Preventing Democracy in Haiti

Turning the light off at the end of the tunnel

By Paul Hamel | 2005-01-01 12:00:00

Haiti remains the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere. By all measures of health, human rights and economic indicators, the people of Haiti continue to live in violent conditions of poverty without access to the basic requirements needed to live in dignity.

Though Haiti shares a common border with the Dominican Republic, a profound disparity in social and economic status between the two countries of Hispaniola is evident. The differences are, however, the consequences of long term policies which originate in decisions made far away from the shanty towns of the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. Indeed, since the end of the 18th century, when the slaves of Saint-Dominigue challenged the legitimacy of the slave trade and defeated the French army, Haiti has been subject to external economic and military oppression.

The "Threat" of Haitian Democracy

At the end of the 18th century, Saint-Dominigue was the most prosperous European colony of its time. It provided enormous wealth to France through its sugar and its slave labor. At the same time, the colony's residents were prevented from processing or manufacturing goods for their own consumption -- ensuring that this resource-rich colony remain underdeveloped.

The Haitian revolution of 1798 was the first sucessful liberation movement in Latin America, and led to independence on 1 January 1804. Emancipation came at an extreme cost, however. Napoleon's France, humiliated by its defeat at the hands of Toussaint L'Ouverture's army of ex-slaves, forced the new state to pay 150 million francs in reparations for its "lost" assets.

The threat of an anti-slavery revolution was acutely appreciated by the United States, which did not recognize Haiti until 1862. Indeed, much of the subsequent history of Haiti has been determined by its relationship with the USA. Up until 1934, the method of dominance was direct military intervention. US invasions of Haiti (in 1888, 1889, 1891 and 1914) were used to thwart European economic interests. These invasions also hobbled Haiti's economic developent; after the 1915 invasion, for instance, Haitian gold reserves were removed to the US to pay off the country's foreign debt.

Paying For Past Oppression

François "Papa Doc" Duvalier (ruled 1957-1971) and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (ruled 1971-1986) were notorious for the violence and corruption of their rule -- particularly because of the activities of a shadowy paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes (later called "Voluntaires de la Sécurité Nationale"). Still, the two Duvalier regimes received military, economic and diplomatic aid from the international community, including grants and loans from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

The debt-reform group Jubilee 2000 reports that up to US$900 million was embezzled by the Duvalier family.1 And while 40% of Haiti's debt was accrued under these regimes, US$400 million of this illegal debt is still owed to the World Bank and IDB despite the US, France and Canada writing off US$154 million.2

Today's Haitians are required to pay back debts which more or less directly funded their oppression; just as ironically, the debt burden was to play a major role in destabilizing president Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

Aristide first came to prominence in 1986. The former Roman Catholic priest was a charismatic figure in the protest movement which sent "Baby Doc" Duvalier into exile in France. Four years later, in December 1990, he was elected president with 67 per cent of the popular vote -- his closest rival, former World Bank official Marc Bazin, took just 14 per cent. An alarmed Haitian elite turned to the military, which (as the Front for the Advancement of the Haitian People, or FRAPH) toppled Aristide less than a year later. Marc Bazin was installed as president but was soon pushed aside by FRAPH's General Raul Cedras.

OAS Sanctions

The Organization of American States moved to isolate the Haitian junta with sanctions. In stark contrast to the UN's economic sanctions on Iraq, the OAS santions on Haiti were non-binding, and were breached by most of the country's trading partners. And in contrast to the strict naval blockade on Iraq, the Haitian blockade functioned mainly to intercept refugees. Refugees were either returned to Haiti or were held indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay; few were granted refugee status.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was returned to power in September 1994, following a UN-authorized armed intervention. There were strict conditions on the president's return to power in Port-au-Prince. Loans which had been frozen by the IMF during the Cedras regime would be available again to the government, but only if a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) were adopted.

The SAPs were implemented in large part so that Haiti could continue to service its massive foreign debt and included privatization of the few profitable state-owned businesses as well as the removal of import tariffs. The populist Aristide government was, therefore, trapped between two choices which would reverse previous progress of democracy in Haiti. The Aristide government's anti-poverty programs would lose essential resources if the IMF restructuing went ahead; they would also lose if the government refused the SAP and thus lost the loans.

Privatization of the profitable flour mills, for example, removes an income source from the government and would have placed an industry fundamental to the food supply of Haiti under private (possibly foreign) control. Moreover, lowered tariffs kept Haitian farmers from competing with the heavily subsidized American and European food industries. Rice production in parts of Haiti disappeared due to the influx of subsidized rice from the United States.3

"Humanitarian Aid" to Undermine Democracy

Haiti has become an excellent laboratory in which to test economic methods for destabilizing democracies. Here, I discuss the three methods that have been used recently to undermine the Aristide administration; delegitimizing the electorial process; withholding humanitarian aid; and directing aid through NGOs rather than through governments.

i) Delegitimizing the Electorial Process. Senate elections were held in advance of presidential elections in 2000. In eight of 17 races, the opposition challenged the official results, claiming that the method used to determine an outright majority was not proper. The Organization of American States (OAS) and USAID, which had been involved in organizing and monitoring the elections, supported the challenge.

But key parts of the voting infrastructure were controlled by foreign NGOs and commercial firms.4 The US company IFES managed voter registration with USAID funding and with cards produced by the Canadian Code Inc: "It is clear that obstacles existed for all eligible voters who attempted to receive their voter identification cards. Problems were disproportionately high for poor urban and rural communities."5 reported Haiti Reborn/Quixote Center.

The impasse over the results of the eight Senate seats forced the Aristide government to negotiate with the Group of 184, a group of business elites and political parties, some of whom were involved directly in the coup in 1991. The Group of 184 demanded that that the entire election be negated, even though only eight seats were in dispute.

The presidential elections were then boycotted by the Group of 184 which, together with the departure of international observers, produced an impasse in the democratic process in Haiti. Although the presidential vote did go ahead and Aristide won handily, his victory was treated as less than legitimate by the oppositon and some foreign media and governments.

As late as 2002, however, USAID recognized that Aristide still enjoyed majority support.6 Post-election polls showed that Aristide and his Lavalas Party were still favored by over 60%; Gerard Gourgue of the Democratic Convergence was next with 3.7%.

ii) Withholding Humanitarian Aid. Following the 2000 elections, economic aid was withheld by international donors until specific demands of the OAS, the Group of 184, and the US government were met. Haiti-based physician Dr. Paul Farmer has detailed the effects of withholding US$146 million dollars in aid intended for health care, water improvement, education, and infrastructure while Haiti was still managing to pay out US$32 million in debt service.7 Farmer's community clinic saw a three-fold increase in ambulatory patients as a result of the deterioration and lack of supplies in other clinics. Inability to repair the country's roads has prevented farmers from getting produce to market, thus increasing rural poverty. Lack of road improvement has also been attributed to the rise in trauma cases and delays in patients reaching medical facilities.

iii) Directing Aid Through Non-Governmental Agencies. Returning to the laboratory in Haiti, a third effective means of undermining the widely supported government in Haiti was to direct aid to non-governmental agencies rather than to the government. The principle here is that dependence on donors will be maintained if the government is not given the economic means to develop and maintain health, education and physical infrastructure. Supporting specific NGOs, rather than governmental agencies, can be used effectively to interfere with the democratic process in a country.

Some of this aid was quite directly political. The International Republican Institute (IRI) worked exclusively with opposition groups; only parties with stated opposition to the Aristide government were funded by the institute, an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy. Haiti expert Robert Maguire observes that "All of the IRI-sponsored meetings with the opposition have occurred outside Haiti, either in the DR or in the United States."8 Rather than strengthening the democratic system in Haiti, encouraging a plurality of ideas and participatory democracy, the US$1.2 million dollars in USAID funds channeled through the IRI supported opposition parties known to have no popular base with the majority of Haitians and which represented the business elite who had traditionally held power in Haiti.

Obstructing Justice/ Failing to Act

The dénouement came in February 2004, shortly after the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence. Haiti, diplomatically isolated and economically strangled, faced a violent rebellion by remarkably well armed forces operating from the Dominican Republic. As this violence progressed, the international community declined to assist the Aristide government militarily, and US marines bundled the president onto a plane out of the country.

Many of the victorious rebels had been convicted in absentia for serious human rights violations during and after the 1991 coup. Interim President Gerard Latortue signaled a return to Haiti's brutal past at a public meeting in the Haitian city of Gonaives, declaring Guy Philippe, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, and Jean Tatoune to be "freedom fighters."9 The convictions for human rights abuses by these same "freedom fighters" were recently overturned, allowing these former death squad leaders to freely roam throughout Haiti.

While some criticism from the US government was expressed over the "freedom fighters" issue, President George W Bush met with Latortue.10 The US, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank have been swift to show their financial support of the interim government. At the donors' meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell hailed "Haiti's return to the path of democracy, stability and prosperity"11 However, we learn later on in the same speech that much of the enthusiasm from the U.S. and the international financial agencies is due to the fact that Latortue's cabinet "has reaffirmed this reform agenda in its accord with the International Monetary Fund." Yet again, Haiti's unelected rulers have set the country on an economic path which had been rejected by their citizens when they last had the chance to elect their own government.

Paul Hamel is an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine, U. of Toronto, and past president of Science for Peace.


1 Hanlon, Joseph (1998) Dictators and Debt. Jubillee 2000. Report can be viewed at
2 Ibid.
3 "Economy reels under World Bank program" in Haiti Progres, This Week in Haiti, Vol. 14, nol 17, 17-23 July (1996)
4 Ibid.
5 Miles, M (2001) "Election 2000: Participatory Elections in Haiti." Prepared for Haiti Reborn/Quixote Center
6 Reeves, T. (2004) "Haiti Disappeared"
7 Farmer, P. (2004) Political Violence and Public Health in Haiti. N. Eng. J. Med. Vol. 350:1483
8 Ibid.
9 Maxwell, J. (2004) Blood soaked bureaucrats. Jamaican Observer Sunday April 25, 2004

10 Council on Hemispheric Affairs (2004) Giving Haitian Self-Rule a Bad Name June 18, 2004
see also: Congressional Black Caucus "Latortue is a mere Puppet" May 5 2004
11 Powell, C. (2004) Stability a Prerequisite For Progress In Haiti, Powell Says. International Information Programs

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2005

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