Today in Latin America, Haiti’s Long Decade (Part 1)

This is part one of a three-part series on Haiti’s Long Decade, from 1991 to 2004. This week marks the anniversary of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s swearing in as president of Haiti in 1991. This article will conclude with his election in 2000. Part Two will appear on February 28 covering 2000-2004. The final article will be an update of Haiti since Aristide’s coup.

Before the flood
Before the “most successful act of imperial sabotage since the end of the cold war” occurred in the international coup d’etat of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he had to be elected first.

Painting by Gèrard Bruny depicting Duvalier's secret police, the Tonton Macoutes

Painting by Gèrard Bruny depicting Duvalier's secret police, the Tonton Macoutes


But before his election, Haiti faced an especially brutal reality. The histories of the Duvalier’s are well-known, and well written of. In summary, the period between 1956 and 1986 saw the dictatorships of François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier. In 1956, “Papa Doc” was elected to the presidency with the assistance of the United States. He promised to bring stability to the otherwise dreadful black-mixed division in the country – a legacy from Haiti’s first revolution in 1804. Duvalier came from this wealthy minority and skillfully promised order. This was great news to the US, which propped up anticommunist leaders across the globe. With the secret police, Haitians lived in perpetual fear of being accused of communism. Death was almost a certainty.

He was followed in death by his son, 19 year old Jean-Claude Duvalier. It is nothing to say he was more benign than his father (the death toll from these two men stand between 20 and 60 thousand). In 1983, Pope John Paul II visited the country and condemned the regime: “Something must change here.” The US followed suit and Reagan pressured Jean-Claude to resign, which he did in 1986 (there is still a movement among the wealthy to have Jean-Claude, exiled in France, to return to Haiti).

After the Duvalier’s
Haiti, following Duvalier’s exile, was placed into a state of chaos, something it had been used to in the years leading up to Aristide’s election. In 1971, the US restored its aid program to Haiti to ease suffering, but outbreaks of disease and the epidemic of AIDS only unleashed a furthering of the decay to a fragile society. Duvalier had used the treasury as his own and left Haiti poor, a remnant that Haitians are still trying to deal with to this day.

Haiti, following the dictatorships, was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As mentioned above, the elite from which “Papa Doc” Duvalier came from, constituted 5% of the Haitian population and controlled most of its wealth (an epidemic which still exists today – recent clashes occurring as late as April of 2008). The business deals and natural resources were secured for the elite at the expense of the civilian population, it would not be too much to call them “the poor.” This money, to the tune of $550 million in 10 years, was used to fund trips, homes, yachts, and parties (85% of the population of 7 million [in 1992] lives in poverty).

The Haiti following Duvalier included a nation trying to deal with repression on a scale most never know. Tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured, wrongfully accused – and seething. This has a snowball effect into education, literacy (only around 25%), job creation and growth and stability of the family and culture norms. This created the military-industrial-complex of sorts on Haiti following Duvalier’s collapse. The military was intimately tied with the ruling aristocracy and became, for some, a way out of the slums.

This was the Haiti that ratified its constitution in 1987, setting up a fairly predictable representative government based around a bicameral government with a president and prime minister. This was the setting for a country that waded through an equally autocratic and unstable series of interim governments in preparations for elections in 1990. This was the country that elected, with 67% of the vote, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, who would become the country’s first democratically elected president.

aristideAristide’s Haiti: Won and Lost
Aristide won because he spoke to the people. He promised them he would lift them out of poverty and bring equality to Haiti, prospects that one hopes for in an representative democracy. He called his followers Lavalas in response to what may have felt like a flood, washing Haiti of its “old” for its “new.”

Aristide was born in 1953 in Port-Salut. He went to school but in 1983 returned to Haiti from abroad and was appointed curate of a small parish in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, before become curate of a large parish, La Saline. He taught, like many in the 1980s, liberation theology – an aspect that got him elected over thirteen others in 1990. He said:

The solution is revolution, first in the spirit of the Gospel; Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor. My role is to preach and organize….

This was unacceptable to the local clergy, who did not approve of the mixture of politics and religion, and in 1995, Aristide left the priesthood.

Aristide was seen right away (maybe for good reasons) as a threat by the elite of the country. Liberation theology is not their kind of thing and, despite Aristide’s beginning conciliatory tone, the upper class resented the president from the beginning.

It was this tension that produced the conditions for his coup. Aristide came to office as most beginning governments in the third wave, as described by Samuel Huntington, with a mixture of revolution (in terms of degree of government, from dictatorship to democracy) and compromise. This was quickly betrayed by delays inside the government as well as several assassination attempts within his first few months in office. In reality, Aristide posed little danger to the existing social order, much to the chagrin of some of the population (a similar comparison could be between US president Obama and his leftist supporters who felt his administration moved too slow or too cautiously).

Aristide, at the time of the coup, was proposing a higher minimum wage and a more aggressive system of taxation. He had warmed up to US diplomats and was obtaining lenders to help with Haiti’s incredibly backward credit situation.

Events spiraled towards a vote, highly influenced by threats and military power amassing across Haiti, in August 1991, of no-confidence (83 to 11). On September 30, Aristide resigned under pressure and left the country. The army spared Aristide’s life, but soldiers, according to Foreign Policy magazine, “gunned down several hundred pro-Aristide protesters who poured into the streets…” Power shifted back to the FAdH (Forces Armées d’Haïti), the armed forces of Haiti, in particular, Raoul Cédras. Although, according to the constitution, other men were appointed to the office of president as Aristide fled, Cédras was, through his display of violence and flashes of Duvalier prowess, the de facto ruler of Haiti.

The (First) Return
Aristide went first to Venezuela, then the United States, where he, like Latin American exiles throughout the past two hundred years, drummed up support for his power and shed light on the conditions of Haitians.

It would not be Ariside, however, that turned the tides of Haiti’s future. It would not be Latin America as the OAS blockade of Haiti looked premature and, like all blockades and embargoes, tend to affect the civilians the worst and increase violence.

aristide_returnThe position of change fell, once again, on the United States. While they were not thrilled by Aristide’s presidency (as the coup in 2004 proved), they could hardly stand the repression of post-Aristide Haiti (the “boat-people” did not help, either). A delegation of consisting of Clinton, Carter, Georgia Senator Same Nunn and General Colin Powell, urged Provisional President Émile Jonassaint, the current front for Cédras, to set down or face a possible invasion. The US also convinced Cédras to leave Haiti. He remains in Panama.

On October 15, 1994, Aristide returned to Haiti in a triumph of sorts. He was given back the presidency, which he’d hold until 1996. In an unprecedented move, Aristide in 1995 disbanded the FAdH and established an ordinary police force decentralized from the capital and beholden to none.

After deciding that Aristide’s time in exile counted toward his tenure of office, the constitution did not allow for consecutive runs at the presidency. René Préval, prime minister in 1991 of the Aristide reign, became the country’s second president on February 7, 1996, with 88% of the vote.

“Democracy” in Haiti
preval-haiti-electionsThe cruel reality of Aristide’s return and Préval’s rise, is that it was precipitated under the guise of democracy. Upon reinstatement, Aristide had to bow down to US pressure and, according to Stuart Neatby,

was forced to agree to conditions, most notably that his government adopt widely unpopular IMF-oriented economic reforms and that Haiti’s moneyed elite – many of whom had supported Aristide’s deposition – retain positions of power.

This subjugation of sorts led to further disrepair, as evidenced by many Latin American countries who followed the same austerity measures (the “gold standard” of these being Argentina at the turn of the century). In a country as fragile as Haiti, Aristide’s reluctance brought about ruin.

Préval’s tenure was just as faithful to this orthodoxy as can be expected. This led to the privatization of government assets, massive borrowing in Haiti’s name to the IMF (that still has not been repaid – in order to see its debt canceled, Haiti had to go through the World Bank’s debt relief program, which it still has not completed). However, unemployment was lowered to the lowest point since “Papa Doc’s” takeover. Agrarian reform was once again on the table. And his government did investigated and bring to trial abusers of human rights, mostly military personnel.

The Underbelly: Haitian Culture During the First Half of the ‘Long Decade’
There was tension throughout the entire presidency, from outside and inside, Haiti. It is, as always, the people who inevitably control in a free country. Haiti ceased being free in 1999, when Préval dissolved the government and ruled by decree until the election of 2000.

Aristide continued to play a role in development in Haiti, despite not being president. He formed a new party, the Fanmi Lavalas, which stood opposed to the opposition OPL and Préval’s cadre. These movements were created around growing oppositions.

This is where cynicism enters the story. Aristide was elected by “67%” of the population, Préval was elected by “88%” (Aristide would be elected in 2000 by “90%” of the population). These numbers seem enormous, either from a rousing populace or similar to one-party systems like Saddam’s Iraq, for instance. But reports for the 1996 election stood at 175,000 of 3.5 million showed up to vote. (Aristide’s 2000 victory was about the same). Where did we lose the people?

Some of it has to do with repression and not wanting the populace to vote, although the results haven’t turned “theoretically” in the elite’s favor yet. But mostly, there is a disconnect. The Haitian people, according to activist Patrick Elie

If it were up to the Haitian people (and when I say Haitian people I’m talking about the vast majority of Haitians who are poor) there would be both democracy and stability. If you look at recent history, the Haitian people have chosen to vote rather than to riot. They voted four times in a row for the same political family, the same political leaning, the same agenda. They consistently have picked both democracy and stability.

Haiti is a country that wants democracy, but struggles with its consistent viability (at the worst times) by the US, Canada and Europe (more of this connection in Part 2). During the 1996-2000 years, Haitians were coping with extreme poverty illustrated above, as well as the desire for peace and equality – commodities still in rare supply in Haiti. This disconnect led us to the 2000 elections.

aristide-againThe 2000 Election
In May 2000, a voter turnout of 60% (immense in comparison with 1996), voted into office Aristide’s FL party. Irregularities abounded, opposition forces cried foul (probably for good reasons) and demanded Préval step down. The opposition announced it would boycott the November presidential elections, thus increasing the divisions in Haitian civil society as well as Aristide’s odds of his second (and first full?) presidency.

In November, in a low-turnout, Aristide was elected president again. The opposition refused to accept Aristide. Haiti’s long decade continued.

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~ by Daniel on February 9, 2009.

2 Responses to “Today in Latin America, Haiti’s Long Decade (Part 1)”

  1. […] Long Decade (1991-2004). This article will be a quick jump into our present, from 2004. The first article dealt with the collapse of the Duvalier dynasty in the late 1980s and the rise of Jean-Bertrand […]

  2. For more on the role of the US in Haiti, I would highly suggest you read “Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment”, by Peter Hallward.

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