With Friends Like These
Sunday, February 29, 2004
There is something positively Nixonian about the tribulations of Haiti. 'Benign Neglect' may be applied to the malign but covert subversion of Haitian democracy; President Aristide may be seen in Washington as 'twisting slowly in the wind" and the Haitian people may be described in that deathless aphorism of Charles 'Chuck' Colson: "when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."
Colin Powell, secretary of state, speaks glibly about not recognising thugs or any thuggish overthrow of the Haitian Government, but his hands-off attitude suggests that he would rather be in Bosnia. President Bush has, in his usual statesman-like fashion, announced that he has made sure that the Coast Guard clearly understands that no Haitian refugee is to be allowed to set foot in the United States. The UN Convention on Refugees - like most international law, is not something he allows to worry his pretty head.
The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who felt it preferable to take a holiday in Tobago than to attend the Haitian bicentenary and find out what was going on, is, like an old colonial civil servant, dithering for all he is worth. His masterly inactivity would have made any Jamaican colonial secretary proud.
And of course, there are the three mouseketeers, Patterson, Manning and Knight.
Haiti, with its long, heroic, honourable and mostly unknown history, is once again to be sacrificed on the altar of greed, expediency, ignorance and racism.
Behind everything said about Haiti by the major players one gets the feeling that out of an abundance of ignorance they don't want to soil their hands on Haiti. Rather like Simon Bolivar, who, having been fed, watered, financed and armed by Haiti in his quest to liberate South America, promptly forgot his promises to Haiti that having freed the slavemasters from the Spanish yoke, he would free their slaves.
In the whole constellation of stars in this Grand Guignol minstrel show, the only person to emerge with any honour is President Jean-Bertrand Aristide himself.
He is perfectly prepared to die, to defend Haitian integrity and sovereignty, as Henri Christophe declared: "We will never become a party to any treaty, to any condition, that may compromise the honour, or the independence of the Haitian people; that, true to our oath, we will sooner bury ourselves beneath the ruins of our native country, than suffer an infraction of our political rights."
Aristide says the only way he leaves the Presidential Palace before his term is up is if he is dead.
That, of course can be arranged. And, watching the progress of the psychopathic face-choppers and torturers this last week, it may very well have already been arranged.
The press has been squared, the world prepared for Aristide's unfortunate demise, and you may be sure that the entire ignoble cast of characters will have their representatives at his funeral.
What Caricom and the Organisation of American States and the United States have made out of Haiti is an ungovernable mess.
When Aristide was elected first in 1991, there was no democratic tradition in Haiti. The politicians and intellectuals had been killed or driven into exile, and after 20 and 30 years, they were not likely to return, having made lives elsewhere.
Haiti in 1991 was rather like Germany after the Second World War, its dictator gone, but gone too were the working appurtenances of a democratic state, political parties, trade unions, a judicial system etc, because Hitler destroyed them. Aristide had to play the cards he was dealt. A parish priest - a slum priest as the Western press prefers to call him - is unlikely to develop statecraft ministering to an oppressed and desperate flock while trying to escape assassination.
Aristide was always a symbol - with big ideas, it is true - but without the praxis, without the experience and network of contacts to put his ideas into place. He was surrounded by people who depended on patronage, whether rich or poor, and since old habits tend to linger, they proceeded to behave exactly as they had before.
It was Aristide who appointed Cedras who deposed him. And it was because he knew he couldn't trust the army that he dissolved it when he returned to power. Without an army and with a laughably small and half-trained police force, it was always in the cards that gangs would develop in Haiti, as they have in Jamaica, Brazil and other countries, to fill the hiatus left by the state's armed forces. To describe such a situation as an example of Aristide's corruption is not only self-serving, it is dishonourable.
The Americans never liked Aristide. The CIA circulated a rumour in 1993 that he had been treated in a Montreal mental hospital. It was easy for the Americans to decide to withdraw aid when Aristide refused to hand over his Government completely to the World Bank and the IMF. It was easy for his opponents to paint everything that followed as Aristide's fault.
It is almost incredible that Caribbean politicians, reputed to be intelligent, can have fallen for the warmed-up mess of propaganda pottage served up by Aristide's enemies, demanding that he should yield, when it was plain that it was the Opposition which was always intransigent, unreasonable and anti-democratic. Before Aristide was re-elected, the Opposition was saying that it would not recognise him. On the day of his inauguration they decided to inaugurate a president of their own. The situation has only gone downhill from there.
Complicating the equation is the American decision to channel whatever aid they were giving Haiti through NGOs. This, in effect, established a new stream of patronage which, it was obvious, would soon create its own arena of anti-Aristide claimants who could logically blame Aristide for the lack of economic activity and then add rumour, insult, slander or whatever to the mix.
The murder of Haiti's most prominent journalist has been ascribed to Aristide supporters - which in Haiti covers a great deal of ground. Since politics is either pro- or anti-Aristide, Aristide must be the author of any lunacy perpetrated by anyone who claims to support him. On the other hand, the so-called Opposition does not claim that the armed gangsters who support their programme have anything to do with them.
But since the gangsters now appear have superiority of arms, it will be interesting to see what accommodation Messrs Apaid and his fellows make with the Front for Advancement of Progress in Haiti (FRAPH) face-choppers and their assorted hoodlums if they ever ride into Port-au-Prince in their SUVs.
The Haitians clearly saw themselves as their brothers' keepers when they exported revolution in the 19th century. Having gained their own freedom, they decided that it was their duty to help all others in slavery to gain theirs. And in some ways they did, if only by putting pressure on the British by their incendiary example. And to them, the issue of freedom was not a racial issue, but a moral one.
Sad therefore, that 200 years later, in the bicentenary year of the Haitian revolution, the people they helped free have betrayed them for the second time in 10 years, abandoning Haiti to its predators.
In 1994, when Cedras and FRAPH terrorised Haiti, I wrote suggesting that we had a duty to go into Haiti with armed force to chase out the face choppers and restore to the Haitians some semblance of their dignity and rights. Tanzania did a service to Uganda and the world when Nyerere finally decided that Idi Amin needed to go.
In 1994, after months of pressuring Aristide, then in exile, the Americans worked out the 'Governor's Island accords' which, among other things, undertook the reformation and retraining of the army and the police and the peaceful retirement of Cedras with an enormous pension. As the first earnest of this undertaking, the USS Harlan County, a tank-landing ship, was supposed to land the first US troops. Unfortunately for them, FRAPH organised a small mob who fired off some ancient blunderbusses, made 'monkey-faces' at the US ambassador and made the Americans so uncertain about their reception that they weighed anchor, made their excuses and left.
According to an account in the Military Review by Lieutenant Commander Peter J A Riehm, US Navy officer who was part of the expedition: "Television cameras captured the Harlan County turning and steaming out of Port-au-Prince harbour. CNN broadcast the tape of the unceremonious withdrawal with the commentary that the ship had been thrown out of Haiti. The Front for Advancement of Progress in Haiti, an anti-Aristide political organisation, celebrated the first-ever Haitian repulse of the US Navy."
Lt Cmdr Riehm has some further comments on the affair:
One curious dimension to this incident was the identity of the unruly mob. FRAPH had organised the protesters. According to its leader, Emmanual Constant, the anti-Aristide political organisation had been formed in mid-1993 at the urging of the Defence Intelligence Agency and was paid by the CIA to balance what some US agencies perceived as pro-Aristide-Lavalas extremism. . .It thus appears that FRAPH was intended to be a counterpoise to Aristide's liberation theology.Sounds familiar?
By October 1993, the nascent FRAPH was still without any real political clout. It needed a vehicle to shape an image and establish credibility. Fearing retribution should Aristide return, many protesters were reluctant to seek publicity. Persuaded and bribed with whiskey, FRAPH members were thrilled when they realised they had successfully thwarted the US Navy's attempt to enter Port-au-Prince. The Harlan County's departure signaled the solidification of FRAPH as a viable political entity in Haiti.
As Constant stated, "My people kept wanting to run away. but I took the gamble and urged them to stay. Then the Americans pulled out! We were astonished. That was the day FRAPH was actually born. Before, everyone said we were crazy, suicidal, that we would all be burned if Aristide returned. But, now we know he is never going to return."
And now, you do understand democracy, don't you!