March 4, 2004
For the umpteenth time in the past two centuries, France and the United States have intervened militarily to keep the peace in the hapless Caribbean island-nation of Haiti. In January, Haiti, the first colony to break away from France, celebrated 200 years of independence. The sad irony is that French and US military intervention has been a permanent feature of independent Haiti. Financial interests enticed the US to land Marines in Haiti in 1915. The fear of an influx of Haitian refugees compelled Washington to send its troops again in 1994.
South African President Thabo Mbeki was one of the few heads of state to participate in the Haitian bicentenary celebrations. Like Haiti, South Africa has long suffered at the hands of settler colonialism and the oppression of systematic and institutionalised racism. The symbolism was powerful and evocative: Haitians were the first black African people to rid themselves of white settler colonial rule and the South Africans were the last.
But Haiti paid a terrible price for shaking off the settler- colonial yoke. The nation was forced to pay reparations to former French plantation owners, many of who left the country to settle in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of the 1804 revolution that freed the country from French colonial rule. The crippling indemnity debt impoverished Haiti, exacting a cruel vengeance ensuring that it remained the Western hemisphere’s poorest and least-developed country. France and the US connived together to milk the Haitian cow dry.
It is difficult for the Haitian people to trust their former oppressors today, as the events of the past few weeks have shown. The democratically elected Haitian President Jean- Bertrand Aristide was summarily dismissed at gunpoint. The French and US ambassadors apparently presided over the sham ceremony of the crestfallen Haitian president tendering his official resignation. Aristide’s involuntary departure to the Central African Republic further underscored the Caribbean country’s helpless, neo-colonial condition.
As Al-Ahram Weekly goes to print, South African officials say that the country is currently studying a request to grant Aristide and his family political asylum.
The readiness of France or the US to make real sacrifices for the sake of developing Haiti is highly questionable. Will they, for example, write off Haiti’s debt? In 1980, the Caribbean island-nation had a national debt of $302 million. Today Haiti’s debt has tripled to a staggering $1.1 billion, more than 40 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Last year, the HIV/AIDS-ravaged country paid more in debt service than it did on health care provision.
Can the Haitian people trust the French and the Americans, even if they are operating under the mandate of the United Nations, to run the ruined country’s affairs and oversee the reconstruction process in Haiti?
The answers to these questions may seem self-evident. Yet, at the same time simply to dismiss French and US military intervention as imperialism is not enough. Haiti’s struggle for national survival, for economic regeneration and development is not in a vacuum. The prospects for real qualitative change in Haiti can only come about by a change in the world economic order. Haiti, like other developing countries, is utterly dependent on the meagre revenue generated by the export of cash crops. The price of these crops has been deteriorating sharply on the world markets, especially vis-a-vis the prices of manufactured goods. Haiti’s import bill has been growing over the past two decades of political turmoil and social instability, while its revenues have been dwindling.
Washington and Paris have pledged development aid and humanitarian assistance. But development aid is secondary compared with the most important factor inhibiting development in impoverished countries like Haiti around the world, namely the opening up of US and European markets to exports from poor countries and the easing of restrictions on the movement of labour.
Meanwhile, the Caribbean is agog with rumours that Aristide was forcibly removed from power by the Americans and banished to the Central African Republic. Nobody knows why this country was selected as the first stop of exile for Aristide, not even the ex-Haitian president himself. Aristide is under a virtual house arrest in the Palace of the Renaissance in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Aristide has publicly denied that he had resigned, and has apparently been in touch by telephone with sympathetic US lawmakers.
Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now” programme reported that US lawmakers and other high-profile personalities friendly to the exiled president said that he was forcibly removed from power. Aristide’s forced removal could set “a dangerous precedent for democratically- elected governments everywhere”, Congresswoman Maxine Waters told Pacifica Radio. “[Aristide] was kidnapped. He resigned under pressure. He and his wife had no idea where he was going. He was very apprehensive for his life,” said Congressman Charles Rangel.
TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson confirmed the account given by Waters. “We have undertaken a coup against a democratically-elected government in Haiti,” Randall said in an interview on CNN.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Aristide’s claim was preposterous. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also denied the charge of kidnapping Aristide, while a White House spokesperson explained that Aristide left Haiti of his own free will. “The fact of the matter is that Aristide had worn out his welcome,” US Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News.
Washington has also ruled out a role for the armed opposition groups in the new interim Haitian government insisting that they lay down their weapons.
The process of forming a new government in Haiti is currently taking place under French and US supervision. Both Washington and Paris rejected a political role for Guy Philippe, who recently stated that he was effectively Haiti’s new military chief. Philippe wants his paramilitary group reconstituted as the new national Haitian army disbanded by Aristide in league with the US in 1994.
US officials dismiss Philippe as a rabble-rousing upstart. “[Philippe] is not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people,” said Roger Noriega, US assistant secretary of state. Other notorious Haitian ex-military men are waiting in the wings. Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Jean-Pierre Baptiste, both ex-army officers who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993, hope to play a more prominent political role in the country. Both leaders of the shadowy Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress better known by its French acronym FRAPH, seek a political role in post-Aristide Haiti. The FRAPH, which reputedly received CIA funding in the early 1990s, is feared and loathed in Haiti for its gross human rights violations.
Even the country’s discredited former dictator Jean- Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, expressed a desire to return from exile in France to run the country.
France has obviously adopted the slogan: if you can’t beat the Americans, join them. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin explained that the “constitutional legality” of the Aristide administration had ceased to exist. The current efforts by France and the US to salvage Haitian democracy, however, are suspect and grossly inadequate.
Over the past half decade, Haiti has had 16 different presidents, mostly taking power by force and gaining the support of either the Americans or the French. Foreign military intervention, as a long and tortuous history demonstrates, has only compounded Haiti’s problems.
The panacea to Haiti’s ills is for its new government to demand reparations for past and present injustices from the very powers that claim to hold the peace in the country today. Last and not least, France and the US should rise to the occasion and generously write-off Haiti’s foreign debt.