Let's stay in Latin America and the Caribbean, which [former
US Secretary of War and of State] Henry Stimson called "our
little region over here which has never bothered anyone."
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti in what's
been widely described as a free and democratic election. Would
you comment on what's happened since?
When Aristide won in December 1990 (he took office in February,
1991), it was a big surprise. He was swept into power by a network
of popular grassroots organizations, what was called Lavalas-the
flood-which outside observers just weren't aware of (since they
don't pay attention to what happens among poor people). There
had been very extensive and very successful organizing, and out
of nowhere came this massive popular organization that managed
to sweep their candidate into power.
The US was willing to support a democratic election, figuring
that its candidate, a former World Bank official named Marc Bazin,
would easily win. He had all the resources and support, and it
looked like a shoe-in. He ended up getting 14% of the vote, and
Aristide got about 67%. The only question in the mind of anybody
who knows a little history should have been, How is the US going
to get rid of Aristide? The disaster became even worse in the
first seven months of Aristide's office. There were some really
Haiti is, of course, an extremely impoverished country, with awful
conditions. Aristide was nevertheless beginning to get places.
He was able to reduce corruption extensively, and to trim a highly
bloated state bureaucracy. He won a lot of international praise
for this, even from the international lending institutions, which
were offering him loans and preferential terms because they liked
what he was doing.
Furthermore, he cut back on drug trafficking. The flow of refugees
to the US virtually stopped. Atrocities were reduced to way below
what they had been or would become. There was a considerable degree
of popular engagement in what was going on, although the contradictions
were already beginning to show up, and there were constraints
on what he could do.
All of this made Aristide even more unacceptable from the US point
of view, and we tried to undermine him through what were called-naturally-"democracy-enhancing
programs." The US, which had never cared at all about centralization
of power in Haiti when its own favored dictators were in charge,
all of a sudden began setting up alternative institutions that
aimed at undermining executive power, supposedly in the interests
of greater democracy. A number of these alleged human rights and
labor groups became the governing authorities after the coup,
which came on September 30, 1991.
In response to the coup, the Organization of American States declared
an embargo of Haiti; the US joined it, but with obvious reluctance.
The Bush administration focused attention on Aristide's alleged
atrocities and undemocratic activities, downplaying the major
atrocities which took place right after the coup. The media went
along with Bush's line, of course. While people were getting slaughtered
in the streets of Port-au-Prince [Haiti's capital], the media
concentrated on alleged human rights abuses under the Aristide
Refugees started fleeing again, because the situation was deteriorating
so rapidly. The Bush administration blocked them-instituted a
blockade, in effect-to send them back. Within a couple of months,
the Bush administration had already undermined the embargo by
allowing a minor exception-US-owned companies would be permitted
to ignore it. The New York Times called that "fine-tuning"
the embargo to improve the restoration of democracy!
Meanwhile, the US, which is known to be able to exert pressure
when it feels like it, found no way to influence anyone else to
observe the embargo, including the Dominican Republic next door.
The whole thing was mostly a farce. Pretty soon Marc Bazin, the
US candidate, was in power as prime minister, with the ruling
generals behind him. That year-1992-US trade with Haiti was not
very much below the norm, despite the so-called embargo (Commerce
Department figures showed that, but I don't think the press ever
During the 1992 campaign, Clinton bitterly attacked the Bush administration
for its inhuman policy of returning refugees to this torture chamber-which
is, incidentally, a flat violation of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, which we claim to uphold. Clinton claimed he
was going to change all that, but his first act after being elected,
even before he took office, was to impose even harsher measures
to force fleeing refugees back into this hellhole.
...Haiti, a starving island, is exporting food to the US-about
35 times as much under Clinton as it did under Bush. Baseballs
are coming along nicely. They're produced in US-owned factories
where the women who make them get 10¢ an hour-if they meet
their quota. Since meeting the quota is virtually impossible,
they actually make something like 5¢ an hour.
Softballs from Haiti are advertised in the US as being unusually
good because they're hand-dipped into some chemical that makes
them hang together properly. The ads don't mention that the chemical
the women hand dip the balls into is toxic and that, as a result,
the women don't last very long at this work.
In his exile, Aristide ha[d] been asked to make concessions
to the military junta.
And to the right-wing business community.
That's kind of curious. For the victim-the aggrieved party-to
make concessions to his victimizer.
It's perfectly understandable. The Aristide government had entirely
the wrong base of support. The US has tried for a long time to
get him to "broaden his government in the interests of democracy."
This means throw out the two-thirds of the population that voted
for him and bring in what are called "moderate" elements
of the business community-the local owners or managers of those
textile and baseball-producing plants, and those who are linked
up with US agribusiness. When they're not in power, it's not democratic.
(The extremist elements of the business community think you ought
to just slaughter everybody and cut them to pieces and hack off
their faces and leave them in ditches. The moderates think you
ought to have them working in your assembly plants for 14 cents
an hour under indescribable conditions.)
Bring the moderates in and give them power and then we'll have
a real democracy. Unfortunately, Aristide-being kind of backward
and disruptive-has not been willing to go along with that.
Clinton's policy has gotten so cynical and outrageous that he's
lost almost all major domestic support on it. Even the mainstream
press is denouncing him at this point. So there will have to be
some cosmetic changes made.
But unless there's an awful lot of popular pressure, our policies
will continue and pretty soon we'll have the "moderates"
Let's say Aristide is "restored." Given the destruction
of popular organizations and the devastation of civil society,
what are his and the country's prospects?
Some of the closest observation of this has been done by Americas
Watch [a US-based human-rights monitoring organization]. They
gave an answer to that question that I thought was plausible.
In early 1993, they said that things were reaching the point that
even if Aristide were restored, the lively, vibrant civil society
based on grassroots organizations that had brought him to power
would have been so decimated that it's unlikely that he'd have
the popular support to do anything anyway. I don't know if that's
true or not. Nobody knows, any more than anyone knew how powerful
those groups were in the first place. Human beings have reserves
of courage that are often hard to imagine. But I think that's
the plan-to decimate the organizations, to intimidate people so
much that it won't matter if you have democratic elections.
There was an interesting conference run by the Jesuits in El Salvador
several months before the Salvadoran elections; its final report
came out in January . They were talking about the buildup
to the elections and the ongoing terror, which was substantial.
They said that the long-term effect of terror- something they've
had plenty of experience with-is to domesticate people's aspirations,
to make them think there's no alternative. to drive out any hope.
Once you've done that, you can have elections without too much
If people are sufficiently intimidated, if the popular organizations
are sufficiently destroyed, if the people have had it beaten into
their heads that either they accept the rule of those with the
guns or else they live and die in unrelieved misery, then your
elections will all come out the way you want. And everybody will
Cuban refugees are considered political and are accepted immediately
into the US, while Haitian refugees are termed economic and are
If you look at the records, many Haitians who are refused asylum
in the US because they aren't considered to be political refugees
are found a few days later hacked to pieces in the streets of
There were a couple of interesting leaks from the INS [the Immigration
and Naturalization Service]. One was from an INS officer who'd
been working in our embassy in Port-au Prince. In an interview
with Dennis Bernstein of KPFA [a listener-supported radio station
in Berkeley CA], he described in detail how they weren't even
making the most perfunctory efforts to check the credentials of
people who were applying for political asylum.
At about the same time, a document was leaked from the US interests
section in Havana (which reviews applications for asylum in the
US) in which they complain that they can't find genuine political
asylum cases. The applicants they get can't really claim any serious
persecution. At most they claim various kinds of harassment, which
aren't enough to qualify them. So -- there are the two cases,
side by side.
I should mention that the US Justice Department has just made
a slight change in US law which makes our violation of international
law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights even more grotesque.
Now Haitian refugees who, by some miracle, reach US territorial
waters can be shipped back. That's never been allowed before.
I doubt that many other countries allow that.
an interview of Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian
from the book Secrets, Lies and Democracy, published in 1994
Tucson, AZ 85751
tel 602-296-4056 or 800-REALSTORY
other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
What Uncle Sam Really Wants
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
Lies, and Democracy