An Interview with Robert Fatton

Robert Fatton is the Haitian-born author of Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy. He teaches political science at the University of Virginia. Fatton talked to ERIC RUDER after the U.S. government engineered the toppling of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

THE U.S. media present the crisis in Haiti as a confusing clash between armed gangs. What’s really going on?

YOU NEED to get some kind of historical perspective on the whole thing in order to understand how we got here. When Aristide was first elected in 1990, he had overwhelming popularity among the very poor and among, essentially, all progressive groups in Haiti.

Immediately after his election in December 1990, before he had even assumed power, there was an attempted coup launched by the forces of the old Duvalier dictatorship and one of the leaders of the Tonton Macout death squads. That attempted coup failed because people from the slums decided that they were not going to put up with it, and they came out in front of the national palace. At that point, they were willing to die so that the old reactionary forces would not get back to power.

The coup failed, and eventually, Aristide became president, but in a situation of extreme polarization, in spite of the fact that he had won the election by an overwhelming majority. What you had from the very beginning was an attempt by the traditional ruling groups in Haiti–in particular, the business community and old Duvalierists–to topple the guy.

He’s made a lot of mistakes, too. The attempted coup before he became president gave him a false sense of security. He assumed that anything the army would do, the people in the slums would be able to counteract it. But the army learned its lesson. When they launched the coup in 1991, the first thing that they did was not only to get Aristide, but to cordon off all the slums, so there couldn’t be any mobilization from there.

There was a period of very nasty repression of what was then real popular organization. Once the military was installed in power, you had the U.S. embargo against the military dictatorship, from 1991 to 1994, which created a situation where an economy that was already in bad shape became really horrible.

The people who were most affected by the embargo were clearly not the very wealthy–because there was a lot of black-market activity that actually made a lot of millionaires in the Dominican Republic, etc. This is also when the drug business started in Haiti with a vengeance. But the vast majority of Haitians lost whatever jobs they may have had. The economy was doing poor.

IN 1994, the U.S. invaded Haiti and returned Aristide to power. What happened at that point?

WHEN ARISTIDE comes back to power, he’s a very different fellow. In order to get back, he has to depend initially on the U.S. Marines. The assumption was that it was the only way he could get back into power–with American support.

He had to make all kinds of compromises, and that led to very compromising alliances. He had to accept the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program. He had to accept integrating all the government people who had actually participated in the Duvalier regime. He had to make huge concessions.

So when he got back to Haiti, he no longer had the capacity to implement even a mildly reformist government, and he was surrounded by people who are not necessarily committed to any fundamental transformation of Haitian society.

When Aristide went back, he felt absolutely impeached by the possibility of another coup. So he disbanded the army–and created some poorly trained police units. When they were first created, they were to a large degree groups from the popular organizations in the slums, and they were given some weapons so that if there was an attempted coup, they could resist it.

What happened with the passage of time is that you have the beginning of fragmentation within the Lavalas movement that Aristide led. By 1995 and 1996, Lavalas is really divided over what do you do with power, given the precarious nature of the government in Haiti.

MEANWHILE, THE U.S. continued to apply pressure.

YES. HAITI basically was faced with structural adjustment or nothing. You could try to stop this, but if you stopped it, you would get no investment whatsoever. You’d essentially get a strike on the part of the international financial institutions and all of the businessmen in Haiti.

You have all these limitations that were reluctantly accepted by Aristide. The result is that the Haitian economy now is probably the most open economy in the world. This has had devastating consequences for the vast majority of Haitians. The very few jobs that we had have been lost. The agricultural sector is in really horrible shape.

It seems to me that we could more or less produce enough rice for the country. But, what has happened is that with the opening of the market, subsidized American rice has permeated the Haitian market and destroyed rice production in Haiti–because the American rice is significantly cheaper.

Also, with all of the compromises, you’re talking about the beginning of real corruption within the Lavalas movement. The government that you had in the last four years under Aristide is a government increasingly marred by corruption. If you go to Haiti, the people in the government ride around in huge SUVs, they have big houses. Clearly you had a very different reality from the rhetoric that “we are defending the poor.”

So that has contributed to the decline of Aristide’s popularity. As we can see, we didn’t have the whole slum, like in 1990, going in front of the national palace and telling the armed insurgents, “Come and get us.”

If you went to Port-au-Prince, you would see big billboards saying, “Aristide cries Haiti”–that kind of bizarre messianic assumption that one individual, and only one, is the embodiment of everything. By the end, the Lavalas movement was lodged with Aristide himself–with all of the problems which that entails.

In spite of all of that, I’m convinced that Aristide is still the most popular individual in Haiti. And that tells you something about the opposition. If you had elections–so-called “free and fair” elections–I’m sure that he would win, in spite of all the corruption and all of the problems that he has, because the opposition, even though they used to support Aristide, have essentially merged with very conservative business groups. I think those are the groups that will ultimately take over now.

There’s a slight difference between those very conservative groups and the armed insurgents. And I’m not quite sure who’s funding those armed insurgents. I’ve heard all kinds of different rumors, and I don’t know if any of them are correct. People say that it’s the CIA, which may well be the case–because some of the key leaders of the armed insurgents are people from the FRAPH, the death squads from the military dictatorship. They’re back.

But there are also people like Guy Philippe. Philippe was actually a member of the Aristide group, and then he fell out of favor and left the country and attempted a coup two years ago. You have former military people and former police who were part, to some extent, of the Aristide regime, but who have now merged against Aristide. And then you have a civil opposition that is trying, on the one hand, to say that they are not like the armed opposition, but basically they have the same aims.

What is clear to me is that Aristide would never have been toppled had it not been for the armed insurgents. I don’t think that the civil opposition, although it became larger and broader in its appeal, was in any way capable of forcing Aristide out of power. It’s only when you had the armed insurgents that you have the opportunity for the so-called “civil society” to force the issue.

Then, you have the United States and France, which have never liked Aristide to begin with. I think the disorder in Haiti provided to both French and the Americans the opportunity to state what was unstated–that Aristide had to go.

So you have a combination of factors–corruption and the decay, to some extent, of the Lavalas movement, which meant that it lost popular support; you have on the other hand the civil opposition, which was funded by the United States and was essentially waging a kind of low-intensity attack on the government; and then you have the armed insurgents, which were clearly waging a war against the Aristide regime. When you have that–plus international support for the ousting of Aristide–it’s not surprising that the guy’s no longer there.

THE BUSH administration has used charges that the 2000 election was rigged as a reason to cut off aid and contribute to the economic strangulation that has eroded support for Aristide.

THERE’S NO doubt about that. When you look at the Latin American desk of the State Department, those guys clearly never liked Aristide–and would have done anything they could to undermine him. Plus there were people who were very instrumental in forging links with the civil opposition.

There was a huge amount of money–at least in the context of Haiti–to fund the opposition. The opposition was also from the European community. What you have here are linkages between some of the European social democratic parties, particularly the Socialist Party in France, and some of the small political parties in Haiti that were opposed to Aristide.

It’s not surprising that the French were actually even more vocal in the last two weeks about asking for the departure of Aristide than the Americans. The French have essentially put their resources and time into the kind of social democratic groups that are part of the civil opposition.

IS IT true that the armed opposition was training in the Dominican Republic in preparation for this kind of uprising?

THIS IS where the CIA link may be, although I have no proof of it. I’m sure that five or six years from now, when they start to declassify documents, we’ll find that there were linkages.

Last year, the Dominican army received a huge number of new M-16s, and it looked like many of those M-16s found their way into the hands of the armed insurgents who were training in the Dominican Republic. If you’re training in the Dominican Republic, and you have 200 or 300 people, there’s no way that the Dominican Republic army wouldn’t know about the presence those fellows. There are all kinds of complexities that are still murky, but one has to assume that the CIA, if it was not directly involved, knew about it, and didn’t do anything to stop it.

The other question of the day is that you have a significant number of the military guys in the Dominican Republic who may have contributed to the funding of that army. And the final possibility is that many members of the ruling class in Haiti itself would have contributed financially to those groups, because many of those people now have businesses in the Dominican Republic.

You could have a constellation of groups that wasn’t necessarily united by a core political program, but united as wanting to get Aristide out, and they put their resources together to oust the guy. All of that is, as I said, pure conjecture, but when you look at it, it looks very, very, very, very likely.

It would be interesting to tie together the sources of money, because that will tell you who exactly is behind what. The other possibility is drug money. All of those different groups are not mutually exclusive, so you could have all of them giving resources to insurgents.

WHAT IS your reaction of the U.S. government’s policy of sending refugees back to Haiti?

I FIND the policy absolutely outrageous. There were people who were in Miami yesterday, and the U.S. returned them yesterday, when Port-au-Prince was in flames. I found that utterly outrageous. I can’t understand how you can send people back to a situation where the likelihood is that they might die.

The U.S. has no guarantee that there wouldn’t be a huge eruption, and it put them in the middle of that. Obviously, that’s politically expedient on the part of the Bush administration, but in my mind, it is morally outrageous.

It’s a reflection of the American political system, which doesn’t give a damn about Haitian Americans. They don’t count for very much in the political culture. If they vote, they typically vote for Democrats, and so they are totally ignored. And it plays well with the more racist elements in Florida.

So I’m not surprised that they did exactly what they did. But nonetheless, I found it morally repugnant.

WHAT DO you think the future holds now?

WHAT WE’VE seen in the last few weeks is a symptom of a much, much deeper crisis in terms of the economy–in terms of the huge chasm that exists between the different social classes. Those questions are not going to be really dealt with by any of regimes coming out of the crisis that we have now.

What we’ve seen is symptomatic of a very poor society. And if you don’t deal with that when that’s the real issue, you are going to get crisis after crisis. But in order to deal with the issue of inequality, you need a government that can in fact challenge the powers that be.

We have yet to learn how to navigate the very complex situations both domestically and externally, and it’s not clear that we have anything now in Haiti that could do the job. But I hope I’m wrong.

ERIC RUDER writes for the Socialist Worker, where this interview originally appeared.