excerpts from the book

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

by Peter Hallward

Verso, 2007, paperback


True political freedom is as limited in Haiti as it is anywhere on the planet. It is limited by the fragility of an economy that remains profoundly vulnerable to international pressure. It is limited by a rigid and highly polarized social structure that isolates a small and very concentrated elite from the rest of the population. It is also limited by a whole range of strategic and institutional factors: the persistence of neo-imperial intervention, of elite and foreign control over the military or paramilitary security forces, of elite and foreign manipulation of the media, of the judiciary, of non-governmental organizations, of the educational and religious establishments, of the electoral and political systems, and so on. Taken together these things make it extremely difficult to sustain any far-reaching challenge to the status quo.

The prospects for such a challenge declined still further when the dictatorial Francois Duvalier became president of Haiti in the late 1950s. With the help of a fearsome new paramilitary force known as the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier established the most violently repressive regime in the island's history. Thanks in part to the support of Haiti's most powerful neighbor, the United States, the essential features of this regime survived Francois Duvalier's death and replacement by his son Jean-Claude in 1971.

In spite of many obstacles, however, in the mid-1980s a remarkable political movement emerged in opposition to the Duvalierist dictatorship. Pressure from this movement forced the hopelessly decadent jean-Claude into exile in early 1986; in an attempt to limit any more far-reaching changes the army then returned Haiti to direct military rule. The next few years were witness to a dramatic struggle for power. Against the army and the elite, a broad coalition of progressive forces waged a courageous and inventive campaign for democratic reform. Like Duvalier before them, a succession of military rulers could only suppress growing demands for change by resorting to unacceptably public levels of violence. In the late 1980s unrelenting repression brought Haiti to the brink of revolution.

In 1990 this protracted struggle culminated in a watershed election victory for the popular anti-Duvalierist movement that became known as Lavalas - a Kreyol word meaning "avalanche" or "flood", as well as "the mass of the people" or "everyone together" - and its presidential candidate, the liberation theologian and grassroots activist Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide's election signaled an end to decades of authoritarian rule. Inaugurated in February 1991 in an atmosphere of exuberant collective enthusiasm, his government began to implement a number of desperately needed reforms and started to dismantle the structures of military and paramilitary oppression that had dominated life on the island all through the twentieth century. The campaign for the democratic liberation of Haiti was now well and truly underway.

But so was the elite's drive to contain and reverse this liberation. In September 1991, just seven months after Aristide took power, the army overthrew his government and killed many hundreds of its supporters. Nine long years later, in the autumn of 2000, Aristide was again elected president with another landslide majority. Although it cost the elite and its allies more time and effort to get rid of him a second time, a further coup duly followed in February 2004. But whereas the first coup was widely condemned as a major political crime, the second was largely ignored. Whereas the coup of 1991 triggered an international campaign for the restoration of Haitian democracy, the disastrous consequences of 2004 met and continue to meet with widespread resignation or indifference, if not approval.

When the Haitian army deposed [Haitian President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide in 1991, much of the world was appalled; when members of this same army helped the US and France to oust him in 2004, no-one seemed to care. What had changed? Although twice elected with massive majorities, by 2004 most mainstream international analysts had begun to denounce Aristide as an enemy of democracy. Although political violence declined dramatically during his years in office, by 2004 he was regularly condemned as an enemy of human rights. Although still immensely popular among the poor, he was attacked as aloof and corrupt. Although he was prepared to make far-reaching compromises with his opponents, he was derided as intractable and intolerant of dissent.

The effort to weaken, demoralize and then overthrow Lavalas [the social/political movement that allowed Aristide to achieve the Presidency of Haiti] in the first years of the twenty-first century was perhaps the most successful exercise of neo-imperial sabotage since the toppling of Nicaragua's Sandinistas in 1990. In many ways it was much more successful, at least in the short-term, than previous international triumphs in Iraq (2003), Panama (1989), Grenada (1983), Chile (1973), the Congo (1960), Guatemala (1954) or Iran (1953). Not only did the coup of 2004 topple one of the most popular governments in Latin America but it managed to topple it in a manner that wasn't widely criticized or even recognized as a coup at all.

Back in 1991, Aristide and Lavalas were among the most potent symbols for progressive political change in the entire world. As anyone who lived through them will recall, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an especially discouraging and reactionary time. Reagan and Thatcher had secured the foundations of their "new world order". Nicaragua's Sandinistas had been crushed, Cuba's Castro was marginalized, Jamaica's Manley was subdued, the national-liberation movements had been deflected. Just about everywhere, leftwing parties were rapidly becoming indistinguishable from their traditional opponents. Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales were nowhere in sight. Apart from popular mobilizations in South Africa and the Philippines, in the late 1980s the Haitian struggle against military rule began in a context of almost total isolation.

U.S. Department of Justice describing conditions in Haiti in the 1990s

On one side are the vast majority of citizens, mostly poor and poorly educated, who have traditionally been denied participation in the political, economic, and social decisions which affect their lives; they have been the primary targets of government-ordered or government-supported violence. On the other side are the groups that participated in the Duvalier political system and benefited from its repression of the disenfranchised majority. These include landholders who have used the political system to gain control of Haiti's limited supply of fertile land; business owners who have benefited from a submissive workforce and enjoyed monopoly control over various segments of the country's economy; and armed soldiers, section chiefs, militia, and Tontons Macoutes who wish to retain the trappings of their power and fear the accountability for past abuses that a new political order might impose on them. Since Jean-Claude Duvalier's flight from Haiti in 1986, the struggle has been played out openly and with brutal repression of the Haitian masses.

The evolution of editorial policy at the Washington Post is typical of the more general trend. Back in 1996, the Washington Post provided a glowing assessment of Aristide's first term in office: "Elected overwhelmingly, ousted by a coup and reseated by American troops, the populist ex-priest abolished the repressive army, virtually ended human rights violations, mostly kept his promise to promote reconciliation, ran ragged but fair elections and, though he had the popular support to ignore it, honored his pledge to step down at the end of his term. A formidable record. Eight years later, however, the day after his second term had been brought to its premature end, another editorial in this same newspaper concluded that "history will likely judge that Mr. Aristide was mostly responsible for his own downfall. He presided over a corrupt government that regularly used violence against its opponents and eventually provoked a violent uprising ... He bitterly disappointed Haitians who hoped he would bring democracy and development to the hemisphere's poorest country...

A tiny and paranoid minority of Haiti's population, the rich dominate the poor through a combination of direct military coercion and transnational economic power, in close collaboration with parallel interests in the US. The privileges of the rich, and the exploitation of the poor, can persist only so long as the rich maintain an unchallenged grip on the available instruments of violent coercion. Aristide challenged that grip.

"Whether they like it or not," he warned in his inaugural speech of 7 February 1991, "the [comfortable] stones in the water will come to know the pain of the [impoverished] stones in the sun.

Aristide was overthrown in 1991 because the movement that he led posed an intolerable threat to Haiti's comfortable ruling class... in 2004 he was overthrown again for the same reason.

Aristide wasn't a threat to the status quo because he sought to abolish it in a single stroke... Aristide was a threat because he proposed modest but practical steps towards popular political empowerment, because he presented widely shared popular demands in terms that made immediate and compelling sense to most of the Haitian population, because he formulated these demands within the constraints of the existing constitutional structure, because he helped to organize a relatively united and effective political party that quickly came to dominate that structure - and in particular, because he did all this after eliminating the main mechanism that the elite had relied upon to squash all previous attempts at political change: the army. Aristide was a threat because by the year 2000, for the first time in modem Haitian history, he raised the prospect of genuine political change in a context in which there was no obvious extra-political mechanism - no army - to prevent it.

Rather like the ANC in South Africa, by 2000 Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas organization could present itself as Haiti's natural party of government. Ordinary Haitian people were beginning to get a sense of their collective political strength; as Aristide's ally Father Gerard Jean-Juste put it in November of that year, "The Haitian people have finally realized that the voting card is power." 18 Lavalas activists were finally in a position to oversee sustained and durable political change. In May 2000 they won overwhelming and unprecedented majorities in both houses of parliament and at all levels of government, gaining on average more than 75 percent of the vote.

Since none of several foreign-sponsored vehicles for a "democratic opposition" ever stood the slightest chance of defeating Lavalas in an election, to get rid of their nemesis after the elections of 2000 the elite was obliged to follow a somewhat involved and laborious path. Although in 1990 some sectors of the elite that resented the repression that accompanied direct military rule were prepared to align themselves with the popular mobilization against dictatorship, a year later many of these sectors had already begun to desert this mobilization when they started to perceive it as a threat to their privileged position. As far as these sectors were concerned, Lavalas was "broad-based" when it opposed neoDuvalierism, but it became "sectarian" when it began to pose modest challenges to the supremacy of the elite itself, it became "criminal" when it threatened both to dilute elite influence and to dismantle the military's grip on the country. By the time of Fanmi Lavalas' May 2000 electoral victories, virtually all of the elite politicians who had allied themselves with Aristide's anti-macoutism in 1990 had switched sides. They had all joined a US-funded pro-army opposition group known as the Convergence Démocratique. Together with its allies in Haitian civil society and in the governments led by Bush and Chirac, this little posse of unelectable politicians (who collectively never enjoyed the support of more than perhaps 15% of the people) was then able to mount a remarkably effective campaign to deprive Aristide's government of funds and to demonize it as violent and corrupt. In one of the most impressive propaganda exercises in modern times, they were able to make the equation of Aristide and Duvalier look like a self-evident cliché. This effort required considerable amounts of money and ingenuity.

In the late 1980s, the army could still rule the country with around 7,000 poorly equipped domestic troops, backed up by several thousand local police and paramilitary auxiliaries or attachés. Twenty years on, the violent pacification of post-Aristide Haiti would require some 9,000 or so international soldiers armed with state-of-the-art equipment, reinforced by some 6,000 internationally trained police and an eclectic (and rapidly expanding) array of around 10,000 private security guards.

The coup of 2004 did not simply disrupt the Lavalas organization and kill thousands of its supporters. It was also intended to complete a task that began back in 1991: the task of reversing Lavalas' achievements and of inverting their significance. It didn't serve merely to put an end to the "threat of a good example" but also to discredit it beyond repair. Haiti's [democratic] mobilization [for Aristide] had proved that [according to Lavalas activist Patrick Elie] "the poorest people in the hemisphere can know more about democracy than the people who are pretending to be beacons of civilization. The movement that you see now in Latin America, the new large social movements that are sweeping away the traditional political parties, that also started in a way in Haiti. For the US, Haiti is an example that must be crushed, that must be made to fail."

Haiti's poverty, together with its alleged lack of natural resources and strategic significance, is often cited by analysts who prefer to understand US intervention in Haiti along more altruistic lines. Why would the US or France want to intervene in such an apparently barren and unprofitable place? It's quite true that economic issues played less of a motivating role in Haiti 1991 or 2004 than they did in Chile 1973 or Iraq 2003. A manufacturing sector in which sweatshop wages hover around $2 a day has obvious transnational uses, but the preservation of such a place is not by itself enough to warrant such assiduous imperial attention. The prospect of a social revolution that might look west to Cuba for inspiration and then spread east into the rather more profitable cane fields and hotels of the Dominican Republic is perhaps another matter, especially for a government that is beholden to the South Florida lobby. Combine the prospect of such a revolution with the peculiar legacy of militant anti-slavery and the radical promise of liberation theology arguably the greatest single challenge to US strategic interests in Latin America in the entire post-war period - and as far as the American empire is concerned you are talking about a specter that warrants exorcism by any and all available means. Throw in Aristide's unsettling request that France should help Haiti celebrate its bicentennial in 2004 by repaying the enormous amount of money that it extorted from its old slave colony during the nineteenth century, and you are dealing with little less than a menace to postcolonial civilization itself.

There is nothing unfamiliar about me basic issues at stake in this sequence. As Noam Chomsky and others have argued for many years, "it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated. Back in the 1970s and 80s, in Haiti as elsewhere the prospect of popular political participation typically provoked an overtly coercive response: the general goal of the "bureaucratic-authoritarian" regimes that emerged with US support in much of Latin America during those years [1970s-1980s] was to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority. Today we live in slightly more sophisticated times. Our rulers, notes Aristide's prime minister Yvon Neptune, still "want a democracy without the people," but rather than simply exclude them from politics today's goal is instead "to reduce the people to puppets or clowns."

Since their development by the CIA and the State Department in the 1970s, never have the well-worn tactics of "democracy promotion" been applied with more devastating effect than in Haiti between 2000 and 2004.

True political action is animated by collective principles that concern everyone by definition - principles of freedom, equality, solidarity, justice.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide's 1990 presidential campaign slogan for the presidency of Haiti

Alone we are weak, together we are strong; all together we are Lavalas, the flood.

Haitian social activist Bobby Duval

Aristide's got nothing to do with the establishment, personally, ideologically, institutionally. He remains hugely popular. When he speaks, he touches a chord in the people like no-one else, it's unbelievable. He wasn't perfect, but he was the only politician who was from the people, and the only one who worked with the people.

political scientist Robert Fatton, November 2006

Aristide still remains the most popular politician in Haiti today. If he could stand for reelection tomorrow he would easily win.

Carol Joseph is a minister in the current Haitian government

It is undeniable that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is still the most popular man in Haiti, and if he could run for office again he would be re-elected tomorrow.

Haitian social activist Bobby Duval

If there was a massive campaign against Aristide it is not because his government was worse than any other, but because his power came from the people.

Aristide was the first politician to stand alongside the people from the 'quartiers populaires', to share the dangers they faced, to affirm their language, their religion and their values, to affirm them as genuinely political actors. He was the only prominent politician of his time to address the realities of class struggle and injustice in terms that made compelling sense to those who suffer their effects.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, 3 March 2004

We don't go around sticking our nose into democracies and trying to tell people what to do.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 1988

Haiti is poor because of the rich.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 2003

Poverty today [in Haiti] is the result of a 200-year plot. In 1803 and in 2003, this is the same plot. Do you understand my message?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

It is better to err with the people than to be right without them.

In many ways, the people (first-world diplomats, IFI economists, USAID consultants, IRI mediators, CIA analysts, media specialists, ex-military personnel, security advisors, police trainers, aid-workers, NGO staff) ... managed to back one of the most popular political leaders in Latin America into a corner from which he couldn't escape. They managed not only to overthrow but also to discredit the most progressive government in Haitian history, and they managed to attack this government in ways that were rarely perceived (by mainstream commentators) as aggressive at all. They managed to disguise a deliberate and elaborate political intervention as a routine contribution to the natural order of things. Ten years after his triumphant return from exile in 1994, Aristide's enemies not only drove him out of office but into an apparently definitive disgrace.

Confronted by a threatening attempt at popular democracy, the Haitian elite and its friends in France and US adopted a predictable but highly effective strategy. They starved the Lavalas government of funds and international credit, obliging it to adopt unpopular economic policies and to cut public sector services and jobs. They developed powerful if not irresistible forms of economic pressure to further impoverish and alienate its supporters. They cast doubt on its democratic legitimacy, equating Haiti's most popular president with the Duvalier and Cédras dictatorships. They secured and supported sympathetic assets within the security forces, and bought off opportunistic elements within the popular movement. They obliged the government's supporters to take defensive measures in the face of paramilitary attack, and then characterized these measures as intolerant of dissent. They presented opposition to the government as diverse and inclusive, and valorized these opponents as the embattled victims of government repression. Taking special care to ensure that the government was attacked from both right (business groups, professional associations, civil society organizations) and left (humanitarian NGOs, human rights groups), they sustained a relentless media campaign to present the government as intractable and authoritarian. After a few years of such coercion, even a tiny military insurgency led by notorious criminals and organized by the most reactionary interests in the country was welcomed by most mainstream observers as a "popular insurrection" against a despotic regime. If in the end even such insurrection wasn't enough to get rid of the despot, who then could blame the great powers when they eventually went in to finish the job on their own?

The capacity of the US or its allies France and Canada to pose as friends of the Haitian people is for the foreseeable future damaged beyond repair [because of their role in the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004].

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in exile in South Africa, interviewed by Peter Hallward, July 20, 2006

What happened in September 1991 happened again in February 2004, and could easily happen again soon, in the future, so long as the oligarchy who control the means of repression use them to preserve a hollow version of democracy. This is their obsession: to maintain a situation that might be called "democratic," but which consists in fact of a superficial, imported democracy that is imposed and controlled from above.

We now live in a country in which just 1% of its people control more than half of its wealth. For the elite, it's a matter of us against them, of finding a way of preserving the massive inequalities that affect every facet of Haitian society. We are subject to a sort of apartheid. Ever since 1804, the elite has done everything in its power to keep the masses at bay, on the other side of the walls that protect their privilege. This is what we are up against. This is what any genuinely democratic project is up against. The elite will do everything in its power to ensure that it controls a puppet president and a puppet parliament. It will do everything necessary to protect the system of exploitation upon which its power depends.

It's not an accident that when it came to choosing a leader, these people [Haitians] who remain so poor and so marginalized by the powers that be, should have sought out not a politician but a priest. The politicians had let them down. They were looking for someone with principles, someone who would speak the truth.

[In 1994, US President Bill] Clinton needed a foreign policy victory, and a return to democracy in Haiti offered him that opportunity; we needed an instrument to overcome the resistance of the murderous Haitian army, and Clinton offered us that instrument. We never had any illusions that the Americans shared our deeper objectives, we knew they didn't want to travel in the same direction. But without the Americans we couldn't have restored democracy.

Even in spite of the aid embargo we managed to accomplish certain things. We were able to invest in education, for instance ... in 1990 there were only 34 secondary schools in Haiti; by 2001 there were 138... We built a new university at Tabarre, a new medical school. Although it had to run on a shoestring, the literacy program we launched in 2001 was also working well... Previous governments never seriously tried to invest in education, and it's clear that our program was always going to be a threat to the status quo. The elite want nothing to do with popular education, for obvious reasons.

[The American] goal all along was to ensure that come January 2004, there would be no meaningful celebration of the bicentenary of independence. It too the US fifty-eight years to recognize Haiti's independence, since of course the US was a slave-owning country at the time, and in fact US policy has never really changed. Their priorities haven't changed, and today's American policy is more or less consistent with the way it's always been.

The coup of September 1991 was undertaken by people in Haiti with the support of the US administration, and in February 2004 it happened again, thanks to many of these same people.

The overall objective was to undermine the celebration of our bicentenary, the celebration of our independence and of all its implications [2004]. When the time came [the U.S.] sent emissaries to Africa, especially to francophone Africa, telling their leaders not to attend the celebrations. Chirac applied enormous pressure on his African colleagues; the Americans did the same. Thabo Mbeki was almost alone in his willingness to resist this pressure, and through him the African Union was represented. I'm very glad of it. The same pressure was applied in the Caribbean: the prime minister of the Bahamas, Peny Christie, decided to come, but that's it, he was the only one. It was very disappointing.

A lot of the $200 million or so in aid and development money for Haiti that was suspended when we won the elections in 2000 was simply diverted to a propaganda and destabilization campaign waged against our government and against Fanmi Lavalas. The disinformation campaign was truly massive. Huge sums of money were spent to get the message out, through the radio, through newspapers, through various little political parties that were supposed to serve as vehicles for the opposition ... It was extraordinary. When I look back at this very discouraging period in our history I compare it with what has recently happened in some other places. They went to the same sort of trouble when they tried to say there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I can still see Colin Powell sitting there in front of the United Nations, with his little bag of tricks, demonstrating for all the world to see that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Look at this irrefutable proof! It was pathetic. In any case the logic was the same: they rig up a useful lie, and then they sell it. It's the logic of people who take themselves to be all-powerful. If they decide 1 + 1 = 4, then 4 it will have to be.

The leaders of the Group of 184... are beholden to a patron, a boss. The boss is American, a white American. And you are black. Don't underestimate the inferiority complex that still so often conditions these relationships. You are black. But sometimes you get to feel almost as white as the whites themselves, you get to feel whiter than white, if you're willing to get down on your knees in front of the whites. If you're willing to get down on your knees, rather than stay on your feet, then you can feel almost as white as they look. This is a psychological legacy of slavery.

... In this case and others like it, what's really going on is clear enough. It's the people with power who pull the strings, and they use this or that 'petit negre de service', this or that black messenger to convey the lies that they call truth. The people they recruited into the Group of 184 did much the same thing. They were paid off to say what their employers wanted them to say. They helped destroy the country, in order to please their patrons.

... Why were the Group of 184 and our opponents in "civil society" so hostile? Again it's partly a matter of social pathology. When a group of citizens is prepared to act in so irrational and servile a fashion, when they are so willing to relay the message concocted by their foreign masters, without even realizing that in doing so they inflict harm upon themselves - well if you ask me, this is -a symptom of a real pathology. It has / something to do with a visceral hatred, which became a real obsession: a hatred for the people. It was never really about me, it's got nothing to do with me as an individual. They detest and despise the people. They refuse absolutely to acknowledge that we are all equal, that everyone is equal. So when they behave in this way, part of the reason is to reassure themselves that they are different, that they are not like the people, not like them. It's essential that they see themselves as better than others.

... I'm convinced it's bound up with the legacy of slavery, with an inherited contempt for the people, for the common people, for the niggers [petits nègres] ... It's the psychology of apartheid: it's better to get down on your knees with whites than it is to stand shoulder to shoulder with blacks. Don't underestimate the depth of this contempt.

There is no legal justification for blocking my return... I was elected president but am accused of dictatorship by nameless people who are accountable to no-one yet have the power to expel me from the country and then to delay or block my return.

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