Haiti: Living Under State Terror

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Ethan Casey

“U.S. BARRICADING HAITI” read the headline across the Miami Herald’s page one the morning I flew to Port-au-Prince. Below the headline were a face shot of Clinton, a color map showing the location of the blockade between the Bay of Port-au-Prince and the eastern end of Cuba, and—gratuitous, I thought, but disconcerting nonetheless—color drawings of all the different boats, airplanes and helicopters to be used to prevent Haitians from arriving in Florida en masse in time to rain on Clinton’s inaugural parade.

In a coastal village, several hours’ tortuous drive from the capital, life and death were going on much as ever. People still rode their donkeys to market, raised chickens, tended gardens and lounged about for want of much else to do. The usual afflictions predominated: stomach complaints, weakness, malnutrition, with a few spectacular cases such as the woman whose breast was visibly almost completely consumed by cancer—and a smattering of AIDS cases.

AIDS is less in evidence than in Port-au-Prince, where I was told 35% of the population has HIV, up from 25% in 1990. With young people fleeing the city, HIV infection is likely to rise in the provinces, a Haitian physician told me.

There was unaccustomed tension in the air, though. A senate election called by the ruling junta was held January 18, the second day I was in Haiti. Many Aristide supporters, who are no longer vocal about their loyalty, boycotted it.

Army checkpoints, lackadaisical when I visited during the rule of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier ten years earlier, were fraught with suspicion. Bags and passports were checked. With Clinton’s inauguration imminent the army was on tender hooks, anticipating an effort by the new U.S. administration to restore Aristide. Virtually incommunicado at the end of an indescribably bad road, we heard over government-controlled radio rumors of a revolt among the army rank and file and of visits to Port-au-Prince by U.N. envoy Dante Caputo and Jesse Jackson.

“If Titid Returns…

Several young men I met had been to Guantanamo Bay and back, and were planning to go again. Haiti’s per capita income is $390; one man paid $180 for an attempt at Miami in a wooden boat with a motor. His friend paid $100 for passage in a boat, without motor.

Why, I asked, were they willing to try again? Didn’t they know that Clinton said he would continue forced repatriation? Didn’t they fear death at sea? Didn’t they hope Aristide would return?

Both agreed they could as easily perish on the streets of Port-au-Prince as in a boat. The terror is general, they said, and one need not be an outspoken opponent of the junta to be shot. Should he drown, said the one whose boat had had a motor, “c’est la vie.”

Asked if they would stay should Aristide return, both were noncommittal. “Can Titid stop the terror?” asked one with a rhetorical shrug, using Aristide’s popular nickname. “Can he control the army?” Still, they asserted, “If Titid returns there is hope.”

And if Aristide does not return?

“If Aristide does not return, there is no hope.”

I was told the terror in Port-au-Prince is pervasive, that one does not go out after eight at night. The army presumes young people guilty (usually with cause) of supporting Aristide. Zinglindos, gangs of armed thugs, terrorize the streets at night and break into homes. One of their tricks is to knock on the door of a house or hut, claiming to have news of Aristide’s return.

I was also told of a place called Ti Tanyin, north of Port-au-Prince on the road to Cap Haitien, where the army is rumored to ship its victims, sometimes still alive, in trucks for now burial. I myself saw a car engulfed in flames, probably from a bomb, as policemen and others looked on in broad daylight.

The effects of the U.S.-led embargo by the Organization of American States are visible. The streets of Port-au-Prince have been deteriorating, since asphalt is not among the goods making it into the country, skeletons of cars, trucks and buses that had died and been cannibalized for parts haunted the capital, punctuating the eerie emptiness of the streets.

I was told the embargo had created more than thirty new Haitian millionaires, while costs of staples had multiplied and deforestation for charcoal was accelerating. Trucks over-laden with bags of charcoal were ubiquitous.

Several informants expressed spontaneously a longing not for Aristide’s months in power but for the lethargic reign of Baby Doe. A young man who had been to Guantanamo recalled the former stability, the sense of personal security and safety. A physician remembered her active social life; now, instead of going to discos,
restaurants and big parties, she and her husband made the rounds of small dinner parties with trusted friends or watched television.

“Under Jean-Claude it was stable,” an activist from a left-of-center political party told me. “There were no zinglindos. Now….”

May/June 1993, ATC 44