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Haitians on Haiti


Jean-Claude Bajeux is director of the Ecumenical Center for Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and one of the leaders of the political party Konakom. He and his family left Haiti in October 1993 after their house was attacked by members of FRAPH, and he has recently returned.

Haiti, with its seven million people inhabiting 28,000 square kilometers, two hours by plane from Miami, may seem to have taken on disproportionate significance in American public opinion and in the concerns of American leaders. But, of course, that is nothing new. As far back as 1828, when the first Pan-American congress was convened in Panama, pressure from the United States succeeded in barring the participation of Haiti, the world’s first black republic, which had been created in 1804 out of a triumphant slave revolt against Napoleon’s armies. And between 1915 and 1934, Haiti was occupied by American Marines.

Contrary to the recent claims of Ross Perot, the goal of that American occupation was not to import democracy. Rather, it was to defend the interests of the First National City Bank, to gain managerial control over the Haitian budget, and to supplant the German and French interests which were strong in Haiti at the time. All of these aims were achieved, and Haiti in those years became totally dependent on the United States for its imports as well as its exports.

Still more recently, from as early as 1920, after having supplied the sugar industries of Cuba and the Dominican Republic with an army of cane cutters, the Haitian exodus shifted toward wherever work was to be had: the Bahamas, Canada, the French West Indies, French Guyana, and, of course, the United States.

Six months after young Jean-Claude Duvalier, then age nineteen, proclaimed himself—with the State Department’s acceptance—President for Life in 1971, the first “boat people” arrived in Miami; since then, successive waves of Haitians amounting to several hundred thousand people have embarked for the United States. It is the Haitian peasantry that has been taking flight—both the peasantry of the countryside and the peasants who have become the jobless, landless, and homeless of Haiti’s urban areas. Here we have one of the symptoms of a malaise that goes beyond the coup d’état of September 30, 1991, or the question of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return. When a Haitian peasant sells his land in order to leave his country for good, it is a sign that he’s recognized failure—the failure of Haitian society, the failure of a state that has proved itself incapable of assuring its citizens even a minimum of safety and well-being.

It is impossible to understand the events in Haiti without taking account of this deep failure. One must try to identify the mechanisms behind the crisis that has finally led to a therapeutic military intervention in the affairs of the second independent nation in the hemisphere. It is an intervention desired and demanded by the mass of Haitian people, who have welcomed the soldiers of the US and other forces. The campaign waged in the American press and television to present Haiti as a second Somalia bears no relation to reality, because in the case of Haiti, the former military leaders and their supporters would never find the kind of refuge among the people that would enable them to carry on a guerrilla war.

We can best grasp the current crisis by considering three central aspects of Haiti’s recent history: the interference of the military in politics, the presidencies of the two Duvaliers, and finally, the fiasco of international aid under Jean-Claude Duvalier.

When the US Marines pulled out of Haiti in 1934, they left behind them an institution they had virtually created: the Haitian army, then known as “the Haitian Guard.” They had done the same in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. This armed force, which had helped the Marines hunt down the rebel peasants known as Cacos in the Central Plateau, has always behaved toward the Haitian citizens like an occupying army. For the last fifty years, it has constantly, and routinely, intruded into Haitian political life, thwarting the normal development of political institutions, particularly political parties.

In 1946, the army seized power for six months. It did so by defeating the workers, students, and groups of intellectuals who had organized strikes and demonstrations against President Elie Lescot and who forced him to withdraw from office. In 1950, it drove President Dumarsais Estimé from office and sent him into exile. In his place it installed Colonel Paul E. Magloire, who would remain in power as president for six years. In 1956, it helped to bring to power François Duvalier, who organized the most savage tyranny in Haiti’s history, then used the army to subjugate the Haitian people, ruthlessly crushing all attempts at rebellion. He succeeded thanks to the creation of a parallel militia, the famed Tontons Macoutes, who to this day haunt the streets of Port-au-Prince, collaborating with the army.

After twenty-nine years of dictatorship under Duvalier Senior and Junior (between 1957 and 1986), it was the army—again with the blessings of the American embassy—that, as it had in 1946, inherited power. It fought the transition to democracy at every turn, from 1987 to today. The army’s top leaders—General Henri Namphy, General Williams Regala, General Prosper Avril, General Raoul Cédras—were all schooled in the same methods of governing and holding onto power: the rifle and the truncheon.

In contrast to Chile, the numerous moves by the Haitian armed forces to take political control were never, except perhaps in the case of Paul Magloire, accompanied by any coherent plan for economic modernization. On the contrary, the more the army leaders have intervened in civil life, the more they have acted as—and allied themselves with—corrupt, oppressive political forces. Although François Duvalier opened up higher ranks of the army to popular enlistment, the methods the army used to control the populace only grew more brutal, all the more so during the three-year period following the coup d’état of September 1991, which forced Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.

Ultimately this tyranny has proved to be wholly irrational, since it has managed to destroy the very state it seized, while its officials busily try to make fortunes through plunder, bribery, smuggling, and drug trafficking. The sector of the Haitian bourgeoisie that supported and financed the 1991 coup d’état has realized it made an error but has been stuck with the ruinous regime it helped create. To safeguard its long-held privileges, the well-to-do elite has, for the last three years, handed the country over to a military mafia incapable of creating the conditions for successfully carrying on business. This gamble on the military has left the state a shambles, and the gulf between state and nation wider than ever.

Some people believed that the Duvaliers’ tyranny had at least strengthened the authority of the state. They were wrong. Some believed the rhetoric of negritude and populism promoted by the pro-Duvalier leaders had changed the bipolar nature of Haitian society, in which a small elite established its own version of apartheid. They were equally wrong. The army’s formal installation of Duvalier in power in 1957 marks the moment when the balance shifted and everything swung out of control. After some attempts at economic modernization under the governments of President Estimé in the late 1940s and President Magloire between 1950 and 1956, the era of the Duvaliers’ tyranny marked a rupture; the society plunged into archaic backwardness and stagnation.

Under military domination Haiti’s population has grown while its resources have diminished. The gravity of our economic situation darkens all plans for the future. As the twenty-first century approaches, Haitian society is sliding backward in every way.

Yet it is worth recalling that when the younger Jean-Claude Duvalier took power in 1971, declaring himself President for Life, an effort was made to modernize the economy by mobilizing international aid. In ten years, more than a billion dollars were invested in Haiti, either by international institutions or by governments. The aim was to build roads and other elements of infrastructure; to encourage an economy by which foreign products would be “transformed,” or processed, by Haitian workers hired by subcontractors; and to “liberalize” the regime by relaxing regulation.

This effort deserves a place in future economic textbooks as a stunning example of international aid that, instead of helping a country to progress, merely hastened its impoverishment and increased the gap between rich and poor. Thus, together with the failure of our institutions through repeated incursions of the military into politics, and through the misrule of the two Duvaliers, which merely reinforced longstanding structures of privilege, we must also cite the failure of international aid that served in the end only to enrich a small minority of Haitians.

The victim of this triple failure has been the poor people of Haiti, the same people who periodically take to the sea to flee a country which denies them safety, daily bread, or a better future—and the same people who elected Aristide, in the hope, at least, of regaining their dignity, and who are still anxiously waiting for his return. The question arises, then, whether it is possible to rectify this situation solely through the internal forces of Haitian society. It would take a very brave soul to claim that it could.

As early as 1963, John F. Kennedy, faced with the disaster of Duvalier’s dictatorship, considered intervention, but wasn’t given time to implement any policy. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Many in the country’s governing classes have emigrated to friendlier places. For all but a very few Haitians, poverty has reached a humiliating level. The actual confiscating of the popular vote by the Haitian military has, for the first time in history, provoked an international response backed by UN resolutions; and this has been followed by the intervention of American armed forces. But this is just a first step.

The return of President Aristide, if it is to succeed, should be supported by a new program of international investment, one that should continue for at least several years under UN guidance. Perhaps Haiti now has an unprecedented chance to reverse the engines of history, to reform its battered institutions, and at least begin to emerge from a state of dehumanizing misery. But in order to set an effective economic development plan in motion and not repeat the errors made between 1971 and 1982, it will clearly be necessary to resolve the problem of an army which for the past fifty years has done nothing but block the development of democratic institutions; and this can be done only by taking away the army’s weapons, and those of the militias allied with it, and by organizing a new police force loyal to the elected government. At the same time, major changes must be made in the justice system: for the past thirty-seven years, criminals have enjoyed almost total impunity.

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