One democracy too many

Thursday, March 18th, 2004

How weary we are of Haiti’s misery. How impatient with its democracy.

What happened? We just toppled an elected government, or muscled it out the back door, onto the tarmac and, whoosh, into the wild blue yonder. Jean-Bertrand Aristide thought he was going to a press conference; the next thing he knew, he was in the Central African Republic.

And stay out! We don’t want your kind in this hemisphere.

Such an appalling development, such mild press coverage — no outrage, not even curiosity. No matter he was hope incarnate to the country’s desperate poor, first elected president in 1990, supplanting Baby Doc Duvalier and the infamously brutal Tontons Macoutes. No matter he decommissioned Duvalier’s army, ended police extortion, raised the minimum wage, protected the country’s assets against privatization.

No matter, even, that the U.S. military helped restore Aristide to power in 1994, after his overthrow by a military junta in 1991. No matter he won 90 percent of the vote in 2000.

Four years later, the cause of democracy was best served, we’re told, by a coup d’etat, supported if not instigated by the United States and France. Friends again! And the press coverage hardly interrupted our dinner. A country as poor as Haiti doesn’t get to have a real democracy — or maybe, now that Iraq is almost a democracy, there would be one too many in the world, and we had to take one away.

Aristide, we’re told, was not a saint. His government was flawed, corrupt, involved in the drug trade. Maybe so. But make no mistake, none of this was the least problem to the insurgents (a ragtag of business elites, exiled death squad leaders, marauding street gangs and others), or to the First World overlords who cut off Haiti’s aid transfusion two years ago.

Aristide’s problem was his anti-privatization effrontery, his socialism, his bad example. He was not a friend of the global capitalists. He stared them down and even demanded a historical accounting. Why is Haiti — once the “cash cow of the Caribbean” — so poor? This is not the question you’re supposed to ask, not from a national pulpit, not if the reach of your memory goes back to the colonial era.

But Aristide asked this question, and then handed France a bill for $21.7 billion.

Yes, we’re impatient with Haiti, and with every desperate, starving Third World nation that doesn’t play ball and surrender, with minimum fuss and diversion, its natural resources to us. This is the way the game is played, and those who control the money win every time. At least that’s the idea.

“Why else would it be,” Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy asked recently in The Nation, “that after having been plundered by colonizing regimes for more than half a century, former colonies are steeped in debt to those same regimes and repay them some $382 billion a year?”

Third World debt is colonialism by other means. France, you might say, pioneered the concept. It was so easy in 1825. All it took was a dozen warships, armed with 500 cannons, anchored off Port-au-Prince.

Twenty-one years earlier, in 1804, Haitian slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture had tossed their French masters off the island and declared independence. But now the French were back. If you want to keep your independence, they said, you must pay us 125 million gold francs — as “compensation” to the white planters who lost their slaves and other holdings. Haiti, under death threat, capitulated.

Understand, please, the enormity of this extortion. France balanced its national budget and Haiti sunk into dire poverty. Even though the extortion was later downsized to 90 million francs, the island’s economy remained in the grip of French bankers, whose exorbitant interest rates made growth impossible. The debt wasn’t paid off until 1947.

Aristide’s bill to France was for the original shakedown amount, plus 179 years of compounding interest. An outrage! It was met with mockery and ridicule. But suddenly the “Democratic Convergence” — the splintered, exiled Haitian opposition — was on the move. Suddenly Aristide was gone.

His was not the kind of democracy the First World suffers.