President Carter has staked his personal prestige on making two words - human rights - ring out around the world. He has declared that human rights are an integral part of his policies both at home and abroad. He made a point of raising the human rights issue in each country he visited on his recent foreign tour. He directed the National Security Council to develop new human-rights initiatives.
And while his moral posturing on human rights has drawn scoffs from some in this country, in the shadows of the world, where yearnings for freedom are savagely dealt with, people are taking heart from Carter's stand.
The fear-ridden, poverty-stricken island of Haiti is an example. For two decades, the country has been shackled at the feet of the ruling Duvalier family - first the voodoo-superstitutious "Papa Doc" and then, after his death, his son "Baby Doc." Words of dissent are spoken three in whispers.
Eighteen months ago, a young Haitian reporter, Gasner Raymond, had the daring to investigate the plight of some striking factory workers. He was murdered, and the results of an official inquest were never revealed.
But today, soft winds of cuorage are blowing quietly among a handful of journalists seeking to exercise freedom of hte press. They dare now to write of the indifference of the luxury-loving Duvalier palace guard to the grinding poverty of the Haitian masses.
But if they can now speak the unspeakable, they still pay a price for the privilege. A Baptist preacher and publisher, Luc Neree, ventured to expose violent abuses perpetrated in Haiti's rural areas by the notorious police force known as the Volunteers in National Security, as offshoot of the dread "Ton Ton Macoutes."
On the day the articles appeared in his weekly news sheet, Neree was summoned by Haiti's Interior Minister Aurelien Jeanty and warned that the government would tolerate no more "subversive editorials." Five days later, on Dec. 13, Neree was beaten unconscious by VNS thugs.
Competent sources inside Haiti report the savage beating was ordered by close aides to President-for-life Jean Claude Duvalier. But there is no evidence that "Baby Doc" himself gave the original order.
Recovering in a Port-au-Prince hospital from head surgery, Neree has not been intimidated. His proudest possession is a personal letter from Carter. The Haitian publisher wrote to the new American President shortly after his election about the suppression of human rights under the Duvalier regime. Carter responded with a letter pledging support and, as a fellow Baptist, offering to preach at Neree's church should he ever visit Haiti.
Nor has the vengeance visited on Neree stilled the other vocies of protest. Neree's son halted publication of the paper to protest his father's beating. But Haiti's only other independent journal took up the fight.
Editor Dieudonne Fardin assailed the attack on Neree and launched an eloquent examination of human-rifhts violations in the country. He predicted the day would arrive when "all the Haitians will realize that liberty, democracy and the respect of human rights is a question of human dignity and not just a luxury for super industrialized countries."
Fardin was aware of the personal danger he has incurred. "I know that I put my life at stake," he declared openly. "I can only rely on the laws of my country (which are theoretically sound) and on national and internatinal opinion."
The ugly Neree episode already has drawn fire from the Carter administration. The U.S. embassy firmly told the Duvalier regime that the incident had "grave implications for U.S.-Haitian relations."
The U.S. presence, embassy officials told our associate Hal Bernton, is intended solely to help Haiti's suffering masses by administering a $20-million aid program. Without the U.S. aid and other relief operations, the poverty gripping the peasantry would be far more cruel. The cash dollar value of the combined programs amounts to nearly 10 percent of Haiti's annual gross national product.
With illiteracy, corruption and apathy prevalent at every level, the Haitian government is "drowning under more technical assistance than it can actually absorb," according to one Haitian official. But U.S. officials are working closely with a new cadre of well-educated, young and idealistic Haitian technocrats to build a better government.
Part of the profits from the sale of 30,000 metric tons of surplus U.S. grain shipped to the island country have been earmarked to supplement the salaries of underpaid Haitian bureaucrats who often have to resort to outside jobs to subsist. Many of the new technocrats are quietly venting their frustration with their superiors who are fearful of upsetting the status quo, which benefits Duvalier's inner circle. Upper echelon officials panic at the thought of making a decision that would displease the palace.
Accordingly, decisions of even the most trivial nature pile up awaiting word from inside the walls from Duvalier, his mother or one of a secret few who have the President's ear. The palace itself has become the incubator of a power struggle between the "dinosaurs" who supported the late "Papa Doc" and a different circle who enjoy the friendship of his son.
The Old Guard has allied itself with Papa Doc's widow, entrenched behind power and wealth. But the pressure from Carter has been felt by Duvalier, who is beginning to believe that the regime must liberalize itself if it is to survive the winds of change.