On the question of Haitian soldiers roughing up reporters recently on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Ambassador Pierre Sam said there is no cause for alarm. Sam, Haiti's representative to the United States and a congenial, well-educated diplomat, explained that he had received a telex only the day before from his government. Freedom of the press is guaranteed, it said. Reporters are not being menaced.
That isn't what others are saying. With two colleagues from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan New York-based membership group, I went to the Haitian Embassy to protest the attacks by the army and police on reporters. In late July, 19 working journalists were harassed -- equipment damaged, tapes and notes confiscated -- while covering street demonstrations.
The treatment of Haitian journalists is hardly a major world event. At best, it is a small story folded within the larger tale of dismal Haitian politics that itself commands attention only when blood spills.
Which is now. On Aug. 1, four citizens were killed when soldiers fired into a crowd of shoppers in a Port-au-Prince market. Four days earlier, 10 people in a demonstration were randomly killed by troops. On July 23 and 24, a machete massacre in rural Jean-Rabel claimed hundreds of lives. An exact death toll is not known. Bodies, dismembered or thrown into fields, are still being discovered.
No people are less in need of bloodshed than Haitians. They have been economically and politically bled into the hemisphere's worst destitution, where 90 percent of the citizens have incomes of less than $180 a year. Dictator Franc ois Duvalier oversaw the misery from 1957 to 1971. His son Jean-Claude ruled to February 1986, when a U.S. Air Force jet flew him off to a French spa. By countless hustles -- from taxes imposed on food aid to profits from selling people into slavery -- the Duvaliers amassed a fortune estimated at $900 million, in a land where $3 a day in a sweatshop is a welcome salary.
With his homeland in disarray and a provisional junta led by a general who served loyally under Duvalier, Ambassador Sam took the only tack available: minimize the current chaos and maximize the hope for stopping the future.
The ambassador has a certifiable talent for minimizing his government's role in the killings. The shooters may not be the police at all, he said, but terrorists or government opponents dressed in police uniforms wanting to "establish confusion in the streets." Should this disguise theory sound thin, which it did, the ambassador had a second idea: The troops on the street were newcomers and merely panicked when the demonstrations appeared to be getting out of control. What are poor country boys to do? What's more, "certain Catholic priests claiming to be the new missionaries of liberation" are troublemakers.
Ambassadors earn their pay with such talk. After 18 months of hoping for democracy, post-Duvalier Haiti remains ruled by a government that relies on street justice and military muscle. Duvalier has gone but not Duvalierism. The one difference now is that political organizing is above ground, not under. Citizens groups have formed to end human-rights abuses, push for land reform and work to bring about the elections promised for November. Some 60 groups organized a nationwide strike in late June, an event that led to the demonstrations of July and the killings.
Whether labeled one or not, a revolution is under way in Haiti. Of all the upheavals in the world, ranging from South Korea to South Africa, none is geographically closer to the United States. American companies, which find labor in Port-au-Prince cheap and plentiful, look on Haiti as a suburb of Miami. When Haitians began arriving off the coast of Florida in the early 1980s as boat people, they were jailed -- the first immigrants in U.S. history to be processed through the prison system.
If Haiti wins public attention in the United States, it is often on such froth as whether or not baseballs are "juiced." All major-league baseballs are hand-sewn by Haitian factory workers who earn about $3 a day. It isn't likely these semislaves care a bead of sweat what Mark McGwire is doing with the finished product.
Ninety-eight percent of rural Haitians lack clean drinking water. More than 65 percent of the nation's 5.5 million adults are illiterate. Sixty percent live without plumbing. Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, head of the provisional junta and military chief of staff under Duvalier, was unaccustomed to including the public in policy decisions then. His current tactics of firing into nonviolent crowds says he still distrusts democracy. U.S. policy backs Namphy in the name of stability, meaning that military aid will continue and Haitian citizen dissent will be scorned.
In Washington, Ambassador Sam says his government needs time. All regimes say that. What the government needs is honest and energetic people, many of whom already are at work, lower down in the government. But unless they are allowed to join with the democratic citizens groups on the outside, the call for more time is a stall.