Vol. 26 No. 10 · 20 May 2004

Search by issue:

Unfair to Revenants

Yisrael Medad asks that we call the Jewish settlers in the West Bank revenants, as befits ‘persons who have returned after a long hiatus to their ancestral homes’ (Letters, 6 May). I know just how he feels. My family lost everything in the North of England in 1070, when William the Conqueror ethnically cleansed the landowners, and it’s been annoying us ever since. If Medad would meet me next Thursday in Barnard Castle, with a few hundred of his armed friends, we could finally see justice done. it’s tough perhaps to the non-revenants, who've been there for only 934 years, but we won’t charge them back rent and there are plenty of people who speak their language next door. I’m sure they’ll adjust and find other places to live, among their own kind.

Nicholas Blanton
Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Who got rid of Aristide?

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

Concerning the Patriot Act

Objecting to Richard Rorty’s denunciation of John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act, Peter Connolly writes that the act was ‘passed in Congress by large majorities of both parties’ (Letters, 6 May). True, but it’s worth pointing out that the act that was passed was not the act that had been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, in accordance with normal congressional procedure. Instead, shortly before the vote in Congress, Ashcroft’s office prevailed on the congressional leadership to substitute a new draft. This version of the act, rather than the draft that had been discussed, amended and approved in committee, was voted into law without members of Congress having any opportunity to read it, let alone debate it. One of the few votes against the act in its revised form came from John Conyers, the Democratic congressman who had sponsored the original act. Whatever the merits or demerits of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, to give it its full name, Ashcroft’s conduct in this case goes some way towards explaining Rorty’s characterisation of the US attorney general as ‘thoroughly sinister’.

Phil Edwards

What about the Roman Empire?

Stephen Holmes, in his review of Michael Mann’s Incoherent Empire, quotes Mann as saying that America has ‘the first military force deployable over the entire world’ and that ‘this lack of rivals is truly unique in history’ (LRB, 6 May). What about the Roman Empire? The legions were deployable over the whole of the then known world, and their deployment was justified, to the limited extent that the Romans felt it necessary to do so, in a rhetoric not unlike that of the present American administration. LRB readers might be interested to know that the British Academy will be holding an open discussion meeting on 29 October on ‘Imperialism, Ancient and Modern’. The principal speaker will be Edward Luttwak, with Professor Sir Michael Howard in the chair.

W.G. Runciman
Trinity College, Cambridge

Preserving the Owl

Aidan Harrison accuses me of relying too much on the price mechanism to prevent crippling shortages of raw materials, and ends (Letters, 15 April): ‘If we wait for Beckerman’s price mechanism to act, the effect will be a sudden worldwide economic and social collapse described by one oil expert as “the greatest discontinuity in human history".’ I wonder if he is quoting the energy expert Amory Lovins, who predicted back in 1974 that countries with expanding industry ‘will be especially hard hit by economic energy scarcities from now on’? Or perhaps he is quoting one of the participants in the 1977 MIT workshop who reported that ‘the supply of oil will fail to meet increasing demand before the year 2000.’ In fact his anonymous expert might be any one of the innumerable issuers of similar scary predictions published over the last fifty years, all of which have been falsified.

Salah el Serafy, in the same issue, takes a different line. He says that ‘left alone, the market will not restore the ozone layer, bring back depleted stocks of fish … or arrest global warming.’ Perfectly true, as I have emphasised in various publications. But my criticism of Amartya Sen’s views on climate change is that the cost of the damage done by climate change may well be less than the cost of preventing it (though this would depend on how it was done), and that the net burden of any policy to prevent it would probably fall most heavily on poor countries or poor generations.

I am well aware of the wide variety of market failures that call for public action. These include externalities (unpaid side-effects of an activity, such as pollution), ‘non-rivalness’ in consumption (if I admire flowers in a park that doesn’t prevent others from doing the same), or the impossibility of excluding some people from certain activities. All of el Serafy’s examples fall into this last category, known as ‘commons’. But these have different characteristics from the private goods such as oil, coal, copper and tin to which I was referring when I predicted that, in the long run, they will be protected from serious ‘shortage’ by the price mechanism. El Serafy’s failure to distinguish between these two classes of goods is symptomatic of the ‘mental virus’ that attacks many economists when the environment is under discussion.

Wilfred Beckerman
Balliol College, Oxford

Even Creepier

Thomas Jones writes that the ‘splendidly creepy narrator’ of Alan Hollinghurst’s second novel ‘is infatuated with his 17-year-old pupil’ (LRB, 6 May). I wonder, has there ever been a really good novel about a younger boy’s passion for an older man?

Gerald Field

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences