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Haiti: The New Violence

Finally, together with AID, Delatour mounted a campaign to promote exports and foreign investment. In their view, Haiti had two great advantages: its proximity to the United States and its three-dollar-a-day minimum wage, the lowest in the Caribbean. The country seemed a perfect place for US companies seeking to escape high production costs at home. Beginning in the mid-1970s, many American manufacturers came to Haiti to produce textiles, electronics, and baseballs. By the mid-1980s, these plants had created 50,000 jobs. With that record in mind, the Reagan administration had visions of turning Haiti into a Caribbean Taiwan or Singapore.

To help set the process in motion, the White House in June 1986 organized an extraordinary briefing on Haiti. About one hundred chief executive officers from major American corporations came to hear Secretary of State Shultz extol the country’s investment opportunities. The administration’s bullish attitude was summed up in a briefing paper prepared for the session:

With improvement in political stability in recent weeks and a sobering realization among workers that unrealistic wage demands result in the closing of factories and the loss of jobs, both Haitian and foreign businessmen are showing growing confidence in Haiti as a place to invest.

The paper added: “The Haitian people are decent and friendly to the United States and deserve our help in improving their own situation.”

In Haiti, meanwhile, AID oversaw the creation of a new agency, called Prominex, intended to woo foreign capital. It would advise investors on things like labor, shipping, and local resources, as well as help them cut through government red tape. AID allocated $7 million to finance Prominex’s first four years of operation and brought in an American consulting team to help get it off the ground. The organization set up shop in Port-au-Prince’s Holiday Inn and waited for investors to start stopping by.

By 1987, money was pouring into Haiti from all sides—the United States, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank, United Nations, France, Canada, West Germany, and Japan. Haiti seemed on its way to creating a better society.

2.

Arriving in Haiti in mid-August, I found a country rapidly spinning out of control. Every morning, people tuned in to the radio to find out if Port-au-Prince would be shut down by another strike. The newspapers brought daily word of some new horror, from death threats and smashed windshields to actual murder. By day, the capital seemed ruled by beggars, hustlers, and street vendors; at night, by brigands, vigilantes, and moonlighting soldiers. After dark, death squads raided the capital’s shantytowns, called bidonvilles, causing them to echo through the night with the sound of gunfire.

These escadrons de la mort also operated in well-to-do neighborhoods, as I discovered early one Sunday morning. My modest hotel was on a pleasant middle-class street full of palm trees and gingerbread houses, near the Oloffson, the florid, fanciful hotel of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. I had an appointment not far away, and, since the air was still cool, I decided to walk. Some three hundred feet from my hotel, however, I came upon a crowd of forty or so Haitians gathered in a circle on the street. Only after drawing closer did I see the object of their attention—the body of a young man lying face down on the road. From his head came two streaks of dried blood. The victim, I learned, had been seized by several uniformed men the previous night while he was on the street talking with some friends. The men had beaten him for two hours, then shot him—exactly why, no one seemed to know. He was simply another of the many bodies that were regularly turning up on the city’s streets. The question was raised in a newspaper headline: “Existe-til une terrorisme d’Etat?

As for the economy, the policies of Delatour and AID had produced utter disarray. Once the government began easing import restrictions, it was unable to maintain any controls at all. The Army, always on the lookout for lucrative sidelines, now allowed in all goods in exchange for a percentage off the top. Haiti became a smugglers’ paradise, and freighters from Miami daily pulled into ports large and small. One morning I visited Miragoâne, a quiet coastal town southwest of Port-au-Prince. Two freighters had just arrived, and the waterfront buzzed with hundreds of traders clamoring for merchandise. A long line of sweaty, bare-chested men lugged bags of cement from the ships to waiting taptaps, the wildly colored vans that serve as Haiti’s chief means of transport. An impromptu market had sprung up, and women squatted in the sun selling Borden’s breakfast drink, Colgate toothpaste, Carnation milk, Rainbow bathroom tissue, cheap pocketbooks, flashlights, and cowboy boots. Clustered about the vast, illegal operation were groups of smiling Haitian soldiers.

The influx of these foreign goods helped to lower prices. In Port-au-Prince, street vendors hawked Dewar’s Scotch at six dollars a fifth, and supermarkets stocked rows of Manischewitz wine. But the flood of cheap imports was having a devastating effect on local producers, who simply couldn’t compete. For instance, imports of cheap “Miami rice” enraged the farmers in the fertile Artibonite Valley north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s chief rice-growing area. A virtual rice war had broken out, with local farmers attacking trucks laden with imported rice as they headed for market.

The job situation, too, was dismal. When Delatour took over the unemployment rate was 50 percent or higher. But, insisting on cuts in spending, he had allocated few funds for public works projects. “When I came in, there was not one cent of foreign exchange reserves,” Delatour told me. “I had no room to maneuver.” Not only were few jobs created but the closing of the state-owned companies had thrown hundreds of people out of work. The Prominex office, meanwhile, had few callers. Haiti’s growing instability had caused dozens of foreign companies to leave, taking with them 12,000 jobs. As a result, since February 1986, unemployment had only grown. Haiti was looking less like Taiwan and more like Tanzania.

Many Haitians blamed the United States. The country was rife with talk about an ominous “American Plan” designed to keep the country backward and dependent. According to the common wisdom, the plan sought to keep Haitian wages low so as to make the country attractive to American capital. To an outsider, it sounded as though some secret US documents had fallen into the wrong hands. In fact, the “American Plan” was a handy political term for the annual country statements that AID routinely draws up for countries around the world. The statements had come to the attention of Haiti Progrès, a lively leftist newspaper published in Brooklyn. Its articles on AID were then picked up by Haiti’s powerful radio stations, the chief source of news for illiterate Haitians. As a result, even Port-au-Prince’s poorest residents could talk knowledgeably about the “American Plan.” By the spring of 1987, AID had grown so weary of being attacked that it paid an American consultant $40,000 to find out why it was so disliked.

During my stay, a protest organized on behalf of an outspoken thirty-four-year-old priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide gave me a sense of the strength of anti-American feeling in Haiti. Père Aristide is the leading figure in the Ti Legliz (Little Church), the radical wing of the Catholic Church. His thunderous sermons had gained him a passionate following in the bidonvilles. Using biblical imagery with a flourish, Aristide railed against the greed of the elite and the cruelty of the military; Haiti’s meek, he declared, had to rise up and inherit what was rightfully theirs. The United States, Aristide said, favored the mighty over the masses at every turn. For the conservative Church hierarchy, things had gone far enough, and, in an effort to keep Aristide quiet, it announced that it was transferring him to a parish outside the capital. This outraged Aristide’s followers, seven of whom embarked on a hunger strike in Port-au-Prince’s stark, cavernous cathedral.

By the time I visited the cathedral, the protest was already in its fifth day. A hunger strike might seem redundant in Haiti since half the population goes to bed hungry every night, but hundreds of slum dwellers had turned out in the 95-degree heat to express their solidarity. I joined the line of sympathizers for a time as it filed solemnly past the fasters, who, lying in front of the altar, all seemed to be napping. Then I walked out onto the street, where I fell into conversation with one of the protest’s organizers. A crowd gathered around, and the conversation quickly turned to the United States. The air turned hotter still. “America always likes a dictator,” said one middle-aged man carrying a radio. “It keeps the army in power.” Another eagerly agreed: “The Haitian people have no problem with the American people—they are our friends. But the American government doesn’t care about the poor people—only the high classes.” Everywhere I went, I heard the same views.

Eventually, the crowds at the cathedral grew so large that the hierarchy was forced to relent and allow Aristide to remain in Port-au-Prince. To mark the end of the hunger strike, the priest himself showed up at the cathedral, touching off a joyous celebration among the thousands gathered there. It was a great victory for Aristide, fortifying his image as the champion of the people. But it also made him a more inviting target for the military. A few days after his triumph, Aristide and several other priests were driving to a religious festival north of the capital when, passing an Army roadblock, they were set upon by a gang of thugs. Aristide managed to escape with minor injuries, but the incident left him badly shaken. Soon, however, he was back in the pulpit, resuming his jeremiads against the government and the United States.

It was not hard to trace the immediate source of Haiti’s feelings about the United States. The Reagan administration had become a strong backer of the governing CNG, and the CNG had grown extremely unpopular. Far from ushering in a new era, the council seemed intent on perpetuating the old one. Gérard Gourgue, the human rights activist on the CNG, soon resigned in protest of the Army’s continued abuses. General Namphy remained the nominal head of state, but he had long since been eclipsed by General Williams Regala, the minister of interior and national defense. Regala, according to Americas Watch, “was associated directly with the Secret Police during the 1960s and 1970s and was also a close personal associate of its former chief Luc Desyr, one of the most notorious torturers and murderers of the Duvalier era.”1 In addition, the hated Tontons Macoutes, after suffering initial setbacks, were making a comeback. To Haitians, it seemed familiar. “Duvalierism without Duvalier,” they called it.

  1. 1

    Haiti: Duvalierism Since Duvalier, Americas Watch Report, October 1986, p. 3.

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