Silent Coup in Haiti

Once again, the people of Haiti are being denied the government of their choosing. While mainstream media has focused public attention on ineligible candidates such as hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, the most popular political party in Haiti, Fanmi Lavalas, has been banned from the November 28, 2010, Presidential and Parliamentary elections. To discuss the the country’s crisis of democracy, Darren Ell spoke with some key experts and organizers on the ground in Haiti and abroad.

Members of Fanmi Lavalas—banned from upcoming elections—at a 2007 meeting in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Source: The Dominion 
 Once again, the people of Haiti are being denied the government of their choosing. While mainstream media has focused public attention on ineligible candidates such as hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, the most popular political party in Haiti, Fanmi Lavalas, has been banned from the November 28, 2010, Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas, or FL) grew out of the Lavalas movement that brought down the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship and ushered Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1991. In 2000, during the last democratic election the party was permitted to participate in, it won 90 per cent of Haitians’ votes, the equivalent of Canada’s Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green parties combined; or the equivalent of the US’s combined electoral support for Republicans and Democrats.

Lavalas’ progressive democratic program and Aristide’s goal of lifting Haiti from “misery to poverty with dignity” has always been an unsavoury proposal for Haiti’s narrow elite and their supporters abroad. Two bloody coups d’etat have unseated Aristide: the first in 1991, backed by the US, and the second in 2004, supported also by Canada and France. In each case, thousands of FL activists and supporters were murdered and imprisoned, and Aristide was sent to exile in February 2004. Since the 2004 coup, FL has been banned from participating in Haitian politics.

Support for the party remains strong, though it currently faces significant challenges beyond its exclusion from the elections. The government of Rene Preval, on the other hand, is widely unpopular, especially in the aftermath of the catastrophic January, 2010 earthquake. An estimated 1.7 million survivors now live in unsafe, unsanitary makeshift camps for the internally displaced, facing food insecurity and forced evictions. It is in this climate that the November 2010 elections will be held.

To discuss the crisis of democracy, The Dominion spoke with some key political figures on the ground in Haiti and abroad. Brian Concannon is a founder and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a US-based grassroots organization that does human rights advocacy and pursues legal cases in Haitian, US and international courts. Kim Ives is a member of the editorial board of Haiti Liberte, a progressive Haitian newspaper. Roger Annis is one of Canada’s foremost Haiti solidarity activists and a member of Canada Haiti Action Network. Akinyele Umoja is an Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University and founding member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He recently returned from meetings with popular organizations in Haiti. Nora Rasman is the Interim Director of Latin America and Caribbean Policy at TransAfrica Forum. She specializes in UN interventions in Haiti and has extensive post-earthquake experience on the ground in Haiti.

Darren Ell: Is there any way of knowing if Fanmi Lavalas is as popular today as it was prior to the earthquake?

Brian Concannon: The best way of measuring its popular support would be through a fair election, but the Haitian government is not allowing that to happen. Other indicators of its popularity, which have correlated to electoral landslides in the past, point to continuing support for Lavalas. These measures include my own surveys of people I meet in Haiti, attendance at demonstrations, statements from grassroots leaders and perhaps most indicative, the efforts that Lavalas opponents at home and abroad are making to prevent the Haitian people from freely choosing their leaders.

Kim Ives: Anybody doing a cursory sidewalk poll can establish FL’s support in a few hours. In March 2010, I asked dozens of people: “In the quake’s aftermath, would you like to see the return of President Aristide?” The responses came back 90 per cent in favor, 10 per cent against. Another key indicator of that support was the success of the April and June 2009 nationwide boycotts of the partial Senate elections, where less than five per cent of the population participated because FL was excluded.

What is the reason for Fanmi Lavalas’ popularity?

Brian Concannon: When I have asked this question, Haitian voters—many of them critical of some FL policies or leaders—usually say, “Because Lavalas (or President Aristide) has not betrayed the Haitian people.” Voters believe that FL at least tries to implement progressive policies designed to promote social equality in Haiti and improve the lives of the majority of Haitians who are poor, and resists pressure from Haitian elites and the international community to increase social inequality.

Akinyele Umoja: Lavalas has won every election they’ve run in, but the US, French and Canadian Governments all have interests in Haiti and don’t want to see the Lavalas agenda put forward. FL invests in people, emphasizing infrastructure investment in schools, roads and hospitals. That is not the priority of foreign interest or the Haitian elite. It’s quite shocking that despite the repression people have endured for voting for Lavalas in the past they still remain loyal to the party.

Kim Ives: Besides their investment in the poor majority, FL really is the people. There are dozens of different bases (“baz”), often with rivalries and political differences. The national leadership is weak and not really respected, but the idea and symbol of popular power still remains with FL and Aristide.

What is the current state of Fanmi Lavalas? How organized is it and how did the earthquake affect it? Are there splits in the party?

Akinyele Umoja: As someone who has worked in the civil rights movement in the US where repression was long and intense, I know that repression has a negative effect on any such movement. Party representatives I met in Haiti suggested that this has occurred in Haiti and that the movement is not consolidated. Yet it seems to have widespread support. On the celebration of Aristide’s birthday on July 15, 12,000 people marched. If they can do that, they can mobilize people politically now.

Kim Ives: FL is rent by splits, has weak national leadership, and has a very ambiguous official program, all of which is complained about by its entire membership base. It is organized around small groups called Ti Fanmi which often have disputes with each other. Aristide designates its leaders but they are unpopular with or unknown to the base. While the base might remain strongly attached to Aristide, it often resents and rejects his appointees. This is currently the situation with, for example, Dr. Maryse Narcisse.

Despite this leadership void at the top, the mid-level Lavalas leaders are very strong and dynamic. Many of them are leaders in coalitions like PLONBAVIL and Tet Kole Oganizasyon Popile. They generally are more radical than the official party line, calling for things like an end to the foreign military occupation of Haiti (a call Narcisse has never made), the overhaul of the Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire, or CEP) that approves candidates, Preval’s resignation and the formation of a provisional government to hold elections. Much of this Lavalas base has also been involved in the defence of women subject to rape in the IDP camps, and the defence of the IDP camp residents from eviction by landowners.

How does Fanmi Lavalas’ platform differ from that of other candidates?

Kim Ives: Generally, candidates in Haiti have very conventional and harmless platforms, calling futilely for things like jobs, education, health, roads and so on. FL’s last “program” was released 11 years ago and was called “Investir dans l’Humain” (Invest in People), but FL has always been defined, despite attempts to dilute its message and ranks, by the program put forward by the Lavalas movement leaders, headed by Aristide in 1990, who called for Haiti’s “second independence,” meaning a break with the US, France and Canada, taxation of Haiti’s rich to benefit the poor, and the political marginalization of anti-democratic forces like the Duvalierists and neo-Duvalierists. But officially in 2010, FL is not proposing anything radically different from any of the other candidates.

Why have so many observers stated that the CEP,the organization that approves the official list of candidates, is not credible?

Brian Concannon: The CEP was chosen in 2009 through an unconstitutional process that gave the president undue influence over the choice of councillors. Over the past year, the Council has confirmed the fears of observers across the political spectrum that it would advance the interests of the president’s party over the interests of the constitution and Haiti’s voters. The Council’s most egregious act has been the unjustified disqualification of 14 political parties from across the spectrum, including FL, from the legislative elections. A detailed
analysis of the problematic nature of the CEP is available on the IJDH website.

Why has the CEP banned Fanmi Lavalas from the electoral process?

Brian Concannon: The CEP provided verbal justifications for FL’s banning from the upcoming 2010 legislative elections, none of which was formally stated in a legal document, and none of which is legally justified. The Council initially claimed that a mandate sent by President Aristide to allow another party leader to register FL candidates was not authentic, then that it was not appropriately notarized. When both those claims were disproven, the Council changed course and said that FL’s failure to file some documents before the April 2009 Senatorial elections (from which FL was also illegally excluded) prevented its participation in the elections.

FL was banned from the upcoming 2010 Presidential elections by a CEP decree that parties could not register unless the head of the party registered in person. Haitian law provides no basis for such a claim. In Haiti as in Canada or the US, people are freely allowed to delegate authority through authenticated written instruments. This action by the CEP was clearly aimed at FL, because it is the only party whose leader is in involuntary exile.

If Fanmi Lavalas cannot run candidates, what choices are left to Haitians?

Kim Ives: Many Haitians will seek to boycott the November elections if they go forward (and that is a big “if”) or to disrupt them in other ways. Some may support the candidacies of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates—those who are posturing to be seen as Aristide’s heir: Jean Henry Ceant, Yvon Neptune, Leslie Voltaire, Yves Christallin or Dr. Gerard Blot.

The IJDH has detailed the challenges the earthquake created for elections: the loss of innumerable identification cards, identifying the deceased in the electoral lists, the destruction of polling stations and the displacement of the population. They have also stated that “if elections are not held, Haiti’s extraordinary difficulties will be compounded by the lack of a credible, democratic power in Haiti.” What could be the consequences for Haiti if credible elections are not held? How is this going to play out on the ground in Haiti given the post-earthquake reality?

Kim Ives: If credible elections are not held, which is likely, a large percentage of the population will boycott the polling. Alternatively, the population could, in an unofficial manner, vote in large numbers for one of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates, or possibly even for former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis if he continues to make Aristide’s return one of his principle planks.

Under the first scenario, the “winner” of the election will be seen as illegitimate by the population, leaving a very fragile political situation. The slightest incident (historically, usually the shooting of children) could set off riots and calls for the president’s resignation. This is, of course, why the UN occupation troops remain deployed in Haiti: to repress precisely this type of popular uprising.

In the second scenario, if one of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates manages to get a popular following and “take” the vote in some way, then that candidate would come into office with a great deal of popular expectations riding on him. He will then either betray that popular trust put in him by toeing the line like Preval did, or try to challenge the restrictions placed on him by the UN forces, the Interim Commission to Reconstruct Haiti and the international financial institutions. If he does this, he will quickly be demonized and eliminated in one way or another. Betrayal however is the most likely outcome.

In either case, the constellation of progressive groups orbiting the offices of the Bureau des avocats internationaux (BAI) and Haiti Liberte will continue to gain strength and credibility, as their predictions of either bogus elections or a betraying leader are borne out. This embryonic resistance front, in turn, will eventually crystallize into a more organized and disciplined organization or a broad social movement under the leadership of a symbolic leader, similar to what is happening in Latin America.

How this later aftermath would play out depends on whether Aristide returns or not. If Aristide did return, it would only be if one of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates, or Alexis, wins. On his return, although he would devote himself to his university and foundation, Aristide would become a huge power broker. However, Washington will do everything in its considerable power to prevent Aristide’s return

What has been the reaction in Canadian and American political circles to the banning of Fanmi Lavalas from the 2010 elections?

Roger Annis: I’m not aware of a single Canadian political party or representative aware of the undemocratic character of the upcoming election in Haiti or voicing concern about it. Interestingly, the federal government is by all accounts following developments closely. Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon was in Haiti for three days in early May to get a first-hand look at Canada’s support for prisons and police training and equipping. He announced new spending in those areas and he was an early voice speaking in support of a sham election.

Haiti Liberte has called the sham election “the first order of business of the Haiti Interim Reconstruction Commission.” In other words, while we were treated to words and speeches by the foreign powers following the earthquake in favor of meaningful aid and reconstruction, what we have received is an inadequate or failed relief effort combined with a near-stealth plan to impose a fraudulent election that will, again in the words of Haiti Liberte, “lead the country towards a deepening dependence on the imperialist countries, feet and hands tied as in the olden days of slavery.”

Brian Concannon: There has been very little interest in American political circles. Representative Maxine Waters, who regularly stands up for justice in Haiti, has been trying to raise interest in the US House of Representatives, with little result so far. Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a report in June that strongly criticized the political party exclusions, and suggested that the US reconsider its support for the flawed process. That report had little impact.

The US Administration, like much of the official International Community, believes that President Preval’s team has done a good job managing Haiti, including advances in financial accountability and transparency, and would like to see that team continue to run Haiti. This is a short-term expedient that will come back to haunt the US, Canada and other countries because the elections will not produce a government with the political or moral legitimacy to effectively implement a reconstruction plan. The government will have to make very difficult decisions (such as about rural versus urban spending, initiatives supporting the middle class versus the poor, etcetera) and request its citizenry—already tired and angry—to make more sacrifices. This will be very difficult for a government lacking popular support.

To some extent, the Haitian government and MINUSTAH (the UN forces) will be able to keep basic peace by force of arms, but that will not allow effective governance. I also fear that citizens who feel they cannot choose their government through the ballot will engage in more disruptive tactics, which will lead to social unrest and possibly a violent response by the police and MINUSTAH, which will in turn touch off a cycle of violence.

Akinyele Umoja: A minority has called for the inclusion of Lavalas because they know if they don’t, the elections could be easily exposed as unfair. Others hope for some minor Lavalas representative to be included and co-opted into a different platform. The dominant view remains unchanged. The blocking of Lavalas has the blessing of the US and surely the blessing of Bill Clinton.

How about Canadian and American media? We hear a lot about Wyclef Jean but nothing about Fanmi Lavalas.

Roger Annis: Canada’s media has failed to inform Canadians about the flawed election in the making, including the formal exclusion of Haiti’s only mass representative party, Fanmi Lavalas. This is not simply oversight or ignorance. I have conducted extensive correspondence with programs and senior news editors at CBC Radio about this matter, for several months now. They are either disbelieving or disinterested. The same can be said for the editors of Canada’s print media.

This is not a proper response from a serious media outlet, but sadly, Haiti does not seem to merit the same standard of journalism that might apply to similar situations in other countries. Imagine, for a moment, that the government in Venezuela was conducting that country’s electoral affairs in a way similar to Rene Preval’s discredited regime in Haiti. Canada’s editors and news writers would be screaming, and writing, at the top of their lungs. And we wouldn’t hear the end of it from the federal government.

All this places major responsibilities before the Haiti solidarity movement and to anyone else in Canada concerned about Haiti’s fate. Will we let this sham electoral process pass unchallenged? I am confident that we won’t, that we will find the means to assist the people of Haiti who are waging the battle for democracy, social justice and electoral accountability. That’s what got the Canada Haiti Action Network started in the first place, in 2004, and it’s where we must keep moving.

Nora Rasman: Due to his international notoriety, Wyclef Jean brought the elections issue to the forefront for a short time when he declared his candidacy, was rejected and repealed. It is positive that any attention around elections has been generated, but very little media coverage has addressed the fundamental problems with the upcoming elections. If the immediate concerns of those affected by the quake are not addressed, the reconstruction and long-term rebuilding process will exclude the Haitian majority and increase the possibility of political instability.

Brian Concannon: The mainstream American media has a bias towards covering personalities over policies in all elections, including our own. Reporters and editors claim that it’s what Americans like to read. The Wyclef Jean coverage carries that bias to an extreme. It has devoted extensive space to a clearly ineligible candidate with no political experience running with a party that has never won any elected office. At the same time, it ignores the disqualification of the party that has won every free election held in Haiti for 20 years, always by a landslide.

The US equivalent to what’s happening in Haiti would be President Obama forming a new party before our 2012 elections, and announcing that the Democrats and Republicans were disqualified, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—who was born in Austria and thus constitutionally barred from the Presidency—announcing his candidacy, then the press foaming at the mouth about how his entry into the race has energized action hero movie fans, while ignoring the disqualification of the parties that win every election.

Kim Ives: Wyclef Jean made it clear that he would head a pro-US administration and work with the UN and USAID. Meanwhile, Washington and its media are trying to “turn the page” on the Lavalas movement. The first stage is always to ignore and minimize it. If FL continues to stymie Washington’s agenda in Haiti, the mainstream media will set about demonizing the FL and its leaders, just as it did six years ago.

Is it fair to say that the international community does not want to see democracy in Haiti? And if so, why, especially considering Haiti’s great need and the sums of money promised for reconstruction by the international community?

Brian Concannon: The international community wants to see a “democracy” in Haiti that betrays the desires of Haitian voters in favor of the dictates of the international community and Haitian elites. This is obviously problematic from a moral and ethical perspective, but it is equally problematic from the perspective of a North American taxpayer. President John F. Kennedy famously remarked that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The International Community seems intent on proving this maxim over and over. As long as Haitian voters are not allowed to choose their leaders, there will be violence in Haiti (mostly coming from anti-democratic forces, but some from democratic forces as well), which will imperil any money provided for Haiti’s reconstruction, and provoke continued expensive military intervention in Haiti.

Akinyele Umoja: I resent the term “international community” because it doesn’t refer to the people in these countries. It refers to very specific interests in the US, France and Canada. In the US, the Monroe Doctrine states clearly that the US will control the Caribbean and the Americas to suit its needs. The US doesn’t like any country that seeks a political or economic course independent of its own. Ordinary people would support democracy in Haiti, but they get so much disinformation that they don’t know what’s really going on.

Kim Ives: The US, France and Canada cannot tolerate any sovereign and nationalist state in Latin America, least of all Haiti. Their subversion and coups d’etat of the past show that clearly. In particular, the US won’t stand for it because of Haiti’s geopolitical position across the strategic Windward Passage from socialist Cuba and its sharing of the island with the Dominican Republic (DR), an important US ally and business partner. Any radical progressive social change in Haiti would have a huge impact on the DR, where many Haitian migrants and Haitian ancestry Dominicans live, many travelling back and forth between the two countries.

Haiti is also, after Cuba, the most populous nation in the Caribbean, and in many ways, Latin America’s most African country. Racism has played a major role in Haiti’s subjugation, denigration, and constant political crises—stoked by North America and Europe since Haiti’s ground-breaking 1804 revolution.

The great sums of money promised to Haiti after the quake are primarily earmarked to go to US contractors like Halliburton, DynCorp, and Kellogg Brown & Root [now KBR]. The “reconstruction” is a golden opportunity to channel billions to the Pentagon’s principal contractors and rebuild Haiti as Washington sees fit (ie; more like Puerto Rico, a US colony whose national economic independence has been almost completely repressed, subjugated or consumed by US multinationals, which have polluted the environment, doctored the legal and political system and corrupted the Indigenous culture). This is why the US has essentially taken over the Haitian government through the Interim Commission to Reconstruct Haiti (CIRH).

How important is this election to Haitians, especially given the struggle for survival since the earthquake?

Nora Rasman: The exclusion of FL has added skepticism to people’s views on the usefulness of these elections. For many of the camp leaders and those living in camps, elections are not a priority because there are so many other outstanding immediate issues on the table, including securing basic goods and services on a daily basis. People affected by the earthquake—particularly those who have been internally displaced—are challenged to obtain consistent access to food, water, health, sanitation and washing services, education or job opportunities.

Akinyele Umoja: In the camps, the main issue is survival: safety, health and food. But people are tying it to politics. They see themselves as Lavalas, so they feel that if their party was allowed to participate, they would be interested in the elections, but with the current group of candidates, they just see it as a sham that will not help them at all.

What can concerned citizens in Canada and the US do about this issue?

Brian Concannon: Concerned citizens outside of Haiti need to protect our ideals, our tax dollars and Haitian voters against our own governments’ polices, by 1) staying informed about Haiti, and 2) staying involved. The IJDH has a program called “Half-Hour for Haiti,” which helps people do both. Anyone can sign up on our website.

Nora Rasman: Concerned citizens abroad can argue for free, fair and transparent elections to move forward. Holding your government, as well as national and international non-governmental organizations, accountable for their activities is of the utmost importance. To this end, we suggest that people become engaged by contacting their elected officials to tell them the crisis on the ground has not ended while emphasizing the need for Haitian civil society organizations to be part of the long-term planning for reconstruction, including the electoral process. Or building concrete relationships with solidarity organizations in Haiti, the US and Canada, organizations that support a fair and representative electoral processes.

Akinyele Umoja: We need to challenge our own governments. In the US, we need to ask ourselves the question of how Aristide can be returned to the country because we took him away. We need to understand our own government’s involvement in the impoverishment of Haiti. If people hadn’t stood up around the world against apartheid in South Africa, it wouldn’t have fallen, and we need to do the same work around the issue of Haiti.

Kim Ives: People should provide material and financial support to the resistance being carried out by coalitions like PLONBAVIL, groups like the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and Bureau des avocats internationaux (BAI), and media like Haiti Liberte.

Originally from Saskatchewan, Darren Ell is a teacher, photographer and freelance journalist residing in Montreal. Between 2006 and 2008, he documented the legacy of the 2004 coup d’etat in online publications with the Citizenshift, The Dominion and Haiti Action. His photographic installation on this subject, Haiti Holdup, was exhibited at Concordia University in Montreal.

The Dominion