I returned this month from Haiti as part of the first independent U.S. observer delegation since the removal on February 29 of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. More than a decade ago, I helped organize the New England Observer Delegations to Haiti -- nine diverse groups of prominent Boston area people who went to Haiti after the first coup d'etat against President Aristide. We witnessed a reign of terror by the Haitian military, in which at least 3,000 democracy activists were slaughtered. We also witnessed the almost universal jubilation of the Haitian urban and rural poor (85% of the population) on Aristide's return.
This time I went to see the results of another coup against Aristide, one clearly planned, funded and orchestrated by the U.S. I felt a terrible dÃ©jÃ vu: massive violence against the poor, especially against Aristide's Lavalas movement; the very same paramilitary and former Haitian army officers committing the atrocities. Convicted mass murderers acting as judges, administrators and police. Despite intimidation and brutal attacks on the poorest neighborhoods, we saw overwhelming support for Aristide among the poor, and violent hatred of Aristide by the tiny elite. A crucial difference was the attitude of the professionals and many intellectuals. They expressed a sense of betrayal by Aristide, and joy at his fall. Yet one of them told me, "The Haitian people elected Aristide, and only they should have been able to take him down."
We heard from people who witnessed night--time raids against Lavalas. In one case in the poor neighborhood of Bel Air, we were told U.S. helicopters came with blinding lights, heavily armed U.S. fired into crowds, killing between five and twenty persons (March 17). Members of our group interviewed relatives of victims and eyewitnesses to this attack. In case after case, we were told that known criminals and former army men were incorporated into the police. They harassed or beat Lavalas supporters and hounded for "arrest" former government officials.
A stream of people came to see us from their hiding places at great risk to tell us this. Jeremy was one. Now 21, he met Aristide at age 11. He worked for Children's Radio (Radio Ti Moun) funded by Aristide's foundation. Jeremy tearfully recalled the past month: He fled the radio station as it was trashed. He was chased and saw his young companions beaten. He ran from his aunt's house as three former military came looking for him. They shot his aunt and she died on the way to the hospital. This happened a week before we arrived. Jeremy had been afraid to go to her funeral.
A woman came to us from the community group, Ai Bobo Brav, victims of the last coup. I'd met her last March when she told me, "Every Haitian baby knows Bush's game." Back then she'd forecast the coup. Now she was living it. "While your President was sleeping in his bed, they kidnapped our president. They dragged him off. It was so disrespectful. It hurt me so. She wept.
Driving back to Port Au Prince from Jacmel on Friday, I saw a cow munching on garbage by a sign in English advertising a school. The sign said, "Welcome to the American Learning Zone." The U.S. State Department point man on Haiti, Roger Noriega (also involved in the Iran--Contra plot in Nicaragua) told an audience in Washington last year that Cuba and Venezuela should pay close attention to events in Haiti. One of the first acts by U.S. marines after landing in Haiti this year may have been to establish a perimeter around Mole St. Nicolas, the peninsula opposite Guantanamo, jutting into the narrow strait between Haiti and Cuba. Local residents reported to Haitian news media that U.S. military structures were being built on the site long sought by the U.S. as a companion base to Guantanamo.
What interests provoke such an expensive, brutal lesson in Haiti? Haiti has no oil. Of course there are thousands of sweat shop workers who toil for less than a dollar a day. Of course there are big US companies that supply rice, wheat and other staples supplanting Haitian rice and cassava, so that nearly 70% of the food consumed by Haitians must be imported, mostly from the U.S. This for a country that once provided more wealth to France than all its other New World colonies! And then there is Aristide, the little Liberation Theology priest who preached a message of conflict between the tiny elite and the desperately poor majority. Haiti is so close to Cuba -- that other obsession of U.S. foreign policy. One of Aristide's first acts was to establish ties with Cuba. More than 500 Cuban doctors remain in Haiti, helping the poorest communities. They must be remembering Grenada, where a U.S. occupation twenty years ago ousted Cuban doctors. Most of all, Haiti sits in what the U.S. sees as it's back yard, it's playground, it's lap. Upstart, uncontrolled forces there are just too close to home. So -- Venezuela and Cuba and others beware: Haiti is the American (imperial) learning zone.
HAITI SHOULD BE A LEARNING ZONE FOR SOLIDARITY ACTIVISTS, TOO
Haiti should be a learning zone for all Americans who would understand and counter the imperial U.S. policy of intervention world--wide. If the U.S. can get away with covert and overt support for a "rebellion" in Haiti led by former military and para--military, many of whom have been convicted of murders and other human rights violations dating to the last coup, it will be psyched for similar operations in Venezuela and perhaps even in Cuba. The evidence is clear: U.S. weapons (intended for the Dominican army) were smuggled into Haiti by former Haitian military and para--military, many of whom were trained and long funded by the CIA and other U.S. agents. U.S. money, both government and private, flowed into the coffers of NGOs attached to the "opposition" -- the right--wing Convergence and the neo--liberal "Group of 184," led by the Haitian business elite (including the sweat--shop owners) and widely publicized by the ultra--conservative "Haiti Democracy Project"(HDP) in Washington, D.C. Among the funders and organizers of the opposition were the IRI and NDI, the international NGOs closely tied to the U.S. Republican and Democrat Parties respectively. IRI and HDP operatives were present at meetings organized by FRAPH (a CIA--funded para--military group) and former Haitian military in the Dominican Republic -- at which Dominican authorities claimed plans were laid a year ago for a Haitian coup.
In Jacmel, we met students, women and union organizers who had formed specifically anti--Aristide groups to counter the existing organizations in Jacmel -- for the purpose of joining the demonstrations led by the Convergence and 184 to demand the ouster of Aristide earlier this year. Pierre J.G.C. Gestion, a leader of the MHDR (Haitian Movement for Rural Development) proudly asserted his connection to USAID, the State Department Democracy Enhancement program and the NDI. "They trained us and taught us how to organize, and we organized the groups you see here to demand the corrupt government of Aristide be brought down."
We also met representatives in Port au Prince of SOFA, CONAM, ENFOFANM and other progressive women's groups, as well as Batay Ouvriye, the rightly heralded support group for the Free Trade Zone and other mostly women workers in the assembly industries (sweat shops). These women's and labor groups were strongly critical of Aristide's government and the Lavalas movement. During the past few months, they openly called for Aristide's removal, and they chose not to denounce the opposition's "zero option" strategy of non--cooperation and non--compromise. Yet I heard no answer to our question: "What did you think would happen if Aristide was forced to leave by the right--wing rebels or by a U.S. occupation?" I believe these groups did not ask themselves that question.
I think they were blinded by their feeling that Aristide had betrayed his progressive mandate. A good bit of their analysis of Aristide's record was right -- though not all. Aristide did accept a compromise when he returned. He did include, at U.S. insistence, elements of the former army and even Duvalierists in his regime. Yet the government put in place by this recent coup is far worse: it is full of such Macoutes, and worse -- convicted mass murderers. It has already militarized the police and is preparing the return of an unreconstructed Haitian army -- the instrument of U.S. and elite oppression in Haiti since it's creation by the U.S. at it's first invasion in 1915.
Aristide also compromised terribly on the issues of structural adjustment -- he did put in place the first Free Trade Zone, and lay plans for a second one, a bitter insult to Haitian labor. He did begin privatization. He did not protect Haitian products adequately. Yet he did not compromise on everything. He continued to agitate for a better minimum wage, against the sweat shop owners. He resisted most of the demanded privatization. He held out for collective bargaining rights for the Free Trade Zone workers. He continued to make small steps toward agrarian reform. As Paul Farmer and others have shown, he made greater strides in fighting AIDS and promoting literacy than any previous government. The Latortue government from the start has been wholly dominated by free trade enthusiasts, neoliberal theoreticians and the worst of the sweatshop owners and other business elite.
The women's groups told us bluntly that the situation under Aristide was the worst in Haiti's history -- worse than Duvalier and worse that Haiti during the 1991--1994 coup period. Yet I met these groups during that time. They were in hiding then, terrified by the very same elements now roaming Haiti freely, committing atrocities now as then. When U.S. and other international delegations visited them a year ago, under Aristide's rule, they functioned openly. They did not appear terrorized. Their most concrete criticisms were that when they demonstrated against the government -- during the same period as the sometimes violent demonstrations orchestrated by the 184 and the Convergence, and coming during a time when it was clear that former military and para--military (the CIA--funded FRAPH) were entering the country and preparing a coup -- police stood by as people they called Lavalas threw bottles of urine and stones at them. All of that is terrible -- and should not have gone without a severe criticism of Aristide and Lavalas. But it cannot be compared to the brutal onslaught by the Fraph and former army officers in Gonaives, Cap Haitien and elsewhere after Feb. 5. Aristide's alleged abuses pale beside the documented reports of the "rebels" slaughtering police and Lavalas and mutilating their bodies; of summary executions; of groups of Lavalas herded into containers and dumped into the sea.
Perhaps worst of all, I listened again (as I had a year ago) to the litany of abuses the NCHR (National Coalition for Haitian Rights) says it documented against officials of the Aristide government and the Lavalas movement. They rightly protested cases like that of the journalist Jean Dominique and a dozen other high profile attacks on opposition activists and as many as three opposition journalists. Yet during the two years leading up to this latest coup, they adamantly refused to investigate now--verified allegations of murders, arson and bombings against the government and Lavalas by former military and FRAPH. They scoffed at the alleged coup attempt at the National Palace in December of 2001, though Jodel Chamblain now boasts that was an initial coup attempt.
Although they were the only human rights group in the country adequately funded and having trained monitors throughout Haiti, the NCHR became completely partisan: anti--Lavalas, anti--Aristide. This is simply not proper for a group calling itself a "Haitian Rights" organization. During the final month before the coup, they abandoned any pretext of impartiality, joining calls for the ouster of Aristide, without reference to the means. After Feb. 29, they continue to site abuses by "chimere," whom they call simply "Aristide gangs," without documenting the connections. Though they told our group they had "heard about" violence against unarmed Lavalas, including the possible complicity of U.S. marines in the Bel Air incident, the NCHR said they "lacked access" to the pro--Lavalas shanty--towns. Of course they lacked access: they lacked any shred of credibility as a human rights monitor.
We also heard from PAPDA (Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development) which had called for Aristide's ouster on the grounds of his compromises with "U.S. imperialism," as well as corruption and human rights violations. PAPDA had functioned openly in its offices under Aristide, right up to and through this year's coup, though at least one PAPDA member was killed, allegedly by "chimere." Camille Chalmers, PAPDA's director, said, "This is a sad day for Haiti. But it was the people who overturned Aristide. The U.S. only came in to shape the results, as they always do....Right now, the population has regained some hope. This hope will go against the marines. Confrontations are already happening."
Though the current government is extremely pro--neo--liberal, a PAPDA coalition leader on environmental issues, Yves Wainwright, has accepted the post of Minister of the Environment. "The current political situation has not been defined," Chalmers told us. "If the Provisional Government were to develop a logical program it would conflict with U.S. interests. Under Aristide, we had less and less space to organize and demonstrate -- we were repressed. As long as we can demonstrate against the military occupation now, we will retain a tiny space." Together, some 40 similar anti--Aristide "left" groups have formed the RDP (Popular Democratic Regroupment) to put forward an alternative opposition program to the government, even while some work within that government.
One man I hoped to see, but did not, was Chavannes Jean--Baptiste. Chavannes was at times very close to Aristide -- serving as his spokesperson when he returned after the coup. Chavannes is founder and leader of the MPP (a large peasant group in the Central Plateau). Shortly after Aristide chose Preval for his successor, Chavannes announced his break with Aristide (there was indeed an ugly confrontation between Chavannes and Lavalas activists in Mirebalais). By the 2000 election, Chavannes openly embraced his former worst enemies, and joined the Convergence. Later Chavannes joined the more palatable, but clearly neo--liberal, Group of 184. MPP has now endorsed its "Social Contract," put forward by elite business groups.
A peasant from Mirabalais in the Central Plateau told me he had evidence that most of the weapons and men moved from the Dominican Republic to start the rebellions in Gonaives and Cap Haitien in early February, came through Chavannes' turf. "No way could that have been done without his active support." Chavannes is said to be considering a position in the de facto government -- as minister for peasant affairs. I was with Chavannes and his mother when they wept on seeing the ruins and vandalism at their offices in Papay on their return after the first coup in 1994. That damage was done by the very same para--military and military who now occupy much of the country. Another dissident peasant whom I met told of Chavannes' embracing and throwing a feast for Chamblain, the convicted murderer and FRAPH member who "liberated" Hinche, the MPP base. Chamblain now sits in Cap Haitien, acting as "judge" condemning and punishing "criminals" and "traitors." Such alliances may be -- as the civil society leader told us -- just strange bedfellows in wartime, but on a personal level, they are hard to understand.
International human rights organizations, especially Human Rights Watch and Journalists Without Borders, and to a lesser extent Amnesty International, have taken the NCHR reports uncritically and failed to develop other impartial human rights contacts in Haiti. Progressive funders like Grassroots International and NGOs in Canada, the US and Europe also listened uncritically to their "partners" and funded groups in Haiti like PAPDA, SOFA, Batay Ouvriye and MPP.
The primary lesson to be learned for funders and NGOS, and for all solidarity activists, is that solidarity must first of all be with the people of Haiti -- by the assertion of their will by voting, as Haitians did for Aristide in 2000 (the OAS and international NGOs certified that at the time). Beyond that, international funding and solidarity groups (and here the criticism is equally valid for those who were wholly supportive of Lavalas without critique) must not put on blinders when they visit Haiti. They must listen critically to all sides. They must watch for concrete evidence of the mass base of the organizations they fund -- and evidence that the rank and file feel as the "leaders" do.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. empire will gain more from its exercise in the learning zone of Haiti, or the international solidarity movement. Let us hope for the latter -- since the next learning zones may come sooner than we expect, especially if the Bush regime lives through its debacle in Iraq and survives the November election.
**Material for this article was compiled partly from observations and interviews in conjunction with the Emergency Haiti Observation Mission, a group of 24 diverse people from throughout the U.S. and Canada, coordinated by the Quixote Center in Maryland. The ideas expressed in this article are solely those of the author.