‘Behind mountains there are more mountains’ is a popular Haitian saying that describes both Haiti’s landscape and its tortured history. The recent political upheaval in the Caribbean country represents yet another mountain for the poor majority of its population. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the 1804 declaration of independence by Haiti’s self-emancipated slaves. Two centuries after that declaration, on February 29 this year, the country’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was either kidnapped by US forces or fled in the face of an armed revolt, depending on whose story you believe. One truth that cannot be denied is that Haiti’s traditional power brokers have now removed the former Catholic priest Aristide from office twice.
Last autumn, after having boycotted Haiti’s presidential elections in 2000 and organising an unsuccessful coup a year later, the opposition began a concerted campaign to oust Aristide. The exact details of the 2004 coup will probably not be known for 30 years, when certain countries’ archives release pertinent material, but some things are clear even now.
The opposition, consisting primarily of the country’s business class, launched provocative protests in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Under the opposition’s direction, ‘students’ went on strike, refusing to obtain mandatory permits allowing them to do so, ignoring government-approved routes for their protests and intimidating students who did not join them. Pro-government supporters (called ‘chimeres’) attacked the protesters, and soon the supposed popular political discontent was transformed into an armed insurrection led by rebels with very unsavoury backgrounds. Once it seemed likely that the rebels (armed with US weapons) had a chance of taking control of a country that had nine years earlier abolished its army, the US (with French and Canadian help) exerted pressure – not to save the legally elected government, but to remove from office Haiti’s most popular leader since independence.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas: 40 per cent poorer, in GDP terms, than Nicaragua, the next poorest nation in the region. It has the highest Aids rate in the hemisphere. Life expectancy at birth is less than 50 years. Fifty per cent of Haitians are illiterate. Poverty is so intense that Haitians try to escape overland to the desolate Dominican Republic, where they are subject to intense prejudice, or by sea to the US, where they are almost entirely unwelcome.
Less than 1.5 per cent of Haiti is forested today; that’s down from 20 per cent in 1956, and 75 per cent when European explorers arrived five centuries ago. Entire villages move from place to place, cutting down trees to sell as charcoal. – one of the few ways indigent Haitians can make a living. The result is massive soil erosion: every year about 15,000 acres of fertile topsoil are washed away in Haiti. Added to which, unregulated construction on hillsides, threatens to wipe out whole neighbour-hoods in Port-au-Prince.
But Haiti’s environmental problems are not restricted to the land: most of its water is polluted by waste, soil run-offs and inadequate sewage systems. This water pollution affects many of the country’s coastal areas, and is partly responsible for the diminishing stock of fish for local fishermen. Water throughout the country is not fit for drinking.
To put it succinctly, Haiti is a failed state: one of those places that just can’t seem to get its act together, despite the best efforts of benevolent Western powers. Or so the mainstream media would have you believe. Yet history tells us a more complicated story.
The ‘Pearl of the Antilles’, Haiti was once a rich country – at least for some. Economists estimate that it provided as much as 50 per cent of France’s GNP in the 1750s. Super profits were made from using African slaves to produce sugar, cocoa, coffee, cotton, tobacco, indigo and other commodities. Yet these slaves never accepted the sub-human status that the system tried to impose on them. Runaways, known as maroons, developed isolated communities in the countryside that regularly raided slave plantations. Recapture often meant death, so those who escaped had to be cunning.
Haiti’s strict racial code also marginalised the ‘free coloureds’, many of whom, as offspring of the French property owners, were major landowners. ‘Free coloureds’ owned as much as one-third of the country and were almost as numerous as the whites by the late 1700s. Whites, especially non-landowners, who derived their status from skin colour, objected ferociously to any political rights for the free coloureds, regardless of their wealth.
Spurred by the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the free coloureds revolted. This division within the landowning class was immediately exploited by the slaves. In August 1791 a violent slave rebellion began in the north and promptly spread. The brilliant Toussaint L’Ouverture took the lead, announcing: ‘Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint L’Ouverture. My name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign.’
In 1796 the British sent a massive expeditionary force to crush the ex-slaves before their example spread across the region. The expedition was a complete failure. Then Napoleon Bonaparte sent 35,000 French troops to re-conquer the former colony and restore slavery. Despite a campaign of terror waged against the Haitian people, Napoleon too was defeated. Spain also sent thousands of troops against the self-emancipated slaves between 1791 and 1804.
After victories over three empires the slaves of Haiti declared independence in 1804. L’Ouverture himself never got to appreciate the reality of independence. After being lured to a meeting supposedly to discuss peace, he was transported across the Atlantic to France, where he died in captivity. And Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s leader in 1804, was murdered two years after independence in the first of the country’s more than 30 coups. (As Haitians say, ‘a constitution is paper, the bayonet is steel’.)
Despite independence and an end to slavery, Haiti’s prospects were grim. The US, a relatively new and large slave-holding nation to the north, and the French, British and Spanish empires didn’t take kindly to the idea of this new and independent republic and attempted to strangle Haiti economically. Under the threat of embargoes and military intervention, Haiti agreed to pay France a huge indemnity for the loss of its colonial interests worth 150 million francs. The money went to the French government and, more perversely, to the former slave owners who lost property. It took Haiti until 1945 to finish payment (US banks took over the debt in 1922).
As for the US. they took almost 60 years to recognise Haiti’s 1804 independence. Recognition however, didn’t mean respect for its sovereignty. In his book In the Shadow of Powers Patrick Bellegarde-Smith explains: ‘Between 1857 and the turn of the [19th] century, US warships successfully intervened in Haiti 19 times on behalf of American business interests.’ And in the lead-up to WWI Haiti became just another pawn in the imperial games played out by the US, France and Germany.
Finally, in 1915 a US invasion culminated in a 20-year occupation of Haiti. During this period US policy helped to solidify the country’s future. A 1918 law essentially granted corporations the right to turn the nation into a US plantation by allowing foreigners to purchase land – something that had been outlawed since independence. The US also created the Haitian army, which was used as an instrument of terror by the elite against Haiti’s poor for the next 70 years. (Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, an act that is widely considered to be the most important human rights victory in recent Haitian history. Remnants of the army formed a central part of the ‘rebel’ forces that helped oust Aristide, and one of the interim president’s Gerard Latortue first actions was to call for the full restoration of the military.)
The US occupation also increased the extraction of wealth from Haitian peasants, who in the late 1800s were well-off compared to the rest of their Latin American counterparts. Coffee exports were taxed to pay off debts to US banks and other foreign creditors. So began a system in which agriculture received virtually no reinvestment. Historically in Haiti, around 80 per cent of government revenue has been drawn from peasant farmers, while some 90 per cent of government expenditures have been spent on the capital.
In 1934 the US withdrew from Haiti (it kept control of the national bank for a while longer) and handed over the reins of government to a clique who looted the country until 1956, when Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier staged a military coup. Duvalier set up the infamous Tonton Macoutes (or bogeymen) as a personal militia. They worked with the National Security Volunteers, an organisation made up of taxi drivers, voodoo priests and priestesses, the unemployed and others, to spy on and suppress the population.
By the early 1970s, with economic prospects in the countryside dire and Haiti’s population cowed, multinational corporations could depend on a large compliant labour force. The export-processing industry expanded rapidly. During this time Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier succeeded his father when the latter anointed him president for life before passing away in 1971.
With infrastructural investments and tax benefits he promptly began a concerted campaign to woo multinational corporations, which resulted in the rapid expansion of the export-processing industry. In the industry’s factories people usually work – even today – from 6am to 5:30pm from Monday through to Saturday, and possibly for an additional nine hours on Sundays, too. Often the factories have no fire exits, clean rest rooms, safety equipment or properly lit work-stations. An employee of a sub-contractor of the US clothing corporation Cintas said: ‘They lock the gates on us and sometimes put security guards out in front with rifles to prevent us from leaving. The supervisors yell and curse at us to finish our quota. My daily quota is sewing 90 dozen zippers on pants for 80 gourds (about $2)… The factory gets so hot it is like working in fire. Inside the air is so hot and full of dust that I can’t breathe: I put my handkerchief around my nose and continue working.’
The US supported the Duvaliers until their reign of terror ended in 1986, training and arming Haiti’s military, and funnelling aid through Israel so as to bypass Congressional governance. The Duvaliers were followed by a violent succession of corrupt military rulers, coups, and one staged and one aborted election. At the end of the 1980s there was, at last, a successful election. Haiti’s peasants and slum-dwellers overcame exclusion and intimidation to organise themselves.
In 1990 Aristide, a student of liberation theology, won an election with 67.5 per cent of the vote. During his campaign he rode around the countryside on a donkey so as to honour the peasants’ way of life. Haiti’s rural and poor majority had had their voodoo and Creole culture shunned by the nation’s Western-oriented elite. But now the slightly built Aristide, who had survived several serious assassination attempts and the burning down of his church while he was preaching inside it, was president. He legalised voodoo, the religion practised by 80 per cent of Haitians, and elevated the Creole language from its underclass status.
Alarm bells went off among US politicians and the corporations they represent. George Bush Sr immediately moved to undermine the new Haitian government by withholding aid and supporting opposition groups. Nine months into his mandate Aristide was ousted by general Raoul Cedras - backed by the CIA (on the basis that these people were on the CIA payroll, US trained and currently living in Panama on a US expense account - but this is almost impossible to verify until classified documents are released) - who instituted a military regime of terror that led to the death of more than 3,000 people – most of whom were supporters of Aristide. Cedras had received his military training in the US.
The Organization of American States (OAS) announced an economic embargo against Cedras’s illegal regime, which Washington promptly ignored by exempting many US firms from observing it. Former US president Bill Clinton secretly authorised the oil company Texaco to illegally ship oil to the junta. US-Haiti trade may have actually increased during Aristide’s exile.
Forced by domestic pressure channelled through the Democratic Party’s black caucus and international disgust over the massive human rights atrocities committed by the Cedras regime, Clinton eventually restored Aristide to power; but only on condition that he adopted harsh neo-liberal policies and the programme of the overwhelmingly defeated pro-US candidate in the 1990 election. In addition, Washington dictated who Aristide appointed as prime minister. Consequently, import tariffs on rice were eliminated, which led to a massive increase in subsidised US rice exports to Haiti and the devastation of Haitian rice growers. The US also demanded the right to dump excess cheap chicken parts products on the Haitian market. As a result of losing further control over food sovereignty, Haiti’s hunger rate is now topped only by Afghanistan’s and Somalia’s. The London-based Haiti Support Group recently reported: ‘Haiti’s debt to international financial institutions and foreign governments has grown from $302m in 1980 to $1.134 billion today. About 40 per cent of this debt stems from loans to the brutal Duvalier dictators, who invested precious little of it in the country. This is known as “odious debt” because it was used to oppress the people, and according to international law this debt need not be repaid.’ Still the IMF and World Bank expect desperately poor Haitians to repay this money, come hell or high water.
In 2000 Aristide’s Lavalas party took more than 80 per cent of the seats in local and parliamentary elections, and Aristide again won the presidency. In 10 multi-candidate contests in which Lavalas received the most votes of any candidate rather than a majority of votes, the party should, according to Haiti’s constitution, have faced second-round elections. Instead, Lavalas simply took the seats. At the bequest of the US, the OAS objected to the election results – even though the method used to calculate them was public knowledge prior to the election. In fact, the same method had been used in previous elections. But, even though more than 3,000 other positions filled as a result of the voting in 2000 were judged to be fair, the Haitian opposition used the OAS’s objections over the 10 irregular results to paint the entire election process as fraudulent.
The opposition exploited the OAS’s partial criticisms of the 2000 local and parliamentary elections to boycott and taint Aristide’s presidential victory later the same year, which it had no chance of preventing. In response, the new administration of George W Bush (and other governments) froze foreign aid to Haiti until new elections could be agreed upon. This effectively gave the opposition a veto over international aid, which is the lifeblood of the state budget in Haiti. Even after the 10 senators in question stepped aside, the opposition continued to reject new elections because they knew they couldn’t win at the ballot box. With the country cut off from bilateral and multilateral financing, Haiti’s economy went into a tailspin, which spurred political discontent.
Some of the discontent was legitimate. For example, some reporters critical of the government were murdered and Aristide did not sufficiently condemn their killings. This encouraged the suspicion that the president was at best not too bothered by their deaths and at worst implicated in them. Aristide’s party was afflicted by corruption (though nowhere near as much as previous Haitian administrations): some Lavalas officials had cars and houses that were impossible to afford on a public official’s salary. But the total government budget in Haiti is little more than $300m, only 10 per cent of which goes towards the country’s police, courts and justice system, and, according to US State Department figures, drug traffickers spend more than $75m annually in bribes in the country. So, it is no surprise that corruption is widespread.
The Western media made much of the support of the chimeres for Aristide. The chimeres were usually poor street thugs from Port-au-Prince’s sprawling slums, where squatters live in raw concrete cubicles with little electric power or clean water and no safety. The chimeres undoubtedly served political purposes for Aristide, yet they did not much resemble the organised paramilitary wings of previous Haitian regimes. In addition, Lavalas was supported by a huge segment of the Haitian population, and it would be a mistake to blame Aristide for the actions of individuals. There is little evidence to suggest that Aristide gave any direct instruction to these thugs, and he regularly denounced their violence. More generally, in February James Dobbins, a US special envoy to Haiti from 1994 to 1996, said: ‘Aristide has been criticised, and with some justice, of allying himself with forces that may be criminal or corrupt. But in a society which has no institutions, where all power derives from the use or the threat of force, it’s impossible to govern without those alliances.’
Moreover, the ‘rebels’ who ousted Aristide are a band of wanted murderers, former coup plotters and drug traffickers that include Louis-Jodel Chamblain – a former Haitian army officer who was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for the 1993 murder of key Aristide supporter Antoine Izméry. They also include Jean-Pierre Baptiste, a man serving a life sentence for murder in connection with a 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters. Baptiste escaped in an August jailbreak. Rebel leader Guy Philippe was formerly a brutal police chief who, according to Human Rights Watch, was trained by the US military as an army officer in Ecuador. One opposition coalition, the Group of 184, is headed by Andre Apaid, who is the largest industrial employer in Haiti and is known for paying his workers as little as 68 cents a day (about half the minimum wage) and forcing them to work 78-hour weeks.
The Washington-based International Republican Institute gave the Haitian opposition parties $3m a year. Some reports claim troops from the Dominic Republic as well as US-trained Spanish- and English-speaking paramilitaries fought alongside the Haitian rebels. Haitian government authorities are said to have intercepted vans carrying new M-16 automatic rifles across the border from the Dominican Republic shortly after the US military delivered 20,000 M-16s to Haiti’s neighbour. Regardless of where they got their weapons from, the rebels did march into the country from the Dominican Republic.
By that time the Bush administration must have already made up its mind that Aristide had to go. But on February 12 US secretary of state Colin Powell told the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: ‘The policy of the administration is not regime change. Aristide is the elected president of Haiti.’ Powell reaffirmed that five days later, when he said: ‘We cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect law and are bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people.’ Yet by February 26, the secretary of state had changed his mind. ‘[Aristide] is the democratically elected president,’ he said, ‘but he has had difficulties in his presidency, and I think... whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something that he will have to examine.’ The next day Powell said that Aristide should ‘examine the situation he is in and make a careful examination of how best to serve the Haitian people’. Once the rebels took Haiti’s second city, Cap-Haitien, Washington sensed that the side it supported could win. It abandoned a call made by Caribbean and many European leaders for a political compromise – a compromise Aristide had already accepted.
The regional organisation Caricom, in contrast, suspended relations with Haiti and deplored ‘the removal of Aristide’ from office as setting ‘a dangerous precedent for democratically-elected governments anywhere and everywhere’. France, Canada and the US thought differently. They set up a ‘council of wise men’ to establish an interim regime to put together a government of national unity in Haiti. Yet no one from the Lavalas movement was included. So, even though the opposition to Aristide has never had the support of more than 15 per cent of the population it is effectively in control of the political process. And the rebels are not being disarmed. Over the coming months the number of Aristide supporters to be murdered could reach into the thousands. Morgue officials have already reported dozens of bullet-riddled bodies, and in Cap-Haitien numerous corpses have been seen in the bay.
A good first step towards clearing up the mess in Haiti would be to support the position of Caricom, which has not recognised the new interim government despite pressure from Canada, France and the US. The will of the majority should be respected, and Aristide should once again be restored to office.
Even in the face of extreme international pressure, Aristide’s Lavalas movement did some good. More schools were built in 10 years of Lavalas rule than in the entire 200 years prior to Aristide taking office. In a cooperative effort with Havana, 800 Cuban doctors were brought to Haiti to work in rural areas, and 325 Haitians began receiving medical training in Cuba. Aristide also withstood objections from the American aid agency USAid and Haiti’s domestic business class to raise the country’s measly minimum wage.
Much more could be done if aid once again flowed into Haiti. An aggressive tree-planting programme could help break the spiral of deforestation and poverty. It wouldn’t cost much and could provide much-needed jobs. Also, fuel alternatives, such as briquettes made from compressed recycled paper that burn more efficiently and cleanly than charcoal, are being developed. Agronomists believe Haiti’s hills could green in five years if saplings were permitted to grow. But the environmental situation won’t be genuinely improved until people have stable incomes. Poverty is so acute that people have little choice but to destroy their own long-term livelihoods to eat today.
Slavery was the source of many great fortunes in America and Europe. People and governments in those parts of the world owe at least something to the first descendants of African slaves who successfully threw off their shackles. As a bare minimum we must owe admiration, which means respecting the political choices of Haitians. We also owe a helping hand. We must find a way of rebuilding the Haitian economy. That would not cost a lot. Certainly, it would cost much less than a minor war. The cost of continued suffering and depredation in Haiti would be so much higher.
Yves Engler is a freelance writer
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2004