February 6, 2004 | Page 8
HELEN SCOTT explains what's behind the ongoing confrontations in Haiti.
THE POOREST country in the Western Hemisphere is suffering through a deepening political crisis. The past month has seen more frequent demonstrations and strikes against the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide--with clashes between government opponents and supporters spiraling into violence that has left 50 people dead and twice as many injured.
The country's parliament has ceased to function because the terms of lawmakers expired while a political impasse prevented new elections from being held. Schools and colleges have been disrupted by protests and violent outbreaks.
As usual, the U.S. government blames Aristide and his government for the crisis, while presenting the opposition as a legitimate and democratic mass movement. At a summit in Mexico last week, George Bush and Colin Powell demanded that Aristide negotiate with his opponents, and State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher claims that the country's police and "government-sponsored gangs" are responsible for vandalism, harassment and violent rampages.
These charges are at best incomplete--and at worst, total distortions of the actual situation. In reality, the "opposition" to Aristide is guilty of beating government supporters to death, trashing the marketplace stalls of petty traders and burning the homes of members of Lavalas Family, the political party that Aristide leads. Figures from the party face the threat of assassination if Aristide does not meet opposition demands for his resignation.
The education system has been shut down because of a coordinated plan by Aristide opponents of attacking schools and colleges--by arson and stoning. Journalists from both state and independent radio stations and newspapers have been attacked and threatened, and the state-run Haitian National Television came under assault by gunfire, rocks and bottles.
Aristide has moved far from the radical he was when he was elected president of Haiti in 1990. To be restored to power by U.S. troops after being toppled in a coup, he had to agree to a series of concessions. In recent years, his popularity has declined--even among the poor, his main base of support--as corruption in Lavalas Family was revealed, and conditions for the majority of people have grown worse.
But the opposition to Aristide is led by Haiti's rich--and propped up by the U.S. One of the major figures is André Apaid Jr., a sweatshop owner and one of the richest people in Haiti. He leads the Group of 184, which is made up of the same Haitian elite that ruled the country under the Duvalier dictatorship.
The opposition is also heavily supported by the U.S. government--through such infamous Cold War organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy's International Republican Institute (IRI) and right-wing politicians such as former Sen. Jesse Helms. According to the Associated Press, the IRI is giving money to Apaid and other Aristide opponents.
The European Union, especially Haiti's former colonizer, France, is also funding the opposition. Both the U.S. and French governments have endorsed a proposal from the Haitian Conference of Bishops to replace the country's parliament with a small, appointed body. So much for democracy!
It is true that Aristide has been ruling by decree since the terms of members of parliament expired on January 13. But the reason that the parliament is shut down is that the opposition refused to participate in elections.
The U.S. press reported several "general strikes" in January. But independent reports from Haiti say that only parts of the private sector--the bourgeoisie's big stores, gas stations, factories--were closed down, while the public and informal sectors, transport and the provinces remained untouched.
Ben Dupuy of the left-wing National Popular Party (PPN) described the closures as top-down and orchestrated by owners, not workers. "It's not really a strike," Dupuy said. "It's more like a lockout." The fact that foreign journalists routinely rely on Radio Métropole--the voice of Haitian business, which broadcasts in French (although the vast majority of the population speak Haitian Creole)--helps to explain the media distortions.
Washington's hatred of Aristide is longstanding. The U.S. backed his opponent in the 1990 election for Haiti's presidency, and the CIA provided assistance to the coup-makers who toppled him.
Though Clinton sent troops to restore him to power, Aristide has since become a target of abuse--mainly because of his support among Haiti's poor masses and his reputation for challenging Washington's meddling and its "neoliberal" agenda of free-market "reforms." So it's understandable that many Haitians now defend Aristide.
On January 21, masses of people--estimates ranged from 20,000 to more than 100,000--gathered in the capital of Port-au-Prince to march in support of Aristide's government and to call for "peace and reconciliation." The next day, several thousand students called for reopening the schools and colleges.
Even the left-wing PPN has shifted away from criticizing Aristide to defending him against "the macouto-bourgeois coalition" and U.S. efforts at destabilization. But Aristide doesn't deserve to be seen as a radical.
Ever since he signed on to U.S. conditions for his return to power in 1994, Aristide has been managing the system, not fighting it. He endorsed the creation of a massive free trade zone in Ouanaminth, Haiti, on the border with the Dominican Republic.
The dominant company to set up in the zone is Grupo M, a garment assembly company based that recently won approval of a $20 million project sponsored by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation to build more factories. An investigation has uncovered evidence of abuse of workers and violation of labor rights by Grupo M in the free trade zone in the Dominican Republic. One of the conditions of the new World Bank loan for Grupo M is union rights, but the idea that this will be enforced is ludicrous.
A broad range of accounts confirm that Aristide's popularity is declining as his promised reforms have failed to materialize, conditions for the majority of people grow worse and the record of corruption and repression in his government gets longer. At the same time, supporting the right-wing opposition--as some of Aristide's critics from the left have done--is disastrous.
This "macouto-bourgeois alliance" will only deliver a dictatorship akin to the Duvalier regimes. The main policy goals of the opposition after getting rid of Aristide are to reinstate the army and push through a brutal structural adjustment programs that will only plunge the country deeper into poverty.
Only an independent opposition against both the bourgeois elite and Aristide's government--along with the U.S.-backed neoliberal agenda that both sides ultimately support--can hope to defend the rights and improve the lives of Haiti's masses. The U.S. government has long been the major obstacle to these goals. We can show our solidarity with Haiti's poor and working class by building opposition to U.S. imperialism.
U.S. backs Haiti's war criminals
THE U.S. has a long history of supporting dictators in Haiti and other countries nearby--a fact that was highlighted by the arrest of Haitian war criminal Jean Claude Duperval in Florida last week. Duperval was a leader of the 1991 coup that overthrew Aristide months after his victory in a democratic election--and played part in the coup regime that reigned until it was removed in a 1994 intervention by U.S. troops.
Duperval was convicted in absentia for his role in a massacre in the town of Raboteau in 1994. Yet when this killer applied for asylum in the U.S., he won the praise of none other than U.S. Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, then the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.