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With President Jean-Bertrand Aristide driven out of Haiti U.S. officials now magnanimously declare that Haiti can start a new chapter in its history. Declaring with the same straight face he wore when insisting there were WMDs in Iraq, that the U.S. and its partners in an international force will sponsor a “responsive, functioning, non-corrupt government” in Haiti, Secretary of State Colin Powell has dismissed charges from Representative Maxine Waters, TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus that what took place on Sunday morning in Port Au Prince was a palace coup rather than a resignation. Whatever the precise circumstances of President Aristide’s exit from power, there is little question three days later that occupying powers have every intention of cobbling together a new ruling order from an odious collection of armed groups with grim agendas.
In Port Au Prince, U.S. Marines appear set to remind their partners, French gendarmes and Canadian Special Forces, how to turn an officially humanitarian mission into a convenient foreign-sponsored caravan of death in less than five days. An unspecified number of U.S. soldiers–probably not exceeding 300 at the moment–are reportedly working side by side with anti-Aristide Haitian rebels, including shady former coup-maker Guy Philippe, to secure what news organizations are now calling a “tenuous calm” in Port Au Prince but what Haitians in the capital city and sharper-eyed reporters stigmatize as open chaos. Philippe, after earlier saying for a time that the rebels would lay down arms as soon as Aristide left, has now conveniently forgotten that edict and declared himself new chief of the military. U.S. military leaders dispatched to the island are quickly scrambling to narrow their mandate from any pretenses to be establishing “democracy”. Col. David Berger, the Marine Corps commander in charge, said this morning to the New York Times that his troops will not act as police officers. “I have no instructions to disarm the rebels,” says the colonel.
Rebels talking to AP reporters in the capital city say that they welcome police and international peacekeepers but intend to enforce their own kind of justice. What this means in effect, according to eyewitness accounts from Port Au Prince to CounterPunch, is that killings are continuing apace. While there are over 2000 Marines in ships off the Haitian Coast, the multinational force approved by the U.N. is taking its time to materialize as anything like the serious peacekeeping force that high-minded bureaucrats professed it to be. All the while, rebels enjoy a several-day license to kill under the pretext of neutralizing the pro-Aristide factions and halting widespread looting. Whether the bodies that are ending up in the streets hour by hour are random looters or members of Aristide’s Lavalas party remains to be seen. The rebels know well that if elections are held in the near future, presumably many from Lavalas or other popular groups will win. Thus, it is abundantly clear that the lawlessness serves the dual purpose of reinforcing the rebels’ hand (the goal of the remobilized Haitian army and paramilitaries) and purging the remainder of Aristide’s allies (the goal of right wing officials in the Bush administration).
According to other eyewitnesses able to identify individuals among the rebels and the armaments in use, the function of the international units on the ground is to serve as a kind of relief effort, by which rebel soldiers with newer, more powerful weaponry exit the capital city in order to impose control over slums and the countryside. Left behind with the international forces, lower-level, remobilized soldiers patrol and loot, some carrying older captured arms, which tend to be Israeli weapons, World War II issue guns, and random sidearms. With reporters grouped in limited areas of the capital city, carnage is rapid and out of sight.
Thus, a grim and familiar story in Haiti repeats itself. Whether or not Aristide’s claims of kidnapping are finally substantiated, the tone of these mid-week events was in fact set in the debriefing given by diplomats airing the news of his exit on Sunday. These debriefings made it clear that the Haiti occupation had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with making Haitians aware of which government is ultimately boss. Diplomatic decorum usually requires U.S. officials to make an effort to preserve a cosmetic sobriety in their pronouncements, but several brazenly gloated over their coup. After mouthing a few sarcastic words about Aristide having made a “patriotic decision” to leave power voluntarily, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley sneered at outgoing Aristide, painting him in their “poignant” final conversation as directionless and pathetic. “It was as if”, Foley said “he was the last guy in the world to figure out that the country would be better off were he to relinquish power.” Meanwhile in Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, who had pursued Aristide’s exit fanatically for years, dismissed the claims of forced removal from power as evidence that Aristide was mentally unstable. (This, for history buffs, is a reprise of reports Noriega helped circulate in the early 1990s when he was Capitol Hill advisor to Senator Jesse Helms. Back then Noriega claimed that then-exiled Aristide was crazy and unfit to be reinstalled as the democratically elected president of Haiti.)
The exiting president was put on a plane Sunday morning with the help of a phalanx of heavily-armed U.S. soldiers. Though Foley claimed that he told Aristide in a final telephone, “it’s your choice” when the president inquired what his options were for asylum, Aristide clearly was allowed none. It was claimed that Aristide favored asylum in South Africa but was denied sanctuary by President Thabo Mbeki’s government, and therefore chose to go to Bangui, Central African Republic. This claim, put forward by the US State Department, that Aristide chose to go to the Central African Republican is absurd, and the spectacle of exile is clearly meant to humiliate the outgoing president. It brings to mind the deliberate race-baiting in Southern U.S. states today where legions of black prisoners are forced to perform work on highways and in fields wearing leg-irons and chains.
Why Aristide should have had to leave the Western Hemisphere is an open question. Indeed, if Aristide cannot find refuge in the Americas because of his conduct as incompetent leader, then perhaps people ought to ask why true monsters from Haiti’s recent past walk free in the United States today. Case in point, the architect of the murderous Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) paramilitary squads of the early 1990s, Emmanuel Constant, lives a free man in Queens, New York today despite multiple homicide convictions in Haiti and outstanding requests for his extradition from the Haitian government.
Heather Williams is assistant professor of politics at Pomona College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Karl Laraque can be reached at: email@example.com.