During the first week in
October, I took part in a human rights delegation to Haiti led
by the U.S. grassroots organization School of the Americas (SOA) Watch. The delegation
of 17 activists from around the U.S. wanted to gain firsthand
knowledge about the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH),
a military occupation force of 13,000 troops and police. We also
saw numerous initiatives being organized by Haitians to promote
their nation’s dignity and sovereignty.
SOA Watch monitors and protests
the activities of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA),
based at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where the officers of repressive
Latin American military and police forces, including Haiti’s,
are trained. (In January 2001, the school was renamed the
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.) I work
in the Washington, DC office of SOA Watch, which carries out its
work through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent
protest, as well as media and legislative work.
The conversations and
encounters that I had on this delegation to Haiti have inspired
me and touched my heart, changing my perspective on the world.
While I do not represent the whole delegation or even SOA Watch,
I would like to share some reflections about the numerous
meetings we had and things we witnessed.
We observed MINUSTAH armored vehicles,
soldiers and police patrolling every corner of Port-au-Prince,
where Haitians eke out basic survival amidst earthquake rubble.
The UN Security Council
deployed MINUSTAH in June 2004 to replace the U.S., French
and Canadian troops which occupied Haiti following the coup
d’état (supported by those same nations) against former
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
According to its mandate, MINUSTAH should focus on training and strengthening the Haitian
National Police. But, in reality, we observed that MINUSTAH is
primarily a military mission which provides security, not for
Haiti’s people, but rather for foreign companies (including most
of the large NGOs) and Haiti’s business elite.
“It's an occupation force
that doesn't help the people,” a representative from the
“Grassroots Coalition against MINUSTAH” told us. “They
terrorize the people in the poor neighborhoods, they say they
are here to help the people of Haiti who are in misery, and
their sole objective is to support the multinationals and the
bourgeoisie in Haiti.”
Our delegation learned how
militarization is often justified as providing security for
humanitarian assistance. For example, 22,000 U.S. troops and an
additional 4,000 UN troops were deployed to Haiti following the
Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. But other than a few token efforts,
those troops did not generally help to save lives, remove
rubble, or rebuild homes. They primarily patrolled streets and
guarded businesses, supposedly to prevent “looting.”
The UN troops, we were told,
have often conducted deadly raids in Haitian shantytowns and
against anti-coup demonstrations. In short, MINUSTAH
represses the very people it pretends to protect.
Although some people feared
that security might degenerate if MINUSTAH leaves, the vast
majority of Haitian grassroots groups agreed that MINUSTAH is
causing more harm than good.
The UN spends $2 million a day
to deploy MINUSTAH in Haiti, while hundreds of thousands of
Haitian earthquake victims remain homeless and destitute.
We heard about cases where
Haitians had been sexually abused by MINUSTAH troops and how
others had contracted cholera, a now epidemic disease which
Nepalese UN soldiers brought to Haiti one year ago. Cholera has
now killed over 6,500 Haitians and sickened over 420,000.
“The police and MINUSTAH
don’t come out at night,” said one woman out of several who
had been victim of sexual violence in the tent camps. Her
statement was quickly affirmed by many nodding heads in the
meeting we held with several women’s organizations. It became
clear to me through many conversations like these that MINUSTAH
troops do not protect women from rape or stop other crimes. On
the contrary, we heard testimony of how UN soldiers had
committed rape and other sexual violence.
We also heard testimony that
MINUSTAH troops have aided in the illegal evictions of tent city
residents, violently repressed demonstrations, and attacked some
of Haiti’s poorest communities. Far from a neutral party, the UN
took the side of the coup-produced government from 2004 to 2006,
aiding in the repression of the Lavalas Family, Haiti’s largest
political party, and in maintaining that party’s leader,
Aristide, in exile. This constitutes repression of Haitian
sovereignty, not democracy promotion.
Even the legality of MINUSTAH’s
mandate is questionable, we learned from Haitian lawyers. Haiti
has no civil war and is no threat to international peace and
security. Furthermore, under an agreement signed by Haiti’s
illegal coup government and the UN, MINUSTAH troops cannot be
tried in Haitian courts for violations of human rights.
However, UN troops have
routinely violated Haitian’s human rights. We visited Cité
Soleil and were shown the thousands of bullet holes that still
pockmark buildings following massacres carried out by MINUSTAH
troops from 2005 until 2007.
We were told the story of a
young man in Cap Haïtien who was found hanging from a tree after
the alleged mistress of a MINUSTAH commander falsely accused him
of stealing money; the day after his death, she found her
misplaced purse. When a Haitian judge tried to look into the
case, the UN brass blocked the investigation.
MINUSTAH’s “presence helps
perpetuate their staying,” one woman told us. “They
should leave because they are wasting resources and not fixing
anything. MINUSTAH money should instead train more police and
security forces, and go to creating more jobs.” The
overwhelming message we received: MINUSTAH is in Haiti to
maintain the status quo, which features a huge chasm between
between rich and poor.
SOA Watch helped initiate a
recent letter to Latin American goverments, signed by a number
of prominent Latin American intellectuals, academics and human
rights defenders, demanding MINUSTAH’s immediate withdrawal.
Also, our delegation released
the following statement: “Members of U.S.-based human rights,
legal, faith-based, and policy organizations call for an end to
foreign intervention in Haiti today, including the withdrawal of
the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH.”
Many Haitians we spoke to were
also concerned that the current President Michel Martelly wants
to bring back the Haitian army, which Aristide dismantled in
1995. The former Haitian army, which was set up by the U.S.
Marines following their 1915-1934 military occupation, was a
corrupt and brutal force, responsible for many coups and
massacres. It never protected Haiti against foreign states; it
only repressed and terrorized the Haitian people.
The new force that Martelly
proposes would cost $95 million annually to start. This is money
Haiti cannot afford, for a force the Haitan people do not want
or need, people told us.
Haitians we spoke with also
denounced NGOs that purport to “help the people” but
which are, in their view, corrupt and parasitical. The NGOs
spend more on overhead and living expense than they do on
providing aid. Many of these same NGOs participated in the coup
against President Aristide by financing the opposition and
writing reports filled with disinformation that contributed to a
pro-coup media campaign. Many of these NGOs also support the
neoliberal agenda which is destabilizing democracy in Haiti.
Haitians provided great
inspiration for continuing our social justice work and
organizing here in the U.S.. Their history is inspirational: the
only successful slave revolution routed the most powerful army
at the time, and then, as a free nation, provided support and
safe refuge for anyone fighting slavery and colonialism,
including Simon Bolivar, who led the freedom struggles on the
South American continent.
This heroic history has
instilled a resilience in Haitians that you can see in the faces
of women as they balance huge baskets on their heads, or in the
faces of children playing soccer in the dust of Cité Soleil.
Despite their near total lack
of financial support, many Haitian grassroots organizations
continue fighting, interacting and empowering the poorest and
most disenfranchised sectors of Haitian society in the pursuit
of jobs, water, food, housing, and security. One representative
of MOLEGHAF (Movement for Liberty and Equality by Haitians for
Fraternity) told us that “there cannot be freedom if people’s
basic needs for survival are not respected and met.” Others
whom we interviewed repeated this several times during our
No amount of studying or
analysis beforehand can prepare you for the situation in Haiti.
My conclusions after this, my first trip to Haiti, are clear and
straightforward: I support Haitians’ demand for sovereignty and
believe they have the right to govern themselves. We must
support lawyers working both to bring justice for crimes of the
past but also to empower people to change their own futures. We
must support student groups working for justice and reparations
for victims of MINUSTAH violence and cholera. We must support
Haitian journalists working to investigate injustice and give
voice to the Haitian people’s concerns. We must support Haitian
women's organizations working on issues of rape and gender
imbalance. I support the demands from all quarters for “solidarity,
not a military force,” solidarity like the doctors provided
by Cuba and the petroleum provided by Venezuela. I hope that
people from the international grassroots community will join in
the call that international money raised for Haiti be spent on
Haitian initiatives to benefit the Haitian people, and not on
military occupation and economic initiatives that benefit the
international and Haitian ruling elite.
I have learned how the U.S.
government has worked to undermine rather than to build
democracy in Haiti. The strategies to solve these problems are
complicated and not mine to determine. But I will continue to
support the organizations working with the Haitian people for
democracy, justice and sovereignty.
Becca Polk works at SOA Watch in
Washington, DC and can be reached at