8 March 2004
The overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti is the latest example of the power of the corporate media to influence – through its presentation of events – the outcome. Over the past several weeks, Aristide and his supporters have been consistently portrayed as ‘gangsters”, drug dealers, out-of-control mobs and to have generally degenerated to the level of the previous decades of Haitian dictators (all propped up by the US of course).
By implication, the argument is advanced that this is a process that is inevitable in a country like Haiti, even when you have a person with Aristide’s ‘credentials’ in charge. Indeed, having such credentials is further ‘proof’ that the poor of the world cannot be trusted to take charge of their own destinies.
So his history as a ‘liberation theologist’ and ‘champion of the masses’ is hauled out as ‘proof’ of how power corrupts (though by some amazing process known only to the editors of the corporate press, this is not a process that those who seek power in the developed world ever succumb to). Therefore, it is assumed, there is some ‘inbuilt’ connection, darest one say it, a ‘racial proclivity’ that precludes the poor of the world from taking charge of their own destinies (the poor after all, are overwhelmingly non-white). And whilst this view will not be spelt out, reading between the lines reveals the sub-text all too clearly, especially to an audience already primed to receive such messages.
And indeed, the words uttered by the spokespeople for the imperium have an assembly-line quality to them. Hence whether it is the BBC, the Times, the New York Times or the Independent, the same phrases crop up, over and over again. They consist of a series of ‘mantras’:
“Mr Aristide, they say that you are as corrupt as those you have replaced”
“Mr Aristide, they say that your supporters are gangsters from the slums”
“Mr Aristide, they say that you are lining your own pocket and those of your associates”
“Mr Aristide, they say the country’s in a worse state now than it was when you were elected president in 1990”
“Mr Aristide, they say you are hated and reviled by the majority of Haitians” (BBC ‘World at One (8/3/04)
‘They’ of course, are the very people making the statements masquerading as questions. But above all else, the idea is implanted that ‘real democracy’ is an alien concept to the poor – non-whites – of this world.
This is classic 19th century imperialism, taken off the shelf, dusted down and rolled out as ‘failed state’, ‘regime change’ – with the added filip that ‘failed state’ has already been attached to ‘rogue state’ and through it, it’s just a short hop to ‘terrorist’ state and all that implies.
And indeed, in the case of Haiti, a few keys of coke under the bed is the contemporary version of a ‘red under the bed’. Drugs = cartels, cartels = terrorists (FARC etc). The whole thing is neatly ‘packaged’ together, whereby every component has a role to play: ‘the war on drugs’, ‘global terrorism’, ‘illegal aliens’, xenophobia/racism, ‘failed states’, ‘rogue states’, ‘WMD’, It’s an adman’s wet dream. And it’s ‘modular’ too, so depending on the circumstance, the appropriate campaign can be rolled out on demand.
Hence one component of the US campaign accused Aristide of being ‘soft’ on drug smugglers whilst another part utilised the xenophobia/race module that put the frighteners on the white folks about the ‘hoardes’ of Haitian refugees that would overwhelm them if ‘things got out of control’. Whilst yet a third programme denied Aristide the cash to create a decent police force. Of course the whole damn thing fails! It’s meant to.
In turn, the media take the phrases put out by government PR flacks and turn them into newsspeak and so the virus enters the public domain, not from the government directly, but mediated by the media. These phrases in turn, set the agenda and its around these poles of propaganda that the public ‘debate’ takes place.
By real democracy these Western pundits do not mean adhering to the electoral process, the construction of a civil society, but instead bowing to the forces of the imperium that have ‘decreed’ that ‘the policies of your government are not working and therefore, you have to go’ regardless of the fact that you got democratically elected. Only ‘civilised’ people can handle the complexities of elections, for the rest the temptation to cheat is just too much to resist. But then ‘they’ aren’t like ‘us’ are they…
But when someone as popular as Aristide gets elected, reportage of the election may have to be ‘massaged’ a little as was done with the 2000 Haitian election. For although the election was not perfect (and here we expect a country that doesn’t have a pot to piss in, to have acquired the same standards of oversight and infrastructure as a developed economy and do it all in a matter of months under the horrendous terms and conditions dictated by the US), Aristide had a clear and commanding majority even by the ‘exacting standards’ of the West. So, without actually calling the election fraudulent, it is challenged by omission.
The 1994 democratic election in south Africa, that I played a small role in, was by no means perfect, but it was a damn sight more democratic than any US election.
The idea that in the West, that you have a ‘choice’ every four or five years to express your preferences through a ballot simply vanishes when we come to a country like Haiti. The fact that he was democratically elected no matter that it was imperfect, is considered merely a hindrance to his removal, and the faster the better. Hence the need to demonise Aristide, for without first removing his legitimacy, campaigning for his undemocratic removal (through a coup) would appear even more outrageous than it actually is. A clear case of the ‘double standard’ in action.
But even before the concept of the ‘failed state’ put in an appearance as yet another weapon in the armoury of imperialism, the idea that a state at some point ‘oversteps the line’ and puts itself ‘beyond the pale’ through its policies and actions goes back a long, long way.
The best example is that of Chile in 1970 that also elected a progressive (socialist) president and government that attempted to follow a course inimical to the interests of US capitalism. It too, suffered the same fate as Haiti and went through an almost identical process of ‘destructive engagement’ that has several, clearly identifiable stages (though the details will vary from country to country).
Stage One – attempt to foil, twist and otherwise pervert the electoral process
This can be achieved by pumping vast sums of money into the ‘opposition’, the financing of newspaper, radio and television and forming local alliances with the Church, business and military establishments. All have ‘voices’ that the Western media is all too willing to listen to. After all, they ‘speak the same language’.
The propaganda campaign has several objectives; it is necessary to unite the local capitalists behind the US, for some of them may actually believe in a truly indigenous and independent capitalist class; it is needed for foreign consumption in order to rationalise a campaign of destabilisation for its local citizens, who might actually realise that it’s their taxes that are being used to subvert and destroy a foreign country. In Chile, it was the ‘Red Menace’, in Haiti, it’s the ‘failed state.’
Stage Two – the post-electoral programme
Assuming a failure to engineer the outcome of the election, the next step is to put as many obstacles as possible in the path of the new government’s programme. If for example, land reform (redistribution of land, nationalisation of the major means of production) is a central plank of the government’s policy then denial of credit, blocking of exports and restricting critical imports, forming alliances with big landowners, will be utilised to try and undermine and make unworkable the government’s programme.
At every stage, everything is done to discredit the objectives of the government. It must not only fail – it must be seen to fail and where possible, the ‘failure’ must be seen to be self-inflicted.
Stage Three – isolation and embargo (strangle the bastards into submission)
This is perhaps the most effective weapon that the imperium has in its arsenal. Virtually all poor countries are totally dependent on the West for the sale of their (mostly) primary products (raw materials and food) and given that the global trade in these products is controlled by the West, the simple act of cutting off trade, credits and loans will normally bring the offending country to heel. This was done with Chile and with Haiti. But note that a different tack was taken with Venezuela as its oil is too important to the US economy to embargo. Hence a different route was chosen, that of the ‘referendum’ coupled to strikes, provocations, a massive Western media campaign and finally a (failed) coup. So at least we know they’re not perfect.
Stage Four – turning up the heat
If all this fails to deter the emancipatory urge then the next step is to finance and organise ‘popular’ demonstrations against the government. These demonstrations are an intrinsic component of the propaganda war in that they will get major airplay and column inches in the corporate press, with the numbers taking part in demonstrations vastly inflated, often several orders of magnitude greater than the number who actually participated. Violence on the part of the government’s supporters will get prominent exposure but those of the ‘opposition’ will either be played down or reported as a ‘response’ to ‘provocations.’ Moreover, the media will not inquire too closely as to who is responsible for what. As Glen Ford of blackcommentator.com put it to me:
“…[D]o these bourgeois white observers know the difference between a “gang” leader from Cite Soliel (Port-Au-Prince] and a political activist? Would they know the difference in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn?”
In addition, the local press will step up its campaign of disinformation. It is important to note here that when Aristide took power in 1990, the press was freed completely from government control (in contrast to its suppression under the Duvaliers). A freedom that was more easily enjoyed by those with the money to set up newspapers, radio and tv stations than those who supported Aristide (the poor and dispossessed) and who immediately went on a propaganda offensive against the Lavalas government. An offensive that the government did nothing to stop, nor would it have gained anything from such an action.
The space for democratic expression, created ironically by those now accused of anti-democratic actions, is used against democracy! Democracy’s okay as long as the poor and the oppressed don’t get a chance to enjoy it.
Stage five – the Strike
If none of the above have had the desired effect then it is time to bring the economy to its knees. In Chile it was the owners of the road transport network who initiated the campaign. This was followed by a strike of state employees, a critical component as they sign the cheques and process government policies. Without either a means of distribution or a state bureaucracy to carry through government programmes, the economy started the inexorable slide into chaos and bankruptcy. Coupled to a complete US trade embargo (Chile’s main market) and the connivance of transnational business (principally ITT that owned Chile’s telecommunications infrastructure) and the CIA, the stage was set for the next stage…
Stage Six – the coup de grâce, the coup d’etat
Historically, the strike and the coup d’etat are close allies, one can normally assume that a prolonged strike of the capitalists and a complete embargo will be followed in short order by a military takeover. This happened in Chile and it was attempted in Venezuela (plus four attempted coups in Haiti between 1995 and the present). It is important to note that whilst the poor when they go on strike have little or no savings let alone a strike fund, the rich have savings and investments that will enable them to ride out the ‘little inconveniences’ brought about as part of the programme to overthrow the government. In the long run, such ‘inconveniences’ are worth it when the future of your class is on the line. And in addition of course, they will have the millions of dollars supplied by the NED and USAID to tide them over.
This then is the process that creates the ‘failed state’, the process of ‘destructive engagement’ whereby a country is systematically impoverished, isolated and starved into submission and if necessary, dismembered and Balkanised aka Yugoslavia. The coup is the final nail in the coffin and although the Western media may find the employment of a convicted assassin and torturer to do the dirty work a little ‘distasteful’, it’s not much of an impediment to the project of bringing ‘democracy’ to the island of Haiti, a mere blip on the horizon and quickly forgotten by the pundits (though less easily forgotten by those, still alive, who were his victims).
And what of the 5000 Haitians who died between 1990 and 1994 at the hands of the US-backed military dictatorship? Where are the headlines for them, then or now? And these were the people who had the skills and passion to lead the transformation process, people from the communities. Cut off the head…
And it’s worth considering in the same light the half a million who died at the hands of the US-backed Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia (and the commensurate lack of headlines) and perhaps a similar number who died in East Timor (ditto with the headlines) whilst these ‘democrats’ stood by and did nothing. And what of the ‘disappeared’ of any number of US-backed military dictatorships in Latin and Central America, numbers that are just too many to count, though the parents and loved ones know the number, one by one.