US imperialism ousts Aristide from Haiti

On the 29th of February 2004, after weeks of civil war waged by his opponents (hailing mostly from privileged sections of Haitian society), Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected President of Haiti, was kidnapped by invading US forces and flown out of the country, in order to make way for US imperialism’s latest choice of President.

The bourgeois press is of course justifying US imperialist intervention in Haiti with its usual servile fervour. We have seen a torrent of abuse hurled at Aristide, such as in the Independent of 13 February, 2004, where Andrew Gumbel writes from Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, “The tide of anti-Aristide sentiment is unmistakable; the result of years of inaction on Haiti’s disastrous economy, compounded by multiple signs of corruption and personal enrichment, and a loss of faith by the international community”. Aristide, it is claimed, won the 2000 elections, but those elections were “flawed”. The Glasgow Sunday Herald of 22 February reports that “Critics say the president has bought loyalty in Port-au-Prince’s shanty towns through patronage and by franchising drug trafficking rights”, and The Times of 23 February writes: “President Aristide has become the very being he once railed against: a populist despot surrounded by corrupt cronies, reliant on armed gangs and political oppression to cling to power …”

And further: “Haiti has an unemployment rate of 80 per cent. It is ravaged by Aids and life expectancy is 53. Four fifths of the people live on less than $2 (£1.07) a day. Rather than confront its chronic problems, Mr Aristide has left an institutional vacuum in which gang rule prevails, corruption flourishes and many people long for the ‘stability’ of the Duvalier era, in which tens of thousands were murdered”.

All in all, we have a picture of corruption, economic incompetence, mindless violence, ballot-rigging and total lack of popular support.

The reality is very different.

While nobody can doubt Haiti’s dire poverty, or the fact that it got worse while Aristide or Préval (an Aristide supporter) were in power, the truth is that this is not something you can blame Aristide for. As Gary Younge wrote in the Guardian of 23 February, “If Haiti shows all the trappings of a failed state, then you do not have to look too hard or too far to see who has failed it” – i.e., not Aristide but originally French imperialism and subsequently US imperialism who “must take responsibility for how they [the Haitians] got to this parlous place to begin with”. He explains that, as the first colony successfully to overthrow its foreign oppressors, the French, it was singled out for the “wrath of the colonial powers, which knew what a disastrous example a Haitian success story would be. In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: ‘The freedom of the negroes, if recognised … and legalised by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom seekers of the New World”. The upshot of this was that “France, backed by the US, … ordered Haiti to pay 150 m francs in gold as reparations to compensate former plantation and slave owners as well as for the costs of the war in return for international recognition. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of Haiti’s national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest, and the country was locked into the role of a debtor nation – where it remains today.”

The problem with being a debtor nation is that your earnings are gobbled up in loan servicing, leaving you with no choice but to prostrate yourself before your lenders on a regular basis to borrow more money if you are going to be able to eat tomorrow. Haiti’s lenders have been merciless. US imperialism in particular has for decades insisted that in return for “aid”, the Haitian government adopt policy after policy weakening the Haitian economy for the benefit of US imperialist exploiters. This is the policy that has brought Haiti to its knees, that has given rise to major political unrest, and to death squads who go round murdering anybody who is evenly mildly opposed to imperialist plunder. This is the policy that spells death, disease and illiteracy for the people of Haiti.

Considerable detail of imperialism’s demands on Haiti over the last several decades was given by Lisa McGowan in January 1997 on behalf of the Development Group for Alternative Policies – an organisation which believes that imperialist looting is just a “policy” that needs to be changed, rather than a system which provides the essential lifeblood of the modern imperialist state, and which imperialism could no more abandon than people can give up breathing. This erroneous belief, however, does not prevent them from making a swingeing exposé of imperialism’s crimes vis-à-vis Haiti. At the time she was writing, René Préval, a friend and follower of Aristide, was President – for under the Haitian constitution, Aristide could not stand in the election which returned Préval to office. While Aristide had been in office he had been “compelled to accept economic enslavement, bound by terms imposed by the IMF and World Bank. Post colonial military aggression gave way to the brutal forces of globalisation. … Take rice. Forced … to lower its import tariffs, Haiti suddenly found itself flooded with subsidised rice from the US, which drove Haitian rice growers out of business and the country to import a produce that it has once produced.” (Guardian, op. cit.). As a result, says Lisa McGowan, “Préval faced enormous problems and pressures, particularly on the economic front. Strong tensions over the economic policies and programs being proposed by the US government and the international financial institutions (IFIs) had arisen during Aristide’s last year in office, with many of the harshest critics of the donor-supported economic plan coming from Aristide’s – and Préval’s – own constituency. In a time of great social and political change, President Préval was faced with the prospect of negotiating an economic programme with the popular sector (his political base), Haitian economic elites (many of whom were loath to see changes in the economic structures that had made them so rich), the obsessively pro-business American government, and inflexible financial institutions.

“The prevailing voice in this maelstrom … came not from Port-au-Prince but from Washington and the four agencies – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – that are scheduled to provide the bulk of the $US2 billion in donor commitments to Haiti for the period 1994-1999. Their influence stems in part from the fact that together they are the primary source of capital needed not only to fund current and future government programs but also to reconstruct systems and infrastructure destroyed in the three years of military rule from 1991-1994. Perhaps more importantly, however, the IFIs, and the IMF in particular, are gatekeepers for other multilateral and bilateral funding, as well as for a commercial credit and investment, and hence carry influence far beyond the resources they actually disburse in Haiti.

“Unmoved by clear expressions of widespread opposition to their plan, the main organising principle for the expenditure of the donor funds and loans currently committed to Haiti has remained the need to establish a “sound economic policy framework” that addresses “macroeconomic imbalances and builds private sector confidence”. These donor priorities were first outlined in the draft Emergency Economic Recovery Programme (EERP) that was written in 1993 and recently finalised in signed agreements with the IMF and other donors. These agreements commit Haiti to a strict structural adjustment program (SAP) that narrows the role of the state and controls government spending, privatises state-owned enterprises, maintains low wages, eliminates import tariffs and quantitative restrictions, and provides incentives for export industries.”

The article demonstrates that all aid to Haiti provided by imperialism is actually aid to … imperialism, which serves not to help but further to ruin Haiti’s popular masses:

“The peasant farmers that make up 70 per cent of Haiti’s population earn less than $US225 a year. Typically, they farm less than two acres spread over several plots that are sometimes several hours’ walk from one another. …

“Peasants have few productive resources available to them. In most cases, their only source of credit funds is local moneylenders, who typically charge 20-100 percent a month. About one million of Haiti’s 2.7 hectares of land have been badly eroded and can no longer support any agricultural uses. Only seven percent of cultivated land is irrigated. Local-level storage facilities, which would enable peasants to store their produce until they could obtain a decent price, are scarce, so farmers are forced to sell their produce to speculators and other middlemen at low prices before it spoils. The lack of local-level storage contributes to staggering losses: it is estimated that post-harvest losses of grains measure between 15 and 30 percent. …

“Never have the Haitian government or the international donors made significant, long-term investments in the productive and marketing capacity of small farmers despite their importance to the local economy and the fact that they make up the majority of the population. The result is that since the 1960s agricultural production has experienced a steady decline, increasing the poverty of peasant farmers over time and adding to the severe environmental degradation of the Haitian countryside.”

Further on she adds: ” … virtually no resources have been provided to increase peasant access to productive resources. Indeed, direct investments in peasant agriculture accounted for less than one percent of the $US550 million in donor aid and loans disbursed in FY 94/95. For the 1996-1998 period, the situation is little improved: less than $US25 million in productive investments is planned. …

“The PFP does not address what are widely recognised as the real causes of agricultural decline and weakening food security in Haiti: the almost total lack of government investment in peasant agriculture over the past two decades and the extractive nature of production for export that has left peasant farmers unable to invest in their own agricultural production…

“The Bank’s and Fund’s answer to production problems is to let the market light a fire under resource-poor peasants and drive them, through competition and an export-driven trade and investment policy, toward higher production. In 1996, all tariffs were scheduled to be dropped to near zero, even on four main food crops (rice, corn, sorghum and millet) … These policies place Haitian peasants in direct competition with subsidised, mechanised farmers from other countries, a battle that they simply cannot win. …”

Enough said, it is submitted, to show that the imperialists are bent on deliberately ruining Haitian peasant producers in order to shore up producers in the imperialist countries or multinationals mass-producing agricultural products in neo-colonies.

Imperialist interference in the industrial sector

The imperialist strategy for Haiti when advancing funds to it is to kick-start the Haitian economy. How – by increasing private-sector investment. How do you increase private-sector investment? Why, by keeping down wages and government expenditure. This is a process in which Aristide certainly co-operated, although he did struggle to obtain better terms for Haitian workers: where imperialism had demanded a minimum wage of 29 gourds, Aristide held out for 75 gourds. The final compromise reached was 36 gourds.

However, Lisa McGowan demonstrates very effectively that attracting foreign investment benefits nobody other than the foreign investors:

“…incentives to assembly operations are substantial. Under current regulations, enterprises that assemble imported articles for export are exempted from paying income tax for their first five years of operation … After this exemption period ends, full tax payments are phased in gradually over ten years. Typically, firms go out of business … when the tax holiday ends. …

“The biggest subsidy to the assembly industries, in particular, and to the industrial sector in general is provided, however, by the workers themselves … This subsidy is extracted through low and declining wages and terrible working conditions. At $US2.40 a day, the real minimum wage is worth 40 percent less today than it was in 1980 … The exploitation of low-wage workers is thus a major source of the profits of wealthy Haitian and US investors. …

“The returns to the Haitian economy are minimal. The value added of assembly industry exports is very small. For example, according to the US Commerce Department, Haiti exported $US177.9 million worth of apparel to the United States in 1989, but the real value of these exports was only $US23.1 million – the labour value added in Haiti. The rest consisted of imported components used to make up the final produce. Furthermore, tax holidays and duty exemptions mean that virtually no revenue flows from the assembly sector to the Haitian government.

“At the same time, this low-wage, export-promoting strategy has been unsuccessful in creating significant numbers of jobs. Unemployment in Haiti is currently estimated at 75-80 percent. At its peak, the assembly sector employed no more than 60,000 people, or about 1.5% of the labour force, and it currently employs 12,000, up from 5,000 just prior to the return of the Aristide government in October 1994.”

Even before Aristide came to power, US imperialism was pursuing the same objectives in Haiti – making loans and aid conditional on low wages and reduction of measures to protect the home market. Lisa McGowan writes “The incentives were successful in increasing foreign investment throughout the 1970s. By 1980, there were approximately 200 assembly plants, the majority of which were American owned or affiliated, employing 60,000 people… But there were few backward linkages to the Haitian economy. Workers’ wages actually decreased and in 1980 were worth less than in 1970 …”

The privatisations on which the various imperialist financial institutions insist also have the effect of damaging the Haitian economy, particularly by depriving the government of a much needed source of income – i.e., the profits of the nationalised industries – and handing it over to the imperialists, who will no doubt take their profits home with them rather than spend them locally.

Aristide’s support undermined

Going along with the SAPs demanded by imperialism has lost Aristide some of the overwhelming support that he enjoys among the people of Haiti, and enabled enemies who lack his good intentions towards the poor of Haiti to gather support – particularly it would seem from among the student population. However, Aristide is no puppet of imperialism. He is forced to accept their conditions, he does not do so willingly. He negotiates hard to obtain concessions, making the best of the strength he does have, namely, his support among the Haitian masses, building up his support and biding his time. It is not for nothing, after all, that imperialism is maligning him with a vengeance, and the pope intervened to have him removed from the Roman Catholic priesthood. When Aristide first came to power in 1990, he proposed, with a view to relieving the misery of the poor, (1) to impose price controls on basic foodstuffs; (2) to raise the hourly minimum wage to $US0.75; and (3) to enforce payment of social security taxes. “Donors”, however, would not allow him to implement these proposals. Modest though one might have thought they were, they were enough to convince US imperialism of the need to get rid of him, and they supported the coup which overthrew his elected government in 1991. The result of the coup was to plunge Haiti into such chaos that imperialism had difficulty in reaping the rewards of its predatory investments, with the result that US imperialism was forced to engineer Aristide’s restoration in 1994. Unlike the kleptocratic dictators that US imperialism kept in power in Haiti until 1990, Aristide is popular with the Haitian masses and is able to quell rebellion. Quite clearly, however, he was able to negotiate some concessions in favour of the Haitian people as just one word from him would put an end to imperialism’s relatively peaceful super-exploitation of Haiti. For instance, he was able in 6 years to build more schools than had been built in the previous 190. To the extent, however, that US imperialism is strongly placed to starve the people of Haiti into submission, to say nothing of its ability to invade and subdue, as it did in Grenada, neither Aristide nor anybody else is in a position at the moment to force the US to ease up significantly on its depredations.

Moreover, it is not only through hard negotiations that Aristide always endeavoured to keep faith with his people, but also by drawing on the goodwill of Cuba, much to the rage of US imperialism. Cuba, even though a poor country with economic problems of its own, has been quite unstinting in its support for Haiti’s poor, in particular by sending 535 doctors to treat the sick and teachers to help overcome illiteracy. With assistance from Cuba, Haiti was able to establish its own School of Medicine, with an initial teaching staff of Cubans, where 247 Haitians are being trained in medicine, with a further 372 scholarship students studying medicine in Cuba itself. 110,000 Haitians owe their ability to read and write to Cuban literacy specialists. The Cubans also provided assistance in rebuilding the Darbonne sugar mill complex, which not only gives employment to Haitians, but also generates electricity to assist with the harvest.

All in all, US imperialism has never been happy with Aristide, even though they were forced to turn to him after the dismal failure of alternative US-backed regimes. As the imperialists saw Aristide remaining popular among the vast majority of Haiti’s population – the poor – and, moreover, building up his forces with “armed gangs” disposed to fight tooth and nail against enemies of Haiti, they determined to depose him. According to John Cherian in the Indian magazine Frontline of 13-26 March, 2004, “The movement to destabilise the Lavalas party government led by Aristide started in right earnest in late 2003. President George Bush’s envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, Otto Reich, was in Port au Prince in November last, along with other diplomats representing the OAS in order to broker a peace between the Lavalas and the Opposition. Though Aristide had had tempered his fiery anti-American rhetoric in recent times, the Bush administration remained deeply suspicious of him. The presence of Reich, a right-winger with a known history of involvement in destabilising progressive governments in the region, was an ominous sign for the Aristide government.

“The main Opposition grouping in Haiti, known as the Democratic Convergence, was propped up by Washington. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had set up a ‘democracy enhancement programme’ in Haiti. ‘The State Department’s democracy enhancement programme was specifically designed to fund those sectors of the Haitian political spectrum where opposition to the Aristide government could be encouraged.

“The Western media also went out of their way to portray Aristide and the Lavalas party as being isolated from the Haitian populace. The numbers of people attending Opposition rallies were invariably inflated, while massive pro-Aristide rallies, which have been taking place since November, were glossed over. …”

It should be mentioned in passing that although the ‘democratic’ opposition claims to be acting in the interests of Haiti’s poor, the poor are overwhelmingly still supporting Aristide, while, according to The Observer of 15 February (Reed Lindsay) the “growing opposition movement in Port-au-Prince” is “led by an amalgam of business leaders, student groups and minority political parties”. In other words, those who oppose Aristide are mainly the rich. The leader of the rebellion against Aristide, which culminated in Aristide’s kidnapping and removal from Haiti by US special troops, is Guy Philippe, who likes to present himself as totally apolitical, but in actual fact he “lists as his heroes the former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet and ex-US President Ronald Reagan … ‘When Philippe was police chief, he bumped off loads of gang members. Who do you think is responsible for many of the fresh bodies lying on our streets since he came to Port-au-Prince?’ said one former policeman …

“Certainly, as paramilitary leaders go, Philippe has all the formal credentials. Having been trained by US Special Forces in Ecuador in the early 1990s, Philippe would no doubt have sanctioned and understood the role of the mysterious non-Haitians bristling with state-of-the-art weaponry who mingled with his ramshackle rebel group” (David Pratt, The Sunday Herald, 7 March 2004). And The Observer of the same date (Reed Lindsay) confirms: “When in the military in the early 1990s, rebel leader Guy Phillippe received training from US Special Forces in Ecuador. He later became police chief in Cap-Haitien, where he was accused of drug trafficking and plotting a coup. Another rebel leader, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, was second in command of the murderous FRAPH paramilitary group, suspected of killing thousands during the 1991-1994 military regime. Former FRAPH leader Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant, who lives in New York, has acknowledged working for CIA agents while FRAPH was massacring dissidents.”

What appears to have enabled US imperialism to overcome what the bourgeoisie refers to as Aristide’s ‘slum militias’ was its success in splitting the ranks of Aristide’s followers. In 2001 there was a foiled coup attempt against Aristide, which at the time was suppressed. In the town of Gonaives, the defeat of the opposition was spearheaded by Amiot Metayer, nicknamed the Cuban. The Organisation of American States and other such outfits raised a hue and cry about human rights abuses, demanding he should be punished. Under pressure from US imperialism, therefore, Aristide’s government put Metayer in jail. A month later, however, a group of Metayer’s supporters drove a bulldozer through the prison wall and released him. According to the Independent on Sunday of 15 February 2004, “At that point, Mr Aristide chose to make up with Mr Metayer and put him in charge of Gonaives’ lucrative customs and excise business. By all accounts, the Cuban spread the wealth around the community, Robin Hood style, thus cementing loyalty towards him even further. The international community was outraged that the Aristide government let Mr Metayer go after his prison breakout. According to the Metayer family, the first act of the new US ambassador, Richard Foley, on presenting his credentials last September was to tell Mr Aristide to put him behind bars again within 48 hours.

“Right on that 48-hour deadline, on the evening of 21 September 2003, Amiot Metayer disappeared. His body later surfaced 50 miles south of Gonaives, with the top of his skull missing, his eyes gouged out and his heart removed. …”

Amiot Metayer’s influence passed to his brother Butteur Metayer, and somehow his followers were convinced that President Aristide had ordered Amiot’s murder! The Times of 23 February 2004 (Tim Reid) say’s that Amiot’s “wife reportedly held a voodoo ceremony that pointed to Mr Aristide’s complicity in the murder. His brother, Butteur Metayer, immediately vowed revenge.” Thus it would seem that by manipulation of people’s superstitions, an important section of Aristide’s support was lured into the enemy camp. US imperialism then, as we have seen above, moved fast to take advantage of the rift before people began to ask themselves what possible interest Aristide could have had in ordering the murder of one of his best supporters.

However, prior to all this opposition fostering, the US had been trying to undermine Aristide’s government by the withholding of promised loans. According to L Jara Diaz, writing in the 19 February-03 March 2004 issue of The Republic, which describes itself as “Vancouver’s opinionated newspaper”, “Even humanitarian loans are held back. The Inter American Development Bank held back a loan for $US146 million for health sector improvement, education reform, potable water enhancement, and road rehabilitation. …”. The excuse was alleged electoral irregularities which took place when Aristide was returned to power by a landslide in 2000. Nobody noticed them at the time – it was only later that this absurd allegation was hatched up. And, as Jara Diaz notes: ” … millions of US dollars in military aid and loans flowed easily when the brutal Duvaliers and the Junta that replaced Aristide were in power”. US imperialism did not worry then about a lack of electoral mandate. Obviously this is only an issue with those who do have an overwhelming electoral mandate.

The future

With Aristide’s government overthrown, what happens next? Even the Sunday Telegraph of 29 February (Dr Anthony Daniels) has to admit that “What is certain is that those who seek to overthrow Aristide are not disinterested men of principle, but rogues (and worse than rogues)”. And the Independent of 1 March (Phil Davison) warns that “Haiti now has a dangerous power vacuum. The rebels are relatively few, so far in the hundreds, and many Haitians say they do not want any of the rebel leaders in the government.”

Gary Younge in the Guardian of 1 March ends his article by saying: “The question now is what will replace him. The political opposition is a broad-based coalition of students, human rights activists and business people. The armed opposition is run by former death squad leaders.

“Having achieved their primary aim of getting rid of Mr Aristide there is little they will agree on.”

It seems fairly obvious that once again imperialism has lifted a rock only to drop it on its own feet, for there is absolutely no reason to believe that a junta of US-backed fascist thugs is going to be able to control Haiti any better this time than a similar junta did in 1991-94. Who knows, Aristide may yet return.

Whether or not Aristide returns to Haiti, his tenure of office has proved beyond any shadow of doubt that there is no easy road to prosperity with imperialist “aid”. All this aid does is to impoverish its recipients still further. There is no alternative to a revolution that will prise open imperialism’s stranglehold and build an independent Haitian economy, where local people are producing not for the international market but in order to satisfy their own needs for food, clothing, shelter as well as their spiritual needs. If Aristide returns he will need to turn his back on his roots in liberation theology, which means well but has no consistent scientific programme for the liberation of the masses – liberation theology in the form of the Ti Eglis (Little Church) has certainly turned its back on Aristide. It has publicly disowned him, and one can only imagine that it is because of Aristide’s slum militias that have come about as a result of his learning that a country cannot stand up to imperialism’s unreasonable demands without having the armed forces to make its point. Only with the guidance of the science of Marxism is there any hope of defeating imperialism, and this must replace theology as the guiding ideology of Haiti’s masses in revolt.