Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Why they had to crush Aristide
Haiti's elected leader was regarded as a threat by France and the US

Peter Hallward

Monday March 01 2004
The Guardian (UK)

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was re-elected president of Haiti in November
2000 with more than 90% of the vote. He was elected by people who
approved his courageous dissolution, in 1995, of the armed forces that
had long terrorised Haiti and had overthrown his first administration.
He was elected by people who supported his tentative efforts, made with
virtually no resources or revenue, to invest in education and health. He
was elected by people who shared his determination, in the face of
crippling US opposition, to improve the conditions of the most poorly
paid workers in the western hemisphere.

Aristide was forced from office on Sunday by people who have little in
common except their opposition to his progressive policies and their
refusal of the democratic process. With the enthusiastic backing of
Haiti's former colonial master, a leader elected with overwhelming
popular support has been driven from office by a loose association of
convicted human rights abusers, seditious former army officers and
pro-American business leaders.

It's obvious that Aristide's expulsion offered Jacques Chirac a
long-awaited chance to restore relations with an American administration
he dared to oppose over the attack on Iraq. It's even more obvious that
the characterisation of Aristide as yet another crazed idealist
corrupted by absolute power sits perfectly with the political vision
championed by George Bush, and that the Haitian leader's downfall should
open the door to a yet more ruthless exploitation of Latin American

If you've been reading the mainstream press over the past few weeks,
you'll know that this peculiar version of events has been carefully
prepared by repeated accusations that Aristide rigged fraudulent
elections in 2000; unleashed violent militias against his political
opponents; and brought Haiti's economy to the point of collapse and its
people to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe.

But look a little harder at those elections. An exhaustive and
convincing report by the International Coalition of Independent
Observers concluded that "fair and peaceful elections were held" in
2000, and by the standard of the presidential elections held in the US
that same year they were positively exemplary.

Why then were they characterised as "flawed" by the Organisation of
American States (OAS)? It was because, after Aristide's Lavalas party
had won 16 out of 17 senate seats, the OAS contested the methodology
used to calculate the voting percentages. Curiously, neither the US nor
the OAS judged this methodology problematic in the run-up to the

However, in the wake of the Lavalas victories, it was suddenly important
enough to justify driving the country towards economic collapse. Bill
Clinton invoked the OAS accusation to justify the crippling economic
embargo against Haiti that persists to this day, and which effectively
blocks the payment of about $500m in international aid.

But what about the gangs of Aristide supporters running riot in
Port-au-Prince? No doubt Aristide bears some responsibility for the
dozen reported deaths over the last 48 hours. But given that his
supporters have no army to protect them, and given that the police force
serving the entire country is just a tenth of the force that patrols New
York city, it's worth remembering that this figure is a small fraction
of the number killed by the rebels in recent weeks.

One of the reasons why Aristide has been consistently vilified in the
press is that the Reuters and AP wire services, on which most coverage
depends, rely on local media, which are all owned by Aristide's
opponents. Another, more important, reason for the vilification is that
Aristide never learned to pander unreservedly to foreign commercial
interests. He reluctantly accepted a series of severe IMF structural
adjustment plans, to the dismay of the working poor, but he refused to
acquiesce in the indiscriminate privatisation of state resources, and
stuck to his guns over wages, education and health.

What happened in Haiti is not that a leader who was once reasonable went
mad with power; the truth is that a broadly consistent Aristide was
never quite prepared to abandon all his principles.

Worst of all, he remained indelibly associated with what's left of a
genuine popular movement for political and economic empowerment. For
this reason alone, it was essential that he not only be forced from
office but utterly discredited in the eyes of his people and the world.
As Noam Chomsky has said, the "threat of a good example" solicits
measures of retaliation that bear no relation to the strategic or
economic importance of the country in question. This is why the leaders
of the world have joined together to crush a democracy in the name of

Peter Hallward teaches French at King's College London and is the author
of Absolutely Postcolonial


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