Haiti: U.S. fanning the flames
March 2004

As we go to press, Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has (depending on who you believe) fled Haiti after the U.S. told him they wouldn't protect him, or been pushed onto an airplane at gunpoint by U.S. military and removed from power, with a resignation written for him by the U.S. embassy (according to Aristide himself.) Either way, it's a U.S.-backed coup. Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs gives a little history:

Feb 28, 2004--Haiti, again, is ablaze. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is widely blamed, and he may be toppled soon. Almost nobody, however, understands that today's chaos was made in Washington - deliberately, cynically, and steadfastly. History will bear this out. In the meantime, political, social, and economic chaos will deepen, and Haiti's impoverished people will suffer.

The Bush Administration has been pursuing policies likely to topple Aristide since 2001. The hatred began when Aristide, then a parish priest and democracy campaigner against Haiti's ruthless Duvalier dictatorship, preached liberation theology in the 1980's. Aristide's attacks led US conservatives to brand him as the next Fidel Castro.

They floated stories that Aristide was mentally deranged. Conservative disdain multiplied several-fold when President Bill Clinton took up Aristide's cause after he was blocked from electoral victory in 1991 by a military coup. Clinton put Aristide into power in 1994, and conservatives mocked Clinton for wasting America's efforts on "nation building" in Haiti. This is the same right wing that has squandered US$160 billion (Bt6.3 trillion) on a far more violent and dubious effort at "nation building" in Iraq.

Attacks on Aristide began as soon as the Bush administration assumed office. I visited President Aristide in Port-au-Prince in early 2001. He impressed me as intelligent and intent on good relations with Haiti's private sector and the US.

Haiti was clearly desperate: the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, with a standard of living comparable to sub-Saharan Africa despite being only a few hours by air from Miami. Life expectancy was 52 years. Children were chronically hungry.

Of every 1000 children born, more than 100 died before their fifth birthday. An AIDS epidemic, the worst in the Caribbean, was unchecked. The health system had collapsed. Fearing unrest, tourists and foreign investors were staying away, so there were no jobs to be had.

When I returned to Washington, I spoke to senior officials in the IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and Organisation of American States. I expected to hear that these international organisations would be rushing to help Haiti.

Instead, I was shocked to learn that they would all be suspending aid, under vague "instructions" from the U.S. America, it seemed, was unwilling to release aid to Haiti because of irregularities in the 2000 legislative elections, and was insisting that Aristide make peace with the political opposition before releasing any aid.

The US position was a travesty. Aristide had been elected President in an indisputable landslide. He was, without doubt, the popularly elected leader of the country-a claim that George W Bush cannot make about himself.

Nor were the results of the legislative elections in 2000 in doubt: Aristide's party had also won in a landslide. It was claimed that Aristide's party had stolen a few seats. If true-and the allegation remains unproved-it would be nothing different from what has occurred in dozens of countries around the world receiving IMF, World Bank, and US support. By any standard, Haiti's elections had marked a step forward in democracy, compared to the decades of military dictatorships that America had backed, not to mention long periods of direct US military occupation.

That chaos has now come. It is sad to hear rampaging students on BBC and CNN saying Aristide "lied" because he didn't improve the country's social conditions. Yes, Haiti's economic collapse is fuelling rioting and deaths, but the lies were not Aristide's, but Washington's.

Even now, Aristide says that he will share power with the opposition, but the opposition says no. Aristide's opponents know that U.S. right-wingers will stand with them to bring them violently to power. As long as that remains true, Haiti's agony will continue.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Copyright: Project Syndicate, February 2004.

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