Criticism of Aristide is misplaced

February 2, 2010

I THOUGHT that Helen Scott's fine review of Haiti's history was unfortunately marred by her view of the second Haitian government under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 2001-2004 ("Haiti Under the Eagle").

She wrote:

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.

This account is not factual. Aristide symbolized the popular aspirations for good reason. He was a person of deed, not just of word. Among the accomplishments of his second government are the following:

Building more schools than all of Haiti's preceding governments combined.

Expanding Haiti's medical cooperation with Cuba, including opening the country's first medical school in 2003. (The school was taken over by U.S. Marines in March of 2004 to be used as a barracks, and then passed over to the UN troops for the same purpose. Only recently was it evacuated by the jackboots.)

Creating the country's first-ever ministry of women's affairs.

Building social housing on a scale never before seen in Haiti. I saw some of this housing, most of its construction interrupted by the 2004 coup d'etat, during my first and only visit to Haiti in 2007.

Improving the country's historical patrimony--monuments, public buildings, etc.

Doubling the minimum wage.

Bringing reforms to Haiti's agriculture that would make it possible for peasants to survive and grow food.

Resisting the international pressures to privatize the state telephone, electricity companies and the Port-au-Prince docks.

Initiating an action at the World Court in 2003 to recover the $21 billion (current dollars) in funds that were extorted from Haiti by France from 1825 to 1947.

Aristide's posture and policies encouraged the masses to get further engaged in politics. What is surprising about the record of his second government is that it accomplished so much in the face of a total aid embargo from the U.S., Canada and France (an important detail that the writer neglected to mention). Haiti became a laboratory test for the new imperial policy of starving national governments and funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to become the providers of social services.

No doubt, errors were made by the government. It is hard to imagine otherwise of one operating under such pressures and constraints from its enemies.

One criticism that I heard not infrequently while in Haiti in 2007 was that the government did not act decisively enough to protect and defend the mass movement from the violence and onslaught of Haiti's elite and foreign backers. Its defenders will argue that the country was still living the nightmare of the 1991-94 coup that killed thousands and needed to avoid a repeat of that at all cost. Aristide's bold move in 1995 to abolish the army provided assurances that, perhaps in hindsight, were misplaced. I cannot say from abroad.

Helen Scott laments the absence of a "left-wing" opposition to the Aristide government. But why build an "opposition"? The masses and their government needed assistance, to move forward with reforms and to strengthen political and self-defense institutions.

There was, by the way, a "left-wing" opposition in Haiti, but it was fake left. Some, including the OPL party (derived from the former Communist Party in Haiti) and NGOs, were directly allied with the country's elite and coup fomenters in the infamous "Group of 184" political front. Others, such as Batay Ouvriye, the AFL-CIO, and some Quebec trade unions adopted a "plague on both your houses" posture in the lead-up to the 2004 coup and were silent during the regime of human rights atrocities that followed.

Please continue the thread of the many fine articles that have appeared in in recent weeks.

Solidarity greetings,
Roger Annis, member, Canada Haiti Action Network

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