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From the Embassy to the Prison: Hello from Haiti
I came to Haiti on a short trip to study a country that doesn't really understand its place in the world or in the Americas. A country whose people feel too much pride and not enough responsibility for what has been done, what is being done, by their government and elites. A country that it seems very difficult to keep or understand in perspective.
Of course I am talking about Canada.
So since Paul Martin went to the United Nations last week and won the 'Responsibility to Protect', which is a declaration that the sovereignty of weak countries has officially lost all international legal protection, it's interesting to see what a case study in 'Responsibility to Protect' looks like.
Given that agenda it only seemed fitting to start my trip at the Canadian Embassy, a shiny new building with a tennis court and a pool, built by SNC- Lavalin, the Canadian engineering company famous for its bullet contract with the US military and its many other global ventures.
I was there for a press conference by Denis Coderre, the 'special councillor' to the Canadian government on Haiti. Coderre, like SNC-Lavalin, pops up in the darndest places. He did a turn as Minister of Immigration. Another special appointment dealing with the question of 'non-status Indians' in Canada.
(This merits a bit of discussion itself. The state of Canada's system for 'granting' or revoking 'status' to the indigenous peoples on whose land the state of Canada exists, is carefully built to disappear the indigenous in a couple of generations. You see, Canada's legislation provides two kinds of status. The child of a full-status Indian with a full-status Indian has status. But the child of a status Indian with a non-status Indian, while having status, does not have the same kind of status - because if this child in turn has a child with a non-status Indian, the result is a non-status child. By creating two levels of status, the Canadian state has ensured that indigenous people must marry only status people (which is almost impossible in a small population) or see their children and grandchildren eventually lose 'status'. At any rate, Coderre's career, between the immigration ministry and the 'status' question, seems to have everything to do with status.)
Coderre was announcing $2.25 million more dollars for Haiti's elections. This money was going to go to pay 25 retired Canadian police officers. These Canadian police officers will, according to Coderre, help to 'stabilize' the country in advance of the elections that are to take place on November 20.
Coderre also announced a 'concert for hope' on October 23 at the Rex Theatre. We took a sample CD. Several of his lines deserve to be noted.
When asked whether 54 Presidential candidates was bewildering, Coderre said that 'democracy is like a flower that needs constant tending'.
When asked whether registration seemed low, with 2.4 million registered out of some 4.5 million possible voters, Coderre replied that he respects the process of the Haitian people and more people are registering all the time.
When asked whether the Haitian government would actually see any of the money, Coderre suggested to the journalist that he take that question up with CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.
Coderre's speech, made to a group of about 2 dozen mainstream Haitian journalists (from radio and television) who seemed hard-pressed to find anything exciting going on there, was liberally peppered with the word 'terrorist'. The terrorists wanted to prevent elections, but we have won that battle, and in February 2006 we will have a historic event in Haiti, 'we are at the crossroads, so to speak'. Even Fanmi Lavalas were now getting involved in elections, he said, as if to prove his point.
(Not Yvon Neptune though. The constitutional Prime Minister has been in jail for over a year, accused of a 'massacre' in St. Marc on sketchy evidence, provoking UN officials to ask for his release or at least due process to be followed. So, put in jail in June 2004, Yvon Neptune was formally charged... yesterday, September 20, 2005.)
In any case, no need to worry, since whoever won the elections, Canada promised a 'long-term commitment' to accompany the Haitian people. 15 minutes of announcing, 3 questions, and Coderre was gone.
From there it was just a short trip to the police station where Annette Auguste, or So Ann, has also been imprisoned - since May 10, 2004, when US Marines kicked down her door, shot her dogs, handcuffed her 5-year old granddaughter, and took this 70-year old grandmother and singer away.
So Ann is locked in a police station, locked up with 147 other women. When we asked her, sitting in a corner in the open area between locked hallways of cells under the eyes of guards and young women prisoners, how many of these women were political prisoners, she told us - all of them. They were all rounded up from the poor neighbourhoods, and facing charges of 'associating' with malcontents - something out of the napoleonic legal code.
As for So Ann herself, she told us the bizarre twists and turns of the case against her. The first set of charges the Marines brought were that she was colluding with Muslims in a local mosque to attack the Marines. Given that this was May 10, 2004, we concluded there must have been a mixup in the American occupation filing system and they accidentally pulled out an accusation file for Iraq. When the absence of a mosque in So Ann's neighbourhood cast some doubt on this accusation, they tried to charge So Ann with attacking the anti-Aristide opposition in September 2003. She was in the hospital at the time. Next they produced an eyewitness stating that So Ann had ground a baby with a mortar and pestle in order that Aristide could drink the baby's blood. The eyewitness said So Ann called her for the ritual and even produced the phone number - for a number which So Ann did not acquire until months after the ritual supposedly took place. Now at least this last charge has a witness, even though that witness is apparently in France and has not been heard from in some time, and so that's the charge they are sticking with.
We were not So Ann's only visitors. She told us that months before, US Ambassador Foley had sent former Fanmi Lavalas senator Gilles and another Lavalas figure, Heriveaux, to seek her support (Gilles is running for President in the upcoming elections). So Ann said she would not support them.
Even more surprising, So Ann reported that paramilitary leaders Guy Philippe and Louis Jodel Chamblain had visited her, also seeking her support for their bids for election. Suspecting a problem in the translation, I asked that this be repeated. 'You can't believe what you hear? I told them, "you are the reason I am here"', So Ann said. Jodel Chamblain was one of the key authors of the Gonaives massacre under the 1991-94 coup regime, and his prosecution was one of the few laudable achievements of the Haitian justice system in the years Lavalas was in power (it was lauded by Amnesty International for example. Amnesty was also quite upset when the verdict against Chamblain was reversed by the current government months ago).
With all these people seeking her support, what was So Ann's take on elections? She wants Lavalas supporters to register. "If we register, we will be prepared, whatever happens," she said. She herself has no intention of being a candidate because she thinks Lavalas should stick to the position that it will not participate until the political prisoners are free. Even though the authorities are making voter registration particularly difficult in the popular, pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods like Bel Air and Cite Soleil, So Ann still thinks that if Lavalas unites, Lavalas can win. Even among the 2.4 million subset of current voters, even without the other 2 million who, So Ann thinks, are all Lavalas supporters, Lavalas would win.
Before we left, we asked her about the preposterous charges against her and whether they would let her out in order to provide some semblance of reasonable-ness before elections. "If they let me out, they are in trouble," she replied, "because they know that people will mobilize."
So Ann was brilliant, bright, alive, and in a miserable prison. Coderre was cold, bureaucratic, and defensive - in a multimillion-dollar compound. What's his excuse, do you think?
Justin Podur is in Haiti for a few weeks.