Noam Chomsky

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 amazing developments.

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 government.

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 reported it).

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" in power.

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 [1994]. 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 fear.

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 cheer.

Cuban refugees are considered political and are accepted immediately into the US, while Haitian refugees are termed economic and are refused entry.

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 Haiti.

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
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other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press

What Uncle Sam Really Wants
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many

Secrets, Lies, and Democracy