Turmoil in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In Haiti, trying to overthrow the government apparently takes less time than cutting through government bureaucracy.

Almost two months ago, a ship filled with approximately 2,800 tons worth of food docked in Haiti, ready to be unloaded and distributed to hundreds of aid centers supported by Catholic Relief Services.

It took about seven weeks of working through red tape before customs finally cleared the shipment, said Dula James, the Catholic Relief Services country representative for the Caribbean nation.

Meanwhile, in a wave of insurgency that began in early February, well-armed rebel forces met with little resistance from police as they torched, killed and looted their way across the country, hoping to overthrow the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

They achieved their goal by the end of the month. Aristide resigned Feb. 29, boarding a plane first to other Caribbean nations and then to the Central African Republic.

But the violent upheaval put the country on the brink of a humanitarian crisis before Aristide's resignation, Catholic relief workers said.

President Bush ordered the deployment of U.S. Marines to the island as rebels arrived in the Haitian capital and looters hit shops, police stations and the homes of Aristide supporters. The United Nations on Feb. 29 approved an international peacekeeping force for the island for up to three months.

One of the biggest obstacles facing relief agencies in the week before Aristide's departure was a lack of access to the cities controlled by the rebels, said James, who is based in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Gunmen blocked roads, and telephone lines had been cut, she added.

“Whatever supplies remain up there, the prices have increased,” James said. “There is a shortage of gasoline and food.”

Catholic Relief Services officials were concerned about the violence, looting and the breakdown in normal economic activity, which led to a lack of food, shelter and medical supplies for those who live in villages and towns.

“Catholic Relief Services, along with other government and private relief organizations, is pressuring the Haitian government and rebel leaders to open a secure humanitarian corridor for food and basic relief supplies,” said Jed Hoffman, Latin America regional director for the organization.

The day after Aristide's departure, an official in the agency's Baltimore headquarters said Catholic Relief Services was hopeful that civil order would soon be restored and that the corridor would be opened that week. “We're ready to start moving food as soon as possible,” said Malone Miller of the Catholic Relief Services Latin American and Caribbean regional office.

At their recent annual meeting in San Antonio, the Bishops of the Church in America — a consortium made up of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian bishops' conference and the Latin American bishops' council — expressed sentiments of solidarity with the Haitians along with hopes for peace and reconciliation.

“Every day brings new accounts in our media about the violence that is afflicting Haitian society and causing additional harm to so many Haitian people, already afflicted by intense poverty and other social ills,” the bishops wrote in a Feb. 23 statement. “We wish to express our solidarity with them and with the many faithful priests, religious and lay leaders who minister to them.”

Long-Suffering People

Most Haitians were suffering greatly before the rebellion began. Statistics show that 95 out of every 1,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday. Most people — about 80% — live in poverty. More than half the population suffers from malnutrition. Only those living in Somalia and Afghanistan are hungrier, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

The 1990 democratic election of Aristide, a former Salesian priest whose preaching on behalf of Haiti's poor was seen as helping to end the Duvalier family dictatorship, was viewed by many as a positive step. The country had endured years of bloodshed and terror under military rule.

The military tried to regain control of the country in a 1991 coup. Three years later, faced with an imminent invasion by U.S. forces, the military regime relinquished power, leading to Aristide's return and the disbandment of the army. Another president was elected in 1995, but Aristide returned to power in 2000 in an election in which voting irregularities were alleged.

The rebels this year cited government corruption, mismanagement and police violence as justifiable reasons to remove Aristide from power.

The Church in Haiti has been trying to play the role of peacemaker. Last November, the bishops issued a plan that called for a reform of the country's police department and the creation of a council of advisers that would include members of the opposition party, human-rights groups and clergy. The advisers would then select representatives who would help set up legislative and presidential elections.

The insurgents, however, resorted to using guns to get what they wanted. In mid-February, the Haitian bishops released a statement pleading for a halt to the violence.

“It is not for the Church to say which actions should be undertaken, but it is urgent that something should be done to stop the violence,” said the bishops, who called on all Haitians to “respect the life of all human beings, the moral integrity of the human person, the flow of authentic information and the constitutional right of citizens to freely express opinions as well as demonstrate in a peaceful and respectful manner.”

Different Opinions

Ecclesial leadership in Haiti differed regarding the best course for their country. Bishop Guire Poulard of the Diocese of Jacmel favored Aristide's ouster, according to Catholic News Service.

“We do not have any other option but to continue the mobilization,” Bishop Poulard said in a radio interview, according to the news service. “All the people who are protesting should continue to do so, because otherwise, we may have to undergo a long period of dictatorship.”

“We have a president who is committing numerous crimes,” Bishop Poulard said. “Does that mean we have to tolerate him as our leader? If we have a head of state who is a fool, does that mean we have to tolerate him as our leader because he is head of state?”

Father Jomanas Eustache, a Haitian priest and dean of the Catholic Law School in Jeremie, Haiti, said it's not easy to have a dialogue for peace in Haiti because it's a country of extremes.

“The society is extremely divided,” said Father Eustache, who has been a visiting professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey since last summer. “You can't sit down and talk about compromise. People can't accept that you have a different point of view. People say, ‘You have to believe whatever I believe.’”

Yet even with all the uncertainty, the people's faith has not been shaken, said Father Andre Pierre, the spokesman for the Conference of Haitian Bishops. Masses have been well attended, said the priest, who is also the permanent secretary for the conference.

“Faith has become the fundamental resource of the Christians and that provokes the solidarity among them,” Father Pierre said from Port-au-Prince. “This faith maintains the Christian person throughout the conflict.”

But because of the turmoil, he predicted that the grim situation faced by many Haitians will only become grimmer.

“The conflict has changed a lot of things in the country,” he said. “Aside from the fact that people can't travel, the poverty will grow rapidly. The people will not receive the necessary medical attention. A lot of people won't be able to eat and receive the proper nutrition. There was poverty. Now there will be misery.”

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.

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