Exiled Haitian learns not to trust U.S. pledge

September 20, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Dr. Paul Lunis, a native Haitian who now practices medicine in Baltimore, has been following events in his homeland with very mixed emotions. He would love to see the military leaders there ousted and democracy restored, as President Clinton has pledged. But he doesn't trust the United States to keep its word.

"For those of us who have lived under the brutal regimes there in the past and who know the history, well -- our emotions are very complex," he says. "I feel angry. I feel bitterness. We have learned not to trust the United States government because the government's policy in Haiti has always been to keep the status quo.

"I would trust you -- and any other American -- as individuals," Dr. Lunis continues. "But the American government is a different thing. You do not know what has been going on in my country. But the government knew and the government has tolerated it; not just tolerated it, but encouraged it."

Dr. Lunis, 49, is a pediatrician who left Haiti in 1974. He is married and has two small children and a home here. He has friends, colleagues and a thriving practice in Northwest Baltimore.

But part of his heart will always remain with the tiny, impoverished Caribbean nation he fled as a young medical intern 20 years ago.

Dr. Lunis tried to explain this to me yesterday. He spoke to me about the innate honesty of his fellow Haitians; about their willingness to work hard even for little reward; about their creativity and capacity for joy even in the most adverse conditions. He also talked about the wanton brutality of the Duvalier government and the regimes that followed it -- regimes that were either backed or tolerated, he contends, by the U.S. government. Dr. Lunis fled to America, for instance, after his best friend was beaten and jailed after a minor traffic accident with an army colonel.

"My father, he told me that those people are like the Mafia -- you are either with them or against them. He said, 'If you do not leave soon, I am afraid I am going to lose you.' "

Today, politically motivated violence "is 10 times worse," continues Dr. Lunis, who still has relatives in Haiti. "Duvalier killed you in the dark. Those guys will kill you in broad daylight and brag about it afterward. Duvalier would only kill his enemies. Those guys will kill you, your family, and anyone who may be associated with you. They are wanton killers, totally out of control."

It was to hear all of this that I had gone to see Dr. Lunis in the first place. Ever since Haitian army officers deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991, causing thousands of refugees to flee to these shores, I have heard and read a lot about our neighbor to the south: There were fears in some quarters that Haitians would bring AIDS here; that they would add to the nation's welfare burden; and contribute to crime. Others countered that the military junta in Haiti had set up one of the most brutal governments in this hemisphere, responsible for hundreds of murders, rapes, and beatings of opponents.

The United States first declared Haitians arriving here to be economic, rather than political, refugees. Thousands of such refugees were arrested, incarcerated and returned to Haiti. Next, the United States tried an economic embargo to force the junta leaders to step aside. Finally, on Sunday, under threat of an imminent invasion, Haiti's military leaders agreed to step down. President Aristide reportedly will return to office by Oct. 15.

But through all of this, I have heard very little from Haitians themselves. Dr. Lunis notes that Haiti often is portrayed as the international equivalent of a welfare recipient. The debate here has been whether Haitians deserve our charity. Rarely is it noted that Haiti sent troops to America's defense during the Revolution, or that a Haitian army defeated a French invasion force in the early 1800s, helping to thwart French goals of holding onto land in the Americas.

"Yes, we are dark-skinned," says Dr. Lunis. "Yes, we do not possess oil on our island. But we are human. Give us the chance to develop our democracy. Stop supporting the tyrants. Let the poor people there have hope and see what they can accomplish."

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