Five years ago, on February 29, 2004, Haiti’s popular, elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by a right-wing paramilitary rebellion that received essential material and political backing from the United States, France, Canada and neighbouring Dominican Republic.
Tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of Haitians will commemorate this event with angry protests at the end of this month, directing their anger at the foreign occupation authority that took control of their country and has brought it to ruin.
An apparatus of the UN Security Council, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, has played a dominant role in the affairs of the country since 2004. It is the only political/military mission in UN history to intervene in a member country without the assent of its government or major political forces.
MINUSTAH consists of 10,000 military, police and administrative personnel. It spends some US$600 million per year, double the annual budget of Haiti’s national government. Brazil plays the leading role in the military side of the UN operation.
On December 16 of last year, tens of thousands of Haitians marched across the country to protest MINUSTAH’s heavy-handed police and military patrols. The rallies condemned its failure to direct its resources towards tackling the country’s crushing poverty.
Country in ruin
Conditions at every level have worsened in Haiti since 2004. Poverty and hunger are rising. Agricultural production is weak and suffered further blows following a succession of four hurricanes this past summer.
Malnutrition is widespread and starvation appeared in some pockets of the country after the storms. Unemployment is estimated at 80 per cent.
Half of Haiti’s children do not attend school. Half of its 9 million people have no access to medical care. The medical situation would be a whole lot worse but for networks of clinics operated by the Cuban government, Zanmi Lasante (founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health project) and Doctors Without Borders.
The Haitian people are running out of patience. Demands and protests are growing for the mission to end.
Another measure of this popular anger was the visit to Washington by President Réné Préval in early February. He met with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first foreign leader to do so. He called on her government and international financial institutions to assist Haiti with $100 million in immediate aid.
"Political stability has been restored," he said, "but what is necessary is the creation of jobs."
Préval also said he wants an end to the U.S. policy of channelling all its aid money to Haiti through non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It should instead go directly to the sovereign government, which Preval says can do a better job in most cases.
This is an explosive issue in Haiti, not only because so much NGO money is wasted on foreign salaries and bureaucracies but also because NGOs have been used by the big powers as a weapon against Haitian sovereignty.
Most of the largest international NGOs operating in Haiti supported the overthrow of Aristide in 2004, or they acquiesced through silence.
Human rights agencies such as Amnesty International and the Washington-based Human Rights Watch were largely silent during the foreign-appointed regime of human rights violations that ruled Haiti from 2004 to 2006 and was responsible for thousands of Aristide supporters being jailed, exiled or killed.
Political confrontations growing
Préval’s claim that "political stability has been restored" in Haiti since his election in February 2006 is belied by recent events.
In early February, the Provisional Electoral Council that oversees elections in the country announced that it had rejected all 17 candidates registering on behalf of Fanmi Lavalas for a senatorial election scheduled for April 19. The party was founded by Aristide and colleagues in 1996. The election is to fill 12 of the Senate’s 30 seats.
The council cited inadequacies in the paperwork filed by candidates. Following its announcement, it vacated its offices and locked the door in anticipation of angry protests.
Political divisions within Lavalas have caused two slates to be submitted for the election.
A return by Aristide?
Fanmi Lavalas was barred from the 2006 election by virtue of the widespread political repression under the 2004 to 2006 regime.
Conditions were somewhat improved a few months later when a flawed election to the parliament was held, but the repression had taken a heavy toll on the party’s capacity to respond to the political openings that followed Préval’s election.
In popular quarters, many voices are insisting on a return of the ousted president to the country, meaning also a return to the progressive reforms that his administrations had initiated or attempted.
Aristide lives in exile in South Africa. Speculation swirls in Haiti and among the 2 million Haitians living abroad as to whether and when he could return to the country.
His personal security would be vulnerable. The foreign powers would do their all to block a return, because it would unleash a torrent of popular welcome that would put a lie to their claims that he was an unpopular leader whose "removal" in 2004 was welcomed by the majority.
A return by Aristide would set up expectations among the masses that would be difficult to meet, given the hostility of the foreign powers and the fact that they have their hands all over the purse strings of the Haitian government and state.
A public forum in Boston on January 27 highlighted the problem of respect for Haiti’s sovereignty that, according to participants, lies at the root of Haiti’s poverty and underdevelopment.
One of the panelists, Brian Concannon of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), explained in an interview that it’s difficult for the big powers to assist with improvements to the judicial system in Haiti because of their support to the 2004 coup and the widespread political persecutions that followed.
They have no credibility with Haitians when they try to lecture Haitian judges or police officials about respect for laws and human rights.
The IJDH works in partnership with the most important human rights offices in Haiti, the Office of International Lawyers (Bureau des avocats internationaux).
Concannon is hopeful that the new administration in Washington will end the blatant policy of intervention in recent years that led to the coup of 2004.
But he adds that more far-reaching change is needed. "The U.S., in particular, must end the long, sad history of interference in Haiti’s political affairs. That’s the starting point for a change in Haiti that we can believe in — respect for the sovereignty of the country and the political choices of its people."
Paul Farmer, author of The Uses of Haiti and founder of the renowned Partners in Health (PIH), told the Boston meeting, "Of the ten countries in which I work in the world, the policies of privatization and of directing aid and charity funds to private, rather than public, agencies are taken to their furthest extreme in Haiti."
"Over the past eight years in the U.S., for example, the great majority of assistance to Haiti went through the private sector-NGOs, church groups, etc. Very little went to public sector agencies."
"Of course, it’s hard to know what Haitians governments would do [if foreign funding went directly to them] because they must constantly worry about being overthrown by some violent coup."
PIH’s partner in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante, has a network of medical clinics that reaches one million people in the remotest parts of Haiti.
Actor Matt Damon spoke to the meeting about his visit to Haiti in September 2008, following the hurricanes that had struck. He was invited by Haitian-born international music star Wyclef Jean for a tour of the devastated regions of the country.
He called the poverty he witnessed, "Almost indescribable. Extreme poverty — people living on $1.25 per day or less — with a natural disaster, the hurricanes, piled on top.
"This is not a way that human beings should have to exist."
Damon said Haiti needs "a Marshall Plan," referring to the massive reconstruction of European countries following World War II.
This article orginally appeared in Green Left Weekly and is reprinted with permission.
Roger Annis visited Haiti in 2007 as part of a human rights investigative delegation. He is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network and its Vancouver affiliate, Haiti Solidarity B.C.
The Canada Haiti Action Network is holding public events to examine conditions in Haiti today on or around the anniversary date of the 2004 coup d’etat in Haiti in the following cities: Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Guelph, Montreal and Fredericton. These include a conference in Ottawa on February 28 titled, "The Ottawa Initiative on Haiti 2009."