HAITI: Rhetoric Versus Reality By William Bowles

26 February 2004

“[In 1825] Haiti was obliged to repay more than it received…. France’s King Charles X ordered former French slaves to pay 150m francs [over $2 billion at today’s prices] before France would grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti, Latin America’s oldest republic. A French diplomat recently told me, without irony, that during François Mitterrand’s presidency, “Haiti still owed us part of that debt”.” [1]

So what else has changed in the following 179 years? Not very much and predictably, the media is doing a hatchet job on Haiti’s Aristide. A piece by Andrew Gumbel in Saturday’s Independent (21/02/04 p. 21) is pretty typical. Headed “The little priest who became a bloody dictator like the one he once despised” is an outrageous rewriting of the history of Haiti with nary a mention of the role that the US has played in the island’s sorry history for the past 179 years including refusing to recognise the world’s first independent Black republic until 1864, fearful of the example it set for its own enslaved African population.

Instead, between the time Aristide was first elected president in 1990 and now, Gumbel conveniently omits the last thirteen years by literally:

“fast-forward[ing] to the present and Aristide the petit prêtre is barely recognisable. He has become the very thing he used to despise: an autocratic political leader, semingly intent on enriching himself and his inner circle, resorting to gangsterism and violence to enforce his will and counter all dissent.”

Comparing Aristide to the long decades of the Duvalier dictatorships and their ton-ton-macoutes is nothing short of slanderous. Gumbel presents the passing of the Duvaliers as merely:

“[giving] way to a period of military coups and tentative stabs at electoral democracy, he was the target of countless assassination attempts”.

Giving way, tentative stabs? A strange way to describe the events leading up to the deposing of ‘Baby’ Doc Duvalier (to a very luxurious estate in the South of France). The US role in the 1991 military coup d’etat or of the subsequent meddling in the internal affairs of the country (including four attempted coups) gets not a mention aside from the loaded:

“Then in 1994, undaunted, he returned, messianic again, backed by 20,000 US troops and the disbanded Haitian military.”

And yet again Gumbel rewrites history (and dissing Aristide with the moniker of “messianic again” no less), crediting the hated former Haitian Army (FAD’H), disbanded by Aristide in 1995 with returning him to power (along with US troops). Where Gumbel describes the ‘passing’ of the Duvalier kleptocracy, the reality was that things were so bad, that the US dumped the Duvaliers because maintaining him in power became untenable. An object lessson for all who would feed at the table of the imperium, that they could end up being tossed out with the rest of leftovers after passing their sell-by dates.

In contrast to the imperial propaganda regurgitated by the likes of Gumbel:

“Haiti has made dramatic progress in the area of human rights over the past eight years. After 200 years of Haitian history, state-sponsored terrorism is no longer part of the daily lives of Haiti’s citizens. In 1995, with near universal support from the Haitian people, Aristide disbanded the Haitian military, perhaps the single greatest advance in Haiti since independence. Clearing away the prime historic instrument of state repression has allowed the Haitian people to enjoy a level of freedom of speech and assembly unprecedented in Haitian history. Today over 200 radio stations operate freely in Haiti. Far from being silenced, opposition politicians dominate the media in Haiti; wealthy Haitians who do not support Aristide own most stations and newspapers and Convergence members are often interviewed on government-run Haitian National Television. The Convergence, briefly and illegally, even set up a “parallel government” until, in the words of Haiti Progres, “it collapsed under the weight of its own ridiculousness.”[2]

Gumbel makes no mention of the conditions imposed by the US for returning Aristide to power as president in the first democratic election Haiti had ever had during its two hundred years of nominal independence. Conditions that led directly to the current situation. No mention of the denial of economic aid to the island that the US has been doing for the past few years that has led to the complete collapse of the state and the economy. Instead, we have the usual one-dimensional interpretation of events as the actions of one man and his side-kicks or as Gumbel puts it:

“So the country has fallen to former death squad commanders returning from exile, armed gangs, and every conceivable stripe of criminal, racketeer and drug smuggler.”

Neglecting to tell us of course that the “death squad commanders” are the ones leading the rebellion. Instead, Gumbel leaves us with the impression that the “death squad commanders” work for Aristide. And of course, along with the BBC and other news outlets, the former Duvalierist military and ton-ton-macoutes are presented to us as “rebels” rather than the mass murderers and torturers working for the former dictatorships.

Lacking an army or even much of a police force and with M-16s flooding in to the armed gangs of the former FAD’H/FRAPH from the Dominican Republic, Aristide has only the masses to defend the government.

Gumbel presents Haiti as the West would like us to see it, as yet another ‘failed state’ and Aristide as the idealist gone bad. In other words, what else can we expect from yet another ‘black run’ state except the ‘usual’ bloodbath and self-aggrandizement on the part of the ruling elite. This concept is an intrinsic component of the ‘failed state’ thesis. But the reality is that the ‘failed state’ is a deliberate construct of the imperium:

“After the disputed elections of 21 May 2000, the US, the European Union and international financing organisations froze aid to Haiti. This embargo has targeted the northern hemisphere’s most vulnerable population, the poorest people with the most fragile economy, ecology and society. The impact has been profound, as an IDB [International Development Bank] report noted: its officials concluded that “the major factor behind economic stagnation is the withholding of both foreign grants and loans, associated with the international community’s response to the critical political impasse. These funds are estimated at over $500m” [3]

US Policy = Always beat a man (even harder) when he’s already down
In the scheme of things you wouldn’t think a place as poor and as small as Haiti would be worth bothering with – the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and now pretty well ‘officially’ a ‘failed state’.

The reality of the current ‘hands-off’ approach of the US is a cold-blooded invitation to the ‘rebels’ to carry on tearing the country apart, for as far as the US is concerned Haiti is not only a geographically handy reservoir of cheap labour (as it has been for generations) but most important of all – Haiti’s struggle is a beacon for the poor and the oppressed of the world, just as it was exactly 200 years ago, when it became the world’s first independent Black republic. Making an example of Haiti (just at it did with Iraq) is the real objective of the ‘hands-off’ approach. Defy the US and you reap the consequences.

The history of US involvement in Central America and the Caribbean also gives the lie to the idea that the ‘neo-con’ agenda of Bush Junior is somehow a ‘break with the past’, when the reality – aside from the brazen nature of Perle, Wolfowitz and co – is business as usual.

Whether by demonising the country as it did with ‘Marxist’ Nicaragua, followed by a ‘softening up’ process brought about by placing a total trade embargo that drove it into the Soviet camp and finally the use of a ‘rebel’ or ‘freedom-loving’ army of cutthroats and killers to bring the the country to heel. Or, through ‘subtler’ means, the central objective is to crush the emancipatory urge and to use the country as an object lesson to any other country that dares defy the imperium.

Ever since Jean Bertrand Aristide became the focus of the struggle for the poor and the oppressed in 1987, he has been a target of US subversion either through its support of the old Duvalier dynasty, the force behind the scene of the military coup d’etat of 1991. Or the ‘support’ they gave Aristide in 1994 – in return for an agreement to bow to the demands of the IMF and World Bank’s ‘structural adjustment programme’. The continued undermining of the Aristide government ever since, either through the blocking of $500 million in aid or through its support firstly of the ‘democratic opposition’ and through its covert ams supplies to the old, despised (and feared) Haitian army via Haiti’s neighbour, the Dominican Republic.

The tiny local elite composed largely of businessmen tied to US economic interests and linked to a corrupt political/military elite through which the ‘aid’ gets funnelled, have a direct interest in getting rid of Aristide.

Haiti – Starved into submission
Aristide, whose rule was undermined from the very beginning by the US until it became possible to force him to accept the IMF/World Bank conditions in return for a grudging support. Until that is, the 2000 elections came and it was possible for the US to turn the screw even tighter, this time accusing Aristide of fixing the elections and cutting off all ‘aid’. It’s accurate to say that the US and the EU literally starved the Haitian people into submission.

And whilst Aristide has his faults and is no doubt surrounded by all manner of opportunists and hangers-on, the plain fact is that without US interference in the affairs of the country, the events of today would not have come to pass as they have. The gangs that Gumbel talks of may well consist of all manner of individuals, some of dubious provenance, but it is the only ‘army’ Aristide has to defend a legitimate government.

‘Aid’, a subject much discussed in relation to the poor countries of the world and of which Haiti is a ‘textbook’ case of how the rich countries rip off the poor. ‘Aid’ invariably ends with the ‘recipient’ owing more and actually getting less and less…in a process that makes the receiver of the ‘aid’ totally dependent on the donor country. The objective is to have enough leverage over the government’s policies in favour of course, of business interests, because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about – money.

“As of 31 March 2001, Haiti owed the [International Development Bank, a US institution] $185,239.75 in “commission fees” for loans it never received. Fees relating to five IDB loans taken out in previous decades totalled $2,311,422. [Then [i]n mid-May, amid rumours that it was about to close its offices in Haiti, the IDB announced that its representatives and top staff had been recalled to Washington for consultations.

“According to the Associated Press, these consultations were not heartening. The chief IDB officer in Haiti called for the repayment of “$20m in loan arrears and reform [of governmental] economic practices” before Haiti could be granted access to the pre-approved loan. Many of the outstanding loans had been made to dictatorships and military juntas. Even if the education loan went through, the IDB officer acknowledged that “if other loans are not added, Haiti will probably be paying back more than it is getting”.[4]

For what is at stake here is the fundamental right for a nation to determine its own route, its own destiny, or whether it will be an unwilling party subject to US economic desires and hence bear the full brunt of its politico-military strategies when the country in question refuses to tow the line.


1. Paul Farmer, http://mondediplo.com/2003/07/11farmer

2. ‘The U.S. War Against Haiti’

3. ‘Haiti’s Lawyer: Is U.S. Arming Anti-Aristide Paramilitaries?’

4. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Caribbean/UpAgainstDeathPlan_Haiti.html

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