Former death squad and military leaders from the darkest periods of Haiti's past have been leading an armed struggle against the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide for the past two weeks. The paramilitary groups, formerly called the Cannibals, have taken over a dozen cities in northern Haiti and control several key supply routes. Although the paramilitaries are few in number, they are well armed and are controlling the north through the use of terror. The 'mainstream' bourgeois opposition had previously been encouraging these groups, as they saw them as means to overthrow Aristide and take power. In response to the crisis, Aristide's government has asked for international assistance to prevent a coup.
Aristide agreed this past Saturday to a peace plan brokered by diplomats from the US, Canada, France and CARICOM. It is not clear whether the 'mainstream' bourgeois opposition in the capital, Port-au-Prince, will agree to the deal by the late Monday afternoon deadline. It in fact appears quite unlikely, as the only thing they are demanding is the resignation of Aristide.
Former military leaders from the disbanded Haitian army and former death squad leaders continued their armed campaign against the Aristide government on Sunday by taking Cap-Haïtien, the country's second largest city. These armed groups, formerly called "the Cannibals" and now renamed the Gonaïves Resistance Front (GRF), had taken the city of Gonaïves on Thursday and declared an independent country of 'l'Arbonite'. The new so-called government is headed by Buter Métayer, who was a former Aristide supporter. Guy Philippe, former police chief of Cap-Haïtien and Duvalier death squad leader in the 1980s, was named l'Arbonite's chief of armed forces. Philippe fled Haiti in 2002 to the Dominican Republic after it was discovered that he was plotting a coup. Philippe returned to Haiti with former death squad leader Louis Jodel Chamblain, and had up to 50 armed supporters with him. Jean Pierre Baptiste, who calls himself General Tatoune, lead the march into the city. He was one of the leaders of the uprising that overthrew Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in 1986. Under the military regime of the early 1990's, he joined the paramilitary outfit FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) and was serving life in prison in Gonaïves for his role in a 1994 massacre. A close associate of Chamblain, Emmanueal 'Toto' Constant, who lead the coup against Aristide in 1991, has admitted CIA financing for the movement. It has also been claimed that these paramilitaries received "some form" of training while in the Dominican Republic. These paramilitary thugs now control most of Haiti's north, and the rebels are today threatening an attempt to take Port-au-Prince.
The mainstream opposition, including groups such as the Group of 184 and the Convergence Democratique have distanced themselves from the (GRF) as of late, but were previously encouraging them as they felt they could come to power on the back of a coup against Aristide. There are also rumours that the GRF is in fact the armed wing of the US funded and backed Convergence Democratique. Tensions are high between the Creole-speaking black majority, most of whom live in absolute poverty and the minority French-speaking mullattos, one percent of whom own approximately 45% of the country's wealth. One Haitian claimed "the dominant class speaks French, but all Haitians speak Kreyol. When the dominant class doesn't want the people to know what it's doing, it speaks French." US congresswoman Maxine Waters, upon returning from a visit to Haiti exposed opposition leader Andre Apaid Jr. as a 'Duvalier supporter', and that he along with his Group of 184, is "attempting to instigate a bloodbath in Haiti and the blame the government for the resulting disaster in the belief that the US will aid the so-called protestors against President Aristide".
Clearly reflecting the bourgeois, pro-imperialist and reactionary nature of these "democratic" opposition leaders, Apaid himself never renounced his US citizenship, and he is a major factory owner.
Aristide's government is in serious danger of being overthrown by a bloody coup. His government only has a police force of about 4,000, and there are reports that the police are demoralized and out-gunned. A successful coup would obviously be a nightmare for the Haitian people, as the old paramilitaries, who instated a murderous regime in the early 1990s would exact a terrible revenge upon Aristide, his supporters, and the Haitian workers and urban poor. In response to the threats of a coup and assassination attempts, Aristide claimed last week that he would stay and fight, saying he would die for his country. In desperation, Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune issued a plea for international troops to be sent to Haiti to quell the 'uprising' and aid the fledgling national police.
Members of the Haitian opposition have claimed that if the US, under Clinton, was responsible for re-instating Aristide, then it is the Bush administration's responsibility to correct the mistake and overthrow him. Many in the US State Department see Aristide as a 'beardless Castro', and he is well hated by Jesse Helms, and his clique of extreme right wing allies Roger Noriega and Otto Reich in the State Department (all involved in previous US interventions in countries like Nicaragua in the 1980s and more recently in Venezuela).
After Aristide was overthrown, his re-instatement as President on the back of a US invasion of the island in 1994 was only made possible when he embraced the Haitian ruling class and the dictates of Washington and the IMF. In order to maintain US support and receive aid, Aristide needed to maintain the standard 'structural adjustment' package, with foreign funds going to debt repayment and the needs of the bourgeois, as well as maintaining and open foreign investment policy.
This was a recipe for disaster for Haiti. Of course many state owned and subsidized industries were privatized and lead to a further concentration of wealth – 1 percent of the population controls about 45 percent of the wealth. By the end of the 1990s Haiti's local rice production had been reduced by half and rice imports from the US accounted for over half of local rice sales. The local farming population was devastated, and the price of rice rose drastically.
On the other hand, in order to appease the masses the Haitian government has invested heavily in agriculture, public transport and infrastructure. The minimum wage was doubled recently from 36 to 70 gourdes per day. Health care and education have also become major priorities. More schools were built in Haiti between 1994 and 2000 than between 1804 and 1994. The government subsidizes meals and public transport for school children and has maintained the controversial fuel subsidy. Perhaps this is why we see such a determined opposition from the bourgeois and imperialist forces in Haiti?
These social policies, which were really minor concessions, were intolerable for US imperialism. This shows the current situation of crisis of capitalism where they cannot accept reforms of any kind, even minor ones. When Aristide won the election in February 2000, the US froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid claiming that the elections had been flawed. Out of 7,500 positions filled nation wide, election observers recommended that seven senate seats go to a run off. Haiti's electoral commission disagreed. This was the only international concern surrounding the election. In the end, in order to avoid 'the wrath of the mighty', these senators resigned
Although it seems clear that the US has been involved in some way in the armed conflict, the Bush administration has been reluctant to get openly involved because as US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said a few years ago the US administration will only intervene militarily when there is a clear and compelling interest for the US ruling class. The Bush administration also doesn't need any more foreign policy risks in an election year. There is also the issue of cost. The US defence budget has ballooned over the past few years with the 'War on Terror' and the invasion of Iraq.
The US has had to draw a distinction between the 'mainstream' bourgeois political opposition and the armed gangs that have taken over the north. In order to avoid a foreign policy disaster around the policy of 'regime change', much like the one brewing around Iraq, Colin Powell claimed that the US political plan for Haiti does not include Aristide's stepping down, although he added that the US would not object if, as part of the negotiations with the opposition Aristide would agree to leave before the end of his term in 2006. And now along with the diplomatic initiative from the US this weekend, the administration is planning on sending a military inspection team to investigate the safety of the embassy. This is only an excuse to send a military team in to Haiti to check out conditions for a military intervention.
One of the major concerns of the US government is the threat of a mass exodus of Haitians similar to that in 1991. People have begun to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic and to Jamaica. The US has opened more space at Guantanamo Bay to deal with refugees, but doesn't want a mass exodus to the US. There is a great deal of pressure now coming from the state of Florida, where governor Bush is concerned about a mass of refugees coming over. This has also prompted the US government to act.
The US is ultimately concerned that Aristide cannot maintain control of the situation. Revolutionary events and processes have opened all across the Caribbean and Latin America and the US is attempting to shut the floodgates. They would like to see Aristide gone and put someone more reliable in place. They would prefer the bourgeois opposition to come to power, but this doesn't seem very likely. Now that the paramilitaries appear to winning the US is thinking twice. Its seems obvious that the US doesn't want to see the armed gangs attain power in Haiti, as this would undoubtedly lead to a civil war and would not be well received at home, and could cause problems in an election year. What the US would prefer is to broker a deal with the opposition and Aristide. The best deal for US interests would be if Aristide compromises and/or steps down. The problem with this though is that the bourgeois opposition is digging in its heels, believing that they can come to power on the backs of a coup by the paramilitaries. The bourgeois opposition will find though, that if these criminal gangsters are allowed to return to power, that they will be crushed just the same as everyone else; the paramilitaries are out of control and will not take orders from anyone.
It was not until the French expressed an interest in sending troops to Haiti that the US government responded. In an absolute diplomatic manoeuvre, French foreign minister Mr. De Villepin said last week that they were considering sending troops to Haiti, although he hadn't mentioned this in his visit with Colin Powell just a few days before. This has taken the US by surprise and embarrassed the administration, adding to the already high tensions between the two nations as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Naturally, the US does not want the French to begin military operations in its backyard. This is yet a further reflection of the deep crisis of the world economy and the contradictions between the imperialist powers. The world economy is edging ever closer to a crisis and there is a monstrous struggle for markets, and French military operations in Haiti would be a good way for the French to encroach upon US interests in the Caribbean and Latin America, perhaps as a retaliation for the loss of French interests in Iraq.
The French claim they have 2,000 citizens living in Haiti and that the must send a 'rescue mission' to protect them from the violence. This is a familiar story. The French have used this pretext in Congo, Ivory Coast, Chad and elsewhere whenever they need to install friendlier dictators and protect French interests.
France, Haiti's former colonizer, has about 3,000 troops in the Antilles as well as transport aircraft, helicopters and warships that they could send in.
In order to head off a collision between the two countries the US agreed to a diplomatic intervention including France, Canada, and CARICOM. Many are commenting that this is a way of healing the rifts caused by the invasion in Iraq and re-affirming the US's commitment to the UN. It is however a cynical self-interested move to prevent unilateral French action. Canada has been invited because of its 'long record' of 'assistance' to Haiti, and because there is an attitude in the US government that Canada appears more neutral, and less imperialistic than the US. It is also an attempt at "outsourcing" the costs and risks of military intervention abroad to complying allies. This could prevent an anti-US backlash in Haiti, and make negotiations with Aristide easier, whose relations with the US have obviously been strained as of late. This gives the US the suitable diplomatic cover to move in, undercut its competitors and protect its own interests in Haiti.
The Dominican Republic and the threat of war
Tensions have also been running high on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Haitian government has been demanding that the Dominican government explain how their troops allowed armed Haitian gangs and criminals to cross in Haiti. It is obvious that they could not have crossed without the complicity of the Dominican army. The Dominican army said it had no information about how the exiles crossed over the 362 km border that is barely patrolled. In the meantime, the Dominican army is still trying to find out who ambushed and killed two Dominican soldiers at a remote area of the border. The killing of the border guards is an obvious provocation, and could prove to be a pretext for war.
The Dominican government has also stepped up its complaints about illegal Haitian immigrants. It is estimated that more than 1 million Haitians, mainly workers, are living in the Dominican Republic.
Another serious point of contention is the fact that the exiled paramilitary leaders who just returned to Haiti from the Dominican Republic were armed with new M16s. Is it just a coincidence that, as is well known, the Dominican Republic had recently received a shipment of 20,000 US made M16s?
There is a danger that the US, if it fails to diplomatically secure its interests may rely on its Dominican colonial ally to enforce 'regime change' in Haiti. This would provide a smokescreen for the US's role and involvement in the affair, because once again it is an election year, and could also be seen by the Dominican Republic as a useful tool to quell its own growing social unrest. As we reported at the end of January, there was a two day general strike in the Dominican Republic against privatization, low wages, rising fuel costs, and unemployment, which now stands at 17 percent. This came after another general strike on November 11 last year. Given the pretext of instability in Haiti and a flood of refugees, it could be the excuse the Dominican government needs to invade Haiti and use the army to crush the working class opposition and quell the developing revolutionary situation in its own country.
The so-called Peace Plan
Aristide agreed on Saturday to the peace plan proposed by the US, Canada, France and CARICOM nations. The rebels are to be disarmed and a new government will be formed with a new prime minister. The peace plan requires that the government and the opposition agree to a tripartite commission, including an international representative by Tuesday to move ahead with forming a new government and electing parliament, which has not functioned since January. The Canadian government has also offered to send police to reinforce the small out-gunned Haitian police force. The real meaning of this peace plan is to keep Aristide at the top as a way of containing his supporters amongst the masses, but at the same time give real power to the representatives of the bourgeois opposition, and win time to disarm the armed thugs who are out of control. But if this "deal" went ahead it would mean political suicide for Aristide, who would have compromised with the hated imperialists and local elite for the second time.
Meanwhile the armed gangs have continued their offensive. Cap-Haïtien fell on Sunday and there is talk that an attack on Port-au-Prince is imminent. It as yet unclear, but the police force, the bulk of which is located in Port-au-Prince may be demoralized. Before Cap-Haïtien fell, police made it very clear that they were too afraid to patrol the streets. They barricaded themselves in their station but could not hold off the assault. The police have been the targets of attacks by paramilitaries for quite some time, and seem unable and possibly unwilling to defend themselves. The one thing that Aristide has going for him is his popularity with the urban poor and the working class. Pierre Frandley, a carpenter, told the Associated Press 02/20/2004 that "we have machetes and guns, and we will resist. The police might have been scared, but the people got together and organized…We blocked the streets."
It was also noted in the Observer that "in the sprawling slums of Port-au-Prince, Aristide continues to be widely seen as a hero fighting against a powerful and tiny elite and its international backers". The bourgeois media has reporting major demonstrations of the opposition against Aristide for some time, but continually neglect to mention that these protests are met with mass counter-demonstrations of workers who support Aristide. As the rumours of the armed thugs and gangs approaching Port-au-Prince grow, workers from the slums and working-class neighbourhoods, the 'bastion' of Aristide's support in Port-au-Prince are arming themselves and throwing up barricades in order to support the government. It seems that the masses of the workers and the urban poor who had probably been disillusioned by Aristide, are now rallying to defend him faced with the threat of return of the cutthroat gangs of criminals who ruled the country under the Duvaliers. In this they are showing a very clear class instinct. As Marx commented, sometimes the revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution.
In the event that there is an attack on Port-au-Prince, Aristide's only defence would be to arm the working class and call on their support to defeat the coup. The problem with this, as far as Aristide is concerned, is that if he were to arm the workers it would mean revolution – power would pass onto the hands of the working people and it will put the socialist transformation of Haitian society on the order of the day.
The crisis in the world economy has led to revolutionary developments across the Caribbean and Latin America. Revolutionary situations are developing in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. The US is trying to stem the tide of the revolutionary awakening of the masses. The US has been forced to respond in order to stop the spread of the revolution. In some cases, like in Venezuela and in Georgia US has not intervened militarily to overthrow "uncooperative" regimes but has done so in an indirect way by whipping up a "popular" uprising, in reality a counter-revolution. In fact the situation in Haiti reminds us very much of that which led to the April 2002 coup against Chavez in Venezuela, where a coalition between the ruling elite and US imperialism, used the masses of the middle class as cannon fodder, and tried to overthrow the government. In the case of Venezuela, the masses responded immediately and defeated the coup. Whether this will be the case in Haiti, where Aristide's image has already been tarnished in the eyes of the masses by his collaboration with the US after he was reinstated in 1994, remains to be seen.
Now, the US doesn't necessarily want to remove Aristide, but rather, use him to prevent the development of a revolutionary situation. They are not sure that Aristide can control the situation. They might sit back and watch the developments and the battles, and when the time is right they may rely on the Dominican army, under the pretext of 'stopping bloodshed' and an 'international humanitarian mission' in order to crush the movement of the masses. Given the fact that it is an election year, and given the loss of American life in Iraq, the US will be reluctant to send in their own troops and risks the lives of more US soldiers.
This crisis in the world economy and politics into which the world has entered is such that there can be no solution to the problems in Haiti, or elsewhere such as in Venezuela or Argentina on a capitalist or reformist basis. The contradictions are too great and too many, and the divisions in society are too deep. That is precisely why Aristide and his government are in such a mess. The only solution would have been to expropriate the imperialist interests and the bourgeois in Haiti. It seems unlikely however, that a reformist politician like Aristide would carry out such a programme.
Contrary to the opinion of the US administration, Aristide is no communist or socialist, in fact he can hardly pass as a reformist and the working class will find him to be a barrier to genuine socialism and liberation from imperialism and poverty. The workers and urban poor, along with the poor peasants must organize themselves into defence committees, democratically organized and linked across the country, in order to defend themselves against the return of the hated macoutistes and take the future into their own hands. The arming of the workers and the people and the defeat of the coup would effectively put power in the hands of the workers. They must use this to push the socialist transformation of society. This however, will not be enough on its own. Haiti is a small, poor, and isolated country that could never survive on its own. A socialist revolution in Haiti could be the catalyst that sparks off a socialist revolution in the Dominican Republic, which is the only way out of the current crisis for the workers of both countries. The Haitian workers must appeal to and link up in struggle with the working class of the Dominican Republic, and appeal to all of the workers of the Caribbean and Latin America to join them in solidarity and struggle for socialism.