Originally: Haiti in Crisis: Search for Democracy

On May 4, 2004 the Haiti Democracy Project appeared at the forum “Haiti in Crisis: Search for Democracy” sponsored by the International Law Society and the Black Law Students’ Association at the Pace University Law School in White Plains, N.Y. Also appearing was Ira Kurzban, attorney for former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Project executive director James R. Morrell made the following points:

Part One. 1804-2004: Liberation, Re-liberation

The year 2004 is the two-hundredth anniversary of an amazing event in world history: the only successful slave insurrection in history and the founding of the world’s first black republic and only the second republic in the Western Hemisphere. In founding their state the Haitians had to overcome Napoleon’s army composed of regiments which had fought in Italy and along the Rhine. The Haitians did have help from a few mosquitoes. What was amazing was that former slaves could prevail over so potent a military force.

They did this because for a precious moment they forged a unity never before, and hardly ever after achieved in Haiti. Napoleon’s perfidious plan to restore slavery obliterated the distinction between mulatto and black, officer and peasant: all united in desperate self-preservation.

This child custody lawyers based in Phoenix says that the war to achieve this, however, destroyed the plantation economy that had made Saint Domingue the richest colony in the world. Previously the state had been part of the economic machinery of slavery. Now, as agriculture relapsed into subsistence or truck farming, the state became an end in itself. Politics revolved around seizure of the state and its spoils. This, unfortunately, became the pattern for the next two hundred years, including the last thirteen.

In the 1980s a contrary trend began to appear. Throughout Latin America, there was a return to constitutional democracy that had been discarded during the Cold War. Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship came under increasing pressure. The people of Gonaives, a coastal city north of Port-au-Prince, which will be heard from again, rose against the dynastic ruler. The army and the U.S. embassy shifted against him. In 1986 Baby Doc headed into inglorious exile.

A highly diverse democratic movement came to the fore. One component was proto-political parties, although these were small and lacked a mass base. Another component was civil-society organizations of various types. There were also base communities of the church, which challenged the church hierarchy.

It was from among this third sector that a young priest emerged, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was one voice among many challenging the succession of military regimes which were misruling the country. Aristide had the ability to speak to the people in their language and voice their grievances. In 1990 one of the democratic political parties nominated him for president and he won with 67 percent of the vote. This political party apparently hoped it could control or cooperate with him. Never were hopes to be more completely dashed.

The election was truly democratic and created the basis for the legitimate government that Haiti had lacked for so long. But Aristide early showed a congenital inability to cooperate with others on an equal basis and considered that he alone had a direct link to the people. He split immediately with the democratic politicians who had nominated him, saying they were merely a hat he had worn for the occasion. This attitude left him vulnerable to an old-style military coup which unseated him only seven months into his term.

It was at this point that our Haiti project entered the picture, offering guidance to the exiled president when he arrived in Washington seeking to enlist U.S. help for his restoration. We helped present Aristide to Washington as the constitutional president wrongfully overthrown by a typical Latin American military coup. Meanwhile, the military despoiled Haiti and converted it into a refugee factory.

At this time, in 1992, Bill Clinton was campaigning for the presidency and as a centrist Democrat found precious little disagreement with the foreign policies of the centrist Republican president George H. Bush. One issue he did find was the Bush administration’s contemptuous treatment of the refugees. Once safely elected, Clinton continued the policy of mistreatment but also got serious about diplomacy to restore Aristide, thus seeking to solve the refugee problem at the source.

Our Haiti project presented Aristide’s diplomacy at the Governors Island conference of 1993 at which the United States and United Nations extracted an agreement with the military for Aristide’s return. When the military violated this accord, Clinton had the diplomatic case he needed for U.N. imprimatur of an invasion by twenty-two thousand American troops to reinstall Aristide.

What these troops accomplished was certainly the return of a deposed president. But with the political pressure in Congress for an early withdrawal, these troops did not stay long enough to protect the other institutions of democracy: legislature, judiciary, elections, police, and ministerial government. The building up of these institutions was left to unprotected aid programs.

It was not only Republicans who were to blame, however. Across the political spectrum there was little support for the expansive program of nation-building that the situation objectively demanded. To the right nation-building was socialism, to the left it was colonialism. There was no constituency in American politics for the long-term, patient restoration and protection of democratic institutions which Haiti needed.

In the absence of this protection, the institutions fell away one by one as Aristide restored the traditional all-powerful presidency. Bad elections in 1997, dissolution of the legislature in 1999, politicization of the police in 2000, and the reappearance of traditional Haitian gangs acting as the violent enforcers of Aristide’s personalistic party all undermined Haiti’s weak democratic structure.

In retrospect, it must be acknowledged that the choices in 1994 were truly unpalatable. On the one hand was a rapacious coup regime. On the other was an authoritarian ruler-in-waiting, whose restoration would merely start the cycle anew. It was not so perceived at the time, but in retrospect these were the real choices.

Symptomatic of the deterioration was the outright fraud in the May, 2000 elections, elections which our project observed for the OAS. There had been sporadic violence by Aristide’s supporters leading up to the elections. Election day itself, however, was calm. As observers we were impressed by the patience and dignity of the Haitian voters, often waiting in long lines in the heat. We were equally impressed by the painstaking job of counting and recounting the ballots in the precinct which we were spot-checking.

In subsequent days the OAS sent us to a number of locations to observe the handling of serious allegations of ballot-tampering by Aristide’s people. It was often difficult to get to the bottom of these disputes. What was indisputable, however, was the fraudulent counting of the senatorial ballots by the central election commission’s counting office. They cut off the count at the top four candidates, effectively discarding some 1.2 ballots cast for other opposition senatorial candidates, or some 28 to 33 percent of the total.

This deliberate miscount bumped up the percentages received by the ruling-party senatorial candidates so that they won outright in the first round. As the OAS reported, if the ballots had been properly counted, eight of the sixteen senatorial candidates would have to go to a second round. The Haitian election commissioner ruled that eleven of the sixteen would need to go to a second round.

Aristide’s party, which had physical control, rejected the OAS’s protests and went ahead with the fraudulent second round anyway. This delivered to Aristide a monopoly of the legislature with no opposition seats. The OAS withdrew in protest, as did the non-ruling-party members of the electoral commission. The opposition parties boycotted the balloting.

The election commissioner refused to validate the fraudulent count. He was verbally threatened by Aristide and Aristide’s gangs were on the street the next day looking for him. He fled Haiti with the help of the U.S. embassy.

Aristide’s subsequent unopposed election in  November 2002 was not an election, it was a coronation. The opposition boycotted, the OAS did not observe, and the electoral commission was illegally constituted of ruling-party members only. Only 5 to 10 percent of the electorate bothered to vote, as against 60 percent in the May legislative elections.

In light of claims that Aristide was a democratically elected president the second time around, it is important to note that his election was severely tainted. In no sense was he a democratically elected president. All the elections of the year 2000 were fraudulent, indeed farcical.

With this illegitimate mandate, it was only a matter of time before Aristide ratcheted up the violence against all those who objected to his budding dictatorship. Already in April 2000 Haiti’s most prominent journalist had been murdered. Aristide blocked the subsequent probe, which, however, found evidence that the crime had been committed by his henchmen. Now in 2001 and thenceforth it was increasingly open season on the independent media and opposition. There was a notable spasm of regime violence in December 2001 when Aristide sent his gangs to burn opposition offices and residences. Two associates of a social Christian party were killed. A journalist, who had made the mistake of including both sides on his talk show, was murdered, dismembered, and dragged in the dirt by an Aristide gang.

Along with the violence came corruption on a gross scale. One month it was the selling of donated rice by the illicitly elected legislators, another a cooperatives scam which, on Aristide’s recommendation, bilked thousands of Haitians of their lifetime savings. A cooperatives scam on a similar scale had brought down a government in Albania. There was also large-scale drug dealing, kickbacks from telecommunications firms, and virtual paralysis of the port.

Meanwhile in Washington a conservative Republican Bush administration succeeded the Clinton administration. With their previous assaults on Clinton for his alleged favoritism to Aristide, one might expect a much tougher line to emerge from the new Bush administration. Nothing of the sort occurred, and they reapplied the Clinton policy without skipping a beat. The episode shows the continuity of underlying U.S. policies and interests.

The Bush administration policy consisted of support for the powerholder they found in place in hopes that this might provide stability, or at least keep a lid on the problem and prevent it from distracting the White House and seventh floor of the State Department from their more important pursuits. This was simply a continuation of traditional Republican acceptance of incumbent repressive regimes in Latin America, whether Pinochet in Chile, the death squads of El Salvador, or the contras of Nicaragua. The Bush administration accorded diplomatic support for Aristide, inviting him, for example, to the Summit of the Americas (supposedly reserved for freely-elected leaders), and gradually removing in 2002 the aid sanctions which Clinton had imposed in 2000 in a vain effort to get him to correct the elections.

As the situation deteriorated in Haiti and the suffering of the masses exceeded all bounds, this Bush policy of neglect became nothing less than scandalous. It should have been the target of a concerted campaign of solidarity by the American Left and all Americans of goodwill. But once again, nothing of the sort happened, showing once again Haiti’s gift for confounding American politics.

Although the Duvaliers had used American lobbyists like Rep. Dan Flood and Ronald Brown, Aristide raised this dubious pursuit to a high art. More than $7 million issued from the coffers of the poorest country in the Americas to hire lawyers (Ira Kurzban, $5.71 million) and former politicians (former representative Ron Dellums, $400,000; former representative Tom Downey and various public-relations firms). Republicans were not neglected: Al Cardenas, head of the Florida Republican party, $475,000.

This cornucopia had the effect of suborning an important American sector that should have been the Haitian people’s bulwark of support: the Congressional Black Caucus, and more broadly, American liberal black leadership.

There was also the white American Left, some proceeding from a deductive “solidarity” perspective unencumbered by the facts on the ground and others from fringe conspiracy-mongering. The common element was to proceed from familiar American political bearings and apply these mechanically to the dimly-realized landscape of Haiti. Thus, by this species of reasoning, if Roger Noriega was formerly an aide to ultra-conservative and racist senator Jesse Helms, and Noriega detested Aristide, therefore Aristide had to be good. Leaders of the American left as distinguished as Noam Chomsky joined in this perspective.

The upshot of these distortions is that the Haitian people, in their now-unfolding struggle, would be bereft of support not only by the American government—which, given its conservative cast, was only to be expected—but also by the sectors which should have come most strongly to their support.

During 2001–2003, Haitian public opinion underwent a sea change. While the support for Aristide, once strong, had already diminished, now the Haitian public turned decisively against him. A Gallup poll commissioned by the U.S. embassy found support diminishing from a bare majority in May 2001 to single digits by November 2002. A Reuters report from northern rural areas found his support evaporating in what had been his strongest constituency.

The usually-squabbling political parties had already come together in the Democratic Convergence. In late 2002 a new type of organization appeared—the Group of 184—a mass gathering-up of civic and grassroots organizations that eventually encompassed over four hundred groups. The group did not originally proceed against the regime. Instead it embarked on propagation of a so-called “social contract,” which in Haitian terms meant the creation of a state that did not merely rob the people, but returned something to them.

The group sent “Caravans of Hope” to all nine departments. In Cap Haitien, an offshoot of the group staged a demonstration of fifteen or more thousand—the largest yet against Aristide.

When a caravan attempted to hold a meeting in Cité Soleil—the hemisphere’s worst slum and a former bastion of support for Aristide—the enraged ruler sent armed gangs to disrupt the gathering. The blizzard of stones aimed at group leader Andy Apaid, as he went to the aid of his daughters, was captured on camera and created the only bond between leader and follower that matters in Haiti, that created by selfless courage under fire. Only that image identifies a leader as perhaps motivated by something greater than the usual self-interest and able, therefore, to do something for the people. It was this image indeed, of Aristide narrating a military atrocity before Fort Dimanche, that had created the original bond between him and the population. The only difference was that Apaid was a light-skinned mulatto of Lebanese background, and a member of the bourgeoisie.

Thus assaulted by the regime, the Group of 184 called demonstrations in Port-au-Prince that each time brought out larger numbers of people despite the tear gas of police and bullets and stones of Aristide gangs. Joining were the students outraged at the regime’s assault on university autonomy. On December 5, 2003 the Aristide gangs invaded the campus of the state university and broke the legs of the university president, who had come to mediate. The wave of revulsion that spread over Haitian society was near-universal, as several high officials resigned and ruling-party senators broke with the regime.

Behind the tumult of everyday events, a larger phenomenon could be dimly perceived: a growing impromptu sense of unity among the scattered population against a common enemy. And this inchoate unity was coming exactly two hundred years after that precious moment of unity among the desperate freedmen under the banner of Dessalines.

The demonstrations, although ever-larger and more broadly supported, were peaceful. They did not physically threaten Aristide in the palace. It seemingly did not matter how large they became, as long as they did not threaten his control.

To the north in Gonaives, however, a different scene was unfolding. There three years earlier Aristide had unleashed the “Cannibal Army,” one of his typical gangs, which busied itself with intimidation of journalists and opposition political parties. The Cannibal Army succeeded in driving out all independent journalists from Gonaives , who fled for Port-au-Prince once they were denied sanctuary in the cathedral.

Their cruelty and disruptiveness inspired foreign pressure on Aristide to rein them in, and in the summer of 2002 Aristide had the leader arrested. His followers surrounded the jail in Gonaives, rammed a bulldozer into it, and sprang him loose. For months the city was in open revolt as the rebels condemned Aristide’s betrayal of their leader.

The leader was, however, lulled into an ambush, killed by the Aristiders, and had his eyes gouged out. This so enraged his supporters that in September 2003 they began a revolt in Gonaives that all of Aristide’s weakened police could not quench. On February 5, 2004, having defeated Aristide’s forces decisively, they took Gonaives police headquarters.

Two kinds of revolts therefore confronted Aristide: a modern one of civil society and political parties, proceeding peacefully with intellectual slogans and unarmed demonstrators; and a traditional revolt of former regime henchmen armed with all the weapons the regime had handed out.

Watching these events carefully from exile in the Dominican Republic, a motley band of former Aristide henchmen, brutal former army officers, and military terrorists and assassins saw their chance. Piling into two trucks with old rifles, but a few neatly pressed army uniforms on the leaders, these forces swept into central Haiti and kicked down the house of cards they found there. Aristide’s police, hollowed out by corruption and politicization, fled at their coming. The population greeted the band with relief. Marching north to Cap Haitien, they took over Haiti’s second city with scarcely a fight.

Years of institution-weakening, politicization, and betrayals had done their work. At the crunch there was no one left in Haiti to defend Aristide.

This being the case, the ardent nationalist once again called for the Marines to come to the rescue. Since, as he said, the rebels consisted of former terrorists, and he had been democratically elected, the Americans needed to intervene to protect a democratically elected leader.

This refrain was immediately taken up by the Congressional Black Caucus, some twenty members of which went bodily to the White House to demand the Marines. So did leading Democratic lights John Kerry and Tom Harkin, among others; also the New York Times and Washington Post editorialists. An initial fifty Marines were sent. Secretary of State Powell vowed that the democratically elected president would not be overthrown by a band of thugs.

As the motley band of rebels approached Port-au-Prince, taking another town, Mirebalais, again seemingly without resistance, the Bush administration had to face its moment of truth. There was no more time left for indecision. It was like a canoe racing downstream headed directly for a rock: you’ve got to turn either left or right.

The administration considered the prospect of sticking with Aristide to the end: ringing the palace with Marines, and protecting the rejected leader against concentric circles of rebels and civil-society opponents. It could see no end to this scenario. The country would be paralyzed indefinitely while it played out. And for what? Their strongman was no longer strong, he was weak and helpless. He had flagrantly failed to bring the stability for which his rule had been tolerated.

Or they could cut, and cut cleanly. This had the disadvantage of once again casting Haiti adrift on the uncharted sea of politics, risking the succession of weak regimes experienced after Baby Doc’s ouster. But if the United States would resolve to stick with Haiti for long-term nation-building, this option held out the most hope. With a little nudge from the French, who had long ago understood Aristide’s futility, the administration took this decision.

Aristide’s last card was to attempt to reinforce his American bodyguards, whose contract had been costing Haiti $9 million a year. The Steele Foundation informed Aristide, however, that its services did not include protection from domestic insurrection. Washington intervened with the mercenary company’s headquarters in San Francisco to head off the sending of reinforcements.

With that, Aristide began calling the American embassy ever more insistently during the last week of February asking for an escort and a plane. He well knew, as former U.S. ambassador and Haiti project board member Timothy Carney put it in the New York Times, that if the rebels entered the palace with rifles looking for him, he would leave it in a pine box. Aristide thought of the many millions he had deposited in various family accounts around the world against this day. Physical courage was not one of his strong points. In the wee hours of Sunday, February 29, the deputy chief of mission of the embassy, Luis Moreno, arrived with a small escort, saying only, “You know why I’m here.” Aristide already had his bags packed.

The ragtag force of former henchmen, drug dealers, and convicted killers was the proximate cause of Aristide’s flight. But a larger unity of purpose joined these disparate elements with the uprising in Gonaives and the upsurge of civil society, political parties, and public consciousness in the capital. However fleetingly, and however obscured by the smoke of the wreckage of the regime, Haitians had once again lit the flame of unity that had brought them their victory in 1804.

That flame remains barely flickering today as one wedge after another is driven between the interim regime and the rebels who brought it to power. The normal pattern in Haitian history would be for the rebels, the men with the guns, to take over. An international intervention forestalled that, while leaving the majority of the country in their hands. Since calm has returned to these areas, and reprisals against innocent Aristide supporters appear to be minimal, the U.S. and French soldiers are letting the status quo there continue. The new prime minister also attempted to subsume the armed men within the political process by several symbolic acts drawn from the politician’s toolbox. One early one was to declare Jamaica’s harboring of the ousted dictator an unfriendly act. Another was his acknowledgment, speaking to a crowd of insurgents and their supporters in Gonaives, that the rebel movement had freed Haiti of Aristide. In translation, this was rendered as praise of “freedom fighters.”

His remark merely stated the indelible historical truth. For it, however, he was unmercifully lampooned by foreign observers far and wide. Haiti’s abject suffering under Aristide was easy for them to forget and dismiss, since they had never had to experience it. The rebels’ role in getting rid of Aristide was equally dismissible under this reading.

What the prime minister’s foreign detractors overlooked was that it was they, and the West’s collusion with Aristide in general, that were the chief factors turning over solution of the problem to a ragtag band of former criminals. The OAS had its democratic charter but never invoked it for a country seemingly invented for it. Foreigners having failed to take meaningful action on Haiti during three years of scandalous neglect by the Bush administration, they had no complaint coming when the Haitians, from the virtuous to the criminal, took the needed action themselves.