Thursday, January 21, 2010

 

Haiti, Empire, & Aristide

The image at right is from 1994; it is still apt today.

Last Friday, Warren Olney spoke with guests about Haiti on his show, To the Point. If you listen to the program you can hear David Rothkopf essentially erasing the effects of foreign exploitation from Haiti's history and, typically, you can hear Robert Perito and Amy Wilentz bashing former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. If US leaders and the "experts-in-legitimation" such as Rothkopf, Perito, and Wilentz had supported Aristide instead of undermining him at virtually every step then it is quite conceivable that Haiti would have been in a much better position to deal with the recent earthquake.

Below are some excerpts from Paul Farmer's informative albeit compromised, partisan article in the April 15, 2004 edition of the London Review of Books, "Who removed Aristide?" Farmer was appointed as the United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti last fall by Bill Clinton.
In 1825, under threat of another French invasion and the restoration of slavery, Haitian officials signed the document which was to prove the beginning of the end for any hope of autonomy. The French king agreed to recognise Haiti’s independence only if the new republic paid France an indemnity of 150 million francs and reduced its import and export taxes by half. The ‘debt’ that Haiti recognised was incurred by the slaves when they deprived the French owners not only of land and equipment but of their human ‘property’.

... ‘Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood,’ the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher argued.

By the late 19th century, the United States had eclipsed France as a force in Haitian affairs. A US military occupation (1915-34) brought back corvée labour and introduced bombing from the air, while officials in Washington created the institutions that Haitians would have to live with: the army, above all, which now claims to have the country ‘in its hands’, was created by an act of the US Congress. Demobilised by Aristide in 1995, it never knew a non-Haitian enemy. It had plenty of internal enemies, however. Military-backed governments, dictatorships, chronic instability, repression, the heavy hand of Washington over all: this state of affairs continued throughout the 20th century.

I learned about Haiti’s history while working on medical projects on the country’s central plateau. When I first travelled there in 1983, the Duvalier family dictatorship had been in place for a quarter of a century. There was no dissent. The Duvaliers and their military dealt ruthlessly with any opposition, while the judiciary and the rest of the world looked the other way. Haiti was already known as the poorest country in the Western world, and those who ran it argued that force was required to police deep poverty.

By the mid-1980s, the hunger, despair and disease were beyond management. Baby Doc Duvalier, named ‘president for life’ at 19, fled in 1986. A first attempt at democratic elections, in 1987, led to massacres at polling stations. An army general declared himself in charge. In September 1988, the mayor of Port-au-Prince – a former military officer – paid a gang to set fire to a Catholic church as mass was being said. It was packed with people, 12 of whom died. At the altar was Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the nemesis of the dictatorship and the army. Aristide was a proponent of liberation theology, with its injunction that the Church proclaim ‘a preferential option for the poor’, but liberation theology had its adversaries: members of Reagan’s brains trust, meeting in 1980, declared it less Christian than Communist. ‘US policy,’ they said, ‘must begin to counter (not react against) . . . the "liberation theology” clergy.’

Aristide’s elevation from slum priest to presidential candidate took place against a background of right-wing death squads and threatened military coups. He rose quickly in the eyes of Haitians, but his stock plummeted in the United States. The New York Times, which relies heavily on informants who can speak English or French, had few kind words for him. ‘He’s a cross between the Ayatollah and Fidel,’ one Haitian businessman was quoted as saying. ‘If it comes to a choice between the ultra-left and the ultra-right, I’m ready to form an alliance with the ultra-right.’ Haitians knew, however, that Aristide would win any democratic election, and on 16 December 1990, he got 67 per cent of the vote in a field of 12 candidates. No run-off was required.

The United States might not have been able to prevent Aristide’s landslide victory, but there was plenty they could do to undermine him. The most effective method, adopted by the first Bush administration, was to fund both the opposition – their poor showing at the polls was no reason, it appears, to cut off aid to them – and the military. Declassified records now make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH, which rose to prominence after a military coup that ousted Aristide in September 1991. Thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled overseas or across the border into the Dominican Republic. For the next three years Haiti was run by military-civilian juntas as ruthless as the Duvaliers.

In October 1994, under Clinton, the US military intervened and restored Aristide to power, with a little over a year of his term left to run. Although authorised by the UN, the restoration was basically a US operation. Then, seven weeks after Aristide’s return, Republicans took control of the Congress, and influential Republicans have worked ever since to block aid to Haiti or burden it with preconditions.

The aid coming through official channels was never very substantial: the US gave Haiti, per capita, one tenth of what it distributed in Kosovo. It is true that, as former US ambassadors and the Bush administration have recently claimed, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into Haiti – but not to the elected government. A great deal of it went to the anti-Aristide opposition. A lot also went to pay for the UN occupation, and Halliburton support services. There was little effort to rebuild schools, the healthcare infrastructure, roads, ports, telecommunications or airports ...

That the US and France undermined Aristide is not a fringe opinion. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the African Union have called for a formal investigation into his removal. ‘Most people around the world believe that Aristide’s departure was at best facilitated, at worst coerced by the US and France,’ Gayle Smith, a member of the National Security Council staff under Clinton, recently said.

Why such animus towards Haiti’s leader? Taking up the question of the historic French debt, Aristide declared that France ‘extorted this money from Haiti by force and . . . should give it back to us so that we can build primary schools, primary healthcare, water systems and roads.’ He did the maths, adding in interest and adjusting for inflation, to calculate that France owes Haiti $21,685,135,571.48 and counting. This figure was scoffed at by some of the French, who saw the whole affair as a farce mounted by their disgruntled former subjects; others, it’s increasingly clear, were insulted or angered when the point was pressed in diplomatic and legal circles.

Still, Aristide kept up the pressure. The figure of $21 billion was repeated again and again. The number 21 appeared all over the place in Haiti, along with the word ‘restitution’. On 1 January this year, during the bicentennial celebrations, Aristide announced he would replace a 21-gun salute with a list of the 21 things that had been done in spite of the embargo and that would be done when restitution was made. The crowd went wild. The French press by and large dismissed his comments as silly, despite the legal merits of his case. Many Haitians saw Aristide as a modern Toussaint l’Ouverture, a comparison that Aristide did not discourage. ‘Toussaint was undone by foreign powers,’ Madison Smartt Bell wrote in Harper’s in January, ‘and Aristide also had suffered plenty of vexation from outside interference.’

It’s usually easy to tell, in even the briefest conversation about Aristide, how your interlocutor feels about him. Opinion in Haiti is almost always referred to as ‘polarised’ in the US press, but this isn’t true in every sense. Elections and polls, even recent ones, show that the poor majority still support Aristide. It’s the middle classes and the traditional political elites who disagree about him, as well as people like me: non-Haitians who, for whatever reasons, concern themselves with that country’s affairs ...

It would be convenient for the traditional Haitian elites and their allies abroad if Aristide, who has been forced to preside over unimaginable penury, had been abandoned by his own people. But Gallup polls in 2002, the results of which were never disseminated, showed that, despite his faults, he is far and away Haiti’s most popular and trusted politician. ...
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