The US has overthrown Jean-Bertrand Aristide twice. But now it will encounter a new reality in the Americas.
US marines invaded Haiti in 1915, occupying the country until 1934. US officials rewrote the Haitian constitution, and when the Haitian national assembly refused to ratify it, they dissolved the assembly. They then held a “referendum” in which about 5% of the electorate voted and approved the new constitution – which conveniently changed Haitian law to allow foreigners to own land – with 99.9% voting for approval.
The situation today is remarkably similar. The country is occupied, and although the troops wear blue helmets, everyone knows that Washington calls the shots. On 28 November an election was held in which the country’s most popular political party was excluded; but still the results of the first round of the election were not quite right. The Organisation of American States (OAS) – under direction from Washington – then changed the results to eliminate the government’s candidate from the second round. To force the government to accept the OAS rewrite of the results, Haiti was threatened with a cut-off of aid flows – and, according to multiple sources, President René Préval was threatened with being forcibly flown out of the country, as happened to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
This week Aristide has been issued a diplomatic passport by the government, and is preparing to return from exile in South Africa. But Washington does not agree, as US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley made clear. He was also asked if his government had pressured either the Haitian or South African governments to prevent Aristide’s return. He refused to answer: I take that as a “yes”.
The US has been the prime cause of instability in Haiti, not only over the last two centuries, but the last two decades. Although Haiti is a small and poor country, Washington still cares very much about who is running it – and as leaked WikiLeaks cables recently demonstrated, they want a government that is in line with their foreign policy for the region.
In 1991, Aristide – Haiti’s first democratically elected president – was overthrown after just seven months in office. The officers who carried out the coup and established the military government, killing thousands of innocent Haitians, were subsequently revealed to be in the pay of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
When Aristide was elected to a second term, in 2000, the US and its allies destroyed the economy through an economic aid boycott. Together with aid to the Haitian opposition and an armed insurrection, Washington’s effort succeeded in overthrowing the government four years later.
Now that Aristide is returning, we can expect to see another massive smear campaign against him in the local media, with allegations of human rights abuses and comparisons with the Duvalier dictatorships. In his book, Damning the Flood, Professor Peter Hallward looks at the best available data for the number of political murders in Haiti: Duvalier dictatorships (1957-1986), 50,000; after the US-sponsored coup of 1991 (with US-funded death squads), 4,000; after the US-organised coup of 2004, 3,000; Aristide’s tenure in office (2001-2004), between 10 and 30.
Aristide cut the political violence in Haiti by abolishing the army and the murderous “section chief” system, which were its main sources. For that, Washington will not forgive him. Can the US and its allies continue to deny Haiti’s national sovereignty, which it won 207 years ago in the world’s first successful slave revolt? Aristide is still a symbol of that sovereignty, and respect for the millions of poor Haitians. For Washington, that is inherently dangerous.
But the Americas have changed since the last time Aristide was overthrown. Washington met strong resistance from South America when it supported the coup government in Honduras in 2009; Honduras has still not been allowed back into the OAS. Governments that Washington does not want – for example in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela – have been elected and survived despite coup attempts and other destabilisation efforts. The left-of-centre governments that now preside over most of Latin America have dramatically and permanently changed hemispheric relations.
Last week Washington failed to gain support for its change of Haiti’s election results in the 23-nation Rio Group. Rights can no longer be denied to Haitians, simply because they are poor and black. Nor can Aristide be denied the right to return to his country. As with Egypt, Washington will have to adapt to a new reality.