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Haiti: ‘regime change’ by other means

PRESIDENT BERTRAM Aristide left Haiti on 28 February. Forced to resign by US diplomats and armed opposition militia, he claims he was kidnapped and removed to the Central African Republic.

Aristide was the victim of a creeping coup, in which the US actively supported reactionary armed gangs who launched a reign of terror against Haitians. This is Bush’s latest regime change. In the assessment of the New York Times (Editorial, 5 March), the US "practically delivered Haiti into the hands of an unsavoury gang of convicted murderers and former death squad officers under the overall command of Guy Phillips, whom American and Haiti officials believe to be a drug trafficker".

This time, US imperialism is working in tandem with French imperialism. Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, his foreign minister, were the first to demand that Aristide step down. The French government evidently saw the crisis in Haiti as a chance to restore relations with the Bush administration. "France... made a shrewd calculation that the situation could be turned to its advantage. Haiti was an opportunity to relaunch international crisis management with the US", commented the Financial Times (3 March).

France’s right-wing government has not forgiven Aristide for his request last year for $22bn in compensation for money taken by France in the 19th century. This symbolic call, made for populist reasons as Haiti was approaching the 200th anniversary of its independence from France, irritated the French rulers. They considered Aristide an annoying thorn in their side, who must be removed.

The United Nation (UN) security council immediately approved the regime-change and the deployment of foreign troops. Under cover of ‘humanitarian’ concern, the security council provided legitimacy for yet another imperialist intervention. After invading Haiti, the US formed a council of ‘seven eminent persons’ which selected a new prime minister from a handful of chosen candidates. And this is called ‘democracy’.

Many aims are served by the intervention into Haiti. By seizing on the crisis and so-called rebellion as a pretext, an opportunity arose to install a regime that Washington considers reliable, to disarm what is left of Aristide’s paramilitary gangs, enable the new regime to rebuild a state apparatus – a new army and police force – while continuing to hold the poor masses in chains.

At the same time the intervention also delivers a warning to other regimes in Latin America which could come into conflict with the US – in particular to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Bush calculates that the intervention could help his presidential campaign, hoping that Haiti will provide a quick success, not a quagmire like Iraq or Afghanistan. At the very least it may serve to stop refugees from Haiti reaching the US. Already, the US has sent back many Haitians trying to reach Florida’s coast. A continuation of the crisis could have increased the numbers of refugees, along with horrendous pictures of boat people in desperate need. Bush, like Clinton before, fears such a scenario, particularly in an election year.

Aristide was neither anti-capitalist nor socialist. He won support and respect as a radical priest influenced by liberation theology in the 1980s. But he moved steadily to the right after winning the presidential election in December 1990. His programme was left-leaning populism. Calling for redistribution of wealth and social reforms, Aristide won a landslide victory with nearly 70% of the vote. He was the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history. The US sponsored candidate, former World Bank official Mark Bazin, who served as finance minister under the brutal ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier dictatorship (1971-86), only got 14.2%.

There were big hopes when Aristide took office in February 1991 and started to implement his three main reforms: price controls on food, a higher minimum wage, and a fairer tax system. In addition, he promised to fight corruption and bureaucracy. His radical past, his programme of reforms (however limited), and the mass support he enjoyed at the beginning, explain why Haiti’s ruling class and US imperialism saw him as threat.

Aristide’s administration, however, also supported the ‘structural adjustment programmes’ pushed by the World Bank, IMF and the US Agency for International Development. Aristide submitted to the very same neo-liberal policies that ruined the country in the 1980s, when per capita food production declined, and real wages fell by 50%.

Nevertheless, the corrupt ruling elite vehemently opposed Aristide’s modest reform proposals and even described him as the ‘communist priest’. His attempt to raise the minimum wage from $2 a day to $5 provoked fierce anger from the bosses. After less than eight months in power a military coup led by Lieutenant General Rail Cédras overthrew Aristide, who fled to the US.

How deeply Washington was involved in the coup is hard to say, but some of its leaders were on the CIA’s payroll, including Emmanuel Constant, head of the notorious FRAPH paramilitary, responsible for most of the terror that killed around 3,000 people during the military dictatorship. The Clinton administration put pressure on Haiti’s military to step down – because of political pressure and the numbers of Haitian refugees. US troops invaded in the fall of 1994.

Aristide was allowed back. But Washington’s action had made it clear that it wanted a tame Aristide who would appease the rich. The US forces did not disarm the death squads, which were left in waiting. The Haitian ruling class was not convinced that Aristide would be able to contain and derail the movement of the poor. Mass opposition, leading to parliament’s refusal to authorise the privatisation of state-owned industries in 1995, met a furious response from imperialism and the ruling class. However, René Préval, who acted as president on Aristide’s behalf (after his five-year mandate expired), signed new structural agreements with the international financial institutions. Trying to please everyone, Aristide got the worst of all worlds. He steadily lost support amongst the poor, without gaining the approval of the wealthy elite (1% of the population) who own half of its wealth.

Préval’s policies deepened the social misery in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country. Aristide maintained some popular support, however, because, formally, he held no office. He was re-elected president in December 2000, an election boycotted by many so-called opposition groups. This followed the ‘disputed’ senate election in May 2000, won by Aristide’s organisation, Politique Lavalas. Allegations of fraud were used to demand Aristide’s resignation. Both the US and the EU imposed a full embargo on aid and loans. The impact of the economic embargo has been profound, killing thousands of innocent poor. Effectively, Western imperialism gave full weight to the demand that Aristide should resign.

Washington probably hoped that the embargo together with support to the opposition would be enough to bring about regime change. But the opposition groups, the Group of 184 – led by the US-born capitalist, Andy Apai, a former supporter of the Duvalier dictatorship – and the right-wing Convergence for Democracy, did not have the strength or the necessary support on the ground to overthrow Aristide, despite the erosion of his popular support.

Last year there was a political stalemate. Social conditions deteriorated as the economy shrunk by 2.2% in 2000-03, traditional exports of coffee, rum and other agricultural products having diminished almost to zero. The only ‘growth area’ has been drug trafficking. The average income is no more than $480 a year, with the poorest 10% bringing home less than $35. Haiti has the highest rate of HIV infection and the lowest levels of adult literacy and life expectancy in the Americas. Forty percent of the population has no access to primary health care. At least 70% are unemployed. Under conditions of social and economic collapse, the disintegration of the old state apparatus and a total deadlock of political forces, even small groups of armed men can grab power or plunder important natural resources (as in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast).

The ‘Structurally Adjusted Rebels’ in Haiti, as one commentator called them, numbered no more than a couple of hundred men in arms, though they are well-equipped. They could easily march on the capital, Port-au-Prince, because the old regime collapsed and its armed forces went into hiding knowing that troops from the US, France and Canada were on the way. Some of Aristide’s armed thugs changed sides, joining the advance of the so-called rebels. The poor masses, on the other hand, were demoralised, shattered and stood on the sideline.

The rebels acted as the armed wing of the opposition, which rejected the US’s power-sharing plan in February because the rebels were doing the job for them. Opposition leaders just had to wait while the rebels marched towards Port-au-Prince. The rebels were a private army, financed by the rich, the drug barons and maybe even the CIA. They also were used to victimise a group of trade unionists in one of Haiti’s free trade zones on 1 March, beating them up after the management told them that union activists were causing problems.

The opposition lacked any kind of alternative apart from getting rid of Aristide. There were genuine oppositionist groups, including some student organisations, but the opposition has an overwhelmingly bourgeois, pro-capitalist character. The new rulers will rapidly be seen as puppets. Western powers will speak loudly about pouring money into Haiti, but the last time US marines intervened, "they left behind eight miles of paved roads and nothing lese". (Jeffrey Sachs, Financial Times, 1 March)

Recent events are another tragic chapter in Haiti’s tortured history. Right-wing stooges installed by Bush have nothing to offer the Haitian people, except more poverty and repression. Over time, new opposition forces will emerge. The lesson of Aristide’s rise and fall is that the workers and other poor can only rely on their own forces. They do not need any more saviours or charismatic liberators, but their own democratic organisations and elected, accountable leaders. Given the long history of paramilitaries and criminal gangs linked to political bosses, they need democratic, people’s militias to defend themselves against mafia-style violence.

For Haiti especially, capitalism has always meant domination by foreign imperialism (the US corporations in particular) and vicious local gangster-capitalists. The revolution that freed Haiti (formerly Saint Domingue) from French colonialism in 1804 can only be continued through socialist change. The future of the Haitian revolution, moreover, will inevitably be linked to a movement for social transformation throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

Per Olsson


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