Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, Feb. 7, 2001

As President Jean-Bertrand Aristide takes the reins of power in Haiti for the third time in ten years, a debate over his presidency is taking place in US foreign policy circles and the press. The discussion centers around whether Aristide is "fully committed to democracy," and of course, "economic reforms." But an honest look at the last decade of US relations with Haiti raises very different, and much more troubling questions.

Aristide began his last term as President ten years ago, after winning a landslide victory despite Washington's disapproval and financing of opposing candidates. A populist priest who was one of the country's leading advocates for the poor, he served less than 8 months before being overthrown in a bloody military coup.       

The coup leader, Lt. General Raul Cedras, was on the payroll of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Time magazine reported that the CIA had advance knowledge of the coup, but took no steps to prevent it-- indicating at least tacit US support for the coup, and given the circumstances, probably much more than that.

Thousands of Aristide's supporters took to the streets to defend their first democratically elected government. They were unarmed, and hundreds were slaughtered mercilessly by the military and police. In the ensuing years the dictatorship killed thousands of political opponents, setting up a special death-squad organization-- known by its initials in Haitian Creole as F.R.A.P.H. The founder and leader of this organization, Emmanuel Constant, was also a CIA operative.       

The Clinton administration inherited the problem from George Bush Senior, and mostly ignored Haiti for more than a year. It then began -- as a result of political pressure and the flood of Haitian refugees headed to Florida's shores-- to pressure the military dictatorship to step down.

This led eventually to US troops invading Haiti in the fall of 1994. Most Americans know only of this action to restore the elected government, and not the prior measures to destroy it. They therefore have an inverted-- even Orwellian-- image of our role in Haiti. Moreover, the objectives of the Clinton administration were less than democratic: the plan at the time was to leave the army and repressive apparatus in place, removing only the top three officers.       

This plan began to fall apart after Haitian soldiers beat an innocent man to death in front of international TV cameras. US troops stood by under orders not to intervene, and they expressed their disgust and frustration openly to the press. President Clinton found himself in a bind: to drum up support for the invasion he had described the Haitian military as "murderers, rapists, and thugs." Less than a week later he was calling these same people "our allies."

Aristide took advantage of the situation to dismantle the military, as well as the violent "section chief" system of repression of in the countryside. In doing so he created the foundation for the first democratic government in the history of the nation, which had lived for thirty years under the US-supported Duvalier family dictatorship until 1986. For the first time people could hold meetings and form political organizations without fear of being killed.       

But there was little that he could do about Haiti's economy: that was in the hands of the IMF, the World Bank, and their patrons in Washington. These people had a simple economic development plan for Haiti: produce coffee, mangos, some other agro-exports, and build up the light assembly export sector. Privatize public utilities. Cut tariffs on imports.

But the light assembly (read: sweatshop) sector provided few jobs, and at very low pay-- less than $2.00 a day. With 84% of the inputs imported, the contribution of this sector to the domestic economy was tiny.

The lowering of tariffs on imported rice sank thousands of domestic farmers, who could not compete with subsidized (and mechanized) US production. Privatization of the telephone company was seen as highly questionable, given its enormous revenues (3 percent of GDP), the government's difficulty in collecting taxes from other sources, and the lack of adequate regulatory structures.       

For these and other valid reasons, Haiti's government and especially its parliament rejected much of the IMF/ World Bank plan. Standoffs with Washington-- which controls both aid and credit-- damaged Haiti's economy and contributed to political instability, while the aid that was actually disbursed had little positive impact. 

Now Washington is once again withholding aid to Haiti, based on disputed senate election results and other concerns. Aristide has offered to rerun the 10 challenged senate elections of last November, and conceded to other demands that were put forth by the Clinton administration.

Haiti certainly has its own political and economic problems, and Aristide has his faults. But the foremost obstacle to democracy and economic recovery in Haiti remains, as it has been for many years, "that cold country to the North." Those who now sit in Washington in judgment of Haiti's government, threatening the country with economic strangulation and perhaps even another coup, should consider these words: judge not lest ye be judged.