When the "international community" blames Haiti for its political troubles, the underlying concept is usually that Haitians are not ready for democracy. But it is Washington that is not ready for democracy in Haiti.
Haitians have been ready for democracy for many decades. They were ready when they got massacred at polling stations, trying to vote in 1987 after the fall of the murderous Duvalier dictatorship. They were ready again in 1990, when they voted by a two-thirds majority for the leftist Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only to see him overthrown seven months later in a military coup. The coup was later found to be organized by people paid by the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
Haitians were ready again in 2000 when they elected Aristide a second time with 90 percent of the vote. But Washington would not accept the results of that election either, so it organized a cut-off of international aid to the government and poured millions into the opposition. As Paul Farmer (Bill Clinton's Deputy Special Envoy of the UN to Haiti) testified to the U.S. Congress in 2010:
"Choking off assistance for development and for the provision of basic services also choked off oxygen to the government, which was the intention all along: to dislodge the Aristide administration."
In 2004 Aristide was whisked away in one of those planes that the U.S. government has used for "extraordinary rendition," and taken involuntarily to the Central African Republic.
Eight years later, the U.S. government is still not ready for democracy in Haiti. On March 3, the Miami Herald reported that "Former Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is once again in the cross hairs of the U.S. government, this time for allegedly pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from Miami businesses... "
Everything about these latest allegations smells foul, like the outhouses that haven't been cleaned for months in some of the camps where hundreds of thousands of Haitians displaced by the earthquake still languish.
First, the source: Patrick Joseph was the head of Haiti's national telecommunications company (Teleco) until he was fired by then-President Aristide for corruption in 2003. Fast forward nine years: last month Joseph negotiates a guilty plea with U.S. federal prosecutors for accepting $2.3 million in bribes from U.S. companies. Facing a long prison sentence, he tells them that about half the money was for President Aristide. How convenient. That should knock a few years off his prison time.
Then there is the timing of the new charges. The first indictment in this case, in 2009, doesn't mention Aristide or anyone who could be him. The same is true for the second indictment, in July 2011, which added Patrick Joseph. But the January 2012 indictment mentions an unidentified "Official B" of the Haitian government; and now we are told that "Official B," according to one of the defense attorneys in the case, is Aristide. How does he know? Obviously the U.S. Justice Department, which has no comment on the matter, told him that, so he could tell the press.
Why now? Aristide has been very quiet and has stayed out of politics since his return to Haiti a year ago. He has focused on the University of the Aristide Foundation; closed since the 2004 coup, the medical school was able to reopen this past fall. But he still has the biggest base of any political figure in the country, the only really popular, democratically elected leader that Haiti has ever had. His party, Fanmi Lavalas, is still the most popular political party, and although it was wracked by political divisions while Aristide was in exile, it has reportedly become more unified since he has returned. Demonstrations on the eight-year anniversary of the 2004 coup -- two weeks ago -- drew thousands into the streets.
"The display of popular support for Aristide is very worrisome to the U.S., so indicting Titid [Aristide] before a potential comeback makes perfect sense," Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, told the Miami Herald.
It makes even more sense if you look at what the U.S. government -- in collaboration with UN officials and other allies -- has been doing to Aristide since they organized the 2004 coup against him. A classified U.S. document, leaked by Wikileaks, reports on a meeting between the then top-ranking State Department official for the hemisphere (Thomas Shannon), and the head of the UN military mission in Haiti (Edumnd Mulet), in 2006. It describes their efforts to keep Aristide in exile in South Africa. Mulet also "urged U.S. legal action against Aristide to prevent the former president from gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti."
This latest episode is part of the "legal action" referred to in the document. So, too, were Washington's attempts to go after Aristide with trumped-up charges of involvement in drug trafficking in 2004. These were also reliant on a convicted felon, a drug dealer facing a long prison sentence. That case went nowhere, for the same reasons that this one will go nowhere: no evidence.
In a last-ditch, illegal effort to prevent Aristide from returning to his home country last year, President Obama called South African President Jacob Zuma to persuade him to keep Aristide there. He also lobbied UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, but to no avail.
The U.S. government has spent millions and possibly tens of millions of dollars trying to railroad Haiti's former president. On behalf of U.S. taxpayers, we could use a Congressional inquiry into this abuse of our tax dollars. It also erodes what we have left of an independent judiciary to have federal courts in Florida used as an instrument of foreign policy skullduggery.
In Haiti, these attempts to deny people democratic rights tend to lead to instability. Imagine trying to tell Brazilians that former president Lula da Silva could not participate in politics in Brazil, and threatening to prosecute him in U.S. courts. Or doing the same to Evo Morales in Bolivia, or Rafael Correa, in Ecuador. It would never be tolerated.
Yet because Haitians are poor and black, Washington thinks it can get away trampling on their democratic rights. But too many Haitians have fought and died for these rights, and they will not give them up so easily.
This article was originally published in The Guardian Unlimited (UK) on March 13, 2012.