Haiti's Democracy in Flames
by Larry Birns
In These Times magazine,
In the Fall of 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide
officially left his position as a parish priest to embark on an
unanticipated political career. Within weeks he became the most
popular president in Haiti's 200-year history. Aristide's Lavelas
Party, meaning "flood," referred both to the near-universal
applause of Aristide's fundamental tenets and the presumed cleansing
effects it would have on remnants of the Duvalier dictatorship.
Despite the country's Provisional Electoral Council's (CEP) approval
of 1l presidential candidates for the 1990 elections, Aristide's
surge in polls was overwhelming. He won the first free and fair
election in the country's history with 67 percent of the vote.
Despite Aristide's exultant inauguration,
threats remained in the form of the Duvaliers' still-menacing
band of supporters and their Praetorian Guard-the Tontons Macoutes-not
to mention the cabal of military plotters who seized power after
Baby Doc fled the country.
These groups, along with the country's
traditionally dominant economic elite (1 percent of the population
controls 45 percent of the wealth), feared that Aristide's radical
agenda would curtail their opportunities for graft, corruption,
drug trafficking and cronyism. They also were embittered by the
CEP's rejection of key associates of the Duvalier regime, such
as Claude Raymond and Roger Lafontant, as qualified candidates
for the 1990 presidential race. (The CEP's action was based on
the 1987 constitution's provision barring any Duvalier-era officials
from running for public office.) Those scorned by this process,
together with a large percentage of the country's severely compromised
military, waited for the right moment to oust Aristide. This was
accomplished in and again in late February.
The Bush administration, less through
confusion than by design, sent troops into Haiti on February 29,
all but guaranteeing that this deeply scarred society will not
soon recuperate. While the villains who helped bring down Haiti's
constitutional rule will face the scrutiny of objective critics
in the months and years to come, no reputation will be more tarnished
than that of Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In effect, Powell let U.S. Haiti policy
become the captive of two of the administration's most-obsessive
right-wing ideologues-Assistant Secretary of State for Western
Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and White House aide Otto Reich.
The two are backed by a White House that is more-than-eager to
please the right wing Latin American emigre community in Miami.
Reich, a Cuban exile, achieved infamy
during the Reagan administration as head of the Office for Latin
America and the Caribbean, where he employed Army psychological
operations-psyops-specialists to try to convince the American
public to support the U.S. backed Contras in their war against
Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Bush nominated Reich to head
the State Department's Latin American desk, but couldn't get him
confirmed, so he hired him as a White House advisor. The job instead
went to Noriega.
Powell's Haitian policy was dazzlingly
inept. Only days before Aristide was put on a plane February 29
for his State Department arranged flight into exile in the Central
African Republic, Powell repeatedly acknowledged the legitimacy
of Aristide's rule and denounced the opposition's violent "thugs"
He further insisted that they would not be allowed to shoot their
way to power nor would Aristide be forced to resign. Once engaged,
Powell began insisting that the anti-Aristide political opposition
must negotiate with the government and that Washington would not
sanction regime change or insist upon Aristide's forced ouster.
Then, scarcely 24 hours before Aristide's State Department-scripted
travel arrangement, Powell reversed himself and ignored Haiti's
constitution, which stipulates that a president must convey his
resignation only to the country's legislature.
If Powell really meant what he said, then
why didn't he adhere to it? Aristide had done nothing to justify
this 180 degree reversal in U.S. policy. Powell's rhetoric appeared
to represent the high road on the issue, but he was either deceiving
the public or being undermined by Noriega and Reich, who, in off-the-record
briefings to journalists and other interested parties, made it
clear that regime change was very much an option and that Aristide
could be muscled aside in any negotiation process.
When it came to Haiti, Powell's defense
of democracy was more apparent than real. To begin, the U.S. embassy
in Port-Au-Prince was rarely merely a passive bystander to Haiti's
ongoing turmoil. In effect, Ambassador James Foley, as was the
case with his recent predecessors at the Port-au-Prince post,
saw his embassy as Fort Apache and the locals as restless Indians
having to be kept in place by an agile embassy playmaker calling
the shots. The cumulative result was that, by February, the space
left to President Aristide to politically function continued to
atrophy until his position had become all but untenable.
Similarly, in Venezuela two years ago,
a failed coup was hatched against President Hugo Chavez thanks
to the political backing and covert funding provided by Reich,
the then-chief U.S. regional policymaker. In an indisputable contravention
of its Organization of American States resolutions aimed at mandating
democratic legitimacy throughout the hemisphere, the United States
turned out to be the lead conspirator in the destruction of Haiti's
civil society. His ouster was the culmination of a U.S. foreign
policy goal to eliminate or bypass Aristide, by draining him of
his agenda-setting powers or, preferably, getting rid of them
altogether, in order to void his inconvenient but undeniable democratic
I n January, as the crisis began to mount
and the political opposition became more clamorous in the streets
of Port-Au-Prince, Washington's end-game strategy to resolve Haiti's
political crisis began to take form. A U.S.-sanctioned international
peace force would be introduced into Haiti but only to uphold
a political agreement that would be fashioned between Aristide
and the Port-Au-Prince-based political opposition, led by the
businessmen-dominated Group of 184.
The central credo of the latter body was
to not, under any circumstance, carry on a dialogue with Aristide.
And because there were to be no negotiations, there could be no
agreement. But according to Powell's formula, there would be no
peacekeeping initiative unless such negotiations took place and
a resolution achieved.
Aristide had conceded to every demand
made on him by the OAS, the European Union (especially France),
the United Nations, the United States, and the English-speaking
Caribbean nations to share power with the opposition, yet it was
he who was repeatedly denounced by Powell and the international
community for obstructionism, and rarely the opposition, which
saw its vested interest intrinsically better served by chaos than
peace. This was a solid strategy on the opposition's part, because
it knew it lacked the popularity to win the elections that successful
talks inevitably would help bring about.
Powell's thesis that a political solution
must precede the arrival of a peace force was indefensible on
grounds of logic. A peace force would be much more relevant while
violence was occurring and the government was dangerously tottering,
rather than after a peace agreement had been achieved. Brazil,
Canada, Chile, France and for that matter, the United Nations
and the OAS, signed on to Powell's diktat strategy of taking no
action until it was too late to save Haitian democracy. Powell
blamed Aristide for dilly-dallying; however, it was he who purposefully
used up the Aristide government's precious remaining moments with
inaction, even though there was time enough for the United States
to demonstrate it meant to guarantee continued democratic rule.
Mexico's silence over Haiti on the eve
of President Vicente Fox's visit to the Bush family ranch was
sadly understandable, given the Mexican leaders forlorn quest
for U.S. immigration reform. But the silence of the region's other
heavy hitters was incomprehensible. One would expect languorous
behavior from an already discredited OAS Secretary General Cesar
Gaviria, or from President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, whose military
(which he is dispatching to Haiti) under General Augusto Pinochet
routinely tortured and murdered anyone with a radical agenda similar
to Aristide's. Meanwhile, Brazil's Lula de Silva was also preparing
his troop contingents, while Argentina's Nestor Kirchner chose
to sit out of the controversy. Neither bothered to comment on
comment on Powell's preposterous formulations.
Canada's new prime minister, Paul Martin,
intent on improving relations with Washington, signed on to Powell's
formula for all-but guaranteeing Aristide's eventual ouster, never
mind that such a policy ill-served his country's reputation for
having a less patronizing attitude toward the rest of the hemisphere.
Ottawa's supine accommodation to Powell's elusive timetable for
intervention was pathetic, in that the governing Liberal Party
had not allowed its police trainers to remain in Haiti long enough
back in 1994-96 to adequately professionalize the country's security
At the end of the day, standing almost
alone, Jamaica's Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson, upheld the region's
honor by implicitly rebuking the timidity of other hemisphere
leaden, in spite of the vulnerability of Jamaica'' sagging economy
and its need for Washington's financial backing.
Aside from Powell, the world leader most
deserving of derision is French Foreign Minister Dominique de
Villepin. The French diplomat at first boldly confronted the rapidly
deteriorating situation in Haiti by calling for urgent action
to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, but he then
embraced Powell's thesis that a political solution must precede
dispatching any peace forces.
U.S. Embassy authorities were able to
thrust a resignation letter into an understandably-befuddled Aristide's
hands for him to sign. This was done under the implicit threat
that only then could he and his family be flown out of the country
to safety. Once airborne, Aristide was told that his ultimate
destination would be the Central African Republic only a half-hour
before his scheduled landing. He was denied any ability to communicate
with the outside world. Nor was he told where he would be going
during a four-hour layover. Such behavior exemplifies the utter
contempt in which he was held by U.S. officials. Powell's defense
of this scenario was based on his now revised line that Aristide
was a "flawed" president who brought on his own downfall.
Today Haiti is a horrific mess, but it
can't entirely be attributed to President Aristide's "flawed
performance" If Aristide was flawed, it was largely due to
the impossible conditions laid down by Washington for him to rule.
Powell had exacerbated Haiti's last three
years of strife and misery by caving into Noreiga and Reich's
Miami-bred zealotry and accepting their interpretation of events.
He supported the continued freeze of $500 million in multilateral
assistance to Haiti based on the exaggerations and distortion
of what took place in the May 2000 senate elections, when Aristide
was not president. Again, as he repeatedly had done in Iraq, Powell
presented the American public with an entirely false picture of
what caused Haiti's political and economic difficulties.
There is no disputing that the extremism
and mean-spirited nature of Washington's Haitian policy prevented
democratic practices from taking root on the island. Secretary
of State Powell must be condemned for sponsoring a strategy that
was superficial, illogical, narrowly conceptualized and damaging
both to the U.S. national interest and Haiti's most basic needs.
The kind of human misery that has propelled tens of thousands
of Haitians over the past decade to risk their lives trying to
reach south Florida is not likely to be assuaged by forcing Haiti
into a political process when it lacks popular natural leaders
and when there are no reasons for the citizenry to trust their
new U.S.-imposed officials.
LARRY BIRNS is director of the Council
on Hemispheric Affairs. www.coha.org. COHA Research Associate
Jill Shelly assisted with this article.