Haiti's lost hope for press freedom

It is not generally recognized in the United States how effective President Carter's human rights policy was. Here is an example:

In 1977, I was asked by the Inter-American Press Association to go to Haiti to help promote freedom of the press. President Duvalier's is perhaps the most repressive regime in the Westerm Hemisphere. It seemed to be a task as futile as attempting to further press freedom in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

But to our amazement, my colleague, Bill Landray of the St. Petersburg Times, and I found a legitimate move by Duvalier toward press freedom. Since the country is mostly illiterate, radio is the principal news medium. We found several radio stations actually criticizing the government. We interviewed Duval-ier, and he personally committed himself to guarantee the safety of the dissident journalists.

Recently, here in New York, I came across one of those daring radio journalists, Jean Dominique. He had been the owner of the leading independent radio station, and himself the most consistent critic of the government. Dominique had become the symbol of the move toward Haitian press freedom. Other Haitian journalists took their cue from him. They observed how far Dominique would go in ''testing'' the so-called ''democratization'' process, and after a safe interval they would follow.

Now Dominique is in exile. And, in fact, is lucky to be alive. In 1981, Duvalier's henchmen took over the radio station. Dominique fled and hid several days in a cane field. He was rescued by a US Embassy official who risked his life taking Dominique in his car to the Venezuelan Embassy.

What happened to the hopeful glimmer of press freedom in Haiti?

It turns out that the entire ''democratization'' process in the late '70s was the result of President Carter's human rights policy. I would give the young Duvalier the benefit of the doubt and speculate that he personally wanted to soften the brutality of his father's regime. His justification, as he faced the old guard led by his mother, was that ''this is what the Americans want.'' The argument was convincing. This was indeed what the US ambassador consistently communicated to the Haitian government. US aid to Haiti was contingent on the country's move toward greater personal freedom.

When Carter was defeated in 1980, the old guard reacted immediately as if it were relieved from its human rights commitment. It believed it would have little difficulty proving to the new Reagan administration that Dominique and the other dissident journalists were involved in a communist conspiracy.

Dominique told me that when news reached Port-au-Prince of Reagan's victory, government thugs took to the streets to celebrate the ''cowboy's triumph'' and the end of Carter's human rights.

''The order was to kill me,'' Dominique said, ''and the government was shocked to see the US Embassy come to my rescue. They totally misunderstood the election of the new US President.''

Haiti was not alone. It is probably correct that it was a similar misperception on the part of the Argentinian military junta that led it to believe the US would not oppose its action in the Falkland Islands.

And this is the point.

There were, of course, glaring inconsis-tencies in the application of President Carter's human rights policy; it tended to ''penalize'' mostly those countries friendly to the US.

But the policy was often effective: It did push the Haitian government toward liberalization. As remarkable as it seemed at the time, budding press freedom in the country was no miracle; it was the direct result of the right use of American power.

That is all behind now. Haiti has regressed totally. Some of the courageous journalists encouraged by the US now are safely in exile, like Dominique; others are in Haitian prisons.

It is worth repeating that the perception of what the American president believes is, on occasion, a matter of life or death to journalists and dissidents throughout Latin America, as it has been - and is - in Haiti.

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