Is is the first of three posts about Haiti - the 5th anniversary of the second coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide would have been on February 29th this year (had there been one) and this article comes from the March 2009 issue of Socialism Today.
DAMMING THE FLOOD tells the tale of Haiti over the past two decades. This Caribbean nation had been the scene of the successful slave revolt which threw off French rule way back in 1804, but it had suffered economic isolation and ‘underdevelopment’ from the vengeful imperialist powers ever since. It was only in 1987 that it began to emerge from the dictatorships of Papa Doc and Jean Claude Duvalier.
The book begins with the period leading up to Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990 when a Catholic priest from a liberation theology background, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won a large majority in the presidential elections at the head of the Lavalas (the flood) movement. He was elected on a pro-poor platform with his regime lowering food prices and increasing the minimum wage. He also attempted to reign in the army which had acted with impunity during the dictatorship and the few years after, and it was this that precipitated his overthrow in 1991, which unleashed a torrent of repression on the Lavalas movement.
In exile in the US, Aristide tried to negotiate for his return to the country and the removal of the coup dictatorship. He was eventually restored to power by the US in 1994, for which he made many concessions towards neo-liberal imperialism. He introduced World Bank and IMF sponsored ‘structural adjustment plans’ and the privatisation of some state enterprises, although he also dismantled the armed forces.
His successor as president, Rene Preval, Aristide’s first prime minister, continued these policies. Yet support for Aristide remained very high, and he again won an overwhelming majority in the 2000 presidential elections (now as the candidate of his own party Fanmi Lavalas). But yet again, despite many pro-poor policies (such as again increasing the minimum wage), he made concessions to imperialism in order to restore international aid they were withholding to strangle his regime.
Former soldiers, backed by the ‘democratic opposition’ (local capitalists and politicians that had fallen out with Aristide) launched a wave of guerrilla operations from the Dominican Republic that overwhelmed Northern Haiti and eventually led to Aristide being forced into exile in the Central African Republic by the US. Yet this overthrow, in February 2004, was not without opposition from the people who took to the streets to demand Aristide’s return, in a manner reminiscent of the mobilisation of the Venezuelan masses to demand Chavez’s return after the 2003 coup attempt in Venezuela.
The despicable role of the imperialist powers is nowhere more clearly shown than in its ‘humanitarian intervention’ forces which, rather than trying to prevent abuses of human rights, actively perpetrated them, in particular repressing the remnants of Fanmi Lavalas with many deaths and its leading activists thrown into prison. This clearly shows how the imperialist powers will intervene in a country, not to protect ordinary people, but to defend their own economic and strategic interests.
Peter Hallward’s book has several strengths. Firstly it is clearly very well researched and he is able to quote from a variety of sources to refute several myths that have been promoted by various groups (including some well-known human rights organisation) about the period. These include a dispute over a technicality in the 2000 elections, how Aristide left the country in 2004, and the links between the armed forces and various oppositional groups. He also explains how such myths originated from the biased opposition press which, after being repeated without verification in the US, became unchallengeable ‘facts’ for much of the rest of the worldwide media.
Hallward also interviewed many of the participants in the Lavalas movement and the Fanmi Lavalas party and thus provides a clear view of the amount of support that Aristide still holds to this day, despite his exile. Hallward actually compares him to Chavez (however, Chavez is clear on the need for socialism and Aristide is not in the slightest) as both movements in Venezuela and Haiti clearly depend on their leading figures to a large extent. Yet there are similarities with the social organisation basis of Evo Morales in Bolivia too, as Fanmi Lavalas still continues to operate with well-established leaders and is not wholly dependent on the figurehead leader. This is clearly evidenced by the actions of the Latortue regime (the dictatorship that replaced Aristide) in imprisoning these leaders so they could not contest elections.
However, there are a few obvious weaknesses in the book too. One is the continual insistence by Hallward that there was no other route that Aristide could have taken apart from compromise with the major imperialist powers (in this case the US and France). He gives two reasons for this. The first is that Haiti was dependent on foreign aid and that as Haiti ground to a halt without these funds Aristide could not carry out his pro-poor initiatives. Yet a resolute programme to nationalise the major parts of the Haitian economy (especially the assets of those funding the armed opposition) would have countered this. It is true that, as Hallward notes, large sections of the economy are geared towards export. But an appeal for further assistance from Cuba and, during his second term, Venezuela – who both before and since Aristide’s presidency have had significant trading agreements with Haiti – could have overcome economic dependence on foreign aid. Of course, due to the nature of those regimes it would not be guaranteed that they would have come to Aristide’s aid, but such an appeal would certainly have been supported by the workers and poor of those countries, and would also have pointed towards the need for a socialist confederation of those countries with Haiti.
The second reason Hallward gives is related to the first. He argues that because Aristide had no armed forces he could rely upon he was therefore at the mercy of foreign armies if they chose to invade, and also the armed opposition. Yet at the same time Hallward praises Aristide’s pacifist stance, which meant that Aristide ended up demobilising the spontaneous attempts of Haitian workers and poor to defend themselves against the opposition forces.
This is linked to another issue that Hallward is weak on, the existence of pro-Aristide gangs (referred to by the opposition as chimeres). As he states the gangs, led by some Lavalas supporters, formed in the wake of the first coup to defend themselves and the communities they were based in from paramilitary violence. However, the gangs also relied on criminal and thuggish activities to support themselves. But such gangs would not have existed if Aristide and other Lavalas supporters had mobilised a movement aimed at stopping either of the coups in their tracks. Such examples can be found from history, such as the mobilisations that stopped the attempted coups of Kornilov in Russia in 1917, of General Spinola in Portugal in 1975, or even the ‘tancazo’ plot to overthrow Allende in Chile in June 1973. Such mobilisations could also have formed the basis for opposition to foreign military intervention. Although around 200 years ago, the slave revolts in Haiti show that technically superior foreign armies intervening into a social revolution can be successfully defeated, especially as at this time the US was already tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One certainly can see another resemblance between the events in Haiti in recent years and the Haitian slave revolution. Like the brave, but continually compromising Toussaint L’Overture, Aristide made concessions where he should have been decisive. The main ingredient that has been missing from Haiti over this period is a revolutionary party that will take decisive measures – more in the manner of another slave leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines – which could bring about the necessary conditions for the real freedom and liberation of the Haitian masses, a socialist Haiti and socialist world. This conclusion is not presented in the book, but it is the task that Marxists will have to take up in the country. Despite these criticisms, however, this is an excellent book and deserves attention.