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After Aristide

Humanitarian forces are tearing Haiti apart.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Not for the first time, US marines have arrived in Haiti to ‘restore order’. Yet again, a Haitian leader is fleeing into exile, bitterly denouncing his opponents as he goes. Once more, Haiti is blighted by street-fighting, as armed groups clash, loot and burn in the capital Port-au-Prince. According to one observer, ‘history keeps repeating itself’ (1).

Following the War of Independence against France in 1804, Haiti has indeed had its fair share of instability – there has been one 19-year American occupation (1915-1934), numerous US invasions, a string of kings and dictators, and no fewer than 32 coups (33 if you count Aristide’s flight over the weekend as being the result of a coup).

But there is something different in what is happening today. The current upheavals are not the result of a traditional struggle for power between opposing Haitian parties, but of the implosion of the Haitian state – and the US, French and Canadian forces rushing to fill the vacuum have done so reluctantly, with little sense of what they’re doing or what they want. The Haiti debacle reveals more about contemporary international relations than it does about Haitian history, highlighting the deeply destabilising nature of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

One of the most striking images over the weekend was of Jean-Bertrand Aristide fleeing in a white, unmarked plane, after resigning as president. Again, this looked like something straight out of history – the plane was an American 757 dispatched by the Pentagon with some secret service forces on board, whisking America’s former man on the ground in Haiti to exile in the Central African Republic. But where US-backed third world leaders normally flee in response to a serious threat to their rule from opposition forces, Aristide was forced to flee because he had no state to fall back on.

Haiti’s rebels are not a well-organised force; the BBC describes them as a ‘disparate lot…some well-equipped, others carrying old guns’ (2). On the very day Aristide fled, the rebels agreed to ‘honour a US appeal for calm’ and hold off from attacking Port-au-Prince. The decisive factor in Aristide’s flight was the weakness of his own forces. As many of his ill-equipped police abandoned him, Aristide relied on armed gangs for protection over the past two months; the New York Times described his ‘weak and nearly invisible central government’, and the police who, at the first sign of a rebellion, ‘slipped out of their uniforms and into the countryside’ (3).

Haiti’s ‘nearly invisible’ state is a hangover from President Clinton’s humanitarian mission to ‘Uphold Democracy’ in 1994. Then, Clinton sent 20,000 marines to restore Aristide to power, who had been elected president in 1990 but overthrown by a military coup in 1991. Upon his return, the first thing Aristide did, under instruction from Washington, was to disband the Haitian military – which had been created during the US occupation of 1915-1934 and which had dominated all aspects of Haitian politics and society for 60 years. Aristide effectively did away with the state, replacing it with what Clinton officials proudly referred to as a ‘new, progressive police force’, consisting of 5000 officers.

With Aristide’s new regime in power, Clinton, in the words of one account, ‘trumpeted at a summit of the Americas in December 1994 that for the first time the entire hemisphere – with the glaring exception of Cuba – lived under democracy’ (4). Clinton’s intervention swept aside Haiti’s right-wing and repressive infrastructure that had been built up over decades, allowing him to pose as the bringer of democracy to Haiti. But it overlooked the fact that there were no other forces with the social roots or legitimacy (or, as the Haitian military at least had, the might) that could cohere Haitian society.

Even by Washington’s standards, a 20,000-strong military invasion to ‘uphold democracy’ was a profound contradiction in terms. People cannot be liberated or handed democracy from without; Western powers cannot distribute democratic rights in war-torn nations as if they were so much aid agency flour or rice. The masses can only liberate and win democracy for themselves. Under humanitarian intervention, however, people in third world states are made the objects of a ‘democraticisation process’, rather than being subjects driving the demand for democracy. As such, the prospect of their taking power becomes further diminished, and they have little say or influence over the ‘new society’.

Humanitarian interventionists make great boasts of overthrowing ‘evil’ regimes, but often with little sense of what might take their place. Western intervention that is driven by notions of good vs evil and the importance of deposing wicked rulers can be as destabilising, if not more so, as intervention driven by self-interest or economic gain. It can give rise to vacuous states that easily fall apart. As post-humanitarian Haiti shows, the humanitarians’ brief and excitable claims of a new democratic era can soon give way to chaos and confusion, as the former state is dismantled, the new state forces prove too weak to maintain control, and the masses are made into mere objects of the ‘democratic process’. The end result often, as a Red Cross official said of Haiti over the past two weeks, is ‘an unstructured type of conflict.’ (5)

Humanitarian intervention also gives rise to new kinds of rebel movements, whose chief concern is to provoke outside intervention rather than to take power. The Haitian rebel forces – a disparate grouping of former Aristide supporters, former military commanders who were exiled after Aristide disbanded the military and various criminal gangs – are no traditional national liberation movement wanting to replace one ruling class or state system with another. Indeed, they had little desire to take the reins from Aristide; as one report says, ‘In the weeks leading up to Aristide’s departure, rebel leaders had said they just wanted the president to leave – they had no interest in taking power’ (6).

Rather, the rebels wanted to get outside forces in – in the hope that they might restore order. One supporter of the rebels told the Christian Science Monitor: ‘We all are awaiting the American soldiers to come and provide security from the chimères [Aristide’s armed gangs] and take their big guns away.’ (7) Much of the rebels’ actions over the past two weeks seems to have been aimed as much at outside observers as it was at pushing Aristide over the edge (8). In the humanitarian era, where international relations are organised around Western intervention against ‘evil’ regimes, opposition forces often simply stage stunts in order to encourage intervention. The USA finds it increasingly difficult to stay out of a conflict once this process is under way, however much George ‘we will defend the national interest’ Bush and his officials might prefer to stay at home.

Now Western forces are intervening in Haiti – but it is not Western intervention as Haitians have known it in the past. Initially, US and European forces were reluctant to get involved in Haiti, instead making pronouncements about Aristide’s ‘fitness to rule’ and the responsibilities of the rebel forces from a distance. Yet now that Washington has sent a contingent of marines to Haiti, and declared its intentions to send more, other states are following suit – Canada has sent 150 soldiers to assist Canadians who want to leave Haiti; the French, colonial rulers of Haiti in the eighteenth century, are sending 300 soldiers to help ‘restore calm’; and the United Nations has agreed to the deployment of an international peacekeeping force.

Washington had little choice but to intervene in Haiti; however reluctant it might be to get bogged down in another military mission, it cannot afford to allow Haiti, which it has always considered as part of its ‘backyard’, to descend into anarchy. Yet America’s intervention in Haiti has been riven by indecision. As recently as 17 February, after rebel forces had taken some of Haiti’s key cities, a newspaper headline declared: ‘US intervention in Haiti unlikely.’ Secretary of state Colin Powell summed it up when he said the USA had ‘no enthusiasm’ for military intervention in Haiti (9). One report said that Bush officials were sending ‘mixed messages on Aristide’s legitimacy while discouraging talk of real action’ (10).

Now the Bush administration has deployed marines – but with little sense of what they will do. Officials seem to hope that the marines’ presence alone will calm things down, without the marines having to engage in action or determine the course of events. ‘As the dust settles, the administration is calculating that a modest show of force by the marines will prompt the armed insurgents to lay down their weapons and disappear into the civilian population’, says one report (11). A State Department official, asked to explain why the marines were being deployed, said: ‘There’s a sense that the political fighting will stop.’ (12) This looks like shock-and-awe lite – where officials hope that a ‘modest’ marine presence will overawe Haiti’s rebels and shock them into giving up their guns.

Something else is new: US forces are not moving into Haiti alone, unilaterally, even though Washington has traditionally considered Haiti, like the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America, as its patch. Canadian troops are already there, and even the French, expelled from Haiti in 1804, have made a return. This is a striking development; in the early 1800s, with the publication of the Monroe doctrine, America sought to consolidate its power at home by making clear its disdain for European intervention in Latin America and by making Latin America effectively into an area of semi-domestic affairs. Later, at the turn of the twentieth century, US imperialism formally emerged during the Spanish-Cuban-American War, where US forces sought to expel Spain from Cuba. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson occupied Haiti itself under the pretext of keeping Germany out of the Caribbean.

Now, European forces are returning to America’s backyard, in new, multilateral peacekeeping groups to ‘restore order’. When self-interest is derided on the international stage, Western powers move in packs, seeking outlets to display (however modestly) their humanitarian credentials.

As Haiti descends into chaos, history is not repeating itself; rather, new forces and trends are tearing the Caribbean state apart. But one thing hangs over from history: the people of Haiti will still have little say in how their country is governed.

Who made a mess of Haiti?, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) In Jersey, concern for future of their homeland, Star-Ledger, 1 March 2004

(2) Analysis: Haiti’s diverse rebels, BBC News, 24 February 2004

(3) Weakened Haitian police forces overwhelmed by rebel violence, New York Times, 22 February 2004

(4) Haitians now ask: ‘What next?’, Christian Science Monitor, 1 March 2004

(5) Canada’s envoy: It’s ‘mayhem’, Toronto Star, 1 March 2004

(6) Haitians now ask: ‘What next?’, Christian Science Monitor, 1 March 2004

(7) Haitians now ask: ‘What next?’, Christian Science Monitor, 1 March 2004

(8) Haitians now ask: ‘What next?’, Christian Science Monitor, 1 March 2004

(9) US intervention in Haiti unlikely, Washington Times, 17 February 2004

(10) Haitian democracy needs US help now, Boston Globe, 22 February 2004

(11) How Aristide fell so far and so fast, Toronto Star, 1 March 2004

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Topics Politics

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