The Second Fall of Aristide

— Robert Fatton, Jr.

MANY OBSERVERS IN the progressive community have argued that the forced departure into exile of Haiti’s former President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, had little to do with his own policy failures or the country’s domestic class structure. Instead they blame the international community and especially American imperialism. While there is some truth to this argument, it is ultimately flawed; it ignores Haitian agency and exaggerates the omnipotence of U.S. hegemony.

There is no doubt that the Bush administration had little sympathy for Aristide. While it reluctantly acknowledged his legitimacy as president of Haiti, it opposed him for ideological reasons and starved his regime of badly needed foreign assistance. Formulated and exercised by two ultra-conservatives, Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, Washington’s policy was bent on empowering Aristide’s adversaries.

The United States encouraged and financed the development of the opposition regrouped in Convergence Démocratique and the Groupe des 184. Moreover, while it may not have directly supported the rise of the armed insurgency, Washington clearly knew that unsavory elements of the disbanded Haitian army were training in the Dominican Republic with the objective of violently overthrowing Aristide, and yet did nothing to stop them.

In fact, the United States simply abandoned Aristide even though he agreed to the terms of a CARICOM-engineered compromise — a compromise that the opposition rejected, although it would have emasculated Aristide’s powers and generated a government of national unity.

Instead of compelling the opposition to accept this deal, the White House ominously “called into question [Aristide’s] fitness to continue to govern” and urged “him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility, and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti.”

In short, once the armed insurgency began and chaos engulfed the country, the Bush administration with the help of the French government seized the opportunity to force Aristide’s exit.

Why Aristide Failed

Imperial America, was not, however, the sole reason for Aristide’s fall. In fact, the material basis of Haiti and its accompanying class structure generated powerful systemic constraints on his capacity to govern effectively.

The absolute chasm separating the wealthy minority from the abjectly poor majority inevitably fuelled social polarization and class hatred. With the coming to power of Aristide and his Lavalas movement in 1990, the marginalized masses — the moun andeyo — had finally asserted their political, moral and cultural presence in a system that had always denied them any humanity.

Fearing the ascendancy of this vast popular movement and viscerally hating everything that Aristide represented, Haiti’s dominant classes never ceased to oppose, undermine and challenge Lavalas’ rule. The dominant classes were simply determined to preserve their status, wealth, and privilege. In their eyes, any redistribution of resources in an environment of utter scarcity was simply unacceptable.

Thus, based on an extremely weak economic foundation, the island’s class structure inhibited the flowering of truly progressive changes. Suffering from the absence of both a productive bourgeoisie and a large working class, Haiti’s process of democratization was bound to be hesitant, contradictory and incomplete.

The absence of these two fundamental classes has meant that the country evolved into a predatory democracy. By predatory democracy I mean a system of governance based on a zero-sum game of power where factions of the political class fight for supremacy, where elected officials at the highest level are controlled by opaque private forces, where elections are held regularly and are usually fraudulent, and where public administrators claim to save the constitution by continuously violating its spirit and its laws.

Lavalas’ predicament was not, however, the exclusive result of structural constraints, imperial manipulations and ruling-class opposition, but also of its own making. Indeed, Aristide’s demise would have been very unlikely had it not been for his own policies, decisions and messianism.

Aristide did little to transform the inherited authoritarian tradition. He armed young unemployed thugs, the Chimères, to intimidate the opposition; he sought to govern alone as a messiah; and he resisted for too long making meaningful concessions.

While voicing a radical rhetoric, Aristide followed the neoliberal strictures of structural adjustment. For instance, in collaboration with the Dominican government, he opened a major free-trade zone near the town of Ouanaminthe. In addition, his regime was incapable of resisting the temptations of corruption in spite of its promise of “peace of mind and peace in the belly.”

Finally, many Lavalas high cadres contributed to the perverse persistence of the “narco-state” inherited from the military dictatorship.

The Collapse

Not surprisingly, Aristide lost the unconditional popular support he once enjoyed and his hold on his Chimères became elusive. In fact, the Chimères began to turn against him. The assassination of Amiot Metayer, the leader of the Gonaives’ Chimères, the “Cannibal Army,” generated violent anti-Lavalas protests and marked the beginning of the armed insurrection that ultimately forced Aristide into exile.

Convinced that it was Aristide himself who ordered Metayer’s murder, the “Cannibal Army,” led by Metayer’s brother Butteur, swore to wage war against the president until he was overthrown. In the process, Aristide lost the ability to co-opt and play his Chimères off against one another. When former soldiers and death squad leaders of the disbanded army joined forces with the “Cannibals,” Aristide’s fate was virtually sealed.

Besieged by the harsh material realities of a devastated economy, his own demons, a declining popularity, an armed insurrection, the unmitigated hostility of the civil opposition, and French and American demands for his resignation, Mr. Aristide had no choice but to depart into exile.

This departure was the tragic political demise of a figure who had once enjoyed immense popular support and embodied the aspirations of the vast majority of Haitians for a just and democratic order. That the armed insurgents, former members of the disbanded and despised military, found little popular resistance in their march to power, symbolized Aristide’s ultimate failure.

The triumph of the guns proved, however, that the civil opposition on its own could not topple Aristide. Its conquest of power was ultimately dependent on the insurgents’ capacity to force the issue. Thus, once again, the old Creole proverb, “Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe” (A constitution is made up of paper, but bayonets are made up of steel), defined Haitian politics.

The Crisis

It is in this environment of acute crisis that the United States and France decided to deploy an American-led multinational force of more than 3,000 peacekeepers. The force reestablished a relative measure of order in the country, but failed to disarm the Chimères and the insurgents.

It left that task to a United Nations Stabilization Mission, the so-called Minustah which replaced it on June 1 of last year. While in the past few days Minustah has started to challenge the hegemonic presence of the disbanded Haitian Army, it remains to be seen whether it has the will and capacity to enforce a truly systematic policy of disarmament.

Without such disarmament central authority will stay balkanized and the conditions of endemic insecurity will persist. As a result, Haiti will hover around the abyss, and once the peacekeepers exit the country, a new cycle of violence and repression is likely to set in.

This bloody scenario, coupled with a recent series of major natural catastrophes, has opened the gates to hell. The destitute majority confined to an already miserable material existence is now falling into the absolute poverty brought about by a collapsing economy and an inflationary spiral.

These are the harsh realities confronting the interim regime of President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue installed by American and French military force. While the new regime claims to be nonpartisan, independent and competent, it is on shaky grounds. It has been unable to stem the wave of violent anarchy plaguing the country.

Deriving its authority from foreign forces, the interim regime can barely extend its rule beyond the limits of Port-au-Prince. Ultimately, it is a government that lacks the material resources, coercive means and popular mandate to govern effectively. It has failed to set in motion any credible program that might end the endemic corruption that has plagued Haitian institutions.

Not surprisingly, the Latortue administration has little legitimacy and is confronting a growing sense among all sectors of society, that it is incompetent, petulant and indecisive. In fact, many of those who had supported it initially are now calling for its resignation.

The extent of Latortue’s declining popularity is such that the insurgents of the disbanded army, whom he had cajoled and praised for overthrowing Aristide, have turned against him and are demanding his departure. Thus, in spite of espousing the armed insurgents as freedom fighters and marginalizing and repressing the Lavalas movement, Latortue’s government has managed to alienate most of Aristide’s opponents.

The prospects of any meaningful national reconciliation are fast vanishing even if parliamentary and presidential elections are held at the end of the year as promised.

Salvation From Outside?

These bleak realities have prompted some to advocate for an international protectorate that would take temporary control of Haiti. The suggestion is that for at least ten years, the country should surrender its sovereignty to a well-meaning foreign occupation force that would set the country on the path of economic reconstruction and political reconciliation.

Don Bohning, a long-time observer of the island, has argued:

“If Haiti is to continue as a functioning independent state, alternative options — including a period of international governance — need to be seriously contemplated to stem nearly two decades of unremitting political, economic and social deterioration ... [Ceding] temporary sovereignty to an international body is one option slowly gathering momentum.”

While the idea that Haiti should come under the governance of an international trusteeship is not completely farfetched given its thorough dependence on outside forces, it is unlikely to materialize; and if it did, there is no reason to believe that it would succeed in improving the lot of the destitute majority.

The American occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934 may have created a semblance of an infrastructure and a form of centralized government, but it contributed neither to longterm self-sustaining economic development nor to lasting democratic forms of accountability. In fact, while in some quarters there is a growing nostalgia for the good old days of colonialism, there is little to suggest that foreign dominance can end vicious historical cycles and unleash virtuous ones.

Moreover, the powers that be have no appetite for such ventures; the costs are simply too high, especially for a country like Haiti, which has no strategic value and no significant natural resources. The vicissitudes of the American occupation of Iraq should disabuse those promoting a trusteeship for Haiti. Finally, such a trusteeship would quickly unleash a wave of nationalistic opposition to what Haitians would perceive as a new imperial occupation of the blancs (whites).

But it is not just a matter of nationalism, it is also the fact that the obscene inequalities of the global system are a constant reminder that the so-called “international community” has neither the will, nor the interest in effecting the transformations required for a sane and decent world order.

This is not to absolve the local Haitian ruling class from its utter failure, but to indicate that it is not alone in its resistance to social change and equity.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Haitians eking out a miserable living in a bankrupt economy are exhausted and disenchanted. In the urban slums of Port-au-Prince, significant segments of the Lumpen-youth are again dreaming of and calling violently for Aristide’s third coming. The massive failures of Lavalas seem to be fading away in the face of increasing misery, governmental ineptitude and human rights abuses.

A year after its bicentennial, Haiti is an occupied country confronting a continuing and deepening crisis as well as the fury of the gods. These are indeed baleful times for a nation in utter disarray. As the saying goes, the struggle continues.

ATC 117, July–August 2005