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April 9, 2004

Mary Renda Discusses Aristide and the Haitian Crisis

Many people had big hopes for Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he was first elected as Haiti’s leader in 1990. What went wrong? The College Street Journal asked Mary Renda, associate professor of history and author of Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940, to discuss Aristide and the current situation in Haiti. Here’s what she had to say:

Aristide emerged as a leader in Haiti in the context of liberation theology. In the 1980s, he was a priest who worked with the poor and facilitated the empowerment of the poor in a society where poverty defined the existence of the majority. He was the spokesman for a powerful popular movement that opposed state repression and that, in 1986, succeeded in ending the Duvalier dictatorship. So, yes, his election to the presidency in December 1990 was extraordinarily hopeful. Aristide’s program called for revolutionary changes in education and health care and a significant hike in the minimum wage.

But President Aristide’s program was cut short. He had only seven months in office before being taken out by a coup d’etat and replaced in the palace by Raoul Cedras, a general in the Haitian Army with close ties to Americans and backed by Haitian elites, who opposed Aristide’s revolutionary populism. The Cedras regime remained in power for three years, during which time Haiti experienced a reign of terror.

Domestic political pressure in the United States forced President Clinton to authorize an invasion in October 1994. So, Aristide was restored to the presidency, but with very little time left in his term. René Preval was elected to a five-year term; then Aristide was reelected in 2000. And while there were problems with the elections of 2000—just as there were in the United States!—it seems quite clear that Aristide was still the popular choice of the Haitian electorate by a wide margin (in marked contrast to George W. Bush in the United States, I might add).

For me, the crucial thing is that after being restored by the United States, Aristide was no longer able to carry his original program forward. Some say he no longer wanted to carry that program forward, that either his goals or his strategies had shifted while he was in exile in the United States and building close ties with his U.S. allies. It seems quite plausible to me that Aristide revised his views on how to bring about needed change in Haiti while he was in the States, but I don’t believe for a moment that he abandoned his desire to represent the Haitian poor.

We have to remember that Aristide was restored to office by a U.S. president whose neoliberal international economic program directly conflicted with his own plans for Haiti. For some combination of reasons, but certainly in large measure due to the combined power of Washington and an entrenched Haitian elite, Aristide failed to carry out his popular mandate; he did not go far enough in pressing for change and accepted some harsh measures as a condition for loans from the International Monetary Fund. In that context, Aristide lost critical elements of his earlier base of support. What he did not lose, contrary to most mainstream reporting on Haiti, was the support of the Haitian majority or the support of those most destitute in Haiti.

Some say that Aristide became the same kind of dictatorial leader he once opposed. I think that this argument is heavily influenced by a powerful disinformation campaign; that is, people and organizations both in Washington and in Haiti had a direct stake in bringing down Aristide and the popular program he stood for, and a great deal of funding and effort went into shaping and promoting this angle. Aristide bears responsibility for his own mistakes in the recent past, including, at the very least, not disassociating himself from violence done in his name. But to call Aristide the author of his own undoing, as President Bush has done, is more than misleading. Given the role of the U.S. in bringing about the circumstances of Aristide’s demise, as well as its role in the removal of Aristide, it is a lie.

At bottom, what happened in Haiti over the past 14 years is not traceable to Aristide or any other individual. The problems are structural and have to do with long-standing sociopolitical arrangements whereby government and its spoils are the province of the wealthy. Those arrangements are deeply rooted in Haitian history and inextricable from the transnational contexts of empire, in its successive forms. They have everything to do with the legacies of French colonialism, including the crippling payment that France extracted from Haiti in 1825, with gunboats just offshore, ostensibly as reparation for the loss of French property in the Haitian Revolution (that is, they lost their “slaves” as well as their land). Haitian attempts to create a viable political and economic system were hobbled from that moment on, and what some social scientists call a “predatory” state, whereby elites relied on government as a means to gain wealth while condemning the majority of Haitians to poverty, developed in that context.

The long (and recent) history of U.S. imperialism in Haiti is also crucial to understanding what has happened in Haiti since the first election of Aristide. At various points, Washington has either shored up or created anew the repressive Haitian state and has insisted on the primacy of capitalist modes of “development” despite widespread Haitian opposition to that program. And U.S. imperialism in Haiti has not been limited to military intervention. It has been more thoroughgoing than that. Most recently, and perhaps most important for untangling the web of recent events, the Central Intelligence Agency has played a crucial role in Haiti. We don’t yet have a full picture of the agency’s role and impact. We know that some of the key players in the opposition against President Aristide, going back, at least, to General Raoul Cedras, have been the recipients of CIA largesse. There are many questions we could ask now, for example, about projects associated with the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute. Perhaps we will learn more through the work of a sharp investigative reporter or by pressing for full and far-reaching investigation by Congress. Hopefully we won’t have to wait for another generation’s historians to put the pieces of this story together. e

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