Sunday, November 14, 2010

FROM DICTATORSHIP TO DEMOCRACY, Haiti: Ten Years After the September 30, 1991 Coup d’état

Note: Written collaboratively and released in September 2001


Office of the Foreign Press Liaison, National Palace, Haiti
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Haiti:  Ten Years After the September 30, 1991 Coup d’état

This is not a civil war.  There is no confrontation.  The violence comes from one side alone.  We feel there is a deliberate policy to eliminate Aristide partisans, to break the back of the pro-democracy movement and to terrorize the population.
A Ranking UN human rights official in Haiti, The Miami Herald, April 6, 1994


The September 30, 1991 military coup d'etat in Haiti, the bloodiest coup in 200 years of difficult history is rooted in a continuum of struggle for democratic change in Haiti.  The continuum stretches back from before September 1991, out to today, and into the future.  Although the contours of the struggle change, the objectives have always been liberty and dignity: liberty, of the body and of thought and expression, and the dignity of having the basic materials for human existence: food, shelter, healthcare and education.

This struggle has borne fruit, Haiti's democracy dividend.  Irreversible progress in politics, justice and security has paved the way for fundamental and tangible improvements in the daily lives of Haitians.  The brutal army was dismantled and replaced by a civilian police force, the number of public high schools doubled since 1994. An aggressive campaign to collect unpaid tax and utility bills has generated record revenues for the struggling government, and an extensive land reform program has distributed 2.47 acres of land to each of 1,500 peasant families.  The government has also aggressively pursued an open market approach that has resulted in the development of a competitive and vibrant telecommunication sector and the reopening of the flourmill and cement plant. 

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: 200 Years of Struggle

Haiti's very existence was born of the struggle for liberty and dignity.  The world's first   independent Black Republic, and only successful slave revolt, emerged in 1804 after a long war with Napoleon's France.  Haiti immediately faced a hostile international community that, in some cases waited a full sixty years before recognizing her.  Some countries only recognized Haiti after payment of a crippling indemnity of 150 million francs to France and the former slave owners.  This amount represented close to ten times the country's annual gross domestic product.  The payment of funds borrowed for the indemnity was not completed until 1922.  The burdensome repayment schedules denied Haiti the opportunity for any real economic development in the early years of the Republic.  Haiti was set on a devastating course of borrowing funds to re-pay an ever-growing debt.

Haiti's chronic indebtedness to foreign banks became a pawn in a scheme of    international financing with political repercussions at home.  Short-lived governments changed often in the years leading up to the nineteen-year United States occupation that began in 1915.  The Armed Forces of Haiti was created during the occupation as a "stabilizing," albeit repressive, force in the country.  The link between the new army and foreign financial interests was made clear when the occupiers seized all customs receipts, and used some of the proceeds to pay the salaries of U.S. officers.

The twenty-nine years of the Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship starting in 1957 institutionalized a system of corruption, violence, economic and social apartheid, and total political repression in Haiti.  By 1986, the year Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted from Haiti, the wealthiest 1% of the population had managed to seize 40% of the national income.  The army and a network of its henchmen, including section chiefs and the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes guaranteed fiscal impunity and maintained the Duvaliers' political stranglehold through brutality.  In 29 years, 20,000 people are said to have been killed.  The repression fueled the first mass exodus of refugees from Haiti, many fleeing on the high seas in substandard boats.

A partial government investigation documented over $570 million stolen by Jean-Claude Duvalier and his supporters in the last years of his reign.

In 1986, a broad based democratic movement in Haiti propelled Duvalier's expulsion.  In 1987, a new Constitution designed to undo the structural corruption and repression, decentralize political power from the city to the countryside, and create a civilian police force, was ratified by 99% of those voting.  A progressive youth movement arose, and along with progressive Catholic Church groups called ti legliz, or "the little church," battled to lower entrenched illiteracy and raise living standards for all Haitians.  Workers created labor unions and fought to improve working conditions.

In contrast to civil society's progress towards democracy, the successive military regimes that followed the Duvaliers fought to maintain "Duvalierism without Duvalier."  The civilian police force was not established.  The first elections under the new Constitution, in November 1987, were aborted by military and paramilitary massacres at voting centers.  The cycle of violence, repression and corruption continued.  Democratic change would not come easy. 

In the fall of 1990, Haiti prepared for presidential elections that many feared would again end in violence.  On the   final day of registration, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a parish priest who had risen to national prominence in the democratic movement, became a candidate.  The announcement electrified the country, and after a 6-week campaign President Aristide was elected in Haiti's first free and fair election with an overwhelming 67% of the vote among a field of 13 candidates.

The new government pursued a program of social change based on the principles of participation, transparence and justice.  It began the difficult task of cleaning up a corrupt civil service, enforcing tax codes, delivering services to citizens and fighting drug trafficking. The government promised to raise the minimum wage and pursue the literacy campaign thwarted by the military regimes.  The international community applauded the reforms, and donors pledged funds to the new government.  Haitians enjoyed a period of relative security, with military violence and criminal activity sharply reduced.  The tide of political refugees fleeing Haiti by boat dropped significantly, and many exiles returned.  The human rights situation improved dramatically, with unprecedented freedom of speech, press and association, and an end to state-sponsored violence.

This progress ended on September 30, 1991, when the Haitian military violently overthrew the democratic government.  President Aristide and his government were forced into exile.  The military unleashed a campaign of terror and violence that in three years took the lives of over 5,000 Haitians, forced 300,000 into internal exile, and more than 100,000 onto the high seas under dangerous conditions.  The terror and political turmoil aggravated a growing AIDS  epidemic: the displacement quickened the spread of AIDS from urban to rural areas, and the well-documented introduction of rape as a form of political repression exposed thousands of women to the disease.

The coup targeted peasant organizations, the ti legliz groups, journalists, students, members of political parties, residents of Port-au-Prince slums that were strongholds of support for President Aristide and anyone advocating democratic change.  Some victims were chosen solely because of family or neighborhood links to the democracy movement.  The brutality was psychological as well as physical: victims' bodies were left on prominent streets for days, where they were eaten by pigs and dogs.

Despite these horrors, the majority of Haitians continued their non-violent resistance to the military regime.  On October 15, 1994, constitutional order
was restored to Haiti by the U.S.-led multinational intervention force, pursuant to United Nations Security Council   Resolution 940.  Although part of the force's mandate, full disarmament of the former soldiers, paramilitaries and other enemies of democratic change was never achieved. 

The top military and paramilitary leaders were given refuge abroad, and many
of their collaborators were protected within Haiti. 

Today, the struggle to sustain democracy in every facet of Haitian life continues.  Democratic change remains the driving force behind the improvements made in Haitian society over the last seven years.  It powers the campaigns to reverse the illiteracy rate (now down to 55% from 85%), to provide basic services to all Haitians, to move the nation from "misery to poverty with dignity."

The Haitian people understand that there are powerful opponents to democratic change, both in and outside of Haiti.  They know that democracy's opponents will spare no effort, and will use an array of strategies and alliances to perpetuate the country's structural injustices from which a few benefit so much.  Nonetheless, the majority remains steadfast in its commitment to move  forward.

Politics, Justice & Security

Politics Under the Dictatorship

The 1991 coup d'etat dashed Haitians' hopes that democracy had finally ended their history of repression.  In place of the exiled democratic leadership, the de facto authorities imposed an illegal "parallel" president and government.  Most pro-democracy leaders fled.  Those who stayed to advocate for the rule of law were persecuted, and tortured, even killed.   Minister of Justice Guy Malary was executed for insisting on doing his job.

Haiti's progress on the international scene was halted.  International support and praise was halted and replaced by diplomatic isolation, an embargo, and eventually a commercial flight ban.     Foreigners who insisted on democracy, including human rights monitors from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, as well as the French Ambassador, were expelled.

Politics and the Restoration of Democracy

When the U.S.-led Multi-National Forces arrived in September, 1994, the troops were greeted with an enthusiasm commensurate with Haitians' belief that they brought democracy with them, and that the electoral choices of the people would finally be respected. The enthusiasm never died, but it was tempered by actions that threatened to circumscribe the Haitian electorate's free choice.  The military leadership was flown off to gilded exile and impunity in Central America and the United States.  Their luxurious houses in Haiti were rented by foreign embassies.  Emmanuel Constant, leader of the hated FRAPH terrorist paramilitary organization, was represented to the Haitian people as a political leader, and his death squad as a legitimate political party. The Multinational Forces raided FRAPH and military facilities, and confiscated over 160,000 pages of documents, including photos of those tortured and killed during the coup regime.

President Aristide quickly named a government to take control of the state apparatus from those responsible for the coup regime to re-start the consolidation of democracy and to begin the process of reconciliation within Haitian society.  In order to bring as many people as possible into the effort, the government was broad-based, including opposition leaders and some former soldiers not implicated in human rights violations.  Although reconciliation was an important objective, the government refused to accept a superficial reconciliation, and insisted on justice -- still the number one priority of the Haitian people.

Politics Under Democracy

On February 7, 1996, President Aristide became the first Haitian president to leave voluntarily at the end of his original term.  He passed the mantle to President Rene Preval, Haiti's second freely elected president, who would later make history as the first president to serve out his full original term in office, no more, no less.  When President Preval passed the mantle back on February 7, 2001, a rhythm of democracy was established.  For the first time in Haiti's history, it   became realistic to calculate when the current president and his successors would take office, and when they would leave.

Both Presidents Preval and Aristide formed governments from a broad spectrum of Haitian society, including members of opposition parties and representatives of the private sector.   Although persistent political conflicts created distractions during both administrations, both managed to make substantial progress toward the Haitian people's goal of human rights and dignity.  (A chart outlining the progress the democratic government has achieved is attached.)

The Haitian electorate has been given abundant opportunity to register its political choices since democracy's return.  In 1995, elections were held for all seats in the House of Deputies, two-thirds of the Senate, all municipal posts, and president.  In 1997, elections were held for the remaining third of the Senate, for the House of Deputies, local mayors and for local councils called Assemblées Section Communale, or ASECs.  The ASECs are vital to the Haitian political system because they choose the people who nominate judges and members of the Permanent Electoral Council, who   in   turn   oversee   the elections.  Although it was established by the 1987 Constitution, the ASEC system has never been fully implemented.

In 2000 elections were held again, first in May for all municipal and most legislative seats, and later in November for president and the remaining legislators.  The first elections were by many standards the best in Haiti's history.  A record amount of candidates (29,500) competed for a record number of seats (7,500).  A record number of citizens registered (almost 4 million) to vote, and a record number (over 60% of those registered) voted.  The OAS observer mission called Election Day "a great success for the Haitian population, which turned out in large and orderly numbers… and for the Haitian National Police… who had been able to keep order quietly and effectively."

Although seven of the approximately 7,500 races were challenged due to a technical dispute on how to calculate majorities in an at-large race, the voters consistently made two things clear: 1) by participating en masse, they showed their intent to continue the struggle for freedom and dignity through the ballot box, and 2) over and over again they chose the party and platform of Fanmi Lavalas to continue this struggle.

Fanmi Lavalas' reform program has been hampered by a series of political disputes, particularly in Parliament.  The last legislature, the 46th, passed nine laws in its four years from 1995 to 1999.  In particular, it failed to initiate the process of amending the Constitution to eliminate the armed forces, although such a measure is supported by an overwhelming majority of Haitians.  Under the amendment process, the legislature must pass a proposed amendment by a two-thirds vote during its last session.  If the subsequent legislature ratifies it by another two-thirds vote at its first session, it becomes law upon the installation of the next president.

The current legislature is striving to make up for lost time, despite an ongoing dispute over seven senate's seats.  In its first ten months, it has already passed significant laws including Haiti's first money laundering regulations, and unprecedented protections for children's rights, including a prohibition on corporal punishment and all forms of violence against children.

Since the return of democracy in 1994, Haiti has steadily increased its standing in the international community. Its democratic government is recognized by all countries, and has been accepted as the first non-Anglophone member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).  It participates fully in the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and in many other bilateral and multilateral activities.  The UN/OAS human rights mission that was twice expelled by the coup leaders returned with President Aristide and stayed until its mandate ended in February 2001.  Haiti recently invited the OAS to send an electoral mission.  Since 1995, Haiti has hosted many international gatherings, including a meeting of OAS foreign ministers and the World Health Organization's regional meeting.  Haiti has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and signed the treaty creating the International Criminal Court.

Challenges Ahead For Politics

The primary challenge for Haitian society has been unchanged since 1987: the full implementation of the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.  Parliamentary elections must be held as scheduled and according to law, and must acquire the same rhythm of democracy as the presidential elections.  The ASEC system, which chooses the Permanent Electoral Council that ultimately gives elections credibility, has never been implemented in the Constitution's 14 years, and needs to be.  Although several of the provisional electoral councils have done good work under difficult circumstances, the Constitution only contemplated the first one as a transitional measure. As long as the electoral councils are provisional,
the elections they run, no matter how fair, will be subject to attack.

The complete implementation of the Constitution will require the participation of a broad spectrum of Haitian society and the international community.  But we must not lose sight of the imperative that majority rule is the touchstone of democracy.  Although compromises regarding election procedures may be necessary to resolve the current impasse, they cannot compromise the fundamental right of the Haitian electorate to choose its own leaders.

Justice Under the Dictatorship

In 1990, the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights reported that "[t] here is no system of justice in Haiti.  Even to speak of a 'Haitian justice system' dignifies the brutal use of force by officers and soldiers, the chaos of Haitian courtrooms and prisons, and the corruption of judges and prosecutors."  The rights of the accused were systematically ignored during all of Haiti's dictatorships.  Arrests were routinely effected without a warrant, and those arrested could be held for years, often for political reasons, without being formally charged.  Civil cases moved very slowly, and generally involved bribes.  Courtroom proceedings were conducted almost exclusively in French, which was understood by the lawyers and judges, but not most defendants, victims, witnesses and citizens.  Popular organizing or education with respect to justice issues was discouraged, often
with bullets.

The justice system descended even further during the 1991-1994 dictatorship.  The military and their paramilitary allies dominated the system, and judges and prosecutors either did their bidding or were themselves arrested or persecuted.  The system helplessly observed the repression, or actively participated in it.  None of the 5,000 politically motivated killings during that period were prosecuted, nor were the hundreds of thousands of cases of beatings, rape or other torture by the military and paramilitary forces.  A former prosecutor, on the stand in a trial for a coup era massacre, asked why he had not prosecuted anyone at   the time of the attack.  He admitted that he knew the authors, and had been legally obligated to pursue them, but invoked the Haitian Creole proverb: "the Constitution is paper, bayonets are
Prisons in Haiti have traditionally been both brutal and porous.  Those with money or influence escaped easily, while those left behind were routinely and brutally mistreated by the military guards.  Entire facilities were reserved for political prisoners.  Private homes were used as prisons, interrogation centers and torture chambers.  In   order to mask the abuses, prison records were shoddy or non-existent.  This made it difficult for lawyers and human rights advocates to establish claims of illegal detention.

Prisons deteriorated even further under the coup regime.  The dictators released many prisoners convicted of serious human rights violations, and filled the cells with people suspected of the slightest of pro-democracy activities. Beatings, torture and killings in the prisons were routine.

See Part II

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