One of my students asked me about the current unrest in Haiti. “Reading the news accounts,” she offered, “I can’t figure out who stands for what. And what role is US policy playing in the ongoing events?”
I, too, find it difficult to extract meaning from the news accounts. Newspapers and wire service reports ran headlines about “Rebels Occupying Haiti’s Second and Third Largest Cities,” without identifying the rebels or explaining what they stood for.
Other than their expressed hatred for and desire to overthrow the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, I found in the news reports not the barest trace of Haitian history that would help people get a context for the current conflict.
For example, 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize the first black and second oldest republic in the Hemisphere. In the early 1790s, inspired by the French Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave, led an uprising and overthrew the French masters.
In 1862, almost sixty years later, Abraham Lincoln finally recognized Haiti. In 1888, the United States began its habit of intervention when US forces responded to the Haitian authorities’ seizure of a US ship that had landed illegally. In 1891, US troops landed “to protect American lives and property—when Negro laborers got out of control.”
Woodrow Wilson deployed the Marines in 1914 and again in 1915 “to maintain order during a period of chronic and threatened insurrection.” They remained as an occupation force under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1934, FDR ended the two decades of occupation by turning the reins of government over to a clique who looted the country until in 1956 [when] François Duvalier (Papa Doc) [came to power through a manipulated election; in 1964 he declared himself president for life.]
Papa Doc created a brutal dictatorship backed by the Tontons Macoute, a Haitian Praetorian Guard. Upon his death, Jean Claude or Baby Doc Duvalier replaced his father until his overthrow in 1986. Both mouthed the anti-communist line, brutalized their own people and received US support.
In 1990, Haitians overwhelmingly elected as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist Catholic priest. He served nine months before a military coup, led by General Raoul Cedras, backed by the CIA, ousted him and instituted three years of military rule: political violence against all opponents and looting.
President Clinton procrastinated. Finally, in 1994, he dispatched troops to reseat Aristide as president. But Clinton limited the military’s goals. He did not order the troops to disarm members of the illegal military gangs or train new security forces to protect Haitians in the countryside, where paramilitary thugs harassed the farmers.
Aristide’s most prominent enemies and flagrant human rights abusers—fled to the United States or the Dominican Republic. But they had stashed weapons on the island and waited for the opportune moment. Human rights violators like Col. Emmanuel Constant, a former CIA agent, walked confidently through the streets of Queens, New York. Some former army and Tonton Macoute officials have returned and “joined” the “opposition.”
The media has identified Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former army officer and member of FRAPH, Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, during the post-1991 military coup. But little has been reported about the nature of the atrocities committed by this “leader” of the rebels.
Although such hooligans more than cloud the political “opposition’s” legitimacy, large numbers of Haitians do feel disappointed with Aristide. The three-year wait before Aristide resumed his legitimate place as president, seemed to have changed him and the inchoate, populist Lavalas Party he leads. By 1994, following the Pope’s order, he had shed his collar. The secular Aristide no longer showed the same assurance. The exile years had taken their toll.
By the late 1990s, those democratic and progressive minded people around the world who saw him as “the deliverer” also felt disheartened. Aristide’s religious charisma seemed to dissolve in frustration. First, the man who had vowed to build a new, developing Haiti, free of corruption, got IMF’d.
He refused to privatize the public’s wealth as The IMF and World Bank—and US loan agencies demanded. Aristide had seen what these policies had done to the desperately poor in the third world. His refusal to obey led the dictates of the imperial financiers led to his punishment and to his inability to accomplish even minimal reforms.
The cynical “expectations” went side by side with a double standard on which to judge Aristide. While the Colombian government on the western side of the Caribbean received increased US aid for bad behavior, Aristide was held to standards that no third world country could have maintained. Washington offered meager resources and then deemed his effort to improve police training inadequate. When violence occurred, the details somehow became obscured, the perpetrators unnamed and the blame fell on Aristide.
Neither news stories nor editorials asked the obvious question: What resource-starved, infra-structurally underdeveloped and politically chaotic third world country could accomplish economic development, social order and political stability in a few years?
In 1989, I interviewed Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. I asked him what reforms he would make now that he had regained political power (he won as a Democratic Socialist in 1972 and 76, was defeated in 1980 and won a third term in 1989, no longer a socialist, but a supporter of IMF policies).
He laughed scornfully. “My budget has no flexibility,” he said. “The DEA offers a $29 million grant to burn ganja [marijuana] fields. I have a choice: use the money to open the roads blocked by Hurricane Andrew or raise teachers’ pay and keep the schools open. I can’t do both. No agrarian reform. No health care.” He shook his head. “Political power without money in the budget is an illusion.”
He invited me to accompany a joint Jamaican Defense Force-DEA who planned to raid a ganja plantation on the island’s western side. The helicopters landed, the troops and DEA agents jumped out and, as if in real combat, unleashed their flamethrowers on the ample crop. Within twenty minutes the soldiers and agents began to giggle uncontrollably as they inhaled the fumes of their labor.
Watching the event, the extended family whose livelihood had just gone up in smoke, did not share the celebration. The Member of Parliament who had also accompanied the strike force lectured them: “This is what happens when you grow illegal crops.”
“What else can we grow?” asked the grandfather of the clan. “With the roads destroyed we cannot get crops to market. With ganja, the airplane comes,” he pointed to the landing strip in the middle of the burning field, “takes the crop and gives us cash. Now what?”
The MP lost his pot-induced ebullience.
“Well, maybe you could start up a small factory or something,” he responded weakly.
“Dis imperialism, mon,” a dread locked young man opined.
“Huh?” I said.
“California ganja growers take over Jamaican market,” he said. “America balance of trade improve.”
Back in Kingston, the DEA agents and JDF officers invited me for a drink. I declined. Manley would have his $29 million and raise teacher pay to keep schools open. What a price he was paying! He resigned shortly afterwards a tacit admission of political impotence.
Place the current rioting in Haiti in this political and economic context, one missing from mainstream reporting. Add the explicit or implicit twisting of news reporting to make Haitian civil strife appear to be Aristide’s fault.
The media should have smelled the proverbial “destabilizing rat” when reporting that on December 5, 2003, 50 armed men broke into the university in Port-au-Prince and began to provoke students and professors. Aristide backers responded by demonstrating. The armed unit attacked. One pro-Aristide man let loose a sling shot and connected with the head of an anti-Aristide militant. But onlookers, mostly students, bore the brunt of the ensuing violence.
On January 12, the anti-Aristide gang organized a protest march in the capital Port-au-Prince. Reports from non-US sources maintain that some students joined this demonstration after receiving cash incentives or promises to get tickets for foreign travel.
US dailies did not mention this information. Instead, the media focused on Aristide’s inability to answer “security concerns,” while anti-Aristide officials in the Bush Administration like Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, Presidential envoy to the Americas, promoted a policy of embargo against the Aristide government. Noriega carried an old vendetta from his former boss, retired North Carolina Senator (R) Jess Helms, who despised Aristide’s leftish disobedience.
The chaos that reins in Haiti is far from spontaneous. Thugs who illegally seized power and raped Haiti from 1991–94 have returned to the island to join with people who have legitimate grievances.
Aristide may have overestimated his own support, relied on a weak police force and underestimated the treachery of his foes. But Aristide’s mistakes or even character flaws do not invalidate his legitimacy as an elected president of Haiti, the poorest country in the Hemisphere.
Reasonable political sense, I told my student, dictates that we should support Aristide’s offer to compromise with the political opposition and put down the ruffians who want full dictatorial power, reminiscent of their illegal rule 1991–4.
Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences California State Polytechnic University, Pomona 3801 W. Temple Avenue, Pomona, CA 91768, phone: 909-869-3115 fax: 909-869-4858 www.saullandau.net