In 1802, during a brief respite in the Haitian War of Independence, French officers sought a meeting with recently retired Haitian General Toussaint L’Overture. Under false pretenses, Toussaint was arrested and forced aboard a waiting frigate bound for France. He died of neglect in the Fort de Joux dungeon nine months later. This was the first forced regime change in Haitian history.
The U.S. repeated history a little after the 200th anniversary of Haitian Independence. However, instead of a top military commander, democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been the one deposed by foreign forces—flown out on an airplane leased by the U.S. State Department. Instead of solitary confinement in the Jura mountains, Aristide is currently trapped in a gilded cage in the Central African Republic, with little freedom of speech or movement. Although the circumstances are different, the parallels are striking.
In a recent interview on National Public Radio, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell maintained “We did everything we could to find a political solution to this terrible crisis in Haiti.” Yet, the veracity of this statement has been challenged by numerous reports of what took place in the weeks leading up to Aristide’s recent removal from office. It seems the State Department refused to press the opposition to compromise and intead played “good cop, bad cop” with the advancing “rebels” to force out an elected president under threat of death and civil war.
However, these recent events must be understood in a broader historical context. Since Aristide was first elected president in 1990 at the forefront of a grassroots democratic movement, his rule and Haitian sovereignty have been consistently challenged. A democracy where the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere would have power struck fear in the hearts of Washington officials and the Haitian elite. President Aristide held office for only seven months before he was ousted in a military coup.
As Aristide endured three years of exile, the grassroots supporters of this democratic movement suffered the greatest hardship. With tacit support from the first Bush administration, training from U.S. Special Forces and CIA financing, the military dictatorship and its paramilitary forces murdered thousands whose only crime was supporting democracy. Little over a decade later, the U.S. has allowed these same paramilitary forces to come to power. Their only demand: to reinstate the military that Aristide abolished.
Many assume that the current situation in Haiti is the inevitable result of President Clinton “abandoning” the country shortly after Aristide was reinstalled with the help of 20,000 U.S. Marines. But in truth, the Haitian people were never left alone. While supporting Haiti’s political system, the Clinton administration undermined its economic sovereignty by compelling Aristide to adopt a harsh neo-liberal economic program prior to his return. This program included lowering tariffs on grain and meat imports, so that highly subsidized American exports could be dumped on the Haitian market, undercutting rural agriculture and new industries.
This subversion of Haitian economic sovereignty has intensified under the second Bush administration. Despite a willingness to compromise on the outcome of eight disputed senatorial seats, more than $500 million in international loans and aid were blocked—including a $146 million loan package from the Inter-American Development Bank earmarked for healthcare, education, transportation and potable water. Meanwhile, the Haitian government was pressured to shell out $5 million in interest on these loans and pay $66 million in arrears. Dependent on foreign aid, the Haitian government had to empty out half its foreign reserves, causing the Haitian gourde to lose 69 percent of its value.
The U.S. government has also worked to politically undermine the democratic government. Most notably, over $3 million have gone to fund the opposition party “Democratic Convergence” through the International Republican Institute. Since the 2000 parliamentary elections, the opposition has refused to participate in the electoral process. American support of the primarily upper-class opposition has succeeded in removing Aristide, even though this coalition of political parties and civil society groups has never received more than 12 percent of the popular vote.
Lastly, over the past three years the Bush administration has done little to challenge the insurgence by former Haitian military groups from the Dominican Republic. Beginning in mid-2001, these cross-border raids have murdered dozens of police officers, government officials and civilians. The invasion of these “rebel” groups in early February was just the culmination of a long campaign of terror and, like the first coup, they are targeting Aristide’s supporters in all the areas where no Marines are found. With Aristide in exile, the U.S. is allowing history to be repeated, once again.
In the last moments before his kidnappers forced him to leave, Toussaint L’Overture said, “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.” In his first public address from the Central African Republic, Aristide drew upon these words to urge his supporters to non-violently resist this U.S.-led regime change. As the poorest of the poor continue to struggle for democracy and equality, the crucial question remains, who will stand with Haiti?
Toussaint G. Losier ’04 is a social studies and Afro-American Studies concentrator in Leverett House. He is a member of the Harvard Haitian Alliance, a group which is sponsoring a teach-in tonight at 7 p.m. in the Parlor Room of Phillips Brooks House.