HAITI:
U.S. Soldiers' Boots Follow Footprints From the Past


Jane Regan

For the fourth time in the past 100 years, U.S. army boots are marching on Haitian soil.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Mar 4 (IPS) -
Humvee armoured cars rumble down the main boulevards of the capital and camouflaged tanks train their long cannons towards the pedestrians and drivers who pass the proud gleaming white National Palace and stately prime minister's office.

When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned -- whether he was coerced is a fierce subject of debate and could be the source of a United Nations probe if Haiti's Caribbean neighbours get their way -- he handed his letter not to a prime minister or judge, but to a U.S. embassy employee.

Diplomats will help pick the country's interim prime minister. And many business people, politicians and even the leader of the rebel Haitian National Front group that took over half the country before Aristide's flight aver to the role of ”the international community” as they discuss the country's future.

And so the world's first black republic, the nation considered by slaves and other oppressed people as a beacon of freedom two centuries ago, and an example of a people's movement taking power when ex-priest Aristide won the presidency in 1991, is also perhaps the hemisphere's most invaded country.

In addition to a brief disembarkation in 1914, Washington deployed many thousands of soldiers in 1915 and then again in 1994, both times supposedly to restore order and to assist the Haitian people in their quest for economic, social and political progress.

But as with all foreign policy from Washington, the determining interest has not been Haiti's but that of the United States.

So as Marines trudge the capital's grimy garbage-piled streets once again, many are asking what yet another occupation -- or foreign military presence -- will bring.

According to Alix Rene, professor at the State University's faculty of human sciences, ”the main objective of the U.S. is stability in the region”.

”Each of the interventions occurs where the political system is in crisis, when the political elite are unable to assure the management of the system,” he told IPS.

In 1915, Marines stepped ashore after the angry population ripped a president apart, limb from limb.

While perhaps the ”mother of liberty”, as Aristide said in his bicentennial speeches, Haiti is also home to a skewed and exploitative economic system that leads to unstable and explosive politics. With Aristide's departure the nation has now seen 33 violent changes of power, with only a handful of presidents serving their entire terms.

During their first occupation (1915-1934), the Marines contributed little to long-term stability.

If some of the roads, schools and buildings they put up survive, the soldiers also seized and expatriated Haiti's gold reserves to forcibly pay the country's foreign debt, centralised the government administration, emasculating the vibrant provincial centres, and took over the lucrative customs offices.

They also set up an army that later would excel in coups d'etats.

The country's new constitution, penned by then Navy officer and future U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, allowed foreign investors great access to Haiti's natural resources.

The soldiers also did their best to crush any threat to the new status quo, whether peasant uprising against taxes, student marches or the Caco movement, the hemisphere's first guerrilla campaign. Some 3,000 peasant fighters died fighting the Marines and thousands more perished in U.S.-organised jails.

”The objective of that occupation was to expand U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere,” Rene summed up.

The second occupation came when Washington under former President Bill Clinton decided to help Aristide regain his office after a three-year military coup tossed him out in 1991.

Even though officers on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) payroll were involved in the putsch, Aristide asked for, and got, a U.S. intervention in 1994.

But Washington also chose to send troops because of the massive outflow of tens of thousand of refugees. The United States wants stability in Haiti, but more importantly, it does not want Haitians on the beaches of Florida, the state commonly believed to have swung the controversial 2000 presidential elections to George W. Bush -- and governed by his brother Jeb.

The 1994 intervention stopped the refugee flow and restored Haiti's president and ”constitutional order” but did little to address the political and social schisms in the small country. Nor did it touch one of their main underlying causes: an economy in agony, where 20 percent of the population lives on 1 U.S. dollar a day and another 60 percent on only 2 dollars.

Ten years later, squabbles present in 1994 boiled over into irreconcilable positions. As opposition groups gathered strength, sometimes aided by U.S.-backed consultants and funders, and Aristide responded with force and armed gangs, the impasse grew untenable.

All around the politicians, the economy and social tissue were falling apart.

”We are witnessing a society that has complete disintegrated,” said Lenz Jean-Francois, a professor of social psychology at the faculty of human sciences and a colleague of Rene.

As that deterioration increased, an accused coup-plotter and former soldier and policeman -- Guy Philippe -- led a small army across the border from the Dominican Republic and began to take over police stations.

Scores died in the fighting, many of them policemen. Rebel roadblocks cut the country in two, and the refugee flow out of Haiti appeared to be increasing. With no obvious end to the crisis, Aristide resigned -- or was forced to resign -- and the troops landed once again.

Aristide rose to power 14 years ago in part because of the country's vibrant popular movement, a left-tinged coalition of organisations and mass movements with strong strains of anti-imperialism and nationalism. But as the tanks and humvees rolled off the cargo planes this week, that movement has remained mute.

”The same social deterioration that ended up giving us this invasion has also hit the popular movement,” said Jean-Francois, an associate of Aristide's when he was involved in popular organisations that grew up around the president's church, St. Jean Bosco.

”The movement is incapable of even articulating its disapproval or of offering an alternative.”

Jean-Francois should know. He was a founding member of ”Solidarite Ant Jen - Veye Yo”, a St. Jean Bosco group that later turned away from Aristide and accused the president of selling out the popular movement.

”One reason for the social disintegration is that we have never been able to construct a nation,” he said in an interview. ”We have never been able to figure out how to live together.”

Jean-Francois puts most of the blame on the popular movement's inability to mobilise the masses and also on Haiti's huge wealth gap. His colleague Rene sets a great deal of blame on the state and the political culture.

”The Haitian state, ever since it was founded in 1804, has existed to exploit and repress the masses,” Rene said.

Whichever it is, this occupation already has commentators on the radio -- from both Aristide's Lavalas Party and the political opposition -- criticising the violation of Haiti's sovereignty by troops who appear mostly concerned with protecting their embassies and a few state buildings as the capital burns and armed gangs still rule many streets.

”People are really uneasy,” said Jean-Francois. ”They are ashamed that in 2004, our 200th anniversary of independence, foreign soldiers are here again.” (END/2004)