Originally: Unfair and Indecent Diplomacy: Washington?s Vendetta against Haiti?s President Aristide

The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, continues to pursue a ruinously counterproductive policy towards the democratically-elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti.


·        Deterioration of Aristide rule deplorable, but explainable.


·        Some foreign journalists and the administration?s leading group of radicalized regional policymakers accuse the Aristide government of prolonging a political stalemate and failing to establish a climate of ?security,? neglecting to acknowledge that it is the intransigence of the U.S.-sponsored opposition that has crippled democratic processes in Haiti.


·        The vast majority of the population of what already is the hemisphere?s poorest country are the victims of a de facto $500 million aid embargo imposed on the Aristide government by Washington and other committed international donors.


·        The Bush administration should immediately re-engage directly with the government of Haiti and openly denounce the opposition?s refusal to participate in democratic processes that would lead up to new, monitored legislative elections this year.


·        Haiti deserves the same respect that the White House automatically accords the principalities of San Marino or Monte Carlo.


·        As governance deteriorates in resources-deprived Haiti, the likelihood of a harmful self-fulfilling prophecy increasingly becomes a certainty.


·        Another flood of Haitians could again brave the 700-mile voyage and set sail for Miami as the result of Washington?s misguided policy.




As thousands of desperate and impoverished Haitians weigh whether they should undertake the dangerous 700-mile voyage to Florida in order to flee starvation, critics of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide?most pointedly U.S. regional policy-makers?accuse him of tolerating a worrisome drift to authoritarian rule.  Certainly violence and corruption have increased and the tide of public opinion against Aristide is rising as the outbreak of gang warfare between rival government and opposition hoodlums worsens and increased numbers of disaffected Haitians join opposition rallies.  But there is compelling evidence to charge that Aristide?s slide is not due to any dramatic charge in the nature of the Haitian president, but is the result of a calculated campaign that is now being brainstormed by André Apaid Jr., who is one of the island?s richest individuals. This effort has the tacit if not overt support of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. This policy, which has long been in place, is now being guided by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, along with like minded radicalized rightist colleagues such as Special Presidential Envoy to the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich. What is fully apparent is that Washington wants to be rid of Aristide, who has been able to survive, but only barely, in spite of every affliction and economic cut-off that the Bush administration could visit upon him. The danger is that Washington is succeeding and will soon have to confront a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own making. It may be successful in convincing the world that Aristide should be deposed, which could be a catastrophic occurrence.


The bicentennial of Haiti?s independence on January 1, 2004 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the second oldest independent republic in the Western Hemisphere and the celebration of the victory of the only nation in the world to independently overthrow slavery.  Yet the occasion could equally well be deemed the two hundredth anniversary of a belligerent, unjust and mindless U.S. policy towards Haiti, a policy that began with Washington?s initial refusal to recognize the newly independent country until 1862, nearly six decades after its independence, continued through the often brutal U.S. military occupation of 1915-34, and culminated in the U.S.?s enthusiastic support of the corrupt dictatorships of the Duvaliers, both father and son, and their military successors.  Historically, the State Department has always felt that second best was good enough for this Black republic.


Today, Washington?s openly patronizing policy towards the island is at its peak, as the Bush administration continues to thwart all attempts by the current government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to move Haiti towards a more stable democracy, a stronger economy and a more equitable society.   As political violence in the country intensifies, there have been proliferating denunciations of the Aristide government by several prejudiced foreign reporters that periodically lapse into skewed journalism, functionaries at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince who automatically assume the right of dabbling in Haiti?s pond, and a small group of State Department appointees led by Noriega and Reich who ?boffo-like?, see Aristide as little more than a beardless Castro. These sources repeatedly have accused the president and his Lavalas Family political movement of facilitating and even fomenting political violence by promoting attacks by their street gangs and failing to engage in good-faith negotiations between the opposition and government officials. 


However, these strident accusations against the government bear little or no relation to Haiti?s political realities, where the functioning of a democratically-elected government that possessed overwhelming popular support at the time of the 2000 election persistently has been sabotaged by an unprincipled and intransigent opposition.  This opposition was founded and continues to operate with the full, if not always open, support of the United States, channeled through such controversial Cold War institutions as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the former office of Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), a long-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prior to his 2002 retirement and who was the prevailing Gauleiter in the ?get? Aristide crusade.


President Aristide has been shaped by his environment but he also is stunningly self-disciplined. He is a brave man, having skirted assassination on several occasions. He is stubborn and calculating, and is also self-contained and enormously intelligent. He is seized by the notion of his importance, both to his people and as a symbol to the world. Although he always calls for pacification and conflict resolution, he is not above lapsing into an Old Testament, ?eye for an eye,? mode. He was the island?s most precious national democratic asset, but years of being hounded by U.S. political manipulation and a non-democratic opposition, the quality of his rule has diminished and the atmosphere in which he has been made to live, and in turn to which he has contributed, has become increasingly ugly.

Paralyzed Legislature the Most Recent Avatar of Obstructionism

            On January 12, the terms of one-third of the members of Haiti?s two-chamber parliament expired, leaving the legislative branch of the Haitian government without a sufficient quorum to officially function. As of now, no elections had been held for the seats, which remain empty, and no parliamentary elections have been scheduled, although Aristide hopes to hold them this year.  Responsibility for this onset of political paralysis has been pinned on a President Aristide who is entering the second-to-last year of his second term in the presidency. He now has been placed in the uncomfortable position of choosing between unilaterally lengthening the expired terms of the now redundant legislators, or effectively ruling by decree due to the lack of a Parliament to pass legislation.  Either choice would no doubt be immediately seized upon by opposition groups, such as Democratic Convergence (DC) and the newly formed Group 184, as evidence of the government?s undemocratic nature.  This malevolent rhetoric is energetically echoed by the State Department, which regards President Aristide and his Lavalas party (whose members overwhelming come from the nation?s poor) as being too radical and too ?populist? to merit Washington?s support, or even tolerance.



The Opposition?s Lack of Good Faith

            In fact, however, blame for the delay and turmoil surrounding the parliamentary election issues falls almost entirely on the ill-will of the opposition groups, which persistently have refused to nominate representatives to the provisional electoral council (CEP) that must be formed before elections can proceed.  The issue of the CEP, still unsettled, can be expected to be the stumbling point for President Aristide?s recently announced intention to hold legislative elections within six months.  The underlying motives of the opposition in thwarting any progress towards new elections, which is a strategy that goes back four years and has long been abetted by the IRI, are not difficult to discern.  Both the Democratic Convergence?the first highly visible (although of minute membership) anti-Aristide opposition group to appear?and the more recently formed Group 184 (headed by André Apaid, Jr.) are primarily parties of the tiny Haitian elite, the same strata that controlled the country for decades under the repressive Duvalier regimes prior to the 1990 election of Aristide in the country?s first democratic ballot.  The ironically named Democratic Convergence in particular has had a distinct history of being a coalition of micro-factions looking for a constituency; through most of its history it has represented no more than 8% of registered voters, according to a poll commissioned by the U.S. four years ago.  The opposition?s only policy goal seems to be reconstituting the army (a notorious instrument of oppression that terrorized the nation and especially the poor for decades before it was finally dismantled by President Aristide in 1995).  They also back the implementation of rigorous structural adjustment programs in line with the now widely discredited Washington consensus, which would slash already meager government services, drive real wages down and further impoverish the vast majority of Haitians. 


Not surprisingly, this platform has won the opposition little popular support even at this late date.  A U.S.-commissioned poll in 2000 found that the Democratic Convergence leadership had only a 4% credibility rating, while a mere 8% of the local population named Convergence as the party with which they most sympathized.  Clearly, the opposition?s prospects for a victory at the ballot box are slim if not nonexistent; hence they have embraced a strategy of perpetual delays, hoping that the resulting volatile political stalemate together with Washington?s policy of isolation and the economic asphyxiation will sufficiently debilitate Aristide?s rule that he will be brought down by growing defections among his one-time supporters. 

At this point the opposition?s hope is that the country can be destabilized to where the current government will be unable to serve out its mandated term through 2005. 


This script does not markedly differ from the events of 1991, when President Aristide was ousted only nine months after his first inauguration in a coup that ushered in three years of brutal military rule, including some of the worst political violence in the country?s history.  The opposition?s adamant refusal to enter into a new round of elections raises, for the majority of the population, the specter of a return to a cycle of coup d?etats and brutal political repression in the aftermath of a prospective Aristide downfall, a fear that heightens the level of political tension now seizing the country and creates a situation ripe for violence. The opposition?s demand that Aristide must resign if elections are to take place represents pure bluff on its part, as well as a recognition that, even under the current grim circumstances of Haiti?s poor conditions and Aristide?s fading popularity, it does not have a prayer of a chance to win a free and fair election.



The Security Bugaboo

Needless to say, opposition leaders present a very different story line to justify their continuing refusal to go through the procedures and allow elections to take place, arguing that the current climate of ?insecurity? is not conducive to free and fair voting, even though the Haitian president has agreed to every conceivable reform that was possible to undo the perceived flaws of the disputed legislative election of May 2000.  The opposition?s argument, which in general has been unaccountably well received by the foreign press and U.S. backers of the opposition, can be traced back to the provisions of OAS resolution 822. That resolution, passed after the presidential elections of November 2000, called on the Aristide government to restore a climate of security as a condition for breaking the political stalemate.  Obviously, such a condition is hardly a quantifiable concept, and the OAS initiative offered no more concrete guidelines on how this might be met.

It also should be noted that ?security? depends upon a professional police force and a credible judiciary, which in fact were supposed to result from the training provided by U.S. and Canadian specialists after U.S.-led forces had intervened in 1994 and restored Aristide to office in Haiti, after his bitter three-year exile in Washington.  During that period, the Clinton administration, through the efforts of special envoy Larry Pezzullo, attempted to push Aristide into coalition with the Haitian ruling military junta because it feared the Haitian leader?s radical political credo.  Eventually, the Congressional Black Caucus was instrumental in persuading President Clinton to dismiss Pezzullo for his hounding of the Haitian president.


The fact that these specialists and trainers were prematurely withdrawn by their governments from Haiti provides much of the explanation for many of the problems that the island faces today.  Moreover, it should be recalled that the Clinton White House deliberately defined a narrow role for the U.S. forces occupying Haiti in 1994, which prevented them from disarming the forces of the former military junta or taking significant steps to improve security in rural Haiti.  Thus, the newly installed Haitian government lead by Aristide was left to face a difficult security situation with thousands of weapons hidden by his opponents throughout the island and with very limited resources, along with disaffected former military leaders lurking in the Dominican Republic waiting for the opportunity to return and seek revenge.


What has ensued has been an endless political game with perpetually shifting goalposts: no step taken by the Aristide government to improve policing has been judged sufficient, and every incident of violence, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators or the particulars of the case, is cited as further evidence of the persistence of a climate of insecurity authored by the Aristide camp that justifies the postponement of elections.  This postponement has heightened political tensions and makes violence ever more likely, thus underscoring the bankruptcy of current U.S. policy towards the island.


            Moreover, details surrounding civil unrest in Haiti are routinely distorted so as to place the Aristide government, the national police and pro-Lavalas supporters in the worst possible light.  For example, much was made in the foreign press of events surrounding a violent incident on December 5, when pro-Lavalas supporters purportedly attacked pro-opposition university students holding a demonstration inside their university.  However, members of the Haitian Student Collective, a highly regarded pro-Aristide student organization, has asserted that the demonstration in question began when 50 armed men?not students?entered university facilities and then began to taunt Lavalas supporters standing outside, seriously injuring one with a rock fired by a slingshot.  In the subsequent melee, student bystanders tragically paid a heavy price for the opposition?s provocations.  Moreover, it is widely believed in Haiti that at least some of the students who have participated in anti-Aristide protests, such as in the march in Port-au-Prince on January 12, had been openly bribed by the opposition with money or promises of trips abroad.  Yet evidence of complicity of the opposition in the violence, as well as the meager following of Group 184 (reputedly in the low hundreds) has received little to no attention from either the U.S. media or State Department policymakers, who prefer to repeat the patent cop out of ?security concerns? as the justification for their policies of promoting a cordon sanitaire around Aristide and his supporters.



 De Facto Embargo Targets Haitian Poor

            The Bush administration?s failure to openly condemn the unyielding intransigency of the opposition?which has closely aligned itself since its founding with such questionable U.S. rightwing institutions as the International Republican Institute?forms only part of a long-running campaign, funded by U.S. taxpayers via the National Endowment for Democracy (which in turn funds the IRI) to undermine the legitimacy of Aristide?s leadership at every turn.  This policy has culminated in the imposition of a de facto embargo on aid to the Haitian government which now has been in place since 2000, and which is defended by repeated, if vague, accusations of government corruption and mismanagement. These charges seem less than credible given that Haiti has received substantial funding from multilateral organizations with extremely rigorous management criteria, most notably the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  However, the U.S. unilaterally-imposed a block on $193 million in loans to Haiti that had been approved by the Inter-American Development Bank for education, health, roads and water, which finally may be disbursed this year, four years late.  In addition, the U.S. continues to refuse to give bilateral aid to the Aristide government?an interesting contrast to Washington?s long-standing and generous support of the previous Duvalier dictatorship?while insisting on funneling its relatively meager aid contributions through non-governmental organizations.



A Troubling Record


This U.S. policy has had the predictable effect of further weakening cash-strapped Port-au-Prince and limiting its ability to provide desperately needed public services to its population, including basic education, a public health care system, and improved access to potable water.  This also has meant one disappointment after another for the long-suffering Haitian population.  As well, it also has prevented the Aristide government from further expanding the training and professionalization of its 4,000-member police force, on which the heavy burden falls of maintaining a much-vaunted ?climate of security.?  The supposed politicization of the police has been a frequent target of State Department criticism, and, Washington?s criticism?s aside, it certainly cannot be doubted that improvements are needed here.  Yet, given that Haiti?s entire governmental budget amounts to less than three hundred million dollars a year for a population of nearly eight million, it is far from surprising that Haitian authorities have been unable to make significant progress in the professionalization of the police force while at the same time facing a host of other competing and equally urgent priorities.



Washington?s Inglorious History


In addition, it is worth comparing the series of U.S. accusations of police brutality and human rights? abuses tolerated by the Aristide government to the history of Washington?s relations with some of the country?s most notorious murderers, as well as its current use of such concerns to manipulate Haiti?s political environment.  For example, in 2001, the Aristide government detained former dictator General Prosper Avril, who had been guilty of a number of appalling human rights abuses during his regime from 1988-90. At the time, this move was viewed as a significant advance in dealing with the human rights situation in Haiti.  Astonishingly enough, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince?which for years, and through a succession of ambassadors, has seen itself as the island?s pro-consul, with the right to bark out orders to the national palace?continues to deem Avril a ?political prisoner? and has issued calls for his release, despite the fact that it has been reliably established that Avril had served as a CIA asset while in the Haitian military. 


At the same time, Emmanuel Constant, head of the notorious FRAPH militia during the period of military rule, and to whom President Clinton once referred to as ?a thug,? remains a resident of Queens, New York, where he freely walks the streets.  He is protected from prosecution back in Haiti by his former employer, the CIA (which he acknowledged during an interview on CBS ?Sixty Minutes?), despite his conviction in Haitian courts and a deportation order from the INS, and the fact that he was responsible, as FRAPH?s commander, for the murder of at least 3,000 Haitians.  And Washington?s lame excuse for not extraditing him? U.S. authorities maintain that the U.S.-trained Haitian court system is not equipped to afford him a fair trial. Set against this tawdry script, the abuses of the police force under President Aristide seem minor indeed.  It is brazen hypocrisy on the part of the Bush administration to call for improvements in the security forces in Haiti at the same time that it systematically freezes the aid needed to make such reforms possible.



U.S. Policy: The Undoing of a Democratic Society

Ultimately, Washington?s current policy towards the Aristide government amounts to an elaborately contrived and admittedly lethal, but patently self-destructive, snare.  Institutionally and financially bereft of even minimal resources, Haitian authorities struggle to achieve a semblance of security in the face of increasing public unrest and political violence, which is then used by Washington to justify a continued cutoff of desperately needed aid. At the same time, the U.S. does nothing to discourage the opposition?s blatant political obstructionism and continues to blame the government for not being willing to ?compromise.?   The obvious conclusion is that the true goal of U.S. policy in Haiti is nothing less than the destabilization of a democratically-elected popular government, the result of a confused, illogical and destructive game plan to favor a group of Haitian in part composed of cutpurses and villainous brigands who are driven by a pathological hatred of Aristide. The irony is that many of these sociopaths are technically not even eligible to travel to the U.S. under the administration?s new policy of excluding from this country corrupt government officials.  It is precisely such blatantly anti-democratic and belligerent policy that has so tarnished the U.S.?s reputation in the hemisphere in the past, and which continues to attempt to, at every turn, thwart Haiti?s struggle to survive and prosper.



This COHA research memorandum was authored by Jessica Leight, who was recently a member of a delegation that spent a week in Haiti investigating the political and public health situation in the country. Ms. Leight is a Research Fellow with the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Issued 15 January, 2004