I returned from a week in Haiti just as the American president began his rain of destruction on Iraq, in the name of freedoms he diminishes in the “homeland.” I’d been to Haiti under Baby Doc, and several times during military rule after the ouster of Jean Bertrand Aristide. From reading “progressive” as well as mainstream press, I suspected Haiti was in worse poverty and repression than ever, under a corrupt and isolated Aristide, quite different from the lowly priest the people overwhelmingly chose in 1991. As a Canadian journalist said when I asked him why he called Haiti’s government a tyranny. “Everybody knows that.”
What seems to be clear is that the United States government is playing the same game as in Iraq – pushing for “regime change” in Haiti. Their strategy includes a massive disinformation campaign in U.S. media, an embargo on desperately needed foreign aid to Haiti, and direct support for violent elements, including former military officers and Duvalierists, who openly seek the overthrow of President Aristide. What is more surprising is Canada’s role. In late January, Canadian Secretary of State for Latin America, Denis Paradis, hosted an Ottawa summit of the Francophonie including France, and representatives of the E.U. and the United States to consider the “Haitian crisis.” Significantly, Haiti was not invited. Paradis then leaked bits of information about the conference to L’actualitÃ©, in which he said the notion of a Kosovo-style “U.N. trusteeship” were considered. Paradis was also quoted as saying Canadians treated their animals better than the Haitian government treated its citizens, and that there was a need for international intervention to protect the Haitian people from tyranny. This so enraged Haitian public opinion and leaders that the Canadian Ambassador in Haiti denied most of the story, but L’actualitÃ© reporter Michel Vastel told me “every word is as Denis Paradis told me.” Vastel also said it was clear to him that Canada and the others at the conference believed a regional (Caribbean, OAS) initiative to solve Haiti’s crisis had failed. It will probably surprise most Canadians that Canada is running with the U.S. in yet another blatant attempt at “regime change,” this time of a democratically elected government.
Haiti is still “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.” Yet I found the poorest people there more resilient – and more politically literate – than most Americans. I met one woman named Elitane Atelis, a member of Fanm des Martyrs Ayibobo Brav – women victims of military violence. She told me, “Every Haitian baby knows the game Bush is playing.” The game he’s playing in Haiti is “low intensity warfare.” It means the nice lady who speaks for the U.S. Ambassador smiles as she says embassy personnel are not allowed to visit CitÃ© Soleil because it’s too dangerous. She says, “Every government inherits its country’s history,” meaning Haiti must pay nearly $2,000,000 monthly to service debts rung up by past dictators. It means the International Republican Institute subsidizes Convergence political parties – called particules because they are so small – that endorse the return of the brutal military. Recently, independent journalists and neutral political leaders, like Ben Dupuy of the respected Haiti Progres, have pointed to evidence that some opposition elements are preparing a coup d’etat. Since these groups are financed by U.S. interests, they must believe the U.S. would tacitly support such action. It means the U.S. government blocks $500 million in international aid (for water, health, education and roads) depriving the state of sixty percent of its budget. And it means a well-oiled media machine demonizes Aristide, and spouts disinformation about Haiti.
Mind you, the aid is being withheld because of election irregularities in 2000. Though called fraudulent in U.S. media, the OAS and even the U.S. government have never made that charge. The only challenge is to large majorities racked up by seven Senators out of twenty-seven (originally eight, but a new election was held in one case). This shocks the U.S. sensibility, with its record of unimpeachable election results in Florida also in 2000! No-one doubts the President and other Lavalas legislators won by handy margins. The Senators resigned, and new elections have been called. They are blocked by the opposition’s refusal to name members to an electoral commission.
That’s not to say the government of President Aristide is a model democracy. A prominent Haitian poet told me, “Aristide is Haiti’s pastor, not it’s President. He’s a dismal failure as a manager.” The government is worse than it’s President. A top Justice Ministry official told me of the 242 people working with him, he could trust a dozen. Before I arrived, a police drug squad was arrested for blocking a major highway to let a Colombian drug plane land. The Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune, told me frankly, “We are all – even President Aristide and I – in an environment where a social mutation is taking place, mentally and culturally, after decades of dictatorship – and anyone who says they are not a part of that process is tricking himself.”
There are indications things are getting worse – as the US blocks aid, as corporations refuse to invest, as the elite removes its money from banks to create panic. Unemployment remains at 60%. Prices for basic foods and gas are skyrocketing. The national currency (the gourde) has plummeted from 15 to 45 to the U.S. dollar. The government gets the blame for this, though it is part of a world-wide economic disaster. (The peso in neighboring Dominican Republic has also dipped drastically.)
In addition, leftists criticize the government for accepting IMF and World Bank imposed privatization and the abolition of tariffs. Aristide had to accept some of these measures, which harm efforts to increase social welfare and support Haitian agriculture. Tiny Haiti cannot thumb its nose at the U.S. or the World Bank. But, despite demands that all public companies be sold, only the two smallest ones have been turned over. The Prime Minister told me, “We must operate in the world market, but we want to build an alternative economy, and we are working with Cuba, Venezuela and others, so that small nations like ours are not enslaved or swallowed by this globalization.” The poorest people in the poorest countries always bear the brunt of bad economic news. Yes there is political violence in Haiti, and justice is slow or nonexistent. Among a dozen verified instances, the most outstanding is the murder of journalist-hero Jean Dominique three years ago. Dominique’s widow, Mme. Michelle Montas, saw her bodyguard murdered in December. Threats have closed their radio station, Haiti-Inter, and she has fled. Yet despite what she calls pressure from international groups, she refuses to blame Aristide’s party, Lavalas. Until recently, progress in the case was slow – although four men have been arrested, and the investigating Judge has interviewed a Lavalas Senator who is suspected of indirect involvement. Dominique was an incredible man who angered most powerful groups in Haiti. At the time of his death, there were many anti-government individuals and groups exposed by him who may have been involved to destabilize the government. One of these was Dr. Roland Boulos exposed by Dominique for his company’s distribution of contaminated medicines which killed at least sixty children. Boulos is a leader of a part of the current opposition, financed from Washington, and has not been charged in the case. The fourth judge appointed in the case, after many problems, Judge Bernard St. Vil, handed down indictments against six men already in prison. Lavalas Senator Dany Toussaint was not charged because, the Judge said, there was not ample evidence. Montas and others have expressed outrage that those arrested are merely common criminals who carried out the act, and that the real culprits behind the murder have not been named.
Although claims are made that journalists are unable to function freely in Haiti because of political violence, there are far more daily and weekly newspapers and strident, popular radio stations than one could imagine in the US or Canada. Many of them are shrill critics of the government. In media financed by elite business interests, there are constant cries for the overthrow of the government – something that would never be allowed by Washington, and probably not by Ottawa.
Lavalas supporters are harassed and murdered, yet these are ignored by most international media and human rights organizations. Former army officers and known “Macoute” (Duvalier henchmen) have killed a policeman, burned down a police station, broken open a prison and threatened people near Petite Goave and in the Central Plateau, yet the Miami Herald failed to quote independent observers who have documented this.
Four men in their thirties met me in a Cap-Haitien slum. One of them said, “We don’t think Aristide is doing a good job, but at least now we can talk, we are free to come and go. The Macoute must not come back.” As Prime Minister Neptune himself earlier said, “Yes, there is corruption and police brutality. But to compare our government with dictators is a hypocritical lie!”
Two young Haitians, including one from MontrÃ©al, helped me in a random survey of the obviously poor people at the market in Petionville, on a hill above Cap-Haitien, and in the CitÃ© Lescot shanty-town. Thirty people out of thirty-four eagerly responded, indicating that people are not afraid to speak out. Two favored the opposition, ten strongly supported President Aristide, and eighteen voiced strong complaints against the government (“la vie cher – the cost of living; security; lack of justice) yet insisted the President be allowed to serve out his term. In other words, 28 of 30 opposed Aristide’s resignation or supported his government.
Things are bad in Haiti. U.S. policy boxes Haiti into its misery and out of possible solutions. Yet, this time there were no swarms of hungry, aggressive people confronting arrivals at the airport. An anti-government rally in front of the palace drew about twenty people and no policemen. Police were almost invisible everywhere – there are fewer than 4000 active duty police for 8,000,000 people (New York’s similar population has 32,000). This is an obvious handicap to the government in fighting drugs and corruption. Yet technical aid for police is also blocked by the U.S. embargo. The international Haiti watchers who join the U.S. right-wing to campaign against Aristide need to tell the whole story. They need to emulate the sophistication of the Haitian people, who can complain without giving up on the democratic process.
The solidarity movement must critique the government and demand justice, but they must not exaggerate. Cries of “tyranny” play directly into the U.S. game. Those who once saw Aristide as a messiah, now feel betrayed, and their sense of betrayal blinds them to anything but his faults. There is plenty of blame to go around. The greater evil is the role of the U.S. and the international financial institutions. The greater evil is the threat of a return to military dictatorship in Haiti. The greater evil is the greed of U.S. corporations and the Haitian elite that keeps the poor in abject misery. Dr. Paul Farmer, prize-winning physician and Harvard Professor who runs a clinic in the Haitian mountains, has it right:
“Much recent commentary sidesteps the David-versus-Goliath story, focusing almost exclusively on the inevitable results (viz., episodic violence) of the awful poverty. It’s important to add that missing the David-versus-Goliath story means missing the story, period.” (“Uses of Haiti,” Boston, 2002)