Is the US Funding Haitian Contras?
by Kevin Pina

February 12, 2004
First Published in The Black Commentator

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Several grassroots political activists from Haiti's Lavalas movement recently sat in a small room watching television on the first day of the Bush administration's war against Iraq. For about half an hour they shifted between Quebec's RDI and France's RFI Caribbean broadcasts in French. The room suddenly broke into excited chatter as images of thousands upon thousands of housewives, union activists and students demonstrating against the war with Iraq filled the screen. The protestors heralded from such far away cities as Berlin, Bern, Karachi, Madrid, Milan, San Francisco and Washington.

Jasmine, a 36 year-old women's organizer and local Lavalas representative, turned to me and asked everyone if we could change the channel to CNN and would I provide a rough translation in English. We sat in "shock and awe" for nearly an hour as "military expert" after "military expert" provided sanitized explanations of U.S. military strategy and the effects of several types of missiles raining hellfire down upon Baghdad's population. The commentary of these "experts" was broken only by official White House briefings, replays of the bombs falling, and interviews with journalists "embedded" with the advancing military troops soon to be unleashed on the orders of President Bush.

About forty-five minutes into the broadcast, a small message update scrolled across the bottom of the screen announcing protests had begun in San Francisco and Washington. I translated it as another well-known neighborhood activist asked, "Why aren't they showing any of the images of the international protests against the war we saw on the French language stations? It is almost as if they don't exist for the U.S.!" The room grew more excited as he punctuated this last comment with, "It reminds me of what the U.S. press did to us last November 25!" The consensus in the room was that there was something dreadfully wrong with the way CNN was lionizing official U.S. policy while almost completely ignoring the protests against the war. The assembled Haitian activists drew a parallel between this and U.S. media coverage of a peaceful demonstration by tens of thousands of Lavalas supporters in Haiti last November 25th. They felt their demonstrations were ignored by the U.S. press in a similar way while much smaller rallies demanding the resignation of President Aristide, a position many here view as official U.S. policy, were given unqualified weight and measure.

I couldn't help but think there might be something to this comparison as I remembered that Ambassador Otto Reich, President Bush's Envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, had arrived in Haiti the same week bombs began falling on Iraq. Reich came as part of a delegation representing the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community Council with the intention of brokering an agreement between the Haitian government and the Washington-backed "opposition" to Lavalas. Otto Reich is a known quantity when it comes to controlling the press and manipulating events to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Reich's visit was especially ominous as it coincided with reports from the Haitian police that uniformed soldiers of Haiti's abolished army had begun regular armed incursions into the Central Plateau region of the country from the Dominican Republic. A March 17, 2003 article in the Miami Herald reported, "In December, men wearing uniforms and carrying guns stopped a car with doctors and Washington-based filmmaker David Murdock. 'If our driver had kept going through it, who knows if they would have opened fire,' he said last week. He said he felt afraid for Haitians who have to travel that road regularly. Murdock said the men held him and others at gunpoint, lecturing them on how they would overthrow Aristide." Several policemen in Haiti's police force have recently referred to the current situation in the area as "the beginning of civil war in Haiti." And now Otto Reich was in Haiti.

Otto Reich? Is this the same Otto Reich who once used taxpayer dollars under the Reagan administration, from within his shadowy Office of Public Diplomacy, to cajole the U.S. press into supporting the Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? According to The National Security Archive, a staff report by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (September 7, 1988) summarized various investigations of Mr. Reich's office and concluded that "senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense, were deeply involved in establishing and participating in a domestic political and propaganda operation run through an obscure bureau in the Department of State which reported directly to the National Security Council rather than through the normal State Department channels.... These private individuals and organizations raised and spent funds for the purpose of influencing Congressional votes and U.S. domestic news media."

Jeff Cohen is the founder of FAIR, a media watch group based in New York - and a panelist on "News Watch" on the Fox News Channel who wrote about Reich's return to power in the Bush administration and his past shenanigans in the Office of Public Diplomacy or OPD. In a June 8, 2001 piece Cohen wrote, "By covertly disseminating intelligence leaks to journalists, Reich and the OPD sought to trump up a Nicaraguan 'threat,' and to sanctify the U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's government as 'freedom fighters.' The propaganda was aimed at influencing Congress to continue to fund the Contras."

In his current role in the Bush administration, Reich carries a lot of weight when it comes to U.S. foreign policy towards Haiti. Given Reich's zealous history of opposing popular democratic movements in the hemisphere his reconstituted role is not to be taken lightly. Otto Reich was not above using taxpayer dollars to influence and shape the views of millions of Americans to support a deadly cocaine-fueled war against the Nicaraguan population, including a highly visible campaign to demonize the Sandinistas. Reich never saw himself as doing anything wrong so how could one realistically believe him incapable of applying the same rules and techniques to Haiti? A closer look at the objectivity of U.S. press reporting of recent events in Haiti might tell whether or not this is mere paranoia or if the tail is in fact wagging the dog.

If you read about Haiti today in the mainstream press, you find a barrage of negative stories about Aristide and Lavalas with descriptions of demonstrations and general strikes calling for Aristide's resignation, fraudulent elections, a politicized police force, drug-dealing officials and violent mobs of government supporters attacking the political opposition. The overarching message is that Haiti has become a lawless state ruled by a leader with waning popularity whose only hold on office is to call out the violent shock troops of his Lavalas movement. Most stories filed by news agencies like Reuters and the Associated Press have little room to provide any real in-depth analysis or historical context. Stories that do probe a little deeper are almost always exclusively negative about Haiti's current leadership or make startling revelations pounding yet another nail of evil into the coffin of the body politic of Lavalas. But are we really getting the whole story? Sometimes truth in reporting can be judged as much by what is left out and not said as by what is repeated over time.

Let's begin with the question of demonstrations and strikes calling for President Aristide's resignation. What is often not reported is that the opposition to President Aristide consists mainly of the Democratic Convergence (CD) that grew out of a project of the United States Agency for International Development called Democracy Enhancement. Linguist and author Noam Chomsky accurately described the aim of the project: "The State Department 'Democracy Enhancement' project was specifically designed to fund those sectors of the Haitian political spectrum where opposition to the Aristide government could be encouraged, precisely as 'pro-democracy policies' dictate."

According to a source that worked in the administrative section of Democracy Enhancement, "What began as a program to encourage participation in the democratic process in Haiti was transformed into creating an opposition to Aristide and Lavalas. We could get the big shots together for a meeting but the program was never able to build a base of support from among the people. Most of the grassroots organizations were affiliated with Lavalas. They would show up sometimes to check it out but were largely disinterested." If this statement is taken at face value one has to ask how has the opposition to Haiti suddenly burst onto the scene larger than life? If, as President Aristide claims, the majority of the poor still support him and Lavalas, why are we reading of demonstrations by "tens of thousands" calling for his resignation in the mainstream press?

It is said that if you repeat something often enough people will begin to see it as the truth. One example of this is a story that appeared in the Economist last November. The story, entitled "Frustration boils over: The Aristide regime is holding off its enemies - but for how long?" cited a figure of 15,000 participants in an anti-government rally in Haiti's second largest city Cap Haitien. The editorial board wrote, "On November 17th some 15,000 people marched in Cap Haitien, and a former Haitian army officer with coup experience, Himmler Rebu, urged Mr. Aristide to resign." In truth, initial reports from the Associated Press quoted local radio stations as estimating the crowd at 60,000 but AP was forced to lower the estimate to 15,000 by the end of the day. Reuters quoted unnamed police sources to have estimated the crowd at 8,000 while local officials put the number at 4,000. The Economist instantly transformed the figure 15,000 into reality despite the fact that estimates of attendance at the November 17th rally were inconsistent. The numbers game isn't as important here as the mainstream press's ability to transform inconsistency into fact for an unsuspecting audience.

Another reason for the perception of Aristide losing his support in the mainstream press is that while giving unreliable figures of opposition strength, reporters also omit and/or downsize the strength of contemporaneous pro-Aristide demonstrations. This was the point being made by the Haitian activists who compared their demonstration of November 25, 2002 to CNN's giving emphasis mostly to stories touting official U.S. policy in Iraq while downplaying anti-war demonstrations during the same period. An example of this is an AP report filed on January 3, 2003 which stated, "Since mid-November, tens of thousands of Haitians have marched in anti-government demonstrations, demanding that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resign for failing to solve the impoverished country's problems." (Note how AP rolls the canned figure of 15,000 for the anti-government protest on November 17th into other smaller protests and instantly creates the numerical mantra of "tens of thousands.")

The same story never mentioned there was a massive outpouring of support in the streets of the capital for President Aristide and Lavalas eight days later on November 25. Crowd estimates from photos taken by an independent journalist put the participants at the pro-Lavalas demonstration at well over 30,000.

The largest number ever cited in AP and Reuters for the pro-Lavalas demonstration on November 25th was 2000 persons. During the same period corporate news organizations published scores of photos from the much smaller anti-government protests while not one photo of the much larger pro-Lavalas demonstration was ever printed. By omitting any mention and/or images of the "tens of thousands" of people who marched peacefully for Aristide and Lavalas during the same period, AP gave the impression Aristide had lost his popular support and would eventually be forced to resign.

The AP report filed on January 3, 2003 continued, "Aristide maintains he has brought the country relative peace and progress, but has been hindered by blocked aid and a combative opposition. He has refused to step down before his term ends in 2006." You would most likely think the man had no support left anywhere in the country if you read the AP story without knowing about the pro-Lavalas demonstration that took place only a week before the article was written. Instead we are given the impression Aristide is as an isolated whiner out of step with his own people and crying over lost foreign aid. The Associated Press wrote the ultimate epitaph for Aristide and Lavalas on February 7, 2003. In a piece that focused on comparing the last days of the Duvalier dictatorship to Aristide's presidency they reported, "Haitians have lost faith in Aristide, the former slum priest whose fiery rhetoric fueled the uprising that toppled Duvalier in 1986." If that is true then how do you explain the massive rally in front of the presidential palace only four months earlier? I guess we already have our answer to that question. You simply ignore it or, when it comes to representing the strength of the opposition, you simply invent it.

Another factor that taints the image of Aristide and Lavalas in the mainstream press is the reported violence against the opposition. In countless stories Lavalas is portrayed as a mindless mob serving at the behest of a new "wannabe" dictator in Haiti. An example of this is found in The Economist article of November 2002: "On November 20th, four people were shot dead in Petit-Goave. Two days later, government counter-protesters filled the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital, with burning barricades." This was an obvious attempt by The Economist to link the violence in Petit Goave with the image of government supporters erecting barricades of burning tires in Port au Prince. There is no attempt made to explain how the two incidents might be linked because in reality they were not.

While there is no question that thousands of Lavalas militants took to the streets in the early morning hours of November 22nd and set up flaming barricades at all major intersections in Haiti's capital, this protest had absolutely nothing to do with the shootings in Petit Goave. Instead, the two events are linked to imply it was government supporters responsible for the shootings without providing a single quote from witnesses or other corroborative evidence. Simultaneously, Lavalas is made to look like unintelligent thugs devoid of any thoughtful or reasonable demands.

If we were given the full story from the streets of the Port au Prince our impression of the Lavalas protestors' erecting burning barricades would be quite different. On November 22nd the Lavalas protestors demands were simple, allow President Aristide to fulfill his five year term in office and put an end to what they deemed "a campaign to destabilize democracy" in Haiti. "Let all those who would take our freedom away know that we are willing to spill our blood to defend our democratic rights. Aristide was elected for five years and we are going to make certain he stays for five years," exclaimed 25 year-old Jean Baptiste in the poor slum of Bel Air. A woman demonstrating in the poor slum of Cite Soleil explained, "I came out here today to stop the Convergence and the American government from destroying our democracy and taking our president away from us again."

Without the press reporting the reasons behind Lavalas protests in Haiti we are not given enough to understand their true significance and meaning. Instead, we are left to freely associate the violent image of mindless protestors burning tires in the streets for Aristide and Lavalas. This image is less than flattering when combined with the constant barrage of other negative stories that lead the reader to the moral conclusion that this is a government that deserves to fall. While there has been violence committed by some claiming association with Lavalas, the reality is far more complex than the black and white versions trumpeted in the mainstream press. As one Lavalas militant put it, "It would be the equivalent of accusing President Bush for having responsibility for every murder committed by a registered Republican in the United States. The only difference is that when you read these things about President Aristide in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal people believe it without question."

Taken as a whole, one can argue that U.S. press coverage of events in Haiti has tended to be slanted against Aristide and Lavalas while showing preference towards the "opposition" and that famous Bush notion of "regime change." Article after article focuses solely on the negatives of the current government to the exclusion of anything remotely positive. Most U.S. reporters and their editors seem to suffer from an allergic reaction to anything that might probe beyond a simplistic image portrayed of Lavalas. A prominent U.S. journalist, recently working in Haiti, once said of his editors, "Hey, I am sorry but they are not interested in positive stories about Lavalas. I wrote it, submitted it and they told me they were not interested." What was the story? It told of how the government expropriated the former mansion of a notorious Duvalierist drug dealer and assassin named Lionel Wooley, a.k.a. "Ti Je," and worked with a local grassroots organization to convert it into a school for the poorest children in the township of Petion-Ville. The school now serves over 160 of the area's poorest children and tries not to turn down any child whose parents cannot afford to pay. With the torture chamber under the swimming pool sealed forever, the school stands as a beautiful symbol of transforming a gruesome legacy of the past into hope for the future for Haiti's youngest and poorest citizens. Yet you will never read about it in the mainstream media.

Another example of implicitly forbidden tales of Lavalas success in the U.S. press is the literacy program and what are called Alfa-Resto's that serve as a safety net for the poor. This government-sponsored program serves hot meals from 12 p.m. until 4 p.m. and from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. they provide free literacy classes. In the township of Petion-Ville alone there are 36 Alfa-Restos providing hot meals for just 7 gourdes (about 16 cents US) a plate to an estimated 5000 people a day. The Alfa-Resto at Delmas 103 in the Ecole Communal feeds about 100 adults per day, with 150 plates reserved for the smallest children. Now multiply the 36 Alfa-Restos in Petion-Ville by a thousand and you begin to get an idea of the scope and importance of the program throughout Haiti today. The program also prides itself on being non-partisan and providing hot meals to all comers. For example, the local organizers at the Delmas 103 Alfa-Resto recently reported sighting small groups of members of the "opposition" Democratic Convergence coming in to eat as well. When asked if that bothered them they replied, "No, they are Haitians too. We don't have a problem if they are hungry and need to eat here." This is a direct quote from a worker in the program who is also a member of Lavalas, an organization that has been exclusively represented in the U.S. press as violent and intolerant towards its political opposition!

These two examples, of which there are many more, are central to understanding the grassroots work of Aristide's Lavalas party and hence its popularity among the poor majority. Unfortunately, you will never get the opportunity to enjoy these stories woven from the wonderful prose of the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Miami Herald. They are simply not interested in telling you the whole story. It is apparently not their priority to do so and we are left to ask why.

A few select members of the Lavalas party recently described for me what they view as the first phase of Washington's scheme for Haiti. They defined its three major concurrent objectives as: 1) to create an opposition force capable of seizing power, 2) demonize Aristide and Lavalas within and without Haiti and, 3) separate the base of Lavalas from the leadership. While some in Lavalas argue that the first two objectives have had some limited success everyone insisted that the third objective has been a miserable failure. They argue the majority of the poor in Haiti still continue to support Aristide and Lavalas despite the inventions, inaccuracies and biases of the U.S. media against them. The inability of U.S. strategy to break the base of their movement has led many in Lavalas to begin to openly speculate that the ongoing attacks in the Central Plateau represent the second phase of the plan. If they are correct this second phase is likely to result in an escalation of armed incursions against Haiti with the intention of overthrowing the constitutional government. What does this have to do with Otto Reich? Given Otto Reich's history, his current role in U.S. foreign policy and the less than objective slant of U.S. press reporting in Haiti, it adds enough circumstantial evidence to their argument to take them seriously.

Kevin Pina is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist who has been working and living in Haiti for the past three years. He has been covering events in Haiti for the past decade and produced a documentary film entitled "Haiti: Harvest of Hope" (http://store.globalexchange.org/harvest.html). Mr. Pina is also the Haiti Special Correspondent for the Flashpoints radio program on the Pacifica Network's flagship station KPFA in Berkeley CA (www.flashpoints.net). This article first appeared in The Black Commentator.

* US-Financed Insurrectionists Wreaking Havoc in Haiti by Larry Birns and Jessica Leight
* Haiti: Waiting for Something Bad to Happen
* Haiti Fatigue? by Mickey Z.





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