Editorial

Ballots instead of bullets

BY MICHAEL DEIBERT
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

Newsday

November 6, 2005

When Jacques Roche's body was found on a road in Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince in July -- his wrists handcuffed, his arms broken and the coup de grace having been administered with a bullet to the head -- one of that nation's best-known journalists had become only the most high-profile victim of a grinding march of violence that has claimed some 800 lives in the past year.

Roche, an editor at the newspaper Le Matin, had worked extensively to protest the brutal treatment of Haiti's peasants on the country's Maribahoux plain, who were evicted from some of the best farmland in the nation in 2002 to make way for a free-trade zone by the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Following Aristide's ouster by formerly loyal street gangs and members of Haiti's disbanded military, Roche hosted a television program where members of political parties and civil society groups -- frequently including members of a civil coalition that helped drive Aristide from power -- would discuss the issues of the day. He was exactly the kind of well-meaning person, intent on furthering a peaceful civil society, that Haiti needs. Those needs will be further explored in presidential and legislative elections next month.

When accusations of blame for Roche's killing pointed to gangs from the capital's impoverished Bel Air district, a hotbed of support for the former president, and several defectors from Aristide's political party charged publicly that the former president is orchestrating the violence from exile in South Africa, a painful sense of the inevitable descended upon me.

When I had arrived in Haiti in 1997, I found a country midway through the presidency of Rene Preval, the only president in its history to serve out his full term in office and oversee the transfer of power to an elected successor. Given little respect by a recalcitrant parliamentary opposition, often treated with disdain by the international community and undermined by Aristide himself (who formed his Fanmi Lavalas political party the year I arrived), Preval looked moderate and progressive compared to what followed. The Preval administration worked well in tandem with international development organizations. Haiti began the process of integration into the regional Caribbean Community and Common Market, and huge strides were made in professionalizing a police force that had been merely another wing of repression during the tenure of Haiti's army, disbanded by Aristide in 1995.

All of that came to an end with Aristide's re-inauguration in 2001. The president, once a priest in a Port-au-Prince slum, had first been elected in 1990, only to be ousted in a coup seven months later. Returned by a force of international troops in 1994, Aristide seemed determined not to let history repeat itself. But he became a mirror of the dictators that many hoped his election would drive from office.

On my frequent visits to the capital's sprawling Cité Soleil district, where more than 250,000 people exist in conditions of deprivation and squalor that can only be described as criminal, I watched as young men were armed by a now-politicized police force. Aristide had filled the force with cronies and some of the most notorious members of the military he had disbanded less than a decade earlier.

Helped to weapons and ammunition by individuals such as Hermione Leonard, then police director for the region around Haiti's capital, reporting to the president, these young men with names like Labanye (Banner), Kolobri (Hummingbird), Tupac and Billy -- who long had been excluded from Haiti's political process -- were given the honor of meeting with Aristide at Haiti's National Palace. They were promised that help would come to their community if they attacked opposition demonstrations.

I often asked why they would defend a government that seemed to have done so little. On the contrary, they often said, would any other government in Haiti have even acknowledged their existence, let alone invited them to the palace? But in darker moments, they would confess that they felt they would be killed by the police if they did not do the government's bidding.

With presidential and legislative elections now scheduled for mid-December following two postponements, the question of whether these gangs feel they have a stake in the process will determine how fairly voting in the capital will proceed. With the Lavalas movement split into two camps -- one backing Preval, who is running for re-election, and one backing former World Bank official Marc Bazin -- and thousands registering in Cité Soleil and Bel Air, the signs are guardedly hopeful.

Far from being the simple thugs they were often depicted as, these gunmen could have represented a youth movement to help turn the nation around. But their legions were blurred with those of hard-core criminals, and it was people like Jacques Roche who paid the price.