Paul Farmer?s account of the collapse of the Aristide government in February is misleading and riddled with errors (LRB, 15 April). Attempts such as his to explain Haiti?s current predicament in terms of its 200-year history of neo-colonial exploitation by the great powers bring us no closer to understanding the reasons for the collapse of Aristide?s government than a similarly reductive account of Britain?s involvement in Southern Africa would explain why Robert Mugabe finds himself isolated and under siege in Zimbabwe.
It is true that in November 2000 Aristide was democratically elected president of Haiti, even if the election was boycotted by the opposition and only 10 per cent of those eligible turned out to vote. But long before the end came, government attacks on political opponents, the press and human rights workers (see the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and Reporteurs sans Frontières) had isolated Aristide?s Haiti from the international community, which responded by suspending grants, loans and every form of aid other than humanitarian assistance. A survey conducted in October 2003 by Transparency International, a German NGO, reported that of the 133 nations they looked at only Nigeria and Bangladesh were more corrupt than Haiti. The complicity of members of Aristide?s inner circle and the Haitian National Police in drug trafficking was turning Haiti into a narco state.
Aristide?s growing authoritarianism has been denounced by virtually every element of the coalition that supported his rise to the presidency in 1990: the priests and laypersons of the liberation theology wing of the Haitian church, the network of grassroots organisations, peasant cooperatives and labour unions, and every single Haitian intellectual or artist of note. Aristide tried to compensate for the defection of his former supporters by recruiting criminal gangs ? the chimères, a term derived from the creole word for ?hothead? ? and an expensive lobbying effort in Washington, in which Farmer took part.
On 5 December 2003, gangs of chimères, acting in concert with the police, carried out an attack on the State University, a hotbed of anti-Aristide sentiment, setting it on fire and attacking the rector with iron bars, breaking both of his legs. In response, tens of thousands of protesters, day after day, called for Aristide?s departure. In the past, one hundred or so chimères, armed with pistols, clubs and whips, or even rocks and bottles, had been sufficient to disperse any opposition group assembled in protest. Now this was no longer adequate: Aristide was losing control of the streets.
His claim that he had been forced out by the US is correct only insofar as their ultimate failure to commit troops to prop him up had become a form of intervention. Aristide called for the population to defend the streets against the rebels. When truckloads of guns were handed out on 27 February, however, the newly armed men went on a spree of looting, arson, robbery and highjacking.
Aristide?s departure early in the morning of 29 February obviously was not voluntary: he would have liked to continue being president. But was he kidnapped? The only American contingent in Haiti at the time consisted of 50 marines guarding the embassy and helping to evacuate American nationals. When the ambassador told Aristide that he could not commit troops to guarantee his safety once the rebels arrived, Aristide accepted their offer of a plane ride out. He made plain during the next 48 hours that he had been forced out by the failure of foreign governments to come to his aid, and complained that he had been the victim of a ?thoroughly modern form of kidnapping?, or a ?coupnapping?. It was later that he began to complain of being abducted at gunpoint.
Farmer asserts that Aristide?s flight was engineered by the Bush administration. Although the political views of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega are more or less as Farmer describes them, by August 2003, they were no longer responsible for the direction of US policy. A confidential assessment by Ambassador Terence Todman concluded that the chances of a negotiated settlement between Aristide and the opposition were remote, and that Haiti was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. The White House, whose overriding concern was to do nothing that might complicate their chances of carrying Florida during the November presidential election, adopted a course designed to avert the mass exodus of refugees that would accompany further instability in Haiti.
Although it?s very possible that, as Farmer reports, members of the reactionary elite in 1990 regarded Aristide as a ?cross between the Ayatollah and Fidel?, it?s now plain that he was neither, only another in a long line of corrupt authoritarians who persecuted their enemies and emptied the treasury on departure.
The danger Haiti faces today is not from a revived army, however much its former officers might wish it back. When Aristide was restored to office in 1994, the military accounted for 40 per cent of the national budget: without massive foreign subsidies, a Haitian army on anything remotely like its old scale is as likely as a Haitian space programme. The real peril is more immediate, and consists in the continuing fragmentation of authority, the further devolution of power in the countryside to small groups of armed criminals under the command of individual warlords who today operate unchecked, and to gangs of chimères in the city. This, and the climate of lawlessness and impunity, is as much a part of Aristide?s legacy as the dismantling of the army, the one act of his that has received near unanimous approval.
In the two months since the US and other foreign contingents landed, they have failed to disarm the rebels or the chimères, or to restore order in the towns or countryside; they have shown themselves unwilling to put a halt to the reprisals and scoresettling, and haven?t responded to credible reports of widespread human rights abuses. The US marines are scheduled to withdraw at the end of June. The only positive news has been Kofi Annan?s call for a UN peacekeeping force of 8000 troops and civilian police.
Peter Dailey, New York