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Citizen Protests, Government Repression Mount in Haiti

Unprovoked, a UN 'peacekeeper' and private security officer level their guns on a protester at UN logistical base, Oct. 15. Photo: Federico Matais.

“I came to protest so we can find a solution. Misery is killing me,” said Mascarie Sainte-Anne, 70, at the edge of a rally in front of Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive’s office on October 12.

Haitians have been taking to the streets with increasing frequency since August in calls for redress of the economic and social crisis which has followed the earthquake. The social movements’ demands of the government include the right of those living in internally displaced people’s camps to permanent, humane housing; accessible education; and an increase in minimum wage. Rallies have also protested the continued presence of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH.

Throughout Haitian history, state repression has often accompanied protests, and that pattern has repeated twice in the past week. Haitian police have killed one demonstrator and beaten a handful of others.

On October 15, according to video footage and to witness Melinda Miles of Let Haiti Live, about 200 people were marching in front of the U.N. logistics base when MINUSTAH forces fired two bullets in the air and leveled their guns at demonstrators. A MINUSTAH vehicle and a second UN car pushed three foreign journalists and at least two Haitian demonstrators into a ditch. Haitian police then began striking demonstrators and journalists, including Al-Jazeera’ s Sebastian Walker and the independent photo-journalist Federico Matias, with the butts of their rifles. A policeman bashed his rifle into the mouth of a demonstrator from the Kanarin camp, knocking out his front teeth.

“There was no provocation at all. The Haitian police and the private UN security guards were so aggressive. They were just looking to do violence,” said Miles.

On October 8, demonstrators were in front of the Ministry of Education, peacefully calling for education for the nation’s students, when Haitian riot police fired tear gas. Jean Louis Filbert (his name also reported as Jean Filbert Louis), a math teacher and member of the teachers’ union, was hit in the head with a tear gas canister. He died in the hospital the next day. Jean Pierre Edouard, who was not involved with the rally but had gone to the ministry simply to pick up a certificate, was also hit in the head.[1]

One recent protest focus is also the principal concern of citizens today: permanent housing and other support for the estimated 1.5 million people who lost their homes in the earthquake and who still languish in tents or under tarps nine months later. No authority has told this group what their fates will be. Their shelters, usually made of plastic or nylon, are variously sweltering in the daytime heat and wet and muddy in the torrential night rains. Protection against thieves and rapists is non-existent. According to an extensive new study, 40% of camps have no water, 30% have no toilets, and only 20% have access to education, medical care, or psychological support.[2] With near-total unemployment; with food aid suspended since April; and with virtually no outside assistance; hunger, illness, and poverty are on the rise.

“Tighten our belts, we can’t take it any more,” loudly sang Sainte-Anne and 200 or so others in front of the prime minister’s office on October 12. “Tighten our belts” is not a metaphor in Haiti; it refers to the belts or ropes that people bind tightly around their waists in an attempt to dull hunger pangs.

The demonstrators continued their call-and-response chant:
“Heat under the tarps is brutal, we can’t take it any more.
We have fever, we can’t take it any more.
We’re being raped, we can’t take it any more.
We have no water, we can’t take it any more.
We have infections, we can’t take it any more.”

This was the third demonstration for a response to massive homelessness in as many months. “Each rally has been larger than the last,” said Reyneld Sanon, a leader with the Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA). “People are starting to stand up for their right to housing that is, after all, guaranteed by the constitution.” The protests are convened by a coalition including a housing rights group, a human rights group,[3] and committees of camp residents.

Sainte-Anne said, “I’m old, I’m going to die, but I don’t want it to be from hunger. I don’t have a husband. I don’t have children. I’ve been sleeping in the street since my house in Martissant fell flat. The government has to do something.”

At least three recent demonstrations, led by labor groups and grassroots organizations,[4] have called for raising the minimum wage from $3.20 (125 gourdes) a day for export assembly work to $12.82 a day (500 gourdes). Last year, after the Parliament passed legislation to raise the minimum wage for all workers, factory owners complained to President René Préval. He refused to implement the law. Instead, a compromise agreement raised the salary of factory workers producing for export to only $3.20 a day. “You couldn’t live on that before the earthquake. But costs have risen so much since then, it’s really impossible now,” said Gerome Dupervil, an advocate for workers’ rights.

Another series of rallies has taken place on October 1, 14, and 15 in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.N. logistics base. Demonstrators were protesting the annual renewal of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which has been here since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster in 2004. The force includes almost 12,000 armed personnel. Its current annual budget is $380 million.[5]

MINUSTAH troops have been charged with killings, arbitrary arrests, and human rights violations.[6] They are currently suspected in the death by hanging of a young man, Gerald Jean Gilles, in the courtyard of a MINUSTAH base in Cap-Haïtien on August 17. MINUSTAH personnel claimed that the youth killed himself, a fact disputed by family and friends.[7]

Activists interviewed say their call for MINUSTAH’s departure is based on the force’s violence, its ineffectiveness in accomplishing its mission[8], the waste of money, and the undemocratic and colonial nature of the operation in a sovereign nation. The actions have been convened by a coalition including a media network, human rights and housing rights groups, and committees from various camps.[9]

Asked what she and others in Haiti’s social movement want, Jetty Jenet said, “We’re calling out for help to make the authorities hear us. We’re all dying.” For nine months, Jetty has had no income and has lived with her children under a plastic tarp in Cité Soleil. “But we’re people, too.”

[1] Agence Haïtienne de Presse, “Deux blessés lors d'une manifestation devant le Ministère de l'Education pour réclamer une meilleure politique scolaire,” Oct. 8, 2010. http://www.ahphaiti.org/ndujour.html

[2] Professor Mark Schuller, Executive Summary, “Unstable Foundations: Impact of NGOs on Human Rights for Port-au-Prince’s Internally Displaced People,” http://ijdh.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Report-unstable-fou...

[3] Organizers include Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA) and the Bureau of International Lawyers.

[4] The minimum wage mobilization is being led by the workers’ rights group Workers’ Struggle (Batay Ouvriyè), the Autonomous Central Union of Haitian Workers (CATH), and the grassroots organizations Democratic Popular Movement (MODEP), Chandel, and Heads Together (Tèt Kole, not to be confused with the peasant organization of the same name).

[5] MINUSTAH Facts and Figures, http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minustah/facts.shtml

[6] See, for example, the reports of Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWFiles2005.nsf/FilesByRWDocUNIDFileName/VBOL-6B5J5U-harvard-haiti-mar05.pdf/$File/harvard-haiti-mar05.pdf and Human Rights Watch http://www.hrw.org/en/node/79214. MINUSTAH has also engaged in recent acts of violence against camp residents who have been ordered evicted by either the state or private landowners. And on May 23, MINUSTAH forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowded camp in downtown Port-au-Prince, leaving at least six people hospitalized and others suffering respiratory conditions. (See http://www.otherworldsarepossible.org/another-haiti-possible/united-nati....)

Other charges of MINUSTAH violence include an attack by the forces in Cité Soleil on April 15, 2005, killing several (Eyewitness testimony, AP television news story, April 15, 2010); an attack on July 6, 2005, resulting in an uncertain number of deaths (http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/yearman/cite_soleil.htm); the killing of at least five, and possibly many more, people in Cité Soleil in December 22, 2006 (http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/yearman/cite_soleil.htm); and the shooting death of a young man at the funeral of a prominent priest on July 14, 2009 (http://www.sfbayview.com/2009/secret-funeral-for-a-minustah-victim/). In Feb. 2008, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services released findings from its investigation into accusations against Sri Lankan MINUSTAH troops, in which it found that acts of sexual exploitation and abuse of children were "frequent" and occurred "at virtually every location where the contingent personnel were deployed." (Human Rights Watch, “Haiti: Events of 2008,” http://www.hrw.org/en/node/79214)

[7] Thalles Gomes, “Death of Haitian Youth Sparks New Protests against MINUSTAH,” Brasil de Fato, Sept. 14, 2010, http://lo-de-alla.org/2010/09/death-of-youth-sparks-protests-against-min...

[8] MINUSTAH’s website states its objectives as the following: “to restore a secure and stable environment, to promote the political process, to strengthen Haiti’s Government institutions and rule-of-law-structures, as well as to promote and to protect human rights.” Since the earthquake, those objectives were expanded to “support the immediate recovery, reconstruction and stability efforts in the country.” http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minustah/index.shtml

[9] Sponsors include the alternative media project Bri Kouri Nouvel Gaye, Worker’s Battle (Batay Ouvriyè), Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA), the Bureau of International Lawyers, and committees from various camps.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the journalist injured during the October 15th protest.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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