NEWS & LETTERS, April 2004


The departure of Aristide: The tragedy of Haiti

It was a sad day for Haiti and for all those who have supported this Black republic’s two centuries of struggle for independence and liberation. On Feb. 29, the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed by an unholy alliance of remnants of the old military-terror networks, U.S. and French pressure, and a "democratic" political opposition willing to work with all of these forces. A U.S. diplomat admitted that he and his armed escort had been present while Aristide signed an obviously coerced letter of resignation. This touched off a wave of anger among African Americans. The National Conference of Black Lawyers stated, "The United States has resorted to the methods of petty gangsters by kidnapping Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at gunpoint, orchestrating a coup and forcing [him] into exile."

The armed and uniformed rebels who began to take over Gonaïves, Cap-Haitien and other northern cities in February did not emerge out of nowhere. Their leaders included Louis-Jodel Chamblain of FRAPH, a notorious CIA-funded death squad that had terrorized Haiti from 1991 to 1994. Driven from power in 1994, they had never been disarmed, but simply faded into the background or exile. In recent years, these rebel forces were armed and supported by right-wing Haitian exiles and allowed bases in the neighboring Dominican Republic by its military. In a region where the U.S. regularly makes and unmakes governments, it is unthinkable that the Dominican military would have done so without at least tacit support from the Bush administration.

Now that Aristide is gone, U.S. and French troops are making the armed rebels from FRAPH assume a low profile. However they have not actually disarmed and still control much of the North where they have engaged in brutal reprisals against pro-Aristide forces.

Another indication of the character of Haiti’s new order came when Aristide opponents, among them Protestant fundamentalists virulently opposed to the nation’s tradition of voodoo, looted and burned the museum of Haitian independence in Port-au-Prince. Aristide, who had disbanded the army in 1994, had established the museum in its former headquarters. The crowd threw priceless works of art out the window and burned works by noted voodoo artists. (Aristide was the first Haitian leader to legalize the practice of voodoo.)

The Fondation AfricAmericA issued a strong protest: "We deplore the destruction by armed crowds and religious fundamentalists of over a hundred works of art, among them invaluable pieces by Pierre Barra, André Eugène, Celeur Jean-Hérard, Ti Pèlen, Ludovic Booz, Edouard Duval Carrié, and Jean Camille Nasson. When the symbols of a civilization are trampled underfoot, tyranny is strengthened." The sculptor Pierre Barra is particularly well known, his work having been exhibited at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.

The present crisis in Haiti really began in 1986, when a mass-based revolutionary movement that included Marxists toppled the brutal U.S.-backed Duvalier regime, in power since 1957. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a young priest who espoused the theology of liberation, became the most prominent representative of that mass movement. He did so through his fiery oratory against the oligarchy, which had reduced most Haitians to grinding poverty while itself living a life of luxury.

Swept into power by a landslide (in Creole a "lavalas" or flood) in the 1990 elections, the Aristide government promised radical changes in the conditions of life and labor of the masses. Frightened by such a prospect, the military, backed by the oligarchy, overthrew him in 1991. It ruled by brutal repression and fear, with groups like FRAPH murdering, raping, and torturing at will. In 1994, the Clinton administration reluctantly and belatedly intervened to reinstate Aristide. 

Back in office but severely constrained now by U.S. power, Aristide and his Lavalas Party were unable to build the humanist society they had dreamed about. Since Aristide refused to enact the "free market" economic policies that international capital demanded, the economic aid originally promised dried up, weakening further the economy of what was already the hemisphere’s poorest country. Members of the old oligarchy also began to plot against Aristide.

Tragically, in response to these internal and external pressures, Aristide resorted to intimidation and even electoral fraud beginning with the 1997 elections. He used his considerable oratorical skills to blame all of Haiti’s problems on his internal and external enemies. Soon Lavalas split, with many of the grassroots activists who had originally supported Aristide now moving away from him. These included leftists like Evans Paul and peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. They began to form ties with the conservative opposition around the issue of the country’s lack of democracy.

In response, Aristide cracked down harder and harder on the opposition, eventually using violent street gangs whose financial support came from extortion or even the drug trade. Over time, Aristide’s support among the masses began to diminish as well. While he still enjoyed passive support in the vast slums and impoverished rural villages, the masses were no longer actively supporting him. This created an opportunity for the ever-watchful forces of reaction and imperialism to move in.

This is the real tragedy of Haiti today. Its harsh lessons will need to be learned, not only by the Haitian people, but also by those the world over who are committed to the struggle against capitalism, imperialism and class rule.

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