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Two weeks ago, when Haitian soldiers deposed their country's President... View other pieces in "The New Yorker"
By Mark Danner October 21, 1991
Tags: Haiti Print

TWO weeks ago, when Haitian soldiers deposed their country's President, jean-Bertrand Aristide, the United States reacted quickly and forcefully, cutting off foreign aid and freezing Haiti's assets in this country. "Until President Aristide's government is restored, this junta will be treated as a pariah," Secretary of State James Baker vowed to the Organization of American States. President Bush seemed to see in the small nation's failure to follow what he called "a democratic way" an affront to history itself. "This Revolution of 1989 swept through Eastern Europe across Asia, Africa, even right here in the Americas," Mr. Bush observed, "and I'm disturbed about events in Haiti, which is one of the few that seemed to be having trouble in this age of democracy." In fact, Haiti has been having trouble almost continuously since February, 1986, when ordinary Haitians succeeded, after months of strikes and protests, in uprooting President for Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, and the United States, after flying the dictator to France aboard a military jet, doubled its foreign aid to Haiti and pledged to support the country in its "transition to democracy."

During these past five years, six governments have held office in Port-au-Prince --- seven, if you count the new interim regime. The Army has overthrown three of them, and attempted to depose a fourth; there have been rebellions, general strikes, massacres, and insurrections. As for the "transition to democracy," one election -- held in November, 1987, and largely funded by the United States had to be aborted when paramilitary forces of the Duvalier regime, using machetes and automatic weapons, massacred voters at the polls. The United States thereupon cut off its aid. Seven weeks later, the Army held a second election, which was largely boycotted, and installed as President a well-known professor; lacking the crucial American aid, he lasted only four months before a general overthrew him. Then, in September, 1988, after yet another spectacular massacre-this one in Father Aristide's church, while he was conducting Sunday Mass -- a second general overthrew his colleague and vowed to install "irreversible democracy." But in early 1990 he staged a brutal crackdown on opposition politicians, and violent strikes and protests, along with pressure from the United States, soon compelled him to flee to Miami. Finally, last December, in yet a third election-monitored by observers from the United Nations and the Organization of American States --- two out of every three Haitians who cast their ballots voted for Father Aristide.

It was a stirring moment, for the vote was surely the most representative in the history of the country. But that, it turns out, was precisely the problem. The election was an example of democracy colliding head-on with history.

Since achieving its independence, in 1804, Haiti has presented as dramatic a division between rich and poor as can be found on the planet. A few hundred Haitian families control, directly or indirectly, what they refer to as the state but what in reality more closely resembles a private enterprise devoted to seeking out and appropriating the country's meagre wealth. These families dominate the public administration, the state enterprises, the importing businesses, and the export houses, which tax the produce of the peasants. From the beginning, the Army served as the enforcer of the system, administering a brutal, summary justice to the masses of Haitians, who were kept illiterate, impoverished, and disenfranchised. Though its frequent coups and "revolutions" earned Haiti a reputation for instability, these episodes amounted to little more than struggles between factions of the e1ite; the underlying political and economic system remained remarkably stable.

The obstacle to a "transition to democracy" in Haiti has been that in any truly fair, representative election the three Haitians in four who are desperately poor would be drawn to the candidate who most convincingly promised radical reforms-reforms that would amount in practice to an overthrow of the traditional system. For this reason, the Haitians who have a ways held power-who have the wealth, the education, the foreign connections, and, above all, the gunshave come to fear that such an election30 would threaten not only their power but their very existence. It was this fear that set the stage for the electionday massacre in November, 1987, and led the Army to "elect" its own candidate. It was the prospect of yet another massacre that led the United States to help bring in international observers to monitor the vote last December. And it was the widespread fear that a Duvalierist might be elected that prompted Father Aristide -- a fiery populist who until a few months before had ridiculed the idea of elections as a delusion perpetrated by "the cold country to the North" (as he called the United States) to stem the growing tide of revolution-to announce his candidacy. He proclaimed himself savior of the masses and vowed to see justice done to those who had committed the massacres, and, remarkably, he found himself awarded the red-and-blue sash of office.

But an election is not a revolution, and Father Aristide soon discovered that to take office is not necessarily to attain power. As he sought to carry out reforms, a recalcitrant e1ite and a treacherous bureaucracy undermined his every move. The Army, his only instrument of enforcement, deeply distrusted him. The Haitian courts, the legal means of purveying justice, in effect did not exist. And a strongly reformist constitution, overwhelmingly approved by referendum in 1987, and designed to frustrate any would-be dictator through checks and balances and a strict separation of powers, blocked him at every turn. Under all those conditions, true reform seemed impossible.

Aristide's more radical supporters grew impatient, and so did he. Increasingly, he turned to his supporters in the streets. Last August, when he was faced with a legislative vote of no confidence, his partisans massed in thousands outside the parliament building, with stacks of old tires and matches-the tools of the Pere Lebrun, or "necklace," in which a flaming tire slung about the neck is used to burn an enemy alive. Parliament decided to cancel its s no-confidence vote. Three weeks ago, returning from a triumphant address at the United Nations, Aristide spoke of the burning tires as "a beautiful device," which "smells good and everywhere you go you want to breathe it." Three

days later, the soldiers, remembering how Francois Duvalier-Papa Doc, the father of Jean-Claude ---had made use of his street supporters to create the Tontons Macoute militia and thereby intimidate the Army, came to seize the President. The Army commander, who had apparently been pushed to action by the enlisted men, denounced him as an "apprentice dictator."

Expelled from Haiti, Father Aristide travelled to "the cold country to the North" and met with President Bush, to plead for "the restoration of democracy." When the soldiers heard that an O.A.S. delegation in Port-au-Prince was trying to negotiate Aristide's return, they surrounded the conference room and threw the diplomats out of the country. "There was emerging the elements of a compromise," Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, who was at the meeting, said later. "The problem is that the soldiers on the ground-and it's not clear whose control they're under-moved ahead to shoot that up." The soldiers also pressured Haitian legislators, many of whom hate and fear Father Aristide, to choose an interim President to lead the country to yet another election.

Five years of " transition to democracy" have left Haiti bitterly polarized: those who have always held power vow that Aristide will not come back; those in the slums, whose power lies only in their numbers, pray for their idol's return. The United States now finds itself in the unfamiliar position of backing the slum-dwellers, and by imposing strict sanctions has made it nearly impossible for the soldiers to govern the country peacefully. But the elected President, were he to return, would have no easier job. In any case, the struggle for power will continue, bitterly and probably violently, for when the United States helped bring democracy to Haiti it did not obliterate history. Nor did the "transition" establish those institutions which make democratic systems work-lasting political parties, true government bureaucracies, independent courts -- or create out of a history of violent politics a tradition of nonviolent opposition. President Bush, after meeting with Father Aristide, declared that "democracy should prevail in Haiti." That is a noble and worthy sentiment, but an election, by itself, cannot make democracy happen, any more than burning "necklaces" can.




© 2017 Mark Danner