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Abducting Democracy: A MADRE Statement on Haiti's 33rd Coup d'Etat

Posted on: Monday, March 1, 2004

Keywords: Peace Building, Latin America and Caribbean, Haiti

On February 29, 2004, Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown for the second time in 13 years. The opposition gangs that placed millions of Haitians under siege are armed with sophisticated weapons, including US-made M-16s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. This was no popular insurgency from Haiti's grassroots, but a military operation funded and orchestrated by the US. The nucleus of the armed opposition is the FRAPH paramilitary that overthrew Aristide in 1991. When the US restored Aristide to power in 1994, the Marines were ordered not to disarm the FRAPH. Instead, the death squads were treated as a legitimate opposition and left in the wings to serve as a contingency plan to Aristide. With the implementation of that plan, the Bush Administration offers yet another display of its contempt for democracy, sending a clear signal from Haiti about how it will treat any defenseless country that it cannot fully control.

The Humanitarian Crisis

  • Continued violence and growing shortages of food, water, fuel and essential medicines in the hemisphere's poorest country threaten millions of Haitian women and their families. In Haiti's poorest areas, home to most of President Aristide's political base, armed opposition gangs are reportedly hunting down and killing Aristide supporters.
  • Homes, hospitals, schools, police stations and other government buildings, as well as grassroots institutions, are being burned and looted by opposition gangs. Attacks on these facilities are severely limiting people's access to health care, education and other basic services.
  • In late February, opposition gangs cut road and telephone access to many communities, emptied the prisons of convicted human rights offenders and other violent felons and blocked convoys of food aid from reaching impoverished areas. Much of the country remains cut off from international agencies' efforts to deliver emergency relief.
  • The blockade of food aid is particularly worrisome, since nearly half of all Haitians lack access to even minimum food requirements as a result of US-imposed trade policies that have decimated Haiti's agriculture sector. Opposition gangs have looted hundreds of tons of food aid from UN warehouses. Haitians in the countryside report that food prices are skyrocketing and hunger is worsening.
  • Most hospitals and clinics have ceased all but emergency functions. Without fuel to power generators, hospitals do not have the water supply or refrigeration needed to preserve medicines and vaccines. UNICEF reports that surgical kits, essential drugs and vaccines are in especially short supply.

Resignation or Abduction?

  • The official version of events surrounding Aristide's ouster was quickly contested by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, TransAfrica founder Randal Robinson and others who spoke with Aristide after his removal from Haiti.
  • According to Aristide, US diplomats entered his home on February 29 and announced that he and thousands of others would be killed by opposition gangs if he did not accompany the diplomats. Aristide says that his own security detail was barred from the scene. Told that he was being escorted to a press conference, Aristide prepared a statement, which, he says, the US later presented to the world as a letter of resignation. Aristide was never brought before the press. Instead, he was driven to the airport—by then under total US control—and made to board a Pentagon plane. He was denied access to a phone for 24 hours and eventually deposited, without his consent, in the Central African Republic.
  • Congressional Black Caucus members, the government of South Africa, CARICOM (Caribbean Community; a consortium of 15 Caribbean governments) and the African Union have questioned the US role in Aristide's ouster and raised concerns about a possible kidnapping.
  • The Bush Administration has dismissed their inquiries with disdain ("nonsense," according to Rumsfeld; "ridiculous," said Colin Powell). These are the same men that lied to the world about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Moreover, their clear contempt for African and African-descendent political bodies, including their own colleagues in Congress, reflects the racism that infuses US foreign policy.

Didn't the US Support a Negotiated Compromise in Haiti?

  • Only days before Aristide's removal, Bush assured 19 Congressional Black Caucus members of his commitment to a "political settlement" in Haiti. Bush was referring to a power-sharing deal put forward by CARICOM, roundly viewed as favorable to the opposition. Aristide agreed (twice) to the plan. The opposition refused, saying they would be satisfied only with Aristide's overthrow.
  • Although the opposition plainly stated that it would not compromise, Powell insisted that the US would only back a peacekeeping force to support Aristide once a compromise was reached.
  • Rather than press the opposition to negotiate—for example, on the basis that governments achieved by coup d'etat are not recognized under international law—the US reversed its promise of supporting democracy in Haiti and began openly pressuring Aristide to resign. In fact, the Administration was simply biding its time in February, while opposition gangs took control of more and more territory. Only once it was too late to secure Haiti's democratically elected government did the US intervene.

Who is Making US policy in Haiti?

  • Roger Noriega, US State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, a Jesse Helms protégé who supported the leadership of the El Salvador death squads in the 1980s.
  • John Negroponte, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, who defended the death squads in Honduras while he was ambassador there in the 1980s.
  • Otto Reich, who orchestrated the short-lived 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Why is the US Interested in Haiti?
  • As pointed out by the Dominion weblog and other observers, the fact that Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere makes it, paradoxically, important in several ways.
  • As a source of cheap labor: For years, US-based assembly plants have paid Haitian workers pennies an hour to produce name-brand clothing sold in the US.
  • As an anchor against rising wages: Haiti's poverty wages keep production costs down across the hemisphere: corporations can always threaten to relocate to Haiti when workers elsewhere demand better pay.
  • As a dangerous example: Haiti, the first country founded by slaves, has always been suspect in the eyes of the US, founded by slave-owners. Today, the US worries that if the hemisphere's poorest country can determine its own course, other countries may also claim the right to formulate their own policies without interference from Washington.

Double Standards and Double Speak

  • We have been told that Aristide is a tyrant guilty of human rights abuses. Yet Colombia, the hemisphere's worst human rights offender, is also the hemisphere's number one recipient of US aid. We're told that Aristide presided over flawed elections in May 2000—the same year that Bush stole the White House. Also in May 2000, Peru's President Fujimori denied an outright victory to the opposition presidential candidate, without retribution from the US.
  • Since 2000, the US has encouraged Haiti's opposition to refuse to participate in elections and, at the same time, declared that elections will only be considered legitimate if the opposition participates. In fact, the Bush Administration has upheld a long US tradition of talking about respect for democracy in Haiti while supporting the country's most anti-democratic, pro-business forces.
  • The US role in Haiti's overlapping crises has consistently been obscured by mainstream media, which routinely refers to terrible conditions in Haiti without context or explanation. We hear about the death squads that killed thousands in the 1990s, but little about CIA funding and training for these forces. We read that international aid to Haiti is suspended, but not that the embargo is entirely a product of US demands. We hear about hunger and poverty in Haiti, but less about the US policies that created those conditions (e.g., forcing Haiti to lift tariffs on heavily-subsidized US-grown rice, bankrupting millions of peasant farmers and forbidding Aristide from raising the minimum wage).

Should Progressives Support Aristide?

  • In February, MADRE released a statement, which read in part, "The current crisis is not about supporting or opposing Aristide the man, but about defending constitutional democracy in Haiti. In a democracy, elections—and not vigilante violence—should be the measure of 'the will of the people.' Aristide has repeatedly invited the opposition to participate in elections and they have refused, knowing that they represent only an elite minority and cannot win at the polls."
  • Aristide's flaws are not the reason he was targeted for removal. Rather, his merits—namely, his commitment to social and economic rights for Haiti's poor majority—are what made him unacceptable to US and Haitian elites.
  • In the early 1990s, before Aristide was accused of abuses of power, US officials—including Roger Noriega—resorted to a specious campaign of character assassination, manufacturing rumors that Aristide was mentally unstable.

What's Wrong with the Opposition's Plan to Resurrect the Haitian Military?

  • Among the first announcements of Haiti's new US-installed prime minister, Gerard Latortue, was the restoration of the Haitian military.
  • The military is led by convicted human rights abusers who organized the FRAPH death squads that terrorized Haiti during the coup of 1991-1994. Many in its ranks (and possibly Latortue himself) support the return of Haiti's dictator, "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who has expressed interest in returning to Haiti.
  • Since its creation by the US in 1915, the Haitian army has consistently defended the interests of the country's small elite by violently suppressing the poor majority. The army slaughtered thousands of Haitian civilians and presided over dozens of coup d'etats before it was disbanded by Aristide in 1995.
  • What Haiti needs is not a new army, but a trained police force, accountable to a civilian government and equipped with extensive human rights training and non-lethal means of crowd control.
Haitian Refugees
  • On February 26, Bush proclaimed, "we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore, and that message needs to be very clear to the Haitian people."
  • By the time of Bush's callous announcement, the Department of Homeland Security had already prepared to intern 50,000 Haitian refugees at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, clearly demonstrating that the US expected a bloodbath in Haiti.
  • Bush's position is a brazen renunciation of the US government's moral and legal obligation to protect refugees. It violates the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which says that, "no state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever where his life or freedom would be threatened" (Article 33).
  • Ten years after the US blocked international efforts to rescue hundreds of thousands of Rwandans targeted for genocide, the US has again sent a message that governments can ignore persecution and refuse sanctuary to people facing grave danger.

The U.S. in Haiti: From Occupation to Occupation

"Imagine, niggers speaking French."
-William Jennings Bryant
U.S. Secretary of State, 1913-1915

In 1915, US Marines invaded Haiti, massacred hundreds, dismantled the constitutional system, enforced massive land takeovers by US corporations and installed the brutal Haitian army. It is estimated that 15,000 Haitians were killed during the occupation, which lasted until 1934.

The US was the main backer of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship. In 1986, when Haiti's pro-democracy movement finally succeeded in overthrowing the hated dictator, he was ferried to safety by the Reagan Administration.

Only with the victory of the pro-democracy movement and the first election of Aristide did US support shift from the Haitian leadership to those who orchestrated the 1991 coup d'etat.

In 1994, public pressure and fear of an influx of Haitian "boat people" led the Clinton Administration to reverse the coup d'etat and restore Aristide to power.

Two months later, Republicans, who strongly opposed the intervention, took control of Congress. They pushed to cancel US aid to Haiti and finance an opposition to Aristide by reallocating federal funds to Haitian non-governmental organizations committed to undermining the government.

The US pressured the Inter-American Development Bank to cancel more than $650 million in development assistance and approved loans to Haiti—money that was slated to pay for safe drinking water, literacy programs and health services for the poorest people in the hemisphere.

MADRE Emphasizes that:

  • International law does not recognize governments installed by coup d'etat. Aristide is still the lawful president of Haiti and should be returned.
  • The Bush Administration's role in ousting President Aristide and in supporting the opposition to Haiti's constitutional government must be investigated ay the US Congress and a case brought before the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
  • Political sovereignty rests on economic autonomy. MADRE calls on the Bush Administration to immediately lift the embargo that is denying urgently needed development aid and health programs to Haitian women and families and to allow Haiti to formulate its own economic policies.
  • A peacekeeping force under the control of the UN Security Council, not the US, and with strong involvement from Caribbean Member States, should be deployed to provide stability, oversee disarmament and ensure that the humanitarian needs of the Haitian population are met.
  • The US should provide sanctuary to Haitian refugees and all refugees on a humanitarian rather than a political basis.

By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director

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