Haiti: No Easy Way Out

2 January 2006

Haiti: No Easy Way Out

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are not going to participate (in the election) without Aristide,” said Father Gérard Jean-Juste, whom many Haitians see as the natural successor to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest-president who was overthrown by the United States in 2004. “It’s going to be like the election in Iraq. It will be futile.”

That was last February, and as part of the process of trying to break Aristide’s support among the Haitian poor, the “interim government” installed by the US, France and Canada jailed Jean-Juste in July on the implausible charge that he murdered a journalist. But the elections that might finally give the foreign intervention some legitimacy have just been postponed for the FOURTH time.

They said they were cancelling the vote on 8 January because of problems with the new electronic voting system, but the real problem is that they still don’t control a lot of the country. In particular, they still don’t control Cité Soleil, the seething shanty-town that dominates Port-au-Prince, the ramshackle capital where a third of the 8.5 million Haitians live.

In Cité Soleil, Aristide is still the president. When United Nation troops in Haiti conducted a pre-dawn raid there last July, it turned into a five-hour firefight. The UN troops killed the five “gang members” they were allegedly after, but local residents saw the dead men as martyrs for Aristide and placed photos of the exiled president on their bodies. They did the same for the twenty other residents of the slum who they claim were killed by the “blue helmets” — and since then, UN troops have rarely dared to enter Cité Soleil.

In fact, all foreigners associated with the military intervention in Haiti are potential targets. In the last ten days of December, three Chilean UN soldiers were wounded in the northern town of Plaisance, a Jordanian soldier was killed in Cité Soleil, and a Canadian soldier was shot dead near a checkpoint just outside the slum. On 30 December, two employees of the Organisation of American States, one Peruvian and the other Guatemalan, were kidnapped while driving near Cité Soleil.

Haiti is responding badly to foreign intervention because it is a real country with a tragic history. Haitians may have no money, little education and few prospects, but they actually know who they are.

They are a whole country descended from people who were kidnapped from Africa, heirs of the greatest slave rebellion in history two centuries ago. They are the survivors of an attempted genocide by Napoleon, whose strategy for reconquering France’s richest colony involved exterminating every black over 12 and restocking Haiti with more docile slaves imported from Africa. They are also the victims of the long, sad aftermath of Haiti’s victory and independence.

With all the whites dead or fled, the enslaved former peasants from Africa inevitably ended up being dominated in independent Haiti by the so-called “mulattos,” locally born ex-slaves, many of them mixed-race, who spoke good French and understood how business, government and diplomacy worked. The new mulatto elite created an army, recruited mostly from the black majority, whose main job was to keep other blacks under control, and generation after generation they cooperated with foreigners to exploit their own fellow-countrymen.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest nurtured on liberation theology, became the hero of the poor black masses because he promised to end all that. He was elected president by a landslide in Haiti’s first free election in1990, after the reigning dictator, “Baby Doc” Duvalier, was forced into exile, but the unreformed army overthrew him the next year with the warm approval of the elder Bush administration, which saw him as a dangerous Marxist.

The Clinton administration used 24,000 American troops to put Aristide back in power in 1994, but discovered too late that he was a real revolutionary. He disbanded the army on his return, and when the old elite started using gangs of ex-soldiers to defend their privileges, he used similar gangs recruited from amongst the poor to cow them. His policies were incoherent, he was more a demagogue than a democrat, and Haiti remained the poorest country in the Americas — but the poor still loved him. Especially after the US overthrew him again.

The Republican-controlled Congress cut off US aid to Aristide’s government in 2000, and the younger Bush administration revived US links with the mulatto elite and their ex-military gangs afer 2001. In early 2004, gangs of ex-soldiers launched a revolt that advanced to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince — and a US official arrived at the presidential palace with a group of heavily armed Marines to escort Aristide to the airport.

Washington got diplomatic cover by persuading Canada and France to go along with the operation (they both felt the need to give Bush something after refusing to help him invade Iraq), and it got a 7,400-strong “peacekeeping force” out of the United Nations (which also felt the need to look helpful). But Caricom, the association of Caribbean countries, still refuses to accept the US-backed coup, and most poorer Haitians see the “interim government” as a US puppet and the UN troops as an occupying army.

Aristide, in exile in South Africa, still sees himself as the legitimate president of Haiti, and so do a lot of Haitians. They will not be allowed to vote for him even if the “interim government” does eventually manage to stage an election, but that means that nothing will be settled and the violence will not abate. Aristide may never return, but the old order cannot be restored.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and . (“In fact…Soleil”; and “Washington…army”)