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The Politics of Brutality in Haiti

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Section: Accounts Geography: Canada Haiti Topics: UN

January 21, 2006

The Politics of Brutality in Haiti

Canada, the UN and "collateral damage"

by Aaron Lakoff

Top: Valencia, an eight year old girl, is treated in Ste-Catherine's hospital in Cite Soleil for gunshot wounds to her leg that she suffered when MINUSTAH opened fire on her home. Above: A bullet hole in the window the children's ward of Ste-Catherine's hospital. The hospital came under fire from MINUSTAH the night of Jan. 18th. photos by Aaron Lakoff. View additional photos
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- In his book The Uses of Haiti, author Paul Farmer writes:
...the world's privileged are protected from suffering violence, they are protected from having to perpetrate it – directly – and they are protected from having to apologize for it. This, then, is the political economy of brutality. Just as the violence of the poor must be understood as imbeded in their poverty – the structural violence done to them – so, too, must the 'goodness' of the rich be measured against their power and privilege." [1]

Here, I hope to illustrate how my country, Canada, is profiting from this political economy of brutality that Farmer describes here in Haiti.

I came to Haiti having known very little about the country just six months prior. My voyage here is an attempt to relay information to Canadians, to the best of my abilities, in order to further expose Canada's role in Haiti. Just as Canada is now carrying out its brutal policy of "Responsibility to Protect," a modern version of "white man's burden," I feel that citizens of the Canadian state like myself have a responsibility to confront the real issue in Haiti – that of Canadian imperialism.

To follow Farmer's analytical framework of a political economy of brutality, let us first examine who is suffering from this violence. Yesterday, we visited the Ste-Catherine's hospital in Cite Soleil, the largest and poorest area of Port au Prince. While ailing patients lay hooked up to IV tubes in rows of beds, it was impossible not to notice that the exterior and interior walls of the hospital were covered with bullet holes. In a shocking image that will never leave my mind, there was a large bullet hole in a glass window looking in on cribs in the children's ward. Eyewitnesses told us that at around 11 p.m. the previous night, the hospital came under heavy fire by MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) troops. Opening fire on a hospital is a serious war crime under the Geneva Convention, and here, in Cite Soleil, we were looking at the evidence of war crimes committed by the very body which is supposed to uphold international law.

On the ground floor of the hospital, we met Valencia, an eight-year-old girl recovering from a gunfire wound she sustained when MINUSTAH fired on her house the night before. Her father, standing beside her bed, still looked like he was in shock.

Dead bodies were strewn throughout the streets on Thursday morning. The day's death toll, before noon, was three. Residents said all three were killed by MINUSTAH, and all three were unarmed. We saw the freshly dead body of one man, baking in the hot sun, who was gunned down just blocks away from a large cart that he used to deliver groceries and other goods for a living.

This week's death toll in Cite Soleil was already over ten, all killed by UN forces. Many Canadians like myself have been raised with the myth that the UN, the infamous and benevolent 'casques bleus,' operate around the world to protect peace and security. Now the UN is publicly admitting that they have killed civilians as "collateral damage" in some of their missions.

Two important questions must be asked: who constitutes this collateral damage, and why is the UN killing and not saving lives?

The answer to the first question is simple and well-documented. Just like hundreds of thousands of Madeline Albright's targets in Iraq, the collateral damage in Haiti consists of the nation's poorest. They are the ones suffering the brunt of this violence.

The answer to the second question is slightly more complicated, and leads into the second part of Farmer's thesis. It also begins to uncover Canada's not-so-well hidden interests in the country. In a nutshell, the UN is committing acts of violence in Haiti because the country's privileged are protected from having to perpetrate that violence directly. They are putting pressure on the UN to do their dirty work for them.

Haiti's privileged and wealthy, represented by the Group of 184, a so-called "civil society" group that orchestrated the bloody coup d'etat against democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, have a lot at stake right now. In order to protect their carefully planned coup, they need two things to happen: their favored candidate (and sweatshop owner), Charles Henri Baker needs to be elected as president, and the support base for Lavalas candidate Rene Preval in poor areas like Cite Soleil and Bel Air needs to be effectively demobilized.

The Group of 184 is taking steps to ensure these things happen before the elections on February 7. In order to put pressure on MINUSTAH to get tough on crime and "terrorism," they called for a general business strike on January 9. On January 16 they held a sit-in in front of the UN mission headquarters in the capital. They got their wish, and MINUSTAH killed four more people the same day as the demonstration.

Top: A Brazilian MINUSTAH soldier, looking unhappy upon being photographed, patrols the streets of Pele, a slum adjacent to Cite Soleil. Above: A UN tank patroling the street in Pele. photos by Aaron Lakoff. View additional photos

The Group of 184 is led by a shady cast of characters. Their spokesperson, Andy Apaid Jr., is the owner of Alpha Industries, the largest garment producer in Haiti. In his factories, more aptly called sweatshops, workers toil to produce clothing for Montreal-based Gildan Activewear. Most are women between the ages of 18 and 30 years old, and are paid a measly 75 Gourdes (less than $2 US) per day.

Another important Group of 184 player is Reginald Boulos, head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce. According to the Haiti Information Project, Boulos was also implicated in the death of 60 children after his company, Pharval Pharmaceuticals, produced a poisonous cough syrup distributed throughout poor neighborhoods of the capital. Patrick Elie, a Haitian, recounts to us how he applied for a job with a pharmaceutical company in Canada. When he told his prospective employers that he used to work for the Boulos family in Haiti, they replied, "You know, those guys are killers…."

So how does a group of rich maquiladora-owners and mad scientists maintain even a shred of credibility on the international scene? Through plenty of funding and support from the USA, France, and Canada.

Since the 2004 coup d'etat, Canada has lent its explicit support to the Group of 184, not only in sending 500 soldiers to aid in the process of ousting Aristide, the elected Parliament and thousands of local elected officials, but also by funding many of the opposition groups in the Group of 184 via the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Seemingly progressive Canadian NGOs such as Alternatives and Rights and Democracy have helped maintain the Group of 184's credibility by affirming that they are indeed a "civil society" group.

Through this support for the Group of 184, Canada has also supported, de facto, institutions that are committing human rights abuses in post-coup Haiti, including the interim Haitian government. Thousands of political prisoners continue to sit behind bars without charges since the coup, while Paul Martin has said that "there are no political prisoners in Haiti." At the same time, known killer and coup leader, Guy Phillipe, who was trained by the CIA in Ecuador, is running for president. The Canadian Embassy in Haiti, which was quick to support the removal of Aristide, has had little to say about this.

Furthermore, through its support for the Group of 184, Canada is also turning a blind eye to the killings of MINUSTAH. Haiti's poor know quite well who is responsible for these attacks. As Jean-Joseph Joel, a resident of Cite Soleil put it, "MINUSTAH must cease being manipulated by the private business sector – stop taking orders from the hands of Baker, Boulos and Apaid, at the detriment of the masses, to destroy the people of Cite Soleil, Bel Air, Laforcette – to destroy all who live in the popular neighborhoods."

On the ground, Canada's "Responsibility to Protect" means poor Haitians are slaughtered.

So to bring us to the third and final part of Farmer's political economy of brutality, we have to look close to home. This is where we find the perpetrators who are protected from having to apologize. I am Canadian (for an anarchist, that's a hard admission), and my concern is primarily what my government is doing in Haiti, in my name.

Canadians are going to the polls for a federal election on January 23rd. The lead-up to our own elections won't be a bloodbath, but for Haiti, the outcome could be. Sadly, the outcome of our election won't make for any positive change in Haiti. Either the Liberals will form the new government (and we've already seen their abysmal performance here), or the Conservatives will, bringing our foreign policy even more in line with the American foreign policy.

A look to the north end of Montreal shows an interesting scene playing out. There, where many Haitian-Canadians reside, Canada's Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, is engaged in the fight of his political career – and he's losing.

Pettigrew is one of the main players responsible for Canada's imperialist ventures in Haiti, but when called on it, he is unrepentant. In fact, he is proud of Canada's role in Haiti.

Haitians in Montreal, along with activist groups such as Haiti Action Montreal, are ready to fire Pettigrew from his job. He's been publicly challenged and humiliated, and now posters picturing his face that denounce him for crimes against humanity cover telephone polls in his riding. As the most recent polls show he is way down, he actually might soon be forced to give his apologies.

Our solidarity with the Haitian people demands that we make people like Pettigrew, Martin, and the rest of the Canadian government pay for their crimes. We must challenge the structural violence being done unto Haiti's poor, and we must take down the defenses that allow for the profiting by the Canadian state of this political economy of brutality. [Editor's note: Many articles note that Canada is acting in "lock step" with American foreign policy on this issue. Some suggest that Haiti is Canada's "opportunity to play a constructive role in assisting our nearest ally in a situation that was considerably less controversial than Iraq," while others, according to the Toronto Star, believe that "no politicians wanted to upset the Haitian diaspora, much of it educated elite, now resident in Montreal."]

Voting out Pettigrew and his kind could be a start, but imperialism doesn't end at the ballot boxes. We do not need a new foreign policy towards Haiti, and it isn't enough for people like the NDP's Svend Robinson to go down to Haiti if he is elected, as he has promised. Canada needs to get out of Haiti, and the mechanisms of the political economy of brutality that we have seen need to be abolished. Here in Port-au-Prince and back in Montreal, Haitians are demanding no less.

Aaron Lakoff is an activist and independent journalist based in Montreal. He will be in Haiti for the month of January, filing reports focused on the role of Canada in the country. He can be reached at montrealtohaiti@resist.ca


1. Paul Farmer. The Uses of Haiti. (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1994) 307.

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