Haiti: Ten years after coup, democracy still under siege

March 8, 2014
A Haitian supporter of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted in a US-backed coup, holds his portrait

It has been 10 years since the February 29, 2004, coup d’etat that ousted the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti.

Paramilitary groups ― including many former members of Haiti’s disbanded army and CIA-funded death squads ― engaged in a campaign of violence directed against supporters of the government and the Haitian National Police (HNP), for years before the coup.

Supported by the Dominican government and advised by groups based in Washington, they unleashed a wave of terror. They killed innocent civilians, and burned down police stations and other government buildings.


In the end, however, these groups seem to have realised they could not mount a successful incursion into Port-au-Prince, and it was a US plane that flew Aristide out of the country.

As Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot wrote after the coup, Washington also directed international financial institutions to withhold funds from the Aristide government. Some of these funds were designated for potable water ― withholding them helped to create the conditions for the cholera epidemic several years later.

Weisbrot wrote: “[T]he Administration has been working on toppling Aristide for the past three years, plunging the country into chaos in the process.

“The major international financial institutions (IFIs) ― including the IMF, World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank ― supported the administration's destabilization efforts by cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars in credit to one of the most desperately poor countries in the world.

“The pretext was a dispute over the election of seven senators of Aristide's party in 2001. Aristide offered every possible solution but it didn't matter. With Washington and the IFIs' backing them, the opposition refused any agreement short of Aristide's resignation.”

In the end, Aristide did not resign ― although the then-Bush administration claimed he did. Aristide said he was the victim of a “kidnapping in the service of a coup d’etat”.

Aristide's account is verified by witnesses. Bundled onto a plane, he and his wife Mildred Aristide were flown to the Central African Republic.

The coup took place amid what can only be seen as a huge disinformation campaign against Haiti’s popular and democratic government.

Often, those who worked to destabilise Aristide's government have been open in discussing their role and that of those who backed them.

Accounts of grave human rights abuses by the Aristide government ― often promoted by Haitian groups that had essentially been bought off ― have since been shown to be false. But at the time, they were carried in the domestic and international media and did much to harm Aristide’s reputation.

They also served as a pretext for the political persecution of members of Aristide’s government and leaders and prominent supporters of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party.

After the coup

In the coup’s wake, the Haitian people experienced one of the country’s worst human rights disasters in recent times. Human rights researchers estimate that about 4000 people were killed for political reasons.

Killings targeted members of Fanmi Lavalas. Opponents of the coup and of the interim government imposed on the country; some massacres were carried out in broad daylight. Others were falsely jailed, or forcibly disappeared.

About 35,000 women and girls reported having been the victim of sexual assault; of these, “officers from the Haitian National Police accounted for 13•8% and armed anti-Lavalas groups accounted for 10•6% of identified perpetrators”, a study in The Lancet found.

Some of the same paramilitaries who had rampaged through Haiti from 2000 up to the coup carried out the violence while the interim government and international community stood by. Other atrocities were committed by the HNP, sometimes with the involvement or tacit support of soldiers from the United nations military mission (MINUSTAH).

At the urging of Haiti’s powerful elite, HNP officers and MINUSTAH soldiers carried out deadly raids into slums to eliminate “gang” leaders, often killing bystanders in the process.

International human rights groups paid little attention to what was almost certainly the largest human rights crisis in the hemisphere at the time, and the international media even less. A few brave journalists ― usually independent ― documented some of these events.

Ongoing repression

The intensity of the post-coup human rights crisis may have been greater, but this period of political persecution and repression never really ended. Fanmi Lavalas leaders and supporters have continued to find themselves targeted.

In 2007, when Rene Preval was president, human rights activist and Fanmi Lavalas supporter Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine was kidnapped and disappeared. International cries of alarm were met with rumours that it was a “fake” kidnapping, and that Lovinsky was trying to get attention. He has never been found.

More recently, leading human rights activist Daniel Dorsainvil and his wife Girldy Lareche were murdered. A new round of bogus accusations have been leveled against Famni Lavalas leaders over the still-unsolved murder of journalist Jean Dominique in 2000, while some of the individuals that evidence links most closely to the crime are ignored.

Fanmi Lavalas has been arbitrarily excluded from elections since the coup.

Aristide’s return to Haiti from forced exile in 2011 ― against the US government’s wishes and efforts to convince the South African government to stop him ― has undermined the various false accusations levelled at him and Fanmi Lavalas.

For years, we heard that Aristide would likely face charges of corruption and human rights crimes if he ever returned to Haiti. Nearly three years after he returned, he has yet to be charged with anything.

As Aristide’s attorney Ira Kurzban wrote before Aristide’s return to Haiti, he is “charged with no crime”. Kurzba said: “The New York Times noted during his first exile (1991-1994), [Aristide] ‘won Haiti’s first and only democratic election overwhelmingly,’ followed by a 'seven-month tenure [that] was marked by fewer human-rights violations and fewer boat people than any comparable period in modern Haitian history’.”

The coup and the events that followed are part of a pattern of foreign intervention in Haiti going back centuries. Such interference continues today as well, as the US government seeks to “manage Haiti” through the ongoing MINUSTAH presence and other means.

Along with the US government, France and Canada also overtly supported the undermining and removal of the Aristide government. France was motivated in part by Aristide’s call for it to pay back the ransom it demanded Haiti hand over as a price for its independence.

This intervention has continued. As recently recounted by former Organization of American States (OAS) Special Representative to Haiti Ricardo Seitenfus, in the 2010 threatened removal of then-president Preval (via airplane, a la Aristide).

There was also the blatant intervention by the OAS ― led by the US and Canada ― in Haiti’s elections. This led to the arbitrary replacement of governing party candidate Jude Celestin with Michel Martelly in the run-off election.

Martelly went on to win the presidency despite receiving votes from less than 17% of the electorate in the second round.

For Haiti to be able to move beyond the 2004 coup and the subsequent political and human rights crisis, this foreign intervention must end. Fanmi Lavalas and other political parties must be allowed to take part in elections. The Haitian people must be allowed to freely choose their government and path forward.

This is called national sovereignty and democracy. It is, unfortunately, what powerful outside interests have been trying to impede in Haiti for over 210 years.

[Abridged from Haiti Analysis.]

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