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Jeb Sprague’s definitive Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (Monthly Review Press, 2012) is the product of seven years of research and writing. Since the 2004 Bush Administration-backed overthrow of the democratically-elected Jean Bertrand Aristide government, journalist and scholar Sprague has been investigating key players behind that coup. His work is especially strong on interviews with figures in anti-Aristide political and paramilitary networks, and on unearthing cables from the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince and other relevant documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Sprague also combed through all the Haiti-related documents released through the activist project Wikileaks.
This volume is thoroughly sourced, containing 84 pages of footnotes. Though it is thus a scholarly work, it is also the product of the author’s immersion in solidarity with Haiti’s poor majority, resulting in an impassioned alternative to the obfuscation which has often passed for analysis of the 2004 coup.
Sprague’s meticulous dissection of rightist propaganda about Ariside’s record emanating from Haiti and Washington makes his book an essential companion to philosopher Peter Hallward’s similarly thorough
volume Damming the Flood. Comparing the reaction to the first coup against an Aristide administration in 1991 to the 2004 operation, Sprague writes, “… the paramilitaries and many of the powerful groups backing the opposition had historically been connected in different ways. Scholars and human rights groups had extensively documented these connections after the 1991 coup. But the international press largely failed to probe them during Aristide’s second government, instead more often than not credulously recycling the ‘peaceful’ opposition’s claims.”
Sprague shows how Aristide’s 1995 disbanding of the notoriously brutal Haitian army was one of the most popular acts of his presidency, at least with the majority of Haitian citizens. Ex-military figures were not as enthusiastic about this move, and became key players behind anti-Aristide machinations. Washington was also less than pleased. Sprague quotes a 2004 cable in which U.S. Ambassador James Foley wrote, “One must recognize that the members of the former army suffered an injustice ten years ago. The were fired/dismissed without ceremony, without anything. … The were left on their own. …For ten years, a long time, one does not know how they were able to survive.” Foley and his peers showed no such concern for the thousands of Haitian workers laid off as a result of U.S. backed structural adjustment policies; Sprague writes, “Of course, [the former military] survived as they always had, by terrorizing the poor majority and those who dared to stand up to them.”
Perhaps the book’s most distressing insight is how the right wing paramilitary actors behind so much terror against Haiti’s pro-democracy movement are still ensconced in positions of power in Haitian society and government.
In what Sprague refers to as a “selection,” Michel Martelly was elected President in 2011 with the backing of Washington but not much of a popular mandate. Connecting the men around Martelly to the return to Haiti of the former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Sprague writes, “Numereous neo-Duvalierists and rightist ex-army work key security positions for the Martelly government and its allies in the senate […] A committee appointed by Martelly to investigate the issue of reconstructing the military has unsurprisingly rubber stamped the plan.” The Obama Administration has been noticeably quiet about raising any objections to such a rash plan. As Sprague writes, “Bringing paramilitary death squad leaders (and those who facilitated them) to justice is not a major concern for Washington and its allies.”
Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti is an essential book for building solidarity with those on the receiving end of paramilitary violence in Haiti. It should be read and studied widely.
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at: email@example.com