Aristide: Wrong hemisphere, wrong time

Aristide; wrong hemisphere, wrong time.

Glenn Ashton

May 2004

(Note: I repost this older article in light of the comment made by Bill Clinton that they had screwed up in Haiti and that he regretted his role in US intervention in this nation).

Jean Bertrand Aristide was, in 1990, the hope of Haiti, a shining light emerging from the clergy to usher that benighted nation from its US supported Duvalier nightmare into a new democratic future. There was however one problem; he was a socialist, a man of the people, an egalitarian leader.

Haiti is separated from Cuba by only a narrow channel. Like Cuba until the 1950s, it has long been reliant on its economic ties to the USA, both from funds repatriated by Haitians living in the US and as a source of cheap labour for sweatshops and plantations. In 1990 it appeared to the US to be headed in the same direction as Cuba.

US Navy vessels entered Haitian waters 24 times between 1849 and 1913, to “protect American lives and property”, according to Noam Chomsky. Thus was Haitian sovereignty ignored under the Munroe doctrine. This doctrine was adopted by US President Munroe in 1823, when the that regional giant began to flex its regional muscle, declaring the ‘Western Hemisphere’ out of bounds to European intervention. This early phase of US unilateralism in the region led to the famous ‘Banana Republics’ of Central America, ruled by appointees of the US-owned that supported their interests, primarily the Standard Fruit and United Fruit Companies. The Monroe doctrine was the start of the US marking the greater Caribbean basin as ‘American turf’.

Aristide’s emphasis on social rights immediately put him on the wrong side of Washington. Just as popular movements were crushed in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – the old Banana republics – in the 1980s (mainly by paramilitary hit squads trained at the infamous US run “School of the Americas” in Panama which has relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia and remains active today), so too was Aristide a marked man from day one.

Aristide got 67% of the vote; his US backed, ex-World Bank official Mark Bazin received only 14% of the vote. Aristide came to power in February 1991 and was deposed seven months later, in a US backed coup.

Aristide’s brief rule began to move toward participative, bottom up democratic government, according to Noam Chomsky. However his populism so threatened US interests that he was deposed. After his ouster, an all-out campaign was engaged by both the Haitian army and hired thugs to stamp out the nascent civil society activity. Deeply involved were two individuals who were directly connected to the CIA, Raul Cedras and Emmanuel Constant, of whom more later.

Thousands were killed and the Organisation of American States (OAS) declared sanctions against the illegal rule in Haiti. The US promptly declared its 800 companies involved in Haiti exempt from such sanctions. The next few years saw a period of repression as bad as than that of the Duvalier thugocracy, when their dreaded Tonton Macoutes were allowed free rein in a reign of terror. From 1991 until 1994 it was US inspired, if not supported, proxy forces that engaged in crushing this new social movement. An estimated four to five thousand people were killed in this oppression led by Cedras, Constant and others with direct links to US agencies.

Aristide remained in exile during this time. He was returned to power after extensive international pressure forced US intervention to allow the duly elected head of a democratic state to fulfil his mandate. Additionally, the ongoing international and domestic outcry about the Haitian boat people, literally dying to escape the horror of Haiti, helped tip the scale.

With irony piled upon irony, Aristide was returned to his leadership of Haiti by the same US forces that similtaneously gave amnesty to Constant and many of his thugs. The US also removed extensive documentation from the Haitian armed forces and security services to the US mainland. Both the Bush I and Clinton presidencies refused to part with these documents until names of US citizens were removed. Nobody has even bothered to ask Bush II.

Aristide was forced to accept a wealthy scion as Prime Minister in 1994 and was instructed to institute neo-liberal structural reforms as set out by the US and international financial institutions. This was also, true to pattern, supported by the wealthy classes in Haiti, the traders, plantation owners and assembly line operators, in order to promote a more ‘investor friendly’ climate, supported amongst others by US Aid.

Aristide was thus politically compromised. His constituency wanted fair reward for their labour while his US aligned opponents reverted to their old tactics of political disruption by thugs. Aristide’s supporters countered this and the chaotic stalemate hampered any significant progress along the lines that Aristide and his supporters sought.

Aristide nevertheless tried to continue to put his vision of democracy in place and managed to hold elections in 2000 that were largely fair and free and in which he was again elected by a comfortable majority. The opposition largely boycotted this election over a dispute about the positions of some of their senatorial candidates, in what was essentially a distraction that enabled his opponents to call foul about the elections.

Against this background of instability and external interference, the ante was upped by the return of Emannuel Constant’s men to the border regions of the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s poverty-stricken eastern neighbour. The insurrection picked up momentum. The entire nation slid towards chaos, that was clearly not of Aristide’s making but was driven by external forces aligned to US interests.

In amongst all of this chaos came the celebration of Haiti’s 200 years of independence at the beginning of 2004. This event puts it amongst the oldest independent – nominally, at least – democratic nations. President Mbeki, in an act of solidarity, supported this important event on behalf of the African Diaspora. We must not forget that Haitians overthrew the European plantation owners in a struggle for freedom that began at the end of the 18th century and which continues to this day. The implications of the Haitian example for Africa are profound. It can be strongly argued that our President was correct to both support the Haitian bicentennial celebrations and to invite Aristide to South Africa in his time of need.

After (and apparently during) the South African visit, public order deteriorated rapidly and the US-inspired ‘intervention’, widely regarded as a coup, led to Aristide finding himself on an aircraft to Africa, in an ironic reverse of the slave route that brought his ancestors to the West Indies.

Aristide was not the awful leader that he has been made out to be. He was hardly in any position to run a model democracy but given the blighted history of Haiti his rule was benign. He built more schools in his country during the few years of his rule than had been built in the previous history of Haiti. He allowed unionisation and worker rights. He put a cost-effective public administration in place but vested local and external interests actively undermined his grassroots version of democracy.

The saga of the little priest, Bertrand Artistide is one that has strong resonance with our own liberation movement. It echoes our hopelessness in the time of Apartheid. But Aristide’s real problem is that Haiti is simply situated in the wrong hemisphere to install a people-centred government. The proximity of Haiti in relation to Cuba, the US and Venezuela emphasises its geopolitical strategic value. When Bush II was installed, right wing Haitian expatriates and businessmen gained the ear of the administration and effectively sealed Aristide’s fate.

Had Aristide been the leader of an African nation he would have been hailed as a visionary leader, as someone committed to the rights of the people, a considered man who would have been supported by the First World. He was after all a community priest, someone who lived amongst his people and knew them and what they wanted. He was the reluctant leader of a popular experiment in participative democracy, something that we should all celebrate. Instead he was portrayed as a revolutionary working against the interests of the regional superpower and was mercilessly crushed, crushing the democracy he sought with him. He was the right man, doing the right thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The present dynamic in Haiti points to a hopeful outcome. Brazil and other regional nations are involved in restoring stability under UN mandate. South Africa too has a role to play by assisting this elected head of state to return to his nation when peace and order have been restored.

It is just and correct that a nation with the moral reputation of South Africa welcome President Bertrand Aristide of Haiti with dignity and hospitality. It is also high time that those who question our largesse properly examine the real history of the corruption of Haiti.

Glenn Ashton lived in the Caribbean Basin for three years during the 80s and 90s, observing the influences and results of post-colonialism and neo-colonialism in the region.

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