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In March of 2003, Canada’s federal Liberal government broke with its traditional support for US foreign policy by refusing significant pressure to join the illegal bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq. Today, in early 2004, the new Martin government is eager to demonstrate its enthusiasm for a renewal of the Canada-US partnership, and the recent crisis in Haiti presented the first significant foreign policy loyalty test for the Prime Minister. Would he return to Canada’s usual submission to US “leadership”, or would he find a unique Canadian path, as Canada has (historically) on Cuba? Are we heading for “deep integration” or principled independent leadership?

This past weekend, the elected President of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was pushed from office. The recent history has been on the front pages: Faced with a February 5th armed insurrection led by ex-death squad killers and veterans of the disbanded Haitian army, Aristide began losing his grasp on significant parts of the country, and this was followed by his complete abandonment by the US and French governments. Aristide’s resignation (willing or coerced, we may find out in the coming weeks) on Sunday, February 29th, provides a moment in which to assess the “independence” of Canadian policy. Interviewed on CBC radio March 1st, the Jamaican minister of foreign affairs referred to the forced resignation as the “33rd coup” in Haiti’s history.

The stage for all of this was set a little over a week ago by the “peace” agreement reached on Saturday, February 21st, with the involvement of US, Canada, the OAS, and CARICOM – the organization of Caribbean states. The agreement required of President Aristide the nomination of a new Prime Minister (from the opposition, presumably) and the establishment of a new multi-party governing council, to be composed of representatives from the political opposition. Aristide immediately accepted the deal, and then by Tuesday, the armed “rebel” groups (this is the media’s term for the convicted killers set on a coup d’état) rejected the “peace” deal outright, because Aristide’s resignation was not a part of it.

With this, Haiti was again facing stalemate and the governments of France and the US, who never liked Aristide, unveiled what now appears to be the unstated objective all along. The duo of US Sectretary of State Colin Powell and French Foreign Minister de Villepin began inviting the resignation by Wednesday, and by Friday, Canada followed suit, as Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham suggested Aristide should “look at his responsibilities toward his people and say: ‘Look, it would be better that…I leave.’” With Aristide’s resignation on Sunday, Graham – and Paul Martin – now have their wish. But by chiming in their agreement with the US/France position, Canada has turned its back on its more independent foreign policy, particularly regarding Haiti, despite it being a country that “Canada has traditionally considered one of its key areas of foreign-policy expertise.”

The rationale for this shift, presumably, is the basic acceptance of the outrageously distorted picture of Haiti drawn by the Associated Press – the dominant source of Canadian news coverage, incorporated into reporting from assigned correspondents such as the Globe’s Paul Knox and Canwest’s Sue Montgomery. That picture, and the story underneath, is a cartoon of civil strife in a desperately poor country, confusing and unexplained political divisions, an “embattled” recalcitrant leader, and the supposedly “humanitarian” role of the international community – the US and Canada in particular. Such misleading images are then complemented by the ugly, racist tinge found in the commentary from far-right cold warriors such as Canwest’s George Jonas. In his only recent column devoted to Haiti, he drew an odious comparison of watching events in Haiti to watching “a pack of hyenas fighting over a carcass,” – an analogy never made, as far as I know, with the strife Northern Ireland.

This ugly, slightly racist picture was further poisoned on Saturday by the Ottawa Citizen columnist David Warren, who sneered that despite past colonial efforts to civilize and democratize the country, “no real progress has been made in creating a people who are susceptible to self-government.” For Warren, and no small number of the mainstream “expert” Haiti-watchers, this is the problem – the people. And the people, in this case, are black.

The aid embargo on Haiti

It does not take much digging to discover that this picture is not only racist but profoundly simplistic. For example, while regularly commenting on Haiti’s profound poverty, and on Aristide’s supposed “failure to deliver the good” that he promised, nowhere in the Canadian press can we find a serious examination of the financial strangulation imposed on Haiti through the four-year US/EU aid and loan embargo. This devastating policy has stalled some $650 million promised through the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other sources since 2000, and to varying degrees prior to that. The human rights group MADRE points out that the US froze transfers designed to “pay for safe drinking water, literacy programs and health services.” In effect, this embargo has starved the Aristide government of promised, crucial, life-saving funds, and transformed development finance and humanitarian aid into a vicious political weapon – not very differently from the sanctions that destroyed the social infrastructure of Iraq in the 1990s. A similar humanitarian catastrophe has been brewing in Haiti, with few in the “civilized West” (or North) either noticing, or really caring much.

The rationale for this US embargo draws from a dispute over Aristide’s democratic legitimacy – the elections of 2000. The Associated Press, and the right-wing Aristide haters from both the Republican party and the media, sloppily refer to “sham”, “rigged”, or “fraudulent” elections of that year. Canadian reporting has been marginally better, referring more often to “flawed” 2000 elections, and then providing a quote from the political opposition complaining of fraud and corruption. No one in the mainstream North American press has taken the simple step of explaining the actual nature of the dispute, nor the efforts of President Aristide and his government to resolve it.

There are, however, a number of independent and credible sources that provide this information, including the group MADRE, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), TransAfrica Forum, the Democratic Black Caucus, and several writers for Z Magazine. In summary, the disputed elections were actually the senatorial elections of May, 2000, that had followed years of previous electoral disputes and boycotts. MADRE point out that in 17 of the 18 contested senatorial districts, Aristide’s Lavalas Family party candidates were declared the winner, when in fact the method of calculating the winners in 8 of the 18 contested districts (on a plurality, rather than majority basis) was incorrect.

In response, Aristide asked for the resignations of the senators involved, and attempted to establish a new electoral commission, but was stonewalled by an opposition that simply continued to demand his resignation – and continued to do so ever since, with US encouragement, funding, and support. The November 2000 presidential elections were boycotted by the major opposition groups, which meant that Aristide won them handily – and was recognized as the democratically elected leader by President Clinton and the rest of the international community. However, the newly “elected” Bush administration, no stranger to electoral counting disputes themselves, exercised a grotesque hypocrisy by using the controversy as an excuse for a full aid and loan embargo.

What has been the Canadian government’s response to this US policy? Interestingly, Canada’s Haiti policy has had similarities with its policy on Cuba. In the face of the US-led embargo, Canada has quietly maintained an ongoing bilateral aid relationship with the Aristide government, disbursing over $18 million in 2001/2002. Of course, such modest efforts are likely to have been severely undermined by the embargo – yet this has yet to be mentioned by any Canadian politicians, or the press. This utter failure to exercise moral leadership and independence by exposing the criminal behaviour of the US and shedding light on the nature of this electoral dispute has now drawn international criticism. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has been one of the few truly independent voices on Haiti, and has condemned Graham for “dragging Canada back to its traditional roost of “me-tooism” when it comes to US-sponsored initiatives.” In their analysis of the election dispute, they point out that, contrary to the Canadian suggestion that President Aristide has not lived up to his commitments,

…Aristide has accepted every condition pressed upon him by CARICOM, the US and the OAS. The bedrock problem regarding Haiti is that the country’s opposition refuses to negotiate with Aristide and will not consider taking up their seat on the Provisional Electoral Council, without which no elections can be held.

Interestingly, the generally anti-Aristide National Post ran a column that admitted that whatever the “dubious” character of the 2000 elections “few doubt [Aristide] would have won them anyway”. The writer notes that direct intervention aimed at “forcing him from office would look a lot like a putsch against a legitimate leader.” Of course, this helps us to understand the financial strangulation strategy. The Canadian media has chosen to ignore all of this, presumably because it muddies the simpler picture of Haiti described above – and suggests the possibility of different, perhaps less humanitarian motives behind US and Canadian policy.

Who is the “democratic opposition” in Haiti?

A third serious failing of our media coverage is the scanty detail provided about the character, leadership, and political orientation of the supposed “democratic opposition” to Aristide (as opposed to the armed thugs). One important branch of the opposition movement, the Group 184 that is often quoted on the CBC and in the Associated Press, is led by the American sweatshop owner André Apaid. He and the various elements of his “Democratic Convergence” have long been beneficiaries of direct financial and diplomatic support from the US and France. Neither country ever liked or trusted Aristide’s leftwing populism, his demand for reparations from France, or his 1996 decision to extend diplomatic recognition to Cuba. They and the other groups comprising the Democratic Platform are largely derived from the small, lighter-skinned Haitian ruling elite that dominated Haiti under the notorious Duvalier dictatorships. Many were also directly involved in the military coup that unseated Aristide in 1991, following the landslide election win that brought him 67 per cent of the vote. It is worth remembering that the US-supported candidate, World Bank economist Marc Bazin, received only 14 per cent of the vote that year. None of us should be surprised if Bazin, who once served as finance minister under “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and who understands “economics”, is once again dragged out as a possible replacement for Aristide within the next few weeks.

Having said all of this, it is important to recognize that there has been growing disaffection with Aristide, and in recent weeks some leaders of popular organizations that were either past supporters or politically neutral began to join in the opposition call for his resignation. This is hardly surprising, given that one of the conditions of his re-installment by US troops in 1994 was the abandonment of his populist and redistributive program, and the acceptance of a World Bank/IMF structural adjustment package. These neoliberal policies included requirements of layoffs of government employees, austerity measures, and devastating cuts to the tariff structure protecting Haiti’s relatively efficient rice industry (among others). At the same time, it appears as though Aristide has attempted to retain some elements of a redistributive program. As MADRE argues,

Aristide has tried to walk a line between US demands for neoliberal reforms and his own commitment to a progressive economic agenda. As a result, he has lost favour with parts of his own political base and Haitian and US elites.

When this incendiary brew of discontent caught fire in recent weeks, many quite understandable began to say “enough”. Moreover, there have unquestionably been documented human rights problems, reports from the ICFTU of attacks on “opposition” trade unionists (i.e. those working with the opposition to force Aristide’s resignation), and other reports that progressives will rightly abhor. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that when a qualitatively higher level of abuses are carried by regimes favoured by the White House (Colombia, Turkey, the list could go on), the response is to send the government more weapons.

Canadian workers know the wrenching effects of so-called “free trade” policies, and the unemployment and dislocation they bring. But bringing these same free market policies to the poorest nation in the hemisphere, and then compounding them with a crushing aid and loan embargo (on a government with an annual budget of some US$300 million), was simply murderous. Paul Farmer, an American doctor who has worked in Haiti for many years, wrote last year that the “embargo has targeted the northern hemisphere’s most vulnerable population, the poorest people with the most fragile economy, ecology and society.” The need for improvements, he reports, is desperate, given that “there are only 1.2 doctors, 1.3 nurses, and 0.4 dentists for every 10,000 Haitians…And 40 per cent of people have no access to any primary health care, while HIV and tuberculosis rates are by far the highest in Latin America.” Of course, genuinely attempting to address these problems through the state would violate the usual World Bank/IMF proscriptions against public services and social expenditure.

Regardless, Aristide had no money with which to attempt such programs anyway, and Canada’s feeble, quiet bilateral efforts have been more than undone by the great “partner” with whom we seek “deeper integration.” Of course, neither Bill Graham nor Paul Martin have ever mentioned any of this publicly, nor should we expect them to very soon. There is a missile defense program to be joined, and a new Prime Minister wanting desperately to rebuild our pre-Iraq camaraderie.

So gradually, the murky media picture begins to clarify – regime change by social collapse. Many Canadians would probably be surprised to learn that Congresswoman Barbara Lee (of the Congressional Black Caucus, not coincidentally) has spent years denouncing the Bush government’s policy of financial strangulation, arguing that the “administration has decided to leverage political change in a member country by embargoing loans that the Bank has a contractual obligation to disburse.” Interestingly, presidential candidate John Kerry offered further elaboration last week when he was asked about the motivation behind the Bush Administration’s punishing Haiti policy. “They hate Aristide”, he answered, in a meeting with the editors of the New York Times. Going one step further, Kerry unveils more bluntly what he thinks has really happened, suggesting that the Bush White House “sort of created the environment within which the insurgency could grow, take root.”

History doomed to be repeated?

Watching what has happened to Haiti in the past few weeks, it is hard not to recall obvious parallels from the past, such as the US-sponsored terror campaign of the 1980s against the similarly left-populist Sandinista government of Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega. After years of “contra” rebel terror, the population of Nicaragua cried “uncle” and voted the Sandinistas out in 1990. Other examples of regime change in Latin America abound: Panama, 1990; Chile, 1973; Guatemala, 1954. More recently, the US moved quickly to try to provide support for the similarly anti-democratic coup against the left-populist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in April 2002 – but were embarrassed to discover (again) the depth of Chavez’ popular support. There appears more reason than ever to watch developments in Haiti carefully, never keeping our eyes too far from the continuing struggle in Venezuela, and – the real prize for Bush – Cuba.

Kevin Skerrett CUPE Research