Haiti: In Bondage to History?
by Jane REGAN
NACLA Report on the Americas; Jan/Feb2005, Vol. 38 Issue 4
THE ACRID SMELL HANGING OVER THE ONCE-grand hillside neighborhood of
Bel-Aire, near Haiti's bleached white National Palace, was by then all too
familiar: burning human flesh.
That day--November 18, 2004, anniversary of the slave army's decisive
victory over Napoleon's soldiers 201 years ago--another semi-deccapitated
body laid in the streets, its charred flesh smoldering and crackling under
the noonday sun. This time the killers brazenly ignited their prey, a man
named Weber Adrien, just a few blocks from the UN peacekeepers' command
post in Bel-Aire.
Beheadings, a new form of violence in this perpetually violent country,
were almost as common as nighttime automatic weapons fire as Haiti's
bicentennial year ended. The trend started after a September 30 clash
between Haitian police and protestors turned deadly. The
demonstrators--some of them armed--were marching to demand the return of
ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Shots were fired and in the eend three
policemen and perhaps six demonstrators were dead. The confrontation
unleashed a wave of violence by pro-Aristide militants nicknamed "Operation
Baghdad," replete with ambushes, decapitations, snipers, and police
counter-actions with harsh house-to-house searches and arrests without
warrants. There appear to have been brutal summary executions on both
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest and a leader of Haiti's
Lavalas social movement, was first overthrown by CIA assets inside the
Haitian Armed Forces on September 30, 1991. Three years later, he was
restored by a U.S. invasion of some 22,000 soldiers. After finishing his
term and sitting one out, in 2000 he was reelected in a poorly attended
race in which he ran virtually unopposed. On February 29, 2004, he was
chased from power again, this time by a broad civic movement and an armed
After the 1991 coup, tens of thousands risked their lives resisting the
army and calling for Aristide's return. Not this time. Resistance has
dwindled to several hundred mostly young men in the capital's Bel-Aire
neighborhood, some of them very visibly armed. In addition to swearing that
they will not put down their guns until Aristide returns, they have also
staged several demonstrations sometimes attended by hundreds of their
neighbors. The majority of Haitians, however, are tired of the violence and
have recoiled from the marches.
Aristide, now in South Africa, claims his second ouster was a "modern coup
d'ˇtat" supported behind the scenes by Washington. But the interim
government--which was backed by the opposition, the private sector, as well
as the United States, France and Canada--says he was a tyrannt overthrown
by his own people.
TO BE CERTAIN, ARISTIDE'S OUSTER WAS NOT A simple resignation. There was
ample U.S. and European funding to opposition groups like the Group of 184
coalition, which claimed to have over 184 member groups, including student
groups, unions, business groups, peasant and popular organizations, women's
and human rights associations, and professional associations of lawyers,
teachers and media owners. And when armed "rebels"--disgruntled former
Haitian police and former Haitian soldiers--regularly attacked Haitian
targets from the neighboring Dominnican Republic over the course of a year,
no Dominican eyebrows were raised. Since Aristide's departure, however, the
Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has refused to recognize the interim
government and has denied Haiti a seat at CARICOM meetings.
But neither was it a coup d'ˇtat. By the time of his departure, tens of
thousands from all walks of life regularly took to the streets to call for
his resignation. Human rights abuses by police had become intolerably
atrocious, negotiations between the government and the opposition had
broken off, armed pro-Aristide gangs nicknamed "chim¸res" ("monsters")
frequently terrorized anyone not deemed sufficiently loyal to the National
Palace, and economic and social indicators had spiraled down to what the UN
called a "silent disaster."
When the camouflage-clad "rebels" came across the border in February,
taking over police stations and killing an unknown number of alleged
Aristide supporters, they were mostly cheered, not resisted. Two months
into his country's bicentennial year, Aristide boarded a U.S.-chartered
airplane and left the country.
But ten months, one U.S.-led invasion and one UN peacekeeping mission
later, the headlines still groaned of "unrest" and "turmoil," warning of
"chaos" and "impending humanitarian disaster."
Two months of "Operation Baghdad" shootouts between police and Aristide
supporters had left parts of the capital resembling Fallujah. The
government had locked up politicians and supporters of Aristide's Lavalas
Family party, sometimes without warrants, and police were suspected of
multiple summary executions of Lavalas sympathizers. The country was
reeling from two floods that left over 5,000 dead. And although
international experts scurried around the country with plans, projects and
budgets for the $1.3 billion in promised aid, little more than street
sweepers had been hired.
"What is going on is literally insane," human rights activist Jean-Claude
Bajeux summarized recently.
"It is what we call in philosophy a 'death march.' If we can't stop this,
we are looking at the destruction of the Haitian nation." According to more
than one analyst, Haiti now fully qualifies as a "failed state." But in
many ways, there is no state. Nobody really controls Haiti even though four
armed groups--6,000 UN peacekeepers, 3,000 discredited Haitian National
Police officers, up to 2,000 former soldiers and several hundred mmostly
pro-Aristide gang members--parade, patrol or slink around this country of
Most worrisome are the ex-soldiers. Hundreds of former members of Haiti's
Armed Forces--disbanded by Aristide after the coup in 1995--came out of the
woodwork and down from the mountains after the President's depparture. They
patrol, man checkpoints and even make arrests, despite the fact that they
and their guns, which range from pistols to AK-47s, are illegal. These
men--some of whom are recent young "recruits" to the cause--are demanding
the government reinstate the army, originally established by U.S. Marines
during the first occupation (1915-1934) and blamed for thousands of deaths
during the 1991-1994 coup.
The heavily armed gangs, like the ones who say they will continue
"Operation Baghdad" until Aristide is returned to office, are the other
problem. They essentially shut down two neighborhoods for most of last
Interim Prime Minister Gˇrard Latortue, who so far refuses to disarm the
ex-soldiers and has even promised to integrate them into the police and
other security forces, says Aristide is organizing the gang violence. From
South Africa, Aristide has called for peace and "dialogue," but he has also
said he is part of the solution. "I'm part of the solution because I was
elected by the Haitian people and the Haitian people today are open for
dialogue, as I'm open for dialogue," he told reporters there.
BEFORE BEING GUNNED DOWN, beheaded, torched and taken to Bel-Aire, Wˇber
Adrien was a vocal leader of the 2002-2003 anti-Aristide movement and a
well-known sympathizer of the left-wing National Revolutionary Movement
(MRN). And like many who joined the opposition, he was also once a Lavalas
supporter. In the mid-1990s he even worked for the Lavalas mayor of
Port-au-Prince--folksinger Mayor Manno Charlemagne. When a new interim
mayor took over City Hall last spring, Adrien was appointed coordinattor of
the city's notoriously corrupt open-air marketplaces.
"He had integrity," recalls Josue Mˇrilien, head of the Haitian National
Teachers Union (UNNOH). "It doesn't surprise me that he fell like he did,
because he did not tolerate corruption." And so, like generations of
Haitian leaders before him, he was cut down. His friends suspect either pro
Aristide militants or marketplace strongmen who felt their livelihoods were
in danger, or both.
Lavalas Senator Gˇrald Gilles did not know if pro-Aristide "chim¸res" or
someone else killed Adrien. But last fall, as the government carried out
what he, Amnesty International and others say are illegal, politically
motivated arrests of Lavalas Family party members, and as the bodies piled
up in Bel-Aire, he knew the future of his country was in jeopardy
"There is a spirit of revenge driving this government," Gilles said from
his home where he was in semi-hiding. Gilles himself was arrested on
October 2 with two other party members. He was later released, but as of
late November the others were still in prison, accused of fomenting and
financing the Bel-Aire violence. So were former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune
and former Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert. Masked members of
the police force also arrested former Miami immigrant organizer Father
Gˇrard Jean-Juste without a warrant on October 13 but released him six
weeks later. Some Lavalas lawyers say more than 700 political prisoners are
in Haitian jails. State officials, however, say none of them are "political
prisoners," that all those incarcerated committed crimes and add that the
accused will have their day in court. Still, they will have to face Haiti's
notoriously slow judicial system. Of 1,300 men in Haiti's National
Penitentiary, only 20 are serving prison terms--all the rest are awaiting
"I think the current government is making us pay for certain illegal and
arbitrary arrests Lavalas made while in power," Gilles admitted. "When we
were in power, we lost our way, we spread terror, and now they are making
Lavalas pay for that.... This is very bad for the nation." Still, Gilles
said Lavalas had some responsibility He admitted that the armed men in
Bel-Aire were what he called "Lavalas extremists."
"If you want to talk about our errors, the biggest one was the perversion
of the popular sector," he said. "We are responsible.... We exploited the
poverty of these people ... and turned them into pressure groups."
The "chim¸res" or "extremists" were "rent-a-mobs" who mobilized for
rallies, to harass and attack anti-Aristide marches. To his dismay, Gilles
said chim¸res also blocked the investigation into the murder of journalist
and radio station owner Jean Dominique by bursting into Parliament and
preventing them from voting to remove a Lavalas Senator's immunity "Even we
were aggressed by these people," Gilles said, shaking his head.
Gilles said that because of the errors his party committed, some members
are talking about organizing a new party If the Lavalas Family splinters
further, that will bring the number of Lavalas movement offshoot parties to
over a dozen. To date, 91 parties have registered for the elections slated
for some time in 2005. The number is not surprising: it attests to the
country's turbulent political history. Founded 200 years ago after the
hemisphere's first and only successful slave revolt, Haiti has seen more
political strife than anywhere else in the hemisphere, and perhaps the
"Of the twenty-two heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one served
out his prescribed term of office, three died while serving, one was blown
up with his palace, one presumably poisoned, one hacked to pieces by a mob,
one resigned. The other fourteen were deposed by revolution after
incumbencies ranging in length from three months to twelve years," writes
James G. Leyburn in The Haitian People.
The use of mobs is not new, either. In 1844 in the south, former slave
soldier Louis Jean-Jacques Acaau led the "armˇe souffrante" ("suffering
army") of 2,000 machete- and pike-wielding peasants in a bid for power.
Some 20 years later, Major Sylvain Salnave led an "army" of 4,000 whose
cries "Long live Salnave! Down with parliament!" are reminiscent of the
pro-Aristide mobs that used to rally in front of the National Palace with
hundreds of freshly printed T-shirts, posters, flyers and banners, all
bearing the President's face. Populist leader and school teacher Daniel
Fignolˇ's "steam roller" mobs rolled out of Bel-Aire as needed in
1957--before, during and after his 19 days in power. He was thrown out by a
military coup that led to the 29-year-long Duvalier diictatorship.
Haitian historian and political scientist Alix Renˇ puts the Lavalas
movement, Aristide and the "chim¸res" squarely into Haiti's historical
traditions. "Society produces 'chim¸res' and it will continue to produce
them until society addresses the underlying causes," Renˇ said. "Our
country was founded on a very fragile unity ... among the fragile and
divided elite that carried off independence, and then between them and the
excluded masses. It was a country founded on exclusion."
In the 200 years Haiti's elite has squabbled for power, Renˇ noted, its
members never built a state that redistributed wealth or provided things
like education, health care, roads or electricity "Really, 200 years of
history has been 200 years of violence....Whenever a government comes or
goes it is always by insurrection, conspiracy and plotting," he said.
The latest regime change was not much different. The opposition Group of
184's clarion call was for a "Social Contract," but Renˇ and others note
with irony that it took Haiti's bourgeoisie a full 240 years to catch up
with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And while full of flowery promises, the
Contract document does not address the pitiful daily minimum wage of about
$2 (less than during the Duvalier dictatorship) or land tenure.
"Until we deal with the problem of restructuring society, we will have the
same problems, we will have hopeless people open to exploitation, open to
anything, and we will be caught in this circle of violence," he said. Like
other progressives, Rene is troubled by the fact that his country is once
again occupied by foreign soldiers, and also by the fact that foreign
powers played a role in Aristide's ouster. He is also troubled by the
international left's misconceptions about the Lavalas movement and the
Like hundreds of other intellectuals, Renˇ once supported the Lavalas
movement and Aristide's first candidacy, but when the government pushed for
more and more neoliberal economic policies and turned to gangs for support,
he turned away He also did some hard thinking.
"I now realize that the Lavalas project is a project of excluded middle
classes, and that Aristide was a poor guy from the petit-bourgeoisie who
took over the leadership of this movement," he explained. The movement,
which also included elements of the bourgeoisie, made overtures to peasants
and workers, but it did not include them nor represent their needs.
Aristide and others rode a multi-class wave of energy, goodwill and
discontent into office in 1990 and again in 1995, but the movement never
had a clear ideology or structure.
"I think we progressives who thought Lavalas could be part of a progressive
solution made a serious mistake," Renˇ admitted. "During its ten years in
power, Lavalas did absolutely nothing for the popular masses, even when it
had a chance. It didn't even touch the simplest problems like education,
sanitary conditions, jobs. In fact, you can't say Lavalas was a popular
movement or that Aristide was a popular leader. He was a leader with
popularity but he was not a people's leader."
As 2004 ended, the future was not clear for thinkers like Renˇ, politicians
like Gilles or union leaders like Merilien. All three were dissatisfied
with the interim government and its human rights abuses, its failure to
implement even basic social policies and its foot-dragging on disarmament.
They also did not like the gang warfare, the presence of former Haitian
soldiers or the fact that foreign soldiers were on Haitian soil once again.
Mˇrilien's solution had a tragically familiar ring to it. "I think that the
people should rise up to demand that the interim government pay back all
the taxes they are using and then step down," he said during a meeting held
to prepare Adrien's funeral. "We are going to mobilize to show the
government and the international community we don't agree with what is
going on here! We want the government out."
Once again, Haitians are clamoring for regime change.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Seen through razor wire, prisoners wait in a crowded
courtyard of the National Penitentary in Port-au-Prince.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Black-hooded members of Haiti's National Police with
a man they arrested in Port-au-Prince on October 28, 2004.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Chim¸res ("monsters") careened through city streets
in the run-up to Aristide's ouster. They blocked roads and lit tire fires,
bringing entire sections of Port-au-Prince to a grinding hall
By Jane Regan
Jane Regan, a journalist and filmmaker, has lived in Haiti for most of the
last 13 years, writing and filming for mainstream and alternative media.
Together with Haitian photographer Daniel Morel, who contributed photos and
some reporting for this article, she runs Wozo Productions