08 February 2004

The Cannibal Army

Common Sense
John Maxwell

My columns on Haiti have drawn more feedback than any before. Most of my respondents agree with me, as may be expected, but I have received some reasoned arguments against my position.

My position, briefly, is that Haiti is too important to the cause of Liberty and to black people all over the world for anyone to be allowed to hijack the nation for any reason whatever. Haiti must be Haitian, ruled by Haitians for Haitians.

As Lou Dobbs plaintively said of the USA this week on CNN "this is not just a market, this is a nation."

Haiti needs help, to constitute itself into the dream of all those who fought and won Haitian independence, for those inspired by Haiti to throw off the chains of imperial Europe, for all those who understand the significance of slaves freeing themselves, a feat never before accomplished in human history.

Haiti needs help just to survive.

This week, US Congresswoman Maxine Waters denounced those who said Haiti had nothing to celebrate in this bicentennial year. " We must understand that this Ônothing to celebrate' talk is consistent with the long-standing attitudes of those who never supported the Haitian people, and never wanted Haiti to be owned by Africans. It is consistent with those who have always had their hands deep in the Haitian economy, and who are determined to deny the Haitian people pride in themselves and pride in their spectacular history."

'An International crime-scene'

One of the people from whom I got feedback suggested that President Aristide is a 'rightist authoritarian' who appeared to be behind an 'orchestrated campaign' which included the 'brutal repression' of the student movement by gangs paid for and organized by the Aristide government. He suggests that I should go to Haiti to see for myself that what he says is true.

On the other hand I have got letters from people, including an expatriate civil rights lawyer working in Haiti for several years. He wrote "Your recent column was one of the most lucid and perceptive accounts I have seen. Keep up the good work, Haiti's poor need (and have always needed) more people like you."

Another of my correspondents eloquently described Haiti as an 'international crime scene', a nation hijacked and sequestered from its freedom by forces outside of its control.

I have received responses from people inside and outside of Haiti, residents, citizens and non-citizens, from journalists and others, most of whom feel that the present situation in Haiti has been engineered to curtail Haitian freedom, and to deny the ordinary Haitian the chance to become a free citizen of the world.

On Friday, the news agencies announced that a gang describing itself as "the Cannibal Army" had taken control of Haiti's fourth largest municipality, Gonaïves. Gonaïves is a city of about 60,000 in the north east of the gulf formed by the two peninsulas which stretch out towards Cuba. Gonaïves is significant for two reasons: first is that it is the site where Haitian Independence was proclaimed 200 years ago; second, it is the site of a murder which Aristide's enemies attribute to forces controlled by Aristide.

According to the anti-Aristide forces, a former Aristide supporter named Amiot Metayer was murdered by Aristide forces because he had turned against Aristide. Metayer was a popular hero, a so,eti,e Aristide strongman who had been serving time in prison. He was also the leader of the Cannibal Army gang. A jail-break by forces still unidentified released Metayer and several other people. Metayer was shortly afterwards murdered.

The pro-Aristide forces maintain, however, that the 'springing' of Metayer from jail was a cover for the freeing of a number of anti-Aristide gangsters, members of the FRAPH a right-wing terrorist force allied to the Cedras dictatorship. According to the pro-Aristide side, Thursday's capture of Gonaïves by the "Cannibale Armée" completed the second part of a plot to free the FRAPH gunmen remaining in prison after the prison break which freed Metayer.

Intransigence and Obfuscation

I do not pretend to be an authority on Haiti and particularly not on what is happening on its streets at this moment., It should be clear, however, to anyone who has followed what's been reported about Haiti over the past few years that the Haitian Opposition is a collection of people who do not appear to care what damage they do to Haiti as long as they get their way. In the 1970s the Jamaica Labour Party behaved in somewhat the same fashion but never went as far as saying that it did not recognise the government or in attempting to set up a parallel administration, in say, May Pen.

Three years ago on February 7, 2001 on the eve of the second inauguration of Jean Bertrand Aristide as President of Haiti, the opposition coalition announced that it was forming an alternative government. The coalition, calling itself the Democratic Convergence announced that it had selected a President, Geffrard Gourgue, a law professor who had in 1987 been briefly part of the junta which succeeded Jean Claude Duvalier.

At that time the government (of President René Preval) and the Opposition had been negotiating about various differences between them, mainly to do with the disputed elections of seven senators Essentially, the dispute was about a technicality.

The Opposition had first proposed installing a provisional government, then a three member junta and finally what it called a Government of National Consensus. To them, Aristide was simply unacceptable, despite his getting legitimately 67% of the votes cast.

The Aristide Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family Lavalas meaning Landslide, Avalanche or Cloudburst) rejected the oppositions demands as unconstitutional.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters believes that the opposition in Haiti is trying to foment a coup d'état. "They claim that they are staging peaceful protests, but that is not what they are actually doing. It is my impression that the opposition, led by Andy Apaid, is simply involved in a power grab. They want to place a council of their choosing in charge of the government and the country, instead of accepting the will of the people and respecting Haiti's democratically elected president. And they want to make sure that the governing council represents only their interests as members of Haiti's bourgeoisie. They want their group, 'the elite', to totally control Haiti. The opposition's protests are becoming increasingly violent and the United States Government, my government, is not providing the required leadership. It is not meeting its responsibility to help de-escalate the crisis in Haiti. The situation there is serious." The Congresswoman wants the US to "get tough" with the Haitian Opposition.

In all the negotiations over the years the Opposition has simply refused to have any dealings with the country's lawfully elected President Aristide who has a much better title to his office than President George Bush.

The leader of this Opposition, André Apaid, is a millionaire businessman of Middle Eastern extraction whose family has been in Haiti for decades. He is the leader of the elites, the unreconstructed class of light-skinned and white Haitians who have never forgiven the blacks for defeating France, Spain and Britain on their way to independence. They were extreme racists 200 years ago, and some of them still are today, although one imagines that like the elites in Jamaica, many would have accommodated themselves to reality.

Cheap Labour the only Resource?

Haiti is one of the world's poorest countries and Dr Paul Farmer, who I mentioned last week, was reported by Tracy Kidder in the Nation (Oct 2003) as saying "there's no topsoil left in a lot of the country, there are no jobs, people are dying of AIDS and coughing their lungs out with TB, and the poor don't have enough to eat. These are problems in the here and now. Something has to be done. Haiti is flat broke"

According to some businessmen, cheap labour is Haiti's only resource.

Opposition leader Apaid owns several factories of the free-zone kind maquiladoiras in which Haitians work for low wages. In 1997 the American anti-sweatshop NGO the National Labour Committee described his operation:
"Alpha Sewing produces industrial gloves for Ansell Edmont of Coshocton, Ohio, which is owned by Ansell International of Lilburn, Georgia, which in turn is owned by Pacific Dunlop Ltd. of Melbourne, Australia. Ansell Edmont boasts in its promotional literature that it is the world's largest manufacturer of safety gloves and protective clothing, but the workers at Alpha Sewing do not have even the most basic safety protection. They produce Ansell Edmont's "Vinyl-Impregnated Super-Flexible STD" gloves with bare hands; Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), the chemical that toughens the glove, also takes off layers of skin. And the dust from the production of the "Vinyl-Coated Super Comfort Seams-Rite" gloves gives many workers respiratory problems. Hours at the plant are from 6 am to 5:30 pm, Monday through Saturday, and often from 6 am to 3:30 pm on Sunday as well--a 78-hour work week. Approximately 75% of the workers make less than the [Haitian] minimum wage. In April, 1995, a worker who refused to work on Sunday so that he could go to church was fired. When he returned to pick up his severance pay, the manager called the UN police and reported a burglar on the premises. The UN police arrived and promptly handcuffed the worker. After protests from the other employees, the UN police finally let the worker go. The next day, management began firing, three at a time, four at a time, all those workers who had protested the arrest."
According to the National Labour Committee "Apaid is a notorious Duvalierist. When asked at a business conference in Miami soon after the coup in 1991 what he would do if President Aristide returned to Haiti, Apaid replied vehemently, 'I'd strangle him!' At the time, Apaid was heading up USAID's PROMINEX business promotion project, a $12.7 million program to encourage US. and Canadian firms to move their businesses to Haiti."

Apaid reportedly has US citizenship, having been born in the US

It is of course, perfectly possible that a businessman-politician who owns sweatshops is a die-hard democrat. Whatever Apaid's ideology, for the Haitian Opposition to attach itself to an organisation calling itself the Cannibal Army would not seem to encourage confidence. As Congresswoman Waters asks: "Why can't the Haitian Opposition submit itself to elections like any other party in this democratic world? What makes them so special?"

It is a question Caricom should be asking.


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