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,
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