By Randall Robinson
Oct 5, 2007
Basic Civitas Books, 288 pages, $26
The undoing of Haiti
Author documents the great powers’ enmity against Aristide
Reviewed by BEN TERRALL
For all the justifiable vilification the Bush administration has received for invading Iraq and advancing the agendas of right-wing corporate power and fundamentalist Christian theocracy, Bush’s support for the 2004 coup in Haiti is usually forgotten in books detailing his administration’s crimes. (Impeach the President, a collection of essays enumerating reasons to give Bush/Cheney the heave-ho, is one of the few recent exceptions. It contains a chapter by journalists Lyn Duff and Dennis Bernstein on the 2004 ouster of the democratically elected Haitian government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.)
Randall Robinson’s new book An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President is hence much-needed and right on time. Mr. Robinson, founder and former president of TransAfrica, an organization that aims to “promote enlightened, constructive U.S. policies toward Africa and the Caribbean,” has since the beginning of the 1990s worked to support Mr. Aristide and his progressive vision.
Mr. Robinson puts Haiti’s long struggle in historical context, emphasizing that the 1804 war of liberation against Napoleon was the only successful slave revolution in history. It served as an inspiration for abolitionists and freedom-loving people around the world. It also earned Haiti the enmity of slave owners and colonial powers who did not want to see this example succeed.
As Mr. Robinson makes clear, that attitude from the “great powers” continues to the present day. So much disinformation has been spread about Mr. Aristide in the years since Jesse Helms notoriously branded him a “psychopath” that even allegedly “progressive” elements in the United States have been reluctant to say anything about Haiti without qualifications that give credence to various unproven smears against the exiled president. As Congresswoman Maxine Waters has pointed out, the Haitian president negotiated a gang truce and talked with gang leaders in the same way that she engaged gangs in Los Angeles. Although Mr. Aristide always stressed the importance of nonviolent struggle, just having communication with gangs was twisted into something more sinister.
Barraged by sloppy, ill-informed media recycling talking points from the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, people in the States have too rarely heard of the concrete achievements of Mr. Aristide and the Lavalas movement. Lavalas, which carried then-Fr. Aristide from priesthood to the presidency, was one of the more effective progressive projects of the late 20th century, putting into office an entire government dedicated to popular education, building parks, which the poorest never had access to before, and forcing the superrich to finally pay taxes. It still commands support from the majority of the Haitian people. But given that Lavalas (which means “flood” in Creole) was always about helping the masses of desperately poor Haitians who constitute the majority of the population of that beleaguered land (witness Mr. Aristide’s doubling of the minimum wage), it was soon targeted for destruction by both Haitian and U.S. elites.
As Mr. Robinson writes, “From the start, Aristide tried to establish an authentic democracy that could put a dent in the country’s wide socioeconomic divide. From the start, the United States, France, the European Union, the Haitian bourgeoisie, the Macoutes, FRAPH, Convergence and the American-armed rebels employed every imaginable tactic to violently defeat the new democracy’s overarching goal.”
In April 2003, Mr. Aristide announced that in the bicentennial year of Haitian independence, France should reimburse the 90 million francs that Haiti had been forced to pay between 1825 and 1947 as compensation for France’s lost “property” — the ex-slaves. Mr. Aristide calculated that the sum was now equivalent to $21 billion. The demand resonated throughout Africa and Latin America, and rattled the French government. “Before bringing up claims of this nature,” President Jacques Chirac warned in the summer of 2003, “I cannot stress enough to the authorities of Haiti the need to be very vigilant about — how should I put it — the nature of their actions and their regime.”
Macoutes were killers in the employ of the U.S.-backed dictatorships of Fran�ois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Fran�ois “Baby Doc.” After the younger Duvalier’s regime was finally ousted in 1987, years of extreme military brutality and a number of coup regimes followed, but in 1990 Mr. Aristide emerged as a surprise candidate who swept internationally monitored presidential elections. After U.S.-backed rightists forced him from office, the CIA-funded FRAPH (Haitian Creole for “hit”) carried on the Macoute legacy, killing upwards of 4,000 civilians and raping untold numbers of women. Six years after the end of that reign of terror, Mr. Aristide won his second overwhelming presidential victory in 2000. The Bush administration responded by funding the “Convergence,” a coalition of elite groupings with no popular base in Haiti, via the International Republican Institute.
Mr. Robinson’s description of the January 2004 bicentennial celebration of Haiti’s independence illustrates the class bias of Mr. Aristide’s opposition. As thousands of poor Haitians assembled in front of the Presidential Palace at the festivities, Mr. Robinson was seated on a dais next to Luigi Einaudi, the Organization of American States point man on Haiti policy who helped pave the way toward the coup. Mr. Robinson describes the following exchange after the Italian diplomat expressed concern to him that the surging masses were “going to riot”:
“I leaned over and said to him: ‘Look at this outpouring of love and support for the president. No one can say he does not have the support of the people.’ Mr. Einaudi said, ‘Well he does not have the support of the real people. It is just these types of people here who support him’ (pointing dismissively to the hundreds of thousands massed before him).
“I then asked him: ‘What percentage of the population do these people represent?’ He answered, ‘Well 80 to 90 percent, but they’re not the ones who matter.’ ”
The “real people” Mr. Einaudi refers to are the same people Langston Hughes was thinking of in this passage Mr. Robinson quotes: “Certainly the upper-class Haitians I observed at a distance seemed a delightful and cultured group. No doubt, many of the French slave owners were delightful and cultured too — but the slaves could not enjoy their culture.”
In presidential elections conducted with the “help” of the United States, France and Canada in 2006, the one candidate with a legitimate connection to Mr. Aristide, his former prime minister, Ren� Pr�val, was elected by the majority of Haitian voters. But the “people who matter” to Washington still control Haiti. The police and most ministries are still dominated by individuals who seized power during the 2004 coup, and as Mr. Robinson observed in a recent interview, “The supreme court has been replaced, in large part, by the interim government that was installed by the United States. So Pr�val’s government has no control over the judiciary. We don’t have an authentic democracy.”
Like so many other countries subjected to the bitter medicine of U.S. foreign policy, Haiti deserves better.
Freelance writer Ben Terrall lives in California.
National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2007