Aristide and the Violence of Democracy
Review of Alex Dupuy’s ‘The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti’
By Peter Hallward
Alex Dupuy; ‘The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti’; New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; ISBN 0-7425-3831-1, 238 + xi pages. Reviewed by Peter Hallward. This review was first published in Haiti Liberté in July 2007 and on ZNet, Sept 9 2007.
The basic argument of Alex Dupuy’s new book is that between 1990 and 2006, Haiti’s “tumultuous transition to democracy” was “temporarily derailed by both Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his enemies” (203). In particular, Dupuy sets out to show that “when he left [Haiti] in February 2004, Aristide had become a discredited, corrupted and increasingly authoritarian president who had betrayed the trust and aspirations of the poor majority” (2).
Alex Dupuy is an experienced and highly regarded scholar who has already written two other substantial books on modern Haitian politics. He has a sophisticated grasp of the workings of the “new world order”, of transnational capitalism and of contemporary forms of political and economic domination. Readers familiar with the recent work of analysts like David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein or William Robinson will find themselves right at home. His latest book is sure to appeal to people who are instinctively critical both of U.S. imperialism and of the apparent degeneration of Aristide and the Lavalas movement that he led. It is reasonable to assume that The Prophet and Power will soon become a standard point of reference for anyone who wants to understand what happened to Haiti in the two confusing decades that followed the expulsion of the U.S.-backed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. It is already beginning to enjoy a warm reception as a “challenging and enlightening book”, one that presents a “fair and persuasive” argument that is “rooted carefully in factual data, analyzing the global situation with insight and logical rigor.”2 Such an argument clearly deserves to be considered in detail and at length.
Dupuy provides a fairly full account of Aristide’s two terms in office (February 1991 - September 1991; February 2001 - February 2004). Both terms were interrupted by violent military coups. Dupuy argues that in each case, responsibility for the coup lay both with Aristide himself and with his opponents among the Haitian economic elite, backed by the Haitian army (or its paramilitary replacement) and its international patrons. Long before his political career was brought to an end in February 2004, Dupuy insists that it had become “clear that Aristide, as well as his Fanmi Lavalas party in power, relied on intimidation, violence, and corruption to maintain themselves in power, had become discredited, no longer represented the interests of the majority of Haitians who brought them to power, and were a major obstacle to the democratization of Haiti. But if Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas subverted democracy, so too did the organized opposition, the Haitian bourgeoisie, and their foreign allies” (168).
Most readers familiar with recent Haitian history are likely to agree with at least the second aspect of Dupuy’s analysis. Dupuy provides a useful introductory overview of the ways in which neo-liberal globalisation has led to increasingly desperate levels of exploitation and impoverishment. He demonstrates how this global economic order is tightly interconnected with U.S. imperial power. He understands the difference between core and peripheral states within the contemporary world-system. He shows how the U.S. and its allies in the Haitian elite were determined at all costs to prevent Aristide from pursuing meaningful social and economic reforms. He shows how the “democratic opposition” that the U.S. and pro-U.S. members of Haiti’s little elite rigged up to oppose Aristide’s second administration amounted to nothing more than a front for the most reactionary forces in Haitian society. He shows how Aristide’s early efforts to rid Haiti of the murderous legacy of the Duvalier dictators (1957-1986) and their brutal “Tonton Macoute” militia were thwarted by a mixture of military and paramilitary reaction. He explains how Aristide’s early ambition to lead Haiti towards a “maximalist” (redistributive, socially transformative) version of democracy was constrained by pressure from the international community and its financial institutions to legislate for what became a merely “minimalist” or formal (market-driven, politically conservative) version of democracy (18-21). In all these respects Dupuy provides a valuable and clear-sighted analysis of this most turbulent period in Haitian history.
What may be more controversial is Dupuy’s insistence that the primary responsibility for the end of democratic rule in 2004 nevertheless lies with President Aristide and members of his Fanmi Lavalas party. Like a good many other analysts who considered themselves sympathetic to the embryonic phase of the Lavalas project, Dupuy claims that whereas Aristide’s first administration was marked by a mix of authoritarian and democratic tendencies, his second administration was simply authoritarian through and through. “Aristide’s second term of office”, he writes, was “disastrous on all fronts–political, economic, and social” (168). By 2001, “Aristide’s objective was to consolidate his and his party’s power and preserve the prebendary and clientelistic characteristics of the state he had vowed to dismantle in 1991. To maintain power, Aristide relied on armed gangs, the police, and authoritarian practices to suppress his opponents, all the while cultivating a self-serving image as defender of the poor. That strategy did not work, though, as his government became increasingly discredited and his popularity waned [...]. Consequently, unlike in 1991, the majority of the population did not rally to save Aristide from being forced out in 2004 or clamor for his return afterward” (xv). By 2004, “betrayed by a false prophet”, one of world’s most remarkable and inspiring political mobilisations had been definitively crushed.
Now, readers familiar with anti-Aristide propaganda will know that as far as the prevailing norms of the genre are concerned, this is very mild stuff. Alex Dupuy’s incisive and sharply written book is certainly more balanced and more accurate than say Michael Deibert’s recent account of these same years, in his Notes from the Last Testament (2005). Dupuy’s argument draws on a very wide consensus, a consensus endorsed for some time now by a whole slew of other experienced observers, including Jane Regan, Charles Arthur, Jean-Michel Caroit, and Laënnec Hurbon, among many others. Dupuy’s restatement of the prevailing case against Aristide deserves to be considered very seriously.
So let’s consider it.
Dupuy mounts three main accusations against the twice-deposed president. First, he claims that Aristide contributed to the first coup, in 1991, by failing to do enough to placate his enemies within the Haitian economic and political elite. Second, he claims that by the time Aristide was re-elected in 2000 (if not by the time he returned to Haiti in 1994) he had abandoned his original principles and had become just another “all-too-ordinary and traditional president, who like all the others who came before him, was using state power for his and his allies’ personal gains” (170). Third, as his corrupt administration began to encounter understandably agitated forms of political opposition, Dupuy claims that Aristide decided to arm gangs of his most impoverished and desperate supporters (the infamous “chimès”) to intimidate his opponents. This strategy, Dupuy concludes, “would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of Aristide’s second term. In effect, I will argue, by relying on armed gangs rather than mobilizing his popular base as a counterforce to the opposition, as he tended to do in his first term, Aristide would marginalize the latter. Henceforth, Lavalas would become equated with the chimès, and the entire popular movement associated with Lavalas [...] would become discredited, demobilized, and demoralized” (143-144).
I’ll go through these three accusations in turn, paying particular attention to the first and the third.
The first accusation is the most familiar, since it is an echo of longstanding elite anxieties about Aristide that date back to the explosive entry, in the late 1980s, of this “cross between Ayatollah and Fidel” onto the political stage.3 The “greatest mistake” of Aristide’s first administration, Dupuy says, was his belief that “with the masses behind him, he was invincible and that he could rule without respecting the law and without winning over the bourgeoisie, the parliament, or the army” (130). Although Dupuy can see that this most fearless scourge of macoutisme stood little chance of gaining the support of the Duvalierists and their Macoutes, still “he could have done much more to reassure the bourgeoisie and win it over to his side” (132). Instead, by failing to reward his bourgeois allies within the political class, and by making a couple of apparently inflammatory speeches, he drove Haiti’s economic masters back into a lethal alliance with the army and the Macoutes.
There are two separate issues to assess here, one political, one strategic. The political question concerns the relation between Aristide’s actual electoral base and the little clutch of professional politicians who briefly allied themselves to that base during the election campaign of 1990. As far as Dupuy is concerned, “the most important virtue of the broad and decentralized democratic movement” that started up in the late 1980s was precisely its lack of centralized organization, a virtue which “meant that no single political organization or individual would emerge as its identifiable leaders” (59). Free from the oppressive influence of a united and identifiable leadership, these golden years of Haitian civil society were instead populated by small (and surely unidentifiable) “social-democratic” groupings like Victor Benoît’s KONAKOM and Evans Paul’s KID, groupings that aimed to “create a popular, progressive, and democratic government as an alternative to the discredited dictatorial system” (59). So when in the autumn of 1990 a more dominant and more identifiable individual backed up by a more effective popular organisation did indeed begin to engage more directly with this dictatorial system, it’s not surprising that for Dupuy this development already represented a serious setback for Haitian democracy.
Officially, in the 1990 election campaign, Aristide replaced Victor Benoît as the candidate of another loose coalition of KONAKOM–and KID–affiliated social-democrats who briefly duplicated themselves to create a parallel grouplet called the Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie (FNCD). Dupuy suggests that the “worst” and most “dangerous” consequence of 1990 was that “once Aristide’s Opération Lavalas emerged as the dominant political force and the other popular organisations and left-of-center coalitions, especially the FNCD, accepted Aristide as their leader, they in effect surrendered their autonomy and their ability to criticize Aristide, to serve as checks and balances to his powers, and to articulate independent agendas” (95). Aristide himself, by contrast, appears to have wasted little time in implementing his own all-too-independent agenda. After winning the election with a landslide 67% of the vote, rather than choose leading members of this FNCD coalition as ministers in his cabinet, a president that Dupuy presents as worryingly “theocratic” and “messianic” preferred to work with a mixture of competent administrators and veterans of the powerful popular movement he had helped to inspire over the preceding couple of years. Rather than appoint a worthy democrat like Victor Benoît, Aristide named as his prime minister a mere agronomist and social activist, René Préval. “Ironically”, says Dupuy, the result of such choices was the enmity of the “FNCD, the very coalition that made Aristide’s candidacy and his election possible” (125).
Some readers, mindful of the electrifying impact of Aristide’s last-minute decision to stand as a candidate in that election, might question whether it really was the hapless and unpopular FNCD politicians that made his victory possible. Granted, they provided the banner under which Aristide could legally run. But no one can deny that just four months after Aristide had appointed him, the FNCD opposition had managed to grind Préval’s energetic, practical and wide-ranging legislative programme to a halt. Had the army not intervened in its own fashion in September 1991, notes Dupuy, “there is little doubt that the four major political blocs in the Chamber of Deputies, including the FNCD, would have voted in favor of a censure motion” (127). Readers will have to judge for themselves the degree to which such behavior corroborates Dupuy’s own diagnosis of the most “dangerous” development of 1990–the fact that the FNCD and their fellow social-democrats had apparently “surrendered their autonomy and their ability to criticize Aristide.” Readers familiar with the subsequent political evolution of people like Evans Paul and Victor Benoît–a shift that saw these erstwhile social-democrats ally themselves with unreconstructed Duvalierists like ex-general Prosper Avril and ex-colonel Himmler Rébu, backed up by plenty of financial and logistical support from the most reactionary and most powerful figures of the second Bush administration (Roger Noriega, Otto Reich, Stanley Lucas...)–may also hesitate a little before opting to characterize it in terms of a servile deference to Aristide.
Be that as it may, Dupuy’s main point at this stage of his book is that “Aristide’s option for the masses, his distrust of the bourgeoisie and of the U.S., and theirs of him made it impossible for him to substitute the prince’s clothing for the prophet’s. It reinforced his inclination to ‘go it alone’ and shun any attempt to form a broad consensus government” (107). Since Dupuy is sharply critical of this failure to change clothes and to embrace consensus, the thrust of this line of reasoning seems clear enough. Aristide shouldn’t have opted for the isolation of the masses. He should have trusted the bourgeoisie, and he should have trusted the U.S. Then maybe everything would have worked out fine. Aristide could have morphed into a proper democrat like KONAKOM’s Victor Benoît, and the whole disastrous experiment in “anarcho populism” could have been avoided. Instead, Aristide stubbornly refused to “woo the bourgeoisie” and declined to form “a broad coalition government that included representatives” from among his “opponents in the National Assembly” (119). Instead of embracing proper parliamentary democracy, Aristide “disdained all established political parties, sought to bypass the National Assembly and the judiciary, and even encouraged his popular supporters to harass and intimidate parliamentarians and the justices who opposed him” (133).
Of course Alex Dupuy is a sophisticated analyst and a trenchant critic of the oppressive machinery of our new world order. More simple-minded sceptics may wonder, nevertheless, whether his repeated preference for a “broad-based” as opposed to a “mass-based” government is altogether compatible with his apparent enthusiasm for democracy. They may not grasp how a decision to pursue policies emphatically endorsed by the great majority of the population and authorized by several repeated and overwhelming election victories is best interpreted as a rejection of “consensus.” They may wonder whether Aristide was really mistaken in his distrust of the bourgeoisie and the U.S., when a fair amount of Dupuy’s own book is devoted to a damning and perfectly accurate demonstration of their determination to frustrate, depose and then discredit him by all available means. They may find it strange to see that Aristide’s reluctance to adopt disdainful enemies as ministers in his own government provides Dupuy with further proof of his authoritarian tendencies–no doubt bona fide democrats like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have been criticized, but perhaps rarely, for their failure to include parliamentary opponents in their own cabinets. Still more intransigent sceptics may even find it strange that whereas the whole thrust of Dupuy’s book targets the deeply, institutionally entrenched corruption of the political class and the profoundly “predatory” or “prebendary” orientation of the status quo, he nevertheless condemns out of hand, and as a matter of dignified principle, Aristide’s rather cautious attempt to submit this status quo to the one and only source of non-predatory pressure available: the force of direct popular mobilization.
As far as anyone interested with actually-existing Haitian democracy is concerned, such musings are somewhat beside the point. Over the last dozen years or so, Haitian voters can have left even the most sophisticated analysts in little doubt as to their own opinion of parties like KONAKOM, KID and the many KID-like clones that emerged (with generous U.S. and EU support) to divide and rule the Haitian political scene in the 1990s. In 1995, for instance, Evans Paul ran as a candidate for mayor of Port-au-Prince against a close ally of Aristide, the activist and singer Manno Charlemagne: despite (or because of) years of U.S. encouragement, Paul only managed to scrape 14% of the vote. Later in 1995, KONAKOM’s own Victor Benoît finally got his chance to run in his own presidential election, against Aristide’s old prime minister René Préval: the first of the FNCD posse to break free of Aristide’s ‘authoritarian’ grip back in the autumn of 1990, Benoît earned the support of an impressive 2% of the electorate, against Préval’s 88%. Five years later, all of the myriad social-democratic parties that had embraced an unconditional revulsion for Aristide as their political raison d’être were wiped off the electoral map in a crushing and definitive defeat. In the legislative elections of May 2000, the largest and most significant of these parties, Gérard Pierre-Charles’ OPL, managed to win just one seat in the 83-member Chamber of Deputies. Like most other members of his profession and class, Dupuy is no doubt entitled to regret the fact that so unconventional a political organisation as Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas happened to win 72 of these seats–but perhaps he is not entitled to regret it in the name of ‘democracy’ per se.
Whether Alex Dupuy likes it or not, the plain fact of the matter is that Benoit’s 2% is just about par for the course for Haiti’s leading social democrats. Although they were wise enough not to challenge Aristide directly for the presidency in 2000, in the 2006 presidential elections Evans Paul polled 2.5% of the vote, and Serge Gilles, the long-time darling of French social democracy, 2.6%. As we shall see in a moment, however, mere numbers have never made much of an impression on Alex Dupuy.
What now about the strategic side of this first question? Here Dupuy knows that he is on slightly firmer ground, and we need to ponder his argument more carefully. He observes that in 1991 Aristide’s government sought to pursue ‘an economic program that depended for its success on the cooperation with the bourgeoisie’, but he notes that by occasionally raising the prospect of vigilante violence against the enemies of democracy, Aristide made such cooperation a virtual impossibility (129). Dupuy has in mind two notorious speeches given on 4 August and 27 September, speeches in which Aristide refused to rule out recourse to defensive violence as a last-ditch strategy whereby the people might protect the government they had elected against extra-legal pressure from the army, the Macoutes and the ruling class. Although hardly typical of Aristide’s main priorities during these years–his relentless emphasis on the non-violent struggle for social justice, conceived in the terms developed by liberation theology and its ‘preferential option for the poor’–Dupuy is surely right to say that these pointed appeals to popular vigilance provided the enemies of Lavalas with an inexhaustible supply of damaging propaganda. In the August 4 speech in particular Aristide openly considered the pros and cons of recourse to ‘Père Lebrun’, a phrase that was guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the Haitian elite and their proxies in the armed forces.
Père Lebrun is a notorious euphemism, based on the name of a local tire-dealer, for the use of burning tires; it became part of Haiti’s popular political vocabulary during the uprooting or déchoukaj of the Macoutes that began when a growing popular movement against Haiti’s old dictatorship finally forced Jean-Claude Duvalier from power in February 1986. If you ask a sample of Haitian people what the metaphor Père Lebrun meant in 1990/91, they will readily admit that its range of meanings included ‘necklacing Macoutes’. For Alex Dupuy, as for the Americas Watch and NCHR analysts he relies on, Père Lebrun simply means recourse to ‘murder’, ‘necklacing’ or ‘deadly force’4; in the early 1990s, CIA analyst Brian Latell and U.S. politicians like Jesse Helms and Bob Dole would likewise jump to the same politically convenient conclusion. This interpretation is not so much incorrect as crucially incomplete. In his speech, Aristide himself doesn’t refer to necklacing, of course, though he certainly refers to burning tires, and to matches and gasoline. Haitians more sympathetic to Aristide than Dupuy insist, as veteran journalist Kim Ives explains, that when Aristide spoke of petit Père Lebrun in the summer of 1991 he was using ‘code, or shorthand, for “popular power”, “street power” or “popular vigilance.”’5 Such power certainly included, in extremis, recourse to necklacing, but it was not reducible to it.
Semantic niceties aside, necklacing is a gruesome crime by any standard. If condemnation of such a vigilante practice is to carry any genuine force, however, it must take into account all the reasons that lie behind its use. By the summer of 1991, Aristide’s reformist government had indeed antagonised virtually every sector of the Haitian establishment. The 4 August speech was delivered in the wake of noisy popular demonstrations that had threatened to boil over and interrupt the trial of an exceptionally prominent and aggressive Macoute–Roger Lafontant. In late July, Lafontant and a group of his associates were put on trial for trying to stage a pre-emptive coup d’état in January 1991, a few weeks before Aristide’s inauguration; after some uncertainty they were hastily sentenced to life in prison, under the watchful eye of a pro-Aristide crowd. Aristide needed to maintain this popular mobilisation against the sworn enemies of his government, while finding ways to discipline and channel a thirst for retaliation that might otherwise spiral out of control. On 4 August, then, speaking to an exuberant gathering of high-school students, Aristide commended them for grasping the difference between situations in which recourse to vigilante violence was always illegitimate (i.e. any situation in which the constitution and the rule of law is respected) and circumstances in which such violence might become legitimate (i.e. situations in which enemies of the constitution sought to subvert it by force, deception or corruption). It’s quite true that in this speech, Aristide advised his listeners not to forget about Père Lebrun, and to remember ‘when to use it, and where to use it’–always with the proviso that ‘you may never use it again in a state where law prevails.’6
In August 1991, the continuation of such a state was anything but certain. The judges in the Lafontant trial had been under significant pressure from the Duvalierists and the army to let Lafontant and his accomplices off the hook. Aristide’s erstwhile ‘allies’ in the legislature, meanwhile, were openly seeking to get rid of his prime minister. For the thousands of impoverished people who came out into the streets to demonstrate against these and related developments the real meaning of Père Lebrun was very simple: given their lack of weapons, resources, or international friends, it meant resistance by all means necessary to prevent a further coup d’état and further aggression from the Macoutes.
So long as we don’t pause to ponder why people in Haiti’s poorer neighbourhoods might occasionally have had recourse such tactics, nothing could be simpler than a principled condemnation of so patently barbaric a figure as Père Lebrun. If in 1991 many of Aristide’s more militant supporters didn’t see it that way, it’s because they knew from bitter experience that neither the police nor the army nor the legal system nor the ‘international community’ were likely to offer them any sort of alternative. It’s because they had learned, over many years, that people incapable of defending themselves against the Macoutes and their mercenary informants were likely to pay a very high price for such docility; during the long anti-apartheid struggle that animated places like Soweto during these same years, the followers of Aristide’s fellow ‘populist-terrorist’ Nelson Mandela also learned a very similar lesson. Dupuy himself estimates the number of people killed by François Duvalier and his Macoutes at around 50,000. In the years that followed the expulsion of François’ son Jean-Claude in February 1986 and Aristide’s election in December 1990, many hundreds of pro-democracy activists were killed by the military regimes that took over where the Duvaliers left off. By mid 1987 well-known Macoutes were once again operating with their usual impunity, and were given a free hand to carry out gruesome massacres like the one that crushed a protest movement of small farmers in Jean-Rabel in July (around 300 dead) or that ended a grotesque first attempt at elections in November (around 150 dead). Almost as soon as Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted, highly politicised neighbourhoods like Cité Soleil and Bel-Air began to suffer violent military or paramilitary incursions on a regular basis. Aristide himself narrowly survived several assassination attempts during these same years, and there can be little doubt that it was only the very rare but very public reprisal killings carried out by some of his supporters that discouraged further attacks. The most high profile incident came in response to the murderous Macoute assault on Aristide’s crowded church on 11 September 1988. After torching the building, killing at least a dozen parishioners and wounding many more, Gwo Schiller and some of the other perpetrators were foolish enough to boast about their heroics on national television, warning that ‘wherever Aristide appears, there we will kill.’ Four or five of these people were themselves tracked down and killed soon afterwards.7
In 1990/91, to insist like Alex Dupuy (or the U.S. human rights groups that he cites) on a blanket condemnation of Père Lebrun in 1990/1991 would have been tantamount, in practice, to an insistence on mass submission to the Macoutes. To demand such principled condemnation is to underestimate the extreme but routine violence that structures Haitian society itself, and it is to downplay the impact of many decades of systematic political violence, the violence upon which the preservation of Haiti’s exceptionally unequal distribution of wealth and power still depends. Without the prospect of anti-Macoute violence Aristide would never have survived the 1980s. Without massive popular mobilisation he would never have been elected. Without the determined and militant popular uprising that overwhelmed Lafontant’s premature putsch in January 1991 he would never have been able to take office: scores of unarmed Lavalassians were killed when many thousands of them confronted Lafontant’s soldiers, and some of these soldiers were in turn besieged and ‘déchouked’ when their ammunition ran out. Once he then became president and immediately set about loosening the army’s grip on the country, Aristide’s supporters understood perfectly well what would happen if that army ever managed to regain the initiative. Sure enough, around 4000 of them would die during the army’s first coup, and several thousand more were killed during the second. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that more than a few of these people were prepared to protect their government with whatever makeshift tools came to hand.
This, then, is the context in which we need to listen to Aristide’s controversial references to Père Lebrun. By July 1991 it was obvious that a further coup attempt was already imminent, and that the army’s officers were preparing rank and file soldiers for a direct assault on neighbourhoods most closely identified with the government. Back in January, during Lafontant’s brief uprising, the most powerful and most brutal unit of the army (the presidential guard based in the Dessalines Barracks of the National Palace) had remained ominously neutral and refused to intervene; by July it was clear that this apparent neutrality had once again lapsed back into an active hostility. Haiti’s richest families, meanwhile, had already raised millions of dollars to pay for an old-fashioned return to the status quo (and when the time came, ordinary soldiers would receive up to $5000 each in exchange for their willingness to shoot into the crowds8). From now on, the government’s very existence was at stake. If not Père Lebrun, if not some form of intimidating popular pressure, who or what might keep the army at bay once it had decided to suspend the rule of law and remove the people’s government by force?
When Aristide eventually made his most frequently deplored speech–his 27 September 1991 call to give the Macoutes, the pro-army bourgeoisie and other enemies of democracy ‘what they deserve’9–the government was already under open military attack. Again the context is not irrelevant. His back to the wall, Aristide improvised this speech after returning from a triumphant visit to the UN in New York. The army had planned to assassinate him on arrival, but the president’s convoy narrowly survived several military ambushes on the way back from the airport, thanks to another massive popular mobilisation in Cité Soleil and around the National Palace. Since the international community had already made it clear that it would not intervene (and since well-placed members of Aristide’s security team already knew what to expect from the army’s old ally and patron the United States), the future of Aristide’s government and the survival of its most active supporters was now utterly dependent on the persistence of this mobilisation. As Kim Ives explains, in these circumstances Aristide’s speech was an attempt to
warn the bourgeoisie and Macoutes that the masses will ‘give them what they deserve’ if they try to carry out a coup. He used his trademark multi-meaning, riddle-strewn Bible-like language, leaving his true meaning open to just about any interpretation. But I don't think that he was calling for lynchings–necklacing–at all. I think he was just saying: ‘Don't mess with the people or you will reap a whirlwind.’ His message to the people that day was not go out and necklace your opponents, it was simply remain vigilant and don't hesitate to defend yourself against attack.10
As it turned out, in order to begin to overcome such vigilance, during the night of 30 September the army would have to kill anywhere between 300 and 1000 people.11
Rather than surrender to such an army, in August and September 1991 Aristide did indeed choose to ‘fight bullets with words.’12 No doubt some of the people behind these bullets were worried by his choice of words. As a leading member of Aristide’s 1991 security team points out, however, ‘it’s utterly hypocritical to condemn Aristide’s inflammatory words unless you first condemn the weapons that provoked them.’13 In a spectacular inversion of the historical record, leading figures in the U.S. government and senate soon began to argue that it was Aristide’s words rather than the army’s weapons that were mainly to blame for the violence that overwhelmed Haiti in late September 1991.
Although Alex Dupuy strikes a more balanced note than Jesse Helms and other U.S. critics of Haiti’s elected ‘psychopath’, nevertheless his book does little to set the record straight. Everyone can see why the little group of people who had hitherto oppressed the majority of Haiti’s population with impunity saw Aristide as a profoundly threatening figure, but why anyone else should think of him that way is less clear. Dupuy pays little attention to the most important point in this whole discussion: given the context and long history of systematic oppression that structures Haitian society, what is most extraordinary about the events of 1991 is surely the lack of popular violence that accompanied the beginning of this risky ‘transition to democracy’. The American activist Douglas Perlitz has been working with street kids in Cap Haïtien for more than a decade, and makes sense of the situation of 1991 with a helpful analogy:
The way I see it, it’s as if the poor had been suffocated for decades, in fact for centuries; the rich, and their army, were like a hand keeping their heads under water, and they couldn’t breathe. Aristide was the person who removed that hand. But when the people could finally lift their heads from out of the water they didn’t just gasp for breath, they also tried to lash out at the hand that had oppressed them for so long. Some popular violence in the wake of Aristide’s election victory in 1990 was inevitable; Gandhi himself would have been powerless to stop it. What’s remarkable is that things never got out of hand. Under the circumstances the level of discipline in the popular movement was very impressive.14
Despite endless provocations, once the immediate threat from Lafontant had been deflected there were just two or three occasions during the whole of Aristide’s first administration in which outraged crowds attacked and killed notorious enemies of their government. Not a single incidence of popular violence can fairly be blamed on the government itself. It would be difficult indeed to find a more dramatic instance of an abrupt reduction in human rights abuses than the one that began in Haiti with the elections of December 1990. As for Aristide himself, to devote obsessive attention to the isolated occasions in which he risked the language of open class conflict is to distort beyond recognition the general emphasis of his contribution to Haitian politics. He devoted much if not most (if not too much!) of his political life to the affirmation of non-violence and social reconciliation. The overwhelming emphasis of the many speeches he gave in 1991 was on the need to pursue social justice through respect for the constitution and cooperation with the security forces. Again and again he reminded his supporters of the need to work in harmony with the army and the police, in a country that had no experience of democracy or the rule of law.15 By the same token, when the U.S. eventually allowed him to return to power in 1994, Aristide somehow managed to defuse a widespread and understandable desire for revenge against this same army, even though the U.S. troops who escorted him home had already ruled out any legal prosecution of its crimes (and had already begun to take covert steps to secure its future political influence). In reality it was Bush and Clinton who calmly and deliberately sanctioned recourse to violence in Haiti during these years, not Aristide.
The truth is that as far as advocates of popular violence go, Aristide doesn’t cut a very impressive figure. Perhaps that’s because, leaving aside the ethical issues that may have appealed to a Catholic priest who had already committed his life to serving the poorest of the poor, Aristide always ‘recognise[d] that institutionalised violence is stronger than any we could unleash. We are not armed. And I do not believe that we will ever have the means to compete with the enemy on that key terrain. But they cannot count on me to condemn acts of despair or of legitimate defence by the victims of aggression.’16
Whether or not some amount of defensive popular violence might have been justifiable in the context of 1991, Dupuy argues that Aristide’s decision to compensate for his lack of support within the established political class by ‘building his own counterforce with the masses who supported him’ (127) was a fatal strategic mistake. Dupuy’s own account of the situation in 1991, however, renders this conclusion at least a little debatable. He knows that the elite ‘feared the empowerment of the social classes whose abject exploitation and suppression the dictatorships had guaranteed’. He knows that the tiny group of ‘rich Haitians and their foreign allies will do everything they can to prevent any significant tampering with the status quo.’ He knows that in 1991 this elite was especially hostile to reforms introduced by Aristide to ‘target the loopholes and other prerogatives it had enjoyed under the old regimes’ (121, 201). How exactly, then, were Aristide and Préval supposed to persuade them to go along with these reforms, if not through some sort of popular pressure? When and where, in fact, has a ruling class ever made significant concessions to the people they rule without the direct or indirect prospect of mass protest? Occasional victories won by exploited groups in the U.S. itself are no exception to this rule, as anyone who has read Piven and Cloward’s book on Poor People’s Movements (1978) may recall.
Such then is the first strand of Dupuy’s argument. In a nutshell, Aristide stands accused of ‘encouraging the bourgeoisie to side with the army and the Macoute camp against him’ (133). With remarkable sang-froid, Dupuy opts to say rather less about the failings of these pro-army bourgeois themselves. He says little or nothing about their financial support for the coup, and little or nothing about their actual collusion with the military. He says little or nothing about the brutal assault on Aristide’s supporters in places like Cité Soleil and Raboteau, and little or nothing about what powerful bourgeois families like the Mevs, the Bigios, the Boulos, the Apaids, the Nadals and a few others got up to between 1991 and 1994. This is presumably because, as far as Dupuy is concerned, it’s already quite clear where the main responsibility lies. Although Dupuy realises that the bourgeoisie opposed Aristide’s reforms and hated everything that he stood for, he nevertheless prefers to emphasise the fact that ‘Aristide’s confrontational and sometimes threatening behaviour “added fuel to the fire” of class conflicts exacerbated by his election to the presidency’ (133). Through a whole series of ‘populist’ symbols and gestures, all through 1991 ‘Aristide signalled that he was shunning the bourgeoisie to form a new pact of domination with the masses, on whom he relied to defend him against his enemies’ (106).
Just how exactly the bourgeoisie was ‘dominated’ by this new configuration is something that Dupuy doesn’t bother to explain, but luckily for the dominees the pact of domination between Aristide and the masses doesn’t seem to have lasted for a very long time. Rightly or wrongly, in 2001-2004 a more experienced Aristide would go to considerable lengths to reassure the Haitian bourgeoisie, and he took some controversial steps to win over at least a small portion of the already-dominant class. This doesn’t impress Dupuy either, however, for by the time he gets to 2001 he has shifted the focus of his critique. Aristide’s mistake in 2001 was no longer his hostility to the bourgeoisie but his betrayal of his popular roots. In order to consolidate his new ‘class interest’, the Aristide of 2001 had come to accept ‘the same clientelistic and prebendary practices as his predecessors and to conform to the interests of the dominant classes, the foreign investors and the core powers and their financial institutions’ (20). But just as he was wrong to snub the bourgeoisie in 1991, it seems he was still more wrong to court them in 2001. Distracted by his newfound thirst for absolute power, the re-elected president was apparently oblivious to the fact that ‘the Haitian private-sector bourgeoisie, which despised Aristide and was angry at the Clinton administration for having returned him to Haiti in 1994, was not in the least interested in his conciliatory tone, instead throwing its support behind the Convergence Démocratique [a small U.S.- and French-backed parliamentary coalition established in May 2000] in its effort to topple Aristide’ (143).
Dupuy’s analysis of Aristide’s apparent slide towards despotism, in the fifth chapter of his book, gets off to an improbable start when he acknowledges on its first page that in May 2000, ‘as expected–because of the party’s popularity–candidates for Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party swept the elections, thereby granting the FL overwhelming control of government at the national and local levels’ (135). This isn’t quite how previous dictators like Duvalier, Namphy, Avril or Cédras came to power, and it isn’t quite how Latortue’s dictatorship got started either. As anyone can see, however, ‘overwhelming control’ already looks and sounds a lot like old-fashioned dictatorship. Rather than waste time reflecting on the reasons for Aristide’s apparent popularity, therefore, Dupuy moves straight on to the much more important fact that ‘many of his former allies, especially the cadres of OPL, now saw him as a dangerous demagogue with dictatorial ambitions’ (136). Dupuy then spends most of what remains of his book trying to show how this disinterested perception turned out to be correct.
Although undeniably ‘popular’–unequivocal endorsement by around 75% of the electorate can’t be completely ignored by even the most scrupulous of democrats–Dupuy claims that by creating the Fanmi Lavalas (FL) organisation ‘Aristide broke away from the broad coalition’ that had won the 1995 elections (136). Worse, ‘by 1996-97 it had become evident that Aristide’s FL was unquestionably the dominant political force in Haiti. If unchecked, Lavalas could build a formidable political machine and clientelistic network that would ensure its continued electoral dominance and control of the government’ (137). Haitian democracy was now clearly hanging by a thread. Unfortunately, no suitably resolute force emerged to ‘check’ Lavalas before it was too late. Unchecked, FL went on to wage an enthusiastic and well-organised electoral campaign, and duly won its overwhelming mandate in May 2000. Dupuy notes in dismay that ‘since his rise to power in 1991 Aristide had effectively shut out the coalition of parties–the FNCD–that had backed him in 1990. These parties were again marginalised when his Lavalas Political Platform [PPL] swept the parliamentary elections of 1995. And the OPL, which was then the dominant bloc within the PPL thanks to its association with Aristide [...], was now destined for the same fate with the break-up of the PPL and the formation of Aristide’s FL party’ (137-138). For reasons that remain opaque yet presumably incompatible with the international norms of parliamentary democracy, rather than reward ‘those sectors of the political middle class that had supported him [in 1990] with a share in the spoils of power, Aristide [in 2001] sought to monopolize state power for his benefit and those who formed the cadres of FL’ (138).
Less clairvoyant analysts than Dupuy might have paused, at this point, to consider whether the fact that Aristide, Préval and their associates invariably trounced their social-democratic rivals in repeated electoral contests might perhaps reflect some sort of extra-parliamentary political reality. They might have pondered whether ten years of active hostility should have been forgotten in favour of a few weeks of opportunistic and long-forgotten ‘alliance’. They might even have wondered whether Aristide still simply enjoyed the support of the great majority of the population. Dupuy can see through appearances that might lead other analysts astray, however, and he knows that in 2001, unlike 1991, Aristide did not actually have a ‘strong popular mandate and a mobilised population behind him [...]. If for a brief moment in 1991 the balance of forces was in favor of Aristide, conditions were very different during his second term (2001-2004).’ In 2001, unlike 1991, ‘Aristide came to power with his legitimacy and that of his party in control of parliament challenged’ (97-- and technically this is quite right, in 2001 Aristide’s legitimacy was indeed ‘challenged’: it was challenged by a tiny and permanently unelectable ‘democratic opposition’ that owed its very existence to investments from USAID, the EU and the IRI). Despite this apparent lack of democratic legitimacy, Dupuy makes the startling claim that in 2001 ‘the goal of Aristide and the FL was to maintain power at all cost until the end of Aristide’s second and final term as president’ (145).
This is a serious charge. It may even be true. Maybe, once he was re-elected in November 2000 with some 90% of the vote, Aristide really did mean to serve out the whole of his second term in office. Maybe he hadn’t yet forgotten the thousands of people who died when his first term was interrupted. Maybe, confronted once again with an opposition that sought openly to overthrow him and to resurrect the army that was responsible for killing those people, Aristide decided to resist them. Readers less well versed than Alex Dupuy in the specific nuance of Haitian politics may even be forgiven for suspecting that governments led by people like Bush or Chirac, if confronted by similar threats to their survival, might also have toyed with the temptation to confront them. Who knows. What’s clear is that ‘the goal of Lavalas was to lay the groundwork for its continued dominance through the ballot box after Aristide’ (145). And that, needless to say, obviously couldn’t be in the best interests of Haitian democracy.
Whatever else Dupuy means by ‘democracy’, by this stage in his book it’s clear that it has little to do with such crass things as popular vote or support.
Dupuy makes little or no reference to what Aristide’s second administration actually set out to accomplish, in spite of a crippling U.S.-imposed embargo on foreign aid that cut its budget roughly in half. He makes no reference at all to its various social programmes, its investment in new schools and hospitals, in a major literacy programme, in a new medical school, in new joint ventures with Cuba, and so on. But he does at least list a few of the tyrannical steps that the newly autocratic president agreed to take, within a couple of months of his taking office in February 2001. These steps ‘included the resignation of seven FL senators whose elections had been contested [on trivial technical grounds by members of the U.S.-backed politicians who were defeated by FL] in the May 2000 elections; reducing the terms of the senators elected in May 2000 and the terms of the entire Chamber of Deputies by two years; holding elections for those senators elected in May 2000 and for the entire Chamber of Deputies in November 2002; reconstituting the CEP in line with OAS recommendations’ (150). Dupuy could have added: including several high-profile opponents of FL in his cabinet; reluctantly accepting several unpopular macro-economic policies imposed by Haiti’s international donors and lenders; agreeing to his arch-enemies’ framework for futile and interminable ‘negotiations’ with those same unpopular political leaders he had just obliterated at the polls. No doubt readers familiar with the conventional patterns of tyranny will have little trouble placing such concessions in the continuum of Duvalier-Namphy-Cédras-Latortue. Along the same lines, Dupuy is even prepared to acknowledge certain differences ‘between Aristide and the dictators who came and went before him’: since he had only relatively limited means of repression at his disposal and was confronted by the implacable opposition of the U.S. and its allies, it seems that ‘Aristide could not transform himself into an outright dictator even if he wanted to’ (146).
All the same, Dupuy does his best to suggest that he made a pretty good go of it.
Having thus proved to his own satisfaction that in 2001 Fanmi Lavalas sought to monopolise the spoils for political power for itself and itself alone, Dupuy now moves on to make the third and most damaging of his three main criticisms of Aristide. It emerges predictably enough from the ex-messiah’s dictatorial turn. Since he was clearly incapable of acquiring anything that Dupuy can recognise as a legitimate democratic mandate, there was only one other way Aristide could achieve his main objective–the consolidation of his grip on power ‘at all cost’. As resistance to the incipient dictatorship began to increase, the tyrant ‘politicized the police and called on his armed gangs of supporters known as chimès [chimera] (who took their name from mythical fire-breathing monsters) to intimidate his opponents’ (98).
Mythology and etymology aside–anyone familiar with the people derided as ‘chimès’ know that ‘they themselves hated that word’17–this is another serious charge, and it is reasonable to expect an expert prosecution to back it up with a carefully documented case.
Dupuy describes these ‘chimès’ as a ‘relatively small force of not more than a few thousand’ people. He acknowledges that they were perhaps neither as well-armed nor as well-organised as Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes (146), but the whole thrust of his main argument–that Aristide became just another dictatorial president in a long line of other similarly dictatorial Haitian presidents–rests squarely on the presumption that a comparison between Aristide’s ‘chimès’ and Duvalier’s Macoutes is at least in some sense helpful and illuminating. Dupuy isn’t the first person to have made such an argument; analysts as shrewd as Roger Noriega, Lyonel Trouillot, Laënnec Hurbon, Raoul Peck, Jean-Michel Caroit and Michael Deibert have all given it a try as well.
Before knuckling down to the business at hand, Dupuy pauses to consider an important matter of principle. He admits that there is some ‘controversy’ about the emergence and role of these so-called ‘chimès’. The controversy seems to be about ‘whether Aristide personally created and directed them or simply left that task to others. In my view, however, it is immaterial whether or not Aristide had a direct role in creating and directing the chimès’ (144). This isn’t to say that Dupuy is reluctant to accuse Aristide of doing precisely these things. On the contrary: Dupuy says, for instance, that since he was ‘unwilling to rely on the rule of law or even to mobilise his popular supporters to counter the threats of his opponents peacefully, Aristide chose instead to use the chimès to do that job’ (155). Dupuy says that ‘Aristide “chimerized” Lavalas and betrayed his mass base’ (157). He says that ‘Aristide engaged in egregious human rights violations against his opponents and critics’, that ‘Aristide relied on the chimès to intimidate the opposition’, that ‘Aristide sought to suppress his opponents’ by force, and that ‘Aristide used the chimès as a force de frappe against his opponents’ (144-146, 165). What Dupuy means by the word ‘immaterial’, presumably, is that when he repeatedly accuses Aristide of creating and directing these chimerical ‘chimès’, it is immaterial whether or not such accusations are in fact correct.
It is also immaterial, presumably, that if Aristide really ‘sought to suppress his opponents’, then this all-too-ordinary autocrat once again appears to have done a quite extraordinarily bad job. Insufficiently suppressed readers might remember that in 2001 Aristide’s opponents mounted their campaign to oust him in conditions that bore no resemblance whatsoever to those suffered by the subjects of ‘previous dictators’. They might remember that all through Aristide’s last months in office U.S.-sponsored anti-government radio stations were free to broadcast their venomous propaganda around the clock, that internationally sponsored anti-government rallies continued for week after week, and that from the very month of his second inauguration the same soldiers who backed the bloody coup in 1991 were permitted to hold public rallies, loudly calling for a repeat of their previous exploits (and were vigorously encouraged, from the get-go, by nothing less than an entire ‘parallel government’ mounted by respectable ex-FNCD social-democratic members of the U.S.- and French-backed Convergence Démocratique).
All the same, more forgetful readers may need a little reassurance at this point. ‘To be sure’, Dupuy tells us, ‘everyone knew the chimès were working for Aristide and others, including the opposition, but such links had to be proved’ (156). Indeed they did. Readers looking for such proof, however, may be disappointed to learn that they won’t find much of it in Dupuy’s book. Who needs proof, after all, when everyone already knew what was really going on?
The fact that everyone already knows these things this saves Dupuy a certain amount of time and effort. It saves him the bother of having to explain, in even the most schematic detail, who these ‘chimès’ were, or what they did, or who paid them, or how they were armed and organised. It saves him the bother–so far as I can tell–of having to speak with or cite or perhaps even read about a single representative of these ‘chimès’ or their baz associates in the many dozens of organisations populaires that supported Aristide to the end. It saves him the trouble of asking why some members of those impoverished neighbourhoods that bore the brunt of military repression in 1986-90 and again in 1991-94 might have taken some steps to avoid the repetition of a similar catastrophe in 2004.
Although this isn’t the place for a detailed analysis of the question, people more acquainted with Dupuy’s ‘chimères’ than Dupuy himself paint a rather less sensational picture of the people who apparently terrorised the political opposition to Aristide. Veteran reporter Guy Delva is one of the most neutral and balanced of Haitian journalists, and he knows of no deliberate campaign of violence and of no coordinated effort to arm the ‘chimères’. ‘There’s no evidence of it. Of course it’s possible that in 2004 some weapons were handed out to groups loyal to the regime: there was an armed insurgency going on, after all, and it’s possible that the government wanted to strengthen itself against the rebels. But the government had very few weapons, in fact, and the supply of police munitions was very low.’ As for the ‘gangs’ themselves, continues Delva, ‘I know this is hard for people outside Haiti to understand but in Cité Soleil the people with the weapons are not seen as criminals or bandits, but as people who are protecting the population. They see that when MINUSTAH or the Haitian police come they kill people, and the gangs do what they can to defend them. I can confirm that when you speak to them most people in Cité Soleil say they saw Dred Wilme as a leader, as someone who defended their community, they didn’t just see him as a bandit.’18
Aid worker Eléonore Senlis directed the largest international NGO in Cité Soleil from the spring of 2003 through to July 2004; she won the confidence of several leaders of the armed groups (Dred, Labanye, Amaral, Tupac, Billy...) and quickly became well-informed about what was going on in the Cité. Although it’s true that once the anti-government demonstrations started in November 2003, some group leaders in the Cité received occasional calls from Aristide’s departmental police chief Hermione Léonard and his interior minister Jocelerme ‘Miss’ Privert encouraging them to stage counter-demonstrations, Senlis says that the main purpose for government communications was to try to keep the peace among rival gangs in the most desperately impoverished parts of the city. From time to time Hermione Léonard would arrange ‘a meeting with the various group leaders, a sort of peace would last for a while, and then sooner or a later new groups would push their way onto the scene, begin to interfere with another group’s activities, the leaders would start fighting amongst themselves, and the process had to start all over again.’
As for claims that the government set out to arm such groups in order intimidate its opponents, Senlis is probably as well-placed as any outsider to judge the point, and she knows of only a single clear-cut case:
After the trouble started in early February 2004, some of the group leaders, along with some of their men, were sent up to Gonaïves and there they were given weapons by the government, to confront the insurgency; the rest of the time it wasn’t at all clear that the government was deliberately trying to arm groups from Cité Soleil. They generally seemed to steal their guns from the police or security guards or from other residents. The bigger guns were always bought, often from the DR, with money stolen from shops or occasionally donated by various interested parties as “contributions to the security of Cité Soleil”. But as far as I know there was never any large-scale distribution of weapons from the government to their supporters. As for the actual number of guns around, at least until mid 2004 there weren’t very many of them. As of February 2004, there were three well-armed groups, led by Dred, Labanye, and Amaral, and each of these three leaders had several automatic weapons at his disposal, around half a dozen high calibre pistols and several dozen .38 revolvers, most of which were loaned out to their followers. I think I saw most of them, and I’d guess that there was a grand total of perhaps 250 guns in the hands of groups from Cité Soleil during the turmoil of February 2004, and considerably less before then.19
In the context of a country blessed with an estimated 210,000 firearms–at least 170,000 of which remain securely in the hands of its ruling families and businesses20–it’s possible that this ‘chimère’ arsenal of 250 handguns never posed a very worrying threat.
Although genuine proof may be immaterial, Dupuy does of course trot out a certain number of facts to back his accusation up. In a paragraph devoted to showing how ‘Aristide and other Lavalas officials were using the chimès as a force de frappe against his opponents’ (144) he mentions, for instance, the murder of the iconic radio journalist Jean Dominique–discreetly passing over the fact that there appears to be no proof whatsoever that any ‘chimès’ were involved in the assassination of Aristide’s old friend and Haiti’s most famously pro-Lavalas and anti-establishment journalist. He also mentions, as evidence of ‘chimè’ violence, the facts that in 1999 ‘five people were killed in fights among criminal gangs’; that in April 2000 a group of FL militants set fire to the office of Evans Paul’s KID (obliging the not-yet-re-elected tyrant to pay KID a sizeable sum in compensation); that when ‘the Provisional Electoral Council was pressured [by the U.S. and its newly created ‘Convergence Démocratique’] to annul the results of the first-round parliamentary elections [of May 2000], hundreds of pro-FL supporters erected barricades, burned tires, and effectively shut down Port-au-Prince in an attempt to intimidate the Council. In all these incidents the police failed to stop, investigate or to arrest and punish their perpetrators’ (144). I assume that people who lived through earlier periods of dictatorship in Haiti can immediately see how, by early 2001, Aristide had indeed become just like Duvalier or Cédras.
Dupuy is also prepared to explain how things arrived at this dreadful impasse. Drawing on a single article by Le Monde reporter Jean-Michel Caroit (dated 5 November 2003), Dupuy explains that ‘the creation of armed groups that would become the chimès goes back to 1995 after Aristide had abolished the Haitian Army and a new Haitian National Police was created with help and training from the U.S., France, and Canada.21 Aristide understood the need to control that force and placed trusted allies in its command. It was then that the link between Aristide and the chimès was formed. The director of the police, along with the minister of interior and the chief of presidential security, served as the liaison with the gangs, who received cash and weapons for their operations’ (144). If someone as even-handed and reliable as Le Monde’s Jean-Michel Caroit says so then it must be true. Never mind the incidental fact that, perhaps stung by Aristide’s deeply threatening demand that France repay the enormous sum of money it had extorted from its former slave colony back in the nineteenth century, Le Monde’s reporting in 2003/2004 was so outrageously biased as to make even the New York Times’ anti-Lavalas propaganda seem like a model of impartiality. Never mind the fact that in 1995 Aristide disbanded the army in the face of powerful U.S. resistance, or that CIA interference in the subsequent recruitment and orientation of the new police force was so flagrant and counter-productive that even the person appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee the police training programme resigned in disgust. Never mind the fact that leading segments of this police force remained openly hostile to the elected government, and that in October 2000, after years of violent destabilisation, a close-knit group of rightwing and pro-U.S. officers (including Guy Philippe, Jackie Nau, Gilbert Dragon, all of whom during the first coup had received special U.S.-sponsored training in the U.S.-client state of Ecuador) were implicated in a further coup plot and were escorted to the safety of another suitably policed U.S.-client state, Haiti’s hostile neighbour the Dominican Republic. Never mind the fact that for the next several years, beginning in the summer of 2001, with the active support of Convergence luminaries like ex-democrat Serge Gilles and ex-colonel Himmler Rébu, this same Guy Philippe and his colleagues, bolstered by dozens of other U.S.-trained ex-military or ex-paramilitary assets like Jodel Chamblain, were to wage an unrelenting guerrilla war against Aristide’s government, all with the clear collusion of powerful elements within the police and the presidential guard.
Never mind all that: excessive concern with such matters might well lead us towards what Dupuy derides as dictatorship, rather than democracy. Leaving aside the question as to whether or not Aristide had much actual control over the police, Dupuy is quite right to say that when it became clear, in the late 1990s, that membership in Fanmi Lavalas was a virtual guarantee of access to political power, so then many unscrupulous opportunists did indeed flock to join the new organisation. As may sometimes happen in some other profoundly impoverished countries, in Haiti overwhelming and inescapable levels of destitution can indeed encourage a certain amount of corruption and opportunism. The shocking truth, then, is that a small number of Aristide’s associates and some leading members of Fanmi Lavalas did indeed become corrupt. A few high profile police officers made money smuggling drugs to a growing market in the U.S., and some Lavalas legislators found ways to profit from their position. Readers acquainted with the longue durée of Haitian history can judge the relative severity of such corruption for themselves, and decide whether Aristide, Cédras, and Duvalier père, mère et fils are best described as variants of one and the same essential pattern.
It’s one thing, however, to condemn the corruption of a few powerful figures in the Aristide-era security apparatus like Fourel Celestin and Hermione Léonard, it’s another to present the whole period between 2001-2004 as a disastrous deviation towards violent dictatorship. The image of a tyrannical Aristide presiding over a murderous police state could hardly be further from the truth. If anything, Aristide’s real problem was precisely the opposite. Even before his re-election, Haiti’s poorly equipped and poorly paid security forces had been thoroughly infiltrated (and embargoed) by his enemies, and it was all too obvious that the presidential guard in particular was no more reliable than its predecessor had been in 1991. It was perfectly clear that powerful ex-military figures like Dany Toussaint and Joseph Médard, people who had profited from their association with Aristide in the early 1990s, were by 2000/2001 actively working against him.
You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to understand what happened next. The ‘laboratory’ that still wields significant behind-the-scenes power in Haiti knows very well that if you want to demonise a popular president then the easiest way to get to him is through his close associates. If these associates cooperate with the demonisation campaign they will be rewarded; the less uncooperative ones may have to be punished. So long as Dany Toussaint pretended to be loyal to Aristide, for instance, the U.S. and the elite denounced him as a thug and a drug-dealer; as soon as he changed camps the talk of drugs and murder came to an abrupt stop, and in 2006 they allowed him to stand for president alongside other law-abiding democrats like Guy Philippe and Franck Romain. An old associate of Dany Toussaint, ex-presidential guard commander Youri Latortue is another veteran police officer whose human rights record is as questionable as that of any of his colleagues; after Aristide’s ‘flight’ from Haiti in 2004, however, the U.S. invited him to oversee the security arrangements for the ‘democratic and constitutional’ government it imposed on Haiti as a replacement for the Lavalas dictatorship. A leading figure in the presidential guard, Wilson Casséus, played a significant role in undermining the police response to the insurgency, and was promoted to commander as soon as the person he supposed to protect had been expelled from the country. Less enthusiastically cooperative folks like Oriel Jean and Jean Nesly Lucien, on the other hand, had to be packed off to jail in Miami.
Critics of Aristide are no doubt entitled to say that he was too slow to act against the scandalous emergence of opportunists in his entourage. They are entitled to regret some of the people he chose as members of his inner circle after 2001, or to puzzle over his reluctance to take more assertive action to deal with the state of emergency that confronted his government in February 2004. They may know that when U.S. intelligence and the DEA began to accuse a few of his high-level police officers of drug smuggling and corruption Aristide was initially reluctant to believe them. They may know that he thought, with good reason, that this was yet another attempt to isolate him by driving a wedge between the government and its few allies in the security forces. Unlike the U.S. itself, notes Ben Dupuy, ‘Aristide had no secret police, no parallel force with which he could “police the police”; given their history and the material conditions in which they work it has so far been and will for the time being remain virtually impossible for any Haitian government, on its own, to root out corruption in its security forces.’22 But just like Aristide’s enemies in the U.S., Alex Dupuy blames him for this structural impossibility all the same. He blames him for failing to accomplish an impossible task.
More importantly, Alex Dupuy blames Aristide for the fact that ‘the human rights situation deteriorated significantly between 2001 and 2004. Local FL officials and members of the police persecuted, arbitrarily arrested, and physically abused members of the opposition or sometimes their family members. Supporters of Aristide and the police disrupted peaceful demonstrations by opponents of the government and ransacked or burned the offices and private residences of opposition leaders. And sometimes members or supporters of the opposition were killed’ (161-162). Although Dupuy doesn’t bore his readers with much detailed evidence to flesh out this description of 2001-2004, he does mention at least four specific episodes, in addition to the murder of Jean Dominique, that appear to back up his case. (As for Dominique’s murder, this is a crime that Aristide’s enemies used to attribute with great enthusiasm to Dany Toussaint, up until the moment when he publicly joined the anti-Aristide camp–at which point, of course, he was instantly dropped from the list of leading suspects. Other analysts, though, continue to point the finger at powerful interests that Dominique threatened rather more consistently and passionately than he ever did Toussaint, including interests linked to the bitterly anti-Lavalas Boulos family).
Since much of Dupuy’s argument might seem to ride on these examples it may be worth looking at them very briefly here.
First of all, as an illustration of the growing violence ‘among pro-Lavalas grassroots organisations’, Dupuy refers to a pitched battle in the Fort Mercredi district of Port-au-Prince in June 2001, when ‘members of rival gangs in neighbouring slums near PAP engaged in a dispute over land, which left 17 people dead, nineteen others injured, and more than 135 houses looted or burned. No one was arrested. Instead, Aristide held a meeting with the residents of the two slums in the National Palace to urge them to resolve their conflicts’ (162). The implication, presumably, is that because some of the people involved in this battle were indeed ‘pro-Lavalas’, so then the government (for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious) may have incited them to declare war on their neighbours. Perhaps the fact that Aristide then tried to calm things down by speaking with all the groups involved, rather than by shooting at them, is further proof of his complicity in such violence. Even so, more naïve readers may suspect that since violent turf-wars between criminal gangs and drug-dealers don’t seem to be confined solely to pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods in Haiti’s capital city, so then in the absence of any evidence to the contrary it could just be that Aristide and his government had nothing to do with it.
Second, Dupuy cites the inflammatory murder in September 2003 of Gonaïves ‘chimè’ supremo Amiot Métayer, and pins it (as did ex-FRAPH commanders and various other equally disinterested parties) on Aristide’s government (166). Rather than back up this highly implausible claim with any investigation of his own, Dupuy puts the names of Jean-Michel Caroit and Jane Regan in brackets, and lets the accusation stand as self-evident. (Similarly notorious incidents in the anti-Aristide dossier are dealt with in much the same way–the ugly clash between students and FL supporters on 5 December 2003, for instance, is described simply as ‘a pro-government attack against university students’ ). Again, more hesitant readers might be more inclined to set Jane Regan’s tendentious argument alongside those made by people like Ben Dupuy or Frantz Gabriel, who claim to have good reason to believe that Métayer was killed by anti-Lavalas members of the security forces, on the orders of the ‘laboratory’. It may be that no-one really knows how exactly Métayer died; inconveniently, the last person seen with Métayer on the night of his murder, Odonel Paul, also disappeared soon after his death. It’s possible that the new French and U.S. ambassadors who arrived in Haiti around the time of this murder did not shed many tears for Amiot Métayer. Who knows. What we do know is that the people who immediately profited from this murder certainly weren’t fans of President Aristide, and the gang which started to cause havoc in Gonaïves immediately after Métayer’s death can only be described as a collection of disaffected ex-pro-Aristide ‘chimès’ if you ignore the little fact that they were led and directed by a well-funded and well-connected group of ex-military and ex-FRAPH thugs. (After this useful group had accomplished its historical mission, a few months after Métayer’s death, one of its leaders admitted, among other things, that in the autumn of 2003 it had received some $20,000 worth of ammunition courtesy of Jean-Renel Latortue, future director of Cap Haïtien’s port authority, brother of the exemplary ex-policeman Youri Latortue and nephew of the soon-to-be-U.S.-appointed interim prime minister Gérard Latortue).
Third, in a paragraph describing the growth of opposition to the government in late 2003, Dupuy notes that ‘the violence between supporters and opponents of the government resulted in the deaths of nearly fifty people and injury to many more between December 2003 and February 2004’ (168). Surely this must be all the evidence of tyranny that any reasonable person might want. Surely this proves that Aristide’s supporters were now hard at work killing members of the opposition. Perhaps. Dupuy doesn’t provide a source for this number, however, and I would genuinely like to know how many of these fifty people were killed by rampaging ‘chimès’. As far as I’m aware, a grand total of two opponents of the government were killed during the long and heated weeks of U.S.-orchestrated demonstrations that began in Port-au-Prince in early December 2003; one of these two people, a student, died when he was accidentally hit in the back by a police teargas canister. Several government supporters also died in clashes between pro and anti-government protestors. I’m not sure that, faced with a similar threat to their existence, Duvalier’s Macoutes would have been overly impressed by the performance of their Lavalassian counterparts. Given the fact that during these months Haiti was indeed embroiled in a low-level civil war these numbers may be an underestimate, of course, but then it’s hard to know what or who Dupuy is referring to. Perhaps he has in mind reports published in papers like the New York Times and Washington Post in late January and early February 2004 which claimed, sure enough, that fifty people had died in political clashes over the previous few months.23 The problem with this particular figure, though, is that as far as I can tell, it refers primarily (if not overwhelmingly) to victims of anti-government violence. Although these papers didn’t themselves dwell on the distasteful task of identifying victims and perpetrators, it seems to refer primarily to the growing number of people killed during ex-military anti-government attacks carried out in places like Belladère, Pernal and a few other defenceless villages scattered across Haiti’s Central Plateau.
Dupuy provides a fourth indication of Aristide’s authoritarian turn. As insurgents led by Guy Philippe and Jodel Chamblain were busily terrorising large parts of the country into submission, ‘in the days preceding his departure [the night of February 28-29 2004], Aristide unleashed the chimès who went on a rampage, thereby reinforcing his enemies’ claims that the country would be plunged into a bloodbath unless Aristide was removed’ (172). Dupuy has already informed us that proof of this sort of assertion is immaterial. Therefore he can afford to ignore the fact that though there was indeed some spontaneous looting and violence in the last couple of days of his presidency, even newspapers that were eagerly complicit in the campaign to get rid of Aristide were only able to attest to a couple of killings in Port-au-Prince in the (understandably?) tense atmosphere of 26-27 February. As far as I know, no-one actually investigated these murders, so responsibility for the deaths remains a matter of speculation. All this is immaterial, however, given the fact that dispassionate White House officials, on the eve of the operation that would lead to the abduction of Haiti’s elected president, spread rumours during these same days that ‘Aristide may have given the order to begin killing opponents and looting businesses.’24 Dupuy can also afford to gloss over the fact that in response to the growing fear and unrest, rather than ‘unleash the chimès’ Aristide did just the opposite, and broadcast the last of a long series of public appeals for calm and non-violence. As the Miami Herald observed at the time, what actually happened the day before he was kidnapped by U.S. troops is that Aristide went on air to urge his supporters to abstain from ‘acts of looting and violence. And they promptly did.’25
As for the U.S. and French-sponsored military insurgency that took off earlier that same month and that really did kill a considerable number of people, before leading to the creation of an illegal de facto administration that would kill thousands more, Dupuy dispatches it in four brisk sentences of his book as a rebellion that began when a ‘gang of chimès [...] once allied with Aristide turned against him’ (172).
Again, Dupuy has a principled explanation for his priorities here. The fact that Aristide’s government can only be held (indirectly) responsible for a very small number of political killings26 is itself immaterial, since what is at stake is obviously too important to be associated with numbers. As any genuine democrat knows, what is really at stake in such discussions is nothing less than the immeasurable sanctity of human life. It doesn’t matter, then, that a comparison of the numbers killed ‘by’ Aristide on the one hand and by Duvalier, Cédras or Latortue on the other might to an outside observer look like an obscene joke. Numbers can have nothing to do with principles. This is why Dupuy disagrees with the human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Brian Concannon when Concannon argues that ‘because more people were killed under Latortue than under Aristide, the former should have been condemned even more [than the latter].’ Dupuy is too cunning to fall for such clumsy reasoning. Dupuy knows that ‘both deserved to be condemned and be held responsible for the human rights violations that occurred under their governments, regardless of how many people were killed’ (183).
Dupuy doesn’t spell out just how far he might be prepared to push this line of reasoning but, to his credit, his analysis of the post-2004 period is indeed consistent with this indifference to number. Dupuy pays no heed, therefore, to the irrelevant fact that according to the best available estimates the unelected democrat Latortue may be responsible for at least 100 times more political killings than the elected tyrant he usurped. Instead, he condemns Latortue almost as vigorously as he does Aristide, noting that ‘just as Aristide had done, Latortue opted to use the police, gangs, former soldiers and paramilitaries, as well as the judicial system, to achieve its [sic] political ends’ (189). Since numbers and details remain beside the point, Dupuy doesn’t need to demonstrate just how ‘Aristide’s use of former soldiers and paramilitaries’ might be compared to that of Gérard and Youri Latortue. More’s the pity. I imagine that a good many of these ex-soldiers would be genuinely curious to know how they were used by Aristide.
Given the constraints of time and space, of course, any published account is bound to suffer from a little selective bias. It is nevertheless regrettable, however, that in a book-length study of Aristide’s demise Dupuy couldn’t find room to mention an incidental detail like his provocative though perfectly reasonable demand for immediate reimbursement of the old French debt (equivalent to $21 billion US)–a demand that just may have had something to do with that country’s energetic contribution to the bicentennial coup of 2004, and that may even have grabbed the attention of several other ex-colonial states. It’s too bad, when Dupuy suggests that by 2004 ‘only a foreign military intervention could prevent the country from descending into a full-fledged civil war’ (171), that he has so little time to consider how such intervention might already have become an integral component of this very war. It’s a shame that, after noting that it was such foreign intervention which early in the morning of 29 February 2004 allowed ‘Aristide to flee Haiti for the Central African Republic aboard an aircraft chartered by the U.S. and escorted by U.S. military personnel and his own personal security’ (171), Dupuy cannot afford to linger for a little longer over the circumstances of this ‘flight’. It’s a pity that he has no time to explain why exactly Aristide might have chosen a distant and heavily policed client state of France as his preferred place of refuge, rather than an openly supportive (and slightly more convenient) country like Jamaica, Venezuela, Cuba or the Bahamas. It’s a pity that he doesn’t explain why, if it was just a matter of protecting their employer, Aristide’s own reasonably experienced and well-connected team of Steele Foundation security guards didn’t just fly him off to safety on their own. No doubt such speculation is immaterial. Once a deceitful dictator starts to run amok, everyone already knows that proper democracies are sometimes obliged to step in and clean up the mess.
* * * * *
As a result of Aristide’s criminal ambition, Dupuy concludes, ‘Lavalas would become equated with the chimès’ (144). This is a finely constructed phrase. In actual fact it is Dupuy himself (along with a few other intellectuals, NGO consultants and unelectable social-democrats who appear to think like Dupuy) who has gone to some trouble to make this equation appear plausible. As for the millions of Haitian people who still support Aristide as a unifying symbol and potent spokesman of their own political struggle, it seems that they don’t buy it. Perhaps they know that, leaving aside the perfectly predictable corruption and opportunism of a few members of Fanmi Lavalas, this ‘equation’ is nothing more than a crude ideological ruse. Although they may be less expert in the ways of neo-liberal imperialism than Alex Dupuy, it seems that most of these people still stubbornly refuse to accept the demonisation of their movement.
Even an analyst as close to Dupuy as his old friend and colleague Robert Fatton–the prominent political scientist who endorsed the back of Dupuy’s book–acknowledges that while his level of support has of course declined during these last few years of relentless disinformation, ‘Aristide remains the most popular politician in Haiti today, and if he could stand for re-election tomorrow he would easily win.’27 Carol Joseph may not be the only minister in the current government who insists on this same point: like it or not, ‘it is undeniable that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is still the most popular man in Haiti, and if he could run for office again he would certainly be re-elected.’28
It seems that when it comes to political re-education, most Haitian people remain regrettably and mysteriously backward. They haven’t managed to keep up with the times. Their repeated failure to pass the real ‘test of democracy’, their unfathomable refusal to identify with the class interests of their oppressors, continues to leave their would-be educators scratching their heads. No doubt a suitably trained sociologist will one day find a way to account for this popular stupidity, courtesy, perhaps, of the French CNRS. But it may be that Aristide’s unrepentant supporters already understand something that democratic intellectuals like Laënnec Hurbon or Alex Dupuy are usually reluctant to admit. They may know that when scholars attack Lavalas as authoritarian and undemocratic it seems that they tacitly assume a very old distinction, one dear to many professional political scientists. Aristide’s earliest critics were already very familiar with it, and one of them–the Duvalierist prelate Monseigneur Dorélien–was obliging enough to spell it out in terms that should make perfect sense to any reader who manages to get to the end of Dupuy’s book. Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the first coup, Dorélien was quick to remind his listeners that before you speak of the will of the majority you must ‘be careful, you must remember there are two kinds of majority: the qualitative majority [i.e. the intellectual and political elite] and the quantitative majority–the ignorant rabble, the populace that acts blindly, not understanding what it is choosing.’29
Perhaps, one day, Dupuy may ask a few of these ignorant and immaterial members of the numerical majority about their choices, and about their incomprehensible understanding of democracy. Perhaps he may even listen to what they have to say.
1. This review was written in February 2007, and first published in Haiti Liberté in July 2007.
2. Bob Corbett, review of Alex Dupuy’s The Prophet and Power, January 2007, http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/personal/reading/dupuy-prophet.html.
3. Cited in Howard French, “Front-Running Priest A Shock to Haiti”, New York Times 13 December 1990.
4. Alex Dupuy, The Prophet and Power, 123-125; Americas Watch/NCHR, The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record (1 November 1991, http://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/h/haiti/haiti91n.pdf), 6.
5. Letter from Kim Ives, 26 February 2007.
6. Aristide, speech to high school students on 4 August 1991, partially transcribed in Americas Watch/NCHR, The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record, 26-28.
7. Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier  (London: Vintage, 1994), 354, 362.
8. Howard French, ‘Haiti Police Seen as Gaining in Coup’, New York Times 13 October 1991.
9. In this his final effort to stare his old enemies down, Aristide warned the bourgeoisie that the time of reckoning was drawing near–‘you earned your money in thievery, under an evil regime, it is not really yours.’ He encouraged the poor, ‘whenever you are hungry, to turn your eyes in the direction of those people who aren’t hungry. Whenever you are out of work, turn your eyes in the direction of those who can put people to work. Ask them why not? What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the sea to dry up?’ If you catch a thief, he told his listeners, or a Macoute, or a ‘false Lavalassian, don’t he-si-tate-to-give-him-what-he-deserves! [...]. Alone, we are weak. Together we are strong! Together, together, we are the flood! Do you feel proud? Do you feel proud!?’ (Aristide, ‘Speech of 27 September 1991’, Haiti Observateur, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/009.html; cf. Anne-Christine D’Adesky, ‘Père Lebrun in Context’, NACLA Report on the Americas (December 1991), 7-8.
10. Letter from Kim Ives, 19 February 2007.
11. Mark Danner explains that when it launched the coup the army first took control of the radio stations, thereby eliminating ‘Aristide’s most potent weapon–his voice. Now squads of soldiers made their way into the bidonvilles, shooting anyone they saw, firing into the scrapwood hovels. When the people came out into the garishly lit streets, the soldiers shot them down [...]. The people, confused, frightened, and disorganized–they had received no mot d’ordre from their leader–stumbled into the streets and died. Automatic weapons, ruthlessly employed, had given the lie to Aristide’s “unarmed revolution”’ (Danner, ‘Fall of the Prophet’, New York Review of Books December 2, 1993; cf. Farmer, Uses of Haiti (Monroe ME: Common Courage Press, 2003), 154).
12. Aristide, interview with Joel Attinger and Michael Kramer, ‘It’s Not If I Go Back, but When’, Time magazine 1 November 1993.
13. Telephone interview with Patrick Elie, 24 February 2007.
14. Interview with Douglas Perlitz, Cap Haïtien 12 January 2007.
15. Portions of such speeches are transcribed in the AW/NCHR report of November 1991, ‘The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record,’ 28-29.
16. Aristide, Dignity (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 96; cf. Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 12-13; Aristide, Autobiography (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 133. In exactly the same way, Aristide refused to condemn the anti-Macoute violence of déchoukaj, in circumstances where it was ‘authorised’ (if not demanded) by the imperatives of self-defence (Aristide, Théologie et politique (Montréal: CIDIHCA, 1992), 94-95).
17. Letter from Eléonore Senlis, 19 March 2007.
18. Interviews with Guy Delva, Port-au-Prince 9 April 2006 and 25 April 2006.
19. Letter from Eléonore Senlis, 19 March 2007. ‘You have to be careful’, Senlis adds, ‘to try to distinguish gossip from truth in a place like Cité Soleil, in a world that is desperately poor, full of misery and uncertainty, shot through with jealous rivalries that make people’s imaginations run riot...’
20. Robert Muggah, ‘Securing Haiti’s Transition’, Small Arms Survey Occasional Paper no. 14 (October 2005, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/files/sas/publications/o_papers_pdf/2005…), 6-7.
21. Jean-Michel Caroit, ‘La Loi des milices en Haïti’, Le Monde 5 November 2003. In many ways the argument of Dupuy’s book reads like an expanded version of Caroit’s own articles from October 2003 through to January 2004; see in particular Caroit, ‘Aristide, du prophète au dictateur’, Le Monde 9 January 2004. For more on the media’s contribution to the coup of 2004 see my Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2007), chapter four.
22. Telephone interview with Ben Dupuy, 16 February 2007.
23. Richard Lezin Jones, ‘Haiti's Neighbors Are Pressing Aristide for Reforms’, New York Times 29 January 2004; DeNeen L. Brown, ‘In Haiti, Two Sides and Bloodshed Between’, WashingtonPost 3 February 2004.
24. Nancy San Martin, ‘Rebels’ Aim: Choke, Take Port-au-Prince’, MiamiHerald, 28 February 2004.
25. Trenton Daniel, ‘Appeals for Calm Bring Respite; Mayhem in Haiti’s Capital Ends as the President Tells Backers to Stop Attacks’, Miami Herald 29 February 2004.
26. Independent analysts Ronald Saint Jean and Kim Ives estimate the total number of broadly ‘politically’ motivated killings for Aristide’s second administration at around 10; Amnesty International reports for the years 2001-2003 suggest a figure of around 30 or so, if you include extrajudicial executions attributed to the (often anti-government) police.
27. Telephone interview with Robert Fatton, 9 November 2006; cf. Fatton, ‘A War Waged on the Aristide Regime’, Socialist Worker, 5 March 2004, http://www.socialistworker.org/2004-1/489/489_02_Fatton.shtml.
28. Interview with Carol Joseph, Cap Haïtien 14 January 2007.
29. Monseigneur Chanoine Albert Dorélien, cited in Katherine Kean’s 1994 film Rezistans.