Can Haitian Democracy Survive?
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide takes the reins of power in Haiti for the third
time in ten years, a debate over his presidency is taking place in US foreign
policy circles and the press. The discussion centers around whether Aristide is
"fully committed to democracy," and of course, "economic
reforms." But an honest look at the last decade of US relations with Haiti
raises very different, and much more troubling questions.
began his last term as President ten years ago, after winning a landslide
victory despite Washington's disapproval and financing of opposing candidates. A
populist priest who was one of the country's leading advocates for the poor, he
served less than 8 months before being overthrown in a bloody military coup.
coup leader, Lt. General Raul Cedras, was on the payroll of the US Central
Intelligence Agency. Time magazine reported that the CIA had advance knowledge
of the coup, but took no steps to prevent it-- indicating at least tacit US
support for the coup, and given the circumstances, probably much more than that.
of Aristide's supporters took to the streets to defend their first
democratically elected government. They were unarmed, and hundreds were
slaughtered mercilessly by the military and police. In the ensuing years the
dictatorship killed thousands of political opponents, setting up a special
death-squad organization-- known by its initials in French as F.R.A.P.H. The
founder and leader of this organization, Emmanuel Constant, was also a CIA
Clinton administration inherited the problem from George Bush Senior, and mostly
ignored Haiti for more than a year. It then began -- as a result of political
pressure and the flood of Haitian refugees headed to Florida's shores-- to
pressure the military dictatorship to step down.
led eventually to US troops invading Haiti in the fall of 1994. Most Americans
know only of this action to restore the elected government, and not the prior
measures to destroy it. They therefore have an inverted-- even Orwellian-- image
of our role in Haiti. Moreover, the objectives of the Clinton administration
were less than democratic: the plan at the time was to leave the army and
repressive apparatus in place, removing only the top three officers.
plan began to fall apart after Haitian soldiers beat an innocent man to death in
front of international TV cameras. US troops stood by under orders not to
intervene, and they expressed their disgust and frustration openly to the press.
President Clinton found himself in a bind: to drum up support for the invasion
he had described the Haitian military as "murderers, rapists, and
thugs." Less than a week later he was calling these same people "our
took advantage of the situation to dismantle the military, as well as the
violent "section chief" system of repression of in the countryside. In
doing so he created the foundation for the first democratic government in the
history of the nation, which had lived for thirty years under the US-supported
Duvalier family dictatorship until 1986. For the first time people could hold
meetings and form political organizations without fear of being killed.
there was little that he could do about Haiti's economy: that was in the hands
of the IMF, the World Bank, and their patrons in Washington. These people had a
simple economic development plan for Haiti: produce coffee, mangos, some other
agro-exports, and build up the light assembly export sector. Privatize public
utilities. Cut tariffs on imports.
the light assembly (read: sweatshop) sector provided few jobs, and at very low
pay-- less than $2.00 a day. With 84% of the inputs imported, the contribution
of this sector to the domestic economy was tiny.
lowering of tariffs on imported rice sunk thousands of domestic farmers, who
could not compete with subsidized (and mechanized) US production. Privatization
of the telephone company was seen as highly questionable, given its enormous
revenues (3 percent of GDP), the government's difficulty in collecting taxes
from other sources, and the lack of adequate regulatory structures.
these and other valid reasons, Haiti's government and especially its parliament
rejected much of the IMF/ World Bank plan. Standoffs with Washington-- which
controls both aid and credit-- damaged Haiti's economy and contributed to
political instability, while the aid that was actually disbursed had little
Washington is once again withholding aid to Haiti, based on disputed senate
election results and other concerns. Aristide has offered to rerun the 10
challenged senate elections of last November, and conceded to other demands that
were put forth by the Clinton administration.
certainly has its own political and economic problems, and Aristide has his
faults. But the foremost obstacle to democracy and economic recovery in Haiti
remains, as it has been for many years, "that cold country to the
North." Those who now sit in Washington in judgment of Haiti's government,
threatening the country with economic strangulation and perhaps even another
coup, should consider these words: judge not lest ye be judged.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.