In 1986, Haiti’s dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was driven out of power by a mass movement called Lavalas, which means “cleansing flood.” The main leader of Lavalas’ alliance of peasants, urban workers, the poor and liberal capitalists was a priest called Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who–in the face of the dictatorship’s repression–courageously championed the Haitian masses in church and on the radio.
Aristide combined liberation theology and anti-capitalist rhetoric, though his politics were far from socialist and focused on attaining relatively moderate reforms. Washington wasn’t pleased. After whisking its long-time ally Baby Doc–along with the money he looted from Haiti–to safety, the U.S. launched a hysterical campaign against Aristide, exaggerating his radicalism and questioning his mental stability.
In the 1990 elections, Washington backed former World Bank official Marc Bazin against Aristide–hoping both to quell Lavalas and give a democratic veneer to an unchanged system. Haiti’s army and the Tonton Macoutes death squads terrorized supporters of Lavalas.
But Aristide nevertheless won an astonishing 67 percent of the vote–against 14 percent for Bazin–in the first free and fair elections in Haiti’s history. As one U.S. official put it, “Aristide–slum priest, grassroots activists, exponent of liberation theology–represents everything that the CIA, DOD and FBI think they have been trying to protect this country against for the past 50 years.”
Fearing that Aristide and Lavalas could set an example for the whole region, the U.S. government launched a destabilization campaign as Aristide took office. Washington helped build up the FRAPH death squads–and covertly backed the 1991 military coup that drove Aristide from office.
Haiti’s military and paramilitary murderers killed 7,000 people in the next three years–and caused an exodus of tens of thousands of refugees who tried to sail to the U.S. on rafts. George Bush Sr. and then Bill Clinton returned the refugees to the coup regime–or kept them in detention centers in Florida and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Both presidents maintained an embargo against the coup regime–but it was enforced selectively so that the coup leaders could enrich themselves while the poor suffered.
Facing domestic and international pressure, Clinton got United Nations (UN) approval in 1994 for an invasion and occupation of Haiti, supposedly to restore the democratically elected president Aristide. The real goals of “Operation Uphold Democracy” were to stop the flow of refugees, restore order in Haiti and legitimize the use of the U.S. military.
This was the turning point in Aristide’s career. In exchange for his return to power, he signed a deal with the devil, agreeing to an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank structural adjustment program. He accepted former Duvalierists into his administration and gave up the three years of his term lost to the coup.
“Aristide should not have come back under those conditions,” said Clement Francois, a member of the executive committee of Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, a national peasant association. “He should have stayed outside and let us continue the struggle for democracy. Instead, he agreed to deliver the country on a platter so that he could get back into office.”
U.S. troops removed the coup leaders to a comfortable retirement–and then set about repressing the popular movement. Washington didn’t disarm the death squads, it gave little aid to rebuild the country, and it used Aristide to co-opt and control Lavalas.
Back in power, Aristide’s government ruled by U.S. permission. Camille Chalmers, a former aide to Aristide when he was in exile, said that the post-coup government in Haiti “completely submits itself to the order given by the United States, a government ready to do whatever it takes as long as it can remain in power.”
Aristide did punish the coup leaders by disbanding the military. He balked at some privatizations demanded by the IMF, raised the minimum wage and demanded $21 billion in reparations from Haiti’s former colonial master, France. But these were the exceptions.
When forced to step down in 1995, Aristide selected his Rene Preval as his successor–and effectively continued to rule from behind the scenes. By 1996, the contradictions within the Lavalas cross-class alliance erupted into a major split.
Amid accusations of election irregularities, Aristide was voted into the presidency again in 2000. By this time, his growing authoritarianism had alienated most of his former allies on the left, while the deepening social crisis undermined his popular support. The U.S. took the opportunity to impose an aid embargo, intensifying the crisis.
Over the last four years, Aristide and many of his allies enriched themselves, driving around in SUVs and living in big houses. Corruption spread, and drug trafficking became a major growth industry. To maintain his grip, Aristide relied on his own armed thugs, the Chimeres.
Aristide was still despised by the U.S. and Haitian ruling class, who formed the Democratic Convergence and the Group of 184 to oppose him from the right. Meanwhile, the death squads regrouped in the Dominican Republic. Aristide’s base of support among the poor had become demoralized and desperate. Some former allies of Aristide joined the right wing-led opposition, but no organized opposition came from the left.
Last month, as the rebels swept the country, France and the U.S. called for Aristide’s resignation and, with UN approval, gave a democratic veneer to a coup that they hoped would deliver a remilitarized neoliberal regime. The current situation was inevitable from the moment that Aristide accepted the conditions for his return to power–he would either become a full-fledged lackey of the U.S. or be driven from power.
Meanwhile, the deteriorating conditions in the country have created despair and cynicism. “The same social deterioration that ended up giving us this invasion has also hit the popular movement,” said former Aristide ally Jean Francois. “The movement is incapable of even articulating its disapproval or of offering an alternative.”
Tragically, some on Haiti’s left have allowed their disgust with Aristide to blind them to the real character of the opposition–which is run by Haiti’s ex-military and big business, backed up by the U.S. government. This opposition must be opposed. We have to expose the U.S.-engineered coup and defend Aristide’s government and the right of Haiti’s people to self-determination–while challenging Aristide from the left.
Helen Scott and Ashley Smith write for the Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.