Letters: Controversy Over Haiti

September 25, 2007

Controversy over Haiti

As someone who has traveled to Haiti as a human rights observer, I am deeply disturbed by some of the statements made in Jane Reganís article. Perhaps most troubling was the assertion that resistance to the overthrow of the democratically elected government "has dwindled to several hundred mostly young men in the capitalís Bel-Aire neighborhood, some of them very visibly armed." This statement is blatantly untrue. As recently as December 16, 2004, I shot video of probably more than 10,000 Lavalas demonstrators peacefully taking to the streets of Cap-Haïten to demand the return of the constitutional order as well as the physical return of Aristide and the release of all political prisoners.

I am also very concerned with the authorís depiction of the Lavalas movement as having splintered and dwindled into a movement largely characterized by violent gangs. Those who support Aristide are part of a popular movement that is several million strong, and essentially unarmed. The so-called chimères represent only a fringe element of an overwhelmingly peaceful movement and to use them to characterize its entirety does a great disservice to those who courageously choose to participate in nonviolent resistance, the very people the U.S. "left" should be supporting.

Finally, I am extremely disappointed that NACLA would publish an article that so clearly dismisses the changes made during the past decade of democracy in Haiti. Even under conditions of an international aid embargo, the Lavalas party managed to make important social gains. The military, which previously consumed much of the budget, was disbanded and its resources redirected towards health care and education. These are victories that should be celebrated by NACLA.
Sasha Kramer
Stanford California

Jane Regan's piece on Haiti is a well-documented, well-researched and objective article on the current chaotic situation prevailing in the country. This is tough reportage but very enlightening for anyone who is interested in understanding why Haiti has reached this low point and in seeing real change occur in Haiti. It is a very candid look at all the actors on the ground and puts the blame where it should lie. It is a very courageous and professional piece!

I have served under four Prime Ministers of Haiti from 1993-1996 and have lobbied extensively in favor of Haitiís democratic process in Haiti and in the United States. I have also shared Ms. Reganís articles with many colleagues and others who care about Haiti. We need to hear more voices like Jane Reganís to inform the general public about the dimension of Haitiís predicament. Kudos to Ms. Regan and I commend your organization for such fine journalism.
Alice Blachet
Forest Hills, NY

I was so positively impressed with Jane Regan's article that I wrote to all my friends and contacts, and posted an enthusiastic note on a Haitian Internet discussion group. News of Haiti in the English-language press is so polarized between what is available in the mainstream media and what passes for truth in an alternative press enthralled by Aristide's sophisticated and well-funded lobby, that her balanced article was a breath of fresh air.

While there is a lot of violence in Haiti today, much of it caused by armed Lavalas gangs intent on making the country ungovernable, there is no evidence of widespread or systematic repression of Lavalas members by the interim government. In fact, Lavalas could return to power in this year's elections, with Gerard Jean-Juste, easily the most charismatic and personable political figure on the scene, as its candidate. Sensing the danger, Aristide immediately summoned Rev. Jean-Juste to Pretoria and forbade him and Lavalas from taking part in the elections.

Aristide spent more money on lobbying and on hiring a band of U.S. mercenaries to protect his person than his government spent on the departments of agriculture and public health combined. Millions more were spent buying off the gangs that passed for Lavalas grassroots groups. Lavalas officials, the "Big Eaters," as people called them, paraded in $70,000 luxury cars while in my native region of Haiti, called the "Far West," people were reduced to boiling the roots of long gone trees to stave off hunger. The rulebook for corrupt dictators calls for showy public works to siphon off millions and build monuments to their names. Aristide thus built several schools around the country, but somehow he forgot to provide funds in the budget to operate them. He also built an impressive number of public squares around the capital that bear his and his wifeís names.

Aside from these grand accomplishments, Aristide's legacy has been one of utter mismanagement and corruption. But even more grievous for the future of the country has been the destruction of the independent grassroots movement that flourished 10 to 15 years ago. Under Lavalasí rule, the notion of autonomy was not tolerated. Any group that was not loyal to Aristide was to be bought off or hounded out of existence. Other forces can only operate there in hiding. The case highlighted by Ms. Regan of Weber Adrien, a well-known community activist independent of Lavalas, who was captured in broad daylight by Lavalas militias, put "on trial" for "treason," then shot to death and set on fire, is one among many.

In this new climate of unbridled violence, the real challenge for the Haitian left is to revitalize what remains of what was once a popular movement by helping found new organizations rooted in the urban and rural masses. These are the only social groups with a natural interest in a new culture of democracy and accountability, a revolutionary transformation of Haitian society and a move beyond the pitfalls of savior politics.

I do not pretend to be dispassionate or neutral in this debate. As a veteran organizer in the Haitian exile community and as a founding member of the New York-based Haitian Resistance Movement, I helped lead the massive protests that shook New York City at the end of 1991 and laid the grounds for Aristideís eventual return. But as early as 1995, it had become painfully clear that the Aristide that U.S. Marines brought back to Haiti was only a clone and a patsy for U.S. domination. "Privatization Equals Democratization" is one of the slogans he raised 10 years ago. In December 2002, I published an open letter calling on Aristide to resign, in order to spare the country a bloodbath and the shame of a second U.S. occupation under his mandate. That letter earned me the distinction of being added to the list of Lavalas' enemies to be dispatched. What happened to Weber Adrien, under different circumstances, could also happen to me.

In that light and more to the point, let us all pay respect to the real courage it takes for a woman and a journalist living in Haiti today, to write as uncompromisingly as Jane Regan does.
Daniel Simidor
Brooklyn, NY

How disappointing that this publication—a magazine whose coverage of Chile in the 1970s taught us how destabilization campaigns work—chose to print a hit piece of selective facts, distortions and just plain incorrect reporting (in an issue with a central report funded by the Ford Foundation). We can only grieve for the loss of your clear anti-imperialist stance of old.

The destabilization campaign and military coup against Chilean democracy from 1970-1973 provides a road map to understanding recent Haitian history. As Regan admits, "There was ample U.S. and European funding to opposition groups…" But she fails to explain that this so-called opposition was also created, organized, equipped and trained by the U.S. government. Regan fails to explain:

—That since the election of President Aristide in 2000, the U.S. government enforced an economic aid embargo intended to starve the Haitian government (like it did in Chile in 1970) and began massive funding of opposition groups and NGOs.

—That the World Bank and IMF cut off all loans (again like Chile).

—That the U.S. Treasury Depart- ment blocked release of a signed loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, even though Haiti was already paying interest on the loan.

—That in December 2002 the Int- ernational Republican Institute sponsored the first in a series of meetings of Haitian opposition groups in the Dominican Republic to develop strategies to destabilize Haiti.

Yet in spite of having virtually every income source blocked, the Lavalas government built schools, clinics, parks and the University of Tabarre—a medical school staffed by Cuban doctors that trained 247 Haitian students. Ironically, when U.S. troops invaded, they drove out the students and occupied the university, which remains headquarters for UN troops.

Regan blithely repeats the mantra that "the government pushed for more and more neoliberal economic policies." But she ignores the obvious: if the Lavalas government was so neoliberal, why did the World Bank and the IMF cut off its loans? In reality, the government sold off only two of the 11 national industries the IMF demanded Haiti privatize. Although the government did build a free trade zone, many Haitian workers supported this move, because it permitted unions and paid wages considerably higher than the sweatshops of Port-au-Prince.

The Haitian people have three times elected Lavalas presidents with overwhelming majorities, precisely because they committed themselves to support the needs of the poorest of the poor, and they followed through on their word. President Aristide was overthrown twice by U.S.-backed military coups, precisely because his was the agenda of the Haitian majority, not that of neoliberals, the IFIs, the Haitian elite or Haitian intellectuals.

Before he left office in 1995 President Aristide disbanded the Haitian military and opened relations with Cuba, again angering Washington. In the local and legislative elections of spring 2000, the Fanmi Lavalas party swept virtually every seat. The U.S. and French governments claimed the elections were fraudulent based on seven senate seats, which were determined by large pluralities instead of absolute majorities. Washington organized an unsuccessful boycott of the December 2000 presidential elections, which Aristide won by more than 90%, and we witnessed the opening salvo of an unrelenting media disinformation campaign, which claimed a small turnout, when independent election observers reported voter turnout to be between 62 and 65%. Newly elected President Aristide asked the seven senators from the disputed races to resign, and they complied.

We see the manipulation of the Electoral Council to eliminate the possibility of further elections, which Lavalas would clearly win. We see the funding of opposition groups, the paying of students to demonstrate and the promise of visas to study abroad. We see the cutting off of all outside financial resources for the government, so it becomes increasingly difficult for it to provide services to the population it wants to support. And finally, we see the arming and training of former Tonton Macoutes, army officers and members of the notorious FRAPH death squads, who began a series of armed attacks from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, culminating in the overrun of the north in January and February 2004.

On February 29, Assistant U.S. Ambassador Luis Moreno, accompanied by Marines, went to President Aristide’s home in the middle of the night and demanded he resign. They put him and his wife on a plane, and flew them to the Central African Republic (CAR), only informing them of their destination shortly before arrival. When the Aristides went to Jamaica, then-U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice threatened to cut off all aid to the country if they allowed Aristide to stay and to hold the Jamaican government responsible if any U.S. troops were killed in Haiti. Jane Regan says this was not a coup d'ètat. If not, what was it?

Regan claims there was little support for Lavalas at the time of the coup, completely overlooking pro-Aristide mobilizations of hundreds of thousands of people from late December 2003 through early February 2004. She pretends there is little support for Lavalas now, ignoring demonstrations throughout 2004 of thousands of people throughout the country.

Regan was not at the September 30 demonstrations but writes as if she was, and then presents the fantasy that the numbers of dead since then are somehow equal on both sides. What we are really witnessing is a bloody attempt to purge Lavalas from the body politic in preparation for phony elections in the fall. She ignores more than 700 political prisoners being held without charges.

Haiti did not "fail"—it was pushed over the edge by two coups against a democratically elected president, by death squads armed by the United States, by loans blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department, by a phony opposition manufactured by the U.S. State Department and by a media disinformation campaign in which Jane Regan has played a role.

NACLA has taken a big tumble, falling into this Lavalas-hating media campaign hook, line and sinker. The Haiti Action Committee asks that in your next issue you present an article on Lavalas accomplishments, and take a good hard look at how your once-proud organization, which explained the Chilean coup to the world, just got sucker punched by U.S. State Department propaganda
Charlie Hinton
For the Haiti Action Committee
Berkely, CA

Jane Regan Responds:

I am not surprised that there were strong reactions to my article. After all, it took an uncommon and also unpopular approach to what has become a polarized subject: Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Lavalas movement and Aristide’s fin de régime.

I appreciate the letters of support but am troubled by those critical letters, especially the one from the Haiti Action Committee (HAC) that said I am "play[ing] a role in a media disinformation campaign." The reality is the opposite and has been for over a decade. I seek to inform and write from a progressive position and from an historical point of view.

In addition to being a journalist, I am a scholar. My work includes contributions to a book rushed to the presses in 1993 in an effort to help bring Aristide back to Haiti during the 1991-1994 coup, articles in English and Haitian Creole on organizing, post-Soviet, anti-imperialist struggle, and lengthy critiques of the dependency caused by NGOs—"left" as well as mainstream—and their assistance to organizations in Haiti.

Regarding Ms. Kramer's comment on the December 16 demonstrations: I was not there and the article was written prior to that date. Even though I have heard lower estimates, what really matters is this: Is there grassroots support for Aristide? Who are the people in the streets, what do they believe and what do they want?

The former President certainly has support in slums around the country’s large cities, partly because dozens and sometimes hundreds of people there used to get handouts or receive "zombie" paychecks. In the capital several hundred former recipients of state telephone company checks will attest to their anger at having those checks cut off and their desire for their benefactor to return. I have talked to young men who say they will not put down their guns until Aristide comes back.

These are the young men who lead the pro-Aristide demonstrations which are happily joined by hundreds, and sometimes thousands who live in conditions so hopeless and horrific that they would not think twice about dancing through the streets for the man once considered a messiah, their only hope. But to say that those people demonstrating on December 16 or February 28 equal an organized political movement or a broad base of support is wrong. And to say that the Lavalas movement is part of "a popular movement that is several million strong" is also, unfortunately, radically untrue.

Haiti's popular and democratic movement is today nearly inexistent, as many writers have said. Writing five years ago, Jean-Claude Jean and Marc Maesschalck, former close associates of Aristide, said that not only was the movement dead, it in fact never existed as a true popular movement. They said it was in fact more of a multi-class social movement.

The authors' general conclusions matched mine after I spent six months in the countryside doing field research for a thesis on Haiti's so-called community radio stations. At this moment, there is no popular movement in Haiti. Not pro- or anti-Lavalas, not pro- or anti-Aristide. There are a scattering of progressive organizations and unions, and there are also hundreds of groups founded by and/or dependent on foreign NGO funding.

Much as HAC would like to claim, this funding did not start in 2000. U.S. government-funded "democracy enhancement" has been going on in Haiti ever since Jean-Claude Duvalier was spirited away in a U.S. airplane in 1986. U.S. government funding—mostly via beltway NGOs—helped back candidates as far back as 1990. It assisted in getting radical popular leaders visas during the 1991-1994 coup and was responsible for millions pumped in during the late 1990s. In fact, the government of Aristide’s hand-picked successor, Lavalas President Réné Préval, signed an accord in 1996 with Washington that slated $31 million to be spent over five years to "reinforce" democracy, to fund NGOs, to train parliamentarians and back associations. It is quite possible part of the $31 million helped the same groups and coalitions that took to the streets against Lavalas and Aristide in 2002 and 2003. This is an important part of the U.S. foreign policy toolbox: Washington seeks to influence, shape policy, form coalitions, etc. Following this kind of money in Haiti—and elsewhere—is an important task for progressive writers and researchers, but my article was on a different topic.

I can't write about how and why the IMF and the IDB cut off support in 2000 and 2001, but I would not be surprised if Washington, the major muscle in both institutions, played the leading part in getting that money blocked for whatever reasons it claimed as well as for unspoken ones. But I can attest that World Bank monies were cut mostly for another reason: what that institution cited as corruption and misuse of a $21.5 million grant (not loan) for environmental work in two of Haiti’s three state forests.

HAC also brags that Aristide and Lavalas only privatized two of Haiti’s 11 state-owned enterprises. But the state telephone company was allowed to be so corrupt and inefficient, that two largely foreign-owned cell phone companies carried out a virtual privatization.

Finally, while championing Aristide as a resister of neoliberalism, HAC conveniently leaves out a whole list of neoliberal policies Aristide enacted, going all the way back to 1991 when he signed an IMF agreement, much to the horror of progressive organizations that had supported him and helped bring him to power. The list goes on to include his 1995 slashing of tariffs on everything—including foreign rice, beans, chicken parts, pork and other agricultural products—to between zero and 15%. That was part of the deal Aristide made with Washington, the IMF and other foreign handlers in exchange for being brought back to Haiti in 1994. Local production has been violently affected. Locally grown rice, beans, chickens and pork are often more expensive than imported, mostly U.S. products. People buy what they can afford, farmers are driven off the land and into the slums, and as the poor get poorer, the importers and the U.S. producers get richer.

Aristide also was a champion for the Free Trade Zones, which contrary to the HAC’s memory, were protested and remain very controversial. Aristide was not a Caribbean Milton Friedman, but neither was he radical. In fact, with the lowest tariffs in the Caribbean, Haiti had to agree to raise certain tariffs before CARICOM would grant her membership.

I hope that these few clarifications help on-the-fence readers understand that I, and those other brave progressives who dare to criticize Aristide and the Lavalas machine, have done our homework. None of us dreamed we would be in this position a decade ago. But the facts cannot be ignored.
—Jane Regan


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