Portland Press Herald (Maine)
April 19, 2005
My first trip to Haiti early in 200l – our church was beginning a twinning relationship with a church in Haiti – coincided with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s second inauguration.
There was new hope for his program of “poverty with dignity,” which the first Bush and Clinton administrations had opposed. Aristide had rejected a structural adjustment program that would squeeze education and health care to pay odious debts incurred by the dictatorial Duvaliers and their successors and would require selling off profitable state enterprises.
One large cloud loomed: Aristide’s program needed the $600-plus million in loans promised in his first term. His inaugural address spoke eloquently of reconciliation between the large democratic majority and tiny elite opposition unreconciled to democratic rule. But without foreign loans, he warned, his program would fail.
There was cause for hope – Clinton had set conditions for support and Aristide had accepted, and the new Bush administration had approved.
We drove three hours to our destination, the Saut d’Eau church, where we would soon pay teachers’ salaries and roof a chapel. En route, we observed the desertification of the countryside, the lack of trees necessary to make rain and people living in clay and wattles huts with banana leaf roofs and with no apparent livelihoods.
Later we learned the United States had been largely responsible for the growing ecological disaster, dumping surplus rice in the Haitian market that had destroyed Haitian rice production and made Haiti largely dependent on food imports.
Since then, subsistence for the poor has depended on manufacture of charcoal. Forest cover is now 2 percent.
Tragically for the Haitian poor, the opposition, determined that Aristide should not rule, won the ear of the White House. Election irregularities that were minuscule compared to Florida’s were blown into a “crisis” and excused the United States’ blocking all aid. The resulting disease, hunger and death, not to mention denied education and health care, has been incalculable.
Opposition refusal of any resolution short of Aristide’s resigning, even when the Organization of American States stepped in, served as cover for Roger Noriega, who had earlier defamed Aristide, to oust him. Aristide was defamed anew, accused of drug-running and murder – never with specifics or evidence.
While a poll showed Aristide still 10 times more popular than any opposition leader and the democracy party Lavalas still widely trusted, Washington armed and trained an ex-military force in the Dominican Republic to overthrow the constitutional government. By late February 2004, it had overrun most of Haiti’s cities, killing or driving off police contingents.
On Feb. 29, 2004, Aristide was spirted away. A U.S.-backed puppet regime was installed. The ex-military, now in control of the police, along with hired thugs, started killing or imprisoning democratic leaders and killing suspected democrats, chiefly slum poor. Deaths are estimated at 7,000.
Now the modest hope I met has been replaced by increased hunger, chaos and despair, and everyone except the elite up the hill in Petionville, guarded from harm by ex-military, lives in fear.
Elections are overdue, but the U.S.-sponsored 1990 presidential candidate insists that elections cannot be held without Lavalas, now suffering open persecution. The alternative is a foreign protectorate, which would postpone a popular election indefinitely, effectively ending constitutional democracy in Haiti.
The Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, in which several Maine parishes are involved, provides $6 million in aid annually. This is a hundredth of the foreign aid and loans promised and a small fraction of what the Haitian poor have lost as a consequence of the coup, subsequent violence and the governance vacuum.
Most Americans care about the Haitian poor; it would appear that they are Washington’s and the Haitian elite’s last care.
Ursula Slavick, a retired foreign language teacher who lives in Portland, is chair of the Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Church Haiti project.