Haiti’s New Dictatorship
By Justin Podur
Pluto Press, 2012, 224 pp
Review by Stephen Roblin
Haiti, the poorest and most unequal country in Latin America, is widely recognized as a modern tragedy. This recognition predates the January 2010 earthquake, a socio-natural disaster that killed over 200,000 people. But what has not gained widespread recognition (except among Haitians) is the role of Western powers, particularly France and the United States, in creating the tragedy. Their culpability perhaps helps explain why efforts to account for Haitian plight have followed a stable pattern. “For the better part of two centuries,” writes the journalist-historian Adam Hochschild—“outsiders have been offering explanations that range from racist to learned-sounding–the supposed inferiority of blacks, the heritage of slavery, overpopulation for why Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” It is no coincidence that the one explanation in this list with merit points directly to Western policy. Contemporary Haiti is a victim of the enduring legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, one of the most savage enterprises in human history. But, as Hochschild correctly argues, slavery alone cannot explain why Haiti is worse off than its Caribbean neighbors, since they are also victims of this great crime. To gain perspective on Haiti’s peculiar condition, he draws our attention to the country’s exceptional history, namely its “traumatic and crippling” birth, which he believes is unrivaled.
Formerly a French colony, Haiti won independence in 1804 to become history’s first black republic and only successful slave revolution. It took the former slaves 13 years of violent struggle to defeat their French colonial masters, who waged “a war of extermination” to re-enslave the island’s inhabitants. During this time, the revolutionaries also repelled a British invasion. Deeply threatened by Haitians’ successful defiance of white supremacy, France and other Western powers punished them for breaking their chains. Perhaps the most detrimental punitive response to black liberation occurred in 1825, when France imposed a massive indemnity on Haiti as compensation for the colonists who lost their property (human and land). It took the government 122 years to pay off the debt. Simply put, Haitians have paid a terrible price for slavery and for freeing themselves from it.
The country’s extraordinary birth continues to shape its singular path through history. Haiti is among the other Caribbean nations that, despite their ongoing legal efforts through the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), continue to be denied reparations from the Western nations who benefited enormously from slavery. To protect their ill-gotten economic advantage, the former slaver states oppose reparations as a precaution against “a precedent set under which they could be expected to compensate all of the nations they exploited in colonial times,” states a September 2013 Al Jazeera report on CARICOM’s lawsuit. However, Haiti stands apart in enduring an additional injustice: France’s refusal to pay reparations for imposing the indemnity. It is difficult to think of a more damning indictment of Western civilization than these denials of justice.
Haiti is also exceptional for being the only country in Latin America to have experienced a successful military invasion since the start of the 21st century. According to Western orthodoxy, this event, unlike slavery, was ameliorative, not harmful—irrespective of what the Haitian masses thought. This denial of sovereignty occurred in 2004, when the United States, France, and Canada overthrew Haiti’s democratically-elected government, led by the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and then placed the country under a UN military occupation. The Western powers invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to justify the “humanitarian” intervention, claiming sovereignty could not serve as a shield for president Aristide as his government and its supporters violated democratic and human rights norms with increasing ferocity. Reconstituting democratic governance and protecting the rights of the tormented Haitian populace therefore required removing Aristide from power and restoring the country’s traditional ruling class to power under UN protection. The advocacy component of this humanitarian mission has been called “one of the most impressive propaganda exercises in modern times.” There is no exaggeration in these words. In addition to their traditional allies in the corporate media and NGOs closely aligned with Western governments, foreign and domestic pro-interventionists won over groups traditionally skeptical, even hostile, to Western interventions, like human rights organizations and progressive and radical left activists. And, strikingly, they achieved this despite the vast majority of Haitians’ clear support for the government they elected, which they articulated in demonstration after demonstration.
The 2004 intervention is the topic of Justin Podur’s illuminating and concise study, Haiti’s New Dictatorship. It is a refutation of the Western orthodoxy over Haiti’s recent history. At the center of his study is the question of popular sovereignty and its relationship to democracy, human rights, and development. Podur argues that the loss of Haitian sovereignty has been the enemy of these values. Rather than a liberation, the multilateral intervention reconstituted the structures of “dictatorship”—state violence and repression, centralization of power, impunity, and concentration of wealth and economic power—that have long plagued Haitian society. Podur shows that the primary victims of reconstituted dictatorship have been the Haitian masses. Its benefactors, on the other hand, have been the nation’s traditional elites in the military and business classes, their patrons in Western capitals, the multinational corporations exploiting “one of the most liberal trade regimes in the world,” as well as the international NGOs that now provide the bulk of Haiti’s public services. From his empirical findings, Podur is led to the unorthodox conclusion that “helping Haiti means bolstering its sovereignty: its government’s capacity to resist external predation, to enact policies that are in accord with the will of the majority, to redistribute and develop wealth internally.”
Podur situates his study within the clash of two dominant currents that run through Haiti’s experience in the modern world. One of the currents is its long history of popular struggle for independence from the control and domination of Western powers and native elites. This inspiring record traces back to the slave revolts that culminated in the overthrow of French colonial rule. The modern manifestation of the Haitian liberatory spirit is Lavalas, a popular movement that emerged in the 1980s and led the struggle against the Duvalier dictatorships, which spanned almost three decades (1957-1986). The other current pertains to the Western champions of democracy and their record of teaming up with Haitian elites to stifle the masses’ aspirations for freedom, often through indiscriminate violence, economic sabotage, and other common means of imperial subversion. This historical current entails a long list of policies, such as the genocidal campaign waged by Napoleon’s France during the Haitian revolution, the massive indemnity debt that France imposed on the country, the United States’ refusal to recognize (much less aid) Haitian independence for 58 years—a measure taken to prevent the “moral contagion” of black liberation from infecting slaves in America with “the doctrines of insurrection” the U.S. military occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, and U.S. support for the brutal Duvalier dictatorships.
The clash of these currents has continued since the fall of the Duvaliers. As Podur shows, its focal point has been the structures of dictatorship established over the course of Haitian history, with Lavalas working to dismantle them and Haiti’s elites and their foreign sponsors committed to maintaining them. After the collapse of the Duvalier dynasty, Lavalas continued its popular struggle, demanding economic reforms, an end to corruption, and justice for victims of military and paramilitary violence. In 1990 Haiti held its first ever free election. Haitians elected Lavalas’ leader, Aristide, by a two-thirds majority over the candidate supported by the country’s wealthy elite and Washington. The Aristide administration immediately moved to dismantle the elite’s favorite weapon against the poor—the army—to de-militarize the police, to investigate human rights abuses, and to pursue economic reforms, such as increasing the minimum wage from 33 to 50 cents an hour, which the U.S. actively tried to prevent. Less than a year after his inauguration, Haitian elites struck back against the threat of popular forces: on September 29, 2001, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup, and the country was placed under a paramilitary dictatorship, which rolled back the elected government’s modest reforms and unleashed a reign of terror against Lavalas and the poor masses. The U.S. covertly supported both the coup and the subsequent dictatorship and its paramilitary arm. Four years later, the Clinton administration restored Aristide, who was living in exile in the U.S., to finish the few months left in his term. But it came with strings attached: that he implement a harsh neoliberal regime and not prosecute human rights violations, among other unpopular conditions.
From 1995 to 2004, Lavalas politicians dominated elections. Aristide’s successor, René Préval, won the 1996 presidential election, and Aristide himself claimed victory in 2001. According to Podur, this period marked the greatest degree of Haitian popular sovereignty, though it was still severely constrained from without. Limited sovereign rule was brought to an end in February 2004, when the U.S. abducted Aristide and flew him to the Central African Republic. Meanwhile, U.S., Canadian, and French troops captured the capital, Port-au-Prince, and installed a new government. In reviewing the record from this period, Podur contributes to the important scholarly task of what Peter Hallward has called “anti- demonization, not deification.” This permits recognition of progress made during Lavalas’ decade-long rule. By taking its achievements into account, Podur shows the orthodox contention that Haitian political history is “an unbroken line of dictatorships” to be an oversimplification. He argues, instead, that “the struggle against the deeper structures of the dictatorship (the army, the economic policies, foreign control of Haiti’s affairs) won important successes” when the popular movement “had links to the government.” The most important success was Aristide’s decision to dissolve the army, a desperately needed democratizing measure that the Clinton administration actively opposed.
The 2004 intervention re-established the line of dictatorship. Podur demonstrates the great harm caused by the subversion of Haitian sovereignty by comparing the performance of the Lavalas leadership, focusing primarily on Aristide’s second term in office (2001-04), with the regime that ruled for two years after the coup. He examines their performance in terms of human rights, crime, corruption, development and aid, and finds that “By every single measure, the 2004-06 regime was far worse than the regime it replaced.” In other words, the cure was much worse than the disease. Assessing the record on human rights and democracy is critical since the intervention was justified as a defense of these values. While to date there has been no systematic comparison of the Aristide government’s human rights record to the coup regime’s record, Podur supports empirically his contention that “the coup resulted in human rights violations that dwarfed anything that occurred under Aristide’s presidency.” He refers to two important studies to support this claim: Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood, first published in 2007, and a study released in 2006 by a leading medical journal, the Lancet. Hallward could attribute no more than 30 political murders to the Haitian National Police and groups with (tenuous) links to Lavalas during Aristide’s term, whereas he attributed at least 3,000 killings to the regime installed by the Western powers. The Lancet study found that 8,000 individuals were murdered during the 22 months following the coup. It attributed almost half of the violence to the coup regime’s security forces, demobilized army, and affiliated gangs and the other half to criminals. UN soldiers also committed abuses. Moreover, the study suggests that 35,000 women and girls were raped during this period. Again, forces affiliated with the coup regime and criminals were mostly responsible. The researchers did not detect any murders or sexual assaults by Lavalas members, a finding that contradicts what was depicted in the international press.
Podur reveals another flaw in the humanitarian pretext: the humanitarians should have saved Haitians from the cure, not the disease. The U.S. helped organize opponents of Lavalas from within the Haitian elite into an anti-Lavalas political coalition called Convergence Démocratique (CD). Its goal was to remove Lavalas (and hence the poor masses) from the political scene. Its leaders did not keep secret their eagerness to circumvent constitutional democracy in order to achieve this goal. In fact, as early as February 2001, just three months after Aristide captured over ninety percent of the vote in the presidential election, opposition leaders expressed their desire for an American intervention that would overthrow the elected government and rebuild the Haitian army. They were also willing to settle for their patron to train and arm members of the former military exiled in the Dominican Republic so that they could remove Aristide. Around the same time, a paramilitary organization, which enjoyed safe haven in the Dominican Republic, began committing terrorist attacks across the border. The paramilitaries were led by former members of the army and the death squad responsible for atrocities after the first coup. Paramilitary terror proved to be a decisive component of the overall destabilization campaign carried out by the U.S.-backed political opposition. In the most substantial study to date of the paramilitary insurgency, Jeb Sprague reveals how leaders of the CD and a small clique within the Dominican Republic government provided direct support to the paramilitaries. Sprague also reveals how Washington aided the terror campaign. He found no evidence that the U.S. did anything to stop the paramilitaries, which could have been accomplished by pressuring the Dominican Republic to remove the Haitian paramilitaries from its territory. “Given U.S. political and economic clout, serious U.S. pressure would have been decisive,” Sprague notes. In his view it is very likely that U.S. intelligence agencies provided direct support to the insurgency, though this cannot be confirmed due to government secrecy. There is no doubt, however, that Washington helped create an environment where paramilitary terror could occur. For one, a U.S. arms embargo on Haiti crippled Aristide’s ability to suppress the terror campaign, a point Podur also discusses. Moreover, Bush administration officials like Colin Powell provided propaganda cover for the paramilitaries, denying any connection between them and the U.S.-funded opposition (of which they were fully aware), whitewashing paramilitary terror as “peaceful demonstrations,” and blaming the Aristide government for instability.
After the coup, Washington took the lead in propping up a new regime. It was comprised of members of the political opposition and excluded Lavalas. For the next two years, the coup regime and its international backers presided over a brutal campaign to crush Lavalas. It was carried out primarily by the paramilitaries and the Haitian police, who murdered thousands of Lavalas members and supporters, and arrested and tortured countless others. Podur shows how the U.S., Canada, and France not only allowed the violent cleansing to occur under their watch, but actively contributed to it. The same can be said for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), to which the U.S. subcontracted the occupation. While the cleansing was taking place, Haiti’s coup regime rolled back the progressive reforms made during the period of Lavalas rule and instituted a harsh neoliberal economic regime, at the behest of Western officials and the World Bank. In fact, one of the first actions taken was to add to the large pool of unemployed by firing 12,000 government employees.
Podur’s study goes on to demonstrate how Haiti has yet to regain its sovereignty and remains plagued by the lasting effects of its violent negation. For example, he dedicates a chapter to the 2010 earthquake, in which he discusses the disastrous emergency response and reconstruction efforts and argues that their deficiencies can be attributed to the same dynamic responsible for the immediate post-Aristide crisis: international actors, in particular the U.S., acting in a way that further undermined Haitian capacity and sovereignty. This has not changed since the book’s publication. Funding has been one of the primary means of increasing foreign dependence. An April 2013 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that only one percent of the $1.15 billion in aid that Washington pledged after the quake went to Haitian companies. The “vast majority” went to U.S. contractors and NGOs. We can safely rule out Haitian well-being as the primary determinant for the character of U.S. reconstruction efforts. Last January, editors from the New York Times wrote, “The signature American-led redevelopment project—an industrial park in Caracol, on Haiti’s north coast, which was supposed to create as many as 60,000 jobs—had created 2,590 at the end of 2013.” They added, “garment factories at Caracol and elsewhere routinely violate Haitian minimum-wage laws and pay most workers too little to live on.” These findings are not surprising, given Washington’s consistent opposition to reforms that could have realistically lifted the Haitian masses out of abject misery.
In my view, it should be stressed that Podur views the deep erosion of democracy, human rights, rule of law, etc. in the aftermath of the 2004 coup as “entirely predictable.” Indeed, only tragedy could come from removing the Haitian masses from the center of political life and empowering their traditional enemies in the wealthy and military classes, which is precisely what the multilateral intervention accomplished.
If the delivery into tyranny was so predictable, then how did the Western powers and their Haitian clients manage to complete their project? One of the most valuable aspects of Podur’s study is how he tackles this question. The massive disinformation campaign against the Lavalas government proved indispensable for the primary coup architects, namely the political opposition, paramilitaries, and their foreign government backers. In evaluating the mechanics of the coup, he shows how a diverse set of actors—foreign governments, Haitian elites, paramilitaries, the domestic and international media, Western NGOs, human rights organizations, etc., advanced an anti-Aristide and—Lavalas “narrative.” By drawing on political-economy perspectives, Podur discusses how and why the Western and Haitian private media, NGOs, and human rights organizations contributed to the disinformation campaign. The common denominator was that they had institutional ties or sympathies to the coup architects, but not the Haitian masses. The result was that the masses, who overwhelmingly supported the government, were largely excluded from the shaping of the “narrative.” Their exclusion made it easy for Aristide and Lavalas to be depicted as the disease, which enabled the coup architects to neutralize and even co-opt groups typically opposed to Western imperialism and then implement their cure—the violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government.
Podur views the 2004 coup and the coup regime as “experiments in a new kind of imperialism.” While employing tried-and-true methods like propaganda and proxy warfare, the interventionists broke new ground in co-opting human rights groups, progressives, and radicals with “a few thousand dollars and some cheap rhetoric.” According to him, “The coup was a successful experiment in dividing and confusing solidarity movements and progressives, who ought to have been the first constituency to respond and the constituency with the clearest understanding of what had occurred.”
Also fundamental to the success of the intervention was the acquiescence and participation from governments in the region. “It was also a highly successful experiment,” Podur writes, “in winning progressive Latin American regimes over to local collaboration with imperialism. In the case of Lula’s Brazil (and to a lesser extent Chile), blunting its foreign policy independence and getting it to go along, willingly, with the suppression of the sovereignty of another country in the Americas, was significant achievement for the U.S.” In the region, only CARICOM, Venezuela, and Cuba took steps to oppose the program of the interventionists. In contrast, the 2002 coup in Venezuela was strongly opposed across the hemisphere, with the exception of the U.S. and Canada.
Podur’s insightful and concise overview of Haiti’s recent history is an important work of revisionist scholarship that contains valuable lessons, particularly for outsiders who want to contribute constructively to the ongoing struggle for freedom and dignity in Haiti. Chief among them is recognizing that the defense of popular sovereignty is fundamental to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and development, a lesson that applies far beyond the borders of Haiti. It is a great tragedy that this lesson eluded so many in human rights, progressive, and left-wing circles in the West, who either failed to confront or actively aided Washington and its allies’ imperial designs in Haiti. Podur is right to call on us to acknowledge and contemplate this tragic failure of solidarity. And we should reflect on the fact that Haitians are the ones suffering its consequences, not us.