Haiti's Year of Repression

by Ashley Smith

International Socialist Review July-August 2005


In February 2004, the United States orchestrated a coup against Jean Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti. U.S. Marines occupied the country for the third time in the last one hundred years, during the 200th anniversary of Haiti's revolution to become an independent Black republic. Soon after, the U.S. handed oversight of the occupation to the United Nations.

George W. Bush promised, just as he did in Iraq, that the U.S. and the UN would bring democracy, stability; and respect for human rights. Two recent studies, one from Harvard Law School and another from the University of Miami Law School, prove the opposite; the coup regime backed by the UN rules the country through state terror.

In the University of Miami report, lawyer Thomas Griffin writes,

"The police, backed by UN forces, routinely carry out indiscriminate and unprofessional killing operations. The undisciplined army is back protecting the rich and attacking the poor. The justice system is twisted against poor young men, dissidents and anyone calling for the return of the constitutional government. Prisons fill with young men who are arrested without warrants and are denied due process. Partisanship and corruption occupy the electoral council's attention, leaving little hope for free and fair elections."

The UN occupation and its puppet regime have thus thrown Haiti into chaos, further immiserated the country's poor majority, and repressed dissent and resistance of any kind. Following a familiar script, the U.S. is pressuring the UN to intensify its police operations in the run up to this fall's parliamentary and presidential elections. The U.S. hopes the elections will put a democratic veneer on the garrison state it is building in Haiti.

The U.S. has long wanted to rid itself of Jean Bertrand Aristide. He led a democratic movement, called Lavalas, which overthrew the U.S. ally and dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. He advocated reform for the urban poor and peasantry and denounced U.S. imperialism, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the neoliberal plans they had imposed on the country. Aristide went on to win Haiti's first free and fair presidential election in 1990, with over two-thirds of the vote.

The United States, Haiti's ruling class, and the Haitian Army (FADH) collaborated to overthrow him in a 1991 coup. The military dictatorship murdered 6,000 people, sent hundreds of thousands into hiding, and drove tens of thousands to become refugees, many of whom the U.S. detained at Guantánamo Bay or forcibly returned to Haiti to face persecution.

In 1994, the U.S. invaded and occupied Haiti to stem the refugee crisis. Aristide was restored to power on the condition that he abandon his mild reform program. For the most part, Aristide accepted the conditions, adopting neoliberal economic policies. Aristide also gave up the three years he lost of his term to the coup, and stepped down from office in 1995. In 2000, Aristide's party swept the national elections and he again ran for president, trouncing all contenders with over 90 percent of the vote.

While Aristide continued to rule as a neoliberal, he still gave speeches denouncing imperialism and even demanded that France repay $21 million it had forced Haiti to pay for its independence in 1804.

Another U.S. coup

Fed up with Aristide's nationalist rhetoric, the U.S., along with Canada and France, orchestrated a classic destabilization campaign. They used the pretext of irregularities in the 2000 election to impose an aid embargo on the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, throwing it into economic free fall. The U.S. hoped to force Aristide into a deal with the opposition, the Democratic Convergence and Group of 184. The U.S. backed these formations, which brought together former allies of Aristide with Duvalierists and key figures from the Haitian ruling class, such as sweatshop magnate Andy Apaid.

But when this attempt failed, the U.S. staged a coup to install an obedient regime. The U.S. trained Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a CIA asset and former leader of the death squad FRAPH, as well as a convicted murderer; Guy Philippe, a former Haitian Army officer and police chief known for his brutality; and an assortment of ex-military allies at a Dominican military base called San Cristobar. Philippe was trained by U.S. Special Forces in Ecuador in the early 1990s. The U.S. also supplied the paramilitary groups with new M- 1 6s funneled through the Dominican Republic. These forces swept across Haiti in February and threatened to overthrow the Lavalas government.'

After three weeks, on February 29, the U.S. sent marines into Port-au-Prince to "bring order and stability to Haiti,"' Bush claimed. U.S. forces coerced Aristide into a helicopter after informing him that they could not guarantee his "safety;" and whisked him away to the Central African Republic, releasing him to eventual exile in South Africa. While Aristide claimed he was kidnapped at gunpoint, the U.S. insisted that "at President Aristide's request, the United States facilitated his safe departure from Haiti."' With Aristide gone, the death squads went on a killing spree against the pro-Aristide poor, especially in Port-au-Prince, where they murdered well over 1,000 people, whose corpses overflowed the city's morgue.

Puppet regime and UN occupation

The U.S. quickly appointed a Council of Wise Men from the Haitian elite who helped select the new government. They chose a former UN diplomat, Gerard Latortue, who had been living in Florida for the last couple of decades, to become prime minister. While the U.S., France, Canada, and the UN immediately bestowed their blessings on the regime, the Caribbean Community that unites governments throughout region has refused to recognize Latortue as Haiti's prime minister or even allow the coup regime's representatives to attend their meetings.

In one of his first official acts, Latortue praised the death squads that had toppled Aristide as "freedom fighters." But the U.S. and Latortue could not rely on these gangsters to impose order on the country. Moreover, the Haitian National Police (PNH) was in disarray and Aristide had disbanded the FADH back in 1995.

Consequently, the U.S. turned to the UN as its vehicle for control. The Security Council passed a unanimous resolution to supply troops for a peacekeeping operation entitled United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). As retired General Wesley Clark said after a recent inspection, the "UN is trying to do our work for us there."' President Lula of Brazil volunteered to head up the UN operation to win support from the U.S. to gain a seat on the UN Security Council. His appointed General Augusto Heleno made the mission's aims clear when he declared that "we must kill the bandits, but it will have to be the bandits only, not everybody."'

After starving Aristide's government of funds, the U.S., France, and Canada, along with the IMF and the World Bank, quickly promised over $1 billion in aid to the coup regime. While much of these funds have yet to materialize, Latortue has used what money he has received to arm the police force and make payments on Haiti's growing debt. Latortue's first priority was to rebuild the police to enforce order. He promised to pay 5,000 former FADE soldiers $5,000 each and hire 1,000 of these to lead the PNH. To arm this repressive force, U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control John Bolton authorized the transfer of more than 2,600 weapons, in open violation of the fourteen-year arms embargo on Haiti.

But this may only be the tip of the iceberg. In a report issued by the Small Arms Survey, the internationally respected arms control expert Robert Muggah argues that the U.S. sold more than 9,000 weapons and one million rounds of ammunition to the new government. Muggah estimates the value of the shipment at close to $7 million. Predictably, the U.S. has disputed Muggah's study, but it has announced that it aims to lift its embargo and is considering selling Haiti an additional $1.9 million in arms in the coming year.

Latortue's son has been implicated in several media reports in privately arranging arms purchases. In one case, a Haitian-American arms dealer, Joel Deeb, told the British Independent that Youri Latortue paid him a letter of credit for $500,000 to purchase arms. He claimed that because of the arms embargo, the deal had not been consummated. The coup regime has also spent the money in the usual obscene pattern, servicing its debt to various countries and international financial institutions. Moreover, in an astonishing insult to the country's impoverished population, Haiti will have to repay the UN for the occupation, which is costing $25 million a month)'

While Latortue has been wheeling and dealing in arms, repaying loans, and racking up new debt, the Haitian people's needs have been ignored. The chaos precipitated by the U.S. coup, combined with last year's hurricanes that destroyed the city of Gonaive and the surrounding agricultural lands, has reduced the rural and urban poor to desperation and chronic food insecurity. "This government doesn't have any social policy," Haitian activist Camille Chalmers told reporters. "The poor, the peasants, might as well not exist. The conditions of people have worsened dramatically in the last year. It is an explosive social situation."

UN complicity with coup repression

To control the nation, the coup regime has turned to its reconstituted and rearmed PNH in alliance with the UN troops. Together they have repressed the population and targeted any dissent, especially from supporters of Aristide's party Fanmi Lavalas.

The coup regime has had the PNH arrest and jail more than 700 Lavalas activists without even charging them with a crime. As of December 2004, only 22 of the 1,041 prisoners in the national penitentiary had been convicted of a crime.

In the highest profile case, the PNH seized the elected prime minister, Yvon Neptune, in 2004 and have held him for months on allegations that he ordered a massacre that year. But, because they have little evidence to substantiate their case, they have not formally charged him. In fact, Louis Joiner, the independent UN expert on human rights, has concluded that, "there was no massacre."" To protest his unjust imprisonment, Neptune is now on his second hunger strike and near death.

By contrast, the regime has released hundreds of military and death squad leaders and reversed their convictions of human rights abuses. Haiti's courts overturned the conviction of coup leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain for his involvement in the 1993 assassination of Lavalas supporter Antoine Izmery. They also quashed the conviction and jail sentences issued in 2000 to Chamblain and dozens of other death squad leaders for their roles in the 1994 Raboteau massacre that left over twenty dead, dozens more beaten, and their homes burned to the ground.

The PNH and the UN have targeted a few uncooperative death squad leaders. For example, they stormed a stronghold of Remissainthe Ravix, killed him, and dispersed his death squad. But such cases are the exception. For the most part, the PNH has integrated many former death squad leaders and military personnel into its ranks and have collaborated with others to terrorize the poor and Lavalas supporters.

Far from interfering with this process, the Harvard Law School study states, "MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission] in Haiti has effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in the Port-au-Prince slums."" To justify this persecution, the coup regime and the UN say they are pursuing Lavalas gangs. Aristide's government no doubt made questionable alliances with gangs called Chimères, but the UN and the coup regime's attempt to paint all Lavalas supporters as gangsters is without foundation. Moreover, given the terror unleashed by the coup, it is unsurprising that people would have armed themselves in self-defense.

Using the alibi of controlling violent gangs, the combined forces of the UN, the PNH, and the death squads regularly storm into Cite Soleil and other poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. They have set up checkpoints around several of these neighborhoods to prevent demonstrations. Essentially, they have turned them into jails.

The death squads target street children who have historically supported Aristide and Lavalas. Activist Michael Brewer told investigators that the paramilitary units "justify the murders of these boys by referring to them as 'vagabonds' and say that they are 'cleaning the streets.' There are dump zones where the decomposing bodies of little boys can be found any day of the week.""

The PNH, paramilitary units, and gangs have also engaged in mass rapes to punish Aristide supporters. Lyn Duff writes that there is "a growing number of girls and young women who human rights investigators say have been victims of mass rape committed by members of the disbanded military and their compatriots who patrol the countryside and Haiti's cities, hunting down supporters of Haiti's fledgling pro-democracy movement." Lavalas has responded to this terror with demonstrations demanding an end to the occupation and the return of Aristide as the democratically elected president of the country. On September 30, Latortue's police fired on over 10,000 protesters marching through Port-au-Prince, killing several and wounding many more.

The UN has denounced these pro-democracy demonstrators as a violent threat to the state. Juan Gabriel Valdés, the UN secretary general's special representative to Haiti, declared, "What we have seen in this country during the last month or two has been a resurgence of brutal violence organized probably to provoke a process of political destabilization." He went on to explain that he was "under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence.""

UN troops and the PNH have obeyed and attacked a series of pro-democracy demonstrations. On February 29, the PNH backed up by UN troops fired on thousands demonstrating on the one-year anniversary of the coup, killing five activists and wounding dozens. Since then, the PNH has attacked several more demonstrations, including another mass match on April 27. Undeterred by the repression, another 10,000 marched on May 18.

Journalist and filmmaker Kevin Pina estimates that over the last year the coup regime, with UN and U.S. backing, has killed 3,000 people and driven 100,000 into hiding.

The Bush administration, despite these obvious human rights violations, has refused to give Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to Haitian refugees and immigrants, which would allow them to remain in the U.S. until it is safe for them to return. The U.S. has in fact increased the number of detentions and deportations of Haitians. One activist in the U.S. told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "they stop Haitians on the street, in the malls where they work, everywhere. I guess we're easy to be spotted, because we are Black. They take them and send them back to Haiti. "

Taking a lead from Bush, the Dominican Republic has expelled over 4,000 Haitian workers. The more than 1.5 million Haitians who work in the Dominican Republic are treated as second-class citizens and used as cheap labor in the country's sweatshops."


Bungled election

Through this repression, the U.S. aims to prevent the poor and Lavalas, which is still the largest and most popular parry in Haiti, from organizing opposition to the coup and occupation. The U.S. is intent on staging a demonstration election in October or November to give a democratic cover to its regime change.

The idea of having an election under such conditions is farcical. As the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network declares, "there can be no fair and free elections in Haiti while it is under occupation by foreign forces and Haiti's fair and freely elected and constitutionally appointed government officials are all ousted from office, in exile, in prison or have been killed. "

The coup regime has so far bungled even the most basic preparations for the election. Even though they are legally mandating all 4.5 million eligible voters to register, they have only gotten 113,000 people to do so. Disgusted with the situation, the president of the Provisional Electoral Council resigned, dismissing the coming election as a "burlesque comedy. " The council, which is assigned to organize the vote, now has no functioning administration and is such a mess that donor countries are withholding pledges of $61 million to fund the election .

Lavalas has announced that it will continue to protest and will boycott the upcoming elections unless the coup regime releases its political prisoners, ends its terror against the poor and Lavalas activists, and allows President Aristide to return to Haiti. "We have organized quietly to tell people not to register for this election," said one woman at a pro-Lavalas meeting in Petionville. "We don't go to the demonstrations because the police might kill us, and this is the only way left to us to protest the coup." Without Lavalas, the only national political party with any kind of popular backing, the election will have no legitimacy.

Sections of the Haitian ruling class have gotten nervous about the incompetence of the coup regime. Reginald Boulos, president of the Haiti Chamber of Commerce, met with Condoleezza Rice during the Florida meetings of the Organization of American States. Afterward, he exclaimed, "I told her that the transition is failing. I told her unless major action is taken that we will not have a climate of security and the election process will not go far. "

The Miami Herald reported that a member of the Council of Wise Men, Ariel Henry, called the coup regime "a failure." They write, "he added that the council will soon issue an ultimatum to Latortue: bring the country under control in 30 days or resign. " With the entire operation at risk of failure, a Washington Post editorial called on the U.S. to deploy marines to oversee the election. The Post wrote, "If Haiti is to be secured or is to hold a democratic election, it will need the help of at least a few hundred American fighters. The sooner they go the easier their task will be. "

In response to the crisis, the U.S. has made it very clear that it will push through the elections and, for now, that it will not send in the marines. U.S. ambassador to Haiti James Foley stated "the U.S. believes strongly that elections not only need to take place this year, but will take place. "30

The U.S., with its forces stretched thin managing the occupation of Iraq, continues to press the UN and its Brazilian commanders to enforce order in Haiti. Ambassador Foley criticized the UN for not being aggressive enough in helping Haitian police confront gangs . The UN has agreed to extend its peacekeeping mission through the election period.

One international observer explains the conundrum faced by the United States:

"This is the international community's worst nightmare. If the numbers of those participating in these elections do not rise to credible levels, it will give Aristide and his supporters the argument that this was a national referendum on his ouster. This will make it impossible for the next government to rule. They won't have a credible mandate, and all we may have succeeded in doing [in supporting Aristide's ouster] is opening the door for future instability. We have to wonder when the next Haitian government will actually finish a full term in office without having to rely upon severe repression."

The coup regime is reconstructing the old Duvalieriest system of a repressive police force and client death squads to enforce a neoliberal economic agenda that sells Haitian labor to multinationals. In an ominous sign, Latortue has announced plans to increase the size of the police force from 4,000 to 30,000 officers in the coming months. The U.S. would like to cover this Duvalierism with a veneer of democracy. If the election fails, however, the U.S., through the vehicle of the UN, stands ready either to back some form of dictatorship or take the country over as a colonial protectorate.

Haiti's right to self-determination

The U.S. coup and UN occupation demonstrate that neither can intervene to liberate a nation. But that is not at all clear to even those who have criticized the coup and occupation. For example, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which has published blistering criticism of the U.S. and UN, is actually calling for the UN to control the PNH and the death squads. They write "it is patently clear that the time has come to transfer MINUSTAH into an occupying force ...in order to end the malignant threat posed by leaders of the former Haitian armed forces"

This is tantamount to asking the fox to guard the henhouse. The U.S. has used the UN as a vehicle to legitimize its coup and oversee the repression of the poor. Brazil's most important daily newspaper, Foiha de Sao Paoo, hit the nail on the head when they wrote that "UN forces under Brazilian command, play the role of a substitute army offering military support for repressive police operations and judicial prosecution .... The Brazilian government has played the role of hired gunman of the United States."

Activists should defend Haiti's right to self-determination, demand an immediate end to the occupation, call for complete cancellation of the country's debt, and require the U.S., France, Canada, and the UN to flood the country with money, food, and materials with no conditions attached. However grim the current moment appears, the Haitian masses have proven their capacity to fight for their liberation, from their slave revolution that defeated the Spanish, British, and French Empires to their successful toppling of the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980s. Only Haitians, backed by international solidarity against U.S. imperialism, can rebuild their social movements and reconstruct their society and politics in their own interests.


Ashley Smith is on the editorial board of the ISR. He is the author of 'Aristide's Rise and Fall," ISR 35, May-June 2004, available at http://www. isreview. org/ issues/35/aristide.shtml.

Haiti page

Index of Website

Home Page