Coup in Haiti

Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Touchstone) and of the novel Martyrs’ Crossing (Ballantine).

22 March 2004
The Nation

By Amy Wilentz

For those who know Haitian history, this has been a time of eerie, unhappy deja vu. Part of the pain is to see the elected president coerced out of office by heavy-handed pressure from the United States and France, accompanied by a show of force and the threat of a blood bath. But to also hear that he’s been spirited off to a secret location is to be bluntly reminded of the fate of the fabled leader of Haiti’s revolution, former slave and stable boy Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was entrapped by the French, bound, and hustled away from Haiti on a ship, to die in solitary confinement in a fortress prison in the Jura mountains in France.

When Aristide descended from his plane in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, he made a brief statement: “In overthrowing me, they cut down the tree of peace, but it will grow again, because its roots are well planted.” This was a deliberate allusion to Toussaint, who said, from aboard the ship, never to see Haiti again: “They have felled only the trunk of the tree. Branches will sprout again, for its roots are numerous and deep.” The echo can be missed by no Haitian.

It’s hard to justify contemporary comparisons to the founders of nations, especially when made not by a third party but by the leader himself. But in Bangui, Aristide was not so much comparing himself to Toussaint as he was making a connection between the French betrayal of Toussaint and the Americans’ betrayal of his own presidency. Though the indications had been many, especially since George W. Bush came to power, Aristide had hesitated over the years–for reasons of political expedience–to come right out and say what was patently true.

But now he’s saying it. What happened in Haiti was a coup d’etat, and it’s almost funny to hear Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Scott McClellan call that claim “absurd” and “nonsense.” The coup didn’t come in one fell strike, which fact camouflaged it for a time; we’re used to a coup being a coup–which means a cut or blow in French–something sudden. But the coup against Aristide, and by extension against the Haitian people, was prolonged, a chronic coup. It began when Aristide was first elected at the end of 1990 and continued right up until he was hustled aboard a plane and flown to what he was told would be a place of his choice but that turned out to be the former homeland of fabled killer and diamond collector Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a country where, according to the CIA country report available on the web, a ten-year elected civilian government was recently replaced by a military coup d’etat. Sound familiar?

One thing about coups: They don’t just happen. In a country like Haiti, where the military has been disbanded for nearly a decade, soldiers don’t simply emerge from the underbrush; they have to be reorganized, retrained and resupplied. And of course, for something to be organized, someone has to organize it. At the end of the 1700s when heroic fighters like Henry Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L’Ouverture joined forces to overthrow the French planters, they did it in a fashion quite similar to these latter-day brigands. Driving into one city after another with sabers drawn, burning and looting and seizing control, they took the north and then moved southward. Even then, with their scant means of communication, they planned it, they organized it. And they too had help from abroad–from the Americans, in fact.

In the current coup, there are several players. There is the disgruntled former Haitian army (an institution with a violent and unpalatable recent history), which has been wielded many times in the service of coups d’etat, often subsidized by its masters, the elite of Haiti. The elite, too, had their hand in this coup–it’s hard to believe in this day and age, but they must be called the entrenched class enemies of the Haitian people. There is “a growing enthusiasm among businessmen to use the rebels as a security force,” said a news report from the Los Angeles Times after the remnants of the Haitian army that helped engineer the coup descended on the capital. “[The businessmen] welcomed the rebels.”

You will notice in the next few weeks that the Haitian people, who have been featured so prominently in recent weeks–those crowds demonstrating, or those bands of opportunists looting and pillaging, those people cowering as shots ring out or sprawled across a pavement–will fade from the scene, because they have been used to their full extent by the masters of the coup. Now the reconstituted Haitian army in all its machismo will maraud through the slums eradicating pockets of support for the deposed leader. The Marines are there simply to do the sweep-up if they can, and if they dare, given the the rebels’ boldness. Now, according to a formulation adopted when Aristide was still in power, the international community will choose a committee, and the committee will select a “council of wise men,” and those wise men will select a prime minister. Perhaps such steps will lead toward stability; without a leader, the Haitian people may be more easily convinced to accept the decisions of these committees and panels and unelected officials. But it’s hard to imagine the foreign forces setting up a panel of elders while across the street, the new army’s troops are burning artwork and shooting passers-by.

The groundwork for this coup was laid during the months when Aristide was first re-establishing his government. When the Clinton Administration reinstated Aristide, it too brought in the Marines, ostensibly for nation-building but also to make sure the reinstalled president didn’t get up to any populist shenanigans: Clinton knew he was bringing Aristide back against the will of the Haitian elite, and the US President feared both another coup by the elite against Aristide, and then revenge by Aristide’s supporters. So the Marines secured the transition back to Aristide and then remained for about a year and a half, during which time they did not disarm the Haitian army or the remainder of the Duvaliers’ feared Tontons Macoutes. It was clear at the time that the Americans wanted to make sure there would be arms floating around that could be used against the Haitian government if need be.

One should be clear about the opposition in Haiti right now: although it includes some very good people, it is largely a group of malcontent career politicians, wealthy businessmen and ambitious power-seekers. It is exactly the kind of “civil society” opposition the United States encouraged and financed when it was attempting to remove Manuel Noriega in Panama. The Haitian opposition, too, was financed and organized during the Aristide years by US-funded groups like USAID’s Democracy Enhancement Project and the International Republican Institute, an organization established in 1983 “to advance democracy worldwide.” These have played a central and critical role in keeping an unpopular Haitian opposition alive and obstructionist. At every turn, the US-backed opposition tried to bring political life under Aristide to a halt.

It would be nice if Aristide were a saint. It’s comfortable to take the side of a saint. But he isn’t one. Many people died under his government who shouldn’t have, and very few indeed are those who have been brought to justice for those crimes. But he didn’t start out to be a brutal dictator: History and events and the international community and his own flawed character conspired against him. He does not deserve to suffer the same fate as Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, who was also nudged out by the United States and replaced by a military-civilian junta.

When push came to shove this time around, the Bush Administration, which paid lip service to the continuation in office of the democratically elected president, refused to send in the Marines until the president was bundled off and safely stowed away in the heart of Africa, under virtual house arrest. It’s not surprising, after this long, sad history, that there are people who believe Aristide when he says he was “kidnapped.” He was kidnapped, in effect. So was his presidency, and so was Haiti’s attempt at democracy.