by Nico Pitney
The coup d’etat that toppled Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s democratically elected government two weeks ago is hardly a novelty in the grimly impoverished countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, nor is the nature of our own government’s involvement in the overthrow. There are numerous correlates in Haiti’s own history.
Indeed, the small Caribbean nation, poorer and more densely populated than any other in the hemisphere, has been a leading target of U.S. interventionism during the 20th century, beginning with an invasion and occupation ordered in 1915 by Woodrow Wilson.
Haitian historian Roger Gaillard estimates the attack and its aftermath took some 15,000 lives, and leaked Marine orders at the time called for an end to “indiscriminate killing of natives” that had “gone on for some time”.
Shortly afterwards, the Marines disbanded Haiti’s National Assembly when it refused to ratify a Constitution that would have overturned laws forbidding foreigners from owning Haitian land. In 1927, a State Department report described the motivations at work: “It was obvious that if our occupation was to be beneficial to Haiti and further her progress it was necessary that foreign capital should come to Haiti. Americans could hardly be expected to put their money into plantations and big agricultural enterprises in Haiti if they could not themselves own the land on which their money was to be spent”.
Such determined altruism on the part of the American business community was surely in great need. In recommending the occupation plans to President Wilson in 1913, Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips judged the “inferior people” of Haiti unable “to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French or to develop any capacity of self government entitling them to international respect and confidence”.
Washington again wielded its awesome economic influence, augmented by more contemporary tactics used by U.S. planners (in particular, their reliance on surrogate armed guerrilla forces), to fuel the recent coup in Haiti.
Colombia economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that the current administration “froze all multilateral development assistance to Haiti from the day that George W. Bush came into office, squeezing Haiti’s economy dry and causing untold suffering for its citizens. U.S. officials surely knew that the aid embargo would mean a balance-of-payments crisis, a rise in inflation and a collapse of living standards, all of which fed the rebellion”.
Then, in November 2002, following a failed coup attempt by anti-Aristide rebel leader Guy Philippe, the Bush administration “donated” 20,000 M-16s to the Dominican Republic. 900 U.S. troops involved with “technical assistance and joint training maneuvers” were stationed along the Haitian border, according to The Miami Herald. Armed with these M-16s (as well as M-60s, armor piercing weapons, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to observer reports), Haitian rebel forces began moving through the countryside, easily outmaneuvering or overpowering Aristide’s small police force of 3,000 men and a single helicopter.
In the weeks leading up to the coup, the Bush Administration resisted numerous calls from the Congressional Black Caucus, international observers, and Aristide himself to dispatch troops to calm conditions in Haiti before wider chaos erupted. In addition, the Miami Herald notes the Administration “blocked a last minute attempt by President Aristide to bolster his bodyguards [and] forced a small group of extra bodyguards from the Steele Foundation to delay their flight from the United States to Haiti from Sunday to a later day - too late to help Aristide, said the sources”.
On February 29, Guy Philippe told the British Press Association that he had “heard the United States asked our men to stop their advance to Port-au-Prince”. Philippe, who was trained by U.S. Special Forces in the early-1990s and who counts former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet among his heroes, claimed that he would bow to the U.S. request because “we always give peace a chance here”. Although he said he would keep sending his troops, he admitted “we won’t attack Port-au-Prince until we understand what the U.S. means.”
Within 24 hours, a group of Marines and U.S. Embassy officials had a meeting with Aristide, during which the Haitian president was apparently informed that rebels were poised to take Port-au-Prince, and that U.S. armed forces would not be deployed unless he resigned immediately and left the country. It appears that Aristide left his office when officials told him that international reporters were requesting a statement; instead, he was spirited onto a plane and taken to the Central African Republic. Two days later, Philippe was said to be in control of Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien, declaring during his first post-coup radio address, “The county is in my hands!”.
The latest overthrow coincides with the bicentennial anniversary of Haiti’s birth as a Republic, when Toussaint L’Ouverture led a slave revolt that cast off the French colonial rulers and their allies. Still today, medical anthropologist Paul Walker observes, Haitian schoolchildren are taught to recite the words L’Ouverture spoke when he was captured by the French following the revolt: “They have felled only the trunk of the tree of liberty. Branches will sprout again, for its roots are numerous and deep”.
U.S. support for the armed Haitian coup in 1991 prompted commentator Noam Chomsky to write that “without popular support here [in the U.S.], Toussaint’s tree of liberty will remain deeply buried, at best a dream not in Haiti alone”. Events in the past two weeks have demonstrated the accuracy of this claim, as well as the power of grassroots activists to counter the designs of Washington planners.
Pacifica Radio and Web-based news sources have amplified the protests of the Congressional Black Caucus and helped break the story of Aristide’s kidnapping. The efforts of activists from the Haiti Support Network and the International Action Center jolted the Central African Republic into permitting Aristide to hold a press conference on March 8. Popular outrage encouraged Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to join the fray and condemn Bush for sending a “terrible message” to the region’s democracies by not backing Aristide.
Progress in these respects can continue, but only if American citizens remain committed to using the incredible power they possess to hold their own leaders accountable.
Nico Pitney is a San Diego native.