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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Human rights abuses

Saturday started off slowly with a mid-morning visit with Mario Joseph, the director of the human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) where we have been interviewing labor and human rights activists for the last several days. The BIA is attempting to organize different grassroots organizations and victims of the government, even though their demands are different. These divisions are reflected in the meltdown at the protest the previous day.

Mario began by explaining how the current electoral council (CEP) in Haiti is not in compliance with Art. 289 of the constitution, and that he is opposed to holding elections under these conditions. The November 2007 congressional elections were delayed until April 2009, and the upcoming February elections have already been delayed from November of last year, so it should not be a problem to delay them further until November of this year while these issues are straightened out. He isn't opposed to democracy, but it is important to emphasize principles.

Preval is trying to divide Lavalas into different parties, which just leaves the popular movement in a weakened state. Funds from USAID, IRI, NDI also are working to destroy strong popular movements in Haiti. Mario Joseph, however, is still confident in the power of Lavalas because of its grassroots base. From his perspective, only the leaders have sold out. Those leaders are upset because they have lost control over the people, but at the same time people don't identify with or trust the leaders because they drive around in SUVs and have security guards and are no longer concerned with the interests of the common people. Lavalas has also been weakened because it has not actively supported the economic demands of workers, including raising the minimum wage. At the same time, the influence of unions has declined because of corrupt leaders who are drawn off into Preval's government or into the electoral process.

After lunch, we visited the poor neighborhood of Bel Air to take testimony from people who had been injured in attacks by the UN peace keeping forces. We walked to four people and took pictures of injuries of others. I have audio tape and more pictures, but I'm going to hold those right now until we can better decide what to do with them. I also need to line up my pictures and audio with the names of the people to whom we talked.

That type of human rights documentation is what I thought would be the focus of the entire delegation, but this has turned into more of a standard solidarity delegation where we talk to people with the idea of influencing structural and policy changes. The concerns of someone who is paralyzed with a bullet in his spine, however, is much more immediate. Who can provide him material aid for his medical and daily needs, especially since he can't work or provide for his family? If we give him money, we would soon be overrun by everyone in the poor neighborhood--and our resources do not stretch that far and we would quickly cause more problems than we are attempting to solve (hence many delegations' bans on gift giving, although we have not talked about that here). Just telling him that our purpose is to focus on larger structural issues so that others are not hurt seems, well, so cold in this case. In the 1930s the CPUSA banned its members from engaging in charity work, but I'm most moved by people who respond to basic humanitarian needs. In essence, I'm always torn between my earlier incarnation as a terminal altruistic and my current focus on structural issues. In the end, it was a brief but overwhelming and emotionally exhausting visit.

We had to rush out of Bel Air because people were waiting for us at Matthew 25, waiting for an hour and a half in fact. Back at the guest center I could plug in my notebook and take notes on the computer. For the first time I wish I had purchased a netbook before coming to Haiti so that I could avoid the lengthy process of transcribing my written notes into this blog that takes up too much of my time. I'm tempted just to dump the notes from those afternoon and evening meetings into this blog, but they are 5 pages long and these blog posts are already too long. So, let's try to summarize:

The first group we met with was the September 30 Foundation that fights for the rights of victims of the 1991 and 2004 coups. The foundation is named after the date of the 1991 coup against Aristide, and is so named in order to keep that date and related events in peoples' memories. Their work has been harder since the disappearance and presumed politically motivated murder of the group's leader Lovinsky on August 12, 2007. It is unclear whether he was kidnapped because of his recently announced plan to run for senate, because of his denunciation of UN abuses, or because of his criticism of the UN occupation of Haiti. Undoubtedly, as a member of the senate he would have used that platform to raise a powerful voice against these abuses, and some feared that. Some people thought that his absence would destroy the September 30 Foundation, but they have continued their fight against the UN occupation and its accompanying abuses.

We then moved quickly into a visit with Rene Civil, spokesperson Mobilization Commission for Fanmi Lavalas. He began by greeting Haitian exiles in the United States, and thanking US people and officials like Maxine Waters who helped return him in 1994, even if that return was not exactly done in the best way. Haitians continue to struggle against the 2004 coup. The went en masse to the polls on February 6, 2006 to change the situation. By voting for Preval they sent the message that they wanted Aristide back. They want to stop the neoliberal plan to sell companies to the private sector. They want to stop political and economic exclusion, but under Preval's government the reality has turned out to be quite different. The Preval government has not followed through with the promises, and the situation continues to be bad.

Civil repeated a previous theme that we have heard of surprise that Democrats who usually work on behalf of the disadvantaged have continued to see the situation of exclusion continue under Obama, someone whom they considered to be a new Aristide. They have started to doubt Obama's position. If the US wanted the situation to change in Haiti, they would do it. They cannot continue to live under this system of exclusion. (For those of us, of course, who never drank the cool-aid we have always seen Obama as responding to the interests of the capitalist class.)

Civil called for a new, credible electoral council. He called for delaying the February election to November so that it could include everyone. Political frustration continues in Haiti, and if it continues it could end in a very difficult moment that could explode at any moment. Unemployment is at more than 80 percent, and the high cost of everything means that people can't afford anything. Meanwhile, UN personal live well in gated communities while Haitians still don't have schools or electricity. The occupation is killing people. It is not intended to rebuilt the country, but to defend the interests of the privileged. At any point this situation might end up in a revolt. Haiti wants its freedom and its second independence. If it were not for the Preval government and UN guns, Haiti would already have this. All of this is happening with support of the international community.

Civil demanded the use of Haiti's natural resources for the development of the country. But many people do not want to see this happen. They are relying on international solidarity to change this situation for the people of Haiti. That is the greatest gift we could give to Haiti. In summary, Civil demanded 3 things: 1. the return of Aristide; 2. a new electoral process that includes everyone; and 3. a fight for equality for everyone in Haiti. We taped Civil's comments, and might edit them for broadcast in the United States.

Our long day ended with a visit with Paul "Loulou" Chery, Secretary General of Confederation des Travailleurs Haitiens (CTH, Confederation of Haitian Workers). He explained how workers originally supported Preval because he was the Prime Minister under Aristide and thought that both had the same dream. They thought with Preval that Aristide would quickly return to Haiti. Under his government, however, they have faced exclusion. Although we can't say that Preval is responsible for human rights violations, socially the government has not done enough to decrease levels of poverty.

Loulou pointed to finding more jobs as the key issue to solving Haiti's problems. Haiti is a very poor country only one hour from a very wealthy US, and sometimes people only come to see poverty. The solution is to create wealth, and the only way to do so is with more jobs. He looked to US government policies like HOPE I and II as a means to acquire more jobs in the textile industry. Loulou said that he did not mind a plan to bring more jobs for people to work, to survive, even if they are paid very little. We cannot talk about the rights of workers when they are not working. The most important thing is that they have jobs. This, of course, just struck as as part of a larger neoliberal plan and left us wondering how people could survive with so little in wages.

The second largest sector in CTH is women's groups, so they started to think about having own union. This group works on AIDS and domestic slavery issues. Ginette Apollon, President of Haiti's National Commission of Women Workers (CNFT), was at the meeting but she did not say much.

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