When United Nations troops kill residents of the Haitian slum Cité Soleil, friends and family often place photographs of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on their bodies. The photographs silently insist that there is a method to the madness raging in Port-au-Prince. Poor Haitians are being slaughtered not for being “violent,” as we so often hear, but for being militant; for daring to demand the return of their elected president.
It was only ten years ago that President Clinton celebrated Aristide’s return to power as “the triumph of freedom over fear.” So what changed? Corruption? Violence? Fraud? Aristide is certainly no saint. But even if the worst of the allegations are true, they pale next to the rap sheets of the convicted killers, drug smugglers and arms traders who ousted Aristide and continue to enjoy free rein, with full support from the Bush Administration and the UN. Turning Haiti over to this underworld gang out of concern for Aristide’s lack of “good governance” is like escaping an annoying date by accepting a lift home from Charles Manson.
A few weeks ago I visited Aristide in Pretoria, South Africa, where he lives in forced exile. I asked him what was really behind his dramatic falling-out with Washington. He offered an explanation rarely heard in discussions of Haitian politics–actually, he offered three: “privatization, privatization and privatization.”
The dispute dates back to a series of meetings in early 1994, a pivotal moment in Haiti’s history that Aristide has rarely discussed. Haitians were living under the barbaric rule of Raoul Cédras, who overthrew Aristide in a 1991 US-backed coup. Aristide was in Washington and despite popular calls for his return, there was no way he could face down the junta without military back-up. Increasingly embarrassed by Cédras’s abuses, the Clinton Administration offered Aristide a deal: US troops would take him back to Haiti–but only after he agreed to a sweeping economic program with the stated goal to “substantially transform the nature of the Haitian state.”
Aristide agreed to pay the debts accumulated under the kleptocratic Duvalier dictatorships, slash the civil service, open up Haiti to “free trade” and cut import tariffs on rice and corn in half. It was a lousy deal but, Aristide says, he had little choice. “I was out of my country and my country was the poorest in the Western hemisphere, so what kind of power did I have at that time?”
But Washington’s negotiators made one demand that Aristide could not accept: the immediate sell-off of Haiti’s state-owned enterprises, including phones and electricity. Aristide argued that unregulated privatization would transform state monopolies into private oligarchies, increasing the riches of Haiti’s elite and stripping the poor of their national wealth. He says the proposal simply didn’t add up: “Being honest means saying two plus two equals four. They wanted us to sing two plus two equals five.”