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The Haitian Tragedy

Haiti spent more, in 2008 servicing the country's debts than it did on health, education and the environment.

In our February issue (Haiti—an un-natural disaster) we noted that the earthquake in Haiti, and similar disasters, are presented as unavoidable disasters; and that, to some extent, this is true. But we stated that it is not a coincidence that the number of victims is clearly related to the degree of their poverty. This was true regarding the Asian tsunami and the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans.

Seumas Milne also says (Guardian, 21 January) that “It is uncontested that poverty is the main cause of the horrific death toll: the product of teeming shacks, and the absence of health and public infrastructure.” In his view, this is the direct consequence of an uniquely brutal relationship with the outside world—notably the US, France and Britain, stretching back centuries. There is some truth in this, although not all Haitians were, or are, poor.

Says Milne:

“Punished for the success of its uprising against slavery and self-proclaimed first black republic of 1804 with invasion, blockade and a crushing burden of debt reparations, only finally paid off in 1947, Haiti was occupied by the US between the wars and squeezed mercilessly by multiple creditors.”

For decades, the US backed the dictatorships of the Duvaliers. Just 30 years ago Haiti was self-sufficient in its staple of rice. In the mid-1990s, however, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced it to slash tariffs, and the US dumped its subsidised surpluses on Haiti. Most of the peasant farmers were forced out of business, squatted in Port-au-Prince, and many will have died in the earthquake. The United States also imposed lending conditions on the country, forcing the government to privatise the already minimal health, education and public services, and cut back the minimum wage.

The Duvalier Dictatorships and the CIA
From 1957 to 1971 Haiti was ruled by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and, following his death, by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”, both “anointed” “President for Life”. The US trained and armed Haiti's counter-insurgency force, although much American military aid was covertly channelled through Israel.

After “Baby Doc” was forced into exile to France in February 1986 (in a US Air Force jet), the United States continued, now quite openly, military aid, supplying the Haitian Army with trucks, communications gear etc. in order “to maintain order”. Between the departure of “Baby Doc” and the date scheduled for elections in November 1987, the administrations were responsible for the deaths of more civilians than “Baby Doc” managed in 15 years of dictatorship. Meanwhile, the CIA managed to “spring” from prison two of Duvalier’s notorious police chiefs, and send them into exile, saving them from certain execution.

Haiti has never had a mass, reformist working-class party. In 1930 two “intellectuals”, Max Hudicourt and Jacques Roumain, attempted to form a communist party, but it was largely stillborn. In 1946 a clergyman by the name of Félix d’Orléans Juste Constant, founded the Parti Communiste d'Haiti (PCH). It too disbanded the following year. Shortly after a rival quasi-communist party, the Parti Socialiste Populaire (PSP), was founded. It disintegrated rapidly by 1949. But in 1959 Roger Gaillard, a former member of the PSP, founded the Parti Populaire de Libération Nationale (PPLN), which claimed to be a mass, nationwide organisation; it was badly weakened by police harassment and repression by 1965. It was basically reformist, with much in common with Fidel Castro’s 26 July movement.

Aristide the Priest
At the time of “Baby Doc”’s flight to France, there was one man who did have a mass following, particularly in Port-au-Prince. He was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest and advocate of “liberation theology”; but looked upon by opponents, both in Haiti and in America, as a revolutionary, but in fact a populist reformer. He denounced the upcoming military-dominated elections, and urged his followers to boycott the elections, saying “The army is our first enemy.” He was condemned by the Vatican.

The elections were scheduled for the 29 November 1987—the CIA funded a number of candidates. In the event, the elections were postponed ostensibly because of unrest and violence in the country. According to William Blum  in Killing Hope, “…the candidate favored by the military government was declared the winner in balloting widely perceived as rigged”. Writing in 1994, Blum continued:

“There followed more than two years of regular political violence, coup attempts and repression, casting off the vestiges of the Duvalier dictatorship, and establishing a new one, until, in March 1990, the current military dictator, General Prosper April, was forced by widespread protests to abdicate, and was forced by a civilian government of sorts, but with the military still calling the shots.” (p. 371)

Pressured by the United States, the Haitian government called an election later in the year. Reluctantly, Aristide became a candidate of a coalition of reformist organisations. Despite intimidation, Aristide was victorious with 67.5 percent of the vote. He took office in February 1991, after a coup attempt against him failed in January.

And so Jean-Bertrand Aristide became President of Haiti.

But he did not even get any reformist legislation enacted by Parliament. Nevertheless, the military was much concerned by the arrest of a number of para-military thugs, his policies against drug smuggling, and his attempts to depoliticise the army. Aristide was, however, not anti-business. He encouraged American capitalists, and to please the IMF, he fired 2,000 government workers.

It was all to no avail. In less than 8 months, on 29 September 1991, Aristide was successfully deposed by a military coup, in which hundreds of his supporters were massacred and thousands fled to the Dominican Republic. He was saved from being murdered by the French ambassador. The new military dictatorship was largely supported by the local bourgeoisie. And the Vatican immediately recognised the government. The Bush Sr administration unofficially gave its blessing. Haiti was back to “normal”.

Aristide’s Return
In the summer of 1993 the United Nations mediated talks between Aristide, living in exile in Washington, and the Haitian military government; the leader of the junta, General Cédras, would step down by October, and Aristide would return as president. But October came and went without the military permitting Aristide to return. Indeed, they stepped up their repression of his supporters, including the assassination of his justice minister, Guy Malary. Meanwhile, the CIA spread rumours in Haiti that Aristide was mentally ill. It was not true.

An organisation of American States (OAS) human rights team accused the Haitian military regime of “murder, rape, kidnapping, detention and torture in a systematic campaign” to terrorise all those Haitians wanting a return to democracy. Amnesty International reported the same. The Clinton administration in Washington wanted the military out of power, but without actually having to do anything, including invading the country. Nevertheless, changing tactics, the CIA, with numerous agents in Haiti, launched a major covert operation to topple the military regime. It was not a success. But change was a’coming.

In September 1994, the Clinton administration told the Haitian military leaders they had just four weeks to resign. The US would have to take control. Yet again. So, on 19 September US forces began to arrive in Haiti. Initially, they were welcomed by the majority of the population; they first arrested, disarmed and also shot many of the former Haitian military; and permitted some of the leaders to escape into exile. And they sealed off, and protected the homes of many of the local capitalist élite, “Washington’s natural allies” (Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1994).

Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti in mid-October, courtesy of the US army. He received, in the words of William Blum, a reception of “joyous celebration”. But, unbeknown to a majority of his supporters, he was somewhat different Aristide who had, three years previously, been disposed and exiled to Washington. In the words of the Los Angeles Times (1 October 1994):

“Almost every aspect of Aristide’s plans for resuming power—from taxing the rich to disarming the military—has been examined by the US officials with whom the Haitian President meets daily, and by officials of World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other aid organisations. The finished package clearly reflects their priorities. Aristide has obviously toned down the liberation theology and class-struggle rhetoric that was his signature before he was exiled to Washington.”

Indeed, Aristide embraced market economics with zeal and enthusiasm. He also agreed to publicly announce that he would not attempt to stay in office to make up the time he had lost in exile. So much for the firebrand priest—even as a reformer.

Haiti—a Client State
In Killing Hope William Blum claimed that Haiti's international function will be to serve “transnational corporations” by opening the country up to further investment and commerce, with minimum tariffs and other restrictions; and offering itself, primarily in assembly industries, and as a source of export labour. He added: “What appears to be certain is that the rich will grow richer, and the poor will remain at the very bottom of Latin America’s heap.” Under Aristide’s successor, it can only get worse. As Seumas Milne observed, new IMF loans require Haiti to raise electricity prices, and to freeze all public sector pay, where the majority exist on less than two dollars a day.

Infant mortality rate is about 80 per 1,000 (neighbouring Cuba’s rate is 5.8). Around 50 percent of Haiti's adults remain illiterate. Former president Bill Clinton wants to build up Haiti's export-processing zones,. But, as Milne comments, “…more sweatshop assembly of products neither made nor sold in Haiti won’t develop its economy nor provide a regular income for the majority”. Haiti currently owes the IMF around a billion dollars. Gary Young, writing in the Guardian (1 February), reported that Haiti spent more, in 2008, servicing the country's debts than it did on health, education and the environment.

Meanwhile, the United States pours thousand of heavily-armed troops into the country (yet again). and “The Street”, a US investment website, says that the earthquake provides such American corporations as General Electric, Jacobs Engineering and Flour, with the opportunity and potential to benefit. Of course.

Following the earthquake, a commentator on French television advised his viewers and listeners that “Haiti is not a suitable place to take a vacation.” He can say that again.

PETER E. NEWELL