Jan 1 1995

Haitian Women Are Out of Frame

And Their Abusers Are Out of Sight

When President Clinton sat down in front of U.S. television cameras to explain “why the U.S. is leading the international effort to restore democratic government in Haiti” (10/16/94), he emphasized the violation of Haitian women’s human rights.

“International observers uncovered a terrifying pattern of soldiers and policemen raping the wives and daughters of suspected political dissidents,” Clinton said, “young girls, 13, 16 years old…children forced to watch as their mothers’ faces are slashed with machetes.”

In Haiti and in the United States, there was hope that these words would translate into action. But a month after the landing of approximately 20,000 U.S. troops, there’s no indication that the women’s assailants are being brought to trial. And there’s just as little evidence that the U.S. press corps cares.

Landing in Haiti a week to the day after the return of Aristide, this writer found herself traveling against the tide of U.S. mainstream media reporters. Having “done” the Haiti story, journalists were leaving the hotels en masse. “We’re among the last to leave,” Charlayne Hunter-Gault, of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and Rights and Wrongs, said on October 22.

There’s nothing the U.S. press corp likes better than a videotape-able “moment” and a “great man” making history. Aristide’s return to Haiti offered both. No matter how many times President Aristide and his staff said things like “the house of democracy does not stand on a single pillar alone,” U.S. cameras focused exclusively on the individual.

Ellen Braune, who runs a non-profit public relations firm, invited journalists to interview leaders of the large popular organizations that constitute Lavalas, the movement that brought Aristide to power. “News producers would say: Well, that’s nice, but can’t you get us Aristide?” Braune told CounterSpin (10/8/94).

The media’s failure to see the movement behind the man left most of the Haitian people, and all the women, outside the frame. Remaining in camera-center were “Americans.” ABC World News Tonight discussed the damaging effect of poverty in Haiti (10/22/94), who were the victims? U.S. GIs. “Among the stresses that every soldier feels is the shock of seeing Haiti’s poverty,” explained John McWethy in a segment about why three U.S. soldiers had committed suicide since the Haitian mission began in September. U.S. soldiers appeared on the screen in close-up, with impoverished Haitians in the background. The Miami Herald ran headlines(10/22/94) like “To Black GIs, Haiti Misery Especially Touching”, and “Bad Conditions Cause Morale Problems for U.S. Troops in Haiti”.

For the most part, large, impersonal forces like “poverty” and “power” received scant coverage. It’s hard to capture “structural readjustment”–the austerity program imposed on Haiti by foreign lenders–in a graphic photograph; it’s far easier to catch a snapshot of the smiling infant or the raising of a U.S. flag.

The question asked by the women of SOFA, a broad-based Haitian women’s organization, is what happens when the U.S. troops go home. “The U.S. troops have opened up a space, but what will fill it?” said Marie France, one of the leaders of the group, speaking to a delegation from MADRE, a U.S. women’s organization that is supporting a women’s health project in Haiti. As fast as reporters were leaving Haiti in the week after the restoration, businessmen were arriving. As the Miami Herald reported (11/7/94), “Haiti is open for business.”

To Marie France and the women of SOFA, the revival of business as usual in Haiti means a return for women workers to the sub-poverty ($0.14/hour) Haitian wage. In addition to purely commercial investment, some $800 million in multilateral aid (most of it from the U.S.) is expected to be invested in Haiti over the next 15 months for “elections assistance” and “stability” development (Miami Herald, 11/7/94).

“The intent of many of these programs,” Jane Regan writes in the Port-au-Prince-based newsletter Haiti Info (10/22/94), “is to counter the democratic and popular movement’s demands for radical economic change and social justice.” But the Christian Science Monitor reported investment solely as a boon (10/24/94): “Aid Windfall Propels Sweeping Change in Haiti”.

“The U.S. media provide a very limited picture of just what constitutes a human right,” said Vivian Stromberg of MADRE. “Freedom from torture is more or less understood; freedom to develop your own institutions to serve your own needs is not.”

As for the torturers? “When the people turn criminals over to the [U.S.] troops,” said Anne Marie Coriolon of SOFA in the fifth week of the U.S. occupation, “they see them on the streets again in three days or less.” “Our mission,” one young U.S. MP on the ground explained, “is to professionalize the army and the police here, not to judge them.”

So far, none of the close to 100 rape survivors whom SOFA works with on a regular basis has felt secure enough to try identifying her abuser to the U.S. GIs. One boy did point out the man who forced him to rape his mother, and got U.S. forces to take the accused man away, said Coriolon. “But no one’s watching to see if that man is kept in jail,” she said. “If he’s let out, that boy’s life’s in danger.”

No one’s watching because the abusers of women never did get put into the spotlight, and in any case, the media moment has passed.