Haiti, Clinton and the Movement

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

an interview with Cecilia Green

Cecilia Green is coordinator of the Haiti Solidarity Group in Ann Arbor. A native of Dominica in the West Indies, she currently teaches in the African-American Studies Department at Eastern Michigan University. Her three-part essay on the historiography of women in Caribbean slaver appeared in ATC 4O-41. She spoke with David Finkel of the ATC editorial board regarding the crisis in Haiti and United States policy.

Against the Current: Bill Clinton made one significant human rights promise during his campaign, to end the automatic repatriation of Haitian refugees. Instead he has blockaded Haiti to prevent its people from fleeing, a real world-class crime against humanity. What’s your analysis of administration policy?

Cecilia Green: I think that during Clinton’s campaign, when he talked about the refugee crisis in Haiti he isolated the refugee issue and couched it in humanitarian terms. What I think he knew, and what he left out, is the connection between the refugee issue and the long-term U.S. relation to Haiti. Once he came into office he realized there was no way he could deliver on that campaign promise in humanitarian terms, because it would have so great an impact on that long-term relationship.

The issue of returning Haitian refugees wasn’t a new one. In fact that whole policy was consolidated in a 1981 agreement between the Reagan administration and Duvalier, in violation of both international and U.S. domestic law at that time regarding refugees. That agreement basically gave the United States the right to patrol the Windward Straits off Haiti’s coast, to interdict so-called boat people on the premise that they were “illegal aliens” fleeing to the United States, and return them to Haiti.

There was one concession to international and U.S. domestic law, to provide for a token hearing for the refugees aboard U.S. Coast Guard cutters. Most human rights observers and refugee advocates and experts agreed those hearings were a farce. In any case there was this policy of interdiction on the high seas. For those who did reach the United States, immediate incarceration and, for most of them, deportation.

That policy was unique to Haitians. In fact, I have some data on this from the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. From 1981 until September 1991, over 24,000 Haitians had been interdicted at sea and all but 28 returned to Haiti. During the same period over 75,000 Cubans who arrived in the United States were promptly released from detention and given work permits.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Refugee Programs Brunson McKinley testified before two House subcommittees on June 11, 1991. Justifying the May 24, 1992 Bush executive other and deflecting claims that the policy was racist, especially in relation to the open door for the Cubans, McKinley said it wasn’t a question of discrimination against Haitians but a preferential treatment for the Cubans because “the Cubans are fleeing a repressive totalitarian regime.”

The implication of this, and of course the foundation of U.S. policy toward Haiti, is the claim that Haiti is not such a regime. The underlying notion is that this poor, Black, illiterate people don’t have a political or even physical humanity to be worried about. U.S. government policy has counted on the reputation of Haiti as the poorest and most backward population in the hemisphere, and has cultivated an attitude of indifference among the U.S. population.

The United States also needs to deny the existence of dictatorship in Haiti in order to maintain an anti-Communist ally in the Haitian government….

ATC: One might perhaps think that anti-Communism isn’t relevant any longer!

CG: Well, of course Haiti has only a sixty-mile stretch of water separating it from Cuba. This is absolutely a consideration today.

The de-facto current prime minister, Marc Bazin, has been Washington’s man in Haiti for a long time. In 1982 Reagan persuaded the Haitian regime to take him into the government. He supposedly was on a big anti-corruption campaign—Mr. Clean was his image. Actually, he had been an official at the World Bank and was a proponent of International Monetary Fund policies.

At the time of the accession of “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude Duvalier, the Americans were interested in the economic liberalization, structural adjustment policies, through which the economies of the Caribbean are to become the cheap labor supply for the hemisphere. In the early 1980s came an attempt to put an improved human rights’ face on the Duvalier government, through Bazin. Actually he was kicked out of the Haitian government after five months, but remained Washington’s man in Haiti.

In the elections finally held in December 1990, which mobilized a serious electoral challenge that swept Jean-Bertrand Aristide into office with 67% of the vote, Bazin received 13%—and that was with the backing of Washington and the middle classes. So it’s not a coincidence that he is now in effect the prime minister under the military rulers in Haiti.

I see Clinton’s policy as a continuation of Bush. When the military coup that overthrew Aristide first happened, Bush came out and made all the night noises condemning it. But he soon lapsed into silence, and we soon saw emerging in the press an apparently calculated propaganda campaign—not so much against the military government, which murdered 1500 Haitians in the first few weeks, but against alleged human rights abuses by the Aristide government.

The press also suppressed some strong evidence of U.S. involvement in the coup, though such involvement hasn’t been definitely proved. This seemed very calculated, and in a sense there’s a continuation of that policy under Clinton, to downplay Aristide’s importance as the leader of Haiti and describe him as “unreasonable.”

There’s this pre-occupation with negotiating amnesty for the coup leaders and ensuring a future role for them in government, so that Aristide would be their prisoner. I see Clinton as being strongly implicated in the attempt to return Aristide to office, only on condition that he goes back as a figurehead and pretty much powerless.

ATC: Let’s discuss the situation of the Haitian refugees interned on Guantanamo (the U.S. military base on the territory of Cuba).

CC.: The reported figures seem to fluctuate, but there are well over 200 HIV-infected people, and forty of their non-infected dependents, who have been “screened in”—meaning that they’ve been found to have plausible claims for political persecution, and entitled to hearing for asylum—who are denied entry to the United States. This policy has been confirmed with the defeat of the bill to remove HIV from the automatic exclusion list [conditions which exclude people from entry—ed.).

These people are behind razor wire, held prisoner in deteriorating physical conditions. A few were finally brought for treatment to the United States, where one child died and the mother put into detention. There’s a hunger strike at the detention facility on Guantanamo base, with people protesting their condition.

They live in tents, makeshift dwellings in the open sun. Periodically they’re taken to hospital for rehydration, then returned. There have been four, possibly more, suicide attempts, and allegations of sexual abuse were contained in a letter they smuggled out. (ACT-UP has published information on this.)

It’s really a desperate situation. Even the children are said to be retrogressing in their development, going through tremendous psychological trauma, not playing. This is a total outrage.

ATC: What is the nature of the popular movement in Haiti and its relation to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected and now exiled president? And can you explain perhaps why we hear so little about this movement?

CG: One reason for the isolation of Haiti as a political crisis, or human rights crisis if you will, has been a lack of awareness about the political organizing in Haiti. While people know about an overwhelming human rights tragedy, the left hasn’t seen a clear political group to identify with. There isn’t a single “national front” or centralized movement, so there is a tendency outside to think Haitians aren’t fighting back. I’ve even heard people say, we want to give support but there isn’t a movement in Haiti.

In reality there is a tremendous movement, as we know from news that is smuggled out by grassroots activists. Labor unions and peasants were organizing for a long time under the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship, and when he was kicked out that intensified tremendously.

That organizing thrust is what Aristide represented. He is a self-declared liberation theologist and, roughly speaking, a socialist—definitely a populist. And in a situation with a profound class-cultural cleavage, between a French-speaking elite and the side of the Africanist, speaking masses, masses, he stood on the side of the latter. His political importance was in presenting a clear break, for the first time, with Duvalierism.

He gave a space to the self-organization of the people, the beginning of empowerment of the popular organizations. From all accounts the self-mobilization that occurred since Duvalier was kicked out in 1986 increasingly accelerated under Aristide’s presidency. Some people referred to it as anarchist-populist pattern. Aristide stood for no deals with Duvalierism or with Bazin; his leadership encouraged this self-organization.

That movement continues today, but underground. Hundreds of thousands, as many as 300,000 Haitians are in hiding. One of the systematic policies of the military government has been to destroy people’s livelihoods—farms, granaries, homes, in one village 200 homes—so people are displaced and in hiding.

Yet they continue to struggle, and it is important for people to understand, even if there is not one centralized liberation movement In terms of an open movement that we can support now, there is the student movement, because the regime is carrying out a privatization of the university.

The (post-Duvalier) 1987 Constitution provided for the autonomy of the university, to be based on popularly elected officials. These elected boards have been dismissed by the government, and a government person installed as rector. The students have been waging a tremendous resistance struggle, which has intensified since December when a number of students were killed and many arrested, tortured and beaten. Many had to flee into hiding.

Many people are unaware of it, yet the student struggle continues. They are refusing to apply for the new ID cards they must show for entry to classes. Government spies and thugs have been placed on the campus. Many members of the faculty are standing firm with the students; they too are on strike.

I already mentioned the profound bicultural cleavage in Haiti, where the vast majority continues to be peasants and the elite is French-speaking. So it’s hard for an intellectual left (outside or inside Haiti) to find its connection to the masses. And any possibility of a protracted military struggle in Haitian conditions hasn’t been realistic, though I don’t know what might happen in a situation where the population is under siege—in any case the Haitian people are unarmed.

But there is this feeling that the devastation is so complete in Haiti—ecologically, socially, politically—that even the left within Haiti was surprised when the masses of people seized on the 1990 election as a hope. Aristide in his own campaign said: Either we completely embrace the election and use it to install a new government of the people, or we reject it completely—we cannot go halfway.

That caught on, and the left which had previously rejected elections as a solution, when it saw how the people embraced this election totally, also shifted gears. They saw that Aristide was a popular leader, with whom they could work.

ATC: What should be done for solidarity In the present situation?

CG: I think it’s absolutely important for us to resist the U.S. government effort to legitimize the existing Bazin government. Clinton isn’t saying that openly, of course, but my assessment is that this is what they are trying to do. They want a “reasonable UN solution” so that ultimately Bazin will save face. The press has been consistently pushing this notion of Bazin as a reasonable guy, in fact he is completely implicated in the murderous treatment of the Haitian people.

No deals with the Bazin government should be almost our primary focus. If we talk only about restoring Aristide to office, Clinton can say he agrees–but it would be only as a figurehead, and there’s no way we will accept that.

We in the Haiti Solidarity Group in Ann Arbor are trying to send a delegation to Haiti of local area residents, very much in the same spirit as the solidarity visits that have been sustained on a very high level during the struggles in Nicaragua and El Salvador. There must be a continual communication between the Haitian and American people, particularly in view of the cynicism of the United Nations and Organization of American States initiatives.

We need to be the eyes and voices for the Haitian people, to get the word out that there is a political movement that needs to be supported.

As a Haitian friend of mine keeps telling me: 80-85% of the Haitian people are illiterate, but more important, most of them are mono-lingual Creole speakers. When the official business of the government and the economy is conducted in another language—i.e. French—.the majority of the people are effectively locked out of the formal polity and economy.

There is thus a kind of dual economy and dual government. On the one hand there is an economy and government that is essentially a private business operation of the landowning elite. The other economy is based on the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). Its policy is an “export-led strategy” for Haiti, whereby production of domestic foods crops would be cut back and replaced by large-scale exports for the North American market. The Haitian people’s food needs would then be met by foreign aid.

The population would become a cheap labor reserve for a “modern sector” based on assembly plants, again for the U.S. market. USAID would direct the governmental administration, alongside the traditional government operation which operates with high taxation and draining the poor peasantry.

The ideals to make Haiti a “Taiwan of the Caribbean”—which is ridiculous, but that’s the ideal. Elsewhere there is at least a much more dynamic transfer of population into the modern economy, through education, raising literacy, etc. But in Haiti that transfer hasn’t taken place; the mass of the population remains economically and politically isolated. That situation must come to an end.

POSTSCRIPT: During a recent town hall meeting in Detroit, Clinton told a Haitian woman that “things are better in Haiti,” echoing the pronouncement made by Bush, when he signed the direct-return Haitian refugee order, that “l am convinced that the people of Haiti are not being physically oppressed.”

In his March 15 meeting with Aristide, Clinton laid down conditions for restoring the elected president: “national reconciliation and mutual respect for human rights, with a program for genuine economic progress.” [Clinton pointedly did not endorse Aristides proposals to make the economic embargo effective, freeze U.S. assets of coup supporters, cancel their visas and set a deadline for his reinstatement as president–ed.)

Clinton’s insistence on reconciliation is particularly cynical in light of the latest reports of open military violence. These include assaults on internationally respected dissidents in the presence of UN-OAS observers, and a defecting soldier being wrenched from the protective custody of U.S. embassy officials. Clinton is clearly setting the stage for the legitimation and preservation of the current government structures in Haiti.

May-June 1993, ATC 44