‘As soon as Duvalier had fled Haiti, an angry crowd toppled the statue of Christopher Columbus in Port-au-Prince and threw it in the sea,” recounts Puerto Rican ethnohistorian Jalil Sued-Badillo. This scene from the 1986 popular revolution that overthrew the despised regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, or ‘Baby Doc’, perfectly illustrates the depth of Haiti’s of tortured history.
After many bitter struggles throughout its 200 year existence, the inhabitants of the New World’s second oldest republic broke free of the shackles of dictatorship. Duvalier’s overthrow led to an overwhelming victory in 1990 for Haiti’s first freely elected president, the liberation theologist Jean-Bertrand Aristide, lately the subject of a coup d’etat by opposition forces.
The circumstances of Aristide’s departure remain disputed. Whether he was genuinely abducted by US agents who sent him to the Central African Republic as he has claimed, or whether he simply acknowledged that he’d lost his grip on the country and fled is largely irrelevent now.
What cannot be contested is that Haiti’s democratically elected president did not resign of his own volition in any meaningful sense. There can also be little doubt that the US administration was the primary instrument in his removal.
The conflict which exploded in early February and climaxed with Aristide’s removal has deep roots. Haiti’s history of economic exploitation backed by armed force remained unbroken until early 1990 when Aristide was elected president with 67% of the vote. The Lavalas grassroots movement that swept the liberation theologist to power took the West completely by surprise; the US’s favoured candidate, former World Bank official Marc Bazin, came a second with a derisory 14%. Under Aristide, “Haiti seemed to be on the verge of tearing free from the fabric of despotism and tyranny which had smothered all previous attempts at democratic expression,” observed the Washington Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Washington, who supported the hated Duvalier dynasty throughout their thirty year rule, quickly identified Aristide as a rotten apple that threatened to infect the barrel. Most worrying was the fact that trusted international institutions displayed a favourable reaction to Aristide’s reforms. The US responded to Aristide’s success in characteristic style, shifting aid from the democratically elected government to what are known as “democratic forces” – wealthy elites, the business sector and military opponents.
Barely seven months after taking power, the Haitian army and its paramilitary allies ousted Aristide. They immediately embarked upon a systematic campaign to destroy the grassroots political movements; at least 1000 people were killed in the first two weeks. The most brutal organisation was FRAPH, founded by CIA agent Emmanuel Constant. During the military junta, its members received training from US forces in Ecuador along with Guy Philippe, leader of the present coup.
Constant himself now lives untroubled in New York, despite repeated extradition requests from the Haiti government who found him guilty of serious crimes in absentia. Curiously, George Bush’s favoured doctrine that "those who harbour terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves," has not been applied in this instance. Presumably because Constant’s crimes, the slaughter of 4-5000 Haitians, are too meagre to merit serious attention.
Soon after the military seized power, the Organisation of American States announced an embargo, as is customary under international law. George Bush senior immediately announced plans to exempt US firms.
Aristide was eventually returned to power by Clinton in 1994 with the aid of 20,000 US marines and the crucial proviso that he implement the neoliberal policies of his defeated electoral opponent. For those unaware of Haiti’s 200 year history, it was patently obvious who held the reins of power.
Since being reinstalled as president in 1994, and winning a second term, Aristide has been performing a balancing act. He has been forced to comply with Washington’s demands, which have in effect transformed Haiti into a US export platform. The secondary consideration is therefore the majority of Haitians who supported his progressive measures. So Aristide resisted privatising state assets, doubled the minimum wage and prioritized social spending, much to Washington’s ire.
The “democratic forces” that George W. Bush has continued to service cannot win elections through democratic means but rely on armed force. The rebel gangs now in control of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince are close to two groups financed with links to the US Republican Party: the Convergence for Democracy and the Group of 184.
Brought together through a marriage of convenience, the opposition has been calling for Aristide’s removal since alleged irregularities in elections. International observers contested the winners of seven seats in the senate during May 2000. Aristide’s election was never disputed; he was once again elected president overwhelmingly with 90% of the vote in November of that year. In response to the irregularities, Aristide asked for the senators involved to resign, but the opposition continued to call for his head.
In a move which demonstrated extraordinary contempt for the most elementary moral standards, and the lives of ordinary Haitians, the US administration proceeded to place an embargo on Haiti. Supposedly due to the electoral improprieties, the vicious siege, against a country that is presently the fourth poorest nation in the world, was supported by international financial institutions, who cut off millions of dollars of credit.
Haiti’s elections may have been imperfect in some respects. But given Haiti’s history of bloody dictatorships, they marked a significant step forward for a country that has for 200 years suffered under the yoke of despots. If the US were committed to “democratic forces” the embargo makes little sense.
It is also true that Aristide has been guilty of corruption, attempts to suppress dissent and complicity in some human rights abuses. These are well documented. But even if he had been saintly, it is doubtful whether events would have unfolded in any way other than their predictable course.
In rejecting the right of Haitian citizens to govern their own affairs, and again supporting the former death-squad leaders who have now seized Haiti, the US is indeed upholding a tradition of talking nobly about democracy whilst supporting the most anti-democratic, reactionary forces.
Democracy marches on. Haiti’s history continues unchanged.