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Haitians Flee Political Nightmare, Only To Be Returned : Refugees: The new regime has targeted virtually everyone who supported the deposed democracy. How can the U.S. deny them protected status?

February 16, 1992|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" (Simon & Schuster)

ALBANY, N.Y. — Being in Haiti these days is like a flashback to a nightmare time. In a "Christmas Eve amnesty," the de facto military government that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, released the worst of Haiti's right-wing thugs from the National Penitentiary. One man had been convicted of leading torture sessions while quoting from the Bible, another man had slaughtered seven young activists in one bloody evening: Christmas presents for the Haitian people from the Duvalierists now in power.

Meanwhile, every well-known Haitian journalist is in hiding; few have managed to flee; one was killed; another disappeared. All the radio stations were shut down, except the state-run Radio Nationale and the intermittent broadcaster who urges all former Tontons Macoute--the paramilitary death squads of the Duvalier dynasty--to hunt down and execute Aristide supporters as well as anyone affiliated with democratic groups. Ministers of the deposed government sleep in different houses every night, their own telephones instruments of terror that ring endlessly with urgent death threats.

At the airport, there is rumored to be a secret list of people to be arrested if they try to leave the country--the list is effective in preventing people from trying, even if it does not exist. Catholic priests exiled by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1969, during his unremitting dictatorship, and who returned during the excitement after his son was ousted in 1986, are now in the maquis in Haiti, hoping that this "conjoncture, " as Haitians always call the current political scene, will not last longer than their lives.

These priests and ministers and journalists and the people on the airport list are the gwo neg, the big guys, well-known figures for whom international opinion may be some small guarantor of safety--though often it is not. But in Haiti today, anyone who ever publicly pronounced a progressive thought is in hiding. Even those who quietly expressed their support for the fallen democracy--peasants, doctors, slum dwellers, tailors, blacksmiths, teachers, milliners, lawyers, unemployed nobodies and anyone who voted for the ousted president--are possible victims of the most brutal sort of political repression. This means many are potentially targeted, since more than 67% of the Haitian electorate voted for Aristide. Western diplomats have said that, since the coup, more than a quarter-million people have fled their residences.

This, then, is the country to which the U.S. State Department is sending back refugees, alleging that they face no dangers upon their return. The Supreme Court, now full of Reagan and Bush appointees, took unconscionably little time to study the case, and then gave the immigration service the green light to recommence repatriation.

The de facto Haitian government also pretends that the returned refugees are safe in its hands, although it has no reasonable explanation for why military employees have been photographing, fingerprinting and interrogating refugees when they arrive at Port-au-Prince. It is, in any case, hard to understand why the U.S. government would repatriate refugees to a regime it does not recognize.

To argue that most of the people leaving Haiti today are economic refugees is like arguing that most of those who fled Nazi Germany were fleeing because they couldn't get a job and thought that the streets of America were paved with gold. Today, the mere fact of being a refugee is considered, by the regime in Haiti, to be a statement of discontent. Fleeing the country is tantamount to voting with your feet for the ousted democracy. The huge wave of desperate refugees is a public humiliation for the government, and neither Duvalierists nor the Haitian Army--the two groups that carried out the coup--responds well to humiliation. In fact, they respond ruthlessly. Why else would they fingerprint children, including a 3-year-old boy?

Refugee advocates have asked the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status to Haitian refugees. Temporary protected status can be granted by the President or Congress for a period of from six to 18 months. Although the United States is admitting Haitian refugees in unprecedented numbers--from 1981 to 1991, only 11 Haitian refugees out of 24,000 were allowed into the United States to pursue their asylum claims--immigration lawyers argue that many who deserve admission slip through a faulty interview system, and, in any case, all Haitian boat people are in danger if returned now.

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