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.

Ferguson protests highlight drawbacks of militarized policing tactics

Within hours of his untimely death, Michael Brown’s name was popping up in news reports and social media networks around the United States. At the time, Brown was known primarily as the most recent of an ever-increasing number of young, unarmed African-American men killed by white police officers around the country. But before long, Brown’s hometown of Ferguson, Missouri was front-page news around the world.

The situation in the days that followed Brown’s death were somewhat familiar in a global context; large, mostly peaceful public demonstrations centering on a legitimate community grievance, repressed by security forces armored and armed to the teeth, ready to move in with heavy force at the slightest hint of disorder. The news website GlobalPost even updated its list of “photos that suggest tear gas unites us all” to include pictures from Ferguson alongside similar images from protests in Bahrain, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. Only this time, it wasn’t happening in some far-away, “developing” nation. It was happening right in the heartland of America.

On August 19, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the officer in charge of operations in Ferguson, defended the police response under his command, which has included the widespread use of tear gas (banned under international law in military combat scenarios) and other “non-lethal” weapons such as “stun grenades,” “LRADs” and “rubber bullets.” “These are not acts of protesters,” Johnson said, referring to scattered reports of property destruction as well as gunfire, rocks and molotov cocktails aimed at police from the crowd. “These are acts of violent criminals.”

As police attempted to disperse various groups of demonstrators amidst sporadic looting on the night of August 15, reports surfaced of local residents taking it upon themselves to protect the properties being menaced during the chaos. In many cases, protesters have reportedly helped protect each other from the police, whom many journalists and community leaders have accused of using intimidation and excessive force. Rather than helping the community police itself, the security forces in Ferguson appear to have assumed an adversarial stance toward the people they are meant to protect.

Some of the most interesting criticism of the police response in Ferguson has come from former and current US military personnel. One veteran tweeted, “In the [US Air Force], we did crowd control and riot training every year. Lesson 1: Your mere presence has the potential to escalate the situation.” Another noted, “A few people have pointed it out, but our [rules of engagement] regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in MO.”

The militarized police presence has likely contributed to the unrest. Ferguson local Miller Gardner told the Daily Beast “It’s messed up [that the police are] suited for war against civilians…I’m not on that side and I’m in the military. They need to come on this side of the line.” “I don’t know why they hate us so much,” an 11 year-old boy told a local reporter. “It seems like police are about to go to war with the people.” In fact, the only peaceful night of the protests was the evening of August 14, when Capt. Johnson, on his first day in command, walked the protest route with fellow officers and local residents and ordered the police to leave behind their gas masks and “MRAPs.”

The Defense Department has defended the so-called “1033” program, by which some $4.3 billion worth of “excess” military equipment has been transferred to local police departments around the country since the mid-1990s. In St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, the program has provided the police with six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, a bomb disposal robot, three helicopters, seven humvees and two night vision devices since 2007, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

President Obama has hinted that the 1033 program may need to be reviewed in light of recent events, but civil rights organizations have been warning about the dangers of police militarization in the United States for years. In June 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union released an extensive report documenting the “unnecessarily and dangerously militarized” practices of modern American policing and detailing the prominent role played by the War on Drugs in this development.

Some commentators have pointed out a correlation between campaign donations from military contractors and congressional votes in favor of the 1033 program. In June 2014, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act to prevent the sale of heavy-duty military equipment to local police forces, despite extensive polling data showing Americans are increasingly weary and wary of war in general.

Private prison companies, police and correctional officers unions, weapons manufacturers, and companies in the alcohol and pharmaceutical industry all have an interest in maintaining prohibitive drug policies and the high crime and incarceration rates that accompany them. As a recent headline at the Open Secrets blog put it, “Money, not morals drives [the] prohibition movement.”

The ACLU report mentioned above is aptly titled “The War Comes Home.” The War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism have melded into a sort of Forever War being waged virtually everywhere – even within the United States. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that the Department of Homeland Security spends tens of billions of dollars annually on domestic security. As this handy government map makes clear, the United States gives billions in foreign aid, much of it for security assistance, to nearly every country on earth.

The United States has also played a critical role in training, arming and diplomatically supporting many countries’ security forces, including some that have been credibly and repeatedly accused of serious human rights abuses, corruption and impunity throughout its history. It seems only logical that the issues faced in those countries would be mirrored by similar issues within the US domestic police forces.

For example, Customs and Border Protection (as it describes itself “one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world”) has grown rapidly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. Many agents have been accused of human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and even ties to organized crime. James F. Tomsheck, the recently ousted chief of internal affairs for the agency, said that Border Patrol suffers from an “institutional narcissism” that engenders widespread impunity for violations of rules and laws. A report from the American Immigration Council released in May 2014 found that 97 percent of internal investigations into detainee abuse complaints lodged against CBP agents ended with no disciplinary action taken.

On the evening of August 19, Amnesty International deployed a group of human rights observers to Ferguson. The Washington Post described it as “the first of its kind…in the United States.” Later that night, Amnesty’s Twitter account sent out a message that read: “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clean up its own human rights record.” Earlier that day, another young black man had been shot by police in the St. Louis area. A graphic video of the incident was released the following afternoon, essentially confirming the account given by the police but raising questions about the appropriateness of the two officers’ use of deadly force.

In media interviews and raw video footage being posted online, the frustration and tension in Ferguson has been increasingly apparent. The desire of the majority of residents to lawfully demonstrate and express their grievances – not to mention simply going about their daily lives – has been interrupted by police all too eager to treat large groups of mostly peaceful civilians according to the behavior of the most belligerent individuals among them. And they have plenty of equipment with which to quell any and all resistance.

In March 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Venezuelan government to end what he described as a “terror campaign” against its citizens. Dozens of police and civilians, some of them innocent bystanders, were killed during the following two months of  protests, with many anti-government factions overtly calling for and carrying out acts of violence. In April, Secretary Kerry again criticized President Maduro for “us[ing] security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly.”

Yet Secretary Kerry and other prominent US political figures have generally refrained from condemning the use of militarized tactics and force in Ferguson too strongly in public, if at all. It is easy to criticize a country like Venezuela, which receives virtually no security assistance from the United States, for inappropriate behavior by its security forces, but the United States provides billions of dollars worth of direct and indirect aid to countries, counties and cities whose militaries and police have similarly poor if not even worse human rights records.

The tweet from Amnesty International hits on an important point: if the United States government lacks sufficient mechanisms to ensure accountability for the funding it provides to its own domestic police forces, this raises questions about how effectively it can monitor and evaluate the vast multitude of programs and large amounts of funding that go into security assistance abroad.

Quick thoughts on the end of the World Cup

The scene at the World Cup final today could serve as a slightly absurd metaphor for the tournament as a whole. The crowd at Maracanã stadium, the site of Brazil’s infamous 1950 defeat to Uruguay, shouted crude insults at the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, grimacing, handed the trophy to the victorious German team “like a hot potato.” The song “Happy” by American musician Pharrell Williams played over the loudspeakers while the losing Argentine squad sulked in defeat.

Germans were partying hard. Their team had humiliated Brazil in the semi-final and managed to pull off the feat of becoming the first European team to win a World Cup hosted in South America. In a way, it was symbolic. The victor; Germany – the state most responsible for the pains that post-global financial crisis “austerity” brought to its European neighbors. The loser; Argentina – a country that has been demonized and attacked by Wall Street “vulture funds.” Brazil was left with a big, fat nothing.

The popular slogan “não vai ter Copa!” (“there will be no Cup”) became the quasi-official mantra of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest the waste and corruption FIFA and the World Cup came to represent for many Brazilians. Of course, almost nothing could have stopped the multi-billion dollar event from going forward. “Gringo” tourists and wealthy Brazilians were always going to get their Cup, and quite an exciting and well-managed one at that.

But “não vai ter Copa” was not meant literally (although it turned to be true in that sense as well). For the anti-Cup protesters, it meant that they knew the Cup was not meant for them. Many middle-income Brazilians chose to avoid the high prices and large crowds of tourists at the live matches, watching instead from their homes and local hangouts. The working classes were not even allowed sell beer near the stadiums. That privilege was reserved for FIFA sponsors like the Budweiser corporation.

While FIFA chief Sepp Blatter gleefully pointed to the lack of widespread protests during the Cup, he neglected to mention that state violence and repression played a major role in deterring dissent. As author Dave Zirin recently wrote, the international media largely ignored the story of “a population angry about the Cup, but terrorized into compliance.” In fact, there were various reports of police harassing and beating demonstrators and even journalists during anti-Cup protests on the day of the final match.

“FIFA go home” was another popular mantra of the anti-Cup crowd. The organization will go home, albeit with about $4.5 billion in untaxed profits. Economic growth forecasts for Brazil have fallen from a meager 1.7 percent earlier in the year to less than 1 percent recently. Some economists estimate that the World Cup and the Olympic Games planned for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro will only boost growth by about 0.2 percent in 2014.

The impoverished favelas will be left under militarized occupation – whether by security forces, drug gangs, or both – often without basic facilities like water and sewage. Giant “FIFA-quality” stadiums, like Manaus’s “spaceship in the jungle,” will host games played in front of half-filled stands. If this is the legacy of the World Cup in Brazil, one cannot help but wonder what the Olympics will bring. More over-budget, past-schedule projects? More workers’ deaths? More strikes and protests? More arrests and police brutality?

The answer is likely to be “all of the above.” The world may have stopped watching the Cup, but it should not stop watching Brazil.

Translation: Boos at Dilma, fights in the Maracanã and police brutality outside. It was a beautiful Cup but let’s not ignore problems. 

Chilean left wants actions not promises

On 10 June 2014, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Santiago, Chile, along with supporters in cities around the country, to protest the government’s proposed education legislation. The action was organized by the Chilean Student Confederation (Confech), the National High School Students Association (Cones) and the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (ACES) with the support of teachers’ unions…

Read this piece in its entirety at Southern Pulse.

Kerry’s Remarks Show US Hypocrisy on Venezuela

In remarks delivered to the Freedom Online Coalition Conference via teleconference yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “In Venezuela, the government has used security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly. And this has included blocking access to selected websites and limiting access to internet service in certain parts of the country.”

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua fired back today saying, “The Bolivarian government rejects [Kerry’s] statements…Violent groups encouraged by the government of the United States burned a communications center. So, we reject this baseless and misguided statement…”

There have been reports in the past that Venezuela has exercised censorship over the internet, but in general, the portrayal of Venezuela’s hostility toward freedom of speech is overblown.

Nevertheless, let’s examine the hypocrisy of Secretary Kerry’s assertions – first, the claim that “the government has used security forces to disrupt peaceful protests.” As I’ve noted before, not all of the anti-government protesters in Venezuela are peaceful – and some have said outright that they are not.

During the Occupy protests of 2011 in the United States, reports of police brutality against peaceful protesters were routine. In one particularly egregious instance, a police officer at the University of California Davis pepper-sprayed a group of non-violent protesters while being filmed by an onlooker. A few weeks later, an 84-year-old woman was among those pepper-sprayed during a march in Seattle. Occupy activist Cecily McMillan elbowed a New York City police officer who violently grabbed her breast at a demonstration in March 2012. She was then beaten severely, suffered a seizure and was initially refused medical treatment by the police. McMillan currently faces up to seven years in prison for “assaulting” the officer.

This is not to say that police abuse is acceptable. Obviously, it’s not. But as journalist Chris Hedges recently wrote of the Occupy protests:

I saw police routinely shove protesters and beat them with batons. I saw activists slammed against police cars…I saw, and was caught up in, mass arrests in which those around me were handcuffed and then thrown violently onto the sidewalk. The police often blasted pepper spray into faces from inches away, temporarily blinding the victims. This violence, carried out against nonviolent protesters, came amid draconian city ordinances that effectively outlawed protest and banned demonstrators from public spaces…The message the state delivered is clear: Do not dissent.

The point is, this is not a problem to which the United States is immune – and, for what it’s worth, the Venezuelan government is investigating officers involved in abuses of demonstrators.

Now, how about “limiting access to internet service in certain parts of the country”?

Under a plan devised during the administration of George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security apparently has the capability to do exactly that. The agency is currently fighting a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to divulge the details, but according to an executive order issued in July 2012, DHS can shut down communications networks during national emergencies.

Also, it’s not as though American officials have never shut down communications networks in the event of protests. In 2011, the San Francisco public transit agency known as BART shut down the subway system’s wireless network, presumably to thwart protests against the killing of a homeless man by police.

Whatever you make of Secretary Kerry’s claims about the Venezuelan government’s “terror campaign against its own citizens“, it is undeniably hypocritical for US officials to lambast a foreign government for “us[ing] security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit[ing] freedoms of expression and assembly,” when their own government has engaged in similar behavior so recently.