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Explaining the tragedy in Haiti

This article is over 20 years, 4 months old
Ten years ago Haiti was held up as a model of successful US intervention. Now it is a living hell. Chris Harman explains what has happened
Issue 1890

THE PEOPLE of Haiti are caught in a horrible vice. On one side is a corrupt government that has rigged elections and presided over deepening poverty for the mass of people. On the other is an uprising led by brutal murderers who ran a dictatorship that terrorised the country in the early 1990s.

Yet just ten years ago an American invasion of the country promised to bring peace, prosperity and democracy, with President Clinton using much the same language that Bush and Blair used when they attacked Iraq last year. There was, however, one difference to Iraq. The US troops brought with them the man who had been elected president of Haiti four years earlier-only to be overthrown by the country’s military.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a priest who had preached a gospel of liberation for the poorest people. No wonder people were ecstatic at his return. But the US imposed strict conditions on him. He had to accept an economic programme dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This involved making the poorest country in the whole of Latin America even poorer-although allowing the country’s very rich to prosper.

It also insisted that the country be opened up to US food exports, even though this meant destroying the market for the produce of Haiti’s small peasant proprietors. By accepting these conditions, Aristide guaranteed that he could never fulfil his promises to the poor. He soon lost much of his popularity. By the time of the elections in the year 2000, only ballot-rigging provided him with a clear majority. And as dissent grew, Aristide turned increasingly to the methods of the old dictatorship he had once opposed.

As one of the opposition groups, the National Coordination for the Advance of Women’s Rights, says, ‘After coming to power in 1994, the regime did everything to take things out of the hands of the popular masses and decapitate the social movements. From this resulted the terrible war which the regime wages without pity against the population from 2001 onwards.’

Aristide’s party relied upon gangs of hired thugs to intimidate, attack and murder opponents. But such repression was unable to stop the growth of the opposition, which incorporated a wide variety of forces, from workers and students on the one hand to sections of the old upper class on the other. Aristide did sustain some genuine support in the poorest slums, from people who remembered his revolutionary language of a dozen years ago and who could not see that the opposition offered any solution of its own to poverty.

Such support was on an ever-reduced scale, but was sufficient to stop the mass movement achieving its goal of getting rid of Aristide peacefully. It was then that a third, most destructive force intervened. This was made up of remnants of the old, pre-Aristide dictatorship and army, who returned from exile in the neighbouring Dominican Republic or the US.

These forces have taken over the cities of Gonaives and Hinche, and were threatening to march on the capital, Port-au-Prince, as we went to press. They can be relied on to crush the popular movements even more ruthlessly than Aristide’s party. Wide sections of the population are now terrified about what the outcome will be. As the women’s rights group explains, ‘A deliberate option of the regime opened the door bit by bit for an order we thought overthrown. The hangmen of yesterday are able to pose as ‘liberators’ concerned with human rights and fundamental liberties.’

From dreams of freedom to disaster

HAITI WAS the first state in the world where black people threw out their white oppressors, with a slave uprising in the 1790s. The uprising was followed by bloody attempts by Britain and France to conquer the country.

The Western powers were eventually forced to recognise the new black republic. But they did their utmost to ensure that it was weak and poor ever afterwards. The US then invaded and occupied the country from 1915 to 1934.

After US withdrawal the notorious Duvalier, Papa Doc, rose to power in the 1950s. At first he gained popularity with promises to the poorest people, but soon turned to vicious repression using his Tontons Macoutes thugs. He received intermittent support from the US-as did his son and successor, Baby Doc, who was overthrown in 1986.

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