Sunday, August 29, 2010

Recent Haitian history in a nutshell

So a friend asked for more detail on Haiti and I wrote at length about it - that makes it easier to blog about and polish since I already have written a bunch of text!

My last post about the book on Haiti's history was a tad melodramatic, but I stand by that b/c it is a very dramatic history. So basically from 1957 to 1986 Haiti was ruled by two dictators, Francois Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (nicknamed Papa Doc and Baby Doc respectively). As the 80s went on, people really started getting frustrated with the government. Pope John Paul II visited in 1983 and tried to get people more active in public life, to make a difference, and criticized the inequality of wealth, isolation of the rich from the poor, and so on.

During the 80s, liberation theology (pointing out that a major theme of the gospels is equality of all people and concern for the poor) is becoming better known in Haiti and is being taught in many churches. The very poorest people start banding together and thinking about how to stand up for their rights. Jean Baptiste Aristide, a Catholic priest devoted to liberation theology and nonviolence is asked to run for president by his supporters. He reluctantly does, and sees it as his cross to bear. He is overwhelmingly voted as president in 1990, following which there are two Haitian military coups and he is outsted 8 months into his term in September 1991. (The first one was preemptive, a month before he officially took office but after he was elected - this failed b/c so many people turned up at the national palace to protest and block the action).

The US didn't really like him because he saw how much damage US policies did to the Haitian poor. Most of the foreign aid to Haiti was contigent on Haiti accepting economic policies that benefitted the US (keeping tariffs and taxes low, letting food imports flood Haiti's market destroying local production and self-sufficiency, keeping the minimum wage low even tho it was only $1-2/day - that is NOT enough to live on here!). Even though the US goes around "saving" countries from violent dictator coups, the US didn't do anything and even subtely sided with the military coup. (1991) Then Clinton becomes president and figures he needs a foreign policy success so decides to help Aristide get back into office (a repressive and violent gov't has existed in these three years between 1990 and 1993 when clinton decides to help). Once again, the US (under Clinton) has demands on what economic policies Haiti must take with regard to trade with the US, being unfair, selling off state owned business to the highest bidder no matter who it is, etc. (Apparently this is called untrammeled privitization - I want to learn more about this term.) Aristide negotiates an agreement saying that he will sell off those businesses but doesn't want it to be untrammeled - he wants to make sure that the profits of running the business go not to foreigners but to people in Haiti, and to set up arrangments that some profits will actually go to the poor (to finance development projects) and to the local communities of the factories. The US agrees, helps him get back to be president, and then reneges on its promise. The US says, no you can't do that - we got you back in power and if you want aid you have to do things our way even though previously we negotiated on this. Aid is makes up something like 50% of the total gov't's revenue, so Aristide had no choice. (Many people outside of Haiti criticize Aristide for his so-called compromises, but it turns out that more often than not he was actually forced to accept some policies that weren't the best for the poor.)

The hypocritical thing in the US pursuing democracy and open markets is that this is FAR more "open market" than the United States itself, which has regulations both for safety and to protect its own financial interests (such as subsidies or tariffs to benefit US farmers). The US requires specifically that Haiti have none of these financial protections, and the economy is wrecked as the US prospers by being able to dump all sorts of products on Haiti, and buy cheap stuff from Haiti at starvation wages. (Haiti has one of the most liberal, or open, markets of any country in the Western Hempisphere - far more so than the US.)

Even so, with limited funds and people trying to kill him, Aristide raises the minimum wage to $5/day, starts housing, job projects, education, and literacy projects that actually work for the people living in the slums, and so forth. He also abolishes the army! He saw that throughout its history the army has only been used to oppress the poor and support dictators. Haiti has never had to defend itself from a foreign gov't after independence in 1803 (+/- a few years) and its military budget eats a large portion of its total budget. An American military person (quoted in the book) even admitted it was a wise thing to do. So what did Aristide do with the old Army Headquarters? He turned it into the HQ for Women's Affairs!!! Isn't that great?!?! And to be fair, he even did make a reintegration package for army people to give them money and training so they could integrate into society. He wasn't a jerk about it!

The Haitian elite hates him (1% of the people have 60% of the wealth - it truly is an insulated, small elite) and pretty much hate the poor people. The corrupt, high ranking army folk hate him too. He finishes the last approx. 1.5 years of his term (serving a total of about 2 years of a 5 year term). After that, in 1996-2000 he does not run for president but stays active helping organize with the poor and (the vast majority of Haitians) their grassroots political party - Lavalas (Kreyol word meaning "flood" and "all of us together"). After his term is up, the US pressures the next gov't to undo everything, make the minimum wage $1-2 per day again for the sweatshops, etc.

2000 rolls around and Aristide runs for president again. He wins overwhelmingly in an election that the UN and international community both agree is a fair election. Lavalas also wins overwhelming majorities in ALL levels of government in the legislative elections held a few months after the presidential election. There is one minor flaw in legislative elections (not presidential elections), but the UN and international community openly say this flaw did not actually affect the outcome of the elections in any way. The new Bush administration does not like Aristide and twists this, quoting out of context and inventing lies, to say that he is a dictator that rigged the elections. The US pays for Haitian militants of the previous regime (1991-1993 folks, and others) to have military training at an army base in Georgia (yes, the US state and a US army base) and the Dominican Republic. A massive propaganda campaign is undertaken to smear Aristide's image.

Towards the end of 2003, these people funded in part by the US literally start taking over towns, driving out and killing the police, burning police stations, and burning government buildings. They openly say that their goal is to take over the government through force and killing Aristide's supporters. The US calls these people freedom fighters and says it's a sign that the dictator Aristide has lost his moral credentials and popularity. Yet, whenever the opposition has a public protest, Aristide supporters literally outnumber them by 10 or 20 times. One attempted coup happened and tens of thousands of Aristide supporters showed up to surround the palace and most people in the paramilitary group just wouldn't openly slaughter ALL those people to get to Aristide. (Even back in the 1980s, people would try to kill Aristide as he preached a sermon, and church people would take bullets for him and they'd manage to get him out.)

So even though this paramilitary opposition has so much power and has literally taken over several cities in Haiti (including the one I'm staying in now - but this was back in 2003-4), they can't take Port-au-Prince (PAP - the capital) because the million poor people there love Aristide. He knows the poor and has walked with them his whole adult life, not telling them what to do, but listening and trying to assist. The US has banned all arms exports to Haiti, so the police there do not have supplies (the ban extends even to bullet proof vests, riot shields, tear gas, and rubber bullets). Remember, though, the paramilitary opposition does have US funded weapons through the Dominican Republic. South Africa, an Aristide ally, (Nelson Mandela supports him) sends a shipment to the legitimate Haitian police.

The US sees that the militants, even though they have far superior force, cannot touch Aristide and accomplish the coup. The day before the South African arms shipment for the police arrives, the US literally swoops in with Marines and abducts Aristide and his wife (Feb 28 or 29, 2004). The US denies this. The US takes him to the Central African Republic where he has no ties/relationships and he is held under house arrest as his opponents take over Haiti's government over the next few days. The US claims that Aristide asked for assistance to flee Haiti and requested to be taken to the Central African Republic (where he knows no one and where it's another dictatorship), and said that Aristide's request for asylum in South Africa (where he has allies) was turned down. The South African government formally responds saying they were never asked in the first place to receive Aristide...hmm. Shortly thereafter, they welcome him with open arms.

The book also points out that before the coup where the US snatched him away, in the years 2001-2003, there were very few protestant churches in Haiti backed by the US (financed by US churches). All of a sudden, tons of conservative evangelical churches move to Haiti and start teaching that only the afterlife matters, not the quality of life in this life. I forget the number, but it was a huge difference during those years - something like 50 expanding to 500.

AFTER the coup (Aristide abducted by US), UN peacekeepers are *finally* sent to Haiti. The UN people are told that the poor people who are mostly doing nonviolent protests but occassionaly get violent in defense or anger at the paramilitaries are the enemy. Everywhere else in the world, UN peacekeepers help set up negotiations, get both sides talking, and so forth. Not here! The propaganda campaign against Aristide has been so effective that most mainstream media publishes only anti-Aristide baloney about him being a dictator, etc. The big world powers say that the military government in charge is legitimate and everyone else are enemies to be killed. The UN literally supports raids into poor slums of PAP where Aristide suppoerters/activists and sometimes randomly people are killed and terrorized. What the hell! Some mainstream media and major human rights organizations notice that there seems to be a major imbalance of power and criticizes the UN operations as facilitating death squads (providing cover for and blocking exits so the paramilitary folks can kill more safely and effectively). Occassionally the media does note the overwhelming popular support (i.e. *democratic* support) for Aristide. Many, many Aristide supporters are killed. In 2006, Rene Preval becomes president (same guy who was president 1995-2000). He's not horrible, but does little to improve the condition of the poor. Many people here aren't crazy about him but were thankful for peace during this period.

Now, Haiti is having elections this November, for the presidential term 2011-2015. I personally think that some of the popularity of Wycliffe (singer who wanted to run for president but can't b/c he doesn't live in Haiti) was due to the fact that he is NOT a politician. Many of the poor were so glad that Aristide was a priest, not a politician, as most people here really don't trust the politicans. History does teach them not to! More so than that, Aristide knew and worked alongside the poor. When he was first inaugurated (1991) he had a huge picnic and pool party at the national palace where thousands of poor people from nearby slums in PAP were invited!

There are 19 people running for president of Haiti in November. The first portion of the election determines the top two candidates. There is then a second round of voting just for those two candidates. I don't know nearly as much about the period 2007-present b/c the book ended at January 2007 (book was released early 2007). Yvon Neptune, Aristide's Prime Minister during his second presidency, is one of the candidates. I got a good impression of him from the book, and he was quoted quite regularly. I confirmed on Wikipedia that Neptune was prisoned illegally, along with other high-ranking gov't officials during Aristide's term, and subject to inhumane treatment. International human rights organizations condemned this, and at one point even the US commented negatively on the political punishment of the previous gov't by the current gov't without any grounds.

So that's it in a big nutshell, and all this info is substantially, very well quoted and referenced in the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment