Originally: Who Will Pay The Price, Jamaica Observer?

Who Will Pay The Price, Jamaica Observer?

In a demeaning editorial published on May 9, 2004, the Jamaica Observer committed a public relations faux-pas that is quite uncharacteristic of this well-respected publication. I say “uncharacteristic” because the author (or authors?) seem to have allowed their emotions and biases to get the best of them at a time when cool heads should prevail.
On the face of it, the indignation of the Jamaica Observer seems correct. Here was Mr. Latortue (please note the correct spelling of his name!) appealing to CARICOM for help when he had a couple of months earlier frozen relations from them. What the Jamaica Observer failed to note however is that Mr. Latortue’s angry reaction at the time stemmed from a quite understandable feeling of betrayal from the Jamaican government. When CARICOM closed ranks behind PM Patterson, they had unwittingly thrust themselves into the controversy. Subsequent open expressions of support by PM Patrick Manning of Trinidad and PM Ralph “Aristide is a friend” Gonsalves of Saint-Vincent have made the situation worse. I will add that to this day, a large number of Haitians remain skeptical of the explanation for the “unfriendly” act of Prime Minister Patterson and his government, with the tacit support of other CARICOM leaders. Just as CARICOM believes that Mr. Latortue has some explaining to do, we believe that the whole CARICOM political class owes the Haitian people an explanation about their complete silence regarding the undemocratic acts of Mr. Aristide and their sudden, vocal support for this tyrant when he was ousted.
However, beyond the actual diplomatic controversy, there are issues of style and substance in the editorial that are quite troubling. I learned in conflict resolution classes that, in times of open conflict, it is always preferable to minimize differences and eschew inflammatory statements. From the opening paragraph of the editorial, the Jamaica Observer clearly decided that diplomacy was not on its mind. Instead, its editorialist(s) showed his/her (their) antagonism against Prime Minister Latortue in using uncharacteristically harsh descriptions of the Haitian Prime Minister (“smart Aleck, three-card trickster” comes to mind.) One must wonder what purpose the Observer would have in openly disparaging the Prime Minister with schoolyard – I am tempted to say childish – language that has no place in a respectable newspaper article, let alone an editorial. The effect has been in many Haitian circles a resolve to protect the country’s current leader – no matter his shortcomings – because it is no longer about Mr. Latortue but about national pride.
Going beyond the style issue, the editorial rests on a few assumptions that need to be revisited because they are quite problematic. First, the Jamaica Observer assumes that CARICOM’s original plan – a cohabitation of Lavalas and the Opposition until the general elections in 2005 – would have been possible. At the much ballyhooed Kingston summit, President Aristide made some promises that might have assuaged the Opposition but which he never kept. Of course, he did not do so because he had no intention of sharing power with anyone and managed to sabotage the hard work put in by CARICOM officials from the time he came back to Haiti from Jamaica. He never freed the “political” prisoners (university students, trade unionists, protestant pastors, etc.) who had been arrested on trumped-up charges; he never stopped the harassment of pacific marchers who were protesting the increasing political intolerance in the country; he continued to unleash the Haitian National Police and his armed gangs against civilians of every walk of life. Yet, CARICOM remained silent and never called him to task for reneging on his words. Were the CARICOM officials stationed in Pétion-Ville (at the Bahamian Embassy on Place Boyer) oblivious to these undemocratic acts? What can explain that they never followed up on the goings-on in the country? Or did CARICOM decide for political reasons to pretend that nothing was happening? Did the Jamaica Observer bother to dispatch a reporter to figure out why Aristide never followed through on the promises?
The Jamaica Observer states in its editorial: “the Haitian opposition, which apparently did not see its, and Haiti’s, interest in the broad, transformational context perceived by Caricom, remained intransigent.” Clearly, the Observer never bothered to interview the opposition to find out the root causes of this intransigence. If they had, they would have learned about the incredible tactics of Aristide’s supporters to stifle dissent and democratic expressions of opposition, from the beatings administered to marchers under the complacent eye of the police in 2002 (a humiliating event organized by Annette Auguste aka Sò Ann that took place on Place d’Italie downtown) to the unsavory practice of showering the marchers with human waste of all kinds (at just about every march) to the cancellation by police of duly planned marches to the increasingly violent behavior of the police and armed gangs against marchers. This culminated in the disgraceful attack against the Dean of the Haitian State University, Dr. Pierre-Marie Paquiot, by Aristide supporters on December 5, 2003. He was left with two broken legs and is now wheelchair-bound, perhaps forever. I don’t remember CARICOM saying anything about that.
So, while I don’t agree with every decision that the Opposition took, we all know the old English expression “once bitten, twice shy.” I cannot say that I would have done differently from the Opposition in that case.
Second, there is a sense in the CARICOM world that there was nothing wrong with sheltering Mr. Aristide so close to Haitian shores at a time when the situation in Haiti was quite fluid, to say the very least. The Aristide gangs were still (and are still) armed and made sure to silence a number of critics, particularly in the slum of Cité Soley. But of course, the humanitarian gesture by PM Patterson was a noble one that would not in any way inflame the passions of unruly gangs who had just lost their champion and were on the verge of losing the priviledges that they had been accustomed to: monthly payents from the Haitian Treasury, the ability to traffic in drugs and weapons with total impunity, the right to kidnap and ransom civilians with no fear of the security forces. Did CARICOM expect that Haitians would applaud the return in the region of Aristide?

As un-diplomatic as Mr. Latortue’s decision may have been, we believe that he had no choice but to signal to CARICOM (and to everyone else for that matter) that Haiti could no longer be viewed as the diplomatic doormat that Aristide and his government had turned it out to be. The act posed by PM Patterson carried some potentially ominous consequences. The mere fact that the Jamaica Observer could write such a vitriolic editorial against a government leader, contested or not, whose country is considered to be a member of CARICOM (well, depending on the mood of the other members of the community,) shows that we are still perceived by the rest of the Caribbean as those “stupid Haitians” who need to be taught a lesson or two.
That the Jamaica Observer would engage in a foreign policy initiative of its own and dictate to the Haitian government under what unilateral terms it can extricate itself out of its predicament is symptomatic of the low esteem in which we are held. There is no inkling of negotiation, simply a set of demands that must be met or else. As if we are just going to cave in to all these requests and allow a foreign newspaper to interfere in our internal affairs. I certainly hope that the CARICOM ministers of foreign affairs will not adopt the arrogant and paternalistic attitude of the Jamaica Observer’s “diplomatic experts.” The results would be disastrous for the integrity of CARICOM.
I have already pointed out that there is great ambivalence in Haiti about our membership in a community that seems not to care a wit about the Haitian common person and is only interested in using us as a political football to support one former Haitian president and to thumb its nose for reasons only it knows at the United States. By having failed to reach out to other Haitian constituencies that have relations with CARICOM countries, namely the private sector, and which could play an intermediary role in defusing the crisis, CARICOM is basically saying to Haiti that only the “wise men” of the Conference will decide on our fate within CARICOM. To not try to seek out those Haitians that have influence on political affairs (after all, Mr. Latortue is not the only influential person in Haiti), CARICOM risks alienating the rest of the Haitian “establishment” that might have pleaded for a solution. This would undermine any attempt to reintegrate Haiti in the organization and would basically make our membership meaningless. Could it be that the CARICOM diplomats in post in Haiti never bothered to forge alliances within the different sectors of Haitian society because they thought that Lavalas was the be-all-and-end-all of all things Haitian? If Haitians don’t go through the efforts of adjusting to the economic community and the court of justice, what’s the point of belonging to the organization? And if Haitians reject en masse the notion of belonging to CARICOM, then what?
Third, the Jamaica Observer resurrects this notion, firmly espoused by US Congresswoman Maxine Waters and her fellow Aristide backers, that there is an ongoing persecution campaign going on against Lavalas. So far, a few members of Aristide’s government (not necessarily synonymous with Lavalas) have been arrested on charges ranging from embezzlement of public funds to political persecution to murder. To pretend that these arrests is tantamount to persecution is ridiculous at best, dishonest at worst. Many of us espoused the original creed of Lavalas in 1990 because we believed that it was the party that would bring Haiti into the modern political age. We believed in “justice, transparency, participation.”
As the 14 years of Lavalas power have revealed to us, we actually went backward, not forward on all three counts. The embryonic independent judiciary that existed in 1990 had become a tool in the hands of a despotic Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2003, going so far as to chase into exile any judge that would try to get close to the truth of high profile political murders, such as that of journalist Jean Dominique. Does the name Claudy Gassant ring a bell to the Jamaica Observer? I didn’t think so.
As for transparency, this word simply did not exist in Aristide’s vocabulary. The chronic abuse of our national budget and the impossibility of obtaining any information on the use of taxpayers funds had become so routine that any leak of such information became a national event. The most egregious example of that was the leak to the press of the costs of the 2004 celebrations, which prompted then-Prime Minister Yvon Neptune to chastise the Minister of Finance Faubert Gustave for allowing such “confidential” information to be released. How could the cost of the celebration of our bicentennial be considered a national secret? In a country where we don’t know how our taxes are being spent, doesn’t it stand to reason that the government should at least give us some information? Or were the powers-that-be so concerned about the theft and mismanagement of funds that ocurred that they didn’t want the information to become public?

The “participation” that Aristide had promised in 1990 never materialized. Ironically, the December 16, 1990 elections were probably the best expression of a democratic process in Haiti. It was all downhill from there as the 1995, 1997 and the 2000 elections demonstrated.
The most disturbing part of the Observer’s false assumption is that Lavalas in fact has been given every chance to join the political process underway and has turned down all such offers on the excuse that they don’t feel secure going into the elections. What an ironic turn of events, especially since Lavalas maintained a climate of political insecurity from 2002 onward and that their accusations are not warranted. Ms. Waters makes the same claim that Lavalas is being unfairly treated and kept out of the political process. She further claims that over a thousand Lavalas supporters have been killed since Mr. Latortue. There are two issues with that: 1) who are they? where are the bodies? how could such a carnage be kept so secret in a country where there are no secrets? 2) why is it that on Monday, two well-respected Haitian human rights organizations – CARLI and NCHR – totally refuted the allegations made by Ms. Waters? And how come the rebuttal of these charges has not been carried by any foreign news organizations, the Observer included? Is it that we Haitians are not credible in the information we provide? Or is such a rebuttal a “pavé dans la marre”, an inconvenient fact which destroys the editorial line that the Observer has espoused?

I believe that the Jamaica Observer, to be considered credible, must disclose the sources of its information and tell us exactly who is making the claim that Lavalas is not being allowed to be part of the process. Who is reporting from Haiti on behalf of the Observer?  What are the sources? Are they credible?
Last but not least, CARICOM suffers from a credibility deficit in Haiti which is serious enough to have stalled its efforts to contribute to the resolution of the situation. Yesterday’s article by Mindell Small in the Nassau Guardian entitled “No decisons on troops yet in Haiti” suggests that CARICOM is stuck on how to make up from its own mistakes in the handling of the situation. To shift the blame to the developed countries’ portrayal of CARICOM as the reason for potential hostilities against CARICOM troops in Haiti and delaying a decision on committing troops to Haiti, as Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell suggests, is not only cowardly, it is not believable. I live in Haiti and I have not read or heard any interview, commentary or advertising in newspapers or on the radio by the US, France, Canada, Brazil or Chile (all countries that have troops in Haiti at present) suggesting that CARICOM was “a big stumbling block to the stabilisation process of Haiti.” I believe that CARICOM (or at least the Bahamas) is hiding behind this excuse to shield its own inability to overcome its incapacity to manage the situation correctly. Of course, by the time the Heads of Government meeet again in July, the UN force will be fully constituted and there will be no need for CARICOM to even consider the issue. If the troops that CARICOM planned to send are not trained in disarmament, then they might as well stay home as we have learned before that unless a serious disarmament effort is undertaken in Haiti, the usefulness of foreign troops is nil. Jamaica seems to suffer from a serious problem of weapon proliferation and an unacceptably high murder rate in a country that is democratic and at peace, as multiple articles in the Observer and the Jamaica Gleaner since the beginning of the year suggest, so I am sure the Jamaican government understands well the issue of disarmament.
Journalistic integrity demand that a newspaper avails itself of all the facts, not just the ones that fit with its philosophy, when it writes editorials as punchy and controversial as the Observer’s May 9 open attack against Mr. Latortue. This editorial shows to me that, either the editorial writers have a serious problem of information about Haitian political history, or that they already have decided which camp in Haiti they want to support. Either way, this editorial fails the basic test of enlightening the Observer readers on the true conditions on the ground in Haiti.
As I have pointed out before, through two centuries of great changes in the world, Haiti has managed to eke out a living. If such great powers as France, the United States and Spain were not able to grind us into the ground – and Heaven knows they tried – I am sure that we will be able to inspire ourselves from our history to get ourselves out of this mess, with or without CARICOM’s help. And if the Conference were to espouse the unilateral hard line advocated by the Observer – without recognizing that it also made mistakes in its handling of the crisis – I am not so sure that Mr. Latortue will be the only one to pay the price. I doubt that the Observer, ten years hence, will want to discuss the bill that CARICOM as a whole might have to pay.

Roger Milceus

PS: I have already excoriated Mr. Latortue in print for his position on “freedom fighters” so no need to bring that up again. Let’s now focus on what CARICOM needs to do to get itself out of its impasse.


Link to “Jamaica Observer” Sunday May 9, 2004 Editorial: