Bearing Witness

excerpted from the book

Pathologies of Power

Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor

by Paul Farmer

University of California Press, 2005, paperback


The theologian Leonardo Boff, commenting on one of these texts, observes that [liberation theology] "moves immediately to the structural analysis of these forces and denounces the systems, structures, and mechanisms that 'create a situation where the rich get richer at the expense of the poor, who get even poorer."

Aviva Chomsky, "'The Threat of a Good Example': Health and Revolution in Cuba"

"The U.S. travel ban and the distorted portrayal of Cuba in both popular and scholarly media ensure that the majority of North Americans do not learn that a poor, Third World country, gripped by economic crisis, and under constant attack from the most powerful nation in the world, is still able to achieve health standards higher than those in the capital of that powerful nation, Washington, D.C."

Harvard historian John Coatsworth

"In Cuba, Elián will have his father and the rest of his immediate family, a decent standard of living, free public education through university, cradle to grave medical care, and a relatively crime-free environment. His life expectancy will be about what he could expect in Miami (73 years). His chances of getting into college will be a bit lower. The likelihood of being assaulted, robbed, or murdered substantially less.

In short, Elián's chances in Fidel Castro's Cuba appear to be infinitely better than in most of the developing world. Better than in most places-like Haiti, for example-to which U.S. authorities routinely deport undocumented immigrants and their children. In Haiti, one out of eight children dies before the age of and nearly half have no school to go to. Malnutrition and violence are endemic and male life expectancy at birth is 51 years."

... landmark human rights trials have taken place recently in Haiti, a first. The most important of these occurred in GonaIves, once famous as the place where Haiti's declaration of independence was signed, after the slaves' decisive 1803 victory over Napoleon's forces. The decrepit seaport later became famous-during the same military dictatorship that persecuted Yolande Jean-for accepting a shipload of toxic waste that had originated in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love had a hard time ridding itself of its glowing dreck, and so the garbage sailed the high seas for over a year, until the right combination of bribes and lawlessness brought it to port not far from a dusty Haitian slum called Raboteau.

Raboteau, being a poor neighborhood of fishermen and scrap dealers, was of course a stronghold of Aristide supporters. Shortly after the coup of September 30, 1991-the event that led Yolande Jean and hundreds of thousands to flee their homes-the citizenry of Raboteau organized peaceful protests. Thousands marched in the unpaved streets. The marchers were not happy about the toxic refuse from Philadelphia, not a bit. But their greatest grievance was the overthrow of their country's first democratically elected government.

During the first years of military rule, groups organized themselves as best they could against the growing power of paramilitary bands. By 1994, much of this resistance had been pushed underground, but activists in Raboteau continued to confront the dictatorship publicly. As Cohn Granderson, then head of the United Nations/Organization of American States human rights mission to Haiti testified, Raboteau kept the flame of democracy burning for the rest of Haiti. The army, aware of the practical and symbolic importance of the flame, was determined to extinguish it. On April 18, 1994, the army sought to arrest the young leadership of

the Raboteau resistance. Others got in the way and paid the price: one elderly blind man was badly beaten and died the next day. This, however, was said to be but a "rehearsal" for the real strike that was to come. The massacre perpetrated in the ensuing days was orchestrated by high-ranking officers in the Haitian army:

The main attack started before dawn on April 22. Army troops and paramilitaries approached Raboteau from several angles and started shooting. They charged into houses, breaking down doors, stealing and destroying possessions. They terrorized the occupants. Young and old, men, women, and children were threatened, beaten, forced to lie in open sewers and arrested. The onslaught forced many to take the familiar route to the harbor, but this time an armed ambush awaited them. Many were killed; some were wounded, on the beach, in the water, and in boats. Some were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. One girl shot in the leg had to flee the hospital the next day, and another hospital a few days later when soldiers came looking for her.

The death toll is hard to ascertain, for many of the bodies were washed out to sea; others, buried in shallow graves, were disinterred and consumed by pigs and dogs. But local estimates went no lower than dozens. Finding evidence was impossible until well after the military high command left Haiti in October 1994. The Aristide government-following the examples of South Africa, Chile, and Argentina-then formed a "truth commission," and Raboteau was one of its major investigations. Even given the lost year between crime and investigation, the prosecution was able to prepare dossiers-" sufficiently documented to present to the jury"- on eight of the people killed that day. The prosecution brought these charges not only against the local perpetrators-twenty-two soldiers and paramilitary-but also against their commanders. Thirty-seven, including the entire high command of the Haitian army, were tried in absentia.

In a surprising and unprecedented example of comeuppance, the members of the military and paramilitary who had conducted the raid were brought to trial in the city of GonaIves itself. It took five years of pre-trial proceedings before the trial commenced. The problem was not that people were afraid to testify. Indeed, thirty-four eyewitnesses offered, during the course of the trial, "highly consistent [accounts], corroborated by expert testimony." Rather, the problem was that the Haitian judicial system had all but collapsed, as had its physical infrastructure, during the course of the Duvalier and military dictatorships. "The old GonaIves courthouse had no electricity, telephone, or toilet. During slow trials one could observe the appeals court through the floorboards. "

The trial took six weeks, from September z8 to November To, woo, and was covered by the local radio and television. There was enormous interest because nothing of the sort had ever happened before in Haiti. The jury delivered guilty verdicts for sixteen of the twenty-two accused and convicted, in absentia, all members of the Haitian high command, including many who had benefited from training in the United States. From their hiding places in the United States, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, the self-promoted generals and colonels were nonetheless a palpable presence in GonaIves, like the rank dust that hangs over the city most of the time.

The process of collecting evidence was slow, certainly, and the trial was at times raucous; but local and international jurisprudence experts agreed that it was a marvelously successful strike against impunity. All agreed that the trial rose to international standards and was fundamentally fair to victims and defendants alike. Lawyer Brian Concannon, one of the leading figures at the trial, argued that "the Raboteau trial should also serve as a model, and an inspiration, for efforts to combat impunity around the world. The dedication of the victims, and the Haitian government's persistence and innovation in trying new approaches, are transferable to many situations."

In convicting the high command, the trial also inculpated by association their benefactors abroad. The transnational mechanisms of structural violence were exposed clearly. Perhaps for this reason, as much as any other, the Raboteau trial went largely unnoticed in the U.S. and foreign press, which instead ran story after story about how hopeless Haiti's judicial and police systems were-as if decades of corruption and U.S. pressure to incorporate former soldiers into the police force could be erased in a few years. (At the same time, serious reform efforts were implemented: one of Aristide's first moves on returning to Haiti was to disband the army and to integrate the police force with women.)

And another note of caution was sounded by the United Nations Independent Expert on Haiti. Adama Dieng noted that the "Haitian justice system must continue to pursue those convicted in absentia" and called on "countries where the fugitives may be found, especially Panama, the United States, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, [to] cooperate with Haitian authorities to arrest and extradite them."

Alas, these countries did not cooperate willingly with Haitian authorities. Haiti was increasingly isolated from other Latin American countries that were harboring the coup-prone generals, sometimes at the behest of the United States. The United States refused to release a large cache of 160,000 pages of relevant information, even though the Haitian government, a host of human rights groups, and members of the U.S. Congress had called on the United States to see these documents returned to Haiti. After a decade spent studying twenty "truth commissions" around the world, Priscilla Hayner observes that "the Haitian case is perhaps the worst example of a foreign power blocking a state's access to its own truth." Her study is worth citing at length:

When U.S. forces invaded Haiti in the fall of 1994, they drove trucks straight to the offices of the armed forces and the brutal paramilitary group, the Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH), hauling away documents, photos, videos, and other material that contained extensive evidence of the egregious abuses of these forces, including gruesome "trophy photos" of FRAPH victims. Some foreign rights advocates in Haiti who came into possession of some of this material also handed it over to U.S. troops, relieved that it would be in safer hands. "There wasn't a photocopier working in the entire country, so you couldn't make copies of things, and in the chaos of the moment nowhere else was secure," one person told me. But everyone assumed the material would be returned to Haiti when things settled down. On the contrary, none of these approximately 160,000 pages of documents, photographs, videotapes, or audiotapes have been released by the United States back to the country to which / they belong. They remain in U.S. government hands, under the control of the Department of Defense. The assumed reason for this intransigence is not flattering: the United States provided direct support to some of those directly implicated in abuses, paying key FRAPH leaders as intelligence sources, and these documents would almost certainly reveal these connections and the complicity of the U.S. government in supporting known thugs. The United States eventually offered to return the documents only if the Haitian government would agree to restrictions on the use of the material, and after certain portions were blacked out, but the Haitians refused j these conditions. Despite formal requests to the U.S. government for access to the documents, the Haitian truth commission completed its work, and number of important trials have gone forward, without the benefit of any of this damning documentary evidence.

The Haitian government was anxious to obtain these files and also to prevent the generals and colonels from preparing coups from abroad. A long legal struggle, with broad international grassroots support, led to recovery of the documents in January zoo r. In addition, as the result of pressure from Haiti and others, including Amnesty International-U. S. A., two members of the high command have been ordered deported from the United States and are in INS custody. Colonels Hebert Valmond, the head of intelligence in the high command, and Carl Dorélien, head of personnel, were both convicted of murder in the Raboteau case. They fled to Florida, apparently a haven from democracy, when constitutional rule was restored in Haiti. Both are appealing recent deportation orders. Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, the founder of FRAPH, is still living as a free man in Queens, New York, despite a 1995 deportation order. U.S. officials admit that Constant was paid by the CIA and discussed his paramilitary activities with the agency. He now remains under an order of deportation, although it has been delayed under State Department advisement.

The Haitian government is concerned about such individuals, and with good reason. In the past several months, former Haitian military officers have staged coup attempts from the Dominican Republic and perhaps from other countries. In July zoo ii, five police officers were killed in the line of duty in the town closest to our clinic. On December 17, 2001, a more ambitious effort succeeded in penetrating the presidential palace and in assaulting Aristide's residence. And even when they fall short of their mission, such attempts are not wholly unsuccessful, since their goal is to complement "political" efforts to discredit and destabilize the elected government.

The main political opposition is a motley group called, without irony, the "Convergence Democratique." Although it consists mostly of right-wingers, if leadership is all over the map politically." The Convergence is, however, united in its unswerving opposition to Aristide and to the right of the poor majority to have a say in Haiti's affairs. The level of support for those who came to constitute the Convergence, as gauged by polls, has run between 4 and 12 percent." (Remember, Aristide won 93 percent of the vote in the November 2000 elections.) It is the "intelligentsia" of the Convergence who come up with cockamamie stories about how each coup against Aristide is really a sham authored by himself, accusations that echo their comments (the classe politique includes the same cast of characters as in previous decades) regarding the attempts on Aristide's life in the 1980s.

Although the Convergence has scant popular support within Haiti, it clearly has support in-Washington. The Convergence is funded, at least in part, by the U.S. International Republican Institute, which is associated, to no one's surprise, with the U.S. Republican Party and obtains funding from Congress through the National Endowment for Democracy. In this sense, then, Haitians do experience impunity, but it comes from the U.S. government, not from their own.

The Haitian government has recently joined Cuba as one of the only republics in the hemisphere under a U.S. aid embargo. Trumped-up charges regarding the proper methods of tallying ballots during the May woo legislative elections are the avowed reason for this embargo, which extends even to loans already approved for improving health care and education. Ironically, charges of election irregularities were being leveled against the Haitian government at the same time as serious allegations concerning the U.S. electoral process, most notably in Florida, were being investigated. Are there credible claims, for example, that Aristide didn't win fair and square? No, the complaints this time are about the legislative elections that took place in May woo, months before Aristide was reelected by yet another landslide. Critics seeking to impugn the elections that delivered a massive victory for the party associated with Aristide argued that vote counting was not performed correctly for eight senatorial seats. So, presto, official foreign aid to Haiti-necessary to rebuild the ravaged infrastructure-was frozen by fiat.

The Haitian government then followed all the stipulations of a series of accords advanced by the Organization of American States in June 2001, the seven senators involved (one of the seats had already expired, and that election was rerun) not only agreed to run-offs with their second-place challengers but also resigned so that new elections could be held. Nevertheless, the aid embargo remains, suggesting that perhaps the actual reason it was imposed was not really U.S. concern over local elections.

Those who study patterns of U.S. giving to Haiti and to other countries would be a bit suspicious. In the past, the U.S. government had little trouble running hundreds of millions of dollars through the Duvalier dictatorship. The United States was unstintingly generous to the post-Duvalier military, whose spectacular exploits included the torching of Aristide's church during mass. And even during the leaky, half-hearted embargo against the military regime that ousted Aristide (and was eventually found guilty of war crimes), the United States was providing training, on U.S. soil, to the officers of that very regime.

Suspicions about the real reasons behind the U.S. aid embargo against Haiti are only fanned when one looks elsewhere for examples of whether adherence to certain electoral procedures determines the flow of U.S. aid. Take Pakistan, which until recently was under a similar embargo, with some justification, since General Pervez Musharraf came to power in a military coup. "My personal objective when I got here in August," U.S. Ambassador Chamberlin said in a November 2001 interview, "was to work very hard to improve Pakistani-American relations, with the aim that at the end of my three years here we could lift American sanctions on Pakistan. I could never have dreamed that we'd have accomplished so much in my first three months." The reason for the "accomplishments," of course, is clear: all the unpleasantries were quickly forgotten as of September 11, 2001, when new uses for Pakistan were found. The hypocrisy behind trade and aid sanctions has been noted by almost all neutral observers. How does this hypocrisy play itself out among the poor? The impact of this aid embargo is far greater in Haiti than on the neighboring island of Cuba, with its healthy population. Cuban health indices are better than ever, in spite of the embargo; it's the Cuban economy that suffers. The current U.S.-sponsored embargo against Haiti, however, is targeting the most vulnerable population in the hemisphere. Its impact has been profound, as a report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is quick to note. In a recent report on Haiti, IDB officials write that "overall, the major factor behind economic stagnation is the withholding of both foreign grants and loans, associated with the international community's response to the critical political impasse. These funds are estimated at over US$500 million."

The IDB should know, for it is among the institutions punishing Haiti. U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee made the following statement in recent weeks:

"The U.S. has used its veto powers on the IDB's Board of Directors to stop all loans designated to Haiti and has chilled funding opportunities at the other financial institutions, like the World Bank and IMF, pending a resolution of the political situation in Haiti. This situation is unique because the loans in question have been approved by the bank's board of executive directors, and the Haitian Government has ratified the debt and signed contractual documents.

This veto is particularly disturbing since the charter of the IDB specifically states that the Bank shall not intervene in the politics of its member states. The Bush Administration has decided to leverage political change in a member country by embargoing loans that the Bank has a contractual obligation to disburse."

Many of the rural poor whom we see in our clinic are bitter about the current embargo, which they seem to regard as an attempt to bring down "their" government. One patient observed that "every time the Haitians try to organize our country so that everyone can eat, there is an embargo from the United States."

... an editorial in the Miami Herald

"Where else in the world does [the United States] deny sending crucial aid to famished neighbor in spite of its underdeveloped political system? Haitians are well aware of Washington's game and are likening its freezing of desperately needed funds to the U.S. embargo imposed on Haiti after their 1804 revolution made the island the world's first black republic. Haiti needs help, not unmerited manipulation."

John Womack Jr., Rebellion in Chiapas

"As hard as concerned Americans have had to strain to understand the Zapatista revolt and its confusing and sorrowful aftermath, we will have to work harder to understand Mexican issues in the future. Our problem is not merely the media, or our notorious inability to learn another language. It is our entire evasive and mendacious culture, which to the enormous profit of the megacompanies that feed it makes our selfish decadence entertaining to us ..."

Pathologies of Power

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