Unbeknownst to most Canadians, the Canadian government is taking a lead role in the continuation of the 200-year history of colonial plunder in Haiti. However, unlike the United States and France, the government of Canada is a relatively new player to the scene. Considering that Canada’s recent military foray into Haiti was launched from this region, citizens of Atlantic Canada have a particular responsibility to become more familiar with our government’s dealings within the poorest country in the Hemisphere.
As is well known, the 19th century began with the independence of the first black republic in world history, following a brutal 13-year revolution of Haitian plantation slaves against their French colonial masters. This revolution would provide much of the inspiration for the French Revolution in Europe, as well as numerous independence movements throughout Latin America. Prior to fighting for their own independence, many Haitians had fought alongside American revolutionaries in their attempts to throw off British Colonial rule. Despite this fact, the US refused to recognize Haiti as a state until 1862. By this time, Haiti had been crippled by a 150 million Franc “tribute” paid to France in order to end a crushing economic embargo. In order to make the first payment, all public schools were closed within this newly “independent” nation.
The Caribbean state was occupied by US marines in 1915 as a result of perceived threats to the interests of US-owned plantations by the government of Rosalvo Bobo. Haiti remained an annexed territory until 1934, by which time US marines had established a compliant military authority. The Haitian military would effectively run the country for the next 60 years, reaching its authoritarian peak under the rule of the Duvalier family. As a result of the historic growth of a vocal grassroots pro-democracy movement in Haiti, the rule of Jean-Claude Duvalier ended in the late 1980’s. Following this period, Haiti held the first truly democratic elections in its history. Jean Bertrand-Aristide, one of the leaders of the “Lavalas” (creole for “flashflood”) movement, was elected to power in a landslide, by a margin greater than any other elected leader in Latin American history. He would be deposed a year later by a military coup, supported and financed by the US State Department. The military regime of Raoul Cedras, which controlled Haiti from 1991-1994, is credited with killing as many as 4000 Haitians, and with causing a rush of as many as 100,000 refugees to the shores of Florida. Although Aristide was later reinstated by a US-led UN force, at a meeting of US, Canadian, and French officials, as well as representatives of the IMF and the World Bank, he was obliged to sign the Paris Accord, which committed Haiti to a stringent regime of privatization and free-market policies.
Despite this, Aristide’s policies often favoured the majority of the impoverished Haitian population from which he drew his support. Not unlike the government of Bobo in 1915, Aristides’s policies were perceived as a threat to US business interests within the region. Aristide stalled on a US and EU-backed privatization plan of state services, pursued a modest program of land reform, and raised the minimum wage, which remains today the lowest in the hemisphere. These reforms, as well as the example of a popular government rejecting many of the dictates of World Bank/IMF mandated free-market development policies, posed a threat to sweatshop manufacturers, mining companies, and agribusinesses based in North America and Europe. Aristide simply had to go.
Following a crushing international aid embargo, on February 29th of 2004, Aristide was escorted from power by US Marines while a small band of ex-military and paramilitary “rebels,” most of whom had received training by US Special Forces within the last ten years, took over the streets of Port-au-Prince. “Within hours,” reports a publication issued last summer by the San Francisco-based Haiti Action Committee, “[ex-]military forces were murdering Lavalas supporters in the capital.” As Aristide was flown out of the country onboard a US jet, Canadian Joint Task Force 2 troops were observed securing the airport, according to a March 1st Associated Press report published in newspapers across the country. Within one week of Aristide’s ouster, Canada had pledged 450 troops to a US-lead occupying force for Haiti, despite weeks of unanswered pleas from members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for the establishment of an international peacekeeping force to prevent the ex-military elite from destabilizing the country. By March 7th, a small advance team had left Halifax harbour for Haiti in order to set up a base of operations for Canadian troops. The CF contingent would depart from Gagetown, New Brunswick soon after.
What is most astounding is how open Canadian officials have been about their willingness to support a brutal coup of a democratic leader in Haiti. On February 26th, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham called for Aristide to step down, effectively parroting statements made that same day by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Days later, in an interview with the Toronto Star, Graham essentially admitted that the US, French, and Canadian intervention was meant to legitimise the coup:
Once the United States and France said they would not go in as long as Aristide was there, we had to decide would we go in on the invitation of Aristide to prop up the Aristide regime…our judgement was we couldn’t do that (“Haiti Stability Essential, Martin Says.” Toronto Star, March 4, 2005.)
Life in “stabilized” Haiti
The violence of the opposition-backed regime of Gerard Latortue has only increased since the coup. A report by the US-based National Lawyer’s Guild found that in March of 2004, 1000 unidentified bodies were dumped and buried by state morgues. The repression intensified following the 30th of September, during which members of the Haitian National Police fired live ammunition into a peaceful Lavalas demonstration calling for the return of Aristide. Two deaths resulted, according to human rights observers. From that point on, the Haitian National Police stepped up a campaign of arrest, beatings, and extrajudicial assassination of anyone deemed to be associated with Aristide’s Lavalas party. UN forces often provided back-up and support to the HNP during these raids. According to an October 17th radio interview with American journalist Kevin Pina, the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince had requested the Ministry of Health provide emergency vehicles to remove the more than 600 corpses which had piled up in the morgue in the space of only two weeks. Numerous well-documented massacres were carried that month by the Haitian National Police. One particularly well known massacre of 12 young men occurred in broad daylight in the Fort National neighbourhood on October 25th, according to a report issued by Amnesty International. Their bodies were left in the streets for several days.
The situation has not improved markedly within the past several months. Numerous journalists have been murdered by the HNP, including Abdias Jean, a Reuters correspondent, who was killed after witnessing a Haitian policeman executing three male youths in the Village de Dieu neighborhood. Although large demonstrations calling for Aristide’s return have continued throughout the country, these largely peaceful demonstrations have been met with severe violence. On February 28th, 2005, at a peaceful, permitted demonstration of 10,000 Haitians in Port-au-Prince marking the one year anniversary of the ouster of Aristide, police fired live ammunition into the crowd without warning, killing five. UN forces were present when this shooting occurred, but made no attempt to intervene. According to an interview carried out with grassroots leader and priest Father Gerard Jean-Juste, during a demonstration calling for the return of the Haitian Constitution in Port-au-Prince on March 29th, UN forces distributed pamphlets warning Haitians not to protest. UN forces then reportedly surrounded the peaceful, permitted demonstration as it headed toward the National Palace, and began indiscriminately tear-gassing and firing rubber bullets at demonstrators.
Canada’s Unflinching Complicity
Canada is complicit in each and every one of these acts of violence. The Haitian National Police are currently being trained by a 1600-member UN Civil Police Force, which has largely been under Canadian command since last summer. The UN Mission in Haiti, as well as the Canadian government, have thusfar failed to acknowledge the well-documented killings and detentions of human rights activists, journalists, grassroots activists, and ordinary Haitians which have been carried out by the HNP. In fact, in a report issued by the Miami-based Centre for the Study of Human Rights last January, members of the UN Civil Police Operations, as well as UN peacekeepers stated that their mission consisted of offering “back up” to HNP raids within poor neighbourhoods. A commander of the Civil Police from Quebec City was interviewed and stated that all he had done in Haiti was to “engage in daily guerrilla warfare.” The Brazilian head of the UN forces was quoted in a Reuters article in November as stating “we are under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence.” He cited France, the United States, and Canada among the countries pressing for the use of force.
Haitian government officials are currently on the payroll of the Canadian government as well. Philippe Vixamar, a minister within the Justice Department, has stated publicly that he was assigned to his position by the Canadian International Development Agency, and is currently on the CIDA payroll. CIDA is also employing Fernand Yvon, a senior advisor to President Gerard Latortue. Vixamar also denied that there were any political prisoners in Haiti in early November. Paul Martin, on a state visit to Haiti several days later, would make the same claim. In reality, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission has estimated that there are over 700 political prisoners throughout Haiti, including former Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and other ex-cabinet ministers within Aristide’s government.
Haitian Coup: Made in Canada?
However, in noting the Canadian role in legitimizing the current government, one cannot leave out the role Canadian politicians have played in de-legitimizing the government of Aristide in the lead-up to last year’s coup. In January of 2003, according to an article which appeared in L’Actualite magazine in March of that same year, Canadian MP Denis Paradis hosted a “high-level roundtable meeting on Haiti,” at the Meech Lake Resort. The round-table’s invitees included Canadian officials, high-level US officials, diplomats with the Organization of American States (OAS), and officials from throughout Latin America. No Haitian representatives were present. L’Actualite reporter Michel Vastel noted that Paradis had told him the themes of the meeting would include Aristide’s possible removal, the possibility of placing Haiti under international “trusteeship,” and the potential return of the Haitian military, which was disbanded in 1995 by Aristide as a result of its history of human rights abuses and corruption. This revelation raises troubling questions of the role of Canadian officials in the planning of the coup of Aristide.
In addition, CIDA funding to Haiti during the period from 2000-2004, like that of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was funnelled solely to “grassroots” NGO’s and business organizations who were aligned with the opposition Democratic Convergence party. The Democratic Convergence never managed to gain more than 8% voter support in Haitian elections. Supported by neo-Duvalierist ex-military members as well as members of the Haitian business elite, it was the Democratic Convergence which first claimed that the May 2000 parliamentary elections in Haiti were fraudulent, contrary to the conclusions reached by election observers from CARICOM and the Organization of American States. Only 8 out of 7000 total positions decided in this election were contested. Yet the Canadian media, as well as Canadian officials, parroted the accusations of fraudulence made by the Democratic Convergence even after Aristide ordered the 8 government officials to resign.
In a global political landscape increasingly disenchanted with US intervention in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, the Canadian support of the Latortue government in Haiti has given invaluable legitimacy to another “regime change” of a leader unpopular with US State Department officials. Yet Canadian officials routinely laud their own successes in achieving the “stabilization” of Haiti following the coup. Meanwhile, Haiti remains a robbed country, where men and women are struggling to restore the democracy which they fought for and gained more than 14 years ago in the face of brutal, US-backed military rulers.
Thankfully, many Canadians and Americans are beginning to question the role of our governments in the suppression of democracy in Haiti. On February 28th, more than 30 cities throughout North America held solidarity marches and events to mark the anniversary of Aristide’s ouster. Five hundred demonstrators called for the return of Aristide in the streets of Montreal, while a Haitian solidarity march in San Francisco denounced the black-out in media coverage of Haiti outside of the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle. Here in Halifax, approximately 50 gathered for a showing of clips and interviews about the departure of Aristide, and journalist Kevin Pina’s documentary films “Haiti: Harvest of Hope,” and “Haiti: The Betrayal of Democracy (excerpt)” were shown at Saint Mary’s University in early March.
These are encouraging signs. But it appears that Haiti will have to reach a prominence of the same magnitude as the Iraq war among Canadians if Canada’s imperialist policies in the region are to change. If this does not happen, Canadian politicians will continue to feign ignorance while Haitian men and women are shot down in the street for demanding what they have been struggling for over the past 200 years.
Stuart Neatby is a student and resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is currently organizing a speaking tour of the Maritimes of Haitian-Canadian activist Jean St-Vil. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
A Few Sources:
Dupuy, Alex. Haiti in the World Economy: Class, Race, and Underdevelopment Since 1700. (Westview: Boulder, 1989), p 131-182.
Center for the Study of Human Rights. “Haiti: Human Rights Investigation, November 11-21, 2004.” University of Miami School of Law, January 2005.
Fenton, Anthony. “Canada’s Growing Role in Haitian Affairs.” Haiti Progres. March 16, 2005.
“Graham Wants Aristide to Consider Resigning,” Toronto Star. Feb. 27, 2004
“Haiti Stability Essential, Martin Says.” Toronto Star. March 4, 2004.
Hidden From the Headlines, Haiti Action Committee, August 2003, 2004.
Sites of Interest
© 2004 Halifax Peace Coalition