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Goons and Stooges?

February 2004

The situation in Haiti worsens with each passing day. Political chaos is creating economic chaos for a people whose lives were already a daily struggle for survival. Predictably, the opposition has rejected the peace plan that would have kept Aristide in office, preferring to insist on the president’s departure as a starting point for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

The “Pentagon team” destined to review security procedures at the U.S. embassy has suddenly become 50 Marines with lots of military hardware. One expects that U.S. covert operations have intensified, accordingly.

More organizations inside and outside of Haiti are beginning to publicize their perspectives on the crisis. While most progressive voices in the U.S. thankfully oppose direct military intervention by the United States, there appears to be wide agreement that the U.S. should broker a solution that leaves President Aristide in power through the end of his term. Writing in The Nation, Amy Wilentz offers a devastating criticism of Aristide, but then says that he should stay, “not because he is good, but because he is President.” Others seem to believe quite sincerely that Aristide remains the best hope for a democratic future in Haiti.

In addition to the desire to help Aristide stay in power, there is a tendency to understand the opposition to Aristide as a combination of armed goons from the Duvalier era and/or stooges propped up by money from the Republican Party or, worse, the CIA.

We at Grassroots see the situation a little differently.

1. It is impossible to understand the current crisis without reference to the long-term economic crisis being lived by the vast majority of Haitians. The international community has enforced a structural adjustment regime on Haiti that has devastated an economy that was already in shambles. Aristide resisted this regime during his first administration, but he has implemented important parts of it since his return. This has had a devastating impact on the Haitian economy and society and has cost him many friends in the Haitian popular movement. The recent statement by GRI partner, PAPDA, offers this as the major reason why PAPDA is happy to join with those demanding that Aristide resign.

2. That Aristide was elected President in elections that were free and fair by any standard does not delegitimate demands for his resignation today. Organizations as diverse as Haiti’s Catholic Church hierarchy, the MPP, the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department have noted that human rights conditions in Haiti have deteriorated since the elections to the point that fair elections are now impossible. They no longer believe that Aristide will improve those conditions. Many organizations have decided that President Aristide is intent on changing the Haitian Constitution so as to be able to succeed himself, or making it impossible for anyone other than his hand-picked successor to win. For many Haitians across the political spectrum, then, that Aristide is president is not reason enough to keep him president. In this context, the demand that Aristide resign in neither unconstitutional nor inherently undemocratic. Whether or not the demand is politically advisable depends on what one thinks would occur if Aristide left.

3. The Haitian opposition is, beyond doubt, quite a cast of characters. It includes armed gangs (many created by Aristide’s party) and remnants of paramilitary groups associated with the worst human rights abuses occurring in Haiti during the coup period. The civil opposition also includes elite-connected individuals, organizations and political parties that rely on support from right wing and covert government sources from the U.S. As such, the opposition includes many people that no democratically-minded Haitian wants to see in power.

But the opposition also includes legitimate social organizations who once supported Aristide at great cost to themselves and their bases, but have now decided that he must go if there is to be a democratic future in Haiti. These groups have joined the demand for Aristide’s unconditional departure, and back this demand with a proposal of serious structural change in Haiti. A recent propsal for a “new social contract” is one expression of this transformative vision. This sector includes nearly all of Grassroots International’s partners in Haiti and many other student, women’s, labor and peasant organizations.

It is impossible for us to gauge the relative strength of the different sectors of the opposition, or what role they would play in a post-Aristide scenario. It is crystal clear, however, that the “goons and stooges” characterization of the opposition is way off the mark.

The Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) knows the paramilitaries now in control of Hinche better than most Haitians, and certainly better than any U.S.-based analyst. Those same paramilitaries carried out many attacks against MPP supporters during the coup period. The MPP surely does not desire a scenario in which these people have effective control over the country. That the MPP continues to demand Aristide’s immediate departure in this context can not help but draw our attention.

We do not consider that it is our place as a U.S. based human rights and development organization to call for President Aristide’s resignation or insist that he stay. We must, however, do what we can to see that the voices of our Haitian partners do not disappear from the debate among our friends and those who have access to the U.S. media.

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