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29613: Nat: News International Affairs Interview with Kernizan (fwd)

From: Nat D <liberalproject@hotmail.com>

Audrey Sasson (as2584)
U8123: Writing for International Affairs
February 15, 2006

United States Government Accused of Undermining Democracy in Haiti

“In order to know yourself, you have to know your history.” What sounds like an oft-cited platitude seems to carry unusual weight when coming from a seasoned Haitian cab driver who has watched his country repeatedly spiral into chaos in the fifty years of his humble existence.

Jean Kernizan has lived in the United States for three decades, but he returns to Haiti on a regular basis, “for the struggle.” Every question about Haiti’s political future prompts a response spanning two hundred years of history. “You know, Haiti is the first black independent country of the world,” he says with reasoned pride. “But the people who fought in order for Haiti to be free never really benefited from the result of the struggle. And every time there is a president who thinks about the people, there are other powers that always strip that away from the people.”

Kernizan is not speaking metaphorically. And he is not alone in his analysis. On Thursday, February 2nd, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, along with TransAfrica Forum, the Haitian-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, and a team of experts from Yale Law School, filed a petition at the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) making similar claims.

More precisely, their grievance on behalf of five Haitian citizens is that the 2004 overthrow of democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide, and the installation of an unconstitutional regime, deprived the Haitian plaintiffs of their right to democracy. The United States is one of three governments named as perpetrators in this violation.

The other perpetrators named in the petition are the government of the Dominican Republic as well as the Interim Government of Haiti, the former for allowing Haitian opposition groups to use the Dominican Republic as a base for their military operations, and the latter for the illegitimacy of its position as an illegal government and for its repressive actions against the Haitian people.

While the plaintiffs also consider that both France and Canada played significant roles in the 2004 overthrow, they did not include such allegations in their petition. Brian Concannon Jr, a human rights lawyer and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, regrets that there were constraints based on time and legal procedure which prevented them from doing so. He hopes to file separate claims in the near future.

As it stands, the petition places most of its emphasis on the actions of the US government. It alleges that the United States government destabilized Haiti’s democratic government not only by physically kidnapping President Aristide and forcing him out of the country, but also by leading a development-assistance embargo against Haiti’s elected government, while financially and militarily supporting local opposition groups engaged in a systematic effort to undermine the elected government.

For Kernizan, “Those aren’t allegations. Those are facts.” Official American sources, however, insist that Aristide voluntarily resigned. Moreover, the official justification for halting aid to Haiti in 2001 and subsequent years was to pressure Aristide to address allegations of irregularities in the 2000 elections, which brought him to power. Many commentators, including Paul Farmer, Naomi Klein, and Jeffrey Sachs, have argued that the irregularities were minor and would not have affected the ultimate results. The argument about US support for opposition groups seems to follow the logic of a controversial article published in the New York Times on January 29th, entitled “Mixed US Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Towards Chaos.” The article concluded that while the official US position was to cooperate with President Aristide when he was in power, “a democracy-building group close to the White House, and financed by American taxpayers, undercut the official United States policy and the ambassador assigned to carry it out.” According to Jude Joseph, the director of Radyo Pa Nou, a Haitian community radio station in Flatbush, the New York Times article which caused such a stir “was not news to Haitians.” In his view, “the masses want democracy in Haiti – they’re hungry.” He argues that despite this yearning – demonstrated most recently with the impressive voter turnout in the February 7th elections – the United States has historically intervened whenever the poor majority has chosen a leader that attempts to serve the peoples’ interests. He predicts the same will happen with the current elections. The plaintiffs deliberately filed the petition on the eve of the Haitian elections so as to bring attention to the historical impediments to democracy in Haiti and to thereby guard against similar impediments in the future. In an interview conducted immediately after the initial exit polls suggested that leading presidential candidate, Rene Préval, was likely to win over 50 percent of the vote, Concannon explained what was at stake. “We just had what looks like a successful election in Haiti – but that’s going to be an empty exercise if the United States decides they will overthrow the government if they don’t like its policies.”

Kernizan shares Concannon’s skepticism. “What will happen to Préval if he starts doing the work that Arisitde was doing - meaning empowering the people? You think the US is going to like that?”

There is some debate about whether or not Aristide was as interested in empowering the masses as his supporters sometimes claim.But Concannon insists that, “It’s important to refocus the discussion away from individuals, including Aristide, to basic principles of human rights and democracy.” Concannon is interested in the legitimacy of Aristide’s democratic mandate rather than his political accomplishments – or lack thereof. “To us, what mattered is what the voters thought. American policy makers need to accept the same thing.”

Concretely, Concannon says the petitioners are hoping this claim can influence the future as much as it sheds light on the past. He hopes to gain a judgment from the IACHR “declaring the actions of the United States and the Dominican Republic governments to be illegal according to international law, and ordering those governments to respect Haiti’s democratic rights.”

While Kernizan has leadership positions in a number of Haitian community organizations, he won’t describe himself as a democracy activist. “The US is going all over the world undermining elected governments, financing opposition, kidnapping presidents – and they call that democracy,” he says in calm exasperation. Instead, “I like to think that I avail myself to be the voice of people who otherwise would not have a voice. And if I can transmit to the world the complaints, the cries, of a small group of people, then my time is not wasted.” And what are the people of Haiti crying about, according to Kernizan? “Let them be,” he says, with a deep sigh. “Just that.”

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