An Interview with Ben Dupuy, Aristide's Ambassador-at-Large

September 25, 2007


Ben Dupuy is one of Haiti's foremost radical journalists. In 1984 he founded the Committee Against Repression in Haiti. From 1983 until 1991, he was the editor of Haiti's leading opposition newspaper, Haiti Progres. By the late 1980s, Haiti Progres had become the voice of Lavalas, the political movement that swept Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in the December 16, 1990 elections. When Aristide took office in February, 1991, Dupuy was named ambassador-at-large. 
Aristide held power for eight months, until the September 1991 military coup forced him into exile. The coup claimed thousands of lives, closed down the independent press, and precipitated a flood of refugees. (See articles by J.P. Slavin and Anne-Christine D'Adesky, December, 1991, and Bill Frelick, July, 1992 in NACLA Report on the Americas.) As of this writing, the de facto government established by the coup remains in power, as U.S.-brokered negotiations between Aristide and the military continue. Since the coup, Dupuy has remained ambassador-at-large for Aristide's government in exile. He was interviewed in his Brooklyn, N.Y. office by NACLA staff member Catherine Orenstein. 
What is the background of the current political situation in Haiti? 
There are several classes struggling in Haiti. The old elite, or so-called oligarchy, has its base in the agricultural structure of the country, which is semi-feudal. Haiti has always been presented as a country of small property holders. But the reality is quite different. In fact, the oligarchy is composed of large landowners. What created this myth of Haiti being a country of small peasant landowners is the very feudal type of social relations, where the large land holdings are divided into small plots and the peasant works those plots for the landowner. 
Historically, the elite was composed of two sectors. On the one hand there were the landlords, who in Haiti are called gwandon. At the same time we had a bourgeois sector. It was not a capitalist sector per se; it was more merchant-capitalism. This sector would export agricultural products and import manufactured goods. Historically these two sectors of the elite have been fighting for political control. The very tumultuous history of the country is a result of that struggle–within the elite. 
But things have changed in recent years. 
The focus is no longer on the simple securing of raw materials. Capital's need to compete in the world market, and the fact that the cost of labor in developed countries had increased in spite of high technology, led to the creation of a new form of industry–assembly industry–in which foreign capital could be imported into countries like Haiti at much less risk. Before when there was a capitalist venture, the possibility of it being nationalized existed, such as the sugar industry in Cuba. But the new assembly industry receives its material from the outside, and the market is also outside. So what is isolated is the domestic labor force. This type of industry is outside the economic structure of the country. 
The one handicap was the need for infrastructure. These countries lacked sufficient electricity, ports, roads, etc. And that is where the international institutions and the private banks took a role in lending to those governments. This was the beginning of our debt crisis. 
Did this affect the power base of the merchant class in Haiti? 
Yes. This created a division within the merchant class. Certain merchants became involved in the assembly industry. Another part remained in traditional commerce. Because of this development, some in the elite felt the need for a new political structure. Power had always been monopolized by the oligarchy who were very backward. They didn't even conceive of modern management, and were more concerned about living a sumptuous life, and using political power to exploit and to enrich themselves. This was not compatible with the developing assembly industry. 
The international investors and the assembly entrepreneurs began to realize that Haiti needed elections, democracy. So it was necessary to remove political power from the traditional oligarchy. There were two objectives: on the one hand, to diffuse the possibility of a mass movement that could wind up in a radical revolution, and on the other, to create a political structure more in tune with these new types of investment and development. 
How was this agenda pursued and to what effect? 
The struggle to destroy the oligarchy was not only a political power struggle to modernize the state, but also a struggle to destroy the oligarchy's economic base. It coincided with the food aid program which created a situation in which the country became more and more dependent on the outside world. Dumping surplus food on the Haitian market was a sure way to destroy the economic base of both the agricultural oligarchy and the traditional merchant class, those who had not invested in the new assembly industries. 
Aristide was the first presidential candidate who came not from the powerful, but from the people. What were the political alliances behind the elections? Who supported Aristide, and who opposed him? 
Well, in the arena you had the United States, trying to change the political structure and fighting the oligarchy, but at the same time allying with the oligarchy in order to oppose the masses, the people. It was a tricky situation, where on the one hand the United States and the international institutions wanted to change and mobilize the society, and on the other hand, there was the risk that the people might have their own agenda at odds with U.S. policy. 
The people's agenda is rooted in a nationalist ideology, which espouses safeguarding the country's independence from its economic partners by promoting self-sufficiency in agriculture. The Lavalas movement that brought Aristide to the presidency is an alliance of the masses–the peasantry–and the the traditional merchant bourgeoisie, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. This alliance defeated the oligarchy, the assembly entrepreneurs, and the U.S. agcnda. 
Lavalas overcame the type of electoral process where money is the determining factor. In most Latin American countries, the candidate who can sell himself, just like any merchandise or product, wins the election. It didn't work that way in Haiti. That's why the Haitian process is so unorthodox. This is probably why the United States is putting so much emphasis on solving the crisis in Haiti. It's not because of Haiti's importance in international terms, but if Aristide is restored to meaningful power, it could derail the whole democratic process in all of Latin America–when leaders emerge with a different political agenda. 
The coup was a response to this attempt by the masses to control the political process and to create conditions for reforms–agrarian reforms and political reforms. We can see how the coup is another tactical alliance, in this case between the assembly-industry sector, Marc Bazin [the former leader of the de facto government], the United States, and the tonton macoute. 
After the elections, the United States officially supported Aristide. Where do you see evidence of the role of the United States in the September 1991 coup alliance you describe? 
Without a doubt, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti was active in the coup. The United States was caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, the United States was the biggest promoter of the elections, and facilitated the presence of the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS). And if we look at U.S. policy in Latin America, it has been to replace military dictatorships with civilian governments. But most of the civilian governments are very much in tune with the U.S. political agenda in this part of the world. So on the one hand, the U.S. had to accept the legitimacy of Aristide's elections. They could not dispute it because the OAS and the U.N. supervised the election, everybody agreed that the electoral process went fine, and Aristide was duly elected. On the other hand, Aristide's government was not in tune with the U.S. agenda. 
So the United States faced a dilemma. To accept the coup would be to send a signal to all the oligarchies in Latin America that the time of coups is not over. The United States could not accept the coup, even if they engineered the coup. They had to accept the necessity of Aristide's return, but under conditions in which he would be totally unable to fulfill his own political agenda and the political agenda of the masses. 
If the United States was sincere in its opposition to the coup, it would have been easy to get rid of the military by enforcing the U.N. embargo. If Haiti did not receive petroleum for one or two months, that would be the end. Everything would come to a standstill. But that would have meant a victory for the masses, a victory for Aristide. And most probably the oligarchy would have lost completely. It would have meant restoring Aristide with even more power than before. 
You think the leaky embargo was a conscious part of policy ? 
Yes, it was a question of not letting the embargo force the de facto government to leave. It allowed the United States to put pressure on Aristide to compromise. In fact, I think the ultimate goal of the United States is to get militarily involved in Haiti–to do it through international institutions like the OAS and the U.N. 
If so, why now? There have been other occasions for such an action. 
I think that the United States can't really rely on the military, who have represented the oligarchy. They had an alliance with the oligarchy, but don't want the oligarchy to remain in power. My feeling is that the United States would like to restructure the army; in that case, their goal would be some form of occupation of the country. The only peculiarity in the case of Haiti is that most probably it will done under the auspices of the U.N. and the Security Council. 
Why didn't Aristide immediately oppose an intervention? 
He has decided to play the game, probably hoping that once he gets back he can mobilize the people and change the situation. But I think he's totally wrong. 
What are the odds of him accepting this arrangement, going I under the auspices of U.N. troops? 
I have no idea, but the very that he remains silent leaves door open. I think that he could have made a statement–this is of the things that I have told time and again. He should to the United States: "Okay, if you want those people out, don't let the tankers go to Haiti. But instead, you use your boats to stop the refugees, which is totally illegal. No has the right to police international waters in time of peace.” 
I'd like you to comment on change in the U.S. adminisration, and the change in outlook for Aristide's return. 
I think the Bush Administration was involved in the coup. But I think that because Clinton was embarrassed about not being able to let the refugees in, he had no alternative but to say okay, we'll solve the problem by orchestrating Aristide’s return. So I think there is more readiness from this administration to bring Aristide back, but under certain conditions–surrounded foreign troops, and dependent foreign protection. 
If Aristide accepts this arrangement, what would the new government look like? 
Well, I doubt he would have a government. He would have prime minister, who would run the government. He already said would choose a prime minister from the opposition. So it wou be somebody who would be acceptable to the private sector–the sector that financed the coup and is connected with the assembly industry. And that would create very conflictive situation, because the people would still be convinced that Aristide was in control, and that now they could go out and demand their rights. And I think they would be very surprised to see that they were not welcome. 
What is Aristide's role in Haiti's future? 
I recall that in Haiti's fight for independence, revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture fought for something that didn't occur during his lifetime. The people afterward had to fight for total independence. So in this sense, Aristide may be just a step in the struggle of the people. 


Read the rest of NACLA's July/August 1993 issue: "Latin American Women: The Gendering Of Politics And Culture."

Tags: Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Ben Dupuy, interview

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