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Aristide’s Haiti: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I welcome Peter Dailey’s review of my book, Haiti’s Predatory Republic [NYR, March 13 and 27]. I believe, however, that while he demystifies Lavalas and Jean-Bertrand Aristide convincingly, he assumes too easily that both were free to do as they pleased, when they were in fact constrained by powerful antagonistic forces. In addition, he barely explores how la politique du ventre—the politics of the belly—transformed Lavalas into a vehicle of class ascendancy. Finally, Dailey does not flesh out the role of the opposition, regrouped as Convergence Démocratique, in sustaining the current impasse.

The central theme of my book is that Haiti’s predatory democracy reflects a class structure based on an extremely weak economic foundation lacking both a classical bourgeoisie and a large working class. The result is a politique du ventre, generating a class of grands mangeurs scrambling to appropriate state offices in order to advance its private interests. Like Lavalas, the opposition suffers from the vicissitudes of la politique du ventre. Convergence has consistently behaved opportunistically and its different sectors have all changed allies and enemies without paying attention to ideology or principle. Indeed, many of those who are now crying foul and castigating Lavalas for violating constitutional norms behaved similarly in the past. For example, there is no reason to believe that the irregularities that marred the 2000 ballot, egregious as they were, had a greater impact on the final results than those of 1995 when the Organisation du Peuple en Lutte (OPL), still allied with Préval and Aristide, won under very dubious circumstances. However, the international community, and the United States in particular, deemed the 1995 elections “free and fair.” Both the opposition and Lavalas—not to mention the international community—legitimate electoral processes according to their ever-shifting interests and changing dispositions toward alleged “winners” and “losers.”

Convergence represents a bizarre alliance of old Lavalasians, ex-Marxists, neo-Duvalierists, liberals, and ultraconservative businessmen. They are united only in their visceral dislike of Aristide. Convergence has no program and not surprisingly, in spite of an acute economic crisis, increasing governmental corruption, and Aristide’s significant loss of popularity, it has not been able to develop a large mass following.

Both Lavalas and Convergence are seeking to “eat” and thus they simply want power. This quest for power betrays an earlier idealism that gradually eroded under the constraining weight of powerful, hostile domestic and international forces. Lavalas’s failures are not merely the result of dubious political choices, nor are they the simple reflection of Aristide’s personality, as Dailey’s interpretation would suggest. Lavalasian rule has had to contend with a series of powerful constraints that emasculated its popular project. From the very beginning, Aristide confronted old Duvalierists and military despots as well as the unmitigated opposition of the “bourgeoisie.” His brutal overthrow in 1991 is a clear manifestation of this reality. Moreover, the conditions that restored his presidency undermined his earlier transformative agenda. To gain US support and military assistance, Aristide had to make his peace with former enemies; constrained by international financial institutions, he was compelled to accept their program of structural adjustment. In short, Aristide had little room to maneuver.

Haiti faces unpleasant alternatives given the current standoff between Lavalas and Convergence. Short of a truly popular revolution which is unlikely to materialize given the local and external constellation of forces, there seem to be only three options: (1) an unsavory but necessary compromise between Aristide and his foes; (2) a continued descent into hell with or without Lavalas and its leader; or (3) an improbable but not altogether farfetched foreign occupation.

A compromise, under the impetus of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States, is still possible. Haiti’s predatory democracy is not without its spaces of freedom. While the opposition faces great difficulties, it is not completely silenced; civil society is not extinguished, and an independent press remains vocal. It is simply wrong to equate, like many foes of Aristide do, Lavalas’s authoritarian reflexes with the dictatorial violence of the Duvalier tyranny. An opposition operating openly and calling for the overthrow of the President would have been inconceivable under the Duvalier dictatorship. Lavalas’s human rights record is deplorable, as Dailey points out, but it has not reached the levels of the repressive violence of the Duvalier regimes or the military junta of the early 1990s. Lest a compromise be engineered there is no guarantee, however, that the current situation might not degenerate into a civil war culminating perhaps in a new foreign occupation.

Some Lavalas factions may prefer to preserve the status quo in spite of its vicissitudes because an agreement with the opposition could exclude them from the prebends of public office. Aristide, however, certainly has incentives to reach a compromise, and organize elections. In fact, he may well want to incorporate some segments of the opposition into a new government of consensus. Lest he isolate himself completely from the international community, lose all foreign assistance, and transform Haiti into a “pariah” nation, Aristide has little choice but to reach an accommodation with the opposition. An accommodation would not only free the $500 million promised in international aid, but it would also smooth relations with Washington and the Bush administration. Moreover, Aristide needs new allies to cut his ties with his troublesome Chimères, the violent gangs he has utilized to intimidate the opposition. While the Chimères may have played a useful role in consolidating his power, they are no longer a pliable instrument in his arsenal. If Aristide is to preserve his authority he has to rein them in, and only a pact with the opposition would give him the power to do so.

Aristide’s dilemma, however, is how to reach such a pact without undermining and indeed ending his own presidency. While he has refused to accede to Convergence’s demand that he step down, Aristide has accepted reluctantly to hold new legislative and local elections under the supervision of an autonomous electoral council surveyed by international observers. In return, he hopes that the OAS and the United States will compel the opposition to both participate in these elections and concede that he is the rightful president.

So far, Aristide’s concessions have not sufficed. The opposition’s recent success in organizing a few sizable anti-Lavalas demonstrations has emboldened it to the point that it is now infused with a false sense of euphoria. The danger of a euphoric opposition is that it can become intransigent to the point that it accepts nothing less than Aristide’s exit from politics. Moreover, aware that it enjoys only limited popular appeal and suffers from serious divisions, Convergence refuses to participate in new elections because they can bring it only limited success. The stalemate might therefore actually serve the interests of the opposition. Unfortunately, Dailey seems to overlook these facts and places virtually all the blame on Lavalas.

A peaceful resolution to Haiti’s crisis calls for an unsavory compromise between two unsavory sides. At the moment, the issue is not a deepening of democratic practice, but rather a historic arrangement between the competing blocs of the Haitian political class. It is a matter of making life more bearable for an exhausted population.

Robert Fatton Jr.
Julia A. Cooper Professor of Politics
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia

Peter Dailey replies:

Professor Fatton’s letter is based on two erroneous assumptions. One is that Haiti has been brought to its current desperate state not by its corruption and ineptitude but by the suspension of $500 million in international loans. The other is that the failure to reach an accord that would allow the release of the loan money results from the intransigence of the opposition rather than from the government’s failure to take the minimum steps necessary to create a climate for elections free of violence and intimidation.

Mr. Fatton argues that at present, the task of all parties concerned “is not a deepening of democratic practice, but rather a historic arrangement between the competing blocs of the Haitian political class. It is a matter of making life more bearable for an exhausted population.” Sympathetic as I am to this goal, it seems to me shortsighted. Creating a sustainable democracy is vastly more important than accommodating the transient interests of Haiti’s politicians. Any “arrangement” that turns away from a democratic resolution is unlikely to bring political stability, even in the short term, or an alleviation of the increasingly harrowing conditions facing the Haitian people.

Nevertheless, even supposing such a solution were desirable, there is little in Aristide’s past behavior that would lead one to believe he would be amenable to the sort of compromise Fatton describes. Mr. Fatton asserts that “Aristide has little choice but to reach an accommodation with the opposition.” But these were precisely the alternatives Aristide faced in May 2000, when all it would have taken to resolve the conflict was Aristide’s consent to a runoff election, and he refused. Fatton urges additionally that “Aristide needs new allies to cut his ties with his troublesome Chimères,” the pro-Aristide mobs that have played a disruptive role in recent months. What evidence is there that he wishes to do so? However unpredictable and violent the Chimères have become, he has always regarded them as less troublesome than the opposition. Today he is more reliant upon them than ever.

But assuming that things go as Mr. Fatton would like—that parliamentary elections are held in early 2004 with international monitors preventing fraud and election-day violence—what happens next? In February 2006, Aristide will leave office. The Haitian constitution, like that of the US, bars the president from serving a third term. Fanmi Lavalas possesses no raison d’être apart from Aristide and it is already starting to fragment, a process that can only accelerate. By the end of next year the contest among FL barons to replace Aristide will be well underway, and there is little warrant for assuming that this process, or subsequent parliamentary elections, will be any less violence-prone or susceptible to fraud than they are now.

Mr. Fatton and I also have different views of how Haiti arrived at its present state. “Lavalas’ failures are not merely the result of dubious political choices,” he argues, “nor are they simply a reflection of Aristide’s personality, as Dailey’s interpretation would suggest.” I don’t believe that Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas were free to do as they pleased, and agree that they had to operate under severe economic and political constraints. But I disagree with the notion that in return for his restoration to power, the United States and international lenders exacted conditions from Aristide that “undermined his earlier transformative agenda.” Prior to his restoration in 1994, Aristide did meet with the international financial community and pledged to undertake a program of structural adjustment that includes the privatization of Teleco, Haiti’s grossly corrupt and inefficient telecommunications company, as well as other state-owned industries and cutting back on the number of government employees. But by the end of six months in office, he had broken his promises.

Nor am I persuaded that Aristide was prevented from carrying out his agenda by having to make peace with the Duvalierists and the military junta that preceded him. Although Aristide called for reconciliation and discouraged his followers from lynching and other acts of retribution against them, most soon went into exile, while the army was disbanded. One of the tragedies of the Lavalas period is that the Haitian people’s demand for justice and an end to impunity went virtually unanswered, and those guilty of murder and human rights abuses were never called to account.

Fatton is also critical of what he regards as my failure to explore the way the politique du ventre transformed Lavalas. That politics is a vehicle for personal enrichment and social ascendancy is a truism. What is significant about Haiti and other countries that share its desperate poverty is that it is often the only way. Fatton’s is an extremely valuable insight. What I found less convincing was his contention that the split between FL and OPL in 1997 resulted almost entirely from the inability of the state to support so large a group of political claimants. To apply such economic generalizations to individual human actors in so categorical a way obscures more than it illuminates. Fatton, regrettably, fails to provide even anecdotal evidence for his view.

Professor Fatton argues that my account fails to fully acknowledge the role of the opposition in sustaining the current political standoff. Even accepting, as Fatton suggests, that both sides are flawed, it by no means follows that they are equally culpable. The power has been almost all on one side.

The Convergence Démocratique is a strategic alliance of parties with widely disparate political views and histories. The primary focus of my account was the decline of Haitian democracy under Aristide and Préval and the deterioration of human rights that was a concomitant of Aristide’s efforts to transform Haiti into a de facto one-party state. I did not discuss the character of the opposition, or consider whether Haiti would be better served if they were in power. I don’t think that the less than exemplary motives of some of the opposition leaders renders their criticism of FL’s anti-democratic drift any less valid.

To the Editors:

Peter Dailey’s review is based on a multitude of factual errors, outright distortions, and glaring omissions. His reporting of the May 2000 election is inaccurate. He claims that Fanmi Lavalas won fourteen of nineteen Senate seats through “fraudulent manipulation of the returns by the [Fanmi Lavalas–controlled] Provisional Election Commission (CEP)” due to “the revelation of Aristide’s determination to take all power at every level.” Further, he claims that the Organization of American States (OAS) found gross electoral fraud.

These points are figments of Dailey’s imagination. Aristide was not president in May 2000. President Préval appointed the members of the CEP, which consisted of election experts and people from parties other than Fanmi Lavalas. Only eight of the nineteen Senate seats were disputed. In addition, the official election results were corroborated by Gallup polls and by independent election monitors.

Contrary to Dailey’s claims, the May 2000 election was a rousing democratic success. It involved a record number of candidates (29,500) competing for a record number of local and national seats (7,500). Despite dire predictions of violence by members of the international community, the election was peaceful with record voter turnout. Four million citizens registered to vote and over 60 percent of those registered actually voted.

The OAS never claimed that there was widespread election fraud or misconduct. Instead, it congratulated the Haitian people on the results of the election. No international organization or reputable observer ever suggested that there were substantial irregularities in 7,942 elected offices. The only flaw identified by the OAS was the CEP’s interpretation of the law used to calculate the percentage of votes in runoff elections for eight of the nineteen Senate races.

More troubling than Dailey’s factual distortions are his gross omissions. He fails to state that seven of the eight senators whose mandates were challenged subsequently resigned, that the controversy surrounding the eighth senator ended with his reelection, and that all the remaining senators and deputies elected in May 2000 agreed to reduce their term by half to allow Haiti’s electorate the right to vote the country out of the impasse. Dailey omits the fact that Aristide secured the resignation of all members of the Provisional Election Commission to make way for a broader-based council, which would include members of the opposition. Nor does he mention that Aristide declared 2003 an electoral year and has met repeatedly with the opposition to urge their participation in both the Provisional Election Commission and in the elections.

Dailey also inaccurately claims that only 15 percent of the electorate bothered to vote in the December 2000 presidential election. No source is stated for this figure. There is none. A US-commissioned Gallup poll taken three weeks before Aristide’s election found that over 70 percent of the people were likely to vote. The CEP’s vote count determined that over 60 percent of the electorate voted and that Aristide obtained 92 percent of the vote. The domestic and international election monitors with delegates in all nine departments of Haiti found that 60 to 65 percent of the electorate voted. Aristide received more votes as a percentage of registered voters as of November 2000 than Bush, Gore, Nader, and Buchanan did that same month, combined.

Dailey omits the facts that the opposition sought to undermine the government from the very beginning, inaugurating their own “president” in February 2001, and that their support comes solely from the US. A Gallup poll taken three weeks before the presidential election indicated that no member of the opposition was trusted by more than 3.8 percent of the Haitian people.

Dailey suggests that the economic embargo against Haiti began because of the May 2000 election dispute. The economic embargo, however, began in 1998. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged in a speech to CARICOM in February 2002 that the embargo was meant to further the US political agenda for Haiti. The embargo is an attempt to force Aristide to share power with sectors of society that were not chosen by and in fact are opposed by the Haitian people.

Dailey distorts the December 2001 attack on the National Palace. He concludes that the deadly assault was not an attempted coup d’état because the two dozen attackers were too few, and because President Aristide was not in the palace at the time. This conclusion ignores that the coup in September 1991 (followed by three years of dictatorship and the killing of approximately 5,000 people) began when the President and his best security were at President Aristide’s residence. It also ignores two famous coup attempts against François Duvalier in 1958 and 1964 that were led by small groups.

The article fails to mention that the attackers had an M-2 machine gun bolted to a pickup truck, which trumps anything in the National Police’s arsenal. It claims that “no one so far has stepped forward to claim credit for the attack,” but fails to mention that the attackers seized palace communications, announced they were overthrowing the government, and urged police officers to join them. The attackers shot up various areas inside the palace, including the President’s private office. The attack resulted in the deaths of two and the wounding of six police officers, the deaths and wounding of several civilians, the death of one attacker, and the capture of another. In July 2001 a similar attack took place against the police academy, leaving four officers dead. Dailey fails to note that the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who took to the streets on December 17 to defend their democracy did so nonviolently.

Dailey’s treatment of the US-led embargo by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) is also a distortion. Much of the blocked assistance was negotiated, approved loans that the IFIs were legally obligated to disburse, and not charity. In the case of several Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loans, nondisbursal violated the signed contract, as well as the IDB’s charter. Substantial funds had been cut off long before the elections. The IDB loans were signed and agreed to long before then. He omits the fact that these same IFIs gave substantial sums to Haiti’s dictators during the Duvalier regimes, the regimes of the generals after the Duvaliers, and during the coup.

Sadly, the embargo is making the economy scream and Haitian stomachs growl from hunger. The morgues are full of children dead from preventable water-borne diseases, and the population, unable to take any more misery, is angry and frustrated. This daily deprivation is surely a form of violence, unspectacular but much more deadly than the political violence that appears in the news.

Dailey omits any discussion of the former military groups that are now armed and operating in the south and the Central Plateau in Haiti. These groups, calling themselves the “armed wing of the opposition” in Haiti, are systematically executing police officers and judicial officials in the Central Plateau.

Dailey’s claim that trafficking has tripled under Aristide’s presidency uses statistics that were compiled during the period when Aristide was not president. In fact, drug trafficking substantially diminished during Aristide’s first term in office. During his second term, US government sources estimate a substantial reduction in the drugs coming through Haiti to the US, from approximately 15 percent to less than 8 percent.

Dailey’s review is clearly a distortion of reality and lacks a sense of context, his facts are often wrong, and his omissions are extraordinary. In addition to these gross errors, Dailey commits the unpardonable journalistic sin—a lack of knowledge and understanding of his subject.

Irwin P. Stotzky
Professor of Law
Director, Center for the Study of Human Rights
University of Miami School of Law
Coral Gables, Florida

Peter Dailey replies:

When Mr. Stotzky identifies himself as a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, he is being modest. As director of that law school’s Center for the Study of Human Rights he has been an unflagging apologist for—and paid representative of—a regime with one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere, as well as a drug policy adviser to a government that has increasingly come to resemble a narco-state.

Although much of my article concerned human rights in Haiti, a subject about which Mr. Stotzky might be regarded as qualified to speak, he passes over this subject in silence, as he does much else: the authoritarian character of both the ruling party, Fanmi Lavalas, and Haiti’s government; their transformation into something far from the participatory or deliberative democracy that Mr. Stotzky, in his 1997 book Silencing the Guns in Haiti: The Promise of Deliberative Democracy, forecast; their complicity in attacks on journalists and human rights workers; the corruption of the police and the judiciary; the transformation of gangs of thugs into a semiofficial arm of government; and their failure, after nine years in power, to improve the lot of the Haitian people even marginally.

The May 21, 2000, parliamentary primary, Mr. Stotzky asserts, was a “rousing democratic success.” The fact that Kofi Annan, the OAS, the EU, the Clinton White House, Congress, and the so-called Friends of Haiti all denounced the patently fraudulent outcome would tend to suggest otherwise. Professor Stotzky’s statement that “the OAS never claimed that there was widespread election fraud or misconduct. Instead, it congratulated the Haitian people on the results of the election” is not even a half-truth. The OAS congratulated the Haitian people for turning out on election day “in large and orderly numbers to choose both their local and national governments.”1 When the scale of the government’s manipulation of the election returns became apparent a week later, however, Ambassador Orlando Manville, the director of the OAS electoral observation mission, stated that Haiti under Aristide’s ally, President René Préval, was

anything but a democracy and we cannot be facetious about it, or the lot of the common Haitian will never change. The present government is the result of an election, which was manipulated in a way that none of us would accept as normal in our own country.

Mr. Stotzky’s other comments are equally tendentious. He describes as a “figment of Dailey’s imagination” the statement that in the May 2000 parliamentary elections fourteen out of nineteen FL candidates who had only received a plurality of votes on the ballots cast owed their victories to a manipulation of the returns by the FL-controlled Provisional Election Commission (CEP). The CEP was able to certify that fourteen FL candidates received a majority of votes—and thus would not have to participate in a runoff election—only because it discarded all the ballots cast for opposition candidates apart from the principal runners-up. This represents some 1.2 million votes—over one third of the votes cast overall—that went to 101 candidates representing more than fifteen parties. The CEP also discarded ballots cast that, while selecting candidates for other offices, left the choice for senator blank. In both instances, the CEP’s action violated the Haitian constitution and electoral law.2

On June 21, 2000, the chairman of the CEP, Leon Manus, who by then had fled the country, announced that only five FL senators had been elected in the first round, rather than the nineteen that FL claimed. However, Mr. Stotzky is right about one thing: eight seats were “disputed” by the opposition parties, whereas I had written that only seven were.

Mr. Stotzky takes further issue with my assertion that the CEP was “FL-controlled.” While it is true that the majority of the commission was not formally affiliated with FL, to pretend that they were independent is absurd, as is readily apparent from what followed in the wake of balloting. Although the election took place on May 21, by June 16 the returns had still not been certified by the CEP. On June 16, and again three days later, gangs of pro-Aristide militants took to the streets, laying siege to the CEP’s offices, erecting barricades, turning over cars, and paralyzing downtown Port-au-Prince in the process. At the height of the disturbances, the seventy-eight-year-old Manus disappeared, only to resurface several days later in Boston, where he applied for political asylum. He charged that when he refused to certify the election results because he considered them fraudulent, he was summoned to the National Palace where President Préval and, by phone, Aristide both delivered, according to him, “unequivocal messages” stating that his life would be in danger unless he certified them.

Mr. Stotzky takes issue with my estimate of the turnout for the November 26, 2000, presidential election. There is no way of knowing for certain what the turnout on that day was because the OAS monitors had been withdrawn five months earlier, and the CEP by then had lost every last shred of credibility. The figure of 15 percent that I cited was based on published reports in both Haitian and foreign newspapers, where estimates varied from 10 to 20 percent. No reliable “domestic and international election monitors” were present.

Stotzky takes me to task for failing to report Aristide’s concessions aimed at making possible free and fair elections in the future, or for noting that he declared 2003 an election year. But as long as Aristide’s government retains the ability to disrupt normal political activity—the headquarters of former Port-au-Prince mayor and opposition leader Evans Paul was burned to the ground by pro-Aristide mobs three times—and intimidate the functioning of a free press, such concessions come to very little.

Mr. Stotzky incorrectly asserts that I wrote that the volume of drug trafficking tripled during Aristide’s presidency. My statement that “the volume of cocaine has almost tripled” since 1994 is correct. There is some evidence that the use of Haiti as a transshipment route for drugs destined for the US has declined slightly from its peak several years ago, although the US State Department’s Annual Report to the Congress of January 31 states that “Embassy Port-au-Prince estimates that the flow of cocaine through Haiti has increased.” Indeed the State Department’s annual report notes that Haiti has “failed demonstrably” to comply with international counternarcotics agreements. A week later Evans Brillant, director of Haiti’s Anti-Drug Trafficking Brigade, was arrested by police after he and five of his men halted traffic and blocked off a section of a Port-au-Prince highway to allow a Colombian plane carrying a reported 1,760 to 2,200 pounds of cocaine to land. Neither the arresting officers nor those arrested were able to account for the subsequent disappearance of the drugs.

Mr. Stotzky criticizes me for neglecting to say that most of the citizens who took to the streets on December 17, 2001, in the wake of the news that a coup was underway did so nonviolently. Nothing in my account suggests otherwise. Indeed, the thugs who were transported in government trucks, assisted by the police and FL, and burned the houses and headquarters of opposition leaders amounted only to a few hundred people.

Mr. Stotzky disputes my assertion that the December 17, 2000, attack on the Presidential Palace by armed commandos was not designed to topple President Aristide. But he ignores that in May 2002, the OAS appointed a Commission of Inquiry into the December 17, 2000, attack made up of Roberto Flores Bermudez, former foreign minister of Honduras, Alonso Gomez Robledo, a professor of international law from Mexico; and Nicholas Liverpool, a former judge in the Appellate Courts of the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. For a month or so, they held hearings in Port-au-Prince and half a dozen provincial cities, and met with almost fifty government and police officials from President Aristide and Prime Minister Neptune on down, representatives of the Convergence, senior diplomats, the papal nuncio, Haitian journalists, and representatives of human rights groups and popular organizations. They reviewed documents, videos, photos, and tapes. Their eighty-page report concluded that the aim of the attack on the National Palace was not a coup d’état, and could not have taken place without the complicity of the Haitian National Police. This report may be found at www.oas.org.

While President Aristide has called the armed group in the Central Plateau “the armed wing of the Convergence Démocratique,” no one knows what they call themselves or if they are engaged in anything more than elaborate banditry. To this date, there has not been a scintilla of evidence linking them to the CD. Stotzky’s claim that they are “systematically executing police officers and judicial officials in the Central Plateau” is a product of his imagination.

Although the international financial institutions have suspended the implementation of numerous loan agreements as they are legally entitled to do, there is no “embargo” against Haiti—it has normal trade relations with other countries and the US continues to provide approximately $50 million in humanitarian assistance annually. The US and the EU and every other major nation support the suspension of the loan agreements not because of some nefarious political agenda but because of the Aristide government’s failure to observe minimal democratic standards and human rights.

  1. 1

    The OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Haiti: Chief of Mission Report to the OAS Permanent Council, July 13, 2000.

  2. 2

    James R. Morrell, “A Review of Haiti’s May 21, 2000 Senatorial Elections: New Findings.” Presented to the Roundtable “The Future of Haiti in Light of its Past,” Latin American Studies Association, Washington, D.C., September 8, 2001. See www .haitipolicy.org.

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