February 29, 2004
By Raffique Shah
WE look at Haiti degenerating into anarchy for the umpteenth time in its 200-year history as the world's first Black republic, and what do we see? A beleaguered President Jean Aristide, once a national hero, now reduced to a dictator prepared to hold on to power even if that means plunging a chaotic country into more chaos. On the other side we see "the people" rising up against Aristide, and the international community led by the USA and France giving him a virtual ultimatum to resign. No one bothers to think of what will follow. I shudder to think beyond tomorrow. In fact, by the time this column appears in print, Aristide may well be "dead meat" or consigned to the waste-basket of Haitian history.
Few people bother to probe beneath the facade of what is both a popular uprising against a permanent state of poverty and at the same time yet another grab for power by some of the most despicable excuses-for-human-beings that have haunted the Caribbean. From all appearances, Aristide has failed his people, more so as he was all but revered by them, seen as a saviour-in-cassock at a time when the country was just emerging from almost a century of barbaric rule. In fact, his three terms in office have yielded little more comfort to poverty-stricken masses there than they enjoyed under the string of dictators who preceded him.
There were valid reasons for his failure to deliver. But one cannot assuage the pangs of hunger, the sub-human conditions the mass of Haitians are forced to survive under, on promises. Indeed, Aristide compounded his sins of omission by all but stealing an election in 2000, according to international observers who witnessed the poll. And to top off his failures, having disbanded the organised gang of thugs that was deemed Haiti's army, he resorted to creating his own brand of thugs who acted as his "enforcers", mercenaries little different to the uniformed ones that were banished in 1994.
But in examining Aristide's failure to rid Haiti of poverty and repression, one cannot help but examine the main reasons behind this descent into Hell. I shall try to trace this in reverse chronology. Bear in mind that following his massive victory in Haiti's first democratic elections in 1991, he was deposed by the remnants of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's brutal army within seven months. He fled to the USA as General Raoul Cedras assumed control of the country and re-imposed the savagery that characterised the dictatorships of the past. It took four years of international sanctions and the threat of a US invasion for Cedras and his fellow-butchers to succumb. Aristide was reinstated with the help of a US-led coalition that included Caricom forces (among them members of the T&T Regiment).
His return to power came with a high price tag, though, that would eventually lead to him resorting to human rights abuses, and ultimately to this sorry pass. Because the US insisted that he institute strict IMF measures that were bound to wreak economic havoc the way they have elsewhere in the world. In 1994 Haiti still had some form of agriculture in quality coffee, cocoa and sugar cane (for export), as well as corn, rice and sorghum for domestic consumption. Forced into globalisation by his "sponsors", Aristide lowered import tariffs, opening the way for subsidised US-produced rice and killing the local industry. The US was so intent on exploiting this basket-case market, it withheld some US$30 million in aid because the Haitian authorities dared to impose fines on American rice dealers who were found evading customs duties.
With such draconian measures adopted by the world's richest nation against the poorest, what could one expect to happen to Haiti? Hungry bellies neither know nor care about the IMF. Poor people want only deliverance from their misery, and if they can no longer produce the few crops that brought them relief from hunger, they do not see as far as Washington or Paris. They see Aristide. He becomes the problem. And he realises he is trapped in a vice from which he cannot escape, so he resorts to repression. Even so, we must be fair to him. He knew that the alternative to his kind of democracy lay with men far more dangerous to the country than he.
And just who are these "rebels"? Start with Louis Chamblain, a former sergeant who was accused of atrocities during the years of military rule. He fled to the neighbouring Dominican Republic when Aristide was reinstated in 1994. His sidekick Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, a CIA operative who belonged to a group known as FRAPH. Its members tortured and murdered opponents of the 1991-94 military regime. Add to this vile brew Guy Phillippe, a hand-picked officer who was trained by US Special Forces: he was specially trained in methods of torture and murder and among his victims was the then Justice Minister, Guy Malary. Also, remember this name: Andre Apaid. He is one so-called leader of the "democratic front" who happens to be a US citizen and the owner of sweatshops in Haiti.
The masses in Haiti who have genuine reasons for opposing Aristide are caught in this web among deadly spiders of an era we all thought had died with "Papa" and "Baby" Doc. Caricom leaders probably understand this vicious undercurrent that lies beneath the surface of the "popular" uprising, hence their bid to get an agreement for him to remain in power and give in to some demands of the opposition. The US and France are saying Aristide must resign pronto. They will shed no tears if he is tortured and killed. Because they know the end result will be a country in chaos, but one that does not have the capability to harm them-except for illegal immigrants attempting to reach America. For them, it's another case of "Black people biting the dust". Or maybe eating dirt and dying of Aids like flies. No bother.
But for those who understand the significance of what Haiti came to mean in the 18th century, when Toussaint and Dessalines and Christophe defeated Napoleon's best forces, we cry for that country, for its people. She paid a high price for that bold battle for independence in 1791. The US and France refused to recognise her until she agreed to pay reparations (to former slave owners!) of 150 million francs. Today, they are still extracting revenge and blood from a barren land that has been sucked dry by a despotic ruling class and its natural allies in Washington and Paris.