This is an update on an important current issue. Although there is no immediate policy aspect at this time, it is an issue that merits our attention and concern.
Haiti–no stranger to crisis–is today going through one of its worst crises in many years. There is, first of all, an almost permanent humanitarian crisis, with the vast majority of Haiti’s eight million people living barely at subsistence level. Malnutrition, disease, and illiteracy abound and unemployment hovers around 80%. With the political instability now wracking the country, the humanitarian crisis can only worsen. In recent days, opposition groups seized control of several cities, including Gonaives, the fourth largest in the country.
- A brief chronology: In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president with a massive 67% of the vote. In September 1991, he was overthrown in a military coup. For the next three years, a near total economic embargo devastated an already fragile economy. In March 1994, President Clinton secured Aristide’s return through a US-led multinational military force. After serving out the last year of his term–the president is prohibited from running for two consecutive terms–his close collaborator and Lavalas party member held the office until Aristide could run again. He was again elected in December 2000, following May 2000 legislative elections that opposition groups and foreign observers found flawed. From that time on, the Haitian political process has essentially stalled or collapsed.
- Contending forces: Over these years, an opposition movement has coalesced around the Convergence Démocratique and the Group of 184, supposedly representing that number of organized entities. Among those supporting Aristide are the 4000 member police force and so-called “popular organizations,” many of them seen as little more than violent gangs. It is these gangs that have targeted students and others demonstrating against Aristide. Both the demonstrations and the violence against them have increased dramatically in recent weeks. In one of the worst attacks, last December 5th, gangs stormed the halls of the state university, beating many of the students and the rector, Pierre-Marie Paquiot, whose legs were broken by metal bars.
- The Church: Last November 21st, the Haitian Episcopal Conference issued a message to the Haitian people, looking toward January’s celebration of Haiti’s independence 200 years ago. The text recounted the previous efforts of the bishops to call all parties to compromise, in order to avoid a national catastrophe, efforts which have been largely ignored. The bishops made several concrete suggestions which they urged upon both the government and the opposition. The December 5th attacks, coming so soon after their public proposal, set everything back. Individual bishops and groups of priests in different dioceses began to call for Aristide to step down and on January 18th, the Episcopal Conference issued a joint statement signed by all the bishops essentially withdrawing their November 21 proposal to help mediate in the crisis. The “context has changed,” they wrote, because of the “escalation of the violence.”
- Catholic Relief Services: For a half century CRS has worked in Haiti in programs of health and nutrition, sanitation, social assistance and more, as well as responding to natural disasters. At the present, CRS is responding to the bishops’ request that they help the Church develop a kind of national peace institute that could promote and educate for the needed culture of peace in that society. At this moment, Fr. Bill Headley has just presented to the bishops the results of his assessment on how best to establish a church peace building program. Because of the present crisis, CRS has begun partial evacuation of its international staff to neighboring Dominican Republic and has developed an emergency response contingency plan to deal with the possible internal displaced or refugee situations should the fighting and social unrest increase in the coming days.
- U.S. Government: If and when the present deadlock can be resolved and political order restored, the Congress has a unique opportunity to redress the near decade of neglect of Haiti and pass the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity (HERO) Act, initiated last year by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Representative Clay Shaw (D-FL).
The Conference has been deeply engaged with the Church in Haiti for more than two decades. We will be following closely the HERO Bill, once its prospects for passage become viable.
Numerous USCCB and CEH statements can be found at: (www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/haiti.shtml).
For further information: Tom Quigley 202-541-3184 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax); email@example.com, or Kathy Brown, Catholic Relief Services, (410) 951-7232, firstname.lastname@example.org.