Remembering the Overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide
On February 29, 2004 the US, France and Canada overthrew Haiti’s elected government.
As my first two articles in this series outlined, Ottawa helped plan the coup and was heavily implicated in the human rights disaster that followed.
But the most shocking aspect of the intervention was the role played by purportedly progressive non-governmental organizations. A slew of NGOs received tens of millions of dollars from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to advance Ottawa’s anti-democratic policy in Haiti.
A few months prior to the February 29, 2004 coup that overthrew Aristide for the second time, Montreal-based Rights & Democracy (R&D), which was widely viewed as an NGO even though it was created by an act of Parliament, released a report that described Haiti’s pro-coup Group of 184 as “grassroots” and a “promising civil society movement.” The truth is that the Group of 184 was spawned and funded by the International Republican Institute (funded by the U.S. government) and headed by Haiti’s leading sweatshop owner, Andy Apaid. Apaid had been active in right-wing Haitian politics for many years and, like former Group of 184 spokesperson Charles Henry Baker, is white.
In October 2005 R&D began a $415,000 CIDA-financed project to “foster greater civil society participation in Haiti’s national political process.” The Haitian coordinator of the project, who later became director of R&D’s Haiti office, was Danielle Magloire, a member of the “Council of the Wise” that appointed Gérard Latortue as interim prime minister after the coup ousted the elected president. Magloire’s status as a “wise” person, moreover, arose largely out of her positions at EnfoFanm (Women’s info) and the National Coordination for Advocacy on Women’s Rights (CONAP). Both were CIDA-funded feminist organizations that would not have grown to prominence without international funding. They were virulently anti-Lavalas (Aristide’s party) groups that shunned the language of class struggle in a country where a tiny percentage of the population owns nearly everything. Interestingly, EnfoFanm and CONAP expressed little concern about the dramatic rise in rapes targeting Lavalas sympathizers after the coup. In mid-July 2005 Magloire issued a statement on behalf of the seven-member “Council of the Wise” saying that any media that gives voice to “bandits” (code for Aristide supporters) should be shut down. She also asserted that the Lavalas Family should be banned from upcoming elections.
The Concertation Pour Haiti (CPH), an informal group of half a dozen Québec NGOs including Development and Peace, Entraide Missionaire and AQOCI (Québec’s NGO umbrella group), also called for Aristide’s overthrow. They branded the elected President a “tyrant,” his government a “dictatorship,” and a “regime of terror” and in mid-February 2004 called for Aristide’s removal. This demand was made at the same time CIA-trained thugs swept across the country to oust the government.
Throughout the coup period from March 2004 to May 2006 the CPH organized numerous events in Ottawa and Montréal that effectively justified Canada’s intervention into Haiti. They even backed the post-coup repression. In a January 27, 2006 letter — also signed by R&D — to Canada’s ambassador to the U.N., Allan Rock, the two groups echoed the extreme right’s demand for increased repression in the country’s largest poor neighbourhood, Cité Soleil. A couple of weeks after a business-sector “strike” demanding that U.N. troops aggressively attack “gangsters” in Cité Soleil, the CPH/R&D questioned the “true motives of the U.N. mission.” The letter questioned whether U.N. forces were “protecting armed bandits more than restoring order and ending violence.” Criticizing the U.N. for softness in Cité Soleil flew in the face of evidence suggesting the opposite. In fact, just prior to the CPH/R&D letter, Canadian solidarity activists documented a murderous U.N. attack on a hospital in the slum neighbourhood.
Documents obtained from CIDA reveal that, without exception, Haitians organizations ideologically opposed to the elected government were the sole recipients of Canadian government funding in the lead up to the coup. Civil society groups supportive of Aristide’s Lavalas simply did not receive development money. (Ironic, since as a movement of the country’s poor, Lavalas supporters should qualify as prime recipients of anti-poverty funding.)
Montréal-based Alternatives, one of Québec’s most left-leaning NGOs, also parroted the neoconservative narrative about Haiti. Sixteen months after the coup an Alternatives article accused, without a shred of evidence, prominent Bel-Air activist Samba Boukman and human rights worker Ronald St. Jean of being “notorious criminals.” This was exceedingly dangerous in an environment where the victims of police operations were routinely labeled “bandits” and “criminals” after they were killed.
Alternatives’ “progressive” credibility was also put to work countering opposition to Brazil’s leadership of the U.N. occupation of Haiti. “With the support of the Canadian government” in March 2005 Alternatives established a “trialogue” in Brazil between “the governments and organizations of civil society of Brazil, Haiti and Canada” on how to support the “transition” government. “Several ministers of the interim [coup] government of Haiti” assisted Alternatives in this task.
At the start of 2008 Alternatives co-published a report that clearly articulated its colonial attitude vis-a-vis Haiti. The most disturbing statement in the report titled “Haiti: Voices of the Actors” reads: “In a country like Haiti, in which democratic culture has never taken hold, the concept of the common good and the meaning of elections and representation are limited to the educated elites, and in particular to those who have received citizen education within the social movements.
According to Alternatives, Haitians were too stupid to know what’s good for them, unless, that is, they had been educated by a foreign NGO. The report, which was financed by the federal government, was full of other attacks against Haitians and the country’s popular movement.
After a great deal of criticism Alternatives’ director, Pierre Beaudet, eventually backed away from his organization’s disastrous position on Haiti. A week after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, he wrote an article (in French) stating that “the overthrow of Aristide organized by the United States, with the support of France and Canada, reflects a trend of ‘heavy’ interventionism and interference that’s generally at the expense of Haitians.”
In the lead up to the tenth anniversary of the coup some of the other NGOs will hopefully step up and admit – whatever their opinion of Aristide’s government – that they erred in supporting the overthrow of the elected government. At this point it’s simply beyond doubt that the military intervention has been harmful to most Haitians.
Yves Engler’s the author of Canada and Israel: building apartheid. His latest co-authored book is the New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite. For more information go towww.newcommuneist.com