Monday, March 06, 2006

Aristide: A Man that the Powerful Love to Hate

Those reading the news on Haiti these days may be surprised to continuously read comments by American officials and analysis by international media (including the New York Times or the BBC) to only understand the Haitian political crisis through the lens of the deposed president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Indeed, the hatred and distrust is so profound that George Bush is reportedly advising President-elect Preval to deny Aristide re-entry into the country in violation of the constitution, and BBC argued until recently that the political violence was a metaphorical "Shadow of Aristide."

Aristide as a target since 1987

However, the truth is that violence and persecution of Aristide, his allies and what he represents has been a much more consistent element of Haitian politics than has been the peaceful transfer of power from one elected official to another (only once has an elected Haitian president handed over power in this way to another elected president when Preval ceded his position to Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2002).

In this light, it is an important question to ask for newcomers to Haitian politics. Why does the United States (and the Haitian elite) hate Aristide with such a passion?

My grandmother Peg recently asked me this question. She is no political neo-phyte, and was once even thrown out of a gala thrown in Omaha for Oliver North because she was passing out satirical programs for the event which boasted of his "many accomplishments in Central America" and pictured women and children murdered by CONTRA forces on the inside. Luckily, her familiarity with the politics of Central America during the 1980s will allow her to better understand the current Haitian situation.

I may be overanalyzing, but I have tried to thoroughly answered the question, so my response is long. The short answer is 1) Aristide is a symbol and a leader of a movement that has tried to bring the massive social underclass into power where a small elite minority has traditionally ruled. 2) The same actors that tried to prevent this transition from dictatorship to true democracy in the 1980s are still those fueling the anti-Aristide hatred. 3) Since those actors that are in the United States are then, therefore, still fueled by a cold-war anti-communism and Central American style dirty war, they still attack Aristide in the same brutal and anachronistic way that they operated in Central America in the 1980s.

The "Salvadorization" of Haiti

First of all, Aristide must understood in the context of the intense class struggle of countries like Haiti and El Salvador. This is pointed out in the quintessential book on the topic, The Uses of Haiti written by Harvard physician Paul Farmer. In addition to helping run clinics in Haiti, Peru and Rwanda, Farmer took time out last month to diagnose and help treat Haitian priest and Aristide ally Fr. Gerard Jean Juste. "Both countries are small and agrarian; both are extremely inegalitarian and dependent on the United States," (Farmer 247).

Aristide first became famous as a Catholic priest in Cite Soleil, the poorest slum in the capital of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. This sprawling shanty-town is currently cited as the home of "bandits" and "armed gangs" blamed with insecurity in Haiti. It was also the site of many of the most serious accusations of Florida/Ohio-style disenfranchisement of poor Haitian voters.

He rose to prominence during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, as the movement for democracy in Haiti grew to a flood, the meaning of the name "lavalas" the movement gave itself. He stood out as much for his determination and his bravery as much as for the rhetoric of his sermons that so frightened the small wealthy minority of Haiti. Aristide maintained a high profile as openly challenging of the Haitian army despite the string of political motivated killings and massacres that so much resembled the massacres in El Salvador like El Mazote, the so-called "Salvadorization of Haiti" (qtd. Farmer 148). "While others in the opposition had gone into hiding after receving multiple death threats, he remained adamantly visible," (qtd. Farmer 135). More than one assassination attempt failed, gaining him prestige among Haiti's oppressed and passionate hatred from the army and the ruling class.

While the U.S. government and Haitian elites called Aristide a "communist," political attacks mounted against popular movements and their representatives under Cold War logic being designed by characters like Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and Eliott Abrams. These were the same people carrying out U.S. support for the Salvadoran and Honduran military atrocities and illegally obtaining support for the Contra attacks on the Sandinistas by selling arms to the Iranians. This became known as the "Iran-Contra Affair," though despite its illegalities, everyone who went to jail was pardoned by Reagan or George Bush the first. However, at the same time, the U.S. government was pressuring for formal elections to justify these policies under the rubric of the fight for democracy.

It is important to point out that many of the same people who designed the brutal anti-communist policies in Haiti and Central America were put in prominent positions of power in the George W. Bush government. In addition to the three named above (Otto Reich and Roger Noriega have been explicitly working on overthrowing the Aristide government), the former U.S. ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte who coordinated with the CIA and the notorious torture-squad Battalion 316 is now the head of U.S. intelligence. Not surprisingly U.S. policy still reflects brutal and anachronistic cold war logic of the Reagan era, including the stance on Aristide.

Meanwhile, Haitians involved in the brutality against activists of Lavalas have also returned to positions of prominence. The recent coup's military leaders, many of whom were trained in the United States and paid by the CIA, were from the line of Tonton Macoute's that protected the old dictatorships and lead a coup in 1990. American journalist in Haiti Kevin Pina writes,
Several of the paramilitary leaders now rampaging Haiti are men who were at the forefront of the US-backed campaign of terror during the 1991-94 coup against Aristide. Among the paramilitary figures now leading the current insurrection is Louis Jodel Chamblain, the former number 2 man in the FRAPH paramilitary death squad.

These "death squad leaders" have since been freed by the coup era courts while Lavalas activists were imprisoned. The current politicians that argue against the Préval presidency and against Aristide's right to return are also many of the same characters who the dictatorship tried to usher into power during the transition. Leslie Manigat, who won 12% of the last elections, is currently challenging the legitimacy of the Préval election. Manigat was the first un-elected "president" to serve after Baby Doc Duvalier stepped down from power.

Aristide as a symbolic target

It is also important to note that Aristide is seen as a prominent symbol of liberation theology outside of the American mainland. This incorporation of values of social justice and empowerment of the poor as essential lessons of the gospel were hated enough by Americans in power that they have allowed systematic murder, torture, and rape of priests and nuns in Central America and in Haiti. Furthermore, many of those in this country that most supported such attacks had connections to powerful Christian organizations. Meanwhile, the vatican and other organizations have attempted to marginalize Aristide and others because of their politics and have never adequately come to the defense of Christians of the cloth under attack by right wing death squads. One wonders if the attack on Aristide isn't the continuation of this violence against Christians who support the poor because they represent a real challenge to the right-wing configuration of political christianity that is so closely connected to powerful states, transnational corporations and wealthy individuals.

However, perhaps the most important point in understanding the hatred of Aristide is that we should not assume that the Americans and Haitians in positions of power hate Aristide because of Aristide the individual. Indeed, as Farmer poinst "existing power structures" see "popular organizations that threaten to offer the overwhelming majority a voice in managing their own affairs [as] a threat to democracy," (Farmer 32). Aristide the priest is not the threat, but Aristide the leader of Lavalas is. Furthermore, the U.S. government and media as well as the Haitian elites would have a hard time arguing that they were working for democracy if they showed open contempt toward the %80 of the population that voted for Aristide.

They therefore have focused on rhetorically attacking Aristide on the international stage while physically attacking and judicially persecuting everyone else in the Lavalas movement that worked with Aristide. These include the former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, the Priest Gerard Jean Juste (now in Miami on conditional release for cancer treatment), folk singer So Anne, and many others. There is some speculation that any Lavalas member that was seen as a potential presidential candidate was imprisoned as a preventative measure.

The current president-elect Préval would probably have been a target of government repression if he had been more of an active candidate for presidency. Many international analysts called Préval "an enigma" before the election because he kept quiet and out of sight before the election. He has stated that he did not intend to run for president, but after other Lavalas candidates were imprisoned and forbidden to run, "1,000 peasants showed up at [his farmers'] cooperative meeting area and urged him to run. They told him he would be a traitor if he didn't."

Since the election, Préval has kept his remarks relatively coy on issues such as Aristide's return, saying "The Haitian Constitution says that whatever Haitian can return to his country, he does not need a visa, so he must decide whether he wants to return, if there are legal and other actions." This statement is legally based, arguing that no one is above the law, but neither can extra-judicial decisions be made to ban a resident of Haiti from his country because of politics. However, diplomats from the U.S., French, Canadian, and Haitian interim (coup) government have been pushing for Aristide to be banned from the country and have been taking Préval's statements out of context so that they seem to agree with the foreign diplomats' position. The media is playing into this game as well, as the recent round of "Aristide's Return May Cause Chaos" articles

What does it all mean?

This is a difficult position for the Haitian people and Préval, in general. While having won an important battle to bring Préval to power, this is the fourth election in which the candidate supported by the poor came to power. However, since the first election there have been 3 coups (2 of them successful). The death squad leaders are free while Lavalas politicians and technocrats have been imprisoned, killed, or run into hiding. The economic health of the country has been devastated and all of the health, transportation and education projects have been targetted for repression as part of "Aristide's" Lavalas movement.

We need to watch the Haitian news carefully. The more criticism heaped on coup supporters for a lack of "democracy" or "legitimacy" in the international media, the more likely a coup or other dirty trick is in the works.

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