Walking a Tightrope Between Hope and Fear: Northern Haiti One Year after the Coup
On February 22, 2004 the former military violently invaded Cap Haitien and the surrounding towns, killing police officers and organizers and burning public office buildings.
Guy Philippe, a former soldier trained by the US in Ecuador and accused of numerous human rights violations, acquired a building in downtown Cap Haitien that became the headquarters for his new political party FNP. During the first months of the coup repression against Aristide supporters was especially severe in this area. People reported that pro-democracy activists and their families were rounded up and stuffed into shipping containers then left to die at sea, thousands of elected officials fled to the mountains, radio stations were burned, and schools and literacy programs closed down.
As of February 22, 2005, the former military had officially abandoned their office building and many of them left Cap Haitien moving to Port au Prince or other rural areas. This dramatic shift in power over the course of the year was the result of many forces but most notably the courageous resistance and dedicated activism of the poor majority. Haiti's bicentennial year will be remembered as one of intense struggle and political repression. Amazingly despite thousands of illegal detentions and politically motivated killings, resistance to the unelected government continues to grow and the democracy movement has had some amazing victories in the face of tremendous repression. These victories are certainly a cause for hope but the people of northern Haiti have been down this road before and they remain on the defensive, poised for the potential backlash.
I. Piti Piti Zwazo Fe Yon Niche (little by little the bird makes its nest)
Events in northern Haiti leading up to the one year anniversary of the coup
Since the massive peaceful demonstration in Cap Haitien on December 16 the political landscape in Northern Haiti has been marked by several key events. On January 19, after several weeks of relative calm a group of heavily armed former soldiers marched through Cap Haitien. The Chilean UN stopped them and disarmed several of them. Two days later the former soldiers took to the streets in greater numbers again with heavy arms. On this occasion the UN did not stop them and they entered the poor neighborhoods, attempting to arrest several people and provoking angry responses from the residents. In the popular neighborhood of Lafocet the soldiers killed a woman and wounded many unarmed civilians. UN troops arrived on the scene just after the woman was killed and no arrests were made. Following waves of popular protest representatives of the Chilean UN got on the radio and said that the former military cannot openly bare weapons, nor are they authorized to make arrests. They also met with leaders of the former military and told them they cannot enter the neighborhood of Lafocet again.
On Tuesday February 1 two men wearing Aristide T-shirts were arrested in Cap Haitien during the Carnival festivities. This again provoked an angry response from the population and the district attorney ordered the men released the next day. Then, on February 4, Antonio Renaud, a member of the peasant movement of Milot and father of four children, was shot by two men who rode through Milot on motorcycles. UN forces were contacted and escorted Antonio to the hospital. He survived the attack but has now been forced to flee into hiding. These incidents created an atmosphere of heightened tension in northern Haiti.
But tension creates movement and these events brought people into the streets. Many among the political opposition to Aristide who financially backed the former military have become disenchanted with the current government and disgusted with the actions of the ex-soldiers. Seeing that their support was waning on all fronts many of the soldiers left Cap Haitien as the anniversary of the coup approached clearing the way for a cautiously celebratory atmosphere during the February 27 demonstration.
II. Bel Dan Pa Di Zanmi (beautiful teeth doesn't mean he's your friend)
A sad anniversary: peaceful demonstration laced with residual fear
On February 27, 2005 over 10,000 people took peacefully to the streets of Cap Haitien calling for an end to political persecution and the return of constitutional authority, including the physical return of President Aristide. The demonstration in Cap Haitien coincided with demonstrations throughout Haiti and internationally during the week of February 22- March 1 marking one year since the overthrow of the democratically elected government.
The demonstrators were joined by two international observers from the Bay Area and flanked on all sides by heavily armed UN troops and Haitian national police. Despite the imposing police presence the march proceeded largely without incident and the demonstrators sang and danced their way through Cap Haitien for over three hours in the roasting midday sun. Lavalas organizers and UN forces both expressed some frustration with the Haitian national police who have been implicated in illegal arrests and intimidation of Lavalas supporters. The fact that no one was injured during the demonstration was a testament to the demonstrator's commitment to nonviolence as well as the importance of UN protection and international media coverage.
A minor incident during the demonstration served as a reminder that the current political climate dictates that exhilaration is always accompanied by fear and any situation can turn at the slightest provocation. Jean Charles Moise, popularly elected mayor of Milot, came out of hiding to attend the demonstration and, as on August 14 and December 16, supporters gathered around him singing and chanting. As the crowd thickened someone spotted several Chilean soldiers walking through the crowd. Fearing that they were approaching Moise several people pushed him and urged him to run. When Moise ran many people panicked, suspecting that UN troops had arrested him. Some people threw rocks and one UN soldier sprayed tear gas. The commotion lasted only a few minutes after which UN troops managed to assure the crowd that they had not arrested Moise and the demonstration continued on until its peaceful conclusion an hour later. No one was hurt during the incident and the Chileans later communicated with Moise and the misunderstanding was cleared up. This situation highlights the tenuous relationship between Lavalas organizers and the Chilean troops in northern Haiti where mistrust is still prevalent despite the good intentions of many individual soldiers.
The relationship between the UN and the majority of the population is complex and marred by the dual communication barriers of language and mistrust. Many people are angry that the UN arrived in Haiti after the overthrow of the democratically elected government. In direct violation of their OAS obligations to support democracy in the hemisphere, countries throughout Latin America have deployed troops to Haiti to "stabilize" the country by providing support to the US-backed unelected government. Additionally for the past several months the radio has been broadcasting reports of UN inaction and complicity in illegal arrests and politically motivated executions in Port au Prince. These issues, among others, have created a barrier of mistrust that will be difficult to deconstruct and in some cases is a critical mechanism for self preservation.
Some people expressed that they want the UN to focus on the part of their mandate that requires them to serve as genuine peacekeepers and protectors of human rights. When asked "what would you like to see the UN do?" people responded that they would like for the UN to accompany Lavalas organizers back to their communities, provide protection for peaceful organizing, and participate in development projects. Several UN officials that were interviewed said that they would very much like to be able to provide these services but that they do not currently have the funding or the manpower to do so. Chilean forces have repeatedly asked the UN to provide them with more troops so they can patrol the rural areas around Cap Haitien where human rights abuses are rampant and to provide money for development work. Unfortunately these requests have not been answered as the larger UN mission is bound by a faulty mandate dictated by international forces intent on erasing the Lavalas party from the political process.
III. Lave Men Siye Ate (wash your hands then dry them in dirt)
Liberation or calm before the storm: northern Haiti since the anniversary of the coup
The hard won liberated space that has been created in northern Haiti cannot be tolerated by an interim government that is rapidly losing support on all fronts. Since the demonstration on the 27th the unelected Prime Minister Latortue has twice visited Cap Haitien, each of his visits straining the city's fragile peace. One week after the demonstration Latortue made an unannounced visit to Cap Haitien, presumably to speak at the University. During his visit the district attorney, who ordered the release of the Lavalas supporters illegally detained during Carnival, was fired. This sent a loud signal to those involved in the judicial system that providing justice is no longer a duty but a risk and those interested in self preservation would be well advised to tow the police and government line. There are also reports that Radio Etincelles, one of the few stations not controlled by right wing forces was shot at during Latortue's visit and the transmitter was damaged.
After a day of vigilante justice and retribution the Prime Minister is said to have spent the evening in the nearby town of Milot, birthplace of the Haitian revolution, home of Jean Charles Moise, and a strong base of Lavalas support. Apparently he arrived in town with a heavily militarized escort of police. The group went to the palace of San Souci where several people saw them drinking and celebrating. Soon after they arrived loud explosions rocked the town and hundreds of frightened citizens, including Jean Charles Moise and his associates, fled into the woods afraid for their lives. No one was directly injured during the commotion but several people with heart conditions were hospitalized and many people spent the night sleeping under bushes. Since no one in the town was invited join in the Prime Minister's festivities it is unclear exactly what caused the explosions. Many people are certain that shots were fired, perhaps the shots were targeted or perhaps it was the random shooting of drunken soldiers. Others claim that the explosions were caused by fireworks. Regardless of the source the intent was clear: to terrorize an unarmed population, to send a message that the victories of the pro-democracy movement in Cap Haitien and Milot will not be tolerated without reprisal.
The following day the Chilean UN was contacted and they sent a team to Milot to investigate. They could not be reached for comment but for the next several nights they patrolled Milot. Organizers expressed tempered gratitude for the UN presence and the situation retuned to relative calm. Then the following Sunday March 13 Latortue returned to Cap Haitien this time working in tandem with UN forces. A massive disarmament campaign was announced to the people and approximately 300 former soldiers were rounded up, most of them voluntarily surrendered. The population was elated and eagerly participated in the roundup, pointing out hiding places and celebrating in the streets. The 300 soldiers were put on a bus and the people of Cap Haitien were led to believe that they would be disarmed and arrested.
The celebration was short lived as the international media broke the real story the following morning. In total only seven antiquated weapons were seized from the 300 soldiers and the bus that was thought to be taking them to prison was actually taking them straight to the police academy in Port au Prince where they will each be paid $5000 in back wages, retrained, armed and redeployed as legitimate agents of the state.
Now the people of Cap Haitien have been granted a temporary reprieve from the former military only to await their return as legitimate authorities of the state "legally" armed by the international community and backed by UN troops hamstrung by a mandate dictated by US and French interests.
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