Time to support Haiti
On 14st May, if everything goes according to plan, Haiti will inaugurate René Garcia Prèval as its new president. Shortly thereafter, the country will install new senators and deputies for its upper and lower houses of parliament. Mr. Prèval, who served as Haiti's president from 1996 until 2001, will take over the leadership of a country courtesy of a ballot supervised by the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and replace an unelected interim government that has overseen convulsing violence and economic stagnation since the flight of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.
MINUSTAH, lead by former Chilean Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdès and consisting of 7,519 UN peacekeeping troops, 1,776 police and a staff of 1,132 civilian personnel, has been widely and often accurately criticised for its inability to impose order in Haiti's lawless capital, Port-au-Prince. The city has seen hundreds, possibly thousands, killed in waves of kidnappings, gang wars, blanket police retaliation and vigilante justice since Aristide fled amid an armed rebellion and massive street protests against his rule. But the mission, even despite the timid turnout for this month's second-round vote, must nonetheless be congratulated on pulling off in the first round a feat that even a few months before many would have thought impossible: mass participation in an electoral process now widely viewed as legitimate in a country riven by class and political hatreds.
Préval is a complex figure, not at all the Aristide puppet that many have long accused him of being nor the humble country man he sometimes likes to portray himself as. He has a massive task ahead of him: depoliticising and professionalising a police force that was intentionally infiltrated with gang members and criminal elements during Aristide's reign, reversing deforestation estimated at over ninety-eight percent and its attendant environmental catastrophes, and making a more equitable and open economic system in a country where eighty percent of the population is mired in chronic poverty. While it is true that one does not survive as long as Prèval has in Haiti's brutal political climate without having finely honed political skills, the fact that Prèval remained untouched at his home in rural Marmelade in northern Haiti as violence swept through the country in early 2004 (and Aristide loyalists were being killed, jailed or driven off) is testament to just how well-regarded he was by the people in that part of the country. The response of the broader Haitian electorate demonstrated just how much hope people have that he will help ameliorate the situation. Unlike the international community's previous intervention in Haiti when Mr. Aristide was retuned to power and a military government deposed in 1994, this time it is essential that the international community stay involved in Haiti for the long haul.
Had the international community listened to some of the voices in the Haitian debate, these elections might have never occurred. The support of self-described 'progressive' forces outside of Haiti has unfortunately all-too-often fallen by the wayside in deference to short-term political goals. The descent into the facile 'saviour politics' that Mr. Aristide exploited so successfully during his political career came at the expense of a sustained and even-handed attempt to help the vast majority of decent, honest Haitians strengthen their country's institutions, create a more open and equitable economic system and reinforce a truly open, democratic political process. If progressive forces are serious about helping Haiti's eight million people, this is a dynamic which must change.
On 3rd February, four days before Haiti's presidential election, the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), long an uncritical supporter of Mr. Aristide's government, released a statement entitled Botched Job: The UN and the Haiti Elections (2) assailing the ballot. COHA wrote that 'the elections, which are central to the Bush administration's desire to get the island off its foreign policy agenda, are unlikely to offer a way out of the current nightmare of instability, chaos and violence'. In support of this contention, they quoted the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which asserted that the ballot would suffer from a 'lack of democratic legitimacy.'
The IJDH itself is a curious creature. The Miami attorney Ira Kurzban is listed as 'one of the founders of IJDH', and 'a member of the Board of Directors' in a 24th March 2005 letter (3) sent by the IJDH to Santiago A. Canton, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS. According to US Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings, (4) Kurzban's law firm received $3,569,026 from the Aristide government of behalf of its lobbying efforts between 2001 and 2003, and he has been identified as Mr. Aristide's personal attorney in, among other places, a 16th March 2004 press release from the office of United States Representative Maxine Waters. While employed by the Aristide government, in addition to representing its interests in the United States, Mr. Kurzban was responsible for helping to fund (5) the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Haiti, which included on its staff a gifted US attorney, Brian Concannon. Mr. Concannon is now the lead attorney with the IJDH and, though the organisation is ostensibly headquartered in Oregon, where Mr. Concannon resides, donations are directed to be sent to a Florida address, the region where Mr. Kurzban resides. The group's 2005 annual report (6) lists $53,836 of contributions from undisclosed 'individual supporters'.
Mr. Concannon, in an August 2005 interview on Flashpoints Radio in the United States, repeatedly referred to the vote to which Haitians responded so magnificently in February, as a 'phony election', saying that 'ninety percent of the Haitian people want nothing to do with this election.' Echoing Concannon, Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot, who is often unable to get even the basic details of Mr. Aristide's second term in office correct, wrote in The Nation (7) magazine last November that the vote would be a 'farce'.
In tandem with this effort to de-legitimise the vote, Haitian organisations advocating on behalf of the nation's workers and peasantry have been particular victims of a scurrilous campaign. These groups were at loggerheads with the Aristide government due to, among other offences, the brutal (and illegal) March 2002 eviction of peasant farmers from the Maribaroux Plain by government security forces to make way for a low-wage factory there, and the machete attack that same year by government partisans against a group of farm workers agitating for better conditions at a factory in the town of Guacimal. The latter attack left two dead and eleven summarily imprisoned.
When peasant activist Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who has been organising subsistence farmers against abusive governments and working to halt Haiti's environmental degradation in the country's Plateau Central for over thirty years, was the recipient of the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize, the IJDH denounced him on Flashpoints Radio as 'a strong organiser behind the political end of the coup which drove Haitian President Aristide from power' (The award is sponsored by the San-Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation, and is the world's largest prize program honoring grassroots environmentalists). Jean-Baptiste, the leader of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) peasant union and the twenty-thousand member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (MPNKP) (both named for the village of Papay where they are based), was also the subject of a March 2006 article by Tom Reeves in Counterpunch (8) magazine which stated that 'Chavannes was mentored by Aristide since his youth'. This statement was a complete falsehood that ignored the fact that Jean-Baptiste is a full decade older than Aristide and had began organising peasants in 1973 when Aristide, a former priest, was still in seminary school. Providing no supporting evidence, Reeves goes on to write that 'according to former MPP members from Mirebalais and Thomond in the Plateau (towns many miles from Papay)...interviewed in March 2004, Chavannes welcomed (rebel leader Louis Jodel) Chamblain and even held a dinner for his band at Papay.' This allegation stands in stark contrast to a 24th February 2004 communiqué (9) in which Jean-Baptiste and the MPP pointedly, and at no small risk to themselves, said they would not aid the rebels, nor demonstrate for them, stating that 'collaboration (with the rebels) is not possible...We (the MPP) cannot make an alliance with this group just because we are both against Aristide.'
A similar smear campaign has been waged against one of Haiti's most militant and effective labour unions, Batay Ouvirye (Worker's Struggle), for receiving financial support from the liberal AFL-CIO's American Centre for International Labour. This support (10) included $20,000 for a Workers' Centre in the town of Ouanaminthe on the Dominican border and the possibility for an additional $50,000 to facilitate a free trade zone in Port-au-Prince. The organisation had received no money from the AFL-CIO before Aristide's February 2004 ouster. In the midst of the attacks, the New York-based Grassroots Haiti organisation bravely stated that 'the inherent weaknesses in the international left and especially in the US progressive movement (is that) solidarity too often focuses on charismatic leaders with access to state power while overlooking the struggles of actual workers and others on the ground. The international left would be in a better position to criticise if it had been providing a meaningful level of concrete support to Batay Ouvriye and other grassroots organisations over the years.' It is indeed odd to watch privileged North American activists lecturing working-class Haitians on how they are and are not allowed to attempt to better their country's lot.
My own dealings with this current of political thought following the publication of a memoir of my time in the country, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti , written after having spent the better part of a decade visiting and reporting there and having seen first-hand what the Aristide government had become, were of a similar vein. In The New Left Review and on the Znet website, which has quoted the IJDH eight times over the past two years while never mentioning its connection to Aristide, a Canadian activist and occasional journalist by the name of Justin Podur, who speaks no Kreyol and the sum of whose personal experience in Haiti consisted of one month-long trip in the fall of 2005, penned a pair of juvenile personal attacks on myself and the book, producing a supposed 'smoking gun' to discredit the work. This was a statement from one Patrick Elie, denying his presence outside a church, the Eglise Saint Pierre, in the capital on 3rd December 2002 (where I addressed him by name and in English), at the beginning of what became a day of attacks against anti-Aristide demonstrators in Haiti's capital. Podur described Elie as a 'Haitian activist' as well as a 'very courageous and brilliant individual.'
A former junior cabinet minister and confidante of Mr. Aristide who has thus far wisely been excluded from involvement in Préval's re-emergence on the political scene, Mr. Elie was heretofore perhaps best known for being arrested outside of Washington, DC in April 1996 and jailed for nearly two years in the United States for, among other offences, apparently threatening the life of Prëval's ambassador to the United States at the time, Jean Casimir. Subsequently held for falsely claiming to be a diplomat and for using a false address on a federal firearms transaction, court documents (11) from the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit show that US diplomatic security and police inventoried from Mr. Elie's hotel room at the time a Colt .223 semi- automatic assault rifle with a round in the chamber and six magazines loaded with armour-piercing ammunition, a Remington .22 calibre bolt action rifle equipped with a telescopic sight, a loaded Steyr 9mm semi-automatic pistol with 264 9mm rounds (including 180 rounds of hollow-point ammunition), night vision equipment, two knives, approximately $4,800 in cash, purchase receipts for three additional firearms and documents relating to the activities of Mr. Casimir. Mr. Elie's connections among Haiti's elite economic and political class saved him on that occasion, but one cannot help but to speculate as to what exactly was being planned. And one must question how Znet could put stock in the words of such a plainly unstable and unreliable individual, so obviously a thorough product of Haiti's dysfunctional political milieu. It certainly points to their operating on a far different moral compass from that of the grassroots activists I have met in Haiti over the years.
Claiming to be progressive, Znet, The New Left Review and journalists such as those mentioned above have, in fact, been doing the work of Haiti's reactionary landowners and upper-class. These forces within Haiti have been attempting for many years to marginalise peasant and worker activists from international support and thereby facilitate their continued oppression by an unfair economic system, one that Aristide and his party milked as effectively as any political leaders ever have in Haiti. At present, sectors of the international left are helping them in this task.
It is high time that some in the progressive movement give up their illusions about Haiti and set about helping the millions of brave and resilient people who are struggling daily to improve their lot there in substantive and demonstrative ways. The time for ruling class activist fantasies about Haiti is finished. The time for concrete action is at hand.
If Mr. Préval is to succeed in bettering the lives of Haiti's long-suffering people, something we all hope for, the international community, and particularly the progressive community, must openly and honestly support organizations working for progressive change and an open and free society rather than continuing their de facto support of the 'corrupt, immoral, thieving, charlatan, incompetent, bankrupt, criminal, anti-worker, pro-imperialist and reactionary' remnants of the ancient regime, as Haitian activist Mario Pierre once memorably described them.
I have written before that what is at stake in Haiti is too important to surrender the dialogue to mercenaries, opportunists and novices, and that has never been truer than it is right now.
(1) Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). The views in this article are his own. His website is www.michaeldeibert.com.
(2) "Botched Job: The UN and the Haiti Elections" Friday, 3 February 2006, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
(3) "Letter to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights," 24 March 24 2005.
(4) Foreign Agents Registration Unit (FARA) Semi-Annual Reports (Haiti), 2001-2003.
(5) IJDH Fundraiser Invite, 1 November 2005.
(6) IJDH Annual Report 2005.
(7) "Undermining Haiti" by Mark Weisbrot, The Nation, 22 November 2005.
(8) "The Puzzling Alliance of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste and Charles Henri Baker: Haitian Election Aftermath," by Tom Reeves, Counterpunch, 1 March 2006.
(9) "MPP Speaks to the New Dimension of the Haitian Crisis," press release, 24 February 2004.
(10) Batay Ouvriye press release, 9 January 2006.
(11) "United States of America vs. Patrick Elie," United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 28 April 1997.