Originally: Best Friend in Washington

Chris Dodd, Aristide’s Best Friend in Washington- Wall Street Journal
Best Friend in Washington
August 1, 2003 12:46 a.m. EDT


For almost 47 years Father Arthur Volel has been serving the Lord in the sprawling Port-au-Prince slum known as Cite Soleil. It’s not a place to which God calls slouches to do his work. In the midst of extreme poverty despair hovers like a vulture waiting to snatch weakened souls.

By all appearances, Fr. Volel has kept the faith. Among other works of charity and mercy, the Salesian priest and his order feed 13,000 children daily and run the St. Teresa of Avila school for 1,500 students. His long-suffering flock returns the love; he is exceedingly popular. Some affectionately call him the “Pope.”

That’s why Haitians were shocked when, on July 12, gangs supporting President Jean Bertrand Aristide vandalized Fr. Volel’s school, burned his car and launched a stoning attack on a group of guests who were on the school’s property. Forty-four people were seriously injured.

More shocking was Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd’s rationalization of the assault. He blamed the victims, calling the meeting Fr. Volel had agreed to host a provocation and likening it to Protestant marches in Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. James Morrell, the director of the Haiti Democracy Project, reported on his Web site that “Mr. Dodd said that the opposition to Aristide was ‘adolescent’ in mentality.” More words of wisdom from the Latin America “expert” who backed Fidel’s Sandinistas, wants to be more engaging with the Cuban dictator and insists that Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, with its property seizures and press harassment, is a democracy.

Mr. Dodd’s excuses for the Lavalas violence are horrifying on humanitarian grounds alone, as is the Congressional Black Caucus’s loyalty to a Haitian president who rejects the most basic democratic principles. This week a well-respected Haitian human-rights group claimed that Aristide supporters are now planning to assassinate one of Fr. Volel’s guests from July 12, Haitian businessman Andy Apaid. If they do, Mr. Dodd will have to answer for his rhetoric.

For Americans there are other reasons to care about Haiti. Drug trafficking through the island creates enormous security risks for the U.S. as does Mr. Aristide’s alliance with Mr. Castro.

The notoriously corrupt Mr. Aristide also seems quite adept at using blackmail to pry open U.S. aid spigots, which have been shutoff since the fraudulent senatorial elections of 2000. Last week the Bush Treasury foolishly released $149 million in Inter-American Development Bank aid to Haiti. It seems the administration got tired of eating Democrat-served blame for Haitian misery. Many Haitian observers expect that money will go to Washington lobbyists — like former Black Caucus bigwig Ron Dellums — and to feed the Aristide machine. Next year the strongman will have added leverage, with the power to launch a refugee exodus that would make big trouble in Florida close to the presidential elections.

The facts surrounding the Cite Soleil assault do not support Mr. Dodd’s assertion that the visitors were unwelcome or that they were “marchers” at all. Indeed, the guests were from a diverse collection of 184 organizations — known in Haiti as G-184 — and were invited there to talk civics with locals.

The meeting was to be like scores of others the group has held around the country and throughout the capital in recent months. The purpose was to explain and open a debate on what the G-184 calls its New Social Contract. This is a grassroots effort that seeks a new culture of nonviolent politics. Why Mr. Dodd would browbeat these inclusive, democratic peacemakers while he champions an authoritarian in Armani suits is puzzling.

Fr. Volel agreed to host the program, but he did not issue the invitation. According to Mr. Apaid, who I spoke to by telephone in Port-au-Prince Tuesday, the invitation came from a group representing 500 Cite Soleil schools, two civic groups, a youth group and some 50 local artists. In other words, G-184 was in the shantytown because members of the community had asked it to come. A spokesman for Fr. Volel in Port-au-Prince told me on Wednesday that the priest greeted the group at the request of his superior.

About Fr. Volel, his spokesman says, “politics is not his concern.” He says that the priest’s reason for accepting the meeting at the school was simple: “All you have to know is his concern for his people, his devotion to his people. When you come to offer something to fight the misery and the poverty, he is interested.”

Mr. Apaid explained that 13 sectors of civil society are represented in G-184, including 27 unions, 78 peasant organizations, 16 business groups, five professional groups, eight women’s groups, eight human-rights groups, five educational organizations, including a teachers union of 10,000, and four media associations. It has the backing of Catholic and Protestant churches. Everything in the contract, Mr. Apaid told me, “has been debated in an assembly of delegates.” It’s goals include fighting discrimination, poverty and ignorance and promoting worker rights.

Mr. Apaid thinks what Mr. Aristide really fears about G-184 is its appeal across economic classes. “Historically, the political class has always entertained the class distinctions and feared bridging between the poor, the middle-class and the intellectual and economic elite. This is what is frightening the power,” he says. “Those in power have always said to the elite, ‘you make money with me behind the palace doors but don’t you dare talk to the people directly or collectively.’ We want to say that that makes no sense for us.”

Mr. Apaid refuses to call himself the leader of G-184 or take any special credit for its success. But clearly he’s an irritant to the government and Haitians are worried about his safety. The last person who stood up to Mr. Aristide so publicly was radio host Jean Dominique. He was gunned down on a Port-au-Prince street in 2000. It has not been proven that the president was to blame, but it was at least an interesting coincidence.

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Updated August 1, 2003 12:46 a.m.

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