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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