The president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, the former “radical slum priest”, fled the country on 29 February, under pressure from the Bush administration and the threat of armed rebels.
For weeks, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been wracked by a violent rebellion and looting. There are now widespread fears that former army officers and death squad leaders will seek to extract bloody revenge on Aristide’s supporters.
Soon after Aristide’s forced departure, the UN Security Council voted to send in a multi-national military force, dominated by troops from the US, France and Canada, to “restore law and order”. The Chief Justice of the Haitian Supreme Court, Boniface Alexandre, was sworn in as head of a “transitional government” until elections in 2005.
These events mark a major change in public by Bush, from opposing “regime change” to pressurising Aristide to step down. The Bush administration finally decided to send troops to Haiti fearing the alternative was civil war, huge destabilisation in the region, and that many Haitian refugees would attempt to cross the sea to Florida.
Jean Bertand Aristide held the reins of power for 10 years, both directly and through his appointee Rene Preval, Haiti’s president from 1996-2001. Aristide claimed to rule on behalf of the poor against the ruling elite, but he failed to change the country’s dire social and economic situation. Eventually this prepared the way for the return of the forces of reaction.
From radical priest to Clinton ally
As a Catholic priest working in the slums of Port au Prince in the early 1980s, Aristide won a large following by denouncing the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, and also the military regimes that followed in 1986. In the late 1980s, Aristide was expelled by the Salesian order for his radical, populist politics.
Aristide had called for a boycott of US backed elections but in 1990 decided to stand for the presidency. Aristide formed a broad electoral alliance, toned down his anti-capitalist rhetoric and called for “national reconciliation”. Nevertheless, the radicalised masses, who had five years earlier overthrown the despot “Baby Doc” Duvalier, voted overwhelmingly for the ‘radical’ ex-priest.
In power, Aristide failed to fulfil the huge expectations of working people and the poor. He made only minor reforms and signalled he intended to work within the capitalist system.
Despite this, only eight months after taking office, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup, led by General Cedras. Sections of the Haitian elite feared Aristide was incapable of safely channelling the aroused radical expectations of the youth and the poor. But the truth is that Aristide called for his slum supporters to remain “peaceful” as the military rulers assumed power and killed over 3,000 people during their three year rule.
Exiled in the US, Aristide moved further to the right and, in effect, threw himself on the mercy of the imperialist super power that is largely responsible for the continuing social misery in Haiti.
In the past, political figures like Aristide, representing the radicalised, middle class layers in the neo-colonial world, would sometimes take far reaching measures against imperialism and capitalism. To try to overcome the desperate legacy of capitalism and to develop society, these forces, on coming to power, often implemented radical policies, which included nationalising big sectors of industry and making important social reforms. But Aristide came to office just as the Stalinist models collapsed and the capitalist market “triumphed”. Lacking a genuine socialist programme that would take the major sectors of the economy into state ownership, under the democratic control and planning of working people, and which would seek to spread the revolution throughout the region, Aristide instead decided to operate within the market economy.
In 1994, the Clinton presidency in the US restored Aristide to power through a military intervention. Clinton was worried about the large number of refugees fleeing the brutal rule of the generals in Haiti and trying to reach the US. He also wanted a regime in Port au Prince that could be easier controlled by Washington than the military Juanta.
Clinton did little in terms of “nation building” in Haiti, however. According to Jeffrey Sachs, in the Financial Times, “US marines left behind about eight miles of paved roads and essentially nothing else,” (FT, London, 1 March 2004).
During the 1990s, Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lvalas, carried out an IMF-imposed programme that led to mass redundancies in the public sector and cuts in food and transport subsidies. There is very little left of the formal economy, with traditional exports of coffee, rum and other agricultural products falling to almost nothing. Because of grinding poverty and the Aids epidemic, average life expectancy in Haiti stands at 49 years.
Aristide’s policies were deeply unpopular and caused huge anger. But as they were carried out under the presidency of Rene Preval, due to a US imposed Constitution barring Aristide from succeeding himself as president, Aristide did not get most of the blame.
Aristide was returned to power in the 2000 elections, on a much lower turnout, largely because workers feared the return of the generals and Duvalier thugs. But the new period of Aristide rule saw a worsening of people’s living conditions. Average annual income in 2001 stood at a mere US $480. In part this was because the US and international aid was cut off during his second term (including around $500 million in humanitarian assistance).
The big powers demanded that Aristide incorporate opposition forces into his government. Having long ago abandoned any ideas of basing his rule on the interests of the slum dwellers and workers, Aristide relied more and more on patronage and on financing and arming gangs, to wield power.
Bush administration targets Aristide
As the social and political crisis grew in Haiti, the Bush administration, which came to office in 2001, lost patience with Aristide. Sections of the Republican Party in the US claimed Aristide was a dangerous “leftist” leader and “as another Fidel Castro in the Caribbean”. They accused his regime of exporting starving refugees and shipments of Colombian cocaine, as well as having “stole elections”. The Financial Times described the Haitian opposition parties remarked, “[a] coterie of rich Haitians linked to the preceding Duvalier regime and former (and perhaps current) CIA operatives, worked Washington to lobby against Aristide.” (FT, 1 March 2004).
The London based Independent newspaper claimed: “Many of the opposition groups have received considerable funding from right wing US interests.” (1 March 2004).
As anger in the streets of Haiti grew against Aristide, an armed rebellion began in earnest in early February, this year. Many of the rebels were made up of former Aristide supporters. Others were exiled ex-members of the Haitian army, which was disbanded by Aristide. One rebel leader, Louis Jodel Chamberlai, is a former sergant suspected of involvement in a 1987 election massacre in which 34 voters were killed. In 1993, he co-founded the Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress – Fraph, which is accused of killing thousands of pro-Aristide supporters. Another rebel leader, Guy Philippe, fled Haiti in 2000, following a failed coup attempt.
Indicating the weak base of support for Aristide, a mere seven hundred rebels quickly seized half the country and threatened to overrun the capital. Remy Fritz Gerald, a student in Port au Prince, who supported Aristide in the 198s, summed up today’s attitude towards the deposed president: “He was so charismatic; he was mystical. We believed that he was our hope for the future. Now, the whole country is destroyed” (BBC Online, 1 March 2004).
The opposition forces and imperialist intervention are no salvation however. The armed rebels, like the deeply divided political parties, lack a real popular basis of support. They use intimidation and patronage in Haiti, while courting the US or other imperialist powers.
After trying and failing to get Aristide and the opposition to agree to share power, the Bush administration decided to back the rebellion. According to the New York Times (1 March 2004): “The Bush administration decided that Aristide must go, regardless of his constitutional authority. That message was communicated directly to Aristide hours before he left Sunday morning.”
In doing so, the US administration cast aside democratic rights, the Haitian Constitution and the fact that Aristide was elected to power. Washington decided to back the former death squad leaders, the ex-army officers and the political representatives of the very rich in order to safeguard the interests of imperialism in the country and the region.
The US indicates that it will now try to cobble together a new “government” from the anti-Aristide armed groups and political opposition, and also from parts of the Lvalas party. None of these reactionary forces care for democratic rights or the class interests of working people or the poor. In power, they will be corrupt and oppressive and act on behalf of imperialism.
The only force capable of bringing decent living standards to Haiti are the working class of the country, in solidarity with working people in the Caribbean, North and South America and internationally. To achieve this, the working masses need an independent class organisation, and a bold socialist programme, that seriously challenges the rule of capitalism and imperialism. This development would mark the best way to commemorate Haiti’s revolution, two hundred years ago, which saw the establishment of the world’s first black-led republic and of the first Caribbean state to win independence.