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Haiti: The Fall of the House of Aristide

1.

From the air, Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic is easy to trace: it is where the dense forests on the Dominican side abruptly stop. West of the frontier, Haiti’s mountainous countryside is scoured by gullies and ravines; almost all of Haiti’s vestigial forest cover is gone, and in the hills of the drought-stricken northwest, smoldering charcoal pits, scattered across the desolate landscape, consume the few trees and shrubs remaining. Widespread erosion has exhausted land that was once fertile and productive; and apart from islands of semi-arable soil, only cactus and spiky acacia bushes grow in abundance.

By any measure—hunger, disease, infant mortality, access to water—Haiti is in a desperate condition. Much of the rural population lives in the grip of poverty of the most bleak and unremitting kind. In some regions the annual per capita income is less than $100. The sound of an auto engine laboring up the washed-out roads will send groups of naked children, many of them scarcely out of infancy, their hair red from malnutrition, scrambling up to stand on the roadside with hands outstretched.

Although no one really knows how many people live in Port-au-Prince today, the best estimate is about two million, two thirds of whom, over the last twenty years, emigrated from the rural districts and today crowd sprawling shantytowns like La Saline, the slum parish where Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide first came to prominence, or Cité Soleil, an insalubrious strip of landfill, blanketed by smog, that stretches for several miles along the sea. Mother Theresa is said to have described what she saw there as “fifth world.” Dark at night, except for the flickering here and there of a hurricane lamp or the occasional glow from a house that has tapped illegally into a power line, Cité Soleil’s narrow alleys and tin-roofed shacks, slapped together out of cinder blocks and cardboard, are home to more than 200,000 people who cook over charcoal and bathe and do their laundry in sewage-filled ditches.

It would be hard to overstate the gravity of Haiti’s longstanding humanitarian crisis or the intractability of the problems underlying it—the decline of the peasant system of agriculture, catastrophic environmental degradation, a population explosion—problems that in the past were scarcely recognized, much less addressed. For most of Haiti’s two-hundred-year history, its corrupt and authoritarian rulers regarded the Haitian government as an engine for the personal enrichment of the clique in control. “If the cost of maintaining power and continuing to enjoy the spoils of the state was the plunder of the nation,” the University of Chicago anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written, “they were quite willing to sacrifice the nation.”1 During the Night- mare Republic” of Dr. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s président à vie, government corruption and brutality reached their zenith. With the aid of the Tonton Macoutes, a sinister auxiliary of sunglasses-wearing thugs, who murdered and tortured his opponents and terrorized the population at large, Duvalier and his family ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986, when his inept son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) was forced to leave the country.

In the late Eighties, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s courageous opposition to the military junta that had taken power following Jean-Claude Duvalier’s departure led many to see in him a Caribbean counterpart of Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel. The slight, bespectacled young priest in his white supplice seemed, at first sight, an unlikely leader of popular struggle. But his homilies excoriating the regime and its backers among Haiti’s small, predominantly mulatto elite, delivered from the pulpit of St. Jean Bosco in a sarcastic, pithy, and idiomatic Kreyol, and broadcast over the Catho-lic Church’s Radio Soleil, galvanized popular resistance. Neither numerous government-sponsored assassination attempts nor the efforts of the Church hierarchy succeeded in silencing him, and his charismatic and uncompromising leadership hastened the junta’s fall.

In 1990, the priest was elected president, inaugurating what Robert Fatton Jr., a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, calls in his ambitious and illuminating new study, Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy, “the freest and most hopeful period of Haiti’s modern political history.” It ended a bare seven months later when Aristide was ousted by a military coup and driven into exile. The three years of military rule that followed saw the return of state-sponsored terror, as right-wing death squads targeted prominent Aristide supporters among the leadership of peasant groups, trade unions, and grassroots and neighborhood organizations, murdering an estimated three thousand to five thousand people. It was not until September 1994, when the landing of 23,000 US troops—part of Operation Uphold Democracy, a UN-sanctioned “armed intervention” that cost an estimated $2.3 billion—forced the military junta to step down, that the killing stopped.

For the hundreds of thousands who lined the streets of Port-au-Prince on October 15, 1994, the sight of an American fleet of Black Hawk helicopters returning Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his entourage to the lawn of the National Palace marked a decisive break with the Haitian past. The former priest was a messianic figure, the focus of near-millenarian expectations that his three-year exile in the US had, if anything, heightened. Haiti’s international supporters were scarcely less euphoric. Aristide resumed office with overwhelming and unprecedented foreign backing; in addition to the support of the Haitian diaspora, whose annual remittances, estimated at $800 million, helped to sustain what was left of the economy, the projected aid from foreign governments and international lenders earmarked for Haiti’s reconstruction amounted to over $3 billion. In the exhilaration of the moment, there were few problems that didn’t seem solvable.2

Eight years later, however, few if any of these hopes have been realized, and given the rapidly unraveling political situation today and increasingly vocal demands for Aristide’s ouster there are scant grounds for optimism.

The elite up on the hillside are by no means the only ones who no longer believe in Haiti’s future. Their cynicism is shared by virtually every segment of society, from the physicians dreaming of a safe and remunerative practice in Miami or Montreal to the Ti Marchanns, the market women who spread their blankets on the sidewalk and sell rice, millet, and beans by the cupful. According to a recent poll, fully 67 percent of the Haitian population would emigrate if it were possible.

Were Aristide, by the end of his term in 2006, to restore the economy to the levels under Jean-Claude Duvalier twenty years ago, it would seem almost miraculous. The adult literacy campaigns, rural clinics, public works, and land reform that for years Aristide had promised remain slogans rather than programs; under Aristide and his successor as president, his surrogate René Préval, between 1995 and 2000 were lost years, during which Haiti’s government was brought to a standstill and all plans for development were put on hold while a political struggle for control of the state played itself out in slow motion. Aristide’s opponents turned out to be neither the entrenched economic elite nor the die-hard elements of the old Duvalieriste party, as almost everyone in 1994 might have anticipated, but but the social democratic–constitutionalist wing of the Lavalas movement, the left-wing–populist coalition that first brought Aristide to power, which was mobilized into opposition by the Aristide government’s increasingly corrupt and authoritarian character. The Lavalas movement took its name from the periodic flash floods that come roaring down from Haiti’s mountains along dry river beds, sweeping away everything in their path.

By 1999, it seemed to many Haitians that Aristide, who once personified Haitian aspirations for democracy, now represented Haitian democracy’s biggest obstacle. The firebombing of radio stations by Aristide partisans, the murder of journalists like Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor, and the government’s unwillingness to bring the authors of these crimes to justice, all prompted Reporters sans Frontières, a Paris-based journalists’ advocacy group, to include Aristide on its list of Predators of Press Freedom. A corrupt police force in the service of the ruling party has fueled mounting human rights violations—“threats, illegal and arbitrary arrests, arbitrary detentions, summary executions, disappearances and police brutality are everyday events,” Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, charged on October 16 of last year—reinforcing Haiti’s traditional climate of impunity and lawlessness.

Human rights workers in particular have been targeted. In 1999, Esperance himself had his car forced off the road and was shot twice and left for dead. The independence of Haiti’s judiciary, its state university, and other institutions has been steadily undermined. Gross electoral fraud by the ruling party has deprived the entire political apparatus of legitimacy. For most of this time attacks by government-sponsored and armed militants on opposition rallies made free assembly all but impossible. “Violence, in all its forms, has reemerged as the common currency of both public and private life,” according to a report issued in December by the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project. “Haiti is an armed camp” and faces a “looming sociopolitical implosion.”3

The Aristide government’s increasingly authoritarian behavior has left it isolated and condemned by the international community, which has suspended crucial foreign aid to the point that today there is a total embargo apart from emergency humanitarian relief. The consequences for Haiti, already the poorest and most demoralized country in the hemisphere, at least a generation behind its most impoverished Caribbean neighbors, have been disastrous. The administrations of Aristide and René Préval have been marked by corruption and ineptitude and have choked Haiti’s economy and increased unemployment—estimates run as high as 80 percent—leaving the Haitian people mired in poverty, social unrest, and despair. It will almost certainly get worse. With the Aristide government recently rocked by demonstrations and strikes, and the prospect of increasingly violent clashes in the streets and countryside, it looks more and more as though Aristide’s time is running out.

2.

These days, the older residential districts of Port-au-Prince have a distinctly down-at-the-heels look. The wooden gingerbread mansions in Bois Verna, their steep roofs, carved finials, and balconies occasionally visible through the canopy of trees, were once the most elegant in the Antilles, and during the US occupation in the Twenties provided the official residences for several of the American military and diplomatic proconsuls. Today most are in an advanced state of disrepair, prey to termites and the corrosive effects of the salt breezes. Bougainvillea and palm fronds spill in wanton profusion over the high walls, decorated with political graffiti, which surround the derelict gardens.

History has never left much of a physical imprint on Haiti. Apart from neighborhoods like Bois Verna, or the magnificently evocative ruins of Henri Christophe’s fortress and palace in the north, there are few visible reminders of “la splendeur haïtienne d’un après-midi d’histoire,” to which St. John Perse refers in one of his letters.4 In a great many other respects, however, Haiti remains in the grip of an archaic past, and its crippling social and economic legacy.

Two hundred years after independence, Haiti continues to be unequally divided between a small, urban, predominantly mulatto elite, many of them descendants of the country’s free colored population, and an overwhelmingly black peasantry settled in the Haitian countryside, a remote powerless adjunct to the “Republic of Port-au-Prince.” Its political culture is equally atavistic. Two years after leading Haiti to independence in 1804, the Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines was assassinated, and Haiti split into the mulatto republic of Alexander Pétion in the south and the noir kingdom of Henri Christophe in the north. The governments that followed Haiti’s reunification in 1820 were uniformly authoritarian in character and marked by chronic instability.

In Haiti, according to the West Indian writer Jacky Dahomay, power “obeys an ancestral, despotic logic.”5 The Haitian “character” or mentalité was a topic about which almost every educated Haitian I talked to at any length eventually shared his views, adducing instances of the larcenous nature of its politicians, the profound “foreignness” of the concept of compromise, and other supposedly indigenous traits. Like many stereotypes, these often contained an element of truth. Scholars like Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Robert Fatton, however, have convincingly argued that the authoritarian and corrupt nature of Haiti’s governments from Dessalines to the present is the product not of some intrinsically Haitian character, but of Haiti’s history, and is rooted in the early years of the Haitian Republic.

On the eve of the slave uprising in 1791, Saint Domingue, the French portion of the isle of Hispaniola, was the Caribbean’s richest colony, and the source of one third of France’s foreign trade and of vast fortunes made in rum, sugar, indigo, and coffee. Within thirty years, however, the devastation wrought by Haiti’s twelve-year-long War of Independence, the collapse of the plantation system, ruinous reparations extorted by France in return for recognizing Haiti’s government, and a political embargo enforced by the US, the Vatican, and other great powers all accelerated the destruction of Haiti’s economy and contributed to its rapid impoverishment.

The island’s predicament is rooted in this pervasive scarcity,” Robert Fatton writes. According to Trouillot, the Haitian state as we know it today evolved out of an alliance during the first decades after independence between the military and the rising merchant class, who transformed the government into a machine to recapture the surplus value of peasant agriculture. By the end of the nineteenth century, the customs house and other indirect taxes on coffee accounted for 95 percent of the government’s revenue. Then, as now, the state was Haiti’s primary employer, and taxes on the labor of the peasantry, Haiti’s sole productive class, in addition to enriching Haiti’s rulers, underwrote the rapidly expanding parasitic sector of government employees.

This alliance, however, was inherently unstable: the subdivision of peasant holdings into smaller and smaller plots and the gradual depletion of the soil were accompanied by a decline in agricultural productivity, and the growing urban class of those seeking a place in government eventually outstripped the capacity of the peasantry to support them. It was no longer possible for the governing faction to retain their hold on power without regular resort to violence. Of the twenty-six presidents-for-life, emperors, and presidents who ruled Haiti from 1804 to the American occupation in 1915, all but one were generals or closely allied to the military, and all but one were toppled by rebellions or coups, murdered, poisoned, blown up, or driven into exile.

The result today, Robert Fatton convincingly argues, is a “predatory democracy.” In a country where for generations destitution has been widespread and economic opportunity narrowly circumscribed, the Haitian government remains the primary route to power and wealth. This is particularly so for the cadres of Fanmi Lavalas (“Lavalas Family”), Aristide’s ruling party, many of whom come from the lower middle class and the relatively poor and marginalized petite bourgeoisie—men who might otherwise have spent their lives as village schoolteachers or shopkeepers. The scale of Haiti’s corruption, Fatton reminds us, is “not necessarily proof of utter moral depravity—though it can be—but rather a traumatic response to a social structure that offers little hope for a collective escape from overwhelming poverty.”

With the rise of the Colombian Cali cartel in the 1980s, Haiti’s traditionally corrupt system took on a new dimension. In addition to graft, the use of Haiti as a route for cocaine smuggling opened up a huge new source of money for the ruling clique. Haiti’s southern coastline, 380 miles from Colombia and a ten-hour ride in the lightweight “go-fast” boats employed by the drug cartels, is virtually unpatrolled, and there are few obstacles to anyone’s entering Haiti either by sea or by air. Although during the junta years large-scale drug trafficking by officers in the Haitian army was already well established, since the return of Aristide in 1994, the volume of cocaine, either transported overland into the Dominican Republic or shipped directly to Miami from Cap Haïtien in the north, has almost tripled, from 5 percent of the annual total imported into the US to a peak of almost 15 percent.6 So while the growth of the formal Haitian economy has steadily declined, the recycling of profits from drug trafficking and money laundering has sent the price of real estate in Port-au-Prince’s lusher precincts skyrocketing.

The impact of narcotics money upon Haitian society, while difficult to quantify, has been profound. Mario Andresol, who before seeking political asylum in the US served as the third-highest-ranking officer in the Haitian National Police and was directly responsible for Haiti’s anti-drug efforts, claims that his investigations were constantly thwarted by the intervention of the “Secretary of State, Senators, high officials in the Administration, high-ranking Police officials, Superintendents or Officers. They have emerged or came out from the dark, thanks to the return to power of President Aristide on February 7, 2001.”

Politics has been transformed into an entrepreneurial vocation. In the place of different political parties what Fatton terms “accumulation alliances” have arisen, based on clientship and centered around the charismatic personality of a particular gwo neg (“big man”), engaged in a “criminalized zero-sum game” in pursuit of power.

Many of those who have been enriched by the last seven years of Fan-mi Lavalas government have spurned the old bourgeois neighborhoods and ventured further afield. Perched along the ridges and canyons of Bourdon and Juvenat are their new, handsome-looking, multi-million-dollar mansions, with their transplanted mature trees, opalescent swimming pools, and state-of-the-art security systems. One occasionally hears these enclaves referred to as Cité Lavalas. Were it not for the pigs and goats foraging in the garbage dumped in the ravine below and the rapidly expanding settlement of shacks encroaching on the hillside opposite, you might think you were in the Hollywood Hills.

3.

In December 1995, at the expiration of his first term in office, three years of which he had spent running a government-in-exile from Georgetown, Aristide, prohibited by the Haitian constitution from succeeding himself, stepped down with noticeable reluctance in favor of his hand-picked successor, René Préval. Préval, a close associate, had been described in the press as Aristide’s Marassa—in the Vodou pantheon one of twins between whom there exists an intuitive, symbiotic bond. Although Aristide was persuaded to surrender office, it was soon evident that he was not prepared to relinquish power. As Raoul Peck, director of the prize-winning film Lumumba and minister of culture under Préval, notes in his memoirs, despite the new administration, Aristide, although shielded from public accountability, remained the controlling voice.7

Before Préval’s first year as president ended, it was riven by factionalism. The primary divergence was between the populist wing of the Organisation Politique Lavalas (OPL), whose paramount loyalty was to Aristide, and a social democratic–constitutionalist left led by OPL’s coordinator Gérard Pierre-Charles. The principal indictment against Aristide’s supporters was that by promoting a personality cult they were severely undermining attempts to consolidate and institutionalize Haiti’s fragile democracy and to establish the concepts of pluralism and power-sharing integral to a modern political system.

In November 1996, Aristide and his associates quit OPL to form Fanmi Lavalas (FL). Préval, under mounting pressure from Aristide, withdrew his support from his prime minister, Rosny Smarth, in June 1997, forcing the resignation of Smarth and six of his social democratic colleagues in the cabinet. The collapse of the Smarth ministry marks the end of the last legally constituted government Haiti has had to date. Three times over the next year and a half, Préval nominated a prime minister and each time the OPL-controlled Senate refused to confirm the nominee. At issue was the composition of the Provisional Election Commission (CEP) that the new prime minister would appoint, a group that in Haiti’s increasingly politicized and lawless environment would have a potentially determining impact on the outcome of future elections, and which both the FL and OPL wanted to stack with their supporters. Since both sides preferred the continuing stalemate to the prospect of ceding power, for the next eighteen months, Haiti made do without a prime minister or a functioning government.

The breakdown of the Haitian government forced the World Bank and other international lenders to suspend badly needed aid. The failure of Haiti’s political leaders to reach an accord has seriously eroded the commitment to Haiti by the United States and the international community, whose long-term involvement—financial and otherwise—is essential. And it has critically undermined the belief of the Haitian people in their government’s ability or willingness to deal with the nation’s fundamental problems.

Whatever the political differences between the Lavalas factions, Fatton writes, they were largely overshadowed by personal rivalries driven by what he terms la politique du ventre (the politics of the belly)—the struggle for the acquisition of personal wealth through the conquest and plundering of state offices. Fatton sees the FL–OPL split as the predictable consequence of the Haitian government’s inability, in the face of an aid embargo and a stagnant economy, to continue supporting the growing class of new political claimants. By the winter of 1997, corruption in the Préval administration had become so blatant that at carnival in Port-au-Prince, the crowds, weary of partisan squabbling and disdainful of Haiti’s politicians of all stripes, devoted much of the festivities to lampooning Lavalas bigwigs as grands mangeurs, or “big eaters,” so named because of their propensity for lining up at the public trough.

The struggle for money and a foothold in the Haitian bourgeoisie is unquestionably one of the principal forces shaping Haiti’s authoritarian politics. Moreover, as Fatton says, in the absence of economic growth, this pattern will replicate itself indefinitely. However, to maintain that in this instance the politique du ventre was the determining factor in the FL– OPL split would be to fail to reckon with Jean-Bertrand Aristide himself.

The experience of leading a mass movement in the Eighties and articulating the unspoken aspirations of the Haitian poor left Aristide with a deep sense of connection with the Haitian people—“our relationship is a marriage, a communion, a fusion”—and the conviction, to which many of Aristide’s authoritarian predecessors have been similarly susceptible, that he was the people’s only authentic and legitimate voice. Though out of office, he remained hugely popular, revered by much of the nation. Virtually everyone with a position in government had ridden into office on his coattails, and he made no secret of his belief that their failure to fall into line was a betrayal of the people who had elected them.

His initial time in office in 1991, much of which he spent at loggerheads with the legislature, produced an abiding mistrust of government, which he saw as a vehicle for the bourgeoisie—those of it not allied with him—to reassert their traditional hegemony. Moreover, he displayed a notable lack of enthusiasm for representative democracy, acknowledging in his 1993 autobiography that as far as he was concerned it was not an “indispensable corollary” of the movement for human rights.8 In theory at least, the democracy Aristide sought to promote was one whose emphasis was participatory, a popular dialogue in which the hitherto marginalized mass of the Haitian people would for the first time be involved. However, while much of his time is spent in audiences with peasants, workers, and members of labor unions or women’s groups, he has little good to say about the representatives, elected or otherwise, who purport to speak for these people and whose legitimacy he regularly questions.

It was hardly surprising, then, that in breaking with OPL to found his own party, Aristide, as the former ambassador to El Salvador Robert White wrote at the time,

reverted to the ecclesiastical authoritarianism he once condemned. Confronted with a Lavalas movement escaping his personal control, he did not seek to build new coalitions within the party. Instead he excommunicated his longtime friends…and created a new church, without doctrine or dogma except unquestioning loyalty to its leader.

This represented a breach with most of his comrades in the Ti Légliz (“Little Church”), as the liberation theology movement was known, as well as with human rights activists and leaders like Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, head of MPP (Mouvement des Paysans de Papaye), Haiti’s largest peasant organization. Aristide was now opposed by veterans of the anti-Duvalier struggle and almost all of the left, persons who had stood with him in the Eighties and fought for his return from exile. Among the disaffected former supporters are virtually all of Haiti’s leading intellectuals and artists, the persons who had best articulated the humane values that should be at the basis of any new Haitian society. Fanmi Lavalas possesses no strong leader other than Aristide, who is both its leader and raison d’être; without him, his peculiar coalition would collapse overnight.

Fanmi Lavalas, Jacky Dahomay has written, was based on Aristide’s alliance “with the only forces left to deal with: the traditional bourgeoisie and the new bourgeoisie born out of all sorts of illicit traffics and their gangs of chimeras” (thugs).9 The new FL barons included persons from the southwestern part of the island, known to Aristide since childhood or connected to his family, who today staff the National Palace. They are drawn as well from the traditional mulatto upper bourgeoisie to which Aristide’s wife Mildred belongs, most of whom supported and some of whom financed the 1991 coup. They also include a small remnant of the Ti Légliz and ambitious military officers like Dany Toussaint, Fourel Celestin, and Joseph Medard, who joined Aristide in exile following the 1991 coup, and are now powerful members of the Haitian Senate, as well as the center of much of the speculation about drug trafficking and “extra-judicial killing.”

Unlike the original Lavalas movement, the new Fanmi Lavalas party, Fatton observes, ruled from the top down. “Bypassing forms of collective accountability and decisionmaking” that characterized its predecessor, the ultimate authority remained in the hands of its chief. The impact of this has been profoundly destructive. Haiti’s strongest indigenous force for democracy, its many grassroots organizations of peasants and urban poor, which for years, as Beatrice Poligny has written, have been “inventing means of survival that defy all conceivable clichés about Haitian misery,” have to a large extent been repressed, co-opted, or pushed to the side.10

A Kreyol proverb Konstitusyon se papye, bayonht se feh—“Constitutions are paper, but bayonets are steel”—succinctly expresses the traditional attitude of Haiti’s rulers toward the law. FL proved to be no different. In January 1999 Préval resolved his power struggle with OPL by shutting down the opposition-controlled Parliament, a step the OPL charged was “a coup against our democratic institutions,” and for the remainder of his term, together with a de facto government formed with his FL colleagues, ruled by decree.

In the face of rising international protest, Préval agreed to call new parliamentary elections. For most of the Lavalas years, I was a fairly regular visitor to Port-au-Prince, and the resurgence of political violence, particularly in the months leading up to the May 2000 balloting, was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Haiti’s changed political climate. As the campaign intensified, the police withdrew to the sidelines as gangs of “militants” from La Saline and Cité Soleil, voicing allegiance to Aristide, regularly broke up opposition rallies and firebombed the homes and offices of opposition politicians, human rights activists, and journalists. The former Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul, who had been beaten and tortured by the military in the early Nineties, warned that the Haitian people were “in the hands of politically manipulated thugs. Anarchy is overwhelming us.”

The political use of paid thugs is a familiar-enough phenomenon in other parts of the Caribbean, and elsewhere. In Haiti, as the former FL activist Edzer Pierre notes, “There’s a huge population of people who will do anything for money.” In Haiti, the Chimères, as these groups came to be known, are “not a political force, they’re a political tool,” and under Aristide they were transformed into a semi-official arm of the government. The identity of those in charge of these operations was never a particular secret. Roland Camille, aka Ronald Cadavre, perhaps the most feared of Lavalas organization populaire chiefs, is a gangster from La Saline, where he has run a protection racket in the local market. In 2001, to the dismay of a group of senators who were involuntary witnesses, Cadavre, whose relations with Aristide put him beyond the reach of the police, took advantage of this peculiar immunity to shoot a rival to death on the steps of the Palais Legislatif. For most of this time, it was clear enough that these episodes could have been ended by a single (cellular) phone call from Aristide’s private residence in Tabarre, and equally clear, given Aristide’s conspicuous failure to denounce these acts, that such a call would not be forthcoming. The unwillingness of the government to curb violent acts by its partisans was sharply criticized by human rights groups like Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, once Aristide’s strongest supporters.

For international observers who had seen in recent events the lengthening shadows of Haiti’s traditional authoritarianism, the May 2000 parliamentary elections represented a crucial test of the FL’s commitment to democratic norms. Because of the multiplicity of small political parties that is a traditional feature of Haitian politics, the Haitian constitution and the electoral laws enacted in 1998 direct that when no candidate achieves a simple majority—50 percent plus one—the top two candidates must face each other in a runoff. While most people predicted a sweeping victory for Aristide’s party, the results still came as a surprise, with Fanmi Lavalas candidates capturing eighteen out of nineteen Senate races, seventy-two out of eighty-two contests for the Chamber of Deputies, and the vast majority of municipal offices.

The US and other countries hailed the outcome and indicated that they would move quickly to normalize relations. However, the street sweepers had barely finished removing the smashed ballot boxes and shoveling up the tens of thousands of paper votes that covered the Rue Pavée in downtown Port-au-Prince before OAS analysts were reporting that in fourteen out of nineteen Senate races, the FL candidates owed their victories to a fraudulent manipulation of the returns by the FL-controlled Provisional Election Commission (CEP). Although in each instance the FL candidate had failed to achieve the required majority, the CEP, fearing the possibility that the defeated opposition parties would unite behind a single candidate, ignored the constitutionally mandated requirement for a runoff, and awarded the contest to FL candidates outright. The CEP was able to transform the plurality that each FL candidate had obtained into the requisite majority by discarding all of the opposition ballots apart from those received by the principal opposition runner-up, approximately one third of the total votes cast, or 1,200,000 nationwide.

The CEP’s action brought that much closer Haiti’s transformation into a one-party state. The revelation of Aristide’s determination to take all power at every level raised serious questions about whether he would ever permit an election that might result in his having to surrender control. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Organization of American States, the European Community, the Clinton White House, the US Congress, and the so-called “Friends of Haiti”—France, Canada, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile—all denounced the patently fraudulent outcome. The only effect of their criticism, however, was to intensify FL’s efforts to consolidate power. Although in the weeks before the date scheduled for runoff elections, the OAS attempted to negotiate some sort of face-saving compromise, Aristide was not in a conciliatory mood. “We took power and we took it for good,” President René Préval shouted to a crowd of enthusiastic supporters.

Aristide had plainly hoped to emerge from the May 2000 elections with a parliamentary supermajority allowing him to amend the constitution and eliminate all impediments to strong executive rule, and he was willing to resort to fraudulent means to do so. However, the principal reason for Aristide to hold elections at all was to legitimize the FL’s hold on power and break the political deadlock that for three years had halted the flow of foreign aid, and it was now obvious that he could not achieve both. The participation of seven FL senatorial candidates in the June runoffs would have satisfied the OAS’s objections at relatively little political cost.

Why, then, did he adopt the course he did, when it was virtually preordained that donor nations would refuse to sanction the results? And why, when the suspension of aid had been announced, did he ignore the growing crisis for nearly six months until after the US presidential election, when a vastly less sympathetic administration, with no political interest in a solution, was about to take power? The answer is no more apparent today than it was at the time.

Declaring that “respect of democratic principles has not yet been re-established in Haiti,” the European Union, together with the US, Canada, Japan, and the rest of Haiti’s traditional supporters announced a suspension of all further World Bank and IMF grants, loans, and other forms of direct aid. For Aristide and the FL it has meant that the first two years of his presidency were given over to unsuccessful attempts to extricate the country from a crisis that had been eminently avoidable and was entirely of his own making.

Fatton notes that, as a result of the political course he chose, Aristide, although swept into office by a mass movement for justice and democratic change, “came to resemble the opportunist politician who has defined much of the country’s history.” His legacy is likely to amount to little more than the unfulfilled hopes of the Haitian people and numerous obstacles to progress, including Haiti’s traditional political culture, more firmly in place than ever.

—February 13, 2003; this is the first of two articles on Haiti.

  1. 1

    Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State Against Nation, The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (Monthly Review Press, 1990).

  2. 2

    See Jean-Claude Bajeux, “An Embarrassing Presence,” Laënnec Hurbon, “The Hope for Democracy,” and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Aristide’s Challenge,” The New York Review, November 3, 1994.

  3. 3

    Haiti Democracy Project, The US Policy Imperative in Haiti and How to Achieve It, December 9, 2002, www.haitipolicy.org.

  4. 4

    Quoted in Gérard Barthélémy, Dans la splendeur d’un après-midi d’histoire (Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1996), title page.

  5. 5

    Jacky Dahomay, “The Tyrannical Temptation in Haiti,” Chemins Critiques, Vol. 5, No. 1 (January 2001).

  6. 6

    Mark Fineman, “Haiti Takes on Major Role in Cocaine Trade,” Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2000.

  7. 7

    Raoul Peck, Monsieur le Ministre… Jusqu’au bout de la patience (Port-au-Prince: Velvet, 1998).

  8. 8

    Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with Christophe Wargny, Aristide: An Autobiography (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1993), p. 126.

  9. 9

    Jacky Dahomay, “The Tyrannical Temptation in Haiti.”

  10. 10

    Beatrice Pouligny, “Haïti: Deux ou Trois Raisons d’Espérer,” Libération, February 13, 2001.

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