Haiti—an event horizon (part 3)

By Selwyn Ryan, Trinidad & Tobago Express Sunday 25 April 2004

In two previous columns (Sunday Express April 11th and 18th), we looked at the ongoing political crisis in Haiti against the background of that country's political history and culture, and sought to locate Jean-Bertrand Aristide within that matrix. But there are many dimensions to the Aristide phenomenon, and much controversy exists about his role in Haiti.

There are always political personalities about whom there is more than the usual degree of controversy. Some personalities polarize their society, and consensus about their achievements is often difficult to come by. Eric Williams was one such personality as was Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Fidel Castro and Aristide are also of this genre. In this our concluding column about Haiti, we take a brief look at Duvalier and then examine in greater detail the ongoing debate about the Aristide phenomenon.

Duvalier came to power in 1957 projecting himself as the intellectual leader of an indigenous movement opposed to US cultural imperialism and racism. He was also a declared enemy of Haiti's mulatto elite and their social pretensions. Duvalier remained in power for 17 years in a country in which few leaders serve out their terms of office. Most have either been assassinated or forcibly removed from the National Palace as Aristide was. That he survived for as long as he did was a function of the fact that he was not only prepared to use force and fraud, but also race and religion to hypnotise and pacify the Haitian peasantry.

Duvalier used voudoun, which he termed Haiti's most original contribution to the world, as well as Catholicism to silence dissent and mobilise support for his regime. One of the texts in Duvalier's Catechism of the Revolution reads as follows:

Our Doc, who art in the National Palace For Life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations. Thy will be done in Port-au-Prince and in the countryside. Give us this day our new Haiti, and never forgive the trespasses of those traitors who spit on our country each day. Lead them into temptation, and poisoned by their own venom, deliver them from no evil.

Many supported Duvalier because he glorified blackness and challenged the pretensions of Haiti's mulatto elite; others were appalled at his wanton violations of human rights and his ideological indecencies. As one Haitian intellectual, Rene Depectro, observed, Haiti at the time of Duvalier is a laboratory where newly decolonized countries can study how our societies produce their own barbarities and monsters. Looking at the Haitian experience, Eric Williams would express thanks that the Westminster model had helped Trinidad and Tobago avoid producing its own barbarities and monsters.

Aristide has likewise been the object of wildly differing assessments. He is regarded as a political mystic by some of his supporters and as a bloodthirsty monster by his enemies. The narratives and counter narratives that one now hears about Aristide are echoes of what one heard in 1991 when he was first overthrown. Aristide was accused of being an autocrat and a tyrant. He was likewise accused of being a murderer and a psycopath, and of being mentally unstable and untrustworthy.

From his place of exile in Caracas , Aristide denied that he was guilty of the charges that were being levelled against him. As he complained, reports that our Government incited the people to violence or revenge have no basis in reality. Not one political assassination occurred during our administration. Not one political prisoner was jailed. No boat filled with frightened political refugees fled Haiti for US shores. He also denied that he had threatened his political enemies with necklaces as burning tires were termed in Haiti and South Africa.

Some observers concede that Aristide had rhetorically attacked the rich, the church hierarchy, the army, the macoutes and others who had supported Duvalier, but deny that he had used or encouraged physical violence against them. Amnesty International documented twenty-six human rights violations which took place during Aristide's administration. Most were said to have been committed by the army.

The US media however gave the world an alternative impression, viz., that Aristide was a man who was medically unfit to govern, someone who had hijacked Haitian democracy. Howard French, the New York Times correspondent in Haiti during the period, unintentionally provided an excellent explanation of the US policy in respect of Aristide and the Haitian army when he observed that despite much blood on the army's hands, United States diplomats consider it a vital counterweight to Father Aristide, whose class struggle rhetoric threatened or antagonised traditional power centers at home and abroad.

Fast forward to 2004 and we find a continuation of the same controversies about Aristide and about who or what was responsible for the current crisis.

Ironically, Aristide is attacked by both right and left wing elements in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora. While the Haitian elite accuses him of every social sin, radical elements allege that he had capitulated to the Haitian bourgeoisie. It is also said that he frustrated the development of grassroots institutions in Haiti. As a Haitian newsletter (Konba) complained editorially, Lavalas (Aristide's Movement) used a number of militias and gangs to spread confusion and to eradicate popular organisations. The regime also used drugs, corruption, theft and extortion from street merchants to confuse and demoralise the masses. It is also alleged that the US had damaging information about his drug dealing which it has threatened to expose if he pushes his defiance too far.

Aristide has been accused of being engaged in a phony kissing game with the bourgeoisie with whom it is said he has had too extended a honeymoon. The claim is made that he ritualistically attacked but never really sought to dispossess the upper classes. Indeed, it is said that he himself had become one of the wealthiest members of the bourgeoisie. This element has expressed regret that Aristide had been surgically removed before the people had been given a chance to settle with him, and that justice is yet to be done. In sum, those on Aristide's left insist that he is no Patrice Lumumba or Salvador Allende and that the claim that he is in that mould, is more myth than reality. One critic has conceded that Aristide will continue to exert an enormous influence on the peoples' consciousness in as much as the Haitian state does not have the means to solve any of the problems to which he paid lip service.

It is difficult for those of us who are not on the spot to know just what is true or mythical about Aristide or about the role that the Americans played in his ouster. Thus the need for that inquiry that Caricom is demanding.We note that the interim Prime minister has dropped Aristide's demand that France pay reparations to Haiti for the money which it extorted in 1824 and has expressed the hope that France will undertake development projects which the country needs. Some members of the US policy making establishment have also repeated ancient promises about a Marshall Plan for Haiti which no one however takes seriously. Yet other neoconservatives are saying that Haiti is a diseased or failed state which is strategically useless to the US and possibly beyond resuscitation unless it privatises its state sector and fully embraces free trade, policies that Aristide was unwilling to undertake.

All of these issues need to be fully ventilated before Caricom decides what it will do next in respect of Haiti. We seem to have made our decision to admit Haiti to full membership of Caricom before we had done a due diligence assessment of its political and social system or because, like the calypsonian, we felt sorry that we had ignored Haiti's plight over the years. Kofi Anan has expressed the hope that Haiti will soon become a functioning democracy. While we share this wish, we need to be realistic .It is not going to happen soon. We perhaps need to heed the advice of TP Allman when he wrote that Haiti is to this hemisphere what black holes are to outer space; venture there and you cross an event horizon.