In my essay on the movies, I forgot to mention a movie that changed my life: Markus Imhoof's The Boat is Full.
Around 1981, when I saw it, I had just been thinking that the U.S. effort to exclude Haitian boat people was regretfully justified: there weren't enough jobs to go around. Then I saw the movie, which was like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
It tracks a single day in the lives of five or six refugees from Nazi Germany who cross illegally into Switzerland just before World War II. They try desperately to stay; various Swiss people help or hunt them; a bureaucrat regretfully says that he would like to help them, but they are not welcome in Switzerland, because "the boat is full." At the end of the day, all the refugees but one are turned back accross the border, where most will die in concentration camps. These are the Jewish refugees. The only one granted asylum in Switzerland is the sole nonJew, a defector from the German army. The movie ends with a Swiss woman, who has been given a postcard to mail by one of the Jews, soaking it in water until the writing disperses into a cloud in the water, the way the writer's life soon will in the concentration camp to which she will be sent.
Immediately after seeing The Boat is Full, I volunteered to the Lawyer's Committee on International Human Rights to undertake the defense of a Haitian refugee applying for political asylum in the United States. I ended up defending eight of them over the next few years, along with several Salvadoreans.
I never won an asylum case, but am proud to say I kept almost all my clients in the country long enough for the amnesty that was granted in the mid-80's. What I discovered in the immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza was repulsive. If your client was a Cuban, Soviet, or refugee from another country we hated, asylum was obtainable in a day. But if your client came from Haiti or another "friendly" country, asylum would never be granted. The standard applied by the court was that the applicant must have a "well founded fear of persecution." But even my client who had crouched in a hole while the Tonton Macoute--the secret police--shot his uncle was held to be an economic refugee. We used to joke that in order to win an asylum claim, you would have to produce a member of the Macoute who would testify that he would kill your client if he was returned to Haiti.
Haiti has been through several regimes since then--Baby Doc Duvalier fell, Aristide was later elected and expelled, the military ruled for some years, and finally we intervened to restore Aristide. But the murder has never stopped, perhaps until now. An article in today's New York Times (February 6, 1996) entitled "Cables Show US Deception on Haitian Violence" raises some interesting questions not only about our government's morality, but about its mental health.
After the Tonton Macoute was officially disbanded, the U.S. covertly financed the formation of a militia named Fraph, run by one Emmanuel Constant. These goons committed thousands of rapes and murders in the years after Aristide was expelled. All the while, Constant and many others were on the CIA's payroll. When things got so bad and so unstable that the US officially had to intervene to restore Aristide, American troops were briefed that Fraph was a political party, "just like Republicans or Democrats." At the same time, cables from the U.S. Embassy to the State Department described Fraph as a violent "mafia."
The army kept up the pretense that Fraph was a political party for some time; Constant was even prompted by the Americans to give a speech declaring himself Aristide's "loyal opposition." Only when the Army intercepted a transmission by Fraph leaders planning the assassination of a U.S. official did things unravel. Constant (like Sheik Abdul-Rahmani a few years ago) "somehow" obtained a U.S. visa and disappeared in our country.
One of the army's first deeds after invading Haiti was to seize 150,000 pages of Fraph documents, which the Aristide government is demanding returned while our government stalls. Constant has been arrested and is awaiting deportation, explaining to anyone who will listen that he was on the CIA payroll for years. Classified U.S. cables from the embassy in Port Au Prince are being slowly revealed under a Freedom of Information act claim filed by a Haitian woman, Alerte Belance, now living in New Jersey. Here are the fruits of American foreign policy, paid for with your tax dollars:
She says the group abducted her in Haiti in 1993 and attacked her with a machete, cutting off one of her arms, an ear, and parts of her nose and tongue before leaving her for dead.
Peer into almost any Central or Latin American or Caribbean country in a state of unrest and you will find the CIA supporting a local band of rapists, torturers and murderers, while our own Senator Helms applauds. The rationale, the semantics of the situation, are always so Byzantine that they seem more suited to a novel by Thomas Pynchon, or a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, than to the foreign policy of the greatest democracy on earth. And while presidents change, the behavior of the CIA apparently never does. A Nixon can overthrow Allende or a Clinton restore Aristide, but behind the scenes the CIA will be paying the same gang of thugs. It is the Bureau of Permanent Murder.