Monday, February 7, 2011

Aristide: You Can't Go Home Again

Ed's Note: Sometimes events catch up with you. Case in point, the post below, which I had written for The Mantle. I was about to post it when the news came out that Haiti had decided to finally issue former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a passport so he could return to the country, which is the central argument of this piece.  But, I decided to publish it here anyway because it does give some background as to why things in Haiti are so bad today (hint: it's not just because of the earthquake). - E.

On its face it was one of the stranger political decisions of recent times: the sudden return of Haiti's notorious and brutal former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from a quarter-century of exile ostensibly to help his people recover from the massive earthquake that struck the nation - a full year after the temblor devastated Port-Au-Prince and killed 300,000 people. At the same time though, another Haitian political drama was unfolding much more quietly: the decision to prevent Haiti's former democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from making a similar return to his homeland. According to diplomatic cables unearthed in the Wikileaks document dump, following the January 2010 earthquake, the United States supposedly pressured Brazil – the nation heading up the United Nations-backed security and relief efforts in Port-Au-Prince – not to allow Aristide to return from exile in South Africa. Author Gwynne Dyer contends that the United States had long kept tabs on the exiled Duvalier, who traveled back to Haiti on an expired diplomatic passport; it's hard to imagine that airport security in Paris would have missed the fact that his passport was now invalid, meaning that both countries likely knew of Duvalier's travel plans and did nothing to intercede. This of course begs the question as to why the United States would feel the need to slap such an injunction on a deposed democratically-elected president yet not on a former dictator.

Sadly it seems a case of that old maxim attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt in action: “he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard.” For nearly 40 years the Duvalier clan – first Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, then after his death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude - ruled Haiti with an iron fist. But while the years of Duvalier rule may have been ones of oppression for average Haitians, brutally enforced by their secret police, the Tonton Macoute; for Haiti's elite and international business interests from the United States, Canada and France, it was something of a golden age. After a decade and a half of misrule, Baby Doc was overthrown and driven into exile in 1986, a chaotic time followed. Finally in 1991 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was elected president. When Aristide was subsequently overthrown, the United States actively supported his return to power as the “democratically-elected” leader of Haiti in 1994. By 2004, during his second term in office though, the United States' opinion of Aristide had changed. At this point, Aristide was making good on some of his populist pledges to try to lift the majority of Haiti's population out of poverty (Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere) at the expense of the nation's elites and international business interests. He had also disbanded Haiti's army, which most Haitians viewed not as an instrument of national protection, but rather national oppression, and had become the head of the Fanmi Lavalas, a populist/socialist political movement that enjoyed wide support from Haiti's underclass. When Aristide was deposed for a second time, the United States' official position was that this was a “domestic matter” for the Haitians themselves to resolve.

Aristide though has long contended that his second deposal was not a Haitian-led revolt, but rather one organized and funded by the United States (specifically the CIA) because of his attempts to reign in international business interests in the country and lift the rank-and-file Haitians out of poverty. It is tempting to dismiss Aristide's charges as mere sour grapes, that his powerful neighbor to the north provides a too convenient scapegoat for his own removal from power. What makes Aristide's claims even more compelling is the decision taken by the Haitian electoral commission ahead of the 2010 election, again supposedly at the urging of the United States, to not allow his party the Fanmi Lavalas to participate. Since Aristide's overthrow, the Fanmi Lavalas has not been allowed to run candidates in any national election, they were barred from the 2010 vote on the grounds that their official electoral paperwork was not in order.

Sadly the United States has a long history of involvement with Haiti that has seldom worked out well for the Haitians. Take for instance the impact the United States has had on Haiti's agricultural sector. As part of a package of neo-liberal economic reforms in the mid-1990s, the United States insisted that Haiti open up their agricultural sector to international competition. The effects on Haiti were devastating: their sugarcane industry all but collapsed and the country went from being an exporter of rice to relying on imports from the United States, which thanks to American farming subsidies, sold in Haitian markets for far less than the domestic product. Haitian agriculture was dealt another heavy blow when the United States insisted that Haiti cull all of their native hogs over misplaced fears that a swine-born illness could jump from the island to the United States mainland and decimate the American pork industry. The Creole Pig was uniquely adapted to thrive in the heat and harsh conditions of the Haitian hinterland, they also formed the basis of the rural economy: a farmer's wealth was often measured in large part by the number of hogs he owned. In return for killing the Creole Pigs, the United States offered to replace them with domestic stock, but these hogs, bred for life on American farms, were ill-suited to Haiti, needing special shelters to protect them from the tropical sun and special feed that was out of the budget of many small Haitian farmers (Creole Pigs foraged for most of their food). As a result, large numbers of farmers were forced to simply give up their land and move to the city – many to the poorly built slums that collapsed so readily in the January 2010 earthquake. President Bill Clinton himself seemed to have a change of heart about forcing open the Haitian agriculture market based on his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March: “it may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake…I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.” Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas staunchly opposed the neo-liberal economic reforms imposed on Haiti in the mid-90s.

Of course history and international relations are complex things, which perhaps is why conspiracy theories – especially the darker ones – about the interplay of nations, seem to find such fertile ground. It must be noted that in the days and weeks immediately following the quake, no other nation arrived in Haiti with as much material and support as the United States. Yet at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that for much of Haiti's existence, the involvement of the United States in their affairs has arguably done more harm than good. One has to ask if that pattern is not continuing with our apparent insistence that Jean-Bertrand Aristide not be allowed to return to his homeland, especially while Baby Doc sits in Port-Au-Prince.
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