picture of one of the many guns Debel was said to be stockpiling. Debel told our group that sadly, many people believed the lies though he barely had the money to purchase a ride out of town.
Both men have been living in the north and working with Moise. Moise has helped them to set up meetings with the UN and speak on the radio about their situation. Debel and Rosemaire both expressed a deep desire to return to their communities so they can continue Lavalas projects such as schools, women's centers and literacy programs. Many of these projects have been halted in the wake of the coup as organizers have been forced out of town and municipal resources hijacked. Moise explained that part of the strategy to repress the Lavalas movement involves destroying the base of support by driving leaders into hiding so they can no longer provide people with the social programs they desperately need. "Eighty-five percent of the population is poor and the great majority of the poor are Lavalas supporters. The opposition knows that if they want to win an election they will have to keep Lavalas in hiding."
Rosemaire and Debel told our group that they felt that the presence of human rights observers in Milot had made a dramatic difference for Moise. Prior to the week of December 16 Moise had not been out in public since a demonstration on August 14, and on both occasions he felt safe enough to do so because he was accompanied by international observers. During our stay in Milot Moise was able to reconnect with the community and work towards reestablishing education and development programs through international collaboration. They expressed their gratitude to all those in the United States that stand in solidarity with themselves, Moise and other Lavalas officials driven into hiding by the coup. "We are very happy that people have come to work with Moise because he was truly working for development in Milot and now many of the projects have stopped since he is no longer in office. Many kids can no longer go to school".
Rosemaire and Debel made an appeal to the international community to give them the same kind of support that Moise has received. They are asking for a delegation of human rights observers to accompany them back to Hinche. There is a great need for a non-military international presence throughout Haiti right now. A need for people to go and bear witness to the political repression that is happening, to lend an ear, to stand in solidarity with those whose lives are in danger for their politics, and most importantly to act as a megaphone broadcasting injustice to the world. International observers have a chance to make a real difference to people who are not free to speak. Right now there is very little communication between the UN forces and Lavalas supporters. Delegations of human rights observers can do more than just report on what they see, they can be active participants in the peace process by fostering open communication and understanding between those that are ostensibly there to keep the peace and those who are victims of violence and intimidation. This work requires commitment and entails some risk but it is deeply rewarding and much needed. Please contact the Haiti Action Committee (www.haitiaction.net) if you are interested in participating in a delegation.