Johns Hopkins Magazine - November 1994 Issue

Public Policy & International Affairs

High stakes in Haiti, etc.

What the U.S. doesn't know about Haiti can hurt

Hopkins anthropology professor Michel-Rolph Trouillot was waiting patiently for the call from ABC News. A car was to pick him up at 4 a.m. and whisk him from his Baltimore home to ABC's Washington studio, where he would be anchorman Peter Jennings's primary analyst for the network's anticipated special report on the invasion of Haiti. When the invasion was called off at the 11th hour on Saturday, September 17, so was Trouillot's moment in the national spotlight. But that was not what disappointed the Haiti scholar.

"The United States finally had [Haiti's military leader Gen. Raoul] Cedras by the throat," Trouillot says. "The troops were in the air, on their way to Haiti. Jimmy Carter could have made any deal at that moment. And he let him wiggle free. I couldn't believe it.

"Anyone who can read Cedras's body language knew that he believed that he, and not Carter, had won the negotiation," Trouillot says, then goes on to explain that when Cedras was interviewed by CBS News anchor Dan Rather on the Friday night prior to the anticipated invasion, the general's body language revealed nearly total capitulation. "When the general appeared on Sunday with Carter," Trouillot says incredulously, "his whole demeanor spoke of triumph. I know these people, and the policymakers don't. And that's what has had me so concerned."

The stakes in Haiti are as high as they get for Trouillot. A native of the island nation, he grew up with and went to school with many of the players involved in the current military rule. His family remains among the intellectual elite; his father and uncle were both well-known and well-respected lawyers and historians, and his stepmother, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, left her secure position as Supreme Court justice to serve the country as interim president between the fall of the Duvalier regime and the democratic elections that brought Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office. Many of Trouillot's relatives remain in Haiti, their safety a constant concern to him.

Trouillot worries about what he perceives as the serious gap that exists between U.S. policy in Haiti and policymakers' knowledge about the country and the Caribbean in general. "Not only are policymakers making mistakes," he says, "but they are not even asking the right questions. And when they then talk to the media, their misinformation becomes reality."

For example, those who are making an effort to build public support against U.S. involvement in Haiti, he says, "are spreading stories that Aristide has committed the same sort of violent human rights abuses as Cedras, and that's simply untrue." Trouillot says, "A handful of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have reported no such violations that I know of." Nonetheless, several news agencies--most notably CNN--have picked up these charges and reported them.

The problem of misinformation or disinformation disturbs but does not surprise Trouillot, who suggests that diplomats have not historically advanced their careers by focusing on the Caribbean. "If you asked most of the policymakers and their staffs to point out Haiti on a blank map, I tremble to think how many would not know where it is."

This information gap is what prompted Trouillot to accept ABC News's early-morning invitation, and has motivated him to spend hours talking to local and national reporters. His agenda has only one item: to raise awareness about what is really going on in Haiti, so that policy and public opinion are built on a solid foundation of understanding.

This goal also has taken on a more formal structure. Last year, Trouillot established The Hopkins-Georgetown Haiti Project, a collaboration between The Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History at Hopkins and scholars at the well-respected Cuba Project at Georgetown University.

Within the project, Trouillot and visiting scholar Robert McGuire, of the Inter-American Foundation, will research and widely distribute a series of briefing papers on a diverse range of historical, political, and social issues related to Haiti and the Caribbean. At least two meetings are planned with congressional staffers to take the Project's concerns directly to Capitol Hill. In addition, Georgetown University will host a series of off-the-record briefings every six weeks that will bring together academics, politicians, policy-makers, and other interested parties.

"The group has met twice since July," Trouillot says. "I see a lot of note taking, but I have not yet noticed any shift in the policy discourse. But I am hopeful." In the meantime, Trouillot waits with the rest of the world, worried about whether the United States is willing to make a long-term commitment to ensure Haiti's survival.

"I don't know if Father Aristide can or cannot govern Haiti," he says, "but for the first time in history, the voiceless class, the peasants who are in the majority in Haiti, spoke up in a political process they basically don't trust or have any use for. And they chose Aristide. So, the right thing is to give him a chance to carry out the will of the people.

"Beyond that, trouble exists for Haiti and ultimately the United States, because Port-au-Prince is going to explode one day from all the political and economic tensions pulling at it. The question becomes, then, does the United States take action now or later? This is a question answered best by those making policies, but they can only make the right decision if they have the right information. And I am trying to provide that in every way I can."

The phone number of the ABC News producer will remain close to his telephone. --SL

Immunization low among inner-city children

A recent study by researchers at Hopkins's School of Public Health and the University of Maryland has revealed a strikingly low level of immunization among young children in low-income, inner-city Baltimore neighborhoods. Although most of the children were covered by medical assistance plans and their parents were taking them to doctors for at least some preventive care, the immunization levels of the children were significantly below national goals.

The study, directed by Hopkins professor of maternal and child health Bernard Guyer, surveyed 557 2-year-olds in Baltimore. The survey revealed that 70 percent had received their first vaccinations on schedule. But by the time they were 19 months old, only 13 percent had received all the vaccinations recommended by that age. By age 2, more of the children had caught up with the schedule, but about half were still behind.

Nancy Hughart, project director, says, "Parents seem to start out with that first visit on time, but then the number of on-time visits drops off. It's not clear yet what the reasons are."

Published in the July 1994 issue of Pediatrics, the study noted, "The low immunization coverage levels observed in Baltimore exist despite the presence of a large network of primary health care facilities to which these children have access, and despite the availability of health insurance (via Medicaid), sufficient preventive health visits during the first two years of life, and free vaccines (to about one-third of the providers in the survey area)."

Hughart says that the study suggests that health care providers may need to make greater efforts to track the immunization schedules of children in their care, and to make sure parents know when the next immunization is due. Providers also may need to be alert for opportunities to immunize children whenever they are brought in for early visits, she says, since parents are more consistent about the visits early in the child's life. Some providers, Hughart says, may be waiting too long to administer vaccines, not realizing how much the frequency of visits declines as the child gets older. --DK

Escape from Rwanda

Tina Malone (SAIS '92) has had a firsthand look at a horror most people find incomprehensible--the appalling disintegration of Rwanda. A project manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Malone escaped from that country in a harrowing 12-hour drive last April, when the worst of the bloodshed had just begun.

Conditions in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, began to deteriorate last February after a series of assassinations, she says. Street crime increased; Malone says a colleague's wife and children were held at machine-gun point while thieves sacked their house. "Any night of the week you could hear a gunshot or a grenade going off somewhere," Malone says. "I don't think I was ever personally in danger; foreigners were not often targeted, because people knew that if aid workers were hurt, the development organizations would just pull out. But it's not a nice feeling to know that every time there's an explosion, there's someone biting it."

Then came the plane crash that killed the Rwandan president. "I got a call from the U.S. embassy, saying, 'We think the president's plane has been shot down. Sit tight.'" No one knows why the plane detonated in the air, but the crash triggered the slaughter that suddenly thrust Rwanda onto the front pages of American newspapers.

For three days Malone and dozens of other Americans stayed in their houses, listening to the gunfire and the occasional loud explosion. "You're frightened in your bones," she recalls. "Every explosion makes you shake." Through telephone and radio, the Americans kept in touch as best they could. When the order came to evacuate, word passed from yard to yard in some cases.

Fighting had closed the airport, so 158 Americans, including Malone, had to drive out in a convoy. Throughout the trip, the evacuees kept encountering roadblocks and bands of heavily armed men. Malone says each time they came to a new obstacle, the Americans stopped, lowered their car windows a crack, and talked their way past. Sometimes villagers dragged a log across the road to stop traffic simply because they wanted news of what was taking place elsewhere in the country. Says Malone, "They weren't out to do harm to us. They were scared and wanted information."

The convoy made it to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, by 3 a.m. Malone then flew to Nairobi, expecting to stay a week or so before going back to Rwanda. She did not anticipate the horror that subsequently befell the country as members of the Hutu tribe slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Tutsi tribe, and the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front drove the Rwandan army out of Kigali and overthrew the government. Many of her Rwandan colleagues died in the fighting.

Malone is now working in the CRS office in Baltimore, helping to coordinate the delivery of emergency assistance to Rwanda and its estimated 4 million refugees and other displaced people. She intends to return to Africa someday, but not to Rwanda: "I'm not going back. I think I'd be depressed for the rest of my life." --DK

Written by Dale Keiger and Steve Libowitz.

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