24 February 2005 Edition

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Haiti: A Forgotten Country, a Forgotten Coup d'État, an Unreported Terror

Haiti is by far the poorest country in the Americas. Once, as Saint Domingue, it was the richest of all the colonies. It generated more wealth for France than the North American colonies did for England. The fine city of Bordeaux owed its wealth to the slavery and sugar of Saint Domingue, rather than to wine.

The slaves of Saint Domingue revolted in 1791, and after defeating the armies of Napoleon, achieved independence as the Republic of Haiti in 1804.

Haiti gave support to Simon Bolivar for the struggle for independence in South America. It cannot be said that Bolivar fully reciprocated this solidarity, but when he was eventually defeated, Latin America came to be fragmented and governed by self-serving oligarchies. That was a catastrophe also for Haiti.

The first black country to free itself, and the first country to abolish slavery, faced the unanimous hatred of the imperial (then all slave-owning) powers. This hatred has lasted to the present day.

In 200 years, they never allowed Haiti to develop. At first, no country recognised it or traded with it. Weak and isolated, in 1825 it suffered the indignity of having to pay France an indemnity to compensate its slave-owners for the loss of their property, the slaves. It was 1938 when payment was completed. This distorted the Haitian economy, forcing it into cash crops for export and preventing development, just as debt does to the poor countries of the world today. The indemnity is valued at €17 billion in today's money. President Aristide had the audacity to ask for the money back. He got his answer when he was deposed in a coup on 29 February 2004.

The 20th Century was no kinder. Haiti was occupied by US Marines from 1915 to 1934. They left behind an army and state of their own design, which ruled by terror, as they had done. A tiny élite enriched itself on the abject poverty of the population.

The Duvaliers, father and son, 'Papa Doc' and 'Baby Doc', were especially famous for their ruthlessness and cruelty. They supplemented state terror with unofficial enforcers, known as 'Tonton Macoutes'. Their régime lasted, with US support, from 1957 to 1986, when Baby Doc was forced to flee to luxurious exile in France.

The popular campaign against the younger Duvalier had been led by Jean Bertrand Aristide, then a Catholic priest. His sermons on human rights and justice mobilised the people.

The élite and the army prevented elections in 1987 and there followed another three years of Duvalierism, without Duvalier. But they could not prevent elections being held in 1990, when Aristide swept into office with a massive popular vote.

The triumph of democracy lasted barely nine months. A coup d'état in September 1991 restored the status quo. This time government terror was even greater. In three years, 5,000 people were killed by army, police and death squads in an effort to destroy Aristide's Lavalas party. Many thousands of Haitians fled the country in small boats, seeking to reach the United States. Many were sent back. Many others were interned in Guantanamo Bay, the US enclave in Cuba. Eventually, in 1994, President Clinton intervened and sent in US forces to depose the usurping régime and restore Aristide to office.

But Clinton, though he talked great humanity and democracy, drove a hard and cruel bargain. Aristide was forced to concede onerous conditions, including the implementation of IMF economic policies and even an amnesty for the perpetrators of the coup d'état and the death squads. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it, an office boy in the IMF had more power.

With all these restrictions, Aristide and the Lavalas party were not able to achieve all they set out to do. This caused great disappointment to many of their supporters. For example, working conditions in the free trade zones brought the government into conflict with the trade unions. On the other hand, to the great dissatisfaction of the élite, the army was disbanded. And the government did bring some education and health services to places where there had never been any before. In spite of disappointments and difficulties, they retained their popularity with the people.

But the Bush administration was not content to leave even a weakened Aristide in office. Colin Powell, the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy set about organising a coup d'état. Finding fault with the elections of 2000, in which Aristide won the Presidency and the Fanmi Lavalas party won a huge majority of elected positions, a group of wealthy opposition parties conducted a noisy, Venezuelan style, media campaign, which won more support abroad than it did at home.

Aristide was portrayed as a dictator, as they portrayed Hugo Chavez, and accused of all kinds of human rights violations. Without suggesting that Aristide is above criticism, this campaign lacked all credibility. Besides, even if they were true, the gravest allegations against Aristide would bear no comparison with the reign of terror that is happening now. About this, the media has remained silent.

The media campaign provided an excuse for mounting US pressure, including the withdrawal of aid. Finally, armed groups crossed the border from the Dominican Republic and linked up with criminal gangs. They took over the towns of Gonaives and Cap Haitien, killing many people there.

Aristide's appeals for help in restoring order were refused. When forces from the US, France and Canada did arrive, it was not to support the legitimate government but to depose it. On 29 February 2004, President Aristide was kidnapped by US forces and put on a plane to the Central African Republic.

Gérard Latortue, who had been living in Florida for ten years, was appointed Prime Minister.

The old firm, 'Duvalier & Son', was back in business.

The Security Council of the United Nations endorsed this crime. In June 2004, the "Multinational Intervention Force" was replaced by MINUSTAH, the United Nations' Mission for the Stabilisation of Haiti. It was mandated to act "in support of the transitional government". This is led by Brazil, and is composed of the armed forces of many countries, including Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

During the past year it has become clear that the members of the usurping régime, many of them veterans of the 1991 coup, have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Police, ex-soldiers and death squads carry out murderous raids on the slums where supporters of Fanmi Lavalas live.

Far from protecting the people, MINUSTAH is providing logistic support for these operations. Hundreds of political prisoners are held, including Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and many other elected representatives. Once again, they are trying to wipe out the Lavalas Party.

The existence of armed urban street gangs is used to justify the occupation. Strangely, this argument is made by US and Brazilian spokespersons, who should be familiar with the problem in their own countries. In the propaganda they become a pro-Aristide army. The Brazilian head of MINUSTAH, General Heleno Ribeiro, described them as "bandits" to be "killed".

In January 2005, the American lawyer Tom Griffin produced a report on behalf of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights in the University of Miami. It makes for chilling reading. He cites overwhelming evidence for the brutality of the régime and the complicity of MINUSTAH.

In a particular case, UN forces arrested a young man, Jimmy Charles, and handed him over to the Haitian police, who murdered him. In a statement, MINUSTAH disclaimed any responsibility for his fate, or that of any other detainees they hand over to the police.

The puppet regime has announced its intention to hold elections in October and November. Fanmi Lavalas, the majority party, has stated that, under the circumstances, with its elected representatives locked up and its supporters terrorised, it would not be possible for it to participate.

Very little of this has been reported in the press. Even the Haitian victims of Hurricane Jeanne got scant mention. It seems, as John Pilger says, there are deserving victims and undeserving victims. It is time for us to listen to the people of Haiti, to give them support, to condemn the crimes committed against them, and those who cover up and support those crimes.

The Latin America Solidarity Centre holds the occupation forces particularly responsible for their complicity. LASC is bitterly disappointed that President Lula da Silva and the Workers' Party of Brazil — after so many people put in so much time and effort to elect them to office, should so betray their own democratic principles at the behest of states which have always blocked Brazil's progress and development.

LASC is, therefore, calling a demonstration at the Brazilian Embassy on Harcourt Street, Dublin, on Saturday 5 March at 1pm, demanding an end to the occupation of Haiti, the return of President Aristide, and the restoration of constitutional government.

This will be the Saturday after the anniversary of the coup d'état. During the week of the anniversary there will be protests worldwide.

BY SEÁN EDWARDS of the Latin America Solidarity Centre


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