Jean-Bertrand Aristide was re-elected president of Haiti in November 2000 with more than 90% of the vote. He was elected by people who approved his courageous dissolution, in 1995, of the armed forces that had long terrorised Haiti and had overthrown his first administration. He was elected by people who supported his tentative efforts, made with virtually no resources or revenue, to invest in education and health. He was elected by people who shared his determination, in the face of crippling US opposition, to improve the conditions of the most poorly paid workers in the western hemisphere.
Aristide was forced from office on Sunday by people who have little in common except their opposition to his progressive policies and their refusal of the democratic process. With the enthusiastic backing of Haiti’s former colonial master, a leader elected with overwhelming popular support has been driven from office by a loose association of convicted human rights abusers, seditious former army officers and pro-American business leaders.
It’s obvious that Aristide’s expulsion offered Jacques Chirac a long-awaited chance to restore relations with an American administration he dared to oppose over the attack on Iraq. It’s even more obvious that the characterisation of Aristide as yet another crazed idealist corrupted by absolute power sits perfectly with the political vision championed by George Bush, and that the Haitian leader’s downfall should open the door to a yet more ruthless exploitation of Latin American labour.
If you’ve been reading the mainstream press over the past few weeks, you’ll know that this peculiar version of events has been carefully prepared by repeated accusations that Aristide rigged fraudulent elections in 2000; unleashed violent militias against his political opponents; and brought Haiti’s economy to the point of collapse and its people to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe.
But look a little harder at those elections. An exhaustive and convincing report by the International Coalition of Independent Observers concluded that “fair and peaceful elections were held” in 2000, and by the standard of the presidential elections held in the US that same year they were positively exemplary.
Why then were they characterised as “flawed” by the Organisation of American States (OAS)? It was because, after Aristide’s Lavalas party had won 16 out of 17 senate seats, the OAS contested the methodology used to calculate the voting percentages. Curiously, neither the US nor the OAS judged this methodology problematic in the run-up to the elections.
However, in the wake of the Lavalas victories, it was suddenly important enough to justify driving the country towards economic collapse. Bill Clinton invoked the OAS accusation to justify the crippling economic embargo against Haiti that persists to this day, and which effectively blocks the payment of about $500m in international aid.
But what about the gangs of Aristide supporters running riot in Port-au-Prince? No doubt Aristide bears some responsibility for the dozen reported deaths over the last 48 hours. But given that his supporters have no army to protect them, and given that the police force serving the entire country is just a tenth of the force that patrols New York city, it’s worth remembering that this figure is a small fraction of the number killed by the rebels in recent weeks.
One of the reasons why Aristide has been consistently vilified in the press is that the Reuters and AP wire services, on which most coverage depends, rely on local media, which are all owned by Aristide’s opponents. Another, more important, reason for the vilification is that Aristide never learned to pander unreservedly to foreign commercial interests. He reluctantly accepted a series of severe IMF structural adjustment plans, to the dismay of the working poor, but he refused to acquiesce in the indiscriminate privatisation of state resources, and stuck to his guns over wages, education and health.
What happened in Haiti is not that a leader who was once reasonable went mad with power; the truth is that a broadly consistent Aristide was never quite prepared to abandon all his principles.
Worst of all, he remained indelibly associated with what’s left of a genuine popular movement for political and economic empowerment. For this reason alone, it was essential that he not only be forced from office but utterly discredited in the eyes of his people and the world. As Noam Chomsky has said, the “threat of a good example” solicits measures of retaliation that bear no relation to the strategic or economic importance of the country in question. This is why the leaders of the world have joined together to crush a democracy in the name of democracy.
Peter Hallward teaches French at King’s College London and is the author of Absolutely Postcolonial