Haiti : A Failed Democracy or a Destroyed Democracy? Tarun Menon

This year marks the bicentennial of Haiti’s existence as an independent state, but there is little cause for celebration in the troubled Caribbean nation. The past two hundred years have not been kind to Haiti.They have been marred by persistent civil strife, foreign occupation and brutal dictatorship, leaving the country’s polity and economy in tatters. Haiti is now the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly half the wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population.The civil tension caused by this wealth gap is exacerbated by the fact that it is drawn along racial lines, with the minority mulatto population far more prosperous than the black majority. Successive corrupt regimes have left a legacy of human rights abuses and collapsed infrastructure.

Free elections held in 1990 promised an escape from this vicious cycle. The grassroots left-wing Lavalas movement won in a landslide, and its leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti ‘s first democratically elected president. Since then, Haitian democracy has weathered one coup attempt, and now it has succumbed to another. Clashes between opposition militia and government supporters, ongoing since 2000, exploded into a full-fledged insurrection in February 2004. Armed rebel groups seized control of a number of towns and cities amid escalating violence. The political opposition, while wary of being associated with the violence, also called for Aristide’s resignation. The UN suggested a power-sharing agreement, but it was rejected by the opposition as the rebels gained power. Haiti ‘s former colonial master, France, joined the voices demanding Aristide’s removal. The Bush administration initially paid lip service to democracy, but eventually abandoned support for Aristide.

On February 29, Aristide resigned and, escorted by US Marines, he boarded a plane headed for the Central African Republic. Rebel troops, led by Guy Philippe, paraded in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.A UN-backed international force has been dispatched to deal with the chaos caused by the power vacuum, but it seems as if law and order has collapsed altogether in the capital. There is widespread looting, and Aristide supporters have been found short to death with their hands tied behind their backs.

Aristide has gone on record saying he was kidnapped” and forced into exile by the United States . While the charges have been denied by the American administration, it seems likely that some degree of coercion was involved. Just hours before his resignation, Aristide had appeared on local television saying resignation was out of the question.” He then entered negotiation with senior US officials which culminated in his exile. There are other indications, as well. His security force was under American government control, and while they had no problem securing the airport and American diplomatic personnel, Colin Powell informed Aristide that they would be unable to protect him in the event of a rebel attack. Also, according to the Miami Herald, a last-minute attempt by Aristide to boost his personal bodyguard was blocked by the Bush administration. Rep. Maxine Waters spoke with President Aristide in Africa and said he is being held under tight guard by African and French soldiers. It’s not as if this is without precedent. In April 2002, the administration tried to mask its support for the Venezuelan coup by claiming Hugo Chavez had resigned”, and only backtracked when faced with condemnation by most of Latin America .

The mainstream news media has been surprisingly upbeat about the destruction of a fledgling democracy. Aristide has been almost universally portrayed as a failed president, often as a betrayer of Haitian democracy, and occasionally as a tyrant. It is also frequently alleged that the rebellion began because Aristide rigged the 2000 presidential elections. But the facts are far more subtle, and examining them makes this insurrection look less like the popular overthrow of an undemocratic leader, and more like another in the long line of shameful military coups that have devastated this impoverished country. And the American role in these events appears far from glorious.

The US government has always been wary of Aristide. In the 1990 elections, the American candidate, a former World Bank employee named Mark Bazin, was widely expected to win. He had been finance minister under the destructive rule of Baby Doc” Duvalier. Aristide blindsided the power players, winning with 67% of the vote. Bazin, with 14%, was a distant second. In the months following his election, Aristide reduced foreign debt, raised foreign exchange reserves, halted inflation, launched an anti-corruption campaign, reversed refugee flow, and won substantial praise from international lending institutions. But Washington was not happy with his populist and progressive brand of politics, regarding him as a radical extremist. The press concentrated on transgressions perpetrated by his supporters, without mentioning the 75% reduction in human rights abuses since his election. USAID denounced his attempt to raise the minimum wage to 37 cents an hour, and they also terminated investment programs in the assembly sector which they had supported during the brutal pre-Aristide dictatorship.

Less than a year into his term, Aristide was overthrown in a violent military coup. The military junta that took over the nation launched on a campaign of extermination of the democratic resistance, aided by paramilitary death squads. One of these outfits was FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti), responsible for a massacre of civilians at Raboteau. Its founder, Emmanuel Constant, currently lives as a free man in Queens , New York , despite having been convicted in absentia of multiple counts of murder by a Haitian court. In 1995, Constant revealed that FRAPH had been sponsored by the CIA as a counterweight to Aristide. The CIA also backed General Raoul Cedras, leader of the coup. The prime minister of Haiti during the military dictatorship was Mark Bazin, the former US candidate.

When Clinton became president he affirmed his support for Aristide and vowed to return him to power. And in 1994, the military regime relinquished control under the imminent threat of American invasion. In a promising move, Aristide was returned to power, although he had to accept a neo-liberal structural adjustment program, which alienated the more radical elements in his party. Meanwhile many of the leaders of the military junta and the death squads fled to America , where they have been lobbying Washington against Aristide.

In the next two years, Aristide was not as effective as he had been at the beginning of his term, and there was some violence against supporters of the junta, but the humanitarian situation was much improved from the post-coup days. There were some progressive steps, such as the disbanding of the Haitian army, which was rife with Duvalierists and supporters of the coup, but his assurance had disappeared during the three-year exile. American hostility towards him continued, especially over his reluctance to privatize certain enterprises. Also, despite accepting some IMF austerity measures, he remained an outspoken critic of international economic institutions. Despite weakening resources and diminishing aid, he took tentative steps to invest in education and health.

In 1996, his party didn’t allow him to run for a second term. Instead Rene Preval, a neo-liberal darling, became the next President. Aristide formed a new party, the Fanmi Lavalas, that swept the 2000 parliamentary elections, and Aristide was elected President with an astonishing 90% of the vote. This figure is often cited skeptically by journalists when repeating allegations of vote-rigging, but the fact is that this isn’t the statistic that is in question. The problem was that the method by which Senatorial candidates are decided was misapplied in 8 districts, so some Lavalas senators came to power illegitimately. But the election of Aristide and the victory of Lavalas are beyond doubt. In their exhaustive assessment of the elections, the International Coalition of Independent Observers pointed out these discrepancies, but stated that overall fair and peaceful elections were held.” It was a lot less suspect than a certain other election held in 2000.

Aristide called for the resignation of the incorrectly elected senators and supported a re-election for those seats. An eminently reasonable position, but the opposition flatly refused, demanding Aristide’s resignation. This technicality in the 2000 elections is cited by the rebel groups as their main reason for launching a violent revolution. American news media continues to portray it as widespread vote-rigging.

The election issue gave the American government a justification for taking action against a political figure whose popularity they were unwilling to accept. Clinton imposed an embargo on Haiti that effectively blocked about $500 million in international aid, driving the Haitian economy further towards collapse. International financial institutions followed suit. The large cuts in aid crippled Aristide’s ability to undo the economic damage wrought by the 1991 coup, and rendered his health and education measures toothless. Haiti remained mired in poverty, and opposition militia took advantage of this to incite violence which led to the insurrection.

So now that Aristide has been forced from office, what is the alternative? The armed rebels and the political opposition are a motley crowd, united by their rejection of Aristide’s progressive politics. A disturbing feature of the opposition is that many of the leaders are associated with human rights abuses and past dictatorships. Many of them held political office during the murderous Duvalier dictatorship, and a number were involved in the 1991 coup and the ensuing brutality. Disparate opposition groups have joined to form the Convergence for Democracy, led by Duvalierists and sweatshop owners. This group has close ties with the US Republican Party, which funds them through the National Endowment for Democracy. The leaders of the armed rebellion, Louis Chamblain and Guy Philippe, were associated with the extreme right wing FRAPH death squad, responsible for the death of over 3000 Aristide supporters during the military regime. These are the people on whom Haiti’s democratic hopes now rest. The outlook is definitely bleak.

The picture that emerges is one of powerful players manipulating the political and economic future of an impoverished nation to further their own interests. Perhaps Aristide’s regime was far from perfect, but it was the best hope this nation has seen in over a century. Unfortunately, the American administration decided Haiti didn’t deserve democracy if it was unwilling to kowtow to corporate interests. What follows is a story of collusion with some of the most disreputable elements among the Haitian elite to ensure regime change through structural collapse. As President Bush mouths platitudes about bringing democracy to the Middle East, he has effectively destroyed it much closer to home.