The recent events in Haiti are yet another sad chapter in the history of Western imperialism. The roots of the current crisis trace all the way back to January 1, 1804, when Toussaint L'Ouverture and his army of African slaves humiliated France and the rest of the "civilized" world by liberating the island of St. Domingue, the place now called Haiti. The Haitian revolution created the first major crack in the foundation of white supremacy. Ten years earlier the island nation had become a colonial asset of France. The indigenous population had been wiped out previously by Christopher Columbus on behalf of Spain. France obtained great riches through the exploitation of the island's natural resources using a brutal system of slave labor. Much like India would later become the "Crown Jewel" of the British Empire, Haiti was referred to as the "Pearl of the Antilles."
L'Ouverture was captured by France and eventually froze to death in the mountain prison they kept him in. After the revolution both France and the United States, aghast at the notion of a "black republic," refused to acknowledge the new government of Haiti. Haiti was forced to pay 90 million gold francs in "compensation" to French plantation owners for properties and investments they lost as a result of the liberation. It took Haiti almost 100 years to pay off the debt. On the 200th anniversary of L'Ouverture's death President Aristide asked France to repay the money, which would amount to over $20 billion today. This didn't win him many friends in Paris.
The United States has an equally shameful history of exploiting Haiti. The U.S. government aided France's attempt to crush the slave revolt. American investors and multinational corporations have a long history of cooperation with Haitian dictators. In 1915 Woodrow Wilson began a U.S. military occupation of Haiti that would last 19 years. The U.S. helped create the Haitian army during this time. The Army became the main instrument by which the poor masses of Haiti were kept in line by whichever autocratic regime happened to be in power. The Army brutally suppressed and intimidated labor unions and dissidents. This continued until President Aristide bravely disbanded the Army in 1995.
The First Coup
Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere. About 80% of the country's population lives in poverty. What little wealth Haiti has is highly concentrated among the country's ruling elite. The richest 1% of the population owns nearly half the nation's wealth. Most of the ruling class consists of light-skinned "mulattos" who share partial ancestry with the French colonizers. These ruling elites, many of whom are multimillionaires, have always been friendly to the major world powers and the various Haitian despots, including the regimes of "Papa" and "Baby" Doc Duvalier. It is easy to understand why these people harbor a pathological hatred for Aristide, a former priest who preached liberation theology and whose strongest supporters inhabit the slums of Port-au-Prince.
In the first free elections in Haitian history, Aristide won in a landslide, garnering 67.5% of the vote. The U.S. supported a former World Bank official, Marc Bazin, who received 14.2% of the vote. Several months into his term, President Aristide was overthrown by opposition forces and former members of the military. The U.S. government had funneled money to the opposition through organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracies (NED) and the Agency for International Development (AID). A CIA-backed organization known as FRAPH (Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress) executed a campaign of terror against supporters of Aristide's Lavalas movement. Anywhere between 3 and 5 thousand Haitians were slaughtered during Aristide's 3 year exile, during which Haiti was ruled by a military dictator.
The leader of FRAPH, Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, is currently living in New York. Despite the "War on Terror," no effort has been made to hold him accountable for his crimes. In response to the coup, the Organization of American States (OAS) announced an embargo and sanctions against the new military regime. The U.S. declared 800 American businesses "exempt" from the restrictions. Despite the embargo, trade actually increased during Aristide's exile. In 1994 Aristide was restored to power with the help of 20,000 U.S. Marines. By that time, the right-wing forces had wiped out a significant portion of the popular movement. As a condition of his return Aristide was forced to agree to unpopular economic reforms that would largely benefit the country's ruling elite and foreign investors.
The Second Coup
To describe the current coup against Aristide is to essentially re-tell the story of the 1991 coup. The same players are involved, including former members of the FRAPH death squad. Louis-Jodel Chamblain, the former second-in-command of FRAPH, was a prominent figure of the "rebel" forces. Chamblain has been described as a "cold-blooded killer." He was sentenced to life at hard labor in connection with the 1993 assassination of Antoine Izméry. Jean-Pierre Baptiste, also sentenced to life for his role in the 1994 Raboteau massacre, has been involved in rebel activities. Guy Philippe, the leader of the rebels, reportedly received training from U.S. forces in Ecuador. Philippe is a notoriously brutal former police chief. The men under his command were known to commit summary executions. He has also been involved in previous failed coup attempts against Aristide and is suspected of cocaine trafficking.
Philippe and his band of killers rampaged across the Haitian countryside, eventually taking control of several major cities. The dead would eventually number in the hundreds, most of them Haitian police officers. The "rebels" would also set fire to police stations and other government buildings. The so-called "political opposition" attempted to distance themselves from these armed thugs, but in the lead-up to the coup they could hardly contain their glee over the prospect of Guy Philippe's army taking the capital. At this point the ties between the paramilitaries and the political opposition of Group 184 and the Democratic Platform are not controversial. The fact that they are working in concert should be no surprise; the "political opposition" is dominated by Haiti's wealthy elites and the "rebels" are dominated by the same thugs who worked on behalf of the wealthy elites under previous regimes.
The NED and the International Republican Institute were also back on the scene sending considerable sums of money to Aristide's opposition. Reports have also indicated that the M-16s and other military equipment used by the rebels may have come from U.S. shipments that had previously been sent to the military of the Dominican Republic (the rebels invaded Haiti from the Dominican Republic). As members of the Congressional Black Caucus have pointed out, the shipment of guns to the Dominican Republic seemed a bit odd, considering that they had no pressing need for them. The rebel units were said to be very well-trained. The Haitians that resisted them had little to defend themselves with other than rocks, bottles, and machetes. The fact that the rebels were able to advance so quickly had more to do with their armaments than with their popularity among the Haitian people (despite the media's characterization of the coup as a "popular rebellion").
At first, the Bush administration repeatedly claimed to support a "political settlement." The Caribbean inter-state organization of CARICOM devised a political settlement that would have allowed Aristide to serve the rest of his term while making several large concessions to the opposition. Aristide hastily agreed to the proposal, but the opposition rejected it. If the Bush administration had been genuinely in favor of a political settlement they would have immediately condemned the opposition for refusing to come to the table. That didn't happen. The Bush administration changed its tone and began condemning Aristide for allegedly starting all the trouble in the first place. By giving the opposition the power to veto any political settlement, the Bush administration had effectively sided (publicly) with the rebels.
At that point, Guy Philippe's forces had surrounded Port-au-Prince. This is where the details get sketchy. The Bush administration claimed on Sunday that Aristide had resigned and been taken out of the country overnight (recall they said the same about Hugo Chavez in Venezuela). Sunday evening Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! held a special broadcast about the Haiti crisis. Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters expressed extreme skepticism over the Bush administration's version of events. They had been in contact with President Aristide in previous days, and he had made no indication to them that he was planning on leaving. The next day President Aristide was able to contact both of them as well as other members of the Black Caucus, telling them that he had been taken against his will and that he was the victim of a coup.
After Aristide had left, Guy Philippe rode triumphantly through the streets of Port-au-Prince. The events that followed gives one a clear idea regarding the kind of people Bush has chosen to tacitly ally himself with. Philippe declared himself the new "chief" of the Haitian military, which he planned on reconstituting. He also claimed in an interview with the Miami Herald that his hero was General Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator of Chile. Second on his list of heroes was former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. His thugs rampaged through the slums of Port-au-Prince killing alleged Aristide militants. Meanwhile in France the former dictator of Haiti, "Baby Doc" Duvalier, said that he was eager to return to Haiti now that the political climate was more favorable. The U.S. government pressed Philippe to lay down his arms, which he agreed to do. According to the New York Times, however, the revenge killings and chaos continued anyway.
The media reluctantly began to pick up the story. I heard several TV news anchors say things to the effect of, "Now some black members of Congress are claiming that Aristide was actually kidnapped." The word "kidnapped" was said using a high-pitched tone, as if to say, "Who came up with this crazy idea?" Also note how they took the time to inform us that these were black members of Congress. In other words, "Let's be cautious everyone.. we all know how Negroes tend to exaggerate things." When was the last time you heard a reporter say something like, "The increased funding for public housing was met with considerable opposition by white members of Congress"? They wouldn't say something like that even if every single member who opposed it were white. In any event, the Bush administration denounced the claim as a "conspiracy theory."
A few hours later, President Aristide confirmed what he had said on CNN. As more information comes out the circumstances of the ouster seem more and more suspicious. First of all, there can be no denying that this was a coup. When armed thugs overrun a country and the President flees for fear of his life and the lives of his family, that is clearly a coup. On the question of U.S. support for the coup, more questions come up every day. Aristide supposedly signed a resignation letter. The translation given to Aristide said, "The Constitution cannot be drowned in the blood of the Haitian people. . . For that reason, tonight I am resigning in order to avoid a bloodbath." However, a translation for the Associated Press reads, "The Constitution cannot be drowned in the blood of the Haitian people. For that reason, if tonight it is my resignation that will avoid a bloodbath, I accept to leave with the hope that there will be life and not death." The latter is clearly more ambiguous. Either way, the document was clearly signed under duress.
According to journalist Kevin Pina, two sources who were present on the night of the coup corroborated the claim that Aristide had been taken against his will at gunpoint. One was a housekeeper that had worked for Aristide for years. The other was a reporter for a mainstream U.S. media outlet who was said to be too "terrified" to identify himself. Reports had also indicated that South Africa had rejected appeals for asylum by President Aristide. The next day Democracy Now reported that South African officials at the UN claimed that no request for asylum was made. The U.S. also reportedly blocked a last minute attempt by Aristide to reinforce his private security in addition to refusing to protect the capital themselves. Sketchy reports have also indicated that other countries wanted to intervene but were blocked by the United States. On the Friday before the coup, Kevin Pina told Democracy Now that Embassy officials from Venezuela had told him Venezuela was going to intervene unilaterally under the Rio Pact, which had forced the U.S. into action. Members of Congress have indicated that some countries wanted to save the President, but declined to name any names for fear that those countries would also incur the wrath of the Bush administration.
Reasons for Optimism
Right now President Aristide is being held in the Central African Republic under what Maxine Waters has described as "prison-like conditions." He is under armed guard and cannot move freely. Although his contact with the outside world has been limited, he has made every attempt to insist that he was the victim of a coup. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have vowed to keep the pressure on the Bush administration. Congresswoman Barbara Lee has called for an investigation into the circumstances of the coup. When Aristide landed in the Central African Republic, he reportedly gave a radio address in which he said, "I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will grow back because the roots are L'Ouverturian," referring to the historic liberator of the Haitian people. At the time I wondered how he could even pretend to be optimistic in a time like this, when we have heard nothing but horrible news for 3 weeks straight. I was answered today by a report from Reuters:
"Thousands of outraged supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide poured out of Haiti's slums and into the streets on Friday, marching on the U.S. Embassy to denounce the "occupation" of their homeland and demand Aristide's return . . . a crowd estimated at more than 10,000 materialized in the capital, seething with anger at Aristide's flight to Africa five days ago after a bloody rebellion and U.S. pressure . . . Hundreds held up their hands with five fingers extended, shouting "Aristide five years," the rallying cry of his supporters who wanted him to finish his five-year term in office. U.S. troops watched impassively from the rooftop . . . They blamed Haiti's wealthy elite, Bush and French President Jacques Chirac for what they called the "foreign occupation" of Haiti. "'The bourgeoisie joined with the international community to occupy Haiti and get rid of President Aristide," one demonstrator screamed. "The bourgeoisie never did anything for us, the masses. Now they took away our president.'"
At first, opposition by Aristide supporters had been muted. They didn't want to anger the opposition for fear of being cut out of the future political establishment, but now it seems that the Haitian people will not take this lying down, and neither should we. Support members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are taking action on this issue. Write to your Congressman urging him or her to join them. Keep pressuring John Kerry to make the Haiti coup an issue in the Presidential campaign. We should also insist that President Aristide be given a chance to address the UN General Assembly. UN officials have indicated that they aren't sure who represents the legitimate government of Haiti anymore. The world community deserves to hear Aristide's side of the story and to find out the truth.
Justin Felux can be contacted at email@example.com.
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