Haiti is no stranger to political crises — and it is in the midst of its most severe one in decades.
The latest upheaval, which looks set to last many months, began in January 2016, when massive demonstrations aborted the final round of patently fraudulent, US-sponsored elections. An unelected interim government stepped in to try to reestablish an elected and constitutional regime, but it’s still too early to know if the outcome will be revolutionary or a further tightening of US imperialism’s chokehold on the country.
Although Haitian progressive forces are splintered and weakened after twelve years of foreign military occupation and internal turmoil, the shifting social and economic terrain in Latin America and the United States may offer the Haitian people an opportunity for change.
Haiti, after all, has a long history of resistance. All Haitian children learn how their ancestors carried out history’s only successful slave revolution and, in 1804, founded the first independent nation in Latin America (the second in the Western Hemisphere) and the first black republic. These accomplishments are the core of the Haitian identity.
From the beginning, the small Caribbean nation clashed with elites in the United States. During the early nineteenth century, US slave owners were deeply alarmed by this neighboring nation founded by self-liberated former slaves. Its existence and survival inspired and emboldened slave uprisings throughout the United States and Caribbean. US governments embargoed Haiti and did not recognize it until 1862, during the Civil War.
But recognition did not bring reconciliation. US tensions with Haiti — which gave support and refuge to Latin American revolutionaries ranging from Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar to José Marti — continued in the form of gunboat and diplomatic skirmishes. US Marines invaded the island nation on July 28, 1915, beginning a nineteen-year military occupation.
Haitians responded to the invasion by forming the Cacos, a guerrilla army with thousands of members. And when Marines killed Caco leaders Charlemagne Péralte in 1919 and Benoit Batraville in 1920, Haitians continued resisting through demonstrations, marches, and general strikes.
The resistance paid off, and US troops finally withdrew in 1934. But, in a template that would later be used in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, Washington left behind a surrogate Haitian force known as the Garde d’Haïti, which later became the Armed Forces of Haiti (FADH). For more than two decades this army installed or ousted regimes at will, until a popular movement drove General Paul E. Magloire from power in 1956.
Two tumultuous years of power struggles and coups followed Magloire’s ouster, culminating in the election of Dr François “Papa Doc” Duvalier on September 22, 1957. Using a paramilitary force known formally as the Volunteers for National Security and informally as the “Tonton Macoutes,” Papa Doc established a reign of terror and dictatorship that he liked to call “Presidency for Life.” When Papa Doc died in April 1971, his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier took power. Baby Doc ruled until February 1986, when an uprising forced him to flee to France.
Baby Doc’s exile ushered in a period of crisis that would last almost five years. Seven provisional or fraudulently elected governments succeeded each other until a nationalist former parish priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in a landslide on December 16, 1990.
Free and Fair
The 1990 election was historic. It was the first truly free and fair election in Haiti’s history. Since the assassination of the country’s founding father, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in 1806, Haiti’s two rival ruling classes — the comprador bourgeoisie and the big landowning class, known as the grandon — had alternated power, either through coups or indirect parliamentary elections. The US occupation and FADH had brought to power a string of bourgeois governments to which the grandon governments of Dumarsais Estimé (1946–1950) and Papa Doc were reactions.
Aristide didn’t fit into either camp. He was a people’s candidate with an anti-Duvalierist, anti-imperialist agenda. Fearing for their interests, Haiti’s rival ruling groups joined together into a grand alliance to oppose him.
Aristide’s victory also marked the first time the US’s election engineering had been so grievously defeated. Setbacks in Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and Vietnam pushed Washington to change its paradigm for controlling states under its sway.
Beginning in the late 1970s it let go of or phased out corrupt, repressive strongmen like Duvalier, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and instead began empowering civilian puppet presidents through “demonstration elections.”
The demonstration elections would be won by the candidate with the most money, just like in the United States. And if there were trouble or surprises, Washington would no longer use the local army, which was sent back to its barracks. Instead it would deploy the empire’s new enforcer: the international “peacekeeping” force.
After Baby Doc’s ouster, the United States figured it would be fairly easy to get former World Bank official and Duvalier finance minister Marc Bazin elected president, providing him coaching and support from the newly formed National Endowment for Democracy (NED). With a war chest of $36 million raised from the US and Haitian ruling classes, Bazin outspent Aristide’s $500,000 campaign 72 to 1. It wasn’t enough. Aristide swept the election, from a field of eleven candidates, garnering more than 67 percent of the vote.
Just as Haiti’s 1804 independence inspired “the Great Liberator” Simón Bolívar to wage similar wars to free Spanish colonies on the continent (with pivotal Haitian financial and military support), nearly two centuries later, Aristide’s 1990 victory inspired Bolívar’s admiring descendant Hugo Chavez to attempt the same tactic in Venezuela in 1999. Soon a wave of pink “electoral revolutions” washed across Latin America, with countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay all electing progressive candidates.
The Clinton Approach
Washington didn’t take its defeat lightly. Eight months after Aristide’s February 1991 inauguration — or, as Aristide called it, “Haiti’s second independence” — the Haitian elites, with support from George H. W. Bush, staged a bloody FADH coup. The nature of the attack was clear. Haitians throughout Haiti and its international diaspora rose up in spirited resistance, and an international solidarity movement sprang into life.
Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and quickly saw the futility of returning to the old paradigm to counter Haiti’s democracy movement. The quintessential representative of the transnational “enlightened bourgeoisie,” Clinton made a deal to bring Aristide back on the shoulders of twenty thousand US troops if the former anti-imperialist priest agreed to champion neoliberal reforms, including privatizing state industries and lowering tariff walls. Aristide agreed, or pretended to.
After US troops returned Aristide to power in October 1994, all while protecting the FADH troops that had overthrown him, Clinton turned to the United Nations to play its role as US occupation surrogate, just as the Garde d’Haïti had replaced US Marines sixty years earlier.
In March 1995, US troops handed over command of Haiti’s military occupation to the United Nations Mission in Haiti, which then morphed into and spawned the United Nations Support Mission in Haiti, the United Nations Transition Mission in Haiti, and the United Nations Civilian Police Mission in Haiti (MIPONUH), which lasted until March 2000. (Aristide had “demobilized” the FADH in early 1995, so Haiti was left with only the Haitian National Police after MIPONUH’s departure.)
The Bush Approach
Aristide was reelected by a landslide in November 2000, just as George W. Bush was also coming to power. The new president brought with him a pack of neoconservative officials keen to oust Aristide. After Aristide’s 2001 inauguration, the Bush administration stepped up a coordinated campaign of political isolation, economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and paramilitary guerrilla attacks to drive him from power.
They finally succeeded on February 29, 2004. After a night of threats from the US Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Luis Moreno, a US SEAL team took Aristide from his home in Tabarre (along with his entire security detail) to an unmarked jet with all the window shades closed and flew him to the Central African Republic. Aristide later called it a “modern kidnapping.”
Aristide’s rapid departure — the second coup d’état in thirteen years — following on the heels of a relentless, punishing three-year campaign, left the Haitian people exhausted and confused. US, Canadian, and French troops immediately swarmed the island and occupied Haiti from March until May 2004. Then, just like in 1995, the United States passed off the mission to the United Nations Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH).
But Haitians were not quiescent. As in 1915, an armed resistance sprang up to fight the foreign military occupation and President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gérard Latortue’s puppet regime.
Most of the resistance fighters — called “bandits,” just like Péralte and Batraville — were based in the teeming Port-au-Prince slums of Belair and Cité Soleil, although the Dessalinien Army of National Liberation (ADLN), a rural-based guerrilla force, carried out a half dozen successful attacks in Haiti’s north against PNH stations and MINUSTAH patrols.
Resistance also showed its face in elections. Although Aristide’s Lavalas Family party (FL) remained banned, his supporters voted erstwhile Aristide ally René Préval into power in 2006 for a second time. (He had succeeded Aristide from 1996–2001). The Lavalas masses hoped Préval would bring Aristide back from exile in South Africa, but he didn’t, and Lavalas began to splinter into factions as a result.
The party became divided between Préval supporters and those remaining loyal to Aristide, and Préval used the divisions to keep the FL out of elections planned for 2010.
Then on January 12, 2010, an earthquake hit just outside of Port-au-Prince. Tens of thousands died, and over one million were left homeless. The United States unilaterally sent in 22,000 troops, rapidly taking control of the main airport and the international relief and aid response. Former president Bill Clinton designated himself ringleader and became the co-chair of the International Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which decided how some $13 billion in aid would be spent to have Haiti “build back better.”
The United States was not working to build a better Haiti. It was using its reach to dismantle the last vestiges of Haitian sovereignty and popular power that remained from the 1990 election. Their puppet in the process was a vulgar neo-Duvalierist coup cheerleader and konpa musician named Michel Martelly, also known as Sweet Micky.
Martelly was ushered in after Préval had appeared ineffectual in his response to the earthquake and beholden to Washington. Préval made a few symbolic protests, like walking out of a ceremony when Bill Clinton took the microphone or pointedly typing on his Blackberry in the back of a room while a US general gave a press conference on earthquake response, but his lack of control was clear to all.
Martelly, on the other hand, was a Donald Trump–like character: tough talking, media savvy, simplistic, and charismatic — all the things Préval was not. And he had a professional election team, Ostos & Sola, whose personnel had engineered campaigns for John McCain and Mexican president Felipe Calderòn, behind him.
But Martelly’s slick campaign and US backing didn’t guarantee success. Indeed, the first round of presidential elections held in late November 2010 were a disorganized mess. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) declared Mirlande Manigat and Swiss-trained engineer Jude Célestin, Préval’s protégé, the two candidates that would go to a run-off. Martelly came in a close third.
Martelly’s partisans took to the streets to burn buildings and wreak havoc, while Washington deployed the Organization of American States (OAS) to review the election results. Unsurprisingly, the OAS — using a thoroughly arbitrary calculation — declared Martelly the second-place finisher.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince in January 2011 to pressure Préval to supplant Célestin with Martelly. As usual, Préval complied, although the CEP members — constitutionally the “final arbiter” of any Haitian election — never validated the US-altered election results. Martelly won a run-off victory in March 2011.
The United States was also victorious. It had managed to stage, in the words of dissident and later fired OAS representative Ricardo Seitenfus, an “electoral coup d’état” — the type of soft-power play that has come to epitomize the Clinton-Obama approach.
The Martelly Regime
Like Baby Doc’s, Martelly’s regime was a macouto-bourgeois alliance marked by outrageous corruption, excess, infighting, dysfunction, and repression. It was so unpopular that it sparked a mass rebellion that nearly drove it from power in late 2014.
To save his presidency, Martelly sacrificed his longtime business partner and prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, who otherwise would likely have been the 2015 presidential candidate of Martelly’s Haitian Bald-Headed Party (PHTK). (Constitutionally, Haitian presidents are limited to two non-consecutive terms.)
For the first four years of his five in power, Martelly used an array of stalling tactics to delay holding elections so that the terms for the Chamber of Deputies, two-thirds of the Senate, and all of Haiti’s municipal posts expired.
The result was a rushed forced march to repopulate the entire government, including the presidency, before parliament’s expiration on January 12, 2016 (the earthquake’s sixth anniversary) and the end of Martelly’s term on February 7, 2016.
A three-round staggered electoral schedule was established for August 9, October 25, and December 27, 2015. The August 9 round was a complete fiasco, marred by violence and blatant fraud. Thugs from Martelly-aligned parties guarded many voting center doors, keeping out their rivals’ partisans. In the Artibonite Department, for example, eight out of fifteen voting districts had to annul their polling due to violence and fraud, but the CEP still opted to keep the results.
The second election on October 25 saw less violence, but was plagued by massive fraud and, despite including the first round of the fifty-four presidential candidates’ races, extremely low turnout. Most of the votes were cast by the candidates’ 916,000 poll-watchers, many of whom voted repeatedly and not for the candidate they represented.
The dubious and contested official result: Martelly’s PHTK led the presidential pack with 33 percent of the vote. For his successor, Martelly had picked an unknown provincial businessman, Jovenel “Neg Banann” Moïse, who had developed, with a $6 million government subsidy, a tax-free agro-industry, “Agritrans,” exporting bananas mainly to Europe.
Moïse is an apt candidate. With an export-oriented agribusiness built on the dispossession of small peasants, he perfectly represents the alliance between the bourgeoisie, which now invests mainly in assembly industries, and the grandon, who have always bullied and bulldozed the peasantry off their land.
Moreover, many also speculate that the state lands currently leased to Agritrans could eventually be turned over to foreign mining interests to continue their now-stalled exploration and environmentally destructive gold mining in Haiti’s north.
But whether or not Moïse was the macouto-bourgeois alliance’s favored choice, a reliable Brazilian exit poll suggests that he didn’t win, coming in fourth, not first, with just 6 percent of the vote. Even a Martelly-appointed verification commission found widespread voting fraud.
Nevertheless, Martelly and the US continued to push for a third round of the scandalous elections. It was postponed twice, until January 24. But a final giant march on January 22 forced its indefinite postponement and the disbanding of the CEP.
Reluctantly, under huge pressure, Martelly stepped down on February 7, and a provisional government with a 120-day mandate (which will surely be extended) was installed.
There were fifty-four presidential candidates, but only three were heavyweights in the opposition to Jovenel, and two of them are Lavalas. The first Lavalas candidate is Dr Maryse Narcisse of Aristide’s FL, who supposedly placed fourth with 7 percent of the vote.
Then there is the breakaway Dessalines Children platform (PD) of former senator Moïse Jean-Charles, who supposedly placed third with 14 percent of the vote. The third heavyweight is the supposed second-place finisher (with 25 percent), Jude Célestin of the Alternative League for Haitian Progress and Empowerment (LAPEH), which is affiliated (albeit informally) with Préval’s platforms Vérité and Inite, under whose banner Célestin ran in 2010.
Both Washington and Martelly wanted to marginalize the two Lavalas currents and keep them out of any runoff. Although their leaderships adopt moderate positions, their popular bases remain mobilized and dangerously radical.
Instead, the United States favors a monolithic two-party system in Haiti, which would establish a regular alternation between “acceptable” players, parameters of debate, and political programs. The Republican analog would be the PHTK, while the Democratic surrogate would come from the current Préval constellation: LAPEH, Vérité, or Inite.
Not surprisingly, Lamothe (who felt betrayed by Martelly and hews closely to US positions), singer Wyclef Jean, and large sectors of Haiti’s ruling elite had thrown their support behind Célestin, who could be expected to give the United States the same grudging but faithful collaboration that Préval did.
Although it has faded into the background, Célestin and seven of the other leading presidential runners-up (except the FL) were in a “Group of Eight” (G8) whose unity was more formal than real.
Nonetheless, while the masses in giant demonstrations demanded the elections’ annulment and Martelly’s arrest, the G8 and FL did not. Even today, they insist on an “independent evaluation commission” to review the October 25 results, and each of the heavyweight candidates asserts that they won the election in the first round. Whatever results any evaluation commission finds, it will surely explode the opposition’s tenuous unity.
Senate and National Assembly president Jocelerme Privert, under OAS supervision, became the interim president in the meantime and, as of April, has a prime minister, Enex Jean-Charles. Both are under pressure to convene a verification commission, but the US ambassador, Peter Mulrean, opposes it.
Washington knows that an election verification commission would even further ruin their plans. The fraud in the presidential election was so extensive and profound that the first round would have to be scrapped.
Moreover, and more importantly, any election review would discover that most of the Senate and Deputy races were just as fraudulent as the one for president, thereby invalidating the largely US-friendly parliament.
This would leave the road open for the more radical provisional governments being proposed by Haiti’s left-wing parties, like the Dessalines Coordination (KOD), and like-minded popular and student organizations.
Opportunities for the Left
The missing element in this revolutionary cocktail, at the present moment, is a revolutionary party or front strong enough to lead and champion the masses’ increasingly radical demands. Currents like KOD and others were seriously weakened in 2015, when many of their comrades were caught up in the electoral euphoria sweeping Haiti.
Although one of KOD’s founders, Moïse Jean-Charles, had repeatedly vowed to respect the party’s position to never participate in an election held under Martelly and MINUSTAH, he couldn’t resist taking the plunge, especially when the FL refused to join him in a boycott and said it would go into the elections “head first.”
The seductive illusion that another December 16, 1990 miracle can be performed infects almost the entire political class, but particularly its Lavalas offshoots.
A similar wave of electoral fever and defections swept the leftist Patriotic Democratic Popular Movement coalition, one of whose clearest and most active currents is the Democratic Popular Movement (MODEP). In the aftermath of the crash of the US/Martelly “selections,” KOD and MODEP have been talking but have not yet forged an operational unity.
However, if history is any guide, Haiti’s political crisis and revolutionary potential promises to continue for several months at least. The window after Baby Doc’s fall in 1986 lasted for four years, until the popular movement carried out a political revolution with Aristide’s first election.
Many veterans and students of the 1980s and ’90s struggles now realize that a deeper social revolution — changing Haiti’s property relations, above all land reform — is necessary for any progressive government to survive. As long as Haiti’s tiny ruling class controls 92 percent of Haiti’s wealth, it can continue to buy and corrupt enough desperately poor Haitians to do their bidding — whether it is to demonstrate for them, vote for them, or kill for them.
Most important now is that the ruling class is either divided on or unsure of how to go forward and maintain power. This offers a unique opportunity for Haiti’s left. Privert and Jean-Charles are weak functionaries, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Martelly’s right-wing allies, like former death-squad leaders Senator Youri Latortue and Senate candidate Guy Philippe, are just waiting for their opportunity to strike with their paramilitary thugs.
Meanwhile, the US empire is weakened by its own interminable overseas wars and beset by internal rebellions that are threatening the “establishment,” particularly the right-wing populist support around Donald Trump and the social-democratic Bernie Sanders movement.
All these factors offer hope that the democratic, anti-imperialist movement among peasants, workers, and the urban unemployed that began with Duvalier’s ouster thirty years ago can finally make some headway after its many setbacks.
Haiti remains the only nation in the Western Hemisphere militarily occupied by UN “peacekeepers,” making it the victim of Washington’s greatest show of force in the Americas. But like their ancestors did to Napoleon’s legions, Haitians may once again succeed in taking on colonialism, now in its multinational twenty-first century form, and winning.