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Annals of American Imperialism: The 1991 Coup in Haiti

On this day in history, in 1991, the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti was overthrown in a coup. U.S. imperialism, which had intervened in Haiti throughout the 20th century, helped restore him to power — but only because it served the interests of capitalism. The United States turned around and overthrew him again the following decade.

Scott Cooper

September 29, 2020
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On September 29, 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of Haiti, was overthrown in a coup. A former Roman Catholic priest influenced by liberation theology, and a prominent critic of successive dictatorial Haitian governments, he had been elected the previous December on a platform of ambitious reforms aimed at remaking the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished country. Haiti’s small bourgeoisie rued the day it had allowed democratic elections, and the United States and European imperialist countries were unhappy with Aristide’s rise to power on a wave of popular support.

The Haitian military, led by Raoul Cédras, stepped up and threw him out of the country.

To understand events in Haiti, today or in 1991, requires going back to August 22, 1791 — the day when self-liberated enslaved people in Haiti (then known as Saint-Domingue) began an insurrection against their French colonial rulers, one that ended with national independence in 1804. It was the largest uprising of enslaved people since the unsuccessful revolt led by Spartacus against the Roman Republic nearly two millennia earlier. Haitians established a state free of slavery, ruled by nonwhites and former captives — and thus challenged European racist views about Black inferiority. That Blacks in Haiti organized a country after waging a successful, well-disciplined war against their colonizers scared the bejeezus out of slave owners, and not just in the new United States. The example of the Haitian Revolution threatened colonialism and slavery throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, too. The regimes running Europe’s colonies took steps to clamp down on potential uprisings, and even independence-minded colonists who had established themselves and were beginning to seek independence — as the U.S. colonists had done — worked to ensure that what happened in Haiti would not unfold where they hoped to establish slave-holding states.

Everything that happens in Haiti flows from that revolt. Imperialism has never forgiven the Haitian people for their audacity, and for centuries it has punished the country with repression and exploitation.

From Election to Inauguration

The 1990 election campaign period was relatively calm.  There was, however, some street violence and a bombing on December 6 at a rally that killed six Aristide supporters and wounded another 52. But on December 16, with lots of international observers present from around the world, the vote took place. Aristide won an overwhelming victory in a field of 11 candidates, garnering 67.5 percent of the vote.

But on January 7, a month before inauguration day, there was an attempted coup headed by Roger Lafontant, a longtime supporter of the Duvalier dictatorship that had ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986, along with a segment of the army. He forced the provisional president to step down, declared himself president, and said on national radio that he “had joined with the armed forces and the police to take power in order to defend the interests of the common fatherland, to guide it along the path to true democracy” and to “reveal to the world the errors and outright failure of international communism.”

The stage was being set for what would come later that year. Shots rang out near the presidential palace. The Tonton Macoute — the paramilitary force created in 1959 by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier — drove around Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, shooting and terrorizing the population, which took to the streets and set up barricades to keep the Macoutes from making their rounds. Some were captured and hanged. Aristide, not yet sworn in, appealed for peace.

This time, the chief of the Armed Forces crushed the coup attempt and arrested Lafontant and some of his followers. Aristide was successfully inaugurated on February 7.

Aristide in the Presidency

Aristide had committed to enacting sweeping social and economic reforms to address Haiti’s severe poverty. He reorganized the army, removing several generals, and demoted officers known for human rights violations. Within a few months, he promoted Colonel Cédras, who had headed the Electoral Security Committee, to commander-in-chief of Haiti’s Armed Forces.

Meanwhile, state violence continued — with “street justice” the frequent response. On March 19, in the coastal town of Montrouis, two policemen killed a 14-year-old boy when he refused to give them $150. People in the town stormed the local police station, dragged those cops out into the street, and put them to death with the infamous Haitian “necklacing” — placing a gasoline-soaked tire around the victim’s neck and setting it on fire. It’s also known as the Père Lebrun torture, after a former tire manufacturer in the country.

Throughout this period, multiple arrests and warrants were issued against former generals and others who had been involved in massacres during previous elections or against demonstrators in years past. New conspiracies were uncovered. All the while, Haiti was gripped by a severe economic crisis. Prices of food staples went up, and the neighboring Dominican Republic undertook a mass expulsion of Haitians who had been working there.

Aristide’s reforms floundered, efforts to change the judiciary and prison system were stymied, and he failed to separate the Armed Forces and the police.

The 1991 Coup

On September 29, 1991, Haiti’s Armed Forces overthrew Aristide, who was arrested, forced to resign, and then — after interventions by the French, U.S., and Venezuelan embassies — was allowed to travel to Caracas. A military junta led by Cédras took power.

Haitians revolted in the streets. Port-au-Prince became a city of barricades. There were calls for a general strike. The military shot protesters indiscriminately; that prevented a mass uprising. Hundreds were likely killed and wounded in the first few days, especially in the capital’s poorest neighborhoods.

International institutions intervened almost immediately. The United Nations and the Organization of American States condemned the coup, demanding Aristide’s return to power. Over the next year and a half, a series of maneuvers and negotiations brought the deposed president back to office at the end of October 1993, once Aristide and Cédras had signed a pact in New York City on July 3, 1993. In that “Governors Island Agreement,” Aristide consented to a new prime minister — approved by the imperialist powers — and to a host of “free market reforms.” Human rights abuses, however, still wracked Haiti, threatening to scuttle the deal. Aristide called on the Haitian masses to win peace with the right wing through nonviolence.

On September 23, the UN Security Council authorized a 1,300-person military mission to Haiti, with soldiers (to function as “police supervisors”), military construction and other units, and U.S. military “instructors.” Cédras denounced the plan as foreign intervention disguised as technical assistance. As violence continued, the military used civilian proxies to seize media outlets in Port-au-Prince and threaten the UN mission with a bogus “strike” aimed at terrorizing the populace. A paramilitary group assassinated the minister of justice and his entourage. The oil and weapons embargo on Haiti that had been imposed through the UN and lifted after the New York agreement was reinstated.

Cédras wanted to renegotiate, insisting especially on amnesty for political offenses committed through the coup. In the background, the Haitian bourgeoisie — desperate to keep Aristide out — lobbied U.S. Congress members to stop the Clinton administration’s “accommodations” with Aristide. The administration stood firm — clearly, all factions within U.S. imperialism did not see eye to eye — but all this delayed Aristide’s return.

U.S. Military Intervention

More time went by as violence and the political stalemate persisted. At the end of July 1994, the UN Security Council authorized a military intervention to remove the military junta. By mid-September, as U.S.-led soldiers, sailors, and marines prepared a forced entry into Haiti, Cédras was given an ultimatum and was reminded of how easily the United States had taken other Caribbean countries. Troops landed. Aristide was restored as president to serve out the remainder of his term.

It was not the first U.S. military intervention in Haiti. In fact, the United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 to protect American capitalism’s huge investments in the country at a time when German influence over the economy was growing. Then as now, Haiti was heavily indebted to foreign banks, and in December 1915 agents of the U.S. government stole $500,000 from the Haitian National Debt, took it to New York City for “safekeeping,” and used that seizure as a way to control the bank in Port-au-Prince.

When a new anti-American government came to power in Haiti in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines. They landed that July to “restore order” and protect U.S. interests, declaring martial law, taking control of the capital city, occupying the banks and customs house, and instituting press censorship. A few weeks later, when a pro-U.S. president was installed, future U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a new constitution for Haiti, one favorable to U.S. interests — including, for the first time, a clause that allowed foreign ownership of Haitian land. The Haitian masses were enraged.

That occupation lasted until 1934.

Imperialism’s Interests

Why would the United States take such interest in a poor country like Haiti? Of course, the centuries-long punishment for the revolt of 1791 speaks volumes. But there is also a particular economic reason, one that speaks to the special interest of the economic parasites who enjoy their lives at the expense of the world’s masses.

Haiti is the world’s leading producer of vetiver, and it provides at least half of the world’s supply. Vetiver is a root plant used to make luxury perfumes, essential oils, and various other fragrances. It is not something of importance to most of the world’s population, but the world’s wealthiest care a lot about this natural resource. Haiti’s exports are supplemented with a host of other crops such as mangoes, papayas, watercress, and so on.

The country cannot grow the bulk of the food that its population needs, relying on imports for more than half its basic foodstuffs — and for 80 percent of its rice, a staple part of the diet. It thus provides imperialism with a laboratory for determining the right mathematical formula: How do we maintain just enough foreign aid to reproduce Haitian labor power for the half of the workforce that works in the important agricultural sector, but without sharing riches at a level that would actually help people out of poverty?

Meanwhile, Aristide has a legacy. He remains a hero to a large segment of the Haitian masses, despite all the limitations of his failed reformist politics. When he was expelled from his Catholic religious order in 1988 and ordered to leave the country, tens of thousands had protested, blocking the airport. Back then, he appealed the decision with words that resonated with Haiti’s poor: “The crime of which I stand accused is the crime of preaching food for all men and women.” He described his fight as “a conflict between classes, rich and poor.” These statements spoke to the aspirations of the Haitian people — who are among the most oppressed in the world.

After the U.S. military ensured his return to the presidency, Aristide served out the remainder of his term until 1996. He was later elected president and served from 2001 to 2004 — until he was again ousted in a coup. That time, the hands of the United States — the country that had once restored him to power — were all over the operation. It’s a testament to a reality of U.S. imperialism: don’t be fooled when the United States seems to take the side of “democracy” over “dictatorship” at any given moment. The side that imperialism takes is dictated by what serves its interests, not an ideological commitment to what may be “right” or “best” for the oppressed people in whatever nation it intervenes.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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