Haiti’s Betrayal

Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Jean-Bertrand Aristide; drawing by David Levine


In the hours following Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s inauguration on February 7, 2001, thousands of his supporters celebrated late into the night in the blocked-off streets around the Champ de Mars, dancing to the rhythm of the rara bands and passing around tots of rum. Three months earlier, the Haitian people had voted overwhelmingly to elect Aristide to a new five-year term. The outcome had never been in doubt. Although there was widespread disillusionment with the corrupt and authoritarian character of both the Haitian government and Fanmi Lavalas (FL), Aristide’s political party, after fifteen years in the public eye Aristide remained far and away Haiti’s most popular political figure. Since the contest had been boycotted by the opposition, Aristide ran virtually unopposed.

Despite the popular jubilation, Aristide resumed Haiti’s presidency with the legitimacy of his government very much in dispute. Only 15 percent of the electorate had bothered to vote. Moreover, the parliamentary elections in May 2000, in which the government-controlled Provisional Electoral Commission (CEP) supervising the election manipulated the results to favor FL candidates, had caused the European Union, together with the US, Canada, Japan, and the rest of Haiti’s traditional supporters to suspend all further World Bank and IMF grants, loans, and other forms of direct aid. It is doubtful whether they would have acted as decisively and with such unanimity had they not regarded the fraudulent parliamentary elections as the culmination of a series of similar attempts by Aristide and the FL to accelerate Haiti’s transformation into a de facto one-party state.

For the Haitian people, the suspension of international aid was a disaster of the first order. Few nations anywhere are as dependent on foreign financial support. Of the government of Haiti’s $800 million annual operating budget, in recent years 50 percent has consisted of aid from the US, France, and Canada. Eighty percent of the development budget has been made up of foreign contributions, and no major initiative—whether constructing a road or bridge, establishing a new police force, launching a program of agrarian reform, prosecuting human rights abuses, or holding an election—is possible without foreign funding. Even these subsidies barely suggest the extent of Haiti’s reliance on the outside world. For the vast majority of the Haitian population, what food and medical aid there are must be provided by the UN, USAID, missionaries, and associated NGOs.

It is hard to know the degree to which Aristide recognized Haiti’s dependence on the outside world when he took office. In early 1990, six months before the former priest surprised everyone by announcing his candidacy for president, Aristide spoke to a handful of sympathetic journalists in New York, of which I was one. As far as he was concerned, the great fact of Haitian history was its continuing oppression and exploitation by the US; without US support the Duvalier regime and its military successors would not have lasted a week. One…

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