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The ouster of democracy


“All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of people,” wrote Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski in his book, Shah of Shahs, about the Iranian revolution. “They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed man breaks his terror and stops being afraid. This unusual process demands illuminating.”

The tottering, and now toppled authority of the former Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been well chronicled over the past month. The story of the psychological effect his departure had on the Haitian people has been less comprehensively observed. There is good reason for this. Despite the overthrow of the president and the outpouring of rebel supporters in the streets, the Haitian people are pretty much where they have been for the past 200 years – in a desperately impoverished country where political violence is sustained, if not encouraged, by foreign intervention and crushes any hope of reconciliation, democracy and economic prosperity.

In revolutions the people take centre stage and the leaders follow – the popular will outpaces and overpowers the established institutions and moulds something essentially new from the old. But over the past week the Haitian people have been not actors but spectators in their own destiny, watching one band of armed thugs, who supported a leader with diminishing democratic legitimacy, replaced by another band of armed thugs, who support a movement with none at all, with the help of foreign governments. The death squad leaders, army officials and US marines are back. There are no longer any democratic violations to criticise because there is no longer any democracy. What happened was not a revolution but a coup. And no simple domestic overthrow either. This was the kind of regime change that the French and the US could sign up to.

The circumstances of Aristide’s departure remain under dispute. Aristide says a huge number of US and Haitian “agents” came to his house and forced him on to a plane that eventually landed in the Central African Republic. The US says Aristide was resigned to exile once it was understood that he could no longer hold on to power, his life was in danger and bloodshed was inevitable. What cannot be seriously contested is that Aristide did not go voluntarily in any meaningful sense, and that the Bush administration was the primary instrument in his removal. It is debatable, yet doubtful, whether the Haitian rebels could have achieved his removal on their own. Whoever the US came into protect, it was not the Haitian people. Even as they were advising people to stay out of the country because it was not safe they were sending Haitian boat people, fleeing the crisis, back home.

You do not have to be an apologist for Aristide or an anti-American conspiracy theorist to grasp this. Just follow the quotes from the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, over the past month and the policy shifts are clear. On February 12, Powell told the Senate foreign relations committee: “The policy of the administration is not regime change [this will come as news to the Iraqis], President Aristide is the elected president of Haiti.”

On February 17, he said. “We cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect law and are bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people.” By February 26, after a week of shopping around, he decided to buy into it after all. “[Aristide] is the democratically elected president, but he has had difficulties in his presidency, and I think … whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something that he will have to examine.” A day later he was selling it, arguing that Aristide, having “the interests of the Haitian people at heart”, should “examine the situation he is in and make a careful examination of how best to serve the Haitian people at this time”.

Just 48 hours later, after the coup, he was asking the rest of the world to wear it. He explained why the US had not been prepared to go into Haiti and support “an individual who may have been elected democratically but was not governing effectively or democratically”. Were it not for the fact that Aristide has at least won a couple of elections, Powell could have been talking about President Bush.

Powell argued that Aristide, who had presented his resignation letter not to his constitutional successor but to the US government, had done the appropriate, wise and patriotic thing by resigning. The crucial factor that turned the rebels from “thugs” to a government in waiting in Powell’s rhetoric was that they took over the second city, Cap Haitien. Once the US sensed that the side they wanted to win could win, they simply switched sides.

The principal message to the Haitian people from Aristide’s ouster is that force works. If you do not like the elected leader of the country, start a rebellion and refuse to negotiate. If it is strong enough, and its politics amenable enough, the Americans will come and finish the job for you. With 33 coups in 200 years, this was a message the Haitian people did not need.

Two key lessons emerge from this, which go beyond Haiti. The first is that military force is not just the most important element in US foreign policy, it is the beginning and the end of that policy. For the past 10 years, since the US restored Aristide to power, it could have trained the Haitian police and judiciary, invested in projects that shore up civil society and help create a democratic culture, increased aid and encouraged fair trade – all of which would have given Haiti a fighting chance of building a sustainable democracy. Instead, it imposed conditions by the IMF and the World Bank, followed it up with an embargo on the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and when none of that worked, sent in the marines against a nation with no army.

The second is that the US supports democracy when democracy supports the US. When it is inconvenient, as in Aristide’s case, Washington will turn its back on it in a heartbeat. Faced with a clear choice of either sending the marines in to protect an elected president, however flawed, or an armed insurrection, they chose the insurrection because they didn’t like the president.

“We can’t be called upon, expected or required to intervene every time there is violence against a failed leader,” said the State Department spokesperson, Richard Boucher, last week. “We can’t spend our time running around the world and the hemisphere saving people who botched their chance at leadership.”

However, the US can be called upon not to intervene to promote violence against elected leaders. This latest intervention did not prevent a bloodbath – more people were killed on the day Aristide left than on any other – and crushed what was left of democracy. Instead of breaking the spiral of violence, it has given it a new lease of life. Given that kind of legacy, the US should indeed stop “running around the world” to “save people”. The Bush administration is doing a good job of botching leadership at home. There is no need to export it.

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