Keeping the lid on democracy in Haiti

It’s encouraging to see the big humanitarian response to the plight of the Haitian people following last week’s devastating earthquake. Here in New Zealand relief organisations have set up special appeals and wide coverage has been given on New Zealanders caught up in the disaster.

The international reaction included high profile comments from US President Barack Obama: “You will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton abandoned her visit here on the strength of her desire to oversee the US relief effort. But there’s another reason for swift US action in Haiti supported by its Secretary of State.

The US is worried the power vacuum created by the devastation will give opportunity for political forces to develop which are hostile to US interests. Unfortunately the Haitian people have the disturbing habit of voting for politicians who put local needs ahead of the empire’s interests.

According to Wikipedia there have been no less than 32 coups in Haiti and from the outside one might think this is a country riven by factional fighting where there is no respect for democracy. A closer look however shows almost all these coups were instigated by imperial powers to exploit the wealth of the territory for their traders and merchants in earlier times and for today’s multi-national companies.

Early on the territory was overrun variously by the Spanish and French. African slaves were introduced and intermarried with the local people and Haiti today is the only country in the world to have emerged from a slave revolt.

But after independence is has never been left alone as the 32 coups testify.

In recent decades the United States has taken the lead in “overseeing” Haiti. From 1957 to 1986 the country was ruled by the brutal and corrupt Duvalier family backed by the military. Death squads were set up to eliminate any opposition. The US supported the regime and its suppression of opposition.

However huge demonstrations in 1986 made it impossible for the US to continue to support Duvalier family rule. They had outlived their usefulness and so the US arranged for the family to move into exile in France. Elections held in 1990 brought the popular leader John-Bertrand Aristide to power as President with 67% of the vote.

Aristide is a former Catholic priest who worked with the people in Haiti’s urban slums. He sided with the poor and the marginalised, the majority of the population, but was never given the chance to rule without overwhelming pressure and interference from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund who have a stranglehold over almost every developing country. They largely controlled the purse strings and insisted the country follow the “Washington Consensus” whereby public infrastructure and social services are privatised and the interests of the poor, the majority of the population, are abandoned.

Aristide played a cat and mouse game with the US on economic policy and has served three terms as President. However he was overthrown in a coup less than a year after he was first elected but was re-elected President with 91.8% of the vote in 2000 and 73 of the 83 parliamentary seats going to his political party.

The US has worked hard to destabilise and undermine his leadership and done its best to vilify Aristide. They accused him of all manner of corruption. In 2004 he was ousted in another US inspired coup (by kidnapping) and now lives in exile in South Africa. Today he remains the most popular political figure in Haiti but is unable to return, unlike Hillary Clinton who flew in a few days ago.

Following his ousting the United Nations sent in a widely criticised “stabilising force” after Aristide’s supporters began campaigning for the return of their democratically elected President.

An organisation called Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights reported in 2005 that the UN stabilization force “effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Prince’s slums” which constitute “an unflinching bastion of support for Aristide and for Lavalas.” (Aristide’s political organisation)

With the UN building in the capital levelled in last week’s earthquake the US army is now sending 10,000 marines to keep up the stabilisation work.

So when Hillary Clinton abandoned New Zealand last week she had much more on her mind than helping the Haitian people devastated by earthquake. Keeping a lid on democracy on the Caribbean Island remains a key US priority.



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