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Revisiting the Haitian Coup 10 Years Later

02/28/2014 12:21 EST | Updated 04/30/2014 05:59 EDT

The February 2004 coup against the democratically elected Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, serves as a potent example of how Canada's aid program and foreign policy can undermine democratic development. Some will undoubtedly find the preceding statement surprising, if not disturbing, but the documentary record of Canada's relationship with Haiti supports it.

Aristide became Haiti's first democratically elected president in 1990 and, following a period out of power, was elected to the presidency a second time in December 2000. While Haiti's transition to democracy was hailed by many, including the majority of poor Haitians who suffered under the previous rule by dictatorial elites, Aristide posed a particular challenge for western powers: his policy platform was unapologetically geared towards rectifying the economic and political inequality that defined the country -- he got rid of the military, sharply boosted the minimum wage, and demanded that the former colonial power, France, pay reparations in the billions of dollars, among many other initiatives that angered local elites and western powers, and irked foreign businesses that depended (and still depend) on Haitian sweatshops.

It was only a question of time, then, before western powers could construct an opportunity to undermine Aristide and get rid of him. Enter the May 2000 legislative elections, which suffered a relatively minor irregularity with a portion of the senatorial race (worth comparing to Canada's recent elections scandals, certainly), but was otherwise described by the official OAS Electoral Observation Mission as a "great success" and a "high point in the electoral process."

Despite this, the United States and Canada pounced on the irregularity and used it to launch a campaign to eject Aristide (and his ideals) from power. They claimed that he lacked legitimacy, despite his party winning 72 of 83 seats in the undisputed lower-house elections, while even an internal memo from Foreign Affairs Canada acknowledged that "the main candidate" for the presidential elections later that year would be "Aristide, who observers foresee as the likely winner."

On the economic and foreign aid front, so-called international donors quickly moved to punish Haiti by withholding an aid package worth $550 million. Meanwhile, bilateral funding from Canada via the now-former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was cut by more than half between 2000 and 2002, from roughly $39 million to $19 million. (It was widely acknowledged at the time of the coup that this drastic international aid cutoff "left Haiti struggling to meet even basic needs and weakened the authority" of Aristide; in the words of economist Jeffrey Sachs, "Haiti's economy went into a tailspin.")

At the same time, foreign powers, including Canada, continued and in some cases increased funding to non-state actors and the opposition, further empowering them economically and politically while undermining the capacity of the elected government to function. In fact, following the coup, a CIDA report acknowledged that the shift in aid had led to the "creation of parallel systems of service delivery, eroding legitimacy, capacity and will of the state to deliver key services."

On the diplomatic front, then-Canadian Foreign Affairs minister Bill Graham expressed his "frustration" with Aristide, first saying that the Haitian leader had to live up to his commitments and work with the opposition to resolve the domestic political impasse, and then that he should "voluntarily resign." (Incredibly, following the coup, Graham continued to claim in the House of Commons that Aristide "resigned", while the Conservative foreign affairs critic for the Opposition, Stockwell Day, criticized the Liberals for having "supported a regime change of an elected leader.")

An internal government memo clearly shows, however, that Canada understood that Aristide had been genuinely seeking cooperation with the opposition, but that "the non-governmental groups are not interested in talks leading to a return to negotiations with the Government of Haiti..." This observation was repeated in a subsequent memo, which noted that "the opposition and civil society groups rejected ... any initiative that involve talks with Aristide..."

Moreover, Canadian government officials also charged that Aristide used armed gangs to terrorize the population, thereby necessitating a regime change. Yet internally, it was openly acknowledged that Aristide's reliance on gangs was a desperate attempt to defend his government against an armed insurrection (again, funded by foreign powers). In early February, three weeks before the coup, Canada's ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Cook, wrote to Ottawa observing that the police, defunded like all other public services in Haiti, were "leaving their posts" across the country, which "explains why President Aristide is turning more and more to the gangs and thugs to do policing duties like retaking police stations..." Indeed, the widely-respected and mainstream International Crisis Group said the same in its analysis: "urban gangs received money, logistical support and weapons from the National Police because the [Aristide] government saw them as a bulwark against the coup."

Concomitantly, there are indications that the armed rebels who crossed into Haiti from the Dominican Republic and overran the capital, displacing Aristide, received varied support, including weapons, from the U.S. via 'democracy promotion agencies' and the Central Intelligence Agency, additional evidence of which will presumably be declassified in the future, as it usually is. What is indisputable, though, is that on the night of February 29, 2004, Aristide was put on an American plane by U.S. forces and sent against his will to the Central African Republic.

And so it is with this context -- an armed opposition emboldened by foreign support facing down a democratically elected government severely starved and weakened as a result of international economic isolation -- that Aristide's tenure leading up to the coup should be assessed. But none of this mattered then. What mattered was that Aristide's left-wing ideals, endorsed by the majority of Haitians, but unappetizing to foreigners, including Canada, had to be ejected -- ignominiously, as it was, on the bicentennial of Haiti's independence.

Of course, this is not to say that Aristide was without flaws; he had many, serious flaws. But Haiti, my country of origin, had been violently enslaved for centuries, first at the hands of Christopher Columbus, followed by those of the French, then the Americans, up to those of the vicious Duvalier regime. Aristide therefore faced an incredible, if not impossible, mission in leading Haiti's transition to a stable democracy, a formidable challenge for any politician. A challenge where Canada could have played a constructive rather than destructive role.

As James Bartleman, Jean Chrétien's diplomatic advisor, has observed, "Aristide was no more corrupt in 2004 than he had been in 1994. He had, however, fallen out of favour with Washington and Paris." And, one should add, Ottawa.

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