Still Up Against the Death Plan in Haiti

The Aristide government is straitjacketed by U.S. low-intensity warfare and neoliberal economic demands

by Tom Reeves

Dollars and Sense magazine, September/October 2003


This March I visited Haiti for the first time since 1997. I expected the worst. In publications across the political spectrum, North American analysts condemn the government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Haiti, they say, faces worse poverty and repression than ever. A corrupt and devious Aristide is portrayed as a far cry from the lowly priest the people overwhelmingly chose in 1991. Recently I asked a prominent Canadian journalist why in a recent article he called Aristide a tyrant. He replied, "Everybody knows that."

But on the street in Haiti, the picture was much more complicated. In terms of violence and public order, for example, the situation has improved dramatically. "Baby Doc" Duvalier (1971-1986) governed through an obvious and paralyzing fear, engendered by the army and Macoute presence in every neighborhood. (The Tontons Macoute were a paramilitary secret police force that supported the Duvalier regimes.) During the coup period, from 1991 to 1994, the military junta under Cedras did not even pretend to govern Haiti. It simply exploited and terrorized the country. Huge mounds of trash piled on every corner, even downtown and in elite business areas; dead bodies lay rotting in the streets; gunfire peppered the night air. Everywhere, the hopeless poor pressed on visitors under the watchful eyes of military and Macoute, who stopped them if they actually threatened a "blanc," the revealing term for foreigners of any color.

Today, although the joyful street scenes that accompanied Aristide's post-coup return in 1994 are gone, so too are the omnipresent military and police. There is more calm and less panic. Most of the garbage is cleared from the streets-and the streets are even washed at night in many neighborhoods. People are sprucing up homes and businesses. The country's improved sense of security was evident at this spring's Carnival, which attracted nearly a million people with not a single death and only a few minor incidents.

On the other hand, the standard of living in the country has not improved. Most Haitians continue to live in abject misery, facing spiraling inflation for basic items like rice and gas, an ever-devalued gourde (the national currency), an unemployment rate of about 70%, and an average wage of around $1 a day for those few who can find work. On this visit I saw countless men and women with missing or stunted limbs, almost naked, filthy, pulling themselves up steep hills by scooting over rough ground, or if they were lucky on splintered boards. I saw hoards of children as young as five or six running dangerously after cars to get a gourde (about 2 cents).

None of this was much different from what I'd seen in 1986,1993 or 1997. The numbing reality of the majority in this oppressed society has not changed, nor has the smirking, self-righteous superiority and obvious affluence of the tiny group at the top.

Aristide admitted he could not erase the effects of centuries of oppression in a few years. This was especially so after he was entrapped in the neoliberal box the United States imposed when it restored him after the brutal 1991 coup that it had covertly sponsored in the first place. Aristide promised that even the poor in Haiti would live in dignity under his administration. If his program for the people failed, he pledged, he would never again seek political office. North American media, the tiny Haitian opposition, and quite a few Haitian intellectuals say he has failed and must keep his promise: he must go, now. Many ordinary Haitians disagree.


Aristide, however poor a president, is not to blame for Haiti's ongoing plight. The lion's share of the fault, instead, lies with what internationally-acclaimed public health expert Paul Farmer has called "the structure of poverty and oppression," imposed on Haiti by the United States and other imperialist powers since its independence two hundred years ago. The current version is "structural adjustment," the typical package of policies the U.S. government and international financial institutions (IFIs) demand of Third World nations: free trade, privatization, strict adherence to debt repayment schedules, and so on.

Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly described the effects of structural adjustment on Haiti in these pages in 1996:

"The economy has gone from bad to worse. The resulting struggle for survival undermines the possibilities for democracy. And the economic program [the United States and international institutions] are imposing threatens to further devastate the country. Haitians have a variety of names for the program: "the neoliberal plan," "the American plan." But the most vivid name was offered by a peasant who said simply, "We call it the 'death plan'.""

Aristide was unfortunate to be elected (for the second time) in 2000, the same year as George W. Bush. Elitane Atelis, a member of Fanm des Martyrs Ayibobo Brav (Women Victims of Military Violence), put it bluntly: today, her country faces "what every Haitian baby knows is Bush's game." The game is low-intensity warfare, a policy mix long familiar to observers of U.S. policy toward "undesirable" regimes in Latin America and elsewhere. The mix includes disinformation campaigns in the media; pressure on international institutions and other governments to weaken their support of the "target" government; and overt and covert support for rightist opposition groups, including those prepared to attempt a violent overthrow. Haitians are well aware of the U.S. government's gambit. Haiti Progress, an independent leftist weekly often critical of Aristide, last spring outlined what the writer called "a multi-front strategy" the United States is carrying out for regime change in Haiti.

Progressives, at least, should have been suspicious about the team Bush put in place to manage his Haiti policy. Otto Reich at the National Security Council and Roger Noriega in the State Department are among those directing Bush's Haiti policy; joining them in orchestrating U.S. foreign policy as a whole are Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter (until his departure under fire in July) and John Negroponte. All of these men were deeply involved in the Reagan administration's dirty war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Iran-Contra scandal. "The resurfacing of the Iran-Contra culprits has been nothing short of Orwellian in this administration," opined Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, in News


Shortly after Bush's own tainted election, his administration questioned the outcome of some of the 2000 Haitian parliamentary elections, then used these allegations to block the release of Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) loans already approved for Haiti. The administration pressed the World Bank, the IMF and the European Union to reduce other planned assistance. The IDB loans alone total $512 million.

The U.S. rationale for withholding the aid has been repeated uncritically in virtually all international media, including the liberal press. For example, a March 2003 piece in the New York Review of Books deplores "gross electoral fraud by the ruling party." Yet at the time of the elections, not even the U.S. government asserted fraud, and the elections for president and most legislative seats were declared free and fair by the Organization of American States (OAS). All sides concede that Aristide won the presidential ballot with 92% of the vote (with varying reports of voter turnout). The sole disagreement is over run-off elections for seven senators from Aristide's party (Fanmi Lavalas, or FL) who obtained pluralities but not majorities in the first round. The seven senators eventually resigned, making way for new elections. Compared to the U.S. presidential election that year, the Haitian elections can scarcely be called fraudulent.

A Domino's restaurant in Port-au-Prince is closed in observance of a general strike called by the Coalition of 184 Civic Institutions, January 24, 2003. Businesses that cater largely to Haiti's small upper and middle classes were the only ones that observed the strike.

In any case, the aid embargo has had severe consequences for Aristide's ability to govern. Needless to say, without these resources, Aristide was unlikely to be able to keep many of his promises to Haiti's poor. Another result is that the Haitian government has been under tremendous pressure to comply with U.S. and IFI requirements in order to get the aid restarted. These requirements included paying the country's debt service arrears. The Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA) and other organizations on the left have proposed a moratorium on debt repayment. But Prime Minister Yvon Neptune laments, "Until we have a clear alternative for investment, we simply cannot go it alone. The embargoed aid is desperately needed by the Haitian people." Paul Farmer agrees: "[Without the aid] the misery will just increase, and thousands will die of AIDS, malaria and other diseases without any hope of treatment. Those who say the aid is not worth what Haiti has to do to get it do not live daily with the reality of poverty and suffering."

In mid-July, Haiti paid $32 million of its debt service arrears, using virtually all its capital reserves. The United States then announced that $34 million would go at once to Haiti for health care, water, and roads (although virtually all of this amount will go directly to mostly U.S.-based "contractors"). In late July, the IDB finally announced the release of $143 million of the nearly $500 million pledged.


Although aid may now begin to arrive, Aristide's government is still operating under severe constraints on what it can conceivably accomplish. On the political front, the United States has been working hard since the elder Bush's presidency to forge an opposition that could depose Aristide or at least prevent his administration from governing effectively. The Convergence, as it's called, consists mostly of what Haitians call particules, tiny political parties, from Maoists to freemarket liberals and ultra-right wing Duvalierists. Perhaps the only opposition faction with a genuine base is that of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, founder and leader of the progressive and successful Mouvman Paysan Papay (MPP) in the Central Plateau, who has actually shifted his allegiance away from the Convergence. With all these factions, support for the Convergence, even according to U.S. government-sponsored polls, has never registered more than 12%.

The Convergence was a product of "Democracy Enhancement," a project of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has been an arm of both low-intensity warfare and neoliberal restructuring in many countries (including Iraq today). Noam Chomsky cites Haiti expert Amy Wilentz, who characterized the State Department's "democracy enhancement" project as "specifically designed to fund those sectors of the Haitian political spectrum where opposition to the Aristide government could be encouraged." Today, the International Republican Institute (IRI), affiliated with the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, provides the Convergence with significant support. The IRI has received an average of $3 million annually from Congress since it established a permanent base in Haiti, as well as millions more from private Haitian and U.S. sources. The organization insists it is independent of the Republican Party, but a look at its board members suggests otherwise: nearly all are current or former Republican Party officials, Republican officeholders, or members of Republican administrations.

This July, even the departing U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Brian Curran, lashed out against some U.S. political operatives, calling them the "Chimeres of Washington" (a Haitian term for political criminals). The most recent of these Chimeres have been associated with the Haiti Democracy Project (HDP), headed by former State Department official James Morrell and funded by the right-wing Haitian Boulos family. In December 2002, the HDP literally created from whole cloth a new public relations face for the official opposition, the "Coalition of 184 Civic Institutions," a laundry list of Haitian NGOs funded by USAID and/or the IRI, as well as by the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce and other groups.

During the coup and since, USAID-sponsored "democracy enhancement" has done its job: whole segments of the popular movement were chilled or co-opted. Popular leaders were at first killed off or encouraged to emigrate; later, many of the rest were bought off. What was once among the most mobilized populations in the hemisphere has become severely demobilized.


Aristide's ability to govern has not only been limited by the political activities of an opposition forged and financed from abroad. Convergence parties-and so, too, their U.S. backers-have been implicated in a series of violent attacks on the Haitian government and its supporters. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), an independent research group, has sounded the alarm. In early 2002, COHA wrote: "Aristide has lived with the continued threat of a military coup since his initial election.... The [Aristide] government weathered two violent coup attempts in July and December 2001." The December 2001 armed attack on the National Palace has been downplayed by Aristide's critics. Yet there is evidence that this was a genuine attempt to destabilize Haiti in order to prove Aristide inept. Ernest Edouard, a Haitian radio commentator in Miami, predicted the attack in advance. He said he had attended a Miami meeting that included Haitians from the Dominican Republic, as well as two Americans, who were well-funded and planning to carry out such an attack.

More generally, COHA's reports itemize violent demonstrations and attacks on both sides, but they emphasize the violence of some Convergence leaders and blame the United States for supporting them. Throughout 2003, FL leaders and government officials have been murdered by men in Duvalier-era army uniforms or wearing the emblems of the "San Manman" (Motherless) army. In late July, a car with five government officials was ambushed near the Dominican border in the Central Plateau, killing four. Observers said the attackers were clearly identified as part of the San Manman army.

On May 6, Dominican police arrested five Haitians, including the official Convergence representative in the Dominican Republic, Arcelin Paul, at a meeting near the Dominican border, which they say was a recruitment session for a planned attempt to overthrow the Haitian government. Soon afterward, armed men attacked and disabled the largest electrical plant in the country. Ben Dupuy, general secretary of the left-wing party PPN, which is generally critical of Aristide, was quoted in Haiti Progres, "There is no doubt these guys are true terrorists working with the CIA under Dominican protection." All sides have noted the U.S. buildup along the Dominican border, where 900 U.S. soldiers patrol jointly with the Dominican army, whom they have armed with 20,000 M16s.

All of this seems to add up to what documentary filmmaker Kevin Pina, who has been covering Haiti for over a decade, calls the "U.S. funding of the Haitian 'Contras'." Whatever we call them, there is an organized and well-funded armed group with ties to the Convergence, based in the Dominican Republic, which aims to overthrow the Aristide government. The Bush administration's support for the Convergence and its refusal to denounce this violence, as well as the U.S. military presence along the border through which the "Manman" army easily travels, clearly implicates the United States in this aim.


The Bush administration's effort to oust Aristide is complemented by misinformed and biased media coverage in both the United States and Haiti. The CIA's flagrant campaign in the mid-1990s to discredit Aristide as mentally ill was proven totally false. A more recent example involves numbers of anti- and pro-Aristide demonstrators. Everyone agrees that the largest Convergence rally to date was the one last November 17 in Cap-Haitien. According to Kevin Pina, some Haitian radio stations reported 60,000 demonstrators, and this figure made it into several North American newspapers. Local officials put the number at 4,000, and independent observers claimed no more than 15,000. Pina also notes that the pro-Lavalas rally of November 2S had as many as 30,000 participants, according to independent observers, yet the highest number quoted in mainstream media is 2,000.

Brian Concannon, an attorney with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a group of international and Haitian lawyers sponsored by the Haitian government to assist the judiciary with human rights cases, gives an even starker example of the double standard the media (and human rights groups) employ. "In December, 2001, an FL supporter, Joseph Duverger, was attacked by a machete-wielding, proConvergence mob near Petit Goave and left for dead. His enraged friends found Brignol Lindor in the street. Lindor was a Convergence supporter with a weekly radio show. The FL group killed him. Lindor is in every human rights report (as one of the murdered journalists). Duverger is almost never mentioned."

When the Haitian government has limited but clear successes in some areas, the international media are virtually silent. Kevin Pina has said that every time he has drawn the attention of foreign journalists at Reuters or the Associated Press to successes in the Haitian government's literacy campaign, the reporters have ignored him. One reporter finally told him to stop giving him such stories. "We are not going to report on positive programs in Haiti," Pina says he was told.

Although claims are made that journalists are unable to function freely in Haiti, there are far more daily and weekly newspapers and strident, popular radio stations there than one could imagine in the United States or Canada. Many of them are shrill critics of Aristide. In media financed by elite business interests, there are constant cries for the overthrow of the government. None of this fits the image of a country where opposition journalists face severe repression.

But the 2000 murder of Jean Dominique has been very damning to Aristide's cause. Dominique was a crusading journalist of impeccable integrity who angered most powerful groups in Haiti. Although four alleged trigger-men were arrested in 2001, Dominique's widow, Michelle Montas, has expressed outrage that the real culprits behind the murder have not been named. But despite what she calls pressure from international groups, she refuses to blame Aristide directly, though she does point to suspects within his party. The Dominique case remains the most troubling human rights stain on Aristide's reputation and has disillusioned countless former supporters both in Haiti and abroad.

This case and a handful of others show that justice is very slow in Haiti. Human rights activists, especially those who say they have received threatening calls, deserve support and protection, as do journalists who criticize the government. Yet all of this must be put in perspective. The number of killings pinned on Aristide's supporters pales in comparison with the more than 5,000 murders of Lavalas supporters that took place during the three years of military rule in the 1990s.


This is the environment in which the Aristide government must function: attempts to overthrow him; calls from Washington lobby groups for outright regime change; an embargo on virtually all international aid. Yet one hears the same cry from leftists, moderates and the right wing: it is Aristide who has failed and must go. Leftists damn Aristide in particular for neoliberal economic policies that they claim go beyond just complying with the already draconian requirements of the United States and the IFIs. They say he has abandoned his original populist and socialist ideas about justice in order to hang on to power at any cost-and to please his greedy cronies.

The record does suggest a weak government with a President who is often absent and invisible at crucial moments, yet who can be seen to interfere directly in minute details when it shores up his image or protects his close allies. But the record does not support the view that Aristide's government has entirely abandoned its goals or compromised its values. Rather, it shows modest but clear gains in a few areas, defensive moves with regard to key public works and agriculture, and, in certain crucial areas, a refusal to budge that explains the extreme antipathy of the U.S. government.

During his first term, which began in January 1991, Aristide began to make good on his populist platform. He revised the tax code, which had taxed the middle class heavily, put a severe burden on the peasants, and required virtually no taxes of the elite. Within months, income taxes collected from the rich had already begun to generate significant income, and import fees were being enforced for the first time. At the same time, Aristide pressed for an increase in the minimum wage and new price controls on oil and basic foodstuffs.

By the summer, he was under pressure from the IFIs, USAID, and other potential donors to reverse these proposals. Aristide compromised on some points, such as subsidies for oil, but continued to press for tax reform and raising the minimum wage. A few months later, he was overthrown by forces some of whom were trained and funded by U.S. military and intelligence operatives.

In 1994, in return for the Clinton administration restoring him to office, Aristide made huge compromises. His representative met with IFI and other donor representatives in Paris and accepted virtually the whole neoliberal program for Haiti, including holding down wages, lowering tariffs, and privatizing government-owned enterprises. Members of the Haitian diaspora and the solidarity movement were highly critical; many argued that Aristide should have held firm against the neoliberal economic program, even if it meant that the military government in Haiti would continue in power. When Aristide spoke to an audience of Haitians and solidarity activists in Boston in May 1994, he met fierce resistance to his return under the conditions he eventually accepted. Aristide responded clearly: "We may take some steps backward in order to go forward, but we cannot do anything positive until we are in Haiti. It is not only the mighty U.S. who can play a double game."

Members of Aristide's administration defend his decision to accept the Paris agreement, in part on the basis that once back in office, they would not necessarily implement all of the concessions they'd made on paper. Lesley Voltaire, Aristide's former Chief of Staff and currently Minister of Haitians Living Abroad, explains: "But you see that his real policies have not been to follow their bidding even on economic issues, and that is why they are opposing him. Despite all the pressure, Haiti has not abolished tariffs-only lowered them. On privatization, both Preval and Aristide dragged their feet so that only the two least profitable public enterprises have been privatized all these years later-concrete and flour."

The BAI's Concannon confirms the Haitian government's dilemma, and its strategy: Small, poor countries do not say 'get lost' to the IFIs and the U.S. They do occasionally, very politely, and pay for it: Arbenz, Allende, Aristide in 1991. Small countries do say 'sure, we'll do that,' then do the opposite or at least drag their feet. The best example is the privatizations. The announced government policy has been, since 1994, to privatize. But the enacted government policy is very different."

The Aristide government's free trade zone agreements with the Dominican Republic have come under particularly harsh criticism from progressives. This year, Haiti has gone ahead with the first free trade zone project in Maribaroux, and in June announced a second project in Ouanaminthe, despite bitter protests by local peasants, among others. It's hard to defend the free trade zones, but Prime Minister Neptune does: "Those who criticize us, where would they find jobs that could put even a few poor Haitians to work? Surely, even low-paying jobs and a small increase in the minimum wage are better than nothing. It is also part of our policy to spread the jobs outside Port-au-Prince, to keep people living in the countryside." PAPDA head Camille Chalmers disagrees, calling the job creation rhetoric "propaganda."

PAPDA and others urge alternative, regional economic initiatives for Haiti. They propose a much closer alliance with Cuba, using money under a debt moratorium to fund joint projects for agrarian reform and the support of Haitian agriculture. In fact, the Haitian government does have cooperative projects with Cuba and with the Chavez government in Venezuela as well-both regimes on the U.S. government's hit list. The Venezuelan government has offered to provide regular shipments of oil at very reduced prices, which should help to stem Haiti's rampant inflation. Under treaties between Haiti and Cuba, more than 800 Cuban medical workers are currently in Haiti. Haiti also works with the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) nations on crafting a regional economy which can partially curb U.S. dominance. "CARICOM is an alternative economic and political initiative," according to the BAI's Concannon. "The organization does not talk a lot about opposing imperialism, but it is working towards a trade bloc that may be a bulwark against the FTAA and other initiatives." Haiti's ambassador to Cuba, Andrine Constant, told me she regularly meets informally with her Cuban and other Latin American counterparts to discuss regional strategy to offset U.S. hegemony. That alone must drive the Bush administration wild.


Most people I talked to-workers, peasants, intellectuals, activists-criticized the government severely for inaction at best and rampant corruption at worst. Most were disappointed in "Titid" (as the peasants call Aristide) and complained bitterly of a lack of direction for the country. "Aristide is absent-we just don't know where he is," Wesner, a young former FL supporter in Cap-Haitien, told me. One of the country's foremost poets-for years a staunch champion of Aristide-went further. "Aristide is the smallest man I've met," he said, "the most ignorant president we have had. Nobody is running the country."

But at the same time, most Haitians appear to want Aristide to continue in office. In spite of his criticism, the poet continued, "Aristide must stay and finish his term. We got rid of a real tyrant, Duvalier, but it took us four years to get even minimal stability. Now the opposition says, 'Let's do it again!' By bringing back the military whom the U.S. created for the express purpose of oppressing the Haitian people? No!" Twenty-eight of thirty people who responded when I polled them in a crowded Port-au-Prince market agreed. People are dissatisfied with the disastrous economy, and they hold the government partly responsible. Yet virtually everyone I met, including strident critics of Aristide, wants to see the democratic process respected.

The Convergence and the "184 Institutions" appear to have little or no support. PAPDA's Chalmers is very critical of Aristide. But he is even more critical of the official opposition. "Aristide's first administration made a good beginning, and they had the right program," he said in an interview. "I would say the international pressures and the pressure of trying to govern without the ability to really reform have robbed the government completely of its credibility. But the official opposition is worse-it would be a joke if it were not so serious with its U.S. backers."

Wesner, the Cap-Haitien youth, says, "It's the army I really despise. At least now I can sit here with my friends and complain. Under the military, I would be shot. When I saw Himmler leading the demonstration by the Convergence last November, I was really scared." The aptly named Himmler is Himmler Rebu, a former army officer who has been involved in several coup attempts.


Roger Noriega, speaking at the April 28 conference of the Council of the Americas in Washington, linked U.S. policies in Haiti to those in Venezuela and Cuba. He congratulated the OAS for overcoming its irrelevance in past years" by adopting the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Article 20, he said, lays out a series of actions to be taken ... in the event that a member state should fail to uphold the essential elements of democratic life." Noriega sees Article 20 as a formula for intervention. He added, "President Chavez and President Aristide have ... contributed willfully to a polarized and confrontational environment. It is my fervent hope that the good people of Cuba are studying the Democratic Charter."

How could U.S. Ieftists fail to see the link between U.S. policies in Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere, and those in Haiti? Why are so many progressive voices raised much more loudly against Aristide than against U.S. policy in the region? As one drawn into the energizing battle to support Aristide, I think I understand. Twelve years ago, Haiti under Aristide-a genuinely home-grown radical with a clear program for social change seemed so promising. How disappointing is his record since being elected overwhelmingly in 1991. He is not the intellectual giant and moral hero most progressives-and Haitians-hoped for. Progressives also underestimated how difficult it would be to make real headway against U.S. imperatives in the region. Nor had we bargained for such a sharp turn to the right in U.S. policies.

It is easy from the outside to bemoan Aristide's failures and to focus solidarity work on that failure. But progressives should balance our critique of Aristide with a determination to shine a light on how U.S. policy maintains the "structure of poverty and violence." Paul Farmer sums up this view: "Conditions in Haiti today are akin to a battlefield in an undeclared war on the poor.... How can you rebuild Haiti without massive resources...? Until that happens, there will be misery and hunger and inequality.... Such 'structural violence, "which has been perpetrated from above and without, will be reflected in local violence.... You'd think that progressive observers, at least, would make this connection. But many don't."


Tom Reeves is a retired professor of history and politics from Roxbury Community College in Boston, where he was director of the Caribbean Focus Program from 1986 to 2001. He was a founder of the New England Observer Delegations to Haiti (NEOD), which sent eight delegations to Haiti in the 1990s. His first visit to Haiti was in 1986 and his most recent visit was in March, 2003, when he gathered some of the information on which this article is based.

Caribbean watch

Index of Website

Home Page