Monday, November 13, 2006

unending hatred in Haiti

Two Jordanian UN peacekeepers were shot dead in Haiti on the weekend. Unidentified gunmen attack a UN convoy as peacekeepers were heading back to their base near a slum area of the capital Port-au-Prince. The 8,000 UN peacekeepers in the country are facing increasing slum violence. Many slum dwellers have accused them of firing indiscriminately into civilian crowds during gun battles with gangsters. Opposition is growing to the Brazilian-led force who were sent into the country to restore order after a bloody 2004 revolt ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The death of the two Jordanians brings the total UN dead to nine since the mission started in June 2004.

French-speaking Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola. It shares a land border with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. The island was initially inhabited by Taíno and Amarak Amerindians. The Taino called the island Quisqueya which means "mother of the earth" whereas the Arawak name, Ayiti, was reintroduced in 1804 as the name for independent Haiti. Columbus ran aground on the island in 1492 and claimed it for Spain. He named the island La Española for “the Spanish”. The name was eventually anglicised to Hispaniola. Columbus left a settlement on the island but when he returned a year later the settlers had all disappeared. He left his brother Bartholomew to start a new colony. The impact on the Taíno and Amarak was devastating and most died due to old world diseases and repression. French pirates established a toehold on the island in 1625. In 1664, the newly established French West India Company took control over the colony, and France formally claimed control of the western portion of the island of Hispaniola. Spain formally ceded control to France after the Treaty of Nijmegen ended the Franco-Dutch war in France’s favour.

Settlers begun to grow tobacco, indigo, cotton and cacao using African slave labour. An estimated 800,000 slaves were brought to work on sugarcane and coffee plantations which amounted to a third of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1681 Louis XVI enacted the code noir, which gave basis human rights to slaves and responsibilities to the master to feed and clothe them. The code sanctioned corporal punishment and many slaves escaped to the hills to avoid its harsh sanctions. The 1789 French Revolution had a powerful effect on the colony. Within two years, the slaves revolted. Over the next 12 years, slaves burnt plantations and killed their overseers. The French were weakened by a British naval blockade and Napoleon was unwilling to send reinforcements. Finally in 1804, Haiti declared independence from France, the first and only successful slave rebellion. The cost of freedom was high. Haiti was forced to make reparations to French slaveholders in 1825 in the amount of 90 million gold francs. It took 100 years to repay and turned Haiti into the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. And because of resistance from the US slave states, Haiti was not recognised by the US until 1862.

Haiti survived a period of rebellions until it achieved some stability with the constitution of 1867. This period of growth ended when in 1911 when revolution broke out and the country plunged into debt and anarchy. In four years there were six different Presidents, each of whom was killed or forced into exile. The US military occupied the island in 1915 due to threats to business interests in the country. They ruled Haiti for the next twenty years. Franklin Roosevelt removed the marines as one of his first acts of presidency. The US trained local military was only cohesive institution left in the wake of withdrawal. This resulted in a series of military-backed dictatorships over the next 50 years.

The most famous of these were the Duvaliers; Dr Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude who between them ruled Haiti from 1957 to Jean-Claude’s overthrow in 1986. Francois, nicknamed Papa Doc, was a country doctor who won acclaim for his role in fighting typhus. He won office by presidential election but soon abandoned any notion of democracy. He enlisted the aid of a private army modelled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts known as the Tonton Macoute. The Tonton Macoutes were known for wearing dark glasses, wielding machetes, and leaving their victims hanging in a public place as a warning to others. Papa Doc revived the traditions of Haitian voodoo and killed nearly all of his political enemies during his 14 years in power.

He declared himself "president for life", and rewrote the constitution after a rigged election to pass power onto his overweight and dim-witted 19 year old son Jean-Claude upon his death. Known as Baby Doc he somehow managed to gain public affection and support from the US. His mistake was to marry a light-skinned mulatto and he lost much support in the black community. Pope John Paul II visited Haiti in 1983 and said “something must change here”. Within two years the country revolted. The game was up for Baby Doc when he lost the support of the US Reagan administration and he fled to France.

The charismatic Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1991 and he ushered in a new period of optimism. It was short-lived. He was brutally deposed in yet military coup. The US invaded again in 1994 to overturn this coup and Aristide’s ally Rene Preval was elected president. Preval was the first democratically elected Haitian leader to serve out a full term. Aristide returned to power in 2001 but was overthrown by a 2004 coup after he attempted to disband Haiti’s feared and despised military. Aristide accused US President Bush of supporting the rebels. The US sent in marines again. Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre was appointed interim leader and he immediately asked the UN to intervene with an international peacekeeping force. Brazil leads the MINUSTAH (Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti) force with a mandate to “"to concentrate the use of its resources, including civilian police, towards increasing security and protection during the electoral period". In July 2005, MINUSTAH carried out a raid in a Port-au-Prince slum targeting a base of illegally armed rebels. Estimates of fatalities ranged from 5 to 80 but the incident served to harden resistance against the force.

Elections were finally held in February 2006, and the well-respected René Préval was elected president for a second term. But Preval is helpless to solve his country’s issues without external support. Yesterday, the president of the neighbouring Dominican Republic urged international help to solve the intractable problems of Haiti. On a visit to Washington, President Leonel Fernández urged President Bush to "help Haiti in any way you can." Asserting it "may have been a mistake" to disband the military, he said the police cannot handle the security challenges alone. Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world with about 80% of the population living in abject poverty.

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