[ZNet Editor's Note: While it may not be obvious, the article below is in fact a reply to an article by Nik Barry-Shaw in which Barry-Shaw argues that Beaudet's Canadian government-funded organization, 'Alternatives', is a tool of Canadian foreign policy. Joe Emersberger wrote a reply to the below, available here.]
There has been considerable debate on the left in North America about the current situation in Haiti. As part of this debate, there have been accusations that those of us critical of Aristide have somehow sold out to the forces of evil. The situation in Haiti is dire and deserves a serious debate rather than accusations and counter accusations. Some of these accusations have been directed against Alternatives. Over the years, Alternatives, a Montreal-based solidarity movement, has stood by several popular movements in Haiti and extended its communication skills to a number of community media and journalist associations. Back home in the meantime, Alternatives has helped a number of organizations from the Haitian Diaspora in Canada to participate in the campaign of solidarity for Haiti, including pressing the Canadian government for more generous aid policies and more support for a genuine democratic process involving the society at large, and not just the political elites.
More than 200 years ago, the African slaves of Haiti defeated French and later Spanish and British imperialism. The first republic of the hemisphere had a very difficult beginning. France and Britain, then later the United States never gave in to what was perceived as a mortal threat to the interests of the slave-owners. The Africans in Haiti were also split between various factions combining race and class factors, which did not help to create the conditions for a democratic state. In the early part of the 20th century, the US intervened directly with military occupation and repression. Resistance continued, however and in the 1930s, a new populist movement came about under FranÃ§ois Duvalier (the father). After flirting with the popular classes, Duvalier established his own dictatorship, courting an African «middle class» and enlisting Haiti in the Cold War led by the United States.
The rise and fall of Aristide
In the 1980s, Duvalier (the son) was unable to crush the rising tide of people’s resistance to the dictatorship. Out of this, a charismatic priest active in the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince, Jean Bernard Aristide became the spokesperson of the movement. In 1990, he was swept into power through Haiti’s first democratic elections. But US imperialism and the local ruling group could not accept this democratic verdict. A few months later, the military overthrew Aristide opening a new cycles of violence and repression during which many of the popular leaders were executed, jailed or exiled. In 1994 under Haitian and international pressure, the US was forced to bring back Aristide from his Washington exile. Artistide’s movement, Lalavas, which was a sort of rainbow alliance during its first incarnation, began to fumble after the return of a transformed President who was mostly concerned with reaffirming his control rather than engaging in the political, social and environmental reconstruction of the country. Many supporters of Lavalas broke away, including most of the left factions that had supported him initially. Dissidents of various stripes became the target of Aristide, such as the famous journalist-agronomist Jean Dominique and many other popular leaders. Subsequent elections were rigged to the extent that most of the opposition boycotted the futile exercise. In the last presidential election in 2000, less than 15% of the Haitians bothered to vote (for RenÃ© Preval, the “stand-in” for Aristide). By 2003 and 2004, popular demonstrations, strikes and riots multiplied, creating more disturbances. In the meantime, the economy went bankrupt, increasing Aristide’s drive towards the side of drug dealers who transformed Haiti into a major smuggling operation.
Descent into hell
All throughout that period, the big international players kept out, creating around Haiti an invisible wall of isolation and neglect. None of them were interested really in supporting the democratic opposition. For the United States particularly, Haiti had to be saved from itself only to avoid a major influx of boatpeople. Later, the old gangs of Duvalierists and ex-military thugs engaged into their own destabilization with the help of the Dominican government and mafia. They came out with their guns and kicked Artistide’s supporters out of several cities. Port-au-Prince became ungovernable. Then the panic-button was hit. In February, US Marines came to «surgically remove» Aristide who was shipped to Africa. In a few days, the coup was endorsed by the UN under a joint resolution to the Security Council presented by France, the US and Canada. Later a UN-mandated Brazilian-led contingent was sent to protect a «transition» in principle managed by a non-elected government. The left and many of the popular movements that had led the democratic struggles in the last decade came out of this series of extraordinary events quite stunned. Some decided to side with the transitional government in the hope of rebuilding a minimum space for democratic governance. Others aligned with Aristide defending the principle of national sovereignty above and beyond anything else, including the crimes that everyone knew Aristide had committed. Some of the radical groups refused however to side with one or the other and announced that they would fight «on two fronts». In the meanwhile, the situation has gravely deteriorated. Most of the members (with exceptions) of the «interim government» have been ineffective as it was predicted in the beginning. Aristide has succeeded in joining hands with some of the hard-nose gangs in the capital to create havoc. Many of his supporters on the other hand have been arbitrarily repressed, even those who had nothing to do with crime or drug trafficking. In addition to the misery and famine inflicted on the Haitian people, insecurity and violence now prevail in many parts of the country. Tons of promises by the «international community» to clean the mess have been left into the air.
The enemy of my enemy is not my friend
Aristide who has been suppressed by the United States has tried successfully to present himself as a «martyr» and a victim of imperialism. For sure, he was punished, as were several others who have dared to confront at one point or the other the arrogance of the powerful. He is not alone in that family that includes genuine popular leaders but also distorted populist thugs such as Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and others. In their desire to overthrow these regimes, imperialism is much less concerned with democracy as it is with the protection of its own interests. While «bad» dictators are overthrown, «good» dictators are supported and promoted by Washington when they are able to ‘do the job’ properly, like in Saudi Arabia, Colombia or Indonesia. In any case, should solidarity movements support Aristide because he was punished by the US? Well-know Haitian left activists like Camille Chalmers say that in no way can they support Aristide even though they are highly critical of the way he was expelled and more over, of how the international community has handled the situation since then. The sovereignty of the nation has to be preserved, and at the same time, the Haitians want democracy and social justice, not the coming back of the thugs. How to do that? Chalmers concludes that there is no escape from rebuilding an alternative through the popular movements that struggle and propose. There is no quick-fix and the task is tremendous. This is where solidarity movements should stand.
Pierre Beaudet is the Executive Director of Alternatives, a Quebec-based NGO.