You’d be hard-pressed to notice what was happening in Haiti from following the U.S. media coverage of the last two months’ electoral crisis. Perhaps the most one would have learned from the news was that there was “instability” in Haiti – a quantity that always seems to turn up in news reports from Haiti at times like this (indeed, if there were a devil’s dictionary of Haitian politics, the entry under “Instability” would have to read: n., That mysterious political disease that unaccountably rages through the Haitian body politic in temporal coincidence with visits from the U.S. Secretary of State) and is always depicted as a blind and agentless force, as if politics were simply yet another “natural disaster” afflicting the island.
This probably would have been my own view of current events in Haiti—assuming I’d be cognizant of them at all-- if I hadn’t recently been assigned Jonathan Katz’ extraordinary critique of the international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, The Big Truck That Went By, for work and therefore had a few antennae up for rumblings of U.S. hypocrisy in Haiti.
One of the things Katz’s book tips us off to is the fact that no disaster in Haiti is ever quite as “natural” as portrayed – (How was cholera introduced to the island in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake? Why was Port-au-prince so wretchedly overcrowded when the quake struck—why were so many people living in unstable structures and therefore at heightened risk?— Read Katz’ book); and of all Haiti’s disasters, its regular flare-ups of political disorder have to be the least “natural” of them all. As a result, it sheds considerable light on the present crisis. While Katz’ book only carries us through the 2010 elections, it introduces the cast of characters and reveals the underlying structural forces that have produced the election of 2016.
First, though, let's get the details clear. The basic outline of what happened in Haiti this month and last can be found in the back of any newspaper, though a bare description of these events will be fairly inscrutable when taken out of context. Here’s what we learn from the New York Times, for instance:
When Haiti held its most recent presidential election in January, the initial results showed the chosen successor of current president Michel Martelly carrying a decisive lead into the runoff. In the Times’ diagnosis, there was no small reason to be skeptical of this result, however: the president’s favored candidate, Jovenel Moïse, had almost no name recognition among the public heading into the election; more importantly, numerous Haitian rights observers recorded how the voting system had been systematically rigged in advance of the election in favor of party apparatchiks associated with Martelly and Moïse. This was done through abusing a system of ostensible “election monitors,” who were given special privileges on election day. In the Times’ telling:
“To help keep an eye on polling stations, the country’s provisional electoral council accredited political party monitors, allowing them to cast ballots outside their normal precincts. […] The result was a free-for-all, human rights groups say. Accreditations were sold and photocopied, allowing party monitors to vote in multiple polling centers. […] Some 900,000 accreditations were distributed, and only 1.5 million people voted nationwide, which means party operatives cast a tremendous share of the ballots.”Citing this blatant election fraud, the opposing candidate Jude Célestin refused to participate in the second round of elections until a new vote was called and the previous one nullified. The U.S. State Department took a different view, however. They promptly insisted that the results of the first vote must be allowed to stand. This brought tensions to a boil and caused massive public protests and unrest—eventually leading to a power vacuum and the current unstable situation, the full unfolding of which we cannot yet foresee.
Why should the State Department have made yet another disastrous intercession in Haitian politics in this way, and with such predictable results? The ostensible justification for it appears to have been a vague notion that somehow or other the show must go on-- that it was better for Haitian democracy ultimately to accept a less-than-pristine first round than to have an entire election be once again derailed and taken off-schedule (perhaps indefinitely or until a strong man assumed power). It’s an argument that many will find compelling -- if one accepts the specious principle that the United States should have a say in this matter one way or the other. It has to be said, though, that the U.S. could have argued precisely the opposite and made it sound equally fair-minded and reasonable. This is the thing about politics in a country that has been impoverished and destabilized by centuries of slavery, imperialism, occupation, dictatorship, and endless coups d’état—no one’s hands are clean, and all sides and parties to a given election will have been implicated to some degree in cases of corruption, vote-buying, and human rights abuses. There will thus always be an argument ready-made for whatever side the U.S. decides to take in a given contest for power, with evidence to prove it -- i.e., the U.S. can always be on the side of Haitian democracy, by definition, no matter which elected presidents it is forcing out of office or which Duvalierist goons it is helping accede to power.
What makes the State Department’s argument for recognizing the validity of the first round of the most recent elections particularly disingenuous, however, is the fact that it invoked precisely the opposite principle in 2010 – when Martelly was the one alleging fraud and refusing to participate in the run-off election, and Célestin was the preferred choice of the ruling party. In that election, the roles of the two candidates were almost perfectly reversed: Then-current president René Preval was insisting that his chosen successor Célestin had made it into the run-off, whereas insurgent candidate Martelly had failed to garner enough votes to continue in the race, and Martelly refused to accept the results absent a do-over.
There is little doubt that the 2010 election was at least partially fraudulent, but the United States manifestly did not plump on that occasion as it would in 2016 for the idea that any election is better than no election. Nor did they simply call for a blank slate and a redo of the voting. Instead, the U.S. endorsed a controversial election report from the Organization of American States, the recommendations of which Jonathan Katz summarizes as follows:
“[The report] recommended against holding a new first round […] Then it recommended taking away, according to a complex calculus of probable fraud, a certain number of specific tally sheets, thus reducing each candidates’[sic] total by a certain amount. The argument was opaque and the reasoning behind it debatable. But the upshot was clear: The new calculation would move Micky [Martelly] to the second round and knock Jude Célestin out of the race.”Préval and Célestin were predictably loath to accept the findings of this report at face value-- and with good reason. In Katz’ telling, the 2010 election results may have been a “sham,” but they were so in large part because Martelly and Manigat-- another candidate with a platform very similar to Martelly’s – had made inflammatory and at that point largely unsubstantiated accusations of fraud in the middle of election night that sparked riots against the government and derailed the entire voting process. When the results were announced, Katz writes:
“there was no credible reason to think Célestin should have gone to the second round. But there was no credible reason to count the votes of Manigat or Martelly either, both of whom headlined the call for annulment that had ground voting to a halt.”The U.S. kept insisting, however, that Préval accept the OAS report and take his preferred candidate out of the race. Katz describes how matters gradually came to a head, leading to Hillary Clinton’s decision to show up personally in the Haitian capital and try to force the president’s hand. After a rather mysterious one-on-one meeting between Clinton and the president, Préval suddenly relented, and Haiti’s electoral commission announced that the election would proceed with only two candidates on the ballot: Martelly and Manigat. Célestin was out.
The New York Times coverage does a good job of pointing out the rather blatant double-standard involved in all this, in which the ruling principle behind U.S. intercession in Haiti's elections appears to be: heads, Martelly wins; tails, Célestin loses. However, it gets a few things wrong. The Times notes:
“The Obama administration’s response [to the 2016 elections] is a sharp contrast to the position it took in 2010, when the United States was so appalled by rampant fraud that Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, flew to Haiti to pressure its leaders to change the results. Mr. Martelly was bumped up in the election results so that he could compete in a runoff.”This account overstates the validity of Martelly and Manigat’s accusations of fraud in the 2010 elections, and totally neglects the role both of the opposition candidates played in bankrupting the previous voting process, as Katz’s book draws out. Finally, the Times author neglects to mention that U.S. pressure did more than just ensure Martelly’s presence on a second round of ballots –it also guaranteed that Célestin’s name would not appear there.
What one really misses from the this or similar U.S. news coverage of Haiti, though, is any sense of why the U.S. would be manipulating these elections in the first place -- why can Hillary Clinton or any other American diplomat decide who will compete in the elections of another ostensibly sovereign nation? – and why, if they can make that decision, do they always seem to be doing so in favor of a former Calypso-singing pop singer nicknamed “Sweet Micky," of all people? We know that the U.S. has stooped to far worse, of course, in its efforts to preserve governments that are "favorable to its interests" in Latin America and the Caribbean, but that's all in the past, right? Anyways, Jude Célestin, the former chief of public works under Préval, is no one’s idea of a people’s champion or threat to Western capitalism. He has run no fiery populist campaigns, and his antecedent Préval has been a decidedly timorous and uninspiring force in office. Why should the United States be so dead-set against him winning an election? One can only conclude that it has to do with a kind of transitive property of fear-mongering, whereby the traditional U.S. terror of former president Aristide has been extended first to his pusillanimous quasi-successor Préval, and thence to the virtually unknown Célestin.
If this seems implausible, let us review for a moment a partial roster of torments the U.S. has subjected Aristide to over the years. When the former left-of-center priest Aristide won the first truly democratic elections in Haiti’s modern history and came to power with the promise of decisively breaking the legacy of Duvalier dictatorship and improving the lives of the Haitian poor, he was almost immediately unseated through a 1991 coup, carried out by Haitian paramilitaries acting with the help of CIA training and funding. This occurred when former CIA Director George H.W. Bush was in the White House and must represent the first of multiple times that a Bush presidency tried to eject Aristide from power after he received an overwhelming popular mandate.
The Clinton administration, by contrast, was at first marginally more friendly to Haitian democracy, siding against the right-wing coup and consenting to restore Aristide to power in 1994. This uncharacteristic act of generosity, however, came with some fatal strings attached. When Aristide returned to office, he made a decisive volte-face in his trade policy— possibly doing so on U.S. orders. The result at any rate was far more favorable to U.S. imports than what had gone before-- and absolutely catastrophic to Haitian farmers. Haiti had previously sustained itself (albeit in abject conditions) through an extensive peasant rice industry in the countryside that was shielded from outside competition by sizable tariffs on imported food. When Aristide resumed office with U.S. backing, however, he suddenly slashed these tariffs, thereby swiftly flooding the market with imported rice and driving Haitian farmers off their lands and into the slums of Port-au-prince (where thousands would be killed by collapsing structures in the 2010 earthquake). Over the next few years, the Haitian economy became increasingly dependent for food on rice imported from the U.S. – and more specifically, from Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Could it be that there was a quid pro quo involved in the U.S.’s act of benevolent restoration?
The Clinton White House’s manipulation of Aristide – and its stifling of his original agenda in favor of a neoliberal trade policy with disastrous results – was gentle treatment though compared to what awaited his government once another Bush was in power. The second generation Bush administration immediately froze all development assistance and other aid to Aristide, inflicting a virtual embargo on a country that had already been rendered dependent on foreign aid through multiple disasters and having one of its core national industries crippled. This was followed by a coup in 2004 in which Aristide was loaded onto a U.S. plane and flown into exile in South Africa. Whether the White House orchestrated the coup or not I do not know, but Bush and his administration certainly wasted no time in supporting Aristide’s opponents and blaming the ousted president for the rampant "instability" (there’s that convenient word again, covering a thousand crimes) in the country. They took no responsibility whatsoever for their own role in destabilizing Aristide’s government through a multi-year aid embargo, nor did they make any effort to protect people from the humanitarian consequences of their own policies -- From the 1990s on, when boat-fulls of Haitian asylum seekers have periodically set out for U.S. soil to escape the atrocities being perpetrated against Aristide supporters -- and in some cases, by them-- U.S. Coast Guard vessels have repeatedly interdicted them and returned them to danger, often without anyone on board being offered a chance to lodge a plea for asylum.
So that’s the role of two Bushes and one Clinton in Haiti, and we have already seen the role of the other Clinton in coercing the outcome of the previous presidential elections. If there is a pattern obtaining across the political dynasties, it would appear to be that Bushes are more liable to directly suppress Haitian democracy through funding coups, whereas Clintons operate through more subtle machinations -- but that whatever the specific actions of the two sides may be, they seem always to function to the disadvantage of Aristide -- and, more importantly, to the disadvantage of the modestly pro-poor agenda that he was elected to carry out.
But why is the U.S. doing it again now, when Aristide has long since made his inconsequential return to Haiti and lives in tranquil retirement? After years of working with the relatively docile Préval, is the U.S. government really so terrified that Jude Célestin is going to implement a radical agenda, boot U.S. industries from the island, or in some more modest way rekindle the promise of the Aristide moment? Whence comes this still festering animus toward a politician twice-removed in succession from Aristide himself?
Well, fear of Célestin is likely not the sole factor influencing U.S. decisions in Haiti—there are also positive inducements in favor of Martelly, who had proven himself amenable to U.S. business interests as he had to Duvalierist forces and the former Haitian military and other familiar faces. In Martelly’s earlier singing career, when “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power, he had won friends among some of the same pro-dictatorship agents who carried out the 1991 coup that expelled Aristide from power the first time. (See Katz, p. 251-2). To the extent that Martelly has an ideology, it is generally in line with Haiti’s far-right. One of his major campaign promises was to reinstate the Haitian military – ostensibly as an engine for “job creation” – despite the military’s long record of human rights abuses and efforts to destabilize civilian governments. More importantly, from the perspective of the U.S., Martelly’s platform is, in Katz’ words: “happy above all to court massive foreign investment with tax breaks and allowing companies to take all their profits out of Haiti.” (269) Historical patterns run deep in U.S. foreign relations, and Martelly can be said to represent business as usual for the U.S. presence in Haiti.
Can it be, then, that 2016 is just the next in a long succession of instances in which the U.S. has sided with its perceived "interests" and against Haitian democracy?— is it just the next 2010, the next 2004, the next 1991, the next American occupation?
These questions aren't purely rhetorical – I have a genuinely hard time answering yes to any of them. No matter how many times the U.S. pulls the same kind of malfeasance in Haiti, part of me always assumes it’s the last occasion, and that the U.S. is about to start playing fair-- it just makes so little sense otherwise. This endless persecution of a succession of mildly leftist presidents who are tepidly critical (if that) of the U.S. line just seems so gratuitous, not to mention shortsighted and solipsistic and all the rest of it.
Haiti isn’t the only place in Latin America and the Caribbean, though, where the U.S. is currently reading from a familiar script. The Central American states who are the recipients of considerable U.S. aid – including “security” funds – have been moving in an increasingly authoritarian direction in recent years in response to the appalling violence unleashed by organized criminal networks (the most powerful of which – El Salvador’s notorious “maras” -- were actually founded in Los Angeles and only came to Central America through a massive immigration crack-down and deportation of Salvadoran migrants in the ‘90s under Clinton—where in the list of the world's problems does that name not come up?). Honduras has been helmed by conservative governments ever since the 2009 coup that forced the elected and left-leaning Zelaya government from power, and now both the Honduran and Salvadoran governments have created military police units that have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, and death squad activity. In short, Central America is starting to look a great deal like it did in the 1980s, just as Haiti continues to look the way it has for most of its recent history, and it looks like the U.S. is still on the side of the Somozas and the Duvaliers, just as it was before.
The day the U.S. really decides to turn over a new leaf, I’ll be the first in line to believe it. When reading Katz’s book I had already found myself thinking “Well, 2010 was a long time ago now… surely that's all changed...." How long will it take before 2016 in turn starts to seem like a long time ago, and we’ve all fallen back into the same swamp of indifference and forgetting that is the usual privilege of the powerful and the insulated?
Before that happens, may we try to sear the latest election in our minds as a reminder of just how much still stands of Dr. Phillipot’s indictment of U.S.-Haiti relations in Graham Greene’s The Comedians. Depicting a time in Haiti’s history when the U.S. and the first Duvalier dictatorship were briefly on the outs, Greene has his Communist physician and novelistic conscience say: “I’ll make you a bet of ten to one that, in a matter of months, relations are healed and the American ambassador returns. You forget—Papa Doc is a bulwark against Communism. […] Of course, there are other reasons. Papa Doc’s lobbyist in Washington is the lobbyist for certain American-owned mills […] It wouldn’t affect the Americans if this trade ceased, but it would affect the particular Washington politician who receives one cent for every pound they export.”
Today they'd be manufacturers of t-shirts and rice products from the great plains, but otherwise-- on it goes.