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Blindness in Haiti

To serve one’s government and at the same time try to serve the cause of truth is a necessarily surreptitious activity. And so we have little chance ever to know just who filched and opened up to public notice United States Ambassador to Haiti William Swing’s April 12 cable warning Secretary of State Warren Christopher that exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide “and his supporters in Washington and here consistently manipulate or even fabricate human rights abuses as a propaganda tool.”

This unknown perpetrator had to be someone trusted with official confidences and desperate enough to breach them. He has thus committed a sin against the state; and, if he hadn’t, we could not have been made so compellingly aware of the difference between what our governors say and how they truly feel.

Ambassador Swing’s findings were composed for him by Ellen Cosgrove, his embassy’s human rights officer. Ellen Cosgrove sits with Terror all about her and casts upon it an eye notable for serenity, disciplined incuriosity about troublingly dreadful details, and imperviousness to notions of possible moral distinction, however small, between murderers and murdered.

Her equanimity could indeed be admired as near perfection if it were not unvaryingly thrown out of balance whenever Aristide’s image cankers her mind, as in:

President Aristide and his lobbying apparatus in Washington have increasing substantiation for charges that the human rights situation here is getting worse—and what they cannot substantiate, they will fabricate”; and, in this malign endeavor, “they are wittingly or unwittingly assisted” by human rights organizations and by the International Civilian Mission to Haiti sponsored by the UN and the OAS.

Ellen Cosgrove’s tone is only occasionally so spiteful and sometimes even takes on notes oddly flippant, as in:

For a range of cultural reasons (not pleasant to contemplate), rape has never been considered or reported as a serious crime here…. We are, frankly suspicious of the sudden high number of reported rapes, particularly in this culture, occurring at the same time that Aristide activists seek to draw a comparison between Haiti and Bosnia.

Ellen Cosgrove’s defining adjective for Aristidian activists is “hardline ideological,” which we may take to mean that any ideology so un-Haitian as to consider rape a “serious crime” has crossed alarmingly into extremes.

Cédras and the General Staff,” Ellen Cosgrove concedes, “tacitly condone both widespread police criminal activity and the persecution and elimination of Aristide partisans, confident that the international community will be unable to do more than deplore and condemn the violence. Such violence has not been confined to Port-au-Prince slums.”

The least we could ask of a human rights officer genuinely upset by such conditions would be that she buttress her generalization by citing the products of the elimination process whose bodies are so regularly thrown on the streets of Port-au-Prince as cautionary symbols for the discontented. Ellen Cosgrove gives a broad sketch of that process, but she closely examines just two surviving claimants to victimage and dismisses them both.

It cannot be easy to arrive at a balanced view between those who kill for hating Aristide and those who die for loving him; but Ellen Cosgrove and her ambassador have brought it off simply by hating Aristide almost as much as Raoul Cédras does. There are all too many precedents for this sort of thing; and none more tellingly noticed than by Mark Danner in his recent book, The Massacre at El Mozote. Danner recites the December 1981 butchery of more than five hundred civilians by Salvadoran troopers trained by American military advisers and then protected with denials from the American embassy.

Eleven years later, a State Department panel solemnly found that our embassy’s cover-up of El Mozote “had undermined [our] credibility…in a serious way that has not healed.” Shame exists only in the past tense, and so we feel equally licensed to deplore our former conduct in El Salvador and resurrect it for fresh service in Haiti.

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