With the tragic death of Brazilian General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar, commanding officer of the United Nations force in Haiti (MINUSTAH), some in Brazil have begun to question the wisdom of the country’s mission in that violence-torn Caribbean country of 8 million.
As a journalist who has worked in Haiti for nearly a decade, and who has also worked in Brazil, it is my belief that Brazil must stand firmly by the Haitian people even following this event, and continue with its mission at the very least until the inauguration of a new government following February 7th presidential and legislative elections.
When I first arrived in Haiti in 1997, I found the 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.
Despite many problems that beset his administration, Preval worked in tandem with international development organizations, began the process of integrating Haiti into the larger Caribbean community and made strides in reforming a police force that had been merely another wing of repression during the tenure of Haiti’s army, disbanded in 1995.
All of that came to an end with Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s inauguration as president 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.
From the summer of 2002, when the Aristide government attempted to seize control of Haiti’s state university system and a co-operative pyramid investment scheme that was closely linked to regime loyalists collapsed, I watched Haiti stumble back towards dictatorship and the cracks in the government’s house begin to widen long before Mr. Aristide fled the country in 2004 amid an armed insurrection and massive streets protests against his rule.
Behind him, Mr. Aristide left a trail of bodies and broken dreams. Among the stories I reported on was the brutal March 2002 eviction of peasant farmers from the Maribaroux Plain by government security forces to make way for a low-wage factory there, the government’s thwarting of the investigation into the murder of Haiti’s most prominent journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique, and a December 2003 attack on a group of university students by gangs acting in visible collusion with police that saw at least six shot, a dozen more stabbed and beaten and the university’s rector pummeled with iron bars until he could no longer walk.
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 the Aristide government’s police force.
Helped to weapons and ammunition, reporting to the president, these young men – 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 the gang leaders 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. Many in Haiti charge that Mr. Aristide is continuing to destabilize the situation there by coordinating the actions of the remaining gangs from his exile in South Africa.
This past summer, nearly two years after he fled into exile, four of Haiti’s most politically progressive organizations – the Plateforme haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés (GARR), Solidarité des Femmes Haïtiennes (SOFA) and center National et International de Documentation et d’Information de la Femme en Haïti (EnfoFanm).- signed a declaration calling for Aristide to be judged for what they called his crimes against the Haitian people, mentioning by name the murder of another local journalist, Jacques Roche, a campaign of rape against poor women in the slums and a May 31st 2005 attack on a Port-au-Prince marketplace that killed seven people and saw a large part of the market, which served the capital’s poor, burned to ashes.
It is from exactly this kind of scorching violence that the Haitian people are trying to extricate themselves, and that is why the presence of Brazilian troops in the country, buttressing a United Nations force comprised of 9,000 soldiers and police from 21 nations, is so important.
The nascent gains of Haiti’s poor majority – peasants and the urban poor – and the fragile building of its institutions – the judiciary, the police, the civil service – were nearly utterly destroyed during the Aristide years, and the Haitians will need the help and support of their fellow citizens in Latin America if they are to construct a more just and equitable peace in the future.
Despite its own social and political problems, Brazil has shown how a country can make the transition from dictatorship to democracy, and how those disenfranchised from political power can begin to make their way, albeit tentatively, to a more accountable form of government.
The Haitians are asking for nothing less than, and deserve nothing less than, a real democracy. A country that has suffered so much would be glad to count Brazil among its friends.
Michael Deibert, author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). served as the Reuters correspondent in Haiti from 2001 until 2003. His website is www.michaeldeibert.com.
Originally published in Portuguese in Folha de S. Paulo on January 15th, 2006.