Haiti

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Friday, October 01, 2010

Consider the following situation that Haiti is in:

The above statistics hide the fact that Haiti has had problems for decades. Furthermore, since its very beginnings as a modern state some 200 years ago, Haiti has constantly been affected by outside influences and interests, negatively impacting its own destiny.

In addition, coverage of issues in Haiti has often been accompanied by amazing media distortion leading to effects such as minimal or no coverage of problems and massive human rights violations during dictatorial regimes, while demonizing the one democratically elected leader.

Accusations and criticisms of cheap labor, resource exploitation and democracy stifling have been directed at outsiders such as the United States for various reasons, including:

  • Support for dictators in recent decades;
  • Hostility towards the (former) democratically elected president;
  • Various interests of big U.S. companies.

This section looks into some of Haiti’s problems and tries to look at the mainstream media portrayal versus the reality. In addition, the influence of external actors such as the U.S. on Haiti’s destiny is also looked at.

Map of Haiti

© Hammond World Atlas Corp.

Brief Background

Before the “discovery” of Hispaniola (the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by Christopher Columbus, there was a thriving civilization of native Americans, known as the Arawak-speaking Taino Indians. The arrival of Columbus and European colonialism brought disease, slavery, misery and death. They were soon wiped out from the island and black slave labor from Africa was needed to replace them. What was thought of as a rich and profitable Western colony, Haiti today is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Prior to 1600s Native People Destroyed By European Colonialists

The fate of the native people of Hispaniola mirrored many others during the era of European imperialism and colonialism.

The exact numbers of Taino people in Hispaniola before the arrival of Columbus in 1492 is not known, and estimates vary greatly. But, their numbers dwindled to what some have called genocide (although Taino Indian people survive elsewhere in the Americas):

One [low estimate of the population of pre-Columbus Hispaniola is] 100,000. Several other modern scholars seem to lean more forcefully in the area of 300,000 to 400,000. Whatever the number, what happened to them is extremely tragic. They were not immune to European diseases, especially smallpox, and the Spanish worked them unmercifully in the mines and fields. By 1507 the Spanish were settled and able to do a more reliable job of counting the Arawak/Tainos. It is generally agreed that by 1507 their numbers had shrunk to 60,000. By 1531 the number was down to 600. Today there are no easily discerned traces of the Arawak/Taino at all except for some of the archaeological remains that have been found. Not only on Hispaniola, but also across the Windward Passage in Cuba, complete genocide was practiced on these natives.

Bob Corbett, Pre-Columbian Hispaniola, Arawak/Taino Native Americans, August 1999

Also quoted at length are David Cromwell and David Edwards:

Cruelty Never Seen Before — Conquering Paradise

When Cristobal Colon (Columbus) first arrived on Hispaniola — today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic — in October 1492, he found something close to an earthly paradise. Of the Taino people he encountered, he said:

“They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest... All the people show the most singular loving behaviour and they speak pleasantly... They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.” (Quoted, Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, Papermac, 1992, pp.99-100)

Colon did not allow sentiment to stand in his way for long. Formal instructions for the second voyage to Hispaniola in May 1493 were significant, historian Kirkpatrick Sale writes, in that they constituted “the first statement of the colonial strategies and policies of empire that were eventually to carry Europe to every cranny of the earth”. Colon’s plans were almost entirely concerned with “establishing the means of exploitation and trade, providing no suggestion of any other purpose for settlement or any other function of government”. (Ibid, p.127)

The rights of the Taino people were not an issue — the concern was simply to steal their gold.

Las Casas, a Spanish eyewitness, described how the invaders were motivated by “insatiable greed and ambition,” attacking the Tainos “like ravening wild beasts... killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before”. (Quoted Noam Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, p.198)

The idea seems to have been to utterly crush the spirit of the Tainos. Las Casas comments:

“As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to the earth by the horses, cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures...[they] decided to abandon themselves to their unhappy fate with no further struggles, placing themselves in the hands of their enemies that they might do with them as they liked.” (Ibid, pp.198-9)

Near-identical horrors are documented under the subsequent French rulers of Haiti, who shipped in hundreds of thousands of African slaves to work their plantations. From that time to this, the logic of Western exploitation of the Third World has remained fundamentally the same: dreams of a better life must be crushed by violence and grinding poverty so extreme that local people will accept any work at any rate, and abandon all notions of improving their lot.

This is why death squads, tyrants and torturers are such a standard feature of the Third World — hope is always being born and is always being killed by local thugs serving Western elites. This is also why weapons consistently flow from the rich West to the world’s worst human rights abusers. In the 1980s, the leading academic scholar on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, found that US aid, including military aid, “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens... to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights”. (Schoultz, Comparative Politics, January 1981)

Terror was required, Schoultz added, “to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority”. (Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America, Princeton, 1981)

David Cromwell and David Edwards, Bringing Hell To Haiti — Part 1, MediaLens, March 1, 2004

The Spaniards initially believed there to be a lot of gold and silver in Hispaniola but once it became apparent that there wasn’t much, they plundered other parts of the Americas, but Hispaniola remained their base from which to conquer other islands. The natives were to be converted to Christianity and accept the authority of the King of Spain.

1804: Haiti breaks free of colonial rule; Becomes first independent black republic

The Spanish colonial period (1492-1687) was then replaced by a brutal French colonial period. The French established Haiti as a colony to grow sugar, using black slave labor. The French Revolution which commenced in Paris in 1789 deeply influenced an eventual Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. The revolution was complex, and there were several revolutions going on simultaneously. Leading the 12 year long slave labor rebellion, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a national hero in Haiti, helped see the end of the French oppression. On January 1, 1804, Haiti made history by becoming the first independent black republic. Yet freedom came at a price. A summary from the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian is worth repeating here:

From the outset Haiti inherited the wrath of the colonial powers, which knew what a disastrous example a Haitian success story would be. In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: “The freedom of the negroes, if recognized in St Domingue [as Haiti was then known] and legalized by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World.” He sent 22,000 soldiers (the largest force to have crossed the Atlantic at the time) to recapture the “Pearl of the Antilles”.

France, backed by the US, later ordered Haiti to pay 150m francs in gold as reparations to compensate former plantation and slave owners as well as for the costs of the war in return for international recognition. At today’s prices that would amount to £10bn [about $17 to $18bn]. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of Haiti’s national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest, and the country was locked into the role of a debtor nation — where it remains today.

Any prospect of planting a stable political culture foundered on the barren soil of economic impoverishment, military siege and international isolation (for the first 58 years the US refused to even recognize Haiti’s existence). In 1915, fearing that internal strife would compromise its interests, the US invaded, and remained until 1934.

Gary Younge, Throttled by History, The Guardian, February 23, 2004

Early 20th Century: U.S. Occupation of Haiti

Edwards and Cromwell are quoted again:

Between 1849 and 1913, the US Navy entered Haitian waters 24 times to “protect American lives and property”. The US invasion of 1915 brought back slavery to Haiti in all but name and imposed a US-designed constitution giving US corporations free rein. After ruling for 19 years the US withdrew leaving its wealth in the safe hands of the murderous National Guard it had created. In November 1935, Major General Smedley D. Butler explained the logic of intervention:

“I spent thirty-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force — the Marine Corps... And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

“Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City boys to collect revenues in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ‘right’ for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.” (Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire, Pluto Press, 2003, pp. 270-271)

David Cromwell and David Edwards, Bringing Hell To Haiti — Part 1, MediaLens, March 1, 2004

Post World War II: U.S. Supports Successive Dictatorships

Jumping forward to the 1950s, the U.S. supported the brutal dictator Francois Duvalier, otherwise known as Papa Doc, who declared himself president for life. When he died in 1971, his 19-year old son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, took power.

Baby Doc faced a revolt in 1983, leading to the U.S. withdrawing its support a few years later. Baby Doc was escorted out of Haiti in a U.S. Air Force Jet.

In 1990, in the country’s first elections, a poor Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide managed to win, despite being at odds with the country’s military and economic elite.

As Erich Marquardt notes:

Aristide came to power preaching views completely at odds with the country’s economic leaders and the political leaders of neighboring powers such as the United States. For example, Aristide once wrote,

Haitian workers earn the lowest wages in the hemisphere. We are encouraged to exploit and maintain this so-called advantage to attract foreign companies to come. Because our economy is weak, we depend on loans and aid from foreign countries to support our national budget. This makes us extremely vulnerable to pressure from international institutions that control the money.

Nevertheless, despite Aristide’s rhetoric, the poor masses propelled him into power, giving him 67 percent of the vote. Aristide’s populism quickly alienated the country’s economic leaders, in addition to annoying influential members of the military establishment.

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

In less than a year after taking office, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by the country’s economic and military elite. Aristide fled to the United States, but Haiti suffered from civil violence and, as Marquardt continues, the new elite “massacred potential opponents in the streets. For the next three years, Haiti’s new leaders wreaked havoc on the country’s population, forcing many Haitians to flee the country as refugees, a development that turned Haiti into a problem for the United States.”

The refugee problem for the U.S. could not escape its mainstream media attention and was therefore pressured to help the democratically elected Aristide back to power in 1994. However, the economic and political conditions of his return meant he was hardly able to govern effectively.

Furthermore, some contested elections in 2000 and non-participation by the major opposition group allowed them to accuse Aristide of unfair elections and afforded the U.S. a reason to withdraw much-needed aid. Other governments followed suit, and for such a poor country this helped to mark the beginning of the end. Military and economic elites that formed part of violent oppositions were able to use this situation to their advantage and over time gained more and more control over the country until eventually at the end of February 2004, Aristide was forced from power by American troops.

The following sections provide additional details about these events as well as the portrayal of them by the mainstream media.

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Aristide Initially Did Well Given the Circumstances

In between successive brutal and violent dictatorships, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s becoming president was a surprise. He had taken some two thirds of the votes and in the short period from February to September, he had already made impressive improvements. He was eventually overthrown by a military coup.

As Noam Chomsky noted, many were impressed by Aristide’s domestic policies as he “‘acted quickly to restore order to the government’s finances’ after taking power when ‘the economy was in an unprecedented state of disintegration’ (Inter-American Development Bank). Other international lending agencies agreed, offering aid and endorsing Aristide’s investment program. They were particularly impressed by the steps he took to reduce foreign debt and inflation, to raise foreign exchange reserves from near zero to $12 million, to increase government revenues with successful tax collection measures (reaching into the kleptocracy), to streamline the bloated government bureaucracy and eliminate fictitious positions in an anti-corruption campaign, to cut back contraband trade and improve customs, and to establish a responsible fiscal system.” In addition, as the U.S. State Department had also acknowledged, “Atrocities and flight of refugees also virtually ended; indeed the refugee flow reversed, as Haitians began to return to their country in its moment of hope.”

But at the same time, as Chomsky also noted, mainstream media in the U.S. painted a different picture. One example was the New York Times, which he also criticized:

[A NY Times reporter] reported after the coup that Aristide had governed “with the aid of fear,” leaning “heavily on Lavalas, an unstructured movement of affluent idealists and long-exiled leftists” whose model was China’s Cultural Revolution. Aristide’s power hunger led to “troubles with civil society.” Furthermore, “Haitian political leaders and diplomats say, the growing climate of vigilantism as well as increasingly strident statements by Father Aristide blaming the wealthier classes for the poverty of the masses encouraged” the coup. “Although he retains much of the popular support that enabled him to win 67% of the popular vote in the country’s December 1990 elections, Father Aristide was overthrown in part because of concerns among politically active people over his commitment to the Constitution, and growing fears of political and class-based violence, which many believe the President endorsed.”

Relation to fact aside, the analysis provides some lessons in Political Correctness. Two-thirds of the population and their organizations fall outside of “civil society.” Those involved in the popular organizations and in local and national politics are not among the “politically active people.” It is scandalous to tell the plain truth about the responsibility of the kleptocracy for “the poverty of the masses.” “Fears of political and class-based violence” are limited to the months when such violence sharply declined, its traditional perpetrators being unable, temporarily, to pursue their vocation.

Noam Chomsky, Democracy Enhancement, Z Magazine, May 1994, (Emphasis Added)

As another example of some of the media distortion, media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, surveyed American media outlets’ claims during 1994 to show incredible distortion. And some reporting even amounted to “historic revisionism”:

Occasionally reporters mentioned the 1915-1934 occupation as a “previous attempt to support democracy.” But how many mentioned that the U.S. occupation dissolved the Haitian parliament, forced Haiti to accept a U.S.-written constitution that allowed foreign ownership of land, and reinstituted virtual slavery? (This and other information about Haitian history can be found in The Uses of Haiti, by Paul Farmer.)

Jim Naureckas, Enemy Ally: The Demonization of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Extra! Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, November/December 1994

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U.S. Hostility towards Aristide

The U.S. is Haiti’s biggest trading partner, in a relationship of unequals. In addition, Haiti’s role has hardly changed compared to the times of the French colonialists:

The United States is Haiti’s main commercial “partner” accounting for about 60% of the flows of exports and imports. Along with the manufacture of baseballs, textiles, cheap electronics, and toys, Haiti’s sugar, bauxite and sisal are all controlled by American corporations. Disney, for example, has used Haitian sweatshops to produce Pocahontas pajamas, among other items, at the rate of 11 cents per hour. Most Haitians are willing to work for almost nothing.

David Cromwell and David Edwards, Bringing Hell To Haiti — Part 1, MediaLens, March 1, 2004

U.S. influences on Haiti have been strong for decades.

Chomsky continues highlighting and sharply criticizing the form of U.S. assistance to Aristide:

[Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph] Trouillot concludes his study by observing that “In Haiti, the peasantry is the nation.” But for policymakers, the peasantry are worthless objects except insofar as they can advance corporate profits. They may produce food for export and enrich local affiliates of U.S. agribusiness, or flock to the city to provide super-cheap labor for assembly plants, but they have no further function. It is therefore entirely natural that USAID, while providing $100 million in assistance to the private sector, should never have provided a penny to the leading popular peasant organization, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP); and that former USAID director Harrison should see no special problem when MPP members are massacred by the military forces and should dismiss with contempt its call for moves to reinstitute the popularly elected President who was committed to “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” democracy.

Similarly, it is hardly surprising that USAID should have denounced the labor reforms Aristide sought to institute and opposed his efforts to raise the minimum wage to a princely 37 cents an hour. Nor should we find it odd that USAID invested massively in the low wage assembly sector while wages sharply declined and working conditions fell to abysmal levels, but terminated all efforts to promote investment as the democratically elected government took office. Rather, USAID reacted to this catastrophe by dedicating itself still more firmly to providing the Haitian business community with what it called “technical assistance in labor relations, development of a business oriented public relations campaign, and intensified efforts to attract U.S. products assembly operations to Haiti.” Given the unfortunate democratic deviation, USAID’s task, in its own words, was to “work to develop sustainable dialogue between the government and the business community”; no comparable efforts for workers and peasants were needed when Haiti was run by U.S.-backed killers and torturers. All of this conforms well to USAID’s conception of “processes of democratic institutional reform” as those that “further economic liberalization objectives”.

Noam Chomsky, Democracy Enhancement, Z Magazine, May 1994, (Emphasis Added)

What is more, human rights only became a concern during Aristide’s short stint in power, not before, when concerns were much more urgent:

Amy Wilentz observes that during Aristide’s brief term, Washington suddenly became concerned with “human rights and the rule of law in Haiti.” “During the four regimes that preceded Aristide,” she writes, “international human-rights advocates and democratic observers had begged the State Department to consider helping the democratic opposition in Haiti. But no steps were taken by the United States to strengthen anything but the executive and the military until Aristide won the presidency. Then, all of a sudden, the United States began to think about how it could help those Haitians eager to limit the powers of the executive or to replace the government constitutionally.” The State Department “Democracy Enhancement” project was “specifically designed to fund those sectors of the Haitian political spectrum where opposition to the Aristide government could be encouraged,” precisely as “prodemocracy policies” dictate. The institutions and leaders that merited such support are just the ones that survived the military coup, also no surprise.

Wilentz reports further that immediately after the September 30 coup, the State Department apparently “circulated a thick notebook filled with alleged human rights violations” under Aristide — “something it had not done under the previous rulers, Duvalierists and military men,” who were deemed proper recipients for aid, including military aid, “based on unsubstantiated human-rights improvements.”

... As shown in a study by Boston Media Action, while the military were rampaging, the press focussed on abuses attributed to Aristide supporters, less than 1% of the total but the topic of 60% of the coverage in major journals during the two weeks following the coup, and over half of coverage in the New York Times through mid-1992. During the two-week period after the coup, Catherine Orenstein reports, the Times “spent over three times as many column inches discussing Aristide’s alleged transgressions [as] it spent reporting on the ongoing military repression. Mass murders, executions, and tortures that were reported in human rights publications earned less than 4% of the space that the Times devoted to Haiti in those weeks.” A week after the coup, the Washington Post accused Aristide of having organized his followers into “an instrument of real terror,” ignoring the 75% reduction in human rights abuses during his term reported by human rights groups.

Noam Chomsky, Democracy Enhancement, Z Magazine, May 1994, (Emphasis Added)

The coup in 1990, just seven months after Aristide’s stint in office lasted until 1994. At that time Aristide returned with U.S. assistance, only on condition that he appoint a businessman from the ruling elite as Prime Minister. Other conditions in which he came back were also difficult:

Haiti is a timely reminder of how western democracies have wilfully amassed their wealth on the backs of impoverished dictatorships.

So Haiti lurched from coup to coup, most notably under the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then his son, “Baby Doc”, supported by the US and France. In 1990, Aristide appeared as the best hope to break the cycle. With an overwhelming democratic mandate, the ascetic priest and liberation theologian was literally swept to power, as Haitians brushed the floor ahead of him with palm leaves. Deposed in a coup, he returned in 1994 with US military assistance.

But, in return for political freedom, Aristide was compelled to accept economic enslavement, bound by terms imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Post-colonial military aggression gave way to the brutal forces of globalization. Before Aristide had even considered fixing the elections, the west had already rigged the markets. Take rice. Forced by the agreement to lower its import tariffs, Haiti suddenly found itself flooded with subsidized rice from the US, which drove Haitian rice growers out of business and the country to import a product that it once produced. When the country fined American rice merchants $1.4m for allegedly evading customs duties, the US responded by withholding $30m in aid.

Gary Younge, Throttled by History, The Guardian, February 23, 2004

One of the first things Aristide also did when he regained power was to disband the Haitian army. However his failure to bring human rights violators to trial may have contributed to the problems that were to follow in the early 2000s:

The aftermath of Aristide’s return to power is what is haunting Haiti today. The failure of Aristide to capture and imprison the former military leaders who overthrew him from power allowed these individuals to hide and plan their future involvement in taking control of Haiti once again. Even contributing more to the current crisis in Haiti was the fact that the United States did not attempt to capture or prosecute Haiti’s fleeing military leaders; indeed, in addition to allowing these leaders to flee Haiti, the Clinton administration even gave safe haven to Haitian paramilitary leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, whom the American Central Intelligence Agency accuses of collaborating in the assassination of former justice minister Gul Malary.

After taking power again, Aristide disbanded the Haitian Army, which was riddled with corruption and, demonstrated through the 1991 coup, was an unpredictable force for political change as well as a threat to Haiti’s budding democracy. Aristide, never a fan of the military, wrote,

This same army which had led the coup d’etat [in 1991], which had brutalized the population for three years, which in fact had led every coup d’etat in Haitian history, and served as a structure of repression which allowed the status quo to exist, was still there. In 1995 ... against the will of many in the international community, we disbanded this military, reducing Haiti’s military spending to zero.

Aristide’s decision sparked anger among many of the country’s former soldiers, as their livelihoods and sources of income were destroyed. Nevertheless, the army’s leaders fled into exile and its soldiers drifted back into civilian life. This power force in Haiti remained muted for years, but once Aristide began to lose favor with growing segments of the Haitian population and the political opposition grew stronger, former members of the military began to plan for a return to power.

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

Aristide had reason to distrust the military. Many in the top ranks have long been accused of gross human rights violations, and some with U.S. support.

As Human Rights Watch reveals, when U.S. troops entered Haiti in 1994 to reinstall Aristide, they also stole some 160,000 documents without knowledge or consent of Haitian authorities. The documents seized were from paramilitary FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, Front pour l’Avancement et le Progres d’Haiti) and Haitian military offices in the fall of 1994. The documents, according to HRW reportedly included torture details, and membership information. But the U.S. seemed to want to hide its own interests:

FRAPH reportedly was founded with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assistance and “Toto” Constant, its director, has repeatedly stated that he received regular CIA payments. FRAPH members were responsible for human rights atrocities under the military government that ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape.

The U.S. government has maintained that U.S. citizens’ names and identifying information must be deleted from the materials before they are returned to Haitian custody. This apparently serves the illegitimate purpose of covering up possible U.S. complicity in political murder and other abuses, particularly the apparent involvement of U.S. intelligence agents with the military regime and FRAPH.

Deportation of Haitian Death Squad Leader Urged, Human Rights Watch, September 16, 1999

Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW adds:

Five years after U.S. troops seized these materials [seized Haitian documents], Washington continues to keep this potentially rich source of evidence abuses away from Haitian prosecutors. It certainly looks like the administration is trying to conceal wrongdoing in Haiti on the part of the U.S. government.

Kenneth Roth, Executive director of Human Rights Watch, Deportation of Haitian Death Squad Leader Urged, September 16, 1999

And the gross human rights violations went right to the top of the Haitian military:

A convicted Haitian war criminal arrested in Orlando was once considered “a loyal and faithful partner” of the US by the former head of the US military. In a 1997 letter, Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Jean-Claude Duperval and urged that his application for political asylum “be given every possible consideration.” Immigration agents picked up Duperval last week at his Orlo Vista home, and he is expected to be deported to Haiti within days. Duperval had been living there for about three years after coming to the US in 1995. Duperval, a major general in the Haitian military, was convicted in absentia by a Haitian Court in 2000 for his role in the 1994 massacre at Raboteau. An American lawyer who helped prosecutors investigating the massacre said Duperval was not accused of ordering or directly participating in the killings. He was convicted, said Brian Concannon, because as the army’s second-in-command, he did nothing to stop the violence. In fact, said Concannon, Duperval and other military leaders encouraged it. “This was a very brutal regime,” Concannon said, “And he stood by while people in his command did these things.” Amnesty International says the Duperval case demonstrates a long-running problem with US foreign policy. To achieve political or military goals, US officials sometimes choose questionable friends, Amnesty’s Vienna Colucci said. In a report released two years ago, the group said at least 150 known or suspected human rights violators were living in the US, but the government had done little to prosecute them. (Orlando Sentinel, 1/21)

Haiti Report for January 25, 2004, Prepared by Haiti Reborn/Quixote Center

But what interests would the U.S. have with this tiny country to want to support dictators and the like? Phrases like “national interest” and “stability” are often heard, but what do they mean? Reasons vary but include:

  • The fear of the Domino Theory — any country gaining its own independence (or allying with communists during the Cold War) had to be overthrown. Side NoteHence the pattern of overthrowing fledgling democracies and supporting dictatorial regimes throughout Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa even when in some cases there was no communist connection. If there is a successful and independent mode of development, others might catch on. For power holders in a given era, this is a threat to their future power and influence. This is also discussed in more detail on this site’s section looking into the rise of terrorism.
  • The US did not want Haitian refugees
  • The US did not like the fact that Aristide criticized the neoliberal/Washington economic agenda and tried to implement an alternative. (This ties in with the fear of the domino theory mentioned above.)

Erich Marquardt also comments on some of these aspects:

As it did in 1994, [the U.S.] seeks stability in Haiti since the country is close enough to U.S. shores that refugees can cause major problems to U.S. interests. In recent years, Aristide’s hold on power had become so tenuous that Washington decided that its interests would best be served if Aristide was removed from power and the demands of the Democratic Platform [an opposition party] were met.... Speaking on the matter, President Bush stated, “I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore, and that message needs to be very clear, as well, to the Haitian people.”

Furthermore, Aristide’s economic policies were not in line with Washington’s. Consistently speaking out against neoliberal economic reforms, Aristide had denounced global capitalism as “a machine devouring the planet.” Criticizing international trade institutions, Aristide remarked, “The little finger, the men and women of the poorest 20 percent, are reduced to cogs in this machine, the bottom rung in global production, valued only as cheap labor, otherwise altogether disposable.”

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

With Aristide’s overthrow with U.S. support (detailed further below), Noam Chomsky notes parallels between the current situation and that in 1994, and gives an insight into a part of the U.S.’s interests:

Putting details aside, what has happened since is eerily similar to the overthrow of Haiti’s first democratic government in 1991. The Aristide government, once again, was undermined by US planners, who understood, under Clinton, that the threat of democracy can be overcome if economic sovereignty is eliminated, and presumably also understood that economic development will also be a faint hope under such conditions, one of the best-confirmed lessons of economic history. Bush II planners are even more dedicated to undermining democracy and independence, and despised Aristide and the popular organizations that swept him to power with perhaps even more passion than their predecessors. The forces that reconquered the country are mostly inheritors of the US-installed army and paramilitary terrorists.

Noam Chomsky, U.S.-Haiti, ZNet, March 9, 2004

The geopolitics, the difficult economic impositions and the human rights situation allowed trouble to brew, and in a way that could be clearly blamed on Aristide.

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Troubles since 2000 Led to Aristide’s Ousting in 2004, with U.S. Support

Younge, cited above, suggests that Aristde tried to fix elections, referring to the 2000 nationwide elections. However, MADRE, a women’s and family rights organization suggests a slightly different picture: “In 2000 ... Haiti held elections for 7,500 positions nationwide. Election observers contested the winners of seven senate seats. President Aristide balked at first, but eventually yielded and the seven senators resigned. Members of Haiti’s elite, long hostile to Aristide’s progressive economic agenda, saw the controversy as an opportunity to derail his government.” (See also the fifth fact from a Canadian based newspaper, The Dominion.)

Exploiting Election Controversy: U.S. Withholds Much-needed Aid

The U.S. was able to use the election controversy as an excuse to withhold aid for Haiti. However, this has had a massive humanitarian impact. A report investigating the human effects of withheld humanitarian aid in early 2003 noted that “The U.S. policy of withholding aid has expanded through U.S. influence to include aid from the European Union and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The U.S. defends its policy of giving aid only to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Haiti, but as the IDB’s Resident Representative in Haiti Gerard Johnson told the delegation, ‘If you don’t have a government, you don’t have a country. You can’t lend only to NGOs.’”

The report found that “withholding funding from a fledgling democracy does not encourage the building of democratic institutions — rather it threatens the very democracy it purports to strengthen while simultaneously lowering the life expectancy of the average Haitian person. The Haitian people have the tremendous challenge of decentralizing their government and for the very first time in their history, building a governmental structure that serves the needs of the population. Most importantly, withholding aid from the Haitian Government is having disastrous effects on the Haitian people. As delegate Andrew White points out, ‘The ability of the government to provide services and alleviate poverty is also the only way to bring about a better democracy.’”

It can be pointed out that the U.S. decided to withhold aid due to May 2000 election questions, but the report also notes that the U.S. had already held this position, and had been channelling aid through NGOs before the elections. Others followed the U.S. after it announced that it would not observe the November 2000 elections and furthermore, the E.U. began funnelling aid through NGOs, not the Haitian Government (see p. 5 of the report). This allowed violent opposition to grow in strength, while undermining the government further, and thus allowed more criticisms of the governments inability to meet people’s needs.

The withholding of international assistance from the Government of Haiti is one of the reasons more significant progress hasn’t been made towards democratic institution building. The justice system, for example, is a historically corrupt institution. Human rights attorney Mario Joseph explains,

“Generally there are a lot of problems dealing with human rights in Haiti. There is a double standard of justice where it is available for some and not others. The system itself works against certain people getting justice...if you look at the situation of justice in Haiti you will see it is not for the poor. If you visit the prisons in Haiti they are filled with the poor and the rich are not there. The rich function beyond the system because they can get big lawyers and possibly bribe their way out of the situation” (Personal interview, 1/12/03)

This is not to say that with international assistance democratic institution building would be happening quickly and with ease. In reality, democratic institution building is a longterm process, particularly in a country without a democratic tradition. The Haitian people have the tremendous challenge of decentralizing their government and for the very first time in their history, building a governmental structure that serves the needs of the population. This is only the second uninterrupted democratic government in Haiti. It has problems and it struggles with corruption.

Investigating the Human Effects of Withheld Humanitarian Aid, Report of the Haiti Reborn/Quixote Center Delegation, January 11-19, 2003, (pp.7-8)

Some Aristide Policies Come Under Genuine Criticism

Aristide has no doubt also come under criticism for some of his practices. MADRE also provides a background to the current Haiti situation, but one that is also very critical of U.S. policies and influences towards the small nation. MADRE is quoted at length here:

What is the role of the US in Haiti?

  • The US was the main supporter of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship that ruled Haiti through a reign of terror. In 1986, when Haiti’s pro-democracy movement finally succeeded in overthrowing the hated dictator, he was ferried to safety by the Reagan Administration.
  • Only with the rise of Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, did US support turn away from the Haitian leadership and shift to those who orchestrated the 1991 coup d’etat.
  • In 1994, public pressure and fear of an influx of Haitian “boat people” led the Clinton Administration to reverse the coup d’etat and restore Aristide to power.
  • ...In 1995, when Republicans took control of Congress, they pushed to cancel US aid to Haiti and to finance the opposition by reallocating federal funds to Haitian non-governmental organizations opposed to Aristide.
  • In 2000, the Republicans exploited Haiti’s electoral controversy as an opportunity to discredit Aristide. The Bush Administration pressured the Inter-American Development Bank to cancel more than $650 million in development assistance and approved loans to Haiti — money that was slated to pay for safe drinking water, literacy programs and health services.
  • The seven contested senators [in the 2000 election] are long gone, but the embargo remains in place, denying critical services to the poorest people in the hemisphere.

What is Aristide’s record?

  • The US allowed Aristide to be reinstated on the condition that he implement a neoliberal economic agenda.
  • Aristide complied with some US demands, including a reduction of tariffs on US-grown rice that bankrupted thousands of Haitian farmers and maintenance of a below-subsistence-level minimum wage.
  • But Aristide resisted privatizing state-owned resources, because of protests from his political base and because he was reluctant to relinquish control over these sources of wealth.
  • Aristide also doubled the minimum wage and — despite the US embargo — prioritized education and healthcare: he built schools and renovated public hospitals; established new HIV-testing centers and doctor-training programs; and introduced a program to subsidize schoolbooks and uniforms and expand school lunch and bussing services.
  • Aristide has tried to walk a line between US demands for neoliberal reforms and his own commitment to a progressive economic agenda. As a result, he has lost favor with parts of his own political base and Haitian and US elites.
  • Aristide has also been criticized for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses committed by his supporters and by advocates of good governance for rewarding loyalists with government posts regardless of their qualifications. (Aristide’s patronage system appears to be even more extreme than the one that has filled the Bush Administration with former CEOs and corporate lobbyists.)

Yifat Susskind, Insurrection in the Making: A MADRE Backgrounder on the Crisis in Haiti, MADRE, February 2004

Selective Human Rights Concerns; Highlighting Aristide’s Abuses Only

The extremities of the dictatorships had also led to militant groups that were pro-Aristide. Such groups also committed violent acts especially in response to pressures from rebel and opposition groups.

It is interesting to observe that in recent years, Haiti’s human rights records have again been raised as a concern. There is no doubt genuine criticism about some of Aristide’s questionable methods, but U.S. support for a militant opposition is less discussed, for example. MADRE also notes this and is again quoted at length:

Since 2001, human rights activists and humanitarian workers in Haiti have documented numerous cases of opposition vigilantes killing government officials and bystanders in attacks on the state power station, health clinics, police stations and government vehicles. The US government did not condemn any of these killings.

In January 2004, the opposition escalated its protests. At some demonstrations, government supporters, who represent Haiti’s poorest sectors, attacked opposition activists. Only then did US Secretary of State Powell issue a one-sided condemnation of “militant Aristide supporters.”

Yifat Susskind, Insurrection in the Making: A MADRE Backgrounder on the Crisis in Haiti, MADRE, February 2004

Human rights group, Amnesty International also notes that some of the rebel leaders have been convicted of gross human rights violations in the past. “Rebel leaders include notorious figures such as Louis Jodel Chamblain and Jean Tatoune, convicted of gross human rights violations committed a decade ago. Their forces are reported to include a number of former soldiers implicated in human rights abuses in the Central Plateau region of Haiti over the last year.”

It seems that the selective nature of human rights reports came from within Haiti as well. As well as the bleak picture Madre has highlighted, it appears that some Haitian human rights groups themselves have had an anti-aristide agenda.

Tom Reeves was part of the first independent U.S. observer delegation since the removal on February 29 of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Commenting on this particular issue, he noted that some prominent Haitian rights groups such as the NCHR (National Coalition for Haitian Rights) had made criticisms of Aristide, but not of the murderous FRAPH. There was a

litany of abuses the NCHR (National Coalition for Haitian Rights) says it documented against officials of the Aristide government and the Lavalas movement. They rightly protested cases like that of the journalist Jean Dominique and a dozen other high profile attacks on opposition activists and as many as three opposition journalists. Yet during the two years leading up to this latest coup, they adamantly refused to investigate now-verified allegations of murders, arson and bombings against the government and Lavalas by former military and FRAPH. They scoffed at the alleged coup attempt at the National Palace in December of 2001, though Jodel Chamblain now boasts that was an initial coup attempt.

Although they were the only human rights group in the country adequately funded and having trained monitors throughout Haiti, the NCHR became completely partisan: anti-Lavalas, anti-Aristide. This is simply not proper for a group calling itself a “Haitian Rights” organization. During the final month before the coup, they abandoned any pretext of impartiality, joining calls for the ouster of Aristide, without reference to the means. After Feb. 29, they continue to site abuses by “chimere,” whom they call simply “Aristide gangs,” without documenting the connections. Though they told our group they had “heard about” violence against unarmed Lavalas, including the possible complicity of U.S. marines in the Bel Air incident, the NCHR said they “lacked access” to the pro-Lavalas shanty-towns. Of course they lacked access: they lacked any shred of credibility as a human rights monitor.

Tom Reeves, Return to Haiti, Counter Punch, April 14, 2004

Noting similar types of concerns with some other groups, Reeves noted that prominent international human rights groups sometimes took reports from these groups without much scrutiny and offered the following conclusion:

International human rights organizations, especially Human Rights Watch and Journalists Without Borders, and to a lesser extent Amnesty International, have taken the NCHR reports uncritically and failed to develop other impartial human rights contacts in Haiti. Progressive funders like Grassroots International and NGOs in Canada, the US and Europe also listened uncritically to their “partners” and funded groups in Haiti like PAPDA, SOFA, Batay Ouvriye and MPP.

The primary lesson to be learned for funders and NGOS, and for all solidarity activists, is that solidarity must first of all be with the people of Haiti — by the assertion of their will by voting, as Haitians did for Aristide in 2000 (the OAS and international NGOs certified that at the time). Beyond that, international funding and solidarity groups (and here the criticism is equally valid for those who were wholly supportive of Lavalas without critique) must not put on blinders when they visit Haiti. They must listen critically to all sides. They must watch for concrete evidence of the mass base of the organizations they fund — and evidence that the rank and file feel as the “leaders” do.

Tom Reeves, Return to Haiti, Counter Punch, April 14, 2004

Opposition and Rebel Groups also Exploit Deteriorating Situation

The opposition and rebel groups in Haiti were also able to exploit the election issue and the deteriorating conditions:

For the past few years, paramilitaries had been launching small scale raids into various Haitian towns [including] a failed attempt to forcefully remove Aristide from power. In November of 2002, a faction of former military officers publicly announced their goal of eliminating Aristide, and continued to launch small guerrilla attacks on different Haitian cities. Moving in small groups, these paramilitaries attacked and killed police, attempted to take over small towns, and aimed to increase their fighting force.

Despite their insistence, these exiled military factions had little popular support. It was not until the 2000 democratic elections in Haiti that their power was greatly magnified. Aristide’s opposition, working together under an umbrella group called the Democratic Platform, contested the results of the country’s 2000 parliament elections, in which Aristide’s Lavalas Family party won major gains. During the presidential elections that shortly followed, Aristide won again, but Haiti’s opposition groups largely boycotted the polls, putting them in a position to claim that Aristide was not a true democratic leader. Once opponents to Aristide’s rule began marching through the streets in mass demonstrations, many of Aristide’s supporters used violence against them in order to forcefully quell the protests.

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

The opposition had no intention of accepting a U.S. plan to share power because they knew they would get all the power if they refused. Instead, they used violent means to capture city after city, getting closer to the capital by February 2004. The U.S. for its part seemed to support the rebel’s violent means:

Aristide’s police forces were no match for the advancing rebel army. The closer the rebel army came to Port-au-Prince, the less political leverage Aristide would have. The only way that Aristide would have been able to negotiate a solution on his terms would have been if the United States, or another major power, stepped in with political and military support. The fact that Washington did not support Aristide, and therefore would be unlikely to intervene on his behalf, made it pointless for the opposition to accept any plan that would not give them complete control of Haiti’s government.

Following the Platform’s refusal, the Bush administration tacitly approved the opposition’s plan of fostering a coup that would remove Aristide from power by placing the blame for the turmoil squarely on Aristide’s shoulders. Releasing a statement on February 28, the White House argued, “This long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide’s making. ... His own actions have called into question his fitness to continue to govern Haiti. We urge him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility, and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti.”

This decision created controversy in Washington, as the Bush administration openly suggested that Haiti’s constitution should be ignored in order to place a new leader in power. The decision led U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of New York to state,

We are just as much a part of this coup d’etat as the rebels, as the looters, or anyone else. [The Bush administration] made it abundantly clear that Aristide would do best by leaving the country. Which means that the rebels, the looters ... [were] given to believe that they should never, never, never accept Aristide as the president.

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, echoed Rangel’s concerns, stating that “Democracy has a black eye in Haiti this morning.”

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

MADRE also provides some insights noting that the opposition is influential but not necessary popular, and some of the leaders have been notorious human rights abusers. At the same time, U.S. interests have made the issue harder to understand:

In a country as poor as Haiti, control over the institutions of the state is one of the only sources of wealth, making national politics an arena of violent competition. Similarly, in an environment of 70 percent unemployment, the prospect of long-term work as a paramilitary fighter leads many young men to join these forces.

Who is the Opposition?

  • Like the so-called opposition to the Chavez government of Venezuela, Haiti’s opposition represents only a small minority (8 percent of the population according to a 2000 poll). With no chance of winning through democratic elections, they rely instead on armed violence to foment a political crisis that will lead to the fall of the government. Using their international business connections, especially ties to the corporate media, the opposition has manufactured an image of itself as the true champion of democracy in Haiti.
  • The gangs that have placed thousands of Haitians under siege are reportedly armed with US-made M-16s, recently sent by the US to the government of the Dominican Republic.
  • The gangs are directly linked to two groups financed by the Bush Administration: the right-wing Convergence for Democracy and the pro-business Group of 184.
    • ....The Convergence is led by former FRAPH paramilitary leaders (including Louis Chamblain, Guy Phillipe and Jean Pierre Baptiste) who carried out the bloody 1991 coup d’etat, in which the CIA-trained and -funded FRAPH overthrew Aristide, killed 5,000 civilians and terrorized Haiti for four years.
    • The Convergence is supported by the Haitian elite and the leadership of the US Republican Party (through the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute).
  • By demanding that the opposition be included in any resolution of Haiti’s political impasse, the US has greatly empowered these forces. While the opposition perpetuates Haiti’s political deadlock, the US embargo guarantees the island’s economic strangulation. Aristide’s opponents hope that these combined tactics will achieve what they cannot win through democratic elections: the ouster of Aristide.

Why is it so hard to get a clear picture of what is happening in Haiti?

  • Media Manipulation
  • ...
  • US Double-Speak
    • Another reason for confusion is that the Bush Administration is upholding a long US tradition of talking about respect for democracy in Haiti while supporting the country’s most anti-democratic, pro-business forces.
    • The US has encouraged the opposition to refuse to participate in elections and, at the same time, declared that elections in Haiti will only be considered legitimate if the opposition participates.
    • Powell says that the US is “not interested in regime change.” But the Administration is supporting a disinformation campaign in the US media, maintaining an embargo that is intensifying hunger and disease amongst Haiti’s poorest and supporting the sponsors of armed, vigilante violence that has already killed scores of people.

Yifat Susskind, Insurrection in the Making: A MADRE Backgrounder on the Crisis in Haiti, MADRE, February 2004

U.S. Help Rebels Overthrow Aristide

As rebel milita captured more and more territory and the police provde no match, concerns were mounting as they headed closer to the capital.

And then, March 1, 2004, Aristide was no longer in power.

Initially the mainstream press had reported that Aristide had resigned or fled in the early hours as rebels neared the capital.

But it was revealed by Aristide himself that

  • He did not resign, and
  • The U.S. made him leave

In an interview with the Associated Press:

Jean-Bertrand Aristide said in a telephone interview Monday that he was “forced to leave” Haiti by U.S. military forces.

...When asked if he left Haiti on his own, Aristide quickly answered: “No. I was forced to leave. They were telling me that if I don’t leave they would start shooting, and be killing in a matter of time,” Aristide said...

...Aristide told reporters that he signed documents relinquishing power out of fear that violence would erupt in Haiti if he didn’t comply with the demands of “American security agents.”

U.S. authorities have dismissed Aristide’s claims as unfounded.

Eliott C. McLaughlin, Aristide Tells AP the U.S. Forced Him Out, Associated Press, March 1, 2004

(In his own statement, Aristide described it as being kidnapped.)

Furthermore, a witness, Aristide’s caretaker at his home, also said it was U.S. troops that took him away. (Interestingly, the previous article linked to notes that the caretaker said “Americans forced [Aristide] out with weapons” but at the end of the report, without refuting the claims, the article simply notes again that Aristide “fled” Haiti!)

CARICOM, the group of Caribbean nations making up the Caribbean Community denounced this as setting a dangerous precendent:

“We are bound to question whether his resignation was truly voluntary, as it comes after the capture of sections of Haiti by armed insurgents and the failure of the international community to provide the requisite support, despite the appeals of CARICOM,” [Jamaican Prime Minister, P.J.] Patterson’s statement said.

“The removal of President Aristide in these circumstances sets a dangerous precedent for democratically elected governments anywhere and everywhere, as it promotes the removal of duly elected persons from office by the power of rebel forces.”

Patterson said CARICOM had a standing position that the removal of the constitutionally-elected president by unconstitutional means could not be supported by the group.

Caribbean denounces Aristide “removal”, United Press International, March 1, 2004 (reposted by Washington Times)

In addition, as reported by Inter Press Service, the new powerholders in Haiti were described by Patterson as thugs, anarchists and having bad reputations. CARICOM, Petterson said, has “taken a collective decision that we are not prepared to deliberate in any of our meetings with thugs, with anarchists and with persons who have a reputation which is contrary to the tenets of civil societies to which we subscribe.”

CARICOM and other nations have called for a United Nations investigation into the circumstances of Aristide’s departure from office and from Haiti. Some U.S. Congress members were also critical of U.S. involvement in the whole situation.

France also played a role in Aristide’s departure. In looking at how U.S. neoconservative policies were similar to imperialistic attitudes in the 19th century, Jim Lobe, writing for the Inter Press Service also noted how both the U.S. and France’s actions were controversial:

Consider also how the Bush administration dealt two weeks ago with a beleaguered, but democratically elected Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not only did it refuse to come to his assistance as required by the U.S.-backed Inter-American Charter on Democracy, it withdrew his security detail and bundled him and his wife, a U.S. citizen, off to the airport to be flown to exile in Central African Republic (CAR) aboard a U.S. jet.

The reactionary nature of the action was underlined not only by the fact that France, the colonial master of both Haiti and CAR, was deeply involved in the caper, but also that Paris’ complicity was based in part on its eagerness to be rid of a pesky leader who had the audacity to demand that it compensate Haiti for the money it was forced to pay in exchange for French recognition of its independence almost 200 years ago.

The fact that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian fight for independence, was also captured by France and exiled to the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border, just as Aristide was taken to the remotest part of Africa, only added to the imperial nostalgia surrounding the episode.

Jim Lobe, True Reactionaries, Inter Press Service, March 12, 2004

Days before Aristide was eventually overthrown, there were concerns being raised about this possibility, and that the U.S. may have a part to play. In an interview with Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now! radio program, the U.S. lawyer representing the Haitian government accused the U.S. of helping the rebels:

The US lawyer representing the government of Haiti charged today that the US government is directly involved in a military coup attempt against the country’s democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Ira Kurzban, the Miami-based attorney who has served as General Counsel to the Haitian government since 1991, said that the paramilitaries fighting to overthrow Aristide are being backed by Washington.

...“These people came through the Dominican border after the United States had provided 20,000 M-16’s to the Dominican army,” says Kurzban....

Kurzban said he has hired military analysts to review photos of the weapons being used by the paramilitary groups. He says that contrary to reports in the media that the armed groups are using weapons originally distributed by Aristide, the gangs are using highly sophisticated and powerful weapons; weapons that far out-gun Aristide’s 3,000 member National Police force.

“The question is,” says Kurzban. “Will the international community stand by and allow a democracy in this hemisphere to be terminated by a brutal military coup of persons who have a very, very sordid history of gross violations of human rights?”

Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill, Haiti’s Lawyer: US Is Arming Anti-Aristide Paramilitaries, Calls For UN Peacekeepers, Democracy Now!, February 25, 2004

The answer to Kurzban’s question appeared to be no. The “international community” instead, led by the U.S., secured Haiti for what seemed like a peaceful stand down, but one where the democratic regime was overthrown through violence. Aristide had said that he would step down once his term was over, and the Haitian constitution does not allow him to sit again. The violent opposition had not been that popular, so as MADRE has implied, could only resort to violence to gain power.

It appears that the claim of the M-16s from the U.S. via the Dominican border is false. The U.S. did indeed authorize those M-16s but they never arrived:

In January 2002 under the Excess Defense Articles program, the Defense and State Departments authorized the transfer of 20,000 M-16s to the Dominican Republic, which shares a notoriously porous border with Haiti. While the shipment has mistakenly been labeled as a source of recent instability, in fact the M-16s have yet to arrive. The first 2,000 to 3,000 are scheduled for transfer in the coming months. Evidence does point to a flow of weapons to Haitian rebels from the Dominican Republic in the leadup to the unrest, however. (Other weapons are credited to the disbanded Haitian Army). And any new influx would be at risk of diversion.

Rachel Stohl, Haiti’s Big Threat: Small Arms, Center for Defence Information, March 23, 2004 [Emphasis Added]

So while claims of the lawyer and potentially others close to Aristide need to be scrutinized, it does appear that some weapons did flow to Haitian rebels. Furthermore, a Haiti Commission of Inquiry concluded just a week later that the U.S. and the Dominican Republic aided and abetted in the arming and training of dozens, possibly hundreds, of Haitians in the Dominican Republic to overthrow the democratically elected government in neighboring Haiti.

These apparently conflicting reports on specifics do agree that direct external assistance in some military type activities existed.

The differing economic and political ideologies was also a factor in the U.S. support for the removal of Aristide:

Marguerite Laurent, chair of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership, told the Power and Interest News Report that she believed Aristide’s economic stance was a huge factor in Washington’s decision to assist, however indirectly, in his removal from power: “Aristide refused to fully implement Washington’s neoliberalism economic policies when he returned to Haiti in 1994. ... Democracy is dead in Haiti, flown out when the U.S. took away Haiti’s peacekeeper.”

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

The message coming out of Washington just before the overthrow also seemed mixed. Some, such as White House aide Otto Reich and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega were very vocally against Aristide while Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested a peaceful solution was the only option. Quoting Larry Birns, director of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs:

Only days before Aristide was put on a plane February 29 for his State Department-arranged flight into exile in the Central African Republic, Powell repeatedly acknowledged the legitimacy of Aristide’s rule and denounced the opposition’s violent “thugs”. He further insisted that they would not be allowed to shoot their way to power nor would Aristide be forced to resign. Once engaged, Powell began insisting that the anti-Aristide political opposition must negotiate with the government and that Washington would not sanction regime change or insist upon Aristide’s forced ouster. Then, scarcely 24 hours before Aristide’s State Department-scripted travel arrangement, Powell reversed himself and ignored Haiti’s constitution, which stipulates that a president must convey his resignation only to the country’s legislature.

...Aristide had done nothing to justify this 180 degree reversal in U.S. policy. Powell’s rhetoric appeared to represent the high road on the issue, but he was either deceiving the public or being undermined by Noriega and Reich, who, in off-the-record briefings to journalists and other interested parties, made it clear that regime change was very much an option and that Aristide could be muscled aside in any negotiation process.

...

Aristide had conceded to every demand made on him by the OAS [Organization of American States], the European Union (especially France), the United Nations, the United States, and the English-speaking Caribbean nations to share power with the opposition, yet it was he who was repeatedly denounced by Powell and the international community for obstructionism, and rarely the opposition, which saw its vested interest intrinsically better served by chaos than peace. This was a solid strategy on the opposition’s part, because it knew it lacked the popularity to win the elections that successful talks inevitably would help bring about.

Larry Birns, Haiti’s Democracy in Flames; Powell’s dirty-dealing demolishes the tattered remnants of his credibility, In These Times, March 13, 2004

The manner in which Aristide and his family were escorted out and arrived at their destination was also controversial. As Birns also noted:

U.S. Embassy authorities were able to thrust a resignation letter into an understandably-befuddled Aristide’s hands for him to sign. This was done under the implicit threat that only then could he and his family be flown out of the country to safety. Once airborne, Aristide was told that his ultimate destination would be the Central African Republic only a half-hour before his scheduled landing. He was denied any ability to communicate with the outside world. Nor was he told where he would be going during a four-hour layover. Such behavior exemplifies the utter contempt in which he was held by U.S. officials. Powell’s defense of this scenario was based on his now revised line that Aristide was a “flawed” president who brought on his own downfall.

Today Haiti is a horrific mess, but it can’t entirely be attributed to President Aristide’s “flawed performance.” If Aristide was flawed, it was largely due to the impossible conditions laid down by Washington for him to rule.

Larry Birns, Haiti’s Democracy in Flames; Powell’s dirty-dealing demolishes the tattered remnants of his credibility, In These Times, March 13, 2004

Very quickly the United Nations Security Council agreed to a stabilization force to replace the U.S. Marines, French, Canadian and other troops that went in there. The immediate violence may subside, but in any case, power has fundamentally transferred for the time being:

The Democratic Platform and the rebel leaders have now achieved their aims, shown through recent statements by rebel leader Guy Philippe. Remarking on the Bush administration’s decision to send U.S. Marines to restore order in Port-au-Prince, Philippe told CNN, “We need them. I think the worst is over now. And we are waiting for the international force. They will have our full cooperation. ... [We] don’t intend to fight anymore.” After achieving control over Port-au-Prince, Philippe has little else to fight for. Indeed, in his own words: “The country is in my hands.”

Erich Marquardt, Haiti’s Experiment with Democracy Subverted Once Again, Power and Interest News Report, March 4, 2004

Media Reporting

As was the case during the 1990s, and mentioned further up, media reporting seems to have continued to be distorted, and in line with U.S. foreign policy interests.

Peter Phillips, Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and director of media research organization Project Censored, noted how so many headlines in the U.S. mainstream (corporate) press had said that Aristide resigned or fled. When confronted with the fact that Aristide himself said he had not resigned and was kidnapped by U.S. forces, the same media reacted by ridiculing the story or supporting the U.S. official responses of deinal:

Mainstream media had a credibility problem. Their original story was openly contradicted. The kidnap story could be ignored or back-paged as was done by many newspapers in the US. Or it can be framed within the context of a US denial and dismissed. Unfortunately, the corporate media seems not at all interested in conducting an investigation into the charges, seeking witnesses, or verifying contradictions. Nor is the mainstream media asking or answering the question of why they fully accept the State Department’s version of the coup in the first place. Corporate media certainly had enough pre-warning to determine that Aristide was not going to willingly leave the country. Aristide had been saying exactly that for the past month during the armed attacks in the north of Haiti. Aristide was interviewed on CNN February 26. He explained that the terrorists, and criminal drug dealers were former members of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which had led the coup in 1991 killing 5,000 people. Aristide believed that they would kill more people if a coup was allowed to happen.

...

Mainstream media had every reason to question the State Department’s version of the coup in Haiti, but choose instead to report a highly doubtful cover story. We deserve more from our media than their being stenographers for the government. Weapons of mass destruction aside, we need a media that looks for the truth and exposes the contradictions in the fabrications of the powerful.

Peter Phillips, Mainstream Media Fails Itself, Project Censored, March 3, 2004

But it is not just the media in the U.S. Even British media, usually regarded as being of better quality than American mainstream and covering a wider spectrum of political views tends to match U.S. interest.

Edwards and Cromwell mentioned earlier, surveying various media reports, including the more liberal British media, note how basic but important details have been omitted. For particular outlets:

  • “Not a word [from the Times] about the long, documented history of US support for mass murderers attacking a democratic government and killing its supporters. No mention of the limits imposed on Aristide’s range of options by the superpower protecting its business interests.”
  • “Not a word [from the BBC] about the double game being played by the US at the expense of the Haitian people and their democracy”.
  • “No mention [from The Guardian] of Aristide’s achievements or of the US determination to destroy them.”

And more generally they note, “Indeed in the mainstream reports we have seen we have found almost no mention of US commercial interests in Haiti.”

A common image on news reports was also of reporters seeminly asking Haitians what they thought, and of course there were rebel supporters who would blame Aristide for their problems. Yet, this gave a false sense of balance, as Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University also noted:

The more one sniffed around Washington the less America’s position made sense. People in positions of responsibility in international agencies simply shrugged and mumbled that they couldn’t do more to help Haiti in view of the Bush veto on aid. Moreover, by saying that aid would be frozen until Aristide and the political opposition reached an agreement, the Bush administration provided Haiti’s un-elected opposition with an open-ended veto. Aristide’s foes merely had to refuse to bargain in order to plunge Haiti into chaos.

That chaos has now come. It is sad to hear rampaging students on BBC and CNN saying that Aristide “lied” because he didn’t improve the country’s social conditions. Yes, Haiti’s economic collapse is fueling rioting and deaths, but the lies were not Aristide’s. The lies came from Washington.

Jeffrey Sachs, The Fire This Time in Haiti was US-Fueled, Taipei Times (Taiwan), March 1, 2004, Page 9

Some outlets did show views of Haitians from “both sides”, but again, without this important context and history, this was another example of “false balancing”.

Professor of economics, Michel Chossudovsky also notes that media reporting is without any context, implying that if the mainstream were to delve into these areas, horrors about their own nation’s actions would come to light:

In the weeks leading up to the Coup d’Etat, the media has largely focused its attention on the pro-Aristide “armed gangs” and “thugs”, without providing an understanding of the role of the FLRN [National Liberation and Reconstruction Front] Rebels.

Deafening silence: not a word was mentioned in official statements and UN resolutions regarding the nature of the FLRN. This should come as no surprise: the US Ambassador to the UN (the man who sits on the UN Security Council) John Negroponte played a key role in the CIA supported Honduran death squadrons in the 1980s when he was US ambassador to Honduras. (See San Francisco Examiner, 20 Oct 2001 http://www.flora.org/mai/forum/31397)

The FLRN rebels are extremely well equipped and trained forces. The Haitian people know who they are. They are Tonton Macoute of the Duvalier era and former FRAPH assassins.

The Western media is mute on the issue, blaming the violence on President Aristide. When it acknowledges that the Liberation Army is composed of death squadrons, it fails to examine the broader implications of its statements and that these death squadrons are a creation of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Michel Chossudovsky, US Sponsored Coup d’Etat; The Destabilization of Haiti, Centre for Research on Globalisation, February 29, 2004

In another critique of mainstream media reporting, David Edwards and David Cromwell noted that the reporting has been left to simply detailing people’s movements with no context. In addition, while there is a lot of reporting, it is still difficult get a clear picture of what is going on:

The bulk of reporting on Haiti has consisted of describing the movements of people: “The rebels are advancing”. “President Aristide has left the country”. “US marines have arrived”. From this it has been literally impossible to establish what is happening. No idea has been given of how popular Aristide actually is or was; what accounts for his popularity or lack of it.

No indication has been given of which external forces might be influencing the tiny, impoverished country and what their motivation might be. We have so far seen, for example, no mention on TV broadcasts of the substantial US corporate interests in Haiti. A Media Lens reader — an intelligent senior manager with a large UK-based charity — wrote to us:

“You’re right when you say you defy anyone to understand what’s going on from newspapers and the TV — it is literally incomprehensible. I asked around at work this morning (and I work with some very conscientious Granuiad [Guardian] and Indy readers) and no-one had much idea about Aristide, his policies, who the rebels were, what they wanted and so on... Newspapers get heavier by the day and split themselves amoeba-like into more and more sections. So much print filling up so much space. And yet really, absolutely nothing is reported in a meaningful way. It’s truly extraordinary.” (Email to Media Lens, March 1, 2004)

David Edwards and David Cromwell, Haiti — No News Is Bad News, Media Lens, March 10, 2004

The media lens reader finds it extraordinary, yet, it could be noted that most conflicts around the world suffer from similar problems. Even the Iraq crisis, even though it was reported much more in-depth still suffered from certain types of media selectivity and did not explore all types of issues in the lead up to the Bush and Blair-led war. For more on these aspects, see this site’s section on War, Propaganda and the Media.

Post Aristide

A multinational force led by the U.S., including French and others have been in Haiti since around the time of the ousting. A United Nations-led force is to replace these forces to assume responsibility in security matters.

Towards the end of May 2004, torrential flash floods killed thousands and left more thousands without homes, clean water and food. Into mid-June, many have been still awaiting aid. Yet, as Kevin Murray and Jake Miller of Grassroots International write in OneWorld.net, none of the international forces have provided much aid, nor do many appear to have attempted to:

Another cruel irony is that none of the officials and institutions charged with the responsibility of providing security to the citizens of Haiti — not the bankrupt interim government that was set up to replace ousted Jean Bertrand Aristide, not the U.S. and French forces who have been in country since Aristide’s February 29 departure, and not the understaffed, under-funded U.N. forces who nominally took over June 1 — has been able or willing to provide even minimal emergency aid to the victims of the flood.

Kevin Murray, Haiti — a flood of injustice, Kevin Murray and Jake Miller, OneWorld.net Guest Editorial, June 11, 2004

Furthermore, as Murray and Miller also note,

  • There is “quiet daily violence” which has continued. They note a place where intimidation and violence has increased against worker who had earlier won a settlement with factory owners;
  • A judge connected to bribery and narco-trafficing was reinstated to the bench;
  • Both armed groups of rebels and Aristide supporters have retained their weapons and control large portions of the country.

And the Washington Times as well as other media outlets reported (June 18, 2004) that thousands of Aristide’s supporters marched through the streets of the capital Friday calling for his return.

The highly rated British medical journal, The Lancet, between February 29, 2004 (after Aristide was overthrown), and December 2005, used survey research to estimate the number of victims and patterns of perpetration of human rights violations in the population of only the greater Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. Their report titled Human rights abuse and other criminal violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: a random survey of households, found that:

  • 8000 individuals were murdered in the greater Port-au-Prince area during the 22-month period assessed.
  • Almost half of the identified perpetrators were government forces or outside political actors.
  • Sexual assault of women and girls was common, with findings suggesting that 35,000 women were victimized in the area; more than half of all female victims were younger than 18 years.
  • Criminals were the most identified perpetrators, but officers from the Haitian National Police accounted for 13.8% and armed anti-Lavalas groups accounted for 10.6% of identified perpetrators of sexual assault.
  • Kidnappings and extrajudicial detentions, physical assaults, death threats, physical threats, and threats of sexual violence were also common.

(Democracy Now! provides radio/video/transcripted shows of discussions about this report for more context and discussion.)

While it is common to think in terms of personalities, such as Anti- or Pro-Aristide, the issues are more complex, and fundamentally more about democracy than individuals. As MADRE also commented on this angle, “The current crisis is not about supporting or opposing Aristide the man, but about defending constitutional democracy in Haiti. In a democracy, elections — and not vigilante violence — should be the measure of ‘the will of the people.’”

Into 2008, the global food crisis caused sharp food price rices in Haiti, resulting in riots and eventually the ousting of the Haitian Prime Minister. Combined with the effects of recent storms and environmental damage, prospects for Haiti look grim.

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Poverty, Cheap Imports: Killing Environment and People

On Friday April 10, 2009, UK’s Channel 4 aired their Unreported World documentary called Haiti: The Island that Ate Itself. This one looked at how poverty was destroying the environment finding a number of inter-related issues exacerbating conditions.

As the documentary noted, “Locked in a vicious cycle of environmental disaster, hunger, poverty and reliance on international aid, it’s perhaps the most extreme example of what is happening to many of the world’s poorest countries.”

Cheap rice imports from the US were undermining local farmers, often being sold at half the price that local farmers could charge. This created more poverty and hunger. These imports are also artificially cheap in part because the US subsidizes its farmers. (Food dumping disguised as food aid has been an issue causing hunger and poverty for many years in Haiti and elsewhere, as the previous link details.)

Incredible amounts of absolute poverty have driven people to deforest much of Haiti, exposing top soil to the elements. As hurricanes each year devastated the island, further deforestation to sell wood for a few pennies led to more top soil being exposed.

A cycle of destructive practices continued whereby each year’s hurricanes and resulting floods would then be able to erode more and more of the soils, as the remaining forests could no longer protect the environment and absorb the water. Rice farmers also found their crops destroyed by the weather. Many hillsides and country sides now reveal enormous amounts of underlying rock. Top soil is crucial for agriculture and its loss is a severe issue.

As poverty increased, many rural poor move to the cities, where lack of any services result in even more pressure for local municipalities to cope, resulting in more crime and hunger. In recent years, the population has increased, too.

The country is very dependent on food aid, now, and will likely be so for a very long time, perhaps somewhat ironically given it is one of the contributing factors to the conditions there.

Haiti’s political problems are therefore very much related to its environmental problems. The situation has gotten so bad that a problem in each area causes immense difficulties in the other.

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Devastating Earthquake in January 2010

Earthquake kills tens of thousands

On January 12, 2010 a massive earthquake of magnitude 7.0 hit Haiti near its capital, Port-au-Prince.

The quake was also felt in neighboring areas including Dominican Republic, in Turks and Caicos Islands, southeastern Cuba, eastern Jamaica, in parts of Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, and as far as Tampa, Florida and Caracas, Venezuela, according to the US Geological Survey.

The exact death toll is unknown, but over 150,000 are confirmed dead in the Port-au-Price area alone, with an estimated 1.5 million left homeless. It is thought the death toll could be above 200,000.

The immense poverty of Haiti, its weak infrastructure and poor quality buildings have contributed to the large death toll and massive destruction, including the capital building, key sea ports and infrastructure.

The earthquake has devastated businesses and entire neighborhoods

The resulting international humanitarian assistance that followed had also been hampered by the immense damage that made it difficult to get through to people in the initial days.

The economy was virtually at a standstill with banks reopening many days after the disaster, and still struggling to let people withdraw much-needed cash because of difficulties in identifying people.

Media coverage has shown incredible destruction, amazing fund raising appeals, and reported on the pledges of aid from various nations. US President Barack Obama announced a massive fund-raising effort through the Bush-Clinton Haiti Fund.

Yet the irony of having former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush lead the fund-raising seems to have been missed by mainstream reporting given the role of these former presidents in undermining independent democracy in Haiti in the past 2 decades. That being said, could the attention focused on Haiti — if it is sustained — at least help ensure this particular episode is not mismanaged?

The above few paragraphs regarding the earthquake was written in February 2010.

As of 1st October, 2010, the UN’s Special Envoy to Haiti web site reports numerous statistics about the earthquake’s effects, including that

  • 222,570 people died and 300,572 were injured (Haitian Government estimates)
  • 1.5 million children under 18 were directly or indirectly affected by the quake
  • 4,000 schools (approx) were damaged or destroyed (80% of the total affected in some way)
  • The total value of damage and losses caused by earthquake is estimated at US$7.8 billion — US$4.3 billion represents physical damage and US$3.5 billion are economic losses — some 120 percent of the 2009 gross domestic product (GDP) of Haiti
  • At the peak of displacement, around 2.3 million people left their homes including 302,000 children
  • 105,000 houses were completely destroyed and 188,383 houses collapsed or were badly damaged
  • 60 percent of government, administrative and economic infrastructure has been destroyed, as well as parliament and the judicial sector

Despite the enormous pledges of aid and support that grabbed media attention, many countries have not delivered, over 6 months later. At the end of September, Democracy Now pointed out that nothing of the US pledge has been delivered:

Republican Senator Tom Coburn has been identified as the lawmaker responsible for holding up over $900 million in congressionally approved aid for Haiti. A supplemental request for Haiti reconstruction passed the Senate in May and then the House in July. But a measure to direct how the money is spent was held up after it was anonymously tabled for further review. The Associated Press reports that Coburn, a doctor, pulled the measure over concerns about a $5 million provision that he says would waste taxpayer dollars. The US still hasn’t delivered a cent of the $1.15 billion in new aid for Haiti it pledged earlier this year.

Amy Goodman, Sen. Coburn Stalls Over $900M in Haiti Aid, Democracy Now, September 29, 2010

But it is not just the US, many nations that pledged millions have not delivered, according to the UN’s Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti.

And money is not the only issue. Equally important perhaps is land ownership for long term development. But even more immediate is security (especially as women face increasing rape and violence), shelter, housing, food and other emergency needs.

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A combination of a long turmoiled history, outside influence/interference preventing local democracy and development, political instability, environmental degradation, poverty and natural disasters all combine making it incredibly difficult to see how Haiti will be able to get out of its present situation.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 20, 1998
  • Last Updated: Friday, October 01, 2010

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Document Revision History

DateReason
October 1, 2010Added small update on the earthquakes effects and the little aid that has been delivered.
February 1, 2010Added some notes on how the earthquake that occurred in January 2010
April 10, 2009Added some notes on how poverty and environment are affecting one another
September 1, 2006Small update added regarding the large number of human rights violations, including rape and 8000 individuals murdered in the greater Port-au-Prince area during the 22-month period assessed by the prestigious Lancet journal
June 19, 2004Small update added regarding current conditions and march of thousands for Artistide’s return
April 19, 2004Updates regarding selective human rights reports and questioning specifics about M-16s being transferred from the U.S. to the Haitian rebels via the Dominican Republic
March 13, 2004More updates on Aristide overthrow and on U.S. and France’s involvement; More on the poor media reporting
March 06, 2004Haiti stats; More updates on history and U.S. influence; More on rebels and U.S. involvement in opposition and overthrow of Aristide; Poor media reporting and no context
February 24, 2004Page mostly rewritten. Added sections on history and current events; expanded existing details.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.