The Trouble with Haiti: Why have the Americans intervened? Who is running the country now? And why is it so poor?

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The Independent Online
Q. Who are the Haitians and what divides them?

A. The French first colonised Haiti in 1659, but it became an independent state in 1804 after a successful uprising by African-descended slaves, led by Pierre Dominique Toussaint-l'Ouverture. Tensions persisted between the negro population and the mulattos, those of mixed race.

Class and race go together. The vast majority of the 7 million population are descended from slaves, and are black. These are almost all impoverished. The elite, known as les blancs, are mainly coffee-coloured mulattos. Now the divisions are not quite so cut and dried. There is a black elite too. But few mulattos are poor.

Q. What are Haiti's main products / exports?

A. Its best-known exports are boat people and carriers of the HIV virus, spread by American gays who used to trawl for cheap male prostitutes in Port-au-Prince. Others exports included light assembled goods and baseballs.

Q. How much of Haiti is American-owned?

A. Very little. The industry that does exist is mainly in light assembly. It is controlled by five mulatto families of Syrian and Lebanese origin.

Q. Why is Haiti so poor? Whose fault is it?

A. It used to be rich, because slaves were exploited to grow sugar. That came to an end 200 years ago. According to the most recently available World Bank data, Haiti's gross national product is less than dollars 400 per capita, and falling. Sanctions have made things worse. Three-quarters of the population is out of work. The country has no mineral wealth. It imports twice what it exports. There are also great disparities in wealth.

The poverty worsens with the high annual rate of increase (1.8 per cent) in the population, 75 per cent nominally Catholic.

Much of the natural forest has been devastated by excessive exploitation for charcoal, the main source of energy, which has contributed to soil degradation and erosion. This has further degraded the environment, leaving less and less arable land. Pollution in coastal waters has reduced the fishing catch.

Q. Why have the Americans invaded Haiti so often?

A. Actually, they haven't. Between 1849 and 1913, US warships entered Haitian waters 24 times 'to protect American lives and property'. But they invaded only in 1915, in an attempt to end tensions between the blacks and the mulattos. They left in 1934 after 40,000 died to rid the country of them.

Q. Was anything achieved by the invasion?

A. No, not much. There was a measure of stability. And the US occupiers created the Haitian army as the force it is today; that is, a quasi-occupation force in its own country.

Q. How well have previous Haitian leaders done?

A. A grim sample: Jean-Jacques Dessalines (ruled 1804-06) shot; Sylvain Saenave (1867-69) executed; Tiresias Simon Sam (1896-1902) fled; M Cincinnatus Leconte (1911-12) blown up; Tancrede Auguste (1912-13) poisoned; Michel Oreste (1913-14) fled; Oreste Zamor (1914) killed in jail; J Davilmar Theodore (1914-15) fled; J Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (1915) dismembered. Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier (1957-71) ruled through voodoo and the Tontons Macoutes and died in his bed.

Q. What is voodoo? How many practise it?

A. Voodoo, the cult of darkness, was used by Duvalier as the main tool of his regime of fear from 1957 to 1971. What voodoo has done is to hijack Roman Catholic saints and turn them into malevolent totems.

Q. What happened to the Tontons Macoutes?

A. They were dissolved after Baby Doc Duvalier, who had replaced his father, fled into exile in 1986; but replaced by les attaches - either the same people under different hats or different people acting in the same way - as paramilitary gunmen working for the government.

Q. How did democratic elections come about?

A. After the removal of Baby Doc Duvalier in 1986 came a period of political turmoil, when one military man succeeded another, each promising varying degrees of liberalisation. It was Duvalierism without the Duvaliers, as the old ruling families sought to rush what little there was left out of the country.

The interim military National Council of Government promised elections to restore constitutional government. The first elections, in October 1986, were for a Constituent Assembly charged with drawing up a new constitution. Only 5 per cent of the electorate voted. Five months later, when the new constitution was presented for a vote in a referendum, participation grew to 50 per cent. However, unrest continued.

Two presidential candidates were murdered. The military men scented that elections were not going their way, and murdered voters at the polling stations. They then cancelled the elections.

New elections were set for January 1988, but not under the aegis of the independent electoral organisation. The opposition boycotted the polls. The legislature was dissolved, the constitution abrogated and political violence erupted again.

In March 1989 President Prosper Avril declared once again his intention to hold elections the following year.

Q. How free and democratic were the elections?

A. Shortly before the elections, the endemic political violence erupted once more. At least seven people were killed in an attack by former members of the Tontons Macoutes on a Jean-Bertrand Aristide rally. Still, he won 67 per cent of the vote.

Q. Why did the US do nothing when he was toppled?

A. The Americans thought he was a dangerous communist. His own religious order, the Salesians, had suspended him because of his involvement as a liberation theologian.

Q. Why has the US intervened in Haiti now?

A. Through the boat people, it has become a key domestic issue. In short, the US was prepared to mount an invasion to prevent an invasion. But the overriding reason was one of US credibility. The US had said that the Haitian generals had to get out. They could not be seen to be faced down.

Q. Who is running the country at the moment?

A. It changes by the hour. In theory, a combination of General Raoul Cedras and the US administration.

Q. Who will run the country when the junta goes?

A. A combination of Father Aristide, now in exile, and the administration of the US occupying force. The US force is intended to stay there for a few months, until replaced by a UN presence. However, in the longer term few doubt that the army, as ever, will be the arbiters of power.

Q. When will elections take place? Who will stand?

A. The presidential elections are set for the end of 1995. Fr Aristide has said that he will not seek re-election.

Q. Why is the US so anxious for Aristide to step down?

A. It was once said that you needed three things to become president in Haiti: l'argent, l'armee and les Americains (money, the army and the Americans). Fr Aristide had none of these, and they all hated him for it.

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