Protesters have returned to the streets of Haiti as the Caribbean island’s suffering people once again act to take their destinies into their own hands. The protests have been going on for months, with thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – in Port-au-Prince and other important cities demanding the resignation of U.S.-backed President Michel Martelly’s authoritarian regime, which has now lost all semblance of legitimacy.
Martelly has ruled the country since 2011 in the result of a fraudulent election where the left-populist Fanmi Lavalas (Waterfall Family) was excluded. 71.5% of eligible voters didn’t bother to turn out at all. Martelly’s administration has governed in harmony with the United Nations military occupation (MINUSTAH) and with U.S. imperialism’s profitability in mind.
When it’s not ignored altogether, Haiti is usually portrayed by the major media as a perpetual basket-case, a sea of grinding poverty useful mainly for its ability to earn well-to-do Westerners brownie points through their benevolent sponsorship (think Bono, Save the Children and church food drives.) But Haiti’s woes are not some eternal truth with an unknowable cause. That depiction, thoroughly soaked with chauvinism against the Third World, ignores the heroic role played by the Haitian masses and their supporters abroad in the cause of liberation.
Haiti’s fighting spirit goes all the way back to 1791 when the slave colony launched a war of liberation against its French masters, becoming both the second independent state in the New World (after the United States) and the first successful slave revolt in history. While the Black Republic was initially among the region’s richest, French gunboats arrived not long after to demand massive payments for the defeated masters’ expropriated property – the slaves’ own bodies! Thus began the long relationship of neocolonial subjugation that continues to the present day.
Eventually, the United States replaced France as Haiti’s main exploiter. The U.S. occupied Haiti in 1915, creating a centralized state apparatus out of the local bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie. Coffee and mineral resources were extracted on terms highly favorable to American corporate interests. Eventually, a mass revolt in 1934 that included a general strike wave spelled the occupation’s end. The Haitian Communist Party was instrumental here, organizing much of the resistance itself and making common cause with American Blacks and anti-imperialists.
In the late 1950s Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power, presiding over one of the most brutal regimes ever known to Latin America. Duvalier smashed the trade unions and physically liquidated the Communist Party and the left in general, purged the Catholic Church and his own state apparatus, and sponsored paramilitary death squads known as the “Tonton Macoutes” who killed not only suspected opponents of the government but their families as well. He deified himself like an ancient Pharaoh (going so far as to release an updated version of the Lord’s Prayer with his name in it front-and-center) and lived in opulence in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Yet in all this, the Duvaliers were firmly supported by the United States government as a bulwark against “communism” / national liberation movements and a source of ultra-cheap resource extraction and manufacturing. Their relationship certainly had its ups and downs – chilling under John F. Kennedy’s administration, for example – but at the end of the day he wasn’t Fidel Castro, and that was good enough.
By 1986, an elemental movement developed that was strong enough to overthrow Baby Doc Duvalier, who had taken the reins after his father’s death. His final insult was to flee to Paris with U.S. assistance, carrying millions of embezzled dollars with him. The Haitian masses showed tremendous popular revolutionary enthusiasm, striking and protesting to remove key Duvalierist officials. Known members of the hated Tonton Macoutes were lynched, press freedoms were expanded and political life reawakened. The interim government that soon formed, however, used millions in generously given U.S. aid money to kill more Haitians than Baby Doc had during his entire time in power. The government, on advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, slashed its import duties from 50 percent to 3 percent – the consequent flood of U.S.-subsidized rice destroyed Haitian agriculture, plunging hundreds of thousands into poverty. Haitian farmers, who were now prohibited by law from receiving their own state financing, couldn’t compete with imported rice made cheaper by American subsidies and high labor productivity.
As poverty rose, Haitian workers and peasants sought not just political freedom but economic justice. By 1990 the popular movement had coalesced into Fanmi Lavalas, whose candidate, the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won Haiti’s first free elections with an overwhelming majority – despite intense CIA support for his main opponent. But Aristide and his left-populist party were not prepared for the inevitable whip of counterrevolution that soon followed. Domestic capitalists worked with elements of the old regime to stage a coup d’etat against the president just nine months into his term, returning the country to Duvalierist repression. The U.S. condemned it in words, but its actions didn’t match up – for example, an embargo that left Haitian elites virtually untouched but heaped yet more misery on the masses.
Still, the Haitian government was far from ideal for Democratic President Bill Clinton – not because its policies were unfavorable to capital but because its chronic instability meant that a renewal of popular democratic revolt remained. The masses had to be contained, so the coup regime was itself overthrown three years later by U.S. military intervention – officially titled “Operation Uphold Democracy.” Anyone familiar with what many socialists, this writer included, refer to as the “myth of humanitarian imperialism” can guess how closely the operation matched up with its name.
Exiled President Aristide was returned to the country to complete his term, but the Faustian pact came, as all deals with the Devil do, with a price. Aristide accepted an IMF austerity program, aligning his strategy with international capital rather than looking toward the international working class as Haiti’s road to justice. To manage social discontent, both from the poor and from the elites who were still not satisfied by his policy shift, Aristide turned to Bonapartist methods.
Bonapartist leaders try to maintain power by balancing between classes. Aristide accepted neoliberalism, but stopped short of fully privatizing the nationalized industries. He dropped many of his anti-poverty policies — super-exploited labor was (and remains) the capitalists’ key demand in Haiti – but he acceded to the popular demand of disbanding the military. He turned to strong-man methods and state corruption while at the same time espousing pro-poor rhetoric. But you can’t serve two masters. Aristide betrayed the masses’ aspirations too often to prevent discontent from brewing, but bucked Washington’s diktats too frequently to have its backing. In 2004, a political crisis was seized by the United States and Canada as an excuse to back yet another coup. Aristide was effectively exiled, a new government installed and a U.N. occupation of Haiti began that is still ongoing.
Haitian capitalism’s long-standing underdevelopment, the legacy of the Duvalierist state (which was never really smashed), and Fanmi Lavalas’s failure as an instrument of revolutionary change have all lead to the current state of chronic misery. The protesters in the streets of Haiti are attempting to break out of that impasse. In my next article, I will discuss how the aftermath of 2010’s devastating earthquake is triggering a new wave of resistance in Haiti that has the potential to reclaim the country’s best revolutionary traditions.