Haitian Masses Move Forward Against Foreign Occupation

By Roger Annis

Sometimes even the best-laid plans of the powerful go astray. Such was the case in Haiti in February of this year when Haitians turned out in overwhelming numbers to elect René Préval as president. Préval, who first served as president from 1996 to 2001, is an ally of the deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide, and thus his election was a powerful rebuke to the foreign powers, including Canada, that conspired to overthrow Aristide’s government in February 2004.

The US, France, and Canada drove Aristide from office because his government sought to protect Haiti’s poor majority from the worst ravages of the world economic order. Aristide’s foreign policy measures, including the forging of diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, were deemed equally unacceptable. This placed Aristide and his popular, mass-based movement, Lavalas, at odds with the economic powers in the Caribbean region, for whom he and his government served as a dangerous example.

With Aristide shipped out of the country and Haiti’s foreign-appointed “interim government” brutally suppressing dissent, and in the face of a growing international outcry over systematic human rights violations by the coup regime and occupying force, the local and foreign elites needed the legitimacy of an election to justify the coup. But the Haitian masses refused to be intimidated on election day, and soundly rejected the elite’s chosen candidates.

The plan, and its unraveling

In spite of significant barriers to participation, Haiti’s poor majority mobilized in massive numbers on election day. Leading up to the election, a complex electronic voter registration system had been put in place that effectively disenfranchised many. Less than one-tenth the number of polling booths were made available compared to the last election six years ago. Many poorer, heavily populated districts in the capital, Port au Prince, had few or no polling booths, while many rural voters had to travel long distances in order to cast a ballot. Lineups were long on voting day and required lengthy waits. And on the day of the vote, many polling stations opened late or required protest action by voters in lineups before doors were opened at all.

The election was organized and administered by a “Provisional Electoral Council,” an extra-constitutional (and therefore illegal) authority that was established by the post-coup regime. Funding and many staff were provided by the foreign occupation powers. Canada was a key contributor. Officials of Elections Canada, including its director, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, were central figures in the planning and administration of the election.

“Préval called on his supporters to stay in the streets and block the apparent attempt by the election authorities to steal the vote.”

Initially it seemed as if Haiti’s election was to be stolen and handed to the elite’s favoured candidate. Haiti’s constitution requires that a presidential candidate receive fifty-percent-plus-one of the vote, or a run-off vote is required. As the “official” count for Préval dropped further and further below fifty percent in the days following February 7, widespread protests broke out in Port au Prince. Préval called on his supporters to stay in the streets and block the apparent attempt by the election authorities to steal the vote.

Then, on February 14, news images hit television screens in Haiti and around the world of piles of ballots marked for Préval burning or otherwise left scattered in a Port au Prince garbage dump. This clear evidence of vote tampering did much to undermine the legitimacy of the Provisional Electoral Council and United Nations agencies, who were responsible for the security of the ballots and their proper counting. Anger in the streets exploded, and rallies of tens of thousands of people paralyzed the capital. The elites were finally forced to bow to the reality that Préval had won an overwhelming first-round victory. His closest rival received a scant twelve percent of the vote.

A reassertion of Haitian sovereignty

The new Préval government has set a priority on ending the foreign occupation. Newly appointed Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis declared in early June that his government will work to create the conditions for Haiti to recover its sovereignty. “No true Haitian can accept the presence of foreign troops on the national territory,” he told the newly elected Haitian Senate.

Alexis acknowledged, however, that a foreign presence was necessary in the short run because the country does not have the necessary police and military power to defend the new government and to assure safety in daily life for ordinary citizens.

Préval has repeatedly spoken of the need for fundamental social reform for Haiti’s poor majority. In a statement issued in late March entitled “Less poverty, more hope,” he declared, “Though ravaged, Haiti is not the wretched land as so often described in the media. It is a land of hope for more than eight million people. I cannot achieve miracles, nor have I been promising any. But I feel I have the responsibility to the Haitian people to open doorways on a brighter future: less poverty, less inequality, more wealth, more hope.

“This is why I ran again for president.”

The new government has put forward an economic program that will focus on promoting tourism and agriculture. The government will also encourage foreign investment in light manufacturing, and seek foreign funding to repair Haiti’s devastated natural environment and its social infrastructure. So far, Préval has received important commitments of aid from Venezuela and Cuba, and Haiti has been welcomed into the Petrocaribe program initiated by Venezuela, which offers cheap oil to the poor countries of the Caribbean. Cuba has promised to extend and expand its medical mission in Haiti and its free medical training of young Haitians.

Many problems persist, however. Six months after the presidential elections, there are still several hundred political prisoners languishing in Haiti’s jails. They include Yvon Neptune, who was Prime Minister in Aristide’s government, and Haiti’s most beloved folk singer, So-Anne Auguste. The total prison population numbers some 4,000, most of whom have never been charged with a crime. Haiti’s Ministry of Justice is still largely staffed by officials appointed after the coup or who are otherwise beholden to anti-popular forces.

While some prisoners have begun to be released, it’s not fast enough for most Haitians. Many believe the new government could and should be moving more decisively to gain their release. An open letter to Haitian authorities calling for the rapid release of prisoners has been signed by more than one thousand people, and the number of signatures is growing. The letter and signatures were printed in the June 30 edition of the weekly newspaper Le Nouvelliste. Activists are planning protest actions to highlight their concerns.

Canada’s role in the occupation of Haiti

Along with France and the United States, Canada is one of the three main pillars of the illegal coup and foreign occupation in Haiti. Troops from these three countries and Chile invaded in February 2004 and “secured” the country in the months that followed, before passing Haiti to the current 9,000 member UN-sponsored occupation force. The UN force is drawn mainly from Brazil and Chile, but also includes troops and police from such disparate countries as Jordan, China, and Sri Lanka.

Canadians continue to hold key advisory positions in government ministries. They head up the UN police force, and the RCMP has spent the past two years training the notoriously repressive Haitian National Police. Several Canadian military officials hold high-ranking positions in the UN occupation authority, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH.

To this day, not a single member of the Canadian Parliament has denounced the coup, nor the human rights disaster that followed. After much prompting by solidarity activists, some New Democratic Party MPs began to voice concern about human rights violations in Haiti, and foreign affairs critic Alexa McDonough began to refer to the coup as the “removal” of Aristide from office (the occupiers describe the coup as a “voluntary departure” by Aristide).

The NDP’s only call to action has been to ask the Canadian government to investigate conditions in Haiti. But a government investigation is meaningless without a recognition of Canada’s own role in creating those conditions. This was amply demonstrated in late May and early June, when the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development held extensive hearings on Haiti. Questioning by MPs and testimony by government and “democracy-promotion” witnesses were entirely self-congratulatory and uncritical of Canada’s policy.

Following a trip she made in May of this year, McDonough spoke very favorably of Canada’s ongoing role.

The occupying powers have yet to declare that they will respect the new government’s request for an end to the foreign occupation, and the precise division of powers and chain of command between the newly elected government and the UN mission has yet to be clarified. This sets the stage for more political confrontation between the Haitian masses and the occupying powers if the occupation is perceived to be dictating or unduly interfering in government policy.

NGOs and the “strategic use of aid”

The coup in Haiti revealed a new and nasty side of Canadian foreign policy: a concerted effort to draw non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into the operations of the imperial ambitions that now drive Canadian foreign policy.

Writing in reference to Afghanistan in the March 2006 issue of Walrus magazine, Sean Maloney and Tom Fennell explained:

“One unique aspect of the new [Canadian military] strategy is the way that development and humanitarian aid are being used specifically for the purpose of building loyalty toward coalition forces and democratic reforms. The American, British, and Canadian governments all have representatives from their international development and relief agencies stationed in Afghanistan; the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) alone plans to spend $616 million there by 2009. […]

“The strategic use of aid may offend some, but this approach is gaining credibility and has been adopted by CIDA and Foreign Affairs.”

In Haiti, some of Canada’s best-known NGOs were either supportive of the 2004 coup or silent on the massive human rights violations that followed. Development and Peace, the international aid organization of the Catholic Church, for instance, responded to critics of its Haiti policy in a Background Paper in March 2006 in which it wrote, “The international media has shrouded the departure of Aristide on 29 February 2004 with conspiracy theories, going so far in some cases as to claim that the CIA deposed the president in a coup d’état…In fact, Aristide himself was largely responsible for the circumstances that led to his forced departure.”

The Haitian Platform to Advocate for an Alternative Development (PAPDA) is a Haitian NGO closely partnered with the Quebec-based Alternatives NGO. In January 2004, PAPDA issued a statement in which it, “praises the courage and foresight of the Haitian people who are mobilizing in greater numbers every day to demand the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. PAPDA is happy to associate itself with this demand and reiterates its conviction that President Aristide’s departure constitutes an essential element of any real way out of the crisis facing the country today.”

The director of PAPDA, Camille Chalmers, is a member of the board of directors of Alternatives. Most of the latter’s funding is provided by the Canadian International Development Agency.

Development and Peace and its partners in Haiti were among those who applauded Aristide’s “departure” from office. On March 25, 2004, its Quebec director, Marthe Lapierre, told the Canadian Parliament Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, “I’d like to begin by saying that what characterized President Aristide’s government was its inability to govern, which is not necessarily the case now. It seems to me the transitional government that has been appointed does have some ability to do that…it is creating hope among the Haitian population, based on what we’ve observed.”

Common to all the Canadian and Haitian NGOs who supported Aristide’s “departure” was a scandalous failure to protest the human rights violations that followed the coup. Extensive human rights investigations were sponsored or issued in 2004 and 2005 by such reputable organizations as the National Lawyers Guild in the United States, the Harvard University Faculty of Law, the School of Law at the University of Miami, and Amnesty International. They all painted a grim picture of killings and jailings of Aristide supporters by UN forces and the Canadian-trained Haitian National Police, as well as destruction of the Haitian economy and social infrastructure.

Yet the following commentary is typical of the organizations that either called for or applauded Aristide’s removal. In February 2006, Francois L’Ecuyer of Alternatives wrote, “Put in place in the days following the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the interim government set to work on the heavy job of rebuilding the country. Initially, an important part of the population was prepared to support this government….” The article then goes on to report the utter failure of this same government to govern effectively, without any explanation as to why, nor of the massive rights violations over which it presided.

An article by the same author in May 2006 reviews the challenges facing the new, elected government in Haiti without any reference whatsoever to the severe damage done during the coup years.

OXFAM Quebec maintained a similar silence on the suppression of democracy in Haiti in its annual report for 2004-2005.

The democracy-promotion agency of the Canadian government, Rights and Democracy, has also been a strong supporter of Aristide’s “departure.”

Challenging “Responsibility to Protect”

The foreign intervention in Haiti is the first fruit of the new “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, authored by prominent liberals in Canada and increasingly accepted as policy by the United Nations. Under its terms, the great powers of the world grant themselves the authority to declare a people or country “failed” and then intervene militarily to install compliant governments. This doctrine was analyzed by Anthony Fenton in the December 2005 issue of Briarpatch.

Haiti represents a considerable challenge to progressive forces in Canada. The Canadian government has emerged unscathed from its complicity in the overthrow of Haiti’s elected government and its direct hand in training that country’s notoriously brutal police force. If such practices, and the doctrine underlying them, are not challenged, then we will see more foreign policy adventures similar to Haiti and Afghanistan. This bodes very badly for the future of political and social rights, not only abroad, but increasingly at home as well.

Solidarity committees sprang up across Canada in 2004 in response to the terrible news coming out of Haiti. That year, these committees formed the Canada Haiti Action Network to coordinate solidarity across the country. Members of the network held a meeting in Montreal in May of this year and pledged to continue their work. Priorities in the coming months will be:

  • To continue exposing Canada’s complicity in the detention of political prisoners in Haiti and the flagrant violation of Haiti’s constitution pertaining to the rights of arrested and detained persons.
  • That Canada withdraw its police and military forces from Haiti, under terms set by the new Haitian government.
  • To end the use of aid money and NGO projects as weapons that undermine the institutions of the sovereign government of Haiti. Instead, Haiti needs massive amounts of aid with no strings attached for rebuilding the shattered economy and social infrastructure.

In the recent election in Haiti, the Haitian people mobilized massively to impose their desire for a democracy and social progress and for an end to foreign occupation. Canadians should respond by stepping up solidarity with their struggle.

Roger Annis, co-editor of Socialist voice, is a coordinator of the Vancouver-based Haiti Solidarity BC and the Canada Haiti Action Network. This article was published in the August 2006 issue of Briarpatch Magazine