Tension mounts in Haiti amid allegations of government repression
The news that Haitian President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier has asked several countries for asylum has again sent rumors of his imminent departure racing through Port-au-Prince. But the capital appears normal. After several days of quiet, traffic jams are tying up the streets as many storekeepers, under government pressure, reopen their shops. However, roughly half of the larger establishments and a substantial number of factories remain closed.
Under a facade of normality, tension continues to mount. Well-placed church sources say that government repression is increasing in the poor residential areas of the capital. Several hundred arrests have been carried out since last Friday, especially in the lower-class neighborhoods known as cities. Large-scale arrests were carried out in the provincial cities of Les Cayes, Petit-Goaves, Logane, and Gonaives, these sources say.
Repression is also touching the Roman Catholic Church. This past weekend one priest, Father Freud Jean, was badly beaten in the village of Belladere, not far from Port-au-Prince. The Tontons Macoutes, the government's militiamen, arrived at the home of Father Jean, arrested him, accused him of influencing young people against the government, beat him, and then released him, according to church sources. In addition, at least three nuns have been beaten in various provincial cities by the Tontons Macoutes for similiar reasons.
Increasingly, a direct confrontation between the Macoutes and the church -- two of the most powerful institutions in Haitian society -- seems to be developing. The church is the main institution expressing widespread popular discontent with the government, and the Macoutes are the group which have the most to lose from President Duvalier's anticipated departure.
On Wednesday evening, six Haitian nuns and one foreign lay person, a woman, were detained on the road from Leogane to the capital. They were taken to the Macoutes headquarters in Port-au-Prince where they were insulted and threatened with death, they said. However, they added that because of the presence of a foreigner in their midst, they were quickly released.
One of the sisters arrested said the Macoutes threatened violence against them if they returned to L'eogane.
Youth participating in church-led prayer groups are the special target of the Macoutes, say church sources. The Macoutes see these groups, especially those in the poorer suburbs of the capital, as focal points of dissent.
As one young man attending a prayer group was told by one of the Macoutes who headed a neighborhood political committee, ``These priests are a bunch of communists, they're the ones who have stuffed your heads with nonsense -- we will kill all of you.'' The Macoutes have these political committees in most villages and neighborhoods throughout the country.
Popular resentment has focused on the Macoutes in the provinces. The populists reportedly chased them out of the provincial towns of Gona"ives, Los Palis, Les Cayes at the end of last week. In Cap-Haitien, they were taken hostage. The Macoutes returned to Les Cayes and many arrests of civilians has ensued.
``In a society where everyone keeps a mask on, many people in the provinces have unveiled themselves and openly expressed their hatred of the government,'' says a foreign observer who has lived in Haiti many years. ``Not only in the towns, where there have been riots, but also in other places, large numbers of people have openly showed their feelings. These people are now committed to overthrowing the regime, because if the Macoutes return and consolidate themselves they will be massacred.''
Churchmen here say that people throughout Haiti are increasingly willing to act against Duvalier because they believe that if he stays, repression will be severe.
Meanwhile, a clearer picture emerges of last week's events. Political analysts here say that the United States ambassador saw Duvalier last Thursday evening. The ambassador left with the understanding that Duvalier would leave by the end of the night. But Duvalier did not leave, and the US government's report of his departure proved false.
According to these analysts, a massive demonstration in which some 400,000 to 500,000 people would march from the hillside slums into the downtown area was planned.
The mob was supposed to take over the National Palace. Extremely well-informed sources here state that the Army had agreed with the demonstration organizers that it would not shoot at the demonstrators, which would leave only the Macoutes, who the Army believed could be overpowered by the demonstrators. But the false news of Duvalier's overthrow as well as the ensuing confusion which resulted from his presence in the capital kept most people at home.