Aristide in Exile
by Naomi Klein
The Nation magazine, July 15,
When United Nations troops kill residents of the Haitian
slum Cité Soleil, friends and family often place photographs
of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on their bodies. The
photographs silently insist that there is a method to the madness
raging in Port-au-Prince. Poor Haitians are being slaughtered
not for being "violent," as we so often hear, but for
being militant; for daring to demand the return of their elected
It was only ten years ago that President
Clinton celebrated Aristide's return to power as "the triumph
of freedom over fear." So what changed? Corruption? Violence?
Fraud? Aristide is certainly no saint. But even if the worst of
the allegations are true, they pale next to the rap sheets of
the convicted killers, drug smugglers and arms traders who ousted
Aristide and continue to enjoy free rein, with full support from
the Bush Administration and the UN. Turning Haiti over to this
underworld gang out of concern for Aristide's lack of "good
governance" is like escaping an annoying date by accepting
a lift home from Charles Manson.
A few weeks ago I visited Aristide in
Pretoria, South Africa, where he lives in forced exile. I asked
him what was really behind his dramatic falling-out with Washington.
He offered an explanation rarely heard in discussions of Haitian
politics--actually, he offered three: "privatization, privatization
and privatization." The dispute dates back to a series of
meetings in early 1994, a pivotal moment in Haiti's history that
Aristide has rarely discussed. Haitians were living under the
barbaric rule of Raoul Cédras, who overthrew Aristide in
a 1991 US-backed coup. Aristide was in Washington and despite
popular calls for his return, there was no way he could face down
the junta without military back-up. Increasingly embarrassed by
Cédras's abuses, the Clinton Administration offered Aristide
a deal: US troops would take him back to Haiti--but only after
he agreed to a sweeping economic program with the stated goal
to "substantially transform the nature of the Haitian state."
Aristide agreed to pay the debts accumulated
under the kleptocratic Duvalier dictatorships, slash the civil
service, open up Haiti to "free trade" and cut import
tariffs on rice and corn in half. It was a lousy deal but, Aristide
says, he had little choice. "I was out of my country and
my country was the poorest in the Western hemisphere, so what
kind of power did I have at that time?"
But Washington's negotiators made one
demand that Aristide could not accept: the immediate sell-off
of Haiti's state-owned enterprises, including phones and electricity.
Aristide argued that unregulated privatization would transform
state monopolies into private oligarchies, increasing the riches
of Haiti's elite and stripping the poor of their national wealth.
He says the proposal simply didn't add up: "Being honest
means saying two plus two equals four. They wanted us to sing
two plus two equals five."
Aristide proposed a compromise: Rather
than sell off the firms outright, he would "democratize"
them. He defined this as writing antitrust legislation, insuring
that proceeds from the sales were redistributed to the poor and
allowing workers to become shareholders. Washington backed down,
and the final text of the agreement--accepted by the United States
and by a meeting of donor nations in Paris--called for the "democratization"
of state companies.
But when Aristide began to implement
the plan, it turned out that the financiers in Washington thought
his democratization talk was just public relations. When Aristide
announced that no sales could take place until Parliament had
approved the new laws, Washington cried foul. Aristide says he
realized then that what was being attempted was an "economic
coup." "The hidden agenda was to tie my hands once I
was back and make me give for nothing all the state public enterprises."
He threatened to arrest anyone who went ahead with privatizations.
"Washington was very angry at me. They said I didn't respect
my word, when they were the ones who didn't respect our common
Aristide's relationship with Washington
has been deteriorating ever since: While more than $500 million
in promised loans and aid were cut off, starving his government,
USAID poured millions into the coffers of opposition groups, culminating
ultimately in the February 2004 armed coup.
And the war continues. On June 23 Roger
Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs,
called on UN troops to take a more "proactive role"
in going after armed pro-Aristide gangs. In practice, this has
meant a wave of Falluja-like collective punishment inflicted on
neighborhoods known for supporting Aristide. On July 6, for instance,
300 UN troops stormed Cité Soleil, blocking off exits and
firing from armored vehicles. The UN admits that five were killed,
but residents put the number of dead at no fewer than twenty.
Reuters correspondent Joseph Guyler Delva says he "saw seven
bodies in one house alone, including two babies and one older
woman in her 60s." Ali Besnaci, head of Médecins Sans
Frontières in Haiti, confirmed that on the day of the siege
twenty-seven people came to the MSF clinic with gunshot wounds,
three-quarters of them women and children.
Yet despite these attacks, Haitians are
still on the streets--rejecting the planned sham elections, opposing
privatization and holding up photographs of their president. And
just as Washington's experts could not fathom the possibility
that Aristide would reject their advice a decade ago, today they
cannot accept that his poor supporters could be acting of their
own accord--surely Aristide must be controlling them through some
mysterious voodoo arts. "We believe that his people are receiving
instructions directly from his voice and indirectly through his
acolytes that communicate with him personally in South Africa,"
Aristide claims no such powers. "The
people are bright, the people are intelligent, the people are
courageous," he says. They know that two plus two does not
Naomi Klein is the author of No
Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador) and, most recently,
Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the
Globalization Debate (Picador).
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