Peter Hallward is the author of a new book, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, which details recent Haitian history including the 2004 coup backed by the United States, France and Canada. Hallward completes a four-city Canadian book tour this Saturday, June 7 in Vancouver. He was interviewed by Paul Boin, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Windsor.
Paul Boin: Whether it's the Associated Press, the Globe and Mail, the UN, or the CIA World Fact book, mainstream media and other organizations continue to characterize what happened in Haiti on February 29, 2004 in the following manner: that Haiti's twice elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide "departed" from Haiti? After all the extensive research and interviews you've done for your book, how would you most accurately characterize what happened on that day?
Peter Hallward: There's no question. It was a coup. The denials aren't exactly impressive. People also denied that it was a coup back in 1991. In 2004 it was presented as a kind of version of the "orange revolution" that was happening in other places like Ukraine. So it was presented that Aristide was under pressure by a popular uprising, he had lost credibility, and he had no other alternative except to turn to the U.S. for help to leave the country in order to avoid a bloodbath. That's basically the official line.
But if you look at that official line it's already very peculiar. If you're trying to "avoid a bloodbath" why would you have the president leave rather than try and stop the few insurgents who were causing havoc in parts of the country given that these insurgents did not have any popular support (this lack of support was subsequently confirmed as the leader of this insurgent group stood for president in the most recent election and only received 2 per cent of the vote). So why you would ask a president who'd been elected with a massive majority to go rather than the insurgents is kind of curious.
So if the official line isn't the correct one, than what is?
If you look at what actually happened, the story is much more complicated and it has nothing to do with a type of "orange revolution." The problem with Aristide's second government is that he was elected [in 2000] with a big mandate, bigger then the first time he was elected in 1990.
So he comes in with this mandate and a more coherent political organization, his Fanmi Lavalas party, with a solid infrastructure and support all across the country. So they're poised to implement genuine political change. And for the first time in Haitian history that political victory and support was combined without the presence of an army, that had previously been used to get in the way or overturn previous Haitian governments. So it is this situation that unleashes this huge international campaign to destabilize his government and to spread a very elaborate web of propaganda, presenting Aristide as a tyrant and human rights violator so that he could eventually be presented as a kind of new version of FranÃ§ois Duvalier. Figure after figure state this line, including Roger Noriega who says in front of the U.S. Congress that Aristide is just like another Duvalier and his supporters are just like the Tonton Macqoutes, that they slaughtered the political opposition, and that he had to be pushed out of office as a result. So that's the first thing.
In response to this popular government of Aristide, the Americans, the French and the elite of Haiti do a few things. First, they deprive his government and Haiti of all international funding and aid, which cuts their national budget in half. So virtually all the social programs that the Aristide government had lined up had to be put on ice. Secondly, they support and fund Aristide's opponents by pouring millions of dollars to them, plus supplying about another $70 million per year into NGO groups that our complicit with Aristide's opponents. Without this outside money there would have been very little political opposition to Aristide.
They also made particular investments in the media that was hostile to the Aristide government. So for example, if you look at the 25 radio stations in Haiti, and radio is the main source of news for the Haitian population, about 20 of them belong to an anti-Aristide coalition that was funded by US AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the European Union. And these radio stations spread lie after lie after lie, and create a kind of massive accumulation of accusations and rumours and innuendo against Aristide that present him as a kind of tyrant and human rights abuser. And after a while it kind of starts to sink in and its hard to disprove these unsubstantiated charges on a case-by-case basis.
The third step that was done was to strengthen resistance to the Aristide government in the business, civil society and in some student groups, which carry out the odd demonstration. These occasional demonstrations then cause counter-demonstrations by pro-Aristide supporters, which sometimes can get out of hand. Leading up to the coup some of these demonstrations lead to a couple of deaths on each side. Which then allows those against Aristide to blame Aristide for presiding over a wave of violence and a climate of insecurity, and to accuse Aristide of intimidating the opposition.
The fourth thing that was done was to promote a contra-style military insurgency that's based in different parts of Haiti and in the Dominican Republic, which were able to conduct hit-and-run operations against police stations and other government facilities starting in July 2001 and running all the way through to the final month when there's a full-blown military insurgency. The numbers are never huge, just about fifty or so soldiers, most of them ex military members of the Haitian National Army that Aristide disbanded back in 1995. These people eventually succeed in putting the Aristide government in a very difficult position, as now having no army (and less than 3000 police officers scattered throughout Haiti) it was difficult for the government to confront these insurgents. The U.S. had also imposed an ammunition embargo on Haiti so their police forces did not have needed supplies.
So all these factors combined put Aristide into a pretty impossible position. Then the Americans threaten him with a "bloodbath" looming in the streets. So under these circumstances and under severe pressure, and very much at the last minute, he ends up having to leave Haiti. The final details as to how he left still remain very unclear. I would urge your readers to carefully read through the numerous articles and postings at HaitiAnalysis.com.
What role have you found Canada to have played, both prior to February 29, 2004 and since, in Haiti?
Canada played a significant role in creating an ideological and propaganda type of climate in which Aristide came to be seen as a kind of international pariah. So they funded some anti-Aristide NGOs and Canada provided a kind of legitimacy and credibility to the campaign to discredit Aristide. The basic idea was to say that the Aristide government was presiding over a worsening human rights situation and was continuing the continuum of human rights disasters and the cycle of violence in Haiti since FranÃ§ois Duvalier to Jean Claude Duvalier through the coups and now by the Aristide Government.
Now that's something we can look at and analyze. Under FranÃ§ois Duvalier the number of killings in Haiti attributed in some way to his government is about 50,000. The number of people killed in the first coup against Aristide (1991) is about 4,000 or 5,000. The number of people killed during the second coup (2004) is estimated to be 3,000, it's hard to know exactly. And how many people killed are attributed to the Aristide government or their supporters? The number is just in between 10 and 40 people, and 40 being a largely exaggerated number.
In the spring of 2005 I interviewed Canadian Member of Parliament and Special Government Envoy to Haiti, Denis Coderre. When I asked him why the Canadian and U.S. government would not allow Aristide to be a candidate in the upcoming Haitian presidential elections, Coderre stated the following: "The issue is this. Aristide belongs to the past. And we want to build on the future. We don't want to build on the nostalgia of the past. It is clear in our mind that you can't go back." What is your response to a Canadian government official with this type of opinion?
First of all the form of it is incredible. I mean who is it that can tell Canada what does or does not belong to your future. This is a question for the Haitian people to decide. If you believe in democracy there is a well established process for doing that. It's called an election. And Aristide was elected by a huge mandate. Far more powerful a mandate then that enjoyed by any Canadian government in recent history. Far more powerful a mandate then any of the governments that overthrew him, the U.S., France and Canada.
Secondly, it's a ludicrous thing to say to the Haitian people. For the vast majority of the Haitian people fundamentally Aristide represented hope. The reason why he was elected with such enthusiasm was that he gave voice to a very widely felt sense of injustice and hope for change. And he did it in terms that made sense for Haitian people. He's not a firebrand revolutionary talking about radical change on a model that has nothing to do with Haiti and which has no practical chance of success. He's not talking about turning the world upside down or a cultural revolution. He's talking about democratic change within the existing constraints broadly speaking, and working for a slow but significant reform of the existing Haitian institutions to slowly but surely empower ordinary people, and begin to get rid of the type of class-apartheid that structures Haitian society. And that is the thing that is very inspiring to most people and was threatening to the elite.
In this regard, Aristide still has a part to play. Aristide himself has said that he doesn't want to stand again as president for Haiti. That remains his position at the moment. He does want to go back to Haiti to help strengthen Fanmi Lavalas, which remains the most powerful political organization in the country. And that's the thing I think his enemies in Canada, and in other parts of the world, are most afraid of. That's the last thing they want to happen. You know this line, "Aristide belongs to the past, and we need to move onto the future," that basically means that popular politics in Haiti should come to an end, and that they should accept a version of a kind of democracy that's been imposed on them by very undemocratic organizations and other governments and NGOs funded by USAID and CIDA and transnational technocrats in the IMF and World Bank who will manage the country in the interests of the ruling class. That's what it boils down to. That the people who would want to mobilize for something different, those people, should accept their lowly place in society.
The mainstream conventional "wisdom" reported in the press and stated in privileged countries like Canada, the U.S. and France is that Haiti is a "failed state." While other, more historically versed, Haiti watchers counter that it is the world that has failed Haiti. It also seems that this type of coverage is analogous to the way the mainstream media often covers Africa. What are your thoughts on who's failing whom, and to what degree do race and racism play a role in how western media and governments continue to misrepresent Haiti?
It is fundamentally racist. The only way that this level of propaganda can begin to be understood is if the story begins with the racist attitude that "these people are black." And that's why we (in the west) can characterize them (Haiti and Haitians) as "undemocratic," and "intransigent," "unreasonable," "irrational" and a few other things. Even though the most basic look at the facts at the international role in Haiti will show that that is complete crap. From the beginning of Haiti's history, after winning their freedom from slavery, and setting an example that was profoundly threatening to the world's imperial powers, they've had to fight to keep the world from closing its ranks on them.
Yes, 1804, in terms of an example of true freedom and democracy, Haiti provided the world with a wondrous example of the success of a double-revolution âe" a revolution for independence from France and a revolution against slavery. And it was both incredibly sad and remarkable that on January 1, 2004, when the world should have been celebrating the bicentennial of the truest accomplishment of freedom and democracy that our planet has ever seen, the western world ignored it. I believe only a handful of countries sent official delegates. Canada, the U.S. and France sent no one. When you think back to the blanket coverage that the world's mainstream press gave to the American and French bicentennial celebrations, the difference is stark, shocking and shameful.
It is outrageous. Truly outrageous. South Africa's President Mbeki should be credited. He was one of the only high-profile people to go to Haiti's historic bicentennial. Mbeki also made the connection between Haiti's struggle and victory over slavery and South Africa's over apartheid. It really is a scandal that so few world leaders attended.
It's also a cruel irony of history that Haiti was also robbed of a proper anniversary to mark the day that Haiti's first-ever democratically elected leader was removed from office for a second time, as this latest coup happened on the leap year date of February 29, 2004. So when earlier this year we had our first leap year since the coup (February 29, 2008), I was expecting, yes perhaps naively, that the mainstream media might have some form of coverage of this historic international event, given that it was the first time in four years that the actual date was before us. Yet, incredibly, there was none, and I mean no North American media coverage whatsoever, except for a very brief mention in the Miami Herald. What are your other thoughts on why the mainstream media coverage is so terrible when it comes to Haiti?
I also saw really no coverage from my vantage point in the U.K. I was trying get on or get some kind of acknowledgement on radio, and I couldn't get anywhere with that. Well, mainstream media does the job that it seems it's designed to do. Which is to preserve or promote a type of corporate agenda that doesn't ask fundamental questions about why the world is the way it is. If you look at a place like Haiti, it's very difficult to look at it without calling into question some of the things that structure the world the way the world is.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.