From Misery to Poverty With Dignity
Step by step, the Haitian government is seeking to improve the life of the poorest population of the hemisphere. It is an arduous task, on that needs more than moral support.
Haiti-Latin America Encounter
Since the return of democracy to Haiti, significant gains have been made, despite all the obstacles. The systematic and brutal repression by the state was halted. Thousands of refugees returned, and so many who had lived clandestinely in their own country were able to move about freely once again. The human dignity of millions whose human, legal and constitutional rights had been torn away from them were replaced. The Haitian people can now demand the opportunity to creatively participate in their own future.
The problems, of course, are still quite serious. The rightwing paramilitary forces are still armed. The economy, ruined by the military regime, has been unable to recover, and exorbitant prices and high unemployment rates prevail. A corrupt and gangrenous state is still in place as a result of so many administrations only looking to serve themselves. The lack of infrastructure is nearly total. Conflicts within the US government regarding Haitian affairs have held up long promised assistance. And it is evident that many international donors lack the interest to really give priority to Haitians' most pressing claims.
One Step: Legitimizing CreoleOne of the great victories of the cultural rebirth after the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986 was the legitimation of Creole. The 1987 Constitution recognizes Creole the only language spoken by all Haitians as the country's second official language. Previously, the only official language was French spoken by approximately 5% of the population.
This important linguistic step recognition of their language is now being extended to include all Haitians in the country's affairs. After 200 years in which legal documents were always drafted exclusively in French, the legal system now is using Creole for all its paperwork.
At the same time, the new Secretary of State for Literacy is making huge efforts to translate all the country's laws into Creole. That office is also drafting and translating all legal documents, property certificates, birth certificates and marriage licenses into Creole.
In his inaugural speech, Literacy Minister Paul Dejean declared that "when those designated to speak to all citizens of the country on behalf of the state do so in a language that only a small percentage of the population understands, are they not giving disproportionate advantages to that small percentage? Is this not an injustice against the majority of the country's citizens?"
A Long StruggleTraditionally, Haiti's local powers a triumvirate made up of large landholders, government officials and the security apparatus that protects them (army soldiers, Tonton Macoutes and attachés) have used arms and control of the state system to take over lands belonging to the peasantry.
During the 30 years of the Duvalier dictatorship, land became concentrated in the hands of a few. Many peasants were expelled from their lands, forced into debt and into working the land of others or increasing the ranks of those looking for work at a dollar a day in some international assembly plant in Port au Prince.
Haiti's environmental crisis increases land pressure. Only some 1 3% of the land in Haiti is still forested. Soil erosion is continually decreasing food production for the country's rapidly growing population.
At the beginning of the 19th century, one of the first acts of Toussaint Louverture in the recently independent Haiti was to nationalize the country's productive land. After his arrest and extradition to France, Jean Jacques Dessalines ordered a minute, detailed land redistribution program. Two of the more famous peasant leaders, Goman and Accau, organized peasant movements demanding an agrarian reform. The Cacos movement, from 1915 to 1919, was made up of dispossessed peasants, many of whom had been thrown off their lands by the US Marines.
After the 1986 expulsion of Jean Claude Duvalier, one of the grassroots movement's key demands was the recovery of expropriated lands and a reform of the land tenure system.
The agrarian reform movement in Haiti has been systematically and brutally crushed. One of the most violent examples after Duvalier's departure occurred in Jean Rabel in July 1987. A group of Tonton Macoutes, backed by local landholders, massacred 300 members of a peasant association that was asking for the return of lands stolen from area peasants.
During the recent military regime, attempts were made to dismember the agrarian reform support movement that had emerged during the first eight months of the Aristide administration. The Artibonito Valley zone, home to some of Haiti's most fertile lands and long a large rice producing area, was one of the most affected. Dozens of peasants were wounded and killed, and over 1,000 houses were burned.
Blood particularly peasant blood has continued to flow in Artibonito more recently. According to a press communiqué issued by the OAS/UN International Civil Mission on March 13 of this year, the victims of these ongoing moral and physical abuses are largely peasants who belong to the popular organizations. The communiqué underscores that "the agrarian conflicts have been converted into a factor of instability and violence, all the more dangerous because, when small peasants take on the large landholders who supported the old military regime, everything immediately assumes a political dimension."
Another Step: The LandAn important step taken by the government was to send two delegations headed by Prime Minister Smarck Michel to investigate the situation in Artibonito. The government also set up a commission, made up of the Ministers of Justice, Interior, Defense and Agriculture, to investigate the conflict in the Artibonito Valley on a case by case basis.
A National Agrarian Reform Institute has also been created, as provided for in the Constitution. The first measures this institute took were to:
* hand over 6000 carreaux (1.29 carreaux = 1 hectare) of state land to the peasants of Fort Dauphin;
* permit the peasant movement in Grand Bassin to continue peacefully working the 139 carreaux of land they currently hold;
* formalize the turning over of 500 carreaux of state land to the peasants of Papaye;
* assure that wells are built for irrigating the above mentioned lands;
* facilitate the legal functioning of the peasant associations;
* eliminate the double standard in birth certificates (one for urban dwellers, another for peasants);
* assure the importation of some 10,000 new creole hogs, since all of Haiti's creole hogs were exterminated by a USAID program in the 1980s and this has been a grassroots demand since 1986;
* make agricultural measures available free of charge.
Against AuthoritarianismBringing an end to a longstanding tradition of state authoritarianism represented locally by section chiefs and the attachés always at the service of the large landholders is an extremely important gain of the Aristide Michel government. Some of the steps taken by the government include:
* abolishing the system of section chiefs, parties responsible for political repression and systematic human rights violations.
* opening the judicial reform process and replacing corrupt judges.
* abolishing the armed forces, which consume 40% of all state income (this must be ratified by Parliament), creating a civilian police corps under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and reinserting some soldiers in the new internal security force.
Another Step: The TruthStill other advances have been made. The members of the National Truth and Justice Commission have officially been installed. President Aristide and his government created the Commission by decree to establish the truth regarding the most serious human rights violations committed between September 29, 1991 and October 15, 1994.
The Commission will seek to identify those responsible for the violations and clarify the circumstances under which they took place. Its report will also include recommendations for making reparations to the victims, for measures to prevent the repetition of these human rights violations and for reforms to the legal system, the security forces and the armed forces, as well as steps to prevent the reemergence of illegal organizations like the paramilitary groups.
The objective is to put an end to impunity and create favorable conditions for national reconciliation and justice for all Haitians. The Commission's work will not replace, but rather complement the work being carried out by the Ministry of Justice. The seven members of the Commission are sociologist Francoise Boucard, lawyer and human rights educator Ertha Elysee, former Peace and Justice director Father Freud Jean, human rights legal specialist René Magloire, human rights activist Bacre Waly Ndlaye and OAS Interamerican Human Rights Commission experts Oliver Jackman and Patrick Robinson. The mandate was established at six months, with an optional three month extension. The Commission has virtually no funds and is currently seeking support from governments, organizations, foundations and other interested donors.
Thanks to an initiative by President Aristide, the Ministry of Justice is receiving financing to support the timely investigation and legal processing of the most notorious cases of human rights violations. These include the assassinations of Justice Minister Guy Malary, Antoine Izmery, Father Jean Marie Vincent and Jean Claude Museau, as well as the attack against Bishop Willy Romelus as he left the Cathedral. Beginning several months ago, a group of Haitian lawyers has been working on these cases through the Ministry of Justice, and is receiving technical assistance from a group of foreign lawyers.
Eating, SurvivingTo reduce the cost of living and improve the minimum conditions of the dispossessed majority, 15 community warehouses and 20 communal restaurants are being opened throughout the country. Also underway is the soulage lamizé program, which offers regular subsidies to poor families and victims of the military coup. In a recent visit to the northern city of Port de Paix, President Aristide handed over a check worth almost a million guardas for opening communal restaurants to serve the very poorest in the region. He also gave out some agricultural equipment and announced a project for constructing an irrigation canal in the country's northwest region.
Since the Duvalier regime, Haitians have been fleeing their country in large numbers. After the September 1991 coup, a new wave of emigration sent tens of thousands of people onto the seas, seeking refuge abroad.
In addition, approximately 300,000 people became internal refugees, abandoning their houses out of fear of military persecution. Tens of thousands crossed into the Dominican Republic. Of those who escaped in flimsy boats, many drowned, some made it to the Bahamas, Cuba or other Caribbean islands, many were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and forced to return to a country plagued by terror, while others were legally admitted to the United States or other countries. President Aristide recently unveiled a monument to the memory of the Haitians who died at sea while trying to escape the repression of the military dictatorships.
Puerto Rico, the Dominican RepublicThree cooperation programs between the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Puerto Rico are currently being carried out in the areas of fishing, agriculture and soil conservation. The first program aims at developing Haiti's capacity to bring in protein rich seafood. Fishing specialists will be trained with an administrative focus that takes into account control over the fish population and improving the environment.
The second program seeks food self sufficiency and soil conservation. Educators will be trained under the supervision of 10 advisers; they will make available the varied products improved with fertilizer and other agricultural products. It is hoped that the techniques used by agricultural workers can be improved, to somewhat attenuate the food crisis. The third program is attempting to establish an aquaculture network and train personnel who could then effectively disseminate what they have learned.
Meanwhile, a new type of relationship is blossoming between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. A solidarity movement is growing among military officers, unions and intellectuals, which is promoting greater exchanges between the two societies. An increase in trade has also been noted, together with increases in educational exchanges and collaborative projects, particularly in the areas of reforestation, energy, transportation and tourism. Each week, some delegation from one country visits the other one. It seems more accepted now that social welfare is mutually dependent. As President Aristide has said on a number of occasions, "Haiti and the Dominican Republic are the two outstretched wings of one bird a bird that will only fly when both wings are held high, and in harmony.