Option Zero in Haiti

As his advisors ponder the ever more troubling consequences of regime change in Iraq, Bush is entitled to take some comfort from the far more successful operation just completed in Haiti. [1] No brusque pre-emptive strikes, domestic carping or splintering coalitions have marred the scene; objections from CARICOM and the African Union have carried no threats of reprisal. In overthrowing the constitutionally elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Washington could hardly have provided a more exemplary show of multilateral courtesy. Allies were consulted, the UN Security Council’s blessing sought and immediately received. The signal sent to Chávez, Castro and other hemispheric opponents was unambiguous—yet it was not a bullying Uncle Sam but France that made the first call for international intervention in Haiti’s domestic affairs.


In Paris, too, there was much satisfaction at the sophisticated fit between the humanitarian duty of a civilized nation and the need (without losing face) to placate Washington for last year’s disobedience over Iraq. The US might well fear this ‘Liberia at their gates’, as Villepin’s Independent Commission report put it—but, wary of domestic reaction among their own black population in an election year, hesitate to act. [2] The Quai d’Orsay’s offer of diplomatic protection would guarantee not only safe entry but painless withdrawal, as the proposed UN Stabilization Force, took up the burden three months later. [3] London would be suavely usurped of its chief attack-dog role. Chirac and Villepin had the virtually unanimous backing of the French media, from Le Figaro to Le Monde and L’Humanité, for military intervention in Haiti. Among the most feverish voices has been that of Libération, which held President Aristide—a ‘defrocked priest turned tyrant millionaire’, ‘the Père Ubu of the Caribbean’—personally responsible for the ‘risk of humanitarian catastrophe’ that was claimed to justify the invasion. [4]


On 25 February Villepin issued a formal call for Aristide’s resignation. Two days later, France, the US and Canada announced the dispatch of troops to Port-au-Prince. In the early hours of Sunday, February 29 the Haitian president was flown out of his country at gunpoint. Later that same day the UN Security Council suspended its normal 24-hour pre-vote consultation period to push through an emergency resolution mandating the US Marines, French Foreign Legion and Canadian forces already converging on the Haitian capital as the advance guard of a multinational UN force. In the face of such international backing, the Congressional Black Caucus confined itself to mild rebuke. Libération gloated at the dissolution of ‘the pathetic carnival over which Aristide had proclaimed himself king’. For the New York Times the invasion was a fine example of how allies can ‘find common ground and play to their strengths’. All that remained was for Bush to call and thank Chirac, expressing his delight at ‘the excellent French–American cooperation’. [5]


The Western media had prepared the way for another ‘humanitarian intervention’ according to the now familiar formula. Confronted by repeated allegations of corruption, patronage, drugs, human rights abuses, autocracy, etc., the casual consumer of mainstream commentary was encouraged to believe that what was at stake had nothing to do with a protracted battle between the poor majority and a tiny elite but was instead just a convoluted free-for-all in which each side was equally at fault. The French press in particular tended to paint a lurid portrait of ‘African’ levels of squalor and superstition, to serve both as a warning to France’s remaining dependencies in the Caribbean and as a challenge that might test, once again, the ‘civilizing mission’ of the international community. As a former colonizer and slave power, France would be wrong to ‘turn its back’, argued the chief reporter of Villepin’s investigative commission on Franco-Haitian relations. The 2004 bicentenary of Haitian independence offered the chance for a mature coming to terms with the past, through which France might ‘shed the weight which servitude imposes on the masters’, and negotiate a new relationship. [6]


Rather than a political struggle, rather than a battle of principles and priorities, the fight for Haiti became just another instance of the petty corruption and mass victimization that is supposed to characterize public life beyond the heavily guarded gates of Western democracy. Rather than conditioned by radical class polarization or the mechanics of systematic exploitation, the overthrow of Aristide has most often figured as yet another demonstration of perhaps the most consistent theme of Western commentary on the island: that poor black people remain incapable of governing themselves.


Breaking the chain


The structural basis of Haiti’s crippling poverty is a direct legacy of slavery and its aftermath. The 1697 Treaty of Ryswick had formalized French occupation of the western third of the Spanish possession, the island of Hispaniola, under the name of Saint-Domingue. Over the following century, the colony grew to be the most profitable in the world; by the 1780s, it was a bigger source of income for its masters than the whole of Britain’s thirteen North American colonies combined. No single source of revenue made so large a contribution to the growing prosperity of the French commercial bourgeoisie, and to the wealth of cities like Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseille. The slaves who produced these profits rose up in revolt in 1791. Combined British, Spanish and French efforts to crush the rebellion fuelled a war that lasted thirteen years and ended in unequivocal imperial defeat. Both Pitt and Napoleon lost some 50,000 troops in the effort to restore slavery and the status quo.


By late 1803, to the universal astonishment of contemporary observers, the armies led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines had broken the chain of colonial slavery at ‘what had been, in 1789, its strongest link’. [7] Renamed Haiti, the new country celebrated its independence in January 1804. I have argued elsewhere that there have been few other events in modern history whose implications were more threatening to the dominant order: the mere existence of an independent Haiti was a reproach to the slave-trading nations of Europe, a dangerous example to the slave-owning US, and an inspiration for successive African and Latin American liberation movements. [8] Much of Haiti’s subsequent history has been shaped by efforts, both internal and external, to stifle the consequences of this event and to preserve the essential legacy of slavery and colonialism—that spectacularly unjust distribution of labour, wealth and power which has characterized the whole of the island’s post-Columbian history.


The main priority of the slaves who won their independence in 1804 was to block a return to the plantation economy by retaining some direct control over their own livelihood and land. Unlike most other Latin American and Caribbean countries, the development of export-oriented latifundia was limited by the widespread survival of small peasant proprietorship, and today 93 per cent of Haitian peasants still have at least some access to their own land. [9] The reduction in size of an average farm to just two acres, however, combined with falling agricultural prices, drastic soil erosion and a chronic lack of investment, ensures that most of these peasants retain their independence at the cost of an effectively permanent destitution.


Extension of this destitution to the country as a whole was guaranteed by the isolation of its ruined economy in the decades following independence. Restoration France only re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country’s survival after Haiti agreed, in 1825, to pay its old colonial master a ‘compensation’ of some 150 million francs for the loss of its slaves—an amount roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, or around ten years’ worth of total revenue in Haiti—and to grant punishing commercial discounts. With its economy still shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could only begin paying this debt by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, 24 million francs from private French banks. Though the French demand was eventually cut from 150 to 90 million francs, by the end of the nineteenth century Haiti’s payments to France consumed around 80 per cent of the national budget; France received the last instalment in 1947. Haitians have thus had to pay their original oppressors three times over—through the slaves’ initial labour, through compensation for the French loss of this labour, and then in interest on the payment of this compensation. No other single factor played so important a role in establishing Haiti as a systematically indebted country, the condition which in turn ‘justified’ a long and debilitating series of appropriations-by-gunboat.


The most consequential of these foreign interventions was launched by Woodrow Wilson in 1915, a counterpart to his punitive assaults on the Mexican Revolution. The US occupation lasted for nearly twenty years, and extended between 1916 and 1924 into a parallel incursion into the Dominican Republic next door. The American military regime proceeded to institute an early version of a structural adjustment programme: they abolished the clause in the constitution that had barred foreigners from owning property in Haiti, took over the National Bank, reorganized the economy to ensure more ‘reliable’ payments of foreign debt, expropriated land to create their own plantations, and trained a brutal military force whose only victories would be against the Haitian people. Rebellions—that of Charlemagne Peralte in the north during the early years of the occupation, or the strike wave of 1929—were savagely repressed. By the time they pulled out in 1934, US troops had broken the back of the initial peasant resistance to this socio-economic engineering, killing between 5,000 and 15,000 people in the process.


The army the US had constructed became the dominant power after the Marines departed, keeping both the population and politicians in check—the generals often taking turns as president themselves. It was as a counter to this force that the bespectacled ex-doctor François Duvalier organized his own murderous militia, the Tonton Macoutes, after winning the 1957 presidential election that followed the overthrow of the previous military regime. For the next fourteen years, as ‘Papa Doc’ declared himself the divine incarnation of the Haitian nation, the 10,000-strong Macoutes were used to terrorize any opponents to his rule. Initially wary of his vaudouiste nationalism, the US soon embraced Duvalier’s staunchly anti-communist regime. When François Duvalier died in 1971, his son Jean-François, ‘Baby Doc’, was proclaimed President for Life and enjoyed still more enthusiastic US support. Foreign aid and elite corruption soared, but for the mass of Haitians pauperization and political oppression continued undiminished.


The gathering flood


By the mid-80s, a new generation was coming of age in the sprawling slums of Port-au-Prince, open to the appeal of liberation theology in the coded kreyòl sermons of radical priests—chief among them, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Born in 1953, Aristide grew up outside the confines of Haiti’s traditional political class. A talented linguist, Aristide flourished at the Salesian seminary, and read psychology and philosophy at the State University in the 70s, along with the works of Leonardo Boff and other liberation theologians. He began broadcasting on the local Catholic radio stations that sprang up in the late 70s, before being dispatched by his order to study archaeology in the Middle East in 1979, and then to Montreal for some (unsuccessful) ‘theological reprogramming’. [10]


By 1985 he was back preaching in Haiti, as the popular upswell against Baby Doc’s bloated regime grew into a mass wave of protests. Aristide’s Easter sermon that year—‘The path of those Haitians who reject the regime is the path of righteousness and love’—was recorded on dozens of cassette players, and heard all over the country. His cry, ‘Va-t’en, Satan!’ was taken up by the mass movement which, in February 1986, chased Baby Doc off to exile in France, just weeks before Marcos, under similar pressure, was sent packing from the Philippines. The murderous tactics of the junta that followed, under General Namphy, could not demobilize the flood—lavalas, in kreyòl—of political groups, trade unions, mass organizations, peasant associations and ‘little church’ community groups, the ti legliz. Aristide was now preaching full-time at the church of St Jean Bosco, on the edge of the Port-au-Prince slumtown of La Saline. The elections scheduled for November 1987 were cancelled by the army on polling day, but not before it had engineered the murder of dozens of voters as they waited to cast their ballots. In September 1988 Macoutes stormed Aristide’s crowded church, killed members of the congregation and destroyed the building; Aristide was snatched to safety by his supporters. In the protests that followed, rank-and-file troops rose against their officers, driving Namphy out, before a counter-coup under General Avril threw the leading ti soldats into jail. The autumn of 1989 brought more mass strikes and mobilizations against Avril’s regime, a further bloody crackdown and renewed protests. In March 1990, he too was driven from power.


First Lavalas victory


In December 1990, Aristide stood as the presidential candidate of the Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie, the loose coalition of popular organizations formed to contest Haiti’s first free elections. Aristide swept to an unexpected victory in the first round, with 67 per cent of the vote (the US favourite, World Bank economist and former Duvalier minister Marc Bazin, won only 14 per cent). The Haitian elite lost no time in trying to destabilize him. The first coup attempt came within a month of his election, and was blocked by a massive counter-mobilization. In office, Aristide’s room for manoeuvre was limited by the FNCD’s minority in the legislature, the ramshackle state and judicial apparatus and the continuing depredations of the Macoutes, checked only by the threat of popular resistance from the slums. Nor did Aristide’s gifts as a mass leader translate easily into parliamentary coalition-building or manipulation of the levers of state. Once in power, Aristide moved cautiously, while continuing to speak of a radical redistribution of wealth. He won the support of international lenders by balancing the budget and trimming the corruption-ridden bureaucracy. Otherwise he restricted himself to mild agrarian and educational reforms and the appointment of a presidential commission to investigate the extra-judicial killings of the previous five years.


Even these moderate steps were too much for the elite to tolerate. In September 1991, just seven months after his inauguration, the army seized power again, installing a new junta under General Cédras. Over the next three years the military instituted a reign of terror in an attempt to dismantle the Lavalas networks in the slums; around 5,000 Lavalas supporters were killed. Churches and community organizations were invaded, preachers and leaders were murdered. In September 1993 thugs led by CIA-trained Louis Jodel Chamblain assassinated democracy activist and key Aristide ally, Antoine Izméry. In April 1994, paramilitaries under the leadership of Jean Tatoune, another CIA product, slaughtered scores of civilians in what became known as the Raboteau massacre in the town of Gonaïves.


At the same time, the (exemption-ridden) economic embargo imposed against the Cédras regime led to widespread malnutrition. Waves of emigrants tried to flee to the US. Aristide, exiled in Washington, tried to marshal diplomatic support. Hostile to Aristide’s agenda and smarting from the recent Iran–Contra affair, the first President Bush chose to turn a blind eye. Clinton, confident that ‘the mission is achievable, and limited’, was more amenable. Military success in Haiti would help repair the damage done in Somalia, and Aristide’s return would stem the flood of refugees. US conditions, however, were exorbitant. Aristide had to agree to an amnesty for the coup-makers, in effect pardoning the murder of thousands of his supporters. He had to accept that his term as Haitian president would end in 1995, as if he had served it in full. He had to share power with the opponents that he had defeated so convincingly in 1990, and to adopt most of their highly conservative policies; in particular, he was required to implement a drastic IMF structural adjustment programme.


Aristide was perfectly aware, of course, of the political cost of structural adjustment; his most recent book on the oppressive consequences of globalization is broadly consistent with his speeches of the late 1980s. [11] The question that began to divide the Lavalas movement in the mid-1990s was simply, what kind of resistance to US and IMF objectives was feasible? Even someone as critical of Aristide’s ‘dictatorial turn’ as Christophe Wargny believed that ‘no Haitian government can survive without American support’. [12] As UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi—currently hard at work in Baghdad—candidly explained on Haitian radio in 1996, there was never any question that either the US or the UN would tolerate even limited attempts to dilute the elite’s monopoly of economic power. [13] Under the circumstances, Aristide’s new government felt it had little room for manoeuvre. And though he won 87 per cent of the vote in the 1995 presidential elections, albeit on a lowered turnout, Aristide’s successor René Préval found himself in a still more difficult position.


The attempts of Préval’s prime minister, Rosny Smarth, to legislate the unpopular IMF programme would permanently fracture the Lavalas coalition, both inside parliament and in the country as a whole. The politicians most in line with Washington’s priorities, and most critical of what they condemned as Aristide’s top-down style, banded together under his rival Gérard Pierre-Charles to form a more ‘moderate’ faction, which eventually called itself the Organisation du Peuple en Lutte. From late 1996, Aristide began organizing a more cohesive party of his own supporters, the Fanmi [family] Lavalas, drawing on his personal authority among the Haitian poor. The split between the OPL and the FL soon became irreversible, paralysing the legislature and blocking the appointment of a new prime minister or a full cabinet after Smarth’s resignation in 1997. [14] Préval finally broke the parliamentary deadlock by dissolving the National Assembly in 1999, and after some delay new elections were held in May 2000.


Globalization comes to Haiti


Predictably, the IMF cure for Haiti’s desperate poverty involved further reductions in wages that had already sunk to starvation levels, privatization of the state sector, reorientation of domestic production in favour of cash crops popular in North American supermarkets and the elimination of import tariffs. It was the last of these, easiest to implement, that had the most immediate impact. With the tariff on rice cut from 50 per cent to the IMF-decreed 3 per cent, Haiti—previously self-sufficient in the crop—was flooded with subsidized American grain, and rice imports rose from just 7,000 tonnes in 1985 to 220,000 tonnes in 2002. Domestic rice production has all but disappeared. [15] A similar sequence eliminated Haiti’s poultry sector, at the cost of around 10,000 jobs. Haitian farmers tend to associate these developments with the most bitterly resented of all the international community’s many aggressive interventions in their domestic economy—the 1982 extermination, to allay the fears of American importers concerned by an outbreak of swine fever, of Haiti’s entire native pig population, and their subsequent replacement with animals from Iowa that required living conditions rather better than those enjoyed by most of the island’s human population.


As a result of these and related economic ‘reforms’, agricultural production fell from around 50 per cent of GDP in the late 1970s to just 25 per cent in the late 1990s. Structural adjustment was supposed to compensate for agrarian collapse with an expansion of the light manufacturing and assembly sector. The lowest wages in the hemisphere, backed by a virtual ban on trade unions, had encouraged mainly American companies or contractors to employ around 60,000 people in this sector in the late 1970s, and through to the mid-90s companies like Kmart and Walt Disney continued to pay Haitians around 11 cents an hour to make pyjamas and T-shirts. [16] The companies benefit from tax exemptions lasting for up to 15 years, are free to repatriate all profits and obliged to make only minimal investments in equipment and infrastructure. [17] By 1999, Haitians fortunate enough to work in the country’s small manufacturing and assembly sector were earning wages estimated at less than 20 per cent of 1981 levels. Nevertheless, still more dramatic rates of exploitation encouraged many of these companies to relocate to places like China and Bangladesh, and only around 20,000 people were still employed in the Port-au-Prince sweatshops by the end of the millennium. Real GDP per capita in 1999–2000 was estimated to be ‘substantially below’ the 1990 level. [18]


It would be wrong to think that these reforms were implemented with anything approaching Third Way zeal. On the contrary, the Lavalas government was continually criticized for its ‘lack of vigour’ by international financial institutions: ‘Policies imposed as conditions by international lenders have been at best half-heartedly supported by the domestic authorities, and at worst violently rejected by the public’. [19] With its back to the wall, Lavalas resorted to what James Scott has famously dubbed the ‘weapons of the weak’: a mixture of prevarication and evasive non-cooperation. This proved partially successful as a way of deflecting at least one of the main blows of structural adjustment, the privatization of Haiti’s few remaining public assets. Lavalas had good reason to drag its feet. When the state-run sugar mill was privatized in 1987, for example, it was bought by a single family who promptly closed it, laid off its staff and began importing cheaper sugar from the US so as to sell it on at prices that undercut the domestic market. Once the world’s most profitable sugar exporter, by 1995 Haiti was importing 25,000 tons of American sugar and most peasants could no longer afford to buy it. [20] By contrast, in September 1995 Aristide dismissed his prime minister for preparing to sell the state-owned flour and cement mills without insisting on any of the progressive terms the IMF had promised to honour—opening the sale to middle-class and diaspora participation, and ensuring that some of the money it earned was to go towards literacy, education and compensation for victims of the 1991 coup. Aristide could only delay the process for two years, however. In 1997 the flour mill was duly sold for just $9 million, at a time when its yearly profits were estimated at around $25 million per year. [21]


The Lavalas government never yielded, however, to US pressure to privatize Haiti’s public utilities. At the same time, and with drastically limited resources, it oversaw the creation of more schools than in all the previous 190 years. It printed millions of literacy booklets and established hundreds of literacy centres, offering classes to more than 300,000 people; between 1990 and 2002 illiteracy fell from 61 to 48 per cent. With Cuban assistance, a new medical school was built and the rate of HIV infection—a legacy from the sex tourism industry of the 1970s and 80s—was frozen, with clinics and training programmes opened as part of a growing public campaign against AIDS. Significant steps were taken to limit the widespread exploitation of children. Aristide’s government increased tax contributions from the elite, and in 2003 it announced the doubling of a desperately inadequate minimum wage. [22]


Opposition to Aristide


The government’s course created enemies both to the right and to the left. Unsurprisingly, Aristide came under fire from those who advocated more enthusiastic compliance with the US and IMF, among them the (highly unpopular) Prime Ministers, Smarck Michel (1994–95) and Rosny Smarth (1996–97), along with other members of the OPL. From the beginning, the simple presence of Lavalas in government had terrified a large portion of the dominant class. ‘Among the Haitian elite’, as Robert Fatton has explained, ‘hatred for Aristide was absolutely incredible, an obsession’. [23] With Lavalas in power, many observers noted a ‘new confidence among the poor people of Haiti’. [24] For the first time in living memory the distribution of private property seemed vulnerable, as occasional instances of land invasion and squatting went unopposed. Though in practice he tended to cooperate with business leaders and international lenders, Aristide appeared willing to strengthen his hand in government with veiled threats of popular violence against ‘bourgeois thieves’. [25] ‘Panic seized the dominant class’, Fatton notes. ‘It dreaded living in close proximity to la populace and barricaded itself against Lavalas’. [26] Gated communities multiplied and the provision of private security became one of Haiti’s fastest growing industries. Class sympathy among Western elites who felt themselves under similar threat, both at home and abroad, goes a long way to explaining the recent international perception of the Lavalas regime.


A growing distrust of Aristide’s ‘demagogic populism’, meanwhile, slowly alienated many of the foreign or exiled intellectuals—René Depestre, James Morrell, Christophe Wargny—who had once supported him. [27] More importantly, several of Haiti’s most significant peasant organizations, including the Movman Peyizan Papay (MPP), Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan and KOZEPEP, as well as the small militant group Batay Ouvriye, condemned the Fanmi Lavalas for its cooperation with structural adjustment and accused it of becoming ‘anti-populaire’. Clément François of Tèt Kole spoke for many critics of Lavalas when he argued that Aristide should not have agreed to the US conditions that allowed him to return from exile: ‘he should have stayed outside and let us continue the struggle for democracy; instead, he agreed to deliver the country on a platter so that he could get back into office’. [28] MPP leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste made the same point in 1994, shortly before he became involved in a bitter personal feud with Aristide.


The true extent of popular disaffection with Lavalas is difficult to measure. As a rule, foreign commentators find it ‘hard to credit the strength of emotion that Aristide elicited and continues to provoke in Haiti’. [29] Tèt Kole and the MPP were certainly weakened by their opposition to Aristide, and neither group remains a significant political force. In the late 90s Jean-Baptiste became an ally of Pierre-Charles’s pro-American OPL, before joining, in 2000, the openly reactionary Convergence Démocratique; the militancy of his followers has been dulled, as Stan Goff notes, ‘by the steady trickle of project dollars flowing through the almost interminable list of non-governmental organizations that infest every corner of Haiti’. [30] The OPL itself is probably the party which most closely resembles that ‘civic’ alternative to Lavalas so dear to liberal commentators, but after years of futile parliamentary manoeuvring it was virtually wiped out in the 2000 elections. [31]


For all its undeniable faults, in other words, the FL remained the only significant force for popular mobilization in the country. No other political figure of the past fifty years has had anything like Aristide’s stature among th

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