Amplifying Haiti’s Lost Years

Source: The Dominion 

A review of Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment.

The story of the international community’s role in Haiti over the last four years has been told almost solely through global independent media networks and by the alternative press. For Canadians, the story of their government’s leading role in the planning, funding and military execution of the 2004 coup d’etat that removed democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide reached its audience as a result the meticulous, diligent, and usually unpaid work of independent journalists and researchers. Meanwhile, the mainstream media, as well as the vast majority of academia, remained utterly silent during the human rights catastrophe that followed the coup. The recent reportage of the food riots across Haiti–riots that were clearly directed against the UN’s presence as much as against the inaction of the Preval government in halting the rise in food prices–exhibited the amnesic symptoms consistent with the international community’s role in the 2004 coup.

The media blackout surrounding the bloodbath that followed the 2004 coup d’etat in Haiti–and particularly Canada’s clear complicity (to the point of paying the salaries of officials within the coup government)–has thus far been countered by frontline research carried out by several Canadian, Haitian and US independent journalists, such as Anthony Fenton, Yves Engler, Jeb Sprague, Isabelle Macdonald, Andrea Schmidt, Darren Ell, Kevin Pina and Jean Ristil. However, until now no single author has managed to piece together a comprehensive account of exactly how the coup of 2004 was carried out, who the actors were in Haiti and internationally, what its effects have been, and how the Lavalas movement of Jean-Bertrand Aristide has managed to weather the violence of this period.*

Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood does exactly this. Hallward’s account of how the international community pulled off the "most successful act of imperial sabotage since the end of the cold war" is a brilliant, comprehensive and courageous piece of modern history. It is also a first-rate piece of journalism.

Like many of the independent journalists mentioned above, Hallward’s interest in Haiti began with the 2004 coup. But, as Damming the Flood chronicles, the 2004 coup was not the first regime change in Haiti. Aristide, a Catholic priest whose religious teachings were steeped in the theology of liberation, was deposed in 1991, less than a year after his overwhelming victory in Haiti’s 1990 elections. These elections ended decades of US-backed military dictatorship. (Unsurprisingly, the coup was backed financially by the first Bush administration.) The ensuing three-year period was characterized by a campaign of terror directed against Haiti’s poorest neighbourhoods. By 1994, President Clinton, in need of a foreign policy success story after spearheading a disastrous international intervention in Somalia, militarily re-instated Aristide. Aristide was forced to agree to conditions, most notably that his government adopt widely unpopular IMF-oriented economic reforms and that Haiti’s moneyed elite–many of whom had supported Aristide’s deposition–retain positions of power. Haiti’s democratic government then adopted many unpopular free market reforms–whose fallout in the agricultural sector is evident today–but also managed to dismantle Haiti’s hated military. The 10-year period that followed, from 1994 to 2004, saw an unprecedented drop in human rights abuses throughout the country and a modest investment in social programs.

Perhaps as a result of his widespread appeal among Haiti’s poor, whose newfound influence upon Haiti’s government enraged and terrified the country’s elite, Aristide remained a deeply unpopular and vilified figure among foreign policy-makers in the United States, Canada, the European Union, and even the UN.

Hallward notes in his introduction that the book is a response to the "striking difference between the international reactions to the two anti-Aristide coups of 1991 and 2004." According to Hallward, the 2004 coup represented the "most successful exercise of neo-imperial sabotage since the toppling of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in 1990." Hallward also writes that the international campaign of demonization of Aristide in the years leading up to the coup was "one of the most successful propaganda episodes of modern times," a media coup on par with the acceptance by the world press of the pretense of weapons of mass destruction as the motivation behind the US invasion of Iraq.

Throughout his exhaustively footnoted account, Hallward examines the claims made against Aristide by members of the country’s opposition parties and by the small class of moneyed elite. By analysing documented evidence, he debunks a number of still-prevalent myths, from the claim that Aristide relied upon an apparatus of gangs to repress political opponents–indeed, from 2001 to 2004, the number of political killings was miniscule and evidence linking the crimes to their perpetrators remains tenuous, while 4,000 political killings are estimated to have occurred from 2004-2006 in Port-au-Prince alone–to the assertion that the Lavalas party had lost its legitimacy and popularity among the poor–despite the fact that a Gallup poll in 2002 put Aristide’s support at 60 per cent–to the notion that Aristide rigged the parliamentary elections of 2000–even though the elections were deemed "free and fair" by the Organization of American States among others, and they occurred, not under Aristide’s watch, but during the presidency of Rene Preval.

Hallward attributes most of Haiti’s social woes to the particularly "tiny transnational clique of wealthy and well-connected families [that] continue to dominate" every position and institution of power in Haiti, and adds that they "have more in common with their corporate, diplomatic or intellectual colleagues in France or North America than they do with their compatriots in the countryside or the slums." His book is peppered with insights about this particularly brutal social tension. "…In terms of class, struggle would be much too benign: in Haiti class differences are preserved through nothing less than full-on warfare or assault." Hallward’s chapter on the period from 1994 to 2000, perhaps the most insightful section of the book, concludes that the most significant event to take place in this struggle was Aristide’s dismantlement of Haiti’s military in 1995. This act represented a significant defanging of Haiti’s small class of elite and accounts for much of their venal hatred of Aristide and the Lavalas political movement.

But Hallward’s chronicle is less about Aristide and more about the political force of Haiti’s poor that he represented. Damming the Flood is really a story about how the Lavalas political movement, perhaps the most persistent political movement of the poor in Latin America, managed to adapt during the first coup, how it evolved during the 10 years of democracy, and how it continues to evolve as the dominant political force in the country, despite the internal divisions and contradictions of the current "democratic" period. "Over the last 20 years," Hallward writes, "Lavalas has developed as an experiment at the limits of contemporary political possibility. Its history sheds light on some of the ways that political mobilization can proceed under the pressure of exceptionally powerful constraints."

Although there are some critical elements of the story of the Haitian coup that are not given the attention they deserve–particularly the significance of the Lavalas social programs and the role of international NGOs in "selling" the coup to an international audience–Damming the Flood is a truly remarkable achievement. The one drawback of this memorable work might be its comprehensive and critical attention to details; although Hallward’s propensity to name names is illuminating for those of us who have kept our eye on Haiti for years, readers unfamiliar with Haiti’s struggle may get lost in the complexity of the many actors involved in the country’s story of betrayal.

Why should Canadians read this book? Damming the Flood represents a cautionary tale for the Canadian Left, as well as for social justice movements everywhere. While thousands of Canadians have been willing to speak out against the regime change in Iraq and against the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the massacres of Haiti’s poor occurred in silence. The failure of much of the Canadian Left to respond to this violence has had enormous consequences, paid for with the blood of many in Cite Soleil, Bel Air, La Saline and other desperately poor neighbourhoods. Hallward’s account of the difficult survival of the movement of the poor in Haiti, as well as the manner in which their cries were muffled by their international enemies who disguised themselves at home as the "friends of Haiti," holds many lessons for political movements for justice in Canada.

*Thomas Griffin’s horrifying and far too often overlooked human rights report, Haiti Human Rights Investigation: November 14-21, 2004 deserves an honourable mention as the closest candidate so far.