By Jeb Sprague, Haiti Liberte
President Michel Martelly now stands poised to institutionalize as a standing army the very paramilitary forces which helped overthrow Haiti’s elected government in 1991 and 2004.
Jeb Sprague’s new book, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, is just out and not a moment too soon. Paramilitaries are being trained and housed on close to 20 former Haitian Army bases around Haiti, with a wink and a nod (if not more) from Martelly’s government.
“Former soldiers and death-squad members were set up on 23 bases around Haiti,” explained Sen. Moïse Jean-Charles in a July interview with Haïti Liberté. “In the face of international criticism, the government made a big production of closing down four of those bases earlier this year. But what about the other 19 de facto bases? They are still functioning, and Martelly knows it. Martelly is behind it.”
This week we present the introduction of Sprague’s important new book which professor and author Robert Fatton called a “must-read not only for Haitianists, but also for anyone interested in the processes of political destabilization and popular disempowerment.”
This autumn, Sprague will make a speaking tour for the book’s release throughout Canada and the U.S.. We publish the schedule for that tour alongside the article.
His right eye blinked furiously, swollen and red; he continued to rub it. In Kreyòl, he demanded to know how I had found him: “Kote w ou jwenn nimewo telefòn mwen?” (Where did you get my phone number?); “Pou kiyès wap travay?” (Who are you working for?), he said as he stared at me with suspicion.
Louis-Jodel Chamblain, the man sitting across from me, had been a commander of the paramilitary force (paramilitaries are irregular armed organizations backed by sectors of the upper class) known as the Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti (also known as the Front for the National Liberation and Reconstruction of Haiti, or FLRN). He explained to me that he had taken up his position during an “uprising” in early 2004 against Haiti’s government. He was also a cofounder in the mid–1990s of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) death squads. According to Human Rights Watch, the FRAPH took part in the killing of at least 4,000 people as well as in thousands of rapes and other acts of torture. Before cofounding the FRAPH, Chamblain had served with the Tonton Macoutes, the infamous paramilitary arm of the Duvalier dictatorship, which according to human rights organizations was responsible for killing tens of thousands of people and victimizing many more. In early 2011, Chamblain would head up security for Jean-Claude Duvalier when the former dictator made a surprise return to Haiti.
Having interviewed and met some of the victims and victims’ family members that Chamblain and his fellow paramilitaries had brutalized, I knew what he was capable of doing. I was afraid of him, but I thought speaking with him could potentially reveal important information. Might he let something slip? Who had supported the paramilitaries in Haiti? What would he reveal about the involvement of my government, that of the United States, or of local wealthy business leaders? We sat on a veranda at the luxurious Hotel Ibo Lele, on a steep Pétion-Ville hillside overlooking Port-au-Prince. It was apparent that the hotel staff knew Chamblain well; they brought us lemonade as we talked. Sweat poured from my forehead as I tape-recorded an interview that lasted for two long hours. It was clear that Chamblain had been staying at the hotel for some time, even befriending UN officials staying at the sunny resort.
When the interview was done, I and a Haitian friend who had accompanied me for the interview sought to exit quickly. We picked up our things. But Chamblain, refusing to take no for an answer, drove us down the hill into the city; he wanted to know where we were staying. Soon, making up some excuse to get out of the car, we waved to two moto-taxis. Zooming down a lively boulevard filled with colorfully decorated bus and pickup truck transports known as tap-taps, weaving around jammed traffic, we looked back over our shoulders making sure that Chamblain was not following us in his white jeep. Ironically, I was staying for a few nights at the Izméry house (better known as the Matthew 25 house) in the neighborhood of Delmas 33. With an adjacent park where the local children play, it was the former home of the progressive Haitian businessman Antoine Izméry, who had been assassinated by paramilitaries years prior. Chamblain had formerly been convicted of organizing the killing. Adding greatly to our fears, just two days prior, a human rights leader and dear friend, Lovinsky Pierre Antoine, had disappeared. Because Lovinsky was one of the major figures of Haiti’s grassroots human rights movement and one of the longtime opponents of the ex-military and paramilitary criminals such as Chamblain, some believed that a rightist hit squad was responsible.
This article for Haïti Liberté, which is an abridged version of the introduction toParamilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, seeks to introduce the reader to the historical and sociological context through which paramilitaries, led by people such as Chamblain, struck a major blow against democracy and the Haitian people at the beginning of the 21stcentury.
A Brief Overview of Paramilitarism in Haiti
The poor living on the island dubbed Hispañola (where today sit Haiti and the Dominican Republic) have long been the targets of political violence. With the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, begun by Columbus in 1492, the indigenous inhabitants — the Arawak — were subjected to genocide, slavery, and infectious disease. The Arawak included different groups, such as Taínos who populated much of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. At least one million Taínos are believed to have been living on the island where Columbus arrived. Anthropologist and medical doctor Paul Farmer explains that the entire Arawak population in the region diminished in number from as many as 8 million when Columbus arrived to an estimated 50,000 by 1510 and could be counted in the hundreds by 1540. By the late 1600s, the indigenous inhabitants of Hispañola were completely gone.
With the conquistadors came sugarcane, brought originally to the island by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. The production of sugarcane was taken to new heights in Saint Domingue on the western side of the island, which was handed over in a treaty to France in 1697. To harvest the sugarcane, African slaves were brought to the colony, imprisoned in the cargo holds of sea vessels.
Less than a century later, by 1789, the colony was supplying three-quarters of the world’s sugar. It generated more wealth for France than all of the 13 North American colonies produced for Great Britain. At this time, two-thirds of Saint Domingue’s half-million slaves had been born in Africa; the majority could remember a time when they were not slaves at all, or at least not slaves to whites. Brutal conditions caused the deaths of one out of every three slaves every three years.
Over the following years, a historic slave revolution took place, after which a post-colonial social order congealed. But toward the end of the 19th century, ramped up foreign military intervention occurred. With the formation of Haiti’s modern army under the U.S. occupation of the country between 1915-1934, the U.S. made sure to leave only after ensuring the new military force could be relied on to continue the occupation by proxy. In the early 1960s, U.S. Marines trained the Tonton Macoutes, the dreaded paramilitary force of then dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The institutionalization of this paramilitary force took place at a time in which the cold war (and events in the Caribbean) were increasingly present in the minds of U.S. policy makers and dominant social groups active in the region. As Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, took over in 1971, former U.S. marine instructors trained and equipped an elite military force (the Leopards). They worked through a Miami company under CIA contract and with U.S. State Department oversight. The brutal role of paramilitaries in Haiti throughout the late 1950s and continuing on throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s (as well as their historical antecedents) is documented in Chapter 1 of my book.
The phenomenon of paramilitarism in crushing the Haitian people’s experiment in popular democracy begins in the last quarter of the 20th century, when democratic struggles for social justice and inclusion were taking place around the world. Although fierce opposition crushed most of these, the Haitian struggle was one that endured, albeit at a tremendous cost. Many leftist or left-leaning movements and their political parties in the Caribbean and Central America had been attacked, divided, neutralized, or subdued: the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the People’s National Party (PNP) in Jamaica, the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) in Grenada, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador. But following decades of kleptocratic dictators and struggles against them by movements from below in Haiti, in early 1991, for the first time in the country’s history, organizers of a mass-based, pro-democracy political movement (that would become known as Lavalas, or “the flood”) were propelled to state power through elections, with a young priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, becoming the country’s first democratically elected president.
In the post-Cold War era, after the fall of the Soviet Union and its support for liberation struggles, and as the world underwent capitalist globalization and neoliberal regimes came to power across the hemisphere, in Haiti some of the poorest people bucked the trend and struggled for an alternative path. Their attempts at democracy provoked two bloody coups: the first in 1991 and then another in 2004. Both coups were backed by an array of elites and armed groups.
Haiti’s popular movement and its leadership were still recovering from the impact of the 1991 coup and the three years of brutal military rule that followed when, in late 2000, a campaign that would eventually drive Fanmi Lavalas (FL) and its leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004, began to gather momentum. A variety of coercive strategies were used by various upper-class sectors to neutralize the potential for (often slow, but steady) popular democratic reforms in Haiti. These strategies were refined in response to on-the-ground developments but can also be seen in light of major shifts occurring through the era of global capitalism. Paramilitary violence has been used as a tool for repressing the popular classes (workers, peasants, slum dwellers, street vendors, the unemployed, and others who formed the bulk of support for Fanmi Lavalas classes and social groups not among Haiti’s elite of large landholders and big business owners), and has, in its most contemporary form, been utilized to benefit, at different times, dominant local and transnational social groups and classes.
One may ask why some dominant groups (and officials from governments such as those of the United States, France, and Canada) care — as they obviously have — about stifling a pro-democracy movement in so small and poor a country. The simplest — and bluntest — answer has been provided by Noam Chomsky. He likens the elite networks that undergird global capitalism to a mafia that does not allow even the smallest and most inconsequential shopkeeper to show open defiance. Defiance can inspire others and must be crushed one way or another, one such way being paramilitary violence. From this point of view, like intelligent mafia dons, many elites will not necessarily deploy violence as a first resort. But when paramilitary violence isdeployed, what are the processes through which this occurs? Furthermore, how do elites differ in such tactics and motivations — sometimes creating contradictions that pose difficulties for them?
Over time, some have become aware of the atrocities perpetrated by paramilitaries and various “security” forces, but it has been extremely difficult for information on paramilitary violence to make its way into the mainstream media and reach larger audiences. Media coverage of political violence against the poor is often slim to nil. The struggle against paramilitary violence has occurred mostly through the struggle of Haiti’s pro-democracy movement itself. In addition to this, the prying eyes of dedicated grassroots media and documentarians, as well as the campaigns of some human rights activists and lawyers, have made it more difficult for paramilitaries (and other armed groups) to operate so openly in confined urban spaces without word getting out about their crimes. To prevent the embarrassing circumstances that these kinds of situations create for dominant groups (who have often allied with anti-democratic regimes and at times allowed, sponsored, or done nothing to stop paramilitary violence), transnationally oriented elites have promoted what has been called “polyarchy.”
Sociologist William I. Robinson explains that polyarchy is a tactic in which democracy is formally promoted by dominant social groups but limited by them to narrow institutional boundaries to a system in which a small sliver of society rules. When the tactic of polyarchy fails, paramilitarism and other overt forms of coercion serve as a backup option for dominant groups.
My book on this topic first looks at the historical context of right-wing political violence and the institutionalization of paramilitarism in Haiti. However, the main part of the book, the case study, documents the role of paramilitaries and their backers in the most recent coup (in 2004) and what occurred afterward. I have sought to provide what philosopher Peter Hallward found was still needed regarding the coup, a “detailed reconstruction of the early development of the FLRN insurgency.”
The second Aristide administration was subjected to a relentless vilification campaign in both the local and global press. It was often depicted as being little different from the infamous dictatorships that have plagued Haiti so often during its modern history.
Hallward observes that the best available data show that political violence during Aristide’s time in office paled in comparison to the Duvalier dictatorship and the unelected regimes installed after Aristide was twice overthrown. The Duvalier dictatorships (1957–86) and the brief dictatorships that immediately followed these carried out the killings of somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people in total, and after the coup of 1991, at least 4,000 — likely more according to many sources — died under the subsequent three years of dictatorship. After the 2004 coup, human rights investigators carrying out a study of the greater Port-au-Prince area found again that at least 4,000 Lavalas or similarly politically oriented people had been killed in political violence under the U.S./UN-backed post-coup regime. Even though the study, based on a random sampling published in The Lancet, was criticized by some, a number of other human rights studies also reveal a high number of casualties resulting from the 2004 coup and the repression that followed.
By comparison, during Aristide’s second tenure in office from 2001 to 2004 somewhere between 10 and 30 persons were killed by members or supporters of his government (in the context of clashes), and a larger number of civilians and government supporters were killed by elite-backed anti-government paramilitaries. There are no reasonable grounds for concluding, despite the actions of a small number of Aristide’s supporters and police, that the policy of his government was to silence dissent through violence. Thanks to the machinations of his foreign and domestic enemies, Aristide, upon his 2001 inauguration, was already saddled with a police force he would struggle to control. Though individuals from both sides of the conflict are guilty of violent acts, it is important to understand that the preponderance of these acts (and often, the initiating acts) originated from illegal armed organizations (working in league with dominant groups) that opposed Haiti’s elected populist-left government. The popular classes — and those organizing in their interests — have been and continue to be the primary targets of political violence.
The campaign against Fanmi Lavalas was a broad and long-term destabilization project. The campaign included mass media manipulation and an aid embargo on the Haitian state that was backed by many of the powerful embassies and larger NGOs active in the country. It involved key U.S. allies — officials from Canada and France — often thought of as being more autonomous, and distinct from U.S. elites.
Writer and founder of the organization TransAfrica, Randall Robinson recalls how “no one could remember an occasion where the United States and its allies had mounted a more comprehensive campaign to cripple a small, poor country than they had in the case of democratic Haiti.” But we must also note that through globalization many state elites and capitalists from the U.S. (and from around the world) have become more interested in promoting conditions for global capital than national capital, becoming more and more transnationally oriented in their outlook. Furthermore, numerous studies by political economists and sociologists have documented the objective integration through which so many dominant groups have prospered in global capitalism (integrated to different degrees through transnational circuits of production and finance, or through various institutional processes). Local dominant groups in Haiti have undergone important transformations through capitalist globalization as well — yet also face drastically different historic conditions than their counterparts in more economically developed regions. Both evolving and long-lasting differences in elite priorities are revealed when examining the paramilitary campaign against Aristide and Haiti’s popular movement. Early on, a hard-line sector of Haiti’s bourgeoisie, old-school Duvalierists, a clique within the Dominican Republic’s foreign ministry and army, and a handful of disloyal power hungry individuals within Haiti’s government provided the most direct support to the paramilitaries. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents I obtained show that the U.S. maintained channels of communication with the paramilitaries and their backers for years, and also suggest that France provided the paramilitaries financial support. A wing of the transnationally oriented locally based industrialists in Haiti also covertly backed the paramilitaries, and many powerful foreign officials were content to ignore the paramilitaries or, crucially, instigate an environment that allowed the paramilitaries to thrive, and then, following the 2004 coup, sought to bring the paramilitaries under control. Whereas these transnationally oriented supporters (or enablers) of the paramilitaries have often hidden well their role in the atrocities, some from the hard-line sectors of the country’s bourgeoisie have been clumsier in covering their tracks.
The weakening of Haiti’s police, in part through the machinations of the U.S. and the UN, as well as through the corrupting influence of the narco-trade and the local conflict over limited state resources, has allowed the phenomenon of paramilitarism to reemerge. For example, Washington pushed for the recycling of a small but influential pro-U.S. group from the country’s disbanded brutal military force into Haiti’s new police force during the latter half of the 1990s, and then to a much larger degree in 2004–5 the U.S. and the UN oversaw the recycling of 400 ex-army paramilitaries into a revamped police force. By helping to facilitate the continued influential role of such individuals, dominant groups for many years have directly and indirectly facilitated the phenomenon of paramilitarism — and the avoidance of justice.
To understand the contemporary development of paramilitarism in Haiti and the shifts it has undertaken in recent years, we must look at its recent history in four waves.
• The first wave: the Tonton Macoutes were institutionalized under the Duvalier dynasty and its successors throughout the late 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The brutal macoute power structure became pervasive in Haitian society, leaching off the poor and displacing state resources. Macoute stations (of different sizes) even in the same neighborhood often had poor communication with one another and instead communicated up through a hierarchal web of command. Members also spied on one another through Duvalier’s secret police (the service detective), which was heavily infiltrated into the macoutes to protect the regime from internal plots (the secret police were sworn to secrecy about their membership in the group).
Whereas repressive militias existed in the past, the Macoute paramilitaries became a permanent and institutionalized strata under the Duvalier dynasty. Macoute paramilitaries also often served in Haiti’s army – forming a symbiotic relationship with the Fad’H (the Armed Forces of Haiti). As political scientist Jean-Germain Gros has explained, in some cases, “the sons of high-ranking Tontons Macoutes, who were not qualified to enter the military academy, or did not wish to submit to rigorous exercises, became officers anyway, after taking crash courses atcamp d’application.”
In an ethnographic study of one Port-au-Prince neighborhood (Bel Air), Anthropologist Michel Laguerre found that initially macoutes had been gathered from a secret society, a literary association, and a group of civil servants. Laguerre observed that: “The salaries of the Tontons macoutes vary depending on there positions in the hierarchy and their connection with officials in the government.” Some Tonton Macoutes worked for city officials or were higher paid if they worked directly for the national palace. Volunteers, without a salary, benefitted from being able to wear a gun. Secret police were remunerated behind closed doors, and according to one individual interviewed by Laguerre, they were expected to use their secret intelligence identification as a way to pressure legislative cabinet members to regularly pay them off. With the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier in 1986, the Tonton Macoute paramilitary force was officially disbanded but many from their ranks were carried over into new non-uniformed attachés. Surface-level changes were made to deal with shifting political dynamics occurring both within and outside the country.
• The second wave: the attachés, as they were dubbed under the regimes of Henri Namphy and Prosper Avril following the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, were basically the continuation of the Tonton Macoutes. They continued to work closely with the country’s military but without the uniform and regalia the Duvalier dynasty had bestowed upon them. Following the mass mobilization against a January 1991 coup attempt launched by attaché paramilitaries and then the inauguration of Haiti’s first elected government on Feb. 7, 1991, the attachés went briefly into the shadows as the military (at least publicly) distanced itself from them. The new government also began to disband the country’s rural enforcers (the section chiefs).
• The third wave: following the coup d’état of September 1991, a military regime seized power, and over time it increasingly relied on paramilitaries, many formerly of the Tonton Macoutes and attachés, to crush resistance. The main death squad, which would come to be known as the FRAPH, coordinated with the CIA station chief in Port-au-Prince while working closely with Haiti’s military and some of the country’s wealthiest families. It was used across the country to carry out brutal killings and attacks, targeting activists from the popular movement. The illegality of the coup, the extreme violence and corruption of its enforcers, and the pro-democracy organizing of many Haitians (and solidarity supporters) resulted in the de facto regime being widely and accurately recognized as a pariah narco-state, that ultimately in late 1994 the U.S. and UN intervened to remove. Once democracy (with clipped wings) was restored in 1994 the paramilitaries went underground once again, with much of its top leadership going into exile or hiding. Haiti’s democracy instituted a truth-and-justice process, which, though facing many difficulties, began for the first time to hold paramilitary and military forces accountable for their crimes. The returned democracy was also able to disband the country’s brutal military and rural section chiefs. Yet the U.S. was successful in pushing into Haiti’s new police force dozens of ex-FAd’H who remained in close contact with the U.S. embassy. Haiti’s reconstituted government also made the mistake of allowing in around 100 ex-FAd’H that it believed had left their old ways (which turned out, among some, not to be the case), although the government likely had no choice but to give some concessions to the U.S. and seek its own protection.
• The fourth wave: FLRN paramilitaries emerged in late 2000, led by renegade police officials who were from among the same ex-FAd’H, pushed into the country’s new security force by the U.S. in the late 1990s. Over the years these paramilitaries had become involved in narco-trafficking, and by the turn of the century they had begun plotting with their natural allies among the neo-Duvalierists, some sweatshop owners, and some of the ex-FAd’H who remained in the government, feigning loyalty. Over time, these relations appear to have deepened and they worked with sectors of the country’s bourgeoisie and even some leading transnationally oriented capitalists in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. This fourth wave often presented itself as the “new army,” but once Aristide had been driven from power in 2004 and the pro-Aristide slum communities of Port-au-Prince were thoroughly repressed, the FLRN leaders (increasingly divided among themselves) were sidelined while at least 400 of their men were integrated (in a process overseen by the United States, UN, and OAS) into a post-coup police force.
Following the 2004 coup an unelected and brutal interim government held office for over two years, buttressed by a UN force, after which the popularly elected administration of René Préval (a former prime minister under Aristide’s first administration) took office. Though this brought a partial reprieve from the extreme violence of the interim government, Préval also governed widely in accord with the policies of the transnational elite and with a heavy UN presence in the country. Meanwhile, Fanmi Lavalas has been denied participation in elections since the 2004 coup.
Since the 2010 earthquake, taking advantage of the upheaval and social disarray it caused, calls have heightened among the ex-military and right-wing politicians within the country to reconstruct Haiti’s brutal army. In March 2011, Michel Martelly, a popular musician connected to Haiti’s bourgeoisie and longtime opponent of Lavalas, was elected as president in a controversial vote. In the presidential election, in which voters were allowed to choose between two right-wing candidates, an extremely low turnout occurred, with Martelly receiving the votes of only 16.7% of registered voters. Rather than focus on infrastructure for the country’s poor, tragically harmed in the earthquake, or turning attention to the country’s rural heartland (which is in drastic need of attention), one of Martelly’s main goals has been to rebuild Haiti’s army. With the FAd’H having been disbanded for over 15 years (and a good deal of the ex-FAd’H’s contemporary role in paramilitary violence never properly exposed), it is an important historical juncture in Haiti.
The same month that Martelly was elected, just a 40-minute drive from the center of Port-au-Prince, I and two others visited a hilltop camp where around 100 young self-proclaimed neo-Duvalierists and old-timers from the FAd’H are active. I was told that in the late 2000s a network of training camps had been developed around the country by some of the ex-FAd’H that had also been in the FLRN. Under the Duvalierist banner they train and vet new recruits for private security companies while promoting calls for the return of Haiti’s disbanded military.
Today in Haiti, neo-Duvalierist, ex-army, and paramilitary networks remain active, although often behind closed doors. Backed by a collection of wealthy elites and hundreds of allies in Haiti’s police and government, and buttressed by the shocking return of Jean-Claude Duvalier in early 2011 and the poorly attended election of Michel Martelly that same year, right-wing forces within the country are emboldened, achieving their strongest position in decades. Martelly’s government has declared that it will remake the army, renaming it the Composante Militaire de la Force Publique, by the end of his term. Whereas a top French official suggested his government would finance the new force, the U.S. appears to have ended its long-term arms embargo on the country’s government. In July 2012, it was revealed that Brazil and Ecuador (members of the UN force occupying Haiti) have offered to help reform the army. There have been allegations that Martelly’s brother-in-law was involved in a shady arms deal purchasing thousands of automatic handguns supposedly meant for the country’s security forces. The Martelly government’s key constituency are top business leaders (as well as local sectors of the bourgeoisie) and transnational policy elites whose central goal is to stabilize the country for global capital. The long-term strategy for development rests on the investment of transnational corporations through cheap mining concessions and textile industries through which they can leverage Haiti’s pool of low-wage workers.
Opposition to these plans is growing, however, and a campaign to halt the re-creation of the army and hold Duvalier accountable for his crimes is bringing together a cross section of Haiti’s civil society organizations and grassroots popular movement. Groups such as the Boston-based Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti (IJDH) and Haiti’s Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) have spearheaded some such efforts. Others, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, Just Foreign Policy, and SOA Watch have led human rights campaigns to hold U.S. officials accountable for their policies overseas.
Following the rollback of Haiti’s sovereignty with the 2004 coup d’état, the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, and the heightened foreign political intervention that occurred after the earthquake, it appears unlikely that paramilitary criminals and their backers will face justice any time soon. Even so, as Haitian political activist Patrick Elie explains: “Today as Martelly talks about forming a new army, this story must be told.” The more people understand why criminals like Louis-Jodel Chamblain live in comfort, poised to victimize more people if Haiti’s destitute majority dare to raise their heads, the sooner the day will arrive when justice and democracy prevail.
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