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Why They Had To Crush Aristide

by Peter Hallward
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Aristide was re-elected president of Haiti in November 2000 with more than 90 percent of the vote. He was elected by people who approved his courageous dissolution, in 1995, of the armed forces that had long terrorised Haiti and that overthrew his first administration by force. He was elected by people who supported his tentative efforts, made with virtually no resources or revenue, to invest in education and health. He was elected by people who shared his determination, in the face of crippling American opposition, to improve the conditions of the most poorly paid workers in the Western hemisphere.

Over the last couple of years Aristide duly doubled a minimum wage which had fallen below the 1993 level of $1.60 a day. He continued the investment program which, between 1994-2000, had already seen the creation of more schools than in the whole 190 years of Haiti's previous history. He established hundreds of literacy centers, offering classes to more than 300,000 people nation-wide. With Cuban assistance, he managed to freeze the rate of HIV infection by building medical clinics and training programs as part of a growing public campaign against AIDS. He began building a national police force to contain the ongoing threat of violence from those who used to serve in the American-backed army or in Duvalier's death squads.

This past Sunday Aristide was forced from office by a combination of people who have little in common except their opposition to these progressive policies and their refusal of democracy as a way of settling political differences. With the enthusiastic backing of Haiti's former colonial master and near universal approval in the mainstream press, a leader elected with overwhelming popular support has just been replaced by a gaggle of convicted human rights abusers, seditious ex-army officers and heavily pro-American business leaders. Soon the army will be restored, and it surely won't be long before the systematic killing of Aristide's supporters begins in earnest.

Rarely has the prevailing meaning of 'democracy' been applied with such implacable and revealing clarity.

It's obvious that Aristide's expulsion offered Chirac a long-awaited chance to restore relations with an American administration it dared to oppose during the run-up to a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Conversion of a complex political situation into a well-rehearsed scene of 'imminent anarchy' and 'impending humanitarian catastrophe' is just as obviously a tried and tested way of preparing the ground for intervention by supposedly benevolent imperial forces. It's even more obvious that characterisation of Aristide as yet another crazed idealist corrupted by absolute power fits perfectly with the political vision championed by George W. Bush, and that Aristide's downfall will only open the door to a yet more ruthless exploitation of Latin American labour. The message intended for Castro and Hugo Chavez couldn't be clearer.

But even if popular support for the opposition to Aristide has risen slightly in recent months from the 8 percent estimated by the last reliable measure (a poll commissioned by the U.S. the same year Aristide was elected), what's rather less obvious is how to present this new coup d'etat as a triumph of democracy and the rule of law.

If you've been reading the mainstream press these last few weeks, you'll know that this peculiar version of events has been carefully prepared by repeated accusations that Aristide (1) rigged fraudulent elections in 2000, (2) unleashed violent militias against his political opponents, (3) brought Haiti's economy to the point of collapse and its people to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Surely there can be no more dreadful combination of sins.

Unless you've looked a little harder for an explanation of what's really going on in Haiti, you're not likely to have learned much about the real substance of any one of these accusations.

Take those allegedly flawed elections, for starters. An exhaustive and convincing report by the independent International Coalition of Observers concluded that 'fair and peaceful elections were held' in 2000, and this despite substantial neglect from the UN and the U.S, despite major infrastructural obstacles, despite the severe and widespread intimidation of Aristide supporters. By any reasonable standard the 2000 elections were just and lawful; by the standard of the presidential elections held in the U.S. that same year they were positively exemplary.

Why then were these elections characterized as 'flawed' by the Organization of American States (OAS)? Was it because the OAS claimed that the polling itself had been tampered with, or that any of the several thousand positions contested were won by fraud or misconduct? No. It was because, after Aristide's Lavalas party had won 16 out of 17 Senate seats, the OAS contested the technical methodology used to calculate the voting percentages in 8 of these senatorial races. Curiously, neither the U.S. nor OAS ever judged this methodology (the same used in the 1990 elections) problematic in the run-up to the elections themselves. In the wake of the Lavalas victories, however, it was suddenly important enough to warrant driving the country towards economic collapse. Clinton invoked the OAS accusation in order to justify the crippling economic embargo against Haiti that persists to this day, and that effectively blocks the payment of around $500 million in desperately needed international aid. (Considering that the Haitian government operates on a budget of less than $300 million a year, this is hardly a trivial sum).

Just as curiously, the same newspapers who so often describe these elections as 'rigged' or 'flawed' rarely mention the fact that in July 2001 a bankrupt Aristide persuaded 7 of the 8 senators in question to resign (the eighth was re-elected). When even this concession failed to impress his American enemies, Aristide drew up plans for a new round of legislative elections, several years ahead of schedule. The only reason why they never took place is that the opposition, the perversely named 'Democratic Convergence', refused to take part unless Aristide himself resigned first. Why? Because otherwise everyone knew that his party would once again win any such elections hands down. And that, of course, wouldn't have been 'democratic'.

What now about those gangs of Aristide supporters running riot in the streets of Port-au-Prince? According to the latest reports, these gangs may have killed around a dozen people in the city over the last 48 hours. No doubt Aristide bears some indirect responsibility for these deaths. But given that his supporters had no army to protect them, given that the police force serving the entire country amounts to just a tenth of the force that patrols New York city alone, it's worth remembering that this figure is a small fraction of the number killed by the rebels in recent weeks and about equal to the number who died during a now forgotten attack on the presidential palace in December 2001 (to say nothing of dozens of other documented killings of Aristide's supporters or officials in the last few years, none of which were ever condemned by the U.S. or its allies). The rebels are led by people (Chamblain, Baptiste, Phillipe...) who have immeasurably more blood on their hands than does Aristide.

Aristide, then, was no more corrupt or bloodthirsty than he was responsible for Haiti's economic isolation.

One of the real reasons why he has been so consistently vilified in the press over the past few weeks is that the Reuters and AP wire services upon which most coverage depends rely in turn on local media (e.g. Radio Metropole, Tele-Haiti, Radio Caraibe...) which are all owned and operated by opponents of Aristide. The founder of Tele-Haiti, for instance, is none other than Andre Apaid, the chief spokesman of the Group of 184 and one of the richest men in the country; this group is frequently cited as an important component of the opposition to Aristide and praised as a bulwark of Haiti's fledgling 'civil society'. (In fact, Apaid was a Duvalier supporter and remains an American citizen who obtained a Haitian passport by falsely claiming to have been born in Haiti, a country which doesn't allow dual-citizenship in any case; not coincidentally, Apaid also owns 15 factories in Haiti and led opposition to Aristide's campaign last year to raise the minimum wage).

Another and no doubt more important reason for the vilification of Aristide is the fact that he has simply never learned to cooperate with the one and only law of the land -- the need to pander unreservedly to foreign commercial interests. It's true that he reluctantly accepted a series of severe IMF structural adjustment plans, to the dismay of the working poor in general and of local rice farmers in particular. But Aristide would only go so far. He refused to acquiesce in the indiscriminate privatization of Haiti's few state resources, and stuck to his guns over wages, education and health.

What happened in Haiti is not that a leader who was once reasonable and principled suddenly went mad with power; the truth is that a broadly consistent Aristide was never quite prepared to abandon all his principles.

Worst of all, Aristide remained indelibly associated with what's left of a genuine popular movement for political and economic empowerment. For this reason alone, it was essential that Aristide not only be forced from office but utterly discredited in the eyes of his people and the world as a whole. As Noam Chomsky has so often explained, the 'threat of a good example' always solicits measures of retaliation that bear no relation to the strategic or economic importance of the country in question. This is why the leaders of the world have just joined together to crush a democracy in the name of democracy.

Peter Hallward teaches in the French department at King's College London; an abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Guardian, 2 March 2004

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Albion Monitor March 1, 2004 (

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