Some Background on the Crisis in Haiti

February 28, 2004

The following is excerpted from a recent article by Yifat Susskind, Associate Director of MADRE: An International Women's Human Rights Organization

A political crisis that has been brewing in Haiti since 2000 exploded during the second week of February 2004. Members of an armed movement seeking to overthrow Haiti’s President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, went on a rampage in a dozen Haitian towns, killing more than 60 people. The towns remain under siege by criminal gangs led by former paramilitary members.

There is great concern for the families in these areas, since the armed vigilantes have cut road and telephone access to communities, emptied prisons and blocked convoys of food aid from reaching impoverished areas.

The blockade of food aid is particularly worrisome since, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly half of all Haitians lack access to even minimum food requirements. Hospitals, schools, police stations and other government buildings have been burned and looted. Meanwhile, the US Department of Homeland Security has begun preparations for the internment of up to 50,000 Haitian refugees at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, signaling that the US expects a much greater escalation of violence in Haiti.

What is the Political Backdrop to the Conflict?

The crisis dates back to a political stalemate stemming from a contested election. In 2000 -- the same year that George Bush stole the US presidency -- Haiti held elections for 7,500 positions nationwide. Election observers contested the winners of seven senate seats.

President Aristide balked at first, but eventually yielded and the seven senators resigned. Members of Haiti’s elite, long hostile to Aristide’s progressive economic agenda, saw the controversy as an opportunity to derail his government.

Since 2001, human rights activists and humanitarian workers in Haiti have documented numerous cases of opposition vigilantes killing government officials and bystanders in attacks on the state power station, health clinics, police stations and government vehicles. The US government did not condemn any of these killings.

In January 2004, the opposition escalated its protests. At some demonstrations, government supporters, who represent Haiti’s poorest sectors, attacked opposition activists. Only then did US Secretary of State Powell issue a one-sided condemnation of "militant Aristide supporters."

In a country as poor as Haiti, control over the institutions of the state is one of the only sources of wealth, making national politics an arena of violent competition. Similarly, in an environment of 70 percent unemployment, the prospect of long-term work as a paramilitary fighter leads many young men to join these forces.

Who is the Opposition?

Like the so-called opposition to the Chavez government of Venezuela, Haiti’s opposition represents only a small minority (8 percent of the population according to a 2000 poll). With no chance of winning through democratic elections, they rely instead on armed violence to foment a political crisis that will lead to the fall of the government. Using their international business connections, especially ties to the corporate media, the opposition has manufactured an image of itself as the true champion of democracy in Haiti.

The gangs that have placed thousands of Haitians under siege are reportedly armed with US-made M-16s, recently sent by the US to the government of the Dominican Republic.

The gangs are directly linked to two groups financed by the Bush Administration: the right-wing Convergence for Democracy and the pro-business Group of 184.

The Convergence is a coalition of about two dozen groups, ranging from neo-Duvalierists (named for the Duvaliers’ dictatorship that ruled Haiti from 1957-1986) to former Aristide supporters. These groups have little in common except their desire to see Aristide overthrown.

According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the opposition’s " only policy goal seems to be reconstituting the army and the implementation of rigorous Structural Adjustment Programs."

The Convergence is led by former FRAPH paramilitary leaders (including Louis Chamblain, Guy Phillipe and Jean Pierre Baptiste) who carried out the bloody 1991 coup d’etat, in which the CIA-trained and -funded FRAPH overthrew Aristide, killed 5,000 civilians and terrorized Haiti for four years.

The Convergence is supported by the Haitian elite and the leadership of the US Republican Party (through the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute).

The Group of 184 is represented by Andy Apaid, a Duvalier supporter and US citizen who obtained a Haitian passport by fraudulently claiming to have been born in Haiti. Apaid owns 15 factories in Haiti and was the main foe of Aristide’s 2003 campaign to raise the minimum wage (which, at $1.60 a day, was lower than what it had been 10 years earlier).

By demanding that the opposition be included in any resolution of Haiti’s political impasse, the US has greatly empowered these forces. While the opposition perpetuates Haiti’s political deadlock, the US embargo (see below) guarantees the island’s economic strangulation. Aristide’s opponents hope that these combined tactics will achieve what they cannot win through democratic elections: the ouster of Aristide. . . .

What is the role of the US in Haiti?

The US was the main supporter of the 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 rise of Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, 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.

The Republican leadership strongly opposed the intervention. In 1995, when Republicans took control of Congress, they pushed to cancel US aid to Haiti and to finance the opposition by reallocating federal funds to Haitian non-governmental organizations opposed to Aristide.

In 2000, the Republicans exploited Haiti’s electoral controversy as an opportunity to discredit Aristide. The Bush Administration 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.

The seven contested senators are long gone, but the embargo remains in place, denying critical services to the poorest people in the hemisphere.

What is Aristide's record?

The US allowed Aristide to be reinstated on the condition that he implement a neoliberal economic agenda.

Aristide complied with some US demands, including a reduction of tariffs on US-grown rice that bankrupted thousands of Haitian farmers and maintenance of a below-subsistence-level minimum wage.

But Aristide resisted privatizing state-owned resources, because of protests from his political base and because he was reluctant to relinquish control over these sources of wealth.

Aristide eventually doubled the minimum wage and -- despite the embargo -- prioritized education and healthcare: he built schools and renovated public hospitals; established new HIV-testing centers and doctor-training programs; and introduced a program to subsidize schoolbooks and uniforms and expand school lunch and bussing services. . . .