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LifeLinesThe Lincoln County News - Online Edition
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September 09, 1999Serving Maine and Lincoln County for Over A Century Vol. 124-No. 36

Nichols anxious to return to Haiti

Judi Finn

Paul Nichols of Nobleboro talks passionately about human rights in Haiti, and understandably so.

Up until the end of June, Nichols, 33, was an observer working for the Organization of American States (OAS), helping to give democracy in the poorest country in the western hemisphere a chance to take root. When funding was cut off in the U.S. Congress, half of the observers, including Nichols, were told to go home.

The small country occupies half of the island of Hispanola in the West Indies, is about one-third the size of Maine, and has a population of roughly 6 million.

Nichols' first exposure to Haiti was in 1990 when he was assigned there after joining the Peace Corps. A 1985 graduate of Lincoln Academy, Newcastle, he completed a double major in history and geography-anthropology at the University of Southern Maine in January of 1990, and in July started his three month training period.

"I was evacuated one week after the coup d'etat," Nichols said, in October, 1991. So that stint in Haiti ended abruptly, too. As the coup unfolded, Nichols was in a remote area of Haiti. "My shortwave radio was the only communications in the entire village," he said. Many of the villagers joined him to listen to the Voice of America.

"I wasn't threatened," Nichols said. "The military did not want to attack foreigners. I never had any problems in Haiti."

The focus of his first Peace Corps assignment and the one to follow in Honduras (1992-1994) was agricultural development. He concentrated on soil conservation and refrestation projects, which required five months of training compared to the usual two. There was great continuity with the programs, said Nichols, because new Peace Corps volunteers arrived to take over, under normal circumstances, every two years.

"It's a great way to do something right out of college," particularly if you love to travel, as has Nichols ever since his senior semester abroad in England. The Peace Corps also trains the volunteer in languages. "The only language I took was Latin" in high school, said Nichols.

Nichols takes advantage of the periods between assignments to travel and since leaving Haiti in June, he spent two weeks each in Bolivia, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Peru.

After his Honduran assignment ended in 1994 and a subsequent hiatus spent in the United States, Nichols heard about the OAS program for human rights observers through a friend and applied. He couldn't believe how easy it was and in April, 1995 he was on his way back to Haiti.

"In February, 1996, they trimmed the mission down by two- thirds," but Nichols was rehired in July, 1996 and he remained in Haiti until this June. What made it particularly difficult for Nichols to leave this time was the knowledge that the long awaited elections were set to start in November.

Nichols is angry about the political strings attached to funding and blames Republicans like Sen. Jesse Helms for cutting the money. He thinks the chances of getting the money back are slim.

His mentor and uncle, Frazer Meade, who was a former deputy ambassador to Haiti (1976-77), warned him that the foreign service career path was a difficult one due to politics. The fact that Nichols was assigned to Haiti was just a coincidence.

The Haitians are new to democracy and Nichols found them very open to learning how to incorporate it into their lives through civic education seminars on topics such as law enforcement.

"Fall, 1995, was the first time they had a civilian police force." The military was disbanded. "They loved to learn and were very inquisitive." After Nichols and other observers trained the Haitians, who have historically and with good reason been afraid of police, the trainees taught their own people. "We did seminars to show people what police should do" and not do.

"We've lived in a democracy for more than 200 years," Nichols said. "They don't realize they have a role in their government."

Another duty of the observers is to interview all the prison detainees in Haiti. They ask questions about the arrest, the judge they faced and possible human rights abuses. Some may require a follow-up by an attorney.

"We go off to do surprise visits" at police stations, he said, which is accepted by the police because they know the observers have a mandate from the government. "Most of the police are honest and have nothing to hide. Police officers are very well educated and the training is difficult."

Some people who have human rights complaints will seek out the OAS office and these are investigated, too. "We send all the reports to the central office for follow-up." Nichols also visited justices of the peace and checked records. He had to promote the observers' efforts nationally in Haiti, using the media.

There are setbacks, he admits. Just before leaving Haiti, "There was a summary execution of 11 suspected thieves." Nichols said the police officers responsible were put in prison.

Haiti is being held back by a demographic extreme - a wealthy few compared to 90 percent of the population which is below the poverty level.

The country also needs more definition and equality of power between its three branches of government - the legislative, which until the November elections remains practically defunct; the judiciary, which is weak; and the executive, which Nichols describes as an oligarchy (government in which power belongs to a few persons).

Nichols estimates $1 billion in international aid is being withheld from Haiti.

Committed to continuing human rights advocacy, Nichols has applied to observe the Haitian elections, another OAS project, and through the United Nations has asked to be assigned to Kosovo in the Balkans.

He deferred his acceptance to American University grad school to the fall of 2000, to coincide with the end of his Haitian OAS assignment, which, ironically, he didn't need to do, now that the OAS Haitian contract lost funding. He hopes to complete a master's program in international affairs and economics.

In the meantime, he's "surfing the Net" for opportunities in his field and reliving his most recent adventures, including being hissed at and chased by an alligator in the Bolivian Amazon and swimming with hammerhead sharks off of Ecuador.

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