The Assault on Democracy in Haiti: An Interview with Jeb Sprague
Jeb Sprague is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where his research is focused on Haiti. He has written for numerous publications including Al Jazeera, the Miami Herald, Inter Press Service, and many others. He received a Project Censored Award in 2008 for an article coauthored with Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre. Sprague just released his first book, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, the subject of this interview.
David Zlutnick interviewed Sprague when he passed through San Francisco on a book tour. The conversation focuses on paramilitarism and its consequences in Haiti, but also touches on the roles of outside powers and their influence, Haiti’s vibrant social movements, and the country’s most recent developments. The above is a ten-minute edited selection of the video. What follows is an edited transcript of the full interview.
San Francisco, CA. September 10, 2012—
DZ: While much of your new book focuses on the recent past, you describe Haiti’s paramilitary history in four waves. Could you begin by giving a bit of this history, going back to the US occupation and subsequent dictatorships?
JS: So my book, the recent part really relies on interviews and Freedom of Information Act request documents that show what elites talk about behind closed doors and to try and get at the roots of paramilitary violence. But before that I try to give the larger context of contemporary paramilitary violence in Haiti. And my basic argument is that there have been four contemporary waves of paramilitarism in Haiti. The first wave, which is basically the Tonton Macoutes, which was institutionalized under Duvalier—François “Papa Doc” Duvalier [Haitian president, 1957-1971]. And right when this was started as sort of a Cold War, right-wing project in the early ‘60s, the CIA threw Marines at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, basically trained the Tonton Macoutes—a Marine force in Port-au-Prince. And so the Tonton Macoutes lasted all the way up until the mid-1980s when Papa Doc’s son, “Baby Doc,” was forced out of office.
And the Tonton Macoutes—it became this very much pervasive force around the country, really leaching off the poor, sucking the resources of the state, killing tens of thousands of people, and also creating a symbiotic relationship with the military and with the rural sheriffs, called the “Section Chiefs,” which had been set up before [Papa Doc]. But this whole sort of military-security-paramilitary apparatus came together to secure this regime—this Cold War, repressive regime. Because there was also this miniature Cold War going on in the Caribbean, especially after the Cuban Revolution [in 1958]. And then across the [Hispaniola island] border in the Dominican Republic there was a similar repressive regime.
So that’s what I argue is really the first wave of paramilitarism. And then the second wave of paramilitarism comes about after the fall of Baby Doc. Elites try to control a transition to a more palatable kind of regime that the West can accept. And so what happens is basically the Tonton Macoutes take off their blue uniforms and some of them are sort of repositioned in other places around the country where the local people don’t see them. And they do all these things to maintain this paramilitary apparatus, but to make surface-level changes. And they become what is called the “attaches,” where they work alongside the military as these “military attaches” where the can carry out brutal massacres, targeted assassinations, targeting people from the pro-democracy movement from below, which has been around since forever in Haiti.
And what about more recently, in the past couple decades?
And so once democracy finally came about in Haiti in the early-1990s, after this huge struggle from the popular movement, the Ti Legliz—the small church, liberation theologians—finally you had a popularly elected government in 1990 [under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide], taking office in February of 1991. And soon thereafter, about seven months into this first democratically elected government, you had a coup d’état where sectors of what they call “the families”—Haiti has an extremely unequal society and there are these families that live—a lot of them live in Port au Prince in neighborhoods like Petionville—and these families supported—a number of the families supported this coup. The top echelons of the military were not happy with the progressive reforms that were being carried out. So after the coup there was really the third wave of paramilitarism, what they call the FRAPH [Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti], which actually it’s well-documented the CIA station chief was coordinating with them their wave of terror. They killed thousands. Human Rights Watch claimed that they killed 4,000 but it’s probably a lot higher than that. And they would target progressive business people that were against the coup, priests, young activists protesting—this was happening basically between ’91 and ’94, this paramilitary group.
And then ultimately this post-coup military dictatorship that had come to power, it became such an embarrassment for its international backers, it was such a narco-corrupt state of brutality that by late-1994 the US with UN support acted to bring down the regime. A lot of the top military guys in the regime left the country to mansions in Central America or some went to New York and the US, and the US would even rent or pay them for some of their property in Haiti when they left. And so the US did everything they could to try and buy these guys off so they wouldn’t see justice. The elected [Aristide] government was reinstalled in 1994 but it had to sort of accept these deals with the US and the so-called “international community” to bring down tariffs and allow a certain number of the old military to go into a new police force. And that really laid a seed for a lot of problems in the future.
But at the same time the return of the government allowed restarting a lot of the progressive projects that it had initially started in ’91 when it was first elected. One of the most popular things was that Aristide disbanded—his government disbanded the military, disbanded the rural section chiefs, and the paramilitary forces had to go underground or flee the country. It also started these judicial processes to hold accountable gunmen in some of the larger massacres; and not only the gunmen but started going after the financial and intellectual authors of these massacres—something that’s almost never done. It was a pretty strong justice process that hasn’t really been looked at. One of the more famous trials is the Raboteau Massacre trial in Gonaives where there were dozens of military and paramilitary men that were found guilty and put in jail. This was the first time in Haitian history that this was ever done, so this was a really big deal.
So flash-forward into 2000. The democratic forces in Haiti are just starting to try to get things back together. I mean [there were] a lot of problems and contradictions, but Haiti is slowly progressing. So then what happens, what I argue, is there is a fourth wave of paramilitarism. What happens is that a group of these police and military that were connected with the US—they had actually been trained in Quito, Ecuador with support from the US, and in Haiti they call them the “Ecuadorians”—this group, they basically formed the core of the new paramilitary force. They often called themselves the “New Army;” their acronym was the FLRN [National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation and Reconstruction of Haiti]. And they based themselves out of the Dominican Republic and what happened was all throughout 2001—or towards the end of 2001, then 2002, 2003, they carried out this war of attrition where they would run raids, attack the National Palace. They tried to carry out a coup but they didn’t have sufficient forces. But they were carrying out these assassinations of Fanmi Lavalas activists and supporters in the center of Haiti, in the Hinterland, where a lot of the agriculture is based. Fanmi Lavalas was the party of Aristide, the most popular political party in the country, especially among the poor.
And so eventually this fourth wave of paramilitarism started to wear down on the government. And there was also a fifth column within the government of ex-military, some of which even claimed to be Lavalas but they were—but what I’ve been able to get at through my research, these Freedom of Information Act documents, I show that this fifth column was actively plotting against the government from within the government. That’s something the book really looks at, the different sectors that were behind these paramilitaries: a wing of the Dominican government, the foreign ministry and the military; a wing of local bourgeoisie, some of which are neo-Duvalierists; some of what I call “transnationally-oriented capitalists,” who are, you know, primarily concerned with the global economy—textiles, sweatshop owners; and then there’s also connections to French and US intelligence. More work needs to be done on that [latter point], but it’s very hard to uncover that linkage. So this is that fourth wave of paramilitarism, which eventually led up to the 2004 coup in which the Bush Administration—George W. Bush—I think with a US Navy SEAL team, took him from his house, took him on an unmarked plane—like all those rendition planes—and flew him to the Central African Republic. I think a lot of people know about that through Democracy Now! and all the coverage that was given to that.
Wasn’t there a US private security company that was also linked up in the 2004 coup? I used to write about these military contractors and I recall coming across the Haitian coup in my research. A group similar to Blackwater or Triple Canopy or one of those, although I forget which one.
Yeah, there was US private security that the Haitian government had actually been using for years prior, that had actually been working for the Haitian government to do security for top officials in the government. Because one of the problems was there was this infiltrated fifth column, so they would actually—it’s kind of ironic they would hire this private company from the US, but Haiti is such a donor-dependent country, even with a progressive, left-leaning government there’s so many contradictions and it’s so hard to avoid these things. But what happened was when this paramilitary campaign ramped up and got more and more widespread, there was this private security firm—and it was very controversial because I think the US embassy and State Department intervened with this corporation—I think they might actually be based out of San Francisco—and they got their teams to stand down when the US Navy SEALs went in to take Aristide out of the country.
[Note: The military contractor protecting Aristide was the Steele Foundation, based in San Francisco as Sprague said. It is made up of former US special forces, intelligence agents, and other security experts. It has been reported that the Bush Administration blocked the Steele Foundation from sending reinforcements to Haiti to protect the Aristide government as rebel attacks escalated immediately preceding the coup.]
You began to talk about who is supporting these paramilitaries. Could you speak a bit more about whose interests are being served by these groups? And why are these backers prone to using such massive and decimating violence for their advantage instead of other less physically destructive types of social coercion we may see in other states?
Well, there’s this idea of “polyarchy,” right? Over the last few decades, through globalization, with the winding down of the cold war, dominant groups have tried to transition away from more violent forms of coercion and oppression that are very embarrassing for them when it gets out in the media and things like this. And they’ve tried to transition away from that to sort of more controlled, “democratic” processes—like in the US, or a lot of western countries—where there’s sort of a small sliver of society that is able to participate in politics, and whatever party you choose, there may be slight differences but the overarching things that they do are beneficial for the global economy and the class system. So what happened it Haiti really is that that sort of polyarchic strategy wasn’t able to succeed. Because the movement-from-below groups in Haiti that were advocating for an alternative path toward development where the poor would be included in the political process, they were able to mobilize successfully election after election, even with all the problems they faced outside and inside of their movement. And so paramilitary violence, for not all dominant groups but for sectors of dominant groups—the upper class, different states—this became a viable strategy and you see this playing out…
Whereas what’s interesting that we now know through Wikileaks—through cables released through Wikileaks—that around 400 of these paramilitaries were integrated into the police force in Haiti after the coup. And we see cables from the US embassy talking about OAS [Organization of American States], UN, US officials, technocrats about how they oversaw this process of integrating paramilitaries into the police. And it’s interesting because they never talk about—they never question the problem of integrating people into the police that were criminals, that were killing civilians, and brought down a legitimately-elected government. It’s fascinating to see what these elites say behind closed doors that never appeared in the media at the time.
What is the role of foreign states in the support of paramilitary organizations in Haiti? You’ve mentioned some direct training by the United States, for example.
Well, earlier in Haiti’s history there’s been different militias and a long history of local elites having different militias, and US intervention and foreign states intervening and having different groups that they’re allied with on the ground in Haiti. But really during the US occupation—and there’s some interesting books and work done on this—the US occupation in the early 20th century, they formed a sort of modern institutionalized army in Haiti. And they did the same thing in the Dominican Republic at the same time and the US worked to build relationships between the two militaries. In Haiti they call it the “poison gift” because even after the US occupation ended, this proxy force was still there to maintain the system that the US helped set up, where they had big banks there and very pro-US governments. But what happened was as, you know, as the pendulum goes back and forth and popular movements are coming about in the region—very vibrant labor movements fighting for just basic things: child safety, minimum hours of work for a day—I mean just the different demands and things that they were fighting for it became this very vibrant movement across the island of Hispaniola and the Caribbean. In Haiti it was called the Movement of ’46—1946. And so the Duvalier regime was really a response to that, to set up a really strong system in the country that could hold off the movement from below. And right from the start the US was supporting the paramilitaries. And that support continued. During certain periods it was more heightened and then it would go down, but it was there pretty much the whole time.
And one aspect of the book that I think is real interesting that hasn’t really been discussed is the role of the Dominican Republic, Dominican elites and their military support for paramilitaries. And so I did a lot of interviews in Santo Domingo with people in the foreign ministry that acknowledged that Guy Phillipe, one of the main [leaders of the] paramilitaries, and other guys had lived at their house for a time and they worked really closely with them. And the OAS and the regional groups never did anything to pressure the Dominican Republic to hand these paramilitaries over to see justice in Haiti. I mean, these are really just shocking things with all the attention now that we have on Haiti with the earthquake [in 2010]. It’s interesting to know historically how this has been shaped.
I have a lot of Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] documents that show the US embassy talking about different connections to the paramilitaries. Like there’s one document when they talk about France. They believed that France was sending money to the paramilitaries. And the US definitely had communication with them for years. It knew what they were doing, it had sent people to different base camps—illegal base camps [from] where they were running these sort of insurgent raids in the early-2000s…
What affects have the 2010 earthquake had on Haiti’s internal politics and some of these issues regarding the more violent aspects of politics in Haiti?
Yeah, I think it’s helpful to think of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine in thinking about the earthquake in Haiti. And there are other people working on that, the idea of “disaster capitalism” and how the earthquake has— They already had a tough situation with the UN occupation and the [René] Préval government, which was really working tightly with this transnational policy network and these elites that are geared towards the global economy. So they already had a system that was not focused on national development or developing for the majority of the population. But what the earthquake has done, it’s thrown everything into disarray and the right-wing was really able to take advantage of this, because these guys, they’re all—after the 2004 coup the guys that were in jail are out of jail, the other ones don’t face any kind of being brought [to] justice. So like [current Haitian President Michel] Martelly who was a major backer of the ’91 and 2004 coup—he was a musician and very controversial in his connection to the Duvalierists—goes back decades.
Actually I can explain it this way: In March of 2011 when the elections happened, I was in Haiti and I visited with a few others an ex-military training camp about ten minutes outside of Port au Prince and there they train guys for what they call “private security”—where they’re going to go work for private security firms because there’s a lot of elites and foreign embassies and NGOs, they hire local private security. But they were training under the Duvalierist banner, the black and red flag of Duvalier. And so it’s a scary situation and they have these camps set up across the country that came about after the  coup. Now what’s happening is they’re advocating for the return of the military [officially disbanded by Aristide in 1995], to rebuild the old military, of course under a different name and they try to say it’s something else, but it’s really the same old crowd. The main reason they want to do that is they want a sufficient “security,” military force there to put down any protests or resistance to the larger economic processes that are going on in Haiti.
They have extremely cheap mining concessions—some of the cheapest that are being doled out in Haiti where vast swaths of the country are being opened up to these transnational mining firms. There’s a lot of mineral resources that these extractive industries are going in for. And also, of course, the cheapest labor in the whole Western Hemisphere. So while textile companies have been shutting down in other parts of the Caribbean, Haiti is a place where they want to set up shop. Textile industries can come in with very light manufacturing lines and it’s easy to move them and so it’s this sort of downward spiral where they can go to whatever country has the fewest labor standards and a non-unionized workforce and they can really profit off that. And if there’s problems they can shut down shop and leave real quickly. But the biggest problem is really that the rural economy is really what needs to be rebuilt and it’s really difficult because there’s a dominant developmental strategy of these big transnational capitalists, these big corporations.
As you mentioned there is currently an attempt to reconstitute Haiti’s military, which was disbanded in 1995. Why and how is this taking place? Is this a formal institutionalization of the existing paramilitaries, or their remnants?
Right now the right-wing is in power in Haiti, so there’s been a few targeted assassinations that people believe are connected to these ex-military and paramilitary forces, and they’ve had a few marches, but for the most part it’s not like the old age of the Tonton Macoutes where you have the Tonton Macoutes station in every neighborhood, with the blue-uniform guys with the machetes and Uzis patrolling the neighborhoods. But they have these camps, and they’re sort of there in reserve. They know from history they can’t go back to the exact model they had in the past, this very blatant paramilitary force. And this is, I think, similar to what’s going on in other countries and regions where they need to secure a more palatable, a more—a force that’s seen as more acceptable. And so that’s why they want to bring back the military.
But the problem is historically this military is interconnected with the paramilitary forces. The guys go back and forth to the same jobs. And the people who want to set up this military are historically tied to the Duvaliers, the Duvalierist regime. So it’s very important for solidarity activists in North America to link up with the Haitian grassroots and grassroots human rights groups, grassroots media—anti-coup media—to really build up pressure for this not to happen and for the Haitian people to be allowed to take part in the political process. Because what happened in the last election, in 2011, I mean Martelly only received something like a little over 16% of the registered voters actually voted for him, so an extremely low turnout. And with all the focus on the earthquake and helping people, which is really important, we also need to pay attention to these on-the-ground dynamics and really not be fooled…
What hopes are there for a resurgence of popular, democratic movements in Haiti? Where do you see reasons for optimism in the near future?
The optimism, I think if we look at the history, the unending struggle and the vitality, persistence, and the inspirational things that the movement from below in Haiti has done. I mean there have been so many important voices that have been silenced by paramilitaries, like [human rights activist] Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine who disappeared in August of 2007 and still to this day we’re waiting to hear news about him. Where is he? What has happened to him? These voices that have been silenced— That’s another part of the book, to document this history and to have this long memory. And if you go to Haiti and you talk to people from the popular neighborhoods and the countryside, people—the history is passed down through the generations, through talking, a lot through the radio. And so people know what’s going on. But it’s real important to build up transnational forms of solidarity where groups are working together across borders. Because if we look at dominant groups, states, corporations, they’re more and more interfused, working together across borders, especially with finance and production being more and more functionally integrated across borders. We see them really working together in that manner. So if we want a better world, then we also need to work together.
For more from Upheaval Productions’ “Perspectives” interview series, please click here.
David Zlutnick is a documentary filmmaker and video journalist based in San Francisco. He currently produces media through Upheaval Productions, including his last feature documentary Occupation Has No Future: Militarism + Resistance in Israel/Palestine (2011), among others. Follow him @DavidZlutnick.