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 Party.

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 Aristide's ouster.

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.

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