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Posted August 20, 2003
FORUM Haiti's new dangers echo bad old days
Clarence Page 08/20/2003

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made it clear we would not get all that we wanted, our meeting in Haiti’s palatial presidential palace turned depressingly glum. He offered "a little joke."

A man woke up in a hospital morgue to see that he was about to be cut open, Aristide said.

"‘Please, the man said, I am not dead yet,"’ Aristide said. "And another man said, ‘Silence! If the doctor says you are dead, you are dead!"’

The message of the former priest’s little parable was that he, too, was not dead yet and neither was democracy in Haiti, despite the concerns of our group and the complaints of his critics.

We were a small delegation from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), of which I am a board member. Our concern was that Haiti ranks just behind Colombia and Cuba among this hemisphere’s most dangerous places for journalists to work.

In the nine years since U.S. troops restored Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, to power, killings, attacks and intimidation of journalists, most of them independent, by mobs, most of them supporters of Aristide, and various hit men, most of them still at large, have increased.

In the bad old days of Haiti’s dictators, you could usually blame most acts of political violence and intimidation on government thugs. Today, it’s hard to know what faction is to blame, whether it is in politics or Haiti’s criminal underground or both.

Aristide’s government has made only sluggish headway in two high-profile murder cases of journalists: Jean Leopold Dominique, Haiti’s most popular politically outspoken broadcaster who was gunned down in his radio station’s parking lot in April 2000, and Brignolle Lindor, a radio broadcaster who was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob in December 2001.

The following January, Aristide told Haitian journalists, "I will do everything in my power so that journalists can do their jobs without interference and I will make sure all the laws are respected."

Since then, more than a dozen other Haitian journalists have fled the country, claiming they were running for their lives. Dominique’s widow, Michele Montas, shut the radio station down and moved to the United States after one of her bodyguards was killed outside her home last Christmas Day.

Lindor’s death and other violence, including a riot in the vast Cite Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince last month, have been blamed on "popular organizations" or "O.P.s," community groups, often on state payrolls and mostly made up of Aristide supporters.

So what, I asked, about Aristide’s promise to "do everything" in his power "so that journalists can do their jobs"? What has he done?

"We have done a lot," he said. "I meant what I said and we will continue to do our best" to improve the atmosphere for journalists and improve the quality of life. He promised, for example, that if the widow Montas to returns, he will provide whatever police protection she wants, although similar protection failed to prevent the Christmas tragedy. Her return would be "good for Haiti," he said.

But, Aristide also pleaded poverty, which is not hard for the hemisphere’s poorest country to do. Its police force of only 4,000 must patrol a population of 8 million, the size of New York City, with only a fraction of New York’s police force numbers. With that, it is amazing not that Haiti has so much crime and violence but that it has so little.

Aristide also was quick to point out that Haiti is a dangerous place to be a president, too. The country has had 32 changes of government by coup since it was founded in 1804, after the hemisphere’s first major slave revolt. And there have been two bungled attempts at a coup in the years since Aristide returned to power.

Just before our meeting, Aristide’s government announced plans to hold legislative elections in November. The Bush administration has withheld aid from Aristide’s government, channeling it through non-governmental organizations instead, after his opposition complained bitterly about irregularities in the country’s last election round in 2000.

Yet, even some of Aristide’s critics admitted to me that he most likely would sweep a totally honest election, too. As one human rights worker observed, Aristide’s party "stole (what was already) their own victory."

"Haitian culture is not given to compromise," Guyler Delva, head of the Haitian Journalists Association, observed wearily.

Indeed, Haitian politics often tend to be an all-or-nothing game between those who have the numbers and those who have the money. Softness on one side has brought brutality from the other. To end the cycle of violence, Aristide will have to do more than stand up to his enemies. He must also educate his friends on how democracy is supposed to work.

Clarence Page, a syndicated columnist, writes for the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. His e-mail address is cpage@tribune.com.

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