Disguised Coup, Hidden Abuses

February 28, 2005, marked one year since the U.S. removed at gun point the democratically-elected President of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide Those who read or listen to almost any U.S. or Canadian media assume that Aristide was a dictator who lost his popularity due to corruption and human rights abuses. Even many “progressive” organizations in the U.S. mouth these same complaints. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Paul Farmer, the internationally renowned physician whose clinic in Haiti treats thousands of AIDS patients, told me, “Everybody knows that Aristide was bad. Everybody, that is, except the Haitian poor – 85 per cent of the population.”

Most of Haiti’s poorest people continue to demand Aristide’s return. On this first anniversary of the coup, thousands poured out of Bel Aire, the slum behind the Presidential Palace in Port au Prince, shouting “Arrest us all,” and “Aristide or death.” Journalists present and the spokesman for the UN MINUSTAH force say it was a completely peaceful march. The Miami Herald reporter on the scene broke ranks with those who usually cover Haiti for that newspaper and who regularly blame all violence on Aristide supporters. He said (March 1) that the Haitian National Police opened fire on singing, chanting men, women and children, killing at least two, and wounding many more. In fact, a total of five deaths and twenty wounded were later verified. The Brazilian officer representing MINUSTAH, Carlos Chagas Braga, told him, “When things like this happen, we are in a bad situation. Everything was going peacefully. We are supposed to support the police. We cannot fire at them.” Later, Brazilian General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, the head of MINUSTAH, denounced this and other similar Haitian police killings as poisoning the atmosphere for reconciliation which MINUSTAH was working hard to creae. (See CounterPunch on February 28 for first-hand coverage by U.S. Attorney Bill Quigley.)

Father Gerard Jean-Juste is well-known for his work among the poor in Miami as well as Haiti. He was seized by Haitian police, wearing hoods and not identifying themselves as police, while feeding poor children in his parish last fall. He was then held in deplorable conditions without a trial for months before an international outcry helped gain his freedom in December. Father Jean-Juste was at the palace demonstration February 28. The Miami Herald quoted him as saying he saw one of his own parishioners shot. The Herald reporter said Jean-Juste has been reporting summary execution of Lavalas members for months. “This time it happened in front of me,” Jean-Juste said. He might have said, this time the whole world could see ii.

Haitians and their supporters around the world held similar marches, without violence, but mostly also ignored by media: Ottawa, British Columbia, Paris, Montreal, Boston, New York, San Francisco, among others. In Ottawa, a representative of the Privy Council came out to receive a copy of a blistering human rights report that shows police trained by Canadians committed serious abuses against Lavalas activists and other residents of poor neighborhoods. Even this kind of token gesture was not to be found at any of the U.S. demonstrations. The work of Canadian Haiti solidarity activists has been much more visible and united than that in the U.S., and even the current Liberal government, which has towed the U.S. line on Haiti, has to take notice of it.

I joined a band of some fifty souls at the White House on February 28 to protest the U.S. coup and its brutal aftermath. We marched in a snowstorm, chanting “Remove Bush, Return Aristide,” and “Justice for Haiti.” The group included members of the Jonah House and several Catholic Workers’ houses, groups of pacifists who often commit civil disobedience against unjust U.S. policies. Other participating groups included Pax Christi, EPICA an ecumenical NGO, and Black Voices for Peace. Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who had just returned from Haiti where he witnessed police intimidation of his host at a Catholic guest house, joined the other demonstrators to risk arrest by holding the protest along the fence in a space where demonstrators are usually arrested. Haitians included Eugenia Charles, of Fondasyon Mapou, who led the demonstration, and Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine of the September 30 Foundation – representing victims of repression in Haiti. It’s members have been forced into hiding or exile since a massive campaign to kill and arrest Aristide’s supporters began in the wake of the coup. September 30 Foundation and Fondasyon Mapou hold weekly vigils at the Haitian Embassy in Washington. For information, see www.fonsasyonmapou.org.

Pierre-Antoine, speaking in Creole through a bull-horn, called U.S. actions “evil,” denouncing the 33rd coup in Haiti perpetrated by U.S. minions. He spoke of massacres in the days leading up to the anniversary of as many as 50 Aristide supporters in several poor Port au Prince neighborhoods. These are in addition to scores of documented police raids since September into Lavalas strongholds, accompanied by the UN “blue helmets, resulting in hundreds of deaths of Lavalas activists and innocent bystanders – always the poorest of the poor in Haiti are the ones to die. Rep. Maxine Waters, of the Congressional Black Caucus, sent a statement to the rally: “Haiti today is in total chaos. The interim government put in power by the U.S…is a complete failure….Human rights violations are commonplace throughout Haiti….(M)embers of President Aristide’s government have been detained illegally, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune…As of February 18, there were over 700 political prisoners in Haiti’s jails…most…without formal charges.”

Also protesting that day along the White House fence were a hundred or so disabled people, many in wheelchairs or with walkers, demanding that Bush restore cuts he has made in Federal programs for the disabled. The disabled also blocked both White House gates – actions that would usually bring arrests. Such a confrontation would have been ugly PR for the President, so both their group and ours were allowed to tread where demonstrators are usually not allowed. Strolling between the two groups were occasional tourists – a young couple who photographed themselves giving us the finger; a band of white prep school boys, one of whom asked if he could hold a sign for a moment, that said, “CIA out of Haiti.” Police were everywhere, but like the tourists and the absent media, they generally ignored us all.

The United States sent marines to Haiti a year ago to force out of office a government that even they admit was legitimate and democratically elected. This was done amid brutal violence committed by former army officers and others convicted in a Haitian court, with acclaimed international supervision, of murders and other atrocities during the previous coup period in the 1990s. The self-styled “rebels” again committed massacres and rapes across the country, using weapons which have now been clearly traced to U.S. stockpiles in the Dominican Republic. The “rebels” were politically trained and financed by U.S. groups like the International Republican Institute (IRI), a foundation with major U.S. Republican politicians on its board.

The U.S. oversaw an unconstitutional process which installed the puppet regime of Gerard Latortue, a U.N. bureaucrat who lived opulently in Boca Raton, Florida. Latortue brought so many of his exile colleagues into the Cabinet, his government has been called the Boca Raton regime – which immediately began implementing the most draconian measures of “structural adjustment” demanded by its neoliberal bosses at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This meant vast cutbacks in the already impoverished education, health and other human services systems of the public sector.

Latortue acclaimed the thugs from the former army as “freedom fighters,” and allowed them virtual free reign across most of the country to continue their murders and terror campaigns against Lavalas, the political party and broad movement of the poor in Haiti that was led by Aristide. Despite squabbles between the old landed and military elite and the sweat-shop owners and other business elite, Latortue allowed the former soldiers to dominate the Haitian National Police, which conducted regular sweeps of the poor neighborhoods of Port au Prince. The extreme brutality of these raids – has been well documented, including the November, 2004, report of the Center for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) at the University of Miami. This incredible document, based on investigations by the prominent Philadelphia attorney, Thomas Griffin, and others, is the one presented at Ottawa on February 28. It leaves little doubt that a full-scale terror campaign is going on in Haiti – by the government, against the people; by the rich, against the poor; by those trained and funded by the U.S. and guarded by the U.N., and against the mass movement called Lavalas – the cleansing flood – that Aristide promised would someday bring justice for the poor of Haiti.

A U.S. funded coup-d’état. The removal of an elected President. A puppet regime of the U.S. decimating the feeble human services of the poorest country in the world. Massive human rights abuses, including assassinations, false imprisonment without trials, and targeted murders of impoverished men, women and children. With the U.N. force, MINUSTAH, headed by Brazil, finally wavering in its loyalty to the U.S. brokers who sent them there, the U.S. announced last week it will be sending more than 1,000 fresh troops to Haiti – ostensibly for “humanitarian purposes.” Yet almost all Americans, including most progressives, know nothing of any of this.

Who is to blame for the lack of outcry in the U.S? Surely the mainstream media – the Associated Press, Fox, CNN and those few media services that cover Haiti at all – have been manipulated to hush up and cover up the real story in Haiti. But worse, many so-called progressive media – as well as some U.S. liberal non-governmental organizations – have either been silent, or lent their credibility to those who support the atrocities in Haiti.

One example of an academic journal with solid left credentials that has failed to cover the real story in Haiti is the NACLA Report on the Americas. Depending almost exclusively on a formerly far-left journalist, disillusioned with Aristide, now working for the Miami Herald (Jane Regan), NACLA presents its readers with a version of events in Haiti scarcely different from the Miami Herald or CNN.*

In every story she writes, Regan repeats the mantras about Aristide’s corruption and human rights violations – mostly unproved and surely pale in comparison to the current outrage. In the Miami Herald and elsewhere last year, Regan, interviewed the “rebels” at their headquarters in Gonaives and Cap Haitien, during periods of some of their worst atrocities, and portrayed them merely as swaggering (rather sexy) roughnecks.

In the February 2005 NACLA Report, Regan continues what can only be called a disinformation campaign against Lavalas. She repeats the myth widely reported in the commercial Haitian media (owned by leaders of the anti-Aristide elite) and repeated without verification in the U.S. media, that Lavalas launched last fall “Operation Baghdad,” initiating a series of beheadings that Regan says became the most common form of political murder in Haiti – making Haiti look like Falujah. Long before Regan’s article, it had been shown clearly by well-known journalist and film-maker Kevin Pina and others reporting to Democracy Now, Flashpoints Radio and other progressive media, that Latortue himself used the term “Operation Baghdad,” not Lavalas, and that the three beheaded police officers were most likely killed by another faction of the former army within the Haitian police. No other beheadings have been verified. But the damage was done, and the image was everywhere: Lavalas was equated with Al Queda, beheadings and all. This is bad enough in the corporate media – but for a prestigious and left-leaning journal like NACLA Report, it is beyond belief.

Meanwhile, Grassroots International, a Boston-based NGO that has funded grassroots groups as well as leftist intellectuals in Haiti for years, has stuck with its sponsored groups, like MPP, a large peasant organization headed by Chavannes Jean Baptiste, formerly a close associate of Aristide who was embittered when Preval was chosen over him as candidate for President in 1995. Jean-Baptiste’s group, in the Central Plateau, helped usher in the “rebels” as they headed for their early successes last year – despite the fact that the former military officers, ten years before, had sacked MPP headquarters and terrorized his family and supporters. Jean Baptiste accepted a role in the neo-liberal Latortue regime. In April 2005, I spoke with leaders of the MPP base who told me that many were upset with Jean Baptiste’s actions, but the organization remained under his tight, charismatic control. Yet Grassroots has continued to support Jean Baptiste’s line, which implies that because Aristide was corrupt and needed to be ousted, U.S. intervention – however regretable – could not be actively opposed, and the interim government showed promise that it would bring progressive change in Haiti. Surely now, the record must show Grassroots – and even Jean-Baptiste – that the opposite is true.

As we marched in front of the White House, a young organizer of the disabled people’s movement, came over to ask us some questions. “I thought Aristide was the dictator,” he said. “I thought things were getting better in Haiti.” When we provided an opposite viewpoint, his response was, “All these leftist leaders – they start out well, but they all seem either stupid or corrupt or both: Bishop, Ortega, Chavez, Aristide. Castro isn’t stupid, but he’s a brutal dictator. When will we see some honest leftist leaders in Latin America?”

This gets to the core of the problem with a part of the U.S. Latin American solidarity movement and its allies among progressive U.S. groups and NGOs. The North American liberal elite feels it can sit in judgment on the leaders of movements in Latin America who dare to challenge U.S. hegemony. Never mind that these leaders had the overwhelming support of the poor in their countries. Never mind that they had to play world politics and world economics in a sinister game in which the U.S. held all the cards. As Aristide once told a group of leftists in Boston, “Who can we go to for weapons in a struggle for justice? We have to play the U.S. double-game, too.”

Holier-than-thou professional activists and funders in Washington and Boston can feel their hands are clean as they sit silently, or quietly cheer, the U.S. take-over. The left was thus largely powerless to speak out against another clear example of U.S. imperialism, and to link it with the rightly deplored events in Iraq. The neo-cons in Washington must be chortling with glee – much of their work is being done for them by large segments of the left.

I asked Lovinksy Pierre-Antoine, after the demonstration, his advice for those leftists who remain critical of Aristide and sit on the sidelines in the current Haitian crisis. “Tell them, you cannot pick and choose who you support in the struggle against U.S. policies. You cannot occasionally oppose the imperialism of the U.S. You must oppose every act of aggression and intervention of the U.S., wherever and under whatever circumstances.” It is time for the Haiti solidarity movement and its NGO and leftist allies in the United States to take this advice, and speak with one voice against the egregious example of U.S. imperialism in Haiti.

CARICOM, the organization of Caribbean states, continues to refuse recognition of the U.S.-installed Latortue government. They and the nations of the Organization of African Unity, as well as Venezuela and Cuba, demand a full investigation of the coup. South Africa goes further to continue to give safe haven to Aristide, to honor him as the Haitian President, to demand his return to Haiti now, and to call for a truly free election next year with Lavalas participating, monitored by independent observers.

Half the United Nations recognizes that a coup took place. They demand justice for Haiti. Freedom loving people in the U.S., Canada and France should support these demands. It is their job to expose the policies of their countries and to bring the U.S., France and Canada to task for what they have done. End the human rights abuses, disarm the former military, disband the current Haitian police, and provide real U.N. protection not for the police and a crooked government, but for the people of Haiti. Return constitutional democracy (and President Aristide) to Haiti. Let the Haitian people speak, as they did before in the elections of 1990, 1995 and 2000. This time, finally respect their will.

*To give full disclosure, the NACLA Report editors asked me two years ago to write an article about Haiti, because the editors said they wanted to balance their coverage. My article was eventually published, scaled down to a few hundred words, placed at the back of the magazine, not listed in the contents, and given a title that was the opposite of my article’s emphasis: “The Failings of Aristide.” (NACLA, July/August 2003).

TOM REEVES is a retired Caribbean studies professor from Boston.