Originally: 1804-2004: Liberation, Re-liberation

By James R. Morrell

An essay for openDemocracy. Response submitted April 4, 2004

In December 2002, the Haiti Democracy Project proposed to the Bush administration and the Organization of American States that the OAS?s Democratic Charter be invoked. We wanted diplomatic pressure to create a transitional administration capable of holding clean elections. President Aristide could either leave or stay within the bounds of the constitution. That would have meant for him no more gangs run out of the presidential palace, no more violence, drug-running, lobbyists, and telephone deals.

The proposal was, of course, ignored. Bush administration policy toward Haiti consisted of deliberate neglect based on the assumption, natural for a Republican administration, that the incumbent offered stability. This negligence translated into kid-gloves treatment in the diplomatic realm having the effect of perpetuating the status quo. Aid that the Clinton administration and European Union had cut off in a vain effort to reverse electoral fraud was slowly restored. Within this overall drift, functional policy became the playpen of special interests, chiefly the Congressional Black Caucus. Its former dean, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, received half a million dollars from the Aristide regime. Altogether Aristide funneled more than $7 million to American lobbyists to mobilize Washington against his domestic opposition.

The Bush administration watched passively as Aristide regularly unleashed waves of violence against opposition groups and independent media. One acute observer, himself a Republican, characterized it as a “marriage” of the Bush administration with Aristide. He warned that the administration?s passivity would clear the stage for other actors to eventually arise and present the administration with highly unpalatable choices.

Yet all, seemingly, from Washington?s point of view, was well. The Haiti annoyance was not rising to a level where it would demand the attention of the busy people in the White House and seventh floor of the State Department. The Black Caucus and Democrats were sated with lucre drawn from the meager revenues of the hemisphere?s poorest country. Pro-Aristide groupthink, enforced by a political firing, prevailed in the liberal and left organizations who should have been Haiti?s strongest supporters.

This cozy situation might have continued indefinitely had not the Haitian people taken matters into their own hands.

At the end of 2002, a new type of organization rose in Haiti. This was the Group of 184, a deliberate gathering-in of hundreds of small and large civil-society groups, refuting by its very existence the notion that the Haitians were incapable of common action. The list of organizations, which would actually exceed four hundred, included professional, grassroots, women?s, business, and trade-union associations. It ran the gamut from left to right, to the extent that such designations were even relevant in this scene of devastation.

The group did not initially move against the government. Instead it propagated a “social contract,” expressing the notion, radical in Haiti, that government should serve society rather than exploit it. “Caravans of Hope” went to all nine departments. But when one of them went into Cité Soleil, a sprawling slum that Aristide had staked out as his exclusive turf, thugs sent from the palace pelted the caravan with stones and were only restrained from shooting by the presence of diplomatic bodyguards.

The demonstrations that the Group of 184 and its counterpart in Cap-Haitien called were the largest Haiti had ever seen. Day after day they came, students, middle class, and the masses, braving a hail of stones and bullets from Aristide enforcers. The demonstrations crystalized a broad consensus among the Haitians that it was time for Aristide to go.

By the end, so pervasive had the movement become that even Aristide?s young daughters were overhead singing the lilting Creole lyrics “Aristide must go” of the song that was seemingly on everyone?s lips. Their mother, Mildred, hastily packed them off to Florida.

Large and persistent, the demonstrations were nevertheless peaceful. As long as they did not threaten his physical tenure of the palace Aristide could ignore them.

Far to the north, in the port city of Gonaives, a different kind of movement was playing out. Two years earlier Aristide?s senators had passed out guns and money to create the “Cannibal Army” headed by a local thug, Amiot Métayer. It had attacked with enthusiasm the headquarters of a Christian Democratic party, killing two, and so terrorizing all the independent reporters of the city that they fled to the cathedral. When the threat there became too unbearable, the bishop evicted them and they fled to Port-au-Prince.

The flagrant violence of the Cannibal Army led to persistent demands by the Bush administration and international community that it be reined in. Yielding to this pressure in return for overall toleration, Aristide had the lead thug arrested. In August 2002 this thug?s supporters?for it was not just one gang under Aristide, it was a pyramid?drove a bulldozer into the Gonaives jail and sprang him loose. Métayer and his supporters took over the city and declared they would overthrow Aristide. A reputed Aristide payment of $300,000 temporarily mollified Métayer, and eight months later he was ambushed, killed, and had his eyes gouged out.

His enraged brother led a renewed, nonstop revolt in Gonaives that was sustained by the population and this time repelled all Aristide attacks, and on February 5, 2004 took the central police station.

Observing these events from the Dominican Republic, another group of former Aristide henchmen, armymen and terrorists sprang into action. Overrunning the police station in the central-plateau town of Hinche, they were applauded by the population. Soon they waltzed into Cap-Haitien, Haiti?s second city, without opposition. Their numbers were fewer than two hundred and their military equipment, some old rifles and a few crisply-pressed army uniforms. That was all it took to send Aristide?s few remaining thugs and policemen running for cover.

When the armed band took over Mirebalais, on the mountain road to Port-au-Prince, a shiver went up Aristide?s spine. There was nothing but demonstrably unreliable police and thugs to block them. If they entered the palace with loaded rifles, Aristide would leave in a pine box.

Bereft of Haitian support, Aristide pleaded for foreign help. He called for reinforcements from his American bodyguards, the Steele Foundation of San Francisco. A shipment of arms was sent from South Africa. Most of all, Aristide pleaded for the Marines to come to protect him from the thugs and terrorists.

What painless diplomatic support the Bush administration could muster for Aristide, it readily did. Secretary of State Powell declared that Aristide had been democratically elected (which the State Department knew not to be true) and vowed he would not be allowed to be overthrown by armed bands. Powell personally called the leader of the opposition to get him to accede to a formula leaving Aristide in the palace. The leader refused. It was too late.

The Congressional Black Caucus went en masse to the White House to demand the Marines. Prominent Democrats John Kerry, Chris Dodd, and Tom Harkin and editorialists in the New York Times and Washington Post demanded the same. An initial fifty Marines were sent.

As the rebels approached the city, the moment of truth that the Bush administration had tried so hard to avoid for three years arrived. There was no more room for equivocation.

Either ring the palace with Marines to protect Aristide from the concentric circles of armed and unarmed opponents, making him a permanent ward of the United States, and the Haitian people an enemy of the United States, or cut and cut cleanly.

Aristide made the choice easier by unleashing his thugs in a vast premeditated campaign of arson aimed at the formal sector?s surviving physical plant. Warehouses, docks, and stores were burnt down without even time for the usual ransacking and pilfering.

The source of stability Washington had banked on for three years was actually the main source of instability. If not obvious before, the fact was now starkly illuminated by the flames shooting into the sky and the fires burning long into the night.

First the French, then the Bush administration told Aristide his time was up. He asked what he should do. The U.S. embassy said it would have a plane ready when he resigned.. Aristide packed and held onto the letter until the last minute, but turned it over at the airport.

Once in African safety, he claimed he had been kidnaped by the Bush administration.

Just in time for the bicentennial of their glorious uprising in 1804, the Haitian people had asserted themselves. The revulsion against the thugs? attack on the university on December 5, 2003, and the smashing of the university president?s knees with iron rods, spread around the whole country. There was an insurrectionary mood in the country. When a young leader of the Group of 184, Frandley Denis Julien, told his interlocutors in Washington that any leader who tried to hold back the people would be ignored and swept aside, he foretold exactly. Thus when Powell in February 2004 tried to make the opposition leader backtrack and accept Aristide, that leader knew he would be disowned by his own people if he tried.

Haiti?s road to minimally accountable government, which can stabilize sufficiently so that the economy can recover and create jobs, remains thorny. A virtually impossible situation confronts the interim regime and only a long-term commitment to nation-building by the international community can sustain Haiti. The population, however, has been aroused after a long period of disillusionment and is an actor. From here, the road leads upward.