Lessons for Libya?

by David L. Wilson, World War 4 Report

On the night of September 29, 1991, Haitian army officers launched a coup d'état against the country's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. By the next afternoon, soldiers had arrested Aristide and had started gunning down coup opponents in the street. The toll would reach more than 3,000 over the next three years.

US liberals didn't take long to see that the Haitian crisis could provide a good test case for the newly fashionable doctrine of "humanitarian intervention." Within days of the coup, Robert Pastor, a national security aide to former president Jimmy Carter, was hinting at the possibility of military intervention by the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS needed "sufficient leverage to assure the desired outcome," he said; it should "send a clear message to the [Haitian] military of the consequences of its failure to step down." (NYT, Oct. 3, 1991)

The invasion talk soon grew more open and more insistent. Some Republicans held back, but others eventually joined the bipartisan war party—such as Richard Haass, special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, who co-wrote a Washington Post editorial with liberal New York Congressman Stephen Solarz, "The Case for Invading Haiti." Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in May 1994 that Haiti needed "a Bay of Pigs option." (NYT, May 9, 1994) Liberal Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in June that Haiti "for all the historical doubts about US intervention is a boil waiting to be lanced." (NYT, June 3, 1994)

"Operation Uphold Democracy" finally came to Haiti on September 19, 1994. Some 20,000 US soldiers occupied the country, and within a month Aristide had been returned to the National Palace. Like the current military intervention in Libya, the US occupation of Haiti had the authorization of the United Nations Security Council—and the backing or acquiescence of much of the US left.

Voices We Never Heard
One thing that was striking about the run-up to the invasion is how rarely we heard from the many Haitians who struggled for Aristide's return but opposed any US military action.

Aristide himself was ambiguous almost to the end. On June 3,1994, three months before the invasion, he endorsed "swift and determined action…to remove the coup leaders," but he also expressed reservations. "If I were to ask for a military intervention, I would be impeached under my Constitution," he said, referring to Article 263-1 of the 1987 Constitution, which bars any "armed corps" other than the army and police "in the national territory." (WP, June 4, 1994; Constitution of the Republic of Haiti)

Many of Aristide's allies in Haiti—members of the peasant organizations, of the Catholic base communities known as Ti Legliz, of other grassroots movements—were much more sweeping and passionate in their rejection of interventionism.

These groups had certainly suffered under military rule. The Movman Peyizan Papay (MPP)—the Papaye Peasant Movement, an organization of cooperatives based in the area near Hinche in the Central Plateau—reported that at least two of its organizers were murdered, 180 members were arrested, and more than 3,000 activists had to abandon their homes. Still, the group’s US office wrote in its newsletter for the summer of 1994: "The MPP completely rejects all forms of American or multinational military intervention." ("MPP Is Surviving the Haitian Crisis," The Peasant, summer 1994)

This was not because organizations like the MPP had any delusions that they could take on the Haitian military through armed struggle. But these groups had formed during the Duvalier family's 1957-1986 brutal dictatorship and had outlasted it; many activists reasoned that they could do the same with the military regime. Aristide "should have stayed outside and let us continue the struggle for democracy," a leader of another rural group, Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan (Small Peasants' Unity), said in 2004, looking back on the period. (Socialist Worker, March 12, 2004)

Haitian activists were also skeptical about claims by the U.S. and the international community that they had exhausted all non-military options for removing the military junta. The main international action against the de facto regime was a trade embargo—"a porous embargo," the MPP wrote, "that is enriching the coup leaders and Dominican businessmen, while hurting only the poor." (The Peasant, op cit)

And few if any Haitians put much stock in the US government’s threats against the military junta. These officers were longtime US allies; their leader, Gen. Raoul Cédras, had been an "intelligence source" for the US for years. As Noam Chomsky remarked in an interview in 2010, President Bill Clinton "of course supported the military junta...he strongly supported it, in fact. He even allowed the Texaco Oil Company to send oil to the junta in violation of presidential directives; Bush Sr. did so as well." (NYT, Nov. 14, 1993; CounterPunch, March 9, 1010)

A regular joke among Haitian leftists at the time was that if Clinton really wanted to end the coup regime, why didn't he just make a phone call to his employees in the National Palace?

For these activists, any US invasion would have less to do with "upholding democracy" than with imposing what Haitians called the "American Plan." Although US officials always denied its existence, Haitian analysts felt that at least since the 1980s the US had followed a program of undermining small-scale agriculture and driving peasants and their families into the cities, to be exploited as cheap labor for assembly plants exporting to the US market.

A popular uprising in 1986 had halted the implementation of this plan under Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier. The short-lived military governments that succeeded Baby Doc had been unable to impose it effectively, and the coup government that replaced Aristide had done no better. Now the US hoped to get Aristide to endorse the plan in return for an end to the coup, Haitian activists thought, and to accept a military occupation that would reduce Haiti to a virtual UN-US protectorate.

Troops weren't needed to fight the coup leaders, in this view. They would be there to keep the Haitian masses in check—or, as the New York Times had explained in 1992, to "reassure" the Haitian elite "that their rights will be protected from vengeful Aristide partisans." (NYT editorial, Feb. 19, 1992)

Ignoring an "Anguished Appeal"
On July 14, 1994, the Group for Reflection of the Haitian Conference of Religious Workers, said to represent some 1,400 Haitian priests and nuns, issued what it called "an anguished appeal to our friends in solidarity groups and institutions." An intervention "will be against the people of Haiti," the statement said, "since it arises from the same logic as the coup d'état, which simply means to 'legitimize,' under international cover, its principal achievement: the total erasure of the Haitian people from the political scene of [their] own country."

The religious workers insisted "1) that the only intervention capable of restoring the democratic process in Haiti is massive and democratic popular intervention…2) that any solution which does not give first place to that primary truth is doomed to total failure and will only add irreparable disasters to the already intolerable sufferings of a martyred population."

The Haiti Information Bureau provided an English translation of the document and called for wide distribution "across the Americas and Europe."

This was a moment when the US left could have had a real effect on events. It’s true that US progressives didn’t have the forces to prevent a US military intervention, but a public campaign exposing the Clinton administration’s hypocrisy might have limited some of the damage. At the very least, it could have educated parts of the US public about the realities of their government’s foreign policy and its plans for Haiti.

The investigative journalist Allan Nairn showed what could be done. In the October 24 edition of The Nation, for example, Nairn revealed that Emmanuel ("Toto") Constant—head of a notorious right-wing death squad, the Front pour l’Avancement et le Progrès Haïtien (FRAPH, the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti)—was on the CIA payroll. This was a major embarrassment for US officials claiming that the invasion was necessary to stop abuses by "FRAPH thugs."

In the July/August 1994 Multinational Monitor, Nairn reported on a secret document, "Strategy of Social and Economic Reconstruction," which the Aristide government presented to international donors on August 22. In what certainly appeared to be a trade-off for his return to office, Aristide had agreed to a classic neoliberal economic program, including a "drastic reduction of tariffs"—most importantly, the tariffs meant to protect Haitian food producers from foreign competition. Nairn read parts of the document to MPP leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a member of Aristide’s government. "This is the plan of the World Bank and the IMF," Jean-Baptiste told Nairn, referring to the International Monetary Fund. "It's the same plan they've always offered for years, what they used to call 'The American Plan.'"

But Nairn was the exception. Even as The Nation was carrying Nairn’s exposés, it also ran columnists like Christopher Hitchens, who wrote after the invasion: "The left will probably make up its mind on this sometime in the next century, but for now I proudly wear the yellow ribbon that supports our boys in Hispaniola." (The Nation, Oct. 17, 1994)

Activist Randall Robinson, then the respected head of the African-American human rights organization TransAfrica, was an influential intervention supporter. Robinson had done important work to support the rights of Haitian refugees; he even carried out a 27-day hunger strike in the spring of 1994 to call attention to the issue. But on the question of intervention he was hard to distinguish from Establishment figures like Haass and Safire. "We must get ready for military action in Haiti," he wrote in the Washington Post on May 15, 1994. Noting evidence that some Haitian military officers were involved in drug trafficking, he cited President Bush’s bloody 1989 invasion of Panama, supposedly to fight drug trafficking, as "a recent and relevant precedent." Bush's even bloodier 1991 "Operation Desert Storm" against Iraq was obviously another "recent and relevant precedent"—Robinson's piece was headlined: "Operation Island Storm? It's Time US-Led Forces Ended Haiti's Nightmare."

Robinson said a number of leading African Americans shared his position, including US representatives Maxine Waters, Cynthia McKinney, Charles Rangel, John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Many US progressives simply took no position.

Noam Chomsky was and remains probably the most influential leftist intellectual in the United States, if not in the world. His ability to see through rationalizations for US foreign policy is well known, and a word from him to support the "anguished appeal" of the Haitian religious workers would have had a powerful effect on the US left.

But Chomsky let himself be swayed by a natural desire to end the immediate pain in Haiti—and maybe also by pressure from some of Aristide's more conservative allies. In the same 2010 interview in which he acknowledged that Clinton "of course supported the military junta," Chomsky went on to say:

I talked to labor leaders [in Haiti] who'd been beaten and tortured but were willing to talk, and to activists and others. And what most of them said is, Father [Gérard] Jean-Juste for example, what he said is, "Look, I don't want a Marine invasion, I think it's a bad idea. But on the other hand," he said, "my people, the people in the slums—La Saline, Cité Soleil and so on—they just can't take it anymore." …And that was the dilemma. I don't have an answer to that. [CounterPunch, op cit]

Apparently no major US progressive publication ever bothered to print the statement from the Haitian religious workers, with its warning of "irreparable disasters."

Assessing the "Collateral Damage"
The 1994 invasion itself was remarkably free of what the U.S. military calls “collateral damage.” In large part this was because Haitian military officers didn’t resist the occupation. Most of them cooperated with the invaders, and the coup’s leaders were allowed to fly off into comfortable exiles. Toto Constant, the chief “FRAPH thug,” fled to the United States; after a year in immigration detention, he was allowed to settle in Queens. Constant was finally sentenced to prison in 2008—for real estate fraud on Long Island, not for mass murder in Haiti.

While the relative absence of bloodshed was a relief for Haitians, it had serious consequences for other peoples. By reinforcing the US public's perception of US military operations as bloodless and antiseptic, as "surgical strikes," the Haiti invasion helped lay the groundwork for US wars in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

And the Haitian people experienced a different form of collateral damage. In 1995 Aristide's government carried out the “drastic reduction of tariffs” it had agreed to the year before, even though this, like the military occupation, was in violation of the 1987 Constitution—of Article 251, which seeks to protect local agriculture. As Haitian activists had predicted, a flood of grains from subsidized U.S. agribusiness quickly devastated Haitian farming. Oxfam wrote later:

Unable to compete with cheap rice imports, many Haitian farmers joined the exodus from the countryside that began during the Duvalier era. An estimated 75,000 people stream into Port-au-Prince each year. The city, designed for 250,000 residents, was home to nearly 3 million by the time of the 2010 earthquake. [Oxfam Briefing Paper, October 2010, PDF]

There's probably no way to establish how many of these economic refugees were among the tens of thousands of people killed in the earthquake.

In another fulfillment of activists' predictions, the country quickly became a de facto UN-US protectorate, with public services mostly turned over to foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with the police force vetted and trained by the United States, with the government entirely dependent on aid from the international community. When Aristide was removed from office a second time, in 2004, the United States again turned to the UN Security Council. Following its 1994 precedent, the council approved a mandate for a new, more or less permanent occupation force, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Established in June 2004, this "peacekeeping force" soon provided its own collateral damage. In 2005 and 2006 the troops carried out military operations against alleged criminal gangs in Port-au-Prince, firing thousands of rounds of ammunition in crowded urban areas and killing or injuring dozens of people who lived near the intended targets. In November 2007, 108 MINUSTAH soldiers were repatriated to Sri Lanka because of accusations that they had sexually exploited underage Haitian girls. (The Guardian, Jan. 21, 2011; AlterPresse, Nov. 8, 2007)

In October 2010, Haiti experienced its first cholera outbreak in at least a century. While refusing to apportion blame, in May 2011 a UN-mandated "independent" panel provided conclusive evidence that the outbreak was caused by irresponsible sanitary practices at a MINUSTAH base near Mirebalais; incidents of the disease started downstream from the base at a time when new troops were being rotated in from Nepal, where the disease is endemic. As of April this year some 300,000 Haitians had already contracted the disease and 4,575 had died, according to official figures. (Final Report of the Independent Panel of Experts on the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti, United Nations, May 2011, PDF; Agence Haïtienne de Presse, May 5, 2010)

* * *

Once the 1994 invasion was under way, on October 24, 1994, The Nation wrote in an editorial:

For activists north of the Caribbean who have sustained Aristide and Haitian democrats in their years of exile, the emphasis must now shift from arguing the merits of the occupation—like it or not, an established fact—to bolstering Haiti’s grassroots social justice, human rights and environmental organizations.

The advice to support the grassroots organizations was excellent, but most activists north of the Caribbean took the easier course of simply not arguing the merits of the occupation. The subject rarely comes up now, even in debates about "humanitarian intervention," and leftist discussion of Haiti is still largely dominated by the people who back in 1994 either supported the invasion or refused to take a position.

If we don't argue the merits of past actions, it should be no surprise if we keep making the same mistakes.


From our Daily Report:

Haiti: UN office criticizes aid distribution
World War 4 Report, June 28, 2011

See also:

An Interview with Batay Ouvriye
by David L. Wilson, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, June 2010

by Seth Weiss, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, May 2011

Special to World War 4 Report, July 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution