Last December, I visited Annette “So Ann” Auguste, a popular Haitian folksinger, Lavalas activist, grandmother, adult educator – and, since her violent May 2004 arrest at the hands of US Marines1 – one of Haiti’s most high-profile political prisoners. Even in the overcrowded prison where she has been jailed for nearly two and a half years without charges, So Ann continues to teach literacy through informal classes with her fellow inmates. I never specifically discussed the role of education in Haiti’s democracy with So Ann. However, her patience in explaining to us blancs (as all foreigners are known in Haitian Creole) the basic principle of Haitian national sovereignty – a lesson that citizens of the world’s first black republic impressed upon world powers when they wrested France’s most prosperous colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola from the hands of French colonial slave holders over 202 years ago – clearly told me that she sees education as a crucial aspect of the Haitian grassroots movement for democracy. The education of Canadians, that is.
The various Canadian government agencies and government funded organizations that have descended upon Haiti in recent years – purportedly to advance justice, democracy and human rights in the Caribbean nation – seem to concur that a key determinant for the future of Haiti’s democracy is education.2 However, given the absence of any large scale Canadian public opposition on February 29, 2004, when Haiti’s popular democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide was whisked out of the country by a U.S. government jet in a bloody coup d’état backed by the Canadian, US and French governments, it would appear that it is here in Canada that we need some basic schooling in the principles of democracy, jurisprudence and human rights.
In the wake of the brutal foreign-installed Haitian ‘transitional’ government in May 2006, Haiti’s grassroots movements are facing a new juncture. A critical question of the current period is whether Canada, the US and France will finally take to heart the 202-year old lesson that So Ann considered so important to firmly reiterate to the Canadian blancs visiting her prison cell: Haitians are a free and sovereign people, and foreign powers must stop trying to roll back the independence the black republic won in 1804. This summer, activists from the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) convened a national conference to discuss strategies to act in solidarity with the Haitian popular movements who have borne the brunt of the 2004-6 Canada-backed assault on Haitian democracy, and to strategize ways to ensure that, under the newly elected government of Rene Preval, the Canadian government is sufficiently pressured to finally respect Haitian sovereignty.
Flunking Democracy, Justice and Human Rights 101: Canada’s Failings in Haiti
When Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president (1990-1) was reelected with 92 percent of the vote in 2000, the US and Canada went to extreme lengths to economically sabotage Aristide’s government. USAID and CIDA cut aid money, and the US government blocked millions of dollars of loans that had been promised to Haiti from the Inter-American Development Bank. Remaining aid money from the US and Canada was redirected to “civil society” NGOs3 and during this period, CIDA funding exclusively went to anti-Lavalas “civil society” organizations.4 CIDA has since admitted that its programs in Haiti during the lead-up to the coup had a detrimental effect on Haiti; as it “undermined efforts to strengthen good governance” and contributed to the establishment of parallel systems of service delivery, eroding legitimacy, capacity and will of the state to deliver key services.”5
When Haiti’s elected government was threatened by a band of thugs from Haiti’s disbanded armed forces in February 2004, the Canadian government joined the US and France in vetoing Aristide’s plea for assistance and tacitly called for the elected president’s departure. The Canadian Forces’ Joint Task Force 2 special operations unit secured the airport as the US government completed the final stroke of the coup d’etat – removing Aristide against his will to the Central African Republic.
Having helped to remove the government elected by the Haitian people, Canada immediately began lavishing millions of dollars on the new government installed by the U.S. Embassy. Canada played a key role in the US-led Multilateral Interim Force, which helped to “stabilize” Haiti and buttress the illegal government of Gerard LaTortue – the Miami resident who was appointed the “Prime Minister” of the junta. Canada also participated in drafting the neo-liberal plan for the LaTortue administration, which included a reduction of the minimum wage and privatization of state owned companies and institutions.
Moreover, Canada has actively participated in the UN International Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH) that was deployed to Haiti by the Security Council to support the LaTortue regime. Canada has overseen the MINUSTAH police reform program, which re-integrated members of the disbanded Haitian Armed Forces – a force originally created under a brutal US military occupation of Haiti, and had been responsible for gross human rights violations – into the Haitian National Police (HNP). Canada also provided 100 police trainers from the RCMP, and 25 Canadian police experts. Under Canadian leadership, the HNP has committed shocking abuses; in the aftermath of the coup, masked HNP officers conducted almost daily raids in the slums, assassinating and illegally arresting Aristide supporters.6 Meanwhile, the MINUSTAH’s so-called “peacekeeper” soldiers have also been active in killing, shooting and intimidating slum populations with automatic weapons and armoured personnel carriers.
In June 2005, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew callously dismissed the report published by the University of Miami School of Law’s Centre for Human Rights, which documented the systematic assassinations and illegal arrests of hundreds of Lavalas supporters by Canadian-trained police under the Canada-backed Haitian “transitional” government,7 as “propaganda.”8 The Canadian government’s perverse miscomprehension of the concept of “human rights” is further revealed in CIDA’s record of funding the controversial group formerly known as the National Coalition for Haitian Rights-Haiti (NCHR), which played a key role in lobbying to keep Aristide’s Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, a prominent political prisoner arrested by the coup government, in jail for over two years without charges. 9 NCHR even sought to block Neptune from receiving medical treatment when his health was severely failing.10
Canada’s record vis a vis Haiti’s “justice system” is equally abysmal. The coup government’s first Deputy Justice Minister, Philippe Vixamar – who denied the existence of the human rights abuses that have been documented under his government – says that he was appointed to his position by the Canadian government, and his salary was paid by CIDA through until the summer of 2005.11 During this period, the rate of unconvicted inmates swelled to over 90 percent of the prison population, as hundreds of demonstrators and residents of the poor pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods – many of them children – were illegally arrested without warrants in police raids.12 Meanwhile, those who engaged in criminal human rights abuses targeting Lavalas supporters acted with total impunity. In August 2005, police and armed attaches conducted a brutal massacre of spectators at a soccer match in the poor pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods of Grande Ravine and Martissant.13 While some of the perpetrators of these abuses were arrested, they were subsequently released by the coup government.
The Shortcomings of Canadian Organizations in Challenging the Coup
What is arguably more difficult to understand than the Canadian government’s complicity in denying Haitians their basic rights to democracy and self-determination is the disappointing response of many organizations that identify themselves as progressive. Speaking at a panel on Haiti at the TransAfrica Forum this year, Brian Concannon Jr., of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), reflected on the shocking silence and complicity with which much of the North American left greeted the coup; “When we in the progressive movement talk about Haiti work, it is important to start with the shameful recognition that two years ago we let Haiti down in its hour of need.”14
Concannon was speaking specifically about the U.S. context, but the point is equally relevant in the Canadian context. While Haitian Canadians in Montreal organized demonstrations denouncing the coup, and some Canadian alternative media organizations provided admirable coverage and analysis, there was initially no visible response from the organized left. Dishearteningly, some elements of the ‘progressive NGO’ community, were actually cheering on the Canadian government’s intervention! Most notoriously, Pierre Beaudet, the Executive Director of Alternatives – a CIDA funded organization that Beaudet defines as a “Montreal based international solidarity movement”15 – claimed that the coup that overthrew the elected Fanmi Lavalas government represented “the end of a regime of delinquence” and was an event which “the majority of Haitians and those who worked with them celebrated.”16 Beaudet’s shameful stance is particularly puzzling when one considers his organization’s criticisms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the fact that such progressive figures as Rabble.ca founder and former NAC president Judy Rebick sit on its Board of Directors.
Two months after dozens of unarmed women, children and men of Haiti’s largest slum of Cite Soleil were slaughtered in their beds during a pre-dawn military raid by the soldiers of a UN Security Council’s stabilization force on July 6, 2005, the representative of another CIDA-funded organization speaking at an Alternatives-sponsored public lecture on Haiti, criticized the UN for failing to sufficiently crackdown on the Lavalas demonstrators, who the panelist termed “criminals” and “murderers”.17 Like Alternatives, this panelist’s organization, Development and Peace, is heavily funded by CIDA for its work in Haiti.
Concannon observes that “many of those who did not speak up for Haiti’s embattled democracy talked about ‘confusion,’ or ‘complications.’18 However, for Concannon the situation was quite straightforward;
The message from the Haitian voters was not complicated: President Aristide won 92% of the vote in the 2000 elections. Haiti’s Constitution was not confusing: it provided that President Aristide should have remained in office until February 2006. Haiti’s grassroots movement was clear: they recognized their elected government’s imperfections, but they knew from brutal experience how much worse the unelected successor would be.
The 2006 Haitian Elections
The election of Rene Préval represented a major victory for Haiti’s popular movements.
When I visited Haiti in December 2005 and February 2006, many of the activists from the grassroots Lavalas movement were actively, albeit conditionally, supporting Préval’s campaign. The 2006 elections were held as over 1000 political prisoners languished in jail (most of them without charges), with Haiti’s elected President still in exile, against a backdrop of ongoing repression in the slums. In addition, the election’s design made voting inaccessible for many Haitians in rural areas and in urban slums. The number of voting stations had been reduced from almost 12, 000 in the last Haitian election in 2000, to just over 800, and voting stations were completely eliminated in Haiti’s largest slum, Cite Soleil.19 The activists from the Lavalas movement with whom I spoke with in the lead-up to the election explained to me that, while the rampant repression against Lavalas made it impossible for the Fanmi Lavalas party to participate in the election, a victory by Préval would provide breathing room for the popular movements. These activists were thus putting their conditional support behind Préval, and demanding, in exchange, that, once elected, he release political prisoners, stop the repression of Lavalas supporters, and bring Aristide back to Haiti.
Despite the abysmal conditions in which the election was held, a massive popular mobilization led to over 60 percent of registered voters turning out to cast ballots in the first round of the elections on February 7. Préval’s victory is a testimony to the extraordinary resilience of the Haitian population and its popular movements, which were forced to defend their right to vote through massive street mobilizations when LaTortue’s electoral council attempted to deny that Préval had prevailed in the first round of voting. However, the run-off election that determined the composition of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies saw a much lesser turnout, arguably as a consequence of ongoing political repression that had made it more difficult for lesser known candidates to stage campaigns. As a consequence, Préval’s party, Espwa (which means “Hope”, in Creole), did not secure a majority in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies, and Préval ended up forming a coalition government with anti-Lavalas forces.
The Legacy Of the Coup Lives On
As the dust of the immediate human rights crisis wrought by the coup settles, it is becoming clear that many of the problems associated with the illegal government have persisted beyond the formal transfer of power to the new Haitian government headed by Preval. In particular, corruption remains a massive problem in the justice system, which was stacked with people loyal to the “transitional government”.20 While Neptune was finally released in late July 2006, and So Ann’s case was scheduled to go to trial on August 14, 2006,21 thousands of poor Haitians – over 90 percent of whom have faced no charges – remain in jail. Unlike So Ann and Neptune, they do not have the benefit of international campaigns to raise the profile of their cases, and they do not have the money to pay for lawyers’ fees.
Months after the coup government released the police officers who were accused of overseeing the brutal August 2005 soccer stadium machete massacre, another similarly gruesome massacre took place in the same neighbourhood of Grande Ravine on July 6-7 of 2006, where 25 people were reported killed, and five disappeared, when armed men wielding machetes and assault rifles broke into and attacked residents in their own homes.22 Meanwhile, the UN Security Council mandated force that has been responsible for countless deaths in the poor pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods also remains in place.
Haiti’s political and economic policy choices are being constrained under the terms of the neo-liberal Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF) document that Canada helped to draft, which sets out reforms that Haiti will have to implement in order to receive much-needed international loans and aid. The ICF stated that “the transition period…provides a window of opportunity for implementing economic governance reforms…that may be hard for a future government to undo.”23
Compounding the economic hardships endured by most Haitians, over 50 percent of whom live on less than $1 a day, Haiti also remains plagued by the debt that it incurred under the notoriously murderous and corrupt U.S. backed Duvalier dictatorships, and the burden of debt repayments continues to hamper the governments ability to spend money on much needed social programs.24 These ongoing economic problems have been further compounded for the residents of the pro-Lavalas slums, who have been targeted in waves of arbitrary waves of firings in the public sector job market in the wake of the coup.
Haiti Solidarity Organizing At a Crossroads
The abysmal recent record of the Canadian intervention in Haiti underscores the need for action at home to ensure that nothing akin to the February 29, 2004 assault on Haitian sovereignty can ever happen again. As Concannon put it in the title of his recent speech at the TransAfrica Forum – we in the countries that launched the 2004 attack against Haiti’s sovereignty need to “make our” countries “safe for democracy in Haiti”. The key question that prevailed in a recent Canada Haiti Action Network conference was how this was to be achieved in the wake of the long-awaited replacement, in May 2006, of the illegal foreign-installed regime with a new government that was – albeit in highly repressive conditions – at least elected by the Haitian people. Haiti democracy activists such as Patrick Elie emphasize that Canadian activists must press our government to “work with the Haitian people and its elected leadership, rather than try, once again, to disrupt the country’s progress.”25
Several priorities were identified by the activists from Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Guelph and Hamilton who participated in a CHAN conference in Montreal on May 28, 2006. The activists emphasized the need to keep up pressure for the release of the prisoners who were illegally arrested under the Canada-backed coup government. According to Elie, Preval will face constraints in releasing political prisoners, as his anti-Lavalas opponents will try to paint the releases of the high-profile prisoners as “politically motivated” despite the fact that their arrests were themselves politically motivated. In this context, Elie has emphasized that it is important for activists both in Haiti and in Canada to exert counter-pressures. In the CHAN network, activists are responding by focusing on the complicity of our own government in the illegal arrests and detentions of Lavalas supporters, and pushing the Canadian government to pressure Haiti to release the prisoners who face no charges.
As well as addressing the imprisonment of Haiti’s popular movements, the activists also discussed the importance of addressing the ongoing economic imprisonment of the Haitian people – which can be traced back to the early days of Haiti’s independence, when France extorted 22 billion dollars from Haiti for the former colonial masters’ loss of their “property” (which included Haiti’s citizens – the freed black slaves!), and the US enforced a sixty year long embargo against the fledgling nation, which helped to establish Haiti as the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere. A particular current focus of work in the international Haiti solidarity movement is the issue of Haiti’s foreign debt – the first of which was incurred through Haiti’s extortion payment to France. “Odious debt”, an international legal term used to refer to debts incurred by national governments that are demonstrably unaccountable to their people, has a particular relevance for Haiti. Under the corrupt and brutally repressive US-financed Duvalier dictatorship, millions of dollars were squandered none of which the people of Haiti should be forced to pay back. Since the conference, there has been considerable progress in the US in relation to Haiti’s debt; this includes, most notably, a call in the US Congress for the full cancellation of Haiti’s debt.
Drawing on the experience of seeing aid used to undermine Aristide’s government, the activists also emphasized the need to monitor Canadian aid money to Haiti under the new Haitian government. As CHAN organizer Roger Annis wrote in Briarpatch magazine, the Canada-based movement plans to work “to end the use of aid money and NGO projects as weapons that undermine the institutions of the sovereign government of Haiti. Instead, Haiti needs massive amounts of aid with no strings attached for rebuilding the shattered economy and social infrastructure.”26 Meanwhile, Haiti solidarity activists are also planning to pursue research on Canadian corporate involvement in Haiti.
Conference discussions also turned to the question of how the international solidarity movement can support grassroots organizations in Haiti. Despite the illegal imprisonment and executions of hundreds of their members under the coup government, Haiti’s grassroots activists have continued to organize. For instance, on July 15, over 30,000 protesters took to the streets to demand the release of political prisoners, as well as the return of Aristide.27 However, in the context of the worsening economic and security conditions that the coup unleashed, particularly for the populations of the pro-Lavalas slums, many of the popular organizations that form a base of mobilizations have been extremely hard-hit. The imperialist blancs that have historically invaded Haiti have consistently shown a remarkable imperviousness to the freedom and sovereignty Haiti won in its victorious struggle against the French government in 1804. In the most recent of these interventions – the 2004 coup d’état – it was Haiti’s popular movements that paid the price for this racist ignorance. The period ahead will be of critical importance for these movements as they push forward their demands for the reversal of some of the damages inflicted by the Canada-backed coup. In this period, it will be critical for us in Canada to ensure that our own government does not once again seek to undermine the struggle of the Haitian majority. Even after 202 years, the lesson is arguably better learned late than never.
1. Haiti Information Project, “Haitians Seized_Abused by U.S. Marines: Women, Children Subjected_to Hood Treatment” (May 12, 2004), http://www.haitiaction.net/News/HIP/5_1.
2. Canadian International Development Agency, “Support for the New School,” http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/CIDAWEB/acdicida.nsf/En/EMA-218121242-NSC; “Integrated Education in Artibonite”, http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/CIDAWEB/acdicida.nsf/En/EMA-218121242-NSG; “Social Development Fund,” http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/CIDAWEB/acdicida.nsf/En/EMA-218121320-NVC, “Emergency Fund in Health and Education,” http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/CIDAWEB/acdicida.nsf/En/EMA-218121320-NV8, “Fund for Support of Justice and Human Rights - Phase II,” http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/CIDAWEB/acdicida.nsf/En/EMA-21812118-NKC.
3. Canadian International Development Agency (2004), “Canadian Cooperation With Haiti: Reflecting on a Decade of ‘Difficult Partnership’”, 9; United States Agency for International Development. “USAID-Haiti”, USAID website, http://www.usaid.gov/ht/.
4. “Canada’s Growing Role In Haitian Affairs, Haiti-Progres (March 21, 2005), accessed through ZNet, Z Magazine website, www.zmag.org.
5. Canadian International Development Agency (2004), “Canadian Cooperation With Haiti: Reflecting on a Decade of ‘Difficult Partnership’”, 12.
6. Griffin, Thomas, Haiti Human Rights Investigation, November 11-21, 2004, Center for the Study of Human Rights: University of Miami School of Law, www.law.miami.edu/cshr/CSHR_Report_02082005_v2.pdf.
8. Haiti Action Montreal, “Pettigrew transcript” (June 23, 2005), posted on Autonomy and Solidarity website, August 25, 2005, auto_sol.tao.ca/node/view/1438.
9. Skerrett, Kevin, “Faking Genocide in Haiti: Canada’s Role in the Persecution of Yvon Neptune”, ZMagazine website (Part 1),
;(Part 2) http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=8144.
10. The group publicly blamed Neptune for being the intellectual author of a “massacre” whose existence has been called into question by a total lack of evidence (when questioned about the whereabouts of the 50 victims the organization said had been slaughtered, NCHR said that the bodies had been “eaten by dogs” (Skerrett, Kevin, June 23, 2005, “Faking Genocide in Haiti: Canada’s Role in the Persecution of Yvon Neptune”, Z Magazine website, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=8142.
The controversy over NCHR-Haiti’s position on Neptune’s medical treatment became so damaging to the group’s credibility that NCHR-Haiti’s parent organization, which is based in New York, was prompted to publicly distance itself from NCHR-Haiti, and the Haiti-based group was forced to change its name (NCHR, “NCHR-Haiti Does Not Speak for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR)”). Despite these controversies, NCHR continued to be a recipient of extensive Canadian government funding. In 2004, the group received $75, 000 from CIDA and its grantee Development and Peace—including funding for the “victims” of the alleged La Syrie massacre (Esperance, Pierre, February 2006, interview with author, Skerrett)!
11. Neatby, Stuart, “The Politics of Finger Wagging, Canada the UN and ‘Judicial Reform’ in Haiti”, Z Magazine (April 19, 2004), http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10121.
14. Concannon, Brian, “Making Our Country Safe for Democracy in Haiti”, address to TransAfrica Forum, Z Magazine.
15. Beaudet, Pierre, “Haiti, the struggle continues: Reply to Barry-Shaw”, October 2, 2005, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=8859.
16. Beaudet, Pierre, “Questions sur la tragedie Haitienne” (March 3, 2004), http://risal.collectifs.net/article.php3?id_article=866.
17. “Haiti: Building a Democracy” (Panel), Journees Alternatives conference, Friday, September 9, Montreal.
19. Concannon, Brian, “Haiti’s election: Right result, for the wrong reason”, Jurist Legal News and Research, (February 17, 2006) accessed through University of Pittsburg Law School website, http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/forumy/2006/02/haitis-election-right-result-for-wrong.php.
21. Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, “Demand a Fair Trial for Annette Auguste and Co-Defendants”, August 8, 2006 http://www.ijdh.org/articles/article_halfhourforhaiti_8-8-06.html
22. Association des Universitaires Motives Pour un Haiti de Droit, AHMOHD Rapport Preliminaire sur le Nouveau Massacre de Grande Ravine du 6 au 7 Juillet, July 15, 2006.
23. Cited in Skerrett, Kevin, “Canadian Imperialism Helps Smash Haiti for Profit”, Relay July/August 2005.
24. Haiti Debt, Z Magazine website, www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7006
25. Elie, Patrick, interviewed by Roger Annis, “Canada and the World Must Recognize the New Reality in Haiti”, March 21, 2006.
26. Annis, Roger, “Foreign troops on the national territory: Haiti’s resurgent majority takes power”, July 31, 2004, http://briarpatchmagazine.com/news/?p=299.
27. Agence Haiti Presse, “The organizers of a peaceful march are pleased that more than 30,000 people demonstrated to demand the return of the political exiles and better living conditions in Haiti”, July 17, 2006.