Can Haitian Democracy Survive?

Mark Weisbrot


President Jean-Bertrand Aristide takes the reins of power in Haiti for the third

time in ten years, a debate over his presidency is taking place in US foreign

policy circles and the press. The discussion centers around whether Aristide is

"fully committed to democracy," and of course, "economic

reforms." But an honest look at the last decade of US relations with Haiti

raises very different, and much more troubling questions.


began his last term as President ten years ago, after winning a landslide

victory despite Washington’s disapproval and financing of opposing candidates. A

populist priest who was one of the country’s leading advocates for the poor, he

served less than 8 months before being overthrown in a bloody military coup.


coup leader, Lt. General Raul Cedras, was on the payroll of the US Central

Intelligence Agency. Time magazine reported that the CIA had advance knowledge

of the coup, but took no steps to prevent it– indicating at least tacit US

support for the coup, and given the circumstances, probably much more than that.


of Aristide’s supporters took to the streets to defend their first

democratically elected government. They were unarmed, and hundreds were

slaughtered mercilessly by the military and police. In the ensuing years the

dictatorship killed thousands of political opponents, setting up a special

death-squad organization– known by its initials in French as F.R.A.P.H. The

founder and leader of this organization, Emmanuel Constant, was also a CIA



Clinton administration inherited the problem from George Bush Senior, and mostly

ignored Haiti for more than a year. It then began — as a result of political

pressure and the flood of Haitian refugees headed to Florida’s shores– to

pressure the military dictatorship to step down.


led eventually to US troops invading Haiti in the fall of 1994. Most Americans

know only of this action to restore the elected government, and not the prior

measures to destroy it. They therefore have an inverted– even Orwellian– image

of our role in Haiti. Moreover, the objectives of the Clinton administration

were less than democratic: the plan at the time was to leave the army and

repressive apparatus in place, removing only the top three officers.


plan began to fall apart after Haitian soldiers beat an innocent man to death in

front of international TV cameras. US troops stood by under orders not to

intervene, and they expressed their disgust and frustration openly to the press.

President Clinton found himself in a bind: to drum up support for the invasion

he had described the Haitian military as "murderers, rapists, and

thugs." Less than a week later he was calling these same people "our



took advantage of the situation to dismantle the military, as well as the

violent "section chief" system of repression of in the countryside. In

doing so he created the foundation for the first democratic government in the

history of the nation, which had lived for thirty years under the US-supported

Duvalier family dictatorship until 1986. For the first time people could hold

meetings and form political organizations without fear of being killed.


there was little that he could do about Haiti’s economy: that was in the hands

of the IMF, the World Bank, and their patrons in Washington. These people had a

simple economic development plan for Haiti: produce coffee, mangos, some other

agro-exports, and build up the light assembly export sector. Privatize public

utilities. Cut tariffs on imports.


the light assembly (read: sweatshop) sector provided few jobs, and at very low

pay– less than $2.00 a day. With 84% of the inputs imported, the contribution

of this sector to the domestic economy was tiny.


lowering of tariffs on imported rice sunk thousands of domestic farmers, who

could not compete with subsidized (and mechanized) US production. Privatization

of the telephone company was seen as highly questionable, given its enormous

revenues (3 percent of GDP), the government’s difficulty in collecting taxes

from other sources, and the lack of adequate regulatory structures.


these and other valid reasons, Haiti’s government and especially its parliament

rejected much of the IMF/ World Bank plan. Standoffs with Washington– which

controls both aid and credit– damaged Haiti’s economy and contributed to

political instability, while the aid that was actually disbursed had little

positive impact.


Washington is once again withholding aid to Haiti, based on disputed senate

election results and other concerns. Aristide has offered to rerun the 10

challenged senate elections of last November, and conceded to other demands that

were put forth by the Clinton administration.


certainly has its own political and economic problems, and Aristide has his

faults. But the foremost obstacle to democracy and economic recovery in Haiti

remains, as it has been for many years, "that cold country to the

North." Those who now sit in Washington in judgment of Haiti’s government,

threatening the country with economic strangulation and perhaps even another

coup, should consider these words: judge not lest ye be judged.


Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in

Washington, DC.


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