Who made a mess of Haiti?

The last thing Haitians need is any more 'help' from Washington.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘The United States needs to take the lead in protecting the Haitian people from the growing anarchy around them’, declared an editorial in the New York Times on 24 February 2004, as the stand-off between Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the rebels who want him out intensified. ‘There is much that Washington could do.’ (1)

In fact, there is much that Washington has already done – but far from ‘protecting Haitians’, the Bush administration’s pronouncements and policy shifts on Aristide’s regime have helped to push the already-fragile Haiti over the edge into civil conflict.

Tensions have been brewing between the isolated Aristide and rebel forces (a disparate grouping of former Aristide supporters and opponents) for over a year. Haiti is the poorest state in the Western hemisphere; much of the country’s eight million inhabitants live below the poverty line and in recent years unemployment rates have hit 80 per cent. From September to December 2003, students led a wave of protests calling for the ousting of Aristide, in which dozens were killed. At the start of 2004 the conflict intensified: on 5 February, armed rebels seized control of Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth largest city; on 22 February they took the second-largest city, Cap Haitien. Now rebels control over half the country and are reportedly ‘poised’ to enter the capital Port-au-Prince (2).

‘Without outside intervention, more people are likely to die before the situation settles down’, claims one American commentator (3). Such statements overlook the role of outside intervention in inflaming the recent tensions. When Aristide was re-elected as president in 2000, international observers denounced the elections as ‘fraudulent’. The then Clinton administration, along with the European Union, imposed a stop on $500million of foreign aid to Haiti, including a $22million loan to reinforce the national health system. As one reporter described it, the international community’s condemnation of the 2000 presidential elections ‘explicitly called into question Aristide’s legitimacy’, stoking the opposition, while the ban on foreign aid heightened tensions over already-scarce resources (4).

Since the protests and disturbances of 2003, the Bush administration has further undermined Aristide’s wavering legitimacy. As one report says, ‘the Bush administration made known its desire that Aristide should step down’, and ‘implicitly supported Haiti’s opposition’ (5). The most recent clashes, where rebel forces moved into major cities in early February, followed a flurry of activity at the US State Department – on 8 January secretary of state Colin Powell condemned Aristide’s suppression of peaceful protests and declared himself ‘disturbed’ by Haiti’s regime; at the end of January, Bush officials called on Aristide to consider withdrawing from office and removed their diplomatic personnel from Haiti. Within days, the rebels made their moves; in a state as fragile as Haiti, statements from Washington are enough to tip the balance of forces.

Washington has been the key player in Haitian politics for the past hundred years. Haiti had been an independent state since 1804, following slave revolts and a War of Independence against France. In 1915, US President Woodrow Wilson, under the pretext of protecting Haiti from a potential German occupation, sent 330 marines and sailors to the Caribbean state; they stayed until 1934, as part of America’s mission to ‘teach Latin Americans to elect good men’ (6). During this 19-year occupation, American forces took over the collection of custom duties, set up military courts, distributed food and medicine, censored the press, and enforced a new constitution that allowed American businessmen to own land in Haiti (7). They also created and trained the Haitian army, which was to dominate Haiti for decades to come.

Throughout the Cold War, US administrations were content to see that army terrorise Haitians and suppress opposition under the Duvaliers. In 1957, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was elected president, and soon set about rooting out and imprisoning or executing those who opposed his administration; he ensured his power through his private militia the tontons macoutes (Creole for ‘Uncle Bogeyman’) and amended the Haitian constitution in 1964 so that he could be elected president for life. Duvalier’s son Jean Claude, known as ‘Baby Doc’, succeeded Duvalier in 1971. For all of today’s professed concern in Washington for democracy in Haiti, both Papa and Baby Doc were propped up by millions of dollars in American aid.

The Duvalier regime collapsed in 1986. Four years later, in 1990, Aristide was elected in a landslide victory, but was subsequently overthrown by a military coup. After four years in exile in Washington, Aristide was returned to power by the US military under President Bill Clinton in 1994, in Operation Uphold Democracy. Clinton said America’s aim in invading Haiti and restoring Aristide was to rid Haiti of ‘the most violent regime in our hemisphere’ – conveniently overlooking the fact that American intervention created that regime and trained the Haitian army. And just five years before Clinton’s invasion to put the ‘Haitian democrat’ Aristide back into office, the CIA under President George Bush senior had sought to smear Aristide as a mental case; they claimed he had been a patient at a Canadian mental hospital (which he had never visited) and had been treated by psychiatrist Dr Herv Martin (who did not exist) (8).

Now, an American administration, again, is the key driving force behind shifts in Haiti; but far from having a clear sense of what should happen next in the beleaguered state, Bush officials have a pick’n’mix policy. They don’t really want Aristide to remain in power, sensing that the continuation of his rule will spell further trouble – so officials question Aristide’s legitimacy, condemn his regime and police, and call on him to move aside. Such pronouncements have upped the ante, bolstering rebel forces to challenge the ‘fraudulent, illegitimate Aristide’.

Yet at the same time, Bush officials are fearful of the mob currently besieging Haiti’s cities. So after Colin Powell called on Aristide to consider stepping aside, he called on opposition forces to give Aristide until 2006 to do so. In frantic phone calls to opposition and rebel leaders in Haiti, Powell has proposed appointing an independent prime minister who would rule alongside president Aristide for two years, when Aristide would finally step down (9). America has a push-me/pull-you policy on Haiti; the problem for Haitians is that this confused policy is largely determining what happens in their country.

American intervention, and the struggle for power inside Haiti, is today taking place within a political vacuum – giving the current tensions a disparate and chaotic character. If further US intervention and yet another threatened overthrow of a Haitian leader is history repeating itself, then it is repeating itself as farce.

The Bush administration thinks it wants Aristide out, but has little sense of what might take his place. US officials know they want to assert influence over events in Haiti, which they have always considered part of their ‘backyard’, but lack the nerve for an all-out intervention to determine what should happen. They have issued statements about Aristide and sent 50 marines to protect the US embassy in Port-au-Prince, but not much else. Where Washington once imposed leaders on Haiti to protect and represent its own interests, now it pushes and pokes at Aristide while worrying about the new mob and keeping at a safe distance. As one report summarised it, Bush officials have sent ‘mixed messages on Aristide’s legitimacy while discouraging talk of real action’ (10).

Inside Haiti, the collapse of state structures means that Aristide has few forces with which to protect himself from the rebels. During the 1994 invasion, US forces did much to disband the military government in Haiti; upon his return to power in 1994, Aristide sought to protect himself from further coups by fully disbanding the military, which had been the core part of the Haitian state since America’s occupation of 1915-1934. Aristide set up a new police force to serve his government.

Now some of the former Haitian commanders are returning to challenge Aristide, whose police force is falling apart. Following the Clinton-backed disbandment of the military forces that had dominated Haiti under American guidance for over 60 years, Haiti has been left as a vacuum. The New York Times describes Haiti’s ‘weak and nearly invisible central government’, where ‘militants have easily taken control as the poorly armed and inadequately trained police flee, slipping out of their uniforms and into the countryside’ (11). According to one reporter, one of the few ‘forces’ offering to protect Aristide are gangs of street children in Port-au-Prince, who have started burning tyres and setting up barriers against the arrival of the rebels .

The rebels themselves are far from a national liberation movement, or even a well-organised force. The rebel camp, such as it exists, is made up of local groups, former Aristide supporters, former army commanders who were exiled after Aristide’s return in 1994, and various criminal gangs. BBC News describes them as a ‘disparate lot’, ‘some well-equipped and wearing fatigues, others in casual dress and carrying old guns’, and referring to themselves as the New Army (12). Feeling themselves kind of egged on by an international condemnation of sorts of Aristide, these rebels simply move into the vacuum left by the dismantling of Haiti’s old structures and the implosion of Aristide’s regime.

Recent events in Port-au-Prince are a fitting symbol for the debacle of US intervention in Haiti – 50 US marines protect a largely empty US embassy, while opportunist rebels threaten to take on the ragged street children protecting America’s former man on the ground.

(1) Hour of the gunman in Haiti, New York Times, 24 February 2004

(2) Last-ditch time in Haiti, The Star (South Africa), 25 February 2004

(3) US must know its limits in Haiti, Jacksonville Daily News, 25 February 2004

(4) Despite foreign aid impasse, Haiti battles AIDS, Partners in Health, 22 January 2002

(5) Avoid the temptation to meddle in Haiti, Ivan Eland, The Independent Institute, 24 February 2004

(6) Intervention in Haiti 1980-1920, Digital History

(7) Intervention in Haiti 1980-1920, Digital History

(8) See Operation Redefine Democracy, Living Marxism, November 1994

(9) US tries to win Haitian opposition’s support for peace plan, Bloomberg News, 25 February 2004

(10) Haitian democracy needs US help now, Boston Globe, 22 February 2004

(11) Weakened Haitian police forces overwhelmed by rebel violence, New York Times, 22 February 2004

(12) Analysis: Haiti’s diverse rebels, BBC News, 24 February 2004

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Topics Politics


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