The Crucifixion of Haiti

Part I: Historical Background & Political Struggles – December 1990 to February 2004


Today, like so many other times since its birth as a nation in 1804, Haiti bleeds.  It bleeds because the powerful nations of the world are once again making an example of Haiti, forcing Haiti spend its time on the cross.  Understanding this unfolding tragedy requires a critical examination of Haiti’s past, a task scrupulously avoided by the mainstream press.  Rather, the corporate media offer up nothing more than decontextualized snapshots of the undifferentiated “chaos” and “turmoil” that wrack Haiti today.  As a consequence of this ahistoric perspective, commentary and analysis frequently consist of shallow (and not so subtly racist) references to Haiti’s deficient political culture (Voodoo, corruption, sectarianism, etc.), which may well thwart our benevolent intentions once again.(1)

Contrary to the depictions of the corporate media, however, Haiti’s so-called chaos is far from undifferentiated, and “our” intentions far from benevolent.  Rather, the killings and violence, which have intensified since September 30, are part of a systematic effort by the interim government and the former military to silence and subdue the supporters of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his party, Fanmi Lavalas.  Furthermore, the U.S., France, and Canada played a pivotal role in creating the conditions for Aristide’s removal (ultimately accomplished by U.S. Marines) and have resolutely supported the new government in its brutal endeavours since.  These events are not a break from the norm: Even the most cursory look at Haiti’s history reveals the preponderant influence of external powers on the development of this impoverished Caribbean nation.  In particular, the Haitian military and the United States government have figured prominently in the political struggles of Haiti throughout the 20th century.

Haiti’s history is a history of foreign exploitation and domestic class struggle, of gut wrenching violence and debilitating corruption; above all, however, Haiti’s history is a history of resistance.  As such, the pattern of American intervention in Haiti must be viewed in the larger context of post-WWII U.S. imperialism directed against progressive movements and in support of oligarchies throughout Latin America.(2)  While space constraints preclude a full review of the history of U.S.-Haiti relations in such a perspective, it is informative to note here the origin of the Haitian Army and review some of the outrageous claims made against Father Aristide during his first presidency by the U.S. media before looking at the most recent coup d’état and the state of affairs in Haiti today.


Born of the only successful slave rebellion in history, American (and French) antipathy to Haiti goes back to the country’s very beginning.  The invasion and occupation by the U.S. Marines from 1915 to 1934 is significant, however, for two reasons:  1) it reveals the motives that guided U.S. involvement in Haiti prior to the Cold War, broadly the same concerns that guide U.S. policy today, and 2) it left deep scars on Haiti and created the military, an institution that would dominate Haiti’s political life long after the end of the occupation.  According to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the goals of the occupation were to “pacify” the peasants, control the customs houses, and diminish European influence in Haiti.  Noam Chomsky describes the many “successes” of the mission: “[T]he acceleration of Haiti’s economic, military, and political centralization, its economic dependence and sharp class divisions, the vicious exploitation of the peasantry, the internal conflicts much intensified by the extreme racism of the occupying forces, and perhaps worst of all, the establishment of ‘an army to fight the people.’”(3)  Other achievements of the occupation included reinstituting virtual slavery and dissolving the National Assembly in order to impose a U.S.-designed constitution allowing foreign ownership of Haitian land.  Such was the political and institutional legacy of “Wilsonian idealism” and American efforts to “bring democracy” to Haiti (scarcely different from today’s noble venture), a legacy whose firm grip on the country would loosen only by 1986, with the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship.(4)


Following the flight of “Baby Doc” Duvalier from the country in 1986, Haitians endured a period of “Duvalierism without Duvalier”, punctuated by coup d’états, voting day massacres, and military governments, until the elections of December 1990, when a diverse array of grassroots organizations called Lavalas (“flash flood”) swept Jean-Bertrand Aristide into the presidency.  The rich in Haiti and the U.S. government had expected their candidate, former World Bank economist Marc Bazin, to win easily and were stunned by the victory of Aristide, a priest and advocate of the poor.  Seven months of Aristide as president yielded a virtual halt in human rights violations, an accompanying reduction in “boat people” fleeing Haiti, a successful anti-corruption campaign, a higher minimum wage, and on September 30, 1991, a military coup.  The brutality with which the military and their allies dealt with the Lavalas movement is well documented: Massacres, political assassinations, rapes, beatings and arbitrary arrests were all commonplace.  The army, aided by the paramilitary group FRAPH (Front Révolutionnaire pour l’Avancement et le Progrès Haitiens), killed some 5,000 people from 1991 to 1994.  The coup followed the familiar script whereby the wealthy Haitian elite organized and financed the operation while the military did the dirty work.  The U.S. government was also deeply implicated in the coup: The leader of the coup, General Raoul Cedras, and other high-ranking Haitian military figures, had been on CIA payroll prior to and during the coup, and the FRAPH had been organized and funded by the CIA, according to leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, in order to act as a “vital counterweight” to the Lavalas movement.(5)

As long as the U.S. government has opposed revolutionary, nationalist or even reformist regimes in Latin America (1954: Arbenz in Guatemala, 1964: Goulart in Brazil, 1973: Allende in Chile, 2002 to the present: Chavez in Venezuela), the U.S. press has sought to justify this opposition.  Most commonly, the media have resorted to the venerable practice of demonizing the leaders of “enemy” governments: The leader is labelled “authoritarian” or “heavy-handed”, and a fomenter of “violence” and “class warfare”; Subsequently, when the U.S.-trained military overthrows the elected government and replaces it with a bloody military junta, commentators in the press blandly lament that the government was the cause of its own demise, while the more reactionary elements laud the initiative of the military for having come just in time to “save democracy” from “Communist totalitarianism”.  In this connection, the outlandish accusations levelled against President Aristide stuck to the script quite closely, blaming the President for his overthrow while obscuring the role of U.S. in the coup.  For instance, Newsweek described Aristide as “an anti-American demagogue, an unsteady left-wing populist who threatened private enterprise and condoned violence against his political opponents.” Other media repeated opposition claims that he was building a new “fascism”, that he was “worse than Duvalier” or that he was a drug trafficker.(6)  All these claims were totally baseless: Human rights abuses reached their lowest level in Haiti’s history and Aristide initiated a successful crackdown on drug transhipment.  While Aristide would occasionally condemn the massive inequality in Haiti, he would just as frequently exhort business to cooperate and help the poor.  More generally, Aristide could hardly be blamed for the tensions and conflicts created by a society where the top 1% of the population receive 46% of national income whilst the vast majority live in squalor.


While the U.S. nominally joined the international community in applying sanctions against the military junta, the real pressure was being applied on Aristide.  The U.S. embargo was extremely porous and neither Bush I nor Clinton was inclined to close any of the gaps.(7)  Meanwhile, at U.S.-initiated negotiations between Aristide and the military, the former priest was frequently pushed to make concessions to his adversaries, even as they slaughtered his supporters in Haiti.  The rationale was that Aristide was a “divisive” leader who had “polarized” the country (again, familiar rhetoric when it comes to Latin American leaders who don’t sit well with the bourgeoisie), thus making it necessary to form a more “inclusive” government before Aristide could return. Yet gathering 67% of the votes can hardly be said to indicate polarization, unless we dismiss the opinions of the “illiterates who voted for Aristide” as the Haitian elite would have it.  Indeed, the U.S., by forcing Aristide to negotiate with the military and their elite allies, was implicitly recognizing each party’s demands as equally valid.  When the flood of Florida-bound refugees escaping from Haiti finally forced Clinton to act, Aristide was restored to power by U.S. Marines in October 1994; His return, however, exacted a heavy price in terms of justice and democracy: amnesty for the military; “broadening” of the government to include opposition members who had supported the coup; implementation of “structural adjustment”, the economic plan favoured by opponent Marc Bazin; and an end to Aristide’s five year term in 1995, effectively treating his three years in exile as time spent in office.

Yet Aristide proved himself to be no political pushover: “[I]n 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”(8) and before the end of his truncated term, Aristide disbanded the murderous army.  This was probably the greatest contribution Aristide ever made to the cause of democracy in Haiti.  After Rene Préval took over the presidency in 1996, Aristide split with those in Organization Politique Lavalas (OPL) comfortable with implementing the neoliberal policy package (i.e. the “sweatshop model of development”: liberalization of trade, deregulation of the private sector and privatization of state-owned enterprises) and formed Fanmi Lavalas (FL).  From this vantage point, Aristide was free to criticize the reforms forced upon him, while his opponents carried them out, putting him on solid political footing for the upcoming elections.(9)


The current crisis in Haiti began in May 2000, with the notoriously “flawed” legislative elections.  A plethora of national and local positions were voted upon, and Aristide’s FL emerged with a crushing victory, taking 89 of 115 mayoral positions, 72 of 83 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 18 of the 19 Senate seats contested (There are 27 seats in the senate).  The OAS (Organization of American States) and other observers estimated the turnout at over 60% with “very few” incidents of either violence or fraud.  The impact, as Peter Hallward remarked in New Left Review, was tremendous:

 The 1995 elections had already ‘completely discredited the so-called traditional  political parties-especially those that collaborated with the military regime between  1991 and 1994’, effectively eliminating them from any further role in electoral politics.   In May 2000, members of the original Lavalas coalition who had turned against Aristide  suffered the same fate. For the anti-Aristide opposition, the elections proved that there  was no chance of defeating the fl at the polls for the foreseeable future.(10)

Faced with a massive defeat in the May elections and the imminent prospect of another loss in the upcoming presidential election, the opposition and their imperialist allies did the only thing they could: they cried foul.  The propaganda effort to discredit the elections and, by extension, FL began with the OAS (commonly regarded as a tool of U.S. foreign policy in the Americas) reversing its earlier assessment of the elections on the basis of a technicality, claiming that the counting method used for 8 Senate seats by the CEP (Coalition d’Election Provisional) was “flawed”.  The Constitution of Haiti stipulates that the winner must get 50% plus one vote at the polls; the CEP determined this by calculating the percentages from the votes for the top four candidates, while the OAS contended that the count should include all candidates.(11)  These concerns about the validity of the elections were disingenuous on many fronts: Firstly, the OAS had been working with the CEP to prepare the elections since 1999, and thus was fully aware of what counting method was going to be used beforehand, yet failed to voice any concerns at the time.  Secondly, using the OAS’s method would hardly have changed the outcome of the elections.  Taking an example given by James Morrell, an anti-Aristide policy hack, in the North-East department where two Senate seats were being contested, gives an idea of just how “flawed” the elections were.  In this riding, to get the 50% plus one vote demanded by the OAS, 33,154 votes were needed, while the two FL candidates had won with 32,969 and 30,736 votes respectively, with their closest rival getting

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