Global Policy Forum

Haiti Update IV: On Roots, Trees and Liberty


By Avi Steinberg *

March 17, 2004

Since Bush took office, the US has given money to anti-Aristide factions and cut off all aid to Aristide's ruling party. This radical imbalance of support obviously doesn't foster democracy.

Ten days after his rousing address to the Haitian people and the world from his exile in the Central African Republic, Jean-Bertrand Aristide has returned to the Caribbean. He arrived in Jamaica on Monday and his presence 130 miles from the island of Hispaniola is anything but neutral. During his trip to Jamaica — a visit that will reportedly last two months, if not longer — Aristide's followers in Haiti will hit the streets and demand the return of their elected leader. In addition to large protests, these demands will sometimes take the form of violence. The US troops on the ground have in fact already taken a good deal of fire; an American soldier was wounded during a patrol through a predominately pro-Aristide neighborhood. Antsy US troops, of course, means a steadily increasing number of Haitian casualties. As a thinly legitimate government takes shape, emboldened anti-Aristide goon squads have vowed to keep fighting.

There is a decidedly revolutionary tone to Aristide's repeated allusions to Haitian hero Toussaint L'Overture's famous words, "In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous and deep." Although Aristide advocates non-violence, his pointed references to the revolutionary struggle for independence —and to the martyrdom of Toussaint L'Overture — amount to a carefully worded call for popular armed struggle. Napoleon, after all, was forced out not merely by the brilliant direction of the Haitian general, but by the deep and numerous roots of the country: an armed populace. The phenomenal Haitian slave insurrection at the start of the nineteenth century is an archetypal just war — it's no wonder Aristide wants to link his struggle with it.

The US has made disarmament of the warring factions a priority. But Haiti is a heavily armed society and this goal might prove elusive. Each faction knows from experience that US protection is very temporary and that it would be unwise to find itself unarmed once the Marines pull out. The simmering battle in Haiti is, after all, more a civil war than an anti-colonial war of independence (though, as usual, the colonial powers play a major corrupting and purely self-interested role). Beyond Aristide's rhetoric of a united front fighting oppression in the name of liberty a la 1804 lies the Haitian reality of 2004: a deeply divided nation that has endured 200 years of instability and increasing poverty. It's possible that the Marines' presence there now is nothing more than opportunity for the warring factions to reorganize themselves for a wider, protracted war.

The pro-Aristide camp certainly gained a small political victory when Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson defied US wishes and invited Aristide to visit as his guest. As the head of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Jamaica is an important player in the region and their policy has been pro-Aristide from the beginning. The anti-Aristidists in Port-au-Prince and in Washington have denounced Aristide's return to the Caribbean but, so far, Jamaica has remained defiant. In late February, Jamaica had sponsored a power-sharing compromise that both the US and Aristide signed but which the anti-Aristidists fervently rejected. Without irony, the US had interpreted this rejection as evidence of Aristide's collapse of authority. Under the circumstances, this was a correct assumption — but the responsibility for this collapse falls largely on the US and this is the more fundamental issue.

Since Bush took office, the US has given sizeable sums of money to anti-Aristide factions and has sponsored political training for these groups in the Dominican Republic. At the same time, they cut off all aid to Aristide's ruling party. This radical imbalance of support obviously doesn't foster democracy. Much of the money given to the opposition was funneled through the International Republican Institute (IRI), a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of democracy around the world. This organization aids countries' ruling parties as well as opposition parties in the stated hope that democracy is strengthened if all sides are given equal support and training. This didn't happen in the case of Haiti. Instead, the IRI was used as a vehicle to bring Aristide to his knees. Aside from the material advantage given to only one faction in Haiti, the US gave anti-Aristidists a much more significant gift: the green light to rebel. Although it seems unlikely that the US planned or even desires this conflict at the moment (let's not forget that the Bush campaign mantra is "No War in '04"), the fact is they and Clinton have laid the groundwork for it.

Haiti's recently sworn-in Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has vowed that his new government "will do its utmost to plant the seeds, to establish the foundations of democracy so that it will germinate and grow and become strong." In contrast to Aristide's image of a tree re-sprouting itself from existing roots — an image of popular revolution — the new governors say they will ignore these roots and simply plant a new tree. This image is a top-down metaphor: these new leaders, associated with Haiti's small business elite (and their sponsors in Washington), say that democracy can trickle down into empty soil and produce a tree of liberty. But Haiti is not an empty field. In fact, it is rather stony and needs a good deal of preparation — at least ten years, according to Kofi Annan — before anything can sprout.

If Haiti is ever to be a functioning democracy these two images will have to be reconciled: the tree of liberty will grow neither of its own accord (from popular roots) nor simply by the trickling efforts and occasional good-will of elitist governors and foreign powers. It will grow only if enough care is given by the United States to both cultivate the roots and support all of the nation's planters. The profound and widening economic divide in Haiti, coupled with a widespread suspicion that the government was just taken over by US-sponsored businessmen and murderers is indeed fertile ground for a revolution. The new governors know this. Once the U.S. leaves — and this day is nigh — talk of democracy will subside and a new weak government will flex its muscles in order to prove its authority. This is counter-revolution and superpower-sponsored oppression, not democracy.

About the author: Avi Steinberg is a freelance writer living in Boston. After studying American foreign policy at Harvard, he received a fellowship in 2002-3 to live in Jerusalem and study international conflict. He is on staff at Transition Magazine.

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