Haiti's humanitarian crisis

1 September 2010 — International Socialist Review

From Duvalier Dynasty to military coups and intervention

To anticipate what lies ahead in Haiti, it is important to understand the origins of the popular movement for democracy and social justice that has shaped the last 25 years. The movement’s resilience is a legacy of the astonishing and successful war for slave liberation and independence of 1791–1804, an event that continues to reverberate in Haitians’ consciousness and world history.

The uprising that overthrew the 29-year rule of the Duvalier family dynasty in February 1986 opened the prospect for democratic rule. But while the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his family had to flee, the repressive apparatus of Haiti’s wealthy elite remained intact. What followed was a tumultuous, four-year struggle to hold a national vote.

Washington and the Haitian bourgeoisie, working through the Armed Forces of Haiti (FAdH) and death squads, tried violence and every trick in the book to control that process, including drowning in blood an attempted November 1987 election and staging a pseudo-election two months later that was almost universally boycotted.

The founding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the United States in 1983 signaled a new strategy by Washington of installing heads of state in its neocolonies through engineered elections rather than through military coups. This strategy, much to Washington’s surprise and dismay, met its first defeat in Haiti in December 1990. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former liberation theology Catholic priest, won the presidential election, Haiti’s first democratic election in many decades, with 67 percent of the vote, heading a broad, unstructured, popular movement called the Lavalas (meaning “flood”). His closest rival, the Washington-backed candidate and a former World Bank official named Marc Bazin, won a paltry 14 percent.

But Haiti’s elite appealed the vote, in the words of first coup Prime Minister Jean-Jacques Honorat, to “a higher authority” than the Haitian people. On September 30, 1991, the army and police staged a coup, exiling Aristide. The FAdH, with civilian frontmen, established a reign of terror for the next three years.

The coup had a devastating effect on political as well as social and economic life. Soldiers and paramilitary gunmen killed and exiled thousands, including many of Haiti’s most talented and battle-tested political leaders. But the popular movement was resilient. Much like the newly freed slaves’ response to Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to reintroduce slavery in 1802, the Haitian masses in the early 1990s showed the world their resolve to stop a return to neo-Duvalierist dictatorship.

Resistance to FAdH rule erupted in mass protests, aerial leaflet drops, and anti-coup pamphlets and radio broadcasts. Giant pro-democracy demonstrations and conferences grew in Haitian diaspora poles like New York, Miami, Montreal, and Paris. Tens of thousands of refugees took to the high seas in wooden sailboats destined for Florida; most were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Haiti was becoming ungovernable, and its puppet governments an embarrassment. To counter brewing revolutionary projects, stem the tide of refugees, and reestablish stability for U.S. investors, the Clinton administration gambled that it could use Aristide to front for the neoliberal reforms it sought to implement in Haiti. Surrounded by 22,000 U.S. troops, Washington flew Aristide back to Haiti on October 15, 1994, the first time anywhere it had reinstalled a president previously ousted by a U.S.-backed coup. But Aristide did not follow the Clinton script for privatizing state industries. Worse yet, in 1995 he abolished the Haitian army, depriving Washington and Haiti’s elite of their principal lever for controlling Haitian governments since U.S. Marines ended their 20-year occupation in 1934.

In 1995, while Haiti remained occupied by UN troops, the U.S. Embassy insisted on elections to replace Aristide, despite the Haitian people’s call for him to recoup the three years he spent in exile. On February 7, 1996, Aristide handed over power to his former Prime Minister, René Préval. But where Aristide resisted the privatization of state enterprises, Préval welcomed it. He also granted Washington the right to penetrate Haitian waters and airspace at will.

Meanwhile, Aristide and his colleagues founded the Fanmi Lavalas party in late 1996 and began preparing for the 2000 election. In May and November elections that year, the new party captured the Parliament and reelected Aristide as president. In turning the presidency over to Aristide in early 2001, Préval was the only Haitian head of state in the last 70 years to serve a full term and hand over power to an elected successor.

The new government promised to “invest in people” and make good on social justice projects for the masses. But after Lavalas swept the Parliament in May, a powerful triumvirate—the United States (tellingly, under the Clinton administration), shadowed by Canada and the European Union—imposed a crushing embargo on foreign aid and loans to Haiti.

The three powers—who named themselves “Friends of Haiti”—nurtured both vocal and violent oppositions, ranging from paramilitary “contras” assaulting people and government facilities from protected bases in the Dominican Republic to concocted and sometimes phantom groups dressed up as representatives of “civil society.”

It all led to a second coup d’etat, on February 29, 2004. But this time, there was no Haitian Army to do the dirty deed. It was carried out by foreign soldiers. A U.S. Navy Seal team, directed by the U.S. deputy ambassador Luis Moreno, whisked Aristide and his wife from their home in Tabarre into exile in Africa, while U.S., Canadian, and French troops occupied strategic locations around the country.

Ten lost years

The 2004 coup was another heavy blow against Haiti’s burgeoning political leadership and capacity. Not only was the president kidnapped, but most of the country’s governing institutions were dismantled—the legislature, the senate, municipal governments, schools, and post-secondary institutions. Once again, thousands of leading political figures were killed, imprisoned, or driven into hiding or exile.

The occupied country was nominally ruled for two years by U.S.-installed de facto Prime Minister Gérard Latortue and President Alexandre Boniface. Aid was unblocked but increasingly directed exclusively to NGOs and charities, completely bypassing the government and deliberately fostering service provider networks parallel to and independent of Haitian government oversight.

The 2004 coup has been more lasting than that of 1991 because powerful new players are assisting the United States in destroying Haitian democracy and sovereignty. These include:

Imperialist powers, notably Canada and France, who bring money, police, soldiers, and lots of political experience in the business of neo-colonial rule.

• The UN Security Council, which provided authorization for the coup and subsequent occupation, notwithstanding that this is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter’s Article 7. In June 2004, the Council created a military occupation force to take over from the United States, Canada, and France called the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH). Most of its foot soldiers are drawn from other neocolonies in Latin America and Asia. Today, it numbers 13,500 police, military, and administrative personnel.

• Latin America’s larger capitalist countries, including Brazil (which leads MINUSTAH’s military component), Chile, and Argentina. They provide a useful fig leaf for what is essentially a Washington-run operation, as cables recently released by Wikileaks reveal.

• NGOs and foreign-financed Haitian “civil society” organizations that became knowing or unwitting accomplices in the coup, often under the watchword that the uncooperative President Aristide had to leave office “for the good of the country.”

It is ironic that Brazil, the last nation in Latin America to outlaw slavery, is now policing the first nation to do so. Brazilian commanders have led assaults on urban shantytown strongholds of armed, anti-occupation Lavalas partisans with the same savagery they have displayed in raids into Rio de Janiero’s favelas. At U.S. Embassy urging, Brazil directed two bloody and indiscriminate assaults on “bandit” strongholds in the huge Port-au-Prince district of Cité Soleil in July and December 2005. Dozens of innocent civilians died, as documented by human rights and other fact finding delegations.

Despite international aid conferences and agreements such as the Interim Cooperation Framework (CCI) of 2004, Haiti’s agricultural production continued its precipitous decline under the coup regime. Light manufacturing, profiting from Haiti’s less than $1 a day labor (which economists like Oxford’s Paul Collier argue is Haiti’s greatest national asset) also declined. “Everything is broken in Haiti,” said U.S. attorney Thomas Griffin following a visit to the country in late 2004 that produced the first comprehensive look at human rights since the coup.

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