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

sides.

 

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

paramilitary uprising.

 

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

eight million.

 

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

fall.

 

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

trials.

 

"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

world.

 

"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

former president.

 

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

<www.wozoproductions.org> .