History is repeating itself in Haiti, as democracy is being destroyed for the second time in the past fifteen years. Amazingly, the main difference seems to be that this time it is being done openly and in broad daylight, with the support of the “international community” and the United Nations. The first coup against Haiti’s democratically elected government, in September 1991, was condemned even by the George H.W. Bush Administration. This although the CIA had funded the leaders of the coup and–according to a founder of the death squads that murdered thousands of people during the 1991-94 military dictatorship–also sponsored the repression. All this was covert, and the official position of the United States and most other countries was that the dictatorship was not legitimate.
But when in February 2004 Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown for the second time by remnants of that prior dictatorship–including convicted mass murderers and former death squad leaders–this was considered a legitimate “regime change.” The Caricom countries, showing great courage, objected strenuously, as did some members of the US Congress. But these voices were not powerful enough to influence the course of events.
The fix was in: The US Agency for International Development and the International Republican Institute (the international arm of the Republican Party) had spent tens of millions of dollars to create and organize an opposition–however small in numbers–and to make Haiti under Aristide ungovernable. The whole scenario was strikingly similar to the series of events that led to the coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April 2002. The same US organizations were involved, and the opposition–as in Venezuela–controlled and used the major media as a tool for destabilization. And in both cases the coup leaders, joined by Washington, announced to the world that the elected president had “voluntarily resigned”–which later turned out to be false.
Washington had an added weapon against the Haitian government. Taking advantage of Haiti’s desperate poverty and dependence on foreign aid, it stopped international aid to the government, from the summer of 2000 until the 2004 coup. As economist Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out, the World Bank also contributed to the destabilization effort by cutting off funding.
Now the coup government, headed by unelected Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, is trying to organize an election. But it is an election that would not be seen as legitimate in any country, not even Iraq. Everything is being arranged so that the country’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas–which at any moment before the coup would have overwhelmingly swept national elections–cannot win. Many of the party’s leaders are in jail, generally on trumped-up or nonexistent charges, including the constitutional prime minister, Yvon Neptune, and Father Gérard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest and likely presidential candidate if he were not jailed. Jean-Juste has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Other leaders are in hiding or in exile, since the murder of political opponents is common. In one massacre in August, witnesses described Haitian police arriving at a soccer match and pointing out people in the crowd, who were then hacked to death by civilian accomplices with machetes. UN troops have also been implicated in some of the violence, and the UN has promised an investigation.
The coup government, with an electoral commission that has no pretense of impartiality, is also set to disenfranchise a huge number of its opponents. There have been about one-twentieth as many registration sites for this election as there were for previous elections, and it is mostly Fanmi Lavalas voters who have been excluded. According to party spokespeople, the party has not registered any candidates for president, and many of its voters will boycott the election unless their demands for the release of political prisoners and an end to the persecution are met.
The election has been postponed three times, most recently to December 27. Setting the date two days after Christmas will also help minimize voter turnout.
Will the world accept this farce of an election? The Bush Administration and its allies seem to be hoping that Haiti is just too poor and too black for anyone to care about whether democratic, constitutional or even human rights are respected there. They have also cited the violence from both sides of the conflict to disguise the fact that most of that violence is directed at supporters of the ousted government to prevent them from returning to power through a fair election.
But if this election goes forward without the release of political prisoners and the restoration of basic rights and security, it will not only be a tragedy for Haiti. It will be a throwback to the days when the United States was able to destabilize, overthrow and replace elected governments that it did not like. It will be a huge step backward for democracy in this hemisphere.