Jean Rabel Massacre: 1987

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.

Political cartoon from Tèt Kole's 1989 commemoration of the Jean Rabel massacre.  Peasant farmers and laborers are powerless against the might of landowners, the Church, political leaders, and the United States, among others.  (Source: Radio Haiti Inter paper archive)

Cartoon from Tèt Kole’s 1989 commemoration of the Jean Rabel massacre, showing peasant farmers and laborers opposing landowners, the Church, political leaders, and the United States. (Source: Radio Haiti Inter paper archive)

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.

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Cartoon from Tèt Kole’s 1989 commemoration of the Jean Rabel massacre, representing how the direct perpetrators of the massacre were instigated by big landowners, the Church, the army, and Uncle Sam . (Source: Radio Haiti Inter paper archive)

 

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.

Recordings

Tèt Ansanm members’ testimony, 3 July 1987

Jeunes Etudiants Chrétiens (JEC) of Port-de-Paix Support for Tèt Ansanm, 6 July 1987

Jean Rabel Massacre: Tèt Ansanm’s Call to Action and Solidarity, 21 July 1987

Jean Rabel: Violence Against Demonstrators Increases, Oppression of Journalists, 23 July 1987

Interview with members of Tèt Ansanm/Witnesses, 28 July 1987

Father Jean-Marie Vincent on the Jean Rabel Massacre, 28 July 1987

Massacre Jean Rabel, Radio Soleil, 28 July 1987

Jean Rabel Massacre – Father Jean Rénald Clérismé, Nicol Poitevien, and Jean-Michel Richardson, 30 July 1987

Jean Rabel: Rémy Lucas and Jean-Michel Richardson, date unknown 1987

Inter-Actualités Magazine, Special Report: The Slaughter at Jean Rabel, late July 1987.

Inter-Actualités Magazine, Special Report on Jean Rabel: Land Ownership, Anti-Communism, the Catholic Church, and Rumors, 16 August 1987

Face à l’Opinion: Father Rénald Clérismé on the First Anniversary of Jean-Marie Vincent’s Assassination, 24 Aug. 1995

JMV: 1980, Rivière Côte de Fer, J-R

Jean-Marie Vincent, 1980, Côtes de Fer, Haïti (photograph courtesy of the Fondation Jean-Marie Vincent)

 

For more information on Father Jean-Marie Vincent, please visit the Fondation Jean-Marie Vincent. (In French.)

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