Haiti: behind the official story

December 5, 1995

Haiti: Dangerous Crossroads
Edited by NACLA
South End Press, 1995
256 pp., US$15.00 (pb)

The invasion of Haiti by US troops in September 1994 produced paradoxical reactions. Although opposition to US intervention, military and otherwise, has long been a rallying call for the left, much of it endorsed the invasion and even called for it beforehand. Ironically, the US right was the most vociferous opponent of the intervention. Burnt by the embarrassing fiasco of the Somalia intervention, it was unwilling to risk another to reinstall the leftist Aristide regime to which it was openly hostile. In December 1990, liberation theologist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti's first democratically elected president. He was overthrown by a military coup in September 1991.

Although the US had supported another candidate in the 1990 elections, it was opposed to the dictatorship installed by the coup and backed the embargo and organised negotiations for Aristide's return. After almost three years the coup leaders had not relinquished power, and according to the official story, there was no option but to use force to get rid of them. This was the line on which the pro-intervention left based its call for invasion. Other information about Haiti, the coup and US involvement, most of it not publicly available, paints a different picture.

Dangerous Crossroads is a collection of essays by academics, journalists and activists edited by the North American Congress on Latin America which presents an alternative view of the coup and invasion. US President Clinton, in a speech a number of days before the coup leaders capitulated, signalled Washington's intention to invade. In a change of tune from earlier claims that human rights abuses were exaggerated and people refugees fleeing Haiti were only economic refugees, Clinton said: "Cedras and his armed thugs have conducted a reign of terror, executing children, raping women, killing priests".

Clinton and the establishment media failed to mention that "Cedras and his armed thugs" were the US government's armed thugs; many of the coup leaders were trained by the US and paid as US intelligence informants. Whether or not the 1991 coup was organised by the US, it was used to eliminate a large number of Aristide supporters and gain political advantages for the right.

Soon after the 1994 invasion it emerged that FRAPH, the death squad responsible for most of the atrocities during the coup, had been set up by the US Defence Intelligence Agency. FRAPH leaders were also paid via USAID-sponsored health clinics. This does not seem to fit with the US's support for the embargo but, as Dangerous Crossroads reveals, there never really was an embargo against Haiti. Many countries, including the US, continued to trade with Haiti and the sanctions were never enforced. Even given this, it is still difficult to understand why the US reinstalled Aristide after killing his supporters and abetting the coup leaders.

Dangerous Crossroads' analysis of Haiti and Aristide's Lavalas movement provides the necessary background to comprehend this apparent anomaly and to grasp the political direction of Haiti since the US invasion. Haiti's history has been dominated by the power struggles of three ruling class factions.

The coup leaders represented the oligarchy which politically dominated Haiti during and after the Duvalier dictatorship. Its wealth was largely derived from siphoning off state funds extracted through taxation from peasant farmers, the majority of the population.

Another faction, the traditional bourgeoisie, is mostly involved in trade. While it supported democratic changes in order to loosen the oligarchy's grip on state power, it has also been resentful at US capitalists' increasing hold on the Haitian economy, investing millions in off-shore assembly plants.

Allied to US capital has been the technocratic bourgeoisie whose economic interests are tied to the assembly plants. The technocrat's chief representative, former World Bank economist Marc Bazin, was funded by the US in the 1990 elections. Aristide emerged from the progressive church. The progressive church along with peasant organisations, neighbourhood committees and some unions make up the "popular movements". Although Aristide was cynical about the elections, he formed an alliance with the democratic bourgeoisie to keep the Duvalierists out of power.

This alliance — the Lavalas movement — swept Aristide into government in 1990 on the wave of support from the popular movements. The dual nature of Lavalas created an opening which the US was able to exploit. Since the US was the main sponsor of the negotiations it was able to use its position to force concessions from Aristide.

A document leaked from the US embassy in Haiti outlined a strategy in which Aristide would be forced to accept a new prime minister (the most powerful position under the Haitian constitution), be returned to power and then forced out again soon after. At first Aristide refused to accept these concessions. The US government responded by backing away from a commitment to return him to power. They also initiated a campaign condemning the human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Aristide government and circulated a fabricated psychological report on Aristide's mental instability.

Aristide vacillated between the position of the popular movements, firmly against concessions, and the Lavalas bourgeoisie which was willing to make concessions to gain US support for their return to Haiti. Pressure from the US won out in the end. Aristide's advice came more and more from the Lavalas bourgeoisie while it simultaneously manoeuvred to win favour with the US.

Aristide was returned to power on the back of the US invasion with a new PM and cabinet committed to implement the neo-liberal economic policies prescribed by the US and the IMF. For those who accepted the official story of Haiti's "return to democracy" Aristide's sudden neo-liberal turn must seem incomprehensible. Dangerous Crossroads is a valuable contribution to making sense of Haiti's past, present and future.

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