Monday, June 8, 2009

Democracy Undone: US Hegemony and Imperial Ambitions in Haiti

Another essay I wrote in 2007. This one is about the historical role of the US in undermining democracy in Haiti. A fully cited version is available upon request.

By Ali Mustafa

The small Caribbean nation of Haiti holds the unique distinction of being site to the only successful slave rebellion in history, resulting in its independence from colonial France and the establishment of the first ever black republic in 1804. A little over 200 years later, in the wake of its bicentennial, the promise and optimism that once marked the momentous occasion of Haiti’s improbable birth have eroded into growing disillusionment and ultimately given way to a new, much less flattering, distinction: the title of poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita gross domestic product of just $218. Plagued by chronic underdevelopment, economic ruin, and social and political unrest almost since its inception, Haiti is not only far and away the poorest nation in the region but also one that registers among the sharpest contrasts between wealth and poverty in the entire world. What was once hailed by Christopher Columbus upon his arrival as ‘paradise on earth’ has now become a paradise lost, a place that few dare to go and many of its inhabitants wish to flee.

But why is Haiti arguably no better off now than it was over 200 years ago and what can be attributed as the source of its undoing? Haiti’s tragic fate can only be understood within the scope of the geopolitical space that it occupies and necessarily situated in its proper historical context in which the US as regional hegemon has played – and continues to play – a particularly defining role. In short, US foreign policy in Haiti today is broadly consistent with that formulated and enforced throughout Latin America and the Caribbean since the Monroe Doctrine designated the Western hemisphere, and all that it encompasses, as an uncontested American 'sphere of influence.' Haiti has always been strategically important to the US for various reasons: it shares the Windward Passage to the Panama Canal with communist Cuba (political); it is located only 700 miles off the coast of Florida (security); and in recent years as much as 50 percent of all imports into the country have been of US origin (economic). But what is at stake in Haiti is not so much US security concerns or even economic interests (although these are certainly important) as it is the threat of a good example – one that the US fears, especially after the 1990 election of Catholic priest to the poor Jean-Bertrand Aristide, could potentially send reverberations throughout the region and indeed the wider Third World and undermine US regional hegemony in the process.

The relationship between US foreign policy and Haiti is a long and involved one. US marines occupied Haiti for almost 20 years (1915 – 1934) and helped create the country’s modern army, now notorious for carrying out repression and brutality against its own population with ruthless efficiency. The US government then went on to shamelessly support former Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc), as well as his son who would later succeed him after his death in 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc), with economic and military aid that would prove instrumental in sustaining them throughout their worst crimes. When Baby Doc was overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986, a new era in Haitian history (as well as US foreign policy in the country) was ushered in that would see both the rise and sudden fall of Aristide who went on to win Haiti’s first ever democratic elections, only to be ousted in an elite-backed military coup a few months later. The US government was not directly involved in the coup; however, it certainly wanted Aristide and his government gone just as much as the Haitian elite and implemented a new strategy to protect its imperial ambitions in Haiti that employed the rhetoric of democracy, while at the same time fundamentally undercutting its advancement, which William I. Robinson alternately refers to as ‘low-intensity democracy’ or ‘polyarchy.’

The promotion of low-intensity democracy by the US has not altered in any substantive sense the nature of US regional hegemony (or imperial ambitions in Haiti for that matter), it has only given it a new guise with a legitimacy all its own that better coincides with the 21st century political and economic climate. This shift towards the promotion of low-intensity democracy as a strategy to reconsolidate US hegemony on a regional (indeed now global) scale thus marks an important historical shift in US foreign policy from an essentially coercive-based platform to a more consensual-based one that legitimatizes existing inequalities, but does so more effectively than force. The immediate purpose of low-intensity democracy promotion in Haiti was to attempt to shape its transition to democracy in such a way as to preempt more radical political change, protect the socioeconomic status quo, and more generally to safeguard international relations of asymmetry. The sweeping election victory of Aristide in 1990, however, threw these plans into jeopardy and in one fell swoop threatened to undermine nearly 200 years of US domination.

Having gone through 19 years of US occupation only to endure 2 successive brutal dictatorships shortly thereafter, ordinary Haitians finally saw their opportunity to make a final break with the past and start anew in 1990. Building upon the momentum created by the collapse of the Duvalier dynasty, several grassroots organizations around this time merged to form a popular movement known as Lavalas, which in Creole literally translates into “avalanche” or “flood.” The Lavalas movement can be best characterized as a civil uprising that represents the collective concerns of Haiti’s poor from the slums of Port-au-Prince to the far-off rural communities who together aspire for popular democracy and self-determination. Aristide was by now the undisputed leader of Lavalas and the most popular and beloved figure in Haiti and was easily elected president with an overwhelming 67.5 % of the vote, while the US backed candidate only received 14.2 % despite the fact that he outspent Aristide in his campaign by a margin of 20-1.

Aristide was therefore the unexpected and uninvited outcome of Haiti’s ‘transition to democracy’ that the US was trying to encourage. As Paul Farmer, author of The Uses of Haiti, succinctly captures, “Aristide – slum priest, grassroots activist, exponent of liberation theology – represents everything that the CIA, DOD, and FBI think they have been trying to protect this country [the US] against for the past 50 years” (Farmer 2003, 310). The ascendancy of the Lavalas movement from grassroots organization to the reins of political power under the Aristide government represented not just a threat to the status quo in Haiti, but more importantly still, to a worldwide project whose purpose is to subject popular majorities to the logic of the ruling minority. The US government as a result developed a three pronged strategy to fatally undermine and destabilize the Lavalas movement: first, withhold crucial US aid; second, embark on a media smear campaign to discredit and assault the personal character of Aristide himself; and finally, carry out low-intensity democracy promotion with the specific intent of propping up a government organized around elite rule and underpinned by a neoliberal economic order.

Shortly after Aristide took office, the administration of then US president George Bush approved, but then curiously withheld, the release of $84 million in economic aid to Haiti because the Aristide government supposedly failed to meet several conditions attached to the aid package – chief among them was assurance to Washington that human rights in the country were being respected (the previous Duvalier dictatorships were exempt from such conditions despite a consistent record of human rights abuses). Another far more important (and accurate) reason for the suspension of the US aid was the Bush administration’s fear that Arisitide’s coming proposal to raise the minimum wage in Haiti from $3 to $5 would destroy its enclave assembly sector and, consequently, discourage direct foreign investment in the country. While ostensibly distributed for the individual purpose of eradicating Haiti’s poverty, US aid programs have in fact done far more to support the Haitian elite, playing a critical role in keeping the country’s economy in line with US interests. The current and ongoing plight of Haiti should be understood to occur not in spite of US aid, but rather because of it – or more bluntly still, the historical use of aid as a strategic political and economic weapon aimed directly at Haiti’s poor majority.

If the central role of the mainstream US media has been to essentially function as the mouthpiece of the US State Department, it has not only succeeded completely but also managed to provide the subtle art of state-propaganda with a much needed semblance of neutrality in the process. Following the coup of Aristide in 1991, the US set about paying lip-service to the democratic process that elected him, while at the same time engaging in a broad behind-the-scenes effort to discredit him personally so as to facilitate the long desired power-sharing arrangement with the Haitian elite. The US media and subservient intellectual class kowtowed as usual behind official US foreign policy, characterizing the recently ousted Aristide as “a populist demagogue” (LA Times), “a mix of Khomeni and Castro” (New York Times), “whose politics come from Robespierre” (Washington Post), all the while calling into question his human rights record and overall competency (Ridgeway 1994, 121). These charges levied against Aristide would not only prove to be absolutely false, but in fact various international human rights monitoring groups went on to confirm that human rights violations in Haiti actually decreased significantly during his time in office. As American dissident and longtime US foreign policy analyst Noam Chomsky critically observes, “…there is no reason to be surprised [that the US government and media] suddenly began to show such sensitive concern for human rights and democracy just as human rights violations precipitously decline and democracy (though not in the preferred ‘top-down’ sense) begins to flower” (Farmer 2003, 30).

As much as the US government wanted Aristide and his government gone, it could not, however, in the 21st century openly support a military coup of a democratically elected head of state and play part to such an egregious violation of international law any more than it could afford to see Aristide return to power and go on to threaten US imperial ambitions in Haiti. The goal then, as Robinson affirms, was to orchestrate an arrangement under which Aristide could return to Haiti albeit as a “powerless and largely ceremonial president…with his institutional power so diluted, and the power of the coup-makers and their civilian backers so enhanced, that it would be impossible for his government to fulfill its own political agenda and that of the popular majority…” (Robinson 1996, 291). The US strategy to impose economic sanctions and a trade embargo on Haiti would do just that. Ostensibly designed to both protect human rights and slowly force the Haitian military dictatorship out of power through economic strangulation, the US sanctions and trade embargo ironically only produced the inverse effect: intensifying human rights violations (reported to be worse than at any other time since the Duvalier era) and disproportionately hurting Haiti’s poor majority, while leaving the de facto government fundamentally untouched. Elizabeth D. Gibbons, author of Sanctions in Haiti, affirms, “…it seems both absurd and legally questionable for the [US and the] United Nations to apply measures that actually help the party undermining international security, while harming those against whom the worst human rights violations are being committed. Yet this is the effect of the sanctions regime imposed on Haiti” (Gibbons 1998, 38).

The immediate impact of the US sanctions and trade embargo against Haiti was swift and far-reaching, wreaking havoc on a helpless civilian population already living under extreme poverty. In the first few months following the military coup, Haiti’s per capita income decreased by 30% and inflation in the country rose almost 140%. Soaring inflation during this period, coupled with the scarcity of basic goods and foodstuffs, carried with it serious consequences on the health and nutrition of Haiti’s poor majority, above all the young and very old. The military, on the other hand, faced no such difficulty securing even the most precious resources such as fuel, allowing it to hoard whatever it deemed of value while also controlling the supply and distribution of such goods. In sum, the US sanctions and trade embargo ultimately facilitated the military’s work: a population that is weak, hungry, and overworked is one that is more preoccupied with struggling to survive than it is with mounting any form of organized resistance. Yasmine Shamsie, an authority on low-intensity democracy promotion in Haiti, has this to say:

A careful reading of Haitian history reveals that keeping certain sectors of civil society weak and disorganized was one way that the country’s elites were able to prevent the establishment of democracy and to preserve a system of surplus extraction which enriched them while ensuring that the rest of the country remained impoverished and economically marginalized (Shamsie 2004)

The single fact that Haiti’s assembly sector was exempt from the US sanctions and trade embargo shortly after being launched says much about where US interests actually lied. US direct foreign investment in Haiti before the 1991 coup was based almost exclusively in the assembly sector under which its low-wage and unskilled labor pool toiled in sweatshops assembling component parts for export goods destined for the US. After the coup, little changed as Haiti continued to export goods to the US, amassing an overall trade deficit of $160 million and avoiding complete disaster only because of the $125 million in remittances sent home annually from Haitians living abroad. The overall hardships that the US sanctions and trade embargo induced on Haiti’s poor majority, coupled with the systematic repression of the military, resulted in a drastic upsurge in Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the US and sailing on makeshift rafts in droves to US shores. The US government under then president Bill Clinton concluded that Aristide’s return to Haiti could no longer be postponed and was essential to US interests in the region because it was the only way Washington could “stem the flow of Haitian refugees, which transformed Haiti from a problem into a crisis and sent the Clinton Administration into a state of near-hysteria”(Mcfadyen 1995, 220).

In 1994, US and UN forces invaded Haiti and restored Aristide to power with little opposition. The invasion had the image of a confrontation between a liberating force and a corrupt military regime; however, it was in effect the final seal of a long-term pact between the US government and the Haitian elite. As Robinson again comments, “True to the original script, Aristide returned as a largely lame-duck president required constitutionally to step down after elections scheduled for December 1995, having spent the majority of his presidency in exile” (Robinson 1996, 247). Aristide was thus returned to Haiti to legitimate the very processes he was originally elected to eliminate: a government vulnerable to the excesses of a highly volatile military, and a neoliberal economic order based on the country’s export driven assembly sector. As writer Kim Ives notes, whether Aristide upon his return was prisoner to US imperial ambitions in Haiti, a player, or something in between is irrelevant; his government was always just a portrait – the real regime remains American (Mcfadyen 1995, 118).

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'From Beyond the Margins' by Ali Mustafa is licensed under a Creative Commons License.