By the grislier standards of Latin American political repression, the Rev. Hugo Triest has been treated royally by the Haitian government. On July 24, the Belgian-born Catholic priest, who served Haiti for 20 years as a member of the Missionhurst order, was told to get out of the country by the next day. Two other Missionhurst priests, Jean Hostens and Yvan Pollefeyet, were also ordered out.
The three left immediately. At the airport in Port-au-Prince, a high-ranking minister of the Duvalier regime had a word of advice for the head of the Missionhurt order in Haiti, who was remaining behind. Triest, waiting to board the plane, recalls the minister saying to the superior: "Listen, Father, you are here in the country for evangelization, and nothing else. Whenever you cross the line we will cut your balls off."
With those words of farewell, Triest and his two confreres were exiled from Haiti and their life's work among its poor. The expulsions came a few days after Haiti's biggest political event in the 14 years of the Claude Duvalier government: a voter referendum. The priests were given no explanation for their treatment. Triest suspects that he was fingered because of his work as the director of Radio Soleil, the independent broadcasting operation that is the main source of undoctored news for a public that is 80 percent illiterate. Before the referendum, which gave citizens nothing more than the chance to vote yes on four questions -- with no "no" on the ballot -- Radio Soleil gave listeners a rare treat: a political discussion. Several views were expressed, including the most obvious one -- that the referendum would likely be rigged to assure the entrenchment of the reigning Duvalier, the president-for-life.
That is how it turned out. The ballot's first question asked the voters if they approved of "a president for life with the right to designate a successor." In other words, do you vote to keep giving up your vote for president?
The three other questions, posed as one-sentence modifications of the constitution, had to do with political pluralism. These were meaningless because Haitian political parties must swear not to oppose the government.
Poll watching was conducted by Duvalier security forces, many of them armed with machine guns and other weapons of democratic persuasion. Voters were not asked for their names and no lists were kept. The vote count was unmonitored. At the final tally, 99.9 percent of the voters were said to have marked "yes" to all four questions. That ranks Haiti a nick below the Soviet Union in electoral unanimity.
The U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Clayton McManaway, called the referendum "discouraging." He doubtlessly had in mind the results of the last referendum. In 1971, some 2.3 million citizens voted "yes" for what the government asked. No voter said "no." Unanimity totaled 100 percent. A switch of one-tenth of one percent in 14 years is the steel of which dictatorships are made. For Hugo Triest and his fellow journalists at Radio Soleil, the challenge was to take seriously an event that was, in his words, "a joke."
In July 1984 I spent some time with Triest in Port-au-Prince. We talked in his second-floor office at Radio Soleil. Not long before, the station's watchman had been beaten, the office ransacked and the transmission towers taken over by armed men. Several journalists were under house arrest.
Triest said the art of his work was in guessing how far he could go and still be safe. Last week, while in Arlington, Va., which is the United States headquarters for the Missionhurst order, Triest said that Radio Soleil was under harassment during the recent weeks in which discussions of the referendum were aired. "We have had blackouts of our electricity," he recalls. "Our phone lines have been cut. We went to the phone company but it said nothing can be done. It fears the government. Our transmitter was jammed. Then we went to an emergency studio outside of town. That worked for a while but then the power fuses at the transmitter were taken out. And now I'm gone."
Beyond the attack on journalism, which is not new, the Duvalier government may also be starting an assault against the church. Until now, most of Haiti's bishops and priests have been overwhelmed by caring daily for the hemisphere's poorest, sickest and most jobless people. They have been dispensing charity, in Triest's words. Now as conditions worsen there is the move to work also for justice: "They must go together," he believes.
Following the expulsions of the three priests, the Haitian bishops -- in a rare display of defiance -- criticized the government. The day may be approaching when, as in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras for the past 10 years, being a priest who raises questions is a courting of death.