issue 242 - April 1993
Beset with embargoes and tragedy
Almost two years after a military coup, the world is still holding a torch for Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic young priest-president and hero of Haiti’s poor, who was overthrown by the army a few months after being elected.
The new rulers, who have presided over the violent death of some 2,000 people, are recognized only by the Vatican. The United Nations, backed by the US, Canada, France and others, seem determined to restore Aristide – the first freely-elected leader in Haiti’s violent history.
A trade embargo was imposed after the coup in September 1991 and now the UN has forced army chief General Raoul Codras and his allies – Haiti’s tiny, light-skinned upper class – to accept a mission of foreign observers to monitor human rights violations in this, Latin America’s poorest country.
Many doubt whether Aristide will ever manage to return, or if he does, survive an assassin’s bullet. The army and the rich have played for time since their coup against the man they fear. For his plans were to overturn the system of social and racial apartheid that has prevailed since independence in 1804, ironically through a bloody revolt against French slavery.
The desperate economy has deteriorated still further over the last 18 months. Once the Caribbean island exported sugar, mangoes, coffee and ‘offshore’ light assembly products like baseballs, clothing, toys and electronic goods. Most of the US-owned assembly plants which employed 60,000 people but supported 250,000, closed after the coup. Now the only export is a little coffee. The embargo has destroyed much of the meagre infrastructure.
Virtually impassible roads led to tragedy this February. Some 700 passengers obliged to go by boat to market in the capital Port-au-Prince, drowned when a ferry from the remote western town of Jérémie capsized. Built to carry 250 people, the boat had more than 1,000 aboard. The cargo included 75 oxen, whose floating carcasses helped save many in the absence of any lifebelts or lifeboats.
Haitians’ response to tyranny for the past 20 years, has been to flee in open, leaky boats to Florida in the hope of making a decent living. Thousands have drowned in the attempt. Most have been picked up by the US Coast Guard ships.
About a third of the 40,000 picked up since the coup have been admitted as candidates for political asylum. But Washington doesn’t really want them, though it accepts anyone escaping from Castro’s neighbouring Cuba. President Bush decreed a year ago that all new Haitian refugees should be turned back and President Clinton has continued the policy.
The world’s shunning of Haiti has barely affected its rich. Dodging the ramshackle trade embargo as well as the increased drug smuggling, has created many new millionaires. Vital oil shipments have continued to get through from Europe.
Within the country the political deadlock continues. The US and the UN have denounced recent sham elections and the Haitian Parliament is now paralyzed between pro-Aristide and pro-regime factions.
Despite their sufferings under the embargo, most Haitians are still fervently for Aristide, whom they regard as a saviour and the first president who has ever spoken up for Haiti’s poor majority. But the army rank and file, who are also poor and live in the slums, are terrified of popular revenge for their repression if Aristide returns. The military is set firmly against him.
Bad blood in East Timor
Disturbing reports from East Timor, occupied by Indonesia since 1975, suggest that ancient ceremonies of kinship between tribes are being used by the authorities to secure the allegiance of Timorese rebels. Blood is forcibly removed by syringe from detained people. Confessions and oaths of allegiance to Indonesia are then extracted. Many Timorese believe that oaths made in such circumstances can be broken only on pain of death. Indonesia is claiming growing success in its repression of the Timorese guerilla resistance. In November 1992 the guerilla leader Xanana Gusmao was captured, and hundreds of guerillas are said to have surrendered. Meanwhile, British Aerospace has concluded a deal to sell 24 Hawk aircraft to the Indonesian government as part of a larger arms deal, making Britain the largest single supplier of arms to Indonesia.
Zambian pop star’s musical protest
The Structural Adjustment Programme in Zambia has gone farther than in most other countries of the sub-Saharan region. Within a year of his new government’s popular rise to power, President Frederick Chiluba has daringly implemented all the IMF and World Bank’s tough conditions and allowed market forces to run the economy unrestrained.
As a reward, foreign aid has poured in to the tune of $1.7 billion in 1992 – most of it outright gifts. Zambia’s $7.5 billion foreign debt has been cut in half, either written off or rescheduled by outside agencies.
Chiluba has devalued the Zambian currency, the kwacha, by 120 per cent, freed prices and bank interest rates, liberalized trade and abolished foreign exchange controls. His privatization programme has seen 19 state companies sold and 20,000 public sector workers sacked with a further 50,000 to go. Living standards have fallen sharply. Malnutrition is said to affect nearly 50 per cent of the under-15 age-group and at least 30 per cent of the adult population. Health, education and transport services are in a sorry state.
Protest is getting vocal – quite literally. Pop singer PK Kalumba Chishala’s single ‘The Common Man’ (sic) deals with the problems of survival and nearly every urban household has heard the song. The government, which employs Chishala as a social worker, has removed him from Lusaka to a remote provincial centre in Mansa far from any recording studios.
‘Hunger, which affects even those in employment, is embarrassing the nation and its people,’ says Chishala. ‘What we eat is just not enough, not decent. During lunch hour, workers instead of lunching pretend to window-shop. They have no breakfast and supper is never enough to fill their bellies.’ He tells trade union leaders to do their jobs properly: ‘Tell them (government and employers) on our behalf that our bellies are empty, we need food. They can hike the prices of everything else, but not food.’
For political leaders there seems to be no escaping the growing amount of tuneful criticism. Now it is common for barefoot song-makers, school-choir groups and others to welcome the Head of State with critical songs and pleas for better living conditions.
In Zambezi, North Western Province, Vice President Levy Mwanawasa was received by a women’s group singing: ‘We need medicines and better schools for our children, we need the road tarred like it is everywhere else and you promised.’
Another welcoming group in the drought-stricken Western Province told Chiluba: ‘We sing with praise, but hunger is everywhere... we need decent food and decent living standards’ – exactly what the Government has so far failed to do for most Zambians.
Buddhists worldwide are agitated about a dispute between Hindus and Indian Buddhists over control of their holiest shrine at Gaya in the north Indian state of Bihar. The Mahabodhi Temple was built during Emperor Asoka’s reign more than 2,500 years ago. It stands next to the Bodhi (wisdom) tree under which Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment and came to be known as the Buddha. Since the turn of this century the shrine has been controlled by five Hindu and four Buddhist representatives. Buddhists are now demanding sole control. Last September thousands formed a human chain around the temple. The Chief Minister of Bihar has announced that he will resolve the issue. He’ll need to remember what happened at the Ayodhya temple.
T.A.WILKIE / CAMERA PRESS
Animal sun stroke
Although there are few figures, vets around Australia report a steep increase in the number of animals they treat with skin cancer. Most at risk are light-furred creatures of European descent: for instance white cats, white-faced Hereford cattle and English bull dogs. And when white breeds of pigs are allowed to range freely in the Australian sun, their pale skin can turn a potentially cancerous shade of red. The RSPCA recommends that people keep their pets indoors between 11am and 3pm, when ultraviolet radiation is most intense. As a last resort, owners can apply sun block or zinc cream to the noses and ears of animals that stay out in the sun. But these could get licked off. At least that problem is unlikely for fair-skinned Australians.
From New Scientist, No 1857, 1993
Joseph Mobutu, President of Zaire – one of the world’s richest men ruling one of the world’s poorest countries – seems likely to retire from riot-torn Kinshasha to the Côte d’Azure in France, where he owns a pink and white marble palace set in 25 acres of garden, with an 82-foot outdoor swimming pool. He will be able to enjoy whist drives with his neighbours, Baby Doc Duvalier, General Michel Aoun and former Emperor Bokassa.
From The Guardian, 10 February 1993
Alice in Latasica
or the global debt crisis explained.
Next month’s NI unravels the almighty mess via the pens and perceptions of campaigning cartoonist Brick and radical economist Susan George. They will address:
What has Third World debt got to do with me?
How did it all happen?
Who does debt benefit?
What’s the ‘debt boomerang’?
And now for the good news...
Nothing but bad news – of civil war, death squads, genocide – seems to have come out of Central America for decades. But a kind of peace, however fragile, is returning. The people can begin to rebuild, count the cost and heal the wounds. We report from two of the worst-affected regions.
Guatemala – ‘Even the hills are talking to you.’
Thousands of Guatemalan refugees who fled to Mexico a decade ago are returning home. Some 45,000 exiles have been living in muddy camps along Mexico’s mountainous southern border since abandoning their country at the height of military violence in the early 1980s. But all the mainly indigenous, peasant refugees are expected to be home shortly after four years of tortuous negotiations between Guatemala, Mexico and the UN. The first 2,500 made the historic first crossing on 20 January this year.
Guatemala’s 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu was at the spectacular highland border-post of La Mesilla to greet them. ‘I know what they are feeling,’ she said. ‘It’s like a knot in the throat... as if even the hills are talking to you.’ Guatemala’s independent human rights attorney, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, described the event as ‘a gear in the wheel that will take us to peace.’
Fighting in the last unresolved war in Central America is now only sporadic, but many of the refugees are still haunted by memories. ‘I shall wait until more have returned home safely before I go back,’ says Maria Lopez Mendez, a 33-year-old Mayan Indian whose last memory of her home was the screams of her parents dying inside their burning shack.
Teams of forensic and human rights experts are excavating mass graves in northern Guatemala and survivors of atrocities are emboldened to tell their stories for the first time. The conservative government of President Jorge Serrano Elias hopes that the repatriations will redeem his country’s dire human rights record. He also claims the returnees are fleeing forced recruitment to rebel groups.
The government is donating some land for the refugees, but not enough. The next stage looks to be an attempt to settle thousands of claims to the returnees’ former homes and farms – which is likely to meet strong resistance from those peasants currently in occupation.
Andrew Cawthorne/Mexico City
El Salvador – ‘Reborn with the people.’
One year ago, in January 1992, the streets of San Salvador exploded in celebrations as guerillas signed a peace treaty with the Salvadorean government. After 12 years in the mountains and a civil war that left 75,000 dead, guerilla commanders rode in a cavalcade into the capital and joined the party in the main square. A huge banner appeared carrying the words of the murdered Archbishop Romero: ‘I will be reborn with the people’.
A year later the celebrations are decidely more muted. But El Salvador is still one of the UN’s few peace-making successes. The ceasefire has held, the guerillas have handed in their weapons and the armed forces have been halved in size following the withdrawal of massive US military aid.
So much for the good news. Now, the bad. Under army pressure the Government is reneging on its commitment to sack the top 15 officers accused of human rights violations, including the Minister and Vice Minister of Defence. Death squad attacks on trade unionists and peasant organizers continue and violent crime has increased.
Meanwhile, action on the difficult social and economic questions which gave rise to the war has been postponed. El Salvador’s rich coffee plantations remain in the hands of a tiny élite, while the majority of the population scrape a living from eroded land or live from hand to mouth in the capital, San Salvador.
But at least the terror of war is over, apparently for good. For the Salvadorean people and for the peacemaking reputation of the beleaguered UN this can only be good news.
Duncan Green/Latin America Bureau
Duncan Green is author of Guatemala: Burden of Paradise, with colour illustrations by John Keane, £7.99, published in November 1992 by Latin America Bureau, 1 Amwell Street, London EC1R 1UL, UK.
The Bolivian government has embarked upon a campaign to popularize a herbal tea called mate de coca. If this pleasant infusion captured only 5 per cent of the global market for hot drinks, Bolivia would have a bigger foreign exchange earner than its present main export: natural gas. There is a major snag, though. The tea is banned under the Vienna Convention on Narcotic Drugs – even though it is harmless – because it is brewed from the leaves of the coca bush.
From The Independent, London, 24 January 1993
‘Rich countries want peace and stability so that the old and
contemptible agreements can go on existing: the relation between
oppressor and oppressed, the bonds between tutor and pupil.
This is the kind of stability that prevails over cemeteries.’
F Sionil Jos, Filipino author