Peter Hallward’s “Damning the Flood” (Part II)

This is Part II of Peter Hallward’s masterful account of recent Haitian history and what may lie ahead for its beleaguered people. Please refer to Part I that’s posted on this site.


2001 – 2004: The Winner Loses?


In spite of its strength and resilience, FL had its faults and suffered the consequences. Its relative informality made it vulnerable to "opportunistic" infiltration by members of the "conventional political class" as well as former Macoutes, soldiers and criminal gang leaders. Some FL politicians also used their positions for personal gain and implicated the government in damaging scandals.


Further, the very strength of its support meant the opposition had to undermine the organization from within. Ways included money and weapons to neighborhood gangs to change sides and turning the state’s own security forces (the USGPN Presidential Guard) against the President. Aristide’s last Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune, believed by year end 2003, few national security force members could be trusted because they’d been corrupted by "members of civil society." In addition, some Aristide supporters became disillusioned by his fruitless negotiating strategy and for not being more decisive in the crucial pre-coup weeks.


The CD took full advantage, were able to buy off some of the FL hierarchy, and "paint a lurid picture of a government mired in drugs, embezzlement" and human rights abuses. Post-coup, there was even talk of a "Noriega-style indictment of Aristide (to) rid the US of their turbulent priest once and for all." When the idea faded for lack of proof and Aristide’s willingness to cooperate with DEA while still President, old corruption and embezzlement charges resurfaced. Although bizarre and outlandish against a self-effacing priest, Aristide’s opponents tried to tarnish him with charges of appropriating state funds for private gain, living in palatial luxury at his private home, and stealing tens of millions of dollars to do it.


More damaging were charges of Haiti‘s "worsening human rights situation." In the 2001 – 2004 period, reports from human rights groups like NCHR (Haiti‘s highest profile one), CARLI, and CEDH read like a CD script to provide ammunition for promoting regime change. Post-coup, however, these same groups seemed not to notice mass state-sponsored killings that accompanied and followed Aristide’s ouster.


Along with others, Human Rights Watch (HRW) was notably egregious, given its reputation that’s decidedly undeserved. In its 2001 report, it described 2000 as a year of "mounting political violence" and blamed it on Aristide supporters. It repeated the accusation in 2002, and in 2003 said that "worsening human rights conditions, mounting political turmoil, and a declining economy marked" (Aristide’s government). "Human rights conditions remained poor (with) police violence, arbitrary arrests, and wrongful detention, among other problems" – clearly condemning Aristide for what the opposition caused. In contrast, in 2004, HRW didn’t even mention Haiti in its annual report, but two weeks before the February coup it issued a press release blaming the government for the worst of the violence preceding it. Shamelessly, HRW blamed the victim and let the villain off scot-free.


Amnesty International (AI) was much the same. In the violent post-coup period, (directed at FL), AI and HRW  muted their criticism and framed it in the continuing "cycle of violence and impunity that has plagued the Caribbean republic for so many years." What more could the putschists ask for? They couldn’t buy better assessments.


Compared to tens of thousands killed under the Duvaliers, the generals and post-coup Latortue government, Aristide abhored violence, wouldn’t tolerate political killings, and on their own, the PNH at most caused a handful of them in his second term. Yet HRW and AI equated the period to the worst state-sponsored violence in modern Haitian history, then ignored the whole human rights question in 2006 when it raged out of control.


A particularly damaging and equally untrue Aristide accusation was that he relied on violent gangs, called "chimeres," to maintain power, intimidate opponents, and control the country. The press bought it, and even the London Independent (two weeks before the 2004 coup) reported "Aristide’s Thugs Crush Hopes of People’s Revolution with Beatings and Intimidation." This and similar accounts painted Aristide as reinventing himself as a Macoute, yet it was outlandishly false.


In a country plagued by violence, unreported was why, and by and against whom. Haitians are desperately poor. Even those with jobs hardly earn enough to survive. The only way the country’s factory owners can maintain the system is through intimidation, and they rely on the military and PNH as their enforcers.


In contrast, Aristide abhors violence and not a single opposition leader was killed or disappeared during his tenure, either time. Whenever pro-government forces turned violent, it was largely in self-defense, a practice Aristide condoned. At the same time, during Aristide’s second term, substantial PNH elements turned against  him and were beyond his control. There’s no proof whatever, that FL, at any time, initiated, supported, or directed any form of violence. The media reported otherwise.


In addition, FL could gain nothing from violence. The country had an estimated 210,000 firearms with the vast majority of them in ruling class hands. Yet even if Aristide controlled them, his position was firm, and it stemmed from his liberation theology position. He insisted on peaceful reconciliation with his enemies. Had he wished, millions of Haitians would have instantly supported a popular uprising and sent his opponents packing.


However, ignoring realpolitik pressed Aristide in a corner, made him negotiate from weakness, and in the process, disenchant members of his original following. CD took full advantage.


Concessions like punishing structural adjustments took their toll. They alienated opportunistic FL supporters, and two of the country’s high-profile peasant organizations (Tet Kole Ti Peyizan and KOZE-PEP) called them "anti-populaire" and condemned how they harmed Haiti‘s farmers. Yet most in the FL camp stayed loyal in spite of claims to the contrary. They were with Aristide at the beginning, stayed to the end, and still support FL today. So do the vast majority of Haitians. Aristide could mobilize them like no one else, that made him a threat, still does, and is the reason elitists insist he stay out of the country and region, hoping that out of sight is out of mind. Not then and not now.


2003 – 2004: Preparing for War


Hallward calls the February 2004 coup "consistent with the long-standing pattern and priorities of imperial foreign policy….a scandal….never inevitable….not irreversible….and (importantly) a failure." How so on the last point? Because the perpetrators "failed to accomplish their main objective" – eliminating Lavalas as an "organized political force." The February 2006 presidential election showed its resilience and began "a new phase in the Lavalas project" with miles to go nonetheless to achieve it. More on that below.


The second Aristide coup differed from the first. The imperial alliance needed support on the left as well as the right. It meant co-opting "progressive" NGOs along with stage-managed student protests. In addition, some militant (street gangs) and organizations sympathetic to FL had to be won over. Finally, in the end, it took US Marines to do what what Haitian proxies couldn’t on their own.


Consider the importance of NGOs in a country like Haiti where estimates are that there are more of them per capita (from 10,000 to 20,000 total number in 1998) than anywhere else in the world. Their role is essential because of what they provide – about 80% of public services for food, water, health care, education, sanitation, and more. Equally crucial is their source of funding with at least 70% of it from USAID – a key imperial project agent. Its efforts are to pacify the country, create a secure investment climate, and assure most benefits flow to US interests.


Using NGOs as a tool makes it more appropriate to call them "other-governmental," not "non-governmental." They, in fact, put a respectable face on imperial harshness and to that degree are counterproductive. They mostly serve the powerful, not the people, and in the end (most often) have little to show for their efforts.


Some of them, in fact, played an open political role at the time of the 2004 coup in spite of disguising their partisanship behind a seemingly neutral or principled facade. Groups like Action Aid (against worldwide poverty), Christian Aid (for the same purpose), and Catholic Relief Services ("to assist impoverished and disadvantaged people overseas") are three notable examples. There are many others, and they make wonderful propaganda.


A notable Haitian-based one is Batay Ouvriye (BO) – a "small, quasi-clandestine network of labor activists." It claims to be on the left, but does more for the right. As the February 2004 approached, BO aligned with anti-FL forces to denounce the "outright criminal" Aristide government as the "main agent of corruption." It called FL anti-labor and anti-poor, was bought off to do it, and belatedly admitted getting $100,000 from USAID. Hallward says they did more to tarnish Lavalas than any other group.


Students did their damage as well. One "progressive" pro-coup group called them the turning point in the anti-FL campaign. They began protesting in the fall of 2003 about "lack of services and lack of university autonomy" and faced off against Haitian police. The scheme is very familiar.


In an effort to destabilize Lavalas, the IRI and G-184 found willing student recruits – with considerable time and money doing it and new groups created for the purpose. Leaders were chosen and bought off with money and visas to America and France in exchange for organizing protests. They were also trained in what to do. It was perfect. In exchange for a modest investment, the putschists bought an ideal cover – "idealistic young democrats" to denounce Aristide and FL and make great copy in the mainstream press.


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