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Political crisis at a new stage
Uprising against Aristide spreads

By Lee Sustar | February 13, 2004 | Page 7

ARMED UPRISINGS in the Haitian cities of Gonaives and St. Marc have brought Haiti's political crisis to a new level. The Gonaives Resistance Front--formerly known as the Cannibal Gang--which launched the uprising, had been allied to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but turned against him, claiming that Aristide's government was behind the assassination of the group's leader.

The rebellion followed mounting protests by the Democratic Convergence, an opposition grouping that contains left-wing organizations, but is dominated by Haiti's wealthy. Yet as the armed rebellion spread, the Democratic Convergence called off plans for protests. This is an indication that the conservative forces demanding Aristide's resignation fear that the revolt will spin out of their control.

As Socialist Worker went to press, it wasn't clear if the rebellion would continue to spread. But it has put a spotlight on Haiti's mounting political crisis.

Democratic Convergence, along with the right-wing Group 184, wants Aristide to resign because of a dispute over parliamentary elections in 2000 and charges of corruption. The opposition used last month's bicentennial of Haiti's revolutionary overthrow of French colonial rule--which established the world's first Black republic--to accuse Aristide of being a dictator and embarrass him before an international audience.

Increasingly, Aristide maintains his hold on power by relying on police, as well as supporters from poor shantytowns such as Cité Soleil, his base since he led the mass Lavalas movement against the dictatorship of the 1980s.

After winning election as president in 1990, Aristide was ousted in a coup--and returned to power only when U.S. forces invaded the country. He remained the country's most powerful political player during the presidency of René Preval in the late 1990s, and was re-elected in 2000.

But Aristide is no longer a populist leader of the poor, but a powerful and wealthy politician who has collaborated with the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to carry out free-market "reforms." Nevertheless, Aristide is hated by the tiny wealthy elite that has historically benefited from Haiti's series of dictatorships.

They have been cut out of the patronage network of Aristide's Lavalas Family party--and they're looking to the U.S. government for support in trying to push the president out of power. The model for the Haitian opposition is the protests in 2002 against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, where big business used middle-class street demonstrations and the support of a handful of union leaders to put a populist gloss on a U.S.-backed coup attempt.

Because of a mobilization from below, the coup attempt was defeated, and Chávez has been able to use some of Venezuela's oil revenue s to grant reforms and put up resistance to the U.S. Haiti, by contrast, is a tiny country of just 8 million--and has been under Washington's thumb for more than a century.

For 30 years, the U.S. backed the father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship, which looted the country. Some 80 percent of the country lives in poverty. Life expectancy is just 50 years. A 1999 estimate put the number of people with HIV/AIDS at more than 5 percent of the population. The economy hasn't grown in three years--and the U.S. put a virtual embargo on aid to Haiti since 2000.

Widespread opposition to a return to the Duvalier rule by terror has forced the opposition to portray itself as a popular revolt, even though wealthy businessmen pull the strings. Aristide retains the support of large sections of the poor--but Haiti's shattered economy and his government's embrace of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms have only increased their misery.

Last year, Haiti bowed to IMF demands to cut the budget deficit by removing subsidies on petroleum and making other cuts. Interest rates were jacked up to allow Haiti to repay its foreign debts that date from the days of the dictatorship. Such measures will only undercut Aristide's support and create an opening for the opposition.

Unfortunately, most of the left in Haiti--which played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship in the 1980s--has joined either the opposition or the pro-Aristide camp. A genuine political opposition in Haiti will be one that opposes both the right's power grab--and rejects Aristide's croynism and free-market "reforms."

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