Two Faced in Haiti: Call it 'social' and not 'political'

Last week we talked to Desmond Molloy, an old soldier who heads the 'DDR' program for MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. 'DDR' stands for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration. Molloy's previous experience, among other conflicts, was in Sierra Leone. There, he explained, there were two armed sides - rebels and the government - waging a political and military conflict. In such conflicts opponents try to maximize advantages anticipating a solution, either by negotiation and treaty or total victory for one side and defeat for the other.

Molloy came to Haiti expecting to do similar work. But Haiti's 'DDR' was quickly changed when MINUSTAH and Molloy himself discovered there was 'no political space' for a dialogue between the two sides. He would have hoped the interim government would have shown more understanding and magnanimity, but they did not. Those who overthrew the government and were in power with the support of the US, Canada, and France, in other words, saw no reason to talk to the people they had defeated. So while the former Haitian Army and paramilitaries who overthrew Aristide's government remain armed and remain a threat, and while the police continue to commit human rights violations, MINUSTAH's DDR has retooled itself to focus on gangs.

It turns out, Molloy and others - including the Commander of the UN Police force (UNPOL), Graham Muir - explained to us, most of the violence in Haiti isn't political or part of a political and military strategy or conflict. It is social crime, committed by gangs in poor neighbourhoods.

Social crime has causes. Samba Boukman, a Lavalas activist from the poor neighbourhood of Bel Air who helps run a program for young people, explained some of them to us last week. Poverty, exclsion, and inequality, combined with insecurity and violence. Social crime is best fought by addressing its causes. It is not unique to Haiti. Indeed, gangs and violence exist in many countries. The solution devised for Haiti's problems by the international community, however, is unique.

Where Molloy and MINUSTAH had envisioned the standard UN script - an international peacekeeping force to separate two warring sides and protect the population while a negotiated solution and power-sharing arrangement is found - they ended up implementing a program of social control. This raises some questions. Does this mean that APCs, heavy weapons, and international intervention are the way to fight gangs everywhere? Should we expect blue helmets in Rio de Janiero or Los Angeles?

The evolution of the DDR and MINUSTAH gives the lie to the macho claims we have heard from some in MINUSTAH that there is 'urban guerrilla warfare' going on here. There isn't. For there to be, a guerrilla movement or army would be required. Lavalas's mobilizations against the interim government and the Haitian police have been explicitly nonviolent. And the violence that has taken place - as Molloy and Graham Muir, the Canadian commander of the UN Police mission UNPOL, point out - is social in character, not political.

Carrying the logic of 'urban guerrilla warfare' to its conclusion, the picture becomes one of a war between Lavalas and those in the government and outside who ousted Lavalas from power. But if there is such a war going on, that means that Lavalas should be protected under the Geneva Conventions. Its prisoners should be not only protected as political prisoners, but as prisoners of war. Lavalas militants openly claim it is for nonviolent mobilization. No one serious even tries to claim that Lavalas is an army.

So the international community has sent a 'peacekeeping force' that has turned into an instrument of political persecution and social control. From a peacekeeping concept - flawed and ineffective to be sure - based on separating warring factions, the UN has changed its shape to doing military operations to support a national police, arresting people and handing them over to a police force no one (including the people doing the handing over) trusts.

Lavalas prisoners certainly don't have protection as POWs. They also don't have protection as political prisoners. Instead the government claims they are simple criminals. So Ann, for example, who we visited, has been in jail for more than a year though she has not been charged of any crime. Jean Juste, the favourite presidential candidate of the Lavalas base in the poor neighbourhoods of Port au Prince, has been in jail for months - which prevented him from registering as a candidate in elections. Both are accused of crimes, and so it can be claimed that they are not political prisoners. But they have not been convicted, and extraordinary measures are invoked by the government where they are concerned.

Our own attempts to visit Jean Juste are an example. We started at Pacot prison, where the guards mocked us and told us we needed authorization from the Commissioner. We went to the Commission but the Commissioner wasn't in. We returned later and were told we needed a note from the Minister of Justice. We went to the Ministry of Justice and were told they did not do such things. We waited until the Minister wrote us a token note to get rid of us. We took the note to the Commission the next day, where once again the Commissioner was not in, but we left the Justice Minister's note there and came back for the letter. Now we have the letter but visiting hours are over and we will have to try tomorrow.

We did not have to prove anything about ourselves or our relationship to Jean Juste. It was pure runaround. It is true that very few of Haiti's prisoners have actually been convicted of a crime, but this seems an extraordinary bureaucratic runaround for a 'routine' visit with a 'routine' prisoner.

But one is supposed to believe that none of this is political.

Today, meanwhile, is September 30. It is the 14th anniversary of the first coup against Aristide, in 1991. For every single year since that coup, there have been huge demonstrations in which the Haitian people showed their will for democracy and their anger at it being subverted. We spent the day in Cite Soleil, the neighbourhood of Port au Prince hit hardest by poverty, exclusion, violence, and repression, a site where Lavalas and Aristide still have tremendous support, and the site in previous years of huge demonstrations.

This year there were none. Lavalas has been hit too hard, and the Lavalas leaders we met with today decided against risking another terrible repression, though they are planning more mobilizations.

The government offered a pretext for banning the September 30th demonstration. School was back in session and because the police (and presumably MINUSTAH) were too busy protecting the children, they couldn't guarantee the security of demonstrations.

It wasn't political, you see.

This is part of a series of reports from Haiti.