Alex Smailes / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
AS this magazine goes to press, the international community is debating the level of US complicity in the downfall of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Aristide – the first democratically elected president in the 200-year history of Haiti as an independent nation – flew out of his country on 29 February guarded by 60 US marines. After arriving in exile in the Central African Republic he reported that he had been kidnapped in a coup d’état facilitated by the US.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has denied Aristide’s claim: ‘We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly.’ But several members of Congress have thrown their weight behind Aristide’s story. Inter Press Service reports that on 3 March the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), after a two-day emergency meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, demanded an independent international investigation. President of CARICOM, Jamaican President Percival Patterson, maintains that Aristide’s removal sets a dangerous precedent for democratically elected governments everywhere.
By contrast – with the exception of Venezuela – most Latin American governments are not claiming that there has been a coup in Haiti.
Meanwhile, many Western media sources are blaming the President himself for his downfall, saying that it was mainly the result of his own misrule.
Haiti is the poorest country with the lowest-paid workers in the Western Hemisphere. As the 50 Years is Enough campaign observes: ‘Decades of public investments and policy manipulation by the World Bank, the IMF and the US Government have deliberately created an environment where the exploitation of workers is hailed as an incentive to invest in Haiti.’
In April 2003 the Haitian Government raised the national minimum wage from 36 to 70 gourdes per day. That is the equivalent of about 20 cents an hour. Most people in the textile industry, for example, get this minimum wage only if they work without a break – not even to going to the toilet.
The Director of the British-based Haiti Support Group, Charles Arthur, explains that the Aristide government was drawn into promoting this economic environment. ‘Relations with the main international players, the United States and France, worsened during Aristide’s second presidential term. These two led the rest of the international community in suspending – from the beginning of 2001 – all development aid to the Haitian Government. Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development channelled millions of dollars into the opposition parties, and French diplomats developed close relations with key opposition leaders.
‘Even faced with such obstacles,’ Arthur continues, ‘Aristide’s government could have based itself on the two sectors that brought it to power – the country’s small middle class, and organized elements of the peasantry and shanty-town dwellers. Instead, it chose to try and ingratiate itself with the international financial institutions in an effort to win the release of suspended foreign aid, and responded to the opposition with some heavy-handed repression. Apparently unable to countenance any threat to its control, Aristide’s government used police and thugs recruited from urban slums, first to repress the opposition parties, and later to attack unions, women’s groups and university students.’
The combined effect of this repression, in addition to neoliberal austerity, rapidly alienated Aristide’s support base.
But, however flawed his administration, a democratically elected president has been deposed. Veteran civil-rights campaigner Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition he founded, believe that the US Administration has forced Aristide into exile. Jackson is calling for congressional hearings to probe the role that the US Government and the CIA have played in Aristide’s demise. ‘This coup sends a chilling message to leaders across the world. Turns out all that rhetoric about supporting democracy as a centerpiece of US policy is just words, not policy. As we learned in Florida four years ago, Bush is all for elections, but only if they come out the right way.’