Haitian Lament : Killing Me Softly
by Dan Coughlin
The Nation, March 1, 1999
Haitians call secondhand clothes pepe',
pronounced "peh-peh." In an earlier time these were
called Twoomann and Kenedi because it was under those US Presidents
that Haitian tailors and shoemakers first began to see used T-shirts,
sweaters, pants and sneakers dumped into the country. In 1998,
US firms exported more than 16.5 million pounds of used clothes
to Haiti, and just about everybody wears them. Today, more than
four years after the 20,000 troops of Operation Restore Democracy
ousted the military rule of Lieut. Gen. Raoul Cedras and restored
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitians describe what Washington
delivered as demokrasi pepe'.
A glance around and one easily understands
why Haitians see their country in tatters. Under US and UN tutelage,
the economy is worse off in some key respects than even during
the 1991-94 international embargo against the Cedras regime. The
government lies paralyzed, riven by a split between a neoliberal
parliamentary faction and President Rene Preval. For the past
twenty-one months there has been no Prime Minister and no formal
government. But this political turmoil has not occurred in a vacuum.
The electoral and political processes, once, for a brief time,
the vehicles for social change and mass participation, have been
manipulated to serve US interests and have little legitimacy in
the eyes of most Haitians. Indeed, more than 90 percent of registered
voters have consistently refused to participate in the panoply
of US/UN-financed elections. Meanwhile, the new US-built Haitian
National Police (HNP) is under heavy criticism for human rights
abuses. And despite what, in 1994, President Clinton called the
"campaign of rape, torture and mutilation" under the
dictatorship, not one major military or paramilitary figure has
been tried and imprisoned for a coup-related crime. Instead, US
and UN forces have actively protected former soldiers and death
squad leaders, while grassroots activists are harassed, imprisoned,
Poor Haitians are thus not among those
who hail the $2 billion US/UN joint operation as a success story.
Instead, they see it as part of the continuity of US policy and
undemocratic traditions. "The objectives sought by the coup
d'etat are the same for the US and UN occupants today," argues
Yannick Etienne, a leading trade union organizer in Port-au-Prince's
low-wage assembly zones. "That is to preserve the old social
order, impose a neoliberal order and block popular demands for
the fundamental transformation of Haiti." Over the past four
years US and UN forces have moved aggressively to shore up Haiti's
ancien regime. While Preval and the parliamentary faction, who
represent two wings of Aristide's old Lavalas movement, have been
locked in a political struggle, Washington has reorganized and
refinanced the putschist political parties into what it hopes
will be a future governing coalition-a far more reliable partner
than the once-powerful social movement that overthrew the twenty-nine-year
Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986 and three subsequent military
dictatorships in the late eighties, and then produced a radical
priest as president.
It is generally believed that, barring
assassination, Aristide will again run for president in 2001,
and win. The 46-year-old former priest now says his advocacy of
the US/UN intervention was an error. After being restored to power,
he quickly earned the enmity of the Haitian political class and
the Washington national security establishment by more than doubling
the minimum wage, abolishing the Haitian Army, blocking the privatization
process and, in a final parting act before Preval took over in
February 1996, recognizing Cuba. Today, not only is he the only
Haitian politician with any serious social base; he remains the
only political leader who challenges US policy. Still, Haiti's
popular organizations remain divided on Aristide. His political
style is criticized as too personal, and he has never been accountable
to a political organization that aims to remake Haiti fundamentally.
Indeed, the demobilization of the popular movement after the US
intervention could not have been accomplished without his political
"The occupation has been an expropriation
of the democratic project," explains Camille Chalmers, a
former chief of staff for Aristide who now heads the Haitian Platform
for the Promotion of Alternative Development. "It's no longer
a democracy struggled for by the Haitian people. Today, it's the
United States and the international community that are wanting
to build their project." As a result, what the UN calls "major
unrest" has repeatedly erupted. In November 1995, one year
after foreign troops landed, demonstrators shut down four major
towns and erected barricades on all main roads nationwide. Angry
at the refusal of international forces to disarm former soldiers
of the hated Haitian Army, protesters burned effigies of US soldiers
and searched cars and trucks, including UN vehicles, for weapons.
Popular anger against the occupation and the IMF austerity policies
that have accompanied it reached such proportions in January 1997
that a one-day general strike calling for the removal of foreign
troops paralyzed the country. Strikers rejected the two defining
features of Haitian life during occupation-laviche, the high cost
of living, and insekerite, the armed activity of former soldiers
and their civilian allies. Faced with popular protest from below
and squeezed by the demands of international lenders from above,
three governments have come and gone in the past four years.
Despite this turbulence-or perhaps because
of it-last November the UN Security Council renewed its military
mandate for the sixth time. While troop strength has been ratcheted
down from the peak level of 23,000 in 1994, 285 UN police and
some 500 US troops are stationed in Haiti indefinitely, according
to the Clinton Administration. The renewal openly flouted the
will of Haiti's legislature, which, in a rare session last year,
passed a law outlawing the foreign military and police presence.
The UN, which lobbied heavily against the bill, insists that it
doesn't apply to its forces.
A key reason for the opposition to foreign
troops has been their refusal to fulfill their mandate of establishing
a "secure and stable" environment. Former soldiers and
attaches of the disbanded Haitian Army continue to terrorize villages,
towns and urban slums. And they've done so with US and UN protection.
International forces have vigorously obstructed the arrest of
scores of senior coup officials, attaches and right-wing political
leaders. In one case, US and UN forces blocked President Aristide's
communications links with Haitian judicial officials during an
attempted arrest of former dictator Gen. Prosper Avril. (A US
federal court has ordered Avril to pay $41 million in restitution
to his torture victims.) Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration
continues to provide a haven for Emmanuel Constant, the CIA asset
and head of the death squad FRAPH. It also refuses to release
150,000 pages of documents seized from army and FRAPH offices.
And as in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and Nicaragua, the US alliance
with the Haitian right has been accompanied by a wave of drug
trafficking that now makes Haiti a crucial pass on the cocaine
highway and corrupts all major institutions. US officials report
that in 1997,19 percent of the cocaine coming into the United
States passed through Haiti, up from 5 percent in 1996. Moreover,
significant portions of the Haitian National Police are deeply
involved in the foreign cocaine trade, according to US and Haitian
officials and human rights groups.
As for the putschists, they have enriched
themselves on lucrative contracts to provide the occupying forces
with everything from housing and banking services to clean laundry,
ice and translators. Madame Max Adolphe, for instance, the sadistic
head of the Tonton Macoutes under "Papa Doc" Duvalier,
collected a monthly rent check from US Special Forces for the
use of her compound. As one young militant put it, "The pot
of rice gets cooked in the name of the children, but it's the
adults who eat."
The tune was very different in the fall
of 1994, when the 10th Mountain Division marched into Haiti's
cities and Special Forces A-teams fanned out into the countryside.
"Down, down, down to violence. Long live peace," went
one US Psy Ops jingle that played on Haitian radio. "We'll
find democracy, for everyone to work, learn to read and write,
for everyone to find health." Vengeance, or people's justice,
would only scare investors and discourage international aid, the
US and UN repeated. Reconciliation was the key to jobs and economic
recovery. But as in Panama and Nicaragua, promises of reconstruction
were never kept.
Instead, Haiti was forced to accept an
IMF regimen that required slashing tariffs, laying off state employees
and selling the most profitable state-run industries to foreign
corporations as the price for Aristide's return and $1.8 billion
in loans and grants. Prices for basic commodities like food and
fuel have soared, localized famines have occurred and the country's
debt has ballooned more than 60 percent since 1994. On a human
level, one in two preschool children goes hungry and one in eight
"In the name of fiscal discipline,
what is being sacrificed is the ability of the country to function,"
argues an economist with a leading multilateral bank. "How
are you going to transport the mangoes to Port-au-Prince for export
if there are no roads? How are you going to increase the level
of education so there are more options than the maquilas?"
Equally alarming is that, with the virtual abolition of tariffs,
tiny Haiti has become one of the most open markets in the hemisphere,
ranking among those countries that have generated the largest
trade surpluses for the United States.
Like the US occupation earlier in this
century, the most enduring institutional legacy of this fin de
siecle occupation is the security apparatus. And as with all other
key aspects of Haitian political life, Washington has retained
an extraordinary degree of control. A multi-agency US group selected
each recruit and determined the design, training and financing
of the 6,500-strong HNP. More than 50 percent of the top police
commissioners are recycled Haitian Army personnel, according to
US and Haitian officials. United States trainers placed soldiers
they considered reliable in a number of key units and systematically
purged a group of reformist army officers who had refused to support
the 1991 coup and joined President Aristide in exile.
The results have been disastrous. "Members
of this US-trained force have committed serious abuses, including
torture and summary executions," said a 1997 report by Human
Rights Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. Since
the HNP was first deployed in 1995, the total number of people
it has killed runs into the hundreds. In 1996 twelve young political
activists were massacred in a UN-backed attack on their neighborhood.
Victims of police violence report torture, including the use of
electric shocks, as well as routine beatings with fists, clubs,
pistols and boots.
Despite the HNP's putative role as a civilian
force, its officers have received training from the CIA and US
Special Forces, and from an array of international military forces.
The United States has also built heavily armed paramilitary units.
Outfitted in all-black battle-dress uniforms, body armor and masks,
they routinely conduct "anti-crime" patrols. One of
their first deployments was to protect Haiti's flour mill after
it was privatized in a deal with a consortium including US giants
Continental Grain and the Seaboard Corporation for $9 million,
a token sum according to opponents. The paramilitaries have also
targeted popular organizations; the Milot Peasants Movement and
the Port-au-Prince women's clinic, Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen, for
example, had their offices trashed and valuable equipment destroyed
by the new police.
Through all of this, political opposition
has continued, but the liberation movement was seriously weakened
by repression during the coup period coupled with the flight of
many key leaders to Canada and the United States, where most have
remained. After Aristide's return, many local and regional popular
leaders took government posts and, in the name of reconciliation,
moved to institutionalize-and end-the political struggle of the
post-Duvalier period. Still, many groups remain organized and
active, whether under the banner of Ti Legliz, the "little
church" of the Haitian liberation theology movement, or as
women's clinics or peasant associations like Tet Kole Ti Peyizan
Ayisyen (Together Little Haitian Peasants). Such is the power
of these individuals and organizations that they've been able
to launch general strikes and inhibit the full application of
the neoliberal model in Haiti.
Early in the occupation, Col. Mark Boyatt,
commander of US Special Forces, held two-way radio "fireside
chats" with his A-teams deployed in rural Haiti. "This
is your kingdom," he told them. "Mold it."
Boyatt was not exaggerating. Every strategic
area of Haitian life has been monopolized and indelibly shaped
by US and UN military and economic power, and almost always with
the same arrogance. The result is a profound degradation of Haitian
society. The new security apparatus has proved itself incapable
of dealing with crime and insecurity, but brutal against popular
protests. The scorched-earth economic program has pried open Haiti
to international capital and enriched a small class of gran manje,
or big eaters, while destroying Haiti's ability to alleviate,
even marginally, the most extreme poverty in the Americas. The
impunity enjoyed by the former death squad leaders and army officers,
many of whom committed violence that legal scholars classify as
"crimes against humanity," has made a mockery of accountability
and the rule of law. And hanging over everything, like a sword
of Damocles, are the demons of the past-the return to Macoutism
and dictatorship. Although in January some parliamentarians warned
of a possible Preval dictatorship, the fact is that the only players
in Haiti with such a potential are those decidedly undemocratic
elements under the sway of the United States.
Pepe', a Creole word reportedly derives
from paix, French for "peace." More than a decade ago
priests and other aid donors would shout, "Paix, paix"
to the maddened crowds that fought for handouts in church courtyards
or village squares. The rejected rags, some originally made in
Port-au-Prince's assembly zones, would temporarily clothe the
naked and mufffle the cries of the poor. What Washington policy-makers
fail to understand today, as they did in 1991, is that a demokrasi
pepe or ekonomi pepe will not solve the crisis in Haiti. "We
cannot live like this," notes trade unionist Yannick Etienne.
"We need an authentic democracy, constructed by the people,
reflecting the demands of the people."
Dan Coughlin covered Haiti for InterPress
Service from the UN and Port-au-Prince from 1992 to 1996. He is
now news director of Pacifca Radio.