Coup in Haiti

By Wilentz, Amy | The Nation, March 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Coup in Haiti


Wilentz, Amy, The Nation


For those who know Haitian history, this has been a time of eerie, unhappy deja vu. Part of the pain is to see the elected president coerced out of office by heavy-handed pressure from the United States and France, accompanied by a show of force and the threat of a blood bath. But to also hear that he's been spirited off to a secret location is to be bluntly reminded of the fate of the fabled leader of Haiti's revolution, former slave and stable boy Toussaint L'Ouverture, who was entrapped by the French, bound, and hustled away from Haiti on a ship, to die in solitary confinement in a fortress prison in the Jura mountains in France.

When Aristide descended from his plane in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, he made a brief statement: "In overthrowing me, they cut down the tree of peace, but it will grow again, because its roots are well planted." This was a deliberate allusion to Toussaint, who said, from aboard the ship, never to see Haiti again: "They have felled only the trunk of the tree. Branches will sprout again, for its roots are numerous and deep." The echo can be missed by no Haitian.

It's hard to justify contemporary comparisons to the founders of nations, especially when made not by a third party but by the leader himself. But in Bangui, Aristide was not so much comparing himself to Toussaint as he was making a connection between the French betrayal of Toussaint and the Americans' betrayal of his own presidency. Though the indications had been many, especially since George W. Bush came to power, Aristide had hesitated over the years--for reasons of political expedience--to come right out and say what was patently true.

But now he's saying it. What happened in Haiti was a coup d'etat, and it's almost funny to hear Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Scott McClellan call that claim "absurd" and "nonsense." The coup didn't come in one fell strike, which fact camouflaged it for a time; we're used to a coup being a coup--which means a cut or blow in French--something sudden. But the coup against Aristide, and by extension against the Haitian people, was prolonged, a chronic coup. It began when Aristide was first elected at the end of 1990 and continued right up until he was hustled aboard a plane and flown to what he was told would be a place of his choice but that turned out to be the former homeland of fabled killer and diamond collector Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a country where, according to the CIA country report available on the web, a ten-year elected civilian government was recently replaced by a military coup d'etat. Sound familiar?

One thing about coups: They don't just happen. In a country like Haiti, where the military has been disbanded for nearly a decade, soldiers don't simply emerge from the underbrush; they have to be reorganized, retrained and resupplied. And of course, for something to be organized, someone has to organize it. At the end of the 1700s when heroic fighters like Henry Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L'Ouverture joined forces to overthrow the French planters, they did it in a fashion quite similar to these latter-day brigands. Driving into one city after another with sabers drawn, burning and looting and seizing control, they took the north and then moved southward. Even then, with their scant means of communication, they planned it, they organized it. And they too had help from abroad--from the Americans, in fact.

In the current coup, there are several players. There is the disgruntled former Haitian army (an institution with a violent and unpalatable recent history), which has been wielded many times in the service of coups d'etat, often subsidized by its masters, the elite of Haiti. The elite, too, had their hand in this coup--it's hard to believe in this day and age, but they must be called the entrenched class enemies of the Haitian people. There is "a growing enthusiasm among businessmen to use the rebels as a security force," said a news report from the Los Angeles Times after the remnants of the Haitian army that helped engineer the coup descended on the capital.

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