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How the US Press Missed the Story

“The fact that the group in charge of Haiti policy today in the State Department has been literally gunning for Aristide since before his initial election as a champion of democracy in 1990 has been left all but unmentioned by the US press.”

Now that bodies are littering the streets of Cap Haitien and Port Au Prince, major print news outlets have seen well enough to send a handful of cameramen and correpondents to send back news of the crisis. Even so, the campaign of violence that has finally ousted Haitian President Aristide has been investigated and reported to the American public with appalling indolence. The official reasoning appears to be that if Haiti is the hemisphere’s eternal basket case-a dismal repository of poverty where there is no future– how on earth could its past possibly matter?

But those who view Haiti’s current violence as merely one of an eternal humanitarian crisis in temporary overdrive miss the story. It is no simple tale of a corrupt regime collapsing under the weight of popular anger and bad management. A cursory glance at events of the last fourteen years suggests that the fall of the Aristide regime was a foregone conclusion at the entrance of President George W. Bush and the installation of a cabal of appointees with a grim record of utilizing official and covert channels to destabilize uncooperative governments in the Western Hemisphere. What is immediately ominous about the current crisis in Haiti is the likely prospect that leaders of armed groups making a final assault on the capital will play important roles in a post-Aristide order. Such armed groups include the Tontons Macoutes, the gunmen who viciously supervised repression under both father and son Duvaliers’ dictatorships until 1986. They also include members of the disbanded Haitian army that held power for three years following the coup against President Aristide in 1991, and the FRAPH death squads that mowed down the ranks of democratic civil society during that period, leaving over 3,000 dead and thousands more in exile. What is also now worrisome about this crisis is what it likely indicates about the intentions of the U.S. State Department and security apparatus elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Now that Aristide’s government, protected by a flimsy police force and a smattering of civilian gangs, has collapsed, quiet references in news stories and opinion pieces suggest that editors are wishing that perhaps they had a few more questions along the way about what indeed was going on in Haiti. Notably, until mid-February of this year The New York Times instructed its readers, for weeks on end, with no evidence whatsoever, that the armed groups referred to generically and occasionally quite sympathetically as “rebels” represent a home-grown anti-Aristide opposition. For weeks the New York Tinmes used AP and Reuters dispatches to present the Haitian crisis as one simply of domestic protest and unrest. It wasn’t until February 15 that the NYT’s own reporter, Lydia Polgreen bothered to mention that the group marching on Gonaïves known a the Cannibal Army was led by “sinister figures from [Haiti’s] past,” including the infamous Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a soldier who led death squads in the 1980s through the mid-1990s and was convicted in absentia for his involvement in the murder of Antoine Izméry, a well-known pro-democracy activist. Also unexplored by the same reporters were reports that the groups terrorizing Gonaïves had come from across the border, from the Dominican Republic. Given this knowledge, it is curious that no reporter then bothered to inquire how these groups obtained ample caches of brand-new M-16s, M-60s, armor piercing weapons, all-terrain vehicles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers-equipment far beyond the reach of the Haiti’s own impecunious security forces.

Was the story too dangerous to investigate? Was the situation indecipherable? Was the prospect of a weak regime giving way to another in the hemisphere’s poorest country just not a story worth the time and effort? The tragedy of this episode is that much of it was abundantly transparent. Running a sixty-second web search on any of the principals involved leads one to a fetid two-decade history of CIA and U.S. ultra-right subterfuge in Haiti. The fact that the group in charge of Haiti policy today in the State Department has been literally gunning for Aristide since before his initial election as a champion of democracy in 1990 has been left all but unmentioned by the press. Also forgotten is the fact that members of the armed groups burning their way through Haiti’s cities today include groups that, (according to myriad sources including sworn testimony before Congress by U.S. officials, reporters, and reports of Haitian recipients of covert aid,) were funneling drugs to the U.S. while in the pay of U.S. intelligence agents.

The point is not that the public has been lied to by the government. Governments lie, particularly this administration. The point is that even those on the left who are indignant about systematic misinformation elsewhere have not bothered to jog their memories on Haiti to smell the sulfur emanating from this episode,. The press apparatus reporting on the Caribbean is either too broken or too racist to remember that Haiti’s anguish is connected to forces quite beyond poor judgment or even bad will by President Aristide. The ease with which armed thugs have upended a civilian regime, eliciting only murmurs of disquiet from onlookers abroad who ought to know better is cause for worry. Surely zealots in charge of U.S. foreign policy have taken note. If it’s this easy to destabilize Haiti , Cuba will unquestionably appear a more viable target for direct intervention in the not-so-distant future.

At least four lines of inquiry were left nearly untouched in the last four weeks of reporting of Haiti.

First, no one bothered to ask who the rebels were and why they were advancing on major cities. If in fact they represented a broad opposition, as reporters readily implied or stated openly, why were the rebels unable to furnish the barest credible details of their demands, their civilian bases of support, and their connections to leaders of civil society groups? Despite literally weeks of lead time, no Haitians in positions of authority, no public figures, and no Haitian intellectuals living here or on the island emerged in press stories as sources of reliable information. Haitians who were quoted in news stories tended to be taxi drivers presumably shuttling skittish reporters from hotel to dinner, or randomly-chosen opponents of Aristide on the street. Predictably, such individuals expressed generic discontent with the government. Thus, even though a number of more respectable political opponents of President Aristide were claiming that armed groups outside the capital were not acting on their behalf, the story by default became a spurious tale of an embattled people challenging a repressive and incompetent government. Stories closer to the truth supported by evidence were likely never taken up because such messiness would necessitate a greater number of column inches than editors were going to allot to Haiti.

The second instance of media negligence was the near-universal acceptance of the idea in the English-language press that Aristide’s government had lost all popular legitimacy due to reported irregularities in the 2000 parliamentary elections. This is an extraordinary leap given the monkey business plaguing U.S. elections of the same year. According to Tom Reeves, the admittedly poorly-attended elections were not the stuff of grand vote larceny. “All sides,” he wrote in a very fine article last fall in Dollars and Sense, “concede that Aristide won the presidential ballot with 92 percent of the voteThe sole disagreement is over run-off elections for seven senators from Aristide’s part who obtained pluralities but not majorities in the first round. The seven senators eventually resigned, making way for new elections.” Nonetheless, these electoral “abuses” were grounds for the Bush administration and pliant international partners in Europe to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in credit lines and aid to Haiti. Allegations of fraud were used to permanently block the release of $400 million in already-approved loans from the Interamerican Development Bank. The IMF, World Bank, and European Union were also pressed to cut off crucial lines of credit. Meanwhile, Haiti was brutally taken to task for its external financial obligations, emptying its coffers in July 2003 to pay $32 million in debt service arrears. As a final blow, Haiti’s ability to conserve any remaining foreign reserves was foreclosed by agreements signed with the U.S. government under President Clinton in 1996. These obliged Haiti to abolish tariffs on U.S. imports in the name of what was curiously called “free trade” but was in fact commodity dumping by U.S. exporters. Under threat of huge fines, Haiti was obliged to accept the import of foodstuffs priced far below the cost of production. (Direct subsidies to U.S. farmers since the mid-1990s have averaged over $30 billion a year.) In a nation where the majority of the population works in agriculture, this all but shut down production in the rice-producing northwest of Haiti, as well as among livestock producers throughout the country. Under these conditions, it stands to reason that no government could dodge the discontent of the population.

The third line of neglected inquiry was the question of who the injured “opposition” was in Haiti, on whose behalf this official bloodletting took place. According to Stan Goff, whose thorough article appeared in on this Counterpunch site on February 9 of this year, the fifteen-party anti-Aristide coalition known as “Convergence” includes “every faction of the Haitian dominant class, factions who are generally at war with one another.” Despite anemic support from the voting public (never approaching even 20 percent in opinion polls conducted even by the U.S.) what apparently they were able to converge on was three million dollars a year in funding in from the International Republican Institute, a Republican-party backed arm of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Finally, no one has asked questions about the wildly partisan officials in U.S. State Department now running U.S. policy in the Caribbean and Latin America. These include such Blast-from-the-Past supporters of Reagan era highjinks in Central America as Otto Reich, John Negroponte, Elliot Abrams, and (before his ignominious departure last summer) John Poindexter. The most visible in recent weeks on Haiti has been Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, a man who has had Aristide in his gunsights for over a decade. As senior staff member for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate, and advisor to Senator Jesse Helms and John Burton, he was party to a three-year campaign to prevent to defame Aristide and prevent his return to power; all the while CIA-backed thugs left carnage in the streets daily in Port Au Prince. In his capacity in the State Department since 2003, and for two years before that as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS, he has aggressively advertised his intention to oust Aristide a second time. For example, in April of last year, speaking at the Council of the Americas conference in Washington, he linked U.S. policies in Haiti to those in Venezuela and Cuba. He congratulated the OAS for overcoming “irrelevance in the past years” by adopting the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Article 20, he said, lays out a series of actions to be takenin the event that a member state should fail to uphold the essential elements of democratic life. He added the “President Chavez and President Aristide havecontributed willfully to a polarized and confrontational environment. It is my fervent hope,” he added ominously, “that the good people of Cuba are studying the Democratic Charter.”

Given the inability of Haitians at present to question the direction of whatever succession takes place in the coming weeks, the question of how fully Noriega and his fanatical friends will control U.S. foreign policy in the Americas is crucial. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been cravenly circumspect in his statements on Haiti, straddling the line between encouraging Aristide to step down and discouraging those who would involve the U.S. extensively in any transition effort or state-building mission. What Powell’s late entrance into the situation suggests strongly is that Latin America and the Caribbean are considered so insignificant that Noriega and his half-cocked cronies are generally left to play with matches until the fire alarm goes off. In this case, Florida voters were that alarm. Undoubtedly higher-ups in the White House were a bit uneasy at the prospect of thousands of Haitians fleeing chaos being thrown back into the sea by the US Coast Guard in an election year. But the modus operandi of Noriega and company is unmistakeable: fund an opposition, report every clash as repression against the population, arm pliable thugs and mercenaries in exile, embargo the government, precipitate acute crisis, play up the discontent of a hungry population, and then happily leave it to internationalist liberals to lead the charge for military intervention on humanitarian grounds. So with President Aristide neutralized now, it’s time to look elsewhere, maybe west across the sea to Cuba.

HEATHER WILLIAMS is assistant professor of politics at Pomona College. She can be reached hwilliams@pomona.edu


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