The Fire This Time in Haiti was US-Fueled
The Bush Administration Appears to have Succeeded in its Long-Time Goal of Toppling Aristide Through Years of Blocking International Aid to his Impoverished Nation
by Jeffrey Sachs
Haiti, once again, is ablaze. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is widely blamed, and he may be toppled soon. Almost nobody, however, understands that today's chaos was made in Washington -- deliberately, cynically and steadfastly. History will bear this out. In the meantime, political, social, and economic chaos will deepen, and Haiti's impoverished people will suffer.
The Bush administration has been pursuing policies likely to topple Aristide since 2001. The hatred began when Aristide, then a parish priest and democracy campaigner against Haiti's ruthless Duvalier dictatorship, preached liberation theology in the 1980s. Aristide's attacks led US conservatives to brand him as the next Fidel Castro.?
They floated stories that Aristide was mentally deranged. Conservative disdain multiplied several-fold when then-president Bill Clinton took up Aristide's cause after he was blocked from electoral victory in 1991 by a military coup. Clinton put Aristide into power in 1994, and conservatives mocked Clinton for wasting America's efforts on "nation building" in Haiti. This is the same right wing that has squandered US$160 billion on a far more violent and dubious effort at "nation building" in Iraq.?
Attacks on Aristide began as soon as the Bush administration assumed office. I visited Aristide in Port-au-Prince in early 2001. He impressed me as intelligent and intent on good relations with Haiti's private sector and the US. No firebrand, he sought advice on how to reform his economy and explained his realistic and prescient concerns that the American right would try to wreck his presidency.
Haiti was clearly in a desperate condition: the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, with a standard of living comparable to sub-Saharan Africa despite being only a few hours by air from Miami. Life expectancy was 52 years. Children were chronically hungry.
Of every 1,000 children born, more than 100 died before their fifth birthday. An AIDS epidemic, the worst in the Caribbean, was running unchecked. The health system had collapsed. Fearing unrest, tourists and foreign investors were staying away, so there were no jobs to be had.
But Aristide was enormously popular in early 2001. Hopes were high that he would deliver progress against the extraordinary poverty. Together with Dr. Paul Farmer, the legendary AIDS doctor in Haiti, I visited villages in Haiti's Central Plateau, asking people about their views of politics and Aristide.? Everybody referred to the president affectionately as "Titid." Here, clearly, was an elected leader with the backing of Haiti's poor, who constituted the bulk of the population.
When I returned to Washington, I spoke to senior officials in the IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and Organization of American States. I expected to hear that these international organizations would be rushing to help Haiti.
Instead, I was shocked to learn that they would all be suspending aid, under vague "instructions" from the US. Washington, it seemed, was unwilling to release aid to Haiti because of irregularities in the 2000 legislative elections, and was insisting that Aristide make peace with the political opposition before releasing any aid.
The US position was a travesty. Aristide had been elected president in an indisputable landslide. He was, without doubt, the popularly elected leader of the country -- a claim that President George W. Bush cannot make about himself.
Nor were the results of the legislative elections in 2000 in doubt: Aristide's party had also won in a landslide.? It was claimed that Aristide's party had stolen a few seats. If true -- and the allegation remains unproved -- it would be nothing different from what has occurred in dozens of countries around the world receiving support from the IMF, World Bank, and the US itself. By any standard, Haiti's elections had marked a step forward in democracy, compared to the decades of military dictatorships that America had backed, not to mention long periods of direct US military occupation.
The more one sniffed around Washington the less America's position made sense. People in positions of responsibility in international agencies simply shrugged and mumbled that they couldn't do more to help Haiti in view of the Bush veto on aid. Moreover, by saying that aid would be frozen until Aristide and the political opposition reached an agreement, the Bush administration provided Haiti's un-elected opposition with an open-ended veto. Aristide's foes merely had to refuse to bargain in order to plunge Haiti into chaos.?
That chaos has now come. It is sad to hear rampaging students on BBC and CNN saying that Aristide "lied" because he didn't improve the country's social conditions. Yes, Haiti's economic collapse is fueling rioting and deaths, but the lies were not Aristide's. The lies came from Washington.
Even now, Aristide says that he will share power with the opposition, but the opposition says no. Aristide's opponents know that US right-wingers will stand with them to bring them violently to power. As long as that remains true, Haiti's agony will continue.
Jeffrey Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
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