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The United States has a long history of sowing violence in Haiti. Nearly one hundred years ago, the Marines invaded Haiti and occupied the country for nineteen years, over the course of which they killed thousands of Haitians who attempted to resist the repression. The pretext for the invasion was instability. But for the tens of thousands of Haitians who were dispossessed of their land by American businesses or who were put into forced labor, the true source of instability originated with their neighbor to the north. In order to protect its investments in Haiti and to ensure the country’s future “stability,” the United States created and trained a new Haitian army that would become infamous for its brutal repression of the population.
Three decades after the US left Haiti, it still continued in its support of a violent regime there. The dictator François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, commanded a personal death squad, called the Tonton Macoutes, that murdered several thousand people and terrorized the population. Duvalier and their supporters were intent on protecting the interests of Haiti’s wealthy elite at all costs, and during their rule, the gap between rich and poor widened. They were enabled by the United States, which sent the dictators tens of millions of dollars before their nearly thirty-year rule ended.
Arising out of all the suffering caused by the regime—in true form to Haiti’s revolutionary roots—was a mass movement that sought to overturn the corruption and cruelty of the dictatorship. Having successfully driven the younger Duvalier out of power in 1986, this movement nevertheless weathered four more years of political, economic, and social crises—crises inflicted by those who would have liked to see the continuation of dictatorship. But the call for equality prevailed: Haiti had its first democratic elections in 1990, and more than two-thirds of the people voted for a courageous priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to be their president.
During the first six months of Aristide’s term in office, major positive changes were already to be seen in Haiti. The crime rate dropped, the number of people fleeing Haiti as refugees dropped, the government launched a nationwide literacy campaign, Aristide expelled corrupt government officials, and he was arranging to more than double the minimum wage from $1 to $2.40 per day.
The President did his best to promote unity in the new Haiti. In good faith, he extended a hand to the Haitian Army, but its top officers were still loyal Duvalierists. Less than eight months after President Aristide was inaugurated, the army—under the leadership of General Raoul Cedras—took over the National Palace. On September 30, 1991, these opponents of the mass democratic movement that brought Aristide into office staged a violent coup. They set up an occupation government, which the Haitian Army vigorously protected. It is estimated that the army and death squads killed at least 5,000 people over the course of the next three years. Leaders of the coup, including Cedras, had been trained at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). In 1993, Emmanuel (Toto) Constant, formed a new death squad; he later revealed that he was on the CIA’s payroll. The US-sponsored imprisonment, torturing, and killing of people loyal to Haiti’s democratic movement continued nearly right up to the very end of the coup in 1994.
Upon Aristide’s return to his country in October of that year, the grassroots movement pressed forward in the face of continued pressure from the US to conform the Haitian economy to its will. In 1995, he raised the minimum wage from $1 to $2.40 per day. That same year, in a hugely popular move, Aristide abolished the military and transformed its headquarters into the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the first coup, the US is funding another military occupation of Haiti. This one began over seven years ago, when a small group of armed assassins—some of whom had been trained in the US—entered Haiti through the Dominican Republic and initiated a spree of looting and killing. It was 2004, three years into Aristide’s second administration. To assist the paramilitary in its goal of overthrowing the government, the US kidnapped the President and his wife at gunpoint and sent in the Marines. Falsely reporting the situation, newspapers like the New York Times said that Aristide voluntarily “resigned.” France and Canada also sent troops, and the United Nations quickly followed suit by sending a multinational military force, ostensibly to restore order.
Ever since, the UN has had a presence in Haiti of more than 9,000 troops and police; but they have been anything but peacekeepers. The long list of human rights abuses they have committed against the Haitian people—primarily the poor and supporters of Aristide—include rape, imprisonment without trial, and murder. Typically, the pretext for this occupation is “instability” in Haiti, as is reflected in the name of the military force: the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (which also goes by the French acronym, MINUSTAH). The reality, however, is that the UN presence acts to legitimize a war on the people of Haiti that would like to see democracy realized. It costs over $700 million per year to fund MINUSTAH, and the US is the largest contributor to the organization’s global bill by a large margin.
The US finances the occupation of Haiti in other ways, as well. Last November, the Obama administration spent more than nine million dollars to hold deeply fraudulent elections in which the most popular political party, called Lavalas, was banned from participating. In protest, more than three-quarters of the electorate did not vote in the fixed runoff election held in February. It is well known in Haiti that the newly “selected” president, Michel Martelly, was a proponent of the 2004 coup, that he is in favor of the United Nations, and that he plans to regroup a new military. And certainly, Bill and Hillary Clinton—who have been encouraging and promoting Martelly—must be aware that he faithfully supported the Duvaliers.
Haitian and world history should make it clear that whenever the US invests so much money and such might, it is certain that there is something very valuable to gain—or to be lost. Since 2004—in a repeat of the very first US occupation—wealthy foreigners have set up shop in Haiti and privatized key national resources. Last September, Martelly selected Bill Clinton—who is the UN special envoy for Haiti—to head his new advisory board on investment. One has to wonder what advice Clinton would provide, given that throughout the 80s and 90s, he helped Congress to debilitate the Haitian economy by flooding its markets with cheap US food, thus driving down production in Haiti.
Last month, during his Global Initiative forum, Clinton commended Martelly’s plan to open Haiti for business and for making it a “user-friendly place.” Clinton spoke of the potential to make fortunes in Haiti. For his wife’s part, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mediated a deal last year in which a South Korean clothing company would open sweat shops in Haiti. More recently, she expressed the United States’ full commitment to supporting Martelly. Apparently, the United States will wholly support the fraudulently elected president of an occupied country in which a documented war criminal, Jean-Claude Duvalier, goes about with impunity.
Currently in power in Haiti is an illegal, repressive government that owes its existence, in large part, to the United States. There is widespread concern that Martelly will make good on his announcement to reestablish the Haitian Army, which Aristide disbanded during his first presidency, and which, as we mentioned before, had also been one of America’s pernicious creations. It is likely that foreign donors would have to fund the $95 million plan, which calls for creating a military of 3,500 soldiers who would eventually replace the UN. It also calls for a National Intelligence Service (SIN is the French acronym), that will deal with people and organizations accused of terrorism. To many in Haiti, it is clear that Martelly wants to revive the Duvalier death squads, who attacked anyone the dictators accused of Communism.
There should be little doubt about the use to which Martelly intends to put an army. As someone who has admitted supporting the last two coups, as a Duvalierist and a vocal opponent of the most popular leader in the country (Aristide), Martelly does not represent the aspirations of the majority but of a wealthy elite. As the Duvaliers before him, it can be surmised that he would use the army as an instrument of terror against the poor to consolidate his power.
The American government and its highest officials, including Obama and the Clintons—people who at some time or another claimed to represent the interests of American citizens—are doing shameful work in Haiti. With one hand, they make gestures toward those suffering from insufficient access to the very basic necessities of life; with the other, they are allotting hundreds of millions of dollars to bullets, guns, tanks, soldiers, prisons, and to undemocratic movements and governments.
Yet against all this, there is great hope in Haiti. The Aristide Foundation recently reopened its medical school with a tiny fraction of the money that has been spent on the occupation of Haiti. In 2004, the US/UN military force halted construction, dissolved the school, and occupied it for three years before giving back control to the Foundation. The reopening of the school is a sign that the people in Haiti will continue to stand up, though it may seem that they have been crushed down far as possible. This is not the kind of hope that comes from celebrity concerts or from Coca-Cola refreshments. It is the kind which springs from the memory that with collective struggle and a vision, change for the better can occur. At its source is the certainty that justice and truth are on one’s side.
Nia Imara is a Bay Area artist and astronomer. She can be reached through her website.