Haiti’s Martelly Set to Rule by Decree, Reviving Memories of Duvalier Dictatorship

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed nearly a quarter million people in Haiti, protesters demanding the resignation of President Michel Martelly were reportedly shot at with water hoses and tear gas by police.

Similar protests have been occurring for months as the country’s latest political crisis has continued to escalate. Now, on the anniversary of the tragic natural disaster, Haiti’s government looks likely to dissolve, setting up Martelly to rule by decree.

In a prescient article in Foreign Policy last November, Peter Granitz hypothesized that “if Martelly moves into a position of complete control, it could spark massive protests by the opposition that could further destabilize the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.”

“There will be chaos,” predicted Steven Benoit, a senator from Port-au-Prince who once supported Martelly but broke ranks over frustration with corruption and incompetence in the administration. Benoit remains among the most pragmatic in the opposition. He has not backed the protests. “There will be a vacuum of power. The bad people love that,” he said.

Despite not having held elections since 2011, the U.S. has been reluctant to forcefully challenge Martelly’s administration on human rights and political freedoms in Haiti. Martelly had promised legislative and municipal elections in October 2014, but they were cancelled amidst denunciations of electoral manipulation by the opposition.

report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research entitled “Haiti’s Fatally Flawed Election” highlighted the numerous irregularities in the election process that brought Martelly to power, including the “exclusion of over a dozen political parties from the election — including Haiti’s most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas,” as well as accusations of ballot manipulation and voter intimidation.

Sadly, this is neither new nor entirely surprising. As Council on Hemispheric Affairs researcher Clément Doleac wrote in November:

In the past five decades, Haitian people have suffered systematic human rights violations that were rarely condemned, thus preventing any state from having real democratic institutions and impeding any democratic political regime to exist.

From 1957 to 1986, the Duvalier family exerted a harsh dictatorship in Haiti without respect for fundamental human rights, such as rights of association, social rights, of economic rights and cultural rights. These dictatorships received millions in U.S. government aid under various security and humanitarian reasons because of their role as a bulwark against communism (such as the Trujillo dictatorship in Dominican Republic).[1]

The United States’ support for corrupt, violent and repressive governments in Haiti continued even after the Duvalier era. As the L.A. Times wrote on November 30, 1987, “The first free election in Haiti in 30 years collapsed…in gory violence. At least 30 people died in Port-au-Prince alone, 17 of them in a brutal and bloody schoolhouse massacre,” allegedly carried out by U.S.-supported troops, kicking off a long period of instability and intermittent military rule.

The Haitian National Intelligence Service (SIN) was created by the CIA in 1986 mainly as a counter-narcotics unit, but according to the New York Times:

Having created the Haitian intelligence service, the agency failed to insure that several million dollars spent training and equipping the service from 1986 to 1991 was actually used in the war on drugs. The unit produced little narcotics intelligence. Senior members committed acts of political terror…including interrogations that included torture.

In the wake of the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. sent in some 20,000 members of its military to help “secure” the country. For many observers, this brought to mind occupation that followed the 1994 reinstatement of popular leftist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

After becoming Haiti’s first popularly-elected president in 1990, Aristide was forced from his office in a military coup only a year later. He returned to power in 1994 through a deal with the Haitian armed forces brokered by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Some 20,000 U.S. troops were sent in to police the country’s “transition to democracy.”

In 1996, Aristide handed the office to his handpicked successor, René Préval, and returned himself to the presidency for a second term in 2000. In Doleac’s words, “Aristide’s second term, however, was undermined by the governments of the U.S. and France.”

Despite massive protests supporting Aristide in Port-au-Prince and the acceptance of an international peace plan by President Aristide on February 21, [2004] the U.S. and French governments, “invited” Aristide to leave the country in order to bring peace and security again to the country. In fact, the U.S. military “accompanied for his own security” the constitutionally elected President on a U.S. Air Force flight. The Dissident Voice reports that since then “a quasi UN trusteeship had begun. Since that time the Haitian National Police has been heavily militarized and steps have been taken towards recreating the military”.[17] With the end of Aristide’s second presidential term, human rights violations have begun to rise again. [18]

The UN occupation force, known as MINUSTAH, has been plagued by ongoing reports of serious abuses ever since. Disturbingly, a video released on YouTube last month appears to show United Nations peacekeepers firing live ammunition on unarmed anti-Martelly protesters. Amnesty International called for a thorough investigation of UN and Haitian police in response to the incident, which the UN promised to carry out.

U.S.-backed security forces helping governments carry out political repression and violence is not so much a “news story” in Haiti as it is a historical pattern. According to a recent New York Times report, “Perhaps no Haitian institution has seen more focused international assistance than the police.”

Since 2011, when Martelly took office, the U.S. has provided Haiti with roughly $80 million in military and police assistance, much of it under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program for anti-drug efforts, “stabilization operations” and “security sector reform.”

Still, according to the Times, “[m]any people wonder if the Haitian officers will be ready” for a planned drawdown of UN troops in the country, from the current level of around 5,000 to 2,370 by June. Haiti’s police force currently has about 12,500 officers of its own, giving the country a ratio of approximately 122 police personnel per 100,000 citizens (roughly 150-175 per 100,000 including the UN troops), one of the lowest in the region. The country has also experienced numerous mass prison escapes in recent months and years.

In addition to being poorly staffed and underpaid, the Haitian security forces do not appear to have the trust of local citizens. According to the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University, only 38.6 percent of Haitians are satisfied with the performance of their police, once again placing the country among the worst in the hemisphere. As the Times put it, “some Haitians still accuse officers of being incompetent and heavy-handed agents for the elite.”

Some current and former U.S. officials have praised Martelly’s tenure, including former president Bill Clinton, who called Martelly’s administration the “most consistent and decisive government I’ve ever worked with across a broad range of issues,” citing “the sheer volume of investments they’ve attracted, everything from hotels to clean energy to healthcare.”

However, according to a representative from the World Food Program, “Persistent chronic poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and continuing political uncertainty threaten achievements Haitians have made over the past five years.” In addition, Haiti, along with Venezuela and Paraguay, ranks among the worst countries in the Western Hemisphere on Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index.

Severe poverty, inequality and corruption, abuses by security forces, and the apparent political power grab by Martelly are not the only injustices the Haitian people have had to endure in recent years. Millions were displaced by the 2010 earthquake and tens of thousands are still living in makeshift shelters without adequate sanitation and other public services. Many “reconstruction” and “development” projects have been plagued with waste, abuse and incompetence.

Additionally, both UN and U.S. experts have concluded that a massive 2010 cholera outbreak that killed more than 8,000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands more was caused by the negligence of UN “peacekeeping” forces. Nevertheless, a U.S. judged ruled late last Friday that Haitians affected by the epidemic could not sue the UN in the U.S. legal system.

To make matters even worse, the desperate situation of many Haitians has been exploited by many international corporations. According to the International Labor Organization, the country is the second worst in the world when it comes to modern day slavery. The U.S. Department of Labor concluded in 2013 that “Haiti made a minimal advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.”

After Martelly’s questionable election, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy called for the U.S. to suspend aid to Haiti. Nevertheless, Martelly moved to reinstate the armed forces, which were disbanded by Aristide in 1995, in part due to their history of abuses against the population.

Following his death in late 2014, Martelly’s government even considered giving a state funeral to the former dictator and U.S. ally “Baby Doc” Duvalier. After Martelly’s election, the late Baby Doc had presumably felt safe enough to return to the country he was accused of terrorizing and plundering to live out a comfortable life after years in exile in Europe.

Martelly’s government ultimately backpedaled after a wave of outrage from victims of the brutal regimes of Baby Doc and his father, during which tens of thousands of Haitians were tortured, killed and forced to flee the country. Martelly himself nevertheless hailed Duvalier a “true son of Haiti.”

Despite the dictators’ death, Haitian activists are not backing down from their pursuit of justice. The struggle of the victims of U.S.-backed political violence in Haiti is mirrored by that of the victims of the government Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, whose conviction on genocide charges was overturned in 2013 and whose new trial was recently delayed. It also echoes the struggles of other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, BrazilChile and others to come to terms with their histories of political violence.

In many of these cases, an austere neoliberal agenda was imposed with the help of massive campaigns of state-sponsored violence and terror, creating a cycle whereby the poor were devastated and criminalized. The injustice of this policy needs to be recognized, whether its perpetrators are alive or not.

Whether or not those responsible can be punished, the factors that led these atrocities must at least be publicly acknowledged and discussed so they can be understood and prevented from happening again in the future.

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