This February 28, Haitians will observe an important anniversary in the 205-year history of their country. But it won’t be a celebration. There will be protests across the country condemning events five years ago that continue to reverberate.
On February 29, 2004, Haiti’s popular and elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by a right-wing paramilitary rebellion that received essential material and political backing from the United States, France, and Canada and from the neighbouring Dominican Republic. An apparatus of the UN Security Council, known by its acronym, MINUSTAH, has played a dominant role in the affairs of the country ever since.
MINUSTAH is the only military mission in UN history to operate without the assent of the government or major political forces of the target country. It counts 10,000 military, police, and administrative personnel and spends some $600 million per year, a fantastic sum in this, the poorest country in the Americas. The annual budget of Haiti’s national government is half that amount.
Most Haitians are losing the last of their reserves of patience with the foreign presence. Two months ago, tens of thousands marched and rallied in Port-au-Prince and in other cities across the country to protest MINUSTAH’s heavy-handed police and military patrols and draw attention to its failure to tackle the country’s crushing poverty.
Conditions at every level have worsened in Haiti since 2004. Poverty and hunger are rising. Agricultural production is weak and suffered further following a succession of four hurricanes last summer. Malnutrition is widespread and starvation has appeared in some parts of the country.
Half of Haiti’s children do not attend school. Half of its people have no access to medical care. The medical situation would be a whole lot worse but for networks of clinics operated by the Cuban government, Zanmi Lasante (founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health project), and Doctors Without Borders.
In Washington on February 6, Haitian president René Préval called on the U.S. to help with an immediate aid boost of $100 million, according to the Washington Post.
He also said he wants an end to the U.S. policy of channelling all its aid money to Haiti through nongovernmental organizations. It should instead go directly to the sovereign government, which Préval says can do a better job in most cases. NGOs have been used by the big powers as a weapon against Haitian sovereignty. Many, in Canada as elsewhere, supported the overthrow of Aristide or acquiesced through silence.
The Canadian government and its Canadian International Development Agency say they provide $110 million per year to assist Haiti. But little reaches ordinary Haitians. Much of it props up institutions of foreign domination, in particular the national police and a dysfunctional judicial system.
According to Brian Concannon of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, “It’s very difficult for the big powers to assist with improvements to the judicial system because of their support to the 2004 coup and the widespread political persecutions that followed. Where is the credibility when a foreign trainer tries to teach a Haitian judge or police official to follow proper legal procedures?”
Concannon believes that the new U.S. administration offers hope for improvements in U.S.–Haiti relations. “I am confident that we will see an end to the failed policies of the past eight years, notably the overthrow of an elected government,” he said in an interview.
“But we also need a change in the failed policies of the past two centuries. The U.S., in particular, must end the long, sad history of interference in Haiti’s political affairs. That’s the starting point for a change in Haiti that we can believe in: respect for the sovereignty of the country and the political choices of its people.”
Actor Matt Damon, sharing a platform with Concannon at a public forum in Boston on January 27, spoke about his visit to Haiti in September 2008, after the hurricanes. Haiti needs “a Marshall Plan”, Damon said, referring to the reconstruction of European countries following the Second World War. “I am hoping that the hopeful, and youthful, energy generated by the election of Obama in addressing issues of poverty [in the United States] can lead to focus on issues of extreme poverty [in Haiti].”
The Canada Haiti Action Network will hold public events across Canada coinciding with the anniversary of the 2004 coup d’état in Haiti. Filmmaker Kevin Pina will speak on Sunday (March 1) at 2 p.m. at Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver.
Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network and its local affiliate, Haiti Solidarity B.C.