Haiti Yesterday and Today:
Laura Flynn is the co-author of a new pamphlet on Haiti called “We Will Not Forget.” The report details the accomplishments and gains made by the Haitian people during the tenure of the Lavalas Party and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown last year in a coup backed by the United States, France and Canada. Flynn recently spoke to Derrick O'Keefe of Seven Oaks about the occupation of Haiti, Aristide's legacy and the prospects for his return.
Derrick O'Keefe: The new pamphlet that you have co-authored is titled “We Will Not Forget.” What were some of the main gains made before the 2004 coup that you’ve outlined?
Laura Flynn: I guess the most important gains were probably in the areas of health care and education. There were more schools built between 1994 and 2004 than there were in the first two hundred years of Haiti’s independence. In addition, there were major AIDS prevention and treatment programs that had been internationally lauded and were receiving support from the UN AIDS program.
There were also major gains at the level of democratic freedoms, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the fact that Haiti had successful democratic elections for a period of ten years which included two peaceful transfers of power from one democratically elected president to another. There’s a whole lot more outlined in the pamphlet, but I would say that those are some of the major high points.
O'Keefe: What was the character of the rebellion against Aristide in early 2004 that led up to the coup? Who was behind it?
Flynn: I would say that it was sort of a coalition effort. The major players were the United States and France, on the international level. Within Haiti, the coup was very much financed and supported by the relatively small business elite who had never supported Aristide and were particularly upset during the last year before the coup at his attempts to raise the minimum wage.
Both of those groups then used the former military. In 1995, Aristide actually dismantled Haiti’s military, which for two hundred years had basically been a repressive force within the country. And, although the military was dismantled – and this was a military that was responsible for the death of over 3000 Haitians during the first coup from 1991 to 1994 -- you still had a lot of people around. They didn’t have jobs and they were angry about what had happened. So that force was then utilized by the elites and their international sponsors to create this coup.
O'Keefe: People wonder about the motivations of the United States and others for removing Aristide when they did. Had he started to ‘disobey’ some of the restrictions put on him when he was returned to power in 1994?
Flynn: That’s actually kind of a myth that he was placed under certain restrictions. There was never an explicit, you know, ‘you will go back and you will not be able to do these things’. They knew what his politics were. I think the restriction is sort of always in place, that Haiti is 600 miles from the United States, the United States has always played a disproportionate role in Haiti, and Haiti like every single other Third World country has to negotiate with the World Bank and IMF. And World Bank and IMF policies throughout the Third World are pretty horrendous.
I think part of the reason for this real upsurge in anti-Aristide sentiment in the U.S. has a great deal to do with the change in the administration in the U.S. I don’t think that the Clinton administration was supportive, but they were not nearly as hostile as the Bush administration has been to Lavalas and to Aristide in particular…
This time you also had very strong support from France and that was somewhat of a new element. About a year before he was overthrown, Aristide had started calling for the repayment of an onerous debt that Haiti had been forced to pay at the time of its independence – the independence debt, or independence blackmail. After Haiti got its independence in 1804, France only agreed to recognize the new independent nation if Haiti agreed to repay the French landowners who had lost land and property, meaning actually slaves, to the tune of about 90 million French francs.
So the Haitian government actually paid that debt, and what Aristide was saying was that this was a case where the damages of colonization could be really clearly calculated. We know exactly what we paid and we know who we paid it to. And in today’s money that added up to $21 billion, which Haiti was beginning to take legal steps, going through the World Court, to try and make a claim against the French. And, from the moment that began, France upped its support, funneling a lot of money into the Haitian opposition to destabilize the Haitian government.
O'Keefe: And we also have had some work done here in exposing Canada’s involvement in both planning and carrying out the coup. What groups are fighting for the restoration of Aristide? Who is resisting this occupation?
Flynn: Let me just say one thing about Canada. I think it’s certainly true that Canada has been very supportive of this coup and has been a full partner, and that is different from the 1991 to 1994 period in which Canada played a relatively positive role. And I honestly don’t have a very strong sense of the motivation for that but my guess is that it has to do with Canada wanting to perhaps, like France, have a place where they can be on the side of the United States. If they are in conflict on other issues, they are willing to sacrifice Haiti – that might be part of the motivation.
In terms of what’s going on right now on the ground, Lavalas, which is a huge political party, remains very strong in the sense that if there was a legal election I’m sure Lavalas candidates would certainly win. That means you have 70 to 80 percent of the population that’s diametrically opposed to this coup. At the same time, the repression against them is massive and heavy, and people are not only risking their lives but losing their lives to continue to resist.
I don’t even know if it would be true to say groups, but throughout the country there is active resistance, demonstrations in the north of the country, and in Port-au-Prince, where people literally get killed almost every time there is a major demonstration. People continue to march and demonstrate and protest against what’s happening. And there’s particularly strong movements in the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince, which are heavily populated and which have been traditional strongholds of support for Lavalas and for Aristide.
O'Keefe: You have obviously touched on it somewhat, but could you elaborate on the human rights situation in Haiti today, which has recently been documented in the Griffin Report?
Flynn: Well, as I was saying before, there has been massive repression going on throughout Haiti. The reason for the repression is directly related to the fact that there is strong resistance. The repression is as bad as it is because the de facto regime knows that if they do not maintain that repression they won’t be able to stay in power. If there was no repression, I’m sure that in a very short period of time the government would fall.
So there are various levels of targeting of high level officials of Lavalas, many of whom have been jailed. There were over 700 people in jail. I don’t know exact numbers now, but probably somewhere in that vicinity, the vast majority of whom have never been charged with any crime and certainly have not been tried. That includes the former Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior who were on a hunger strike for a period of about twenty days. They are actually currently in a UN hospital but they have not been released by the Haitian authorities, so they continue to be held, for almost nine months at this point, with no actual charges being filed against them. They are just the most prominent cases.
At another level, we have sort of more brutal sweeps that are targeting the poor en masse. So literally going into poor neighbourhoods and opening fire, or going after known militants, organizers, local leaders in the community, and hunting them down. Nobody really knows how many people have been killed, but we know that just in March , the first month after the coup, the morgue in Haiti had over 1000 bodies disposed of, and a normal month would be like a hundred. So the rate of killing is just astronomical, it’s far worse that the ’91-94 period, and some human rights people within Haiti estimate that as many as 10 000 people have been killed since February 29 of last year.
O'Keefe: Have you found that public opinion in the United States has started to shift toward opposition to the coup?
Flynn: I think that public opinion is shifting. First of all, what we really have is a news blackout in the current moment. There was massive media coverage of Haiti leading up to the coup, and then – it’s hard to imagine that it’s not a purposeful blackout. For instance, Yvonne Neptune was on hunger strike for twenty-one days. He’s the former Prime Minister, a person who had been in international forums all over the world, well known. He’s in jail with no charges, and there’s not been a major news media story in the United States on that situation. Maxine Waters, U.S. Congresswoman, went down and visited him in jail and spoke out about it. The New York Times hasn’t even mentioned this, nor have any of the other papers, except I think a little bit out of Miami.
So in that sense I think what we’re facing is a kind of clampdown to say this situation does not exist. What is coming out is starting to acknowledge what is happening. I think the Griffin Report was a major breakthrough, because it’s hard to deny when you see those photographs. In that sense, I would say that in progressive communities, information is starting to get out. I live in Minneapolis, and our numbers of people coming out to events on Haiti are far larger than they used to be.
O'Keefe: Aristide was restored in 1994. Is it possible that he will come back again? What are the prospects for the return of the constitutional government in Haiti?
Flynn: Yes, I think it is possible. He remains the constitutionally elected president of the country. His support in Haiti remains strong. During his three years in exile [1991-94], at the beginning of that time nobody thought that it would be possible. So I don’t think there’s any reason to give up hope at this point. I really have to take my direction from the people in Haiti, that the sort of bottom line is his physical return to the country. That’s what they’re demonstrating for. I mean, they are demonstrating for democracy, for recognition of their rights, but they have said he physically has to come back to Haiti. So I don’t think anyone here should be throwing that option away for them, because it really is up to them.
Derrick O'Keefe writes for Seven Oaks, “a magazine of politics, culture and resistance,” based in Vancouver, BC, where this article first appeared.
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