Haiti's coup

On 29 February, US diplomacy helped armed rebels overthrow an elected government in Haiti. A lot of people have been as angry as hell over this, including otherwise conservative leaders of other Caribbean and Latin American countries; the US Congressional Black caucus and senior US Democrats; and all the big human rights NGOs.

The rest of us should be angry (and worried) as well. Not least for the roles played by France-hostile to Jean-Bertrand Aristide not so much for his violence-prone presidency as for his repeated demands for reparations; and Canada-which suddenly dumped its Caribbean allies and began to echo US calls for Aristide's removal, even sending special forces to secure the Port-au-Prince airport. Both countries, after opposing the US over the Gulf War, appeared keen to make up with George Bush by cheering whatever his administration did in Haiti.

It may not have been a textbook military coup, given that rebel leaders Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Guy Philippe have not actually assumed power, and given that the UN Security Council immediately approved an interim peacekeeping mission to the country. But President Aristide was put on a plane by US Marines and flown to Central Africa, against his will if not physically under arrest.

Aristide, a man of considerable charisma but bad political judgement, came to rely on street gangs to enforce his leadership. He was also a major disappointment to those who hoped for real social change, but continued to be seen by the poor, particularly in the countryside, as their champion.

There has been a strong undercurrent of class struggle in Haitian politics since the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986. But the anti-Aristide parties' refusal even to discuss a power-sharing agreement during the political crisis which preceded Aristide's ouster was more than a merely political calculation. It was a decision to rely on the armed opposition in the north, rather than on civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance in the country as a whole. And this is the other reason I am worried.

Peace Magazine has been discussing political defiance in recent issues (and in the current issue), but the criticism which is often made of political defiance is that US (or other outside interests) can use it to manipulate opposition groups and thereby buy themselves a change of regime. I argued in an earlier Peace Magazine article that outside funding -even from US sources - is often necessary to the success of a nonviolent campaign, but that groups have to be frank in both maintaining and demonstrating their independence from their funders. This was manifestly not the case with Haiti's civil opposition, represented by the broad umbrella body the Democratic Convergence.

Like Otpor in Serbia, the Convergence received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy through the International Republican Institute (IRI). In Haiti, unlike Serbia, however, an IRI representative (Stanley Lucas, whose links to the previous military regime made even the National Endowment for Democracy uncomfortable) was intimately involved with every stage of the opposition's campaign.

The other crucial difference between Haiti and Serbia was that the Serbian opposition campaign focused on making the presidential election into a fair fight, and then - when the regime attempted to falsify the results - on using civil disobedience to install the candidate who had actually won. The Haitian opposition, on the other hand, refused to even talk about the forthcoming legislative elections, seeking instead an unholy alliance with the death squads and the drug dealers.

There will probably be other military coups in the Americas in the near future, particularly if George W Bush is re-elected in November. Venezuela may be a target; US Republicans are even thinking out loud about taking Cuba by force. The lesson from Haiti has been learned only too well: military force is fast and decisive; democratic change is slow and unpredictable, and never quite turns out the way you expect.

Ken Simons, Toronto

Letter from Madrid

The March 11 terrorist attack in Madrid was indeed horrific, yet - occurring at a divisive time such as on the eve of a general election - it brought forth wonderful solidarity: from the fire brigades and hospital workers working overtime to ordinary people queuing to donate blood.

However, the pro-war and pro-confrontation party of the government, Partido Popular, tried to cheat the people once too often. During the past eight years, it has used its domination of the publicly-owned media, especially the TV, to avoid dialogue, to lie, and to manipulate information. Prime Minister Aznar is someone capable of looking into the TV cameras and saying with the utmost conviction "I know that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." Even Bush and Blair concede the need to re-assess the question of Iraq's weapons, but not the PP. Now the PP tried to blame ETA for the atrocity in Madrid, even though the leader of the Basque separatist political party linked to ETA condemned the action. The PP did not meet leaders of other parties to discuss its handling of the situation or to inform them, as would be usual in a situation of national crisis. Instead, it chose divisive slogans for the mass rallies against terrorism, and when other leads began to appear that pointed away from ETA, it tried to cover them up.

Unsuccessfully. The next day, the electoral turn-out was much higher than expected, and the PP, who had led the PSOE by 4% in all the polls, were 5% behind in the poll that mattered.

So now the war-mongering PP has been rejected, and with them the alliance with Bush and Blair. Maybe this seems like a victory for Al-Qaeda or whoever perpetrated Thursday's atrocity. I'm afraid that's how the terrorists will see it too. I have little doubt that if the PP had been transparent in dealing with this attack, they would have been re-elected, and even if the reason for Spain to be a target was the PP's decisions about Iraq, a majority would have rallied to support those in power. But people like Bush and Aznar lack the moral courage to be transparent. And so it was that the Spanish electorate, in the words of one commentator, gave Aznar a kick in Rajoy (his nominated successor)'s backside.

The areas worst hit by the attack registered an increased Socialist vote, and so I suppose some families are consoling themselves that at least one good thing has come out of the death of their loved ones.

Howard Clark, Madrid

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004, page 5. Some rights reserved.

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