Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s brutal paramilitary campaigns received scant media coverage, while “political violence” was decried at length.

Source: Al Jazeera

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, certain media outlets painted a picture of a country overrun by looters and at the mercy of gang members and other criminals, including thousands of prisoners jolted free by the quake.

Relevant details were ignored, such as the contention by prominent Haitian human rights attorney Mario Joseph that 80 per cent of said prisoners had never been charged. The media effort perhaps aided in rendering less incongruous in the eyes of the international public the deployment of a sizeable US military force to deal with quake-affected people who did not seemingly require military attention.

A Reuters dispatch from one week after the disaster – which reported “marauding looters”, “scavengers and looters swarm[ing] over damaged stores”, “increasingly lawless streets” and “[h]eavily armed gang members” – offered the following plea from policeman Dorsainvil Robenson:

“Haiti needs help … the Americans are welcome here. But where are they? We need them here on the street with us.”

The whereabouts of the ever-elusive Americans are of course hinted at two paragraphs later, when we learn that “the White House said more than 11,000 US military personnel are on the ground, on ships offshore or en route”. Elsewhere, French Co-operation Minister Alain Joyandet was quoted as commenting in reference to seemingly skewed US priorities: “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti”. As foreign military monopolised the Port-au-Prince airport, teams of paramedics and first responders were delayed in the critical hours immediately following the earthquake.

Subscribers to the fantasy that the US is somehow qualified to counteract violence and install order in the Caribbean nation would do well to peruse a new book entitled Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, in which author Jeb Sprague masterfully documents – among other topics – the detrimental role of US and fellow international actors in Haitian history.

Offering new evidence obtained through interviews and a massive amount of formerly classified US government documents, the book clarifies how Haiti’s post-quake reconstruction rests on a foundation of total impunity achieved by the country’s most brutal paramilitaries and their financiers.

Legacy of violence

As Sprague notes, the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 under “the pretext of possible German encroachment during the First World War… caused the deaths of an estimated 15,000 Haitians and saw the imposition of slave labour”. It also imposed “a modern army, one that would continue the US occupation long after US troops were gone”, functioning on behalf of the Haitian elite and their American counterparts. Observes Sprague: “The US occupation wedded the country’s future to North American business interests.”

Later, during the reign of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in the 1960s, US Marines trained the dictator’s Tonton Macoutes paramilitary force, known for “leaving bodies of their victims hanging in public, a clear warning to anyone stepping out of line, most especially leftists, socialists and pro-democracy activists”. Linked to the business elite and the military itself, the Macoutes were “vital for upholding a system based on severe inequality and class privilege”.

Following the transfer of power to Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a brutal counter-insurgency force known as the Leopards was trained and equipped “by former US marine instructors who were working through a company (Aerotrade, Inc and Aerotrade International, Inc) under contract with the CIA and signed off by the US Department of State”.

Prior to becoming Haiti’s first democratically elected president in early 1991, the young liberation theologian, Jean-Bertrand Aristide “denounced the historic role of the United States in founding, arming and training Haiti’s military, which had been responsible for so much of the violence in Haitian history”.

Sprague quotes Aristide: “They [the United States] set up the Haitian Army, they trained it to work against the people”. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that the army was working for the people by massacring citizens attempting to vote in 1987, or by overthrowing the newly elected Aristide in September 1991 and slaughtering his supporters.

Aristide’s coup-inducing crimes included inviting street children and homeless persons to breakfast at the National Palace and endeavouring to raise the daily minimum wage from $1.76 to $2.94. As Joanne Landy wrote in the New York Times in 1994, the latter effort was “vigorously opposed by the US Agency for International Development because of the threat such an increase would pose to the ‘business climate’, particularly to American companies paying rock-bottom wages to workers in Haiti”.

Aside from USAID, another relevant euphemism from the coup period was the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a paramilitary organisation intimately linked to the Haitian military that assumed the task of terrorising the non-elite masses under the military junta. “Internal US government documents reveal that FRAPH was founded in part at the behest of the US Defence Intelligence Agency,” Sprague notes.

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