In the shadow of Aristide

The one-year anniversary of the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was marked by events all too familiar to the poorest nation in the hemisphere, events that should give Canadians pause to reflect on our role in its ongoing tragedy. On February 28, Haitian police fired on a peaceful demonstration in the capital slum of Bel-Air, killing three and wounding several more, bringing the total dead to 30 in just five days. The demonstrators were calling for the return of Aristide and the fulfillment of the five-year mandate to which he was democratically elected in 2000, a common refrain amongst Haiti’s many sprawling and impoverished slums, where support for Aristide and his Family Lavalas party is strongest. That demand has often met similar responses from the Haitian police.

For Canadians who value a decent and humane foreign policy, Monday’s violence should be of as much concern as the silence that greeted it in Ottawa. The Martin government has refused to condemn Aristide’s ouster of February 29 2004, choosing instead to back an interim government that enjoys almost no popular support. Observers on the ground now widely agree that “the situation – politically, economically and in terms of security – has deteriorated dramatically,” as the head of the UN mission in Haiti from 1993 to 2000 told the BBC.

When I visited Bel-Air the day before Christmas, I found the once-bustling, vibrant community to be a veritable ghost town, its near-empty streets traversed only by scattered pedestrians and patrolling UN peacekeepers. The scene was testament to a largely-ignored fact of life after Aristide: that there has been not just a coup against the President, but a purge of the mass-based Lavalas party that elected him. An exhaustive and sadly overlooked study by the University of Miami’s Center for Human Rights found that “the police routinely enter [poor neighborhoods] to conduct operations which are often murderous attacks, often with firepower support from the UN Civil Police and Peacekeeping forces,” leaving victims that “prefer to die at home untreated rather than risk arrest at the hospital.”

Following the coup, thousands of state workers lost their jobs, while hundreds of elected Lavalas politicians, including mayors and senators, were forced from their positions, many at gunpoint. The Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission estimates that there are over 700 political prisoners in Haitian jails.

Visiting one of them, 70-year-old folk singer So Anne Auguste, a veteran of decades of struggle against the Duvalier dictatorships who is celebrated as much for her music as for the free meal programs she provides in her community, was particularly unnerving. Not far from the Pétionville penitentiary where she has been held without charge since May, Paul Martin had told reporters during his brief visit to the country in November that “there are no political prisoners in Haiti.”

It is possible that the Martin government is simply unaware of the situation on the ground, but the extent of its involvement gives reason to draw other conclusions. During the final years of Aristide’s government, Canada followed the lead of Paris and Washington in reducing foreign aid to a trickle, offering a paltry $23.85 million in 2003. By contrast, Martin recently pledged $180 million over the next two years.

Since July, Canada has provided training for the Haitian police and logistical planning for the UN force that has been backing them. On December 2nd, the Brazilian UN commander complained of being “under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence” to quell Haiti’s unrest, naming Canada among others. Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew has left no ambiguity over who we have in mind, telling Parliament in October that the “extreme violence” has been “carried out by armed groups, primarily the chimères,” the derogatory French term applied to armed supporters of Lavalas. Pettigrew has said nothing about the aggressive tactics of the Haitian police, and little more of the paramilitaries and former soldiers closely aligned with the wealthy Haitian opposition.

There is little doubt that Aristide, who has his critics as much from the Haitian left as from the right, was involved in — or at least tolerant of — corruption and human rights abuses during the waning years of his rule. But there is no way of knowing what would have been achieved had his government not been blocked from crucial international aid, left largely defenseless against a well-funded and foreign-backed political opposition led by sweatshop owners and paramilitaries. Nor can we predict what could have been done had France even paid a fraction of the $21 billion that Aristide demanded in compensation for the 150 million francs Haiti was forced to pay as an “indemnity” for its 1804 liberation, a crushing “debt” that was serviced until the Second World War. As an aside, we do know that under the current government Haitians have no hope of seeing any of this money returned. A little over a month into his position, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue (who’s spent the last forty years living in Boca Raton, Florida) publicly apologized on his people’s behalf for Aristide’s “illegal” and “embarrassing” and widely popular demand.

Above all, Aristide’s competence is an issue solely for the people of Haiti to decide. The former slave colony has never recovered from its victorious yet devastating fight against brutal French rule, and the grim legacy of foreign intervention that has followed it. Haiti’s struggling democracy should be respected, not subverted, the voices of its slums heeded, not silenced. As Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who spent 48 days in prison under the interim government, told reporters shortly before police fired at the demonstrating crowd: “The people are revolting only to ask for what they voted for.”

Aaron Maté is a Montreal-based independent journalist and researcher. A shorter version of this piece appeared March 9, 2005 in the Toronto Star.

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