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Aristide Warns of Possible Refugee Crisis in Haiti

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In the past week, more than 400 Haitian refugees have reportedly landed on beaches in Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos Islands. We speak with the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner who has dealt extensively with the issue of Haitian refugees for many years. [includes transcript]

President Aristide on Tuesday warned of a rising death toll and a new exodus of “boat people” from Haiti. In the past week, more than 400 Haitian refugees reportedly have landed on beaches in Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Most boat people want to go to the United States and many are picked by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned home.

  • Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. For many years he has dealt extensively on the issue of Haitian refugees.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In our studio, we are joined by Michele Montas, an award winning Haitian journalist, began reporting for radio Haiti Inter in the early 1970’s with her husband, Jean Dominique. The station came under attack at least six times in 14 years between 1980 and 1994. Montas and Dominique were twice forced to flee in exile. On April 3, 2000, Jean Dominique was assassinated, shot seven times as he walked through his radio station doors. I had a chance to meet and interview him when I was in Haiti. We welcome you to Democracy now! Michelle Montas.

MICHELE MONTAS: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You are now living in New York. Also, Michael Ratner joins us, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who was well-known during the coup period for leading the battle to free the Haitian — what became known as boat people, who were detained at Guantanamo bay. Welcome, Michael.

MICHAEL RATNER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Michele Montas, your assessment of what’s happening in Haiti?

MICHELE MONTAS: I heard what was said earlier by Ira Kurzban. While I agree with his assessment of the armed opposition, I should add that his picture of population that is unarmed, pro-Aristide and facing those armed thugs is too easy to describe it this way. To the extent that I think a number of aggression by pro-Aristide people has also created a situation we are in right now. To the extent that you might have a bloodbath, yes, in Port-au-Prince, if the those armed groups come into to Port-au-Prince, but you might also have the armed groups, pro-Aristide groups, that are heavily armed, they also have machine guns, and they also have very heavy weaponry, and we have seen them over and over again in Port-au-Prince. I think they are capable of also doing a lot of killing and a lot of violence. So, the violence, I think, has been coming from both sides, and will be coming from both sides, if we have those rebel groups coming into Port-au-Prince.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, you were there also through that coup period. The U.S. government, you have dealt with extensively on the issue of Haitian refugees. They’re interested for two reasons. One, Ira Kurzban says we want to establish an army in Haiti. Two, they’re very concerned about people coming to the shores of Florida. What do you see happening there?

MICHAEL RATNER: It seems surprising to me that’s what’s going on in terms of two senators from Florida have actually asked the president to stop the violence in Haiti, because they’re worried about refugees. Obviously, the president must have his eye on elections or having boat people or refugees coming into Florida is not good for them. The only thing they can be thinking is that they can actually seal Haiti off. The continued situation and military attacks by the people that Ira is describing are going to cause people to want to flee. It’s a dangerous situation when people are being killed. So, what they have been able to develop is a system of boats that surround Haiti of U.S. ships that can stop, they think, every single Haitian. In addition, we have seen reports, and Ira referred to them, that they set up in Guantanamo as many as 50,000 beds for possible refugees. What they will do is what they did in the last coup, at least for a period of time, is pick the people up off the high seas, take them to Guantanamo and really what I consider basically the worst possible conditions for refugees, keep them there, and or send them back into Haiti, which is what they did during the last coup. In some answer, the sense to what they are doing about Florida and the elections is they will simply pick up tens of thousand of refugees, put them in Guantanamo or send them back to their deaths. They have done it under Bush I and even did it under Clinton and they’ll do it again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you are dealing with detainees on Guantanamo already, but these are from the situation in Afghanistan, all of those who have been picked up having to do with Iraq and Afghanistan. Now you will be dealing with detainees, if in fact they are brought to Guantanamo. Where will they even put them?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, that’s a good question. Last time they put them on the runway. They built tent cities on the tarmacs out there. That’s where they kept them. The HIV-positive ones were put in the camp, which is at the same location as the camp now, camp Delta, where they are keeping the people from Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I don’t know, I mean it does pose, I think, for the U.S. its own risks and then continuing to make Guantanamo an offshore penal colony of the United States, a law-free zone and American gulag, whatever you want to talk about it. I don’t think that’s a great idea and I think people would be opposed to that, particularly because the conditions are terrible. The real answer to the refugee problem is the one that Ira is talking about is that the violence and blood has to stop and that blood is on the hands of this administration. They have actually thrown gasoline on the fire. They have actually thrown gasoline on the fire. If you remember, on February 9, they took over Gonaives, the thugs and military. What does the state department do? They issue a statement, Boucher from the state department says, we could see President Aristide basically having to leave the presidency, change his position. What is that but an encouragement to go after more cities and kill more people in Haiti. That’s what I blame the United States for. They are responsible and they have to help put a stop to it. MAY GOODMAN: Michele Montas your assessment of that?

MICHELE MONTAS: I think it’s true, and I think it’s right. I think definitely what was said earlier about the obvious implication of, you know, all of the forces behind the armed rebellion, and behind the violence in a way I think they are to be looked elsewhere away from Haiti. However, I think there is a lot more fueling the violence. You have had occasions in the last few weeks where the government has taken back some cities like San Marc where you had the police being supported by the armed pro-Aristide gangs. This is the only way I can describe them. And we have had retaliations against civilians. Those violent actions also should not be ignored.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go for a minute to a tape one of the last interviews that Jean Dominique did. Dan Coughlin, now head of the Pacifica network, was in Haiti a few weeks before Jean Dominique was killed. This was Jean Dominique’s last interview broadcast in the United States. JEAN DOMINIQUE: Throughout Haiti now, more and more poor citizens are asking questions. What questions? There has been with President Preval many attempts to put in practice what the constitution calls “decentralization”. What does that mean? That means that the small communities are actually able to take their own offers in their hands. That’s power to the local government. That’s decentralization. Contrary to the Haitian tradition of centralization, everything in the national palace. Now, every community has a chance to put in their hands their business, the business of the community, which is a fantastic step for democracy, actually. And because of this decentralization process, actually in process, the poor citizens are saying that we are the masters of our destiny. We can now start taking care of ourselves. And they are saying if we have to vote for the local government we have to participate, because those people will be our people. We are going to hire them the same way we can in four years fire them. So, the sense of citizenship is actually emerging and spreading. That’s a wonderful step in the process of democracy in Haiti. Maybe our masters don’t like this process. Maybe in the paradise of our big brothers, they don’t like that those poor, desperate, illiterate, dirty people can take their destiny in their hands. But I think that they’re wrong. They are wrong with their own principle, because a town meeting in the United States is not a revolutionary, is it? When a citizen goes to a town meeting to discuss things about his town, his city, he’s a normal citizen. We want our democracy based on town meetings. We want our democracy based on the Jefferson principles. Is Jefferson contrary to Washington D.C. now?

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Dominique, one of his last interviews before he was assassinated April 3, 2000. Interesting last comment, is Jefferson contrary to Washington now? When I interviewed him as well, he was talking very much what Washington’s interests were in Haiti. Who assassinated your husband?

MICHELE MONTAS: I don’t know, but from investigation that has lasted three years, three long years, I can say that so far, all of the available evidence leads to the party in power, to the La Velas party.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time the murder stunned the country, Haiti’s president declared three days of mourning and ordered the national palace draped in black.

MICHELE MONTAS: Yes, indeed. There was a great deal of pain and suffering on the part of the Haitians when it happened. Jean was a symbol of Haitian democracy because of his long fight since the Duvalier years against dictatorship and for the participation of the majority of Haitians to the affairs of the country. As he said it earlier in his interview. And the question is to be asked, why was Jean Dominique killed? More and more, you’re asking yourself whether it was not because of this democratic agenda that he was killed. A very good extent Jean supported, you know, whole movement for democracy in the 1986, 1987, and way before that also, and supported the La Velas movement as a whole in 1990, very strongly so. And in 1994. However, there were a number of trends which Jean found disturbing when the La Velas movement became the La Velas party. The former La Velas. When Jean identified the fact that a number of people within the group were not particularly democratic people. The way that the candidates of the party were chosen for the 2000 elections did not represent a real democratic aspirations.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you now for the removal of Jean Bertrand-Aristide. Do you believe that he should be overthrown by the opponents coming into Port-au-Prince?

MICHELE MONTAS: Actually, I am a very strongly opposed to the people, you know, with their weapons in the Cap Haitian and Gonaives, however, I don’t see how Jean-Bertrand Aristide can survive the present crisis. What I have always said there should be a negotiated solution where and I have always said that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is part of the problem, but is also part of the solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, why does the U.S. government hate Aristide so much? It supported the coup in having him removed from power. He returns much more in line with what the U.S. wanted in Haiti, not the same populous fiery priest that he came to power as at the very beginning. Why now? Why do they want him out? What isn’t he doing?

MICHAEL RATNER: I just wanted to say what Michelle said in terms of a negotiated solution. Aristide has now agreed to exactly the demands that the U.S. put on him. He basically in one hour said, I want that. Now the opposition is saying we won’t accept that. I think what is going on, the U.S. is not pushing that. It’s a fate accompli on the ground. The opposition is taking more territory and land and cities so that Aristide is forced out. Aristide, to put it mildly has accepted, it’s the other side that has not. They have hated Aristide since the early times when I started working in Haiti. He was a populist priest and he had the population behind him. He was willing to have a different social economic system that was going to give democracy to people. The coup comes. He is forced into deals in terms of the IMF and the economic situation. When he goes back to Haiti, many people would say that he actually tried to wiggle out of some of these deals, in my mind, to his credit, because those were there to impoverish the Haitian people. And the U.S. still, there are people in the state department who just hate this guy, want this guy out of there, and consider him dangerous, the fact that Haiti doesn’t have an army to them, that the U.S. doesn’t control, I think is a very, very big factor and I think what we’re seeing with the Bush administration is an effort to push back essentially populist democracies all over the hemisphere. We’re going to see that if the people take office for another four years in South America. We saw it with Chavez a year or two ago, when the U.S. was again implicated. We’re going to see it continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Otto Reich, is he involved with this at all?

MICHAEL RATNER: Otto Reich we know has gotten the boot in some way. On the other hand, people have told me, he is still sort of an adviser. Someone said he was seen in Cuba six months ago trying to negotiate something with the Cubans and sending a message to them. I think the administration intends to end any experiments in popular democracy in this hemisphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I’m going to thank you very much for being with us, and we’ll continue to follow the situation very closely. Our guests have been Michelle Montas, an award winning Haitian journalist now living in this country. Her husband was assassinated April 3, 2000, and Michael Ratner, with the Center for Constitutional rights, president of the Center, well known in his work. The first time around during the coup, trying to get rid of the detention camps in Guantanamo bay. There are thousands of Haitians were held who were fleeing the violence of Haiti. We will see what happens this time. This is Democracy now!

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