US lifts embargo on Haitian dictators


By Kim Ives

In the five months since the coup that overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Washington has convinced few with its strained declarations of support for the return to office of the anti-imperialist priest.

Now, however, the Bush administration is actively bolstering Haiti's military rulers by accelerating the return of political refugees to Haiti and unilaterally lifting the trade embargo unanimously agreed to by the Organisation of American States last October. The administration says it is merely "fine tuning" its embargo to target the coup-makers more directly. But even the New York Times bluntly termed the move "shameful complicity with a murderous dictatorship".

In response, Aristide has turned from a strategy of relying on OAS-sponsored negotiations to one of popular mobilisation, calling on the Haitian people to undertake "active non-violent resistance" to the illegal government in Port-au-Prince.

A domino-like series of events began on January 25, when 10 uniformed and plain-clothes soldiers stormed a meeting of conservative politicians being held at the headquarters of René Theodore, the prospective prime minister in an OAS plan to restore Aristide. The armed men killed Theodore's bodyguard. They kicked, beat and threatened to kill several of the politicians, who were face down and spread-eagled on the pavement outside the offices.

"We have to know whether or not the country is being held hostage by thugs", Theodore said later, apparently still undecided despite the attack and the previous four months of violence.

Washington immediately recalled its ambassador "for consultations" and called on the "Haitian army and the de facto government to bring to justice those who are responsible for this crime". That government said on January 27 that it had ordered the arrest of a corporal involved in the incident.

The move against Theodore underscored the coup leaders' refusal to accept any OAS-brokered plan involving Aristide. In a February 3 interview with journalists, Annapolis-trained army chief Lt Gen Raoul Cedras — promoted from brigadier general by the de facto government he set in place at gunpoint —

said that Aristide could return to Haiti only "as a civilian". Cedras' top aide told the New York Times on February 6 that Theodore candidacy "has been consigned to oblivion".

Washington has tried through the OAS to install a conservative like Theodore as prime minister, with Aristide returning as a figurehead president. That effort was further complicated when army officers allied with Haiti's pro-US business sector appeared to throw in their lot with Cedras.

The US stand on the refugees and the embargo will bolster Cedras. But the military;s intransigence has also spurred talk of US intervention to resolve the impasse. On January 29 Times correspondent Howard French quoted an unnamed "American diplomat" who predicted a US military move. The article said that such action could range from " a special-forces type of operation aimed at quickly arresting several officers, to a full-scale occupation of the country".

Bush's shift on the embargo, meanwhile, allows the shipment of supplies to and finished goods from about 200 mostly US-owned assembly factories on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. According to the State Department, "The sanctions on the assembly sector largely affect innocent Haitians only and have no serious impact on those behind the coup".

The real beneficiaries are the US manufacturers such as Wilson Sporting Goods and Izod sportswear, which profit handsomely by paying wages of about $3 a day. "The State Department's decision was prompted by complaints from American companies that relied on Haiti as a source of cheap labor to produce apparel and electronics items", the Washington Post reported.

Coup opponents in Haiti noted that the embargo had never been fully implemented. Several oil tankers had docked in Haiti in recent months, while huge flows of goods and fuel streamed into and out of the country across the Dominican border and via night flights by small aircraft to Miami and to several Caribbean cities.

The most telling anomaly in US policy has become the continuing large-scale repatriations of refugees. The green light came with a Supreme Court decision on February 1 rescinding an appeals court stay that was blocking the return of the 12,000 Haitians being held at the US naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba.

Within hours of the ruling, the United States began shipping

Haitians back across the Windward Channel. Other than a boatload of refugees returned last November before the appeals court stay, that move is the first time in history the United States has returned refugees to a government it does not recognise as legitimate.

At least six major human rights reports released in the past two months have set the number of coup-related deaths in the range of 1500 to 2000, although the regime installed by the military still clings to a figure of 150 to 200.

Despite the repression, groups supporting Aristide came together in a "Platform of Popular Organisations" to coordinate a series of events around the February 7 anniversary of Aristide's 1991 inauguration and Jean-Claude Duvalier's 1986 overthrow. Actions included setting up street barricades,burning tyres, coordinating the banging of pots, pans, car hoods and lampposts, and posting Aristide's picture and anti-coup slogans on city walls. [From the US Guardian.]

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