by Nia Imara and Robert Roth*
“Reflecting on struggles everywhere, we came to the conclusion that a people can’t be sovereign if they don’t have the right to vote. No people can retain their dignity if their vote does not count.”
From a Statement Issued by 68 Haitian Grassroots Organizations on January 22, 2016
The voice of Haiti’s popular movement at this critical period in the country’s history has never been clearer. For the past several months, since the discredited legislative and presidential elections of last August and October, mass, vibrant protests for the right to a free and fair vote and against foreign intervention have been a relentless force, in the face of heavily-armed and well-financed adversaries and mounting repression. The influx of articles and editorials in recent weeks by leading U.S. media outlets depicts the situation in Haiti as a confused, incomprehensible, morass of violence and dysfunction, with all sides being equally unreasonable in their demands. This misleading portrayal of Haitian politics and culture—indeed, of Haitian people—by American mainstream media is not new. Rather, it is a continuation of a historical pattern of obfuscating the underlying reasons for the grievances of Haiti’s mass movement, which has consistently denounced foreign intervention and the suppression of Haiti’s sovereignty.
The popular revolt in Haiti has forced the postponement of the January 24 presidential run-off election, to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and the current Haitian government of Michel Martelly, whose handpicked candidate had been declared the frontrunner. And now, on February 7, it has forced the end of the rule of Martelly himself, who has had to step down rather than oversee the next stage of the electoral process.
These are major victories for the people’s movement in Haiti. But already there are signs that the next round will be just as difficult as the fight has been already. The popular movement has made it clear that they have no interest in a top-down solution that excludes the participation and voices of the tens of thousands of Haitians who have risked their lives nearly every day in the fight for democracy. They have raised the fundamental question: How can elections proceed to a second round if the first round was hopelessly illegitimate? How can elections move forward without a thorough investigation and repair of the fraud that already took place? These are the critical issues being fought over today as Haitians celebrate the end of the Martelly dictatorship.
Background to the Revolt:
Twelve Years Since the Coup, Twelve Years of Occupation
The revolt in Haiti has not emerged overnight. It is now almost twelve years since the U.S.-orchestrated coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and removed over 8,000 elected officials, and exiled, jailed, raped and murdered thousands of supporters of the Fanmi Lavalas Party. The coup was enforced by a United Nations military occupation that still exists today. It has been five years since Michel Martelly, a supporter of the brutal Duvalier dictatorships and their death squads, was selected as president; only 17% of eligible Haitian voters turned out in an election that excluded the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas. Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, flew to Haiti to dictate to Haitian officials that Martelly be placed in the election runoff after initial results had left him only in third place. His U.S.-backed reign has featured one corruption scandal after another, intimidation of the judicial system, the return of death squads, torture of political prisoners, selling off of oil and mineral rights to foreign corporations, and rule by decree.
Haitians have had enough of this. As they watched this latest election being stolen and a Martelly minion emerge as the leading vote getter, they took to the streets by the tens of thousands. As they saw ballot boxes burned and “observers” with 900,000 government-issued credentials vote over and over again, they declared the election an “electoral coup.” As they were turned away from one polling place after another, and told that they were not eligible to vote, they declared fraud.
While they joined the demonstrators in the streets, Fanmi Lavalas and its presidential candidate, Dr. Maryse Narcisse also filed a petition with the National Office of Electoral Litigation to challenge the results. All major opposition condemned the fraudulent elections and announced a boycott of the scheduled presidential run-off on January 24. As the demonstrations grew in size and scope, the Haitian government responded with increasing violence. Police fired into peaceful protests, and beat and tear-gassed those in the streets. Much of this has been met with silence by the international media.
When it comes to Haiti, the United States’ homegrown illness—racism—is cast outward. Just as the voting rights of Black people have been abused throughout American history, the US Government, through financial and diplomatic coercion, abuses the voting rights of Haitians. Just as the basic human rights of Black people—decent education, housing, healthcare, physical safety—are regularly undermined here, the US Government has directly and indirectly made efforts to extinguish fundamental civil and human rights in Haiti. Just as the State of Michigan forced the majority Black population of Flint to drink contaminated water while the EPA did nothing, so did United Nations troops dump their excrement into Haiti’s water supply with impunity, bringing cholera to the country with no reparations. The U.S. Government—from the Bush Administrations, to the Clinton and Obama Administrations—have routinely demonstrated, as a matter of policy, that Black lives matter in Haiti as little as they do in America.
The State Department: Talking Democracy, Promoting Fraud
The U.S. role throughout the electoral crisis is as predictable as it was after the 2010 earthquake, when the State Department sent then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to handpick a well-known misogynist and supporter of the Duvalier dictatorship, Michel Martelly, for president. With one hand, the U.S. State Department denounces the “violence” surrounding the elections, while the other hand has never ceased stoking the fires of electoral fraud and corruption. With one face, the US State Department encourages fair, free elections and discourages voter intimidation; with the other, it upholds electoral fraud and threatens the leadership of Haiti’s most popular movement.
The U.S. State Department has been the chief promoter of both the Martelly government and the fraudulent elections that Haitians have called an “electoral coup.” It has maintained its pro-Martelly stance despite the reports of independent human rights investigators that Martelly’s PHTK Party intimidated voters, stole ballots, burned ballot boxes and attempted to terrorize voters and suppress voter turnout in both the legislative and presidential elections.
Now that the popular movement has finally brought these fraudulent elections to a temporary halt, the State Department has made its displeasure even more clear. On January 24, it issued a warning to demonstrators in Haiti against “electoral intimidation, destruction of property, and violence,” saying this runs “counter to Haiti’s democratic principles.” This is the same racist and paternalistic tone it has always used in Haiti—from the time of Haiti’s Revolution, to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, to the two coups that overthrew the democratically elected Aristide administrations in 1991 and 2004. This from the same State Department that was silent when peaceful protesters were killed, tear-gassed, beaten or arrested, or when Martelly’s agents terrorized voters and burned down polling places.
Hidden From The Headlines: Fanmi Lavalas and Dr. Maryse Narcisse
In addition, there has been near-silence about the remarkable campaign run by Fanmi Lavalas and its presidential candidate, Dr. Maryse Narcisse. A medical doctor and long-time Lavalas militant, Dr. Narcisse helped establish health clinics in rural communities. At the time of the 1991 coup, like many Aristide supporters, she went into the streets to protest the military and was briefly forced into hiding. When President Aristide was reelected in 2000, she joined his administration. Exiled after the 2004 coup, she returned in 2006 to help rebuild Lavalas and continues to serve as Aristide’s spokesperson. Day after day throughout this campaign, she has been in the streets with the people. Her campaign has emphasized “dignity”—that the Haitian people cannot be bought or sold, that, as President Aristide has said, “If we don’t protect our dignity, our dignity will escape us.”
The progressive achievements and agenda of Lavalas—setting up health clinics in poor urban and rural communities, advancing the fight against HIV/AIDS, promoting equality for women, literacy education for all Haitians, living wage employment, taxing the rich, and abolishing the Haitian Army—have made it the party of the poor majority in Haiti. The organized collective of dozens of grassroots organizations that compose Fanmi Lavalas make it much different from the elite political parties we are familiar with in the U.S. Fanmi Lavalas grew out of a nationwide mass movement to force out the American-backed dictator, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and to instill truly participatory democracy after years of rule by the elite and foreign intervention. In 1986, after decades of sacrifice and struggle against repressive regimes, Haitians succeeded in forcing out Duvalier and bringing about the nation’s first democratic elections. It was a hard-fought, hard-won victory when the great majority voted into presidential office Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.
Since then, the US organized two coup d’états against the Aristide administration, which again received an overwhelming mandate in 2000. Following each coup—in 1991 and 2004—the US Government helped to install a military occupation to suppress resistance, namely, Lavalas. In 1991, the US lent its support to paramilitary groups, many of whom were part of the Duvalier military—since disbanded by Lavalas—and the Haitian police. In 2004, the US, with the support of France and Canada, threw its full weight behind the United Nations, which, in Haiti, is an occupying force, not a peacekeeping mission. Over the last 12 years, that occupation, known as MINUSTAH, has overseen the attempt to destroy Haiti’s popular movement.
Lavalas still has a target on its back. In an article published by Reuters on January 26, 2016 an unnamed Congressional source told the news agency that, “The Obama Administration would be worried if he [Aristide] were playing an important role. They’re not thrilled with Aristide’s forces coming back.” This should be no surprise, given the leading role Lavalas has played in the democratic movement. After all, in 2011, it was President Obama who made a phone call to South African President Jacob Zuma, warning him not to allow President Aristide and his family to board a South African plane and come back to Haiti. When Aristide returned, he was greeted by thousands of people at the airport and then at his home. Once again, Haitians—and in this case the people of South Africa—did not obey.
What Next? A Time For Solidarity
During this campaign, Dr. Narcisse emerged as a formidable candidate. If there is a full investigation of the last bogus election, as Lavalas and grassroots organizations are demanding, the abundance of popular support for Dr. Narcisse is certain to manifest in the ballot box. If she ends up winning, she would be the first elected woman president in Haiti’s history.
That will only be possible if a transparent and credible process takes place over these next months. The “electoral coup,” after all, stole votes from candidates who represented popular organizations and parties. Any new election that repeats this process will be a new form of theft. With U.S. officials already decrying the “violence” of demonstrators and warning against new protests, and reports circulating of “solutions” that leave out the representatives of the very grassroots organizations and parties that have been at the forefront of the fight for free and fair elections, this is a moment for vigilance in Haiti. In their recent statement, 68 grassroots organizations in Haiti state their position very clearly:
“We say NO, WE WILL NOT OBEY ILLEGITIMATE OFFICIALS. Self-defense is a legitimate universal law. Civil-Disobedience is an accepted universal right when a people confronts an illegal regime. The right to elect a government is universally accepted as a way for people to protect its existence. Today, confronted by the danger presented by local and international colonialists, the Haitian people have started a RESISTANCE FOR EXISTENCE movement. They ask for people to people solidarity from everywhere on the planet.”
We should heed their call.
*Nia Imara is a member of Haiti Action Committee, a San Francisco Bay Area based organization. Robert Roth is a co-founder of the Haiti Action Committee, and teaches high school in San Francisco.
Haiti Action Committee on FACEBOOK and @HaitiAction1
The website of HAC is www.haitisolidarity.net