Driving into Cite Soley on January 8th, the day Haitians were supposed to go to the polls in a presidential election, there is no mistaking the fact that we are entering an occupied zone.
The streets are almost deserted, the atmosphere tense, and UN armored personnel carriers patrol the streets.
Cite Soley, one of Port-au-Prince's poorest neighborhoods, is home to around 500,000 people living in abject poverty. According to Jean-Joseph Joel, the Secretary General of the local branch of Fanmi Lavalas, the area's residents are virtual prisoners, and their movements restricted by armed police at checkpoints. Vilified as bandits or chimeres by the elite-run press, he says they face persecution if they do manage to escape the neighborhood. There is no work and signs of malnutrition are obvious in the children.
Since the February 2004 coup d'etat that ousted democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Cite Soley has been one of the battlefields where a war against Haiti's poor majority is being waged. Muliple killings of civilians have been committed by UN forces carrying out the will of the country's elite and of the international community. Dieunord Edme, a Cite Soley resident, shows us the place in the market where his wife, Annette Moleron, was gunned down by MINUSTAH (Mission Nations Unies Stabilization en Haiti) soldiers on January 7th during an operation that claimed the lives of four women in a marketplace. He shows us bullet holes in the metal roof over the market's stalls.
Victims of the deadly July 6th 2005 UN massacre, an event documented by the Haiti Information Project, which the UN denies ever happened, show us their scars. One woman lifts her shirt to show us where the MINUSTAH bullet entered her then pregnant belly, and the mark of the cesarean section performed to remove the baby that was killed. As we drive out of the neighborhood we pass a horribly bloated corpse by the side of the road. A MINUSTAH tank is parked nearby, keeping watch. Local residents say the man, who worked as a porter, was killed five days previously but every time someone went to try to remove the body, MINUSTAH started firing. It is apparent that they want to keep his body as a warning to others.
This ugly violence that has swept Cite Soley in the last week, and for many months prior, does not come out of thin air. Someone above the UN is calling the shots, and they wield lethal power. Reginald Boulos, the president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and sweatshop magnate Andy Apaid – both members of the Canadian and US-backed Group 184 – called for a one-day general business strike Monday. The stated goal of this strike was to put pressure on MINUSTAH to clamp down harder on crime! and kidnappings. As an announcement heard on Radio Metropole stated in a threatening tone, "Don't leave your houses. Let the police and the military do their work. Anyone who leaves their house takes their life into their own hands."
However, more than anything, this strike has served to highlight the extreme class divide in Haiti, one that before the elections is becoming increasingly more deadly. Indeed, many of the more upscale businesses in the country did observe the strike. Driving through Port-au-Prince, we observed that the doors of major businesses such as Texaco, Shell, Scotia Bank, and upscale grocery stores remained shut. However, for the majority of Haiti's population who slave away to bring home a per-capita income of $200 per year, the day continued as if normal. Workers who toil in the informal economy – street vendors, runners, tap-tap (taxi) operators – lined the streets, unable to skip a day's work just because the island's wealthiest said so.
Our experience in Cite Soley today showed us the other side of this business strike, and what the MINUSTAH clamp down looked like to Port-au-Prince's poor. Jean-Joseph Joel gives us his analysis of the situation. Because of its large population and tendency to vote unanimously, Cite Soley has the power to sway an election. Joel explains that MINUSTAH is under intense pressure from the business elite to make it possible for their presidential favourite, Charles Henri Baker, to have a winning chance in the elections. At the moment, the only candidate able to walk down the streets of Cite Soley is Rene Preval, the candidate supported by the mass base of Lavalas. Preval's posters are the only ones to be seen anywhere in Cite Soley – territory where the elite dare not
For General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar, the Brazilian head of the United Nations military mission in Haiti, the pressure may have been too much. He was found dead in his hotel room on January 7th. He apparently committed suicide after a tense meeting with Reginald Boulos. Joel says that Cite Soley residents are nervous, as the subject of that conversation was pressure on MINUSTAH to crack down harder on Cite Soley before the elections. The fact that Bacellar was replaced by Gen. Eduardo Aldunate Herman, a Chilean Pinochet-era figure and alleged human rights abuser, does nothing to help Cite Soley residents rest easier.
Jean-Joseph Joel's hope is that the international community will change its position on Haiti and side with the majority of Haitians rather than supporting the elite and the UN mission here. However, it doesn't look like change is in the air. Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a man many Haitians know by name, has recently announced that Canadian forces will remain in Haiti, despite escalating calls for their removal.
Sources told us that two more people were killed in the marketplace by MINUSTAH forces shortly after we left it on Monday. Residents speculated that these killings were retributions for talking to the media, as we had been out for the whole morning conducting interviews with locals. The people of Cite Soley risked their lives so their story could reach the public in countries like Canada and the US, whose governments continue to support MINUSTAH's actions. It remains to be seen what effect their sacrifice will have.
From Class war takes on a new meaning in Cite Soley by Leslie Bagg and Aaron Lakoff, http://auto_sol.tao.ca
Port-au-Prince, January 10/06
Leslie Bagg and Aaron Lakoff are two independent journalists and activists from Montreal. They will be in Haiti for the month of January, filing reports focused on the role of Canada in the country. They can be reached at [email protected]