Consolidating a coup

Print edition : November 18, 2005

Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. - CHANTEL REGNAULT/GAMMA

Haiti prepares for a presidential election, the first one since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a U.S.-supported coup in 2004, with a candidates list noted for the conspicuous absence of popular leaders and under an unprecedented kind of multilateral occupation.

ON October 8, campaigning opened for Haiti's new, post-2004 coup, presidential election. The election, if it occurs at all, will take place under an unprecedented kind of multilateral occupation. The list of candidates has been trimmed from 54 to a more manageable 34. On the list are names such as Dany Toussaint, suspected of the murder of prominent pro-Lavalas radio journalist Jean Dominique; Guy Philippe, who is accused of drug trafficking during his tenure as a member of the Haitian National Police in the 1990s and who was instrumental in the armed rebellion that overthrew the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004; Marc Bazin, the former World Bank employee who lost to Aristide in the 1990 elections; and Charles Baker, a multimillionaire member of the hardline `Opposition' to Aristide, whose slogan is "Order-Discipline-Work" and who wants to expand the National Police force by thousands.

The list of presidential candidates has some notable absences too. The most notable is the candidate favoured by the pro-Aristide Lavalas movement in the popular neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, Catholic Father Gerard Jean Juste. Although Jean Juste easily collected the requisite number of signatures to register as a presidential candidate, Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP in French) prevented him from running. The CEP requires that candidates present themselves in person to register. Jean Juste was unable to do so, because he is in jail.

Pretexts aside, Jean Juste was barred from running for the same reason for which he is popular: he is with the Lavalas movement in which Haiti's poor majority still see themselves reflected. Another popular candidate has survived and remained on the electoral list: Rene Preval, Prime Minister under Aristide and the only Lavalas President to finish out his term (1995-2000). Preval does not talk to the media.

While some of the top Lavalas leaders have endorsed Marc Bazin's bid for the presidency, and many grassroots leaders have claimed they will vote for Jean Juste or not at all, Preval's name is rarely mentioned in the public statements or debates. But if the election does take place and if it is fair, there is every reason to think Preval will win. And if he does win, there is every reason to think that those forces in Haitian society and elsewhere - including the governments of the United States, Canada and France - who mobilised to overthrow Aristide in 2004 will begin to mobilise to oust Preval as well.

If, on the other hand, Preval is prevented from winning - by postponing or cancelling the election, nullifying it by violence, or rigging it - the coupsters will lose their `democratic' facade.

Such is the standoff in Haiti today. It pits the U.S., Canada and France and their Haitian allies in the elite, the police and the paramilitary forces against the Lavalas movement, with its significant popular support. The repression against the vote base and the election strategy have been successful in dividing Lavalas' leaders and the Haitian electorate. But the coupsters have not won the battle yet.

I SPENT two weeks (September 20 to October 4) in Haiti researching the pre-electoral situation. More than one of the Haitians I interviewed reminded me of the historical context. Haitians enacted the first successful slave rebellion in the world. The army made up of former slaves defeated each of the imperial powers in turn to liberate Haiti in 1804. The newly independent nation held the same ideals of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" up to the other countries in revolution at the time: France and the U.S. Both countries shunned the black nation, and France forced Haiti to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs (today the equivalent of about $22 billion or Rs.99,000 crores) as compensation for the `property' France lost in the war of independence (that is, the slaves). That indemnity crippled Haiti's development permanently. Haitians helped Simon Bolivar's armies fight for South America's independence, asking in return only that he free the slaves in the areas he liberated. More than once, I heard the sentiment expressed that Haiti was being punished today, as it had always been punished, for that original crime of liberating itself from slavery in a world of imperial powers.

If some Haitians look back to 1804 as the key date in explaining Haiti's current situation, others look back to 1986. In that year, the Lavalas movement led a largely non-violent rebellion to overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship that had ruled, plundered, and terrorised Haiti for 30 years. Elections were planned for 1987 but disrupted by the Army, which used the ouster of the Duvaliers as an opportunity to seize control. After three years of struggle against a military dictatorship, which Lavalas called "Duvalierism without Duvalier", Lavalas found itself contesting - and winning - elections in 1990. Lavalas' most popular leader, former Catholic priest Jean Bertrand Aristide, was now the President. Eight months later, Aristide was ousted in a military coup and he fled into exile. Another three years of slaughter and repression against Lavalas - by the Haitian Army and paramilitary auxiliaries - followed. Aristide was returned to Haiti in 1994, but `de-fanged' - he had been forced by the U.S. to accept the neoliberal programme of Marc Bazin, the candidate he defeated in 1990. Before his term ended, however, Aristide disbanded the Haitian Army and tried to build an independent, professional, national police force (the Haitian National Police, or PNH) to replace the Army. That effort failed, as the current situation shows.

On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, children searching for food at a garbage dump. A file picture.-CHANTEL REGNAULT/GAMMA

Lavalas remained in power for another 10 years, between 1995-2000 (under Preval) and 2000-2004 (Aristide's second presidency). Those years were characterised by destabilisation efforts by the U.S. and their local allies, characterised most brutally by an aid embargo that deprived starving Haiti of hundreds of millions of dollars (Haiti's budget, recently announced by the interim government, is about $600 million - during the Lavalas years it was $300 million). The destabilisation had three key elements. First, there were the political parties and `civil society' associations of the `Opposition', who eventually went by the name `Democratic Convergence' (CD) and then the `Group of 184'. These groups received funding and organisational help from U.S. institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Second, there was the armed Opposition, consisting of the disbanded army, the disbanded paramilitaries that had terrorised the country during the 1991-1994 coup period, and the disbanded paramilitaries of the Duvalier regime (the infamous tonton macoutes). These armed groups spent much of the period that Lavalas was in power in armed action against the government, featuring hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, abortive coup attempts and training exercises on Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic. There is some evidence that these groups were trained, armed and covertly funded by the U.S. (vide Peter Hallward's article in the May-June 2004 issue of New Left Review). Third, there were defectors from within the Lavalas movement. Some, such as Dany Toussaint, committed crimes and atrocities that would be attributed to Lavalas and Aristide. Others, such as Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a peasant leader from Papaye, was part of the pro-democracy movement in the 1980s and 1990s but broke with Aristide over his capitulation to neoliberalism. The political `Opposition', the armed `Opposition' and the Lavalas defectors, all had affiliations to and received resources from governments or groups in the U.S. and Canada.

These strains of Opposition culminated in a coup d'etat on February 29, 2004, in which Aristide, in his own words, was "kidnapped" from the palace by U.S. security forces and bundled off to the Central African Republic - he eventually ended up in South Africa. U.S. Marines, along with Canadian and French troops, `secured' the country. An `interim government' was appointed to oversee a `transition'. The armed elements that had slaughtered their way across the country throughout February were gradually incorporated into the Haitian National Police (those police personnel who stayed loyal to the Aristide government were killed during the coup or driven into hiding). The political `Opposition' to Aristide was now in power and in the `civil society', working closely with the interim government and the international community. Members of the Lavalas government and popular movement, meanwhile, went into exile or hiding, or where in jail. The most high profile case was that of Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, who has been in jail for over a year, supposedly for the intellectual authorship of a massacre. Fr. Jean Juste is in prison for a murder that took place while he was in the U.S.

Annette Auguste (aka So Ann), a 70-year-old grandmother and Lavalas militant, was arrested by Marines shortly after the coup in 2004. They blew down her door, handcuffed her five-year-old granddaughter, shot her dogs and took her to prison. The charges against her are more preposterous than those against Neptune and Fr. Jean Juste: first the Americans claimed she was colluding with a local mosque to plan terrorist attacks against the Marines. When no mosque could be found (perhaps the Americans pulled this claim out of their Iraq files) they retracted that allegation and tried to charge her with an attack on the anti-Aristide Opposition that took place in September 2003, when So Ann was in hospital. That did not stick either, so the current claim is that So Ann was involved in murdering a baby for a voodoo black magic ceremony. When journalists including me visited her in prison, So Ann was clear that she was in prison for political reasons: "If they let me out they are in trouble, because they know the people will mobilise."

The efforts to visit Fr. Jean Juste to ask him about his political persecution were not as successful. We started at Pacot prison, where the guards mocked us and told us we needed authorisation from the Commissioner. We went to the Commission, but the Commissioner was not in. We returned later and were told we needed a note from the Minister of Justice. We went to the Ministry of Justice and were told they did not do such things. We waited until the Minister wrote us a token note, to get rid of us. We took the note to the Commission the next day, where once again the Commissioner was not in, but we left the Justice Minister's note there and came back for the letter. We brought the letter to the prison, where the guards told us their chief was not in, and that he would be in the following day. We protested that we were leaving the next day. The guard shrugged and slammed the door in our face. Minutes later the guard opened the door for a couple to visit another prisoner. We asked why we could not enter. "Because they are visiting an ordinary prisoner," the guard said. "Are you saying Jean Juste is not an ordinary prisoner?" we asked. The government's official claim was that Jean Juste was in jail on suspicion of murder, not because of his political views, so he should be treated like everyone else. "No," the guard said, laughing. "Jean Juste is a Father." He shut the door again.

Lavalas leaders are scattered between jail and exile. In the Lavalas strongholds of Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, the Haitian police have been conducting terrible repression, including outright executions of unarmed civilians. The worst repression has taken place in the neighbourhoods of Cite Soleil and Bel Air. After the Americans, the Canadians and the French had `secured' Haiti for the coup, they handed the country over to the United Nations. The result is a veritable rainbow of occupation: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Jordan are among the vast number of countries participating in the U.N. Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH).

MINUSTAH's blue helmets and armoured personnel carriers have provided backup to the Haitian Police in their operations in the poor, pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods. MINUSTAH's leaders, notably Juan Gabriel Valdes, have taken public exception to the Haitian Police's killings of unarmed civilians, but have refrained from disciplining it. When we asked him whether the U.N. has the power to discipline the Haitian Police, the U.N. Police Mission (UNPOL) Commissioner Graham Muir, a Canadian, identified the U.N. mandate as a "hybrid". A "Chapter 6" mandate gives U.N. troops the power to help a government, while a "Chapter 7" mandate gives them executive power to act independently. Muir described the U.N. mission in Haiti as a "Chapter 6 mandate with a Chapter 7 slant to it". If the Haitian Police lack capacity, the UNPOL can "render assistance, and on occasion to do the work", to detain persons and turn them over to the police. Yet the Haitian Police, in Muir's words, are "best described as a failed institution".

The U.N. in Haiti retains this two-faced aspect: supporting an interim government that is known to be using the justice system to persecute its political opponents on the pretence that these political prisoners are social criminals, backing up a police force that is known to commit human rights violations in the poor neighbourhoods on the pretence that the police and the U.N. are fighting gangs. But did the U.N. really go to Haiti to fight gangs and support police efforts at crime-fighting? That is not exactly the U.N.'s job. On the other hand, if the U.N. went to Haiti to oversee a process of national reconciliation between differing political and armed factions, why is it so blatantly intervening on one side and against the other?

On September 27, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a media conference in Haiti to tell the Haitian people to vote. She did not specify whether her country would engage in an aid embargo and help enact a coup against whoever the Haitian people voted for, as the U.S. had against Aristide. Nor did Condoleezza Rice specify when Haitians should vote: originally scheduled for November 13, the presidential election was moved to November 20. However, no one really believed the election would occur on November 20, said Provisional Electoral Council member Patrick Fequiere. And though the international community, from the Organisation of American States (OAS) to the Elections Canada monitoring mission, is pleased with the voter registration (some three million Haitians have registered to vote out of an electorate of 3.7-4.5 million), Elections Canada spokesperson Anne Fuller could not assure us that all these monitors with their high-tech electoral systems could prevent fraud - she did not even feel confident that they would be able to catch fraud if it occurred. "We can say that we will try our best," she said.

The hesitancy and uncertainty of MINUSTAH and the electoral monitors are an expression of the different factors at play. Even after the repression against Lavalas, there is a good chance the `wrong' people might win if the vote is free and fair, which would be enough to start the U.S. and its allies on a new cycle of destabilisation against Haiti's government. Without an election and a legitimate government, however, the U.N. and the `international community' face an indefinite occupation in a place where they are already hopelessly lost.

The popular movement might be down, but it cannot be counted out. Not even a return of the U.S. Marines, which Condoleezza Rice has implicitly threatened several times over the past year, could return to the bottle the genie that was released in 1986, when the people discovered their power to oust a dictator. Whatever happens, watch Haiti to see the evolution of `democracy' and `multilateralism' in this century.

Justin Podur is a journalist based in Toronto, Canada.

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