Haiti under the eagle

January 26, 2010

AS THE U.S. media describes the devastation of Haiti by the January 12 earthquake, they typically leave out any mention of the disaster visited on the island for many decades beforehand--the long and bloody role of the U.S. government intervening to protect and promote its interests in what is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Since the 1900s, the U.S. viewed Haiti as a key part of maintaining its dominance in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1915, the U.S. military began a 19-year occupation of Haiti that only came to an end after a massive rebellion against the U.S. presence. The U.S. was forced to leave--but after 19 years during which it claimed it was there to "uplift" the Haitian people, it left behind a 98 percent illiteracy rate, an economy dependent on one crop, coffee, and a large U.S.-trained military with practice at repressing domestic rebellions.

That military would later play a key role in upholding the Duvalier dictatorships, so even when U.S. forces weren't physically in Haiti, American influence was still felt. But after the downfall of the Duvaliers, the U.S. returned to more direct methods of imposing its domination, including in its campaign against the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Here, we print excerpts from a featured article by Helen Scott that appeared in the International Socialist Review in May-June 2004, titled "Haiti Under Siege: 200 Years of U.S. Imperialism." This excerpt begins with the rise of the Duvalier regime in the 1950s.

The Duvalier regime

BY THE 1950s, the conflicts exacerbated by the U.S. occupation came to a head in Haiti, as the peasantry, already drained to such an extent that it was at or below subsistence level, was hard hit by another collapse in the international coffee market. A series of short-lived governments was unable to offer any solution other than increased taxation and repression.

In 1957, a campaign of military terror was unleashed on the suffering population. That year, a decree banned "drawings, prints, paintings, writings or any other mode of expression of thought aimed at undermining the authority of the state," and another outlawed the wearing of khaki or "or any other cloth of that shade"--the army was instructed to open fire on anyone wearing light brown or olive green.

In this context, François Duvalier won the presidential election in September 1957. Using the rhetoric of noirisme, Black nationalism, he promised to redistribute the wealth out of the hands of the light-skinned elite to the Black majority. In fact, once in power, he favored the very elite he claimed to despise.

Illustration of the capture of Fort Riviere by U.S. Marines
Illustration of the capture of Fort Riviere by U.S. Marines (D.J. Neary)

Duvalierism thus led to an extreme social polarization between a wealthy minority on the one hand, and the impoverished bulk of the population on the other. The only wealth he redistributed was from the pockets of the poor via the state coffers into the pockets of his henchmen and lackeys.

As Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot puts it, Duvalier "formalized the crisis" of Haiti. He attacked all national institutions that could support an opposition; shut down the press; purged the Catholic Church, schools and colleges; cracked down on the unions; punished his critics with torture and execution and rewarded his followers from his slush funds; and created a climate of terror through random violent attacks by the military. He built "a maniacal private security force," a new plainclothes body of armed thugs, the dreadful tonton-makout or Tontons Macoutes.

While "Papa Doc" Duvalier, as he came to be known, was not installed by the U.S. government--and at times, especially during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, was not on good terms with it--his regime ultimately survived and thrived on U.S. support. This was because Duvalier proved himself very useful to U.S. imperialism in two major ways.

What you can do

Donations and aid are desperately needed in Haiti. Here are some organizations with connections to the grassroots movements in the country.

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, organized by the solidarity organization Haiti Action, delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2004 after the coup d'etat that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office.

For more information, including a telephone contact, go to the Canada Haiti Action Network Web site.

The Zanmi Lasante Medical Center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and delivers health care through a network of clinics. The health center survived the earthquake and delivering aid to the disaster zone. You can donate to the center through the U.S. non-profit organization Partners in Health.

SOPUDEP is a pioneering school in Petionville. The resources of the school and its teachers are being mobilized to assist the neighboring population. You can support the school via the Canadian-based Sawatzky Family Foundation.

First, he unconditionally supported U.S. capital. In the first four years of his regime, for example, the American Reynolds Mining Company, with a monopoly on Haitian bauxite mining, paid a mere 7 percent of its earnings to the Haitian state. Exports controlled by the U.S.--sisal, sugar cane, copper and bauxite--increased.

Second, during the Cold War, Duvalier acted as a bulwark against communism, a counterweight against Cuba. He proved his anti-communist credentials by destroying the Haitian Communist Party, Parti Unifié des Communistes Haitiens or PUCH (Unified Party of Haitian Communists), and then pursuing a witch-hunt against the left. As Trouillot writes:

[Duvalier's government] physically eliminated, imprisoned or forced into exile hundreds of progressive intellectuals, writers, professors, journalists, and union and peasant leaders. The vast majority of these people had no contact with the PUCH or with any other political organization. In ideological terms, most of the victims were barely what U.S. nomenclature would describe as left of center.

From then on, Haiti became a firm ally of the U.S. Nelson Rockefeller visited to pay his respects to Papa Doc, and when his son Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited the presidency, U.S. vessels patrolled Haitian waters to make sure the inauguration wasn't interrupted.

From neoliberalism to Lavalas

JEAN-CLAUDE Duvalier, who came to power in 1971, played just as important a role for imperialism's next phase, neoliberalism. He opened up the economy to light industry and oversaw the development of assembly plants that offered cheap, non-unionized labor to manufacture clothing and other goods for U.S. companies.

In the coming decades, neoliberalism would transform the nation, accelerating the decline of the peasant system of agriculture, causing hundreds of thousands to flee rural poverty for the cities. The poor crowded into slums like Cité Soleil outside Port-au-Prince, where more than 200,000 people live in shacks without electricity, water or sewers.

The period of the Duvaliers' rule was also one of increased international "aid," largely in the form of loans from the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and North American and Western European governments. The corrupt regime siphoned off much of the money, and very little was invested in development.

Between 1973 and 1980, Haiti's debt increased from $53 million to $366 million, while the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty increased from 48 percent in 1976 to 81 percent in 1985. Loans were contingent on an economic orientation on agricultural exports and the assembly industry--"The American Plan"--which ruined Haiti's peasant farmers while benefiting only U.S. and Haitian corporate elites.

But after a decade in which a minority continued to enrich itself, while the majority was battered, Haiti's majority again rose up to fight against its enemies at home and abroad. In the late 1980s, a mass movement developed, using the church and radio stations to organize an opposition to the Duvalier regime and to the conditions brought on them by American imperialism and global capitalism.

Despite repression, tens of thousands took to the streets until, in 1986, they ousted Jean-Claude Duvalier. Gage Averill's eyewitness account conveys the jubilant mood:

As the news of Duvalier's exile spread throughout the country, throngs took to the street, stripping trees of their branches and hoisting them high in the air as symbols of renewal. Crowds sang the French version of Burns' "Auld Lang Syne," a song of parting that takes on sarcastic overtones when bidding farewell to a humiliated or despised ruler.

The people of Haiti, free of Duvalier, talked of dechoukaj--Haitian Creole for uprooting--which meant pulling the old regime up by the roots. A popular song of the time, declared, "Wo, uproot them/We're uprooting all of the bad weeds/in order to unite"--and the poor did just that.

According to Greg Chamberlain, writing in the journal NACLA:

Dechoukaj ruled the land as Haitians administered a people's justice, looting the villas of the rich, lynching Tontons Macoutes and staging strikes and sit-down protests to drive Duvalierists out of their jobs and into hiding.

The Macoutes' new national headquarters was turned into a school; some cabinet ministers handed back their salaries; communist historian Roger Gaillard was named head of the university; the Cité Simone slum, named for Duvalier's mother, was renamed after the Church's Radyo Soley; and women marched to demand their rights for the first time in Haitian history.

By the end of the decade, the movement consolidated into Lavalas--which means cleansing wave or flood--and the slogan "alone, we are weak, together, together we are a flood" rang loud in the streets. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical priest and activist for the rights of the poor, emerged as a leader. In 1990, he was elected on a reform platform by a 67.5 percent majority--in a contest that had 14 candidates--and Haiti's majority celebrated their seeming liberation across the nation.

Just nine months later, however, a military coup was launched, funded by the nation's seven richest families and orchestrated by Duvalierist thugs. Aristide was driven out of the country. The coup regime took its revenge on the population with mass arrests, assassinations, torture, rapes and atrocities for the next three years.

In September 1994, U.S. troops again entered Haiti. The goal of this invasion, the official story goes, wasn't to repress but to liberate the Haitian people, remove a military regime and reinstate a democratically elected president living in exile in the U.S. "Operation Restore Democracy" was to be the poster child of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. This was to be a "humanitarian intervention."

The real goal of this invasion was to protect the interests of U.S. imperialism. The main threat to those interests wasn't the coup regime, but rather the masses--who had already unseated a U.S. ally, Duvalier, and now were challenging the entire system of neoliberalism.

The campaign against Aristide

AS GREG Chamberlain wrote of Duvalier's exit in February 1986, "It was clear...that the longer the revolt went on, the more radical influences and anti-U.S. sentiment would grow. Washington had to act, organizing a night escape of the Duvaliers into exile in France."

Once they'd removed Duvalier to safety, the U.S. installed the National Government Council (CNG), containing key figures of the old regime and led by right-wing Gen. Henri Namphy; the CNG officially abolished the Tontons Macoutes, "but many simply changed uniforms and slipped quietly into the ranks of the army or police."

The U.S. government granted $2.8 million in military aid for CNG's first year, even as human rights organizations protested and Haitians demonstrated against the government. And with good reason: The CNG, using U.S. money, gunned down more Haitians than had Duvalier in the previous 15 years.

Throughout the period, the U.S. maintained a hostile stance toward Aristide. In the 1990 elections, the U.S. supported and funded former World Bank official and darling of the multinational corporations Marc Bazin, through the "National Endowment for Democracy."

Journalist Bob Shacochis, who was in Haiti during the period, witnessed the institutional double-dealing.

The CIA, in collusion with elements in the Defense and State Departments, Congress, the INS and the national press, was openly working to subvert the White House's stated policy. It launched a smear campaign against Titid's (Aristide's nickname) mental health with fabricated evidence recycled by...a senior analyst at the agency...[T]he agency functioned as a behind-the-scenes architect of FRAPH, a paramilitary terrorist organization run by a media-slick, cocaine-snorting, self-infatuated madman named Emmanuel "Toto" Constant.

Many of the junta members and supporters received substantial U.S. funding through the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as the CIA--all agencies that have worked against the development of popular movements in Haiti.

But if the U.S. largely orchestrated the coup, it adamantly denied responsibility for the ensuing suffering. During the coup's reign of terror in 1991, 38,000 Haitians fled and sought refuge in the U.S. Of those, less than 5 percent received asylum and the rest were repatriated or held in prison camps at Guantánamo Bay. Even more criminally, U.S. agencies actually gave names and addresses to coup leaders of some of those who had attempted to flee, guaranteeing arrest, torture and execution for unknown numbers.

The U.S. agreed to an embargo on the coup regime. But its impact was exclusively on the poor, not the ruling class.

Prior to the 1994 invasion, the U.S. secured a deal with the coup leaders in the infamous Governor's Island Accord, which gave the coupmakers a role in the new regime. Aristide, on the other hand, would only be allowed to serve out the rest of his term (even though most of it had been stolen by the coup) and had to sign on to a strict structural adjustment program "intended to narrow the role of the state and control government spending, privatize the state-owned enterprises, maintain low wages, eliminate import tariffs and provide incentives for export industries."

The actual military occupation didn't disarm but rehabilitated the thugs of the Duvalier and coup regimes, giving the old police a facelift and calling it something new. In the process of supposedly monitoring the coup regime's activities, U.S. officials seized some 150,000 pages of documentation from the headquarters of FRAPH and the Haitian army and refused to hand them over to Aristide. They doubtless contained evidence of years of atrocities, and of course CIA complicity.

Shacochis observed a typical scene in Port-au-Prince, where attachés--basically Macoutes by another name--fired into a crowd while the American Army looked the other way. "The objective of the U.S. military now seemed rather conclusive--to protect the well-heeled elites up on the mountainside from the wrath of a million poor people in the slums below, whom the troops had supposedly come to liberate," he wrote.

The other reason, made clear by the Clinton administration's imprisonment of Haitian refugees, was to create the semblance of order in Haiti in order to justify a policy of refusing Haitian immigration into the U.S.

Poverty grew more severe because of an embargo on aid imposed by the U.S., European Union, Canada and Japan, supposedly because of electoral irregularities. The U.S., having happily paid for decades of Duvalier brutality, had the gall to refuse money to Aristide until he proved that such money would be "honestly spent."

But Aristide, serving his second term as president, bore little resemblance to the rebel priest and advocate of the poor who so threatened the world's rulers. None of the promised "literacy campaigns, rural clinics, public works, and land reform" materialized. His Lavalas Party was torn apart by divisions, and Aristide proceeded to rule by a cult of personality, totally disconnected from the mass movement that brought him to power. He offered new Export Processing Zones at the border with the Dominican Republic as the solution.

Tragically, the only opposition with any forces came from the right, which led to the new coup to remove Aristide, orchestrated by the Haitian ruling class in collaboration with the U.S. state.

In September 2004, the U.S. Marine Corps abducted Aristide and put him on a plane out of the country. U.S. officials claimed they were acting out of concern for Aristide's welfare, and that he had resigned voluntarily. But Aristide soon informed the world that he had been kidnapped by U.S. forces.

Aristide wasn't permitted to return to Haiti, and an occupation began under a UN mandate, enforced by troops from a range of countries, led by Brazil. The new regime repressed political activists, and thousands of people were killed either by occupying forces or by gangs operating under the authority of the new regime.

Haiti's mass movement for change was once again cut down, with the collusion of the Haitian ruling class and U.S. imperialism. Yet the hope for the future remains where it always has--in the inspiration of the masses. They can only win if we do our part here, in exposing and opposing U.S. imperialism, and ultimately removing this major obstacle to Haitian freedom.

First published in the International Socialist Review.

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