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BETWEEN A SHARP TONGUE AND A BLIND EYE: THE POLITICS OF CRITICISM AND PROPAGANDA
NACLA Report on the Americas: July/August 2003
Copyright by the North American Congress on Latin America, all rights reserved
II. THE FAILINGS OF ARISTIDE
By Tom Reeves
Times are hard in Haiti. The much-maligned government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide has made precious little headway against the spiraling costs of basic items like rice and gas, an ever devalued national currency, an unemployment rate of about 70% and an average wage equivalent to $1 a day for those lucky enough to find work. It is easy from the outside to bewail Aristide's failures. Aristide and his weak government are easy targets. But who could govern in this atmosphere, squeezed by the enormous power of U.S. interests and international financial institutions, the entrenched prerogatives of the elite and its corruption of the political class, and the rapidly rising expectations of the people and their champions among the intellectuals and the NGOs?
Indeed, constant criticism of the Aristide government may be giving support to U.S. policies that seek to isolate, censure and possibly remove Haiti's elected president from office. Most Haitians I have spoken with, no matter how critical they may be of Aristide, are wary of U.S. intentions. A peasant woman, a heavy load of laundry on her head, told me, "If the store fails, the manager should get out of the business." Yet she added, "the Haitian people own that store. Let us decide when he should go." Another woman, Elitane Atelis, a member of Women Victims of Military Violence expresses a deeper suspicion of U.S. motives. "Every Haitian baby knows the game Bush is playing," she told me, referring to a widespread Haitian perception that Washington is out to destabilize the Aristide regime.
Most Haitians I have spoken to-workers, peasants, intellectuals, activists-severely criticized Haiti's government for inaction at best and rampant corruption at worst. They complained bitterly of a lack of direction. "Aristide is absent-we just don't know where he is," a young man named Wesner, a former Famni Lavalas (FL) supporter in Cap Haitien told me. FL is the Party built by Aristide when he split with another faction in his Lavalas-"cleansing flood" movement.
A Haitian poet-for years a staunch champion of Aristide-went further: "Aristide is the smallest man I've met," he said, "the most ignorant president we've had. Nobody is running the country." But he was even more critical of the opposition: "Aristide must stay and finish his term," he argued. "We got rid of a real tyrant, Duvalier, but it took us four years to get even minimal stability. Now the opposition says, 'Let's do it again!' By bringing back the military whom the U.S. created for the express purpose of oppressing the Haitian people? No! We have to put a stop to the national pastime of plotting and coups. What we need more than a new government, is a responsible opposition."
His criticism is echoed by Wesner, the young man from Cap Haitien. "It's the army I really despise," he says. "At least now, I can sit here with my friends and complain. Under the military, I would be shot. When I saw Himmler leading the demonstration by the Convergence last November, I was really scared." The Convergence is the official Haitian opposition, recognized as such by the Organization of American States and the U.S. government. It consists mostly of "particules," or tiny political parties. They range from Maoists to Macoute rightists and free market liberals-united only in their desire to oust Aristide. The aptly named Himmler is Himmler Rebu a former army officer involved in several previous coup attempts.
There is convincing evidence of coup planning in Haiti, and of ongoing violence by former military with Convergence complicity. On May 7, Dominican police arrested five Haitians, including the former Cap Haitien Mayor, at a meeting near the Dominican-Haitian border, which they say was a recruitment session for a planned attempt to overthrow the Haitian government. On that same day, armed men attacked and disabled the largest electrical plant in the country, killing two workers, in what many see as the beginning of a concerted attempt to destabilize and overthrow the government. And all sides have noted the military build-up along the Dominican border, where according to the Miami Herald, 900 U.S. soldiers patrol with the Dominican army.
The Convergence was a product of "Democracy Enhancement" undertaken by the International Republican Institute in Haiti-tied to the U.S. Republican Party. Some U.S. citizens might find it surprising that U.S. money directly funds opposition-including violent opposition-to democratically elected governments. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, speaking just after Colin Powell at an April 28 conference of the Council of the Americas in Washington, linked U.S. policies toward Haiti to those in Venezuela and Cuba. He congratulated the OAS for overcoming its "irrelevance in past years" by adopting the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Article 20, he said, "lays out a series of actions to be taken...in the event that a member state should fail to uphold the essential elements of democratic life." Noriega sees Article 20 as a formula for intervention. "President Chávez and President Aristide have...contributed willfully to a polarized and confrontational environment," he added. Never mind that both presidents were elected democratically.
Of course, "democracy" is sometimes a code word for "U.S. interests." The notion of a leftist regime next to Cuba, creating a wedge of anti-capitalist initiative right in the U.S. backyard must enrage the Bush team, which includes Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte and Otto Reich all of whom were deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and committed interventionists. Washington is more comfortable with the Caribbean of travel brochures than with a region trying to forge a viable and independent economy.
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune explained this key element in the U.S. determination to be rid of Aristide: "We want to develop relations with nations like Cuba, to find ways not only of surviving, but how to live with globalization and not be drowned or enslaved by it. Take Venezuela, what is happening with Chávez is, I would say, quite telling, so it gives you a pretty clear idea why President Aristide has been going through so much. He doesn't conform-he's not politically and economically correct."
Meanwhile, Haiti is trapped in a neoliberal box. Aristide has gone ahead with U.S.-supported "free trade zones" on the Dominican border, working with the Dominican conglomerate Grupo M. According to Prime Minister Neptune, the Free Trade Zone agreement is part of a deal to allow debt reduction for both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Washington made it clear that "normalization" with regard to international aid was dependent on Haiti's cooperation in the plan. "Of course there is great poverty in Haiti," says the Prime Minister. "When was it not so? We cannot provide new jobs, because those with the money to invest will not invest-and that's a vicious circle because of their propaganda against us, and the refusal of the World Bank and the IMF and IDB to make good on their promises, all of this because of the U.S. embargo." Neptune defends limited privatizations: "On privatization, under both Preval and Aristide, we have managed to limit the firms we sold off to the two most unprofitable, concrete and flour."
Meanwhile, human rights groups and the media closely watch and scrutinize the government, but seem to ignore the opposition. Rights groups are absolutely right to monitor abuses by police, government and the FL party-and such abuses certainly exist-yet those same human rights groups refuse to monitor political violence against FL or its affiliates. When local political violence against government critics occurs, little or no media coverage reflects previous or subsequent violence against FL members. Such violence often takes place in rural areas as in Petit Goave in the south, and in Gonaives where massacres of Aristide sympathizers occurred during the last military coup.
Brian Concannon is a U.S. human rights attorney with the Bureau of International Advocates (BAI), a group of international and Haitian lawyers sponsored by the Haitian government to assist the judiciary with human rights cases. Concannon says, "In Gonaives, as elsewhere, such incidents stem from long-standing feuds between neighborhoods or families-originating long before Aristide. Local leaders-like old-time U.S. ward bosses-or gang leaders will take a political side. But you don't have a single political issue or an issue of values, just personal rivalries on the local level. My criticism of reporting on these cases is that the complexity and history are ignored, and only one side of the struggle comes out."
Perhaps the starkest example of the double standard by human rights groups and media, Concannon says, "was coverage of the opposition attack on the National Palace in December 2001. An FL supporter, Joseph Duverger, was attacked by a machete-wielding, pro-Convergence mob, and left for dead. His enraged friends found Brignol Lindor in the street. Lindor was a Convergence supporter with a weekly radio show. The FL group killed him. Lindor is in every human rights report [as one of the murdered journalists]. Durverger is almost never mentioned." Concannon argues that the necessary nuances are missing in international coverage of Haiti. "Of course," he says, "there should be protection for journalists. But you can't expect miracles when you have a justice system that has never been either swift or fair, and when you have all the institutions in the society under siege, and all the promised international aid and resources to help the system blocked by the international community."
Dr. Paul Farmer, a prominent public health figure, works with Haitian AIDS patients-there are an estimated 300,000-at his rural clinic at Cange. He is among those who believe the Haitian government must be supported at once in its demands for the release of international aid. "Alas, for the poor, the lives of hundreds of thousands hang in the balance." His "diagnosis" of the problem is that the "U.S. government has a chronic allergy to Haitian democracy," and that "without social and economic rights, political rights have no soil to grow in.... How can you rebuild Haiti without massive resources...? Until that happens, there will be misery and hunger and inequality.... Such 'structural violence,' which has been perpetrated from above and without, will be reflected in local violence.... You'd think that progressive observers, at least, would make this connection. But many don't."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Reeves is formerly the director of the Caribbean Focus Program and professor of history at Roxbury Community College in Boston. In the 1990s he was a founding member of the New England Observer delegations to Haiti, supporting the return of democracy.