Haiti: Waiting for Something Bad to Happen
by Jessica Leight

February 12, 2004

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Political violence in Haiti continues to mount, placing the country’s hard-won democracy in an increasingly perilous position and raising widespread fears of a violent coup that would return a military-led caretaker junta to power.  Those who are guilty of jeopardizing the nation’s stability include a collection of brigands who participated in the 1991-1994 military junta, along with paramilitary thugs and those guilty of human rights violations in that period (like Emmanuel Constant, and Gen. Raul Cedras), as well as members of the island’s tiny economic elite.

The “democratic opposition,” made up of Democratic Convergence and Group of 184, has demonstrated its true nature and what was once considered an opposition movement—albeit violent and narrowly constituted—is now in a de facto alliance with a paramilitary force made up of armed street gangs that pose a genuine danger of being able to stage a concerted attack on the Haitian state and its democratic institutions.

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) straddles the fence, as does the Organization of American States (OAS), while the State Department is already in the bad neighbor’s next-door yard.

The State Department under Secretary of State Powell and his Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, at first appears to have remained inactive over Haiti, which is in itself a policy.  Rather than rushing down anti-riot equipment to Port-Au-Prince, as it repeatedly has done in other cases where constitutional governments are being threatened by street mobs, U.S. officials have sat on their hands waiting for a successful coup scenario to unfold.  Meanwhile, rather than seek to trigger a process in the OAS to pacify the burgeoning threat to the Aristide government, and most of all, lift the U.S. imposed freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars in aid pledged to Port-Au-Prince (which has economically asphyxiated the island), Noriega and his department stall for time and await some new incident in which the Aristide government is further undermined and discredited.  Meanwhile, the opposition groups, which have long been funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, through the International Republican Institute, and coddled by hardliner Republican policymakers, seek to preserve the legacy of longtime Aristide-hater, former Senator Jesse Helms.

Given the opposition’s heavy dependence on U.S. support, an open and specific denunciation of their obstructionist tactics by the Bush administration could immediately force the Democratic Convergence and Group 184 to abandon their attempts to overthrow the Aristide government by intimidation, threats and street violence.  Refusing to force them to turn to negotiation, the administration has not uttered even a weak acknowledgment of the latter’s culpability in the deteriorating situation in Haiti.  Instead, it covertly works for Aristide’s resignation, which in fact is Washington’s very policy, as it acknowledges that it is preparing to house upwards of 15,000 Haitian boat people after they are interdicted on their way to Florida. 

With its inferences that a resolution of this “crisis”—the euphemism for an open attempt at a coup—might require the consideration of the resignation of President Aristide, Washington has demonstrated yet again, aside from its meaningless rhetoric, the inability of the Powell team to project a strong assent for democratic governance to the rest of the hemisphere.

The State Department Eyes Haiti

Over the past two hundred years, Haiti has been no stranger to instances of political violence, coups and the perversion of democracy.  Many of them were executed with the support of the United States, which has at times considered popular democratic government in Latin America to be a privilege awarded only to those nations deemed sufficiently ebullient in their unwavering pro-Washington subservience.  The latest chapter in the disheartening drama is now unfolding, as the in part U.S.-funded Democratic Convergence and Group of 184, long the favored instruments of Washington hardline Latin American policymakers, redouble their efforts to destabilize the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide through violent takeovers of nearly a dozen towns in northern and western Haiti that began on February 5. These venomously anti-Aristide groups are attempting to cloak their naked self-serving and illegal actions by insisting that what took place in Gonaives and other urban areas was a supposed popular uprising against an oppressive government, to which they were not directly linked. 

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has coolly signaled its passivity if not acquiescence regarding the effort of this non-representative cabal to oust President Aristide, who was popularly elected in what was only the third free election in Haiti’s history. The State Department, with practiced diplomatic obfuscation, has stated that “we recognize that reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed.” A State Department official later clarified this statement by noting that this “could indeed involve changes in Aristide’s position.”  Thus, while President Bush and his would-be kingmakers in the bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs tout their efforts to build democracy abroad, the president’s Latin American team headed by the State Department’s Roger Noriega and Dan Fisk, along with the White House’s Otto Reich, all but openly support the unseating of an Aristide government.  These actions are a clear signal that the most flagrant excesses of Cold War policy towards the hemisphere are still being nurtured in Washington by those who emotionally need some leftist figure to bash, even if such a person poses no threat to this country’s national interests.

The Opposition Revealed

What previously had been deemed a situation of growing political tension and a challenge by a narrowly-based opportunistic group has now erupted into an open rebellion. This self-denominated “democratic opposition” previously had not ruled out all talks with the government. But starting last December, all pretenses have been abandoned.  Previously, Group 184 justified its refusal to reengage in the political process by citing perceived transgressions by the Aristide government: its corruption, its inability to establish an appropriately secure climate of security, its failures to combat the politicization of the police force, and a number of other accusations repeated as well by the U.S. Embassy in Port-Au-Prince.  The opposition’s modus operandi was to engage in subtle plotting with former military personnel and rapid anti-Aristide elements for the common purpose of restraining the president from implementing his left-of-center platform, but it incredulously insisted that it entirely abided by its non-violent principles.  But now, the opposition has finally openly acknowledged what the vast majority of Haitians have long known: that it has no natural leader or a coherent agenda other than ousting Aristide from office by any means.  It sees the Haitian president as a dangerous radical who must be purged at any cost because of his demobilization of the Haitian army, long the tool of repression employed by the Haitian elite and whose former officers remain the backbone of the opposition parties.    

For example, in a recent interview, Democratic Convergence leader Evans Paul stated, “We are willing to negotiate through which door he [President Aristide] leaves the palace, through the front door or the back door.”   Such gutter statements made by an un-elected official with very dubious credentials and who lacks a significant constituency make clear the reason why the government’s repeated attempts at negotiation with the opposition have failed.  The problem may be that Democratic Convergence and Group 184 are not so much political parties with a predictable platform of demands that they are willing to negotiate and enter into later compromises. Rather, they are vehicles for the ambition of a small group of often self-serving island heavyweights who hope to achieve through a violent power grab what they could not win through the ballot box.  There is no mystery about the opposition’s preposterous intentions.  Evans Paul, along with opposition leaders Gerard Pierre-Charles, Victor Benoit, Charles Baker and Andre Apaid, have repeatedly implied, if not openly stated, a preferential option for violent street actions or uprooting (dechoukaj), rather than elections.

CARICOM’s Initiative

Most recently, the opposition has stymied the latest mediation effort by the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), who sent a delegation headed by Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell and CARICOM Assistant Secretary General Colin Granderson to Haiti on February 4, in an attempt to find a resolution to the standoff.  The opposition once again refused any attempts at negotiation, with Evans Paul, contending that, “If we negotiate with Aristide, we lose our credibility,” a concern on the part of an opposition group that has only won negligible electoral support and is widely accused of bribing crowds to participate in their marches.   The armed takeovers in Gonaives, long a center of political activism in Haiti and integral to the political opposition regarding the Duvalier dictatorship, involved heavy casualties. The fourth largest Haitian city was considered one of Aristide’s strongest bases of popular support. The fact that the offensive against Gonaives began after CARICOM’s diplomatic initiative was formulated, was an affront against that body. CARICOM’s failed (at least for now) mission to Haiti raised widespread accusations that the opposition’s meetings with its representatives were essentially a diversionary tactic intended to buy time while also distracting attention from the opposition’s continued political obstructionism.  As Haiti’s General Counsel Ira Kurzban described it, “I believe the incident in Gonaives was timed purposely to downplay CARICOM and the opposition’s non-response...to distract the ‘public’ from the real story.”  The question deserves to be asked whether CARICOM was being used and whether the opposition believed that the body was willing to settle at the lowest common denominator, even if it meant establishing a regency on the island, severely limiting Aristide’s authority, or even agree to some formula which would ease the Haitian President out of office.  But the basic flaw of CARICOM’s position was that it classified Aristide and the opposition in the same category with equal status- the victim being twinned with the victimizer.

Villains of Haiti’s Past Resurface in Gonaives

The recent opposition takeover in Gonaives held clear and disturbing echoes of the brutal violence and political oppression that marked Haiti’s most recent period of military rule, which ended in 1994 after the U.S. led-intervention which returned Aristide to power.  This followed President Aristide’s ouster in a military coup in 1991, only months after he had been elected to his first term.  The attack and takeover of Gonaives ostensibly was led by a group formerly known as the Cannibal Army and renamed the Artibonite Resistance Front, many of whose street leaders were once members of FRAPH, the murderous paramilitary organization that terrorized Haiti on behalf of its military rulers in the early 1990s.  This paramilitary force was headed at the time by Emmanuel Constant, who was responsible for several thousand political killings.  Constant, who admitted on an appearance on “Sixty Minutes,” that he had been on the payroll of the CIA, remains at large in New York City, as a result of a de facto asylum granted to him by the Clinton administration, which has been continued by the Bush White House.

In fact, one of the leaders of the recent attack was Jean Tatoune, a former FRAPH leader who was sentenced to forced labor for life in 2000 for his participation in the 1994 massacre in Raboteau, a village near Gonaives where almost a score of Aristide supporters were systematically murdered by military and FRAPH thugs.  Tatoune was subsequently imprisoned in Gonaives, from where he escaped in August 2002, only to return last week with his band of street fighters in an attack in which the city prison was destroyed and the remaining inmates were freed (including some jailed for drug offenses), government buildings, stores and homes burned and more than 30 people, police and civilians, killed. 

As Robert Fatton, a University of Virginia professor and political analyst on Haiti, put it, “If what is happening in Gonaives is the opposition’s vision for Haiti, then the future is pretty grim indeed.”  Meanwhile, Andre Apaid, the wealthy businessmen who leads the opposition Group 184, asserted that “We continue to maintain the nonviolent approach.” This is a hugely tongue-in-cheek statement because his circle of political comrades consistently has called for the reconstitution of the army and his associate, Evans Paul, openly has preached the kind of violent acts that have been perpetrated in Gonaives by former army members.

Washington Demonstrates Its Complicity in Opposition’s Intransigence

As political violence has mounted in Haiti over the past six months, the State Department has made nothing but anemic purrings regarding its concern over the violence in the country, despite the obvious fact that given the opposition’s ideological and financial ties with the U.S. government, a clear denunciation of the latter’s tactics by the State Department would most certainly have had to produce an immediate alteration in the situation in Haiti.  Should the Bush administration now demand that Group 184 and Democratic Convergence nominate their representatives to the Provisional Electoral Council in order to allow parliamentary elections to proceed, while expressing its support for the integrity of the democratic process in Haiti and the need for President Aristide to serve out his full term, the opposition groups will have to change their strategy from featuring a bellicose mixture of non-negotiation and violent street action.

The State Department’s Ideologues

Yet no such call has been forthcoming; on the contrary, the State Department is subtlety  supporting the opposition’s attempts to undemocratically oust President Aristide in a scenario of “regime change” that must by now be quite familiar to Secretary of State Colin Powell.  The reasons for Washington’s openly anti-Aristide policy are not hard to discern.  U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America remains in the hands of a small group of hardline policymakers led by Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and Special Presidential Envoy Otto Reich, the ideological heirs to former Senator Jesse Helms, who is said to have never met a right-wing Latin American dictator he didn’t like.  Conversely, he also had little affection for democratically-elected presidents, among which was his nemesis Aristide, who he considered to be the next Castro of the Caribbean.  These Washington extremists have had no interest in ensuring that Aristide serves out his constitutionally mandated tenure; on the contrary, they are no doubt eager to see him go, and hence quite content to let the opposition continue to wreak havoc without meddlesome interference from the Washington other than a stream of pro-forma statements about how troubled the White House is by the violence in Haiti, but unaccompanied by desperately needed anti-riot equipment shipments to Port-Au-Prince.

Needless to say, the State Department has a litany of anti-Aristide criticisms they are happy to cite to reporters off-the-record in order to justify their tacit endorsement of the overthrow of President Aristide.  The most common is the old but still resilient accusation regarding the supposedly rigged 2000 elections and the Aristide government’s failure to comply with the provisions of Resolution 822 of the Organization of American States, which was passed in 2000, to provide a framework for the reestablishment of “political normalcy” in Haiti.  First of all, any suggestion that the so-called Haitian “electoral crisis” still continues is pure rubbish, given that the eight senators whose legitimacy was being questioned at the time have all since left the Senate and Aristide repeatedly has since eagerly called for new elections.  Washington is also well aware that the Aristide government’s failure to hold new legislative elections, especially given that the terms of a third of the parliament expired last month, has left Haiti without any legal legislative body because the opposition refuses to accept its designated seats on the Provisional Elections Council, which is an essential first step for any balloting to occur. These events effectively have forced the president to rule by decree.  The State Department persistently neglects to mention that this is the only obstacle to the prompt holding of elections in Haiti, at the same time that it has never vigorously condemned the opposition’s persistent refusal to participate in the electoral council that is required to supervise the elections. Nor has the State Department condemned the opposition’s open rejection of the entire concept of elections and a democratic transfer of power. 

The opposition’s justification for this intransigence, insofar as it provides one, is the lack of security in Haiti, another common complaint of the Bush administration.  It is to be wondered, however, what type of security the Aristide government is expected to provide as it struggles to maintain a 4000-member national police force to afford protection to 8 million Haitians as part of a total Haitian federal budget of less than $300 million dollars a year. Meanwhile, the N.Y.C. Police Department has almost 62,000 officers to provide comparable service to approximately the same number of people.  This is especially the case, since the Aristide government has received no direct bilateral aid from the United States since 2000.  The Aristide government is widely accused of failing to professionalize and de-politicize the police force; however, it was the United States and Canada which cut off the aid that they were providing, following Aristide’s return to Haiti in 1994, for police training and professionalization, and they were the countries who originally trained the often criticized police and set up the courts after the military was overthrown.

Condemnations of the Aristide government for its lack of commitment to democratic procedures and its failure to establish a much-desired climate of domestic security verges on hypocrisy on Washington’s part, which has sought virtually at every turn to cripple the ability of the government to govern effectively, and consistently has systematically supported the opposition in its unceasing efforts to sabotage democracy in Haiti.

Bush Administration Remains the Ultimate Culprit

While the Aristide government remains poised precariously in Port-au-Prince and fears of a coup and a new wave of political violence and repression sweep across Haiti, the State Department appears content to watch passively from afar, perhaps hoping that the elite-dominated opposition will have more success in unseating Aristide than a comparable U.S.-backed opposition had in the case of another pesky Latin American populist, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.   The Bush administration’s refusal to openly condemn the activities of the opposition has made it more than obvious that a decade has not been long enough to eradicate the Cold War mentality from the halls of the State Department, or at least the halls of its Western Hemisphere bureau.  On the contrary, Washington’s covert battle against the hemisphere’s dangerously “leftist” leaders is alive and well, led by the ever-vigilant keystone cops, Noriega and Reich, with Haiti’s hard-won democracy perhaps becoming its next casualty.  Don’t be surprised if Constant and Gen. Cedras and his drug-related fortune in the millions are once again seen in Port-au-Prince, as Washington navigates to restore the ancien régime there.

Jessica Leight is a Research Fellow at the Washington DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (www.coha.org). COHA can be reached at 1730 M Street NW, Suite 1010, Washington, D.C. 20036. Phone: 202-216-9261, Fax: 202-223-6035, email: coha@coha.org

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