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Haiti – as a matter of urgency

Whilst at the US Social Forum last month I was able to meet with Haitian activist Rea Dol. Rea is part of the Lavalas Movement, a grassroots organizer and founder of SOPUDEP School in Petion Ville, Port-au-Prince. She spoke of the continued critical situation, especially for women and children, in the capital, following January’s devastating earthquake. One question she raised was: with all the aid that had been brought to Haiti why were people remaining in the same state?   There are some 40,000 aid agencies now operating in Haiti, but many of them moved to the country simply to enrich themselves along with the corrupt élite. The second question centred on the reconstruction programme – who will benefit, who is it being prepared for? Ordinary people are not being consulted, and the involvement of so many foreign agencies and commercial businesses means these will be the primary beneficiaries, with Haitians getting the job of providing cheap labour. 

The second most pressing point for Rea and Lavalas is the return of President Aristide – not as President of the country but as a citizen of Haiti who has committed no crime and therefore has the right to return to his home with his family. A concerted effort is being made through petitions and lobbying to free Aristide (he is being held against his will in Pretoria, South Africa). This is the desire of the people. 

Thirdly, the reinstatement of Lavalas on the ballot box. They have been removed, were reinstated through legal process and have been removed again. This is wholly undemocratic and the struggle for the right of Lavalas to stand for election is paramount to the liberty of Haiti. Some time ago I read An Unbroken Agony: Haiti from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President by Randall Robinson. Below is a review which I think speaks to all of the issues mentioned by Rea and provides excellent background reading on Haitian politics, particularly the events surrounding the forced removal of President Aristide in 2004 and the continuing exploitation of Haiti. 

In the early hours of 29 February 2004, democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife Mildred were forced to leave their home under US military escort, and summarily marched onto an unmarked plane whose destination they did not know and were not told.

An Unbroken Agony presents a detailed day by day and hour by hour account of the immediate events leading to the kidnapping and removal of President Aristide. Noted activist and one of the few truly progressive African American voices, Randall Robinson, sets down the facts of the coup d’etat, side by side with his own commentary. He provides the evidence that the US was actively involved while France was directly complicit in the coup that ousted Aristide and saw him flown, along with his with wife, to the Central African Republic. Once there, they were literally dumped off the plane and for all intents and purposes held prisoner.

Robinson begins with an historical overview of Haiti from ‘the most fateful of days’ in 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the island he named Hispaniola but which the indigenous people called Ayiti, to the only successful slave revolt in history which led to an independent nation in 1804. The struggle for emancipation by the Black Jacobins was led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines and denied France the most profitable slave economy in the world. Not only was Haiti the most profitable, it was also arguably the most cruel. For example, slaves were slaughtered for the amusement of their French masters and on one occasion, men were bayoneted and then dogs were let loose to rip them to shreds and devour them.

The history of Haiti is often a tale of history repeating itself. In response to the creation of the ‘first free republic in the Americas’, the US and Europe imposed a global embargo and France demanded that Haiti pay $21 billion (in today’s dollars) as compensation for loss of its slaves and territory. Thus right from the beginning the new country found itself in a debt which it has never recovered from. In 1915 the US occupied Haiti for 19 years and, despite independence, the wealth of the country was held in the hands of a tiny minority and remains so up to today. Robinson spends a whole chapter discussing class and caste in Haiti from its historical roots to the present. A society that saw itself as almost ‘a race apart from the large majority of Haitian people’.

‘In Haiti today colour remains as insuperable a barrier to social progress as ever… Not even the least controversial of President Aristide’s proposed social reforms were conceded by his lighter-skinned and more privileged fellow citizens. Not even his proposal to strike the word peasant as a category of citizenship from the national birth certificate for that all rural blacks bore.’

He continues with a quote from Langston Hughes:

‘It was in Haiti that I first realized how class lines may cut across colour lines within a race, and how dark people of the same nationality may scorn those below them.’

Robinson chronicles the rise to power of Aristide from his early days during the Duvalier years, as a young priest in La Saline, a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince to the populist and much loved leader of the Lavalas family. He details the actions of the various rebel groups supported by the Haitian moneyed classes and businesses and trained and armed by the US.

‘Over the course of 2003, the Bush administration broadened its assault on Haiti into a crippling, multipronged campaign. In addition to arming the Duvalierist insurgents and organizing Haiti’s tiny, splintered political opposition, the administration moved apace to strangle Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, into a state of economic, social and political collapse.’

President and Mrs Aristide’s last 24 hours in Haiti are detailed hour by hour, moving back and forth between their activities and the whereabouts and manoeuvering of the rebels 100 kilometres from Port-au-Prince. Robinson goes into great detail to show that neither President Aristide nor his wife changed their routine or cancelled scheduled appointments, including an interview with US radio journalist Tavis Smiley. That they were under great pressure during that period is a fact, but until the early hours of the morning of 29 February both insisted they were not leaving Haiti. He also shows that despite warnings from the US that Aristide was going to be shot and that rebels were on their way to Port-au-Prince, they were in fact in the area of Gonaives and not moving.

Robinson’s presentation of Aristide is almost saintly. He does not try to hide his unwavering support of Aristide and his Lavalas party. I’ve read criticisms that Robinson does not address Aristide’s governance and there is only one good guy here and that is Aristide. Whilst I agree he does not cover Aristide’s governance and that the book is partisan, I do not take that as a failing as some have said. Randall Robinson, Maxine Waters and Amy Goodman have time and time again proved their honesty and determination to see justice done. The US, on the other hand, has a record of lies, deceit, assassinations and attempted assassinations of leaders it does not like, support of rebels against governments it doesn’t like, whether they are elected democratically or not. The US has a record of supporting undemocratic oligarchies, monarchies and dictatorships when it suits them.

Randall Robinson set out to write about the history, oppression and punishment of a nation of Black people who dared to resist White Supremacist hegemony and in this he succeeded. The purpose of the book is to chronicle the US government’s actions in the support and removal of a democratically elected President. One who was escorted in the dead of night on a US military plane by US military personnel and unceremoniously dumped in Central Africa. As Robinson points out, the irony was that his host/jailer in the Central African Republic was an unelected ruler who came to power via a coup but who was supported financially by the US and whose country was and remains under French ownership.

The book sets the record straight and acts as a counter balance to the wall of lies presented by the US and other Western governments and the media which continues to present the Bush government’s version of events without question.

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