On July 23, 1987, the largest ever massacre of Haitian peasants began in and around the northwest town of Jean Rabel. Some 139 peasants were killed and an unknown number were injured by paramilitary civilian brigades and macoutes, paid by and acting on the orders of oligarch Rémy Lucas and other local landowners, including Jean Michel Richardson and Nicol Poitevien.
In the months leading up to the massacre, liberation theology priest Jean-Marie Vincent had been working with the members of the grassroots peasant organization Gwoupman Tèt Ansanm. (Tèt Ansanm would later change its name to Tèt Ansanm Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, after it was no longer directly affiliated with the Catholic NGO Caritas.) Father Jean-Marie had been helping the Jean Rabel-area peasants organize to defend their rights against oppressive landowners. These efforts had been met with violence, including the February 17, 1987 burning of several peasant houses in the nearby community of Gros Sable. By July of that year, Tèt Ansanm members sought to spread their message and organize with other peasants to reclaim their rights.
The violence began on July 23, but lasted several days, during which the paid aggressors continued to threaten and kill Tèt Ansanm members and their families on the street, in the hospital, in the prison, and hiding in the brush. During this time, the survivors pleaded for the higher church authorities in Port-au-Prince to intervene on their behalf, to little avail. Meanwhile, oligarchs Lucas, Richardson, and Poitevien maintained that they were the true victims, painting the Tèt Ansanm members and particularly the “communist” Father Vincent and his collaborators as the violent, divisive, and responsible parties.
These events revealed not only a local class conflict between large landowners and landless peasants, but the larger issue of land ownership in post-slavery Haiti. The bloody episode also demonstrated a deepening schism within the Catholic Church, between the conservative hierarchy and the “church of the poor”, the community-based ti legliz (literally “small churches”). The Latin American liberation theology movement had a profound impact on the political life of Haiti in the 1980s, reaching a peak in 1990 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest from the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince, was elected president. The Jean Rabel demonstrations and the massacre that followed illustrated the Haitian peasantry’s newfound consciousness and determination to defend rights that had been systematically crushed for more than two centuries.
The killings in Jean Rabel and the neighboring community of Gros Sable remain unpunished to this day. Rémy Lucas and Nicol Poitevien, who publicly boasted at the time to have killed “1042 communists”, were arrested in 1998, under the Presidency of René Preval but were later released, without a trial.
After the massacre at Jean Rabel, Father Jean-Marie Vincent continued to work on behalf of the disenfranchised peasantry, despite ongoing physical violence and threats, until his assassination on August 28, 1994.
For more information on Father Jean-Marie Vincent, please visit the Fondation Jean-Marie Vincent. (In French.)