PBS Frontline has published another episode on Haiti, ostensibly timed to commemorate the progress (or lack thereof) one year after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. The episode opens talking about the collapse of Port-au-prince’s prison and ensuing escape of every prisoner who hadn’t died in the quake. The prisoners blended back into society, many returning to their gang ways, and rapes, robberies, and other crime quickly rose.
We join the Haitian police, backed by UN forces, as a notorious gang leader is hunted and arrested within a slum. The police chief knows him — he arrested this man just two years ago. After the ‘gang leader’ has his home searched and no weapons are found, he is questioned before being led away in cuffs. “What were you arrested for two years ago?” they ask. He replies, “ask the inspector, he arrested me.” The man goes on to assert he was only in court twice, and was never told what he was charged with. In the context of Haiti, notorious for dictatorships and puppet governments, I have trouble taking any obviously well-to-do police bureaucrat at his word that a particular man is a gang leader.
“If we do not address the issue of rule of law, everything else will be in vain,” says the UN Mission Chief, Haiti. While law is important, especially with regard to laws against corruption (and subsequent enforcing of those laws), this also seems a convenient excuse to me. I don’t allege that in the context of his interview he meant it as an excuse, but in the Frontline documentary it comes across as a convenient explanation that if the efforts of ‘benevolent donors’ seem to fail, it will be be because of the Haitian people and their lack of “rule of law,” rather than some fault of the donors themselves.
The first fifteen minutes or so of the program is rife with this sort of undertone, and it was quite upsetting to me. Although not surprising for American media to take this tack, I expect better of Frontline (a production I normally hold in the highest of esteem for its neutrality). What Frontline fails to address is the source of the corruption, the source of crime. People are desperate now more than ever, and they weren’t exactly without depseration before. Hundreds of years of marginalization, occupation, exploitation, and oppression have shaped Haiti into what it is now, and the persons and systems responsible are not those of Haiti but of the oppressors, of the occupiers, of those who benefit from the corruption of Haiti and the exploitation of its people. It is frustrating that Frontline can report so thoroughly on crime and corruption in Haiti but not delve into its roots.
Let us diverge from the documentary for a moment and take a trip into the late 1980s. Haiti’s last notorious dictator has been overthrown and the interim government (“CNG”) that arose to replace him has become, itself, a brutal dictatorship, murdering more civilians in a year than the overthrown dictator (Baby Doc) did in fifteen . At the end of November, 1987, military troops gunned down journalists and hacked to death women, children, and grandmothers present at a school for voting purposes. The attackers left, but soon returned to execute more journalists who had turned up to document the massacre.
The New York Times wrote in a December 1st editorial that it was Haitians who were “murdering other Haitians and trying to shove the country back into the perpetual nightmare of terror and despotism .” The Times somehow fails to note that the Haitian military was under the command of the CNG (the corrupt post-Duvalier junta), a government that had received more than $200 million in aid from the United States, and been called “Haiti’s best chance for democracy,” by Assistant Secretary of State, Elliott Abrams. The guns and machetes may have been in the hands of Haitians, but it was funding from the United States that made this event possible.
I’ve attempted to illustrate above that even erudite and normally objective commentators have been all too willing to dismiss violence and corruption within Haiti as the fault of Haitians, rather than condemn those who prop up the violent and corrupt. Brenda Gayle Plummer has referred to these as “fantasies about savage blacks inhabiting a nightmare world of their own making.” I hope that is not the narrative that Frontline seeks to advance, but I must note with hesitation that the shallowness of thinking in the beginning of this episode initially gave me some pause.
At one point slightly later, Frontline even blames democracy for a tightening of relationships between politicians and gang members, as if democracy might be the possible source of Haiti’s ills! The only true progress Haiti has ever made was under their one truly democratically elected president, and the United States — and its media — did much to ensure his removal.
Cameras, panning over the now somewhat repaired prison, capture prisoners shouting to the PBS film crew, “I’ve never been to court,” “Most of us are innocent,” “I’m not a criminal,” and so on. The UN Mission Chief explains they have 58cm [to each side of a square] per inmate in their cells — prisoners take turns to lie down. “80% of inmates have never seen a judge,” he says. This sets the tone for the remainder of the episode.
The program takes us on a tour of the rising crime in Port-au-prince’s tent encampments. Thousands of rapes having occurred (according to the narrator), with hundreds more each passing month. A representative from the U.N. explains as many as a third of the residents in the tent camps actually have slum housing elsewhere, but have migrated in hopes of a housing windfall from the perceived influx of aid dollars destined to benefit those in the tent camps.
In the end this episode is a story of rising crime, a corrupt and underfunded police force, and an uncertain future. Overall I’d say it’s worth watching, but with a cautious eye. It is also worth mentioning that every person of authority who is interviewed is seen alone, in an office or other professional setting, sequestered from the populations they are speaking of — something that doesn’t strike me as a good indicator.
The New York Times, Dec 1, 1987, p.27