by Amanda Zivcic
In the aftermath of Haiti’s January 12 earthquake, the dispatch of US and United Nations troops was given priority — even at the expense of rescue teams and medical aid.
The mainstream media did not generally question the explanation: the country needed “stabilising”, security being threatened by “gangs.” But the gangs of marauding looters failed to materialise.
Despite the failure of the military-led relief effort to bring food, water or medicine, the survivors responded to their situation with dignity, social solidarity and practical mutual assistance, rather than the predicted violence.
This has not slowed the military buildup, however. As with the UN military occupation that has been “stabilising” Haiti since 2004, the real target is not violent mobs but grassroots self-organisation by Haiti’s impoverished majority, in particular, the Lavalas movement led by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who, in 1991, became Haiti’s first popularly elected president.
From 1957-1986, Haiti was ruled by two brutal US-backed dictators, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, until his death in 1971, and then his son Jean-Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The Duvalier regime was marked by the paramilitary death squads, the Tonton Macoutes.
Baby Doc was responsible for opening up the Haitian economy to foreign investment, especially the “light manufacturing and garment industry” (meaning sweatshops). These economic reforms were known as the “American plan”.
Tariff removals forced Haitian peasants to compete with subsidised US imports, forcing hundreds of thousands of rural Haitians into the urban slum areas, where US corporations such as Kmart and Disney had sweatshops paying US$0.11 per hour.
The Tontons Macoutes ensured labour costs stayed low using murder, kidnapping and torture against labour organisers. However, from 1986 onwards, the tide began to turn. In February 1986, a mass uprising that began with food riots forced Baby Doc into exile.
In a January 19 interview with the British Socialist Worker, Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment described what followed.
“At first it seemed as if the popular movement might gain the upper hand. In the late 1980s it grew rapidly. It drew on the inspiration of liberation theology, and from the anti-imperialist tradition in Latin America.
“Popular protest grew too powerful for the army to control, and in 1990, on the back of the anti-Duvalier movement, Haiti elected a president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who opposed the army and the Duvalierist American plan…
“Aristide and others around him … talked openly about class and the disparity of wealth. They also talked about the need for popular self-defence against the army and the Macoutes — and members of the elite began to panic …
“The first time Aristide was elected, with 67 percent of the vote, the army dealt with the popular threat in the usual way — with a violent coup. Thousands were killed when the army regained direct control, from 1991 to 1994.”
Aristide lasted nine months before this Washington-instigated coup ousted him. Basic government service provision collapsed and the military regime targeted for repression areas such as Port-au-Prince’s Cite Soleil slum where Lavalas had a high level of popular support.
During his exile in the US, Aristide was held at political gunpoint. The Clinton regime offered him a choice: remain powerless to stop the massacres of Haiti’s poor by the military, or return, but with US troops and neoliberal International Monetary Fund and World Bank conditions.
As part of the neoliberal program the IMF insisted upon, Haiti was told to scrap a law mandating rises in the minimum wage when inflation exceeded 10%, further impoverishing Haitian workers.
Further neoliberal attacks on Haitian agriculture left the country entirely reliant on food imports. Before 1950 Haiti produced 80% of its own food. This has left Haitians at the mercy of global market fluctuations. In 2007 and 2008, there were food riots after price rises had reduced many Haitians to literally eating mud.
Despite the strictures imposed, Aristide achieved some progressive reforms after his 1994 reinstatement, most notably the abolition of the army.
A new party, Fanmi Lavalas, was formed by Aristide in the run-up to 2000 national elections. It was an effort to create a stronger political movement more accountable to popular needs and demands.
Aristide and the new party won in a landslide. The new government fostered grassroots organising and social programs in health, education and other fields. In February 2004, Aristide and his government were overthrown in a second coup, this time spearheaded directly by the US and its partners in Europe and Canada.
Following the 2000 election, the US encouraged, financed and armed a paramilitary force composed of elements of the former Haitian army as well as criminals. Along with Canada and Europe, it instituted a devastating cutoff of aid to the new government.
On February 29, 2004, troops from the US, France and Canada landed in Haiti to “restore order” to a country wracked by the violence of the paramilitaries. US marines kidnapped Aristide, flew him out of the country and opened the gates of Port au Prince to the paramilitaries.
In a January 17 article that questioned the motives of the Western response to the earthquake, Jamaica Observer columnist John Maxwell recalled the events of 2004:
“The US Marines protected an undisciplined ragbag of rapists and murderers to allow them entry to the capital.
“The Marines chased the medical students out of the new Medical School established by Aristide with Cuban help and teachers. The Marines bivouac in the school, going out on nightly raids, trailed by fleets of ambulances with body bags, hunting down Fanmi Lavalas activists described as ‘chimeres’ — terrorists.
“The real terrorists, led by two convicted murderers, Chamblain and Philippe, assisted the Marines in the eradication of ‘chimeres’ until the Marines were replaced by foreign troops, paid by the United Nations [the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti — MINUSTAH], who took up the hunt on behalf of the civilised world — France, Canada, the US and Brazil.
“The terrorists and the remains of the Duvalier tontons and the CIA-bred FRAPF declared open season on the remnants of Aristide’s programmes to build democracy.
“They burnt down the new museum of Haitian culture, destroyed the children’s television station and generally laid waste to anything and everything which could remind Haitians of their glorious history.”
Fanmi Lavalas, overwhelmingly the most popular Haitian political organisation, has been banned from taking part in elections under the UN-occupation regime.
Just as the “economic reform” and “development” have become code-words for foreign-owned sweatshops and the destruction of Haitian agriculture, under UN military occupation “nation building” and “developing democratic institutions” are code words for violently suppressing Haitians political aspirations.
Aristide has said he wants to return to Haiti since the earthquake, to help oversee the process of reconstructing a nation.
As film-maker Kevin Pina told the January 16 Independent:
“If Aristide were to return, people would mobilise. Tens of thousands would mobilise just like that. With just picks and shovels they would clean up the mess in just a month.
“They still love him that much.”
For Haiti to rebuild, sovereignty must be restored. Foreign military occupation must end. Aristide should be allowed to return and Haitians should be allowed to decide on their own government and economic policies without any outside interference.