Grassroots International

Haiti’s Crisis

As activists in the Haiti solidarity movement since 1991, we have been thinking a lot about the troubling situation in Haiti. We have been following events there as closely as we can through the Mexican media (we are currently in the middle of a six-month stay in Mexico), email lists, and email communication from friends.

There are two main narratives about what has happened in Haiti.

The official US narrative is that the US has done its best to help this poor country, but opposition to Aristide’s corrupt and tyrannical rule reduced the country to anarchy. The US finally evacuated Aristide at his request, and the US, France, and others had to intervene militarily to restore order, but are doing their best not to take sides.

The narrative favored by much of the US Haiti solidarity movement is quite different. Aristide was elected by an overwhelming majority, and remains popular. Aristide was imperfect, but he had and has a constitutional mandate to remain president. He armed his followers in a justifiable attempt to prevent a repeat of the 1991 coup, and though they committed some excesses, it was in no way comparable to the widespread repression of the Duvalier or 1991-94 coup years. The US has long had a goal of overthrowing Aristide because he tried to maintain economic and political independence, and so the US funded civil and military opponents. Aristide was finally removed by a US-sponsored coup d’état spearheaded by former military and Tonton Macoute human rights abusers, with a few groups with limited popular support providing political cover. The current government is systematically persecuting and in many cases killing Lavalas leaders.

We don’t think either narrative is right. Regrettably, our analysis of what’s happening in Haiti agrees with the worst parts of both narratives. The US has indeed long opposed Aristide because he was hard to control. Rather than supporting any one faction, the US strategy has been to keep power fragmented. It does seem like the US provided financial and training support for both the civil and military opposition. Intervention by US and other foreign troops without the request of a legitimate government is a violation of Haitian sovereignty. Much of the de facto power in the country lies in the hands either of officials completely beholden to the United States, or of ex-military, Tonton Macoutes, and other undemocratic armed factions, including many human rights abusers, some already convicted of massacres and other grave offenses. Current extra-judicial attacks and killings of Lavalas supporters are grave violations of human rights.

But Aristide had become a tyrant. We were first exposed to these tendencies in 1997, at a time when the previously united Lavalas movement was splitting into factions. Among other people, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Papaye Peasant Movement, the country’s largest peasant group, had joined a faction critical of Aristide. In a face-to-face conversation with Aristide (at that time not president, but widely acknowledged to be the power behind then-President Rene Préval), he essentially endorsed his followers who had taken Chavannes and other MPP leaders hostage at gunpoint. Though we were shocked, we did not say anything publicly at the time-we did not want to give ammunition to conservative forces in the US and elsewhere who were doing their best to split up Lavalas. In retrospect, that was a mistake. It’s a mistake that we and others in various solidarity movements have made repeatedly-avoiding criticism of Third World movements in the name of not giving aid and comfort to US efforts to squash those movements. Anyway, after that things got worse. Aristide, his government, and his party gave arms to gangs who attacked critics and political opponents (ironically, many of the gang leaders later became leaders of the armed rebellion against Aristide). There were assassinations and attempted assassinations of journalists, human rights advocates, and grassroots leaders critical of Aristide-these crimes were never adequately investigated, so there is no way of knowing who planned them, but they certainly targeted enemies of Aristide. Police and armed Lavalas groups repeatedly attacked students protesting against the government, in some cases seriously injuring demonstrators. To our knowledge, Aristide never publicly condemned any of these attacks. (There were also attacks on and assassinations of Aristide supporters, and it now seems clear that many were carried out by the ex-military and Macoutes who launched the military assault on the government early this year.)

Aristide was also corrupt. We don’t know exact amounts, but many millions of dollars that passed through his government and his charities were unaccounted for, many people associated with the government and the party built opulent houses, and Aristide and his family lived very luxuriously. The drug trade flourished during the later years of his power.

Aristide posed as a friend of Haiti’s poor, but after abolishing the army in 1994 (a brave action that greatly benefited the majority in Haiti), did little for the poor majority. He denounced the structural adjustment imposed by the international lenders-while carrying most of it out. (He and his party engaged in highly visible foot-dragging on privatization, but caved in on other, more important issues such as tariff reduction.) He readily agreed to a US and Dominican-controlled export processing zone on Haiti’s eastern border that destroyed fertile agricultural land without creating jobs. Instead of telling the truth to Haiti’s people about the very real pressures and limits on what he could accomplish, and mobilizing them for self-help and to challenge the international institutions-think of Nestor Kirchner in Argentina-he engaged in posturing like demanding French repayment of the penalty France assessed on Haiti after Haiti’s revolution-a legitimate demand, but not a productive strategy. He brought into his second government confirmed “free trade” neoliberals, ex-Tonton Macoutes, and other unsavory characters (as well as dedicated progressives, to be sure-the government was mixed).

News from Haiti is confusing, and interpretations of what’s going on there are conflicting. In forming our view, we depend on partner organizations that we have worked with, through Grassroots International and the New England Observers’ Delegation, for 12 years: the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), the Platform to Advocate Alternative Development for Haiti (PAPDA), and the Human Rights Platform (POHDH) (initials are in French, of course). We also depend on the views of a small number of friends and acquaintances from the US who have lived and worked in Haiti for many years-we cannot name them here because taking public positions can be a risky thing in Haiti. Over the past several years, the partner organizations became more and more critical of Aristide, and by the end of last year, all were demanding that he leave office, and taking part in a broad protest movement to press that demand. Initially we disagreed with them (and argued with them), but over time we came to agree.

It’s true that Aristide was elected in a landslide in 2000, but all other significant candidates were boycotting the election, and many say that the percentage of the population that voted was very small (this continues to be hotly debated). By the time Aristide left, he faced widespread opposition from parts of just about every sector of society. The most visible public opponents were student demonstrators and the heterogeneous Group of 184. But there also was opposition from peasants, slum dwellers, export assembly workers, and others. The limited number and size of demonstrations against Aristide surely reflected his party and government’s repression against his critics, buying off of some forces, demobilization due to disillusionment with political options after seeing Aristide’s trajectory, and simple economic starvation. That makes it hard to use the demonstrations as a gauge of the breadth of opposition.

And it’s true that Aristide was removed by unconstitutional means, but it’s also true that we cheered the people of Argentina and Bolivia (and for that matter, Haiti in 1986) when they overthrew by unconstitutional means governments that no longer served their interests. It’s also worth mentioning that because parliamentary terms had expired without new elections due to the prolonged political crisis, there was in fact no constitutional means of removing Aristide except via his resignation (the Haitian Constitution provides for impeachment, but such action must be taken by Parliament).

Our partner organizations are well aware of the immediate consequences and long-term risks of the seizure of a large piece of power by ex-military and Macoutes. But, along with a broad section of Haitian progressives, they saw Aristide as an obstacle to any forward progress, and therefore felt it worthwhile to take the risk of joining their enemies in an effort to overthrow him. It remains to be seen what the long term results will be, but we respect the basic choice they made. In any case, it would be tragic if the main debate within Haiti and within the Haiti solidarity movement remained “Should Aristide be restored to power or not?” Progressives need to unite to oppose the destructive agendas of the U.S. and the Haitian right. They/we need to look for areas of agreement on how to shift the balance of power in favor of the majority of Haitian people. This, we believe, is the basis for moving ahead.

The organizations we work with in Haiti have certainly made mistakes, and we remain critical or at least skeptical of some of their political positions and activities. But we believe that they are committed to democracy, economic justice, and Haitian sovereignty-more committed to these ideals than Aristide and most of the Lavalas leadership, although they share these goals with much of the Lavalas base. From what we know of their ongoing work, these groups are contributing to building democracy, economic development, and empowerment of the poor on the ground. It is important to support organizations like these as building blocks of a better Haiti.

So we come down opposing the US, opposing those who seek to restore Aristide to power, and doing our best to support democratic and popular forces in Haiti-which most definitely need support. We welcome any feedback on these thoughts.

Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly, who are married, have worked with Grassroots International since 1991, and both have served on the Board of Directors. Both began working in solidarity with Haiti in 1991. They have worked chiefly through Grassroots International and the New England Observers’ Delegation to Haiti (NEOD), of which they were founding members. They visited Haiti four times between 1993 and 1997. Kennedy recently retired from the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and Tilly teaches regional development at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They are currently in Morelia, Mexico for a six-month stay for purposes of research and language study.