Lacy MacAuley

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News Media Coverage of “Risk of Instability” in Haiti is Letting Politics Slow Aide

Over 10,000 US troops are in Haiti right now. That’s at least one US soldier for every 100 Haitians. If these soldiers were actually distributing food and water, every Haitian could be nourished. But the military didn’t send food and water. It sent soldiers.

After seven days, guards erect a Haitian flag in front of the crumbled presidential palace. US troops are in Haiti acting to protect the presidency from escaped political prisoners in the aftermath of the earthquake. This is the "risk of instability" that the Haitian government is really worried about. (Photo: Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

That’s because our US troops are not really on a humanitarian mission in Haiti. They are protecting the current US-friendly regime of Haitian President René Préval, and seeking to ensure that supporters of the twice-democratically-elected former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, pro-democracy political prisoners who were freed by the earthquake, do not bring Aristide to power again. That’s the real “risk of instability” that Préval is referring to in his speeches.

The news media is mostly allowing the presence of US troops in Haiti to go unquestioned, implying that gun-wielding soldiers are needed due to incidents of what they call “looting” or due to fighting over resources. But all accounts on the ground seem to indicate that Haitians have been overwhelmingly peaceful. The troops are really there to respond in case there is a pro-democracy political movement that could rattle the US-friendly presidency. The news media is harming Haiti by misrepresenting this security concern, and is allowing politics to get in the way of aide.

The safe streets of Port-au-Prince

“I’m living here in the neighborhood [in Port-au-Prince]… There is no security. The UN is not out. The US is not out. The Haitian police are not able to be out. But there’s also no insecurity… You can hear a pin drop in this city. It’s a peaceful place. There is no war. There is no crisis except the suffering that’s ongoing,” said Dr. Evan Lyon with Partners in Health, a physician working at the main hospital in Haiti who was interviewed by Democracy Now earlier this week.

Kirk Noonan, an aide worker with Convoy of Hope, acknowledged in an article with the Springfield News-Leader that there have been instances of looting and of people hurting others. “But there’s also just tens of thousands of great people who are doing everything they can without breaking the law …to eke out survival,” he said.

Even government officials acknowledge that there has been no major unrest. So why so many soldiers? Why all the guns?

Why all the guns? What is the “risk of instability”?

To understand the military response, we must understand Haiti’s 2004 military coup, which overthrew the twice-democratically-elected President Aristide. In a bizarre international incident that has gone largely unquestioned by the mainstream press, Aristide was kidnapped in the night and flown to the Central African Republic. US troops assisted in the kidnapping. Someone smuggled a cell phone to Aristide, and he was able to call a number of US officials he had a close working relationship with, such as US Representative Maxine Waters. He tried to tell the world that he had been kidnapped, and that he was being overthrown by a coup. Except for a handful of progressive press, such as Democracy Now, the news media reported that Aristide had resigned.

There is plenty of evidence that the US backed the 2004 coup. Aristide himself identified the soldiers who kidnapped him as US forces, and one of Aristide’s caretakers said that US troops came to take Aristide at two o’clock in the morning. US officials had prohibited Aristide from reinforcing his personal security team in the days just prior to the coup. US diplomats had also refused to send forces to protect Aristide from the armed rebel forces when he requested it. Oh yeah, and then there’s the fact that some of the leadership of the rebels was trained in the United States through a special program, then called the School of the Americas, which has trained all sorts of aspirational young military leaders who, oddly enough, wind up leading US-backed military coups in their home countries.

Immediately afterwards, supporters of Aristide and those who protested the coup were hunted down, rounded up, and thrown into the main jail in Port-au-Prince. One of those rounded up was Annette Auguste, Haitian folksinger and pro-democracy activist, who was seized at her home from US Marines in May 2004. Her only crime was singing pro-democracy folk songs. Another well-known supporter of Aristide, Ronald Dauphin, was imprisoned one day after the coup. Many more were seized.

These political prisoners stayed imprisoned until the earthquake freed them twelve days ago.

The earthquake brings freedom to political prisoners

As reported this week by Democracy Now, the main jail in Port-au-Prince was destroyed by the earthquake. There were 4,000 prisoners inside, 80% of whom had never even seen a judge and had not been charged with a crime. The prisoners who were not killed in the quake fled from the jail.

Mario Joseph, Haitian human rights attorney for Dauphin and other political prisoners, says that his client Dauphin escaped from the prison. Speaking to Democracy Now, Joseph said:

“They say in French, “For some things, bad things are good.” And I think this catastrophe, which did a lot of damage in Haiti, this earthquake, it gave justice to the people in the prison—above all, the political prisoners like Ronald Dauphin. And this will make six years since Ronald Dauphin has been in prison without charges, without ever being charged.

…The other thing I can say, in Haiti, we have a symbolic—the palace that went down, the Palace of Justice, the Haitian IRS, and the whole power of the state. This is like a message that was sent, because it wasn’t just the people in prison who were suffering injustice, but the poorest in the country, the excluded in the country. Thus I think it was a clear message.”

This is the context in which President René Préval, comments on foreign security at a press conference, translated from French by a reporter for Christian Science Monitor:

“He says that to ensure the security of his people he needs to understand the dimension of the problem. Aid has to be mobilized, coordinated, and well distributed. And finally, he says that he understands the risk of instability – with all the prisoners in Port-au-Prince on the streets (the prison collapsed), an already weak police force of 3,500 needs to be bolstered by external forces.”

If the streets are peaceful, and 80% of those in the prison were never even charged with a crime, what “risk of instability” could result from the jail being destroyed? A threat to the current system of power that Préval presides over.

This misrepresentation is harming Haitians

The news media’s misrepresentation of the potential instability are harmful because they are inhibiting the distribution of aide.

Discussing how the delivery of aide to Haiti’s main hospital has been slowed, Dr. Lyons explained to Democracy Now:

“One thing that I think is really important for people to understand is that misinformation and rumors and, I think at the bottom of the issue, racism has slowed the recovery efforts of this hospital… Quote “security issues” over the last forty-eight hours have been our leading concern. And there are no security issues… There is no insecurity.”

Don’t let politics slow aide

If indeed aide is being hindered by security concerns rather than actual security issues, then our news media is doing Haitians a very, very grave disservice by misrepresenting what the government actually means when it says “risk of instability.”  The politics of protecting Haiti’s US-friendly presidency should not get in the way of providing aide. Their misrepresentation is hurting the people of Haiti.

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Filed under: activism, antiwar, global justice, human welfare, international relations, lacy's life, media, thoughts and philosophies

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