US Backed Coup of 1991 – Haiti

These excerpts are from Dr. Paul Farmer’s book Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, written in 2004. I am putting up a series of posts from this book, because Dr. Paul Farmer is well respected in the mainstream as well as in the Christian community. He has worked in rural Haiti for more than 20 years. Being a doctor, he is also closely involved with various aid agencies and speaks of the structural violence within our culture that Haitians have been the brunt of since they kicked Napoleon’s ass in 1803 and became the first nation of free slaves that was, unfortunately for them, a little too close to the shores of our ‘great’ nation (USA).

The fact is, that the USA broke international law for years in regard to Haitian refugees, seizing and repatriating them, along with many other serious criminal acts. It is clear that it is not only a couple US Administrations (i.e. George Bush) that have done this on their own, but have done it with the support of a majority of US citizens. Granted certain groups (especially Christians) are easily manipulated by racist and greedy politicians, nevertheless the actions of the USA as a whole towards Haitians has been far from democratic, and in fact is seriously criminal. Senegal has offered free land and repatriation to Haitians and we are all throwing our money at aid organizations to help the victims of the earthquake, but perhaps we should be opening up our homes to these people as we did for the survivors of Katrina. We all need to take responsibility for the despicable treatment that we have condoned for decades against the people of Haiti.

The following is taken from Chapter 2.
Pestilance and Restraint: Guantanamo, AIDS and the Logic of Quarantine.

Haiti, it is well known, is a country long racked by political turmoil. But the coup d’etat of September 1991 was unique in many respects. Most significantly, it represented the overthrow of Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose popular support was so strong that he had won 67% of the vote while running against almost a dozen candidates. By any criteria, Aristide was more popular in his country than any other sitting president in the hemisphere. Thus when he was overthrown, a great deal of military force was required to silence Haitians’ angry opposition to the coup. More so than any of the scores of convulsions preceding it, the push against Aristide’s government generated refugees, many of them young people who had been active in the pro-democracy movement. -p51-52

The US Immigration and naturalization Service (INS) has long argued that Haitians are “economic refugees,” fleeing poverty. For ten years, including the last four of the Duvalier dictatorship and six years of military juntas, the US, in defiance of international law, forcibly returned Haitian refugees to their country.This was the result of an arrangement, brokered in 1981, by which the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier permitted US authorities to board Haitian vessels and to return to Haiti any passengers determined to have violated the laws of Haiti. The US granted asylum to exactly eight of 24,559 Haitian refugees applying for political asylum during that period.

In the two weeks after the coup of 1991, with the attention of the world press fixed on Haiti, the US suspended the practice of seizing and repatriating Haitians. A quarter of a million Haitians were displaced in the first three months after the coup, by conservative estimates.

On November 18, 1991, with an estimated fifteen hundred Haitians already dead and military repression churning full throttle, the administration of US President George Bush announced his “regrets that the US government has decided to proceed unilaterally and return a number of asylum-seekers to Haiti.” Human rights organizations also denounced the decision, and several sued the Bush administration when the first groups of refugees were returned to Haiti. The case eventually ended up before the US Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the US government. -p55

Although little public outcry about the matter arose, certain human rights advocates were able to force a compromise: the refugees would be brought to the naval base at Guantanamo rather than being returned immediately to Haiti. In the eight months following the coup, the US Coast Guard intercepted thirty-four thousand Haitians on the high seas; the majority of these refugees were transported to Guantanamo.

Shortly after the arrival of the first refugees, rumors of mistreatment, including beatings and arbitrary detention, began to filter through the Haitian advocacy organizations based in the US.

Since Guantanamo is not technically on US soil, the Bush administration lawyers developed a torturous rationale….Guantanamo thus became a place where non-US nationals could be stowed away in a sort of lawless limbo, out of reach of US of international law.

On May 24, 1992, President Bush issued Executive Order 12,807 from his summer home in Kennebunkport. Referring to the Haitian boats, he ordered the Coast Guard “to return the vessel and its passengers to the country from which it came.” -p58

The bottom line: all Haitians leaving Haiti by sea would be intercepted and returned to Haiti without being processed by the INS. The Voice of America affiliates in Haiti broadcast this policy, in Creole, by the summer of 1992, Haitians under the gun understood that they would find no safe haven outside the country. Haiti more and more resembled a burning building from which there was no exit. The Bush administration’s actions–denying the refugees legal counsel or a hearing, preventing press coverage of the conditions of the detainees–reinforced widely held beliefs that Haitians were being singled out for racists and exclusionary treatment. Furthermore, Haitians were well aware that Cubans who made it to the US were automatically declared political refugees–regardless of whether they had any evidence of persecution.

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