It’s Time to Punish Haiti’s Criminals – Letter to the Editor NY Times

To the Editor:

“”Nothing to Build On’: Haiti Starting at Zero” (front page, Dec. 4) states that within Haiti there is “a hopeful patience in the slums and shantytowns.” This impression of tranquility is sharply at odds with what I heard on my visit in late November with the Haiti Commission, a human rights group.

I traveled through the country from north to south and met with scores of popular organizations and hundreds of people. The mood was one of anger — anger that those involved in murders, torture, beatings and jailings still freely walk the neighborhoods and have weapons.

Abuse and intimidation continue. Some of the most notorious military have merely been transferred to another part of the country, as if a change in geography will modify their behavior. To date not one of those involved in crimes during the coup period has been prosecuted.

Almost everyone I spoke with mentioned President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s call for reconciliation, but insisted that there be justice first.

I do not understand the cause for this impunity. The Government knows the names of the military, attaches, Tontons Macoute and the paramilitary FRAPH members responsible for crimes during the coup. It has the power to appoint prosecutors and immediately begin prosecutions. A rapid prosecution of even three or four of the worst abusers would give people a sense of justice and would scare those who again would plot against democracy.

I sensed that unless accountability for the crimes of the coup begins quickly, the people will take justice into their own hands. They have little choice.


The writer is on the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.


Text of Article

‘Nothing to Build On’: Haiti Starting at Zero


Published: December 4, 1994

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Dec. 2— The ambulance for the only public maternity hospital in this capital city of 2 million people sits rusting on cinder blocks in the parking lot, its tires long gone. Fetid sewage water surrounds the hospital, clumps of garbage bobbing through the thick green algae. The hospital grounds are littered with broken and abandoned equipment: a battered sterilizing drum, a pile of old tires, a gurney with two wheels, a rusty boiler.

Inside the hospital, just one example of the overwhelming problems facing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s new Government despite initial signs of hope, it does not get better. A half-dozen women, groaning and crying as they begin to go into labor, lie on a hallway floor because the beds are filled.

The birthing room has no equipment other than a half-dozen tables. The sterilizer has broken down again. There is no medication of any kind. There are not even swabs to take a culture. In the shabby room that serves as a laboratory, the refrigerator is not working, a microscope is broken and so is the X-ray machine.

The maternity hospital has no running water.

“Sometimes we have enough money for a water truck; otherwise we just walk around the neighborhood to a water source,” said the lab attendant, gesturing futilely at the taped-up faucet in the sink and then miming carrying a heavy bucket of water. Even water is often a private, rather than a public resource in Haiti — 39 percent of the population has no access to safe water — and this is the way much of it gets delivered, even to hospitals.

“There is nothing to build on here,” said Col. Lionel M. Nelson, an American Army doctor detailed to advise the Ministry of Health, as he shook his head in amazement and distress. “There is simply no infrastructure. This is a country starting at zero with three strikes against it. I don’t see how they can make it.”

It has been six weeks since President Aristide was delivered back to office in an American Army helicopter and three weeks since he assembled a Government. Thus far, he has won praise from American and foreign officials for his policy of reconciliation, a wary silence from the tiny, immensely wealthy, light-skinned elite who feared a revolution and — at least for now — a hopeful patience in the slums and shantytowns where people who must bathe in sewage hope to see their lives bettered.

“Aristide is back, and the sky has not fallen as many feared it would,” said William L. Swing, the United States Ambassador, who has been intensely involved in the transition. “Overall the spirit is pretty good.”

The Ambassador continued: “The President has made a lot of wise decisions. He’s appointed a broad-based Cabinet. He’s been an advocate of reconciliation in a country that probably rivals South Africa as a place of historical divisions. I think he’s probably come back with a greater appreciation that he is now the President of the entire country and must reach out to them all.”

In the hotels now, men with suits and briefcases come and go, speaking of guaranteed loan plans, replacing the hordes of sweating, blue-jeaned journalists covering the showdown with the old military Government. Bankers, foreign aid bureaucrats, businessmen and investors are ready, American officials estimate, to pump a half-billion dollars into this beleaguered country during the next year, although it is expected to take months before real effects are felt.

The American Airline flights from New York and Miami are filled with returning Haitians checking so much luggage it is a wonder the planes can take off. Their hand baggage is shrink-wrapped in heavy plastic so they cannot stuff in more on the way to the gate.

The army, the police and their thuggish plainclothes extensions — Fraph, attaches, Tontons Macoute — are no longer terrorizing the population, killing, beating, raping and stealing. That alone is a difference of night and day.

“People can sleep,” said Colin Granderson, executive director of the United Nations Civilian Mission here, summing up simply what is an astonishing change.

“The situation has improved tremendously, no doubt about it,” Mr. Granderson said. “The factional violence many people expected has not occurred, and much of the credit for that has to go to the President himself. Reconciliation is not just a hollow word.”

President Aristide, still in a security cocoon, has become more visible in recent days, journeying to Jacmel to survey the damage of Hurricane Gordon, which sent mudslides across houses, villages and roads, killing about 800 people and demonstrating once again the lack of Government services. He delighted a crowd by saying the storm should be renamed “Attache.”

He played host at the national palace — the “house of the people,” he calls it — the other day for a group of some 500 labor union officials, many of them near tears as he hugged and greeted them. But they also clamored with requests and grievances. The President sternly lectured: “Discipline. Order. We must have democracy. But we can’t have democracy without order and discipline.”

But Haiti is a land like no other.

Born of a slave revolt, its 190 years of existence have been marked by what Alex Dupuy, a Haitian scholar at Wesleyan University, described as “a predatory state that preys on the population at large.” There has never really been an ideal of a civil polity. Even the holiday celebrating Haiti’s first ruler, Jean Jacques Dessalines, a black field slave turned rebel general, marks not his birth, but his assassination by mulatto rivals in 1806, two years after independence, beginning the important color line here.

Successive governments have taxed, stolen and extorted, but provided little in the way of basic services like roads, schools or even water. A symbol of the last Government is the road leading to the house of the former police chief, Lieut. Col. Michel Francois. Even the streets in the center of town here have crater-size holes, and the roads turn to dirt and mud — the rich simply buy Range Rovers — but virtually the only smoothly paved road in the country stretches for more than a mile directly to the chief’s former house, the macadam abruptly stopping at the end of the property line.

Startling statistics abound. There have been 21 Constitutions and 41 heads of state, 9 declaring themselves leader for life and, with some overlap, 29 either overthrown or assassinated in office. Even before the coup, it was the poorest country in the hemisphere, with a per capita income of $370 a year; it is even worse now.

Two-thirds of the population is illiterate. Only 5 percent of eligible young people are in Government high schools. There are only six doctors per 200,000 people, but many of these connive to get assigned to hospital payrolls in the capital, doing little work because there is no equipment or medicine. Some 15 percent of the children die by the age of 5. Half the population is malnourished. Curable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis flourish.

“This place does not lend itself to a quick fix,” said Colonel Nelson, the American Army doctor, part of a team of reserve officers attached to the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade. With civilian occupations like forestry, Federal emergency management, law, banking and even a Philadelphia deputy mayor for transportation, they have been mobilized to advise the new ministries. It is proving a daunting task.

“You see bed after bed of people dying who don’t have to — it just breaks your heart,” Colonel Nelson said. “Eighty percent of the equipment in public hospitals is not working. No water for a maternity hospital? That’s typical of every hospital I’ve seen.”

Indeed, an early study by the Army War College warned of the difficulties of reconstruction, saying bluntly, “There is almost nothing to build on.” Haiti, the study went on to say, has been “so degraded by poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, disease, violence, corruption, overpopulation, rapid urbanization, deforestation and soil erosion as to raise serious questions about its continued survival as a society and as an independent nation-state.”

In addition to the vast difficulties of turning the Government functional — further hampered because office equipment, supplies and files were made off with in a final act of what an American official described as “rapine and pillage” — there is an underlying fear of what will happen when the American troops, already moving out their equipment and about 200 soldiers a day, finally leave.

“There has not been enough disarmament, of the attaches and Fraph in particular,” warned Mr. Granderson, the United Nations official. “There are smoldering fears that after the U.S. troops leave, these people will come out of their bolt-holes.


“Many Haitians are not convinced,” he continued. “They have lived through periods of stability which didn’t last before. There is a deeply ingrained streak of pessimism. There is an amount of confidence invested in the U.S. forces which, unfortunately, has not rubbed off on the U.N. peacekeepers who will replace them.”

The guns, Prime Minister Smarck Michel said, are “a serious problem,” adding, “The amount of automatic weapons we have seen in the streets the past three years does not conform to the number of weapons that have been gathered.”

But of more immediate moment, the Prime Minister said in an interview in his office in an ornate Italianate mansion built in the 1950’s by a police chief whose official salary was $200 a month, was that “everything has to be done, whether it’s cleaning up the streets or putting toilets in the schools.”

“Going from a predator to a servant doesn’t conform to tradition,” he said. “This is a world of misery, a world of hunger, of children not going to school, of bad roads. But with the time it takes to go through proper channels, the conditions of disbursement — we may see nothing in help until April or May.”

The old Government had left nothing in the offices but truckloads of garbage that had to be carted away, and when he took over, the Prime Minister said, “there were no vehicles, no typewriters, no computers and almost no pencils.”