Remembering a Champion of the Poor in Haiti
|Father Jean-Marie Vincent.
Photograph courtesy of the Fondation Jean-Marie Vincent
by Kevin Pina
Originally published September 16th, 2009The international community and the Rene Preval administration recently ignored the anniversary of the brutal assassination of Father Jean-Marie Vincent in Haiti once again contributing to the perception of two distinct Haitian realities. On one hand there exists the Haiti of the wealthy elite, the UN, foreign profiteers, NGOs, diplomats, and their clients in the Preval government. On the other hand there is the Haiti of the majority of the poor who are trapped in the grind of constant poverty with an experience, history and memory uniquely their own.
Haiti’s poor remembered the anniversary of the assassination of Father Jean-Marie Vincent on August 28, 1994 in small solemn ceremonies at his grave site in Port au Prince and the small town of Jean Rabel in northwest Haiti where he founded a peasant rights organization Tet Kole Ti Peyizan. They remembered him for challenging Haiti’s wealthy elite by starting literacy projects and planning an alternative bank dedicated to the poor. They remembered his courage and the beatings he took at the hands of dictators for his incessant call that Haiti’s dispossessed had every right to take control of the destiny of the nation. While members of Haiti’s moneyed class looked down upon the poor illiterate souls they ruled through corruption and violence, Vincent made it clear that the poor were not victims and they harbored a strength and wisdom that the rich would never allow themselves to understand. Vincent once said, “While the rich are concerned with going to heaven the poor are concerned with feeding themselves. We must tend to the needs of the poor to feed themselves before we can talk about the spiritual salvation of those who can already eat.”
In the other Haiti, the anniversary of Vincent’s assassination was overshadowed by all the hoopla of rehabilitating Reagan’s trickle-down economic theory in the form of bringing Haiti back into the camp of the neoliberal-sweatshop development model. The media-hype of a “new Haiti” being born from the promise of new sweatshops and a recent attempt to raise the minimum wage to a paltry $3.73 per day from a scandalous $1.75 per day, once again served to hide the simmering reality of the poor lurking beneath the surface in this island nation of 9 million inhabitants.
Father Jean-Marie Vincent fought against what has now become the reality of the US/UN sweatshop development model being imposed upon Haiti today. This solution to Haiti’s economic woes rewards the predatory and monopolistic wealthy elite at the expense of the masses of the poor in Haiti and has long been referred to as the “Plan Lanmò” or the Death Plan. Father Jean-Marie Vincent opposed this development model when Ronald Reagan first foisted it upon the Haitian masses in the 80s when it was called the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and he would have certainly been vocal in opposing its recycling today. Pretending that 70% of Haiti’s population are not still considered peasants who live in the countryside and that attracting them to low paid jobs in the capital would not exacerbate the already meager human resources in Port au Prince was a major factor of his opposition to the sweatshop development model.
Fifteen years ago, Father Jean-Marie Vincent was felled in a hail of bullets in front of his rectory at Montfortain in the Port au Prince neighborhood of Christ-Roi. Witnesses described two vehicles carrying members of Haiti’s dreaded Anti-Gang Unit of the Haitian army who opened fire on his vehicle. He was reportedly still alive as the Haitian army purposely led the ambulance slowly to the hospital allowing him to bleed to death before he could reach doctors. His death was slow and torturous only fitting to the profile of the accused such as Capt. Jackson Joanis, Lt. Youri Latortue, and Sgt. Jodel Chamblain all leading members of the Anti-Gang Unit of the Haitian army at the time of his assassination in 1994.
Joanis and Chamblain were judged guilty in absentia in 1995 for the assassination of Antoine Izmery, an Aristide supporter and businessman condemned by his own class as a traitor. Izmery and Vincent were counted among the victims of the Cedras regime that the US State Department once described as “one of the world’s worst human rights violators.” Joanis and Chamblain were ultimately released under the Latortue regime installed by the Bush administration in 2004 after a sham trial that Amnesty International called an “insult to justice.” They were also absolved in the murder of Father Jean-Marie Vincent.
Youri Latortue, a blood relative and security chief for the US-installed Prime Minister Gerard Latortue in 2004, is now the powerful head of the Haitian parliament’s Justice and Security Commission. He was also accused of complicity in Vincent’s assassination. According to a report released by a delegation of the Center for the Study of Human Rights in 2004, “A former high-ranking police official from the USGPN (palace security), Edouard Guerriere…claims that Youri Latortue participated in the 1994 murder of catholic priest Jean-Marie Vincent (as did eyewitnesses in 1995), and that he assisted in the 1993 murder of democracy activist Antoine Izmery. From 1991 to 1993, Latortue was an officer in FADH’s [Haitian army] Anti-Gang Unit, the army’s most notorious unit for human rights violations.”
The administration of former president Bill Clinton, who current serves as UN Special Envoy to Haiti while former First Lady Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State for the Obama administration, instructed the CIA and the State Department to conduct an independent investigation into the assassination of Father Jean-Marie Vincent and supporters of president Aristide in 1994. Leon Panetta, who currently heads the CIA was Clinton’s Chief of Staff at the time the investigation was commissioned by the Office of the President. Their spokesman at the time, Roger Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs referred to their conclusions in a press conference on Sept. 13, 1994 when he stated unequivocally, “The gunman who killed Father Jean-Marie Vincent, an Aristide ally, on August 28 was connected to the [Cedras] regime.” Yet none of the details of the investigation have ever been made public to this day.
In the end, what is clear is that UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief Leon Panetta now hold the power under the Obama administration to provide the truth behind the assassination of Father Jean-Marie Vincent. They are now in a position to demand that the files of the CIA and the State Department be re-opened. Unfortunately, whether they have the political will to do so may be like much everything else going on in Haiti today. Justice is inconvenient in their “new Haiti” if it gets in the way of “the country moving forward.” Unfortunately for them, history has proven that it is a foundation of sand to build a new future based on lies and impunity in a country like Haiti whose people have shown time and time again they have a long memory.
While providing the truth about Vincent’s assassination may be inconvenient for those who believe they currently hold the destiny of Haiti in their hands, they should understand more than others that the poor will never forget the legacy of Father Jean-Marie Vincent. They will always remember his selfless example of courage and expressions of love for them because he lived, worked and died in their Haiti.