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Tens of thousands of Haitians turned out to greet democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on his return to his country. Though originally forced into exiled under the Bush administration, Aristide has been treated in much the same fashion by Obama's government, writes Nia Imara.

With President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return to Haiti this past March, President Obama once again landed his administration on the wrong side of history. After seven years of forced exile in South Africa – an exile orchestrated and imposed by the United States – Aristide and his family returned home to the rejoicing of millions of their fellow citizens. Tens of thousands of supporters greeted the Aristides at the Port-au-Prince International Airport on the morning of Friday 18 March and ushered them to their home in Tabarre. The grounds surrounding the house, from which the Aristides were kidnapped seven years ago by US special forces, were packed that morning with a jubilant crowd which included international supporters.

In the predawn hours on Sunday 29 February 2004, United States Special Forces and more than two dozen US soldiers came to President Aristide’s home, ordered him and his wife get into a car, drove them to the airport and put them on to an American plane which eventually landed in the Central African Republic. Ever since his kidnapping, the Haitian people, who overwhelmingly elected him into office in 1990 and 2000, have called for his return. Yet instead of respecting the will of the majority and offering support that might have expedited the return of Haiti’s twice democratically elected president, Obama followed in the path of the Bush administration and took measures to stop Aristide’s return from South Africa. In the last days leading up to the planned return, US State Department officials repeatedly pressured the South African government to prevent him from leaving the country. And just a few days before the family left for Haiti, Obama personally called South African President Jacob Zuma to express his ‘concern’ over Aristide’s return.

The United States’s centuries-long bullying of Haiti, its pressuring of Haiti and its economic and military interference in Haiti have not ceased with the Obama administration. The ostensible presidential elections held last November were fraudulent and undemocratic from the inside out. To start, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) prevented the country’s most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from running candidates. Ever since the senatorial elections in April 2009, Lavalas has in fact been banned from participating in elections, due in no small part to pressure exerted on the CEP and the UN by Washington. In spite of demands made by the Haitian grassroots and the international solidarity movement that the United Nations, the CEP and the US not support elections in which Lavalas was excluded, the Obama administration spent a total of $16 million to fund the elections in November and the run-offs in March.

On election day last November, voter fraud of every variety was documented: the names of registered voters went missing from polling stations, ballots were stuffed with the names of victims who died in the January 2010 earthquake, votes were miscounted or not counted at all, and there were only about 2,000 polling stations across the country, down from 12,000 during the last elections in which Lavalas participated. That the elections were fraudulent, however, could not have come as a surprise to Washington, the UN or the CEP, who were forewarned by Haitian and international organisations.

Immediately following the November elections, Haitians came out onto the streets by the tens of thousands to vote with their feet and their voices. They demanded that the ‘selections’ be annulled and they protested the ongoing occupation of their country by the United States, France, Canada and the United Nations. With hundreds of thousands still homeless since the earthquake, and in the midst of a cholera epidemic brought to the country by the UN, how could such a farcical election be given priority over the needs of the people? How can there be democracy when a people are under military occupation? How can people participate in the rebuilding of their country when the movement representing the majority is excluded and repressed? The contradictions can only be pushed so far. The crimes committed against the Haitian people by Washington, the United Nations and by the elite within their own country do not go unnoticed.

The ‘impartiality’ with which the American media treated the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier to Haiti last January was cynical, if not immoral. Tens of thousands of people were murdered during the 29-year long, US-funded dictatorship of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. The severe economic divide in Haiti today and the country’s dependence on foreign resources directly extend from the exploitation and corruption that that regime tried to entrench in society.

In 1986, Duvalier the younger was forced out of Haiti due to the mounting pressure of the people’s resistance. The driving force of this movement came to be known as Lavalas. This Kreyol term means ‘flood’ or ‘torrent’, the idea being that the people were united in a cleansing flood that would wash away all the corruption and injustice of Duvalierism.

In the early 1980s, a young priest whose parish was in La Saline – an especially impoverished area in Port-au-Prince – emerged as a courageous opponent of Duvalier, Duvalierism and the policy of the US government, which had provided the dictatorship with millions of dollars over the decades. He was guided by liberation theology, he worked on behalf of the poor, the youth, and political prisoners, and he spoke about the right of Haitians to be free from foreign interference. Jean-Bertrand Aristide shared in the suffering of the people and uncompromisingly fought for a society in which dignity, education, shelter, healthcare and jobs were not the rights of a privileged few. He mirrored the aspirations of Lavalas – its slogan was ‘justice, transparency, participation’ – and at the people’s urging, he became the party’s presidential candidate. In 1990, during the first democratic election in Haiti’s history, the people elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide by an overwhelming 67 per cent of the vote.

Although Duvalier was removed from power, the small, very powerful and very rich elite that supported him remained in tact. Aristide was and is so loved by his people because he stands for everything the Haitian elite, America and France – Haiti’s former coloniser – are against. Seven months after he assumed office, the Haitian military – which had been trained and funded by the US – staged a coup d’état, and Aristide was forced into exile. Anti-Lavalas forces took over the government and, in their attempt to maintain power, reassumed their repressive Duvalierist tactics. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton tried to manipulate the situation to the advantage of US big business by trying to pressure Aristide into making a number of unacceptable concessions. If Aristide agreed to privatise his country’s national resources – including the airport, banks, the telephone company and the electrical company – and sell them primarily to American corporations, then Washington would sanction Aristide’s return and provide him with the protection of the US military. But Aristide refused, and due to the sustained resistance of the grassroots movement in Haiti, in combination with the mounting international support, he was able to return in 1994.

But Clinton is back and is pursuing Washington’s agenda of transforming Haiti into one of its markets. After the 2010 earthquake, Obama placed him and George W. Bush in charge of America’s fundraising efforts for relief. Given Clinton’s record with Haiti, and considering that Bush’s administration blocked US$500 million in international loans to Haiti, Obama’s decision must be regarded as rather cynical. Last year, the occupation government of Haiti made Clinton co-director of the Interim Reconstruction Committee. Soon afterward, his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, brokered a deal in which a South Korean clothing company called Sae-A Trading would open sweat shops in Haiti.

When Aristide stepped down from office at the end of his first term in 1995, the people elected René Préval, who became the first president to serve his full five-year term in office (although after he was re-elected in 2006, he betrayed the people by allying himself with the occupational forces). Aristide was popularly elected as president again in 2000, and again he faced attacks from the US, France and also Canada. These governments and the big business interests they represented did not want Aristide in office because he empowered his people, making it more difficult for them to be exploited.

President Aristide stands for education and literacy of the people. Between 1994 and 2004, the Lavalas administrations built hundreds of schools – 195 primary schools and 104 high schools – more than had ever been built in Haiti’s history up to that point. (The US and UN have not built any schools during their seven-year occupation of Haiti.) The nationwide literacy campaign instituted by Lavalas reduced the rate of illiteracy from 85 to 55 per cent, and in 2001 Aristide designated 20 per cent of the national budget for education. Since his return to Haiti in 2011, Aristide again declared his intention to focus on education. As he has explained many times before, education and the day-to-day participation of people in the running of the country are the true tests of a democracy.

Aristide stands for economic justice. During his second term in office, he nearly doubled the minimum wage from 36 to 70 gourdes (about US$1.70) per day. His administration also initiated a campaign to collect unpaid taxes that the elite owed the government. For decades, dictators did everything they could to economically and socially disenfranchise the masses. Lavalas empowered and enabled the people. Tens of thousands of fisherfolk were provided with assistance, new tools and boats, and fifty new lakes with stock fish were constructed. Lavalas built hundreds of new stores and restaurants at which food was sold at lower prices, thus challenging the monopolies of the elite. Moves like these, while they solidified Aristide’s support amongst the poor majority, obviously increased the elite’s animosity toward him and Lavalas.

Aristide stands for healthcare. Before the 2004 coup, Lavalas spent more on healthcare than any previous government. And during the 10-year period leading up to the coup, the malnutrition rate dropped from 63 per cent to 51 per cent. The administration began an AIDS treatment and prevention programme, people were provided with free healthcare, 40 clinics and hospitals were built or rebuilt and clean water was made accessible to the poorest parts of the country, which up till then had been neglected. 800 Cuban healthcare workers came to work in the traditionally underserved rural areas in Haiti, and over 300 Haitians went to Cuba to be trained as doctors. A new nursing school was also being planned, but the work was halted when the US military appropriated it after the 2004 coup.

Above all, Aristide stands for the dignity of his people. And not just symbolically. During his first term in office, he disbanded the Haitian army, which was created by the United States during its first occupation of Haiti in 1915, and which was notorious for terrorising the people. When he was elected for the second time, Aristide made it clear that France owed Haiti restitution for the US$21.7 billion it extorted from the ex-slaves after the Haitian revolution. (It is doubtful that the president of this country would ever make moves to disband the police, the military or to demand restitution for the descendents of slaves.) In making the demand for restitution, Aristide was speaking not only for the people of Haiti but for black people everywhere who are descendants of slavery.

At every turn, Aristide challenged the unjust power structure in Haiti and in the world – a power structure characterised by a privileged few profiting from the exploitation of the poor majority. Thus in February 2004, the United States and a Haitian paramilitary consisting of Duvalierists and former army members violently took over the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The US Marines occupied the country and were later replaced by the United Nations, which has since acted as a proxy military force for America, France and Canada, whose mission has been to transform Haiti into a safe playground for big business. In order to do this, these governments have worked with the Haitian elite to crush the Lavalas movement. During the first months of the occupation, many Lavalas leaders fled the country because their lives were threatened by the coup-makers. In the years that followed, thousands of people were either murdered, disappeared or imprisoned by the police, UN troops and paramilitaries acting on behalf of the rich. The casualties number in the thousands – men, women, children, the elderly.

The occupation put a halt to the reforms begun by Lavalas, and the quality of life has plunged dramatically during the last seven years. The elite and the de facto Haitian government have acted in complete contrast to the most fundamental aspects of the Haitian constitution, which states that ‘The State recognises the right of every citizen to decent housing, education, food and social security.’ And in condoning Aristide’s kidnapping and preventing his return to Haiti, Obama has violated the clause of the constitution that states, ‘No person of Haitian nationality may be deported or forced to leave the national territory for any reason.’

All along, the UN has protected the coup-makers and has itself participated in murder and rape. In 2006, the medical journal The Lancet published research showing that at least 8,000 Haitians had been murdered and 35,000 women raped since the coup, and the UN has participated in these crimes. Since its presence in Haiti, political repression has increased, the cost of living has skyrocketed, the infrastructure has deteriorated and access to medical care, employment and education have plummeted. Many Haitians have compared this period to the Duvalier regime at its worst. The idea that the more than 10,000 UN troops in Haiti are there to bring about peace and stability is a myth. They are there to enable the occupation and provide it with a façade of legitimacy. The strategy of the US–UN occupation has been to re-enslave Haiti, and if the US is the equivalent to the slave master in this affair, then the UN is equivalent to the overseer.

The veneer, however, is thin. The people of Haiti know well that the holding of elections should not be mistaken for democracy. The run-off held in March did not have a much higher voter turnout than did the November elections – between 10 per cent and 25 per cent. The CEP recently announced that the majority of the votes were taken by Michel Martelly, a man who supported the Duvalier regime and its death squads. But given the Haitian people’s history of resisting corruption and repression, the story is not over yet. Neither truth nor justice can be evaded forever. Indeed, the people persevere. In Haiti is a people born out of struggle – a people who have pledged their determination to die in struggle rather than live as slaves. The return of Aristide gives reason to hope and proves that their struggle has not been fruitless. If we stand with the people of Haiti, we stand on the right side of history.


* The Haiti Action Committee website is available here.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.