Haiti is 'fixed'

[Canada's role in the de-democratization of Haiti]

by Kevin Skerrett

New Socialist, 12/1/05 (ZNet)


Recent Canadian policy in Haiti has been remarkably successful, having achieved most of its objectives. This is the case in much the same way that US policies in places such as El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s were smashing successes - quite literally.

At first glance, such an assertion would appear terribly wrong. Any serious reading of the existing situation in Haiti (available almost exclusively outside the mainstream media, within explicitly left-wing vehicles such as New Socialist) indicates that when Canada, the US and France initiated the February 29 2004 coup d'état that ousted the elected government of Haiti and installed an unelected puppet regime, they unleashed a terrifying wave of repression against the desperately poor majority of the country (see NS issues #46,49, & 52 and extensive coverage of the coup on Znet). Along with uncounted thousands killed, independent human rights groups report that over 700 political prisoners have been jailed without charge, mainly leaders and supporters of (deposed) President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas party. The Canadian-trained Haitian National Police have been repeatedly seen shooting unarmed demonstrators, and - most recently - collaborating with machete-wielding gangs engaged in a terror campaign targeting all those calling for a return of the constitutional government that most Haitians elected.

However, to conclude that such outcomes signify a policy failure assumes that Canada's agenda was actually the establishment of a peaceful, human rights respecting democracy in Haiti. In fact, the recent episode in Haiti offers us rich evidence for the view that Canada's actual foreign policy agenda is to work in tandem with the US and a few other key military allies in entrenching and stabilizing a world economic system where safe investment outlets, cheap labour production zones and unfettered access to natural resources and export markets are not only established but locked-in by trade agreements which trump national constitutions.

In what follows, I advance this argument by examining three central objectives of Canada's Haiti policy. In concluding that these objectives were met, I then offer a brief reflection on what lessons this "success" might hold for those of us aiming to challenge and subvert this unconscionable agenda.

Objective 1: Further debase the established concept of national sovereignty

Having joined the coup brigade in Haiti, Canada needed a rationale to explain why such a patently undemocratic assault on a poor country was in fact quite legitimate. This rationale would need to be able to overcome the established attachment to the concept of national sovereignty and make it revocable, under certain circumstances (to be defined by the powerful). As eventually articulated in the May 2005 International Policy Statement, and in various speeches to the UN, Canada has used its Haiti intervention (along with the bombing and occupation of Afghanistan) as positive illustrations of the doctrine now known as "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P). For some, this concept is merely an update of the racist "white man's burden" - the notion that wealthy, militarily powerful countries have an obligation to "protect" the populations of poorer countries unable to protect (or govern) themselves.

Canada's Haiti policy also shows us how deeply-set racist perceptions of other (non-white) countries can be effectively mobilized to advance this concept. The established view of Haiti's (formerly enslaved, extremely poor, African) population - as "incapable of self-government" - was renewed and refreshed. When Ottawa Citizen columnist David Warren lamented on the eve of the coup that Haiti had failed to create "a people who are susceptible to self-government," it elicited no particular notice. His racism was echoed more recently by Liberal MP Beth Phinney, who asked during a June 14 Foreign Affairs committee hearing: "How can you change the will of the people [of Haiti] to want to be able to govern themselves?" Such repugnant views require total ignorance of Haitian history, during which the population liberated itself from slavery, occupation and dictatorship, and then managed to democratically elect a president (three times!) that the US government overtly opposed. If the people of Haiti have proven one thing in their tragic history, it is their burning desire - and their capacity - to "govern themselves."

But of course, this is the threat that the coup in Haiti ended, and that the R2P doctrine is designed to counter. And, with the concept now "field-tested," it is ready to serve usefully in the future should the need to violate another country's sovereignty (or support the violations carried out by an "ally") arise again.

Objective 2: Disguise Imperial Domination as "Development"

Unfortunately, fond recollections of some of the original redistributive ideals attached to international development programs have blinded some progressives to the true function of "development" and development agencies within the current international system. As a result, we have the social democratic NDP and many well-intentioned progressives following the lead of Bono, Bob Geldof, and the recent "Live 8" showbiz against world poverty concerts calling more or less blindly for "more aid." Progressive critics of the Liberals point to their failure to reach the hallowed development aid target of 0.7% of GDP - and often just stop there.

Canada's relationship with Haiti is a stark indicator of the simplicity of these calls. When the Canadian government hosted a secret meeting in early 2003 in order to (it was later revealed in L'Actualité magazine) plot the overthrow of Haiti's elected government, they invited representatives of the US and France, and brought along senior staff from Canada's international development agency - CIDA. A careful examination of CIDA's recent programming in Haiti reveals that in politically sensitive areas (human rights, women's rights, media, etc.), the Haitian NGOs and agencies that CIDA was funding were without exception active players within the elite minority political opposition to Haiti's government.

While CIDA continued to boast publicly that it was providing substantial assistance to Haiti, the reality was that in the several years leading up to the coup, it was quietly supporting the US-led embargo on aid to the highly dependent Haitian government, in an effort to destabilize it through financial strangulation. A look at recent international aid flows to Haiti - coming primarily from Canada, the US and France - clarifies the severity of this murderous embargo.

External aid to Haiti
in $US millions 1994-2002
1994-95: 611
1995-96: 427
1996-97: 378
1997-98: 371
1998-99: 330
1999-2000: 266
2000-01: 170
2001-02: 136

Source: World Bank, International Cooperation Framework (ICF), July 2004

With the election of George W. Bush in the US in 2000, US aid to Haiti's government actually stopped altogether, leaving the nearly bankrupt Haitian government defenceless and incapacitated. It is telling that the thousands of Haitians who surely died or suffered badly as a result of these "aid sanctions" have never even been counted - "unworthy victims" of an aid policy turned policy sledgehammer.

What must be realized is that this result was intentional. It was the design and intended consequence of a program in which CIDA and its American equivalent USAID participated directly. The question of why this destabilization was carried out continues to be debated, but many have argued persuasively that while President Aristide accepted some of the dictates of Canadian and American neoliberal conditionality, he also resisted some, such as the demand for wholesale privatization of state enterprises. (On this, it is worth recalling that in a recent interview with journalist Naomi Klein, Aristide summarized the reason for his overthrow in three words: "Privatization, privatization, privatization.")

Of course, none of this has ever been reported in any detail in the Canadian media, and in fact, Prime Minister Martin was able to point to Haiti as his main foreign policy "success story" during the June 2004 federal leadership debates (to no response from NDP leader Jack Layton or anyone else for that matter). In this sense, the con - disguising an utterly cynical and self-interested imperial game as a humanitarian intervention led by CIDA - has worked quite well. It has shown that "international aid" can do more than just feed and dig wells: it can provoke (and legitimize) regime change.

Objective 3: Establish Canada's reputation as trusted election monitor

Following the coup, it was recognized that the installed puppet government would not enjoy the full legitimacy that would be required to truly move Haiti onto the "correct" neoliberal path. What was therefore required was what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have referred to as a "demonstration" election - a tightly constrained and controlled voting exercise that projects the imagery of liberal-democratic institutions, but whose actual function is to legitimize the "elected" government. A key function within such elections is the "observation/monitoring" process, which Chomsky and Herman describe in Manufacturing Consent as follows:

"Official observers are dispatched to the election scene to assure its public-relations success. Nominally, their role is to see that the election is 'fair.' Their real function, however, is to provide the appearance of fairness by focusing on the government's agenda and by channeling press attention to a reliable source. They testify to fairness on the basis of long lines, smiling faces, no beatings in their presence, and the assurances and enthusiasm of U.S. and client-state officials."

Such elections were recently organized in both occupied Afghanistan (October, 2004) and occupied Iraq (January, 2005). What is interesting to recall is that in Iraq, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley (head of Elections Canada) played a leading role in precisely this process. Barely six weeks prior to the January 30, 2005 vote, Kingsley was called upon to form an expert "assessment mission" to evaluate the quality of the planned election. To no one's surprise, this mission dutifully issued the needed blessing on the day of the election itself (surely drafted in advance, and released prior to any possible detailed reporting as to the vote's fairness). Remarkably, the definitive conclusion brought forward was widely cited in the pro-war corporate media, despite having been reached by an "assessment" team physically located in Jordan!

When a similar blessing was needed for a post-coup occupation election in Haiti in late 2005, the relevant powers turned once again (in June 2005) to Jean-Pierre Kingsley to head up an almost identical group of "election experts," this time not even offering to "assess" (as in Iraq) but merely to "monitor." Kingsley was an especially good choice for advancing the Canadian and American agendas in Haiti. He is a Board member of a "pro-democracy" NGO called the International Foundation of Election Systems (IFES), which has been very active in Haiti in recent years. In fact, as a detailed report from the University of Miami Law School has shown, IFES was centrally involved in the organization of Haiti's small, elite-led political opposition, and was an active supporter of the forces that brought about the coup. (It is hardly surprising to find that IFES receives funding from such renowned democracy-lovers as Exxon-Mobil, Citibank and Motorola).

In order to reach the foregone conclusion that a "free and fair" election was held in Haiti that "meets recognized standards," it will be necessary that the assessment team minimize or ignore the significance of certain key aspects of Haiti's political climate, such as: hundreds of political prisoners including prominent leaders of one party in particular (Lavalas); state terror exercised through police squads who target victims on a political, as well as class/race basis; the arrest or even police execution (Abdias Jean) of journalists willing to report on police atrocities; politically selective exclusions of vast sectors of the electorate through insufficient registration and polling station access; the judicial exoneration and release of convicted paramilitary killers such as Louis-Jodel Chamblain; reasonable and legitimate boycotts of both registration and voting by parties who are targets of state terror, etc.

We should anticipate that yet another sham occupation election will be carried out, buttressed by the foregone conclusions of the Kingsley/Elections Canada led monitoring mission, and Haiti will be placed neatly in the Afghanistan/Iraq category - embarking on a "bold new era of democratic life." Paul Martin and the Government of Canada will take much credit for having "democratized" the unruly masses of Haiti - and a new pro-US, pro-Canadian government will be installed, ready to embrace the economic policy agenda designed for it in Washington and Ottawa. The profits available to Canadian companies engaged in Haiti's "reconstruction," or taking advantage of its re-disciplined labour market, are already flowing, with more to come.

Lessons for the Left in Canada

One of the obvious lessons from the foregoing is simple: "Don't believe the hype." But the fact is that far too many "progressives," including some involved in the anti-war movement and within otherwise quite progressive NGOs, have swallowed the government and the corporate media messaging about Haiti. In part, this is because certain trusted groups - such as CIDA-funded NGOs like Development and Peace, Rights and Democracy and Alternatives - supported the coup. Trust in such groups needs to be reassessed.

Further, much more work is needed to undermine and expose the carefully constructed and maintained mythology of Canada as peacekeeper and democracy-builder. If anything, our Haiti policy illustrates that neoliberal and neo-colonial rot has infected and transformed even some of the government programs and NGOs about which we may have thought better. In some cases, they now serve as key cogs in the machinery of Canadian imperialism, no less vital than Foreign Affairs and its corporate partners.

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