Haiti in 2001:
Political Deadlock, Economic Crisis
by Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly
Dollars and Sense magazine, November / December
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.
ALL PAIN, NO GAIN
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
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
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.
ORGANIZING THE BASE
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
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.