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Haiti's Elite Class Had "Obsession" For Ousting Aristide

by Marty Logan
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(IPS) -- Some observers have described the Feb. 29 putsch against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a Bush administration plot, while many others label Washington's policy as an indirect one, such as "malign" or "willful" neglect or "estranged engagement."

But almost all Haiti-watchers agree that various anti-Aristide forces have been at work in the U.S. capital for as long as the former Catholic priest has been a leading figure in the western hemisphere's most impoverished nation.

Those opposition elements include the International Republican Institute on International Affairs and the National Endowment for Democracy, a purported non-governmental agency that has worked closely to support rightist oppositions in Haiti and many other countries.

Politicians from Bush's Republican Party like former Senator Jesse Helms demonised the former president, who was forced to flee the country Feb. 29 as armed rebels seized control of major cities in Haiti's north and descended toward the capital Port-au-Prince.

Helms in turn influenced such right-wing officials as Roger Noriega, a member of his staff for several years and now assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, and Otto Reich, the Cuban-American presidential envoy for western hemisphere affairs, who worked with Helms on anti-Cuba legislation as a lobbyist in the 1990s.

With the Bush administration intent on waging its "war on terrorism," these lower-tier officials were able to apply heat to Haiti's political tinderbox.

But while the players in the shadow drama against Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, are well known, their motivations are less clear. Their enmity might be personal, suggests Robert Fatton Jr, chairman of the government and foreign affairs department at the University of Virginia.

"There was something about Aristide that really generated profound hatred on the part of members of the Haitian elite and some right-wing Republicans. You can even sense that now, because Noriega said [after Aristide's ouster], 'we're certainly not going to spend any money or American lives on Aristide'," Fatton told IPS.

"I think Aristide from the very beginning -- we're talking about 1990 when he was elected -- was always perceived by the right wing in the Republican Party as an enemy of the United States, as someone who was trouble, a wild card, and a dangerous man. When they [Republicans] came back to power with Bush the son, I think that antagonism was reactivated."

Fatton's assessment is backed by Shannon Field, deputy director of the Institute for Global Dialogue in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a recent interview with Radio Netherlands.

"There has been a number of attacks by Republicans as soon as Bush entered office. I think many of them saw Aristide not only as a socialist, a populist, perhaps the next Fidel Castro, someone who throughout the 1980s had preached liberation theology, and I think that they were very much against the nature of his governance."

But while Fatton believes Aristide was a stronger symbolic than actual threat, Field argues that the forces galvanized against the populist president in Washington, and Haiti's former colonial ruler France, feared reverberations from his rule.

"I think France was quite concerned that the islands that it controls -- Martinique and Guadeloupe -- that if you have quite a strong independent leader in Haiti, that he might export his ideas of revolution and socialism to those islands."

"And similarly the U.S. also was enjoying quite a strong domination over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and I think that it felt that a leader that didn't toe the U.S. line in Haiti would also probably be a threat to its dominance over those two islands," Field added.

Fatton acknowledges, "Haiti and Aristide had good relations with Cuba -- you have about 500 Cuban doctors in Haiti -- so that might have just been perceived as something they shouldn't do, and I'm sure that Noriega and Otto Reich have that conviction."

"But there are other countries in Latin America that have good relations with Cuba so I'm not sure why they would 'pick' Haiti in that sense."

He also argues that when Aristide, whose second administration reportedly sank into corruption and wielded violence against its opponents, rose to power by virtue of his anti-elite, anti-U.S. rhetoric, he was "clearly following the instructions of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank."

"So while he was talking in a very radical way, the economic policies themselves were not that radical," Fatton says.

Other commentators have suggested economic interests motivated the backroom plotting that gnawed away at the foundation of Aristide's rule.

"The troops of this intervention, called 'democracy enhancement' by AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and 'low intensity democracy' by others, are technicians and experts. Their weapons are development projects and lots of money," wrote Jane Regan -- now an IPS contributor -- in 1995, just months after 20,000 U.S. Marines had restored a docile Aristide to power.

"Their goal is to impose a neo-liberal economic agenda, to undermine grassroots participatory democracy, to create political stability conducive to a good business climate, and to bring Haiti into the new world order appendaged to the U.S. as a source for markets and cheap labor," she wrote.

But Fatton, a Haitian, does not completely buy the economic arguments.

"Haiti really does not have any strategic significance. And we have very little to offer -- people talk about cheap labor but there are plenty of other countries with it."

"There is no oil, there is no uranium, there are no real natural resources; so in terms of an overall economic strategic interest, I don't see it," he added.

Even the illegal drug business, often cited as a motivating interest in U.S.-Haiti relations and certainly a major concern of recent administrations, declined in the last two years, as cocaine shipped via Haiti fell from 15-20 percent of the U.S. supply to about eight percent, according to the State Department, says Fatton.

While all observers cite the administration's fear of a second wave of Haitian boat people landing on U.S. shores -- the first group, escaping the gangster regime that overthrew Aristide in 1991, counted 70,000 people, most intercepted by U.S. ships and returned to Haiti -- for Washington's decision to not prop up Aristide last month, Fatton stresses personal animosity toward the ruler as a prime reason for his long-time low standing in Washington's Republican circles.

"Among the Haitian elite the hatred for Aristide was absolutely incredible; it was an obsession. And it's still an obsession."

"It's the way he talked -- he had that very calm, cold way of putting it: 'We've waited very long, we the poor; it's our time to take over'."

In 1987, 16 months after dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti, then-parish priest Aristide told a New York Times reporter, "You must understand the 'American Plan', the plan of Delatour [then minister of finance] and the rich. First, they want to destroy our agriculture: to destroy our rice and all the crops Haiti produces. Why? So the people will come here from the land to work in those American factories for almost nothing."

"Vive la guerre! (Long live the war!) So that we will all have bread," Aristide told the congregation jammed into the Church of St. Jean Bosco days later. "Vive la guerre! So that we will all have houses. Vive la guerre! So that we will all have land."

"He was threatening," says Fatton, "and the elite just couldn't put up with it. Not only did he come from the lower classes but he was talking a language that to them was really confrontational, threatening, and therefore they could not tolerate the guy."

"I think those people in the Bush administration feel much more comfortable with members of the Haitian elite, so you have kind of an affinity -- you could call it a level of comfort."

In a Sept. 14, 1994 speech to the Senate, which was debating a U.S. move against the military men that overthrew Aristide less than one year after his ballot-box victory in 1990, Helms described the deposed president:

"In his autobiography, Aristide identifies his role models as being Che Guevara, the Argentine communist revolutionary; Salvador Allende, the Marxist president of Chile; and Robespierre, the 18th century French revolutionary who was an architect of the bloody reign of terror in France," said Helms.

"Aristide speaks of 'beauty, dignity, respect and love', but his heroes are history's synonyms of brutality and violent revolution -- Aristide has no relationship whatsoever with democracy; he is neither a peace-lover nor a peacemaker. He is a mean-spirited revolutionary and an anti-American demagogue," he added.

Washington restored Aristide to power soon afterwards but by then he had already signalled -- by agreeing to follow the economic agenda of the World Bank and IMF, for instance -- that "his radical speeches were much more rhetorical than anything," says Fatton.

Aristide's impotence could explain the Bush administration's ambivalent, inconsistent approach to Haiti, and why the powers in Washington behind the scenes -- fixated on the former priest as the symbol of a possibly insurgent poor -- never relented in their opposition.

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Albion Monitor March 16, 2004 (

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