debunking the media lies about president Aristide
Speaking from his de facto prison in the Central African Republic where he is being kept under lock and key by the French, Jean-Bertrand Aristide recently made a statement to the world in which he said, "I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will grow back because the roots are L'Ouverturian," referring to Toussaint L'Ouverture, the military genius who led his fellow slaves in the only successful slave rebellion in world history. L'Ouverture was captured by the French and taken to a jail cell in the Jura Mountains of France. Aristide, the first democratically elected leader in Haitian history, has maintained that he was forced out of his country by the United States and a group of terrorists working on behalf of Haiti's wealthy elite.
If you believe the stories of the corporate media and the Bush administration, you would think Aristide is getting what he deserves. He is a "corrupt dictator" who abuses human rights. He is a "psychopath" who advocated "necklacing" his opponents. He didn't do anything to bring Haiti out of poverty; in fact, he made Haiti more poor than ever. All of these statements are distortions or outright lies. Aristide's true crime was the same crime committed by L'Ouverture 200 years ago: he stood up to the powers that be. He empowered the Haitian people and belied the racist caricature of Haiti as a land of savage, voodoo-practicing black people who aren't fit to govern themselves; the view expressed by William Jennings Bryan when he said "Think of it, niggers speaking French," or by Pat Buchanan when he disgracefully referred to Haitian refugees as "the Zulus off Miami Beach." Aristide showed those who painted the Haitian people as ungovernable savages needed to take a look in the mirror before they presumed to control the affairs of Haiti, and for that, he had to be deposed.
The New York Times Glorifies Killers
Meanwhile, the U.S. media has waged a vicious propaganda campaign against the embattled former priest in an attempt to justify his forced removal. The coverage of the events in Haiti has been nothing short of disgraceful. For example, the New York Times printed a story last Thursday titled "Thousands March in Haiti for New Leaders and Army." The story devotes 760 words to describing the rally held by supporters of the death squads that recently overran the Haitian countryside: "Some of the signs read 'Arrest Aristide!' Others said 'Down with Bill Clinton!' and 'Down with Jesse Jackson!' ... Others chanted 'Bring back the army!'" For those who don't know, the Haitian Army was created by the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. It was used as an instrument of terror against Haiti's poor by the wealthy ruling class until Aristide bravely disbanded it in 1995.
In the story, Guy Philippe is portrayed as a character whose goodness ranks somewhere between that of Mother Teresa and Jesus. This is the same Guy Philippe who led incursions into Haiti from across the border which killed dozens of Lavalas supporters and police officers. He is also suspected of cocaine trafficking. Contrast the Times' coverage of the anti-Aristide demonstration with their coverage of a recent pro-Aristide demonstration. According to Reuters, the pro-Aristide rally had anywhere from 8,000 to over 10,000 participants: "Thousands of outraged supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide poured out of Haiti's slums and into the streets on Friday, marching on the U.S. Embassy to denounce the "occupation" of their homeland and demand Aristide's return."
The New York Times mentioned the rally, but it was buried in a piece titled "U.S. Special Forces in Haiti Seeking Out Rebel Leaders." Only 115 words are devoted to describing the demonstration. They said the demonstrators numbered in the "thousands," rather than the figure of over 10,000 reported by Reuters. The Aristide supporters are presented in a negative light. It says they "jeered and cursed" and "shouted angrily." It also describes them as "hooting protesters." The anti-Aristide demonstrators, on the other hand, "sang songs" and "chanted." In addition, "The march was peaceful ... There was some drinking and celebration but no violence." The message is clear: Aristide's supporters are mean and unruly whereas opponents of Aristide are amicable and peaceful.
Another story titled "Gunfire Kills 5 as They March in Haiti Capital" further demonizes Aristide supporters and humanizes his opposition. The article describes how anti-Aristide demonstrators "marched peacefully through the capital" when suddenly they were ambushed by "the toughs Mr. Aristide had used to enforce his authority." They describe the demonstration as the "largest" since Aristide's exile, which is almost certainly untrue if the Reuters estimate above is correct. The article describes in graphic detail the wounded and the dead: "The most seriously wounded lay on gurneys; half a dozen men writhed in pools of blood on the floor." They again make a hero out of Guy Philippe, saying, "Guy Philippe, the rebel leader whose actions helped push Mr. Aristide into exile, visited victims at the hospital, his face contorted as he saw their wounds." The story has over 1,000 words and relies almost totally on anti-Aristide sources. I have yet to see the Times devote anything near this much space to covering the hundreds of people Philippe's thugs have slaughtered in the past few weeks.
This sort of thing has been a consistent feature of the major media's coverage of the Haiti crisis. Demonstrations by Aristide's opponents always get covered whereas larger demonstrations by his supporters, if they are mentioned at all, get less, and with a more negative tone. Part of the reason is that major media outlets are obsessed with relying on the "official" sources rather than doing actual journalism. Another part of the reason is that the media in Haiti is owned by the ruling elite, most of whom harbor a pathological hatred for President Aristide. The situation is similar to what happened during the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where the Venezuelan media was virulently anti-Chavez. The reporting also is skewed by the fact that most of Aristide's support comes from the slums and the rural areas where reporters for the elite media are afraid or too lazy to visit.
The Haitian Media: A Mouthpiece for Elites
The media outlets in Haiti will report any falsehood that has the effect of demonizing Aristide and his supporters. For example, when the "rebels" were surrounding the capital of Port-au-Prince, the radio was reporting that Aristide had fled days before he had actually left the country. This was an attempt to demoralize Aristide supporters who were preparing to resist the thugs. More recently, Guy Philippe told a mob of his supporters he had discovered small coffins which contained dead babies. He said President Aristide had sacrificed the babies in a "black voodoo ceremony." Haitian radio reported the story as a fact.
Andre "Andy" Apaid, the spokesman of the leading anti-Aristide group (Group 184), is the founder of Tele-Haiti. Tele-Haiti and the various radio stations owned by the ruling elite frequently air commercials inciting Haitians to overthrow the government. Apaid isn't even a Haitian citizen; he is an American citizen who owns sweatshops in Haiti. He is notorious for evading his taxes, supporting the Duvalier dictatorship, and forcing union organizers off his property at gunpoint. Working conditions in Haitian sweatshops are absolutely brutal. An employee for a subcontractor of Cintas, an American corporation, describes her working conditions: "They lock the gates on us and sometimes put security guards out in front with rifles to prevent us from leaving. The supervisors would yell and curse at us to finish our quota. My daily quota is sewing 90 dozen zippers on pants for 80 gourds (~$2 USD) . . . The factory gets so hot it is like working in fire. Inside the air is so hot and full of dust that I can't breathe, so I would put my handkerchief around my nose and continue working."
Thanks in part to Haitians being worked like beasts of burden, Cintas scored $234 million in profits in 2002. It is no wonder wealthy elites like Andy Apaid and those who own the Cintas subcontractors have no love for President Aristide. Aristide's administration has increased tax collection and doubled the minimum wage, an action that some say was "the straw that broke the camel's back" in the minds of Haiti's elite. To put it simply, Aristide worked to give Haiti's poor a bigger slice of the already very small economic pie, and that was unacceptable. It also flies in the face of the popular notion in the media that Aristide didn't accomplish anything while in office. Most reports will say something to the effect of "People hoped Aristide would bring them out of poverty, but today Haiti is more poor than ever." The New York Times referred disparagingly to "the mess [Aristide] left behind." Statements like this seem to carry the assumption that Aristide is personally responsible for Haiti's economic fate, which is frankly ridiculous. Equally ridiculous is the notion that Aristide has attempted nothing to improve the country's problems. People who say such things are not doing their homework. In order to understand why Haiti is so poor, one must first understand Haiti's history and the impact that racism and colonialism have had on the island nation.
Past U.S. Meddling in Haitian Affairs
In fact, in order to understand the causes of Haiti's extreme poverty one has to go back over 200 years, when the Haitian people were held in bondage by the French. Under the system of slave labor the French employed slaves were literally worked to death and replaced by fresh shipments of slaves from the west coast of Africa. After the slave revolt defeated Napoleon's army, the French ordered the newly liberated colony to pay 90 million gold francs in "compensation" to French plantation owners who lost property and investments as a result of the uprising. Thomas Jefferson didn't like the idea of an independent black republic and attempted to strangle Haiti economically. Under the threat of embargoes and military intervention, Haiti agreed to pay the money to France. It took about 100 years to pay off, and France didn't recognize Haiti until the payment was completed. During that time, much of the Haitian population barely survived through subsistence agriculture. President Aristide recently called for France to pay the money back, which didn't make him many friends in Paris.
Between 1849 and 1913 the U.S. Navy entered Haitian waters to protect U.S. "interests" 24 times. In 1915 Woodrow Wilson began a U.S. military occupation of Haiti. The U.S. helped create the Haitian army during this time. The Army became the main instrument by which the poor masses of Haiti were kept in line by whichever autocratic regime happened to be in power. The Army brutally suppressed and intimidated labor unions and dissidents. Haiti's economy was also opened up to exploitation by U.S. corporations. The occupation would last 19 years despite the resistance of the "Cacos," a group of revolutionaries whose name was derived from the call of an indigenous bird. In the 1950s the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier came to power with U.S. support. The reign of both "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" (who now wants to return to Haiti) were characterized by terrorizing Haiti's poor and ensuring a favorable business climate for Haitian elites and foreign investors.
The IMF and World Bank Strangle Haiti's Economy
According to a 1997 report by Foreign Policy in Focus, "Since the early 1960s the U.S. has actively used its political influence and development assistance programs to help turn Haiti into a low-wage, export-friendly economy that provides profitable business opportunities for U.S. investors. In 1971, at a time when development assistance to Haiti had been cut off due to the terrible human rights record of the Duvalier regime, the Nixon administration agreed to give political support to the transition of power from Papa Doc to Baby Doc-dictator to dictator-in return for the establishment of generous incentives to attract U.S. private investors. These included maintenance of an extremely low minimum wage, the suppression of labor unions, and the right of foreign companies to repatriate their profits."
During the 1980s international financial institutions, namely the World Bank and IMF, began to push for economic reforms in Haiti. The Haitian economy was subjected to "structural adjustment" programs which included "short-term stabilization measures, reduction of tariffs and import controls, cuts in government expenditures on health and education, and wage restraint. With the removal of import controls, the value of agricultural exports to Haiti from the U.S. increased from $44 million in 1986 to $95 million in 1989." The point about agriculture is an important one. More than 75% of the Haitian population is involved in agriculture. The IMF reforms flooded Haiti's markets with cheap, subsidized agricultural products from the U.S. and Europe, undermining local producers. Haitians don't have enough money to subsidize their agricultural products, and the international financial institutions probably wouldn't let them if they did. The impact of these reforms on the Haitian economy was cogently explained by President Aristide himself in his book, Eyes of the Heart:
"What happens to poor countries when they embrace free trade? In Haiti in 1986 we imported just 7000 tons of rice, the main staple food of the country. The vast majority was grown in Haiti. In the late 1980s Haiti complied with free trade policies advocated by the international lending agencies and lifted tariffs on rice imports. Cheaper rice immediately flooded in from the United States where the rice industry is subsidized.
In fact the liberalization of Haiti's market coincided with the 1985 Farm Bill in the United States which increased subsidies to the rice industry so that 40% of U.S. rice growers' profits came from the government by 1987. Haiti's peasant farmers could not possibly compete. By 1996 Haiti was importing 196,000 tons of foreign rice at the cost of $100 million a year. Haitian rice production became negligible. Once the dependence on foreign rice was complete, import prices began to rise, leaving Haiti's population, particularly the urban poor, completely at the whim of rising world grain prices. And the prices continue to rise."
Aristide also recounts the impact of international institutions on Haiti's hog farmers. It is an example of how rich countries often use overly rigid safety and health regulations as a way of keeping foreign exports out of their markets:
"In 1982 international agencies assured Haiti's peasants their pigs were sick and had to be killed (so that the illness would not spread to countries to the North). Promises were made that better pigs would replace the sick pigs ... all of the Creole pigs were killed over period of a thirteen months. Two years later the new, better pigs came from lowa. They were so much better that they required clean drinking water (unavailable to 80% of the Haitian population), imported feed (costing $90 a year when the per capita income was about $130), and special roofed pigpens. Haitian peasants quickly dubbed them 'prince a quatre pieds,' (four-footed princes). Adding insult to injury, the meat did not taste as good.
Needless to say, the repopulation program was a complete failure. One observer of the process estimated that in monetary terms Haitian peasants lost $600 million dollars. There was a 30% drop in enrollment in rural schools, there was a dramatic decline in the protein consumption in rural Haiti, a devastating decapitalization of the peasant economy and an incalculable negative impact on Haiti's soil and agricultural productivity. The Haitian peasantry has not recovered to this day."
IMF loans increased Haiti's already burdensome debt. According to the Haiti Support Group, "Haiti's debt to international financial institutions and foreign governments has grown from US$302 million in 1980 to US$1.134 billion today. About 40% of this debt stems from loans to the brutal Duvalier dictators who invested precious little of it in the country. This is known as 'odious debt' because it was used to oppress the people, and, according to international law, this debt need not be repaid." In addition to this awful economic climate, the political climate in Haiti has always been volatile, with dozens of coups shaking the foundation of the country, including the one recently orchestrated by Washington.
Mental Health and "Necklacing": Bad Journalism and Journalism Not Even Attempted
All of this is what President Aristide inherited. He won Haiti's first free elections by a landslide, receiving 2/3 of the vote. During his presidential campaign he would ride across the countryside on a donkey while greeting people. He was adored by the poor people of Haiti for his bravery in standing up to the Duvalier regime. He was so defiant, in fact, that some of his fellow clergymen attempted to have him transferred out of Port-au-Prince. When the word of the possibility that Aristide would be sent away got around, young people from all over the capital began a hunger strike to protest. Aristide was never transferred.
Upon taking office Aristide refused to accept his $10,000 monthly salary, saying it was "scandalous in a country where most people go to bed hungry." He began a program of land reform that distributed fallow plots to landless peasants, leading to an enormous decrease in violent land disputes. He lobbied to increase the minimum wage. Perhaps most importantly, he cracked down on the crime and drug trafficking among members of the former military, an organization that was still making it difficult for Haitians to sleep at night.
Aristide was overthrown in a coup less than a year into his term. The coup was led by elements of the former military, Duvalier supporters, and terrorist thugs of the wealthy elite. Aristide was exiled to the United States for 3 years, during which a ruthless military dictator ruled Haiti. Anywhere from 3 thousand to over 5 thousand people were killed during this period. It was also during this period that the media demonization of Aristide began. Two major rumors, both of them utterly false, began to spread about Aristide. One was that he advocated "necklacing" of his opponents. Necklacing is a form of execution whereby a tire is drenched in gasoline, draped over a person's neck, and set on fire. The other rumor was that Aristide was "mentally unbalanced" or "a psychopath." Now that Haiti is back in the news, these same charges are starting to creep back into the coverage even though they were both discredited 10 years ago. On Fox News Channel, right-wing pundit Fred Barnes called Aristide a "psychopath." The New York Times recently repeated the lie about necklacing.
Both of these stories were the result of a propaganda campaign waged by minions of the Cédras dictatorship that was then ruling in place of Aristide. Sheldon Rampton debunks both myths in an article for PR Watch. Here he explains the role of Lynn Garrison: "A former Canadian air force officer with shadowy ties to the CIA, Garrison became one of the primary sources for the coup leaders' smear campaign against Aristide. His first task, following Aristide's expulsion from the county, was to go through the exiled president's personal possessions, including diaries, paintings and medicines, seeking evidence to back up the junta's claim that Aristide was unfit to govern."
Garrison found paintings and doodlings that he was convinced would only be possessed by a madman. He went through Aristide's medicines and claimed to have found drugs that Aristide needed to sustain his mental health. They were actually medicines used to combat heart trouble. A host of PR agents were hired to spread press releases, memos, and editorials around Washington. One of Cédras' leading agents enlisted the help of right-wing columnist Bob Novak, who wrote a series of columns praising the Haitian dictator. Novak also unearthed a phony "hit list" supposedly penned by Aristide. Pat Buchanan joined in the fun, saying Aristide was a "bloodthirsty little socialist." Jesse Helms and Bob Dole were working behind the scenes with these agents to undermine Aristide in Congress. No matter what people may say about Aristide, it is undeniable that he has all the right enemies.
A CIA document, later proved to be a forgery, was presented by Jesse Helms as "proof" of Aristide's psychopathic tendencies. Helms also accused Aristide of human rights abuses, which ended up angering human rights organizations. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch called Helms' claim that Haitians were worse off under Aristide "ludicrous." The lie about Aristide advocating "necklacing" was also popularized by Jesse Helms when he made the claim in a speech to the Senate. Here are the portions of the speech Aristide gave in which he was allegedly advocating necklacing:
"And if you catch a cat [the slang in Creole for thief], if you catch a thief, if you catch a false, Lavalassian, if you catch a false, if you catch one who shouldn't be there, don't hesitate to give him what he deserves. Your tool in hand, your instrument in hand, your constitution in hand! Don't hesitate to give him what he deserves. Your equipment in hand, your trowel in hand, your pencil in hand, your Constitution in hand, don't hesitate to give him what he deserves."
The speech is about the Haitian elite and the supporters of the Duvalier dictatorship. In the next line Aristide refers directly to "the 291," meaning Article 291 of the Haitian Constitution, which bans supporters of the former dictator from politics for 10 years. He is imploring his followers to use the Constitution (their "instrument") to prevent torturers and killers from participating in the new Haitian government. According to Helms, "tool" means "burning tire." Jesse probably needs to brush up on his Creole. The irony of all this is that "necklacing" is a tactic often used by Aristide's opponents. The New York Times has reported several instances of necklacing against "suspected Aristide militants" since the recent coup. Necklacing was also a common occurrence after the 1991 coup.
Democratic Party to Aristide: Satisfy U.S. Investors, or Else!
During the 1991-94 dictatorship, the OAS declared an embargo to protest human rights abuses. The U.S. refused to comply with the embargo, declaring certain firms "exempt." U.S.-Haiti trade actually increased during Aristide's exile. Despite the favorable press and economic ties, pressure mounted on the Clinton administration to do something to restore democracy in Haiti. The CIA-backed FRAPH death squads and the Haitian military were committing atrocities on a massive scale. As a result of that pressure, Aristide was restored to power with the help of 20,000 U.S. Marines. Right before the intervention, the AP reported that U.S. oil companies had been illegally supplying the coup leaders.
As a condition of his return, the Clinton administration forced Aristide to agree to yet another round of "free trade" initiatives. These initiatives involved the selling of state-owned enterprises, which included a telephone company, electric company, airport, port, three banks, a cement factory and flour mill. The U.S. hoped these would be sold to multinational corporations, but Aristide was reluctant. Only the cement factory and the flour mill were sold. The unfairness of the privatization scheme was summed up nicely by Aristide:
"The state-owned enterprises are sick, we are told, and they must be privatized. The peasants shake their heads and remember the Creole pigs. The 1997 sale of the state-owned flour mill confirmed their skepticism. The mill sold for a mere $9 million, while estimates place potential yearly profits at $20-30 million a year. The mill was bought by a group of investors linked to one of Haiti's largest banks. One outcome seems certain; this sale will further concentrate wealth-in a country where 1% of the population already holds 45% of the wealth of the country."
Al Gore personally visited Haiti to tell President Aristide how to run his country. In the words of Haiti Progres, "His message to the Haitian people: we know what's best for you, and you will have to do what we say, like it or not." Aristide always had to navigate a line between carrying out his programs to help uplift the Haitian people and appeasing the elites and the international financial institutions that were applying enormous pressure on him. At first, Aristide made several major concessions which won him a fair amount of acceptance from Washington. According to former ambassador Robert White, Aristide had been given a "crash course in democracy" and learned that "too much revolution scares away investors. Small countries can't afford too much social experimentation."
Aristide implemented some of the neoliberal economic reforms. Trade barriers were lowered, making Haiti probably the most open economy in the world. A "free trade zone" was established along the Dominican border. The government eliminated gasoline subsidies, causing the price of gas to double and transportation costs to increase 60%. Aristide appointed a strongly pro-free trade Prime Minister. Many of Aristide's former supporters say he went too far and gave up on his principles. That may be the case, but Aristide was still able to accomplish a great deal in the fields of education, health, and human rights. What should be made abundantly clear, however, is that when the media makes a statement like "Aristide failed to lift Haiti out of poverty" they are ignoring all context and history, including the crucial role played by the U.S. and international financial institutions.
The "Fraudulent" 2000 Elections: A Fraudulent Excuse for a Coup
Aristide's opposition, fortified by funds from the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, was desperate to get rid of him and gain control of the government. Coups had failed. Less than 15% of the population supported them, so they couldn't win elections. Even so, the elections of 2000 gave Aristide's opponents an opportunity to stir up controversy. The elections have been broadly denounced as a "fraud." Some media organizations have echoed the false accusations of the opposition parties, claiming that there was systemic and widespread fraud. Such a claim was never alleged by any credible international body or organization; it was simply made up by the opposition.
The real "controversy" centered around an electoral quibble of minor importance. The U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) decided to meddle in the internal affairs of Haiti, overstepping its mandate. The OAS took issue with the method used to calculate the vote totals in 8 of those seats, saying there should have been a runoff. Instead, the posts were given (gasp!) to the people who had the most votes. It's easy to understand why George W. Bush would find such electoral methods unsettling. The other 7,492 positions that were filled in the same elections were judged to be fair. Few people have taken the time to actually investigate the claims made by the opposition. As a result, the charges have been repeated and exaggerated by the media.
First of all, there is absolutely no doubt that Aristide's Family Lavalas Party would have swept the elections regardless of what method was used. Even some of Aristide's strongest opponents have admitted this. Léopold Berlanger, director of the anti-Lavalas Radio Vision 2000, has said that the scattered irregularities did not affect "the result of the vote in general." The opposition has always had very little popular support, even according to polls conducted by Washington. Many international observers judged the election to be fair. The Mission of Francophone States gave its seal of approval. The International Coalition of Independent Observers characterized the elections as "fair and peaceful."
Furthermore, the method used to calculate the votes was public knowledge before the vote. Why didn't the OAS raise its objections then? In fact, the same method was used in previous elections. According to Luciano Pharaon, the head of election operations, "Not only have we done our job correctly, but this is the same method used in the elections of 1990, 1995, and 1997, and everyone accepted it," he said. "I don't see what the problem is this time, unless it is a false problem and they really are after something else." Something else is exactly what they were after.
Many people alleged that Aristide supporters engaged in intimidation and violence against opponents during the election. Weapons were banned during the electoral period, even if the owner had a license. In the rural areas, several Lavalas members were arrested on weapons violations, contrary to the alleged "partisanship" of the Haitian police. However, most of the trouble, as usual, came from Aristide's opponents, many more of which were arrested for similar weapons violations. Several opposition supporters were arrested for attempting to incite violence. The night before the election, someone lobbed a Molotov cocktail at Lafanmi Selavi, the orphanage founded by Aristide. One prominent opposition figure, Paul Denis, was arrested after police found illegal automatic weapons in his home.
These arrests have been portrayed in the media as a case of Aristide's evil blackshirts cracking down on dissent. In reality, Aristide has always condemned people on both sides who violate the law, and people on both sides were held accountable. Notably absent from all the administration's denunciations are the opposition forces who have engaged in violence. In February, the opposition attempted to illegally set up a "parallel government," which eventually "collapsed under the weight of its own ridiculousness," to quote Haiti Progres.
Bush to Haiti: Surrender Your Democracy or Drink Polluted Water
In response to the election disagreement, Aristide's opponents boycotted the remaining elections and began calling for the overthrow of the government. The Bush administration blocked over $500 million in desperately needed international aid. This included $146 million dollar loan package from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) intended for healthcare, education, water sanitation. In other words, the Bush administration has no problem halting aid over a minor political dispute while Haitian children die from drinking polluted water. Aristide denounced the move as "economic terrorism." The funds were not dispensed until years later, after the Haitian government was forced to pay $66 million in "arrears" for debts largely incurred by the former dictatorship (this reminds Haitians of the "debt" they had to pay to French slave owners). In addition, the embargo has helped cause the Haitian gourde lose 69% of its value and shrink Haiti's foreign reserves by 50%.
The reason the U.S. blocked the aid was to further destabilize Haiti and foment rebellion. The administration's claim that the aid is being withheld because of the election results cannot be taken seriously. The top 3 countries which receive aid from the U.S. are Israel, Egypt, and Colombia. All three of these countries have horrible human rights records. Of the three, only Israel can be reasonably considered a democracy (unless you count the occupied territories as part of Israel, in which case a large segment of the population cannot vote). After 9/11, the military dictator of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, was renamed "President Musharraf" by the Bush administration. Pakistan receives a good deal of aid from the United States. The U.S. government also had no qualms with giving aid to the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti.
The ultimate irony over the election dispute, as many have pointed out, is that the truly "fraudulent" elections in 2000 were the ones that put President Bush in power. In Florida, over 90,000 voters were disenfranchised by being falsely labeled as convicted felons. Most of the voters were minorities and likely to vote Democrat. Other technicalities were used to disqualify voters, such as address changes. Black voters were subjected to old voting machines, confusing ballots, intimidation, and police checkpoints. There was also the corrupt Supreme Court decision which stopped the Florida recount, as we all know. What all this suggests is that the United States and the "international community" should stop sticking its nose in Haiti's internal affairs and raising objections when the reflection in the mirror looks a lot worse.
Aristide has bent over backwards to compromise with the opposition. He asked 7 of the Senators to step down from their posts, which they did. He promised to hold immediate runoffs and new elections the next year. The opposition refused to accept anything less than Aristide's ouster. There was a lot of fanciful rhetoric about Haiti becoming a "one-party state" with a "winner take all system," which is precisely what we have in the United States. Aristide has always shared power, despite the fact that his opponents do not have the popular support to warrant such power sharing. He has even allowed former Duvalier supporters to hold prominent positions in the government, much to the chagrin of his supporters. As a result of all this bargaining and compromising, the Lavalas movement began to divide, which is what Washington and the opposition were trying to accomplish all along.
The Aristide Record: Human Rights, Education, Health
What has been completely lost in all of the reporting about Haiti are the tremendous accomplishments of the Aristide government. While the media may grudgingly admit the fact that Aristide is wildly popular, little attention is given to where that popularity comes from. The human rights situation under Aristide has remarkably better than past regimes, despite the fact that many of the same folks from those days are still around. Against all odds, the Aristide government has made health care and education a priority in Haiti. The improvements made in these areas have been especially impressive considering the lack of funds and the hostility expressed by the opposition and the "international community." A report titled Hidden from the Headlines, issued by the Haiti Action Committee, does a good job of summing up the record of the Aristide government. Many of the following facts have been taken from this must-read document.
While it is often said that Aristide suppresses dissent, the truth is the exact opposite. Over 200 radio stations operate in Haiti today, and most of them broadcast lies and propaganda about Aristide on a daily basis (pro-Aristide journalists are now afraid to talk to the U.S. media for fear of attacks). Aristide has respected the right of his opponents to criticize his government, even when his opponents take part in things that seem more like sedition than dissent. Many of Aristide's allies have been frustrated by him and claim that he is too timid and accommodating toward his opponents. For example, before his ouster he agreed to a CARICOM proposal that would have given his opponents a grossly inordinate amount of power, but they refused to accept anything short of his removal.
The Raboteau trial in 2000 saw some of the worst killers in Haitian history brought to justice (although many of them have been "liberated" from prison by Guy Philippe and his thugs). Aristide also disbanded the Haitian military, which is probably the greatest human rights achievement of his presidency. Even many of Aristide's opponents favored the elimination of the military, which served no purpose other than to terrorize the population. The fact that some of Haiti's new "leaders" are calling for the military to be reborn ought to tell you something very unsettling about them.
Many organizations and media outlets accuse "Lavalas militants" of violence. It is true that there have been acts of violence, but they have occurred on both sides. Aristide has consistently condemned violence regardless of which group is taking part in it. Many Lavalas supporters have been arrested for such activities. It should be noted that Lavalas supporters are a huge segment of the Haitian population, and it isn't fair to blame Aristide for the actions of individuals. To blame Aristide for every action done by a Lavalas member implies that everything his followers do is the result of Aristide's direct instruction, which isn't the case (just like Bush isn't responsible for Ku Klux Klan members who happen to be Republicans). The media also tends to ignore violence when it is done by the other side, which is most often the case. Opponents of Aristide will intentionally provoke Aristide supporters into violent action so that the violence can be used by the media as proof of how evil Aristide is. A relevant example is given by the Haiti Action Committee:
"On March 20, 2003, the Associated Press reported that 'police fired tear gas and used nightsticks to disperse 300 anti-government demonstrators near the National Palace.' What they did not report was that these protesters insisted—over police objections—on changing the route of their march to go to the National Palace where hundreds of pro-government demonstrators were rallying. Predictably, a melee broke out and police were forced to break it up. (Haiti Progres, March 2003) The AP story closed with a quote from Convergence leader Gerard Pierre Charles, who declared, 'the government is more repressive than ever.'"
The Haitian police force has also been the target of some legitimate criticism. It is an unorganized and undisciplined, largely thanks to the United States. When Aristide was returned to power in 1994, part of the mission of the U.S. and Canada was supposed to be to train the Haitian police force and provide security. That part of the operation ended up being a miserable failure. Aristide refused to align himself with elements of the former army and military junta, and U.S. forces refused to disarm the thugs and death squads. As a result, Haiti has an undisciplined police force that sometimes steps over the line and often doesn't get its job done.
In other words, Haiti's police force has a lot in common with the police in the United States. According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch, American police engage in "unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses. Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity." These are the kind of human rights abuses that many democracies have trouble with. It isn't grounds for overthrowing the government (especially when those calling for the overthrow are members of death squads).
Some have also legitimately claimed that Aristide's government is corrupt. There is some truth to this, and it has caused division within the Lavalas movement. Some public officials have nice houses and cars that would be impossible to afford with the salary of a public official. Again, this is exactly what goes on in the United States. In fact, the corrupt reconstruction racket in Iraq has resulted in no-bid contracts for Haliburton that amount to about a tenth of the entire GDP of Haiti. Connecticut Gov. John Rowland has recently come under fire for corrupt dealings with contractors in his state. This does not justify an armed insurrection against the state of Connecticut. A democratic government has mechanisms to deal with such problems.
The Aristide government has also made significant steps in fighting trafficking in persons, contrary to the State Department's claim that Haiti is among the "least compliant" countries with regards to this issue:
"An estimated 400,000 young children, primarily girls, work as domestics in Haitian households. The majority of these children come from rural Haiti and are sent to the cities by their parents in hopes that they will receive food, education and shelter in exchange for their labor. Often, in addition to long hours and hard work, these restaveks are subject to abuse, violence and neglect. In May 2003, Haiti passed legislation prohibiting trafficking in persons, and banning the provision of the labor code which formerly sanctioned child domestic labor. The bill followed a law enacted in October 2001, which banned all forms of corporal punishment against children. In addition, Haiti is taking specific measures to ensure that restavek children get an education. Government scholarship funds for the 2003-2004 school year will target restavek children, and President Aristide has called on all families who have restavek children living in their homes to send them to school."
Aristide's government began a Universal Schooling program designed to give every child an education. More schools have been built under Aristide's government than were built in the entire 200 years prior to his taking office. Aristide has mandated that 20% of the national budget go to education, including "a 70% government subsidy of schoolbooks and uniforms, and expanded school lunch and school bus programs." Aristide has also made many new scholarships available to students so that they can attend private schools. The government has also made enormous strides in improving literacy:
"Haiti's rate of illiteracy currently stands between 55% and 60%. In the summer of 2001, the Haitian government launched a national literacy campaign. The Secretary of State for Literacy has printed 2 million literacy manuals, and trained thousands of college and high school students as literacy workers. The students committed to teach throughout the country for the next three years. Working with church and voudouizan groups, popular organizations and thousands of women's groups across the country, the government has opened 20,000 adult literacy centers. Some 320,000 people are currently in literacy classes; the majority are women. Many of these centers, opened in poor urban and rural areas, are resto-alphas which combine a literacy center and a community kitchen, providing low-cost meals to communities in need."
In a cooperative effort with Cuba, 800 Cuban doctors were brought to Haiti to work in rural areas. In addition, 325 Haitians began receiving training in Cuba with a commitment to return to Haiti and serve the public. Two hundred Haitians were also studying at a new medical school in Haiti, which was part of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy. Since the coup, the medical school has been closed down and used as a base for troops. Aristide's foundation has reportedly been looted. Both organizations were involved in doing very good and much-needed work on behalf of the Haitian people.
The Aristide government has also taken a strong lead in fighting AIDS:
"Haiti joined an im-portant three-country AIDS vaccine trial. In 2002, the UN Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis chose Haiti as one of the first three recipients of grants. The two-year, $18 million grant will fi-nance a broad spectrum of work to treat and prevent AIDS in rural and urban areas, including the provision of anti-retroviral treatment to some AIDS patients. Some of these funds will support the groundbreaking work of Partners in Health at the Central Plateau hospital founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, which provides AIDS treatment and medication to patients free of charge."
Personal Impressions of Aristide
Those who have met President Aristide have an impression of the man that is radically different from the evil despot that he is made to be in the media. Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica, has called him an "honorable man." Lyn Duff, a friend of Aristide, wrote in a recent article, "The Jean Bertrand Aristide I know is markedly different from the one that is being portrayed in the media ... In 1995 when, I was 19 years old, I traveled to Haiti to help set up Radyo Timoun, a radio station run by street children in the capital .. It was there that I came to know Jean Bertrand Aristide, not just as the president of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but also as a father, teacher, a friend, and a surrogate dad for hundreds of parentless street kids."
One of those street children sent Lyn Duff a letter in which he talks about his fears after Aristide's overthrow. The letter deserves to be quoted at length:
"I was living in the gutter, dressing in old clothes and begging at the airport when President Aristide took office in 1990. One of the first things Titid [as President Aristide was popularly known] did when he moved into the National Palace was invite a group of children who sleep in the streets to visit the Palace and speak out about the conditions of the street children ... When Titid became president he told the world that we street children were people, we had value, that we were human beings.
Many adults didn't like this message. They said we were dirty and should be thrown out like the trash that we are. But Titid loved us and when I met him, he kissed me and put his hand on my face and told me he loved me. And they were not the empty words of a politician ... During the first coup in 1991 the street kids were attacked and Lafanmi Selavi [a shelter for homeless children started by Aristide when he was a parish priest] was burned. Aristide came back from exile in October 1994 and it was a new world for the children. Three years of horror were over.
I was just a little child at that time but with Titid I felt important. We went to Titid and told him that we wanted to have a voice in democracy, to have a voice for children and he gave us Radyo Timoun. We were the first children's radio station in the world, run by children and promoting the human rights of all Haitians ... The U.S. Marines stood by and did nothing while the library at the Aristide Foundation was burned. With my own eyes I saw the American Marines stand and watch while rebels cut a woman and shot her. I yelled at them, "Do something!" and they swung their guns around toward me and yelled, "Get back!"
While I hid in a field the American Marines put their hats on the bodies of dead people and posed for pictures with them. It made me sick because in Haiti we respect the dead. The Americans scare me; I don't believe that they want anything good for the Haitian people because they support the criminals who oppose democracy .. A new government has no hope for the children of Haiti. I am scared, I think the criminals will try to kill me too because I am one of Titid's boys. But I am not just scared for myself. I am scared for all the children of Haiti. And today I cannot stop crying."
One cannot read those words and believe that Aristide was a monster, or that this bloody coup is anything but a disaster for the Haitian people. The children's radio station has been looted and destroyed by anti-Aristide gangs. Another letter from a young girl said that she is being targeted because the thugs found a picture of her handing a flower to President Aristide.
The Threat of a Good Example
Several liberals have asked me questions such as, "Why would Bush do this to Haiti? Haiti has no oil. Even if what you're saying is true, I don't understand what interest we have in Haiti." It is true that Haiti has little strategic or economic significance. Certainly not as much significance as Iraq or Venezuela, which both have large oil reserves. However, Aristide was a threat to the powerful in the United States in a very real way. It was the threat of a good example. As Noam Chomsky has acutely observed, "No country is exempt from U.S. intervention, no matter how unimportant. In fact, it's the weakest, poorest countries that often arouse the greatest hysteria ... There's a reason for that. The weaker and poorer a country is, the more dangerous it is as an example. If a tiny, poor country like Grenada can succeed in bringing about a better life for its people, some other place that has more resources will ask, 'why not us?'"
Exactly. This is why the New York Times is bending over backwards to portray Aristide as an authoritarian radical, whether they realize it or not. To quote Dr. Paul Farmer, "Aristide is indeed a radical, but not in the sense of the dispatches to Washington: he is radically devoted to the poor ... Aristide's main inspiration comes directly from the poor themselves. He has worked with disaffected and unemployed urban youth, and with the street children and beggars and homeless inhabitants of a city of well over a million people." He has a bunch of crazy ideas such as "investing in human beings" and "the right to eat and to work." In other words, he is a very dangerous man in the eyes of multinational corporations, foreign investors, and Haiti's rich elite. As one Haitian businessman put it, "Everyone who is anyone is against Aristide. Except the people."
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