Dictatorship turned colony

As Haiti prepares for elections, an exiled activist tells David Shanks why he thinks the UN mission in his country amounts to a 'new colonial occupation', one which oversees a security situation worse than under the infamous Duvalier dictatorship

Haiti's basket-case story is usually buried on inside pages in our newspapers, if it is covered at all. For more than 200 years the story of Latin America's first independent nation has been almost all bad news.

Even its news timing has been unfortunate. In February 2004, when its first freely elected president, the former Salesian priest Jean Bertrand Aristide, was removed – he says by the US – the occupation of Iraq was entering its vortex of chaos and brutality. Iraq was the story. The ousting of Aristide remains a mystery, but made headlines for only a few days. As Haiti prepares for new elections next month, today's news items speculate that the poorest country in the Americas – one with a heritage of slavery – is headed for civil war.

But Obed Alexis, a Haitian activist/journalist, believes his country is already in civil war. He says it has been since the messianic, left-wing Aristide was shafted for the second time since 1991. Alexis demands an independent inquiry into the coup.

And he wants it to look at the role of the US, Canada and France, which was the colonial power until 1804. The US had been particularly appalled at the election of a turbulent priest who saw capitalism as a mortal sin. Animatedly, Alexis holds out an edition of the Paris-based Haiti Tribune, which he writes for in exile, with a picture of the bloodied bodies of four young men lying in a street of a poor, pro-Aristide area of Port-au-Prince, the capital, under the headline, "Permit to kill in Haiti". He says this is "civil war".

In spite of the venal, brutal years of the voodooist "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier dictatorships, portrayed chillingly in Graham Greene's The Comedians, Alexis says the security situation has never been worse in Haiti. Indeed he says his country is under a "new colonial occupation" by the US, Canada and France.

Many of Haiti's poor love Aristide and want him to come back from his South African exile. But he will not be among the 30 candidates standing in the 20 November presidential and legislative elections.

In spite of not finishing either of his two terms, the constitution precludes him from standing, but he is still a powerful force, with several of the candidates defining themselves in terms of their allegiance or opposition to him. Many of them woo his followers. Although Alexis is a supporter of Aristide, he would not like to see the constitution altered just so that he could serve another term. He acknowledges Aristide made mistakes while in power, though he had the best political ideas.

The "international community" has been much harder on Aristide, portraying him as a corrupt drugs trafficker. Alexis rejects that, but says Aristide was unable to control the trade. "When you get into power you get involved or go out of the system". Aristide was no exception. He also armed his supporters, les chimères, who were under attack from the police and the elite's mercenaries. Alexis makes constant reference to "invisible hands" in Haiti's chaotic politics.

Damage was also done to the Aristide project by the deal he had to accept to be reinstated by Bill Clinton. In a recent interview Aristide said his relations with Washington were damaged by three things: "Privatisation, privatisation, and privatisation". He was forced to sell off state enterprises, including telecoms, and electricity.

Alexis says Aristide also had to reduce health and education spending. He used some of the money raised to build a public school, but there was also a US aid embargo and there simply wasn't enough money to govern. Aristide's mistake here was a refusal to publicise good things he did do, he says.

France became an enemy of Aristide in late 2003 when he shocked Paris by demanding $21 million as "a repayment" due since 1804. Aristide estimated this was the present-day equivalent of the 150 million francs the then new black republic paid France in return for its recognition of independence.

This demand was the last straw. "In concert with the Canadians and the Americans the French decided to put an end to 'l'experience Aristide'", Alexis told a Latin America Solidarity Centre meeting in Dublin last weekend.

Now an 8,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, led by Brazil, "is not helping in any way". When the Haitian police go into poor areas, which are often pro-Aristide, and kill with impunity, the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) "go in and do the same".

An instance of this is indeed suggested by killings when 300 UN troops last July stormed the pro-Aristide slum of Cité Soleil. The UN said five were killed in what it called a necessary action against violent armed gangs. But residents said 20 had died and that the reason for the attack was their militancy and their demand for Aristide's return.

With killing of civilians a daily occurrence, Alexis is calling for an end to these activities and those of paramilitary mercenaries under police control.

He believes the UN Security Council has participated in an international "tutelage" over Haiti. According to Resolution 1529 of February 2004, the international community was given authorisation to intervene in Haiti for at least 10 years. "During this period of tutelage the Haitian state will not exist."

"The international community of the United States" wants Haiti under control, Alexis says. He believes the motivations of the neo-colonialists may come down to two factors:

• One US interest is in establishing another Caribbean military base at Môle Saint-Nicolas, he claims.

• A strong interest of Canada is its Haitian diaspora of hundreds of thousands, centred mainly in greater Montreal. This has spawned a considerable street gang problem. He says Canada hopes a stable Haiti might mean many Haitians would return home.

Though Alexis did not mention it, Canada's role in Haiti has seemed relatively benign. Unlike the US under Clinton and Bush, Canada maintained its aid programme during Aristide's rule and regularly consults its diaspora on how it might play a part in putting Haiti together as a democratic, stable entity.

But Alexis stresses a report by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), commissioned by Canada's parliamentary foreign affairs committee. FOCAL had been asked to report on a system for post-Aristide Haiti. Alexis sees this as evidence that the occupation was planned.

The report said the institutions of this "failed state" had stopped functioning because of violence, drugs trafficking, transnational criminality and economic collapse. But Alexis says "one could suspect the capitalist states" of having organised these instabilities to justify the occupation "or, if you prefer, to justify putting Haiti under its guardianship".

The report urged an energetic lead role for Canada and proposed a system closely resembling the UN regime in East Timor immediately following its 1999 vote for independence. That only lasted less than three years.

The Haiti report ends with a family-tree type graphic which places the president on the fourth tier. The Organisation of American States, and donors Brazil, Canada, CARICOM (the Caribbean Community and Common Market), France, the US, the World Bank and the International Development Bank are at the top.

The report says that "given the chaotic political landscape, the error of a rush to elections as in Bosnia must be avoided. First elections should be at the municipal level". Alexis says "the imperialists contradict themselves" here and yet are determined to hold presidential elections next month. He even suggests "something is going to happen at the level of insecurity to show that Haitians are incapable of ruling themselves so that tutelage of Haiti can be definitively wrapped up."

Before 1986, when the Duvalier dictatorship ended, drugs were not a problem, says Alexis. Cocaine use had been confined to the oligarchy. But after the dictatorship, planes began to fly over and drugs were thrown down. "Some think it was the CIA," says Alexis conspiratorially. Once the population got to know what drugs were, the planes landed and an "invisible hand" put them on ships which took them to the US. The ships came back with weapons.

Today, 21 per cent of Colombian cocaine for the US and Canada comes through Haiti, says Alexis. In a reference to fleeing Haitian boat people he adds: "People get sent back but not drugs."

René Préval, prime minister under Aristide and later his successor, had an accord with Washington to control the airspace against drugs, but Haiti did not have the equipment to do it. This did not prevent Haiti being accused of dealing in the trade, though the US had the planes to stop it, says Alexis. Préval is a candidate next month, but Alexis offers no prediction of the result.

Many others doubt it but Alexis says the elections may well be free and fair, though so far only two of the five million eligible to vote have been given registration cards. "But", he says, "it will make no difference" to a society now armed to the teeth.

Last week Condoleezza Rice visited Haiti and told the unelected interim government many see as illegal to insure that the elections are fair. Alexis doesn't believe her sincerity. He says: "If the elections are not fair it will be her friends who will win.

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