Sunday, November 25, 2012

Unresolved Transgenerational Trauma in Haitian Society

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Unresolved Transgenerational Trauma in Haitian Society:
A perspective on potential reconciliation and conflict resolution in Haiti




 By
Kevin Pina
December 12, 2010













Traumatic experience plays a significant role in the development of patterns of violence. The link between a traumatic past and violence has been found in individuals who have been severely abused, as well as in groups that have suffered trauma collectively, such as systematic abuse and humiliation over an extended period.

- Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (2010)


Each passing episode of political unrest and uncertainty in Haiti, with its corresponding spasms of violent upheaval, punctuates the barriers to lasting peace and reconciliation that persist in Haitian society. This chapter contends that the UN and the international community have contributed towards perpetuating cycles of violence in Haiti through their failure to acknowledge the effects of massive trauma resulting from violent oppression during the period of 2004-2006. It further contends this represents one of the major roadblocks to a creating a process of much needed healing and reconciliation in Haiti.
Much of the political division and the greatest potential for mass violence that exists in Haitian society today centers on the circumstances and legitimacy of Aristide’s ouster in 2004 and its aftermath. On one side is the view that his departure was voluntary resulting from a popular revolt against his government and that most of those killed during 2004-2006 were gangsters and bandits. The other view is that Aristide and his government were the targets of a destabilization campaign by foreign powers that cultivated and funded an opposition against them and that the president’s departure was involuntary. Regardless, what is clear is that most of the documented cases of human rights abuses committed during this period were the result of an extreme campaign of political repression targeting those who resisted the government takeover.
The response of the international community, particularly the governments of the US, France, Canada and Brazil, has been to deny any evidence of human rights abuses committed as a result of Aristide’s ouster. Instead they have pursued a course of legitimizing the transition, and by extension the dismemberment of organizations supporting the Lavalas political movement and the Fanmi Lavalas political party, through a series of elections. These elections have legitimized the political actors that supported the coup of 2004 even as Haiti’s current Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), or Provisional Election Council, has banned the participation of Lavalas in the electoral process on the basis of what are seemingly trivial technicalities.
This policy has served to drive a deeper wedge between the political forces that supported Aristide’s ouster and the majority of Haiti’s underclass, and hence the majority of the population, that supported Lavalas. This has led to further polarization with supporters of Lavalas more openly perceiving the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, as a biased political actor and occupying military force imposing a political solution at the behest of the international community.
Perceptions of the role of the international community and MINUSTAH in Haiti are further complicated by persistent accusations of their complicity in supporting the Haitian National Police (PNH) between 2004-2006 as they were documented committing human rights violations. These negative perceptions are further compounded by equally persistent allegations of the UN committing massacres in the community of Cite Soleil, long considered a bastion of support for Lavalas, between 2005 and 2006 under pressure from Haiti’s economic elite.
The ouster of Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas party in Haiti on February 29, 2004 ushered in two years of rule by an interim regime under the protection of United Nations military and police forces. Lavalas means “flashflood” and its leaders, organizations and communities loudly opposed Aristide’s ouster thus representing a threat to the consolidation and stability of the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH). For this reason Lavalas, widely recognized as the most popular political movement in Haiti of the past decade, came under constant attack by the Haitian National Police (PNH) and UN security forces. Between 2004-2006 thousands of supporters of the Lavalas political movement and the Fanmi Lavalas political party were killed, jailed and forced into exile in what has been described as a systematic campaign of political extermination (Donais, 2005).
If we place current manifestations of large-scale violence in Haiti in this historical context, most recently over electoral fraud and the growing cholera epidemic reportedly brought into the country by UN troops, a cyclical pattern emerges that can be said to be symptomatic of larger unresolved factors in Haitian society. These factors include what renowned psychiatrist and trauma specialist Dr. Vamik Volkan (2006) has identified as transgenerational trauma resulting from periods of intense violence and oppression resembling what occurred in Haiti between 1991-1994 and again during 2004-2006. Volkan’s description of the specific form and context of societal conflict from which transgenerational trauma emerges is applicable to these two relatively recent periods in Haitian history.  Volkan (2006) describes this form and context as,
When a massive trauma results from wars, war-like conditions or from existing devastating political systems, there is an identifiable enemy or oppressing group that has deliberately inflicted suffering and helplessness on its victims.

Conditions in Haiti during 1991-1994 and 2004-2006 closely resemble Volkan’s description of the context of massive trauma where there exists an “identifiable enemy or oppressing group that has deliberately inflicted suffering and helplessness.” The effects of this massive trauma on a specific group, as in the example of Lavalas in Haiti, results in what Volkan (2006) identifies as transgenerational trauma,
Such trauma affects the victimized society in ways that are different from those of natural or accidental disasters or unexpected loss of a leader. Sharing shame, humiliation, dehumanization and guilt, inability to be assertive, and identification with the oppressor complicate large-group mourning and this complication in turn becomes the main reason for the transgenerational transmission of trauma.
According to Staub, E. et al (2005), ending the cycle of violence that results from such conditions is dependent upon a process of healing and reconciliation,
For reconciliation to take place, perpetrators and members of the perpetrator group who may not have engaged in violence also need to heal. Often perpetrators have endured victimization or other traumatic experiences as part of the cycle of violence. Their unhealed wounds contribute to their actions. Sometimes past trauma has been fixed and maintained in collective memory (Bar–Tal, 2002; Staub&Bar–Tal, 2003); it has become a chosen trauma that continuously shapes group psychology and behavior. (Volkan, 1997, 1998)

From the countryside to the largest cities of Cap Haitien, Les Caye, and the capital of Port au Prince, the political violence of 2004-2006 inflicted lasting individual and collective trauma. For survivors in Haiti old enough to remember back then, it was reminiscent of the political persecution and violence directed against them by a brutal military regime from 1991-1994. During the military regime of Cedras and Francois, poor communities sympathetic to Lavalas and within the physical province of the capital such as Cite Soleil, Bel Air, Solino, and Martissant, bore the brunt of the repression. The Haitian National Police (PNH) largely repeated this pattern of attack during 2004-2006 even as the force was being supervised, armed and trained through the UN and funded by the international community.
Due to this key role played by the UN military and police in Haiti between 2004-2006, the approach of the UN Security Council and the international community has largely been to deny and avoid any discussion of victimization and transgenerational trauma that may have resulted. Taken as a whole, their approach can be viewed as a policy of expediency and avoidance in Haiti that places more emphasis on moving forward than a serious program to address past injustice and the underlying causes of cyclical political violence in Haitian society.
The most visible symbol of the unresolved and yet unhealed wounds from the period of 2004-2006 remains the exiled leader of the Fanmi Lavalas party, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A nationalist leader and former liberation theology priest whose popularity in Haiti is still feared by the international community, Aristide is currently forced to live in exile in the Republic of South Africa.  In the collective memory of the Lavalas movement, Aristide’s exile is a tangible and constant reminder of their victimization between 2004-2006 and the lack of reconciliation achieved by the United Nations and the international community since they took control of Haiti in 2004.
To fully grasp the impact and scope of the violent oppression faced by Aristide supporters and the mass trauma it generated in Haiti between 2004-2006, it’s important to understand the historical context of the Lavalas movement.1
The Haitian people have experienced the joy and pain of two cycles of election victories by Haiti’s popular movement that were followed in both instances by sustained periods of massive human rights abuses and violence. The first of these cycles began when the popular movement of the poor effectively defeated the forces of the status quo by electing Aristide president on December 16, 1990. This was in turn answered with a brutal military coup launched on Sept. 30, 1991 and a repressive regime that clung to power through violence until the US was forced to intervene in 1994.
The conscious and collective power of millions of Haitians in the popular movement, later evolving into Lavalas, began after the fall of the corrupt and brutal regime of the Duvalier family in 1986 (Smarth, 1997). The departure of the regime unleashed the fury and anger of a brutalized and impoverished majority of Haitians that took the form of what was called the dechoukaj, or uprooting (Constable, 1992). This phenomenon was manifested throughout Haiti as a spontaneous violent rebellion where the impoverished population attacked anyone associated with the Duvalier dictatorship and its dreaded paramilitary attaches known as the Ton Ton Macoutes.
In the wake of the dechoukaj, Aristide and the Christian based communities called Ti Legliz or the Little Church, would rise to prominence and their political strength would ultimately capture the highest office in the land on behalf of the poor majority. That majority elected Aristide president on December 16, 1990 with 67% of the vote altering Haiti’s political landscape once and forever. This sense of collective power on behalf of the poor majority represented the first major step in the formation of the large-group identity of the Lavalas movement (Aristide, 1987).
Lavalas or the Flashflood represented a literal and symbolic flood of the poor meant to wash the country clean of Duvalierist corruption and the sway of a complicit and predatory wealthy elite. In many ways and for a great many Haitians it became a non-violent and reasonable alternative, through elections, to the spontaneous violence of dechoukaj. As Aristide himself once said to me in July 1991, “The poor of Lavalas are the subjects of our social revolution. On December 16, 1990, it was they who took power in Haiti.”
An elderly Haitian man I interviewed in front of Haiti’s presidential palace in July 1991 best illustrates the mass psychological change this represented. He summed it up best, “When I was a young man we didn’t even dare to look at the place for fear something bad would happen to us.” He stooped over turning his head towards the street and away from the building. “We would walk by like this,” he continued miming fear while forming blinders with his hands to cover his eyes. Suddenly the old man snapped his body upright and raised his hands towards the sky while focusing his gaze back on the building, “We are not afraid anymore. This place belongs to all of us now.” The importance of this psychological transformation from fear to empowerment in solidifying the large-group identity of the poor in Haiti cannot be overemphasized. Bayard de Volo (2006) describes what she calls the non-material benefits of such transformation,
First, the benefits are accrued in-process, as actors officially participate for some larger social goal. Second, they involve more sustained transformations in mental and emotional condition than is suggested by consumptive benefits. Third, they are relational, requiring that other actors recognize and help sustain such benefits. Finally, they can be central to actors' own understanding of why they continue to participate within a social movement organization.

The popular recollection of this period within the Lavalas movement is that for the first time Haiti’s poor felt they had a government in office that belonged to them even as the wealthy few began to plot with certain elements of the army, the police and the parliament to destroy it.
The military coup of 1991 and the aftermath of the controversial ouster of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 have yielded the same results; prolonged periods of massive political violence in Haiti.  In the first case the Haitian military, with the backing of Haiti’s wealthy elite, waged a stubborn campaign to violently eliminate resistance to their regime following the coup of 1991. The same can be said of the regime of Gerard Latortue following Aristide’s ouster in 2004 despite it having not only the backing of the wealthy elite but the added support of the international community and the United Nations. In both instances, thousands were killed, jailed and forced into exile. In describing the first coup, renowned physician and current UN Deputy Envoy to Haiti Paul Farmer (2004) wrote,
Declassified records now make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH, which rose to prominence after a military coup that ousted Aristide in September 1991. Thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled overseas or across the border into the Dominican Republic.
 The Haitian masses and the Lavalas movement would struggle for many years to overcome the losses of the 1991 coup and would finally regain their collective power by re-electing Aristide president again on Nov. 26, 2000.  The forces of opposition would strike a second time by ousting Aristide in yet another coup four years later on Feb. 29, 2004. Although the context and circumstances of these two cycles of elections and corresponding coups in Haiti are markedly different, the brutal nature of the end result makes them all too similar. While the coup of 1991 was marked by a violent and immediate show of force by the Haitian military, the violence perpetrated against Lavalas and initiated by Aristide’s second ouster in 2004, escalated gradually as deep-seeded resistance to the takeover became more apparent.
On February 14, 2004 an armed paramilitary force invaded Haiti from the neighboring Dominican Republic to force the ouster of the democratically elected president of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office. This invasion immediately followed the dwindling of protests by the “opposition” in Haiti demanding Aristide’s resignation.
Aristide’s ouster coincided with the destruction and disintegration of the Haitian police as it was constituted and organized under his government.  A UN authorized force called the Multinational Interim Force or MIF, comprised of U.S. Marines, French Foreign Legion and Canadian Special Forces, exercised military authority in Haiti following Aristide’s departure.
Simultaneously, the governments of George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac and Paul Martin, respectively of the U.S., France and Canada, supported extra-constitutional procedures to install an unelected Interim Government of Haiti (IGH) led by former World Bank official and Florida television talk-show host, Gerard Latortue. The IGH was comprised primarily of individuals and elements that exhibited the greatest antagonism towards Aristide and the popular movement of the poor responsible for his election.
               The 15-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom) refused to recognize the 
new government and demanded a UN inquiry into the events and circumstances of 
Aristide’s ouster. They were soon joined by the 51 nations in the African Union that 
fully supported both measures. On April 5, 2004 then Secretary of State Colin Powell 
delivered the Bush administration’s immediate rejection stating at a press conference 
in Haiti, “I don't think that any purpose would be served by such an inquiry." 
The MIF collaborated closely with the IGH to create a new Haitian police force comprised of members of the former brutal military and Haitian death squads that had invaded from the neighboring Dominican Republic to force Aristide from office.  Despite control of Haiti’s streets by the MIF and the new police force, thousands began taking to the streets to demonstrate against what they described as yet another coup in Haiti and to call for the return of Aristide. The demonstrations were met with violence on the part of the police backed by the MIF that resulted in the killing of unarmed demonstrators and brutal military assaults on entire communities. The extreme was realized when members of the community of Bel Air in the capital of Port au Prince accused the U.S. Marines of executing a campaign of wholesale slaughter against their community in an early morning raid on March 12, 2004.
The four months following Aristide’s ouster, especially October and November 2004, marked the first wave of violent repression against Haitians that supported Aristide and the Lavalas movement. A great many were killed, jailed or forced into exile while the lives of thousands more were disrupted by an atmosphere of uncertainty and terror. This was the human rights situation in Haiti when a United Nations peacekeeping mission replaced the MIF in June 2004.
Known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or most commonly by its acronym MINUSTAH, the new force was led by the armies of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.  They would come to play a similar role as the MIF in as much as they turned a blind eye to the extra-judicial slaughter met upon the population by the new Haitian police force. In response community members from the largest slums, that were the backbone of continuing massive demonstrations against the coup demanding Aristide’s return, began to take up arms and lead armed resistance against police incursions. They were immediately and opportunistically labeled everything from gangsters to bandits and at one point were said to be emulating Iraqi resistance that was waging war against U.S. troops in Iraq. Most of theses unfounded accusations came from partisan human rights organizations and Aristide opponents in the IGH and most were repeated uncritically in the international press.
All of this culminates in two events in which the United Nation’s forces, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, are accused by community members and local human rights organizations of having committed massacres of unarmed civilians. The first incident was July 6, 2005 where a U.N. military incursion is said to have resulted in between 20-25 deaths with scores more wounded in the seaside shantytown of Cite Soleil. The second occurred on December 22, 2006 under similar circumstance and with equally deadly results.
Psychologist Dan Bar-On (2005) writes the concept of reconciliation is “used extensively when conflict transformation is discussed” where,
Its introduction is usually based on the assumption that after a political settlement has been reached top-down, another bottom-up process should take place in which any unresolved issues of the conflict will be handled as well. It is assumed that without such a bottom-up complementary process, there is a real danger that the top down conflict settlement will not last and a new violent outbreak might follow.

The approach of the United Nations, and therefore most of internationally funded non-governmental organizations since 2004, has been to focus on community violence reduction programs from the top-down rather than reconciliation strategies from the bottom-up in Haiti. They justify avoiding open community dialogue of political violence against the Lavalas movement citing a heavily polarized and partisan political culture. The programs funded by the international community, including those that use the term reconciliation in describing their objectives, tend to focus on violence reduction through greater community involvement in civic education campaigns tied to reform of the Haitian National Police (PNH) and the courts. The problem is that these are the same institutions and authority that were responsible for violent repression and the jailing of Lavalas leaders and sympathizers between 2004-2006. When international policy makers and NGO programs have addressed violence during that period, they focus almost exclusively on the symptom of “gang related violence” rather than a frank discourse of the causes of the massive political violence remembered by communities throughout Haiti.
Violence intervention and reduction programs, sponsored by the United Nations and the international community, largely ignore the need for any public discourse of the role of transgenerational trauma in Haitian society. They have thus far been unwilling to acknowledge its impact because to address it would invite an inconvenient dialogue with communities in Haiti about Lavalas, Aristide and their role in Haitian sovereign affairs, particularly between 2004-2006. This is understandable given that most NGOs when asked will say that 2004 was the year Aristide had to flee the country because he became corrupt and lost the support of the Haitian people. If you ask a poor Haitian about 2004 a great many of them will tell you this was the year of the coup against Aristide and Lavalas.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2010) defines a coup as, “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics; especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.”  Aristide’s overthrow in 2004, regardless of the debate over it’s causes and origins, had the net effect of forcing from office more that 7000 officials that were elected in May 2000 (Maguire, 2002). That number does not include thousands more political appointees in federal and municipal levels of government who were also driven out of their positions under threat of violence and forced into hiding after February 29, 2004. This marked the beginning of a two-year period of intense demonization and criminalization of the Lavalas movement that was used to justify state-sanctioned violence against them often with the collaboration of UN military forces in Haiti.
As Kenyan novelist and theorist Ngugi wa Thiong'o (2009) eloquently pointed out in an article written for the UN Chronicle,
It is well known that both a person who perpetrates trauma and one who experiences it can often shut the trauma in a psychic tomb, acting as if it never happened. The recipient does not mourn the loss and the perpetrator does not acknowledge the crime, for you cannot mourn a loss or acknowledge a crime you deny. This can occur at a community level, where horror committed to a group is kept in a collective psychic tomb, its reception and perpetration, passed on in silence, which of course means that there is no real closure and the wound festers inside to haunt the future.
 Until a mechanism is created to address transgenerational trauma resulting from violent oppression in Haiti, including acknowledgement of the role played by UN military and police forces between 2004-2006, it is not of question of if but when Haitians will once again erupt into violent political conflict.


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1 The documentation of violent repression from that period is largely derived from my documentary video Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits and a large archive of unused raw footage of events and incidents from 2004-2006.  All of the footage I shot served as source material for regular radio reports I filed from Haiti on Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio heard on KPFA in Berkeley, CA. In turn, I would use the same information to analyze and write about the situation in Haiti for the cyberzine Black Commentator and articles for the Haiti Information Project (HIP) published on HaitiAction.net.