On August 12, a court in Haiti summoned former President Jean Bertrand Aristide to appear on charges of corruption. Aristide’s lawyers quickly filed a motion with the Supreme Court seeking the recusal of the judge who issued the warrant. Lawyer Mario Joseph, from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, accused judge Lamarre Belizaire of engaging in a political trial, bringing baseless accusations forward, violating due process in the way Aristide was informed of the summons (through the press), and questioning the process by which the case came to be under Belizaire’s jurisdiction. Aristide and his lawyers argued that, since due process was not observed in summoning him to the court, he did not have to appear. For his part, neither did judge Belizaire, who left the country (see the AP story, Evens Sanon Aug 14/14, “Haiti tense after summons issued for ex-president“).
Judge Belizaire is an interesting character. One of Aristide’s lawyers, Brian Concannon Jr., told journalist Kevin Pina (see the Haiti Information Project blog: – August 19/14, “Haiti: IJDH Director Dismisses Allegations Against Aristide As False“) that Belizaire was so famous for misusing judicial authority to persecute enemies of president Martelly that he had been banned by the bar association for 10 years; that he was a political appointee, appointed directly from the prosecutor’s office without the legally mandated 3-year hiatus; that he lacks the minimum qualifications (either a specialized course or 8 years of specialized practice) to be a judge; and that he didn’t have jurisdiction to bring the case.
Supporters of Aristide mobilized in front of his house in Port au Prince to physically prevent an arrest. They remained on vigil for days. United Nations forces, continuing their decade long dishonorable role in Haiti, brought an armored personnel carrier, sirens, tear gas, and soldiers in riot gear to try to make the arrest. From the video of the attack, it is impossible to tell which country the UN soldiers are from – Brazil remains in command of the mission. For all of the excessive and partisan force they brought to bear against Aristide’s supporters, international forces didn’t manage to kidnap Aristide again.
The UN’s zeal for capturing Aristide, a former elected leader with a record of reasonable achievements in his short, coup-interrupted terms in office, has not been matched in attempts to bring to justice a real dictator, with a truly murderous and truly corrupt decades-long record – Jean-Claude Duvalier. “Baby Doc”, under whose reign thousands of people were killed, ‘disappeared’, and tortured, and who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from Haiti, returned to Haiti before Aristide did, and attempts to prosecute him in court for human rights violations and corruption have stalled.
The UN managed to be on the scene to try to arrest Aristide on August 14th, but they were not on the scene to prevent some real criminals, including the mastermind of a kidnap ring named Clifford Brandt, from breaking out of Haiti’s Canadian-built prison on August 10th. Heavily armed commandos broke into the prison, freeing Brandt and more than 300 other prisoners. The UN took two hours to get to the scene. Brandt was recaptured two days later at the Dominican border.
A few days later, Aristide’s lawyers were successful, and the warrant against Aristide was suspended pending an investigation of judge Belizaire for bias.
Aristide has been in the country since 2011, keeping a low profile and working in education. He was elected president in 1991, overthrown in a military coup, returned in 1994 to finish his shortened presidential term, became the first president to hand power over peacefully to another elected president (Rene Preval), was elected again in 2000, and overthrown yet again in 2004. In 2004, Aristide was replaced by a peculiar, internationalized occupation with heavy involvement by the Latin American countries and the United Nations, the structures of which remain in place to this day, despite two electoral exercises and the disruption of the 2010 earthquake. I’ve referred to these structures of occupation as ‘Haiti’s new dictatorship’.
One of the key structures of Haiti’s internationalized dictatorship has been the courts, which use judicial persecution to prevent popular candidates from running for office. Since 2004, the courts have targeted political leaders and, in particular, actual and potential political candidates from Aristide’s Lavalas political party. In 2004, when Aristide was overthrown, he was flown to the Central African Republic. He returned to the Caribbean, to Jamaica, but that country was pressured so heavily by the United States that Aristide had to leave again, to South Africa, where the government held its ground against US pressure. The Haitian Constitution stated that, after a disruption in the presidency, new elections had to take place within 90 days. Two years later, when the elections happened, Aristide was still barred from the country. Other leading Lavalas politicians were jailed when the coup happened in 2004. The Lavalas candidate who was going to run in his place, Fr. Gerard Jean Juste, was jailed on fairly ridiculous claims that he had weapons in his church. The electoral authority disallowed him from running from jail, claiming that he needed to present his candidacy papers in person. Jean Juste was released on compassionate medical grounds, and died of cancer in 2009. Political persecution by the court, bias by the electoral authority, and of course the soldiers of the United Nations, all ensured Lavalas’s exclusion from the 2006 elections.
Through some very shrewd strategy and massive mobilization, a popular candidate, Rene Preval, did manage to win the 2006 elections, and did what little could be done in a context of foreign control. When Michel Martelly was elected in an earthquake-devastated Haiti, Aristide got back into the country in the time period between Preval’s and Martelly’s presidencies. He insisted that he had no intention of returning to politics, and has worked on various educational projects since his return.
During his exile, and during the worst years of the coup regime (2004-2006), persecution of Aristide and his party occurred through the courts. Evidence was lacking for any of the outlandish claims that ranged from embezzling millions of dollars to murdering people in voudoun ceremonies, but the claims were pernicious enough to be effective as smears. The judicial processes, too, imposed massive costs on the movement, kept many of its leaders in jail and others on the run, and, of course, helped exclude them from elections. As lawyer Brian Concannon Jr. told journalist Kevin Pina on flashpoints, the pattern has been consistent since 2005: the court will raise the accusation, then withdraw the accusation before the persecuted get a chance to defend them.
Elections are approaching again, in Haiti. Aristide has vowed to stay out, but he, and Lavalas, remain very popular. More than their electoral popularity, they have an ability to mobilize people, and a record of achievements on behalf of the people, that their opponents lack. This round of court persecution, complete with the UN muscle to back it up, is becoming a predictable part of Haiti’s dictatorship’s pre-electoral circus.
In recent years, Latin America has become stronger, more democratic, and more independent from the United States, with stronger solidarity in the Americas and a willingness to stand up to the superpower in the north. But with a few noble exceptions (Venezuela, Cuba, and CARICOM), Haiti has been exempt from this solidarity, as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile lead the UN mission in its enforcement of the dictatorship.
Haiti’s successful struggle for independence against slavery inspired Bolivar in Latin America. Its historic role is one of leading the hemisphere’s fight for freedom. Instead of suppressing Haiti’s democratic movement through the UN, the Latin American countries should support it.
Justin Podur is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship (2012). His blog is at podur.org.