Global Policy Forum

Haiti Update VI: Out with the Bad, In with the Worse


By Avi Steinberg *

March 31, 2004

If Aristide was a failed or tragic democrat, then this new regime seems to be something worse yet: cynical democrats.

A relative calm has settled over Haiti and some semblance of normality has returned. And that's precisely what worries many in the Caribbean and abroad. While the calm has restored a measure of day-to-day security (for now), it has also been marked by a re-assertion of an old type of Haitian normality: the politics of cynicism, retribution and instability, of wealthy ruling elites and a vast impoverished underclass.

To put it mildly, these struggles never truly went away, even under Aristide. But there's something about Louis Jodel Chamblain's smug assertion that he is not afraid to stand in front of any court that indicates Haiti might be moving backwards. From what we can tell, the "democratic" regime that has pushed out Aristide is at least as undemocratic as Aristide's and it is likely much worse. If Aristide was a failed or tragic democrat, then this new regime seems to be something worse yet: cynical democrats. If Aristide's regime resorted to corruption and repression as the result of its political powerlessness, the new regime has founded its "democratic" authority on exactly these methods.

Haiti's new rulers have, for the moment, put down their rifles and machetes and picked up new, larger weapons — diplomacy, the judiciary, the legislature, and the presidency. This week they began testing their new weapons. Following Jamaica's controversial move of inviting Aristide for an extended stay, an invitation offered in direct defiance of US wishes, the new Haitian government went on the offensive. In the name of democracy, they claimed, Aristide ought to be extradited and tried.

This was a warning shot aimed at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). And, even more so, at pro-Aristidists at home: the only way Aristide might return is in shackles, the fight is over. These types of dire warnings are followed up at home by aggressive actions including round-ups, blacklisting, intimidation, torture and assassinations of members of the popular Lavalas party. In the name of democracy, the new regime has recast its popular political opposition as dangerous foes worthy of arrest and worse. We must imagine that the new regime reserves the right to weed out not only former politicians allied to Aristide but anyone who speaks as a supporter of his or as a proponent of his ideology. What we are seeing is an anti-democratic backlash, a systematic disenfranchising of most of Haiti and all on the U.S.'s dime.

This isn't the first time that a new regime in Haiti, having taken control by force (this time in the guise of a "democratic revolution") has asserted its authority through violence directed at civilians. After Aristide was pushed out in the 1990s, a military regime headed by Raoul Cedras sponsored a campaign of rape and torture of pro-Aristidists. Will the activist judiciary that now seeks justice for the Lavalas Party also seek justice for the women who were raped and maimed? This seems implausible, considering that a number of people in control now are the same people responsible for the violence of the early 1990s. Will Chamblain and others face justice for their recent atrocities? This too is unlikely, since these criminals are now part of the ruling order (at least according to the new prime minister, who recently lavished praise on the armed rebellion). This judiciary is being used as a means of political control and oppression. And this is only the first week.

There is bound to be more strife. A show-trial of Aristide and the persecution of his throngs of supporters will only sow more hatred and violence. The employment of democratic institutions in the service of political repression is not only a travesty, it's dangerous. Millions of Haitian citizens are hungry and powerless. As long as that continues to be true, there will never be stability in Haiti. Instead of food and hope, the Haitian people are being fed aggression and despair. But the Haitian people are proud of their freedom and will eventually turn against this regime. Will Haitians accomplish this next coup peacefully in the polls or is the electoral system the next democratic institution to fall prey to cynical democracy? If the latter turns out to be the case, then the current calm will quickly give way once again to violence and chaos. This is the norm of Haiti — what's needed now is not a return to the status quo, but a decision by Haiti and its sponsors to defy it.

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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