Washington Set the Stage
[for Haiti coup]
by Lee Sustar
International Socialist Review,
March/ April 2004
The media have a standard story-line to
explain the uprising in Haiti. Onetime populist leader Jean-Bertrand
Aristide has become a corrupt authoritarian who is relying on
armed gangs to crush a popular uprising. In reality, the anti-Aristide
opposition that is behind the uprising shaking Haiti today is
a Washington-connected collection of Haitian businessmen and a
scattering of former leftists.
If they succeed in their aim of ousting
Aristide, they'll try to turn back the clock to the days when
military officers and paramilitary gangs ruled Haiti through sheer
terror. Any doubts as to the nature of the rebellion in the city
of Gonaives should be put to rest by the role played by its leaders
in the military dictatorship of the 1 980s.
While the media has described the rebellion
as led by former Aristide supporters, a key player is Jean Pierre
Baptiste, alias "Jean Tatoune," who backed the 1991
coup that overthrew Aristide. Others involved include members
of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH),
a paramilitary organization that terrorized and assassinated Aristide
supporters during the military regime that lasted until U.S. troops
restored Aristide to office in 1994.
Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former FRAPH
leader, is centrally involved in Gonaives, as is Guy Philippe,
a former police chief in the city of Cap-Haitien who was accused
of plotting a coup in 2000. Both men had been based in the neighboring
Dominican Republic, where they had been given refuge. By seizing
Gonaives, they've essentially cut Haiti in two.
Washington's stated attitude to the uprising
has been contradictory. On February 12, State Department spokesperson
Richard Boucher declared, "reaching a political settlement
will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is
governed, and how the security situation is maintained."
The New York Times interpreted this to mean "the Bush administration
has placed itself in the unusual position of saying it may accept
the ouster of a democratic government."
The following day, Secretary of State
Colin Powell rounded up ministers from the organization linking
the government of Caribbean countries, the U.S., and Canada (known
as CARICOM), to declare, "We will accept no outcome that
in any way illegally attempts to remove the elected president
of Haiti." But deeds matter more than words-and there's no
doubt that Washington set the stage for uprising.
The top FRAPH leader, Emmanuel Constant,
who claims he was a CIA employee, remains at large in New York
City. Major funding for Haiti's umbrella opposition group, Democratic
Convergence, comes from the National Endowment for Democracy,
a U.S. foundation notorious for funneling U.S. aid to counter-revolutionary
forces in Central America during the Cold War.
While the Haitian opposition's high-sounding
democratic rhetoric is repeated by Western reporters, their right-wing
supporters have carried out a systematic campaign of violence
against Haitian journalists and pro-Aristide activists. If Aristide's
supporters are armed, it's because they face armed opponents.
Moreover, the U.S. has helped wreck Haiti's
economy by withholding $500 million in annual aid because of opposition
complaints about vote totals for seven Haitian senate seats in
the country's parliamentary elections of 2000. This was an enormous
blow to Haiti's economy, where 80 percent of people live below
the poverty line-and most subsist on less than a dollar a day.
If Powell backtracked on supporting the
opposition, it isn't because the U.S. is reluctant to intervene
in Haiti. The U.S. invaded and occupied Haiti in 1915 and stayed
for nineteen years-an early example of "regime change."
Washington then bankrolled a succession of Haitian dictators,
including the thirty-year rule of the Duvalier family until an
uprising, led in part by Aristide, drove it from power in 1988.
This time around, Washington wants to
avoid the refugee crisis that followed a 1991 military coup months
after Aristide was elected president. Thus, the aim has been to
use the opposition to weaken Aristide until he's forced to bow
to the U.S. agenda.
On January 31, the U.S. pressured Aristide
into signing an accord with the opposition, mediated by CARICOM,
in which Aristide agreed to disarm his supporters, "reform"
the police force, appoint a new prime minister acceptable to the
opposition, and call new elections to replace the legislature,
whose term expired January 13. This deal was in keeping with a
pattern established when 20,000 U.S. troops invaded Haiti to return
Aristide to office nearly a decade ago.
Aristide, who as a Catholic priest became
a mass leader of Haiti's poor during the overthrow of the military
dictatorship in the 1980s, became a collaborator with free-market,
neoliberal reforms dictated by Washington. This included opening
up a big free trade zone on the border with the Dominican Republic,
funded by a World Bank loan that will benefit sweatshop owners-and
paying back debts to the International Monetary Fund that date
from the dictatorship.
All this has meant that Aristide has been
unable to deliver promised reforms to the poor-and his popular
support has eroded as a result. Now a wealthy politician, Aristide
increasingly relies on a small network tied to his Lavalas Family
The tiny clique of Haitian capitalists,
used to running the show themselves, find this intolerable. So
they've dressed themselves up as a democratic opposition and demanded
The uprising was likely initiated by far-right
paramilitaries who are unwilling to settle for the negotiated
solution. They gambled that Aristide's popular support had been
so weakened that they could grab power quickly-and that the more
respectable right-wing front men would go along.
Instead, the poor rallied behind Aristide
once more, with a mass turnout forcing the cancellation of an
opposition protest in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince February
15. While Aristide no longer commands the following he once did,
much of Haiti's poor seem to recognize that the opposition's uprising
would bring the return of the right-wing butchers.
It's difficult to predict how the crisis
in Haiti will play out. But it's already dear that the popular
forces resisting the opposition will have to chart a path that
rejects not only the old right wing, but the free-market policies
of Aristide, :which have only added to Haiti's misery.
Lee Sustar is an editor far the weekly
Socialist Worker newspaper and a regular contributor to the ISR.