On February 2nd, 2010, www.Politico.com ran an article by Steven Van Zandt regarding the future of Haiti. Steven has made the important and necessary argument that Haiti must not return to a state where many of its people routinely suffer starvation, malnutrition, the lack of clean water and electricity, and have little opportunity for quality education or health care. Steven advocates a steady hand for the distant future by organizing a group of wealthy and powerful people to rethink and remake Haiti. In other words, rebuilding Haiti will be a long-distance jog, not a quick fix. I could not agree more, but for different reasons. Much of my rationale is based on my own experiences in Haiti, aiding various development projects, dating back to 1970.
I was in Haiti in 1998 to review the operations of a center that treated the victims of torture. During that process, our team stayed at the Montana Hotel where many died later in this most recent earth quake. We visited the prisons. In one facility, housing adult male inmates, there were many inmates claiming that that their cases had not been reviewed by any discernible judicial standard. Many prisoners already had served their time, but they had no way to obtain their release because the courts would not hear their cases. The courts often did not hear cases for weeks or months.
We visited two prisons for minors. Both were unconstitutional by the standards of the Haitian Constitution, as far as I could tell. The facilities were astonishingly inadequate and basic resources, like bedding and medicine, were in very short supply. The medicine cabinet contained two aspirins for 162 young males. The juvenile girls had organized their prison room into areas that resembled their economic system, with the richest girls bunking at the door exiting the facility and the poorest girls bunking at the door entering the facility.
This private look into the prison system says it all. I met with many Haitian lawyers who were prepared to right the system and do what was needed to fix it, but the situation was beyond their grasp. Haiti was a country were one could be killed for twenty dollars. More than half the nation is under the age of 18. The government did not seem to work for any one. Voodoo practices and beliefs often kept accountability out of the legal system.
In contrast, the center for victims of torture was extremely well run and gave much solace to those that came to it. I recommended it to continue at its work. Despite this recommendation, the United States Government, for whom the report was written, made the decision to close the center. 60 Minutes followed with a searing report of the expatriate part of the judicial system in Haiti.
Haitians saw Aristide, their democratically elected leader, removed by an American Secretary of State and exiled to the Central African Empire (CAE). Aristide moved from CAE to Zimbabwe where he now lives, asking to come home. To no avail.
Our government's interaction has been a mix of good and bad. While serving as the director of Amnesty International USA, I arranged to rent a boat to go into the Windward Passage and tried to pick up lost Haitian refugees who were out at sea. I could not find any at that time. But I wanted to return with them and get arrested because the USA was preventing them from fleeing their oppressive circumstances. To my mind, the United States government had an obligation to take the refugees in and at least hear their cases. In my view, President Clinton was wrong to turn Haitian refugees away and I wanted to confront the administration.
Haiti's past is clearly not worth repeating. Those of us who care are worried that, once the media interest wanes, the world will leave and Haiti will fall back into its old patterns of citizen abuse. Steven Van Zandt is right; a new paradigm needs to be put into place. Haitians deserve nothing less. I hope that Steven's article will be read by every one who has ever heard his music and seen him entertain. He helped snap the bond apartheid had on South Africa. He is at it again in advocating Haiti's cause and I pray that the result will be the same.....a new Haiti.