A Typical American Coup

02.03.2004

When it comes to removing heads of state by indirect means, the US still has what it takes to get the job done

Jean Bertrand Aristide has finally fled Haiti -- again. Meanwhile, the mainstream press the world over focuses on the anarchy that has engulfed the tiny Caribbean nation. Yet most reports merely skim the surface. There was talk of rebel advances, people with guns, looting, revenge attacks, etc. What was missing was one simple question: what was the uprising all about? Perhaps the reason why journalists, especially those from the US and other "allied" countries, failed to dig deep into what was going on is because they know what they would find: that the US was behind the ugly overthrow of a democratically elected government, a move akin to the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Some might argue that this comparison is going a bit too far. But is it? With the exception that there isn't oil in Haiti and that Kuwait is not a democracy, the American power grab in Haiti is no different than what Saddam attempted to do in the Middle East. In both cases, a bullying state regards itself as the region's de-facto superpower, and feels that it has a right to assume control, either directly (as Iraq did in 1990) or indirectly (as the US has just done).

American tampering in Haiti is quite obvious. Before the violence erupted, the Bush administration was in full support of the opposition, and have been trying to force Aristide to share power. As frustration over the political stalemate escalated and the rebels took to the streets, the US simply stood by and watched, refusing to help calm the situation in any way. The goal of the White House was simple: to have Aristide removed from power at whatever cost, even if meant allowing the country to descend into civil war. So much for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention as was used in such far away places as Kuwait and Bosnia.

An Ignominious Tradition

When one looks back at the history of Haiti, one can fully understand the motives driving US foreign policy toward the tiny Caribbean nation. It was the leading target of US intervention in the 20th century. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson had Haiti occupied, restored slavery, overthrew the parliamentary system, and basically turned it into a US plantation. Ever since then, the US has supported brutal dictators -- all of whom never had an embargo on them no matter how many atrocities they carried out.

Ironically, this year is the bicentennial anniversary of the nation's declaration of independence. Yet Haitians have little reason to celebrate. Haiti was once the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere; now it's the most impoverished. US foreign policy is the main reason for Haiti's perpetual state of poverty, especially the recent refusal to lend funds to the fledgling democracy, which was held back because of "election problems". In other words, Haiti hasn't met the US standard for democracy. In reality, Haiti's idea of democracy runs up against the US idea of a top-down democracy, run by an elite.

The problems Haiti is now going through all started with an election in 1990 which turned out the wrong way. The US was certain that their candidate would win, but out of the woodwork came a populist priest who won because he focused on things in the country that no one else was paying attention to.

Aristide's landslide victory in December 1990 took the US and most western countries completely by surprise. He was swept into power by a network of popular grassroots organizations which outside observers weren't even aware of. This did not fit the top-down democracy model the US wanted, so financial support was subsequently withdrawn. Yet with a solid two-thirds of the vote which demolished America's favourite, a former World Bank official named Marc Bazin (who received just 14%), the US was in a predicament: how were they going to get rid of Aristide who has popular support?

This problem became more acute when in the first seven months of Aristide's term he introduced progressive reforms. He was able to reduce corruption extensively, and to trim a highly bloated state bureaucracy. He won a lot of international praise for this, even from the World Bank and IMF, which were offering him loans and preferential terms because they liked what he was doing. Furthermore, he cut back on drug trafficking. The flow of refugees to the US virtually stopped as atrocities were reduced to way below what they had been.

It goes without saying that all this made Aristide even more unacceptable in the eyes of the US. Finally, on September 30, 1991 a coup was staged to oust Aristide from power. In its aftermath, the first Bush administration focused attention on Aristide's alleged atrocities and undemocratic activities, downplaying the major atrocities which followed the coup. Naturally, the media went along with this; while people were getting slaughtered in the streets of Port-au-Prince, the media concentrated on alleged human rights abuses under the Aristide government.

Refugees soon started fleeing again, because the situation was deteriorating rapidly. The first Bush administration instituted a blockade to send them back. Within a couple of months, the first Bush administration also had undermined an embargo put in place by the Organization of American States (which the US supposedly supported) by allowing US-owned companies to simply ignore it. The New York Times called this "fine-tuning" the embargo to improve the restoration of democracy. Eventually, Marc Bazin, the US candidate, was in power as prime minister, with the ruling generals behind him.

During the Clinton years, not much changed in Haiti. Although Clinton attacked the first Bush administration for its inhumane policy of returning refugees, which was a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he did little to change it. Indeed, some charge that he promoted it even further.

Ultimately, there was substantial international pressure to have Aristide returned to power. Not only this, but Clinton came up with a shrewd plan to undermine his political opponents at home, who wanted Aristide to stay out, while at the same time elevate his reputation on the international stage. Aristide would be returned to power but on very strict conditions; namely, that he accept the policies of the candidate the US had supported in the 1990 Haitian election.

The pig fiasco

In effect, Aristide was to accept a neo-liberalist program which would open Haiti up to what is known as "market forces". For example, Haitian rice producers would have to compete with US agribusiness, which happens to be very highly subsidized. As a result, Haiti, a starving island, ended up exporting 35 times more food to the US under Clinton than it did under the first Bush.

Many Haitians are well aware of the effects of globalisation on their country. Haiti's first traumatic experience of globalization was with the extermination of their Creole pigs. The experience left such an impression that whenever peasants are told that "economic reform" and privatisation will benefit them, they shake their heads and remember the pig fiasco.

Haiti's small, black, Creole pigs were at the heart of the peasant economy. An extremely hearty breed, well adapted to Haiti's climate and conditions, they ate readily available waste products, and could survive for three days without food. Eighty to 85 percent of rural households raised pigs; they played a key role in maintaining the fertility of the soil. Traditionally, a pig was sold to pay for emergencies and special occasions (funerals, marriages, illnesses), and, critically, to pay school fees and buy books for when school opened each year in October.

In 1982 international agencies assured Haiti's peasants that their pigs were sick and had to be killed so that the illness would not spread elsewhere. Promises were made that better pigs would replace the sick pigs. Within 13 months, all of Haiti's Creole pigs were killed.

Two years later, the new, "better" pigs came from Iowa. Yet they required clean drinking water (unavailable to 80 percent of the population), imported feed ($90 a year when per capita income was about $130), and special roofed pigpens. Haitian peasants quickly dubbed them four-footed princes. Adding insult to injury, most found that the meat didn't taste so good.

Needless to say, the program was a complete failure. One observer of the process estimated that in monetary terms, Haitian peasants lost $600 million. There was a 30 percent drop in enrollment in rural schools, a dramatic decline in protein consumption in rural Haiti, a devastating decapitalisation of the peasant economy, and an incalculable negative impact on Haiti's soil and agricultural productivity. Aristide contends that Haiti's peasantry hasn't recovered from the pig fiasco to this day.

Endgame

Although Aristide was back in power by the mid-1990s, the Americans appeared less worried about him this time round. For one, the White House received international praise for "restoring democracy", which helped to further Clinton's image as a global peacemaker (which ultimately failed in the Mid-East). Meanwhile, the long-term effect of the reign of terror in Haiti destroyed domesticate aspirations and made people believe there was no alternative. Hence, the lively, vibrant civil society based on grassroots organizations that had brought Aristide to power was so decimated upon his return that he didn't have the kind of popular support he once had to do anything.

Still, Aristide tried to make the best of a bad situation. Given his predicament, the US doubted that he would be able to do well in the 2000 elections, that his base of support had been either terrified into silence or disillusioned. Nevertheless, despite these handicaps, Aristide was able to pull off a victory, although some senatorial seats were in dispute.

Meanwhile, the US was also undergoing its own election with results just as questionable, if not more so, than in Haiti. With the second Bush administration came a harder line against the tiny Caribbean nation (not to mention the rest of the world). The first Bush administration never supported the return of Aristide, and now since many of the players from the first Bush administration were also in the second Bush administration, Aristide's days were numbered.

Shortly before 9/11 at a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting held at Quebec City, the US forced through a resolution whereby future FTAA member countries would have to observe "democratic norms." This, in effect, allowed the US to intensify pressure on Haiti, whose was out of favor in Washington.

Still not satisfied, in 2003 the US government vetoed the delivery of $500 million in approved aid loans to Haiti from the Inter American Development Bank. These loans were earmarked specifically for improving education, health, and clean water. The loans were withheld because the US government claimed that the votes for 8 senate seats were not counted properly in the May 2000 Haitian elections. This, despite the fact that all senators involved resigned their seats.

With another election year looming in the US, more pressure on Haiti was exerted. Not satisfied with constantly fulfilling the petty demands that Washington imposed, the US decided to apply its full might on Haiti by telling Aristide to "broaden his government in the interests of democracy." In other words, the Bush administration was telling the Aristide government that it had the wrong base of support, and must change it to one that Washington sees fit. After finally running out of patience at Aristide's determination and ability to hold on to power, rebel elements supported by the US decided to launch an uprising. The US, as well as the western world, simply turned the other way.

The coup in Haiti wasn't the first such American-sponsored coup of this century, nor will it be the last. The American Empire profits from war and human misery, and coup-plotters are forever active attempting to terminate democracy and replace it with a neo-liberalist, corporate state. What was important about this latest coup in Haiti is that it helped Washington to regain a sense of confidence in its use of subversive political methods. Ever since the coup fiasco in Venezuela a few years back, some have wondered whether the Bush administration has what it takes to carry on a long and bloody American tradition. With Aristide now gone, it looks as though it has.

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