Haitian Lament: Killing Me Softly

Haitian Lament: Killing Me Softly

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


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.

“The occupation has been an expropriation of the democratic project,” explains Camille Chalmers, a former chief of staff for Aristide who now heads the Haitian Platform for the Promotion of Alternative Development. “It’s no longer a democracy struggled for by the Haitian people. Today, it’s the United States and the international community that are wanting to build their project.” As a result, what the UN calls “major unrest” has repeatedly erupted. In November 1995, one year after foreign troops landed, demonstrators shut down four major towns and erected barricades on all main roads nationwide. Angry at the refusal of international forces to disarm former soldiers of the hated Haitian Army, protesters burned effigies of US soldiers and searched cars and trucks, including UN vehicles, for weapons. Popular anger against the occupation and the IMF austerity policies that have accompanied it reached such proportions in January 1997 that a one-day general strike calling for the removal of foreign troops paralyzed the country. Strikers rejected the two defining features of Haitian life during occupation–laviche, the high cost of living, and insekerite, the armed activity of former soldiers and their civilian allies. Faced with popular protest from below and squeezed by the demands of international lenders from above, three governments have come and gone in the past four years.

Despite this turbulence–or perhaps because of it–last November the UN Security Council renewed its military mandate for the sixth time. While troop strength has been ratcheted down from the peak level of 23,000 in 1994, 285 UN police and some 500 US troops are stationed in Haiti indefinitely, according to the Clinton Administration. The renewal openly flouted the will of Haiti’s legislature, which, in a rare session last year, passed a law outlawing the foreign military and police presence. The UN, which lobbied heavily against the bill, insists that it doesn’t apply to its forces.

A key reason for the opposition to foreign troops has been their refusal to fulfill their mandate of establishing a “secure and stable” environment. Former soldiers and attachés of the disbanded Haitian Army continue to terrorize villages, towns and urban slums. And they’ve done so with US and UN protection. International forces have vigorously obstructed the arrest of scores of senior coup officials, attachés and right-wing political leaders. In one case, US and UN forces blocked President Aristide’s communications links with Haitian judicial officials during an attempted arrest of former dictator Gen. Prosper Avril. (A US federal court has ordered Avril to pay $41 million in restitution to his torture victims.) Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration continues to provide a haven for Emmanuel Constant, the CIA asset and head of the death squad FRAPH. It also refuses to release 150,000 pages of documents seized from army and FRAPH offices [see Allan Nairn, “Behind Haiti’s Paramilitaries” and “He’s Our S.O.B.,” October 24 and 31, 1994]. And as in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and Nicaragua, the US alliance with the Haitian right has been accompanied by a wave of drug trafficking that now makes Haiti a crucial pass on the cocaine highway and corrupts all major institutions. US officials report that in 1997, 19 percent of the cocaine coming into the United States passed through Haiti, up from 5 percent in 1996. Moreover, significant portions of the Haitian National Police are deeply involved in the foreign cocaine trade, according to US and Haitian officials and human rights groups.

As for the putschists, they have enriched themselves on lucrative contracts to provide the occupying forces with everything from housing and banking services to clean laundry, ice and translators. Madame Max Adolphe, for instance, the sadistic head of the Tonton Macoutes under “Papa Doc” Duvalier, collected a monthly rent check from US Special Forces for the use of her compound. As one young militant put it, “The pot of rice gets cooked in the name of the children, but it’s the adults who eat.”

The tune was very different in the fall of 1994, when the 10th Mountain Division marched into Haiti’s cities and Special Forces A-teams fanned out into the countryside. “Down, down, down to violence. Long live peace,” went one US Psy Ops jingle that played on Haitian radio. “We’ll find democracy, for everyone to work, learn to read and write, for everyone to find health.” Vengeance, or people’s justice, would only scare investors and discourage international aid, the US and UN repeated. Reconciliation was the key to jobs and economic recovery. But as in Panama and Nicaragua, promises of reconstruction were never kept.

Instead, Haiti was forced to accept an IMF regimen that required slashing tariffs, laying off state employees and selling the most profitable state-run industries to foreign corporations as the price for Aristide’s return and $1.8 billion in loans and grants. Prices for basic commodities like food and fuel have soared, localized famines have occurred and the country’s debt has ballooned more than 60 percent since 1994. On a human level, one in two preschool children goes hungry and one in eight dies.

“In the name of fiscal discipline, what is being sacrificed is the ability of the country to function,” argues an economist with a leading multilateral bank. “How are you going to transport the mangoes to Port-au-Prince for export if there are no roads? How are you going to increase the level of education so there are more options than the maquilas?” Equally alarming is that, with the virtual abolition of tariffs, tiny Haiti has become one of the most open markets in the hemisphere, ranking among those countries that have generated the largest trade surpluses for the United States.

Like the US occupation earlier in this century, the most enduring institutional legacy of this fin de siècle occupation is the security apparatus. And as with all other key aspects of Haitian political life, Washington has retained an extraordinary degree of control. A multiagency US group selected each recruit and determined the design, training and financing of the 6,500-strong HNP. More than 50 percent of the top police commissioners are recycled Haitian Army personnel, according to US and Haitian officials. United States trainers placed soldiers they considered reliable in a number of key units and systematically purged a group of reformist army officers who had refused to support the 1991 coup and joined President Aristide in exile.

The results have been disastrous. “Members of this US-trained force have committed serious abuses, including torture and summary executions,” said a 1997 report by Human Rights Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. Since the HNP was first deployed in 1995, the total number of people it has killed runs into the hundreds. In 1996 twelve young political activists were massacred in a UN-backed attack on their neighborhood. Victims of police violence report torture, including the use of electric shocks, as well as routine beatings with fists, clubs, pistols and boots.

Despite the HNP’s putative role as a civilian force, its officers have received training from the CIA and US Special Forces, and from an array of international military forces. The United States has also built heavily armed paramilitary units. Outfitted in all-black battle-dress uniforms, body armor and masks, they routinely conduct “anticrime” patrols. One of their first deployments was to protect Haiti’s flour mill after it was privatized in a deal with a consortium including US giants Continental Grain and the Seaboard Corporation for $9 million, a token sum according to opponents. The paramilitaries have also targeted popular organizations; the Milot Peasants Movement and the Port-au-Prince women’s clinic, Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen, for example, had their offices trashed and valuable equipment destroyed by the new police.

Through all of this, political opposition has continued, but the liberation movement was seriously weakened by repression during the coup period, coupled with the flight of many key leaders to Canada and the United States, where most have remained. After Aristide’s return, many local and regional popular leaders took government posts and, in the name of reconciliation, moved to institutionalize–and end–the political struggle of the post-Duvalier period. Still, many groups remain organized and active, whether under the banner of Ti Legliz, the “little church” of the Haitian liberation theology movement, or as women’s clinics or peasant associations like Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Together Little Haitian Peasants). Such is the power of these individuals and organizations that they’ve been able to launch general strikes and inhibit the full application of the neoliberal model in Haiti.

Early in the occupation, Col. Mark Boyatt, commander of US Special Forces, held two-way radio “fireside chats” with his A-teams deployed in rural Haiti. “This is your kingdom,” he told them. “Mold it.”

Boyatt was not exaggerating. Every strategic area of Haitian life has been monopolized and indelibly shaped by US and UN military and economic power, and almost always with the same arrogance. The result is a profound degradation of Haitian society. The new security apparatus has proved itself incapable of dealing with crime and insecurity, but brutal against popular protests. The scorched-earth economic program has pried open Haiti to international capital and enriched a small class of gran manjè, or big eaters, while destroying Haiti’s ability to alleviate, even marginally, the most extreme poverty in the Americas. The impunity enjoyed by the former death squad leaders and army officers, many of whom committed violence that legal scholars classify as “crimes against humanity,” has made a mockery of accountability and the rule of law. And hanging over everything, like a sword of Damocles, are the demons of the past–the return to Macoutism and dictatorship. Although in January some parliamentarians warned of a possible Préval dictatorship, the fact is that the only players in Haiti with such a potential are those decidedly undemocratic elements under the sway of the United States.

Pèpè, a Creole word, reportedly derives from paix, French for “peace.” More than a decade ago priests and other aid donors would shout, “Paix, paix” to the maddened crowds that fought for handouts in church courtyards or village squares. The rejected rags, some originally made in Port-au-Prince’s assembly zones, would temporarily clothe the naked and muffle the cries of the poor. What Washington policy-makers fail to understand today, as they did in 1991, is that a demokrasi pèpè or ekonomi pèpè will not solve the crisis in Haiti. “We cannot live like this,” notes trade unionist Yannick Etienne. “We need an authentic democracy, constructed by the people, reflecting the demands of the people.

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