Media Dumps on Aristide By William Bowles

17 February 2004

Haiti, yet another US foreign policy disaster area, Western press coverage has been predictably less than forthcoming over the deteriorating situation. Indeed, trying to find out anything meaningful at all about the current situation has proved to be extremely difficult. Aside that is from what has become a de facto methodology of reportage of events on the island (or indeed in any country that can be called ‘un-developed’ and yet another ‘failed’ state).

Today’s Independent (17/02/04, p. 26) carries one of these stories that rather than focus on how the situation came to be and the US role in destabilising the government of Bertrand Aristide, we get the predictable reportage that focuses on what the media euphemistically calls ‘human interest’, that is, you hunt around until you find someone who best depicts the Western stereotype of a ‘gangster’ from the worst slum the journalist will risk going into (and get out alive) and get a ’story’ that reinforces all our pre-conceptions about the place and its people. And of course, better still that the person chosen is an Aristide supporter. Dump any notions you might have about getting an understanding of how Haiti got to where it is. Instead, we get a story headlined:

“Aristide’s slumland army of enforcers prepare to defend ‘people’s’ revolution”

Note the use of quotes around the word people’s and the choice of the words slumland and enforcers so before we even get to read the story, we’ve been prepared for the ‘worst’. And they call this ‘objective’ journalism? The story, with the byline of Andrew Gumbel introduces us to “gang leader” Billy Ironpants or Billy Calecon-de-fer who has a tattoo and pictures of his hero, Che Guevarra “plastered” all over the walls of his shack and proudly shows off his M-14 to Gumbel. Gumbel tells us that “life is precarious, miserable and cheap in Cité Soleil” one of the four major slums that surround Port-Au-Prince. Having set the scene so-to-speak, perhaps we’ll actually learn something about the situation but no such luck. Instead, we get a ‘picturesque’ description of the various gangs that Aristide has purportedly enlisted in order to stave off the US-backed counter-revolution, although that it’s US-backed is not mentioned at all. Indeed the US role is barely mentioned at all except to tell us – in a complete rewrite of the history of Haiti that:

“First, Haitians who became caught up in gangs and drug-dealing in the US started to be deported in large numbers in the 1990s and invariably ended up in Cité Soleil. And Cité Soleil first gained access to guns thanks to the 20,000-strong US military force which returned Mr Aristide to power in 1994.”

Not a single mention of the history of Haiti and the US role in its poverty, nor the role of the CIA and other US agencies in backing the country’s former dictators. Instead it’s the predictable ‘illegal immigrants’, guns and drugs that are the ’cause’ of the current situation according to Mr Gumbel. Not only is this an outrageous lie, it feeds directly into the same xenophobia that surrounds poor people (almost always of colour).

The bulk of the full page story is given over to lurid descriptions of slum-based gangs and reports of gun battles, beatings and intimidations purportedly by supporters of Aristide and one outrageous statement by an (unnamed) “prominent” Haitian, that:

“Aristide has turned crime into an institution of the state [and] it’s the main reason he is mistrusted by foreign leaders and increasingly reviled at home”.

What Gumbel fails to tell us is that Aristide has the overwhelming support of the majority of people of Haiti, all of whom are not “prominent” (code for wealthy). Gumbel fails to talk to anyone who supports Aristide (aside from Billy Ironpants of course) nor find out why they overwhelmingly support Aristide.

Nor are we are told anything of the history of the Duvalier family or of the Ton-Ton-Macoute, the Duvalier family’s personal death squad, and how the US bankrolled the Duvaliers for decades. Nor are we told of the years-long US embargo of the island that has brought the country to its knees and is the single most important cause of the country’s current devastating situation.

Gumbel does tell us that:

“It is easy to demonise the gangs of Cité Soleil, but many of their leaders are motivated, in part, by a genuine desire to to haul the place out if its misery.”

Well it’s nice to know that at least “in part” (although not what part) they have good intentions even if the bulk of the article does do exactly that – demonise them by portraying them as out-of-control gangsters. And aside from the one reference quoted above does the article offer a reason as to why these ‘gangs” support Aristide. They exist in some kind Gumbelesque political vacuum, motivated one must assume by the “thrill of the kill’?

Gumbel also fails to tell us that the opposition is funded almost entirely by the US government, US big business and US-funded right wing foundations as I reported in a piece here last year:

“In January 2001, Ira Kurzban, the Aristide administration’s general counsel in the U.S., claimed that the IRI facilitated the allocation of $3 million of NED funds to the [Democratic] Convergence. Shortly thereafter, in a February 2 article, The Washington Post substantiated the IRI’s connection to the origins of the Convergence. In effect, the IRI has arranged for the Convergence to have a de facto veto power over Aristide’s constitutional mandate.

“USAID, National Endowment for Democracy, the IMF, the World Bank, the IDF, plus a gaggle of structures set up to implement ‘regime change’ in this poverty-stricken island: the Haiti Democracy Project (with links to many of the organisations named here, as well as the usual assortment of US ambassadors current or former, US senators, congressmen and businessmen), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) (an adjunct of the US Chamber of Commerce) and which is funded by the usual suspects, USAID, IBM, Coca-Cola, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, the National Endowment for Democracy, Center for Free Enterprise and Democracy (linked in turn to CIPE). All of them waiting in line, as it were to bring the ‘benefits of free enterprise’ to the island if only that damn (marxist) priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide would get out of the way! From the Reagan years of the 1980s through to the present, the names we now all too familiar with are once more, part of the de-stabilisation programme initiated by the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC): Elliot Abrams, the CIA, USAID et al.”

Gumbel’s piece perpetuates the same racist stereotypes we have come know so well in Western media coverage of the poor of the world by what purports to be a liberal newspaper. It’s this kind of despicable ‘journalism’ that instead of focusing on causes, gives us a totally distorted view of the world outside the West and reinforces the view that leads ultimately to events such as the invasion of Iraq by presenting the unfortunate inhabitants of a country like Haiti as either voiceless ‘victims’ or thugs. Shame on you Independent for participating in this slander on the people of Haiti and the poor of the world. Readers who concur should write to the Independent and tell them so.

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