Undermining democracy: concise history of U.S.-Haiti relations

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BOOK REVIEW

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment

By Peter Hallward

Verso, 2008, 442 pp

The tragic tale of contemporary Haiti is one of the stories most misunderstood and neglected by the mainstream media. Peter Hallward’s “Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment” provides a concise, sweeping account of recent Haitian history. It reveals how the U.S., Canada and France undermined two elected governments in that Caribbean nation.

Haitians elected Jean Bertrand Aristide, a priest guided by the principles of liberation theology, as president in 1991. Aristide and his Lavalas party government set out to alleviate the country’s grinding poverty. They built schools and medical clinics, doubled the minimum wage ($1/day at the time), taxed the rich and lowered food prices for the poor. They dismantled the country’s repressive police state.

Haiti is an important destination for U.S. companies that value the country’s minimal taxes and supply of cheap labor. Aristide’s left-wing direction horrified the Clinton administration and the local business elite, who backed an army coup against his government eight months later, leading to an avalanche of killings and arrests. However, Aristide’s reform measures also cemented his popularity among the masses.

Pressure from the Black community, Haitian Americans and progressive solidarity forces compelled the U.S. reluctantly to return Aristide to power in 1994, using military force. But Clinton forced Aristide to agree to reduce tariffs protecting the country’s agriculture, privatize state companies, lay off government workers and reduce the wages of remaining public sector workers.

Once back in power, Aristide did what he could to sabotage the agreement. He implemented some measures half-heartedly and others not at all. He also abolished the army to protect the country against future coups.

Washington also tried to control Aristide through its leverage over the country’s finances. Seventy percent of the Haitian government’s budget depended on foreign aid and loans and this lifeline could be severed. Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in 1995, “we will remain in charge by means of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the private sector.”

When Aristide’s term ended in 1995, pro-Lavalas candidate Rene Preval succeeded him as president. Washington’s control over the country’s finances, and domination of the National Assembly by the right wing, ensured that Preval did not disturb the status quo.

Running again later, Aristide contested the 2000 elections, winning with 90 percent of the vote. The Famni Lavalas party won most legislative seats while the right-wing parties lost most of their elected positions.

The U.S. government, now led by George Bush, set out to destroy Aristide. First, U.S.-funded groups such as the USAID and International Republican Institute funneled $68 million per year to opposition groups between 2000 and 2003. Canada, France and the European Union also contributed funds. Canada played a key role in coordinating international efforts to replace the Aristide government.

Then, a financial boycott was declared which crippled the country economically. Finally, the U.S. and the Haitian opposition convinced the international media the 2000 elections were fraudulent and that the opposition was fighting a dictatorship.

In this way, Washington forced the Aristide government to make concessions to the opposition, which wanted Aristide to resign and allow it to govern the country. While Aristide agreed to include the opposition in his government, he refused to step down.

Beginning in 2003, former Haitian soldiers began launching raids into Haiti from bases in the Dominican Republic. They burned police stations, killed Lavalas activists and captured towns. Former soldiers would later acknowledge that these acts were sponsored and directed by the right-wing opposition.

In the meantime, Aristide’s government continued to build more schools, medical clinics and housing for the poor. It established the country’s first medical school with Cuban help.

By early 2004, paramilitaries had captured northern Haiti and were threatening to attack the capital.

Taking advantage of the chaos, U.S. marines seized Aristide on Feb. 29 and flew him to Africa. U.S., French and Canadian forces invaded the island, installing a new un-elected government composed of the opposition. Unlike the previous Aristide administration that allowed its opposition to operate freely, the new regime ordered the Haitian National Police (HNP) to liquidate Lavalas. The HNP and paramilitaries killed and jailed thousands of Lavalas supporters and members. United Nations troops would later back the HNP, conducting their own brutal operations.

In March 2006, Franco-American-Canadian hopes for a post-Lavalas future were dashed again. While Lavalas officially boycotted the elections, the movement’s supporters elected pro-Lavalas candidate Rene Preval as president.

Hallward’s “Damming the Flood” is an epic, must-read account of the turbulent Aristide years. It is also a reminder that the popular movement that Aristide led is still alive and will never give up its struggle for a better Haiti.

tpelzer @shaw.ca