by Kim Ives (Haiti Liberte)
The government of President Michel Martelly is literally sealing off the Haitian island of Ile à Vache, on which the residents are rising up against government plans to throw them off their land.
On Mar. 11, Haïti Liberté journalists discovered in the southern city of Aux Cayes that agents of the Martelly government had paid off boat captains, who take people to the island, not to accept Haitian passengers.
Meanwhile over 120 heavily armed officers of the Haitian National Police’s Departmental Unit for the Maintenance of Order (UDMO) and the Motorized Intervention Brigade (BIM) have been deployed to the island to uproot residents and control protests. Already 20 families have been dispossessed, according to the Organization of Ile-à-Vache Peasants (KOPI or Konbit peyizan Ilavach), which is leading the resistance on the island. Meanwhile, KOPI’s vice president, journalist/policeman Jean Maltunès Lamy, has been arrested and jailed in the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, which is illegal since it is in a different department (West) than Ile à Vache (South).
Following a May 10, 2013 presidential decree declaring the island was a “zone of public utility,” Martelly’s government has begun to implement its plan to kick peasants off their land and townspeople out of their homes and turn the entire island into a tourist resort.
Journalists and Haitian human rights activists seeking to reach the island last week in order to investigate the situation there found that the Haitian government had paid the captains of small boats that ferry people out to the island 10,000 gourdes ($225) to only accept foreigners on their vessels. The normal cost of a round-trip to the island is 4,000 gourdes ($90).
It takes about 40 minutes to travel by boat to the 20 square mile island about 10 kilometers southeast of Aux Cayes. It was once a base of the renowned English pirate Henry Morgan (c.1635–1688).
Events on the island began to escalate after Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin gave a 90-minute presentation to a group of farmers on Jan. 16.* In response, on Jan. 17, several hundred of the island’s 20,000 residents demonstrated, blocking road, burning tires, closing schools and businesses, and chanting “Ile à Vache is not for sale, neither wholesale or retail!”
A week earlier, on Jan. 9, island residents threw stones at Fernand Sajous, one of the owners of the island’s Abaka Bay Resort, Fritz César, the local unelected interim representative of the central government, and Dorcin Fresnel, a secretary of state for agricultural production, after a public meeting about government plans turned sour, according to Jean Claudy Aristil of Radio VKM (Vwa Klodi Mizo our Voice of Claudy Museau).
According to KOPI, UDMO soldiers were deployed on the island on the night of Feb. 9, and beat residents Charles Laguerre, Bertin Similien, Maxo Bell, forcing them to remove the barricades they had erected in protest. The next day the UDMO policemen beat up a girl, Rosena Masena, in the township of Madame Bernard, according to KOPI.
On Feb. 14 on Radio VKM, one of KOPI’s organizers said that the residents of Ile à Vache do not recognize the Presidential decree divesting them of their lands and denounced the increased police presence. Historically, there have only been two police officers for the whole island. The KOPI leader asked for solidarity from Haitians around Haiti and its diaspora.
On Feb. 20, more than 40 soldiers from the BIM arrived on the island and destroyed several houses, according to KOPI. The next day, KOPI Vice President, Jean Matulnès Lamy, himself a police officer, was arrested. Mr. Lamy was imprisoned without being brought before a judge, and many KOPI members went into hiding. The same day, Ile à Vache residents, brandishing tree branches and singing rara songs, protested in the township of Kay Kòk to demand Lamy’s release and to oppose a government delegation’s inauguration of a new community center, restaurant, and radio station. The demonstrators complained that their calls for a high school and vocational school have been ignored and that local masons, foremen, and technicians were passed over for the construction work in favor of people from out of town. The islanders expressed doubt that the government was promoting “eco-tourism” on the island when it has cut down Ile à Vache’s only forest to build an airport.
KOPI President Marc Lainé Donald (Jinal) said that KOPI still wants the May 10, 2013 presidential decree rescinded, saying it “reflects a macabre plan, a rat trap, a collective suicide, that aims to drive all the residents from the island. It is a cultural genocide...”
On the morning of Feb. 25, soldiers of the BIM, firing live ammunition, attacked a peaceful demonstration of about 1,000 Ile à Vache residents near the Madame Bernard township. The assault was led by the local interim governor, Fritz César, who carried a 9-mm handgun and pointed out which protestors should be beaten or arrested. About 12 people were injured, and two men – Carl Oza and Aizan Silien – were arrested. The injured included Adrien Justin and Genel Justin. Although it was raining, the demonstration started spontaneously when the island’s residents learned that Mr. Lamy was taken to court but was not heard by a judge and instead taken to the National Penitentiary.
On Feb. 27, 2014, Sen. Pierre Francky Exius, Chairman of the Senate Committee for Justice and Security, said he would summon Justice Minister Jean-Renel Sanon and the Chief of Police to discuss the Ile à Vache situation. Senator Exius called the arrest of Mr. Lamy “political” and based on “a supposed event which is over one year old and hence no longer anything in flagrante delicto.”
On Mar. 1, Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin traveled to Ile à Vache, but KOPI members, still in hiding because they are vilified as “bandits” by the government, refused to meet with her. KOPI said that island residents will not meet with government representatives until after:
1. The May 10, 2013 decree to expropriate their lands is rescinded.
2. The 100 BIM soldiers are removed from the island.
3. Jean Maltunès Lamy is released.
4. The defamation campaign on Haitian radio, labeling KOPI members as “bandits,” is stopped.
The islands residents accuse government officials of lying, insisting that 20 families have already been dispossessed, although they were promised that no one would be.
In an effort to quell and appease the uprising, Minister Villedrouin held a press conference in the capital on Mar. 10, saying that “nobody is going to be expelled from Ile-à-Vache” and “up until now, no individual has been expelled,” according to Alterpresse.
She said that “measures for compensation are foreseen for the families living in places affected by the plan to build hotels on the western point of the island,” Alterpresse also reports.
“Families will be dealt with on a case by case basis,” she said. “Nothing is going to be done in an arbitrary manner.”
UDMO and BIM police officers had been dispatched to Ile-à-Vache, Villedrouin said, following “violent demands” and “with the aim of stabilizing the area.”
But the minister’s comments are belied by the government’s apparent efforts to seal off the island. A delegation of the Dessalines Coordination (KOD), a new political party, was among those seeking to get to Ile à Vache on Mar. 11. The KOD members had to hunt down a private boat to take them to the island.
“Our delegation has come to Ile-à-Vache to bring KOD’s solidarity to the island’s people, whom the government of President Martelly and Prime Minister [Laurent] Lamothe is trying to uproot with the complicity of imperialist governments,” said KOD delegation leader Oxygène David. “Our delegation had a hard time getting to the island. People here tell us that the government has stepped up corruption in an effort to prevent progressives from other places from coming to give solidarity to the island.”
Oxygène David also pointed out that “the government had Jean Maltunès Lamy arrested and deported him all the way to the National Penitentiary in Port-Au-Prince without any judge in Aux Cayes charging him with a crime. This is an act of kidnapping because it has no legal or juridical foundation which would allow them to arrest someone in Aux Cayes and then jail them in Port-au-Prince. Any indictment must be done in Aux Cayes’ jurisdiction and then the person goes before a court in that jurisdiction.”
In addition to supporting KOPI’s demands, KOD has joined with the population of Ile à Vache in forming three demands:
1. The unconditional liberation of everybody arrested in demonstrations on the island.
2. The rescinding of the illegal decree declaring the island a tourist development zone.
3. For the government to stop repressing the island’s people and to withdraw all of its BIM police from the island.
* Much of the reporting for this article was drawn from the website Haiti Chery of Dady Chery. Her excellent updates can be found at www.dadychery.org.