Kevin Pina, Upside Down World, 6 July 2009
On June 18, family, friends and supporters of Haitian priest Father Gerard Jean-Juste gathered at the national cathedral to pay their final respects and lay him to rest. Few expected the solemn occasion would be transformed into confusion and terror as U.N. forces opened fire towards Haiti’s national cathedral following the arrest of one of the mourners. A victim of a single gunshot wound to the head would be discovered moments later. Witnesses say his body writhed and convulsed struggling with the inevitable as blood slowly formed a crimson background around his head.
Jean-Juste would probably not be surprised by the shooting given that he was a leader of Lavalas and this was after all a Lavalas funeral. He would most likely recall many other instances of human rights abuses committed against Lavalas where the U.N. was complicit or directly involved. He would often criticize the U.N. mission in Haiti for killing unarmed civilians in Cite Soleil and for training the Haitian police as they regularly shot up peaceful demonstrations, performed summary executions and falsely arrested Lavalas supporters following the ouster of Aristide in Feb. 2004. Jean-Juste more than most, would understand that this incident is but one more in a long list of violent offenses committed against the movement of the majority of the poor in Haiti as part of the U.N.’s current experiment in political landscaping.
Public revulsion over this recent unprovoked shooting by U.N. soldiers in Haiti is only surpassed by disgust at the U.N.’s attempt to cover it up. The commander of MINUSTAH, Brazilian General Floriano Peixoto orchestrated immediately, “The truth is I do not believe… that the soldiers fired on the people with live ammunition…I’m convinced that this did not happen.” The U.N. then released a statement through its songbird Michelle Montas in New York that said they “categorically denied” any of its soldiers were involved in the death. Agence France Presse played the tune, “The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) insisted also that the death, initially attributed to a gun shot wound, was due to a “head injury inflicted by a stone or a blunt object.”” The Associated Press (AP) chimed in, “[MINUSTAH] cited unspecified preliminary information that the victim was killed by a blunt object, such as a thrown rock, rather than a bullet.” The fact that the U.N.’s version of the killing was based on ‘unspecified preliminary information’ didn’t seem to matter much to the chorus at the time.
The U.N.’s attempt at a cover-up came into focus after a Haitian TV station, Radio Tele-Ginen, streamed coverage of the funeral of Father Gerard Jean-Juste live over the Internet. Thousands watched as U.N. soldiers fired into the air and it was only after they had left the scene that the camera showed the body of the victim. This led AP reporter Jonathan Katz to comment on June 19, “The video did not appear to show what happened to the man, showing only some U.N. soldiers arresting another man and firing shots into the air.” Katz concluded, “The soldiers load the protester into the truck and fire two more shots as they drive away, followed by a Haitian police vehicle.”
Radio Tele-Ginen then dropped a bombshell and released footage from another camera angle that actually showed Brazilian soldiers firing at crowd level from the back of a small white pickup truck as they left the scene. There is no police vehicle following them as Katz claims and you can clearly see that no one was throwing rocks at them or any where near the soldiers as they casually fire off two shots from the back of the truck. Thirty seconds later a man is discovered in front of Haiti’s national cathedral felled by what is clearly a single gunshot wound to the head.
From the footage alone any one who has ever seen a victim of a headshot could easily tell his wound was not inflicted by a rock or blunt instrument as the U.N. claimed. The ‘rock of blunt instrument’ spin was a cynical attempt by the U.N. to imply that a fellow mourner was responsible for the death during a funeral organized by Lavalas for one of their own. They were correct in thinking that a gullible international press would repeat the ridiculous assertion given the latter has long participated in creating a spoon feed image of Lavalas as a violent political movement.
Eleven days after the shooting the other shoe would finally drop. On June 29, the final results of an autopsy would reveal that the victim was indeed killed by a wound resulting from a single shot to the head. In a fantastically surreal statement of further denial U.N. peacekeeping spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe would respond, “We are confident that the autopsy reconfirmed that our troops were not responsible for this death.” It seems that someone forgot to tell Sophie that if you’re going to spin for denial it has to at least have some possibility of being taken seriously.
Writing for AP, Katz would soften the realization that the U.N. had lied about the victim’s fatal wound in a ‘matter of fact’ tone, “[Boutaud de la Combe] noted that preliminary information that the protester had been killed by a rock or other blunt instrument were incorrect.” Katz would continue to provide the U.N. with plausible deniability when he wrote, “In television footage of the clash at least eight shots can be heard. It is not clear if all were fired by the soldiers.” He would at least have the decency to add the qualifier, “No one else is seen holding a firearm.”
The fact that the Radio Tele-Ginen footage from June 18 shows Brazilian soldiers opening fire without any provocation speaks volumes. The casual nature with which they discharge their weapons as they leave the scene makes it appear as if they were sending a message to the mourners and Lavalas. It was message of violence and terror that has been repeated over and over again for the Lavalas movement since Feb. 2004. That this particular volley would come four days before the second round of Senate elections in Haiti is clearly not a coincidence.
After the Fanmi Lavalas party was barred from participating in Senate elections, they waged a highly successful boycott campaign of the first round held on April 19. Another successful boycott of the second round on June 21 would be a crushing repudiation of the U.N.’s attempt to legitimize their mission through ‘helping the Haitian people to realize democracy.’ If the U.N. cannot oversee a process of fair and inclusive elections in Haiti then there really is not much point in them continuing to press to extend their mission is there? The only thing standing between them passing off exclusive elections or “selections” as credible was and continues to be the Lavalas movement. The message delivered by U.N. soldiers firing indiscriminately at the crowd during Jean-Juste’s funeral was for Lavalas to back off from their political campaign against the elections or the killings and arrests would start again. Desecrating the funeral of one of Lavalas’s revered leaders and associating his cortège with violence would pave the way.
In the end, despite tremendous financial and political efforts by the U.N., Lavalas successfully boycotted the second round of Senate elections. Turnout was lower than the first round and other than inflated figures provided by the election council most observers admit that very few people showed up to vote in either election.
Just like denials of firing at crowd level on June 18 and the head wound of the victim, the U.N. and the international press that feeds off them also continue to deny the successful boycott campaign. One can almost hear the collective mantra of Brazilian General Floriano Peixoto, Sophie Boutaud de la Combe, Michelle Montas, Jonathan Katz and others that the boycott had little to do with the low voter turnout. Voter fatigue, off-season elections, fatigue with ineffective government, a loss of faith in politicians and everything else under sun except the boycott.
Leaders of the Lavalas Mobilization Commission, organizers of the boycott, have made it clear that the Haitian people see their new Senators as ‘creatures of the U.N. and the international community.’ They do not recognize the elections as credible and say they will continue to demonstrate peacefully to have them annulled. If June 18 is any indication of what’s to come, the U.N. is gearing up for a new round of the blame the victim style of repression that has come to define their current mission’s relationship to the Lavalas movement.
As events unfold in Haiti, we can only hope that a few brave journalists will keep the cameras rolling so that we might have some small chance of seeing the truth behind the denials.
Kevin Pina is a journalist and filmmaker who has been covering events in Haiti since 1991. Pina is also the Founding Editor of the Haiti Information Project(HIP), an alternative news agency based in Port au Prince.