Originally: Interview: Arielle Jean-Baptiste of the Haiti Democracy Project and Ira Kurzban, Miami-based legal counsel for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, discuss future of Haiti and Aristide

Arielle Jean-Baptiste, associate, Haiti Democracy Project

Interview: Arielle Jean-Baptiste of the Haiti Democracy Project and Ira Kurzban, Miami-based legal counsel for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, discuss future of Haiti and Aristide

April 15, 2004

TAVIS SMILEY, host: From NPR in Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley.

On today’s program we celebrate the legacy of baseball great Jackie Robinson with his only daughter, Sharon. Also, our regular commentator, Michael Eric Dyson, shares his thoughts on how a television research firm may be missing the mark when it comes to people of color. And former “Cosby Show” mom Phylicia Rashad on Broadway with P. Diddy. We’ll get the details from Ms. Rashad herself a little later in this program.

But first, this Haiti update. It’s been nearly two months since the democratically elected president of Haiti was flown out of that country under conditions that he later described as `a coup d’etat.’ Since February 29th, Jean-Bertrand Aristide has traveled from the Caribbean to the Central African Republic to Jamaica where he is now the guest of that country’s prime minister. Meanwhile, a US-led military force continues to enforce a fragile peace in Haiti, and the country’s US-backed interim prime minister is pursuing corruption and human rights charges against former members of Aristide’s government. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, are applauding the government’s proclaimed commitment to justice, but they question why both the US and Haiti are focused on prosecuting the crimes of Aristide officials while ignoring even more systematic and widespread abuses committed by allies of the current government during the period of 1991 to 1994.

And so returning to this program today to discuss this and other questions are Arielle Jean-Baptiste, research associate for the Haiti Democracy Project in Washington, which waged a peaceful campaign to overthrow Aristide. She joins us via phone from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Arielle, nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. ARIELLE JEAN-BAPTISTE (Haiti Democracy Project): Hello, Tavis. Thank you for inviting me.

SMILEY: Also back, Ira Kurzban, the Miami-based legal counsel for Mr. Aristide.

Ira, nice to have you back, as well.

Mr. IRA KURZBAN (Aristide’s Miami-Based Legal Counsel): Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

SMILEY: Nice to have you, Ira. Arielle, let me start with you. As we mentioned, you are a member of the Haiti Democracy Project, which I understand is on a fact-finding mission in Haiti as we speak. Tell me what you’re–what facts you’re trying to find on this mission.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well, the Haiti Democracy Project has been in Haiti on a fact-finding mission. We have met with human-rights rights organizations, sectors of the civil society, members of the government, including the president and the prime minister, we also met with the U.S. Embassy, and we will be also meeting with the Lavalas party later on today. What we have found is a completely bankrupt government. The previous administration looted the country, including the Central Bank safe. Many of the ministers of the new transitional government have left high-paying positions to help Haiti recuperate from this by getting very low salary of a–equivalent to $1,000 US. We have spoken to local human rights organizations about what is really going on down here and what we have found is that the police and the Chimeres are still the main perpetrators of human rights violations.


Mr. KURZBAN: Well, I’m not surprised that Arielle would say that. She’s working for an organization that’s funded by Reginald Boulos, who’s been one of the prime persons behind the coup in Haiti and who is part of the elite and, you know, to make sure they can consolidate their power. What she hasn’t said, though, is what the most recent human rights report that came out this week, done by a delegation from the National Lawyers Guild and others, that said the following, that there are killings in Haiti, that there are curfews, that there’s a lack of police or any form of working judicial system, quoting out of the report, that the unauthorized return of the uniformed and armed soldiers of the Haitian army that President Aristide had decommissioned, he said that the delegation found overwhelming evidence that the victims of the threats and violence had been supporters of the elected government of President Aristide and the famille Lavalas party.

Yesterday the famille Lavalas party said that they would not participate because their mem–in any election or setting up any election because first of all they put back the election. Under the Haitian constitution they were supposed to have an election within 90 days. Mr. Latortue has never been elected and has just been put there by–the United States announced that that election would not take place for two years. And the Lavalas party said that under the current conditions, which are the killing of their members, their members are in hiding, the summary executions all over the country going on, that they could not participate in any kind of electoral process until that stopped. There’s a complete suppression of the radio and of any news that’s against the current puppet regime that’s there.

SMILEY: Arielle, no matter what you might think of now the exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, this administration, to the point that Ira makes now, the point that I made earlier, and it’s not my point, but the point that these human rights groups keep making is that this particular administration is nothing to write home to Mom about and yet I don’t hear you taking them on.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well, I’m not taking them on because this administration, for one–has also found a country completely destroyed. Mr. Kurzban talks about the judicial system. It didn’t exist under Mr. Aristide. So this administration is trying and this is what we saw. We have a one-man problem, Tavis, is that most–the previous administration armed a bunch of civilians in the slums. Now the major problem in Haiti now is disarmament.

Now going back to what Mr. Kurzban said, that the radio has been suppressed. I am in Haiti, Mr. Kurzban. And yesterday morning I saw Lavalas on TV, on TV, saying they have been–that they are being persecuted. I’ve never seen that. I’ve spent 18 years here, seeing different governments leave, never seen a former government person on TV telling the world that he was being persecuted. And we’ve looked into it. We are meting with the FL tomorrow. We’ve looked into the persecution of the Lavalas government. We haven’t seen it as systematic as Amnesty International says. We’ve spoken to human rights organization that has long-standing reputation for their neutrality. They don’t tell us that. So I don’t know where the human rights–Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International is getting their information. The only thing we see is the lobbying machine of Mr. Aristide still working.

SMILEY: But, Arielle, these are two internationally respected organizations that what you’re telling me is…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: I understand that, Tavis. I understand that. That’s what shocks me because we have been here and this is my country, Mr. Kurzban, and I’ve questioned people, I’ve gone everywhere and I’m trying to stay neutral here despite …(unintelligible).

Mr. KURZBAN: Well, I think that’s untrue. Why don’t you talk about who your organization is funded by, and it’s funded by Mr. Boulos who is part of…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: It doesn’t matter who it’s funded by.

Mr. KURZBAN: …in this country, in this society, and the idea that…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: What we’re trying to stay is neutral here. It doesn’t matter who it’s funded by.

Mr. KURZBAN: …this organization is neutral is laughable. I mean…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Because why don’t you tell the whole world, Ira, that you sucked the blood of the Haitian people by earning $50,000 a month?

SMILEY: Arielle and Ira, let me jump in right quick.


SMILEY: Ira, let me switch gears right quick because my time is running, and ask you to give me an update on how Mr. Aristide is doing. I understand you’ve just returned from Jamaica where you visited with him. How’s he doing and what’s he saying about what his next steps are at this point?

Mr. KURZBAN: Well, I think he’s very troubled about what’s going on in Haiti because among other things this recent report said that there were 800 bodies in the morgue since March 1st, many of them young men with their hands bound behind their backs, you know, shot in the head, execution-style. He has not been able, as you know, Tavis, to speak out on any of these issues, both out of respect for the Jamaican government, which has succumbed to enormous pressure by the United States and previously when he was in the CAR. Our hope is that wherever he ultimately does go he’ll be able to speak freely and address many of these, first of all, false allegations, but talk about what’s really going on in Haiti right now.

SMILEY: You know, Ira, what’s interesting for me is that the US government at least continues to make the claim, continues to press the notion that Mr. Aristide more than anybody else is responsible for his own political demise, indeed, Roger Noriega just made that comment the other day.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: That’s right. That’s exactly right.



SMILEY: I’m sorry. You were saying?

Mr. KURZBAN: No, I didn’t say anything. That was Arielle.

SMILEY: Yeah, I was asking you, Ira, what Mr. Aristide feels about the fact that the US government, indeed, high-ranking officials just the other day, in fact, continue to press the case that more than anybody else he is responsible for his own political demise?

Mr. KURZBAN: Yeah. What–I finally had an opportunity to talk with the president and it’s clear and he will eventually make a public statement when he has an opportunity to do so, this was a coup and it was a kidnapping and he is going to put in writing all of the details as to what happened and this really was a kidnapping from beginning to end with US troops present and those US troops actually were present long before, apparently, US government was saying they were in Haiti. They were actually at his residence and at the National Palace and had surrounded it prior to the time that he ever went on any airplane. So he’s been very clear about that and will be very clear when he gets to publicly speak that this was a kidnapping and a coup d’etat.

SMILEY: As you know, we did talk to him when he was in Africa. We do look forward to talking to him when he can talk and feels comfortable talking. Let me ask you, Arielle, since you are in Haiti right now, what is the mood there among the people and are things really looking up at this point?

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well, there’s a relief, this is what I found in amongst all the population because, Ira, you must not forget, Mr. Aristide had the Chimeres running around persecuting everybody. It wasn’t just not only their opponents, everybody, the vendors in the street. There’s a tremendous relief not because of the rebels, but because Mr. Aristide is no longer here. (Unintelligible). Yeah.

SMILEY: Ira, what…

Mr. KURZBAN: Let me just say…


Mr. KURZBAN: …I’ve received–and all these reports indicate a very different picture of what’s going on in Haiti. For example, now they have two, three hours of electricity a day, the prices of food have now doubled or trippled…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well, that was what was happening during the (unintelligible) era, too.

Mr. KURZBAN: …the currency against the US dollar has now doubled or tripled. So that the situation there actually is quite different than the way Arielle is picturing it in terms of this government doing anything. Now they can blame anybody they want, but the fact is that they have no legitimacy, they’ve been elected by no one and the only thing that I can see that they’re doing is persecuting former Lavalas members and arresting them while the United States troops…

SMILEY: Let me…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: …(Unintelligible).

Mr. KURZBAN: …will allow people like Jodel Chamblain, Jean Tatoune or convicted murderers walk around and Mr. Noriega yesterday had the temerity to say, `Yes, we should do something about it.’ Well, US troops are there. They can go and arrest Chamblain any time they want. I mean, they know who he is. They can just pick him up and arrest him. He’s been a convicted killer. And I’m sure Arielle doesn’t support the idea of having convicted killers walk around the streets of Haiti.

SMILEY: Let me do this.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Ira, the process will take place. The process will take place on both sides.

Mr. KURZBAN: Yeah, after they’ve killed all the Lavalas…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: It will take place on both sides. But what I want to tell you is that the prices were already up. There was no electricity here already. So it’s not a new phenomena. What’s happening with this new government, it needs money. It’s been looted by the previous government, Ira. This country has been looted. We have never seen such a mess.

SMILEY: Arielle, let me tell you…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: And I’m here in Haiti.

SMILEY: All right, let me suggest to you and Ira that unlike most other folk in the media, we will continue to cover this story and see how this story does, in fact, ultimately end up and we’ll do more of that on this program in the coming weeks and months as warranted.

Arielle Jean-Baptiste is research associate for the Haiti Democracy Project, based in DC; Ira Kurzban, the Miami-based legal counsel for President Aristide. Thank you both for coming on. I appreciate your time.

Mr. KURZBAN: Thank you.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Thank you for your interest in Haiti, Tavis.

SMILEY: It is my pleasure.