Haitians call secondhand clothes pèpè, pronounced “peh-peh.” In an earlier time these were called Twoomann and Kenedi because it was under those US Presidents that Haitian tailors and shoemakers first began to see used T-shirts, sweaters, pants and sneakers dumped into the country. In 1998, US firms exported more than 16.5 million pounds of used clothes to Haiti, and just about everybody wears them. Today, more than four years after the 20,000 troops of Operation Restore Democracy ousted the military rule of Lieut. Gen. Raoul Cédras and restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitians describe what Washington delivered as demokrasi pèpè.
A glance around and one easily understands why Haitians see their country in tatters. Under US and UN tutelage, the economy is worse off in some key respects than even during the 1991-94 international embargo against the Cédras regime. The government lies paralyzed, riven by a split between a neoliberal parliamentary faction and President René Préval. For the past twenty-one months there has been no Prime Minister and no formal government. But this political turmoil has not occurred in a vacuum. The electoral and political processes, once, for a brief time, the vehicles for social change and mass participation, have been manipulated to serve US interests and have little legitimacy in the eyes of most Haitians. Indeed, more than 90 percent of registered voters have consistently refused to participate in the panoply of US/UN-financed elections. Meanwhile, the new US-built Haitian National Police (HNP) is under heavy criticism for human rights abuses. And despite what, in 1994, President Clinton called the “campaign of rape, torture and mutilation” under the dictatorship, not one major military or paramilitary figure has been tried and imprisoned for a coup-related crime. Instead, US and UN forces have actively protected former soldiers and death squad leaders, while grassroots activists are harassed, imprisoned, even killed.
Poor Haitians are thus not among those who hail the $2 billion US/UN joint operation as a success story. Instead, they see it as part of the continuity of US policy and undemocratic traditions. “The objectives sought by the coup d’état are the same for the US and UN occupants today,” argues Yannick Etienne, a leading trade union organizer in Port-au-Prince’s low-wage assembly zones. “That is to preserve the old social order, impose a neoliberal order and block popular demands for the fundamental transformation of Haiti.” Over the past four years US and UN forces have moved aggressively to shore up Haiti’s ancien régime. While Préval and the parliamentary faction, who represent two wings of Aristide’s old Lavalas movement, have been locked in a political struggle, Washington has reorganized and refinanced the putschist political parties into what it hopes will be a future governing coalition–a far more reliable partner than the once-powerful social movement that overthrew the twenty-nine-year Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986 and three subsequent military dictatorships in the late eighties, and then produced a radical priest as president.
It is generally believed that, barring assassination, Aristide will again run for president in 2001, and win. The 46-year-old former priest now says his advocacy of the US/UN intervention was an error. After being restored to power, he quickly earned the enmity of the Haitian political class and the Washington national security establishment by more than doubling the minimum wage, abolishing the Haitian Army, blocking the privatization process and, in a final parting act before Préval took over in February 1996, recognizing Cuba. Today, not only is he the only Haitian politician with any serious social base; he remains the only political leader who challenges US policy. Still, Haiti’s popular organizations remain divided on Aristide. His political style is criticized as too personal, and he has never been accountable to a political organization that aims to remake Haiti fundamentally. Indeed, the demobilization of the popular movement after the US intervention could not have been accomplished without his political approval.