Ten Years After the Coup in Haiti, Democracy is Still Under Siege

by Dan Beeton (CEPR)

It has been 10 years since the February 29, 2004 coup d’etat that ousted the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. Paramilitary groups – including many former members of Haiti’s disbanded army and/or CIA-funded death squads – had engaged in a campaign of violence directed against supporters of the government, and the Haitian National Police (HNP), for years before. Supported by the Dominican government and advised by groups based in Washington, they unleashed a wave of terror, killing innocent civilians including children and women, assaulting and brutalizing others, and burning down police stations and other government buildings. In the end, however, these groups seem to have realized they could not mount a successful incursion into Port-au-Prince, and it was a U.S. plane that flew Aristide out of the country.
As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot wrote after the coup, Washington also directed international financial institutions to withhold funds from the Aristide government (some of which were designated for potable water – their being withheld helping to create the conditions for the cholera epidemic several years later):
[T]he Administration has been working on toppling Aristide for the past three years, plunging the country into chaos in the process.
The major international financial institutions (IFI’s) — including the IMF, World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, supported the administration’s destabilization efforts by cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars in credit to one of the most desperately poor countries in the world.
The pretext was a dispute over the election of seven senators of Aristide’s party in 2001. Aristide offered every possible solution but it didn’t matter. With Washington and the IFI’s backing them, the opposition refused any agreement short of Aristide’s resignation.
In the end, Aristide did not resign – although the Bush administration claimed he did. Aristide himself claimed instead that he was the victim of a “kidnapping in the service of a coup d’etat.” His account is verified by witnesses, as Randall Robinson has pointed out in his account of events related to the coup. Bundled onto a plane, he and First Lady Mildred Aristide were flown to an unknown destination, what turned out to be the Central African Republic.

The coup took place amidst what can only be seen as a massive disinformation campaign against Haiti’s popular and democratic government. Scholars such as Jeb Sprague and Peter Hallward have combed through previously classified U.S. government documents and conducted countless interviews with people involved. Often the perpetrators of the destabilization of the Aristide government have been open in discussing their activities and who supported them. Accounts of grave human rights abuses by the Aristide government – often promoted by Haitian organizations that had essentially been bought off – have now been shown to be false, but at the time they were carried in the domestic and international media and did much to harm Aristide’s reputation. They also served as a pretext for the political persecution of members of Aristide’s government, including Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert,  and leaders and prominent supporters of the Fanmi Lavalas party such as Annette Auguste and the late FatherGerard Jean-Juste.
In the coup’s wake, the people of Haiti experienced one of the country’s worst human rights disasters in recent times. Human rights researchers estimate that some 4,000 people were killed for political reasons, with killings targeting members of Fanmi Lavalas and opponents of the coup and of the interim government imposed on the country; some massacres carried out in broad daylight. Others were falsely imprisoned, or forcibly disappeared. Some 35,000 women and girls reported having been the victim of sexual assault; of these “officers from the Haitian National Police accounted for 13·8% and armed anti-Lavalas groups accounted for 10·6% of identified perpetrators” according to a study in The Lancet. Some of the same paramilitaries who had rampaged through Haiti from 2000 up to the coup carried out the violence while the interim government and international community stood by. (Many of them would be integrated into the HNP, as Sprague explains in detail.) Other atrocities were committed by the HNP, sometimes with the involvement or tacit support of MINUSTAH (U.N. mission) troops. At the urging of Haiti’s powerful elite, HNP officers and MINUSTAH troops carried out deadly raids into slums in order to eliminate “gang” leaders, often killing bystanders in the process.
International human rights organizations paid little attention to what was almost certainly the largest human rights crisis in the hemisphere at the time, and the international media even less. A few brave journalists – usually independent –documented some of these events.

While the intensity of the post-coup human rights crisis may have been greater, this period of political persecution and repression never really ended. Fanmi Lavalas leaders and supporters have continued to find themselves targeted. In 2007, when René Préval was president, human rights activist and Fanmi Lavalas supporterLovinsky Pierre-Antoine was kidnapped and disappeared. International cries of alarm were met with rumors that it was a “fake” kidnapping, and that Lovinsky was trying to get attention. He has never been found. More recently, leading human rights activist Daniel Dorsainvil and his wife Girldy Lareche were murdered, and a new round of bogus accusations have been leveled against Annette Auguste, Mirlande Libérus Pavert and others relating to the still-unsolved murder of journalist Jean Dominique in 2000, while some of the individuals that evidence links most closely to the crime are ignored. More well-known is that Fanmi Lavalas as a party has beenarbitrarily excluded from elections since the coup.

Aristide’s return to Haiti from forced exile in 2011 – against the U.S. government’s wishes and efforts to convince the South African government to stop him – has undermined the various false accusations leveled at him and Fanmi Lavalas. For years, we heard that Aristide would likely face charges of corruption and human rights crimes if he ever returned to Haiti. Nearly three years later, he has yet to be charged with anything. As Aristide’s attorney Ira Kurzban wrote before Aristide’s return to Haiti – and as still holds true, he is “charged with no crime” and “The New York Times noted during his first exile (1991-1994), [Aristide] ‘won Haiti’s first and only democratic election overwhelmingly,’ followed by a “seven-month tenure [that] was marked by fewer human-rights violations and fewer boat people than any comparable period in modern Haitian history.’”
The coup and the events after also are part of a pattern of foreign intervention in Haiti going back centuries, and such interference continues today as well, as the U.S. government seeks to “manage Haiti” through the ongoing MINUSTAH presence and other means. Along with the U.S. government, France and Canada also overtly supported the undermining and removal of the Aristide government (France motivated in part by Aristide’s call for it to pay back the ransom it demanded Haiti hand over as a price for its independence). This intervention has continued, notably – as recently recounted by former Organization of American States (OAS) Special Representative to Haiti Ricardo Seitenfus — in the 2010 threatened removal of then-President Préval (via airplane, a la Aristide) and the blatant intervention by the OAS – led by the U.S., Canada and France – in Haiti’s elections, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of governing party candidate Jude Célestin with Michel Martelly in the run-off. Martelly would go on to win the presidency despite receiving votes from less than 17 percent of the electorate in the second round.
In order for Haiti to be able to move beyond the 2004 coup and the subsequent political and human rights crisis, this foreign intervention must end. Fanmi Lavalas and other political parties must be allowed to participate in elections, and the Haitian people’s will freely expressed in choosing its government and its own path forward. This is called national sovereignty and democracy, and it is unfortunately what powerful outside interests have been trying to impede in Haiti for over 210 years.