Council on Hemispheric Affairs: The Suppression of Democracy in Haiti

Leta Restavek: The Suppression of Democracy in Haiti

  • The U.N. has systematically suppressed democracy on the island, perpetrated violence against many Haitians, particularly the youth, and failed to achieve its humanitarian goals; moreover, it has facilitated the arrival of “disaster capitalism” in Haiti.
  • MINUSTAH has suppressed both electoral democracy and free speech in Haiti by organizing fraudulent elections and shutting down peaceful protests, which has helped to exclude Haiti’s poor majority from participation in the electoral process.
  • This systematic suppression of democracy has contributed to Haiti’s status as a “‘leta restavek’, or child servant state,” serving foreign interests.[1]

In a unanimous resolution, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council decided on Friday, October 14 to renew the mandate of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) for one year, reducing its numbers to “pre-earthquake levels.”[2] U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has declared that he “envisions a gradual withdrawal” over the upcoming years.[3] According to journalist Ansel Herz, many Haitians have been protesting some aspect of MINUSTAH’s presence for at least a year. “There’s a [wide] range of demands,” he asserts, “Some people want MINUSTAH… to simply leave… Others are asking that they transform their mission from one of military so-called peacekeeping into development.”[4]

From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem unclear why many Haitians are indignant about the presence of U.N. peacekeeping troops in their country during such a tumultuous period. A vast number of news articles have reported that the protests are a response to recent accusations of severe misconduct and neglect by a relatively small number of U.N. troops. These include the collective rape of an eighteen-year-old man and the appearance of cholera, likely an inadvertent import from Nepalese peacekeepers.[5] These long-running reports tell the story of a supposed humanitarian group troubled by a series of isolated incidents of abuse and neglect. An in-depth overview of MINUSTAH’s history on the island, however, depicts a security force systematically serving foreign interests over those of the Haitians. Local residents are indignant because they see MINUSTAH as a tool of the United States’ self-interest in the region, and because the U.N. forces repeatedly have suppressed democracy, failed to address authentic humanitarian concerns, and have at times even perpetrated mass violence against Haitian citizens. By suppressing the Fanmi Lavalas party and other social and political movements, MINUSTAH has actively excluded Haiti’s poor majority from political participation, working against the interests of Haitians fighting for progressive economic and social reform. As President Martelly has observed, the recent alleged rape merely “‘put gas on the fire’ of relations between Haitians and the peacekeepers.”[6]

Recent Haitian History: the Aristide Affairs

To appreciate the context in which MINUSTAH’s troubled role is being played out, it is necessary to recount some recent aspects of Haitian history. In 1990, over two-thirds of voters elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president of Haiti as the candidate of the Lavalas popular movement. Notably, he had the “overwhelming support of the poor.”[7] He worked to improve health care and education, raised the minimum wage, and changed trade policies to favor domestic agricultural production.[8]

After being overthrown by a military junta, Aristide was reelected in 2000 as part of the transformed Fanmi Lavalas party, which took a more leftist stance than its predecessor had. [9] On February 29, 2004, a contingent of U.S. Navy Seals transported the President to exile in Africa, carrying out the calculated diplomacy of the U.N., Canada, and France. The U.S. and U.N. claim that rather than performing a coup d’état, they had rescued Aristide from growing armed conflict between supporters and detractors of the President, which supposedly posed a threat to international safety.[10] Aristide, however, insists that his “rescue” was involuntary.

Leaked diplomatic cables demonstrate that high-level U.S. and U.N. officials worked aggressively to prevent Aristide’s return to Haiti. President Barack Obama (2009-present) and U.N. Secretaries General Kofi Annan (1997-2006) and Ban Ki-moon (2007-present) have all urged the government of South Africa to keep Aristide sequestered on that continent in an apparent attempt to quash the Fanmi Lavalas movement. [11] It was in the context of this political vacuum after the alleged coup was staged that MINUSTAH’s predecessor was created.


MINUSTAH was originally formed to “succeed a Multinational Interim Force (MIF) authorized by the U.N. Security Council in February 2004, after President Bertrand Aristide departed Haiti for exile.”[12] It continues to operate under a mandate “to restore a secure and stable environment, to promote the political process, to strengthen Haiti’s Government institutions and rule-of-law structures, as well as to promote and to protect human rights.”[13] MINUSTAH is in Haiti under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, under which the “[Security] Council may impose measures on states that have obligatory legal force and therefore need not depend on the consent of the states involved. To do this, the Council must determine that the situation constitutes a threat or breach of the peace.”[14] The mission’s presence in the country is thus based on the proposition that since 2004, violence in Haiti has threatened the international community.

MINUSTAH includes both traditional “blue helmet” peacekeeping troops and police officers.[15] These troops are from many different countries, with very few of these forces speaking Haitian Creole, the language of the island’s poor.[16] The U.N. spent USD 5 billion on the institution even before the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, and USD 793,517,100 in the current year alone.[17] MINUSTAH, therefore, is a heavily funded multinational U.N. peacekeeping force directed to perform security functions, monitor elections, and assist human rights groups in order to prevent Haiti from breaching international peace.

The WikiLeaks Cables

Recent diplomatic cables supplied by WikiLeaks, however, provide some evidence that MINUSTAH has been acting to protect the security interests of the governments of the U.S. and the political ambitions of Brazil. According to a March 2008 U.S. State Department cable, Brazil, which supplies the largest contingent of U.N. forces, “has stayed the course as leader of MINUSTAH in Haiti despite a lack of domestic support for the PKO [peacekeeping operation]. The MRE [Ministry of External Relations] has remained committed to the initiative because it believes that the operation serves FM [Foreign Minister] Amorim’s obsessive international goal of qualifying Brazil for a seat on the UN Security Council.”[18] Even though the Brazilian population supports a withdrawal of its forces from MINUSTAH, then, the country’s government has not withdrawn its troops due to its ambitions of pleasing the U.N. and obtaining elusive Security Council membership.

In a 2008 cable, former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson emphasizes that MINUSTAH “is an indispensable tool in realizing core USG [U.S. government] policy interests in Haiti… A premature departure of MINUSTAH would leave the Preval [sic] government or his successor vulnerable to… resurgent populist and anti-market economy forces – reversing gains of the last two years… It is a financial and regional security bargain for the USG.”[19] Thus, Sanderson sees MINUSTAH as protecting U.S. interests by preventing social and political movements from thwarting neoliberal policies and the post-earthquake influx of corporations in the country, which are working on a variety of development schemes on the island.

A 2006 cable also relates that policymakers from both the U.N. and the U.S. held a meeting concerning how the “Aristide [m]ovement [m]ust [b]e [s]topped.”[20] Edmond Mulet, Head of Mission of MINUSTAH at the time, “urged US [sic] legal action against [forcibly exiled president] Aristide to prevent [him] from gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”[21] These cables demonstrate that the U.S. government sees the poor pro-Fanmi Lavalas majority as “resurgent populist and anti-market economy forces” that “must be stopped,” and is prepared to use MINUSTAH to suppress their democratic participation.[22] Haiti’s poor majority has been actively involved in politics since the advent of the Fanmi Lavalas party, which has strenuously worked against the neoliberal policies of the time to achieve economic and social reforms.[23] Many poor Haitians are now engaging in so-called “resurgent populist and anti-market economy” politics via peaceful protest against the presence of MINUSTAH and in support of reforms such as an increase in the minimum wage.[24]

In the course of acting in the interests of the U.S. by thwarting these popular “forces,” MINUSTAH has actively suppressed democracy. As Mark Schuller, an anthropologist specializing in the impact of international development aid, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and MINUSTAH on Haitian social and political life put it, MINUSTAH comprises the

enforcers… Many say that they are responsible for keeping Haiti a ‘leta restavek’ – a child servant state, owned by the international community. To many Haitian commentators, the Preval [sic] government willingly gave up control [to MINUSTAH and other international bodies] in exchange for its continued survival. The protesters MINUSTAH suppressed could have destabilized Preval [sic][25]

and his small base of support. The mission has worked to block both electoral democracy and popular protest to prevent the growth of competing forces.

Party-Banning, Eleksyon Zombi, and Other Examples of Electoral Fraud

One of MINUSTAH’s most important mandates was to carry out the 2010 presidential and general elections “through the provision of technical, logistical, and administrative assistance as well as providing continued security.”[27] There were, however, several major problems with the elections, which were funded by both the U.S. and the U.N.[28] Most notably, over twelve parties were banned, including Fanmi Lavalas, Haiti’s most popular party and one supported largely by the poor.[29]

The notoriously venal Haitian Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) originally banned Fanmi Lavalas in February 2009, claiming it could not “verify Aristide’s signature, sent while he was still in forced exile in South Africa, as head of the party.”[30] A leaked U.S. Embassy cable dating back to 2009 revealed the U.S. government’s opinion that the CEP had thus “emasculated the opposition,” “almost certainly in conjunction with President Preval [sic].”[31] Completely revoking the majority party’s right to compete in an election on such a technicality was indeed “emasculating,” removing all power held by the largely poor opposition to René Préval’s government (1996-2001 and 2006-2011). Despite U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth H. Merten’s fear that the party would later appear to be “a martyr and Haitians [would]… believe (correctly) that Preval [sic] is manipulating the election,” U.S. government officials strongly encouraged the continuation of the fraudulent election.[32] The Fanmi Lavalas party was once again banned in the 2010 elections. MINUSTAH was largely instrumental in the execution of the elections through logistical and security support, as specified in its mandate. The U.N. Mission thus worked against the political participation of the poor majority by trying to support these elections.

Other serious electoral problems abounded: long lines, incomplete voter registries, fraud, and violence, along with the general lack of an “infrastructure for holding a fair and representative vote.”[33] A practice called eleksyon zombi in Haitian Creole also persisted, in which surviving citizens’ names were absent from the registries, while those of neighbors who died in the 2010 earthquake were used to file fraudulent ballots.[34] Perhaps partially due to the ban on the Lavalas party, the voter turnout for the election, which was twenty-three percent, was the lowest in the Western hemisphere for over sixty years.[35] Because of this fraud and lack of infrastructure, the majority of candidates called for the annulment of the election. Soon after, Edmond Mulet, Head of Mission at MINUSTAH during the election, personally called two candidates telling them to withdraw these requests because they were in the lead.[36] They followed his advice, knowing that Mulet, as head of the body running the elections, would know the results. Mulet would see to it that the election results were exactly as the authorities wanted them; several months later, President Michel Martelly won the run-off election. Both Mulet’s dispensing of insider tips and the logistical support of the rank-and-file peacekeepers helped to push the fraudulent elections through as anticipated. As the body charged with logistical and security-related support for the election, the Mission helped to systematically deny electoral democracy to the people of Haiti, forcing the country to elect a pro-U.S/U.N. candidate and playing a major role in keeping the country as a leta restavek.

Suppressing Protest

In addition to the suppression of electoral democracy, well-known journalists and academics have denounced MINUSTAH for a number of incidents of violent repression of peaceful demonstrations. According to anthropologist Mark Schuller,

they clamp down on citizen mobilization, most egregiously in 2009 during the campaign to increase Haiti’s minimum wage. They shot tear gas numerous times, preventing people from protesting and crippling the state university (especially the human sciences school). They also shot at the funeral for Aristide supporter Father [Gérard] Jean-Juste.[37]

This behavior is part of a clear pattern of suppressing protest among Haitians and preventing political organization, especially among pro-Aristide activists. During another peaceful demonstration against MINUSTAH’s renewed mandate, MINUSTAH peacekeepers “threatened [protesters] at gunpoint… Shots were fired, and a UN vehicle drove into the crowd and pushed several protesters and an international journalist into a ditch.”[38] At another protest, “MINUSTAH troops with riot shields arrived to reinforce the police, firing warning shots and dispersing the protesters.”[39] This suppression of social movements complements MINUSTAH’s suppression of electoral democracy. The same cross-section of poor Haitians who form the majority of the Fanmi Lavalas party, and of the country as a whole, had organized in support of the removal of MINUSTAH, supported Father Jean-Juste, and fought for an increase the minimum wage. These are the “populist and anti-market forces” about which the U.S. State Department had occasion to speak.

Haitian Social Movements Continue Their Fight

Contrary to its mandate to protect the human rights of the Haitian people and promote democracy, MINUSTAH has suppressed democracy both by supporting fraudulent elections and by repressing peaceful protests. In each of these instances, the mission has taken on the role of “enforcers,” holding the Haitian people in check and helping to keep Haiti as a leta restavek. As analyst Beverly Bell asserts, however, “the country’s highly organized grassroots movement has never given up the battle its enslaved ancestors began…The mobilizations, protests, and advocacy have brought down dictators…and kept the population from ever fitting quietly into anyone else’s plans for them.”[40] Haitians, especially the poor majority, have been fighting for economic and social democracy and for the autonomy to rebuild their nation. To achieve these goals would require unseating both MINUSTAH and the interests of the U.S., as the WikiLeaks cables demonstrate. Haitians are protesting in large part because of this systematic suppression of their nation’s right to self-determination. The “fire” to which President Martelly refers had been raging years before the recent allegations of rape and mayhem, and it will not be doused until Haitians find justice in their own country and not just in their distant memory.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Courtney Frantz. References for this article can be found here. To read more about Haiti, click here.