HAITI The Elite's Revenge

September 25, 2007

For many Haitians, the presidency of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide marked a joyous new beginning, a "second in- dependence." The first occurred on New Year's Day, 1804, when Haiti sepa- rated from France. The second ended on September 30, 1991, less than eight months after it began, when the country's traditional power brokers -the military and business elite-afraid that Haiti's first legitimately elected leader was beyond theircontrol, moved quickly, efficiently and brutally to bring him down. The day of the coup, the military moved to shut down private radio sta- tions and take over broadcasts on the two state-owned stations. "For the first time, the military controlled informa- tion," said former planning minister Renaud Bernadin, now in hiding in Port-au-Prince."All alternative sources of information were eliminated." Later an army communique ordered the press not to report anything that "would in- cite the population." The army was vicious in establish- ing control. "They attacked...for the purpose of terrorizing people," said Bernadin. "The people who suffered the most are from the areas where Aristide has his base of support." Gun- men riding in unmarked cars enforced a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew; soldiers showed no mercy when firing into crowds. As many as 500 people may have been killed by the Haitian army in the first few weeks after the coup. The popular rebellion in defense of Aristide never got off the ground. Before he became a last-minute can- didate for president in the December 16, 1990 elections, Aristide was a leader of"Ti Legliz," or little church, a move- ment of fervent liberation theologians that helped mobilize the country to oust President-for-Life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalierin 1986. His vocal oppo- sition to Durvalierisme, capitalism and the United States (for its support of the 29-year-long Duvalier dictatorship) made him a popular public figure among Haiti's poor, especially in the sprawl- ing slums of Port-au-Prince. Aristide won a landslide victory in the freely- contested elections, in which Haitians were able to vote without intimidation for the first time. The first test of the breadth of Aristide's support came in January, a month before his inauguration, when Duvalier's former Interior Minister Roger Lafontant, along with 21 accom- plices, seized control of the national palace and declared himself provisional president. In less than an hour, thou- sands of Aristide supporters, alerted by conch-shell horn blasts and the clang- ing of machetes on iron gates, streamed into the streets. They built barricades of flaming tires, engulfing Port-au-Prince in a thundercloud of black smoke. Scores of homes and offices of alleged coup sympathizers or suspected Aristide enemies were destroyed and more than 100 people were killed. When the smoke cleared, Lafontant was in handcuffs. His coup lasted only ten hours. The violent reaction of Aristide's backers to the attempted takeover did not go unnoticed by the organizers of the September coup. Indeed it aroused fears among Haiti's political,economic and military establishment that Aristide and his supporters would use any means necessary to advance his social agenda and safeguard his presidency. A Social Revolution Aristide's populist rhetoric and planned reforms furtherdismayed pow- erful sectors in Haitian society. "This is a political revolution, but it's not a social revolution," Aristide said in July. "Now we are trying to achieve a social revolution. If we don't do that, the political revolution will not go any- where." Relying on his enormous popular support as protection from reprisals, Aristide attempted to ease the 7,000- member army out of politics. In his February 7 inaugural speech, the presi- dent retired six of the seven officers who made up the army general staff. In their stead, he promoted officers who were viewed as either non-political or pro-Aristide. On July 2, he retired Haiti's top officer, Lt. Gen. H6rard Abraham, replacing him with Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the man who would later lead the successful coup against Aristide. REPORT ON THE AMERICAS J.P. Slavin is a freelance writer based in Haiti. He writes regularlyfinr National Catholic Reporter. IRealizing that his attempted reforms might prompt the military to try to as- sassinate him, Aristide created a small independent guard, the Presidential Security Force (SSP). Trained by ad- visers from the United States, France and Switzerland, the exact size of the SSP is unknown; estimates range from 30 to 300. Furious army officers lik- ened the SSP to Duvalier's ferocious Tontons Macoutes, an untrained pri- vate militia some have numbered at 300,000, that was loyal only to the president and effectively blocked the army from the political arena. "We had a presidential militia in 1957," said a Haitian colonel, referring to the Macoutes. "It started with 10 people. Then it became 15. Then it became 100, then 1,000, then 10,000, then 300,000....The army cannot tolerate something like that again." Aristide also alienated members of Haiti's 108-seat parliament. Using the broad constitutional powers granted the president to clean up government in the first six months of his term, Aristide gave scant deference to the "advise and consent" role of the legislative branch. "The executive has shown no willing- ness to search for a solution," said cen- trist parliamentarian Guy Bauduy be- fore the coup, commenting on Aristide's attitude toward the legislature. "Rela- tions are not as harmonious as they should be." Former cabinet minister Bernadin argues that Aristide's fierce commit- ment to social change led the president to deliberately separate himself and the executive branch from politicians in the legislature who had little popular sup- port. "Political parties here cannot be compared with political parties in the United States," he said. "Every so-called professional politician in Haiti creates a political party on paper, but has nothing at the grassroots. These politicians make decisions without consulting the people. They distribute jobs and money to their clients." Aristide's decision not to appoint political party leaders as cabinet minis- ters, Bernadin added, was a deliberate attempt to "rupture" Haiti from its cor- rupt political class. Not only did Aristide not cooperate with the legislature, his critics accused him of condoning vigilante violence and "Pbre Lebrun," the Creole nick- VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) name for necklacing, or killing by plac- ing a burning tire around the head of the victim. Tires burn extremely slowly, and the process turns a corpse into an ash pile. They cite as evidence Aristide's September27 speech in which he called on the poor to defend their rights, and referred to "a beautiful tool" they might use against Duvalieristes. "Whenever you feel the heat of un- employment," he said, "whenever the heat of the pavement gets to you, when- ever you feel revolt inside you, turn your eyes in the direction of those with the means [money]. Ask them why not. What are they waiting for? For the sea to dry up?" The speech rattled the country's elite, stirring alarm that Aristide was leading the country to "a dictatorship of the proletariat," using presidential sermons to preach death to political enemies. Aristide used threatening language, cabinet minister Bernadin said, because Haitians in New York City lead a 60,000-strong demonstrat to protest the overthrow of Aristide. Human rights violation significantly after the coup. the president had learned of an immi- nent assassination plot and wanted to warn the conspirators that the general population would seek violent ven- geance if his government was toppled. Other Aristide defenders claim the president's words were misinterpreted, that he was speaking metaphorically. But even if he intended to advocate the use of P&re Lebrun, they argue, his stance reflected his commitment to so- cial justice, which he considered more important than any "law." "Aristide is a man of values and he won't negotiate on those values," said a Canadian Roman Catholic priest, a 10- year resident of Haiti and acquaintance of the president. "Fundamentally, he's a non-violent person and he won't tell people to give someone a Pbre Lebrun. That's against his nature. He's vio- lently dedicated to the promotion of certain values, one of which is to re- spect the will of the majority. Aristide is fond of saying that it is better to err with the people than to be right without them." U.S. Seizes the Moment In the first week following the coup, it seemed that military intervention to restore Aristide to power was being considered. The Bush administration rushed 400 Marines to its Guantdnamo Navy base in Cuba. Secretary of State James Baker called the junta "illegal" and said the regime was "without aid, without friends, and without a future." The Organization of American States and the United States imposed sanc- tions and a trade embargo. But as the days passed, direct intervention seemed less and less likely, derailed by a care- fully orchestrated attempt to portray Aristide as a dictator in the making. When a 30-member OAS delega- tion arrived in Haiti on October 4 to negotiate the return of Aristide, the diplomats met once with four Aristide cabinet ministers. But the majority of the OAS meetings were held with Aristide's political enemies who com- plained pointedly about Aristide's hu- man rights record. U.S. Ambassador Alvin P. Adams, Jr. huddled with po- litical opposition leaders before they made their presentation to the OAS delegation. Adams gave Aristide strong public support before the coup. While he was probably not involved in its planning, the career foreign service officer (who got his start as an area development officer for AID in Viet- nam, 1968-1969) appears to have seized the diplomatic moment to try to rein Aristide in, to turn him into a president "he could control," in the words of one Aristide supporter. Aristide's departure has deflated Haiti. "With Aristide, we never felt hungry even when we were starving," summed up one resident of a Port-au- Prince shantytown. "Now we feel hun- gry after we've eaten, because we've lost him." "As a prophet I wanted to be a sign in the eyes of Haitians," Aristide said before the coup. "Then I realized I had to follow them." Aristide paid a high price for trying to serve the will of his people.

Tags: Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, coup, Military

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