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Panel discusses Haitian crisis

Meryl Guyer | Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Met by an audience of Notre Dame faculty, staff and students, resident Haiti experts gathered in Debartolo Hall Tuesday to highlight elements of the country’s current political and social plight. Recent disparities and confusion among news reports prompted the assembly headed by Jean Marc Brissau, a Haitian citizen and administrator of the Lymphatic Filariasis Program in Leogane, Karen Richman, assistant professor of anthropology and three representatives from the Notre Dame Haiti Program: Sarah Peterek, Michele Sexton and director Fr. Tom Streit.Members of the panel shared their personal experiences in Haiti along with points of view on the exile of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Although some speakers said they regret the way in which he was removed from office, all agreed that the first democratically elected leader left campaign promises unfulfilled and abused his power. “Instead of sticking with what he preached in the beginning which was peace and nonviolence, I saw too much evidence with my own eyes that he had veered toward what is admittedly a tradition in Haiti and that is: violence to control the masses,” Streit said. “Any president in this country would be impeached for those offenses … He was the best hope for the country … And had he made some other choices he could have been the Nelson Mandela of our hemisphere.”Brissau agreed that Aristide became absorbed in his desire for power, attesting that Aristide won support through his speech and citing that his image was represented in public posters that portrayed water and other assets, when in reality the resources were never made available. Aristide’s election to office in 1990 was won with over 67 percent of the popular vote in a 12-party field. Since that date and since his re-election in 2000, the results have been contested and popular support of the president has been difficult to quantify. Professor Richman began the panel with a brief history of political events in Haiti beginning with Columbus’ landing on the island of Hispañiola, now shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and ending with the exile of Aristide on Feb. 28, 2004. Richman pointed to the fact that the former slave state declared itself a free nation in 1804, making it the second free nation state in the western hemisphere after the United States. The history also highlighted moments of United States involvement in Haiti, such as the American-led effort to restore Aristide to power in 1994 after his fall from office due to a military coup in 1991. Richman also provided information on the socioeconomic background of the country in addition to statistics on recent democratic elections. From his standpoint, Haiti is characterized by a peasant system, in which farmers work several small plots of land and while most continue to live in poverty, they are independent workers on their own property. Richman described the social class system as a “peasant society [which is] in a way separate from the small ruling class who tend to be mulattoes, who tend to be the descendents of French planters … and who basically control the import export trade.” He argued that one way to preserve grassroots development in the country is to promote growth through the peasant system rather than create a wage labor force, whose labor would benefit companies that are not based in Haiti. Several members of the panel mentioned U.S. business interests in Haiti as a driving factor of American intervention in the past and present. Michele Sexton addressed the issues of human rights in Haiti, which have been further neglected following the political upheaval. According to Sexton, political issues may not be at the heart of the crisis in Haiti. “It doesn’t really matter to me who is president in Haiti, it matters most for these people to get those resources [food, water, healthcare, and education] so that they can care about politics,” Sexton said. The Haiti Program is part of the Center for Tropical Disease Research and Training with a basis in biological sciences. The program sends biology students and administrators to work with Brissau and other Haitians at the Hopital Sainte Croix in Leogane in an effort to defeat the mosquito-borne parasitic disease lymphatic filariasis. LF is closely associated with poverty, but in 1997 the World Health Council deemed it one of few current diseases that can actually be eliminated. Despite ongoing political unrest in Haiti, representatives of the LF program in Leogane have continued their work, with the grounds of the hospital even serving as refuge for the Haitian Minister of Health during the height of violence, according to Streit and Peterek.