On the night of 28 February, the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced from power. He claimed he’d been kidnapped and didn’t know where he was being taken until, at the end of a 20-hour flight, he was told that he and his wife would be landing ‘in a French military base in the middle of Africa’. He found himself in the Central African Republic.

An understanding of the current crisis requires a sense of Haiti’s history. In the 18th century it became France’s most valuable colonial possession, and one of the most brutally efficient slave colonies there has ever been. Santo Domingo, as it was then called, was the leading port of call for slave ships: on the eve of the French Revolution, it was supplying two-thirds of all of Europe’s tropical produce. A third of new arrivals died within a few years.

Haitians are still living with the legacy of the slave trade and of the revolt that finally removed the French. The revolt began in 1791, and more than a decade of war followed; France’s largest expeditionary force, led by General Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, was sent to put down the rebellion. As the French operation flagged, the slave general, Toussaint l’Ouverture, was invited to a parley. He was kidnapped and taken away to a prison in the Jura. In Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution,* Laurent Dubois tells Toussaint’s story in a manner that reminds us of its similarities to the current situation:

‘Toussaint must not be free,’ Leclerc wrote to the colonial minister in Paris at the time, ‘and should be imprisoned in the interior of the Republic. May he never see Saint-Domingue again.’ ‘You cannot hold Toussaint far enough from the ocean or put him in a prison that is too strong,’ Leclerc reiterated a month later. He seemed to fear that the deported man might suddenly reappear. His very presence in the colony, he warned, would once again set it alight.

Toussaint died of exposure and tuberculosis in 1803. Every Haitian schoolchild knows his last words by heart: ‘In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of black liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.’

In November 1803 the former slaves won what proved to be the war’s final battle, and on 1 January 1804 declared the independent republic of Haiti. It was Latin America’s first independent country and the only nation ever born of a slave revolt. The Haitian Revolution, Dubois writes, was ‘a dramatic challenge to the world as it then was. Slavery was at the heart of the thriving system of merchant capitalism that was profiting Europe, devastating Africa, and propelling the rapid expansion of the Americas.’ Independent Haiti had few friends. Virtually all the world’s powers sided with France against the self-proclaimed Black Republic, which declared itself a haven not only for runaway slaves but also for indigenous people from the rest of the Americas (the true natives of Haiti had succumbed to infectious disease and Spanish slavery well before the arrival of the French). Hemmed in by slave colonies, Haiti had only one non-colonised neighbour, the slaveholding United States, which refused to recognise its independence.

Haiti’s leaders were desperate for recognition, since the island’s only source of revenue was the sugar, coffee, cotton and other tropical produce it had to sell. 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’.

The impact of the debt repayments – which continued until after World War Two – was devastating. In the words of the Haitian anthropologist Jean Price-Mars, ‘the incompetence and frivolity of its leaders’ had ‘turned a country whose revenues and outflows had been balanced up to then into a nation burdened with debt and trapped in financial obligations that could never be satisfied.’ ‘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.

During his few months in office, Aristide, in part because of the abolition of the Haitian army, became in 1996 the first elected civilian to see another elected civilian – René Préval – succeed him as president of Latin America’s oldest republic. Préval in turn became Haiti’s first president ever to serve out his term, not a day more or less. In November 2000, Aristide was again elected by a landslide. But problems had already arisen. In the local and parliamentary elections in May, eight parliamentary seats were disputed and when the political opposition cried foul, the US froze international aid. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), for example, had approved four loans, for health, education, drinking water and road improvement. Haitian and American sources have confirmed to me that the US asked the bank to block the loans until the electoral disputes had been worked out. Since seven of the senators in question resigned in 2001, and the other’s term expired shortly thereafter, that should have been the end of the aid freeze, yet it continued throughout Aristide’s tenure.

The State Department later claimed that the freeze was decided on by a consensus of the members of the Organisation of American States in something called the Declaration of Quebec City. The declaration is dated 22 April 2001, and the letter from the US representative asking that the loans not be disbursed was dated 8 April. To quote the conclusion of one of the few journalists to find this scandal worthy of inquiry, ‘it would seem that the effort became concerted after it was made.’

International financial institutions engaged in discriminatory and probably illegal practices towards Haiti. According to the London-based Haiti Support Group,

Haiti’s debt to international financial institutions and foreign governments has grown from $302 million in 1980 to $1.134 billion today. About 40 per cent of this debt stems from loans to the brutal Duvalier dictators, who invested precious little of it in the country. This is known as ‘odious debt’ because it was used to oppress the people, and, according to international law, this debt need not be repaid.

Yet in order to meet the renewed demands of the IDB, the cash-strapped Haitian government was required to pay ever-expanding arrears on its debts, many of them linked to loans paid out to the Duvalier dictatorship and to the military regimes that ruled Haiti with great brutality from 1986 to 1990. In July 2003, Haiti sent more than 90 per cent of all its foreign reserves to Washington to pay off these arrears. As of today, less than $4 million of the four blocked loans – which totalled $146 million – has reached Haiti in spite of many assurances from the IDB.

Even so it was not until last month that one could read in a US daily newspaper that the aid freeze might have contributed to the overthrow of the penniless Haitian government. On 7 March, the Boston Globe wrote:

Today, Haiti’s government, which serves eight million people, has an annual budget of about $300 million – less than that of Cambridge, a city of just over 100,000. And as Haitians attempt to form a new government, many say its success will largely depend on how much and how soon aid will flow to the country . . . Many of Aristide’s supporters, in Haiti and abroad, angrily contend that the international community, particularly the United States, abandoned the fledgling democracy when it needed aid the most. Many believe that Aristide himself was the target of the de facto economic sanctions, just as Haiti was beginning to put its finances back in order.

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.

Between the coup that followed Aristide’s inauguration and his return to Haiti, the coverage in the US was of the same character as today’s. On 22 September 1994, the New York Times ran a front-page piece called ‘The Mouse that Roared’. From it, we get a keen sense of Aristide as irritant:

The Clinton crowd has had to work hard to justify him to lawmakers who were unnerved by the October 1993 closed-door CIA briefing to Congress, in which the intelligence agency offered information – later proven false – that Father Aristide had received psychiatric treatment at a Montreal hospital in 1980. Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, left the briefing and branded him a ‘psychopath’ – a slur it has been hard for Father Aristide to get over.

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. So what is to be done about the people who, to the horror of the Republican right, keep voting for him?

The protégés of Jesse Helms have had more say in Aristide’s fate than the Haitian electorate have. Although US officials stated initially that he had been ‘taken to the country of his choice’ at the end of February, Aristide’s claim that he had no idea where he was going seems more plausible. He had never been to the Central African Republic before. About the size of Texas and with a population of only three million, it is subject to French military and economic interests. A BBC story in March 2003 reported that the capital, Bangui, was the world’s most dangerous city, while the US advises its citizens not to travel to the country; the US embassy was closed two years ago.

On the tarmac, Aristide thanked the Africans for their hospitality, and then said: ‘I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will grow back because the roots are l’Ouverturian.’

The Bush administration appears to have put two men in charge of Latin American diplomacy, and they’ve been at it for a long time. As the ‘special presidential envoy to the western hemisphere’, Otto Reich is the top US diplomat in the region, even though he has never survived a House or Senate hearing; he was given the post by Bush during a Congressional recess. In the 1990s, Reich was a lobbyist for industry (one beneficiary of his work: Lockheed Martin, who have been selling fighter planes to Chile); before that he had a long record of government service.

During the civil war in Nicaragua, according to William Finnegan in a New Yorker profile, Reich

headed a Contra-support programme that operated out of an outfit called the Office of Public Diplomacy. The office arranged speeches and recommended books to school libraries, but also leaked false stories to the press – that, for instance, the Sandinista government was receiving Soviet MiG fighters, or was involved in drug trafficking . . . The office employed army psychological-warfare specialists, and worked closely with Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, at the National Security Council.

During the course of the Iran-Contra investigation, the US comptroller general concluded that Reich’s office had ‘engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities’. But by then Reich had been named US ambassador to Venezuela, where he laid the groundwork for future efforts to destabilise President Chávez. Not all this activity is covert: less than a year ago, Reich was on record welcoming a coup against Chávez, and urging the State Department and opinion makers to support the ‘new government’. The only problem was that the Venezuelan majority failed to fall into step, and Chávez remained.

Last month, the Bush administration sent Roger Noriega to Haiti to ‘work out’ the crisis. Not everyone knew who he was: Noriega’s career has been spent in the shadows of Congressional committees. For the better part of a decade, he worked for Helms and his allies, and it’s no secret he has had Aristide in his sights for years. US Haiti policy is determined by a small number of people who were prominent in either Reagan’s or George H.W. Bush’s cabinets. Most are back in government today after an eight-year vacation in conservative think tanks or lobbying firms. Elliot Abrams, convicted of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings, serves on the National Security Council; Reagan’s national security adviser John Poindexter until recently headed the Pentagon’s new counterterrorism unit; John Negroponte, former ambassador to Honduras, is now ambassador to the UN. Jeanne Kirkpatrick is on the board of the International Republican Institute, a body which has been actively supporting the opposition in Haiti (my sources suggest that it backed the demobilised army personnel who provided the opposition’s muscle at the beginning of the year, though it denies this).

The players on the Haitian side fall into one of two categories: first, Haiti’s business elite, including those who own the media, and then the former military and paramilitaries – the people who were involved in the 1991-94 coup. Some have been in jail since then for murder, drug trafficking and crimes against humanity. Today, every single one of them is out.

Among those released by the rebels is the former general Prosper Avril, a leader of the notorious Presidential Guard under both Duvaliers. Avril seized power in September 1988, and was deposed in March 1990. A US District Court found that his regime engaged in a ‘systematic pattern of egregious human rights abuses’. It also found him personally responsible for enough ‘torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ to award six of his victims a total of $41 million in compensation. The victims included opposition politicians, union leaders, scholars, even a doctor trying to practise community medicine. Avril’s repression was not subtle: three torture victims were paraded on national television with their faces grotesquely swollen, their limbs bruised and their clothing covered with blood. He suspended 37 articles of the constitution, and declared a state of siege.

The US started protecting Avril shortly after the 1994 restitution of Aristide. In November that year, the then secretary of state, Warren Christopher, relayed to the US ambassador intelligence reports that the Red Star Organisation, under Avril’s leadership, was planning a ‘harassment and assassination campaign directed at . . . Aristide supporters’. This information was not passed on to the Haitian authorities. In December, the Haitian police, acting on their own information, sought to arrest Avril at his home. Immediately after the police arrived, US soldiers turned up and tried to dissuade them from making the arrest. By the time they got in, Avril had fled to the neighbouring residence of the Colombian ambassador. Police searching Avril’s house found military uniforms, illegal police radios and a cache of weapons.

He escaped to Israel but later returned to Haiti, where his international and potential military support deterred further attempts to arrest him. He founded a political party, which has never fielded candidates in an election but was invited by the IRI to participate in developing an opposition to Aristide. In May 2001, after US troops had withdrawn from Haiti, the police finally seized the opportunity to execute Avril’s arrest warrant. The successful arrest was greeted with applause by the vast majority of Haitians and by human rights and justice groups in Haiti, the US and Europe. Amnesty International asserted that the arrest ‘could mark a step forward by the Haitian justice system in its struggle against impunity’: ‘the gravity of the human rights violations committed during General Avril’s period in power, from his 1988 coup d’état to his departure in March 1990, cannot,’ Amnesty said, ‘be ignored.’ France’s Committee to Prosecute Duvalier concluded that ‘the general must be tried.’ On 9 December 2003, the magistrate investigating the Piatre Massacre in 1990, when several peasants lost their lives, formally charged Avril with responsibility. He was in prison awaiting the end of the pre-trial proceedings when he was freed on 2 March – a few days after Aristide was deposed.

The rebel leader Guy Philippe received training, during the last coup, at a US military facility in Ecuador. When the army was demobilised, Philippe was incorporated into the new police force, serving as police chief in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas and in the second city, Cap-Haïtien. During his tenure, the UN International Civilian Mission learned, dozens of suspected gang members were summarily ex ecuted, most of them by police under the command of Philippe’s deputy. The US embassy has also implicated Philippe in drug smuggling during his police career. Crimes committed in large part by ex-military policemen, are often pinned on Aristide, even though he sought to prevent coup-happy human rights abusers from ending up in these posts.

Philippe fled Haiti in October 2000, when the authorities discovered him plotting a coup with a clique of fellow police chiefs. Since then, the Haitian government has accused him of masterminding terrorist attacks in July and December 2001, as well as lethal hit-and-run raids against police stations on Haiti’s central plateau. (Over the last two years, four of our ambulances have been stolen, and members of our medical staff have been held hostage.) Last month, Philippe’s men bragged to the US press that they had executed Aristide supporters in Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince, and many have indeed been reported missing. ‘I am the chief, the military chief. The country is in my hands,’ Philippe boasted on 2 March, which triggered the following response from Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace laureate and former president of Costa Rica: ‘Nothing could more clearly prove why Haiti does not need an army than the boasting of rebel leader Guy Philippe last week in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian army was abolished nine years ago during a period of democratic transition, precisely to prevent the country from falling back into the hands of military men.’ Philippe told the Associated Press that he would use his new powers to arrest Haiti’s prime minister, Yvon Neptune, and proceeded to lead a mob in an attack on Neptune’s house. Philippe has been quoted as saying that the man he most admires is Pinochet.

The list goes on. Louis-Jodel Chamblain was a sergeant in the Haitian army until 1989 or 1990. He reappeared on the scene in 1993 as the second in command of the FRAPH. (Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant, its leader, is now living as a free man in Queens, New York.) Among the FRAPH’s victims was Guy Malary, the justice minister, ambushed and machine-gunned with his bodyguard and a driver. In September 1995, Chamblain was one of seven senior military and FRAPH leaders convicted in absentia and sentenced to forced labour for life for their involvement in the September 1993 execution of Antoine Izméry, a well-known pro-democracy activist. In late 1994 or early 1995, he went into voluntary exile in the Dominican Republic.

As for the traditional political elite, some have wanted to live in the National Palace ever since the time it was occupied by Papa Doc. Others may appear more marginal but they have done their share of harm. When, the other day, Vladimir Jeanty was shown destroying artwork on public display in Port-au-Prince, he was described as a ‘pastor from the Party of God’. In fact he is another perennial presidential candidate, delighted to have the chance to burn precious artefacts linked with voodoo and other aspects of Haitian culture – and to do so in full view of the international press.

US-born André Apaid, known in the US press as ‘the leader of the civil society movement to oust Aristide’, is the founder of a TV station and owner of a garment manufacturing firm (a subsidiary of Alpha Industries) that was prominently featured in news reports about Disney’s sweatshop suppliers. Aristide’s relentless push to raise the minimum wage above 72 gourdes a day – about £1 – cut into the massive profits of the offshore assembly industry. The US Congress has proposed building new garment factories in Haiti and encouraging American companies to contract out more sweatshop labour – good news for Apaid.

At the other end of the social spectrum from Apaid are the chimères, the groups described in the foreign press as armed thugs working for the Aristide government. But who are the chimères? Residents of Haiti’s slums, long excluded from civil society, they ‘were indeed chimeras’, Madison Smartt Bell wrote. ‘Ill fortune left them as unrealised shadows . . . These were the people Aristide had originally been out to salvage.’

The salvage operation came to an end last month as ‘rebels’ continued to ‘take cities’. I work in these ‘cities’ and I saw the rebels’ modus operandi. They came in, shot the police – who usually numbered no more than two or three – and left. Only a similarly equipped counterforce could have stopped them. The beleaguered government appealed for help in the Security Council, but this was delayed by the Bush administration – delayed long enough for the government to fall, or be pushed out.

Did the US and France have a hand in Aristide’s removal? Were he and his wife being held against their will? Most of Aristide’s claims, initially disputed by US officials from Noriega to Donald Rumsfeld, are now acknowledged to be true. His enemies’ claims that Aristide met with officials in Antigua – Aristide said they were not allowed to move from their seats – were undermined by reports from Antigua itself. Noriega acknowledged during a House hearing that Aristide did not know of his destination until less than an hour before landing in the Central African Republic. Even CAR officials acknowledge that no Haitian authorities were involved in the choice of destination.

Many more questions remain unanswered. We know that US funds overtly financed the opposition, but did they also fund, even indirectly, the rebellion, which featured high-powered US weapons only a year after twenty thousand such weapons were promised to the Dominican Republic? Senator Christopher Dodd is urging an investigation of US training sessions for six hundred ‘rebels’ in the Dominican Republic, and wants to find out ‘how the IRI spent $1.2 million of taxpayers’ money’ in Haiti. Answering these and related questions would take an intrepid investigative reporter, rather than a physician like myself, working, with some trepidation, in central Haiti. It would need a reporter willing to take on hard questions about US policies in Latin America. But about the return of the military, there can be little doubt. In his first public statement the man sworn in as Haiti’s new prime minister announced that Aristide’s order to replace the military with a civilian police force violated Haiti’s constitution; he promised to name a commission to examine the issues surrounding its restoration.

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Vol. 26 No. 9 · 6 May 2004

Although the US was clearly the senior partner in the expulsion of President Aristide from Haiti, as Paul Farmer argued (LRB, 15 April), it’s worth emphasising the importance of France’s contribution. Demonisation of Aristide has been something of a national obsession in recent months, with normally left-of-centre dailies such as Libération and L'Humanité struggling to outdo each other in their efforts to portray Haiti’s president as the reincarnation of Duvalier or Mobutu. This isn’t an easy trick, when you consider that people with – generally tenuous – connections to Aristide’s Lavalas party were probably responsible for around thirty killings in all the years he was in office. Five thousand Lavalas supporters were killed while Aristide was in exile between 1991 and 1994, and fifty thousand deaths have been attributed to the Duvalier dictatorships.

The equation of Aristide and Duvalier, however, was a useful way of diverting attention from another point that Farmer is right to emphasise: Aristide’s demand for reimbursement of the money France extorted from Haiti between 1825 and 1947 as compensation for the loss of colonial property. By the end of the 19th century, payments to France consumed around 80 per cent of Haiti’s budget. Régis Debray, who was sent to Haiti by Chirac last autumn in search of arguments to undermine Aristide’s position, happily concluded that his demands – unlike slavery itself presumably – had no ‘legal basis’. He also found that ‘no members of the democratic opposition to Aristide took the reimbursement claims seriously,’ but neglected to mention that the Haitian electorate preferred Aristide to this opposition by a factor of nine or ten to one.

Peter Hallward
King’s College London

Vol. 26 No. 10 · 20 May 2004

Paul Farmer’s account of the collapse of the Aristide government in February is misleading and riddled with errors (LRB, 15 April). Attempts such as his to explain Haiti’s current predicament in terms of its 200-year history of neo-colonial exploitation by the great powers bring us no closer to understanding the reasons for the collapse of Aristide’s government than a similarly reductive account of Britain’s involvement in Southern Africa would explain why Robert Mugabe finds himself isolated and under siege in Zimbabwe.

It is true that in November 2000 Aristide was democratically elected president of Haiti, even if the election was boycotted by the opposition and only 10 per cent of those eligible turned out to vote. But long before the end came, government attacks on political opponents, the press and human rights workers (see the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and Reporters sans frontières) had isolated Aristide’s Haiti from the international community, which responded by suspending grants, loans and every form of aid other than humanitarian assistance. A survey conducted in October 2003 by Transparency International, a German NGO, reported that of the 133 nations they looked at only Nigeria and Bangladesh were more corrupt than Haiti. The complicity of members of Aristide’s inner circle and the Haitian National Police in drug trafficking was turning Haiti into a narco state.

Aristide’s growing authoritarianism has been denounced by virtually every element of the coalition that supported his rise to the presidency in 1990: the priests and laypersons of the liberation theology wing of the Haitian church, the network of grassroots organisations, peasant co-operatives and labour unions, and every single Haitian intellectual or artist of note. Aristide tried to compensate for the defection of his former supporters by recruiting criminal gangs – the chimères, a term derived from the Creole word for ‘hothead’ – and an expensive lobbying effort in Washington, in which Farmer took part.

On 5 December 2003, gangs of chimères, acting in concert with the police, carried out an attack on the State University, a hotbed of anti-Aristide sentiment, setting it on fire and attacking the rector with iron bars, breaking both of his legs. In response, tens of thousands of protesters, day after day, called for Aristide’s departure. In the past, one hundred or so chimères, armed with pistols, clubs and whips, or even rocks and bottles, had been sufficient to disperse any opposition group assembled in protest. Now this was no longer adequate: Aristide was losing control of the streets.

His claim that he had been forced out by the US is correct only insofar as their ultimate failure to commit troops to prop him up had become a form of intervention. Aristide called for the population to defend the streets against the rebels. When truckloads of guns were handed out on 27 February, however, the newly armed men went on a spree of looting, arson, robbery and highjacking.

Aristide’s departure early in the morning of 29 February obviously was not voluntary: he would have liked to continue being president. But was he kidnapped? The only American contingent in Haiti at the time consisted of 50 marines guarding the embassy and helping to evacuate American nationals. When the ambassador told Aristide that he could not commit troops to guarantee his safety once the rebels arrived, Aristide accepted their offer of a plane ride out. He made plain during the next 48 hours that he had been forced out by the failure of foreign governments to come to his aid, and complained that he had been the victim of a ‘thoroughly modern form of kidnapping’, or a ‘coup-napping’. It was later that he began to complain of being abducted at gunpoint.

Farmer asserts that Aristide’s flight was engineered by the Bush administration. Although the political views of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega are more or less as Farmer describes them, by August 2003, they were no longer responsible for the direction of US policy. A confidential assessment by Ambassador Terence Todman concluded that the chances of a negotiated settlement between Aristide and the opposition were remote, and that Haiti was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. The White House, whose overriding concern was to do nothing that might complicate their chances of carrying Florida during the November presidential election, adopted a course designed to avert the mass exodus of refugees that would accompany further instability in Haiti.

Although it’s very possible that, as Farmer reports, members of the reactionary elite in 1990 regarded Aristide as a ‘cross between the Ayatollah and Fidel’, it’s now plain that he was neither, only another in a long line of corrupt authoritarians who persecuted their enemies and emptied the treasury on departure.

The danger Haiti faces today is not from a revived army, however much its former officers might wish it back. When Aristide was restored to office in 1994, the military accounted for 40 per cent of the national budget: without massive foreign subsidies, a Haitian army on anything remotely like its old scale is as likely as a Haitian space programme. The real peril is more immediate, and consists in the continuing fragmentation of authority, the further devolution of power in the countryside to small groups of armed criminals under the command of individual warlords who today operate unchecked, and to gangs of chimères in the city. This, and the climate of lawlessness and impunity, is as much a part of Aristide’s legacy as the dismantling of the army, the one act of his that received near unanimous approval.

In the two months since the US and other foreign contingents landed, they have failed to disarm the rebels or the chimères, or to restore order in the towns or countryside; they have shown themselves unwilling to put a halt to the reprisals and score-settling, and haven’t responded to credible reports of widespread human rights abuses. The US marines are scheduled to withdraw at the end of June. The only positive news has been Kofi Annan’s call for a UN peacekeeping force of 8000 troops and civilian police.

Peter Dailey
New York

Vol. 26 No. 11 · 3 June 2004

Peter Dailey writes that presidential elections in Haiti in November 2000 were ‘boycotted by the opposition and only 10 per cent of those eligible turned out to vote’ (Letters, 20 May). More than 60 per cent of voters registered and voted in the 2000 presidential elections, as carefully documented by numerous independent observers (see www.nationmaster.com/country/ha/Democracy). In 2002, a USAID Gallup poll showed Aristide to enjoy over 60 per cent of popular support. In this suppressed but leaked poll, it is noted that the political opposition enjoyed less than 10 per cent of the popular vote. As for the opposition ‘boycotting’ the elections, this was a good strategic move on their part, considering they stood no chance of winning and the boycotting of elections is a familiar destabilisation tactic (see Jamaica under Manley).

Dailey cites Human Rights Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and Transparency International as credible institutions. Transparency International has been described as ‘a tool to destabilise governments for corporate interests under the guise of exposing corruption’ (see www.blackcommentator.com/62/62_ haiti_1.html). As for NCHR, I met with a member of the organisation as part of a larger delegation investigating the political and social situation in Haiti at the end of March. He told us that NCHR was unwilling to investigate reports of massacres carried out by international forces and Haitian National Police against Lavalas supporters.

Dailey is correct, however, when he says that these groups helped to ‘isolate Aristide’s Haiti from the international community’. Grants, loans and aid were indeed suspended by the US, the EU, Canada and others, to the tune of $1 billion. In 2001, CARICOM pleaded with the international community to release these funds. But, CARICOM, like Haiti, is not white, so its demands do not need to be taken seriously.

Dailey doesn’t mention the human rights abuses that continue to take place in Haiti. The director of the state morgue in Port-au-Prince told a National Lawyers Guild delegation that they had received more than a thousand bodies in March, five times as many as usual. Many had bags over their heads, hands tied behind their backs, bullets in the head.

Sam Goff, Brian Concannon and Father Luis Barrios took part in an International Action Committee investigation into the Dominican Republic’s role in the coup. They were able to determine that the Haitian rebels – former military and FRAPH members – were incorporated into the Dominican army in 2000. These paramilitaries were initially trained by the Dominicans, and funded by the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, the CIA front group established by Reagan in 1983. They later also received training from US special forces.

Anthony Fenton

Paul Farmer writes: ‘Toussaint died of exposure and tuberculosis in 1803. Every Haitian schoolchild knows his last words by heart’ (LRB, 15 April). Farmer knows better than I do that fewer than 52 per cent of the Haitian population can read. There are no statistics on who goes to school. However, according to Jean-Robert Cadet, himself an ex-slave, there are some 200,000 domestic child slaves in Haiti. I should like to know what Aristide did during his years in office to confront, let alone resolve this problem.

Timothy Williams

Vol. 26 No. 12 · 24 June 2004

Peter Dailey says that Haiti’s November 2000 presidential election ‘was boycotted by the opposition and only 10 per cent of those eligible turned out to vote’ (Letters, 20 May). In fact, six opposition parties ran candidates (although three pulled out at the last minute). The official results gave Aristide 92 per cent of the vote, on a 60 per cent turnout. Had the opposition fully participated and rallied around a single candidate, and had every registered voter who either did not vote or voted for someone else voted for that candidate, Aristide would still have won.

Dailey’s claim that Aristide’s policies had ‘isolated’ Haiti from the ‘international community’ is true only if ‘international community’ means the wealthy countries of North America and Western Europe. Integration in the Caribbean Community increased, Thabo Mbeki made a state visit, and a special mission of the Organisation of American States set up shop to support the democratisation process. The Caribbean Community and the Africa Union, which together comprise a third of UN membership, called for an investigation of the coup.

Inside Haiti, according to Dailey, Aristide’s government had been ‘denounced by virtually every element of the coalition that supported his rise to the presidency in 1990’. This is true if ‘virtually every’ means ‘everyone except the poor’. The anti-Aristide movement united a broad spectrum of the elite, from Marxists and anti-globalisation crusaders to Duvalierists and sweatshop owners. But every indicator, from Gallup polls to the relative size of demonstrations, showed that the government enjoyed solid support from the vast majority of Haitians who were not an ‘intellectual or artist of note’. The anti-Aristide camp knew this, and so refused to allow legislative elections.

The ease with which Haiti’s leftist elite and its foreign supporters joined sweatshop owners, Duvalierists and the Bush administration in a crusade to overthrow Aristide says more about the fluidity of their own political commitments than about Haiti’s government. The real cleavage in Haiti has always been not left-right but up-down. When push came to shove, class allegiance trumped any professed commitment to social equality or democracy.

Brian Concannon
Joseph, Oregon

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