One day last fall, 31-year-old Haitian journalist Brignol Lindor hosted a Port-au-Prince radio show that included critics of the government. Within days, Mr. Lindor was dead. Murdered, eyewitnesses said, by a mob loyal to Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas party.
As the details of Mr. Lindor’s murder are pieced together, a snapshot of systematic political repression emerges. As does an explanation for the massive defection of once-tried-and-true Aristide backers.
There is now broad support?both foreign and domestic?for withholding international financial aid to Haiti until political space for the opposition can be guaranteed. Yet, as the nearby photo suggests, Mr. Aristide retains some hardcore U.S. support. Haiti is tragically poor but the former priest from the Port-au-Prince slums still finds what he needs to buy influence in Washington.
A preliminary investigation of the Lindor murder by the Haitian Press Federation alleges that, just after the radio show, the victim’s name was publicly added to a Lavalas enemies list.
His murder was brutal. “His tie is pulled dragging his body forward as another individual, totally hysterical, hit him with a pickaxe on the back, piercing through to his chest,” the investigation says. “Then his frail body is sliced with machetes, knives, as if he were a dangerous animal. The crowd holds him by the tie and drags his body through the streets then turns the bloody and massacred cadaver face up. One of them suggests burning Lindor’s body, the majority protests saying that they must leave the body as an example and symbol.”
Haiti’s army, which had a role in decades of repression during the Duvalier dictatorships, is no more. It was dismantled when the U.S. returned the democratically elected Mr. Aristide to power in 1994. Yet, official oppression is little changed. Mr. Aristide controls the national police. He controls the economy. He has his own “armed forces,” street thugs, which he unleashes to defend his increasingly unpopular government. In January, the Haitian Press Federation listed 27 journalists who had gone into exile in recent months. Another 17 claim to have been threatened. There is also the famous unsolved murder of radio journalist?and Aristide critic?Jean Dominique, which this paper’s Jose DeCordoba wrote about in detail on Jan. 29.
Attacks against Lavalas opponents, election fraud and corruption have prompted sharp criticism all around. Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute and the French newspaper Le Monde have all objected to the regime’s methods and policies. Amnesty International has condemned the intimidation committed in Lavalas’s name. A number of French leftists and communists, including Danielle Mitterand, have withdrawn support.
The left-leaning Center for International Policy, headed by former ambassador Robert White, has also become a critic. CIP’s James Morrell, an analyst who backed Mr. Aristide’s return to power in 1994, has reviewed the 2000 senatorial elections and called them fraudulent.
The U.S. State Department annual report, released last week, says, “The government continued to commit serious abuses during the year, and its generally poor human rights record worsened.” It was also critical of the national police. “Allegations of corruption, incompetence and narcotics trafficking affect all levels,” the report said. Last week it was reported that the U.S. canceled the visas of four top Haitian police officials.
The desperate plight of so many victims of this terror has prompted the U.S. to earmark some $55 million in international humanitarian aid to be sent straight to nongovernmental organizations. Even this worries democracy advocates, who say that much of it will go to NGOs loyal to Mr. Aristide and tied to violence.
Meanwhile, Mr. Aristide’s quandary is how to get his hands on the much greater volume of aid that is still withheld, without accepting the reforms that could threaten his grip. In that effort, he appears to be largely relying on some of his old pals who worked for him during his exile in Washington. What that costs is not entirely clear, but as members of the Democratic Party machine keep turning up in Aristide photo-ops, it’s: worth thinking about.
The New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights, once a frontline fighter for Mr. Aristide, now condemns his government for its repression. But that hasn’t stopped New York state gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo and his wife Kerry Kennedy-Cuomo from calling on the U.S. “to release the funding.” At a pro-Aristide event in North Miami in December, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd did the same.
A new infusion of aid would prop up Mr. Aristide and secure his control over such businesses as Haiti’s government monopoly telephone company, Teleco. Ms. Kennedy-Cuomo’s brother, Joseph P. Kennedy II, is a close ally of Mr. Aristide’s and also on the board of Fusion Telecom. That company begrudgingly admitted last year that it was a player in the lucrative long-distance market from the U.S. to Haiti. Fusion isn’t telling how it gained access to the non-transparent state monopoly network. But Haitians think the relationship deserves closer scrutiny.
Mr. Aristide also pays for more traditional lobbying efforts. In June 2001, Patton Boggs said it was hired by Haiti at $50,000 a month to the year-end to enhance the country’s image. Hazel Ross-Robinson, wife of Washington black-power crusader Randall Robinson, also has been on the Haitian payroll. In the seven months ending Dec. 31, 2001, Dellums, Brauer, Halterman & Associates LLC reported $210,000 in fees from its efforts for Haiti. This involvement by the firm of former Congressman Ron Dellums has enraged Mr. Morrell at CIP. “Dellums represents an arbitrary leader ruling by violence and fraud, whose purpose with foreign lobbylists is to avoid any power sharing with the opposition,” he writes.
It is a bitter irony that so many Washington worthies who feign concern for the suffering Haitian people also happily lobby for their tormentor. But one thing Mr. Aristide learned during his U.S. sojourn was where the soft spots are in American politics.