From the Archive | The forgotten occupation

The extended United Nations presence in Haiti after the United States-backed coup in 2004 compounded the suffering of impoverished people in the Caribbean nation.

This is a lightly edited article first published by in 2008.

More than 9 000 military and civilian personnel from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH, by its French initials) will remain in the country until October 2009, following the UN Security Council’s unanimous vote on 15 October 2008 to extend its mandate.

MINUSTAH troops have occupied Haiti since 2004 when a US-backed coup overthrew democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The brutal Brazilian-led UN military occupation has resulted in the death, imprisonment or disappearance of thousands of Aristide supporters. Human rights organisations and the independent media have reported sexual assaults committed against women and children.

Brazilian leaders hope that their country’s role in the occupation will lead to a future seat in the UN Security Council, where it can play a bigger political role as the region’s emerging power. Other South American countries that help maintain the occupation in Haiti include Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia.

On 31 October, Bolivia sent a contingent of 200 troops. Israel, the main US ally in the Middle East, has played a role in maintaining the occupation by flying in Jordanian troops. The US also has military and civilian personnel on the ground.

The vote to extend the UN mandate came after warnings from the top UN envoy in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, who, according to Reuters, said that ignoring the plight of the Caribbean country and leaving its population hungry and angry could lead to a new wave of social unrest – an allusion to popular protests over rising food prices in April that ousted former Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis.

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But UN concerns about political stability in Haiti are only a justification for the ongoing presence of a 9 000-strong “peacekeeping” military force that keeps the popular movement in check by targeting left-wing activists and criminalising the poor. In fact, Brazilian military forces are carrying out counterinsurgency operations in Haiti similar to those used in Brazil to repress the poor in the favelas and activists from the Landless Peasants Movement.

MINUSTAH troops conduct raids in the poorest neighbourhoods under the pretext of disarming criminal gangs. But those so-called “gangs” are ordinary Haitians who are being punished by the US and its allies for daring to oppose the occupation. Thus, disarming criminal gangs serves to justify UN military presence there. Already, several massacres have been committed since its arrival.

Meanwhile, the George W Bush administration and its allies continue to spread anti-Aristide propaganda to deflect criticism by human rights organisations that accuse MINUSTAH of systematic human rights violations. Even Haitian-American singer Wyclef Jean justifies the UN occupation by propagating the idea that it is fighting against dangerous gangs.

In 2004, Jean supported the coup against Aristide. Jean was also executive producer of Ghost of Cité Soleil, a propaganda film that portrays Aristide supporters as ruthless gangsters. Jean’s role in demonising Aristide and his supporters legitimised the UN occupation in the eyes of some Hollywood progressives and others.

But local and international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) also played a role in legitimising the occupation on the grounds that it would bring order by disarming street gangs – in particular, Canadian NGOs, which led the charge against Aristide in the days leading to the February 2004 coup that ousted him.

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Canada’s involvement in Haiti is part of a commitment to serve US interests, just as it has in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A combative grassroots movement exploded in April changing the political landscape in Haiti and weakening both President René Préval and his Lespwa (Hope) Party. Préval’s coalition was suffering, as some of the 22 National Assembly members from Lespwa joined Concertation des Parlementaires Progressistes (CPP, Coalition of Progressive Parliamentarians), a new legislative bloc that rejects neoliberal policies.

After the senate rejected two of Préval’s candidates for prime minister, the government was paralysed for four months. The impasse ended in July, when the senate confirmed Michèle Pierre-Louis as prime minister. Pierre-Louis is the founder of FOKAL, an NGO funded by financial speculator George Soros.

But the confirmation of Pierre-Louis didn’t represent a departure from politics as usual in Haiti.

In November, Pierre-Louis was criticised by Haitian labour activists after she made a visit to the Dominican Republic to attend a small economic summit, but didn’t extend her visit to meet with Haitian immigrants after several immigrants were killed in a wave of racist attacks the month before.

Furthermore, discontent is mounting against the UN occupation and the Préval/Pierre-Louis government for failing to deliver on any of its 2006 election campaign promises.

To mark the four-year anniversary of the UN occupation, protests were held in several countries on the eve of Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s visit to Haiti on 28 May. Solidarity activists in Brazil, Mexico and the US marched to demand the immediate withdrawal of MINUSTAH from Haiti. The biggest demonstrations took place in Brazil, where labour and left-wing activists marched in several cities.

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The occupation of Haiti is unpopular among Brazilians. Over the past four years, Brazil has spent more than 464 million Reals ($290 million) on the occupation, a major sum for a country where more than 40 million people live below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the movement against the high cost of living continues in Haiti. On 25 August, several hundred people gathered in La Savane, a poor area in the town of Les Cayes, to demand lower food and gas prices. A rapid response by MINUSTAH forces and Haitian police dispersed the crowd with tear gas.

On 14 October, several hundred people gathered in front of the Commerce and Industry Ministry to protest the high cost of living and call for an end to the MINUSTAH occupation. The protest was organised by Soleil in Action Coalition, known as Aba Satan (Down with Satan) – a key player in the events leading to the April rebellion. It plans similar actions in the future.

Meanwhile, Lavalas activists and supporters are holding weekly vigils for activists who have been jailed and disappeared since the February coup.

During Lula’s visit, Haitian police from the elite CIMO unit brutally dispersed a vigil of protesters demanding a prompt investigation into the disappearance of human rights activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine. Pierre-Antoine disappeared in 2007 after attending a meeting with human rights activists from Canada and the US.

Haitian activists, along with international supporters, have in the past organised successful campaigns to free human rights activists, Lavalas leaders and former Aristide collaborators. In July 2006, former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune was released after spending two years in jail. In August 2006, Annette Auguste, a folk singer and activist popularly known as So Anne, was also released.

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Presently, a local and international campaign is underway to free Ronald Dauphin, an Aristide supporter arrested by right-wing paramilitaries during the 2004 coup. Five years later, he has yet to be convicted for any crime.

Despite the repression carried out by MINUSTAH, Haitian National Police and right-wing death squads since 2004, ordinary people continue the fight to return the democratically elected president from his forced exile in South Africa.

While it’s true that Aristide implemented neoliberal policies, he remains popular among the majority of Haitians. Four years after the coup, Fanmi Lavalas (FL or Lavalas), the centre-left populist party founded by Aristide 12 years ago, is still a mass political organisation. Although it is split into two different wings internally, its grassroots supporters are united in confronting the UN occupation by organising nationwide demonstrations.

This is a testament to the determination of ordinary Haitians, who also face one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes on the planet after four hurricanes struck the country in less than two months. Soon after, the agricultural sector collapsed, depriving workers and peasants of one of their main sources of income in a country where the unemployment rate is 80%.

But the destructive effects of nature could have been avoided had there been more investment on infrastructure, healthcare and food subsidies. Haiti is more vulnerable today because the occupation has rolled back many of its democratic freedoms. During the coup, schools and hospitals were destroyed by right-wing paramilitaries, as they entered the country from neighbouring Dominican Republic, where they received training and arms from the Dominican government and the US.

The government’s response to the crisis hasn’t been enough – largely due to Haiti’s dependence on outside powers. In the agriculture department, for instance, some 800 NGOs control part of the budget, undermining the state’s ability to deal with the crisis.

And even though Haiti is facing a crisis of indescribable proportions, it hasn’t stopped paying back its foreign debt. As of this writing, Haiti’s payments amount to $1 million a week. Activists worldwide are pressing the World Bank to forgive Haiti’s $1.7 billion foreign debt, but so far, it has refused.

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Prior to the recent devastation, independent journalists revealed a plan to demolish Cité Soleil, a poor neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, to extend the UN military base. The US is funding the base extension. Haiti Liberté reporter Kim Ives explains the importance of this military base for the US: “First, as Port-au-Prince’s largest, poorest and most pro-Aristide slum, it has been a hotbed of anti-occupation resistance for the past four years. Although most of the popular organisations carrying out armed struggle were dismantled in early 2007, unrest still continues there, particularly with Haiti’s (and the capitalist world’s) worsening economic crisis. Hence, military domination of this important northern flank of Haiti’s capital is critical.”

As in the past, the military occupation of Haiti is part of a larger plan to keep the region under US dominion. Haiti shares the Windward Passage with Cuba, a strait that has great importance for the US, and the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

In the early 1990s, Haiti’s election of Aristide under a populist platform gave hope to millions of people at a time when most governments in the region were implementing neoliberal policies. A series of US-backed regimes and interventions to derail the movement for change followed.

The 2004 coup against Aristide and the subsequent military occupation legitimised the Bush administration’s “regime change” doctrine in the region, making Venezuela and Bolivia future targets of US intervention.

Solidarity with the Haitian people should be part of a broader anti-imperialism that calls for an end to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine as well as an immediate withdrawal of the UN from Haiti and elsewhere.

At the same time, activists must point out Aristide’s role in accepting neoliberal policies that impoverished the poor, while supporting ordinary people’s struggles to return him to complete his term. Demanding immediate cancellation of Haiti’s foreign debt is also important, because it could free up needed resources to feed people.

In the long term, however, it will take the unity of workers and peasants in the entire region to free Haiti from the yoke of foreign intervention and exploitation.

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