Haiti in 2001:
Political Deadlock, Economic Crisis

by Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly

Dollars and Sense magazine, November / December 2001


Much has changed in Haiti since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was first elected president more than a decade ago. As an insurgent priest in the 1980s, Aristide narrowly escaped assassination several times by agents of the Duvalier dictatorship. After he won the presidency in 1990, the Duvalierists joined with the Army to overthrow him and expel him from the country. Three years later, a U.S. invasion reinstalled him. But now Aristide, who began his second presidential term this past January, has forged alliances with Duvalierists and even brought some of them into his cabinet.

Peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste was one of Aristide's most influential supporters in the 1990 election and through the years of the military coup d'etat. During the coup years, the Army drove Jean-Baptiste out of the country, destroyed his organization's development projects, and terrorized his followers. When Aristide abolished the Army after returning to the presidency, Jean-Baptiste rejoiced. Today, however, Jean-Baptiste has joined the opposition to Aristide, and is calling for restoration of the Army to keep Aristide in check.

But despite these bewildering political shifts, some things have not changed at all. Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Haitian life expectancy is 53 years (with one child in eight dying before age five), and average income per capita stands at a stunningly low U.S. $ 460. Both are the same as they were 20 years ago.

The U.S. government continues to use its considerable political and financial leverage to press for policies that undermine Haiti's sovereignty and deepen its economic dependence. But through it all, the grassroots organizations that fueled the dynamic democracy movement of the 1980s continue to mobilize their base. The challenge for Haiti's "popular organizations" of peasants, urban workers, slum-dwellers, women, and youth is to hold the line against attempts to draw them into a factional agenda, and against growing cynicism and discouragement.


In 1990, a united Lavalas movement, bringing together poor people, Catholic and left activists, and middle-class reformers, swept populist priest Aristide into power. ("Lavalas" refers to the cleansing flood that has been Aristide's metaphor for revolution from below.) But since the mid-1990s, the former Lavalas movement has splintered. Aristide's Lavalas Family party has a lock on the parliament as well as the presidency, but it has drifted from the populist politics that rallied millions of Haitians behind Aristide in 1990. Former left allies such as Jean-Baptiste, unhappy with Aristide's increasing monopolization of power, have joined centrists and even ultraconservatives in forming the Democratic Convergence-an unstable "anybody-but-Aristide" opposition amalgam. The Convergence wields clout far beyond its narrow base of support in Haiti, because it has some very powerful backers, above all in Washington.

The U.S. government, though it trumpets concerns about "democracy," appears bent on ensuring a weak, compliant government in Haiti. U.S. officials have struggled to control Haiti since the Duvalier dictatorship fell in 1986. Their main objectives have been to minimize the flow of refugees, and to assert U.S. dominance in the Caribbean. However, the two U.S. parties have pursued somewhat different strategies toward Aristide. Clinton, declaring that democracy was under attack, invaded Haiti in 1994 and restored Aristide to power. He then clipped the Haitian president's wings, while exploiting Aristide's popularity to sell Haitians on a variety of distasteful economic and governmental policies. The Republicans, on the other hand, have been overtly hostile. Bush Sr.'s intelligence operatives were closely linked to the leaders of the 1991 coup that overthrew Aristide. More recently, the U.S. International Republican Institute, a Republican-controlled arm of the National Endowment for Democracy, has reportedly funneled $3 million to help the Convergence's opposition front.

The current political bone of contention between Lavalas Family and Convergence is the parliamentary election that took place in May 2000. Aristide's Lavalas Family claimed to have swept the elections, while the Convergence charged massive interference and invalid vote counts. In reality, intimidation and vote-tampering were minimal by internationally recognized standards. Most observers agree that Lavalas candidates would have won even if runoffs had been mandated as the Convergence demanded, since the 15 parties that make up the Convergence command little popular allegiance. The election would be a receding memory like the Bush-Gore dispute over Florida a year ago, except for two things. First, the Convergence won't concede, and boycotted the November 2000 elections that returned Aristide to the presidency. Second, the Convergence's friends, including the United States, Canada, and the European Union, are withholding an estimated $500 million in aid pending a "satisfactory" resolution.

The plot thickened in July when a group of well-armed, uniformed men raided three police stations and the Police Academy, stealing arms and killing five in a bold assault against Aristide's government. Though no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, its professionalism leads many to suspect U.S. involvement. "What we are seeing in Haiti today is a replay of what happened in Nicaragua in 1990," comments Ben Dupuy, leader of Haiti's small National Popular Party (a left group currently keeping its distance from both the Lavalas Family and the Convergence). "Washington gradually dismantled the Sandinista revolution through a combination of demanding endless concessions and negotiations, creating and funding an opposition front, and applying military pressure."

The election impasse will likely be resolved, but fundamentally what's at stake is whether the Lavalas Family is willing to share power. Aristide's backers seem prepared to take almost any measure to consolidate their dominance, including armed attacks on critics and opposition organizations. (Aristide's response has been that he cannot control what followers do in his name.) On the other hand, the Convergence seems to feel entitled to a slice of power whether or not it has the electoral support to justify it. Its call to recreate the disbanded Army is a fairly transparent threat against Aristide, the one who disbanded it.

The real shame of the May and November 2000 elections was not fraud, but massive voter indifference. Although the government and a few sympathetic observers put the turnout in both elections at 60%, independent observers estimate the true turnout at 10- 15% (the Convergence claims it was an even lower 5%)-a far cry from the 60% that did turn out when Aristide was propelled to the presidency in 1990. Most Haitians are not voting. And why should they? Both the Lavalas Family and the Democratic Convergence embrace the neoliberal, "free trade" policies peddled by the United States and other sources of international aid such as the World Bank. So far, these policies have simply deepened Haiti's economic crisis.


In the early 1980s, the United States began pushing the Duvalier dictatorship to liberalize Haiti's economy, opening it to international investment and imports. When Aristide was elected in 1990, the U.S. grip on Haitian economic policy was temporarily loosened. But Aristide had less than a year to implement new policies before being overthrown. As a condition for the U.S. invasion that brought him back into power, Aristide agreed to renewed liberalization, including reduced barriers to imports and privatization of public utilities. The most visible consequence has been a surge of agricultural imports from the United States, which has wiped out domestic Haitian producers. Imported rice has soared from 8% of Haitian consumption in 1985 to 73% in 1996, crippling the rice-producing region in northwest Haiti. Imports of cheap, low-quality chicken, turkey, and pig parts have shut down Haitian livestock producers.

While U.S. consultants continue to tout Haiti's "comparative advantage" in trade based on exotic crops (coffee, cocoa) and cheap labor, the value of Haiti's exports stood at less than half that of its imports in 1999. Over the last ten years, Haiti's currency has plummeted on international markets, and consumer prices of basic food items have climbed. Over half of the Haitian workforce now works in the informal sector-making any workforce statistics highly suspect. "The labor force in Haiti is redundant in the world economy," says Alex Dupuy, a sociologist at Wesleyan University. Only foreign aid, remittances sent home by Haitian emigrants, and Haiti's new role as a way-station in the U.S. drug trade are keeping the country's economy afloat. Mounting street crime, fueled by drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and U.S. deportation of convicted felons of Haitian origin, has led to a generalized feeling of insecurity. Desperate attempts to flee to the United States or the Dominican Republic are on the rise.

Aristide's political associate (Haitians call him Aristide's "twin" ) Rene Preval, who governed between the two Aristide terms, made some symbolic gestures toward rebuilding Haiti's productive capacity. For example, Preval launched an "agrarian reform," though it ended up redistributing only 2,000 acres. And Aristide himself occasionally blasts the United States and the "neoliberal" policies it has imposed.

But for the most part, Lavalas in power has settled for making concessions that keep the aid flowing, and for building its patronage network. Especially following the 1991 coup, Aristide has repeatedly-though not invariably-given in to U.S. demands in order to receive the grants and loans that make up 60% of the government's operating budget (and 90% of its budget for capital projects); his twin Preval did the same. Meanwhile, quite a few Aristide cronies have enriched themselves with government largesse, and smaller rewards have doubtless trickled down to the street-level Lavalas shock troops.


For both the Lavalas Family and the Democratic Convergence, the approach to government seems to follow the Haitian saying about politics, "Wete ko ou pou mete ko pa m"-literally, "Get your body out so I can put mine in." But what has happened to the proud tradition of popular resistance, dating back to the original slave revolution that created Haiti in 1804? Many of the popular organizations that threw out Duvalier and elected populist priest Aristide in 1990 still exist, but political and economic crisis has worn them down. The army and paramilitaries killed thousands of activists between 1991 and 1994. The United States, in a policy many Haitian grassroots activists view as quite consciously designed, further decapitated the movement by offering "humanitarian" visas to thousands of grassroots leaders after Aristide returned to power. After suffering three years of violent persecution, and seeing an already struggling economy flattened by the military's pillaging, many chose to take the opportunity to exit.

Among the popular organizations still functioning, some have taken sides. Peasant leader Jean-Baptiste, head of the Peasant Movement of the Papaye Congress (MPNKP), has sided with the Convergence despite earlier serving as a top advisor to Aristide. In response, Lavalas Family militants have launched verbal and physical attacks on MPNKP leaders and members. The MPNKP, for years Haiti's largest peasant movement, has lost members and credibility.

Other grassroots groups criticize both sides. Tet Kole Ti Peyizan (Heads Together, Little Peasants), another large peasant coalition, along with a network of like-minded organizations, criticized Aristide even during his truncated first term for raising hopes without having built the organized power base necessary to deliver on them. In 1991, they charged Aristide with striking compromises to appease the United States. Today, not surprisingly, they reject both the Lavalas Family and the Convergence.

Perhaps even more important, many of those who formed the progressive wing of the original Lavalas movement are beginning to take an independent stand. The newly created Freedom, Identity, and Socialism Collective (KSIL) includes activists like Camille Chalmers of the Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development for Haiti (PAPDA) and Marie Laurence Lassegue of Fanm Yo La (Women Are Here). Shortly after the Collective's founding last April, Chalmers, one the most articulate critics of Haiti's neoliberal economic policies, declared that "neither the Lavalas Family nor the Democratic Convergence are dealing with the issues of poverty, economic development, or regional integration." KSIL activists propose to provide an alternative-a broad movement for social change.


Can the grassroots organizations revitalize their base and mount a challenge to neoliberal economic policies? As the KSIL puts it, "Haiti will be a participatory democracy, or it will not be a democracy at all." Though factional strife, economic hardship, and pure and simple discouragement have driven away members, the popular organizations doggedly continue with hundreds of initiatives large and small.

Although neoliberal economic policies have undermined self-employed peasant agriculture and with it peasant organizations, Haiti's fledgling labor movement has made significant strides. PAPDA worked with a number of public sector unions to develop plans to improve service without privatization. Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Struggle) has helped to organize and support unions in the export sector. At the Guacimal plantation, which produces oranges for Cointreau brandies, workers formed a union last year and struck to protest wages as low as U.S. $ 1 a day, unsafe working conditions, and the absence of sanitary facilities. Although Guacimal's owners broke the strike, the workers are rallying international solidarity to win a contract.

And in a nearly unprecedented act of bravery, in July a group of Haitian sugar cane cutters in the Dominican Republic-who work in conditions close to slavery-went on strike for three days. Echoing the Guacimal strikers, one cane cutter complained, "They pay us bread crumbs.... When we become ill, they don't even bother to take us to a clinic." This strike may hold momentous implications for the hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants living and working in the Dominican Republic.

Landless peasants have meanwhile jump-started the stalled land reform process by seizing land for themselves. In September, a coalition of 19 popular organizations calling itself the Landless Peasants' Movement announced that it had taken over about 46,000 acres of land-more than twenty times the amount distributed by the government to date-in an agricultural area north of Port-au-Prince. The lands in question, held by absentee landlords, were idle or used for exploitative sharecropping-a system in which the peasant typically turns over half the harvest to the landowner. The coalition called on Haiti's land reform agency to intervene so that peasants can use the land for domestic food production.

Human rights advocates have also stepped up their activity. Haiti's Human Rights Platform, which monitored violence during the military rule of 1991-94, continues to denounce political violence. Outrage at the April 2000 assassination of Jean Dominique, a legendary radio station owner and commentator who vocally criticized the government, the political right, and Haiti's economic elite, sparked the creation of the Jean Dominique Foundation to challenge the "impunity" that allows crimes like this one to go unsolved and unpunished. "Instead of a chilling effect, the killing of Jean Dominique had an invigorating effect on debate and the media," says Wesleyan's Dupuy. On another front, Solidarite ak Fanm Ayisyen (Solidarity with Haitian Women) and other women's organizations are mobilizing to expand the legal and familial rights of women.

Can Haitian popular organizations rebuild democracy on a new basis? The answer to this question will come from Washington as well as from Port-au-Prince. If current U.S. policies continue, democracy will take root in Haiti despite U.S. policy, not because of it.

Marre Kennedy is Associate Dean and Professor of Community Planning at the College of Public and Community Service, University of Massachusetts at Boston. Chris Tilly is Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a member of the D&S collective.

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