Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 183 | Octubre 1996



A Small Great Country That the North Doesn't Understand

A people with infinite capacity for preserving a sense of solidarity and dignity amidst extreme misery defies the North. The U.S. seeks to reform the state, but has no confidence in the society. It is at a loss, not knowing how to create mechanisms that relate money with needs. Is it that they don’t know, don’t understand, or simply don’t want to?

Mathew Creelman

Several incidents of political violence and common crime during August sparked a perception within Haiti's population and among diverse political sectors that an organized force is working to destabilize the René Preval government.

The incidents included artillery and machinegun attacks against the National Palace, Legislative Palace and National Police headquarters, in which a police officer died; an attack on two conservative political leaders, leaving one dead; a bank robbery in the north of the country that left four dead; and the robbery of several pedestrians within a block of the National Palace by a gang that used automatic rifles and two luxury vehicles and took advantage of an electricity outage to act.

Although diplomats and Haitian political analysts recognize that the roots of the political and common crime are multiple and worrisome, the increased violence does not seem able to trigger essential changes in Haiti's situation. It only causes political erosion and economic stagnation in a country already too accustomed to these realities.

The report of the United Nations Mission in Haiti (MINUHA), presented to the UN General Assembly in June, expressed concern about the country's political stability: "While the mission has no data showing any organized threat against the government right now, serious concerns persist that individuals linked to the previous regime, many of them discontented and marginalized, could foment instability by taking advantage of the population's frustration."

Port au Prince: a Paradise

Different analyses of Haiti's political situation tend to be strongly colored by the political agendas of those doing the analyzing. For some--the foreign press, conservatives in the US Congress, opposition groups in Haiti--the situation is extremely fragile and getting worse. They speak of "blood baths," "vacuums of authority," "gang violence," etc. Others, including UN Mission spokes people, government members and leaders of pro government parties, believe the situation is not so critical and is being exaggerated by the opposition.

After spending several days in a car monitoring radio calls made to the police, this envío correspondent concluded that the crime level in Port au Prince is much lower than in a US city of comparable size. Compared to levels of violence in Guatemala, Port au Prince would be a paradise for those in charge of public order. While in 1995 MINUHA reported only 20 assassinations that may have had political roots, Guatemala's Human Rights Prosecutor reported 119 cases of extra judicial executions just in the first six months of 1996.

But even though Guatemala has 12 times more political assassinations than Haiti, the US Senate froze economic assistance to the Haitian government in January 1996 because of three assassinations. No such measure has been considered in Guatemala.

Violence: Close Roots

A realistic appreciation of today's Haiti should include elements of both perspectives. Although the situation cannot be qualified as explosive, the tremendous importance of rumors and speculation to the population and the ease with which they are propagated tends to create perceptions of "total crisis" based on isolated or symbolic incidents. At the same time, ambiguous or contradictory signs coming from certain political sectors can also spark an increase in violence within the country.

Political observers mentioned at least four causes of Haiti's destabilizing violence. Two relate to current issues and the other two are linked to political and socioeconomic processes that will not disappear in the near future.

In the first place, organized violence appears to be linked to recent government efforts to control rightwing paramilitary groups and security and intelligence services that have escaped the central government's control.

With its roughly one hundred members, the National Intelligence Service (SIN) was the only security organization that survived the multinational intervention two years ago. According to UN analysts, the SIN was composed of a mixture of old Duvalierist agents and allies of Jean Bertrand Aristide's government. The recent decision to close the SIN was due partly to a loss of control over its activities--large numbers of SIN identification cards were being given to SIN informers and friends, who used them to act with impunity. Now, with its agents laid off, there are indications of their involvement in organized crime.

At the same time, local governments (known as delegations) in various of the country's nine departments-- including the largest one, which is in the Western Department and includes Port au Prince--have created their own security forces, in part because the Haitian National Police has no presence in those locations. These security forces are considered illegal and the central government is dissolving them. Another security service being questioned is in the Port au Prince municipality.

A resident foreign correspondent believes that agents displaced by the government's security reforms may be involved in criminal activities and political violence, together with the growing mass of former soldiers, coup leaders, FRAPH members and Duvalierists, who have not been systematically investigated or punished for their common and political crimes.

Violence: Roots in the USA

The US electoral campaign may also be inciting the violence. The Clinton government decided in June to send 82nd Air Transport Division troops to Haiti to "provide security for the 300 US engineers working on infrastructure projects." The troops arrive monthly and stay for one week. A US Embassy spokesperson admitted that there have been no direct attacks or threats against the engineers to justify this measure.

What there has been, according to Haitian government sources, is a plan to assassinate President Preval and thereby cast doubt on the Clinton administration's efforts to create political stability in Haiti. Including this information in the analysis, the ex military and paramilitary forces, economic elites linked to Duvalierism and rightwing politicians would be interested in seeing a Republican as President of the United States and would be willing to give him a hand from Haiti.

Although the Preval government does not appear too concerned about the threats, its officials admit the problems of a Republican in the White House since this would probably imply a notable about face in Washington's policies towards Haiti. Robert Dole himself introduced the legislation freezing economic aid to the Preval government to pressure it to investigate the assassination of three rightwing politicians during the Aristide administration.

Other factors that could be linked to the violence are peoples' desperation with the economic stagnation and unbearable socioeconomic situation and the permissiveness of a less repressive or arbitrary state. The intensifying socioeconomic crisis and the growing confidence of the population that the security forces will not act repressively create a situation in which the cost benefit analysis of crime is tilting in favor of the delinquent. This analysis does, however, recognize that self vigilance is still customary in the communities and inflicts severe punishments on thieves. Beatings of thieves by neighbors are common, and have an impressive dissuasive impact on other thieves.

Haiti Merits a Visit

Together with the thousands of soldiers, hundreds of development experts, human rights observers and those working on emergency projects, social scientists should pay Haiti a visit to study the human capacity to tolerate pain and hunger and survive with no real signs that there will be any positive changes during their lifetimes. They could also study the tremendous capacity of human beings to maintain community solidarity and dignity in conditions of extreme poverty. Political scientists could study the peculiar ability of humans to put up with wrenching political ups and downs: spending 30 years under a dictatorship, supporting a government led by a priest who put liberation theology into practice, watching him defeated by a coup based regime that assassinated 5,000 opposition members, and then seeing that dictatorship displaced by a multinational invasion that sponsored the return of civil government.

All of this should be studied because Haiti is probably the most important post Cold War laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. The conditions to achieve a successful model of intervention within the new international order were excellent there: Haiti has no radical left opposition, rightwing extremists are easily identifiable and controllable by US intelligence services, and the international community in its moment showed itself willing to spend at least $2 billion in a country of only 7 million people. For the first time in recent history, the flow of funds for development would have been enough to have a qualitative impact on the economy, not stay just in models or development poles, as in the past.

Unarguably, the ecological conditions are critical, the population suffers from malnutrition and lack of education, and the indicators of infant mortality, AIDS and access to drinking water and other essential services are dramatic. But for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, developed countries would have been able to resolve a political crisis in the West, showing that modern capitalism is capable of saving a small country in need of solutions.

Why Not?

Why hasn't the international community, and especially the United States, successfully responded to that challenge? Why did they decide to minimize their risks and reduce their presence? There are various important reasons. In the first place, the invasion to restore democracy in Haiti was done with one eye on the opinion polls. In the second place, Washington suffers from a major distrust of grassroots sectors: there is official interest in reforming the state, but without activating or animating any expectations of civil society. In the third place, perhaps most importantly, the international community does not have the least idea how to build a market economy from the tatters of extreme poverty.

According to polls done in the United States during the invasion of Haiti, the great majority of US citizens did not believe that removing a coup regime that had killed 5,000 civilians and restoring a democratically elected government to power was worth the life of a single US soldier. Thus, the invasion became pacific and negotiated.

According to US Army intelligence officers, the multinational forces waited up to three weeks in many cases to enter the Haitian army installations. In the warehouses of the Bowen air base, for example, they found new Uzi machinegun accessories, but not the Uzis themselves. An army source who participated in the program to buy arms from the population joked about his work: "It's like putting a bandaid on a massive chest wound." The same source told envío that he had information that some contraband traders were buying old arms in Miami to send them to Haiti and sell them at high prices through this program. In other words, US efforts to disarm the Haitians were bringing more arms to the island.

The Great Contradiction

The peculiar nature of a peaceful and negotiated invasion, the US government's mistrust of Aristide and the Cold War ideology that still pervades the US intelligence services, allied together to drastically limit the intervention agenda and the international community's commitments. In so doing, the North's greatest contradiction with the Third World was played out: reforming authoritarian, corrupt, inefficient states that violate human rights is impossible without activating the radical expectations of participatory democracy and social justice that the people in such states have.

The most eloquent demonstration of Washington's distrust of the Haitian population's latent social forces can be seen in its handling of the FRAPH files in US Defense Department hands. The 60,000 pages of documents, the videos and the photos taken by this paramilitary group of its victims have not been handed over to the Haitian government, even though they were gathered from Haitian government offices during the invasion.

The Clinton government does not want to hand them over party for fear that Haitians armed with the truth about the coup government authorities would take vengeance and lynch the guilty without bothering to go through judicial processes. That fear is made greater by the fact that a number of the Haitian officers and security agents of that era worked with the CIA, and many are US citizens with dual nationality. According to Preval government sources, a third fear behind not handing over the documents is that these people could release details about the US role in creating the FRAPH, the coup that interrupted the Aristide government in 1991, and the years of the coup regime.

They Have No Idea

The need to minimize the invasion's political costs, the mistrust of Aristide and the fear of creating a real democracy have created a difficult barrier to cross between the momentary fact of the invasion and the prolonged task of reconstructing the country. And beyond this ambivalence is yet another big problem: the developed countries have no idea how to mobilize a subsistence economy, how to move forward based on a stage of "primitive capitalism."

Who will be the agents of "change" in Haiti? The business sector that has survived by linking up with autocratic regimes? The contraband traders, merchants and other speculators? The small export sector, which produces baseballs or underclothing, or assembles electronic apparatuses with parts from Asia?

In March 1995, when the international agencies were euphoric over the multi million dollar funds entering Haiti, analysts for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) studied the "saturation" phenomenon: the problem that occurs when funds exceed the capacity to implement programs. Lots of money, many needs, but few mechanisms to link the two. At the same time USAID representatives anxiously sought counsel from the managers of small private aid programs, because they did not even know where to begin.

The international community never developed an overall development plan. Now, with the actual aid less than expected and tied to political demands, that plan would have been a theoretical exercise at any rate.

When envío asked a young municipal worker from Cap Haitien what the best system for Haiti would be , socialism or capitalism, the response broke with all recipes: "In Haiti, the problem isn't between socialism and capitalism. Here we don't have a true bourgeoisie, because it doesn't produce anything; it only lives from trade and contraband. What we need is to stop being dependent on the United States."

The Main Problem is the USA

The interviewee pointed to the central problem: Haiti depends on international funds to survive and to start up its economic, social and political development project. But the funds come from sources that deeply mistrust a participatory democracy adapted to Haiti's reality. Instead of actively launching into the development field, converting the desert into a garden-- as has been said of Israel's agriculture--by promoting hydroponic production projects or creating literacy brigades or requesting voluntary specialists in medicine, agriculture and development, the international community and the United States in particular have decided to lower their aid levels and condition it on state reforms and progress in investigating the three assassinations that took place years ago.

The history of US intervention has been one of reaction: against communism, against Sandinism, against Fidel Castro... Today, with no insurgency in Haiti, no concrete enemy to eliminate, no battle plan, no strategy of high, low or medium intensity, Washington doesn't know what to do. Rarely has it had to support something in foreign relations. And the truth is that it has no motive to promote anything.

What really were the US government's strategic goals in Haiti? Eliminate the wave of refugees and the Haitian cadavers drowned along the Florida coast. Eliminate the international press headlines that spoke of the existence of a military and repressive regime, in power through a coup, in the United States' back yard. And maintain relative political stability without creating the basis for an insurgency. In this sense, a Haiti in stagnation, suffering a moderate crisis, with divisions in the left and inefficiency and corruption in government--but without headlines or boat people--could be considered a "success" by Washington politicians.

What is Lavalas?

I asked the editor of a small leftist newspaper in Port au Prince: "Are you talking about the Lavalas Political Organization, the Lavalas Platform of the Lavalas Movement or simply Lavalas?"

The response is complex and is more relevant today than ever. In an important sense, Lavalas ("avalanche" in Creole) is made up of a variety of political tendencies that circulate around the charismatic popular figure of Jean Bertrand Aristide. These tendencies were formed in the political struggles that led to the fall of "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, and in the years that followed.

The Lavalas Platform is the political grouping that succeeded in winning 17 of the 27 Senate seats and 67 of the 83 Lower House seats in the 1995 elections. The most important organization within it is the Lavalas Political Organization (OPL), which began to form during the first months of Aristide's first period, brusquely interrupted on September 30, 1991 by a military coup.

In its April 1994 Proclamation the OPL called itself "a new political, democratic, popular and social organization, and the diverse currents of ideas that are present in the struggle for economic, social and democratic change."

To OPL coordinator Gerard Pierre Charles, the organization is "protoplasmic, immense, full of life, but without form." The OPL has given more political structure to Lavalas than any other political organization, and has converted popular support into votes and parliamentary seats.

The OPL's success in maintaining unity among diverse social and economic sectors is linked to the fact that the social mobilization of grassroots groups has happened primarily around anti Duvalier, anti coup and pro democracy arguments, relegating issues of class struggle to a second plane.

Betrayal of Aristide?

The OPL's pragmatism and its lead role in Haiti's political scene leave vulnerable fronts open, however. In addition to the mistrust that the OPL provokes among conservative sectors, it is strongly questioned by the small parties on the left and even by groups that support Aristide.

In recent months graffiti has appeared accusing the OPL of betraying Aristide. The OPL opposed the movement that sought to immediately reelect Aristide for three more years to recover the time lost during the three years of the coup government. Arguing that the international community would not accept a break with the electoral calendar, the OPL insisted on holding elections in December 1995.

The division grew with the debate over privatizing nine state enterprises. Over $190 million in US government and multilateral assistance is conditioned on the approval of legislation that paves the way to privatize these companies and on reducing the number of state workers. Several groups around Aristide oppose privatization and Aristide himself, in his parabolic speeches, has let it be understood that he does not agree with the privatization.

In this context, the different political forces of Lavalas are beginning to move their pieces with an eye to elections in the year 2000, and there are important signs that not all the pieces are being moved in the same direction.


There will be local elections in October 1996 for thousands of community assemblies, departmental delegations and eight senators. The OPL is seriously studying the possibility of going to the polls without the Lavalas Platform.

If this happens, the elections will serve to clear up various unknowns abaut who has more gathering power. Will it be Aristide with his charisma and his church followers and supporten from the marginal communities? Or will it be the OPL, with its organized base throughout the country, its political leadership formation programs and its links with other political parties and organizations?

The divorce would also clarify the nature of the popular support behind Lavalas. Is it a movement that follows a charismatic savior with allegoric speeches and a trajectory of great bravery and commitment to his followers? Or is it a highly politicized people, building their destiny and identifying with a political project led by the OPL? Or is it really a mixture of both elements, in which the divorce will cause Lavalas to fracture and disperse, weakening what has been the most powerful political opposition unity in Latin America in recent years?

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