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Testimony : ONE PERSON'S STORY ABOUT THE PLIGHT OF HAITIANS : 'We Must Never Substitute Charity for Justice'

January 31, 1994|As Told to ROBERT SCHEER ; The Rev. Louis Chase of Lynwood United Methodist Church was born in Barbados and recently visited Haiti. and

Immigration to the United States is a consequence of the economic policies that are impacting the Third World. It is very easy on the one hand to be critical of people who cross the border, but U.S. corporations are fleecing the people of these countries of their resources.

If there was an equitable wage within the region, if infrastructure could be developed, there are many people who would not want to leave Mexico and other Latin American countries to come here, Haiti included.

I just returned from Haiti where hunger and starvation are common. There are people who simply drink sugar water to blunt their hunger. There is very little currency moving within poor communities, and the people are hungry. Torture is still taking place, there are systematic shootings in populated neighborhoods.

What I observed on my visit to Haiti were things that were taking place before the embargo. For example, at one hospital in the countryside, the reason most people are admitted is because of malnutrition.

Haiti, and Port au Prince in particular, has become like a dung heap. You have these heaps of garbage, anywhere from three to seven feet high, with a putrefying odor. And there are kids and old people and pigs and goats that all are rummaging through the same garbage for food. It is the most awful situation I have seen.

Being in Haiti and coming back, I've noticed a xenophobia in the United States toward people of color, especially people from Haiti. I think there is no doubt that there is an issue of racism in the U.S. immigration position that is also coupled with an antiquated political position in the region regarding communism.

For example, when there was a boat that arrived on one occasion with some Haitians and some Cubans, the Cubans were granted political asylum and the Haitians were sent back to Haiti. Now to me, this is a matter of racism. Because anyone who is familiar with what is taking place in Haiti has to understand the political crisis there and the misery and desperation of the people under the military regime. And if you are in any way a supporter of (ousted President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide in Haiti you can be killed, you can be raped, you can be tortured. Even children have been beaten by members of the army simply for having a picture of Aristide. For the 10 days that I was there I probably had the luxury of a maximum of four hours of electricity. There was no tap water in Port au Prince when I was there.

When I went to the market, I saw some of the people arriving in Mercedes-Benzes, but the rest had burros. You had something like 50 burros parked in the stalls, because that is the way they travel.

The wealthy do not want to share in any way with the poor of that country. There are two worlds: the world of the the elite and their children and all the other Haitians. Those who are (dark-skinned) are considered subhuman, almost like the days of slavery; they are there to work and enhance the financial status of the (generally lighter-skinned) oligarchy.

The U.S. government has abandoned Haiti because it is not seen as an area of any political or strategic interest, although it is very clear that Haiti is a source of cheap labor for the United States, just like Mexico. A number of American corporations are benefiting enormously from Haitians who are working for $1.11 per day.

Any discussion of working conditions and wages or benefits is enough to get people fired, and the U.S. companies that have returned to Haiti fired all the union members at their plants. U.S. companies don't pay any taxes, nor are there any health or pension benefits, or any environmental inspections, or health and safety inspections. Between 1983 and 1991, real wages in Haiti fell by 56%, and this coincided with Haitian apparel exports to the United States more than the doubling.

I am for the embargo. What we are finding is that the embargo is impacting a number of the elite. I gather that by the end of this month several corporations will have to close shop because of the embargo.

The Clinton Administration needs to put Haiti high on the agenda, and also to take Aristide very seriously. I don't think Aristide is being taken very seriously.

Haiti is beautiful, a country of mountains and beautiful seaside. It has a tremendous amount of potential for development. But what is lacking is the sort of leadership with integrity that people find in Aristide, because what he has claimed for the people is something that the oligarchy does not provide--honor and respect, so that they can be seen as human beings.

The generosity of the American people is outstanding. Wherever you go in Haiti you will find Americans who are trying to help. But we must never substitute charity for justice. What the Haitian people really need is justice.

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