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Aristide and the Violence of Democracy


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A review of Alex Dupuy, The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. ISBN 0-7425-3831-1, 238 + xi pages.

The basic argument of Alex Dupuy’s new book is that between 1990 and 2006, Haiti’s ‘tumultuous transition to democracy’ was ‘temporarily derailed by both Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his enemies’ (p. 203). In particular, Dupuy sets out to show that ‘when he left [Haiti] in February 2004, Aristide had become a discredited, corrupted and increasingly authoritarian president who had betrayed the trust and aspirations of the poor majority’ (2).

Alex Dupuy is an experienced and highly regarded scholar who has already written two other substantial books on modern Haitian politics. He has a sophisticated grasp of the workings of the ‘new world order’, of transnational capitalism and of contemporary forms of political and economic domination. Readers familiar with the recent work of analysts like David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein or William Robinson will find themselves right at home. His latest book is sure to appeal to people who are instinctively critical both of US imperialism and of the apparent degeneration of Aristide and the Lavalas movement that he led. It is reasonable to assume that The Prophet and Power will soon become a standard point of reference for anyone who wants to understand what happened to Haiti in the two confusing decades that followed the expulsion of the US-backed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. It is already beginning to enjoy a warm reception as a ‘challenging and enlightening book’, one that presents a ‘fair and persuasive’ argument that is ‘rooted carefully in factual data, analyzing the global situation with insight and logical rigor.’[ ] Such an argument clearly deserves to be considered in detail and at length.

Dupuy provides a fairly full account of Aristide’s two terms in office (February 1991-September 1991; February 2001-February 2004). Both terms were interrupted by violent military coups. Dupuy argues that in each case, responsibility for the coup lay both with Aristide himself and with his opponents among the Haitian economic elite, backed by the Haitian army (or its paramilitary replacement) and its international patrons.  Long before his political career was brought to an end in February 2004, Dupuy insists that it had become ‘clear that Aristide, as well as his Fanmi Lavalas party in power, relied on intimidation, violence, and corruption to maintain themselves in power, had become discredited, no longer represented the interests of the majority of Haitians who brought them to power, and were a major obstacle to the democratization of Haiti. But if Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas subverted democracy, so too did the organized opposition, the Haitian bourgeoisie, and their foreign allies’ (168).

Most readers familiar with recent Haitian history are likely to agree with at least the second aspect of Dupuy’s analysis. Dupuy provides a useful introductory overview of the ways in which neo-liberal globalisation has led to increasingly desperate levels of exploitation and impoverishment. He demonstrates how this global economic order is tightly interconnected with US imperial power. He understands the difference between core and peripheral states within the contemporary world-system. He shows how the US and its allies in the Haitian elite were determined at all costs to prevent Aristide from pursuing meaningful social and economic reforms. He shows how the ‘democratic opposition’ that the US and pro-US members of Haiti’s little elite rigged up to oppose Aristide’s second administration amounted to nothing more than a front for the most reactionary forces in Haitian society. He shows how Aristide’s early efforts to rid Haiti of the murderous legacy of the Duvalier dictators (1957-1986) and their brutal ‘Tonton Macoute’ militia were thwarted by a mixture of military and paramilitary reaction. He explains how Aristide’s early ambition to lead Haiti towards a ‘maximalist’ (redistributive, socially transformative) version of democracy was constrained by pressure from the international community and its financial institutions to legislate for what became a merely ‘minimalist’ or formal (market-driven, politically conservative) version of democracy (18-21). In all these respects Dupuy provides a valuable and clear-sighted analysis of this most turbulent period in Haitian history.

What may be more controversial is Dupuy’s insistence that the primary responsibility for the end of democratic rule in 2004 nevertheless lies with President Aristide and members of his Fanmi Lavalas party. Like a good many other analysts who considered themselves sympathetic to the embryonic phase of the Lavalas project, Dupuy claims that whereas Aristide’s first administration was marked by a mix of authoritarian and democratic tendencies, his second administration was simply authoritarian through and through. ‘Aristide’s second term of office’, he writes, was ‘disastrous on all fronts — political, economic, and social’ (168). By 2001, ‘Aristide’s objective was to consolidate his and his party’s power and preserve the prebendary and clientelistic characteristics of the state he had vowed to dismantle in 1991. To maintain power, Aristide relied on armed gangs, the police, and authoritarian practices to suppress his opponents, all the while cultivating a self-serving image as defender of the poor. That strategy did not work, though, as his government became increasingly discredited and his popularity waned [...]. Consequently, unlike in 1991, the majority of the population did not rally to save Aristide from being forced out in 2004 or clamor for his return afterward’ (xv). By 2004, ‘betrayed by a false prophet’, one of world’s most remarkable and inspiring political mobilisations had been definitively crushed.

Now readers familiar with anti-Aristide propaganda will know that as far as the prevailing norms of the genre are concerned, this is very mild stuff. Alex Dupuy’s incisive and sharply written book is certainly more balanced and more accurate than say Michael Deibert’s recent account of these same years, in his Notes from the Last Testament (2005). Dupuy’s argument draws on a very wide consensus, a consensus endorsed for some time now by a whole slew of other experienced observers, including Jane Regan, Charles Arthur, Jean-Michel Caroit, and Laënnec Hurbon, among many others. Dupuy’s restatement of the prevailing case against Aristide deserves to be considered very seriously.

So let’s consider it.

Dupuy mounts three main accusations against the twice-deposed president. First, he claims that Aristide contributed to the first coup, in 1991, by failing to do enough to placate his enemies within the Haitian economic and political elite. Second, he claims that by the time Aristide was re-elected in 2000 (if not by the time he returned to Haiti in 1994) he had abandoned his original principles and had become just another ‘all-too-ordinary and traditional president, who like all the others who came before him, was using state power for his and his allies’ personal gains’ (170). Third, as his corrupt administration began to encounter understandably agitated forms of political opposition, Dupuy claims that Aristide decided to arm gangs of his most impoverished and desperate supporters (the infamous ‘chimès’) to intimidate his opponents. This strategy, Dupuy concludes, ‘would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of Aristide’s second term.  In effect, I will argue, by relying on armed gangs rather than mobilizing his popular base as a counterforce to the opposition, as he tended to do in his first term, Aristide would marginalize the latter. Henceforth, Lavalas would become equated with the chimès, and the entire popular movement associated with Lavalas [...] would become discredited, demobilized, and demoralized’ (143-144).

I’ll go through these three accusations in turn, paying particular attention to the first and the third.

 

I

 

The first accusation is the most familiar, since it is an echo of longstanding elite anxieties about Aristide that date back to the explosive entry, in the late 1980s, of this ‘cross between Ayatollah and Fidel’ onto the political stage.[ ] The ‘greatest mistake’ of Aristide’s first administration, Dupuy says, was his belief that ‘with the masses behind him, he was invincible and that he could rule without respecting the law and without winning over the bourgeoisie, the parliament, or the army’ (130). Although Dupuy can see that this most fearless scourge of macoutisme stood little chance of gaining the support of the Duvalierists and their Macoutes, still ‘he could have done much more to reassure the bourgeoisie and win it over to his side’ (132). Instead, by failing to reward his bourgeois allies within the political class, and by making a couple of apparently inflammatory speeches, he drove Haiti’s economic masters back into a lethal alliance with the army and the Macoutes.

There are two separate issues to assess here, one political, one strategic. The political question concerns the relation between Aristide’s actual electoral base and the little clutch of professional politicians who briefly allied themselves to that base during the election campaign of 1990. As far as Dupuy is concerned, ‘the most important virtue of the broad and decentralised democratic movement’ that started up in the late 1980s was precisely its lack of centralised organisation, a virtue which ‘meant that no single political organisation or individual would emerge as its identifiable leaders’ (59). Free from the oppressive influence of a united and identifiable leadership, these golden years of Haitian civil society were instead populated by small (and surely unidentifiable) ‘social-democratic’ groupings like Victor Benoît’s KONAKOM and Evans Paul’s KID, groupings that aimed to ‘created a popular, progressive, and democratic government as an alternative to the discredited dictatorial system’ (59). So when in the autumn of 1990 a more dominant and more identifiable individual backed up by a more effective popular organisation did indeed begin to engage more directly with this dictatorial system it’s not surprising that for Dupuy this development already represented a serious setback for Haitian democracy.

Officially, in the 1990 election campaign Aristide replaced Victor Benoît as the candidate of another loose coalition of KONAKOM- and KID-affiliated social-democrats who briefly duplicated themselves to create a parallel grouplet called the Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie (FNCD). Dupuy suggests that the ‘worst’ and most ‘dangerous’ consequence of 1990 was that ‘once Aristide’s Opération Lavalas emerged as the dominant political force and the other popular organisations and left-of-centre coalitions, especially the FNCD, accepted Aristide as their leader, they in effect surrendered their autonomy and their ability to criticise Aristide, to serve as checks and balances to his powers, and to articulate independent agendas’ (95). Aristide himself, by contrast, appears to have wasted little time in implementing his own all-too-independent agenda. After winning the election with a landslide 67% of the vote, rather than choose leading members of this FNCD coalition as ministers in his cabinet, a president that Dupuy presents as worryingly ‘theocratic’ and ‘messianic’ preferred to work with a mixture of competent administrators and veterans of the powerful popular movement he had helped to inspire over the preceding couple of years. Rather than appoint a worthy democrat like Victor Benoît, Aristide named as his prime minister a mere agronomist and social activist, René Préval. ‘Ironically’, says Dupuy, the result of such choices was the enmity of the ‘FNCD, the very coalition that made Aristide’s candidacy and his election possible’ (125).

Some readers, mindful of the electrifying impact of Aristide’s last-minute decision to stand as a candidate in that election, might question whether it really was the hapless and unpopular FNCD politicians that made his victory possible. But no one can deny that just four months after Aristide had appointed him, FNCD opposition had indeed managed to grind Préval’s energetic, practical and wide-ranging legislative programme to a halt. Had the army not intervened in its own fashion in September 1991, notes Dupuy, ‘there is little doubt that the four major political blocs in the Chamber of Deputies, including the FNCD, would have voted in favour of a censure motion’ (127). Readers will have to judge for themselves the degree to which such behaviour corroborates Dupuy’s own diagnosis of the most ‘dangerous’ development of 1990 — the fact that the FNCD and their fellow social-democrats had apparently ‘surrendered their autonomy and their ability to criticise Aristide.’ Readers familiar with the subsequent political evolution of people like Evans Paul and Victor Benoît — a shift that saw these erstwhile social-democrats ally themselves with unreconstructed Duvalierists like ex-general Prosper Avril and ex-colonel Himmler Rébu, backed up by plenty of financial and logistical support from the most reactionary and most powerful figures of the second Bush administration (Roger Noriega, Otto Reich, Stanley Lucas…) — may also hesitate a little before opting to characterise it in terms of a servile deference to Aristide.

Be that as it may, Dupuy’s main point at this stage of his book is that ‘Aristide’s option for the masses, his distrust of the bourgeoisie and of the US, and theirs of him made it impossible for him to substitute the prince’s clothing for the prophet’s. It reinforced his inclination to “go it alone” and shun any attempt to form a broad consensus government’ (107). Since Dupuy is sharply critical of this failure to change clothes and to embrace consensus, the thrust of this line of reasoning seems clear enough. Aristide shouldn’t have opted for the isolation of the masses. He should have trusted the bourgeoisie, and he should have trusted the US. Then maybe everything would have worked out fine. Aristide could have morphed into a proper democrat like KONAKOM’s Victor Benoît, and the whole disastrous experiment in ‘anarcho populism’ could have been avoided. Instead, Aristide stubbornly refused to ‘woo the bourgeoisie’ and declined to form ‘a broad coalition government that included representatives’ from among his ‘opponents in the National Assembly’ (119). Instead of embracing proper parliamentary democracy, Aristide ‘disdained all established political parties, sought to bypass the National Assembly and the judiciary, and even encouraged his popular supporters to harass and intimidate parliamentarians and the justices who opposed him’ (133).

Of course Alex Dupuy is a sophisticated analyst and a trenchant critic of the oppressive machinery of our new world order. More simple-minded sceptics may wonder, nevertheless, whether his repeated preference for a ‘broad-based’ as opposed to a ‘mass-based’ government is altogether compatible with his apparent enthusiasm for democracy. They may not grasp how a decision to pursue policies emphatically endorsed by the great majority of the population and authorised by several repeated and overwhelming election victories is best interpreted as a rejection of ‘consensus’. They may wonder whether Aristide was really mistaken in his distrust of the bourgeoisie and the US, when a fair amount of Dupuy’s own book is devoted to a damning and perfectly accurate demonstration of their determination to frustrate, depose and then discredit him by all available means. They may find it strange to see that Aristide’s reluctance to adopt disdainful enemies as ministers in his own government provides Dupuy with further proof of his authoritarian tendencies — no doubt bona fide democrats like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have often been criticised, but perhaps rarely for their failure to include parliamentary opponents in their own cabinets. Still more intransigent sceptics may even find it strange that whereas the whole thrust of Dupuy’s book targets the deeply, institutionally entrenched corruption of the political class and the profoundly ‘predatory’ or ‘prebendary’ orientation of the status quo, he nevertheless condemns out of hand, and as a matter of dignified principle, Aristide’s rather cautious attempt to submit this status quo to the one and only source of non-predatory pressure available: the force of direct popular mobilisation. 

As far as anyone interested with actually-existing Haitian democracy is concerned, such musings are somewhat beside the point. Over the last dozen years or so, Haitian voters can have left even the most sophisticated analysts in little doubt as to their own opinion of parties like KONAKOM, KID and the many KID-like clones that emerged (with generous US and EU support) to divide and rule the Haitian political scene in the 1990s. In 1995, for instance, Evans Paul ran as a candidate for mayor of Port-au-Prince against a close ally of Aristide, the activist and singer Manno Charlemagne: despite (or because of) years of US encouragement, Paul only managed to scrape 14% of the vote. Later in 1995, KONAKOM’s own Victor Benoît finally got his chance to run in his own presidential election, against Aristide’s old prime minister René Préval: the first of the FNCD posse to break free of Aristide’s ‘authoritarian’ grip back in the autumn of 1990, Benoît earned the support of an impressive 2% of the electorate, against Préval’s 88%. Five years later, all of the myriad social-democratic parties that had embraced an unconditional revulsion for Aristide as their political raison d’être were wiped off the electoral map in a crushing and definitive defeat. In the legislative elections of May 2000, the largest and most significant of these parties, Gérard Pierre-Charles’ OPL, managed to win just one seat in the 83-member Chamber of Deputies. Like most other members of his profession and class, Dupuy is no doubt entitled to regret the fact that so unconventional a political organisation as Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas happened to win 72 of these seats — but perhaps he is not entitled to regret it in the name of ‘democracy’ per se.

Whether Alex Dupuy likes it or not, the plain fact of the matter is that Benoit’s 2% is just about par for the course for Haiti’s leading social democrats. Although they were wise enough not to challenge Aristide directly for the presidency in 2000, in the 2006 presidential elections Evans Paul polled 2.5% of the vote, and Serge Gilles, the long-time darling of French social democracy, 2.6%. As we shall see in a moment, however, mere numbers have never made much of an impression on Alex Dupuy.

 

What now about the strategic side of this first question? Here Dupuy knows that he is on slightly firmer ground, and we need to ponder his argument more carefully. He observes that in 1991 Aristide’s government sought to pursue ‘an economic program that depended for its success on the cooperation with the bourgeoisie’, but he notes that by occasionally raising the prospect of vigilante violence against the enemies of democracy, Aristide made such cooperation a virtual impossibility (129). Dupuy has in mind two notorious speeches given on 4 August and 27 September, speeches in which Aristide refused to rule out recourse to defensive violence as a last-ditch strategy whereby the people might protect the government they had elected against extra-legal pressure from the army, the Macoutes and the ruling class. Although hardly typical of Aristide’s main priorities during these years — his relentless emphasis on the non-violent struggle for social justice, conceived in the terms developed by liberation theology and its ‘preferential option for the poor’ — Dupuy is surely right to say that these pointed appeals to popular vigilance provided the enemies of Lavalas with an inexhaustible supply of damaging propaganda. In the 4 August speech in particular Aristide openly considered the pros and cons of recourse to ‘Père Lebrun’, a phrase that was guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the Haitian elite and their proxies in the armed forces.

Père Lebrun is a notorious euphemism, based on the name of a local tire-dealer, for the use of burning tires; it became part of Haiti’s political vocabulary during the uprooting or déchoukaj of the Macoutes that began when a growing popular movement against Haiti’s old dictatorship finally forced Jean-Claude Duvalier from power in February 1986. If you ask a sample of Haitian people what the metaphor Père Lebrun meant in 1990/91, they will readily admit that its range of meanings included ‘necklacing Macoutes’. For Alex Dupuy, as for the Americas Watch and NCHR analysts he relies on, Père Lebrun simply means recourse to ‘murder’, ‘necklacing’ or ‘deadly force’[ ]; in the early 1990s CIA analyst Brian Latell and US politicians like Jesse Helms and Bob Dole would likewise jump to the same politically convenient conclusion. This interpretation is not so much incorrect as crucially incomplete. In his speech, Aristide himself doesn’t refer to necklacing, of course, though he certainly refers to burning tires, and to matches and gasoline. Haitians more sympathetic to Aristide than Dupuy insist, as veteran journalist Kim Ives explains, that when Aristide spoke of petit Père Lebrun in the summer of 1991 he was using ‘code, or shorthand, for “popular power”, “street power” or “popular vigilance.”‘[ ] Such power certainly included, in extremis, recourse to necklacing, but it was not reducible to it.

Semantic niceties aside, necklacing is a gruesome crime by any standard. If condemnation of such a vigilante practice is to carry any genuine force, however, it must take into account all the reasons that lie behind its use. By the summer of 1991 Aristide’s reformist government had indeed antagonised virtually every sector of the Haitian establishment. The 4 August speech was delivered in the wake of noisy popular demonstrations that had threatened to boil over and interrupt the trial of an exceptionally prominent and aggressive Macoute — Roger Lafontant. In late July, Lafontant and a group of his associates were put on trial for trying to stage a pre-emptive coup d’état in January 1991, a few weeks before Aristide’s inauguration; after some uncertainty they were hastily sentenced to life in prison, under the watchful eye of a pro-Aristide crowd. Aristide needed to maintain this popular mobilisation against the sworn enemies of his government, while finding ways to discipline and channel a thirst for retaliation that might otherwise spiral out of control. On 4 August, then, speaking to an exuberant gathering of high-school students, Aristide commended them for grasping the difference between situations in which recourse to vigilante violence was always illegitimate (i.e. any situation in which the constitution and the rule of law is respected) and circumstances in which such violence might become legitimate (i.e. situations in which enemies of the constitution sought to subvert it by force, deception or corruption). It’s quite true that in this speech, Aristide advised his listeners not to forget about Père Lebrun, and to remember ‘when to use it, and where to use it’ — always with the proviso that ‘you may never use it again in a state where law prevails.’[ ]

In August 1991, the continuation of such a state was anything but certain. The judges in the Lafontant trial had been under significant pressure from the Duvalierists and the army to let Lafontant and his accomplices off the hook. Aristide’s erstwhile ‘allies’ in the legislature, meanwhile, were openly seeking to get rid of his prime minister. For the thousands of impoverished people who came out into the streets to demonstrate against these and related developments the real meaning of Père Lebrun was very simple: given their lack of weapons, resources, or international friends, it meant resistance by all means necessary to prevent a further coup d’état and further aggression from the Macoutes.

So long as we don’t pause to ponder why people in Haiti’s poorer neighbourhoods might occasionally have had recourse such tactics, nothing could be simpler than a principled condemnation of so patently barbaric a figure as Père Lebrun. If in 1991 many of Aristide’s more militant supporters didn’t see it that way, it’s because they knew from bitter experience that neither the police nor the army nor the legal system nor the ‘international community’ were likely to offer them any sort of alternative. It’s because they had learned, over many years, that people incapable of defending themselves against the Macoutes and their mercenary informants were likely to pay a very high price for such docility; during the long anti-apartheid struggle that animated places like Soweto during these same years, the followers of Aristide’s fellow ‘populist-terrorist’ Nelson Mandela also learned a very similar lesson. Dupuy himself estimates the number of people killed by François Duvalier and his Macoutes at around 50,000. In the years that followed the expulsion of François’ son Jean-Claude in February 1986 and Aristide’s election in December 1990, many hundreds of pro-democracy activists were killed by the military regimes that took over where the Duvaliers left off. By mid 1987 well-known Macoutes were once again operating with their usual impunity, and were given a free hand to carry out gruesome massacres like the one that crushed a protest movement of small farmers in Jean-Rabel in July (around 300 dead) or that ended a grotesque first attempt at elections in November (around 150 dead). Almost as soon as Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted, highly politicised neighbourhoods like Cité Soleil and Bel-Air began to suffer violent military or paramilitary incursions on a regular basis. Aristide himself narrowly survived several assassination attempts during these same years, and there can be little doubt that it was only the very rare but very public reprisal killings carried out by some of his supporters that discouraged further attacks. The most high profile incident came in response to the murderous Macoute assault on Aristide’s crowded church on 11 September 1988. After torching the building, killing at least a dozen parishioners and wounding many more, Gwo Schiller and some of the other perpetrators were foolish enough to boast about their heroics on national television, warning that ‘wherever Aristide appears, there we will kill.’ Four or five of these people were themselves tracked down and killed soon afterwards.[ ]

In 1990/91, to insist like Alex Dupuy (or the US human rights groups that he cites) on a blanket condemnation of Père Lebrun in 1990/1991 would have been tantamount, in practice, to an insistence on mass submission to the Macoutes. To demand such principled condemnation is to underestimate the extreme but routine violence that structures Haitian society itself, and it is to downplay the impact of many decades of systematic political violence, the violence upon which the preservation of Haiti’s exceptionally unequal distribution of wealth and power still depends. Without the prospect of anti-Macoute violence Aristide would never have survived the 1980s. Without massive popular mobilisation he would never have been elected. Without the determined and militant popular uprising that overwhelmed Lafontant’s premature putsch in January 1991 he would never have been able to take office: scores of unarmed Lavalassians were killed when many thousands of them confronted Lafontant’s soldiers, and some of these soldiers were in turn besieged and ‘déchouked’ when their ammunition ran out. Once he then became president and immediately set about loosening the army’s grip on the country, Aristide’s supporters understood perfectly well what would happen if that army ever managed to regain the initiative. Sure enough, around 4000 of them would die during the army’s first coup, and several thousand more were killed during the second. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that more than a few of these people were prepared to protect their government with whatever makeshift tools came to hand.

This then is the context in which we need to listen to Aristide’s controversial references to Père Lebrun. By July 1991 it was obvious that a further coup attempt was already imminent, and that the army’s officers were preparing rank and file soldiers for a direct assault on neighbourhoods most closely identified with the government. Back in January, during Lafontant’s brief uprising, the most powerful and most brutal unit of the army (the presidential guard based in the Dessalines Barracks of the National Palace) had remained ominously neutral and refused to intervene; by July it was clear that this apparent neutrality had once again lapsed back into an active hostility. Haiti’s richest families, meanwhile, had already raised millions of dollars to pay for an old-fashioned return to the status quo (and when the time came, ordinary soldiers would receive up to $5000 each in exchange for their willingness to shoot into the crowds[ ]). From now on the government’s very existence was at stake. If not Père Lebrun, if not some form of intimidating popular pressure, who or what might keep the army at bay once it had decided to suspend the rule of law and remove the people’s government by force?

When Aristide eventually made his most frequently deplored speech — his 27 September 1991 call to give the Macoutes, the pro-army bourgeoisie and other enemies of democracy ‘what they deserve’[ ] — the government was already under open military attack. Again the context is not irrelevant. His back to the wall, Aristide improvised this speech after returning from a triumphant visit to the UN in New York. The army had planned to assassinate him on arrival, but the president’s convoy narrowly survived several military ambushes on the way back from the airport, thanks to another massive popular mobilisation in Cité Soleil and around the National Palace. Since the international community had already made it clear that it would not intervene (and since well-placed members of Aristide’s security team already knew what to expect from the army’s old ally and patron the United States), the future of Aristide’s government and the survival of its most active supporters was now utterly dependent on the persistence of this mobilisation. As Kim Ives explains, in these circumstances Aristide’s speech was an attempt to

 

‘warn the bourgeoisie and Macoutes that the masses will ‘give them what they deserve’ if they try to carry out a coup. He used his trademark multi-meaning, riddle-strewn Bible-like language, leaving his true meaning open to just about any interpretation. But I don’t think that he was calling for lynchings — necklacing — at all. I think he was just saying: ‘Don’t mess with the people or you will reap a whirlwind.’ His message to the people that day was not go out and necklace your opponents, it was simply remain vigilant and don’t hesitate to defend yourself against attack.’[ ]

 

As it turned out, in order to begin to overcome such vigilance, during the night of 30 September the army would have to kill anywhere between 300 and 1000 people.[ ]

Rather than surrender to such an army, in August and September 1991 Aristide did indeed choose to ‘fight bullets with words.’[ ] No doubt some of the people behind these bullets were worried by his choice of words. As a leading member of Aristide’s 1991 security team points out, however, ‘it’s utterly hypocritical to condemn Aristide’s inflammatory words unless you first condemn the weapons that provoked them.’[ ] In a spectacular inversion of the historical record, leading figures in the US government and senate soon began to argue that it was Aristide’s words rather than the army’s weapons that were mainly to blame for the violence that overwhelmed Haiti in late September 1991.

Although Alex Dupuy strikes a more balanced note than Jesse Helms and other US critics of Haiti’s elected ‘psychopath’, nevertheless his book does little to set the record straight. Everyone can see why the little group of people who had hitherto oppressed the majority of Haiti’s population with impunity saw Aristide as a profoundly threatening figure, but why anyone else should think of him that way is less clear. Dupuy pays little attention to the most important point in this whole discussion: given the context and long history of systematic oppression that structures Haitian society, what is most extraordinary about the events of 1991 is surely the lack of popular violence that accompanied the beginning of this risky ‘transition to democracy’. The American activist Douglas Perlitz has been working with street kids in Cap-Haïtien for more than a decade, and makes sense of the situation of 1991 with a helpful analogy:

 

‘The way I see it, it’s as if the poor had been suffocated for decades, in fact for centuries; the rich, and their army, were like a hand keeping their heads under water, and they couldn’t breathe. Aristide was the person who removed that hand. But when the people could finally lift their heads from out of the water they didn’t just gasp for breath, they also tried to lash out at the hand that had oppressed them for so long. Some popular violence in the wake of Aristide’s election victory in 1990 was inevitable; Gandhi himself would have been powerless to stop it. What’s remarkable is that things never got out of hand. Under the circumstances the level of discipline in the popular movement was very impressive.’[ ]

 

Despite endless provocations, once the immediate threat from Lafontant had been deflected there were just two or three occasions during the whole of Aristide’s first administration in which outraged crowds attacked and killed notorious enemies of their government. Not a single incidence of popular violence can fairly be blamed on the government itself. It would be difficult indeed to find a more dramatic instance of an abrupt reduction in human rights abuses than the one that began in Haiti with the elections of December 1990. As for Aristide himself, to devote obsessive attention to the isolated occasions in which he risked the language of open class conflict is to distort beyond recognition the general emphasis of his contribution to Haitian politics. He devoted much if not most (if not too much!) of his political life to the affirmation of non-violence and social reconciliation. The overwhelming emphasis of the many speeches he gave in 1991 was on the need to pursue social justice through respect for the constitution and cooperation with the security forces. Again and again he reminded his supporters of the need to work in harmony with the army and the police, in a country that had no experience of democracy or the rule of law.[ ] By the same token, when the US eventually allowed him to return to power in 1994, Aristide somehow managed to defuse a widespread and understandable desire for revenge against this same army, even though the US troops who escorted him home had already ruled out any legal prosecution of its crimes (and had already begun to take covert steps to secure its future political influence). In reality it was Bush and Clinton who calmly and deliberately sanctioned recourse to violence in Haiti during these years, not Aristide.

The truth is that as far as advocates of popular violence go, Aristide doesn’t cut a very impressive figure. Perhaps that’s because, leaving aside the ethical issues that may have appealed to a Catholic priest who had already committed his life to serving the poorest of the poor, Aristide always ‘recognise[d] that institutionalised violence is stronger than any we could unleash. We are not armed. And I do not believe that we will ever have the means to compete with the enemy on that key terrain. But they cannot count on me to condemn acts of despair or of legitimate defence by the victims of aggression.’[ ]

Whether or not some amount of defensive popular violence might have been justifiable in the context of 1991, Dupuy argues that Aristide’s decision to compensate for his lack of support within the established political class by ‘building his own counterforce with the masses who supported him’ (127) was a fatal strategic mistake. Dupuy’s own account of the situation in 1991, however, renders this conclusion at least a little debatable. He knows that the elite ‘feared the empowerment of the social classes whose abject exploitation and suppression the dictatorships had guaranteed’. He knows that the tiny group of ‘rich Haitians and their foreign allies will do everything they can to prevent any significant tampering with the status quo.’ He knows that in 1991 this elite was especially hostile to reforms introduced by Aristide to ‘target the loopholes and other prerogatives it had enjoyed under the old regimes’ (121, 201). How exactly, then, were Aristide and Préval supposed to persuade them to go along with these reforms, if not through some sort of popular pressure? When and where, in fact, has a ruling class ever made significant concessions to the people they rule without the direct or indirect prospect of mass protest? Occasional victories won by exploited groups in the US itself are no exception to this rule, as anyone who has read Piven and Cloward’s book on Poor People’s Movements (1978) may recall.

 

Such then is the first strand of Dupuy’s argument. In a nutshell, Aristide stands accused of ‘encouraging the bourgeoisie to side with the army and the Macoute camp against him’ (133). With remarkable sang-froid, Dupuy opts to say rather less about the failings of these pro-army bourgeois themselves. He says little or nothing about their financial support for the coup, and little or nothing about their actual collusion with the military. He says little or nothing about the brutal assault on Aristide’s supporters in places like Cité Soleil and Raboteau, and little or nothing about what powerful bourgeois families like the Mevs, the Bigios, the Boulos, the Apaids, the Nadals and a few others got up to between 1991 and 1994. This is presumably because, as far as Dupuy is concerned, it’s already quite clear where the main responsibility lies. Although Dupuy realises that the bourgeoisie opposed Aristide’s reforms and hated everything that he stood for, he nevertheless prefers to emphasise the fact that ‘Aristide’s confrontational and sometimes threatening behaviour “added fuel to the fire” of class conflicts exacerbated by his election to the presidency’ (133). Thanks to a whole series of ‘populist’ symbols and gestures, all through 1991 ‘Aristide signalled that he was shunning the bourgeoisie to form a new pact of domination with the masses, on whom he relied to defend him against his enemies’ (106).

Just how exactly the bourgeoisie was ‘dominated’ by this new configuration is something that Dupuy doesn’t bother to explain, but luckily for the dominees the pact of domination between Aristide and the masses doesn’t seem to have lasted for a very long time. Rightly or wrongly, in 2001-2004 a more experienced Aristide would go to considerable lengths to reassure the Haitian bourgeoisie, and he took some controversial steps to win over at least a small portion of the already-dominant class. This doesn’t impress Dupuy either, however, for by the time he gets to 2001 he has shifted the focus of his critique. Aristide’s mistake in 2001 was no longer his hostility to the bourgeoisie but his betrayal of his popular roots. In order to consolidate his new ‘class interest’, the Aristide of 2001 had come to accept ‘the same clientelistic and prebendary practices as his predecessors and to conform to the interests of the dominant classes, the foreign investors and the core powers and their financial institutions’ (20). But just as he was wrong to snub the bourgeoisie in 1991, it seems he was still more wrong to court them in 2001. Distracted by his newfound thirst for absolute power, the re-elected president was apparently oblivious to the fact that ‘the Haitian private-sector bourgeoisie, which despised Aristide and was angry at the Clinton administration for having returned him to Haiti in 1994, was not in the least interested in his conciliatory tone, instead throwing its support behind the Convergence Démocratique [a small US- and French-backed parliamentary coalition established in May 2000] in its effort to topple Aristide’ (143).

 

II

 

Dupuy’s analysis of Aristide’s apparent slide towards despotism, in the fifth chapter of his book, gets off to an improbable start when he acknowledges on its first page that in May 2000, ‘as expected — because of the party’s popularity — candidates for Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party swept the elections, thereby granting the FL overwhelming control of government at the national and local levels’ (135). This isn’t quite how previous dictators like Duvalier, Namphy, Avril or Cédras came to power, and it isn’t quite how Latortue’s dictatorship got started either. As anyone can see, however, ‘overwhelming control’ already looks and sounds a lot like old-fashioned dictatorship. Rather than waste time reflecting on the reasons for Aristide’s apparent popularity, therefore, Dupuy moves straight on to the much more important fact that ‘many of his former allies, especially the cadres of OPL, now saw him as a dangerous demagogue with dictatorial ambitions’ (136). Dupuy then spends most of what remains of his book trying to show how this disinterested perception turned out to be correct.

Although undeniably ‘popular’ — unequivocal endorsement by around 75% of the electorate can’t be completely ignored by even the most scrupulous of democrats — Dupuy claims that by creating the Fanmi Lavalas (FL) organisation ‘Aristide broke away from the broad coalition’ that had won the 1995 elections (136). Worse, ‘by 1996-97 it had become evident that Aristide’s FL was unquestionably the dominant political force in Haiti. If unchecked, Lavalas could build a formidable political machine and clientelistic network that would ensure its continued electoral dominance and control of the government’ (137). Haitian democracy was now clearly hanging by a thread. Unfortunately, no suitably resolute force emerge to ‘check’ Lavalas before it was too late. Unchecked, FL went on to wage an enthusiastic and well-organised electoral campaign, and duly won its overwhelming mandate in May 2000. Dupuy notes in dismay that ‘since his rise to power in 1991 Aristide had effectively shut out the coalition of parties — the FNCD — that had backed him in 1990. These parties were again marginalised when his Lavalas Political Platform [PPL] swept the parliamentary elections of 1995. And the OPL, which was then the dominant bloc within the PPL thanks to its association with Aristide [...], was now destined for the same fate with the break-up of the PPL and the formation of Aristide’s FL party’ (137-138). For reasons that remain opaque yet presumably incompatible with the international norms of parliamentary democracy, rather than reward ‘those sectors of the political middle class that had supported him [in 1990] with a share in the spoils of power, Aristide [in 2001] sought to monopolize state power for his benefit and those who formed the cadres of FL’ (138).

Less clairvoyant analysts than Dupuy might have paused, at this point, to consider whether the fact that Aristide, Préval and their associates invariably trounced their social-democratic rivals in repeated electoral contests might perhaps reflect some sort of extra-parliamentary political reality. They might have pondered whether ten years of active hostility should have been disregarded in favour of a few weeks of opportunistic and long-forgotten ‘alliance’. They might even have wondered whether Aristide still simply enjoyed the support of the great majority of the population. Dupuy can see through appearances that might lead other analysts astray, however, and he knows that in 2001, unlike 1991, Aristide did not actually have a ‘strong popular mandate and a mobilised population behind him [...]. If for a brief moment in 1991 the balance of forces was in favor of Aristide, conditions were very different during his second term (2001-2004).’ In 2001, unlike 1991, ‘Aristide came to power with his legitimacy and that of his party in control of parliament challenged’ (97– and technically this is quite right, in 2001 Aristide’s legitimacy was indeed ‘challenged’: it was challenged by a tiny and permanently unelectable ‘democratic opposition’ that owed its very existence to investments from USAID, the EU and the IRI). Despite this apparent lack of democratic legitimacy, Dupuy makes the startling claim that in 2001 ‘the goal of Aristide and the FL was to maintain power at all cost until the end of Aristide’s second and final term as president’ (145).

This is a serious charge. It may even be true. Maybe, once he was re-elected in November 2000 with some  90% of the vote, Aristide really did mean to serve out the whole of his second term in office. Maybe he hadn’t yet forgotten the thousands of people who died when his first term was interrupted. Maybe, confronted once again with an opposition that sought openly to overthrow him and to resurrect the army that was responsible for killing those people, Aristide decided to resist them. Readers less well versed than Alex Dupuy in the specific nuance of Haitian politics may even be forgiven for suspecting that governments led by people like Bush or Chirac, if confronted by similar threats to their survival, might also have toyed with the temptation to confront them. Who knows. What’s clear is that ‘the goal of Lavalas was to lay the groundwork for its continued dominance through the ballot box after Aristide’ (145). And that, needless to say, obviously couldn’t be in the best interests of Haitian democracy.

Whatever else Dupuy means by ‘democracy’, by this stage in his book it’s clear that it has little to do with such crass things as popular vote or support.

Dupuy makes little or no reference to what Aristide’s second administration actually set out to accomplish, in spite of a crippling US-imposed embargo on foreign aid that cut its budget roughly in half. He makes no reference at all to its various social programmes, its investment in new schools and hospitals, in a major literacy programme, in a new medical school, in new joint ventures with Cuba, and so on. But he does at least list a few of the tyrannical steps that the newly autocratic president agreed to take, within a couple of months of his taking office in February 2001. These steps ‘included the resignation of seven FL senators whose elections had been contested [on trivial technical grounds by members of the US-backed politicians who were defeated by FL] in the May 2000 elections; reducing the terms of the senators elected in May 2000 and the terms of the entire Chamber of Deputies by two years; holding elections for those senators elected in May 2000 and for the entire Chamber of Deputies in November 2002; reconstituting the CEP in line with OAS recommendations’ (150). Dupuy could have added: including several high-profile opponents of FL in his cabinet; reluctantly accepting several unpopular macro-economic policies imposed by Haiti’s international donors and lenders; agreeing to his arch-enemies’ framework for futile and interminable ‘negotiations’ with those same unpopular political leaders he had just obliterated at the polls. No doubt readers familiar with the conventional patterns of tyranny will have little trouble placing such concessions in the continuum of Duvalier-Namphy-Cédras-Latortue. Along the same lines, Dupuy is even prepared to acknowledge certain differences ‘between Aristide and the dictators who came and went before him’: since he had only relatively limited means of repression at his disposal and was confronted by the implacable opposition of the US and its allies, it seems that ‘Aristide could not transform himself into an outright dictator even if he wanted to’ (146).

All the same, Dupuy does his best to suggest that he made a pretty good go of it.

Go to Part 2
 
NOTES

 1) This review was written in February 2007, and first published, in three instalments, in the new weekly newspaper Haiti Liberté (www.haitiliberte.com) in July 2007.
2) Bob Corbett, review of Alex Dupuy’s The Prophet and Power, January 2007, http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/personal/reading/dupuy-prophet.html.
3) Cited in Howard French, ‘Front-Running Priest A Shock to Haiti’, New York Times 13 December 1990.
4) Alex Dupuy, The Prophet and Power, 123-125; Americas Watch/NCHR, The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record (1 November 1991, http://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/h/haiti/haiti91n.pdf), 6.
5) Letter from Kim Ives, 26 February 2007.
6) Aristide, speech to high school students on 4 August 1991, partially transcribed in Americas Watch/NCHR, The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record, 26-28.
7) Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier [1989] (London: Vintage, 1994), 354, 362.
8) Howard French, ‘Haiti Police Seen as Gaining in Coup’, New York Times 13 October 1991.
9) In this his final effort to stare his old enemies down, Aristide warned the bourgeoisie that the time of reckoning was drawing near — ‘you earned your money in thievery, under an evil regime, it is not really yours.’ He encouraged the poor, ‘whenever you are hungry, to turn your eyes in the direction of those people who aren’t hungry. Whenever you are out of work, turn your eyes in the direction of those who can put people to work. Ask them why not? What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the sea to dry up?’ If you catch a thief, he told his listeners, or a Macoute, or a ‘false Lavalassian, don’t he-si-tate-to-give-him-what-he-deserves! [...]. Alone, we are weak. Together we are strong! Together, together, we are the flood! Do you feel proud? Do you feel proud!?’ (Aristide, ‘Speech of 27 September 1991′, Haiti Observateur, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/009.html; cf. Anne-Christine D’Adesky, ‘Père Lebrun in Context’, NACLA Report on the Americas (December 1991), 7-8.
10) Letter from Kim Ives, 19 February 2007.
11) Mark Danner explains that when it launched the coup the army first took control of the radio stations, thereby eliminating ‘Aristide’s most potent weapon — his voice. Now squads of soldiers made their way into the bidonvilles, shooting anyone they saw, firing into the scrapwood hovels. When the people came out into the garishly lit streets, the soldiers shot them down [...]. The people, confused, frightened, and disorganized — they had received no mot d’ordre from their leader — stumbled into the streets and died. Automatic weapons, ruthlessly employed, had given the lie to Aristide’s “unarmed revolution”‘ (Danner, ‘Fall of the Prophet’, New York Review of Books 2 December 1993; cf. Farmer, Uses of Haiti (Monroe ME: Common Courage Press, 2003), 154).
12) Aristide, interview with Joel Attinger and Michael Kramer, ‘It’s Not If I Go Back, but When’, Time Magazine 1 November 1993.
13) Telephone interview with Patrick Elie, 24 February 2007.
14) Interview with Douglas Perlitz, Cap Haïtien 12 January 2007.
15) Portions of such speeches are transcribed in the AW/NCHR report of November 1991, The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record, 28-29.
16) Aristide, Dignity (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 96; cf. Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 12-13; Aristide, Autobiography (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 133. In exactly the same way, Aristide refused to condemn the anti-Macoute violence of déchoukaj, in circumstances where it was ‘authorised’ (if not demanded) by the imperatives of self-defence (Aristide, Théologie et politique (Montréal: CIDIHCA, 1992), 94-95).

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