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Our Legacy of Shame in Haiti

Island is worse off without Aristide, and Canada shares blame.

By Claude Adams 26 Feb 2008 |

Claude Adams is a freelance journalist and videographer who has followed Haitian affairs since 1987. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Aristide supporters in final days.
  • Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment
  • Peter Hallward
  • Verso (2008)

Four years ago this month, Canada supported a discreditable act of regime-change in Haiti -- a chain of events that ended with the removal of a legitimate head of state. It's a useful incident to remember as politicians and military men put on their most earnest faces to justify Canadians dying for freedom and democracy in Afghanistan.

Here is what's happening in that re-configured Haiti today:

  • According to the United Nations, half of all the young women in the country's shantytowns have been raped or sexually assaulted. At least a third of them are under 13.
  • Haiti's National Penitentiary has 3,200 inmates. It was built to hold 1,200. Many prisoners are held for months, even years, and only a tiny percentage are ever convicted. Some jails are so crowded that prisoners must sleep standing up or in shifts.
  • Some Haitians, mainly pregnant women, are so hungry and under-nourished that they eat "mud pies" made mostly of clay, salt and vegetable shortening.
  • Recently, mobs attacked two suspected kidnappers in Port-au-Prince, the capital, and stoned one of them to death. Vigilante justice is not unusual because authorities are powerless to prevent kidnappings. In the first 11 days of February alone, there were 15 abductions.
  • Last August, a noted Haitian human rights activist, Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, met with a U.S. delegation. After the meeting, he was kidnapped, and nothing has been heard of him since.
  • Keeping the alleged "peace" are 9,000 foreign troops and policemen. In the eyes of some critics, they've become a permanent fixture. The monthly health-care bill for this UN contingent is greater than the annual health budget for Haiti's 8.7 million people!
  • Meanwhile, Haiti's most popular politician by far remains in exile thousands of miles away, and Canada, along with other countries, is actively lobbying to keep him there indefinitely, a violation of Haiti's constitution.

Canada has never revealed its full role in the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The sins of commission (or omission) happened below the radar. Thus, Canada can argue that it is blameless in the continuing deterioration of the Haitian economy. It can point to the aid money it spends on Haiti -- more foreign aid, in fact, than any country except Afghanistan. We have police there; we're helping with the justice system; we're supporting social programs.

Setting the stage for an ouster

The truth is that Canada helped set the stage for Aristide's removal, and one can make the case that the social dislocation caused by his departure cannot be fixed until he is back on Haitian soil. Right or wrong, Aristide and the political movement he represents are still at the core of Haiti's aspirations. Twice, in 1990 and in 2000, he was elected by overwhelming margins. Twice he was removed from office, and the masses who voted for him were effectively disenfranchised.

It begs the question: How is it that our government can have "constructive engagement" with a never-elected Fidel Castro, but not with a popular leader who respects the ballot box?

The story of the last Aristide "coup" is worth retelling:

On the morning of Feb. 29, 2004, in a scenario many believe was choreographed by the U.S., France and Canada, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife fled Haiti on a private jet. It was made to look like an abdication: A president running away as the country teetered on the edge of catastrophe.

But it was more than that. In fact, Aristide was told in the middle of the night if he didn't leave, and right away, Port-au-Prince would be convulsed in a bloodbath. American officials told him that he, his family, and thousands of Haitians were in imminent peril. So in the early morning hours, under armed guard, and quite probably seized by panic, Aristide signed a resignation letter, boarded a waiting jet and was flown to exile in Africa. Canadian Special Forces troops were on duty at the airport, part of what Aristide would later call "an illegal foreign occupation which was ready to drop bodies on the ground."

Cutthroats and sweatshop owners

I happened to be in Haiti in February 2004 and I met some of the people who were said to be ready to instigate this "bloodbath." They were anything but a realistic military threat. In fact, they were a pack of swaggering, well-armed cutthroats who had had some success terrorizing villages and killing policemen in the Haitian countryside, and who were slowly approaching the capital. Their leader was Guy Philippe, an ex-policeman trained in right-wing counter-insurgency. His deputy was a notorious right-wing killer, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, suddenly thrust into the international limelight. (Rumor had it that the guns and spending money for this ragtag rebel "army" came, circuitously, from the U.S. government.)

Complicating matters in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, was a growing "peaceful" opposition to Aristide led by Haiti's bourgeois elite -- the sweatshop owners like Andre Apaid. Apaid was a high-strung colorful character. When reporters came to visit, he would rattle a glass jar full of machine-gun bullet shells on his desk. "Look," he would say. "These bullets were fired just outside my office window by Aristide's hired guns." True or not, it made for great television and served the narrative of a president losing control.

Apaid and his business colleagues -- part of an organization called The Group of 184 -- hated Aristide. They called him a dangerous hypocrite and demagogue. But what they hated most was Aristide's determination to double Haiti's minimum wage, and to resist the privatization of Haitian industries. Simply put, Aristide stood between them, and unlimited plunder. And while Aristide, his back to the wall, was ready to compromise, they resisted all calls for power-sharing.

This convenient convergence of anti-Aristide rebels and robber barons gave Washington (along with Canada and France) the pretext to shoehorn the president and 7,000 other officials out of office. The three governments would have to hold their noses and make common cause with scoundrels. And that's exactly what happened.

Visit with Aristide

I visited Aristide in the National Palace 11 days before his overthrow. On the wall hung a portrait of Toussaint l'Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence. Near his desk sat a bust of Robert Kennedy. Both men had died violently. Aristide liked to surround himself with the icons of idealistic struggle. In our interview, he was clearly nervous about what might happen if the paramilitaries -- he called them "terrorists" -- tried to enter the capital. He didn't seem to be aware that much larger forces were arrayed against him. In asking for help from his "friends," including Canada, Aristide believed that a small complement of well-armed peacekeepers, even a few dozen, would be enough to keep the rebels at bay.

But Washington and Ottawa had other plans. With Aristide gone, their formula for "fixing" the Haitian economy would be much easier to implement. And his removal, they thought, would bring calm to the streets of Haiti during an uneasy time.

As we now know, the exact opposite happened. Haiti slipped deeper into chaos. According to the respected British magazine Lancet, in the 18 months that followed Aristide's expulsion, an estimated 8,000 Haitians were killed in violence -- at least half of them by the paramilitaries who leapt in to fill the political vacuum. Aristide's slum supporters, dismayed at the sudden departure of their leader, also cranked up the violence. It took 9,000 peacekeepers to bring some order to the streets. And they're still there. Four years later.

From his exile at a university in Pretoria, South Africa, Aristide told writer Naomi Klein that Canada has "blood on its hands" for its part in his overthrow.

Dangerous 'fake democracy'

Even today, the country we helped "liberate" from Aristide is listed, by Forbes magazine, as one of the most dangerous destinations in the world, along with Somalia and the Congo. Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre calls it a "fake democracy" -- a country that serves only the interests of a small bourgeois elite. "Today," Pierre writes, "we must eat dirt to let the mansions grow . . . Pregnant women eat mud cookies."

Clearly, something happened on the way to nation-building!

Why did Aristide have to go? It's simple, says Peter Hallward, the author of a dense and meticulously researched new book called Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment. Aristide had to go because "the movement he led (Lavalas, the Creole word for 'flood,') posed an intolerable threat to Haiti's comfortable ruling class."

Haiti's poor have been raped, plundered, trodden underfoot, exploited, lied to and cheated almost without surcease since 1804 when they defeated Napoleon's army to become the world's first black republic. Lavalas, says Hallward, gave Haiti's poor an historic opportunity to get off their knees. After 200 years, they had finally found a political voice. But that didn't fit in with Washington's hemispheric plans.

Canada's Liberal government, still doing penance for not joining the U.S. military adventure in Iraq, was happy to lend its support. Along with many of the 80,000 Haitians living in Canada, official Ottawa was displeased with Aristide, saw him as corrupt and increasingly dictatorial, and believed he could never reconcile the various levels of Haitian society. (As Hallward points out, Aristide's so-called "dictatorial" behavior was the result in no small part of an aid embargo, again the work of Washington and Ottawa, that made it near impossible to lift Haiti from the economic trough.) Because of his massive popularity among Haiti's poor, however, the Canadian and American governments realized there was no legitimate way to remove him.

Ottawa's stony silence

Five months ago, I submitted Freedom of Information requests to both Foreign Affairs and the Department of Defense in Ottawa, asking: What, and why? What role did Canada play in the planning and the execution of Aristide's demise? And why would we dirty our hands, and risk alienating millions of Haitians who voted for Aristide time and time again? Ottawa hasn't offered any answers yet.

In Damming the Flood, Hallward, a British academic, puts Feb. 29, 2004, in stark terms: "The effort to weaken, demoralize and then overthrow Lavalas in the first years of the twenty-first century was perhaps the most successful exercise of neo-imperial sabotage since the toppling of Nicaragua's Sandinistas in 1990."

Strong language. Little wonder the Canadian government would rather the whole sorry affair be forgotten. But 8.7 million Haitians deserve better. Theirs is a history of more than 30 successive coups d'etat over two centuries. Aristide and Lavalas broke the depressing pattern, and opened the door to real representative government. They, the Haitian people's voice, deserve a chance to govern.