By SAUL LANDAU
One of my students asked me about the current unrest in
Haiti. "Reading the news accounts," she offered, "I can't
figure out who stands for what. And what role is US policy
playing in the ongoing events?"
I, too, find it difficult to extract meaning from the news
accounts. Newspapers and wire service reports ran headlines
about "Rebels Occupying Haiti's Second and Third Largest
Cities," without identifying the rebels or explaining what
they stood for.
Other than their expressed hatred for and desire to
overthrow the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, I found in the news reports not the barest trace
of Haitian history that would help people get a context for
the current conflict.
For example, 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson
refused to recognize the first black and second oldest
republic in the Hemisphere. In the early 1790s, inspired by
the French Revolution, Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former
slave, led an uprising and overthrew the French masters.
In 1862, almost sixty years later, Abraham Lincoln finally
recognized Haiti. In 1888, the United States began its habit
of intervention when US forces responded to the Haitian
authorities' seizure of a US ship that had landed illegally.
In 1891, US troops landed "to protect American lives and
property ...when Negro laborers got out of control."
Woodrow Wilson deployed the Marines in 1914 and again in
1915 "to maintain order during a period of chronic and
threatened insurrection." They remained as an occupation
force under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin
In 1934, FDR ended the two decades of occupation by turning
the reins of government over to a clique who looted the
country until in 1956 Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc), staged a
military coup and declared himself president for life.
Papa Doc created a brutal dictatorship backed by the Tontons
Macoute, a Haitian Praetorian Guard. Upon his death, Jean
Claude or Baby Doc Duvalier replaced his father until his
overthrow in 1986. Both mouthed the anti-communist line,
brutalized their own people and received US support.
In 1990, Haitians overwhelmingly elected as President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist Catholic priest. He
served nine months before a military coup, led by General
Raoul Cedras, backed by the CIA, ousted him and instituted
three years of military rule: political violence against all
opponents and looting.
President Clinton procrastinated. Finally, in 1994, he
dispatched troops to reseat Aristide as president. But
Clinton limited the military's goals. He did not order the
troops to disarm members of the illegal military gangs or
train new security forces to protect Haitians in the
countryside, where paramilitary thugs harassed the farmers.
Aristide's most prominent enemies and flagrant human rights
abusers -- fled to the United States or the Dominican
Republic. But they had stashed weapons on the island and
waited for the opportune moment. Human rights violators like
Col. Emanual Constant, a former CIA agent, walked
confidently through the streets of Queens, New York. Some
former army and Tonton Macoute officials have returned and
"joined" the "opposition."
The media has identified Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former
army officer and member of FRAPH, Front for the Advancement
and Progress of Haiti, during the post-1991 military coup.
But little has been reported about the nature of the
atrocities committed by this "leader" of the rebels.
Although such hooligans more than cloud the political
"opposition's" legitimacy, large numbers of Haitians do feel
disappointed with Aristide. The three year wait before
Aristide resumed his legitimate place as president, seemed
to have changed him and the inchoate, populist Lavalas Party
he leads. By 1994, following the Pope's order, he had shed
his collar. The secular Aristide no longer showed the same
assurance. The exile years had taken their toll.
By the late 1990s, those democratic and progressive minded
people around the world who saw him as "the deliverer" also
felt disheartened. Aristide's religious charisma seemed to
dissolve in frustration. First, the man who had vowed to
build a new, developing Haiti, free of corruption, got
He refused to privatize the public's wealth as The IMF and
World Bank -- and US loan agencies demanded. Aristide had
seen what these policies had done to the desperately poor in
the third world. His refusal to obey led the dictates of the
imperial financiers led to his punishment and to his
inability to accomplish even minimal reforms.
The cynical "expectations" went side by side with a double
standard on which to judge Aristide. While the Colombian
government on the western side of the Caribbean received
increased US aid for bad behavior, Aristide was held to
standards that no third world country could have maintained.
Washington offered meager resources and then deemed his
effort to improve police training inadequate. When violence
occurred, the details somehow became obscured, the
perpetrators unnamed and the blame fell on Aristide.
Neither news stories nor editorials asked the obvious
question: What resource-starved, infra-structurally
underdeveloped and politically chaotic third world country
could accomplish economic development, social order and
political stability in a few years?
In 1989, I interviewed Jamaican Prime Minister Michael
Manley. I asked him what reforms he would make now that he
had regained political power (he won as a Democratic
Socialist in 1972 and 76, was defeated in 1980 and won a
third term in 1989, no longer a socialist, but a supporter
of IMF policies).
He laughed scornfully. "My budget has no flexibility," he
said. "The DEA offers a $29 million grant to burn ganja
[marijuana] fields. I have a choice: use the money to open
the roads blocked by Hurricane Andrew or raise teachers' pay
and keep the schools open. I can't do both. No agrarian
reform. No health care." He shook his head. "Political power
without money in the budget is an illusion."
He invited me to accompany a joint Jamaican Defense
Force-DEA who planned to raid a ganja plantation on the
island's western side. The helicopters landed, the troops
and DEA agents jumped out and, as if in real combat,
unleashed their flame throwers on the ample crop. Within
twenty minutes the soldiers and agents began to giggle
uncontrollably as they inhaled the fumes of their labor.
Watching the event, the extended family whose livelihood had
just gone up in smoke, did not share the celebration. The
Member of Parliament who had also accompanied the strike
force lectured them: "This is what happens when you grow
"What else can we grow?" asked the grandfather of the clan.
"With the roads destroyed we cannot get crops to market.
With ganja, the airplane comes," he pointed to the landing
strip in the middle of the burning field, "takes the crop
and gives us cash. Now what?"
The MP lost his pot-induced ebullience.
"Well, maybe you could start up a small factory or
something," he responded weakly.
"Dis imperialism, mon," a dread locked young man opined.
"Huh?" I said.
"California ganja growers take over Jamaican market," he
said. "America balance of trade improve."
Back in Kingston, the DEA agents and JDF officers invited me
for a drink. I declined. Manley would have his $29 million
and raise teacher pay to keep schools open. What a price he
was paying! He resigned shortly afterwards a tacit admission
of political impotence.
Place the current rioting in Haiti in this political and
economic context, one missing from mainstream reporting. Add
the explicit or implicit twisting of news reporting to make
Haitian civil strife appear to be Aristide's fault.
The media should have smelled the proverbial "destabilizing
rat" when reporting that on December 5, 2003 50 armed men
broke into the university in Port au Prince and began to
provoke students and professors. Aristide backers responded
by demonstrating. The armed unit attacked. One pro-Aristide
man let loose a sling shot and connected with the head of an
anti-Aristide militant. But onlookers, mostly students, bore
the brunt of the ensuing violence.
On January 12, the anti-Aristide gang organized a protest
march in the capital Port-au-Prince. Reports from non-US
sources maintain that some students joined this
demonstration after receiving cash incentives or promises to
get tickets for foreign travel.
US dailies did not mention this information. Instead, the
media focused on Aristide's inability to answer "security
concerns," while anti-Aristide officials in the Bush
Administration like Assistant Secretary of Western
Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and Otto Reich,
Presidential envoy to the Americas, promoted a policy of
embargo against the Aristide government. Noriega carried an
old vendetta from his former boss, retired North Carolina
Senator (R) Jess Helms, who despised Aristide's
The chaos that reins in Haiti, is far from spontaneous.
Thugs who illegally seized power and raped Haiti from
1991-94 have returned to the island to join with people who
have legitimate grievances.
Aristide may have overestimated his own support, relied on a
weak police force and underestimated the treachery of his
foes. But Aristide's mistakes or even character flaws do not
invalidate his legitimacy as an elected president of Haiti,
the poorest country in the Hemisphere.
Reasonable political sense, I told my student, dictates that
we should support Aristide's offer to compromise with the
political opposition and put down the ruffians who want full
dictatorial power reminiscent of their illegal rule 1991-4.Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For Landau's writing in Spanish visit: www.rprogreso.com.